First Place Essay: My Return to Mountain Biking

A little over a week ago, I serendipitously learned that Bike Walk RVA, a program of the Richmond Sports Backers, was holding a creative writing contest as part of their annual Bike Month celebration. Equally serendipitously, only a week or two before, I had begun mountain biking again, an activity I had all but given up after a spill scared me off the trails a few years ago.

Left to my own devices, I doubt I ever would have thought to write about my return to mountain biking, but the contest spurred me to do so, and I am so glad. One of the best things about writing contests is the motivation they can provide for us to write, the Mtn Bikecreativity they can inspire. Whether you place in the contest or not, producing a quality piece of writing is its own reward. I felt extremely satisfied and fulfilled after I sat down and churned out my piece, and that is its own win. In this particular case, I enjoyed the added perk of earning first place in the contest, which came with its own sense of satisfaction and excitement.

If that weren’t enough happiness, my five-year-old niece, who entered a short piece in the 5- to 11-year-old category, earned an honorable mention for her story. Currently, she doesn’t particularly enjoy writing, but as the contest motivated me to write my essay, I hope earning recognition in the contest will help foster a love of writing in her.

Below, you’ll find my essay. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it

My Return to Mountain Biking

I am not a risk-taker. I avoid bodily harm at almost all costs. That’s why I run: It requires only that I put one foot in front of the other, preferably without tripping. It’s also why I was in second grade before I removed the training wheels from my bike. My mom maintains second grade “isn’t that bad,” but my kindergarten-aged niece has already mastered the art of riding on two wheels, and her younger sister isn’t far behind. So I really don’t know what got into me several years ago when I decided to try mountain biking. I knew absolutely nothing about it, and it wouldn’t have crossed my mind as a viable outdoor activity for me if I had had an idea of the risk involved.

But I didn’t, so clad in a brand-new helmet and riding gloves, my naivety and I showed up at the Buttermilk Trail. The sign at the trailhead welcomed me with a depiction of a stick figure cyclist falling head-over-heels off his bike, helmet all but flying off his head. “Experienced Riders Only,” it said. But my husband had told me always to use the right break—the rear brake—so what could go wrong?

Surprisingly, nothing did. I rode slowly and dismounted at every obstacle, but I never fell and I never got hurt, so I rode for several months, my growing confidence outpacing my stunted skill.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that the trails eventually put me in my place. One sunny day I decided not to dismount and walk. At all. I cleared the first obstacle. A rush of pride flickered through my body. My confidence surged. I cleared the second obstacle. I was euphoric. I even cleared the third obstacle—but beyond it was a hairpin turn, a small tree situated just at the curve. I lost control, careening into the tree. My bike was broken. My pride was broken—and I thought maybe my wrist was, too. My courage crawled back into the hole where it usually lives.

Having heard the crash, my husband came riding back down the trail toward me. We limped back to our car, walking our bikes. It would be years before I tried mountain biking again.

Those years came to an end last week. On a new bike—one better equipped for trails—I joined my husband and nephew at Pocahontas State Park. I was the slowest of us, but by the end of our ride, my confidence peered around the corner of its cave.

Yesterday, my husband coaxed it out even further, and it felt the sun on its face for the first time in a long time. Without falling, without dismounting to walk, without getting hurt, I rode several trails, ranging from “easiest” to “more difficult.” Common sense steered me away from “most difficult.” For now. But I surmise that maybe, eventually, my courage and my caution will learn to hold hands, and as their relationship thrives, so will my riding.

Sylvia Plath said, “everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” I find this quote relevant to my experience with this essay in multiple ways. First, self-doubt and fear are exactly what kept me off my bike for so many years, missing out on all kinds of adventures and scenery and exercise. Self-doubt, it seems, is an enemy to more than our creativity. Second, I wouldn’t have thought to write about riding, despite the fact that “everything in life is writable about.” I should keep that advice in mind; there is always something to write about if I have the imagination to find it.

And speaking off…Mind the Dog Writing Blog is currently accepting for consideration submissions about how your dog(s) operate(s) as a positive force in your life. To learn more about submitting your own writing to be featured here, check out the submission guidelines. I can’t wait to see what you’ll write!

Littles in the sun
Mind the Dog Writing Blog is currently accepting for consideration submissions about how your dog(s) operate(s) as a positive force in your life. To learn more about submitting your own writing to be featured here, check out the submission guidelines. I can’t wait to see what you’ll write!

National Poetry Month: Thirty Poems in Thirty Days

In honor of National Poetry Month in April, the Poetry Society of Virginia held a poem-a-day writing challenge on social media. Each day, a word was designated as the inspiration for the day’s poem. Some of the words included “apple,” “news,” “mask,” and “underwear,” for example.

