Whether you're new to writing or a veteran, published writer, it's likely that some of your writing habits may be unhealthy. And it's likely that some of your expectations for your writing don't always serve your own best interests. We can all get stuck in unhelpful patterns, especially because our schooling fills us up with many less-than-helpful assumptions, patterns and habits of writing--and of mind.
I'm delighted to share an article that I wrote and was published in Spirituality & Health Magazine.
It is my firm belief, and I've seen it confirmed over and over again with students and clients, that we can only do our best writing when we embrace our full stories and our full selves. That means we need to learn to integrate and care for and, yes, love ourselves.
I hope you enjoy the article. You might want to bookmark it so that you can remember to take these steps for yourself when you're writing.
Also, there's still time to join my FREE 5 Day Meditation and Writing Challenge where you can start putting some of these steps into practice. See more and sign up for the free challenge here.
And if you have friends who might enjoy the article or the challenge, please do share!
And as always, reach out to me with comments or questions!
Sign up to be part of the FREE 5 Day meditation and writing challenge here (the challenge will be active until Monday January 21)
Today is solstice, the shortest, darkest day of the year. We're as far as the sun as we're going to get. And tomorrow we come get just a bit closer to the sun again.
In this cold, dark time of year, it can sometimes feel that the outer darkness reflects our inner world. And when we read the news, we may be filled with anxiety and a sense of doom, as if there were only one story to be told.
It’s no wonder that throughout history at this dark time of year, people around the world have celebrations of light: Hannukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa all celebrate the miracle of light in dark times.
These holidays remind us that the world we see around us when we look out our window is not the only world, that there are other stories to tell.
The practice of writing can also remind us of the power of light, of rebirth in darkness, or miracles when it seems that the light is running low.
Unfortunately, our society often overlooks the creative side of our traditions. The holidays become times to buy and eat more.
But rather than consume more external things, we can treat this dark time as an invitation to wonder and re-ignite our own internal fire.
If we want to ignite our inner fire, we need to go inward. It is true that what we might find there may be our own darkness, not just the reflection of others' darkness. But if we sit with our own pain, we will also be able to sit with our own wonder and process of transformation, which is its own kind of light.
Writing is a great way to spark this inner work. So even in this busy holidays season, take some time to get comfortable and settle down with a pen and paper.
I want to share with you one of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus translated by Stephen Mitchell, a fine poet himself. This is one of my favorite poems.
If the drinking bitter, change yourself to wine," the poem recommends. This poem is full of many great lines, and I invite you to read it several times; each time you'll notice something new.
And then take out your pen and write :)
Silent Friend of Many Distances...
Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your face
grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.
In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.
And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I'm flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.
I hope that you can feel your own fullness of being and that you, too, can "let your presence ring out like a bell into the night."
Wishing you very happy holidays!
Today is the first day of Hanukkah, a celebration of the miracle of light. In the Hanukkah story, when it seemed that there was no more light left, the light kept burning until a new reserve of oil was ready.
Even in dark times, we have access to more light than we sometimes know. At this dark and busy time of year, it's important to remember the miracle of not only the external lights, but also the internal.
To honor the light that is within each of us, I want to share a poem by Mary Oliver:
The Buddha’s Last Instruction
by Mary Oliver
“Make of yourself a light”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal—a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire--
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.
I want to share with you two poems for the holiday season, both by Native American women.
These poems are in the spirit of what I think is best about Thanksgiving--our celebration of the earth's harvest and our connection with the earth, with one another and with ourselves.
The first is a poem by Linda Hogan,
The Way In
Sometimes the way to milk and honey is through the body.
Sometimes the way in is a song.
But there are three ways in the world: dangerous, wounding,
To enter stone, be water.
To rise through hard earth, be plant
desiring sunlight, believing in water.
To enter fire, be dry.
To enter life, be food.
The second is an Osage Initiation song for women, translated by a Native American anthropologist, Francie La Flesche, collected in the poet Jane Hirschfield’s anthology Women in Praise of the Sacred.
Planting Initiation Song:
I have made a footprint, a sacred one.
I have made a footprint, through it the blades push upward.
I have made a footprint, through it the blades radiate.
I have made a footprint, over it the blades float in the wind.
I have made a footprint, over it I bend the stalk to pluck the ears.
I have made a footprint, over it the blossoms lie gray.
I have made a footprint, smoke arises from my house.
I have made a footprint, there is cheer in my house.
I have made a footprint, I live in the light of day.
These both are beautiful and complex poems. Take a few moments to read them a few times.
Start a poem/piece with the words "the way in"
Write a poem/ piece in which the first lines of each line/sentence repeat.
Write a seasonal poem/piece in which each line/ sentence takes us to a different time in the year.
Write a harvest poem/ piece. What do you want to plant and harvest?
Write a piece with the following words: milk, song, dangerous, believe, fire, enter
Especially in this busy season of over-eating and sometimes over-visiting with family and friends, it's so important to reconnect with ourselves and take some time for our writing.
I find that when I take just fifteen minutes for myself and give voice to myself on the page (whether it's serious our playful), I'm a better mother, friend, listener, wife, daughter, and more.
As the days get shorter and darker, it's all the more important that we attend to the inner "light of our day"
Because I believe so much in the power of reconnecting with ourselves through meditation and writing, I'm putting together both a FREE five day meditation and writing challenge the first week of December, You can sign up to get the free audio prompts here. I hope you can join me.
I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving with time to honor what nourishes you and what connects you .
Hello after the election!
We have some important things to celebrate (thank goodness!!) and also some disappointments.
And both the victories and the disappointments show us that we need to keep on stepping forward, showing up; that we do this for ourselves and for others; and that the two go hand in hand.
Today I want to share some words from Audre Lorde's essay "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action" (thanks in part to one of my creative writing students who brought this essay into our conversation about writing in our Monday afternoon class).
Lorde was a black feminist poet, essayist, and activist, and she's one of my heroes. She wrote this essay after a false cancer scare; confronted with her own morality, she came more fully into herself and into her voice.
In this essay Lorde claims her position, her self, in language, which she is able to do in part, she says, because of the community of women who have supported her. And she calls on her readers to do the same: to claim their full complex identity and to transform their silences into action for a more kind, just, courageous world and for a more whole self.
Though Lorde wrote this essay in 1977, it could have been written yesterday.
"In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality...what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end.
Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words.
And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.
I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you....
What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?
Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself – a Black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?"
What is your work to do?
And how can we call upon one another to help us do our work and transform our silences into language and action, into self acceptance and self love so that we may love one another better?
Tomorrow, Thursday, at 12:30, I'll be hosting a FREE online guided meditation and writing session. I'll offer prompts, but this is really a time to listen to whatever your voice is calling you to. Perhaps you need just a bit of time to reflect on the blue sky. There is no "right" way to use this time, but when you come together with a community of other writers, and write after short meditations, I think you'll find the time both restorative and powerful.
Sign up for the free log-in information and to get a recording. And please invite friends to join us, too.
As always, reach out to me with any thoughts or questions.
Over the past weeks, I’ve been writing about the importance of speaking and writing the truth.
We might see this historic moment as a struggle between the truth and lies: is climate change real and worthy of our attention or is it a hoax? Does it matter if supreme court justices lie under oath? do we listen to the voices of women who are speaking the truth about abuse they suffered? is it programs like social security and medicare that bankrupt a country’s purse and moral center or is it tax breaks to the very rich? The list goes on and on.
The lies we have been seeing have been so stark and startling that they might suggest that truth-speaking is, by contrast, political, obvious, loud and public.
But anyone who knows what it’s like to speak difficult truths knows how complex it really is to explore truth, to put it to language, and the intimate relationship truth has to silence.
If Judge Kavanaugh’s lies were loud and angry, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s truths were more quiet, spoken out of years of silence.
Why is that? To explore real truths, we must learn to listen differently to ourselves and to the world around us. We must learn to listen to the silences and to honor the real challenges of breaking those silence.
I have a few upcoming projects that focus on silence and breaking silence. I’m excited to share with you and invite you to participate in them:
Writing Workshop: WRITING ABOUT THE UNSAID
Friday November 9th from 10:30-1:30 at Grub Street Boston
See more here
If our writing is going to explore breaking silences, we must also put in the weight of the silences, of the unsaid, into that writing as well. If our writing is going to speak the truth, it must also put in the complexities of truth: tell the truth, but tell it slant, Emily Dickinson wrote.
From poems that work with white space on the page, to thrillers that leave readers eager to turn the page, to memoirs where the younger self might not yet have the tools to name what is happening, a wide variety of writing employs the technique of not saying. In this seminar, we’ll explore how to work explicitly with what is not said on the page to give more depth to what is said.
We’ll explore ways in which the unsaid can add new layers and dimensions to your writing. We’ll classify different reasons and techniques for leaving things out—from writing about trauma to working with the spiritual to creating a wordless understanding with the readers—and we'll look at specific examples in a wide range of authors such as Elena Ferrante, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and others.
We’ll examine the power of silence and the even greater power of breaking silence and the relationship between the two.
Time will also be dedicated to in-class writing prompts based on our discussions and to getting feedback on your writing. Register here
ANATOMY OF SILENCE ANTHOLOGY Kickstarter Campaign
The Anatomy of Silence is an anthology of non-fiction and creative narratives about the silence that surrounds sexual violence. This book presents unflinching analysis by 26 survivors and allies talking out loud (often for the first time) about what it means to stay silent, to be silenced, to be complicit in silencing others. I'm honored to be one of the 26 writers included in the book.
My essay explores in more depth than I’ve written about before the toll that traumatic silence played on my life, the ways in which what I did not have the tools to speak verbally as a young child was spoken in the body, and the cost of that silence. But the essay also explores the ways in which, behind the traumatic silence, I came to a deeper level of silence that was filled with grace and peace, a level that, ultimately, stands beyond the reach even of unspeakable violence.
I’d be delighted if you support the project by pre-ordering a copy of the book through the kickstarter campaign and supporting the project in any way you can here
FREE ONLINE MEDITATION AND WRITING SESSION
Thursday, November 8 12:30pm-1:30pm Eastern
Come for all or part of the time.
Come be led in a meditation and by writing prompts.
Clients have loved these in the past, and I'm excited to host another.
Sign up for the free log-in information at the link below:
PLEASE JOIN ME: FREE ONLINE MEDITATION AND WRITING SESSION
RESOURCES FOR GETTING OUT THE VOTE:
get information on how to canvass / donate money/ call voters from your home in swing elections.
resource to send postcards to voters
I’ve been angry these past weeks. And under that anger is also fear and sadness. But instead of letting that stop me, I'm trying to let those feelings fuel me.
In the Kavanaugh confirmation, we saw a blatant disrespect women’s voices and bodies and for truth itself. This week, a very alarming new report also came out about the state of our climate—which is worse even than scientists anticipated.
What do the two seemingly disparate news stories have in common? I wrote about this in a recent op-ed piece that I’ll also share below. We live in a time of cognitive and moral dissonance—when the powers that be are choosing not to face the truth.
So what do we do? It seems to me that these times call on each of us to speak the truth; that they call us to keep our own moral vision in front of us and act accordingly; that they call us not to be swayed by the lies we see around us, but instead, to gather around us brothers and sisters who value the truth.
In kundalini yoga, one of the core mantras is sat nam, which means “truth is identity”—truth is the identity of the universal, and also truth is my identity, the identity of each of our individual selves.
So I encourage each of us to find that truth, and rather than feeling disempowered, remember that our real power is internal.
And, similarly, that political change does not come from the top down, but instead always comes from the power of the people. In a 2005 piece, after the confirmation of another conservative supreme court justice, Howard Zinn wrote It would be naive to depend on the Supreme Court to defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice.
I try to find one way that I can write or speak my truth each day.
But I also need to tell you that if I feel that I am a tiny voice battling an unfair universe and the whole system that is, I feel completely overwhelmed and exhausted.
I need to find a way to feel that my truth is not oppositional, not always about fighting, but also about being in alignment, about coming back to the sacred and the safe and the beautiful, which is also always around us.
And rather than be overwhelmed by how much there is potentially to do, I try to choose one or two distinct, discreet actions that are in alignment with what I can realistically do in my life now and do them.
The antidote to despair is action. And also non-guilt. Sometimes, actually, our guilt even prevents us from taking action.
So here are five questions that I try to ask myself and respond to:
1) What do I know to be true and important to me? (it can include the love of music, or people or pets). I try to look both at the personal level and the larger social/national/global levels and really look explicitly at all these levels.
2) How am I already participating in one or two meaningful ways to be part of a positive movement that I believe in? It’s good to remind myself that much of what I do already, including just smiling at people and taking care of my kids, are things that I really value and am already doing and can’t be taken for granted.
3) What is one more thing I can do on a level that I care about (social, national, global) that gets me a bit outside of my comfort zone? Often we’re pretty focused on the personal, which makes sense, but is also in part a product of capitalist culture that believes that we can solve our problems through our individual (often money-centered) actions. I try to choose one specific thing on a larger level and do it.
4) Am I remembering to stay grounded in the present and in my meditation practices so that I don’t get overwhelmed or fall into guilt that I’m not doing more?
5) Am I connecting with friends and community around these issues? When we stay connected, we're so much stronger!
