Train Wreck: When Your Writing Retreat on the Train Goes WAY Off the Rails – Part One

One of my offerings to my clients and others who write or want to write is my signature Rhythm on the Rails Writing Retreat. We leave Union Station in Portland, OR, write our way to our destination, then experience a change of pace and scenery, and maybe, revel in a spark of imagination from the day’s sights, sounds, smells, and more.

I conceived of this idea after taking the Amtrak train from Portland to Eugene to visit my youngest son, Spencer, several times. I found that, without fail, the rhythmic motion of the train provided me the perfect environment to write in flow. I quickly became hooked and wanted to find a way to feed my new addiction and to create the opportunity for others to experience it, as well.

That’s when Rhythm on the Rails was born. My idea. My baby. My signature offering that makes people drool when they hear about it.

The first ROTR happened last fall in November 2018. I and a small group of writers went to Seattle for the day. We left Portland in the morning, made the three-hour trip in coach class, and when we arrived at King Street Station in Seattle, we caught a Lyft to the Space Needle to make our way to the top and consider Point of View – our writing element focus for the day.

The Space Needle was underwhelming. I had seen it before, and I was counting on the newly renovated rotating glass floor to up the ante for the group. But, alas, it didn’t measure up. Besides being underwhelming, the Needle was crawling with people. But… despite the lack of verve I had hoped for, the departure from our usual, day-to-day perspective gave us plenty to think about regarding Point of View. (For instance: How do you describe a car while standing next to it on the ground vs. from high above at 520 feet in the air? The physical change in perspective offered an in-the-moment opportunity to consider which visual elements to focus and elaborate on and how to translate that into the written word.)

After we descended the Space Needle and made our way through the crowd, we caught another Lyft to Pike Place Market where we had lunch at Matt’s in the Market. We enjoyed choice soups, salads, and drinks while I shared details about the Crown Chakra and the writing element I pair with this highest bodily chakra in my Writing Through the Body method – Point of View.

We went our separate ways in the afternoon for some alone time and a chance to wander and see the sights and to browse and shop in the market and nearby boutiques.

In the evening, we met up at the corner of 1st and Pike and climbed into our last Lyft ride of the day to head back to King Street Station for our trip home. On the three-hour ride back to Union Station in Portland, we wrote and chatted, then parted ways, happily worn out from our very full day.

Prior to the retreat, I met with each participant for a half-hour coaching session and followed up with another one a few days after the retreat. My goal was to provide each person concentrated writing time in a unique environment, as well as some individual one-on-one assistance to move their writing projects and dreams forward.

That first ROTR retreat was an experiment, of sorts, and I learned a few things. Or I, at least, had other ideas about what to do differently the next time.

And I’ll have the opportunity to put those ideas into action on the next one-day ROTR Writing Retreat to Seattle on Saturday, August 24.

I can tell you this: It’s gonna be fun. (It involves a scavenger hunt, and who doesn’t love a scavenger hunt?!)

With a one-day ROTR under my belt, I decided to do my first overnight retreat this past Spring. I and another small group of writers went to Vancouver, BC. Stay tuned for the story about how that unfolded…

Spoiler alert: Not as planned. Not at all.

But everything in life is a learning experience, and crimany, did I learn a lot.

I’ll be sharing those lessons with you in future blog posts, so stay tuned…

Whether you’re a retreat participant, a retreat planner, or an entrepreneur who provides your clients and followers with unique experiences, there’s something for you in this train retreat story that went WAY off the rails…

Until next time… sending you mad writing mojo…

Bright blessings and creative courage,


I Go Back to May 1937 – Sharon Olds

I ADORE this poem by Sharon Olds. I adore it so much, I used parts of in my first film, I’m Too Much (2004).

It’s a lovely reminder that no matter what we endure in life, we have the power to transform – ourselves and other people – with our words.

Sharing our stories is what heals us.


I Go Back to May 1937

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
What story will you tell?

Why I Want Clients Who Can Afford to Pay: The Messy Mix of Money and Coaching

the cost of coaching

Photo by Vladislav Reshetnyak from Pexels

I recently did an interview with the smart, self-aware, and sentient Molly Mandelberg, creator of Wild Hearts Rise Up and the Tactical Magic Podcast for the Warrior Goddess Entrepreneur. The interview went well. It was more like a low-stress, fun conversation about writing and how to bring your book to life. As a writer and book coach, my mission in life is to heal the world through stories, whether it’s the stories I write and tell or the stories I help other people write and tell. So, having the opportunity to talk with Molly was a blessing and an honor.

