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Chasing Muse: Finding the “Wild, Silky Part of Ourselves”

Tricia Erikson-3high

Reaching the summit in the Saddleback Mountain Challenge. Photo courtesy of Saddleback Mountain.

People pay good money to chairlift up a mountain in civilized fashion and then ski down for pleasure. I just paid to snowshoe straight up 2000 feet in single-digit temperatures to brave a gnarly descent. But, then, I’m not a mountaineer, I’m an island writer chasing a muse.

When I shuffled to the starting line of the Saddleback Mountain Challenge an hour earlier, racers appeared in a motley assemblage of equipment that reflected their strategy. Most wore Randonee skis adorned with “skins” that could be removed at the peak, allowing a rapid descent. A few people wore snowshoes with a snowboard strapped to their back; their descent would be swooping, graceful. One man wore two halves of a snowboard strapped to his feet, halves that would be reunited, presumably, once he achieved the peak. And then came the smartypants distance runner — one of two women in the pack and the only one outfitted with just snowshoes to wear, both up and down — that’s me. Halfway up the mountain, I reconsider the wisdom of entering this challenge; wind-driven ice cements to my hair and face, and bounces off my fingers, bare and hot from exertion. What was I thinking?

Tricia Erikson-4lo

Brown hair turned white in Arctic conditions. Photo courtesy of Saddleback Mountain.

Reaching the peak, I pass a number of racers who stop to switch their fancy gear to downhill mode. One-two-three of them. I wonder: do they admire my strategy of using the same gear for the entire race? Nah.

I yank on my coat and gloves, pull up my face guard, and lumber onto the mountain’s shoulder. My left ear loses feeling to the flesh-freezing wind, no doubt casting me even more as the Bride of Yeti. Then I reach a point where the race route narrows to a two-foot wide shelf, little more than the ridge of a snowdrift. As if on cue, I stumble onto the precipice. A normal audience would gasp as my center of gravity plunges over and back from the edge, but the ski patrol sentry quips, “Nice catch.” That’s high praise up here.

Tricia Erikson-2med

Running across the peak on snowshoes. Photo courtesy Saddleback Mountain.

Finally, I stand alone at the top of the designated downhill route, a narrow chute. It’s name: Muleskinner. I try not to take the name literally or conjure images of how it might apply to me. But, if this route were a highway, the sign would flash orange neon letters “Go back, 50-60% grade.”

Given the promised first-place prizes of season ski passes for the winning man and woman, the racers ahead of me are pushing hard; I just want to survive. Avoiding last place would be a bonus. Descent on snowshoes: my strategy faces a crisis. Facing this downhill reminds me of facing a blank page, or worse yet, a manuscript with extensive need of editing. I don’t want to do it. What am I afraid of? Falling? Getting lost in a snowbank? Those rank as givens today. I decide I’m most afraid of not finishing. I abandon all pretense of sanity and step over the edge, on purpose this time.

To my shock, the deep, fresh powder has been scoured away by wind, leaving porcelain-smooth white ice disguised as snow. My snowshoes respond by rocketing downhill, spinning me sideways. There is nothing to grab, nothing to stop me. Channeling my five year-old self, I sit down hard and push my snowshoes out in front of me. With buttocks serving as my snow-tubing device, I shoot straight down Muleskinner, stopping in an explosion of deep powder. Able to stand again, I run downhill until hitting another porcelain plate of ice. Repeat the sit and slide until powder impact. Stand and run. Midway down Muleskinner, a couple of the guys that I had passed on the peak, pass me–one of them with graceful swooshes, the other guy resembling a human snowball.

Tricia Erikson-1

Reaching the finish line. Photo courtesy of Saddleback Mountain.

Why am I doing this? It wasn’t until after I crossed the finishing line (looking indeed like the Bride of Yeti), after I had driven back to Portland and reached home by ferry, that I read Mary Oliver. Only then did I find words for what I was doing on Saddleback Mountain–I was taking care of the “wild, silky part of ourselves without which no poem [and, I would add, no writing] can exist.” Oliver describes this inner muse as a “mysterious, unmapped zone” that “comes before everything, even technique.” She warns that “It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime.”

