Mindful Writing Workshops: OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love My Work Again

Many of us long to return to that original love that we once had for our art. As we get older, our excitement and delight that is often eclipsed by over-thinking, comparing, worrying, procrastinating and countless other forms of resistance.

Writing is always going to be challenging work, but it is possible to completely revolutionize your process by re-thinking your relationship to your work & learning a few quick and easy techniques that can help dissolve your blocks and make your writing/creative process way more joyful and productive.

Check out these two mindful writing workshops I am offering in September: 

SATURDAY SEPT. 20 1-4: Introduction to Mindful Writing

Drawing from literature, contemporary psychology and Buddhist texts, this class will explore how:

The concept of “no self” can revolutionize our relationship to writing.

Simple mindfulness meditations and techniques can calm fear and neutralize negative self-talk and perfectionism

 Mindful writing can give our writing and our lives a deeper sense of purpose and pleasure

 SATURDAY SEPT. 27 1-4: Maintaining your Mindful Writing Practice

 Using simple 3-minute breath and yoga techniques, this workshop will give writers valuable tools to:

 Maintain a mindful writing process by shifting focus from thinking to breathing

 Create purpose and momentum in the artistic process

 Generate creative energy and increase mental clarity and intuition

 Gain confidence

 Quickly overcome creative blocks

 $35 per class or $60 for both

4949 Hollywood Blvd. 

Los Angeles, California 90027

 Sign up or Just Show Up!

For more information contact:

Jocelyn Heaney


 If you ever feel like this man when you sit down to write, mindful writing workshops can help.


Day 348 6/18/14: Liberation, Extinction & the Power of Jill Clayburgh


Summer school starts next week and I am supposed to be reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s book “The Sixth Extinction” and although I know it will be a well-researched, well-written book, I am avoiding it because I am happy right now in a state of forgetting. Forgetting that we are living through a mass extinction by remembering fragments of  a movie I just watched: “An Unmarried Woman” from 1978.  I am still channeling the weird chunky aesthetic of that time—how many things seemed woven and hippie,(chair backs, art objects) and also oddly preppy—women’s tailored jackets and miscellaneous plaids mixed with futuristic (silver picture frames and lamps). All of these designs carry emotions—hope for the future, a belief in tradition, in the safety and humble things of earth, and my own adolescent memories of art teachers who struggled to make me understand the horizon line and the mothers of friends, women who to my eternal befuddlement had once loved The Beatles, but by the late 70s embraced Anne Murray or Kenny Rogers.

I am thinking of how old movies return one to lost parts of the self. I remember how the red marquee letters spelling AN UNMARRIED WOMAN rose above  the Daniel Webster Highway as my mother and I drove  south to Massachusetts and how the red words made every movie seem like a potential scandal like THE LATE GREAT PLANET EARTH and I remember thinking, “What is it that unmarried women actually do?” Now I know that answer has something to do with cats and volunteer work, but then it felt drenched in sex.

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Day 342 6/2/14: Riffing on David Foster Wallace

Every so often I have to re-experience David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon Commencement Address. It’s been a while since I’ve taught it, so I pulled it out of the mothballs today and read it to my late afternoon English 101. They really loved it. I even heard a few exclamations of  “Aww, that was good!” or “I feel like crying.”

I wish that someone had taught me early on (at age 15 or so), what David Foster Wallace tried to tell the students of Kenyon College in 2005: in order to stay sane in the face of all the heartbreak and misery that life brings, we must exercise control over “how and what we think.” We must cultivate discipline and awareness, so as not to be a slave to our thoughts.  The class talked about the forces in the world that prevent us from keeping this truth “upfront in daily consciousness.” We talked about advertisements, movies, social media, cell phones that all increase our self-obsession, isolation and craving.

(A few hours later, when I sat down to write this, I thought of putting some sort of music or radio news report or something on in the background. For “company” which is how my mother once described how  television.  But I’m glad I didn’t. The light is nearly gone The traffic sounds like some ocean hum.  I am easing into the night. I can feel my hands typing these words. I’m aware of the lengthening shadows.)

After class I gathered all of my messy papers and binders and walked out of the building. I saw an older man in a nice shirt and tie with a backpack. I knew he was a teacher, not a returning student. He looked at me and I smiled. I didn’t think my smile was particularly serious or constipated. But he said with a kind of empathetic resignation, “Another day, huh?”

I don’t know why it made me happy and reflective. I wanted to laugh. Like we were those two dogs in the Warner Brothers cartoon punching the factory time clock. And I thought it was so poignant and sort of tragic that each day of our lives no matter how dull or difficult is still “a day” and I thought how many of them I have wanted simply to end. It seems like something of a sin–not the depression so much as the mindlessness.

A few months ago, I wanted to rescue a few sentences from my diaries and burn them. I stopped keeping diaries because I got sick of all the clutter of old ledgers and notebooks and I just can’t imagine keeping one online. But I went to Skylight Books tonight and bought this blank sketchbook covered with lions that looked like lions from an old 60s kid’s book. I used to feel like I’d redeemed even the most “blah” day if I could write about it in a journal. It felt like I slowed time down a little, rescued something miraculous (and there always is) from the banal progression. Maybe keeping a diary was one way of keeping “the truth up front in daily consciousness.”

About a year ago I had a dream about David Foster Wallace. We were having a wonderfully deep conversation. Like me, DFW was obsessed with shark attacks and loved the humor of P.G.Wodehouse. In the dream we had so much to talk about, at least I thought we did, until he said not unkindly but abruptly, “Well, I’ve got to go take  a shower now.” I stood outside the bathroom door in disbelief. Maybe he just wanted me to leave. But then I heard the water.He really did need to take a shower.

The next day I sort of felt close to DFW–after all we’d shared a dream. So I went to Skylight Books and bought his biography “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.”  D.T. Max writes about howWallace’s high school tennis team traveled around the state for tournaments. Once they were going to a Van Halen concert, but “ditched Wallace who was in the hotel room taking one of the long showers he was famous for” (10).

A couple days later, still high on this synchronicity (if that’s what you’d call it), I walked by the bookstore again. In the corner of the window I saw a little shark–almost like origami, haphazardly leaning against one of the Jeeves books by P.G. Wodehouse. In a window usually organized by theme (fire, Los Angeles, etc.) Jeeves and the shark seemed a bizarre and random pairing. But they made perfect sense to me.

Day 327 5/18/14: Marxist Philosopher Slavoj Zizek on JAWS

What does the rise of fascism, class struggle or the brutality of capitalism have to do with the marauding great white in JAWS? Although I don’t always agree with Zizek, I do like his take on my favorite film….

Day 211 1/22/14: The White Shark in Literature Vol 1: Richard Wright

imagesI just discovered a great short story by Richard Wright (the last one he ever wrote) called “Big Black Good Man.” The main character is a white man named Olaf, a night porter in Copenhagen hotel. Olaf considers himself a broad-minded & fair sort of fellow until a sailor named Jim, “the biggest, strangest and blackest man” Olaf has ever seen, asks to rent a room.

I love literature that explores psychic states and attempts to imitate the impossible rhythms and trajectories of thought,  but I’ve never read a story that plunges straight into the fearful and obsessive nightmare of racism. Wright’s story has very little external action, but takes the reader on a twisted ride through Olaf’s paranoid imagination. After an extremely tense and bizarre encounter with Jim, Olaf curses and says, “I hope the ship he’s on sinks…I hope he drowns and the sharks eat ‘im.” That night Olaf lies awake in bed imagining that the freighter Jim is due to sail out on springs a leak:

“Ah, yes, the foamy surging waters would surprise that sleeping black bastard of a giant and he would drown, gasping and choking like a trapped rat, his tiny eyes bulging until they glittered red, the bitter water of the sea pounding his lungs until they ached and finally burst…The ship would sink slowly to the bottom of the cold, black, silent depths of these and a shark, a white one, would glide aimlessly about the shut  portholes until it found an open one and it would filter inside and nose about  until it found that swollen, rotten, stinking carcass of the black beast and it would then begin to nibble at the decomposing mass of tarlike flesh, eating the bones clean…Olaf always pictured the giant’s bones as being jet black and shining.

Once or twice, during these fantasies of cannibalistic revenge, Olaf felt a little guilty about all the many innocent people, women and children, all white and blonde who would have to go down into watery graves in order that that white shark could devour the evil giant’s black flesh…But, despite feelings of remorse, the fantasy lived persistently on, and when Olaf found himself alone, it would crowd and cloud his mind to the exclusion of all else, affording him the only revenge he knew.”

