Justen Ahren Demystifies his Monastic Approach to Writing

As I researched writing residencies and fell upon the Martha’s Vineyard Writing Residency at Noepe Center for Literary Arts, there was an additional page on an Italy Retreat.  Clicking on it, a single sentence snagged my attention.

“Where will your writing take you?” — Justen Ahren Tweet this tweet-graphic-1

Applying this simple question to the Monastic Writing Retreat held by Justen Ahren in Orvieto, Italy, images of the Italian landscape, great food and wine, and ancient architecture immediately began to flood my imagination.

Orvieto - brightened monastery

Curious, I sent an email to Justen Ahren requesting information, and an exchange began to happen where I learned about an approach to writing that was different from any I had experienced before.  Yet, it was nothing new.

On the contrary.  It can be traced to many of the earliest writings, especially those of anchorites — people so dedicated to devotional practices they withdrew from society at large to live inside monasteries in prayer and conversation with God.

“The nature of a monastic pursuit is one that involves ora et labora, ‘prayer and work’ — a submission of every aspect of one’s life to a particular purpose.  Literally, when we work with attention and intention our work is our prayer.”  — Justen Ahren

And there was no discrimination between men and women.  In fact, the first published book in the English language known to have been written by a woman was by Julian of Norwich about her ‘mystical visions and contemplations‘ in 1395.  As it turned out, I already had the translated work of another mystic on my kindle, that of Hildegard of Bingen (1098 — 1179) as translated by Sabina Flanagan.  Saint Hildegard was Canonized by Pope Benedict on May 10, 2012.

“Trust shows the way.” — Hildegard of Bingen

The coincidences began to add up.  Justen has been leading this workshop for several years, but this is his first interview dedicated solely to the retreat.  I am honored to be able to present this to you.  It will, no doubt, inspire you to take your writing to a whole new level.

RJ:  Justen, thank you for allowing me to delve a little deeper into the opportunities you are offering.  We covered the Writing Residency on Martha’s Vineyard in October.  Today, I’d like to ‘demystify’ Monastic Writing.

JA:  I’ll do my best.

RJ:  Where and when did you learn about the Monastic Approach to writing?

JA:  I had a bet with a friend, I would write every day for two hours or pay him $100. I was feeling incredibly frustrated in my life at the time—work and family obligations left little time for writing, and writing is what I really wanted to do. This friend challenged me to make writing the priority, devote myself to it.

I’ve always been attracted to mendicants, ascetics, monks, saints, artists, anyone who has devoted their life to their work.  Whether that work was praising god or making sculptures I wanted to know how they managed to give themselves daily to the task.

Devotion is really the centerpiece of a Monastic Approach.  It is a giving over to something outside of ourselves which transforms us.

I remember a friend of mine went to India for a year to write a novel. When he returned, novel completed, I met him for coffee. As I approached the café, I saw him sitting at an outdoor table.   He was changed: his demeanor, his look, his entire being. The work had changed him, in a good way.

Devotion is a magical thing. It has a life of its own. I found joy, gratitude, surprise, in my writing for the first time.  It didn’t feel like work.  Yet, the continuous, consistent workman-like manner opened up my writing, so more ideas, more images, more opportunities flew out. Within a couple of weeks, I was in a flow that has not abated. I want to share this with others who are struggling to write, or simply want to write more, write deeper.

RJ:  What do you find most intriguing about the concepts of Monastic practices in advancing writers’ skills?

JA:  This approach doesn’t have a tasty tease like 10 surefire ways to write the next great novel, or 5 steps to embracing your inner poet.

Monastic Writing is a slow approach that begins the practitioner on a life-long relationship to the act of writing. — Justen Ahren

For me the approach is this: how can I devote myself to my writing? How can I find joy, gratitude and surrender in my work? How do I write through doubt? These are the questions that follow us our entire writing lives. Yet we must continue to work.

Writing is my life. It is how I live. So, how can I live the writing life more fully?

