Guest Post: Creating a Handmade Life by Shavawn M. Berry

When I finished my Master’s degree eighteen years ago, I had this Virginia Woolf-ish daydream of living in a cottage overlooking the sea – windows open to the salty air – companionship and solitude in perfect measure. I dreamed of writing books, I dreamed of teaching writing. I dreamed of “a room of my own” where my creativity would bloom and flourish.

At the time, I lived in a one-bedroom apartment off of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. It overlooked a carport. My downstairs neighbors screamed obscenities at one another at all hours of the day and night, usually followed by loud makeup sex, as Cher’s hit, Do You Believe in Life After Love?, rumbled up through the floor.

Yep.

Back then, I lived in hell.

I wondered how I might craft a handmade life, something I’d heard Clarissa Pinkola Estes talk of in The Red Shoes, which I happened to hear on the radio one night when I couldn’t sleep.

I had no idea what to do.

I wanted it to be easy.

I wanted to transform myself into a writer and teacher, but I had no idea how.

***

Eventually, in a bitter state of unhappiness, I left my soul-sucking 60+ hours per week job.

Ruh-ro.

Although I really had no idea how to proceed or craft a “room of my own,” I tried my hand at freelance writing and editing.

No luck.

After a long dry patch, I ended up back in hell, temping at a health insurance company doing data entry on computers so old they used the DOS operating system.

That ended when the company filed Chapter 11.

I found myself subsisting on unemployment.

Of the 200 job applications I sent out, I got zero interviews.

It was almost as though the universe wouldn’t allow me to take another job outside of teaching or writing. The path back to the relative “safety” of traditional work closed down.

***

Then, out of the wild blue, a grad school classmate called and invited me to lunch.

As we sat down with our salads in the commissary at Paramount Studios where she worked in the publications department, she reported that she would be, “teaching eighth grade English and community college writing courses,” starting that fall.

What?

How did she land a teaching gig?

She had zero teaching experience.

“I applied,” she said blithely.

She’d paid off her truck and her student loans by writing Seventh Heaven novels under a pseudonym while working at Paramount.

“I can write one of those in a weekend,” she said, smiling.

Suddenly, I knew what to do.

***

Within three months, I landed a job at a community college in my hometown in Washington State.

I packed up my stuff and sent it home. I left LA and I didn’t look back.

That fall, I entered “the ultimate teaching boot camp.” I learned to teach as I did it. I was given the worst possible schedule (7:30 a.m. classes, three days a week) with students who were a mishmash of 16-year-old “running start” high school students taking early college courses, single mothers, men retraining after job loss, and the usual 18-year-olds, uncertain what they wanted to do or why they were in school.

I will never forget my terror.

I walked in that first day, and said, “Hi. I’m Ms. Berry. I’ll be your teacher.”

The sky didn’t fall. The students didn’t snicker or assume I was a fraud.

I stood, stomach quaking, and slowly wrote my full name on the board before turning to face them.

“This is first-year composition. Let’s get started.”

***

Fast-forward fifteen years. I taught at the community college for two years. Then, I moved again to land full-time work.

I’ve been teaching at Arizona State University ever since.

However, the writing side of things eluded me.

I wrote constantly. But, I didn’t submit my work.

I was a secret writer.

Then, in 2011, I took a course from ASU Regents’ Professor, Alberto Rios, the Poet Laureate of Arizona. He invited me to come to his office to discuss my work. Once there, I blubbered in frustration over my lack of progress regarding my various unfinished writing projects. He let me blather on for a bit and then compassionately stopped me, mid-sentence, saying, “To be a writer, one must not only write, but publish.”

“Teaching drains me. I have nothing left afterward,” I complained.

“Teaching will take up exactly as much of your life as you let it. If you want to be a writer, you must carve out time to write.”

To become a writer meant I could no longer hoard my work. I had to send it out.

Vision BoardSo, I started a blog, The Wonderland Files. I did it to give myself discipline. I gave myself two hours each Saturday. During that time, I wrote a complete blog post, edited it, and published it.

It was very freeing to finally just write. I wrote for myself. I wrote about whatever crossed my mind. I found the process cathartic. I discovered what I knew about writing, teaching, life, and spirituality.

And over time, I got over worrying about what others might think of what I wrote.

Then, one day in May of 2013, I wrote something I knew I had to get published. Now. No waiting.

Although it scared me to death, I sent the piece to Rebelle Society, a new online magazine I’d been admiring.

Only a few days later, I got a glowing acceptance letter.

The piece I’d dashed off in ten minutes was published 10 days later. It has since been included in their print anthology, The Best of Rebelle Society, Volume 1 and read online by thousands of readers.

Once I published that piece, my confidence grew and I began to regularly submit and publish my work.

***

So, how does one fashion a handmade creative life?

One tender step at a time.

That may not be the news many aspiring writers want to hear, but writing is a race that’s won by the tortoise, not the hare. You must love writing and love playing with language. You also must develop a thicker skin than you might need elsewhere.

Writing isn’t for sissies. There is a lot of rejection.

You may not be the editor’s cup of tea. You may be told that your “ideas are good, but you haven’t written a book.” You may be warned that you should only write about what you know. You may be told to stick to one genre.

No one knows what’s right for you but you.

You must believe in your work, even when nobody else does.

***

Finally, the last piece of my post grad school vision came into view.

A year ago, I got the chance to switch to a fully online teaching schedule. A new path opened almost overnight.

I packed up my house in Phoenix and headed to Northern New Mexico. I bought a house on an acre of tree-filled land on the South side of Santa Fe that has an office that opens up on the biggest sky you’ve ever seen.

NM Storm CloudsSometimes, it’s cloudless, but most of the time the light and clouds dance outside my window, reminding me of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings I’ve loved since childhood. The breeze smells of mesquite and juniper. A huge patch of sunflowers sprouts outside my kitchen window, along with tomatoes, celery, basil, garlic, mint, wildflowers, and fruit trees.

I teach online nine months of the year and I write every single day.

Each morning, working from stacks containing multiple projects, I choose poems and essays I want to revise or submit. I journal and daydream. I walk the neighborhood, watching ravens ride the currents of wind whipping through the Sandias and the Jemez mountains. I walk and write lines of poetry in my head.

Sunrise in Santa FeIn 1996, before I left for graduate school, I visited Santa Fe to attend a Creativity and Madness Conference. While here, I fell in love with the ancient adobes in the center of town and the way the light passed overhead.

I thought I’d love to live here. However, it felt impossible, far away.

It took nineteen years for me to find a way to return.

***

This is what a handmade life looks like.

I admit, I took the scenic route, but every backroad and blemish and blessing and broken promise led me here.

And here is good.

Here is exactly where I am meant to be.

 

Shavawn BerryShavawn M. Berry’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Trickster Literary Magazine, HuffPo 50, Be You Media Group, elephant journal, Journey of the Heart: Women’s Spiritual Poetry, Olentangy Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Vagina – The Zine, Rebelle Society, The Cancer Poetry Project 2, Kinema Poetics, Kalliope, Poet Lore, Westview – A Journal of Western Oklahoma, Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Concho River Review, North Atlantic Review, Synapse, Living Buddhism, Blue Mountain Arts/SPS, and Poetry Seattle. In 1998, she received her MPW in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where she specialized in Creative Nonfiction and Memoir. Ms. Berry teaches writing at Arizona State University. You can follow her on Facebook or Twitter. You can read more of her writing on The Wonderland Files, or via her website.

You can find Shavawn’s poetry in Black Fox Issue 8.

1 comment to Guest Post: Creating a Handmade Life by Shavawn M. Berry

  • Linda H Aldridge

    I loved reading this. What brought me here was Googling images of storm clouds. I’m doing research for the cover I’m painting for my first self-published novel. And once I was here, your essay really spoke to me. Thank you for sharing your journey (so far). I feel the same (strongly) about the strange path my life has taken before the novel came to be and wrote about it in my preface. Best wishes!

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