The Wharf to Wharf is an annual six-mile run/walk from Santa Cruz to Capitola. Each year, its 16,000 tickets sell out right away. Gentle coastal scenery, the ocean breezes, and support from a panoply of artistic Santa Cruzians -- all make this a special event. But better than that, better even than the T-shirt?
The best part is training for the Wharf to Wharf. After all, the event is only one morning long, but training requires, for me, weeks of walking my neighborhood. Every other morning I tramp through my local suburbs, immersed in the sound of wind through the trees. I scan flights of crows, lovingly tended gardens, dappled shade. Mornings are best, before the heat is too much. There’s a fresh quality to the light, an almost golden tinge to the edges of black oaks and pepper trees.
These past few weeks I’ve written about combining key elements to create a writer’s colony session in your own home, at your own pace. Part of our summer retreat has got to be exercise, if only to undo some of the damage that winter and bad habits created. Walking is my favorite -- athletics, esthetics, meditation and writing practice rolled into one.
Walking makes us breathe more deeply, washing away toxins accumulated from fretting at the computer as we write. The stride sends fresh waves of oxygenated blood coursing through the brain. The nonverbal rhythm of step after step informs the internal rhythm of words. Instead of focusing on marks that inch across the screen, we can practice diffuse awareness: the breeze, a scent of sun-ripened apricot, pressure from the balls of our feet resting on cement and then pushing off again. We spend some moments lost in thought, brought back abruptly by some external stimulant: a crossing, a dog, a bee, an airplane, another walker.
My body moves, my mind moves, my attention expands and contracts. All this allows new ideas, new solutions and resolutions. Walking also helps me to slowly release my writer’s tire and shake out ever-constricted shoulders. Writers have reported swimming and sweeping or raking to be similarly helpful. What physical activity keeps you sane as you write?
Back to Part 3 Heck, why not Part 5
Last week we talked about how to find brilliant speakers to listen to during your stay at the Summer Writers’ Colony. Now let’s talk about listening for the most important voice of all.
The arc of this summer is about discovering your writing life. Retreats are about pruning away all the non-essentials of everyday life. For writers at Yaddo, all that’s left after pruning might be a small bed, a large desk, and lunch delivered every day in a basket.
But perhaps you, like me, are surrounded at home by family members, animals that need feeding, and mountains of laundry. Then it is essential to start, strengthen, and maintain a meditation practice, if you do not have one already. By meditating daily, you are creating that still, spare room in which you write. If you are starting your very first meditation practice, begin with five minutes. Lengthen your session by a minute every few days. Twenty minutes is a good session. Twenty minutes twice a day is probably optimum. You are rebooting your system.
You can find eleventy-seven ways to meditate on the Web, so I won’t crowd this post with how-to. But it’s worth pointing out that meditation practices tend to fall into one of two camps. Either you watch your thoughts rise and pass (insight meditation), or you perform a technique in order to temporarily ignore your thoughts (concentration or tranquility meditation).
Now, we writers think A LOT. We spend most of our time embroidering our stories—that’s how we roll. The benefit of owning a delirious writing brain is that when you give yourself a little peace and quiet, the most outrageous and wonderful ideas tend to pop up. The downside: we are more vulnerable than the average Jane to getting mired in our stories. Folks who are in recovery from various addictions are often warned, “Your mind is a dangerous neighborhood; don’t go in there alone.” But as a writer, I have to disagree — yes, it can be an dangerous place, but that's where I live and do my best work. We find our balance on the razor's edge.
So you might want to spend a little time thinking about which kind of meditation you need right now. If you are stuck in something you’re writing about, try insight meditation techniques and let the thoughts come. Just don’t chase them. Keep a pad nearby and jot down any particularly gripping scene or solution, then let it go. As a writer, you are allowed to do this. And then get back to your breath.
If, on the other hand, your mind is more crowded with characters than a Lower East Side turn-of-the-century tenement, by all means, use a mantram or your breath to shut off the neurojuice for a while. It’s your brain and your meditation practice. Make this divine tool work for you.
Your homework this week: Start a notebook about your writing life. When are your best hours? What helps you to quickly get down to business? How do you decompress? How’s the meditation going? Leave a comment and let us know!
