Writing From the Heart with Janet Hulstrand

I write.  It is what I do, who I am in my core.  This statement took a long time to grow into maturity within me.

It may have incubated from the first novel I wrote as a nine-year old child, but it would be much later in life before I had the nourishment necessary to set it free.  That didn’t happen for me until I was in my forties, in a village in France, discovering myself and a path much deeper than the one in the vineyards I walked through with fellow writers.

October 2010 in Essoyes, author Renee Johnson on far right
October 2010 in Essoyes, author Renee Johnson on far right

It seemed we were all there for a different purpose.  We each had an individual calling.  Poet.  Blogger.  Memoirist.  Journalist.  Novelist.  And Janet Hulstrand coached us through the process so smoothly we all came away with projects which have since soared.

Outside Janet's French Ranch in Essoyes 2010, Janet Hulstrand second from right
Outside Janet’s French Ranch in Essoyes 2010, Janet Hulstrand second from right

“When do you become a writer?  The minute you sit down and ‘write!’  Not as obvious as it sounds, yet it takes courage to actually SEE ALL those hidden thoughts, ideas, dreams, and experiences down in black and white.  That is what I took home from that workshop!”–Karin Knappstein Doglioni, Costa Rica, 2010

The experience itself was so inspiring I have written about it numerous times.  For further details, you can read my about page.  The machines used in the vineyards amazed me, sparking its own essay.  Champagne, cheese, museums, artists!

Many people have asked me about this experience and Janet Hulstrand.  And today, I have a special treat for you as she has agreed to an interview with me.  How exciting!  Let’s begin with an official introduction.

Janet Hulstrand conducting a walking tour of Essoyes, a Renoir replica in background
Janet Hulstrand conducting a walking tour of Essoyes, a Renoir replica in background

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature. She writes frequently on a variety of topics for a broad range of publications, as well as for her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. Each summer she teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for Queens College of the City University of New York in Paris, and in the spring and fall she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in Essoyes (ESS-wah), a village in the Champagne region of France.

Janet Hulstrand at Champagne House Christian Senez
Janet Hulstrand at Champagne House Christian Senez

RJ:  Thank you, Janet, for spending time with my readers.  Many have asked about the name of the workshop. What does it mean to write from the heart? 

JH:  That’s a good question, and it is the first one I ask the people who are applying to participate in one of my Writing from the Heart workshops to consider. I think it’s important for each person to define that term for him or herself. To me it means, among other things, having the courage to reach deep into yourself and find what’s there. Then tell your story as honestly and as well as you can, whatever that story is. 

Sunset over Essoyes, France
Sunset over Essoyes, France

“Janet Hulstrand is a rare breed–writer, editor, teacher, muse.  Her Minnesota roots are always evident in her generosity of spirit and real knowingness; and her deep humility ensures that her teaching and guiding is of the first order, with none of her ego involved.  She quietly listens to all that is said, and unsaid, by her writers; and gently eggs them on in the direction they are going.  She is one of the best writing teachers, not to mention editors, bar none.  And the Essoyes tableau for writing and learning cannot be improved upon, anywhere.”  — Kevin Sisson, Massachusetts, 2015

RJ:  What do you hope participants bring to the group?

JH:  Unlike in some workshops, it’s not necessary for participants to bring anything specific with them to work on, though they can if they want to, and some do. I hope they will bring their dreams and some idea, even if vague, about their goals, whether large or small. They should not worry about bringing whatever fears they may have as well, along with the courage required to overcome them. (I believe the two are inextricably intertwined.) Most of all I hope they bring belief in themselves, and in the importance and value of expressing themselves.

It’s important also to bring a willingness to listen to others and to care about them and their work, and their stories, too. So much learning and growth can occur as a result of the interaction and sharing of thoughts, feelings, ideas, among participants.

RJ:  How important is it to read the recommended books and work through the assignments that you give during your workshops?

