Re-Training the Writer's Mind - redux!

I'm delighted to say that I've been invited back to Hedgebrook to do another Master Class this summer! Here's the blurb:

A writer’s mind is her most important tool. We rely on our minds to be quick and associative, dogged and diligent, and above all to maintain the quiet, steady focus necessary to reach into the heart of our text. The mind’s enemy is skittery distraction in all its myriad forms, and in these days of email, Internet, and information overload, as writers, we are often fighting for our attention and our sanity. This workshop will offer practical training in re-focusing the mind through meditation, using contemplative exercises designed to deepen our expression and to allow us access to untapped areas of imagination and experience. We will look at aspects of the writing craft from a contemplative perspective, investigating ways of delving more deeply into point-of-view, metaphor, sensory imagery, characterization and plot. We will leave with writing and meditation practices to keep our most precious tool well-honed, focussed and responsive. Participants should come with writing projects in progress, or well-formed ideas for projects to start while in residency.

Here's the backstory:

Last February, I went to Hedgebrook for a residency to work on a stalled novel. In my cottage I had no access to the Internet. There was no wifi, no ethernet, and no way to get online while I was writing. It didn't take long before my mind started going through a withdrawal that was as intense and uncomfortable as the one I'd experienced when I quit smoking. The sensations, although mental, felt almost physical. I could feel my mind reaching outside itself, like a hand groping for a cigarette. I was shocked. As a writer and a longtime meditator, I'm accustomed to tracking the nuances and subtle movements of my mind, but I'd had no idea that my mind had morphed into such a cyborg. Unplugged, it felt bereft, incomplete, and horribly unsure of itself. And suddenly I realized this was why my novel had stalled. This is why I kept losing momentum and traction, and couldn't seem to finish. Somehow, my mind had lost faith in its ability to hold fast to the myriad complexities needed to conjure a fictional world. It had grown impatient and clumsy. It could no longer penetrate and go deep.

It took me a week or so to begin to settle down, and in that time, I rediscovered some of the patient focus and clarity of mind that I remember from my pre-wired days. This workshop is an outgrowth of that experience and incorporates some of the practices I've instituted in my own writing life to keep me connected but not overwhelmed. Many of these are writing and meditation techniques designed to nudge the mind from its habitual ruts and patterns of expression, and I thought it would be helpful to share them, since they seem to work. In the months since the retreat ended, I've finished a draft of the novel. It feels good to have my mind back.

This workshop is part of the Hedgebrook Women Writers Master Class Retreat Series. Hedgebrook is a retreat center for women writers, and all proceeds from these workshops go to subsidize the Writers in Residence Program. You can find information about registration at the Hedgebrook website, but here's the basic idea:

THE EXPERIENCE: 7 days at an idyllic world-renowned women writers retreat on Whidbey Island, and exceptional writing workshops with a celebrated writer. Each resident writer is housed in her own handcrafted cottage in the woods with a sleeping loft, work area and wood-burning stove. Meals are prepared by Hedgebrook’s in-house chef using fresh produce from our organic garden. The 48-acre retreat features forest walking paths, ponds and meadows, views of Puget Sound and Mount Rainier, and quiet areas for writing, reading and meditating. A beautiful beach and charming seaside village are nearby.

“Hedgebrook isn’t a retreat…it’s an advance.” - Gloria Steinem

Writing Fact into Fiction: writing workshop September 10 - 11, Vancouver

All fiction, even the wildest and most speculative, is rooted (where else?) in an author's life and experience. But even the most truthful, precise and accurate recounting, be it historical, autobiographical or journalistic, is never entirely what it seems. So where is the border between fact and fiction? Does it exist, and if so, how do we cross it? Is it really a fine line, or more like a swamp--a murky and liminal haunt of the imaginary and the misrembered? Is this the source from which fiction draws its power? Fiction is a powerful medium. Stories communicate. They touch readers' hearts and have an enormous capacity to change people's minds. But as every fiction writer knows, writing socially engaged fiction comes with an inviolable contract never to use story solely for didactic or pedagogic purposes. Propaganda fails as fiction.

