I was excited when Lori (a friend in a virtual-writing-neighborhood) offered to take a look at a work-in-progress I recently posted about. I don’t have a critique group at the moment, but here was Lori offering to give the idea a fresh pair of eyes as I attempt the next major revision.
This kind of generosity, helpfulness, and encouragement in my writing communities made me reflect on my keelboat trip after Christmas. I had never met any of the men whom I was to travel with, and had only talked to the captain on the phone. I wasn’t sure what the trip was going to be like. They didn’t know me from Adam, and I didn’t know them at all. I didn’t know anything about keel-boating. This was my first re-enactment. How would they react to my mistakes? What if we hit a rough spot, and tensions rose?
Would I be a modern day Jonah, and get thrown overboard?
Within minutes, as I helped load the boat with tents and poles and water and gear, my anxieties eased. Humor and laughter helped. Being useful helped. And I gained confidence when Captain Ed and No-Nose tutored me on the fine points of survival:
- (1) keep a three-point connection to the boat at all times (e.g. two feet and a hand, or two hands and a foot);
- (2) row in sync with the man in front of you (as a general rule);
- (3) have fun–we’re here to have fun.
Okay, I could handle that. And when the captain accepted my required 2-dozen cookies, and put them in the keg, I knew I was a crewman. From that point on I began to relish not just the journey, but a new camaraderie with the crew.
As we talked and rowed, I discovered we were a motley crew. A marine, a sailor, an engineer, a teacher, a statistician, a blacksmith, a preacher, and me. Despite our differences, we committed to our task, and every man put in the necessary ‘umphh’ and ‘grunt’ to accomplish our goal. We did hit a few rough spots–lost the push poles, lost an oar, raked a tree-top in a vicious bend. But they did not throw the odd new man overboard.
The diversity was delicious–like a keg-full of all kinds of cookies. The captain dispensed those cookies to us, passing the small keg around for each mid-morning or mid-afternoon break. The cookies, as a special delight, were critical–you expend a lot of energy rowing for an hour. To wash them down, we had a shot of rum. Good rum. Rum that warmed your insides again, and renewed your rowing gumption.
What could be better with cookies than a hearty beverage distilled from molasses, and shared with a crew who share a passion, who row together toward a common destination?
I realize, now, how critical a ‘crew’ is to a pursuit. Regardless of who serves as fellow sailors, all contribute if their goals are aligned–if they row together. But the rowing is a necessary part of the journey. With the rowing comes the delights.
That’s my keelboat crew. And that’s my writing community. I’m still rowing, and going to row and write onward. I hope that whatever passions you pursue, you have what I am blessed to have: rowing, cookies, camaraderie, and rum!
On my keelboat trip after Christmas, we had a routine governed by a tiny brass hourglass that hung in the cabin, just within the sight of the rowing team. We sat for duty on our benches facing the stern of the boat, side by side, watching the sand trickle, grasping and pulling on our heavy 18-foot-long wooden oars.
The captain would flip the glass every 30 minutes. For our hour-long turns to row, we took our places on the port or starboard side of a bench, and grasped the oars resting in the pins. Starboard (right side) oars had red paint, and port oars (left side) had green. Based on our positions, we rowed together to propel the boat forward–down the unseen river behind us. That took a little getting used to.
We’d listen for instructions from the helmsman who, at the rudder, and behind the cabin, was out of sight. He stood looking from the stern, over and around the cabin, and downriver. He guided our boat around bends, away from sandbars, along the current, and often against gusts that seemed to think our little cabin was a sail. It often seemed to be a mean wind.
Our trip took advantage of the current, and our general direction was clear…we were going downriver. But, like the writing life, rivers have bends. They have sandbars. They carry along logs and debris. And are often visited by mean winds.
As I began my first keelboat rowing experience, I realized that just moving with the current isn’t sufficient. It became obvious that movement within the current–faster than the movement of the water around us–was pretty critical to the helmsman being able to direct us with the rudder!
A rudder does nothing, and has no effect, unless it is moving through the water around it. That, my friend, requires the boat to move faster than any current it is in. To navigate to port or starboard (and indeed to turn about if we lose an oar, or a push pole), we must move through even moving water to steer.
This applies so readily to my writing life. I’ve been writing seriously now for some six years. I discovered early the adventure of the on-line, elbow-to-elbow, and face-to-face writing community. My writing friendships are priceless. I am challenged, encouraged, and urged forward.
But it’s not enough to ride, if I want to steer around obstacles (like life happening). It’s not enough to just float if I want to keep from beaching on a sandbar (writing slump). My writing life requires rowing.
Rowing will carry me purposefully and deliberately through my writing life. Sometimes I can flow gently with the current. But sometimes I need to break away from mid-stream. Sometimes I need to choose which angle in the river my boat moves. The winds and gusts of life try to blow my writing life into a steep muddy bank. But in every circumstance, I need to row, row hard, to pull my rudder through whatever water I’m in, to allow my helmsman to steer my chosen course.
That means writing not only in-stream, but through-stream. Writing not just for the current (my writing peers around me, the community of writers I travel this river with), but for my own journey. I’ve recognized the voice I hear, the helmsman standing there, grasping the rudder at the stern, calling out commands. He is my own writing heart. I need to hear my helmsman, and row as ordered, for my situation: day-by-day exercises, a promising work-in-progress, or an inspired idea. My heart stands at the stern and sees over me, to the river coming into view behind my back He sees all the distracting dangers it may hold, and the course I need to avoid them. I need to write accordingly.
“Make-way all!” “Hold water, green!” “Pull hard, red!” These gruff-voiced calls still ring out loud in my river experience memory, and I now have them embedded in my writing perspective.
There is nothing I am enjoying better in life now than my river trip, and the current of my writing community. In the history I like to write about, rivers were roads…they were often the only way to get anywhere. I know I can’t leave the river. I just have to learn to navigate it well.
Often writers say among ourselves, “I need to get my B-I-C (butt-in-chair) and write!”
By this rich metaphor I’ve had the privilege to experience, I say, “I need to get my B-O-B (butt-on-bench), and ROW!”
My writing sunk in 2016.
I seemed to have dropped the ball long before the year ended. Or should I say dropped the oar. As far as writing goes.
I started out strong a year ago, joined 12×12 as a Silver member, was somewhat dutiful in Poets Garage critiques, and actually–thanks to a 2 week heavenly writing retreat at Writers Colony of Dairy Hollow–produced a new picture book in a series I’m doing. I even wrote and handmade two fiction storybooks for my granddaughter.
But sometime back in May my writing like began to take on water. I can’t seem to put my fingers now on just what went wrong then. Looking back it’s a fog. But my production slumped. Not a poem or story or even an idea came out of me. My most promising picture book project didn’t get any serious attention from me. In spite of inspiring webinars, I didn’t feel inspired. No ventures into real writing. Thus, no submitting to publishers or pursuing of agents.
I struggled to bail and row, without any real success. Only feeble attempts here and there.
At years end I had the chance for some real research … a keelboat trip down the Black River the week after Christmas. It was a dream of mine to experience some of the history I was writing about.
On day three, in a furious windswept and current-driven sweep around the outside of a high-bank river bend I hung onto the side of the cabin. I saw the bank approaching quickly from behind me and a snarl of a ragged incoming treetop ahead in our path. “Green hold, red ROW!” the helmsman hollered attempting to turn us back toward midstream. I prayed the limbs wouldn’t snatch me off the boat and hang me dangling above frigid rolling water as my peers disappeared downstream. The angry treetop raked across the cabin planks and grabbed at my back. And I wondered: Why am I not writing about this?
Survival, in life and writing, can be motivating.
Early in January I invested in 12×12 as a Gold member. I printed and signed a challenge from Pat Miller (my NF4NF leader) to set manageable goals for the month. Today I committed in writing to my Poets Garage promise in black and white (email). Tomorrow I am going to apply for the March Madness competition. I’ve scheduled a March trip for further research on my historical fiction work in progress.
And somehow I believe, along this journey, the spurring on I get from our community of writers will propel me thru my writing year–like wild 40 mph wind gusts and choppy rushing water carries a keelboat into adventures unknown and dreamed about.
So happy new year. May you retrieve all your oars and easily repair your broken rudders. And above all, hang on tight. I hope in your writing year you will find a crew like mine.
My walks around Eureka Springs have been the best of breaks, more than I could have asked for: gentle crisp early spring air, blooming trees and gardens so bright they look painted, and surprises around corners.
That combination stirs the poet in me, and I’ve written several pieces that I am very happy with, between my work sesssions on non-fiction and the prairie project, which is my first goal for this retreat.
Sunday afternoon I walked downtown and back. A creature I’d not seen before in a garden spot on Spring Street appeared and posed a question for me. He dared to stretch my mind. Here’s the result:
If They’d Had Lights
If they’d had lights,
they would not be extinct.
I thought so when I saw him,
the stegosaurus made of stone,
bedecked with strands of mini-lights,
a string of large bulbs, smartly laid,
strung where his plates would be.
If they’d had lights,
survival would have been
a matter of the brightest,
the dusty air no sweat for them,
despite the skies made dark and dim
when asteroidal impact made
their forage hard to see.
If they’d had lights,
they still would roam the earth.
I wonder, though, if whether
an allosaur’s electric grin,
a flashy T-rex, or his kin
might blinking, blind us, and between
their teeth, extinct, we’d be.
