Some FAQs About Writing Practice + Groups

Periodically, I like to go back to basics and remind folks — myself included — what this writing practice business is really all about.  So, while baby dog snores at my feet, I put together some FAQs for you. I hope you find them helpful.

Q: What is writing practice?

A: Getting words on the page without worrying about polishing, perfecting, or publishing. The act itself has value, and often reveals gems that may otherwise have stayed hidden. This is truly a practice of self-ownership, rather than writing for an audience (or not writing for fear of one).

Q: Why do this in a group?

A: There is power in community. In witnessing and encouraging each other to show up. In remembering that we are not the only ones. In taking the risk to be seen. In setting ego aside and letting ourselves be imperfect, real… human. In having a bit of structure to help you start — and keep you going.

Q: How does it work?

A: You sign up for the next group (choose a 2-week or slower 10-week option). Meet some wonderful folks. Get prompts in your inbox. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Just write. It is really that simple. The only thing that makes it complicated is the inner critic, and she’s not invited.

Q: What if I can’t afford it?

A: Message me. I am committed to making all of my work accessible to anyone who wants to write, regardless of financial status. Contrubutions to a Community Writers’ Fund help me offer sliding scale payments and sponsored spots.

Q: I am so busy. I can’t possibly keep up with a writing group.

A: The idea of keeping up is one we dispense with pretty much from the get go in my groups. There is enough of that in our culture. As for being so busy… oh, this could turn into a whole blog post. Maybe I’ll write that one soon!

Q: I’m not really a writer.

A: Wait, is that a question? You don’t need to flash your writer badge to sign up for a group. No one will be checking your writing credentials at the door. If you write words on a page, you are a writer. If writing is one of the ways you process and explore your experience of being here in the world, you are a writer. If writing is grounding, healing, or inspiring for you, you are a writer.

Q: Where do I sign up?

A: Right here! Or drop me a note if you have questions I didn’t address here. A new 2-week group starts next week, or you can choose a 10-week, slow-burn option.

Q: If not now, when?

A: That one was rhetorical.

Fall 2017: What’s on the Radar for Your Writing + Life?

Picture this: You’ve been circling around for some time now, and feel ready to tune into air traffic control for the best place to land your words on a page. Maybe you’re a bit nervous and could use some reassurance that indeed, you can do this.

Below, you’ll find several landing strips of varying lengths. What they all have in common is this: Fierce encouragement and gentle guidance as you steer your aircraft to a safe landing. 

We may write by ourselves, but we get to land together and there are so many ways to do just that! Have a look at what’s on the radar this fall, and know that you belong on this sacred ground of the writing life.


The Short + Sweet Landing Pad

Two-week online writing groups are perfect for anyone who wants to begin or reboot a writing practice. With a new prompt each morning and by setting a timer for 10 minutes a day, we give ourselves carte blanche permission to write “the worst Junk in America” (Natalie Goldberg’s timeless words). Kick the inner critic out of the cockpit and remember why you love writing in the first place.

Next group: “Over Our Heads” | November 6-17 | $99 | Register
Size limit: 12

Ten-week online writing groups are similar to the above, but at a slower pace. Prompts land in your inbox on Monday mornings, and you have all week to share your words with your writing comrades.

Next group: “Over Our Heads” | November 27, 2017 – February 2, 2018 | $108 | Register
Size Limit: 12


The Long and Leisurely Landing, for Women Only

Jewels on the Path is designed for a small number of women who want to delve more deeply into a particular writing project or goal. Whether it’s resurrecting a blog or making steady progress on a manuscript, this group will provide a steady rhythm for your work to unfold and provide accountability and friendship as you deepen your own creative process. Women writers only.

WINTER 2018 : 
Preregistration is open for the Winter 2018 Session (January 8-March 30): Three options: $126/$249/$449 per month | Preregister
Size limit: 12


The Water Landing

Dive Into Poetry is a quarterly pool party where lapsed poets, experienced poets, and poetry lovers get to convene in a fabulously inclusive and playful space for an entire month of practice. Now in its seventh season, this group remains an all-time favorite gathering of old and new friends.

Next group: January 1-31, 2018 | $31 /$62 /$93 | Register
No size limit


The Room of Your Own Landing

The Unfurl Retreat returns to Amherst, MA June 22-24, 2018. Details Coming Soon!


The Real-Time Landing Strip

JUST WRITE  is a 6-week, 6-person weekly Zoom-based group where we will write together and comment on each other’s words in real time.  Two private coaching calls and an intimate setting all make this a particularly powerful chance to chip away at perfectionism and get some drafts written that might otherwise never see the page. 

