Seeking Home: One Writer’s Journey

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” – C. S. Lewis

Jessica Evans Writing

Jessica Evans Writing

Cincinnati native, Jessica Evans and I share a few things in common that stretch beyond a love of words. Yes, we both have MFAs in writing from Spalding University, and we both write poetry, as well as fiction. Yet early on, it seems, Jessica began to examine the ways in which “life is impacted by socioeconomic status.” She was standing at a particular place of experience, and she chose to look, to notice, to see things others may have overlooked . . . to consider and try to perceive life for those standing in a different place of experience.

This aspect of her character, this reflection of the sort of person she is, and as a result the sort of writer she is, resonated with me as I am compelled to explore other views, to write about those who are different, misfits, those who live on the periphery, those who have lived lives I can only try to imagine, yet with whom I have much in common. I love exploring what life might be like for these people. Another deep connection I have with Jessica.

That is why I asked her to be a guest blogger on Write Side Up. The post, which is in interview form, appears below. I hope you’ll spend a little time with Jessica here and then explore her website and her work. Her latest book, the novel Hippie Mafia, is set in her hometown of Cincinnati and “examines humanity through an unconventional lens.”

In my humble opinion, those lenses often offer the clearest vision.
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Give Yourself Permission

DSC_0710dddblogPermission. To take time. To dedicate that time to oneself, to one’s dream(s). To do.

This seems like such a simple thing. Yet it is quite profound. Giving ourselves permission.

I give myself permission to play, to experiment, to listen . . . to my characters, to myself. I give myself permission to see what happens next.

Some days I just give myself permission to do nothing at all, at least nothing that seems or feels productive in the sense of creating new poems or chapters, or work for my day job. Ironically, however, those are some of the most productive days as they give us back essential parts of ourselves–energy, equanimity, strength, hope.

My good friend Terry and I experienced a week full of bliss recently during West of the Moon from the beautiful birth of his grandson to heartfelt moments of joy shared with our retreaters to a number of moments when those retreaters gave themselves permission . . . to play . . . to just be who they are . . . to create without preconceptions . . . without judgment . . . but mostly to listen (to their souls, their hearts, the deep down parts of themselves).
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The Obstacle Is The Path

Boat and Boy by Peter van Straten

“Boy and Boat” by Peter van Straten

There is a Zen saying that sometimes the obstacle in the path is the path.

A friend of mine who is not a writer, though he is a very talented visual artist, shared some insight with me once that has resonated with me quite a bit the past few months.

“Consider this,” he said: “in the Chinese language, there is a word for Crisis. Much like words in English, the word is made up by combining two different words. The first symbol is the Chinese word for Danger. The second symbol is the Chinese word for Opportunity.”

On Leadership by Peter van Straten

“On Leadership” by Peter van Straten

When we consider the duality of all things, and the idea that an obstacle might also be an opportunity . . . when we acknowledge that the unwanted condition has a right to exist; that every conceivable state might have a purpose in the grand scheme (even if only as a “learning experience”), we provide ourselves with the chance to grow.

Back in November and December of last year, I wasn’t writing. From August through the end of the year, I was working nearly every day and was utterly exhausted those meager hours each week I wasn’t working.

I was frustrated, but believed that things would slow down in the new year. After all, my job is busiest August through November.

Except when it’s not.
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Live With Intention

Lafayette Wattles Writing

Lafayette Wattles At The Page

“Lean forward into your life. Begin each day
as if it were on purpose.” – Mary Anne Radmacher

I am starting a new trend for myself this very moment. From now on, I intend to begin each day as if it were on purpose. With INTENTION!

And that intention is to write . . .

I’m sitting in a hotel room in West Virginia waiting for my dinner to arrive via room service and I’ve been driving most of the day so I’m too tired to work on poetry right now, but I thought it might be time to return to Write Side Up.

When I got home from WOTM 2014 last June, I immediately started work for a new job and, as a result, I have only written 2-3 blogs posts in the past year. But the past four weeks in particular have been rather illuminating for me in a variety of ways, all of which keep echoing the same thing – I NEED TO BE AT THE PAGE!

