Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Advice to would-be writers - a final word

In two long posts last week, here and here, I summarised the lessons I've drawn from some three decades of experience of writing groups, writing classes, and trying to scratch a living as a writer.

I suspect many of these observations go rather against the general orthodoxy, especially in North America, where the teaching of "creative writing" has become a significant industry and writers' groups are now enormously popular. In particular, I imagine my extreme scepticism of writers' groups, and even of one-to-one mentoring, may arouse a fair amount of animosity.

I've already gone into the reasons for my scepticism in some detail in the second of my posts on this topic. In essence, I believe very strongly that writers should cultivate their autonomy and learn to rely on their own judgement; I don't think depending on anyone else's support or advice is ultimately conducive to that goal. With mentoring in particular, it is the status inequality between the two parties that most bothers me: I don't think it is good to "look up to someone". You should be looking up to yourself; or trying to become someone that you can look up to. For every positive story I've heard about mentoring, I must have heard four or five that were much less so. And I suspect most of the positive experiences were more to do with the strength of the friendship and the emotional support given than with the mentee's development as a writer. I tend to think that if you've got it in you, it's going to find its way out sooner or later; if you're lucky enough to find a mentor with whom you enjoy a very positive relationship, you may feel that's helping you to develop as a writer, but it's probably not really making very much of a difference either way.

The one exception I might allow - which is the substance of this final post in my mini-series on writing - is the 'writing buddy'.

You don't want to be sharing your early attempts at writing with a much more experienced writer, whose opinions you may feel obliged to defer to even if you are inclined to disagree with them, and measured against whom you may always feel yourself somewhat inadequate. You want to find a peer: someone who's in a similar position to yourself, in terms of their experience, their motivation, and - if possible - their level of ability.

And you don't want to have to be struggling to form a personal relationship with a mentor (or members of a writing group) at the same time as you are entering into this quasi-professional,skills development relationship with them. It's much better to find someone, if you can, with whom you already have a fairly close relationship, and share your work with, solicit feedback from them. They don't even have to be a writer; spouses and siblings have often proved to be a writer's best sounding board. However, I think their criticism is likely to be more astute if they are also writers; and it makes the relationship more balanced and reciprocal if you are each critiquing and encouraging the other's work.

If you already have such a close rapport with someone, hopefully that will mean that you are aware enough of each other's particular sensitivities and insecurities to express negative opinions as tactfully as possible; but also it should mean that there is sufficient trust between you that you can be fairly uninhibited in your critique, secure in the knowledge that, although such negative opinions may often cause irritation or distress, your relationship should be strong enough to survive any such strains. It's much, much harder to attain that sort of intimacy with strangers.

I've never done this myself, but it occurs to me that, if you can't find a suitable 'buddy' within your circle of family or friends, you might possibly try to find one online. I can see this might be fraught with the same kinds of difficulties one encounters in making friends or dating online, but similar caution can be exercised in the early stages of seeking out and establishing such a relationship. And there is something nicely insulating about non-face-to-face interactions, a distancing that allows us to be more forthright with each other. 

I'd far rather have a real-world social dimension to a 'writing buddy' relationship; but an e-buddy could also work. Ultimately, the most important thing is how much in common you have, how much sympathy or connection you feel in discussing your writing, and how that builds into a solid rapport between you - whether you are lifelong friends or you've only just met each other in a chatroom.

It's difficult to find a really well-matched 'writing buddy'; if you do, you are blessed. But don't worry if you can't; just forge ahead on your own. That's what most of the world's great writers did.

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