Archive for the ‘Books’ Category
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
May 10, 2021 @ 7:32 am | Filed under: Books
Selvi’s comment—gosh, weeks ago!—made me laugh:
Are you giving us white space on purpose instead to telling us about it? 🙂
I didn’t mean to disappear for three weeks, but they were a FULL three weeks and I had to set a lot of things to one side for a bit. I finished writing my last Brave Writer literature guide for the current academic year (an Arrow for the marvelous Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, and—ahhhh—I’m taking a break from writing them for a few weeks. I’ve been writing these steadily for four years!
During the hiatus, I’m reading all ten of next year’s Dart books and beginning to map out what topics I’ll write about for each. The new Dart, Arrow, and Boomerang lists will be announced on June 1st. I’ll be writing the entire Dart lineup. The booklist is full of treasures, I can tell you!
I’ve been busy, too, with other client work and some house projects. And later this week I’m heading to a studio downtown to record the author’s note for the Nerviest Girl in the World audiobook. Exciting! It’ll be out in June, and so will the paperback edition. As always (always, always, always)—preorders are massively appreciated. They make such a difference for current and future books!
But to return to Selvi’s excellent point: I did leave a silence where the white space category of my Rule posts was meant to be. I think I’ll be able to write about that this week.
For now, my allotted time is up, and the day is waiting to unfold. Here’s to a week full of what nourishes you!
This post contains Bookshop.org affiliate links. If you’d like to purchase audiobooks from Libro.fm, which supports independent bookstores, my referral link will get you an extra book in your first month.
I’m circling back to yesterday’s topic. The bird clock chirped before I got to the best kind of connections! A few hours later, laughing with Huck and Rilla over a math problem, I knew I’d want to revisit the subject today.
We’ve been doing the enrichment pages of Math-U-See’s Pre-Algebra book together, the three of us. Side by side on the old green couch—a housewarming gift from Scott’s parents in 1999 when we (then a family of four) moved from our little Queens apartment to a one-bedroom-bigger place on Long Island. That sofa has seen some life, let me tell you. Our first Christmas here in Portland, my parents gave us a nice new Ikea sectional—finally enough comfy seating for the whole family—but my entire crew refused to hear of the removal of the old sofa. It lives now under the windows in our dining area, a favorite place to flop and read or listen to music.
So: the green sofa, a page of puzzle problems on my lap, Huck and Rilla on either side. Huck had sharpened all the pencils right after breakfast, so I had a nice fresh point. The final problem on the page elicited a gasp from Rilla. That gasp—the inrush of breath that signals a connection has just been made—is my chief delight as a homeschooling mom. And in the connection of ideas, we connect with each other.
Huge chunks of this blog are devoted to chronicling those moments. My own notebooks are full of them—connections the kids have made between this book, that game, this show, that moment of hilarity in the kitchen; and my own connections too, the synthesis of ideas and images gathered on my greedy, plate-loaded-at-the-buffet, rabbit-trailing, metaphor-mixing lifelong learning adventure.
Rilla (who is celebrating her fifteenth birthday today, if you can believe it) jumped up and grabbed an Oz graphic novel off the shelf. The Eric Shanower & Skottie Young Oz adaptations were her favorite books to pore over as a tiny child; they’re basically the books that taught her to read. (Along with good old Bob.)
Our math problem had reminded her of a tidbit she’d puzzled over many times as a little girl. In the book, Scarecrow and friends are plotting an escape from a flock of jackdaws. They have a handful of wishing pills but not enough to go around—not, says the Tin Woodman, unless they can count to seventeen by twos. The sawhorse declares that’s easy to do, if you just start counting at “a half of one.”
Rilla remembered being extremely confused by the sawhorse’s logic. She could never figure out how he arrived at that solution. While we puzzled it out together (spoiler: he cheated), I absently doodled on the page. The kids laughed at me—this, too, is a longrunning point of connection for us and amusement for them. It’s extremely hard for me to focus on what anyone is saying if I can’t doodle or stitch or do something fiddly with my hands. (One reason I always encourage kids to draw, or play with Sculpey or beeswax, or crochet while I’m reading to them.)
