Writer’s Block Isn’t Everything

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

Photo by Rodolfo Bohnenberger

Through My Window

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

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH

Publishers Weekly Weighs In

Letters from the Pacific: 49 Days on a Cargo Ship

Sandra Shaw Homer. CreateSpace, $9.99 trade paper (132p) ISBN SBN 978-1-4944-7531-4

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)

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH

Post November 8, 2016

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

espejo

Words as Camera: Erin Van Rheenen at Four Corners

Lower Antelope Canyon, photo by David Webster SmithLower Antelope Canyon, photo by David Webster Smith

On a trip to the famously photogenic Four Corners, a traveler chooses to leave her camera behind.

How many of us have thousands upon thousands of trip photos on our hard drives, waiting to be sorted and shared? And who among us hasn’t wondered, in this age of any and all images available at the click of a mouse, why bother to take pictures at all?

On a recent trip to the outrageously scenic Four Corners, I chose to leave my camera behind.

Without a machine clamped to my face, I figured, I would have time to think and write. And sketching with sentences would give me something to do while my traveling companion set up his shots.

*            *            *

“The guy in Escalante is deluded,” says David, my fellow traveler, one warm October afternoon at Calf Creek Falls. “That definitely wasn’t the most beautiful waterfall in the world.”

I have to laugh. We’re on the return hike from an idyllic falls in southern Utah. We splashed in the pool at the base of the 200-foot cascade, mist hydrating our sun-cracked skin. While maybe not the most beautiful in the world, the falls had looked and felt pretty damned good.

David’s vision may have been colored by the fact that for the better part of an hour he’d fiddled with his camera, trying – and failing, in his estimation – for the silken effect of falling water caught on a long exposure. My vision had been colored, too, by the roar of the falls, cool water on chafed feet, the smell of sunscreen and the chatter of other hikers claiming 20-minute miles. I recorded my impressions not with a camera but with pen and notebook pulled from my day pack.

David tried to stop time, to freeze flowing water. I tried to extend time and expand focus, searching for words to convey the beauty but also noting context, like that we’d arrived in a deserted clearing but left behind a group of more than 40, including 23 hikers of a certain age on a Road Scholar tour of the Southwest. In my notebook I described the vertical stripes of desert varnish and the Fremont granaries tucked high in alcoves, but I also posed questions. (Can you do that with photos?)

What does it say about us, for instance, that of the dozens of people arriving at the falls, the vast majority did one thing: pulled out a camera, first thing, before even turning to a companion to share the moment?

In the face of this overwhelming tilt towards the visual, another question arises: what can writing do that photos can’t? Why photograph, or describe in words for that matter, landscapes that have already been nailed down by hordes of fellow travelers? (Google Calf Creek Falls for a small taste.) Is beauty diminished by having to share it with crowds of people, as if each gaze leeches away a little bit of the gorgeousness?

In the Southwest, there may be enough gorgeousness to go around. The variety is astounding, and often seen in the same landscape. A scrubby plain falls away under your feet, exposing the steep-sided howl of a canyon. Palisades jut skywards. Mountains are the buried rib bones of a fallen giant, exposed by wind.

Some places are especially crazy. Think of all that water can do – swirl and eddy, surge and crest and crash – then imagine rock doing all that, but caught mid-action. If you judge by geological time, the rock actually is in motion. It’s only in our split second of human time that we see the landscape as static. We make it even more so with photos, grasping at a permanence that doesn’t really exist.

At the end of Desert Solitaire, when he’s leaving the Southwest for New York City, Edward Abbey writes, “Five hundred and sixty tumbleweeds roll toward the horizon, herded by the wind; may they, too, never come back. All things are in motion, all is in process, nothing abides, nothing will ever change in this eternal moment.”

But we want the eternal moment to abide, and the timeless furniture of that moment is there for us to try to capture: peaks and domes and spires and Seussian hoodoos, in colors that come especially alive at sunset and sunrise. Comb Ridge rears up like the 100-mile spine of some prehistoric lizard. East of sunset-hued Capitol Reef National Park, ashen monoliths look like where Darth Vader has his summer home. Loopy hieroglyphs — ATV tracks — scar barren foothills. Irrigation makes for the occasional neon green field hemmed in by red rock sentinels. Towns huddle in the shadow of cliffs scrumptious with lollipop swirls of color. Dirt and gravel tracks lead who knows where, branching off from curving one-lane highways. Up at 9,000 feet, the sun supernovas though aspen leaves quaking like sheets of gold leaf.

Did I stick to my no-photo plan in the face of such splendaliciousness? Not exactly. I pulled my phone out more than once to snap shots of scenes I didn’t have the time or inclination to get down in print. Try describing the landscape as it’s whizzing by outside your rental car window. Sometimes you just have to snatch away an image, however blurred or partial.

But is that so terrible? I’m not sure. I do know that at its heart – and despite Facebook and Instagram privileging one over the other – the photographic impulse is not so different from the desire to describe a scene in words.

Both are attempts to hold on to beauty. Even more, both are tools to let us sift through a world that’s far too big and varied to take in at a glance. Whether we chose to hone our gaze by narrowing down in words or images, both methods let us see more deeply, if less widely.

The process is the same whether we’re using camera or words: focus, capture, edit and enhance. Sharing is the final step, whether it gets you a “like,” a nod, or nothing.

They say that travel broadens us. The vacation frame of mind lets in more than our workaday blinders. But that very broadening calls for a way to focus and take hold. Trying to get even a fraction of it down in words or pictures is not just a grabby exercise; it’s a way of going deeper, of really noticing, and of doing the processing work – both mental and technological – to help make sense of this crazily beautiful world we pass through all too briefly.

A version of this article appeared in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.

Erin Van Rheenen writes travel narratives, profiles of prisoners, philanthropists, scientists and filmmakers, and fiction in which place is as important as character. She has won awards for her fiction and nonfiction, worked as an editor and staff writer, and taught in high schools, universities, and at the San Francisco Women’s Jail. She is also the author of Living Abroad in Costa Rica. See more of her work at http://erinvanrheenen.com

 

Creativity and Spirit

 

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.

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH

In Case You’re Tempted . . .

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.

Booking Passage

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.

Preparation

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  . . . .

Money

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.

Sea Sickness

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.

Accommodations

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

The H. S. Schubert

The H. S. Schubert

Speaking of Food . . .

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

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH

Can You Taste It?

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

Photo by Marten Jager

Photo by Marten Jager

The Joie de Vivre Comes from Within

“I am an ordinary person with an ordinary life. Even my acceptance of ordinariness is ordinary, the undercurrent of so many ‘big books.’ Madam Bovary, War and Peace, Freedom. The mistake is always the same: trying to live the life one has in one’s head instead of the life before one, which is endlessly generous if you humble yourself to it as the only possible means of fulfillment.”  — Tennant-Moore

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH