by Michael Gillan Maxwell

My journey to Planet Write started in a most inauspicious manner. When my first grade teacher told us to turn in our writing workbooks, I panicked, grabbed another kid’s workbook, and turned hers in as my own. My plagiarism was discovered, and I was shamed in front of the class.

It was an important moment of awakening and personal growth. At the age of nine, I wrote my first and only novel: a work of fiction about the Korean War. My research consisted of watching Pork Chop Hill, starring Gregory peck. Handwritten in pencil, the novel filled a composition book. My mother was my only reader. That was the first baby step on my journey to Planet Write.

Flash forward to high school. My favorite courses were English Composition, Drama, and Speech where we created short stories recited to the class without the aid of written notes. It was challenging and scary, but also a rush. I landed a couple of poems in the high school literary magazine. They were laden with the usual teenage angst and apocalyptic existential dread, but they weren’t all that bad. My football teammates teased me mercilessly, thinking the only reason I wrote poetry was to suck up to our young, super hot teacher. It was one reason. Not the only reason.

I learned something about the relationship between writing and rebellion after discovering books by Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, and Ayn Rand squirrelled away in boxes in the basement. Their writing bristled with subversive energy and danger, and carried the whiff of forbidden fruit. Around that time, I got my first guitar, a $25 Harmony with a sunburst finish. It was heavier than a box of rocks and a real knuckle buster, but I managed to hang with it long enough to learn some basic chords and a few folk songs. It was also a great way to impress girls. I saved money and bought a better guitar, and even though I didn’t have the life experience to really sing the blues, I started writing my own original story songs.

Onto the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It was an exciting and turbulent time for soul searching, ecstatic exploration, and pushing back against the status quo. As a student, I was a train wreck; undisciplined and distracted by social upheaval and a heady concoction of sex, drugs, rock & roll, the anti-war movement and the birth of the counter culture. 

My real education happened outside the classroom. There was a rich and vibrant indie literary and art movement, with underground newspapers, street artists, musicians, and guerilla theater performance artists. Poets handed out mimeographed, self-published broadsides. There were great bands, happenings and regular visits by political poets like Allen Ginsberg. I soaked it all up. During this idyllic time, I backpacked around Europe and lived in Germany, fell hopelessly in love, wrote some pretty awful poetry and some pretty decent songs, and discovered Leonard Cohen and Herman Hesse.

After Madison, I landed in Colorado, working construction before entering the University of Colorado to study Fine Art. The Boulder writing scene exploded as the Naropa Institute was getting off the ground. There were readings, poetry workshops, and opportunities to meet writers who came to town to get the whole thing started. Hunter S. Thompson, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Michael Burroughs, and Anais Nin were some of the writers who came and went. It all made an indelible impression on me, even as I was heading off in another direction.

From that point on, I focused on visual art and education.

I moved to New York state where I established Old Mill Pottery and eventually became a teacher of Visual Art in public schools, community art centers, and at the college level. I went to Japan on a Fulbright and produced an artist’s book, 17 Syllables: Haiku and Images. I also played in rock bands throughout those years, writing songs and coming to realize that my heart truly resides in the 4-minute story song, a novel in three verses and a chorus.

I went on to work as a school principal, program coordinator, educational leader, and consultant. Through it all, I wrote constantly, but it was an entirely different type of writing. It was a world of academic papers, Masters theses, student and faculty evaluations, and professional reports. Though the writing was often dry, boring, and tedious, that time was a critical stage of the journey. While not “creative writing” per se, it trained me to work to a deadline, organize my thoughts, and concisely articulate them. That kind of writing has its own strict rules and constraints, but it taught me discipline. The real trick was shaking off those shackles when I came out the other side so I could make my way back to Planet Write.

As my education career wound down, I started blogging and wrote prose poetry, flash fiction, and memoir. I found my tribe on the internet, workshopped in writing circles and attended writing conferences. In 2015, The Part Time Shaman Handbook: An Introduction For Beginners was published by Bud Smith’s Unknown Press. A hybrid mix of prose poetry and images, it feels like my true path and my own authentic voice. 

I’d love to take this opportunity to close with a shout out to my colleagues in the writing community and to the editors who have published my work, but especially to fellow writers and friends Robert Vaughan, Meg Tuite, Bud Smith, Kathy Fish, and Lawrence Kessenich. You all helped me find my voice and showed me ways to make my writing my own. Your patience, professional insight, collegial support, and friendship have helped me find my way back to Planet Write. For that I will remain eternally grateful.

Good Help Is Hard To Find

Some of them are notorious tweakers. Nobody epitomizes the cowboy-outlaw biker more than the ironworkers, who are wired on Black Beauties they sell on breaks. 

Bulldozers rumble over loose red soil, kicking up dust and spewing acrid exhaust. Machinery clamors and clanks in pandemonium. Heavy metal blasts from a boom box with such fury that it overpowers the machine gun roar of jackhammers.

The ironworkers sing along at the top of their lungs as they climb the latticework, and Dave leans on his shovel, staring in disbelief at the pink slip in his hand.

(Published in the Santa Fe Literary Review 2013. Meg Tuite, Editor)


Michael Gillan Maxwell is a writer and visual artist in the Finger Lakes Region of New York state. Maxwell writes short fiction, poetry, songs, essays, lists, recipes and irate letters to his legislators. A teller of tales, and singer of songs, he’s prone to random outbursts, he may spontaneously combust or break into song at any moment.

The Part Time Shaman Handbook: An Introduction For Beginners was published by Unknown Press in 2015. Maxwell can be found ranting and raving on his website:

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