starlings--Mark Hearld

Writing in Groups: Frequently Asked Questions


Over the course of leading many flavors of writing groups, certain questions tend to come up from participants. Here are a handful of those.

How do I comment on people’s writing?

From the gut. From the heart. The same way you write. Maybe there was a passage or an image that startled you or shot tears to your eyes, made you laugh or gasp or brought your hand to your mouth (or forehead!). Maybe you found yourself at a loss for words but deeply moved. Maybe the writing evoked a memory or elicited a question for you. Inner critics *love* messing with us when it comes to commenting on other people’s writing. You have to be clever, they tell us. And smart and insightful and most of all, helpful. And so instead of sharing what we fear might be too simple, we shut down and say nothing. Don’t let your inner critic drive the bus. Comment intuitively and trust your responses.

What if I offend someone?

A closed writing group is a place to practice being bold and surviving the discomfort of sharing something that takes you to more honest places in your writing. Running the risk of offending someone is often a corollary to writing without self-censor (or self-censure). While posting hateful content of any kind is unacceptable, if you’re writing your own truths and someone is offended, that’s on them to sit with and, if they choose, name. But if we only share what we hope will make readers feel good, we run an even greater risk of letting fear win (not to mention the likelihood of lackluster writing).

I’m all over the place. How will I know what to write?

One of the wonderful things about freewriting is that we can start anywhere. One of the best places I’ve found to start is right here. Literally right here and now. Over the years, I would not be surprised if 50% of everything I’ve ever written begins with the words, “I am sitting…” Locating ourselves in space and time gives us a point of entry, and from there — if we keep the pen moving — we will meander and discover what else awaits us. Knowing is not a prerequisite for writing practice; it’s one of its most powerful byproducts. Be willing not to know and your trust of the process — and yourself — will naturally deepen.

I’m afraid I won’t commit.

As soon as we change the rigid rules about what “counts,” the question of commitment can start to shift. These rules tend to be excuses, and excuses are usually fears in disguise. Take a look at the fears underlying your resistance to writing (I won’t stick with it, my writing will suck, I’m not a real writer because… I always/I never…, I’m way out of my league, what if _____, my family would shit a brick if…). Then spend some time considering some alternative perspectives. What if “committing” to a writing practice meant showing up for even “just” five or ten minutes. What if you gave yourself permission to suck? What if you could write without apology or explanation? What if you knew you could choose how and whether to share your words beyond the safety of a small, supportive group? What if you took a gentle risk and didn’t have to have the next steps all figured in advance?

Bottom line (for today!)

Writing is an intensely personal endeavor and an intimate process. Learning the contours of our own creativity means feeling around in the dark.

One of the beautiful things about writing in a group is that we get to practice doing that together. We do this by starting, by which I mean showing up, stepping in, and seeing what happens. Writing in community — be it in-person, online, or a combination of both — can mean the difference between sticking with it and getting stuck, not only because we are more likely to hold ourselves accountable when other folks are involved, but also become we encourage each other along the way. Others see things in our writing — and in us — that we are too close to to notice. We experience firsthand that we are not as alone — or as wacky — as we think.

Margaret Mead’s words come to mind: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everybody else.”

Have questions about writing that I don’t address here? Leave a comment or give me a holler.

starlings--Mark Hearld

Thoughts on Subtlety


Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.
~ Moshé Feldenkrais

Today I’m interested in subtlety. We go a million miles per hour — sometimes even when we think we’ve slowed down.

And I’m thinking about the nuns we saw at Whole Foods, with the beige habits and the little boy who was clearly theirs in some way. How Mani and I both wondered about their story, and as soon as we hit the parking lot, brought it up almost simultaneously.

I was going to ride on the bike path today, from Amherst to Northampton. I’ve never actually done this. But all day long, the rain kept coming. And so instead, I made myself brunch, read a book, and took a nap. Later, we went to TJ Maxx and bought spoons. That’s right, six teaspoons. And one condolence card.

Now I’m sitting exactly where I was sitting 24 hours ago, in the velvet chair I had custom-made for Mani for our anniversary last year. Do you sit “in” a chair or “on” a chair?

I joined Mani this morning for 40 minutes of Feldenkrais, a method of movement that (according to the website) “uses gentle, mindful movement to bring new awareness and possibility into every aspect of your life.” She found an online teacher named Alfons Grabher, whose YouTube videos are as instructive as they are engaging. He has an Austrian accent and such an awesome, quirky sense of humor. The best part was the subtlety of the movements, and how the emphasis is on exploration. The idea is that the body knows what to do — and it isn’t supposed to hurt. It doesn’t look like much is happening, and yet after just one session, I noticed more space in my rib cage and mobility in my shoulders.

Naturally, this struck me as a perfect parallel to the way I feel about writing and creativity in general; so much becomes available to us when we free ourselves from right-way, wrong-way, “should” and “supposed to,” and instead give ourselves to the discovery of what occurs naturally when we decide it doesn’t have to be painful and torturous. Writing, bodies; how we relate to one thing is how we relate to all the things.

What if you’re a writer and you don’t even know it yet? What if you stopped thinking you had to write a book or make money or be well-known as prerequisites for saying, “I am a writer”? What would shift for you if you really allowed everything, every small movement, every word, to count?

The forecast for tomorrow is clear and sunny, high of 78. I am going to give the bike ride a go. I expect my ass might hurt at the end of it (no pun intended). I intend to take it slow and to meet my wife on the other side of the river.

Moment by moment. Life is happening. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t reflect on how to make sure I’m contributing to repairing the damage we cause each other, rather than adding to it. I pray for humility. I recall these words, spoken at the end of every class taught by Emily Garrett, one of my earliest yoga teachers back in Burlington: “May peace in our minds, in our hearts, and in the world.”

The sun just came out against the bruised sky. It occurs to me, that subtlety could possibly save lives.

starlings--Mark Hearld

Ten Minutes Instead of Three Hours

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. ~ Pablo Picasso

5:26pm

Pearl at the pool

Do I wait to have a three-hour chunk of time to write? No, I do not. I sit my ass down right here in the middle of it all and begin. The washer and dryer are both spinning — I’m halfway through six loads of laundry. Aviva and her friend are watching The Office in the living room, having just returned from town where they got fries. She’s at that age, where you go to town with friends and you get fries, with your own money, in an actual restaurant. I hope she left a good tip. Pearl’s at a friend’s house; I dropped them both off after a post-camp swim at the town pool. I’ve been alternately working and doing life things all days long — the kind of stuff that’s easy to put off day after day until days have turned into months and the oil change is 1,000 miles past due.

5:28pm

Something is wonky about my body today. It feels kind of like I’ve had 15 cups of coffee. I took an Excedrin Migraine this morning for the first time, and I’m pretty sure that’s the culprit. It’s not a good sensation and I want it to be over. I know it will pass, so I’m just kind of hanging out, noticing that vaguely weak, shaky, jello-y feeling. The heat and humidity index may not be helping matters.

5:30pm

I had that itch earlier to write. For hours and hours. To figure out where I’ve been and pull all the different colored ribbons together in a big bright bow. Alas. That is not this. This is more like lurching towards the writing, like driving a stick-shift when you’ve only ever driven an automatic. I insist that when the time comes — and it’s coming fast — I want my kids to learn how to drive a stick. Learning how to smooth the lurching, how you are closer to the whole experience, a bit more coordination and body awareness is required… God, I sound like a stick-shift snob, don’t I?

5:32pm

Showering in the summer feels extra good. Something about washing off the sweat and and how my skin is browner than I should let it get but oh, I love it, and the way the droplets of water cling just a little to whatever sunscreen residue clings after soap, pulling on a tank-top and skirt made of India cotton, something I would’ve worn in, say, 1987. I love all of it. I love slipping on sandals and walking outside without a thought as to coats or sweaters.

5:34pm

So many doctor appointments this week. An orthodontist here, a physical there, a bout of poison ivy, a specialist, teeth cleanings. I think I had a dream the other night that our insurance had changed and the cost had skyrocketed. It was truly frightening. Like many — most? — families, we have things that would be prohibitively, astronomically expensive without the coverage we currently have and can afford. It makes me crazy to contemplate.

