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by Ellen Santasiero | October 7, 2023

Photo: Ellen Santasiero

Forging an iron hook was supposed to be an easy task for those of us new to metalworking.

I was one of eight students at the Adirondack Folk School forge in upstate New York, where each of us had our own forge, anvil, and an array of smithing tools.

Our teacher Steve was a large man who wore wire-rimmed glasses, a gray-blond ponytail, and no gloves. When I entered his class, he asked if I had any experience in a forge. No. Metal working? No. How about welding? No. Hammering? Um.

Unfazed, Steve started and stoked a fire in the forge to which I was assigned. He raked through the blaze and pointed out chunks of coal, coke, and slag. Coke and coal burn differently, he said. Coal combusts dully, and smokes. Coke burns brighter, and its flames shoot straight. Slag is waste. It doesn’t burn; it just slows the fire down. Ah, I jotted in my notebook, slag is like extra words in a piece of writing. In the trash it went after Steve showed me how to remove it with a miniature hoe.

Steve then presented me with a long, skinny, four-sided steel bar, no bigger around than a pencil. This I was to work into a graceful hook that tapered into a curlicue at one end. He inserted the metal piece into the throat of the fire. When the metal bar glowed molten orange, he demonstrated the process of forging, and let me practice striking the heated metal at an angle with a snub-nosed hammer. Steve moved on to other students. I re-heated the metal, removed it, placed it on the anvil’s nose, and started banging out a curve like he'd showed me.

Ostensibly, I was there to make a hook, but really, I was there to discover how like, or unlike, forging metal was to forging sentences and paragraphs and stories. After all, we chose the image of a forge to represent what we do in the Forge creative writing program, so I wanted to discover how deep the analogy could go.

Circling back to my forge, the previously unflappable Steve saw me hesitate before hammering and he shouted, in German, no less: “Schmied wenn der eisen heiss ist! Strike while the iron is hot!” I struck, poorly, but then of course, because I am a writer, I put my tools down, picked up my notebook and asked him how to spell all that stuff.

For the next hour or so, I ferried my piece in and out of the fire, and clanged and clonked until the metal curved and I tapped out the decorative curlicue. My nose ran, my hair got in my face, and even though the shop was ventilated, my lungs contended with a steady flow of the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide that hung in the rafters above us.

Friends, I am here to tell you that, save for one important aspect, forging metal is nothing like forging sentences and paragraphs and stories. Forging metal is filthy, smoky, noisy, hazardous, and entirely physical. (This is not to say that it is not fun.) Writing is not any of those things unless you count the hazards of sitting and staring at a screen too much.

The important aspect the two processes share is that they are both iterative processes. Each require a constant going back and forth to the metal, or the material, as the case may be, to modify, re-shape, edit, and sometimes scrap the entire blasted work. Often, beginning writers are surprised by this. They’re dismayed by the amount of revising they must do. Writing is harder than they thought. They may rethink their commitment to the writing life. Does it get easier?

When asked in 2022 how she’s developed as a writer over her long career, American novelist Gish Jen said she’s more sure-footed than she was in her early years, but, she added, there is always more to learn. The bar keeps rising. I think we have to love the process, or let the process be the reward, which may be the same thing stated in two different ways.

Making the hook was hard. After acing the curve and the curlicue, the thing twisted beyond my control and I couldn’t seem to hammer it back. I cut the end off, flattened it, and called it a sculpture, to which Steve, calmer now, responded, “OK.” I was done. Eager to type up my notes and write this post, I coated my creation with a wax that smelled like sweet, rank cod liver oil and let it set a while, and then went home.

If I spent more time working at a forge, I suppose I’d find other correspondences between writing and smithing, maybe even poetic ones. Until then, I’ll just wish all of us the patience to make work that’s bright and shooting straight, like coke burning.

The writer workin' it.

Photo: Ellen Santasiero

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by Irene Cooper/September 5, 2023

Figure wearing glasses and cap, green pants and plaid jacket leaping with joy and abandon next to a body of water that reflects the Rocky Mountains of Colorado under a blue a nd cloud-mottled sky
Photo courtesy of Shelby Little

“Hummingbird” is the title of new creative nonfiction by former Smithy Shelby Little, recently published in HerStry. I sat down under the crabapple tree in the backyard last month to talk with Shelby—writer, vlogger, entrepreneur, all-around creative, and esteemed Forge alumnus—about writing and living while writing. (Edited to fit the format)

IC: Shelby Little, you are a multimedia artist, songwriter, performer, and maker of things— including pants for a thick ass and muscular legs, one of my favorite two-part blogs ever. I keep my sewing secret, by the way. You're very bold to tell people you sew. Folks start dropping off trousers to get hemmed and whatnot.