Here’s why:

  1. When I spend even a brief amount of time at the page, I write – write – write!
  2. When I’m writing, I’m breathing. It’s that simple. Words are a different sort of air and I feel healthier and more energized and more alive when I’m writing.
  3. Look, I smile . . . all the time. Not for effect, but because that is what comes out of me. But there’s something different about a smile that comes from the heart and one that comes from the depths of your soul. I’m a genuinely happy guy. And I have been told my joy is contagious. In part, I believe, because it is genuine. But the way I feel inside when I’m honoring my soul and writing, that takes my typical happiness to a whole other level. Right now, as I sit here typing, I feel so incredible thanks to the past 10 days in New Harmony.
New Harmony

Roofless Church in New Harmony

Let me explain.
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What To Do When Feeling Lost, Stuck, or Lacking Motivation

Stricken With Self-Doubt by Just.Luc

Stricken With Self-Doubt by Just.Luc

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”  – Sylvia Plath

Of course, as discussed before, there are several other enemies including a lack of motivation. In my experience, a lack of motivation often stems from one or more of the following things: doubt, fear, an inability to focus and/or to concentrate due to anxiety or feeling overwhelmed from too many responsibilities/distraction, or lost interest.

I’ve written some about fear and anxiety and about self-doubt. A lack of interest seems to explain itself – find the thing that interests you, about which you are truly passionate. Being overwhelmed often requires us to break our tasks into smaller steps and to set intentions for each of our essential responsibilities and then remind ourselves of those intentions.


One thing that helps me with all these challenges appears below (hint, it has to do with other people).

There are times in most people’s lives when they feel doubt – about a relationship, a sport, a college (major, class, career direction), a job, some other pursuit. Anything that requires a choice brings with it the potential for doubt. And we can doubt just about anything related to those decisions we make . . . or have to make . . . or want to make (before, during, and after we make the decision).

That doesn’t even take into account the doubt some people have about themselves.

At various points in our lives, questions arise. Do they really like me for who I am? Who the heck am I? Am I fooling myself? Do I have the ability needed? Is it done? How do I know?

Writers, artists, and other people chasing their creative dreams occasionally encounter various forms of doubt, fear, lack of motivation, and other obstacles. As a matter of fact, among many creatives I know, self-doubt is one of the biggest obstacles they have to overcome.

I’m not going to pretend one thing works for all forms of doubt. But I will say this, one thing I’ve learned that helps me regardless of the reason behind the doubt is the knowledge that each step taken gets me closer to my goals.

Another thing, that helps me even more than that, is reminding myself what my intention is for chasing those goals in the first place.

What Am I Writing For?

Answering that question (and reminding myself of the answer whenever I feel stuck, unsure) has helped me more than anything.

A third thing that helps me stay inspired . . . that reminds me that those obstacles can be overcome . . . is the accomplishments of my friends and colleagues.
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Being Receptive – Creative Sparks Take Many Forms

sparkles on water

Children are extremely perceptive and absorb what goes on around them long before they can talk or even comprehend language. They are like finely tuned receivers that pick up much more than is merely said. They are receptive and attuned to every mood, feeling, and change that goes on in people around them.”
– Theodore Isaac Rubin

I just got back from an amazing week in Historic New Harmony where my friend Terry Price and I led a week-long retreat for writers called West of the Moon Retreat. It was our third year doing the retreat and, somehow, each year tops the last.

One of the underlying intentions for the week was to encourage the writers to be RECEPTORS or RECEIVERS (i.e. to more RECEPTIVE – like those old Pioneer and Bose receivers that allowed stereos to pick up so much extra musical goodness that was bouncing around the stratosphere).

We invited them to be OPEN to whatever sort of inspiration might present itself rather than going into each writing session with preconceptions about how their inspiration would come to them.

There’s a need to approach each writing session with a specific intention, a focus, but we discussed how writers often go into a session expecting their inspiration to come in a specific way. As a result, we set our dials and tune in to that one way and we tend to dismiss so many other signals instead of recognizing that our body and our unconscious mind reach out to us in a variety of ways.

