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Where do you find creative inspiration? (Or a pile of dirt and a cow in the road)

Creative people are like magicians, conjuring things out of thin air. Where once there was nothing, there is something — a new story, tune, poem, painting, or invention.

My creative life is pretty lively right now. It hasn’t always been this way, but for now, creative block is out of the question. Every object, view, conversation, experience, no matter how small, is grist for the mill.

And with so much scenic grandeur for inspiration at Fish Trap’s Imnaha Writers Retreat, if I were to have creative block, it would be because I was overwhelmed with material.

As I took a walk, I thought about the intimidating cow blocking my way the other day. What could I make of a cow in the road? This led to me thinking about how I handle obstacles in my life and is now a blog post under construction.

The process of thinking of the cow, making it a symbol of a larger personal issue such as “obstacles”, sorting out the meaning of obstacles in my own life, writing about it, getting feedback from others – all this sets into motion a personal transformation.

I will never see obstacles again in quite the same way.

This is the power of writing and art to make meaning and be the catalyst for transformation in both the creator and the viewer.

I used to believe that some difficult people in my life will never change. I don’t believe that now. Even the ones who give me the most grief may change simply by being alive in the world.

This is a transformative moment of understanding for me. It opens my heart and my world.

It softens my  judgment of self and others.

I believe that ultimately it will change those difficult relationships.


A dangerous looking cow blocking my way has a little bit of drama, especially for a city girl, but what about something less inspiring.

I glanced around for the least inspiring thing I could find and saw a pile of dirt.

What about a pile of dirt?

Piles of dirt are everywhere – a dime a dozen. What could a creative person do with this I wondered?

Impulsively, I asked poet Lynn Robertson, who is with me at the writer’s retreat, if she could write a poem about a pile of dirt. She answered brightly and without hesitation, “Of course!”, and that day she proceeded to do just that — not once, but twice!

So here you have it – two first drafts of poems about a pile of dirt.


By Lynn Robertson

She unraveled

becoming a mound of dirt

in a thunderstorm

beginning with a small titter

of plain brown pebbles

escaping the confines of tolerance

hiccupping down the slope.


When the first rain fell

in single, weighty, tear shaped patterings

the surface craters caused by their bounce

across her silken complexion

were smoothed by watery runoff.

But a driving wind arrived close behind

blew the seeds of youth

from her mounds of hair.

The hard rains came after

there were no roots to hold her together.


The flesh beneath her eyes

drooped in crescent shaped slings

to hold back the flood

The rise of her cheeks

slid into joweled pockets

and later

when she could absorb no more

she slumped

spreading low and smooth

across the landscape.


It took her three days

to realize she hadn’t washed away.

In the way that erosion changes mountains

she had experienced a redistribution

of her wealth.



By Lynn Robertson

Pile of dirt from the tractor

Put it here, push it there

Dirt from the backhoe

Leave it here, spread it where?


Dirt from the excavation

Dirt for the elevation


Dirt for the dirt poor farmer from Nebraska

Dirt in a pile by a highway in Alaska

Dirt for the man tilling up a veggie patch

Dirt for the bugs and the babies that they hatch


Dirt for the grader

Smooth it here, fill it there

Dirt for the roller

Pack it here, wet it there


Dirt from the excavation

Dirt for the elevation


Dirt for the fill in a solid earthen dam

Dirt by the tulips in the fields of Amsterdam

Dirt for the holes in the road or on the street

Dirt in a mud pie, mix it up, make it sweet


Dirt from the excavation

Dirt for the elevation


Dirt for the rocks holding up a mountain tall

Dirt for a cushion when a boulder starts to fall

Dirt for the students when they study every layer

Dirt leveled smooth for the pins of a surveyor


Dirt from the excavation

Dirt for the elevation


You can move it, You can use it

You can mash it, You can smash it

You can smell it, You can sell it

You can wet it, You can get it

For your garden for your yard

You can bake it til it’s hard


Move it here, push it there

You will take it everywhere

In a box, in your socks

On your face, any place

You can follow where it goes

But no one really knows

Where at last it slows

To rest



A short history of the mother of all walkabouts

Eight Years Old

Me at 8 with my violin

When I was 8 years-old I was pretty good at “reading with expression.”

I can hear the teacher now, “Listen children.  Betsy dear . . .  read that passage again. Wonderful! Children see how she reads with expression (always said with emphasis)?”

Third grade was a very good year for me. I read with expression. I could hold my own on the playground. Math had not yet cowed me.  I had a crush on David Lucas, a fellow budding violinist who was seated next to me in Orchestra. That year also, I was Mrs. Golden’s teacher’s pet. When we had a special visitor come to our classroom (Mrs. Golden’s mother) , I was selected to give an oral report on the solar system. At school assemblies and scouting events my elocution skills were in high demand.

I was an unself-conscious ham; still young enough to vie for the attention of adults rather than that of my classmates, who were probably rolling their eyes, jiggling in their seats, and anxiously awaiting the sound of the lunch bell.

And given my of lack of actual life experience — I have no idea what emotional depths I plumbed for my performances. I am guessing the adults were simply relieved to have a break from the halting monotone of beginning readers.

Fast Forward to October 2012

I am now at the Imnaha Writer’s retreat for three weeks. The retreat is situated on a remote and wild piece of property along the Imnaha River in the uppermost corner of northeastern Oregon.

With me for the first week are Kathy Hunter and Mishele Maron – two accomplished writers who have been perfecting their craft for years. Kathy lives close by in Wallowa, Oregon and is a beloved storyteller.  She delighted us nightly with her performances.  Check out Kathy Tales. Mishele is a former professional chef (on yachts no less) and a Masters level memoir writer. Her writing is as lip smacking succulent as the food she prepares for us. (She told me to use whatever words I wanted to describe her!)

Kathy and Mishele at the Imnaha Tavern

And it is at dinner our first night that it dawns on me that I am more than a little out of my league.

October 9th

“Reading” at the Retreat – 2nd week.

The retreat is silent from 9 am – 5 pm. The conversation ban is lifted at dinner. After dinner the writers traditionally gather in the living room to “read” – which means they share portions of what they are working on.

Although I had been writing up a storm all day, my heart sinks when I realize I am expected to “read “also.

I’m perfectly fine sharing one-on-one or in small groups. I can lead a workshop or bare my soul here on this blog, but for some reason, hearing my writing being broadcast out of my own mouth is very disturbing. In fact, this is more uncharted territory for me – almost as frightening as my driving misadventure in the mountains above Hell’s Canyon.

When it is my turn, I steel myself like I always do, and launch into what I hope will be an inspired reading of my recent blog post.

What actually happens is that some other person rises up inside of me and takes over my body. My heart pounds. My voice quavers and I begin to sweat. My breathing becomes irregular. At some points I choke up and have to stop.

What is happening to me? Where is that extroverted 8 year-old who loves the sound of her own voice?

For that matter, where is the grown woman now 57 years old – turned confident and competent from a lifetime at the school of hard knocks?

When I finally stumble to the finish, I lift my eyes slowly from my paper and see two sad, kind faces staring at me.  I began to apologize profusely. “I had no idea what just happened there,” I say.  One of them gently suggests that I try reading more often to build my self-confidence.

In the past I would have been mortified, hopped into my car and been out of there, but this time I stayed put.  I was determined to slay this dragon and tried to read again the next night. It went only slightly better.

I started to become very curious about this “other person“who was taking me hostage during readings.

I tried to remember if there was a time in my life when I was shut down or humiliated while reading aloud, but couldn’t remember anything specific.

I stepped outside to take a walk and it hit me.

The person inhabiting my body is the twelve-year old girl I was — the one who had just lost her mother — and had concluded that something that horrific can only happen to a sub-human crazy person (herself.). It was the child who shouldered the blame and shame rather than face a terrifying world where adults were powerless and God so evil. The 8 year-old exhibitionist had turned into a twelve year-old who was terrified of being seen.

I walked and sobbed. I tried to cajole and reason with the haunted girl, but she was having nothing of it.

I realized I had reached my proverbial edge. I was facing into the hell of the little girl who wanted to remain in hiding. There would be no more reading for me on this retreat.


This morning I awoke from a vivid dream. In my dream one of the most repressed lawyers I used to work with –I once doodeled a picture of him as a patty pan squash — sat behind his desk dressed in pink. His wife had just left him and someone tells me he is dating a very old and wise crone. The dream ends when I go to him, wrap my arms around him in a hug and he begins sobbing uncontrollably.

Today I started a large walkabout woman portrait of my mother. I am giving her a rooster hat. She once told me how she was frightened as a little girl when a rooster chased her around the yard. In the portrait, the rooster’s neck is broken, but it is crowing with words flowing out of its beak — filling the page behind her.

Last year I did a series of collage self-portraits of heads without mouths.

“Masked and Muted”, Mixed Media Collage on Paper, 11″ X 14″

All the pieces are coming together.


So now I find myself alone overnight at the retreat. It is a changing of the guard. Kathy and Mishele left this morning and the next group of writers doesn’t arrive until tomorrow afternoon. I pick up a book and read about another walkabout journey – that of the Oregon Trail pioneers. “So many hellish journeys” I think, “The pioneers, my frightening drive up Hell’s Canyon and now journeying back into my hell as a child.”

I only just packed up and left my Ashland Oregon duplex for this walkabout a few weeks ago.  How is it that I find myself alone on a multimillion property, in the middle of nowhere, along a beautiful river, with the run of a lodge that has more than the comforts of home . . . and doing the mother of all walkabouts?

How quickly I have dropped into it.


After a week of sun it has rained. The landscape is saturated with color and the smells are marvelously pungent. The leaves of the trees along the river bank changed overnight from green to yellow, orange and red; and I am sitting here writing my story for you – a very small being at the bottom of a deep river valley, towered over and surrounded by massive mountains on every side.

I am struck by how gracefully danger and beauty live side by side.

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