The Snow Poets’ Saga

I just returned from the Icelandic Writers Retreat. Aside from the amazing workshops with Barbara Kingsolver, Adam Gopnik, and Taiye Selasi; the soaks in the natural hot tubs around the city; the sweetness of the nut bread at the breakfast buffet; and the Saga Museum; the highlight was the day we got stuck in the snow on a literary tour of Iceland with poet Ari Trausti Guðmundsson as our guide. I wrote this poem about the experience, in the spirit of another Icelandic writer, the wondrous Sjón, who taught us that “each sentence an Icelandic novelist writes is a response to a sentence in the sagas.” This is my humble response to the sagas, the retreat, and the writers on bus #2.

The Snow Poets’ Saga

“Writing is a physical act.” –Adam Gopnik

Between the poet’s black house on the jagged field of lava
And the steaming waters of the blue lagoon
One hundred thick yards of snow
Blocks the road beside the fishy sea

Two small cars face each other, skew and stuck
Dozens of distinct plans freeze behind them in two long lines
A time and a half shift starting at the factory in eighteen minutes
A first birthday party in town
An old friend from Denmark waiting at the airport
And fifty thirsty writers on a bus dreaming of a Reykjavik pub

But at this narrow point of space and time
The exact angle of the hillside slope
The specific speed of the late afternoon wind
The precise level of the dip in the road
Create a deadlock between North and South

Forward motion, impossible
Backward motion, impossible
All progress halted by the pagan power of the storm
And the absence of a countervailing power

In this frozen place
What can crack the ice?

Not the frantic opening and closing of car doors
Not the synchronized sparks that blaze inside the engines
Not the spinning of black tires on the deep layer of whiteness

In this frozen place
What can crack the ice?

On the bus, each writer bubbles ideas beneath the surface
Private thoughts of half introverted souls

Look up, writers, says the voice of the long dead poet from the black house
They look up
They look at each other
And the bubbles of ideas merge
Reverse gravity drives them up, pushing on streaming swirls of thought
As more glances cross the aisles
The silent pressure builds
Then the geyser
The power to crack the universe back to movement:

Organize, says the novelist
Push, says the poet
Open the door, says the essayist
Tie the boots, zip the coats, tighten the scarves

Into the wind white world the writers pour
Align their shoulders against the steel
Dig their boots into the thick cream of snow
And push
And push again
Until the gears engage
and the tires find the hard place beneath the snow
Time, and cars, move forward again

The snow poets return to the bus
Cheeks tingle
Fingers buzz
Pictures in small devices slip into winter pockets

Pictures that, far beyond this bus, far beyond this wildly winded day, far beyond the black and white seas at the edge of this road, far beyond this island of ice
Will remind them
When the world becomes a frozen place
Words can make things move
Writers can make things move

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The Five Laws of Effective Writing

Why is it so hard to write at home? Yes, I can knock off some emails and short articles at my desk. But why is it so hard to do my best focused writing at home?

If you are like me, you have found that your best writing happens somewhere else – a hotel room on vacation, a cozy chair in the café, or in a class with other writers. Why?

Based on extensive research and self-observation, as well as facilitating ten Writing Staycations, I am pleased to announce the discovery of the Five Laws of Effective Writing.

1. Writing Law of Inverse Distance. The quality of your writing has an inverse proportion to your proximity to your laundry and kitchen.

2. Writing Law of Healthy Habits. A schedule that includes regular walks, healthy food, and balanced caffeination will promote better writing than sugar crazed temporary writing highs.

3. Writing Law of Parallelism. Your efficiency of writing increases when someone nearby is also writing, creating a “Parallel Writing Efficiency Zone” in the region.

4. Writing Law of Finite Time. Writers have more success when they write with deadlines and time limits than when they write with unlimited time.

5. Writing Law of Structure. A well structured day of writing will increase productivity compared to an unstructured blob of writing time, which can easily morph into a blob of Facebook checking and irrelevant research projects.

Applying the Laws 

I mostly apply the law with writing dates with friends and taking classes. The Extreme Novelist has been my favorite class so far, at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, taught by the fabulous Kathryn Johnson.

I have also designed the Writing Staycation, a weeklong nonresidential writing retreat at the Writer’s Center, to apply all these laws in a week of intensive writing. Participants bring a writing project — anything from an idea to a manuscript to polish. I supply a room far from your laundry, with other dedicated writers, plenty of caffeine and health snacks, inspiring lunch speakers, and a writing schedule aimed at maximum efficiency. (Next Staycation is November 1-14, 2014.) I’ve seen amazing results from participants, from a chapbook created to a memooir started to a book ms completed.

