Writers' groups are springing up all over the country. But are they an effective forge for interesting new work, or simply therapy sessions for the sad and unpublishable?
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" '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". For her, the "extremely exciting and valuable intensive plunge" of a five-day, live-in Arvon course provided the chance to do this. There her tutor, Hilary Mantel, encouraged her to finish off what became her first novel, Honour Thy Father. Glaister still benefits, as do many writers, from the intense engagement of the Arvon course - but now as a teacher. This, although exhausting ("from the moment you arrive to when you leave you are talking, eating, meeting"), is both rewarding and a relief from the isolation she normally craves. Conditions are communal and basic, with writers and students cooking together and most bedrooms shared. Such intimacy does put a few people off: Margaret Drabble, for example, won't attend, for lack of a bath of her own.

Esther Freud, on the other hand, had "not produced anything of over two- thirds of a page" and had no desire at all to become a professional writer before she attended a writing course at the City Lit run by Michele Roberts. Having nurtured a life-long ambition to become an actress, Freud found herself "bored while waiting to go on and be a penguin". "I felt there wasn't enough going on in my life, and I signed up for some evening classes - one of which was car maintenance, another of which was writing." Once on the course, she was hooked. "It was so fantastic because you were forced to write. Michele set these short exercises and you know you can't write anything really good in that time so the pressure's off." In a second group, run by Alison Fell, Esther wrote a sustained piece over several months: the germ of her first novel, Hideous Kinky. "After that course there were several people who decided we should meet regularly on Thursday evenings and we actually did meet for about five years - various people came and went but the core stayed, right up until I started writing Peerless Flats." Freud took a new chapter to the group every few months and found that reading aloud was "a really good way of editing your own work. You can hear if it's not working almost immediately."

Freud's group was exceptional among those that I came across in that it sustained itself without a leader (the leaderless group I had joined ended in virtual fisticuffs after only five or six meetings). She put this down to the fact that "there were no egos flying around". Even when she got published, and "didn't need the group any more as I had an editor and publisher" there were, she maintains, no bad feelings: "They all came to my launch party." Everyone I spoke to agreed that it only takes one narcissist to mess things up. "If someone is hogging the situation and only interested in themselves, it becomes impossible to be interested in them and the balance is upset," says Melissa Benn.

Equally disagreeable is the bad or narcissistic teacher. Michele Roberts has witnessed some teachers who "love the whole guru thing, don't put the work in and use the teaching situation simply to show off". Annabel Rodditi, mother and property developer, found one teacher on a course run by Hammersmith council who "was some crappy journalist, a complete jerk who threw chalk at the woman next to me for talking". She was also horrified when a short story she had based on Robert Maxwell was returned with every reference to the protagonist crossed out and replaced by "Annabel's father". Groups can become inhibiting and proscriptive. Melissa Benn grew uncomfortable when her work came back with comments on the margins like "a typical way of looking at women". She felt that her group became as interested in political content as in the use of language and structure. After a while, despite initial enthusiasm, she found reading literary criticism and literature more helpful.

None of the professional writers I talked to still attended, although those suffering from blocks have benefited from the occasional re-encounter. Esther Freud misses her group on occasion, but feels "too self-conscious" now to enjoy it.

Many participants never publish their work, but simply find being in a writing group a stimulating way of spending time. Val Rawson, a retired primary school teacher from Crawley, has attended four different Arvon courses over the years and found them "universally wonderful - it's just fascinating to see how the professionals do it", and especially enjopyed Lumb Bank, where the "pub seemed to stay open till all hours" A different course in Chichester appalled her, however: "full of people with silly ideas about getting published" and taught by a "grotty teacher whom no one had ever heard of".

The people whom I had assumed would be fierce opponents failed me utterly: one by one, they displayed a startling lack of cynicism. Piers Paul Read and Auberon Waugh, for example, had both taught at the Arvon Foundation and had enjoyed it hugely. Waugh's only qualm was that there is far too much stuff being published already. Paul Read asserted that while it was impossible to make a silk purse out of a pig's ear, there was much one could do to get the best out of people. There was one famous, dead opponent, Philip Larkin, who told Douglas Dunn on his arrival as Fellow in Creative Writing at Hull University in 1974, that he was relying on the newcomer "to stamp out that sort of thing". Although Dunn corroborates the story, he insists that Larkin "wasn't being serious". Even Kingsley Amis, when he went as Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing to Princeton University, was "bowled over", contrary to all his expectations, by the quality of writing produced (Memoirs, 1991). Undoubtedly the establishment of the first Creative Writing course in England at the University of East Anglia in 1970, with its star pupil Ian McEwan, has done much to erode the belief that real writers don't use teachers or groups. In recent years, several more University courses have sprung up, at Lancaster, Sheffield and St Andrews.

