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.

How James Brown’s Music Taught Me That Creativity Is Work

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Sergio Lopez is an author, columnist, and historian. His work has been published in Teen Vogue, America, Geez, and Hanif Abdurraqib’s 68to05. He graduated Yale University and currently attends Duke Divinity School, and he proudly serves his hometown as City Councilmember. Read more of his creative work here or follow him on Twitter @LopezForCA.

Whenever I need some inspiration to get to writing, I look to music. So I was thrilled when I spotted a new James Brown record I’d never seen before, 1966’s Handful of Soul. Its bright red cover, featuring a grinning James Brown, was held together by yellowed Scotch tape; a name scrawled in one corner in ballpoint pen attested to the fact that this record had been loved. I got home, took the record out of its sleeve, placed it on my turntable, and dropped the needle. The horns proudly announced the arrival of Brown’s band, guitar and bass locked together to lay down the groove, and flawless drumming formed the foundation. Then I waited for Brown’s distinctive voice—and kept waiting, all through the first side of the record. Grabbing the cover, I finally read the fine print on the back: “Handful of Soul, featuring James Brown—on the organ.”

I felt, personally, like I’d overpaid just a bit for the record, considering he wasn’t even featured as a vocalist—but curious about the unusual find, I started doing more research on Brown, his life, and his work ethic.

James Brown rose up from working in the fields of Georgia in the hot summer sun. Where he came from, what you did was work—something Brown and his childhood friends never forgot. While music was his craft, it was also his job—and he took that work seriously, putting out over the course of his career fifteen live records, fifty-nine studio albums, and one hundred and forty-four singles. He took the same approach to his live shows, telling members of his band, “if you’re performing for ten people or 10,000, you perform the same way. You don’t slack off, ever.” Marketing materials in the mid-60s began billing him as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” That discipline helps account for his rise to the pinnacle of his craft—because sometimes there’s no better practice than simply working.

Reading about Brown, I wondered what it would look like to rethink my own relationship towards work and my creative practice. I had grown up dreaming about what it might look like to be a writer, and in the years since I had read plenty of pragmatic tips and advice before from other writers—to always write at a particular time, or to reframe expectations to just get some words down on paper each day. But I was less interested now in these practical aspects of creating than in thinking about the spiritual dimension behind work—the ways in which work can confer dignity and purpose to those who participate in it. The concept, for me, also implied a relationship—the idea that work was ultimately meant to be produced and consumed by an audience, at which point it was no longer solely the property of the artist.

The Handful of Soul record, I learned, was actually a bit of a side hustle for Brown. Starting in 1964, the Godfather of Soul had been involved in a legal dispute with his longtime label, King Records. Since his contract banned him from performing as a vocalist on another label, Brown immediately turned to a smaller label, Smash Records, to release a series of instrumental albums of mostly cover songs of hits, giving him a stream of income while he dealt with his legal issues. These instrumental records—I soon had to have more—have the feeling of a production line; Brown’s band was unmatched in the business, but these records consist mostly of covers rather than James Brown originals, and they were turned out at a rapid pace, with four releases in 1966 alone. James Brown and his band the Famous Flames, I thought, could probably record these albums in their sleep. 

But as I listened more closely, I found an important lesson that lay hidden in the vinyl grooves: the immense skill and experience that went into each track on the album. On each and every record he put out, Brown set the highest of standards for himself and his band, practicing each part ruthlessly and relentlessly, locking in those rhythms and grooves until nothing else could get through, nothing but his signature sound, with all the precision of and power of a locomotive. 

While this could easily have been a fallow creative period for James Brown, in some ways it ended up being one of the most important for his artistic development. That’s because, although few of these cover instrumentals will make anyone’s list of top ten James Brown recordings, they were essential to his development of funk—perhaps his greatest musical impact. In 1966, when Handful of Soul came out, James Brown had gotten funky, but he was still a couple of years from truly laying down the funk—the tightly woven blend of guitar, bass, and drums he invented and for which he has forever earned a place in the pantheon of true originals, one of the most creative and singular artists America has produced, influencing everyone from 1970s funk groups to rap and hip-hop artists who took those sounds as the foundation for countless freestyles. That history traces its way back to these instrumental cover records, where, if you listen closely enough, you can hear James Brown on these instrumentals developing new creative ideas, drawing out a beat or a groove for as long as possible, stretching the sound to its limits—working out the beginnings of what would become his signature sound, and one of the defining sounds of the 1970s. The realization demonstrated for me how no work is wholly without value or purpose, as it’s often precisely when we quit overthinking and simply create that we are most free to progress and grow.