What are your laws of writing? How do you apply them?

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Mindful Facilitation: Lessons from My Mentors


I just spent a lovely week at the Writing Center in Bethesda, where I facilitated a week-long Writing Staycation. The 16 participants all had positive feedback on the week; one wrote thousands of words of her novel, another pulled together decades of poetry, and a seasoned writer transformed a story into a play. As a facilitator, I love the good vibes of a workshop that goes well.

That made me reflect on what is it about the Writing Staycation that fosters a high level of meaning, connection, as well as writing? What are the ingredients of the secret sauce that make the week seem magical?

I think the answer has to do with mindful facilitation, techniques I learned from my facilitation mentor. Here are just a few:

1. Provide Healthy Food to Nourish Brain and Body

A recent workshop I attended on “Healthy Nutrition for Cancer Survivors” featured pizza and chocolate for dinner. Not quite right. I learned from the fabulous Kim Fellner to always provide some kind of food for a workshop. Providing chocolate is a quick fix as a facilitator — it will energize the group and provide short term happy buzz — but it’s not really going to provide sustainable, healthy energy. At the Staycation, I have learned to serve fruits, nuts, yogurt, cheese, teas — the kind of things that will keep the participants’ brains going in the long term.

2. Honor Invisible Differences

When facilitators talk about diversity, we often think of age and ethnicity. Dany Sigwalt and the folks at the  DC Trainers Network helped me understand that more important differences are often invisible. At Staycation, I have learned that I must assume I’ll have inner diversity in my group: Someone who just experienced a devastating loss that drives her to write. Another person who has just retired and is finding it hard to make friends without the life of work. A new mother who has found the demands of parenthood deprive her of time to hear her inner self talk. I often find that being attuned to these types of differences is as important as sensitivity to cultural issues in the group.

3. Cultivate Radical Faith in Participants

I am often tempted to lecture. But I once had the chance to study Poetry Therapy/Facilitation with Ingrid Tegner. Ingrid helped me see that the facilitator role is to provide prompts and safe space: A container for learning, not a cup overflowing with knowledge. At Staycation, I am always rewarded when I have complete faith that the participants will fill the container. My reward: Hearing about their writing and growth as writers during the week.

Of course the other secret is to have wonderful participants, lovely co-facilitators (thank you, Staycation Fellows Bracha Laster and Johnna Schmidt) and dynamic guest speakers!

What do you see as key parts of mindful facilitation? Any tips from your experiences or mentors?

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It Takes a Village to Write a Book, Part 1

time to celebrate. Sent query to agent. Thanks to the village. Some people think of writing as a solitary activity. You sit at your computer in the attic, typing and eating bonbons, as one of my teachers has said. Or drinking wine. Or whiskey. Alone.

In reality, the successful writers I know all depend upon a community. A friend to edit first drafts. A reading group. A writing workshop. Often, a supportive partner.

In writing my first novel, Spice Lady: A Novel With Recipes, the village is so large that not all of the names will fit in this post. In fact, I could write another book about the village, and the process. But don’t worry, I won’t.

Instead, I’ll get a start with a few thank yous here, with more in future posts.

This week I am sending the first part of my book to an agent. As an author, I know there is no guarantee of success. But getting it out there feels like a big accomplishment in itself, so I want to take the time to thank a few people of the many who helped get me here:

  • The good folks at the Writer’s Center, from former director Charles Jenson, and current director Stewart Moss, to my writing teachers, especially Kathryn Johnson and Shannon O’Neil. Mostly, the participants in the Writing Staycation class I facilitate, because, as all instructors know, the students often do a lot of schooling!
  • The friends who reviewed drafts and gave me feedback. For starters I will just mention the early readers: Sarah Madsen, writer extraordinaire, Micah Trapp, foodie buenisima, and Lorin Kleinman, careful reader and recipe tester. Also, my sister Rachel Heckscher and her dear husband Eric “Bluby” Olson. Their early encouraging reviews gave me the spirit to keep on keeping on.
  • The other novel with recipe writers out there. Ok, truth be told, I have never met any of them. But their examples gave me inspiration. Nora Ephron, I wish I could have met you, and I thank you for Heartburn. Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate helped me find the magic in all flavors of food writing. And Tamar Myers, I never knew there was an Mennonite murder mystery/recipe genre before I found your books. You rule the genre, and your books inspire.

