56 Things I Have Learned

I turn 56 on March 3, so I offer you 56 things I have learned in these 56 spins around the sun. Which of these resonate with you?

1. We are the gatekeepers of the origins, the overtures, of our lives. No one knows us better than we know ourselves. The wisdom that resides within us from a lifetime of experiences deserves a longer listen, a deeper patience, to understand and embrace the beauty in each step we take. 

2. You never get “over” anything. Rather, you absorb it and consider what to do with what is now in you, a part of you.

3. The ebb and flow of tides, of life, of matters of joy and despair, are born out of chaos and the ancient battles between Gaia and others; such clashes are necessary to sustain a balance – tense and fragile as that may be – in our respective journeys.

4. All-Natural, no-stir peanut butter is the constant; chocolate, jelly, marshmallow fluff, among other tasty swirls merely build on what is already perfection.

5. Fall in love early and often; savor the sweet taste of innocence as if every day were spring’s first.

6. Read everything: poetry, short fiction, novels, essays, plays and make every line about you. Find the personal in every page.

7. Tell your story today and every day, wherever and however you can. As you evolve, so do your stories.

8. Creativity was never the end game; it is, and will always be, the spark that ignites unique imaginative and innovative thinking and action that only you can achieve.

9. Take nothing – absolutely nothing – personally.

10. The people you think you hate have origin stories no different than our own. You don’t really hate anyone; you hate the metaphorical coat they wear that hides the hurt, covers the scars, and keeps them safe from feeling compassion and self-love.

11. Music soothes; stillness calms; transcendence fulfills.

12. Integrity, equality, simplicity, community, stewardship of the earth, and peace – all Quaker values – are the pillars of our individual experiences and contributions to a good greater than the span of our own lifetimes.

13. Technology does not define you; circumstances do not define you; you define you.

14. Smile and laugh every day to bring levity and light along your path, to you and to others.

15. It’s okay to be selfish; embrace the WIIFM Principle (what’s in it for me) and make every dewdrop of the universe relevant and meaningful to your existence.

16. The sun always rises, no matter the clouds or darkness that might dim its light. 

17. “Dear Prudence,” as performed by the Jerry Garcia Band at Calderone Concert Hall in Hempstead, NY on February 29, 1980, is the best cover of a Beatles song ever played.

18. You are capable of doing so many things with dreadful mediocrity. The wisdom lies in choosing the few which you will do in greatness. 

19. Thoreau’s words: “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!” and Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us” were penned generations before the world of digital immediacy consumed us. There are lessons in a pre-technology world that mean as much to us today as they did centuries ago to the authors who penned them.

20. Always remember to see the elephant swallowed whole by the snake, and not some silly Bowler hat lying on the ground. 

21. Jack Delaney and Mike DeVita were the two best teachers I had while in school because they pushed me to the brink while never losing faith in me. Since the first day they met me (and I met them), they believed in me the writer, the actor, the individual. If it weren’t for them, I would not be doing the things I love. Teachers, man. They do that to you. Believe in you. So you can believe in yourself. 

22. Third grade teachers have the worst job ever, where they have to break out that red pen and break the hearts of writers who thought their words were special, perfect, moving. Third grade teachers who become your friends 45 years after those come-to-Jesus classroom moments are mentors, gifts of the wizarding world, and all-around God-sends as you are still trying to figure everything out. Jane Gordon is my Dumbledore, my Gandalf, my Glynda.

23. Many of my closest friends today are from high school, but surprisingly not the ones who were closest to me then. That saddens me. My every moment was spent with these lovely few people in years 11 and 12, and they have “grown out” of me, they say. The ones with whom I am closest today are genuine, sincere, authentic, life-embracing individuals that I should have spent more time with 40 years ago. I am sorry about that.

24. When there are no expectations or desires, all things are at peace.

25. I spent a lot of time in junior and high school sticking up for the bullied, but I crossed that line a few times myself. Stones, glass houses, all that stuff. I’ve made amends with most of them, but those scars run deep. I will never be able to undo those hurtful things no matter how many times I apologize. I’m human; we’re all human. The pain still lingers, though, and I will carry that to the end. 

26. Cheap mint-chocolate ice cream by the pint soothes any illness, any heartbreak, at least temporarily. Add some Hershey’s syrup and Cool Whip, and soon you’ll be wondering if you ever had a trouble in your whole life. 

27. I embrace the various parts of me that want to do different things at different times: teach, write, paint, sketch, color, take photos, solve math problems, be alone, be with a big crowd, play music, listen to music, act, direct, spectate. To deny myself of any one of these things, at any one time, is to deny who I am as a human being: complicated, simple, outrageous, quiet, loving, happy. 

28. I have learned more from spending a day in the woods than I have spending a week in the library. 

29. The first book I remember reading, all by myself, was “Just Only John,” about a boy who wants to be somebody else, and finds himself turning into a pig and an old man, among other things, until he finally is, “just only John.” From the very start, because of my mother and our shared love for books, I have learned that we cannot be anybody but ourselves. It is what we are best at doing, and nobody can do it any better than we can. 

