Writers.com instructor Susan Vespoli leads both in-person and online writing circles in the Wild Writing tradition of Laurie Wagner. In this interview, Susan explains what writing circles are and how they function, and how writing circles can be a transformative practice for both writing and life.
What is a writing circle?
There are different forms of writing circles, but the ones that I participate in and facilitate are based on a Wild Writing method, which also comes from Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind work.
You get together with a group. Usually three is the minimum and eight to ten is the maximum. The facilitator gives you a prompt to jump off. I’ve been taught to use poems, so the facilitator will read a poem, and then choose two or three jump-off lines to get you started. You close your eyes, get into the poem, and without thinking or remembering you start writing from a jump-off line.
So if a prompt is “I’m awake at 3:18 AM,” you write that and the other two prompts down. If none of the prompts work, you can rely on a classic like “I remember” or “What I really want to say is.”
Starting with your prompt, you write in what’s called a timed burst: the facilitator sets a timer for ten minutes, and you just write. You write as fast as you can, everyone writes as fast as they can, whatever comes up, no editing. You’ll hear your brain say, “Don’t say that!” or “You can’t tell them that!” but you’re supposed to ignore that and just let it all come up.
Everybody writes and writes without editing, and then the facilitator says “Okay, you have one minute, start wrapping up your thoughts,” then “Find your last sentence,” and then time’s up.
And then you go around and read. Everbody reads, and you’re not allowed to disclaim, “This is horrible,” or anything like that. And nobody says anything: everybody just listens, and at the end they all say “Thank you” to that person.
At first, people say, “I don’t want to read,” but that’s part of the writing circle. Everything that’s said in the writing circle stays there. It’s a trust thing, and like a witnessing. I read something recently that said “fire and tribe,” and it’s like that: you’re in a tribe, sitting around a fire, and you’re writing.
It provokes different things than you normally would write about, kind of teases things out that are buried. And the beauty is that not only do things come up for you, connections you’d never made, but you also hear other people and think, “Oh, I thought I was the only person who felt that way.” And you just honor people with a totally different life experience, and you get to say, “Oh, that’s what it’s like to be in that.” It’s a really human connecting tool.
Why does a writing circle bring out different pieces than we’d normally write about?
It just opens different doors inside you. There’s a quote from Natalie Goldberg, “Writing is the crack through which you can crawl into a bigger world, into your wild mind.” It kind of opens doors.
An example of that is that my significant other and I often write morning pages to each other and read them to each other, but this morning I said “I’ll give you a couple of jump-off lines.” And from those, he wrote all these things I’d never heard about him. You come from a different spot, and you get clarity.
The more you practice, the easier it is to fall into that deeper place. We have all this stuff in us, and often we just write from the top piece of that. I’m sure regular writers are familiar with that “zone” where it’s almost coming from somewhere else. This is a way to drop into that more easily. It’s a practice, like meditation is a practice.
Also, my experience, and that of people I know who regularly do this practice, is that writing circles keep me clearer. If you don’t do it, you get tangled up in your thoughts. Some author said “I write to figure out what I’m thinking,” and it’s kind of one of those.
Having to share what you’ve written without a filter sounds terrifying.
I’ve heard other people say that. The first time I did this practice, in a teacher training with Wild Writing teacher Laurie Wagner, I decided to give it a shot and flew to her house in Alameda, and there were ten strange women in this house. There was some kind of magic, a shift, over the weekend. It was transformative. I still meet every week in a writing circle with those same women.
There’s some kind of a trust that happens, and maybe you don’t say certain things at first until it develops, but then it does develop. You start loosening up. Laurie said in her training that she’d let people pass, but only once. But if one person doesn’t read, it makes it less safe for all the other people. Because you’re witnessing for other people, you open more: you see that you’re not the only flawed person, and there’s beautiful stuff, too.
What can you say about how participating in a writing circle feels?
Once you’re in the practice of it, it feels like an opening. Of the people I’ve been in writing circles, either ones I’ve led or ones I’ve joined in, I’ve never had anybody say they feel worse. You feel better. A connection builds—I hear people say “I love you.” In this world, there are so few opportunities to connect on a heart level, a trust level, and this is one of them.
If it scares you, give it a try. There’s another quote, “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” You do have to be ready to open, to be naked. Not literally.
Do people often develop their work from writing circles into longer pieces?
They do, and I have. It’s not an expectation, and that shouldn’t be the goal—otherwise you have a little scanning editor going.
At the end of a writing circle, if you do want to talk to somebody about what they wrote, you’re supposed to ask, “Can I reference your writing?” And then you can have a conversation about it, and sometimes you’ll say, “You need to clean that up and send that out.” And a lot of what I’ve written, either essays or poems, I’ve written in writing circles and cleaned up. They’re in you, and you bring them up this way.
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