Using a planner when so many of our plans, events, schedules, travel and conferences have been completely upended or downright cancelled? Have you lost your mind?
Six months in quarantine can do things to a person, which is why writing in a planner has proven to be more valuable than ever before. With so much out of my control, the daily practice of putting things down on paper, from tiny tasks to long term projects, has been an important grounding habit that has helped me through the last several months of uncertainty.
A few friends enjoy teasing me about my affinity for the printed agenda (winking at Valerie), but I love a good planner. There’s something alluring about a small, portable book that promises to bring order to schedules, ideas, and projects, especially now. While I depend on Microsoft Outlook for work-related meetings, deadlines and reminders, for me, nothing replaces putting pen to paper and visually seeing my week. Even if my weeks now look completely different than they had at the beginning of the year. Writing things down brings a clarity that I just don’t get from tech.
I did change planners. Gone is the rigid and elaborate full year calendar. After hearing so much about the Bullet Journal, I have moved to that format and have found that this open design is much more flexible in handling a year that makes you doubt writing anything in ink. All I need is a dotted journal (I love the Leuchtturm 1917 A5), a ruler, and a pen. I can create my own layout for the week (this takes 5 minutes), and create sections for projects, notes and research. It’s more forgiving for those times when I start out with a weekly plan that dissolves by hump day. And no more blank abandoned pages with days that have gone off the rails.
When so much is out of our influence—when and if our kids will go back to school (I have twin seniors who will be doing online classes this fall), job requirements (if we’re lucky enough to keep our jobs), and all the small ways we could once connect as a community being put on hold—writing things down helps me focus on what I can control and gives me space to explore how I can be of service to others in my community now and in the future.
So, I’ll keep writing and planning, even if it feels as though I’m drawing in the sand and waiting for the tide to come in. Each day is a new opportunity to listen, learn and put my energy towards my priorities.
If we are fortunate enough to have our health and our jobs, we are grateful but still struggling to create a new normal for ourselves and our families. So many of us now have kids finishing their semesters through online school while we’re working full time. Many of our touchstones and daily routines have been upended. We are doing our best each day, although the definition of ‘our best’ also changes on the daily.
Andy Boyle is here to help.
You see, his book, BIG PROBLEMS, was released by Penguin on March 31st. He is one of many authors who has found himself promoting a new book in the middle of this pandemic. Today, Andy shares what he learned while writing BIG PROBLEMS and offers advice on how to keep moving towards our goals—and why taking a break is not only fine, but necessary.
LO: First off, congratulations on your new book! Can you share a bit about the life experiences that culminated in your writing BIG PROBLEMS?
AB: Thank you so much! I’ve been a journalist for about 15 years, and it’s impossible for me to look through things without that lens. So after my first book, Adulthood for Beginners, came out, I was trying to find a meaty subject to sick my teeth into, something that would allow me to use myself as the storytelling and thematic vehicle to explain a big topic. But also, in the end, hopefully help people, which is one of the reasons I became a journalist in the first place.
And the topic I chose is, well, at its heart a mystery. How come a person like me—allegedly well-educated—managed to get so fat, just like millions of others? And then, to add another mystery, how come I was able to lose so much weight (and keep it off), unlike most people?
That led to the pitch for BIG PROBLEMS: A Former Fat Guy’s Look At Why We’re Getting Fatter And What You Can Do To Fix It. My agent liked it, my publisher liked it, and voila. I would research the macro and micro levels that led to myself—and others—getting fat, told through that journalistic lens, while also including quite a bit of levity and humor throughout.
I rewrote the book multiple times to get it right. At one point, I went back and redid about 50,000 words, replacing entire portions of the book, adding in more research, doing more journalism. It was a lot of work. It was a lot of running and weight-lifting and sweating.
But, in the end, I’m quite proud of the end result. I even narrated the audiobook! And I even had a director for that. The entire time I kept complaining about how “the guy who wrote this should’ve done a better job with these sentences.” The joke never got old.
