The Creative Writing PhD: Why Group Support Really Matters

7 Sep

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Just as doctoral study is a mostly solitary activity, so too is writing. But that doesn’t mean you have to go solo. In fact, relying on the comfort of others is one of the things that stops you chucking the whole thing in, especially if you are doing a creative writing doctorate. Trust me on this.

An analogy I like to use is how doctoral study – and post doctoral life – is like motherhood. Desperately lonely in the early days. For someone used to the relentless pace of corporate life or the engagement and demands of academia, being on your own with a baby is a special kind of hell. The only way to survive is to reach out to others in the same boat. No new mother is an island.

Writing groups are like mother’s groups. Initially, it’s clinging to each other like no one else knows your pain. Then – once some confidence sets in, it’s the same bravado and bragging – whose manuscript is having good growth spurts, whose creative ideas are flowing like mother’s milk, whose manuscript got accepted into a prestigious literary agency, not just the local one around the corner.

And then, as you get to know your fellow writers, after a few workshops of thrashing out the manuscript, the truth starts to leak out like a sodden nappy.

Your characters won’t behave. Your narrative arc refuses to comply with your demands. You spent weeks – months – agreeing to the writing changes everyone suggested and then your new mentor, like a rigid maternal health care nurse, demands you start all over again because if you continue the way you are going, you’ll end up with a fat and bloated child, unfit for public consumption.

Just as it takes time to properly bond with women with whom you probably have nothing more in common with than cracked nipples and sleepless nights, so too does it take time to bond with the people in your writing group.

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I know – I am in two writing groups, simultaneously working on two different novels, and I met both groups of these fabulous writers through a writing masterclass. I started this about nine months before handing in my doctorate, when I realized I really, really needed some extra help with my novel.

I was so focused was on academic research that the creative part of my PhD was languishing. The familiar panic – I can’t do this!!! – flooded in. Writing is a mind game, a confidence trick, a will to commit to the page those ferocious ideas swirling around in your mind. You have to believe you can do it, and then you have to have the methodology to see you through. It’s no good running on instinct alone. Instinct will not get you through the tough times any more than it will get you through the hiccups in parenting.

New mothers – and seasoned mothers up against those developmental milestones – turn to experts, parenting books and blogs for advice on everything from lactation to their teenagers learning to drive (I put my hand up here as mother of a 16 year old); so why should writers be immune to structured advice?

Harder for some to accept is the need for extra help in the doctoral journey. But I am proud to say that my masterclass cohort – and the spin off writing group that meets monthly, and another that meets every six weeks – really saved my sanity and ensured I was able to complete my doctorate on time – and keep writing in the postdoc phase. Maybe your university has great writing groups for doctoral students. Maybe not. And even if they have writing groups, maybe they just don’t work too well.

Let’s face it, we don’t get along with everyone, which is why when we do click with someone – when that magic of shared connection is apparent – it’s worth celebrating. If you meet writers at an event, or masterclass or workshop and that magic happens, do everything in your power to hold onto that cohort.

 

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My tips for a good writing workshop are to choose people on a similar trajectory and level of expertise to you. It’s no good meeting up with people who are starting out on the journey if you are a mid career writer. You may not have published a book yet, but if you have been working professionally in the writing sphere for years and have had a play produced, a book of poems, short stories and the like, then you are not going to be on equal footing with someone who has ‘always wanted to write’ and is now only dipping their tentative toe in the water.

The two writing groups I am with feature professional writers with a work ethic to match my ferocious appetite. And we are all parents. With the upcoming school holidays, I knew I found a soul mate when comparing notes with another writer in my group. Are we going to sit on a beach in Bali? I think not. We are both teaching workshops AND plotting how much uninterrupted writing we can get done in two weeks.

It’s sweet indeed to have a group of people who are familiar with the trials of not just the effort and skill needed to write 80,000 words of a novel, but then rewrite, submit, get knocked back, search for an agent, look for a publisher, pitch, pitch and pitch again. Writing a book takes longer than people think. Years longer. It’s hard for those not in the game to appreciate the demanding nature of the business, the roller coaster ride of finding inspiration, crafting characters and dialogue, finessing plot devices and crafting structure – hell, even coming up with a catchy book title is a major effort that can demand group input.

 

In fact, a glistening jar of homemade blueberry jam slid across the table at my writing group today, as a reward to a writer who had come up with a catchy title for another’s manuscript. As it happens, the writer in need of a title travels two hours from country Victoria, where she lives on a blueberry farm – to come to Melbourne to participate in the writing group.

Yes, writing groups can be time consuming, and in order to earn your place at the table, you have to be prepared to commit to other people’s work, put in the time to read their submissions, and really make constructive comments on what they have done. There is no place for those who don’t pull their weight. We are all very busy professional writers, and we come together to really push our work forward.

But – there is also camaraderie, the exchange of ideas, and like in a mother’s group, there is time for laughter and tears, for celebration and sighs, in the ebb and flow of the highs and lows of the writing life.

We break bread as well, and bond. One group meets over sushi and wine, in the evening, once a month, in a writer’s apartment overlooking the city lights. The other meets every six weeks in The Wheeler Centre in the heart of the city of Melbourne, and we go out for lunch after our intensive two hour session.

Like everything, practice makes perfect, and building on our stories – both imaginary, and from our lives, is a process that takes time. But while we do veer into personal territory on occasions, what we mostly talk about as we take a break from analyzing our writing is – our writing lives. The trials of the writing life. We talk about the inspiration and desires for our novels. Just like a mother’s group, we speculate and fantasize about our literary prodigy’s futures. This is an important part of the process. Creative visualization – imagining a future – is essential to making that future happen. Be it with real children or your creative offspring.

Yes, writing is a solitary business, the writer and the page. But just because you work alone, doesn’t mean you have to travel alone. Having a team with you – and seeing what they are going through as well – gives you confidence. I’ve heard that envy kicks in as well – if one gets a book deal it spurs the others to push themselves out there, and try as well.

And just like a mother’s group, no matter how easy it might be for some to naturally birth a manuscript, life and the publishing industry has a way of levelling the playing field. Just as your low birth weight baby may be the high achieving kid at school, so too might the manuscript you have struggled with over the years turn into the star that wins a literary prize, or a commercial best seller. Or – it might just turn out to be the book that is published, while the writer who won a prize might find their manuscript languishes on a literary agent’s table.

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No matter where you are on the journey of the creative writing doctorate, I urge you to find or form a writing group. Whatever you seek, it won’t be found with your academic supervisor – that’s like relying on your midwife to stay with you from pregnancy until your child finishes high school.

Get peer support. Get a writing group. Then you can keep writing – and carry on.  

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