Backroads

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Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood.

I heard a poem today, and I fell in love. It’s called Things to Think, by Robert Bly. I must get it by heart on my next walk. It resonated so strongly with my ruminations shortly before I heard it, on a mini-roadtrip undertaken in the day’s middle hours. 

I had met a friend for lunch, on the other side of a spine of low, arid mountains near the sea. I got there by car in the conventional way: there’s a many-laned freeway that connects coastal plain to valley in about five minutes (when the traffic’s light). I returned — having planned this with happy anticipation — via a series of one-lane backroads. A question I was considering as I did this: why do I go out of my way, whenever I can, to travel on backroads?

It isn’t just aesthetic, though there’s that in it too. Today is not an example. This is the sere season in Southern California; my route is mainly brown, dry, blasted. People talk about winter as the time when the bones of the land show through, but here that’s summer, which lasts until the rains come. Sometimes that’s January — or the January after that.

So why else? I answered as if conversing with myself: They get me off the freeway. They make me read the map. Or get off the map, and navigate for myself. 

And that’s it, literally and metaphorically. In a material act that you do with your hands, feet, and senses, driving a backroad requires you to re-examine your known ways of getting places. 

They take longer, backroads. You have to brake, coast, pass, get passed, take very sharp curves quite slowly. If there’s construction or an accident, you’re far from surface streets, so you just have to wait. Cruise control doesn’t work for long, and there’s little zoning out. 

The act of backroads-driving can be — it was for me today — an incantation, a declaration of intent to seek a new path. Or an old path perhaps, but one with wisdom you haven’t yet encountered. Or wisdom you’ve forgotten.  

There’s a lot of time on backroads journeys for observation. It is not, for example, only brown and blasted out here; I’m noticing the sea-born haze that hangs in the air (all day), and the way every color is hazy too: the sky a heathered bluish taupe; the chapparal and citrus trees a muted olive green. Even the ocean is a dusty sort of turquoise, like someone dug it out of the mountain five minutes ago, and left it lying. 

Noticing, I realize: this is what I want.

I mean that I want this road specifically, and many like it, today and tomorrow and the days after that.

And I mean, in the larger and metaphoric sense, that I want to get off the freeway. I want to find new and slower ways through my life. 

My life has half-a-dozen standard lanes, all blazing along well over the speed limit. The one that concerns us here is my creative practice: a reasonably well-established, regular and crucial part of my everyday routines. A well-maintained fast-track to who I want to be.

The inertia of this lane is strong. I suspect this is because it is successful, by the definition I previously set for success: I have written a book of poems, which is currently being edited and illustrated and produced, in an intensely beautiful and gratifyingly official way, by a small team of wonderful human beings. I love this book, and I love the making of it, every stage.

Staying in this lane creatively seems natural, feels good. It worked, didn’t it? It’s telling me exactly how to do what I most want to do, which is make the next book.

I recently finished assembling 100+ poems into a manuscript draft of the next book. Though there is much (much) work left to be done, I have already revised and polished most of them significantly. And I have made a first attempt at structure. I have printed out a thing that looks like a book-in-the-making, and now I have a satisfying stack of physical paper that has let me remove from the internet, and engage entirely with hand, pen, lips, tongue, breath, body, word, rhythm, and form.

And it isn’t working. 

Back from the backroads and crunching some day-job data, I have stumbled upon — in that lovely serendipitous way that feels like a sort of benign divine intervention — the exact interview I needed to hear. Martin Shaw, a storyteller and mythologist, interviewed Mark Rylance, a stage and screen actor. Rylance talked about creative integrity from one performance to another, employing a metaphor of “reheating the meal.” When you do something well, and you can feel you have done, and people come up to you and tell you how good it was, you think: Great! I will do that again. And then you do it again, and it’s stilted and it doesn’t work. 

So I have some words now for my realization: I don’t want to reheat the meal. My next book (next project) cannot be Tell-the-Turning-with-different-themes. 

What is it then? I don’t know! Which is why I’ve decided to take a break from Shaping it. 

Rylance says in the interview: “focus on your intention,” rather than “the memory of the form.” I don’t know what my intention is, even, for the next project. So I’m waiting. 

“Waiting” sounds passive, which makes me uneasy. But in fact this particular waiting isn’t passive. It’s perfectly active — it’s just not art.  

A poet — any artist — needs to be consistently exploring the subjects, themes, and patterns that give them life, that root their art in the necessary and true. By “explore,” I do not mean “produce art about.” I mean physically engage with a thing itself, not analyze or make accessible, or otherwise publicly represent that thing or the experience of it. 

This hands-on, all-in exploration is a pre-requisite for art. But it is not art and it does not necessarily lead to art, either. If it has a goal outside itself, that goal does not serve our egos or advancement.

In the exhaustion of pandemic and depression, I have been pushing hard to produce art. And neglecting, in that process, these explorations. 

For example, I have not been walking. Granted, it’s too hot for me in summer to walk for hours. But that seasonal loss ought to be attended, and mitigated. I’ve barely noticed.

I have also let my journal go. Where I used to channel enormous flows of imagery, effort, leisure, and love into my personal writing — which I do for play, and which never has an audience —  instead I’ve been pouring all of that into poems for publication. I can do both, of course. But I can tell (now that I’m attending) that the two are out of balance. My journals from the period of writing Tell the Turning are full and vibrant. My journal as I’ve Gathered and begun to Shape the next book? Nearly empty. 

And I have largely forgone my habit of taking the literal backroads. 

In consequence of all this neglect, I have forgotten how, as Bly’s poem has it, to “think in ways you’ve never thought before.” I’ve remained on the freeway, in my creative lane.

Having noticed all of this, I have already begun to repair it. 

What sort of art will come, eventually, to fill the expectant, active space I’m leaving as I press pause on the next book, and instead resume exploring? 

Tell the Turning was invited into being with a handwritten letter. What will make the next invitation?

Faith is not some kind of literal belief. Faith is trusting. Trusting, in this case, my own self, to do what my soul and my body need to survive — and if possible, eventually, to thrive. Trusting the creative process I love, that I’m still discovering. 

And perhaps there is a new phase to the process of making a given creative work. I’ve identified The Gathering, The Shaping, and The Singing. Is this The Resting?

What would The Resting consist of, so I can look out for and encourage it when it’s needed? 

Get off the freeway. Take the backroads. Fall in love with a poem or two — or a person, perhaps, or a season. Wait. Watch. Do the non-art things that make you you

A response — like a storm, or the fog rolling in, or the sun cracking through — is surely coming, on a future shift in the wind. 

I pay attention to winds. I’ll be able to smell it. 

The Quest for Rest, and the Sympathetic Magic of Studying

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Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, poet, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning.

This is the latest installment in Tara’s monthly column about the creative practice.

If you connect with Tara’s work, consider supporting her Patreon. You can also write her a letter via The PenPalProject. 

When my husband came home from work the other day, I didn’t hear our startlingly loud garage door banging closed. I was wading with all my faculties through an Old English text, and I didn’t hear anything until his voice said, tentatively, “Baby?” — at which point I leapt from my chair, shouting surprise, to find he’d materialized in the doorway.

This is a pretty common theme, right? Human brains work like this: we get absorbed in a thing; we forget our surroundings; we can, in this state, become easily startled by the world’s intrusions. Here’s the thing, though: I am always startled by the world’s intrusions, even as I’m also always bracing for them. It’s pretty rare for me to be so focused that I’m not braced for interruption, not attuned to each shift in my environment.

Some of this is just how I’m made: intense and sometimes painful sensitivity to (especially) sound, movement, temperature, scent, and my own body-state are nothing new for me. But for the rest of it… I wasn’t always like this. 

As a child, I had hours of focus in me: for reading a book, observing the life of a river, completing homework, playing elaborate games of make-believe. I’ve watched, for some years now, my adult capacity for focus shrinking with the malignant growth of the attention economy, but (by dint of conscious effort) I retained, until recently, the ability to summon it at need. 

What’s changed? Who knows; the possibilities are many, and compounding. A year-and-a-half (and counting) of living in a house where my sensitivities feel always under attack. A significant diminishment of my accustomed solitude. A tendency to anxiety-response. A year-and-a-half of pandemic trauma, experienced alongside the entire world. The depression that’s finally descended from all of the above. 

The cause is important, certainly, but surviving is more so. Thriving, in whatever ways I can, but most crucially: healing. Which is less an event than an an ongoing process. 

For several months, I’ve been thinking a lot about rest: what it even is, how to make space for it. One of the habits I’ve observed that creates rest is focus. Actual rest is so much more likely to be available when my attention isn’t trying to split itself two or ten or twenty ways. 

From this understanding, I’ve departed on a quest — gently, slowly, which is difficult — to regain my dangerously fragmented attention. 

My creative practice, of course, is a place to start with this. You’re familiar with most of that advice. Turn off the internet, choose an time and stick to it, find a place by yourself, set a timer, et cetera. All of that is useful. 

My daily internet habits are another good starting point. Following Cal Newport’s research and some of his advice (while holding at bay his obsession with optimization), I’ve limited my social media, email, and mobile phone engagement to a couple of times a day, and I’m shifting toward conversation (on a phone, on a porch, by letter) instead of more constant and shallow connection (by text, on Twitter or Instagram, et cetera). This is — I was surprised — not easy, and I have to begin again pretty often. But, gradually, it’s helping.

Here’s another thing that helps, while also sideways-benefiting my creative practice: learning. I mean the intentional, semi-formal kind. I mean studying. 

I’m not actually any good at studying. In school, I was the kid our educational system tends to serve best: I’m good at memorizing, I like formal learning, I’m white and I grew up middle class. Also, I had a deeply loving home, where both human and material elements supported the conditions I need to thrive. In college, I re-created those conditions suprisingly well. (I also I returned to my parents’ calm home for regular recharging.) 

College is where I came to understand — mainly by watching my fellow scholarship recipients — that I had no idea how to study. I read the material, I asked questions, and I paid attention in class. I’m naturally good at consuming, making connections between, and re-purposing information — so long as I’m interested in that information, and have some existing facility. Subjects that don’t fit that description (statistics, for example, or chemistry) I had no idea how to learn. Where I was allowed to do so, I avoided them. Subjects I was good at, but required regular and rigorous attention to excel in (Latin comes to mind) I took as far as they were easy for me, and then I dropped them.

If I didn’t know how to do something already — including, apparently, studying — trying and failing embarrassed and confused me. I had no idea how crucial short-term failure is to long-term success. I graduated summa cum laude, largely because distinction was more important to me than challenge. And challenge, at the edge of your existing abilities, is where the learning happens. 

Cut back to me, at 37, deciding to study Old English. Also SQL.

Why these two subjects particularly? Different reasons. Old English I am not unfamiliar with, although certainly I don’t read it. It interests me; it can already hold at least some of my attention. I speak and read much better Spanish, so if I’m going to study a language, why not that? I suspect, unflatteringly, it’s because no one is going to ask me to actually speak in Old English, to understand and to be understood. Spanish, on the other hand, is a living language. In other words, I’m still embarrassed. 

SQL is something everyone I work with knows, and uses on a regular basis. I am fortunate to work for a company that allocates time for training, and money to pay for it. I decided on SQL because it’s useful to my data-based job. And because the basics are easy to grasp: they’re very much English, just in streamlined programming form. Building on them follows logically, without too much need for synchronous instruction.

Both of these subjects allow me to build a new structure on skills and predispositions I already have. I’m not starting from nothing. Small successes — very motivating — are easy to achieve. But I’m also not coasting on what I know already; I’m actually learning.

Nor do I have a goal of official achievement. I have tended in the past to conflate “learning,” particularly “learning a language,” with realized accomplishment — in the case of language, speaking or reading fluently. I have tended to get discouraged when I don’t master the subject with relative ease and dispatch. 

Understanding that learning is a process, and specifically not an achievement, has helped me to embrace study as an end in itself. As play. 

This in turn has motivated me to keep studying: I learn a small skill or a piece of knowledge, I apply it to a text or a database, I get a result. If it’s wrong, I go digging, find what I missed, and try again. I succeed in translating a line, or retrieving the information I requested. I clap my hands excitedly and beam at the empty room. I’m having fun. 

And in all of this, I am absorbed. My focused attention, brain and body, is required for learning at the edge of my ability. For the duration of a study session, time, stress, and responsibilities all cease to exist. For the duration of a study session, I am working — and also, perhaps, I am resting.

Studying is also making me a better poet. Or at least — since, what does “better” mean, regarding poems? — I can say objectively that it is helping me focus more when I sit to revise. 

I think it’s also allowing me to access new ideas. Studying something not related to art takes my mind off that art (and off my stressors), long enough for my mind to rest and process. It’s maybe like a nap for the creative brain. (Actual sleep is also critical, perhaps including actual naps.) 

On the other side of that break, my mind is fresher, more interested, more focused. It’s not suddenly raring to write poem in Old English, or about databases or in the form of a query. But new pathways are opening in my poetry because I’m intentionally opening new pathways in my learning. You could call it sympathetic magic. 

Like all magic, it’s specific, it compounds, and it’s work. And like all magic, it’s powerful enough to unlock important doors. Like, for example — and probably I should add “perhaps;” I’m not so far on my quest yet — rest.

Moving Water

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Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood, to be published this autumn by Bored Wolves.

This is the latest installment in Tara’s monthly column about the creative practice.

If you connect with Tara’s work, consider supporting her Patreon. You can also write her a letter via The PenPalProject. 

Martin Shaw gave an interview* last winter, from deep in the UK’s first lockdown, in the who-knows-anything time before Covid vaccines. Someone in the virtual audience asked about trauma: what do you do with it? “Get to moving water,” he said. “And sit there. And sit there. And sit there.”

