On Sea Changes and Sabbaticals

Sabbatical1

For the first time since moving to the coast, I missed seeing flocks of black skimmers gather on Jax area beaches over the winter. They were there on schedule, but I was stuck at home with a scorching case of Achilles tendinitis. Walking in the sand would have felt great. Walking to and from the sand was not possible.

More than a month passed between beach walks at the start of the year. Since then, beach visits are far shorter and less frequent than usual. I miss those daily 3 mile treks through the sand and I’ll have to wait another year to watch black skimmers.

My beach walking companions, Hanna Beach, Jax, Spring 2015

My beach walking companions, Hanna Beach, Jax, Spring 2015

During my grounding from the coast I wondered if it would be the same when I returned. Sure, I knew there would be sand and surf — the most basic beach ingredients. But the details, and even general topography of a beach can change in a day. High tide during a full super moon with an offshore storm can bury the steps and railing of a long-standing wooden walkover under sand and redraw the edge of a dune. Rough seas and wind can sculpt new sand ridges and valleys, and cover yesterday’s tracks with layers of plants and trash from both land and sea.

After a month, would I have to get to know my favorite beach all over again? Would everything be like it was before? Would I feel at home?

Questions like these stem from having too much time to think about stupid stuff thanks to illness (It’s A Parkinson’s Thing) and injury. And from forgetting that their answers (no, no, and yes) were already known to me–following a longer absence last fall from something less tangible than a coastline.

Hanna Beach, Jax (Jacksonville, FL) looking out at the Atlantic, Spring 2015

Hanna Beach, Jax (Jacksonville, FL) looking out at the Atlantic, Spring 2015

While writing the series of blogs about stories–how they change the world, themselves, and their writers–my story changed. An illness I’ve managed for years progressed. I can’t say that was unexpected. And I can’t say I didn’t know that the balance of writing, working, and living I had in place could be undone by some future storm.

 

Late last summer one of those storms knocked me far enough off course that I stopped writing.

You read that right.

I’ve been writing since I learned how to hold a pencil and telling stories longer than that. There have been times that I’ve taken breaks from writing, but not a complete, full stop with no plan to restart. What about all those writing rules we read and hear, that writers write every day forever and ever at the same time whether they want to or not, or else? And could I still list writer as my occupation on forms? And would I still be me?

What did I learn from my unscheduled sabbatical? First I discovered that…

Nothing. Bad. Happened.

Instead, it may be the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing.

Hanna Beach, Jax, Spring 2015

Hanna Beach, Jax, Spring 2015

Not writing reminded me that I can create without words. I resumed photography and began telling exclusively visual stories–something I hadn’t done since childhood. I no longer consider writing as the bulk of my creative process, but as the last stage of communicating what I create to others–not so much a thing in and of itself anymore, but more of an end to a means.

Several months after I stopped writing, without thinking about it, I opened a document file on my computer and started again. It was that simple–no plan, no stress, no problem. Words surfaced and I wrote them down. It took less effort, and caused less pain, than walking to the truck and driving to the beach with an angry Achilles this spring.

Walking on my favorite beach after an absence I found that while some surface details have changed, I still know the general lay of the sand–where the tidal pools form and which streams dumping that stranded water back to the sea are too deep to cross wearing long shorts if your goal is staying dry. It was the same as returning to writing—the structure of my writing world remained unaltered.

The foundation of your creativity is what’s most important. That’s what needs to be cultivated, nurtured, and reinforced each day. If you do you can take vacations and sabbaticals of any length, or even call it quits, and nothing bad will happen. Not only will you remember how to write, or paint, or sculpt, or take photos, or compose music just as well as you did before, but the surface changes may do you good.

You might even find that not practicing for a while leads to improvement or a breakthrough with a troublesome project. But even if it doesn’t, you’ll still be a writer, or sculptor, or painter, or dancer, or whatever else you were before.

Go forth and create. Or not. You’re still you.

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Stories Change

The tide was low and I was wading in the still warm fall surf with beach poet and our yellow dog when I noticed a gathering of dark objects near the dunes. From that distance they looked like a loose pile of skull-sized rocks but I knew they weren’t. Hanna Beach can be rocky at times but it doesn’t have rocks that size.

