Plant the Seeds of Intention
The dog days of summer, when Sirius, the “dog star,” rises and sets with the sun, will soon be upon us. Hot sultry weather. Balmy nights. Screen doors and porch swings. Iced lemonade and fresh peach ice cream. The long sagas of our lives lived at a lazy pace.
Sound like the summer of a by-gone era? For many of us, there is nothing slow or lazy about summer. Fall arrives and we glance back over our sun-burned shoulders wondering why we didn’t read more books, or work on that novel, or fill at least one journal with poetic prose. Our writing aspirations, along with the dog, were left to languish on that figurative summer porch.
Cultivating a literary summer garden doesn’t have to be hard work, but it won’t flourish unless you plant seeds of clear intention. Identify your goals, scatter them among your other activities, and fertilize them with attentiveness. Here’s a two-pronged tool to get you started.
Explore Your Literary Neighborhood
There are more reasons than ever to stay close to home this summer, to travel the literary back roads of your neighborhood, your state, your region. Each region is abundant with authors of award-winning books. Since 1971, the Colorado Center for the Book has been recognizing with annual awards the best novels, poetry, works of nonfiction, anthologies, biographies, histories, children’s books, fine press, and pictorial publications. If you live in Wyoming, check out the Wyoming Center for the Book, or think about attending the Wyoming Book Festival in Cheyenne. Or go to the National Center for the Book website, click on your affiliated state organization, and search their site for literary events in your area.
Here's another way to begin planting your literary garden. This summer, set aside a few hours each week. Pluck one book each week (preferably in the genre in which you write) from the list of award winners in your state. Take that book with you to your local café or nearby park. By the end of the summer, you will have harvested a working knowledge of your genre at the regional level, and you will have a much better idea of which books are winning these coveted awards, and why. I plan on picking up a copy of Bruce Decker's Home Pool: Stories of Fly Fishing and Lesser Passions (a 2009 Colorado Book Award fiction/literary finalist) and taking it with me on my River Writing & Sculpting Journey for Women in August.
Explore Your Physical Neighborhood
In 1985, Johnson Books of Boulder (Big Earth Publishing) published the quiet little book Seven Half Miles From Home by Wyoming author Mary Back. For twenty years, Mary, an artist, left her home each morning before breakfast and took a one-mile walk, a half-mile out, and a half-mile back. “The record of her observations became a conscious immersion in the body of life,” wrote Library Journal in their review. “She began to study seven different ecological communities including thickets, desert, swamp, forest, and river.”
Explore the terrain within a half-mile of your home. Explore what it means to be a westerner, or easterner, or citizen of the heartland. Learn the names of the plants, trees, animals, and birds that share your neighborhood. Create a character sketch of them. Are they native to the area? Deciduous? Nocturnal? Do they mate for life? Where do they spend their winters? Sit with your journal among your favorite family of lichen-covered boulders and ponder their history and genetics. Pick a few characters from the novel you’re writing, or the memoir you’re crafting, and learn about the flora and fauna in their neighborhoods.
Start a list of your favorite regional poets. Commit to buying 3 books of poetry this summer from that list. Begin a dialogue with your favorite poems from those books. Each week, pick a poem, read it twice, then write a response to it (no rules, anything goes, just write). You might enjoy Open Range: Poetry of the Reimagined West (Ghost Road Press) edited by my friend Laurie Wagner Buyer and her husband WC Jameson, or Tamped Loose by Mark Todd, an exploration of the interaction between man and nature.
Make sure you take a journal with you on road trips this summer, stop at all the greasy spoons and hidden hideaways, and pilfer as many tidbits of overheard dialogue as you can. Then, just for fun, sprinkle a few of these tidbits into the mouths of your characters and let them take over the story for awhile. You might be surprised at what you’ll glean from this playful scattering of seed, fresh from the tongues of locals.
And don't forget to take time to sit under a tree, or by the side of a stream, and let Nature whisper in your ear. The inspiration might last you all winter.