Last night I had the pleasure of attending a writing group session with Creative Writers of Aggieland, a student group on the Texas A&M campus in College Station. Last night's session was a critique, and everyone brought something they had written (or an excerpt) to share. Obviously this was meant to facilitate a writer getting feedback on her work, but I talked about that last week. This week, I'd like to emphasize the importance of the social aspect of writing.
But we enjoy writing alone! It's so nice to drown out the world and let the voices in our heads do the talking for once, uninterrupted. Writing with other people around is distracting and counter-productive! And I agree with that sentiment to a point.
This is only one of many scientific studies that have found a higher prevalence of mental illness among creative writers. One theory I've heard postulated for why this is the case is exactly that listed above: we work alone. It's not just the stress of being the only one to do all the work. It's also the fact that we talk to our family or our roommates about our work, and maybe a close friend, but that's about it. When we try to explain what we're doing to a co-worker or Joe on the street, they'll usually feign polite interest until we realize what's going on and quit talking. This can foster feelings of alone-ness, make us feel unappreciated, and if we're not careful can encourage pre-existing tendencies towards unhappiness and depression. Cue downward spiral.
But have you ever accidentally found a fellow writer? Just going about your business, trying to get through the day, and you're making small talk with this stranger because, I don't know, it's healthy to be social, or, something like that. And you mention that you write and they say "REALLY!?!? ME TOO!!!" And the clouds part and the sun shines its rays down on the one little spot where the two of you are standing and the angels and birds and howler monkeys sing the hallelujah chorus. Or, if that's not your genre, maybe there's a bolt of lightning, a clap of thunder, a gust of wind, and you grin devilishly at one another and rub your hands together and mutter about plans. Regardless of what your idea of that one perfect moment is like, it's the beacon that lights up the rest of your day. Sometimes, it can carry you for a whole week.
So why is that? Again, I'm going back to last week. If art is a form of communication, then it is paramount that our art be understood. And who understands a writer better than another writer. Gasp! But he doesn't write in the same genre as me! And I've been writing way longer than her! Stop your protestations. You're both writers. This means you inherently speak the same language and are always in search for sources of conflict and inspiration. You both revel in the idea of a hook that won't let go and an ending that is satisfying, yet open to possibility. Every writer has something in common with every other writer: you have a story to be told. And you know what it's like to feel that no one is listening.
So here's my solution. Get into a writing group. It doesn't matter if you only write eighteenth century style romances in French, sign up! Because a writing group is more than a place to smooth out bumps and fill in holes. It's more than a sounding board from a target audience. A writing group is a support group, first and foremost. Most won't think of themselves this way or advertise themselves in that manner. But ask every writing group you meet if they support one another with encouragement and unbiased friendship, and they'll say yes. Because humans are social creatures, and we never feel as comfortable as when we are around people like us.
Without further ado, here is my shameless plug for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.
It's a program (FREE) where you write 50,000 words in 30 days. Not into noveling? Doesn't matter. You can be a NaNo rebel and write a 50,000 word screenplay. Or a collection of short stories or poetry that's 50,000 words total. And if you don't make the 50,000 word mark in your epic ballad? No big. Because you're still getting the important part of this program: a community. There are regional groups you can join to meet people in your area that are infected with the same writing bug you've come down with. In my area, our regional group meets to have write-ins at local libraries. Don't be nervous! This isn't social hour. I mean, technically, you are meeting with other people. But you are meeting with other writers with the express purpose of writing. When your brain hits the wall at that 15 mile mark, you can step off the path for a few minutes with another exhausted teammate and recharge while you listen to each other talk about your respective projects. And that's what it's all about: your work. The even better part about NaNoWriMo? Afterwards, you have a slew of people to talk to about your writing. You have a support group, almost out of nowhere!
Still too much for you? If you're in school, look up a writing group in the myriad list of other student activities. If not, talk to your librarian or Google your local arts council. Still getting skunked? Put an ad on Craigslist and see who bites. It's ok to just Skype the first few times to make sure that no one is going anyplace they don't want to in multiple trashbags.
The point is: meet with other writers. It will encourage you, it will inspire you, it will improve your work, it will keep you accountable, it will keep you whole.