JH:  I think that depends very much on each individual participant’s interests, needs, and where they are in the creative process. I recommend books to read, and give assignments that I think will be helpful to most people and useful in giving the group things to discuss together. But I think always the most important thing for any writer is to listen to his or her own voice above all. If that voice says, “This book (or this assignment) is not helping me,” you should listen! and find out what else that voice has to tell you…then follow it wherever it may lead. That is where you will discover your own truths, your real passions, and the things that are most important for you to be focusing on.

Artist Anne de Champagne with Renee Johnson
Artist Anne de Champagne with Renee Johnson

 RJ:  What do you hope participants take away from the experience?

 I hope they take away the knowledge that whatever they hope to do with their writing, the power is within them to do it. It is not always easy—in fact writing is much harder than most people realize, though not in the ways most people imagine. It’s not the development of craft that is hardest, though that certainly takes a lot of time, and dedicated effort. I think the hardest thing is to sustain belief in yourself and in the value of your work. For most writers the road from first draft to published book is a long and arduous one. You have to believe it’s important enough to stay the course and not be discouraged by setbacks of various kinds. But publication is not the only valid goal, and I believe it’s not even the most important one. You don’t have to publish your work to benefit from writing it. Sometimes the only audience is ourselves, and sometimes that is enough.

RJ:  Is there a particular day or event during the sessions where you feel most energized or productive?

JH:  To me the most satisfying moment in the workshops I run is the wonderful feeling of peace and contentment I have when I look around the room and I see heads bent, fingers moving, and I can feel the energy, like an electricity in the air—but it’s a quiet hum, a steady buzz, not a bolt of lightning. There are lots of other nice moments too, as people share what they’ve written and help each other gain new insights about their work. But to me the most beautiful time is the time before all of that, when they are all reaching deep into themselves, and new thoughts are being born…being transmitted from heart and soul to page…

The light is amazing there!

Janet’s kind and gentle support and enthusiasm helped me jumpstart a long simmering project into movement.  Writing from the Heart, hosted in a beautiful French village, was an enriching and creative experience.  I highly recommend it.”  — Sharon Korman, Paris, France, 2015

RJ:  Why Essoyes?  What is it about this particular area of France which lends itself to creativity?

JH:  Mary McCarthy was once asked what a writer needs in order to write, and she said “A nice peaceful place with some good light.” I think that is a good way of describing Essoyes. Although there are many things to see and do in the area, the main appeal of Essoyes is not in having a lot of tourist attractions or cultural activities. It’s a good place to go to be surrounded with a simple, understated kind of beauty, and the kind of quiet peacefulness that invites relaxation, peacefulness, and contemplation. When I get there I have very little desire to go anywhere or be anywhere else, and I have seen the same thing happen to people who have visited me there. It is a good place to sink into and just be. There’s something very special, and very powerful about that. I think there is also something about going to a place far away, a place that we don’t know at all, that can be helpful in finding the clarity and insight that can help unlock some of the truths that may be buried deep within us.

Of course, Essoyes is in France. And the French know how to make the details of daily life really very pleasant. Especially eating! So there is always that in the background…

IMG_2404  IMG_2076


“I’ve attended two of Janet’s workshops in France.  If I’m to pick out one thing that has been most helpful to me, it is her ability to gently pull us out of our protective armor, whatever that is for each of us, and getting us to speak our own truth in what we write.”–Lee Isbell, Traveling Sardine Class, California, 2010 and 2015

RJ:  Do you offer anything similar in the United States for people unable to make the trip abroad?

JH:  Right now I do not have any classes planned in the U.S. But who knows what the future may hold, and of course I am available to work with writers individually as an editor or coach via email, Skype, Facetime, etc. I believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way, especially now, with the wonders of modern communication networks. It’s one of the nice things about being alive today.

RJ:  So much focus is placed on bestsellers, and on ranking a book’s performance.  What do you consider successful writing? 

