Aug 27, 2015

Landscapes We Never Forget

by Rockwell Kent
It's no secret that Alaska is my greatest muse. Having visited in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014, and also having written nearly half of Flashes of War there during a three-week period, I will always carry a piece of The Last Frontier in my heart. For writers (and for many artists, I suspect), there are places we encounter that become elevated; they speak to our subconscious, they tug at our imagination, they leave us haunted in humbling and inspiring ways.

One way to sum up how I knew that Alaska was "my place," is this quote from Rockwell Kent's Wilderness:

“Always I have fought and worked and played with a fierce energy, and always as a man of flesh and blood and surging spirit. I have burned the candle at both ends and can only wonder that there has been left even a slender taper glow for art. And so this sojourn in the wilderness is in no sense an artist's junket in search of picturesque material for brush or pencil, but the fight to freedom of a man who detests the petty quarrels and bitterness of the crowded world--the pilgrimage of a philosopher in quest of Happiness!...It is this that we are living for, and art is but the outward record of our progress...So here you have a sort of profession of faith. We are part and parcel the big plan of things. We are simply instruments recording in different measure our particular portion of the infinite. And what we absorb of it makes for character, and what we give forth, for expression."

Like Kent, I too felt most wholly myself in Alaska. I felt so small and aware of my tiny place in the gigantic world, yet I also felt the work I did carried a sense of importance and worth. That paradox held my mind in a place of wonder and openness for days on end, inviting unparalleled creative flow.

Where are these places in your writing life? They can exist only in your memory--a classroom, a family vacation place. They can exist in the mundane--a backyard, a city park, a cluttered desk. But most often, they contain something slightly larger--an ecosystem, a blending of cultures, a meeting of worlds and ideals. In these stomping grounds, our minds can open up, our eyes can widen, and our hearts can shed layers of uncertainty.

I can't say that spending time in the Upper Peninsula and along Lake Superior did that for me on my first trip there this month (though part of me hoped it would), but the door isn't completely closed. Despite 5 days straight of rain and not a single star visible in the night sky, There were indeed moments of great quiet, calm, and pause; moments that invited wonder.

I want to go back--that much is clear. Whether or not the U.P. or Lake Superior can become my "next Alaska" (and conveniently a few thousand miles closer to home), is still up for debate. Meantime, it's back to the desk, back to Appalachia, and back to work. Here goes!

Aug 25, 2015

The Power of Unplugging

I realize the irony of blogging about best practices for time away from the Internet and email, but just hear me out: Having spent 4 1/2 days off the grid in the Upper Peninsula, joyfully out of cell phone range and wi-fi capabilities, I feel compelled to share a few reflections.

We all know or can guess that less distraction and discursiveness in our lives leads to a happier outlook, a feeling of "being present," and an greater overall satisfaction with our circumstances. What may not have occurred to others is how time away can actually improve your focus later, when you do return to Internet-related tasks.

After a much-needed vacation and time to reconnect with the natural world, part of me dreaded seeing what my inbox would look like. But I had a very concrete list of tasks in mind that needed to be accomplished. Brad and I checked out of the campground, loaded up, and headed to a cafe. I had two critiques to complete (on deadline) and gave them my full attention before logging in to email or social media. We had 4 hours at the cafe before we had to leave for our next destination and the work simply needed to get done. I started by doing it.

Rather than letting email be my boss dictate my time, I remained my own boss and focused on the top priorities. Once the critiques were complete, I logged in and sent my private students their critiques. Only then did I turn off the auto-responder on my inbox and begin to address time-sensitive messages. Sounds simple enough, but honestly: How many times do we approach the desk on any given work day and know that there are certain tasks we need to accomplish, but we choose to check email first, then complete the tasks (or worse, put them off one more day)?

Of course, some tasks require logging in to get updated information or instructions before we can complete them, but I hope I'm not the only one guilty of clicking "next" on the screen and continuing through my new messages, even after I've found the information I was looking for. This is the beginning of "going down the rabbit hole," as they say, though it's cleverly disguised as "getting things done." Sure, it is getting things done, but only in the best possible scenarios. Usually, the things we reply to or get pulled into aren't the same as those things that actually need tending at the time. In most scenarios, what actually happens is we let email interrupt our best work, slow our progress, and destroy our focus. All in the name of supposedly getting more done...Hmmm... 

A student in a class I recently taught told me she literally schedules her times to check email each day. She never checks it at any other time. I greatly respect this and have developed a somewhat similar model to balance my creative needs with my business needs. No email in the morning before I've done my writing on the novel--that's a given. But what I'm taking away from my time off the grid and from the student I met, is that I'm actually not going to log in to read emails until I've attended to as many other time-sensitive tasks for that day as possible. Only then would I actually need to see what someone might be sending me. After all, my tasks will be complete and I'll be ready for new ones. Chances are pretty good that I'll find new work waiting for me via email. The difference is that now the work will come at me when I'm ready for it, rather than stacking up and creating a sense of overwhelm.

Aug 13, 2015

Writing Mentorship Opportunities

I'm pleased to announce that I've updated my Writer @ Large business services as I ready to head into another "writing season" with all of my delightful, hard-working Writer @ Large participants. From Alaska to Canada to California to Virginia, and many places in between (Michigan!), I have the honor of mentoring anywhere between 12 and 30 private students at any given time.

What's new? Download the PDF right here.

First of all, I've settled on a twice-yearly occurrence for my popular Weekly Flashes program. The next offering will be in October!

Second, I've streamlined my services offered to artists and arts organizations.

Third, I've added a Google Hangout video chat component to one of my programs, and may experiment with more video offerings as the year unfolds.

I've also raised my rates. This decision is always hard to come by, but as my business continues to grow, the demand does as well. I'm already booking into the summer of 2016 for some services. I've also learned a lot--namely, that about 20% of my earnings go to taxes, that I continue to grow and excel as a teacher, and that I continue to greatly enjoy what I do--giving it my all.

I hope you'll consider signing up for a program that seems right for you. If you're unsure, my email is included on the new Services Flyer. [Update as of 8/23: I have 2 remaining spaces for Monthly Critiques participants. Email me to sign up!]

Meantime, I'll be off the grid next week for vacation in the Upper Peninsula. Upon my return, I'll look forward to responding to emails and registering any new Writer @ Large participants!

Aug 10, 2015

Home Away from Home

Brad and I arrived safely at Interlochen Center for the Arts after a long, enjoyable two-day drive from North Carolina. Now that I've been coming here for five years, there's no doubt that Northern Michigan has become a home away from home. 

This week, I'll be teaching my annual Making Meaning of our Memories memoir class through Interlochen College of Creative Arts. This is a great continuing ed or professional development program to be aware of, both for beginners or published professionals (and everyone in between). The College's offerings vary and, I must say, one reason I keep coming back as a teacher is that the participants in my classes are always kind, open-minded, well-intentioned, and willing to learn. From retired professors to MFA graduates to empty-nesters, to first-time writing class participants, everyone has something to learn and Interlochen is an inspiring environment to do this in.

I've blogged my reflections and some short teachings from this week-long course in the past, and wanted to share that writing here for those interested in what's going on this week:

Meantime, the view from our lakeside cottage is truly stunning: