"Our Chorus of Voices": Why Community is the Best Cure for Writer's Block

GrubStreet's Memoir Incubator Program is an MFA-level year-long course for authors working to develop their memoir drafts. Molly Magram Schpero writes on the community she found as a student in the Incubator, and how vital it was to find a new "nest" after the program ended. 

Last year, I graduated from GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator program, and the experience was enough of a life-changer that even though I’m not hitting my word counts, or deadlines, I’m still measuring time in Memoir Incubator units. Our brilliant and inspiring teacher, Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, did everything an incubator, but especially a real mother hen, should have. Alex Alex kept our writing environment safe, she encouraged, cajoled, and sometimes threatened when necessary. Then, after making sure we were strong enough, she nudged us gently out of the nest. Why haven’t I spread my wings? Or, forgetting the bird imagery, why aren’t I writing? Why have I put my memoir in a drawer and buried the computer file in my hard drive?

The term “incubator” is particularly apt for my project. The book I’m writing is about how I became pregnant with our son, via a donor’s egg and my husband’s sperm in the pioneering days of egg donation procedures, almost twenty-five years ago. The book is also about raising our son and the choices we made, how to talk about his origins, and whom to tell. My son and others in the family have been alternately flattered and flabbergasted that I was writing about him, after years of relative secrecy. Even with a distance of twenty-four years, I have found it difficult to examine in writing the way infertility made me feel less than—as a woman, as a wife, and as a mother.

On the first day of my Incubator class, the ten of us strangers, about to spend a year together sharing our intimate stories, gathered in a GrubStreet classroom. Our teacher, Alex , stood at the board, black dry erase marker in hand, and asked us to call out what we were afraid of in writing our memoirs. We spoke our answers, slowly and softly at first, others nodding and mumbling their agreement. What if my feelings are wrong? All the lost time. Who cares? What if I fail to do this? It will embarrass me, hurt other people. Shame.

Soon, I stopped looking at who was saying what, and our chorus of voices became a collection of words on the wall. When we were finished, Alex picked up the eraser and with a sweeping motion cleaned the white board, but not before I snapped a few photos. Though the words had been erased, their ghosts still lingered on the board. But during the year of the Memoir Incubator, those ghost words of doubt or fear disappeared, covered over by other words having to do with craft and technique and insights gained into my own and classmates’ work. We were too busy to be apprehensive.

The year after the Incubator, on my own, I floundered, procrastinated, distracted myself, stopped writing. I saw and heard more of those ghost words: The words won’t come. What if I’m exposed? It will come out wrong.  I relived the lonely experience of infertility and questioned my writing ability. But also in that year, some of the other incubees and I began holding monthly meetings. We set writing deadlines, though they were much less frequent than in the Incubator.

When it was my month to submit pages, I turned in an essay that had nothing to do with my memoir and my fellow incubees said, “This reminds us of your memoir.” I realized that they knew me in ways others did not. Our words on the whiteboard told me that we had similar fears about writing our stories. But what I learned later was that we all shared similar passions to tell those stories.

Despite Alex Alex ’s weekly reminders to send words, email reminders that I had voluntarily signed up to receive, I only wrote when it was my turn to submit work to the group. I enrolled in two different GrubStreet courses with kind and skilled teachers, Tim Weed and Ron MacLean. I wanted to write well, but before I could do that, I had to write something.

Sometime during this past year, taking courses, and meeting with my Incubator group, I started to write again. It didn’t matter if I pulled out a short story that I couldn’t quite make work, or began a fictional account of my pregnancy and motherhood experience.  Some of my classmates were sending their manuscripts to agents, or being published in national magazines. I told myself baby birds didn’t all learn to fly on the same day.

It has taken more than a year since completing the Memoir Incubator, but between GrubStreet classes and the writing group of original incubees, I think I have found what I needed in order to pick up where I left off with the memoir—another nest.  Sure this nest may not be constructed as expertly as The Incubator, but it feels welcoming and safe, and sturdy enough to fly in and out of. 


Molly Magram Schpero was part of the second Memoir Incubator class. She has been a wallpaper designer and an elementary school art teacher. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, works in freelance design and project management, and is now back at work on her memoir, The Only Mother

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by Molly Schpero


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