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15 posts from May 2007

May 01, 2007

May: Healing Conversation


Welcome to the tenth month of One Year of Writing and Healing, a month in which I’m exploring connections between healing writing and healing conversation.

I’ve sometimes wondered if it doesn’t happen that a fair portion of our hearts, and minds, and bodies for that matter, can be, at one time or another, focused on some piece of unfinished business—some unfinished conversation. Or focused, perhaps, on some entirely new conversation that we’re longing to have. The body listening, waiting, all with a sense that this particular conversation—or this kind of conversation—is a crucial next step.

Writing, I believe, can help move us toward a longed-for conversation. It can also be informed by this kind of conversation.

Please know that, as always, I welcome hearing from readers of this site. I’m learning that each bit of feedback—each bit of conversation—helps me to grow and shape this site. E-mail me your thoughts or questions. And thank you again to all those who have written.

May 03, 2007

Green Apple Soap: An Image of Healing Conversation from White Oleander

White Oleander, the novel by Janet Fitch, is a lovely and often heartbreaking story of a girl, Astrid, in search of a mother. Perhaps you’ve read it. (Or seen the movie—Michelle Pfeiffer plays Astrid’s birth mother, Ingrid.)

The first thirty-eight pages of the book depict scenes of Astrid with her mother—a poet, extremely gifted, very beautiful, and also exceptionally self-absorbed—a woman who requires her daughter to serve as a kind of audience for her own life. Eventually, Astrid becomes a reluctant and then bewildered audience as her mother plots the murder of an ex-lover, carries out the murder, and then is sent away to prison. This leaves thirteen-year-old Astrid an orphan, a child whose name becomes, in her own words, Nobody’s Daughter.

The remainder of the novel is a story of Astrid’s odyssey through the foster care system, her quest to become Somebody’s Daughter.

In Astrid’s fourth foster home she finds herself under the care of a woman by the name of Claire. This woman, Claire, is the first foster parent to actually see Astrid as a person separate from herself. She is, at the same time, the first mother who helps Astrid begin to see herself. There’s one particular conversation, very simple, and especially poignant in that it’s the first conversation of its kind that Astrid has ever experienced. Claire asks Astrid if she likes coconut soap or green apple.

Astrid finds the question baffling-----

She wanted to know all about me, what I was like, who I was. I worried, there really wasn’t much to tell. I had no preferences. I ate anything, wore anything, sat where you told me, slept where you said. I was infinitely adaptable.

Astrid goes on to tell Claire that she doesn’t know if she prefers coconut soap or green apple but Claire will not allow equivocation. She presses her to decide.

So I became a user of green apple soap, of chamomile shampoo. I preferred to have the window open when I slept. I liked my meat rare. I had a favorite color, ultramarine blue, a favorite number, nine.

May 06, 2007

The Last Chinese Chef: A Recommended Book [Part One]

One of the things I like about our public library here is that it offers several shelves of advance reading copies—uncorrected proofs of books released before their publication date. Not only are the books new and clean but they offer an opportunity to read a book before hearing anything at all about it. Often, I’ll put three or four of these in my bag when I go to the library. Sometimes I’ll only end up reading the first page of one of these books, or a few pages. But this novel, The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones, I savored right through to the end. It’s a book that made me want to learn the Chinese language, take up Chinese cooking, or, better yet, travel to China, and visit the city of Hangzhou, a city centered around a manmade lake described thus:

Then their street ended at a T intersection, beyond which stretched a dreamy blue mirror of water dotted by islands and double-reflected pagodas. Hills covered with timeless green forest ringed the opposite shore. Small, one-man passenger boats sculled the surface, their black canopies making them seem from a distance to be random slow-moving water bugs. As far as she could see around the lake, between the boulevard and the shore, there stretched a shady park filled with promenading people. The noises of the city swallowed themselves somehow into silence behind her. She felt a sense of calm spreading inside, blue, like water.

