Your Private Island

For years I’ve had this desire to somehow borrow, lease, or own a small cabin on one of the islands in Penobscot Bay, off of the coast of Maine where I grew up. I was and am a mainlander, but the time I’ve spent on various islands in the bay has only ever increased my longing to stay there, surrounded by water and possibly a few other houses, with a boat that will allow me to go see people on the mainland when and if I want to. The purpose, of course, would be to live alone with my writing and a room full of books. It would be something like this little place on Vinalhaven:

Image from CabinPorn: http://cabinporn.com/image/52986262571

Image from Cabin Porn

I’m aware of the dangerous level of romanticism in a desire like this. It’s nice to think about living in solitude and taking a ferry to town for necessities, but I know it’s another thing to live it. The roof might leak and the windows might need fixing. It might be excessively cold even in the summer, or I might have to board up and sit through a Nor’Easter all alone. I might even actually miss other people. My sisters, who are also writers, know about this fantasy of mine, and while one stamps her foot and claims it was her idea first, the other rolls her eyes and says I’m already enough of a hermit without making it that official. My boyfriend, A, was down with staying in my dream cabin together until he realized how far off the grid I want to be.

None of them will likely ever have to worry about me living by myself on an island, real estate in Maine (even one-room shack real estate, and especially one-room-shack waterfront island real estate) being as expensive as it is. Besides, the true desire has less to do with the actual island and a lot more to do with finding the solitude to write for a longer period of time.

At the beginning of June, I left Fort Collins in search of my private island. My stress over graduating, moving, and finding a job had culminated to a point where I just had to get away. I booked a short yoga retreat outside of Boulder, told A that I would be spending the rest of the week in New Mexico, and drove off. Every day I meditated, did some yoga, read and wrote, and spent time outside. To my surprise, seven days of alone time was more than I needed. I came back home a little calmer, with a notebook full of writing ideas and a new resolve to continue my daily writing and meditation practice.

The truth is that the private island is not actually a yoga retreat in the mountains or a campsite near Taos, although sometimes we need to go somewhere else to rediscover it. The private island is the time you make to consciously enjoy solitude, turning your phone off and stopping the internet to write, taking a walk or a hike, gardening. Et cetera. Although writer’s residencies seem like a wonderful way to get some work done among other inspiring artists, I’ve found that if you have a tent and some peanut-butter sandwiches, or even just a door you can close, you can make your own writing retreat. There have been other times when I told A, “I need three days,” and bless him, he left me alone to work all weekend until I was ready to turn on my phone and venture out of my apartment.

Tomorrow is the summer solstice, when the sun moves into the sign of Cancer, and in the Northern hemisphere we have the longest period of daylight in the year. It’s no surprise that people choose to take most of their vacation time during our hottest season, wanting to get away from the heat and intensity to cool down. While the sun and a host of other planets light the sign of home, privacy, contemplation, nurturing, and sensitivity, it’s the perfect time to retreat to your private island. Drag your rowboat on to the beach, set yourself up with your novels and your notebook, and write like you have nothing else to do.

MFA Thesis Reading: Mickey Kenny, Derek Askey, and Joanna Doxey

This post is reblogged from the Center for Literary Publishing, where I originally posted it on Thursday.

On March 29, 2013, the Hatton Gallery at the CSU Visual Arts Center was packed with the friends, teachers, students, and proud family members of third-year MFA students Mickey Kenny, Derek Askey, and Joanna Doxey. Everyone came to hear the three writers’ final readings, a celebration of completing the MFA program and graduating with their master’s degrees. This event was especially important to the Center for Literary Publishing because Joanna and Derek serve as associate editors of Colorado Review.

Mickey Kenny set the tone, reading from his thesis “Harm Harness Harmony,” a book of poems in four parts. It became clear from the beginning that each writer was interested in thematic questions of place, as Mickey explained his subtitles referred to the four elements: water, air, earth, and fire. He read from the section “Watertecture Hexagonoir” (water via eye). This melding of nature and body creates a kind of internal worldscape, so that self and place overlap and bleed into one another. “I fear the rivers within us,” he read, then, “…a part of me has drifted, is drifting, and I don’t know where to ashore myself.” In “Watertecture,” Mickey took us on a journey through the bodyscape and Alaskan landscape, to the Iditarod, of which he read:

My feet are sore and there are roots within my mouth. Iditarod. The word tastes exile. Hidedhod. I taste exile. Distant, Distant place, river. I fear the Hidedhod within me. I stow emotion within movement. I can no longer offer structure. I crave space untethered.

Indeed, space untethered is what Mickey gave us in the reading from his manuscript; a spacious, wandering poetry. (Bonus: for further wisdom and rhymes, check out Mickey’s band, Wasteland Hop.)

Derek Askey, who has interned at the Center for Literary Publishing since 2011, represented MFA fictioneers with a reading from his novel in progress, tentatively titled Under the Allegheny. The story, set in Derek’s hometown of Pittsburgh, follows the beer brewing Weiss family as they navigate the social and economic pressures of late 19th-century America. The selection he read began with details of place, with sounds of the city, and, as he noted beforehand, corresponding bodily functions: “A hiccup, a burp. The clatter of West Penn Railway tracks not one block south. The peal of firecrackers lit in the distance. These sounds burned across the July humidity.”