LO: Do you find the habits you learned are harder/easier to stick to in this particular time of being in a pandemic?
AB: I think everything is harder for everyone right now, and folks who are saying it isn’t are, uh, perhaps misstating the facts a little. So, everyone needs to first cut themselves an incredible amount of slack.
But for me, the same habits that led to me losing weight, staying productive, and pushing myself toward healthier decisions, are the same habits I’m using now, which were all focused on certain goals. (For me, objective goals work best. Write 1,000 words a day, eat 200 grams of protein a day, read 90 minutes a day, that sort of thing.)
The only difference is, with everything going on, I’ve changed my goals substantially. Before my book came out, my goal was to be able to bench press a certain amount (225 pounds) for 5 sets of 5 reps, and deadlift 405 pounds for 5 reps. That was what kept me going to the gym regularly, following my strength program, eating properly, everything. When the gym practically disappeared from my life (when I was 10 and 30 pounds from my two goals, respectively), I decided my goals needed to change. With nothing heavy to regularly lift up and down, how could I have that kind of objective goal?
Now it’s much more simple: Workout four days a week (that’s mostly consisted of running 3-5 miles, with the occasional body weight/cables-attached-to-my-door strength training), hit a certain caloric and protein goal and get a good amount of sleep.
I’ve got a full-time job at the Chicago Sun-Times, plus I’ve been promoting a book, plus trying to plot out a novel. So my artistic goals have changed quite substantially, too. I just try and set aside 30 minutes a day now for my non-work projects. That could be spending 30 minutes learning a card trick. Or 30 minutes outlining my novel. Or 30 minutes writing up a character sketch. For me, 30 minutes is quite achievable after my normal work day, and it often ends up being longer than that. If I were a full-time writer, I would definitely have bigger goals. (For instance, when I was drafting my book, my goal was 1,500 words a day, which usually involved the research/interviews/etc., which wasn’t exactly easy when I had a full-time job. But hey, I did it. Somehow.)
Another important point: I don’t beat myself up if I don’t hit my goals. The idea is to try to hit them. If I only exercise three days a week, I still exercised. If I only write 500 words a day, I still wrote. Having goals helps you push yourself toward whatever you’re trying to get done. (Making daily lists of TO DOs helps with this immensely, especially for my day job. It also gives me a sense of accomplishment after I check each one off, even if it’s as simple as “Answer Laura’s wonderful questions she emailed you.”)
LO: Many writers consider themselves introverts, so working in isolation may not be a huge adjustment, but what advice do you have for the more extroverted among us? How are you adapting?
AB: I can walk between both worlds, but if I had my choice, I would be a hermit who lived on a plot of land in my home state of Nebraska with beautiful prairie vistas. I value my private time, especially when I am being creative. But I am also quite adept at putting on “The Andy Show,” to quote a former girlfriend, when I am around other people, AKA being entertaining and fun and Mr. Life of The Party. So, my Nebraska home would need to be like a five-minute drive from a hangout spot at the very least.
As a writer, being around people is great because you sometimes hear random idioms and turns of phrases, which you can then squirrel away into your phone in the NOTE you have titled “COOL DIALOGUE.” It’s also great to be around others because it reminds you how people react to one another, how people dress, how they smile, how they laugh, how they move their hands when they’re nervous, so many things. Just like reading helps to make you a better writer, being around humans helps to make you understand humans better—and as writers, we mostly deal with humans. Win-win.
I have most definitely missed my occasional coffee get-togethers with my writer friends. I’ve been hopping on video chats with people, reaching out more via text. My writing group had a video get-together to critique a draft of a novel of mine, which was lovely. I also held a Zoom “book launch” event the day my book came out, and about 25 people came. It was lovely.
However folks are getting through right now, though, is the “right way” to get through it all, introverted or extroverted. But one thing I’ve learned in my life is, if you’re ever in doubt of whether or not you should email an old friend or text someone to just say hello, just do it. Those connections are important, especially as you get older.
LO: How do you get your mind into a creative space right now? Or is that an unrealistic expectation during this time?
