Author Archives: Heidi Stahl

About Heidi Stahl

I am a writer and editor. Thanks to the miracles of modern-day technology, I earn my daily bread by working for the University of Washington in Seattle, while living in one of my favorite places in the world: Cape Cod. Occasionally, I post my reflections on other people's words here.

To Matter

“what is written does not have to be polished or finished or part of something larger or better to matter” — Alison Hicks, Senior Partner, Amherst Writers & Artists Method

This weekend I was re-reading an essay called The Silence Out of Which Writing Comes, and which is the source of the above quotation. I was reading the essay to get myself thinking about writing and facilitating writing groups, since I’ll be doing that again soon. And as usually happens — and one reason I like this work — I found myself becoming sustained, stimulated, and nurtured by what I read in the effort to refresh my purpose and sharpen my focus. 

What Alison says above gets to the very heart of what I love about this work, both for myself and for the writers I get to write with. What I have come to learn from practicing this method, from giving and receiving feedback in an AWA writing group is that the writing that matters is the writing we are doing now, in all its scrawly, half-formed, shadowy brilliance and originality. It doesn’t have to be bigger. It doesn’t have to be a seed of anything other than what it is. 

For many years I wore myself out with an idea about bigness. I could barely enjoy any act of creation, any flight of fancy, before my brain was hijacking the spontaneous combustion of my imagination and yoking it to some project of the ego, some effort to once and for all prove my worthiness. 

Somehow, by unearned but beloved grace, I seem to have grown into a place in my life where I can better enjoy the mystery of creation — and a big part of that is realizing that there are greater forces than my ego or my intellect running the show. The energy of desire and creation come calling, and I dance with them a little more lightly now. No longer attaching these energies to a project for my self-aggrandizement, I think I’m a more gracious dance partner, following rather than leading. 

We all have to start small, we all have to start over again and again, and come back to the beginnings. What I like about the AWA method is that it gives us a way to do that, and gives us companions who are also beginning anew, being surprised by their unique creative genius, the tiny little sparks of flame that are always flickering, that have such power to warm and light our way. 

Some Thoughts on Confidentiality

Sometimes when I’m in a group and we’re talking about keeping things confidential, I feel myself nodding and see others nodding (yes, of course, we’ll keep confidentiality), and I wonder if we’re actually thinking about what confidentiality means and why it’s important. Or are we just agreeing to confidentiality as a condition of belonging to the group? Of course we won’t talk about what Sally wrote, or pass along what Kevin said about his writing. We are nice people. We would never do such a thing. But then you get outside the group, and something that made an impact, whether it’s something someone wrote or said, is still with you, gee, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to scratch that itch, to express your surprise or dismay or alarm or amusement. What would it hurt? Who would know?

The Writing Group as Container
To understand the importance of confidentiality, it may help to think of the writing group as a container that we co-create for our mutual safety and benefit. You yourself are a kind of container for your own writing – when you find a regular place to go to, a regular time, music that feeds your carl larssonmuse, a warm mug in the hand, a journal or a pen that just feel right – you are putting in place the elements of a reliable container in which you can feel, imagine, think, dream, and write. You know that in these conditions, chances are good that you will be able to embark on that journey that only writing makes possible.

 

 

Confidentiality as Safety Net
The container of a group can provide an even more resilient and robust space for creativity to happen. And in addition to a regular meeting space, a regular time, rituals like brownies and tea—the practice of confidentiality is one of the conditions that create and maintain a strong container for the group. Confidentiality is the condition that allows people to go further than they might allow themselves to go on their own. Knowing that our words will stay within the group, within the space in which we write, we can take risks, explore the things that have begged to be written but perhaps Trapeze_artists_1890we were too afraid to write alone. We can try on different selves, different voices, say yes to the images that don’t make sense, the words that we aren’t sure about but that call to us anyway. It is in this experimentation that we get to stretch and strengthen our creativity, where we are able to glimpse the larger mystery of who we are. Confidentiality is the net that allows us to toe our way out along the tight rope. We know it will be there if we fall.

Confidentiality Serves All of Us
It may be obvious that confidentiality serves the writer. But I believe that it also serves the listener. How? Confidentiality tells you, as the listener, that you don’t have to take anything with you. It tells you when your work is done. Picture confidentiality as a boundary encircling the group. As you leave the group, you pass beyond the boundary, and you can leave everything there, you can drop the Punishment_sisyphweight of whatever you were asked to hold. You don’t need to take it with you – and in fact, confidentiality is a gift that lets you leave it behind. We all have enough work to do without picking up work we aren’t asked to do.

I don’t want to overstate this or make people feel uptight about confidentiality. My intention here is just to probe my own understanding about why it’s important, and share these thoughts in the hopes that it might help others think more deeply and imaginatively about confidentiality. To see it as a resource, in fact, and not a simple “should” that we all agree to because we are nice people.

