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

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: “Transitions” | September 18-29 | $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: “Signs” | September 18-November 24 | $108 | FULL | New Dates 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.

THE FALL 2017 SESSION IS NOW FULL
Preregistration is open for the Winter 2018 Session: 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: 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

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

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.

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.