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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.

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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: “Signs” | August 14-25 | $99 | Register
Size limit: 12

Additional fall groups 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.

Fall Session: October 2-December 22 | Three options: $126/$249/$449 per month | Register
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

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The Art of Allowing: A Guest Post

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

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

The Art of Allowing
by Lynn Bechtel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________________

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

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It’s All Made Up: Freewriting Fiction

chandelierAre you tired of your own stories? Keep writing about the same stuff? I get it! But guess what?

It’s All Made Up

One of the stories I tell about myself is that I suck at fiction writing.*

But from time to time, I do it anyway. And you know what? It’s fun. It’s freeing. It’s intriguing.

Whether you suck at fiction writing or just want an infusion of prompted inspiration and the camaraderie of a small group of readers, this new group’s just for you.

JOIN ME FOR three weeks of freewriting fiction.

Before I get into the details, let me tell you the back story.

***

“Want to go to an open house?” Aviva had just hopped in the car after an appointment one Saturday morning. We sat in the idling car not a block away from the realty sign that had caught my eye. “Ummmm, sure?”

We turned onto Sparrow Road and saw the “For Sale” sign about halfway down the dead-end street. It was a pale pink Victorian with white trim. As we reached the front door, a disembodied male voice called us to come inside.

“Hi, I’m Ross,” said the lanky realtor, who gestured first toward himself and then at the living room, as if introducing an invisible friend at his side. A vase of long-stemmed red tulips on a side table by the bay windows caught my eye. I introduced myself and my daughter as he handed us an info sheet. Though I’m not in a position to buy a house at the moment, somehow it didn’t feel entirely fake to be there. Well, ok, maybe it did. But I work my ass off, and a girl can dream.

Ross invited us to look around and said he’d be available for any questions. Aviva and I moved through the sitting room with the tulips and the crystal chandelier, then down a hallway that led to a cozy sunroom. The wood floors looked smooth and worn, like they had stories of their own to tell. Threadbare, faded cotton blankets in layers lent the south-facing daybed the appearance of a hundred-year nap. I could see myself falling asleep there like a cat.

When we stepped up into the adjoining kitchen, I think we gasped simultaneously. Holy mother of God, it was magazine-worthy: Funky, old, and rustic meets modern, hipster, and elegant. Adjoining deep porcelain sinks, exposed brick, a big attached pantry, windows overlooking the deep backyard. “If this house could talk…” I thought to myself, listening for its whispering bones as we made our way upstairs.

Four smallish bedrooms and what was clearly a new half-bath greeted us, all situated around a generous landing with a subtle slope.  Aviva and I immediately sussed out who would get which room, and I zeroed in on the smallest one in the back of the house as my Virginia Woolf space. A room of my own is among the things I miss most about owning a home with some “extra” space, and it remains high on my list of “someday” house wishes.

Mind you, I write all of this from the warmth of my kitchen in a beautifully maintained and cozy three-bedroom apartment; we have great neighbors, an awesome landlord, and more than enough room. So it’s not that I’m “complaining” as much as I’m letting my imagination of its leash. And when I do that, oh mama does she ever like to run free and sniff far. The craziest things catch her fancy, and sometimes I can’t find my special whistle that calls her home. She always comes back eventually, though.

Aviva and I completed our tour with dropped jaws — the house had a fully heated, two-story STUDIO space behind it that our accountant would love (perfect for the writing, yoga, and meditation workshops and retreats Mani and I will lead together!). We’d learned from Ross that the house was, as of that very morning, under contract. It was ridiculous that I felt disappointed, as I have neither the paperwork nor the down payment to make an offer. But rational emotions fled the scene as I looked around one last time, wistful that we’d never call this place “home.”

It took a few days before my imagination came bounding back home from her adventures. I’d been sitting around, just a tiny bit mopey maybe, working my way back to gratitude for the home we have rather than focusing on the one we don’t. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel  crazy thankful and amazed that we are able to pay rent here, cover our bills, and even have the ability to save, spend, and give away a little each month. The fact that my work as a promptress and writing coach afford us the ability to live in what is not an inexpensive town is a true blessing, one of the biggest of my life.

I went from bummed to inspired as I looked through the photos I’d taken during the open house.

Narrow closets covered in peeling wallpaper.
A single old-fashioned shoe, left behind.
The blur of exposed brick.
A circle of tree stumps.
An old cupboard.
A rusty letterbox.

