As a reader of blogs, you know that reading what others are writing – what they are writing about and how they are expressing themselves – is helpful in your own thinking and, potentially, is helpful for your own writing. I asked Kay Windsor to join me in a conversation about how group writing and writing to prompts can help one develop one’s writing voice and also can help us deal with difficult life issues. Kay blogs for and is blog co-administrator for Farther Along and is a retired high school English and journalism teacher. This is the first of two blog posts of our conversation.
Julie Dodd: Your Farther Along blog group started writing together in 2002 – with 13 mothers coming together as each of you had lost a child. How has this writing group helped all of you deal with such tragic losses.
Kay Windsor: Writing about our children and the grief we experienced allowed us to begin healing, and it allowed us a safe place to write and read those writings about our children. Carol Henderson, who leads our group, had studied research by Dr. James Pennebaker from University of Texas, who found that writing about a trauma helped to strengthen a person’s immune system and had several other health benefits.
Julie Dodd: How has being part of a writing group helped you and the group’s members become “better” writers?
Kay Windsor: Few of us in the group considered ourselves writers when we began meeting, but we had registered for an all-day Writing Toward Healing Workshop, hoping for some way to find help as we moved through grief.
As we continued to meet and write about our children and about our lives, we became more comfortable with writing. We wrote long email conversations between the writing sessions. Continued writing and hearing/reading the writing from others in the group also helped. We have read books together then written from prompts drawn from them. We were encouraged to keep journals and write often. And we have built on each other’s writing experiences. So writing has begotten more writing and that has probably made us all better writers.
When we had been writing together for a couple of years, we decided we wanted to share our writings with others who had experienced loss. (It took only 7 to 8 years from idea to publication.) We started the Farther Along blog when the book was in the publication process because we had thousands of pages of writing we still wanted to share—and we keep writing.
Julie Dodd: I saw from reading your blog that everyone in your blog group wrote to the same prompt — Behind Closed Doors. When you do group writing, how do you use prompts? And do you read your writing aloud to the group?
Kay Windsor: Yes, we usually write to prompts—sometimes a phrase, an object, a line from a poem, an experience— and read aloud (if we choose) our own pieces to the group. Writing to the same prompt often allows us to approach a hard topic or event from a “slant.” (Think Emily Dickinson’s: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” and her use of slant rhyme or think of photographing an object from an unusual angle to change the perspective and see it differently.)
The prompts allow us a package of sorts, too, and within that package we can sometimes handle the memories or impressions or events better. It reminds me of the Montessori methods used in my children’s early school. A structure was offered but within that structure there was a vast amount of freedom. It’s also like the grammar of a language: A structure exists, and knowing how the structure works offers freedom to express oneself more precisely and clearly.
Our prompt writing is based on Pat Schneider’s Amherst Writers and Artists method, with whom Carol Henderson had studied after her son died. Carol uses the prompt-writing-sharing methods with health care professionals, ministers, a group of teenaged girls, the bereaved, anyone who wants to write and many who do not think they can write. (See Carol’s website for more information.)
Carol has started many groups, but we were one of her first ones, and we have remained together and continued to write. The book Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Mothers by Carol Henderson tells the story of the first five years of our group. Examples of the writing from several of the prompts and the story of how the group met and continued to write ourselves “farther along” is included. We started the Farther Along blog in 2011 so that we might include many of the pieces we did not have room for in the book—and to offer a place for others to respond to the writing.
I had also used reflective writing prompts in my high school English and journalism courses. By the time my seniors had written dozens of five-paragraph expository essays or practiced news writing or editorial writing, they sometimes had difficulty finding their writer’s voice in writing personal essays. I used Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life with my students as inspiration and as a source for writing prompts. I also adapted some of the prompts we used in our Farther Along group for my classes.
Julie Dodd: With your “Story and bridges” post, how did the group writing process affect how you wound up writing this post?
Kay Windsor: For the “Story and bridges” writing, I read (without too much disclaimer) the random thoughts I had written about closed doors and what they had meant in my life. As I wrote, I had remembered a time when I had encountered the closed door of my daughter’s bedroom and heard giggles behind it again. When I posted the writing, I did not include all the meanderings but just the scene that I could see through the slightly open door. The comments in our group led me to realize that the strongest part of the writing was the scene where four granddaughters brought life to the room again.