Writers in Community

by Sherwood Smith

I recently reread The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, by Diana Pavlac Glyer, leading me to a question.

Without any academic snarkiness, Glyer thoroughly dismantles Humphrey Carpenter’s assurance in his 1978 work on the Inklings that they had little or no influence on one another. All the odder as he furnishes the book with a fictional Inklings evening, demonstrating that they did. Perhaps the question is in how one defines ‘influence.’

Anyway, Glyer’s scholarship is vast. She hasn’t just read all the Inklings’s work (including their small press zines published for fun, like Lewis and Barfield’s mock legal “papers” Mark Vs Tristram, after the furor about Mallory’s somewhat louche, definitely violent biographical details* came to light), she’s read widely about writing process. I saw Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence referenced, and she draws heavily on current process scholarship, specifically Karen Burke LeFevre’s Invention as a Social Act.

Which opens the way to what I want to talk about, but to finish with the book first: It’s a remarkable achievement that a book so crampacked with rigorous scholarship (20 pages of tiny print for Works Cited alone, and an Index that serves as a model of how Indices should be done) is so clear and even charmingly written. Though I like Lewis and Tolkien’s work I am not all that fond of the works of the rest of the Inklings, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I think it’s the best on the subject yet, and that by a sizable margin.

Coming to the questions now. Glyer sets her work against the larger question of writers and their influences.

Here are some interesting quotes. From page 10:

Contrary to popular belief, writing groups and other kinds of collaborative circles do not typically take shape at a clear and specific point in time as individuals rally around a common cause or a charismatic leader. Instead, a collective identity slowly emerges. Often this happens among professional colleagues who experience a growing sense of alienation from the mainstream, a restlessness or uneasiness with the privileged ways of doing things within their field.

I have found this to be true from my experiences listening to people talk about writing groups, or reading about them on-line. True, except when a charismatic person either organizes a group round themself, or when a charismatic alpha joins a group and takes it over. Then all the dynamics change.

Here’s a quote from the introduction, when she lays out her thesis:

My experience in writing groups also confirms my belief that anticipation shapes the creation of my text. When I write with a particular reader in mind, I make changes, large and small. I find myself anticipating questions, bracing against challenges, accommodating interests.

How many have been, perhaps in early years, set back in development by the beta-reader who wants to take over your brain and have you write to their taste? That ‘anticipation’ is a powerful motivator: though writers profess to love writing for its own sake, the prospect of being read can certainly keep the butt in chair and the pen in hand.

On the question of influence:

In Critical Terms for Literary Study, a standard reference text, Louis A. Renz explains that literary influence is generally discerned by “spotting certain thematic likenesses or disclosing related verbal pattersn ‘ and on the next page, For the student of literary influences, noting resemblances between texts is just the beginning. Having found similarities, small and large, and demonstrated that they are in some way substantial and significant, the next task is to establish causation.

She then gets to Karen Burke LeFevre, who asserts that “writers often invent by involving other people” and defines the roles of participants of writing groups as Resonators, opponents, editors, and collaborators. The collaboration can be the expected type–two people working on a single text–but collaboration can also be implied by the daily walks that, for example, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway took every day, though one would be hard put to find two writers whose work seems more radically different. But at some level these two were collaborating because they were bouncing ideas off one another–resonating, editing, and opposing ideas if not actual text. They were a writer’s group of two.

So here are my questions: if you’re a writer, do you belong to a group, no matter how informal? If so, how much of your motivation comes anticipation of your group reading your stuff? Is it the group reading it (pretty much guaranteed) or the (more hypothetical) readership Out There (unless you are in the habit of selling everything you write) that keeps your butt in the chair? Or do you write in total isolation? And finally, when you look back over drafts, changes, polishes, levels of learning leaps, how much of that can you trace to the influence of the group–do you think you’d be where you were, doing what you’re doing now, sans the group experience?