My deepest thanks to you and all the village. Stay tuned for more gratitude.

Key members of the village that makes it possible for me to write.

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What Is New, and News, About a Poetry Festival: An Invitation To Split This Rock

“They said we had nothing new,” said Sarah Browning after three exhilarating days at the last Split This Rock Poetry Festival. She was explaining why no local media had attended to report on the event, which lit up venues from Columbia Heights to the steps of the Supreme Court, and featured poets from local high school students to Sonia Sanchez and Alice Walker.

“They said we had a conference two years ago.”

This year, Split This Rock will attract more than 500 poets and literary activists from around the country to Washington, D.C. from Mar. 27-30, for readings, workshops, discussions and public action. Featured poets include Native American Poet Joy Harjo, International Slam Poet Champion Gayle Danley, and Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa.

Ok, my  reporters friends, I am sure you can think of a few conferences that the mainstream media covers every year—CPAC (Theme of media coverage: How will moderate Republican presidential hopeful X be received?) and Congressional Black Caucus (Theme of coverage: Which celebrity will attend which party?) Why are these events new every year, but poetry is not?

In moments of sympathy, I can understand why a busy reporter might think that a poetry conference isn’t worth covering. The thought of listening to sonnet after sonnet all day is appalling, even to me, a dedicated poetry aficionado.

And, after all, those spring days of the last festival, there was really new news to cover: The cherry buds were blossoming. The DC City Council members were squabbling. The Democrats and the Republicans were disagreeing.

So, news folk, let me break it down for you and tell you what is new, and news, about a poetry festival.

The poets are new. Thomas Hill, DC Youth Slam Champion, and Lauren May, host of the DC Youth Open Mike, are two of the many young poets who will rock your mind and world with their daring poetry and performances.

The poems are new. Don’t expect any sonnets or haiku. Expect radical new forms and radical new poems that will make your toes tingle with topics ranging from the life of gays in the Middle East to the Divine Feminine to our relationships with non-human animals.

The politics are new. Last festival, the poets were on the forefront of LGBT issues; in two short years the issue has become so mainstream that gay bashing can cause boycotts and hit show cancellations. This year’s Split This Rock poets will address today’s hottest political issues, from a discussion of Israeli Boycott, to a poetic exploration of torture, to a street protest of the surveillance state.

Pablo Neruda wrote “We need to sit on the rim/Of the well of darkness/And fish for fallen light”

Come fish with us, journalists.

Join us, you huddled masses of local reporters, yearning to be free from another report on low literacy in our schools, come listen to a presentation about Using Poetry Created by Teens in Wartime to Bring Activism into the Classroom.

Sports writers tired of thinking of another synonym for “won,” come see the DC Youth Poetry Slam team at the National Geographic stage. The fierceness of these competitors will bend your basketball bracket into an arc.

Come to the Festival, national political reporters, searching through the wonkiness for another punchy quote about gridlock. Visit Split This Rock Festival to hear the poet’s prophetic voice about the politics of possibility.

Raise high the roof beams, Arts reporters, because the open mike venues will explode with the performance art of Split This Rock poets of all ages.

Every spring the cherries blossom. Yet each year, we see the event with new eyes. The trees are different. We are different. The world is different. When we witness the chorus of buds opening, writers find new stories.

That’s poetry. That’s new. That’s the news.

 Split This Rock calls poets to a greater role in public life and fosters a national network of socially engaged poets. Festival program is at

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Gratitude for the Crowd in Crowdfunding

Indiegogo Thank you. thank you

Last week, as the hours ticked down, we met our goal of $10,000 for our new book and videos on Learning Service.

Just as exciting for me as meeting the financial goal — we realized the depth of support we have for our ideas about international volunteering.

We also realized the radical power of the crowd in crowdfunding.

Turns out dozens of friends and former strangers support the idea of making overseas service more effective, and exposing and ending some of the worst practices in the field.

We also found out that the nice folks at Indiegogo (woo hoo, Bre and Alice) provide a personal touch in encouraging their campaigns.

When we started the campaign, I thought crowdfunding was a new tool for getting us the money we needed for our book. I now see it as a way to democratize the insanely imbalanced world of philanthropy, where large foundations too often fund mostly wealthy organizations, because of their existing connections and comfort level. In the world of regular philanthropy, it can be easier to raise money for the opera than for programs that serve low income schools or make political waves of advocacy for social justice.

