Visiting Red Cloud 2.0

Two weeks ago at this time I was taking in my first experience of the annual Willa Cather Spring Conference. For months my excitement grew for the event, which included a 700-mile solo road trip.

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A few weeks ago during my daily scroll through Twitter, I stumbled upon an idea that writer Jami Attenberg proposed: write 1,000 words each day from June 15-29.

Writing challenges intrigue me, and I’ve twice “completed” first drafts of novels during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). For those unfamiliar with what happens each November, writers around the world attempt to finish a draft in thirty days, with a minimum required word count of 50,000.

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Board Games with My Boy

When I was an elementary-aged boy in small-town Minnesota, I spent my summers playing baseball at the diamond a block from my house. I swam in the municipal pool three blocks from my house. I played with Legos, read lots of books, hung out with friends, and hung out with my dad.

Until I was about twelve, my dad didn’t work in the summers (having the summer off because he was a sixth-grade teacher). One of our many activites was playing board games, many of which he brought home from his classroom.

All Star Baseball–one of my favorites, complete with the paper discs and metal spinner. Monopoly. Chess. This basketball game with levers and a ping-pong ball. A Civil War game called Battle Cry. A GI Joe game.

As a dad myself, I share those game experiences with my son now, who is eight. (Being a college professor, I have much more free time in the summer.) While we manage to take advantage of Christmas break and Spring break, there’s something about the span of summer. One of the first “grown-up” games I taught him was Ticket to Ride. He was quick to catch on, and what a thrill to be able to play with him a game that my wife and I enjoy.

Unlike my house growing up, we have a closet in our house dedicated solely to board games, several shelves worth. Of course we have our favorites: Dominion, a deck-building game; Commands & Colors, a table-top war game based upon on the Punic Wars; Lewis & Clark, a game where players race to the Oregon coast. And then there are the “cooperative” games: everyone wins or everyone loses.

There are many others that I could name, but playing board games with him is more than about the game–it’s about doing something together. Being present with one another. It’s about conversation. It’s a way to be free from distractions. It’s a counter to a fixation on my phone.

It’s funny to be living an era of board-game “renewal.” Fifteen years ago when my wife and I were newlywoods, we enjoyed board games, but there weren’t easily accessible games beyond those made by the big toy companies. But now, these “niche” games are more common–just look at Target.

Even as I am on a study-abroad trip in Lithuania, checking out different coffee shops, working on various writing projects, touring the city, eating wonderful food, I’m thinking ahead to my return. My son has already said that we are going to be playing a lot of board games this summer. I can’t wait.

Slowing Down

To observe that contemporary American society is fast-paced and frenetic is stating the obvious, but in recent months I’ve contemplated the ways I feel rushed and the ways in which I might push back against that pressure.

Two weeks ago, a writer I follow on Twitter quoted this statement from Junot Diaz: “The whole culture is telling you hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.” I thought, that’s exactly right.

In a post from early January, I shared how I adjusted my writing process so that I am not working simultaneously on multiple pieces at different stages of development. Rather, I work on a first draft or a revision of piece for however long it takes to complete the next draft. Then I move to the next piece.

I’m happy to report that I’ve maintained the focus, and I find myself less hurried and less harried. When I do write, I find that I delight it in the act, a return to that love and excitement I felt when I was a younger, less-experienced writer.

I’ve transferred this idea of slowing down into a related area of my life. I used to pride myself on having between six to eight books I was reading: different genres, bouncing from one to the next. Reading poetry one night, followed by a short story, maybe part of a chapter from a historical book. I’d have a book of criticism going, too, maybe a memoir, and even a novel.

When I noticed was that my ability to immerse myself in the world of the text had weakened, so considering my writing-approach adjustment, I cut back on the books that I’m currently reading. I can say that my enjoyment of the books (and of reading in general) has only deepened.

I’m no longer trying to read a certain number of books in a year. When I was younger, I was trying to beat my record of books read from the prior year. Now, however, I’d rather read fewer books in a more focused way and in a way that involves a richer understanding of and appreciation for those books.

Beyond these two areas, I’m applying the principles of slowing down to my internet usage, my time on social media, my approach to teaching, my relationships, my spiritual life. I’m finding that those other elements are even more fulfilling when I don’t try to rush through activities, when I don’t hurry from one thing to the next.

Slow down. Be present. Pay attention. Be all there. Don’t rush. These are the words I tell myself.



What’s Next?

For a writer, this is a regular question: you finish a draft of a piece, or perhaps even a piece finds a home somewhere, and then where do you go next?

Three weeks ago my new poetry collection, Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Lifewas published. It’s making its way into the world, and I’ve been signing and selling copies. More promotion lay ahead. Yet in the few months leading up to its publication (while reviewing the proof, approving the cover design, filling out paperwork, etc.), I started pondering a question: What’s Next?

In this particular case, the question has some important clarifying language. What’s the next poetry book? I am now at stage in my writing life wherein I’m thinking more about which individual pieces of writing would mesh to make something larger. This is an unexpected but necessary shift in my focus.

I began looking through my folders (both electronic and paper), taking down titles of poems that might be possibilities. Not even looking at whether they necessarily fit together, but were they possibilities as individual poems, even in their nascent stages. As of this point, the document has around forty poems, and the list is not yet complete. In that process I noted several recurring ideas that could help shape a book.

On a related note, I have been drafting a poem a week this new year, something I hadn’t planned on doing but has just sort of happened. My writing momentum is helped because I’m teaching my junior-level poetry-writing course this semester, immersed in the world of contemporary poets and young poets-in-the-making.

So as I continue into 2018, I’ll be promoting the new book, while at the same time, looking ahead. A writer’s work is never done. And that’s one big reason why I enjoy writing so much.