99% of writing is showing up to write. — Justen Ahren  Tweet this tweet-graphic-1

This approach helps you get to the page. Once there, it helps you cultivate a practice by stripping away some of the assumptions and pressures we place on our writing. I think of this approach as making a begging bowl of our bodies, of ourselves, so we may receive, daily, the manna the world offers us. It readies us to receive the gifts that are constantly coming.  Writing it, making of this gift, is our way, as artists of giving back—increasing the abundance, the gratitude, the connection. Writing, creativity, is a transaction with the divine, the mystery, the ineffable.

Orvieto - Masks and postcards

RJ:  Why did you choose Italy?

JA:  Well, I love Italy.  I love the food, culture, history, literature, the pace of life.  And Italy has a rich monastic tradition, the iconography of devotion is everywhere.

I’ve been there many times over the years.  When I started looking for a place to hold a workshop I found, quite serendipitously, a group in Labro, Italy calling themselves Art Monks.   These were several artists, working together in a former monastery to create public theater pieces.  I read on their website, “the monastic routine is intended to refresh the soul, to build discipline, to act as a vehicle for deepening personal spiritual experience.”  I flew to Italy after an email exchange to experience first hand what this was all about.  After meeting them, they agreed to host me at the monastery and the workshop was born. The monastery has since closed, so last year I moved to Orvieto.

The idea of artists as monks was the final piece of a puzzle I’d been working on for years.  In our world, the pressure is always there to make money, to demonstrate success through earning or celebrity, to scale the mythical ladder to greater heights.  What about making art as a way of living?  Art as a way of coexisting with the world.

If you were told that nothing you wrote would ever be published, would you still write?  I would.  I have to. — Justen Ahren  


Orvieto - close up duomo tiles

“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

— Teresa of Avila

RJ:  Why Orvieto?

JA:  Orvieto is the quintessential Italian hill town.  It has an ancient history that extends to Etruscan times.  When the monastery in Labro closed, I visited several towns looking for an ideal place to hold the workshop.  When I visited Orvieto, I knew this was the place.

I’m very sensitive to environment, the genius loci, or spirit of a place if you will.  The spirit of Orvieto was friendly and creative.  I felt I would be able to write here.  If I didn’t feel this, I would have kept looking.  I want to be inspired by where I’m working, as well.  Orvieto also has lots to offer participants when we are not in workshop.  There are churches, art galleries, wine tastings, hiking, and too many fabulous restaurants to try them all.  Orvieto is the heart of Umbrian culture and cuisine, and is easily accessible by train from Rome and Florence.  I feel at home there.

RJ:  What should participants expect as a typical day and what should they be prepared to bring—mentally as well as physically?

JA:  Be prepared to write.  We write a lot. My goal is that participants leave with momentum in their writing, that they feel propelled in their practice when they return home.  Mentally, I hope writers come with an openness to explore their rich interior lives, and words with courage, and daring playfulness.

RJ:  For people who have an aversion to flying or are unable to travel abroad for whatever reasons, do you offer something similar in the United States?

JA:  Yes, minus cathedrals and Orvieto white wines, the workshop will be held at Noepe Center for the Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard, July 19th-25th, 2015.

RJ:  Can you work with people wherever they are instead of having them come to you?  

JA:  Yes.  I do work with individuals remotely.   I give weekly prompts and assignments, and we dialogue weekly.  It helps to have someone asking you, how is the writing?  Are you writing?

RJ:  There is a spiritual connotation to the idea of ‘monastic’ writing.  Is it important for participants to practice a particular religion or is this a more universal skill set that works equally as well in the absence of any sect of faith-based tenants?    

JA:  There is not a belief requirement other than the belief that one needs to write. The word ‘monasticism’ is derived from the Greek word, alone.  We are alone when we write.  It is a contemplative exercise.  I think of writing as a form of prayer, a conversation, a praising.  This is one of the prompts I use to keep me writing when I think I have nothing to say.

Writing for me is spiritual.  The work is the prayer.  It is where I can ask The Questions and where I can explore doubt.

