Thursday, 4 April 2013

It All Depends On What You Mean By Writing

Yesterday morning the writers’ group met. I didn’t go.
Sent no apologies for absence, sent no explanation, just didn’t go. Not for the first time either.

Another failure on my part to stick with something, another instance of short lived enthusiasms? Feeling guilty is what I do well; I was programmed early. Catholicism helped, but my parents had a not inconsiderable hand in it, one of the few areas where they didn’t leave me to bring myself up.

Not this time. No way is this my fault.

Why are so many people satisfied with mediocrity? I suppose, if you start by expecting nothing, then mediocrity is progress. You could ask: who says something is mediocre, who determines what is a good poem or an interesting piece of writing? Well, excuse me, I do in this case. I am the one who has to listen to these extremely poor efforts.

There is the ex film maker who finds it easy to knock off half a dozen lines of verse and, without another look, sends them off via her phone as contributions to the meeting. There is the ex maths and science teacher whose great loves are Italian drama and poetry and whose frequent attempts to emulate them only succeed in murdering the originals. There is the ex surveyor, who is living proof that a talent for strict attention to detail and accuracy, coupled with a complete lack of imagination, may be no barrier to professional advancement but do not make a writer or poet. The leader, a sweetly vague elderly woman who writes whimsical poems and almost no prose, is about to be ousted by the ex film maker, who has enough energy and drive to change the dynamics of the group, were she so inclined; however, she prefers to push full steam ahead with publishing hair-raisingly bad verse in conjunction with the photography group, which means we’ll be running before we have learned to crawl. The embarrassment alone would kill me.

I sit on the periphery and fume, cross with myself for having driven into town and used up the best part of the day on another futile mission. It’s not that I haven’t tried. I have suggested that we do what other U3A writing groups do, become more structured and set challenges: 300 words, say, on a first line, a piece of prose, a newspaper article, a poem on a particular subject, even those blogging favourites, Twitter or Flash fiction. “No, I want to be creative and write what I feel like.” This came from the absolute dullest member of the group, the one whose readings have the power to send me into a paroxysm of rage, if he hasn’t sent me to sleep first. When advised “don’t tell, show; you could bring the story to life that way” (ha!) he answered, “ I am not looking for anyone else to read this, only my children when I’m gone.” What! If you don’t want to learn anything, why are you here?

I would say that the others in the group have been exposed to similar cultural influences as I have, be they books, plays, poetry, music, all of a reasonable standard. All are educated ex professionals. Yet, as far as I can tell, when it comes to their writing, all critical faculties are set aside. Are we programmed  not to see the faults in our own work? If an amateur dressmaker makes a dress that doesn’t fit over the hips, say, does she give herself 'A for Effort' and leave it at that, or does she go back and alter the dress? And am I allowed to say that the dress doesn’t fit?

Criticism in the writers’ group is not wanted, not even the constructive kind. One very timid lady confessed that she would feel hurt if someone criticised her creations and several nodded their heads in sympathy. (Which one of you, who have stayed with this rant so far, is saying: "If fulsome praise is all they want, why don’t they blog?”)

If I sound angry, then yes, I admit to being angry. Angry and disappointed. We started out so well. Only four (incl. me) of the original members are still with the group; the emphasis is no longer on writing for the pleasure of it. We were supposed to encourage each other, praise, but also criticise our work and learn a little about the craft in the process. All we do now is puff ourselves up and although we don’t say “Wow! Brilliant!” we never say “could have done better”.

It’s time I wrote my letter of apology.


  1. For 17 years as a copywriter, I had clients' wives and mothers tell me my punch lines were just not punchy enough and the answer was something they had in a dream. I'm very grateful for readers who just say "Wow!"

    Why not start a new group.

  2. ugh...i think i would have stayed away as well....crit is essential to improvement, but it sounds like there is little trust developed in the group in order to receive it...this happens in turns into a feel good session...the best part of it is going to be inspired to write about them like this...ha

