What Works

I took this picture while out on a run this morning (I love running with my iphone), and had most of this thought/poem written by the time I puffed my way home ....

What Works

I've spent my life learning by listening and thinking and practicing,
not often enough by simply doing.

Countless hours reading about cooking and writing and training my dogs,
time that's gone, like stones thrown in a deep lake.

Running away from a heart-attack this morning, I watched the world wheel around me,
precise and perfect, a dancing millions of parts with no missed steps.

The fawn crossing in front of me has learned not by sitting in a series of classrooms,
but through a thousand generations of fawns that didn't live to reproduce,
too slow in front of a truck, abandoned fear of the bear or coyote or rifle-bearing hunter.

Roadside blueberries didn't plant themselves along County Route 50 for us to pick,
small beasts ate tiny berries containing minuscule seeds which emerged later,
ready to sprout, but most don't germinate ... only the right ones do.

Each leaf and needle holds just the correct amount of water from this morning's drizzle,
no plans, just surface-tension and gravity,
and the drop's angle of repose relative to the leaf or needle.
{I know this term doesn't fit exactly, but it works for my brain ... so deal with it}

Nature has no plans, holds no 'truths', knows no secrets,
she improves infinitesimally, day by day,
through messy and disastrous and bloody failures,
endless and varied.

I need more of this in my life,
not disasters and bloody messes
but more doing and less thinking ....

To leap and dare to fall,
in the kitchen,
in my writing,
with my dogs (and family and friends and strangers).

I think I need to fail more,
and grow comfortable with the failures as a part, and process, of learning,
or bettering,
or just exploring failure.

Nature's best never came from plan or classroom or book,
and nor will mine.


My New Writing Retreat

A writing retreat can mean something different to every writer. To me it means a space to get away from work and family and some of the distracting elements in my life for some period of time (be it hours or days).

Sometimes it means a distant and isolated house in the middle of nowhere ... like this one in Iceland (no, I haven't been there, but I'd like to visit). I've found that while that's a nice idea, I don't need that level of isolation and quiet and peace. Last winter, I was able to do some good writing in the middle of a crowded ski-lodge with the help of good headphones and a favorite playlist of music to help me focus on writing and ignore the milling masses.

I'm a big fan of doing my writing in the presence of other writing, so a space like the one pictured above would feel wonderful, I imagine ... the words and thoughts and time and care washing over me while I scribble. That being said, I normally write with my Kindle (loaded with a few hundred of my favorite books) handy, along with a wifi connection for research and reference, and seem to do just fine.

When writing, I like to have a connection with the natural world ... the feel of a breeze, smell of balsam sap, sound of rain, the movement of leaves/needles/beasts at the edge of my peripheral vision. It helps me maintain the feeling of nature as a character in my writing. A nice view is often enough, although the sensation of real air playing across my fingers and face is also nice.

The reason I'm writing about this this morning is that I'm on a short-term writing retreat. I headed out to Origin Coffee Co. in nearby Saranac Lake this morning a bit before 6:30am, and have been working on my next novel for a few wonderful hours at a small table way in the back.

It was very quiet (not shocking for an early Sunday morning) when I first arrived, but even as the morning wore on, I've been pleasantly surprised at the peaceful vibe it has maintained. I've been listening to some Mozart and the soundtrack to "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", but been able to keep it low enough that I can still hear the rain pattering on the roof outside the open window off to my right.

They have wifi, and I've been able to look up some items and maps and such (as well as write/post this blog), and add a few needed articles and books to my Kindle. The view is lovely and with an open window, I'm constantly reminded of the nearness of wilderness by the feel of cold, clean air, and the sound of rain and wind.

I've been paying rent by way of buying something to eat or drink every hour, which also gives me a reason to stand and stretch and walk about a bit; this is working for me better than I had any right to hope/expect.

I look forward to doing this on a regular basis, and hope that everyone reading this can find a similarly easy and friendly and pleasant writing retreat for themselves ... you're welcome to use this one, but don't expect me to chat much (although I promise to wave as I wander by to pay my rent.




A Lighter Shade of Green ....

Anthropologist Franz Boas famously said of Inuit languages that there were dozens of words for snow ... walking Puck and Miles in the woods near our house at this time of year I enjoy at least that many 'flavors' of green.

Strong dark greens, in moss and leaf and needle,
speak of life ... islands of vitality connected by networks of twigs and roots.

Waxy, reflective greens, to marshal or shed water,
wink and blink at us as we wander the woods, sharing light I'd have sworn wasn't there.

The gentle greens though, delicate and light and tentative newcomers in my woods,
those are the ones I love best... balsam above the rest.

Frost said that her first green is gold,
new dreams birthed from last year's tips,
reaching out for sun and space,
to tickle us on newly narrowed paths.

Softly yielding to my touch,
unlike last year's needles,
pale and fragile, bursting with life.

