Virtue(s) and the Creative Life

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.

This morning I took a walk, just a little before full dawn. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading this on a different day than I’m writing it. I will likely still have just taken a walk before dawn. I will likely still have made the following request as soon as I could see the open sky: “Patience. Kindness. Courage.” 

For someone who historically wrestles with the very idea of prayer, I’ve taken to this simple practice of it without premeditation. In three words, I remind myself to cultivate three virtues. 


I’ve had an unusually focused, connected, intense, very physically present couple of days. I find this kind of density over time clears the scattered buzzing of the brain more effectively than just about anything else. Two days is only a very little time to experience such density, but it was enough this morning to prompt some curiosity about my daily request.

Patience, Kindness, Courage. Why these three? 

A) I’m not naturally any good at them. 

B) I admire them when I see them at work in other people. Virtues are not personality traits. They’re something you can practice. They’re habits. 

C) Patience, kindness, and courage are my own application of the cardinal Stoic virtues.* I have a long-standing interest in Stoicism — Stoic like the school of philosophy, not stoic like the modern adjective — owing at least partially to my argumentative acquaintanceship with a dead Roman Emperor named Marcus.** 

It’s a Stoic practice to account daily for the ways in which you did or did not follow the cardinal virtues, since that (and not the rest of the world) is what lies within a Stoic’s own ability.

I’ve been realizing lately that the part of my life where I can most clearly observe and cultivate patience, kindness, and courage at work in me is in fact my creative practice. So let’s take these one by one, and maybe we’ll learn something together. 

Patience

I usually have at least one creative project going that is meant for my own growth or learning or play — something that stays focused on curiosity and not “work.” All of these projects to date have been designed to last a year. Occasionally that gets to feeling ridiculous, especially when they involve doing literally the same thing every day. 

So far, anyway, there’s always been discernible value in sticking it out. I can’t predict what that value might be, and there are absolutely no shortcuts: time in is the thing. Completing year-long projects is teaching me — is allowing me to practice — patience.

As are the fallow times. Between projects, when I’m tired or sick or too busy, I tend to get anxious. It’s hard to shake that cultural+generational inculcation that we should always be producing. I’m learning, though. Non-linearly, of course; the lesson never endeth. This time last year, I finished a manuscript I was completely in love with, and immediately started panicking in the sudden vacuum. A year later, I’m similarly lacking for active, sustained creative project-work — in the midst of a pandemic, which my country is loudly Not Handling. I’m okay.

I mentioned “time in” a minute ago. This is a key teacher of patience in itself. I’ve learned — by doing — that the words will (probably) come. 

Something similar applies to the specific process of writing a poem. Not poetry. A poem. Sometimes I write ten lines I love, that I know are on fire — and a concluding two lines that are… fine. I go back and I poke at those two lines (and the other ten, for good measure), as long as it takes to light them up, too. Once it took two years. An unknown number of times, it’s never going to happen. “Things take the time they take.”

Kindness

Two very dear friends of mine have just moved to Canada. (They are married, and one of them is a Canadian citizen — which is why Canada let them in right now.) As one of these friends said the other day, when we sat masked, 10 feet away, and outdoors in 45-degree Fahrenheit sunshine to say goodbye: “I want to live someplace just a little more kind.

I cannot stop thinking about this. It’s never occurred to me that America, as a whole, might not be kind. Nor that we might be; I’ve never thought about it at all. I was born here, I’m a citizen, and I’ve never lived anywhere else longer than a month. Which makes my understanding of our national character subject to a particular sort of innocent insider’s bias. America is… America, and for the first time I’m thinking about what that means in daily practice. 

I’m on a bit of a mission these days to bring more kindness to my own daily living. I can’t change my country wholesale — I ought not to try if I could; I’d surely miss something critical. But I can shift myself. Creative practice is a useful place for an artist to actually do this. 

I started something a couple of months ago called The PenPal Project. It has multiple goals, one of which is community. I know lots of people. I’m also 37, have lived in one metro nearly my whole adult life, and have a decided social point of view. So I want to make sure I have, and contribute to, authentic conversation with a wider circle of folks than I’ve grown used to. 

Whatever you believe, wherever you’re from, and whoever you voted for federally and locally in this last election, I think you and I can exchange mutually interesting letters. I think we have something good to say to each other. I think kindness is based on caring, and caring can be created more easily than you think: by just getting to know folks.

Courage

Of the three, courage is the virtue in which I feel most persistently deficient. How we need it, though!  The practice of patience, and the practice of kindness, require also the practice of courage.

In 2015, I decided to do something about my fear of showing my writing to other people. “Fear” is an understatement, actually. I created my first public project, which I called TrailAWeek

The number and quality of lessons that I have learned since then — about writing, about people, about online presence, about the more-than-human-world — is directly the result of gathering the courage to try something that felt, to me-then, strange and audacious. 

And courage, it seems, begets courage. You learn that you will not die of embarrassment. You start to think — especially as your country’s political situation deteriorates — about what you could die for, and what you are learning about whether and how you could meet that. 

To make art is to stand for something. At the least, it commits your time, your talent, your thought and your conversation toward particular projects, which are never just frozen in paper or stone or pixels. They are living, and they are constantly shaping you back. Art narrows the field of possibility that is your public — and increasingly your private — face. It exposes you: to you, and to anyone else. You learn to be ready to meet that exposure. You learn to be curious about the fresh paths it might show you. You learn when fear is useful, and when it will only hold you back. You learn how to stand for other things than art.


My husband and some of my other friends are pretty into Dungeons & Dragons. They introduced me to the prototypical character alignment chart, where one axis is Lawful—Neutral—Chaotic, and the other is Good—Neutral—Evil. So your character can be Lawful Evil, Chaotic Good, True Neutral (Neutral/Neutral), etc. Simplistic, right? But this very simplicity is a useful model for extrapolating to the complexities of actual living people, and how and why they choose to do what they do.

We got into a protracted discussion once, in which we argued each other into an understanding that’s become a tenet of my daily life: there is no such thing as True Neutral. Neutral trends Evil. 

What does this mean? Neutrality is the attempt not to take sides in a conflict — ideological or moral or physical or whatever. Rarely is a conflict evenly matched; there is nearly always a more powerful party, perhaps because one person is physically stronger (or more skilled at verbal persuasion). Perhaps one point of view has the law on its side, and the other is fighting for legal recognition. By choosing no side, the neutral party implicitly chooses to aid the side that already has more power. Doing nothing is a vote for the status quo. And the status quo — because power corrupts, and corruption fears justice — trends evil.***

Your job, as an artist, is to resist evil. I realize this is a controversial statement. Remember, I have learned some hills I’m willing to die on, figuratively and also possibly otherwise. Your job, as an artist, is unequivocally to resist evil, and to co-create good. 

Paying attention to the virtues of your regular creative practice is one way to learn how to resist evil and work towards good. Giving some thought to the virtues you want to cultivate****, and how you might practice or explore them in your art, sets you up with solid coordinates. Once you know what those are, you might find they’re far away, over difficult terrain. But you’ve got a map: your art. 

I’ve found that having specific virtues to navigate by gives my art a better chance of spotting neutrality, interrogating its intentions, and bending it toward good. Which teaches me how to pay attention and uplift the good in the rest of my life, too. 

I’m going to mess up, my friends. Maybe every day. Working hard to find a thing does not necessarily deliver it into our hands.

There’s a walk tomorrow morning, though. There’s always the chance to step under the open sky and remind myself: Patience. Kindness. Courage.


*The more usual translation of the cardinal Stoic virtues is Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation. Wisdom and Justice are part and parcel of spending enough time with Patience and Kindness, as far as I’m concerned, and I end up kind of lumping Moderation in with Patience. Translation! It’s neither exact nor simple, between languages or between minds!

**At one point, Marcus references “poetry, and other such lapses of taste,” and it makes me laugh at both of us every time.

***Justice in the deepest sense, which is not to be mistaken for mere adherence to Law.

****They don’t have to be Stoic virutes. Equity is a fine one, for example. Simplicity. Truthfulness. Conscientiousness. Et cetera. You probably already know what you value. If not, ask yourself what you admire, what you wish you could be like. You probably can. 

Writing in Place

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

I took the day off yesterday. Instead of work, I had a long drive through the cloud-bound autumn forests draped around the feet of Mount Saint Helens. The forecast called for partial sun, mountain views. I drove in rain that was quiet and soft and curled up close, like a cat. 

At the shores of a reservoir, at official viewpoints utterly wiped by fog, at a nameless trail, I got out to walk. Within minutes of the nameless trailhead, alderfall had broken and partially blocked a wooden footbridge. I crawled beneath it, crouched in half and pivoting sideways — toes, then heels — my back brushing life and death. On the other side, half an hour of maple-carpet trail time, so silent I could hear my weird brain-creaks, like the rigging of a tall ship, and the hushed irregular mutterings of my digestion. 

I have eaten and spoken and slept and watched a film, but I am still inside that forest. I’m a human-shaped spell. Or a human connected by blood and air to the other-than-human. Or a human lost, and reclaimed by the wood. 

This is the space from which I write my poetry. Like most places I routinely traveled in the course of my pre-covid life, I hadn’t been there in many longing months. 


Before covid, I could have told you I write in place. I can revise a piece anywhere, but new poems grow from the ground I’m resting on, the trees I walk among, and the creeks I wander. 

Last fall I spent a week in rural Tennessee, intending to finish a manuscript that was composed entirely in the place I call “the fields,” near my home in western Oregon. I did that, but I kept getting interrupted by the much more urgent work of shaping sentences to the gentle hills and deciduous woods around me. Poetry and walking are how I talk to a place, and I like to think my poems are also, partially, a translation of what the place speaks in return. 

