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Hi, I’m Jeannine Ouellette.
I’m the author of the memoir The Part That Burns and teacher of writing at the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and Elephant Rock, an independent creative writing program I founded in 2012 (also home to my virtual writing workshop Writing in the Dark, after which this newsletter is named).
In my three decades of writing, I’ve racked up some nice publications and won a few small-time awards and minor recognition through residencies and starred reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, but nothing really huge. Maybe that will come. Meanwhile, my one real superpower is teaching. Just like writing, teaching is a vocation in which I’ve been thoroughly immersed for decades, and it turns out I’m good at it, especially when it comes to building vibrant communities where writing becomes more than writing, and begins to transform how we walk in the world. Communities where writing creates us anew. I think that’s in part because writing saved my life, and therefore I teach writing as if it might save yours. And that’s what this space is really all about.
I guess that’s also why I love this Toni Morrison quote so much—it’s something she said in her Nobel Prize lecture in 1993:
Word-work is sublime … because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference—the way in which we are like no other life.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
This newsletter’s tagline—For people who do language—is inspired by Morrison’s quote, because “doing language” is about so much more than writing.
And I’ll tell you a little story about how all this came to be—but first, the nuts and bolts.
How Does Writing in the Dark Work?
Writing in the Dark offers a variety of content for free, paid, and full access membership levels. You can get a quick sense of our offerings by browsing the Writing in the Dark Index.
Occasional personal essays, interviews, and long free previews of paid Monday Lit Salon and Wednesday Writing Lab posts.
Paid Subscribers Free Content Plus …
Lit Salon: Everything you ever wanted to know about creative writing and the creative life but were afraid to ask. This Monday feature is like a cross between an advice column and an “ask-me-anything,” with valuable craft essays thrown in as needed. I write each Lit Salon in response to your specific and personal questions (culled from post comments as well as questions emailed directly to me) about writing, the writing life, and creativity in general. Readers love this feature and say things like: “As always, Jeannine, your words of wisdom are gold” and “Mesmerizing. What a way to start the week. I’m grateful, thank you!”
Writing Lab + Prompts: Every Wednesday you receive an in-depth craft essay on a specific element of creative writing plus and an inventive, structured writing exercise related to that craft essay. These essays and prompts are unlike most others you have seen before. Based on the theory of literary constraints and structured exercises, these prompts are designed to take you to entirely new places in your writing. 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 edging out of our comfort zone. It’s about how, through the rigorous observation of concrete specifics, we access the abstract and divine. 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. Readers love Writing Lab + Prompts and say things like: “I'm learning about writing in the most inventive way and more deeply than I ever have before. For that, I thank you endless times” and “I'm still here and still reading your beautiful and inspiring posts and breathing though my tendency to tamp down my own creativity by comparing it to others.”
Seasonal Writing Intensives: These intensives are like full-fledged writing classes delivered in a series of posts on a predetermined schedule. Recent examples from 2023 include the Essay in 12 Steps Challenge the 30-Day Creativity Challenge. These curricula are thoughtful, thorough, clear, strange, and inspiring. Readers really love the intensives. One participant said, “The Creativity Challenge fundamentally and permanently changed the way I think about writing.” The next seasonal intensive, The Story Challenge, starts in December, and I can’t wait to explore how the craft of fiction can strengthen all of our prose.
Participation in Comments: The comments are a major source of value! Writing in the Dark is a highly interactive Substack, where readers share craft questions, challenges, snippets of work, helpful advice, encouragement, inspiration, and even friendship. I myself participate regularly in the comments by answering your questions and offering feedback. To keep the comments troll-free, participation is for paying subscribers only.
The full archive of past posts and seasonal intensive curricula.
Full Access Membership
At Substack’s Founding Member Level, You Receive All Paid Content Plus …
This level is like having coffee in my living room with a community of whole-hearted creatives. You have regular access to direct, real-time interaction with me and during Zoom Q & As and Zoom open mic readings. You also get Voice & Video Memos I create in direct response to readers’ most pressing questions. This level is by far the closest approximation to working with me as a mentor or in one of my workshops or retreats. This level is where you get to have “my voice in your ear.”
Live Zoom Salons are held during seasonal intensives and are an incredible opportunity to get fast feedback and direct answers to questions while you’re making new work, while also interacting with other WITD community members and participating in open-mic readings. They’re lively, interactive, and fun!
Voice/Video Memos are recordings that I create in response to the questions, comments, and craft challenges that come up in response to seasonal challenges and Writing Lab + Prompts posts. I research in response to the question, then converse out loud, in-depth, and in direct response to your specific needs and interests, sometimes with another writer for added dimension. Voice & Video memos very in length and topic but they’ll always intersect directly with what’s coming up in our WITD intensives and/or your questions and comments and conversations on other posts here.
Most of All
Paid subscriptions offer a way for you and others who appreciate my work to support the effort it takes to produce it—for which I am profoundly grateful. Your paid subscriptions make this Writing in the Dark community possible. I know not everyone can afford $7/month, and if that’s you, reach out and let us know. On the other hand, if you can afford to give a subscription to someone who needs it, or even donate a gift subscription, that keeps this community accessible to all. Thank you!
And now for that little story.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My Writing in the Dark workshop still thrives as a synchronous virtual course, with new sessions offered once a season. Those sessions fill as soon as I announce them, which is why we keep a waitlist (you can join that waitlist by emailing here). So, all this to say, that first panicked idea for a workshop grew itself over the past few years into a beautiful and mighty creative community of many hundreds of writers making work in spite of the chaos that continues around us. I could never have predicted when I started Writing in the Dark that those would be the very people who rallied to make the launch of The Part That Burns a great and celebratory success in 2021, even in the midst of an ongoing lockdown. Community, it turns out, is everything.
And that, that everything, led to this newsletter. Because, given the wild and gorgeous experience of the Writing in the Dark community (and the limited space in the actual workshop), I decided to start offering a similar kind of conversation and community here on Substack, where it would be accessible to all.
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 Franz 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 this Writing in the Dark newsletter. 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!
About Writing in the Dark’s Design
The logo and various bits of clothing we use as artwork on this Substack site and as the dinkus in the newsletter posts come from Kelly Popoff, the artist who also created the cover art for my debut memoir, The Part That Burns.
Kelly’s art explores “… what is inside rather than external things. Pulling from childhood memories, repressed thoughts, unresolved relationships … I make art about things that I do not know or do not understand. Painting brings the unknown a little bit closer and possibly closer to an acceptance of uncertainty.”
You can find more of it on her website.
And about the clothes specifically, I was so taken with Kelly’s strange, lovely, and mysterious images of clothing while in residence with her at Millay Colony for the Arts that I even specifically wrote a paragraph into The Part That Burns inspired by those images—which look like paper doll clothes to me:
Paper dolls are tricky. For one thing, they don’t stand up because their paper stands are too flimsy. For another thing, as soon as you try to make paper dolls do anything, their bodies bend over. Sometimes their necks break. Always, their clothes fall off.
I feel like this quote from The Part That Burns is relevant not just to my book, or Kelly’s art, but also to the challenges of the writing process, the way our work and intentions can elude us, fall over, break, and land naked on the floor—as well as the sheer miracle we experience when it works, when we really land it.