5:36pm

Ten minutes have passed. There’s an odd, off-kilter feeling in my mouth and jaw. I am going to keep tabs on it while ignoring it at the same time. Is that possible? So much death lately, so much loss. My heart aches. I love being alive. Writing — even for just 10 minutes — is one of the ways I stop and take it all in. All the daily life that can seem like so much dust settling on our souls. Writing is my quest to invite my soul to surface, like a mother whale. Have a look around, I tell her. And she does.

starlings--Mark Hearld

“In the Clutches of Destiny” (Playing with Fiction on a Rainy Afternoon)


I sit here in Starbucks. Mani sits across the table from me. We brought our laptops, just for a change of scenery. I remember coming here on my lunch break from work when I was still at Hampshire. I’d get a drink and smoke a clove (or two). I’d squeeze in reading new posts in my writing group, which was still a side gig.

Back in the days of moonlighting, I would’ve done anything to sit in a coffee shop at 3:30pm on a Wednesday with my wife, each of us writing. Now that I’m here, I don’t take for granted that this is my reality. Also now that I’m here, I’m looking out the window and wondering what to write about. When you’re not writing something — a specific essay, a memoir, something where you know basically what you’re plugging away at — it can be very difficult to write anything.  This is one of the reasons I like prompts when it comes to just getting started. A prompt is nothing more or less than a portal — a way in. From there, anything can happen.

Today, though, I have no prompt. I have only this moment. I notice the voice in my head poo-poohing me, telling me there’s nothing the world needs to hear about the ubiquitous comings and goings of Starbucks customers. Behind me, a middle-aged woman sits with an elderly man in a wheelchair. I hear him talking, his voice low and growling. I’ve seen them here before. I imagine that she is his full-time caregiver. I wonder how long they have known each other. Is he of sound mind? Does she have a family of her own?

Last night at Kirtan, which we go to most Tuesday evenings, a young woman caught my eye. She looked about Aviva’s age, and I had never seen her there before. She arrived with an older man who’s a regular. As we chanted, she sat against a wall, legs outstretched, ankles crossed. She didn’t sing.

Her father — the man I imagined as her father — got up to stretch occasionally, and participated wholeheartedly in the singing. In my head, they’d had a rough go of things. He’d lost custody and struggled with addiction. She’d refused to see him. After he got out of rehab, they began again — tentatively, as if one of them or the precarious relationship could easily break.

He had rediscovered Kirtan in rehab from a fellow addict who chanted every day in the common area. Back in the 70s, he’d criss-crossed the country following Ram Dass, going to as many talks as he could. Our protagonist  knew he was in the presence of something, someone, truly groovy. He could feel the reverberations of the Maharajji’s teachings in his soul. He could also feel the hands of the many groovy women he met on the road all over his body and the drugs in his veins.

He swore he’d never have kids, to protect the planet from its groaning population. He swore he’d never settle down with one woman, either. Why choose when there were whole fields of wildflowers? That was what he told himself. But the traveling grew tiresome and by the early 80s, he was ready for something he’d never dreamed of wanting: Stability.

He was only 20, but the urge to stay in one place for a while suddenly felt like the most enlightening thing in the world. He would shave his beard, get a suit jacket and tie, and go back to school. He’d rent an apartment and hold down a job at the local typewriter repair shop. He’d meditate every morning for two hours and every night for two more. He’d quit drinking and everything else except pot, which he rationalized didn’t really count as a drug.

For twenty-five years, our friend did quite well. He established himself as a landscape architect with his own small practice. He bought an 1850s Victorian and spent his spare time fixing it up, one room at a time. He became a runner and chose a different city marathon every year. The sacred books of his wild youth sat on a bookshelf next to contemporary fiction and mystical poetry, and he remained an avid reader. By all accounts, he was a man with a successful life.

In 2001, he met L. He saw her at the spot where he always went at 11:45 for an early lunch (he was such an early riser that he was always ready for another meal before noon). He was such a regular that folks referred to him as the Mayor. He knew everyone by name, and was the first to notice any changes — be they to the menu, among customers, or in the landscaping out front. In the summer, window boxes spilled out pansies; morning glories climbed up alongside the door, and two or three outdoor tables graced the sidewalk. By noon, these seats were always taken.

