Jul 24, 2014

Testing the Gear

Along with a few thousand other people, my friends and I put in for a permit to hike The Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile loop that circumnavigates Mt. Rainier. In a random lottery drawing, our names were drawn and we got the permit! Ever since we got the news a few months ago, we've been training. The hike will average just 10 miles per day, but with massive elevation changes and high likelihood of rain, even the most fit hikers are well-advised to plan and prepare for this kind of trek. We'll depart late August and come back just after Labor Day.

Hiking the Roan highlands to reach the highest point of the Appalachian Trail this week.
To that end, I took 2 days/1 night off this week to hike 22 miles on the nearby Appalachian trial with two friends who will also go on The Wonderland trip. Out there in the clouds, we soaked ourselves with our own sweat (thanks to 90% humidity) and by day's end our skin was salty enough for a horse to lick. But the clouds parted as we crossed the Roan highlands and grassy balds. I've hiked this stretch of the trail probably half a dozen times since moving to Western North Carolina and it never ceases to inspire. I feel so fortunate that it's all less than an hour away.

The best part? Taking two full days off--no work at night, no computers, no phone--felt like an incredibly long time. When I'm not cramming my days with trying to learn new balance and new negotiations in my professional and personal life, time stretches out wonderfully. I'm aiming for more of this feeling in the future for both work days and personal days and telling myself it just takes practice, right? I practiced over-productivity for a long time and it got me far, but it cost something. Slow and steady, I'm trying to gain some of that back.

As far as the gear goes, most of what I have works top-notch for my needs, but I learned we'll want a gravity-fed water filtration system (rather than a pump) for a group hike, and that I'll need Trader Joe's chili-spiced dried mango en masse to get me through. For trailside indulgence? Whiskey and a 1.5 pound crazy creek chair.

Jul 21, 2014

It's Perfectly Normal

I ran into a respected author at the gym yesterday. She happens to live in the same valley as I do, just across the river. She'd just returned from a trip to Europe, where she was able to complete some research for her next book. We chatted on neighboring elliptical runners, arms swaying and feet stepping. She asked how my novel was coming along.

"It's in the drawer," I said, then braced for what I thought might come next. Surely, she'd ask when I'll take it out, what chapter I'll start working on when I begin again. At least, I assumed, she'd ask how long it had been sitting in the drawer.

"In the drawer," she said. And then I saw the slightest, knowing nod of her chin. No questions followed. No look of concern crossed her forehead. We strode in mid-air, ellipticals humming, and something like understanding passed between us.

We huffed through a dozen more paces--long enough for me to get distracted by the wolverine tween flick playing on the big screens against the far wall--and then I spoke up. "I keep fantasizing about writing for travel magazines or training for a 10K or just going back to my old, fun, short stories from before..."

"Oh," she said. "Oh. It's completely normal, you know...feeling that way."

"I don't want to work on it at all. I don't want to touch it. I don't like it." I didn't have to say the word, that dirty word--novel--for her to know exactly what I was talking about. Furthermore, I didn't have to explain what "from before" meant. Before the book tour, before knowing what I know now about industry and craft, before the high stakes I put on myself, before...before...before...

"I'd be worried about you if you did want to get back into it," she said. "Not liking it is part of the process. Everyone has to go through that. It's good that you put it away."

The machine beeped at me, cueing the end of my workout. I hopped off and took a few wobbly, awkward first steps. It's always so strange walking on solid ground after hovering somewhere between weightlessness and enduring muscles. Those first steps--hard earned, disorienting, and part of the deal. The analogy was not lost on me as the author and I made plans to get together in September. My steps might have teetered whenI turned to walk away, but at least I knew it was normal. That, like always, I'd find my footing again soon enough.

Jul 17, 2014

Reading Like a Writer

I spent a few short days in Boston last week as a guest to the Solstice MFA in Writing at Pine Manor College program. Although I've taught students with graduate degrees before, it was my first "official" invite to such a program and therefore my first time teaching an all-graduate level writing course. To my anticipation, the opportunity did not disappoint. During my "Flash Fiction in a Flash" craft class, I found immediately that the students were "reading like writers." They could engage with the text on micro and macro levels that helped them go deep very quickly. This, in turn, fueled conversation about technique, impact, escalation, and effectiveness in writing.

