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17 February 2016

John Greenwood’s Bliss: A Student’s Gift. ” On The Path.

A Teacher's Gift

A Teacher's Gift

Maria and I were coming back from our morning walk in the woods. As we pulled into our driveway, Maria said "there's a fencepost in front of the  mailbox." This was puzzling. People throw all sorts of garbage out of their cars and onto the road every day, usually beer bottles, coffee cups and fast food bags,  but no one has every thrown a fence post out on our lawn. Not a big deal, I thought, we can toss it at the dump Saturday.

When Maria went to get it, I saw the lettering and I knew it had to be from John Greenwood, one of the first and most committed students in the writing workshop I had begun to teach.  And also one of the most thoughtful and creative people I have known. John has the gift of being generous without ever being intrusive, of being thoughtful without ever being dogmatic.

His mission is to capture feeling and emotion, he is very good at it., because he has a lot and is in touch with it.

A former milkman now working as an executive at the Stewart's milk and convenience store chain, John came to me on fire, with a yearning to write and unleash the very powerful creative forces inside of him.

He loves his job and his colleagues, but it was not an environment where creativity was much pushed or talked about it.  It just wasn't on the agenda. There was a loneliness inside of him in this way, he was in need of some direction and encouragement.

John was looking for help, something inside of him needed to come out. John was the reason I began teaching, he is the kind of intensely creative person who lived much of his life outside of the creative villages we call culture. He really had no way in as a working-class man with a tough job and much responsibility. He had no idea where to begin. He just needed to know he had as much right to do it as John Updike did.

It is a curious thing about teaching. Some people – John is a great example – are hungry for learning, grateful for it. Others come for fuzzy reasons. Many want to be writers, but they don't want to work at it much, and they are often discouraged to learn it isn't a magic or dramatic process.

I had a very gifted student once who took my classes for more than two years, she came a long way. I noticed after awhile that she was not following any of my advice or direction, she was almost doing the very opposite of what I taught, and she had stopped contributing much of anything to class.

I didn't want to be criticizing her, but I wasn't comfortable with the work she was doing. I could tell something was off, we were just not connecting. This didn't mean she was wrong and I was right it, it just meant there was some other reason than learning that brought her to me, and I was not the right teacher for her.

So I told her that I didn't ever want to be a source of discouragement, that we weren't on the same page and she deserved  a teacher she was more in sync with. It was the first time in my teaching that I ever felt I had to do that.

She said that was fine, she dropped out of the class and we lost contact. I asked if she was angry, she denied it, but there was no doubt in my mind that she was furious, when she didn't hear what she wanted to hear, there was nothing much left. I guess I felt as if I had failed, but that is a dangerous response in teaching.

People come to class for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes the teacher connects, sometimes you can't. The teacher learns after awhile that there will be successes and failures, all you can do is celebrate the successes and let go of the failures. Teachers are not Gods, not even close to it. I have a student, a gifted artist named Rachel Barlow who has been in my classes for five years, and every year she gets stronger, more confident and her work radiant. She is selling art all over the place, something she thought impossible just a few years ago.

I used to teach my class in four sessions, I realized that was not nearly long enough to really know a student and connect with them. My classes go on for years now, the current class may go on for the rest of my life, we are all so much in sync with one another. They might tire of me, but I will not tire of them.

Rachel has grown and changed each year, she has written poignantly about her struggles with depression, and somewhere in our class, she figured out that the best way to deal with her depression was to paint beautiful and evocative things. She is transformed, and by her own determination, not by me. Four weeks would not have been enough.

For John Greenwood, it didn't take much. If I mentioned a blog, he started one. If I said he needed to share his work, he did. If I advised experimenting with different forms – words photos, video – it just happened. A revelation to me, sometimes  you can teach a ton with a whisper, it doesn't have to be a drama.

The creative spark is in everyone, it just needs permission to come out. Teaching is not about telling others what to do, but seeing the bliss or passion in a student and helping him or her to bring it up.

I quoted Joseph Campbell to John, I told him to follow his bliss, something he still remembers and wrote about on the back of the Bedlam Farm sign post he left at my mailbox this morning. It is typical of John not to knock or disturb me. He is always convinced that he is bothering me, when he never is. People are funny that way, the people you want to see are usually too sensitive to come by, the people you don't necessarily care to see have no compunctions about coming by.

John and I are very close, even though we rarely see or speak with one another. This weekend, he may be joining my new class at Pompanuck Farms, and I can't say how happy that makes me. John understands that learning is a long process, it sometimes goes in fits and starts, depending on the rest of our lives, our distractions, and the teacher.

I love John's sign and am grateful for it, but his real gift to me is the torrent of beautiful writing, videos, photographs and feelings he has expressed on his wonderful and much loved blog, Raining Iguanas. It was born out of my first teaching class in Cambridge.

The 12th and final step of the hero journey is that the hero returns to the ordinary world, bringing back what he has learned, sharing it with others. It's about John Greenwood, really. He is already inspiring and teaching others. True creativity is infectious.

On the back of his fence post, John wrote, "You Gave Me Direction To Follow My Bliss." And he did. Sometimes, that's all it takes.

I love the part where the pupil becomes the teacher. The fence is a wonderful gift, it points the way, it is the path.

Follow Your Bliss

Follow Your Bliss

Posted in General
26 January 2016

John Greenwood: The Student Who Changed Me

The Student Who Changed Me

The Student Who Changed Me

Six or seven years ago, John Greenwood, a milkman who went to work for Stewart's a big local convenience store that sells milk and food, came to one of my readings at Battenkill Books. He claims it changed his life, but he probably doesn't know that he really changed mine.

John contacted me and joined one of the first Hubbard Hall Writer's Groups that we formed in town. He was the first student I signed up, he is a quiet and shy man, but he is was on fire to create, and he created some of the most beautiful work I have seen in a long time. John is a big cheese at Stewart's now, but we have remained quite close to one another.

John was a student of mine for more than two  years, and his blog, Raining Iguana's is one of the most vibrant and creative I have seen. I wrote about him in 2012 just a year after I started my own blog. He was on his own hero journey. John is one of the most viscerally creative people I have ever met and that is sometimes a lonely process for him, he loves his work and the people he works with, but he has always drawn nourishment and inspiration from a creative community, and our class was a special one.

When John heard of my open heart surgery, he contacted me and offered his help and friendship, he is much too shy to drop by or even call. He is member of the Creative Group At Bedlam Farm, I sense we are returning to one another's lives.

I don't see John all that often, but we are very close. In a sense we are very much alike, we need to be creating things all the time or we get restless and unhappy. It is not simple for John, he has a busy and full life, a big job and four grandkids but he makes time for his stories, and nostalgic reports – he's a kind of local Charles Kuralt, – on the people and history in the Saratoga Springs area. His pieces have that very authentic feeling.

John has a soft and elegiac touch in his work, his pieces have depth and emotion.

He has embraced, even pioneered the use of images and video in his pieces. They are living stories. He grasped the creative and individual potential of the blog and now inspires a lot of people.

John claims I changed his life, but he really changed mine. He opened me up teaching and showed me its potential, sharing what I had learned, the power of the blog to unleash the creativity often buried inside an individual. If John, a former milkman, had that kind of stuff inside of him, it reaffirmed my belief that most of us do. It was my job to try to bring it out. Some people need a push, some just need a tap on the shoulder.   I could hardly have imagined the depth and power of the work John started to turn out and produces still.

John need for his creative spark to be lit, and it was, and I have deepened my love for teaching and found ways to reach out to gifted people like John, who need little more than encouragement and a supportive community to find their own adventure. John's blog, Raining Iguanas is an inspiration to anyone who seeks to free their inner spirits.

John did not see that creativity in  himself when he was delivering milk, he sees it now, and so do many other people. We had lunch at the Round House Cafe Monday and I was so glad to see him, I nearly cried. I've invited  him to join my writing class at Pompanuck Farm on Saturday mornings, and I took this quiet man over to Battenkill Books.

He doesn't care to have his photo taken, but he knew I would, I just backed up a good ways to set the scene rather than take a portrait. He would have hated that. Hope to see you one of these Saturdays, John, and thanks for existing in our world. Check out his remarkable blog.

Posted in General
15 June 2012

Raining Iguanas: John Greenwood And The Hero’s Journey

The Creative Spark

I met John Greenwood a couple of years ago. He came to one of my readings, and I wasn't quite sure what to make of this quiet man, an ex-milkman and truck driver working at Stewart's, a regional convenience store, milk and food chain. I could see he was on fire, restless, something inside of him wanted to come out. I can sense that in people. It's how I first connected with Maria. I loved the way he talked about his wife and children, about his wish to write, to release the powerful creative forces inside of him.

I was a bit wary at first, wondering if he was for real, or one of the many people who flirt with working hard to be creative, but who often bail out when they find it is not so simple, the rewards not always instantaneous. Lots of people come up to me at readings and say things, and I am often not quite sure what to make of them.

John did not bail out. It has been one of the pleasures of my life to watch this quiet and unassuming man turn inward, take a deep breath, come out into the world and evolve. As a writer, as a photographer, as a poet, father, husband and human being. Talk about the creative spark. John is still on fire, a volcanic eruption. We came together again last night when he showed up at my Hubbard Hall Writer's Workshop – what a great crew that is – something he wrote about on his wonderful blog, a model of how technology and creativity can work together for the benefit of the individual in the modern world.

Today I am proud to add John's blog to the "Blogs I Love" page (at the top of this page). He is the real deal. He reminds us that artistry is not a closed shop, an elite community, a gift bestowed by lightning on the wondrous and mysterious. Creativity takes heart and soul, and work and courage. Our world sometimes conspires to make us think that being creative is a special gift granted to the very few rather than something that is inside of all of us, yearning to come out. We are taught to feel stupid, foolish, to suppress our own instincts and ideas.  We hide our own stories.

John talks often about how terrified he was to put his blog up, to reveal himself in so personal a way. To take the risk every creative person takes – coming into the world. I know that feeling. We all do, I think.

To understand this – to free or inner spirits –  is to awaken to the possibilities of life, something John Greenwood has done, in a culture where it is not often encouraged or supported. John spends a lot of time explaining his poetry to his fellow truck drivers. Good for you John and thanks for joining my workshop. And for existing. You are a light unto the world.

Posted in Farm Journal, General
2 May 2017

The New Era: First Reading At Battenkill. “Only The Forgotten Are Truly Dead.’

The First Reading

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts." – Winston Churchill.

We had a quiet but lovely reading last night at Battenkill Books to kick off the publication of "Talking To Animals: How We Can Understand Them And They Can Understand Us," out today wherever books are sold.

This is my hometown bookstore and Connie and I were expecting a substantial crowd to launch my discreet book tour,  but there were only eight people in the audience, including Maria (and Red and Fate.)

Of course I would write about it, I have no secrets, and thus am free. I am only embarrassed by lack of effort on my part.

I confess when I came in for my grand entrance with the dogs and saw Connie and her mother alone in the bookstore, I thought of that wonderful Tess Gerritsen line, "Only The Forgotten Are Truly Dead."

When I first began writing books, I entered a vast Borders Store in Virginia, and there was not one soul sitting in a single one of the 200 seats neatly set up for my talk. I thought I must have come on the wrong night, but the embarrassed manager assured me this was the right night. Eventually, one elderly woman came in out of the cold night and sat in the very rear of the big room and waited. She looked homeless to me, her sneakers had big holes.

I told myself that I would act the same way if every seat in the room was filled, and I gave one of the best talks and readings of my literary life. By the end, two or three employees – ringers, I think, because they took their ID cards off – came in and I got some polite applause.

It is true that failure is always more public than success, that was a good lesson for me.

That night, I resolved to be the same way when there  one as when there is an adoring full house.

Book readings are like that, some take off, some don't. But you can't short the people who show up.

Writers are complex, one I knew always quoted Mother Teresa when he came into an empty book store: "Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat."

I told my friend Mother Teresa was talking about the poor and the hungry, for God's sake, not dramatic and self-absorbed writers. She was all about perspective.

An empty bookstore is not a tragedy. It is part of the writer's life, fearing being forgotten. Any man or woman who dares to open his soul to the world will experience it, and more than once.

I define myself not by how I deal with great success, but how I deal with different kinds of failure and rejection. Everything I want is on the other side of fear.

This is also part of the way we live in America now, we are letting go of the material world for the realm of screens and images. Everyone sees it, we talk to one another but we no longer know one another.

This is my 25th book, and I have been to a lot of great readings and a lot of grim ones, but I know the era of readings is fading, and that is the true nature of life, even in my own hometown. It doesn't mean more than what it is.

I loved the crowd that came tonight, there were a number of true friends, people I loved, and I smiled every time I saw them. I remember too many times when there was no one for me to love, or to come to my readings, and I am fortunate to be alive and loved on the earth. This is my 25th book. I can die happy.

I'm not sure why the crowd was so small – the smallest ever for me in my hometown. It could have been the awful storm that hit yesterday, which caused a great deal of damage, or it could have been the rain or it could have been the angels having a bit of fun with me.

Or I could, of course, be over, the secret dread of every creative person. But honestly, I don't think I'm there yet.

The truth is, we'll never know. I've been on tours with 200 people one night and five the next day. Nobody ever knows why. Tomorrow, I'm coming into Battenkill to sign 200 more books to be shipped out. Anyone who complains about that is a fool.

The small crowd didn't stop us from having a great deal of fun, intimate gatherings are often the most meaningful. I can look into the eyes of people and know right a way how I'm doing. I liked what I said about the book. I will perfect it a bit more with each reading. But it went well.

In a few years I doubt there will be physical book readings at ll, only video conferences, book readings in the digital realm. I don't do nostalgia, I had my turn, it is somebody else's turn.

The material realm is giving way to the digital.

More and more, people go on Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat to meet and socialize with people, not to physical gatherings in the physical world. Art least 100 people told me they were excited to be coming to the reading and couldn't wait. But I know that to be Hollywood agent talk, I know they mean to, but life often intercedes or distracts.

There are countless good reasons to stay home.

I am not into nostalgia, the days when I was driven around in limousines to four star hotels are long gone. It was common just a few years ago to  face huge and adoring crowds – 1,200 people came to see me in Forth Worth, Texas one night – but I can't say I miss the old days. This is my time. I am happier and more creative now, for sure. I have my blog, the center of my creative life.

I am content with where I am. And I am still at it, I have yet another book to finish, and more readings ahead of me. This is the fascinating part, more than four million people read my writing regularly, but it is an effort to get a dozen to come and hear me talk.  I have never been read by more people in different places.

This is America today, I think.

And then there are sales.

The reports about my book sales are good. Connie has taken more than 700 pre-orders, a record for her store. My publisher e-mailed me tonight to say they have had a good response from their accounts. Barnes & Noble has ordered 3,600 copies and Amazon took 2,200, independent book stores  have ordered 1,600 copies of the book.

Those are good numbers  these days so early on.

My editor said Simon and Schuster has printed 14,000 copies of the book, he thought a second printing was "imminent." I  hope so. Publishers have to fight for every single book. Mr. Trump is harming book sales by taking up much of the media that would have gone to culture and book coverage. In the media, it is pretty much all Trump all the time.  That is hurting a lot of young writers.  Maybe he will be quiet for a week or so. It does not seem likely.

Writers always say that you can tell who your friends are by who shows up at readings, but I do not feel that way about it. Failure is never fatal in itself, I think, but failure to change or accept change is deadly. One of my first writing students, the very gifted John Greenwood, a truck driver turned brilliant creative, drove two  hours to see me. I really appreciated that.

I don't take it personally. I am willful and determined, and when I was eight years old I decided to be a writer one day, and decades later, that is what I am. And that is what I will be when I die.

Readings are important to authors. We work on books for years, and first night readings are a big deal, a coming out, the first opportunity to talk about our books and gauge the response in the eyes and body language and yawns of the audience. At readings, the book comes to life and becomes real. That happened to me at Battenkill tonight.

The book is alive, warm and very real.

There was only one yawn tonight, and when I saw two, I wrapped it up, it meant 25 per cent of my audience was tired. Red was stellar as usual, politely greeting everyone. And young Fate, at her first reading, jumped up on every single person and then lay down at Maria's feet and went to sleep. A triumph.

I talked about the visualizations in the book, and the story of the New York Carriage Horses, and the urgent need to understand the real nature and needs of animals if they are to remain among us in our world. I talked about my efforts to communicate with animals, and to listen to them.

My editor said the book was full of "heart and wisdom," and that feels good to hear.

He said there was growing excitement about my next book "Lessons From Bedlam Farm," and that was wonderful to hear.

But the next few weeks belong to "Talking To Animals." I will keep pushing those numbers up, I hope. I want that second printing, and also a third one. I intend to be relevant and to write books to the last gasp, even when nobody comes out.

If you wish to order the book through Battenkill Books (it is no. 1 in "Hot New Releases"), you can do so here. I will sign and personalize every copy and Connie will give you a lovely tote bag for free.

Posted in General
19 December 2016

Something New: My Voice On The Blog

Tonight, I'm launching something I've been working on for some time – adding my voice and narration to the blog. I'm using an audio sharing app, Itunes and a voice recording program to post audio – I'll do poems, commentary, excerpts from my books, occasional musings about philosophy, animals, and also some anecdotes from the farm. I share photos and words, why not my voice.

This is a powerful new tool for writers who wish to share their work and ideas with their readers, a new way of our inter-acting with one another. A kind of informal podcast. This will not replace words but occasionally supplement them, a new way to use the creative tools we have to…well, be creative.

My first broadcast, accompanied by a photo of Deb and Jake, two beautiful lambs, both gone now. And I read from my notes that helped me begin the first chapter of my next, next book "Lessons From Bedlam Farm," out in 2018 and just underway. I use italic notes to help me get started on new chapters and these were about the lessons I learned in just one week of living on my farm, one of the great teachers in my life.

So welcome to the voice of me, hopefully the first of many and thanks for coming along on this ride with me as I seek to re-invent the life of an author in the new world. I do not intend to be irrelevant. Thanks for supporting me.  I love the challenge of creativity, and thanks to my good friend John Greenwood for inspiring me to do this and for helping me to do it. He did it a year ago.

I think my next offering will be a poem from Hafiz.

Posted in General