Reframing my relationship toward creating and work allowed me to let go—to not just dream of being a writer but to actually become one in my own mind and practice. I found it easy now to sit down for an hour and simply write. I’m grateful to be able to write, but it’s still work—and there’s dignity and honor in any kind of work.

And when I do find myself stuck for the right word or sentence? I can just switch on the turntable and spin Handful of Soul.

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.

Why I Started a Podcast With My Writing Partner

Hillary Moses Mohaupt is a listmaker: she’s a writer, social media strategist, communications consultant, museum enthusiast, baker, traveler, and francophile.

She’s also a writer, podcaster, and very recently a new parent.

Not long after my spouse and I brought our newborn son home from the hospital, I found myself sitting on the couch with a week-old baby in one arm and my laptop balanced on my free knee. I opened a program called Audacity and — with my free hand — I tinkered with the audio files of my voice and my writing partner’s Emilie’s voice, the two of us discussing the 1961 movie The Defiant Ones.

For the last five years, Emilie and I have co-hosted a monthly podcast, the Screen Sirens, about women and social justice in classic Hollywood films. Neither of us is a film historian in any formal sense, and neither of us considers film studies as part of our writing repertoire — Emilie is an essayist and memoirist and I’m a fiction writer and essayist — but it’s partly that disconnect from our serious writing practices that has made our podcast a success.

This success, as we define it, has nothing to do with monthly download stats (relatively tiny) and our social media presence (small but mighty). Rather, the podcast has been a winning strategy for us because it’s kept us connected creatively for all these years when it would have been easier to end our writing partnership and sideline our individual writing projects. For the last five years, producing and promoting the podcast has kept us both in pursuit of inventive, artistic endeavors, even when major life events (like newborn children) distracted us from other creative commitments. 

Emilie and I met while working at a non-profit organization in Philadelphia. Our start dates at the organization were close enough for us to attend orientation trainings together. Our work teams were separate but interrelated and it didn’t take long for us to start looking for opportunities to collaborate on work projects.

It took longer, however, for us to connect over writing. I think we were both wary of being open to each other about our writing lives. After all, what if one person wasn’t as committed to the craft as the other? Then Emilie had the brilliant idea to invite some of us at the office to join her in a daily writing practice during National Novel Writing Month. A few other colleagues joined us in the stuffy conference room or in a nearby park for lunchtime writing, but it was soon clear that Emilie and I were the die-hards.

Once November was over we both knew the other was serious about sticking with it. We kept up a twice-weekly writing date for months after that, taking our journals or laptops to coffee shops near our office building and splurging on matcha lattes and premium pourovers. The writing dates kept us both on task, and sometimes we put down our pens or looked up from the screen to talk through a story idea or share a pitch. Meanwhile, we peppered our office Instant Messaging app with links to calls for pitches or ideas that one of us thought would be a good fit for the other. Our writing partnership was, and remains, a commitment to supporting each other’s writing, to serving as a sounding board for each other’s ideas, dreams, and goals.

In the meantime we learned we shared another passion: classic Hollywood movies. 

I don’t remember which of us suggested that we start a podcast about old movies, but I’m certain Emilie was the brains of the venture when we were first exploring the possibility. In workshopping the idea, we laid out several ground rules: the movies we discussed on the podcast had to explore women and/or social justice topics in some way, and they had to have been made prior to 1962. Above all, the podcast had to be fun. We both had enough stressors in our lives; the podcast had to fuel our creativity and our friendship, not become just another obligation that kept us from artistic work. 

And so in July 2016 we released the first three episodes of the Screen Sirens podcast. Back then we recorded the episodes twice each month in a conference room down the hall from our offices. As other commitments and opportunities emerged and we each moved on to other jobs, we began recording the podcast monthly and remotely in the evenings after our kids’ bedtimes. 

Ours is a partnership that’s based on mutual support and encouragement, rather than on collaborative writing projects a la Rodgers and Hammerstein. The podcast’s regular schedule has reinforced our original intentions to support each other’s writing life. We continue to share calls for pitches, hold each other accountable for deadlines, celebrate submissions, commiserate over rejections, and report when we’re having a breakthrough on a particularly difficult piece or element of craft. We exchange texts and emails, but we also talk about writing — our struggles, plans, and goals — before we hit the record button during on our monthly podcast recording calls. 