AB: I do it by making the time for it. That sounds like such a cliched thing, but I’ve never been a person who writes because the muse has spoken to my soul. Or because I have been struck with fantastic inspiration and have the entire writing project fully realized in my head.
No, I write because I’ve made a goal of writing XXX words a day, or for XX minutes, or whatever. And then I will usually schedule the writing time in my calendar, and then I get the message that says “10 minutes until WRITE 1,500 WORDS appointment,” which is enough time to go oh shit oh shit I am hungry I need to clean my entire home oh my cat needs new toys oh I should text my girlfriend oh shit oh shit AND NOW I am writing.
It’s work. And just like you gotta show up to your job to do your job (or at least now, log into your computer while wearing sweatpants at home), you gotta show up to do your creative work. And you make time for the work and make an appointment with yourself that you’ll do the work.
I used to be (still am?) a musician. Went to music school for my first two years of college. Studied vocal music performance. (Maybe 18-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to make such decisions.) What that taught me about creativity is you gotta make time to sit down, practice scales, try work that stretches your brain and skills (also known as: is hard), and just do the work. You make time for it. Over time, you get better. But it’s still work, and it sometimes still sucks and you can’t tell that you’ve gotten any better.
Mozart and Beethoven didn’t just go “Huzzah, I am going to write a piece of music that shall change the world!” (Which probably would’ve been in German.) No, they created a habit: They will try and write something during certain periods of time, probably while cursing in German. (Das ist Scheiße!). Sometimes the work sucked. Sometimes it was Beethoven’s Ninth. Regardless, they followed their process and the work followed.
I’m currently outlining a novel, a method I’ve never really had much success with before. (And you may be wondering, Andy, how much success have you had with previous novels? As I’ve only gotten non-fiction published, that should tell you a lot about my fiction success.) But I sit there for an extended period of time, legal pad in hand, and I just jot down ideas. I make little timelines and draw when events could occur, which lead to some of those ideas I jotted down.
I have to show up by putting my butt in a chair. The creativity happens somewhere while you’re doing the work. And, when you’re actively working on a project, you’ll be out on a run or sitting watching TV and you’ll get a great idea—WHAT IF THE LOVE INTEREST FROM HIS PAST KILLED HIM???—and then you jot it down into your phone’s NOTES tab under COOL IDEAS.
But that’s for me. I always am in need of a project. If you’re juggling 900 things and just trying to keep your head above water right now, you may not have the mental bandwidth for any sort of creative outlet. And that is completely fine. Anyone who says otherwise is probably a charlatan trying to sell you something or make themselves seem amazing in comparison. Which means they suck.
Sometimes the most creative thing you can do is let your mind get bored through the drudgery of everyday existence.
Q: What is it like, having a book come out in the midst of a pandemic?
It is a weird time to be promoting a book, especially when folks can’t walk into bookstores, check out the “New Releases” table, pick things up, be sold because of the back cover copy or the front cover artwork. It seems like now, more than ever, word of mouth is one of the best ways to promote books.
That means you should be regularly telling your friends books that you’ve loved, in the hope that they will buy them. And then you should also give links to your friends of the independent bookstores they can order the books from.
And this is me, your new internet friend, telling you to pick up my book. And then to tell everyone about it. And then also get Laura’s book. And tell everyone about it. And then tell everyone about another book you’ve loved that they should read.
Andy Boyle is the author of Adulthood for Beginners and an award-winning journalist and technologist. His work has previously been featured in the Chicago Sun-Times, Axios, Esquire, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and on NBC News. His work was cited in the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News. He was also the runner-up in the 2019 Hugh Holton Award through the Mystery Writers of America’s Midwest chapter. A native of Nebraska, he lives in Chicago.
Laura Oles’ debut mystery, DAUGHTERS OF BAD MEN, was an Agatha nominee, a Claymore Award finalist and a Killer Nashville Readers’ Choice nominee. She is also a Writers’ League of Texas Award Finalist. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including MURDER ON WHEELS, which won the Silver Falchion Award in 2016. Her most recent short story, “The Deed” was included DENIM, DIAMONDS AND DEATH: Bouchercon Anthology 2019.
