Praise for Writing in the Dark

Clear advice, backed up by solid examples—there is a craft book waiting to be written, surely. ~Dinty Moore, editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction
This is the best thing I’ve read all year on creative nonfiction writing. I feel like I took an entire class just reading this! Thank you! —Bethany Jarmul
I read your newsletter with delight, and found your Eleven Points post to be excellent, to the point, and perfect. For me, it was seismic. —Mercedes Turner
So many lines in this that I want to quote and reference back that I do not know where to start. The writing exercise has my brain spinning, but just for sheer beauty of language, writing instruction aside, I so deeply loved this. —Jeannette Laelanc
I cannot recommend Jeannine Ouellette’s Writing in the Dark highly enough. Every time I read her posts or am lucky enough to learn from her in person, I come away with new respect for her deep yet accessible knowledge and insight. —Casey Mulligan Walsh
I get multiple Substacks and read multiple writing blogs. Of all of them, yours has given me the most guidance, moments of awe, and suggestions to take with me on my writing journey. You never fail to startle me with your depth and understanding of intricacies, as well as your breadth of knowledge. You are an inspiration. —Sandra Eliason
Powerful writing advice from Jeannine Ouellette. Immense value. —David Burn
This piece is extraordinary. The breadth and depth of the post left me speechless. It's not a typical Substack newsletter, and I'm grateful for that. I'm new to your community and have been watching from afar. However, after today, I'll have to subscribe. I came across your craft piece, "Eleven Urgent and Possibly Helpful Things . . . " via Twitter and found it to be a generous walk through everything I forget when I'm in the weeds with a work-in-progress. When "Four Dogs, Maybe Five" landed in my inbox, I was deeply struck by the writing and the heart pulsing through it. Thank you for sharing a part of your memoir with people who didn't purchase the book. That's also generous. That's it for now. I'll say thank you, once again, before heading off to subscribe to your Substack. —Deb Fenwick
Your newsletter is such a fantastic resource to me as a writer and teacher. Each post is thoughtful, beautifully crafted, and useful. I'm grateful for the love and labor you put into each one. Thank you! —Libby Kurtz

From the very beginning, my writing and teaching have been grounded in the mystery of uncertainty. I have always asked myself and my students to “peer over the edge of doubt,”where new things come from. In 2012, I founded my creative writing program, Elephant Rock, on the power of “negative capability,” a term coined by the Romantic poet John Keats, who drew the concept from his admiration for Shakespeare. In a letter to his brothers in 1817, Keats described negative capability as “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He also said befriending uncertainty was essential for artists.

I agree.

Then the pandemic struck, followed by escalating racial inequity and violence (including the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed in my home city of Minneapolis). Since then, we’ve endured relentless political upheaval, war, and the real-time unraveling of democracy. Not to mention the spiraling impacts of climate change. Let’s just say that sometimes, befriending uncertainty is easier said than done. To embrace mystery and leap into the unknown of creative risk during quieter, safer times is one thing … but to do so in times like ours is quite another.

And yet.

Artists have always faced steep challenges head on. It is our calling and our mandate.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”—Margaret Mead

I had to remind myself of that when, in March 2020, almost immediately after I signed a contract for my debut memoir, The Part That Burns, Covid-19 locked the world down. On top of all of the other reasons that was terrifying, I was also faced with the sinking feeling of launching a book, one that took my whole life to write, in the middle of a tragedy during which people could not leave their homes safely. How would this work? I was also used to earning my living as a teacher and leader of group workshops and retreats. What now? Not knowing what else to do, I opened up an online space for people like me: people who were afraid, who were losing their livelihoods, who were struggling imagining what the future would look like, and who were flailing in their creativity, but determined to somehow create anyway, on however small a scale, even as the world burned. I called that workshop Writing in the Dark, and I offered it on a sliding fee scale down to zero with no questions asked so that it would be accessible to anyone with a computer or phone. I intentionally structured Writing in the Dark as a low-pressure but high-rigor space, where we could be serious about art but gentle with ourselves and each other. The first session of Writing in the Dark kicked off in April 2020, and it flourished beyond my wildest imagination. It flourishes still—even more so—today.

From that workshop has grown a beautiful and mighty creative community of hundreds of writers making work in spite of the chaos around us. I didn’t realize when I started Writing in the Dark that, one year later, those would be the very people who rallied to make the launch of The Part That Burns a great and celebratory success, even in the midst of an ongoing lockdown. Community, it turns out, is everything. Everything!

In Writing in the Dark, we don’t deny that art is difficult and can break our hearts—indeed, art will break our hearts if we are doing it right. So we celebrate and embrace that truth. Because we need art now more than ever. We need our hearts broken. We need, as Kafka says, art to the be axe that “breaks open the frozen sea inside us.” Perhaps most of all, we need creative writing, because creative writers are guardians not only of deep truth, but of language itself, and the ability of language to retain enough meaning to tell truth in the first place. This is the role of the writer. And this is the light in which I take Kafka’s full quote: “But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves … A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”

That is also the premise of Writing in the Dark. Except you need not desire to make a book in order to thrive here. We celebrate the Word in all its forms, including through simply following Mary Oliver’s wise, ever-timely advice to pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it. I think of it this way, as my mentor—the poet and teacher Paul Matthews—writes about the “writing circle”:

“Maybe when we meet there seems to be nothing at all between us; yet if you give me your word I can reply with the next, collaborative, responding to questions asked, needs recognized, testing each other’s immediate joys and fears in the writing. That is how I started my work as a poet-teacher—with nothing, almost, with simple acts of human language—till gradually I became aware that through a word or a sentence shared in writing we could move into the presence of a communion greater than anything I had intended. At such moments it was no longer a classroom with me, as teacher, at the center. It became a “circle of truth, poetry, and love” in which we were all servants of the Word … that is beyond any skill or genius that we might have in language.”

Through this seemingly quiet but actually radical practice, in the strength and light of community, we can—just as Margaret Mead said—change ourselves, each other, and our world. We’re doing it already, one word at a time.

Please join us!


Why subscribe? You’ll receive:

Writing in the Dark, my monthly newsletter. This monthly missive, a work in progress and labor of love, focuses on the craft of writing, the writing life, process observations, reviews & commentary & recommendations for books, essays &stories. Plus, author interviews and writing advice, and my own musings on the challenges and breakthroughs of my novel-in progress. Finally, each issue includes an inventive writing prompt for you to develop on your own (and discuss in our Writing in the Dark community if you opt into that!) 

Weekly writing prompts delivered to your inbox—and these are not just any writing prompts. Never will you receive a prompt asking you to, for example, “Write about a time when you were afraid.” While there’s nothing wrong with those prompts, Writing in the Dark is about moving beyond what we know, and out of our comfort zone. It’s about discovering the story five degrees to the left of the one we think we know. It’s about peering over the edge of doubt—and all this applies to all genres of writing: creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and hybrid experimental—all are welcome

Coming soon! Community discussion threads for connecting with each other on all things creative, from book recommendations to feedback swaps to survival strategies for creating in uncertain times

Most of all: A way for you and others who appreciate my work to support & sustain not only the Writing in the Dark community, which remains open and accessible to all, but also my own creative practice including the novel I am deeply immersed in writing, and the literary volunteerism I have pledged myself to, including mentoring for the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and AWP

And the Elephant Rock Musings, of course, an always free occasional newsletter filled with upcoming events, readings, classes, and other writing news and musings

Subscribe to Writing in the Dark with Jeannine Ouellette

"We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." ~Toni Morrison


Jeannine Ouellette 

Jeannine Ouellette is the author of the memoir The Part That Burns (Split/Lip Press, 2021).