The importance of a writers’ group – Zosia Wand

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By Zosia Wand

“The people who get on in this world are those who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.” George Bernard Shaw ♥

I was a lonely writer. I live in a rural market town. It’s a creative place with a vibrant poetry scene, but I write scripts and novels and had no one to connect with locally. I wanted a writing community. I didn’t have one, so I made one.

I started my writing group around my kitchen table. I was looking to earn some additional income while my kids were young, but I couldn’t risk paying for a venue if people didn’t turn up. It wasn’t a money-making venture, some months I only had two people attending and couldn’t charge more than £25 as they were as broke as I was, but it paid dividends in far more lucrative ways than I could ever have imagined.

I’d worked as a creative writing tutor for years, running workshops for Lancaster University, various community organisations and the BBC Writers Room. These were generally for new writers. Many of these people came along for fun, with no long-term plan or commitment to their writing, but there was always at least one that was a little more hungry. These were people I contacted when I started my kitchen table group.

It wasn’t easy and I nearly gave up more than once. It was four years before I could be confident there would be more than three people attending and the workshop could go ahead. I stuck with it because I needed a community.

The group have now been meeting for ten years. There are a dozen regulars from a pool of about twenty, which usually means about eight at any writing day. The format has evolved with us. We start by going around the table and updating the group on our individual writing projects and any opportunities, successes or rejections that have come our way. We share contacts and possibilities, encourage one another and offer support and advice when things are difficult.

Hearing how other people are doing is both inspiring and motivating and knowing we are going to be checking in, pushes us to progress our projects from month to month. New writers begin with something small – a short story that might be edited and submitted for a competition, a poem for a magazine, or even a story for a family member. As writers develop their ambitions grow. We now have a former journalist who struggled to write anything that wasn’t ‘true’, polishing a full-length musical that’s had the thumbs up from Willy Russell. We have a theatre practitioner who once devised plays with adults with learning disabilities who now has two scripts in development with Radio 4. A local hair-dresser who left school with no qualifications is writing an English answer to Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City, set in a boarding house in Morecambe, and a middle aged mother of three has written a full-length narrative rap poem which has caught the interest of a touring theatre company.

Checking in can sometimes take an hour and leaves us itching to get writing, so I start with a warm up, followed by a longer writing exercise. I tend to tailor workshops to the projects people are working on, things I’ve learned recently or want to explore myself, or specific requests from members of the group. The exercises can be used to develop existing projects or explore something new, whatever suits the individual writer. We then read back these rough first drafts and discuss. Lunch is a shared buffet, which his always a great success by accident more than design, and the afternoon is dedicated to feedback on circulated work. Up to four people can submit a limited amount in advance – two or three pages or a couple of poems. The analytical feedback from the other writers is more than equal to that which I remember from my MA discussions. This is where we taste the projects that are being developed and give editing advice.

We no longer gather around my kitchen table (that go a bit cramped) but the success of the group and that opportunity to connect with other writers, prompted me to set up The Reading Room. I turned the rather dry meeting room at my partner’s engineering consultancy into a small library, lining the walls with books and providing a large table that can seat twelve. We have the use of a kitchen and toilet on the same floor, while the engineers remain on the floor above. At weekends this venue is used for creative writing courses, with writers travelling from all over the country to stay in our pretty market town and learn new skills, meet other writers and create their own support groups.

And what has it done for me? I now have a group of writers who are also friends. Once a year we head off to a retreat together. When I need readers for new work, there are people to offer me feedback. When I have news, good or bad, there is a group there to offer congratulations or support. I have learned as much as I’ve taught. I’ve seen how writers develop with every word they write. A good writing group are supportive, generous and wise, and in this fickle industry, when there is usually a lot more rejection than there is success, having a blanket to catch you and bounce you back up again is worth more than any editorial credit or publisher’s advance.

Zosia Wand gained an MA with distinction in Creative Writing from Lancaster University in 1999. She has had several plays broadcast on Radio 4, including, The Treehouse, a thriller in 5 parts, broadcast in May 2014. Her stage plays include Quicksand, The Dukes Playhouse, Lancaster and Theatre By The Lake, Keswick (2011), Pearl, a monologue for Paines Plough Theatre Company, (2012) and Blackout, the Dukes, Lancaster (2013). In 2014 she wrote the script for the Lancaster Williamson Park/Dukes Outdoor Theatre production, Hansel and Gretel and More Tales From The Forest. Her first novel, a psychological thriller, Trust Me, is published by Head of Zeus this autumn. She is currently working on her second novel, The Accusation, which will be published in 2018.

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