After showing the writers a series of yoga poses (not to be confused with ninja moves) put together in a brief sequence for the purpose of opening them up for those myriad signals (any image, color, word, sensation, etc), I finally had my own chance to walk the walk, so to speak. And what a walk it turned out to be.

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Time: Making Every Second Count While Chasing Your Dream

caffeinating, calculating, computerating by ryantron

caffeinating, calculating, computerating by ryantron

Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine
how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” – Carl Sandburg

Believe it or not, I barely had enough time to get this post done. And I’ve been working on it for the past three weeks. But I digress. Sort of.

This is a post about chasing dreams. And about time. And about multi-tasking, in a manner of speaking.

I have long accepted the fact that I have a jiffy-pop brain. My thoughts, though linear at times, tend to pop all over the place about seemingly unrelated or random things. Of course, they pop even more frequently about related things – as in things related to my dream of being a full-time professional writer.

As a result, I have several projects going on all the time. Like this very moment, I’ve got a new Reading Series that launches tomorrow at Ravines Wine Cellars, I leave a week from today for Historic New Harmony to co-host a week-long retreat for writers and other creatives (which means I’m still fine tuning workshop ideas and materials). I’m tutoring my niece for all sorts of 10th Grade Regents Examination Craziness, and working my job. Oh, and trying to keep up with this blog and work on new poetry for the YA novel-in-verse, and there’s the very cool collaboration project I’m working on with the artist who helped create this website and . . .

You could call it multitasking, I suppose, though recent studies suggest that term to be a misnomer – as we are really only able to truly focus on one thing at a time, we’re just able to move from one thing to the next thing and back again almost instantaneously.

The human brain is wired in such a way that allows for that ultra-fast processing (a.k.a. what we call multitasking), but because we have that capability we often fall into the habit of non-stop multitasking. And that can be a problem (on so many levels).

Our brains are designed to scan, to search for potential dangers, to be on alert. It’s a survival mechanism.

I could go into the potential physiological problems that arise from the growing trend to have our brains in the fight-or-flight state most of the time, but I’ll leave that to those more qualified. Instead, I’ll allude to the quality of work such rapid-fire focus produces. Or, in particular, working on multiple projects simultaneously has worked for me.

One of the interesting paradoxes of creativity is that we need to focus on the task at hand in order to turn inward and to mine the gems deep inside. We also need to be open to whatever comes our way, to be receptive.

Sometimes we force ourselves to focus so hard on what we believe we’re supposed to be focused on that we actually prevent ourselves from receiving creative impulses and ideas rushing toward us. Of course, sometimes we get so caught up in starting every idea that comes our way, that we never complete anything.

Such is the juggling act of the writer, the artist, the creative.

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Hope, The Stuff of Dreams

“Hope is the thing with feathers –
that perches in the soul –
and sings the tunes without the words –
and never stops at all.” – Emily Dickinson

Those lines form one of my favorite stanzas by Dickinson or anyone really, not for the meter, the rhythm or the rhyme, not for the way the thought is said at all, but for the thought itself, the meaning behind the words.

I’ve been a positive person as long as I can remember. Spending most days with a smile that comes from an appreciation that’s difficult to describe. I’m a genuinely happy guy.

I joke sometimes and say I’ve had an octogenarian’s outlook on each new day ever since I was thirteen and nearly died. But it’s not really a joke. I spent each day over the next four years (my entire time in high school) absolutely terrified that my time had run out, and every night when I went to bed I was palpably afraid that would be the end, which is also why I greeted each new day profoundly thankful for another chance.

I’ve been praised for my outlook, and thanked by those around me who have drawn on my positive energy, and ridiculed by some of the latter as well.

“People who smile all the time,” I’ve been told, “are just putting on a face for others, hiding the pain and the frustrations of life.” Well, I suppose if one pretends there is no pain and that there are no frustrations, then that might be true. Except, I’ve found that choosing to acknowledge the pain and frustration to myself, assessing what things I can change and what things just are the way they are, and then approaching the moment with an attitude of hope, that is the reason I tend to smile.

And, most days, most of the time, no one else needs to be made aware of my pain or my frustrations.

Anyone who truly knows me also understands, that’s part of the reason I write. I see the darkness. I feel it emphatically. I am a very empathetic person, too much so, perhaps. And I’m also a very sensitive person when it comes to the struggles of others.

