The Hive Mind of Writers

It’s concerning when writers lose sight of their direction.  I’ve seen it time and again, especially in situations in which writers meet in groups.

Over the course of 12 years, I cultivated groups of writers, expressing to them the danger of become too insulated from the “real world,” by which I explained that when groups of writers come together – even if it’s in the name of “bettering their writing” – a certain dynamic occurs nine times out of ten.

I call it ‘hive mind,’ borrowed from psychology, which in turn is borrowed from the insect world.  In short, it’s the collective consciousness that forms whenever like-minded people gather.  In the case of writing groups, those writers who present work that’s not completed (and therefore not firmly set in their mind) or who are not strongly entrenched in their own unique creative process, begin changing their process – and their writing – based on the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt pressure of the group.

In my own writing, I recognized the dynamic almost immediately when I began allowing the ‘hive mind’ to influence the story I presented.  Within a couple months, the original story I’d set out to tell was completely diluted and lost in my mind, and I found I had to box the manuscript until I could gain enough distance from it to start again.  It was really too bad, too, because I was truly excited about the original story.

Over and over, I see this dynamic and insidious mentality derail a writer’s good intentions.  In this last group, the writers I pointed this out to – one of them a university psychology student – even defended his writing when it was painfully obvious that the entire construct of the story was created to “please” the hive mind.

After careful consideration, thought, and insight, I learned that this exact dynamic is what frustrated me with that group…the same group I spent over a decade grooming into what I hoped would be a functioning (as opposed to dysfunctional) writing group.

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.

I had to step down as its facilitator in order to maintain my own integrity, as my critiques had begun to reflect that frustration, and was falling on deaf ears.  Rather than try to wrench navigation of the group away from the hive, I chose to leave and strike out on my own.

Author John Hart, in an interview I did with him last month, stated that he could not allow others to have so much power over his writing.  I tend to agree with that now.

Is it possible to avoid ‘hive mind’ in writing groups?  Can you stop yourself from writing to please the specific others in the group?  I believe it is possible, and in order to do so, you must first become aware of the potential for such a dynamic to exist or to form within the group.  What I recommend now to writers who approach me with this issue is to tell them to only bring finished products to a group, and never one in progress.  Stand strong where your story is concerned and try to get some emotional distance from it before allowing others to see it or offer suggestions.  If you know you are highly suggestible, do not allow others to shove you off course.  It’s your story.  Tell it how you meant to tell it in the first place.  And above all else, remember that you don’t NEED others’ input on your work for it to be good.  Those who harbor insecurities about themselves or their work will always be distracted by others’ suggestions.

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5 thoughts on “The Hive Mind of Writers

  1. I think that this may be a common affliction for all creative types. I participate as a spectator in a few photography critique groups to get a feel for the type of critique offered by the group. I walk away as dissatisfied with the groups that offer flowing praise as I do with the ones that provide a litany of (often unjustified) complaints. I have yet to find a way to get criticism that is worth listening to that wouldn’t poison my progress.

    I know that this sounds haughty of me, but keep in mind—I’ve been at the receiving end of some really good criticism during my college career. It’s the kind of advice that seeks to improve the work and to make it a purer form of what it already is, rather than to bring it in line with the critic’s personal tastes. My personal solution has been to listen to common criticisms of others’ photographs, discard the ones I disagree with, and to use the rest as an internal critique for my work, which always begins with the question, “Am I dissatisfied with this?”

    (Parasitic? Yes! I hope to not need to do this forever.)

    • Samantha,

      As usual, you eloquently bring a finer point to the words and ideas offered. And yes, of course this dynamic applies to many creative endeavors…and as writing is my specialty, I can speak most directly to it. You are much more self-aware than most – and I know this from conversations with you and having seen your amazing work – and see that ‘hive mind’ in action with what you’ve chosen for your creative outlet. I also see this dynamic in coaching musicians (though the ‘hive mind’ becomes the entire world instead of just a few) and artists.

      It’s quite rare to find others who can offer real input that doesn’t stem from ego or personal preference, but a true objective to further the success of the creative. When we’re able to key in to such amazing insight, make those people or that person your mentor IMMEDIATELY.

      But perhaps the strongest point I’m trying to make with this post is to offer a cautionary tale about not losing oneself in the face of existing in the world.

  2. As much as I love the idea of being in a writing group. I stick the something Stephen King said in his book ‘On Writing’. which is; “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” I always feel its essential to get input from others but I also think you shouldn’t let anyone read you WIP until your read for the rewrite.

  3. I have a writer’s group that meets for support, but not critique. Later, I have beta readers for critique of finished manuscripts. This seems to work. My support team doesn’t influence my writing, but simply gives me space to get it done. My beta readers are reading finished work so they are fine-tuning rather than pushing.

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