Mallory and his life: Glyer makes it clear that the literary world then discussed, as people do now, what exactly was meant by “rape” which could mean abduction, it could mean consensual sex but without consent of the female’s guardians. As for Mallory and violence, who could be surprised after reading the text, in which when he describes exactly what happens in those brutal jousts, and how guys would fight, lose their breath, their wits from the heat and thirst, etc, as hacked bits of armor fly all over? It’s very clear he’s seen it, and some of the internal details it pretty clear he’s been in it.



Writers in Community — 21 Comments

  1. No group for me. I am abidingly fascinated by now the whole critiquing-group/beta-readers thing has become the default practice these days, almost formalised as a part of the necessary process pre-publication. Of course it’s not new, but its ubiquity is. I predate that; I may be the last of the generation for whom writing could still be a lonely business, and for me it still is. Of course other writers have been the predominant influence on what I do – but through their published books, not through feedback sessions.

  2. Chaz: I’ve talked with a few writers who feel the same. They don’t want betas, they feel confident about their ability to self-edit.

    I kind of wish that I could do the same, as it can be very difficult to find betas, especially fresh eyes. People (understandably) are busy. But I R a visual writer–I have terrible trouble seeing the words I actually wrote down, because they function as signals to evoke the movie that I was seeing when I wrote. My struggle to learn to revise and rewrite has been all about trying to actually get the text to match the movie . . . and for that I need betas to tell me what they see.

    One thing I haven’t needed is brainstorming plot–because I see that movie. But when I collaborate, I’ve learned to just dismantle the movie scene and let another form in its place in my head. It’s fun–it’s a different sort of rush.

    (Forgive me if this is too much “all about me” yawp.)

  3. This sounds like a brilliant book! One of my main frustrations when I was a Comparative Literature major was that all the theoretical approaches to the texts entirely ignored the realities of the writing process, assuming that all textual creation was both instantaneous and done in a vacuum. There has never been a text written in a vacuum.

    I have a crit group! And I’m really so grateful to have one. But we’re an editing crit group, meaning that for me at least, the writing has to happen and then the re-visioning, and then the ‘omg this scene is terrible’ butt-in-chair period has to happen before the section gets to the group. Then I get to go back and tear it apart again, but with guidance this time!

    The critique is really a warning: this is how this scene is likely to be perceived by a reader. This is a mistake they’ll make. Here’s where they’ll be led off track. This is a good twist. This is not a surprise.

    The group definitely has an effect on, well, the effectiveness of my writing, but for thematic issues and ‘verbal patterns’ (what is he even trying to say? Lexical choice? Syntax?) I’m on my own. You know, on my own in the way that every single thing I encounter influences me in some way or other.

    It’s my Linguistics work that really embodies these ideas though. As grad students we’re trying to create an identity as scholars. We’re trying to understand the purpose and goals of our field, what’s worth it, what’s real. And that encourages us to form groups that have a particular world-view, and the members have a high degree of influence on each other.

    Perhaps if my writing group was centered around a particular genre, we might have more of this sort of ‘self-definition in contrast to the other’ but it’s really mixed. But I did hang out with my YA reading group yesterday, going through our favorites and offering recommendations, and really realizing that we do have that sort of cohesion, and that, unfortunately, we all find modern romantic YA to be rather off-putting. And due to the fact that the reading list is proposed by a website where MRYA is the holy grail, we may have to break away.

  4. Solitary writer here. I’ve found being critted has never helped a book become more salable, or helped it pass the agent’s muster. But I see those things happening for other writers, and have done a lot of teaching and mentoring, and had quite a few publications out of those processes, so it must be just me. My process isn’t communal in that sense.

    I do welcome editing and find it tremendously helpful. So much of what I’ve done has been greatly improved by good editing. I’ve been blessed in my editors (including the ones at BVC).

  5. Judith: that reminds me of another possible discussion topic–the difference between critiquing and editing. (I think some who offering editing don’t actually know how to edit, and are actually critiquing–and sometimes not all that effectively.)

  6. I understand about the audience influencing the work–although my case I’m writing instructions and information for students. As far as I can tell better writing comes out of a smaller mutually fertilizing community than from a person or group who is writing only with the public in mind.

  7. Pilgrimsoul: from what I’ve seen, the mutually fertilizing group can be a great thing or a real problem Great? The Scriblees, who found a way to foster group improvement, yet each writer has a distinctive voice.

    As opposed to the group who were as mutually dedicated, whose members sent things to a magazine I was involved with once. We saw the same story tropes, and even the same grammar mistakes, in all the subs, to the extent that we wondered if the subs were all from the same person, who was inexplicably using different names, and different addresses within the same city.

    There is another danger: the dedicated beta . . . if that beta uses the carrot and stick method to gently control the writer into writing what the beta wants to read, that can be a problem. Two problems, one, the writer can begin to feel that the beta is telling her what to do, and second, if the writer writes for the beta, but the beta’s tastes run counter to what editors and readers Out There want . . . well, you get what I mean, I’m sure.

  8. I write in total isolation. That’s probably good–not having outside influence in the crafting stage–but it has driven me nuts in the past.

    As far as beta readers go, I’ve only had minimal experience thusfar. And only one chapter at that. I did get the feedback at VPXV on a couple of chapters, but that wasn’t beta reading. That was a learning environment.

    What I have noticed when anyone has commented on my work is that I note the problem and generally change the work based on something I work out and not advice from others. So, the experience has been invaluable, but it has not turned my work into something written by others.

    While I think the opinion of others can be invaluable in pointing out problems the writer is too close to the work to see, I think only the author knows the work well enough to actually fix the problem in a manner consistent with the story they want to tell.

  9. I have been a communal writer from the beginning. The two or three aborted attempts I made to write when younger failed after a few paragraphs. I had no idea what I was doing and couldn’t sustain anything. Then I met a writer who was part of a writing critique group, and she took me with her.

    The process came to life for me. And ever since then, I’ve always been part of a critique group, either formal (for the past 15 or so years online) or informal–friends I trade with who get my vision and can help me in a similar way to what you need, Sherwood. In my case it’s not necessarily “a movie,” but just the fact that I often can’t read what I’ve written and separate it from what I intended to write, and know what works and doesn’t.

    But mainly, I love the creative energy that comes from critique. I love the back and forth, the what if, and (most common in my case) the frustration of, ‘No, that’s not what I mean–‘ and ‘That doesn’t work because-‘ until suddenly, having dismissed every attempt to help, I shout at my friend, “OMG I KNOW WHAT’S WRONG!” and thank her profusely and hang up the phone to dive back in.

    She smirks, her job done.

    I think I’m so verbal, I just have to have a wall to bat against a lot of the time.

  10. Janice and Pooks: there are some betas who will attempt to tell you how to write your story, but we usually don’t talk to them twice. Then there are betas who can’t resist talking about how they’d do it, which is natural because . . . everyone present is a writer. That doesn’t mean the advice has to be taken.

    Then there are the situations where betas talk about a problem–and they can even mention the same problem–which alerts the writer to the fact that readers are tripping at this point. It could be that none of the suggestions work, but the fact that the betas are tripping is invaluable–and yep, the writer figures out a new way to tell that bit of the story.

  11. I was a solitary writer for years, but when I switched from Romance to SF, I wanted all the support I could get. What I find works for me is the collegial support and shared concerns (really, most of the people I know outside of the writing world don’t care that much about the weight of words in a sentence). I value the feedback I get–although my way of addressing problems is almost always not the way my workshop mates suggest. And I’ve always found the advantage to a long-term workshop is that you get to know the people you’re working with, and what their prejudices are, and what you need to take seriously. One guy may be flawless when the story is out of true, but hopelessly prolix about commas; one woman may not get what I’m doing–but in a useful way that allows me to see how to help her (and other readers) get into the story.

    But in the end, it’s just me and the words.

  12. When I started writing as a teenager, I gave the stories to my then best friend to read and sometimes brainstormed ideas with her. In turn, I read her poems and sometimes made suggestions. Since none of us knew what we were doing, the results weren’t any helpful.

