Finding Your Creative Solitude in Isolation

As writers and artists, we have always valued our time alone to work on our latest creations. In fact, we often complain that there isn’t enough time in solitude to really get in the zone to work on our writing, music, or art.

My, how things have changed in the last few months.

When I first found myself without a brick and mortar school to be driving to on a daily basis, I thought that I would be absolutely sick of all the creating I was going to do in that “down” time. But the sudden void was filled with pandemic-related needs and concerns. I, like millions of others, had been displaced; our routines had been disrupted, if not destroyed.

It took a good three weeks for me to establish a different routine that was antithetical to any practice I had established over decades of teaching in a school building, and I started to rebuild a creative practice that is now a part of my new, still odd, daily routine. At least for the foreseeable future. I have found that solitude to write once again.

What this pandemic has created, though, is an equal demand for community. We are wrapping up an 11th week of isolation here in the United States, and we seek out moments shared in a creative commons, virtual or otherwise. We long to share our experiences, emotions, and works-in-progress with others. We also seek out support, even a tandem play period as we continue our work side by virtual side, separated not by the space between our chairs, but by the number of clicks and scrolls as we connect through technology.

What’s tough is establishing our work in that virtual art world as something entirely different from our daily Zooms, Meets, and digital connections that were hardly a part of our lives just three months ago.

Jodi, Adam, and I have been fortunate as this is all we have ever known as a Collective. I have never met either of them in real life. Through our own virtual community, we have published two novels (with more on the way), countless blog posts, challenges, and shared ideas in creativity and writing. But that was all done in a carefully constructed balance with our busy worlds.

As a result, even we have struggled to maintain that drive; the toll this 24/7 isolation is taking on all of us is deeper than we could have ever previously imagined.

Still, there is great value in understanding that, just like we found time in our busy, pre-pandemic schedules to create – write, draw, compose – we must define and separate our virtual time as creatives so that it holds a unique energy that we may accept for ourselves and lift up to others.

A few weeks ago, while giving a virtual book reading for a community literary group, I was so inspired by talking with, and learning from, other creatives. The experience continues to lift me today. What they offered me (and others) is that we’re all still creating, even from a distance. The energy is out there, and we need our communities to share that with each other.

This is what we hope our June Writeathon provides the creatives from all over the globe: a sense of community in a time where isolation and video chats consume our days and evenings. For the 20+ writers who have made the commitment to focus on their personal writing goals for these 30 days in June, we are excited to create – side by side – with you.

And, we encourage all of our readers and followers to take time for your creative selves each day. You will always have a community right here at The JAR.

We wish you the space and community to continue your creative expressions, both for you and for the world to cherish.

cof

Challenging Times: Stay Close to Creativity

If you are anything like us, you are struggling in these days of despair and derailment to focus on giving your creative energy the time and space it is desperately demanding. We are, no doubt, out of alignment, and there has never been a greater call to pull our collective mindful acts together and allow our inner creativity to thrive.

We — Jodi, Adam, and Rus — are staying as close as we can in supporting each other’s creative efforts during quarantines and lockdowns as we work together throughout the world to stop its deadly spread. We, ourselves, are separated by continents, yet, our energies that we are pulling together are as strong as they have ever been.

It’s not easy, though, and we know many creatives are struggling out there to continue working on their writing, their music, their art, no matter what that might be.

We established this Collective to create a sacred space for the three of us to share our works, to challenge ourselves to take greater risks as artists, and to challenge other creatives across the globe to do the same. We took a break to focus on our own works as we did our best to manage through the challenges of domesticity.

In this time of our greatest crisis yet faced in our own lifetimes, however, we feel more empowered than ever to breathe new life into this sacred space, to share our focus in creating new works, and to encourage you to do the same.

Below, each of us shares two things: where we find ourselves in this unprecedented time, and what we are working on to keep our creative focus. In the comments below, we encourage you to do the same as well.

