Belonging to a community of writers is as important as the solitude I need to devote myself to my writing practice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat community often takes the form of a circle of writers at a retreat centre where we gather to learn from a master teacher and from one another. Time to devote to our practice is an important aspect of the retreat which offers teaching, solitude and a circle of belonging. (Photo: Patrick Lane and Pam Porter at Honeymoon Bay Retreat Centre, Summer 2011)

I lead writing circles as well and have found support for my own story as well as delight in witnessing others write their memories and share their insights. It’s an honour to be in the presence of such revelations. While success may be defined by many as being published, there has been, to me, no greater pleasure than being heard by a circle of attentive listeners only wishing me well.

When we send our work into the world we’re following the guidelines of a particular literary journal for example. We have in mind an editor – or more often, several of them, who will judge our work. They have their own personal preferences and experiences and may be guided by some academic standards taught to them at institutions of higher learning.

Whatever happens out there is beyond our control. With that judgment in mind, our work could be stilted – not sounding like us at all. Instead we’re trying to create something an editor will accept.

I chuckled when I read about the late William Stafford’s writing practice during which time he’d lie down on the living room couch in front of the window where he could see the giant fir trees and rhododendrons outside – especially the part about not having any standards.

“I’m lying there relaxed. I have a blank sheet in front of me. I put the date on the top, and I start letting whatever swims into my attention get written down on the page. I probably have as relaxed an approach as anybody does. I welcome anything that comes along. I don’t have any standards. I know that I’m the only one that is going to see this, unless something eventuates that I think might be helpful to an editor. I put it this way because I am not trying to contend for a place in magazines or in books. I’m just letting my attention flow where it wants to flow. And the relaxation of it is part of the charm for me.” (From an interview with William Stafford called “Opening the Moment” in Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further Views on the Writer’s Vocation edited by Paul Merchant and Vincent Wixon, The University of Michigan Press, 1998.) The highlighting in bold is mine!

circleofstonesIn the circles I lead, we share what we’ve just written while together. The writing is from the heart and hasn’t been edited or polished to suit a market. We listen to one another and echo back words and phrases that resonate with us.

In this atmosphere of acceptance, we reach further into our knapsack of memories, we take risks with form, we even think about sharing our writing beyond the circle.

As I have always considered writing one of the wellness practices, one of my favourite passages in A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write by Melissa Pritchard (Bellevue Literary Press, 2015) in the chapter, “Spirit and Vision,” is this one:

“What you have chosen is a profound vocation of healing, and your stories and poems are as sacraments, as visible blessings. Be at the heart and soul of your time, not resigned to what is safe or peripheral. Try to free yourself from attachment to results, to awards, publications, praise, to indifference, rejection, and misunderstanding. Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice – not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) – your authentic voice, supported by sacred reality, may be heard. May your words illuminate your vision, find you compassionate, attuned to human suffering and committed to its alleviation. May truth and its pursuit render your stories and poems and novels of supreme importance in this perilous, inarguably critical time.”

I only had welcoming friends in mind when I started to write a blog. It was to be “A Poet’s Nanaimo” inspired by Eric Maisel’s book, A Writer’s San Francisco.
I wrote about poets and literary events and I imagined writing of other aspects of Nanaimo’s culture and history. In July, the blog became more personal when I was diagnosed with cancer. And it just may be that at that time I found my “authentic voice supported by sacred reality.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat I wrote in the blog started in a journal, handwritten. While memories would surface, everything was very much rooted in the present. I realized that was always the way it would have to be if I were to write about my childhood, leaving my marriage, coming out as a lesbian – all of it would have to be grounded in the here and now.

A journal doesn’t usually get shared (although I know there are some famous examples of published journals) but it was important for me to have supportive listeners/readers. My blog list of subscribers grew and I appreciated comments back. Not about publication or non-publication but heartfelt responses from people who read words that resonated with them.

Without a physical circle of writers this circle of blog readers has been my support, witnessing my journey, becoming constant companions.

Not fearing judgment, I’ve honestly told my story. I’ve blended it with what I’ve read and been inspired by. All those writers, even those long dead, have been an influence as they left a legacy for all of us who follow in their footsteps.

A couple of weeks ago, I declared myself ready for a writing circle again. On Tuesday of this week, seven women joined me in my living room for the Writing Life Circle. We wrote from and about our lives and together we’ll create and nurture our writing lives.

cookbookOur theme is: “Finding Our Stories in the Every Day.” They’re all there – in the cup of coffee on the table at breakfast, the old teapot on the sill, the cookbook stained with remnants of previously prepared dishes.

lascauxgoddessI opened the circle with a passage from Christina Baldwin’s book Calling the Circle. The introduction to the book is dated 1997 which was when I started offering women’s writing circles in my living room in Toronto.

“Many, many thousands of years ago . . .we experienced a radical dependence upon all of nature. We were her daughters and sons, and so we named her Mother. We carved images of the goddess Mother, crawled into womblike caves, made offerings to the land, threw gifts of incense into the fire, built cairn stone altars, notched the trunks of trees to mark our passage, danced and drummed and sang, and held council in the sacred shape of the circle.”

tingshaWomen have found the circle to be an oasis in the midst of their busy lives. Even before the ting sha rings or the opening poem is read or the candle is lit, they can feel the calm intention of the circle. We learn to be leaders in the circle and we share our vulnerabilities – or perhaps I ought to say, by sharing our vulnerabilities we become leaders.

We follow a prompt or a reading which could be a poem like “The House of Belonging” by David Whyte or a personal essay such as “Dark Water” by Lorna Crozier, and we find our own stories. With the support of one another, and the circle, we find a soulful connection to ourselves.

As poet Molly Peacock said: “Circles, which have no beginning or end, transform time into holy space, like talismans of experiencing.” (from How to Read a Poem . . . and Start a Poetry Circle by Molly Peacock, McClelland & Stewart, 1999).