    I was lucky that my university was one of the very few in Germany to offer English language creative writing classes. Eventually a loose group of writers formed around that workshop and the university literature magazine. We were all very different. I was the only genre writer, while the others tended towards poetry, vignettes and literary short stories. We also had a playwright, two stand-up comedians and an elderly man who wrote touching memoirs of his youth during WWII. The group was useful in certain respects, even though we were all very different and my genre stories did not fit in at all. At one point, a few of us actually did try to collaborate on a novelette, which was an unmitigated disaster. I’m still in loose contact with many of the people (and several eventually found some success as writers or editors), but we no longer meet or exchange texts regularly.

    Nowadays, I’m mostly a solitary writer. I’ve been trying to persuade my school to let me organize a writing workshop for our students with very little success. However, I occasionally do writing exercises in my classes. And once I organized an impromptu brainstorming session to help one of my aspiring writers, when he was stalled on his magnum opus, a retelling of Jurassic Park with himself as the heroic paleontologist (the author is 13). What we did was collect suggestions how the story could go on, wrote them down on the board and the writer finally picked the one he liked best.

  13. What a great experience for that young writer! I remember when there was a junior high writing contest. I turned in a novel I co-wrote at thirteen (it was some 400 pages long, badly but exhaustively typed on a manual) I caught a glimpse of one of the teacher judges turning the pages over with an expression akin to what you find on the face of a person who has recently had a close encounter with a vintage fish.

  14. I can’t really fault the teacher for their lack of enthusiasm in reading a 400 page teenage opus, but no student should ever see that look on their teacher’s face.

    This reminds me of the time I had another writing student read out her story in class. The story was long, ten pages or so. The student in question hated reading out loud, so I was happy to get her to read out something. However, after four pages or so, the student ran out of steam and couldn’t read anymore. “Why don’t you just sum up what happens?” No, a summary wouldn’t work, we had to hear it. So I offered to read out the rest of the story. It was handwritten in purple ink and the student was dyslexic and a hearing problem (both diagnosed way too late), so many words were spelled as the student heard them. It was very difficult reading that story out loud without stumbling over the eccentric spelling. The girl in question is a surprisingly talented writer, by the way.

  15. This is a fascinating post. I work pretty much the way Cara M does. I need the isolation to get a full first draft out; and then my crit group (well, more beta readers really) identify what doesn’t work for them and I go back into isolation to figure it out on my internal writerly terms and make changes to the draft (if the feedback resonates).

    When it comes to out and out communal writing, I cannot do it. Something in me shuts down, and I end up in an internal fight (well, it feels like it’s all in my mind) as to which ‘voice’ to listen to, the community’s or my own. This might just be me unecessarily polarising both voices but I do think that a community forms its own character just as a person does, and sometimes power dynamics between a community’s character and an individual’s has the power to distract an individual from their personalised (and usually powerful) vision of the piece… not for the better. In terms of diluting the authenticity of the piece anyway hmmmm

  16. 😀 reasons not to make up new acronyms in the middle of blog comments. MRYA: Modern Romantic YA.

    As I just got back from my crit group meeting, I will add, one of the parts of writing that I have the biggest problems with is figuring out what are the “natural” questions to ask in a given situation. Generally, I just don’t know. What would you want to know if you wandered into an ogre’s castle and only found a crippled girl there?

    Apparently the answer is Where’s the ogre? And What happened to you? Oddly enough, I managed to figure neither of these things out on my own.

  17. Cara: re. “natural” questions — Yeah, I have that too. It’s not always intuitively obvious to me what questions a character should be expected to ask at the beginning of an encounter. Frex, I’ve been repeatedly dinged when one character’s accosted or called by another character who starts asking them questions. Apparently the proper response is to request their identity before answering any questions, and if that information is not forthcoming and the other character instead ratchets up the tone of demand, to insist that no answers will be provided without proper identification. But if someone scary comes up to you and demands information, are you really going to card them, or are you just going to tell them the information and hope they’ll go away? Sometimes if they’re sufficiently authoritative in their demeanor, the answer comes popping out before you can even think about whether you should be providing the information to anyone, let alone thinking to ask for their name and appropriate ID.

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