Thursday, 28 July 2011

The power of nurture

A billion realisations are running through my brain, and I think I need to share them; I’ve been trying but failing for some time to articulate something that feels really important to me . . .

When I set up Sapphist Writers, I had a very specific vision, and I think I’ve recently discounted my own voice and the power of that vision. Sapphist Writers was supposed to be something different, and its way of being, even though fluid and influenced by all its members had at its heart an important identity – part of which was not to be like other writer’s groups.

I’ve had a number of conversations recently, trying to get across something of what that original intention was, but I was struggling to articulate it. I spoke of wanting the group to be nurturing and supportive, but the counterpoint was ‘yes, but is that really any use to us in developing our writing?’

I realised that for such a long time I’ve been getting massive amounts of feedback on my writing from various other sources – from beta readers, from fellow members of my writer’s course, from tutors, from a particularly insightful partner, and even from other individual group members, so what was it in me that resisted the idea that the group as a whole needed to be more focussed on critiquing – that somehow without this, we aren’t sufficiently ‘developed’ as a group?

When I started the group I did extensive research, I had discovered that most successful writers discourage the joining of writers groups, and so part of what I wanted was not to be like those groups. How could feedback be more helpful? What is it we really need as writers? My attempts to express this have been woolly, and have left my fellow writers thinking I’m scared of feedback or wanting us all to “play nice”.

Then today I was talking about writing as something deeply personal rather than abstract, and I finally understood. Creative writing cannot be simply an intellectual exercise – we really do put a part of ourselves into our writing and it really is us that we’re putting ‘out there’ when we share our work. These parts of ourselves need, above all, nurturing and feeding.

My instinctive desire to create a space where women could come together and feel nurtured and free of judgement was spot on, because I know as a counsellor we only grow if we don’t constantly hit against other’s inhibiting conditions of worth. In counselling, many believe the safe space and the good relationship are necessary and sufficient for growth, and I’m not so sure things aren’t the same for writers, which is why so many successful writers try to discourage people from joining groups; an over-zealous group can quickly inhibit a burgeoning writer. As humans we tend to fall into the idea that to control and guide people is more essential than to nurture and love them, but this probably isn’t the case.

Recently somebody said to me ‘telling me my poem’s wonderful is useless to me’ and so it is. But telling somebody what’s really good about the way they write is probably a million times more valuable than telling them what’s wrong with it, because as we’re always being told, energy flows where attention goes, and who wants the focus of their work to be on what they do wrong? That’s not to say critical feedback doesn’t have its use or its place, but I guess for me, I’d unnecessarily come to feel the group I’d created was somehow lacking because this had not been the main focus or purpose of its meetings. Now I think differently – in a world where we’re constantly being bombarded with messages of how to be better, I finally see the immense power of a space that says we’re wonderful just as we are. In fact, that may very well be the scariest and most challenging feedback of all.

Sapphist Writers are wonderful just as they are and I’m finally realising my original vision was a worthwhile one, and worth preserving. And with this realisation comes profound love and respect for all the Sapphist Writers, past and present, who have touched my life so deeply.


  1. That was beautifully expressed Sandy and captures so much of what I value about our group. Since I have been part of Sapphist Writers I have felt held and heard by some wonderful souls. What I value so much is being able to share our words without having to have a shared aim for what happens to those words out in the world. I'm in awe of those of you who are able to write in such a way that allows you to be published but that isn't something that I see as a goal for my writing at this point. I love the way that I can open up by reading something that came from inside me, and to feel that it has been accepted by the group. Thank you fellow writers xox

  2. I've thought and thought about this. I've been on both sides of the fence, and well and truly on the fence. I am a serious writer, with publication as a goal. I'm well aware that part of that involves accepting constructive criticism. But I'm also very aware that writing is a personal and emotional process that requires a safe space to find expression. Yes, writing well is a technical discipline, but it's also creative and involves the heart as well as the mind.
    All writers are different. For some public workshopping is useful and crucial. For others, like me, it's hard to deal with. Personally, I wouldn't join a formal writing workshop, where the emphasis was on critique. I suppose, from the start, I've seen Sapphist Writers more as a space where women come together to experiment with words, to talk about words, to love words. In so many different ways.
    The differences are crucial. We're all so different--and write so many different things--that I actually don't feel we can be a very effective workshop. I can't critique a poem to save my life. But I can appreciate it when it's shared with me.
    So, honestly, I think we maybe need to seperate the different functions of our group. Maybe even have seperate meetings. There is the safe, creative, social space, an accepting group where we experiment with words, free writing and discussing informally. And there is the more technical writing workshop.
    Maybe we can do both. But I think we have to accept that both aren't suitable for everyone. And that's fine. I think we can all use the wonderful connections this group gives us to get what we want from it. Without being worried about what is "correct" for a writers' group.
    So thank you, Sandy, for expressing this. I'm interested to see what everyone else thinks! :-)

  3. Personally, I value both constructive feedback and the space to freewrite my socks off! I use the group as a catalyst for my work. Ideas come out of what we have shared, and I tend to take my writings home as snippets to be worked on at some time in the future. I love hearing other women's work, the polished and the raw, and I'm happy to give feedback when requested, though it will rarely be overly technical. Having been put off writing for over ten years after sharing some of my works with a poetry group and getting damning feedback because it dealt with hard emotional subjects, I value being able to write difficult themed work and not have it thrown back at me with rash comments. I think our women's writing space is a precious one and value everyone within it.

  4. I suppose it all comes down to what you want from a writing group--a place to simply enjoy the flow of creativity and the friendship around you, or a place that pushes you hard with the goal of publication at the end of a piece.

    As an editor, I know you can not publish without constructive feedback--NOT negative feedback, but constructive. No writer is perfect or writes the perfect piece without years and years of feedback and work on their craft.

    But if your goal is to simply enjoy writing, without worrying about the end result, then constructive feedback isn't as important.

    And if this group is about nurturing and simply the enjoyment of putting down words, then that's lovely.

    I do feel the need to say this: as a writer who wants to publish, you must have a thick skin, because NO writing is wonderful and perfect from the outset. You must be able to listen and accept that you have too many gerunds/adjectives/clauses or that your characters aren't perhaps coming across in the way you want them to. And wouldn't you rather know that than have people simply pat you on the back and tell you how wonderful it all is, even if that isn't true?

    I am hard on the authors I edit because I want their stories, their creations, to be the absolute best they can be before they go to print. And in that way, their writing just gets better and better.

    Nurturing and positivity are without question wonderful, but so is the kind of feedback that allows you to make the changes that make your writing stronger.

    In my opinion, of course.

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  6. Hi Vic I completely agree with what you're saying, but it doesn't conflict with the point I'm making at all, it's not about not wanting feedback, it's about wanting that in the right space at the right time and in the right way. As Rebecca points out more eloquently than me, novel writing is very different from poetry, and it's hard enough to merge the expertise of critiquing poetry, novel-writing, blog and short story writing let alone add to that that we appreciate different genres and may have different takes on what good writing actually is.
    One of the important things I do as a writer is go to a book group and regularly listen to readers tearing apart “great” writers, it’s a wonderful exercise in perspective!

    There is more than one way to skin a cat, as they say, and I hope that our own individual journeys as writers are all valid, and we all hopefully know what’s best for ourselves and what meshes with our own writing style, genre, and personal psychology.

    Sapphist Writers is a very general group, it was always intended as an opportunity to connect, explore and network. Although all that stuff about being thick-skinned is what we think makes us better as writers, I believe indulging our creativity and “playing” are equally important. I could also cite a number of famous authors who say that critiquing from writers groups is of dubious value. Sapphist Writers was also always intended to be there for all writers, not just those hell-bent on publication.

  7. Bloody hell! I just wrote a whole rambling response, but somehow it got lost. I can't do it again just now, but interested to see where the discussion goes. And fully supportive of where it's gone so far. x