Podcast Host Jessica Bowser Discusses the Value of Journaling About Outdoor Experiences

Jessica Bowser, host of the Virginia Outdoor Adventures Podcast, began Virginia State Parks Trail Quest in 2015, visiting every state park over the course of five years. In 2019, when then-state parks director Craig Seaver gifted her with a state parks journal while she was visiting Natural Tunnel State Park, she began journaling about the experience. In the interview below, Bowser talks about the great outdoors, writing, and mental health.

INSPIRED BY OTHER PEOPLE’S STORIES

Mind the Dog Writing Blog: You don’t normally journal in your everyday life. What made you decide to journal about your state park visits?

A cozy fireside at Hungry Mother State Park provides the perfect place for Bowser to write about her experience at the park in March 2020.

Jessica Bowser: The inspiration came from the journals in each of the cabins. When you leaf through those journals, you find people have had very different experiences, even though they are all staying in the same place and the same activities are available to everyone; everyone makes it uniquely their own. You read about something funny that happened with a  pet they brought with them, or some people are newlyweds on their honeymoon. Other people are locals who have family traditions of returning to the same park every year.  You read their personal stories. For example, when I was at Hungry Mother State Park, I was reading an entry from a family that comes every year, and the husband/father is a coal miner–so they had to come during a time that worked out for the coal mining schedule. It was the only vacation that they got every year and that was what they did: They went to Hungry Mother. They stayed in the cabin. They went paddling and swimming in the lake and hiking, and then a few days later, they would have to get back so that he could go back to coal mining. I thought that was so unique. I live up in Northern Virginia. There’s no coal mining up here, and it really is representative of part of the state that unfortunately, a lot of people are unfamiliar with. I love to read these stories and hear about other people’s lives and learn about other people. That is what made me think I should also be keeping a record of my own journey, because I do get around so often that there’s a lot to write about and a lot of things I want to remember and be able to look back on. Those journals prompt you to enter a lot of different information, and so when I do go back and read it, I can think about things that were very specific to that trip that I probably would have otherwise forgotten.

THE VALUE OF RE-READING PAST ENTRIES: REMEMBERING THE PAST, PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

MTDWB: How often do you go back and read your journal entries? What effect does doing so have on you?

JB: I don’t read them terribly often, but when I am actually at a cabin and I finish an entry, I sometimes flip back and see what else I had written months or even a year or more before. The whole purpose of the journal is to keep a record of what I’ve done so that I can remember my experience. If I don’t go back and read it, then I’m not fulfilling that goal. The benefit that it has, is it brings up a lot of fond memories, but then it also makes me think, ‘Oh, I really want to get back here and do this other thing’ or ‘There’s another park I want to visit that I haven’t been to in a while where I can also have this same experience.’ For example, if I really enjoyed kayaking at Belle Isle, it makes me think, ‘What parks have I not kayaked at?’– because I didn’t have my kayak until last year, so where else do I want to get back to? Well, Smith Mountain Lake is one place that I would love to kayak. I’ll be there this June and I’ll get to have that experience. When I read my journal, I can think about what else I’d like to do in the future, but also be reminded of interesting and fun and meaningful things that have happened in the past.

When I read my journal, I can think about what else I’d like to do in the future, but also be reminded of interesting and fun and meaningful things that have happened in the past.

ON ADAPTING THE JOURNALS TO A PUBLISHED PIECE

MTDWB: Would you ever consider publishing your journal(s) in some form? Why or why not?

JB: I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you say it out loud, it sounds like a future book! It’s interesting you say that, because part of the reason I started the podcast is because there’s a real lack of diversity and also a lack of representation of pretty much all groups except white men, but women specifically. It’s lacking in the outdoor industry and it’s lacking in podcasting, so a podcast by a woman about the outdoors is sort of filling the gap in two different spaces. The larger group that is interested in the podcast are women my age, which isn’t surprising. I think it really appeals to them because they don’t usually hear about somebody like themselves doing this.      

REFLECTING ON EXPERIENCES

MTDWB: How did you feel about journaling during your visits?

JB: Even on the nights when I was really exhausted and I’d think, ‘Oh, gosh. I haven’t done this yet and I really need to,’ I never dreaded it. If it was a chore, I probably wouldn’t do it–I do enjoy doing it. I do like thinking about all the things I might have otherwise missed. I’d really think about what I did on Day One, what I did on Day Two. I’d ask myself how did that make me feel, what did I enjoy about it, what would I like to do differently, what would I like to do when I come back. It was reflective. You do have to really think about everything you did and why you did it and could it be different and was it worth it and all of the things. As an educator, I come at it from having that practice of being reflective and journaling. I appreciate being able to think about what the purpose and the meaning is while I’m writing.

ON JOURNALING AND MINDFULNESS

MTDWB: How did you feel after each entry?

JB: Tired! I only say that because I always journal at night and after a long day, I just want to crawl into bed. I felt fulfilled because I took the time to think about my experience. Oftentimes, we go through the motions and while we might be enjoying it in the moment, once it’s over, sometime we don’t think about it anymore because we’re on to the next thing. Even sometimes while were doing something, we’re not always present. I think that is something people are starting to become more aware of, and they are trying to be more in the moment. That’s something that I personally am working on and I think that journaling is helping me do that more because I have to pay attention to what I’m doing and not let my brain wander. Especially now, as a podcast host, that has crept into my personal life. I have to figure out where the boundaries are for that, because I can no longer just go out for a hike and enjoy the hike. The whole time I’m out there, I’m thinking, ‘what content am I going to come back with and what kind of photos and what kind of video and how do I present this to people?’ As a former educator, I’m also thinking, ‘What questions would people have about this?’ It really takes away from a lot of my experience, so the journaling helps me to be more present in the moment and to enjoy it more because I know I am going to be reflecting on it later.

Bowser journals by the fireside in a cabin at James River State Park in November 2020.

Journaling helps me to be more present.

JOURNALING: GROWTH THROUGH REMEMBERING

MTDWB: Did anything surprise you about your journaling experience?