A fiction writer's obligation is to story.  Much of this workshop will be devoted to timed writing exercises, using prompts to develop strong, compelling characters and plots, and to ween us from our staid, reality-based ways of writing about our experience and our beliefs. We'll practice the power of "what if...?", directing our human habit of wishful thinking to create compelling fictional worlds. We'll also spend time sharing work, offering and receiving careful feedback, and discussing issues of privacy and respect for others, which concern all writers, but especially those writing autobiographically-based fiction. If you've ever wanted to write short stories or a novel, but felt too constrained by the fetters of reality, this workshop will help you expand your writing potential and take the leap of faith.

A Way With Words: Writing & Meditation

My friend Kate McCandless and I will be giving another A Way with Words workshop at Hollyhock this summer, focusing once again on writing and meditation. Kate is a Zen priest, and poet, and a wonderful and compassionate teacher and friend. She be helping me lead the meditations, and Hollyhock is one of the loveliest spots on earth, so please join us if you can.The workshop runs for five days, from June 4 - 9, 2010. You can register by calling 800-933-6339, or by sending an email to You can also learn more about Hollyhock on the Hollyhock website. Here's a more detailed description of the workshop: Writing and meditation have much in common. As contemplative practices, they require a balance of relaxation and rigor, of mental focus and spaciousness of mind. As sitting practices, they train us to be with our stories, embody them, and let them go. And as transformative practices, they have the power to inspire and change the practitioner and the world.

In this workshop, we'll experience how attentive sitting can spark creativity and enrich our expression on the page. We'll work with our physical selves and senses to write in more fully embodied language, and we'll introduce guided meditations designed to support and enhance key elements of the writer’s craft, such as characterization, voice, plot, and point of view.

In a supportive and nonjudgmental environment, we'll have time to sit, and write, and read, and talk about our writing. We'll share work, receive feedback, and leave with foundational meditation and writing practices that we can take back to our everyday lives.

We'll make lots of time for being outdoors and writing in nature. Hollyhock, located on Cortes Island, B.C., is a stunningly beautiful educational and health retreat centre on the beach. There are opportunities for hiking, kayaking, and naturalist guided walks, as well as massage, yoga, hot tubs, and delicious vegetarian meals.

This workshop is open to writers, meditators, educators, and all who are interested in fiction, or non-fiction, or something in-between. All levels are welcome and no previous meditation experience is necessary.

ASLE - The Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment

Another cool morning in Victoria, BC, after a week of unseasonable heat. I came down to do a talk for the 9th biennial conference of ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, which is an international academic association of scholars, educators and environmentalists working in the burgeoning field of literary eco-criticism. The theme of the conference was “Island Time: The Fate of Place in a Wired and Warming World,” and the conference offerings reflected the astonishing international polyculture that’s grown up around “environmentally inflected” literature. (This is a phrase I read in the Association’s call for papers, and I liked it. “Environmentally inflected” -- the tone is light, understated, discreet. What would its opposite be? “Environmentally loaded”? “Environmentally charged”? “Environmentally fraught”? Hmm, not half so inviting...)

It was interesting to get a sense of how eco-criticism, by focussing its lens on the role of environment and ecology in literature, has elevated the status of “nature” from mere setting or background of story to that of the protagonist, or even the story, itself.

Here are some examples of the conference offerings:

• What Are You Doing Here? Environmental Justice, Inclusivity, and the Question of Community
• Fact and Fiction: Bruno Latour and the Representation of Nature
• Nature and Human Values: An Ecopedagogical Model
• William Wordsworth: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Authorship
• The Textual Animal: Birds, Pets, and Wildlife on the Page
• Get Outside, Get Dirty, Get Smarter: Ecopedagogy and Three Examples of the Outdoor Classroom
• RT: Returning Home: An Emerging Landbased, Ecofeminist Environmental Ethics in Taiwan
• Disaster! Collapse! Writing on Radical Change
• Globalization from Below II: Resisting Corporatization and Commodification
• Aves Triumviratus: Three Chicks Writing About Birds
• (Un)Natural Visions: Ecocritical Perspectives on Film and Visuality
• Environmental Identity: Sexuality, Disability, Ethnicity
• Let the Water Hold Me Down: The Poetics and Politics of Water
• So Descartes, Darwin, and Basho Walk into a Forest: Practrical Models for Science /Humanities Dialogue

…etc., and there was so much more. Six hundred and fifty plus scholars from around the world. Seven concurrent sessions, three times a day, for four days, plus plenaries, roundtables, workshops, pre-conference seminars, receptions, poetry readings, caucus meetings, and, well, you get the picture. It was intense. A bristling forest of ideas, a veritable storm of words. By the time I spoke, at the final banquet, my head was spinning.

