“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” – George Orwell, “Why I Write”
I was intrigued, during Allyson Latta’s last Costa Rican workshop, that a number of writers chose to respond to her writing prompts from a child’s point of view. I had never done that before, so for one of her next “challenges” I decided to write the story “Grandma’s Cabin on the Lake,” which was just published in Junto Magazine. See below for the link.
“As we drive away this morning, Grandma asks me if I understand that my baby brother is dead. I say, “I don’t know,” and turn to look out the window at all the big buildings holding each other up. I have been waiting for a baby brother for a long time, but now he’s not coming. Instead, Daddy took me to Missus Wiley’s to stay because Mommy was sick. That’s where Grandma came to pick me up. I’m sad that my baby brother isn’t coming, so I decide to sing some songs as we ride along. I sing every song I know, some of them twice. ” Read more . . .
Occasionally, I go through periods of writer’s block, where my “idea well” seems utterly dry and tumbleweeds blow by the desolate terrain of my creative imagination. In these periods, sitting down to write feels like the hardest thing in the world.
Even when my writing is going well, it can still be scary—first drafts seem like dog-paddling in the middle of an immense body of water, slogging towards a hazy shoreline. Sitting at my computer and taking a few strokes forward on my novel-in-progress is much harder than pretty much anything else I could spend my time doing: cleaning my kitchen or reading a book or brainstorming a quick blog post.
Writing is difficult. Revising is difficult. Querying agents and editors is difficult. Putting yourself out there is difficult. Rejection is difficult; criticism is difficult; rewriting again and again is difficult. And yet, it is helpful to remember that none of these things are as difficult as so many challenges that people go through every day. Things like cancer. Divorce. Job loss. Car accidents. Hunger. Poverty. Domestic violence. Homelessness. Grief.
Writing is not truly difficult, not in that sense. Writing is an incredible gift—the opportunity to sit down with ourselves in the quiet of our own minds; to escape into new worlds of our own creation; and to perhaps share the magic of our invented worlds with others.
–Dallas Woodburn, “What My Premature Birth Taught Me About Writing,” Compose Journal, Spring 2016
This is my first published work of fiction, and it appears in the latest issue of The Quotable (December, 2016). It’s a “flash” piece, and it was inspired by a writing prompt given by Allyson Latta in her last Costa Rican workshop. It seems my persistence is paying off, because another short nonfiction piece has been picked up by Junto Magazine (forthcoming issue), and a brief memoir piece made it into Oasis Journal 2016. I hope you enjoy “Through My Window,” which begins below.
Through my window I watch robins feed their young in the nest they have built under the eaves of the verandah. The window faces the forest, and is low and wide enough to give me an ample view from my bed.
The robins are industrious. Every three minutes (I have timed this) one of them lands on the verandah rail with a bug in its beak and, checking to be sure neither of the cats is lounging on the deck, glides quickly up to the nest to feed one of the three nestlings. I can’t see the nestlings – it’s too dark up there in the corner – but Rosa has assured me there are three.
Lying here, I have become more attuned to the subtleties of the changing Costa Rican seasons. Read More
Copyright © Sandra Shaw Homer, 2016
Letters from the Pacific: 49 Days on a Cargo Ship
Homer (The Magnificent Dr. Wao) inspires readers with this chronicle of a 49-day “voyage of exploration” she took through the South Pacific—from the Panama Canal to Tahiti, Fiji, New Caledonia, Australia, and New Zealand—as a passenger aboard a cargo ship. Homer embarks on her journey for a number of reasons: to experience again “the joy of being afloat in the vast, undefined watery spaces” that she first felt as a child on her father’s boat; to find some sort of “magic” that would wipe out troubles both physical (arthritis) and mental (doubts about her long-time marriage) ; and, while seeing other countries, to experience what a friend tells her: “Keep looking inward and see what the moment has to teach you.” What she discovers—and artfully describes—are the joys and hardships of life on a working ship (“A freighter is a noisy, dirty, smelly beast”), the beauty of the high seas (“With little warning, the red blob of sun oozed forth from the primordial soup, then slowly backlit the clouds above it, first in mauve, then rose, then gold”), and the strength she finds to go back to her daily life renewed, with a new appreciation for the “someone who has always been inside me but has been ignored for too long.” (BookLife)
Ever since November 8, I have felt as if I’ve been run over by a truck — unable to think straight, unable to make even the simplest of decisions, just pushing ahead, one minute at a time, to what end I’m not at all sure. Today I ran into the following quote. I have always found solace in the natural world, so I found the following very comforting . . . and fortifying.