Preparing for and producing content for the podcast has given us both the opportunity to engage with storytelling techniques outside of our usual genres and forms, and promoting it forces us to practice balancing deadlines and flexibility. 

Treating the podcast as a purely joyous joint venture has helped us both see it as an act of self-expression for its own sake. Except for our own loose parameters, there’s no one telling us which movies we should watch and discuss, and so we enjoy the act of researching, watching, and creating. We also enjoy the end product. 

Most importantly, the podcast keeps us accountable to each other. In each episode, Emilie’s role is to keep us moving through the basic script and my goal is to make Emilie laugh. Together, we produce something succinct and fun every month, giving us a sense of accomplishment in having completed something together.

This spring, we switched podcast platforms (no small feat for a couple of amateurs!). I found myself one Saturday morning double-checking all the new connections and feeds to make sure everything was working correctly, and I was struck with a feeling of pride. Despite job changes, moves, and new babies — not to mention a global pandemic and its many long-lasting consequences — Emilie and I have stuck with our joint project for five seasons, and at this rate we’re not likely to give up any time soon. The podcast and our partnership might shift and change to accommodate future life changes, but the Sirens, like the movies, are forever. 

My Quest for a Sustainable Writing Routine

Radek Pazdera builds software products and writes things on the Internet. His latest project is Writing Analytics, an editor and writing tracker designed to help you write.

I woke up squinting into the harsh glow of my laptop’s screen. It was 1 AM. I’d slept in my chair for about 40 minutes. My neck and back hurt. The draft on my screen ended mid-sentence with words I didn’t remember writing. The word counter in the corner showed that I was about 200 words short of my daily goal.

The familiar feeling of dread settled in. There was no way I could carry on. It was the end of my writing streak.

Strictly speaking, I missed my goal for the day already as it was past midnight. It wasn’t the first time, and it became one how I allowed myself to bend the rules. The words counted as long as I wrote them before going to bed. In retrospect, that was the first sign that something had to change.

I didn’t write anything the next day or the day after. It felt like a failure. I’d been trying to maintain a simple writing routine for years. I could make it work for weeks, sometimes months at a time, but it always ended the same way. Maybe writing isn’t for me after all?

A few months earlier, I’d transitioned from working in the office to being fully remote as England locked down to slow the spread of Covid-19. The government closed schools and shut the borders. Toilet paper sold out across the country. And I finally realized what I was doing wrong.

Your writing routine should work for you

The pandemic of 2020 was a catalyst for change. But really, things change all the time. We change jobs, move houses, have kids, start businesses. Things break down. Emergencies happen. Our lives are far from static. Why should our creative routines be?

When your writing routine stops working, is it because you failed? Or is it because it’s no longer fit for purpose? I believe that more often than not, it’s the latter.

Your writing routine should work for you, not the other way around. It has to adapt to whatever is going on in your life to be sustainable. I wish I’d figured this out earlier.

Write less to write more

For as long as I can remember, my goal was to write 500 words a day. It worked sometimes. But when it didn’t, failing to hit the goal made me stop writing altogether. The cycle repeated over and over again, leaving me feeling miserable. 500 words aren’t even that many. What’s wrong?

During the summer of 2020, I replaced my daily goal with a baseline word count — a low daily minimum that I know I can write in 15 minutes or less. For me, that’s between 50 and 100 words.

It’s way easier to get started when you know that you can be done in 15 minutes. Often, I’ll keep going and write significantly more. But when I’m not feeling it, all I have to do is to write 50 words.

My goal now is to maintain the ritual of putting words on a page. I want writing to be a part of my life. Does it even matter how many words I write in a day?

As long as I can keep going, I can always write more. Burning out is the real issue.

It’s okay to be a slow writer

I admire people who can write 5,000 or even 10,000 words in a day — the writers who can finish a book in a couple of weeks. That’d be pretty cool, but it’s not how I work. The most I’ve ever done is probably 3,000 in one day. I’m a slow writer.

On social media, it may seem that everyone is super fast, writing thousands of words every day, finishing NaNoWriMo two weeks early. Fast writers are more likely to share their word counts — it’s a highlight reel. I’m certainly not posting about writing 200 words a day on Twitter, and neither are other slow writers. But we’re out here, working at our own pace.