The Shelter of Confidentiality
In some mysterious way, I believe, that in between the times we meet, the threads of all that has been written, the beginnings, the false starts, the break throughs, the sweet conclusions, the scary shadows, all of those dwell and mingle in the quiet of that space. night_time_landscape__by_glorac-d4wkrsoAnd they grow and evolve, like bread dough rising under a tea towel on a warm stovetop. And that growth is lessened if we disturb it by talking about it outside the group.

(I’m not talking about your own writing of course. Please, please, do what you like with your own writing in between our meetings. If something got sparked, go home and fan, fan, fan those embers.)

But consider, deeply consider leaving alone, even in the quiet of your own mind, the work of others. Think of our time in the writing group as a guided beach walk, where we look under rocks to glmpse all the amazing, vibrant, creeping and crawling life going on below. On a beach walk, we leave those creatures where they are so that they can continue to thrive and live the lives they are meant to live. purple rock crabOur interference may thwart those unique lives that have their own pattern and meaning. We glimpse, we return the rock gently, and we continue on, living and letting live.

Hearing Ourselves into Being

Recently I had an experience that reminded me of what can happen when I share my creativity with someone I trust. I was gifted with a beautiful dream of walking through an old European city late at night. There were few people in the square where I found myself. Small groups of people stood waiting for the chimes of an immense, shadowy cathedral to ring 4:00 a.m. Priests and others in robes were filing into the cathedral to prepare for a mass that would begin in a few hours. I didn’t know what the dream “meant” — I still don’t, and I don’t much care to pin down an interpretation. But I did want to share the powerful images with someone, and I chose someone I know who would listen closely. As I described the narrative of the dream, my voice broke on the word “cathedral” and I was awash in a sense of great energy and potential, a feeling that my unconscious was showing me that my current path in life is taking me into immense, heretofore unknown resources of beauty, tradition, and wisdom that lie deep within. The import of the images broke through as I voiced them. My heart was able to throb its knowing, and cut through any intellectualizing or skepticism or uncertainty that easily could have obscured the dream’s gift, the gift of the creative unconscious. Being heard, knowing that I was sharing this gift with someone who has a reverence for life and its mysteries, allowed my own deep knowing to register, and for me to see and feel the bounty that life is currently bestowing.

I think something similar can happen when sharing our writing. Of course it is wonderful to hear what people liked, what stood out, what they remembered. Just as wonderful is the opportunity for us to hear ourselves, to feel the newly written words taking shape in our throats and mouths, to feel our creativity flowing through us, first in writing, then in our voices. When we have trusted people to share our writing with, we can hear ourselves and our creativity into being. We can marvel and delight in our “unique creative genius” and we can welcome that genius home.

Courage, Creativity, Community

Writing takes courage. It takes courage to meet our inner creative energies. Writing with others, in a safe, stimulating, structured environment, can ease the process of embarking on the inner journey, and even take us to new heights and depths we hadn’t known lay within us.

In the writing groups that I lead, participants generate new material in response to prompts that I give. Prompts may be spoken or written, visual (such as postcards or books), aural (music, sounds of nature), kinesthetic (texture, taste). Writers are also free to write from their own inner prompts, if they aren’t inspired by the prompts provided. We write for timed sessions of 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes, and then read our work aloud (writers are always free to skip this step). Following clear and simple guidelines we share the impact of what we’ve heard, telling the writer what was strong and what we liked.

This process works for new and experienced writers. As we gather, go within, then share what emerges, and risk knowing and seeing, being known and being seen, we create a community of depth and kindness.

The Emergent Properties of Writing with Others

Every time you sit down to write, you have an opportunity to play with a different set of possibilities — the weather, your mood, your energy level, whatevesnowflakesr you’ve been ingesting and digesting lately (books, food, scenery). Even if you were to write on the same topic every day for a week, chances are, your writing and what you discover about the topic and yourself in the process of writing would be different every day.

Those possibilities are multiplied exponentially when you write with others. I think this has something to do with the phenomenon of emergence. Here is a nice description about emergence:

“In science (particularly physics), the sum of the parts can be greater than the parts themselves. This is emergence, and emergent qualities are elusive little devils because they aren’t intrinsic to their parts. They only ’emerge’ when the parts are brought together as a whole. For instance, everyday millions of people use the words ‘not,’ ‘be,’ ‘or’ and ‘to.’ Yet when you bring these words together into the combination ‘To be or not to be,’ you’ve created a meaning that not one of those four words actually possess. Suddenly and mysteriously they’ve become worlds of images and meaning.”

When we write together, we each contribute an invisible, undefinable, but palpable something that enriches the field in which we gather. We all benefit from this enriched field — every person I’ve ever written with has commented on how much deeper and further they travel with their writing when writing in a group. With companions, I find the dive into creative spaces even easier. It becomes easier to surrender, to let my writing go where it wants to go, and to be surprised and delighted by where it takes me. Somehow, this private, mysterious journey is influenced and enhanced by the presence of others. People who have meditated with others will know what I mean — the struggles or fears that may be present when alone on the cushion seem to dissipate when we sit with others. The presence of others seems to lift us, leads us more easily to the depth and beauty and truth we seek.