Sometimes, a word proved easy inspiration, and I would write a satisfactory poem before 9:00 AM. Other times, I would roll a word around in my mind until just before bed before any ideas emerged. Some days, I just gave in and wrote a poem for the sake of writing a poem, even though the result was, frankly, pretty crappy. It was still a poem, and I wouldn’t have written it otherwise, so that was a win of sorts.

The experience definitely got me thinking about a variety of topics I would not otherwise have given any thought to–and got me thinking about them in new, creative, deeper ways. Whether the writing was good or not, satisfying or not, I wrote something every single day, and that felt good.

Throughout the month, churning out even one piece of poetry every day became as routine, necessary, and satisfying as, well, using the bathroom! Just letting the poem out was a relief–and I hadn’t even known it was in there!

I’ve written thirty poems in thirty days. Here, in chronological order aside from the first and second poems (I think you’ll understand why) are some of my favorites. (If you’d like to read the 16 poems not included in this post, you can find them on my Instagram account.)

Day 8: Blue

“Sadie’s Song”

I don’t have music
to put the words to—
the sonorous howl
of my sweet Sadie Blue,
but this is Sadie’s song:

“Jack, Jack—
where have you gone?
You know I can’t stay here
without you for long.

“We’ve walked our last walk,
chewed our last bone—
do you think Mom and Dad
can bear this alone?”

I like to think,
and it seems like I know,
that Sadie saw Jack
just across the rainbow,
and this is Sadie’s song:

“Jack, Jack—
I see you again!
You can’t imagine how much
I missed you, best friend!

“Let’s hike every trail here
and squeak every toy—
make sure Mom and Dad know
all we feel now is joy.”

So I must return
to a life that is changed,
a whole universe
that’s all rearranged—
but I still sing Sadie’s song.

*After I wrote the poem above, I asked my uncle, a talented musician, to set it to original music. He did, and the poem transformed into a beautiful song, which I then used to make a little music video tribute to Jack and Sadie. Now, if only I could figure out how to share it…

 

Day 23: Dream

I’m always happy
when I wake
from a dream
about you.

But I’d be happier still
if you were still
here
beside me.

Best Nap

 

Day 2: Neighbor

Julie & Ed’s dogwood tree blooms both pink &
white
and Larry, our Vietnam War vet, runs each
morning with a stick in his hand.
Lee walks the streets in the quiet predawn,
and Mr. Yates sits on his Jazzy chair, shirtless
in his overalls, beside his voluptuous
Camilla bush, petals in the grass.
And me? Melody and I are the ones who walk
our dogs.
Fourteen years of shared time, shared space,
have made each new For Sale sign a
betrayal—
these stretches of street the only ribbon tying
us all together, unraveling, until one day
Nobody knows my dogs
or Melody
or Larry with his stick
and Julie & Ed’s dogwood blooms for
somebody new.

Day 3: Air

“Airborne”

An osprey catches
an updraft,
hovers above the highway bridge—
balanced between blue river, blue sky.

When I arrive
on my parents’ porch,
they do not come out.
I do not go in.
We do not hug.

We talk through the screen door, their faces
dim. I fight
the urge to lean in closer.

When I leave, some of their
terror follows me, heavy, weighted. And I think
of the osprey—
high above it all, unaware, unaffected, free.

Day 4: Playground

“Playground: Slide of Time”

There is one rule
on the playground. Everyone knows:
You’re not supposed to climb up the slide.

And all the best playgrounds are
in Michigan. My grandparents knew where—

The Rocket Playground
(I once got stuck at the top—that’s how I
learned I was afraid
of heights like my dad, who had to climb up
to carry me down).

The Castle Playground,
made all of wood with bridges and turrets
and secret, shady hiding places.

The Tire Playground,
where we played
Roll-the-Ball-to-the-Bat and 500
every summer.

Until one summer was the last summer
and we didn’t come back anymore, because
there is one rule everyone knows:
You’re not supposed to climb
up
the
slide.

Day 9: River

“James River Days”

(An Acrostic Poem)

Just yesterday it was winter,
And I ran along your banks,
My breath a thin cloud trailing behind me.
End of winter brought purple blooms,
Springing up along the trails,

Reaching above the green grasses for the
sun.
I stood on the bank, watched your swirling
waters beat between rocks like blood
through
Veins.
End of spring I will stretch across a sun-
warmed
Rock,

Drench myself in your watery womb
And emerge glowing, reborn—
Yes. Now, it is
Summer.

Day 12: Else

“Easter Morning: Turn to Something Else”

I was supposed
to do something

else today.

Be somewhere
else.

Eat something
else.

I had my own plans—
and a sense of entitlement to their
fruition.

But I recall the man
who turned

from the pool
to see Jesus—

and walked.

And I think of Mary,
turning

herself
to see Jesus—

and recognizing
her Master.