Wright’s italicizing of the word “white” makes the shark into an Aryan messenger of the deep, meting out the violent racial “justice” that the impotent Olaf cannot, and unfortunately killing a few innocent blondes in the process.  I’m sure some scholars find the anthropomorphism too extreme, but I like the shark-as-ethnic-cleanser metaphor. It’s original and eccentric, obvious and preachy at the same time. And do we know that “a white one” is actually a great white shark, or is it some super white albino style that is as white as Jim is black, the only creature capable of vanquishing this “mountain” of a man?

But however wild Olaf’s fantasies become,  Wright doesn’t really exaggerate the fear that drives them, and all the wild and furious ways that fear can metastasize. Thinking about racism led to thinking about speciesism and all the hate doled out to sharks in Australia, to the wolves of Idaho, all the creatures made “other” by human beings.  Alice Walker’s essay “Am I Blue?” is the first piece of lit I read that links racism and speciesism. Please check it out here.

Day 174 12/16/13: Sharks, Bad Grammar & The Mystery of Life

Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I endlessly complain about student writing. I am forever scrawling “AWK” or “Huh?” or even “Whaaaat?” along margins and above cryptic sentences that jerk and twitch between lazy slang and stiff, fake formality. I hate weird syntax, wordiness, foggy thinking, limp verbs and the epidemic misuse of words like “portray,”  “careless” and “depict.” I dread the insertion of the falsely fancy “Webster’s Dictionary defines,” invariably used to decode the most obvious words.

But once in a while, a slightly awkward sentence lumbers across the page bearing an odd gift in its clumsy paws. Like primitive special effects in monster movies, or wobbly tombstones and melting makeup on old “Dark Shadows” episodes, dopey sentences can cut through the confines of logic and expectation and help us see “beyond.”

While I criticized my class for the anthropomorphic tendencies of their first essay on Mary Oliver’s “The Shark,” strains persist in subsequent drafts:

“Due to its naivete, the shark was caught and killed,” or “Sharks and humans are similar in the sense that…neither of them can understand many aspects of life.”

As absurd and maddeningly vague as the second sentence is (“aspects” is a hallmark of the half-baked thesis), there is a promising glimmer of intrigue:

What are the mysteries of life that vex both human and shark?

I wonder about the limits of our sophisticated intellect, and their keen senses. I consider the loneliness of our respective otherness.

What does that black eye see when the white shark pops his head above the surface and “studies” the men in the boat?

Maybe it’s impossible to bridge the mystery between humans and animals without projecting, exchanging, blurring rational boundaries between man and fish.  But maybe selective, purposeful anthropomorphizing, like the accidental power of a sloppy, silly sentence, could open up some understanding between us.

I recently bought a watercolor of a shark wearing a crown and holding a scepter. I wanted the little painting because it was ridiculous and fun, but now I realize that in that picture’s absurdity there’s a certain feeling of justice restored, a reminder of the truth, of the way things should be: sharks are the natural rulers of the sea.

And I declare myself a most loyal subject to the rightful king.

Day 164 12/6/13: Taking A Walk in Los Angeles

GreetingsFromLosAngelesNow that my shark class is winding down, now that we’ve discussed the threat of overfishing and the horrors of finning, now that we’ve explicated “The Shark” by Mary Oliver and written about how power pivots on the ability to speak, now that we’ve learned about the wondrous diversity of sharks, their hidden traditions (intrauterine cannibalism) and their supernatural senses, I’ve rounded out the semester with readings about the importance of awareness (David Foster Wallace’s brilliant Kenyon Commencement Address) and action (Derrick Jensen’s Loaded Words: Writing as a Combat Discipline).

I am hoping to plant seeds—something that might take root and grow beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Don’t forget about the natural world. Be present. Get out of yourself. Try to be of service.

I thought I had better follow my own advice and go walking in Los Angeles on an afternoon at the end of the year. The light looked almost stormy streaming from robust clouds, random in its distribution of illumination and shadow.  I decided to walk toward a less-traveled neighborhood, near the newly converted Kadampa Meditation Center where I went to meditate the other night, remembering once how I’d almost rented an apartment near there in an old Spanish building with a ship for a weathervane, hallways full of antiques, and, the landlord revealed with a degree of pride, a ghost.