Back to Part 2 Onward to Part 4
Welcome to part 2 of my Summer Writing Colony series. You can read Part 1 here. Make this year's staycation count! Today we will look at how you can bathe in wisdom from at least one brilliant speaker every day, even without a cent in your pocket.
National Public Radio
In my area of National Public Radio, we access an amazing weekly series of writer interviews called City Arts and Lectures. I have listened to and been inspired by writers in my car, at home, live streaming on the treadmill at the Y. But that's not the only writer-friendly program. Just today, Forum has a talk about letters between two poets. What's in your area?
The New York Times
The online New York Times has an Opinionator blog series called "Draft," essays on craft by exceptional writers. You can access the New York Times up to ten page views per month without paying. (I do support public radio and subscribe to news and writing outlets whenever I have the finances to do so.)
TED Talks and YouTube writer profiles
The online Technology, Entertainment and Design conference covers about a zillion topics. Did you know that TED has a series of talks exclusively about writing? Meanwhile YouTube has interviews with writers and poets, biographers and history detectives, and sometimes you can watch them read their work. Find the writers you love and admire and learn from them!
Even Writers' Digest is on YouTube. What else can you find?
Your Public Library
Bring home classic writing craft books, immerse yourself in a biography about a favorite writer, or find CDs where writers and poets read their own work. OMG, Audiobooks!
Help yourself write your book by checking out a few books on your subject matter. Live with them for a couple of weeks. You will get a deeper dive than online searching. And make an effort to let random chance happen. Make yourself WALK THE STACKS. Your serendipitous find may be just around the corner.
Local Author Events
You can learn so much about what the author wrote, how she or he wrote it, and more. You also do a service by attending, as any author would prefer to look at a group of living bodies rather than empty seats. And you never know who you will meet or what ideas will capture your mind.
While you can freely attend, try if you can to bring cash for the author's book.
Look up web sites for independent bookstores in your town. Barnes and Noble bookstores also have excellent author events. And check out any universities and community colleges in your area-- they often schedule visiting writer series.
This week's assignment: Get thee to a literary event/reading/viewing and tell me about it. Then, schedule in more events for the rest of your Summer Colony stay.
Back to Part 1 Go to Part 3
Greetings from my Summer Writing Colony. I love it here, and I am getting stuff done and surprising myself. Won’t you join me? It’s free, and you can attend from exactly where you are. It doesn’t matter whether your job or family can spare you—you can join!
Let me explain. There I was, salivating over writing workshops, conferences, and colonies listed in Poets and Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle. But this summer I don’t really have cash to attend, nor can I get away from family responsibilities, or add another flight onto my schedule.
Then I saw a line from one of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project calendars:
“Put yourself in Creativity Boot Camp: Tackle a project in an intense, concentrated way, and push yourself to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time.”
I returned to my magazines with new eyes. If I could design my own retreat, what exactly would it look like? Soon I was cutting and pasting ads until I had created my ideal Summer Writing Colony poster. “Weekly Intensives,” I promised myself, in an atmosphere that would be “Supportive, Yet Demanding.”
Most of my energy in this colony session will go into reading, writing, and completing supportive, yet demanding weekly assignments. But I will also experience literary field trips, arts and crafts sessions, lectures from brilliant guest speakers, and daily meditation and soul guidance. And this place happens to feature delicious food and fun physical workouts. It’s kind of a spa retreat and writing boot camp all rolled into one. At home.
Over the next six or seven weeks I’ll break down the menu so you can implement YOUR OWN writing colony schedule as an honorary member.
Your assignment for this week: Buy or borrow a writing magazine that inspires you. Read your writing source this week and take notes about what you want to do on your next four to six weekly intensives.
See if you can do some cutting, taping, and designs to create your OWN poster of intention for this summer—or make one online on Pinterest. What do you want to accomplish this summer? What does your ideal retreat look like? Let me know!
Go to Part 2
I found this ebullient young man in the 1900 edition of University of California, Berkeley's Blue and Gold yearbook. It seemed right to post him on this first day of the World Cup in Brazil.
I'm studying this time period for my new book, as-yet publicly unnamed.
Beast might be a good name.
There I was, in the California Room leafing through the yearbook when I stumbled across evidence that my Great-Uncle Ernst had been secretary and treasurer of the Chess Club that year. They had trounced Stanford. He was likely a sophomore.