And I remember the time
I sat at Logan’s Steakhouse
watching half a dozen
flat screen TVs and two truckers
at the bar,
and then I turned

around—
and saw the sunset out the window behind
me,
the sky resplendent with red, violet, gold,
and I thought,
“How long has it been like this?”
And I heard,
“Forever, my child—
you just had to turn

and see something
Else.”

Day 13: Pretty

“Pretty on Paper”

I am pretty—
on paper:
tall, thin, blond.
To the untrained eye,
I belong on a runway,
in a magazine—
but professional perception knows better:
My eyes are brown, not blue;
there’s a strange asymmetry to my features;
I’m just a tad too tall to walk
a runway
(Can’t have you taller than the boy, you see).

When I was in my twenties, my sister (prettier
than I)
told me I just kept getting
prettier.

The trend has begun
to reverse,
but I have learned pretty
does not mean
perfect.

Day 15: Taxi

“Confessional on Wheels”

One Florida morning when I am 23
I find myself
confessing my fears from
the backseat of a Tallahassee taxi
to a driver who tells me
he’s also a preacher,
which is not why I’m confessing.
It’s just that at 23, I already know

strangers are the safest place for secrets.

He dispenses free advice
while the taximeter counts the number of
Hail Marys I will need to say
to atone or do penance
or whatever it’s called—
I am not Catholic
and neither is he
and back at my hotel
I tip for the company,
not the ride,
and watch as the yellow
confessional drives away with my secrets
inside,
moves on to
its preacher’s next parishioner.

Day 17: Language

“The Language of the Land”

This is the language of the land.

“Be still, breathe deep,”
whisper lilacs at the back porch.

This is the language of the land.

“Stop here, drink up,”
babbles the brook in the woods.

This is the language of the land.

“Stand firm, take root,”
sing the trees.

“Work hard, with purpose,”
buzz the bees.

“Rest up, feel me,”
begs the breeze.

This is the language of the land.

“Look up, reach out,”
beckons blue sky, white clouds, warm sun.

“Be calm, sleep well,”
soothe stars and moon when day is done.

This is the language of the land.

 

Day 18: Red

“Freddy Red”

When I met Freddy Red one June night,
I learned it was real—love at first sight.
Because with just one glance I knew:
We belonged together, we two.

Shiny red with six-speed turbo,
my little car could really go.
Key West, Detroit, Philadelphia, DC—
all places Freddy Red took me.

I paid Red off one day in May,
just ahead of our five-year anniversary.
I promised to drive her right into the
ground,
but my little car was accident-bound.

I sat on the median, head in my hands,
looking at all the deployed air bags.
I cried to a witness, “I love Freddy Red!”
He said, “That car is why you’re not
dead.”

 

Day 21: Over

This word actually resulted in two poems, both of which are below.

“When this is over”

When this is over
I will miss
sleeping until 7:30.
I will miss working from
my couch,
my back deck,
my fire pit.
I will miss
sweatpants and hoodies and Crocs
all day.
I will miss takeout
“because it’s just easier.”

When this is over
I will
wear a little makeup again.
(Maybe.)
I will go to a restaurant—
and sit down inside,
or maybe on the patio.
I will go shopping,
get a haircut,
get a tattoo
(a heron),
take a road trip,
resume my monthly massages.

But right now
I wonder—
what will we remember,
when this is over?
What will life be like,
when this is over?
What will we have learned,
when this is over?

“It’s not over, not really”

I always knew
the two of you
were my line
between then and now.

Then we walked together.
Now there is only
the joy of
having existed
together
for a while,
having shared some
of the same space,
at some
of the same time.

But it’s not over,
not really.
Only the nature
of our relationship
has changed.

I know you are here,
your presence felt

like a shadow that
sweeps across the ceiling,
its source unknown.

But I know.

Each prism-cast rainbow
Each sign
Each impulse to be kind

It’s you.

 

Day 29: April

“April”

April spirited Jack away on birdsong and lilac breath
Sent my grandmother to sleep one night and
didn’t wake her in the morning
Threw hail stones that
beheaded the fragrant lilacs and amputated
the branches of the struggling magnolia
out front—

and followed it all with a rainbow.

Gifted me with a robin’s nest
and a pair of besotted cardinals
and little bunnies in the backyard—

As if to say
I’m sorry
I’m sorry
The whole universe loves you—

In its season.

Day 30: May

“May I?”

We have one foot in April now,
the other foot in May,
toes stretching out
to test the waters of an unfamiliar bay.

May I get a haircut?
May I get tattooed?
Tell me, are these things
yet safe enough to do?

May I hug my mother?
May I hug my dad?
Can I go out for ice cream
without feeling really bad?