I thought they were horseshoe crab shells. But I told myself they must be something else as I headed that way to investigate.

Horseshoe crabs on these beaches aren’t unusual. Discarded shells of various sizes, some with their creatures intact, often stay behind in the sand as the sea recedes twice a day. But I hadn’t seen more than a handful together before that walk.

horseshoe1

Horseshoe crabs scattered on Hanna Beach, Fall 2014

What I found near the dune was a group of more than two dozen shells, many of them among the largest I’ve seen during three years of walking area beaches. Most of the collection was together, some touching or tumbled off of another, with a few outliers several feet in both directions. A few had crabs or crab parts. Most were full shells or full shells minus a few tears or cracks. Some were resting on top of the sand. Some were buried or nearly buried. There was no pattern to their alignment. It was if a giant hand tossed them up on to the shore and left them where they landed. All of them without a doubt horseshoe crabs.

Horseshoe crabs are easy to recognize, so why would I doubt what I saw from the shore?

horseshoe2

Horseshoe crabs scattered on Hanna Beach, Fall 2014

Because it was different.

Changed.

We humans are obsessed with change. Whether we embrace or fear it, work to initiate it or strive to barricade or legislate against it, change is the most reliable aspect of our lives. How we react to it varies but our reactions are emotional. Change makes us FEEL something, just like a good story does.

There’s been a lot said, and written, and studied about what makes a good story, what humans look for or want in stories, and how stories change minds, open hearts, and transform societies. In recent years, marketing has made story their darling, rediscovering that telling a story is the best way to get and keep someone’s attention. Stories and storytelling are everywhere we look, listen, read, and worship.

“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”
–Robert McKee

All of this chatter about what makes a good story and why we like stories and how we use stories to sell apples, promote war, or foster understanding and empathy, has led to a world of writing and storytelling advice ranging from contradictory to awful. There are some gems among the muck, however, and one of those can be found in Lisa Cron’s definition of story.

“A story is how what happens (the plot) affects someone (the protagonist) in pursuit of a difficult goal (the story questions) and how he or she changes
as a result (which is what the story is actually about.” –Lisa Cron,
The biggest Mistake Writers Make and How to Avoid it

Stories are like snapshots, but snapshots capture a moment, whereas stories capture movement.

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The Poles at Hanna Beach, Fall 2014

Stories are not just a revelation of what happened. Stories are about how someone changes as a result of what happened. Stories are about change — not external or situational change, but the individual change brought about by those external shifts of circumstance.

Personal growth.

“If you keep telling the same sad small story, you will keep living the same sad small life.” — Jean Houston

Good stories–the ones we biologically crave, the ones that stay with us and shape us, the ones that change hearts, minds, and societies–are stories about how people are affected by what happens to them, how we are changed by change. We’re looking for examples of how to react and rebound, or sometimes how not to handle life’s shifts and turns. Regardless of the style or setting, the fairy tales, scifi epics, and literary tomes that captivate us are the ones that change the main characters, the readers or audience, and those of us telling the tale.

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Looking south toward Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, and Jax Beach from The Poles at Hanna Beach, Fall 2014

Stories change you, change me, explain change, embody change, ARE change. Wherever there is a change, there is a story.

Believe it.

Tell it.

Change.

 

 

 

This is the third and final blog of our three-part series on story.

What’s Your Story?

Imagine if when we met someone new we asked “What’s your story?” instead of “What do you do?” Their answer would not only be more interesting, but it would provide the information we’re actually seeking. Most of us don’t care what someone’s job title is. What we want to know is what they are about. What’s important to them? Are they someone we want to get to know better?

Part of the story of the Hanna Beach crossover at The Poles is that it's the northernmost entrance to more than 5 miles of continuous public beaches spanning more than 3 coastal communities.

Part of the story of the Hanna Beach crossover at The Poles is that it’s the northernmost entrance to several miles of continuous public beaches spanning more than 3 coastal communities.

 

As established in part 1 of this series, Tell Me A Story, telling stories is how we get to know each other and make sense of the world we share. All of us, just by being human, have stories.

