Sometimes when I’m in a group and we’re talking about keeping things confidential, I feel myself nodding and see others nodding (yes, of course, we’ll keep confidentiality), and I wonder if we’re actually thinking about what confidentiality means and why it’s important. Or are we just agreeing to confidentiality as a condition of belonging to the group? Of course we won’t talk about what Sally wrote, or pass along what Kevin said about his writing. We are nice people. We would never do such a thing. But then you get outside the group, and something that made an impact, whether it’s something someone wrote or said, is still with you, gee, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to scratch that itch, to express your surprise or dismay or alarm or amusement. What would it hurt? Who would know?
The Writing Group as Container
To understand the importance of confidentiality, it may help to think of the writing group as a container that we co-create for our mutual safety and benefit. You yourself are a kind of container for your own writing – when you find a regular place to go to, a regular time, music that feeds your muse, a warm mug in the hand, a journal or a pen that just feel right – you are putting in place the elements of a reliable container in which you can feel, imagine, think, dream, and write. You know that in these conditions, chances are good that you will be able to embark on that journey that only writing makes possible.
Confidentiality as Safety Net
The container of a group can provide an even more resilient and robust space for creativity to happen. And in addition to a regular meeting space, a regular time, rituals like brownies and tea—the practice of confidentiality is one of the conditions that create and maintain a strong container for the group. Confidentiality is the condition that allows people to go further than they might allow themselves to go on their own. Knowing that our words will stay within the group, within the space in which we write, we can take risks, explore the things that have begged to be written but perhaps we were too afraid to write alone. We can try on different selves, different voices, say yes to the images that don’t make sense, the words that we aren’t sure about but that call to us anyway. It is in this experimentation that we get to stretch and strengthen our creativity, where we are able to glimpse the larger mystery of who we are. Confidentiality is the net that allows us to toe our way out along the tight rope. We know it will be there if we fall.
Confidentiality Serves All of Us
It may be obvious that confidentiality serves the writer. But I believe that it also serves the listener. How? Confidentiality tells you, as the listener, that you don’t have to take anything with you. It tells you when your work is done. Picture confidentiality as a boundary encircling the group. As you leave the group, you pass beyond the boundary, and you can leave everything there, you can drop the weight of whatever you were asked to hold. You don’t need to take it with you – and in fact, confidentiality is a gift that lets you leave it behind. We all have enough work to do without picking up work we aren’t asked to do.
I don’t want to overstate this or make people feel uptight about confidentiality. My intention here is just to probe my own understanding about why it’s important, and share these thoughts in the hopes that it might help others think more deeply and imaginatively about confidentiality. To see it as a resource, in fact, and not a simple “should” that we all agree to because we are nice people.
The Shelter of Confidentiality
In some mysterious way, I believe, that in between the times we meet, the threads of all that has been written, the beginnings, the false starts, the break throughs, the sweet conclusions, the scary shadows, all of those dwell and mingle in the quiet of that space. And they grow and evolve, like bread dough rising under a tea towel on a warm stovetop. And that growth is lessened if we disturb it by talking about it outside the group.
(I’m not talking about your own writing of course. Please, please, do what you like with your own writing in between our meetings. If something got sparked, go home and fan, fan, fan those embers.)
But consider, deeply consider leaving alone, even in the quiet of your own mind, the work of others. Think of our time in the writing group as a guided beach walk, where we look under rocks to glmpse all the amazing, vibrant, creeping and crawling life going on below. On a beach walk, we leave those creatures where they are so that they can continue to thrive and live the lives they are meant to live. Our interference may thwart those unique lives that have their own pattern and meaning. We glimpse, we return the rock gently, and we continue on, living and letting live.