This photo was taken in June, 2018, in a little town on California’s Central Coast. At least that’s how I remember it. Today Portland is gray and bedraggled, and I needed a bit of color.
This photo reminds me that at one point, I had a whole secret theme going on my Instagram. I never told anyone (except Scott, of course) what I was going for, but I kept the project going for months. It wasn’t every photo, just one or two a week, and the theme would have been hard to guess at. It was a look at juxtapositions of color: manmade structures and objects behind or next to objects from nature. Flowers against walls, brilliant red poppies in front of a bright blue recycling bin, lime-green moss next to yellow rain boots, that sort of thing. I remember one of my favorites was a scatter of autumn leaves in a leaf-shaped pothole.
It was fun, having a secret art project. I tend to spill all my artistic secrets out of enthusiasm—sometimes to their detriment. It’s easy to lose steam on a project after I’ve had the fun of telling about it.
Back when I was writing Little House prequels, I used to have to turn in outlines for approval by the Laura Ingalls Wilder estate. Outlines are deadly to my writing process; once I’ve mapped a book out in that level of detail, the energy fizzles. It’s like I’ve had the fun of telling the story and now what’s left is the hard part, the actual writing.
So every time one of these outlines was approved, I’d sit down and write a totally different book. I never meant to; I would just start writing in the middle somewhere, searching for life, and suddenly the story would grow legs and skitter off in a different direction than the map I’d submitted.
And you know what? No one ever seemed to notice. When I turned in a manuscript, my editor edited the book she got, not the one she didn’t. I’m proud of those books and I’m happy they wouldn’t stay in their boxes. Some of the broad strokes do parallel the original outlines; there were parts of each story that I knew from the beginning I wanted to tell—the Roxbury hurricane; the story of Charlotte’s baby brother—but most of the everyday happenings in those stories grew as I wrote, not before.
I’ve been treading cautiously with my current novel-in-progress. With this one, I could see the broad outline very clearly from the first—danger! But as soon as I started writing, new developments elbowed in, pushing the early conception to the far corners of the page.
Which was a huge relief. I have to do this dance with any written work: know enough, but not too much. I remember once complaining to Scott that I had a paper due, and it seemed like a pointless exercise: “I know I can write it, and the professor knows I can write it, so why can’t we just leave it at that?” Heh. That was toward the end of a rigorous two years in graduate school and I was tired. Grinding out that paper felt rather, shall we say, academic.
Anyway, that’s where my thoughts have wandered on this cloudy afternoon. I didn’t plan this post in advance; I just searched “color” in my photo library and let my thoughts roam where they pleased.
What’s on deck for you today? I’m trying to get my head back into work mode. I’ll be diving into a new Dart (the young middle-grade literature & mechanics guides I write for Brave Writer), this time for the April book, Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey, a wonderful short novel by Erin Entrada Kelly, whose work I love. I’ve written almost all of the Darts and a lot of the Arrow guides, over the years. They’re challenging to write but it’s really enjoyable work—getting to dig into other authors’ books and talk about what they’re doing with language. I love the playful vibe and the chance to share my enthusiasm for the fantastic books my editor, Dawn Smith, chooses each year.
I write my Darts in Scrivener, so that’s today’s work: setting up the new draft. After almost six years of working on Brave Writer guides, I must say my Scrivener template is a thing of beauty. 😉 My appreciation of Scrivener as a writing tool has only grown over the years. Its learning curve is on the steep side, but there are great tutorials, and once you know how to use its features, it’s incredibly flexible. I do most of my writing in it: novels (the corkboard view that lets you move scenes around is something I couldn’t live without); blog post drafts (although, oddly, not this one); stitching project notes; interstitial journaling; even some planning.
One day last summer, for my own amusement, I googled “Wes Anderson palettes” and sure enough, there’s a Tumblr for that. I found two palettes I loved and used them as starting points to create my own array of preset colors for my labels and files. Because the prettier the workspace is, the more time I want to spend in it.
I’m working on a new novel at the moment, and it, too, lives in Scrivener. I’m able to stash lots of research and reference photos there, and character notes, plot notes, anything really.
One of the best things about working in this platform is that it lives outside my browser. It’s completely separate from the internet. I mean, I can link to things that would open in a browser, but with Scrivener I could work completely offline, if I wanted to.
(I will never want to. It automatically backs up to my Dropbox, and I wouldn’t like writing without that security net. But I could, is what I’m saying.)
P.S. I said I wasn’t going to bother with book links, and I’m mostly not going to? Sort of? This may sound silly, but I miss the way a title shows up in red when I turn it into a link. So maybe sometimes, when I feel like it, I’ll grab a Bookshop.org link. I dunno. I’m figuring it out as I go along. I suppose where I landed the other day was that I intend to eliminate unnecessary busywork. And what feels like busywork is going to change from day to day. Today, I wanted pretty.