Read one thing I’ve written and you’ll get it. I focus on the shadows, the storms, the unpleasantness of the human condition in nearly every poem, in every single piece of prose. But, I do so from the perspective of hope.

I’m that way in my relationships, that way with my work, and also with my dreams though I did put those on hold for a long time. I believe that hope is an essential ingredient when it comes to making dreams a reality.
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What is Ron Koertge Writing For?

Batman and Robin by MrSchuReads

Batman and Robin by MrSchuReads

I didn’t grow up with some prized comic book collection, like one of the characters on Big Bang Theory might have, but I’ve always been a fan of superheroes. Still am.

After spending a few years without television, I recently caught up on the final season of Smallville. That’s right. I admit it.

And, yes, as a boy, I did imagine myself saving the world each time I leapt off the picnic table in the backyard, trying to fly.

As a boy, my favorite superheroes were Superman and Batman, sure, but I also used to imagine The Thing and The Hulk engaging in epic throw downs.

Maybe it’s the way each superhero has flaws, vulnerabilities, perceived weaknesses which they don’t just manage to overcome, but which, in the end, often turn out to be strengths as well.

Maybe that’s why Ron Koertge’s poem “Sidekicks” speaks to me so strongly, in part because it’s not a poem about superheroes, but about their sidekicks, characters who tend to exist in the background. They don’t usually represent the best of us, not in a sense of possessing superhuman abilities, but they do represent the best of us in the way they selflessly put the needs of others ahead of themselves, the way they exist outside the spotlight and still do what we need them to do. Not for fame, but because it’s the right thing. In some ways, they are misfits, yet misfits who often save the day.
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Why Write Fiction?

Books by Philip F Deaver

“After the family broke, 

and when the house was about to sell,

I walked around it for a last look.

Under the eaves, on the ground,

there was a path worn in the dirt,

tight against the foundation —

small padded feet, year after year,

window to window.” (excerpt from the poem “Gray” by Philip F. Deaver)

In addition to winning the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and other prestigious honors, Philip Deaver’s work has been published by some of the finest magazines and has even appeared on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac on multiple occasions (you can listen to Garrison Keillor read the poem “Gray” here – he starts the poem around the 2:43 mark).

As a graduate student, I had the good fortune of listening to Phil read selections of his wonderful poetry and his exceptional short fiction several times before I had the even better fortune of getting to know him as a person.

As good as his writing is (and it’s damn good), what has impressed me most about Phil is his sincerity, his generosity, and his compassion.

He’s not just a man in the sense of his being a husband, and a father, he’s also a guy.

I’m not talking about all that testosterone-laden machismo you see sometimes. I simply mean Phil has always reminded me of the men of my childhood, the hard working, blue collar men I grew up around. Yet infused in that down-to-earth persona is a strong, quiet sensitivity, a creativity and a tenderness and an intelligence. He’s quite a bright man, after all, yet spend some time with him and you’ll soon realize he’s also just one of the guys: the sort of person equally at home in the outdoors, on the sports field, in the classroom, or at the page.

If you spend some time with his work (and I strongly urge you to do so), you’ll undoubtedly find many of those same traits – an honesty, a truthfulness, a sensitivity, an earthiness, an authenticity that will have you feeling that “soaring mountain/wind lifting through the pine stand.”

There’s a personal element to Phil’s writing that is neither overly sentimentalized nor devoid of emotion, a sensibility that feels real and true. There’s a reason the New York Times wrote of his short story collection, Silent Retreats: “Written in vivid, spare prose, the best of these stories linger, sad and profound, like songs you sing to yourself.”

You’ll find yourself not merely immersed in a realistic tale, but also witness to “the heart of why” the story was written.

It’s my honor to offer a special Guest Post by Philip Deaver (not just a writer I admire, but a friend I admire) as he offers an intimate and thoughtful response to the question What Are You Writing For?

As a writer, it’s interesting to me how differently each writer approaches that question.

Of course, Phil’s post is also a response of sorts to a talk given by author Tim O’Brien last summer. Enjoy!
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