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Permission to Suck

Ranunculus in the rain

PART ONE

I went to Vermont for 24 hours (well, 27 to be exact, door to door) to get Aviva. She was wrapping up two weeks there as a camp counselor. I squeezed in a run by the lake, saw one old dear friend who put us up for the night, whose house feels like home, and wished I had time to see so many others. Burlington is beautiful and my body knows it intimately, as it was my home from ages 26 to 38. My babies were born there. Jobs and businesses came and went. I started writing again. The writing eventually led me home — which meant leaving .

And sometimes, it also feels a little like the scene of a crime — generally, not something one returns to lightly. So the reality is that my trips there since we moved nearly five years ago have been sparse and brief, and as a result, I haven’t stayed in close touch with many people whom I still hold dear. I have let go and learned that for me, looking back equates to living like Lot’s Wife and crumbling. Instead, I’ve chosen to be here and build something solid and real. This is a hard-won blessing.

PART TWO

I did not work for this whole time. We enjoyed a rainy morning at Burlington’s amazing Farmer’s Market, went out to breakfast, and then V played her ukelele and sang in the car before we turned to the “Dear Evan Hanson” soundtrack. I dropped her off at her dad’s house, came home and unpacked, then crashed for a bit. I woke up starving and ate some food, then sat down to catch up on emails and messages and new writing in my groups. And I felt overwhelmed. My mind jumped to negatives and extremes — thoughts like, “I will never be able to take a whole weekend off.” I made dinner for Mani and then sat down at my computer to start.

And after not so long, I had finished reading lots of new poems in the Dive Into Poetry group, and I noticed that I felt lighter and even energized by the writing, by the reading, and by the participation. The comments and camaraderie buoyed me and reminded me that I love what I do. And also that the world doesn’t stop spinning or anything remotely like that when I’m offline. It’s all there, waiting for me, and once I’m in the DOING, I am simply here.

PART THREE (THIS IS WHERE YOU COME IN)

Thinking about doing something is so much harder than actually doing it.

Do you think about writing? Do you have the urge to write but get stopped in your tracks, by fear, by voices telling you that you’re a bad writer, or not a writer at all?

If you do write, do you find yourself sometimes at a loss for a subject, a way in?

I so get this. The blank screen, the blinking cursor… meh. What’s in the fridge?

The idea with my prompts + groups is to write for 10 minutes every day, with a timer. Not to spend all day mulling it over. Not to delete and edit and tinker and perfect as you go, driving yourself batshit crazy. Just to start and keep going and have total, unabashed permission to suck.

Then we share!

Does that make you want to throw up? Yes? Then you are *definitely* ready!

JOIN ME JULY 10-21

There are a few spots left in the “Unspeakables” 2-week group that opens tomorrow and begins Monday. Feel the fear — and do it anyway. You won’t die from it, I promise.

Hell, you might even have a blast and connect with some fabulous folks who don’t think you suck!

Sign up here

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The Art of Allowing: A Guest Post

Lynn Bechtel is a current participant in the Jewels on the Path, a 12-week online intensive for women writers who are seeking accountability, support, ease, and momentum in the creative process. 

Preregistration is now open for the summer session — there’s a 12-person maximum. Learn more and sign up today, or feel free to contact me with questions!

The Art of Allowing
by Lynn Bechtel

On the wall facing my desk at work is a piece of art created at a staff retreat many years ago—we used watercolors to make colorful strips of paper that our graphic designer then wove together. The title of the piece I’m looking at is “The Art of Allowing.” I don’t know if any of the strips used in this piece are strips I created. It doesn’t matter—the beauty and meaning live in the collaboration, in the whole that is greater than a sum of its brightly colored parts.

The art of allowing. I study those words the way I might study a painting, shifting perspective, moving closer, stepping away, tilting my head right then left. I’m drawn to the words, hearing something I need to remember.

To make these art pieces we worked in groups of three or four gathered around a table supplied with strips of paper, water colors in color palettes carefully chosen for each table, and brushes of various sizes. Some of us were eager, some reluctant, complaining that we weren’t artists, couldn’t draw, would make a mess. But we all soon realized that there was no right way to do this, no competition. With the support of the pre-determined palettes, it would be hard to create an ugly strip, and so we all relaxed, let go, allowed the process to unfold.

I had a similar experience once with music, in a workshop on vocal improvisation. We’d been singing together every Tuesday evening for a few weeks. On this evening, five of us sat in a circle on folding chairs. The teacher dimmed the lights. “Time to sing,” she said.

I closed my eyes and waited. Someone bravely stepped in and began to hum a low rhythm line, so soft I felt the syncopated vibration rather than heard it. I began to sing a high melody line. Another person punctuated my melody line with his own riff and then someone provided a counter point and another filled in around the edges and finally we were moving, literally moving as we each swayed to our own rhythm until we surrendered to the group’s rhythm.
Someone tugged gently at the melody line, pulling my major key curve into a minor key, and I eased into my own rhythm riff while another voice took the melody line, soaring up into high rolls and turns.