And I guess the quiet pauses while kids work out math problems are another place I need the help of a pencil. The margins of their math books are full of nonsense drawings. I have a shelf full of elementary Math-U-See instruction books I can’t resell because I’ve scribbled all over them!
Ack—there’s that bird clock again. Time to go! We have birthday biscuits with chocolate gravy to make.
• encounters with beauty
• encounters with living books
• meaningful work
• imaginative play
• big ideas to ponder and discuss
• white space
If this post ends abruptly, here’s why.
This post may contain Bookshop.org and Amazon affiliate links.
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Perhaps the easiest piece of my personal Rule to fulfill. I live in a house full of talkers, analyzers, discussers, ponderers. Online and and in the world, I gravitate toward friends of similar bent. I spend more time than I should following rabbit trails of research. (It feels almost heretical to say that!)
I should say: discussion is easy to come by. It’s the pondering piece that needs protection, because that takes time, silence, and closed tabs. It’s far too easy to gather stores of information, and then whisk on to a new topic of interest without taking time to sit with the accumulated horde of ideas.
Sensing this, I made a shift in my morning routine last month. Instead of struggling through (during the first year of the pandemic it had become a struggle) my longstanding pattern of writing almost immediately after waking, I decided to give myself the first hour—or however many minutes there are between waking and 7:30 (sometimes more than an hour, sometimes less)—for study.
Typing that, I get the same thrill of relief I felt upon making that decision. Time to read? To make notes in margins? To sit with an idea—a single thought—in a quiet room, with a notebook and a good pen? To breathe in (read, think) before I breathe out (write, speak)?
I made myself a little syllabus of sorts: a stack of books I knew would nourish, not derail, deep thought.
World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen—an absolute gem of a book. When I read a few pages (I’ve been reading it slowly for probably a year), I often get a flash of the scene in Heidi, a book I read over and over as a child, when her aunt is taking her up the mountain to the Alm-Uncle for the first time, and Heidi, delighting in the fresh, scented air, keeps shedding layers of clothes as she goes. Coat, scarf, heavy woolen dress, stockings all strewn among the wildflowers. By the time they reach the grandfather’s hut, she’s down to her white cotton shift. That’s me at the top of each chapter.
The Muses Among Us by Kim Stafford. A book I inhaled last year and have returned to this year at a more contemplative pace. Keeping its essays company, a volume of Stafford’s poems called Wild Honey, Tough Salt. The essay I love best is the one in which Stafford maps out his process for collecting fragments of images and overheard conversation, storing them in pocket-sized notebooks made by folding a few sheets of paper, and later returning to the notebooks to harvest ideas for poems and essays. “When I write,” he says, “I am secretary to a wisdom the world has made available to me.” There’s an idea to sit with for a while.
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. I love Godden’s writing, especially The Kitchen Madonna, but I’ve never made it all the way through this novel of hers. It nudged me as I passed by its longtime home on a bedroom bookshelf. I know it’s many people’s favorite of her novels.
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield. She’s a poet I love, and whose mind I want to know better.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. A joyful reread of this glorious collection of poems. Ross Gay has become one of my favorite writers; his Book of Delights is on its way to dog-eared Best-Loved Book status after less than a year in my hands.
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu. A novel I learned about through Natalie Goldberg, about an Ethiopian immigrant who runs a grocery store in Washington, D.C.
Just these few. It was painfully hard for me to not load up the list, but slow reading and thinking is the point. There are other books on my Kindle, not to mention a new stack of future Dart titles waiting for me!, but the books in this small collection are the thought-stirrers I mean to spend these early mornings of spring with.
Reading, of course, is a way to collect and absorb ideas; to fully ponder them I must write. I hardly ever know what I think until I write it down. At 7:30am, birds chirp on my phone. I eat one square of mint chocolate (a ritual or habit to signal time to write), open my notebook or Scrivener, and let my fingers begin to think.
