Oct 29

Creating Writerly Communities

Dear Friends,
It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, and six of us are gathered around the many-leafed wood table in the back room of The Writer’s Workshoppe in Port Townsend, each reading one of the pieces we wrote earlier: Michael describes the old gas Chambers cook stove in his mother’s kitchen; Kay writes about her dog Zoe that slept under the dining room table; Laura writes about a sand dollar, embarking on a litany of questions (how many legs does a sand dollar have?); Vonnie writes about an acorn with its small beret; Brenda writes about skipping a grade in grade school; and Holly writes about the jars lined up in her pantry in Indianola, filled with lentils, beans, and black forbidden rice.

For the last four hours of this rainy Saturday afternoon, we’ve alternated short periods of meditation or relaxation practice with writing practice, using writing prompts from The Pen & the Bell, taking breaks to stretch, do Qi Gong, refill our cups with coffee or tea, grab a few grapes, almonds, or chocolate, then resume our writing practice.

We’re tucked into the brightly-painted back room of the bookstore, where proprietors Anna and Peter Quinn have created a unique haven for book-lovers. The moment you step in out of the rain, you know you’re in the hands of people who love books. The walls on either side are lined with books, organized not just by the usual genres, but other categories:  “the best fiction with a non-linear plot” or “the best kick-ass female characters. “ The tables are covered with book paraphernalia: every size and shape of journal, coffee cups for writers (Revise: You Know You Want To), even clocks for writers (Write. Now.) hang on the walls.

This is a store that is worthy of a pilgrimage, and we’re grateful to be able to spend a rainy afternoon here, writing together.  

After the workshop, we take a break for dinner and then return to  find the space transformed; all the tables are moved back, folding chairs are set up in neat rows, and friends are already seated in them, in fact.  We perch in front on wood stools, reading excerpts from The Pen & the Bell as Halloween revelers pass by outside on the rainy street.

We’d love to teach another workshop in the spring, we tell Anna as we head out the door at the end of the evening.  We’ll let you know here on the website when we’ve scheduled it. In the meantime, you can join us by trying out one of the writing prompts we did together that afternoon:

For three minutes, observe what you see (either literally or in your memory) as you enter your home through the door you use most often. Take note of what objects or plants surround the entry point; take note of the door itself; take note of how this area of transition is arrayed. Then, write about all these details, discerning what they tell about you and your life.

Yours in gratitude for the Writer’s Workshoppe and all who support writing in community,
Holly & Brenda

Oct 22

Take Three Minutes

October arrives in my front yard

Dear Friends,
As I write to you, I’m enamored with the Copper Beech in my front yard: an old tree that has truly embodied autumn this year. “Copper Beech” is such a beautiful name, and this month the tree has awakened to its full coppery glory. I notice it all the time: when I’m driving home and waiting at the stoplight a hundred feet my house; when I pull into the driveway and pause a moment before stepping out; when I go out to the get the paper in the cold morning air.

It’s always there, and it’s always changing. Soon it will be a cross hatch of bare branches, and I’ll forget to notice the tree. I’ll keep my head down against the dark and the cold.

Until sometime in April when, very quietly, it will nudge me out of my stupor. It will sport tiny, fuzzy, rusty buds that will keep changing and growing into the glory you see above. It does all this without a fuss. It just stands and waits and grows.

It’s easy to take notice of the the world around us when it’s beautiful. Especially in a season like fall, where the changes seem more stunning, more obvious, and we’re motivated to hang on to every moment. More challenging is the darker, slower, perhaps less noticeable season to come.

That’s why it’s so important to practice. Practice noticing. Practice gratitude. Practice acceptance. Practice taking three minutes to pause, note, bow, and continue on. Because when it’s not so obvious to us that we must take notice, our body, minds, and hearts will remember for us.

Fiona Robyns, at Writing Our Way Home, is such a great reminder of this. In her blog post today, she reminds us that we can feel better in an instant, just by taking three minutes to notice what’s right in front of us, then writing it down. After describing the busyness of her morning, she writes:

But I hadn’t looked at the browning edges of this blue-grey leaf brushing against the side of my laptop screen. I hadn’t sniffed at this cup of tea and wondered at how far the tea leaves have travelled. I hadn’t stood at our glass doors and seen the pink of a last few fallen apples, the delicate virginal flags of the cyclamen. I hadn’t let out a deep, slow breath.

I have now, and I feel better. A little more spacious. A little more grounded. A little more connected.

Three minutes. That’s all it takes.

And it’s true. That’s all it takes to connect back to the world, the season, and yourself. So try it. Practice it. Take three minutes, RIGHT NOW, and notice what’s right in front of you. Give it your full attention. Write it down. Surely you have three minutes? Tell us what you see.

Yours in the transience of autumn,
P.S.: Check out Fiona’s Mindful Writing Day, set for Nov. 1. I’ll be there, will you?


Oct 15

Fall Rituals

Dear Friends,
This weekend, fall arrived in the Northwest in a clatter of rain: rain that soaked into the thirsty earth, feeding the tangled roots of the squash, tomatoes, beans; rain that will swell the streams, allowing salmon to surge upriver to spawn at last. I spent the weekend at the North Cascades Institute, teaching a class with my old friend Kurt Hoelting called Sit, Walk, Write: Nature and the Practice of Presence. The rain became an active participant in our daily sitting practice, thrumming the roof each time Kurt rang the bell, calling us to attention, reminding us that we’ve shifted toward fall.

The rain knew when to quit, thankfully, easing for an afternoon so we could hike up to the waterfall, walk in silence beneath towering cedars, douglas firs, and hemlocks—scarlet leaves of the vine maples shimmering in staccato relief. Together, we reflected on this transition, the outer landscape mirroring the inner transition we each must make. I returned feeling renewed, energized, at last able to welcome fall with an open heart.

It’s never easy to let summer go and this summer especially—this last month of September blue skies and days still warm enough to swim —but I’ve tried to take comfort in the rituals of fall: picking the last of the raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, apples, plums, figuring out ways to preserve as much as we can. We freeze the berries, slice up the good apples and freeze them for pies and cobblers, save the rest for cooking into applesauce with cinnamon or pressing into cider.

Our plum tree surprised us with a load of ripe plums this year, despite the drought, and I tried my friend Heidi’s recipe for Asian Plum Sauce, a tantalizing, complex, blend of sweet/spicy, perfect over salmon or chicken. As I lowered the jars into the water bath, counted out the minutes they need to process, I was reminded that we, too, need this processing time in the fall, need time to let go of the lazier days of summer, to shift back into work, teaching, projects, whatever fall brings. That with fall will come rain, roasted root vegetables and soup, time to gather again with friends at the hearth and around the table and yes, time to write.

All these rituals are preparation for what lies ahead. As I hang out the last load of laundry in the fading fall sun, pinning each dripping sock to the line, I let the words swirl in my head, trust that they’ll find their way to the page soon enough. That all these rituals give our minds the time they need to process, that soon we’ll hear the ping, ping, ping of the jar lids as they cool, feel the satisfaction as the words click into place.

Reflect on the rituals that help you shift into fall. Choose one to write about—giving us ALL the sensory details as if you could preserve it like huckleberry jam—and post it here. We look forward to seeing what you do to ease this transition, how words can help us process these rhythms in our lives as the earth tilts away from the sun once again.

With gratitude,

Oct 08

Inspiration, Procrastination, Optimism, Realism: The “isms” of a Creative Life

Dear friends,
For Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, I fasted from the Internet and television (you’re supposed to fast from food, of course, but I couldn’t quite make that sacrifice!). The purpose of fasting is to mark the day as “different” somehow, to remind yourself that this day is set aside for contemplation, prayer, restoration.

It worked. As I got past the jitters I found my mind returning (had a I “lost” my mind? In a sense I had…) I got reacquainted with a self who knew patience and a slow curiosity. I looked at some of my writing, and as I read got ideas for new pieces. I wrote a little bit, which led to more writing. Writing begets writing: an old chestnut, something I tell my students all the time, but can forget the truth of it myself.

And yet the Internet does often bring me inspiration too. Holly sent me a link to a blog by Star Rush, and this post is titled: “A Creative Mind Needs to Work.” In it, she speaks about how the creative mind needs regular practice, just the way we practice any physical endeavor. We need to keep the creative mind active and busy:

Creative action leads to inspiration. Inspiration leads to creative action. Waiting tends to lead to neither. By creative action I mean the task of practicing one’s creative expression as often as possible,with attention to frequency of practice and not perfection of outcome….


This is attention to practice, not attention to perfection. Each day isn’t going to yield excellence, far from it. Each day yields confidence in one’s vision, one’s ability to produce not just a creative product but produce inspiration itself: 1. To be curious about the world and one’s place in it, and 2. To cultivate the compulsive desire to investigate and express that curiosity in whatever medium one wishes.

This is a wonderful aspiration. Yet, for many of us, we procrastinate the creative life, without quite knowing why. In this article by Tia Sparkles, from the blog “A Year With Myself,” she looks at procrastination, itself, as a creative tool:

It starts with understanding why you procrastinate in the first place…Procrastination can be a fantastic tool that can help you figure out what’s really important to you, what you love, what you’re passionate about, what inspires you…. It’s a true indicator of your essential self, the part of you that doesn’t often see the light of day but points you towards your North Star….

When you stop to ask the right questions, you get the answers you’ve been seeking. Ask yourself what your procrastination is trying to tell you. What message it wants you to get. What direction it wants you to go in. Listen. Understand. Act.

And as a balance between the optimism of Star’s blog with the pragmatism of Tia’s article, I’ll share with you my Pisces horoscope from The Daily Om (their daily missives are always so right on!)

We can achieve our goals more efficiently if we strive for a healthy balance between optimism and realism. While our optimistic attitude lends positive energy to our actions, we might be tempted to believe that our journey will be smooth and effortless. Rather than sabotaging ourselves with expectations that are too high, we can instead choose to inject a dose of realism into our goals. We are then able to use our optimism to fuel our actions and continue along the path to our goals, while at the same time develop a flexible attitude that helps us to overcome challenges and persevere. With this combination of optimism and realism, the achievement of our goals becomes much more possible. Your hopeful outlook can further your goals if you choose to temper it with a dose of reality today.

May you have an inspired, optimistic, realistic week ahead.