Rose

I Was a Memoir Class Dropout

Photo: Daniel Hjalmarsson

The fall of 1999. I’ve just begun my 2nd year of grad school, after taking a year off to live in Tucson, where my soon-to-be husband was completing his MFA in short fiction. I’m studying and writing only poetry, though the pull to memoir and nonfiction is there, an undercurrent that threatens to pull me out into unknown waters.

I finalize my course list for the semester and my work schedule on campus, where I am an academic advisor to international students. We live in a small one-bedroom apartment on Summer Street in Somerville, about 20 minutes on the red line from downtown Boston. I’ve made the decision to stretch myself by registering for a memoir class. It’s taught by a young woman whose name I don’t remember.

What do I have to write about? I’m 25. I am engaged. I have recovered from bulimia. I am the youngest of three sisters. I grew up in socioeconomic comfort as my parents climbed the academic ladders. I have one student loan but no other debt. I’m fluent in three languages. I want babies. I’ve started smoking again, after quitting, but don’t want my fiance to know. I work out at the gym before class, then smoke in the alley adjacent to 180 Tremont Street, where I take the stairs to my three-and-a-half hour night class with Bill Knott.

I have a love-hate relationship with workshops; I love the conversation that occurs around my classmate’s poems, and hate sitting quietly while they talk about mine. I hate writing poems on a deadline. I love the classes where we read Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop and William Carlos Williams. Where we talk about whether poetry has to be hard. I don’t think so. I think that’s a crock of shit and say so. We have lively discussions and I’m in my element in a small classroom with a passionate teacher.

But the memoir class? I go once. I drop out.

I am not in my element. It’s not time yet.

And instead of exploring this, instead of seeing what happens when I try writing in a new genre, I run. I run to the gym. I run to the alley with my Marlboros. I run to my wedding planning and the dreams we have for starting our life together, all starry-eyed and excitedly talking about what cities or towns we might like to live in after I graduate in the spring.

But I do not write memoir.

My fear of not having anything to write wins this round. I stick to poetry, which feels safer, like I know the landscape, the terrain, the things to avoid and the parts to dive into. My advisor and I meet for beers and I wonder if he has a crush on me, even as I know how inappropriate this wondering is. He is an accomplished but relatively unknown poet himself, whose loneliness and broken heart seem to fuel his existence.

* * *

What I don’t know now is that in ten years, I will begin writing what I think is going to be a memoir. It will feel urgent, not unlike when I knew it was time to try to conceive each of our future children — a drive I can explain only as biological. I have a story inside of my body that needs to be born. I don’t know what its gestation period is, how long it will take. All I know is that I have to nourish it. I start writing as if every word is a prenatal vitamin for this embryonic someday story. I make lists of names. I use giant pieces of sticky paper on the walls as charts and maps and timelines, circles and topics. I print out every blog post I’ve ever written, scouring my own words for themes.

Bulimia, closet smoking, motherhood, marriage, mindfulness, discovering my Jewish identity — these all show up. And yet something is missing and I can’t put my finger on it. I write for several hours a day. I write chronologically, from the very beginning of my life. I’ve never done anything like this and it’s all-consuming, exhilarating, and also frustrating and confusing. Why can’t I figure out what the book is about?

* * *

Eventually, I take everything I’ve drafted and put it in a 3-ring binder. I roll up the charts and put the sharpies in a drawer. I go back to therapy and tell her I’m sitting on a landmine. Everything in me has been activated by the writing.

A few months later, I come out. I come out with so much force that my own body transforms within weeks into a barely recognizable version of myself. It’s as if I literally shed all the padding I’ve worn, of who I’ve tried so hard to be. In an instant, I understand. I understand why I dropped out of that memoir class. I understand why I couldn’t finish my book.

It still wasn’t time. Because I was still living it.

I couldn’t know what the book was about because it was buried too deeply in me.

And it was only then that I could finally begin again. Only after I’d given up on the whole thing. Let the writing go that had brought me as far as it could. It wasn’t a book; it was myself. And yet without the whole journey — the avoiding writing and later the deep dive into it — I would not have found my way to myself.

* * *

I am 25. I am too scared to try my hand at writing true stories. I stick to poetry, where I can swallow my voice and see it move through body or a poem, like an egg through a snake, whole. I can tell it slant, paying homage to Emily Dickinson, with whom I identify so closely that the first stanza of her poem #640 becomes an anthem of sorts:

I cannot live with You — 
It would be Life — 
And Life is over there — 
Behind the Shelf 

I fail to see the writing on the wall, the writing inside of my self-reflexive mind and hungry heart, that might have seen this anthem as something of a red flag for a woman about to be married. All I know is that some things don’t feel safe even though I can’t say why. What I am unable to see for another 11 years is that I am the unsafe thing.

