by Rachel Kobin
The "perfect" writer sits down in front of their laptop at five in the morning, admires the sunrise over their duck pond, and proceeds to tap out thousands of words. These words represent essential sections of their latest masterpiece for which their editor waits with gleeful anticipation. The rest of their day balances self-care activities like exercise and meditation with creativity-enriching jaunts to readings, art openings, and live concerts.
These romanticized writers may exist, but when I asked local writers to e-mail me about how being a part of a writers' community had impacted them, Eric Jacobs, a writer in my own workshop said, "I am not the kind of person who can get up early and set aside an hour a day every day to write. At least not yet. Probably never. But I know that with the workshop there will be at least one night when I can block out everything else and devote my full attention to writing. Willingly, I am a captive audience." Like most writers, Eric has a full-time job and social responsibilities. Based on my observations and the responses I received to questions I asked local writers about how becoming part of a writing group impacting them, not having enough time is the simplest challenge writers face.
As an act of self-expression, writing evokes feelings of vulnerability. Often, prior experiences in educational or professional settings have left emotional scars. Remarking on his decision to join the Ambler Writers' Group, Robert Wright coined a fabulous phrase for the self-doubt that plagues us all: "…I was unsure of my writing and my choice to write. The chattering monkeys played havoc with me then. Occasionally they still do." At various points along their journey, most writers face these “chattering monkeys.” Clearly, Robert made the right decision because since joining the group he has made a lot of made friends and completed an MA in English and Creative Writing. Everyone who wrote to me reported that joining a writing community boosted their self-confidence. As Maureen Fielding, a member of a group in Lansdowne, said, "Participating in the group and conferences has made me feel more 'legitimate.' That is, I don't have that sense of not being a 'real' writer just because I didn't get my novel published." Maureen has published several poems, and Christine DiJulia, a member of the same group and others, said, "Hearing others' challenges to write and publish, and more so, learning that their work was accepted for publication is inspiration to continue on."
If finding a community plays such an important role in boosting writers’ self-confidence, what is it, exactly, that happens in a healthy group that facilitates these experiences? Several people who responded to my questions said they had joined a group or found a workshop during a transitional period in their lives, either going through voluntary and involuntary career changes or hitting a rough spot in their lives when they needed to take stock and shift directions. I was moved by Vicki Marklew's account of what happened when she first took a Tuesday Night Writers session with The Philadelphia Writers’ Workshop (PWW). Her experience so closely echoed my own as a new participant in Alison Hick’s workshop in Havertown. Vicki said, "The first couple of weeks were terrifying – everyone could spin such gorgeous phrases and ideas out of the ether, while I felt like a wordless lump…" Vicki continued to describe her first workshop with a word I hesitated to use without corroborating sources. She said, "Then something magical happened—a prompt that triggered an image, and suddenly I was reading my words out loud to 12 near-strangers who were all laughing gleefully. It was a truly life-changing moment. I drove home feeling exhilarated, energized, and bursting with ideas. It honestly felt like a dam had burst, and I started to see the world, and myself, in a new light."
Vicki's story confirmed that even more than providing a time and place for all things writing-related, something magical happens when the presence of the other people and their collective positive energy allows the writer in each of us to emerge. As another PWW alumna, Heather Emens Rudalavage wrote, "…I found the most supportive group of adults I have ever known. Even when my own harsh inner critic is telling me my writing is terrible, this group magically finds the gem in the rough. Their kindness has brought me to tears on more than one occasion." Heather's words revealed another component of writing together that makes the experience seem magical: compassion. When a writer receives feedback that buoys their confidence, the actual magic comes from how the group’s positive energy allows the hidden writer in each person to emerge. As other writers in the group respond with empathy and compassion, each member of the group becomes less critical of their own writing and of themselves.
On the other end of the spectrum, receiving inappropriate, destructive feedback can easily shut us down. Rosalind Kaplan with whom I had the pleasure of writing in Alison Hick’s workshop, had shown her manuscript to one person she respected who dismissed it outright. She put the manuscript in a drawer until years later when we encouraged her to keep working on it. Eventually, she found an agent and published her memoir, The Patient in the White Coat, her riveting story of being a physician who contracted Hepatitis C from an accidental needle stick while working during a period when the disease was incurable and carried a considerable stigma.
Reading and hearing others’ writing plays an equally vital role in this cycle of expanding kindness. In The Atlantic magazine article “The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling," Dan Dilistraty wrote, "Storytelling, especially in novels, allows people to peek into someone's conscience to see how other people think. This can affirm our own beliefs and perceptions, but more often, it challenges them. Psychology researcher Dan Johnson recently published a study in Basic and Applied Social Psychology that found reading fiction significantly increased empathy towards others, especially people the readers initially perceived as "outsiders" (e.g. foreigners, people of a different race, skin color, or religion)." While participants in local groups do not exclusively write fiction, my observations and the responses to my questions confirm Johnson's finding that reading stories develops empathy toward others. The live, interactive quality of these groups encourages writers to stretch such that they and their writing gain a deeper understanding of "outsiders" experiences. As another PWW participant Eric Jacobs wrote, the people in the workshop have "…unique points of view far different from my own. For example, recently, one of the writers in the group, when critiquing my writing, commented that my description of a woman in a fiction story as "classically beautiful" was a real turnoff. This was great feedback and something that I would likely have not discovered on my own." Based on what he learned, Eric went back to make revisions with energy and enthusiasm. Like many others from all of the local writers' groups, several of his revised stories have been published.
Whether a writer's work is published or shared only with their writers' community, several sources, including the article in The Atlantic confirm that telling stories helps the storyteller and the reader understand their own lives. Nick Pipitone, a PWW alumnus and founder of a Meetup group called “DelcoWriters” said being in workshops and writing communities "…has also made me more humble and realistic about my own writing abilities. It made me realize that there are so many of out there with dreams and aspirations, and the real goal of writing for me has become to share a story that may inspire someone or make them think. So, in other words, it has made writing less of an ego-feeding thing for me, and more about sharing a part of myself with others. Being in workshops and communities is so fun because you get to meet so many talented people from different walks of life and you get a little glimpse into their inner selves by what they share with the group."
As writers learn from their group leaders how to give and receive useful feedback, they are, essentially, learning how to feel and express empathy. In turn, this empathy strengthens our emotional resilience by helping us develop strong interpersonal relationships. As Robert Wright wrote, "I have received a number of blessings meeting writers through the group: camaraderie, friends, sounding boards and honesty." At some point, all writers have to sit down in front of their laptops and tap out hundreds or thousands of words, revise, edit, and dare to show our work to someone. I'm confident that even the solitary writers with duck ponds who write every day and persist despite a plethora of literary disappointments have a date circled on their calendar marking the next meeting of their writers' group.
Rachel Kobin has over twenty years of experience writing in a variety of professional settings. She founded The Philadelphia Writers Workshop in 2011 and continues to lead creative writing workshops at The Resiliency Center. She works with writers privately as a coach and editor to help them make their final drafts as brilliant as their original ideas.