Yes, wade in the water;
it’s safe enough to test.
Go on and dip a toe in—
just don’t get soaking wet.

 

In closing, I would like to provide an addendum to one of my favorite lines written during this writing challenge: “Strangers are the safest place for secrets.” Addendum: Unless you have dogs.

Poetry Littles
Nacho and Soda snuggle on the couch, seemingly sharing a secret.

Planning a Night In for the Literary

In my neck of the woods in central Virginia, the weather has been unseasonably warm, with the exception of a five-day cold snap a week or so ago. We’ve had no excuse this winter to snuggle up inside and hibernate (at least not yet). In fact, if you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen lots of photos of the Littles running around outside without their sweaters on. Still, there’s something about these winter months that puts me in the mood for cozy nights in, and if you’re in a clime colder than mine, you might be looking for ways to stimulate your creativity out of its cold-induced stupor. Here are a few ideas.

Game Night

  • Scrabble

  • Liebrary

  • Balderdash

Of course Scrabble is the go-to game to exercise your lexicon, but what about your creativity and bookishness? Liebrary requires players to write a fake first line of a real work of literature in an attempt to fool the other players into believing it is the genuine first line of the work. The “liebrarian” rolls a dice determining which genre the work of literature will come from, and then draws a card from that genre. The card bears the title, author, and summary of the book, as well as the real first line. The liebrarian shares with the players everything except the first line. Players then compose a first line and hand it to the liebrarian, who reads off all the first lines, including the real one. Players have to guess which line is the true first line. Essentially, it’s Balderdash for books.

For more writerly games, check out “5 games for writers” by Kevin Paul Tracy of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

Movie Night

  • The Professor and the Madman

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

My husband and I rented The Professor and the Madman from a RedBox in the Northern Neck back in the fall. We loved it so much that instead of returning it to the RedBox the next morning, we went ahead and bought it from the RedBox instead. Watching this movie allows viewers to learn the history of the Oxford dictionary and appreciate the intricacy of language. I have to admit that the history of the Oxford dictionary was never something I wondered about. In fact, I suppose I’ve generally just taken the existence of the dictionary for granted. This movie made me see its existence, creation, and continual evolution in a whole new light, and gave a human story to the history.

I haven’t yet seen The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but I want to. It tells the story of post-WWII writer who, while writing about their experiences during the war, forms a relationship with the inhabitants of Guernsey Island. It’s told via letters shared between the writer and the residents–so basically, it’s a story told through writing, about a writer, writing a book. What’s not to love?

Netflix and Chill

  • Anne with an E

  • You

One of my favorite book series growing up was the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. The character of Anne Shirley not only contributed to my desire to be a writer (I have vivid memories of incorporating the phrase “alabaster brow” into much of my writing in middle school after reading it in an Anne of Green Gables book), but also influenced my personality and life philosophy. I wholeheartedly embrace(d) the idea of kindred spirits and at least partially because of the description of Anne “drinking in the beautiful sunset,” a line that has stayed with me over decades, I have an insatiable thirst for natural beauty–largely manifested in an obsession with sunsets and sunrises. I also share Anne’s dislike for math, and as a middle school student, found great comfort in our shared torture at its hands. You can imagine, then, my delight when I discovered the Netflix series Anne with an E, based on one of my childhood literary heroes. I have watched the first season and just started the second. It is just as whimsical and lovely as I remember, and also tackles some interesting contemporary social issues (to be sure, Maud’s writing did the same in its own historical and social context).

You tells the story of a struggling writer and grad student, and her ill-fated (total understatement) romance with a bookstore owner named Joe. To read an analysis deeper and more insightful than mine, click here.

Writing Contests

If it’s too cold to get outside, stay in and send your writing out instead. The contest windows for the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) writing and photography contests close February 1 and February 15, and the Poetry Society of Virginia (PSoV) Annual Contest closes every year on Poe’s birthday, January 19. You might also want to download this free guide to 2020 winter writing contests. Chilly winter days are made for summoning your muse out of hibernation, thawing out your creativity, and snuggling up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate, a couple of dogs, and your ideas.

 

Take a Hike! (Or a Walk… Or a Run…) And Then Write

I hadn’t run the first mile of this morning’s run when my mistake occurred to me, striding into my consciousness as clearly as the morning sun shone through the frigid air. I stopped mid-stride and unlocked my cell phone, accessing my e-mail.

“My pre-morning run mind must’ve been misfiring,” I typed as fast my thumbs could dance across the screen, in an attempt to explain the initial, embarrassingly erroneous e-mail I had sent not 20 minutes before setting out for this run. My mind, unaware of its own cloudiness before my run, had suddenly cleared as I ran. As my body warmed up to the run, my thoughts, too, became more awake and fluid and ran through my mind freely, unencumbered by any morning fog.