A few days after the interview, parts of the conversation filtered in and out of my mind, and one comment I had made kept coming back to me. And not in a good way. It isn’t that I wanted to rescind what I had said because I meant it – and I still do – but not in the way it sounds on the surface.

The comment came after Molly asked me who I want to work with. I said something like, “People who can pay” or “People who can afford it.”

Side note: Sometimes, when I have a thought, make a comment, or share an opinion I’ll explain it to death, and I think I do this for a few reasons.

  • It’s the teacher in me wanting to ensure the chances of being understood, as best I can, by everyone who’s listening because I’m well-aware that we all have unique learning styles, and we all absorb information and words differently based on our individual world views.
  • One of my persistent fears in life is that I will be misunderstood and all sorts of unfortunate outcomes will follow, like hurt feelings or the spread of my words in a context that doesn’t align with who I am. (I’ve unpacked the reasons behind this fear and I embrace it for the benefits it allows me, but I won’t take you on yet another spiral of thought to explain.)
  • And then there’s the fact that I’ve been academically trained in argumentation and rhetoric, which requires us to perpetually ask the question “why?” And for every “because” that comes after, another “why?” follows.

So, I’d rather over-explain than run the risk of leaving a partially hatched comment, concept, or idea up for someone else’s translation without having had the chance to drill down inside it, even if just a little.

All this said, though, sometimes I under-explain so I don’t fill up a conversation with “too many” words. My internal editor is hard at work in these cases, and it was, albeit rather subconsciously, during the interview with Molly. Had I allowed myself the time – had I not been concerned that I was going to go over time or that I might blather on too long about one thing – I would have broken my response down into three layers.

  1. Yes, of course, I want to be paid for what I do. I have years of training in this area, I’m college educated in this area, and I’ve been teaching college for two decades in this area. I’m also growing a business, and I believe my coaches and my fellow entrepreneurs when they tell me I’m worth my fees. I know I am.
  2. Then comes the second layer to the statement’s meaning. When people are willing to invest in themselves, they tend to show up more fully. Yes, I want that. I want my clients to show up, to take our agreements seriously, to pour themselves into their books because I wouldn’t be working with them if I didn’t believe they have brilliant ideas that need to make their way out into the world. My clients are worth their own self-commitment, and as I always tell them, writing their book is an act of self-love.
  3. And then comes the third layer to this statement’s meaning. I want my clients to be able to take on the monetary obligation that comes with coaching so they won’t experience stress every month about how to pay me. I want them to be able to focus on their creative process so the words will pour onto the page.

I don’t doubt that they have plenty of other life stressors perpetually jockeying for first position throughout their days and in their minds and hearts. I don’t want to be one more of those things – not in a stressful, creative-killing kind of way. And this is the big, overarching reason I want my clients to be able to pay. I don’t want their financial obligation to me to be a burden.

I’ve been in enough coaching situations wherein I knew from the get-go that my budget couldn’t manage the fat monthly payment. Yet, I allowed myself to be convinced, coerced, or coddled into signing on with the promise that I’d make my money back within a few months, raking in an income that would make the monthly coaching payment seem insignificant. But this hasn’t happened for me even though I’ve gone all in. And from what I’ve witnessed, it doesn’t happen for most. Unless they’re in the corporate sphere. Which I am not.

This is not to say that the programs I’ve been in haven’t been helpful. They have. I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve made progress. But the curve to get from here to there is such a circuitous foute that the real, consistent money making doesn’t usually come right away. (Another brief aside: one of the programs I was in never, for a moment, felt forced on me or oversold to me. This coach let his quiet approach and his knowledgeable expertise make me want to work with him. And his program was priced so that I could be part of his group without feeling like I had to take desperate robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul measures every month to honor my financial obligation to him.)

Because I’m a book coach, I can’t promise my clients any kind of monetary gain from writing their book. Will having a book give them more credibility in their area of expertise? Yes. Will it help them get more high-level speaking gigs? Absolutely. Will they experience personal transformation from writing their book? Without a doubt. Will they make money from their book? Probably not.

