Back in the Groove

After finishing my graduate work in Creative Writing, I was completely sapped, and didn’t write anything for a good long while. (Except personal letters, I’m a dedicated pen pal.) I share this because several others who have graduated from the low-residency program at WVWC I attended have had similar dry spells.

My personal “writer’s block” was compounded when ten months after graduating, I relinquished a dedicated audience of an average 40,000 readers a month that took me ten years to build. Who is my audience now? Three hundred facebook page followers? Ouch. What next for Stumptown Publishing? What next for me as a creative? As a writer? I had, by giving up the magazine and trimming my personal friends list to develop a professional page following–pretty much wiped the audience slate clean. All I can say is, “It had to be done.”

Three years. Three. Years. Three years I’ve been stuck in a creative impasse. Three years of adult coloring books, crappy writing prompt responses, bullet journal work to prompt something… anything. No sewing, no writing, no physical response to minute flashes of inspiration.

I rearranged furniture. Got a new laptop. New pens, new notebooks, new nail polish, new hair color, new hair cut. New clothes. Three years seeking any method that would crack the dam and open the flow again. I’m a project person who had no creative projects or output for 1095 days.

I asked questions. Am I good enough? Am I an academic? Have I written myself out? Is the well dry? What to do with my business? What to do with what I’ve done? Should I teach? Seek a publisher? Self-publish? What to do with what sits unfinished? What now?

Damn. It’s been a long three years.

Last month, the block cracked. I updated my web site and relaunched my quarterly email newsletter. (You can sign up for that on here on this web site.) Behind the scenes I began working on a book–a collection of my favorite columns from ten years of Two-Lane Livin’. I expect to have it available before Christmas.

I also have a book previously published that I’ll be reissuing–a collection of my columns from four years as a small-town newspaper reporter and columnist. I’ll be adding thoughts and reflections to those for this issue. I expect that to be completed by spring.

I have two other books (a poetry collection and a photo book) I will also be reissuing at some point, and I’m drafting a non-fiction how-to book I had outlined before entering graduate school.

In the background, the long piece from my thesis sits. It’s been through two revisions, and has been presented to three editors/reviewers for feedback. It’s percolating right now, and I’m okay with that.

And–I’m at the early, early phase of a multimedia project. A gonna-take-me-all-winter project. A gonna-have-to-do-some-research project. But I’m totally lit about it. It’s a new creative/career direction I’ve been presented little hints about over the last few years when nothing else was happening.

This project-driven person has got some projects going! W00t! I finally got my groove back.

You have no idea how good it feels to be working (creatively) again.

How I got Control of my Facebook Addiction

(Originally posted on Facebook, with a different summation.)

Two years ago, about this time, we made the decision to “kill da wabbit” and end the ten-year run of Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine. At that time, I had over two thousand followers of my personal facebook profile. Up until that moment, I had an “I’ll friend anybody” attitude about it. I also had a terrible facebook addiction.

If you’ve been following along, then you know I began cutting folks from my friends list then. (And before folks get outta joint, I did have a method to this madness. Some might take it personally, but I’m here to tell ya, it had more to do with me than anyone else.)

First, I removed the Facebook app from my cell phone. When you work from home, it’s over the internet, but when you have to go out into the world again, it costs data. So, only the facebook messenger app travels with me.

Second, I spent MONTHS urging people to head over to my “professional” page at https://www.facebook.com/LHayesMinney/. I also set up a public Instagram profile, which is tied to my facebook page. (Instagram, IMHO, is a kindler, gentler place where people have to use photos and can’t go on angry or political rants. It also forces me to use photographs and limits my angry and political rants. While my page isn’t entirely “professional” I am less likely to “show my ass” there. There’s a side to me that the world doesn’t need to see, there’s a side that you “friends” see, then there’s the side that sends memes by private message because only people who know and love me need to know that side.)

Third, I started cutting complete strangers from the personal friends list. I spent much time going, “Who are you?” Looking at profiles to see if they were someone I could recognize. If not, cut. I also started building a friend list on Instagram, and if someone was posting the same to both — I unfriended from facebook and friended them on Instagram instead.

Fourth, I completely stopped taking new friend requests. If I did friend someone, I sent them a message to go like my page, then often, unfriended them again.

Then, I started culling lurkers. Politicos. Haters, Drama Queens, Trolls, Negative Nannies. Whiners. People who post pictures of abused animals. High school friends who didn’t speak to me then and wouldn’t speak to me now. I started unfollowing Pages I really didn’t care about and unfollowing certain friends to see if I actually missed seeing their posts.

At that point, I had trimmed my friends list to about 500. My time spent scrolling down the Facebook feed was also significantly diminished. I had removed the wheat from the chaff.

Then, my Aunt Sybil died. I have always tried (not always successfully) to behave myself on facebook because Aunt Sybil and Mother were watching. Now, I do have a post setting that is “Friends Except Mother and Sybil,” but very rarely did I use it. But knowing that Mother and Sybil are watching is the main reason for the PG setting of all my posts. (I also don’t post many political posts because the family I love is divided on many issues. And I still love them, of course.)

