The stream, the trees, the words

picture of two pens on a notebook

My favorite pens, which were an anniversary gift from Bell Telephone to my grandfather in 1978.

Last month I received a scholarship to attend Writer Camp, a yearly retreat for writers put on by the folks at literary journal Barrelhouse. It. Was. Awesome.

The five days away from the stresses of work, ongoing renovations on my house, dealing with my dog’s degenerative condition, and the general stress of being me in my brain was restorative. For five days, I had nothing to do but write, and talk about writing with other amazing writers, and eat delicious food prepared by our hosts. I am so grateful for that time and the company.

I wrote 39 new pages of fiction, reworked the outline for my novel-in-progress, sent out a few query letters for my short story manuscript, and had two very productive meetings with my editor, Amanda Miska of Split Lip Press. I also met some wonderful people, and had so much fun chatting over food and our nightly bonfires with a glass or two of wine.

Writer Camp is held at the Godspeed Hostel in Port Matilda, PA, which is a lovely area with a nice view of the surrounding mountains and a pleasant stream that you can swim in. The water is crisp and cold and so refreshing. There are hammocks everywhere, and a tree swing, and it’s not hard to find a comfortable place to write.

The stream at Godspeed.

I fell into a general routine of eating breakfast, writing for an hour or two, taking a stroll along the stream, working on my novel outline or sending out submissions, eating lunch, meeting with my editor, and then writing for another hour or two before our afternoon excursion and dinner. That right there is what I want my life to look like.

Of course I don’t have that sort of luxury at this point in time—I have to work to pay my bills, after all, but that doesn’t mean I can’t put some elements of Writer Camp into my daily routine and writing practice. I live in a city and don’t have a stream nearby, but I have a big front porch and a big backyard that I’m slowly turning into my own little oasis. I can easily write on my porch in the warmer months, and on weekends I can take my notebook out to one of Pittsburgh’s many beautiful parks for more nature time.

Perhaps even more importantly than the real progress I made on a few of my writing projects is the reminder that writing time and time in nature are both an essential part of my self-care routine. Without both of those things, I start to go a little batty. I feel on edge, restless, unfulfilled. But when I make time for them I feel at ease, happy, content.

On the days that I write before I head into work, I feel productive and accomplished, and it doesn’t matter what happens at work. Writing is like a force field against all the little negative things that add up throughout the day. And Writer Camp was a way to recharge those force field batteries, make them strong again.

But just because I’m back in the “real” world doesn’t mean the work is done. The work of writing is never done, not really. So off I go, to do the work.

#FridayReads: Finishing School

I read Finishing School: The Happy Ending to that Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done awhile ago, but have been too caught up with life to write about it, which is ironic in a sad, pathetic way.

Here’s the thing, though–I didn’t need to read this book. Sometimes I struggle to finish things, but I do finish them. I’ve written two books plus three novels for National Novel Writing Month, so clearly I’m capable of finishing things.

photo of the book finishing school on top of a notebook

Here’s Finishing School on top of the notebook containing the almost-complete first draft of my novel-in-progress.

Even so, I’m always looking for ways to improve myself, my writing, and my writing process. Hence my obsession with self-help and time management books. And that’s what Finishing School is, really–a self-help/time management book for writers.

It’s written by writing buddy duo Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton, with alternating chapters in each of their voices. Sometimes this is annoying, but here I thought it was helpful to have two different perspectives on the writing process and its pitfalls.

The book’s premise is a simple accountability system geared toward writers specifically. You find a group of people (or a single partner) who are all working on a writing project. You set up a regular meeting time. At the meeting, you talk about your project, then pull out your calendar and schedule times you are going to work on your writing project. Then you go your separate ways, do your writing thing, and report back at the next meeting. During the week, you text or email your writing buddy to let them know when you start and finish your writing sessions. They do the same, and everyone (ideally) feels motivated to get their writing done.

You’ve probably heard over and over, in many different contexts, that having an accountability partner–for quitting smoking, losing weight, learning a new language–makes you more likely to succeed. So you don’t really need a book to tell you the same will work for writing.

That’s not all Finishing School is, though. It also explores the common writing hangups people get stuck on. Things like fear, insecurity, jealousy, despair, and all the other wonderful negative emotions that plague humanity.

Only after it goes through all the reasons you might not be writing does it get to the accountability stuff. This is smart, in my opinion. It’s the same in customer service: you have to deal with the upset customer’s emotions before you can address the root problem.

If you’ve been having trouble completing a writing project, you may want to give this book a try.

Fund the Corporation for National and Community Service: My AmeriCorps story

I grew up in a working class family across the street from a steel mill. I have been working since I was 15, when I got my first job in a video store at the mall. I’ve done a patchwork of things: bookstore clerk, church secretary, childcare provider, jack of all trades at Target, even web designer.

My parents worked hard so they could send me to college, and I’m the first person in my extended family to earn a college degree. But I graduated in 2009, smack-dab in the midst of the Great Recession. There weren’t any jobs, especially not for 22-year-old writers with only very thin files of published clips. Newspapers were laying off staff and closing left and right.

As my college graduation date drew ever nearer, panic settled over me. I thought about joining the Army, and even went as far as taking the ASVAB–I was one step away from signing on the dotted line. I thought about the Peace Corps, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle a remote position with my new diagnosis of chronic migraine. I looked at Teach for America, but didn’t feel passionate about teaching.

AmeriCorps Logo

The true problem with all of these options was the same: I wanted to write. And I wanted to get paid for it. I’d heard of AmeriCorps, part of the government agency the Corporation for National and Community Service, and knew there was a position working with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. I figured that was as close as I was going to get to getting paid to write, but when I searched AmeriCorps’ job openings, I found a staff writer position at a community newspaper in Pittsburgh called The Northside Chronicle.

I applied. I interviewed for the position. I nailed it. And there I was, a 22-year-old writer with hardly any clips, getting paid to write. True, it was less than $12,000 a year and I had to rely on food stamps and LIHEAP (a program that helps with your heating bills), but even so. I was getting paid to write.

This was a dream come true for me, and without AmeriCorps I likely would have had to move back in with my parents and work a crappy job at Target for lack of better options. Instead, I got to do work that was important to my community and helped me grow as a writer and a person.

If you cut funding for AmeriCorps, you put people like me–people from working class backgrounds, the people our current president claims over and over again he supports–in dead-end jobs while we wait for Baby Boomers to finally retire.

That first job taught me a lot about working as an adult and about being a writer. How to deal with difficult coworkers. How to not only take editorial feedback but seek it out. How to negotiate. How to write on a deadline. How to copy edit and proofread, and the difference between the two. How to be professional even when someone is screaming at you because they don’t like what you wrote, and so much more.

The most important lesson for me, though, was that it was possible to get paid to write.

That experience helped give me the confidence to apply to the MFA program of my dreams at Chatham University. It undoubtedly helped me get accepted. The educational stipend I got as part of my payment for my service helped pay for it. And the lessons I learned as an AmeriCorps volunteer at The Chronicle continue to help me when I’m doing an author interview or review, or even when I’m writing a blog post against a ticking clock.

a view of the Pittsburgh skyline

A shot of the Pittsburgh skyline from a neighborhood dog walk.

I’m not stupidly wealthy. I’m not internationally famous. But I’m employed full-time doing what I love–editing and writing for my public library’s daily blog and helping people find their next favorite book at the public service desk. I own my own home. I make enough money to pay my bills and still have some left over for my Star Wars addiction. I spend my free time writing, playing board games with friends, and taking my dog for long walks in my beautiful city.

In other words, I am living my own version of the American Dream, minus the white-picket fence (I live in Pittsburgh, so I’ve got a retaining wall instead of a fence in my front yard). While I won’t discount my own hard work and a robust safety net of family support, I owe this success in large part to my early experience with AmeriCorps.

The president’s first budget proposal calls for cuts to AmeriCorps. I am walking, breathing, living evidence of why this is a terrible idea. If we want to build a nation of engaged, educated citizens who make meaningful contributions to their communities, we need to foster public service, not cut its funding.

AmeriCorps is a vital element in our communities and an invaluable experience to those who serve. The last thing our communities need is for the president to cut funding for this and other important programs. Please call your elected officials and ask them to reject a budget without funding for AmeriCorps.