I haven’t ever sought out a writing group, but the invitation felt like precisely the right thing, right now. And as soon as I said yes I realized that for the past two years I’ve unconsciously accepted that after graduation, the natural next phase was solitary, self-motivated writing.
This is false. And while outside feedback is helpful, the real value of this writing group is learning how others talk about their motivations for writing—their challenges, assumptions and chosen subjects. For people who didn’t study creative writing, the act and process of writing plays a wider range of roles.
A co-ed group offers some of the same benefits—discussion, routine and outside perspective—but there are some things that only a women’s writing group can offer. I feel confident that in a co-ed setting much of the subject matter we’ve covered would never be shared. It wouldn’t occur to to me (to us?) to write about the shameful and grotesque as it relates to the personal and especially the sexual. When women write about stupid, hateful or painful things, sharing that work feels (and is) disempowering.
I think, too, we’d hesitate in sharing our process and motivations behind a certain work, and would instead let it stand alone—a performance for interpretation. We wouldn’t undermine a piece by explaining how it emerged from a frustrating argument with our father, just as women don’t like to undermine their physical presentation by revealing how long it takes to shower and get ready in the morning.
Professional women writers are undervalued and ghettoized: that much is simply fact. Most writing by women is shelved in the “by women, for women” section, and those who are recognized as accomplished literary writers are still less reviewed, less read and less awarded than their male counterparts. Ruth Franklin sums up this dynamic:
The problem is that while women read books by male writers about male characters, men tend not to do the reverse. Men’s novels about suburbia (Franzen) are about society; women’s novels about suburbia (Wolitzer) are about women. (source)
I think about that when we share our personal essays in the writing group: half confession and half distanced, sharp observations of society, politics, relationships. And I also think about it when someone brings a brilliant work of short fiction or creative nonfiction essay—this too is “women’s writing,” and I don’t see suburbia or sex anywhere in it.
1. Marginal theory: this is why culture critics are fascinated with Lena Dunham’s Girls: she’s sharing some of the most pathetic and gross parts of womanhood in a public, creative work. Even critics of the show’s racial failings are really critiquing the gross reality Lena Dunham’s demographic—which is very white, very privileged, and isolated from racial diversity or issues.
Further reading, and in my opinion the best essay published in this debate: Roxane Gay’s essay on The Rumpus. Also Ruth Franklin’s original essay in The New Republic, and Meg Wolitzer’s New York Times piece that started the most recent round of debate.