Can you tell us about Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice?
I came to a yoga practice after reaching a point in my life where I was too busy, too unhealthy, and too everything. I am not an athlete, and I don’t naturally want to go running around, so I’ve always stayed away from sports and very physical activities. Yoga was indoors. :-) And it seemed slow enough that I could do it.
Little did I know what it would do for me. A yoga practice began to show me what my mind was doing. It gave me space to watch how I got in my own way. I noticed that the deeper I moved into my body, the deeper I was able to move into every other area of my life. I thought there might be a book in all that, but I didn’t really know what it would be. Then I went to a writing retreat in Oregon in 2003, and was snowed in. I was terrified. I’d never really been in snow, and certainly never alone. I had heat only from a wood stove (which I’d also never used before in my life ... I spent most of my life in Phoenix where there is little use for a wood stove or snow clothing!) That retreat gave me the opportunity to really practice yoga off the mat, and the idea for the book was born.
It took a few years to find a publisher (Shambhala), and the book was released in 2007. I wanted to provide a guide for writers to move deeper into the body, while also introducing them to the concept of writing as a relationship rather than something one expects to be readily available on call. We have to cultivate our lives, and writing is a part of that cultivation. What we cultivate bears fruit. What we stop cultivating, dies. If we want a healthy relationship to our writing, we have to nurture it like any other relationship. In Breath, I use basic yoga poses and sounds and pranayama (breath work) to supplement the writing exercises. I hoped to have a conversation with the reader, not be a didactic teacher about anything. We’re all on the journey. I have far from arrived. :-)
How did you discover for yourself that writing can be a tool for healing?
I always wrote. I wrote a “complete” autobiography by age 7 (MY NAME IS LARAINE) - ha. It was about 80 pages — full of scintillating information about what snacks we had in kindergarten and what we had for dinner, but it had a basic structure and it followed a narrative. When I reread it many years later I could see how I taught myself to write.
I didn’t think about whether or not I was doing anything “good” for myself. Writing was just something I had to do. It wasn’t until my father got sick when I was 8 that I began to notice that writing made me feel a little bit better. As I got older, I had varied and various relationships to writing, but it was always an anchor underneath the chaos. After my dad died, I started writing his story right away. Of course, it was crap because it was too soon, but it was helpful on a personal level. There’s writing that’s meant for you, and writing that’s meant for an audience. Writing that is used for healing doesn’t always find an outside audience, but that’s not what it’s intended to do. Writing helps us make meaning from chaos — it helps us see connections where we might not have otherwise seen them. I truly cannot imagine who I would be if I didn’t write. Writing helps us deepen our relationship to ourselves. We don’t even have to try — it just does it. That can be scary for some people. Writing pushes us to be more honest and more authentic. When I write, I cannot lie to myself. That was a very valuable piece of information for me to learn.
When I was 30, I went back to grad school to get my MFA. I chose Antioch University because they have a mission that incorporates using writing (and art) as a tool for social change. I wanted to be a part of a community that understood the connection between art and well-being. After I finished there, I went on to get an MA in counseling psychology, with an emphasis in writing as a healing tool. That degree program gave me the foundation to write Lost Fathers: How Women Can Heal From Adolescent Father Loss, which came out in 2005 from Hazelden. I have also designed a class for the college called Writing and Healing.
Tell us about the workshops you do in conjunction with Writing Begins with the Breath.
I do some local workshops, (I live in northern AZ) but the two primary locations are at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Healing in Lennox, Massachusetts, and the Omega Institute for Holistic Health in Rhinebeck, NY. My workshops involve writing, movement, and breath work to help the participant deepen his or her relationship to writing and to the self. I believe in the connection between the physical body and our work. Many writers are trying to write only from their heads. They want to control too much. Moving into the body can help give people an avenue to get out of their own way so that they can write what they are meant to write, rather than what they think they “should” be writing. My workshops are generally a weeklong. I like having the opportunity for people to really move deep within themselves. In a retreat setting like Kripalu or Omega, people can just let go and not worry about making dinner, cleaning up after the cat, etc. They can really listen, and when that happens, a lot of amazing things occur for people.
