What do you call a writer without readers?

I wish I had a wonderful punchline to follow that set-up with; but I’m kind of terrible with jokes. Punchlines on a postcard, please.

The relevance of this non-joke is, I suppose, that before last September the audience for the fiction written in my adulthood was painfully small. I’d taken a creative writing class when I was nineteen which left me feeling completely deflated. My mum had very sweetly read one or two stories which she never failed to find  at least something to good to say. An ex-boyfriend was over the top in his praise of my very meagre skills. And that was about it. I was a writer without readers, stuck in the writing equivalent of mumbling incoherently to myself, never making eye contact with others.

Something quite evidently had to change if I was going to be serious about writing, and so early on in the semester I went reluctantly along to the first social of the young writers society at the university where I’d just started my masters. I say reluctantly because 1) I’m incredibly shy 2) I’d been to creative writing groups before without a whole bunch of success and 3) because I was already getting a bit drunk with my new course mates and wondered if it was a good idea to go and meet even more strangers in my half-inibreation…

Rocking up reeking of cider turned out to be the best decision I made all year: in amongst some very awkward conversations with people I’ve never seen since, I somehow struck gold and got chatting to some people who weren’t poetry fanatics (poetry….. I just don’t get it), and were also kind of bummed at how poetry focussed the society appeared but were seriously committed to forming a prose critique group. (I think I should also mention these guys were a total blast and really funny, not just total lit geeks. Though they are that too).

Out of those first over-enthusiastic conversations in a Bloomsbury pub was born the the little splinter group of writers which has formed the main focus of my attention and social life for the past nine months. In all honesty, I’ve probably ended up learning more from the people I met in prose group than I did on my masters course (which really raises some interesting questions about the benefits of paying six grand for a very expensive piece of paper, but then that’s another post…)

Through prose group, I’ve met some amazingly talented and interesting people this year. I think the thing that is most special about each of them is that, in their own way, they take what they do incredibly seriously. They don’t think being a writer is something to laugh about, or be ashamed of, and they don’t feel the need to put themselves down for having a dream. They’re confident and upfront and ballsy: and what’s more they treat the writing of others with the same gravity with which they treat their own. Finding people who are willing to carefully read your stories not once but two, three, four times, to spend the time annotating your text, to really think about what it is you want to say – these are the readers every novice writer dreams of.

And it isn’t only the critiques of my stories that have proved incredibly useful – the very act of critiquing the work of other people is actually incredibly instructive. Each meeting I started to see where stories really worked, and where they sometimes failed: lessons that you start feeding into your own writing. At the end of every prose group I became impressed by the beautiful sentences and super cool ideas my friends were coming out with: after every single meeting I left with an urge to start writing something new. Even though their skill and talent was at times intimidating, I feel really lucky to have been surrounded by people creating such fantastic work.

I firmly believe that you’re lucky in life if you find one person who feels like a kindred spirit in any given situation: this year I found at least seven. It has been one of those strange, magical constellations of people coming together in the right time and the right place: rare and ephemeral, and (to sound completely melodramatic) life-changing. And now? The school year’s over, my master’s is almost at an end, and many of this little tight knit group are poised to disperse. We had our last meeting, we had drinks to send off one of our number, and now we’re done. I feel incredibly sad, and incredibly grateful, and a little bit like it’s time to find out where all those other (potentially scarier, harder to win over) readers are hiding. But I could have never even contemplated going looking if it wasn’t for Prose Group 2011-2.

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