My Dream Reading Space

So, I was contacted by this nice woman named Molly who wanted me to write a blog post about my dream reading space, and along the way maybe promote the company she works for a bit.  (Though this wasn’t a requirement and I’m not being compensated in any way.)

At first I ignored her, I am embarrassed to admit. Then I allowed as how I was interested but too busy at the moment (truth–I was out of town, home for two days, and then out of town again). So when she asked me if I could do it by the 15th I felt bad and said yes.

And truth be told, I thought it might be a good excuse for a blog post. Because, as you might have noticed, they are in short supply these days.  So here we go.

When I think of my dream reading space, it has:

–A window seat with comfy cushions. Oh, and it should look out over a beautiful view,  maybe of rolling green hills.  

–A fireplace.

–A rocking chair with footstool next to the fireplace.

–A big basket full of yarn and knitting, for those moments when I want to pause in my reading and reflect.

–A smattering of tables the perfect heights of which to set a cup of coffee or tea, or a glass of wine upon.

–Thick comfy rugs to squish my toes on.

–A pile of quilts, afghans and comforters to pull over myself when the warmth of the fire isn’t quite enough.

–An excellent reading lamp.

–Piles of reading glasses in small containers on every table.

Let’s see, I think that about does it.  For the record, here’s a link to a post with a ton of cool images. And below are some more images I’ve found:

Please do leave a comment and tell me about your dream space!

You Have a Choice (A Love Letter)

You have a choice.

You wake up in the morning and you get to open up your kitchen cupboard and decide—coffee? Tea? Smoothie? All of the above?

You open your closet and you get to choose what to wear.  (Or, if you work at home like me, you get to decide if you’re going to bother to get dressed or stay in your jammies all day.)

You get in the car for the drive to work and choose which way to go. Freeway? Nah, its jammed up.  It’ll be surface streets this morning.

And most importantly, you have a choice about your writing. Specifically, how you feel about it.  This is one of the most important choices you will make each and every day.

Will you:

–Tell yourself its awful and nobody is ever going to want to read it so why bother anyway? And then make the choice to go back to bed or go eat chocolate cake instead of writing.

–Tell yourself it’s likely awful at this moment, but that’s why rewriting was invented to make it better. And then make the choice to sit down at the computer and write some more.

You can make the good choice! But sometimes it is really hard to remember this. The other morning I woke up cranky and out of sorts with the world.  Everything—including my writing—felt like a big blah, blah, blah. No color.

I dragged myself around feeling this way for awhile. And then I remembered. I have a choice. I can find a way to make myself feel better.  In my case, that particular day, it was meditation, because it had been awhile. But often I find the answer in the writing.

The funny thing is, I think I don’t want to do it. How can I write when I feel irritable, depressed, fill in the blanks? But making the choice to write always, always, always is the right one—because it always makes me feel better.

What will you choose today?

Leave a comment and share.

Why Writing is Good For Your Brain (A Love Letter)

Here’s reason #5,001 (I’m counting): that writing is a worthwhile activity: it’s good for your brain.

Allow me to digress a bit. I’m teaching myself to crochet. (Head on over to the blog if you want to see a photo of my first finished piece, a scarf heavy enough to qualify as a weighted blanket if it were an afghan).   Every time I start a new project, I puzzle over the directions, which read like a foreign language—even to somebody used to deciphering knitting patterns like me.  Then I need to Google obscure abbreviations I don’t understand, and often refer to two or three sites to figure out what I’m supposed to do.  And finally I usually have to start the project several times before I get it right.

While I’m doing this I swear I can feel all the neurons in my brain firing.  Learning something new like this is good for my brain! And if there’s one thing I desire to maintain, it’s my brain. Which is why I do crossword puzzles, read a wide variety of book genres from non-fiction to fiction, and try to get my butt out the door or to my stationary bike to exercise. (Yes, exercise is good for the brain as well as the body.) 

