It Comes Down To…. You

I’ve been reading a lot of Annie Dillard’s writing lately, and I stumbled upon a collection of essays she wrote about the writing life. It’s really unlike anything about writing that I’ve ever read. Dillard’s argument, to put it plainly, is that nobody really gives a darn about what you write. And if they do, it’s certainly nowhere near what you, as the writer, care about the work.

That’s some pretty dark, awakening news for us romantic hopefuls that our work is going to really make a difference. But she’s right; people who sell shoes have a far more important role in the lives of people who need to get from point A to point B, especially if they are walking the route.

In one paragraph, Dillon writes:

Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself.

I could not agree more with Dillon’s sentiment. In writing Fossil Five, I have experienced that exhilaration and freedom.

But! In the very next paragraph, Dillon takes a needle the size of the Seattle landmark and obliterates whatever air we had left in our little ego:

The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever.

!

I’d like to think she is a little wrong here, but I don’t think she is. When Fossil Five releases, the people who have invested in the story will enjoy the swirl around it, and those close to them will like the peripheral swirl that touches them like the outer bands of a tired hurricane. If I am lucky, the story will resonate on some level, however briefly, and will bring some oxygen to the dying flame of old love. But I’m no fool. As much as I want the world to embrace this book and the message it sends, its blip on the radar will be brief, and I will already be immersed in that next exhilarating project in a world of freedom and wonderment.

Why? Because that is what I do. It’s really all I can do: share with the world a small snapshot of what I believe to be right, to be just, to be necessary in a world that is transforming to the antithetical, transverse image of everything I grew up to believe just a few decades ago.

And make no mistake: I know I am in the minority here, and I know some old fool was probably writing some mindless book back in the 80s, as desperately as I have written mine, to save the world from wild teens like myself.

What it really comes down to, in the end, is you. I write to feel attached to a world I am trying feverishly to hold on to and share with the younger generations. I cannot stop it. Even if, in the end, my handful of readers pat me on the back and buy me a beer, asking me about what’s next instead of what is, I know I did it because I had to.

So do you because you have to. Even if no one really notices, or cares, or celebrates. Do you. Because in the end, it really does…. come down to you.

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!


The Evening Report: 13 December 2018

The Report

Earlier today, our school held its annual Poetry Out Loud Competition, where 11 students shared their personal recitations of two previously published poems. The rules regarding which poems you can use are simple: one poem must be 25 or fewer lines; the other must be written before the 20th century. The Poetry Out Loud website does a nice job of offering poems in each category.

All 11 students did a magnificent job of bringing their poems to life; some even brought me to tears as they captured the precise emotion in each line to evoke in us — the members of their audience — a strong memory and reaction, transcending us from a simple school auditorium to a rambling brook, an old house, a forgotten pasture.

As I sat there and listened to each student, I had to remind myself that they were merely 16 or so years old. They knew little, if anything at all, of the authors and their works; they knew even less about what it means to be an old woman looking back at the missed chances in her life.

And yet, they were able to tap into some aspect of the timeless poems to breathe new life in them, words that had been penned 50, 100, even 200 or more years ago. How was this possible? These students spend their hours studying, scrolling through newsfeeds, binge-watching their favorite shows, working overtime, and somehow finding the time to get caught up on the drama of high school.

How could students who spend so much of their time receiving endless streams of data at all hours of the day bring to life Wordsworth, Shelley, Dickinson, and others?

The Point

Simply put, these authors made a decision to capture the essence of humanity — of  a life however lived — in words, where metaphors, rhymes, and allegories swirl in a timeless tapestry, giving us the chance to know firsthand, as if the moment were happening right before us, what he or she experienced.

This is why we write. This is why we “love words, agonize over sentences, and pay attention to the world,” according to Susan Sontag. It is our attempt to make the fleeting moment timeless, so that others long after us can still smell the lingering smoke from last night’s fire, the paralyzing fear of opening a bedroom door, the hovering delight of the seconds following a first kiss. It is our timeless connection to the past, present, and future through words that capture the threads of that tapestry, woven timelessly as one.

