Archive for the ‘Books’ Category
…is where I’ve been. Literally, kind of: May & June allergy season kicked off a pretty brutal adventure with asthma—same as every year, but worse this time. Last week the doctor changed up my asthma & allergy meds and I’m much improved. Still coughing but the shortness of breath & crushing fatigue are diminishing. I can wipe down the kitchen or take a shower without getting winded, which is huge.
I’ve been keeping up with my client work, but my own writing bore the brunt of the fatigue. Creative battery totally drained. This week, as I begin to feel lots better, I’m working to reset my creative practice and good habits. Taking it slow, though!
I’ve been dialed waaaay back on social media, too—which is a good thing? But this blog fell silent too, and I’ve missed capturing thoughts and adventures here. And I’m aching to be back in a fertile groove with my book.
So much for what I haven’t done; how about what I have?
—Lots of Minecraft, with kids and without. We have a Realm where we can all play together and I had fun building a whole village of medieval-style houses for us to live in. In my own world, I’ve got a pretty little Hobbiton going. Mellow and satisfying, and certainly creative in its way.
—Read Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte. I’ve followed his blog for ages and I really like his “CODE” process (Capture, Organize, Distill, Express) for navigating all the reading I do constantly, on many fronts, and finding connections and throughlines in the ideas I’ve captured, and writing about them to assimilate and synthesize that knowledge. Basically it’s a name for what I did on this blog in its first twelve years—gathered thoughts about my reading, noted connections, worked out my ideas about whatever topics were gripping me. Somewhere along the line I shifted to doing that work more on paper than on the blog—also a nourishing practice but it eradicated some vital steps in the Organize, Distill, and Express parts of the process. It’s so hard to find anything I jotted down in one of the dozens of paper notebooks I’ve filled over the years. Which makes distilling the ideas difficult, which makes expressing them a longer and less serendipitous process. So my big takeaway from Forte’s book was to:
—Revisit the ways I’m capturing information and ideas. I’ve used Evernote for at least a decade, for stashing away everything of interest I encounter on the internet. So this past month, I tidied up my notebooks and reorganized with Forte’s Second Brain (digital brain) “PARA” structure in mind: Projects, Areas of Interest, Resources, Archive. Now, personally I find a lot of overlap between Areas and Resources, so my system is different from Forte’s. Which tweaking he encourages, of course! But if your Capture tool has a robust search engine (and Evernote has one of the best), how you organize your notes is of less importance, because you can always surface what you need via search.
—Of course I’m still writing in notebooks. Pen and paper does spark a different kind of fertile, creative thought. So I’m making it a practice to read over my scribbles at least weekly and move anything of use or interest into Evernote. Sometimes I type things up (a helpful practice for zero drafts of poems) and other times I just take a picture. Evernote’s search can even deal with handwriting! This practice is another way of leaning into the “Second Brain” concept—recognizing that we live in an information-overload age and it isn’t possible to hold it all in one’s own (first) brain anymore. There’s a lot of peace in trusting you’ll find what you need in your archive. And, I mean, so many of us homeschooling blogger types experienced the magic of the Distill and Express parts of the process in the enthusiastic discourse that led to such good writing & experiences in those days.
—Even in my fatigued state, the thrill I get from trying out a new app or platform has been as intense as ever. Over the past year or two, I’ve tested lots of notetaking and project-planning apps (a slew of Capture tools, basically). Notion, Roam Research, Logseq, Mem, Sunsuma—these are all excellent projects with unique structures and uses. You’ll find diehard fans of each one. In the end, though (ha—there is never a true end to this experimentation), I determined that Evernote makes the most sense for me. I like its looks, its functionality, and its amazing integration. For task tracking and timeblocking, I use Todoist, and I’ve been really happy with my setup there for a long time. The other two apps I lean on constantly, with gratitude for the role they play, are Readwise and Momentum Dash. The former catches all my Kindle highlights, article quotes, and any passages I’ve marked in print books & sent (via photo) to the app; and it sends all these juicy bits of good stuff to Evernote where I can…search them whenever I want. And Momentum Dash is a nice focusing element in my browser. When you open a new tab, you get a nice clean screen with a beautiful photo—no Google distractions. You can add habit tracking across the top if you wish, plus other tidbits like the weather. And you can customize tab sets to make it easier to stay focused on a particular type of work. For example, I have one set that opens all the tabs I need to do my social media job for Low Bar Chorale. Another one opens only what I need for daily planning. It’s an elegant little browser extension that went a long way toward cutting down drifting and getting sucked into feeds, or having Twitter open all day.
