Book People Are My Favorite People

When you move as frequently as we do, finding your tribe in each new location isn't always easy. And making friends as a childless adult often means putting yourself out there in a way that isn't exactly...organic.  And that's exactly the type of behavior that led to the creation of my first book club. 

For starters, it's important to know that I have tried to start a book club in the last THREE places I've lived. We're talking Craigslist ads, randomly asking semi-strangers if they like to read, and not-so-casually reading in public places to see if anyone wants to randomly strike up a conversation about our mutual love of books. Even when I've lived in places where I actually knew a fair amount of other people, a book club was something occasionally talked about, but never materialized. 

When we moved to Buckhannon in September, it finally seemed like I could make this happen: small college town, dozens of Little Free Libraries, and not a crazy amount of social opportunities already available. I began frequenting this cute little coffee shop/music store up the street from my house for the sole purpose of making the owner my friend (although, it's worth saying that the coffee is also fantastic). Heather was always super friendly and seemed to know a lot of people around town, so finally I just went for it. I asked her if she liked to read. 

Within a few days, Heather had drummed up some interest on Facebook and we had a meeting at her coffee shop to discuss how to proceed. We picked our first book and then officially met a month later for John Irving, tacos, and margaritas. 

  (apologies for the teensy Instagram picture) 

(apologies for the teensy Instagram picture) 

We've now been meeting for the past six months and it is routinely the best part of my month. There's always way too much food and, as we've gotten to know each other better, the amount of time we spend actually discussing the book seems to get shorter and shorter, but it's still the best.  Once, there was fondue. Occasionally, (always) there's moonshine. 

 Medieval Meat/Cheese Feast for  The Relic Master  

Medieval Meat/Cheese Feast for The Relic Master 

 (My first pick: Jhumpa Lahiri's  The Lowland  + cheese and chocolate fondue)  

(My first pick: Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland + cheese and chocolate fondue) 

 All the dips and  What She Left Behind  

All the dips and What She Left Behind 

  The Nightingale,  when we decided we really only wanted to eat cheese 

The Nightingale, when we decided we really only wanted to eat cheese 

As we've continued, the core four who were there on that first meeting has nearly doubled in membership. We don't all have the same reading tastes. Some of us kindle, some of us audible. Our age range spans a few decades. We arrived in Buckhannon from all over the country. But we're all book people (also: cheese people). And book people are my favorite people. 

On Living a Creative Life

I recently finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert's new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear and have been thinking a lot about what it means to me to live a creative life. I furiously underlined at least half of it, but there was one particular line that read like a punch to the gut: 

"It has taken me years to learn this, but it does seem to be the case that if I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something (myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind)."

I have never thought of my own creativity in this way. In fact, for the past several years, every time I would sit down to work on my creative work, it felt like a battle. It felt like waging a war with what I thought I was "supposed" to do because I "wanted" to be a writer. Because I had this novel draft just collecting dust and this master's degree that was supposed to mean something in the real world. I talked the talk and pretended I was walking the walk - when really, writing was making me pretty miserable. 

I rationalized it in a thousand ways. I was a newlywed. I was moving again. My husband's job situation was too stressful. I was spending all day writing freelance blog posts and couldn't spend another minute at my computer. I still had two seasons left in my Gilmore Girls re-watching. My house wasn't clean. I was too unhappy to write. 

When I was younger, I would spend hours sprawled out on my bed with my looseleaf notebooks, writing page after page of character descriptions and dialogue scenes. I kept list of all the stories I wanted to write because I had more ideas than I could possibly remember. I loved when it was cold outside, because that meant I could zip my notebook up inside my coat and hide in the slide during recess, just writing. I loved it. It was my favorite thing to do. 

Somewhere along the line, I lost the enjoyment for making up characters and stories and worlds. Writing became something I studied and pursued, not something I loved. Having a creative life felt like a charade I had to keep up because I had a degree and student loans constantly reminding me that I was supposed to live up to expectations - both mine and others. 

But the whole point of Big Magic is that your creative life shouldn't come with any expectations except for one: to live a "life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear." It's about creating for the sake of creating because you're a creator who wants to create. It's not about getting published or gaining recognition. It's just about doing what fills you up. Honestly, this was a little scary to read. Most of the creative work I've done in the last few years had done the opposite - leaving me drained, frustrated, and questioning. 

So, okay. I decided it was time to figure out once and for all what kind of writer I was. I decided that for one week I would try waking up two hours earlier than normal and work creatively for at least 90 minutes. I set very little boundaries for what this would mean: I could write in my journal, I could work on my novel revisions, I could write something new - but I couldn't work on any freelance work, check my email, or browse social media. Mainly, I just wanted to know if it was possible to like writing again. 

The first day was honestly so startlingly amazing that I surprised even myself. I had more energy, my work day was more productive, I was in a better mood. Hell, I even ate more nutritiously and spent an hour cleaning my house, just because (subtext: and not because we had company coming over). I wish I had a better word for it, but honestly the only way I can describe it was invigorating. 

