The Writers Group at Queens

Where exciting new writers meet to criticise each other’s work

Imagine sitting down to discuss rhyme schemes with the next Seamus Heaney. Or commenting on the latest draft of a short story by a young writer called Bernard MacLaverty. Or worst of all, having the first chapter of the precious novel that you have spent months slaving over dissected by some of the most astute literary brains in Belfast.

This is the sort of thing that happens every week during term-time at the writers’ group at Queen’s University. Open to anyone interested in creative writing, whether it be fiction, poetry, screenplays or theatre work, the group began life in the 1960s. In the early days those attending included Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, under the tutelage of the English poet Philip Hobsbaum.

The group quickly established itself as the perfect place to rehearse ideas and showcase work to an appreciative but critical audience. A writer in residence was introduced to oversee the workshops and lend advice and encouragement to up and coming writers.

Over the years the role has been filled by some of the leading lights in Irish literature including John Hewitt, Medbh McGuckian, Graham Reid, Carol Rumens, Glenn Patterson, Colin Teevan and Daragh Carville. These writers are available not only to the group but also for private consultation.

Sinead Morrissey, a poet originally from Belfast, is also cited as Teaching Assistant for the Seamus Heaney  Poetry Centre at Queen's. She has produced three collections, There Was Fire In Vancouver (1996) and Between Here and There (2002), and The State of the Prisons (2005) .

Winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1990 and short-listed for the 2003 TS Eliot Prize, she says that achieving the right tone with a writers’ group is ‘always a challenge’.

‘Comments should be critical enough to be useful, and yet not critical to the point of being nasty or vengeful. Keeping the discussion focused on the words on the page can be another. I feel very lucky chairing the Queen’s group, however, as these things have, for the most part, been natural to the group anyway.

‘The commentary produced in the course of the group sessions is usually pretty sophisticated, and I think one of the consequences of this is that it sharpens everyone up, even people whose work isn't being directly discussed. Another factor is the quality of work being produced. This has a beneficial effect on everyone as well, and a momentum can be generated – a sort of mysterious momentum – so that work just keeps getting better and better. It’s really exciting to witness.’

The environment encourages people to challenge their own methods, to explore their creativity and take risks. Through rigorous self-examination the writer will hopefully come to learn new skills and think about their work on a deeper level. For Morrissey it is a two-way process:

‘On a personal level I’ve learned an enormous amount from things people have written and said, about craft, and about the process of reading, and about the subjectivity of reader response as well.

‘The group is there as an arena in which people can share what they’ve been doing with other people engaged in the same process, a unique space in which to think very hard about writing for a two-hour stretch. Because it’s diverse, in that people of all ages and backgrounds attend, and in that prose, poetry and drama are all submitted for discussion, it functions as a stimulant to write more and to write better.’

Over the course of a year the result can be a remarkable development in the writing submitted. Students can often find themselves experimenting with different forms and have the benefit of hearing how other writers approach a genre they may be interested in.

According to Alan McClenaghan, a writer who has been attending the group for five years, the creative atmosphere is vital for bolstering confidence.

‘You know people are listening and will offer advice without being hypercritical. You get to hear other people’s work and how you respond to that can make you think about your own stuff …. Over the years I have written two novels and felt really encouraged by the feedback I receive week in week out. I don’t think I would have written half as much if the group hadn’t been available to me.’

In recent years, members of the group to garner critical acclaim have included Joanna Laurens whose Five Gold Rings (2003) was produced at the Almeida theatre in London. The poet Jean Bleakney has produced two well received collections, The Ripple Tank Experiment (1999) and The Poet’s Ivy (2003), and the novelist Jo Baker has published two novels, Offcomer (2002) and The Mermaid’s Child (2004).

Traditionally the end of the term is finished off with a Poems and Pints evening, where the entire group gather to read the work they have been debating to an audience of friends, family and academics. These events are always entertaining and help those who may be nervous to overcome their worries and read their work in public.

The group has also produced a collection of fiction and poetry called The Hauling Songs (2002), which showcased a range of new voices including Baker and Bleakney.

The classes take place every Wednesday term-time at the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre, University Road, Belfast, between 4 and 6pm. Anyone interested in writing is welcome.

Gavin Carville