DATES and  Registration page coming soon | Contact me to to be notified 

Size limit: 6


Year-Round Ways to Keep Your Writing + Life Grounded

Get Your Muse On is a year-round private community where we love the shit out of each other. In this secret Facebook group, each week includes intention setting, exclusive writing prompts, and invitations to reflect on what we’re learning as we go.

Always open | $25 monthly or $250 annually| Register
No size limit

Private Coaching | From a single session to an ongoing relationship entirely devoted to your growth as a human who writes, see what opens up when you make time to explore your fears, ideas, goals, and stumbling blocks.

Packages and a la carte options | Sign up here

Manuscript development + editing | If you have a manuscript-in-progress and want a partner who will bring fresh eyes, perspective, suggestions, and edits to help you bring it to completion, I’d love to hear from you. I have a successful track record of working with authors who’ve self-published collections of poems, creative nonfiction, and novels, and generally only work with one editing client at a time. Let’s discuss your project and see if it’s a good fit.

Cost customized to each client | Contact me to schedule a time to chat!


A Note About Money + Mutual Responsibility

Please note that if money is a barrier, I make every effort to work with you to make all of this accessible no matter your income bracket or current financial situation. Just ask me and we’ll see what we can work out together.

If you would like to contribute to the ongoing Community Writers Fund, which makes it possible for me to offer fully-funded spots to lower-income individuals for whom groups like these are unaffordable, you can do so here.

In addition, every time someone signs up for any of my groups, I donate an item to a local food bank.


“Thank you for the compassionate, caring and safe space you hold here for me, for all of us here, to tell the hard stories. I know it’s how I will grow.”~ Juli Lyons

“Never have I felt so befriended: by the page, by a group of fellow writers, by a teacher and coach. Jena provides a lovely mixture of inspiration, invitation, and validation. And then she throws in something else, something wonderful and ineffable which I can only describe as magic.” ~ Katrina Kenison

Now Would Be a Good Time to Forget Your Perfect Offering

0q33pyk-axi-tina-rataj-berardFast and furious freewrite about worry. Here goes.

What worries me is worrying itself, and how it is a closed loop, a vicious cycle, a mindfuck and a body destroyer. The topics that typically worry me most are so familiar, so ubiquitous. They remind me of the dust beneath our bed. Just there. But if we would only move the entire frame away, sweeping and mopping would be a snap. Worrying about being able to focus and connect and keep writing and doing my work in this world.

I worry that all the noise will make it impossible to hear my own heart. I worry that I feel alienated by conversations people are having — people I once related to or felt connected to.

And so there is this sense of shifting: Who are my people?

And then remembering that the place where worry goes away for me is when I don’t worry about who my people are. If you read these words and they spark some sense of yes for you, if we care about each other, if we are both worried about Russia and Canadian geese dying in toxic lakes and the school-to-prison pipeline and corruption beyond imagination and how we never learned the native maps, how there was barely even a mention in school of life on this land before the British came and sought “freedom” on faulty ideals that excluded the very people who named the rivers, before random borders were established, when women’s voices were in the margins of the writing pads, kitchen subversives and secret abolitionists, if you are worried that we are in a state so severe that worrying will get us nowhere, if you know that we are already nowhere and thus, more here than ever, in a post-worrying world where speed leads to implosion, then you are my people.

If you feel alienated by the mainstream and question whether “mainstream” is even a thing and who gets to decide these things and no, I won’t share yet another Trump video, like the one where he’s saying “Man of the Year” has a much better ring to it than “Person of the Year” (don’t you think? YEAH roars his reality-show crowd, his minions) because sharing this shit changes nothing. But then I can’t resist because I’m so worked up, so I share. And then I delete. Repeat.

Getting worked up changes nothing and yet if you aren’t worked up, if you aren’t worrying, what are you doing? Who are you being?

There is no right or wrong way to be. And yet I write this, and even as the words come, there is a hollow ring to them. I can’t bear platitudes. I can’t bear language so inclusive that it could be misconstrued as apology for ignorance, inaction, or anything that enables this moment to go unchallenged. I worry about questions around judgment, factions, language police (on all sides), and so much noise, oh just so much noise.

Am I adding to the noise? Oh, but I must.

Now would be a good time to forget your perfect offering. Right, Mr. Cohen (may you rest in peace)?