I used to think this was a limiting factor, but I’m not sure about that anymore. Writing and building an audience is such a complex process. When everything else is equal, speed is an advantage. But is everything else ever equal?

The math doesn’t look too bad for slow writers either. If you’re 25 and write just 100 words every day on average, you will have finished 20 novels by the age of 70. I’d be happy with that.

The best thing of all is that the reader has no idea how long it took you to write something. They only miss out when you quit.

The results

There’s no perfect writing routine, only the one that works for you right now. I’m happy without a daily goal at the moment. But maybe I’ll set one again in the future. Maybe I’ll find the secret and start writing 10,000 words per day. Who knows?

All I know is what my writing analytics show me. Over the past year, I wrote 140,192 words and revised an additional 48,071. August was my most productive month by far with 23,631 words written and 9,340 revised. December and February turned out to be the worst with only 4,967 and 6,225 words written.

I was almost five times more productive during my best month compared to the worst. I’m wondering whether this pattern will repeat in 2021. So far, I feel like that might be the case.

It took me 238 hours to write those words (181 writing and 57 revision). The distribution of time correlates with the number of words written as shown on the chart above.

On an average day, I worked for 40 minutes, wrote 383 words and revised 131. This adds up to 514 words — almost exactly the daily goal that I dropped. Only 13 times over the past year I wrote more than 2,000 words in one day.

My most productive days of the week are Sunday and Monday. I’m usually exhausted on Friday, and that’s also when I write the least. I’m four times as productive on Sundays as I’m on the average Friday.

Since dropping my daily goal, I wrote roughly the same number of words as I was supposed to get done with the goal in place. This wasn’t my intention at all. I was looking for a way to keep writing without constantly burning out and beating myself up. Not pushing it when I struggled allowed me to write more when I had the energy to do it. I never stopped writing altogether, and that made all the difference.

I doubt that my current routine will work forever. But it doesn’t have to. When it stops working, I’ll change it. A writing routine should work for you, not the other way around. That’s how you make it sustainable.

How I Received $200 to Fund My Garden Project (From Reading a Poem on Instagram Live)

MaKayla Lorick is a black freelance writer with tons to say about black identity & resilience, motherhood, writing, and apparently gardening.

I first created an Instagram profile in ninth grade where I would post 2-3 selfies with my furry caterpillar-like eyebrows a day. In high school, social media gratification did not exist at the forefront of my adolescent mind, and my reach (or followers) didn’t have the global context that it does today. For me, it was just about showing my face and using the tool without the sophistication of algorithms, explore pages, and reels.

I really began consistently writing and posting videos of myself reciting poems on YouTube once I started work with Goldie Patrick, a phenomenal writer, playwright, director, and actor located in the Washington, D.C. area. Goldie mentored (and continues to mentor) me alongside a small group of black girls from D.C. based out of her non-profit, FRESHH (Females Representing Every Side of Hip-Hop) which partnered with the Kennedy Center in D.C. from 2013-2020. We affectionately call her Sister Goldie as she taught us with a fierceness of civic engagement and cultural awareness through hip-hop theatre. 

Goldie made us believe we were beautiful and gave us an African diasporic history of which to be proud. She would introduce us to different members of her tribe, and we would call them “Mama” so and so or “Baba” so and so in a delicate way that forged us together as family. This piece is important because it is the foundation of my writing, but also, it gave me an important cayenne-pepper-like kick a few weeks ago that brought me here. 

Luisa Igloria, the poet laureate of Virginia, reached out at the beginning of 2021 through Facebook Messenger and asked me to submit a poem as part of an April series hosted by Slover Library in Norfolk, Virginia. She informed me that a couple of my professors from my alma mater, Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia recommended me to participate in a collective of Virginia writers for National Poetry Month. I screenshotted the Facebook message immediately and posted it on my story on Instagram. A friend from college who works for the L.A. Times responded: “You still write? Would you be interested in submitting here?” I responded, shyly, “I’d love to” — while thinking, “Once I submit, they’ll know I’m a fraud!” 

I almost had not responded to Luisa had it not been for my friends on social media encouraging me — “What is there to lose?” they would ask. “You BETTER submit” others would demand. “Don’t be afraid” they would affirm. A little voice I had turned off in 2020 crept back in with a mix of fear and a little courage — “There’s no better day to start sharing your writing than now!” at the beginning of the pandemic had felt like a slap in the face to my stalled artistry. But suddenly, that call-to-action seemed a tad less insidious and a bit more hopeful.