I don’t know how long we sang like this, weaving in and out around each other—five people who allowed the music to emerge, who became one voice.

The art of allowing. I tilt my head again. The art form that I’ve worked at for years and that sustains me is writing. What is the art that allows words to emerge, take shape on the page?

Over the years I’ve tried various things to open that door, allow the words to enter. I’ve given myself mini-writer retreats—a borrowed apartment on a Maine beach, a friend’s house in the country, a cabin on a snowy Vermont hilltop—but inevitably the isolation works against the writing.

Solitude is essential for my writing but so is community, connection. I’ve found community in face to face writing groups where someone throws out a prompt and we all write then share. Sitting in that space with only the sounds of pens scratching on paper or the click of keys I feel the cumulative juice of creativity and often, although not always, words come.

Lately I’ve participated in online writing groups, facilitated by Jena Schwartz. Although we’re scattered around the world, knowing that we all are engaging minds, hands, hearts with words and then sharing the results buoys us. Our words—in our own writings and in our responses to each other—nourish each other and allow the spark of creativity to flicker.

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Lynn Bechtel is a writer, editor, gardener, reader, occasional knitter, shower singer, and novice meditator. She grew up in Ohio but has lived in New England for most of her adult life. She writes essays and short stories and blogs at www.athomeharlow.com.

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Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.”~ Paulo Coelho

I’ve noticed something. The more time I spend online, the less I remember what it fully feels like to be me. And when I do have a spell of time away from the computer and less plugged into the apps on my phone, something shifts internally. It’s a shift you can’t really put into words, kind of the way someone could explain swimming to you but until that moment where it’s your body moving through water, it will only be a concept, divorced from experience.

I’ve noticed something else. I have created a monumental story in my head about the time I spend online. The biggest, most dire of the plot lines is this: If I spend less time online, I won’t earn a living.

Let me explain.

I led my first online writing group in December, 2014. Not three months after marrying my beautiful wife, her health had begun to unravel, slowly and mysteriously at first, and then rapidly and at such a precipitous pitch that it felt like we were sliding right out of our lives, the lives we had really just begun together. Nothing was what we’d expected. I had a full-time job at a local college, but with Mani’s ability to work quickly eroding, my income became barely sufficient to carry the four of us. Winter solstice was approaching; it was dark when I left for work in the morning and dark when I got home. I was lonely and scared. She was playing private investigator to her own deterioration, eventually self-diagnosing (accurately).

It was in this context that I wrote my very first 10 prompts and opened the doors to a secret Facebook group for 12 people. Some I knew already, others had found me through mutual friends or old-fashioned serendipity. What happened during those two weeks I could never had predicted. We wrote like crazy. For 10 minutes a day, we put pens to paper or let fingers fly over keys. It was terrifying and exhilarating and liberating to just write after a long dry spell without words, without expectation, without judgment (from others, at least). In the safety of this container, stories poured out.

The resulting writing was funny, heartbreaking, surprising, wise, ridiculous, wry, and real. The writing was not a means to an end. It was simply itself. Nobody had to perform or compare or compete for airtime or worry about who was better (though oh, how we do).

It was, in a word, magic.

So I did it again. Another 10 prompts, another two weeks, another 12 folks — many returning, many new. And again. And again! It was thrilling. I had no idea what I was “doing.” All I knew was that I loved it, it came naturally to me, it felt effortless and like the thing that threaded together the strands I’d been trying to combine for decades: Writing, connecting, coaching, creating, and community building.

By May, I was leading two groups at a time. By May, I was squirreling away money in a PayPal account. By May, I was planning my first in-person retreat for June.

And by May, we were reaching a crisis point.

She was living on water and white rice. She could no longer tolerate any other foods. And she had developed neuropathy in her feet and lower legs so severe that she barely slept, cried in pain at a feather touch, and listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn meditations on chronic pain literally on loop. We had been to a dozen specialists, and not even her immunologist who was familiar with her rare disease — Mast Cell Activation Disorder — knew what was happening. We wound up at the ER several times, but she didn’t go on pain medication since we didn’t know if she’d react to it.

I went on unpaid medical leave from my job as it became clear that I needed to be home full-time. Mani could barely stand to walk to the bathroom, much less cook or drive or do anything for herself.

By the time I led my first Unfurl retreat, the people in my writing groups had become not only a creative community but a support network that seemed to appear as if on some kind of crazy cosmic schedule. We fell into each other in the best sense, spending a weekend freewriting and sharing, alternating between cathartic laughter and cathartic tears, and consuming copious amounts of chocolate. Within days after that, Mani and I were checking into the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. I extended my medical leave from six to 12 weeks. Friends — many of whom I’d only met in the previous months through my writing groups — donated money and meals alike. The generosity was breathtaking.

