Creating a safe space for writers

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Establishing a safe space for writers to share work is one of the most important things a host must do.

As hosts, we have a responsibility to look after the writers that we receive into our gatherings. Some writers, perhaps many writers, are vulnerable people. For some, writing is a way to deal with a great deal of emotional or physical pain.

Sharing what we have written is not so different to being totally naked.

It is very easy to feel exposed or at least a little nervous when sharing our work. After all, it a very intimate expression of our inner-self set before total strangers. As hosts of events, our job is to make our guests feel safe enough to share.

Creating a safe space for writers should be the objective of all hosts and organisers. I don’t know how it is in all writers groups, but I would like to think that most try to do just that.

Encouragement and support

While members are finding their feet within a group, one of the best things we as hosts can do is try to build up their confidence.

This can mean different things in each situation. It may mean encouraging members to give criticism which includes enthusiastic praise for what was done right, rather than focusing on what needs fixing. It may mean simply thanking a member when they share for the first time and acknowledging that the first time is always hard.

Sometimes all we really need to do is remember what it was like when we were starting out and remembering that we are not all on the same level (and that is perfectly fine).

Setting a good example to create a safe space for writers

As hosts, we often set the tone for an event and should be setting an example of exactly what we would like from other members. That’s not always as easy as it sounds.

For example, there have been times when I have been utterly shattered and a budding writer puts some work in my hand that is, frankly, hard to read. When I am tired I find it harder to concentrate on roughly written work and I find it even more tiring to maintain an even tone with my response.

For me, it is a cop-out to hand it back and simply claim “that was very good”. That’s what your mums is supposed to tell you but writers come to a group for more than that.

No matter how tired I am, or how little interest I have in the manuscript in my hands, I know, as host, that I must keep reading until I can give a mix of praise and a candid yet kind appraisal. I need to give something that the writer can use to further their craft.

Giving everyone a fair share of the time

A fair share of the time is not always the same thing as an equal share of the group’s time but the two are fairly similar. Sometimes it can be helpful to allow one member to occupy more time than any other – so long as it is not the same person each week.

On the other hand, it pays to watch out for “the talker”. I am a person that loves to talk – it’s what helps me overcome my own dyslexia and write anyway – but just as I have had to teach myself to shut up and let others speak there are times when the host needs to call time on a person.

If you ask, I will be the first to admit that when I am excited about a subject I can talk about it for a very long time. I mean seriously, have you seen how long this article is?

However, I have become acutely aware of just how much time I can take up talking about my work, about my thoughts on other people’s work, or my reaction to the latest Star Wars film (don’t get me started unless you love Star Wars too). This is why I write blog posts – so I can talk about topics I love and people who find those topics interesting can read them, we both win. But in a group setting, where time is finite we hosts must be a bit more careful.

Give shy people a chance to shine too

Part of creating your safe space for writers is making sure that strong personalities do not unduly dominate.

The talkers in the group can, without meaning to, deny the shyer members of the group a chance to contribute. In an open mic session this is less of a problem as you probably have set time limits but in a group discussion setting, we hosts need to be mindful of how much time any given member is using up.

The talker is usually someone who seems to love the sound of their own voice, or it can be someone like me who just gets very excited about stuff. As hosts, it can be helpful to have a clock or watch handy. It will not be long before it is clear who the most talkative members are. The trick is in figuring out how to gently bring them to a stop and draw out the other members so everyone can contribute.

We also have another responsibility – dealing with keen contributors that do not know what they are talking about. As hosts, we need to be aware of when bad advice is being offered and be ready to offer alternative views.

I can’t tell you how many times I have found myself saying the words “playing devil’s advocate for a moment…” It is a lot, I know that much.

Of course, this also requires that we ourselves know what we are talking about.

Knowing our craft

When people come to events we host, either as writers and poets or just as interested on-lookers, there is an expectation that we, the host, know what we are talking about.

I am not about to suggest that only experts can be hosts, far from it. Yet we must, I feel, do two very important things in this regard.

  1. Do our best to learn the theory of our craft
  2. Be very honest about our own limits

In fact, of the two tasks, honesty is perhaps the most vital and least easy. Let’s be honest, it takes a certain amount of ego to write things down in the expectation that others will find it worth reading. That same ego can often blind us to our own faults and shortcomings.