This year I’ve been nowhere. Well, I’ve been home. High-risk family, work-from-home, cancelled all our plans: you know the story. And I know that I have been a fortunate narrator. Not least because my home — rented before the pandemic, and moved into in the very teeth of the first days of lockdown — is quiet and beautiful. And private, for all it’s in city limits, next to a park. Its neighborhood, and the network of them that spread from here across my city’s wooded hills, is pleasant to walk. So that’s most of my needs covered. Except travel. Since when is travel something a person can need?

This year, I’ve written plenty of poems. As far as I know, it’s impossible for me not to. I compose if I’m conscious, the way I bleed if you cut me. But until this homebound year, I hadn’t fully understood a conflict at the center of my life, which is this: I like my home landscape just fine. And I’ve never learned to love it. We hang out all the time. And we don’t connect. 

If I want to connect, to write in place where I connect, I need to travel. In service of that connection, I tend to re-travel, to places where I have experienced communion. I need communion.

So when I write poems from my home — low inland valleys and cottonwooded rivers, a littleish metro increasingly packed tight in its urban growth boundary — they tend to be poems I like, and I’m not in love with. They come from a state of being I like too, and am not in love with. They come from practicality and settledness, from work and repetition. Never from ecstasy or untranslatable depth, never communion. 

Until this year, it seemed reasonable to stay with a place that keeps me (or I keep it?) at arm’s length. Within a few hours and a tank or three of gas, or an airplane ticket, I could be somewhere that gets me. And I made those journeys, often. I was high when I traveled and low when I got home. Now I’m sort of… tranquilized. Not tranquil; it feels like something done to me, not organic. I’m wondering if I need to break up with my landscape.

Poetry is an interesting road in to this question. With a smaller and less dazzling pool of inspiration, I’m forced to new thoughts. Pretty often, unwelcome ones. 

A particular landscape shapes (scapes!) thought and expression the way a specific language does. The thinking I can do in this landscape where I live creates work that is less satisfying to me. Why is that? What am I learning from it? And… is this ever going to be okay?

One of my specific frustrations has to do with my limited walks. I wander the same neighborhoods, with their seams and pass-throughs, their curving streets and mountain views and occasional anxious dogs. And I get bored with this place, beautiful as it objectively is. It feels like a failure to admit this. I believe in re-walking, for the same reasons I believe in re-travel. Craig Mod wrote, in one of his wonderful newsletters, that “re-walking is as important as re-reading,” and I got that little electric zip! of recognition. I re-walk because it takes time — days or seasons or years — to get to know a place, to let it work on you. I don’t dislike what this one has worked in me. I just don’t desire it. 

To learn and grow is maybe the best we can ask from non-optimal circumstance. Though it’s possible, too, to realize a circumstance is better than you thought. This is a shape of my hope. But I’m skeptical. I miss my places as much as I miss my human family. I miss my ecstatic work maybe more. 

Maybe some of what I’m learning is how to be faithful. 

Is it fidelity if you’re physically stuck? I think so. Faithfulness is a habit of discipline, perhaps, rather than a wild inspiration. And a habit of mind, embodied through physical practice. I am faithful to this place because I still go out to meet it, every day, with my heart as open as I can make it. I am faithful to my creative life, because here I am, writing in this place. 

The question of whether this is “okay” might be answered by saying that none of us are okay right now. Even when I’m having a good week, feeling healthy, finding tiny joys all over, the most honest way I can ever answer that bugaboo “how are you?” is a rueful smile and my husband’s phrase: “apocalypse-okay!” 

This might pass. For better or worse, humans are great at adjusting. 

It might not pass. Our world’s immediate future is a mixed bag that includes some serious horrors. These lead in to the smaller, more personal horrors: restricted travel, et cetera. To all of this, difficulty, depression, and grin-and-bear-it catchphrases are a reasonable response. 

So the real question, as usual, is how to balance. Maybe a personal silver lining of this year is getting a look at this need, getting clarity on what I think I require to write, and why. 

I can’t help longing for this spellbound forest-feeling to remain, because who knows when I can leave my city next? Though settledness is good too, I sometimes think. Calmer, anyway. Rooted, even if it’s not the soil I think I grow best in. A phrase from Teilhard de Chardin, that I heard probably ten times before its seed got through my tarmacked brain, is suddenly resonant:

“The world, this palpable world, which we were wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it.”

The creative life — life, an inherently creative state — is capricious and random and unfair, as well as joyful and rewarding. “Stuck” in a place I both brush aside and automatically claim as home, I can learn to live — to walk and to write and to talk — with my unwanted new clarity. 

I’ll certainly write poems within it, unecstatically. Faithfully. They’ll companion me and they’ll question me and they’ll teach me, like they always do.

Photo credit: Tara K. Shepersky

How Valuable It Is, in These Short Days

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the final installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.

I have in mind a new project. It involves embarrassing myself in public. You can help. 