Before turning to crime fiction, Laura spent two decades as a photo industry journalist covering technology trends for a variety of consumer and industry magazines. You can find her at https://lauraoles.com
Day after day, whether we
want to or not, we hear nothing but murder, mayhem, the politics of personal
destruction, and a new insistence on rigid lines of political correctness.
Somehow we put one foot in front of the other and march on – sometimes
wondering to what end. On November 16, I had an experience that washed all of
that away, even if just for a little while.
I attended a special concert by
the Austin Symphony Orchestra at the Lake Travis Performing Arts Center. As
expected, Maestro Peter Bay and his orchestra were superb in their renditions
of Holst, Mozart, and Musorgsky. But Mr. Bay went beyond. To provide another
level of inspiration to young musicians in training, he reached out and
arranged for sixteen music students from Lake Travis High School to join the
orchestra, some even given the honor of sitting in the first chairs.
this brief moment, all the tensions of daily life melted away, and I felt a
surge of renewed hope for the future, for in the arts lies the unity of
humankind. At the concert, I cannot tell you if I saw people of color, blonds,
brunettes, or greying heads on the stage.
I only saw musicians making
sounds that swelled my soul and transcended the noise of our daily lives.
Artists in all disciplines must
reach for more, whether conceiving an architectural masterpiece, a painting, an
opera, a ballet, or a symphony. In their quest for excellence, their creations
help erase the boundaries that separate us as people. Those who create must
look beyond the narrow limits of mob-think; they must see in vivid colors, hear
in vivid sounds, and often take the roads less traveled. They may be reclusive
in the process of creating, but they do not function in isolation. Individuals
who dedicate themselves to artistic development have a strong sense of self,
driven to self-actualization. Their visions give to society while they draw
from their cultures and many academic disciplines.
Painters see in colors, form, and
proportions. Composers and musicians operate within mathematical formulas:
divisions of time; use of fractions to indicate the length of notes. Dancers
operate within the structures of Physical Science and the theories of motion
and gravity. Actors must empty themselves to absorb the characters they play on
stage – This requires looking beyond their own perceptions and truths.
The arts are vital to
humanity. They give flight to imagination and creativity and should be an
essential part of academic education. Albert Einstein, perhaps one of the most
highly self-actualized human beings, once said, “Creativity is
intelligence at play.”
The Austin Symphony Orchestra and
Lake Travis High School showed us a model for Einstein’s playful quote. We
watched and listened to the young, who are still fresh and full of hope, join
the seasoned professionals, and reach for excellence. They expanded their
horizons and brought a diverse audience together in admiration.
You may be thinking, lovely
sentiment, but how do we do it?
Many believe that the government
should become the primary support for everything – including the arts. That
road too quickly leads to a government having the power to define and control
creativity. Study the long list of artists who defected from
socialist/oppressive nations where the State defines what art is and how it’s
to be expressed. The government can, however, have a constructive place in
nurturing our children’s individual creative development.
Block grants to school districts,
earmarked explicitly for promoting artistic growth, might be of great value in
helping our young reach for their stars, and in the process, build bridges
between people and help elevate humanity to higher levels of well-being. That
requires recognition and respect for the fact that people are different, and
the differences go deeper than color or
The arts ensure that diverse
identities and cultures are recognized and given a voice in the world. The arts
of every culture reach back in time, relying on those who came before.
Present-day artists build on the past and expand their disciplines, reflecting
today’s world. Our art not only leaves a record of who we are, but also the
growth we’ve contributed to the future.
I’m a morning writer, and it’s morning. Filled with energy, and inspiration, I grab the notes I’d scribbled on the post-it when ideas woke me during the night. Sharpen those pencils and dust off the keyboard. Coffee’s brewing, toast pops up. Ready, set, go.