The woman feeling this sense of calm in Hangzhou is Maggie McElroy, a forty-year old woman, an American, a food writer, a woman who’s lost her husband in a sudden accident, and who begins the novel, a year following his death, still absorbed by grief. She lives on a small boat at a marina in Los Angeles. She refuses invitations from friends. Her life has “shrunk to a pinpoint.” Then, p. 3, she receives a phone call from Beijing that sets the novel in motion. A former colleague of her husband’s, from his Beijing office, calls to tell her that a woman there has filed a paternity suit against her husband’s estate.

Maggie flies to Beijing. A food writer, she also manages to land an assignment for the trip: writing a feature on Sam Liang, a young chef vying for a spot on the Chinese national cooking team, a team preparing to compete in a cultural competition that is set to coincide with the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. In Beijing, and later in Hangzhou, the two plot lines of the novel unfold—the story of the paternity suit against Maggie’s husband and her growing relationship with the young chef, Sam Liang. In a sense though, these plot lines are pretext—a way to keep us reading as Nicole Mones, a food writer herself, offers elaborate and loving and gorgeous descriptions of the food and culture of China.

Healing place and healing food and a series of healing conversations—that’s what Nicole Mones is offering here----

[You can read part 2 of this piece here.]

May 07, 2007

The Last Chinese Chef [Part Two]: Food for the Soul

[This is a continuation of yesterday’s post on the novel, The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones, which has just been released.]

There’s one passage in particular—a conversation between Maggie and Sam Liang, the chef, that I think fits in especially well during this month in which I’m writing about healing conversation. This particular conversation occurs as one of a series of conversations that they have while Sam is cooking and Maggie is watching him cook. Sam has prepared a chicken, Chinese-style, and he offers some of the chicken to Maggie and she begins to eat the chicken and, as she does so, feels herself begin to “melt with comfort.”

She speaks:

”Are you going to make this for the banquet?”

“No,” he said. “This I made for you.”

She looked up quickly.

“These are flavors for you, right now,” he explained, “to benefit you. Ginger and cilantro and chives; they’re very powerful. Very healing.”

“Healing of what?” she said, and put her chopsticks down. . .

“Grief,” he said.

”Grief?” The unpleasant nest of everything she felt pressed up against the surface, sadness, shame, anger. . . Her voice, when it came out, sounded bewildered. “You’re treating me for grief?”

“No,” he insisted, “I’m cooking for you. There’s a difference.”

She tried to master the upheavals inside her. She would not cry in front of him. “Maybe you should have asked me first.”


“It’s a bit difficult for me.”

“Well, for that I’m sorry. Forgive me. You’re American and I should have thought of that. Here, this is how we’re trained—to know the diner, perceive the diner, and cook accordingly. Feed the body, but that’s only the beginning. Also feed the mind and the soul.”

There. That’s it. I think that's what Nicole Mones is doing especially well in this book. She’s touched that aspect of culture--of Chinese culture in this case--that feeds the soul. And she’s found a way to translate that into the writing itself—into this novel—

There’s a sense in which, in her grief, Maggie, the central character, is longing for a kind of food, a kind of conversation, that she doesn’t even quite know that she’s longing for—until it appears—and then she is able to be comforted by it. Here is how Nicole Mones describes the feeling of comfort that blooms inside Maggie after she eats that chicken: “It put a roof over her head and a patterned warmth around her so that even though all her anguish was still with her it became, for a moment, something she could bear.”

. . . even though all her anguish was still with her it became, for a moment, something she could bear.

At its best, I think this is what healing conversation--and sometimes healing books--and healing poems--can do.

May 08, 2007

The Guest House by Rumi: A Quiet Revolution?

I came across this poem, The Guest House, by Rumi, for the first time, week before last, when I was looking for a clean link for Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey. Here are the first twelve lines:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

Some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

Who violently sweep your house

Empty of its furniture,

Still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out For some new delight.

How wonderful is that? The image of sorrow and all the other emotions—joy yes—but also the difficult ones—anger—shame—fear—all as visitors—some pleasant visitors and some more difficult ones—and all of them guests. And guests with a broom no less. Sweeping through the rooms—clearing it. Rumi’s lines here resonate for me with those lines by Paul Simon from his song, “Sound of Silence”:

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again.

