It’s spontaneous, baby!: Writing that changes you

When someone asks me what I do I often have a hard time saying what that is. Well, that’s not exactly true — I can tell you aaaall about it if you’re ready to settle in for a chat. My work, the type of writing workshops I facilitate, as I’ve written about before, cannot be easily squeezed into a neatly labeled box.

I just returned from the Transformative Language Arts Network‘s Power of Words Conference held at Unity Village, MO, near Kansas City. There I gathered with my people, my tribe, brother and sister artists who sculpt emotions into words and words into images — poets, playwrights, singers, storytellers, essayists, novelists, journal writers, facilitators — anyone who uses words as agents of change — social, political, or personal change.

Although we all have different stories to tell and different ways to tell them, we have one thing in common: we know — because we’ve experienced it — the power of words.

Which brings me back to labeling my work. Now, thanks to a beautiful soul named Miss Annola, I have this powerfully descriptive word to more accurately explain what I do.

On the second morning of the conference, the 90 or so attendees huddled up into “talking circles” where we discussed whatever popped up. Annola told us about her writing group back home, which she called it a “Spontaneous Writing Group,” meaning they wrote together in the group from a prompt. I thought, that’s it! I facilitate spontaneous writing groups! 

In the light of all the powerful ways words can be beneficial — evoking emotional resonance to form personal connections between people, creating new stories to live by, transforming painful memories to heal old wounds, teaching and learning and understanding new information, tapping into innate wisdom and creativity, finding your own voice —  getting excited about the power of new label for what I do may seem more about branding. But I do believe spontaneity is the key to any transformative writing.

Julia Cameron calls it out-running the censor, Anne LaMott calls it writing the shitty first draft, and Natalie Goldberg calls it writing down the bones. It’s writing without stopping, without concerning yourself with what you’re writing or how you’re writing it (perfectionism does not belong here!). You’re just writing. Connecting head to heart to hand (to use another Natalie phrase) to get to the core of it, the kernels of truth, the gems of universal wisdom.

On the last day of the TLA conference, in a wonderful workshop called “Change Your Story, Transform Your Life,” led by Jenifer Strauss, we were asked to write down words or memories or items that immediately came to us when looking at a certain question. Then we had to pick just one of those, the one that most “spoke” to us in that moment. Using our choices we built the foundation of a story.

It was in the spontaneity that we discovered what we most needed to write about in that moment. 

And this is what I do in my own workshops. I ask you to trust the pen and trust yourself. Trust that in that moment you will write what needs to be written, what wants to be expressed. While it may not be your best writing — that comes later after you’ve sifted through and found the gems (yet another Natalie-ism), and are ready to start the revision process — writing spontaneously, getting out of your own way, before your censor tells you you’re doing it wrong, is how you’ll discover your voice and the story it’s longing and needing to tell.

A Path to Publication, pt 15: An editor is your friend

I try to shake loose my mind, so something fresh can fall out… This process acts like a sifter—sand falls through and bright nuggets come to light.

–Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning

In my last post I wrote about the struggle I was having with a particular essay. Every tweak made it seem even more hopeless—it was still crap. This Facebook post sums up how I was feeling at that time:

If I didn’t know I’d regret it highly, I’d figuratively rip this essay into a million pieces and forget submitting anything, anywhere, ever.

Well, I am happy and extremely relieved to say, after finally letting it sit percolating for almost two weeks, the essay is finished and submitted to the magazine. And I am also beyond happy to say: It was good.

Yes, eventually, it got good. I could claim to be a writer again. Phew.

How did this happen? Well, Anne LaMott was right (of course), you really do need to let it sit. But, as Anne also says, it is essential to write that “shitty first draft” and, believe me, my first (and second and third…) draft was incredibly shitty. (And reeeeaaaally long.)

Why? If I’m a good writer shouldn’t I just know what constitutes should be in a piece and what needs to be left out? How things best flow and what theme should run throughout? No, not at first. That’s what revising and editing are for. First drafts are for just getting it out. Getting out of your head and heart what you need to express. Some of these things may never see light of day beyond your journal or computer screen but out they must come. As Shrek says, “Better out than in…”

Here’s how one of my friend-editors put it:

By writing this piece over and over again, you finally got out of your system how you wanted it to go, and let it tell you why you were writing it and what it was really about.

Which brings me to the subject of editors.

I knew someone a long time ago, an artist who struggled with self-confidence issues. This person was a good artist but, as is the case for anyone practicing a craft (even if it’s practicing the “craft” of living) having a mentor could have been helpful. My friend wanted nothing to do with it, I believe because he felt it implied he wasn’t good enough to do it alone.