• encounters with beauty
• encounters with living books
• meaningful work;
• imaginative play;
• big ideas to ponder and discuss;
• white space;
This post contains Bookshop.org and Amazon affiliate links.
When I think of this category, I think of my kids in the backyard in San Diego, deeply immersed in the Warriors-inspired make-believe games that occupied so many hours when they were little. Or the long stretches of Sculpey play: elaborate scenes crafted and acted out. Epic adventures spanning hours and days. The Thomas the Tank engine set, the Playmobil stories, the blanket forts.
For myself, this category is a little harder to define. Rose and Beanie used to walk in circles (literally walk in circles!) on our back patio, making up stories for themselves. All the action was happening inside their heads. Here in the second year of the pandemic, my head is full, full, full—full of inputs, full of tasks to be done. I notice in myself a pattern of clearing a little time for my grownup version of play—or for white space, which has some crossover with this category, since it’s the soil from which imagination and creativity grow—and then immediately filling the space with yet another form of input, sometimes nourishing, sometimes fluff. An audiobook, a podcast, a show on Netflix, a screen game.
Funny as it sounds, holding space for imaginative play in my life takes more effort than almost anything else on my list of essential activities!
Where I find it is at my art table, or within the borders of an embroidery hoop. On the blank page of a notebook: a jumble of words arranging themselves into phrases, into poems.
It’s possible I’m not a minimalist
I know exactly where to find the doorway to imaginative play, but I have to make myself walk through it. To mess around with paint, not listening to a book or podcast. To doodle in my sketchbook while my mind roams. Not tuned into other voices. I find this challenging; I’m so accustomed to making the most of my minutes! Not enough time to read and exercise and make art and learn new things—better bundle them together.
Bundling is wonderful—in moderation! If every morsel of my sketchbook time, treadmill time, gardening time, has a soundtrack, I’ll never hear my own self. Even the time I spend in my poetry notebook several mornings a week can become a clamor of other voices. I’m impatient with the seed-time of my own thoughts.
Where I find the easiest ground for imaginative play is with embroidery. I think that’s because it combines a satisfying and meditative activity (stitching) with invention and beauty. You could say the same thing about painting, drawing, knitting, woodworking, but for me, a #7 Tulip needle is the key to the realm of imagination. Perhaps that’s because even after years of daily drawing and online art classes, I remain unsatisfied with my ability. When I picked up the embroidery habit, I gained skill with gratifying speed. And I found a blank round of fabric to be fertile ground for original thought and design, much more so than on a sheet of watercolor paper. Curious, no? I seldom like the original art I make on paper. (I say original to distinguish it from online course assignments, where I’m following steps and often do enjoy both the process and final outcome).
I hadn’t been stitching for long—using patterns purchased from my favorite Instagram designers—when I felt the itch to create my own designs. Ideas flooded in—but I could see that my they outstripped my ability. So I ignored the voice that kept urging me to be original. I gave myself time to practice and learn. I gave myself scraps of fabric to experiment on, reckoning that they were the embroidery equivalent of an artist’s sketchbook.
And eventually, after a long time, a project began to shape itself in my mind. It’s playful and inventive and combines elements and subject matter I care about intensely.
My challenge is holding space for it. I have an hour set aside after I tuck Huck into bed, but by that time of day I’m often too fried. This week I only picked up that hoop a couple of times.
I’m still stitching, though. I’ve found what works best for me is to have three projects at the ready, at all times: one for study (learning new stitches or techniques); one for thinking (a simple design purchased from creators like Cozyblue or Dropcloth, where the stitching is satisfying and meditative, and I don’t have to make decisions as I go); and the hoop containing my own project-in-progress.
The second type of hoop—I’ve written about this before—is an essential part of my writing practice. When I hit a point in a piece of writing where I need to stop and think, picking up that hoop quashes the urge to pop open a social media tab and “just” take a peek. Those peeks (which are never just a peek, are they) are the fastest route to utter derailment on a writing project. So I keep my “thinking hoop” handy and pick it up whenever I’m tempted to open a tab.