I also teach an annual, residential memoir workshop for adults (coming up next month at ICCA!), during which we discuss what it means to read like a writer. This skill matters no matter what genre you write in, and is just as important as your skills on the page. Of course, there are some very fine texts out there on this subject already--most notably, Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. For me, this concept can be expressed in its most basic terms by encouraging readers to pose questions to themselves: How did the writer achieve this impact? In what ways could I use those techniques to help readers make meaning of my own work? After all, we can't "control" how a reader will respond to our work, but we can (and should) suggest or imply certain outcomes by our very careful use of exactly the right words at the right time. Focusing on the how and the impact helps many writers make decisions about what to leave in, what to leave out, and why their particular story or essay may or may not be working in terms of effective impact on readers.

Last week also reminded me just how precious, memorable, invigorating, and exhausting the residencies on low-res MFA programs can be. Each time I rounded a corner on campus and encountered another scene--students talking passionately about workshop, faculty debating "tell it slant"--I found myself reminiscing about my own experiences in 2006, when my studies at Pacific University began. How highly I regarded those faculty writers! How in love with my advisors I felt! How much I needed my fellow students, and still remain close with some of them. Community is essential, but at times overwhelming--especially for introverted writers. The low-res model gives the best of both worlds; an abundance of acceptance and challenge a few times a year, cushioned by months of quiet, slow and steady privacy to get the job done.

I'm wishing all those Solstice students the best of luck as they continue (and a few graduate, today) and looking forward to connecting with a new group of memoir writers in a few weeks when #1 and I travel to Michigan. He's going to fish. I'm going to teach. Afterwards, we're hiding out in a log cabin in Canada for 4 days. He's going to fish. I'm going to read like a writer. And write like one, too.

Jul 14, 2014

Something I'm Not in Charge Of

Trying to ponder and shift the balance of activities and obligations in my life has reminded me how important it is to have "something else" I'm passionate about, other than writing. The passion that got me through grad school was martial arts, which I blogged about, studied, and trained in to near obsession. I also putzed around with music a lot, singing informally with a group of women once a week. But more than anything else during that time in my life, the gift of walking into the dojo to train in body, mind, and spirit helped apply just the right amount of pressure and balance to my schedule. The results were a tired body and an open mind--perfectly suitable for long hours of sitting quietly at the desk, once I'd showered all the sweat and salt off. It also eased my mind greatly to know that each time I showed up to class, I wasn't in charge. No matter how my day had been or what gripe I might have had, my job was simply to do what I was told, to the best of my ability. I relished not being "in charge" and found freedom in the fact that nothing mattered but the physical and mental challenges put before me in that very moment.

When you're self-employed, those moments of not being in charge can never be underestimated. Day in and day out, you are your own boss and your own "employee of the month." You're constantly balancing those two roles. Your financial stability, your professional development, and your professional reputation depend upon your ability to manage both roles effectively. At the end of the day, you can step away--something I've been working on by trying not to work after dinnertime--but if you're like me, you then find yourself "in charge" of what do to with your evening. I read. I cook. I read some more. I try to stay away from email as it will pull me back into work mode. But even these things, at least right now, require conscious shaping and effort. Goodness! That book tour gave me some sort of multi-tasking-high-alert-obsessive-effectiveness disease

I need a cure. If my martial arts instructor hadn't moved to Florida, I never would have stopped training. And while I'm quite disciplined at my own exercise plan each week, that's also exactly the problem--because I'm the one in charge of that discipline and after being in charge all day, the last thing I need is more of it. What can fill this space--Soccer? Training for a 10K? If I lived in a city, I could join a rec atheltics league. Perhaps I need some sort of extreme yoga? Whatever it is, it needs to involve community and accountability. Come wintertime, the two trail crews I volunteer for are really good for that. But here, now--what is there? I've made a goal to try and find out.