I don’t mean a book (although I absolutely have more than one of those in mind). I mean a creativity-adjacent practice that I’ll commit to doing regularly, in the spirit of discovery, for a specified period of time. Not a hobby so much as a ritual of creative play. 

I’ve discussed previously how projects unrelated to the daily work of writing can function as both structure & impetus for creative practice. Since 2015, I’ve had one going most of the time. Sometimes it’s a daily thing, sometimes weekly, etc. Always, there’s an element of public accountability, because that’s motivating for me. 

My current practice of play is The Florilegia Project, which is still going strong, and daily. (Well, mostly daily. Sometimes I am—or I was, before COVID-19—far from home and it slips my mind, as my routine slips with the different delights of travel. And sometimes I’m just busy, quarantine or no quarantine. So I make it up later. Daily-ish.)

Meantime, I have started copying down, in a small blue book, the poems I know by heart. This is not the project. I’ll get to that.

Okay, but—why copy poems down if I have them by heart? The most immediate reason is that I forget, sometimes, which poems I know. There are more than the four or five things most humans can easily hold in mind at once. And no one else knows my mental library, so it’s not as if I have someone to prompt me with a title or a first line. Now I have this book.

Another reason is that someday I will die. If I am very lucky, it will be when I am old and happy and finished living, and I will slip peacefully to rejoin earth and sky and river. It may not be like that. Regardless, I hope that someone I love is there when it happens*, and I imagine, because our culture is terrible at death and also because death is just hard, that person may have a difficult time knowing what to say and do. I want them to have a ready helper: this book to read aloud (or at least the knowledge of it to rely on) to comfort both of us.

(Less finally, I may have injuries or incapacities yet ahead of me in life. It seems to me that such a touchstone might come in handy for less mortal circumstances too.)

There’s a third reason, connected to the last. 

The book doesn’t have a title, but it has a quote on the flyleaf, a sparklet from The Florilegia Project, in fact: “how valuable it is, in these short days.” It’s from Molly Fisk’s graceful poem “Winter Sun”, which I discovered in this beautiful collection**. 

We never know how short or long this individual day might be—or our own days generally, or (there’s so much of this in the air now, living as many feel we do at an end of the world), our culture’s or even our species’ days as we know them. And there’s so much of value and of joy inside those days to celebrate. This book—a single copy, written by hand, of the particular poems that allow themselves to echo in my particular memory over time—is one such small and quiet celebration. Fragments I have shored against my ruin—or something like that. (See, that one I do not have memorized.)

_______

I said I had a new project, and I said that this memory-book is not it.

The book’s creation is, however, the genesis. It got me thinking along several specific lines, and out of those is born the project, which does not yet have a name. 

I.

Poetry is for reading, sure, but also, often, for speaking. That last is certainly its older form. I speak poetry to myself quite a lot, out solitary-walking.

Occasionally I’ve been asked to read my own poetry aloud. I love doing this. I’m also scared of it, and not terribly assured in the doing. My poems sound different out loud than in my head; once they’re written, I mostly read them silently. So translating aloud, sometimes I stumble. I need practice.

II.

Most of the time, I connect most deeply with words I hear, rather than words I read in silence. (Sometimes I read aloud to myself to effect this.) I may repeat and ponder them silently later, but to graft them onto my heart, I use speech.

III.

I have hundreds of songs and hymns memorized, plus several liturgical settings from the church I grew up in, and many of the various spoken formulas of my faith.

The holding of these in memory is a formative experience of my life. Not just back in the day when I first did this memorization (mostly unconsciously), but now, every day: an ongoing formation. They’re a background, a lens, and a part of my identity. They’re quite often a comfort.

IV.

The poems I have by heart function like that, too. But there are far fewer of them.

Partially, this is because I didn’t memorize a lot of poetry in childhood. (I did memorize some delightfully silly Shel Silverstein poems for campfire recitation; ask me to recite “Warning” sometime; it’s my favorite.)

So, in the last couple of years, I’ve started intentionally adding to my mental collection. 

It always sounds daunting—at least to me—to commit whole poems to memory. Turns out, though: I can still do it. You can too. The human brain is amazing.

V.

I love the practice of sitting with (walking with, breathing with) a single poem.

I am one of those people who wants to read everything, learn everything, more more more. Lately I have been learning to do less, and do it deeply.

Even writing those words, I can feel my greedy brain hasten to smooth over the actions they imply: the magazines I love and don’t get around to reading; the books I buy and don’t read, sometimes for years; the ballet class I won’t be going back to when it restarts, because it’s too late at night; the places I don’t travel and films I don’t see. Hush, brain. This is ok.

One thing about doing (and, specifically reading) less that’s better than ok: it clarifies my thinking by giving my thinking space. Yes, I know this is nothing new, but it is new to me, and I am in love with it. One reason I’m writing these words is to remind my future self: rediscover this love.

VI.

One thing I don’t have in memory is much of my own poetry.