But as I loop yarn around my crochet hook and congratulate myself for being a lifelong learner, I keep thinking about writing.  The thought occurred to me that it must be an excellent thing for your brain to be engaged in. Because, think about how hard your brain works when you’re trying to figure out how to make a plot work, or what happened in your character’s backstory that created her motivation that powers the story.  It’s hard to think up new worlds and create people to populate them.  (And I believe that is the reason some struggle to find time to write—they don’t have the necessary brain space to do it, what with the crazy amount of input we get these days.)

So I went to the Google and looked it up. And found this: “challenging your brain activates processes that maintain brain cells and stimulate communication between them.” Boo-yah. But this is even better: a German study observed fiction writers at work and found that their brains showed similarities to people skilled at other complex actions, such as sports.

Sometimes I think we need excuses to take time to write (which is why I maintain that afore-mentioned list). So next time your partner complains about you burying yourself in your writing cave, you can haughtily inform him or her that you are improving your brain.  Never mind that you’d much rather be writing than watching Fast and Furious #18 for the thousandth time.

Do leave a comment and tell me how you’ve improved your brain recently.

Note: these love letter are taken from my weekly newsletter. If you’d prefer to have them come right into your inbox, sign up to the right!

Begin Writing and The Answer Will Appear

I spent this just-past Thanksgiving weekend at the beach with a rotating cast of family members in attendance.  It was a blast. And, I got some writing done. I woke up early every day and sat at the dining room table and wrote on my laptop. (It helped immeasurably that the house has no wi-fi.)

I’d been struggling with rewriting two chapters, the segments of which needed rearranging.  I had looked at them every which way from Sunday and back again. I would get to a point where I thought I had it all figured out and then I would realize it wouldn’t work.  So I’d go back to making notes and lining each chapter out and again, it would all collapse and go to that place where plots that don’t work go.

Finally I started writing. I went with my latest organizational scheme (because I thought I had it all figured out) and just freaking started writing. Which is when I realized that what I thought would work wouldn’t. Again. However, this time I found the answer in the writing. The arrangement of scenes flowed effortlessly, organically.  No angst or wringing of hands.

While we were at the beach, we spread out a jigsaw puzzle, which turned out to be a very difficult one, so difficult that there was much cheering every time a new piece got fit in. That’s how I felt with my chapters.  I figured out the order. Much cheering.

But here’s the main takeaway: START WRITING. It amazes me over and over again how the answers always lie in the writing itself.  Why I forgot that and need to remind myself so often is a mystery.

How do you find answers to your writing problems?

Giving Thanks (A Love Letter)

So, this past Thursday was Thanksgiving day in the United States.  It is, of course, a day to give thanks, based on the time many years ago that the original settlers had reaped their first harvest and it began to look like maybe they could do this new world thing after all.  I’m quite sure that you’ve all been inundated with emails and blog posts and newsletters about gratitude and giving thanks, but I’m adding mine, too.

 I once wrote an article that began, “Watercolors, like earth girls, are easy.” * And sometimes I feel the same way about gratitude.  It often appears as the facile answer. Just be grateful and everything you want will appear!  There’s numerous Oprah quotes to that end, such as this one: “The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.”

Part of me rolls my eyes.  Because, doesn’t it all seem a bit superficial and simplistic? Yes, yes it does.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve closed my eyes and felt deep thoughts of gratefulness and opened my eyes and the world was still the same.  Gratitude didn’t change anything.

But another part of me believes.  After all, I attend a church that hands out gratitude journals to complete every November.  And I have a lot to be grateful for (I won’t bore you with the details, which I mention often here).  But mostly, because being aligned with gratitude feels a helluva lot better than its opposite, which to me is getting mired in grumbly crankiness. Cynicism.  Because cynicism is cheap, too. Cheaper than gratitude, I think.

I’m for anything that makes me feel better. And, according to Pedram Shojai in his new book, The Art of Stopping Time, “Practicing gratitude is healthy.  It helps paint a worldview of optimism and hope. People who practice it are consistently happier—we’ve seen this in multiple studies.”

So there you have it. Gratitude does make you happier.  And here’s my bottom line: “to whom much is given, much is expected.” (John F. Kennedy, based on the bible.) Feeling gratitude for what I have reminds me that I have a duty to appreciate it and give it back.  For me, the best way to give back is to do what I’m put on this earth to do, which is write.