Not So Fast—
phone rings. “Mom. Emergency. The sitter is sick. Can you take the baby for a
few hours?” I, the devoted grandmother,
agree to help. When the baby naps, I’ll write.
phone rings again. The nonagenarian is desperate to get to the supermarket.
to life in the sandwich generation.
am a piece of Swiss cheese firmly pressed between two slices of hearty Italian
bread. On one side is my nonagenarian mother, a feisty old lady, who doesn’t
look or act her age. She is in great
physical shape other than the fact that she can’t hear very well, can’t smell
very well, and claims not to be able to walk very well. As for the walking,
just give her a shopping cart in the supermarket and try to keep up with her. I’ve
lost several pounds chasing her up and down the aisles.
other side are my grandchildren, normal little people going through the
different stages of emotional, physical and intellectual growth. They provide
the expected tests for the adult nervous system: conflict, espionage, and
subterfuge. Put any one of them together with the nonagenarian who wishes to be
a revered elder and a naughty child at the same time, and it’s like herding
so, I pick up the 24-month-old and then the 95-year-old, and off to the
supermarket we go!
young one sits in the basket in front of me, and the old one is behind me
zipping around with her cart and getting into as much mischief as possible,
picking up candies and treats she knows
the 24 month-old is not allowed to eat.
child’s radar, of course, locks onto the junk food. She tries to elongate her
little arm to reach over me and receive the treat from her great-grandmother.
powers of observation in both the toddler and the nonagenarian are impeccable;
their timing the envy of any dance team. If I turned to a shelf on my left, the
nonagenarian reaches over my right shoulder to give the toddler some forbidden
sweet. Once that sweet is in the 24-month-old’s chubby little fist, I must
employ all my powers of persuasion to get it away. After I succeed, I turn to
scold the nonagenarian but she’s disappeared. I find myself talking to thin
continues up and down each aisle as the elder rises to the challenges of
flexible movement and rapid deployment, accumulating as many different snacks
as possible and passing them to her beloved great-grandchild before I can stop
woman who cannot walk so well is able to dodge, feint and sidestep with
incredible speed. She appears and disappears at key times while I actually try
to gather items on the list.
last, I make it to the check-out line where the naughty old child hands a candy
bar to the determined young child. “Here, sweetie, take this,” but my antennae
are up and my intercept quick.
snatch the bar away before the little one captures it in her vice-like grip.
Both the old and the young cry out in dismay. Finally, I have no choice but to
appropriately discipline both, which nearly creates a riot at the register. It
is my good fortune that no do-gooders are there to insist that I be reprimanded
for reprimanding those in my charge.
packed, groceries paid for, I swiftly maneuver the nonagenarian and the toddler
to the car and get them safely strapped into their seats, after which I load
the nonagenarian at home with her purchases. And now there is one. This is
soon as I reach the safety of my home, I promptly put the toddler down for a
nap. Ahh. Blessed relief. It’s quiet at last, and time to write. I smile and
close my eyes for a moment of peace to gather my thoughts.
The next time I open them, a little voice is
The original version of this, Supermarket Nightmare,
appeared in the March 2015 edition of Funny
As writers, we often contend with voices inside our heads. It’s not just me, is it? As much as I love these characters who demand to be heard, there are moments when I need a break. I need someone else’s voice inside my head. Someone to inspire me or to teach me something interesting that could also prove useful in a future scene or novel.
That’s where podcasts come in. I’ve long been a fan of podcasts, and the quality of what’s currently available is a true treasure trove for those tuning in. There’s something for every interest, and almost any topic can be found by doing a simple search in your podcast app.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Reply All: This podcast explores how technology and culture collide, often in interesting or unexpected ways. Want to learn how someone can steal your Instagram account? And why would they want it? Or maybe a profile about how a software designer turned his skills to building an illegal empire online? The quality of the reporting and narration are top notch, and this is the one podcast I anxiously wait for each time a new episode drops.