Share your ideas, your thoughts, your words with the world. Let us know today that you have lived; allow others tomorrow to breathe new life in your words, as our 11 students did so eloquently today.

The Deeper Stories

GRETCHIE’S GIFTS:

Our gift drive for the children in Sinai Hospital is coming to a close, and we are in desperate need of some last-minute shoppers who want to make a real difference in these children’s lives.

If you are interested in donating a gift to the children who will be spending the holidays (and beyond) in the hospital, check out our 3rd Annual Gift Drive for the Sinai Hospital PICU. If you would prefer to make a donation, we will be shopping next week for the children and purchasing as much of the items as possible that are still on the list. You can PayPal your donation directly to us at Rusvw13@icloud.com.

As a small token of appreciation, I am making my anthology, Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Christmas Collection, which features “Gretchie’s Gifts,” free to all who wish to download it. 
If you are interested in the story behind our gift drive and “Gretchie’s Gifts,” you can read it here.

The Future Story

FOSSIL FIVE and THE JAR COLLECTIVE:

My latest novel, Fossil Five, will be released internationally on June 21, 2019, under The Jar Collective, a collaborative publishing house for the creative works of Jodi Cleghorn, Adam Byatt, and myself. Look for more information in January 2019 about the Collective and Fossil Five‘s release. 
For now, you can follow the progress of publishing Fossil Five on these social media platforms, which will also be providing frequent updates on the upcoming book’s release:
Facebook: facebook.com/fossilfive
Twitter: @fossil_five
Instagram: instagram.com/fossilfivethebook
Web: fossilfivethebook.wordpress.com


The Evening Report with Rus VanWestervelt is a daily reflection that will be posted here at The Baltimore Writer between 8 and 11 p.m. each night. I encourage you to subscribe to my blog and be one of the first to read The Evening Report.  

The Evening Report: 12 December 2018

The Report

Last night, we visited an old friend that we had not seen for decades. Mads had completed a commission piece of artwork, and we wanted to hand-deliver it. Our friend looked wonderful, and I felt energized by reconnecting with him after so much time passing between us. To be fair, he is Amy’s friend, but social media has a way of bringing people of acquaintance together in a stronger way. I know you get this; we’ve all experienced it. 

As we were leaving and sharing a final chat about the old days, we stood outside his house as he stuffed fresh tobacco into an old pipe, lighting it frequently against the bitter temperatures and sometimes-swift breezes that would pass through us. On the table next to the storm door was an old green jar filled with tobacco,  surrounded by spilled shredded leaves, a dark-brown bed that looked more like earthen snow around an old wishing well. Its lid was askew, a cocky fedora complimenting its host as if he were leaning against the back entrance of a speakeasy, nodding to those who dared to enter.

The gathering has remained with me throughout the day, and I’m pretty sure it’s because every aspect of the visit was authentic: the aroma of a fresh-made meal (the anchovies make it, his housemate says), the heat of an old wood stove, and the scent of residual smoke from the smoldering pipe filled with last night’s leaves.

But in the end, what sticks with me most is that we got together at all, encouraged to meet over a work of art that warmed the hearts of so many.

The Point

I’m finding that, as we get older, these intentional meetings — even if they are but for a few minutes — matter. Maybe it’s because we’ve been through so much by this stage in our lives; maybe it has something to do with our generation still remembering what it means to be unplugged, and we can connect to those moments where personal relationships, even in those happenstance one-on-ones that turn out to be real life-changers, are still at the core of what it means to be neighbors, friends, members of the human race. 

And for those younger than we might be, you are still discovering the beauty of authentic conversation, moments spent away from the digital world, even in a touch, a lingering catch of each other’s eyes, a simple smile that tells us all we ever wanted to know: That we are loved, that we are appreciated, that we matter.

The Deeper Stories

GRETCHIE’S GIFTS:

Our gift drive for the children in Sinai Hospital is coming to a close, and we are in desperate need of some last-minute shoppers who want to make a real difference in these children’s lives.

If you are interested in donating a gift to the children who will be spending the holidays (and beyond) in the hospital, check out our 3rd Annual Gift Drive for the Sinai Hospital PICU. If you would prefer to make a donation, we will be shopping next week for the children and purchasing as much of the items as possible that are still on the list. You can PayPal your donation directly to us at Rusvw13@icloud.com.

As a small token of appreciation, I am making my anthology, Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Christmas Collection, which features “Gretchie’s Gifts,” free to all who wish to download it. 
If you are interested in the story behind our gift drive and “Gretchie’s Gifts,” you can read it here.

The Future Story

FOSSIL FIVE and THE JAR COLLECTIVE:

My latest novel, Fossil Five, will be released internationally on June 21, 2019, under The Jar Collective, a collaborative publishing house for the creative works of Jodi Cleghorn, Adam Byatt, and myself. Look for more information in January 2019 about the Collective and Fossil Five‘s release. 
For now, you can follow the progress of publishing Fossil Five on these social media platforms, which will also be providing frequent updates on the upcoming book’s release:
Facebook: facebook.com/fossilfive
Twitter: @fossil_five
Instagram: instagram.com/fossilfivethebook
Web: fossilfivethebook.wordpress.com


The Evening Report with Rus VanWestervelt is a daily reflection that will be posted here at The Baltimore Writer between 8 and 11 p.m. each night. I encourage you to subscribe to my blog and be one of the first to read The Evening Report.  

Gretchie’s Gifts: Free December Download

For the month of December, I am offering Faith, Hope, and Legacy: a Collection of Christmas Reflections, which features “Gretchie’s Gifts,” at no cost to you.

“Gretchie’s Gifts” is the story that kicked off our annual gift drive for the children at Sinai Hospital’s PICU. The story behind the story is compelling, and it took me over a year to finally compose it and share it with all of you. When I released it two years ago, it became an Amazon bestseller almost immediately. Since then, I have shared the story with thousands of readers, and now I want to share it with you – for free.

Please enjoy your free download of Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Collection of Christmas Reflections, and after you read “Gretchie’s Gifts,” please consider donating to our drive or purchasing a gift from the wish list.

May your holidays be filled with love and light,

Rus


The Story Behind Our Toy Drive for Sinai PICU

Here’s why we do this for the beautiful children in the Sinai Hospital PICU:

 In 1981, I owned a 1968 Ford Falcon – my first car that was desperately seeking love. I was reminded of this at every red light, when I would have to throw the car into park, rev the engine just enough as if I were soothing its little hood, and then drop it into drive and push on before it stalled out. We named her “Deuce,” and she became the vehicle, both literally and figuratively, for my first group of high school friends to explore life beyond the boundaries of home, and beyond the tired old wheels on our rusty bikes.

Given that first taste of freedom, my friends and I chose to brighten the lives of some individuals who were less fortunate, or who might be spending the holidays alone. We created a group called The Smile Merchants, and we spent 30 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas visiting 30 hospitals, pediatric cancer wards, senior centers, and nursing homes bringing smiles to those who would be spending their holidays away from home.

My short story, “Gretchie’s Gifts,” embodies that power. Gretchen was a friend from high school whom I wish I had taken the time to know better. We were like toddlers, always practicing parallel play in our circles, never really connecting but always aware of what each other was doing. We did connect a few years agoat a viewing, and she reminded me that she had never been a Smile Merchant but had wanted to be one. That night, I dubbed her an honorary merchant of smiles (nobody had a more beautiful smile than Gretchen), and we stayed in better touch after that. We chatted online whenever our paths crossed, usually very late at night. In our last chat session, Gretchen told me this most extraordinary story of the greatest gift she had ever received. “This is a story that you need to tell,” she wrote. “I will,” I said.”I promise.”

Soon thereafter, Gretchen died.

The story stayed with me for a year, and then in November 2016, I finished writing” Gretchie’s Gift.” While it is a work of fiction, its foundation is grounded in fulfilling Gretchen’s wish to tell her story.

There’s something deeper, though, that I need to share with you. For good or for bad, I have always had a sense for the fragility of life, and in my journey, I have had the honor and privilege to meet or know of people that are true champions at living. Meggie Curd and Emily Davis, along with my sister Cindy, are three such individuals.

Meggie Curd and Emily Davis were never students of mine. I never even met Emily in all her young years as she changed the lives of so many while battling cancer. Yet, I am a member of the community comprising thousands whose lives were touched deeply by such an inspiring, courageous girl, a 15-year-old artist and hero who shared the passion of living and loving so strongly that it reached us, stayed with us, forever changing our lives and making us better individuals toward each other.

Emily’s love and inspiration touched those who knew her well so deeply that, in knowing them, I was touched forever by her strength in working with others, helping them see beauty within themselves.

That love, that courage to make the most of today and to allow others to see it as well, is with me as strongly today as it was when Emily died.

Here’s why:

When I was much younger, still a teen in high school, I took a class called Education for Responsible Parenthood taught by Mrs. Falcone, and in that class I met a wonderful young girl named Meggie Curd, who, at the age of 8, was battling cancer. Now, this was 34 years ago that I met Meggie, and I did not get many chances to spend time with her or even get to know her well as I might a friend I see every day. But the frequency of visits did not matter at all. Meeting Meggie just those few times was all I needed to understand that we all have choices in our life in how we use our precious moments here on Earth. We can spend our time in sadness or grief over our past or our present, or we can embrace the new moments that are here now, and are yet to come, filled with possibility and with hope, filled with whatever we choose to make of them.

Meggie did two things: She decided to see love in those moments, and she decided to share that love with others, so strongly and powerfully that it stayed with them so that they, too, could share that magic and that love with those they met along the way.

When Meggie died, we all cried and mourned her passing. But when we hugged each other in support and in comfort, we knew that each of us contained a gift from her to carry with us for the rest of our lives. She allowed us to see the beauty in these moments that we experience, and we have the awesome responsibility of sharing that love, that beauty, with all whom we meet.

That responsibility, that love, stays with us forever.

In 2005, a year after Emily died, I was at a local restaurant with a good friend when I saw a few members of Emily’s family a few tables away. I wanted to let Emily’s mom know that her daughter, through her friends and her family, had touched me deeply with that love and seeing the beauty in each moment. A few others from the Davis party joined us at our table, and I shared my story of Meggie with her, telling her that Emily’s memory will not fade away; it will stay strongly with us just like Meggie’s memory is still with me and so many others.

One of Ms. Davis’ friends who joined us at the table had been Emily’s nurse. She looked at me and smiled. “Meggie Curd?” she asked. I looked at her, a little incredulously and nodded. “Meggie was my patient,” she said. “She touched people like that. She’s still making a difference.”

I got over the initial surprise that Emily’s nurse had also known Meggie as well. And today, I take great strength in the way our lives cross in such important ways. It reminds me that the ripple of love, of courage, of hope never ends as we carry with us the people in our lives who have passed on.

There is grea tsadness in the passing of a friend, a loved one, especially so young. But their lives, and the way they lived them, serve as reminders to us all how there is much to savor in a single moment. Each passing second contains an opportunity to make a difference, to reach out and remind each other that we do have a choice. In Meggie and Emily’s memory, and in the memories of Gretchen and so many others that have passed on so early in their lives, I choose to see that love and pass it along.