Writing a book and having a book is best not viewed as a means to get rich. Or even to create an income. Writing a book is best viewed as a means to lift yourself up as an expert in your field; enhance your self-worth; and put your name, face, and ideas out into the world.

So, when I say I want to work with people who can pay, I’m talking about that third layer. Yes, I want to make a living doing what I love. (I’m not Oliver, for god’sake.) Yes, I want to work with people who will take the commitment seriously. (I’m not a babysitter or a rescuer, either.) But mostly, I don’t want my fee to make my clients do emotionally charged financial calisthenics that take up space in their beautiful creative brains, making the writing even more difficult than it already is.

Can everyone’s budget manage the cost of coaching – private or group? Definitely not. Do I want to help people with brilliant ideas get their books written, even if they don’t have the funds? Yes, I do.

And that’s why I sometimes question the whole coaching model to help people write. I don’t have an answer yet to remedy these concerns of mine, but I’m working on it… Because I do know that my mission in life is to heal the world through story, whether they’re mine or whether they’re yours.

So, stay tuned and let’s see if there’s a way I can help.

And in the meanwhile, leave a comment below. What you most need help with in your writing?

Picking the perfect moniker: How to name your characters and more

People often ask me, “But what’s your real name?” Sometimes, the question comes from seeing my name in print, then meeting me in person and discovering I’m female. And sometimes, the question comes when they’ve gotten to know me a little and discover I legally changed my name in 2000. So for the record…

My real name Johnnie J. Mazzocco.

It’s the realest name I’ve ever had.
And I’ve had SEVERAL.

There’s the name I was born with, which consisted of the first and middle names my parents settled on and my dad’s surname. Then, there’s the name that consisted of the first and middle names my parents settled on and the surname of my first husband – Martin. And then, there’s the name that consisted of the first and middle name my parents settled on, my dad’s surname, and the surname of my second husband – Owen.

Johnnie J. Mazzocco isn’t the name I was born with, but it WAS the name my mom wanted me to have – at least the first name. She wanted to name me after her dad, John, but my dad nixed that. He thought I’d think I wasn’t wanted. He thought I’d think they wanted a boy instead. So, they gave me a “girl’s” name.

I spent the first three decades of my life knowing that Johnnie was supposed to be my name, and after many significant life changes, the Fall before I turned 40, I changed my name. I had been toying with the idea, and my close friends were helping me out by trying it on for size. When I talked with the person who would eventually be the head of my graduate committee for my first Master’s degree, I introduced myself as Johnnie. When it came time to apply, I had to make it legal to fill out the paperwork.

I decided I might as well go all in. I didn’t want my maiden name. Nor did I want either of my married names. None of them felt like me. In fact, whenever I introduced myself with the old name, it felt cardboard-dry in my throat.

I opted to use the first letter of my old middle name and forego a full middle name and to take on my mom’s maiden name because I’ve always strongly identified with my Italian lineage. It wasn’t until the day I was signing the papers to make it legal that I realized I have my grandpa’s full name: Johnnie Mazzocco. (His legal name was John, but my grandma called him Johnny.)

Changing my name has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I don’t share my “old” name with people, even though they ask.

I changed my name for a reason. It wasn’t a hideous name.

It just wasn’t me.

Whether you’re a parent or a pet owner, you know the task of naming another being is not an easy one. Many of us consult baby name books or get inspiration from our favorite pop culture icons or fictional characters. Some of us explore the latin roots of names, or we opt for the name of someone we know and respect. Whichever route we take, most of us know it’s an identity creator, so we take it seriously.

What about when we name our fictional characters? Finding the perfect moniker can be daunting and time-consuming, but giving it the time and attention it deserves, a memorable name can become a lasting icons in the worlds of literature and pop culture. Scarlett O’Hara. Atticus and Scout Finch. Dorothy Gale. Harry Potter. Holly Golightly. Lolita. Clarissa Dalloway. Lennie Small. Sherlock Holmes. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Mary Poppins. Nancy Drew. And on and on and on…

Here are a few articles with ideas about how to find just the right names for all your characters.

The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters
6 Creative Ways to Name Your Fictional Characters
How to Name Your Characters
How to Choose Character Names

Whether we’re name our kids, our pets, our characters, or ourselves, picking the perfect name is an important proposition. When this weighty task is in your hands, how do you handle it?