At this moment, we do not care what you are creating, and neither should you. For some of us, it might be an ongoing love letter to our children (even to the unborn) about what we are experiencing on a daily basis; for others, it might be a dystopian piece that captures how you are feeling at this moment. Still others might stray as far away from our current situation and create stories and poems of quiet summer evenings, of unrelated tales of horror, of stimulating erotica; all awaken the suppressed Svadhisthana chakra of creative and fertile energy that yearns to flow freely within and beyond you.

Beginning today, and every week hereafter, we are going to be offering encouraging challenges to you as we share the works we are creating. We must remain as close as possible, in any way imaginable, to pull us through. We all know that unfulfilled and stifled creativity can manifest dangerously into depression, anxiety, and even physical illness.

Here at the JAR Collective, we won’t allow that to happen to each other, and we won’t allow that to happen to you.

Join us, as we come together, and bind our creative energies in an irrefutable, strong force that manifests wellness for all.

JODI

I’m self employed, with a son who is homeschooled so not a lot has changed in one respect and everything has also changed. Our spoodle is one of the legions of internet hounds beside himself with joy to have all his humans home… especially my partner who will ‘work from the couch.’ I had signalled the March equinox as my return to work, after I was hospitalised in early January after a chronic health issue turned acute. While I took clients in the lead up to equinox to get my hand in and my confidence back up, I haven’t actually done client work since ‘officially’ returning to work. I haven’t quite found my centre yet, to be able to offer to hold that space for anyone else.

I am so aware of what I need, in terms of when I need to get up in the morning, the parts of my stillness practice which are non-negotiable for my mental health and general wellbeing. Yet as I flux in and out of great and horrific sleep, getting up at that magic 5am point is difficult. What my partner and I have been doing, is taking the dog down the road for coffee, and talking about what is going on in the world. We are very clear we do not want to talk about world events in our home; it is our sanctuary. I am also very clear about what brings me joy, comfort and pleasure, in small ways. Stopping to appreciate moments which would otherwise have passed unnoticed in different times.

My creative space has been anchored in the return of my daily poem project, The Daily Breath. It came down to the wire for me to decide to do it. Who the hell asks people to pay for art in a crisis, I asked myself when I was trying to decide what to do. People who know the power, the medicine and the comfort which art provides in times of high stress and uncertainty. It is all I am managing at the moment. Somehow time is moving faster than I am used to. Faster than I am able to fall into the flow of.

This too will change and I look forward to being immersed in words in thrive mode, rather than survive mode. I know what I am here to anchor in this time and words are only a part of it.

ADAM

As a teacher, these are different times. We are navigating pedagogy and syllabi and curricula in different ways to meet the needs of our students, some of whom require extra attention and care. We are doing our best at remote learning (not homeschooling) and there are challenges and rewards. There is a sense of apprehension and uncertainty, and how we allow our students to discuss and process these emotions that will determine their resilience. And from it will come good work, and average work, and rushed work. The usual.

As students are susceptible and vulnerable to change, many creatives are keenly attuned to the undercurrents of society and attempting to make them visible and/or audible to the greater masses. And some creatives are unsettled by the situation so creative works are difficult.

I’ve turned to drawing as a grounding activity when I feel words are hard to come by. I began to create single line drawings just over a year ago when there was a tumultuous time of moving house in the first half of the year, and resigning from my old school to start at a new school in 2020.

A single line drawn; a continuous, unbroken line.

The pen invents the existence of the image from the blank space of the page, drawing the white into the pen to reveal the darkness of the solar system beneath. Conversely, the tabula rasa of sight is given vision through the pen, leaking the blackness of the imagination onto the page.

The line takes shape: straight paradoxes, curved obstructions, angular indices, folded waves, circular epiphanies. The brevity of a single line suggests, coaxes, entices or has the complexity of a woven tapestry to illuminate, postulate, seduce.

As it is with words.

Single words.

Verb. Noun. Adjective. Preposition.

When connected together they expand, like the line, to form phrases and clauses. When arranged in single horizontal lines as sentences they give direction and purpose to the shape of the narrative.

Sentences with the lines of tailored couture bestow a resplendence of awareness.

Sentences with the sparseness of underpants and socks bestow a nakedness of understanding.

What are words but a single continuous line.

RUS

As a full-time teacher, serving at both the university and secondary levels, I find this time to be unsettling for both educators and our students. Everyone seems to be doing their best to navigate the right path forward. Fortunately, I have been teaching online at the university level for 10 years, so my focus is on supporting my secondary colleagues and students.

I have been home for 13 school days now, and much of my time is spent helping and supporting my other family members who are as directly affected by the shutdowns and quarantines. It’s what each of us should be doing: staying close, supporting one another, and clearing a path forward in these uncertain times.

I have preserved my creative space in two ways: delving into the world of watercolors, and working on a new piece of fiction, set in 1926 in Argentina. Both of these pursuits are beyond my comfort zone, and yet I find great solace in working on them, as they challenge me in a way that does not merely appease my uneasiness. That would be easy to do with creating and coloring Mandalas (which I still do). This new work in watercolors and writing allows me to get beyond appeasement; it is a surge in new energy that requires new thought, new courage, new focus.

A Challenge:

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way among other books on creativity, encourages individuals to make an “artist’s date” with yourself. We cannot think of a greater time to do this, with one caveat:

This date should be for no less than 90 minutes, and you must rid yourself of any expectation whatsoever to share your work. You can, if you like, later. But those 90 minutes must be sacred and personal, intimate and uninhibited. Abandon any worries about sharing; use this time to reconnect with your Svadhisthana energy.

 

 

7.3 A Glimpse at “A Christmas Story in Jacob’s Landing”

Setting matters to me, as I am sure it does to other writers out there who invest time in establishing the background of their stories and characters. Most of my work – both fiction and nonfiction – takes place in Maryland in the United States. As such, I’ve created some rather elaborate settings based closely on the places I frequent.

And sometimes, those places and stories overlap.

In 2013, as I was establishing the plot line of Fossil Five, I created a fictitious town called Jacob’s Landing. I took great care in establishing the town’s proximity to Chesapeake Bay, the tributaries that trickled through the small parcel of land, and the incidents and events that defined its less-than desirable history. In it, I created a few stories that happened under “Fait’s Five Bridges.”

The next year, I started a new novel called Sail Away, also set in the town of Jacob’s Landing. I began to see the benefits of creating a strong setting where multiple stories could be created. I learned this from Stephen King who used his own fictitious Castle Rock town as a backdrop for many of his works of horror.

Fast forward to 2019, and I am working on a new Christmas story for my holiday anthology. In this story, “A Christmas Story in Jacob’s Landing,” I not only use the setting that I have relied on for previous works, I am now having my main characters from this short work bump into some of the characters from my previous works, including Fossil Five.

I find it a delicious challenge to keep the “rules” of previous stories straight while creating new works of fiction within that VW-imagined world. I don’t want to write anything that is going to undermine or discredit what has already been published. It’s like inserting new pieces into a jigsaw puzzle that has already been completed.

This is one of the most basic rules I learned long ago with creating fantasy or science fiction; if you are going to create an imaginary world, you are in charge of creating boundaries and staying within them for the entire work. Whenever you are developing multiple works from the same setting, you must continue to adhere to those boundaries and not conflict with anything already created in that world.

It’s tough, but it’s fun.

Here is the drafted opening of my new Christmas story, due to come out just before the holidays.

“A Christmas Story In Jacob’s Landing”
by Rus VanWestervelt, Draft 1

Chapter 1:
1 December

None of this was what he imagined – or hoped – it might be. 