Updated to add: I made a quick and (in keeping with the topic) totally unedited audio recording of this post, if you’d prefer to listen. I just used the voice notes app on my phone, and to close up some longish pauses, I selected the “skip silences” option, which has pros and cons. It’s good enough for now.
Am I doing the math right? It’s about to be 2023, and I started my blog in Jan. 2005—so: it’s about to turn 18? Holy cats.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reflection about this blog and all the other places I’ve engaged in online discourse. I’m holding most of that reflection close to the vest for now, but what I can say is that my line of thought this past year has been heavily focused on the way this blog used to support my writing life, and the ways my pattern has shifted over the years.
One thing I’ve been keenly aware of is that navigating multiple platforms—necessary at times, for good reasons—has often left me feeling scattered, digitally speaking, unsure what to put where. My Patreon (in addition to paying off the hefty medical bills of 2017) was meant to cover the overhead costs of Bonny Glen. In practice, though, I found myself constantly waffling over what to post where. Here or there or social or where?
During the pandemic years, the decision fatigue—bane of my existence—has had a dampening effect on my writing process overall. I’ve begun, and left in drafts, dozens, possibly hundreds of posts. Blog, Patreon, newsletter, Medium, Instagram. As my old Astoria landlord used to say: It’s too much! It’s too much!
Another major factor in diminished blogging was the end of Feedburner’s posts-by-email function. Some of you will remember when I tried a substitute, with unfortunate (ad-icky) results. Absent that feature, and with social networks playing algorithm games with us all the time, readers have to actually go to a blog to see if there’s a new post. A few readers still use an aggregator, like Feedly, but not many. (I do have extremely high hopes for Reader, though—a new offering from Readwise, which became my favorite platform of 2022.)
Substack has perks as a platform, but—like Patreon—much of its content lives behind a paywall, and as a reader I thoroughly grok the impossibility of paying for individual subscriptions to a whole bunch of Substacks. Medium, at least, offers access to all paywalled posts for about the same monthly cost as a single Substack sub. But getting any kind of visibility on Medium is a whole nother challenge, a boring one.
And it’s all—aha, here I’m getting to the heart of it—work. It takes time. A lot, lot, lot of time. But this blog was never intended to steal time from writing my books—it was meant to support my work. I’ve written often about the role it has played in my reading/writing/thinking/mothering life, and that’s part of the more recent reflections I’m holding close for now.
What I will say is this:
Over the past several years, I’ve experimented with half a dozen strategies for refocusing my blog habits. Nothing succeeded at beating back the scatter factor. So in September, I tried something new. I put my Patreon on pause and dialed back on all forms of posting. No newsletter, not much action here on the blog, very little social media activity. I needed the break.
But privately, I was trying to restore the practice of daily blog-style writing—capturing my thoughts about what I was reading, watching, experiencing. And now, with lots of things bubbling behind the scenes, I’m ready to return to posting. But posting within some self-imposed parameters.
1. Since work and family responsibilities tend to come in intense waves, keeping to a regular posting schedule has been difficult-to-impossible for me. For that reason, and to mitigate the scatter factor, I’m keeping my Patreon on pause indefinitely. I’ll miss the egg money, but right now it’s more important that my blog is a delicious respite from work rather than another kind of job.
2. I’m not going to bother with affiliate links anymore either. I switched from Amazon to Bookshop.org a while ago, but (much as I love Bookshop) that creates even more work. (Amazon’s tools are faster, basically.) I may leave affiliate portal links in my sidebar, but I’m not going to take the extra time to grab specific book links any more.
3. Photos: another form of busywork. What I’ve been doing this past year is just entering loosely related keywords into my WordPress media library and choosing one of the old pics that pops up. I may also take advantage of Readwise’s lovely quote graphics because they require only a quick tap.
4. Similarly, I’m not going to bother much with design. My WordPress has a built-in analysis feature that loves to scold me for using too many words/too few keywords/too few subheadings/too few images/too complex a vocabulary. To which I say: Pffffttthhhht! See, what I’ve learned is: subheadings make a piece of writing feel like an essay or article, not an old-school chatty blog post, not an even-older-school letter from a friend. And essays and articles, while a form of writing I love to read and sometimes write, are not what I’m turning up in this space for. I need a place for shoes-off, hair-down writing. Warty writing, even.
5. How to let people know there’s something new! Last year I planned to round up posts in a monthly newsletter. This required both a) posts and b) sending a monthly newsletter. I did not much of either. What I think I’ll try instead is just sending a newsletter whenever I have three or four posts to share. No fixed schedule. You can sign up for my newsletter here, if you’d like.
