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 turret and some (alone) time

I’m sitting in my new Writer’s Turret, as I am calling it. It’s actually just a small room we recently created by putting up a dividing wall in our son’s large bedroom. It is a north-facing room and I was concerned that I would feel the lack of light. But with my desk directly next to the window, looking out over the porch roof onto our residential street, the result is unexpectedly and pleasantly, well, turret-y. I don’t know why I have always fancied myself writing in a turret, it seems very Jane Austen (that’s probably the wrong author – I am embarrassingly unversed in English Lit) or Shakespeare-ish, I guess. I imagined I could be both artistically tortured and prolific in a turret. And alone.

For me, the image of a turret conquers up feelings – glorious feelings – of solitude. Creative solitude. I dream daily of being alone, just me and my words. Emotions, sensations, experiences – intangibles – forming themselves into words and sentences that I might grasp them, hold them, and understand them as best I can. Of course, I don’t need a turret for this, just a writing implement. But solitude? Now that’s an essential.

In one essay I wrote: “In my early twenties the vision of my future life included only the patter of fingers on the keyboard, not that of tiny feet. My imaginary writer’s turret didn’t come equipped with a safety gate.” In one recent workshop which I facilitated, one woman lamented that mothers cannot be fully creative, not because our brains have atrophied, but because of all the demands placed on us. Sadly, unless we can afford, or would be willing to commit to, full-time child-care and/or house-keeping, a mother does not have the luxury to create at her fullest potential. Even with my children out of the home to their respective educational institutions either 3 or 6 hours a day, I find my ability to write (or study for grad school) hampered. I have tried rising extremely early (4AM) and I loved the mental acuity of that time of day. But by Wednesday evening after all the housework, sibling-refereeing, taxiing, errands, etc. etc. etc., I wasn’t fit to be anyone’s mother or companion, let alone write.

I’m not good at grabbing moments. I’m a slow writer. I ponder each word and then go back and ponder it again. This analyzing (self-criticism?) can make a short blog post last the entire length of a Pre-K session. Suddenly I am having to abandon my treasure-trunk of words, ripping myself away mid-sentence to fly out the door to become Mom again. And take today: I have the flu (or something else icky but not bed-riddening). I am home with no demands for the day because after Pre-K my mother (bless her) is taking my son. But Hubby asked that we use this opportunity to do some important paperwork. So I delayed my writing, but then the phone rang and I sat for almost an hour waiting for him to get off the phone. (You know that infuriating situation when you’re meeting someone who’s late and you don’t know whether to leave because they might come right now… or maybe now…? Waiting for him to get off the phone any moment was like that.)

And so goes my life, it seems. I want to write, I love to write, I need to write, but I don’t write (much). I have responsibilities and always the question: should I be doing this or that? what is more important – the clothes or the blog post? And it is this constant questioning – deciding – that is part of the mental exhaustion (links to a NYT article). I love writing so much that I want to dedicate myself to it fully, not some half-hearted minute or two here and there, and so I don’t commit, because I can’t.

But I must. Because by not writing I am forsaking my own soul. My vision of a writer’s turret was just a symbol of my highest need: To be alone with “pen” in hand, scratching away, whittling words – the only tools I have – to make sense of my self and this world.

My turret is finally here. And today is “I Love to Write Day” and I do. So I am. And I will. Will you?

(And as I finish writing this I see this post on FB from Julia Cameron: “Time is what we all need more of–or do we? Time can be chiseled out of the busiest life by replacing our worrying with doing.” Ah, Synchronicity.)

Prompt: If we believe our visions and imaginings are symbols of deep (or higher) yearnings – from our authentic self – what is your “turret”?

Julia Cameron on Morning Pages


Read an interview with me about how The Artist’s Way and Morning Pages changed my life at Creative Voyage


The Artist’s Way Morning Pages Journal


The only good thing about him

Yesterday I was taking the laundry off the line. We have had so few line-dry worthy days that I try to schedule the washing around the weather forecast – not a simple task. This summer we have had frequent days of digging deep in the drawer for that last-resort pair of undies. As I took down a fitted sheet and began to fold it I was aware that I was thinking of someone I prefer not to. Unfortunately, every time I fold a fitted sheet this boyfriend of my early 20s is there in my mind. Why? Because nicely folded sheets are his only worthwhile legacy.

I was living away from home for the first time. I had a job as a bank teller and he was a customer. It didn’t take me too long to realize he had started coming in daily and manipulating things so he was ready with his transaction just as I was ready to accept my next customer. He would arrive at my window gleaming like the Cheshire cat to deposit his wealth of charm along with his checks.

We began dating. It began as most romances do, all hearts and flowers. I even came home one day to find a bag of marbles on my doorstep with a note that said, “I’ve lost my marbles over you.” Got ya!

Before long I was spending more time at his house than in my own adorable apartment. And not too long after that I was cleaning his dishes and getting instructed on how to “correctly” fold a sheet. His closet was off limits in case I didn’t hang the clothes with the appropriate amount of space between hangers. We did not go anywhere or do anything unless it was something it he wanted to do, which meant I went off to Maine for a romantic weekend – by myself. We never sat in coffee shops or walked along the waterfront. We went to parties of his friends where he was the center of attention. But when we went to the one party hosted by my friends he sat there in a big huff and wouldn’t let me mingle.

Still I hung on. For a year. Even when he called me and told me not to come over because his ex-girlfriend had stopped by. Even when he laughed at my (incredibly flat) pot belly and (deviated septum) crooked nose. Even when I began to question everything I was about to say in case it annoyed him. He never hit me or anything close to physically abusing me – in fact, you could say I was the abuser after I slapped him and screamed in his face, “why don’t you just go and fuck her,” after he told me again I had to leave because his ex was coming by. He probably already had.

Over that year I went from having ambitions to go on to grad school to making sure there wasn’t a milk ring in bottom of the glass. I began wanting to write and living the artist’s life in the “big” city and ended up positioning the corners of the fitted sheet in perfect symmetry. I lost myself.

But I sank so low on the self-esteem chart that the only way was up. My need to write and be creative was so strong it pulled me out of the hole in which I was scrabbling. With the help of two priceless gifts, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance, and the friendship of two people who believed in me, I began to find my way back. I wrote my Morning Pages every day with the commitment of a drug addict. I put together my Authenticity Book with the joy of someone who is discovering a new friend.

I guess, I actually have to thank him. My sheets would be in a right mess if it hadn’t been for him.

And the universe shifted into place

I am a few hours short of becoming a Certified Journal to the Self Workshop Instructor (through The Center for Journal Therapy). I will have business cards, a brochure, a website (hopefully) and a whole new career ahead of me (again, hopefully). I am very excited by this prospect.
Let me tell you how this all began.

I have been writing a journal forever, well, for the last 24 years anyway. 12 years ago my sister gave me Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and I took to Morning Pages like a new religion (well, for me and my newly heathen ways, it was a religion and a good one too). A few years later I was given (once again by my very insightful and great gift-giving sister) A Voice of Her Own by Marlene A. Schiwy. Two amazing books which, as I can see now, were stepping stones in the journey towards my future life.

When we moved to Mississippi as I mentioned in this post and this one that I was driven to do something creative. I was a new stay-at-home mother in a new world (because Mississippi is not on the same planet as Vermont) and I was determined to stay sane, stay productive, stay me, and stay off soap operas. Actually, I wanted to be more Me than I ever had been before. Since age 22 I had been a 9-5er who aspired to something more, but who used her job as a convenient excuse not to do a damn thing about it. “If only I had the time… the energy… the turret… the right pen… o, then I’d be a REAL writer, an artist, a SOMETHING… whine, whine, whine.”

In downtown Hattiesburg, MS there is a tiny bagel cafe on the corner of an old building that shakes as the trains pass within feet of its doors two or three times a day. In this shabby, comfortable anachronism with the handsome model-turned-bagel baker behind the counter, I dreamed up and pursued an idea for a journal workshop for women. While Little Lady was at the local church pre-school for her 3 hours of much-needed social interaction I would read and plan, plan and write.

I taught one four-evening course at the local bookstore to a tiny group of women. It was well received and I was well pumped-up. My plan was to slighty revise the curriculum according to the feedback from the group and offer another workshop. So much for plans. I was taking a writing course, I was having another baby, and I was moving back to Vermont.

However, in my efforts to revise the workshop and open it to men, I had come across a book by Kathleen Adams, and consequently discovered The Center for Journal Therapy. Yada yada yada…

OK, so now I have a certification under my belt (or will, shortly) and now need somewhere to teach. In this post I told about a writer’s symposium I attended. It was there I met a lovely, inspirational author and workshop leader named Joni B. Cole. Now, once upon a time, shy me would NEVER have 1) attended a writing workshop where I might have to share my drivel and possibly confirm my suspicions that I was not, and will never be a Writer, or 2) casually chat with an author as if I had some god-given right to do so – Lord, no! But that was old me. Before I had met my good friends Confidence and Serendipity.

It turns out that Joni lives in a town about an hour from my home, the very town to which my sister (ya know, the one who seems to have had an on-going, yet unwitting influence on my creative life thus far) has just, as in last month, moved (from the other side of the continent). So what? you say. Just wait…

Joni operates the Writer’s Center in that town (the one an hour away where my sister – who has a spare bedroom and a willingness to babysit her niece and nephew) and she wants to talk to me about offering… drumroll, please… a Journal Workshop

Yada, yada, ya-serendipity.