Brave New World - Planning for Online Spilling the Ink

The year is young and I’m having a pleasant week planning the online Spilling the Ink course scheduled to start at the end of January. I’m especially excited because enough people have signed up so that I definitely can run it! Through the summer and fall, I ran a pilot programme and hosted many one-off taster workshops, but now my early adopters have signed up and we’re getting ready to write. 

There is something special about the people who sign up for the first round of a new idea.They tend to be adventurers and risk-takers. They bring a willing suspension of knowing and a playfulness that work together to invite the accidental, the unexpected, and the innovative.This was true of my in person Writing Circles and I’m feeling that same sense of big heartedness and wide horizons in the first online group. 

I’m feeling more than just a bit giddy because we are in the position of exploring new creative territory. As I plan, my driving question is this: How will I cultivate an online community that fosters a similar spirit of creative collaboration to that in the Writing Circles I facilitate locally?

Cultivating community and connection is very much at the heart of Spilling the Ink. It matters to me so much that I get to know each individual who comes to my writing table. Each person who walks through the door brings stories, perspectives and wisdom that only they can offer. It is my great joy and privilege to learn what those stories are. This is one of the reasons I keep my groups small: we need to share a table where each of us can see and hear one another. All voices are welcome and cherished at my tables.

 

How will I establish this celebration of each individual in my online group? Many successful online courses have pre-recorded video or one-way live streaming of the instructor to students. Many use group phone calls with large numbers of people on the call. Many suggest having all content available at all times to maximise the ease with which the user can access the materials. Many work primarily via a combination of email-delivered content and vibrant facebook groups. I’ve participated in many of these courses and found great value in all these approaches. 

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But for my Writing Circles, none of those options were quite right. I wanted to see and hear my participants. Every single one. Even more, I wanted all of us to see and hear each other. When designing the course, I looked for a platform that would reliably support video for up to 8, spread out across the globe. When I found one, I was thrilled! I've had people joining me from India, Spain, the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Bulgaria and Germany. It is so much fun! Equally important, connections can start to grow. We hear each other, see each other, and write from wildly different perspectives. In doing so, we make the faraway feel a bit more nearby. 

The writing that emerges during a live workshop has a wonderful immediacy and heartbeat. It can feel a little like jazz improvisation. If we are lucky, when we say goodbye and log off, we leave excited about the ideas that have just been born and we want to develop them more. After the initial high of inspiration, we come down to a more considered realm of craft. How do we shape the piece whose outlines we have just captured? What shades of nuance and complexity do we want to deepen? Which whirls of fancy do we leave on the workshop floor? And when we have revised and redrafted our ideas, how can we bring them again to the community? 

To support all those questions and to seed further writing, we come together in the online forum (a password-protected area of my website). During the time between live workshops, I post three times a week on the forum. The posts (also delivered via email) are short and designed to open discussion in the comments. Some will be follow-up questions from the video meeting. Some offer new prompts to generate more writing. Others invite musings on the writing life. I send them out to keep the conversations going and the ink flowing.

The online forum has another key function: It provides a place to share evolving drafts. Whereas the video connection brings us together in creating raw material and giving verbal responses, the online forum offers a space for written feedback. When writers share a piece, we can take the time to linger longer over the implications of words and ideas. We can let a piece sink in more deeply. And because we’ll see each other again in a live meeting, we can let our responses become a conversation more than a critique. Through discussion and reflection, we have the opportunity to develop the creative space around a piece of writing so that the writing itself has strong foundation from which to branch out and explore.

I’m really looking forward to the first round of online Spilling the Ink. I feel ready to create this community together. It is one of my deepest beliefs that when are invested in one another, we not only develop better pieces of writing, but we also become better writers and better people. Would you like to join us?  We start on 29 January. A few spaces are still available. It would be a delight to welcome you along. Details and registration here.

 

I loved the Writing Circles, they relit my enthusiasm for writing and to just write! Melissa is very encouraging and gives insightful and thought provoking feedback.
— Nic Williams

Who will come?

When I first started my Writing Circles, this was one of the biggest questions in my mind. Who would want to participate in a writing community where we would be sharing fledgling words, witnessing each others’ growth, and learning together as we went along?

As I put adverts in local village magazines and stuck posters up on notice boards and telephone poles, I felt like I was calling out, “Welcome!  Please join me, whoever you are, wherever you are!  You know who you are, even if I don’t.” 

Slowly and surely, names and registrations started trickling in.  Who were these people? A scientist, a nurse, a yoga teacher, a children’s author, a journalist, a physician, a social worker, parents, artists, teachers.  The mix was wide and wonderful.  Not everyone was a professional, published writer, although some were.  Not everyone had a degree in creative writing, although some did.  Some had left school at 16 and had learned to love reading, writing and storytelling outside a formal structure.  Some had written and edited reports as a part of their jobs but were thirsty to explore the realm of open creativity.  What everyone had in common was a desire to write and share their words.  

 

Each time I’ve run a writing circle, I’ve found that the different backgrounds of the participants add interest and layers of perspective unique to that combination of writers. I love that I get to cross paths with people whom I might not have otherwise met. One of the biggest sources of joy for me from my Writing Circles has been that so many different kinds of people have come forward.

When I describe my role in the Writing Circles, I consciously call myself a facilitator, not leader or teacher. It’s not that I teach people how or what to write, it’s more that I look for ways to let the stories we already carry within emerge onto paper. I spend my energy thinking about how to create a container for varied creative processes. My aim is to shape the time so that people leave with words falling out of their minds and into their notebooks. My expertise is in finding ways of ‘opening doors and windows’ as one recent participant put it. The participants, the writers, are the bringers of content and desire. I facilitate bringing that content into being. Perhaps I am practicing a midwifery of words.  