“We don’t have the luxury of being complacent. So, no more getting up in the morning and reading the Guardian and calling it a day. You have to act at the end of the day; you have to do something.”
“It’s not about money. There is just no excuse for doing nothing. Abdication is not a possibility. Whoever you are, wherever your interest lies, whatever you’ve fallen in love with, you get out of bed every morning and you do something. You act, you step into the fray, and you fight for a human society that is in balance with the natural world.
“We have no choice. Otherwise we might as well kiss our beautiful planet goodbye.” — Kris McDivitt Tompkins
Recently, a young friend of mine asked me at the tail end of an email for my thoughts on creativity and spirit. I thought, “You have got to be kidding.” But I wrote back and asked if she wanted me to do a blog post, or could we save it for a conversation when I see her at Christmas (desperately hoping for the latter). She hasn’t responded, so here goes . . . .
I have written before about the importance of being in the moment – or putting yourself back into the moment – when you’re writing. That seems to me the only way to achieve authenticity, to re-experience things, events, people, or conversations in a way that will reach into the reader so that she can see it, feel it, experience it in a new way. That’s the kind of connection writers always want to achieve, because it is truth-telling at its deepest level. Spiritual teachers point to this “being in the moment” as connecting to the Divine . . . although there are plenty of great writers who are atheists!
But “spirit?” This is a word with far too many meanings, and I have no idea which meaning my young friend was referring to – and I’m afraid to ask her until I see her. Concepts like this are too difficult to pin down in an email.
Do we create only when “the spirit” moves us? Or do we sit down every day in front of the computer just like going to work? Where does that going-to-work discipline come from? Surely we are driven by something inside, be it ambition, egotism, the desire to connect with other human beings, anger at the injustices of the world, revenge, the profound love of the sheer beauty around us, despair, divine inspiration or just the simple desire to see our name on the marquee. Whatever it is, it flows through us . . . and will not be denied.
Personally, I have difficulty defining what drives me, so for convenience sake I’ll call it “spirit.” Hope I’m not stepping on too many toes here!
I expect this post to rouse up a few of my readers to comment – let’s get a conversation going. My young friend will certainly be one interested reader.
A version of this first appeared on off-the-beaten-track.net.
FAQS about Freighter Travel
Documentation, Visas, etc.
It can be a long and frustrating process arranging travel on a freighter. Not that many ships carry passengers anymore, they carry fewer these days because there’s no doctor on board, and there are varying age limits. The most popular routes are sometimes booked a year or more in advance, so it’s wise to get started early. Travel to a specific destination can also be frustrating, because many shippers prefer not to book passengers for a partial voyage.
The documentation required is also daunting, depending on which countries the ship will stop in. Visas, vaccinations, release forms, contracts, proof of travel insurance and medical certificates acquired no more than 30 days in advance of sailing are some of these. Handy to have a scanner so you can sign things and simply email them back. US citizen entry requirements for other countries can be found at: abriggs.com.
Fortunately, most travel agents specializing in freighter voyages are familiar with all these requirements and are good at handling things in a timely fashion. My favorite is a UK firm called The Cruise People, because they have more varied and interesting offerings. For information about what it’s like to be on a freighter, freightercruises.com is the most complete – with the caveat that I have found this agency less than responsive. They all will require a 50% deposit to hold a booking.
Before my first voyage, I spent hours on line looking at maps of ports and collecting tourist information for every port city, all of which I printed and took with me. This was very useful preparation, although foul weather and a nighttime arrival prevented my disembarking in two of them. Unpredictability is a watchword in freighter travel. One never knows how long the ship will be in port, and shore leave is always at the captain’s discretion.
Communications at Sea
Internet: some companies are now offering individual email accounts through their satellite connections. This is email only — no browsing is available. There is the sat phone, but it’s expensive, and its use is also at the discretion of the captain.
What to Bring
Packing for my first voyage took me two months! I was going to be in three climates and I had to keep extending my checklist when I remembered something else I couldn’t be without. Be prepared for 220 voltage, and take enough of your prescription medications to last the whole voyage. Ships’ medical stores are pretty complete, including antibiotics, and there’s a “slop chest” for cigarettes, toothpaste and other small items, although brands are limited. For some it may be useful to know that some companies, CMA CGM among them, now have a “dry ship” policy. This doesn’t prevent your bringing liquor on board, as long as you’re discreet about it (luggage isn’t inspected), and nobody objects if you search out liquor stores ashore.