“To be a person is to have a story to tell.”  — Isak Dineson

One of my first writing students was an older woman who spent her days visiting her husband at an assisted living facility and maintaining the home they once shared. Their children and grandchildren visited regularly, and she participated and volunteered in a few organizations, but she spent much of her time alone. She enjoyed her family, gardening, and painting. Her life was full and happy (aside from the sadness associated with her husband’s health of course).  I learned these things about her slowly over the nine-week course. But she told me her story the first night, when I asked each student why they had signed up for Beginning Creative Nonfiction.

She took my class because she wanted to learn how to write about her desperate escape from North Korea as a young girl, her terrifying journey to safety in South Korea, and then her immigration to the U.S. She wanted to document that experience for future generations of her family, people she would not be able to tell in person. And she wanted to leave that legacy for her children’s children’s children bad enough to take a community arts class to learn how to write it.

That was her story as she navigated the last stretch of her life. But it wasn’t her only story. As we got to know each other during the class and after, she also told me stories about life in North Korea before she had to leave, immigrating, adapting to a new culture and becoming an American, and raising a family. She had many stories to tell, but only one she felt compelled to write.

Beach dog's story is happiness--finding it where ever you are, soaking it in, and sharing it with others.

Beach dog’s story is happiness–finding it where ever you are, soaking it in, and sharing it with others.

We sometimes think only writers and other creative people have stories inside them demanding to be shared, but with all humans being born storytellers, there are more than a few people we meet who have stories they want to tell but aren’t sure how or who to share them with.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”  — Maya Angelou

But if we are born to tell and crave stories, if we are living our lives in a sea of stories as we learned in What Is A Story, why does anyone have trouble writing them, or sharing them? Why is it ever hard to find one to tell?

Some of that difficulty stems from the language we use and our culture of story. We describe stories as elusive creatures that must be hunted, discovered, and captured. We tell each other and ourselves that stories are like shark teeth that few people can find, uncover, or receive as whispers from a coy muse.

Stories are not rare trinkets coughed up on the coastline. But they do need to be recognized, picked up, cleaned up, and told. Failure to recognize the stories of our lives and our imaginations causes a large part of writer’s block and creative angst.

We don’t encourage that recognition by constantly asking people what they do, which we all know translates to what’s your job title and what does society pay you for? Those of us who earn a living in creative fields may appear to have similar answers to what do you do and what’s your story. But even for artists, job titles reflect only what others see in us, not who we are or what we see in ourselves and the world around us.

When my student from North Korea was asked what she did she answered “Oh, I’m retired now.” It’s the same answer my grandmother gave toward the end of her life when her story was that she was the keeper of generations of family memories and lore. Earlier in my grandmother’s life she’d been a rebellious teen who risked not graduating high school by getting married before her senior year was over, obsessively frugal from surviving the Great Depression, and a young mother who traveled across the country alone with a toddler while pregnant so that she could see her sailor before he shipped out during WWII. She also bought the house she grew up in and raised her own children in it, thereby keeping it in the family for more than 100 years. She had volumes of stories about her experiences and the lives of several generations before her, and she told them to anyone who would listen, or who sat near her at holidays, reunions, weddings, and funerals. But she wouldn’t say, or even think, any of that when asked what do you do.

I lost touch with the woman from North Korea many years ago and I don’t know if she finished writing her escape story. When my grandmother died, she took all of her stories with her. Nobody ever thought of writing, recording, filming, or otherwise preserving everything she knew, and now we’re left with a handful of black and white photos of people who lived more than a century ago, that we know nothing about. I didn’t realize while my grandmother was still with us, or when I was helping my student, just how vital story is to our lives. Stories not only make sense of our lives and teach us about each other and the world. They also teach us about ourselves. Our stories, real or imagined, shared or closely guarded, make us who we are.

Understanding the power of story has changed how I live. I notice details. I interact with not just people, but also places, and things. And I’ve finally started sharing the stories I tell and write–through the news articles and columns I published in the past, writing classes I’ve taken and taught, this blog, and soon the handful of both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts I have in various stages of polishing, finishing, and dusting off. All of them are pieces of my overall story, but can stand alone, to entertain, inform, caution, or guide whoever reads them.