So I decided to start with silence. With stillness. I asked everyone to get comfortable and then introduced a short “thought experiment,” directed at watching the mind, watching the body, watching the breath. You could call it a thought experiment, or a meditation, the words are not important. There had already been so many words, and I felt it would be interesting to try a more direct way of exploring the conference theme of "place," to create a direct experience what it is to be in place, exactly where we are.

Silence—alone, but especially in large groups—is such a profoundly powerful and intimate experience, and I really believe it's the basis for intelligent action, and speech, and engagement with the world. We need to learn to take a backward step, away from all the clamor and content and information coming at us, competing for our attention, and instead, from time to time, to direct our attention inward, carving out the space necessary to reflect and make intelligent decisions.

I wish I’d thought to end my banquet talk with a challenge to the members of ASLE. They are educators, and it seems to me that in order to counter the cacophony that is our wired world, they could make the time in their lives and classrooms to share some silence with their students. I’ve done this frequently with groups at colleges and universities, and the students are almost always astonished by the experience. Some find it uncomfortable, but most find it interesting, and many of them report that it feels really good. Their lives, they tell me, are never silent or still, and so it feels amazing to just sit. I'm always reassured that even if they forget the words I've spoken in my talks or classes, they will, somewhere in their bodies, remember that feeling of sitting in silence.

So if any of you ASLE folks out there are reading this and want to take up my challenge, here’s a great organization to check out. It’s the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, whose mandate is to work “to integrate contemplative awareness into contemporary life to create a more just, compassionate, reflective, and sustainable society.” And a great thing is that you can download MP3's of short guided meditations for free, to share with your students and to put on your iPods and practice with at home.

And if this interests you, you can also check out The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, part of the Center’s Academic Program, which “is committed to transforming higher education through the creation of a community of contemplative teachers, scholars, administrators and students. It supports the emergence of a broad culture of contemplation in the academy and the development of contemplative pedagogy, research methodology and epistemology that will be of value to students, teachers and researchers.”

I’m more and more convinced that we need to cultivate mindful silence, and share it with others whenever possible, if we are going to be able to make the careful and difficult choices we will need to make in order to survive in a wired and warming world. This seems to me to be a key piece of activism and eco-pedagogy that we can all learn to cultivate.

Finally, as a footnote to this theme of Island Time, I wanted to mention an interesting article I came across in the Telegraph about homo floresiensis, a now extinct and miniature member of the genus Homo, whose fossilized remains were discovered on Flores Island in Indonesia, and to whom we modern humans are closely related. The article, entitled "The original hobbits whose brain shrank due to remote home, cites a recent study which suggests that living on a remote island might have been the evolutionary cause of their brain shrinkage over time.

For those of us who live on remote islands, this comes as no surprise...

A Way With Words - meditation & writing workshop

Last month's writing workshop was wonderful! We decided at the last minute to do it as a non-residential workshop and to hold it at the Whaletown Institute. We had a full house, and it was intensive, like a writers' boot camp. We focused on the foundations of story: what triggers a story, and how do we bring it to life on the page. We worked extensively with character, location, voice, point of view, and authorial stance--what John Gardiner calls "psychic distance," or the level of intimacy a writer maintains in relation to his or her characters. It was so much fun, in fact, that I've decided to do more workshops, and so the next one will be in Vancouver, on October 17 - 18, in association with the Hollyhock Foundation. The title of the workshop is "A Way With Words" and this one will focus on meditation and writing, and the ways these two contemplative practices enhance one another.

Fiction, but also literature in general, trains us in empathy by requiring us to inhabit another's experience. To read literature successfully, we have be willing to enter our characters' minds and skin, to see with their eyes and to feel with their hearts. This is the prerequisite of the writer's work, too, and I'm particularly interested in exploring how traditional Buddhist meditation practices can support our experiences as writers and readers.