You, too?

Then go to it.

And most of all, let’s all be grateful we have the privilege to do this, to express what we want, when we want to. There are many, many people the world over who don’t have this freedom.

*Apologies to any watercolorists out there—my point was that watercolors might look easy in the hands of a master but really aren’t. Oh, and the earth girls reference is to the movie from 1988, in case you weren’t yet born then.

Please do feel free to leave a comment on what you’re grateful for.

Living the Astonishing Writer’s Life (A Love Letter)

As you read this, I’ll be finishing up a five-day stay in Louisville, Kentucky, after a conference/celebration at Spalding University, where I got my MFA.  The celebration part was to honor Sena Jeter Naslund, the founder and long-time director of the MFA program, who is retiring.

Sena is the author of many wonderful novels, including my favorite, Ahab’s Wife, and is also an amazing teacher and inspiring speaker.  One of the things she says is, “writers get everything everyone else does—plus the pleasures of a writing life.”

That quote encompasses everything about the life of a writer and why it is the best life imaginable.  We get everything everyone else does—and more.  And, conversely, everything in our non-writing world (that part everybody else gets) impacts our writing world.  It’s sort of like the double helix of the DNA strand—our writing and civilian lives combine and recombine, constantly fertilizing and enriching the other.

A walk on a beautiful fall day inspires description for a novel. A snippet of overheard dialogue makes its way into a scene.  Reading a book deepens your understanding of your main character.  And you also get to enjoy those things as aspects of living life.  A beautiful fall day, some interesting eavesdropping, the pleasures of sinking into the world of a book.

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your astonishment,” says Annie Dillard.  “Instructions for living a life: pay attention, be astonished, tell about it,” says Mary Oliver.  We writers are the lucky ones because we get to not only be astonished, but then tell about it.   We get to live twice, as Natalie Goldberg points out.

And that, my friends, is astonishing, no?

I do often wonder how non-writers make it through. I can’t imagine living without a writing practice, be it journaling, writing this newsletter, or crafting novels, in which to process my thoughts and figure things out.  How do people live without a container in which to place their astonishment at the world?

Aren’t you glad you’re a writer? Leave a comment and tell me the best part about being one.

 

 

Don’t listen to writing advice (A love letter)

One day this week, I rose at 5 AM.  I worked for an hour and a half—nailed the organization of a book project—and then drove to my son’s house for emergency babysitting duty at 6:30. By 9 AM that morning I’d knocked a big item off my to-do list, watched George, eaten breakfast and done the crossword, showered and gotten ready for the rest of the day.

I love getting up early. It’s when I get my best writing done, and over the years my brain and body have adjusted to this and cooperate by waking me with the dawn, or before, naturally.  Rising early works for me.  But I’m donesies by dinner—I’ll do no work requiring energetic thought after 7, and by 9 I’ll be dozing in front of the TV.

So if you asked me to advise you on the best schedule for productivity, I would enthusiastically endorse waking early, telling you that by creating time to do what’s most important to you first, you set yourself up for success the whole day.

But consider my friend Robin.  She gets her best work done starting about the time I’m dozing off. By midnight, she’s in full work mode, often staying up until 2 or 3 AM. And I know not to text her first thing in the morning, because she sleeps in until 10 or 11.

If you asked Robin the secret to productivity, she’d tell you to stay up late.

My point, which I’m sure you’re already gotten, is that what works for me may not work for you. This goes for how your schedule your days, how you live your life, and yes, how you write. We are all different, thank God.

There are a ton of experts online and elsewhere who want to tell you how to write and when to do it. I’m one of them!  Many will try to convince you that their way is the only way. But don’t listen to us. You know best what works for you.

And, here’s the caveat to this: you are responsible for figuring out what works best, for following your own path.  And that’s not as easy as it sounds, and its where we “experts” come in. Read what we have to say, absorb it, put our brilliant advice to use and see how it works.

