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

The Other Door

Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, Paris, France, by Alex Holyoake

The other door. A mouth. An ear. A nostril. An eye. A pelvic floor. A vulva. A body of doors, openings and closings. Go inward and there are chambers of the heart and esophageal flaps and valves controlling the flow of fluids through channels, maintaining order. Spine, neural pathways, veins, arteries, capillaries, so much anatomy, a house I’ll never explore fully enough.

The other door. The third eye, the mind’s eye, the wrist, the sacrum. Ridges of teeth against tongue. A pinch here, a pulse there. A room that leads to a room that leads to a room, a series of caves, underground tunnels, a palace built into the side of a mountain at the edge of the sea.

The other door. Scalp. Hair follicles. Nail beds. Reach, stretch, bend, bow. Break. Repair. Heal. Hurt. Fire, ice, water, soak, salve.

The other door. Phlegm. Spit. Cum. Blood. Yellow. White. Red. Black. Bruise. Blue. Green. Eyes. Seeing, translating, refracting, flipping over, inside out, rapid fire, REM sleep, deep dreams, doors through doors through doors, open, open, open, closed. Open, open, open, closed. Mantra, memory. Lullaby.

The other door. Images. Flashes. What makes a person, what makes a body, what makes a a life. Rooms inside of bodies and buildings inside of houses inside of dolls inside of cliff sides inside of families inside of centuries inside of stories inside of time inside of timelessness.

The other door. Listen. Watch. Float on a bed of salt. Squeeze your legs together, spread them wide, kick, pull, push, glide.

The other door. Spirit. Mystery. Sun, moon, plain as day, clear as night. Sky and floor, room after room. Remember this? Remember this place? Swim home through waters you were born from and to which you will return. Doors open, open, open. Open your mouth. Open your eyes.

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

I Am Here. I’m Here. Here I’m…

Hi. I am here.

I am here where I so often am, in a blue chair at the kitchen table. My back faces north and my front faces south. On my left is a pantry. A fridge. A coffee mug with a “J” on it. On the right, a wall with a bit of peeling paint on the molding. My right wrist rests gently on the edge of the laptop. I take a deep breath and this feels good so I take another and a third, through my nostrils. It’s nice to have clear nasal passages. The kind of thing you so often take for granted until a bad cold hits.

I am here and it’s Wednesday morning. The house is quiet. Mani is in our room. She might be meditating. Aviva is still asleep. Pearl rode his bike to school about half hour ago. Earlier I had music on, but now it’s just the sounds of the keys clicking, and the breathing, and if I listen closely, a faint humming kind of sound outside, the source of which I can’t identify.

From here, the mind goes in so many directions. To a dream I had last night, where I was holding a large, sharp knife in the middle of a busy intersection. I was standing on some kind of median. Plenty of people were around but nobody said anything about the knife and I was alarmed that they weren’t alarmed and knew this was privilege in action. I had no malicious intent. And then I realize I’d sliced my own leg — the back, inner right thigh had a fairly gaping wound. I was bleeding and ran inside to strip off my pants and see how deep it was. I also had my period and so there was a lot of blood.

I am here, still, even as I remember the dream.

For many years, “hineni” is a word that has spoken directly to my soul. God asked Abraham, where are you? Which in itself is mysterious, right? I mean, presumably God can see where everyone is, in whatever way it is God sees. But my take on it is that God was really asking Abraham, do YOU know where you are? Like, where are you REALLY? And Abraham answered, Hineni. I am here. I hear this as, I am here, and also I am HERE. I am here and I know I am here. The two are not one.

I am here and I know I am here.

I am here and I am not here.

I am here and I am a body and a mind and a miracle of all systems go. I am here and typing and imagining you there, which is another miracle. My god. My God. God, do you see how many miracles are taking place right this very minute? I sound like a religious fanatic and I’ve probably said it before but I am ok with that.

We started watching “Alias Grace,” a show based on the Margaret Atwood book. In fact, Atwood is one of the producers, which makes me happy because it indicates her approval of the show’s translation of her writing for the screen. Back then, did you know they didn’t use contractions? So there is a lot of “I do not” and “You will not” and “We are going” types of phrases. These lend a certain gravity to everything, and it fascinates me that a tiny symbol like the apostrophe, the slightest closing in of things, can cause an entire shift in tone. Suddenly everything sounds less important, more casual.

I am here. I’m here. Here I am. But “here I’m” doesn’t work without a gerund to follow it. I’m here writing. I’m here being here. I am here, gratefully so.

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