But what can writing do?

In the wake of Charlottesville, in the wake of more homegrown terrorism, in the wake of more threats making their way across the screens of the world... I say again: for my part of the world, in the space I hold at Voice & Vessel, there is no room for fear-making, violence, and racism.

On a personal level and on a creative level, I am asking myself again: what can writing do now? Where is the line between performing our awareness or good intentions and living them? Does writing do anything to move that line closer to something real?

Throughout this year, I've kept returning to writer/mythologist/psychologist Sharon Blackie's post on different forms that resistance can take:

"Living differently day by day. Don’t ever let anyone tell you this isn’t resistance. I’m talking about the people who make us believe that it is possible to live differently, precisely because they themselves live differently. Because we see them doing just that. And look at them – aren’t they thriving? Thriving without all the trappings. Thriving without the slavery, without the attachment to stuff. The ones who decide for themselves what they will hold dear, and who go on to cherish, protect, witness in their own powerful ways. The ones who say – no, this is not about giving up. It’s about refocusing. It’s not about a discrete set of actions: it’s about being alive. It’s about turning your back on ‘reality TV’ and turning instead to the reality of what the mountain has to say."

Sharon suggests that our louder/more visible responses to the world (like marches) have a natural companion in the quieter responses... like the poems that ring out with truth, and the poets who sometimes need to drop back and sit in quiet, in order to hear that truth at all. There's a sensibility in her post that I've been chewing on since I first read it in February. I wrestle with how to balance the loud and the soft, or instigation with invitation... earlier in life, after almost 15 years of doing "systems change" with nonprofits and foundations, I felt more a cynic than an advocate. Yet in two years of holding this space at Voice & Vessel, I've noticed shifts and sometimes big leaps in how people witness each other's voices and live into their own. In a concrete way, I know the paths Sharon is pointing out... yet even as I notice that the quiet, more one-to-one path is where my gifts seem to do the most good (and are the most healthy), part of me yells: "Fine, fine, but what does the writing really do?"

Last night, knowing the question wouldn't let me go to sleep this time, I started making a list to answer it. To test if there is an answer at all. To discern what writing might be doing in my life that prepares me to do something good out in the world. And to test whether I'm just looking for a hall pass I can use to go stare at poetry when the world's on fire.

I'm sharing my first attempt at the list here, in case it sparks anything in your own wrestling now. I invite you to make your own list if that calls to you. I'm going to keep working with mine and post it somewhere in my personal writing space. These are drafted in the second person ("you"), and I kind of imagine this as me talking to my inner writer and artist... Right now, I'm playing with each of these as a promise. I like the idea of something like a social compact between a writer and her world. Something that says, "Yes, I am going over there to write. But this is what I will devote myself to learning as I do. And this is what I promise to try and carry back from that otherworld of the writing." 


a promise to bend toward beginnings

Writing is a practice of a beginning and beginning again. And beginning is ultimately a practice of humility. A practice of trusting connections even though they may not be easily seen. Humility brings the world to scale by reminding us that we don't know what we do not know. So write... and embrace the humility. Humble yourself to the page, and then do your best to humble yourself to the world beyond it. In the posture of beginning, you will show others how to start and start again.


a promise to hold the unseen & uncertain

Real change -- change of heart and mind, not just programs or policy -- is a long game. Writing is a long game. When we write, we don't know what's true at first glance. We have to unearth it. We have to ask ourselves what it's really saying. We learn the story only by making it. We have to accept that what we write today may not hold next week or two months from now. We have to learn to live with that tension, or the process might undo us otherwise. As writers, we call this creative tension. As humans, we often call this suffering. So write... and learn as much about this tension as you can. And try to hold that learning when you visit the suffering parts of the world, especially in your family and community. And know that you have more options for how to respond to hard times, because you know something about tension. You know how to bear weight. You can be a doorway where other people see walls. Not everyone will see the doorway, and you may get very tired as you hold it up. But some will see it and walk through, and they will be better for the view on the other side.


