A while ago, somebody asked me: “You write, don’t you? Are you part of a writing community?” Always prepared, I gave a socially acceptable answer: “Oh, not right now, but maybe I’ll join one again later”, while thinking: “With God as my witness, I’ll never be part of a writing group ever again!” Because despite regularly seeing (mostly on the internet, mostly outside of the Netherlands) people being part of supportive writing communities, most of my experiences with writing groups have been extremely exhausting to the point of despair, best described by the saying “L’enfer, c’est les autres”.
Usually the writing group was started by a couple of people who were more or less (some more, others less) motivated to get together and work on their writing. The first meeting would usually go really well, everybody would leave the meeting full of enthusiasm, ready to tackle next meeting’s assignment. Then however, one of the following two things happened:
1) in the days leading up to the second meeting, people would start to cancel for the most creative reasons. An attempt was made to reschedule the meeting, but after a lot of to and fro-ing and “I can’t, it’s my cat’s mother-in-law’s birthday”-type excuses, this second meeting never came to be. Group over, please try again
2) with a disproportionate amount of pushing and pulling the group struggled on, without really going anywhere. At some point, the “serious” people jumped ship, and the dead horses (read: the type of people who say they want to do things and who seem enthusiastic, but when push comes to shove don’t do anything at all) and the type of people who make it their mission to keep dragging those dead horses along remain. It then depends on the stamina of the latter group how long the community keeps going, which, if the people involved are young and/or idealistic, could be a while.
After the so-many-th failed community I realised that each of those groups contained a certain amount of disruptive types:
The Unofficial Organisers: the types who aren’t part of the actual organisation and don’t want to be, but instead try to – stealthily – try to get their way, despite nobody wanting them to do so. When confronted with their behaviour, they of course deny any wrongdoing;
The Bellows: they consider themselves “Real Writers”, unlike all the other group members. In their world, being a “Real Writer” mainly consists of getting covers made for trilogies that they still need to write, speculating on how much money they will earn by selling the movie rights and using IMDB to show which actors they’re going to cast in what parts. This takes up so much of their time, that they don’t have time left to actually write anything;
The Vultures, who see a community strictly as a place to market themselves and sell their wares. They are completely uninterested in the other group members except for the Bellows, who they consider to be “better” than them and who they hope will help them further their career. All non-Bellows are, independent of who they are and what they do, relegated to the ranks of “fan” and “audience”. They expect everybody to buy their non-edited word vomit and to be present each time they open an envelope, but will never deign to buy a fellow community member’s publication or go to one of their readings. This is the type of person who considers a community a public utility: something kept alive by others, that they can frequent once in a while, when they have something for sale. When confronted with the fact that this is not how communities work, they will stare at you incredulously: “What do you mean, contributing to the group?”
The types that ask you to “be blunt. No really, I can take it!” but who, after the first friendly constructive remark, freak out and start whining that you are compromising their artistic integrity. My bad, unintelligible non-sequitur gibberish in Dunglish, complete with unintentional double spaces, shoddy grammar and spelling errors up the wazoo is very artistic of course. The freak out is usually followed by shushing and “UN peace keeping mission”-style tactics meant to de-escalate performed by the more sensitive members of the group who don’t want things to, well, escalate, and understandably so. It does however result in a completely tense group situation in which nobody dares to critique even in the nicest way, because “we don’t want The Artist to freak out again”;
The Assholes (m/f/other: [fill in]) who everybody instantly and collectively HATES, but who strangely enough never get told to GTFO;
And last but not least, the Writers-That-Don’t-Write: sometimes these non-writers are also part of the groups mentioned above, but often enough they’re just really nice, fun, involved group members. Who never manage to write anything. Which isn’t necessarily a problem, unless you’re part of a writing group, where you’re supposed to read each others work and critique it.
You only need one of the aforementioned types to destroy your entire community, but in all failed writing groups I’ve ever been a part of, there were at least two of them. It’s interesting to note that I’ve never met any of these types way back when in the dance community: apparently dancers are way to busy dancing. And dealing with their eating disorders. File under: things that are not a joke.
Like I wrote at the beginning: they apparently do exist, the people who are part of a drama free, well functioning, supportive writing group. And while after years and years of misery I’ve decided to never be part of a writing community again because I just don’t have the energy to keep trying and keep being disappointed, I still often think: “What makes it that they DO manage to set up a community?”
Is it even possible to have a community without Bellows, Vultures, Unofficial Organisers, “Artists”-with-no-talent-who-can’t-deal-with-critiques, Assholes, Writers-Who-Don’t-Write and of course the people who don’t have the common decency to read their own text out loud to themselves and therefore hand in crap that takes you, the editor, twice as long to edit than that it took them to write?
Is it luck, as in “the right people at the right place”? Do successful groups have a pre-selection process, in which they filter out the undermining types? Is it just my fault, because I’m both quite introverted and extremely result oriented, which leaves me with zero patience for other people’s unnecessary whining? Or is it that other people have more energy in general than I do, which enables them to give it a couple of tries to form the right community, without this compromising the amount of energy they can dedicate to their own work? Or have I just had an extreme amount of bad luck with the groups I’ve been a part of? Is it a Dutch thing? Because I do notice that all the people with a (seemingly?) successful community are always based Elsewhere, as in: not in The Netherlands. Is that a coincidence? Or is it all just a case of Keeping Up Appearances combined with “curated internet life always looks better than real life” and is everybody everywhere always sorta kinda having issues within their communities?
I am very curious if any of this strikes a chord with anyone. I’m also curious to hear from people who read this going “That is absolutely NOT my experience”. Comments can be posted in the comment box, or on Instagram (in a DM if you don’t want to discuss this publicly) or by email at info [at] featuredmag.nl.
Next week, it’s time for another interview! See you all on Wednesday!