Care to tell us about the creative writing courses you teach with Yavapai College?
I am the director of the creative writing program at Yavapai College. Each semester we offer between 8 and 10 courses to the community. I am fortunate enough to be full-time at the college, so my teaching load is 5 courses. This semester, which begins on January 20, I’m teaching two intro to creative writing classes (both on line), two short story writing classes (one on line and one in person), and an advanced creative non-fiction course. We are also offering two poetry courses (one advanced and one intro) and a course called experiments in story. I try each semester to offer at least one unusual course. I’m planning to do a course on writing the young adult novel in the next few semesters, as well as a course on magical realism.
What events or workshops do you have coming up?
I’ve got a weeklong workshop at the Omega Institute July 4 – July 9, 2010. The workshop is called The Writing Warrior, based off of my newest book, which will be out in August 2010. I’m also considering setting up on-line workshops on “book birthing” through my website. These would be self-paced and individually contracted. I’m still in the planning stages on that one. :-)
You also have two new books coming out later this year. What can you tell us about them?
The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice, comes out from Shambhala in August 2010. This is a follow up of sorts to Breath. It incorporates a different type of movement (taoist shaking) and breathwork combined with writing to break down our resistances. It is a bit “tougher” than Breath. Breath was intended to help the reader cultivate a safe and open relationship to the self and to writing. In the Writing Warrior, I hope to push the reader farther along, through some of the barriers that seem to get erected along the way. The Writing Warrior also contains writing exercises — one set for personal writing and one set for works in progress. It uses personal essay and memoir essays to illustrate the concepts. For example, one section deals with what I call the Writer’s Wheel of Suffering, which consists of the illusions of money, fame, time, etc. I hope the book provides readers with concrete next steps and solid guidance along their own path. I don’t want to prescribe a single way to do anything. I want to provide a wide path so people can trust themselves and find their own ways.
Ghost Swamp Blues is a novel, which will be out in June from White River.
Here’s the current back panel copy:
How far would you go to protect someone you love?
Nothing is black or white in the murky town of Alderman, North Carolina, no matter how much the human and ghostly residents of Idyllic Grove Rice Plantation would like it to be. Weaving together the threads of three women rooted by life or death to this haunted Southern landscape, Ghost Swamp Blues pulls the reader into the layers of racism, family loyalties, and hidden relationships that intertwine as naturally as the kudzu that covers the trees where the Swamp Sirens sing.
Fourteen-year-old Lillian Green witnesses the unthinkable in 1949. Her choice to remain silent about what she saw ripples into the swamp water surrounding her family’s home, awakening the ghost of Roberta du Bois, former rice plantation mistress, who drowned herself in the swamp in 1859. Roberta and Lillian forge a bond based on shame, silence, and an impenetrable loneliness. When Lillian’s daughter Hannah is born into the maze of haunted hallways, Lillian has no interest in raising her. Hannah is left alone, with only Roberta and her own exceptional singing voice for company. When the truth about what Lillian saw surfaces, no one, living or dead, can prevent what must come next.
It’s always really hard to summarize your own fiction (I think) -- much easier to talk to you about the non-fiction! :-) Ghost Swamp Blues came out of an attempt to understand my grandmother, who was a Southern matriarch. My family has deep and old roots in the south, and I have always been troubled and fascinated by the place and its ghosts and history. I lived there until 1981, and I’ve really never recovered from moving out west. :-)
Where can readers learn more about you and your writing?
My website is http://www.laraineherring.com/. It’s being updated this year to correspond with the launch of the two new books. I also blog at http://laraineherring.blogspot.com/.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the Q&A. Remember to come back on Friday for some writing news and all-round good things to share.
Have a great week!