starlings--Mark Hearld

Writing in Groups: Frequently Asked Questions


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

How do I comment on people’s writing?

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

What if I offend someone?

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

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

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

I’m afraid I won’t commit.

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

Bottom line (for today!)

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

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

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

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

starlings--Mark Hearld

Thoughts on Subtlety


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

starlings--Mark Hearld

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

starlings--Mark Hearld

First Sentence Interview Series with Vanessa Mártir: “You have to make time”

My guest this month is Vanessa Mártir, a NYC based writer, educator and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles her journey on her blog. Vanessa’s essays have appeared in The Butter, Poets & Writers Magazine, Kweli Journal and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others. In 2011, Vanessa created the Writing Our Lives Workshop, through which she’s led hundreds of writers through the process of writing personal essay.

Vanessa has penned two novels, Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Right Play (unpublished), and most recently co-wrote Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists (Workman Publishing, 2010). She’s the founder of the wildly successful #52essays2017 project. Vanessa is a five-time VONA/Voices and a two-time Tin House fellow.

When did you first start writing? Do you remember the first time you called yourself “a writer”?

I started telling myself stories when I was just five or six years old. I would climb up the plum tree in our backyard in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and there I would imagine a different life.

When I told my mother I was a writer, she told me a story of when I was in kindergarten. The teachers complained that I was distracted during storytime. Instead of sitting on the rug in a circle with all my classmates, I would walk around, dig into the bookshelves, do everything but sit and listen to the story. When she scolded me, I told her: “But mommy, I already know how the story goes. I get bored.” “Oh, really,” she said. “So how does the story go?” She said I got really excited. I stood up and started, “Once upon a time…” I proceeded to tell a story of my own making.

My mother was telling me that I’ve always been a writer. Still, it took me a long time to name myself that. I used to say it out of the side of my mouth when I was in my teens and twenties, but I wasn’t writing the way I wanted to, I wasn’t taking workshops or classes. I wasn’t invested in it as much as I wanted to be. After the elite education I received via boarding school and Columbia University, coupled with the immigrant ideals that were instilled in me by my family, I felt like I couldn’t go into the arts. I had to go into corporate America where I’d get a steady paycheck, have health insurance, and could save for retirement. The arts was too unreliable to go into. I had to keep in mind that my family came from the kind of poverty you only see in Save the Children commercials. Taking such huge risks like pursuing my writing was in many ways a dishonor to them and the sacrifices they made that in turn made my blessings so possible.

I wrote here and there. Was even published a few times, but it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my daughter that I assessed my life and realized that I needed to make some big changes. I was miserable in corporate America, and I knew firsthand what misery could do to a family. I didn’t want that for myself, my child or my family. I asked myself: “Where is your heart?” The answer was clear: in my writing. So I followed it. I filled six journals while I was pregnant, and wrote my first novel, Woman’s Cry, while I was nursing my little girl. I left corporate America and never looked back. I was also finally able to call myself a writer and believe it. 🙂

Who do you write for? Do you have a particular reader or audience in mind when you’re writing?

When I write, I write for Loba Pack. They are a select group of folks with whom I can be my full, vulnerable, soft-but-unfuckwithable self. I can laugh and cry and rage and dance. I imagine we are in my kitchen. We have just eaten a meal I just cooked–pollo al horno, a caldero of arroz con fideo, a salad. We are sipping on bourbon and I am telling them my stories.

Where does fear show up for you — and how do you deal with it?

Fear shows up often for me. I write about trauma, mine and my families. I am revealing secrets that have had my family in a choke hold for generations. I write about my life, who I am, what I’ve learned, how I exist in this world as a queer woman of color. I have spent much of my life being told directly and subliminally that I don’t matter, my people don’t matter, our stories don’t matter, so when I dare to write them, to publish them and get them out into the world, fear leans in hard. I more often than not push back at it.

I think fear is natural. It’s how we react to fear that matters: we can let it catalyze us or paralyze us. I have been both catalyzed and paralyzed. When I’m paralyzed, I read a lot, go to therapy, and I spend time in my body hiking and biking and rollerblading and working out. Trauma exists in the body so moving it helps me work with it to get these stories down. It’s a journey. I’m still working on it. But this is my journey and what works for me may not work for others. It’s important you find what works for you.

What do you tell folks who say they “don’t have time” to write?

The only people who have time to write are in prison. You have to make time. Make time in the morning. Or make time at night. Write in the cracks: on your commute to work, while waiting on line at the market or elsewhere, while waiting for your dinner to be done. Write a page. Write a few sentences. Write for ten minutes or write for an hour. Give your art the time it requires and you want. You can’t want this life and not be willing to put in the time and effort it requires. It just doesn’t work like that.

One essay a week is a lot to show up for. How do you decide what to write? Do you have any “rules” about this process?

I don’t usually know what I’m writing until I actually sit down and write, but I do pay attention to what’s coming up all week. What stories have been circling. What energies are in the air. Then when I sit, I write. I’ve written on the train, in my writing room, in the park while sitting on a bench under a tree. My one rule is: show up and write. Don’t try to control the process. Just write. Get out of your own way.

How long have you been working on “A Dim Capacity for Wings” and when will you know it’s done?

I’ve been working on this book for ten years. When will I know it’s done? I’ll let you know. 🙂

Do you have any favorite words or expressions?

The only way out is in.

Be relentless.

First Sentence is a series featuring interviews with writers — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each conversation is intended to offer readers and fellow writers a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

More about the First Sentence series, including links to previous author interviews

starlings--Mark Hearld

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