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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As we approach each year, we reflect on what we have achieved, and forecast what we’d like to achieve.
Over here in the JAR Laboratory we’ve been thinking about how we can get the most out of creating in the Year of Hindsight: 2020.
Every creative person will have a different plan or path, reason or excuse, direction or wandering about how and what they are going to create.
We’ve put together our lists of 9 Ways To Get the Most Out Of Creating in 2020.
1. Commit to explore something you love.
In the same way you might commit to someone you love: get excited, make time, turn up, engage your curiosity, open your heart, and keep turning up. This doesn’t have to be massive investment of time. The smaller the time investment, the more powerful this becomes over time, because ultimately consistency matters. Aim to want to spend time doing this and the excitement will flow over into other aspects of your life.
2. Know WHY you create.
Then remain true to that regardless of what shiny things cross your path. Knowing your core values in regards to your creative expression and practise is an essential tool. This is good for the soul but it is also good business sense. Doing an inventory of your beliefs and personal narratives at the beginning of the year can be a way to know how aligned you are with where you want to go (because it may be different to last year!).
3. Create/schedule downtime.
Guard it with all your might and all your heart. This is time and space to check in with yourself and check out of reality; to slow down, dream, mentally meander; it is time to remember how to breathe and to remind yourself of what’s important. To get grounded and centered.
4. Care for yourself as the precious individual you are.
It is not selfish to put yourself first, especially when prioritising good health and wellness as a 360-degree experience. If something doesn’t feel right, treat it as something not right. Believe me, being sub-par physically makes creating more difficult than it needs to be.
5. Have something you want to achieve by the end of the year.
…and start now. Work out what you need to do to move yourself from here to there. Break it down into the smallest possible actionable pieces. Decide what resources you need. What support you require. Set it up–now! Test drive it for a few weeks before you begin, to allow space and time to trouble shoot and refine your process. Schedule with plenty of padding (add 3x the amount of time you think you will need–it is human nature to underestimate the time required). Find ways to stay accountable that inspire rather than shame. Find ways to stay excited.
6. Engage with inspirational people.
Those souls who expand your mind, your heart, your world view and bring sanity, stability or a deeper understanding to your experience. Ask questions. Make space for discussions. This doesn’t have to be other creatives. Inspiring people come from all walks of life, professional disciplines, backgrounds, traditions and experiences.
7. Build bridges.
Between different different parts of your creative life; between different parts of your overall life; with people you’d love to collaborate with. Introduce people you know who would love to get to know each other. Be willing to reach out to someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time. Initiate something especially when it would be easier to do nothing.
8. Tend your flame.
This is different for everyone but the essentials are similar. Tending requires focus, time, patience, persistence, maintenance, love, care and attention. Passionate people are the best antidote to apathy. Being passionate invites more of the same energy and people into your life. Sometimes they will come along to help tend the flame, when you’re struggling to do it.
9. Sync with natural cycles.
Why battle the tides? I can think of better ways to invest my energy than doing something the hard way. Jack Dann once told me: Give the best part of the day to your writing. Know what’s the best part of your day. Know how you can flow with the wax and wane of the moon. Know what moon signs are best for doing specific jobs. Find the dates of Mercury Retrograde (the best time for editing). Get to know the prevailing astrological forecast and use it (like you use the weather forecast to plan your day/week).
1. Limit your projects. Ideas are like seeds; some will grow and some will not. You need to tend and nurture the ideas you care about the most. Others are dandelions you can blow away on the breeze.
2. Measure your time.
It’s finite. It involves sacrifice. It involves commitment. Waste it when you want to and have planned to do so. Don’t waste time when you have planned to make it productive.
3. Listen to new music.
Or read new books. Buy a new comic book. (or make use of second hand stores and thrift shops – if it’s new to you, enjoy it).
4. Finish the fucker.
I’m not usually a swearing person but I liked the alliterative burst it gave because it’s also a kick in bum for me to make sure I keep forging ahead. Make it happen. If it takes a year, it takes a year. Plan your time to make sure you finish.
5. Walk around the house naked.
Be happy in your own skin literally and metaphorically. If you want to be a creative person, become a creative person. Don’t doubt it; own it.
