Continuing the craft

Maps and journeys - the view from halfway there

We’re just over halfway through this round of Continuing the Craft, my Writing Circle for writers with a work in progress.

Six weeks ago, we started off by creating mind maps of what our projects might look like.  We allowed ourselves to dream big and invite possibility on to the page.  In order to have enough space, we used Big Paper.  Here we are, creating our maps during the first session:


Afterwards, I collected up the maps and hid them away in the back of some closet in my house.

Each Friday since, we’ve spilled a lot of ink. We’ve explored themes and archetypes, inhabited crucial moments, had coffees with our characters, and rooted our work in setting.  On non-Fridays, we’ve made and kept promises to ourselves to write. We’ve caught tiny butterflies with butterfly nets and chased ideas up trees and down the blank page.  We’re at a good pausing point.  It’s time check our bearings. Yesterday, I brought the maps back.

As the writers reacquainted themselves with their maps, I asked them what had changed, what was missing, what was no longer there. I asked them to tell me about the differences between a map and a landscape, or to meditate on the relationship between a map and a journey. I asked if anyone had moved off their maps and where they were going next.

Here is What we found:


One person whose ideas declined being mapped during the first session arrived with a map yesterday. And in her rolled-up, slightly-crushed map (as any self-respecting map should be), she introduced the idea of a time circle, instead of a time line. There was a collective gasp of inspiration as she shared her simple graphic.  Aha!  the writers seemed to say, in recognition of a good idea.


Another writer’s project had started off in the form of various lists. But the lists kept suggesting a hierarchy that felt like too many stacked stumbling blocks. Having made some progress, but needing a different kind of flow, she decided that it was time to invent the wheel. She recast this phase of her project accordingly, noting the roles of the hub, rim and spokes.

One person who had started with a circle many weeks ago reported that the circle is now rolling, has become a wheel. She hitched up her ideas to this engine and it’s all chugging along, exhaust clouds and all. Her map now has mile markers and signs pointing the way to the ‘Pat on the Back Café’ - recognising that progress, while not always easy and often circuitous, gets you moving towards places you want to be.

I was delighted by this preponderance of circles.

There is one  writer who has moved off her map. I recall that her original map started in the middle of the page, but the densest population of ideas floated up to the top right hand corner. Sure enough, yesterday she needed a new piece of Big Paper for a new map. We think she’ll be located somewhere to the northeast of her original map.

And several, while not changing their maps too much on the surface, have found that the two-dimensional assurance of starting out has turned into the multi-dimensional swirl of tensions between fiction and non-fiction, difficult choices about what to include and what to leave out, and ownership of story. Maps have their uses and times.  At the moment, for these writers, the maps may stay folded up in their back pockets. They’ll get them out when they need them.

When I launched this course in September, I had a map.

I still use it. But I had no idea how exciting it would be to watch these projects take shape, emerging bit by bit.  It’s been so very rewarding.  The landscape and the journey are so much more than the map ever could be. I’m enamoured of the creative processes I get to see. Each week, I aim to create a space that makes it possible for each writer to continue the craft.


Soon I will be announcing Writing Circles for Winter 2017!

I’m planning and mapping and dreaming, all the while knowing that the real events will add dimensions I can’t yet imagine.

I can tell you this much, though: I’ve booked Harston Hall for Spilling the Ink on Tuesday mornings and Continuing the Craft on Friday mornings.  The online Writing Circle will span 9 weeks and with a video link every other Sunday.  Details to come in a week or so.


September is often a time of change and beginnings.  Around here, it’s the start of a new school for my son, new activities for my daughter, and a lot of travel for new projects for my husband. September is also a time of harvest. A time to gather the ripened fruits and grains of the year, savour some, store some for the winter, and collect seeds for next year’s planting. A time to look at the fields and consider which need rotation, which need rest, and which are ready for winter crops.


This year, I find I’m more in harvest mode than new beginnings mode.