This is what I fear more than Muleskinner. That silence within.

In “Wild Geese” Oliver writes, “You do not have to walk on your knees, For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” Seriously? Does this mean I didn’t have to grind up and down that flesh-hungry mountain on snowshoes to find my “mysterious, unmapped zone”? Mary Oliver would probably say that I could discover beauty in the everyday world around me. But, no, on this day, I needed the mountain to shatter a deep silence, to shake the silence apart the way the wind knocks rime ice from evergreen needles and casts the shards into the howling spit of the storm.

 

Thank you to Eleanor Morse and my fellow writers in the Sudden Fiction group for sharing Mary Oliver with me at the moment I most needed it and to the staff of Saddleback Mountain for running a first-class ski area with the biggest heart I know.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner athttp://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Secret Weapons Against Winter: Write or Plunge into the Sea?

sandalsinsnowMy willingness to jump into a 40 degree ocean does not prove me crazy. Yet, many shake their heads, say “better you than me,” shudder, and turn away. Maybe I’d rather they didn’t understand how alive I feel, walking across snow in sandals, peeling off layers on a breezy winter beach with my heart rate quickening at the thought of the icy sea needling my skin. Maybe if people knew that, afterward, the whole body flushes with warmth, bright light and giddy laughter then they would want to polar bear plunge, too. Then the wintry beach would be crowded with other island souls, desperate to unmuffle the months between winter solstice and the spring equinox. Nah, not happening. Many more islanders harbor a different secret weapon against the Maine winter: writing.

Thanks to the Sudden Fiction writing sessions of Eleanor Morse and Nicole d’Entremont, we huddle around the woodstove and beat back the winter darkness with our words. I love how Maine author extraordinaire Stephen King explains this type of literary defiance in his essay “On Impact.” King wrote, “it’s the work that bails me out. For me, there have been times when the act of writing has been an act of faith, a spit in the eye of despair. Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.” As the temperature plunges, the snow piles up against the window, and daylight resists the earth-tilting nudge to lengthen, we fight our way back to life by wielding our pen (and sometimes even by plunging into the sea).

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner athttp://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Writing on Basement Walls: What inscription will you leave in 2015?

Portland High School, courtesy of Wikipedia

Portland High School, courtesy of Wikipedia

Imagine that you are descending stone stairs down to the basement in a 150-year-old high school to a room known as the Graffiti Room. Does this sound like a writing prompt or perhaps jacket copy for a mystery novel? Mention of this Graffiti Room popped up in my daughter’s college application essay recently. In her words, “the floor, ceiling, and all four walls are covered with students’ names and graduating years. Layers and layers of signatures blanket the historic walls…in a few months I will sign my name in this room, leave my mark on history, and become a part of the tradition.” I realized that when my daughter inscribes her name on the wall, she will share space with her grandmother who would have written her name nearly seventy years earlier.

I don’t generally advocate for writing on walls, furniture, trees or rock outcrops either, but, the layering-of-names tradition hit me. I have never been bitten by the “I was here” bug that would prompt me to write my name on a wall, but isn’t striving to write similar? When writers write, aren’t they grasping at truths, inscribing them, and leaving them behind like names scrawled on a wall? Think inscription, trace, epigraph, literary footprints.

I used to struggle with cynicism towards academic publishing; I still harbor frustration with the jargon-ridden, inaccessible nature of the genre. My prejudice shifted when, after delivering a presentation at a conference in Arizona, a few undergraduate and graduate students asked me to sign their copy of my book “Voices of a Thousand People.” This wasn’t a book tour, far from it. I don’t think my presentation even mentioned the book, but, to my surprise, they eagerly shared their excitement to meet me and how much they loved “Voices.”

Despite my reservations about academia, my work had spoken to these students, fired their imagination, and fueled their passion for learning. Even though writing often feels like a selfish endeavor — the journey toward flawless craft and research, the search for inspiration, and the quest for publication — it remains similar to writing on walls. Writing leaves a trace, a literary pathway for making and sharing insights with people the writer may never meet.

So if you’re struggling with your writing (as I have been this past year), embrace the notion of writing on walls. Writing is not just a solitary endeavor. The act of writing reaches out and touches others, makes connections and shared meaning that we all crave. Keep writing. As you face 2015, ask yourself: what delightful discovery do you want to leave for others to discover in a basement room?

Here are the Peaks Island Press entries that readers most visited in 2014:

Most Read Article about a Peaks Island Writer
Eleanor Morse: Coming Home to Writing

Most Read Article on the Writing Process
Nicole d’Entremont: on family stories and 5 tips for writing an historical novel

Most Read Article on Peaks Island Literary Life
Book Love: An island tradition welcomes babies

Maine Snow Days

SnowBikeDeliciously naughty. Forbidden. That’s how it feels, burrowing under the covers after hearing the news – “it’s a snow day!” Billowing snowflakes muffle the outside world, even the thudding of snowplow blades. Then freezing rain clatters against the windowpane and glams up every twig and bough in sight. And the day ahead yawns – empty – like a cave that’s never been found. I concern myself with finding slippers, stoking the wood stove, boiling cups of tea, and considering whether the power will stay on – or not. Snow days. Those days – when the calendar stands still and the world transforms itself in white – bind my loyalty to life as a Northerner.

Collaborating with professional photographers: Alban Maino

Alban Maino shooting at the Seashore Trolley Museum

Alban Maino shooting at the Seashore Trolley Museum (courtesy of Phil Morse)

Writers are not always the “lead partner” when they work with photographers, but if you are the point person for a project, you should ready yourself to collaborate successfully so that another joint project will follow.

Because the Summer Guide issue of Portland Monthly Magazine published my “A Streetcar Named Narcissus” — an article named after a vintage, interurban electric coach at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, I’ll use my collaboration with photographer and filmmaker Alban Maino as an example.

The Narcissus–once a high-speed engineering marvel–bears the distinction of having transported Theodore Roosevelt Jr. between Lewiston and Portland, Maine on August 18, 1914. Ken Burns’ newest documentary series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History has turned the grand lady Narcissus into a bit of a celebrity, prompting me to ask my friend, Alban Maino of Dreamland Medias, to help me document her painstaking restoration. Here are some takeaway tips from that project.

Tip #1: Plan for the unique conditions of your site. I shouldn’t say “this was an unusual shoot,” because the fact is, every photo shoot is unique. For a writer to lead a successful collaboration, they need to learn as much as possible about the conditions under which the photographer must work and PLAN AHEAD. The idiosyncracies of the location might require particular accommodations of footwear, clothing, photo equipment, or even mental preparation. The more the photographer knows, the more prepared he or she can be.

Photographer Alban Maino captures the "Narcissus."

Founded in 1939 and spanning a 330 acre-campus straddling the Kennebunkport/Arundel town line, the Seashore Trolley Museum has grown into the largest electric railway museum in the world. Its comprehensive collection of vintage public transportation vehicles includes electric streetcars, buses, omnibuses, trackless trolleys and subway cars; one of these electric railroad coaches “the Narcissus” – once a high-speed, engineering marvel – bears the patina of having transported Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. between Lewiston and Portland on August 18, 1914. Less than a month after the Portland-Lewiston Interurban line (PLI) opened to acclaim as Maine’s fastest and finest electric railway, Teddy stepped up to the glossy green coach, climbed through an elegantly arched doorway, and took one of the plush, green seats, most likely avoiding the smoking compartment where his traveling companions puffed on cigars. (Copyright Alban Maino)

Tip #2: Do not underestimate time. In order to photograph the Narcissus in natural light, I worked with Narcissus Project Manager Phil Morse to have the Narcissus untarped so that it was exposed to natural light. A team of volunteers labored for hours to uncover the vintage interurban vehicle; consequently, our photoshoot needed to coordinate precisely with the volunteers’ efforts, as well as align with good weather.

Tip #3: Be a safety nut. The physical conditions of photographing the Narcissus were demanding physically and slowed the project down. In order to get the frames that he wanted, Alban scampered more than twenty feet up onto the salvage “trucks” or undercarriages of trolleys nearby. The dramatic photo of him above – dubbed “the crouching tiger” by Phil Morse – illustrates how conditions must be navigated carefully and safely.  While the photographer is looking through his lens, you can help make sure that he doesn’t step into harm’s way.

Tip #4: Advocate for your partner. Photographers like to receive pay and credit just as much as you do. If a job pays only by the word or a flat fee and doesn’t remunerate for the photos (which is annoying, at best), then share the fee fairly. Also, particularly in our digital age, photos are more easily published on the web without adequate credit or without any at all. This was a problem on this particular assignment. The photo credits on the printed version of the magazine were tiny and missing altogether from some of the content published online. Despite aggressive advocacy on my part, the outcome was disappointing and unacceptable to both of us. This is not necessarily unusual. Be prepared to voice strongly your concerns. In the meantime, enjoy some select photos of this project that Alban has posted in an online album at http://www.espritvoyageur.net/trolley/

Portland Magazine article on Seashore Trolley Museum

Portland Magazine article on Seashore Trolley Museum

 

Restoration of stained glass window of "Narcissus" interurban car (copyright Alban Maino)

Former President Theodore Roosevelt would have gazed at the passing Maine landscape through the Narcissus’ stained glass windows – framed by mahogany paneling with gilded striping and inlaid with holly and ebony – now under restoration (copyright Alban Maino).

 

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner athttp://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Robert Greenfield and the Rolling Stones

If you’re very lucky, perhaps you’ve seen The Rolling Stones in concert or, maybe you harbor some collectable vinyl albums. It’s unlikely, however, that you’ve gone on tour with the Stones, spent dozens of hours interviewing members of the band, or even spent days living at Mick Jagger’s villa. Award-winning author and summer Peaks Island resident Robert Greenfield has done those things; it’s fair to say that our understanding of music in 20th century society is better for it.

Author Robert Greenfield

Author Robert Greenfield

In a quick telephone interview with me, Greenfield conceded that he has had some extraordinary opportunities to write about several “rather megahuman” individuals. Greenfield was referring to Grateful Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, six-time Grammy Award winner Burt Bacharach, and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. That’s the short list. Greenfield said, “Writing about extraordinary people you can learn something about life that is different than writing about people with quiet lives.” In part, Greenfield attributes the success of his career — writing about icons of the music industry — to “feeling passionate about the work and remaining absolutely trustworthy in trying to capture the humanity of people who can really be very difficult.”

When I asked Greenfield if he considered himself a journalist, a narrative non-fiction writer, or a classic rock documentarian, he said, “I’m a writer. I don’t like to be categorized.” Fair enough considering that he’s also a novelist, screenwriter, and playwright who served as Associate Editor of the London bureau of Rolling Stone Magazine.

"Ain't It Time We Said Goodbye" book cover

“Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye” book cover

This Thursday evening, you’ll have the opportunity to meet Greenfield and hear him read from his newly-published “Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye: The Rolling Stones on the Road to Exile (Da Capo Press/Perseus Books 2014), one of the twelve books that he has authored. The Peaks Island Branch of the Portland Public Library will host the event this Thursday, August 14th from 7-9:00 PM.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Port City Poets on Peaks Island

Stone Boat Poetry presents PORT CITY POETS: Contemporary Poets Celebrate Portland, Maine on Thursday, August 7 at 7pm at 5th Maine Memorial Hall on Peaks Island.

Join us for an evening with not one, not two… twelve Portland area poets who will read original poems!

Featured: Linda Aldrich, Marcia F. Brown, Dennis Camire, Claire Hersom, Mihku Paul-Anderson, Jesse Mantsch, Pam Burr Smith, Bruce Spang, Martin Steingesser, Jim Glenn Thatcher, George VanDeventer, Anna Bat-Chai Wrobel.

Readings begin at 7 pm

Books by individual contributing poets, and the recent anthology will be available. Support the writers!

Light refreshments will be served. ****volunteers most welcome to bring some refreshments.****

Free and Open to the Public<Join us for an evening with not one, not two… twelve Portland area poets who will read .

<Join us for an evening with not one, not two… twelve Portland area poets who will read poetry event yet.
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