  3. If it's not what you want...ditch it.
    Look for another group....aren't there any online?

  4. Oh, Friko, you're wonderful.
    I have, more than once, earned my living writing, until I learned I could earn a better living as a printer, and returned to the family trade. All sorts of people used to ask me to "look at" something they'd written and tell them what I thought. It was agony. For me, not for them.
    Very few would allow constructive criticism. One good friend, who later became a successful freelance writer, promised she wouldn't cry, and she didn't. If I said, "Try writing this sentence the other way — start with this phrase and end with that one," she'd think about it, then say, "You're right."
    My father, whose books I edited, gave me free reign and he didn't bother promising not to cry.
    But oh, the people who did cry, and the ones who stormed out, and the ones who stormed out, crying! I never looked at anyone's writing without first warning, "You might not like what I say."
    One woman asked if I thought she should take a class in creative writing. I said she should start with a class in English grammar. A few years later, her work (much improved) appeared in anthology of British Columbia writers.
    Some members of your writers' group sound like actors and actresses who won't listen to the director, who say, "I have to play it as I feel it" or "as my muse directs me."
    Such twaddle.
    I know you like to get out now and then, and not always for gardening purposes, but it certainly seems all elements of enjoyment have long ago ceased at the writers' group.
    Meanwhile, I hope you are all well at your house.
    Luv, K

  5. No, I want to be creative and write what I feel like.” This came from the absolute dullest member of the group<~Haaaaaaaaa. I do love that. I can picture it too.

    Yes, I do think some want their offerings to float in amniotic fluid, careful, careful, this is my(baby)opus, or my now opus, anyway. Other writers I know are so self-critical that I almost feel like someone should say something extra nice about their writing before they kill themselves. ~Mary

  6. It's not really a writers' group any more, is it?
    And it's not meeting your needs.
    So I'd waste no more of your precious time there, it's time you will never get back again, and you could do something so productive with it.
    I like Georgia Little Pea's idea...start a new group!

  7. Hi Friko, I've been a photographer for more than 40+ years and a professional for 38 of those years, and without criticism our creativity would stagnate. This is why we pro photographers have print shows and a big part of this show as it is being judged is constructive criticism. That's how we humans learn, from our mistakes. This is how it should be in your writing group. Hope things improve for you.

  8. Sounds like the time is well past to move on, maybe to find some folks who actually are interested in improving their writing. We've had the same issue, which is why the writers group ended up being only two people, and then none.

  9. Oh yes. Far past the time to move on. The group sounds just awful. What a waste of time!

  10. I've never belonged to a writers' group. But, a very long time ago, I took an art class that included critique of each others' work. One woman was passionately critical, though I doubt any more talented than the rest of us. That class was a massacre for most of us. I haven't painted since. (Perhaps just as well!) You don't need the frustration, Friko. Maybe you can find a more professional group of writers who have actually published.

  11. As someone who has been in several writing groups and who has even taught creative writing classes (for my sins), I think it's safe to say that it's time for you to move on, Friko. You have outgrown this group.

    The problem with writing is that people think it's easy. It's not. It's one of our hardest endeavors. But if someone can get his/her hands on a crayon, or a computer, he thinks he can write a book. Even if he or she can't. Because to write a book -- even a bad one -- takes a lot of discipline and a lot of time and effort. And the rewriting is even harder and more time-consuming than the original composition.

    Franklin D. Roosevelt used to say that if you wanted him to speak for 20 minutes, he'd need two weeks to prepare, but if you wanted him to speak for three hours, he was ready now. Distilling the work into something clear and interesting takes time.

    Poetry is especially tricky, because the writer has to create a mood, set a scene, with a minimum number of words, each of which must be carefully chosen. It's not something you can dash off in ten minutes while you're waiting for the traffic lights to change!

    If you like mystery movies, you should check out the episode of Midsomer Murders called, "Written in Blood." It first aired in 1998. I think it was episode 2 of their first season. It involves a writers' group with some truly awful people in it. Character actor David Troughton and his dreadful play "scumbag, scumbag, scumbag, scum" is truly appalling. But it is rather fun to watch none the less, since all the writers are suspects in the murder.

    Keep writing, and doing what you're doing, Friko, and as one friend used to say, "Don't let the turkeys get you down!"
    We'll look forward to more of your wonderful columns and essays. Good luck! xoxox Carol

    1. Hello Carol, that Midsomer Murders episodes was exactly what came to my mind when I started reading Friko's post :-D
      And the Roosevelt quote reminds me of something that is ascribed to Goethe: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, therefore I am sending you a long one."

      Friko, my guess is that the members of that group have never been there to learn in the first place, but get together merely for the social purpose, to have a regular appointment, and to be able to say to their friends that they belong to a writer's group, lending themselves a semi-professional air ("Look how serious I am about writing! I am almost on my way of becoming a published author!"). If you consider going there a waste of time, then don't go.

    2. Dear Carol,

      Here you go again, writing a very generous comment but giving me no chance to reply directly.
      Who are you?

    3. Hi, Friko, I feel like the Caterpillar in the old Disney movie, "Alice in Wonderland." "Whooo arrre You???"

      I first stumbled across your blog in a link through Pondside, whom I discovered through a link from Scriptor's all like a pebble in the pool. The circles continue to spread.

