‘Growing Pains’ by Paul Grainger

In a recent editorial on her website ( Diana Hayden observed although she was encouraged to learn that new writers’ groups were being formed all over the UK, she was also disappointed to be notified of a number of closures. I suggest that one of the reasons for the latter is that they succumbed to growing pains. Size matters: whatever organisational tools are in place for an initial 12-member group must be modified to accommodate an increase in membership. A group with which I am associated (to be referred subsequently for ease of identification as ‘my’ group) enjoyed three fruitful years after its formation before entering the doldrums. I shan’t mention the group’s name in order to spare its members unnecessary embarrassment, but will use some of its experiences as examples of things that can go wrong.

1. ‘A harmonious group is a happy group’.

Its leaders, either as individuals or in committee, should endeavour to satisfy the requirements of the whole membership. Inevitably there will be bias towards the more popular creative writing disciplines (short stories and poetry spring to mind) but minor interests such as article- and scriptwriting should also be catered for, and for two reasons. Firstly, to break away from what some people perceive as the boredom of having to listen to end-to-end stories and poems. Secondly, to bring home to those steeped in the production of such things that there are other writing outlets as equally attractive and potentially as remunerative. It is a question of balance or, to put it another way, astutely gauging the ‘tolerance threshold’ of the membership. In ‘my’ group this balance was not achieved, consequently part of the short story and poetry lobby formed a splinter group. They were unhappy because too much emphasis was being placed on minor interests – particularly in reading sessions – leaving insufficient time for serious appraisal of members’ stories and poems. There was a regression to the ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn’t like it’ level of comment that satisifed neither readers nor listeners.

Rule 1: Be aware of members’ interests and produce a programme that, as far as is practicable, takes account of all of them.

2. ’Writers groups attract people from all walks of life’.

This is a truism that can have its consequences. What unites them is a common interest in creative writing. Nowadays, however, we are no longer living in a ‘pen and paper with the typewriter viewed as a luxury’ era. More advanced aids to productivity are readily available: photocopiers, word processors and computers. That is not to say they cannot be accessed by all, but there is such a thing as an ‘economic threshold’. If a group’s leadership, anxious not to be seen to be falling behind in the productivity race, lays too much emphasis on the use of these advanced aids, a culture of ‘haves and have nots’ can be created within a group. Many people, whether or not they have the means to use such technology, are unimpressed by it. Moreover, they are reluctant to attempt to even understand it, let alone bring it into use on an individual basis. ‘My’ group has more than its fair share of ‘have nots’.

Rule 2: Try not to be unduly influenced by new technology, unless an overwhelming majority of the membership is in favour of it.

3. ‘We’ve got to have our own website’.

The temptation of a writers’ circle to promote its activities and exhibit its wares via the internet can prove to be irresistible. It is an example of ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ syndrome. Laudable? Yes. Practicable? Not always. In ‘my’ group a proposition to have a website was carried unaminously because it seemed a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, the majority of the members didn’t appreciate the consequences of the decision, being carried away by the enthusiasm of the initiator. This person did all of the preliminary work: drafted a proposal, applied for a council grant, researched potential website providers and wrote a progress report. The grant application was approved by the local council and a sub-committee was formed from group members and tasked to oversee the project. But there it stranded, for two reasons. Firstly, the initiator’s enthusiasm waned as he saw control of the project slipping away from him. Secondly, the members of the sub-committee had insufficient computer experience and technical knowledge to take the project forward. In the eyes of the membership, the group had made a mistake; it had overreached itself.

Rule 3: Ensure that the group has within it – or has access to – the expertise necessary to maintain a viable website.

4. ’The medium is the message’.

Taking a step back from items 2 and 3 in terms of communication, it is important that members not only talk to each other bit listen as well. There should be dialogue between the leadership and the membership, and between members themselves. Nothing can be worse at a meeting than when members waste valuable reading time (for example) by arguing over trivial points of order on matters that were thought to have been resolved previously. These discussions generally go round in circles (no pun intended) and only firm chairmanship accompanied by strong lines of communication can minimise them. At ‘my’ group the members, despite knowing just how unproductive such discussions can be, allowed a vociferous minority to hijack meetings in order to air its disagreements.

Rule 4: Respect each other’s point of view yes, but also accept that majority decisions are simply that, decisions made by the majority.

All of the above events contributed to the near downfall of ‘my’ group. A total collapse was averted because the membership realised, just in time, that the common denominator – an interest in creative writing – was being threatened by the influences of uncommon aspirations. So it was ‘back to basics’. Don’t allow a similar train of events to manifest itself in your group.

Copyright Paul Grainger – 11 June, 2001

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