On the banks of a creek who wishes to remain anonymous, I am sitting. It is mid-day, it is not cold, and my creekbank “belongs” to a U.S. State Park. Which is to say that it would be crowded — as it is, at its nearby confluence with a medium-sized river — but I have rolled my pants and taken my chances with slippery rapids and teetering log jams. Here upstream I am not alone, but neither are there any other humans in sound or sight. 

I have been here a while: watching dragonflies and hummingbirds, and columbine nodding above an undercut bank; reading a letter from a friend; listening to the breeze changing its mind from downstream to up. 

I find I am saying to myself it’s time to go. It does not feel like time to go, it just seems like the next thing. I’m addicted to progress. But I have got here, to moving water. My own wellspring, in fact. I slide my feet in the creek, skin on stone. Sit here. Sit here. Sit here. 

I came here to write poems. Here, in this case, is a wider locality: a particular gathering of river/forest/ocean margins, my favorite place in all the world so far. I cleared a space on my calendar, found a one-room cabin, and hung on by my gritted teeth until the day arrived to make the journey. I am writing a book — no one is surprised — and so I have told myself that is the purpose of the trip. 

I came to write poems, and I am writing poems. Creating is a primary way I encounter and explore; I can’t not do it. To do it well, I need space. I write from spaciousness. Here is space. Here, in fact, is home. This place is a great love of my life. I am writing poems; of course I am writing poems.

But I cannot only write poems, only be a poet. If I didn’t have to make money, this is what I say I would want to do—but poet is an identity that cannot exist alone. A writer of any kind must have something to write about, or all the love and skill and dedication have nowhere to flow, no work in the world to do. 

I have plenty of work in the world. I’m conflicted, confused, frustrated, or downright despairing about all of it. Some of it is worthy, I don’t doubt. Much of it is pure garbage: concerned only with money and obligation. I am looking for more that fits in the first category, yet I can’t imagine taking on more, period. I’m exhausted. I’m traumatized. I’m depressed. I’m ashamed and angry even to write those words. How can they be me? I’m better than that. 

So. My obsession with progress says I’m here to write poems, to make something I can point to with my name on it. But really, I’m here to sit by moving water. I am here to rest. I’m here to excavate — patiently, kindly, bravely, if I can — who is this person who is not, in fact, better than, or even okay. 

The several voices of the creek are just what I need. I listen to them — really listen, separating them mentally, and noting their pitch and volume. They’re not saying anything. They’re saying everything.

Possibly this is not a time to make sense of things. But I — like humans everywhere, and especially like humans who find their deepest work in art, in priesthood, in leadership — am a meaning-maker.

Just now, I was gathering stones. This beach is 98% stones. The longer you look, the more interesting they get. I would name aloud one of my roles or labels, and search for a stone to match it.

A palm-width stone, shaped like a lightning bolt and faced with quartz.

A slick black circle, split almost in two, like a broken-heart emoji.

A smooth and water-polished oval, warm brown and soft grey whirled togther.

A tiny, tumbled pebble, red as a berry, vivid. I perched it on top of a deep green rippling globe.

Each stone I held let me hold at arm’s length a role I inhabit or a label I’ve acquired: things I am, things I am called in certain contexts, and things I kind-of-am, because words for our experience are a collective obsession of a culture trying to re-found itself.

When I ran out, finally, my hand was overflowing: a strange beach offering, word and rock balanced on palm and fingers. I picked them back up, one at a time, and cast them to centerstream, saying to the stone and its label: You are loved here. You are held here. You are worthy. It’s okay if I don’t understand you. You are anchored here. 

I am home on this creekbank: sitting, walking, resting. Making up rituals and scratching out poems. Not figuring myself out, just watching me be. Asserting that’s okay, and learning to believe it — a process, not an accomplishment I am claiming. 

This creek, its river, its woods, its ocean-perfume — this is the one landscape where I belong, in a way I’ve tried to understand all my life, and I no longer need to. I cannot only belong here, only be here. Home and belonging must have some work in the world to do, too. 

For this long summer moment, though? I can rest awhile yet. 

*This is a fine introduction to Shaw’s work, if you’re not familiar. Though the quote I’m referring to comes from a sort of joint interview with Paul Kingsnorth, moderated by Point Reyes Books.

Art Says Stop: Exploring Rest and Recovery

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Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood, to be published this autumn by Bored Wolves.

This is the latest installment in Tara’s monthly column about the creative practice.

If you connect with Tara’s work, consider supporting her Patreon. You can also write her a letter via The PenPalProject. 

I keep trying to give my recent poems the same title. Rest Awhile* has offered itself three times in the past year, for very different poems. Unadorned Rest showed up three times in the last month. When a title seems to fit all over the place, it is not in fact a title. It’s a message.


A friend told me today I am her patron saint of walking. I love this, and also, I’m feeling distinctly un-saintlike lately. The type of walking that’s earned me this identity is passionate, exploratory, semi-aventurous, regular, and done at some length. I’ve still got the “regular” part down, but currently the rest of it’s out to lunch. Along with my ability to feel, or enjoy, most things.

I went for a hike the other morning in a favorite landscape. After climbing perhaps a thousand feet (slowly, my main speed these days) — through pine and lupine and springtime grasses starting to go gold, through my new, strange bubble of inertia and indifference — I finally had something like a feeling: a distant, but distinct desire to join my being with the prairie, to rest inside it. 

So I sat down in the middle of the narrow trail. I placed my hands on the hard, cracked soil. I ignored all my training to use this moment: to compose a poem, to compose my body in space, to compose the memory I would take away from “the experience.” 

I went to earth. I sank my hands in the soil. I grounded. There’s a reason we have all of these cliches. 

Skin-time, my aunt calls this, when she’s talking about a baby and their parent. A deeply restful, deeply needful, deeply vulnerable state. 

I rested a long time on that prairie soil. I know it was rest because it had no agenda, and I wasn’t trying to bang one together in a hurry. I felt present, and I felt that as enough.

I know it wasn’t enough rest, though, because getting back up was bleak. A pure act of obeying the training that both serves and stifles me. I had to do it, in the sense that I could not sit on that hillside long enough to effect some kind of recovery, without also encountering the need to eat, find shelter, go back to the money factory so I can pay my rent.

Every so often, we know we need to “take the day off.” We have learned to talk about “disconnecting for the weekend,” and taking the occasional “mental health day.” I’d like to suggest that the day, and even the weekend, is the incorrect unit of measurement to talk about any serious undertaking. 

Like, for example, rest. Like recovery. You can’t grate yourself year after year against personal, national, and planet-level crises — climatic, political, medical, economic — and then “take the day off” and expect to emerge anything like rested. 

This is the message my own art is unsubtly offering right now. My body is offering it too — can we say that the body and the art are separate? — because my intellect has been offering it for years, and I’ve been responding with “yes, you’re right!” and a thoughtful shift or two, and also without actually resting. 