* * *

There are many ways into writing memoir and some stories can’t be discovered without writing in big, looping circles. Once you open one door, there’s no telling what you’ll find — and this can feel like scary ground. At 25, I wasn’t ready. And with nearly 20 years between me now and that time, I can look back with great compassion for my younger self. I also feel that same compassion now every time I begin to write something new.

When you sign up for the Mini Memoirs group (March 5-26), you might feel nervous.  Maybe you’re not sure what memory or moment in time you want to write about — or maybe you know exactly which one and yikes, this is a first. Maybe you worry you won’t be a good enough writer. (This fear was undoubtedly another reason why I dropped out of that class back in 1999.)

Here’s what I will tell you about this group:

It’s limited to 12 participants. Prompts are three days a week, to give you some breathing room on either side of each. And each prompt asks that you sit and write for just 10 minutes without stopping. It might not sound like much, and on the one hand, it isn’t. It’s manageable, no matter how busy you are. On the other hand, it is so much more than you think, in terms of just how much we can access and write in so short a time. I’ve seen the power of this over and over now for the past three years, and it never ceases to me how much beautiful and true writing can emerge with such seemingly simple and short assignments. I’ve moved through this series of prompts several times, learning more about myself at ages 9, 16, and 38 along the way.

You do not have to know in advance what you want to write.

Last but not least: This is safe and brave space, confidential and contained. What happens in the group stays in the group. Whether you’re writing to heal, explore your past, or generate new material for an essay or book, you will be welcomed, witnessed, and cheered on — by me and your fellow mini memoirists.

Is it time to plant and water those seedlings?

If you have questions about this (or any other) group, or if you want to set up a payment plan, just contact me and we can chat. Learn more about the group here, or register for your spot below. I can’t wait to write with you.


Choose one:



Rose

6X6: Just Write… Coming in January 2018!


A couple of months ago, I announced a new group called Shitty First Drafts.

Soon thereafter, I realized I didn’t have a clear enough vision yet for how it would be different from my other groups, so I decided to give it some time to gestate. I pulled it from my website, not knowing whether I’d resurrect, transform, or scrap it.

Soon, it became clear what the problem was. The problem was what the problem so often is: I was trying too hard.

Something similar happened two years ago, when an idea that began as exciting grew increasingly unwieldy the more I worked on it. I reached out to a trusted writer and teacher for some perspective. Our conversation circled around one of my favorite questions: Where is there ease? 

A 12-week group called “Creative Ease” emerged from that shift, which eventually morphed into Jewels on the Path, one of my cornerstone groups.

Some ideas come fast and furious, sprung like Athena whole and complete, and I often take what one of my sisters affectionately calls a “shoot, ready, aim” approach to putting things out there. I trust the idea and then dive into the details, rather than the other way around. I love the playfulness and trust this entails.

But it doesn’t always work.

Shitty First Drafts, in its original inception, didn’t quite work. The format of the group was too close to other things I already offer, and I couldn’t for the life of me articulate who it was for or what would make it special.

Until it hit me: The name of this program won’t be Shitty First Drafts, a phrase made famous by Anne Lamott. It will be something even simpler. Ready for it?

JUST WRITE.

That’s right. Just that. Six weeks of just writing. Showing up once a week to put your pen to paper, to start and keep going, to let your words show up on the page and your voice take up room in space. To connect with others in an intimate setting, where we are all in it together.

How will it work?

  1. We’ll gather via Zoom (download here) and spend 30 minutes writing. There may be a reading or prompt to start us off, but the purpose of this time is to sit down and get words on the page.
  2. Following the writing period, each participant will have 15 minutes to read their words out loud and receive comments and feedback from the group.
  3. Each participant will be assigned a week to be the Featured Writer. She’ll send out a piece in advance for the rest of us to read, and have our undivided attention for 20 minutes of workshop-style discussion about her work, including addressing any specific feedback requests.
  4. Our time will conclude with each writers stating an intention or writing goal for the coming week. Writers may choose to continue with one piece of writing or to generate new material — the choice is yours, the time is yours.
  5. Two  40-minute coaching calls . We can use these to talk about specific pieces of writing, to brainstorm and bounce around ideas, and to address any challenges your faces and ways forward.

Why so simple?

Because sometimes all we need is the loosest of containers, the gentlest accountability, the fewest bells and the quietest whistles. At the end of the day — which is when this group will occur — it’s ultimately about showing up, sitting down, and just writing. Shitty first drafts and perhaps more polished drafts will follow, or not. The words you discover might be seeds of longer pieces, fragments of dreams, freewrites you’ll discard completely, or something else altogether. One of the only things I know for sure about the writing process is this: Writing begets writing. And having a small, supportive community of listeners and witnesses creates some mighty magic.

What else is included in the cost?

In addition to 2.5 hours per week together as a group, of both silent writing time and group sharing and discussion, you’ll schedule two 40-minute calls with me. We can use this time to focus on specific pieces of writing, to tease out where you get blocked, and to play with ways to continue to go deeper into your own work. There’s no specific agenda for our calls; this is your time, and a chance to talk about whatever’s going on for you in writing + life.

Will the calls be recorded?

The calls will be recorded. We will have a secret Facebook group for the express purpose of sharing these, in case you miss one and/or simply want to go back to listen to comments on your work again. The Facebook group will also be a place to share encouragement and support throughout the week.

Who should join:

Anyone who wants to produce more pages but finds that perfectionism and procrastination interfere with progress. This group is open to all gender identities and expressions as well as to all genres, though creative nonfiction and personal essay will likely comprise most of the writing. No previous experience in writing groups necessary. This group is also totally compatible with any of Jena’s other writing groups.

Do I need a particular project?

No, though it’s also fine if you do.

Risks and possible side-effects:

Heightened self-awareness, greater curiosity and sense of inquiry, deepening sense of trust in your own quirky and wondrous creative process, and increased willingness to keep going in the face of not knowing may all arise as secondary byproducts of this group.

Can I sign up for the calls and not the coaching?

Not for this group. In order to ensure a high level of participation and commitment, everyone in the Just Write groups will be working with me privately in addition to meeting with the group. If you’re interested in a super supportive, long-term (12 week) accountability group, check out Jewels on the Path. Or drop me a line and we can discuss what would be a good fit.

Dates + Times:

Two sections will kick off the new year:

Tuesdays, 1:00-3:30PM EST: January 16, 23, 30, February 6 , 13, 27 (3 remaining spots)
OR
Thursdays: , 5:30-8:00PM EST: January 18, 25, February 8, 15, March 1 (6 spots)

please note there will be no groups on 2/20 and 2/22 

Cost:

$419

Register + Payment:

Registration deadline is Friday, January 5, 2018.

Reserve your spot today with a non-refundable $99 deposit. You will be automatically billed for two additional installments of $160, two and four weeks after registering. Or use the “Buy Now” button below to pay in full.

Don’t forget to send me a note telling me which group you’d like to join (Tuesdays or Thursdays).


Payment Plan
Number of payments 3
No. Due* Amount
1 At checkout $99.00 USD
2 after 2 weeks $160.00 USD
3 after 4 weeks $160.00 USD
Total $419.00 USD
* We calculate payments from the date of checkout.
Sign up for

OR pay in full: 

Rose

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: “Over Our Heads” | November 6-17 | $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: “Over Our Heads” | November 27, 2017 – February 2, 2018 | $108 | Register
Size Limit: 12


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.

WINTER 2018 : 
Preregistration is open for the Winter 2018 Session (January 8-March 30): 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: January 1-31, 2018 | $31 /$62 /$93 | Register
No size limit


The Room of Your Own Landing

The Unfurl Retreat returns to Amherst, MA June 22-24, 2018. Details Coming Soon!


The Real-Time Landing Strip

JUST WRITE  is a 6-week, 6-person weekly Zoom-based group where we will write together and comment on each other’s words 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. 

DATES and  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

Rose

A First Sentence Interview with Author Sonya Lea: “We have always had the fire and storytellers”

First Sentence is a series featuring a monthly interview with a writer — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each month gives us a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

My guest this month is essayist and memoirist Sonya Lea, who writes on memory and identity. Her memoir, Wondering Who You Are, about what happened after her husband lost the memory of their life, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Wondering has won awards and garnered praise in a number of publications including Oprah Magazine, People, and the BBC, who named it a “top ten book.” Her essays have appeared in Salon, The Southern Review, Brevity, Guernica, Cold Mountain Review, The Prentice Hall College Reader, Good Housekeeping, The Los Angeles Book Review, The Rumpus and The Butter.

Lea teaches writing at Hugo House in Seattle, and to women veterans through the Red Badge Project. She speaks at conferences, universities and festivals. Her short film, Every Beautiful Thing, won two awards for direction, and several awards for score. She has also written screenplays.

Originally from Kentucky, Sonya lives in Seattle and the Canadian Rockies. Learn more about her work on her website.

Your memoir, Wondering Who You Are, chronicles a harrowing journey of illness and recovery, not to mention a radical reshaping of identity — both your husband’s, your own, and that of your marriage and family. How long did it take you to write this book?

If I count devoted writing time, about three years. Though I spent time thinking about what happened in our relationship, and writing essays about these events for about ten years before I wrote the memoir.

Tell us a bit about your writing routine. What keeps you going?

Silence & solitude. As anyone who has lived with me knows, I require several hours a day to be by myself, usually in the quiet. This can happen in the wilderness or the writing room. Being with people and in cities is wonderful, and I have to be alone to work. This took me until fifty to understand about myself.

