The twenty-first century’s first pandemic is in full swing when I video conference with Nan Seymour. We were scheduled to meet in person but, after possible exposure to Covid-19, I am under self-quarantine while awaiting test results.
In 2015, Seymour founded River Writing — a Salt Lake City-based collective committed to writing and sharing without criticism.
Writing without criticism?
What good is that?
“River Writing takes perfectionism out of the process,” says Seymour. “There’s a delicious freedom available to us when we step out of the realm of comparison.”
Seymour speaks about unobstructed flow, an absence of preface or apology, and a space where praise (and its opposite) is withheld. The concept is foreign to me.
“Our community is committed to breaking the twin tyrannies of isolation and perfectionism,” says Seymour. “We shun the correction of spelling and syntax. We encourage an unobstructed flow from the river of inner narrative. We offer no preface, no apology. We listen. There is no praise. There is no criticism.”
The only response that River Writing promotes?
River Writing’s philosophy is based on principles of humanitarianism. Its execution is old-school. “We write by hand. We write in notebooks. We develop a conversation with the mythopoetic.”
Seymour relates traditional views of artistic creation to the trope of a despairing painter who disappears into a garret and emerges with a masterpiece. Yes, I think. We do tend to think of artistry in terms of isolation and enigma. “We write and read together,” says Seymour. “We write to prompts. We write without stopping. We read without comment.”
River Writing respects artistic creation as a spiritual practice. This philosophy is informed by Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Goldberg promotes writing as a tool for personal expression, self-exploration, and healing.
I listen. Seymour’s voice conveys thoughtfulness. She expounds, reiterates, and, effortlessly develops upon her premise: River Writing excludes apology. Participants agree to not comment, and especially to not praise one another. Seymour describes comparison as “joy-stealing.”
River Writing gives writers permission to fail, opportunity to succeed, and a space to discover without judgement. Gail Weinflash, a long-time participant, describes her experience: “I can’t imagine any other environment that so gently encourages both self-discovery and an acute awareness of others. We are inspired by reading. We write in response. We share evocations. It’s an incredible opportunity, and one I regard as both fulfilling and therapeutic.”
I visit RiverWriting.com to read about the Collective’s seven agreements: Non-judgment, Shared Responsibility, Confidentiality and Consent, Self-care, Honesty, Listening with the Heart, and Kindness.
The pen is mightier than the sword. Literary criticism is less forgiving than politics — and politicians lie. I was taught the insurmountable value of constructive criticism: name calling, flattery, sycophancy, pedantry. I am suspicious of Seymour’s project; I am also intrigued.
Seymour: “I think of writing as generative and revisionary. When you get to revision, it’s all about craft. At that point, you’re tuning it up. You need good mentors and good teachers. But generative writing is about building a certain muscle. Reading. Listening. Uncensored writing. It’s the moment we find and foster voice. River Writing is about discovery. It’s about finding voice, just like a piano player discovers and practices keys.”
Seymour believes that good writing requires honesty and specificity. She quotes the poet Robin Morgan: “Hate generalizes, love specifies.” Then she says that honest, detailed writing can provide an antidote for hate. Words have capacity to change the world for the better. “Writing this way is anti-capitalist and anti-fascist. There is a world we want, a world that we already love. We hasten this world through language.”
The collective is decidedly non-academic. It’s entirely democratic. Everyone is welcome.
Maybe even critics (like me) stand to benefit from an exercise in giving and compassion. We will see.
River Writing’s public reading, Confluence, will feature 12 readers. It’s scheduled on Zoom for Thursday, September 17th 7-8pm MST. And it’s free. Register here.
Nan Seymour founded River Writing in 2015. She provides narrative encouragement and facilitates writing and storytelling workshops for hundreds of groups and people of all ages: junior high students, writers experiencing homelessness, survivors of domestic violence, and more. Read more at NanSeymour.com or Riverwriting.com.
Calvin Jolley’s work has appeared in American Book Review, MAYDAY magazine (New American Press), Context South, Caveat Lector, Yefief, and other publications. He is a Literary Editor at 15 Bytes.
Categories: Literary Arts