Putting something on paper

Justen Ahren leads workshops on developing a ‘Devotion to Writing.’

Justen Ahren — Gabrielle Mannino

We are lucky on two counts with Justen Ahren. First, he is teaching both an introductory “Devotion to Writing” workshop and one specifically for alumni this fall, and second, they are both on Zoom, and so easily accessible whether you are on-Island or not.

Ahren, founder of the Island’s Noepe Center for Literary Arts and the Italy Writing Workshop, has appeared on NPR’s “The Point,” serving on its WCAI Poetry Board, and his poetry and photography have appeared in numerous literary and photography journals.

Ahren started developing “Devotion to Writing — How to Stay Connected Creatively” when he first began teaching workshops in Italy in 2013. He says, “The idea is to help writers, regardless of where they are in their development or careers, to cultivate a daily writing practice.”

In the initial course, students experience ways to overcome the difficulty of just getting those words down on the blank page and beginning to write. “I think that’s most of the battle. Once we get something on the page, we can go. Breaking the silence of the page is difficult, it is terrifying, it can be paralyzing, so we tend to avoid it,” Ahren says. “So what I do with the first class is address that head-on. I use a lot of writing prompts to get people going, not just during the class; I send a week’s worth of prompts to participants to encourage them to cultivate their daily practice with their own creativeness.”

Ahren hopes that the initial class inspires students to not only work through any blocks but to play, which, he says, “is a huge part of what I teach. Just because we’re putting something on paper doesn’t mean we’re etching it in stone, and it exists forever. We have the ability to play with things like we would play with clay or stacking blocks when we were kids. Let’s play a little bit and have fun with language, and see what we can make, just as with paints or notes with music. These little blocks of words are what we have to play with.”

He believes people can mistakenly think that writing has to be perfect, and he tries to get them past that. In addition to his own techniques, Ahren brings in quotes from other writers as well as their practices.

Ahren developed the alumni workshop for those who have already gone through the “Devotion to Writing” class, in response to one past student’s request and thirst for more in order to build on what they were already practicing. It will differ in that it is about how you sustain yourself as a writer, and what ways and tools can help you cultivate your practice. Ahren explains that he will focus a lot more on writing that is created during the course, because all the alumni have been producing work. He explains, “We are going to return to the work and talk about ways of entering those texts and how to continue to live with the pieces we are making so we can expand the pieces and ourselves at the same time.”

If you want to try your hand at starting your own daily practice, or are struggling to do so, Ahren shares some key tips: Don’t worry about what you’re writing, just get that hand moving on the page. You can worry about what it is later. Try to find that playfulness or joy in the writing. The process doesn’t have to be something that is fearful. A lot of us fell in love with language a long time ago. Try to recall the joy you had of that discovery of the magic of words. When you practice daily with your creative work, try to begin to live with it so it can begin to live within you. That becomes a transformational experience for yourself and the work. There is something about the constancy of writing that this relationship we develop expands the work beyond what we thought was possible.

“There is a lot of language you could equate with spiritual practices, even though I don’t tie writing to any spiritual practice,” Ahren says. “I just think that being an artist, being a creator working every day, that those things are very similar to any kind of spiritual attainment. Going for something that is quite abstract. We have to have faith in what we’re doing, our abilities in what we’re producing. And then we have to let it go into the world too. I think there are a lot of similarities between an artistic and spiritual practice. I think the language crosses over very well.”

For more information about “Devotion to Writing” and the workshops, visit devotiontowriting.com.