This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
In 2019, one of my goals was to learn more about writing, and one of the ways I did that was by reading! The books below are those that I recommend. Hope you find something useful in the list!
The final post for the Monson Arts Residency! This is mostly musings on the overall experience and a thank you to the folks that made it possible. If you are wondering about doing a residency or about Monson Arts residency in particular, hopefully it is useful to you.
(And if you would like to know more about the town/area of Monson and some program basics, please see previous posts, Monson Arts Weeks 1 and 2, and/or the Monson Arts website.)
I'm writing this at home, reflecting on my month of Monson, missing the trees and the people and the quiet. I'm not adjusting well to being back; my home, full of projects and things calling out for attention, feels overwhelming. I can hardly stand to be in it. Maybe I can take a page from the lovely, pared-down simplicity of the residency and try to re-create it here.
What I hoped for Monson Arts was to get a lot of writing done, not be too homesick, not embarrass myself socially, and maybe see the Appalachian Trail. I also hoped, but didn't expect, to use the time as a breakaway from my life, to just be. To write without worry. To interact with other people without “shoulds,” to get quiet.
I think all of those expectations and hopes were met. Of course the point of going was WRITING. During the 27 days of Monson, the main focus for all ten of us residents was to get as much done with our projects as possible. Mine was to turn a "frankendraft" into a clean draft. I didn't finish, as I went off the rails with a new idea that wasn't working and decided to start again.
I was in good company; I think a common theme among the residents was, “Am I doing enough?” Some people expressed frustration over getting distracted with administrative tasks rather than squeezing creativity out of every moment. Even in Monson, distractions exist!
But the Monson Arts folks did their best to let us do our thing. Aside from the optional short presentations the first week and the (also optional) final week participation in an open house and reading for the community, our time was otherwise our own. (Another resident, Amanda Galvan Huynh, and I got a chance to work with a group of high school students for a couple of hours during our last week--but again, this was a no-pressure optional activity for us. We did some writing exercises with them, and just BTW: I was BLOWN AWAY by the depth, complexity, and completeness of the poems/stories/rap that the students produced. Just...wow! If you get a chance to work with the group, I highly recommend it!)
What I didn't expect was that there would be so much more to this experience than getting a lot of work done and that the things I'd hoped for happened in ways I couldn't predict. Some things that I want to hold close in my memory and in gratitude:
Balance: The easy access to nature, working in a group studio, and the simplicity of Monson, made it easy to be balanced, to alternate writing with activities such as hiking or chatting with other people. It made me realize this was lacking in my writing practice back home and is something I want and need more of: Being solitary and quiet in nature. Spending more time with people who put their creative process first. Playing! Rolling in leaves and dancing and writing silly things and midnight canoeing under the full moon (it was a little like summer camp!!)
Connecting: Not just chatting, but real, almost daily conversations about craft and process and frustrations and productivity. To sit at a table every day with people who are creating and sharing the same joys and frustrations was AMAZING. I loved getting to know the other residents, to see shy ones come out of their shell (apparently, I was one of these, too). I loved hearing their stories and and learning about the courage they put into their work, and seeing their creations and the mix of joyful and dark and intricate and beautiful.
Convergence: So many residents integrated environmental and nature themes in their work, including our human connection to nature and fear/worry about what we are doing to our environment. All of these resonate with my work, and made me realize how linked we all are, how much in common we humans have with each other, even when we think we are doing something solitary and separate. It made me see my work with new eyes and want to delve deeper into my themes. It made me think, again, about why I'm writing and why I'm writing this book.
Although each person's experience will vary, I think if you are a nature lover, hiking enthusiast, foodie, a person in need of quiet and time and space to be and create and connect, you would benefit from (and possibly love) the Monson Arts program, too. As mentioned in earlier blogs, the setting, housing, food, and studios are all lovely. The program is well run, and the people behind Monson Arts are warm, generous, talented, and welcoming. All of this makes it possible to focus on creating and being open to whatever other experiences await.
I'm so thankful that I was gifted with this opportunity. These weeks of being able to breath and be, coming in in the middle of my otherwise rather constricted, chaotic life, are a treasure I will long hold in my memory (especially through the long Maine winter!).