Travis stood outside the cabin, leaning against the wet railing that was now warped, a twisting 2 x 6 board that had never been properly sealed. He could feel the moisture in the wood seep through the bulky cableknit sweater as he shifted his arms, and he stared through the bare deciduous trees at the Chesapeake Bay’s brackish waters. They were choppy, and the strong winds brought a swirling mix of scents from the bay and the woods between them: an aromatic touch of fresh, sweet sap tainted with the decaying odors of the detritus on the forest floor. 

It conjured the memorable scent of a peculiar perfume that he longed to forget. It was, in fact, the reason he was here, nearly 100 miles away from his home in Baltimore County, close to the Pennsylvania line. 

He was here to forget.

He played with the paper crane in his hand, folding the wings again and again as he watched a pair of egrets standing still in the water, waiting for their next meal to swim by. 

Even here, on the western shores of Chesapeake Bay in the small town of Jacob’s Landing, he could not escape her. 

Inside the cabin, his phone began to ring. 

He threw the paper crane over the deck railing and watched it sputter its way to the ground, landing on a twig, its beak buried under a damp oak leaf. Pushing away from the railing, he went inside, the warm air of the fire greeting him immediately. 

“This is Travis,” he said, answering the call.

“I know you are probably surrounded by a bunch of unopened moving boxes,” the voice said on the other end. It was his editor at the Jacob Herald, Stanley, who was also good college friend of his father. “I’ve got a gun-control rally that’s starting under the Bridges. My go-to for these kinds of events has got up and went. Any chance you can pick it up? It’s a hell of a first assignment to introduce you to Jacob.”

Travis moved closer to the fire, hearing him chuckle on the other end of the line.

“Not wasting a moment, are you? Everything my dad said about you is dead-on right.”

“Did he also say that I was the more talented, the most handsome, and the quickest to land a date back when were at St. Mary’s?”

Now it was Travis’ time to laugh. “He said that you would say all that, so I guess you are right.”

“I love that man,” said Stanley.

“Don’t we all.” Travis cleared his throat. “Do you need pictures too? Or do you have a photog already assigned?”

“If you accept the job, then the photographer has been assigned. You.”

Travis stepped closer to the fire. He just could not warm up. “I accept, but it will take me a few minutes to find the box where my camera is buried.”

“Take your time,” said Stanley. “Rally starts at 4. Find Morgan Carter. She’s your main contact. Sweet girl that is born and bred Jacob. She’ll have all the answers – and a few good save-the-world quotes that will spark a little traction online, I’m sure.”

Travis bristled as he started opening boxes, looking for his camera gear. 

“I don’t have any cares about the online chatter,” he chuffed. “No time for that.”

“That’s our bread and butter, son. Deny that, and we lose our advertising.”

He pulled a well-loved Nikon D300 camera from a box, and put his eye up to the viewfinder. 

“When do you want the story?” asked Travis.

“8:30 tonight if you can. I’d like to include it in our 10 p.m. online edition.”

“800 words?”

“Make it 600. Not too many book readers here in Jacob.”

Travis hung up the phone and scrolled through the last few pictures on the camera’s memory card. It was of their last trip together to Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. when the leaves were at their autumnal peak.

“Jesus.”

He selected them all and then deleted the batch. Just to be sure they were gone, he formatted the card. 

Travis turned and walked out on to the deck, still clutching the old camera as if it were an extension of his right hand. He aimed at the two egrets, still waiting ever-patiently for food, when he fired off a few shots of the birds in mid-strike. 

He studied one of the pictures on the camera’s display panel, zooming into the egret’s beak and the squirming fish. “Looks like the striped killifish are still running,” he said aloud, saving the image. 

No, nothing was as he had thought that it might be, and that was okay. He turned off the camera, grabbed his notebook and keys, and headed out the door to meet a woman named Morgan under the Fait’s Five Bridges.

Not Without. . .Rus

I’ve played that game numerous times, where I’m asked what I’d want with me if I were stranded on a deserted island. At times, my responses have been somewhat flippant, like a drop shipment of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, or even a full-service, fully-functioning coffee shop with enough roasted beans to last me a good 20 years.

The people asking me to play these little games don’t usually like my responses. They want me to say something like a favorite book (which one!) or a sentimental charm to remind me of someone enjoying life a little better than I would be at that certain moment.

That’s okay. I think that if I were ever really stranded on an island, my lack of survival skills would make moot any large shipments or stashes of goodies quite quickly.

And let’s face it. Unless you are Tom Hanks or Gilligan, chances are pretty good that you should think more about what’s in the back seat of your car when you run out of gas on the most unlikely (and least traveled) stretch of road between towns.

So we’ll put the pretending aside and talk in more realistic tones about my essentials, my non-withouts, that sustain me in this thing called life.

My Daybook. I first discovered the sacred and secret powers of the daybook when I was in sixth grade. My Language Arts teacher, Jack Delaney, taught us everything we needed (and wanted) to know about the writing process and this magical little stage called drafting. He gave us license to write like crap on those first drafts. “Just get it down on paper,” he would say, and we did. And it was crap. But it was a starting point for our stories, our essays (called “themes”), and our 11-year-old views of lives lived dangerously.

They were exciting drafts, filled with uninhibited thoughts about love, magic, girls, boys, sports, snakes, sex, superstars, religion, divorce, and even death. My early drafting caught fire, and I started my first daybook journaling in an old wide-ruled Mead composition book about love and relationships, trying to understand the intricacies of being human, and how we all might just do a little better if we go through it together.

Today, 43 years later, not much has really changed. My daybooks are still sacred and secret, and I’m still exploring the realms of relationships and the tensions between death and life as we balance our walk a little more delicately in an increasingly reckless world. My daybook is the very extension of my brain, my heart, my timeless soul that carries the memories and DNA of myriad generations – too many that I have yet to know through the words I spill on the page.

My Music. Among and beyond the words I write, music frames my every action. It doesn’t matter if I’m driving to work (morning baroque music really synchronizes my cells), grading papers (Amazon Music has some serious study playlists that get the job done), or writing (I’ve created very specific playlists for my very specific writing projects), the music I listen to matters.

It’s an eclectic collection for sure. Thanks to iTunes Match, I’ve uploaded thousands and thousands of songs, albums, and soundtracks that allow me to build unlimited playlists that are available to me on any of my devices, 24/7. I’m not too jazzed about the plugged-in life, but this little offer from Apple allows me to have instant access to the music I need. I take full advantage of that for a few reasons.

First, if writing is the essence of my heart, mind, and soul, music is the blood that courses through my veins pumping life and sustenance to those words I place on the page. Music holds memories and messy possibilities as I create new worlds, breathe life into new characters, and expose the tensions in life that we experience every day, but don’t really have the chance, or the courage, to bring to light.

Second, it is simply an escape to put in my earbuds and return to calmer days, imaginary roads, and peaceful moments I can slow to a low-pulse, timeless experience, with emotions and recollections hovering over me as the music plays on. My music is my inner oxygen. The more I listen, the more I am at peace and one with all that defines me.

My Querencia. This is your space, your wanting-place that makes you feel invincible. It’s your go-to corner of the sky where you are gifted with uninterrupted moments of stillness (or even chaos for some) that is consistent with every vibe that resonates from and within you. In the past, my Querencia has been a log cabin, the sands along the brackish waters of Chesapeake Bay, and the paths that stretch more than 2,100 miles along the Appalachian Trail. But now, in the hectic ways of full-time jobs, family needs, and typical getting-old challenges, I find that my Querencia is wherever I might be with my daybook and my music. Give me a dirty table one afternoon at a local cafe between rushes and I’m good. Or clear a spot on the dining room table around the incredible paintings and anatomy textbooks and I’m ready to venture into other worlds. In other words, my sojourning ways manifest into creative explorations, which eventually manifest into stories, essays, and authentic renditions of who I am, at that particular place in time.

And all because I am not without the very words, sounds, and space that serve as the essence of all I can be, in my efforts to be all that I actually am.