Guest Post, Kaitlin Johnson: Road Trips and Writing

Road TripWe’ve all been there. Sitting at the computer desk or lying in bed with a laptop opened to a blank Word document. The cursor flashing, taunting you just like that cheesecake at last night’s party that you refused to eat because you want to lose five pounds. It’s the dreaded writer’s block. Flash, flash, flash. But nothing comes.

There are plenty of distractions. You open Facebook because you need inspiration from others around you, or you open up your favorite YouTube video to get in a humorous mood. Soon the seconds turn into minutes, minutes to hours, and the next thing you know you’re on your boyfriend’s uncle’s niece’s twitter account looking at grumpy cat memes. No closer to writing than when you began. You convince yourself that you’ll come back to it tomorrow with fresh eyes. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I’ve found that I do my best writing when I’m not thinking about anything. My best ideas come to me while I’m driving. I especially love long, monotonous road trips. Roads that I’ve become familiar with the twists and curves, the potholes and the speed limits. I don’t have to think about driving; I can allow my mind to wander.

Of course this poses a question. What happens when I have a brilliant idea and cannot write it down until I stop at a gas station to refuel on my second (or third) cup of coffee?  I used to use small post it notes–simple little reminders of an idea I had 150 miles prior. The thing is, I often could not rekindle the thought. What once seemed like a beacon of enlightenment now seemed like a two year old telling an incomprehensible story.

“How toaster relates to life, always popping up when we least expect.”

“Simile of rooster and ex-boyfriends.”

“Television show where the family only eats cheese but no one talks about it.”

Although I’m still slightly convinced some of these ideas may go somewhere, I finally found the perfect solution: voice recordings. They’re perfect for on-the-go storytelling. And thankfully, cell phones have them built in so you don’t have to carry around a tape recorder in your pocket or purse. Unless you’re into that I’m-a-spy-and-I-have-important-things-to-document thing, then good for you!

Sure, it’s a little awkward when you finally do stop to write down your ideas. Hearing yourself blabber on for twenty minutes about a love story that hasn’t been perfected yet probably isn’t the most normal thing, but it works. When you finally sit down at your laptop you have an idea. You can finally mold the world and the characters. You can go anywhere from there.

Sometimes all it takes is a starting point. Sometimes all it takes is a break away from the flashing cursor.

Guest Blog Post, Anthony Varallo: Read Elsewhere

Anthony E VaralloIs there a better book than the book read elsewhere? Why are so many of the books I remember best strangely wrapped up in my sense of having read them elsewhere, away, far from home, outside the classroom, or miles from my bedside nightstand, where all those books I’ve been meaning to read—books I will likely read there, before sleep and not nearly elsewhere—lie unread?

For me, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary will always be the Book I Read on a Paddleboat, when I was 13 years old and staying at my aunt’s house in the Pocono Mountains. My aunt owned a house on a lake, and permitted my friend, cousin and I the use of a red paddleboat we had to unmoor from a dock slick with the splashes of kids in lifejackets, the boat always on the verge of sinking, or so we joked. The three of us would paddle to the center of the lake and read the books we’d purchased on the drive in, at a bookstore shaped like a log cabin, all mass market paperbacks, Dean Koontz, Louis L’Amour, and of course Stephen King. I chose Pet Sematary because it had the scariest cover, and because Stephen King had blurbed it himself as a book so scary it terrified him while he was writing it, and who wouldn’t want to read a book like that? My memory of that book is of a child getting hit by a truck while speedboats and water skiers sent our paddleboat rocking in their wake.

Rabbit, Run is the book I read while studying abroad in London, the book purchased the moment before I’d run out of money and was feeling homesick for Delaware, my unremarkable and not terribly literary home state, which, in the opening pages of Updike’s novel, is only a few minutes away from Brewer, Pennsylvania, where Rabbit Angstrom works a bad job, argues with his wife, and recalls his days of basketball glory. I remember reading the book in our student flat at the top of a stairway that led to a rooftop we were forbidden to explore—hidden away—as Rabbit, in the opening chapter, goes on a solo drive through Pennsylvania, taking a series of turns that nearly takes him to Delaware. I turned the pages, thinking Rabbit was surely about to pull up in my driveway.