“Trust your story.”  —  Neil Gaimen

My answer to what’s your story would have been different through the years depending on where and who I was at the time, but today my story is stories–living them, recognizing them, telling them, writing them, and helping other people write theirs.

What’s your story?

The same Hanna Beach - Poles walkover as pictured above but viewed from the surf. Now it's story is an invitation to venture inland, across the dunes and through the canopy to see what adventure awaits inland.

The same Hanna Beach – Poles walkover as pictured above but viewed from the surf. Now its story is an invitation to venture inland, across the dunes and through the trees of the maritime hammock to see what adventure awaits inland.

This is the second of a three-part series on story. Part three will be Stories Change.

The Whole Tooth

We find a lot of shark teeth on our beach walks. And by “we” I mean other members of my family. Not me. I’m not a shark tooth finder or even hunter (unless you count the teeth still in that shark I rescued, which I don’t). I’m slightly better but not terribly lucky with sea glass. My beach combing super power is spotting half buried sand dollars and dusting them off to reveal they are perfect and complete.

Another day, another dollar

Another day, another dollar

My husband is the shark tooth king of our family. He’s found hundreds in the last couple of years. Most of the teeth he collects are from sand tiger sharks–long and narrow and dark. He also finds teeth so tiny that they look to me like a fragment of broken shell, or maybe a bug in the sand. There’s no tooth too small for his eye, it seems. But he’s still hunting for a big one.

My daughter is the sea glass queen and shark tooth princess. She doesn’t gather many shark teeth but she found one bigger than any my husband has picked up–a likely juvenile great white tooth about 1 1/4 inches long that she now wears as a pendant. Since she found it he’s been on the hunt for a larger tooth, claiming he’ll be the first of us to find one from a Megalodon.

He might still do that. But neither he nor our daughter currently hold largest tooth found honors in our family.

Weirdly, unpredictably, and still unbelievably, that honor belongs to me.

It would never have happened if I’d been walking the dog.

Our yellow lab, Quincy, now 8 months old and more than 70 pounds, is a handful. When he’s calm and his puppy brain is switched fully on he is a perfect gentleman on a leash, but when he’s distracted by sand and water and waves and gulls and other dogs (read: anywhere near the beach), he goes puppy deaf to voice commands and requires a strong hand at the other end of the leash. Consequently my husband does most of the dog walking, which isn’t compatible with scanning the sand for triangles.

I wasn’t scanning the sand either, at least not beyond making sure that I wasn’t going to step on something sharp or jellied. But off to the side of my left foot, I saw a dark glint.

“Hold up.”

Over the winter several pieces of fossilized bone have washed ashore on our favorite beach. We’ve collected numerous bone chunks of various sizes. We aren’t sure what we want to do with them–beyond piling them on every surface next to our whelk shells and sand dollars of course–but we keep gathering them anyway. I thought the glint I caught was another piece of bone until I touched it.

It was definitely not bone, fossilized or otherwise.

Only an inch of what turned out to be the center the smooth dark object was visible. All edges and ends were covered with sand. I brushed off the root end first, and then quickly picked up what I knew had to be a tooth.

But I was having trouble believing it.

I would have had trouble believing I had found any size tooth, since it was my first in nearly three years of walking these beaches. But my disbelief was bigger because the tooth I’d found was huge.

The whole tooth

The whole tooth

“Hey look at this!”

I am now the proud and happy wearer of a 2 inch long, 1 1/4 inch wide at the root, great white shark tooth pendant. It’s gaudy big and heavy and I’m not a big necklace person but I wear it anyway. I treasure my gift from the sea.

The last time I wore it to the beach a stranger stopped me and said “You didn’t find that here, did you?”

Yes I did, about a quarter of a mile down the beach, on an ordinary day, when I wasn’t even looking. I tell people I nearly tripped over it but honestly I almost passed it by. If it wasn’t for the glint and my willingness to look closer, that tooth would have been someone else’s find. This would be someone else’s story.

I’m glad it’s mine. But more than that, I’m glad I’ve learned to look for the story beyond what is first visible.

A million years ago when I first started writing, I thought that stories and creative ideas were born fully formed like babies. Sure they needed to be nurtured and to grow into their adult form, but they basically were what they appeared to be at their birth.

Sometimes that is true. But often it’s not. And if we don’t explore beyond what we readily see, or hear, or smell, or feel, or think–if we don’t test the boundaries and look below and beneath and behind–we risk not knowing.

We miss the joy of what if.

Is what we saw what we really got? Was there more to the story? What came before? Who else was involved? What more could we learn? What does it mean? Where next?

This is true for everyone and every day life. But it’s extra true for writers and artists. It applies to creators of fiction and nonfiction alike, to both entertainment and education, and in business as well as our personal lives.

The key to not missing out on the more is slowing down. Take a longer look. Brush away the sand.

Find your tooth.

It’s About Writing

As you may have noticed, some changes have been made around here since the first of the year. In addition to giving the site a makeover, I’ve streamlined the categories for my blog posts and added a new page, About Writing.

Let’s tackle those blog changes first. Most blog posts are now placed into at least one of three main categories–Creative Nature, Writing Words, and Content Characteristics.

Creative Nature posts are about the cyclical nature of chronic creativity. What does a creative life look, smell, or sound like? These are the topics of posts in the creative nature section. And if it’s my beach posts you love, you’ll find them in this category.

Writing Words contains posts about tips and tricks of the trade, issues in the writing world, and general How To information about many kinds of writing. Posts in this section focus on the writing process, from idea to draft, through revision, and then to the final form.

The Content Characteristics category is for posts about the product rather than the process–developing content, reworking, reusing, and repurposing content, content marketing, writing project management, and organizing, compiling, designing, and managing documentation systems, collections, and manuals/books. I haven’t posted any blogs for this category yet but I’ve got one in the queue and more to follow.

Previous blog entries have been reclassified into the new categories. If more than one category applies to a post it will be found in each appropriate category. Posts that don’t fit into any of those, such as housekeeping and announcement posts like this one, will remain uncategorized.

The new About Writing page is designed to provide access to not just blog posts but also longer articles, white papers/case studies, and eventually courses and ebooks about writing. I’m in the process of revamping my course materials from my writing instructor days into ecourses and webinars. When completed, they’ll be added. I’ve launched the page with a variety of articles and the quick access links to blog post categories. As more content is added I’ll post brief announcements.

Now about that makeover. I’m going for cleaner, more direct, and easier to navigate and find what you want to read. The Beach Writer site is for all kinds of writers and creatives, as well as people looking for someone who can do their writing for them. That’s a lot to ask of one website so please let me know where you think I’m succeeding and where I should try again.

Finally, a large, sun-drenched, sand-covered THANK YOU to all of you who read, follow, and encourage me! And for those who are still experiencing winter, a glimpse of something warm…

The Poles at Hanna Beach, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, FL

The Poles at Hanna Beach, Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, FL

 

 

 

 

Your beach is not the one they are looking for

I haven’t lived up to my name much lately. I haven’t written many words in the last few weeks and I’ve set foot in the sand just a couple of times.

The latter is likely a significant cause of the former. I do my best work creatively when I regularly seek out and soak in the inspiration of the natural world around me. Sleep is important too. But none of those were abundant for me in November.

Why? Quincy.

Quincy and his stick

Quincy playing with sticks at Hanna Beach.
Photo by Jeff Janda

Quincy is a yellow Labrador puppy we added to our family November 9th.

Bringing Quincy into our lives destroyed our pre-puppy schedule. Our days were immediately different and sleep was scarce for the first week. That’s all to be expected, of course, when a baby joins a family.

We’re all adjusting to new routines now, and slowly adding back in those activities pushed aside by the urgency of housebreaking and socializing a puppy. Quincy is adjusting to living with a writer, taking naps under my desk while he’s still small enough to fit there.

Quincy at a tidal pool on Hanna Beach

Quincy resisting wading into a tidal pool on Hanna Beach.
Photo by Jeff Janda

When we did manage to grab some beach time amidst the recent craziness, we introduced Quincy to the sun, sand, and water that will be a big part of his life now that he’s a part of ours. It didn’t take long for him to discover the joy of running through the sand and splashing with us in the surf. He was a bit suspicious about tidal pools but finally followed our daughter into one.