L. sat in one of the deep wooden booths, clearly not realizing that these were unofficially reserved for the stay-at-home moms who came with passels of toddlers and babies in backpacks.  Strollers blocked the stairs to the bathroom downstairs. The place became mayhem for about 50 minutes each day, and clearly L. was from somewhere else and had no idea what chaos was imminent.

He stole glances of her as she sipped her rosemary lemonade. Her long hair was tied up in a heap on top of her head. She had a look that was so familiar to him, he couldn’t stop looking over. Had they met? It seemed unlikely, given what he guessed was a significant age difference. She didn’t look more than 25. He’d been celibate for so long and was so accustomed to his lifestyle that the surge of sexual energy that shot through him caught him completely off-guard.

In the clutches of something he’d later come to see as destiny…

* * *

Well, I didn’t see THAT coming! And I legit made myself laugh out loud with that last bit.

Fiction is fun. I’m not a fiction writer, but every now and then I’ll get on a roll. Part of why I enjoy it is because I have absolutely zero stake in being any good at it. Is this a story you want to keep reading? If yes, I’ll tackle the next installment soon.

Here’s to writing in coffee shops, playing outside of our comfort zones, and seeing what happens.

starlings--Mark Hearld

Fifteen Minutes

8:33pm
I just read a book to Pearl — an old favorite we hadn’t read in ages called “Mrs. Katz and Tush,” by Patricia Polacco. Just when I think Pearl — who turned 11 in April — is done with me in all of the appropriate, growing-up ways, she surprises me and asks if we can read a picture book. Sure, I said, and that is the one I chose from the shelf. As I reached for it, a smattering of dust floated from the neglected shelf. When the book was over, I turned out her light and kiss hered cheek. “Love you,” she said quietly, as I left the room. “Can you come check on me in 10 minutes and whisper, Pearl!“? I told her I would, then came to the kitchen, got a bowl of ice cream, and sat down to write.

8:38pm
This kind of thing used to be a cornerstone of my writing time. I’d get through another day of life and work and kids, then go to my blog to sort it all out (or not, as the case often was). To sift through the pieces and see what could be named. I wrote to find out where I was. A lot of the time, it even worked.

8:40pm
Over the years, this practice has shape-shifted more times that I can count. Facebook has taken over my blog to some degree since it’s entirely possible I have more “readers” there than I do here at this point. But I didn’t start writing for any readers at all. Not a single one. I started — and kept going — because the writing itself, the very act of sitting down to say hello to myself, to find out where I’d been all day, sustained me. It was like an old friend I’d reconnected with after so many years — you know the one? The one you think about every day but for some reason never pick up the phone to call, secretly hoping you reconnect before one of you dies, then wondering it that’s a weird and morbid thought that maybe you shouldn’t say out loud.

8:42pm
One paragraph every two minutes. Already I am remembering something, a language I learned but stopped using on a regular basis. Was I really fluent once? I find it hard to believe. I sit down here, in the space between saying goodnight to Pearl and going back in to her dark room to whisper, “Pearl!” just as she asked me. There’s a bowl of nectarines on the table and a cool breeze after the heavy rain we waited for all day.

8:44pm
Aviva just graduated from 8th grade. When I started blogging, she was four. In September, she starts high school at the same school I graduated from 26 years ago. I can’t even tell you what she’s like because she’s so… herself. This morning in the car, we were talking about her resemblance to me. I told her all those years of sun and smoking didn’t do me any favors in terms of my skin and aging, but didn’t suggest I’d have changed a thing, either. How could I?

8:46pm
I don’t believe in looking back and thinking about changing things. I don’t ask myself questions like, if you could say anything to your younger self, what would it be? She had to experience all of it — moments of utter rightness, when laundry was hanging on a line in the backyard and the light was just so, and moments of wretched loneliness and pain, when every choice seemed impossible. What could I possibly tell her, when she ended up here, when we ended up as one?

8:48pm
This blog has always been a space of a single word: Hineni. I am here.

I see now that it still is.