Writers Making Magic or Hosting a Writing Marathon

teaching-writingI admit that the first time I heard the term “Writing Marathon” I shuddered. I am not a runner and prefer my reluctant cardio sessions at the gym so I can watch TV and listen to music. However, as a seasoned National Writing Project teacher and director, I have come to embrace the concept and love them. If I had my way every Morehead Writing Project event would include a writing marathon and I would host them for every student and teacher and writer in my reach on a regular basis. Maybe when I’m Queen of the World…

There are many variations of the writing marathon and I have seen them work equally well with young writers, teen writers, and adult writers. Today, I’m going to talk about three forms – the traditional writing marathon, the writing walkabout, and the digital writing marathon.

I love the traditional writing marathon as described by Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. As I was taught by NWP (and Richard Louth), the format is very simple. The focus is on writers writing together. There should be a brief introduction to the concept of the writing marathon and an explanation of the procedure for the day but then you simply give the writers time to write and then share some of that writing. You can do this in small chunks over days or weeks or you can do this over and over and over again in a few days. The more writing the better but make sure to leave time for sharing. We use this model for our writing retreats and for our Teen Writers Day Out. For example, our most recent Teen Writers Day Out we hosted about 130 teens from three different schools. We seated them randomly in groups of eight (using numbers on the front of the journals we gave them as they entered the room) and began the day sharing the three rules for the day: You are a writer, You will write, and You will share. I typically have them write in three different forms or cycles. For example, we began with six word stories then moved to Twitter fiction and concluded with a poetry slam. We offer different options for sharing. We have a graffiti wall set up for students to post their work anonymously, we have a Twitter feed, and we encourage sharing at their tables. We also have a microphone set up for large group sharing between each session.

There is another form of writing marathon that we at MWP tend to call the writing walkabout or moveable feast, as inspired by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. This form of writing marathon is popular at our site during our Summer Institute and our writing camps. It has much in common with the previous model, the focus is still on writing together and sharing, but this model includes moving writers physically to different locations. Typically, organizers select an area (such as an urban neighborhood, college campus, park) that offers a selection of venues where writers can find inspiration and small groups move together from spot to spot and write about the inspiration they find at the scene. Often food is an important part of these sessions as one or more restaurants or cafes are included on the itinerary. We typically end our Summer Institute Walkabout at a restaurant where we share the highlights of our writing over food. I think this model is very easily adapted to content area writing as the sites for your writing can be adapted to the focus or your lesson or unit.

While there is much to be said for sharing physical space and proximity with writers, thanks to social media we no longer need to do so to write and share together. After learning about the writing walkabout, my online summer institute urged me to organize a digital writing walkabout. Our vision included creating a list of places that could be found in all our communities, such as a cemetery or bank, and then to write together and sharing digitally while hundreds or thousands of miles apart. I was also able to organize a digital writing marathon for the Morehead Writing Project’s National Day On Writing Celebration. For five days writers of all ages throughout our region were able to write together – either in person by visiting the graffiti walls we had set up in Morehead or using Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. I was so pleased with our inaugural effort to see teachers posting their own writing and sharing the writing of their students. We had a number of teens post but also middle school and elementary students as well. It was exciting to have contact with students I normally would not meet and to share writing with them. I think they enjoyed the writing as well as seeing what others had written in response to the same prompt. (Find daily archives here)

One of my missions in life – as an NWP director and as a writing ambassador (is that redundant?) – is to celebrate and encourage writing and writers. Writing marathons are effortless but the rewards far outweigh the preparation required and once you have led a few you will find that this is an easy way to get people writing just for the pleasure of putting pen to paper and talking about writing with other writers. (read more about our most recent writing marathon)

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