It is very easy to think that we know everything, or at least most of everything, even when we are barely more than rank amateurs ourselves.

Keeping egos in check

Just as we must make the effort to keep our ego in check, we may also be called upon to keep other egos from overwhelming the group too. That’s not always easy.

There have been times when that rare combination of strong self-confidence, an admitted talent, and many years of writing arrives along with a prima donna attitude. More often, the prima donna attitude is undeserved. In both cases, it is off-putting and intimidating.

I don’t envy the host who finds themselves faced with the task of keeping a huge ego sufficiently contained that the other members still have space to grow. I am not sure that I even have any particularly helpful advice to offer.

Fortunately, I have found that huge egos are not so common. Unfortunately, in place of a huge ego can come with another problem – the potential to overwhelm and bully.

Protection from bullies

Back in 2013 I started hosting writers workshops in my home. I had very little idea what I was doing. I was simply looking to engage with other writers on a topic that I loved. Surprisingly to me, this was a popular idea. But it was that very popularity that brought with it a harsh lesson.

The harsh lesson arrived in the shape of a charismatic yet dominating man. This guy made every effort to take over and control everything he could. He soon figured out who he could lean on to present his ideas for him.

Suddenly we had secret cliques and conflicts arose. “For the good of the group,” he would say before laying out his “reasonable” demands.

It turns out that just because I am a person who wants nothing more than to share a love of writing and to engage in reciprocal kindness and support not everyone is like that. There are those who, if I am honest, are best described as toxic people.

Dealing with toxic people is hard

Dealing with toxic people is hard. Yet, to maintain a safe space for writers, it is something we must do.

Sometimes toxic people are just people with more than their fair share of needs. In which case, good support can help them become better human beings and a great asset to a group. Others, well, with others the best you can do is wish them well and send them on their way. I can tell you this – it is not an easy decision to make.

If you are unlucky enough to have a covert bully among your attendees, they can do a lot of damage. Damage both to the group dynamics and the well-being of your writers. This can happen before you are even aware there is a bully.

Even once you have realised that there is a toxic person in the group, it can be hard – especially if you are somewhat sensitive – to bring yourself to remove them.

From experience, I can tell you that if you let a toxic person put down roots in your community, they can cause a lot of damage on the way out. I have learned that the hard way.

Being the sort of person who is unwilling to give up on anyone, no matter how hopeless the cause, this was not an easy lesson to learn. I can’t say that I have fully learned it yet but I am trying.

Yet, learn this skill I must. It is a vital skill that must be coaxed into existence, in much the same way a difficult scene must me, for the good of all the members who attend.

Setting some ground rules for a safe space for writers

Most of a host’s responsibilities could be summed up in a set of simple group rules. Those rules may be different for each group but they do exist.

Good rules can be an important part of creating a safe space for writers.

Rules such as “only one piece of work to be read per guest”, can help you be consistent. It helps to be consistent with the way you treat the people who attend. If only because people can learn to trust you when they see you are fair.

The “rules” can focus your attention on the areas that need it. I try to work on a rule of “everyone should be allowed an equal share of the allotted time”.

Work out how much time we have and divide that by the number of people. That is how much time it is fair for a single person to take up.

Rules need not be explicitly stated

It is not always necessary to express the rules, or even draw any attention to them at all. As long as you are consistent with your application of the rules, they will soon become part of the culture of the group.

On more than a few occasions, I have been delighted to hear members telling newcomers about the way we do things. I hear them explaining the rules which I’ve used but never told anyone about. There was no need to explain the rules because I was demonstrating them in the way I was acting.

I have noticed that the group culture is something people generally try and fit in with. Rules are there to be broken, it seems. Group culture, on the other hand, can quickly become set in stone. What that group culture will be is entirely down to you. As host, the way we act towards guests sets the tone.

Over to you

Those of us that host events for writers are doing something truly special. We are giving the community something very valuable. It is not always easy but I think it is always worthwhile.

I am sure there are many other things that we hosts can and maybe should be doing to create a safe space for all writers. What one would you add?

Have you been to an event with a particularly great host? What was it about the host that impressed you the most?

Do you host a writers’ event? What challenges have you faced and how did you tackle them? Have you had to deal with any of these issues? How did you approach them and what was the outcome?

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