Anyway, tell us: How do these creative pathways talk to each other and feed each other, if they do?

SL: Oof. You know, I don't know, maybe it's a sickness, or maybe it's some sort of being good to yourself, a gift to self—but basically, whenever I am creative, I feel a little better than when I'm not creative, and I think, at this point in my life and just knowing a bunch of different type of people, I can say it's definitely in my wiring.

Part of me needs to create. When I was little, I used to just fix things. When they broke, it would fascinate me to tinker and figure things out. So I don't know. It feels good when I'm making stuff. The variety is pleasing.

There's some sort of balance that happens in my head when I'll switch from, all right, today I'm going to sew a cover for beanbag chair. There's something pleasing about thinking on an engineer scale or in that mindset of figuring out this problem that needs to be solved. And then it's so satisfying when you actually make it.

Like, look, it even has buttons and functions, you know? All is right in the world. I especially like using scraps and not spending money on things. That's sort of my shtick when I go to make things, found fabric found in my own hoarder's closet.

I do find a lot of things in the craft closet. Also in the backyard and the neighbor's alley. It gives me some satisfaction and I think it's nice. I get really focused—I focus intently—and writing these days is my main mode of creativity and self-expression, but, you know, I find I can burn out on that, so I'll go, okay, I'm gonna sew some pants, that's gonna be my challenge this week, and switching from writing to a visual medium is somehow balancing for me.

IC: I want to ask you about travel. Shelby, when you say you're going out of town, I always imagine it's like when I'm going out of town, which means I'm going to Redmond, you know, just one town over, to pick up someone from the airport. But you actually go places, as I discover through the fabulous photographs and video you take and post while you're gone. But here's my question: You travel all the time every chance you get—not all the time because you have other obligations—What is the relationship between you and travel?

SL: Very good question. And for the record, I went to Redmond last night. Fantastic experience at the Deschutes County Fair. Redmond's great. Old Crow Medicine Show played, and it was a great time. But I think it’s a good question.

It’s a compulsion to travel—to experience new things. All the benefits that you get from travel—being in new circumstances, being out of your routine—is enlivening for me. I feel more alive a lot of times when I'm traveling. It depends how and where you're traveling, to be specific, because I've also traveled for work, and it doesn't oftentimes yield the same benefits.

These days I think a lot of my travel is focused on places that I know are energizing for me. For 40 years I've been going to this mountaintop in Colorado, and it's just rejuvenating every time. I know out there I'm going to be good to myself.

I'm going to go on hikes. I'm going to cook food that I know what's in it. There's a good art scene in Colorado where I go. It's exposure to new ideas, and getting out of the routine.

Part of that is, also, that the unexpected is going to happen, the surprise.

IC: This last trip, you saw a little bit of wildlife, yes? Bears and such.

SL: Uh huh. I have another trip coming up to Yellowstone, to meet my dad, who's a wildlife photographer. He's been camping there on and off throughout the summer.

And to add an element of surprise—other than a grizzly bear coming around the corner—I'm going to bring my five year old daughter on a 14 hour road trip. And that's the element of surprise for sure. I didn't have the confidence when she was any younger that I could survive that journey or that level of surprise.

But we have one road trip under our belt, so I think we can do this. I do gravitate towards my dad in that way where I like the nature and the wildlife and being amongst things that are just completely untamed, and anything can happen, and it's totally out of your control.

It is thrilling.

IC: You know I'm a big fan of bear cam.

SL: I do know that. Alaska, right? There's a lot to this for me, because I love, I love a bear. A grizzly bear, especially. Love a black bear, too. In Yellowstone, where my dad takes a lot of his photos, the park rangers will refer to the bear as, Oh, that's 399— they'll give you the bear's number. But the bears have fans, and the bears have their own personality. 399 is an older bear that came out of the den, not this summer, but maybe two summers ago. And they thought that she was too old to have kids anymore.

And then she walks out with like four cubs, and she's like, what's up? Springtime! And everybody was like, oh my god. People get attached. I can't actually remember 399's name right now. There's one called Jam, which is the daughter of one called Raspberry.

And so there's kind of these cutesy names that follow them, which is kind of dangerous because you don't want to overly personify or anthropomorphize them. You don't want to do that to an animal that is fully capable of just ripping you open at any second, although, generally speaking, they're not trying to do that. They're trying to catch a fish or they're trying to eat some berries. And then a human gets in their way.

IC: When I look at your father's photographs, I always feel a respectful distance.

SL: Yeah, think he sees wildlife photographers that don't give that distance to the animal so that the animal is safe, and you are safe—but he actually is a Boy Scout through and through, and he's looking out for the bears, yes.