      But if you ever want to contact me directly, my email address is: robandcarollake13@comcast. net

  12. Ah, sigh. Well, without even going to a writing group, just a dinner party, I received a critique on my writing from someone with whom we're nominally friendly. This was entirely unbidden, mind you. She let me know that, while I write beautifully (she emphasized that), she isn't interested in anything I write about. The dinner party conversations are in the same vein. No one can fathom how I spend my time now that I'm not working. Their topic of interest seems to be what do I do with my files. Maybe next time, I'll tell them about a dream full of elephants.

  13. Is this whole issue of not accepting criticism something that we are starting with our children? My kids are still in school and there are loads of children that NEVER hear words of negativity and criticism. In fact, many children do wrong and you know what happens? They get rewarded for it! My kids school has many children with behavioural problems and they have a special room for them with an X-box, Playstation and all sort of toys. When they are "acting out" they get sent to the room to have a time out.


  14. I feel for you Friko to be part of such an awful group – certainly time to say au revoir. Like Birdie said above the new culture is to profusely approve of whatever a kid is doing – never criticize. My husband’s nephew is a teacher in a private school – he told us that when a kid has not studied, did not know his lesson and was given a C or F, the parents would come to the school or even call him at home and ask him to change the grade. The usual reason is “it will harm the kid” to feel rejected – there should be no criticism. Your group sounds like a bunch of spoiled kids.

  15. Perhaps the four originals (presuming the other three feel as you do) could form their own group? Failing that, you need to move on. Okay, you already have...

  16. I've never been a joiner. Founded and rode with a Women's motorcycle club for a while, but that's about it. You pu tme in mind of am American quote:

    "If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody,
    come sit next to me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth -
    Pres. T. Roosevelt's daughter

    ALOHA from Honolulu
    Comfort Spiral
    ~ > < } } ( ° > <3

  17. For me the difficult part of a writing group I participated in was getting suggestions, bad suggestions, on my writing from people who I didn't respect as writers. On the other hand, when you find a group that aligns with your skills and style it can be such a positive and fun experience. I hope you can find a group that better fits your needs.

  18. The devil in me says submit that piece of writing, Friko. Along with your resignation. You might not benefit from it, but others might.
    Don't take any notice of me, I'm a nasty old hag who simply cannot tolerate pretenders.

  19. From what you have told us, your resignation letter would be better written than much/most of what is brought to the group. Your own writing is elegant and evocative. Is it too much to hope that you find another writing group which is interested in improving their work?

  20. The problem with today's world is the expectation we should be nice to one another and thus 'niceness' breeds mediocrity...the art of not offending has overtaken the art of conversation...constructive criticism is now, well, just criticism...(and underneath we all seethe...)

    I agree with Pauline - submit your post as your farewell contribution!

    Anna :o]

  21. Hi Friko .. it does sound as though you are very frustrated with the whole caboodle - and 'leaving' sounds the kindest cut. Ah ah .. I've just seen Anna's comment above re Pauline's suggestion ... I'd go with that flow now!!

    Depends how near the group live I guess ... gossip from bedevilled people travels ..

    Hope you've got that letter off your shoulders by now - and the free spirit is able to breath again ... enjoy the slightly balmier days ... cheers Hilary

  22. I read your angry notes most attentively, yet failed to understand: why waste your time on something which is obviously a bitter disappointment to you? You write on your blog - in your own style - why join those groups? To improve? It is your way of self expression, your way of verbalizing your ideas. It's good and it's yours. As for reading - there're great authors and life is too short to waste on amateurs. Good luck, dear Friko! Come to try questions on Shakespeare in my recent post. ))) He is a perfect inspiration!

  23. In my younger and more ignorant years, I used to think I was a good writer, but now that I have read many good books, I know that I am only an average amateur. I am happy about that because it isn't necessary for me to be anything more. I have no higher ambitions at this point.

    If you want to improve as a writer, why do you not follow a writer's course on a university level? Surely you would learn more from that than participating in a group of ego minded people who have no ability to stand back and look at their own work critically?

    You are by nature a gifted writer, so believe in yourself and improve that if you must. I enjoy your blog posts very much because you are critical and observant and not afraid to say it. That is a gift too and I think very much a European one. Count it as a blessing. xox

  24. Your suggestion, of working to a particular subject, would be so worthwhile because each project would be an academic exercise and criticism would be taken less personally, the pieces could be compared and analysed - each could be printed out and submitted anonymously if it helped. Also, going back to a piece of work one has done previously and, looking with fresh insight, writing a self-criticism is useful. If there are any in this group you think feels as you do, it might be worth approaching them to start a new one - but it is certainly a waste of your time as it is.

