During the final editing phase of my debut collection of fiction, Broken Rules and Other Stories, I decided to discuss a last-minute change of some character names with my partner while we were washing up after dinner. I described ways in which these changes might enhance links between the stories, and he listened quietly as he dried the dishes. Additional complexities emerged as I talked. I rinsed suds from the final plate and passed it across, asking what he thought. He looked drained, as if hoping for the ground to open up and swallow him. ‘I think you should talk to your writing group,’ he said.
And that’s often how it is. Talk to your writing group. For almost fifteen years Elwood Writers has been talking at length about our writing. We didn’t know each other at all before the group, and with disparate histories and interests outside writing it’s unlikely we’d have otherwise met. Two of us were born outside Australia. I grew up in the working-class communities of Liverpool, in England. We all currently live in Victoria, though not all in Melbourne – one lives in the country. We work across various forms of fiction, memoir, and poetry, and our individual approaches to writing are as different as the themes that occupy us. Our set-up works well; differences are a strength, offering new and varied perspectives.
Writers groups aren’t for everyone. I’ve met writers who are sceptical, wary, even hostile to the idea. Some prefer not to share work until it’s finished. And many writers groups morph into therapy, social or book groups, or fizzle out after just a few get-togethers. So what’s the key to our longevity? What compels us to make room for fortnightly workshops, regardless of what else is occurring in our lives?
One of the secrets is that the four of us happily invite honest examination. We see peer feedback as a valuable element in a rigorous review process. We’re not after pats on the back, but rather want to know what isn’t working in a piece. I can be confident that any work I present to the group will be put through a mill of diverse experiences. If I’m not inclined to change anything in light of the feedback, then at least I’m aware of potential comments or queries that might be raised in the future – by editors, say – and will be ready to address them. In the end, though, observations are subjective, and suggestions just that.
Discussion is the main draw for me. I really enjoy talking shop in a dedicated and patient space. The group is open-minded and enthusiastic, and its wisdom is greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve used my individual time in meetings for anything from reading aloud an experimental story extract to trying to articulate a chewy issue in a funding application, or even for venting frustrations with aspects of the literary industry. We share intelligence on things like where to send a finished story or poem. Has the creative concept in a grant application been simply and clearly described? The journey towards solutions can be as much fun as reaching them.
It’s been suggested that I don’t need the group. And it’s true that I’m not a joiner. But I acknowledge that keeping only the company of the imagined and made-up can become slightly untethering after a while. The fortnightly meetings are a check-in, a way of making sure I haven’t flown completely out of the airspace. But sometimes I crave time away, for a few months, to lose myself all over again. I’m the only member who’s ever asked for a break from the meetings. But a return date is always marked on the calendar, and I’m always excited to come back.
When I was first developing my collection, I’d outline stories and ideas to friends and other writers, and I’d often hear, ‘Have you run this by anyone? A mentor, for example?’ Concerned I’d gone too rogue, I spent ages wondering how and where to find this elusive mentor. I eventually realised a mentor had been present all along in the group.
Elwood Writers noticed a linking sensibility in many of the pieces and extracts I’d presented in our meetings. ‘It seems to be the same main character throughout,’ they’d say. The group was the first to suggest assembling a linked suite of stories. Focussing on that character thread lent the collection the qualities of a novel, a feature picked up by many of the book’s reviewers.
Broken Rules and Other Stories was shortlisted in this year’s Queensland Literary Awards, and the group members watched the live stream of the awards ceremony, cheering me on. We always remind each other of the importance of celebrating successes, while offering an understanding ear for the pains and frustrations of the job. Real listeners are hard to find, so when you do come across them you should hold on.
Another factor in the group’s success is an awareness of the importance of numbers. A recurring dilemma has been around admitting new members. There are pros and cons, and a lot depends on the circumstances at the time. Too many members, and individual time in meetings is compromised; too few, and there aren’t enough fresh and diverse ideas swirling about. Our number has varied. In the beginning we were two, then three for a while. We’ve grown to five a couple of times. It’s always worked out well. For now, four is the magic number, and has been for a few years.
Each year we put in place group projects and goals. We’ve held readings of our work to an audience, most recently at St Kilda Library. Our work regularly features in Vision Australia Radio’s weekly literary program Cover to Cover. We’re currently discussing themes for a brand new program, due next year. We’ve established good relationships with other community radio stations, including MAINfm and 3CR.
Our most ambitious collective project to date has been the production of an anthology of work drawn from the entire time we’ve been meeting. A fascinating process, it occupied the bulk of our meetings for more than a year. But it was all worth it when Every Second Tuesday came to fruition last November. We continue to flourish, and I’m looking forward to our next chapter.
Barry Lee Thompson has been with Elwood Writers since its formation in 2007. He’s also a member of the Alumni Association of Varuna, the National Writers’ House. His short stories are published in Australia, the UK, and the USA, and recognised in awards including the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize and The Age Short Story Award. Barry’s first collection, Broken Rules and Other Stories, is published by Transit Lounge, and supported by Creative Victoria and Varuna. The book was shortlisted for the 2021 University of Southern Queensland Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection. Web: https://barryleethompson.com/ and https://elwoodwriters.com/