I just did a Google image search for the word ‘writer’, and the results were exactly what I expected: a lot of pictures of typewriters, or notebooks with fancy pens on them, some laptops, a handful of cups of tea or coffee and a dozen pairs of glasses. Most of the pictures don’t have people in them. Some have parts of people: hands on keys, an arm holding a pen. When you do get to see a whole person – or at least, enough of one to be recognizable – they’re almost always sitting alone in a room, staring either absently out into space as they plan their next bestseller, or directly at their screen or page with a look of furious concentration. The backgrounds are nondescript. The writers themselves are often nondescript as well; some of them are just silhouettes, some are blown out by filters until the models probably wouldn’t recognize themselves.
Writers are solitary folk.
That’s a commonly held belief, at any rate. When I was a kid, the image of a writer going up to a secluded cottage in the woods for a few months to get some writing done was just as iconic as Rocky Balboa settling in with his trainer and montaging his way up to a big fight. Writers were quirky people who understood the world in ways that no one else could, in ways that set them apart from the rest of society, and so they lived in strange manors or run-down Brooklyn apartments or the aforementioned rustic cottages and went quietly mad while they wrote their masterpieces.
I think in my head, I imagined that every writer was like Edgar Allan Poe who, I think, I imagined lived the way his characters did, in bleak dramatic darkness. At some point I learned that Neil Gaiman has a writing gazebo, and that many other writers had little writing huts, and that helped reinforce the idea that when one became a writer, one cut oneself off from the world – even as far as to include one’s family or one’s home.
Now, maybe that’s useful for them. I definitely know that when I was in college and I was working on essays, I needed to shut the door before I murdered all of my roommates. It’s hard to get good work done when people are trying to have a party on top of your head.
But this idea that writers are inherently solitary creatures? I think that’s actually pretty much nonsense, particularly for writers who are still trying to establish themselves.
For one thing, no matter how good you are, no matter how well-crafted your story is, I’ve got bad news for you: you’re missing something. You’re missing something big. The easiest way to catch that is to have other people with you while you’re coming up with your ideas, people who are interested in what you’re doing and who you can trust to slap you upside the head when you’re getting indulgent, or just plain stop making sense.
For another thing, nothing quite teaches you how to be a better writer than watching someone else fail in real time. It’s one thing to read a book, or watch a show, and think “well, that looks like it was written by a monkey with a blindfold, the author is clearly an idiot”. It’s quite another to sit there and see a friend go through the process of making a glaring mistake, to understand how the mistake was made, knowing that the writer isn’t an idiot, they’re just not perfect.
Writing with other writers who are on about the same skill or goal level you are is both incredibly humbling, and really enlightening.
Most importantly, at least for me, writing with other people offers positive reinforcement to counteract those days when putting words on the page seems almost impossible. There are so many variations on the idea: “Don’t want to be a writer, just write”, and to help ourselves do that we set word count quotas, or page counts, or hours per day. There are programs that will block the internet until you’ve met your word goal, or programs that will punish you if you let your wpm drop too low or reward you if you keep them up …
And those are great, and definitely work for a lot of people. But for me, I’ve found that nothing quite compares to the feeling of excitement that I get when I have something that I want to share with the rest of my writing group. We “meet up” online once a week, in addition to keeping in casual contact throughout the week, and I get excited as I get closer and closer to the meetup because I want to see how much everyone’s accomplished, and show off how I’ve done.
Since I’ve started working with this writing group, zero-word-days have stopped feeling like horrible failure days where I’m a terrible person, and started feeling more like unfortunate days where I didn’t get to do that thing I really wanted to do. The end effect is pretty much the same, but feeling positive about the experience makes it a lot less draining, making it a lot easier to keep going week after week.
I’ve also found that I just write more when I know other people are writing with me. I’ve always loved NaNoWriMo‘s word sprints – designated periods of time where everyone will just write all-out to get as many words written as possible – and found that I could write much more quickly during a sprint than I did normally. My writing group runs a couple of springs every day, and that’s made it a lot easier for me to hit my daily word counts.
Of course, some people really might work best on their own. But just because that’s the popular narrative doesn’t mean that it’s mandatory. With Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, connecting with people is easier than it’s ever been, so you don’t even have to have writer friends nearby to get a good group going! (I live in California; my writing group is based in Vermont and DC.)
And speaking of my writing group – we record our weekly get-togethers, where we talk about how our writing weeks have gone, as well as discussing other writing-related topics and heckling each other. If you’re interested in listening, check out the podcast at The First Rule of Write Club.
Has anybody had any other experiences? Tips I should know, or horror stories? Is there a fantasy writer’s group out there that’s looking for another member? I’m pretty sure it’s not against the rules to be in two groups, is it? Let me know in the comments!