Keeping the inspiration going when the course is over

How to avoid “becoming lost, tangled in razor-sharp vines, bogged down in treacherous swamps, or overrun by wild animals.” 

It was a different time. May 2019. We’d been meeting face-to-face at the Faber Writing Academy for almost four months, making our way to the top floor of Allen & Unwin’s offices in Crows Nest each Friday morning to be tutored, guided and encouraged in our writing of true stories by the inimitable Patti Miller. Our time in the course was nearly up, and I was feeling as though a boardwalk was about to disappear from under my feet.

boardwalk  noun – an elevated footpath, walkway, or causeway built with wooden planks

The boardwalk rises up to eight metres above the forest floor and forks in several places, allowing you to explore alternative paths through the lush vegetation while keeping you from becoming lost, tangled in razor-sharp vines, bogged down in treacherous swamps, or overrun by wild animals.

Patti was preparing us well for writing solo. We each had goals for the next month, the next three months, and a timeframe for when we would finish our manuscripts. But I knew I faced particular challenges. I estimated that I had about two weeks of trying to write on my own before that boardwalk vanished and I found myself wandering in the dense, dark forest below, alone and hopelessly lost.

And then, a thought … A True Stories writers’ group!

I began sowing the seed of a post-course writers’ group with my fellow participants and looking for places we could meet. The venue had to be private, so not a café or library corner. Ideally it would have a kitchenette for refreshments. I hoped it would have atmosphere, and perhaps even some green space. I knew I’d found the perfect spot as soon as I saw the Don Bank Museum—a quaint, nineteenth century timber cottage resting in its own peaceful garden, immune to the concrete and busy-ness of surrounding North Sydney. With its period fixtures and furniture, it had atmosphere to spare.

We held our first meeting at the end of June. Last Friday of the month. Nine of us were thrilled to be continuing our memoir journey together. We talked about books we’d read, and ideas we’d come across. We had morning tea. We workshopped each other’s writing. One of us ‘played Patti’ for the group—keeping the timing and comments on track. We completed a writing exercise. We decided to do this again next month.

More than a year later, seven of us are still meeting on the last Friday of the month. We’ve shared the joy of writing, and the tears. The successes and the misses. The way that memoir writing, if you let it, reaches in and pulls out your guts. Forces you to be more honest than you’ve ever had to be.

We’ve survived serious illnesses, relationship breakdown, death in the family, job loss and an unexpected birth (the latter a cause for celebration).

And we’ve survived COVID-19—our beloved Don Bank Museum has been replaced by Zoom, for the time being.

We’ve written and re-written chapters. Some of us who penned our first words during the True Stories course now have nearly completed manuscripts. Our stories have impressed assessors, won residencies, and attracted the attention of agents and publishers. But far more importantly, we’ve all kept writing.

Writers’ groups can be hard. Writerly feelings can be easily bruised. Someone else’s success can be cause for both altruistic celebration and personal despair. But the messages we send to each other after our meetings say everything about how powerful a writers’ group can be if you’re all willing to hang in there together:

  • Friday’s session spurred me on to pick up my pen and start writing again. … Thanks all for this. I was procrastinating and making any excuse I could but now I am writing again. And loving it.
  • It’s fantastic to have this group support, to be able to read what we have written and to hear each other’s feedback. You are all inspirational.
  • … thank you all for your support and for turning up each month. It is hard reliving trauma and difficult life events. But that can also be cathartic. So, thanks for pushing me, giving me that ‘kick up the bum’ and encouraging us all to write.
  • Thanks to you all for being part of our group, and also for reading my work—your time and feedback is so valuable.

A few tips for writers’ group success:

  • Agree on clear guidelines for the group. Put them in writing. Update them as needed.
  • Develop a detailed time schedule to follow during meetings.
  • Make sure there’s someone at each meeting who’ll keep timing and comments on track.
  • Focus on workshopping and discussing writing challenges. Set time aside for talking about books and life, because you’ll do it anyway, and it’s best to keep it contained.
  • Keep writing, but if you have a hiatus one month (or two), turn up anyway. There’s as much to learn from workshopping other people’s writing as there is from having your own workshopped. And you’ll come away with the inspiration you need to keep going. Most importantly, you’ll have a boardwalk.

Glenys McLaughlin, True Stories, 2019