There’s always some kind of gym equipment on board, and sometimes a ping pong table, but if you plan to do yoga, bring a mat – few cabins are carpeted. Bring a tablet well-stocked with movies, music, podcasts and books, if looking at the ocean all day is not your thing. Some fellow passengers have brought cell phones with international calling cards, so they can at least text home when within range of 3G service. Don’t forget your chargers! A camera. The list goes on . . . .
Make sure you have an international debit card so you can withdraw local currency from ATM machines, which are ubiquitous in all the places I have visited, except on Fiji, where there are three exchange booths on every block.
Sometimes, the weather can be rough, and freighters are not equipped with stabilizers as are cruise ships, so they bounce around a lot. Anti-nausea pills help (they put me to sleep), the but best thing I’ve found are Sea Bands, small wrist bands with a round plastic button that you position exactly two finger widths above inside of the wrist. There’s an acupressure point there that controls nausea. You can find these on Amazon.
Cabins are more than adequate, with bed, desk and chair, sofa and coffee table, mini-fridge, plenty of storage space and a private bathroom (shower only), air conditioning and a window for looking out at either containers or the ocean, maybe both. Once you’re unpacked, you’ll feel perfectly at home. Happy sailing!
© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2016
I’ll never make it as a food writer, but I had fun describing the delectables on a recent freighter voyage. Forgive me . . . I just couldn’t help sharing! Excerpted from the recently published Journey to the Joie de Vivre.
People ask me about the food. After my first freighter voyage, I was truthfully able to say, “Not that bad.” Aboard the Matisse, it wasn’t quite as good, but it still wasn’t that bad. Now, aboard the Coral, it is finally that bad. I am eating for sustenance only and loading up on salad and bread and butter.
The salad is invariably iceberg lettuce, green or red sweet peppers, sliced red onion, unripe tomato and cucumber. I suffered a small shock when I poured oil and what I thought was vinegar over my first salad, only to discover that the vinegar was really soy sauce. I told the Messman I would like vinegar. He brought me another little cruet of soy sauce. Could it be that a Filipino Messman (he says he likes to cook!) doesn’t really know what vinegar is? I told him as soon as I boarded about my milk allergy, and ever since then he has been assiduous about telling me he’s put a ‘little bit of milk’ in the rolls or ‘a little bit of milk’ in the mashed potatoes. But today he asked me if I would like ice cream. I begin to suspect he’s being impish.
The Chief Cook has a penchant for pork: Batter-Fried Pork, Steamed “Roast” Salt-Pork, Pork Slices à la Microwave and Roadkill Pork Chop. Last night I was thrilled to find Steamed “Roast” Breast of Chicken. The only fish so far has been Pressed Mackerel Steaks. This morning I finally looked at the calendar and calculated that this voyage is 19 days, not 17 as I originally thought; that’s two more days on this incredible diet. I can’t wait for Italy!
© Sandra Shaw Homer 2016
I feel I gave the sense of taste short shrift when I all I could think to do was feature the hyperbole of food writers. So see how this one tastes. Excerpted from the forthcoming memoir, Evelio’s Garden.
One of my chores on the verandah has been to cut back the basil. I have seven pots of it out there, all gone leggy and struggling with aphids. Evelio’s organic insecticide is the most potent thing I’ve ever used on these aphids, but they need to be sprayed directly in order to be killed, and when there’s a lot of foliage some get missed. A drastic cutting-back was the only solution. The infected branches I simply tossed over the rail, but the healthy ones were starting to accumulate in my basket in a sufficient quantity to make Rosa pause, in her mopping of the deck, to ask me whether I made pesto with macadamia or pine nuts.
Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me to make pesto. I hadn’t thought at all what to do with all this basil, but pesto sounded like a good idea. I had both macadamia and pine nuts in the house (the macadamias are local, the pine nuts a treasure brought by my friend Shirley from a small town 400 miles north of Toronto), plenty of garlic and extra virgin olive oil, even real, imported-from-Parma Parmesan cheese. I hadn’t made pesto in years, since jars of it often make their way into the Tilarán supermarkets, and washing and pulling off all those leaves from the stems is a chore.
Italian pesto isn’t a staple of the Costa Rican diet, but Rosa worked for many tourist seasons at an Italian restaurant near here. So when I had it all made up, I invited her to sample it.
“Better,” she said. “At the restaurant they don’t use any cheese. And why would theirs be runnier? Too much oil? Why wouldn’t they use cheese – because it’s cheaper?”
I confessed that, yes, no cheese certainly made their pesto cheaper. I pulled out a jar of the commercial stuff and read the list of ingredients; no cheese there either. I dipped my spoon into the lovely pale green paste I had just made, closed my eyes, and . . . ah, so densely green and nutty, with just enough cheesy sharpness to make all the difference.
© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2016