This was never about building a business for me. This was about survival. This was about need. This was about love and devotion and fear and not knowing what to do but doing it anyway because what is the alternative? This was not about “being brave” or “taking a leap of faith” or 10 steps to following your dreams or how to quit your day job in six months flat. This was about learning to ask for help and just taking the fucking donuts.

It was all and none of those things. It was real life unfolding in ways that threw both of us into roles we never imagined and frankly, didn’t favor. Contrary to what many might assume, being nurturing — as opposed to being nurtured — triggered all kinds of stuff for me that I had no choice but to confront. And for her, being so dependent was about as identity-stripping as things could get. We were both in limbo, holding on to each other for dear life and determined to get through.

My leave from work came to a close and I gave my official notice. Going back was not an option; Mani was taking heavy-duty pain medication and her climb back to health would be steady, but long and slow and steep.

Two years later, here we are. The wheelchair she needed at one point to even leave the house for a short trip to Target sits getting dusty in the garage. She is up to nearly 30 foods and beverages and adding more every week. We just got back from a long weekend, where I co-taught a writing + art workshop Saturday morning. We go to Kirtan on Tuesday nights and read books together and say “I love you.” A lot.

My writing groups continue to fill up and have evolved into a variety of offerings, from quarterly intensives to poetry workshops. I have coaching clients again for the first time since I closed the doors on that work seven years ago, and I love my clients so much I can’t stand it. I pinch myself every day. I keep experimenting and growing. Some things fly and others flop.

And. I worry.

Maybe this just comes with the territory. In many ways, we take ourselves with us (as Kabat-Zinn writes, “Wherever you go, there you are”). I worried about money when I had a full-time job with a predictable monthly paycheck. Now I worry other things:

What if this is the month when everything just… ends? What if this is the month when everything just… ends? (This one is on repeat.)
Then we will figure it out, Mani reminds me.

What if people decide they are bored with me?
This is not about me entertaining people or being liked, I remind myself.

This is about genuine connection, safe space, and room to enter or re-enter writing practice and a creative process — something I know many of us don’t make time for. Or if we do, it’s under such relentless and vicious attack by self-criticism and perfectionism that we’re lucky to write three sentences before we erase or edit the life out of the rest.

In other words, it’s out of my hands.

Facebook can be such a mindfuck, like a hall of mirrors that meets a high-school reunion. It can also be a miracle. I love it. And I feel beholden to it. I’m trying to find my way with this and for the first time — maybe this is a gesture of trust — I am writing about it. After all, writing is how I find my way. It always has been and now is no different.

There is a proliferation of writing groups out there. I cannot and will not get sucked under a dark current of competition. I don’t want to and it feels awful and I’d sooner throw in the towel altogether. But that doesn’t mean I’m not susceptible to it, especially on days of self-doubt.

At the end of my groups, after a few days to collect our words, the space goes *poof*. I’ve done it this way from the very beginning. It was an intuitive decision that has continued to feel right; the energy of the words and connections like soap from inside a bubble, like sand from a mandala, go out into the world, though their forms will never again be the same. Impermanence is not an accident; it is a fundamental component of practice.

Impermanence is all we have for sure. In this work, in this life, in our writing, in our relationships, in our health, in our friendships, in our communities. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real, lasting things. In fact, I think it’s the opposite: Impermanence deepens my awareness and appreciation of just how precious these are. It has also helped me through some of the hardest and darkest times in my life.

I love what I do for work. I love that I have learned that I am capable of so much more than I ever imagined. And every time I can catch myself in the worry, I take a breath, acknowledge it, and say a thousand thank yous. In this moment, we are ok. In this moment, my wife is next to me adding more books to her library holds. In this moment, the right people will find me and choose to write and practice with me. In this moment, I get to be here. If we could get through the past few years intact, we can get through anything.

I want my work to continue to grow in ways I can’t necessarily yet envision fully. All I know for sure is that I want to keep connecting with people in ways that are real and deep, in ways that heal and don’t harm, in ways that foster community rather than divisiveness.

As I come to a slowing-down point for an outpouring of words I didn’t see coming this evening, I realize that this isn’t really about how much time I spend online. It’s about integrity and authenticity and continuing to live and work in ways that feel deeply real and genuine.  These happen both online and off; it’s the intention that matters.

Lately one of the things that is calling my soul is the desire for more unplugged, unstructured time. That’s why my next group is not a writing group per se, but a group where each day for two weeks, we’ll practice different ways of not doing. We start a week from today.

If spending a minimum of 15 minutes a day doing things like sitting on a bench, lying on the floor, listening to music, and eating mindfully make something in your soul stir a little, please join me. Our secret group will be a place to share our discoveries, experiences, surprises, and struggles.