I submitted, fell asleep, and the next day Luisa emailed me back letting me know she would be using my poem “morningglory” in the project. Once that project became live, I instantly shared across my social media receiving several DMs. A lot were from people I had known congratulating this new step in my journey. came from Goldie, who wrote that she would be reading on Instagram Live that Sunday in partnership with the Kennedy Center and wanted me to read a poem. I did not hesitate this time, I just said yes.

I got on Instagram Live that day having not gotten dolled up. My four-year-old daughter was being a bit clingy that morning, so it was difficult to get ready and at a certain point, I knew it was just about poetry — not looks! I satisfied myself with tying my hair in a headscarf, because I knew my audience would not mind as much as I did. I listened to Goldie read in a captivating cadence, a familiar sound from my youth. When the time came for me to join her on Instagram Live, she asked me what I needed right before I read. I answered: community. She responded, “Aṣẹ.” 

I let them know that I would be starting something new, that this poem was fresh out of my heart and part of a series designed to help me reconfigure my untended Section-8 patio through a frame of writing. After reading she asked me to leave my CashApp handle in the comments. I did and received $200 USD immediately. I was floored, humbled by their willingness to invest in me and completely encouraged that they saw something in me that was beautiful.

I took the money straight to Lowe’s and began hammering out my vision, buying heavy bags of marble rock, soil, flowers, seeds, and pots. I continue to post videos on my Instagram documenting my process, to let folks in just a little. Since beginning the project, I have grown into a habit of writing which I think is a nod to the process of gardening itself. You cannot just pick up a shovel one day and decide “Hey I want to do a garden,” plant a bunch of flowers or produce, and leave them unattended for weeks. Creating this space became about nurturing my craft, my garden of poetry daily. It has resulted in a lot of trash, but also unending beauty. 

I implore you all to use a tip or two of mine today in your practice and to ultimately understand the value of your work. Bryan Stevenson, a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer, spoke at Howard University’s graduation the other day and said something that moved my spirit: “It won’t be your grades that measure your capacity to change the world, nor will it be your income. It will not be the job that you have post-grad, not even the ideas in your head. Ultimately it will be the conviction in your heart that measures your capacity to change the world.” When I feel overwhelmed, one saying I do not mind hearing my partner repeat over and over to me is “Start where you are.” 

Tips for Curating a Social Media Village:

Find your community, your village, your space. Engage with them continuously. You have something to contribute, find a place that welcomes your voice and challenges your creativity. For me, it was about reconnecting with Goldie and her tribe, which also became mine. They had seen my growth from a young age and were invested in my journey, even my stumbling. Search hashtags that you believe in, like #womenempowerment or #blackgirlmagic. Follow folks, reply to their journeys. I’ve done Live sessions with friends, workshops where I post content that came from the session. Whatever you do, stay connected in your own way.

Decide: Is it about distinguishing or telling your story in the best way you can? My focus was not so much on being different or influencing others, but on reigniting my creativity and sharing my willingness to learn. When I began my project, I was honest and told the folks after reading my poem, “Look this is only the beginning. I’m saving up to transform this place so it will be little by little.” In an age of social media where much is fabricated, it is exciting to be vulnerable and launch yourself into ownership of your story. Even mundane details are poetic, trust me!

Be realistic and have fun on social media. If you become overwhelmed by the idea of consistently engaging your followers, own how you would like to engage. Some people have the capacity to post every day, others biweekly, yours may be once a month. Whatever it is — be realistic and have fun! Never forget, art begets art!

Drop your CashApp. You never know who may be watching. $MaKaylaLorick 

How Teaching Dance Got Me Out of My Creative Slump

Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, educator, and dancer — and now, a dance teacher.

I’ve been a belly dancer for over 20 years, and while the pandemic changed how I dance — I mostly teach classes on Zoom now, and perform virtually rather than at hookah bars and art shows — I wasn’t expecting to find inspiration in teaching online. I viewed Zoom as a burdensome necessity, not something to get excited about… yet that all changed just a few months ago.

In the belly dance world, we are having a number of conversations about cultural appropriation, how best to respect the source cultures our dance comes from, and so on. These are necessary but challenging conversations. However, between those and the burnout from my day job as a college lecturer, I was feeling my creativity wane in recent months. I would teach my college classes during the daytime, lecturing to a room filled with half my students while the other half Zoomed in due to social distancing restrictions, and then I’d teach dance on Zoom at night. I cooked most of my own meals and fit in exercise where I could. But my inspiration to practice dance on my own, rather than scrape by with the bare minimum needed to still be a good dance teacher, seemed to evaporate.

