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

In Pursuit of Magic (or Not)


It wasn’t until I stopped pursuing magic that magic finally started pursuing me. Isn’t that always the way?

And yet even once you know it’s the way, you still can’t do it on purpose, because magic is resistant to contrivance. And so you just have to live and try to forget about it as best you can, and then maybe — just when you’re least expecting it — magic will happen and you will wonder how you didn’t see it coming.

Magic, so unassuming, dressed down as if for casual Friday at the office rather than glammed up for a girls’ night out. Magic, less glitter and more grit. Magic, that invisible force that is part faith, part fairy dust, part boots on the ground and hands in the air, part soil and part air and so much water and a thing that can happen to you on any day of the week.

Magic, when I pursue her, ducks and covers. She really does. I get scared that she’s gone forever but she’s never left me for good. Magic says, trust me. Magic says, wait for it. Magic says, stop looking so hard. Make dinner for your kids. In fact, make dinner for yourself. Eat. Sleep. Work. Love. I’ll come around. I’m never not there.

You see, magic talks to me.

Maybe magic is another word for angels. Maybe magic is what happens when people come together for good, or part for good. Maybe magic is just two syllables for things we can’t explain, but I think it’s more than that. It’s a special word; writing this makes me want to look up its etymology.

Of course, religions of all kinds have poo-poohed magic. But that’s not where I feel like going with this. I’m more into the yeah, bring it on, baby kind of vibe today. Magic and mojo go together for me, and like I said, when these are missing, I can get scared. Like I’m lost.

But then I go back to the first paragraphs, the first words, the abracadabra of “let there be light” and how “abacadabra” itself is ancient Aramaic for “may it be so” or something like that. How cool is that? See? Bible magic even. And what I mean by go back is this: If I look back on just about every twist and turn of my life — all of which are preceded by the twists and turns of my parents’ lives, and their parents and their parents back and back and back, none of it could’ve been anything short of magic.

After all, I’m here, right?

And that has GOT to be something like magic. And when I said no, no more, no more false magic, no more forcing magic, no more hoping for magic, no more willing magic, no more telling myself something is magic when everything in my body and soul are crying for freedom and truth and something else — that was when I laid it all down.

I can’t do this alone, I said to the empty room. Sobbed, actually. So many times. And something, every time, has carried me through those moments all the way to this moment. All the way to safety and butterscotch blondies and the chance to live and love another day. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.


An unedited freewrite from in my newest 2-week writing group, which opened today. What’s on your writing radar this fall?  

starlings--Mark Hearld

Fall 2017: What’s on the Radar for Your Writing + Life?

Picture this: You’ve been circling around for some time now, and feel ready to tune into air traffic control for the best place to land your words on a page. Maybe you’re a bit nervous and could use some reassurance that indeed, you can do this.

Below, you’ll find several landing strips of varying lengths. What they all have in common is this: Fierce encouragement and gentle guidance as you steer your aircraft to a safe landing. 

We may write by ourselves, but we get to land together and there are so many ways to do just that! Have a look at what’s on the radar this fall, and know that you belong on this sacred ground of the writing life.


The Short + Sweet Landing Pad

Two-week online writing groups are perfect for anyone who wants to begin or reboot a writing practice. With a new prompt each morning and by setting a timer for 10 minutes a day, we give ourselves carte blanche permission to write “the worst Junk in America” (Natalie Goldberg’s timeless words). Kick the inner critic out of the cockpit and remember why you love writing in the first place.

Next group: “Transitions” | September 18-29 | $99 | Register
Size limit: 12

Ten-week online writing groups are similar to the above, but at a slower pace. Prompts land in your inbox on Monday mornings, and you have all week to share your words with your writing comrades.

Next group: “Signs” | September 18-November 24 | $108 | FULL | New Dates TBA

 


The Long and Leisurely Landing, for Women Only

Jewels on the Path is designed for a small number of women who want to delve more deeply into a particular writing project or goal. Whether it’s resurrecting a blog or making steady progress on a manuscript, this group will provide a steady rhythm for your work to unfold and provide accountability and friendship as you deepen your own creative process. Women writers only.

THE FALL 2017 SESSION IS NOW FULL
Preregistration is open for the Winter 2018 Session: Three options: $126/$249/$449 per month | Preregister
Size limit: 12


The Water Landing

Dive Into Poetry is a quarterly pool party where lapsed poets, experienced poets, and poetry lovers get to convene in a fabulously inclusive and playful space for an entire month of practice. Now in its seventh season, this group remains an all-time favorite gathering of old and new friends.

Next group: October 1-31, 2017 | $31 /$62 /$93 | Register
No size limit


The Room of Your Own Landing

The Unfurl Retreat is making its way to rural Wisconsin! Spend three nights in a quaint and cozy farmhouse with a room of your own. Heavy on the being, this retreat is an opportunity to decompress, exhale, laugh, eat, sleep, and listen to our own still, small voice — the one that can so easily get drowned out by all the engine noise.

October 12-15| Single Farmhouse Room (2 remaining) | $900 | Register
Size limit: 10 (almost full!)


The Real-Time Landing Strip

Shitty First Drafts is a weekly Zoom-based group where we will write together and comment on each other’s shitty first drafts in real time.  Two private coaching calls and an intimate setting all make this a particularly powerful chance to chip away at perfectionism and get some drafts written that might otherwise never see the page. 

Next group: October 30-December 22 | Three payments totaling $499 | Registration page coming soon | Contact me to to be notified 

Size limit: 6


Year-Round Ways to Keep Your Writing + Life Grounded

Get Your Muse On is a year-round private community where we love the shit out of each other. In this secret Facebook group, each week includes intention setting, exclusive writing prompts, and invitations to reflect on what we’re learning as we go.

Always open | $25 monthly or $250 annually| Register
No size limit

Private Coaching | From a single session to an ongoing relationship entirely devoted to your growth as a human who writes, see what opens up when you make time to explore your fears, ideas, goals, and stumbling blocks.

Packages and a la carte options | Sign up here

Manuscript development + editing | If you have a manuscript-in-progress and want a partner who will bring fresh eyes, perspective, suggestions, and edits to help you bring it to completion, I’d love to hear from you. I have a successful track record of working with authors who’ve self-published collections of poems, creative nonfiction, and novels, and generally only work with one editing client at a time. Let’s discuss your project and see if it’s a good fit.

Cost customized to each client | Contact me to schedule a time to chat!


A Note About Money + Mutual Responsibility

Please note that if money is a barrier, I make every effort to work with you to make all of this accessible no matter your income bracket or current financial situation. Just ask me and we’ll see what we can work out together.

If you would like to contribute to the ongoing Community Writers Fund, which makes it possible for me to offer fully-funded spots to lower-income individuals for whom groups like these are unaffordable, you can do so here.

In addition, every time someone signs up for any of my groups, I donate an item to a local food bank.


“Thank you for the compassionate, caring and safe space you hold here for me, for all of us here, to tell the hard stories. I know it’s how I will grow.”~ Juli Lyons

“Never have I felt so befriended: by the page, by a group of fellow writers, by a teacher and coach. Jena provides a lovely mixture of inspiration, invitation, and validation. And then she throws in something else, something wonderful and ineffable which I can only describe as magic.” ~ Katrina Kenison

starlings--Mark Hearld

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

starlings--Mark Hearld

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.

___________________________________________________________

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.