Today is my kid’s first day of school and I thought I’d celebrate by tackling my least favorite essay topic from school. I hated it simply because if something exciting happened it felt like bragging to write about it, and if nothing much happened, well, it’s a little depressing to call that to mind at the beginning of a school year.
The truth is I’ve had, by most standards, a very ordinary summer. We took a little trip to the mountains and a day trip to the beach. We did yard work. We made jam. But four things have stood out for me as making a difference in my writing. So I thought I’d say a little bit about all four.
1. A change of setting tends to lead to new work or at least new ideas.
It was my great pleasure to participate in the Outpost Workshop of the Fishtrap Summer Gathering. I spent a week tenting out on the Zumwalt Prairie in northeastern Oregon. It was an astonishing landscape–outwardly empty, yet on closer inspection teeming with wildlife from bull elk to least weasel to all manner of song birds. The days got into the 100s with barely a scrap of shade and the nights dipped down into the 30s. The altitude was a challenging 5000 feet or so. Not the most conducive environment to productive writing, and yet I found myself flooded with story ideas, thinking for example, of what it would be like to homestead such a place with it’s punishing climate but rich resources.
2. New company tends to lead to new perspectives
I met a woman named Janet at the Outpost workshop who has worked on the Zumwalt and in the near by Wallowa Mountains and Snake River canyons for most of her life. She knew an incredible amount about the natural and human history of the area. She shared some of the history of the Joseph band of the Nez Perce who lived near Wallowa Lake up until the famous surrender of Chief Joseph in 1877. You probably remember ‘From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.’ Its one of the most quoted bits of Native American writing ever. Janet gave the fuller version of his surrender and cast the story of Chief Joseph into an entirely different and far more interesting light. Whether the things I’ve learned become a story I write or not, it’s good to periodically revisit what I’ve learned as historical truth, and consider what that truth might look like from a different perspective.
3. World news is less distant than it seems
Along with the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri and the ebola outbreak in Africa, one of the world events that has dominated the news this summer is the solo migration of children from Central America. It would be easy to think of these events as comfortably distant and unrelated to me personally. However, I’ve been researching the famine-era migration of Irish children to the US and a shocking number of them came to this country alone at very young ages. It’s easy to mentally scold parents that would send their children into such danger and hardship and yet, just like Central America of the present day, the children of mid-1800s Ireland faced near certain death in their home country. I find it much easier to think through the issues about what to do with these migrant children knowing my own ancestors were in exactly the same position a mere 150 years ago. I read a great book from a migrant’s point of view called Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea. It was so thoughtfully done and not at all the pedagogic thing I’d be tempted to write if I took on this topic directly myself. The topic of migrant children is a rich one but I think if I took it on I’d write about the famine-era Irish. I’ve been thinking about what books might help children process the information from the ebola epidemic and from the human rights demonstrations in Ferguson, but that is a post for another day.
4. Changing genres is good for the brain
I’ve been working on the same two novels for quite a long time and as much as I love both of the stories I was feeling a bit uninspired at the beginning of the summer. But I spent a little time being a workshop participant rather than a leader and I learned a bunch new things which lead me to try a non-fiction picture book and a screenplay. I managed to get through a whole draft of the non-fiction and part way through a screenplay, and I’m feeling more energized than I have in ages. Not a vacation exactly but definitely a change that did me good.
And all this changing up and refreshing has been perfect timing because one of those two novels I’ve been working on for such a long time is going to be published by Random House in 2016. I’ll do the final edits this fall and now after my summer break I’m 100% ready to dive into the revisions whole-heartedly. The new book will be called The Turn of the Tide. It’s a contemporary middle grade adventure story set in Astoria, Oregon and told in two voices. I’ll have lots more news about that in later posts.
How about you? Did you change things up in your summer routine? Gain an insight from a summer trip? How do you refresh yourself when you’re feeling stale?