(P.S. That Todoist link is an affiliate link—I rely on the app so much I signed up for their referral program. If you’re interested in how I use it to keep track of homeschooling, housework, medical admin, client work, and creative projects, I’m happy to rave about my system anytime.)
—Since May, I’ve written the first three (!) Brave Writer Darts of the current year’s lineup. Am at work on the fourth, for Pam Muñoz Ryan’s lovely novel Solimar, now.
—I’ve worked a little bit on a long-term project to create a resource for Oregon families with a kid making the shift from child disability services to adult services. I documented the almost-a-year-long process we navigated for my son, and I was stunned to discover the road map/timeline/checklist I yearned for doesn’t exist. So I’m making one to share. Slow but steady progress.
—As for stitching, I’ve mostly been mending socks and jeans. My embroidery projects have been on idle.
—And (since this got long!) one last thing I’ve been reading and enjoying immensely: A. R. Moxon’s post series called “Unpacking LOST.“ I’m a major LOST fan, have watched the whole run at least six times, plus twice more chronologically. Moxon’s take on the show is brilliant and riveting, and each time a new installment drops, it makes my day.
Hope summer is treating you well, friends. Let’s catch up!
February 2, 2022 @ 10:08 am | Filed under: Books
Comet in Moominland illustration by Tove Jansson
When I read the Moomins books aloud, I have to remember which voices I used for each character in our first reading many years ago. For some, that’s a piece of cake (I never have to wonder what Snufkin sounds like; Snufkin is immutably Snufkin), but sometimes a secondary character will pop up and I’ll have to ask, wait, what did the Muskrat sound like? And sometimes I’ll run through a few possibilities and the kids will say, There, that’s the one.
The Hemulen sounds like Eeyore, only British. I think of Moominmamma’s voice as low and soft, but I think it sounds lower inside my head than outside, because Scott says it sounds like Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins. Votes for women!
Moomintroll is easy—he’s had the same enthusiastic timbre for a decade—but it was only this year that I suddenly realized what voice I’m doing for him. It’s my Hayley Mills voice—or more precisely, my version of the Hayley Mills impression Julia Sweeney does in one of her one-woman shows. “Girls,” she breathes, “I’ve got a scathingly brilliant idea!” That’s my Moomintroll. Excited, eager, delighted, always rallying his companions to adventure.
I was therefore mightily amused when, in a recent chapter, Moomintroll actually does say “I’ve got a brilliant idea!”
I’m a little vexed with myself over the Moomins, though. After a many-years stroll through the series, Huck and Rilla and I took up the final book, Moominvalley in November, last November (fittingly and deliberately). I hadn’t read that one before and it became one of my favorites, though it is markedly different from the rest of the series in tone and cast of characters. There were so many passages I wanted to share here. But a readaloud is the one time I can’t stop and make a note! I mean, I do occasionally, interrupting the narrative to ask Scott to Slack me a phrase—but I lose track of those messages and never seem to follow through on copying out the quote or noting a connection.
After November, it was decided by unanimous vote that I should start all over again at the beginning of the series. Comet in Moominland was a deep delight—containing as it does Moomintroll and Sniff’s first encounter with Snufkin. Not to mention the Snork Maiden, her brother the Snork, and the Hemulen. It also contains the scene Rilla and I agree is the funniest in all the series: the visit to the small shop run by a kindly old lady. Snufkin tries on a pair of new trousers but decides to stick with his old ones (this is extremely Snufkin of him). The others’ purchases are tallied up—”That will be 20 3/4 pence altogether”—and that’s when they remember none of them is carrying a single penny.
Nobody said anything. The Snork Maiden picked up the looking-glass and laid it on the counter with a sigh. Moomintroll started unpinning his medal, the Snork wondered if exercise books cost more or less after you had written in them, and Sniff just thought about his lemonade, which was mostly on the floor anyway.
The old lady gave a little cough.
“Well, now, my children,” she said. “There are the trousers that Snufkin didn’t want; they are worth exactly 20 pence, so you see one cancels out the other, and you don’t really owe me anything at all.”
“Is that really so?” asked Moomintroll doubtfully.
“It’s as clear as day, little Moomintroll,” said the old lady. “I’ll keep the trousers.”
The Snork tried to count it up in his head, but he couldn’t, so he wrote it in the exercise book like this:
Exercise book 1 3/4
Looking-glass (with rubies) 11
Total 20 3/4
3/4 left over.
“It’s quite right,” he said in surprise.
“But there’s 3/4 pence left over,” said Sniff. “Don’t we get that?”
“Don’t be mean,” said Snufkin. “We’ll call it even.”
Rilla and I agree we like this kind of shopping math.
I did remember I’d made note of page 120 in Comet, but not what was on it. Today I finally refreshed my memory and found this, which made me laugh because it reminds me of blogging:
“My pappa has built a wonderful bridge,” said Moomintroll, for about the third time, “but mostly he writes in a book called ‘Memoirs.’ It’s all about what he has done in his life, and as soon as he does something else he writes that down, too.”
“Then surely he hasn’t got time to do very much?” said the Snork Maiden.
“Oh, well,” said Moomintroll. “He makes sure of doing things now and again, even if it’s only to give himself something to write about.”
January 1, 2022 @ 2:22 pm | Filed under: Books
Reading, writing, thinking.
Drawing, stitching, walking.
Singing (in groups when possible).
And an endeavor I’m thinking of as: Use it or lose it. Some would call it decluttering, but that’s a word that has lost meaning for me since it translates (in my past actions to): jumble all the clutter into a box and stash it in the garage to deal with later. The Swedish term döstädning aptly describes my intentions—getting rid of all your extra stuff sooner rather than later, so it doesn’t become someone else’s problem—but I can’t bring myself to put “death cleaning” on a list. Anyway, it freaks out the children, especially in Pandemic Year 3.
But seriously: I want to use up all the fabric, floss, paints, and pens I’ve acquired. And (gasp) I guess we really don’t need to hold on to Math-U-See Alpha anymore—not with my youngest poised to begin Geometry this week.
And books, these mountains of books.
Speaking of which
Here’s a touch of serendipity in my reading life (which is kind of redundant—any real reading life is going to be loaded with crossovers and connections):
I began Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World yesterday. I forget exactly what propelled me there. Something else I read mentioned her book Proust and the Squid—was it How to Break Up With Your Phone? Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now? There was a definite throughline in my late-December reading. Anyway, I jumped online to look up Wolf’s Proust book (which is about the neuroscience of reading), and I spied the title of her other book and answered the call to “come home to reading” immediately.
And struggled! For hours. But before I get to the struggle, the serendipity. Late in the evening, straining to stay awake for the kids’ jubilant countdown, I opened a review copy of The Twelve Monotasks by Thatcher Wine. First monotask (that is, the first endeavor to train or retrain yourself to do with full presence, not multitasking): reading. And there was Proust and the Squid being quoted—a passage similar to something I’d underlined in Reader, Come Home just hours earlier.
With the invention of reading, Wolf writes, “we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.”
Able to think
In Reader, Come Home, Wolf explores this concept in great depth, with detailed explanations of what’s actually happening in the circuitry of our brains as we read—and how those circuits are being altered by the kinds of reading we do now, the short bursts, rapid flitting, and homogenized hot takes of our sundry feeds. To read deeply, critically, in a way that allows for long-term memory and for synthesis of ideas, we must read deliberately, with single focus.
I really struggled to stay in sharp focus while reading Wolf’s book yesterday. I helped myself along by taking copious notes in a fresh notebook (a lovely blue gift from Jane). I kept at it for much longer than my brain wanted. It felt urgent, a diving into the deep end and flailing, half drowning, until my mind rediscovered old neural pathways and remembered how to swim.
A striking moment in Wolf’s book is her confession, midway through, that she too—while drafting this very book—discovered she had forgotten how to swim in deep water.
I set up an experiment…My null hypothesis, if you will, was that I had not changed my reading style; rather, only the time I had available for reading had changed. I could prove that simply enough by controlling for it by setting aside the same amount of time every day and faithfully observing my own reading of a linguistically difficult, conceptually demanding novel, one that had been one of my favorite books when I was younger. I would know the plot. There would be no suspense or mystery involved. I would have only to analyze what I was doing during my reading in the same way that I might analyze what a person with dyslexia does when he or she is reading in my research center.
With little hesitation I chose Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi, also known as The Glass Bead Game, which was cited when Hesse received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. To say I began the experiment with the most cheerful of dispositions is no exaggeration. I was practically gleeful at the idea that I would be forcing myself to reread one of the most influential books of my earlier years.