I started thinking more about watching who was friending me and why. Who watches? Who likes all my posts? Who likes only the really good posts? Who is stirring pots IRL because of my posts? Who, among my friend list, was actually interacting? Who was following me, supporting me? (All writers must consider their audience.)

I unfriended (nearly all of) my library board members. Not because of any real issue or event, but because I think that just makes a healthier workplace. They are welcome to follow my facebook page where I maintain some personal control, but I don’t want them to witness me when I rant. I don’t want to know their politics, they don’t need to know mine. (This is healthy for a work environment, this is necessary for a good library environment.)

I friend very few, if any, library patrons. Same reason I unfriended my library board members, but also–friending library patrons on facebook gives them 24/7 access to the librarian. This, my dearies, is a privilege I am not about to toss out willy-nilly. The library has a facebook page, I check it when I’m at work. If you don’t get the answer you want at 2 a.m., then you’ll have to just wait.

At this point, the Facebook algorithm got interesting. I was seeing posts I was interested in. Pictures of faces I love, posts about issues I’m interested in, people I know. I worried for a while that I might only be selecting folks who see the world the way I do, but that didn’t happen. Yes, there’s a good selection of like-minded folks on the list, but I will not go so far as to say my list is all people who have the same opinions I do.

I got to a point after that, where I made actual, personal choices on my friend list. Did I miss the ones I unfollowed? For several, I followed them again. Some, I unfriended. Who do I enjoy following? Who is funny? Interesting? Educational? Who are my storytellers? Who am I investing my time and energy in?

Who, of those who I unfriended, asked to be friended again? (Answer=3)

So today, nearly two years later, there are 95 of you left. My goal was always to get below 100. One hundred people I follow or check in on regularly. I can manage that. Less than a hundred people who get to witness that I’m kinda weird, and a little dark, and occasionally snarky.

There are days when I get on facebook and spend far too much time (like today). And I still check facebook daily, but sometimes I don’t. I don’t jump and run to respond to notifications anymore, I don’t gauge my post success by the number of likes (the record was 374) and I rarely spend more than 30 minutes total on any given day.

I’m blogging more (not much, but more), I’m writing more, and I’m working on a collection of my work as a book. I spend more time with family and enjoy more beauty on Instagram and less attitude on Facebook. I haven’t gone cold turkey, but it has changed my life.

 

Indian Summer (a poem)

To the casual driver passing through,
the hills might still look green.
But I see yellow in the poplar,
brown in the sumac,
tinges of rust around the oak.
The chestnut and ash are absent.

There used to be music,
but the summer songbirds
have all gone.
The cacophony now of
cricket chirps and katydid trills,
the fluttering wings of
dragon and horse fly.

Calendars claim it is summer still,
Indian Summer they say,
those warm days and cool nights.
Nothing blooms now but goldenrod,
ragweed, and untrained morning glories
the hummingbird no longer visits.

A crow calls out what’s coming in
the distance, and several friends reply.
The breezes are far too slight
to make the wind chime sing,
but plenty powerful enough to
loosen withered leaves who,
falling,
dance their way to death.

Me and the Zero-Turn Mower

(Not our actual mower, but very similar.)

This spring, Frank went out and purchased a new zero-turn riding mower. Mind you, he’s not the one who mows around here. But with that male “bigger is better” mentality, he wanted to purchase something that would cut down on the time his mom and I spend mowing. We mow acres every week.

The first day I attempted to use the zero-turn, I was livid. This new contraption had turned one of my Zen processes into a challenging new game I was not familiar or comfortable with. I ran over rocks, broke a flower pot, damaged things just trying to get the thing in and out of its storage space.

Because the zero-turn has no steering wheel and instead has… What to call them? Toggles? Steering arms? Handlebars? I don’t know. At any rate, after mowing this land for more than 20 years and knowing I could do it with a drink in one hand and the steering wheel in the other — the zero-turn mower created a whole new ball game.  Mowing was no longer an automatic thoughtless process.

I don’t like change. Especially in routines I have down-pat and can accomplish without thinking. One reason I like mowing is because my mind can wander without having to give the task at hand very much thought.  The zero-turn steers differently, turns differently, rides and handles differently. I have to pay attention. Focus. Concentrate on what I’m doing.

In other words, it wiped out all that I love about mowing.

The wider mower deck is nice, yes. Very nice. It seems as though I can cover twice as much ground in half the time. Less time out of the house in the sunshine, away from housework, ringing phones, internet notifications. I might just be riding around the yard, but mowing is often the closest I can get to running away from my life. Mowing was my excuse to just sit and let my mind muddle, a time-out disguised as work.

The zero-turn cut down the time spent, but turned mowing into work again. I pouted about it. Fiercely complained. This financed man’s mower and I were not going to be friends. No sir. I spent the first month of the summer doing all the lawn and yard edges with my old steering-wheel mower, and only mowing the middle of the yard with the zero-turn.

And then the mower belt on my old mower broke, and Frank didn’t fix it.

Gah. Well, I’m not about to replace a mower belt myself.

So I have spent the last two months of this summer getting accustomed to that zero-turn lawn tractor.