30. Sometimes I mourn the loss of friendships like I mourn the passing of loved ones. How can they ‘outgrow” me? What did I do in my older, wiser years, that turned them away? I am grateful for who is in my life today; together, we are growing older, and if not wiser, than simpler, together. 

31. Chocolate really does make everything a little better. Trust Professor Lupin; I think he knows more than any of us, being a werewolf and everything. 

32. I have never believed more in our future than I do today. I have seen the infancy of what is to come, through my treasured students, and I drift into these golden years knowing we’re all going to be okay; they are going to be okay; the world is going to be okay.

33. The first time I put a music CD in my car, I could not believe the difference in the quality of the sound. It was so crisp, so digitally perfect, and so wrong. I will never forget the era of the cassette mixtape, traveling with me like a lover to New England, Ocean City, and everywhere else I went. The sound quality was perfect for blaring as we became singing duets on the rise and fall of the mountains in Western Maryland, the smooth flats of the ocean dunes, and the rural roads of sleepy New England towns. Elton John, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin, and so many more. We spent summers in concerts together along these American roads, and I long for their scratchy serenades, all jammed on 31-minute sides of magnetic-coated, polyester plastic film that rolled in rhythm to the rolling roads we journeyed. 

34. Maybe I value “space” as much as I do because it is what I grew up with. Not indoors, but behind our house, where a thin trickling stream separated our large back yard from the spacious, magical woods. There, we built tiger traps and bike ramps of dirt and discarded tree branches, spied on Ol’ Man Emil’s broken-down house looking for ghosts and other apparitions just beyond the dirty, cracked windows, and crouched among thorny bushes waiting for somebody to pass us, and nobody to notice us. We had space to create, fight, play, imagine, grow, become independent. We were granted space, and we made much of it in our childhoods. 

35. Carpe Diem once meant to me: do whatever you please; now, it means seizing the beauty in the day as only you can. It took me decades to learn this, but I wouldn’t change a thing. There is great growth in our failings, our misinterpretations, our blunders. May we all seize the ifs, whens, and possibilities around us as we do our best to manage our faults and misgivings. 

36. The 1980 Snickers campaign for that 2:30pm pick-me-up with a fist-full of peanuts in every bar was brilliant. Even today, mid-day, I will buy a Snickers over any other product because I am convinced it is what i need to get me through to dinner. But more seriously, it made me a better writer, for the more I make my stories immediately relevant to my audience, my readers, the better they are received (and, I hope, remembered).

37. I am forever amazed by this: The more artificial light you extinguish from Earth, the more natural light you see in the sky filled with ten-million stars. Sometimes, the darkest moments reveal the most bountiful pin-pricks of light, sewn wonderfully in a sky of black.

38. There really is no place like home.

39. “Home” is synonymous with “Querencia,” or your wanting-place where you feel invincible and safe. I first realized this when reading a book called “Writing Toward Home” by Georgia Heard. It’s a good accompaniment to Lisa Knopp’s collection of essays titled, “The Nature of Home.” I’ve always gravitated to such reflections, as I have felt “invincibly home” in the strangest of places, including the auditorium in my high school. There’s even a song in the broadway musical, A Chorus Line, “At The Ballet,” that alludes to the feeling of invincibility in creative spaces like a theater, or a dance studio, or even an old garage converted to an art workspace. Home is any place where you feel loved, invincible, creative, yourself, and there really is no place like it. 

40. Find what calms the mind, and do it often. For me, it is the coloring of Mandalas and Tessellations. More stories have been born, more problems resolved, in the simple process of coloring in methodical, sometimes tedious patterns where the mind takes a deep breath and exhales all the worry, the stress, the fear.  

41. James Taylor sings, “The secret o’ life is enjoying the passage of time,” and it has been a personal mantra of mine since I first heard this song while camping at one of the local campgrounds within an hour of our home. The only electronic I had with me was a battery-operated cassette deck, and I played that other White Album, JT’s Greatest Hits, with lyrics in one hand and a pencil in the other to respool the tape when it got caught in the machine. Odd that I was more attracted to listening to the song instead of abandoning the tape player for the boundless woods and running streams around me.  

42. It was in the connection with music: the lyrics, the soft plucks of guitar strings, the long-held single notes on the piano that captured me. And when I would eventually break away to go exploring in the woods, these songs stayed with me. Why do I feel such a bond with the solitudinal sounds of soft chords, raw vocals, and a love song founded in loss?

43. I am not a musician, nor a singer, despite decades of trying to be one, the other, or both. I’m not okay with that, yet I keep finding reasons why I shouldn’t just plow through and practice hard enough to get beyond this riptide of fear.

44. I say “I Love You” with sincerity and ease to a level that is sometimes uncomfortable to others. But it is born out of childhood goodbyes to my father when he left to fight fire in Baltimore City. Some of his best friends never came back home the next day, as they were Killed In The Line of Duty. His death came three years following the call that eventually killed him. And on that night when he died, I wasn’t afraid to tell him I loved him just one more time. 

45. Love can never be diminished in how many times we say it, share it, embrace it. Like a cherished but tattered doll, the love that makes it so cannot be undone or taken back. In the words of Margery Williams, the author of The Velveteen Rabbit, “Love matters, and that’s for always.”

46. Self-love is just as important as the love we offer others. How can we be devoted to others if we cannot be devoted to ourselves? 

47. “Ish” and “Less” are synonymous in their give and take, when you really think about it. If I am self-less and give somebody all the love I have, but never be self-ish in refilling the well with love and care for myself, how can I expect to love others as strongly ever again? “Boundless Love” means you get some, too. If it really is boundless, there’s plenty to go around for all of us, even you and me.

48. It’s sometimes hard being an introvert in a world where I have placed myself, demanding strong performances for the masses, either on stage or in the classroom. And yet, I know extroverts who don’t do well in either of those settings. 

49. Why must we put labels on anything, really? I’m kind of an extrovert, or I’m sometimes this, or I’m predominantly that. Boxes don’t look good on anyone. We are too much like our brains, trying to figure things out so we can move on to the next thing to be boxed and put away. Sometimes it’s a pretty powerful thing to let the unknown be just that, a label-less, mysterious, beautiful, unidentified whatever that we don’t need to contain or solve. 

50. We can be connected not by labels but by appreciation; respect; acceptance. Yes! I stand with an identity you declare, but I also give equal praise to the unidentified, the unlabeled, the unboxed. 

51. If I had a superpower it would be to enter the hearts of the lonely and let them know it’s okay. That people can be lonely together. That the ideas and the feelings that isolate us can also bring us together. 

52. I live every day thinking of the friends and students and loved ones we have lost to suicide. I still believe in them, and I hope they feel that, somehow, for the multitudes who think and feel and mourn and love for them every single day. 

53. There is as much illumination in a single flame as there is in the roaring bonfires that we sometimes build. It isn’t in the ferocity of the fire; it is in the oxygen we share around it, the bonds of friendship that weave tightly in the wisps of wind-blown smoke, the sudden glowing of embers in our collective sighs, the moments where we cannot distinguish gravity-defying sparks from newborn stars. 

54. We lit individual candles for the children and teachers who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012; I carry with me their names held in the soft flickers that blurred through our tears. The power of light, the offerings of love, the communion of souls in such ceremonies of connection will always remind me that what we hold in the deepest origins of who we are cannot be questioned. We are the very embodiment of love, and that love has always been meant to be shared. 

55. It’s hard to remember sometimes that those who reject love so adamantly are the ones who need it most, not just from us, but from themselves. We might be able to offer it, but in the end, they need to accept it, see it in themselves, and embrace it.

56. “The End” is the last song recorded by The Beatles where all four of them played together. It was Paul’s brainchild, and his line, “And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make” is probably one of the most powerful and simple mantras that we can carry with us. I have learned that this reciprocal, circuitous, boundless, unconditional thing called love is the universal energy for all living things. It not only connects us, it is us. 

Life’s Labyrinth in Embracing Our Creativity

Last night, I was gifted with the opportunity to read for Howard County Poetry and Literary Society (HoCoPoLitSo)’s Wilde Readings series. I read an excerpt from the third chapter of my novel, Fossil Five, where Cassandra reads a letter she wrote to herself five years ago.

Personally, it’s an incredibly ironic moment, as my own seniors are now writing their letters to themselves, to be opened in 2025. I had some of my seniors watching the event last night, and some even offered questions to me. How paradoxically wonderful it was to be in both the present and in the future with my reading and my own students – most certainly a highlight of my career that I will hold on to for many years.

Anyway, I shared reading time with Diane Wilbon Parks, a poet and artist who lives in Prince George’s County. I was so honored to read with her; her poetry and presentation are both deep, abstract, and powerful.

Here are the first few lines of her poem, “Music to My Ear” from her 2016 published collection of poems, The Wisdom of Blue Apples:

You play inside musical notes

that slip away to have coffee,

then linger at the base of crescendos

like drums leaving tunnels inside me.

The chord of my vein is

traced with legends of you

slanted in prepositional phrases – of love,

crooked like elbows, misplaced on purpose,

hanging out of shelves, and sentences, and me.

I can just hear Diane reading these words, silk slipping from her lips as she brings this poem to life. Yet, as much as her poetry was transforming, it was her artwork behind her that mesmerized me.

Before the event even began, I complimented Diane on her artwork, a collection of colorful and black-white creations framed and on display behind her. I expressed my failed attempts at art, and how I, for some inexplicable reason, freeze up when it comes to letting go with creating on a blank canvas.

