In Writing Down The Bones, Natalie Goldberg shared a writing exercise she uses with students called the Writing Marathon. Her rules:
Everyone in the group agrees to commit himself or herself for the full time. Then we make up a schedule. For example, a ten-minute writing session, another ten-minute session, a fifteen-minute session, two twenty-minute sessions, and then we finish with a half-hour round of writing. So for the first session, we all write for ten minutes and then go around the room and read what we’ve written with no comments by anyone. . . . A pause naturally happens after each reader, but we do not say “That was great” or even “I know what you mean.” There is no good or bad, no praise or criticism. We read what we have written and go on to the next person. . . . What usually happens is you stop thinking: you write; you become less and less self-conscious. Everyone is in the same boat, and because no comments are made, you feel freer and freer to write anything you want. (150)
Since then, participants in the National Writing Project have modified this exercise, following the New Orleans model. Rather than stay in one place, writers travel in small groups throughout a building, park or city, stopping at select markers for each writing session. They let each place marker influence their writing during that exercise. For example, a cemetery might yield a song about death, loss, resurrection, completeness, fear, breakup, sacrifice, peace … anything that “cemetery” conjures in your mind.
This group writing exercise is ideal for churches that want to encourage and develop worship songwriters from within their congregation and nearby communities. The following is an example of what a Writing Marathon might look like using rooms in a typical church building. I’ve also included examples of some kinds of worship songs each room might inspire:
- Missions’ Office – Missions, the universal reach of God
- Pastor’s Study – Word of God, wisdom
- Children’s Wing – Kids’ songs or songs about the doctrine of Adoption
- Baptistry – songs about being born again, new life
- Janitor’s closet – working for the kingdom, service
- Pews/chairs in auditorium – songs about unity, the Church
- Food bank – social justice, mercy, benevolence
- Prayer room – the power of prayer, communion with God
I’ve used obvious examples of song themes in the list above. Let your participants come up with their own themes. You never know what will inspire someone. One single book in a Pastor’s Study or a photo in the Mission’s office may inspire any range of songs for worship.
5 Rules For Participants
1. At the beginning:
Turn to all your fellow participants and say, “I am a writer.” This ritual binds all writing marathons together, sets the tone for the day and helps you remember why you are there.
2. Write until you run out of time
Once you get to your location, your chaperone or guide sets the timer and you start writing. When the timer goes off each person in the group can read their work to the rest of the group or pass. Do not respond with criticism or encouragement – say nothing but “Thank you,” no matter how much you like or dislike the piece. This is not a critique group.
3. Strongly consider sharing, no matter how shy you are
Past Writing Marathon participants say that groups that agree to share their writing every round (no matter how bad it is) write better and enjoy the experience more than groups that don’t. After two or three rounds, each writer is often subconsciously responding to the writers who have read to them. Like the place in which they are writing, the people in each group are a key part of the experience.
4. A Writing Marathon is all about writing.
Yes, it involves small groups, a common setting, some socializing, and a sense of community. But don’t let the writing take second place to sightseeing or bonding.
5. The more writing, the better.
While everything that happens during the marathon counts toward the writing—the walking, talking, taking in the sights, sharing your work after finishing each round, keep these activities in their place. Each group should do as many rounds of writing as they can.
5 Guidelines for the Writing Marathon leader and Chaperones
1. You should have one overall leader
This person will secure any necessary permissions from pastors and facilities management in advance, and then explain the process at the beginning of the marathon. This person is also responsible for dividing participants into groups of four to six writers each, and for beginning the proceedings by having everyone turn to the participants around them and say “I am a writer.”
2. You need one Chaperone for each group as well.
This should either be someone on church staff or a key non-staff pastor, deacon or volunteer who knows the building well. The Marathon Leader can double as a Chaperone for one group.
3. Leading a Writing Marathon is different than being a participant.
You can try to participate but your job is to understand the purpose of the writing marathon well enough to communicate it to an audience that may be unfamiliar with it; to prepare ahead so that the writing marathon runs smoothly and writers don’t need to think about anything except their writing, and to keep things running smoothly, on time and according to the rules.
4. For each location you write in, your time should grow:
Maybe 10 minutes for the first location, 20 minutes for the next, 30 for the next, etc. When finished at one location, move to the next.
5. Give groups some freedom.
Let your groups choose the route and their stops. They don’t have to decide ahead of time where they plan to go. The point is to discover what it is like to write in different places, and to let the character or purpose of those places influence their content. Just keep your group moving until they see a room or area in which they’d like to write.
If your church conducts a Writing Marathon, we’d love to hear how it went, and any adjustments you made to the guidelines.
Thank you for reading our post. You can download our 4-song worship album “The Whole Big Story” for free in the top-right sidebar of this website. We’ve also heard from many churches who have enjoyed leading these songs in worship services. If you’d like to do so, download free chord sheets from the “Gilles Music” tab at the top of this page. And you can subscribe to this blog for free by clicking the RSS icon or signing up via email in the right-hand sidebar.
– Bobby & Kristen
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