One Mountain, Coming Up

Snow-capped or green, jagged or rolling, the next mountain comes.

I’m at a small, charming cabin near a deep, cold lake, 750 miles from home. I’ve planned this trip for over a year, in order to catch my breath, look back at my career, examine my metaphors, and look ahead to new interests.

In short, I’m starting to scale my “second mountain,” a term New York Times Op-ed Columnist, David Brooks, uses for the next big challenge of life. He outlined his ideas at the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival, stating the first mountain brings productive work, family-raising, establishment of a supportive community, and discovering one’s faith or life philosophy.

Brooks’ “second mountain” can be anything that creates a change from the norm, whether it’s planned (job change, permanent move, retirement), or unplanned (crisis). It is characterized by the realization that life is deeper and more mysterious than we once thought. On the second mountain, the search for meaning becomes the guiding question, and generativity, one of its key responses.

Brooks’ message was important for me to hear. Retiring from a teaching career in which I felt relevant, connected and professional was difficult. I wasn’t sure how I would approach open, unplanned days. Mostly, I didn’t know if those dreams I had about writing more than ever would come to pass.

So, I took the geographical cure. I left home. Twice, actually. Once, immediately after school was out, to relax and decompress after the whirlwind of packing up a life. A second time, to reflect and to mark my transition by participating in a 5-mile walk across an iconic bridge.

Brooks talks about the discomfort of transitioning to the second mountain. We are not just breaking away from things, but actually breaking them–sets of behaviors, procedures, and norms we’ve relied upon. He terms this “the valley.” While he says we can sometimes see more from the valley than we can from the mountain top, we can still feel disenfranchised. What worked for us before doesn’t always work for us on our second mountain. We need a new skill set.

What’s interesting to me is that the second mountain was probably always in the distance to begin with. That is, the seeds of things are often planted early in us. And even on the first mountain, we are inexorably moving toward the second. The unfamiliar places we come to can still feel somewhat familiar. And, Brooks says, both mountains come with mentors.

I return home next week.

My two breathers have been necessary and important doorways. I don’t yet know much about my second mountain, except that it’s right here, in front of me. And I can’t yet tell if I’m refreshed, revitalized or excited. I do feel open and curious about it. And in an odd way, ready.



The Writer’s Notebook

This week, I’m starting an online FicIMG_0718tion writing course through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  For seven weeks, I’ll be sharing ideas, responding to questions, submitting my work and critiquing the work of others.  Probably, most importantly, I’ll be reflecting on my own writing process.

A writing teacher I had many years ago stressed the importance of being archivists for our creative process.  That is, we need to be familiar with when, where and with which tools we write best.  When famous authors comment on their habits and processes, we see how familiar they are with their own inner workings.  Stephen Kings says he writes all morning every morning–even on holidays.  His desk is not pushed against a wall, but is smack in the middle of the room.  Twain, Wharton, and Capote wrote lying down, while Hemingway preferred standing.  Some writers like music in the background.  Others want  a lit candle, a glass of wine, or a cup of coffee nearby.

For the longest time, I included time of day and geographical location in my notebook entries. And I saw that my teacher was right.  A pattern began to emerge.  I discovered I write best in late morning or early afternoon, that sometimes I can write for whole days, forgetting to eat, and that when I don’t feel physically well, the writing can be dark and weird–and sometimes I like the results.

But today, reflecting on the workshop question, I realized that there was something I once took for granted that is absent from my writing:  my spiral notebook.  When I decided to write for publication, I began using the computer.  It’s quick and forgiving.  It allows me to move blocks of text or get rid of it so completely it looks like it never existed.  I can research distant libraries or reach people around the globe in an instant.

With these capabilities comes a price, however.  I have forgotten the value of what Natalie Goldberg calls “writing practice.”  I’m so focused on the goal that I don’t sit thoughtfully with a pen in my hand, noticing and recording.  Goldberg used writing as her buddhist practice.  She did it daily, before moving to her writing goal for the day.  Noticing and recording are two activities integral to the writing process.  And keeping pen to paper on a regular basis is certainly one way to move through writer’s block, especially if we follow Goldberg’s lead and “keep the hand moving.”

Another writing teacher urged my class to do writing practice long-hand because of the heart connection.  She said, “the brain thinks it, the thought travels through the heart and then along the arm to the hand, which writes it.  The eyes read it. It is processed through the brain, and the circle begins again.”  This is probably true of other arts as well.  Painting and potting, for example, and fiber arts like knitting and quilting.  And while a laptop is necessary eventually, it doesn’t facilitate this infinite, organic loop.

I still work full-time, and scramble to find writing time.  But the workshop has made me understand how important that daily, long-hand practice was to my creativity.  I remembered the intimate connection with my writing self and how it fed me.  Today, I decided I will go back to it, even if it’s a couple of times a week.  And I think I’ll start right now.

If you have a moment, please share what feeds your creativity.  What “things” do you need to get comfortable so the juices flow?

Travel and Creativity


Travel has magical effects on creativity.  This week I’m in northern Minnesota, writing with writers.  We’re sharing resources, tips, workshop info, instruction on things like how to blog, and of course, eating delicious North Woods food.  That would be wild rice.  That would be cranberries.  That would be walleye.

It’s rainy and windy outside, warm and cozy inside.  The cabin sleeps nine people even though we’re a group of three. We have a roaring fireplace, fuzzy robes and warm socks, endless space to spread out, bottomless cups of coffee.  And the view is beautiful.

What is it about all this that helps get the creative juices flowing?  Writing friend Altha has pointed out that when we leave behind our day-to-day lives, we change our “container.” There is novelty in the new.  It makes our brains perk up and take notice. It makes us feel rejuvenated.

I think there are other factors at play, too.  One is the energy of sharing a common goal.  Even though writing is a solitary act, it’s easier to produce when others are focused on their laptops, composing like me.  Another is the expanded sense of space.  Anything pressing at home or work is physically distant.  We can let it go in order to be singleminded and present to the work at hand.

When I travel, the creative aspects of my life surface.  I get a different view of myself and what’s important.  My craft comes easier.  It’s like a little geographical jump-start.

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The Problem With Prague

For the month, I’m changing the emphasis of my blog from “wondering” to “wanderinIMG_0718g.”  That’s because I’m in Prague, Czech Republic, on a writing residency.  Residencies vary in their context.  Some simply provide a place to sleep and work, with a venue to show or read what you’ve done.  This one, associated with Western Michigan University, is more of a “study abroad” program.  Twenty writers of various genres from all over the US will live in community for 4 weeks of seminars, master classes, peer reviews, one-on-one conferences and readings.

The residency begins Sunday, June 29, with a kick-off dinner and orientation.  We dig into the writing on Monday.  However, there will be lot of time to explore this inspiring city and surrounding areas.  So I’ll be posting lots of photos.

The problem with Prague is that it’s so photogenic.  It’s over a thousand years old, with a varied topology and mix of architecture.  People call it “Golden Prague” because of the ornate gold work found everywhere–on its buildings, statues and monuments.  It’s also called “The City of a Thousand Spires,” due to its many churches.

Prague crackles with vitality as well.  It’s hilly and scenic.  A river runs through it.  People enjoy the beauty in a multitude of ways.  They stroll under sweet-smelling lindens that line the river walk, listen to musicians, eat at outdoor cafes, shop at open-air markets, and boat on the river.  Runners, bicyclists, skate-boarders and segway-ists keep up a steady stream of activity along the walkways.  The trolleys clang, the train whistles blow and, each hour, a bell-tower somewhere chimes.

There are photo ops everywhere–up, down, in the distance and up close.  Prague is always posing.  You get a shot, and five steps later there’s another.  Or the same shot, with different lighting.  I hope the photos I post this month give a glimpse of this most amazing and alive city.

How Writing Made Me Own-up

woman_writing2When I was granted a summer 2014 writing residency in Prague, I knew I would have to start admitting to people I’m one of those, you know, writers.  That, while others spend their non-working hours attending birthday parties, growing tomatoes or spelunking, I’m happily hunched over a page, creating characters and searching for exactly the right dialog for those made-up characters in my made-up stories.

Usually, I’m pretty outgoing.  But I don’t say too much about my own writing.  For one thing, people who aren’t familiar with the long, solitary process often equate writing with publishing.

“What have you written?”

“A couple of novels.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard of them.”

“They’re under my bed.”

This is when I get the raised eyebrow, the look of pity.  And I suppose writing can seem like a sorrowful endeavor.  At the end of a lengthy road, what we have in our hands often does land under the bed.  Or, buried in a stack of spiral notebooks we’ve been filling while squirreled away in garrets.  Or even in the reject pile, when we finally try to market what we’ve worked on so diligently.

Yet writing, like any other activity we pursue for love, is an end in itself.  As with knitting, gardening or playing soccer, there’s a comforting familiarity in handling the tools.  There’s an understanding of how things have to come together.  There’s growth over time, and an ability to draw back and look at what we’ve created.  Finally, there’s a headiness in getting something exactly right and a triumph when we finish–even if it doesn’t go anywhere but under the bed.

And so, when I received the news that I’d be going to Prague with nineteen writers of all ages, genders, genres and experiences, I mentally prepared myself to reveal to others that I write.  That, if you count the weepy poems of my youth, I’ve been writing for half a century.  I got ready to discuss the joys and disappointments of working for hours at a keyboard.  And I braced myself for the question of how widely I’d published.

As I knew they would, the comments came.  Like rapid fire.

“Wow, Prague!  Where’s Prague?”

“Wow, Prague!  Got your passport?”

“Wow, Prague!  Who’ll take care of your dog?”

It appears that the only person surprised by my revelation was, um, meI have been uncloseted as a writer, apparently for some time.

When one of my students heard the news, he said, “Wow, Prague!”  And then he repeated to me what I say to students and colleagues  before we part for an extended amount of time.  “Come back with stories!”