We all know people who live by the mantra: “But first, coffee.” I feel a similar sentiment, but my coffee is a morning walk with my dogs or a morning run (or, on a particularly good day, both).

walk III
Jack, Sadie, and I enjoy a November morning walk on the shores of the Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia, not far from the scene that inspired my essay, “The Reward,” which will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, set to be released April 9.

I don’t do anything important before my morning dog walk (I mean, besides breakfast–the most important meal of the day). I don’t have the mind for it yet. I need the time to move around outside in the fresh air and quiet, to gather my thoughts from wherever they roosted for the night and sort through them. My day–at least, the productive part of it–cannot start without this ritual: breathing the morning air, communing with nature, watching the morning roll in as my morning mind-fog rolls out. My body burns the calories and my mind burns off its fog.

I find the act of walking or hiking or running outside integral not only to my preparation for the day, but also to my writing. My personal essay “The Reward,” which will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, to be released April 9, was

walk II
Sadie enjoys the boardwalk at Henricus Historical Park one morning this fall.

inspired by and tells the tale of a morning walk with my dogs. My essay, “The Mountains are Calling” describes, in part, a hike in Montana. My piece, “The moon was late to the party” also centers on a walk. While out walking or running, I have met countless interesting neighbors about whom I have written articles for The Villages News. I’ve even written longform articles about the benefits of walking your dog and how to maximize the advantages of your dog walk. Many of the descriptions of nature in my poetry, manuscripts, essays, and short stories come from scenes I witnessed or thoughts I had while out walking, hiking, or running.

Several years ago, I read a profile of a poet in Poets & Writers Magazine. I wish I could remember his name and the exact quote, but what I do remember is this: He loved to go for walks. He explained that he would begin a walk, his mind full of worries and stress over his own and the world’s problems. By the time he finished his walk, the

walk
Jack finds his stride on an early morning walk in Callao, Virginia.

problems were still there, but the worry and stress were gone. A walk’s ability to peel the worry way from problems allows us to think about them more clearly. This holds true not only for problems in our lives, but also for obstacles in our writing. I don’t typically begin a run or walk or hike with the intention of unraveling the knots in my tangled plot or finding a word to rhyme with “marathon” or “silver,” but often, the solutions and ideas simply present themselves as I move, as if the unrestrained movement of my body also releases my thoughts to wander my mind without hindrance or boundary.

This past summer, a neighbor let me borrow her copy of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningNow, several months later, one aspect of the book I remember most vividly is Murakami’s conviction that he runs so he can keep writing. And indeed, there are many parallels between running a long race and writing a long work.

“Don’t talk to me; I haven’t had my coffee yet” has never held true for me (which is good, because I don’t drink coffee, so I would be decidedly anti-social if it were true), but the same concept does hold true if I haven’t been outside for a walk yet.

Where to Write: The Best Writing Locations for Every Project

If you enter the front door of my house, mount the stairs, and make a left, you will find yourself in the room my husband and I call “the office.” Despite its mundane name, the office serves a myriad of functions: It’s my husband’s video game room, our catch-all room, and my writing room. It even served a short stint as a guest room at one point.

Opposite a massive television that dominates an entire wall of the office, sits my heavy, wooden desk, its broad surface all but covered with magazines, books, candles, a few photographs and business cards, a mug full of pens, and my laptop. I was pretty proud of this little space–this tiny portion of the room that was mine–when we first set it up. For a while, I even started referring to the office solely as “my writing room.” Truth be told, though, my husband plays far more video games in there than I write articles, poems, essays, or stories. And so, gradually, the room has returned to its original name: the office (though maybe “gaming room” would be more appropriate).

I do write there occasionally. It’s a cozy, quiet spot–and it’s nice to have all my writing materials handy (if not 100% organized). I’ve found, though, that despite my loving the idea of a writing room, I’m a fairly migratory writer. I write at the kitchen table. I write at the table outside on our back deck (a lot). I write on the couch. I write perched on the edge of the brick hearth in front of our fireplace. I write sitting in a gravity-free chair beside the fire pit in our backyard. I write on rocks in the middle of the Jame River. I’ve even been known to write during a float session and in an inflatable, backyard pool. Each of these locations offers its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Each environment contributes to–or, in some cases, detracts from–the creative process in some way.

Writing Outside

One of my favorite places to write is outside–anywhere outside. My back deck, my front porch, my hammock, the river, the beach… I find writing outside in the natural world offers a plethora of benefits. My mind is free to wander through the open space of fresh air, tangled tree branches, birds on the wing. Nature seems to help open up my creative pathways and free my imagination.

The advantages I find to writing outside are many. The natural world offers stimulation for all five senses, and often, unexpected inspiration. My essay, “Out Of Touch,” was inspired in large part by an experience just lounging on my hammock in the backyard. “The moon was late to the party” came of an experience I enjoyed on two consecutive nights of evening walks. I wrote a large portion of Goodbye for Now on my back deck.