IC: I want to talk about color, the feast that is your vlog. It is a celebration of hue, among other things. Your creative product is colorful, in all senses of the word. What is it about color that inspires and what other aesthetic principles rule your life?

SL: Thank you. Oh, gosh, that's a tough question.

Okay, I'll just start with the easy, what comes to mind. So, the colors of the vlog are based on a photo that my dad took, that I extracted the colors from, because I really liked the photo and the feeling that it gave me. It's a picture of two spoonbills, which are the colors, basically, of pink flamingos, but they've got this spoon-like bill.

They have deep pinks, purples, and blush pinks. They're in flight, or about to leave a nest, and they're surrounded by the green tropical colors of Florida. I just love the colors, and I was like, I'm gonna use all the colors in the thing on the blog.

Going to Florida these days, I think about adventure and wildlife— wild Florida and old Florida. Using those colors brings in some of that spirit. It is spirit. It feels adventurous and it feels youthful, not in the sense of human age, but of renewal.

When I see that pink and I feel that green, there's something new happening, something exciting.

IC: There’s that woman on TikTok and Instagram who posts the satirical Sad Beige Clothes for Sad Beige Children, a mother talking about the trials of motherhood and really lobbying for that idea that because you are frustrated with the job does not mean you don't love your children. The whole bit, you know, a push against this mythology of motherhood. She uses the absence of color and also pokes fun at this, you know, this high intellectualism that—and Barbie is refuting this hard—that if you have color, you can't be smart.

SL: Yeah. If you have color, you can't be serious. Right.

IC: I love the way your vlog pushes against that with two hands.

SL: Oh, thanks. Yeah. It's funny because when I was in high school, I was in this all girls band. We were called the Powder Kegs.

The music scene in my hometown was a few guys playing acoustic country music. They did their thing at churches and baseball games. And we were like, where are we going to perform? We were playing electric guitar and singing punk. We would go to these venues that allowed teenagers to play, but we noticed all the bands that were playing there—it could just be Central Florida—were all in black, and goth, and purple lipstick, and we were like, well...that doesn't feel right.

So we rebelled against the rebellion and put on the brightest freakin’ colors we had to go play. And it was a lot of fun. I've always rebuked the idea that, like, I don't know, black is sophisticated. And now it's gray or charcoal. I mean, it's fine, but I don’t feel comfortable in that environment. My whole life can't be monotone.

IC: The pandemic brought that into focus for me. All of this online engagement that had to happen because we were not in person—it did work to decentralize the intellectual gray monoliths of, say, New York. Where I'm from, by the way. It fostered the idea that culture is not necessarily seeded in Gotham.

You know, you're online with people who are getting used to Zoom, and you're having these discussions about art and practice and creativity. And people are in their, you know, Disney sweatshirts. Hair balled up in a scrap of something.

SL: Poets in pajamas. I really like that idea of bucking against that very grim aesthetic. I don't know if it's a sensitivity that everybody has, but the colors that I choose in my house are also the colors I choose to put on each day.

Like a Friday, you're probably going to find me in a much brighter color, because I feel like Fridays have a lot of energy. The weekend is coming. Good things are going to happen. I've always been kind of sensitive to the effects of color, so when I was just thinking of the blog—if I was going to write all this stuff for free, for fun—what would give me that feeling of excitement?

IC: Speaking of personal investment: You invested considerable time, and not inconsiderable money, at The Forge. How's that working out for you?

SL: Well, I continue to invest considerable time, if not so much considerable money, on publication, or trying to get published, as it isn't free a lot of times. I am, you know, very grateful for The Forge experience.

It was wonderful. I thought the quality of teaching was very high. I think it's on par—I haven't done an MFA program—but I would say it was on par with other teaching in a college environment. Let’s see, what else? I loved the experience, but I also I loved the craft lessons.

I took those to heart. In particular, things that I used to not be able to solve, so to speak, about what's not working in a piece, I can better—I'm more of an intuitive writer—but I can better, you know, get on the scent of what's wrong, and so I can rework sections and diagnose areas that I could not do prior to The Forge. That's been really instrumental in a lot of pieces, just to finish things.

And that sense of, I made this. It isn't a sense of, I've been working on this for seven years anymore. You know? Which is a great feeling, a sense of fulfillment, to do these things. You can tell the story that you want to tell, and deliver the message you want to deliver.

It sounds so simple, but in practice, making that happen on the page is not always so easy. Practice being the key word there. Another thing I would say about The Forge experience is that it gave me confidence and more understanding about how the submission process works. The confidence part, I would say, also comes from being in a class of people who are all great writers.

I thought everybody brought their A game and was showing up really determined to improve. Hearing their struggles and challenges normalized my own struggles. So I was like, oh wait! If everybody has a hard time feeling like they can do this, and I'm looking at their work going, this is fantastic, then maybe I should just believe I can do it and cross that self-objection off the list.

That's been monumental, and it's given me just the courage to keep going. And also the courage to submit like it's my job. I'm not gonna submit one time and wait for rejection or acceptance. I'm just gonna go for it.

IC: This is what we're getting at when we talk about Mastery. It’s not an end, but a beginning. Your own beginning,

SL: Yeah, it’s that energy of I know what I have. I know what I need to do. I can figure out where I need to go. That's the idea there.

IC: Okay: long lunch—or any meal of your choice, if you don't like lunch—with any three artists, any discipline, living or dead, who are they, and what's on the menu?

SL: Oh, jeez. Okay, I'm going to go with my gut reaction to this question. Let's say Cafe de Chutes had another back room that was like, almost like a hookah bar in atmosphere, so it's colorful, darker—you might have your own private, maybe romantic, table, and maybe Chris Cornell comes up—who I love, love his lyrics, he was a beautiful man, awesome musician. I think his voice is amazing. I would love to have lunch with him in that room, you know?

Then I would also love to invite Zora Neale Hurston, while we are resurrecting people. I love all of her books—and her voice, monumental. She's one of my heroes. She's also from Florida, from Eatonville near where I grew up. I love what I've read about her and the Harlem Renaissance and what she did as a profession. She was an anthropologist—would like walk around measuring people's skulls to make sure there weren’t some racist theories going on about head sizes and things like that, and other things that interested her. I find her fascinating.

Oh, okay. Third artist I would like to invite to lunch. We've got Chris Cornell, Zora Neale Hurston. You know, I'm really into Mary Carr. Mary Carr. Mary Carr. You gotta think she'd bring the conversation. You introduced me to Mary Carr, actually. Or Michael did. One of you did. Her voice is spectacular. I think the last of her books that I read was Liar's Club. I'm out of order because I'm catching up. But, I mean, I couldn't even get through the first chapter without a pen in my hand because every line is fantastic. She's a poet—her phrasing, the description she uses, the imagery. The lyrical qualities.

And she's super Southern. I think she's from Texas. It'd be interesting to have like Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Carr and Chris Cornell just sitting in the back of the Cafe des Chutes hookah section.

That'd be a happy lunch. I don't even think we'd need food. As long as there's, tea, or something, just to keep the conversation flowing. Maybe some of those pistachio croissants, cut up in small bites.

Follow Shelby Little’s creative compass at The Shelby Little.

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by Mike Cooper | August 1, 2023

The bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay of Western Australia chase fish into the empty shells of giant sea snails, bring the shells to the surface, and shake the fish into their mouths—the way we’d finish off the crumbs in the bottom of a bag of chips. And it’s not just one of them, it’s all of them.

Dolphins, like humans, are collaborative and cooperative. It’s how we not only survive, but learn and grow and evolve. One dolphin, let’s call them Terry, apparently came upon this tactic, and pretty soon everybody was doing it, and likely they improved upon the method as a group. Hey, try this. Check it out.

If you’re reading this, you’re not only a human, but you’re also probably a writer (even if you don’t admit it): one of those people for whom writing fills a void, provides a spark, or helps you to understand all of this. And hopefully you are fortunate enough to have the time and the wherewithal to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), even if it’s in the wee hours of the morning before the chickens wake up or late at night long after the cows have gone to bed. Not all of us are writers, which is not to imply that you are any better or worse than anyone else; it just happens to be your way.

There have been lots of writers, from the first of us to draw in the dirt to those who were forced to write in secret or under a different name to all the greats who have filled all our libraries and the internet itself. We have learned from each other. We have grown and evolved.

You can write alone—most of us do. You can fill journals or computer memory with millions of words. You can fill your void, find that spark, figure all of this out. And you can do it entirely on your own. But you might never figure out how to chase a fish into a snail shell for an easy dinner.

That’s where writing groups and classes and writing programs and writing buddies come in. Other writers help us with additional skills, feedback, perspective, ideas, motivation, accountability, encouragement, refinement, process, and accountability. Yes, I said accountability twice. So check out a writing program like The Forge. Go to classes at your library. Find online classes or readings or lectures. Join a Writers Guild. Find a buddy who likes to write. Find a bunch of buddies and make a writing group. And, even if you’re a groundbreaking innovator like Terry the dolphin, you can always learn and grow and evolve. You’ll be glad you did.

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