Actually resting would involve… I don’t even know how to answer that invitation. I can just touch the edges of some answers, and they’re radical in ways I’m not ready to fully look upon, let alone embrace. They open up a yawning gulf directly in front of my exhausted feet.

Possibly what I’m lacking is courage to look straight at them. They’re big, and unmapped. But to paraphrase Christina Tran, if I so much as glance at them sideways, I see them staring back at me, straight on. They know: if you want to change your life, you have to change your life.

Ok. So that’s out there. This is a long-term undertaking, and I’m gathering the courage to look into its eyes and befriend it. Meantime, is there any hope for some rest in the day to day? 

This is where I can think usefully in a direction that might be more broadly helpful. What is rest, if it’s more than just “taking the day off?” What does it feel like? Until I can recognize it, I can’t invite more of it into my life, and disinvite more of what actively works against it.

From my own experience, I want to offer two characteristics of rest that are helping me sort out these questions, slowly.

Rest is about focus.

A partial list of things that aren’t restful: going for a walk while also answering email; checking my various text and chat apps on mobile while also working from my laptop; having multiple tabs open in my browser. 

I’m not saying these things are necessarily bad, I’m saying they’re asking my brain to task-switch continually, which prohibits focus. 

Rest is about focus, about presence. Rest is being able to hear myself think. It’s having the mental and temporal space to follow a thought or idea for as long as I want to, and to put that idea down and pick it back up again, usefully, at some leisure. 

It’s not necessarily not-working — the activity itself is perhaps less important to restfulness than how I go about it. Ursula LeGuin puts it like this: “How you play is what you win.”

I can “take a day off” from multi-tasking, or from the internet (which encourages multi-tasking), but the kind of rest I need is the sort that accumulates from living a life that encourages focus most of the time

Every so often, I might take a day or an hour off from that focused being. Maybe there is some really urgent shit going down, and I also need to take a walk. So this time, the mobile comes along. This is fine. 

But this is not how I live. I live in what I’ve previously called The Scatter. I dislike it, and I try to build in as many breaks from it as possible. 

This is the wrong direction of effort: pushing against what rubs me wrong, instead of aligning with what flows cleanly. Or I might imagine it as hauling a very large rock uphill, all the time.

No wonder my results are less than satisfying. Less than restful. 

Rest is anti-consumption and anti-accomplishment.

A way I imagine that I am resting is to read books. The grammar of that sentence shows part of the problem: books. Reading a book — with focus, at leisure — is restful. Reading books — consuming them, perhaps recording their consumption, always thinking about the next one — is not.

Relatedly, I imagine it is restful to sit down with a glass of wine or a plate of snacks, or in front of the TV. Sometimes it is. But half the time, I’ve rushed whatever I was doing before, so I could get to the part of the day where I’m “allowed” to consume alcohol or watch TV. Now that I’m here, I’m not sure what alcohol I want, or what film I want, or if alcohol or a film really is what I want, and I don’t have time to figure any of that out because I’m so damn tired; I need to rest before it’s time to do something else. 

Rest here has become another item on the to-do list, and consumption has become a shorthand way to check that item off. It’s a false flag, brought to us by an economy and social order that encourages us to think of ourselves primarily as consumers. To rest, I need to stop falling for it. 

I also like to assume I am resting as long as I am doing one thing at a time. But mostly that one thing is checking something off the to-do list. Answering my emails: one thing. Applying for a residency: one thing. Proofreading the typeset manuscipt of my forthcoming book: one thing. But none of these things are restful. They’re too focused on getting something done.

And they’re too focused on a schedule: getting something done within X minutes, hours, or days. An activity is most restful when it takes the time it takes.


Recently, my family started setting aside an evening a week to build a fire, pour adult beverages, and take turns reading three different translations of Beowulf out loud. This may or may not be your personal idea of a great evening, but here’s something it objectively is: high-quality rest. 

It’s focused. Nobody checks their texts; nobody cooks dinner while also trying to listen. We are not trying to fill time until the next appointment in front of a screen somewhere. 

It’s anti-consumption. We got the books through our library holds system. (Which took the time it took.) Alcoholic beverages (ok, yes, we picked mead) are an adjunct pleasure, not a goal.

And it’s anti-accomplishment. The object isn’t to write an essay comparing the translations, or do a podcast about them, or even to finish. It’s literally just for fun. 

Using this activity as a model is starting to teach me how to think about rest more regularly, what to look for when I go searching for it.

You know what else is restful? Creative practice. But only if what you’re doing is basically play. 

Making art is focus-work, and it’s the opposite of consumption. But for most of us, it’s also goal-based, and for some of us, it brings questions of consumption (are you making a book, for example?) into the spotlight on the other side of the stage. 

We love doing it, though. It can be hard to separate our work from our play, and maybe for some of us, the dream has been that we should not need to.

I’d like to argue that we do. Especially right now. As epidemiologists keep reminding us, the pandemic isn’t over just because folks are getting vaccinated. And as mental health experts keep reminding us, the social and emotional trauma is likely to be years in the unfolding. 

So we need rest — we always have, but now we need it like we need to take Tylenol and lie down when our head is splitting. We need to figure out what rest is for us, and how to live it much, much more often than most of us do. 

A friend was telling me yesterday about the question she’s learning to ask herself, to manage some pretty intense external circumstances: what do I need right now? As in: this moment, not existentially. She answers this in various ways: a nap; a glass of water; to call a friend instead of texting; to spend the day researching, looking forward to some undemanding tv tonight.

I like this question for so many reasons. It’s easy, at least in the asking. It forces a person to take their own self seriously. It opens the door to healing right now. It’s kind and humane, and also it takes no shit. I’m starting to ask it too, and so much of the time, my answer is something focused, something fully-present, something that’s not about consuming or accomplishing. 

This, I think, is why even my poetry — sometimes a restful activity, and sometimes not, depending on how I’m pursuing or inviting it — is sending me regular reminders about the pre-eminent importance of shifting my life into a restful gear. 

My word for the year is Listen. I am trying.

Maybe my word — for the season? — is actually Rest. 


*The reference my brain is going for here is from the Book of Mark, 6:31: “Come away by yourselves to a desert place and rest awhile.” Desert here means deserted, not necessarily dry or cactusy.

Dear Friend

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Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood, on Kickstarter right now!

This is the latest installment in Tara’s monthly column about the creative practice.

If you connect with Tara’s work, consider supporting her Patreon. You can also write her a letter via The PenPalProject. 

I am just in the door from my afternoon commute. This consists of a mile’s easy walking in a circle from my house — marking the close of today’s hours at the laptop-enabled money-factory, and reminding me gently of my physical body, its welcome tether to the seasons and the earth. 

In the moment before this one, I opened the mailbox to find two letters from friends. I smiled at them — a real smile, like I was greeting the friend named in the return address. Now I fold back the top of my little correspondence desk, and lay the letters inside. 

I will wait, and shape a space to give them my full and slow attention. 