Thank you, Monson Arts! Thank you for letting me be a part of your wonderful program!
Thank you Dan Bouthot and Susan DeLoia and Stuart Kestenbaum and James Pullen. Thank you to Lucas Butler all the people at Pineland Farms and the Libra Foundation for making this possible.
Week two in Monson Maine!
Between writing sessions, I've been walking and hiking around and staring and staring because the trees are stupid gorgeous. Impossible colors. I have made myself stop taking a camera on my walks or I come home with hundreds of photos every day. There is an ATV trail a few blocks from the studio that I've been walking on most days. It's so quiet here. Just rustling leaves and shushing grasses.
Other than working on our goals and being bombarded by gorgeousness, this week we ten residents had short presentations for each other--just five-minute reports so we would all know what we do and our goals for the time here.
I was only a little nervous about this beforehand, but as each person presented, I shrank further and further into my seat, hoping to somehow disappear. The other residents are amazing. Check out some of their websites (and if you do, note that Sara started off the presentations--how would you like to follow that??):
I just kept thinking: I'm here with them?? How???
In the end, I did speak a little about what I'm doing (revising my young adult novel AGAIN), but I went last and started by saying: "Compared to what all of you do, what I do is the artistic equivalent of a Bob Ross painting." Which got a laugh, at least. So there is that.
Also, just to clarify: I'm NOT dissing Bob Ross--Bob Ross is groovy, baby! I love Bob Ross!
Just...Bob Ross probably isn't going to have his paintings hanging in the MET someday, and some of these folks just might. It's a bit intimidating, you know?
But despite their much more advanced talents, everyone here has been very kind to me. It's a truly nice, interesting, diverse group of people. We eat two meals a day together, at The Quarry restaurant, and have spent time hanging out in the lakeside cabin, warmed by a cheerful, cozy fireplace. It's fascinating to hear the other residents talk about other residencies they have done (this is my first--it was none of their first), their processes, their lives.
So I get to write, hike around, have interesting conversations with interesting people, and someone else is doing the cooking.
Gotta say, am liking the residency thing. This is Living the Dream!! :)
And last, some images from the Appalachian Trail. The trail is about two miles outside of Monson. This was my first time on the A.T. and it was sort of magical to step on the actual trail, to actually be there surrounded by the stunning, quiet beauty of the Maine woods.
While hiking, for some reason I kept saying, "this is legit!" Not something I typically say, but I guess my brain was trying to come up with something appropriately momentous and that's what it found. I will kindly think that it was too awed to provide more lyrical language. :P
Hello from Monson Maine! I'm here participating in the Monson Arts Residency program, one of ten people that will be staying here for the next four weeks.
WHAT: 27 days of provided housing, food, studio space, and a stipend
WHEN: September 29-October 25 (other residencies held other months of the year)
WHERE: Monson, Maine (small town in the middle of Maine, surrounded by woods)
WHO: Ten people from different areas of the country/world and from different art/writing backgrounds
WHY: To focus on creating, meet other creative people, and promote creative growth in Monson
HOW: Residents selected through an application process. Apply on-line at monsonarts.org
Monson is about an hour and a half north-west of Bangor. There are about 600 residents year round, twice that in the warmer months. It's heyday was in the late 1800's and early 1900's, when about 6000-10,000 residents, many of them Swedes and Finns, lived here and worked in the industry of slate mining. The legacy of slate remains today, from footpaths and old mines to driveways and walkways, kitchen counters and bathroom floors.
You might know Monson from its being the last town before the final 100-mile leg of the Appalachian Trail. The Trail used to go right through downtown Monson, but has been moved about two miles out of town. There are still some back-packers around town now, resting up before heading out for the final stretch to Katahdin.
Monson's newest claim to fame is the Monson Arts program. This program is run through Pineland Farms, (which is funded through the Libra Foundation), with a goal of developing "economic and creative growth in the area" (from the Monson Arts brochure). The Monson Arts website explains the program along with stunning photography, so I recommend checking out the website if you'd like more information.
This is the first time I've done anything like this, and I expected something like "college dorm meets summer camp" but it's much, much nicer! Four days in and it's been amazing! The other residents are engaging and friendly--there are five writers and five visual artists.
