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 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.
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
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 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.”
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?”
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.