Taking risks and being brave, isn’t that what writing’s all about?

by Jo, founder of Writers of Whitstable

It was winter 2012 and I was a lonely screenwriter new to town. I’d tried a paid-for writing course at the Horsebridge Centre, but meeting on a Sunday was tricky with a family, and it was pitched at beginner writers. I wanted a simple writing group where friendly writers would read my work, and let me know how I might improve a story in the next draft. There wasn’t any group like that around. Should I start one?

No, I thought to myself. I’m shy and this would take leadership.

No, I told myself. No one would come and I’d feel like a failure.

No, I told my husband. It will take lots of organisation and commitment; what if I changed my mind and didn’t want to be doing it a few months down the line?

The idea buzzed around my head and didn’t quite go away. Then one day I realised that a writing group set in Whitstable could be called Writers of Whitstable.

WOW! How could I turn down the opportunity to start something with such an exciting name?!

I listed the group at meetup.com, and I put a postcard in the newsagent’s window. Four writers wanted to try the new group, so soon I was trying my hand at leading meetings.

This was where things went wrong. I’d never led anything in my life. I was the quiet girl at school. I never put my hand up and I never dared venture an opinion. I ran WoW meetings like I was still that little girl. I set vague rules and then I didn’t say anything when people ignored them.

In one meeting someone completely rewrote another writer’s story and handed them a “better” version. This didn’t go down well with the writer in question. She pointed out that she thought she was on the right track already, and there was nearly a fight. The writer has since found an agent , published two books, and had a TV adaption optioned. I think she was on the right track and WoW didn’t help her at all.

In another meeting a writer completely took over, and spent the whole session boasting about how Scorsese wanted to option his screenplay. I still don’t know if this was true, and you’d think I should have worked it out after hearing the details for a full ninety minutes. Most of the writers at that meeting never returned.

It would have been easy to quit and think I didn’t have what it takes to run a writing group. Yet, somehow, I pressed on, changed what I did, tried things. There were clearer rules. I told people what kind of group it was supposed it to be. I ensured the people who attended knew what to expect. And instead of quitting after three months, as I could so easily have done, the group’s still going strong eight years later. It’s led to three spin off groups for novelists, it’s published three anthologies thanks to Lin White, the group’s talented editor; and at least a hundred local writers have tried the group over the years.

The lesson I learned from running WoW is that taking a risk is the very best way to get better at anything. The writers who come to a group like WoW are all taking a risk, putting themselves on the line when they send a piece of writing to other members. That’s just plain brave. They are hoping that everyone will say “that’s just great, it’s perfect.” But most likely someone will say, “I’d love it more if it had a sharper ending.” Or, “I’m not convinced your character would do that.” It’s hard to hear a piece of work needs a second draft, but the writers who listen to feedback and learn from it will be likely to become better writers.

I sometimes tell my children that people have a “bravery muscle.” The more risks you take, the more regularly you put yourself out there, the easier it gets to try new things and not accept stasis and fear. Fear holds you to the spot; being brave moves you onward. As writers we know this, because we write stories about characters overcoming weaknesses and changing. We also have a sense of it because creativity is all about risk.

I’ll give you an example. Imagine writing about a story about a dragon. We might make it green and breathe fire. The writing group members will read that story and say, ‘that’s a fine dragon.’ But what if some brave writer doesn’t want a safe green dragon? He wants a purple dragon that can time travel, and it doesn’t breathe fire, it breathes hope. That’s a risky story, but shouldn’t he dare to try it to see if it works?

I’ve stopped being nervous when I chair a WoW meeting. I don’t mind the organisation. I no longer worry that people won’t come. I know it will go on and on and entertain me. Yet I still feel scared when I wait to hear what people think of my stories. And that’s the thing I thought I wanted, the thing I thought would be easy.

It’s right that it scares me, because daring to fail is part of the writing game. If someone tells me my story has weaknesses then I should tackle them. Just like I tackled being the worst writing group leader the world had seen.

A bravery muscle isn’t a real thing (I hope my kids know this) but my imaginary bravery muscle felt stronger after launching WoW; so I dared to lead a community event. It grew a bit stronger after that, so I launched an education campaign group. I felt I could lift a weightier risk so I published a treasure hunt, launched two writing websites, became vice-chair of governors at a local school, and even got a job where I sometimes speak on TV. That’s not bad for a quiet girl from Leeds. If I ever get time-travelled back to school, I wonder, would I dare to raise my hand?

Maybe that’s a short story idea, and I can add the purple dragon too! I hope I will be brave enough to send that story to my wonderful friends at WoW.