When Melinda asked me if I would be interested in writing a blog post about writing, I thought, “Well, I am an author, I self-publish my books… Oh! Sure. I’d be glad to contribute.” But then it occurred to me, “Oh, she wants writers: people who ‘write.’ But, I don’t really ‘write.”’
You see, my background is in art. I have a Master’s degree in sculpture, and furthermore, my experience lies along the lines of conceptual art. After all, I went to the University of Illinois at Chicago during the ‘80’s. That’s what we did there and then. I have ideas.I make things. Making art and teaching is what I am “qualified” for. But, regardless, the truth is, over the past 10 years I have found myself doing quite a lot of writing.
What got me into this position, where I needed to express myself this way, is that I had an idea for a series of history notebooks: the History Portfolio books. These are books which the children build by adding written work and images according to the provided outline, and in the end function as a record of their history studies and a keepsake. Part of this original vision included publishing books for Orthodox Christian children as well, and so several years ago, I published a book called Journaling Throughout the Liturgical Year, which is a notebook as well. You see the theme? Making things. The initial idea and the production of the Portfolios didn’t require much writing, just the original vision, tons of research, and artistic decisions. Concepts, researching, making. These were areas I was familiar and comfortable with. But what happened next was that I needed to explain how to use the books, write introductions, web content, etc. And, further down the line, I wrote Teacher’s Guides for each of the books. So, it’s snowballed.
But, “how did I get here” is not what I want to write about today. I want to write about “here I am,” and how to make the best of it. One of the first things that came to mind when gathering my thoughts about this blog post was sharing a couple of revelations I’ve had about “here I am.” About 11 years ago, I became very involved with a consuming project with our church. With the blessing of our Bishop, our group had just purchased a temple which needed to be remodeled. At this time, I had just my two oldest children. Nearly every day from May – September, for some part of the day, we went to work on the church. I remember, one day, sitting in the church in the mess of lumber and dust and half-painted projects, and the letters of St. Theophan the Recluse came to mind. In this book, The Spiritual Life: And How to Be Attuned to It, St. Theophan replies to a young woman’s recent letter.
“What has happened to you? What kinds of questions are these? ‘I do not know what to do with my life. Should I be doing something in particular? Should I define some particular purpose for myself?’ I read this and I was dumbfounded; where could such odd thoughts have come from?” (87)
The chapter continues, and he makes it clear that she is not to waste time on these questions, but to do the work which God has put before her! This resonated with me because at this time I was personally a little conflicted because I had left other projects at home. But I looked around and thought, I did not look for this, I did not choose it, but it was put before me. And, I was so thankful for the work which had been put before me, and thankful that I didn’t have to choose between projects or be the navigator.
Earlier this year, I had another experience which reminds me of the experience I just described. I was listening to the radio, while alone in the car. As a homeschool mom, let me tell you, this occurrence is rare! But, I heard the story of a man involved in some charitable organization, who was working in a faraway land bringing roads and, as I remember, communication capabilities. I thought, “Oh, I’d love to do something like that! It’s so meaningful!” For just a moment or two I contemplated this. But, I quickly turned my mind to something more constructive and thought, “Well, what would I do, if I could?” And, I thought, envisioning a faraway land, “I would like to teach… to work with children… to somehow touch their lives with books, good books…” and as I narrowed it down, I realized… “That’s what I do! I’m doing it! I am living my dream!” It was a very delightful surprise. And, again, I was so thankful for the work which has been put before me.
Sometimes, I clearly have jobs before me, and the work is rich and full of challenges. But, there are plenty of times that I flounder in my work. I recently heard a Russian proverb, “Pray to God, but keep rowing to shore.” In the lull between projects, or in the middle of a project which seems to be feebly coming along, I feel the need to gather some kindling to get the fire going. Back in my art school days, we had a guest visit by a curator of a gallery, and she gave some advice which I think is applicable here. She said, “Everyday, you need to be with your art, working and thinking to some degree. Some days will not be as productive or creative, and on those days you need to at least be in your studio cleaning your brushes or preparing your work space.” With my writing, I may not have the same tools of the trade as a painter or sculptor, but I do find that the more I stay away from my craft, the more distant I feel from it, a chasm opens up, and the less inclined I am to plunge in as soon as an idea strikes me.
To keep moving along, or stoke the fire, it has proven to be a good thing for me to take up small projects which are just above my comfort level. This forces me to keep learning new things. Many of these projects are teaching opportunities, giving me the reason, and deadline, to create new activities along the lines of the Portfolio and the Liturgical Year Journal. Speaking or presenting workshops has been an area which has given me the opportunity to collect my thoughts, and write. Definitely outside my comfort zone, but good for me. Deadlines and accountability can be good. I just take each opportunity as a challenge to develop.
To really keep a good fire burning, I have found that, for me, a good length of time for a big project is about 5 or 6 months. I love to really live in a project for a while, immersing myself as much as I can, and then gaining that sense of completeness when it is done. Once I get some distance on a finished project, I find that if I can look back at my year and know I’ve finished something, it seems to provide a semblance of order, and satisfaction. Of course, completing a project… raising the curtain on the show, presenting myself and my work as if saying “this is the best I can do,” has its own problems. It can be hair-raising at worst, and humbling at best. I have repeatedly watched myself delay the end of a project, not wanting that creative fire to end. Apparently, my thinking was, “It was safe working on this project. I have a job to do, I have a clear direction, I know what I’m doing. And… when this project is over, what am I going to do?! Oh no, I’ll have to come up with something all over again, and it’s going to be messy!”
Mess or not, writing or building, it can’t be helped. It’s what I do. I make things.
Barbara Shukin is an Orthodox Christian mother of five children from ages 21 down to 4, and has homeschooled since the beginning. After receiving her MFA in sculpture from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she taught for several years at the college level, and was concurrently the director of a college art gallery. She continues to teach through local homeschool co-ops, and by offering art classes for homeschoolers. Barbara is the author and publisher of the History Portfolio Series, the Nature Portfolio, and Journaling Throughout the Liturgical Year, offering a notebooking approach to the study of history, nature study, and the Orthodox faith.