a promise to tend attention

Writing is attention made real. The world needs this kind of deep attention now. It is unfiltered listening. Remember how it feels to watch a dancer move, to listen to a fellow writer read their work, or to rest in front of a striking painting. When we meet each other in creative work, we listen from another place. It's a place that doesn't belong to time or to the normal expectations of what's useful. When we create from such deep attention, we sometimes say, "I don't know where it came from... I was just the conduit." So write... so that you may be an even stronger conduit. So you can tune your attention. So you can receive difficult truths more tenderly when they show up in the world. So you can make your listening a generous act on the page and in your community.


a promise to feed curiosity first

As a writer, you deal in questions. Unknowns. Uncertainties. You are a broker of broken thoughts. An alchemist of the half-formed story. And the world feels like one colossal half-formed heart some days. Let your curiosity become the source of your courage. Write so you may never lose access to it. Write... and remember how to trust the questions, and ask them wholeheartedly, when you leave the page.


a promise to meet fear

All of these parts of writing don't come without fear. It's different for all of us, and it often wears a hundred other names before we dare to call it fear. But inevitably, we meet the part of ourselves that calls for a risk that's just too much. An edge that is just too sharp. Word by word, we free ourselves. It's not always graceful. The fear is still there. The edge still juts out. We do not destroy it. We learn to live with it, write through it. So write... and write to better know your own edge, so you may recognize when others are approaching theirs. Write towards a certain intimacy with fear, so it may not surprise you so harshly out in the world. Write so you know what its rumble sounds like. Write so that you don't forget: you have tools for this.

a writer's promise

I am here to remember: the humility of beginning... and to bend toward it the weight of the unknown... and to honor its tension the tenderness of attention... and to be an open channel for it the courage at the heart of curiosity... and to feed it often the horizon that comes with fear... and to live toward its edge

This post was originally published at Voice & Vessel. The photo of the deer is from this past weekend, when we went up north to our family cabin. On Sunday morning, as the news from Charlottesville settled over us, we gathered the photos from the trail cams as usual. This gift was waiting... a reminder of tenderness.

Writing Ourselves Through

Hello friends, good people, and creative folks, For some of us, it feels a little scarier and more uncertain to use our voice right now than it might have a few weeks ago. For some of us, the blank page is not only empty but potentially charged. It might even feel dangerous. And others might be rushing to the page right now -- it might feel like a pit they could fill and fill and fill. Maybe you are asking the page, again and again, to give you some clarity and bring you some peace.

I've crossed paths with many writers recently who are not only struggling with violence, hate, and pain in the world but also physical, spiritual, and emotional challenges personally. Some days it feels like the universe is doubling down on an obstacle course for us. My own sense of how to navigate it keeps changing... so frequently that I have to keep promising myself: There are many ways forward.

I hope this doesn't over-simplify, but in a way, it's kind of like a writing prompt. If there was only one path, only one story, in response to every writing prompt, what would be the point? Part of what steadies me right now is the promise that there are many paths. The world is prompting all of us right now. And like a good writing prompt, sometimes the deepest learning happens when we are most uncomfortable or surprised.

I have to believe that writing will continue to carry us. Muriel Rukeyser writes, "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms." Our stories may be the most vital currency we have right now. They have the power to open people's hearts to one another. Our voices are the key that could set us free.

Of course, writing in the midst of fear or anxiety is no small feat. And too many folks have lived their whole lives with their voices being undermined, mistrusted, or ignored. What's happening now may be new pain but also all-too-familiar pain. So for the little circle of the universe that I hold, it feels important to say it directly: Voice & Vessel remains a safe space to go to the page. Whatever shapes your story -- whatever religion or spiritual path, whatever race or culture, whatever class, whatever gender, whatever family, whatever passions, whatever curiosities -- you are welcome here.

This reflects my own values, and it's also baked right into the affirmations and practices of the Amherst Writers & Artists Method. Every time we write, we gather as equals. We share in creative risk. We work to listen deeply when we share our writing. Now more than ever, I'm leaning on those parts of the AWA Method to hold space with folks.