It’s so interesting that the same street can live multiple lives in the same city—Palmerston, Alexandria, Kenmore—to walk these streets north of Franklin is a different world than their southern extremities. I paused at the Kadampa Center; the formerly Christian church where the burning thorn pierced heart in the stained glass window has been replaced with a lotus flower, and then headed north on Palmerston. I love to look at architecture in Los Angeles. I love the curving, quiet streets where houses can’t make up their minds, yet the incongruities are somehow awkwardly resolved—the Spanish roof sheltering a porch of Corinthian columns. The green shingled house with the curving storybook path. My head felt like a camera that pans, reveals. All I wanted was to walk deeper into a place I did not know, past rambling brick houses with dark Tudor windows whose solemnity is relieved by the reflection of manicured grass.

Climbing a hill, I noticed Christmas lights emitting a steady, secret glow from a blasé hedge while above, on an overhead branch, a Halloween skeleton floated in the breeze—clearly articulated “life-like” skull, skinny mummy arms, and a body that ended abruptly in streaming burlap rags. The arms were wide and fleshless palms open. I’d seen pictures of Jesus in that same attitude of supplication. This skeleton, streaming like a flag in the sudden breeze, naked skull limned with golden light, appeared to be preaching, perhaps to the rosebushes.

I love California, but my early Northeastern life has structured and nurtured my deepest responses to nature. I find myself always drawn to those houses shrouded in tall, green trees because they remind me of the places (once real now memory) that I am afraid to return to, fearing that great undertow of memory will sweep me out to sea. Today I found one such place. The green trees (tall, tall-evergreen and deciduous) seemed less brooding than expectant. When I peered over the curved iron gate, I noticed a half-hidden house. A modest pale green turret with narrow windows, felt monastic, regal and I flashed on the uneven shards of colored glass on the cover of the St. Patrick’s missalette I left on an empty pew a thousand Christmas Eves ago.

But I couldn’t feel sad. I had no need for remembering when everything felt so generous and alive, the trees rising up from the ground dotted with eyeholes, and the sudden blue and white of a house like a bright postcard from Santorini. I thought: Everything keeps changing shape—the streets curve, the houses assume their forms and postures, the tree roots declare themselves busting through the concrete. The memories of all the places that we can never return to, grow like living things in the body, their roofs push at the ribs, their fields unfold, erasing thought.

I kept waiting for the spell to break. Surely all would dissolve into quotidian reality as the light changed.  Yet even as I headed back toward Franklin, past all the apartments and vintage stores turned invisible from being endlessly seen, even as I cursed the errant plastic bag skittering across Vermont Avenue, there by the 7-11, in the rounded nest-shaped bush next to the bus stop, a dozen or more little brown and white birds popped out of the hollows between the branches, all chattering at once, all looking at me. Don’t just survive here, the birds told me sing, sing.

Day 144 11/16/13: Shark Dreams in Kindergarten

Friday afternoon I grabbed my inflatable shark head and drove to Cameron Elementary in West Covina to teach Gail Gibson’s kindergarten class all about sharks.  I was nervous. Bored twenty-year-olds I could handle, but I didn’t know about children. I hadn’t crossed into that strangely lovely world of tiny chairs, knee-high sinks and loping, floating handwriting since about 1973. But the kids were great. Cute. Smart. Well-behaved.  For the first part of the class I sat in a rocking chair (as befits a wise storyteller), and tried to answer their questions. Frankly, if Ms. Gibson hadn’t given me a “preview” of these sophisticated topics I would have been, to quote David Foster Wallace, “totally hosed.”

“Why do sharks live in salt water?”

“Why do tiger sharks eat garbage?”

After frantically googling the answer to the salt water question, I discovered that other 5-year-olds had pondered this very thing, but the  was a tad too complex for me to understand let alone translate into kid-ese. Another site’s explanation seemed too easy, so I opted for an evasive kind of truth about how each animal had a job to do and a shark’s job involved swimming in the ocean and eating the sick and dying so as to maintain a balance. I might have talked about sharks maintaining a balance too much, but perhaps the importance of a shark’s role in the ecosystem can’t be overstated.

I thought the tiger shark ate dolls and rocking chairs and old tires because his diet is so wide and varied that the tiger considers anything floating as potential food. I realized that this answer might be disappointing too, so I quickly tossed in a gross-fun-kid-friendly fact. “Did you KNOW tiger sharks can actually throw up their own stomachs to get rid of things they can’t digest? Their whole stomach comes out of their mouth,” I added, clearly more infatuated with this than the kids.