6. And finally, as for posts themselves—the heart of this endeavor. There again, no pressures, no expectations. Just thinking out loud about what I’m reading and doing, as of old—but without any of the busywork that has often made it feel like a job. (Sending a quick newsletter isn’t arduous if it’s just to say—like Tonia Peckover or Three Ravens—here’s something new I wrote.)
So that’s what I’m thinking about my digital writing life as 2022 rolls to a close.
This year, I stopped wearing a Fitbit because I was weary of feeling like I hadn’t taken “enough” steps yet. I stopped caring about streaks in everything except Duolingo. (I’m learning Welsh, and I’ve been obsessed for [checks notes] 112 days.) I think I’ve logged barely half of my year’s reading at Goodreads—another intensely busyworky site, if you care about certain fiddly details. I’m sick of metrics. I keep thinking about that bit in A Ring of Endless Light where Vicky’s younger sister, Suzy, is more or less volunteering at a bait shop (something like that), and she comes home every day and flops into a chair with melodramatic fatigue, and the rest of the family is like, well if it’s so exhausting, why are you doing this totally voluntary thing? How about you just…don’t?
Here’s to walking away from the bait shop, friends, if that’s what you feel like doing. Here’s to a year of rest and restoration for all of us. Here’s to reading what you feel like reading, and deleting what you feel like deleting, and writing like your best friend is going to college on the other side of the country in 1989.
In the course of writing this post, I’ve thought of about six other things I want to write about. Which is, of course, the reason I blog in the first place.
This old photo popped up when I typed “work” into my blog’s media search bar. Original caption: what I look like while writing, according to Rilla
Early on in my parenting and homeschooling journeys (same journey: they were simultaneous), I recognized as a core value the importance of giving kids opportunities for real work that contributes to the household. As my babies became toddlers and then preschoolers, and I immersed myself in education theory and methods of homeschooling, I understood that this was an area where my thinking diverged from radical unschooling. It’s why I landed upon a style of homeschooling that was unschoolish but not, by the definition developed by the radical unschoolers of the late ’90s and early 2000s, unschooling.
Book idea: what it was like to watch homeschooling theory develop and spread in different directions. The Home Ed Mag discussion boards on AOL in 1995: moms speaking with authority, laying down definitions that over the next ten years became a kind of dogma. Amusing now to think back and realize how very young their children were at the time. As the years passed, I watched with interest as their ideas were tested, challenged, vehemently defended, splintered, refined—all the while testing, challenging, defending, splintering, and refining my own. Remembering moments like the time a famous unschooling/non-coercive parenting speaker wanted me to stay for an evening event at a conference, and I explained that one of my kids was ready to head home, and she said, “Can we bribe her to stay?” —How startled I was, having seen her blister hapless moms on her discussion forum for parenting with bribery. How crystal clear it was in that moment: the gulf between theory and practice. How that canyon snakes through nearly everything we attempt in adult life, and much of the work of adulthood is building bridges. /end tangent
Anyway! While I’ve experimented with different methods and materials over the years (the decades now!) of homeschooling, I held fast to certain core principles, and provide opportunities for meaningful work has been one of them. (My older children, however, will note that I applied that principle more consistently when they were small than with my two youngest. “When I was your age, I’d been ______ [fill in the blank with a household chore] for years already” is an occasional—and totally accurate—remark in my home. When you have competent teens handling the bathroom- and kitchen-cleaning, it’s easy to ride the status quo. I generally appreciate the reminders to make time for teaching important life skills to the younger set.)
The meaningful work concept has shaped our home education experience, too. If I assign something, I want it to matter, not be mere busywork. On a practical level, this means: if I can see after three or four math problems that you understand the concept, there’s no need to finish the page. You can do a few more problems on that page a couple of days later. Still remember the steps toward the solution? Cool, we can move on. If I observe a gap later, we’ll circle back and fill it in.
I know that my dogged adherence to this principle stems from the hours of boredom and frustration that filled my own school days—hours spent doing 40 problems, the first five of which were interesting puzzles and the rest, puzzle-key mastered, were excruciatingly bored and robbed me of sleep or precious reading time.
Eek, the timer’s about to go off. I was going to chronicle the past week’s meaningful work! My own, I mean.
• All tasks that make our home pleasanter are meaningful work, even the tedious kind. Of note this past week: I sorted through two boxes of paperwork from the filing cabinet, culling a whole boxful for shredding or recycling, and sorting the remaining files into grouped layers in the other box. Did I find the one piece of paper I was looking for—the document that prompted this activity? I did not.
