Friday, January 26, 2018

Busy Beaver

Writers have rituals. Some are as simple as a jar of jelly beans on the desk, some are as complicated as particular notebooks and pens, music and mugs, bracelets and earrings.
I'm afraid I fall into the complicated category. I'm lousy with particularities and peculiarities.

But not all rituals are odd. 
At the end of a long but satisfying day of writing, I go outside and I go for a walk.
I go outside to breath in fresh air, to clear my head, to expand my lungs and refreshen my heartbeat.
I go for a walk to keep my neck from seizing up, to settle my thoughts and set onto what I will write tomorrow.
Every day, I walk to the beaver brook with the dog and we say hello to the beavers.
You can't see the beaver dam as well from the road as it appears in this photo; I walked through the frozen flooded woodlot to get a close up look, and take a photo for you.
If I'm going to talk about this most important ritual, it behooves me to provide a visual. 
I arrive at the brook, I stop and stand in the middle of the road, above the culvert, and I follow the ribbon of ice to the dam in the near distance and I say,
"Hello, beavers."
I never see them, nor even any signs of them during the winter. It seems unfriendly, though, to walk to that point and not say hello.
Come to think of it, I've been doing it for almost eleven years now, haven't I?


Yes, I knew I remembered correctly. In an early, much shorter version of my Field Notes essay, A Walk In the Woods, this was the original ending in 2011:

"Exiting the plantation, reluctant to head home, the dog and I walked up the road to the beaver brook formed by the clogging of the culvert. No sign of life under the smooth, dark water but I pictured the beavers inside their house of sticks, going over the day’s list of things to be done. They are a persistent animal, constantly creating, always maintaining, rebuilding when necessary. They keep to themselves, content to live and work in isolation. Just like a writer with land of her own."

Not such an odd ritual, after all. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Words Are Piling Up

I reached ten thousand words on my novel yesterday - whoop! In the early stages, that's a great milestone to reach. That I did it on a snowy day is totally apropos. Went outside to celebrate.
I'm keeping up the pace of writing despite not managing to start at nine a.m. - I write this at a quarter to ten. My mornings are far too leisurely but perhaps, like a tight, four-month deadline, I work more efficiently under a time pressure.

And with a reward waiting: it snowed all night and the wind didn't blow so the woods are thick with snow, just the way I like them. So I've promised the dog that instead of me getting on the treadmill for half an hour at lunchtime, we'll go for a much longer walk over the field and through the wood and back the brook to say hello to the beavers.

It is odd, however, that the wind hasn't blown in 24 hours. Wanna bet as soon as I step out the door mid-day, the gale will begin?! It'll be like walking in the blizzard we didn't get yesterday. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Plan B: Get Focus, Get Creative

After Christmas, my friend Jane and I met to go for a walk and she handed me two magnetic bookmarks.
"I forgot these on Christmas Day. Laugh is for your mother and Create is for you," she told me.
At the time, I simply appreciated how well she knows both of us. But as the new year approached, and the idea for that novel dropped into my head and then onto the pages of a notebook, I began to wonder if this simple bookmark was actually a sign. I was about to create a completely new book.

When I posted this photo on Instagram on New Year's Eve, I wrote about how I don't pick a word for a year like many people do, but last year it was necessary to make "focus" my word for a lifetime. It was time to focus on only my writing -- something I'd never allowed myself to do.

And now that I have over seven thousand words written in this novel, I'm seeing this coming together of FOCUS and CREATE at the start of this new year and to be honest...'s kinda freakin' me out. Like, how did Jane know? How could she know what I needed -- even before I knew I needed it?

I love this shit! It's what gets me through the day. And long, tiring days they are going to be, but in such a good way. I wrote Field Notes in two months so it's not as if I don't know that I can do this. Actually, I've discovered that not only do I work best with a deadline, even if self-imposed, but a tight deadline -- three months rather than eight months -- is even better.

Git 'er done, as they say in the country.

To be focused on creating an unexpected story that excites me and interests me and challenges me, already, is nothing short of a miracle. So is Jane. And of course, this mug that was a gift five years ago (and how did Angela know then?????).

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Infinite Possibilities

"Unused creativity is not benign.
It clumps inside us, turning into judgment, grief, anger and shame."
~ Brené Brown

This isn’t a post I’m happy to be writing but because of your loyalty and support, I owe you this – and it doubles as a bit of insight into the realities of publishing.
I found out this week that there won’t be a second Field Notes book any time soon. Despite your enthusiasm for the first book, not enough were sold. The first six months of sales were great, but slacked off the last six months. The book didn’t do as well in Ontario or around Nova Scotia as it needed to, and there are books in the warehouse that need to be sold before I can write another one.

That’s the way it goes, my friends. It’s not a big deal, it just means I keep at promoting my book, getting the word out, asking you to keep recommending it to your friends.  

It’s not that I want to tell you this – it’s rather embarrassing – but I have to. Because that news is merely the prologue to what I really want to say, and if this isn’t for you, maybe it’s for your daughters and nieces, granddaughters and great-nieces, and your best friend’s daughter:

Don’t stop.
Try something different.