I have, at this point, written plenty of poems. Certainly over a hundred that are “finished” and that meet my standard of beauty and value; about 30 published or about to be so. And I could not, as I was making the cover of this memory-book, call to mind more than one in its entirety. (Is that odd? Do poets today, working mostly in writing and not in speech, usually memorize their work?)

Anyway, I want to commit more of my own work to my heart as well as my voice, alongside much more poetry I love by other people. So this (at last!) is my project:

Twice a month, for one year, I will learn a new poem (or revisit an old one). I will spend time with it every day: learning it, maybe writing it out, turning it over like a small river stone in my pocket. And at the end of a couple of weeks I will recite it.

To you, if you want to hear it.

This is the accountability bit: there it will be, in my voice, posted on my website semi-regularly for anyone to hear, scoff at, comment upon, puzzle over, whatever you find yourself doing with both the poem and my voice speaking it. 

I promised in paragraph one that you could participate. I’d be grateful indeed if you did, and here are three ways you can:

1) Take a chance on listening to my (short! I promise!) recordings. Send any thoughts or questions or suggestions my way via comment or email.

2) Help me name this undertaking. Right now it’s getting vaguely called after the memory-book. If you have a suggestion, please leave it in the comments. 

3) Suggest some poems to me. I can’t guarantee I’ll love them or that my brain will want to learn them, but I will be glad to read them and find out!

So what do you think, friends? Come listen to some poems with me? Maybe memorize and record one of your own? (I would love to hear it!) We all need something to get through this present moment. I’d be pleased for you to join me. 

_________

* I conceived this project, and wrote the first draft of this introduction to it, before COVID-19 changed all of our lives. How and with whom folks are thinking about death these days has shifted. But I didn’t change my words above, because this pandemic is not the only reason to think about what it means to have a good death, or to set things in order for the loved ones you hope will survive you. “Things in order” is poetry, in this case: a little piece of comfort and ease in a big and difficult transition. But of course I also mean your will, your advance directive, your spiritual practice, your worldly affairs. 

**Since many of us are buying more books these days, can I make a plug for purchasing from your local bookstore instead of Amazon? Amazon has deprioritized books anyway. Please help your local small businesses stay afloat in this Interesting Time. If you don’t have a local bookstore, might I suggest the excellent Fact & Fiction in Missoula, Montana? Or my own local, Annie Bloom’s in Multnomah Village, Portland, Oregon?

Your Own Holy Text

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the third in an ongoing column about the creative practice.

Sometimes I hear someone talking about a thing they love or watch them doing a thing that’s part of their identity, and I imagine them writing a poem about it.

My friend, for example, who shapes and measures and tests recipes with the kind of minute attention I give to the placement of a comma. 

My mom, who is some kind of sorceress of flora. (The most practical kind imaginable: magic is work, and sometimes it hurts her back and her getting-older hands.) 

My dad, who has a hundred aviation adventure stories that light up his voice when he tells them.

My cousin, who not only sets out to read the entirety of Shakespeare’s work in a year, but also writes essays about each encounter, occasionally drawing some startling connections.

My husband, who listens for ways to bring friends, family, and perfect strangers joy, and crafts accordingly. (He is such a Hufflepuff.)

I don’t want to write a poem about these things in the voices of their particular humans. I know that’s a thing poets do, especially with historical persons or our own ancestors. It’s a function of poetry, maybe: lending our voices in attempts at understanding. It doesn’t feel right here.

For one thing, I’m talking about living people. You all have your own voices. They’re beautiful. I guess I’m a little drunk on that right now. 

For another, this is a metaphor. The way certain folks lavish the same physical and verbal care on their enthusiasms as I do on a poem — I guess the thing my poet-brain does is immediately imagine them actually writing a poem.

All of this is to say — I don’t know, what am I saying right now? Your life is a poem? Some motivational-poster noise like that? (I mean, that stuff is on motivational posters for a reason, and no, that reason is not only consumer capitalism.)

Maybe it’s to say you should write a poem. If you want to. It’s hard, sure. Sometimes. It’s kinda mystical, sometimes. Equally, it’s not difficult at all, and equally, it’s just another way of making beauty and/or sense of the world, of telling a moment — or a relationship, or a flower, or a lifetime — as you experience it.

You might be perfectly content writing poems by digging in the dirt, or carefully leveling a cup of flour, or teasing out and tying together threads from Through the Looking Glass and Henry VI

So, not writing poems. 

The phrase “you do you” covers a multitude of vaguenesses, but this is the kind of application where it shines. The world is slightly terrifying right now. I love watching people put beautiful, creative, utterly themselves things into it. Balancing the scales.

____________

This is one reason I write poetry, of course. It’s my gift, and I’m often frightened, too. My poems are my feather on the cosmic scale. 

Another reason: because I have to, because to do so gives me a joy I can’t live without. (I could exist without it, but that is not the same.) Writing poems cuts me open, also, quite often. This is not incompatible with joy, which gathers pain and sadness as close as it does contentment and exhilaration. 