My sister Cindy, who has battled cancer since 1990, continues to be a daily inspiration to me. She chooses to live, every day, with positivity and love. In everything I write there’s a thread of my sister’s will to live, her belief in the beautiful, and her courage to face life’s greatest demons with a smile and an unwavering, indomitable strength to carry on.

Each of these amazing individuals – and countless others – inspires me to share their stories and how they have lived their lives. Each of them has taught me that all we need is a single ray of hope, whether that comes from a letter, an ornament, a greeting, a smile. We cannot control how or when it will be received; it is our job to merely offer it, and offer it as often as possible.

As I get older, I sometimes see myself as that broken-down Falcon, chugging along and throwing it in park a little more often than I might like. But thanks to all of you, and especially my faithful readers, for being that light that lets me drop it in drive each day and continue along on my own little journey. May you continue to see the light, and be the light, to all in your lives.

Your donation to Gretchie’s Gifts for the children at Sinai is so appreciated. As you begin your holiday shopping, thanks for thinking of Meggie, Emily, and Gretchie, and all of the beautiful children at Sinai.

Focus on One Thing

I made some pretty bold moves this weekend, and I’m a lot better off this Sunday night than I was just 48 hours ago. It’s because of some advice that I received last week, on something totally unrelated to what I just discovered.

A little backstory here is necessary. Since the 2016 presidential election, I, like millions of others, have been pretty gripped with the polarizing politics here in the United States. It doesn’t matter what side you are on; it’s been emotionally draining for everyone. Relationships of all kinds have been strained, and I’ve acknowledged several times here and on social media how I have been overwhelmed by it all. It has affected my writing, my art, my love for music, my everything. I’ve been passionate about fighting for what I believe is right, and as a result, so much around me has suffered.

Fast forward to last week, when I turned in my article to my Catholic Review editor. After he had a chance to read it, we had a phone conference about the story. His bottom line: Focus on one thing, and then write about that one thing.

Let me repeat that:

Focus on one thing.

In the context of writing, it is a fairly rigid rule to keep it simple and be direct. It’s good advice that I’ve heard, and shared, over the years. My editor was spot on.

So fast forward five days, and here I am, still struggling with fluctuating polls, vitriolic tweets, hypocritical rants from all sides, and paralyzing gridlock in my newsfeed. I texted a friend of mine that I had lost my love for reading, for listening to music, for going on photo shoots. It was as if I had picked up a handful of crayons and had scribbled relentlessly through my thoughts, scrambling any coherent idea or passion that was possible.

No passion. No focus.

Then, for whatever reason, my editor’s words popped into my head: Focus on one thing.

It would be easy for me to apply this advice by ridding my life of the distractions that are keeping me from my art. Delete the politics, and the focus returns. That would certainly work, at least in the short term.

But when I meditated on my editor’s advice, I realized something a little deeper.

If I focus my energy on my own gifts, and how I can make a change in this world through deliberate acts, then I will no longer be paralyzed by the things I cannot control.

I immediately thought of my mentors, including my patron saint Francis de Sales, and Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and Thich Nhat Hanh. While each of them might have been political, all of them were driven by their gifts of benevolence, peace, and charity. They looked for the common ground and not the things that divide us.

In other words, it’s not enough to delete the politics from our lives. I’m actually suggesting just the opposite. We need to, first and foremost, focus on the one thing that we are best at when it comes to making our communities healthy. Once we do that, everything else will take care of itself.

For me, these acts are done for – and through – God. And if I can offer contributions to my community that improve its overall health and wellness, then we are shielded from the things that are tearing others apart. In fact, it diminishes that contentious hold on us and begins to return us to a higher ground of respect toward all.

So as we navigate our energies through these turbulent times, focus on that one thing that you do well for others, and don’t worry so much about the things you can’t control. I believe that if more of us contribute kindness to others in our own communities, we will begin to feel a shift in our country’s larger energy for the values we believe are essential, not only for today but for our children’s future.

Our actions today are developing their focus for tomorrow; let’s make sure they focus on one thing: benevolence toward all.