Travel, Writing, Life

Karen Shoemaker

Friday, September 18, 2020

This week Facebook offered up a flurry of five-year-old memories of a trip to New York City, sparked by a photo of me standing in front of the KGB Bar sign that was taken just before I was to give a reading there. The photographer was my good friend Teri Youmans, a poet from Jacksonville Florida, who a year later would travel with me to London where we both would read at a place called the Horse Hospital, an event venue that was, in the distant past – not surprisingly – an actual horse hospital in that historic city.

This week my planner also offered me two full weeks of smudged pages, sad evidence of a multitude of erasures. If not for the Covid pandemic, I would be in Greece right now, this time in the company of another writing friend, Dorothy Ramsey, with whom I’ve joined dreams to create writing retreats in exotic locations. Our first planned endeavor was/is a writers’ retreat in “the birthplace of literature,” but travel bans put a temporary kibosh on that.  

What I mean to say here is, I miss traveling. I miss every memory-making moment, every mundane detail, every rushed, almost-missed connection, every blurred photo op, every blistered heel, every life-changing epiphany born of confusion and fatigue. I miss it all.

What about you? What do you miss from the Before Time? The days before the pandemic?

I know I’ve been incredibly lucky, all my life in general but here I’m referring specifically to the time during the pandemic. My family and I have remained safe and healthy, and I’ve actually had more time to focus on writing. My writing life, though I publish mostly “Nebraska stories,” has been deeply connected to my traveling life. Better writers than I – Cather and Kristeva, for example – have addressed the need for a kind of exile from the motherland in order to grow, to truly see the meaning of home. For me, to experience voluntary exile, the kind of disruption of routine that is the very nature of traveling, is to experience exhilaration and growth beneficial, and even necessary, to my writing.

In some ways, the months of this pandemic has felt like a kind of exile. Even though I am living almost entirely within the confines of my house, yard and neighborhood, breaking out now and then to pick up groceries or other essentials, I still feel as if I’m in a foreign country, sometimes. Where is this familiar place now that the context all around us has changed? Who even is this person living my life now?  

Life keeps moving, despite and because of all the changes, and here at Larksong we’re moving into a new phase, expanding and growing our community. This week we launched a series on-line classes at Larksong with a new group of leaders and writers. The ever-inspiring Lucy Adkins began a 4-week Memoir Writing class, Grace Bauer led a fabulous two-day poetry workshop, and I began a 5-week MFA-style writers’ workshop with a small group of dedicated writers.

It was an exhilarating launch of events for our young organization. I loved a million things about it – not the least of which was being able to write over the erasure smudges in my planner, recording details of the life we’re living now, COVID be damned.

P.S... A note about our trip to Greece - I hasten to say those dreams are delayed, not ended. We have re-scheduled it for next September! Check out the details on our website under Workshops. Join us!

Larksong Origin Stories #2

Karen Shoemaker

Monday, September 14, 2020

According to leadership training lore, there are about ten stories every leader should be able to tell at a moment’s notice about the business they’re in. Probably the most important one is the Origin Story. People want to know where you came from before they can decide if they want to follow you. Well, when it comes to Larksong Writers Place, I’ve got plenty of tales about the origin of this dream.

The first one is a personal one that begins with the kind of person I am and how I came to be this way. It will help explain why an introvert like me, who prefers her own company over almost any other gathering of humans, wants to build a community and create a space to gather. I blame it on family order.

I’m the sixth of seven children. We lived in a smallish house with a big yard at the edge of a small town. The house had four bedrooms, all just a smidge larger than the double beds they held. We had a dining room large enough for the whole family to sit down at once, though we pretty much had to sit down and stand up at the same time because of the tight fit. We had a living room with a TV that got three channels on a clear day, and a couch that more or less held five of us when we weren’t fighting. The rest got the floor. And we had one bathroom. Nine people. One bathroom. In that same era my grandparents’ house didn’t have indoor plumbing at all, so we saw ourselves as lucky.

What I mean to say is, I grew up in a crowd. I did everything in a crowd. I used to joke that until I turned 14 I didn’t know I could even use the toilet without someone else in the room. Despite all that togetherness, I grew up to be an introvert, I need a lot of down time between interactions with others. When I was young, I got that solitude by wandering around that big yard we had. I had secret rooms in the lilac hedges and in the branches of the big elm tree on the far side of the garden. I could disappear for hours and then come back ready for the fray, whatever the fray had in store for me.

The grown up version of that little girl seeking solitude is a writer who began creating
“pocket retreats” – time away from my regular life at cabins in state parks or housesitting for a friend. Tucked into those pockets of time I was able to find me – the writer. Not me the mother/daughter/sister/wife/volunteer/teacher/whathaveyou, but me, the person who could learn to become a channel for creativity. Who could open herself to the universe and let the Muse or whatever you want to call it flow through me and become something else. In those pocket retreats I found what felt to me to be my life’s purpose. I became a writer.

Even as I devoured and relished those pockets of time and space, I was still me – the sixth of seven children. I was and always would be a member of a pack, one of the puppies in a scrawling litter. By nature, I might have been a lone wolf, but by nurture I was definitely just one of many. I loved my time alone, but when I came home from those retreats I would always wonder how I could share it. How do I create something that contains the luxury of solitude that writers need with the creative energy that comes from being a member of a pack?

About five years ago I found an answer to that question. I started “Write on the River” workshops. These weekend retreats brought small groups of writers together for a weekend of writing, conversation, and private time. Our tag line was “Join us for a weekend of peace, permission, and productivity.”  I didn’t know if it would work, but it did! The main reason it worked was that I had the good sense to invite brilliant and talented friends to join me in leading the workshop. Amy Hassinger and Teri Youmans helped make the first River weekends great events and so one workshop became two, and so on. When our “Write on” workshops went to the Prairie this year I invited Twyla Hansen to co-teach with me and it was absolutely grand.

Along the lines of “if you give a mouse a cookie” sort of thinking, Write on the River continues to grow. If you have one lovely weekend of writing on the river each year, why not have two? And if you have two, why not have more? Why not have workshops in different locations? Why not write on the prairie? On a lake? Or – dream big! – why not write internationally? Let’s go to Greece! (We are! Next September we’re having our first international Write on Retreat. Details on the website)

What about a permanent location? Why shouldn’t there be a place for people to gather people who want to write and meet other writers and learn and share and create in a space dedicated to just that purpose? Co-working spaces are all the rage, after all.

And so the dream of building a writers place began to take shape outside of the pictures in my head. In its first incarnation, when I put the dream to a power point that I could take to the banker, I called it Brigadoon, because it felt to me like the magical place made famous in that old Gene Kelly movie that rises up out of the mists and becomes real when you enter it.

The good news is, the banker agreed it was a great idea by any name, and so I was released to search for a home for my dream. The bad news is this search began in earnest shortly before COVID-19 struck and put the kibosh on gathering under one roof.

Thank heavens for technology – we (I became “we” when my sister Linda Kallhoff retired after 40 years in the social services industry and became my partner in dreaming Larksong into being. Without her this would all still be a dream manifested only in fits and starts. While waiting for the world to right itself we’ve gone to Zoom. We hold virtual writing workshops and retreats. We’ve brought more writers in to join us in leading workshops – writers I am so excited to work with and who I know will be a gift and great addition to the Larksong team. (I’ll tell you about the name in a later blog, but in the meantime note that it is a beautiful name, one that celebrates where we are – in the heart of the country.)

This September Lucy Adkins will lead a memoir writing workshop and Grace Bauer will lead a poetry workshop. We will continue to build this writing community wherever and whenever we can – COVID be d---ed!

You can join us for those workshops if you hurry!


Larksong is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. We are committed to supporting both the writers who come to us for instruction and the writers who come to us to teach. We keep our class fees low, offer free programming, and pay our instructors. Please consider supporting our mission by making a tax-deductible donation.