I'm now on Day 15 of writing every day and I look forward to that quiet morning time more than I look forward to any other part of my day. The novel revisions I have dragged out for almost four years now are shockingly close to being...done? I feel genuinely happier and more like *me* than I have in ages. And it turns out creativity is possibly a little infectious. Two of my dearest writing friends have been meeting me for Skype "check-ins" as we report our progress. Another friend (who has been generously reading my revised pages) told me she's been more productive with her own writing than she has in months. We're living creative lives and we're doing it together and it feels wonderful. 

Maybe something will come from these morning hours spent with my novel. Maybe it won't. But at least now I know for sure: I am happier doing the work than I am not doing it. 

IMG_1779.JPG

"Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you." - Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

What It Was Like Being Back at My Alma Mater for a Career Conference

Just over a week ago, I spent a day surrounded by the electric energy of smart, confident women at my favorite place in the entire world. And I haven't been able to stop thinking about the experience ever since. 

You see, I went to college in a magical place. And you could tell me you feel the same way about your college, but I wouldn't believe you. I'm convinced Hollins University is special in a way that is wholly unique and - yes - magical. I'm not entirely sure how to describe it to outsiders except to say that this place is my exhale. It is where I am not only most myself, but where I'm also my best self. The second I drive onto campus, I begin thinking clearer. When I am there, I am simultaneously more energized and relaxed. Tension leaves my shoulders. Everything I haven't done or wished I could do suddenly seems completely possible. 

So, when I was asked to return to campus as a featured alum for a career conference, I think it took me all of 30 seconds to accept. A day talking to successful career women and driven, doe-eyed students? Sign me up.  

Of course, there's nothing like being back at one of the most formative locations of your younger days to bring about a little reflection. 

When I graduated college in 2009, I didn't even know that my current profession existed. Well, obviously I knew being a freelance writer existed, but content marketing? Nope. It wasn't even remotely on my radar. I had spent most of my life telling people that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, but really had no concept of what that would look like. But now I'm doing it. I'm making a living as a writer. Box checked. 

And yet. During one of the "speed connection" sessions (think speed dating, but with alums and students networking instead), I found myself feeling incredibly...small? These young women, these students, these dreamers - they kept coming up to my table and sitting across from me and telling me all of the big things they hoped to do with their life. They had pie-in-the-sky dreams. They had make-a-difference dreams. Didn't I used to be just like that? So hopeful, so inspired, so sure I would be who I wanted to be?

Because yes: I am making a living writing. But 2009 Cortney wanted to be a writer with a capital Creative. She wanted to write novels and short stories and essays that people would read and think, "Yes, I feel this exact same way sometimes. Thank you." And it's not that I've given up on those goals, because I haven't. I'm still taking small steps to pursue them, but they are just that: small. Somehow, bafflingly, six and a half years have passed. I can do more. 

I went back to Hollins expecting to inspire current students to pursue their goals. I didn't quite expect that they would instead have the same effect on me. That I would feel more inspired than I have in months. That I would want to act, want to do, want to be...better. 

And really, I should have known. If there's any place that can reconnect me with who I am and who I want to be, it's Hollins. It's a good reminder to my fellow sisters: if you're feeling lost, if you aren't quite sure you're on track, or if you just need to remember how it felt - go back. Step on to campus. Take a deep breath. Exhale. 

 

Kindness and Optimism

I don't remember learning to read. I remember the books I loved, I remember checking out my first "chapter book" from the library (The Boxcar Children, naturally), and I remember hiding a book inside my jacket so I could read during recess without my teachers knowing. 

All of this is to say that reading is both a past time and a skill that I have seemingly always had. Obviously that isn't actually true - I'm sure I owe a debt of gratitude to the combination of parents/teachers/grandparents who actually taught me - but I don't remember the specifics. I don't remember sounding out words or learning the difference between short and long vowel sounds. Reading has just always been, well, mine. And until recently, I didn't really think of it in any other way. 

As someone who works from home and already has some natural hermit tendencies, I have to be proactive in finding reasons to leave the house and meet people. So, when I stumbled across the website for The Literacy Volunteers of Upshur County after Googling "volunteer opportunities in Buckhannon," I was intrigued. It seemed like a good way for me to get involved in our new small community. 

I wasn't sure what to expect when I first dropped by to fill out a volunteer application - I just knew I missed teaching and felt like my mental health would benefit from giving back. What I found was a little house behind a church full of the type of kindness and optimism that has been sorely lacking in my everyday interactions. I was hugged by strangers and told over and over again, "We're so glad you're here." Within a week, they'd found me a student and wanted me to get started right away. 

Since then, I've run the spectrum of emotions from feeling over my head and panicked, to feeling capable and effective. I've never taught an adult to read before. Until recently, I'd never even knowingly met an adult who couldn't read. But I am in this. It regularly feels like the most important thing I do with my week.

Some days there are visible improvements and I see lights coming on and it is the absolute best thing you could imagine. Other times, it's not as simple and progress isn't as clear. I feel frustrated when I can't explain something that I just inherently know and my student feels frustrated for thousands of other reasons I can't even begin to comprehend. Regardless of what type of day it is, we have agreed on one key thing: we're both going to keep showing up. 

Typically, after our lessons, I'll come home and sit on my porch with whatever book I'm reading and I'll look at the pages and wonder about my own very privileged education. I think about how different my relationship to books could have been if I grew up in some other place, with some other family. I think about how many things I read per day and take completely for granted - a text message from my sisters, food labels, my Twitter feed, street signs. I think about the ways I can be a better tutor, how I can better explain certain concepts, and whether my student will ever know what it is like to sit in a rocking chair as the sun goes down and read a really good book. 

I don't know. But I am optimistic. 

 

Gone Walkin'

"Writing is one way of making the world our own...and walking is another." - Geoff Nicholson

Our new town is very accessible on foot. Yesterday, I walked to the post office and a coffee shop. Today I walked to my husband's office. Soon, I'll get to walk to a dentist appointment, a hair salon, and my dog's vet.  

In addition to this intentional walking, I've also been taking walks just for the sake of taking walks. There's a river trail that goes through the town with a great path, lovely views, benches, swings, and even a Little Free Library. These walks don't take me too long - the loop that starts and ends at our home clocks in around two miles, according to my iPhone. Sometimes I listen to an audiobook or podcast. Sometimes I listen to music. Sometimes I just walk. 

As someone who sits and stares at a computer screen for a living, these walks have already become a necessary and desired little ritual. I've found that simply getting up, heading outside, and moving my legs for 30 minutes has made my writing and thought process much more even-keeled and clearheaded. In the past few days, I've done some of my best work with my sneakers on and without a computer or pen in sight. But, of course, this probably shouldn't surprise me as much as it does. 

Plenty has been written and discussed about writers who walk. It helps us think, according to The New YorkerI've known this. I've heard about many famous writers who started their work day with a long walk. I just haven't tried it until now. And I can already feel it changing my process. 

So, here's to savoring the first few crisp days of fall, to writing in my head, and to getting out from behind the computer screen. 

 

 

Where I Never Thought I'd Be

Three weeks ago, if you'd told me I'd be living in a tiny, old house in Buckhannon, West Virginia...I would have thought you were crazy. 

But here we are. 

Within the span of just over a week, my husband was approached about a job, accepted that job, and started work. Despite it all happening so quickly, I have a feeling that I haven't had in years - that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. 

Buckhannon is like no other place I have ever lived.

  • I can walk to two different coffee shops, a library, a micro-theater, a couple of bakeries, and an antique store.
     
  • Nearly every single person I have interacted with has called me hon, and it doesn't even feel patronizing.
     
  • When I scheduled a four hour block appointment with the cable company, they not only actually showed up during that four hour block, they showed up at the beginning of the block.
     
  • Our landlords found out we stayed in a hotel our first night here because we didn't have air conditioning yet...and they were so upset we didn't call them to stay with them instead.

So far, everything is charming and everyone is kind. While there may not be a lot of digital marketing opportunities, (Exhibit A: when we were looking for a place to live, the large majority of the apartment complexes didn't have websites...) and we're less than a week into this new adventure, I feel remarkably comfortable here. I feel safe. I feel at ease.

And perhaps most importantly? I feel like I can do some really good writing here. 

 

New Look

Well, this new site has been a long time coming. Sometime last year, I deleted all of the content on my old website/blog in a fit of shame over realizing that I wasn't practicing what I preach. I spend most of the hours in my days helping other companies utilize effective content marketing techniques and build their brands, but wasn't following my own advice. My blog was a disjointed space that didn't really represent me as a professional, as a writer, or as a person in general. However, rather than deleting in a fit of shame and then recreating a site that better suited me...I let a solid eight months go by before doing anything. 

But here I am: back and with an online space that feels much more me as I currently am in my writing life. I'm still struggling to figure out my writing routine and still fighting to get my creative work published, but I'm also making a living doing what I love. I still have a novel draft that seems constantly in need of revisions and a bunch of short stories that keep racking up rejection letters, but I'm supporting myself with my words and my words alone - which is pretty awesome. 

As for this blog-space? Well, I'm not quite sure what it will end up being. I'm interested in writing about my changing relationship with writing now that it isn't just a creative outlet. I'd like to be more candid and open as to how I make my living as a working writer, because I know firsthand (and am still learning) just how difficult the freelance life can be. And, as always, I'm looking for that camaraderie that comes from belonging to a writing community, so don't hesitate to reach out if you're a writer who is looking for the same. 

Regardless of why you found me, I'm glad you're here.