New Directions Alumni Groups

In my most recent entry, I described what happens at an average New Directions weekend. There is one group that participates in the New Directions weekends that follows a different schedule. For the past fourteen years, New Directions has offered alumni groups for participants who have completed the program but desire to come back to work on on-going writing projects. Members of the Alumni Group meet four times over the weekend, when others are in the three two-pager meetings, and again on Sunday mornings. For the Saturday morning workshops, Alumni Group participants mix in with other New Directions participants.

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Members of the Alumni Group commit to attend at least two of the three weekends each year. The productivity of this consistency and commitment for working on long term projects can be seen in the accomplishment of the group that included Sheila Felberbaum, Linda Sherby, and Sylvia Flescher and was led by Sharon Alperowiz, Nan Heneson and Kathie Hepler. During the years they worked together (2009 – 2012) Sheila wrote an articled entitled, “Mourning and Creativity: Finding the Write Words” that is currently in press in the journal Psychoanalytic Social Work. She also completed the play “Trauma Ties”, which she has since performed in California, Florida and New York. Linda completed a book, Love and Loss in Life and in Treatment, published by Routledge in 2013, chronicling the emotional experiences of being an analyst while struggling with the loss of her husband. Linda continues to write on topics related related to the interaction between patient and therapist in her regular blog, Inside/Outside. Sylvia worked on memoir pieces and on an article entitled “Googling for Ghosts: A Meditation on Writer’s Block, Mourning and the Holocaust” that was published in Psychoanalytic Review in January, 2013. In this work, Sylvia describes her mother being 

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honored at Yad Vashem and how this ceremony helped unlock Sylvia’s writers block. Of their work together, Sheila reports that “Not only did we have the incredible support and intellectual stimulation of our talented co-leaders, but we also helped each other via email with revisions between meetings.” Sylvia adds, “We were committed to one another and invested in our mutual development as writers. We all grew so much.  I do miss our very special group!”

At the most recent weekend (Home, May 2013), I had the opportunity to sit in a meeting of the current Alumni Group. Joanie Lieberman, a psychoanalyst, and Deirdre Callanan, a writing teacher, run this group.  Members of the group include Mary Cummins, who is working on a collection about her parenting years and Elizabeth Trawick whose collection of pieces about life in southern Alabama captures both the peculiarities and dignity of her neighbors. Irene Landsman’s memoir is a reflection on moral development during her 1960s adolescence. Sharon Bisco’s fantasy novel is a philosophical consideration of personal growth, while Devra Adelman is working on several different projects that include a picture book and a number of professional pieces.  

What was clear watching the interactions of the group was that the comfort participants felt with one another and their ways of working together allowed for each to ask for the help she needed. When Sharon’s turn to discuss her piece came up, she asked for general reaction to the new section rather than line editing. This led to a discussion of the dreamlike rhythms in Sharon’s piece that gave it a poetic feel, which in turn gave rise to an examination of her description of a “sea of olive trees”.

“You’re not done with description here,” Deirdre told her. “You haven’t worn that out yet.” 

Deirdre’s comment was followed by a careful discussion of the continuity of form, style and word choice in a particular passage and the question of whether writing down the rules of the story world, what characters can and cannot do, when and for whom, would help Sharon to organize the complexities of the piece.

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At Irene’s turn, she read a new passage from her memoir, which prompted a discussion of varying the structure of the sentences. Irene raised the question of whether a particular character came across as a caricature, which prompted the suggestion that the character herself was self-caricaturing, not only of herself but of the era. Elizabeth then described how Irene’s way of writing vignettes without foregrounding concerns about structure helped her reconsider how to approach the vignettes that made up her own piece. Deirdre responded by commenting, “It’s the tentativeness of the truth that is gripping.  The search that will never be complete keeps it moving.”

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There are many reasons that a long-term writing group can be at the heart of success for writers. It was evident watching this group that their thoughtful and serious discussions offered a variety of possible supports that participants could make use of according to their own needs and predispositions. They offered frank and constructive feedback in an atmosphere of strong, positive support. They were clearly learning from one another and refining their own voices through explaining to one another what they were working to achieve in their writing of particular passages or uses of a given structure. And although they did not say it, I suspect that the respect each has for the opinion of the others is a strong motivation in what can be one of the hardest challenges of being a writer – showing up with new writing.