What surprised you in the unfolding of this story, as you looked back and considered what to include and what to leave out? How did you make decisions?

I make choices based on what my body intends. There were pieces in the book I wrote—like my sex story and my money story—that my body was still shedding shame over, and so I wrote them and then decided at the end of the writing whether they belonged in the world.

One thing I found so extraordinary about your memoir is the amount of research behind it and how seamlessly you weave this in with your searingly personal experience. The “notes” section practically stands alone. Did any particular systems help you stay organized?

Thank you. I was inspired by Susannah Cahalan, who wrote Brain On Fire. I keep journals, and folders on the computers. I abhor book writing systems or programs because they inhibit me.

Do you believers writers are born, made, or both?

There’s no natural skill that could be said to benefit a writer. Everything necessary can be cultivated, practiced. It’s not like we need our bodies to be a certain shape. We have always had the fire and storytellers. We don’t even need eyesight or typing skills, because technology has now found a way for stories to be recorded. Though if you look at what Europeans consider literature, there’s a case to be made that being born white/male/able—from the culture of dominance would seem to be an advantage. This time that we’re living in requires us to make and read narratives we haven’t yet seen, haven’t heard.

If you could have lunch with anyone — living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be? What would you want to ask them?

This question fucks me up. You could ask me this question once an hour, and it would change. But here goes: Margaret Atwood, Ursula LeGuin, Mary Shelley, Zora Neale Hurston, Graciela Iturbide, Brandon Teena, Frida Kahlo, Renee Stout, Valie Export, Wilma Mankiller, Emily Carr, Beyoncé, Tanya Tagaq, Hannah Arendt, Themistoclea. Mostly women. No fictional people, because they’re in my body all day as it is. No ancestors, because I also have conversations with them.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel about a museum curator who hears an Amazon warrior woman speaking to her, and it’s also about identity, and how we aren’t who we think we are. Because I can’t stop writing that story.

Stay tuned for April’s conversation with Nancy Stearns Bercaw, author of Brain In a Jar and the forthcoming Dryland.

Rose

Too Cold for Ice Cream, Just Right for Writing

flavors

I saw this the other night while getting ice cream with Aviva, and it captures *exactly* how I feel about my website menu. Not all the groups are offered all the time!

So what IS currently on the menu?

If you’re itching to write and could use the encouragement and camaraderie of a supportive space to both hush your inner critic and keep you accountable to showing up, here are what scoops are available in the next two months. It might be getting chilly for ice cream, but it’s a perfect time of year to get your writing on.

1. Between the Sheets: Write Your Stories of Desire, Intimacy, and Pleasure
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Delicious choice.

This is a 2-week group I’m co-leading with my Inky Path partner, Cigdem Kobu. The theme has to do with stories of desire, intimacy, and pleasure — but like all prompts, they will take people in many directions. This group starts (and registration ends) TODAY! As in ALL of my groups: The writing is completely confidential, and the vibe is supportive and completely judgement-free. It’s $99.

inkypath.com/between-the-sheets-guided

2. On the Corner: Writing at the Intersection(s)
A new, experimental flavor, combining the tried-and-true tradition of writing prompts with swirls of exploring our identities, inside and out.

This group starts Monday, September 19 and ends Monday, October 10. Prompts will be 3 days/week, and all relate in some way to the many “parts” of ourselves, how the world sees us, what we’ve abandoned and what we want to reclaim or change. I’m super excited about it and would be so so thrilled for you all to join me. There are 3 payment “tiers” — $63, $126, and $189 — on a kind of honor system.

jenaschwartz.com/writing-groups/on-the-corner-writing-at-the-intersections

4. What If You Knew?
A classic flavor that will whet your appetite for more. Writing, that is.

My next 2-week group, with the original 10 prompts I ever wrote. I’m offering this one again as a kind of 2-year anniversary of promptressing and doing this work in the world. If you’re looking to begin, deepen, or expand a writing practice, please join me October 10-21. The cost is $99, though I’m often told it’s priceless.

jenaschwartz.com/writing-groups/2-week-writing-practice

3. Dive Into Poetry: October 1-31
If you’re like me, and want to sample everything, this might be the group for you.

A month-long poetry celebration, with 3x/week poems & images from me, to use as springboards + inspiration for your own poems! This group is straight-up great fun. No previous poetry-writing experience is required; in fact, the whole idea is to get to play. And it’s only $28.

jenaschwartz.com/writing-groups/national-poetry-month

**

Writing together and freewriting are ways to blast through the toxicity of comparing ourselves to each other. To show up to yourself, to what’s true, to back then and to right now and to someday. To practice being good to yourself. To quiet the voices telling you “too much” and “not enough.” To see what happens when you don’t have to be good.

We’re all 32 flavors and then some.

Come have a taste. 

And how could I possibly resist wrapping this up without some Ani?