Feast On Your Life
June 5-16 :: Register Now

We are all in this alone, but I am so, so thankful that we also get to be in it together.

* * * * *

Other Upcoming Groups

Dive Into Poetry
July 1-30 :: Register

Jewels on the Crown (Summer Session)
July 3-September 22 :: Register

The Unspeakables
July 10-21 :: Register

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The Only Writing Advice You’ll Ever Need

The following is a guest post by Joell Stebelton, who is writing a children’s book. She originally posted it as a freewrite in this month’s writing group (The Republic of the Body) and I knew immediately it was something I wanted to share here. Thankfully for us all, she said yes!

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Butt in Chair (BIC)

It is your practice that brings the pages to you. No writing book, no MFA, no writer’s conference, not even a writing mentor can give you the pages.

You wanna write a book? I’ll tell you what I learned after all of the above… well, except the MFA. (But I swear I’ve bookmarked at least a dozen universities.)

BIC

It’s the only advice you need. You don’t need shelves of books outlining someone else’s process, even if that someone else is a published author and you’re not. You don’t need to sell your mother’s Hummel figurine collection on eBay to fund a shwanky low-residency master’s program in creative writing.

Yeah, writer’s conferences can give you practical information on submissions, finding agents, and what to bring to your first book-signing. But no presenter can tell you what happens next in your story,  and while the most encouraging writing coach on the planet can help you come up with a plan, it’s up to you and you alone to get the writing done.

There is no magic formula.

Except BIC.

Butt in chair.

That, my friends, is how you write a book. Get your butt in a chair… or a treehouse… or a chaise lounge. Just sit down and, for the love of all that is holy, write.

When the itty bitty shitty committee shows up with their usual discouragement about the quality of your work, write.

When the phone rings,
when the dogs bark,
when it’s raining,
when it’s sunny,
(especially when it’s sunny),
when you’re feeling inspired,
when you’re feeling uninspired,
when you’re in a zone,
when you’re out of the ballpark,
when you’re wishing the Muse would remember your address,
when you’re tired,
when you’re sick AND tired,
when you’re thinking you should take up jiu jitsu instead,
write.

Write. Even if it’s just three sentences. Show up and write. And eventually, months or years later, you’ll have a first draft. A shitty first draft, perhaps. But a finished first draft. The end.

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Joell Stebelton lives in the woods of northeast Ohio with four dogs, a cat, and a woodpecker who is currently drilling holes into her library window. She’s a mama to an Ohio State Buckeye and a daughter who spends more hours at the barn than at home. She’s a writer, a reader, a yogi, and a closet nun.

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Survival and Sunlight

“Life seeks fulfillment as plants seek sunlight.” ~ B. K. S. Iyengar 

{a 10-minute freewrite from today’s prompt in The Republic of the Body group}

My first wrinkle. Literally, the very first one that appeared. Mexico, the winter of 1997. My skin had turned a copper color and I walked everyday up and down those hills. I read Frida Kahlo’s autobiography and dreamed in Spanish and wrote poems about midwives and dogs howling and the moon.

Winters in northern Vermont. Short days. Brilliant blue sky How the sun was a gift then, a welcome visitor from far, far away. Don’t go, I’d cry, don’t leave me here alone. I don’t know what I would do without you.

The jade in my kitchen. It began as a small cutting from a thirty-year-old plant from my mother’s house. It is outgrowing the black porcelain pot where it sits in a kitchen window, south-facing, growing like crazy, always reaching for the light.

Cowering. Imploding. Moods. Black holes. Yoga mat. Hamstrings. Strap. Block. Pulling myself up and out of the vacuum that threatens to hold me hostage. Twelve minutes. It actually helps.

We are hardwired for survival, but just about everything else about our brains is a result of training and can change. My wife tells me we are a different person every single second, we are changing constantly. We think, “This. This is who l am.” We hold ourselves hostage to what we think we want and who we think we are and what believe to be true.

Lay it all out there. Not out there for the world necessarily but out there for yourself. One thing at a time. Question all of it. Is this mine? Do I still have a use for it? Did I inherit this and does that obligate me to keep it and cart it around with me to the end of my days, however long that may be?

Tension in my throat and upper chest. I feel the tightness. It is signaling me: “Hey, you. Yeah, you. Make some room for me today.” I make some room. Just a little, just enough. An opening where I can crawl out and have a look around the rest of the body, the wider landscape of whatever is happening within and without. Be the observer, I tell myself.

Constantly seeking safety and shelter will lead to atrophy. Of the spirit, of the mind. I do not want to shrink with time into a scared, small version of myself.

Space is internal; this much I know. I move towards it the way the jade traces the sun from east to west, the way a young woman once walked so close to the sun, the way a young mother once walked her babies bundled in snowsuits, the way a seeker craves silence and a song seeks its singer.