From My Bookshelf: How to Not Always Be Working

One of my personal challenges as a creative is to not have every minute of every day filled. This has been an issue in my late that dates back to when I was in high school. I joined multiple clubs and organizations to be build my leadership skills and to qualify for scholarships. I worked a part-time job at Subway so I could earn money for personal things and save money for college. I remember one week I worked around 30 hours while being in advanced and honors college.

College was similar. Although I was blessed with a full scholarship, I still needed money for life and that required me to work. My habit of being in multiple organizations and constantly being busy continued. I have some moments were I trimmed back. But, I generally am a person who has a compact schedule.

A lot of this seems from working to secure a future and gain provision. I was in school organizations in high school because I was trying to earn scholarships so I would have a better future. I worked in college so my basic needs would be met. Fast forward a decade or so to a culture that is constantly wired by technology. 5 pm is no longer the end of the work day. The world wide web allows us to work from anywhere, anytime, and many of us have not learned how to switch on the off button.

This has caused us to sleep less, eat more unhealthy, exercise less, and we’re definitely not laughing enough. I recently realized that having my time occupied so much meant that my creativity was being drained. My mind didn’t know how to sit before a blank page and let words spill out. I was so used to grinding and marking things off of a ridiculously impossible to-do list.

What I learned from Marlee Grace’s book How to Not Always Be Working: A Toolkit for Creativity and Radical Self-Care was some strategies to stop doing that. One of the recommendation Marlee makes is to decided the place where work will occur and to not do work anywhere else. Many times I study, lesson plan and write from my blue couch. It’s comfortable. I have a blanket, and it’s next to a window. However, I typically am more productive when I am ‘working’ from a desk.

From the book, I realized my brain needs the separation of when I am working and when I am not. That can have a lot to do with location. One of my first jobs was babysitting. I loved working with infants. They were a lot of fun, and they slept often. I noticed that I put a baby in a sleeper or swaddled the baby, he or she instinctually knew it was time to sleep. Once I suggested to a parents of twins, that we not keep the babies in sleepers all day to help regulate their sleep schedule. Believe or not, it worked.

After reading this book, I have decided that the blue couch will be a space to relax and recline. No more working from my blue couch. In Chapter 3, she poses the question: What is not work? This is a good question to ask yourself because we may say we don’t work all the time. But if you’re checking your email frequently or scrolling through social media often, you my friend are working. It’s helpful to define what is work and to set some time restrictions around when you will work. And likewise, it’s helpful to name what isn’t working and to make sure you have a steady rhythm of work and recreation.

When I trained for races, I was pondered the significance that rest days were just as important as run days. And that rest days helped protect me from injury on my run days. Maybe a simple boost to your creativity is not a $500 conference or a $2,000 coach, but for you to schedule a couple hours of rest or recreation.

Chapter 6 encourages us to take a break. I’m taking that advice this summer, and I am not doing any readings, workshops or events in June or July. I want to avoid burning out and quitting altogether due to exhaustion. I want to proactive and care about myself as a vessel of creative. I want to have a regular pattern of taking breaks. Just like rest days are vital for runners, breaks are vital for humans. You can choose what and when your breaks are. I have heard many great leaders say that each year, they schedule their breaks. Take a break on purpose. Not just when you reach exhaustion.

Each chapter has testimonials from other creatives and exercises. It’s a quick read, which is another plus for those who are busy. I borrowed it from my local library, and I encourage you to doing the same. May you find your own method to not always working.


Corinth Contraband Camp

During a recent trip to visit my family, I visited the Corinth Contraband Camp in Corinth, Mississippi. Corinth is about 45 minutes from hometown. We called it ‘Car-rent,’ and we traveled there on Saturdays for shopping. I had no idea of the camp’s history, even though it has always been in my backyard.

Let me give you a some history on the camp. On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The news spread throughout the country, including plantations. During the Civil War, as Union troops traveled throughout the South slaves would flock to them in hopes of achieving freedom.

The Union forces defeated the Confederate Army at the Battle of Corinth. They seized the town, and as a result, hundreds and eventually thousands of slaves fled farms and plantations to find refugee and freedom there. African Americans were considered property during this time so term ‘contraband’ was given to identify them. Union General Grenville M. Dodge ordered that the camp be established to house them.

While there were several contraband camps during the Civil War, the one in Corinth was highly regarded. Less camp and more like a city, the Corinth Contraband Camp had two-room school, homes, church, and a hospital. The camp was located on Mary Phillip’s farm, which the Union army had seized. Contrabands worked the several hundreds of acres of the farm. They were fed from the crops of the farm and sold some of the vegetation in an open market. In May 1863, the U.S. government made $4,000 to $5,000 from the agricultural production of the camp. Unlike most camps, African Americans in Corinth were paid for their work. Union soldiers used them to help repair and rebuild railroads.

The site existed from November 1862 to December 1863. As many as 6,0000 African Americans lived there. Many of the men in the camp served in the Union army and formed the 55th United States Colored Troops. In December 1863, the camp moved to Memphis, Tennessee.