The word monastic, while it has religious connotations, is not restricted to any one religion.  The word merely refers to monks, nuns, monasteries, and to the submission of every aspect of one’s life to a particular purpose. Writing is the purpose.  Practice with intention and attention and you get results.

When I began to write daily I asked myself, what if I approached writing with the same purpose, discipline, ritual, and awe a monk has when approaching the divine?  What if I gave my life to writing, joyously, gratefully?  Where would my writing take me?  Where would I take my writing?

Orvieto - duomo RJ:  How often are workshops available?

JA:  Twice a year. Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts in July, and Orvieto, Italy in November.

RJ:  How many people can participate?

JA:  4-15

RJ:  One of my favorite quotes is by Saint Hildegard of Bingen:

“We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others.  An interpreted world is not a hope.  Part of the terror is to take back our own listening.  To use our own voice.  To see our own light.” 

How do you encourage participants to get past the fear of writing their own stories?  

JA:   I only ask people to write what they can.  But fear is different than pain.  Our fear in writing often is our own judgments—is my writing good enough?  Do I sound smart or stupid?  Will this be embarrassing to read? Do I have anything to say?—these are normal reactions to what is tender in us, namely, our nascent creative impulses and ideas.  We are protective, and many of us have good reason to be.  We were criticized when we first showed our writing.  We were told it was ‘nice’. We weren’t taken seriously.

Writing from a place of fear, we write what we ‘think’ others want to hear, and what we think is acceptable.  There is no critique in this workshop.  I create a safe, nurturing space where anything can be written and read without fear of judgment, where you can yearn, sing, and find new registers for your voice.

Pain is different than fear.  Pain is something very personal.  I don’t ask anyone to write about things they aren’t comfortable writing, and I certainly don’t require people to share what they deem too painful.  However, I’ve seen when people are able to share their painful experiences, that pain is dismantled, broken up a bit.  The sharing may also encourage others who are reluctant to voice their own painful story.

Orvieto - first duomo

RJ:  Have you ever had a participant who couldn’t share—couldn’t speak their words?  

JA:  Yes.  Sharing what is ‘too personal’ with the group is not a requirement.  Sharing is always optional.  I do hope participants feel safe enough and comfortable enough with one another for their words to emerge, even if they don’t want to share every word with the group.  The power of writing our secrets, our pain, is the realization that it won’t destroy us as we feared.

“We will talk about fear in Italy.  It is a pillar of devotion.  Julian of Norwich, a 15th century anchorite, says in her writings, there are 4 forms of fear or dread, the fourth being ‘born of reverence.’  The holy dread with which we face that which we love most and that which loves us most.  I call this the beauty that sees us.  When we allow ourselves to be seen by this beauty, that is terror.  And then to try to speak to this…well this is a life’s work.  Share what you can, if you can.  It is optional and everyone will understand.”  — Justen Ahren from an earlier email  

RJ:  What is/are your favorite moment(s) during the workshops you’ve taught in the past.  

JA:  I love the moment, usually the third or fourth day, when everyone ‘drops in’.  The writing becomes fearless, it soars, uncensored.  This happens in every workshop.  Once people settle in with one another, and relax in their temporary environment, the magic begins.  The energy is always palpable, and the writing, unstoppable.  Everyone feeds off this energy.

Personally, it is gratifying to hear the voices reach this crescendo, go big.  Aside from this, I love the evening meals.  After the workshops we can gather, talk casually, and make a community over food.  This is when I feel I am doing exactly what I was meant to be doing.

RJ:  Similarly, do you have any regrets from previous workshops?  

JA:  No.  I only regret when I’ve eaten too much, or had too much wine.  This happens in Italy.  Otherwise, I view each workshop as its own work of art.  Every workshop is its own making, a process of becoming what it needs to be.  As a group, an instant community, we create the experience together.  I’m always conscious of how this happens.  And every workshop is different.