Then, during her question-and-answer session, one of the participants (and readers during open mic) asked her if there was a creative relationship between her artwork and her poetry. Diane was quick to answer, saying that her abstract paintings were an extension of her metaphorical poetry. It makes sense, right? She writes in the abstract, so why wouldn’t she paint in the abstract?

To me, this was epiphanic in every way imaginable. My own blocks, my own origins of fear, have been based on a great deal of self-induced pressure to paint and draw in the literal sense, recreating baskets of fruits, partially opened windows, and small children picking flowers in an untended garden.

I’m not a literal person, though, and to be a re-creator of such images, to replicate life as closely as possible with the stroke of a brush or pen, is just not who I am.

It took a walk through Life’s Labyrinth, along with a lot of patience and remaining wide open, to receive such a gift as I did last night.

So, today I pick up a pen and put it to a blank canvas, and I let go of the fears of creating works that are nowhere near who I am as a writer and as a person.

And, if I am so bold, I will share my abstract and metaphorical creations with you here.

Thank you, Diane. And thank you, HoCoPoLitSo, for gifting me this freedom to grow as an artist.

 

When Fire Reigns: Season 1, Episode 1 Published

On January 1, I set out to develop and publish an 11-episode podcast called, “When Fire Reigns.” It’s about the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 and the mayor who died just three months later, reportedly by his own doing. Today, I published the first episode, just one day before the 115-year anniversary of the great conflagration.

You can listen to it on Podomatic HERE. Or, you can check it out now on Spotify or (fingers crossed) on Apple’s Podcasts very soon.

It wasn’t easy to do this. Venturing into the world of podcasting is all very new to me, and I wanted to just throw in the towel more than a few times. I pushed on, though, thanks to my daughter’s pep talk and the support of my around-the-world friends.

Here’s what made it so challenging.

I’ve got all of the equipment (Blue Yeti mic, laptop), but I just don’t have the sound-proof space to do the actual recording. I ended up turning my car into a makeshift studio. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it got the job done.

When I started editing, I wasn’t terribly happy with the quality of sound, but I decided to go forward with it anyway. I know I need to solve this little dilemma before I record next week’s episode. I’m committed to doing it, so I will find a place to record.

The other challenge was that I know how I want it to sound, much like a beginning guitarist knows how she wants a particular riff to sound, but just can’t seem to get there yet. That’s me. I could spend a full year trying to get each note just exactly perfect. But then I hold back a year’s worth of content that I could have shared with my community. What’s the sense in that? Get it out there, learn, and do it better the next time.

Anyway, enjoy. I plan on publishing an episode every week or two. I want to establish a routine and try to build up a little following. We’ll see. Right now, I’m just having a blast doing this.

So: Thanks for listening, if you get the chance. I do appreciate it.

Building a Podcast: The Baltimore Fire of 1904

Now that Fossil Five is in the hands of my editors, I have decided to devote the month of January to building a podcast series on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. It was my thesis project in grad school, and after listening to a bunch of podcasts this past week, I think it is the perfect story to tell over 6-8 episodes.

The only challenge is that I’ve never done a podcast before. I had to dive in and decide what I wanted to do, and how to share it with the world.

The Plan

The first step, for me, was to figure out how many words each episode should be. I did a timed reading from the manuscript, and I read about 700 words every 5 minutes. I want my podcasts to be between 20 and 30 minutes each, so I subtract about 5 minutes for front and end chatter (ncluding intro and outro music), and I am left with anywhere between 2100 and 2800 words per episode.

A little more simple math: My script is already over 30,000 words. so 6-8 episodes is not going to cut it. I’m going to need about 10-12 episodes, even with a good edit of my script.

The Structure

Now that I know I’m going to be working with about a dozen episodes, I divide my manuscript into rough episodes. I look for the cliffhangers, the teasers, the time shifts — all the things essential to a complete episode. I decide that I’m going to have to trim it back an episode or two, and I see plenty of places where I can edit out some superfluous material. Not a big deal. I can add it in later if I need to.

The Music

One of the coolest discoveries I made last year while teaching speech was copyright-free music. I went to my favorite site, Epidemic Sound, and searched through their huge database to find the exact track I was looking for. You need to establish a free account, but it is simple and fast to download the audio track to use for your intro, interlude, and outro segments. And, because it is copyright-free, you have no worries at all about having your podcasts blocked for copyright infringement.

The Web Host

I did a quick search through the various podcast hosting sites, and I fell in love with Podomatic. They have several kinds of accounts (including a free one, which I opted for in the early stages of podcasting). Upgrading to their pro account seems seamless and simple, and you have the option to pay monthly or annually. These are the kinds of options I’m looking for as a novice. Your podcast gets pushed to all of the most popular sites, and you don’t have to spend a penny to get it up and running.

The Podcast

I am building my podcast episodes on GarageBand, another free software program with Apple. It’s intuitive, easy to use, and exports your file to an MP3 format. I’ve used GarageBand for other projects, and it’s never let me down. I use a Blue Yeti microphone to record the audio in any low-sound area I can find (no air conditioners or heating units, no refrigerators, no external announcements or interruptions). I break up the episode into 3-5-minute chunks and record each sub-segment, knowing that I will be placing short clips of interlude music between them. And, because I am not trying to record the whole episode in one block, I usually need just one or two recordings for each sub-segment. For a 30-minute episode, I’m usually done in under 90 minutes.

The Edits

Good audio recorded in one setting means clean editing. It’s really more of a splicing of music, introductions, and segues with the main story. It takes another 90 minutes to 2 hours to edit, and then I export the file and upload to the podcast server.

I plan on launching my first episode by January 15, and then release new episodes every week (this includes through the anniversary of the Great Fire in Baltimore that started on February 7, 1904).

Stay tuned! I’ll be announcing its launch soon.

In the meantime, don’t be intimidated by the how’s of podcasting. Just jump in and start recording. It’s the only way to push through the full process and create a publishable product!


Our Authentic Show Must Go On

This weekend, I was enthralled by a blog post shared by Mark Willen (“Sexual Assault: When Real Life and Fiction Collide”), who was pondering how his published works hold up in the #MeToo era. As a result of Mark’s post, which was weighing heavily on my mind today, I decided to ask a few writers/teachers about what they thought influences authors to share certain works with their intended audiences.

Now, that’s a lot packed into that last sentence, so let me unpack it.

What influences authors.

As English teachers, we often analyze an author’s writing by what the topic of the essay/story is about, and what was happening during that time in history or, more specifically, what was happening in that author’s personal life, either directly or indirectly. Our focus is finding that cause-and-effect relationship, that One Big Thing that led her to craft that piece. We love doing that. It’s what we live for.

To share certain works.

As well, we know that writers often choose which pieces they take to publication. This is what they offer the masses; this is what they have selected as their representative piece.

With their intended audiences.

Not only does the author select the intended piece, he selects the intended audience. Sometimes, that’s a decision based on money and quantity. What can I write that will reach the most number of people, and fill my pockets with the most amount of money? Or, conversely, he might choose a very selective audience to share a more cultivated piece, aimed at entertaining or conversing with a smaller group.

So what?

What all these things have in common is that we are making gross assumptions that the cause-and-effect relationship even exists. As we know in this era of all things, it is nearly the opposite. Some of us are in great distress, and our creativity is stifled in ways we could never fathom. We put our pens to paper and the parchment remains unblemished.

Where do we begin? How do we tell the truth? How do we write about something that is so polarizing?

So we choose to write about other things, and in other genres. Published or not, none of it is representative of where many of us are. There is no authenticity in a large body of what is being published. Truth lies in that unwritten, Barbaric YAWP that plagues us, weighs us down, suppresses our voice in ways that historians might overlook entirely.

In other words, the literature written centuries ago, which we have been analyzing so comfortably based on the stories crafted in history books, may be as much of a lie in absencia of the truth that could never be written.

Maybe a little like what we’re going through now.

I just got rejected from yet another publication (Let the great streak from 2017 continue!). It was a horror short story that I thought was pretty good. It wasn’t, according to the judges (again this year), and I’ve allowed myself a 12-hour pity party that ended, oh, a few minutes ago.

But I find this okay. I’m not a horror writer anymore. I thought that I should be able to spin a good tale no matter the genre, but that’s probably not true. I’ve got so much bunched up in me of what I am not writing about, that it makes full sense to me that anything I try to pass off as authentic is anything but.

So I’m turning this figurative page somehow, and I will return to authenticity. I will spill words here that are raw, genuine, politically incorrect, and my truth. I will lose followers and, perhaps, close friends and family members. It sounds so harsh to say this, but I can no longer let that stop me.

I don’t want to be cautious, gentle, patient, worldly, or even compromising. The time has come to share that authenticity with all of you.

I have no idea where this will take me, but at least I’ve opened the door for it to happen and to find out. We have to demonstrate courage in our writing and our art in the present; we must let our work be an authentic reflection of who we are, where we are, how we are reacting to it, and why all of this matters.

Thanks for listening (er– reading). I’ll be back soon, sharing words that need to be said, and by me.

Fossil Five Released to Beta Readers in One Week

It’s 4:56 a.m., and I have just dropped off my daughter at work. I pour a fresh cup of coffee, sit down in front of my laptop, and open my working revision of my latest novel, Fossil Five.

Seven days to go, I think. Seven days until I release my story to 15 readers around the world to read and review. It will be the first time I have allowed anybody to read the manuscript, and the moment of truth is suddenly inevitable.

Is it any good? Does it connect with a diverse group of readers? Or was it all a waste of time? An illusion of grandeur that I really had something important to say, when in fact I said nothing at all?

The questions flow through my mind constantly. I know it’s fear talking, this little, bothersome voice in the back of my mind doing its best to plant seeds of doubt, and that knowledge alone diminishes its grip on me. Still, I cannot silence it entirely, and the whispers of negativity continue as I work through the early morning hours, writing segues and deleting derailments as I tighten up this story that has consumed me for nearly 5 years.