Writing Circles are not just for established writers. We welcome and thrive on contributions from participants at all levels from all types of professions. You don’t have to be a published author with several books and by-lines to claim your own words. You just have to show up, sit down, and write. Doing so in the company of others who have walked wildly different paths from yours to arrive at the same table is both eye-opening and inspiring.

So, if you have a pocketful of stories and an itch to put pen to paper, join us. We’d be delighted to hear what you have to say. Registration now open for courses starting January 2017. 

This post first appeared as a guest post titled, 'Not Just for Writers' at What Now, What Next, an international collaborative network for women entrepreneurs.

Writing Circle FAQS

About the participants

 How many people are in a writing circle?

A minimum of 4, for a variety of voices and experiences, and a maximum of 8, to ensure that everyone gets plenty of individualised feedback.

I have never taken a writing class, is this programme for me?

If you are curious about writing and willing to try out different activities to keep your pen moving, then yes, this is for you. Novices and those with rusty pens are welcome. When starting out, it can be a tremendous help to be part of a community of others who are also committed to becoming better writers. If you used to write, this might be just the programme to get the ink flowing again.

I am an experienced writer, is this programme for me? 

I believe experienced writers can benefit from joining a group and seeing how other writers work and develop their pieces. If you enjoy working with writers of various levels and are interested in sharing your processes as well as your products, then a Writing Circle will give you a forum for discussion and growth.

If you are considering joining, it may be helpful to read how Writing Circles differ from traditional writing workshops.

What types of writing will we do? 

We will explore a variety of genres including memoir, personal essay, poetry, and short fiction. If some of these are new to you, this is a great opportunity to stretch your writing muscles and try something new. Many writers work across several genres, finding it deepens their writing practice as a whole.  What will you write about?  That's up to you.  But perhaps reading this post will give you a few ideas: But what will I write about?

About the programme

Will you be lecturing about elements of craft such as plot, setting, voice, dialogue, etc?

We may address these, but not necessarily in a strict, week-by-week sequence. My approach will be to diagnose and respond to each writer’s need. For example, if you are working on a piece of writing with a lot of dialogue, then I might focus my written responses on the dialogue or point you to specific resources. But another person may need advice on plot structure or imagery.

This is not a traditional ‘how-to’ writing class. I don’t lecture. I don’t have the final word – you do. My role as a facilitator during the sessions is to keep the atmosphere purposeful, lively and engaged. My role as a teacher is to help you cultivate your own voice, your specific stories.     

Are we expected to write outside of class?

As with any art, the more you practice, the better you become. So any writing you do outside of the sessions is valuable.  We will share strategies for finding time and space to write.

However, I understand we have busy, hectic lives. It may be the case that devoting one morning a week to writing is the commitment you can make at the moment. No worries! I have designed the programme so that if you write during the sessions themselves, you will still finish the course with several starts on possible pieces and at least one piece that you have taken from the blank page to a finished story.

Will we be learning about submissions, publications and literary agents?

No, not formally. We can chat about possible places to submit work for publication, but the emphasis of these programmes is on the act of writing.

What kind of feedback will I be getting on my work?

I will provide individualised feedback on up to 3000 words of your work over the duration of the programme.  You might choose to revisit a piece several times or you might prefer to have feedback on 3-4 shorter pieces.

One of the strengths of joining a Writing Circle is that you will get varied feedback on your work at different stages of your writing process, not only from me but also from fellow participants.

I’ve never critiqued anyone else’s writing. How will I know what to say? 

An important element of being in a Writing Circle is developing our abilities to respond helpfully and appropriately to others’ work, as well as deepening our own writing.   Each week, I will introduce methods of feedback tailored to whatever stage we are at in the creative process. You can use these as frameworks for your responses to others’ work.

For example, when we are brainstorming and drafting, we’ll focus on helping ideas and themes emerge. After we have breathed rough drafts into being, we’ll consider aspects of craft to make our writing more powerful. Towards the end of the process, we’ll do detail work, looking for rough edges to smooth, dull surfaces to shine.

What happens during the sessions. Can you tell me more?

I’d be pleased to. I suggest you browse through a few of the posts about why I created Writing Circleswhat happens in a typical sessionhow a writing circle differs from a writing workshop and other topics. Also, you are always welcome to send me an email with questions.

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What if I have to miss a session?

Oh, that would be sad! We would miss you and your input! I will make sure you get copies of any materials distributed so that you can recreate your own session later. Unfortunately, there are no refunds for missed sessions.

I cannot attend the current programmes. Will there be other Writing Circles?

Yes! You can get information about current and upcoming courses here.  Also, if you want early notification and discount codes, join my mailing list.

How do I pay?

Just click on the 'Add to Cart' button at the bottom of the course description to get the process started.  This will take you through an online payment process.  If you prefer to pay via cheque or BACS, contact me and I'll get details to you.

What is your refund policy?

Full payment is required to confirm your registration, which includes a 25% non-refundable deposit. After the first session, if you feel that the programme is not a good match for you, you may request a refund minus the deposit.   Refund requests must be made within 24 hours of the first session.

Are you ready to sign up? Choose from our current offerings.

If there's anything you're still wondering about, please ask!

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:

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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.


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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.

 
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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.