Friday, October 19, 2012

Collaborative Writing

When I was younger, I imagined writers to be Beatrix Potter figures, holed up in country cottages with animals crawling and hopping (though curiously never defecating) over their work. Throughout my teenage years, my ideal authorial figure became the café-bound JK Rowling (aside from my brief flirtation with Ewan McGregor’s absinthe-soaked scribbler from Moulin Rouge - be still my adolescent heart). But whether they reside in mansions or garden sheds, work with quills or Macs, most people’s image of a writer will have at least one thing in common: they are alone.

Ewan McGregor: making writers look
good since 2001
Obviously there are exceptions, especially in screenwriting, but I think it’s fair to say that most writers are solitary sorts. For many, this is one of the best aspects of the profession, and indeed I have often wondered whether I feel compelled to write because I am a huge control freak/megalomaniac, and it’s far easier to get made up people to do what you want than real ones. And of course, two people sitting in front of a computer/notebook/artfully-battered typewriter are always going to take about eight times longer to produce something because everything needs to be discussed (if I sound disparaging here, seriously - try it and get back to me).

So writing – and by that, I mean the actual typing out/inking down of the words - is mainly a solitary activity, agreed? But the thing is, everything around it - the writing process, if you will - really shouldn't be.

During my Creative Writing Masters in Edinburgh we had to attend a weekly workshop where we both presented our own work for feedback and provided feedback for others in the group. It seems strange to think back on it, two writers' groups down the line, but ahead of that first session back in 2007 I was terrified. Before then, although I hadn't been completely secretive about my work, I hadn't always been entirely willing to share it either. In fact, the whole idea of the workshop was so daunting, I even resubmitted the story I had used for my MSc application, figuring that if my tutors had let me on the course, it can't have been that bad.

Unsurprisingly, I quickly relaxed about it all and, over the course of the MSc, came to learn that giving and receiving feedback was not only very useful, it could even be enjoyable. Sharing the burden of a story is actually a huge relief, and trusted readers can offer a completely different perspective on a tale that has, until very recently, only existed in your head: This idea works, but needs expanding on. That minor character is really interesting - why not give her more to do? If you tone down the description here, it'll make the image more effective. And so on.

I'll save the debate on how useful doing a Masters in Creative Writing is for another day, but I don't think there's any doubt that the workshop experience was invaluable. It inspired me to start my Edinburgh writers' group, WOW (Writers on Wine), which threw booze into the mix, thus making the whole feedback process far easier - and more likely to descend into giggles. In turn, WOW's success prompted me to start my Geneva writers' group, which is currently in its fledgling stages...

So, in summary: writing alone in a garret without surfacing for company is all well and romantic (thanks, Ewan!) but I'm not sure how helpful it is, creatively. Perhaps it doesn't need to be through anything as official as a workshop, but I've found entrusting respected, writerly friends with my initial ideas, my first drafts, my eighth drafts (and having them trust me with their writing in return) is not only far more useful than doing it alone - it's far more fun too.

WOW: Lizzie, Cheryl, Hannah, Cat and me
(don't judge, it was our Christmas meeting)

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