Perhaps writers don't voice their dislike of groups for fear they would no longer be invited to profit from the notion that you can teach people how to write. Teaching creative writing has, after all, become a handy way to supplement income. The nearest I came to dissent was a comment from A S Byatt, who feels a "great unneed to partake", boarding school life having "finished forever the pleasure of group life". She was also prepared to voice what I felt might secretly be the prejudice of many, that groups were "full of opinionated people who won't read and therefore all say the same thing". Many audiences at readings, she says, are made up of people from groups wanting to know how to get published and asking silly questions like, "if you read, don't you risk losing your originality?" What they don't understand, she argues, is that if they don't read, and gain "a sense of the complexities that other people have already taken on in their writing" they will all write in the same way. "They just sit around bolstering up each others' egos and think they are preserving their voice, when they haven't grasped that writing is a technique to be learnt chiefly from reading."

This view is shared by the more rigorous teachers. The poet Mathew Sweeney, for example, who spent last year as writer-in-residence to the Literature Programme at the Royal Festival Hall, always takes care to set precise exercises on points of technique, and brings along to his classes examples of how others writers - as disparate as Seamus Heaney, Yeats or Jo Shapcott - tackled the same problems. "I used to do a class with Carol Ann Duffy, who always asked 'what have you read?' and if they answered 'nothing', or 'nothing written since the War', she got really angry and said 'how do you hope to be able to write?' "

As far as Sweeney is concerned, a group is about improving technique - and those who aren't up to it had better quit. Otherwise, "what's the point?" Indeed, it is generally felt that poets do benefit greatly from working in groups, for as Douglas Dunn says "the justification for poetry- writing classes is that knowledge of versification is often handed on by word of mouth from older poets to younger ones." In contrast, the novel - Hideous Kinky notwithstanding - is generally felt to be less sustainable in a group situation .

What people do find uncomfortable is not only the thought that many people in groups are simply indulging themselves (Graham Swift asserts that "the notion that 'there's a book in me' is one of the commonest delusions around"), but also the suspicion that many of these meetings are simply unofficial therapy sessions. Michele Roberts puts it most kindly: "Because we all use language every day it's easy to think that you have to write a novel, but that's not always the form your story should take. Some people find they just want to talk, others want to change their lives, and others discover that they do need therapy." These people (mainly women between 40 and 60 who have probably never had a chance to tell their story before), have to be "handled very carefully and in many groups they are just ignored or despised".

There are signs, however, that some groups are acknowledging their unofficial therapeutic function: among Time Out's listings of the many London groups available one recently appeared offering "writing as self-healing".

The popularity of writing courses shows no sign of abating. Arvon's Julie Wheedon feels that redundancy played a part in the increase in attendance at writing courses, and writer/actress Katrin Cartlidge comments: "It's fantastic, really, that in the age of videos and computers you can get all sorts of funny people who choose to sit in a room and read bits of poetry at each other."

Ironically, then, with the publishing industry itself in a state of flux, and with the projection of future book sales fairly dismal, people are putting pen to paper in huge numbers. No bad thing, it seems, as long as group members harbour realistic expectations about what they produce. My advice as a result of researching this article? Be honest with yourself, choose teachers and group members wisely and ruthlessly - oh, and read more: you won't only improve your writing, but you'll also revitalise the industry which could make you ... rich and famous?

! Details of groups and courses can be obtained from:

The National Association of Writers' Groups, Arts Centre, Biddick Lane, Washington, Tyne & Wear, NE38 7AB (0191 416 9751)

The Poetry Society, 22 Betterton St, London WC2H 9BU (0171 240 4810) Arvon Foundation, Totleigh Barton, Sheepwash, Beaworthy, Devon EX21 5NS (01409 231338)

or from regional arts boards.