(I love the Momentum Dash browser extension for Chrome—it allows you to set a default New Tab that opens to a beautiful nature photo, different every day, with a blank for you to enter that day’s focus activity. Sometimes while I’m writing, I write PICK UP YOUR HOOP in that blank, so that if I do succumb to new-tab temptation, I’m smacked with a reminder before I can load another site. Other times, I write the day’s Highlight (a task or activity that I absolutely must attend to that day) or whatever piece of writing I’m working on at the moment in that blank. This has the same effect of redirecting my attention to my work. Probably one of my best workflow hacks! I also use Momentum’s built-in Pomodoro timer quite a lot.)
My time’s just about up for this morning, so I’ll close with a quick look back at the week’s imaginative play. I started, but didn’t finish, this fantastic Peggy Dean tutorial (free!) on how to draw canyons in Procreate. Except I just grabbed my notebook, not the iPad. I’d like to spend more time with that today. And Rilla and I are working on a pretty exciting art project together on Saturday nights. She’s done almost all the work so far, but last week we got to the painting stage and spent a happy hour testing our acrylic paints on a black canvas to see which colors show up best from a distance. I’m looking forward to putting in some more time on that project this weekend.
And writing this post reminds me to start my afternoon work session by threading some needles. I’m a big believer in always leaving thread in the needle—both literally for embroidery and figuratively for my writing (Hemingway’s trick). Never stop at the end of a scene! Break off mid-scene, mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence if you can. It’s much easier to pick the work back up next time.
• encounters with beauty
• encounters with living books
• meaningful work;
• imaginative play;
• big ideas to ponder and discuss;
• white space;
If this post ends abruptly, here’s why
I’m chuckling over the word “encounters.” In my Rule of Six (or Seven) list, that word flows naturally: encounters with beauty, encounters with living books, encounters with ideas to ponder and discuss…
But when I lift the phrase out of the list, it becomes comical. My entire day is a series of “encounters” with books. I might as well say I’ve had an encounter with air, or that my feet have encountered floors.
Actually, come to think of it, my feet have had plenty of encounters with books, too, because there is never not a stack somewhere in kicking distance. Right now: beside my bed, next to where I leave my slippers at night—i.e., exactly where I groggily aim my toes in the pre-dawn darkness every single morning. You’d think I’d learn after the sixth or seventh stubbed toe, wouldn’t you?
Narrator: she wouldn’t.
But okay. With what books have I had a particularly close or meaningful encounter in the past week?
When You Reach Me
Well, I finished our readaloud of The Wind in the Door, the sequel to A Wrinkle in Time. And for once I wasn’t tormented with indecision over what the next readaloud should be: I had Rebecca Stead’s lovely When You Reach Me waiting in the wings. It’s a natural next book after Wrinkle. (But we’re studying the parts of a cell in our biology lessons, so OF COURSE I had to read Wind in the Door first. After that book, you’ll never forget what mitochondria do.)
When You Reach Me is, as I expected, going over like gangbusters. Scott listens along with us, and since it’s set in 1979, with a narrator only a year or two older than Scott and I were that year, it feels like home. And Miranda’s Manhattan neighborhood is familiar to us from the years we lived in Queens and worked in Manhattan.
For Huck and Rilla, this setting and time period are new territory, an interesting backdrop to an incredibly gripping story. Miranda’s favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time, and she quotes from it or narrates bits and scenes quite often. I love love love internal references like this: they’re the best kind of organic connection, and our brains loooove connections. I’m always talking about giving kids hooks to hang other knowledge on, like the way the Horrible Histories English monarchs song is a useful set of hooks for us to sort other historical events by. “That happened around the time of King John,” I might say, and the kids burst out with: “Poor King John, what a disaster, rule restrained by Magna Carta.”
Anyway, we’re about a third of the way through When You Reach Me and I’m beside myself with happy anticipation of what’s in store for my listeners.