Murder Book with Michael Connelly: This passion project created by powerhouse author Michael Connelly is a new release and one that quickly captured my attention. Connelly explores an unsolved thirty-year-old homicide case that “tests the limits of the American criminal justice system.”
Hidden Brain: “Shankar Vedantam uses science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships.” Vedantam is a skilled narrator and the topics are fascinating, ranging from how to move past a life-altering injury to the psychology of surprise endings (an excellent episode for writers).
This American Life: Produced by NPR, this podcast never disappoints (me). Each week involves a certain theme, and the reporting ties several stories to that theme. The storytelling focuses on compelling people, difficult dynamics and big questions that don’t always have an answer. Thought-provoking and beautifully produced, this one is worth a listen.
Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin: Alex Baldwin’s personal antics can be up for debate, but you can’t argue with the man’s interviewing skills. This one surprised me in all the best ways. He’s interviewed everyone from Billy Joel and Carly Simon to Cameron Crowe and Kyle MacLachlan. Alec’s questions dig down deep into the topic of the creation of art of all kinds and how those pursuits impact personal relationships. The episode with Jerry Seinfeld is one of my favorites because he shares how to make time to write–and how he did it during the Seinfeld years. His answers may surprise you. For those curious about the inside-baseball elements of writing, acting, and other creative endeavors, this public radio podcast pulls strong.
Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me: Sometimes, after a long writing session, I need a good laugh. A quiz program with a rotating panel including comedic talents Mo Rocca, Paula Poundstone, Alonzo Bodden and several others, this show blends current events with fake news stories in an effort to discern what’s true and what’s not. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction on this show.
When compiling this list, I realized that most of my recommendations came from podcasts created by public radio. Just one more reason to support your local public radio station!
Do you listen to podcasts? If so, which ones are your favorites?
Friday evening David said, “Should I wake you at nine tomorrow?” and I said, “Why?” because I never know what day it is, and he said, “You’re going to Saturday writing practice at the Yarborough library,” and I said, “At the Yarborough,” and he said, “Yes, the Yarborough,” and I said, “The Yarborough, the Yarborough.
So the next morning I sat in the parking lot of the Twin Oaks library for nine minutes, until I knew it was open, because I didn’t want to wait outside and freeze, and at one minute after ten, I went inside and found the meeting rooms dimly lit and empty, and I said to myself, “The Yarborough.” . . .
There’s more! Click HERE to read the original post.
Laura Oles celebrates doubly this month–today her debut novel, DAUGHTERS OF BAD MEN, was released by Red Adept Publishing, just a week after Austin Mystery Writers’ LONE STAR LAWLESS, in which Laura’s story “Carry On Only” appears, was released by Wildside Press. Here’s what I posted about these publications at Writing Wranglers and Warriors. Laura will be along presently to tell you more.
I’ve been in AMW for six or seven years–can’t remember exactly–but membership is one of the best things that’s happened since I began writing for publication. Examining others’ work and hearing their comments on mine has made me a better writer. Members have become my friends. Together we’ve enjoyed workshops and lunches and weekend retreats.
And I’ve acquired a new virtue: I’m genuinely happy when other members get their work published.
My skin turns Shrek green, but I’m happy.
Offsetting today’s greenish tinge over Laura’s debut, I’m also happy to announce . . .
Browsing through the AMW blog, I came across the title, “Morning Pages: Don’t Speak. Don’t Judge. Don’t Fall Asleep.” And I thought, What a cute title. I wonder who the author is. A couple of clicks later I discovered the author was moi. I wrote it in 2014. Quelle surprise, as those of us who took one summer class in French just for fun say but can’t remember how to spell. (I looked it up.) I also found I kind of liked it,* and since it’s mine, I’m giving myself permission to re-post.
The first day of last summer’s Writer’s League of Texas retreat, author-instructor Karleen Koen told students that every morning before class, we must do Morning Pages: Wake up, don’t speak, take pen and paper–not computer–and, while still drowsy, write “three pages of anything.” Don’t judge. Keep the pen moving. In her course notebook, Karleen listed the following:
Stream of consciousness, complain, whine, just move your hand across the page writing whatever crosses your mind until you get to the end of page three.