But there is doing a thing because you have to, viscerally, and there is figuring out how doing that thing dovetails with your philosophy of life: what you want to give, what you want to achieve, who you want to be and why. When I started to think about it seriously, I realized I write poetry* because, on one level, figuring out life philosophy is my life philosophy. So really what I’m doing is writing my own holy text.

A number of extant texts are important enough to the ongoing formation of my identity to be called, for me, holy. The Psalms. Evangelical Lutheran Worship (a hymn and liturgy book), and its predecessor, which has a name but which I mostly call The Green Book. Most of Mary Oliver’s work, and Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poems. Guy Gavriel Kay’s fiction, Robert Macfarlane’s non-fiction. 

For the rest, it’s inside me. Or the inside of me interacting with the outside of everything else. And as someone who doesn’t garden, or cook, or story-tell, or gift, or critically assay to discover and nurture my place in the world, I do instead what my particular joy dictates: I compose. 

Holy texts, flawed and fragile as any other human endeavor, have bits and pieces of rubbish left in them. The Psalms, for example. Some of those singers turn pettiness and vengeance into high art, and I read those lines with distaste. And… this is also part of what I connect to in those rousing appeals for deliverance from suffering. I, too, often write poems to companion myself in difficult moments, times when I’m being tugged out by the tide. 

And I also hope, of course, that my own low tides will speak to a reader somewhere, some other when, and bring them comfort, or strength, or a feeling of being seen and understood. I often revise for that person. But I don’t compose for them. I do that to fill my own depthless well of unknown longing. To conjure something beautiful from the nothing-times. To make an honored guest of that lonely, that particular echoing pull.

Granted, I write poetry from a place of contentment, too, very often. Though even that tends to illuminate shadows at its edges. That’s part of my life philosophy: in all experience, its opposite—and from this understanding I try to live toward kindness, appreciation, and generosity. I try to do this because I am not gifted at it. Poetry (among many teachers) is mentoring me toward it, showing me how I need to grow. Other people’s poetry, most certainly, and also the process of writing it myself. Writing my own holy text.

You are doing this too. (I guess I’m bringing us back around to those motivational posters.) Possibly you don’t know it, but that’s life, so often: you create the type of work you practice.

So maybe that’s what I’m trying to say: practice, with an intentional heart. Gift to yourself, and the rest of us, your joy. Your holy text.**

____________

*And everything else. But poetry, for me, is a distilled form of literature, the most potent. Your milage may vary. 

**And, you know, if you feel like it, go write a poemYes I know I linked that twice. Because it’s great.

The Gathering and The Shaping

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the second in an ongoing column about the creative practice.


I miss my book. I mean the one I’m supposed to be writing

I don’t miss the manuscript I completed last year. That one’s alive on its own now, finding its feet, and doesn’t need anything from me at the moment. Plus I’ve finally untangled my identity from it, after months of intense conversation, late nights, and needing to be together all the time. Writing that book (well, shaping it—we’ll get to that) was a lot like falling in love. I can’t live like that for long without exhaustion.

Which is precisely what it’s earned me. 

I had a second manuscript already in the works, so it seemed reasonable, thinking about goals for this year, to say I’ll finish it by the time midwinter returns. All I really want to do though, this year so far? Is read.

About this time last year, I was making an effort to get back into the habit of loving reading. I think of myself as a reader, but I’d fallen out of doing a lot of actual, focused book-reading. I got better. But I was so busy falling in love writing! It’s now, when love writing has wrung me out, and left my usual defenses crumpled, that my re-made reading habit has moved in—insistently—to take its place. The place of lots of things, actually. Movie watching, multi-hour walking, and meetings for committees I care about quite a lot have also been victims of my pure exhaustion. Instead of them, I read.

It’s glorious. It also puts my current manuscript mentally across the room from me, lounging on the rug against the scrolled arms of my loveseat, eyebrows raised. 

I do know that the writing process is circular. Every artist needs to lie fallow periodically. You’re not less of a creative person for doing it. It’s just that I miss my current book. I’m excited about it; I want to fall in love again. And I am completely incapable of shaping that love into something beautiful, something outside my own self, right now. 

Which brings me to the difference between this part of the process I’m feeling nostalgic for—I call this The Shaping—and the part I’m inhabiting now, the much quieter Gathering. These are, as far as I can tell, the two distinct phases of my own writing process, once of which feels much more like “writing” than the other. And therefore feels more legitimate.

The Shaping is the being-in-love phase. It’s a furious round of writing up outlines, work-dreaming poetry, debating line breaks, revising revising revising, scrapping whole poems for parts, and changing my mind a hundred times about what order the pieces go in and what the sections are called. It’s the part that gets me to a definable end, a goal achieved. 

It’s also the part that drops me right off that end like it’s a pier, with the water down below cold and rough and deep and full of unknown creatures. It’s tiring, swimming to shore through all of that. And here I am chafing to run headlong off that pier again, as soon as possible. 