Force became the operative word. When I began to read Magister Ludi, I experienced the literary equivalent of a punch to the cortex. I could not read it. The style seemed obdurately opaque to me: too dense (!) with unnecessarily difficult words and sentences whose snakelike constructions obfuscated, rather than illuminated, meaning for me. The pace of action was impossible. A bunch of monks slowly walking up and down stairs was the only image that came to mind. It was as if someone had poured thick molasses over my brain whenever I picked Magister Ludi up to read.
Molasses on the brain
I’ve known for a while that the feeds were changing my brain. I hadn’t stopped reading books—quite the opposite—I spent last May reading the ten middle-grade novels I’d been assigned to write Brave Writer literature guides for; in June I luxuriated in an Emily St. John Mandel binge, reading or rereading her five gorgeous novels—and later in the summer I fell headlong into a review copy of her sixth, Sea of Tranquility, which I adored; and between October and mid-December I read nearly two dozen high-school nonfiction books as a CYBIL Awards round-one judge, and as soon as that work was finished, I treated myself to a reread of the 600-page Riddle-master trilogy.
Plus the aforementioned unplug-from-the-feeds-already jag of late December.
(I should reread M.T. Anderson’s Feed. It’s been a while.)
So okay, I’ve been reading. But it’s more work than it used to be.
First: the work of choosing to read instead of scroll (or clean, or work, or whatever else is clamoring for my attention).
Then the impossible work of choosing what to read. Which of the thousand books wooing me shall I pick up? I walk around the house collecting stacks; I page through my Kindle library; I dip a toe in here, there; I wonder if there’s any new news about Omicron or the fires. I remember a video I saved to watch later. It’s later.
This post is too long already, but I’m just getting started
I was going to type up a bunch of the notes I copied out from Wolf’s book—this self-assigned copywork practice being a large part of my personal strategy for combating the molasses—but now that I’ve written this much about Reader, Come Home, I’m thinking it would be a good candidate for my February book club pick over on Patreon.
(The January title is Twyla Tharp’s delightful Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life. I’ll kick off the discussion on the 4th.)
Okay, so I’ll save most of my Wolf quotes for next month. As for this morning’s molasses-free ramble through a Ted Kooser essay that sparked connections to Li-Young Lee and Olav Hauge? There’s another post bubbling there, proving yet again an axiom I’ve held for decades: the more I read books (not tweets!), the more I have to write.
And—Wolf’s thesis—what we read, and in what medium, affects how we think. I’ve certainly found the corollary to be true: what medium I read shapes what I’m compelled to write. Reading Twitter makes me want to write witty tweets. Reading Facebook makes me want to write rude things on walls. (I kid! I don’t actually spend much time on Facebook anymore, outside my social-media gig.)
Reading The Gammage Cup, The Whisper of Glocken, and Moominvalley in November to my kids this fall left me itching to pull a long-neglected story idea out of the shadows onto the page. It’s coming along! I’m excited about it!
Reading poetry absolutely turns me into a poet for a little while. I’ll jump ahead to my Ted Kooser notes for just a moment to share this passages which is beautiful and true:
“What is most difficult for a poet is to find the time to read and write when there are so many distractions, like making a living and caring for others. But the time set aside for being a poet, even if only for a few moments each day, can be wonderfully happy, full of joyous, solitary discovery.”
—The Poetry Home Repair Manual, p. 6
The “solitary” part doesn’t last long for me—what I learned over and over in my first decade of blogging was that reading leads to writing leads to sharing. Learning in public, thinking out loud, and inviting the lively exchange of ideas we exhilarated in, back in those heady days before social media changed, well, everything.
From time to time I take myself in hand and impose fierce limits on my access to the feeds. I use the Downtime and Screen Time apps on my phone, and sometimes the Freedom app on my laptop, to insert roadblocks between me and the myriad tempting distractions. I delete apps, or hide them if I need to keep them around because of work; I move them to different screens so I can’t open them on autopilot. I especially like this trick: I design wallpaper for my home screen to remind myself what I really want to be doing.
(I’m happy to share if you’d like a copy.)
Anyway, Happy New Year! I wish you good reading, deep thinking, and molasses in your gingerbread but not in your brain.
This is the poem that carried me through this year, more than any other. “One Poem a Day” by Olav Hauge, from his lovely book The Dream We Carry. Those last lines especially—
I get up. It’s lighter.
Have good intentions.
And see the bullfinch rise from the cherry tree,
There have been so many days during the pandemic (and before) when I’ve walked around thinking: Have good intentions. Look for the bullfinch, the buds.