Frank did make adjustments to the handlebars so I could manage it better, and I have learned since how to mow very slowly to handle the trimming around the edges. But I can’t quite set in my mind where the exact pivot point of the zero-turn is beneath me. I’m often pivoting too early, or worse yet, too late.

I googled how to drive a zero-turn. Most of them simply stated the obvious.

And reverse? Frankly, I’ve never been that good at reverse even with a steering wheel.  I’m not good at reverse on my own two feet. With the zero-turn, if I just need to back straight up, I’m okay. But maneuvering or turning in reverse still causes me to curse under my breath. I have to do it at the slowest possible speed just to make sure I’m not flailing around like a landed fish.

So, I am growing a relationship with this zero-turn contraption that I cursed in May and bitched about on social media. It’s a fine machine, but we’re not friends yet. It’s damn near impossible to drive it one-handed, which means I have to actually slow down or stop to take a drink, slap a fly, or wipe sweat from my brow. That frustrates me. It breaks the groove.

I also have not yet come to grasp how a “lawn tractor” could or would have bald wheels in the front. Bald. Zero tread. Are they even tires? I don’t know. Hard, slippery things that they are. Because our yard is nowhere near perfectly flat, those tiny smooth front wheels are often spinning in the air. I can see where tread on the front might tear up the lawn in certain zero-turn situations, but come on! This girl needs tread. Uphill, downhill, across ditches, dimples, and pockets. How can you have two treadless tires on a lawn tractor? What’s up with that? Even if it’s just for some kind of show to make me feel better, something decorative if there’s some sane reason for having none. Smooth tires in the country are just — wrong.

There are two places in the yard where the new wider mower deck won’t fit. Spaces which I now have to weed-eat in addition to all the other weed-eating we do. Frank got me a new weedeater this year as well–a man-size, gas-powered creature to supplement my small battery-powered baby I’ve been working with for nearly a decade now.

We aren’t friends yet either.

Making Up with my Muse

I wrote an essay this week! My first free-flowing, inspired, creative writing moment since I received my Master’s Degree in Creative Writing – two years, nine months, and three days ago. You have no idea what a relief it is to know that my muse has not permanently left me after all.

I do not blame my MFA experience on this extended dry spell, (a spell that lasted longer than my time in the program). The graduate environment I experienced was encouraging, empowering, enlightening. I read, heard, and met amazing writers who were doing fantastic work. The lessons I learned and tools I was given are invaluable to me.

But muses are finicky, you know. My muse is more organic than academic, and in my graduate goal to become a better writer, I think she somehow got the impression that she was no longer good enough. I thought my MFA would make me a “real” writer. My muse, after all, isn’t “real,” but she is a true part of my writing process.

My muse and I have been writing together all my life. She’s whimsical. She likes to do her own thing, without expectations. She likes to figure it out herself without structure or strings. She doesn’t think about writing rules or prescriptions or possibilities of getting published. She doesn’t care what others think. She just needs a fine-point pen and a college-ruled page.

But even these will not persuade her when she’s pouting.

I tried to appease her. New pens, new notebooks, new books on the craft of writing. Writing prompts. Writer’s Group. I read Julia Cameron’s The Artists’ Way (again), and when that didn’t work, I read Cameron’s The Right to Write.

I tried to write without my muse. Real writers write as a discipline you know, inspired or not. The results were clunky, forced, and without flow. Chunks of purposeless rambling without direction. Clearly, though I now have my Master’s, I am nothing without my muse.

I did all I could to conjure her. I tried to bribe her, entice her, force her to appear and produce, to maintain the production level I imposed on her during graduate school. All to no avail. I could not find her nor force her, so I let her be.

In her absence, I colored adult coloring books. I redecorated the spare bedroom, began scrapbooking. I started reading for enjoyment again, re-organizing my house, playing word puzzles on my phone. I got promoted at work and adjusted my life to spend more weekends with my aging mother.

I waited, with dwindling faith that my muse would return.

And then, on my long drive home from my mother’s last weekend, I heard her. My muse was sitting quietly in the back of my mind, drafting an essay about what my visits to Mother’s have become.

A disciplined writer might have pulled over to scratch down the words. The thought occurred to me, from fear I might miss the chance to catch them. But instead, I listened to her. I listened to her routine of tasks she tackles on her regular visits to Mother’s. I listened to her strain for honor and gratitude beneath the burdens of the increasing caregiving responsibilities.

When the muse fell silent, she left an unfinished essay in my head. But I knew, as I pulled into our driveway, that she would be back for it.

Four days later, I caught my muse running through the introduction of the essay again, and I sat down with a fine-point pen and a college-ruled pad. Within a few minutes, together we filled a full page.

I believe my muse has finally forgiven me. Forgiven me for comparing her to others, telling her she had to improve, for whispering shoulds and coulds in her ear. She and I are working together again, and she even used some of the new tools from the MFA toolbox. For her they are new toys, not tools. (And of course, there’s always revision.)

I don’t believe though, that all is completely well between us yet. That new essay we started on visits to Mother’s still isn’t finished. When we sat down to finish it, we wrote this essay instead.

I’m hoping she and I can move forward from here.

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