During our most recent beach walk, Quincy was trotting up ahead of us, looking back and bouncing around in circles urging us to hurry up. Every shell he came across went first into his mouth and then into our hands, and back to the sand. Every stick was scooped up by Quincy and displayed proudly until he reached the next one, always dropping the old in favor of the new.

It was all new to Quincy. And that made it all new again for us.

I’ve written before about how viewing (or reviewing) something from a different perspective helps with the editing process. And seeing things differently than most of our peers is the essence of creativity. It’s also an important part of knowing your audience.

You have to be able to look at what you’re writing from the perspective of your reader to inform, persuade, or entertain.

Quincy watching

Quincy watching gulls at Hanna Beach.

When I take people to my favorite beach, I point out where we watch dolphins play, where and how we find shells, sea glass, and shark teeth, and how the sun setting behind us reflects back on the ocean and eastern horizon. When I take Quincy to my beach, I show him where he can find sticks, watch (and hope to chase) sea gulls, and run for long stretches in the sand and sunshine. Different visitors want to experience the same beach in their own way.

Knowing your audience can be as simple as focusing on their interests and guiding them toward their goals. You don’t have to share those goals, or agree with their perspectives, but you do have to understand their views if you want to create something with impact. Find out what they’re looking for, what they want to know, what they didn’t realize they were lacking, and give it to them.

Imagine looking at your beach through their eyes, and then show them what they want to see.

Hanna Beach Sparkly

Sun-sparkled sand and surf at Hanna Beach.

 

 

Photos attributed to Jeff Janda are used here with his permission. See more of Jeff’s beach photography by following beachpoet on Instagram.

Luck has nothing to do with it

Hanna Beach at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Jacksonville, FL

Hanna Beach at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park

It happened again last week. Someone said I was lucky to live near the beach. It’s a maddeningly common phrase. You’re so lucky to…have thick, curly hair…be tall…be athletic…be talented/artistic/creative…win the lottery.

Some of those do involve luck. Games of chance. Genetics. But most of what we achieve or have in life owes nothing to happenstance.

We worked for it. We sacrificed. We failed. We tried, tried again. We (wo)manned up. We planned. Practiced. Persevered.

We didn’t leave anything to chance.

Our language is filled with platitudes and clichés about luck vs. achievement through struggle, courage, and will because it is a central question of being human. But don’t worry, I have no plans to answer it here.  Probably couldn’t even if I wanted to. I’ll stick to something I know, which is that luck wasn’t involved with my proximity to sand and surf.

I live near the beach by choice, courage, determination, and sacrifice.

I wasn’t born here. I wasn’t offered a dream job with paid relocation. I didn’t win the lottery.

Jax Beach

Jax Beach

I set a goal.

What I did to achieve that goal is too long of a tale to tell here. It’s book-length, actually, and the subject of my current WIP (for my readers who aren’t writers, WIP = work-in-progress). Eventually it will be finished and published but I didn’t want to wait that long to deliver one of the morals of the story…

Don’t wait for your beach to find you.

Recently I visited a close friend who found her beach in the middle of the country, along Lake Michigan. We have proclaimed ourselves sand sisters and our personal Facebook pages often feature dueling photos of sand, sunsets, and seagulls. Another thing we have in common is that luck didn’t have anything to do with her relocation either.

Indiana Dunes Beach at Indiana Dunes State Park

Indiana Dunes Beach at Indiana Dunes State Park

And it doesn’t have anything to do with creativity.

Writers, poets, sculptors, painters, photographers, dancers, singers, musicians, designers, architects, engineers, and anyone else who uses inspiration and imagination to make something from the same raw ingredients that others pass by aren’t creative because they are lucky. They work. They practice. They fail. They try again.

They choose to create.

You can too. All it takes is realizing that luck has nothing to do with it.

North Jax Beach, Neptune Beach, and Atlantic Beach, from the Jax Beach Fishing Pier

North Jax Beach, Neptune Beach, and Atlantic Beach, from the Jax Beach Fishing Pier