We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men and women willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always right to do right.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here we are, two weeks in to a new year and hunkered down to winter. The Northeast is cold and dry, not enough snow for the ski areas to thrive, so my town, which is usually hopping on a long weekend like this, is pretty quiet. Businesses are stocked for tourists; only I have not seen many city folks clunking up the dairy aisle in their ski boots.
There were quite a few winter tourists in Gatlinburg, Tennessee last week though. I was one of them. I was at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts as an artist in residence along with 80 others, among them, 11 writers. We were the first group of writers to be invited to this yearly gathering, where the spirit of collaboration and playful invention ran free between the clay, wood, textile and painting studios.
The writers made their mark on Arrowmont and conversely, Arrowmont made quite a mark on all of us,
especially Mendy Knott who got a tattoo that week! Gatlinburg could be described as the Vegas of the South. Moonshine and shooting arcades, restaurants that can seat busloads at a time, statues of Jesus in unlikely places while all around the edges, the majestic beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains dazzle the senses.
I lived in room number 10 in the Staff House building, one of the oldest buildings on the property and I wager, one of the oldest buildings in town. On the “strip” you can find Ripley’s Believe-it-or-not, a Guinness Book of World Records place which houses the world’s largest button collection and the largest crocheted afghan, along with an Earthquake ride, a large aquarium and more Christmas lights in one place than I have ever seen. This part of town looks like it was built in the last 30 years. You can find a dozen varieties of Moonshine and eat delicious local trout. And should you be inspired, get a tattoo.
The writers resided in an old cedar shingle house with a big screened in porch fitted with rocking chairs, accompanied by a towering magnolia, a sycamore and holly trees. We would get up every single morning very early, pad around the Staff House in our socks to get tea in the dining room where only the writers and the food service staff were there to greet each other, then return to our rooms to do what we were invited there to do, which is write.
My wall neighbor, Mendy Knott, known as Hill Poet online, nestled back in her bed to write. That is where she dreamed up the tattoo idea, which we all gasped over, but were quite proud of once she went and did it. Down the hall, from Traverse City, Michigan, poet Catherine Turnball ordered and reordered her poems for a manuscript that contains a gritty magical universe of a chocolate making man and his magnificent wife. You could hear our building hum if you aurally sorted out the cacophony of the robins dining in the holly trees outside and the occasional toilet flushing. We set to work on January 2, a Saturday afternoon and did not stop until the following Friday night. We did three public readings in the library, then a command performance in our living room. And on our last night, after hours of cheering each other on, inspiring and daring each other over delicious meals that concluded with heaping bowls of banana pudding, we staked our dangerous writing out for each other.
To write dangerous is to go to parts of ourselves that we know exist but try to ignore-parts that are sad, sore; parts that are silent, and heavy. Taboo. Things that won’t leave us alone.
-Tom Spanbauer from Poet’s and Writers magazine
It was quite amazing. The journalist wrote fiction and the fiction writer wrote personal narrative. The poets, oh the poets and the storytellers dripped honey words in to our hearts. We sat in hushed appreciation of each others brave moves. After writing all week long we were reluctant to leave the haven Arrowmont provided for us. And mostly, hesitant to abandon the shelter of devotion we had struck up in our hearts, propped by the tent poles of our discipline, waterproofed by shed tears and hunkered at cliff’s edge, daring together.
It was hard to depart on Saturday morning, but we each had lives to return to, kids and students and jobs, partners and homes to remind us of what accompanies us every single day. Starting out the New Year steeped in devotion to creative practice means that I can only go deeper in to it this coming year. I have sunk my pen in to the soil, staked a claim on possibility and begun to generate words.
Here is something I worked on at Arrowmont.
#DIT and why I love working collectively
Here’s the curious thing about the attention of devotion. It extends your focus beyond yourself. You become devoted to your craft, to your idea, to the people whose lives you genuinely want to change.
-Jeffrey Davis of Tracking Wonder
But while I was there, I did something else too. I invited the other artists to contribute ephemera to a collaborative journal I built that week. I arrived with the covers all glued and pressed, and many folded papers ready to be stitched in to a journal. Over the week, everyone contributed scraps or pieces made specifically for this book. By Thursday, I was on schedule to sew it up. I finished it precisely at 11:11 AM on Friday, January 8, 2016. I like to note these things. Somehow they are gratifying.
What I steeped in at Arrowmont was a sense of mutual devotion to the craft of making. What we each made becomes our art. During nearly all hours of the day, our studios hummed like apiaries, each of us picking up the pollen of one anothers creative energy. We were carried forward in to new dimensions of our work, by virtue of this mutual generation of creative spirit.
I wish you a Happy New Year. Blessings on this day we honor Martin Luther King, Jr.
Blessings on each small step you make towards “using your time creatively.”
Thank you for reading me here.
Thank you too, to all my Arrowmont Pentaculum colleagues.
And thank you winter, for keeping time with me.