No matter how well planned and organized any group activity is, it’s got a potential failure point in each of its members. This is as much true of writing groups as it is of high school biology lab partners. Every human being — you or me or that person over there in the corner — has the ability to be an absolute pain in the backside should we want to. Sometimes we can manage it even when we don’t want to.
On that note, we’ll continue our discussion about writing and critique groups, and specifically the subtopic of troubleshooting issues therein, with…
Problem: One Bad Apple
When it becomes clear that one toxic member is cutting into your enjoyment of a writing group, what do you do? You can leave the group. Writing groups in Boulder aren’t exactly scarce, as we’ve seen in previous posts. But it would be a shame to lose what’s otherwise a fantastically useful experience just because of one person being difficult. What you need is a strategy for maintaining your pleasant group affiliation despite the bad apple — and for determining when it really is time to leave.
Being both fallible and possessed of free will, individual members can cause their groups all different sorts of problems. Some people are problematic in ways specific to writing groups. Others are just painful to interact with. Exhaustively cataloging each kind of problem an individual can cause isn’t really useful. The point is to figure out how to deal with it.
The main thing is to identify the conflict as precisely as you can, then identify which elements of the conflict you can reasonably exert control over. Finally, decide how much you benefit from participating in the group, and how much of that you’re willing to give up in exchange for minimizing contact with the toxic person. Strategies will range from gritting your teeth, to opting out of particular activities, to negotiating with the problem member, to conferencing with other members, to leaving the group entirely.
Needless to say, you are the best person to decide what strategy or strategies to employ in your situation. But in making that decision, consider the following factors:
When does the problem occur?
The easiest problems to deal with are those which occur only in certain contexts. If you can isolate the problem to a particular situation, you can then minimize the impact of that situation.
For instance, if you consider one member a “bad apple” because they’re distinctly unrewarding to critique, consider not attending group meetings when that person’s manuscript is up for discussion. You have less control over the situation if it’s the way they give critiques that’s toxic to you. You can’t tell them to stay home or stay silent during sessions featuring your manuscript; that would make you a total jerk. But maybe you can quietly arrange with the group facilitator for the problem member to take an early turn in the critique rotation, so as to allow other members’ critiques wash the nasty taste out of your mouth. Or a late turn, if the destructive critique has a tendency to set the tone. And if sitting through their five minutes is completely unbearable, you might ask for written-only critiques from time to time.
Similarly, if your problem is a member with whom you’ve simply got a case of personality clash, try to arrive at group towards the end of the chit-chat period (or leave before it begins). That is, if it’s worth it for you to miss out on the chit-chat yourself. Otherwise, if your group is large enough that it naturally breaks off into several simultaneous conversations, maybe it’s possible to just not to be in the one that your nemesis is participating in.
Which member is causing the problem?
You ability to avoid frustration will vary depending on the position, hierarchically speaking, of the member you’re in conflict with. If they’re just another regular member like you, you have options. You can avoid them as best you can (see above). You can ask the group facilitator or organizer for their opinion on the matter and see if they can help you. Depending on the situation, it might be appropriate for them to talk to the problem member directly. They might also try reiterating the relevant group conduct guidelines to everyone at next session if they prefer a non-finger-pointing approach.
If the group doesn’t have anyone specifically in charge of conflict resolution, try sounding out other group members. You might be surprised to find that you’re not the only person with this problem. If several other members back you up when you complain — or if they take turns bringing the complaint to the problematic member’s attention — then that gives your nemesis less room to dismiss this as being just your problem. If nothing else, having sympathetic friends to gripe to in private can make it easier to endure the problematic member’s quirks during meetings.
If the person you’re in conflict with is the group facilitator, things will be tougher, no lie. They have the power to set the tone and enforce conformity of conduct. I’d suggest, once again, talking with other members first. This can help you find out whether you’re the only one experiencing conflicts of this sort. Other members can also help you assess whether bringing your concerns to the facilitator is in fact a safe move. A childhood of watching After-School Specials would suggest that the facilitator will say, “Oh, I didn’t know that was bugging you; I’m sorry,” and genuinely try to resolve their conflict with you. But it’s equally possible they might say, “Don’t like it? Tough!” and then make things worse just to get the point across. Life isn’t an After-School Special.
The good news is, you don’t have to put up with poor treatment from someone in a position of power in order to improve your writing. You’ve got the whole internet in addition to all the writing resources of Boulder to choose from. If your group’s facilitator is the author of your current woes, take heart in knowing they’re not the sole gatekeeper of writing knowledge!
Is there more than one member causing the problem?
Sometimes, the problem isn’t one bad apple. It just looks like one bad apple, or maybe it only started as one bad apple — in any case, the whole bushel of fruit has gone bad. The problematic person has supporters. They’re a ringleader, not an exception. If that’s the case, there may be very little about the conflict you can hope to change in your favor. You may need to choose between suffering through it or finding a different group.
You have the right to walk away.
When the tone of a group goes bad for you, it can sap all the joy out of writing. It can even make you feel unsafe. Please don’t let anyone tell you that leaving such a group means you’ve “given up” or “failed” or “let them win.” You are not obligated to stay in a group that’s making you miserable. In fact, you have the inalienable right to do what it takes — and decide for yourself what it takes — to keep yourself safe. Hang on to your love of writing and don’t let anyone ruin it for you.