I encourage you to try all these five steps and see how they go for you! Or maybe you have your own system, and you can think about and share with others what works for you.
For me, in these next four weeks, I’m choosing to focus on the November 6th elections.
Here are the things I'm doing for step number three:
I’m canvassing as many weekends as I can in NH, and possibly ME and/or NY.
I’m participating in postcard writing sessions to voters
I’m donating money to candidates in tight races (Eric and I sat down and talked about what seemed comfortable and then decided to double that number because we realized that our margin was bigger than we sometimes think it is)
After the election, I’ll re-assess and consider what I'm doing next.
Notice, I didn’t include watching or reading tons of news, which I find just gets me feeling more discouraged and small.
I’ve included below some resources if you want to get involved in the elections so that we don't give up on social supports in this country or on fighting climate change.
I’ve also included my upcoming events, including a workshop at Grub Street on writing the unsaid—a particularly poignant topic these days—and a FREE live online meditation and writing session after the election.
As always, please share this with any friends who might be interested.
I want to write a slightly different post today.
I talk a lot about the power of our voices and the ways in which, when we are centered, we can take more meaningful action.
One of the questions I often wonder about and find myself in conversation about is how our voice can be used to effect change. I believe that everything we say—and do—matters and has an impact. I believe that smiling at a child makes a difference, that writing a poem makes a difference.
But today I want to write about a particular form of impact and action.
Like many of you, I’ve been deeply concerned about the direction our country is going in. Almost every day there is something really upsetting and alarming.
Sometimes I have felt that I don’t really have the language to express my concern over the alarming things that are happening: hate speech, children in cages, a President who is colluding with Russia, members of the Senate who want to push through a Supreme Court Nominee who thinks its okay for the President to potentially pardon himself (!!) and who mistreats (again!) women.
And to be honest with you, over the past few years, I’ve largely stopped reading the news because I feel that my energy can best be used in other ways.
But in the next six weeks, we have an opportunity to take some clear action of another kind. I believe that the single best way to create some of the changes I want to see in this country is to flip the house and senate. For almost every issue that I care about, this election is of great importance.
This isn't about partisan politics, and I do want to be able to have a community that allows for differences of opinion and position. But I also feel that this is a time I need to speak about and talk about what matters to me.
So I am using my voice today to ask you to think about what you can do in the next six weeks to try to help change the balance of power in Washington and flip the house and senate. I believe that if we talk about what we can do and if we do it together, it can be not just a chore but actually community building and fun.
Taking or not taking political action doesn’t make someone a good person or not—this isn’t about judging anyone in any way!
But it is about making it more likely that there may be some checks on the threats to democracy and civil and sustainable society that so many of us have been so alarmed by.
It's also about feeling better: It feels much to do something active instead of to feel powerless because, after all, we're not powerless.
I’ll share with you some of the things I’m planning to do:
1) I am going to continue to call all the senators undecided about the Kavanaugh confirmation. If you’d like to do that, here’s a site with some numbers https://www.facebook.com/events/2133706160174331/
2) I’m going to canvass in swing states near me (NH and ME). Here’s a site that can help you do that, if you would like to: https://swingleft.org/
3) My husband and I are going to give money to candidates in tight swing elections. We talked about what felt comfortable and then decided to double that. : https://swingleft.org/
What are you thinking about? What are you talking about? What are you going to do?
Two years ago, I was very worried that Trump was going to win. I’d been canvassing in New Hampshire and the conversations I was having didn’t make me confident that the race was in the bag. After the election, I wished I had done more.
Talk to your friends. Be in touch with me.
And keep on being your beautiful, wonderful selves.
I know many of you have a lot on your plate and I know that you will do what you can do, but it’s more likely that we’ll each do a bit more if we encourage one another and make a clear plan.
with much love,
PS: see this letter by buddhist teachers encouraging others to get out and vote.
Please share if you like this post.
Most of us remember daily diaries from when we were kids. If we were girls, our diaries may have had pretty pictures on the front and a little locket. But what was outside wasn't really important. It was what was inside that mattered.
Little did many of us know that our journals actually helped keep us healthy--not only emotionally and psychologically but also physically.
James Pennebaker, a social scientist and researcher at the University of Texas, has done groundbreaking work for the last twenty years on the healing power of writing. In his 1997 book Opening Up, he documents the first research he did on the topic. Curious what the effects of writing down one's experiences are, he did a research study to find out. What he discovered surprised even him.