A boy named Maddux raised his hand. “I like to eat paper.”
In the second half of the class, the kids painted watercolor sharks. Some sharks had gumdrop teeth and fat, hunched manatee bodies. Others wore yellow crowns. Some kids drew menacing dorsal fins, while for others the tell-tale triangle appeared a mere afterthought. One girl begged to be able to paint her shark rainbow colors, though she was careful to cover the teeth in a wash of red paint. A few of these tykes are born abstract painters, obscuring all representation save for a furious, black scribble (the mouth), and slathering layer upon layer of wet color until the paper dripped.

The children sang me a song about the months of the year and showed me. They used drinking straws to show me how to figure out the ones, the tens, the hundreds. A boy in a striped sweater wrapped his arms around the inflatable shark head and kissed the lurid, toothy mouth. Priscilla carried the shark head like a battering ram. They asked me where the rest of the shark’s body was. They asked the best question of all: “Why do you love sharks so much?”

And I was happy with my answer: Because sharks are scary, and they’re beautiful. They’re ugly. Because they look  like a monster. They look like something make believe, but they’re not. They’re a miracle. They actually live in the world.


Day 138 11/10/13: Notes from a Protest: SeaWorld San Diego

1467349_701791979831073_897859947_nA pretty mellow (125 people??) protest at SeaWorld. Hotter today than the protest in September. The weather in Southern California keeps getting warmer and weirder as the department stores fill with Christmas decorations earlier every year.

San Diego high school teacher Anthony Palmiotto, whose Cinematic Arts students made the balanced, yet confrontational  film “Dear Seaworld,” walked among the protestors scribbling notes followed by three young protégés with cameras. “They’re going to be great filmmakers!” Palmiotto enthused. Seeing Palmiotto and his young film crew felt good, since my friend Carolyn and I had been talking about how to get students involved in activism without offering extra credit.

But the youth of America sure turned out today–from the bohemian kids with shimmering pink hair and vegan creeper shoes to the cute chipper girls who handed anti-SeaWorld flyers to admiring guys in 4×4 trucks and the changing roster of young activists donned the hot, velvety killer whale outfit.  These sweltering ambassadors danced as spiritedly as anyone possibly could in a suffocating Orca suit. They held signs that read TURN BACK NOW. SEE BLACKFISH. “It’s about a hundred degrees in there,” one girl revealed, briefly removing the velvety black and white head and swigging Gatorade. “But  the whales have it a lot worse.”

Day 125 10/28/13: Remembering Lou Reed, Andy Warhol & An Old Horse

I wanted to write about the shark presentations my students gave, but most of them were lifeless recitations of Powerpoint slides, and I found myself thinking more about Lou Reed.

I played his music all last night.

What does it take to crack open the human heart? I don’t know why I’m surprised at my depth of feeling at Lou’s death.

Had I forgotten the heavy thrill of buying my first VU album, “White Light, White Heat,” of memorizing “The Gift”? How I used to keep a picture of Lou Reed in my photo album among images of my family? Why did I not even own this music I loved so much anymore? I’d memorized every song.

Between classes, I tried to lose my despair over the death of a major artist and the death of collective student imagination, in an essay about horses called “Partnering with Pegasus.”  Mares are the true leaders of the herds, not stallions.  I started thinking of 1992,  the last time I saw my childhood mare-ribsy and grizzled, 35 years old coming over the edge of a hill. She nickered when she spotted me, but I, shocked at her appearance, gasped.

Then we both froze staring at each other.

What a great surprise to find that horse standing in that field again.

The image hung there, and suddenly infusing that lost world was John Cale singing “The Style It Takes” a gentle song about Andy Warhol:

I’ll put the Empire State Building on your wall,

For 24 hours, glowing on your wall

Watch the sun rise above it in your room,

Wallpaper art, a great view…..

Did they always belong together this unlikely memory pair–an elderly horse and lonely Andy Warhol?

I started thinking of that well-worn Camus quote about having an infinite summer within. The places I’m afraid to return to, those fields, those songs (which are also places), are sites of renewal. Loss numbs and loss  surprises. Like music it wakes us up again to the dream of life.