How do you name your characters? 

And if you were to re-name yourself, who would you be?





Writer as Shaman: 7 Ways Stories Will Change Your Life and Heal the World

Photo by Francesco Paggiaro from Pexels

Twenty-five years ago, I started writing a novel, and the process of developing the main character and her story world created a crack in my psyche and changed my life forever. I was taken through my own dark night of the soul, which led – gratefully – to my spiritual transformation. Since then, I have been on a spiritual path, have viewed my creative writing practice as a spiritual practice, and have devoted myself and my life to embracing the power of story.

While writers have probably always had an innate sense that stories heal, science has proven the benefits of story in our lives – in both the writing and reading of fiction and non-fiction. Stories are a human need. We crave them. We tell them. Every day. Stories are not only healing to the writer. They carry the power to heal readers and the world at large, as well.

For the Writer

1 – Evoking your imagination while writing a story can lead to improved brain capacity and ease of being in the world.

  • Using your imagination can improve your problem-solving skills. By troubleshooting a character’s obstacles as she attempts to attain her primary desire, you can become more creative in troubleshooting and solving your own.
  • Using your imagination can improve your memory. Engaging your imagination creates more neurons in your brain, which leads to better brain function and retaining information.
  • Using your imagination can improve your relationships and social interactions. By empathizing with your characters’ problems, you’ll become more aware of the day-to-day struggles of your fellow humans, thus allowing you to be more empathetic in general.

2 – Using the process of amalgamation, which is the act of consciously or unconsciously blending real-life people and events with imaginary people and events for the sake of storytelling, allows us to resolve events from the past.

  • Recounting stories from our personal past can help us make meaning of what was. By remembering a past event from an older, more experienced – or simply different – perspective can give us a sense of personal power.
  • Creating a re-telling of a past event and imagining what could have been can also give us a sense of personal power. This is not about denying reality or naively wishing a situation had been different, but more about reframing the story to achieve a sense of redemption or inner harmony.
  • Using creative license to write about anything from a past personal event to a current cultural phenomenon and creating a fictional story with a positive outcome can give us hope. There is something immensely powerful in being able to imagine a world where change and growth are possible. Believing in a better world and doing what we can to create it helps us find peace in the moment while continuing to put one foot in front of the other with a sense of personal agency toward the project of human evolution.

3 – Through the process of deep character development, we come to understand ourselves on a much deeper level. By creating characters who come off the page and behave like real people rather than flat, cardboard caricatures or stereotypes and getting beneath their skins to examine their true motivations, pains, and fears, we can’t help but do this better for ourselves. Thus, writing stories leads to greater self-awareness and advances us along our paths of personal evolution.

For the Reader

4 – Reading stories gives us a healthy escape from everyday life. Whether we read a memoir about someone’s experience growing up in a small rural community or a fantasy novel about a young woman with superpowers, the descriptions that build the story world evoke our imaginations and bring us the same benefits realized by the writer mentioned above. As Stephen King once wrote, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Reading stories quiets our minds, much the same way meditation does.

5 – Reading stories – in particular, literature – leads to greater levels of empathy. By riding along beside a character through the ups and downs of his quest to achieve his goal and through the mistakes he makes along the way, we become softened to the struggle of what it means to be human, which allows us to more readily accept and embrace struggle and imperfection in others.

6 – Reading stories can lead to greater human connection. When a reader witnesses an experience like their own, they know they’re not alone in the world, that their life isn’t as taboo as they may think or feel, and through this, they can experience validation, and ultimately, a feeling of connection.

For the World

7 – When writers and readers experience the benefits of story, it up-levels their positive presence in the world. Writing and reading both bring numerous benefits, probably the most far-reaching of which is a greater understanding of the human condition. This understanding can elicit more compassion, more empathy, and ultimately, more peace in the world.

English writer, Alan Moore, known for Watchmen and V for Vendetta, among many others, believes writers are modern day shamans. He describes the magic they work as the alchemical process of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to create story worlds into which readers can enter and experience changes in consciousness.

This journey into story worlds – ours and others’ – allow us to clear our minds. It serves as a salve to our hearts and an elixir to our spirits and souls. If you’re looking for creative ways to further your evolution as a human on earth in this lifetime, embrace the power of story. Write your stories. Share them. And read the stories of others.

We all have stories to tell. What’s yours?