Sunday, October 26, 2008

“Yeah, I’ll Get By With A Little Help From My Friends...”

There are very few of us for whom writing is a social event. More likely, after barely an hour into a social engagement, we are surreptitiously checking our watches, and thinking about the next chapter we’ll write as soon as we can escape.

There are people who write together. There is a group called Shut Up & Write, in which I believe you can join a particular table at a particular time and place, and sit in silence writing. I hear it can be quite productive. But for most of us, I think, the issue is finding the time to write, and we do it best alone.

For the last ten years, I have always had something to write, even if I didn’t know that prior to whipping out the laptop. A good writer writes and s/he also reads – again something that’s usually done solo.

But humans are social animals, and writers are a subspecies of humans. Evolution seems to dictate that we come down from the trees and join writer’s groups. I am blessed to have spent the last two years in the Berkeley Writers Circle ( It is an informal group that meets weekly and gently critiques the work that different members present. The only real rule is for the criticism to be constructive and so far we seem able to express honest feedback without anyone throwing his or her coffee in someone’s face.

We’ve set a structure that the group amends from time-to-time, but the main thing is we are there to help each other and that we enjoy each other’s success and improvements. I think we find a comforting level of legitimacy from sharing an evening a week with other obsessed people who also spend a ludicrous amount of time scribbling and typing. It is a group where you can introduce yourself as: “My name’s John and I’m a writer,” and there is no embarrassed spouse or parent standing next to you who feels compelled to say: “He’s also a lawyer/doctor/lunatic.”

Ironically, I am writing this entry in the Borders in Emeryville, CA, where it all began. Well kind of. Truth is, I was the only one who turned up that first night, and felt pretty stupid gazing desperately at people who glanced at the red and white sign I had on the table.

But today the group generally has 6-12 attendees, and we find willing speakers to address us. We even have visitors who have come to learn how we work and there are other groups that have splintered off from us to concentrate on a particular genre or work differently.

I believe we all need to climb a psychological barrier, to be able to share our desire to write, to get published, to express ourselves, to tell a story that we believe has to be told. Writers groups can provide all this. They have the potential to implode and the wounds can be deep, even terminal, to one’s writing career. But I believe they are essential to help a writer define him/herself, to stand up and announce: I am a writer!

To the members of the Berkeley Writers Circle, past and present: You have helped me nurture this identity, this self-respect, and helped me believe in my work despite the rejections.

You have also helped me make Oilspill Dotcom a better story and a better read. I only hope I have helped you do the same.

Good Writing,


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