Experts can help light many ways, but only you can figure out what way is best. Knowing yourself is a lifelong pursuit.

Please do feel free to leave a comment and tell me what you’ve taught yourself!

Go With The Flow

This morning when I got up at my usual early hour (made even earlier this week with the time switch), I had plans to work on the rewrite of my novel. Because that’s what I do when I get up early to write. It is my sacred time, devoted only to writing fiction. (Except for those times when I, ahem, devote it to reading blogs and interesting news articles.) It is part of my daily morning routine.

But this morning I awoke and the juicy bits at the top of my brain were for newsletters.  (Which, if you don’t know, I send out every week–I post them here but you can get them right into your inbox by filling out the form to the right.)

So I did what any self-respecting writer would do–I argued with myself. Told myself I HAD TO WORK ON THE NOVEL AND NOTHING ELSE.  But the newsletters wouldn’t let hold of my mind. And when I tried to connect with my novel, nothing was there. It was like a blank wall in my brain.

And so I grudgingly did what my brain was telling me to do.  I ended up knocking out two newsletters (I’ll be out of town next week so I’m setting one up ahead of time) in no time at all.

What would have happened if I hadn’t gone with the flow? Knowing me, I most likely wouldn’t have gotten either the newsletters or the work on the novel done. Instead, in trying to force my brain somewhere it didn’t want to go, I would have ended up not doing either and heading off to my procrastination default of farting around on the internet.

And now, later on in the afternoon, I’m going to steal an hour or so to work on that novel rewrite after all–because I got everything else done. So sometimes it is a good idea to release expectations of what you should be doing. We should ourselves way too much anyway.

What do you should yourself about? Leave a comment!

On Writing and Determination (A Love Letter)

Hi Writers,

I babysat my 10-month-old grandson George one day this week, as I do most weeks, and as he gets older and more mobile I’m struck by one thing: his determination.

He’ll attempt to climb on his rocking moose, for instance, but miss and plop on the floor. Up he scrabbles again.  Then he discovers the moose’s handles, but in so doing, takes a header. Cries for a minute, starts over again. He’s teaching himself to walk by pushing chairs across the dining room floor.  Up, walk, walk, walk, fall, cry or sometimes not, up again, walk some more.

The sheer amount of effort it takes to grow from a baby into even a tiny toddling-size human is astounding, and I’m constantly in awe of his determination to get there. And observing George reminds me that writing takes energy and determination, too, just of a more cerebral kind.

I’m not naturally good at it.  Determination, I mean.  Sometimes I wonder what people would say my biggest tragic flaw is and I think I know—I give up too easily.  I remember how, early in my career, I got good comments from agents when I sent out novels but the faintest whiff of rejection and I got discouraged and quit. I also often made the rookie writer mistake of hiding something I’d written away when somebody critiqued it.  Note: I said critiqued it, not criticized. Big difference. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that I wasn’t good enough.

I lost faith in myself.  Over and over and over again.

And that’s the underlying key here, the one that I’ve discovered as I’ve aged. Determination is tied to faith in yourself. Because that’s when I quit. When I convince myself I’m not good enough.  When I lose confidence.  When I get scared I don’t have what it takes. I think that’s when we all quit.  If you have no confidence in yourself, it is hard to go out and face the big, scary world.

But—and here’s a big but—I’ve learned this about myself over the years. It is my natural tendency (yours, too?) to flounder when it comes to having determination and faith in myself.  (Getting older is good for some things. Quite a few things, actually.) And so now I can catch myself when I’m quitting because someone said boo to me. Or if I start worrying too much about product versus process when I’m writing. (As in: what will my agent think of this? What will my beta readers think? What will the public think? And of course, the thing is, the public will never have a chance to think anything about it because the writing won’t see the light of day if I keep second-guessing myself.)

Babies are good for reminding adults of lots of things, especially when said adults are grandparents and have a bit more distance from in-the-trenches, day-to-day parenting.  And what George reminds me of is this: we’re all born with this determination, or we wouldn’t be walking, talking adults.