I read The Old Man and the Sea while staying at a friend of a friend’s house in Connecticut, part of some road trip I took the summer before I left for college. I’d been put in the guest bedroom, which had a twin bed and a desk with a bookshelf on top: I’d always meant to read The Old Man and the Sea, but had never gotten around to it, and was always sort of afraid that someone would ask me if I had read it—you mean you haven’t read The Old Man and the Sea?—and part of the pleasure of reading it now was my realization that no one would see me taking it down from the shelf each night and hence would never know that I’d just read it in the span of a weekend, and could now answer yes if anyone asked me about The Old Man and the Sea, a power I now felt I held in reserve, at the ready.

I’m traveling again in March: I will have to pack some of those bedside books, the ones I’ve been putting off forever, so that they might be read elsewhere.

Past Intern Updates: Ljubo Popovich

Ljubo PopovichLjubo Popovich, Poetry Editor from Issue 8, shares some thoughts about his time at ASU and his discovery of non-Western literature.

I always thought that my parents and elders were pulling my leg when they told me to enjoy my college years – that they are the best years of my life and so forth. When I was in college I came close to feeling overwhelmed with schoolwork, and I never got heavily into the social life of the students that lived on campus, of going to the football games or participating in clubs or fraternities. I had a few friends, but my main concern was getting out into the world, and getting through this period of uncertainty and dread of the future. Eventually, I switched my major (twice), and landed in English. Finally things were getting interesting. I could stop plodding through Architecture and Engineering and simply learn what I genuinely cared about. My appreciation for literature grew and blossomed at ASU in my last two years. I felt much more comfortable in this realm.

I spent hours in the library, wandering through the stacks, always using what I learned in my classes as a jumping off point for further exploration. This curiosity has become a central part of my life. I became interested in literature and culture outside of the United States. When I stayed in Montenegro, I had the chance to visit Italy, Greece, Germany, England, Switzerland, Serbia, and Croatia. Now I can’t wait to go back and eat the exotic food, walk on the beaches, drive through the mountains, and experience entirely different cultures. The great European and Asian writers that I discovered gave me further encouragement to see as much of the world as possible.

What the future holds is still an unknown, but I know that I found a limitless source of joy in the works of Chekhov, Goethe, and Gogol. Dostoevsky and Akutagawa, Maugham, Victor Hugo, Cervantes, Italo Svevo…wherever I turned, there was a fresh perspective. I have learned that one book is always the doorway to another, and that life makes sense when you are lost in a good book. My experience with Superstition Review gave me a taste of the publishing world, and I think that my thirst for literature will now lead me toward a career with a publishing company, or perhaps as an editor of a magazine. For the time being, I work at ASU Online, in student services. Though it gives me much needed work experience and enough of an income to plan for the future, I am always on the lookout for opportunities in the fields I am most interested in.

Although I have only been out of college for half a year, I am beginning to understand what my parents meant. My years at the university were formative and they were some of the happiest years I have had, despite the struggle and uncertainty of that period of my life. Most importantly, I met the girl to whom I am now engaged, and I received the basic tools I will use for the rest of my life: education, determination, love, patience, and intellectual curiosity.

Meet the Review Crew: Jamie Acevedo

Jamie Acevedo is an Interview Editor at Superstition Review, and a senior in his final semester working towards a bachelors degree in English focused on Literature with a minor in Religious Studies. After graduation he aspires to attend an MFA program in a new part of the country, maybe the southeast or west coast, and work on his goal becoming an accomplished writer of fiction.

Jamie moved to Tempe from New York to attend Arizona State University to pursue his goal of studying literature and has found life in the southwest to be an enlightening experience. Originally focused on critical theory and literary criticism he discovered a passion for writing short stories in his freshman year and has recently started working on creative nonfiction and biographies. He loves reading literary magazines, which he was introduced to after taking a course on pursuing publication taught by Superstition Review‘s founding editor Patricia Colleen Murphy. This internship has provided him with an opportunity as an Interview Editor to work with authors he has been reading and studying in creative writing classes and really admires.

His personal definition of art is that it is a tool that allows human beings to communicate abstract concepts and complicated emotions with each other. The writers who have had the biggest influence on him are those who seem to have made unique insights into the human condition. These include the short stories of Jhumpa Lahiri, Flannery O’ Connor, Stephen Crane and James Joyce and the novels of Robert Stone and Thomas Pynchon. He also enjoys novels that tackle religious and ideological themes like those of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and George Orwell. In addition to works of fiction he also enjoys reading essays on literary criticism, especially those on postcolonialism and reader response criticism.

Outside of literature and writing Jamie enjoys sports, hiking, cycling and travel. After this semester he plans to spend time in Puerto Rico to visit family.

A Database for Literary Travelers from Poets & Writers Magazine

Poets & Writers Magazine has created Literary Places, a nifty database of U.S. destinations “where writers can visit for inspiration, to promote their writing, for research, and to discover community.” It includes over 130 historical sites, indie bookstores, literary archives, reading venues, writing centers, writers spaces and other places of interest. The database links to your “My P&W account” and to Google Maps, so writers can save locations and create personalized maps. The space includes an interactive map and is searchable by state, city, and even zip code.

For example, a search of Lenox, Massachusetts brought up “The Mount,” Edith Wharton’s estate in Lenox. A link provided a photo with a brief description of the site, a Google map, address, links to the website, their phone number, contact email, more literary places nearby, nearby conferences and residencies, writing contests, and a directory of area writers. A click on writers’ names takes you to the writer’s directory listing on Poets & Writers’ website.

Literary Places is a great resource for writers who travel and users can suggest places to build the database as well.

Dispatches from Delhi: Report 13

It’s been about a week since I returned from Delhi to Phoenix and I don’t really know how to process things. Everything is now as different to me as it was once familiar and I find myself appreciating a variety of things on a very conscious level. Not that I was unappreciative before I left, but after really feeling what life can be like in a place so radically different from Western society, every little thing seems like something for which all should be appreciative. Water tastes way better; my house looks at least 10 times bigger than it did before I left; and going hungry is about as likely an event to occur in my life as that asteroid from Armageddon crashing into my front yard.

I suppose since spending the summer in my homeland, I have developed a very comprehensive realization that even on their worst day, any given member of the American middle class can find boons in spades when compared to the lifestyle of the average Indian person. I’m not trying to minimize the strain both Americans and Indians and other cultures all over the world have to endure on a regular schedule. Everybody deals with some version of struggle to a greater or lesser extent on a moment-to-moment basis, and I completely understand that fact.

But the gap between what people already have to begin with in metropolitan areas like Tempe or Scottsdale compared to Delhi is just so vastly antonymic that it almost defies my sense of reality. I mean, for the love of God, when was the last time an American population had to worry about a power blackout covering 620 million people since the turn of the 20th Century? The closest North America came to this kind of power failure was in 2003, and that was staggeringly low in comparison, coming in at 55 million people.

And food? At last count, 60 million children in India were listed as food insecure. What’s the count for all food insecure members of the entire American population? The data varies, but I’ll bet my left lung that it’s nowhere in the same state, let alone the same neighborhood, as 60 million.

And housing? Oh man, the worst project developments in the United States put together don’t hold a candle to the rampant poverty in the majority of Indian living spaces. In Tempe, I’ll see 1-2 homeless people every couple of months with a street sign in their hand and a tin cup next to it. Maybe the sign says something funny, and people give some money to him or her, and call it their good deed for the day.

In India, I saw the homeless, the crippled, the destitute, and the derelict live in droves under freeways, overpasses, and on the streets, scouring between moving traffic for alms, many without even tattered rags to cover the little modesty they might wish to retain.

And coming back from that kind of differential has been a massive shock to my world paradigm. It’s placed in my mind a more universal idea of what it would mean for me to have a happy, successful life. And that idea is just keeping it more basic than basic. I don’t mean Survivorman or ascetic monk basic; just whittling down the things in my life to the bare essentials, like food, water, clothing, shelter, and enough power to turn a light on.

Esalen: A Place for Exploration

Intern Guest Post: Esalen: A Place for Exploration

Earlier this millennium, I learned from my friend Stan about the Esalen Institute a remote 27 acre retreat on the Big Sur coastline between Monterey and San Luis Obispo, California. Digging, I learned that Esalen was founded in 1962 as “an alternative educational center devoted to the exploration of what Aldous Huxley called the ‘human potential’—the world of unrealized human capacities that lies beyond the imagination.” I was intrigued. So in the summer of 2004, I made my first journey to Esalen.

I arrived at Esalen with my friend Stan after driving the better part of a day from Orange County, departing from civilization at San Luis Obispo and another 90 miles of the 2-lane Pacific Coast Highway, California 1. Arriving, I was taken by the striking beauty of the place. After checking in at the lodge, we found our simple but very comfortable accommodations. After a brief exploration of the grounds, we headed to dinner at the lodge. Esalen’s meals are served camp style and the food is excellent. Meat, dairy, vegetarian, vegan, and raw foods are served at every meal and produce is picked daily from Esalen’s five-acre organic farm.

Stan and I had enrolled in a five-day workshop led by Steven Harper, an eco-psychologist, wilderness guide, author, and artist. At 8:30 p.m. on arrival day, we had our first session, an orientation to the week’s activities and brief explanation of the goals of the workshop. Harper’s work focuses on wild nature as a vehicle for awakening. For the remainder of the week, he took us for practiced meditative walks through four diverse natural areas in Big Sur’s Ventana Wilderness—a deeply satisfying, introspective experience. After 20 or so years in business, I so needed to reconnect with nature and Steve’s workshop was the ideal medium.

Since that first workshop, I have returned to Esalen four more times and each experience has brought new perspectives and opportunities for inward exploration. For instance, a workshop with cultural anthropologist Dr. Angeles Arrien, The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer utilized Shamanic dreaming techniques and practice that allowed me to reconnect with long forgotten experiences in overcoming personal and professional challenges today.

Another time I came with my wife and young children for a week-long session with Rick Jarrow that helped me change course in my career, providing the impetus for me to return to school. Esalen has a children’s program for seminarians through its Gazebo Park School Early Childhood Program and babysitters are available during evening sessions.

In addition to the workshops, Esalen is known for its Arts Center, distinct Massage style, movement and activity programs, and mineral Hot Springs. Esalen produces two catalogs per year covering 500 workshops on diverse topics including writing and visual arts. Here are a couple of examples of courses from the July – December, 2012 catalog:

Writing the Wild led by Marisa Handler, author of Loyal to the Sky, which won a 2008 Nautilus Gold Award for world-changing books. Her essays, journalism, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, and she teaches creative writing at Stanford and the California Institute for Integral Studies.

Framing Nature: Photography as Meditation and Mirror led by Andy Abrahams Wilson, an award-winning filmmaker and photographer. Recent projects include the Academy Award semifinalist Under Our Skin and the PBS broadcast The Grove. His focus is using the camera to create a bridge between ourselves and our environment.

Generally, depending on my level of stress it takes up to two days to melt into the Esalen experience. It is for this reason that I recommend at least a five-day workshop, ideally seven-days with a five-day and a three-day workshop.