The group of students who wrote just once about difficult experiences and their emotions around those experiences experienced a 50% reduction in doctors visits in the next six months compared to the six months before writing. They reported fewer symptoms for any chronic illnesses they had, greater happiness and even an increase in grades and higher success rates when looking for jobs!
If we think that an activity like writing in a journal is something that we do for ourselves, with no practical benefit, we are wrong: Pennebaker's research has been repeated multiple times and the benefits of writing have been clearly demonstrated.
When we write, we process our life.
We know more and more about how important gut health is to process and digest our food--if we don't have a healthy gut, we can't take n the nutrients of our food. Similarly, we need to be able to process the meanings and feelings of our life to live a healthy, vital and successful life. Writing helps us do that!
Pennebaker's research suggests that when you write in a journal, instead of just writing stream of consciousness, be mindful of your writing process:
Here are some steps for the most effective writing, that can help not only in journal writing but in every other form of writing that you do:
Five simple steps for transformative writing
1)Choose a topic to write about--you may go off topic as you write, but having some intention and direction at first can help you get to what's important and not avoid it
2) Write about the specifics of the event/scene. Include as many details as possible--use all your senses.
3) Make sure to include your feelings. It's not "sentimental" or "corny" to write about feelings. Writing about your emotions is one of the most important qualities for healing--and it makes for more interesting and relatable writing, too.
4)If you hit a block, write through it. Don't worry about the "quality" of your writing or being completely coherent. Write about the block itself--keep your pen moving and come out of judgment mode. You can always revise later.
5) When you are done put your writing away for a little while to let the process digest and come to some closure. Take a short break—perhaps five minutes or a day. Then come back to your writing and re-read what you've written with compassion. Come out of judgment mind, and instead do some deep listening, becoming your own best witness.
Still not sure? Five reasons to get/ stay writing
If you want some writing prompts, explore my earlier blog posts including this post about the power and connection of writing
and this post with helpful writing prompts
And if you want support with your writing, I have just a few spaces left in my Monday writing workshops. You may also enjoy my one day mini-retreat/ workshop on Writing as a Contemplative Practice Friday September 21. Or reach out to me for information about working one-on-one.
As always, please share this with any friends who might be interested, and email me to say hi or ask questions.
Many years ago, when I was writing my dissertation and struggling with the section I was working on, a friend reminded me that Thomas Mann once said, a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.
This quote helped me: it reminded me that writing doesn’t always flow naturally for writers; that if I was having a hard time, it didn’t mean that I wasn’t meant to be writing or wasn’t a “real writer.”
When we’re having a hard time, it’s helpful to know that we’re not alone.
But over the years, I’ve come to think that Mann’s quote is misguided and misleading. Because writing doesn’t have to be hard, and if it is hard for us, we don’t need to over-emphasize the difficulty, but instead can accept the challenge for moment and be open to noticing shifts.
In my many years in academia and as part of the “professional” writing world of creative writers, I heard over and over again how “hard” writing was. The idea was that real writers suffered. But rarely did I see suggestions or guidance to help understand what was making it so hard or guidance to help writers come into more ease while still caring about the craft and outcome of what they produced.
There seemed to be a strange double bind: it can’t be good without being difficult.
I have come to believe that it is possible to find both ease and power in our writing.
I’ve been teaching writing for more than 15 years, and I see many of the same misperceptions come up again and again for my students. I have also seen students struggle with the same issues and ask the same questions.
So I decided to write a book just for the members of my community that lays out the seven essential steps to finding your authentic voice, embracing your story and writing with more ease and power.
I spent a long time working on this book and designed it so it’s a really beautiful book, something that you can come back to again and again.
If you haven’t seen it yet, or even if you have, I hope you’ll explore this downloadable ebook as a resource that you can use for the long term.
The book, Embrace Your Story, addresses many of the misperceptions, fears, questions, and challenges that I have seen come up again and again for my students. And it also lays out a path to writing in deeply rewarding and fulfilling ways so that you feel you can write whatever it is you want to write and enjoy the process.
It’s full of information and tips about how to establish a successful and fulfilling writing process and life. And it also has writing prompts throughout and an additional ten writing prompts at the back of the book.
In addition, the book comes with two 15 minute audio meditations to help you with your writing. They each start with a five minute meditation and then give you ten minutes to write.
You don’t need a lot of time to get powerful writing done, especially if you start with a meditation that primes you for this kind of work. In just ten minutes, you can do powerful writing.
Whether you’re seeing this ebook for the first time or not, give it a try! And let me know what you think! I always love to hear from you.
And if you like it, please share with friends.
Sometimes people ask me what to look for in a creative writing class, so I thought make a list of some of the most important qualities to look for and why.
1) attention to process/emotional support and attention to product/ craft
2) supportive community
3) good readers, and different kinds of readers in the class
4) small class size for individualized attention
5) flexible assignments, so that you can try new things and but also follow your own process and projects
6) carefully selected outside reading so that you can be inspired by and learn from works of other writers, develop your analytical abilities and broaden your vocabulary for thinking and talking about written work
7) ability to experiment, try different genres and forms, and make mistakes
8) freedom to ask for the kinds of feedback you want and not always have to follow the same format—maybe one day you want line by line edits and another day you don’t
9) time to generate writing in class in community—some people love this, some don’t but it’s always fun to get outside of your comfort zone and try something new and surprise yourself with what you can produce in a short amount of time in class
10) fun—after all, a writing class should be something that you look forward to going to each week!
I believe strongly that it is possible to find a class that provides both a truly supportive and encouraging atmosphere for writers at every level and at the same time teaches and supports the craft of writing and has a high standard for the writing and product itself.
In many writing circles, people tend to think of process and product as antithetical, and to assume that if a class is emotionally supportive it won’t also have a strong analytical and craft component.
We tend to think in terms of either/or instead of both/and. But that kind of thinking severely limits us. We get caught in old cultural dichotomies, dividing the head from the heart, the intellect from emotions, the mind from the body.
We also tend to think in strangely hierarchical and misogynist terms. Almost whenever people start making false divisions between the head and the heart, the assumption is that the head is superior and that the realm of the heart, emotions or “sentiment” is less serious and the space of “women.” Or conversely, we think that doing intellectual work prevents us from doing deep emotional work.
So it’s time to bring light to those silly biases and move beyond them!
I believe that a good writing class assumes that the emotional support is part of the analytical and craft support that is offered; after all, we’re only able to do our best work on the page, if we can listen deeply to ourselves and trust our own process.And we’re able to listen more deeply to ourselves and grow more if we also attend closely to what is happening on the page. Bringing the head and the heart together in the creative process creates a generative feedback loop in which we grow into our own authentic voice, understanding and vision.
In my classes, everything is designed to help people get to this integration of process and form.The supportive community; small class size; freedom to experiment with assignments and with form; encouragement to try new things and risk making mistakes; ability to ask for and receive different kinds of feedback, depending on the project and day; the carefully selected outside reading assignments and careful analysis of those outside texts that encourage you to expand your own limits; the generative in-class exercises and the fun we have together in class —all support you to create your very best, most daring, most honest and powerful work. These conditions encourage both emotional depth and technical brilliance.
Unlike other writing classes, my workshops are open to people writing both poetry and/or prose. And they are also open to writers with a very wide range of writing experience, from complete beginners to published and professional writers.
I find that mixing up the class leads to more exciting results for the students: rather than keep people caught in rigid categories, it allows writers to think more expansively of their work, to be explicit and honest about why they are writing, and who their readers are—and aren’t.
I have had students who have started as complete beginners in my class and gone on to publish books; I have had students who are very clear that they never intend to publish anything but are writing for their own enjoyment and growth; I have had students working on finding the shape of their first book; students finishing their third books; and students who, having recently finished a book want the freedom to play and explore again without needing to worry about publication.
Most students are writing either poetry and/or creative prose (memoir and personal essays) but the classes are also open to students working in long or short fiction.
If you’re in the Boston area and are interested in joining one of my classes, I have just a few more spaces left in each and would love to hear from you. Classes will start September 17thin my home in North Cambridge and each run for ten Mondays (excluding holidays). My morning class starts 10:00 and my afternoon class at 12:30. You can see more about the classes here.
Because the classes are small (capped at 9 people each), I like to talk to each person briefly before they join, so just reach out and contact me by replying to this email!
If you live elsewhere or if the Monday classes don’t fit your schedule, you might be interested in my online class. I also encourage you to look for other in-person classes and to ask questions before joining a class. Joining an unsupportive writing class, or a lax writing class that doesn’t take writing seriously, can set you back in your own life as a writer for years. I’ve had students join my class after having stopped writing literally for years because of a bad writing workshop experience. So before you join a class, look at this list of questions and talk to the teacher and see if it will be a good fit.
Many years ago, my therapist asked me, “do you see the glass half full or half empty?” I generally liked and respected and was helped by this therapist, but her question really bothered me.