I was surviving, not thriving, and my art was suffering for it.

Then I got a wild idea.

I’d spent a chunk of summer 2020 taking online classes from a dance studio in Poland, where they study and teach the same type of belly dance I do: FatChance BellyDance (FCBD) Style, which is geared towards group improvisation, so we could theoretically dance together and sync up even if we don’t speak the same language. My teachers at the Siren Project had brought in flamenco props like fan and manton (silk shawl) to liven up the dance style, and, eager for novelty while in pandemic lockdown, I’d enrolled in a bunch of their classes. Because our shared dance style provided a basic template for the existing moves to have props layered onto them, I was able to pick up the stylization pretty quickly. The new props challenged and stimulated me, and gave me ideas for solo pieces to perform in virtual shows in the fall.

When 2021 rolled around, I was still just fiddling with these dance props in soloist mode. Burnout was creeping in. My dance students kept complimenting the solos I put on Instagram and YouTube, and finally it occurred to me: why not teach flamenco fan (the prop that I’m strongest with) to my dance students?

I got excited. They got excited. And then I got to work: in January I filmed a number of instructional videos and put them up on YouTube, unlisted, for my dedicated students to view. We organized some Zoom practices outside of our normal “class” times. I found myself motivated to polish up the movements and ensure that I understood them well enough to teach them, which meant more time fiddling around in practice mode. I had to film myself and see myself on video repeatedly to make this work, which also spurred me to make sure my form was excellent.

After a few months of this, a performance opportunity came our way: a show specifically devoted to dancing with props, open to any global practitioner of FCBD Style. Some of us would have to enroll in an online workshop in order for the group to be eligible to perform, but we were planning to do so anyway (all of the workshops were dedicated to baskets, another fun prop that we often dance with). I conferred with my troupe and my student troupe, and we decided to apply to perform. Both groups were admitted to the show, and that gave us extra drive to continue to learn and practice virtually, with a handful of masked in-person practices thrown in.

We realized fairly quickly that dancing even familiar moves with a wooden flamenco fan in one hand presents plenty of challenges: you have to make sure the fan is aligned against your forearm in many movements which takes body awareness, and you have to make sure the fan isn’t tilted too far to one side or another, to ensure that the audience (even if imaginary, even if virtual) can see the full shape of the fan. If, like us, you dance in long full skirts, then any time you bring the fan to hip level you have to make sure you’re not mashing it into the folds of your skirts. When learning to flick the fan open or closed, you have to learn not to accidentally fling it (we have all been guilty of this error at one point or another). Still, even our mistakes made us smile and laugh, and continue to bond with one another and study hard.

Given that I’d been feeling burned out teaching online for most of the last year, I hadn’t been expecting creative inspiration to come my way in the form of yet more teaching online. But I’d been lucky enough to figure out what sparked my motivation: getting to apply something I’d learned to a new situation and teaching it to a group of people that I absolutely love dancing with. And we are, to my knowledge, the only group of dancers in the U.S. studying this style so we can perform it live and improvised, rather than being forced to stick to solo work or rigid choreographies.

Not everybody is in the position to study with artists halfway around the world and then teach the material you’ve learned to a group of dedicated students that you may or may not have already cultivated, I get it. I think this idea could be reframed in a number of ways, such as offering to lead a session of your artist’s or writer’s group to implement a new technique that you’ve learned, or volunteering to run a short class for a local youth group. Simply going out of your way to learn something new, and learn it well enough that you could transmit it to an audience that it’s well-suited for in terms of technique/skill level, would hit the novelty and challenge aspects of creativity that can be hard to come by right now (not to mention community, which is an essential ingredient in my experience of the arts as well).

I was grateful to find a trick that would get me dancing beyond the couple hours per week that I was already committed to teaching dance on Zoom; for a few months, it felt as though my flamenco fan was in my hands for half my waking hours. I’ve come out of the experience a better dancer, as well as an artist with a couple more tricks in my creative toolkit to keep me engaged when feeling despondent.

Jeana’s students happily gave permission to be used in the header photo. Here’s a video of the dancers in action:

Art Says Stop: Exploring Rest and Recovery

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is TSprofile_bw.jpeg

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.