Writing groups are not necessarily sources of inspiration. Of course, that’s what we writers wish for, but seldom find. Usually, there’s a lot of agony and angst, exhaustion and wear-and-tear, as well as hard work. However, I had a revelation recently working with my new group that shook up my assumptions permanently, affecting my daily living as well as my writing life.
That’s one of the happy things writers get used to—the residual benefits from lessons learned when we write. Without them, the inspiration gets stuck in the sludge filling our heads and slowing down the circulation of new ideas.
I think of the deadlines and pressures of life as a kind of creative artery-clogging process, cholesterol that can end up killing the artistic flow as well as us. There are many magic bullets I’ve found useful in combating this condition, but my latest discovery came during a session with my new group, and was an artistic statin for the mind and heart.
I’ve been reviewing writing group dynamics ever since I first started forming workshops 7 years ago, and I worried recently that my current group might not fit parameters for success. My former groups have been very big or small, and everything in between. But the most productive was the smallest and most recent one. Not only were the writers of star quality in every way, but the size of the group gave us the flexibility to submit long, detailed chapters in narrative order, thereby easing us into each other’s books until we were so thoroughly immersed we could hardly tell whose was whose. How could I ever adjust to any other system now that I’d experienced “the best”?
My new group is a little larger than the penultimate success story, thereby necessitating smaller submissions clipped from the heart of writing we’ve already done as well as work in progress. We don’t know each other yet, and to put it mildly, we’ve been jumping all over the place to perfect the art of critiquing before we go any further. I could hear the shrieks of some of my former colleagues at the suggestion that we could get or give adequate feedback when all we had to go on is a two-page submission taken entirely out of context.
Most writers find they must read the end of the chapter they’ve completed before they pick it up again with a fresh start. Sometimes they have to read a lot more than just the last few pages to get into the rhythm, and often, if the layover has been protracted, they can’t even remember where the characters are or how to spell their names. It’s an embarrassing truth, a dirty little secret we writers confess to among ourselves, laughing ruefully with a telltale blush rising up our cheeks. Undoubtedly, we fear we’ve exposed our fraudulent credentials after all.
We need the context, both historical and personal, to continue our narrative arc, I used to think. When you question writers at a reading or pick up on an interview with your favorite author, you’ll usually hear them respond with assurances of needing to be in context before they can engage with their writing. I was certainly one of those once, but no longer.
What happened? The comments from my new colleagues happened. They were asking me questions about my submission that I took with a grain of salt because I know they’d been answered before, in the part of the novel they hadn’t read, or were about to read in the future. If they’d had the context, they’d have known not to wonder about the way an off-duty female musician holds a violin or what the character was so anxious about. But when I went back to rework the chapter around some of the suggestions they’d made, I suddenly saw those questions in a different light. There were other characters in that scene who wouldn’t have known the answers any better than my workshop compatriots. I’d never thought to explain the actions to them, either, because they lived in my head along with the contexts surrounding the plots and other characters.
Do we do that in ‘real life’? Yes, I know we do. Is it always helpful or fair to those we judge, or to ourselves? I don’t think so. And limiting the way we see things we make judgements about is exactly why we put things in context in the first place, so that we can discriminate; not always a bad word of course, but it certainly can become one.
If I can draw conclusions about people formed by the contexts I put them in, they can do the same with me. Would the judgements be different if I have only what I see and know of them right now rather than the opinions and pressures of a lifetime molding who I think they are? Of course. Would I prefer people to judge me by who I am today rather than who they’re told I was yesterday? Absolutely. It’s a different lens, both finer and clearer, unobstructed by the flotsam and jetsam of the past, recent or distant.
By the same token, can characters make different judgements if they don’t have full knowledge about each other that could only have come from close association with the author’s imagination? That’s something they shouldn’t have a direct connection to if we’re to believe they live in the book. Two disconnected pages of narrative can show you a forest you’ve lost sight of in the trees. Try it in your daily living as well. I think you’ll find taking things out of context will open possibilities you’ve been totally blind to.