The Creative Year: 52 Workshops for Writers

Elisabeth Sharp McKetta grew up in Austin, Texas and now lives in Boise, Idaho. Her fiction, essays, and poetry have been published widely, and she has been a featured storyteller at many events. Her 2012 poetry collection, The Fairy Tales Mammals Tell, was described by Ben Fountain as “wise, unflinching poems.”

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Elisabeth has literature degrees from Harvard, Georgetown, and the University of Texas at Austin. She wrote a PhD dissertation on the intersections between memoir and myth, a concept that now informs her teaching. She teaches writing at Harvard Extension School.

Elisabeth lives with her husband, two children, and the best behaved Labrador you’ve ever met. She enjoys hiking, reading, cooking, making new friends and drinking tea with old friends.

Today, she gives us the gift of six minutes in the following guest post. She also has some terrific writing prompts on her website. Thank you, Elisabeth. Here is her post.

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As I stood at the sink in the 5’s this a.m. and pulled the lever for instant-hot water (we installed it after I burned the bottoms of three teapots because I got distracted while waiting the six minutes for the hot water to boil) I felt a lesson coming on.

Those missing six minutes glowed at me, a symbol for how in requiring things like hot water to be ready now, we lose small pockets of creative unmapped time.

Obviously I didn’t spend those six minutes well or particularly mindfully.

The reason for all the burnt teapots is that I usually spent them feeding the dog, opening some mail, trying to unload the dishwasher without waking the whole family, wandering off to clean some mess. Tasks, to-dos. The practicalities that spread a foundation for being able to indulge in my chosen luxury, the luxury of writing poems.

But those minutes were my minutes, minutes all to myself, minutes that hadn’t yet been spoken for. And as a new mother for the second time, I am aware of much life can fit into six minutes. Real life, good life, not just tasks. In six minutes I can write some compost into a journal. I can whisper “walk” to the dog and spend six minutes in the early morning moonlight. I can read, really read, an e.e. cummings poem.

I’ve spent years courting the opposite extreme, that for any creative thing to occur all of the practical tasks have to be finished first. I don’t believe this anymore. What I know now is that in the thick of a full life with all its major components – work, people, travel, habits, housework, spontaneity, eating, using the body – that the most reliable moments of recording beauty happen in tiny dashes, six minutes here or there. And a writer’s main job, in my book, is to force us to really look at all the beauty.

I don’t always accept this, but I try to remember it. I feel regret for the lost time I have spent disengaging with beauty and creativity because I was so intent on getting things done. I would like to tell my younger self, “You girl, you writer, you use those six minutes to be there for it all. Get distracted by the moonlight and by the words, by the poems you love. Be there and write about it and use a timer to go back to the tasks in time so another teapot won’t burn.”

Here, this morning, I take my hot tea (made instantly) into my perpetually cold hands; I whisper, “walk” to the dog and go outside in the early morning moonlight.

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Elisabeth Sharp McKetta’s new book The Creative Year: 52 Workshops for Writers was born out of her experience as a writing teacher and her desire to create a series of short, fun workshops that busy people can do in as few as six minutes.

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Simplicity, you are an elusive beast.

This post existed as a draft called No-Pressure November for more weeks than I care to admit.Why? Because I’m too busy. If you read my blog, you’ve probably heard some version of this same tired old symphony more than once.

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I do it to myself.

I impose expectations and goals upon myself and then I feel pressured, so I decided to try a little experiment and No-Pressure November was born. Duh. This morning I realized that this approach shouldn’t be limited to just a month; my entire life will better if I can find some balance.

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Annnnnd…already there is a problem.

Balance is really hard to find. It’s a double whammy because once you find balance, it tiptoes away when you least expect and then you have to start all over again. It’s not a one-time achievement, but a never-ending process.

20140907_092205 Finding balance is really hard if you have by some sweet, sweet miracle managed to find yourself living a life rich in adventure and wonder. For the most part, I love my life and all of the people and activities in it. I wake up every single day thankful to find myself in a loving and supportive marriage (and as a really cool fringe benefit, it’s exciting and fun). My children are healthy and living successful lives as adults now. I love all creative ventures and the people who pursue them. I wish I had more time and energy to invest in friendships. I want to read the stacks of books that litter our house. I want to travel the world. I failed to adequately learn geography in high school and I’d like to fix that. I want to be super healthy and strong. I want to host parties and attend parties. I want to conquer all the yoga poses and bake decadent desserts. I’d like to meditate and not have my mind springing off in a million directions. I’d like to hug all of my cyber friends in person just once.This list could go on but you get the idea.

My life is filled with a lot of really cool shit.

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Combine this zest for life with a touch of crazy and you have a recipe for stress and pressure.

So. New plan.

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With the exception of work (because – sad face – they don’t pay me if I don’t show up), I will work diligently to discover what things make me truly happy. I will shrug off guilt and obligation and see what that feels like. I will learn to prioritize and focus. I will figure out how to get my arms around this bitter pill:

I can’t have it all.

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can have happiness and unbridled joy, but I can’t have everything at the same time. There is just too much in the world. It’s bursting with possibilities and opportunities. I’ll still have goals & expectations; they play a really important role in my life. They help me to get things accomplished and I love that feeling. They prevent me from sitting around eating salted caramel ice cream while watching Gilmore Girls or Hoarders. (I would do this far too often and for too long if I allowed myself. I know this because I have spent some frightening hours in the abyss and I don’t want to go back.) Goals push me into new and exciting places. They give me courage.

20141019_101444 It’s entirely possible that November will end and I will go running back into the arms of to-do lists and notes-to-self, my wallet and glovebox bulging with Post Its. But I want to try it anyway just to see what it feels like. I hope I can make some progress and learn new ways to make choices.

20140418_134726 This is why I won’t be doing NaNoWriMo this year. Or tango dancing, attending writing, crafting, or art groups. Not because these aren’t fabulous activities with incredible people in attendance. They are! I adore my friends and partners in crime. I love, love, love being in a room full of creative energy.

20140515_184601 There is just too much of it lately and because they’re all so glittery and sparkly, I can’t seem to whittle down the list. It’s like handing someone ten diamonds, each more lovely than the last, and asking them to chose. Maybe this makes me selfish, but I just want to shove them all into my pockets at once.

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Which is what I have been doing – snapping up every opportunity as if another will not come my way – and I’m tired.

088 Ah, simplicity! You are elusive and clever. But I’m stubborn and will keep trying until I get it right. Luckily, I have a road map of sorts. Months ago, I wrote a list of high level goals for myself, just to have a way of measuring success and progress in my life. It’s a way to make sure that I haven’t taken a wrong turn somewhere. These are the biggies for me:

  • Embrace positive change whenever possible
  • Exhibit open communication
  • Practice personal courage
  • Focus on experiences over material goods
  • Strive for excellence (Note to crazy-self: this does not mean perfection)

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I’m also working on paring down some things with Ink & Alchemy. Don’t worry – the artist features will stay. They are near and dear to my heart! But over the next months, I plan on culling through things and keeping only the truly useful, valuable, or beautiful. This means that I may end up removing selected artists from the list because I want to make sure that everyone who remains is active and that the links are all current. I don’t mention it much, but quite a bit of work, research, and email activity is generated from I&A and if I narrow the list down, it will reduce some of that maintenance and work on the back end. It will also support that last bullet up there – excellence.

082 If you notice that an artist has been removed, please know that it’s not a poor reflection on the quality of the work. I&A was founded with the idea of showcasing currently active artists and in some cases, I have trouble finding new work from artists, even though I check each one regularly. It’s likely that they have been removed because I haven’t seen new pieces from them lately. I also want to make sure that all of the work supports a certain aesthetic.

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If by some chance you are removed during my little tidying up process but wish to reapply, please do so. Here’s the submission form.

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Wish me luck taming the beast. I hope you enjoy a week full of things that make you happy.