By Warren Sloat
Beefy personal trainers help us define our physiques and inspiring personal coaches help us make major business decisions, but some activities we usually do alone -- and, if at all, for free. Journal writing comes to mind.
Yet this fall Charlene Geiss of Santa Fe, N.M., expects 70 budding diarists to enroll in her Diarist's Workshop, which she founded in 1997.
In "Head, Heart, Paper, and Ink," the Workshop's core course, Geiss teaches a dozen techniques for writing journals. Her aim is to help diary writers to improve their skills in self-expression and self-discovery, to do it quickly and with a healthy attitude. Other courses include "Write On" (more journal writing), "Flights of Fancy" (students take group excursions and write about them), "The Talking Book" (couples compile a joint marriage diary), and "Sharing Sessions" (reading diary entries aloud to each other). She also conducts individual tutorials and teaches diary writing at Santa Fe Community College.
Group sessions work out to a cost of $10 per hour for each student; private tutorials and all-day excursions cost more.
Read to Me
On a recent evening in early fall, six women come to the Geiss house in a gated Santa Fe community. They meet around a coffee table in the living room for what Geiss calls a "Sharing Session." They read passages from their diaries about everything from failed marriages to beautiful sunsets.
"It's not a form of therapy, but a way for us to be self-reflective in a safe environment," says Clare Mannion, a Santa Fe real estate agent who joined the Diarist's Workshop when it was formed in 1997. "We take it one step further than just thinking a thought or having a conversation, and sometimes we have a lot of fun. Charlene can be provocative."
The first lesson that Geiss teaches in the core course is "listing" -- a way for busy people to keep a regular diary without devoting too much time to it. "You can get a lot of information down quickly if you're not trying to put it in sentences," she says.
Geiss teaches other methods of journal writing, of course, and these include writing unsent letters, conducting dialogues with oneself (writing from another point of view -- the future, for example), and spiral writing. This last technique is a type of stream-of-consciousness writing, in which the writer scribbles madly for six minutes, pauses, plucks a single phrase from the stream to follow for another six minutes, and repeats the process several times. "Either you get very clear on what you're writing, because you're spiraling deeper and deeper into the subject," Geiss says, "or it takes you to a whole other unexpected place."
She encourages her students to use illustration, found objects, and anything else at hand to enhance their journal. In her "Flights of Fancy" course, she has them bring to class a childhood toy or a photograph of a childhood possession, and then write about it.
Geiss teaches people to write faster and with a positive attitude. "Many people use their journals as a dumping ground," she says. "They don't think to write when they've had a fabulous day. They do it to vent feelings. But when I teach them techniques, they have the tools to record a great experience in a few minutes."
Before embarking upon IP-hood, Geiss had many careers. Among them, she taught sixth grade, owned a Long Island restaurant-disco, and owned and ran an antique shop in Old Westbury, N.Y. Once she sold the antique shop, she moved to New Mexico and worked as a manager at American Country Collections, a Santa Fe store that sells Ralph Lauren and other brands of upscale designer furniture. "It was a fabulous job," Geiss says. "I liked the people, it was great fun, and I love being around furniture. I did model homes for developers, huge projects. And the money was good."
Yet something was missing. Geiss wrote in her diaries that she wanted to teach again and wondered what she was supposed to be doing. Did it have something to do with diaries? For thirty years she had kept a journal, always with a fountain pen, always with blue ink and into which were folded intricate collages made of greeting cards, postcards, magazine advertisements, leaves, dried flowers, imprints of rubber stamps -- whatever worked.
"I came to realize that my [professional calling] was the journal writing itself," she says. "Since I was a kid, I was never outdoors. I never played with a doll. I was always creating these little books. One day it came to me that this is my real life's work."
Out of the Closet
During a dinner party at the Geiss home in the spring of 1997, Geiss' journals came up in conversation. Her guests asked to see them. "I opened up the cabinet and pulled a few out," she says. "I think even my husband had never seen me turn the pages of my books. So it was very uncomfortable." The positive response of the guests made her think that others might be interested in her work, too. Shortly afterwards, one of the dinner guests arranged a luncheon to introduce someone else to Geiss' journals. Word spread.
Geiss says, "Someone would call and ask, 'Would you mind if I came to take a look at your books? I've been keeping journals for years and I don't think mine are anything like yours." Several people asked Geiss to teach a course on journal writing, but her initial responses were noncommittal. It wasn't time yet.
Geiss stewed throughout the summer of 1997. "I wrote about the fear of putting myself out there and about how I would share such a private thing," she recalls. "I had to be able to figure a way to show [the diaries] without actually letting the students read them.
"I wanted to work with the elderly and take it to the elementary schools and the community college. I was overwhelming myself with the possibilities. Finally I decided, let's start with one baby step -- with some small classes."
The moment of truth arrived when a friend made out a check and handed it to her.
"So I called up the other people who had asked about the course and they called up friends and before I knew it I had twelve people. And I knew after teaching the first class that I would do this forever." Four of those who were the first to see the journals at the dinner party took courses with her, and three of them are still studying with her two years later.
The most active recruiters for the workshop are her students. Both Clare Mannion and Mary Anne Stickler have brought in at least a half-dozen new faces. "If I'm talking intimately with a friend, and there is a sign that the friend is stuck in a job or a relationship," says Stickler, "I recommend the workshop course."
"I try to get all my friends to do journaling," Robbie Sommer says, "and at least five of them have tried it." And Ashley Margetson, another student, travels with a copy of her own journal, ready to recruit for the course by showing it to others.
Geiss herself doesn't advertise. "I'm never a hardcore salesperson," she says. "I feel that they should do it when they're ready." She holds open house at least twice a year, and the events attract both new and former students. Geiss estimates that each open house enrolls four to five new students and brings back old ones as well.
Since the Diarist's Workshop first occurred to her, Geiss has wanted to involve more and more people. "I'm not satisfied with sharing it with just Santa Fe," she says. Accordingly, Geiss has plans to take the workshop to retreat centers and spas, places where people go to relax, indulge, have facials and massages, where leisure and comfort induce self-examination. Other specialists in the human potential movement regularly lecture and hold workshops at spas and retreats, where "sharing" and "empowerment" are words to live by.
"I've always taken risks, and I've always been on the edge," she says. "I've had lots of money in my life and no money, and I've never measured anything in terms of how much money I make. It's always been about the joy and satisfaction I get from it."
November 29, 1999
Primary Editor: Eric Gershon
Illustrator: Lawrence San
Production: Keith Gendel
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Warren Sloat is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Fe, NM. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with him, or with anyone named in this article.