© 2016, Damon Dean
I am on cloud nine… or ten, or more! I am in the hills of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Last summer I applied to the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow for a residency fellowship called the Moondancer Fellowship. This fellowship is a paid two-week residency for writers about nature and the outdoors. Since I’ve been in a non-fiction mode for two years, and have several projects I’m working on about nature, and since my poetry is almost 80% about nature, I thought I might be a good match. I sent samples, a bio, and explained my works in progress.
I was notified last September that my application was not selected, but was asked to apply again next year, and that I had been a 2nd choice. Naturally I was a bit disappointed, but still honored to be considered (tho I’m not sure there weren’t only two applicants! )
In January I got a call from the director, Linda Caldwell. The selected recipient from Boston had taken a job as a television broadcast writer, and could not attend.
“Would you like to attend in 2016 as our 2015 Moondancer fellow?”
I remained calm. I replied professionally. I gratefully accepted. I hung up. I jumped on the couch, bounced off the ceiling, and sprung out the door. I was ecstatic.
Nothing enhances my writing more, in either productivity or purpose, than being on a retreat. I find that like many writers, my life (my good life–I’m not complaining) gets in the way. I really feel like writing is a calling to me, but the necessities of life impose and hinder and detract, and my writing (which for years I treated as a ‘hobby’) suffers.
Several years ago I took a week for a retreat at White Oak Lake State Park, in a camper. I was refreshed deeply, and in that week wrote some poetry and developed some ideas for projects that couldn’t have happened in the normal stream of my life. That poetry, those projects, still hold momentum from the full attention I gave them during that week.
I fully expect what I take home from my stay at the Colony will have the same benefit.
So I begin my fellowship stay today, for two weeks, April 1-15, when I get to write write write write write nap write write write walk write write write nap. And then eat. Dinners are provided by a wonderful chef named Jana, and they are superb. This is the off season and there are no other writers here during my stay. Usually there are several residents, who gather for dinner and talk about their art and craft. That is an experience I also want in my writing journey.
During the week I get to serve the community by working with students in a nearby school, so I’m working on poetic elements on two Thursdays. Also, I get to meet with kids at a coffeehouse after school since I’m here the first Tuesday of the month with their creative writing teacher, Kenzie Doss. She holds an event called ‘The Buzz’ which usually brings in middle school and high school students. I plan to lead them in a discussion on ‘personification’ and engage them a related writing activity.
I’m thrilled, and just had to share the news. They’ve initiated April to celebrate National Poetry Month, and we hung poems with some other poets and kids at the Basin Springs Park downtown on the Poet-tree.
Visit the Colony page, and take a look at the wonderful gift I’ve been given. It is a treasure of a retreat for me, and for my writing.
We are having a retreat, and taking a pause in the normal routines of our lives, as we camp in north Arkansas between visits with family.
(I know, it’s not real camping if you have internet, but hey…let’s call it modern camping)
I ran across this month’s post by Michele Heinrich Barnes, a poet friend who interviews poets monthly who offer to the readers a challenge.
This month’s guest was the wonderful Amy Ludwig Vanderwater, whom I admire for her work and her inspirational sharing and teaching.
Her challenge was to write about something small, which we see everyday and give little thought to. Sitting here in the camper while it rains all over Arkansas I thought of various small things, but one came to mind that I encounter every day, and somewhat miss since I am away from home, apart from my dogs. I admit, the poem might be weather-inspired, with the pat-pat-pat-pat-pat of raindrops on the camper top providing a nap-inducing music.
Here’s the result, I hope you like it.
on morning’s bedroom floor,
between long stretches, yawns.
the tugs at bedside covers
pull my sheets,
beg for me to peek
—at least one eye—
to see a wide-eyed plea.
claws celebrate surrender.
I arise and stumble to the backyard door
accompanied by staccato joy.
A caesura, fermata—a pause.
my slow wake,
my long-drawn-out capitulated yawn
breaks short at
upon the door.
I let them in,
all four percussion-gifted paws.
My day begins
© Damon Dean, 2016
I was wavering.
I was stammering, stuttering, and stuck.
No, I wasn’t struggling with a picture book idea. I was struggling with the idea of picture book ideas.
I was looking at my upcoming month–our trip up north, our up-ended schedule, the uprooting possible if we sell our house…and the downside of joining PiBoIdMo this year. (That’s Picture-Book-Idea-Month, a challenge to find an idea every day for 30 days.)
The chances of getting 30 ideas for 30 days was intimidating. But then I read the pre-PiBoIdMo posts, and a few choice guest posters pointed out how, in reality, it only takes one inspiration, one idea, one blink of a light bulb, to make a book.
The idea may come from anywhere. It may take time to germinate. But it won’t germinate until it’s planted and that takes a choice, a determination, a decision.
So I’ve signed up again…and even if my participation is minimal, it won’t be a loss.
It will be a gain.