There are writers like this, those who think their natural talent is enough. But let me tell you, having a mentor/editor or a group of such, is essential to your growth as a writer.

My main editor-friend is a gift to me. She is honest in her critique but generous in her praise. She willingly plowed through version after version I sent her, gently coaching and coaxing me. With her guidance I dug through the dirt to find the gems.

At times I didn’t take particular suggestions because they didn’t sit right with me intuitively–when I felt it was straying too far from what I knew was my truth. Together with an editor, you get to sift through all the unneeded “stuff.” And ultimately, after letting the essay rest for a while, my full truth flowed far easier and authentically because I’d already played with the muck around the edges and the gems were more obvious.

I also sent my work-in-progress to two other writerly friends to have it seen by other eyes and new perspectives. Their feedback was invaluable too. They too were honest in their comments when something didn’t quite work for them and supportive with their positive feedback. Their joyful (almost proud-motherish) reactions to the final draft was validating and humbling.

Writing this particular essay was difficult. It was a personal narrative about a painful part of my past. Bringing it to fruition was akin to a hard labor and birth. But my main midwife-editor and assistant doula-readers guided me through it, not undermining my ability with their presence and advice, but supporting and fostering it.

Once again, I thank you, Jen, Gabriella, and Jennifer!

Yes, I was there: Katrina, 10 years on

In recognition of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I am re-posting this remembrance of my family’s experience. Ten years ago I was in my home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, approximately two hours north of the Gulf coast. As I sat tightly cradling my child against me trying to stem my terror, 200 mile-wide Hurricane Katrina was barreling north up Route 59 at approximately 100 mph…

Last one down and right through the roof

..(Originally posted September 3, 2008)

Sitting in the hallway on a mattress. The wind is howling. The roar is constant, like sitting in the middle of a major highway at rush hour – only louder. When it gusts, it shakes the house and you can’t hear the person talking right next to you.

We monitor the speed of the wind by how close to horizontal the small sapling is outside the bedroom window. Trees are toppling, peeling up the lawn into a game board of four-foot craters. The tornadoes springing out of the hurricane are snapping other trees like pretzels in a child’s fingers. The house across the street has two corners sheared off. One of the largest, vine-choked pines sways, leans, and then in a sudden blast from the south, slams into our neighbors living room.

Garbage cans, branches, and other debris is cartwheeling down the street, including part of our roof. One huge gust, a splintering crack, and a tree comes smashing through the roof. I watch it fall and scream at the impact. I am at my breaking point. The racket – for six solid hours – is more than I can take. My little girl puts her hand on my leg and says, “It’s OK, mama.”

Then it all but stops. The eye. Although the relative silence is a relief, my nerves are still firing missiles in anticipation of the other side of the storm.

But it never comes.

Two hours later, intermittent gusts and complete devastation are all that remain of Katrina.

(Read Part One of this story:

Look closely – corner of our neighbors’ house is sheared right off.

Under all that is our back yard – we lost 15 trees in all

A Path to Publication, pt 14: Letting it sit

“Write blog post” has been on my to-do list every week for about four months now. But that task — which isn’t really a task because I love it really — somehow always gets pushed down the list (maybe the fact that it brings in no money or isn’t beating its sister over the head to get my attention has something to do with it). But today I come here, although I  have other work I should be getting on with, because I need a distraction. From an essay.

This essay, sitting just a click away behind that blue “W” at the edge of my desktop, is eyeballing me. It keeps saying, “Open me! Look at me again. Change a few lines here and there. This time you’ll get it right. This time it will be brilliant.”

This essay, for which the Muse finally decided to show up last week at 4 one morning after I had been begging her to for a couple of months, is the worst thing I’ve written in a long time. It might be THE piece of writing that finally convinces me never to write another word, to save the world from my drivel.

So, why do am I driven back to it over and over again? Because I need to see if maybe, this time, this revision (…if I move this paragraph down there, add this phrase here, put a transitional sentence there…) all the pieces will suddenly come together into a perfectly flowing, clever, inspired, inspiring, eloquent masterpiece.

But, like an avocado, its perfect moment of ripeness may not be when you’re wanting to make the guacamole. Avocados and essays tell you when they’re ready.

I know how this is supposed to work. As Anne LaMott told me to, I write a “shitty first draft,” then leave it alone. For a couple of days or weeks. Couple of weeks?! I can’t seem to let it sit for more than a couple of minutes. It’s like the kids’ Halloween candy which, because I’m a good mother, I hide in the cupboard so the kids don’t eat too much at once. I try oh, so hard, to not go near it. But it calls to me. Eeeeeeeeeeeeat meeeeeee. I’m here and I’m yuuuuuuummeeeeeee. My essay, on the other hand, sounds like this: Fiiiiiiiiiiiiix meeeeeeee. I’m here and I’m teeeeeeeerrible.

