A Conversation with “Creative Attention” Retreat Facilitator, Tara K. Shepersky

1. Tell us about your writing! What genre do you write and what subjects do you tend to write about?

I’ve written probably ten books of either poetry or poetry and prose together—exactly two of which both desired and deserved a publisher. (So what I’m saying is 80% of my writing is in the ‘compost’ genre.) Those are Tell the Turning and Serpentine: both poetry collections, published by fantastic art-book maker Bored Wolves Press. 

I’ve also written 3.5 novels, only one of which is good, and I’m still sitting on whether I want to try to publish it. 

My poetry tends to focus on the natural and interior worlds, and my fiction focuses on character and relationship. The commonality I see between them is the importance of place, home, landscape. 

2. Do you have a writing routine or rituals?

Yes! But they change pretty often. Does that still count as a ritual or a routine? 

Right now, for example, it’s earliest summer here in the coastal Pacific Northwest—a lush and greening time of rhododendrons and rainbows, cow parsnips and buttercups, and sudden hailstorms sweeping in off the sea. I tell you this to point up that place and season shape my writing (and its routines) more than probably anything else—including anything we might call my ‘will’ or my ‘habits’—and those things change pretty often! I used to imagine pointing back down the years to a successful, structured routine that would give some sense of continuity. Instead, I’m learning to embrace the seasons.

My present poem-writing routine, for example, is to sit full in the early sun and sea breeze for 10 or so minutes with my eyes mostly closed. After that I might read a poem, or write a poem, or I might work on a unit in the poetry class I’m taking. Then I’ll pull out and meditate on yesterday’s poems, reading them out loud and revising, until my timer goes off and I need to go get paid.

There is no routine regarding novel-writing. I will write anywhere, all the time, forsaking all others forever. For many reasons, but also for this one, I’m eternally grateful for family, work, and the need to eat and exercise—all very effective interruptions.

3. What inspires you?

It’s a long list. Right now: Flowers. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel-writing craft. (I mean: damn. It’s so good it looks effortless, but you know it’s not.) Two friends who make gyotaku prints of flora and fauna and funga here on the coast. Anyone who makes anything with their hands: art, ink, chairs, boats, etc. I’m so curious about both the technical detail and the emotional presence.

4. Why do you write?

Love. Most of my poems aren’t ‘love poems,’ but every poem is a love poem, every story a love story. It’s how I pay attention to the world, which is how I love it.

Also: compulsion. The need to create is so much a part of me, I don’t know what I’d do without it. (Literally. What would I do with my time?) I’ve been writing since I was 8, but absolutely none of it was any good—by which I mean it had nothing to say—until my mid-30s. Practice + experience = writer. 

5. What do you want people to know about this retreat? What makes it unique? (Why should people sign up?)

You know how writing gets to feeling like you need to produce something? Even (especially?) retreats. This is how it goes for me, at least: if I’m not making something, I’m worried about not making something. We’re going to do the opposite of that. 

I can’t guarantee you won’t worry (I can’t guarantee I won’t), but I guarantee a focus on communal play and presence with words as an end in itself. 

I do this stuff alone, and you can too. But in a group, its power becomes more apparent. What’s the power? Ease. Slowness. Beauty and discovery for their own sake. (Regular attendence to all of that will make you a better writer, it’s true. But that’s a side-benefit, not the main point. If you pursue it as the main point—you’ll miss the point.)

I will definitely suggest a project for the weekend. If you are a project person (I am such a project person), use that to anchor you if it helps, but also just use it as something to play with. It doesn’t have to be finished; it doesn’t have to be “good.” It can just be fun. Go easy. 

I realize this is harder than it sounds. So we’ll invite it together.

6. How does “invitational play” show up in your own life?

I read a bit of an interview with the late Louise Glück the other day where she said something like (I’m paraphrasing), When I’m not writing, I’m mostly not happy. I felt that in my bones and my soft tissues. I’m still feeling it. 

I realized when I read it that a similar knowing has shaped a huge part of my life, inviting me to find ways to create (to be happy, in other words) that are not this thing I’m good at, which I want people to think I am good at, which I can also (potentially) publish. 

This is where invitational play and listening practices come in: I’m learning to get around this need to always be writing by making things that come with less production-type pressure. Things I can’t publish, or monetize, or otherwise use. Ideally this is things I’m either not good at (like drawing), or things that by their nature I cannot ‘keep’, like a flower arrangement, or a really rich conversation. I seek out people and practices that re-introduce me—over and over; you have to keep reminding yourself—to this basic, restorative pleasure of creative life.

7. What do you love about RWC? Do you have any special memories here?

So many! First thing to mind: the unique ways cats find to delightfully disturb the creative process. Finn (RIP) loved to follow me on walks down the drive, playing with the folds of the long dresses I tended to wear at the time. Oliver would plant himself on my lap when I sat on the porch—but only after he’d had a good, deliberate roll and stretch in the dirt. Those dresses have happy feline memories in their folds.

I also love the community/solitude balance. I’m great at solitude, but I’ve needed some help over the years (I still do!) discovering and engaging in nourishing community practices. When I was at RWC, there were two other writers in residence. We hardly saw or heard each other during the day. We’d nod or wave if we passed, but we kept quietly to ourselves, interiorly absorbed. Then at 5pm (by mutual, but informal, agreement), we’d wander to the kitchen and spend an hour or two making and eating and conversing. I needed both the silent solitude and that interest in and from my fellow writers. The balance was special. 

8. What are you reading right now?

I just finished Demon Copperhead, which (no kidding) I stayed up all night to finish, and I would gladly have started over again at 6am. Holy moly. Novels are just rarely that good. I’m currently re-reading Wildwood (Roger Deakin), and making my way slowly through The Design of Everyday Things (Don Norman.) Morning poems are tending to come from American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide.

9. And just for fun…What is one thing on your bucket list?

Find my house by the sea. I can’t know anything, really, but I choose to believe it’s out there, and that I can find it and settle in, and practice loving the world from there, and stay. At least as long as we can ever stay.