I ask everyone to come with a spirit of openness, and generosity; and for the most part people do.  I tell participants, this week, we are building a writing community.  Be generous, be gracious, and receive.

We are part of creating one another’s dreams.  – Justen Ahren  Tweet this tweet-graphic-1

Zeppelin empty glasses  Zeppelin 2nd Course - Frittata

Zeppelin Steak Course  Zeppelin Dessert

RJ:  Do participants need a background in writing or can people attend who are just getting ready to take the plunge into a writing project, even if it is for personal reasons only—such as writing a memoir?  

JA:  Anyone can attend.  I do ask for a writing sample so I can get a sense, before we meet, of their interests, their style, how they articulate experience, their voice.  My reason for leading these workshops is to help people write more freely, abundantly, joyously, playfully, honestly.  Why?  In my own development as a writer and as an artist, I did not have this support until recently.  Creating for me was wracked with doubt, self-loathing, frustration, and loneliness.  Why was I doing these things?  I’d ask. Why didn’t the things that satisfied my friends and my parents satisfy me?  Finally, I stumbled upon an approach–because of a bet–which freed me to write, to express as I’d always dreamed I could.  Now when I am writing, I have the sense I am both giving and receiving a gift.  Every day.  Honestly, this workshop is my service.  It is my way to repay the gift that has been given to me.

Orvieto - Justen with backdrop of cliff

RJ:  When the class is over, what do you hope the participants take away? 

JA:  A deeper connection to their writing, and to themselves as writers.  A sense of the abundance that is theirs to create with and through.  A sense of being supported by the creative universe.

We are the creators of our world, fashioners of a language that literally shapes our lives. — Justen Ahren Tweet this tweet-graphic-1

The world, the future, is potential.  It simply is waiting for us to call it into being through our thoughts and our words.  It is waiting to assist us.  You see, we are not just writing, we are continually dreaming.  Our words are intentions, prayers, that go before us and begin arranging the condition of our future.

In our present we can lament, or give thanks and participate.  — Justen Ahren 

RJ:  When is the next session, and where can the readers go to learn more about your retreat and Orvieto, Italy? 

JA:  The next retreat is July 19th-25th on Martha’s Vineyard.  The next Italy retreat is November 8-14th 2015.  For more information or to register for either workshop, visit noepecenter.org.  For info about the town of Orvieto, visit orvieto-info.com.

Thank you for your time and very thoughtful answers, Justen Ahren!

He inspired me to take the leap and I attended the November 2014 session in Italy.  So, my follow-up post will be on my own personal experience with Monastic Writing and the village of Orvieto.  

Did he achieve his intentions?  Did I?  What was it like?

What would you like to know about this writing style or section of Italy that wasn’t included here, or what would you ask Justen Ahren before joining the next session? 

Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray.  She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food.  She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.   

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  1. Thanks for sharing this interview with Justen. So inspiring, look forward to hearing more about your personal experiences. I would love to participate in one of his sessions. In the meantime I think I’ll have to bet myself to write everyday…even for one hour!

  2. Writing + Italy = Bliss! Fantastic interview, Renee. Thank you so much for introducing us to Justen. I loved reading about his approach to living the writing life. It was truly inspiring.

    1. I knew you would love this interview. Justen has definitely hit on an approach that resonates and encourages us to dig a little deeper in the ‘writing well.’ Thank you, Jill.

  3. Renee, this is a fascinating interview. I loved every word. I especially love Justen’s admission that if he were to never receive another penny for his writing, he’d still write because it is him.

    1. And he would, Linda. He once told me it was how writers make sense of their world. I am so glad you enjoyed this piece. I thought he was incredibly generous with his answers.

  4. Fascinating interview, Renee. I can’t wait to read tge follow-up posts. Italy, food and wine with writing colleagues sounds divine, though I don’t do the kind of writing that the rest of you probably do.

    1. Thanks Doreen. One of the most interesting things about our group — and even the first group at Noepe — was the diversity among the participants. Your writing always makes me desire the thing you are writing about — namely chocolate. That’s spot on!