Before I knew for sure that Field Notes 2 was on the back burner, something inside me shifted over the holidays; I began to prepare myself mentally and emotionally for letting go. And as happens, when you let go of one thing, it opens up space for something else.
As I lay in bed one morning between Christmas and New Year’s, an idea for a novel floated into my half-awake brain. I got up, drank a cup of coffee, made a piece of French toast (my current breakfast obsession), then sat on the couch with a second, then a third cup of coffee, and wrote the idea into a notebook.

For the past 25 years, every time the idea for a novel popped into my head, I’d write it down then put it aside. I believed as long as I had the idea, it would get written.
Wrong. When I think of all the opportunities I may have squandered because I didn’t follow through immediately – a page a day and in one year you’ll have a book – I am filled with regret and anger and shame.

So I’m doing something differently: I’m writing this novel. The character is one I’ve wanted to create for years so this is me taking the advice I give to others: write when the energy is strong, write when the idea is fresh in your mind.

At the end of the day I found out that I won’t be writing Field Notes 2 this year, I had already written the first two thousand words of this novel. (Thank goodness.)

Don’t stop. Whatever you enjoy doing, keep doing it.
Just do it differently.
You’re in the same house but you have other windows out of which to look.
Find a new view. Find new hope.

I’m writing this novel and I’m scared shitless. That’s the truth. Even though I have an email from an editor telling me she loves my writing. Even though I have three completed novels in a plastic tote. Even though I have complete trust in my writing process.
Not knowing if I’ll get another book published scares me so much, I want to throw up, but the best, the only way to keep that anxiety from taking over every cell is to start something new. As long as I’m writing, the excitement I feel about this story is stronger than the fear.

Don’t stop.
Try something different.
Whatever you do, just don’t give up.

I’ve been in this place before, this letting go of a beloved project, only to have something new fall into place. That something new was the Field Notes book.

I’m taking more of my advice, but instead of writing a page a day, I’m writing a thousand words a day.
Because everything is possible.

“The longer I looked, the more stars I saw, and the more defined the galaxy became. This was the same sky I’d stood under a thousand kilometres ago, but now my only thought was, This sky makes me believe in infinite possibilities. Standing under that sky with a dream in my pocket and an ache in my heart, that thought popped into my head fully formed and clear, without gut-clawing fear, isolation, or self-doubt. Instead, that simple surrender filled me with awe and excitement.”
~ from Field Notes: A City Girl’s Search for Heart and Home in Rural Nova Scotia


Monday, January 08, 2018

A New Home for Field Notes

An update to the announcement that Field Notes is no longer a newspaper column: That's because it's now a magazine column.
Although I love writing for newspapers, and perhaps in a past life was a newspaper reporter, I've returned to my roots as a magazine writer with At Home On the North Shore magazine, published by Advocate Media out of Pictou, NS.
This quarterly magazine is now into its third year of publication and I'm absolutely delighted to be part of the magazine's team of "heart and home" writers, like designer Lori Byrne and editor Crystal Murray. A Field Notes column will appear in every issue, and hopefully also an article representing my little chunk of the North Shore, from Wallace to Amherst, as well.

Although the magazine is dropped off free at various locations, including Masstown Market, for convenience, I recommend getting a subscription. It's only $16 for the four issues. If you call this week/this month, your subscription should begin with the spring issue -- in which Field Notes celebrates the dandelion!
Call Advocate Media at 902-485-1990 and ask for Lorraine (Ext 435). Tell her Sara Jewell sent you!

For more information, and to read back issues, check out the magazine online.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

I'll Be Out Standing In My Field

My final Field Notes newspaper column, as published Wednesday, January 3, 2018, in the Citizen-Record newspaper.

When I was in high school, back in Ontario, I loved to write but I declared I wanted to be a teacher so no one steered me in any other direction. In the years following university, I ended up doing anything but teaching, and always writing. By my twenties, I discovered a talent for writing non-fiction and began publishing columns and articles. I wasn’t a prolific freelance writer but I published enough to keep calling myself a writer.

With my move to Nova Scotia in 2007, my writing flourished. Although I still didn’t become prolific, I published frequently and established myself as a bona fide non-fiction writer.
Then I got a job at the Oxford Journal community newspaper. It happened unexpectedly and I wasn’t hired as a writer; I was there part-time to create ads and layout the paper. I loved that work, it was creative and self-directed, but you can’t put me at a newspaper and not expect me to write.
So six years ago, I slipped a column called “Field Notes” into a blank space on one of the Classifieds pages, and for the first time in my life, I was a newspaper columnist.
When the Oxford Journal closed in 2015, Darrell Cole, editor of this newspaper and the Amherst News, invited me to continue publishing Field Notes. And he paid me.
That payment matters. That subscription to the newspaper matters. That advertising fee matters.
Because community newspapers matter.

Community newspapers play a vital role in keeping our rural areas connected. They tell the stories that the larger, urban papers can’t, or won’t. They tell the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They tell the stories of your neighbours. They tell the stories that people don’t even realize are stories worth telling. One of the greatest pleasures of my life was my “In Conversation With...” column because it allowed me to have long conversations with people living in Cumberland County and share those stories with readers. Many of those stories, and many of my Field Notes columns, went on to be published in Field Notes, the book.
Without a community newspaper, that book would not exist and I would not have realized my dream to become a published author. That is very humbling.

Rural communities need writers, and they need newspapers. Both need financial support in order to keep publishing; we don’t expect plumbers and teachers and nurses and grocery store cashiers to work for free so why should journalists? Who will share the interesting conversations with our neighbours if we don’t support the writers who have the skills to create those stories?
Keep in mind, too, that a staff of two or three is doing the work of six or seven, and covering an entire county. Their commitment is to be commended.

Saying that, this is my final column. It is my own decision to stop writing a bi-weekly newspaper column even though there are still people to meet and stories to tell.
Thank you for reading this column for the past six years. It’s been my joy and privilege to write for you, and to be a trusted part of your community. 

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

The Right Direction

At the end of every year, we spend an entire month either a) considering other people and doing generous, thoughtful things for other people, or b) being forced to consider other people and doing generous, thoughtful things for other people. Either way, December is a big month for being nice to each other.
How do we keep that sense of decency and we're-all-in-this-together alive through the early months of the new year when it seems so easy to be grumpy and complainy?
Our challenge every year, but particularly for 2018, is to keep on considering other people and doing nice things for each other. We hear all about goodwill towards others in the lengthy build-up to Christmas but once we’re done with that, our culture instantly reverts to encouraging us to think about ourselves again. New Year’s resolutions are all about "me", particularly along the lines of What’s wrong with me that needs to be fixed? What is there about me that I want to change? Me, me, me.
Here’s a quote from a Buddhist scripture called the Sutta Nipata. This is usually the kind of phrase that fills Christmas cards but I encourage us to adopt it as a New Year’s resolution: “May our loving thoughts fill the whole world; above, below, across without limit; a boundless goodwill toward the whole world, unrestricted, free of hatred and enmity.” 

(You know -- this shouldn't be that hard to do considering all the Valentine's Day crap is in the stores already. We're inundated with hearts and love when we've still got stars in our eyes.) 
There’s so much going on already at Christmas hope, joy, love, little gooey chocolates lying around in boxes   why not make New Year’s the time for peace? Peace in the world, peace in one’s little part of the world, peace in oneself.  
2018 certainly could use a blanket of peace. Peace of mind. Peace and quiet. If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all...
Peace starts with ourselves. If we can be content with ourselves, content with our lives, we can find peace in everything we do. If we’re not satisfied (and grateful), it’s time to make changes. Not in the way that is dictated by our culture, by having more stuff and following more celebrities and watching more reality shows but in a way that is true to ourselves, no matter what anyone else thinks.
That is harder than losing 25 pounds. 

Sixteen years ago, a lovely and wise yoga instructor held a class on New Year’s Eve and at the end, as we all lay on our mats for final relaxation, she gave us this advice: “Make this the year you go away from what makes you unhappy. Make this the year you go towards what makes you happy.”
(Sixteen years ago. Wow. An entire lifetime ago. But I'll never forget her words, will never stop sharing them because they changed my life.)
That advice meant the end of my marriage. That advice meant leaving a house and a job and a husband on the west coast and starting over again on the east coast. (I know, I know: I should have come here in the first place.) Accepting how her advice applied to me took courage and strength, it involved a long journey both physically and spiritually, and there were some incredibly unhappy moments along the way. It was the hardest thing I've ever done.
BUT: I found peace. I created a life of love, unrestricted, free of hatred. And in being so changed, I am more aware of being kinder, more loving, more accepting. 

Whenever I think about that time of my life, I always wonder why it was so hard to leave. Looking back, it's so obvious it was the right thing to do. When it's right, and you believe in the rightness, it makes the hard stuff easier to live through. I wished I'd been more brave, more trusting of myself. I wish I'd let go a lot sooner.

In these frozen days of 2018, let it go. Make this the year you resolve to go towards what makes you happy. Even if it's the hardest resolution you've ever made, you possess more courage and strength than you realize. Going towards what makes you happy is the place where you find peace and love -- for yourself and for others. 
It’s a journey worth taking. 

So, it's still worth the journey but as I was walking the dog this afternoon, I remembered this fact: many women cannot afford to "go towards what makes them happy". I couldn't have done it sixteen years ago if I hadn't had a safety net, one I've had all my life. But if I'd wanted to stay (or had to stay) in Vancouver, if I'd had children, if my parents hadn't had a house large enough to absorb me, "going towards what makes me happy" might not have happened. Sure, the end of the marriage was inevitable, as it is for many women, but being able to leave everything behind to find my happiness -- I just wanted you to know I realize I was luckier than many women who are economically trapped in their marriages, and thus their lives. 
How to find happiness -- moments of joy -- in the midst of that?