But now I’m picturing Darkness with a broom.


See also:

Full text of Rumi's poem

More about this poem at my new site

Healing Poetry entries

November Angels

May 10, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #37: A Conversation with a Companion

Imagine that you receive an invitation: You and a companion of your choosing are invited to spend a day together—in a place of your choosing.

Because this is an imagined invitation the sky is the limit. You may choose any companion. A person living or dead. A person whom you know well or a person you’ve never had an opportunity to meet but have always wished that you could. A poet? A musician? Martin Luther King? For that matter, you may choose to bring a character who exists only in the world of the imagination.

The old woman in the cottage?
A chef?
A woman who wants to know your favorite shampoo?

Or what about the faun from Narnia?
Or Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings?

You may choose any companion at all.
You may choose any place.
You may choose any activity, or any series of activities.

And then at some point during the day, allow it to happen that the two of you engage in a conversation—the kind of conversation you have always longed to have, and realize that you now can have with this companion.

Close your eyes. Listen closely. You and your companion are beginning a conversation. Perhaps your companion speaks first. Or perhaps you speak first and then your companion speaks. What is it that your companion says? And how do you respond? And then what happens next?

You can, if you like, write the conversation down---

This is also the kind of conversation that you can come back to again. You can come back to it on different days. This can become, if you like, a series of conversations over time.

May 13, 2007

Writing and Healing Idea #38: I’ve Always Meant to Tell You: A Different Kind of Mother’s Day Greeting

The inspiration for this writing idea comes from an anthology of letters edited by Constance Warloe, entitled From Daughters to Mothers: I’ve Always Meant to Tell You. In the introduction to the letters, Ms. Warloe writes that the initial idea for the anthology came from her literary agent but that she soon found herself “hooked”.

She writes:

I thought immediately of the disappointing sentiments expressed in Mother’s Day cards. So often the verses begin, I know I don’t tell you very often . . . and then go on to express less than we want to say, not as well as we want to say it, but we buy the cards anyway. We find the cards stored in drawers and boxes at our mothers’ homes, and, as we have our own children, our own collections begin to accumulate. Maybe this book could be a different Mother’s Day greeting, I thought. Maybe this book could get things said that usually remain unspoken.

This then is at the heart of this writing idea—to get something said that usually remains unspoken. To write it in the form of a letter—imagining that one will be sending it—and imagining that it will be read—but knowing at the same time that one may no longer be able to send it—or that one may choose not to send it—

Please note that this kind of letter may not be an easy one to write—and that it may take some time—time to be ready to write it—and time, once ready, to do the actual writing. Many of the writers who contributed to Ms. Warloe’s anthology are accomplished and professional writers. And many still found the task difficult. Whether women wrote about “the lowest sorrow or the highest joy,” Ms. Warloe tells how many of the letters for the anthology came to her along with handwritten notes: “This was so much harder than I thought it would be.”

She writes, for instance, of Natalie Goldberg’s contribution:

Natalie Goldberg, the most famous of writing coaches, called me one afternoon to say she could not write the letter and would have to withdraw from the anthology. I said if it wasn’t meant to be, it wasn’t meant to be, and accepted her withdrawal. She called three hours later and said she had written the letter, she just needed to know she didn’t have to!

So—a reminder then—you don’t have to write the letter—of course—but if you want to write the letter you can go ahead—and begin---just one line at first—I always meant to tell you—---------------(what?)

May 15, 2007

Expressive Letter-Writing and a Better Night's Sleep?

Last December (2006) a study, “Health Effects of Expressive Letter Writing,” by Catherine Mosher and Sharon Danoff-Burg, was published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. The study looked at what can happen when healthy college students write a letter to someone of significance in their life.

108 students were randomly divided into three groups:
• Experimental group 1—students were asked to write an expressive letter to a person of significance in their life who had helped them
• Experimental group 2—students were asked to write an expressive letter to a person of significance in their life who had hurt them
• The control group—students were asked to write a letter to a school official on an impersonal topic

At one-month follow-up two significant differences were discovered between the experimental groups and the control group.
1. As a group, those who had written to a person of significance in their life slept longer—they slept a mean of 7.1 hours compared to 6.4 hours
2. They also reported significantly fewer days in the previous month when physical or mental health symptoms prevented them from engaging in routine activities.