  5. I’ve spent some time in Florence and Venice, Renee, but not to have writing time, unfortunately. I have experienced two special writing retreats, one at Mt. St. Francis (we stayed in the nuns’ former quarters, and awoke to the chapel bells to begin writing), and the other in an old former monastery where except for breakfast and late evening wine and cheese and sharing, the rest of the time was completely silent. Both of these experiences produced some amazing pages and insights for me.
    Wonderful post!

    1. Marylin, I did not know this about you. How fascinating! I’m going to search your blog for posts about these experiences, especially the part about remaining silent. How hard was that?
      Florence is on my immediate radar and Venice is the city I call my favorite in all of the world. It completely amazes me! Thanks for sharing this tidbit about yourself.

      1. The silence retreat was only for 4 days, and I only heard one participant “break the silence” when the water in the bathroom that 4 of our rooms shared went cold while she was in the shower and she yipped and cursed. The rest of the time, except at breakfast and late evening sharing (but each was for less than an hour) was complete silence except for the sounds of coyotes howling in the distance and birds chirping in the trees.
        No phones, no television, not even music. It was amazing. I didn’t blog about it, but I did do two blogs about Mt. St. Francis about 10 months ago.

  6. Wow, thanks for the interview. I had never heard of this monastic style of writing, but it sounds most intriguing. I wish I could afford to to to the Italy session. The beauty of the surroundings alone would be worth the trip.

    1. Thank you Monica. Glad to see your smiling face back from Brazil. The good news about Italy is it will be there when you can afford it and you’ll be glad of the journey!

  7. Oh goodness Renee, reading this I am ready to go. Everything here pulls me into the very heart of what I desire as a writer with a desperate need to just ‘get away’ and have that kind of time in such beautiful surroundings. So calming yet challenging, an assault on the senses in the best possible way. Thank you so much for this wonderful interview with Justen. It is so refreshing to read how he felt about his writing and his sense of isolation, self-doubt, self-loathing and frustration and how he overcame them. I can’t wait to read about your experiences 🙂

    1. Wow, Sherri! It sounds like you had the same experience I did when reading about this approach. You and others are making me excited about sharing my adventures in Italy. Just wait…

      1. Definitely Renee, really grabbed me this. I’ve never been on any writing retreat…a dream come true that would be, so I get to live the experience through your wonderful posts 🙂

  8. I would like to write in Italy! I do like the sound of the bet – I think that would inspire me to remember my writing goals and commit to daily, finding that two hours xx

    1. You’re right, Charlie. Sometimes we need a jolt, whether a bet or a date on a calendar, that reminds us to pay attention to priorities. And for writers, writing is the priority. (And Italians know how to feed you while you write.) Just saying…

  9. — a submission of every aspect of one’s life to a particular purpose***


    I love love love this interview. My heart quickened as read!

    Writing is SO MUCH more than just words…It’s a God experience. At least, for me.

    I WISH I had the money to experience this unbelievable workshop.

    And I LOVE the idea of one’s words soaring w/out inhibition.

    Brilliant post, Renee. xx

    1. Kim, if there has ever been a single soul dedicated and devoted to single purpose, it is you my darling. Your beautiful blog has a mission to save other women. I know Kay is smiling at you! Thank you for your lovely words. You are soaring already.

  10. The monastic approach seems like a way of writing that most writers do – to a greater or lesser extent – and could benefit from. This was a very interesting interview. I am sure attending one of Justen Ahren’s workshops would be a great learning experience. By the way I stayed some days in Orvieto a couple of years ago – and it was a fantastic little town.

    1. Yay! Thanks Otto. I bet you found much inspiration there for photography as well. As a side note, I took every one of these pictures. They lack the clarity of yours, I’m afraid, but I only had my cell phone camera as my other camera was too large for my carry-on. And there will be more of them in the next posts.

  11. This is such a lovely post. And oh, how wonderful that you will be able to experience this workshop. Thanks for sharing this – learned much from this post.

