The first 6-week Writing Circle concluded last Thursday. It has been a wonderful introduction for me into how I want to grow and shape these writing programmes. I’ve been incredibly lucky and have had such a gracious group to work with. It has truly been a pleasure. Here are a few things I’ve learned so far:
6-weeks isn’t long enough.
At about three sessions in, I felt like we had only just started and yet we were halfway through the 6-week programme. It takes a few meetings to get used to hearing each other’s voices. It also takes time to find the writing ideas that we want to develop from a freewrite or journal entry into something we’d like to polish and eventually share. Not everything we write turns into finished pieces. I think a lot of the writing I do can be described as ‘sketches’ for possible stories, essays or poems. These possibilities need time to germinate before we know which ones will grow.
2 hours is a good amount of time for a single session.
Although the overall programme needs more than six weeks, the individual sessions seem to work well in two hour increments. One of the unexpected dimensions that became apparent to me was that of having common writing time. We started with 3-5 minute spurts of writing to a prompt, followed by a bit of discussion or another activity. Over time, we built up this quiet writing time to 10, then 15, then 30 minutes or more of quiet writing time. Having dedicated time to write without interruption is one of the key features of my Writing Circles. The flip side to this quiet writing time is the community we build as we share our works and discuss our questions. By following the initial hour of writing with a short break and then a longer discussion, I feel like we are learning to hold silence and speech in good relation.
It can be useful to have several pieces to work on.
When we sit down to write, if we have only one piece we are working on, what happens if we feel stuck with that piece? Something like writer’s block, I suppose. One way to counteract this is to have several pieces ‘on the go.’ It’s a little like practicing music. Most music students, at any given time, are working on 3-4 different pieces of music. If you’re not in the mood for Bartok, maybe Debussy or Mozart will suit. Likewise, if I’m stuck on one story, I put it on the back burner and work on something else. During the next round of Writing Circles, I am going to feature a ‘sparks and kindling prompt’ each session. The idea will be to start each session with a some new writing that can serve either to get the ink flowing or could grow into a fuller piece. If we accumulate these starts, we’ll have different projects to choose from when we sink into quiet writing time.
I can provide the structure, but the participants bring the content.
In some ways, this seems an obvious statement. But I see it as a very big shift from many models of teaching and education. In a traditional classroom, we might talk about curriculum or coverage or concepts to ‘get across.’ As I plan for each week’s Writing Circle, I create a meticulous plan and a very clear agenda for how I want the session to go. But I can't say what we'll learn. Each week, as the session unfolds, I am astounded by the writing that arises, varying in genre, tone and subject. I can’t plan what the writing will be, but I can do my best to make the space a welcome container for the writing as it grows. (Fittingly, this insight itself came from a conversation I had with one of the participants.)
There are many ways to respond to writing.
This is an area that fascinates me. Often, when we discuss someone’s writing, we are looking at a finished product. The question ‘So, what did you think of so-and-so’s latest novel?’ is often taken as a request to pass judgement on what is strong or weak, good or bad. But when a piece of writing is still under development, I believe we have a different responsibility when we comment. The point is not to decide its ultimate merit, but to point out what strikes us as remarkable, moving, confusing, or unclear. We don’t have to decide whether or not we like a piece before it’s finished. We can, however, help the author understand what we are seeing and hearing from the work so far. At different points in the writing process, different kinds of responses are pertinent. In future Writing Circles, I want to continue exploring this area.
Those are a few of my thoughts from the first session. More reflections to come in future posts, including thoughts about writer-conferences, keeping people writing during the week, and social media.
Want to know the best part about this first group of writers? I decided to see if they wanted to continue, and 7 of the 8 original participants have signed up for another six weeks! Later in December, we will be publishing an online anthology with work from the Writing Circle. I can’t wait to share some of this marvellous writing with you.
The next round of Writing Circles will last 8-weeks and will commence January, 2015. Times and locations are TBC. Sign up here to get on an early notification list and a discount coupon when registration opens.