Interestingly, no significant difference was reported between those who had written to someone who had helped them and those who had written to someone who had hurt them. Both kinds of expression—conveying thoughts and feelings to someone who had helped and to someone who had hurt—seemed of value when it came to health.

And they slept longer. It’s an intriguing finding. I can’t say that I know quite what it means. But I can say that for a whole host of conditions—from depression to fibroymyalgia to treatment for cancer to the stresses and strains of ordinary life—it has been my observation, over and over, that sleep can be enormously healing. Something seems to happen when we sleep—a kind of deep restoration—that does not happen at any other time. So if a single letter like this could enhance sleep duration—well, that would seem to be of significance.

[Thank you to Susan Bernard for sending me the link for this study.]

May 17, 2007

Writing and Reading as Conversation: A Small Epiphany

Many years ago, when I was learning about the teaching of writing, I read that if you want to teach children to write and read as if it matters then what you need to do is provide opportunities in which words do matter. One suggestion for doing this was to exchange letters with children—to write them letters and notes—and then to invite them to write back.

I found this idea of an exchange of letters coming back to me several years ago, at a time when I was teaching writing at Recovery House, a residence for men and women recovering from addiction. Each person in the group wrote every week, and, in addition to sharing their work in the group, I always collected the pages at the end of the evening and took them home with me. And at some point during the week I would make a cup of coffee, and read through their pages, and as I read through them I would often imagine their pages as letters that they had sent out into the world in the hope of some response. I drank my coffee and I wrote responses.

Not terribly lengthy responses. Often my responses were brief. I wrote each response in the form of a letter, addressing the person by name, and trying to relate as clearly as possible what in their pages had spoken to me. I tried to write less as if I were a teacher evaluating the writing and more as if I were a person in the world, writing back. Often I got snagged by old habits—responding like a teacher—but sometimes I was able to write in a clearer, less teacherly, way, and I suspect now that those plainer comments were the ones that had a greater likelihood of getting through—of being received on the other side.

I still have a milk crate filled with manila folders from that time.
Here’s one of the letters that I found:

Rocky really does sound like a great dog—if a little scary (for other people, that is). I can see the connection between you getting him and beginning addiction, both at a time when you were moving into manhood. It seems like there’s such a bittersweet quality to your memories about him. I can see how much you cared about him. Keep writing---Diane.

Not infrequently, once I began writing these letters, I would get letters back. The stories and poems written in the workshop were themselves a kind of letter, but often, too, I got actual letters addressed to me.

Dear Diane, This is just to let you know that as far as class goes, I’m not quite ready this week. I seem to have run out of time, so please forgive me. I really like your class a lot and look forward to it too. I’ve learned a lot about myself in your class and find that now I enjoy writing. Who would have thought? hmm, hmm, hmm? Thanks for being there for us, for me and those who stick and stay. I like to think that you’re there for the ones who hang in there, and not run, the ones like me. I’ll be ready next week and please forgive me. Ok? Ok! Love, Walt. P.S. I do have something to read in class.

Granted, sometimes I got letters back because the penalty for not writing in that group (not my idea) was washing dishes, and, if all else failed, writing a letter to me about not writing counted. And true, they may have sometimes given me what I wanted to hear. (What teacher doesn’t want to hear that students look forward to her class?) And true, however much I tried, I was never able to be as non-teacherly in my letters as they were. Which perhaps was appropriate after all—I was the teacher. But, granting all of this, still I like to think that some sort of exchange was happening—messages getting through, back and forth between teacher and students, and then the whole nexus of connections among the students as each week people read aloud and then conversation would emerge between each of the readings.