In her wonderful book Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life, Twyla Tharp urges us to “make sharing delight into a daily occurrence,” or, as she puts it a few pages later, to find “the Daily Miracle. Find something that pleases you greatly first thing every morning when your mind is fresh.”
Mary Oliver puts it like this:
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
(From “Mindful” in Why I Wake Early)
What, for you, is the bullfinch rising from the cherry tree, stealing buds, today? Your ‘daily miracle’ for this last day of November? What little thing, ordinary or extraordinary, has more or less killed you with delight?
October 19, 2021 @ 4:55 pm | Filed under: Books
We finished The Whisper of Glocken last week and I’m in mourning—no more Carol Kendall books to read aloud. We did The Firelings, The Gammage Cup, and Whisper all in a row, and that’s it. Kendall did write four more books (as far as I can tell)—three for kids and an adult mystery‚ but I’ve never been able to track them down anywhere. ONE DAY. She’s got to be in my top five authors. A magical way with words, characters with flaws and foibles, and utterly unique worldbuilding and plotlines. And funny!
The only antidote for my Carol Kendall withdrawal: Moomins, of course. And here we are sliding toward the end of October, the perfect time to begin Moominvalley in November. I wouldn’t say I usually identify with the Fillyjonk, but today I was really feeling her:
“She began to feel cold because of the rain, and because she had tumbled all the way through her life in a single second, and she decided to make herself a cup of coffee. but she when opened the cupboard in the kitchen, she saw for the first time that she had far too much china. Such an awful lot of coffee cups. Far too many serving dishes and roasting dishes, and stacks of plates, hundreds of things to eat from and eat on, and only one Fillyjonk. And who would have them all when she died?”
Substitute books and pens for the dishes, and that’s my house. Hundreds of things to read and write, and only one me. ::heavy autumnal sigh::
Snufkin is my favorite, of course. He set off for the wilds in early fall, and now, a few weeks in, he’s feeling like he wants to write songs. He’s listening and waiting, knowing the melody is somewhere in Moominvalley waiting for him to find it.
“There are millions of tunes that are easy to find and there will always be new ones. But Snufkin let them alone, they were summer songs which would do for just anybody. He crept into his tent and into his sleeping bag and pulled it over his head. The faint whisper of rain and running water was still there and it had the same tender note of solitude and perfection. But what did rain mean to him as long as he couldn’t write a song about it?”
I’m in a good groove with posting right now! Lots of stuff happening on Patreon (including work-in-progress pics of a fun stitching project), and I’ve been busy on Instagram too. To encourage readers to order books early for holiday shopping, I’m posting a series of book recommendations in my IG Stories every day this week. Mostly middle-grade books and younger, with a few selections included for adults. The whole series is viewable in a Highlight on my Instagram profile page. Those links should work for you even if you aren’t an IG user (I think), but if you have trouble viewing them, let me know and I’ll figure something out.
Or you can visit my Bookshop.org storefront, where Beanie is helpfully compiling a list of all the titles I’m sharing. (That’s an affiliate link, but full disclosure, I’ve made less than $20 on Bookshop.org referral fees in total. Amazon referrals were much more lucrative, but I switched over to Bookshop.org quite a while ago, to better support independent bookstores.)
Speaking of Patreon
I added a new tier in August but haven’t told anyone about it (not even current Patreon members) until this moment. Most of my tiers are quite low cost ($1/month for weekly posts on creative practice; $3/month for behind-the-scenes project posts (both stitching and writing); $5/month for a book discussion). This new one is different: I’m offering a limited number of one-on-one sessions. Here’s the lowdown:
One-on-one tier ($60/month; feel free to jump up to it for a month or two, or it may be ongoing). This tier consists of a 45-minute private Zoom chat (and email followup) to work on solving a problem or puzzle you’ve been grappling with. Such as…
• Need help figuring out a social media platform or app, or help creating a social media plan?
• Want personalized recommendations for homeschooling or your reading life?
• Want someone to walk you through iPhone photography settings and how to use photo editing apps?
• Looking for a planner (digital or paper) that meets your specific needs?
• Need a jump-start with habit building or time management?
• Wondering how to establish a daily creative practice that nourishes and delights you?
*Note: just about the only topic I can’t tackle in these sessions is a manuscript critique. I can advise about research tactics, but I can’t chat about story ideas or give notes on a work-in-progress.
I’m offering ten spots at this time. I’d love to help you unpuzzle your puzzles! And you’ll be helping me pay some rather alarming dental bills. 😉 Everyone wins! (Especially the dentist.)