Forget your perfect offering. Don’t let this rancid moment in history curl your heart into acrid dissolution. Tell me what you worry about. Tell me what your Sunday will bring. Tell me one beautiful thing about your life. Tell me which windows let in the most light. Tell me where you are on the map of the world. Tell me that this is not “spiritual bypassing” but real, real life, real connection, in this moment — and that that still counts. Tell me it still fucking counts.

And I will keep telling you, too: Everything counts. Your life, your words, your ways. Forget your perfect offering and keep being here with me.

Join me for my next two-week writing group: Imperfect Offerings, January 9-20, 2017. Come let the words out without having to get it right or prove a thing. This is a place for practice, not perfection. Register here

“How Can I Help You” and Other Three-Dimensional Questions

i-in3cvejg-evan-dennis-2

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson

My first year at Barnard, I was part of a tutoring program where we went into public schools each week. It was called Students Helping Students. I loved doing it and can still picture sitting on the floor in a hallway, quietly cheering as a kindergartener made his way through “Are You My Mother?”

I also see now that it was White Students Feeling Good About Themselves by Helping Kids of Color in Underfunded Schools. Both of these are true, because truth is never one-dimensional. And I am still unlearning aspects of my amazing education, and educating myself about how not to be just another nice white lady.

But I have always remembered the name. And for as much as I’ve changed and hold myself to waking up, some things really are threads. The seeds of being of use, of using my skills to connect with other people — those are still here, in the form of women helping women and writers helping writes and humans being good to each other.

Questions of what I want feel short-sighted, and as always, I need to find that place where “what I want” intersects with “what do you — what does the world — need?” It’s a strange interplay, because needs are often most powerfully met by making an offering of some kind, the truest one you have, rather than taking a poll first and then scrambling to see what you can give. In other words, there has to be a balance, a meeting place, between self and world. Service and need. You and me. I and thou — minus the holier-than-thou crap.

This week, I finally dove into working on a manuscript of poems. It will be my third collection, and I’ve felt it swirling around for months now, a wispy suggestion to start that I couldn’t quite grasp. I don’t know what clicked — maybe it was writing a poem a day for a month. Or the urgency to connect, and this being one of my ways.

It’s too easy to write in generalizations. To write about bodies, to write about color, to write about religion. To use words like “justice” and “equality” and “safety” that must withstand so much battering. I fail when I attempt to write about these words. But I can assemble a book of poems. I can say, come in, sit down, and write what’s true for you. I can and will continue to ask what makes you happy, what brings you joy, what frightens you most. Where is your conviction?

I’m sitting here at my kitchen table, as I so often am when I come here to write. I’m sitting here being white. I’m sitting here being Jewish and gay and female and short and big and small at the same damn time. On my run this morning, I thought about all the times in my life I’ve had to remember how to dream, because dreaming got drowned out by the competition and walked not through but right into the doorway.

I do this, you know that by now, right? I sit down and start typing (actually, I sat down and started this hours ago), and just connect the dots and usually have no idea where I’m going. This is no different. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where our country is going, though all I have to do is be awake to see that this is not a difficult one to guess. It’s going exactly like this.

It’s more polarized than ever, and all the movies about good and evil, about light and dark, have come true. Life imitates art and art imitates life until there is not point in distinguishing the two. Reality TV is politics and politics is the usual and not becoming jaded requires fierce strength, which we might enjoy momentarily but no one can sustain for long alone.

Which is why we need each other. Today, a coaching call. I heard: “Stuck, frustrated, embarrassed, want to help, white, privileged.” These were words that came up again and again. And we talked about how to be present and keep moving forward, rather than spiraling into stagnation, which is about as self-focused as it gets. We talked about showing up, as a learner, as an observer, and what it means to know you get to trust yourself.

“How can I help you?” takes on a whole new dimension of importance, and the answers are not always clear, nor is that always the best question. So be patient — and remember that this fight, like truth, like life, is three-dimensional. It’s happening in real time, and it’s not about feeling good or meeting our own needs, but about our liberation being bound up in each other.

Courage and heart and risking sounding like we don’t know what we’re doing, because sometimes we don’t, and the only way to start getting clear and making any kind of impact is to stumble through. Not one of us is some kind of savior, but uprisings happen when enough individuals refuse to play by the rules, especially when the rules are a sick and twisted distortion of reality, revisionism, and willful ignorance.

As a writer right now, it’s easy to feel pretty deflated. But to give up my voice that easily would be a betrayal to everything I care about. It may or may not matter, but I will keep offering my words. I will keep being as kind a human as I can, and as awake a white person as I can (though I will not use the word “woke,” as it does not feel like mine to use).

And I will assemble this next collection of poems, as an offering from my heart to yours, because it’s one of the only things I know how to do for sure.