That year (according to Richard Schwartz’ wonderful book, Berkeley 1900), the Berkeley campus was pretty much a vast field with only a couple of buildings. The extremely wealthy philanthropist, Mrs. Phoebe Hearst, was deep in planning sessions with a celebrated French architect to lay out the campus.
I am a grateful UCB alumna. When I attended in the early 1980s, I had no idea that my ancestors had been there before me. I ate Top Dog wieners and bought used Signet editions of Shakespeare at Mo’s Books, biked to The Cheese Board, and dodged shady characters on Telegraph Avenue.
But the Berkeley and Oakland back then still had a number of oaks, dairy farms, quail, and goats; somehow I see goats in my vision of Great Uncle Ernst getting to class.
This is the outside of Oakland's amazing Cathedral of Christ the Light. When I wandered inside and meditated for a little while, I remembered how my own spiritual pilgrimage began.
My early childhood Sunday mornings were spent reading the funnies while the grown-ups padded around in robes, drinking coffee, perhaps cleaning the aquarium or getting sun in the garden. The only intimations of religion I remember were from television: Sidney Poitier visiting some stubborn nuns and building their church, and Sally Field as the disarming Flying Nun.
Then, around age ten, I detoured one day from walking home from school (my house key on a string around my neck) and headed instead to old grey St. Bridget's a block away. They didn't lock their doors then. I slipped inside and sat down in a pew, awed and excited. My solitary experience that day was of sweet silence, light through colored windows, the faint smell of sweat and incense. I asked my father that night if I could be a Catholic.
Dad, embracing Unitarian and Humanist fellowships after a Jewish and Christian Scientist childhood, managed to hide his surprise. "You can be baptized anything you want," he said firmly. "Once you are eighteen."
Suddenly, becoming baptized seemed tremendously important to me. Dad showed me a book called "The Church Down the Street." "Look at all these religions you can choose from," he said, leafing through the chapters. Baptist. Jew. Muslim. Buddhist. "I recommend you study them before you make up your mind." My work was cut out for me.
Over the next seven years, I attended a session of Catholic summer camp and two years of Jewish summer camp; six months of Wednesday night youth group at my Mormon friend's church; yoga and meditation classes at the stuffy top-floor studio of the Iyengar Yoga Institute; zen meditation at Green Gulch; informal but thorough lessons in Wicca and Tarot reading from friends; services and summer family camp with Unitarians, and some quiet time sitting with Friends. Oh, and a ten week course in Episcopalian history.
As I turned eighteen, I had the usual mix of blustery bravado and intense shyness, idealism and cynicism. I was living with a boyfriend by then, waitressing, writing poetry. Dad mentioned that he was worried about me-- so many young people were flocking to the Hare Krishnas, to Jim Jones, to Reverend Sun Moon. "No way, Dad," I said. I had already proven to myself that, with my freethinking ideas, I did not fit in anywhere.
The previous summer, I had baptized myself by a splashing snow-melt stream in the high Tuolomne Meadows. The bright sun was nearly swallowed in vast blue sky, and the banks of the stream were a riot of Indian paintbrush and purple lupine.
Gee, it's good to be back. I've missed you!
Over the past sixty days I've laid the groundwork for the new book (more on that in upcoming posts), and now it's time to lift my head and look around. Who brought all these blooming flowers to Campbell?
Tonight I'm heading for downtown San Jose to a launch party for Reed Magazine, the oldest literary journal west of the Mississippi. Aside from the joy of hanging out at the hip, laid-back Blackbird Tavern for a few hours, I'm really looking forward to meeting some old schoolmates and beloved professors from San Jose State University. I might get to see one friend whose flash fiction is gracing a huge number of journals online and in print. And I hope to see another friend who knows how authors should approach book tours.
I'm officiating at a whole new crop of weddings, too, which I love. That's given me a chance to think about more wedding-related ideas to share with you. See you next week.
Floods of information and inspiration poured forth from the AWP conference in Seattle. Thousands and thousands of writers congregated with editors, publishers, poets, teachers, and students. I recognized my tribe.
In packed rooms I scribbled notes as speakers addressed subtleties in spiritual writing, researching historical novels, nature essays, regional poetry. One night I heard Eva Saulitis, a marine biologist, teacher, writer, and poet (and beekeeper), describe long, cold months observing orca whales. She described how the boredom, the waiting, the emptiness were aspects of imagination, precursors of her work. The work, she said, came from the intersection of “data collection and awe.”
