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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Defeating the December Doldrums

December Doldrums

The doldrums refer to the five degrees of latitude on either side of the equator where the wind dies and sailing ships are becalmed.

Every year, I stall in the December Doldrums, when moving my pen across the page feels like trudging through wet, ankle deep cement. Instead of climbing out of my chair, I sit at my desk longer than I can be productive – behavior that can trigger a cascade of discontent.

The doldrums refer to the five degrees of latitude on either side of the equator where the wind dies and sailing ships are becalmed, sometimes for weeks. The term has been appropriated into the common language to describe a period of inactivity, listlessness, or stagnation.

I’ve been becalmed here before. As the calendar winds down and the northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun, my thoughts can turn as dark as the day is short.

In early December of this year, I submitted a novel to my agent. Now, I’m waiting. Submission is an act of yielding to another’s judgment, and it often elicits a sense of helplessness in me. I’ve done all I can, and now the fate of my work is in others’ hands.

Doldrums

Self doubt comes to roost.

I wait and I fret. Self doubt perches in my soul.

To wait in the dark of the year only intensifies my feelings of being unsettled, listless, itchy in my own skin.

But I’ve been around this bend before, and I’ve learned that the wind will pick up. In the meantime, there are activities I can do to make waiting for it more bearable. Here are five ways I navigate through the doldrums.

1. Declutter

One of my favorite ways to wait out the doldrums is to clear clutter and organize the nests of papers, piles of books, and tangles of string too short to be saved. The number of places in my house where I could apply this organizing energy attests to how infrequently I’m becalmed.

2. Get Outside

I also know that even better than cleaning is getting outdoors. This year, we’ve been blessed with early snow followed by bright, cold days. I’ve skied myself stiff, replacing psychic pain with physical aches.

3. Give Gifts; Volunteer

Last Sunday, I offered Writing to the Light, a free writing workshop. Fifteen people showed up, wrote and shared their stories. They enjoyed stepping out of the holiday circus for reflection, and they all expressed appreciation for my efforts, which made me feel good.

4. Check the Data

It’s easy to see only what’s lacking while in the doldrums. This is why I keep a daily account of my time.  All I have to do is look at my records for the year for a solid reality check of the work I’ve produced: weekly posts at Living In Place; bi-weekly posts for Live to Write – Write to Live; and publications for my paying markets, including broadcasts on Vermont Public Radio. I also taught grant funded literature and writing courses; gave a dozen public talks for the Vermont Humanities Council; and hosted the Rosefire Writing Circle throughout the year. This is all in addition to revising one novel; rereading another; and continuing research for a piece of non-fiction. I’ve increased my readership and my income. By all measures, 2017 has been a good year.

5. Have Faith

The sun will turn the corner, and the earth will begin its journey back to the sun. The wind will pick up and I’ll leave the doldrums. This too shall pass.

By engaging in a combination of these five activities, I’ve already caught the wind and started sailing toward the sun.

Wishing all of you light and love to carry you into the New Year.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly about Living in Place.

Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom

WRITING
Writing and Walking

Writing is an act of discovery. I’ve been keeping a journal since I was a girl. Photo courtesy of Leadership’N Motion

My colleagues here have written eloquently about the value of journaling. Lisa describes journaling as A Method for Creative Discoveries, and Jamie lists 10 Ways Journaling Makes You a Better Writer.

Like both of them, I’ve been journaling since I was quite young. As an only girl in a household of boys, writing was sometimes the only way I could make myself heard. It’s still sometimes the only way I can hear myself.

WALKING

But now that I’m a professional writer, I sometimes need a break from my desk; that’s when I walk.

Walking is a lot like journaling. Instead of unspooling my thoughts in ink, I hike over the uneven terrain of my mental uncertainty. Before long, my footsteps shake my ideas into place, and I return to my desk with mental clarity.

writing and walkingSometimes, it’s emotional upset that blocks the words, and walking helps calm me. Being in nature changes my perspective with a long view. I’m reminded, “It’s not about me,” one of The Four Agreements that I find so helpful since reading Don Miguel Ruiz’s book about personal freedom and Toltec wisdom last February.

I read The Four Agreements in preparation for attending two-day “aWALKening to Personal Leadership Retreat” that deepened my understanding of how walking aids my writing and my life.

The Retreat was sponsored by Leadership’N Motion, co-founded by two dynamic coaches with international experience: Kate Lampel Link and Marjine van den Kieboom.

MOVING FORWARD

The retreat affirmed how walking literally and metaphorically helps me move forward.

One of the unintended consequences of that retreat was connecting with Kate – with whom I’ve crossed paths for years, usually on local cross-country ski trails.

Since February, we’ve been walking side-by-side in a deepening friendship. Our walks through the forest have led us to understand better the synergy of walking and writing, two activities that reinforce our personal leadership and help us to live mindful, fulfilling lives.

A WALKING & WRITING COLLABORATION
writing and walking

Kate Link Lampel and I are collaborating on Women Women Walking and Writing Toward Wisdom on 11/4/17. Photo courtesy of Leadership ‘N Motion

Kate’s a coach and I’m an educator. We both work primarily with women pursuing self-empowerment, whether pursuing a dream of entrepreneurship (Kate) or reframing the narrative of their lives (me). We hadn’t walked very far together before we started collaborating on a way to bring our knowledge and skills to others.

So it is with great excitement that we’ll be offering Women Walking and Writing toward Wisdom, and all-day WALKshop on November 4, 2017.

Please note: Space is limited and Registration is required.

walking & writing

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

When she’s not walking, Deborah Lee Luskin is writing and Living in Place.