And it’s not like I don’t know that if I do leave it alone, Muse will eventually deem to do her job and wake me with the birds a few mornings from now. Then I’ll stumble to my office in the dark, denying myself even a cup of coffee before I start tapping away. Or I’ll be in the shower and Muse will rise with the steam and I’ll have to jump out naked and rush dripping to the computer because: “Eureka!” I’ll have it — the one puzzle piece which I needed to pull the writing together into a beautiful work of art.

But I’m impatient. I want it perfect now. I want my masterpiece. I want Muse to put on her big girl panties and deal with it now. Because I don’t like this feeling that I’m a crappy writer. I want to know I am a good writer again. Right now! I want guacamole now.

Hmmm, I guess I need to put on my big girl panties. Art cannot be forced. I must learn to be patient. So I’ll let it sit… and maybe go searching for some stashed candy instead…

Why did the rabbit cross the road?

This is a post written a long time ago. OK, only seven years, but it feels like a lifetime ago that my kids were watching these types of cartoons. My now-almost-3rd grader was just a baby!

I’m re-posting because I’m reminding myself that before I wrote for a living I used to write for fun – and could be funny too. This is the second of a bunch of posts I plan to reincarnate over the next few weeks.  

[Originally posted 8/28/08] 

Why did the rabbit cross the road?

Because he’s afraid of a squirrel.


Yeah, I don’t get it either.

Can someone please tell me why a rabbit, one that wears clothes, goes to school, and watches TV would be afraid of the squirrels in the back yard, and furthermore, why aren’t these squirrels also wearing clothes and conversing at the library about their homework with their fellow rodents? What kind of hierarchy is this where not all rodents are created equal?

I’m talking about the PBS show ‘Arthur’. In this cartoon world it appears some animals have evolved beyond others, even those who in the real world, are of a similar species. But what’s even more confusing is the episode where Arthur the aardvark – yes, an aardvark – who wants a pet takes a dog-walking job to prove he’s up to the responsibility of dog-ownership. Now consider that one of Arthur’s gang is also a dog. If you use this reasoning, in Arthur’s world, a human might be seen walking another human on a leash and scooping up its poop in a plastic bag.

I read a book to my daughter the other night where a pig, a sheep, and a cow, all wrapped up in their best winter coats, enjoyed a sled ride driven by… a horse! A human harnessed to the sled might be more logical, but a horse? What audacity! The horse is one of the noblest creatures in this creation and some author has deemed it appropriate to demote him as a servant to a pig.

Now, I could draw a political comparison between these disparities in the cartoon-animal world with that of the poor vs. rich or developed vs. third world. But I won’t. I’ll just continue to be amused and bemused by the rat, rabbit, monkey, aardvark, and cat living and learning in harmony while their squirrel and bird cousins peer wistfully in their windows, cartoon tears in their little cartoon eyes, wondering when it will be their turn.

Not in Kansas… er, Vermont, Anymore

Ironically, I write so much these days that I don’t have time to write. What I mean is, as a freelancer my work hours are taken up with writing for someone else, for money (which is fantastic–a dream come true!). Writing blog posts for fun have had to take a back-burner. But a few years ago I was writing for fun A LOT.

And apparently I was kind of funny too. I’ve been looking through some of my old posts and was pleasantly surprised to find (some of) them quite amusing. I’m just oh, so serious these days. So, it’s time to resurrect some of these old posts. I hope you get a giggle like I did.

(originally posted 11/16/08) I just have to say I’m not a huge fan of New Jersey. I’m sure it is a lovely state — in spots; it must be called the Garden State for a reason — but from where I’m sitting, it ain’t so grand.

The wind is howling around and right through my 8th floor hotel windows and the gray clouds are making the already gray panorama, well, grayer. All I see from this vantage point is asphalt and concrete; roads, parking lots, and boxes of concrete, with only panels of black windows to break up the concreteness. Cars and trains crawl through this tangled mass of blah and I have to wonder, why would anyone choose to live here?

Last night, after my husband’s 11 hour day in a conference and my day of writing (and re-writing and re-re-writing), we took our courage by the hand and ventured out. We knew there was a mall nearby, and after a couple days of over-priced and over-cooked hotel food our budget badly needed a food court. The map indicated we needed to turn left, right, then go straight and the mall would be right there.