I’ve also been spending a lot of time with B.J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits, which I devoured when it first came out and have been enjoying revisiting more slowly. One of my 2020 achievements was becoming a certified habit coach via Coach.me, because—as you know if you read Bonny Glen back in the beginning—habits have been a subject of particular interest to me since the day I first picked up a Charlotte Mason book in the mid-’90s.
Tiny Habits adds new layers to the subject through Stanford professor B.J. Fogg’s research on human behavior and what he calls “behavior design.” His premise is that you can coach yourself into any behavior you wish if you approach it incrementally, taking advantage of certain hardwired aspects of human behavior—and that willpower has nothing to do with this process. He explores prompts, ability, and motivation—motivation being the least powerful factor of the three, when it comes to creating a habit.
James Clear’s Atomic Habits and Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before also unpack this topic and explore related strategies. Gretchen incorporates her unique and highly useful theory about the Four Tendencies into her discussion of habit formation. I loved her book, because she zeroes in on the importance of understanding yourself (your tendency) in establishing the right bite-sized habit and the best-for-you prompt.
A very long postscript
This post could go on and on, but I’m trying a new practice. I have hundreds of unfinished draft posts sitting in my queue—because life is so full that if I don’t publish them right away, it’s hard to come back later. The momentum is gone. The energy I have for persistent, gradual progress on a piece of writing goes entirely to my books and to my working creating Brave Writer literature guides. But whenever I let my blog slip, I start to feel twitchy. It’s an important chronicle for my family and an important vehicle for my own learning and exploration. I need to write in order to know what I think. And I need to share that writing—narration is such a crucial piece of learning and critical thinking!
So what I’ve decided to try—and I’ll be evaluating the success of this plan in real-time, as I go, probably out loud—is writing for a set amount of time (most days, 45 minutes) and then hitting publish even if I had more thoughts to think, or (as with this post) more books to dish about. I’ve rearranged the day to allow this pocket of time (swapping it out with my Morning Pages practice, because the truth is, Morning Pages bore me silly after about the third day) most mornings. And when the timer goes off, I’ll give it a quick scan for typos and then smash the publish button, even if I had more to say.
I have plenty of outlets for more polished writing. Patreon, Medium, Darts, Arrows, my books. For the first ten years, blogging worked brilliantly for me as a catalyst for discovery and analysis. I resisted the shift toward professionalization of one’s blog and I bristled at the trend toward prioritizing the inclusion of beautiful photos, creating a magazine effect. (Do you know what I do for images here these days, most of the time? I click the “Add Media” button and type a word, loosely related to the content of the post, into the search bar. Then I pick one of the zillion photos I’ve shared here in the past. Thus the ancient snapshot at the top of this post.)
Because social media favors posts with a captivating and properly sized “featured photo,” I kept leaving drafts in the queue to await a moment when I could take or find the right picture. And of course you’re supposed to use keywords and subheads or your SEO plug-in yells at you. Mine loathes the length of my sentences and paragraphs.
And I find that I no longer care. I seldom bother to share links to Bonny Glen posts on Facebook or Twitter any more. I use subheads sparingly and mainly because I love that shade of blue.
Now, I realize I’ve gone and written a whole second post to explain why I’m publishing the first one practically mid-thought. Once again, I’m thinking out loud, firming up my vague notions by articulating them to you.
This practice—which, again, is an experiment I’m testing to see if it clicks for me—will mean more frequent, less polished posts. If you’re still here reading Bonny Glen after all these years, and through my long silences, I’m guessing you won’t mind. If you ever feel I’ve given short shrift to a topic and you’d like to hear more, please let me know! I’d be happy to tackle it the next time I set the timer.
P.S. No time today for adding book links! If you’d like to give me the affiliate credit, here are links to my Amazon & Bookshop.org portals.
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A Wrinkle in Time, BJ Fogg, Blog, Bloggity, encounters with books, Gretchen Rubin, James Clear, Madeleine L'Engle, Rebecca Stead, rule of seven, rule of six, When You Reach Me