There's something beautiful about practicing a method that's 30+ years old and being offered around the world in concurrent workshops. I like to think that all of us, globally, using the method right now are carrying each other. And when we leave our workshops, perhaps we carry the spirit of the method into our homes and communities. (I'm working on this one... if I could listen to everyone in my life like I listen in the workshops, I'd probably have about 200% more love to go around.)

When I started this note, I imagined sharing a handful of writing prompts to support you, in case you're feeling a little anxious, afraid, challenged, or just plain tired. But maybe this isn't a moment for over-practicing and over-prompting. There are many paths, but maybe we can see where just one takes us, and then try another at another time.

So I'll leave you with one of my very favorite prompts, one that always pulls me back into my feet and settles me in my heart. I hope it brings even a little of that energy to you:

I am here to remember...

With hope for the stories to come...


This post originally appeared at VoiceandVessel.com.

Creative Rituals to Deepen Your Writing this Fall

Fall is here. My favorite season. The liminal time, where the light trades itself out for the deeper, darker half of the year. The autumn equinox was last week, and there is a new moon today. It's a rare black moon, our second new moon this month. To me, this is all part of a good pause before the holidays. September and October are the year's last call to establish a creative routine or deepen your writing with new creative rituals. While the writing itself is what matters, I'm a big believer in the power of rituals to bring us to the writing (or any creative practice). At the beginning of my workshops, I share the affirmations and practices of the Amherst Writers & Artists Method. Often I share a quote to center us. Sometimes I invite people to take a deep breath before we start. To me, these aren't agenda items to tick off. These are essential rituals that signal the special space and sacred time that our writing occupies. The rituals aren't elaborate, but that's for the best. They more easily quiet and ready us that way. There is no flash for the inner critic to turn her nose at. There is only the humble work of beginning again.

As you slip into fall, I hope you get some time to re-center in your writing life. Over at Voice & Vessel, I shared a handful of creative rituals that always call to me at this time of year. The post includes writing prompts for your journal, music suggestions, a creative walking practice, and some of my new favorite poetry finds for a contemplative season. If you have your own rituals, playlists, or books to welcome the season, I'd love to hear about those. And if you don't yet, I hope you'll consider trying one or two to land on something that feeds your writing practice. However a ritual works for you is the right way, as long as it draws you into your creative spirit and helps you write.

Get the rituals at Voice & Vessel.

New Mexico & the Dusty Spots of the Creative Life

I recently returned from a solo trip through New Mexico, a sort of creative pilgrimage. Every so often, my husband Carl and I go on separate adventures to learn, write, and just be in our own rhythm for a week or two. This time, I made it to Albuquerque, Taos, and Santa Fe, places that have been calling to me for a handful of years. It seems common these days to go on a trip, especially of the pilgrimage variety, and come home with a suitcase of jewels (stories, ideas, connections) to share. It feels like travel is becoming the statement jewelry of personal/creative/spiritual development. But in this case, I'm still sorting through what I gathered in New Mexico. Something about the solitude of the place made me reconsider when, how, and why to share parts of my journey.

As a writer, I often struggle with the tension of when I’m ready and knowing enough to speak something real and true, versus when I’m still very much a student in the world and in my own life. This is good tension. It reminds me not to exploit my experiences for a story before they are done teaching me.

A space I’d like to hold a little longer is the curious, dusty spot where the jewels aren’t yet jewels. The space where the stones are still being tumbled. There is so much to learn in that space. We don’t even know what might be a jewel. This doesn’t always feel productive… it takes a lot longer to finish an essay or write a poem in this space. But I keep learning (through trial and error) that doing the deep and dusty work, the work that lasts in the world and changes me personally, has never really been about efficiency. Listening is not very efficient, but it’s essential to the creative life. I feel like this teaching is part of what New Mexico sent home with me.

A wise soul in my life uses the word "unfolding" to describe how we can witness and appreciate the way an experience works on us. I love that and think it's fitting for my New Mexico learning. So as much as I might agree with the statement, “I was changed when I sat under the full moon in Taos," I’m not prepared to write a think piece about it. (And oh, I can almost feel the moon flinch at the idea.) Here are some insights – rough stones – that feel ready to share with you, fellow creative traveler:


Courage is not found in deep breaths and wise books alone.

