It was a weekly ritual.
I would leave work around six o’clock and drive – usually through rain and darkness – to a supermarket on the outskirts of Stirling, where I would buy a chicken caesar sandwich and a raspberry smoothie (always the same, it was part of the ritual) and sit in my car eating, rain pattering on the roof. Sometimes, I was nervous; other times buzzing, too excited to think straight.
After the sandwich I would drive along cobbled streets in the direction of Stirling castle, getting closer. Park the car and step out (usually into rain and darkness) and walk the final short distance to the Tolbooth.
Part of the excitement was never knowing what awaited me in that room at the top of the stairs – sure, there were the regulars who dispensed wisdom, and occasionally fire – but there were also the wildcards, the wanderers, in off the street to reveal their dreams and secrets.
One evening I walked into the room and there was one such wildcard. He was wearing a peppermint-green shellsuit and sunglasses and rocked in his chair as if thinking about swinging on it. On his feet – crisp white trainers, no socks.
The tutor asked what brought him to Stirling Writers Group.
“I’m looking for someone to write my life story,” he said.
“I was a DJ back in the 90s. Had a number one record. Was a drug addict. Lost it all.”
“Elton John’s hairdresser wanted to have a homosexual affair with me!”
He delivered this line with a note of impatience, as if to say – “I’m not going to reveal all my secrets, but this is a taster of the delights in store when you spend two years ghost-writing my memoir.”
After the tutor gently explained that the writers in the room wrote fiction and poetry, and worked on their own projects, she suggested that perhaps he could consider recording his story on tape, and get someone to type it up?
His face brightened. During the break he disappeared back out into the night, never to be seen again.
The wildcards maybe lasted two or three meetings at most. But the regulars, the trusty worthies, set my life off on a different course.
If you are afflicted with an urge to write, typically it manifests itself in the early stages as an entirely solitary pursuit – something that takes place on your own, behind closed doors, a secretive activity that causes mild embarrassment (overall much like masturbation, according to Stephen King). For the rookies, there can be a delicious thrill in those first forays into writing, heart beating and head spinning as we scrawl or type stories that no-one will ever read or hear.
Some people never leave that first, solitary stage, happy that their only audience is themselves. It stays as a type of therapy; a creative release. But at some point, the solitary writer will at least contemplate moving to Stage Two – sharing their stuff with others.
Typically this involves giving those pages to someone that loves them, usually the worst possible idea. The beloved either gives meaningless feedback – “that’s nice, dear” – or much much worse, attempts a critique, which usually ends in an argument or a sulk. And so the writer retreats back into his or her garret, ego wounded; or maybe decides to venture forth into the unexplored territory of a writers’ group to find out if their beloved was right.
Writers’ groups are not for the faint-hearted. The first time you share your work can be a terrifying experience – watching as the others unfold their print-outs of your novel extract; then your voice trembles as you read your piece aloud; and then the excruciating silence shortly before the feedback begins.
In my ten years of attending writers’ groups I met all kinds of colourful people, and had many unforgettable conversations and debates. In total I attended five different groups – one in Scotland and four in Amsterdam – and certain common themes developed.
For example, I found out that women are generally better writers than men. Even women starting out tend to have that instinctive notion of writing for an audience, of writing for others. Men often come into the group with the expectation that others will discover their genius. In several groups a certain type of male writer showed up – a guy who would confidently critique the work of others for a few weeks, often insightful but sometimes a bit too harsh, until eventually he would bring in some of his own writing. And usually it would be a shock, because after weeks of confidently spouting off, we expected him to be, well… good. And instead he’s reading boomingly from his reheated thriller, with his vision of himself as the hero. And of course, when the other writers stick the boot in to his purple prose, he storms off never to be seen again.
Men also tend to be the worst at listening to feedback. One very nice fellow – who we’d given feedback to before on numerous occasions – read the first chapter of his new novel, which introduced twenty-four characters (we counted). Several of these characters also died in that same first chapter.
Another common type was the promising writer with no confidence, who came to the group, fragile and needing to be delicately handled. Maybe three times I saw it happen – a writer who wrote some quite brilliant stuff, and needed nudged in one direction or another, coached and cuddled, but who would be scared off by an insensitive comment (perhaps by Reheated Thriller Man – see above). The disappointment when they never came back always cut me a little – but soon I would reflect that it was maybe for the best, because every writer needs skin thick as rhino hide.
And now Stage 3 looms – sharing my writing with faceless, anonymous others, with no right to reply. As I inch closer to self-publication (hopefully next weekend) it occurs to me that a different quality of thick skin will be needed. Difficult as it can be to listen to some tough feedback in a writers’ group, at least it is in a controlled environment. The rules of engagement are clear, and policed by the others in the room. If you get tough feedback and everyone within those walls agrees, then it’s a fairly straightforward way of finding out that something needs to change.
Launching an ebook on the world opens it up to all sorts of uncontrollable feedback. Arguably the worst kind of feedback is none at all – you publish a book, tell everyone you know about it, then never hear another peep. And then there are reviews – which, I imagine I will be desperate to get, but terrified of at the same time. Just like the younger version of me sitting in my car all those years ago, rain drumming on the roof, I await this next stage of my writer’s life with a heady mix of exhilaration and trepidation.