Thursday, August 14, 2008

Guest in Progress: Marilyn Zembo Day

I’ve been meeting with a writing group since 1998 and find it hard to imagine my writing life without their wise guidance and manuscript tough love. (See this post for more details.) People often want to know more about writing groups: are they for everyone? What makes a good group? How do you keep the ball rolling? And, of course, for each of these questions, there are any number of answers, as just like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each writing group is different.

Here, in two parts, Marilyn Zembo Day explores what a writing group can do for you, and offers her suggestions on how to keep a group running smoothly.

I’ve never met Marilyn, but I’ve been receiving her free writing/reading newsletter for several years. She never fails to be inspiring and interesting, and reading her chummy emails makes me feel that her wide circle of writing friends are my writing friends also. If you’re interested, you can subscribe by emailing her at I always look forward to seeing what she has to say!

Part One: The Alchemy of Writing Groups

Even when you’re on a roll, when words are flowing and images and metaphors spill onto your blank pages (or computer screen) like flood waters over bursting dams, writing is still a lonely task. Who’s there to know you just got over that chunk of writer’s block? Worse still, who’s there to help you get over writer’s block, to tell you we all go through it (well, most of us anyway), to listen to your words and offer praise and constructive ideas for potential editing? Who understands this crazy drive to create story, whether or not you get paid the Big Bucks that Stephen King or Danielle Steele pull in? Whether or not you get paid, period.

If you’re lucky, it’s your writing group that’s there for you. If you’re lucky, you’ve managed to find the right mix of people, the perfect place to meet and all the other components that make up a safe space in which to nurture your writing life. If you haven’t been quite so fortunate, then perhaps you might want to start thinking about creating your own group, which I did it over a decade ago. It transformed my life.

My writing life took a long vacation between school scribblings and the onset of my 40s. Worklife included editing a few agency newsletters and a mess of correspondence, but nothing more of the creative ilk spurted from my pen other than a few (not very good) poems until a family illness brought me to a support group at a local psychiatric center. The two qualifications for joining were that participants be “a family member or close personal friend of someone with a mental illness” and that they like to write. By the time I left my first session, I felt like a sweets addict who’d spent an evening in a candy factory.

Workshop leader Rochelle Brener formed Relatives Writing Workshop as part of her field work toward an advanced degree and certification as a poet-therapist. For a few years, I flourished under Rochelle’s tutelage and the group’s enthusiasm. I loved her multi-faceted expressive arts approach as we wrote for healing and self-empowerment through art. Without realizing it, I was studying how our leader inspired the writing and sharing of our stories, encouraging us to speak our souls and listen with our hearts. She was also the first person to hand me a brochure for the annual summer conference of the International Women’s Writing Guild at Saratoga Springs, saying, “You’ll love this. It’s your kind of thing.”

First attending that event (appropriately themed, each year, “Remember the Magic”) in 1995, I was awestruck by a campus swarming with supportive, enthusiastic, writing women. I knew our group at the psych center wasn’t destined to go on forever (Rochelle was already making bigger plans), and here was a whole campusful of writers who surely conjured up inspiration enough to last throughout the year, until I could return to the conference once again.


By November, I wondered where all that motivation went. Someone, it seemed, had pulled the plug on my flow. Occasionally I’d hear from one of my dorm-mates, but Carol’s letters, with mentions of her own active writing circles, sometimes made me sad (and a little jealous) because Rochelle’s group had now disbanded and she was busy making plans to open Mandala Center for Creative Wellness.

At the ’96 conference I pledged, in poet/writer/photojournalist Jan Phillips’ class, to find a way to “Remember the Magic.” I would either locate a writing group in my area that modeled the spirit and support of the IWWG conference, or I would have to create one. By December, I knew it would be the latter.

My writer/workshop-leader journey began with a title—WomanWords. The IWWG experience had taught me that I was most comfortable writing in a circle of women. Surely there were other local women seeking the support of a group? And I expected there were others who preferred writing in the company of their own gender.

WomanWords began in April 1997 and has continued to expand beyond the initial group. We’re now called The WomanWords Collective, having been dubbed as such several years ago the host of a local open mic at which WomanWords was featured. We’ve created and hosted retreats, a 9-month open mic series, field trips to IWWG (and other) workshops, book signings, readings and more over the past decade-plus. We’ve been featured at open poetry mics as far away as the Catskills and were included in Hudson Valley Writers Guild’s peer writing group anthology, Peer Glass. The WomanWords E-Newsletter travels to both women and men across the country and beyond, urging all to create via inspiriting quotes, writing prompts, suggested readings, potential submission opportunities and upcoming events (to receive this free e-news, e-mail me at Along the way, several smaller sub-groups formed from the larger WomanWords Collective, meeting more often in homes in a less structured format.

Meanwhile, as I traveled to Saratoga each year for another dose of Magic, I continued to hear from women bemoaning the same sorry situation I’d encountered following my first IWWG conference: Where does the Magic go? How can I continue this inspiration/motivation when I leave here? I’m not in a writing group—how do I find one? I wanted to share what I’d learned with these women, to help them bring the magic home. It’s really a matter of the right mix, the proper alchemy, I thought. As Natalie Reid, workshop leader at the summer conference, notes in her new book, The Spiritual Alchemist: Working with the Voice of Your Soul (, the word alchemy comes from the Hebrew abarah k’adabrah, “I will speak my soul.” Sometimes it’s not just about putting words to paper (or about trying to get published)—sometimes we need to verbalize our stories and poems in order to feel their cadence and know their power. Anne Lamott says, “Even if only the people in your writing group read your memoirs or novel, even if you only wrote your story so that one day your children would know what life was like when you were a child and you knew the name of every dog in town—still, to have written your version is an honorable thing to have done.” This is powerful, soulful stuff.

Hannelore Hahn, founder and director of the Guild, liked the idea of a workshop on writing groups. In 2004, I led "Secrets of Successful Writing Groups: Taking the Magic Home" at the conference I’d first attended nine years before. Providing helpful handouts and stories about my own experience, I was able to give back to the Guild some of what they’d given me: support, information and networking. Especially well-received was the panel session of women from various parts of the country who’d formed thriving writing groups. Subsequent to this workshop, I’ve also sat on panel presentations for Hudson Valley Writers Guild (one in conjunction with the New York State Writers Institute) regarding writing groups (their benefits and how to find/form one).

Not everyone, of course, desires or feels they can benefit from a group. But for those who crave the support, networking, companionship and camaraderie that the right group setting can provide, stay tuned for the second segment of this Guest Article. Included will be the basics: the Who/What/When/Where and How of creating and sustaining a writing group—even the Whys (just in case you’re thinking it’s not worth the effort!). Believe me, it can change your life, just as it transformed mine.

About: MARILYN ZEMBO DAY writes and collages in a suburb of Albany, NY. Her work has appeared in Akros Review (U. of Akron), Knock! (Antioch U., Seattle), Oasis Journal 2005, Sage Woman, the Albany Times Union, Metroland, PEER GLASS—An Anthology: Writings from Hudson Valley Peer Groups and other print venues, as well as online at WriterAdvice! Several of her essays have aired on public radio, and she has been featured at many open poetry mics. She is a Regional Contact for the International Women’s Writing Guild ( and a member and former Board Member of the Hudson Valley Writing Guild( Contact her at


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.