Reposting: Six Writing Lessons From The Garden

veg garden I love to garden. It’s a meditative activity – something I can do while my mind freewheels. Last Sunday, I found myself thinking how preparing a small vegetable patch is like writing a book.
Lesson 1: Writing is Solitary.Scarecrow

For the first time in thirty years, I’m planting the garden solo. My husband helped me install the fence posts (just as he built the studio where I write), but he prefers to nurture the orchard. I’m on my own, just as I write by myself during the week while he’s off tending to his patients’ health.

Lesson 2: Selectivity is Good.

There was a time when we grew and preserved all our food – but no longer. We’re now supplied with locally grown produce from a neighbor’s organic farm, so I’m only planting high-value items that are harder to find in local markets – shallots and leeks, fennel, veg garden2escarole and Brussels sprouts – as well as items we consume in quantity – cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, hot peppers and a wide assortment of culinary herbs.

I’m leaving the prosaic vegetables – the zucchini and green beans, the carrots and potatoes – to the production professionals. In a similar way, I’ve retired from the teaching, managerial and editorial jobs that others can do as well as or even better than I can. No one else can tell the stories I imagine, so I’m concentrating on them.

Lesson 3: Limits are Helpful.

GardenPrep050513I started by limiting the scope of my garden. I’ve fenced off an eight- by sixteen-foot rectangle to keep the free-range chickens out, and to keep my intentions focused – and manageable. Our previous gardens were huge, time-sucking affairs, and sometimes we raised an equal quantity of weeds as tomatoes. Similarly, over the past year, I’ve drafted thousands of words about my character’s life. But recently, I’ve come to realize that the story I’m telling takes place over the course of nineteen months. So that’s what I’ll develop; everything else must come out, just like the weeds.

Lesson 4: Writing Takes Time.

At the outset, a hundred and twenty-eight square feet looks just as big as a 100,000-word novel, and turning it over with a hand fork appears as daunting as filling a ream of paper by pen. My husband offered to do this heavy task for me; he sundialwould have had the garden-plot ready in less than an hour. I thanked him and said I would do it myself. It took me three hours, during which time I meditated on how preparing the garden is like writing a novel. I stopped only for water and to take pictures for this post, which I was composing as I dug.

Lesson 5: Small Tasks Yield Success.

gardenprep10A week earlier, I’d covered my plot with a tarp to warm the earth and kill weeds. The weeds continued to flourish, however, and the prospect of turning the soil by hand and pulling the weeds out by the root was too much. So I put the tarp back in place and

Working a small section at a time.

Working a small section at a time.

uncovered only a quarter of the space. After I turned those thirty-two square feet, I peeled the tarp back again, turning and weeding the next section. Now, the job was half done. I folded the tarp back again and again, always giving myself a small, measurable task that I could reasonably accomplish. Writing a book is just the same: I break each chapter into sections, and each section into paragraphs, each paragraph into sentences, each sentence into words. Each time I stuck the fork into the soil, it was a reminder that books are written one word at a time.

Lesson 6: The End is the Beginning

By the time I had raked the soil into beds and outlined the footpath with string, my neck was sunburned, my back was sore, and I was ready for a bath. I was done – for the day. I now had a well-defined garden plot with clearly outlined beds as weed-free as a clean piece of paper. Even though I was done-in, I’m anything but done. In fact, I’m just ready to start.

GardenPrep8Ellen, the novel I’m crafting, is further along than my garden. But the garden is a good reminder about how to maintain forward progress on this first draft. My afternoon preparing my garden yielded these six truths: 1) Even though I work alone, I’m deeply engaged with my characters; 2) every time I cut out a scene or a character or an unnecessary word, I gain a clearer sense of what aspect of the story to nurture; 3) knowing the limit of the narrative has helped me focus on the story I have to tell; 4) drafting the novel is taking a long time – and I make progress daily; 5) I experience the elation of success when I set myself small, measurable tasks; and 6) every time I finish a section, a chapter, an entire draft, I’m ready to begin another section, another chapter, another draft.  And even when that’s done – even when the writing and revision are finished – there’s another whole set of steps to see a book to completion, but those are chores of another season.

This growing season has just started. I tell myself, if I write word by word, weed by weed, my effort will blossom, and in time, I’ll see my book in my readers’ hands.

Meanwhile, I have a lovely garden bed ready for seeds.

I garden and write about my rural, rooted life in Vermont at Living in Place.

This essay originally posted in May 5, 2013. I’ve scheduled more reruns while I’m on summer vacation. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

How Peaceful the Disconnected Life Can Be

My studio was originally Internet-free; now it is intentionally so.

Earlier this week, the Internet connection to my studio went down and I was reminded how peaceful the disconnected life can be.

I had no Internet when I first moved into my Chapel of the Imagination, as I call my one-room studio tucked into a wooded corner of our land. At first, I was stunned by the intense quiet; I wrote with concentration and focus.

It was only when I returned to the house to use the printer or send email that I fell into those black holes of distraction: Facebook, news, solitaire.

As my blogging output increased, I had to return to the house and connect more frequently for fact checking, uploading photos and formatting posts. Reluctantly, I wired the studio to the Internet, which saved me the walk to the house, but where I often succumbed to the time suck of cyber distraction. Even when I was on-line to research a subject, I found myself spinning into information that was as off-topic as it was interesting – and hardly better than going deep into Facebook.

So when my connection went down, I was amazed how quickly my focus returned, and how sharp my mind without all the cyber static that has crept into my workspace.

About the same time, I started reflecting on my day with Evening Pages, rediscovering the joys of writing by hand.

The combination of turning off the static and physically shaping my words on the page has been profound. I’m recapturing the sustained quiet where my imagination is most audible and my ability to capture my ideas into words most profound.

In order to protect this renewed quiet, I’m turning off my email and silencing my phone in the studio. By disconnecting to the interruptions and distractions of the Internet, I’m concentrating on the words and stories at hand.

What are your distractions and how do you tame them?

walking & writing

At the end of the Long Trail, 9/8/2016.

Note to my Readers: I wrote Lessons from the Long Trail after hiking from Massachusetts to Canada along the spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains in 2016. This summer I’ll be hiking from Alaska into the Yukon along the Chilkoot Trail. While I’m gone, I’ll be republishing some favorite posts both here and at Living in Place. I hope you’ll check them both out. I’ll look forward to reading and responding to your comments when I return. All best.

No, You can’t have too many books.

cranky book cat

Library cat says, “Don’t judge me.”

Over the course of his life, Umberto Eco amassed a collection of some thirty thousand books. The twentieth-century Italian novelist, philosopher, and medievalist housed his personal library in a labyrinthine expanse of long, bookcase-lined hallways that led to and through dozens of rooms, each of which was filled with rows of heavily laden shelves. Nestled here and there were large tables stacked high with more books and piles of manuscript pages. It was the kind of place you could easily—and if you were a bibliophile, happily—get lost in.

While my own library is immeasurably more modest than Signor Eco’s, the two do have something in common: both include a number of books never read by their owner.

I used to feel guilty about all the unread books on my shelves, but that was before I read about the “antilibrary.” The term was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Lebanese-American essayist and scholar who studies randomness, probability, and uncertainty. In his book, The Black Swan, Taleb used Eco’s unique relationship with his books to illustrate the concept of the antilibrary—a collection of books that, because the owner has not yet read them, represent the unknown and a potential for learning.

Taleb described how Eco separated visitors to his library into two categories: those who wanted to know how many of the books he had read, and those who understood that the library was a valuable research tool.

Read books are far less valuable than unread ones,” Taleb wrote. “The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.”

I find this concept very reassuring, given my penchant for continuing to buy new books even though I already have dozens of still-unread ones sitting patiently on my shelves.

Too often, people think of a personal library as a kind of literary trophy case, showing off all the books the owner has read. While I enjoy being surrounded by my favorite books (and do, quite often, reread them), I now realize there is something to be said for balancing your collection with a healthy number of unread volumes.

Taleb’s idea of the antilibrary helps us refocus our attention from the known (books we have read) to the unknown (everything else). It gently reminds us that we should neither hoard knowledge nor lord it over other people in an attempt to ascend some imaginary ladder of hierarchy. By reminding us of everything we don’t know, the antilibrary restores our humility while simultaneously inspiring our curiosity.

Yes, once I felt remorseful about all my unread books, but not so much anymore. Now, I’m actually kind of excited. Each unread book feels like an adventure just waiting to begin. Each one holds untold possibilities. What lessons might be learned? What secrets might be revealed? What inspiration might strike? What tears might fall? What intrigue and drama might erupt off the page to sweep me off my feet and into another reality?

It is comforting to have so many reading options available at my fingertips, and having so many books in my to-be-read pile means that my home library feels a little like a bookstore in that it maintains a subtle yet powerfully alluring air of discovery.

And isn’t that perhaps the most appealing thing about a book—the possibility that it will help us discover something new about the world, about life, or about ourselves? How much nicer it is to imagine each unread book on our shelves not as an unfulfilled task or a neglected obligation, but as an as yet unwrapped gift that may give us the opportunity to unlock some new knowledge, attain a new insight, or capture a new experience? Yes, that’s much better. Let’s go with that.