And the food is so good it deserves its own blog entry. Seriously. Check out The Quarry's Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/thequarrymonson/?hl=en
Below, more information about the town and living/working spaces, for anyone interested:
We are staying in houses near town, two or three residents to a house. The houses have colorful rugs over hardwood floors, cozy furniture and homey knick-knacks. There are full kitchens, laundry rooms, linens and towels, and each person has their own bedroom. Backyards are woodsy, and when it’s quiet, I can hear the leaves whispering. It’s easy to feel at home here!
We each get our own individual studio spaces, which are more simply furnished than the houses. We are the first residents to use the Moore Building, which has studios for seven of the ten of us residents.
The houses and studios are all within walking distance to the main street of town, which includes:
Also downtown, open seasonally, are the Appalachian Trail Information Building/Monson Historical Society Museum and Gift Shop, two antique shops, and several galleries (ceramics, paintings, wooden bowls)
Specific to the Monson Arts residents, and also within walking distance, are other Monson Arts buildings, such as the the lakeside cabin with a fireplace, and canoes and kayaks.
The town is snugged up against a beautiful lake, Lake Hebron. There is even an otter that hangs out near our studios.
Welp, I'm off to write (that is why I'm here!!). More about the surrounding area in the next post.
SLICE Literary Writer’s Conference 2019 (Brooklyn, New York, September 7-8)
Thanks to a scholarship from the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (MWPA)--the Ilgenfritz Scholarship, WOOHOO!!!--I was able to attend this amazing conference! And it was my first time in New York City! I was able to see bits and pieces of NYC: Grand Central Terminal and Midtown (including Times Square--that's in Midtown, right?), the subway (many times), the New York Public Library, Central Park, bits of Brooklyn the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry. It was surreal, actually seeing these iconic places that I’ve previously only read about or seen in so many visual media forms.
But the city was just a backdrop for the real show: the SLICE Literary Conference! From the warm greeting in the lobby of St. Francis College to the opportunities to mingle and met other writers, the atmosphere of the conference was one of inclusiveness and welcome. Most of the learning opportunities were one-hour panels of authors/agents/publishers talking about either the craft side of writing or the business side of writing. It was so helpful to hear about elements of a query letter from a group of agents, or the importance of a platform from a publishing marketing/sales/promotion team, or how authors stay inspired and productive--from the authors themselves.
Highlights of the weekend included a workshop on structure with Ted Thompson (super helpful!!), and author interviews with Mira Jacobs and T Kira Madden. These two amazing writers talked about their process and struggles and how their writing stems from wrestling with the hard questions that they can’t shake. At one point Mira Jacobs said that when she was writing about hurtful experiences, she focused on writing for clarity, not for vindication. “I’m not trying to explain what a monster looks like; I’m trying to explain what love looks like,” she said. As a writer still finding my intentional arcs when writing personal narratives, her words resonated with me, helping me understand how and why emotionally-fraught impulses can be so easy to turn into an expose or vengeance, and how to instead focus on them as opportunities for healing and authenticity.
Now back in Maine, I have a notebook full of notes and a folder full of handouts and a mind full of impressions and memories. This was truly an amazing experience! I’m so grateful that I was given the means and opportunity to attend. Thank you, MWPA!!
Another entry from the archives of my writing journal, this one from December 2015. This was my biggest breakthrough as a writer up until that point. And actually, is still!
When I think about doing something but don't actually do it, a lot of negative thought can pile on to the task. This is especially true about writing. When I start thinking about writing instead of actually doing it, I can get into such a low, mucky place that I have given a name to it: the Monster. It's heavy and mean and has horrible teeth that grab onto my ankles and suck me down into a pit of doubt (which feels a lot like quicksand).
Lynda Barry, in her amazing (and very meta!) book about writing, What It Is, noted that when she thought about writing it stopped the actual experience of writing. "It seems," she writes, "that thinking and experiencing are not the same thing."
THINKING about writing (or anything challenging or unknown) often clogs my mind full of...
Ouch. Yes, it's a mean, mean Monster.
But if I can shake off thinking mode and get myself to into doing mode, if I can actually sit down and write, do it instead of just thinking about it, I can almost always send the Monster packing!
