Archives for posts with tag: writing groups

Dear Readers,

Since I last wrote I have embarked on serious work on my memoir. I am five chapters in what I call a first or second draft, depending on my mood. The memoir originated in a habit of writing that I have had for most of my life, aided by over twenty years of writing and meditation retreats with Natalie Goldberg, and vomited on the page in three years of NaNoWriMo from 2009-2011. I had written a lot, over 150,000 words, plus countless stints of writing in notebooks and I did not what to do with what I had, so I let it sit. And sit. And sit.

Then, shortly after I wrote my last blog post in January 2021, Saundra Goldman invited me to a free webinar on writing. One of her questions caused me to weep, sweat, lose sleep. She said, “Tell me about experiences when you went out on your own and what you dreamed of.” The question haunted me, bringing every failure in my life into focus. She was offering a four-session class in February. And, before I even started it I knew it was time to write the memoir, time to dig into what my life had been and the root causes of much heartache and self-doubt.

Before Saundra’s class started I set a strong structure in place to help me make it through the emotional ups and downs of writing. I already had a writing group that I met with once a week. To that I added twenty minutes of sitting meditation each morning and a ten-minute check-in write that Saundra recommended: “Where I Am.” Right after breakfast I returned to my room to sit and write.

When I took Saundra’s class I connected with one of the other students. I liked her energy. I liked her project. I reached out to her on Facebook and joined a dyad of writers who wrote with each other twice a week for an hour and read to each other for an hour on Fridays with limited feedback. I was nervous about giving and receiving feedback because I had been working in a tradition for over twenty years where you don’t comment on each other’s work at all. At the same time, I was excited because I was engaged with the memoir again. Writing is lonely work and being able to ask questions about how my work was landing with listeners felt helpful.

I registered for one of Natalie’s online writing classes to keep me going after Saundra’s class ended and signed up for a writing retreat in July in Wisconsin, even though the pandemic still raged through the United States — I figured if it was impossible Natalie would cancel the retreat. I started meeting with a writing group twice a week rather than once, knowing that every time I attended I would be writing. If I could I would work my memoir into the writing topic; if not writing would keep me limber for memoir writing.

With my structure in place, I wrote. I had written a draft of my first chapter in 2019 for a manuscript review. I took out the draft, reread it, read the comments Natalie had made, thought about them and began to craft a new shape for the chapter. I took out some parts I loved, hoping to use them later, and tried to make the story clearer. When I thought I was done with the chapter I asked a few writing friends to read it and comment. I asked one of them, my most clear-eyed and enthusiastic reader, what he thought the story needed next and he said the reader needed a break from the intensity of chapter one.

I considered what I could start with in chapter two and ultimately decided to go back to the day I was born, before I was born, where the main character was my mother.

All through the writing process I spend time rereading parts of notebooks and journals, making time lines for the section I am working on, drawing diagrams to represent potential structures of the book. I work intuitively, letting writing do writing. Sometimes I don’t know for days or weeks what is happening next in a chapter or in the memoir as a whole, but I keep writing anyway, even if I’m writing “I don’t know what else needs to go in chapter five.”

I also keep asking for what I need. One day I was writing in writing group about wanting more feedback from people who did writing practice. When I read the piece aloud, one of the listening writers said to me “We have a group like that that meets on Wednesday evenings.”

I agreed to attend one meeting to see how it went before making a commitment: my entire writing life I have stayed away from “critique groups” and competitive situations. At that first meeting we got a fun writing topic, a piece of a Nick Drake song. No one was slashing and burning the writing we heard. I joined up and added the Wednesday Evening group to my writing, support and feedback structure.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because if you want to work on a sustained writing project such as a book you will need a good structure. My pal Saundra will tell you to study books for their structure — she’s good at that. But the structure I mean is a writing and emotional support structure because writing a sustained work is hard work. The part that no one tells you about writing a book is that you will unearth things about yourself and your past as you write and it will not all be pretty and some of it will not feel very good.

So, first things first: if you want to write a book, do whatever supports your sanity. For me this is sitting meditation. Then make some writing structures: if you like writing groups or classes, join some and show up for every meeting. If you want or need feedback, find a trusted friend or two who is willing to read your work periodically. Ask people for what you need and see if it doesn’t appear.

And then what? Keep going. Keep going when you write junk. Keep going when you are confused. Keep going when you don’t know where you are going. Let writing do writing.

Dear Kale Chronicles’ Readers and Friends,

It has been a long time since I sent you an update, much less a painting or a recipe. As Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day I was standing in the kitchen at my mother’s house, baking a last batch of Russian teacakes, a traditional holiday cookie for us, consisting of butter, finely chopped walnuts, powdered sugar and enough flour to hold it all together. I had bought fresh walnuts in the shell from the Berkeley Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning and shelled them earlier on Monday evening while listening to Christmas carols on public television. Unfortunately, I had not consulted the recipe for amounts and had shelled just 1/2 cup when I needed 3/4 cup: as soon as I looked at the cookbook I went back to shelling nuts and wielding my chef’s knife.

It was an all-cookie Christmas this year, supplemented only with batches of Betsy’s delicious Italian Glazed Almonds. I did not have funds available for purchasing gifts in 2012, so I made them, Cocoa Shortbread and Pfefferneusse, Smitten Kitchen’s maple butter cookies, thin Moravian ginger cookies. For several days I busked in the Berkeley BART station in the morning and baked in the afternoon and evening, preparing a silver tray of cookies for my friend Elaine’s Chanukah party, packing a waxed cardboard box with almonds for another. When I wasn’t baking I was borrowing a guitar from Fat Dog at Subway Guitars who kindly lent me a Johnson to play while my beloved Harmony went to the guitar doctor, who treated her for a couple of serious cracks, rehearsing with Johnny for a gig at Arlington Cafe in my home town or giving my annual Christmas music party for which I prepared butternut squash soup, Mexican corn soup, Swedish rye bread and Finnish cardamom bread.

I remember standing at the bread board chopping resinous walnuts, seeing the chopped nuts in the metal measuring cup, the knife blade against the wood, thinking “This is not so bad a way to spend the evening.” True, it was late and I was behind on Christmas preparations, but I focused on the pleasure that a fresh tin of powder-sugar dusted cookies would bring my mother, Johnny (they are his favorite) and my sister-in-law who threatened to kill Johnny on Christmas Day if he had eaten them all. As the knife flashed through the nut meats, as the butter and sugar whirled in the mixer, as I rolled the cookie dough into small balls in the quiet night kitchen I thought how lucky I am:

1) My mother and brother are healthy and here to celebrate Christmas with this year.

2) I have a pleasant and safe home to live in.

3) I have found someone to love who loves me back.

4) I, too, am healthy.

5) My lone guitar has been safely repaired

6) Johnny and I played a gig together in my hometown to generally favorable responses and both ended the evening in the black financially.

7) Friends came to hear us play.

8) My song about our courtship, “Clueless,” continues to be a runaway hit and fun to play.

Honestly, I can’t remember more of those midnight thoughts now. Suffice it to say that I thought of my patient readers who have put up with my long absence from the blogosphere.

Just in case anyone has not had enough cookies over the past month or has never made Russian teacakes at home, I’ll share the recipe with you, slightly modified from that presented in our Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook.

Russian Teacakes

Soften 1 cup (two sticks) of butter — I use one stick salted butter and one stick unsalted.

Shell and finely chop 3/4 cup fresh walnuts

Combine butter with 1/2 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar and 1 tsp vanilla extract in electric mixer until creamy.

Slowly add 2 and 1/4 cups sifted flour, about 1/2 cup at a time, incorporating flour completely before each addition.

Mix in chopped nuts.

Chill dough as necessary. If you work late at night in a cold kitchen you will not need this step (or want to wait for the dough to chill either). Before baking, preheat oven to 400.  Bake cookies for 10 to 12 minutes until some color shows on the bottom edges. Roll warm cookies carefully in powdered sugar — they are delicate and will develop mangy-looking spots where the butter comes through. Let cool and roll again, or sift or sprinkle more powdered sugar to cover each cookie. Store in airtight tins for up to a week or two. (Mom recommends providing other cookies for the family to eat if you want to keep Russian teacakes on hand very long).

Food notes: the fresher the walnuts, the better the cookie. ‘Nough said. If you live in the South you could try making them with local pecans. If you prefer to bake exclusively with unsalted butter you will want to add 1/4 tsp of salt to your sifted flour. I use unbleached flour in these. Mom likes all-purpose. I have never tried them with a whole-grain flour — part of their attraction is that they are snowy white and ethereal. We only eat them once a year….

Painting notes: The reign of the emperor’s new clothes is long. You’ll know I am painting again the day you see a new painting here. Also, it has been so long since I’ve taken a photo that I cannot find the charger for my camera battery. Oops.

Writing classes: I will be teaching a six-week writing practice group on Tuesday nights in the East Bay starting January 8, 2012. My teacher Natalie Goldberg developed writing practice as a way to help people get their real thoughts on paper. For more information, see my ad on craigslist.

Happy New Year to everybody! See you again in 2013. –Sharyn