While I was at the camp, I sat on one of the benches and reflected on how I wish I had been taught this part of history when I was in grade school. I didn’t even know meaning of contraband as it relates to the Civil War. When I returned home and told my dad about the trip, he said he had never heard about this camp. This is a part of American history that needs to be told. We know that many African Americans sought freedom in the North and in Canada. But we don’t know that many of them sought freedom in Corinth. A town that know denotes itself as a retirement community.

In my view, the contraband camp is a bright spot in the dark history surrounding slavery and the U. S. Civil War. The camp may not have been paradise, but it was a place where many African Americans were able to experience freedom in some capacity for the first time. They learned how to read and to write. They were paid for their labor. They built houses that they lived in. They were able to marry without having to ask for their master’s permission. The road from slavery to freedom has been a long road with many exits and road stops. The Corinth Contraband Camp illustrates that part of the story.

The camp is off of the road a neighborhood and has a quarter-mile path. It’s definitely work a trip. The camp is managed by the National Park Service, and it’s free. I saw a couple of folks who were doing their morning exercise on the path. I appreciate the fact that the camp is a living monument were people are interacting with the site. It’s located right off the road of an ordinary neighborhood. You may even hear a train drive by. After you visit the camp, stop by the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center, which is also a part of the National Park Service. It’s also free.


Inspiring Young Poets

It was as a child that I fell in love with words. It began as a love affair of books. My father took me and my brother to the library weekly to check out new books. My favorites were the Babysitters Club, Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley Twins. Once a month, my Aunt Ann picked me and my little brother up, and we headed down Woodward Avenue to Red House Books. There, we explored the shelves of used paperbacks to add to our collection. I counted and cataloged my books. I read on the way home from school, at the dinner table and under my covers at night. Books were a free passport that allowed a little girl from a small town in Alabama to explore the world.

From reading grew a desire to create my own stories. I began writing my own versions of The Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew. I migrated from short stories to poetry. By the time I was a high schooler, I was writing for the Youth section of my daily newspaper.

Now, as an adult, I love going back to schools and organizations that serve children to lead writing workshops. Child have a vivid imagination and a curiosity for creativity. They are not held back by the many of the confines that restrict adult writers. The above picture is of a writing workshop I led with some girls from Zion Lutheran Church. They had been using my book How to Create a World to write poems. I came in to help them write poems to celebrate their mothers for Mother’s Day.

Children of various abilities and interests should be encouraged to tap into their writing abilities. You never know which child will become the next Maya Angelou or Langston Hughes. Creativity must be cultivated. If you are a teacher or a leader of an after school program, I would love to come and share poetry with your students. You can invite me to lead a writing workshop here. You can also order my book How to Create a World and use in your classroom, your kitchen or your community organization.


Commemorating fallen soldiers

This past Memorial Day, I was invited to write and read an original poem commemorating the fallen soldiers of Elgin. This year marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day. To create this poem, I watched video interviews of WWII soldiers. This allowed me to get a sense of what it felt like for the men who fought on that day. I also did some basic research about D-Day.

The commemoration was organized by the city of Elgin and Elgin’s Patriotic Memorial Association. It was held at the Bluff City Cemetery. Before the event, I visited the cemetery a couple of times to get a feel for the location. I gathered names of soldiers from tombstones and incorporated them in the poem.

It was an honor to a part of the artistic expression of the event’s festivities.


The Invitation of Rejection

beautiful pink lotus in lotus swamp at “Talay-Noi” Pattalung province ,Thaialnd

Last month, I received an email that a poem I had submitted to a literary journal was not accepted. They admired my writing but felt it wasn’t a fit for their publication “at this time.” As a creative, hearing ‘no’ is a familiar tune. Rejection can be a bear to tussle with, especially if you have any amount of childhood trauma or have experienced rejection.

When I read the email, I was initially disappointed. But then, I considered how I could revise the poem and make it better. And lo & behold, I found a typo. I saw several lines that could be moved around to improve clarity. I also saw a handful of words that could be trimmed. Rather than viewing it as rejection, I viewed it as an invitation. An invitation to look at my work more closely and with greater wonder.

What if I changed the form? What if I moved a repeating line to a different place? Could I remove personal pronouns? As I pondered these questions, the idea came to me to further explore the poems I have written about my grandfathers and see if there is new content there. What started as a downer soon became a seed for creativity. The next time you hear ‘no’ or ‘not yet,’ see what it is inviting you to. Where is it beckoning you go?

If you view it as rejection, you’ll be paralyzed. You’ll stop. You’ll quit and we can’t have that. We need your voice. Your art in this world. So dust yourself off and get back to creating. Accept the invitation.


Creative Incubator

If you follow me on social media, you’re probably familiar with my recent announcement that I’m heading into the Creative Incubator. I will not be doing readings, performances, workshops, etc. in June and July. Instead, I am focusing on creating new work for upcoming projects. I have never done this before, but I can foresee it being a part of my normal creative process. 

For six months, I have been Elgin’s first Poet Laureate. It has been an honor to represent the artistic voice of my community by writing and reading original poetry. I have participated in Memorial Day events, prayer breakfasts, opened for environmental activists, led writing workshops for elementary-aged girls and adults. Depending on the month, I have an engagement every week. 

I also have had homework and essays to grade. I teach full-time during my day job, and I commute roughly 12 hours a week to work. At night, I am an adjunct writing professor. I’m also enrolled in a full-time doctoral program. I’m heavily involved in my church, and I like to sleep and eat. Needless to say, my schedule is full.

While it is exciting to be invited places and to have a full calendar, it can also become difficult to stay true to my first love: writing. One thing I have learned as a creative is that you can’t rush the creative process. Writing, at least writing that will be memorable, takes time. When I sit down to write, I can’t guarantee that I will write an amazing poem or even a poem at all. The creative process is an odd thing and has a mind of its own. 

Having multiple engagements has allowed me to grow my poetic muscle and write poems in a shorter time. It takes me back to my time as a newspaper reporter, where I wrote articles on deadline

When I was a reporter, I wrote two types of writing: daily stories and long-term projects. Daily stories typically were covering a school board meeting, writing about a new school program or covering an emergency event, like a shooting. About 70% of the stories I wrote would fall in this category.  These stories were relatively simple to write and are the typical stories you read in your news outlet. 

On the other hand, there are a type of stories that required significant research, multiple sources were interviewed and the content was more complex. These type of stories would fall under the category of investigative reporting. Perhaps, I wanted to examine which schools had the highest teacher turnover or maybe I wanted to track the spending of the school board members. These were stories that could not be completed in one or two days. These were stories that made it the front page of the Sunday paper. And, these were the stories that earned awards, merited raises and promotions. To be a successful journalist, I had to have a balance of both types of stories. 

The same is true for me as a creative. Reading at an open mic or a governmental event are those daily stories. They are important because they allow me an opportunity to share my work with the public. However, long-term projects are what creates manuscripts for books, earns publications in literary journals and secures grants and fellowships. Quite frankly, long-term projects help me make a living as a creative. 

I knew I had to take a break when I realized I wasn’t working on the projects I said I had hoped to create in my application as Poet Laureate. I also recognized that it’s possible for me to get to the end of my two-year term and not have much to show for it beside a list of events I attended. I have to start thinking, preparing and positioning myself for the next step in my artistic career after my stint as a Poet Laureate. 

If you have made it to this point of this post, you may be thinking, ok Chasity, this is all interesting, but I am not the Poet Laureate, but how does this apply to me?

You are right. Your situation may look quite different from mine. Perhaps, you are a creative who has a team so folks can help you with administrative tasks and marketing. Maybe you have been in the creative incubator for years, and you actually want get out more. 

Here are a few takeaways from my experience that I think you can glean. 

  1. Admit that more isn’t better. 

I love being asked to attend events. It’s an honor and reaffirms my gifting as a poet. However, if every weekend of my schedule is filled, that means my laundry is not getting done; my kitchen is a mess; and I’m likely not doing any creating outside of the events. 

2. Work on long-term and short term goals simultaneously.

Creating is similar to money, in the sense that, you don’t want to just spend your money on every day purchases. You need to save for retirement and emergencies. Creatives must think short term and long term. What will you create next year? What about five years from now? These questions are not meant to induce anxiety or to say that you have to some extravagant over-the-top answer to sound impressive. Answer that question based on what matters to you. 

3. Give yourself time and space to create. 

You must learn how you create best. You must know what feeds your creativity and what starves it. And, it’s wise to be realistic. I would like to wake up each morning take a walk on the beach, sit under an umbrella and sip freshly squeezed lemonade while I write uninterrupted for 2 or 3 hours. Maybe one day I will get there or have a couple of weeks a year where this is my reality. 

In the meantime, I must identify a writing habit that works well for me. I’m from the South so warm weather and sunshine help me enter a creative habit. I’m also learning how much a clean home helps me in my creative habit. 

4. Grow as a creative

Another tell-tale sign that I needed a break is that I wasn’t growing in my craft. I wasn’t reading other poetry, taking a class or learning a new form. What will make me a poetry legend is have strong skills. Skills have to be developed. This takes time.  You can’t spend time cultivating your craft if your schedule is always full. 

5. Think about your legacy.

I marvel at poets who have written dozens of books. I am fascinated by creatives who constantly create, despite being insanely busy. What you create is the legacy you will leave the earth after you have died. What will you leave behind? What works will you contribute to the creative community? Once again, this is not about numbers and accolades. It’s about being intentional and thinking long-term about the impact you are going to make.

Truth is tomorrow isn’t promised, and we don’t know when our last day on earth will be. If you knew you had three years to live, what kinds of art would you create? What would you leave behind?