The outdoors also offers a way out of ourselves–transcendental experiences that seem to allow us a wider sphere of perception and thoughtfulness, and a broader scope of imagination. Being at one with nature puts me in a meditative state that is more open to ideas than my usual, task-oriented mind.

Writing outside offers a way out of ourselves–transcendental experiences that seem to allow us a wider sphere of perception and thoughtfulness, and a broader scope of imagination.

In addition, if you’re falling victim to writer’s block, one way to overcome it is to step outside and observe nature. Focus on each sense individually, and describe, in detail, what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.

Some of my most original and pertinent lines, phrases, ideas, metaphors, and similes find me when I’m outside.

There are, however, a few drawbacks (none of which outweigh the benefits, if you ask me). Kris Spisak, author of Get a Grip on Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confusedsays she writes “outside a lot, but I can’t edit there if I’m in fine-tuning mode. The glare on my screen lets imperfections slip through undetected.” Sun glare on a laptop screen can indeed be pretty brutal sometimes, and outdoor situations are not always the most ergonomic. Plus, writing outside is obviously weather-dependent, so it’s not always a feasible option. Finally, sometimes I myself tend to get caught up in my surroundings, and end up doing more observing and appreciating than writing.

Writing in a Coffee Shop

Somehow, writing in a coffee shop has the effect of just magically making me feel like a bona-fide writer. I’m not sure why, exactly–but I feel legitimate when I write in a coffee shop. (Or itwould, I imagine, if I ever wrote in a coffee shop…) Another plus is the people watching you can manage in a bustling coffee shop can help inspire character ideas, and the conversations you can overhear can help inspire dialog.

A coffee shop sometimes offers fewer distractions than writing at home–or at least fewer opportunities for procrastination. You can’t get up and load your dishwasher, fold your laundry, take a nap, or mop your floors when you’re at the coffee shop. But you can write. And you might as well–because there’s not much else to do. Spisak admits that when she writes at home, “sometimes laundry calls; dishes need to be done; or family voices want to disturb my productivity. Those are the occasions I like to support local small businesses by buying their coffee. (Being a writer is a different type of entrepreneurship, after all. We need to support each other where we can.).”

“If I paid for a coffee and scone, it’s like a miniature investment in my project.”

All that said, I myself rarely, if ever, write at a coffee shop, though a Starbucks sits at the main intersection just two miles from my front door. I once took a conference call there, and nearly a decade ago, I graded a stack of research papers there–but I can’t recall having ever actually written anything there.

The drawbacks to the coffee shop writing scene include the fact that, while you can’t get up and start doing chores or paying bills, other distractions exist–like chatting up the barista, talking with other customers, getting up to purchase another snack or drink, people watching more than writing, and the necessity to spend at least a little money. Spisak, however, sees the latter as something of a motivating benefit. “If I paid for a coffee and scone, it’s like a miniature investment in my project.”

Writing in a Comfy Couch or Chair

Who doesn’t like curling up with a good book (whether you’re reading it or writing it is beside the point) on a comfortable couch or chair? I mean, it’s comfy! So comfy, in fact, that you’re not likely to want to get up soon–so you’re likely to stay there a while and keep writing. Charlene Jimenez, a writing instructor and freelance writer, says she likes writing in a comfortable chair or on a cozy couch because “it’s nice to physically relax when you’re working your creative writing muscles.

The main drawback for me? I sometimes get a little too comfortable and end up giving in to the urge to nap.

Writing in a Home Office

According to Jimenez, “The solitude of a home office is the best. I’m surrounded by all my novel notes. It feels like my own space, so I feel comfortable and productive there.” Spisak agrees that there’s something helpful about being surrounded by all your materials and ideas. “At my own desk, I’m surrounded by inspiration and all of the resources I usually need,” she says. “My desk at home is my usual writing habitat. When I have my own desk at home, there’s no excuse for not getting my writing down. It’s there. It’s waiting. I just need to enter my writing space to make it happen.”

Setting up a certain space designed just to help you write can help condition your mind and writing muscles. You know that when you enter that space, you write. Similarly, people know not to disturb you; you’re working.

One drawback, however, is that while a home office may help you focus, it may not be particularly stimulating or inspirational (or it may make writing feel like, well, work).

Writing on a Porch or Balcony

Jimenez wrote most of her NaNoWriMo novel on her back porch, where her husband had just hung some beautiful lights, making the space peaceful and inspirational. Spisak, too, has a balcony she calls her “warm-weather office,” explaining she enjoys “the fresh air during my work time. Something about a nice breeze and birdsong can be inspirational.” I’m with you there, ladies! I love the different perspective offered by an elevated porch or balcony. I can see more, and see it all differently, lending me new ideas, stimulation, and inspiration.

