When we start writing, we often do so in a more or less conscious imitation of a writer we admire. For some of us it’s because we’ve read everything that writer has written (and if they’ve died, everything that will be published by them) and we want more, so our only option is to try and produce a simulacrum of their work with our own imaginations. That’s what slash/fan fic came out of: the boiling desire to have more of something that had ended or migrated to a new place. Some Star Trek fans want only Spock and Kirk, no other captain and first officer will do, so they write (and act out, and film) their own episodes. Some Dickens fans must know what the Mystery was that Edwin Drood was to be the hero of, had Dickens not died after episode six of the eponymous twelve-part story, so they write the second half themselves.
And many of us move on. From slavish imitation we move to unconscious imitation. More of ‘us’ gets through, but more of other influences does too. Sometimes this looks like maturity, but it is still a stage of groping after our own voice, our own vision, even our own map of the world we want to write about. We’re grabbing at bits of other maps, fragments of other pictures, echoes of other voices because we admire them and want to take those directions ourselves.
The final stage comes when you leave all those other voices, visions and maps behind and move into a territory that is purely your own. What makes this part frustrating is that it becomes much more difficult to talk about, and less robust than either of the other two stages. If you’ve been channelling Reginald Hill or E M Forster, you have a sense of where to start and finish. When there’s only you to set the direction, work fades into a grey mist in the impossible future of ‘the end’ and you have no idea how to get there or even which way to start travelling.
That’s where a long-established writer’s group can be so useful. Even if they don’t know your territory, they know you, and that allows them to support, critique, observe and challenge your writing, even when you yourself can’t find the words to encapsulate your novel or describe your play in progress. And in holding you to account on a regular basis, they can stop you getting lost in uncharted territory.
It doesn’t have to be a physical group, although that can be good. My online writing groups have been the greatest support I’ve had, and I still always run my work by one particular writer (she knows who she is) because she’s my toughest critic and the person who most ‘gets’ my writing – sometimes she gets it even when I don’t!