In November 2019, an old friend reached out to me. I was pleasantly surprised that she had contacted me, but it quickly became apparent that she was not just trying to make nice. She wanted some help.
Her book had just been published and she was calling up a bunch of people she knew, looking for reviewers so that she could start to get some traction on Amazon. I really wanted to help her but I said I actually needed to read the book before I could rate it.
This is not the first time this has happened. Too many times, writers will make excuses to avoid networking with other writers. These range from, ’It’s a waste of time,’ to ‘I can’t handle getting my work critiqued.’ So they keep to themselves— until they need some help; finding an agent, getting a book published, getting interviewed on a popular blog, etc.
This is the wrong way to do it. Imagine calling a friend only when you need money. They might give it to you, but it strains the relationship and takes away opportunities to make the take-and-take into a give-and-take and part of a wholesome, mutually beneficial relationship.
Here’s why I think it’s important that you be part of a well run, active writing group;
1. Writing groups challenge you
In another article, I wrote about a British poet named John Lyon and the story he told me about how he and the members of his writing group had won every major poetry prize in the UK between them. According to him, they met regularly and just listening to the other poets’ work would push the others to produce better work.
I have had the same thing happen to me. Sometimes, just sitting there and listening to other writers read their work or talk about their writing process is the kick in the butt I need to get back into gear or to up my writing game.
At a more fundamental level, if you know you have to show up and read something, you push yourself to write something. This alone, is treasure enough.
2. Writing groups help you keep your sanity
Being challenged is cool and all but being in a space where you’re comfortable enough to also share your shortcomings with each other brings it all full circle. Hearing other writers talk about how they are facing the really human challenges of finding time to write, finding inspiration, getting their novel past a particular point and being taken seriously by their significant other, etc, reminds you that you are not alone. We are in this together. With a little help from others, we can pull through this with more of our sanity intact.
3. Writing groups are a good starting point for friendships
It seems one of the prerequisites for becoming a writer is that one be an introvert.
So many writers share this characteristic.
It’s almost as if because we don’t yap so much we are forced to put our thoughts down on paper. Or maybe, even more importantly, while other people are talking we are watching, observing, using all this material to form stories in our heads.
Whatever your social awkwardness meter is, it’s a well-known fact that proximity is one of the surest preconditions for friendships to form. In workplaces, people who sit closer to each other are more likely to become friends. In apartment buildings, people are more likely to become friendly to the people across the hall than the family at the far end of the hallway. But here’s the challenge for us writers, there is no set structure to ensure that we meet regularly with other writers.
Enter the writing group.
No matter how socially inept you are, if you commit to a group and attend regularly, you will warm up to someone or, hopefully some people. True, sometimes you won’t like the group. Leave and join another — or start a new one.
If there’s anything better than friends, it’s friends who intuitively know the deepest struggles and the unseen victories of the thing you love the most.
4. Writing groups open up new possibilities which you cannot possibly imagine beforehand
You probably have an idea in your head of where you want your writing to take you; one day you will get published and get noticed and things will start to happen for you. How about getting noticed now, instead of in some imaginary future? One sure-fire way to do that is through a writing group. Your fellow writers will take notice of you immediately. You will get onto their radars. Immediately.
This opens up your chances of all sorts of alternative breakthroughs and it opens you up as a channel for other people’s breakthrough.
In 2015, a poet called Batsirai Chigama, who I’d been on a writing group with many years before, came to me and said she wanted to self-publish her first collection but she had a limited budget and could not afford a graphic designer, marketing the book, etc. We put our heads together and in the end we put together a team of about five other creatives in our network who agreed to help her, each in their area of skilling.
One person designed the cover of her collection, a few put together a launch event for her, a well-known singer who had performed at events with Batsi before agreed to perform at the launch. A mutual friend who had developed her website, updated it to make it current. An animator did some short cartoons for two of her poems. We put together a kick-ass social media countdown for her launch and all helped to spread the word. The book launched, won the national award in Zimbabwe for the best new book that year and then Batsi went on to be accepted to the University of IOWA’s international writing program as a 2019 Writer in Residence.
The publishing of this collection was a breakthrough for Batsi, but it was also a breakthrough for all of us. It showed everyone involved in the project, in a tangible way, just what was possible when creatives come together to support each other and how having other people excited about your work is so much more powerful than just you standing in your corner of social media, screaming, “Hey look at me! I write cool things!”
5. Writing groups help you maintain your perspective
When you hunker down to work on a long manuscript, sometimes you forget that there are other things happening out there. Furthermore, even if you are the sort of person who keeps up to date with the writing world, there will be things that you miss.
I credit the first writing group I ever belonged to, in Harare, about 19 years ago, for helping me realize how big the world of writing is. Part of our meetings was dedicated to talking about opportunities for publishing, competitions, calls for submissions, etc. All of a sudden I was sending work in to competitions and publications I had never heard about before. I won an all-expenses trip to the United Kingdom on a writing residency where I had the conversations with John Lyon referenced above.
Currently, one of the groups I attend has a section where we talk about events in the writing world. Once again it is a minefield of information about upcoming workshops, book launches, competition deadlines, etc. It’s a great reminder that it’s a massive world out there and I will never exhaust all the opportunities available.
6. Writing groups help you become a better artizen
In line with maintaining perspective, I’m a strong believer in writers immersing themselves in the community of artists around them and around the world. I call this becoming an artizen. As makers of art, we need to teach the world how to show love to artists. We need to model the behaviors we expect from those who consume our work. In my work as an arts and culture journalist and web developer for over fifteen year, I have came across too many people who profess love for a particular artist but never attended their shows, never buy a single song or book or painting, never send a word of encouragement and never express this love to the world.
Writing groups are a great place to become keenly aware of the sensitivities and struggles of other artists. When you meet with a group of other writers regularly, over time it dawns upon you, the universality of this artistic struggle; to produce, to be seen, to be heard, to be happy, to be acknowledged for your gifts.
This article originally appeared on Medium.