September 19, 2021 @ 11:36 am | Filed under: Books
This is maybe half of my stitching projects currently-in-progress. Plus a pair of middle-grade novels, a picture book, a blog/essay collectionish thing, a nonfiction project, and Brave Writer Dart #5 of the 10 I’m writing this year. (Yep, that’s the whole year’s Dart lineup. The books are SO GOOD, y’all. A joy to write about.) This is why I’m not very good at promoting the books I’ve already published—the ones I really really hope people will keep buying because I love them and want them to stay in print—and I’m low-level worried all the time about neglecting them, but I would always, always rather be working on the next thing than promoting the finished ones.
And buried in this pile are two hoops from a project I am truly over-the-moon excited about, a set of original designs, and it would be awfully nice if someone could rustle up a way to fit about six extra hours into the day. I’m not greedy—five or six will do!
And the whole time I’m stitching, I’m thinking about the books, the middle-grades* mostly. Or, well, that isn’t quite accurate, because at night I listen to audiobooks while I stitch. But reading is a big part of writing, too. So in a way it’s all in service of the work.
*(I can’t decide which to focus on so I’m mapping out two at once, set in the same world. I told a friend on Friday that I’d like to have proposals ready to send to my agent by mid-October. Which is maybe a reasonable goal if I kick the clean-out-the-garage project down the road until, like, spring??)
I love Charlie Gilkey’s book Start Finishing, and I’ve truly taken his advice to heart this past year, but BOY do I have a hard time with the crucial first step in his road map, which is recognizing that most of the time we can’t be actively moving forward on more than five projects at once.
And that’s if all systems are go, no health issues, etc. (In this house, there are always health issues. I’ve had a miserable time with asthma this past month. Which is partly why I’ve managed to do so much stitching: too fatigued for all the household projects I’d envisioned barreling through this fall. Silver linings.)
Anyway, five projects. Words that send me into helpless laughter petering out with a rueful groan. When I try to narrow down All the Things, I cheat a lot.
1. Homeschooling (an ongoing project, decades deep now)
2. Client work. Lots of it. Counts as one big ongoing project with many, many subtasks.
3. Books in progress. A major cheat to count them as one project. At a certain point, I have to tuck a bunch of ideas away and focus on just one manuscript. But this is not that point.
4. A wild card spot. Any kind of household project bigger than basic daily chores. OR: the ongoing project of navigating Wonderboy’s medical appts and services. There are periods where this becomes intense, with several appointments in a short span of time, and that’s for sure when other things on this list have to be back-burnered. OR: a biggish reading project; research; study.
5. Book outreach — the one I’m forever neglecting — my newsletter and blog posts and reaching out to podcasters & teachers. I mean, this is really a whole job by itself! There are, like, professionals who make their entire living out of it! But the vast majority of published authors can’t afford that kind of help. We’ve got to champion our books ourselves. Which is…kind of excruciating? I would rather champion OTHER PEOPLE’S books. (Like Tanita Davis’s new one. You should buy it!)
But what about…?
Stitching, you’ll notice, doesn’t land a spot on my Five Projects lists. Which may seem a bit bananas, since I’m obsessed with it and pretty much want to stitch all the time. But there’s a reason for it—a mini-revelation that gave me a lot of peace.
The thing about Projects is they require focus. Charlie Gilkey defines a project as activities that require time, energy, and attention. (TEA.) Most projects have some kind of Admin component, but to really move the work forward, the critical need is for Focus blocks. (What Cal Newport calls Deep Work.) Good-sized chunks of time—90 minutes to 2 hours is a good target, although for writing or, say, garage-cleaning, I prefer a 3-hour Focus block.
Most of us can only manage one, maaaaybe two Focus blocks in a given day. In Start Finishing, Gilkey notes that the rest of our time goes to routines, and admin, and social blocks (meetings, outings, phone calls), and…if we’re being good to ourselves, if we’re being wise: recovery blocks. Down time. Rest. Fun.
It was this Recovery part of Charlie’s road map that helped me make peace with the Five Projects (at most!) reality-check. Yes, I think of my stitching projects as projects. And they do take time and attention. But—here’s the glorious part—they don’t drain my energy. They restore it. They exhilarate me, thrill me—and they provide me with something I rarely experience otherwise.
I’m sitting still, stitching. My mind is still. I mean, it may be roaming, exploring the valley where my little book people live, or chewing on a post I mean to write—but it’s a contented, calm state. Not agitated. Not hyper. Not stressed or worried. Not holding mental arguments with That One Friend on Facebook. Not tacking items onto an endless to-do list. For me, stitching is a meditative activity; a vital part of my writing process; a means of rest and, yes, recovery.