On Independence Day, fourteen-year-old Gregor Weiss can be found drinking in his father’s taproom. Between the threat of violence from older, stronger men and the threat of disruption from some temperance women who crash the bar, Gregor has a flash of adolescent insight about the future he might have. He is aware “that a vast, broken world awaited him … it would overtake him, this world, Gregor was certain. It would break him to its will. And it would be his father who did the breaking.” That he has not yet glimpsed this vast world ahead of him is clear, as he is trapped inside his undeveloped body, inside his father’s brewery, and inside the boundaries of his industrial city. The end of the chapter takes us to the edge of the Allegheny River, which, in a moment of fear, Gregor hopes might sweep him away from his place, for, as he and Derek noted, “Men shaped their own destinies, or they were not men.” The audience received, from Derek’s reading, the promise of a spacious novel in which Gregor and his family might shape something like a destiny. (Bonus: visit Derek’s blog “You’ve Never Seen Work“, for more insightful writing.)

Finally, the audience was treated to the poetry of Joanna Doxey, who has interned for the Center since 2010. The work she read from her thesis, was, again, a poetry concerned with place, but this time with an emphasis on absence and memory. She began from the prologue, which started “this land is a memory of wind without wind”, and continued:

There is a memory of breath,

or a relearning of pronouns.

I think again of lungs or glaciers without words.

Lungs and glaciers, breath and words, intertwined and lead into her book of absence, which asks urgently about disappearance, about abandonment. She read:

Consider a meadow, with an impossibly placed boulder resting in its center, abandoned thousands of years earlier by snow and ice  snow and the movement of melt—

Glaciers in their absence shape a land that holds their memory.

Some readers shy away from too much silence in performance, but the space Joanna gave us within and between her poems allowed her audience to travel the distance between time and place, body and breath. We ended the reading with a sense of release, and with a better understanding of endings, in their necessary wordlessness.

After three years of diligent work in the MFA program, including time volunteered to internships, jobs, and community literacy projects, our readers gave us an offering of keen and beautiful words to remember them by. It was a lovely final reading to celebrate their thesis year, but certainly not the last we’ll hear from these writers.

15 Minutes

I took a little break from social media, but over the break, I was still having trouble writing. So I ordered this book, and it came just in time.

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 I liked that Rosanne Bane focused on writer’s resistance, because while we might use the term “writer’s block” loosely, rarely do people suffer from true writer’s block, during which they spend hours trying to write but are unable to produce anything. Most of us, if we’re being honest, aren’t actually getting to the trying part, where we set aside all distractions and focus on writing, because we’re struggling with resistance to the idea of writing. Using a layperson’s vocabulary, Bane explores the brain science of our writing avoidance and self-sabotage. She explains what happens in our brain when we experience stress around writing, how our habits form neural pathways, and how we can re-form our habits successfully using our knowledge of the brain.

The best thing about this book is that it begins at the beginning. When we read about successful writers, we usually learn about their writing habits. Serious writers write every day, perhaps even a certain number of words or pages each day. Many of us read about our idols and attempt to emulate them, but as is the case with most resolutions, we lapse and let it go before we have time to make a true routine out of our writing. Bane doesn’t just tell us that we should write every day; she shows us how we can make that happen in the long term, by providing concrete solutions and explanations of how they work.

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One of the best solutions is the 15-minute rule: on the days when you plan to spend some time writing, commit to writing for just fifteen minutes. You might have a target goal for something you want to finish, and you should leave some time unplanned in case you really get into the zone. But the commitment never stretches beyond fifteen focused minutes. (This is a little different from morning pages, in that this time is your Product Time, when you are striving toward the completion of a story, poem, etc. instead of journaling or freewriting.) I’ve found that once I tell my brain I only have to write for fifteen minutes, the resistance lifts, and I can continue what I’ve started. It works better for me than setting large word-count goals, because when I have something big to work toward, I’m more likely to avoid it. When I’ve only committed to fifteen minutes, it’s easier to get myself out of bed and start writing.

This is just one piece of valuable advice from Bane, who divides the writing life into Product Time (meeting goals of product completion), Process Time (creative activity without a productive goal), and Self Care (rest, diet, and exercise). She addresses all three of these aspects with regard to brain science. She has some quirky advice for training the brain into a writing habit, including setting up writing rituals and sensory associations that can help you to create a routine. While all of her advice is worth following, I recommend committing to one or two new habits instead of trying to implement every life change right away. For example, it was enough for me to commit to my daily fifteen minutes of writing and a weekly process activity without also learning to meditate, at least for now.

If you’ve lapsed on a Gregorian calendar New Year’s resolution to write every day, you have a second chance coming up with the lunar new year (Chinese New Year and new moon) on February 9th/10th. It’s a great time to set intentions and start new things. Rosanne Bane’s book is available everywhere, and she has a blog as well: The Bane of Your Resistance. Check it out. Happy writing!

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Oh, and…Other Plugs for Other Things

I wrote a post on slut shaming for Broad! last month. We’re also accepting submissions of writing, art, and photography for our summer issue until March 1, so visit our submission guidelines, please!

Singer-songwriter Alexis Pastuhov has a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the production of his new album, “Murder Your Darlings”. Check out his music and the video he made, share the campaign, and maybe donate a dollar. If you donate $15, you get a copy of the new CD; if you donate more, you can get other fun rewards. He only needs a little more of a push to meet his goal within the next 12 days!