It was while teaching at Recovery House that I had a kind of epiphany. I began to realize that all the writing workshops I’d been a part of—starting with the first workshops I took in Columbia, Missouri, and then workshops I was a part of in Durham, North Carolina, and then in Bethesda, Maryland, at the writing center there, and then all the workshops in Fairfax, Virginia while I was in the writing program there, and then the peer writing groups after, so much of the time we operated under the premise that these workshops and writing groups were preparing us for what we ultimately wanted—namely publication. But at Recovery House, in that setting, exchanging letters, and participating in that group which grew into such an active and attentive group, at Recovery House it occurred to me that some large part of what we had longed for in all those previous workshops—the longing to be heard—the longing to use writing to enter into a larger conversation—the longing to use writing to enter into a larger conversation about things that tend not to emerge in ordinary conversation---this was often happening right under our noses and there in the group itself.

When groups were at their best—and of course they were not always at their best—but when they were, an exchange would occur—something terribly simple and terribly powerful. A new story being heard. And then some sort of response occurring—a comment occurring in that moment, or another story written in response, or a poem, or a fragment of something. And the conversation continuing. This kind of conversation was more rare, I think, than any of us realized at the time, and I have only been able to fully appreciate some of its value in hindsight.

May 20, 2007

An Unwinding Ball of String: An Image for Writing and Healing

Consider this conversation, one which takes place on a porch in Los Feliz, California inside the novel, Jamesland, by Michelle Huneven. The conversation takes place between a young woman, Alice, and a Unitarian minister, Helen, who is in the neighborhood passing out fliers for a lecture series. Alice offers Helen a glass of Red Zinger tea and the two of them sit on Alice’s porch. They talk, one thing and another. At one point, Alice finds herself beginning to tell Helen, the minister, about a deer that wandered into her house in the middle of the night.

Helen, the minister, interrupts.

‘Hold on.’ Helen held up her hand like a traffic cop. ‘A deer came into your house? I’m sorry, but you’re going too fast. And please move your hand away from your mouth so I can hear you. Please, start at the beginning, and take your time.’
. . . Now that she had a willing ear, Alice’s story of the deer unwound like a ball of string rolling down a street. This was the first time she’d been able to tell it all the way through, without interruption, and nothing she said seemed to invite dismay or contradiction. Helen nodded and sometimes narrowed her eyes as if listening to a familiar piano sonata or poem. . .
Encouraged, Alice gave all but the most lunatic details—she left out the fight with her married boyfriend, her raising-the-fawn fantasy, that the deer had seemed to desire pursuit. Hypnosis, she’d heard, was like this: perfect recall with no self-incrimination.

Take your time, the minister says. How often these days does any one of us get to hear those words when we’re on the brink of telling a story? Once a week? Once a month? Once in a lifetime?

No rush. No impatience. No contradiction. No self-incrimination. None of the ordinary obstacles. A full suspension of disbelief on the part of the listener. And, in this place of suspension—a ball of string unwinding.

And what (again) might writing have to do with it?

Writing, I think, can augment the unwinding.

Writing and then—perhaps—putting a piece of writing out into the world, and then getting news back that the writing is heard—received—can be a powerful way to encourage the ball of string to unwind, down through one layer, and the next, ever closer to the center.

Writing can take us deep. Putting writing out into the world—and receiving a response—can take us yet deeper.

This can happen anywhere.

It can happen on a porch. For a year or two after I first moved to North Carolina, I helped form and then met with a writing group. The group eventually fell apart, but before it fell apart, for that year or two, one evening every other week, it provided a structure that allowed something to happen—the sharing of stories and a response to those stories. We always met at the same house. Her name was Alice actually, like in the book. We met at Alice’s house. And I remember a particular evening on her screened porch, this in the summer, at twilight, that certain quality of evening summer light, a dog barking somewhere down the street, a child being called inside for supper. This was in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was sitting on the swing, idly pushing it back and forth. Sylvia was sitting on the glider. It was time for the group to end, but I wasn’t quite ready for it to end yet. I wasn’t quite ready to leave that pool of light and stillness on the porch.