So, come write with us. And see where your writing takes you.

Life Work

I have been writing in some form for most of my life, and began keeping a journal at the age of 14. Aside from a few and far between occasions, I haven’t published my work. Not that I haven’t thought about it or wanted to. But my prevailing drive has been to write for its own sake, just to follow and explore the process of writing, to observe what happens when I have a regular writing practice and what happens when I get lazy and abandon my writing and my self. (Hint: the latter does not end in prettiness.)

I don’t resist publication out of some noble purity. Rather, for most of my life, it’s just been too damn scary to put my words out there. Papers for school were terrifying to me. Routinely, I would procrastinate…for months. Routinely, I would receive the paper back with two grades: one for the paper if I’d turned it on time, one for the actual grade the paper garnered. The promise of the higher grade did nothing to overcome my fear nor cure my procrastination. (Had I been a wiser child, that might have taught me that external rewards mean little in the grand scheme of things, but that is a lesson I still study and get wrong.)

Through my early years, when I did share something I wrote, I expected/hoped for one of two extremes: a national parade or public shaming. I wanted a response and I wanted it to be big.

What I wanted, I now realize, what I yearned for from either of those responses, was a forfeit of responsibility to my writing. What I wanted was an absolute, a stamp of approval or damnation that would permanently fix my relationship to writing. A judgment that would install me in the heavens where I believed the authors of New Yorker short stories strolled and chatted.  100906_cn-tilley_p465Or a dismissal that would cure me of the itch to write. Either imaginary response held the promise of certainty. Most of all, either response took away from me the lifelong task of finding my way by trying on different forms (fiction, essay, poetry) and different jobs (editing, reporting, writing coach, writing group facilitator), finding my way through doubt, fear, ecstasy, pride, the boredom and despair of fallow times, envy, mania, depression. The drama queen in me wanted a clear message from the outside: you belong, or get out and never think of writing again. I wanted someone else to decide for me what my life’s work would be about.

Of course, no one can decide for us what our life’s work will be. The work itself decides, when it keeps coming back time after time, even after we push it away, ignore it, abuse it with excess, or try to flog it for our own aggrandizement. It keeps coming back, insisting on us, tapping us on the shoulder quietly, getting us to try again, to humble ourselves before the task that it needs us to perform. Eventually, if we’re lucky, time gives us the opportunity to get out of our own way and settle down to the task we’ve been given to do.

Demanding More

“Demanding more” is usually applauded as a good thing. “You go, girl. You go on and demand more out of life! You deserve it!” The person who demands more is seen as engaged with life, holding herself to high standards. Good things indeed.

But today I’ve been thinking about how we respond to writing in AWA writing groups, and why the AWA guidelines for feedback don’t include asking the writer for more. (The feedback we give is focused on what we like, what stands out, what we remember. That’s it. That’s enough.)

But isn’t it a compliment to the writer to say that we want more? Isn’t it flattering to say, “Oh, I loved this, and I just wanted you to keep going.” That warm response is certainly meant, in most cases, to be encouraging. When people say it, I think they mean to open a space for the writer, to welcome more from her, to give her voice room to flourish. What could be wrong with that?

The problem with asking for more from a writer in that particular moment becomes a little more apparent if we think of the newly drafted piece of writing (which is the majority of the writing we do in AWA groups) as a newborn baby (a favorite metaphor in AWA circles).

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbili...

The writer who has just written and read aloud a piece of writing is just as new to what he birthed as his audience is. He may be just as surprised, perhaps more so, than anyone else at what has showed up on the page. The writing comes from him, but, like a newborn baby, it may feel, in those first few seconds of life, as a somewhat alien being. These are tender moments, vulnerable moments. And they are powerful moments. As the writer wonders, What is this that I have just created and shared? the responses of the listeners may influence how the writer receives and loves his baby.

To the writer who has just given birth, a request for more can be interpreted as, what I wrote wasn’t enough. My tender newborn, still damp, is somehow lacking.

Just as it would be pointless to stand in the delivery room and speculate on whether that newborn will grow up to be a day trader or a truck driver, in those tender moments after writing and reading, we focus on what is there, not what career path this baby might follow — is it a poem? fiction? memoir? We don’t know and in those blissful moments after delivery, we don’t care. It is its own creation, new and never seen on this earth before.

When the written baby is new to all of us (including the writer), we celebrate its arrival, the mere fact of its presence among us. We gaze at the brown eyes, marvel at the fingers and toes. There we are, in the delivery room, all dewy and blissed out on endorphins, maybe splashed with tears or blood or shit, the goo necessary to creation (don’t worry…in the writing delivery room, the goo, when present, usually takes the form of tears). This is not the moment when we say, “Okay, but can you make his hair blonde instead?” We don’t say, “That’s it? Just one baby?” Or “Gee, I wish your baby had blue eyes instead. With blue eyes, or the full complement of fingers, toes, limbs, I could have loved your baby. Oh, well.”

No. We welcome the baby and bask in the miracle of creation. We reflect back to the writer what we see in his new baby, and help him love it into the world.