  12. Renee, what an amazing post! I’m excited to learn about this type of writing, and I’m so inspired…maybe one day I can attend this event. Italy is on my short list! Thank you so much! And like you, I have been out of sight with blogging lately…too much going on in my personal life to be attentive. But I hope to reconnect, through my own blog, and through reading my friends’ posts. I see you’ve been busy! So happy for you! ~ Sheila

  13. Thank you, Sheila. This retreat taught me the importance of devotion to my writing passion. My experience in Orvieto is the next post and I’m working on it now, but it was definitely inspiring. You would love it! Glad to see you back on the blog and writing! Yay.

  14. Can’t wait for you to go and return to report back. Sounds perfect. Intriguing interview
    Environment. You can sense “place”. To me, physical location/writing space/area is critical for a creative experience either painting or writing.
    This pretty well spells out what should be the best result of such a retreat “He was changed: his demeanor, his look, his entire being. The work had changed him, in a good way.”
    What a wonder.

    1. Yes! Transformation in some way is the goal. I have gone and my report is coming in only a few days Karen. With it are tons of pictures, so you can get a real feel for the people and the atmosphere. Coming soon, I promise!

  15. Can’t wait to hear about your experience, Renee. But to be honest, if I were there in that location, I’d be wanting to do a million things besides write. Just looking at the views could take hours a day. 😀 Seriously though it seems like a fab opportunity for any writer.

    1. The writing time went by so fast I found myself wanting more of it. But there’s a ton of pictures coming up on the next post about my experience and then you will truly wonder how I wrote at all!

  16. What a great way to write and what an experience. Thanks for sharing this. My problem would be I would spend too much time eating, drinking wine, and day dreaming while there.

    1. Italy is the perfect location for daydreaming. But the classes were so interesting and intense that I actually found the time for writing passed too quickly. In fact, I’m posting my experiences here on Friday. Come back then and let me know what you think!

  17. Dear Renee, I have just read the interview and many of the reader comments, and I am in tears. He
    speaks so beautifully and sincerely about writing and what it means to him. Thank you for sharing this. The workshop sounds so much like what I need to do. And even as I say that, reasons not to do it are surfacing simultaneously. You are truly an angel messenger.

    1. Oh, Lena. Thank you for this comment. You would thrive here. I am going to post my experiences on Friday, so come back and take the ‘virtual journey’ with me. Then, I’ll bet you will be booking a flight and signing up for the next class. Your writing is so exquisite I would love to see more of it!

    2. Lena, thank you for your comment. Sometimes the best thing we can do for our writing is ‘the doable.’ I find so many people get stopped because they commit to writing every day for 2 hours despite the unlikelihood of accomplishing this. We must set doable goals. 10 minutes a day, say, and build on these successes. At least we are writing!

      It is difficult to write. And there are always reasons not to do it. But if it brings you joy, make every effort to do it. Gift this to yourself. Everything may improve.

      If you would benefit from this retreat and want to talk about it with me, I’m happy to discuss the possibilities. Blessings, Justen Ahren

  18. A writing retreat is always a good idea, especially in another place if you do not have the space or leisure time to write steadily. I am going away to Ireland in 1 1/2 weeks to the Tryrone Guthrie Centre on a writing fellowship. Tyrone Guthrie is 1 1/2 hours outside of Dublin and there are cottages and a manor house on beautiful grounds with groups of artists from every discipline, a studio for artists and one for musicians. I am looking forward to it, yet have no expectations but to follow my passion, writing.

      1. Wow, Carole. I’m going to check out the Tyrone Guthrie Centre. It sounds amazing! What a terrific experience. You’ll get so much writing done there, I’m sure. And if you need more inspiration in the fall, check out the next post all about my experience.

      2. Thank you Carole, I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. The Tyrone Guthrie Centre is one of my dream retreats. I hope you enjoy it. Kudos to you for nurturing your passion. You will be repaid in beauty.

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