Last year was fruitful: In September, the first Writing Circle gathered and set the tone for a programme that I am both proud of and honoured to facilitate.  Spring and summer saw two more groups assemble, each time with faces both familiar and new, and each time with writing that was vibrant and so very exciting to see emerge.


As for my own writing, I filled 8 journals with freehand musings. How many words? The calculation is interesting: approximately 8 journals x 200 pages per journal x 20 lines per page x 6 words per line = 192,000 words. Surely there must be a few lines worth keeping from that hoard.  (To compare, a typical novel is » 90,000 words, probably preceded by many thousands of others that didn’t make the cut).


As my family all settle into their new routines (and I help them navigate those transitions), I have decided to take time to tend to the past year’s writing harvest. Time to sort, mill, mix, knead and proof those words. I’m still enough of a scientist to know that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It only changes forms, and the transformation I’m choosing is from generating raw material and excitement to working with what I have in hand. So many words. Perhaps each is a grain.


It’s time to let the fields rest, so that come 2016, the soil will be full of nutrients for Writing Circles to come.  Because it is not the season for sowing, I have decided to postpone this autumn’s sessions of Spilling the Ink and Continuing the Craft. Please come back in a few months to see what offerings will be available in the new year.

In the meantime, what will you be harvesting this autumn?

One year later

It was a year ago today that I opened the doors and called out for writers to come together in my first Writing Circles.  Although I had been imagining how it might work since the previous April and although I had spent a lot of time planning the format and layout, when I finally put up my signs and made the website live, I didn’t know who (if anyone) would come, how it would feel to bring together people from different walks of life to write, and if it would be a one-off experiment or something that I could sustain. Originally I thought I would run two circles: one in Cambridge and one in Harlton (a village just down the road from mine).  The Cambridge one didn’t quite attract enough interest to run. But slowly and surely, the Harlton one filled: an acquaintance from my village, an artist with an incredibly beautiful website with haunting imagery and delicate haikus, someone who had written a children’s novel, a somatics and yoga teacher, people with whom I had crossed paths in our other roles, people who saw my signs in their villages.

I believe that just the right combination of writers came forward to form that first group.  The whole experience was one of exhilaration and terror. Each week I stretched and pushed myself to create something that would support our writing and thinking.  Each week they came back (they came back!) and whole-heartedly tried out my ideas, taking us in directions further and deeper than I had expected, bringing their own voices and perspectives. I loved it! And when the first round came to a close, several of them decided to carry on with a second six-week course.  It was a privilege and a challenge to continue, and I learned so very much.  In my experience of teaching, there has always been something special about the first group I’ve taught in a new setting – whether the 6th graders at the Salk School of Science in Manhattan from my student teaching days, or the 9th graders from the inner city of Columbus, Ohio, or the adults at Bellevue Community College in Washington – and this group was no different. There is something about going through a process together for the first time that marks the experience with a certain vibrancy.

After the initial Writing Circles concluded in the autumn, I knew that I had found something that I wanted to continue. With a bit more polish and focus, I conducted two more Writing Circles this spring and summer in Harston (another village down another road from mine), bringing together both new and familiar faces. As with the first group, I think the people who come forward each time are just the right combination to make us all grow. I count myself lucky to meet people whom I would have otherwise never met, to witness stories and poetry evolve from shadowy ideas to actual words on the page, and to spend my time and attention building unlikely communities.

I still get nervous before each session; preparing and imagining how it will go, whilst knowing that the unexpected is inevitable and something will come up that will take us in a different, but essential, direction.  For me, this is what teaching has become: I strive to have a solid structure to hold the space, yet I want to leave doors and windows open so that inspiration might fly in and take us away.

And after each session, as I pack up my supplies, turn off the lights, and lock the door, I leave with a buoyancy and gratitude that, once again, we have come together to write, listen, and be a little more present with all the richness of our shared and individual experiences.  This is work I love.

Registration for the Autumn 2015 Writing Circles will open soon.  See more details here and sign up for early notification and a discount code here.

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