Crowdfunding still depends on personal contacts, which means there is still a bias in favor of those who start with more resources. But because of the crowd in crowdfunding, and the big impact of many smaller donations, these new tools can create new opportunities for young people, small organizations, and radical visionaries to get off the ground when mainstream funding would be out of the question.

It does take hard work. In our case, we had a team of seven people on three continents working for 60 days to spread the word.

So thanks to the team, and enormous thanks to everyone who watched our video, liked the campaign, and/or made a donation. You’re part of the wave.

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Indiegogo Success: Tips from a Campaign in Progress (Including Kickstarter vs Indiegogo)

Along with my fabulous co-authors (Daniela Papi, Claire Bennett, and Joseph Collins), I just launched my first Indiegogo fundraising campaign. Indiegogo is part of an emerging trend of crowd-funding that is now being used by nonprofits, for-profit startups, writers, and artists. We’ve raised about $8000 in 50 days, and gained a great deal of visibility and support for our project.

Check out the campaign, a fundraiser for our book and videos about effective international volunteering.

Since so many of the readers of this blog are creative, entrepreneurial types, I thought I’d share some tips from the campaign so far. In short, crowdfunding is not easy, but it can democratize the process of raising money, and put the Fun back in Fundraising.

Here are my tips; I welcome your additions and I will answer all questions posted below.

1. Indiegogo vs Kickstarter: Indiegogo for NGO.  Indiegogo is much more flexible than Kickstarter. Campaigns are less restricted and you do not have to raise a certain amount before your funds are released. (But you do get a lower processing fee if you meet your goal.) Also, Indiegogo campaigns can support an ongoing project, or personal goal (such as tuition or travel) where Kickstarters have to have a tangible creative output (such as a book, video, or product). Kickstarter has a lower minimum goal — under $50 — but Indiegogo has a minimum goal of $500. But with Indiegogo, you get funds released to you even if you do not meet your goal.

2. Video and photos. A good video is vital. Doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be engaging. We invested in a professionally made video that I am really proud of, but a smart young person with a Mac might be able to help you out if you don’t have a video budget. The Kickstarter website tells you how to make a simple, fun video at the Kickstarter school. In fact, I recommend Kickstarter School and Indiegogo resources for campaigners for anyone planning to try crowdfunding, even if you use another platform. Bre DiGiammarino, Education Vertical Director of Indigogo told me that good photos also help move campaigns forward.

3. Team effort. Aim to have a team of people involved from the beginning. The more stakeholders you have, the more people sending to their friends and family. Make it a group project, not an individual project. Your team members should be added to the campaign page with their bios. The team might include you, your key staff (or best interns), your videographer, and your best friend who loves what you do and wants to give some extra help with outreach. If you are working on a solo project such as a book, I suggest making an ad hoc team just for your crowdfunding campaign. Maybe a friend will offer a creative donation of time for a premium, for example – a personalized drawing or poem.

4. Don’t rely only on kindness of strangers. Friends and family typically provide 30% of funding — in our case, probably more like 90%. We are deeply grateful for the many friends who have supported our book. Thanks, y’all!

5. Think premiums. It’s all about the rewards (premiums for donors). Strangers will support your campaign if they like your premiums. Think of things easy and cheap to fulfill (such as a PDF recipe or an easy to mail temporary tattoo), yummy things, and creative things for higher donations. Perhaps a foodie friend will offer to cook a meal for someone who makes a large donation. I am offering Stand Up Paddle lessons as one premium — nothing to do with our mission, but a fun reward for the right person. It seems like good premiums under $100 inspire the most donations.

7. Be Searchable. For Indiegogo, make sure you have key terms in your title (such as Book or Video) since the search feature is a little clunky and the title is all important. In Kickstarter, the categories work a bit better, especially for writers.  Even if you have an international team, you might want to present your project as US based for Indiegogo.

8. Don’t rely on Facebook. For your outreach strategy, include email, not just Facebook. Facebook seems to have a algorithm that hides Indiegogo postings from some of your friends. Very annoying. To get over that block, tag people when you post about the campaign on Facebook. And ask Facebook friends to repost, and friend your campaign.

Our campaign is a fundraiser for a book and educational videos to make international volunteering more effective. Take a look at our Indiegogo campaign, watch our fabulous video, and let us know what you think in the space below.

What are your tips for crowdfunding success? What are your favorite indiegogos or Kickstarters, and why?

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