You can read more about the workshop in the What's New section of this site, or at the Hollyhock website. To register, please contact Hollyhock at 800-933-6339, or send an email to

Here's a pdf poster of the event: WayWithWords

I hope you will come!

One Book, One Vancouver

Earlier this month I was delighted to learn that the Vancouver Public Library had selected “My Year of Meats” as the 2007 choice for One Book One Vancouver, a municipal reading program described as “a book club for the entire city.” It’s the oldest program of its kind in Canada, and it’s been great. I’ve been going down to Vancouver every couple of weeks to do events of various kinds, but the highlights have been the visits to the branch libraries, where I’ve had a chance to meet with smaller groups of readers and talk about the novel and the issues that it raises. This month, we'll be screening film, “Halving the Bones,” on Tuesday, June 11, and the program culminates at the Word on the Street festival in September.

I was especially moved when I heard about the selection because I wrote “My Year of Meats” while living in Vancouver in 1996-7, and I did most of the research for that book at the Vancouver Public Library. I remember how excited I was when I first visited the Central Library. I was really hard up for money that year, and I felt like I’d just won the lottery. The grand new building had just opened, and it was so airy and bright, with lots of crannies to curl up in, and carrels with electrical outlets, and even a food court with good coffee right outside. I would bike across the Georgia Viaduct from East Vancouver, where I was living at the time, grab a coffee, and then hit the stacks, searching for books on the meat, food and pharmaceutical industries, on synthetic hormones and antibiotic resistance, on the media and television and cultural theory, on roadside attractions in America. Other times I’d just wander, following some inchoate and undeniable pull toward Cannibalism, say, or Paleogeography, or Parapsychology.

Browsing the stacks is one of the true pleasures of a library. You walk slowly along with your head cocked, neck bent at a 90 degree angle and eyes perpendicular to the floor, skimming the shelves and letting the words drift from the spines into your subconscious where (you hope) they will spark new ideas and associations you’d never have thought of if you’d known what you were looking for. Occasionally, (frequently), you’ll reach out and pull a book off from the shelf and flip quickly through it, maybe adding it to the pile that’s growing in your arms. You’ll take it home. Maybe you’ll read it, or maybe just having it on your desk, largely unread, for three weeks will be enough to inspire. So much of fiction writing depends on the random factor, the fortuitous juxtaposition of mood and word and place that gives rise to the quirk of a character or the twist of a plot, so writers are browsers, culling for luck. You increase your odds by browsing, and true browsability can only be achieved in a real library, with real stacks, filled with real books on shelves. The digital world is infinitely rich in ideas and information, and keywords, metatag clouds and search engines greatly enhance its browsability, but nothing compares to the physical act of lurking in the stacks.

When I finished the draft of “My Year of Meats,” I took out books on How to Get Your Novel Published. I learned How To Write An Effective Query Letter, and How To Format A Manuscript For Submission, and How To Get an Agent. And I did these things. “My Year of Meats” owes its existence largely to what I learned at the public library.

So, this is why I am so happy that this particular book was chosen, but there’s another reason, too, which is that libraries are miracles of public munificence in an age of privatized corporate greed. Think about it. Imagine if there were no libraries, anywhere. The concept does not exist. And a politician comes up with this idea and goes to the legislature with a proposal. “I propose we take millions, no, billions of taxpayer dollars, and hire the most famous architects in the world to design and construct monumental landmark buildings in all of the big cities, and the small cities, too, and, hell, even the littlest towns, and when the buildings are built, we’ll fill ‘em up with books of all different kinds, which represent the entirety of human knowledge and experience, and then we’ll pass out these cards, see, and everyone, even people who don’t have any money or property, can come into the library and find the books they want to read, and take ‘em home and read ‘em! For free! Won’t that be great!?”

Uh huh. Right.

So we’re really lucky to have libraries, and we should use them all the time, and I'm happy to be the poster child for the library to which I am so deeply and gladly indebted.

Libraries will get you though times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.

- Anne Herbert - Writer, editor of Co-Evolutionary Quarterly