by Claire Needell
Until this winter, the only time I’d joined anything like a writers group was in fifth grade, and what we had then was more of an informal club.
At age ten, my friends and I blissfully lost their minds writing short stories. We had a teacher known for toughness. But Ms. Daniels was also a word maven, who had us play a raucous version of vocabulary-rich charades every Thursday, and she was a lover and fosterer of creativity, who oversaw our short story share time with the gravitas of PBS host.
Each week, we wrote stories for a massive Friday share time, but a small group of us began circulating our stories in the morning, before class officially began. We’d arrive early and pass our pages around, folded into squares like love notes.
I found in that circle of friends my first real Reader. He wasn’t my crush, and he wasn’t my best friend. He was just a kid who looked forward to reading my work. I got such a charge out of his fandom, I found I’d write anything to please him, even science fiction, a genre I ordinarily avoided even reading. As he smoothed my crumpled papers out over his wooden school desk, I’d await his response with a rapidly beating heart. But I trusted him. If my Reader didn’t love this week’s story, he’d surely admire the next one.
I was hooked, both on writing and on the drug-like euphoria of positive feedback.
Fear of criticism
A curious thing happened after that school year. I hit puberty, and with the changes to my body, came changes to my psyche, and one of those changes was the introduction of nearly paralyzing self-doubt. It was as if my physical self-consciousness had invaded my creative mind, and I began to doubt the worth of nearly everything I wrote. Conversely, my hormone-addled brain required constant fresh transfusions of fiction. I desperately needed books to make sense of day-to-day life, friendship, crushes, and my own self-loathing.
I gave up writing stories, because I needed to read fiction purely, without the ambition to duplicate the kinds of stories I thrived on. I needed stories like I had needed my Reader’s praise. I needed to bind my anxieties to the fiction I read, without the fear of writing work that could never measure up to what “real writers” did.
Writing by myself
Gradually, I sorted out my relationship to fiction, and determined that after more than thirty years as a reader, I’d perhaps learned enough about myself to attempt the process once more. I published a few things but retained an almost superstitious inability to watch anyone read my written words. I worried that any workshops and writers groups could frighten me back into the writing closet.
Then, while writing my third young adult novel, I hit a kind of a wall. I wasn’t blocked exactly. I wrote several days a week, but I was tired.
I was tired of my own thoughts, my own private enthusiasm and my own self-criticism.
I figured if I joined a writers group, at least my critics would have names and lives of their own, and if necessary, I could leave them behind with their Starbucks coffees and their own unanswered ambitions.
I found a group
I felt exposed. I felt vulnerable, much as I did at age ten. Yet I also felt within my group a kind of trust and excitement that reminded me of the schoolyard. We hadn’t come to judge, although we do offer feedback. It’s a group whose primary purpose, though, is play, which is a wonder for a group of middle-aged adults.
We get to be innocent in that we don’t need to know how to solve the problems we create (unlike at the workplace, or even at home). We can admit failure. We can read in quavering, not-ready-for-the-podium voices. It can get rough. Silly. Or deeply serious. Occasionally, there are tears.
As in grade school, it’s about the stories first and last.
What the group reminds me of most often is that the act of creation is not a solo act.
Even when I feel isolated in my work, I can bring my drafts somewhere—there is a place where the real and the imaginary meet, with coffee, and it’s kind of a wonder to have that standing date.
Claire Needell’s latest novel The First True Thing will be available on April 23, 2019. (Order now!) A former middle school English teacher and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Sunday Review, Claire is the author of The Word for Yes, as well as a story collection for HC TeenImpulse called Nothing Real. She lives in Westchester County.