JB: I think the thing that surprised me was how quickly I forgot about past experiences. You think, ‘Oh, I’m going to remember this,’ and then you don’t. I appreciated, especially as time went on and the entries started to build, that I put those things in writing so that I could remember them—because I really was surprised at how much I forgot. It was a nice reminder of going back to being present in the moment so that I do remember more of the experience. I also like  remembering my feelings at the time, especially with new experiences–if I am doing something for the first time or doing something that I am nervous about or that pushes my boundaries. People often say to me, ‘You’re so fearless; you’re always out there doing these crazy things and you just have no fear,’ and that is absolutely the farthest thing from the truth. I want to do this thing and I’m scared out of my mind and I am going to push myself because I know I shouldn’t be afraid or I’m never going to reach that goal if I don’t step outside of my comfort zone. I see it as a growing or learning opportunity. Journaling helps me with thinking about those moments when I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, and remembering what that was like. It makes me ask myself why I was so afraid of that and what I could have done differently so I wouldn’t have been so nervous–or I realize I can’t believe that scared me because after I did it, it was like, ‘Oh, I could totally do this again,’ and now maybe I have done it three more times and it’s no big deal anymore, but in that initial, first time, it was something really scary. I like to look back, especially on those moments, because I can see the growth and I can see how it’s impacted me and I can see the change and the value in it and it encourages me to continue doing those things. 

Journaling helps me with thinking about those moments when I pushed myself. I like to look back on those moments, because I can see the growth and I can see how it’s impacted me. It encourages me to continue doing those things.

WEAPON OF CHOICE: PEN OR PENCIL?

MTDWB: Did you use pen or pencil when you journaled?

JB: I have a gel pen, and I keep it tucked in the spirals of the journal. I have so many gel pens, it’s ridiculous.

STORYTELLING: WRITING TO CONNECT

Bowser records an episode of her podcast in her closet–a common practice among podcasters. Always looking for ways to connect to her audience, she has found that telling stories of her outdoor experiences has been the most successful.

MTDWB: Did journaling carry over into any other aspects of your life?

JB: I think when you’re a content creator like I am, you have to find ways to connect with your audience. I look for ways to connect with people. It’s all relational. The best way to connect with people is to tell your story, and to tell it in a way that people can envision themselves in your place. In my case, I want people to be encouraged to do those things, whether it’s an outdoor activity or visiting a place or trying something new. For me, journaling is just another form of storytelling, and also at the same time encouraging people to get out and create their own adventure.

The best way to connect with people is to tell your story. Journaling is just another form of storytelling.

ON HER JOURNAL

MTDWB: Was there a specific brand or type of journal you used or preferred? Why?

Bowser displays the state parks journal where she records her various experiences, excursions, and adventures at state parks across Virginia.

JB: I use the same journal that you find in all the state park cabins. It’s the same standard journal in all the cabins. I was visiting Natural Tunnel State Park in October 2019, and it was my first time at that park. I picked up the cabin journal that particular day and I realized that there was an introductory welcome message from Craig Seaver, who was the director of Virginia State Parks when the journal was published. I had met Craig recently and I really connected with his message in the journal because I had just met him at the Virginia Association for Parks conference and really liked him. I wanted to let him know that I had read his message, so I reached out to him on social media, and it turns out that Natural Tunnel was the park where Craig was the park manager before he became director of the whole system, so he had a personal connection with Natural Tunnel. I told him I would really like to have one of these journals, and asked where I could get one. He had a ranger show up at my cabin and deliver me my own journal. I was delighted. I was so excited to start using it. It made me feel so special. The journal itself has meaning to me, because the person who gave it to me is someone I admire. Every time I pull it out, it’s a reminder of Craig. It’s also a reminder of my advocacy with VAFP. It’s also a reminder to take a few minutes out of my experience and document what my experience has been like.

JOURNAL ROUTINE

MTDWB: Was there a particular way you formatted your entries?

JB: The journal asks what dates you were there, what the weather was like, what activities you did, what wildlife you sighted, who you met, who was with you. That’s the front page, and then the back page is blank lined paper for notes

MTDWB: How often and when did you journal?

JB: I always do it at the end of my visit, because I want to make sure that the entry captures my whole visit. Sometimes I will start it during the visit, especially for wildlife sightings, so I don’t forget anything. I will start to fill it out, but I don’t usually do the blank back page until the last night.

JOURNALING, NATURE, AND MENTAL HEALTH

MTDWB: May is Mental Health Month. Can you speak a little bit to the role the outdoors has on mental health? Can you speak a little bit about the role journaling has on mental health?

JB: There has been research out on the benefit of the outdoors on mental health for a long, long time, but I don’t think it has gotten as much attention as it has gotten within the last year. Given the circumstances with the pandemic, you hear over and over that people are getting outside in ways that they never have before. All of a sudden, you couldn’t buy a fire pit or a kayak or a bike. Still, every supply chain is dried up. That is all evidence of the fact that people are now realizing the value of the outdoors. I hope that this isn’t short-term, a time people got outside because they had nothing else to do or they didn’t have other places to go where they could be safe. I hope that this experience will lead to people connecting to the outdoors long-term. Especially from a conservation standpoint, we want people connecting to the outdoors in a meaningful way so they will appreciate it and want to conserve it. Certainly being outdoors has a huge impact on our mental health and it’s something I have done for years and years. I am really excited other people are coming around to have that experience as well.

In terms of journaling and mental health, it has been helpful for me to be more present in the moment. I have also talked to other people who have been journaling about the outdoors.  A potential future guest on the podcast is writing a memoir about losing her brother, and she says the reason she started journaling was because when her brother passed away, someone bought her a journal and encouraged her to write letters to her brother. She started doing that, and it became the basis for her memoir. I can see where journaling would have an impact.

When you combine journaling and the outdoors, you have both of those elements working for you at same time. You have the experience of the outdoors, and the journal to help you reflect on it, and be more present. It is a double whammy. The journal reinforces the impact that the outdoors has on mental health and wellness. It is two sides of the same coin.

When you combine journaling and the outdoors, you have the experience of the outdoors, and the journal to help you reflect on it. The journal reinforces the impact that the outdoors has on mental health and wellness.

