Writers Panel at NOFA-VT Winter Conference
On February 17th, Julia Shipley, John Churchman, and Kate Spring got together at the NOFA-VT winter conference with moderator Helen Labun to talk about combining writing with farming and homesteading.
The three panelists’ work covers broad narrative ground - from poetry to picture books to essays to journalism to calendar columns for the Old Farmers’ Almanac (Julia is their first female contributor since the Almanac began in 1797). And beyond that variety in genre, each also have experienced very different paths to publication.
John Churchman, with his wife Jennifer, produces the popular Sweet Pea picture books, depicting the lives of animals on their Moonrise Farm. John has been a visual artist for many years. The Sweet Pea style is notable because it uses photographs of real animals but blends them into visually rich, colorful collages that create a new imaginative world for the fictional farm. His children’s book publishing career began after readers responded to a series of Facebook posts about Sweet Pea, John’s sheep that had been hurt by the pony. These became a Kickstarter-funded self published book, which in turn became a contract for an entire book series with LIttle Brown publishers (you can read the story and see samples of his work on the Sweet Pea and Friends website).
Julia Shipley has published work in a variety of formats. Her mostly-prose book Adams Mark also had a non-conventional route to creation. She received a grant from the Vermont Arts Council to write about dairy farming. Her collection of vignettes won the Ralph Nading Hill Award (now the Vermont Writer’s Prize). A year later, she received a call from printer Andrew Miller Brown. Andrew had been studying bookmaking with Claire Van Vliet and wanted to try out turning her work into a hand pressed book with wood block illustrations from a local artist as part of his new Plowboy Press. He published 100 of the handmade books, in addition to some less labor-intensive paperback versions. A Boston Globe writer stopping at Hardwick’s Galaxy Bookstore bought a copy, wrote a review, and from there Adam’s Mark became a Best New England book of 2014.
Kate Spring finds plenty of regular outlets for her writing throughout the year. She publishes a newsletter for her Good Heart Farmstead CSA, has a blog the Good Heart Life, contributes to the High Mowing Seeds blog, is active in storytelling through social media, and writes articles for publications like the Burlington Free Press and Local Banquet. She previously wrote a column on the Millenial Farmer for the Burlington Free Press, after meeting editor Emilie Stigliani at a writers’ conference. Writing regularly about farming contributes to her farm’s overall mission to connect more people with the land.
All three writers spoke about having a clear audience in mind as they write. Kate notes that the Burlington Free Press experience really helped her begin to think about different audiences. The newspaper had one audience. For her blog, she has another very particular person in mind, someone she’s imagined in great detail because “. . . when you’re reaching one person, you’re opening up an experience that’s more authentic.” Even if her real life readers are all very different, it prevents the mindset of trying to write something that everyone will like, because that’s a sure way to make your writing dull.
Julia remembers spending her twenties farming in “very lonely places” - including but not limited to convents. She would bring books to the fields to read as a reward between tasks, and she wrote Academy of Hay as the book she wished she’d had in the field with her (although Galway Kinnell, the poetry she actually had in the field, worked too).
Finding time to practice writing and improve your craft is a natural concern for a writing-meets-farming panel. Writing every day, or close to it, even for a short time was important to all the panelists. Different people find different ways to be accountable for continuing that work. Kate goes to at least one writers’ conference every year. Julia joins writing groups in person and also online as a way to make a commitment to producing some creative work every day. John posts daily on social media, the original home of the Sweet Pea saga. He also endorses journaling as a way to develop good habits - he recently published the Finding Light seasonal journal with photos and quotes and space for writing.
Journals, John points out, can be single observations, quick thoughts, not necessarily detailed diary entries.
Julia suggests not worrying about a full essay or story at first, “ . . . just write paragraphs, they’re like beads on a string - you can put them together later.”
Kate finds useful ideas from the entrepreneur and business productivity worlds as well. Marketer Seth Godin may be the world leader in holding oneself to a schedule of daily creation, with a blog that he posts to every day for over a million readers. Kate also points to Marie Forleo and two ideas that she has found useful. The first is non-negotiable time in every day, which Kate puts towards a cup of tea, meditation, and writing. The second is the four minute rule - at night you take four minutes to write down what you’re going to do in the morning, which Kate uses to map out her writing plans for the next day so she can get up and get to work.
Kate, Julia, and John all also learn a lot through being instructors. John helps other writers develop books for self publication. Julia was previously the Director of Writing Studies at Sterling College, and now teaches various courses including a current one “Seeding Your Sequoias: Writing Tiny But Mighty Prose” through the Adirondack Writers Center. Kate is currently teaching an online writing class “Harvesting Words.” Undoubtedly more opportunities will arise (we’ll try to let you know).
Of course, the best way to develop your writing craft is to contribute to Local Banquet.
The panelists didn’t really say that.
But we’re pretty sure they thought it, and that they would say it if we hinted strongly enough. Check out our writers’ guidelines right here.