6. Know your body’s cycles.
Rest if you need to. I know the times of the year when my work load makes creativity difficult to achieve. I can therefore plan around it. Those times of busyness may be times you allow yourself to be fallow and let the ground regenerate.
7. Support other artists.
Respond to their Instagram posts or blog feeds. Tell them why you like their work. Give them shout outs.
8. Blow words up.
Interrogate them. Exploit them. Cuddle next to them and spoon them. Be intimate. Very intimate. Draw your thoughts. Write explicit stories and destroy them. Aim to be included in the Bad Sex in Literature Awards.
9. Discuss your process with other creatives.
Find out how other creative people outside of your creative field operate. Learn new techniques. Work out how your process operates. Read about others’ experiences. It may not be compatible to yours but understand how to learn.
1. Write uninhibitedly.
Unless you are on deadline for some urgent piece that an editor’s nudging you to finish, write uninhibitedly for an audience of none. Discard worries about spelling, punctuation, grammar, tense, and anything else that nags at you. Just write whatever draft or entry that thrives undiscovered within you. No real rules, no real expectations; just write uninhibitedly.
2. Be one with your Daybook.
It doesn’t really matter if it is a 59-cent spiral notebook or a 30-dollar Moleskine journal; find a daybook that is the perfect fit. If you’re wondering what that feels like, you’ll get that feeling like Harry Potter had when he was paired with the wand that was made for him. You might like blank or lined pages; a spiral or flex binding; 5 x 8 or 9 x 12; or thin or thick paper. Perhaps you like to write with fountain pens and require a thicker paper; maybe you want to feel the ballpoint roll over the parchment sleek like silk.
Once you discover your one-of-a-kind daybook, keep it with you always, and chronicle your life in it, in all ways.
3. Create playlists.
I have a unique playlist for every story I write. I even have playlists just for daybooking. They unfailingly put me in the zone to write (uninhibitedly) that particular story, essay, or entry. Playlists can be as short as one song (“Eleanor Rigby” on repeat got me through the final edits on my MFA thesis) or 137 songs (as were my playlists for my last novel). Creating a playlist that insulates you as you write will put you in the zone instantly, making you more productive, as well as a better writer,
4. Find your Querencia.
This – Querencia – is your wanting-place, where you feel invincible. For some, this might mean a very physical, geographical location, like the beach, or even the outdoors; for others, it might mean wherever you are with your Daybook. As writers and creatives, we need to find that place where we can do the work stay focused. Nothing can touch you here. Find it. Preserve it. Believe in it.
5. Trust the process.
How can we ever fully understand what we have not yet created or written? As much as we might want to control the process, to map out our every word, we must trust the process to lead us from the undiscovered to the end product. We might believe that we have the whole story prewritten in our minds, but the process might lead us down a very different path. Trust the process. As Jodi reminds me all the time, the day you are writing is the day you were meant to write that story. So just trust the process.
6. Find your tribe.
I learned the hard way that there are some people who will actually sabotage you and your writing for selfish reasons. You need to find your small tribe of creatives that will support you, give you the advice you need, and encourage you to take risks to grow in your craft.
7. Make (and keep) little deadlines.
The best way to reach the Deadline of all Deadlines: the final, polished product, is to make hundreds of tiny, little deadlines to keep your project moving forward. Write one page a day, or 1,000 words. Finish a chapter in three days, or three weeks. Whatever you are working on, break it up into little, do-able chunks, and make the little deadlines that lead you to slaying that Deadline of all Deadlines, and probably with a few days to spare.
8. Find, and then never surrender, your voice.
One of the greatest moments in a writer’s life is when s/he discovers their voice within, that distinct style in writing that distinguishes them from every other individual who has ever picked up the pen. We discover our voice through writing daily and uninhibitedly, as well as trusting the process fully. And once you do find it, never EVER surrender it for brevity or under the (really bad) advice from an editor. Your voice is your DNA.
9. Just write the damned thing.
Probably the best advice ever given to me. When I had the chance to talk about writing with author Tom Clancy, I babbled on about this and that and why and why not. He sat there and listened patiently, then said, “Just write the damned thing.” And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Don’t tell me or others about why you can’t write; instead, just write the damned thing.
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.”
“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.
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.