JH:  To me, writing is first and foremost communication: it is important because it gives people the chance to express themselves, to say things that they feel are important to say. And it gives readers the chance to hear what other human beings have to say. I think writing is successful when the writer feels happy with what he or she has written; when it accurately and elegantly expresses what the writer feels. It is even more successful when that piece of work finds its way to readers who benefit from that honest sharing of some aspect of human experience. The number of books sold, the critical judgment of books, even publication itself: to me these are entirely different matters. They don’t really have anything to do with the most essential element of writing, which is an act of communication from a writer to a reader.

2015 Writers
2015 Writers

RJ:  Do you have a favorite quote about writing?  If so, why do you think it resonates with you?

JH:  Oh, there are so many. A few of my favorite quotes are in this post on my blog, about what “writing from the heart” really means. I guess if I could choose one more, I would say maybe this one, by Mavis Gallant. “All lives are interesting; no one life is more interesting than another. Its fascination depends on how much is revealed, and in what manner.” I really believe this. Everyone’s story is worth telling.

RJ:  You are currently working on your memoir.  Can you tell us more about it?

JH:  Sure, and thanks for asking! It’s called “A Long Way from Iowa: Living the Dream Deferred.” It’s the story of how in my family it took three generations of women with a passion for reading and writing—my grandmother, my mother, me—until someone was lucky enough to turn that passion into not just a beloved pastime, but a way of making a living, and a life. It’s also a coming-of-middle-age story, in that it’s about my discovery in my 40s that far from being the obstacles I had seen them as until then—women whose role models I had run halfway around the world to escape—I actually owed so much of who I am, and have become, to them, and to that love of words and of storytelling that they instilled in me. 

Although it is a very personal story I think it is also quite representative of dynamics that exist in many families, not just the families of writers. It’s so easy to not really see or understand those we are closest to for the longest time. I think this story is also representative of the way women’s lives have changed in the time since the story begins—in a tiny little town in northeastern Iowa, in 1892—until it ends more than a hundred years later, with me, after many years lived in New York City and Washington D.C., in a quiet little village in France.

RJ:  What are the dates of the next sessions of your writing workshops, and how can you be reached for more information?

JH:  The next two sessions will be from April 17-23 and May 29-June 4. I can be reached via email at janet.hulstrand@gmail.com and I will be happy to provide all the details, and to encourage, and welcome those who are ready to discover the excitement and joy—as well as the challenges—of writing from the heart…in the heart of France.

Welcome to Essoyes!
Welcome to Essoyes!

RJ:  Thank you Janet!  I know the readers will appreciate your time with them today.

So, dear readers, do you have a question for Janet?  For me?  I can tell you this.  I enjoyed the experience so much, as did the other students in my session, we planned a reunion this past October.  Although two original members were unable to join us there, we picked up two new writing friends.

And the journey continues…

Renee Johnson with Janet Hulstrand in Essoyes.
Renee Johnson with Janet Hulstrand in Essoyes.

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. “I think writing is successful when the writer feels happy with what he or she has written; when it accurately and elegantly expresses what the writer feels.” I couldn’t agree with you more, Janet.
    Thank you both for a wonderful interview.

  2. Renee, thank you for your generous sharing of resources for writers/authors with this post, and previous ones. You’ve really inspired me to think about writing workshops and retreats by sharing your experiences. I love Janet’s phrase in describing her memoir as a “coming of middle age story” as that is what writing has been for me. It’s encouraging to me to recognize that others have found “middle age” to be a time of growth and development as a writer. For me, it’s as though in this phase of life, I’ve finally given myself permission to speak up and express myself.

    Love seeing your work, your success, and learning about the writers and influencers you’ve encountered. Keep it up! ~ Sheila

  3. ****The power is within them to do it.***

    Love that so much!

    This interview was insightful, relatable, encouraging, interesting, and oh-so-beautiful.

    Thank you from MN.

    1. Wow! Thank you Michelle. Janet is supremely encouraging and I try to always follow her example. Reading your words reminds me how much we are all watching others and absorbing bits of their energies.

  4. The quote by Karin Knappstein Doglioni goes right to the heart not only of writing but any creative work. You are not creating before you are actually producing! Thank you for the interview with Janet Hulstrand, seems like she is teaching a wonderful workshop.

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