Plays Well with Others

I promised a blogpost about writing in community, and even though I’ve now been thinking about this post for a few days, I’m still not quite sure how to shape it.

So I’ll just tell you what I’ve been thinking.

Because I facilitate a writing group (The Writing Lab), which used to be closely associated with my college, and is still loosely associated with it, I frequently talk to people who are curious about our group, but don’t “get it.” I don’t write in groups, one faculty member told me (with a sort of sneer).

I’ve also met people who would like to join us, but “can’t” write in a group. It’s a solitary process for them, I guess. Someone said to me that there’s a reason knitting isn’t a team sport (except people do get together in knitting circles, right?). They would be willing to show up at the end and share their work, I’ve been told. One of these people added, “I think you would enjoy it.” I wasn’t sure how to take that.

The group, as it’s evolved, isn’t about entertaining one another. It’s more like holding our feet to the fire. We are writers, not having-writ-eners (?). (There are critique groups, to which one brings work in draft, of course, and they can be very useful.) Nothing new about this, as there are Natalie Goldberg Writing Down the Bones type groups all over the place.

We don’t write from prompts (we used to, and then we kind of went off in our own direction.) Our group is maybe a little like AA or Weight Watchers. Except instead of quitting alcohol or losing weight, we’ve made a commitment to get together and write. Some of us have made a specific commitment to write on a certain project (I now work only on poetry when I’m at Lab and this is slowly helping me to find my way toward a new manuscript). And even though the other members are receptive and never-critical and pleased in fact with almost everything, having made a commitment to them makes it easier to follow through on that commitment.

You don’t have to travel to belong to a group. Julia Cameron suggests contacting a friend (by email or text, or a quick phone message) to say “I’m going to write now,” and, later, to say “I wrote ____ words” or “____pages.” And there are lots of internet groups for people more technologically savvy than I am. But I like having actual people physically sitting at a table with me.

More than anything else, though, more than sitting at the table even, is the belief that we share: the belief that writing is valuable, that it is worth doing.

“If you believe you can change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs — and becomes automatic — it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing, as [William] James wrote, that bears ‘us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.’

“The way we habitually think of our surroundings and ourselves create the world that each of us inhabit.”
–Charles Duhigg, 
The Power of Habit (273)

By the way, once Duhigg got to William James, he had completely won me over. You could read just the Afterward and Appendix and be inspired (though I think you would then be inspired to read the whole book).

And, please notice, I wouldn’t have written this post at all, had I not promised it to you, dear community of blog-readers. Having a community supporting any goal is a gift.

What to Write…

P1040289If you’re called to write, you don’t need any additional excuse. Writing can be as natural as eating, as natural as drinking water or breathing. If you want to write, you should write.

So you visit your local stationery store, you buy a gorgeous journal bound in leather, or a spiral notebook with Duck Dynasty on the cover. You buy a package of your favorite pens. You set your alarm clock — er, your phone — and get up half an hour early. You pour your coffee or steep your tea. You sit down at the kitchen table. That’s all you need.

But now what?

Freewriting, as I told the writing lab participants on Tuesday, is not free. You have to put that pen nib to the beautiful, clean pages and write non-stop for a set period of time. If you’re writing on your own, any amount of time is good — 10 or 15 minutes at a minimum. In lab, however, we write for 30 to 45 minutes, and that can be hard. After our first lab we shared our ideas for what-to-write, so here they are. Get started!

1) write a list of what you’d like to write

2) write a letter (you can write it to anyone that frees you; you can also write to the person who you imagine would not want you to write)

3) write, “This is dumb. I can’t think of anything to write. This is crazy. Why is Bethany making me write for 45 minutes? I could do ten, but 45??? Really? Bethany is crazy. Bethany is a fascist. This is …” (You get the idea. Just keep your pen moving.)

4) draw

5) draw a tic-tac-toe like grid and then fill it with 9 trips (to anywhere, the 7-11 last night at 11:00, or to Paris when you were 12), or 9 events (your sister’s wedding, the day you got your dog, your child’s birth, your graduation…anything like that)

6. describe what’s in front of you or the room you’re sitting in

7. you can buy a book of prompts such as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and begin working through those

The idea of drawing or writing complaints, by the way, even of listing, is to get your brain to drop into a different mode of being. You can think of this in left brain/right brain terms, or anything else that serves you. But if you stick with it for a designated period of time (I like 15 minutes, as you know) you will break through. If you return tomorrow, you’ll begin to form a habit.

Eventually, you’ll stop complaining and find yourself actually writing something of interest. Next, we’ll talk about what to do with that.

And if you don’t believe me, here is Natalie Goldberg herself with a few ideas: