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

8.1 Something Old

As we ease back into JAR blogging, and while uncertainty and profound change swirls around us in eddies, we have decided to explore the maxim: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

Today, something old.

JODI

There is comfort in the old and I like that (even when I am always wanting to rush forth into the new or novel). I was reminded of that this week when it was finally cool enough to pull out my favourite jumper. But this isn’t an article about how much I love that jumper or how it drags up memories which have not been entirely laid to rest.

My “old” is two fold; both are forms of retreat.

The first is my poetry; a retreat in terms of space for daily moving meditation. My tools of quiet are scissors, glue, fragments of book text, cardboard, photos and a willingness to let go and allow poetry to form up through the text. This is where I can be most free and held at the same time. Where I can be true to myself but also in service to others.

Spark and Essence #19 Jodi Cleghorn 📸 Michael Rogers 📖 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

My second retreat is a formal commitment to silence and withdrawal. This has been a decision to delete my social media and messaging apps. I am in digital seclusion and I have not been more at peace in a long time.

Silence has extended to music, podcasts and recorded classes. There has been nothing but bird song and the intense symphony of multiple small children in my corner of suburbia and their emotional state in any given five-minute block.

Digital seclusion is a stillness, solitude, silence and simplicity I know well though it has been more than a year since I have retreated like this. I am not at all surprised to find myself here.

Spark and Essence #13 Jodi Cleghorn 📸 Chu Son 📖 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Both are old, but unlike my jumper, neither are worn or pulled out of shape, no matter how much time I spend in them.

ADAM

Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief
All kill for inspiration and sing about the grief.

So sang Bono in “The Fly,” the first single from the album Achtung Baby, an album which, in sound, was a radical departure from The Joshua Tree, the album that made them stratospheric rockstars. Both albums are brilliant in their own way. 

I like the old for the anchor that it can serve in our lives. The old can be a sense of certainty, a foundation, a building block. The old can be the rituals and traditions of family, the liturgy and recitation of beliefs forming the locus for who we are and what we are. The old becomes the central tenets we adhere to.

The old is what we are an apprentice to. We learn from the old, the ancient, the wise who have travelled before us and said, “This is what I have found” in their voices of poetry, music, dance, philosophy, faith. 

When we have learned enough to not be ignorant, but too little to be wise, we draw the anchor, relocate our position and fix ourselves to a new point to see how far we have travelled, or moved away from, in our own individual transformation and development, perhaps seeing those fixed points we used as our focal point in a different way. As another constellation to map our progress.

And in all this we return to the maxims and mantras of the masters, the proverbs and parables of the prophets, and understand them in a new way. It means returning to what was our first love, our awareness of what some would call vocation, or ministry, or calling, the idea that initially sparked our pilgrim’s progress. 

I like tradition for the symbolism and meaning it conveys but I look for ways that the old can be communicated for the new, in order that I may point them back to the old. As a teacher, I teach not to draw attention to myself, but to help students focus on what has come before them, to help them understand how to create their own foundations.

RUS

Our lifetimes provide us with more moments and memories than we know what to do with. Sometimes, we hold on to the older moments that keep us prisoners to our past, where we allow regret or desperation to grip us in our present. They are tempting, though, aren’t they? They lull us into “what-ifs” that make us believe the past is still attainable.

It is not.

What we are afforded from our past, however, are moments of great strength that serve us in different ways now. For me, that’s time spent living in a cabin along the shores of Chesapeake Bay. Instead of letting the “what-ifs” grip me, I embrace the still-present smells of the cool brackish waters mingling with the clays of the ancient cliffs around me, the sounds of a low-flying heron looking for a sunrise snack, the feeling of cold grains of wet sand formed around my feet like customized, natural sandals protecting me from the pin-pricks of fossilized teeth, lost millions of years ago by the sharks that inhabited these waters.

When I first experienced these things 33 years ago, I savored them for the moments in which they were born, and sometimes with the people with whom I so graciously shared them; today, though, I cherish the tranquility and solitude they bring me in the most hectic of hours; they bring peace to a present that is often far from the days living in a hand-built cabin in southern Maryland.

From this that is old, I do not wallow in regret; I bask in the glow of experiences gained to sustain my balance, my peace, on this long journey that carries me decades beyond those first hours spent along the shores of Chesapeake Bay, where I pondered my own existence among the cliffs that held fossils millions and millions of years old.

We are gifted with what is old; we are lifted by what we take from it.

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.

7.2 A Glimpse at “We Are But Ghosts On Film”

In the course of writing Post Marked Pipers’ Reach, Jodi and I wrote a series of unrelated stories for a Form and Genre Challenge. Unbeknownst to me, the titular character, Charlotte McKay, was in fact Ella-Louise. Charlotte McKay was the name Ella-Louise used when working undercover.

The short stories “What I Left to Forget” and “The Photographer’s Concerto” explored the relationship between Charlotte and Jakob, the guitarist for an up-an-coming grunge band, Soul Monkey Momento, who were set to explode in Australia and overseas. I had no idea I was writing stories that were connected to the wider world of Piper’s Reach at the time.

There is a mention of Jakob and the band in the letters between Ella-Louise and Jude, but the focal point for me in creating a new story was when Ella-Louise returned to Melbourne with the hope of catching up with members of Soul Monkey Momento. I had the two short stories, and the connection between Charlotte and Jakob, yet I was interested in what had happened to the rest of the band since the death of Jakob, and Charlotte’s sudden reappearance, particularly as it affected the drummer, Mitch.

Charlotte McKay was a separate entity to Ella-Louise, another incarnation of who she was, and I wanted to explore the impact of her life on another person. Who are we in the gaps and silences of life? Is there redemption in asking for forgiveness? Or condemnation? Can you make amends for a past that was of your making, and not of your own making? Can you be forgiven for what you did? Do you want forgiveness?

I’ve written the novella and am now in the process of rereading, editing and rewriting for submission.

WE ARE BUT GHOSTS ON FILM

CHAPTER 3

Mitch sits behind the kit and plays the song Jakob wrote for Charlotte. She sings it with fragile tenacity and the years peel back. There is the sound of heartbreak in her voice, not the passionate declaration of adoring lust. This was a song wrought out of intense passion and sung with desperate longing. And it was beautiful. It is still beautiful.

Flip the record and the B-side is another single; a cover song or an alternate take. This is the A-side: Jakob died and Charlotte disappeared. The B-side is a gap of fifteen years, three bands, and one heartbreaking event ago. And yet she is here, on stage, singing the same song.

The crowd erupts, witness to a moment they believed they would never see again.

Josh yells over the adoring crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, CHARLOTTE MCKAY!”

Eyes focused downward, she waves to the crowd who respond in ecstasy.

Mitch yellS after her. “Charlotte.”

She turns, hand still grasping the microphone.

“Hang around, will you?”

She nods, caught under the gaze of the spotlights, and smiles but Mitch doubts she will stick around to the end of the set. He watches her drop off the stage, pick up her camera and slip in the shadows between the stage and the barrier. During the rest of the set he keeps an eye out for her but does not see her.

The remainder of the set plays out as planned, held together by the moment of remembered bliss, yet even as the house lights come up and the sound guy starts playing Tears For Fears, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” they begin to forget. Her presence as illusory as shadow; a by-line in a gig review a week later no one will read, as the only proof she ever existed.

She’s there. In the corner of the green room, tucked into a dingy sofa. Camera curled into her lap like a cat.

“Fuck me; Charlotte McKay,” said Mitch. There is a shift in the shadows, wrapping them around her shoulders again as if a spotlight was turned on her, suddenly the focus of attention from Mitch and the other members of the band. Always that shadow covering her heart in layer upon layer.

“Mitch.” From the sofa she stands and slips her arm around his waist, the other over his shoulder.

“Watch it. Bit sweaty.”

The embrace was familiar and awkward, like the distance of time made the pieces of the puzzle not fit correctly; edges mangled or new hollows carved out. There’s an apology in the embrace, and a longing for forgiveness.

Where to from here? Mitch wondered as he felt her embrace loosen and they stepped back from one another, afraid to cross the chasm without the certainty of an anchor point to pull himself up should they fall.

The phantom made real in a pair of dark jeans, boots and black t-shirt. And the camera strap straddling her neck as she cradled the camera like a child in the womb. She looked down, as if she were sizing up this older version of Mitch who was transposed over the younger incarnation.

As she stepped forward again into the gap, Mitch involuntarily moved to step back.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“For what?”

“For just then. Making you step back. Afraid of who I am, what I might be. Sorry for turning up, unannounced. Sorry for disappearing.”

He ran his hand across the stubble on his face and wiped the sweat from the hollow of his neck before wiping it dry on the seat of his jeans. “Apology accepted.”

“Thank you.”

Across the deepest chasm Mitch took a step to embrace Charlotte. A moment for initiating reconciliation and remembrance. She raised her head from his chest. “You never kept a grudge?”

“No need to. It was never your fault.”

Mitch shifted his weight from one foot to the other and let Charlotte slip out of his arms and went to the table on the other side of the room. “Come on. Let’s get you a beer.”

“What are you not telling me?”

“I doubted you existed. You only existed in my memory because the photos you took are proof. Without the photos you’re a ghost; you’re even a ghost behind the camera.”

“You can’t prove I took them. Therefore, I don’t exist.” A slight smirk played at the edge of her lips as if the comment was both self-effacing and self-defeating. “If you don’t remember who took them, I don’t exist.”

“But I do remember. And I won’t forget. So, you do exist. Even if you’re not around.”

“Will you remember me when I’m gone?

“I never forgot. I will always remember.” Mitch twisted the cap off the bottle, tossed it loosely in his hand. “You’re always welcome here. Where are you staying?”

“Somewhere local.”

“Staying long?”

A shake of the head.

“You got time to come back and catch up tonight?”

“I can arrange something.”

“What’s your number and I’ll text you the address.”

“I’m not operating a phone at the moment.”

“Hang on.” Mitch steps out of the room and back to the stage, ferrets in his stick bag for a pen, grabs the scrunched set list from underneath his hi-hat stand and scribbles his address on the back.

Charlotte was where he had left her, the afterimage of a flash popping in his face. He hands her the set list.

“Just like old times,” she says.