Letters, in this last apocalyptic year-and-a-bit, have become for me a particular source of pleasure and perspective — and creative ballast.

I learned to write letters the first time as an adolescent, because writing was the only inexpensive way (remember long-distance phone charges?) to keep the friends I had to leave behind every few years, when the U.S. Navy stationed my dad somewhere new. 

I didn’t learn well, though: I had good intentions, bad follow-through. For one thing, I didn’t know how to write and read letters, in the sense of understanding what I hoped to give and get from the exchange. I had plenty of ideas, but precious little discipline to help me explore them. Thus, when my mood or mindset didn’t line up with my goal, I had zero motivation. So I stopped putting pen to paper. So I lost my penpals.

Letters are a fruit of slowness and attention and care — qualities I cultivate, though often with stunted success. I have found my way back to letter-writing by paying attention to that cultivation, false starts and failures included. (I was learning to garden at the same time. This has perhaps influenced the metaphor.)

First, I noticed how much nourishment I’d begun to derive from some very long exchanges on Twitter. 

I’d ramble for days at a time with people I didn’t know at all well, about books, walking, memory, landscape. We stacked ideas on top of questions on top of enthusiasm. Our conversations were generative and exciting and connective. We lost the thread a lot, in all the excitement. I wished often for the same conversations but slower and deeper, with everyone and every thought given more time to bloom than our present suite of communication technologies allows. 

At which point, I realized I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. I asked for an address or two. 

Also, I noticed the ways I was missing my friends. These folks are many and various. They live across town, or a few miles downriver. Also in Montana, California, Iowa, Alaska, Pennsylvania, England, Germany. We used to meet at workshops, at church, on boats, on trails, in restaurants, in backyards. 

It’s not like we ever met a lot. But I think about my friends often, and I used to store up things to turn over when we saw each other next. Going nowhere and seeing almost no one has not injured me — a solitary — as it has most folks I know, but I have absolutely missed the opportunities for depth of conversation that arise from a life lived at least partially in physical community. 

There was never a time when I realized all of these connection opportunities in person. But with the sudden inadvisability of in-person contact, relying on texts and Zoom and Twitter began to feel more hollow than before. Instead of handily filling in the gaps, those tools have become primary platforms to maintain entire friendships. They’re not, generally speaking, equal to the long-term task.

Letters are.


Why is this? I’ll offer two understandings gleaned from a year and more of writing deeply and regularly to friends and strangers. 

Both understandings require creative exercise — that formative, necessary thing you (you, reading this) need, and with which I know many of my fellow artists have been struggling, as deaths and lockdowns and vaccine worries and economic pain wear us down. 

First: To write to a person, or to read what they have written you, is to spend real time with them. It’s asynchronous, yes, but I think of it as sacred time, time-out-of-time, in which clock-time ceases to signify.

It’s real time because you are focused on that person. There is no room (indeed, no opportunity) to check your DMs or switch to a different channel, and there is only this one person you can listen to at a time. The conversation is very slow. You can read or write only one side of it at once, which forces a particular kind of concentrated presence. You can pause your conversation to think or feel about something your friend has said. You have what feels like infinite space and time to respond internally, to process, to enjoy. 

You are also doing the work, all this while, of creating your correspondent there in your mind and heart. To recall or imagine a friend is a creative act, and also a specific pleasure. A letter places this work at the center of your being for as long as it takes to write, or to read.

Also: Creating a physical object is an act of magic, or an act of prayer. 

I like to understand things intellectually. I used to think of magic as something abstruse, and I wasn’t really surprised when I couldn’t make it “work.” Obviously, I was doing something wrong. I used to be frankly baffled by prayer. How do you even start? 

Sometimes the answer is just to do or make a thing. The act of creation is… creation. You are taking the materials around you, and shaping them, with your hands and whatever expertise you own, into a new object in the world. 

To create that object with a very specific recipient in mind is to direct the power of your magic, or your prayer, to them, and to the relationship between you. 

A letter, hand-written, maybe illustrated or decorated, is a powerful, non-replicable piece of art, constructed with your hands and given life by your care, your interest, your attention. It forges something, both inside the writer and between writer and reader, that a text message can’t. 


My art has been my anchor in this last long terrible year, and my strong companion. Though poetry, my primary art, cuts as deeply as it heals, still I am fortunate that it has journeyed with me. 

I have written here before that I need to commune with my places to write the deep poems I love. This type of communion has been in short supply for some time, and it has followed that most of the new work I’ve crafted feels adrift, amorphous, unspecific. Not so my letters.

I have said that a letter is a piece of art. I think it is one quite as beautiful and valid as poem. This is the end of the similarities. 

I feel expansive when I sit to write a letter. Free-wheeling, like I’m embarking on an essay — yet much less formal. I can ramble in a letter, and excuse myself with phrases like “wandered off-topic again.” I can spell things wrong and cross them out and muddle my thoughts and still feel unembarrassed to put a stamp on the envelope. A letter feels unfinished because it is. This is a feature of the genre. 

All art is a conversation, but usually we have to remind ourselves that’s true. A letter knows that in its very form. By choosing to create, and enjoy, this physical art form, we assert to each other and we reassure ourselves that we’re not suffering, enjoying, analyzing, and exploring this life alone.

The regular work of this creative reassurance is, I continue to discover, infinitely worth the considerable time and effort it requires. Full and slow attention to ourselves — each other, our world, and our shared and divergent experiences — is yet another healing friend. Speaking for myself, but knowing I am not alone, I can say that I need to cultivate as many of those as I can.

Three Healing Friends

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood, which will be available for pre-order in May 2021.

This is the latest installment in Tara’s monthly column about the creative practice.

If you connect with Tara’s work, consider supporting her Patreon.

About a month ago, I had one of those days where everything feels hard. Without belaboring the intensity — perhaps you already know what I mean — I will say that the feeling is like a long and unexpected eclipse. A dark day of the soul. 

These eclipses come upon me periodically. No precipitating event is needed. No particular activity, no success, and no special treat will solve them. But I have accumulated a number of useful prescriptions for getting through them.

I recite poems. I remind myself that no feeling is final. I try deliberately to react to the day’s specific difficulties with patience, kindness, and courage. These help, over time, by building my experience of resilience. (“I knew I could do it…because I’d already done it,” as Harry says to Hermione.) It’s true they don’t make me feel better right away. This particular day, I found, to complement them, something that did. 

Three somethings, in fact. I want to think about these three for a little while; about how they serve as healers and friends — not just on dark days, but also everydays. About how, if I invite them, they also heal and companion my practice of writing poems. About how I suspect that they, or somethings like them, are universal friends — not just to me, but to you as well.  

The first healing friend is silence.

Silence comes in many forms. I happen to have a deep need for the one form over which I have no control: silence external to me, all around me. On the particular day I am remembering, I didn’t have it. What I did have: the ability to still my own hands, and close my own mouth on sighs of frustration, explanations, and that talking-it-through-out-loud thing I often do when I feel stressed.

There’s a particular serenity that attends the arrival and settling of inner silence. I cannot compel it. But I’ve discovered that I can invite it by the practice of outer silence. The outer sort and the inner are not equivalent; one does not necessarily even lead to the other. But their substances are similar enough that it’s worth learning how to do the one you really can affect. It’s also more difficult than it sounds. Try it — for more than a minute, or an hour, or a day, whatever your threshold is — and you’ll see.

For awhile, I had a regular practice of deliberate outer silence. I moved house, the pandemic moved in everywhere, and my practice fell away. On this particular dark day, I remembered to turn back toward it, and it felt like turning toward home. 

The second healing friend is sunshine.

If the first friend was familiar, this one surprised me utterly. I have always been a shade-seeker. But this day, I sat at the kitchen table, where the sun is strongest in my house, and I shut my eyes and spread out my hands and just fully soaked in the strengthening light. 

I never do this. My skin marks, for one thing. So I was startled to find, after only a couple of minutes, that my pain had shifted, enough that I didn’t feel constantly like screaming.

I moved to the front porch, so the sun could bathe my whole self. Out of the silence I’d been holding, I sang the sun a song of praise. And then I sang another, and then some totally unrelated songs, just because it felt so good to keep singing, and to keep feeling grateful. 

Singing is the third healing friend.

“Of course,” said a human friend I told about it later. “Singing forces you to breathe.” 


Since that day, I have sought out my new friend sunshine for short soaks. This is the right descriptor — the action is like a warm bath, in its pure pleasure and slowness and physicality. 

And I’ve started a weekly practice of silence and singing. Leave me alone long enough and I’ll sing, but I forget this friend when I’m emotionally tired, or near other humans who aren’t also singing, or keeping company with too many responsibilities. So my practice is sited mid-week, in the afternoon, when I’m most likely to forget without the ritual to prompt me. I sit somewhere by myself, and after holding some silence I let a song rise up, and then another and another, until I feel even. 

Pretty often lately, I’ve been sitting outside, combining my healing pleasures. And pretty often — not always right away, sometimes the next morning, as I walk outside — a new poem leaps from the nest and tries its wings. 

My working theory is that the silence and the sunshine and the singing are key materials of the nest I am always building, to hold whatever thoughts, feelings, rhythms, and ideas become my poems. The more attentively constructed the nest, the more nourished the wordlings it incubates. 

In themselves, silence, sunbathing, and singing are just play. They have neither obvious use nor monetary value. They therefore cannot get in the way of creativity. Once you embrace “wasting” time, and not getting paid, whatever you really need to do or says starts opening up.* 

This maybe sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s not at all. It’s counter-capitalist for sure: it rubs the wrong direction across all the ways we’re trained to think about “producing” — a type of knowledge so ingrained we sometimes mistake it for instinctive or intuitive. But intuition is just experience added to paying attention. And that leads me right to silence and sunbaths and singing, and says to my poem-grasping brain: Stop talking. Start right here. 

What I am doing when I compose is breathing, praying, attending. This is the key, I think, to why my three particular healers encourage my specific work. Each of them teaches these things in the body.

To sit simply in the sun is prayer, is attention, is gratitude. 

To be silent is to attend, without trying to mediate, to the world that breathes inside you and around you. 

To sing is to breathe with, and to make an offering in return. 

Which reminds me that I recently named a particular phase of writing “The Singing.” I gave this name to the time after I’ve finished a complex work, and it’s still inhabiting me, still actively a part of my daily being. What I end up doing in that phase is offering those poems—out loud and with gratitude—to the places, and the states of mind and heart, that helped me compose them. 

I like the symmetry of this: sun and silence and singing lead to attention, leads to Shaping, leads to Singing. Which leads, when the voice is ready, back to silence. Back to sitting (in the sun, perhaps), and accepting this moment’s gift.

What is the moment’s gift, on a day such as I described above, a dark day of the soul? The spiral here is so tight it’s nearly a tautology. The moment’s gift is the sun (or the rain, or the thunder, or the warm breeze.) It’s your body’s ability to quiet, and your throat’s — or just your soul’s — willingness to sing.


*This is the part where some of you say “what a privilege, to accept not getting paid!” And yes, you’re right. The acceptance applies without the privilege, too, but it’s harder to literally live with. Give away money, join a community organization, get involved in local politics. Replace profit-worship capitalism with a system that’s based on people instead of money. Yes, yes, yes, yes this is very hard, and also we can do this.

The Singing

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood, which will be available for pre-order in May 2021. This is the latest installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.

Such silence. I step out onto the covered back porch and listen while my eyes adjust to the moonless dark. Nothing. Then: a car on the highway, half a mile away. A light wind, jostling the arborvitae. At last, so low and deep I have to think it first: the winter sea, resonant in the middle distance. 

It is the week between Christmas and the New Calendar Year, and I have come with my housemate-family to a little-sung slice of Oregon’s edge. We’ll spend six days reading, cooking, hiking, and playing board games, without the clock to rule us. It is the end of 2020, and Covid-19 has made the usual holiday travel ill-advised. We like each other enough to vacation together, so we have made yet another virtue of quarantine.

I am intending, this week, to write poetry. Among things I love, writing poetry ranks consistently high. Not poetry itself — though I do like that, very much — but the composing of it, the work of it. Poetry is a vocation primarily because it will not leave me alone. And fortunately I don’t want it to. We’re suited. 

Fast forward five days. I have sat down each morning to write, and I have written. It’s all bad. Beautiful words, that wander with me down lonely beaches and secret, sand-floored halls of pine, in written form decline to become other than blowsy prose. 

I don’t despair. Writing crap is an important part of eventually writing well. But I am disappointed. Such silence, such a lack of responsibility, such an enviable spaciousness of time — and I haven’t written a single other-than-ordinary sentence, even in my oldest and best companion, my journal. 

Is this writer’s block? The conflicting advice on this phenomenon (or figment, depending on who you ask) makes my head ache. My strategy has been to ignore the idea unless it becomes immediately relevant. I’m pondering it this afternoon, and deciding it’s still not applicable. I’m writing; I’m just not writing anything worth working on. I close the keyboard, button my jacket, pull on my boots. The beach will sort me out, one way or another. 


The sharpening southwest wind drives rain into my eyes, rolls cylinders of seafoam up the winter-steep sand. I’m grounded for balance among dull-gold sedges, in the space between three big dunes. I am speaking poems. I realize I have been doing this — in my mind, under my breath, quite loudly in places devoid of other humans — all week. 

This is the same beach, in the same season, where I composed two poems from my recently finished, forthcoming book, Tell the Turning. It’s these two I’m speaking now. One’s a memorized whole; the other’s a jumble of fragments, puzzle pieces spilling from my tongue to scatter sandward. 

I have stopped trying to compose. A fierceness has welled up in me, a need to speak these poems already shaped. To whom, and to what purpose, am I telling them? Sky and sea accept them without comment. 


I have written before that the process of writing a long work has two distinct phases. The Gathering is a gentle, curious, wandery state. The Shaping that follows it is more like falling in love: focused, exhilarating, intense. Until now, these are as far as my experience went. 

Tell the Turning has been Gathered and Shaped (and Re-Shaped.) It has found a publisher (and — unexpectedly, wonderfully — an illustrator.) All of its momentum now belongs to them: typesetting, pen and ink, an ISBN. My work would seem to be finished. Today I am learning that this is not the case. There’s a third phase.

Back from the beach, this afternoon I have been in the hot tub again. (It’s a principal attraction of the house we rented.) This too summons a poem — nothing to do with a hot tub, but with a feeling I have this week, of immediate enclosing warmth surrounded by elemental chill, of surfacing to a space of quiet after a time of turmoil. 

This moment, I am bundled in blankets on the porch. I can hear the distant surf just over the pastures, feel the cold fastening down as the sky solidifies, and listen to the wind in the douglas-firs, and a gutterspout dripping with melted frost. Poems come like memories: sharp or gentle; insistent. Now that I’m paying attention to their need for it, I’m letting each one borrow my voice, and take its time to take form and flight. 

I am, as near as I can tell, incanting Tell the Turning — helping in some speak-aloud way to encourage its physical form. I did not begin on purpose, but I am speaking now with serious intention. I love these poems, these lines and lilts and rhythms already born of me. I am no longer in charge of the logistics of their physical manifestation. Instead, I am chanting them into being. 

Because poems are more than sounds, because they require also rhythm, and often feel as though they are halfway set to music — the name of this phase (it’s so obvious now) is The Singing. 


I sometimes don’t realize I’m conceiving a new project. Especially if it’s a big one, like a book — something that will begin in the amorphous Gathering stage and gestate there for awhile. I have a lot of ideas, and a need to be always creating. Sometimes it takes being blocked — as I have been these past five days — to show me that I’m trying to create something I am not yet ready to create. Intuition is telling me: this is not a project, yet. It’s telling me also: Sing the project that’s still inside your heart. 

The Singing seems to be about launching a finished work into the world, but there’s a shadowy complement to that much-admired forward movement. The Singing contains a sadness too, a letting go. It has come to help prepare me — to live in the world without having this work to do. 

There will be other work. I’ve been trying this week to get to some of it, but it’s the unfocused, Gathering sort, and it’s not yet satisfying. The concentrated work of The Shaping is a long way off again, and I miss it. I’m tripping over my longings because I still need to acknowledge and let them be. 

Wendell Berry wrote a line that comes to me often: Again I resume the long lesson. This understanding that I cannot do two, three, ten things at once without consequence is a long lesson I am learning over and over. I am done writing Tell the Turning, but it is not done with me. Before I can move on to give full attention to another project of this scale, I need to shape this one some wings and let it go. I need to shape myself some wings, too: for floating, dreaming, back toward a Gathering space. 

It seems my way of doing this is to Sing. 


I’ve brought them home from the coast, and will be incanting some of these poems publicly as well. Typically, I publish one original poem a month, with audio, at PDXpersky.com. In the months leading up to Tell the Turning’s release (so, starting now), I’m turning that practice into an extension of The Singing. You are cordially invited. 

This Is Not a Project

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood, which will be available for pre-order in May 2021. This is the latest installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.

My word for this year is Listen. 

Almost the moment I settled on this word, it began to resonate in ways I did not expect. It turns out that if you are focused on listening, just about anything will come to you with a message. Including things that are traditionally classified in my language as inanimate — for example, creative projects.

I choose a word every year, somewhere in the long new year season that begins at October’s end. In fact I don’t choose my word; I let it come to me. How does this work? I don’t know. Intuition. Listening. (That’s right: my present word is deeply meta.) If you pay attention — and you get a bit of a bonus when you have experience to apply to that attention — you’ll know when you’ve got the right word. 

The element you don’t have to know is why. Part of the magic — part of the utility — of having a year-word is letting is surprise you as the year unfolds. 

Which is what happened to me when my new writing project refused midstream to become a project at all. 

I think of creative projects like this: “self-directed, long-term generative exercise[s] with a unifying theme or goal. Installments are done at regular, pre-determined intervals. They’re published as I go, creating accountability for myself, and allowing for outside participation.” This definition derives from experience, and attention to that experience. But maybe in this case I’ve been letting Experience pull ahead of Attention, when really they function best as equal partners. 

Per Experience, I had outlined themes, goals, intervals, accountability, and outside participation for what I was calling The SW Portland Pilgrimage Project. Themes and goals went swimmingly in practice: there were long walks across places I’d never met. My mental map of my own city filled in appreciably. I savored the parks, the views, the wayfinding, the jaywalking, the iffy interstices and the ugly edges. Every day I got to spend on the trail was a great day. 

The writing part, though: the writing was hard. This should have been my first clue. But I wasn’t listening.

The pre-writing involved taking notes as I walked — not an unusual practice for me. But this time, it was a slog. Even as I cataloged thoughts, I got impatient. I felt rushed. Those feelings kept surfacing, because I kept ignoring them. 

The drafting involved — again, per Experience — sitting down as soon as possible to turn my notes into prose. I got anxious and annoyed when I found that this, too, was a slog. Technically, the write-ups I produced are fine: they’re well-written, they’re on-theme, they’re interesting. But they lack the spark that animates all good writing. I tried and failed to strike that spark six times. 

The presentation involved figuring out a way to model (specifically, to map, in the sense of mind-mapping) my pilgrimage. I spent whole days on this, hitting conceptual and then technical barriers that became — instead of puzzles to solve — monsters to slay. I was angry. I was staying up way past my bedtime. I was bursting into tears over bad search functionality in support forums. The message, at this point, was coming in loud and clear, and I finally listened. This is not a project.


Projects are a lens. Or a model, if you like, or a tool. A particular way of engaging curiously with the world. Using this tool has helped me accomplish goals, inhabit new ideas, meet people, play more, and become more myself. You can see why I love it — and why, perhaps, I’m liable to approach every problem or interest or idea with a project designed to explore and illuminate it. Suddenly I’m remembering that old saying about hammers and nails. 

The SW Portland pilgrimage continues. The moment I struck that word project, the pilgrimage part took its rightful place at the heart. The walking — a practice, not an analysis, of attention, locality, & fidelity — became, as it was meant to be, the purpose of the undertaking. 

I love writing. I love creating an interaction point for my online community. Those are both things projects love too. They are not what this pilgrimage wanted to be about. I was trying to analyze before the experience had time to even happen, let alone to settle.* I was trying to communicate it out without absorbing it myself. I was intellectualizing something fundamentally mysterious, materializing something fundamentally spiritual, and publicizing something fundamentally private. 


Sometimes you come up with a good idea, and you’re wrong about it. 

Listen to the idea along the way, because it’s telling you how it wants to be shaped. It’s telling you if you’re bending it a direction that will only break. This is not the end of the idea, even if you do break it. You get a choice now: adjust, have faith, and accept the opportunity to cultivate patience. Or, lament the time and the effort “wasted,” and keeping trying to hammer that thing that’s not a nail.

Fiction writers talk about this with character and plot: how they can’t make a character do anything, or the story will stall; how characters, once given life, expect a say in it. When Elizabeth Gilbert was interviewed for On Being, she talked about how ideas have lives of their own, how they actively partner with us to become incarnate. 

All of this sounds a little magical and fuzzy for our technically-advanced, bottom-line society. For me, to be awkwardly honest. But I don’t have to — I don’t get to — believe in it. It’s there to be experienced, and I just have, again. The mystical-sounding thing we call intuition is really just those two partners I was talking about earlier: Experience and Attention, pulling in tandem. 

So here I am, paying attention, applying my experience. Listening. 


* I copied out a passage, years ago now, from Jonathan Raban on exactly this — how the writer’s constant dilemma is simply: experience, or reflection? Past Me (not yet a writer) was already storing up lessons that Future Me needed. 

Photo credit: Tara K. Shepersky

Mapping the Creative Self: On Mind Maps, Play, and Broccoli

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She is also the creator of The PenPal Project, an experiment with community, sustainability, and joy. This is the latest installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.

Recently I drew a map of my thoughts. It was a Monday afternoon; I was sitting outside. I started scribbling words and pictures, circling them, connecting them. Entries included: solitude, loneliness, grief, prayer, salt, Quakerism, politics, Jane Austen, “the sky right now,” and broccoli.

Do you know about mind-mapping? A book called (I am not kidding) How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci* taught me how to mind-map when I was maybe 14, and I’ve returned to the practice many times since, shifting the exact technique to suit my needs. 

Occasionally I use it to think through a problem or an important choice, but that’s not a fun use, it’s a productivity-related use, and productivity is a pursuit I mostly avoid. 

I’m told — constantly, by people or corporations who are trying to sell me aids to both — that productivity and creativity can play nice. I’m also told this by intelligent folks whose enormously productive creative output I enjoy — like Craig Mod, and Nicole Dieker

But if I’ve learned anything useful about my own creativity, it’s that it doesn’t like to be scheduled or timed or optimized. It will produce under those conditions, but it prefers — and tends to make better art on — its own terms. I’ve also learned that trying to negotiate those terms leads, more often than not, to a tangled pile of emotional exhaustion, missed sunrises, and tears.

So — I use mind-maps not as a productivity tool, but as a way to preserve and explore a moment in time. Maybe for later use in a poem or essay; maybe because my brain won’t stop spinning and I need to dump everything out to get a good look at it. Maybe as a snapshot for comparison with earlier snapshots, so I can see the way my curiosities and resonances, my reading and my thinking and my worrying, change and connect from from moment to moment.

It’s been said enough times that I don’t know who said it: all artists have a few primary themes they return to, again and again. Mapping creates a visual record of my themes: what’s stuck around, what’s refined or shifted, what’s resolved. This kind of record makes a fine place to begin — or a fine yardstick to revise — a piece of art. 

I also take notes during lectures/interviews/author conversations (like the online events Point Reyes Books and Emergence Magazine have been holding throughout the pandemic), and during those long and intense idea conversations you sometimes have with friends. These notes tend to take a mind-map shape. They’re messier, less considered, less illustrated than the free-write sort. I keep them jammed together in a tiny notebook, to see how they speak to each other. (The Florilegia Project continues to inspire.**)

Sometime I make maps for no particular reason — for play. In 2018-2019, I was very into seasonal mapping. At each quarter and cross-quarter day (Samhain, the solstices, etc), I would map the moon phase, the hours of daylight, the flowers in bloom and birds in action, dominant landscape colors, phases of tree bark, my own seasonal traditions.*** I have one of these maps for each of the eight seasonal turns. I never expected to put them to this use, of course, but here we are in this Covidtide of never traveling — and my maps have become bridges to beautiful memory, and consolations when I miss my places and people.

There’s something playful in the format of the mind map itself, maybe because it’s not my usual type of creative endeavor. My various maps are drawings, not prose or poetry. They have words all over them, mostly because I’m not technically gifted or skilled at illlustration. But those words are fragmentary, directionally wayward on the page, and their context is deconstructed. Sometimes I don’t remember what I meant by them at the time. (“Salt?” No idea.) The result, at least at the time, often matters less to me than the doing. I’m not invested in an outcome. I’m exploring.

And sometimes play is a type of problem-solving, just for fun: I enjoy the feeling of wrangling a random and fleeting moment onto a static page. 

I like to imagine mixing all of my maps together, into one very large book. It starts out looking quite normally book-like, but then pages unfold backwards and upwards and accordian-style, until what I have is an illustrated imagining of my own brain over a period of years. 

In fact, there’s interesting software that does something like this, brought to my attention by Lucy Bellwood, the kind of friend with whom I can have those aforementioned long and intense idea conversations. Lucy’s brain — in conversation, or on a screen as a bunch of connected nodes — is a fascinating place to explore.

I enjoy a useful and boundaried piece of tech, but my get-paid daily life under capitalism necessitates too much time on the internet already, so I’m keeping my own brain maps in paper form. 

Besides, I love hand-writing things. It’s something about the slowness, the physical texture and colors, the way I’m not choosing a typeface but writing in a hand that no one can standardize, the direct line from my mind to this piece of exploratory art it represents.

A couple of months ago, before the quick Monday map, I sat down with a larger page and mapped my pre-occupations, sorted (by shape of outline) into Curiosities & Experiments, Passions & Committments, Resonant Work, Places, and Worries. 

Doing this reminded me of some things I wanted to think about in essay form. You’ve seen some of the fruit of that, turned into previous entries in this column

As I’m looking at it right now, it’s reminding me of some worries that haven’t changed, but that I have some new ideas about addressing. This map is nudging me, from way back in October: it’s time to take action. 

It’s also, from the entry “gardening” (an Experiment), sub-entry “broccoli” (again!), reminding me to get outside and bring in the harvest.**** Literally this time. 


*I still have the “think like da Vinci” book, I’ve read it more than once, and there was a period where I worked very seriously through most of the exercises. (Probably the same period I learned to mind-map; that’s at least one of the exercises.) The title maybe hasn’t aged well out of 1996, but I hereby profess to you my earnest and unironic appreciation for this book. I should probably read it again to see if I still also love it and/or find it useful.

** “Florilegia is a practice of reading and pondering, of conversing with literature by pulling out the phrases that “sparkle,” removing them from their original context into a new one. Fresh meaning may be discovered in this aggregation of sparklets, their conversation with each other. In new context they may generate new ideas, create questions or beauties or conundrums.” Source:
https://pdxpersky.com/the-florilegia-project/ 

***I believe I got the idea for seasonal maps from Sharon Blackie, who thinks and teaches about modern myth and its intersection with ecology.

****Yes! It’s January! The broccoli plants I put in as starts in July are still going.