Putting Writing First

By Hedgebrook Guest

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Categories: Alum Experiences, Writing Tips,

The sticky September light, the edge to the morning, and the sweet, burnt smell in the air signal the beginning of the school year. There’s something traditionally religious about going back to school as an instructor. Reviewing last year’s syllabi and evaluations, I look for my sins. In developing or revising the curriculum, I find redemption. It’s a cycle, much like a Catholic mass. Another cycle, when the school year begins, is to tuck my writing into a closet and substitute the creativity found in students for my own creativity. September has been bittersweet for more than 25 years.

This year is different. This September hasn’t brought the panic of preparing syllabi. Even though the light still thickens to sticky and the air smells of sun-burnt blackberry leaves, I’m not going back to teach. I’m retired. Early.

When I tell people I’m retired, there are two responses: 1) “What are you going to do?” or 2) “Aren’t you too young?” The question about age doesn’t surprise me since I’m 55, but the concern in the first question makes me wonder. So much of our lives revolve around jobs, and most folks can’t imagine life without that central focus. I think their fear was a sign of their caring: they didn’t want me adrift. At first I didn’t have a plan because all I wanted was to end my job. I realized that friends needed me to have a plan. It comforted them.

Here’s the plan: I’m writing and coaching writing. Full time. Front and center.

One of the only other times writing was front-and-center was my Hedgebrook residency in 1999. All day long for those weeks, writing was my purpose. I became a Writer (capital W). Sure, I had been publishing and teaching writing for 10 years, but during the weeks at Hedgebrook, writing was my identity. Singular. Focused.

One of the most salient images from my time at Hedgebrook was seeing a three-legged coyote pass behind my cottage. (There were other animals I tried to rescue during my stay: a hurt and stray dog I found when biking, an injured sea lion, a bunny mangled by an eagle). What I now understand the coyote to mean is that running is possible while part of me is missing.

During the academic year, I missed writing. Every September I did find a way to keep moving even though the form of my creativity changed. But now, I’m writing and freelance coaching, and my creative/spiritual, public and private selves are all working together. From the coyote I’ve learned how I’ve coped, and I’m grateful for the years of running. But with this new balance, body, and purpose, I’m leaping with faith and trust.

When I said I was going to retire, people asked me all kinds of things: to join boards of non-profits, to organize special events to celebrate the birthday of institutions, to make a solo trip across the country to move someone’s stuff. Saying no is hard (ok, I loved making the solo trip), but now I have a litmus test: does that activity feed my writing?

In my day-to-day practice, I try not to schedule anything in the early mornings when I do my best writing. My volunteer commitments meet the test (facilitating a free writing group for women Veterans, which is a collaboration project between Hedgebrook and our central library in Portland). A weekly fiction group and a monthly poetry group offer deadlines and inspiration. In the next few months I’m fortunate enough to speak to a couple of book groups about my novel, Carry the Sky, and give some readings. The Oregon Poetry Association, Northwest Writers Weekend, and the Mountain Writers series are kind enough to let me offer writing workshops. And Soapstone has given me a grant to conduct a 4-part study group on Sylvia Plath, who is a main character in my next novel.

I’ve quit saying I’m retired because in no way am I shy or retiring. I tell people I’m working from home, that I’m a writer and writing coach. They relax when they hear this response. As a writing coach, I use a particular method (the Gateless method) that combines neuroscience, spirituality, and rigorous, specific attention to help people find their highest selves through writing. The teaching I’m doing doesn’t follow departmental guidelines. It isn’t graded. It follows the dreams and purpose of the writer with whom I’m collaborating. The coaching feeds the writing. The writing feeds the coaching.

And the structure of my week is much like a teaching schedule. I’ve marked off 10 weeks (the length of a quarter in college) with 2-hour blocks for writing. Tuesdays and Thursdays are my heavier writing days with 2 x 2-hour blocks. Mondays and Wednesdays have 1 x 2-hour block each. Exercise occupies other chunks of time. When I sit down to write, I warm up revising the last draft of prose or poetry, and then I pick up where I left off in my novel. I try to end a writing session with notes about what I think comes next, and I’ll stop in the middle of a paragraph or a sentence.

Who knows if my plan will work. For me, at the beginning of retirement, it’s important to implement ritual, to create a new cycle for my year. At age 55, I’m taking a leap of faith. I guess you’re never too young to do what you’ve always wanted to do: Put your creativity first. Discover your best creative and collaborative self. Run all out.

 

About the Author:

KateGrayKate Gray’s first novel, Carry the Sky, (Forest Avenue Press, 2014) attempts to stare at bullying without blinking. She is the author of three poetry collections and has also published essays. She’s been awarded residencies at Hedgbrook, Norcroft, and Soapstone, and a fellowship from the Oregon Literary Arts. Volunteering for Write Around Portland, she facilitates writing groups for female inmates in a correctional facility. In the fall she will also provide a free writing workshop for women Veterans in collaboration with Hedgebrook and Multnomah County Library. She is a teacher and writing coach. She and her partner live in a purple house in Portland, Oregon with their sidekicks, Rafi and Wasco, two very patient dogs.

 


 

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2 Comments

  • Valerie Padilla
    10:00 AM - 5 November, 2015

    We’re twins! We’ll I am an Afro-Caribbean, round-figured East coast dweller but as far as your current occupational focus goes, yes -twins!. I’m only 53 and was an ESOL curriculum writer and instructional specialist who, for reasons of health, took an early retirement last year. I’m currently working on a book of poetry and plan to take a run at the great American novel in the future. Would love sharing stories of our new career realities. Thanks for sharing your inspirational journey and return to your true self as a writer.

  • Kathryn Parmeter
    12:14 PM - 5 November, 2015

    Bless you!!!! My fantasy is to find a way to retire early. At least you worked in what you loved; I work in a toxic bank and when volume gets high here, I FREAK OUT because I’m absolutely living someone else’s life. I’ve yearned for a writing life for 30 years, managed to get my MFA at 45, and now hope to begin a serious writing practice at retirement which like you is by outside standards another 10 years away. Even that carries doubt; because of the cost of living down here in NoCal, I’m not even sure I will be able to survive on retirement income at 65. But your post offers help and solid role modeling in defining life on one’s own terms. Bless you.

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