I went home and wrote a poem about that question—I imagined a mountain pass where two different girls walked. One girl walked over the pass unscathed, and the other girl stepped on a landmine. Would the correct question to ask those two girls be, do you see the world half full or half empty? How do we get to tell our story in the terms that work for us? In my poem, I wrote about the ways in which the same world includes both great suffering and great joy. Then I put the poem away, but recently I went back and thought about that experience again.
A lot of psychology and self help suggest that what is most important is our mindset, our perception of the world around us. But this emphasis on mindset often comes too soon—we need to first explore what happened, feel what we feel about that experience fully, without judgment, and then be open to whatever shifts in mindset may come.
I think that the question "do you see the glass half full or half empty" keeps us stuck in a dualistic mindset. I prefer Buddhist teaching of non-duality and emptiness, in which we step out of our small frame of mind and enter into a larger more multidimensional perspective.
Both spiritual teaching and writing allow us to re-frame the story—we just need to be mindful of how we are doing that reframing.
These thoughts and experiences—spanning many years—were all swarming in me, so one day I sat down and wrote an essay about it. That writing process was clarifying for me, and I'm delighted that the essay was recently published in the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar.
I’m glad to share it with you and, as always, would love to hear your thoughts.
I also created some journal prompts below so that you can think about what metaphors work for you to frame and re-frame your world and tell your story in your own words.
Do you see the glass as half full or ultimately empty?
In the monastery dining room no one speaks. Chairs scrape across the floor; a serving spoon hits the inside of a pot. Someone coughs.
I’m already seated at the table with Simone while Eric and Gabriel stand in line waiting to take their food. Suddenly there is a big clank, a cluttering, falling sound, and then the rattle of a dish upon the floor. There are some whispers, some swishing sounds as whatever has fallen is cleaned up.
When Gabriel and Eric emerge from the kitchen, they come sit with us. Soon a nun stands up and strikes a large singing bowl, inviting us to eat.
We do not talk until we have mostly finished our meal and the nun again stands and again strikes the large singing bowl. But it is not until later, after the kids are asleep that night, that Eric tells me it was Gabriel’s plate, already full of food, that had fallen and split in two on the kitchen floor.
A young monk had come to Gabriel and reassured him. “Don’t worry,” he had said, “the plate was already broken.” Gabriel, thirteen, unsure what he was doing at a Buddhist monastery with his parents for the weekend, ears flushed from making a racket amidst the silence, had seemed to genuinely understand that the plate was, in a sense, already broken. Later, as he and Eric brushed their teeth in the men’s bathroom, Gabriel said, raising the toothbrush to his mouth, “the toothbrush is already broken,” and grinned.
Learning to see the plate—or the glass—empty and broken has been an invaluable teaching for me.
There is a popular metaphor that some of us see the glass half full and some of us see the glass half empty, but that metaphor has never quite worked for me.
In my first therapy experience with a good therapist who understood, listened, and taught me ways to listen to myself, my therapist asked me, “Do you see the glass half full or half empty?”
She was trying to suggest that how we interpret and react to what happens to and around us is as important as what happens. But her question annoyed me. Did she mean to imply that my anger and pain and sense of injustice were not justified, were simply a matter of my own subjective experience?
The question is not is the glass half full or half empty? Rather, can you see the glass as both empty and full at the same time?I remember going home and writing a poem in response to her question. I called it “Half full/half empty;” it was about the different experiences two girls had along the same mountain pass. One girl enjoys the beautiful day, bringing flowers home to her mother, while another girl, walking down the same pass just hours later, steps on a landmine and gets her leg blown off.
Was the difference between these two girls that one saw the glass half full and the other half empty? Was it a matter of perception or of experience?
What I needed was to acknowledge that pieces of me had been exploded, shattered. There were troubling experiences in my past—among them an early experience of sexual assault—that I had to witness, acknowledge, and mourn. Over years in therapy, I learned to listen to myself so I could do that.
The danger with the image of the glass half full or half empty implies that our experience is primarily subjective; it not only blames the victim, but also nullifies her experience.
We live in a world that often prefers not to see suffering and that often looks the other way. Looking the other way does not mitigate the suffering, but perpetuates the cycle.
The activist in me, the empath in me, the person committed to social justice and to deep listening, resists the metaphor of the glass half empty and the glass half full. The limitation of this metaphor is not that our subjective experience and our response to what happens is unimportant, but that the metaphor implies an inherent judgment, dualism, and over-simplicity: Will the viewer see the glass the “right” way and thus “right” her experiences and her life?
By contrast, the metaphor of the empty glass—or the broken plate—works powerfully for me.
I first heard the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness several years after I started working with my therapist. By then, I was able to acknowledge the pain and confusion I had felt as a child but had not been able to name. I had developed tools to listen to and care for myself. But I wanted a different level of healing.
I began to study with a Tibetan Lama. The first night I went to his teaching group, he lectured on the Diamond Sutra. He spoke for an hour about the Buddha’s insight that the glass of tea was empty—not just of liquid, but of form, of self.
The world in which the girl walks through the landscape and comes home unscathed, and the world in which the girl gets her leg blown off are the same world.By looking deeply at his own experience, Buddha was able to have insights that modern-day physicists would have millennia later: that this world of solid things is an illusion of our own perception. We now know that matter is full of almost infinite, empty space between moving electrons. Everything is always moving, impermanent, changing.
To see things as empty is not the same as to see the glass as half empty. When we see the glass as half empty—or half full—we still live in a world where there is a solid glass. But Buddha taught that all things are empty. He takes the solid ground out from beneath all things, and all of us.
Emptiness in Buddhism is sometimes seen as depressive, but I find it quite the opposite. Seeing the emptiness in all things paradoxically allows me to experience fullness. The question is not is the glass half full or half empty? Rather, can you see the glass as both empty and full at the same time? Can you see past duality?
If we start with the expectation of fullness, the world will again and again seem to be working against us. We will not just be disappointed, but we will be living in a delusion.
But if we can see the emptiness of all things—if we can see the limitation of our perception of solidity and of self—suddenly that emptiness is teaming with life and with excitement. Because the plate is already broken, we do not get attached to it when it falls and breaks. Because the plate is already broken, we do not take personal responsibility for a world in which gravity and fragile objects co-exist.
The world in which the girl walks through the landscape and comes home unscathed, and the world in which the girl gets her leg blown off are the same world. It is a world that includes both flowers and landmines, a world that has both joy and pain, a world of infinite multiplicity and potential.
Today’s news cycle emphasizes the landmines. Many people are experiencing a sense of horror and disillusionment. They thought the glass was half full, but now they are wondering if perhaps the glass is half empty. If it is only half empty, they wonder whether it makes sense to have hope. And if they don’t have hope, they wonder what is the point of action.
If we believe that the world is a vessel that we can perceive as empty or full, it is hard to see the magnitude of the changes that we are living through. It is hard to see the impact of climate change, that ice caps are melting at extraordinary rates and Antarctic ice shelves are falling into the ocean. Emptiness allows us to see the world as it really is and the rapid changes we are living through.
Similarly, emptiness can make us more aware of how much actually works. The other day as I was biking, I was suddenly able to see that all the cars, buses, bikes, pedestrians, children on scooters, mothers with carriages were all interacting in peace. A group of kids, maybe eleven years old, walked down the street laughing, safe.
How can I prepare my children to live in a world that includes both flowers and landmines? How can I help them prepare for the future and for the future’s radical uncertainty? Gabriel is now 17 and Simone is 13. My hope is that their sense of self is grounded enough that they can experience the freedom of non-self. I hope that they have had a childhood secure and full enough that they can acknowledge and embrace the radical emptiness of the world.
First published in Lion's Roar: https://www.lionsroar.com/the-glass-might-be-half-full-but-its-already-broken/
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I'm delighted to publish a new essay, "The Single Most Powerful Tool for Healing: Tell the Right Stories," on Tiny Buddha.
As the title of the essay suggests, the essay is about the experience of healing from trauma and the importance of having good narratives for this work.
It felt vulnerable to write this essay—and that vulnerability is what the piece itself is largely about. So often, we're quiet about our challenges, cloaked in shame about the things that hurt us. I want to help shift that practice so that we can receive more support when we're hurting and so that we can heal more fully by giving ourselves appropriate narratives about the value and beauty of healing itself.
As I write: "And just as our trauma stories are powerful, our healing stories are equally powerful and important. We can and must break the silence and taboo not only around the trauma itself, but also around the complicated, messy, long, but ultimately rewarding process of healing from trauma."
You can read the essay here: https://tinybuddha.com/blog/the-single-most-powerful-tool-for-healing-tell-the-right-stories/
I hope you'll read it and enjoy it! I've also created some questions for reflection for your own life below. I hope you'll enjoy those questions as well and find reflecting and writing on them helpful.
Journal Questions to Reflect on Your Own
Emotional Healing & Mindful Writing Blog | Nadia Colburn
I blog about creativity, writing, yoga, meditation, justice, women, the environment and integrated well being for the individual and society.