Wednesday, May 6

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, May 06, 2015 8 comments
I volunteered to run a workshop on writing at a women's retreat for my church. Our congregation has more than its fair share of highly educated people, situated as we are near several major universities and medical institutions. With that in mind, I've been busy assembling some writing exercises to appeal to brainy spiritual people who want to take a break from the grind and do something different.

The retreat speaker's theme is "Things Not Seen," which provided a good jumping off point for the kinds of exercises I plan to offer. I don't know exactly who will turn up and where they are in their particular writing journey, so I've had to think broadly about topics that could be thought-provoking and nourishing to both veterans and newbies.

Things Not Seen: Writing Explorations

We cannot see the wind, but its force is powerful.

Hidden blocks: why I don't write

"Losing our voices is a natural outcome of trying to ignore what bothers us." --Georgia Heard, Writing Toward Home 34.

What rumblings in daily life are too painful to face? Make you feel resigned and helpless? Write about what is rumbling for you, what bothers you. What prevents you from seeing or changing the situation? It's not an ideal environment that you most need, but rather honesty and awareness. Brainstorm what your personal blocks are and how you might move toward clarity.

Inner Critics
"To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing." --Elbert Hubbard

To write, you have to face the inner sources of criticism, those harsh voices in your head that fill you with doubt and a sense of defeat. Identify them. What do they look like? Where do they work? How did they enter your life? How did they gain power over you? Personify these voices in as much detail as you can.

Write a letter to your critics and let your anger flow. How have they harmed you? It might help to express the specific fears you have about writing that they have exacerbated. Express how you will protect yourself from their negativity.

Now imagine your muse/guardian angel/Holy Spirit who knows and loves you and wants you to flourish and help others flourish through the beautiful truths you share. Write what you hope and dream for your writing. Write how you would like this protective spirit to keep you safe inside, what messages you most need to hear, and what resources you need in order to write.

Lack of vision
"Where there is no vision, the people perish." Proverbs 29:18a

Perhaps your desire to write has been a vague rumbling you've been unable to articulate. Without a sense of the why, you indefinitely put off starting any project. What you most need is to draw to the surface an inner passion that has been pushed to the back burner.

Take some time to brainstorm and think more deeply about why your desire to write exists. Complete this sentence: I want to write because _____. Be specific. Is there a particular truth you want to share? An audience you want to engage with? Have stories shaped you in a significant way that you want to engage with more deeply at this stage of life? Is there a set of skills you want to develop? A favorite author you wish to emulate?

Hidden Emotions

Emotions are the raw material for all creative writing (and quite a lot of nonfiction as well). Use one of the following prompts to delve into a strong emotion, and let your exploration lead you toward the beginnings of a work of memoir, fiction or poetry.

Don't be afraid to begin with brainstormed jots and lists, or snippets of conversation, or messy stream-of-consciousness musings. Think of your first step as "making clay" that can then be shaped.

Repressed anger can be a major block to creativity, as it tends to fester and cause deep soul damage. Release anger by writing about it, as a journal entry, a poem, or channeled through a fictional character. Be brutally honest, holding nothing back.

Unresolved sadness in your life can be another major creativity blocker. Write about a significant place of loss you have been reticent to address. Circle around the edges, gradually going deeper into details and the emotions they stir up in you. Turn these musings into a memoir of loss, a poem, or story about a character grieving a loss--or struggling to do so.

Your deepest secrets are your deepest, truest sources of story material. To access that material, you have to bravely allow those secrets to come to the surface, at least in your own consciousness. Write a list that completes this sentence: "I could never tell...." Feel free to throw in some pseudo secrets and to scribble out anything you are completely mortified to admit. The goal is to think about and acknowledge these deeper stories. The act of acknowledging them to yourself will allow you to tap into the power this material has.  You might find, in giving your secrets to a fictional caretaker to grapple with, the old shame releases its hold on you.

Being scared is one of the key drivers of all human behavior. It often tinges even places where we should feel most confident or at ease. Write about the things that consistently leave you uneasy or even terrify you. What worst-case scenarios often invade your imagination? Write about them in detail. Put a fictional character through your worst fears. How will he or she cope?

Desire and longing--inner passion--are powerful drivers that can combat fear. Think of a time when you fell in love, whether with a person, a place, or a discovered passion for something. Write about that experience, either as memoir, poem, or channeled through a fictional character's slightly different details. What did this person, place, thing, experience call forth from you (or him/her)? What fullness did it offer you (him/her)?

A desire for peace and harmony is a deep longing of the human heart. Write about a time/place when you experienced being fully welcomed and loved. Include as much detail as possible. Alternately, think of what kinds of moments, relationships, or environments would enable you to experience comfort and peace. Describe it for yourself or a fictional character.

Pivotal Moments
This is a mix-and-match exercise for exploring emotion in all its complexity. Choose a word or phrase from each list to select a mattering moment. Consider why it is significant to you, or a fictional character you create. How did/does it shift your/her self concept, approach to tasks, relationships? Write a memoir piece, poem, or short story.

List A
first, last, best, worst

List B
memory, accident, surprise, school day, class, performance, game, event, outing, vacation, holiday, pet, project, date, kiss, relationship, job, car, home

Final discussion

At the end of our time, we'll wrap up with sharing a little of what each person has written or a reflection on the exercise chosen and what was gleaned from the experience.

Which of these prompts appeal to you most? What is  your experience with retreat workshops?


  1. Oh, I like these a lot! I've never really done a writing/retreat workshop, but I would like to.

    1. I only have 1.5 hours to work with folks, since this is primarily a spiritual retreat. But you could create your own mini retreat by taking on a prompt from each of the two main sections and scribbling away for a day.

  2. All of these prompts sound good! - I can't pick one! This statement jumped out at me: "Circle around the edges, gradually going deeper into details and the emotions they stir up in you."

    1. I guess that's good, that there are lots of appealing options? I believe that quote was in my grief section, right? I'm most acquainted with using that emotion to write a story, as you know from my first novel. But I think that detail-diving and circling the edges could work with processing any difficult emotion.

  3. I fear I'd get bogged down in trying to choose a prompt and that in itself would keep me from writing. A sad thing to admit but an honest one.

    1. I had the participants first introduce themselves and talk about their writing experiences. From that I suggested prompts I thought would help them; I would have done the same for you. :-) Overwhelmingly, it was critical inner voices that keep most of them from doing more than privately journaling.

  4. What a great workshop! You have something for everyone, so they'll be engaged.

    1. Thanks. They enjoyed it so much, the group wants to keep meeting!