The Art of Staying Positive

Tiny Light Catchers

Tiny light catchers

Friday. A few weeks in to our new week-on, week-off co-parenting schedule. Aviva is at overnight camp, so it was just Pearl here with us for the past week. I juggled and balanced coaching clients, reading and reflecting on my writing group participants’ work, creating prompts for several upcoming groups, hanging with Pearl, keeping us all fed, and the usual household responsibilities, of course — a daily series of dishes and laundry that I sometimes enjoy and other times feel never ending.

The other day, I told Mani about the never ending part, and then quickly followed it up with the obvious — it ends when we can no longer do it, or when we’re dead. Kind of blunt, right? But essentially true.

Moments of absolute delight, loving my work, loving my kid, loving my wife, loving our neighborhood, loving my people, loving summer. Moments of absolute exhaustion, emergency naps, wonky blood sugar, not eating well enough, not exercising enough, and the slippery slope of these to all-around not-enoughness.

Moments of despair and outrage. The little boy in that Aleppo ambulance. Insane white privilege. Louisiana flooding. The man in my own town who, after 12 years in the States, was just deported back to El Salvador because of a 2012 DUI. He was a chef at a popular Amherst restaurant and has four kids in the public schools here, ages 5-15, and a wife. And now he is not here with them, and this just made me so sad and angry.

Moments of floating, quite literally, in the pond.

This afternoon, we crashed pretty hard. Mani has been unusually tired this week, a mystery of her Mast Cell Disease — some weeks she has more energy than others. I see it all as part of a long-term healing process, and she is doing so well; not a day goes by that we’re both not incredibly grateful for the trajectory. So after bringing Pearl over to a friend’s house and some of my time-specific work things today, I crawled into bed with her and slept for a little over two hours. When I got up, I whispered to her that I was going for a swim, then kissed her goodbye and slipped out.

The swim was delicious, the pond not as crowded both due to less scorching weather and the dinner hour — by this time it was around 6:00pm. I alternated breast and back strokes with periods of simply floating, listening to the undefinable sounds beneath the water and my own breathing. I appreciated my own strength and ability to swim and the solitude of sky above. And then at the dam, I rested a bit, noticing the light on my wet hands on rock.

After towel drying off and doing some seriously stealth moves to get dressed, I drove into town and decided to get a couple of tacos and a soda for my own dinner. I knew when I got home, Mani would most likely be awake and hungry, but also was guessing she was still asleep since she didn’t respond to a text I sent. It felt good to lengthen out time, not to rush.

And that’s really when I noticed it. I was bluesy. I had walked right into that Friday-night, wish-my-baby-and-I-could-go-out-on-a-date, coming-down-from-a busy-week funk, and it felt like an old friend, this loneliness. We don’t see each other nearly as often as we have in periods past, but from time to time she makes an appearance.

We don’t spend much time focusing on the “can’t” of Mani’s illness. We are so intent on genuinely living, on health, on togetherness, creativity, presence, joyful plans, and gratitude, that it seems like almost blasphemous to wallow. From time to time, a little wave will come, though, when one of us is just fucking sick of it and would do anything to be able to go get margaritas, chips and guacamole at some nice outdoor patio.

Needless to say, I came home with my tacos and my minor blues and ate and read the newspaper. I thought about people asking me, “How do you stay so positive?” And it’s a funny question, in a way. Kind of like people calling you brave, when really you’re just figuring out your life. But there is some truth to it, too. Let me be clear — I’m not talking about copping a positive attitude being something you can just choose when you’re suffering from depression and shit’s just really hard. This is not about simplifying things that are indeed complicated.

But sometimes, things aren’t actually that complicated. This got me to thinking — is there an art to staying positive, one that feels real and not superficial?

Here’s what I came up with:

1. Keep It Real

Has anyone ever told you to “snap out of it” when you were down? Sometimes, the worst thing to hear when you’re lonely, sad, overwhelmed, angry, or frustrated — all passing states but very much real ones at the time — is a solution or suggestion, or worse, an override of your experience. Give yourself a chance to just say it sucks. Set a timer if that helps (I learned this from Mani), and have an all-out tantrum. Scream underwater if you have to, or in the shower. Confide in a trusted confidante. Have a big, snotty cry, the kind where you are in awe that yes, you are STILL LOVED afterwards.

Denial is a breeding ground for negativity. Keeping it real is a true of act of kindness towards yourself.

