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.

 

5.3 The Next Story – Rus

Every time I publish a piece of writing with a larger audience, one of the most common questions I hear is “What’s next?”

It’s a loaded question, for sure, especially with Fossil Five releasing to the world in a matter of days. Most people don’t really care about the behind-the-scenes writing I am doing on a daily — sometimes hourly — basis. What they really care about is what I plan on releasing to the public in the near future.

I have several in the running for the next six months. There’s the creative nonfiction piece about the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 and my research disputing the young mayor’s death being ruled a suicide. I firmly believe he was murdered, and I’m on a good track to prove it.

Then there’s the new novel idea about a small-town college that shuts down in the late sixties after a series of unsolved murders on campus. The abandoned college receives a financial windfall from an anonymous donor, and when it reopens for artists in 2020, the murders resume. The story follows several students who begin to unearth the secrets of the college’s bloody history, leading them to become the primary targets for the killer’s next victims.

I also have an inspiring series of essays in the works on living a more fulfilling life through authentic journaling.

The truth is, though, that the “next” story is whichever one rises from the myriad ideas, scribbles, and drafts that I have been collecting in my journals for the past 4 decades. In other words, when you sneak a peek behind the writer’s magical veil, there is no official “next story.”

In addition to the three titles that I listed above, I’m working on stories that matter the world to me, but may never see the light of day in my readers’ worlds.

These are just a few of the ideas ripped from my daybook’s pages. Some of them are developed more than others.

  • Sail Away– a novel about a time portal in the basement of a family’s house that leads to the late 18th century, where some of the individuals of yesteryear have come back to cross-populate the two worlds over a three-century period.
  • Daily Prompts of Inspiration- I have written and shared many hundreds of writing prompts to lift up, inspire, and encourage others. This would be a journal where each page begins with a new thought, and plenty of blank space to reflect.
  • Anthology of Ghost and Horror Stories- I have always loved the genre of terror, and over the years I have written enough short stories to put together an anthology of horror. It’s quite antithetical to my inspiring posts and essays; I guess that’s what makes them all the more interesting.
  • My Poetry- This is something that I have very, very rarely shared with anybody, even my closest writer-friends. I think this would take the most amount of courage. As vulnerable as I feel about my fiction, I keep my poetry very close to the vest. One day, that will change.
  • The Memoir of Rus- I thought about doing this when I turned 50 (my writer-friend Bernadette did this as a series of reflective pieces, and it resonated deeply with me), but it never happened. I don’t think I need a particular anniversary or milestone birthday to share these; I do think, though, that I need to finish and share these essays comprising a larger picture of me sooner than later.

And then, of course, there are the collaborative works with Jodi and Adam here at the JAR that are always in line to be “next.” The Glass Marionette with Jodi is ready to embark on an adventurous turn as we surrender the continuation of the plot to the universe. The JAR Story with Jodi and Adam is nearly complete and ready for the world to enjoy in 2020. I’m also teaming up with Adam on a new work of fiction that evolves around metaphysical labyrinths.

The “next story” has always been, and will always be, in the works. Writing is not sterile, clean, or tidy when it comes to finishing one project and then beginning another. As Fossil Five makes its debut in this world, it just opens space for the next story to rise, much like a newly discovered patch of light in a forest of competing stories. Which one will reach the light first? Fill the space with outstretched leaves soaking up the sun and the energy to be the next?

We shall see. For now, I give light to all my works, and see each of them as having an equal chance to be “next” for my readers. If anything, I know — as I hope my readers do as well — that I will never stop writing, or sharing, my stories with the world.

 

3.3 A Deeper Discipline

For those of us who hike, or garden, or take long bike rides, we are deeply aware that there are two types of hikers, gardeners, and cyclists.

The first type is in it for the destination, whether that be a summit 26 miles away, a synchronized garden that maximizes each hour of sunshine without taxing the soil too much from its neighboring plants, or the end of a century ride that takes you around some of this world’s greatest natural wonders.

These types have their head down and are focused on what awaits them at the end of the journey. They are immensely happy (and proud) of their accomplishment, as they should be. They talk about what they might do differently to shave off a few minutes, or maximize the oxygen for the snap peas. It’s all about destination, and they are proud of crossing that finish line, regardless of the form it might take.

The second type is in it for the journey. They meander through the woods, observing the different bird calls, the tracks on the trail, and the variations of vegetation to discern exactly what kind of wildlife are nibbling at its branches.

The gardener embraces the feel of the soil on his finger tips as he digs a hole for a new seedling. He might even talk to it, breathing a little security-blanket oxygen its way.

The cyclist knows she has until 8 p.m. to reach her destination, so she wanders through the small towns, talking to the locals about what makes their little communities so personable, so resistant to the buzz of the bigger cities around them.

In short, this second type savors every step of the journey, and when they finally reach their destination, they are rich in telling stories about what they experienced along the way. There is no talk of the next trip or what they could do differently. To them, they are too immersed in the now, holding on to the words they shared with once-strangers.

When it comes to writing and discipline, I’ve been a little of both, and not necessarily for the right reasons.

The first type of disciplined writers have deadlines; they are focused, and they “put butt in chair” when they are supposed to. They turn in their work with confidence that they wrote a good piece, but they equally allow a smile to linger, knowing they made their deadlines — their destination — on or ahead of schedule.

Head down, do the work, meet the deadline. All good.

The second type of disciplined writers, however, don’t really do any of the things the first type does, except make (most) of their deadlines (more on this a bit later). These creatives are highly disciplined, but they are also a little scary. Let me explain.

It takes great discipline as a writer, as a creative, to “let go” in the journey of writing or creating, where there is room to wander with the characters or the image to see where they (or it) will take you. You remain fully immersed, disciplined, and focused; getting to the destination, however, might take a little longer than anyone might have liked.

And to you, that’s just fine.

Being disciplined in our writing, our creating, does not necessarily have to have that “get the job done” mentality. There is great and wondrous discipline in staying immersed in your work, expending insurmountable amounts of energy with the characters, and seeing where they take you in the story.

Ultimately, it’s being mindful enough to strike that balance between the two.

I’ve done solo projects with each approach, and I’ve learned from these experiences that there is nothing black and white about discipline when you are creating.

When our heads are down, we’re missing the little nuances that lead us to greater discoveries; likewise, when we let go entirely to see where the characters take us, we often find ourselves too far away from where we began, and with little hope or direction of finding our way back on to the blazed path that leads us to our natural and eventual home.

Understanding the deeper significance of our discipline allows us to let go, play, but stay close to the trail that leads us to our story’s natural conclusion. We need to be aware of what type of discipline we use in our crafting, and when.

And, as important, we cannot allow one form to tell the other that it is the lazy way out, or the wrong approach, or the wrong time. It’s important to get to the end, but it’s equally important to be deeply mindful of the journey along the way.

Words As . . . Oxygen

As an older writer, and as a teacher of students of various ages, I have the unique perspective of viewing life in the dreams whispered of the young in early spring, in the struggles of the middies in the summer sun, and in the regrets of the elders as autumn falls. One thread is common among all three: the desperate dream of returning to uninhibited innocence and an abundance of creativity — both seemingly, always a touch beyond the grasp.

The reasons, as you might imagine, are the usual suspects as captured by my college writing students: a lack of time and money, the demands of domesticity and jobs, and life-defined priorities.

Their stories began with vibrant images in early youth, where they embraced an exhilaration to create: write, paint, sing, dance, build, bake. But something happened around the age of 8 or 9. Their pure connection to creativity was interrupted by classrooms as darker spaces of evaluation, where test-taking judgments replaced the free-flow of creativity.

By the time students reach the end of their essays reflecting on their education, the writing is tired, even labored, as they lament the loss of the good old days and whimsical risks with the arts.

“Life just gets in the way,” one student wrote. “I hope to find myself in one of those arts and craft stores some day, pick out a sparkly purple journal like the one I used to have, and write every now and then. That would be nice.”

I witness the life draining out of their words. What started as a bubbly youthful enthusiasm filled with color and possibility morphs into — time and time again — a tired maturity hooked up to a dented half-empty tank of oxygen trying to supplement the breath of life that once came instinctively.

Why have we programmed our culture of educational nurturing and extension to debase  creativity as secondary to evaluation and data collection? The former does not need to be replaced by the latter; if we are to recognize and celebrate the power of creativity in the very young, why must we dismiss it in increasing measure as we grow up, demoting it to a sub-classification of “hobby” or something we do when time permits?

I think it’s time to change that classification; as we get older, we must embrace the essential role creativity plays in our lives as the vital oxygen we need to thrive, both domestically and professionally.

I am heartened by two of my former students who have proclaimed their love and devotion to creativity.

Lacey, who graduated in 2006, was on the verge of becoming one of those oxygen-supported creatives in high school, but she embraced the concept of the daybook — a daily journal — and felt the surge of energy every day when she put the pen to the paper to write.

“At the end of the year, I couldn’t stop,” said Lacey. “I can’t imagine not writing in my daybook anymore than I can imagine not breathing.”

Ruthie is another model for all of us. She graduated from high school in ’14, and just a few days ago, I happened upon her Etsy page for handmade pottery.

Ruthie? I couldn’t recall a single art class she had taken in high school. Her world was sports and graphic design; I had no idea how she had turned to spinning and creating beautiful mugs and bowls out of circuitous touches on wet clumps of clay.

I purchased one of her mugs and we reunited yesterday morning. As I drank a bold, black roast from the hand-crafted mug, she explained that the BFA program she was in at Salisbury University, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, encouraged her to break out of her major and broaden her creativity with other art forms.

She beamed. Creating pottery is a very spiritual experience for her, and she’s opening her own studio — in addition to getting married and moving. These are the very things that “get in the way” for most of us. Ruthie, however, breathes deeply the oxygen provided by her creative acts. She has discovered a spiritual relationship with art, and  is now helping others bring creativity into their lives as an essential component to being.

This idea of creativity, of clay, of words being our oxygen reminds us that we need to recognize the powers and benefits we are afforded when we create daily. I know that I, like Lacey, cannot imagine life without words any more than I can imagine life without oxygen.

Create. Breathe. Live. Thrive. Let creativity be a priority in your life, one that fuels your domestic and professional acts and responsibilities. We are all born creative; it is our charge to nurture it at all costs, across our entire lives.