Open Office Hours

Office Hours :: Sara Blackthorne She's kidding, right?!

Some of my best memories from college are sitting in a professor's office, usually by the light of a small lamp, and talking openly about classes, projects, plans for the future, and life in general. Every faculty member was required to be available to students during office hours -- but while some professors begrudged those who knocked on the door, my writing teachers were always open to whomever showed up, and greeted me with grace and genuine interest.

At the time, I thought I would have my MFA and be on the tenure-track by 30. Life sometimes slips away from us ... But it always gives us a chance to step back onto the path of our heart and into the work we are designed to do.

So when I started thinking about revamping my business -- focusing on my real work and the light that I offer the world, I fondly remember those college memories. And they are the inspiration for how I can give back to others.

Introducing office hours feels one part academic and one part soul-engaging. I'm setting aside time in the week to be available on a first-come, first-serve basis: open to talking about writing, craft, creativity, life, ritual, and anything else that you want to share. This is YOUR time to ask questions, learn more about the work I do, find some answers to your curiosity, and connect in a meaningful and low-key way. Through a snippet of time together, you'll have a better picture of your work, your writing, and maybe even a next step in your creative journey.

Office hours will run twice each week: Wednesday afternoons from 2-4pm Central, and Sunday evenings from 7-9pm Central. You don't need to sign up for a time slot, but if you know you want to connect and have a limited time, you can sign up here for a 15-minute time slot. Office hours are held on Skype, by chat or voice call -- my username is sara.blackthorne. If you’ve got something you’d like me to review with you during office hours, send me an email and we can chat to arrange that.

I do hope that you will take a moment to stop by and knock on my virtual office door. More than just a chance to work together, I'm looking forward to connecting with more writers and creatives in our online community, and bringing that connection into the rest of the world, too.

B-School 2015

Sometimes the key to moving forward is inhaling my fear and exhaling courage: the ability to press on even in the face of great challenges. This week, I applied for a scholarship to the 2015 cohort of Marie Forleo's B-School. This is my application video, which gives You a glimpse of some things coming to my work and world in the near future. Enjoy! [embed][/embed]

bringing back the letter

If you were here, we'd be sitting together with our toes in the water. I'd tell you about that dream I had where my woodworking was featured in a print magazine. You'd tell me about the latest chapter in your novel, the print you finished last week, the next big art creation in your heart. We'd watch the fog lift from the water, feel the warmth of a gentle sun, and lose all track of time, only moving when the first lightning bugs show us the way home.

I get home from the post office and pour a cup of tea. I sit down on the sofa, rain against the window glass, and begin to open. Envelope after envelope carrying hopes and dreams and fears and secrets from beautiful souls across the world. Each one a gift, a blessing of trust and a moment to remember: this world is bigger than each of us.

Hand-writing letters is a favorite past time. I often sit down to write a letter, pouring my heart onto the page, and seal it into the envelope without a moment's hesitation. Whatever the dreams, whatever the passion, drops on the page flood from my heart to yours in an instant (or however long the postal service takes). And conversely, slipping open an envelope in the quiet afternoon and stepping into your secrets, your truths. Stepping outside my own experience for a moment, and understanding better the world around me.

I want to bring back handwritten letters.

I want to send that love and light into the world, and I want someone out there to know they are not alone. That someone is here, reading their words, witnessing them. So I have an offer to make to you all:

be my penpal.

I will write to anyone, anywhere. If you reply, so will I.

Drop me a note and say hello:

Sara Blackthorne PO Box 614 Madison WI 53701-0614 USA

Let's be penpals!

Turn, Turn, Turn

outside profile of bowl :: sara blackthorne I knew, going into this, that I would become hooked.

I've been dreaming of bowl turning for weeks. I am watching and observing the beauty and skills from amazing bowl turners on Instagram and I am obsessed. There's something very special for me about bowl turning. Maybe it's my background as a spinner, or perhaps it's my love of aerial dance, the spinning and turning in the air a deep peace. Whatever the case, I felt called to turn.

The opportunity came to take a bowl-turning workshop at my local wood store. I knew it was a risk, diving into something completely unknown but also something I thought I might truly enjoy. After some working of the schedule, I decided to dive in.

And it was amazing.

bowl rim :: sara blackthorne

I arrived early to find that the guys of the wood store had been looking over my shop website. Suddenly, I realized they no longer think of me as some woman who is over-excited about wood tools and such, but as someone who has some talent, is learning and honing skills, and committed to the work. This new experience helped me feel a little more welcome in the turning workshop. I set down my bag, looked over the cherry turning blank, and got ready to turn.

The first part was a lot of talking, going over tools and their use, the art of working with the grain of a piece of wood, and even the different ways that turning can change (using green wood versus dry, end-grain versus side-grain turning, turning bowls versus spindles versus platters). After a while, and a quick cutting of the turning blank into a round figure, the teacher promised to stop talking, and it was time to step to the lathe.

One of the most important lessons I learned during this workshop is the importance of relaxing at the lathe. As a beginner, it might seem natural for me to tense at the lathe, focusing so much on each tool movement, the turning of the wood, the shape appearing before me. But having my shoulders around my ears, a death grip on the tools, is not the way to steady turning. After a few moments, learning the "sweet spot" of the tool and finding my way around the lathe, I could settle into the movement and simply turn.

full cherry bowl :: sara blackthorne

It was incredible. It felt natural, soothing, bliss. I wanted to explore, create, develop my own ideas. I want to spend hours at the lathe, turning plates and bowls and art galore.

I want my own lathe. Yesterday would be preferable. Tomorrow will do nicely.

I have so many dreams, so many plans in my head for items to create. I've been sketching like mad since I got home from the workshop. Oh, and the bowl I made? It's not half bad.

Did you see? From now until 5/7, save 10% on your order using discount code "LOVEMOM" -- and receive a complimentary 1/2oz tin of wood lotion. Check out the shop today!

the power of thunderbolts

kauri thunderbolt I've been spending so much time in the wood shop, I haven't taken a moment in over a week to write about it. Sanding by hand takes work, but it also allows me to get the exact finish, and the perfect quirks, in each piece. I've also been formulating a new wood lotion, working to find the balance of hard and soft oils to make the product easy to use and also super-effective. It's also really great for the hands, which mine are loving after all this sanding!

One of the things I learned when searching for my niche is that I want to have a few signature pieces. Nothing fancy, but a design or two that really come to symbolize my work and also hold great meaning for me.

Enter the thunderbolt.

Most people call them lightning bolts, it's true. I did, for a long time. But thunderbolts are, for me, about much more than lightning. The massive storms of my childhood in the Midwest are my very favorite weather. The deep rumble of thunder that shakes the marrow of your bones, the crack of lightning that splits the sky, the electricity in the air, in your lungs, in your cells. While there are situations that cause lightning without thunder, my association is that the thunder causes the bolt to appear.

Thunderbolts symbolize insight, the sudden flash of enlightenment. The moment when the clouds part -- if only for a second -- and we can see things with clarity. Thunderbolts shake us to our core. They rattle our bones, if only for a moment, and in an instant everything is the same -- but different. Nothing is actually the same.

After a day of sketching, I found that the symbol of the thunderbolt showed up repeatedly in my drawing. After a little dedicated work, I came up with a template for a few different sizes, and started cutting. I started with red oak, and then a few pieces of exotic wood {gifts from the mister}. And it feels really good. It feels right.

Just like those days of running through a thunderstorm to get home before the bolts struck, the thrill of working with these thunderbolts keeps me going. Pushing me to test my skills, hone my practice, and continue exploring the work. Developing a feel for the energy of a thunderbolt pulsing in the energy of the grain.

I'm excited to offer thunderbolts to you. While they aren't the only wood art I plan to offer, I can tell they are a signature design -- a piece that will inspire your own insight and energy, much as they do mine.

What symbols hold deep meaning for you? Would you love to see them lovingly crafted in wood? Leave a comment and let me know!

finding a niche

barn :: photo by Jennifer Langley One huge part of building this business and creating these products is doing the physical work; other parts {that are equally important} are creating great customer service and sourcing the supplies. And then there is the part I find the hardest: building a brand and finding a niche.

For many years, I've had a brand: A Forest of Stories. All of my work, personally and professionally {though I'm not always sure the distinction} has come into the world through this vehicle. As I'm moving more deeply into woodcrafting, I am still working under the business of A Forest of Stories, but the work itself has a different feeling, a unique quality. The products I'm building of wood and hard work aren't just about women's stories. They are about building new stories, creating new memories, bringing people together and inspiring conversations. Be it an oak cutting board or a walnut box, these pieces are here to bring beauty and meaning into your life. Whatever your gender.

But I'm not very good at branding. In fact, I'm quite terrible at selling my work/skills. Some of it relates directly to my fear of success, some of it my impostor syndrome, and some of it is just not knowing. Not knowing how to market myself, how to find my people, how to explain with just-right words the excitement and awesomeness I am sharing.

The other day, I caught a snippet of a promo video for a course on Creative Bug. I follow Lisa Congdon on Instagram, and her work continually inspires me. I thought, after seeing this clip, "This is exactly the class for me." Which was immediately followed by "Except I'm not an artist and I don't really have a brand."

Whoa. Catch those demons there?

Setting aside my impostor syndrome for a moment, I got to thinking. I am an artist. I am a writer by training and by passion. This passion is spilling into woodcrafting with a fervor. Woodcrafting is becoming a new art form for me. And I get to own this.

I sat down to think about the things that are really important to me in this work, and I made a list. It's not long, but it speaks volumes to where I'm going.

    * sourcing local materials and supporting the local economy * understanding the provenance of my materials and their interaction with source * responsibly managing my use of non-human energy and the impact of carbon-based energy on the environment {especially in relation to my work} * creating products that are designed to be used and enjoyed * bringing beauty into the home or space inhabited by my work * emphasizing the natural form and structure of my materials in the work they are used to create * enjoy the work and infuse the product with the passion and delight I feel when creating it

Suddenly I feel a clear understanding. I might not know precisely how to brand myself, or exactly how to sell my products beyond the small circle of people with whom I am currently connected. I am, though, clear on a critical part of building my business: my niche.

Building beautiful wood products from locally-sourced materials, infused with passion for function and an aesthetic for bringing the natural world into everyday objects.

Poplar Ditty Box

rough curls

curls of walnut it is said that when your blade is properly honed, it will slide through wood like butter...

The biggest challenge for me, learning wood craft on my own, is learning to sharpen my tools. Unlike writing, where "sharpening your tools" includes a pencil sharpener, a writing practice, and a dedication to work, in woodworking your tools are sharpened by hand, with a stone and elbow grease and a lot of practice.

Without a lot of support locally for the learning, I've been relying on books, videos, and practice to sharpen my tools. But the idea of grinding an expensive tool to a razor-sharp edge (and the risk of doing it very wrong and damaging the blade) has kept me from actually putting the gouge to the grindstone.

Until today.

The fear of doing something wrong is a powerful motivator. But the yearn to do something new, to take a skill and put it into practice, can be greater. I couldn't wait any longer to work on my building my spoons. I couldn't sit on my hands, waiting for a teacher to appear from thin air, when I want to be carving spoons and cutting boards.

So I pulled out my very tiny diamond stones (because that's what I can afford right now), printed off the sharpening instructions, and set to work. With a little effort, a little deep breathing, and some polishing compound, I had a gouge ready for use. I clamped the spoon blank, and started cutting.

And it went through the hard walnut, smooth as butter.

One of the many lessons in this wood crafting journey is about the power of diving in. I might knit the net on the way off the cliff, but only to distract my brain from forgetting that I don't have wings -- because that's the moment they will appear. With sharpening chisels, with making a cutting board, with writing a novel -- the most important thing is simply to begin.

good customer service

I worked in retail for over half my life. I waited tables, worked in department stores, sold bicycles and knick-knacks, repaired bicycles, operated a drive-thru window at a bank, and about a dozen other jobs. I've done a lot of customer service work.

So I notice when the customer service I receive is less than stellar. I know how to take into consideration the work involved, the number of staff, the stress of the situation. I recognize that if you have five customers in line and a phone ringing non-stop -- and you are working alone -- this can get frustrating. I get it.