May 22, 2007

Something Different: A Conversation Between Harry Potter and Lupin [Part One]

Say that it happens like this. You are thirteen years old. Summer has ended. The school year is set to begin. You arrive at King’s Cross Station in London, and, upon arrival, make your way, with your traveling companions, to a solid barrier that stands between platforms nine and ten. Because you have been this way before, you know that what you must do next is lean against this barrier until you find yourself falling through—and landing—at platform nine and three-quarters. The train is waiting. You gather your luggage and board, moving with your companions down the corridor until you locate an empty compartment. You settle in. The train begins to move, heading back toward school, toward Hogwarts, a place which you love and are most anxious to return to. You feel the most pleasant sense of anticipation—for the train ride itself, this time together with your friends, the beginning of whole new school year.

The train continues on its way, through the mountains now, then forests, the countryside growing ever wilder and darker as you make your way toward Hogwarts. All of this is as expected. It’s familiar, reassuring even. But then, in the middle of the afternoon, it begins to rain. The rain thickens. The windows turn a solid gray, then gradually become darker. One person lights a lantern and then another does, so that lanterns are lit up and down the train. Perhaps you feel the faintest sense of foreboding. In the next moment the train stops—suddenly, so that suitcases spill from the racks. The lights go out. You’re still trying to get your bearings in the darkness when the door to your compartment opens. A figure appears—a cloaked silhouette—with a hand extending toward you—gray and slimy and scabbed. You hear a rattle—its breath. A deep chill spreads throughout the compartment. Later, one of your companions will describe a feeling in this moment, utterly strange, like he’d never be cheerful again. But for you, the feeling is more acute, more intense, and more intensely painful, the cold seeping beneath your skin and down through layers of muscle and bone into your very heart. You hear, as if from a distance, a terrible screaming and pleading, and then. . . nothing.

When you regain consciousness, you gradually become aware of your surroundings. You also become aware that none of the others in your compartment have fainted, nor have they heard the screaming. As the train begins to regain speed and move towards Hogwarts, you may carry the nagging suspicion that something is wrong with you, something terribly different, some weakness that the others do not share. What you may feel is shame.

And it may happen that you want to talk to someone about this feeling but at the same time you’re not sure who to talk to or how to begin the conversation.

But then one day it may happen that an opening appears. Perhaps a teacher asks you to stay after class for a word. And perhaps you sense a kindness in this teacher---a sense that this teacher knows something. And perhaps, well, you take the leap, find a way to ask the question that you have been longing to ask.

[To be continued.]
[And please note that the scenes for this post are drawn from the third book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.]

May 24, 2007

Harry Potter and Lupin: A Healing Conversation [Part Two]

(This is a continuation of Harry Potter and Lupin [Part One])

It’s Lupin, a new teacher at Hogwarts that year, who asks Harry Potter to stay after class for a word. And it’s with Lupin that Harry Potter finds it possible to broach the question he’s been longing to ask.

‘Why? Why do they affect me like that? Am I just ----?’
‘It has nothing to do with weakness,’ said Professor Lupin sharply, as though he had read Harry’s mind. ‘The dementors affect you worse than the others because there are horrors in your past that the others don’t have.’
A ray of wintry sunlight fell across the classroom, illuminating Lupin’s gray hairs and the lines on his young face.
‘Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself. . . soul-less and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life. And the worst that happened to you, Harry, is enough to make anyone fall off their broom. You have nothing to feel ashamed of.’

Harry Potter, as you may well know, was present at the murder of his parents when he was just an infant. The trauma of the murder has left him vulnerable. It’s his point of weakness, his Achilles heel. And what Professor Lupin does, as perhaps some of the best teachers have always done, is to explain Harry to himself, provide him with a context which can allow him to make sense of his experience and which no longer requires him to feel shame.

That, it seems to me, is one of the things that a healing conversation can do: offer the kind of context that can help someone to see themselves—and their situation—more clearly. And, in doing so, be relieved, perhaps, of a misplaced burden of shame. And this, I have no doubt, can be healing.