 

 

 

 

Words of Encouragement for Writers

encouragement for writers

Sand in your bathing suit is good for your writing.

Words of encouragement can help writers stick with penning words to the page. Here are some that have helped me.

“The most difficult and complicated part of the writing process is the beginning.”  ~ A.B. Yehoshua

Starting a project is like shifting into first gear on manual transmission. A writer often hesitates, stalls, and jackrabbits before gaining momentum. It’s all about starting over – and over and over, until you’re at highway speed.

“It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes makes its way to the surface.” ~ Virginia Woolf

Call it dreaming, calling it procrastination, call it an excuse to complete a crossword puzzle: there is something to be said for allowing the brain to freewheel for a bit – without engaging the gears.

So today, I encourage all writers to forgive themselves the time they are not writing, and soak up the irritations of living, whether it be sand in your bathing suit while you’re on vacation, or sawdust in your nose from working on an overdue home repair; or garden soil in your eye. These things will pass from immediate discomfort. You will return to your desk or your cafe or the refuge of your car – wherever it is you spin words into stories. You will get past the starting line, and you will be thick in media res once again.

“Beware of advice—even this.” ~ Carl Sandburg

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin is an award-winning novelist, commentator and educator. Learn about joining her Private Tutorials, Writing Circles and Editorial Services, and read an essay every Wednesday on her blog.

Paid to Talk

Photo courtesy of Phyllis Groner

An unintended consequence of being a writer is being paid to talk.

Never shy about sharing my knowledge or opinions in print, I now speak them out loud to just about anyone who wants to listen, and I do it in a way that’s not just informative but also entertaining. And yet – just as in my opinion pieces – I challenge my audience to think about current problems in new and not always comfortable ways.

I have a collection of popular off-the-shelf talks, and a nearly limitless willingness to talk about anything about which an audience and I have a mutual interest. Give me a topic; I’ll give you a speech.

Currently, I have four off-the-shelf talks: Lessons From the Long Trail, about my transformative end-to-end through hike of The Long Trail when I turned sixty, and three through The Vermont Humanities Council Speakers Bureau:

Getting From Here to There: The history of transportation and settlement in VT

1964: A Watershed Year in Vermont Political and Cultural History

Why Are We Still Reading Jane Austen?

I make customized motivational and celebratory speeches to groups who want to hear what I have to say. After teaching reluctant writers, leading Weight Watchers, and raising three children, I’ve developed some serious motivational skills that can be translated into a celebration and/or call to action.

I’ve also spent the past ten years learning about restorative practices as well as Roberts Rules of Order, so if a group needs a facilitator, I’m good at making sure everyone in the room has a chance to be heard.

Of course, I’m always ready to talk about and teach writing and literature, from blogs to biographies. Earlier this year I lectured on Virginia Woolf for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and I’m currently teaching a grant-funded memoir-writing class at my local library. We’re having a blast.

Between writing, teaching, and public speaking, I’ve fallen behind on other tasks, like keeping my website updated, but that’s next. In the works is a calendar where anyone who wants to attend one of my public lectures can find out the what, where, and when. And for those who may be interested in a custom-made talk, just contact me.

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

Deborah Lee Luskin posts an essay every Wednesday at www.deborahleeluskin.com

 

Make Affirmations Rather than Resolutions!

confetti-1112949_640

Affirmations rather than Resolutions!

This is the time of year I advocate for affirmations rather than resolutions.

I used to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the accepted and conventional manner. I’d stay up till midnight, fortify my resolve with champagne, and vow to live cleaner, work harder, and sustain a calm, orderly, life.

clock-334117_640I’d make these resolutions at midnight, and in the morning – just hours into the new year – I ‘d break them. Then I’d think I was a failure, and that the year was off to a bad start and could only get worse so really, why bother?

It didn’t matter if it was a modest resolution I’d failed to keep, like putting the clean laundry away, or a grandiose one, like writing a novel by the end of the week, or a perennial one, like losing a few pounds, or a hopeful one, like being kinder and more generous.

All resolutions did was set me up for failure.

I’m done with that!

Now I make lists of affirmations, including all the milestones and transitions celebrated and/or mourned, depending.

I write everything down: the visits, the adventures, the conversations and connections, the surprises, and the words.

If you’re a writer, it’s important to keep track of the words.

I write down all my publications and broadcasts for the year, including where and when they were published.

This isn’t just a measurable reality-check, it’s also good record keeping, which is part of the job.

Writers need to keep track of their work for several reasons:

  • So you can send a clip along with a query.
  • In order to keep track of your income; the tax man cometh in April.
  • To correlate your paying markets with your readership. What’s your payer to reader mix?
  • For a sense of accomplishment: Look how much you wrote!

This time of year I also try to update the list of the books I’ve read and movies I’ve watched during the year. I’m middle aged, and this is a helpful memory aid.

And I list all that I’m grateful for, which is especially helpful in these uncertain times.

Making resolutions is like “shoulding” all over yourself; listing affirmations leads to kindness and self-care.

I no longer make resolutions. I write affirmations, try to stay present, single task, and live one moment at a time.

Blessings to you. I’ll see you in the New Year.

One of the most life-affirming things I've done in 2016 is hike Vermont's 272-mile Long Trail.

One of the most life-affirming things I did in 2016 is hike The Long Trail, Vermont’s 272-mile “footpath in the wilderness.”

Deborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly about Living in Place, The Middle Ages (in humans, not history), Vermonters By Choice, and most recently: Lessons from the Long Trail, about her 272-mile end-to-end thru-hike of Vermont’s Long Trail.