A few years back when I was feeling a bit desperate over a too-intense workload, my brilliant coach friend Helen McLaughlin suggested I make a list of activities that drain my energy, and activities that give me energy, to make sure my days had a reasonable balance of both.
Tops on the refueling list were: reading to my kids, singing with Low Bar Chorale, and making art. At the time, I was only just beginning to venture into embroidery. I was filling a lot of sketchbooks, trying to learn to draw and paint. Sketching stills my mind in much the same way stitching does. But the stitching high lasts longer: I like the way my embroidery projects come out more than I like my drawings. Gradually handstitching took precedence.
Interestingly, I find there’s an admin component to a stitching project, too. Cutting fabric, transferring a design (my own original one or a purchased pattern, depending), choosing colors, assembling supplies—this is the busywork part of the process that I usually save for weekends. That leaves me ready to sink into the bliss of a recovery state after a workday’s Focus session. If I time it right, my background mind can go on untangling whatever knotty problem may have popped up during the work, without me really noticing it. I think I’m puzzling out which stitches to use, and all of a sudden I discover I’ve written the next paragraph, the one I was sure I’d never get right.
Writing this post (which believe it or not, started out as a simple Instagram Story caption—hahaha) has untangled its own kind of problem. The garage is going to have to wait. My much-avoided Project #5 needs some time in the spotlight. I’ve got to put my needle down and spend a little time joining the chorus of authors and booksellers who are encouraging readers to place holiday book orders as soon as possible. Worldwide shipping delays have the publishing world in a tizzy: everything (not just books) is taking a much longer time than usual to get from Point A to Point B, as I’m sure you’ve heard.
Independent bookstores are begging customers to order holiday gifts early—like, NOW, no time to lose!—to ensure deliveries by December. Which means we authors need to make that plea, too. If you’d like to give one of my books (or Scott’s! They’re awesome) to the kids and teachers on your gift list, now is a perfect time. Same goes for any other books. Especially backlist titles that may already be in stock on the shelves at your favorite indie bookstore. Snap those up and everybody wins!
Prairie Thief and Nerviest Girl are middle-grade novels, great for kids 8-12. Fox and Crow is a Level 3 beginning reader (also a fun readaloud for younger kids) and the Inch & Roly series is Level 1, for kids just beginning to read on their own (and good read-alouds for toddlers and preschoolers, because: roly polies! Inchworms! And of course all children’s books make excellent gifts for the teachers in your lives.
If you order online from Annie Bloom’s Books here in Portland, they’ll ring me up and I’ll zip over to sign your copies before they ship.
batman adventures, book orders, cal newport, charlie gilkey, comics, creative practice, deep work, early readers, embroidery, five projects rule, Fox and Crow Are Not Friends, global shipping delay, holiday shipping, Inch and Roly, nerviest girl, prairie thief, Scott Peterson, start finishing, stitching, Tanita Davis, writing
August 2008. The baby has several inches on me now but the bookstacks are just about the same.
I’ve learned, by now, that in the days before a writing deadline, many of my good habits and creative practices slide away. Often, I go into overkill mode and obsessively power through chores that could absolutely wait until after I finish the writing assignment. Last week, with yesterday’s Dart deadline approaching, the obsessions were updating my long-neglected (we’re talking months) Goodreads & sidebar book logs, and a handstitching project meant to help with the writing, not haunt my every thought.
The Goodreads update took so long that I fizzled out before getting to the sidebar; and then I had the bright idea of outsourcing the update to Beanie. (I mentioned to a friend that I was hiring Bean to do some virtual assistant work for me. The friend gave me an amused look and asked, “Don’t you mean actual assistant? Not virtual? You’re in the same house.” I burst out laughing. Yes. Of course. Not virtual when you’re in the same house. Maybe I’m tireder than I realize.)
Well, thanks to Beanie, all my booklists—including the sidebar here—are up to date. Links go (mostly) to Bookshop.org, where I have a little storefront that supports independent bookstores and sends a small referral fee my way. Both Bean and Rilla jumped in to add favorite titles to a few of the lists I’m building there—Rilla started her own list!—and we plan to keep adding to our collections. Most of our lists are still in their infancy. It’s a big project, combing our shelves for our best-loved books.