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What’s in your antilibrary? Do you collect books on the writing craft, novels, poetry? How do you feel about having those unread tomes on your shelf? When do you dip into that reservoir of yet-to-be-consumed stories and wisdom?

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Photo Credit: Dany_Sternfeld Flickr via Compfight cc

Evening Pages

EVENING PAGES

I’ve added Evening Pages to my daily writing practice. I take time at the end of the day to reflect on both what and how I’ve put words on the page. Evening Pages provide closure to a day that starts with Morning Pages.

MORNING PAGES
Evening Pages

Morning Pages help me write through the fog of all that I have to do.

I’ve been writing Morning Pages as prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artists Way for years. Morning Pages are helpful as both a meditative practice to finding my center and as a tunnel into my uncensored creative ideas.

Yes, Morning Pages sometimes end up being mundane lists of tasks I need to complete on any given day. But often committing those tasks to ink helps get them out of the way of what I need to write . Morning Pages often morph into a rough draft of my work for the day, whether it’s a speech, a blog post, or a section of one of my current books.

Morning Pages help me settle in to my concentration. In an ideal world, I would maintain that focus without interruption, but interruptions happen. Lately, I’ve been examining how I cope with interruptions, whether they’re internal interruptions (like thinking about lunch at 9 am), or external interruptions, like a business or family obligation I have to take care of. Regardless of the cause, I’m trying to teach myself how to recapture my mind so I can return to my imaginative work. Evening Pages help me perform this self-examination.

EVENING PAGES
Evening Pages

Evening Pages allow for reflection.

Evening Pages allow me to reflect on how I followed through on my Morning Pages and how I coped with interruptions during the day. Evening Pages allow me to see how I handle disruption. I can either praise my efforts to recoup my concentration or consider how else I might have reacted that would have preserved my focus.

 

Evening Pages

Evening pages are about sustaining the creative mind.

Evening Pages have already helped me see how many interruptions are of my own making. For years, I thought it was family life that was the major source of interruptions, and maybe it used to be. But Evening Pages have helped me realize that I’m often the source of my own distraction, not the other members of my household. Evening Pages allow me to examine just how I undermine my focus, and they are where I brainstorm ways to sustain the flow of words, even when writing what is uncomfortable and true.

Evening Pages are helping me learn how to cope with the powerful feeling of doing something dangerous and wrong by penning my truth on the page. Evening Pages are helping me to give voice to my truth.

The very process of written reflection allows me to examine more clearly my creative process: what I wrote, what comes next, and where my pen is taking me. Writing is often an act of discovery, and these Evening Pages help me stay oriented to the progress of my journey – even when I’m uncertain of my destination.

Cameron says that Morning Pages “provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand.” I’m finding my Evening Pages to be a bit more deliberate, more reflective. Morning Pages are about unleashing the creative mind; Evening Pages are about sustaining it.

If you give Evening Pages a try, if you already have an end-of-day writing practice, or if you have any questions about Evening Pages, please be in touch via the Comments section below.

As always, thanks for reading.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator. She lives in southern Vermont and on the web at www.deborahleeluskin.com

Train Travel Residency

Train Travel Residency

Poet Julia Shipley enjoyed several Train Travel Residencies this past winter

The Amtrak Residency is currently suspended, but that hasn’t stopped poet Julia Shipley and two colleagues from creating a Train Travel Residency of their own.

Shipley is a non-fiction writer, journalist and poet who lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. This past winter she and two colleagues created their own Train Travel Residency.

They boarded Amtrak’s Southbound Vermonter in Waterbury at ten in the morning and wrote for the three-hour journey to Brattleboro. On their walk up Main Street to Brooks Memorial Library, the three poets stopped for lunch. Once at the library, they held a planned workshop, where they read and gave comments on one another’s work. Shortly before five, they retraced their steps to the station and wrote for the three-hour trip home.

Train Travel Residency

Amtrak residencies were last offered in 2016

The Amtrak Residency, designed to allow creative professionals the time and space to work while traveling by train, included a private room with a desk, a bed, and a window on a long-distance route, with meals in the dining car. Over one hundred residencies were offered in 2016, the last year they were awarded.

But as Shipley and her cohort have proven, for the price of a train ticket, it’s possible to create a shorter residency on rails that combines six intense hours of writing time, three hours of collegial workshop time, and the comfort of sleeping in your own bed. All it takes is a little planning, ingenuity and modest fees.

First, find a round-trip route that takes you to a desired location in the morning and can bring you back at the end of the day. Second, collect your writing buddies and prepare for the workshop by distributing your works-in-progress beforehand, so you and your colleagues can read and comment carefully. And third, save up a small stash to make it all happen.

The round-trip ticket from Waterbury to Brattleboro would have cost Shipley about $36 if she purchased it more than two weeks in advance. And great lunches are to be had in Brattleboro starting at $10. All told, about a week’s worth of fancy lattes near home.

While a DIY residency costs more than a day of writing at your local coffee shop, it also offers more concentrated time, the soothing motion of the train, the company of colleagues, and the stimulation of travel.

Deborah Lee Luskin writing studio

The desk in my writing studio.

I wrote about a DIY residency a few years ago, when I stayed in my brother’s San Francisco apartment while he was away. Now, he wants me to leave home so he can come write in my studio. With just a fraction of the creativity used to put words on a page, writers of all kinds can find inspiring places and uninterrupted time to work on their words.

What are your ideas for a DIY residency?

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator who tells stories to create change. Learn more and read her weekly blog at www.deborahleeluskin.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the Writer Who Hasn’t Been Writing

 

In her smart and inspiring book, Lab Girl, geobiologist and author Hope Jahren writes, “A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed.” One of many gentle insights on the dogged perseverance of both budding scientists and plant life, this passage invites personal musings on dormancy, both literal and figurative.

Dormancy is a regular part of nature. At this time of year, we think of the world as “coming back to life,” but the innumerable seedlings and buds that finally emerge in spring have, in fact, been very much alive during the long, enchanted sleep of winter. They were never dead; they were just biding their time until the moment was right.

Even houseplants, which live in artificial conditions and are sometimes subject to neglect, have the ability to seemingly resurrect themselves. I have a small cyclamen plant that I saved from a holiday arrangement a few years ago. I did a passing fair job of caring for it until this winter when a severe cold trapped me on the couch for a week. By the time I remembered to water the poor thing, there was nothing left of the cyclamen except two dried leaves and one straggling bud that never had the chance to bloom.

Despite the sorry state of the little plant, I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. Not expecting any miracles, I gave it some water and a sunny spot on the windowsill. For months, nothing happened. It looked as if I was caring for a pot of dirt. And then one day there were signs of life.

Like the undulating arms of a tiny terrestrial octopus, several delicate, fuzz-covered shoots arched gracefully out from a tangle of dead stems and partially exposed roots. A few days later, the tips of several shoots had unfurled into beautiful variegated leaves that spread wide and began, imperceptibly, tracking the movements of the sun like an array of miniature radar dishes tuned into the songs of the stars.

There are parts of ourselves—dreams, hopes, beliefs—that are like seeds waiting to germinate or like neglected houseplants that seem half dead, but have really just drawn their life force back into themselves for safe keeping.

Maybe you grew up wishing you could be an explorer or an artist, but life led you down a different path, and now you can hardly recognize yourself as the child who dreamed of sailing the seven seas, writing poetry, or capturing visions in paint. That piece of yourself is not dead and gone; it is just dormant, waiting for the right time to stretch into the light.

You can often coax new growth simply by providing a little sustenance. Just like my cyclamen needed water and sunlight, your sleeping dreams need time and attention. For now, they may be curled up in the quiet dark, but there is no expiration date on their potential.

Our dreams can even benefit from time in stasis. Like a seed that must hold itself in limbo until there is enough space, sunshine, water, and nutrients to sustain it, sometimes our dreams have to wait until we have the right life experience, confidence, or motivation. While our Western sensibilities tend to encourage a state of constant striving, sometimes we would be wiser to practice a more organic way of becoming.

Jahren tells a story in Lab Girl about a lotus seed that scientists dug out of a peat bog in China. After the seed sprouted in the lab, the researchers radiocarbon-dated the discarded shell and found that the seed had been dormant for two thousand years. Truly, you can never say never.

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Words On The Page

words on a page

Words on a page – where it all starts.

Whether it’s a post, a radio interview, or a keynote address, events like these represent great opportunities for a writer to build audience and generate income – and they all start with words on the page.

Yesterday, I was interviewed on Vermont Edition about a writing talk I’ll be giving on Friday, called Having the Last Word: How to Write Your Own Obituary.

Vermont Public Radio picked it up due to a commentary I wrote and recorded for them the week before.

Tonight, I’ll be giving the keynote address, Making the Most of Middle Age at the annual meeting of the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital Auxiliary, thanks to my blog, The Middle Ages.

Wednesday, I’ll be talking about Getting from Here to There: A History of Transportation and Settlement in Vermont in New Haven, Vermont.

All these presentations represent audience outreach and income, and all started with words on the page.

So, it’s worth thinking about going beyond print to get your message out, and it’s worth remembering that it all starts with organizing your thoughts into words.

How do you reach your audience?

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator who advances issues through narrative and tells stories to create change. Read her weekly blog at www.deborahleeluskin.com