    I do think that criticism should be constructive if it isn't to discourage completely or else be disregarded and that needs tact, so the "what's good about this?" followed by "how could it be improved?" approach can be good in a group of amateurs. I'd not send your post as a final shot, but the main points in it without the parts that identify an individual could help them if they're prepared to listen - but I don't think they are. I agree with everyone else, you're better off out of it.

  25. Sounds strangely like blogging. How much overly wordy, self-absorbed drivel is generated by people with nothing to say? We are all guilty of it sometimes, but most are guilty of it all of the time.

  26. i had to laugh when reading this as i felt like i knew half of the people you described at the meeting and have met similar types at the various writers groups that i have tried - the worst being a man who had studied Mills & Boone novels to the last word and could knock out page after page of lifeless love story to the same formula

    Worse still are writing classes where after a few weeks the teacher inevitably starts favouring their progeny for time and attention.

    But i do belong to a speakers group where the attention is given to structure, goals and positive criticism - in other words rather than saying "that was wrong" we say "maybe you could have tried..."

    Having said that i think maybe you need to accept that your goals may not be shared by others around you - so what if someone is writing tripe "only for their kids" - some times the very act of creativity is all that matters - or that's what i tell myself when i hand my finished Magnus Opus to my family and they don't understand a word of it...

  27. I think we all participate in a group for different reasons. Sometimes that reason is as much social as it is to do the work of the group. (I confess my book club strays off into the off-topic, and it's usually fine because often the conversation is more interesting than the book from this diverse group of women!).

    It sounds as though it is indeed time for you to move on. Your reason for participation is to grow and learn. I suspect from your words that your frustration is less the quality of their work (face it, not everyone will have that, and maybe they are learning). But more it is the fact that they don't seem to want to learn or hear constructive words about their work. To hear something is a pile of crap, yes -- that would hurt and not help much. But to hear something could be improved if you tried this alteration or considered that is indeed kind -- and constructive.

    (Interesting -- when I was reading I was intrigued by the idea that everyone was an "ex" -- and nobody, except you, I think, was a "now." Fact is, you ARE a writer. You don't just write.)

    For the past year or so a friend of mine has been trying his hand at fiction. Fairly well, I might add. But he has shopped out his manuscript to his writing group and to friends like me who read a lot and write for a living. They come back with suggestions on dialogue, character, and questions like "Why would she do that?" or "Most women wouldn't do that." He has ruthlessly edited and rewritten -- these are labors of joy and toil for him. But as he has often said, all the feedback has made him a better writer -- and he wants his books to work. I think they will.

    Move on, my friend. If there is anyone you can salvage from your group (for company), take them along. But move on before your anger gets in the way of knowing whatever other qualities these folks may bring to the table. You live in a small area and you have to see people in a small town. Yes, it is time to move on.

  28. Whatever came out of the group itself, you certainly expressed your own feelings in a very straightforward way here. I enjoyed the description but cannot for the life of me figure out why you stay in this group. Long ago I took a class at the local university in creative writing, only eight weeks long, but I learned skills in that class that I have never lost. And we had homework that was actually challenging!

  29. It is probably time for you to move on. The reason to join a group is to learn from and enjoy the company. If it is causing you discomfort and you are no longer getting any satisfaction with your time spent there, send them a nice note and bid adieu.

  30. Nothing for me ! I am convinced that or you have talent to write and your fingers itch, or you have not. There is nothing in the middle. That's like painting. you can learn the techniques, but if you have no talent, there is nothing to do.
    I never thought of writing a book, I am happy with my blogs which allow me to write and people even read, but that's it. Maybe one day the best posts (in my opinion) I'll have printed.

  31. Friko, I am so hoping that the letter that you have written (and sent) is a farewell letter, not any sort of apology.

    Prior comments have certainly offered you lots of wise words. I cannot improve upon them.


  32. Ah ha! A fellow Catholic! I should have guessed. I can sniff one out across a crowded room, can you?

    It certainly seems like time to move on. You are obviously getting nothing out of this at all (and I have just decided not to join a writing group myself). At least one can pick and choose with blogging and dip in and out without offending anyone and if people are kind, well there is too little of that in the world. Hope you find something more stimulating to do soon

  33. Which one of you, who have stayed with this rant so far, is saying: "If fulsome praise is all they want, why don’t they blog?” Ah yes, that is what I do...but not for the praise but the lack of criticism on the mediocrity. Sometimes we just have to pass it out the door knowing full well it is more than mediocre. I do agree there is no reason to have such a group unless there is some growth through constructive criticism. When I joined the online photography group that was my biggest disappointment. Everyone either ignored my photos or praised them. Not one suggestion on how I might improve.

  34. You should never apologize for telling the truth. I would appreciate an honest evaluation of my work...I want to grow!!

  35. It's very obvious that you have long outgrown this group, Friko, and would be wasting your time and energy if you carried on with it. That time and energy should be devoted to something productive - a new group, a proper writing course, or a writing challenge you set for yourself. Write your farewell letter and move on. Life is too short to fritter it on things that don't satisfy.

  36. Time to go.
    This group doesn't sound like the place for you. It doesn't sound like it has any redeeming quality - not even a good lunch (with wine) I'll bet.

  37. sounds like you are in the wrong writer's group.

  38. Over the years, I took several writing classes. I was a technical writer, but wanted to write the flowery creative stuff. Finally after a few workshops, I decided I didn't much like what many of the others wrote, and they probably didn't like what I wrote either.

    In one workshop, we had an exercise where we wrote extemporaneously about breasts. YOu know, the loose floppy kind. After I read my piece, I had two lesbians get in an argument about me...i.e. who was my "best friend."

    After that exience, I went back to technical writing and now I write for myself, only occasionally getting into hot water with one relative, friend or another.

    Another example of learning later in life what I wish I had known years ago. Dianne

  39. I so hear you Friko. I was fortunate in that I participated in groups in Toronto and the facilitator was well known as a TV writer and really really helped us all and we were openly shown how to critique each others' work. The ones who were "sensitive" quickly vanished. I mean if you are sensitive what the f*** are you doing there, fellah?

    I got enormous feedback on characters and structure and scaffolding, etc.

    I feel your pain at belonging to so LIMITED a group. Fresh fields perhaps?


  40. Just befriending the disillusioned ones sounds challenging enough! I'd eff off for good, Friko.

  41. They simply have a different reason for being there than you do. You want to evolve. The group devolved. It would seem the solution is clear. Maybe not simple, but clear. I'm sure there are like-minded others out there. I sure hope you can find them.

  42. I like your anger. It's justified. It's tapping into larger forces than a mere writer's group; it's tapping into people's fear of "conflict" and unwillingness to hear someone else's truth.

    Those blocks make me crazy.

    I do think these problems are highlighted with writing, as so many want SO DEEPLY to be writers. Not everyone is meant to be or should be, however. Despite this reality, there's an intersection of emotion with the writing process that makes many folks fairly nuts. My greatest fear, as a teacher of writing, is the student who waits after class to hand me a poem he's written--wanting to know what I think. I don't even have to read the poem to know it will be crap. But he stands there, awaiting my praise, and so I'm left trying to be honest but not destroy him. Words like "this is a good first step towards learning the skills you'll need for even more advanced attempts" have done wonders.

  43. Sounds dull as nails. I like a little criticism to keep the pots boiling.


  44. When my husband died I used writing as a therapy and to be honest it helped - but I have to admit that I find the continual 'encouraging' words, awards etc a little childish and disingenuous. It makes the comments meaningless.

  45. I stay away from writing groups for much the same reasons. I find when given in the light of intelligent and constructive comments, criticism can be of great help in improving one's writing. The best parts of returning to school, for me (in my fifties), were the fabulous workshops where one's writing was critiqued in a thoughtful, helpful manner and discussed with betterment in mind. Has your snow all gone yet? I returned from sunny Florida to greening grass. It's very heartening!

  46. Had to laugh at your comment about blogging... so true!

  47. Dear Friko, I've belonged to only one short-lived writing group and its members took seriously the responsibility to respond with what would help the writer's work. But I was the only one writing and so month after month we'd work on my writing. Ultimately, we all decided that until most of us were seriously working on something, we wouldn't meet and so the whole thing ended--"not with a bang, but with a whimper."

    The group here that has me gnashing my teeth is the book club. I won't begin my tirade, but I finally dropped out. Peace.

  48. Hi Friko. I belong to Waikato U3A in Hamilton, NZ. I started the writing group 3 years ago and it is thriving. Now all members take a turn at running a programme each month. (We only meet monthly) We call the group "Writing for Pleasure" and read our stories to each other each month but only give positive comments. Our group has grown from five to ten members in the last year and everyone seems to enjoy it. I always go home uplifted in spirit. The group consists of three men and seven women Dave


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