But where was I going with this post? I started it twelve hours ago and have lost the thread. Oh yes, breadcrumbs. When I curled up with my cocoa this morning, I felt like a stranger to my own self. What did I use to do in these quiet dawn hours? It had only been a week, less than a week, but my poetry mornings felt extremely far away.
I reached for my notebook and was relieved to find I still inhabited the pages. Read—write—stretch—stitch—breathe. As simple as that. Maybe sketch a little, water the garden before the heat flattens us all. My “seven sevens” (pick any activity from that list and do it for at least seven minutes, and fall into whichever one opens up for me) caught me, stilled the aimless spinning, reminded me how creative practice works.
It seemed hardly ten heartbeats later that Huck came to get me for our walk. He finished his garden-watering job on Monday but we decided we both loved the early-morning walk so much that we wanted to keep it up. Today he wanted to visit the giant sequoia seven blocks east. Another seven, sending me into the day.
It’s early, and I’d like to be stitching. But my fountain pen leaked all over my fingers and even after scrubbing off the ink, there are stains. I worry about leaving black marks on the piece of linen I’m—ah, and now I’m derailed by the search for a verb that accurately describes what I’m doing to the linen. Not embellishing, ornamenting, decorating—all too ornate, too fancy. Ferning, perhaps. Covering it with ferns.
I’m handstitching a drawstring bag (this pattern) because handstitching, including and especially embroidery, is one of the very few activities that quiets my mind enough for real thought. Gardening works, sometimes—if I don’t fall into a swirl of longing for plants I have neither time nor budget for—and has, in the past, yielded entire books while my fingers occupied the rabbity part of my brain. Mopping wood floors works: the smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap, the light gathering on the boards, the repetitive motion. I miss the job I had for a couple of years in San Diego, cleaning the floors of a yoga studio on Saturday mornings before it opened. I did some of my best writing while vacuuming or mopping those bare floors in empty rooms.
The thing about floors is that cleaning them doesn’t take terribly long. And then they’re finished. You rinse out the mop head, put away the bucket, and you’re done. Gardening is never finished, and neither is stitching, really—I may finish one project but there are a dozen others clamoring in the wings. Lately I find myself dreaming of an interval in which I could tip the balance in the other direction: spend the afternoons stitching instead of writing. What’s with that? I baffle myself. But I have these ideas, you see…
And if there’s anything slower than writing a novel, it’s handstitching! Ha!
We finished our readaloud of The Firelings yesterday. Oh, how I wish this were still in print! If you ever come across a copy at a library sale, snatch it up. I’ve read it at least twenty times since my dad brought it home from a used bookstore when I was eleven or twelve. Probably more. It explores, as I wrote here some years ago, “the relationship between custom and reason”—a tension I have always found intensely fascinating, as anyone knows who has heard me refer to the “ham in the pan.”
I didn’t get my hands on Carol Kendall’s other books until I was older—gosh, much older, my archives tell me. I posted about The Gammage Cup in 2010, shortly after reading it for the first time. (Scott, when you see this, skip the blockquote—I know you prefer to encounter a new book with a totally blank slate. I’m probably starting Gammage as a readaloud today.)
Kendall is one of those writers whose voice I just plain enjoy. She’s a quirky storyteller with a taste for misfits. This novel is about the Minnipins, a tradition-loving people who live in small villages in an isolated mountain valley. Their distant ancestors settled here after escaping from terrible enemies about whom little is known, now, except their names: The Mushrooms. A few centuries ago, one of the Minnipins journeyed over the mountains and back via hot air balloon. Most of Fooley’s souvenirs—and memories—were scattered when he crash-landed back at home, but the remaining fragments have been carefully enshrined in a village museum and in the customs of his descendants. (You can tell them apart from the rest of the villagers by their names, which are taken from a scrap of paper that survived the crash and is now presumed to be a list of the friends Fooley made on his journey: Ave., Co., Wm., Eng., etc. “The Periods,” as these folk are reverently called, run the village.)
Folks in the village like things to be done just so, and they have little tolerance for eccentrics like Gummy the poet or lively Curley Green, who recklessly paints images of things from real life, in disregard of the proper classical style. (My kids love Kendall’s work, but her character names drive them up a wall.) When Muggles, the reluctant heroine, and her misfit friends begin to suspect the terrible Mushrooms are preparing for another attack, they have to persuade the rest of the villagers that the danger is real. Instead, they get kicked out of the village.
Whoops—time to accompany Huck to his garden gig. I’ll come home with strawberry juice on top of the inkstains. You see why I need afternoons free for stitching!
Booknotes: The Gammage Cup