But this week, I've had a few incredibly disrespectful customer service experiences. One was from a UPS customer service rep who hung up on me during a call to track down a parcel they "lost" (because no one really seems to know what happened) which was one-half of a two parcel order (of a garden shed I planned to build today). The other was a clerk at a local hardware store who treated me like I was a child, refused to deactivate the sensor on the tools I purchased, and then yelled at me when I further set off the security alarms at the doors.

I think about these kind of interactions a lot, especially since I am preparing to launch a store that features products I will be selling to others. I'll be providing customer service not just on my own end, for my own products. I must take into consideration the service provided by each agent I engage along the process: the web servers, the shopping cart, the payment processors, the shipping company. Each one of these companies has an influence on the experience my customer has from the moment they arrive at my site to the moment their purchase arrives in hand.

Everyone has off days, everyone has mishaps, and everyone risks loss each time they take on a transaction. But a focus on working with customers, meeting them where they are and respecting their knowledge and experiences, makes all the difference.

I am going into this shop launch with full awareness that mistakes will happen. But I'm spending more time focused on building systems for smoothing out the errors, for meeting the customer's needs at whatever level they arise, and preparing to provide the best customer service I am able. This includes choosing to work with companies from whom I have personally experienced great customer service, and choosing not to work with companies who have treated me poorly.

You wouldn't use a hammer to brew tea. You might not know the perfect tool, or the best method, but you know a place to start. So too with customer service. You might not know exactly how to solve the issue the first moment it is discovered, but a willingness to stay open, to explore the possibilities, and to reach a resolution where everyone feels heard, witnessed, and respected is the first step.

a few thoughts on tools

by Araina Prestes I'm learning the fine art of tool selection.

As a writer, tool selection is a luxury. You do not need a specific journal, or a very fancy pen. You need something to scribe: it might be your cell phone, it might be a bar napkin, it might be a kid's crayon. We write when and where we do because we are writers. The tools are a way to make it more enjoyable, or to trick our creative brains into turning on. Yes, when I pull out my ruled moleskine and my zebra ballpoint, I know it's time to get serious. But I'm just as committed to my writing when I'm working out a mind-map in dry-erase markers or when I'm sitting at the table, on the sofa, or in the park.

As I'm building up inventory for the great shop launch, I'm discovering the importance of tools all anew. See, there are lots of ways to carve a spoon. You could use a flat gouge, a spoon gouge, a hook knife, a scorp. You could carve the handle with a chip knife, a carving knife, a bandsaw, a spokeshave. The same goes for carving a cutting board or building a box. There are many ways to accomplish something, but in woodworking, I'm discovering that sometimes the tools suit the job.

This morning, I started building a box. It's a test box, really, a little thing made of poplar to hold pens or treasures. I wanted to prove to myself that boxes need not be scary, as I am incredibly drawn to building them. But my tool chest is limited, as I am beginner, and specialized tools are not inexpensive. I have a dozen books on box-making from the library, and I scoured the pages for a simple box to build.

I cut the pieces, began the assembly, and discovered that my small collection of clamps just wouldn't cut it for this box. Some were too big, some too small, and none of them fit the box without putting strain on some other piece. Here I had a partially-glued box and no way to clamp it, to hold it steady while it dries.

I wanted to give up. Just like when your favorite pen runs out of ink mid-sentence, I could smell the defeat creeping into my head. The whispers of "What are you thinking?" and "You're not a box-maker..." hover just behind me. And then I paused.

I started to think about the pictures I'd seen in the books about making boxes. I started walking through my workshop, walking around my writing desk, looking through drawers. I found an old smashbook, and pulled the large rubber band from around it. I found a second, matching one in a drawer. I hoped, I felt a little bit of optimism creep in, and I went back to my workbench.

I'm glad I started by making a small box. The bands fit around it snugly, holding in place the sides and ends as the glue sets. Suddenly, my fear about making a box is gone. I didn't have the ideal tool, but I found something that could work. I learned how much the assembling of a box delights me, and I know that I'll be investing in some handscrew clamps soon.

Building a box is like building a story.

I might not have the ideal tools, the perfect workbench, the smoothest wood. It might be a little uneven on the top, but as with good editing it can be sanded to perfection. Most important, I built it.

I showed up to my workbench with a dream and an idea, and I trusted my hands and my skill to bring it life.

It's continually true that the only way anything gets done is by first showing up. Showing up to the page, to the camera lens, to the screen, to the canvas. To the stack of wood along your workbench. Having the "right" tools can make the job easier, but if you wait to have those just right tools, you'll never get any work done.

Getting the work done sometimes means using exactly what you have available, and making it stellar on your own.

I'm sure that, as I continue this adventure, hone my craft, and get more clear on what I am creating and how, I will expand my tool chest. I will have those handscrew clamps that fit a box perfectly and put just the right pressure in just the right places. That will be a day that my production will increase, if just by a little. And I might have a few spare moments to start a new box, to draft a new essay.

What matters is not the perfect tool, but selecting the tool that will get the job done. It might be a worn-out jumbo rubber band instead of a shiny clamp. It might be a letter from your kid's school and a blue crayon you found on the floor of your car. Tool selection is as much about knowing what the right tool is, and recognizing the abundance of tools available to you, at any given moment.

You could build a box if you want. You could write that poem and set it free. You could take that photo and share it, knowing how it's not quite perfect.

You could be okay with exactly what you have available. It might not be perfect, but it gets the work done.

And getting the work is what sets your heart ablaze, isn't it?

going with the grain

workbench :: in progress I've been working hard.

The story begins years ago, at summer camp. Some cheap plastic folding knife and branches scavenged from off the path. I was never interested in whittling bears or ducks or other animals. I carved stars, and wands, and swords. I would hunt for the very best twigs, peeling back the bark to reveal the pale flesh underneath.

I never knew how people built cabinets or bookcases. I love the smell of fresh-cut timber, the feel of the grain beneath my fingertips. I spent a few weeks working for a carpenter one summer. Most of my time was filled with shoveling rocks and leveling the ground for a front porch.

I'm blessed to live in a way now that allows space for exploring passions and diving fully into my dreams. So when I mentioned that I wanted to start carving and woodworking, my enthusiasm was met with "Oh, I think my dad has a miter saw he's not using" and "Do you need any hardware?"

rough cuts

I've been working hard, gathering the tools and sourcing the wood and sketching the designs and assembling the space. I've been making some rough cuts and testing my techniques and unleashing my creative delight. And I'm nearly ready.

When I named my writing/editing business A Forest of Stories, it was because I see our personal lives, our histories and our adventures and mysteries and our fears, as connected like the roots in a grove of ash trees. I didn't know that, three years later, I'd be expanding this work to include handmade and hand-carved beauties to bless your homes.

In the beginning, I am offering small bits and bobs. But as time goes on and space grows, I'm looking forward to building boxes and large wall pieces. I'm also excited to open myself for commission pieces and special requests.

The next month is going to be filled with hard work, sawdust, sandpaper and original dreams coming into physical form. The goal? Opening the shop for sales on May 1, filled with wood and paper and digital downloads and the convergence of finally understanding a bit more of my path on this journey.

sara :: rosie

If you want to keep updated on the status of the shop, including the official grand opening announcement, please sign up above! I'm so excited to be working through all of these incredible changes and bringing a brand new line of products to you. It's such a gift, and I am delighted to share them with you!

survival :: place

"so it is better to speak, remembering we were never meant to survive."

Audre Lorde

Last night I had the delight to attend a reading by Cheryl Strayed. I have long been a fan, since reading Torch fresh out of my undergraduate writing program, and read Wild just after publication. I wanted to hear about not just her journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, but also her journey as a writer, a crafter.

It began as I expected, with much talk about the book and also about her mother, a central character in Wild. But the moment my interest shifted from delightful listening to rapt attention was when she made one very clear statement:

"I did not write Wild because I took a hike. I wrote Wild because I am a writer."

Cheryl Strayed

THIS. This is the piece I had hoped and dreamed to hear from her, to have a room full of people hear. This is the core of understanding the difference between a book written to be written and a book written to share something personal. Earlier, Strayed commented that "the very simple act of writing a book is an attempt to build a bridge between the writer and the reader."

Building bridges, writing because we are writers, recognizing that all of us "have a life worthy of memoir" (Strayed). These are the reasons that I pursued writing (and editing) as a life, not just a passing habit. These are the reasons I return to this work, day after day, year after year.

There is, though, another reason that I continue to write some 25 years after I penned (well, crayoned) my first story.

I write to survive.

I write because the stories and old tapes of a life lived through hardship will not have the power to control me. I write because the dreams of a girl running wild in the woods of northern Minnesota are valid just as much as a boy swimming in Boston or a man running in Los Angeles or an old, drunk codger smoking cigars in Paris. I write because the words flow through me on platelets of fire and ice, and to keep them in is my own freezing immolation.

One of the lessons Strayed shares, both through Wild and through Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of essays from the Dear Sugar column, is this: you can totally fuck up your life ... and make it better again.

I was never meant to survive. I was never meant to walk the bright green forests of Marrowstone Island, to climb through a foggy morning in Portland, tour the bourbon bars of Louisville. I never intended to leave the small town of my growing, and when I left I made the intention never to return. I never anticipated my words would be published, that I would make or break the first publications of others, that I would build an editing consultancy that puts the deep truth of our experiences first above all.

"The weight of all you are not saying is holding you tethered to an existence far too small for the immensity of you.

Jeanette Bursey LeBlanc

There comes a moment when that weight is either shifted loose or smothers us. It might be from stories untold, truths we have ignored, or simply the small, quiet voice of our own hearts, aching to be freed. The shift might be a hair's breadth or a monument. But it is there, and it will determine the next steps on your journey -- or the ones you avoid, risking the safety of a well-lit path for the wild caverns of your mind.

A huge part of my work in this world is to watch and be ready, when this shift occurs, to witness your journey into the wilds. To bring my listening heart and my passion for depth into your writing and extract from it the deepest truths: the planks and beams that build your bridge to the audience you desire. It isn't glamorous work. It is messy and smelly and sometimes covered in shit, but it is here, and it is good. It is the moment my eyes blaze golden and my heart moves mountains and I feel every cell light up with love that is boundless.

I was never meant to survive. But I did. I am.

And you know what, love?

So are you.

I'm working fervently behind the scenes to line up a brand-new collection of offerings. I'm delighted and enthusiastic and maybe a little manic about it all, and I'm having an impossible time keeping it quiet until launch time. But one of the products I'm excited to revamp is my coaching process, with a special focus on bringing your writing into the world. If you'd like to more about this and all future offerings, feel free to contact me and we will keep in touch!

symphony :: place

Perhaps it is true that you can only really know a place when you have left it, when the space between your memory and your life is years long. And in that span of years, a visit is both a homecoming and a reflection, the lost souls of your past staring back at you.

And perhaps so too is leaving your home the only way to see it clearly -- all things for granted, all things missed. The place you vowed never to return finally has some redeeming qualities, and their pleasant surprise is unnerving.

I grew up in the North Woods, nestled into pine forests, twisted up with birch trees, among a thousand or more lakes. In a place where temperatures can swing over one hundred degrees between seasons, the hardy people of my hometown still thrive in this place. They taught me how to dress for the cold, waiting for the school bus at thirty below. They taught me to swim naked under a full moon in the height of summer. And they taught me how to laugh, how to love, how to weep, and how to survive. Skills not just learned from years of hard work, but from the land itself.

It's this connection to the land that most deeply draws me home. Only in my returning do I feel the tug of the forest, the loon call, the howl of the coyote. Even now, in the depths of winter, these familiar sounds draw me in like a breath. Where I now call home, there are trees and lakes and ridges galore. But they are not the same. They are rich with a history long ago forgotten. They do not exhale the memories of people, of traditions, brought to new life in the dirt and moss.

There is something I can't quite name here, a richness that fills the air and my lungs. Soon, I will have lived away longer than I lived here, and yet my heart still calls it home. I could not survive, I think, my own sadness and memory a cloud across the vibrant blue sky.

But every so often, when a few years have passed, I get the familiar ache for open water and loon song and the smell of pine trees and peeling birch bark. And sometimes, by fate or by choice, I come home.

this piece is the introduction to a new collection of essays about place. I look forward to sharing them with you, and hearing your feedback.