May 27, 2007

One (More) Reason I Like Writing Groups and Writing Workshops

Because, sometimes, the written word is heard—and respected—in a different way than ordinary spoken language. I saw this regularly at the shelters when I taught writing workshops there. The men and women would come into the room for a workshop, sometimes pushing, teasing each other, heckling, some of it good-natured, some less so, and then everyone would find a place around the table. We’d talk a bit. Then I’d write an idea up on the board—a word or a phrase to spark the writing. The writing would begin. The room would quiet. And after those first several minutes of writing, when people were talking about the writing, or reading their writing aloud, there would be this different quality of attention in the room.

A woman would read a poem.

A man would read a paragraph.

“That was all right,” someone would say.

“I hear you,” someone would say.

The written word, and the sharing of the written word, was almost universally respected in that room. I never had to give instruction in this, or remind people of this. It just happened.

And when people knew that their words were going to be respected, then sometimes—not all the time—but sometimes—it was as if a new context had been created—and, into this new context, something new---some new piece of conversation-----could emerge—

May 29, 2007

How to Find a Good Writing Group

First----a good writing group is hard to find. Even a good group of two. It is harder to find than a good grocery store, or a good bakery, and probably harder than finding a good yoga class. Finding a good writing group is probably more on a par with finding a great job—or the right house. Now and then a fabulous house or job lands in your lap. But more often this is the kind of thing you have to prepare for, and search for, and be willing to invest some time in.

How to prepare?

A few words of advice (to be used as you wish):
If and when you feel like a writing group is something you’d like to explore, and, assuming the fabulous writing group or workshop has not already landed in your lap, I’d recommend reading Peter Elbow’s Writing without Teachers and/or Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others. The two books complement each other well. Elbow’s book is the older of the two. It was first published in 1973 and is a classic in the field of teaching writing. Two chapters—“The Teacherless Writing Class,” and “Thoughts on the Teacherless Writing Class”—are good preparation for both recognizing a good writing group when you come across one, or, perhaps, starting a new one of your own. Elbow’s emphasis is on the importance of getting honest authentic feedback from readers—and how this process of feedback can grow one’s writing.

Schneider’s book, published in 2003, is the newer book. It’s a longer book than Elbow’s, chattier, with more stories and examples drawn from her classes. One of its particular strengths is in its advice on how to recognize and help create a healthy workshop.

And Ms. Schneider offers this advice [p. 199] on recognizing a good writing class:

After being with your teacher, do you feel more like writing or less like writing? You should never be made to feel embarrassment or shame in the classroom. If that happens, there is something wrong with the way writing is being taught. Drop the class. Take auto mechanics or geometry! Then write about fixing cars, or about the perfect problem.

It’s the right question I think: After being with your teacher do you feel more like writing or less like writing?

It’s the kind of question one could ask about a writing teacher or a writing class or a writing group or perhaps anything that one seeks out in order to foster one’s writing.

After being with __________, do you feel more like writing or less like writing?

May 31, 2007

Fishing: An Image for Writing and Healing

The following passage, from Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers, resonates nicely with the image that Michelle Huneven uses for conversation in her novel, Jamesland. There she writes about conversation as an unwinding ball of string. Here, the string is cast out onto the water:

Elbow writes [p. 77]:

Writing is a string you send out to connect yourself with other consciousnesses, but usually you never have the opportunity to feel anything at the other end. How can you tell whether you’ve got a fish if the line is always slack?

The teacherless writing class tries to remedy this situation. It tries to take you out of darkness and silence. It is a class of seven to twelve people. It meets at least once a week. Everyone reads everyone else’s writing. Everyone tries to give each writer a sense of how his words were experienced. The goal is for the writer to come as close as possible to being able to see and experience his own words through seven or more people. That’s all.
To improve your writing you don’t need advice about what changes to make; you don’t need theories of what is good and bad writing. You need movies of people’s minds while they read your words.

This is, I think, a terribly interesting notion—that what we may really want—at least some of the time—when we put words out there---is not evaluation—or approval---or even agreement—but this something else---this other thing--—this kind of movie of someone else’s mind---a movie of another consciousness receiving the words.

Would this be the fish then? The fish caught?
And this as one way out of darkness and silence?
And, at the same time, a way to make writing clearer and stronger and more meaningful?
Well, I’m all for that----