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Team Blogging at Soul Food Cafe
Writing : Blogging : Zen and the Art of Team Blogging

Zen and the Art of Team Blogging

How online writing communities transform creativity

from the Box of Wonderment by Heather Blakey

"Most important of all, however, is the driving force of the manager or moderating team. Without a unifying energy a blog-group would be just a bulletin-board; with 'soul-full' guidance, it becomes a haven, womb or comfortable window-box on creation." — Ken Muller

When Chris Dunmire asked me to write about the transformative opportunities team blogging at the Soul Food Café provides, I decided to do what I did with my students when I needed information. I asked the blog team to help me identify the characteristics that have made the blogger network at Soul Food such a success.

"Your wonderful world of Lemuria has given my creativity wings to soar, challenges to push my creative talents, and a safe place to explore the murmurings of my soul. Thank you for providing this wonderful place!" wrote Shari Vogt founder of FoundArt!

Such exhilarating passion about what Soul Food offers is utterly infectious and the enthusiasm of fellow bloggers is inspirational. But, the really amazing thing is that, when I asked my 'team' to explain what dynamics actually make this blogging at Soul Food work for them, Shari's sentiment was repeated time and again.

"How can I tell another what Heather has done for me? It doesn't show from the outside. I look normal enough; I haven't changed in any way. But inside the darkness has opened to reveal the sun. Words have spilled from the hidden depths and brought my own spirit to the surface. I can run though the fields of my mind, open to the new. Heather brings me confidence to go forward and discover what lies beneath. She gives me a place to be heard and it means everything to me. She gives me a place to open up along side others who may journey for different reasons. We journey together in a virtual world that allows us freedom to dream" wrote Luna Eternally.

"The blogs have enabled me to be brave enough to share my fun drawings done with a WACOM and to delight in combining story and painting. Other's stories send me to my drawing pad and their pictures to poetry. The feedback through comments is so joyous." — Fran Sbrocchi

Let us unpack this to see what Shari and Luna are telling us about the secret ingredients that make the team blogs so successful.

Luna and Shari are both telling us that that they have found a place where they feel safe and confident, where they have actually discovered aspects of self that had been long hidden. The words that leap out here are confidence, creative wings to soar and safe place.

However, both Luna and Shari are saying more than this. They are actually standing on the mountain top calling out, telling everyone that they have listened to the murmurings of their souls. This is nothing short of extraordinary.

Immediately Soul Food's blogs transcend themselves and become something far more than the creators of blog could have believed possible. They are like inter-twining pathways that lead to, and form a sense of place, form the utopian place that humans have yearned to experience.

The Lemurian Abbey, the Hermitage, Riversleigh and Gypsy Camp may be mythical places at Soul Food, but they have become very real destinations for travellers who came and helped write them into being.

Within Lemuria, on the labyrinthine network of blogs, team members are working with timeless symbols, metaphors and archetypes that resonate for everyone no matter their age. In the faery woods of Lemuria talking donkeys, trees and owls (wicked and wondrous) are drawn directly from mythical archetypes, which form a part of our literary and artistic traditions. It feels safe here because it is a place we all remember from long ago. A realm has magically returned and has called its people to come home.

Janie Hart noted that remaining anonymous within the blogger network provides an all-important safety net. Lemuria is an artificial environment that you connect to from your own private space, without ever being jostled by the crowd that gathers there. Both Janie and Luna are private people who would not want their identities revealed. Janie says "I am a very private person and don't have a lot of self confidence. I have tried using IRL writers groups before and it just didn't work!"

"Within an artificial environment or story setting," adds Ken Muller, "each participant can 'role play' a bit, and even offer discordant views of their own perceptions. Though participants on Soul Food may range across six continents they are 'of the same blood', connected by a creative flow and sense of being." On the bloggers it is one's unique voice that gives each person a readily distinguishable fingerprint.

"When the computer geeks created Blogger I found nirvana and quickly adapted it for use in my classrooms.

Blogger became my secret weapon, the rabbit I loved to pull out of my magic box of wonderment.

I quickly discovered that when we zenned it and had sessions blogging even the most reluctant students were engaged. They were learning more about a medium they loved and because they have such natural inventiveness, they discovered applications they had never imagined possible. They soon discovered that the potentiality was just amazing and began to help and teach me." — Heather Blakey

Monika Roleff believes that a characteristics that has made the Lemurian bloggers a success is having access to stimuli of the mother site. What Monika has identified is something that students regularly commented on when they listed what 'magic tricks' had worked for them. Providing prompts and ideas is an essential characteristic of Soul Food's success.

Monika also pointed out that having a highly skilled qualified teacher/moderator who is committed and watches over the site with great care and wise guidance makes all the difference.

This is an important observation because the reality is that Blogger is only a tool, just as the oven or microwave is a tool. Having an oven does not mean that the owner of the oven automatically becomes a good cook. Having tried and true recipes to work with inspires cooks all over the world. Seeing cooks on television induces people to go out, buy ingredients and cook up some new and exotic dish.