The future of each tree, of the world, is in this new growth,
part promise, part hope, part risk taken without choice.

We should all reach out with new growth each spring,
stretching and hoping and putting forth new dreams.

Last year's growth is fine, it feeds us,
but our best magic is in what's new, what's next, what's now.

I pinch off a tender twig of newly minted needles and pop it in my mouth,
soft and nascent needles, a woodland treat served al dente, not quite crunching between my teeth,
a bitter flash, sharp and resinous,
bringing first grimace, then grin.

The dogs are too polite to say anything at any foolishness of mine in the woods,
but the looks they exchange speak volumes ...
we finish our walk,
them thinking of breakfast,
me pondering new growth I could add this year.

JS - 6/10/2015


Blueberry Blush

I forget about blueberries for ten months each year ....

Don't get me wrong, I love them all year ... 
preserves, pancakes, and brandy.
{blueberry bagels are somehow always a disappointment}

I don't notice, or think about, blueberries most of the year,
but at this time of year, they rocket to the front of my brain.

I may notice some new leaves in April and May,
and start to see some flowers as May rolls into June ...
but the thing that really grabs my eye is when the bushes begin to blush.

The leaves shift from all green to having some pink at the tips,
I think it's a mix of pride and anticiation of their yearly fantastic trick,
berries tiny and juicy and bursting and bright with flavor.

I saw them blushing this weekend, and now can't think of anything but blueberries.


WRITE EVERY DAY! {or don't ... whatever works}

One of the most commonly given, and parroted, pieces of advice given to/for/by writers is to:

It's not bad, as advice goes ... certainly better than "Never, Ever, Write!", but I think there's a hidden trap, a lie, an elitism in this ubiquitous admonishment.

There's a suggestion or hint or implication in that particular nugget of wisdom that real writers write everyday ... which implies that if you don't write every, single, day, that you're not a real writer.

If everybody who gave this advice actually wrote every day, we'd be up to our ears in novels and short stories and poems and such. A single page a day could yield a lengthy novel each year (something few novelists manage); on productive days, I have often written 20-30 pages.

I'm not telling you not to write every day if you get the urge and have the time ... I'd love to write every day!

I'm a big believer that the most important part of writing is getting something, anything, down on paper ... once you've got something written you can fix and polish and chop and add and share with beta-readers and repeat the whole process as many times as is needed to tell the story as it should be told.

I also believe that your writing gets better and easier and faster the more that you do it. It's like any other form of exercise that you get in shape for by doing on a regular basis.

My point in writing this blog on this day was not to tell you, or anyone, not to write everyday, but instead to not worry if you can't ... that most writers really don't write every day (maybe they think they should, or think they should think they should, I don't know).

I write when I have a block of time that works for me, my family, my dayjob, and my mindset. Sometimes that means I write every day for a week, sometimes I don't write for a month ... I still consider myself a writer.

I do most of my longer writing (my novels) during the summer months, but generally sit down at my computer a few times a month with the intention of getting some writing done.

Under this scandalously lax writing schedule, I've managed to write and edit and publish three novels, a collection of novellas, and a handful of short stories and poems since 2012.

The secret isn't in writing every day, but in writing when it works best for you ... writers write.




Family, the ocean, seashells, and time

We're in Maine for the weekend, visiting with family ... it's lovely and chilly, sometimes uncomfortably so.

Growth rings on a clamshell make me think ...
the accretion of habit and love and grudge and duty and customs,
we don't, maybe can't, see them after a while;
they're just the shell that protects, or at least encircles, family.

I went for a run this morning, at six ...
my son followed me, literally, nearly two hours later.

We're both running these days, each for his own reasons ...
me not to die before I'm done (with what? with everything), him to 'get in shape' (whatever that means).

Mine is the footprint on the right, I may be digging in more, pushing harder ...
I only hope the paths I leave him in this world are straight and true and lead to worthwhile places.

Water was trapped in the heights when the tide swept out overnight.
In the cold light of morning it can be seen pulsing/bleeding out of the beach I'm running across.

Time is the water,
the grains of sand are you and me and jobs and TV and dinner and new shoes ....

We're moved and shaped and arranged by forces we can't really control or understand ...
the patterns are only visible from a distance, a perspective, we cannot obtain.

Some sand is washed out to sea, some makes the beach, some is dry, some wet ....
I generally/genuinely don't see my place in the patterns.
I resent being a grain of sand in a bigger picture.
I'm arrogant enough to think I may be the irritant making a pearl in an oyster ...
arrogant enough, even, to think that might be a good thing.

I imagine that I can feel understanding lurking out there ... just over the horizon.



I often feel as though I'm running ... running away from things, running just to keep up with everyone else, and sometimes (when I'm at my best) running towards something.

Normally, for me, running is a metaphor. 

I don't generally like running for exercise, and people my size cause upset when seen running ... people generally assume something is chasing me, and they start running too. 

I have been known to cause stampedes.

Starting this weekend though, I began to actually run, to improve my health and wind and strength and speed ... not a difficult task given my starting point.

I'm using an iPhone app that mixes an interactive storyline with my music to hold my interest and keep me going ... this helps because I find running to be both boring and painful otherwise.

It's been fun so far, and I'm hoping that I can push through the initial sofa-slug and ouchy-thighs stage with the help of zombies that want to eat my tasty, tasty brains.

I'm a big fan of zombies in films and stories, and my running program and I are relying on that love and fear and fascination to keep me running ... that and beat-tastic music that keeps me moving during my own personal chase scenes.

It's not entirely unlike this ... (note: you only need to watch the first 15 seconds or so to get the idea)


The reason for my inclusion of this post in my blog is that I'm running ... running towards a slightly different me:

  • a me that can climb stairs without huffing and puffing as though I'm trying to blow someone's house down
  • a me that lives long enough to write down all the stories banging around in my head
  • a me who can be more comfortable sitting down to write for hours at a time without getting a sore back
  • and, of course, a me that can easily outrun a hungry horde of medula-munching zombies in the inevitable zombocalypse

It's been slow going in the first few days, but I want to keep going for the above reasons ... as well as one other, unexpected benefit.

When I get back from a run, collapsing into my comfy reading chair with a cold drink, I find my exercise-oxygenated brain full of new ideas for stories and/or approaches to the stories I'm already working on. 

The combination of exertion and sweating and breathing hard and running to exhaustion seems to create a new/different type of creative sweet spot, at least for me.

I'm going to keep running, for a variety of reasons, and towards a variety of things.




Kickstarter-ing My Next Novel

I'm using Kickstarter to help crowdfund my next novel, and am about halfway to my fundraising goal with two weeks left; I thought this would be a good time/chance to talk a bit about Kickstarter, and my Kickstarter campaign in particular.

Kickstarter is being used by lots of independent authors to help fund their writing in much the same way that advances used from publishing houses used to work; the big difference is that readers and patrons of the arts get to choose which writers and projects to fund, and to fund them directly, instead of through the proxy of a huge multinational.

My Kickstarter Campaign
I'm a teacher during the school year, and write my novels during the summer. I'm asking for people to pledge money to help me secure the same cabin that I used for my summer writing session last year because I was incredibly productive and inspired during the week that I spent there last summer; I would love to repeat that experience again this summer while writing my next novel.

What I get out of this:
If my project on Kickstarter is funded, I'll get enough money to pay for the writing retreat, and have a fantastic week in a peaceful and secluded cabin writing my next novel.

What you get out of this:
If you fund my project on Kickstarter, you get the satisfaction of supporting a writer doing his thing, BUT you also get a variety of more tangible 'Thank You Gifts' from me, commensurate with the level at which you choose to participate. Some of the lower levels simply involve my looping you in on my progress while at the writing retreat, others include signed copies of the new book (or all of my books), and it goes up from there.

The big point is that you're not giving me money and getting nothing but the satisfaction of supporting an author while he 'auths', you're giving me money and getting some great thank you gifts and getting the satisfaction of supporting an author while he 'auths'.

I'm intrigued ... how can I find out more about this fascinating concept?
I'm glad you asked. To find out more about the Kickstarter in general, and/or my project in particular, you should click on one of the numerous links in this blog entry and explore the information provided on the Kickstarter website.

My project page is loaded with useful information about the writing retreat, great pictures of the cabin, descriptions of the various levels of thank you gifts, and even an informative (and thankfully quite short) video explaining everything about everything in just under 3 minutes.




They Love ....

We found them (or they found us)
in times of need;
we needed fur-children and they needed homes.

It doesn't work perfectly, but it works;
all of our lives are better with all of us in them.

We love them and they love us, certainly ... with certainty;
the miraculous thing is the other love, the unexpected love.

Puck and Miles love each other ... incredibly, impressively, inspiringly

They are broken dogs, but perhaps, broken in the same ways;
their phobias and other issues dovetail rather than grate.

The world chewed them up and spit them out,
and ultimately found them wanting, but unwanted.

At the end of the line, maybe beyond the end,
they found us, and more importantly, each other,

Their lot in life is to live with, and love, each other ... and that's a lot.


Change ....

I can hear it jingling deep in a pocket of possibilities ...
opportunities out there, somewhere, just over the horizon,
and the key to them in my hand, or pocket.

The world seems brighter and sharper and more mine with change in my pocket ...
Captain, not passenger, not crew, on my life's journey once again.

I can't quite see around the next twist in the trail, over top of the hill I'm climbing ...
you have to trust your feet will find their way, the way they're supposed to,
and in the jingling promise that change makes.

The only rule is that you get to choose the slot, the leap, the path ...
and have to live with the results.