At the tail-end of summer 2021, I moved to Paris for my year abroad. The reality of moving countries is that you spend much of the first few weeks exhausted, too busy juggling new friends, old friends, and getting by in another language to dedicate much time to hobbies. For me that included writing. I’d been through dry spells with writing before, but this one felt especially pronounced. In fact, I didn’t write a single word for two months after moving – although it didn’t bother me. Without actually living my life in Paris, I wouldn’t have anything to write about, and if that meant taking a break from writing for a while, then that was okay with me. But even so, I couldn’t imagine living in the city with the world’s most famous literary culture without finding like-minded people to share whatever I would eventually write with.

Enter AWOL Writer’s Group, the result of a quick Google search for “English-language writers groups” one evening. I’d always wanted to join a writers’ group in Cambridge, but I’d never made the time for it – besides, having your work published in a zine and often receiving no feedback is very different from having someone tell you their feedback to your face, and the latter requires a thicker skin which I still needed to develop, but where better to do that than Paris?

“What good would writing be if we all wrote in the same way?”

Not soon after, as the leaves were starting to fall from the plane trees lining the Boulevard de Sébastopol, I walked into Au Chat Noir, an unremarkable bar a brisk bike ride away from where I live in the 5th arrondissement. I didn’t have many expectations, but I had still brought along something I’d written an hour before. The barman directed me downstairs to the basement, my visions of sitting at the bar, drinking wine and discussing what we’d written, were quite quickly dissolved, to be replaced by a dingy, damp smelling basement. But down in that basement, I met a group of around twenty people of every background imaginable. Mums and dads, students, teachers, engineers, part-time poets (and full-time strategy consultants), chefs, scientific researchers, computer programmers, sound designers, actors, directors, hailing from the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, Myanmar, Jamaica, India, Lebanon, Israel, Indonesia… (and the list goes on). The only things that united us were that we wrote in English, and wanted to share our writing.

I felt nervous sharing my work with the group to begin with. Every week I’d arrive holding a few sheets of paper to tentatively offer around. Then someone else in the group would be nominated to read my writing aloud. It initially felt strange, but within a few sessions I’d learned how useful the practice was, since you only understand how your writing is viewed by others when you hear it read aloud by someone else – which is arguably the most important thing to think about when writing something that you want people to read, but it often fails to cross the writer’s mind.

“Friends and family’s opinions often just don’t quite cut it: there are only so many times you can hear 'yeah no it’s good' or 'yeah I liked it'”

Perhaps the most important part of any writers’ group, though, is the feedback given by others to your work. Writing is a famously solitary pursuit, so it’s hard enough to get feedback, let alone honest feedback. Friends and family’s opinions often just don’t quite cut it; there were only so many instances of “yeah no it’s good” or, even better, “yeah I liked it” I could hear from well-meaning friends and family members before I knew that I needed feedback from people who were less afraid of hurting my feelings and understood what things they needed to give feedback on.

Thankfully, holding back was something that the writers weren’t afraid of, although responses could be bracingly blunt. I found that within a few weeks, the feedback was helping me to figure out my personal style. Before, I’d often felt as though I was trying to imitate other writers I admired, but the more feedback I received – both good and bad – the more emboldened I became to write exactly as I wanted to, without worrying whether my writing was poetic-sounding enough or not. Giving feedback to other people’s work was helpful too, as I became a more discerning reader, and realised that it’s okay that our writing styles are so vastly different, because, after all, what good would writing be if we all wrote in the same way?

“A year ago, I would have laughed if you’d told me that I would voluntarily go for drinks on Sunday evenings with at least three men over the age of forty”

Most importantly of all, though, the writers’ group helped me turn writing from a solitary pursuit into something much more sociable. Through the network I developed there, I found people who made me accountable for my work and motivated me when my motivation was lacking. Whilst we all loved writing, we all had different goals: some just wrote for pleasure, some with hopes of publication – others were already published authors. This was no surprise, considering our diversity in ages and backgrounds, and of the many experiences I’ve had in Paris, being able to step outside of my student bubble and meet so many people who I never would have met otherwise has been one of the most rewarding ones. A year ago, I would have laughed if you’d told me that I would voluntarily go for drinks on Sunday evenings with at least three men over the age of forty – but now I do, and it’s often one of the highlights of my week.


Mountain View

An empathetic view of Northern Irish life: Trespasses and The Raptures

As I near the end of my time in Paris, I still often go to the writers’ group, although I’ve been more pressed for time lately. Still, noticing and having others notice the shift in my style has been more rewarding than I’d ever anticipated, as has been seeing how some of my fellow regulars’ work has progressed – although the most rewarding aspect of all has most definitely been the friends I’ve made in that dingy basement, who I hope will remain friends for life, even once I’ve left Paris – a year older, and, hopefully, a better writer.