Ken Muller endorsed Roleff's comments when he said that the most important ingredient is the driving force of the manager or moderating team. He observed that "without a unifying energy a blog-group would be just a bulletin-board; while, with 'soul-full' guidance, it becomes a haven, womb or comfortable window-box on creation."

Gail Kavanagh enthused saying that "the bloggers have given me freedom to experiment and stretch — writing isn't just an isolated activity that I do now, it's part of my whole creative being. I use visual journals, collage, and other media that incorporates writing — I look at my writing as a piece of art and, with the encouragement and support I find on the bloggers, I reach out and try new things. For me, the bloggers are creative liberation. They have freed my spirit."

The bloggers are a place to experiment and Gail has thrived in this setting, enjoying the opportunity to recapture some of her 'gypsy like' childhood. Indeed, it is the opportunity to be child-like, to feel child-like emotions that has enchanted and energized us all.

Gail also identifies a characteristic that students became aware of. Students loved drawing before writing, adored using visual journals, collages, artistic trading cards, altered books and mannequins to express themselves before they even picked up a pen or put their fingers on the keyboard. Blogger, combined with free programs like Picture Trail and Image Shack enables people to experiment with abandon and showcase not just their writing but their art as well.

I took up sketching when we set out on the Silk Road in July 2005. Given that I had never sketched in my life, it took some courage to actually post my first drawings. But to my delight I found drawing enabled me to say things that I had not been able to express and the feedback from team members inspired me to continue. Faber Castell have no doubt noted a surge in sales since then because a number of team members rushed off to get new coloured pencils and crayons and also begun drawing.

Blogging taught us that:

1. A blog can be personal or it can stick to a topic.

2. Blogs can be used as a forum for users to have conversations online.

3. Bloggers can be shared and have multi-users.

4. A blog can provide someone with a personal home page, a diary, and an archive of their favourite destinations on the web.

5. The blogger can link to news reports or point to other sites of interest.

6. It is a place where students can work in teams and share the burden of their workload.

7. A student can keep their schoolwork on a blog and be assessed online simply by having the teacher included in their administration team.

8. Alternatively, they can set up a blog as a kind of dream book and find some time each day to dream and muse.

A great appeal of the Soul Food bloggers is that participants are provided with threads, which inspire them to write or complete artwork. Participants are not left to write about anything that comes to mind, although if they want to do this they can. They are given ideas, which are sown and planted and worked with.

As Ken Muller says "'Soul Food' provides a continuous kaleidoscope of creative opportunities which may kindle a new poem, story or sketch; or prompt a frenzied search for an earlier piece gathering dust in some archival attic."

Once ideas are dusted off and shown on the bloggers, other team members are quick to respond. When Fran Sbrocchi discovered Owl Island everyone packed up and went for a visit to meet White Owl. Likewise, everyone loved visiting Anita Marie Moscoso's Duwamish Bay and wanted to check out Livia's Bookshop and find the Curiosity Shop and ride the carousels at the Marina. Owl Island and Duwamish Bay provided frames for players to fill in. At Soul Food people come wandering in from the six continents. There are no borders here. Travellers come with different perspectives, resources, skills and knowledge that have proven to be invaluable to others.

Safe haven! Skilled moderation! Stimuli! All of these characteristics are clearly influential. But Leonie Bryant took the time to write and stress "I am always very aware of the absolutely positive vibes that are present in Lemuria. I have said to you before about the energy you give out — which is affirmation, care, concern, acceptance, discipline and wonderful encouragement to all the travellers. This energy you give out floods throughout the group. There is something very special about this that I have not experienced before. And as you said in the article, it is about safety. And all of us can be vulnerable in putting ourselves out there, so we need security."

Finally, Ken Mueller said that "although participants on Soul Food may range across six continents they are 'of the same blood', connected by a creative flow and sense of being. Wisdom comes from testing ones thoughts, theories and dreams in the reflection of others — humanity's crucible. Within Soul food's 'safe haven', each participant cannot help but gain a better grasp of their own shaky hold on reality. Certainly, wise words can be gleaned from the works of others in any setting, but in this creative environment, one can extract that which applies and discard the rest — without fear of 'pleasing someone' or 'getting a grade'. 'tis said that, "humility is purchased in the marketplace of despair", but this need not be so. Soul Food is an environment where one can learn, and of this, there is no greater purpose."

Visitors are welcome at Riversleigh Manor and can use the comment tool to participate there, and at the Faraway Tree, which travellers are currently climbing. When the quarters are extended, regular visitors, who have made the effort to show that they want to become involved, will be invited to join us. Newcomers should also watch for special projects, like the 2005 Advent Calendar, when everyone was invited to join a special trip like the Caravanserai. Can you miss such an opportunity? •

Creativity Portal expresses its deepest gratitude to Soul Food Cafe's Heather Blakey and the generous team of bloggers who worked collaboratively on this enlightening feature. We hope that through their authentic expressions and positive experiences with team blogging — facilitated by a highly qualified and skilled teacher/moderator — that you will visit to consider this beautiful collaborative option to further explore, enhance, and express your art, writing, and creativity. — Chris Dunmire,

Updated 1/6/14