How do I tell you about the power of writing in community? Of being vulnerable and honest with other humans using the most basic tools: paper and pen. Of being part of a group where we allow each other to see our guts – the pretty and the hard stuff – all that is hidden under sometimes thick skin? The best I can do is to try to tell you about my experience with writing groups.
One of the most powerful things about being human and connecting to other humans is our ability to be vulnerable, to share our experiences and stories, to share what we struggle with and what we find heart-achingly beautiful. Through this unveiling and this sharing, I am constantly amazed. Amazed at finding things in common with people outside my social and hang-out circles. Amazed to be reminded of how we all have struggles and that we are all so strong to have made it where we are. Amazed at how much I have connected with people after ten weeks of writing with them.
I love how writing together and then sharing that writing and those stories out loud is such a powerful and different way to learn about each other. Things come out in those letters, people take risks in that process that they don’t always experience in conversation. If that isn’t building community – the storytelling and the testimonials to being alive – then I’m not sure what is.
To give you a bit more factual information, over the past 4 years I have been volunteering as a facilitator of creative writing workshops through an organization called Write Around Portland. Write Around Portland runs volunteer-facilitated writing workshops for those who might not have access to the power of writing and community because of income, isolation or other barriers. They also organize readings where participants share their writing with the greater community and publish anthologies of participants’ writings. Through my experience with Write Around Portland, I have worked with people living with HIV, queer youth, low-income adult community groups and women living in prison. I have also been creating writing workshops/groups with peers in all the places I’ve lived in the past ten years.
The agreements we create at the beginning of each workshop/group are the most important part of creating a space for us to take risks and be vulnerable in our writing. Here are some of the agreements that often come up in each group:
- We will assume the writing is not autobiographical.
- We will not apologize or make excuses for our writing.
- Confidentiality: what is said/shared in this space stays here.
- We will not use hate speech in our writing.
- We won’t worry about spelling or grammar, we can get to that later.
- We will share positive feedback only, unless author requests otherwise.
The structure of each writing group is quite simple. Each group consists of several free-writes, with time to share what we wrote and time for giving and receiving feedback. A free-write is a timed writing where the writer is encouraged to keep their pen moving until the time is up. The facilitator provides one or more prompts for each free-write. A prompt is a starting-off place, some examples are: I come from…, on the train…, I have a (fill-in-the-blank) inside me…
In the peer writing group I started with my housemate Shannon, we rotate facilitation amongst the six of us meeting at a nearby park. The role of the facilitator is to provide prompts, keep track of time and guide the group through our time together to make sure everyone’s voice is being heard.
Want to lead a workshop yourself? Here is a good plan to follow for a one-time or first-time 2-hour workshop.
- Welcome people to the group.
- Do a go-around of peoples names and have them each say one thing people wouldn’t know about them by looking at them.
- Present group agreements [if this is an ongoing workshop, take the time to let the whole group create these agreements together].
- Free-write, 7 minutes, prompt: I come from… [you can provide other prompts too].
- Sharing/feedback. [Each person shares their writing and the group takes a few minutes to give feedback].
- Free-write, 12 minutes, prompt: pictures from magazines of places “from here, I…” or of people and have people write a journal entry or letter from that person’s perspective.
- Final free-write, 10-15 minutes, prompt: first line from an already existing poem.
- Sharing. Feedback if time.
- Closing. Thank everyone for showing up and encourage them to keep writing.
There you have it! Now all you need is a few people to write with and you too can experience writing in community.
Poetry for the People by June Jordan, Routledge 1995.
Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, Shambala 2006.
Loft Literary Center
Open Book Center, Minneapolis, MN