The phase that comes before this violent intensity of love is gentler altogether, and ambiguous as a cloud. It gets nothing at all “done.” I call it The Gathering, because it has that feeling of wandering about, not aimlessly but not focused on a goal either, and questioning, investigating, enjoying what you run across. It’s made up of daydreaming poetry, vague notebook scribbling, writing prompts, and joyful drafting; also literal wandering, journaling, dancing, deliberately putting myself in the path of new skills or ideas that have nothing to do with writing. And also reading.

Ah—reading. So I can say that right now I’m in The Gathering phase. If I’m being generous, which I want to be, so I will: lying fallow is a first part of Gathering. 

(You should keep in mind that I’ve made these terms up to articulate some learning from my own experience. Also that past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. You should ask yourself what the heck I know.)

Here’s another thing I don’t: when will the present (wool)-Gathering resolve into The Shaping? And if that’s a mystery, how do I know I can write another book of poems in 2020? 

Maybe annual goals written in January are something in the nature of a first draft. Maybe they clarify what you value, and then hold it up to the harsh light of what you need. 

***

Besides a writer, and a reader, I define myself as a contemplative. “Contemplation” sounds passive, but it requires a lot of discipline. I’m so tired lately that sometimes I think I’m not rested enough to be a good contemplative. I get enough sleep, but I’m still trying to drop off during my morning silence-time. Contemplation seems to require space, by which I want to mean “not having a bunch of pressing demands on your schedule,” and by which I more sustainably mean an inner sense of spaciousness and time. 

The same thing poetry requires, in fact. 

The Gathering is a spacious season. You need it, or I do anyway, to invite depth and surprises and Mystery to participate in The (eventual, unsummonable) Shaping. 

I think The Gathering is about play, as much as anything. Mary Oliver has a line about “letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.”* I’ll sleep too, I guess, and read books like I used to: constantly, playfully, with no thought of what they might teach me or how I might use their knowledge. 

I’ll wave sometimes across the room at my manuscript, who is actually fine over there alone, maybe Gathering too. 

We’ll have so much to talk about when we get back together.  

***

*It’s from her poem “Today,” which for me is maybe something more like “This Month,” or maybe “This Quarter.”

Goals and The Scatter: Cultivating a New Year of Creativity

Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She’s also the creator of The Florilegia Project, a conversational art and poetry experiment. This is the first in an ongoing column about the creative practice.

In the past year, I’ve gone a bit sour on cruising the internet, and gotten back into curated newsletters. (Side note: if you have favorites, please share!) A friend of mine, the lovely and thoughtful San Francisco Bay Area poet Allie Rigby, publishes a monthly one called The Herd. In this month’s issue, while admitting her ambivalence about New Year’s resolutions, she encourages her community to think about what they want creatively in 2020—and to share one intention with the group. “There is magic,” she points out, “in sharing a goal.” So I’m going to do some magic right now; you’re my witness. In 2020, I’ll write my second book.

Also, I’ll get the first one in front of a series of publishers I think are right for it, until one of them agrees. Plus, I’ll do some serious vocational discernment, work daily with a plan I’m designing to mitigate the frightening ways my body handles stress, and spend a full day, once per month, in silent retreat from all tech and to-do lists.

I was going to share just the art-specific goals with you here. But that contradicts something I’ve been learning for years, which crystallized in 2019: everything you do feeds—or eats, or a little of both—your art. Maybe also this: your life is your art. 

I wrote my 2020 goals while driving up the central coast of California on my winter holidays. During those same holidays, I interviewed for a new job, then received the news that they want me to start this month. Change has been coming in this department for some time, a distant storm I’ve been feeling just over the horizon, charging the air. I’m relieved to feel the rain falling. The inevitable thunder and lightning both excites and worries me: a new employer and colleagues to learn, a project I’m helping to invent as we go along, some travel, work dreams, changes to my daily routine. And as all of that whirls around me—oh right, I’m writing a book and managing my stress so it doesn’t kill me.*

Most creatives don’t live by our art alone. Writing is a full-time job, for which I need another such to pay the rent and take vacation and buy good wine and feed the cat, et cetera. I suspect I’m preaching to the choir right now: you read a blog about the art and finance of a creative life. You know this is a balancing act. So how does one actually balance?

I don’t know. But following my earlier bit of magic, I’m going to set in motion another. I’m going to tell you about The Scatter, and how I’m using it to build a creative life that aligns with my goals and my values, while respecting my limits and also the essential mystery of being human.** And I’m going to let the shared statement of that intention roam free in the world, and see what good work it can do. 

You may already recognize The Scatter. It’s that daily frenetic task-switching from article to email to work to laundry to existential worry. It’s the inability to focus on knitting or reading or going for a walk—just that, and only that. It’s the compulsion to check Twitter again, or your email, or your stats, even when you lack any specific question or interest, just because you have a free half-minute burning a hole in your brain. It’s the need to check eight things off your to-do list today, and the feeling after you’ve done them that you could really do more. It’s the way you question your competence and worth when you realize how exhausted you are, and the way you still think you can get all of that done tomorrow. 