The Amherst method teaches me this when it comes to facing the empty page—to find the courage to write, you have to write. Solo travel pushes me to practice courage in real, firsthand ways with others. This trip may have been the most I tried to stay open. I talked to people in shops, I went to amazing museums and galleries and let myself be absorbed by them, I accepted dinner invitations when I feared being an outlier in the group.

It left me wondering if courage is as much about receiving as it is about going out and doing. When we start to write, we signal, “I’m open to letting this story come in.” When we engage a stranger, we signal, “I’m open to the possibility of connection.” One small gesture, with a whole universe behind it. I’m startled by how little else is needed… we don’t need to fill the whole river. We just need to unblock a couple dams within ourselves, and the river will show up. It wants to show up.


Hummingbird moths are a real thing.

And they will fool you into thinking you have just discovered the world’s tiniest hummingbird. When I got to Taos, I let the universe know I wanted to listen. I said it out loud, in the middle of Georgia O'Keeffe's room at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. And it replied with a parade of hummingbird moths, magpies, thunderstorms, a full moon, three hummingbirds, and one small rabbit. I think the earth sings a little louder in Taos, maybe because the air is clearer and the horizons are wider.


Travel is a good disorientation.

Waking up in the middle of the night in a strange place is an ideal disorientation for creativity. Which makes me wonder about a whole retreat devoted to creative disorientation… there is something so powerful to being dragged out of your element! It must make the muses laugh.


Language, ritual, and tradition came up repeatedly.

I’m reflecting more on this, but I want to acknowledge people who threw open doors for me: Tanaya Winder (whose poetry reading was a highlight of the trip),Mirabai Starr, Tseme (whose pottery now has a home on my writing desk), and Francisco (who was my guide through the Taos Pueblo and is part of the hip hop group Po.10.Cee). Francisco talked about living into an oral tradition and how it calls for active learning and ties between generations. His grandfather said it would make them lazy to write everything down, that the oral tradition creates a deep responsibility for their language and culture... while there's a lot to think about here, on a simple level, I feel like turning to each of my poems and asking, “Where are you being lazy?”


Always write down your dreams.

Always, always, always. I hope to do more posts or even a workshop on this, but for now, I’ll say: write them down. I started writing down my dreams more regularly about two years ago, and it’s like I built a second house for my writing. There were dreams and happenings in New Mexico that echoed dreams I had months before. I may not know what it all means yet, but because I wrote them down, I have more puzzle pieces in hand.

Those are some of my rough, unpolished stones, for now… Let me know if you’d be interested in a post on how to imagine and prepare for a creative trip like this. Or if you’ve been on such a trip, what wisdom did you gather along the way? How did you plan for it and open yourself up to the experience? Feel free to say hello.

This post originally appeared on Voice & Vessel.

How to Invite Your Muses Into Your Writing Life

I'm excited to have a guest post up at All Nine this week! It's about how to stir up inspiration and signal our muses before we arrive at the empty page. How do we build trust, so we know a creative invitation when we see one? Is it possible to seed the conversation with our muses before the writing even begins? I believe there are many ways that ideas, stories, and creative energy try to find us. But too often we've been taught to silence, ignore, or even fear the inner space where ideas say hello. It doesn't have to be a hard or even esoteric journey to undo this teaching. I tend to believe that simple, down-to-earth practices are actually the key.

In my guest post, I share a few of what I hope are simple, fun ways to listen for inspiration and invite your muses to come closer in your writing life. I hope you'll stop by All Nine and gather some creative energy for yourself -- the site is full of it! Click here to read more.

Jane Hirshfield on Living by Questions

"In times of darkness and direness, a good question can become a safety rope between you and your own sense of selfhood: A person who asks a question is not wholly undone by events. She is there to face them, to meet them. If you’re asking a question, you still believe in a future. And in times that are placid and easy, a good question is a preventive against sleepwalking, a way to keep present the awakening question that's under all other questions: 'What else, what more?'"