Walk and Write: Interview with Cheryl Murfin, Founder of Compass Writers

Saturday, May 25, 2024
Holy Island

Today, I'm excited to interview Cheryl Murfin, founder of Compass Writers, a support writing community that hosts workshops, retreats, and more that help writers and artists along their journey. They are hosting a Walk & Write Retreat in 2024 that is scheduled this year from September 20 through September 29 at  St. Cuthbert's Way in Scotland. It's a 9-day retreat that will explore several themes: seeing and listening deeply, facing the writing void, and exploring one's truth in narrative, poetic, or personal journaling form. This workshop is open to writers of all levels, whether you haven't picked up that pen since high school or you're well-published. 

About Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin

The most important thing to know about Cheryl Murfin is that she loves to write and to encourage and support other writers. She received a BA in Journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter for six years. She has been a contributor to numerous magazines over the past 35 years and is currently managing editor of Seattle's Child. She co-authored one travel book and contributed to two Fodor's travel guides. She holds a Master's of Integrated Arts in Education. Cheryl has led free writing groups for 20 years and is a certified Amherst Writers & Artists facilitator. She conceived Compass Writers during her thesis work and after walking retreats after walking and writing the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, Scotland's West Highland Way, and portions of the Via Francigena. 

--- Interview by Nicole Pyles

WOW: I'm so thankful you are joining us today! What inspired you to start organizing writing retreats that combine walking, nature, and artistic activities?

Cheryl: Every now and then, as a writer, I find myself stuck, and no amount of staring at the blank page seems to make my fingers budge. But I noticed many years ago that when I take a walk (30 minutes or more), my mind seems to open up. Ideas flow as I stroll, and by the time I get home, something makes its way to the page. The impact on my writing was more profound when I walked in nature. 

I was curious if this was just me or if something else, possibly biological, was at play. Around the same time, I started hearing about a new approach to education: Arts-Integrated Education. In a nutshell, the model couples art-making with an academic subject to support the learning of both disciplines. While the approach was developed for K-12 education, I wondered if it might be a way to enhance creativity in writers. 

So, I decided to get a master's degree in arts-integrated education, focusing on writing. I enrolled in the Creative Pulse masters program at the University of Montana, a wildly creative space where ample research confirmed my ideas. Movement and art stimulate the brain's creative centers and can help writers—or anyone engaged in "thinking" work—access new ideas, broaden old ones, and otherwise get unstuck. 

I combined all I learned to create the Compass Writers Walking Writers Retreat

Walk and Write for Creativity

On the first few walks, I measured walking writers' creativity using standard assessments. I also asked participants to report on the frequency of their writing practice. All participants tested higher on the creativity scale after the walk than before and continued to test higher at three months, six months, and one year post-retreat. At six months, most participants also continued a daily writing practice—even those who did not identify as writers and wrote only sporadically before the retreat. It's not a scientific study, but enough to convince me I'm on to something!

WOW: I love the methodology you used to build the program. How do physical activities, like walking and yoga, contribute to the creative writing process? 

Cheryl: At the most basic level, these activities increase blood flow to the brain and oxygen to the lungs, both needed for the brain's creative centers to function at their highest level. On top of that, by occupying the body with movement, your thoughts open up. Often, the body, its needs, and the needs of the environment around us pull us from our thoughts and our work. When I move, I think better, and I've found that's true for a lot of other writers. In my own experience, if I am working on a piece and can't quite get it out, a walk always gets me closer to the solution to the problem I am facing in my writing.

WOW: I really think there is something to that. Can you explain the Amherst Writers & Artists method and how it creates a safe and nurturing environment for writers?

Cheryl: AWA is about inclusion, celebrating each writer's unique voice however it comes and equalizing the writing playing field. In the AWA approach, no writer is superior to others. You are a writer if you move your fingers across a keyboard, pen across paper, or use assistive devices to get your words down. And that means you are an artist. 

Compass Women's Writing Retreat
In an AWA retreat, we do not "workshop." Instead, we give each other positive feedback on what we write—what works with a piece? What stays with the reader? We do this understanding that receiving positive feedback inherently leads a writer to notice for themselves what may not work in a piece. If no one mentions the line you thought should win the Pulitzer, then perhaps you'll rethink that line. 

Most importantly, AWA understands that writing is scary for some people, especially marginalized people or those who received papers full of red ink back in grade school. We create a space where all are welcome, treated as equals, and respected, no matter how they use the English language—or don't! All that we share is drafted the day we read it back so that all are at the same draft level of vulnerability.

WOW: That's amazing! How have writing retreats helped writers with their existing projects or their overall creative spirit?

Cheryl: Often, writers will bring a project they are working on and use the prompts we engage in during the walk to further that piece of work or explore it in new ways. However, no one is forced to use the prompts. A writer is invited to write what they want or need on a walk, prompts be damned. The walk is their space and time. I supply the movement, nature, and art to boost the process, should they want or need it.

WOW: I think that's great. Do you have to do a lot of art to join a walk?

Cheryl: Absolutely not! We've had zero Picassos so far. Let's be clear on the art. The exercises we are doing are brain stimulators, not high art. You do not have to have any background in art to participate. Stick figures are A-Ok! 

WOW: Ha, well that's great to hear! What is the significance of choosing a pilgrimage route like St. Cuthbert's Way for the writing retreat?

Cheryl: Pilgrimage routes are super conducive to writing. They have a certain ancient and spiritual buzz above them, whether you are an atheist or have a spiritual discipline you follow. They are created to "hold space" and invite walkers deeper into their thoughts and feelings. It's essential for writers interested in walking with me to know that I bring no religious affiliation, spiritual practice, or belief in anything beyond their writing on a walk.

St. Cuthbert's Way Walking Retreat
We will approach this path from a historical perspective. Scotland has dubbed St. Cuthbert's one of the country's official historic walkways. 

That said, you will see many nods to the region's religious history and to individuals revered or considered holy within that history. If that spirituality inspires you, lovely. But my goal for the retreat is for writers to find deep connections along the path—with each other, with themselves, and with nature.

Pilgrimage, at its essence, is the act of stepping out of one's ordinary life for a time to consider new thoughts, explore emotions, and contemplate one's inner world. A pilgrimage starts at one place, has a midpoint, and arrives at another place, internally and externally. To me, writing is a pilgrimage.

WOW: That's so profound. How do you ensure that the writing activities and prompts are inclusive and accessible to writers of all levels?

Cheryl: The AWA approach is designed for just that purpose: to make writers of all levels, abilities, and cultures feel safe, included, and respected. This philosophy drives everything I do.

WOW: How do you prepare participants for the physical demands of the walking portions of the retreat?

Cheryl: I offer participants a walker training plan. It's up to them to do it!

WOW: Good to know! What are some of the most rewarding aspects of facilitating these writing retreats?

Cheryl: It is an extraordinary thing to watch others meet the physical and emotional challenges of a long walk, whether they walk every step or make that distance in some other way. And it is always a great and sometimes humbling honor for me to hear the brand new words of writers that flow from these miles.

WOW: That must be so amazing. Can you share any plans or ideas for future writing retreats or locations you would like to explore?

Cheryl: In April 2025, I'll take a group of walking writers along the Kumano Kodo, a Japanese pilgrimage known for its lush environments and the country's most sacred temples. We're still in the planning stages, but we'll have eight spots in that retreat, and five are already filled. So if anyone is interested in joining, email me at cherylmurfin@gmail.com!

WOW: I hope people join! You have until June 15 to join the current event to Walk & Write at St. Cuthbert's Way.


Angela Mackintosh said...

What an inspiring interview! I agree, walking is such an invigorating way to spark creativity. I enjoyed hearing about the AWA way of sharing positive feedback, and that is so important for writers in the generative stage. I also enjoy creating illustrations for my written pieces.

Both the retreats sound amazing! I'm actually half Scottish and half Okinawan, so both places are special to me, and while I've been to Japan many times, I've never been to Scotland. I'm checking out your site. :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I love this idea of pilgrimage and a pilgrimage path to further writing. Also artistic exercises to open us up to things that are new. It is so easy to become mired.

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