My Scatter started to show when I took a job that couldn’t provide the intellectual challenge I need to focus for eight hours a day. Humans are great at adapting to non-optimal situations—I got my work done, and well—but all such decisions exact prices, produce side-effects. I did this job for some time, and it afforded me many things, including quite a lot of bandwidth for writing. It also brought The Scatter, dropped on my kitchen floor every day like a critter the cat dragged in, and I have to clean it up. 

I told my (wonderful) therapist recently that I couldn’t find time to do all the things I need. I had already edited out of my life so many things I liked or valued but just couldn’t keep saying yes to without exploding; why hadn’t that solved the problem? She asked if I’d considered not trying to do every important thing every day. Maybe some things are weekly, she suggested, or monthly. 

Around this time, I also discovered that I can do about one thing a day before my body starts throwing stressed-out signal flares. I had to say this out loud to realize its truth, and then I had to figure out what I actually meant by it. 

Every day, I get out of bed and perform the rituals of bathing and dressing. I do some kind of contemplative practice, I do whatever my current project is, and I walk or I dance. Most days I also work (tech Monday through Friday, writing Saturdays and Sundays.) I’m doing, by a conservative estimate, at least five things. 

Outside that baseline, I’ve got one free square in the middle of the day’s game board. So if I want to draft an essay, or submit poems, or volunteer at my library, or have dinner with a friend, or go to the DMV to renew my drivers license—that’s my One Thing. 

So I made some lists. First, every activity I require and/or value. Then I crossed some of those out. What could I edit? I did. (Now I just have to stick to it.) 

Next, I placed those activities into four columns: Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Yearly. (Very quickly, I started writing this out as DWMY.) Daily is my baseline. I make time for each thing on the Weekly list at least once a week. The idea is the same for Monthly and Yearly.

  • Weekly includes items like writing sessions, naps or baths, housework, email correspondence, movie nights, errands and incidentals. Yep, those are all things I used to try to fit in daily or every other day. 
  • Monthly is for volunteer work, therapy and discernment time, silent “sabbath” days (see my 2020 goals, above), manuscript development, submitting individual pieces for publication, outings with friends, seasonal projects, less frequent incidentals like medical appointments, and freelance writing pitches or assignments. I was previously trying to do most of these every week. 
  • Yearly is things like theater, travel, craft workshops, personal or writing retreats, and social visits with out-of-town friends and family. And yes, you guessed it, I was trying to fit all of these in much closer to monthly. 

I’ve been practicing with my DMWY list for about a month—half of which I spent on vacation; that part doesn’t count. So I don’t know yet how effective a tool it will be. I do know some important things already, which suggest this can help me both to control The Scatter, and to work effectively and joyfully toward my 2020 goals. 

First: when I’m feeling The Scatter, I can know that I am doing enough, and doing good things, if I put a mental checkmark by my Daily baseline items, plus one item from my Weekly, Monthly, or Yearly list. This is already helpful, although it’s going to take time to accept that I may simply get less done. Which is ok. 

Second, when I’m feeling exhausted, or having a lot of stress symptoms, I look at my lists: how many extras did I take on today? Yesterday? How does the week ahead look? Soon I’ll be able to ask myself things like: What’s my pattern this month? If I’m feeling unbalanced, I’ll be able to look at my lists for Weekly or Monthly items I’ve been neglecting.

Last, and perhaps most importantly in the long term, DMWY builds unscheduled free time into my day, and reminds me that such time is crucial. Building a valuable day around Baseline+One Thing means there’s almost always time left over. In the past few years I’ve tended to fill that uncritically in the moment: an hour of writing here, a half hour catching up with online articles there, an extra errand, a cat nap, bouts of Twitter. And still I felt I was “getting nothing done.” DMWY has already helped me identify what I truly need and want to accomplish, and set limits on the daily exercise of that accomplishment based on experience of my own traits and limits.

The rest of my day? That’s for play. For “boredom,” which is great for creative life. For refusing to define, or schedule, or quantify or try to “use” every minute of my time.  

I am, of course, capable of doing more than One Thing, and many days demand it. Life is complex and doesn’t often cede authority to my personal plan. But the limit of One Thing is just true for me, and hard-learned. DMWY is an experiment: (how) can I best align my actions and values and limits, and accomplish what’s most important to me in the short and long term? I imagine this will take time. And In spite of my regular feelings to the contrary, I have nothing but.  

***

*I just said something possibly wise and possibly crap about your life as your art. I guess now I get to find out which adjective applies. 

**This is going to sound a lot like another 2020 goal. I don’t think of it that way because I started it in 2019, but keep reading and see if it doesn’t just dovetail right into my Official 2020 Goals. Calendar years aren’t objectively real anyway.