Tips for Starting a Writing Group by Steph Vidal-Hall
In 2011 I interviewed novelist Anna Lawrence at Pow Wow Festival of Writing. Soon after, she invited me and two other Birmingham writers, Elisabeth Charis and Kit de Waal, to get together to write, as Natalie Goldberg says, ‘with a rounded belly’; WRB was born and we’ve been meeting ever since.
So far, so ordinary; writers meeting to write and critique work. What’s different about us is our backgrounds, what our group does apart from writing, and the things we’ve achieved since. Singly and severally we’re BAME, gay, survivors, dealing with health impairments, working class; backgrounds under represented in our cultural leadership and in your average writing group. That’s not what drew us together, but it might be why we’re still meeting, why we achieved, and why you could do the same.
When we started, we weren’t earning our livings from writing. Since then we’ve achieved; a full time lecturing post in Creative Writing, a three book deal with Penguin, the founding of a scholarship for working class writers, an animation, shortlisting for Birmingham Poet Laureate, a much-awaited baby, accolades including the Costa, Wenlock and Bare Fiction poetry prizes, and Arts Council funding for projects to support artists from under represented backgrounds.
These projects included coaching, and peer coaching training as well as group meetings (https://youtu.be/Q8jCHHPCbUw), but the results were similarly transformational; a classical musician successfully managing six times her previous budget and a team of composers; a theatre practitioner moving from factory floor to BBC; a poet returning to performance after an eight year hiatus; a photographer generating a four-fold increase in income. From evaluation, it seems that the confidence of under represented artists is transformed by reflecting on challenges with other people who can empathise.
So if you want a writing group that might just transform your life, try this:
Find kindred spirits
Seek out other writers/artists from under represented backgrounds with whom you can be really open. Decide what you want to get out of meeting together.
Dedicate time to talking through current challenges; a Phd application, a tricky domestic situation, a difficult scene in your novel. Ask ‘What do you want to think through and what questions do you have for us?
Share time equally
When you answer that question, use a round, giving each person an equal time to talk; don’t speak until that person asks the group a question, hear the answers in another round; move on to the next person’s challenge. Appoint a time-keeper.
Share your writing
Write together – do timed exercises, share your work, give feedback. Shared experience means you don’t have to explain the prejudice faced by your protagonist, but can simply get on with writing your best work.
Keep it regular
Meet monthly or weekly. Make the next date before you leave.
That’s it. If you want more support you could write similar group or individual coaching into your next project funding application.
Enjoy. Let me know what happens. Our culture needs us.
Steph Vidal-Hall coaches artists from all genres, particularly those from backgrounds under-represented in our cultural leadership. She facilitates literary events, including the PowWow Festival of Writing, the UK’s only writing festival to take place in a pub garden and belongs to the WRB writing group in Birmingham, along with Kit De Waal (My Name is Leon) and Anna Lawrence (Ruby’s Spoon), and Elisabeth Charis. Steph helps individuals get clear about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it in the cultural and corporate sectors.