And so next time you get rejected by an editor or agent, remember this.  Next time you throw up your hands in disgust because you think your writing isn’t good enough, remember.  Next time you decide you don’t have what it takes to finish Nanowrimo, remember.

Remember and go back to the page. Or back to the next person on your agent list. Go back to that novel rewrite. You can do this. You just gotta muster up a bit more determination. But I know it’s there somewhere.  It has to be—you got this far, didn’t you?

Leave a comment and tell me about a time you used your determination. Or just say hi.

On Fitting it All (Including Writing) In, A Love Letter

Meditation. Love it or swear you’re going to scream if you hear someone say the word one more time, right?

I had a great meditation practice established for a long time.  Fifteen or twenty minutes every day, sometimes even twice a day. I loved meditating. It made me calmer, helped me focus better, and expanded my creativity.  It felt like putting my brain through the laundry.   Never mind that half the time I fell asleep during the rinse cycle. I always came out feeling mentally bright, shiny, and new.

And then I stopped. For a variety of reasons, most of which were subconscious.

For one thing, I went to France for a month. There, I was busy each day teaching, writing, eating lots of fish, and drinking the good, cheap, local wine. There wasn’t a lot of time for meditation.  Because: good, cheap, wine. And lots of good people to drink it with. And, to be honest, I forgot about it.

But there was also walking, and lots of it. Walking into town several times a day, walking to gaze at the nearby Mediterranean, walking to partake of some of that divine wine and food.  And walking was a big deal for me. Because for the last few years, walking, one of the things I’ve loved to do best in the world, has been painful. Sometimes very painful, thanks to mild arthritis in my left knee.

This year, though, I was determined to be able to walk as much as I wanted in France. And so I got a cortisone shot. Went to physical therapy several times a week. Rode a stationary bike to build up my leg muscles. And yes, I walked a ton in Collioure and Paris.  When I came home, I wanted to keep walking.  And so the time designated for exercise every day has become devoted to physical exercise, not mental.

And there went the meditation practice.

Lately, though, I’ve been missing it a lot. I’m working on finding time to fit it back into my life. Along with walking or riding bike.  And eating, and showering, and reading, and answering emails and all the other things that make up my day. And oh yeah, that other thing—writing.

Doing all the things that are good for us to do take time.  I put off having my hair cut or getting a pedicure because those things take time.  Which I’m forever trying to find more of, my main goal in life finding more time to write.  Yes, writing takes time. Lots of it. And it takes devoted time, time when I’m able mentally and emotionally to focus on putting words on the page. Because that is the crux of it, isn’t it?  When I’m trying to make time in my life, it’s because I want time to write.  When I’m doing things that are good for me, it’s because I hope they will enhance the writing.

And yet.

I so seem to have time to read my favorite blogs.  Scan the news sites.  Look at Ravelry for knitting patterns, or Etsy for tools.  I’ve realized, though, that something all these activities have in common is that they are about consuming. The things that really make me happy are about creating. Creating a strong mind, physical health, books to be read, warm shawls to wrap around me on a gloomy, gray afternoon.

And creating takes more energy, whether it is physical or mental, than consuming. But in our culture, consuming has become the predominant activity, fed by the 24-hour news cycle and a voracious online marketing machine. (Which I’ve got nothing against, I do just about all of my shopping online these days.)

I’m pretty sure there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things I want to do. But I do know that taking a closer look at the things I’m actually doing—consuming versus creating—makes me much more aware. And hopeful that I can tip the balance most often toward creating.

So, yeah, that’s about all I’ve got for you. No magic answer. I don’t know quite how to fit everything I need to do into my life. But I do know this. Whether it is meditation, or walking, or writing, when I practice it, even a little, I feel better. I’m a big believer in the Kaizen theory of life—that taking tiny, small steps leads to big improvement over time.

And to start taking those small steps, we need to be deliberate in our choices. When I think about it, that’s the key.  Becoming deliberate and mindful in choosing what I want to do at any given moment, as opposed to going into easy, default mode.  Choosing creating over consuming.  And maybe, just maybe, creating enough time in the day to meditate and walk—after I’m done writing, of course.