Karleen stressed that she didn’t invent Morning Pages. The technique, minus the name, came from the book Becoming a Writer by teacher Dorothea Brande, published in 1934 and reissued in 1981. Author John Gardner, in his foreword to the reprinted edition, states it was “astonishing” that the book had ever gone out of print.
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
Ms Brande advises aspiring writers to “rise half an hour, or a full hour, before you customarily rise.” She continues,
Write anything that comes into your head: last night’s dream, if you are able to remember it; the activities of the day before; a conversation, real or imaginary; an examination of conscience. Write any sort of early morning reverie, rapidly and uncritically. (Brande, p. 72)
Why we do Morning Pages? To quiet the internal critic; to tap into the subconscious; to discover what you know; to remember and to capture the present; to build fluency, the ability to “write smoothly and easily when the unconscious is in the ascendant.” (Brande, p. 72) And, as Koen notes, to whine and complain.
When I do Morning Pages, I like to focus on whining and complaining. Words of discontent virtually flow from my pen when I follow Brande’s instruction to rise early. To wit:
The morning after Karleen assigned Morning Pages, my roommate and I woke to my cell phone alarm at seven rather than the previous day’s eight. (I think that was the morning the phone flew from the nightstand and landed on the concrete floor.) I propped myself up on a couple of pillows, gathered the pen and the notebook I’d placed on the nightstand before retiring the night before, and started to write.
While I wrote, my roommate sat on the side of her bed. Instead of picking up her notebook, she spoke. I reminded her we weren’t supposed to talk. She told me she didn’t care what we weren’t supposed to do. After violating the rules once or twice more, she started on her Morning Pages.
Roommate Gale Albright drinking tea and smiling
In my usual all-or-nothing fashion (a tiny bit of OCD), I wrote through hand cramp and shifting pillows. Halfway through, I fell asleep. When I woke about a half-hour later, I resumed scribbling.
My roommate had already finished her Pages. She had dressed. She had sat on the porch and drunk a cup of hot tea. She was smiling.
Sometimes it is better to bend the rules.
At break time, I quoted to Karleen the first sentence of my Morning Pages:I don’t like Karleen any more. (I said it in bold font.) She laughed and asked if I knew how funny I was. I didn’t tell her I was dead serious. I knew that before the end of the day I would like her again, and if I told the truth now, I would have to apologize later, and I just didn’t have the energy.
Since I’m confessing, I might as well admit that, while I was scribbling, I figured out a fool-proof way to make Morning Pages a positive experience: Use a notebook with little tiny pages. They fill up faster.
Looking back, I’m ashamed of the thought, but at the time it seemed a darned good idea. Sometimes it still does.
Anyway. Having griped about that miserable experience, I’ll also admit that Morning Pages work. I’ve done them off and on since 1998, when I heard Julia Cameron speak at the Austin Whole Life Festival. A small group of young men stood outside Palmer Auditorium holding placards and begging attendees to abandon chakras and crystals and choose reason instead, while inside, Cameron shared the most reasonable ideas on stimulating creativity.
So I read The Artist’s Way and, although a 17-cent spiral notebook would have sufficed, I bought a copy of The Artist’s Way Journal. (The Journal had enormous, narrow-ruled pages that took forever to cover, but having the proper tools is important to us obsessive types.)
Then I wrote. And whined. And complained. As I did, the garbage in my head oozed down my arm, through my hand, and onto the page. By the time I got to page three, my mood had lightened. When I turned to other writing, the garbage stayed trapped inside the Journal.
Once the brain has been cleared of debris, words can flow.
That’s my experience. Others have their own reasons for writing those three pages per day. But those who engage in the practice swear by it.
