The Muse Works a Crowd

Starting this week, every Tuesday at Noon you’ll find me at The Ink Spot writing with the Brown Bag Writing Group. I’m glad to be back; I’ve missed the time and the place and writing with my co-facilitator, Rob Williams and the writers who gather around the Fish Tables with their notebooks and pens, their laptops and enthusiasm.

Celebrating a Brown Bag Birthday at The Ink Spot

I’m a fool for writing practice groups. I’ve been leading them for nearly two decades. Brown Bag, the original, started in 1993 at The Writing Center in San Diego and Thursday Writers, which I now co-facilitate with Steve Montgomery, a couple of years later. For those of us who are regular practitioners, there’s something in addition to the writing that makes these groups special: A collective energy occurs when we come together with writing as our purpose—a creative force to be reckoned with. Some call it magic. I say the Muse likes to work crowds.

Here’s how my writing practice groups work:

Writers gather, the “rules” are read, a prompt is given and a time limit set. For the next 12 or 15 or 18 minutes, the only sound that’s heard is the scratching of pen on page, the faint tap tap tap of fingers on keyboard. Then, after each writing session, writers are invited to read their work aloud, without preamble and not for feedback, (no critique is given), but to hear their voice and to honor their words.

Somehow, astonishingly, from the few words of the prompt and in those scant minutes, stories and poems and essays and scenes from novels get written right then and there—at least rough drafts. Memories appear that might take the form of a memoir or may be just a meander through time. Characters appear, disappear and reappear, sometimes migrating from one story to another, sometimes bringing a pal or a new lover.

Writing in a writing practice group is different than doing exercises in a workshop or classroom where the writer is given instruction to accomplish a specific task, and writing in group is different than a solitary writing practice where we set our own pace and work in our own circle of energy. The palpable energy of the group and the focus of timed writings ignites spontaneity and with it, the possibility that anything can happen. And it does! Surprises are a regular occurrence at these sessions where language and imagination meet on the page. “I don’t know where that came from,” is the frequently heard comment by one amazed writer or another.

Tammy Delatorre reads at a writing session

8 reasons to be a part of a writing practice group:

  1. To have a regular time and place to show up with a commitment to get words on the page
  2. To experience the creative energy of the group and allow it to influence your writing
  3. To have a safe place to write what you want and to take risks
  4. To start something new or to continue a work-in-progress
  5. To read your work aloud with no concern for judgment or criticism
  6. To learn from other writers and spark one another’s creativity
  7. To bear witness to each other’s work
  8. To share camaraderie and create community

What’s your experience of writing in group?

“If I could just get away . . . “

Our Mountain Retreat

Definition of irony: I am taking time away from my time away to write about getting away. That is, I have holed myself up in a mountain cabin in Idyllwild with my friend Dian for a month-long writing retreat. No Internet or cell-phone service unless I go “down the hill” as the local say, to a café, and no television only my Rodney Yee yoga DVDs and my laptop, a few of my notebooks and a firm commitment to finish the third draft of my novel.

You might say I’m in heaven.

Though by far my longest “time away,” this isn’t the only writing retreat I’ve created for myself this year. At least once a month my friend Jill and I make a date for three or four hours at her house or mine to devote to our writing, in May she invited me to her ranch for a glorious and productive three-day retreat. I also consider my monthly Saturday Series gatherings with a dozen or so other writers a retreat; I even include “retreat” in the title of the series, and certainly the twice-yearly, day-long writing marathons at The Ink Spot are a time-out-of-time, rowdy and rambunctious as they can sometimes be.

Fellow Retreater

To my mind, a writing retreat is the time I take out of my ordinary day-in and day-out routine, when I set everything aside and give myself over to my writing. It’s where I go when I remove myself from the ordinary and move into the extraordinary. So, in this sense, the hour-long Thursday Writers sessions and Tuesday Brown Bag group I participate in could be called mini-retreats. Even my daily writing practice can be turned into a retreat when I create the right container for it—that is, setting aside time, creating space (for me, that means lighting a candle) and entering the time and space with intention.

Much as I believe that the idea of a writing retreat will always include “getting away” (I expect secluded mountain cabins or private, distant seashores will forever remain in my writer’s mind’s eye), I also believe it’s important to create other, less extensive writing retreats that can refill and restore us, open us to creative expression and allow us to dip into the solitude we need. Consider this:

• that a writing retreat is not necessarily a place, but a concept.

• that the word retreat is both a noun and a verb.

• that time can be measured not just in length, but in depth.

• that the idea of being alone isn’t about being distant from people but not allowing others to intrude on your solitude.

When was the last time you gave yourself the gift of “getting away”?

*some of the material was previously published in my kit, The Writer’s Retreat Kit, a Guide for Creative Expression & Personal Exploration.