Turns out you can’t turn left in New Jersey, only right. We could see the mall just over there, but could we get to it? Heaven forbid! That big olNeiman and Marcus sign was shining bright – a beacon, a north star – but we two kings were lost in the desert. Round and round we go, no left turn, no left turn, NO LEFT FREAKIN‘ TURN. Eventually, (we ain’t too smart at this point, hunger had taken over our senses) we figured out that we had to turn right to go left. Well, duh! And, of course we’re cruising along in the left lane (as any intelligent being who wanted to turn left would be) and the Saturday night traffic, which is heavier than the worst Vermont rush hour, is preventing any intention of moving over in time to exit to the right.

By this point we are so far away from the mall, we give up and turn wherever we could and hope any dining establishment would be appear. As luck would have it, we had discovered another mall, a Macy’s and Nordstrom mall. But I am so frustrated and hungry by the time we get out of the car (an hour after left the hotel) that the normal little thrill I get from walking into a busy mall is replaced by fear and “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore”-ness. I didn’t think I had become such a small town girl but the ugg-wearing, designer bag toting masses, the pre-Thanksgiving Santa, the knock-you-on-your-ass per-fumes, and the racket of the food court – oh, the noise! – was too much. I, me, who can’t pass up a clearance rack to save my life, was inhaling my philly cheese steak and racing for the nearest exit, my very un-designer bag flying behind.

Later as B and I were safely back in our dull hotel room, crying with laughter over an HBO comedian, I thanked my lucky stars that tomorrow we go home. Home, where you give directions according to the nearest barn, where you can turn left wherever you like, and the only concrete is the path leading to your own front door.

When writing makes you feel crappy

In a couple of weeks I will be presenting “De-Stress, the Write Way” at my local hospital for the second year. This blog post was written in response to my experience there and was originally posted at with the title, “When Writing To Relieve Stress Makes You Anxious.”

pen journalI made a mistake.

I recently presented a workshop at a local hospital about using writing as a stress reliever. The small  room was half full. While I am fairly comfortable speaking or facilitating with a larger group, this was a new experience for me in that I was being videoed. Unfortunately, this didn’t allow for audience participation other than quick comments or questions. My usual preference after a writing session is to give the opportunity for sharing (with no obligation) so that the participants warm up to each other and become more of a cohesive group rather than silent students being “lectured at.” This allows them to get more out of the session – to learn from each other and themselves, and not just me.

This particular group never really relaxed. I’m not sure if it was the presence of the video camera or the time of night or the starkness of the room or the lecture-setting (I usually facilitate with the participants arranged in a circle), but there weren’t many questions or comments. In my experience, this was unusual. I could tell by the smiles and head-nodding that most participants were interested in what I was saying, and during the writing prompt times almost everyone wrote until time was called. But there were a couple of women I couldn’t read.

On the anonymous evaluation forms I later received, the comments were all positive. Except for this: “I got more stressed… I left with a knot in my stomach.” Our first prompt had been “What’s going on?” This is one of Kay Adams’ prompts (author of Journal to the Self and founder for the Center for Journal Therapy), and one which I actually had the opportunity to write on in a training with her. And this is where I had messed up in my presentation.

I had forgotten to tell my story.

I had been so excited to take Kay’s class and I sat there in my seat almost busting with anticipation about what I was about to learn. She opened as I did, with the prompt “What’s going on?” I wrote frantically for the timed five minutes. But when she called time I realized I didn’t feel so good. My stomach was doing flip-flops and I was kind of shaky. When Kay asked if anyone wanted to share their feedback of the writing exercise I raised my hand and admitted I felt awful, that the writing had drastically changed my emotional state from happy to downright anxious.

“Hold on to that feeling,” she said. “We’ll work with it later.”

Later, we did another exercise where she invited us to find a word or phrase that had jumped out at us during the first writing. Using another journaling technique I was able to dig deeper into what had actually made me anxious. As a result I made an amazing discovery, which, long story short, prompted me to quit my job in a life-move that was a major steppingstone towards where I am today. The words I wrote in that second write still resonate with me today.

So, I want to say to the woman who left upset: I am sorry. I wish I had explained what Dr. Pennebaker tells us in his book Opening Up and his other works, that writing expressively can cause you to feel worse initially but in the long-run, it will help. I wish that I had been able to tell you that feeling that knot is a good thing! It means you were experiencing your body’s felt-sense (to use Eugene Gendlin’s term from his book Focusing). It meant that you had touched something, made it come alive, got it moving, so that you could move past it. This was a first step towards healing.

I made a mistake which I won’t make again. Lesson learned.

For a video of my workshop go HERE