Our Need To Endure

Yesterday afternoon, I spent a good hour at my local library researching topics that interest me greatly: spirituality, love, peace, and writing. You see, I’ve had some pretty good plans lately for new publications. Most of them center on improving your life through mindfulness and spirituality, using writing as a vehicle to living a more inspired and authentic experience.

By the end of that hour, I was caught between a three-way reaction; I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or just quit altogether.

Every single idea I had — creative ideas, no doubt — had already been done, ad nauseum, by scores of other writers, spiritualists, and self-helpers out there in our shared universe.

When I returned home, I jumped on the internet and did a more global search through Amazon and other booksellers. What I discovered was even more disturbing.

Everything is available. To everyone. Anywhere. Anytime.

I considered my three reactions once more: laugh, cry, or resign. I felt the smile push my already-round cheeks closer to my eyes, and I began to laugh.

The pressure was gone; the anxiety released. I didn’t need to save the world, after all. Scores of life-savers have already taken care of this burdensome job for you, me, and, well — all of us.

Everyone. Everywhere. Anytime.

So what’s the point, then? Why write? Why publish? Why do any of it if it’s already been done?

The books that I mentioned were ones that I never knew existed. I have been doing this for a long time, and I was surprised how many titles were not on my literary radar. They were all legitimate titles, too. None of this Kinko’s-copied, let-me-wrap-a-spiral-binding-around-it kind of publication. Strong authors. Solid publishers. Recent pub dates.

It’s like when you’ve been following a musician for a long time, and you do a quick search and find out he released a new CD 3 years ago. How could this be? In this age of hyper-turbo instant info that goes streaming by your smart-phone-tapping thumbs on a dozen different newsfeeds, you would think that such a release would not get by you.

It did, and so does so much more, which is the whole point.

In a time where instant communication has broken through all geographic, cultural, political, and spiritual barriers, we still find ourselves missing the things that matter the most to us.

This, my friends, is our need to endure: close friends, loved ones, and the members who make up our small, seemingly tight-knit communities, the people and places we frequent the most.

This is our audience, our group, our family. And in this little circle, we need to hear each other’s voices, and often. Beyond us is a cacophony of words, sounds, images, and ideas streaming by us at speeds we can no longer fathom, a flow of information that we can no longer adequately absorb. It is just too much to take in.

But in our own community, we can contribute great things to each other; we can offer and value the sanctity of ideas, regardless of what might exist (ad nauseum) outside of our little village.

We have the need to endure, not for the masses, but for the villagers next door, across the street, or down a little ways along the virtual highway who have aligned with us.

It is for all of you that I write, that I share, that I post, and play, and pray. If it goes beyond the village and is appreciated by others, I am delighted.

But to endure, I write for you first. Always.

Moving Day

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This moving day was long overdue.

For the last week or so, I have been planning the best way to simplify and streamline my writing and my social media experience. Many years ago, I decided to use BlueHost to handle my various sites. At that time, it was a good decision; the difference between free and paid blogs was extensive. That’s not the case anymore.

So… The following sites have been moved:

rusvw.net –> baltimorewriter.wordpress.com

rusvw.net/blog –> baltimorewriter.wordpress.com

linesoflove.net –> iamalineoflove.wordpress.com

The baltimorewriter.wordpress.com address will house everything I am doing as a writer. It now includes the archives from my other two sites, dating back to 2005.

The Lines of Love address will continue to provide resources for those in need. In addition, I will be expanding our outreach to other groups, including the homeless and victims of domestic violence. Lines of Love is “growing up” and will move beyond the club level at area high schools.

Finally, look for Maryland Voices (creative nonfiction journal) to make a comeback in the fall, with a slightly new look. It, too, is growing up and will be a “journal of literary advocacy” to bring greater awareness to issues of social (in)justice and offer strength to those who are in need.

To all of you: I thank you for following me and supporting me through the years. I hope that these changes will simplify my efforts to share my writing and advocacy with a larger community.

 

Neil Gaiman and Making Good Art

neilgaimanMark, a friend and fellow artist and educator, walked in to my classroom yesterday, just before noon. I was talking with Andrew, an alum from ’05 who is a fascinating individual and filmmaker.

“Make good art,” is what Mark said.

He stood there, smiled, and said it again.

“Make good art.”

Andrew and I looked at each other, and Mark asked us if we had seen that Neil Gaiman lecture that’s circulating through social media.

Andrew immediately knew what Mark was talking about, but I somehow remained ignorant.

Make good art?

I listened intently as Mark and Andrew talked about Gaiman and his writing and passion for the arts. I said that I would check it out later, and when I got home last evening and did a little research, it didn’t take long to fall in love with Gaiman’s words and support for reading, writing, and creativity.

So…If you haven’t heard of Neil Gaiman yet, I’ve taken the liberty of capturing some excerpts from a lecture he gave just a few days ago. In this talk, Gaiman explains why using our imaginations, and providing for others to use theirs, is an obligation for all citizens.

Thank you, Mark, for turning me on to Neil Gaiman. It is empowering for us to have the support and the encouragement to “make good art” every day, in all that we do.

On Reading and Writing Fiction

Fiction… builds empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

On Imagination

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on. This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

The Obligation of Writers

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are.

Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading.

And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

The Obligation of All Individuals

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~

These excerpts are from an edited version of Neil Gaiman‘s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London, and published at theguardian.com on October 15, 2013.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming?CMP=twt_gu

The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.

 

 

I’m An Artist, So Pay Me, Maybe?

Adam Byatt recently posted a piece about artists getting paid (or not), in response to a piece written by an artist named Amanda, who was responding to a letter that was sent to her by an artist named Amy.

Adam, Amanda, Amy… All artists. I’m thinking of changing my name to Arus (and it shall be pronounced A-roos, with a roll on the “r” if you can manage it) — at least for the purposes of writing this post.

I’ve been chatting off and on for several years about this topic with another artist, Cara. We both believe that giving abundantly provides abundant returns.

The question is: Where should artists stand when it comes to being paid for their work?

Before I even begin to answer that question, let me throw out a few particularly random, but relevant, thoughts.

The boom of the internet and the technology explosion have collectively oversaturated the market with good works at little to no cost. Nearly everybody with a smartphone can take a better-than-decent photo. Pretty it up on Instagram, Hipstamatic, or even iPhoto, and you can put together a great virtual album of photos worthy of their share of oohs and aahs, all of which will happen in a matter of seconds before friends and followers flip through their newsfeeds and move on to the next batch of artistic creations.

Never before have we been able to read so much, so immediately, and so efficiently. There’s a lot of good writing out there in the blogosphere, and virtually all of it is for free.

We are getting our “fix” of great art stuff — both making it and receiving it — and we don’t have to pay a dime for it. In fact, even when we want to purchase local artists’ works, we often have too many choices, and we simply cannot buy everybody’s books and photos that we would like to.

So where does that leave the artists who are trying to make a living through their creations?

We are being forced to rethink how we market our work (if at all), and to whom.

We cannot stop creating our photos, our sketches, our stories. It is a part of who we are; it is what we do, what we know, and what defines us.

We can choose other professions that sustain an income while we “dabble” with our art, but that’s not who we are. Our work suffers, and our contributions are never as significant as they should be. And, when we do invest a great deal of energy into a specific project, the returns are negligible, at best.

I have likened it in the past to CPR compressions. It’s getting harder and harder to create a product that isn’t on constant marketing life support. The minute we stop pumping energy into that product, it expires within a few days.

Very sad.

On Adam’s post, one commenter wrote that she has found a way around the “friends network” problem; she bypasses her local audience completely and sells her work in markets that are looking to buy high quality art.

This makes sense, and I think it’s worth a try to make that work if you are serious about making a living from your work. But it also saddens me to think that we need to go outside of our general community to have our work taken seriously. (For the record, I am ever grateful for the tight-knit group of supporters who has always purchased my stories and my photos.)

For me, I’m returning to some traditional means of publishing — sharing a little less online and through self-publishing, and submitting more work to reputable pubs and journals for consideration. It doesn’t mean that I won’t be blogging or posting through my social networks, but I will work harder on finding traditional markets to “accept” my work and build my credentials and clips.

Like Adam says, artists need to find their own path and walk it genuinely. For some, that’s the full-blown, make-a-living path. For others, it means giving, sharing, and submitting a little more generously while making some money in other ways.

I’m refining my own path, and it’s working for me. But I am, and always will be, an artist.

Why I Wrote — And Published — Cold Rock

I am a writer, photographer, educator, and speaker. But more than any of those things individually or together, I am a strong advocate for all of us to accept the challenges we face daily and do our best to live an inspiring and fulfilling life.

I wrote and published Cold Rock because I believe in sharing this desire to live fully with as many people as I can. Everything about my writing, teaching, photography, and workshopping is meant to inspire others to recognize the beauty in living in the present; it is imperative that we embrace our individuality and be confident with who we are.

This is my latest book, first published in December 2011 as a print book. It quickly became an inspired reading shared across the country. I am really excited to release it as an eBook and share it with an even larger audience. It’s available on Amazon here, and I priced it as low as I possibly could (it’s just $2.99) to give everybody an opportunity to read it.

Many of the subjects in Cold Rock deal with really tough issues — bullying, sex abuse, depression and even suicide. I wrote about these topics because they are out there — not exclusively in the churches, or in our neighborhoods, or in our schools. They are in all of these places, and so many more. We need to have the courage to stand up to these atrocities, help those in need, and find the strength within ourselves to believe in Love, to believe in each other, to believe in living an inspired and fulfilling life.

It wasn’t easy to write about these topics, and I don’t mean to single out any single group (such as religious leaders) or mental illness (such as depression); rather, these are representatives of the larger issues we face every day. They are in our past, and they often reveal themselves in our present; we need to do our best to combat them with strength, self-confidence, and love.

Some of the incidents in Cold Rock did happen to me, on various levels. It was especially hard to write about them, but the driving force in me to do so was to open the door for others to do the same: find the courage, confront the obstacles and the atrocities, and live a fulfilling and loving life.

Many of the things I do today support this mission. I run a nonprofit group called LinesofLove.org, which is an outreach program for teens and young adults struggling with anxiety and depression.

Smash365.com is one of my latest projects. It is a culmination of decades of research and writing in spirituality and living life fully. My creative partner, Cara Moulds, and I write daily creativity prompts to help others just like you and me SMASH our fears and live inspired lives. Our prompts are challenging, but they are also free. And they always will be. We hope they provide individuals the chance to experience their journey through life with passion and happiness.

Finally, there’s MarylandVoices.com, an ever-transforming journal of literary advocacy focused on publishing cutting-edge creative nonfiction that tackles taboo issues like the ones I confront in Cold Rock. I encourage you strongly to get involved at your local level and advocate for fairness, equality, and social justice.

I received my MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College, and I am available for speaking engagements and workshops in writing (specializing in journaling and writing memoir), photography, publishing, and inspired living. Follow me daily at rusvw.net/blog, and feel free to contact me directly at rusvw13@gmail.com.

I believe in you. I believe in the power of Love. I believe we all have a chance to make the choices that will change this world. Contact me. Let’s get started on making a difference within ourselves first, and then with the rest of our communities in general.

Rus

Are You Ready to Publish That Best Practice?

This Summer, I will be teaching another graduate writing course at Towson University.

The beauty of this course? It’s online, and it’s all about you.

The Maryland Writing Project (MWP), which has been recognized as an exemplary site by the National Writing Project in Berkeley, CA, enters its 31st year providing writing instruction and its strategic implementation to teachers and schools across the state. Just last week, the National Writing Project was awarded $24.6 million in grants to support teacher and principal development.

This year, in lieu of its Invitational Summer Institute, MWP will be running three graduate writing courses.

Each of these three courses addresses many of the Common Core State Standards on writing, assessment, and publication (you can download the complete Standards document Here: CCSSI_ELA_Standards).

My course focuses specifically on publishing your best teaching practices, creating a strong argument for or against a relevant topic in education, or conducting quantitative and qualitative data research from the classroom. By the conclusion of our session, you will have submitted your work for publication in a regional or national journal!

The three courses are as follows:

SCED 670. Getting Published: Polishing Your Best Practices and Putting Them in Print (I will be teaching this course online in the first session, which runs from May 29 to June 29).

SCED 603. Writing Across the Curriculum: Teaching Writing Using Web 2.0 Tools (taught in the first session as a hybrid course by Tina Dushel and Katie Profili, Wednesdays 4–6 p.m., and one additional day online).

EDUC 667. Writing As Assessment: Sharpening Students’ Critical Thinking Skills Across the Grade Levels (taught in the third session and on campus by Joan Woytowitz, MWTh 11 a.m.–1:40 p.m., July 2nd to August 3).