New Directions Weekend Conferences: A Glimpse at a New Directions Weekend

discussion.JPGThe new year of New Directions weekend conferences is rapidly approaching.  This year’s line-up gives us a lot to look forward to both as writers and as people interested in clinical issues. Upcoming weekends include:

  • Surface to Depth (Nov 8 – 10) – an exploration of searching within ourselves to connect more deeply to others
  • Writing the Difficult Character (Feb 7 – 9) – drawing on both the analyst’s and the writer’s craft to consider how to keep the reader engaged with emotionally difficult characters
  • Love and Hate in the Kitchen (Apr 4 – 6)- joining with cooking writers and foodies to consider how we think and write about cooking

For those who are joining New Directions for the first time this fall or who are considering the program, I thought it would make sense to provide an overview of an average New Directions weekend. I have an ulterior motive in doing this; I had planned to write this blog entry about the current New Directions Alumni Group. However, as I worked on that entry, it became obvious that the uniqueness of that group only makes sense when described against the background of the normal weekend. Look for the Alumni blog in the coming month.

IMG_2277New Directions weekends are organized around themes proposed to the program Co-chairs, typically by people with a history as faculty, co-chairs or New Directions participants.  The organizers – those who have successfully proposed a theme – then invite guest faculty, invite writers and analysts or therapists to serve as writing instructors, organize the weekend schedule, gather readings and create an overview and writing prompts for participants.

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(Click image to view video0

(Click image to view video0

During a New Directions weekend, an average conference day involves listening to two or three talks by the guest faculty.  The talks are kept deliberately short – about thirty minutes – in order to provide 40 minutes of audience discussion time. As this video of Faye Moskowitz interacting with the audience shows, these exchanges may involve questions of writing, clinical or personal insights, and are often quite lively.

Another key feature of a New Directions weekend is the small writing groups, which take on three different forms.  Prior to the weekend, participants have written a piece that is no more than 750 words – called two-pagers – although they are not necessarily two pages. These can be responses to the weekend prompts or anything else the participant decides to write. The two-pager writing groups meet three times during the weekend.  Members and leaders of these groups are the same across a given weekend, but change from weekend to weekend, giving participants the opportunity to work with many different people across the three years of the program. Leaders for these groups are usually a professional writer and an analyst or therapist. The two-pager groups workshop the pieces, providing support and feedback and sharing writing tips.


The second form of writing group occurs on Saturday mornings, when participants work with a leader in a focused workshop.  With titles such as “Form, Craft, and the Personal Essay”, “Book Writers’ Workshop”, “Creative Process,” and “Free Write: Discovering What We Know”, these are groups that participants select each fall and stay with for the duration of the year in order to concentrate on particular aspects of their writing that are important to their own work.

IMG_2257Additionally, participants all work in Sunday morning groups. These are groups that do not change across the three years of the participant’s program.  In these groups, participants can work on longer-term projects with peers who come to know their work well. Often, strong bonds of friendship and collegiality form in these groups. Across my three years at New Directions, my Sunday group was the most important audience for my writing. I could give them lengthier pieces of writing and because they understood my project, they could provide knowledgable, pointed and in-depth response.  I published more professional articles during my three years in New Directions than in any other period of my career; I believe it was in part because I always wanted to bring to my Sunday group work that was worth their time.

(Click image to view video)

(Click image to view video)

The final thing that is worth describing about a New Directions weekend is the way it functions as a social and emotional home for many participants.  In presenting one’s writing to others, we make ourselves vulnerable. It is often the case at New Directions that the writing presented by participants is highly personal, which adds another layer of exposure. But even when that isn’t the case, even with writing that is not obviously about the writer, writing is nevertheless ultimately about connection.  The question of how our writing will be received is whether we will feel recognized, understood and supported or will feel the shame and anger of rejection or misrecognition. Assuming that even the most distanced or scientific writing expresses something a writer cares about, we always run the risk that there may not be an audience to receive what we present. New Directions offers an audience for our writing and for the vulnerable person behind the writing.  This comes out not only in the small groups but also in all the in-between times of the weekend when we can, if we elect, gather to eat and drink, talk, commiserate and laugh.Hall talk.JPGIMG_2273

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