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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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Ten Minutes Instead of Three Hours

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. ~ Pablo Picasso

5:26pm

Pearl at the pool

Do I wait to have a three-hour chunk of time to write? No, I do not. I sit my ass down right here in the middle of it all and begin. The washer and dryer are both spinning — I’m halfway through six loads of laundry. Aviva and her friend are watching The Office in the living room, having just returned from town where they got fries. She’s at that age, where you go to town with friends and you get fries, with your own money, in an actual restaurant. I hope she left a good tip. Pearl’s at a friend’s house; I dropped them both off after a post-camp swim at the town pool. I’ve been alternately working and doing life things all days long — the kind of stuff that’s easy to put off day after day until days have turned into months and the oil change is 1,000 miles past due.

5:28pm

Something is wonky about my body today. It feels kind of like I’ve had 15 cups of coffee. I took an Excedrin Migraine this morning for the first time, and I’m pretty sure that’s the culprit. It’s not a good sensation and I want it to be over. I know it will pass, so I’m just kind of hanging out, noticing that vaguely weak, shaky, jello-y feeling. The heat and humidity index may not be helping matters.

5:30pm

I had that itch earlier to write. For hours and hours. To figure out where I’ve been and pull all the different colored ribbons together in a big bright bow. Alas. That is not this. This is more like lurching towards the writing, like driving a stick-shift when you’ve only ever driven an automatic. I insist that when the time comes — and it’s coming fast — I want my kids to learn how to drive a stick. Learning how to smooth the lurching, how you are closer to the whole experience, a bit more coordination and body awareness is required… God, I sound like a stick-shift snob, don’t I?

5:32pm

Showering in the summer feels extra good. Something about washing off the sweat and and how my skin is browner than I should let it get but oh, I love it, and the way the droplets of water cling just a little to whatever sunscreen residue clings after soap, pulling on a tank-top and skirt made of India cotton, something I would’ve worn in, say, 1987. I love all of it. I love slipping on sandals and walking outside without a thought as to coats or sweaters.

5:34pm

So many doctor appointments this week. An orthodontist here, a physical there, a bout of poison ivy, a specialist, teeth cleanings. I think I had a dream the other night that our insurance had changed and the cost had skyrocketed. It was truly frightening. Like many — most? — families, we have things that would be prohibitively, astronomically expensive without the coverage we currently have and can afford. It makes me crazy to contemplate.

5:36pm

Ten minutes have passed. There’s an odd, off-kilter feeling in my mouth and jaw. I am going to keep tabs on it while ignoring it at the same time. Is that possible? So much death lately, so much loss. My heart aches. I love being alive. Writing — even for just 10 minutes — is one of the ways I stop and take it all in. All the daily life that can seem like so much dust settling on our souls. Writing is my quest to invite my soul to surface, like a mother whale. Have a look around, I tell her. And she does.

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“There are days we live”

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

— Li-Young Lee, “From Blossoms”

There are days we live

we live the days the days pass us by we pass each other by we pass by windows we pass through doors we pass through moods we pass the salt we don’t eat meals together we pass the kids’ stuff back and forth we pass gas we let it all hang out.

We pass by roadside vegetable stands

where asparagus is called Hadley Grass where flowers so full they’re verging on obscenity hang from rusty hooks we pass through countryside landscapes windows down tobacco barns and storm clouds and air thick with impossible weight of all the grief we’ve not let bury our joy we pass over into joy.

We pass riverbanks we pass school playgrounds

old cemeteries and painted window boxes we pass stop signs and hospitals and we pass through all the times we wanted to lash out at life we pass karma and the smiling faces of saints who walk among us we pass the homeless woman who stand in the median on Route 9 her skin darker by the day we imagine track marks on her arms, withdrawal or overdose we pass her a dollar or three we pass the ATM to get cash.

We pass streams of ancient chants

we pass stories we pass saliva we pass hope we pass patience we pass it along we pass it back we are impossible we are here being and what I want to say is

What makes you blossom?

What I want to ask is

How can you think anything is impossible?

What I need to hear is it is really ok

to stumble to forget a peach to miscount to miscalculate to fall to let go to let down to stop smiling to stop striving to stop worrying to stop proving to stop stop stop. Stop.

That is the impossible and that, too, is the blossom

I long to devour. All I want is to close my eyes in the new hammock swing, to be fed cold peaches, to stop clenching my teeth, to sit back. And here is where resistance comes rearing its head up, dragon fire breathing.

I want.

I want the summer by the lake, the ocean.

I want — it feels impossible to say I want, to allow for that moment of wide-mouthed honesty. I am so tired but that is the impossible truth where words have led, where truth and blossom coexist, coffee and impossible sweetness conspire, where inspiration grows in well-tended soil.

Neglect is not a strategy.

So sit with me and

let’s watch these fields grow wild with peaches, let’s pick them slice them bake them devour life devour these days not let them pass us by unnoticed.

If I’m tired, let me rest.

I am to here to serve, please keep showing me how.

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Fifteen Minutes

8:33pm
I just read a book to Pearl — an old favorite we hadn’t read in ages called “Mrs. Katz and Tush,” by Patricia Polacco. Just when I think Pearl — who turned 11 in April — is done with me in all of the appropriate, growing-up ways, she surprises me and asks if we can read a picture book. Sure, I said, and that is the one I chose from the shelf. As I reached for it, a smattering of dust floated from the neglected shelf. When the book was over, I turned out her light and kiss hered cheek. “Love you,” she said quietly, as I left the room. “Can you come check on me in 10 minutes and whisper, Pearl!“? I told her I would, then came to the kitchen, got a bowl of ice cream, and sat down to write.

8:38pm
This kind of thing used to be a cornerstone of my writing time. I’d get through another day of life and work and kids, then go to my blog to sort it all out (or not, as the case often was). To sift through the pieces and see what could be named. I wrote to find out where I was. A lot of the time, it even worked.

8:40pm
Over the years, this practice has shape-shifted more times that I can count. Facebook has taken over my blog to some degree since it’s entirely possible I have more “readers” there than I do here at this point. But I didn’t start writing for any readers at all. Not a single one. I started — and kept going — because the writing itself, the very act of sitting down to say hello to myself, to find out where I’d been all day, sustained me. It was like an old friend I’d reconnected with after so many years — you know the one? The one you think about every day but for some reason never pick up the phone to call, secretly hoping you reconnect before one of you dies, then wondering it that’s a weird and morbid thought that maybe you shouldn’t say out loud.

8:42pm
One paragraph every two minutes. Already I am remembering something, a language I learned but stopped using on a regular basis. Was I really fluent once? I find it hard to believe. I sit down here, in the space between saying goodnight to Pearl and going back in to her dark room to whisper, “Pearl!” just as she asked me. There’s a bowl of nectarines on the table and a cool breeze after the heavy rain we waited for all day.

8:44pm
Aviva just graduated from 8th grade. When I started blogging, she was four. In September, she starts high school at the same school I graduated from 26 years ago. I can’t even tell you what she’s like because she’s so… herself. This morning in the car, we were talking about her resemblance to me. I told her all those years of sun and smoking didn’t do me any favors in terms of my skin and aging, but didn’t suggest I’d have changed a thing, either. How could I?

8:46pm
I don’t believe in looking back and thinking about changing things. I don’t ask myself questions like, if you could say anything to your younger self, what would it be? She had to experience all of it — moments of utter rightness, when laundry was hanging on a line in the backyard and the light was just so, and moments of wretched loneliness and pain, when every choice seemed impossible. What could I possibly tell her, when she ended up here, when we ended up as one?

8:48pm
This blog has always been a space of a single word: Hineni. I am here.

I see now that it still is.