I arrived home with so much to think about. My craft and direction were reconfirmed. I found leads to publish work. I made friends, growing a community that suddenly spans the globe. I heard new models of writing and carted home pages of notes toward the New Book, skills in Twitter, goals for blogging, and a writing schedule to try out. And enough literary magazines to pull my shoulder out of whack.
It was an overabundance. I swam in it for three weeks after the conference.
* * *
Neighborhood crows flap heavier these days because their beaks are filled with sticks. They are building nests, of course, as I build scaffolding for my new book.
“Pairs function as highly synchronized teams, building large, stick-based nests, carefully lining them with fine rootlets or hair.” (Marzluff and Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens.)
An initial web of ladders and planks give workers safe access to transform all parts of a structure. For a book, scaffolding might include an outline, a timeline, a narrative arc plotted on a whiteboard or paper. I also build a schedule on paper and in Google. The schedule must include walks, library research, fieldwork, and snacks of music, books, drawing, museum visits.
“Crows take a great deal of time choosing the sticks they want to use in the construction of their nests.” (Haupt, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom From the Urban Wilderness.)
The scaffold also serves to protects the act of writing itself, because life is so full with family, other work, events, friends. I keep re-learning that limits must be set.
“The crow’s nest is a remarkably intricate piece of work, belying both the rough exterior of the structure and the bulkiness of its creators.” (Haupt)
At this time, it's better for me to dwell inside the book for several days or weeks at a time, listening to echoes and characters, without forced interruptions to broadcast content. See you in a few weeks.
This week I'll join more than 12,000 other writers and editors, professors, agents and students at an extravaganza called AWP. It's my first one.
I'll bring a small rolling bag and a black daypack to carry snacks, my itinerary, aspirin, some old sweaters, and empty journals. But that's my toolkit, not baggage.
The things I will NOT be lugging around (and I was certain that I would):
There is, in fact, very little on the horizon. As though the Universe is sweeping everything from my path, with Infinite Love, and telling me to get to work on the art right under my nose.
I feel so untethered. Tomorrow I head north, and plan to go in a state of quiescent listening!
Did you receive holiday cards this year? Are they still around? If you haven’t tossed them yet, here's a meditation exercise that I recently gleaned from a friend's back issue of Spirituality and Health Magazine.*
Up until this year, I’ve put cards up on a mantel, or on a large ribbon, and then at the end of the Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year season, it was a little sad to just toss those pretty cards into the recycle bin. Sometimes I cut out new gift tags from the fronts. But what I am about to share goes beyond recycling.
Save those cards in a basket or bowl. Then, in January, after all the bustle has calmed down and your routines are back, find a few minutes to deliberately put your hand in the bowl and draw out a few cards. Look at just the first one. Spend time really seeing the front, examining the artwork, enjoying the colors and all the careful work that the artist put into it. Then read the printed greeting.
Now, if the sender wrote something in it, read what he or she said, and concentrate on the signature. Close your eyes for a few moments and picture that person, maybe that family, in your mind’s eye. Send affection and wishes for their peace and health in the New Year. Thank them, in your thoughts, for sending you the card.
When the meditation feels complete, you can release the card (feel free to save some for bookmarks or gift tags). With luck, you might be dipping into your cards a little at a time through the next couple of months.
I can scarcely overstate the powerful effect of this meditation. During my first handful of cards, I remembered far-flung loved ones, carefully read their news, pondered the ancient stories portrayed on the card fronts, and even wrote an overdue letter in response. I was also inspired, by one, to visit the UNICEF site and purchase my cards for next season. Even more, as I read the cards I felt my heart growing larger, lighter, and warmer. Closing my eyes over the last card, I felt briefly connected to a larger, energizing galaxy of goodwill.
I love how The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin talks about maximizing your happiness. Happiness is an inside job, right? Sometimes a wonderful event just flits right by and is swallowed up again—but we, and only we, have the power to make it something more. We can anticipate an event or a treat, we can participate in it, and then we can remember it, perhaps retell it. Multiple joys from one event!
This holiday card meditation is a way to turn bits of ephemeral paper and glitter into active happiness. It keeps our little lights shining through the next wintry months.
*"Praying My Greeting Cards" by Sister Karen Zielinski, OSF, in Nov-Dec 2010.