In Transition

I’ve been in transition these past few weeks, moving from the US Virgin Islands back to Maine. It’s quite a jarring change, reacquainting myself with black flies, cold rain and frigid east winds. I miss my afternoon walks by Leinster Bay, and the warm volcanic rock where I sat to digest my day as the sun went down behind Mary’s Point. In seven years, I never did catch the ephemeral green flash.

I’m focusing on the chill night sky now, the big dipper hanging low in the north-west, filling my bedroom window. I feel certain that one of these nights I’m going to hear the great horned owl, and see the sky illuminated by the Northern Lights again.

It’s the glass that bothers me. This separation between the indoors and out. I’ve grown accustomed to living with all my windows and doors open day and night, with no sense of separation. This is hardly possible in Maine. I feel like I may suffocate at any moment.

This move back to a place I lived for over twenty years is forcing me to reevaluate my own expectations, my needs and desires. Until I moved to the amenable climate of the Caribbean, I took struggle to survive for granted, closed doors and windows never bothered me.

I grew up in the Northeast. You could freeze to death or starve in winter if you weren’t careful, didn’t plan ahead. Like a squirrel, I put up firewood a year in advance, stocked the freezer. So much more. On St. John, I lived in the day, except during Hurricane Season, when an eye was held to the forecast.

I’ve unintentionally opened myself to a whole new theme for personal essay. I am embracing that. One day, perhaps, I’ll even turn the thermostat here to something lower than 72—when my blood thickens again.

Reticent Writers Café

Writing is not an occupation for the weak willed. It requires great purpose and stamina to secrete oneself away from everything else loved. Many of us sit for long hours, with our only companions the instruments of performing our task: the trusty pen, a favorite keyboard. Most writers do not create in a group atmosphere, though of course, there are the famous exceptions. The ex-patriot writers in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century come to mind. These writers were reputed to write in cafes in Paris and Prague among others. I think it likely that these cafes were not, in most cases, where the writing was done.

My reading, and personal writing experience inform me that these places were probably sources of inspiration and solace, where the solitary writer sought respite from the intensity of her craft, and cavorted with like-minded souls. They were places to seek advice, blow off steam. I envision honest critique and vivid debate as being part of this milieu. These famous cafes were the advent of the modern day social network—common and easily accessible locations where allegiances were formed and dissolved, ideas were floated and either grasped or shot down and solid friendships were fostered. Information was shared.

Even a recluse might sit at a quiet table in the dim corner of one of these places, and eavesdrop on her more vivacious compatriots, without saying a word.

A writer’s workshop is in many ways similar to one of these cafes. Workshops, unlike their café cousins, are isolated in time, and if visited online, in space. They lack the café’s permanence, existing for only their eight or ten weeks’ duration. Some are more fleeting, lasting only a weekend or a few hours. An online workshop has a virtue quite unlike a café. Writers from anywhere can visit, any time of day or night.

I have taken twelve UCLA Extension workshops while completing a Certificate in Creative Writing—all online. In each I have found a sense of community, a diverse range of person and viewpoint, of interest and skill level. In their course, I have discovered a camaraderie that is lacking in my solo writing life. These shifting communities are kaleidoscopic, the subject and mentor being the mirrors, the participants and their work the reflected parts.

Invariably, fellow writers participating in these workshops feel a deep sense of loss as these workshops come to an end. It is like the closing night of a beloved café where one has come to count on finding sustenance for the spirit. I have felt this myself in every case. Even in the one course where I didn’t feel the workshop offered me what I was expecting, my fellow students did, and I mourned our separation, the disappearance of our common space, our shared agonies.

A particularly valuable and unique bond occurs between closeted writers during these workshops.

Working alone in a place removed from others, both physically and mentally, with only our words and sense of satisfaction as comfort, we can become too remote, doubtful. Our self confidence can ebb. Even our friends and family members may be unable to reach across this distance or we to them. Often, only another writer or an enthusiastic reader can make this reach, pull us away from the edge of our own raging torrent.

I am of a reclusive nature and rarely long to have people in my daily life. I am an introvert, self contained, needing little encouragement or validation from others. I can go for long stretches of utter aloneness, and be perfectly satisfied. I have discovered, however, that this self-satisfied independence does not extend into my newfound writer’s life.

I only discovered this as I began workshopping my writing. I enrolled initially to improve my skill, to hone the craft of writing, to solidify and explore my unique voice, which had been long kept private and unpolished. What I learned was much more valuable than writing skills. I learned that I had been missing an essential connection, a community, and an audience—a corner café where I felt comfortable sharing my writing. To be alone to do the writing and much of life is fine, but what value are my words in a void? They are like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. Not everyone is ready for publication. Some may not even be seeking it. But all writers must want to be read, else, why bother?

In the span of my twelve courses, I’ve become bold, an avid participant in the swirl of this ersatz café. I have come to cherish the camaraderie of my fellow writers of all stripes. I’ve become so bold in fact that now I want to create a place of my own and invite others in. I envision a place to go when the workshops end. I want to open it particularly to all those reticent writers—those shy speakers who have not yet found their permanent audience, and for whom the workshop is the lifeline to their writing. I see a vibrant, nurturing place where writers like me who are sure they have something to say, but uncertain of who might want to listen, can spend some time in good company.

I see writers participating who have not yet been published, along side those who have but want that special bond of peer critique for work in progress or ideas just forming. I can imagine a place where resources could be pooled. I want to create a place where private writers who are still in the process of discovery can find companionship and inspiration.

We need a place to go when the workshops end, or the intensity of our personal journeys gets so strong we need a break from ourselves. We need a hangout that won’t cost us our life savings, where we are understood on the days when even our best writing seems hollow, when the blank page and ticking clock drives us mad. We need our own Parisian café.

Perhaps we can entice seasoned masters to drop in from time to time and hang out with us. We can share leads and dead ends, and commiserate about great mentors, and rejections.

What do you say? Shall we create the Reticent Writers Café—always open day or night, accessible from anywhere in the world through the wonder of the Internet, a blue room for the shy? I’m up for it. I want to go there, now. My last two workshops have ended. It’s forming in my mind as I write.

E-books and Social Networks

In my Advanced Essay course we’ve been interviewing guest visitors from throughout the writing and publishing industry: an editor poet, a well seasoned agent, and many gifted authors. One area of inquiry keeps surfacing. What do you think of e-publishing? Is a presence on the Internet necessary these days, to be recognized amongst the hordes of newbie writers seeking publication?

The consensus, at least from this small sample, is that e-pub is the future and yes, an online presence and social networking are nearly essential. This is good news for a hermit who owns a Kindle, is a Mac geek and lives where the termites have been known to clandestinely partake of her collection of favorite writing books. There is a dark side to this good news, however.

This trend also poses grave questions regarding interactions between humans and written language in the physical world, and the powerful impact of books on our imaginations. It begs the question of what this might mean for humanity’s future. I’ll be writing about this in future posts. Right now, I’m off to read New York Times online.

Window Seat

The assignment for week one was to write a 250 word essay on what really frightens you. This is not my submission. It’s 257 words, and I have a lot more attempts to go before I decide on which one to use.

I pick a window seat when I fly. It’s what I’m paying for—time engaged in the pursuit of defying gravity. I like being suspended between the depths of space and familiar earth. I only know I’m moving when the plane’s shadow zips by on the checkerboard below, or when another airplane transects my field of vision like a bullet.

I think flying might be a lot like being dead, only then I won’t know where I am or where I’m going. I’ll be suspended in perpetuity with silent seat-mates, wailing babies and puke-encrusted mothers, women with too much perfume, men clinking their rings against their cans of mixer. I’ll have relinquished my fate to a pilot I don’t know, who might talk only pilot-speak in my native tongue. My comfort will have been assigned to flight attendants (no more stewardesses in the afterlife) with fake smiles who sometimes grouse at people slow to respond to directives.View from airplane window

I’m not afraid of flying. I love the tight feeling in the back of my abdomen on takeoff, and anticipate with glee the thud of the plane’s landing gear as it contacts the diminishing runway. I admit, though, that out of reverence, and possibly a little superstition, I don’t like to fly on September 11, even though the flights are often cheaper.

No, I’m not the least bit afraid of flying. What really scares me is being trapped for eternity in a window seat with a sleeping fat person next to me, and a full bladder needing to be emptied.

© 2012, Jennifer Pierce, All Rights Reserved