Wintertime, Writing-time | Skillshare Projects

Stephanie Fisher

adirondack park, ny



Wintertime, Writing-time

"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." - Annie Dillard

I'm a dairy goat farmer and writer, living in the hardscrabble Adirondack mountains of upstate New York. I'm lucky enough to live my passions, farming full time and writing on the side. I'm the writer behind the blog Tending Goats and Hopes, chronicling my life as a young, woman dairy farmer. I've also written for various outlets, including BUST magazine and Modern Farmer.  

In 2012, my boyfriend and I left behind our lives in New York City to begin dairy farming. We travelled across the country twice, training on dairy farms in Vermont and Washington, and finally settling here in the 'dacks as herd managers on a goat dairy and diversified farm. People often ask me how I got to this unique job, surprised that such jobs exist beyond the abstract job of "farmer." We're salaried, with benefits, just like our friends working layman's jobs. It's always been a goal of mine to write a book about our experiences over the past two years, and I've made it a 2014 priority to move from mere ideation to execution. Besides the big picture book, I'd also like to increase my freelance portfolio.

I'm a believer in the idea that habit leads to excellence, so before I begin executing anything, I'd like to get myself to a daily writing goal. I currently write about 1500 words a week, but I write them sporadically, when I can find the time. Getting myself on a writing schedule would sit well with my type-A-ness. 

Why "Wintertime, Writing-time"? Because as a dairy farmer, I get a two month break when the goats are "dry," or not milking. My farm work load drastically shrinks from 70+ hours a week, to a mere 20. This leaves ample time for farm planning, and more importantly, catching up on hobbies like reading and writing. 

First off, my writing space. I live in a cozy (read: tiny), 4-room cottage on the farm with my boyfriend and our dog. We don't have an abudance of stuff, but we struggle to organize our home into something sane, so that our "farm office" doesn't end up all over the kitchen table (hint: it usually does). So finding a space to write was tricky. It meant getting my boyfriend involved for some space redesign. The result is not perfect, but it's functional. The desk is in the living room, sandwiched between the dog crate and some musical storage, but it's better than my old habit of moving into the kitchen. 

Old writing space:

New writing space:

Time and Task Management. Whoa. For starters, I think I am above average in my task management skills. I consider myself pretty effective, however there's definitely room to improve. I'm a HUGE fan of the post-it, and I've been keeping a moleskine planner and large moleskine journal every year for the past 4 years, and it's proven a good task management tool (I prefer this planner format, and this notebook). I also use Evernote to clip things I find online, and to do all of my writing (notebooks are for notes and ideas, mostly).

Writing Prompt 1: Construct a tense conversation between two characters that are talking about 'nothing': a couple fighting about the dishes or roommates arguing about whose turn it is to buy the milk. Use this argument to indicate something deeper that is not being said.

Taking the Dog Out

"I think the dog has to go out," he said, eyes on his laptop screen. The dog was whining her way between the living room and the kitchen. She was often whiney, looking for our attention, I'd presumed. Nevertheless, I'd been up since before dawn and felt like I'd completed my fair share of dog chores. 

"Ok," I said, intending on taking no action. The whining continued. "Can you take her outside?" I asked him. 

"I'm in the middle of something, can you do it?" he challenged me.

This wasn't the first dog. We'd had one earlier in our lives that we put down just before Christmas. She had what the dog people (meaning the behaviorist, the vet, the shelter staff, dog enthusiastic co-workers) called "fear aggression," a faulty hardwiring. Despite our endless training, she bit him, she bit me, and then she bit a family member. But we wanted to try again. We liked dogs. And our house felt lonely without the additional white noise of a dog's constant clicking nails on the hardwood. The new pup was a 4-month-old lab mix. She looked not unlike our previous dog, but she was stockier, heavier-set with a softer face. She had no training when she came to us, so our first step was house breaking. We were game for the hard work, hoping to mold our new dog to fit our lifestyle, and to avoid ever having to deal with fear aggression again. 

My lips pursed, my eyes glared at him. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw the dog in the living room circle with her nose on the ground, and then begin to squat. But it wasn't that dainty plié characteristic of peeing, it was the other, more vulgar hunch of a dog that's about to shit. "NO!" I yelled, as my brain frantically flipped through glimpses gleaned from the pages of our puppy training book. "Firmly interrupt the dog, quickly take her outside to finish her business, reward her immediately." Once the dog was harnessed, I turned to him and sneered, "Can you clean that up?" 

"No! You didn't take her outside when I told you she had to go. I always take her out when you say she has to go." This was everything that you're not supposed to do, according to the puppy manual. You're told to be consistent, kind, and a leader. And yet there we were being none of these things. I was so traumatized after putting down our first dog that I would have done anything to raise a well-adjusted dog that would never be afraid enough to bite. I wanted to show the world that I was capable of having a well-behaved dog, because how many times have you admired someone who's dog is well-behaved? It's the same way that you admire a parent who's kids can happily co-exist with other adults without throwing a tantrum out of boredom. I suddenly got a waft of heavy, sulfuric air and looked down at my feet to watch my dog finish pooping on our kitchen floor. 

I ceremoniously unbuckled the puppy from her harness, gave her a treat for sitting when told, and set out to clean the living room, and he the kitchen floor.

Daily Writing Goal: I have two writing goals. My immediate one is my blog, which I update twice a week. My secondary goal is long-term, it's a collection of essays/novel about my life as a young woman dairy farmer. I settled on 1000 words a day as my writing goal to acommodate both of my writing objectives, one is short-form and the other long-form. 

Writing Prompt #2: "Bad poets imitate; good poets steal." — T.S. Elliot Take a cue from this literary great and incorporate a favorite line from a book, film or song that inspires you as part of a 500-word piece. What from the story/film/lyric can you learn or allude to in your own piece? What other meaning could the line imply?

"You know that we are northern now." Volcano Choir, "Bygone" off Repave

In our search for a place to call home, we found ourselves in a four-room cottage in the Adirondack mountains. The farm road takes us along a plateau that actually sits in a river valley, between jagged peaks and dramatic tree lines. The locals are loggers. And mechanics. And woodworkers. And highway department superintendents. When they're not charged with childcare, the women have community groups. The library has an acceptable selection of movies, and hosts a shockingly well-attended book club. Our exit on the highway is the first exit where the sign is written in both English and French. Which means that we are dangerously close to the Canadian boarder. Or we are effectively cultured.

Why I feel so attached to this mountainous place, I don't know. It could be a physical sense of comfort: being surrounded on all sides by towering mountains you feel safe, quiet, unfound. All things that I, as a undercover introvert, need. I picture my thinking self in my brain sitting in a chair at a desk, in an room, isolated from reality, with a moderate sized window to look out into the world only as a reminder that life exists beyond the page, but barely so. 

The North Country begs for a specific character to enjoy living in a place where winter takes over for (at least) 5 months of the year. Where the cold means 20 below zero and six inches of ice over everything; it means allowing your car to regain consciousness for 15 minutes before attempting to drive it anywhere, the power steering stiff as the lid on your honey jar. I heard this once, that people who live in colder climates live longer, and the more extreme the cold, the better. I think it could be because your tolerance for struggle increases ten-fold with the intensity of each winter. My father can't suffer the cold. His Los Angeles mindset prompts him to surrender at any temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. He prefers to ski in tee-shirts. I think of him when I leave the house in minimal clothing to scrape off the ice and snow from the car. The sting from the frost-biting air on my bare hands is satisfying in a way. Rosy cheeks in the bathroom mirror a sign of accomplishment at the end of the day. My extended collection of coats, hats, gloves, neck gaiters, long johns, and boots, like various trophies and awards in our mud room. 

AUGUST UPDATE: clearly, it's no longer winter. But I've managed to continue writing every other day (at least), with an average of 300 words. Once a week I'll write something a little longer, around 1500 words. What I've been struggling with lately is revision. Getting words on the page (in Anne Lamott's words, shitty first drafts) is easy enough. But actually making those words come to life is a whole different feat. I'm working on a longer piece, an essay, that I'd like to submit to the world at large once it's done. I'm currently working on a third draft. My golden carrot is the Modern Love column at the New York Times. 


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