Sunday, August 30, 2009

Group Motivation

My first semester as an MFA student was extremely difficult. I’ve touched on this before, I know, but I’m thinking about it more and more lately with my husband and some of his colleagues getting ready to begin their first quarter in their creative writing program. Around here anxiety is high, as you can imagine, and so is hope.

There were a number of reasons why that first semester was so hard for me, and a lot of it had to with that obnoxious artist’s ego that had to be completely broken down and smashed into as many tiny pieces as possible to be sure it couldn’t put itself back together. But one of the problems with going through that very necessary ego check is that you don’t feel very motivated to keep at it when you feel like a lousy writer, or when you realize that there are too many writers out there to count just as good as – or better than – you.

I hardly wrote at all my first semester in grad school, and the few things that I did write I wrote because I had a workshop deadline. I think this is actually quite common at the beginning of a program – and many creative writing students never break out of this funk. They spend their entire three (or two, if you’re an MA student) years only writing when they have to, only when it’s homework, and then they stop writing altogether after they graduate.

If I could go back and do it all over again, I think the key would have been to use that automatic community of writers that I got to be a part of to my (and their) advantage. This past week Damien and I had a little writing party at our house. We invited some people we’ve met so far from Damien’s program and then we did two half our writing sessions, each starting with a separate prompt. In between sessions we ate, drank, and were merry, as they say. It was very successful – a lot of fun and it got us all writing. At the end of the party everybody agreed that we should make a regular thing of it, that even when school is in session something like this would be a great way to keep everybody motivated and generating new ideas.

And all it took was for someone to organize it. Why not you? I have a theory that most people in creative writing programs desperately want to do things like this, but they often feel overwhelmed by school and teaching and everything and so don’t think to start a group themselves. That or they feel like it should be a given in a creative writing program that everybody is motivated to write just by workshop alone, or by knowledge that their thesis will eventually be due, and so they don’t think they need a writing group outside of school. But I think the professors in these programs are just assuming that students are meeting outside of school to write and workshop each others stuff. That the people in charge take it as a given that the program, alone, is not enough.

This sort of group can operate outside of a creative writing program, too. All you need is to find some fellow writers willing to do what they claim they enjoy doing – to write. While this is of course easier in a creative writing program because pretty much everybody that you know is a writer, it’s certainly not impossible in the “real world.” There are writing groups on the internet if you don’t know any other writers personally and you could easily set up a community writing group – just ask your local library and bookstores if you can put flyers up on their bulletin boards and windows. But I think the important thing is that if there isn’t something in place for you to join, you should take the initiative to start it yourself.

Writing is not an automatic function, like breathing, as much as we sometimes pretend that it is. Most serious writers engage themselves in writing communities to keep in practice and keep motivated. Maybe once you’ve got a publishing house that provides you with an editor you’ll be okay on your own, but until then you’re responsible for building or joining your own community. And trust me, it will be worth it.

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