Potential drawbacks include possible distractions, such as people stopping by to chat, traffic sounds, and my own tendency to eavesdrop on the conversations of neighbors or passersby…

Wherever you do most of your writing, I hope it offers the inspiration and motivation for your best work.

 

The Risk in Writing: Rejections Galore

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This past weekend, another couple helped my husband and me paint the foyer in our nearly century-old vacation home, leading to a discussion about various art forms, from writing to painting.

Recently, one of my free-spirited, creative friends and her equally creative husband spent the weekend with my husband and me at an old house we purchased and are working to rejuvenate. My friend is a talented and passionate teacher with a penchant for languages and writing. Her husband, though he works in the technology field, is a gifted painter. My own husband builds lamps from

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While I don’t have the patience to actually paint the detailed woodwork featured in the foyer, and while the work in the above photo is unfinished, I’m proud of my vision, albeit executed by a more detail-oriented friend.

re-purposed materials and has recently begun creating beautiful stained glass pieces. And I? Well, I identify mainly as a writer, though I dabble in painting and amateur photography from time to time.

As the four of us painted the front foyer of our 1919 farmhouse, my friend gave me candid feedback on my novel, which I recently asked her to read, giving her free rein to rip it apart if necessary. She gave me some really insightful advice, and admitted she felt relieved that I had taken her constructive criticism so well (granted, she did an excellent job tempering her criticisms with compliments, but I digress).

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One of my husband’s latest artistic endeavors includes making stained glass pieces. This one hangs in a friend’s kitchen.

She followed her critique of my novel with the admission that she had decided she was no longer going to identify as a writer, in part because she needed more validation than she felt writing could offer her, and in part because writing simply offers less tangible and fewer results. When you paint a wall, for example, you can see the effect of your efforts almost immediately–as proven by the way our foyer brightened up with every coat of  paint. When you write a story or a novel, the progress is often much slower, and much less noticeable. In addition, while a newly-painted room is sure to get oos and ahhs, a story or novel is likely going to face dozens and dozens of rejections before it ever sees an acceptance (if it ever sees an acceptance).

You can show people a painting, a sculpture, a photograph–and they need only seconds to get at least a cursory appreciation of your work. But someone has to invest a lot of time and energy to read your poem, story, essay, or novel. And lots of activities vie for our time and attention. Writers compete for an audience with TV shows, movies, sports broadcasts, sleeping, errands, etc. We must not only write our story, but then convince people to commit their limited time and energy to reading it. After all, more energy and time are required to read a book  than to look at a piece of artwork or watch a film or play.

 

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Plus, producing a tangible product, like a painting or a sculpture, can be satisfying. You can display it. You can sell it. You can hold it, gaze at it, touch it. All of these things are much more difficult, if not impossible, to do with a poem or novel–not to mention the fact that a written work never feels finished. We feel always like we could find a more perfect word, more effectively structure our chapters, more expertly develop our characters or write our dialog or set our scene or or or…. At a certain point, we just have to decide it’s done, whereas other artistic endeavors we can more definitively finish, and that completion is satisfying and fulfilling.

 

I understand what my friend is saying. I have often questioned my drive to identify as a writer. Is it really necessary? Why do I care so much? Why do I write? It’s really hard, and I enjoy many other forms of creative expression–painting, singing (though I can’t say I’m any good anymore), sketching, design, photography, and even theater at one point in my life–and these open me up to far less criticism and rejection.

 

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As a writer actively seeking publication, rejections have become routine for me. Getting published is like winning the lottery–just as rare, but just as thrilling. I think maybe that’s one reason I keep writing: It’s hard (really, really hard sometimes), but the sense of accomplishment and elation I experience when a publication accepts my pitch, when I see my work in print or on-line, or when I get that long-awaited paycheck for an idea hatched a year before, far outshines the sense of disappointment that accompanies (yet another) rejection. Maybe I have come to accept that rejections are part of writing–at least for someone who seeks publication. I am no less a writer for having become more familiar with a sense of resignation at another thanks-but-no-thanks than with a sense of validation and accomplishment. In fact, another rejection at the very least means I’m producing enough work–enough writing–to send out into the world. The real fear sets in when I haven’t written anything new in a while–when my list of rejection e-mails shrinks because of a dearth of ideas, a sort of writing drought. My fear of having nothing to write far outweighs my fear of rejection. So, really, maybe that’s how I know I’m a writer.

Writing Rejections
Above, you can see the many rejections my desire to write has recently survived. With persistence and resilience, I have manged to find homes for some of these pieces.

My fear of having nothing to write far outweighs my fear of rejection. So, really, maybe that’s how I know I’m a writer.