As I said, I’m not consistent. I’ve done Morning Pages for months at a time, then skipped one day and failed to resume the habit.** Nearly every time I’ve given up, fatigue has been the cause. A long commute before and after an extra-long day makes early rising unpleasant if not impossible. The same thing goes for getting to bed too late. Morning Pages require adequate sleep. But so does good health. So does good writing of any kind.***
Before leaving the retreat, I bought a special notebook for my return to Morning Pages. The signature on the cover looked like Dickens but turned out to be Darwin. No matter. Darwin and I are friends, too, and I wanted the green one. I’ve not yet made peace with going to bed at a decent hour. I’m trying. But when I stay up into the wee hours working on a blog post, my morning edges toward afternoon.
Oh–I’ve just remembered: A situation unrelated to fatigue once interfered with Morning Pages. It involved the repaving of twenty miles of FM20, a wintry-cold house, and a new box of cat litter.
But that’s a story for another post.
Charles Darwin’s signature on elegant green notebook
* Re-reading old work and liking old work don’t always occur together.
** Morning Pages is about the only habit I’ve ever managed to break.
*** I’m not sure about sleep being necessary for good writing of all kinds. I suspect Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald might have stayed up past bedtime. But I bet Willa Cather kept regular hours. And, as people with any discernment at all recognize, Cather is at the very top of the American novelist pecking order.
That’s what experienced writers tell the wannabes.
For a long time, I thought business applied to action alone: Write every day, attend classes, network, become familiar with various routes to publication, learn the market, read submission guidelines, stay in good physical shape, and on and on… Items on a list, they could be checked off at the end of each day.
Recently, I discovered another aspect of writing as business that I can’t quite fit onto a list.
Last winter, Kaye George put out a call for submissions of stories for DAY OF THE DARK, an anthology to celebrate the total solar eclipse that will be visible from parts of the United States this summer. Each story would contain an element of mystery and would be related to an eclipse. Kaye would edit, and Wildside Press would have the book out before the August 21 eclipse.
I’ve known Kaye for a number of years, ever since I joined Austin Mystery Writers, which she was facilitating. I watched as her career took off–a contract for one mystery series soon turned into contracts for three more series. At the same time, she wrote and published short stories and articles, and appeared on panels, and made it look easy.
Periodically, I said, “I don’t know how she gets it all done.”
And someone would respond, “Now, you mustn’t compare yourself to Kaye.”
And I would say, “I’m not comparing myself to her. I just don’t know how she gets it all done.”
I knew, of course, that she did it by checking tasks off that list. What I wanted to know was–where did she get the energy? (I still want to know.)
When I read her call for submissions, I didn’t consider sending a story. As usual, my mind was blank. My mind is always blank–what could I write about an eclipse?–until the last minute. As usual, at the last minute, I came up with an idea for a story.
I don’t like to work for friends. I don’t mix the personal and the professional. If I sent Kaye a story and she rejected it, I wouldn’t be hurt, I wouldn’t be angry, I wouldn’t be devastated–but I would be embarrassed, not by rejection, but by the knowledge that I’d had the audacity to submit an inferior product, a story I should have known wasn’t worthy–
Here’s where the epiphany comes in:
It dawned on me that–what a concept!–Kaye is a businesswoman. She intended to put out the best book possible. She would choose only stories that fit her purpose.
And epiphany, part 2:
I was a businesswoman. I would submit a story. It it was accepted, I would be pleased. If it was rejected, I would accept that as part of doing business, set the story aside, tweak it, submit it elsewhere. Or, if I discovered it wasn’t tweakable, I would set it aside and leave it there.
Write, submit, be accepted/rejected, get on with life.
So I wrote a story titled “I’ll Be a Sunbeam,” submitted, was accepted, and, after dancing
around the room for a while–dancing is also part of the writing business–I saw another call for submissions, wrote, submitted…
Today, July 21, a month before the coming eclipse, DAY OF THE DARK is being released. It will be available in print and for Kindle.
I’m thrilled my story was accepted for DAY OF THE DARK. I’m thrilled to be in the company of the twenty-three other writers whose stories appear there.
And I’m thrilled to finally understand that the writing business is really a state of mind.