Writing in Groups

Editor's note: Paula Papky is an educator, former pastor, writer, and painter. She has four grandchildren whom she is teaching to write poems and paint pictures. She lives in Dundas, Ontario, with her husband, Bruce. In 2006 she edited The Berries are Sweeter Here: Women Writing Together; the book may be viewed as a PDF with this link.

What a strange happiness.
Sixty poets have gone off drunken, weeping into the hills,
I among them.
There is no one of us who is not a fool.
What is to be found there?
What is the point in this?
Someone scrawls six lines and says them.
What a strange happiness.

— “Iowa” by Robert Sward*

For me, writing in a group
has always been about discovery: who I am, where I fit in the world, what to go on with and what to leave behind. I want to discover what guides I have in this stage of life, old age.

I have been writing with a group of women, every other Thursday, since 2001. An amazing community has come into being through our writing together, one of deep trust and consolation and support but also one of creativity and risk-taking and confidence. We have experienced together times of sorrow for loss and many moments of hilarity. All of this has come about because, when we get together, we practice fast writing for a set period of time, followed by reading aloud by those who choose to do so. There’s nothing like unedited writing, thoughts hot off the page, to inspire a sense of gratitude, and sometimes awe.

Any writing can be fast writing

The idea of writing in a group occurred to me nearly twenty years ago when I read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones. (1) I was captivated by the process of fast writing that she described. Remembering one’s life story was a big part of fast writing. Soon I was using it for the many writing projects that my work in pastoral ministry required, particularly sermon preparation and the creation of liturgy and prayers for Sunday services as well as homilies for funerals and weddings. I used it for writing newspaper articles and newsletters in the church and in the wider community, and for drafts of essays in courses I took. I found myself keeping a journal and writing poetry and even turning to fiction writing. There was something unfathomable, bottomless, about the process. It helped me make the critical decision to leave pastoral ministry for a time, and eventually, to return to teaching high school English, where, of course, I gave my students daily opportunities for self-discovery through fast writing. The key to such writing was always having good springboards, of which Natalie Goldberg supplied many in Writing Down The Bones and her subsequent books.

None of this was writing in groups, though. That came about when a friend, who knew I was writing, recommended Journal To The Self by Kathleen Adams (2). It contained more springboards and intriguing exercises for self-discovery. I was so excited by the two practices, fast writing and keeping a journal, that I wanted to teach their use to others. I offered a Saturday morning course, titled "Writing For Spiritual Discovery," in a church I had joined. Only women turned up — 12 women, aged from mid-thirties to late seventies.

Writing builds community

The process we followed was fast writing followed by immediate reading aloud. For 12 weeks we built trust, increased confidence, laughed and cried, and put into words our deepest thoughts, our prayers, our lyric poems. These weeks were so engaging that when we finished the course, half of us wanted to do it again. And we did, for years, on Saturday mornings. Muffins and coffee, the quiet scratching of pens on the page, the reading — we learned a lot about ourselves and each other and our relationship with the Divine. Women who had, as they described, written only grocery lists and dates on calendars, were writing poems as well as journal entries. The fear of having nothing to say disappeared, and a small community took shape. That’s what writing in groups does: it builds community. It helps discover community where before there was mere acquaintance among people. Age barriers disappear. The shy discover a voice. The extrovert learns to listen. The non-writers become committed writers/explorers.

Now, 15 years later, I have practiced writing in groups with teachers, poets, high school students, fiction writers, and for a few weeks, the elderly (some with dementia) living in a care residence. Most recently I have used fast writing in Bible Study groups, as ways of entering into a story from Scripture, almost as if we are writing ourselves into the narratives.

In the Bible Study, we use fast writing to have a dialogue with Jesus or Zacchaeus or the Syro-Phoenician woman. Or we take the voice of a bystander in the crowd and retell the story. These group writing practices have engaged both men and women. Certainly they have drawn our church community closer together. The commitment to confidentiality frees us up to enter deep waters, to take risks and to express feelings — an experience some of the men found unnerving but always enlightening.

Starting a fast-writing group

The group I write with now most often is a dozen women aged 50-something to nearly 100. It began with a few members of a book club that read together Ellen Jaffe’s book, Writing Your Way: Creating A Personal Journal (3). When they decided they wanted to try some of her ideas, they invited her to lead them through a session. Little did she or they know that their writing in a group would become a way of life. A couple of members invited me to come along because they knew I had experience in writing with a group and fast writing. And here we all are, a decade later. We spend two hours fast writing and reading aloud. We share the leadership in an informal way, taking turns bringing a springboard poem or suggesting a topic. Recent topics from these sessions have been: homesickness; mountains; what I carry with me; arrivals and departures; the color green; my outdoor childhood. Nothing is too trivial. What one person writes and reads aloud may spark a memory or an image for someone else to explore in the next 10-minute plunge into the page.

We have found out a great deal about ourselves, our community of 12, our creativity, and our wisdom. Over and over we have experienced wonder, which some would call the sacred and others a sense of belonging to something larger. Our discovery has often led to discussion that is deeply spiritual and honors our various faith traditions — Christian, Jewish, as well as those with no particular religious affiliation but with a keen sense of the presence of the sacred in the moments of our lives.

There are a few important guidelines for a writing group like ours to begin and flourish, but only a few. After that, the discoveries are endless.

Most important is to build trust. Some of us knew each other in the group from the start, while others were strangers. We left nothing to chance where building trust was concerned. At our first session we promised each other confidentiality. Nothing that anyone wrote and read aloud was to be repeated outside the group. If you are starting this kind of writing group, it can take time to go around the circle and have each one, in turn, commit to this promise, but do it anyway, even if you are all friends to begin with. And remind each other regularly about that debt to confidentiality. One way to raise the issue occasionally is for people to express thanks for that gift, for the freedom to be honest or to explore a difficult issue without worrying about their story being told by someone else. My experience with this initial covenant is that trust develops quickly and deeply. Each member is able to discover and express a full range of feelings in a confidential setting.

Well, by now you may be wondering if this writing in a group is actually psychoanalysis. It is not. That’s a second boundary we put in place as the group formed. When someone reads aloud a piece of fast writing, or talks about what they were writing, our response is to say, “Thank you.” We don’t try to correct or fix anyone. No one says, “Well you should just…” or “Why don’t you…” We just say, “Thank you.” I think gratitude is one of the great gifts of our writing together. No one has to shape up or settle down or all those parental-sounding responses to self-discovery. The writing is what it is. And we’re grateful for it.

And what, exactly, is it, this writing we do in a group? It’s fast and unedited, stream-of-consciousness writing. We have Natalie Goldberg to thank for this process. Don’t cross out or correct spelling or steer your thoughts, she tells us. Feel free to produce the worst writing in the universe! It’s just writing practice, isn’t it? So, she advises, practice making your hand move across the page, right across the margins, if you like. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write like crazy. When the time is up, stop. Then read aloud if you want to. Then go for another 10 minutes, and another 10.

Begin with remembering

We find, even now, there’s no better place to begin than Natalie Goldberg’s, “I remember.” Whenever your pen stops, just repeat “I remember” and keep going. Remember as much as you can: the sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and touches of your life. Be specific. Name the cities, streets, beaches, stores. And sometimes, when your pen stops, try “I don’t remember” and keep going. It can be like turning over a rock and discovering what was hidden or half-buried.

Recently we began by making a list of a dozen “seasons of my life” and chose one to follow up in fast writing that began, “I remember.” Lists are great prompters of memories. Remember skipping through recess in grade five, playing marbles in the spring, playing softball in the field, skating on the pond, building forts? And lately, we have discovered that taking a particular year and a season of childhood or adolescence yields lots of memories. As we age, we cherish these memories and can be guided by them to be more playful, more open to new experiences. And we can consider our lives’ turning points and how they changed us.

It is in Kathleen Adams’ book Journal To The Self that these starting places for writing are called, “springboards.” She provides dozens of places to begin in using writing for personal growth, including lists, dialogues, and stepping stones. Her exercises aren’t intended for fast writing particularly, but that’s how we worked through them, and it was very rich.

After all these years of writing together, our group’s favorite springboards come from lyric poems. Someone in the group brings a poem by a published poet and reads it aloud (sometimes more than once, sometimes more than one reader) and we each grab a line we like and run with it. The line may get repeated several times as a way to keep the writing going and to give it a lovely unity and coherence. Many a piece of fast writing has turned into a poem through the repeated line or image from someone else’s poem: Lucille Clifton’s “I am running into a new year”(4); and Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day"  (5), for instance, we have used several times.