Creativity in Different Contexts

I would not say I am facing writer’s block. No, not exactly. I am still writing: blog posts, diary entries, college reference letters, the occasional short personal narrative.

But I cannot seem to type the first word of a novel for NaNoWriMo. I have several loose, underdeveloped ideas, not one of which has coalesced into anything remotely resembling a plot. In the face of this complete (but hopefully temporary) dearth of cohesive ideas for another novel, I had begun to feel tempted to wonder if maybe I’m not, after all, a creative person. The identity crisis this admission would lead to would be nothing short of catastrophic, though, so rather than give in to the temptation to see myself as, well, not myself, I decided to take inventory of my creativity. Essentially, I had to remind myself that while my primary means of creative expression is indeed the written word, I am creative in many other ways, as well: photography, painting, lesson planning, and re-purposing–as well as writing. The resulting morale booster is below. Maybe now that I have reaffirmed my creative ability, I can conjure up an idea for NaNoWriMo…

Novel ideas in any context fall under the umbrella of creativeness.

Photography

I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about the mechanical technicalities of photography–I cannot, for example, work a real camera, nor can I develop film, nor am I exactly proficient at photography programs like Photoshop. I do, however, know a bit about the art of actually composing a quality photograph. I am no stranger to concepts like perspective, the leading line, framing, or the rule of thirds, for example–and naturally used many of these techniques before ever learning they were “actually things.”

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The unedited photo above, taken on the shore of Lake Michigan in Covert, Michigan, in early in August, demonstrates the principle of the leading line. The wooden walkway disappearing around the bend acts as the natural entrance into the photograph, and, in a twist of luck, the curve of the clouds above matches the curve of the walkway and shoreline below.
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This photograph, also unedited, taken on the shore of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, in mid-August, demonstrates perspective, the rule of thirds, and something of a leading line, with the railing leading from the upper right corner of the shot, out towards the water.

Painting

Though I haven’t taken an art class since middle school, I have always enjoyed art. I rarely get to paint, but when I do, I find the act cathartic and liberating. It is one of the most relaxing, freeing, and expressive activities I have experienced.

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I painted the above piece during my freshman year of college at Michigan State.  I laid the canvas on the floor of my room, and painted it using, if I remember correctly, paper towels–and maybe some plastic grocery bags! I was too destitute to afford paint, canvas, and paintbrushes, so I improvised. The painting hung on my college bedroom wall throughout my undergraduate career, and currently hangs in our kitchen. People who see it often compare it to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a compliment I am humbled and happy to receive.  
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Most recently–this past spring–a friend and I turned our backyard rain barrels into canvases, transforming the drab black barrels into works of art. We spent roughly five hours with our husbands and my dogs in my husband’s hand-built, custom backyard workshop/shed/garage one Sunday, painting, talking, listening to music, and enjoying the fresh air as it blew through the open garage door. Above you see the barrels before our artistic efforts, and below, after. My friend’s is on the left, and mine is on the right. As with the first painting, several people have compared my rain barrel to Starry Night. I was trying to make it look like a jar of fireflies…
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When I was away at college in Michigan, I deeply missed Virginia Beach, a place I visited often during my high school years. This painting, which for a while was displayed on the mantel in my college home, alongside some paintings I convinced my roommates to compose with me, was my attempt at expressing my love for the boardwalk and beach. I also tried to work with perspective. Anyone who knows me and sees this painting immediately recognizes it is Virginia Beach.

Repurposing

When we think of creativity, we tend automatically to think of the act of creating something from scratch, and by default jump to activities like painting, sculpting, writing, singing, jewelry-making. But novel ideas in any context fall under the umbrella of creativeness. Finding a new use for an old item is its own form of creativeness. Both my husband and I excel in this area–perhaps he more than I, as he is actually capable of making new things out of old things, whereas I am only capable of envisioning what new things the old things could become. Our home is full of many of his creations, usually lamps, made of old gears, driftwood, piping, tripods, factory equipment, antique toys, old instruments, etc.

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An old, wooden road sign my sister and I salvaged from a burn pile in rural Vermont is now featured as wall decor in my husband’s and my bedroom, particularly appropriate because I am a high school teacher.
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A second wooden road sign, pulled from the same burn pile in rural Vermont, now hangs above our stairway, pointing the way to the family room and kitchen when one arrives at the bottom of the stairs.
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My husband fashioned the table lamp above from a piece of partially charred driftwood he found on the beach in the Northern Neck of Virginia. The small brass duck perched on the wood, he bought at an antique store in Kentucky, originally to sit atop the motor of his hot rod, where it did indeed spend several years tooling around Virginia and North Carolina in the open air. When he sold the hot rod, the duck found a new, less mobile perch on the base of this lamp.