Author Bio

Jessica Bowser is the creator and host of Virginia Outdoor Adventures Podcast, which showcases the diversity and beauty of our state by Virginians who have a strong connection with the outdoors. Through conversations with guests, Jessica has created a guide to outdoor recreation and provides recommendations to assist listeners with planning their own adventures close to home. Jessica enjoys capturing her adventures in photographs while she is hiking, cycling, climbing, kayaking, birding, and camping throughout Virginia. Virginia Outdoor Adventures Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and anywhere you listen to podcasts. For outdoor travel ideas and recommendations, or to follow Jessica’s adventures, visit www.VirginiaOutdoorAdventures.com, or follow the show on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

First Semester: Preconception and Reflection

“Does anyone know what this word means?” I ask, as I scrawl “preconception” across the Promethean Board at the front of my classroom, reflecting on how much better my digital handwriting has gotten over the course of the last year. I am not sure how this lesson will go. It is 8:15 on a Monday morning. I made the last-minute decision to revamp my lesson plans last night as I fell asleep, when, from the safety of my comfortable, warm bed, the idea of trying something brand new first thing on a Monday morning seemed less foolhardy.

Now, standing in front of 11 masked teenagers staring blankly back at me, I question last night’s half-awake judgment. It seemed like such a good idea just nine hours ago.

“Well,” I say, “let’s break it down a little then.” I underline one part of the word: concept. “What’s a concept? Anybody know?”

“Like, an idea?” someone offers.

“A thought,” someone else says.

“Yes!” I say, drawing an arrow from my underlined “concept” down to where I add the words “idea” and “thought.” “And what does the prefix ‘pre’ mean?”

“Before,” a student says.

“Right! So, see? You did know what ‘preconception’ means.” I draw an arrow reaching from “pre” down to where I write “before” beside “thought” and “idea.” “A preconception is an idea or a thought you have about something before you have actually done it or experienced it. It’s like an expectation. So, let’s think back to the beginning of the semester–the night before the first day of school. What were some of your preconceptions?”

I write the students’ ideas on the Promethean Board: It’s going to be boring; I’m going to be tired; I don’t want to get up early for school; I’m excited to see my friends; it’s going to be hard; I’m going to have too much homework.

Once we have a substantial list, I point out to them that most of their preconceptions (all but one) about the current semester were negative. I think back to my own preconceptions going into this school year in particular–the pandemic forcing all kinds of unfamiliar precautions, processes, and protocols upon us. I had been terrified. My stress levels were through the roof. I wished desperately that I had reached retirement age. I fully expected this year to be at least as stressful as my first year teaching, when I regularly found myself contemplating driving my car into a tree or guardrail instead of to school. I didn’t have a death wish. I wasn’t suicidal. (I was, however, miserable.) It was just that back then, going to the hospital simply sounded more appealing than going to work.

I fully expected this year to be at least as stressful as my first year teaching, when I regularly found myself contemplating driving my car into a tree or guardrail instead of to school.

“Now,” I say, “next week we start second semester. What are your preconceptions when you think about your new classes, your new teachers, your new schedule?”

Again, most of them are negative–it’s going to be stressful, their classes are going to be more difficult, their teachers might be mean. I ask them how they are feeling now that we are looking ahead to next week.

Stressed.

Worried.

Overwhelmed.

Curious.

Excited.

I can relate. I feel all those emotions, too. Will I click with my new students the way I have clicked with my current group? Will my new bunch of students be as motivated, fun, thoughtful, well-behaved, and enjoyable as the ones looking back at me now have been? Will I remember all the little things I need to do to open a new semester, essentially preparing for a brand new school year? Will my virtual classes go okay? How am I going to juggle my virtual honors class with my hybrid honors class, a mix of both virtual and in-person students? The uncertainty is unsettling.

“Now, think about this current semester. Raise your hand if this semester was as stressful, boring, annoying, or bad as your preconceptions said it would be.”

No hands go up.

“Raise your hand if the semester went better than you expected.”

Most of the students raise their hands. I raise my hand, too. I have, for the most part, genuinely enjoyed this semester–the content, the students, the schedule, the flexibility, the increased concern for my and my colleagues’ well-being. Sure, there have been moments I wanted to cry (and moments I did). There have been moments I questioned if I could really get everything done well–or at all. Moments I had to ask for help. But, despite the pandemic and the challenges, I have to admit–this semester has been more fulfilling and rewarding and successful–and somehow, less burdensome–than any of my pessimistic preconceptions imagined. None of my fears came to fruition. Not. One.

“You see,” I say, remembering what Alexandria Peary said during the mindful writing webinar I attended over the weekend. “That’s what preconceptions usually do: burden the moment. Right now, in this moment, you could be having a perfectly pleasant time in English class, but now you’re dreading next semester’s algebra class instead. You’re not present in this moment; you’re worrying about next week. Now–what are your preconceptions when I tell you: We are going to write a poem?”

Groans arise around the classroom. We have learned nothing–so we make a list of our preconceptions about writing a poem:

No no no no

This is going to be annoying

I am not good at this

My poem is going to suck

I’m excited

I like poetry

I don’t like poetry

Ugh

Poetry is shady (meaning, I think, it’s too ambiguous and includes too many hidden meanings).

Then, we proceed to write a poem, using a step-by-step process I stole from the weekend’s Nation Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) webinar.

“Imagine,” I tell my students, “you are in a room. Describe the room.” I give them about a minute to write before saying, “There is an object in the center of the room. What is it? Describe it.” I give them another minute. “The object has a shadow, but it’s not of the object. What is the shadow of?” A minute to write. “In the shadow sits an object from your childhood. What is it?” A minute. “The room has one window. What do you see out the window? What is your view?” A minute. “Imagine that in your view, you can see a person you would give anything to be able to see again. Who is it, and what are they doing?”

“I take it back,” a boy suddenly says. “I take back my preconceptions; this is fun.”

The girl behind him echoes his sentiments. “Yeah–I like this.”

I smile. “You get to talk to this person. What do you say?” I give them a minute to write. “Now, you can sense a change in the room. How can you tell something is about to change? Describe how you know, but don’t finish your thought; don’t include what the change will be.”