Companionship for self-discovery

Sometimes in a piece of fast writing, a member of the group gets into deep water, into hidden depths they didn’t set out to explore. This is where writing in a group is so liberating. If we find ourselves writing and reading aloud about loss, others are listening, withholding judgment. The writing group is a listening ear, with the possibility for consolation and compassion. If someone discovers in writing a new path to take, the possibility for healing, the writing group rejoices. These responses help to build self-esteem. In our group, we are learning how not to apologize before we read aloud, how not to preface our reading with a disclaimer like, “This isn’t very good” or “I have no idea where this is going.” We keep an informal list of some of our earlier disclaimers. We joke that we’re going to number them and put the list on a t-shirt someday, so we only have to point to one of them before reading. We can grieve in this group. We can laugh. We don’t need to apologize.

As we age, what more can be discovered about oneself by writing in a group than by writing alone? It may be that we push ourselves a little harder when others in our group are encouraging us. That woman who came to my first writing workshop, having written only cards and notes on calendars, is still writing poems. She is in her 99th year, nearly blind, and living in a retirement home, but she’s still writing poems. Because of her limited vision, she has to wait until someone comes into her room who can write the poems down, but she’s still writing. For all of us in this writing group, she has been an important mentor. Her poems about aging reveal her authentic voice, her unflinching gaze at her past and present. She’s not afraid to write about loss, aging, sex, sisterhood, moving house, God and her faith. She inspires and encourages our group, even now that she lives an hour away and can no longer write with us. And she continues to inspire the many others who have read the poems she has published, including her self-published book, Light All Around Me (edited by Ellen B. Ryan, whose article appears elsewhere in this newsletter).

There is a deep well of wisdom available to those who gather in a group to write. We all want to know, especially as we age, what really matters in life; what to carry forward and what to leave behind. And here, month after month, year after year, we hear from a dozen writers, our trusted friends, what makes life precious and how each one has discovered those treasures of the heart.

In our group, some are retired teachers, a couple are counselors, some are published writers, and all are voracious readers and love words. We trust one another’s wisdom, distilled from years of reading widely and from our lives’ experiences. Our writing sessions, between 10-minute writing practices, include conversations about ideas. Of course, given our ages (fifties to nineties) we are learning about aging but also, because it pops up in our writing, about childhood and play and creativity and a hundred other subjects. Always, through our poem springboards, we are in touch with that wider community of writers, treating Emily Dickinson, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, and many other poets, male and female, as our mentors and guides in life.

Sometimes, writing in a group, we experience that relatively rare feeling of awe. Perhaps it comes as goose bumps when one of our oldest members writes about aging with devastating honesty. It may happen when someone writes and shares what an experience in the world of nature was like, what a particular place was like. Some in our group would describe these moments of rare insight as experiences of the sacred, of meeting the Holy One, of being touched by God. Others would shy away from God-language and might describe feeling very small in the face of something large and mysterious. Because all of us in the group are exploring our lives and what meaning they have, these moments happen more often than in daily life. Our responses in such break-through moments are common responses to awe: tenderness, sympathy, gratitude. We encourage each other, console each other, hope for each other, trust each other. We spark off each others’ words and images. We are patient with slow growth, compassionate with setbacks, eager for news of the inner life. We cheer each other on for the apt word here, the resonant image there, and the courage to move that hand across the page without stopping in order to discover something undreamed of, unarticulated until this very moment. 

A Letter to Old Poets
(Inspired by Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet)

You are never too old to write poems
even if you never wrote them before

within you is a lifetime of feelings
begging to be in notebooks or published

share the long journey you have made
reveal all your hidden secrets and lusts

As elder, you can get away with anything
write outrageously, courageously and often

what can they do to you at your age
if you speak truth to power in poems


or mock the sacred and silly which now
makes no sense to you or just amuses

in these years of your earned wisdom
write your learning, fantasies, hopes

recall beauty that made you gasp
or ugliness that made you groan

give yourself permission to write
imperfectly for yourself or others

please put down on paper what you can tear up
or give those who need to hear the old poets

— Ruth Harriet Jacobs



* Robert Sward (2010). Iowa. In M. F. Vespry AND E. Ryan (Eds), Celebrating Poets over 70. Hamilton, ON: McMaster Centre for Gerontological Studies. Iowa.
  Copyright (c) 2004, 2011 by Robert Sward. Reprinted from "Collected Poems, 1957-2004," Black Moss Press, and, "New and Selected Poems, 1957-2011," Red Hen Press.

1 Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down The Bones. (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986.)

2 Adams, Kathleen. Journal to the Self. (New York: Warner Books, 1990.)

3 Jaffe, Ellen. Writing Your Way. (Toronto: Sumach Press, 2001.)

4 Sewell, Marilyn, Ed. Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women’s Spirituality. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.)

5 Ibid.