DOING writing often leads to:
This lovely outcome happens when I'm present and focusing on the process, but it can all fall apart in a hurry when I get focused on the results; that is, thinking about what I'm doing while I'm doing it.
Then I try to remember: the Monster is just thoughts. That’s all it is. All I need to do is write, let it unfold moment by moment, no past, no future, just now, and the Monster thoughts will lose their hold.
Bye, bye little Monster!!
In honor of Camp NaNoWriMo, April and July 2017- 2019
As I was looking through my writing journal, I found this old entry written in the middle of my very first Camp NaNoWriMo--which was also my first foray into any kind of public writing forum. Up until April 2017, I wrote alone. (Well, with my cat, of course. But involving other people: nope.) I didn't share what I was writing or thoughts about writing with other writers, even on-line. Only a few people knew I was writing a book, and I wouldn't tell them what it was about. But that all began to change, with one simple step out of isolation, and with it, a whole new way of looking at things:
April 17, 2017: By imagining/thinking that this book is possible, by creating a visual with my book cover and all of my notes and folders in one space and by creating a space specifically dedicated to this project, by joining a community of others that are also writing, by having specific goals, by making time for writing and making it a part of my day, all of these things are messages to me of possible--of not just choosing to focus on that state of reality with my thinking and actions, but also actually creating that state of reality by my thinking and actions.
I think that one of the reasons that it’s so easy to stray from possible to impossible, is that reason: both states exist all the time, together, and there can be so many ways we can move from possible to impossible in the space of a single day. A badly written chapter, hearing statistics about how hard it is to get published, a crisis as work or home, feeling down about yourself for some reason that carries over to other parts of you…and while most of us are busy with our lives, which can be enough to pull you away from “possible” some of us have rather extreme thinking/polarized thinking, and/or low self-esteem, and/or tendencies to depression, so moving from “possible” to “impossible” is going to be part of our writing journey. We just have to keep moving back to possible and taking care to limit those things that throw us off course, and having things in place to pull us back on course, like belonging to a writing community.
When I started writing full-time, I was sure I was focused and hard-working enough to do it; after all, I had been working intense 10-hours shifts at my job, and had been consistent about revising my book on my days off. And I knew it would be worth trying because writing had been my happy place for years. Writing felt like driving a car down a sunny country road, while going back to work the next day was like suddenly being stuck in traffic. I wanted to feel like I was driving that country road every day.
Right away, working full-time on my book felt different from when it had been just a few days a week. After a month of full-time revising, I was frustrated that my writing felt less like a pretty road of trees and open fields and more like a street full of pot holes and abandoned houses. And worse, I was less productive—it was like I was pushing the car, Flintstone-style, with my own two feet.
What happened? If writing for a few days of week was so engaging, why was writing every day not? I wasn’t working more hours than before or more intensely than before, just on something different. And that different thing was supposed to be my work happy place.
I kept pushing through. I told myself that I was just in a rough spot, that writing is just hard sometimes. I kept hoping that it would become less sloggy.
It did not. I was starting to think I’d made a colossal mistake.
And then I began taking a class, and something interesting happened: I started finding my happy place again with my book. My writing car picked up speed and moved back onto smooth pavement.
Something about this new schedule was making a positive difference in my energy, focus, interest, and enjoyment for everything I was doing. What was it?
Meg Selig, in her article for Psychology Today “GIVE ME A BREAK!” lists benefits of taking breaks, including an increase in productivity and creativity, restoring motivation, and preventing “decision fatigue.” This applies to real breaks, like taking a walk or chatting with a friend, but can it apply to changing work tasks? Yes, in part. In the same article, Selig further notes: “If you can’t take a break, consider switching work tasks. Changing your focus—say from writing an essay to choosing photos or a presentation--can often feel like a break because you are using a slightly different part of your brain…When you return to the original task, you’ll experience some of the break benefits.”
Ah-ha! The act of alternating types of work every day was allowing enough of a change for my brain to be productive, motivated, and engaged again. And since making a living as a writer is tenuous enough without adding the inability to work full-time, I’m grateful that I stumbled on to this method of productivity.
As I play with this new way of creating balance, here are some things that have been helpful: