Group Sects

Article excerpt

" 'WE WILL each write a ghost story,' said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to. There were four of us . . . Have you got a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative. . . On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story. At first I thought but of a few pages - of a short tale, but Shelley urged me to develop the idea. . ."

So, galvanised not by electricity but by the spirit of lively competition, Mary Shelley began what was to become one of the most famous of all novels, Frankenstein (1818). This must be the best known instance of literature arising from a brain-storming session, although, if one considers the oral beginnings of literature, writing groups may be traced back to prehistory. The modern-day writing group was born in the late 1960s, when the first lists of poetry groups were drawn up by the Poetry Society, and the Arvon Foundation was launched by two disillusioned teachers. John Moat and John Fairfax, fed up with the way poetry was handled in schools, set up courses for pupils in an Arts Centre in Devon. Ted Hughes was so impressed by the changes wrought in ordinary 16-year-olds that he donated his Yorkshire house, Lumb Bank, to the cause in 1975. Six months ago, the National Association of Writers' Groups was set up in Tyne & Wear. It has a database of more than 1,000, and that does not include the hundreds of ad hoc groups which can spring up anywhere, at any time.

Yet the notion of creative writing in a group setting has been held in deep suspicion, ridiculed by "real" writers as an activity for deluded, talentless people, an embarrassment to those who strive to produce glittering works painstakingly and in solitude. Michele Roberts attributes this "mystique" about literature to the fact that, until relatively recently, writing was thought of as the domain of the gentleman-with-means: "The solitary genius in the garret is a male myth, as he would undoubtedly have been supported by several unacknowledged women who cooked and ironed." Distrust of groups, she thinks, might also stem from the fact "that a band of women can just start up in the suburbs and learn how to make a book: it's one in the eye for professionalism."

I shared all these negative attitudes when I was first approached in the corridors of the publishing company where I worked, and invited to join a writers' group. While something in me lurched longingly towards the possibility of community and discipline, a larger part shuddered with distaste. Was it my university-EngLit background? Was I an embodiment in modern form of the "gentleman-with-means" elitism? I had in mind writers like Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch. They had done it alone; surely any writer worth her salt would also be able to? Yet, when I looked for it, cynicism was far harder to find than I had imagined.

This may be partly due to that fact that there are now many shining examples of writers, especially women, who have benefited from membership of a group. Pat Barker, whose The Ghost Road won last year's Booker prize, was "discovered" at the Arvon Foundation by course tutor Angela Carter; Michele Roberts (whose Daughters of the House was shortlisted for the Booker in 1993) was herself first published in a volume of short stories, Tales I Tell My Mother (1978, Journeyman), produced by a writing group of ambitious women at a time when "feminism - it's hard for people to believe now - was very sisterly and we really helped each other"; Melissa Benn, whose first novel Public Lives comes out in paperback this year, began seriously writing fiction in a feminist group in the mid-Eighties (by which time, she felt, writing groups were less in vogue than they had been in the previous decade); and Esther Freud, author of Hideous Kinky and Peerless Flats, who joined a writing group when her career as an actress stalled.

Lesley Glaister, who had prepared an almost complete draft of a novel, felt it was time to "move out of secrecy and measure my work against an outside gauge". …