2. Move Your Body

As much as sometimes I hate to admit it, this one is tried and true. It is very, very difficult to stay stuck in a shitty head space when you’re moving. Whether you run, walk, swim, dance, take a class, hit the gym, or just lie down on the floor and feel the full weight of your body against that solid ground, finding a way into the body gives us access to ourselves and can do a lot of the heavy-lifting for us emotionally. Give it 15 minutes and see how you feel after that. For me, the swim was what gave me access to the feelings themselves, which had otherwise been looming but not landing.

3. Perspective, Yo

Getting some perspective doesn’t mean feeling guilty. It just means keeping things in perspective. That is all. When I’m bummed that my wife has this stupid-ass disease and wish we could just go out on a date and have an awesome meal somewhere, the minute I put myself in her shoes, my experience shifts. Self-pity gives way to empathy. After all, I just got to swim and eat tacos, while she is still limited to 14 foods, including water, and every outing is a notable occasion for celebration.

I quickly remember the insufferable “grass-is-greener” syndrome, one I’ve had many, many times in my life, and boom — I know that if it wasn’t this, it’d be something else. Never being satisfied might make for some amazing “Hamilton” songs, but oh my God, it’s not a very happy or fulfilling way to live. Getting perspective is not about denial (see #1), but it is about realizing that you, like the Jewish teaching about two slips of paper, the world was created for you alone AND you are but ashes and dust. Plenty of people wish they had something you have, you wish you had something they have, and meanwhile, everyone misses what’s right there in front of them.

4. “Fake It till You Become It”

A few days ago, we watched a TED talk by a social psychologist named Amy Cuddy about body language. As the youtube trailer states:

“Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success.”

She talks about how smiling actually signals the brain to be happy. I thought of this earlier, while I was walking back to my car, alone, with my tacos in a brown paper bag. I tried smiling and it felt forced and fake. Then I sang a little song quietly. Here’s how it went:

I wanna go on a date with my baby
to get a big ice-cream cone
Instead I got these tacos
And I’m just going home…

I got the blues, baby, I got the blues
I got the Friday night blues…

And sure enough, you know what? I chuckled? I cracked myself up a little, because it was so goofy. And you know what else? It helped.

I came home then, and said hello to Mani and devoured my dinner. Then I sat down to write. Which brings me to my final suggestion for staying positive. Ready for it?

5. Write It Down

You knew this was coming, right?

For me, empirical evidence is more important than studies and data. In other words, I can just ask myself: Do I feel better after I write? The answer is almost always yes. I say “almost,” because there are times when the only thing that helps is time. And sleep. Sometimes the thing you don’t even know you need comes in some completely unexpected form, one you never could have planned on or conjured. But left to my own devices, does writing help me feel “positive,” if by positive I mean more centered, more peaceful, and more present? Yes.

That said, if you’re the kind of person who prefers science, just read something like this study, “Writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma” from the Harvard Medical School, which likens expressive writing to taking a brisk walk.

Writing it down — whatever “it” may be — is another way of externalizing whatever you’re feeling. As with #1, a timer can help create a kind of container for this. Start with five or ten minutes of fast and furious writing. If you need a “hook,” try starting with super simple and neutral. “Right this minute…” or “the thing is…” can be anchors for writing in this way, phrases to which you can keep returning if you get stuck.

6. See What Happens

Sometimes life does feel black and white. Sometimes you have to crouch down and look closely for the light catchers. Sometimes things just suck and all you want to do is eat your first-ever chili dog with your wife, but you can’t because she happens to have a rare disease that makes eating such a thing potentially dangerous — at least for now.

Everything changes.
Everything changes.
Everything changes.

The light changes. Conditions change. Moods change. Relationships change. Jobs change. The number of dishes in the sink changes. Finding things that are steady for you in your life can make all the difference, when it comes to climbing out of negativity.

7. Trust Your Own Experience

There’s one more thing I feel I must say, before I wrap this up: I usually hate posts like this. Posts that have these pithy, simplistic-sounding ways for life to be better, happier, easier. Posts that I can easily turn into weapons against myself (which is exactly why I tend not to read this kind of thing!).

These suggestions for “staying positive” are essentially my “notes to self,” reminders for me to reach for when I’m slipping into the kind of negativity that eats its own tail for breakfast. They aren’t a one-size-fits-all or an abacadabra. Life is a lot of things, usually at the same time.

Be so loving with your whole, beautiful self. Feel the feelings. Try some things. Find what works for you. Most of all, trust your own experience — you are ultimately your best cheerleader, advocate, and witness. And please, if you’re so inclined, share in the comments what helps you stay positive when the light starts to flicker.