Anything could happen in these rooms.

These fragments from fake house hunting could call anyone’s imagination in so many different directions — which is why I decided to use them for a brand new writing group. Because creating fictional stories sounds like way more fun than wanting what we don’t have or getting stuck telling the same stories we already know inside out.

Doesn’t it?

It’s All Made Up: Freewriting fiction

A three-week online writing group for people who love fiction and a) are totally intimidated by writing it and/or b) could use an infusion of inspiration and good company on your writing journey.

WHAT WILL WE WRITE ABOUT? 

I have no idea. Anything could happen! That is kind of the point.

Through a combination of guided freewriting and other creative exercises on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we’ll try our hands at freewriting fiction three times a week for three weeks. Working with a trusty timer (10 minutes per freewrite) and evocative visual prompts, we’ll let our imaginations take the lead, running roughshod over our well-worn true stories and introducing us to moments, characters, and incidents we never before dreamed up, much less wrote down.

*What if I suck at it?

Sucking will not only be acceptable in this group; we will CELEBRATE SUCKING. The goal will be to loosen up the reigns and make some shit up, without worrying about submitting and publishing, without stressing about who’s better than us, and with good cheer and great fun.

group participation

There will be TWO sections of this group, each limited to TWELVE participants. These groups will be top-secret, so you don’t have to worry about anyone else seeing what goes on in that wild imagination of yours. Participation is optional, but it’s also super fun so I hope you’ll go for it.

will i get feedback?

Yes and no. We won’t be focused on craft so much as generous reflection and encouraging comments on each other’s forays into made-up scenes and scenarios. That said, if you find that you want feedback on a specific aspect of any of your writing, you are welcome to ask for it.

DATES:

Monday, November 14 — Friday, December 2

COST:

With the intention of this group being widely inclusive, I’m once again offering three different (confidential) payment tiers, based completely on the honor system. Please choose according to an honest self-assessment:

  • Tier 1: Folks who have to scrimp, squirrel, and save to participate in this kind of group.
  • Tier 2: Anyone who’s moderately comfortable and has some disposable income.
  • Tier 3: Those of you who have the ability and desire to pay it forward.

:: $63 ::
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:: $126 ::
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:: $189 ::btn_buynow_lg
We are going to have so much fun in these groups. Join me!

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Assemble

assemble
I want to say we assembled bouquets ourselves, from flowers we picked early that morning, wading thigh-high through dewy grasses in the field thick behind our home.

I want to say we clipped and carried them in big tin buckets, like Sal with the blueberries in one of my favorite children’s books.

I want to say we returned to the dining room table, and that the table was made from wood from trees she’d chopped down herself before sketching designs for this gathering place, this surface where we’d assemble flowers and family alike.

I want to say the name of the wood, but don’t know enough names of wood to tell you which it was. Something special and beautiful, to be sure.

I want to say we mostly did these things in silence, the reverent kind you read about. And that sometimes an animal, some quick movement, would catch my eyes or hers, and we’d stop, pause, freeze, so as not to frighten it.

We knew we were the intruders, on the turf of wildness not ours to tame, and that even taking the flowers was a gift requiring our gratitude, and that we’d pay back the land by tossing seeds her way as the seasons changed after the wedding.

I want to say we watched the sun come up over the hills, casting a glow over our hands that would later take hold and say yes.

I want to say the mist kissed our shoulders and the birds blessed our union.

I want to say the deer assembled near the edge of the meadow, watching us watch them, not weary but also keeping their distance — as if they, too, knew the cycle of things and that we’d not waste a single part of their bodies when it came to our own winter sustenance and survival.

I want to say there was a great cycle here, and our bouquets — so bright, stems so lovingly wrapped in ribbon the color of morning sky — were like love letters to each other and to the angels and to our guests who’d assemble in just a few hours, in sacred witness.

I want to say these things are true, because I see them. I see them through some third eye where memories of parallel experience live and hover and, sometimes, land on my forehead, just for a moment.

**

This was my freewrite for the Day Two prompt in my current two-week writing group. Full disclosure: I fixed a couple of typos and changed one word before posting it here, but the idea in my groups it to write and share without editing. We are so hard on ourselves and it’s my belief that we really don’t need more practice being critical of our words or beating ourselves every time we miss the bullseye (which is most of the time). That’s why the groups I lead are more about showing up and everything counts. Join me June 6-17