By July 23, I will know. The feedback will trickle in between July 1st and the 23rd, and then I’ll analyze each review to see where the strengths and weaknesses line up. Sending it out to 15 independent readers and receiving 15 independent responses will tell me most everything I need to know. The question will no longer be, “Is this good enough?” Fifteen unique readers will confirm this question.

Or they will respond with a declarative, “No.”

Yes, the wait will be interminable.

But this is all my doing (or undoing). I write because I love to spin a good story, to share an idea, to entertain my readers and maybe make a little difference along the way for the better.

And we’ll find out on July 23 if, indeed, I have come close to doing that in Fossil Five.

For now, I keep working through my revisions. My list of needs is down to 8, and most of them are quick fixes. Then, it all comes down to the final read-through, making sure dates, settings, and characters are all consistent, and are all contributing in a fluid, entertaining way to a realistic beginning, middle, and end to the story.

I’ve waited a long time for this, and my readers have been ever-faithful. I just hope I don’t disappoint them with Fossil Five. I hope they enjoy the book as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

More Than A Cup Of Coffee

About 15 years ago, in the pre-dawn darkness, I stood outside the brand new Starbucks in Dulaney Plaza and waited patiently for them to open their doors for the first time. I enjoyed being a part of the coffee store’s grand opening, and for years I frequented it often, learning the names of the new baristas and managers, getting to know our neighbors a little better over a cup of coffee, and being a part of the ambiance that defined the origins of that cafe.

Years later, we moved to Loch Raven Village, and I didn’t spend nearly as much time at the Dulaney Plaza location. I became lazy and used the drive-thrus in the Towson University and Timonium Fairgrounds locations. I lost touch with that community feeling that I had established at Dulaney Plaza. I forgot how important that was to share words with friends over freshly brewed coffee.

IMG_4038Well, today, our neighborhood Bel-Loc Starbucks opened just down the street from where we live. The outside of the building is unlike any other Starbucks that I have seen. It is retro, and it has retained some of the flavor of the old Bel-Loc Diner that it replaced, an iconic restaurant that had defined the corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road for decades.

The decision to place an internationally franchised coffee house on the same corner as a local landmark was met with some resistance. And even today, after its doors have opened, there is still push back from some residents who are completely against a chain cafe that serves “overpriced” coffee.

But Starbucks has to be acknowledged for creating a low-key cafe that really adds an aesthetic enhancement to our little “village.”

IMG_4039Once I entered the small store, I felt as if I were in Harry Potter’s Goblet of Fire at the Quidditch World Cup, when Harry steps inside the Weasley’s tent. It’s as if the store had magically expanded inside, offering a variety of tables and bars to work, commune, or just relax.

Immediately, I felt at home in our new, local cafe.

Even before I ordered my Grande Pike Place coffee, I noticed a friend in the southwest corner of the store, seated with his work spread out as if he had been here for weeks. As we placed our order and waited for our drinks to be made, we spent a few minutes chatting with Pat, and I felt the old habits returning ofIMG_4043 making and meeting good friends at the Dulaney Plaza location many years ago.

The interior is spacious, clean, and filled with natural light from two walls of windows facing south and west. Some of the chairs, in fact, were originals from the Bel-Loc Diner.

Both inside and out, there is a mingling of the old and the new, a respect for tradition with a touch of the 21st century coffeehouse encouraging a community to come together.

Maybe their coffee is a couple quarters more than its pre-fab competitor in orange a few blocks west, but I will gladly make the sacrifice for the opportunity to forge new friendships and share words with my neighbors, especially in a coffee house that has gone to great lengths to respect the legacy of Bel-Loc Diner, where our parents spent similar mornings communing with neighbors over a cup of coffee.

I look forward to spending my mornings at our neighborhood Starbucks, writing, reading, and conversing with my new and old friends. After all, it’s what we make of it. For generations, family members and neighbors did the very same at the Diner; let’s do our part to savor the spirit of the old as it merges with the new. IMG_4042

The Writer’s Craft: Rethinking Structure When Drafting

I’m not much on labels, but in 1981, Betsy Flowers published an article in Language Arts that talked about the four different kinds of writers. Without going into too much detail, here they are:

Madman: Unleashed, uninhibited writing that’s a free-flow from brain and heart to parchment.

Architect: Planned structures of the story, plotting out the beginning, middle, and end with precision and perfection.

Carpenter: focused writing with an understanding of the bigger game plan. This writer likes to get to work and get the work done.

Judge: Critical, judgmental, stickler for details. This writer can’t sleep at night without making firm decisions about semi-colons and Oxford commas.

In most of my larger writing projects, such as Fossil Five, I’ve been the avid architect to a fault. When I get into the actual writing, though, the madman takes over and tries to push the Carpenter to the margins, giving him little to no respect in the process of writing.

Frustrating, to say the least.

This has, very unfortunately, created a 100,000-plus word document that is nowhere near finished, with scraps of solid writing that is woefully disjointed from the rest of the story line. For months, I have been trying to sew it all together like some kind of Frankenstein story, but to no avail.

That’s because it’s impossible to sew up the works of a madman and stick to the carefully constructed plan of an architect. For more times than I care to count, I have jumped eagerly into the story, determined to finish it and get it ready for publication, only to hit the brick wall of this impossible scenario and walk away screaming, pulling my hair out, and moving on to…nothing.

A few months ago, I decided to take a slightly different approach, and stick with the core manuscript and just work from chapter to chapter, adjusting the story as I went along. But even that didn’t work out, because I still felt too glued to the original architectural plan that, on paper, seems perfectly logical.

Frustration emerges, and I shut down once again.

I will never finish this book, I thought.

Fast forward to this weekend, where I started re-reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Great book. I recommend it highly. As I’m reading the story, I’m thinking the whole time that his planning must have been crazy tight to make this work. That led me to pull his memoir, On Writing, from the shelves and give it another read, too.

Instead of gaining great wisdom from one of my writing idols, I wanted to throw the how-to book across the room and burn my own manuscript-in-progress. I don’t think I ever felt more like a failure up until that moment.

I found my fellow creative Jodi Cleghorn on line and shared my thoughts with her. As always, she offered sage advice from halfway around the world in her Australian home.

First, she reminded me that the present is the perfect time, always, to write. And what we create in the present is exactly the way the story is meant to me.

Great advice. I absolutely swallow this medicine full-spoon.

Second, she offered me a plan that seems so simple, yet so brilliant. Stuff your pack and fill your water bottle and go on a 5-day writing hike with just the manuscript. Then, on days 6 and 7, break out the maps, check your course, and plan the next 5 (loosely).

Brilliant. By this time, I’ve thrown the spoon over my shoulder and am now taking full swigs from the medicine jar.

So today, I did just that. I let go of the maps, the outlines, the plans, and I listened to the whispers of what I’ve written on the pages, and what still needs to be written between them.

What I realized in re-reading both works by King and listening to my fellow creative Cleghorn is this:

Somewhere in the middle, between the madman and the architect, the carpenter has to be given the chance to modify the plans. Both the madman and the architect need to take a break, release the creativity to the hammer-hitting writer, and trust the process.

Yes, trust the process within the process.

The result? After writing, revising, and reconstructing for nearly 7 hours today, I now see new possibilities in the major structure of the story. It’s simpler, but deeper; more chronological, but suspenseful. It’s like nothing I ever imagined for this story, and yet it does not alter the major plan for the full story.

Jodi is exactly right. Today’s story is perfect, because it took everything I’ve done in the past few years to get to this point today to let go. To let the story and its structure emerge from the wild writings of the madman and the over-structured planning of the architect.

So tomorrow the boots go back on, I sling the backpack over my shoulder, and I fill my water bottle for another day of writing.

After all, there’s no time like the present.

Follow me on Instagram: @rusvanwestervelt, and Twitter: @rusvw13 for writing updates on Fossil Five and other projects.

 

Baltimore’s Nasty Press Holds Fundraiser, Provides Platform For Local Voices

It all started last summer with a cool sticker at Open Works in Baltimore.

For five consecutive Fridays, I had the good fortune of working with 25 teens in Baltimore City through the Bloomberg Arts Internship Program. We met at Open Works, a collaborative space for creatives. In the main lobby, between the classrooms and the Greenmount Coffee Lab (highly recommended), local literature rested on a small wooden table. Sipping the daily roast, I walked over to see what literary opportunities were happening in Baltimore.

A small sticker, with the words “NASTY PRESS,” stood out. I picked it up out of curiosity, stuck it in my pocket, and returned to the workshop.

That night, I did a quick search on Facebook, and there they were. I was immediately drawn to their quick surge in Baltimore providing what I call “Literary Advocacy.” In just a few short months, they had created a space for locals to share their stories that, until now, had no real platform to be heard.

How appropriate to discover them in a place called Open Works.

I reached out to the founders of Nasty Press and asked them three simple questions. Here are their responses, just as they supplied them. Any attempt on my part to paraphrase would be ridiculous and, quite frankly, rude.

They’ve got a fundraiser happening at the end of the week as well. See below for more details.

The need for these voices to be heard cannot be overstated. I support Zoey, Em, and XoChitl in the work they are doing for all of us.

The Baltimore Writer: Please tell us the origins of Nasty Press, the purpose for starting, and its current state.

Nasty Press: After the election last November, the three of us separately noticed a shift in Baltimore’s creative energy. It felt almost like a power-outage. There were expressions of rage, sadness, fear, and joy all over social media, but it seemed like the artistic communal hub that we’ve each grown from was at a stand still. We each separately concluded that artists needed a push to re-direct their energy; that maybe they needed an unbiased, open and inclusive place to showcase their emotions and artistic responses about what was happening socially and politically, instead of only ranting on the internet. There needed to be a place without labels that doesn’t exclude anyone, but which uplifts the creative voices of Baltimore, no matter who you are or how you feel. We wanted to generate constructive discussion, even if that meant pissing some people off.

We are in the throes of formatting our second issue which tackles mental health and mental illness in the Baltimore community. We were blown away by the submissions we received and we can’t wait to release this issue to the public. Our FundRager will help fund the printing of the zine along with raising donations for select local non-profits.

TBW: What kind of space are you providing Baltimore citizens, and how might publishing their works further your mission?

NP: Much like collectives before ours in Maryland, we are cultivating space and time for voices that feel and are unheard. We provide a space for visual art (illustration, painting, drawing, etc.), poetic and creative writing, film and photography, and live music and performances. Our collective exists in print format as well a literal venue for local artists. We cater events toward current socio-political issues aiming to benefit the people that are directly affected. This past September, as a result of the potential ban on trans people in the military, we hosted a mini art fair in which we showcased visual art, poetry, and music from our POC and trans/queer family in Baltimore. This event was entirely free to participate in and to attend, and the artists kept 100% of their earnings. We are planning a similar but larger event in April 2018.

TBW: Your work is important, even essential. But you are just one opportunity where we need many. How might you encourage others to do what you are doing to strengthen your larger mission?

NP: We are transparent and tangible. We are open about the way that we operate, and we are accessible to all communities. We never have a cover charge at our events and no artist is ever charged to submit work to the zine nor to participate in our events. We are showing people in our community that it isn’t difficult to get the ball rolling; all you need is passion, drive, and friendship. You don’t need a degree or money, you just gotta stand up and speak up, and people will listen. Recently, we’ve met with organizations, such as Planned Parenthood of Maryland, to discuss future collaborations in hopes to generate more active socio-political dialogue in our community. 

Their upcoming event, FundRager², will be held on Friday December 15, from 8pm to 1am. For more information, including the venue address, please visit their Instagram at @nastypress, email them at thenastypress@gmail.com, or find them on Facebook at Nasty Press.

 

 

Paralyzing Times for Creatives

Raw Thoughts of a Creative: November 2017 Edition

At the beginning of the year, I set some very realistic goals of submitting six unique pieces in competitions or for publication in new markets, an average of about one every other month. I thought this was setting the bar a little low, to be honest with you. I had just come off a phenomenal end to 2016, hitting the Amazon best-seller list with my Christmas anthology of fiction, essays, and assorted ponderings.

So here we are just days away from December 2017, and a quick check at the submission checklist leaves little room for interpretation of how this year has gone:

Submissions: 7. Rejections: 7.

As if that isn’t bad enough, my journaling has dried up to a wandering banter of nothingness, stale air of words that, when pushed together on the page, signify nothing.

Depressing, to say the least.

I’m wondering if other creatives are feeling the same way, experiencing the same funk, and questioning the quantity of quality work still in the creative well.

I’m certainly not short of assumptions why this might be. The situation in our country has polarized most of us, and nothing is shocking us anymore. Terrorists are killing Americans on our own soil by the dozens per incident, and we are tired of lifting thoughts and prayers, angry that our efforts in action are not enough, furious of the partisan politics that comes into the double-standard ways of American Life here in 2017.

There have been paralyzing challenges within my own family and friend circle, and that’s enough to strangle the creative quill from budging across the page.

It seems like everything I want to write about I can’t, or won’t, because I don’t want to deal with the politicization of it.

These are indeed paralyzing times for creatives.

So what do we do? I feel like I just need to keep writing, push through it. But the truth is that I don’t even have a passion anymore for what’s on the other side of the product. I’m not interested in marketing my work, making a point, even changing a life.

I’m just so angry and fed up with where we all are. It seems like the older I get, the more I see so transparently how exhaustive the battle is just to keep things at status quo.

I want to make a difference, but I wonder if that’s possible anymore.

I’ll end this post with an encouraging (I hope) thought:

We all get tired from time to time, worn and beaten down by the frustration, the attacks against us, the bewilderment over how we can get to where we are as a society. I think all creatives, for centuries, go through this. We end up lying on the mat, bloodied, tired, near resignation. We’ve been here so many times. Is it really worth it to get up one more time?

The answer: Yes. It is always worth it. Push your bloody knuckles into the sweat-covered mat and push yourself up. Grab hold of the rope and lift yourself to stare all that fights you squarely in the face, and carry on, whether it is with a pen, a brush, or a guitar pick. We are still alive, and we are still here. We are still commanded to do our work and capture this time as only we can.

So reject me another seven times. I don’t really care. And another seven. And maybe even another seven. Go right ahead. Because one of these times, I’m going to break through, and you are going to know what this relentless Creative is all about.

No. I will not go gently. And to all the other creatives out there struggling: Hang in there. I believe in you as I know you believe in me. Together, we cannot be silenced.