The room is full of sunshine
or candlelight, whether day or night--
rainbows dance across the wall.
There is a golden birdcage, big enough for me,
in the center.
Its shadow, long across the floor and creeping
up the wall--solid--not barred--
shades a rocking horse.

Buildings outside are brick or sided--
rooftops capping cozy homes.
Jack sits in a window across 
town,
wagging his tail, looking at me expectantly.

Are you happy? I say. Are you safe? Do you know that we still 
love you?

The room is sleepy and warm and lonely and quiet.

The door begins to open and--

I give them a minute or two to wrap up their writing before asking if anyone wants to share. I am pleasantly surprised to find about half the class willing to share their poems, albeit anonymously. I read them aloud, pointing out all the little things that impress me in each of their poems. At the end of class, the boy who predicted his poem “was going to suck” admits he “kind of liked it.” Then he clarifies, “Well, I still thought it sucked when I read it to myself–but I liked it a lot when I heard you read it.”

“That’s interesting,” I say. “Do you think maybe that’s because you still had the preconception that it was bad, but when I read it, I expected it to be good–and read it like it was good?”

He thinks for a second. “Yeah, maybe.”

“Do you think it’s good now?”

He smiles a little. “Yeah.”

“So do I.”

I watch them all file out through my classroom door. I feel a little sad as I realize they’ll walk in and out of that doorway only once more this year before disappearing into a new schedule, different classrooms, different classes, leaving me to build rapport with a brand new, unfamiliar bunch of students with their own preconceptions about English, school, themselves, and me. I remember how worried I was at the beginning of this semester–how skeptical and scared. I reflect on how well it all turned out, and I hush my preconceptions–Stop burdening my moment–allowing myself to savor this small success: Students wrote poetry–and liked it.

My classroom has cleared and the first few students of my next block have entered. One of my students reads the daily agenda on the board.

“Poetry?!” she groans. “Ugh!”

I smile to myself. Buckle up. Here we go again. And everything is going to be just fine.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

Book Review: Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing, Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know

The operative word in Peter Yang’s book The Art of Writing: Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know is “everyone.” As he writes in his introduction, “Everyone can be a writer, if they so choose” (XII). Indeed, the book expresses the idea that, regardless of profession or position, we all need to write, and write well, and is a book for everyone. The seasoned writer might gain insights from the way Yang breaks down and analyzes the practice of writing, but the book would likely prove more useful to those desiring to improve their writing for the workplace, pleasure, or posterity, as well as to beginning writers. With the exception of the fact that an experienced writer or writing instructor is likely to understand concepts in the book that Yang merely glosses over as opposed to deeply explaining, a feature of the book that might prove a disadvantage to its intended audience, it would serve as a helpful handbook to the aspiring writer, regardless of field.

Yang sees “writing as a fundamental life skill” (X), a very valid position, though I would also add “process”–writing is a process and a fundamental life skill. Given the way Yang’s book progresses, it seems he would agree with that addition. He examines what he believes are the four fundamental principles for effective writing: economy, transparency, variety, and harmony. A writer, he posits, who masters these four areas can, as a result, write artistically, making writing “a joyous activity” that leads to “personal fulfillment” (XIII). This type of writing does not endeavor to impress, Yang explains, but to communicate.

He goes on to list five distinguishing attributes of artistic writers: meticulousness, awareness of audience, sincerity, realistic expectations, and flexibility with the four aforementioned principles. While his list of attributes is certainly valid, and he provides short explanations of what these attributes are, the list lacks examples of artistic writers to illustrate how they employ these traits.

A lack of examples and in-depth explanations does plague the book, making it perhaps more useful as a supplemental text in a writing course than a thorough examination of the written word and how to best communicate through it. If employed as a supplemental text with a competent writing instructor to provide examples, explanations, and exercises to accompany the book itself, it would prove incredibly useful.

Economy

The first principle Yang examines is economy. According to Yang, “The composition of your writing should imitate the anatomy of a flower–every part should be necessary and contribute to the whole” (3). This is sound advice. Yang goes on to provide a short explanation of how to simplify a sentence, an explanation that makes sense to a seasoned writer, but might be lost on a beginner.

Following the paragraph, Yang provides several examples to illustrate his thoughts, but the examples, while accurate, lack explanations that might be helpful to a novice writer. The first several sections of the chapter on economy are rife with examples, but lack clear explanations of what they illustrate. In addition, exercises with a key would prove practical and useful–another reason this book would work well as a text in a classroom with an instructor to facilitate practice.

Transparency

According to Yang, “A writer’s work can hew to the other three principles but fail to be artistic if it does not conform to the principle of transparency” (23). Transparency he defines essentially as clarity. “Transparent writing is writing that is lucid and explicit. It leaves no room for doubt and assures the intelligibility of your ideas” (23). Given the assertion that writing cannot be artistic if not transparent, even if it complies with the other three principles, I did wonder why transparency appears second in the book, as opposed to first or last.

Despite their questionable placement in the book, Yang’s ideas regarding transparency are spot-on. Particularly relevant areas include the use of figurative language (which Yang himself employs very well throughout the book), the use of shifts in tense, and the avoidance of flowery language.

One thing this chapter does better than the others is provide explanations of the examples included.

In a nutshell…

Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing is likely to prove interesting to a veteran writer, who would appreciate his breakdown of writing into four fundamental principles. It is an ideal text for the student of writing, provided the student has an instructor to elaborate on the concepts Yang touches on. The book is a good introduction to writing, and with the right elaboration, would prove an excellent text for anyone looking to hone their writing skills.

Variety

Yang’s chapter on variety is accurate, but ironically enough, the three section titles are:

Vary Your Sentence Structure

Vary Your Paragraph Structure

and

Vary Your Word Choice.

While all the above advice is sound, I found the lack of variety in the headings amusing, though not inapproriate (here I violate Yang’s advice to “Write in the Positive,” as explained on page 12). The headings are indeed transparent, and the explanations that follow are legitimate.

Harmony

The fourth and final principle Yang examines is harmony. The explanations in this chapter are clear, concise, and understandable, but do lack concrete examples to illustrate the ideas. While a lack of examples is not likely to matter to a veteran writer, it could matter to a new writer.

Coda

After explaining the four basic principles, Yang includes a final chapter that expresses his “Meditations on Writing.” In this chapter Yang writes, “Writing is not for the impatient. Mastery of writing is a lifelong endeavor” (75). Yang could not be more correct. In my experience, Yang is also correct about the value of taking breaks from one’s writing to increase motivation, as well as about the value of taking risks in one’s writing.

Overall, Peter Yang’s The Art of Writing: Four Principles for Great Writing that Everyone Needs to Know expertly distills writing down into four basic principles. It is an incredibly accessible and digestible read, but perhaps too broad and generalizing. That said, it is a book for the general population, so perhaps that is all fitting.

While veteran writers would be most likely to understand and agree with the concepts expressed in this book, they do not necessarily need this book. Instead, the book would be most enlightening to novice writers or people who do not necessarily consider themselves writers, but do write, whether in their professional or personal lives; however, they would be perhaps the least likely to fully grasp the concepts as they are explained in this book–somewhat skeletally. For that reason, this book is best suited for a fairly experienced writer interested in analyzing the written word, or as a guiding or supplemental text in a writing course wherein an instructor could provide further examples, deeper explanations, and practical exercises.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

I Write Best When I’m Asleep

I write best when I’m asleep.

Well, not really–but sort of.

There is something particularly fertile about the thoughts that float between the waking life and the sleeping, that swim in the twilight of consciousness. I have known for years now that I am most creative and most open when my self is out of the way, in a state where only mind and imagination exist, independent of any self, any ego, any personal effort. Even when I feel fully awake and aware, when I have found what is known as “flow,” it seems I am merely a conduit for my creation, not its personal author.

In this way, praying and writing are not unlike. I write best from my proverbial closet, my mind closed to all the minutiae of daily existence, and open to everything–anything–else.

I had two experience with this phenomenon this week alone. The first was mid-week. Nacho woke me up for a quick potty break around 2:30 in the morning. For whatever reason, as I pulled the fleece sheets back over my shoulders and settled into bed again, a concrete thought, born no doubt of some unconscious musings still lingering in my mind, so recently asleep, presented itself to me in isolation: “We think our plans are set in stone.” And after that, another thought, and another–until it became clear to me that I was writing a poem, a poem about planning–and its futility (perhaps or perhaps not inspired by what it’s like to be a teacher right now. Read: near daily unexpected and inconvenient if not debilitating technology glitches, students with quarantine dates that continually change, the absolute necessity for patience and flexibility).

I stayed awake for maybe 30 minutes, reciting the stanzas over and over again in my head to cement them there for when I could write them down. (On my to-do list: a bedside writing station). Plagued by a slight fear of losing them (as often happens) before fully awake, I awoke several times between 3:00 and 5:15, each time reciting–and slightly revising–the poem in my head. As I finished breakfast a little before 6:00, after I had fed the Littles and let them out to potty, I finally wrote it down in my journal:

The Insanity of Humanity

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
--Not Albert Einstein

We think our plans are set in stone,
this life, this time--all our own,
entitled to our every plan--
Oh! the arrogance of man!

Until catastrophe takes shape,
putting us back in our place,
reminding us we're not as great
as destiny or cruel fate.

So we retreat to lick our wounds, 
gather comfort from the gloom,
then emerge renewed, refreshed,
having learned we don't know best.

But then we lament what might've been,
and the cycle starts again.

The second experience was early this morning, long before sunrise.

I am currently working on revisions of a manuscript for a novel I submitted to a small press under the working title The Experiment. Among the many revisions suggested to me was to come up with a better–a more apt–title (fair enough, as the working title applied to the very earliest conception of the piece, but really isn’t very relevant to its current form). I received this feedback in August, and have been struggling to divine the perfect title ever since. Over the course of the last couple days, several have materialized out of my half-awake mind, four of them in succession this morning. I now have a list of fifteen potential titles. Maybe I’ll use one; maybe the perfect one has yet to arrive. Either way, I have begun to have fun–and usually (as in when I am awake), titling a work proves a struggle for me. (And let’s not even get into the (albeit beautiful and fulfilling) struggle that is revising an entire manuscript!) Here are the now fifteen working titles:

  1. Feel the Chill of Each Yearly Encounter (thematic; allusion; partial quote from Tess of the d’Urbervilles)
  2. The Chill of Each Yearly Encounter (thematic; allusion; partial quote from Tess of the d’Urbervilles)
  3. Everything Precious is Scarce (thematic; pulled from a conversation in the manuscript)
  4. I Have Measured Out My Life with Coffee Spoons (a motif; a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” referenced throughout the manuscript)
  5. This One Thing I Know (thematic)
  6. One Thing I Know to be True (thematic)
  7. One Thing I Know For Sure (thematic)
  8. One Thing Certain in an Uncertain World (thematic; also a phrase that pops up here and there in the manuscript)
  9. Every Plan is a Tiny Prayer to Father Time (thematic; lyric from Death Cab for Cutie‘s “What Sarah Said”)
  10. An Hourglass Glued to the Table (thematic; partial lyric from Anna Nalick‘s “Breathe (2 AM)”)
  11. T-Minus (thematic; plot-inspired; suggested to me by one of my readers)
  12. In So Many Sunsets (thematic)
  13. All the Water in the River (thematic; symbolic; related to the symbolic motif of the James River in the manuscript)
  14. Time is But a Stream I Go A-Fishing In (thematic; symbolic; a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden)
  15. The Water in the River Flows Only One Way (thematic; symbolic; related to the symbolic motif of the James River in the manuscript)

And now, perhaps because I am fully awake, I am having trouble writing a conclusion for this post. Maybe I should try later tonight–from the quiet confines of my bedroom and the soft desk that is my pillow; after all, I write best when I’m asleep.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

For My Fellow Teachers

Imagine it is still July. The height of summer. Yes, you have already invested hours in learning how to use Canvas (or trying to). Yes, you have already spent hours making sure your classroom furniture is set up for social distancing. No, this does not feel like a normal summer break. Because it hasn’t been. And the upcoming school year won’t be normal, either. But we’re not there yet. It’s still July, remember? At least, that’s what we’re pretending.

On this particular July day, I am at the beach. The water is wavier than it was the day before. For several minutes, I hesitate to get in. I watch as my husband takes a running leap into the water. I stand in the surf, just up to my knees, the crashing waves pelting my calves with bullets of sand and pebbles. After several stinging waves, I tentatively wade in to my hips, waves sending splashes against my stomach, up to my face. In a little lull, I finally join my husband, in water up to my shoulders. Waves roll in, relentlessly. I jump them or bob over them. After a few gentler waves, a big, menacing wave blocks my view of the horizon. I kick towards it to beat its break, get into deeper water, counterintuitively safer. Each big wave, I swim into instead of away from, until, despite my efforts, in a trough between waves, a roiling monster comes cresting towards me faster than I can beat its break.

“Gotta go under this one,” I hear my husband say.

Just as its frothing crest barrels toward me, I duck beneath its wrath, below its white water, into relative calm, resurfacing to hear the wave crashing behind me with its roil of sand and foam, sparkling water and blue sky in front of me, the water around me momentarily calm, swimmable, cool, clear, and aquamarine.

School Year
Matty, Soda, and Nacho on the beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in July

Like swimming toward a wave, we teachers are swimming (or perhaps being pushed or pulled or dragged by an undeniable undertow) toward a challenge we have never faced before. I have been tempted to swim away from the waves–run for the shore. But whenever I do that at the beach, I usually end up clobbered from behind, sputtering salt water, gritting sand between my teeth. In swimming toward the wave, meeting the challenge head-on in the best ways we know how, we can let it crash behind us while we continue looking ahead. And so I have spent much of my summer trying to learn how to use Canvas (I still have work to do) and Planbook and Virtual Virginia. I have spent even more time worrying about the energy, effort, and time I will need to convert all of my materials to digital versions of themselves; about how to preserve the rigor of my honors class in a purely virtual environment; about the fact that even in my in-person classes, some of the most effective activities I do are unsafe in the current situation, and will have to be modified or abandoned.

At the beach, I am good at reading, writing, sleeping, walking, playing paddle ball, and swimming in calm water. I am not good at surfing or swimming in rough waters.

At work I am good at connecting with students, helping students improve their writing, creating and facilitating lessons that involve movement and socializing, helping students make connections between literature and the outside world. I am not good at technology.

I like the analog, the physical. I am not going to have a cute, Bitmoji online classroom–or any bells and whistles at all. I simply don’t have the bandwidth. And overachiever that I am, I am not sure I’m okay with that. It’s difficult for me to accept that my mind and time are going to be too occupied converting all my old-school analog activities to digital formats for me to think as creatively or innovatively as I want to. I will have to save that for another year, one where the basics are under control again.

I don’t want to do my first year again–not for myself and not for my students. I can’t survive first-year-teacher me again (and my husband probably can’t either).

I liken the experience to driving: When I drive a route I know well, I don’t have to think much about where to turn or when to slow down. I don’t have to read the street signs or pay attention to the street names. The familiarity allows my mind to wander. I can drive and focus on the podcast I am listening to. I can drive and think about the ways I want to improve my unit on The Great Gatsby. I can drive and brainstorm how to rearrange the chapters of the novel manuscript I’m writing.

When I drive a new route, though, I don’t have the luxury of letting my mind wander. I have to listen to every direction Waze offers, pay attention to how far it is before the next turn, read all the street signs. I can’t afford to think about my writing, my teaching, my podcast, or anything else. I have to think about the fundamental act of getting to my destination.

That is what this year will be like: driving a brand new, unfamiliar route that demands all of my attention. Usually, I make all my lesson plans over the summer, so during the school year I can drive on autopilot–I know the route. I planned it out months in advance, and, because I have been teaching for 14 years, I have likely rehearsed most of it at some point in some form or fashion during my career. I don’t have to think about how to make that quiz or when to give it–I figured that out back in June. Instead, I can focus on giving my students timely and thorough feedback on their papers. I can focus on helping students I don’t even teach this year improve their college essays. I can focus on writing college recommendation letters for students I taught the year before. I can focus on how to improve the project I have planned for November, how to increase the rigor of my honors class, how to help students understand the historical context of a certain work of literature. The fundamentals are under control. They’re not taking up any of my mental bandwidth.

Recently, I heard about a rock musician, Mike Scott of the Waterboys, whose newly-released song, “Beauty in Repetition,” relates William James‘s meticulously following the exact same routine every single day. Scott himself follows a tight routine, right down to eating the exact same dinner every night. Not having to think about the mundane tasks of life (what time to get up, what to wear, what to eat) frees his mind up, he said, to ponder higher thoughts–to access his more creative mind. When his brain is not bogged down with questions like “What’s for dinner?”, it is free to soar to new heights of cognition and creativity.

That is how my school year usually goes. I create a very strict routine for my students and for myself. My lesson plans are flexible, but set enough that I don’t have to worry about what we are doing in class tomorrow–or this week or next week or all the way through the end of the year. I have laid the groundwork for daily survival in my classroom: an established routine.

This year, there is no groundwork. Despite the time I have spent in professional development this summer, I am almost as unprepared for this coming year as I was for my first year teaching back in 2006. The only advantage I have this year is that I am aware of my shortcomings. I have no delusions about my situation.

School Year II
Sadie, Matty, and me days before my first day teaching

I entered the profession naive and idealistic. I was 22 years old. My wakeup call was swift and violent. I devoted all of my mental energy to simply making lessons plans for the next day. Occasionally, I was able to get maybe a week ahead, and that was something. Just to achieve a day or two worth of lesson plans, I regularly arrived to work between 6:00 and 6:30 AM, often bringing with me a microwaveable dinner so that, if I stayed at school later than dinnertime (which I often did), I wouldn’t go hungry.

It was traumatizing.

When students began to arrive for the day around 7:15, I felt like they were interrupting my much-needed quiet time to plan. When I had to bring home their journals to read or their essays to evaluate, I felt like they were taking away from time I needed to plan for their next class period, not to mention recharge personally. Basically, so much of my focus was directed at the daily logistics of teaching, that I didn’t even have the energy left for the reason I started teaching: my students.

I don’t want to do my first year again–not for myself and not for my students. I can’t survive first-year-teacher me again (and my husband probably can’t either). I have to accept the fact that my plans and activities and projects and instruction might not be up to my own high standards, but it won’t be at the cost of how I treat my students or how I feel about them, and it won’t be at the cost of my own mental or emotional well-being.

When I start to feel overwhelmed this year by waves of I-don’t-have-a-clue-how-to-use-Canvas, I-don’t-have-time-to-convert-this-quiz-to-a-digital-format, I-can’t-adjust-to-this-every-other-day-schedule, and so on and so on (it’s a long list), I will try to remind myself of that day in July, diving underneath the roaring waves. I will take a deep breath and I will dive right in, but I will also try to remember: I do have to come up for air. And when I do, the foaming, angry wave will be behind me, and I will be able to look ahead for calmer waters.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

The Book of Joy: A Response to the Final Pages

My greatest and broadest takeaway from pages 228-348 of The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, was that everything is practical. So many teachings on how to live a more joyful life can seem abstract and theoretical, things I find myself saying, “Well, that sounds great in theory, but in practice, not so much” about. But in this book, almost everything was applicable to real life, in practice. 

Practical forgiveness is defined on page 234, when readers are advised by the Archbishop to see forgiveness as a means to freedom. “When we forgive,” he says, “we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.” A few pages later, on page 239, he explains a practical way to forgive: separate the person we perceived to have wronged us from his or her actions.

Practical gratitude is discussed on page 248, when the book describes how we can practice gratitude by writing gratitude lists or keeping gratitude journals. Engaging in these exercises helps us focus on what we have as opposed to what we don’t. “Gratitude,” Abrams writes, “means embracing reality. It means moving from counting your burdens to counting your blessings” (243). Now, doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? (Must be the alliteration.)

“Gratitude means embracing reality. It means moving from counting your burdens to counting your blessings.”

–Douglas Abrams

Practical compassion is also discussed, which is no surprise, considering “There is probably no word that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop use more when describing the qualities worth cultivating than compassion” (337). The Dalai Lama tells readers that “when we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced. This is the true secret to happiness. So this is a very practical thing. In fact, it is common sense” (254). The way to practice compassion in our daily lives, then, is to do our best to both understand and alleviate the suffering of others. As the Archbishop says, “It’s something that you have to work out in actual life” (255)–it is something practical, and reminds me a little of the command in the Bible that we all “work out your own salvation.”

On page 272, the book talks about educating youth to be compassionate. As an English teacher, I feel I have a real opportunity to engage in compassion education through the literature I read with my students. Books let us live other lives and walk in other shoes. They allow readers to experience situations and places and emotions and people they might not in their own real lives. Teaching literature is one way I can help educate students in compassion. 

The section on compassion also reminded me of the message conveyed in the required #EdEquityVA PD. Like the Dalai Lama says, “the only way to truly change our world is through teaching compassion” (296).

“The only way to truly change our world is through teaching compassion.

–His Holiness the Dalai Lama

These pages also focus on acceptance, an area in which I often struggle. I suffer from a dangerous idealism that drives my husband (and me, sometimes) crazy. Abrams writes about the Dalai Lama’s ability to “accept the reality of his circumstances but also to see the opportunity in every experience. Acceptance means not fighting reality” (243). When I was a junior in high school and my family was moving from Pennsylvania to Virginia, I overheard Art, a man who attended our church in Pennsylvania, say to my dad after the last service we would attend there, “Well, change is the only constant.” I was, at the time, appalled–and still today, I sometimes wish that awful truth weren’t true. But it is, and I was reminded of it when the Dalai Lama says, “Impermanence … is the nature of life” (unfortunately, I have no idea what page this is on). The fact behind that statement is difficult for me to accept, something I fight against a lot. I do not like change. Acceptance is a pillar I will need to cultivate. A lot.

Lately, I have been pondering the idea of “unselfed love,” and what those two words actually mean together. In my religious faith, our text, Science and Health with Key to the Joy coverScriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, includes the line: “The prayer that reforms the sinner and heals the sick is an absolute faith that all things are possible to God, — a spiritual understanding of Him, an unselfed love” (1:1-4). The Book of Joy has helped shed a little light on the subject of unselfed love for me. The Archbishop says, “So, our book says that it is in giving that we receive. So I would hope that people would recognize in themselves that it is when we are closed in ourselves that we tend to be miserable. It is when we grow in a self-forgetfulness–in a remarkable way I mean we discover that we are filled with joy” (263). I think the concept of unselfed love relates directly to the idea that when we forget ourselves and instead tend to the joy and lessen the suffering of others, we experience pure joy. There is a letting go of the self, the ego, involved. 

Lastly, I want to talk a little more about how these pages relate to my teaching practice and the English 11 curriculum. Lots of what I read reminds me of the Transcendentalists, which is maybe a little bit ironic, because they emphasized individualism so much, while the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama advocate for looking outside of oneself and to others, using the idea (and I paraphrase) “we are people through people.” Still, the idea that people must realize that “the source of happiness and satisfaction … is within themselves” (297) rings true with the Thoreau and Emerson’s advice that people must look within to find their true selves, and self-fulfillment. I also think excerpts of this book, particularly the death mediations, could pair really well with William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Thanatopsis,” which translates to “a meditation on death” or “a view on death.”

“Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment.”

–Brother Steindl-Rast

In the vein of education and curricula, I found it stunning that at the Tibetan Children’s Village, students “had been studying how to find joy and happiness in the face of adversity” (277). This was not an implied lesson or a byproduct of a larger unit geared towards passing a standardized test or earning a specific grade; they were studying joy for the sake of joy. Joy was the lesson. I would like to find a way to incorporate the teaching of joy, compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. more overtly in my current curriculum. I am hoping the lesson and unit plans from Positive Action, Inc., touched on in one of our required PD sessions for the summer, might help with this.

Along those lines, in English 11 Honors, we work throughout the semester to answer an essential question. Because the class is American Literature, the essential question we explore is: What does it mean to be American? I think this book has a place in helping answer this question. For the last two years and up until this year, when the pandemic canceled summer reading (which I really, truly hope is not a permanent change!), students enrolled in English 11 Honors for the upcoming school year read two books over the summer, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck and Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas. Provided summer reading is reinstated in the future (please, please, please!), I would like to add The Book of Joy as the third book, as it provides a perspective different from the other two books (which are very different in their own right), and offers a very different idea about national (and human!) identity.

Now, I want to close with one of my favorite quotes from these pages, which comes from Brother Steindl-Rast: “Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment” (245). Now, doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? (Must be the alliteration, assonance, and consonance.)

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

The Book of Joy: A Reaction Paper

I sat in the passenger seat of my husband’s pickup truck, riding along the country roads in the Northern Neck on a Saturday morning, my two little dogs asleep between us on the bench seat, their scruffy hair blowing in the air conditioning. It was a hot, sunny day in late June, and we were heading to a small beach on the shore of the Potomac River, where it opens wide to the Chesapeake Bay. Outside my car window, I watched the fields, green with corn, and the wildflowers, alive with butterflies, flourish under the summer sun. It was summer break. I was beachbound. 

And I was crying. 

Despite my situation seeming so pleasant–even idyllic, I felt pretty miserable. My inner experience was completely incongruent with my outer experience. I felt so stressed and anxious about the upcoming school year and all I would have to learn and change and do to prepare, much less be effective (not to mention safe), in the face of a global pandemic, that I was struggling to enjoy the present moment. My worries and uncertainties about the future were stealing any present peace I might have hoped to enjoy.

Joy Littles on the beach BQS
Nacho (left) and Soda (right), AKA The Littles, lounging on the beach later that day.

Around the same time as the situation described above, I began participating in a book group begun at my school. The group, which focused on the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, could not have been better timed for me, both professionally and personally–especially since my professional life and my personal life often seem to bleed into each other.

On page 88 of the book, we read that “…so much is determined by our own perception.” My perception of the pandemic and how it would affect me at work and at home come August was an extremely negative one–one that did not serve me or the people around me. It was a perception that brought about fear, insecurity, self-doubt, and stress. Some of what I have read in this book has helped me think about reshaping my perspective to see the current situation and next school year as a challenge instead of an obstacle, as an opportunity for professional and personal growth instead of a hindrance to peace. Part

Joy cover
The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams

of what makes this perspective shift possible is an idea expressed on pages 196 and 197. Douglas Abrams writes, “When we confront a challenge, we often react to the situation with fear and anger.” He might as well have replaced “we” with “you,” so accurately does this sentence describe my initial reaction to challenges, which I tend to see as frustrating inconveniences at best, insurmountable obstacles at worst. On the next page, Abrams advises, “…what we think is reality is only part of the picture” and “our limited perspective is not the truth.” The book goes on to talk about taking a broader perspective–about realizing that we are not alone, and that all of our roles (AKA Teacher During A Pandemic) are temporary. Thinking about my present situation in a longer view, “in the larger frame of [my] life” (198), enables me to see that in the future, it will be just one strange year of a years-long career, a little blip in the otherwise mostly smooth (I hope!) experience. Thinking about my present situation in a wider view, I am able to see that even now, in the throes of it, people around me are innovating and collaborating like never before. They have all learned to “…respond instead of react” (181), a lesson I am trying to take to heart for myself.

In the vein of learning, another idea that comforted me was the concept that we are all learning–that our lives consist of innumerable lessons, each tailored to our own needs. At one point in the book, we learn that Abrams’s father suffered a terrible injury as a result of a fall. When Abrams’s brother told their father he was sorry he was going through such a rough time, his father’s response was: “‘It’s all part of my curriculum’” (157). I love this idea. “It’s all part of my curriculum” can serve as a reminder that we are all getting the lessons we need. In my case, these are likely lessons in flexibility and grace (not to mention instructional technology…).

A few days ago, I was lamenting to my husband about the fact that I don’t believe I will be as effective a teacher next year as I hope I have been in years past–that I don’t know how to use the technology and even if I figure it out, I won’t know how to use it well. That I don’t have the first lesson plan done. That I don’t even know where to start. That I feel woefully unprepared on a number of levels. On page 211, the Archbishop says, “…even if you are not the best one, you may be the one who is needed or the one who is there.” I don’t think I am going to be the best anything next year, least of all teacher, but I am going to be the one who is there, in the classroom, and for next year, that might have to be enough.  

I sat in the passenger seat of my husband’s pickup truck, watching employees scurry around a parking lot at a Chick-Fil-A, tirelessly delivering to-go chicken to cars parked in numbered spaces throughout the lot. It was a warm, humid evening in early July, and we were heading to my parents for dinner with my sister and her family. Outside my car window, I watched as what must have been a dozen masked people ran around in black pants and red polo shirts. They had not worked like this before–wearing masks in the heat, serving food through car windows, hoofing drink carriers from the drive-through

Joy Littles on the deck
One of my greatest sources of joy comes from doing my best to give The Littles a good life. Here, they look over their side yard and driveway from the outdoor couch on  our deck.

window to the far end of the parking lot. But here they were, uncomplaining, productive, and efficient, serving the needs of their customers. Reading this book enabled me to draw a parallel between what I was watching from my passenger seat, and the work I myself need to do for next school year. If these Chick-Fil-A employees could work this hard and this well under these conditions–then couldn’t I do it, too? Granted, we waited 30 minutes for our meal–but everyone I saw was working so hard, the wait hardly seemed important. What was important, though, was realizing I wasn’t alone. I’m not alone. None of us are. Since the shutdown in March, essential workers all over the world have had to adapt how they operate–including my own husband, who works at a bank. I can’t promise I won’t find myself crying again before school starts in September, or several times throughout the school year as I struggle to adjust to the demands of the unknown, but now I can remind myself that we are all in this together. That other people are struggling, too. That it is okay not to be the best one. And that it’s all just “part of my curriculum.”