Friday, 16 September 2011

Writers' groups: are they worth the money?

Regular Soapbox readers will know that I'm involved with a couple of writers' groups in the York area. Now and then I'm asked to chair meetings at these groups. And just once in a blue moon, somebody comes in who seems to be dead set on causing trouble.

The contentious issue a couple of weeks ago was whether or not a writers' group ought to charge people to attend? The troublesome lady in question left us with the very sniffy comment that she'd "never in her life" been asked to pay to attend a writers' group. I can only assume that the writers' groups she has attended in the past have been informal groups of amateurs meeting to discuss each other's work. Because every single other writers' group I have ever come across has needed an income from somewhere in order to operate.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking the "informal groups of amateurs". I used to attend just such a group, back in the Milton Keynes days. And it was one of the things which made life in Milton Keynes bearable. The welcome and support I got from those four or five people is still something I treasure. The inspiration I got from the (sometimes fiendishly challenging) writing "homework" we were set every month was enough to produce numerous brand-new poems and short stories - some of them prize winners.

Any writer would be lucky to find just such a group. And it's just possible that if you CAN find a group like this, you need never pay to attend a writers' group again.

So why pay?

There are a whole heap of reasons. At the most basic level, it might be that the group can't exist unless it can hire a venue. So those who meet might have to put their hands in their pockets just to meet the costs of room hire. Although this didn't apply to the group which our sniffy lady attended earlier this month, who are lucky enough to get their venue for free, it has applied to several other groups I've known. Bottom line: you don't want to pay, you can't have a public venue. And bear in mind that a lot of public venues aren't exactly what you'd call altruistically minded. York Library now charges a minimum £25 an hour for hiring one of their meeting rooms. No wonder literary groups are deserting the libraries and taking refuge in the pubs instead.

The second thing a writers' group with a bit of finance can do, is get professional speakers in. People who are part of the industry - published authors or poets, agents, publishers - who know how the business of writing works and can offer the benefit of their experience to those who are just starting out. Are we seriously expecting these people to donate their time and energy for free? Writers (and especially poets) are forever banging on about how difficult it is to make a living as a writer. The last thing we should do is begrudge them a little remuneration for the professional services they're able to offer.

A writers' group with money can also run competitions. York Writers, for example, do this two or three times a year. They invite their members to submit poems, short stories and articles, anonymously to a professional external judge. The judge not only chooses a winner but provides a critique for each individual piece submitted, and then comes to a meeting of the group and talks in depth about what they are looking for in a prize-winning piece. Members of the group don't have to pay to enter the competitions; the prize fund and the judge's fee are paid for out of what the group collects from members' subscriptions and money taken on the door at meetings.

There are lots of other reasons why a writers' group might need money. They might want to produce an anthology. Or put an advert in the writing press, seeking new members. They might want to run a public event - a talk from a famous author, or a poetry slam (York Writers actually ran a "short story slam" earlier this year, with a cash prize!). Or they might simply want to show solidarity for an organisation like the National Association of Writers' Groups, which exists to provide resources to connect writers across the UK and support their development as writers.

I don't suppose we will be seeing our sniffy lady again. Which saddens me, in some ways: she had a couple of other criticisms which I think were probably justified, and it would be good to at least let her know that her points were taken on board. But is the fact that the group were asking for money really justification for her rudeness? I don't think so. I think it's more likely that she expected everything to be handed to her on a plate, with no commitment on her part. If that's the case, I hope she is able to find the support that she needs for her writing, somewhere else. But I strongly suspect that if she's serious about writing, she may have to put her hand in her pocket every now and again.