For more information about these courses, the academic calendar, and the instructions for registering, go Here: Flyer_Graduate_Sum_2012_sched_reg_info-1.

For more information about the Registration and Billing Schedule, click HERE.

For more information about Graduate Admissions for Non-Degree Enrollment, click HERE.

If you have ANY questions at all about my course, please feel free to email me directly at rusvw13@gmail.com.

Is Brevity Replacing A Writer’s Sensibility?

Writers are being forced to think too much these days (I think), and they are facing a danger that is both very real and damaging to the relationship between reader and writer.

Because of the changes in how we spend our time reading stories, not to mention how we read them in the first place, writers are working desperately to keep a captive audience — not an easy thing to do with so much writing now available so freely and immediately.

Do I focus on search-engine optimization (SEO)? What about word count? What does my target audience (who is that anyway anymore?) really want?  What is going to hold my reader more than 90 seconds, when their finger is perched precariously on the tip of the mouse, ready to click me into oblivion as the search continues for something more entertaining?

With the exception of SEO and the ease of maneuvering from one piece of writing to the next, all with a click of the mouse, the questions I pose for writers above are no different than what writers have been asking themselves for decades. We still want to write for an audience that understands what we are saying, even if they don’t necessarily agree with it.

But how to do that?

It is precisely due to the ease of leaving your work that makes writers more desperate to hold on to your attention. Before blogs and search engines and RSS feeds, we just had to tease them enough to buy the darn thing. Once they got it in their hands, they gave us a fair chance — maybe a few chapters or up to 100 pages — before they made a decision to keep on reading or line the birdcage with its ripped-out pages.

In that desperation, I think we are sacrificing sensibility, the very essence of a writer’s passion for writing the piece in the first place. We are so concerned about getting to the point very quickly that we do not allow our purpose, our intent, to build in the story.

This is why, I think, we are seeing “flash fiction” and similar nonfiction subgenres continuing to emerge as a legitimate form of writing. How quickly can you get to your point and share that sensibility before you reach your last-allowed 750th word? At times, I feel like I’m reading stories that are more suited to fit in the microwave-ready Lean Cuisine dish.

Sure, these stories/meals are good on-the-go, but is it really possible to establish and sustain long-lasting and filling themes with such a diet?

As I wrap up the final edits on my book that goes to the printer next week for a December 9th release, I know that one of the best things going for me is that the story is short — a mere 51,000 words that barely pushes the 200-page mark.

But I am also making sure that, to the best of my ability, I didn’t compromise sensibility in keeping it short.

I guess it comes down to this. Go ahead and microwave my story, but please set aside the afternoon to enjoy the sliced turkey and corn niblets. I hope that what I have to share takes a little time to digest. 🙂

Contradiction: The First Days of November

photo: rus vanwestervelt, october 29, 2011, glyndon, md

The snow last weekend that just barely touched us in Baltimore but devastated the New England region was the best and most timely contradiction for me in all ways. Yesterday, over at Maryland Voices, our True Tuesdays prompt focused on Contradiction and the opportunities we are suddenly presented when such situations arise. What do you do when something goes against your routine, defies your everyday expectation?

The contrast existing between the old and brilliant autumnal leaves against the virgin white snow allowed me to get off this annual surge of creativity, just long enough to really appreciate what this time of year means to me.

Historically, this has been my most creative period, whether that be with a camera or a pen in hand. The touch of golden melancholy is just strong enough within me to stir the muse in wondrous ways, and I almost always emerge in December with a batch of pre-polished creativity that was as intense as it was joyful to make.

Seeing the reds and yellows sprinkled with white only strengthened that surge in me to write and create. But it was because I stopped and took the time to absorb it, let it play around inside a bit, work its most unusual magic in this most magical season.

We need to do more of this, this slowing down and taking the time to absorb the existing beauty around us. Our trains move too fast through this life, a shortened ride for many it seems these days, and I can only beg you enough to realize the joys and pleasures that await simply by slowing down, even just a little.

These contradictions in our lives allow us the chance to do exactly this. They are the hiccups that make us catch our breath, focus for a moment on something we did not expect, ponder a little color and splash of virgin white to spin the wheels in the other direction and make us see that we don’t need to wait until the end of the journey to realize glory and beauty.

It’s here right now, all around us, all the time.