• Homeschooling: I taught some math things, read lots of When You Reach Me (see yesterday’s post), discovered how fearfully dusty our globe is but spent a lot of time poking at sites on it anyway, and learned about the Haida Nation who lived off the coast of British Columbia thousands of years ago.
• I wrote a Brave Writer Arrow for Pam Muñoz Ryan’s lovely novel Mañanaland. Sent it off to my wonderful editor, Dawn Smith, with a few gaps that I’ll fill this afternoon. This is the May book for Arrow subscribers and will be my fifth Arrow from this academic year’s batch of ten titles. I wrote nine of the ten Darts, too! Writing these comprehensive guides is challenging and rewarding work—the reward being the delight I see on kids’ faces in the photos parents share on Instagram and elsewhere. We’re helping families make magic.
• I kept up with work for my social media clients, my coaching clients, my nonprofit client.
• I wrote posts for Patreon and for this blog.
• I worked on some extremely loose and fuzzy exploratory notes toward my next novel. Didn’t spend as much time in that notebook as I would have liked, due to the bullet points above. 😉
• I did some garden cleanup (the bees are awake at last, so it was safe to remove dead stems)—but that’s such a pleasure that I can hardly count it as work. Or: it’s meaningful work on the writing project, because gardening is when I do some of my best writing. I wrote the first draft of Fox and Crow Are Not Friends in my head while weeding the side yard, one San Diego day. Same with all three Inch and Roly stories, come to think of it.
• I got exactly nowhere on my secret stitching project. No wait, that’s not true. I made some notes about next steps.
I’ve just had a slender epiphany. For my Patreon yesterday I wrote a post about small projects—how many I have underway, and how satisfying it is to complete them—when it struck me that as a writer and an artist, nearly all the projects I care deeply about and think of as my Real Work are huge in scope.
I write novels, which can take years. Especially historical novels, with their months and months of research.
I have two separate, original, multi-piece embroidery projects underway, and if I thought novels were a slow-burning endeavor, boy howdy. I write at light-speed compared to the rate at which a stitching project develops from a glimmer of an idea to a transferable design to a finished piece hung on the wall. With embroidery, each ‘draft’ on the way to a final piece can take months. Even if, say, there’s a global pandemic keeping me housebound for a year, creating gaps of time where wandering around the science museum or meeting a friend for lunch used to live, my hands and eyes can handle only so much stitching and staring in a given day. And attempting something grand means lots and lots of iterations, lots of experimentation, lots of snipping away errant stitches so you can try something else.
And then of course there’s my epic, my life’s work—the homeschooling project, now in its 26th year, if you begin the count from the spring of 1995, when I began the read-and-research jag that has never stopped.
Pondering this, these large-scale endeavors I’m drawn to, in the context of my being a person who relishes the sudden, the new, the different, the spontaneous, the immediate—I have to laugh. We all live in various states of tension, tugged at by opposing forces (for example, you long to travel but don’t have the funds; or you’re happiest when you’re running but your knees are giving you hell); so the contrast between my nature and my aspirations isn’t unique, but it’s amusing.
Perhaps that’s why I took so readily to blogging and its later incarnations (most social media platforms are vehicles for microblogging, with twists): their quick turnaround, their perpetually changing nature. These forms of expression allow me to share ideas and experiences quickly, and to engage in immediate discourse about any topic that has seized my interest, right away, while the flame is burning high.
Meanwhile, the slow-burning project is simmering away, satisfying a whole different part of me. And it’s the determined part, the part with vision, the molten core roiling deep under the surface.
I grow sunflowers, and I grow trees.
As I said at the start of this post, it’s a slender epiphany—a morsel of self-understanding, not a revelation that changes the course of a river. But it’s a nourishing morsel, a crumb of lembas, that offers sustenance to both my practice of blogging and my larger-scale projects.
The splendid truth (to use Gretchen Rubin’s splendid term), of course, is that sometimes you discover that one of your sunflowers has grown into a towering oak. And some of your trees turn out to be bonsai. Either way, the point is to grow something.
Photo from August 2017. Not an oak.
Through this lens, I can survey my cluttered studio, my open tabs, my Scrivener files, my baskets and bins, and see the garden for what it is: abundance. Life. I grow milkweed, and I grow blueberries, and I grow river birches. (I also, let’s face it, grow a fair share of Bermuda grass.)
A reread to help me jump into a new year and a new project. Steven Pressfield’s take on Resistance is some of the most useful teaching about writing I’ve ever encountered.
“I wake up with a gnawing sensation of dissatisfaction. Already I feel fear. Already the loved ones around me are starting to fade. I interact. I’m present. But I’m not.
I’m not thinking about the work. I’ve already consigned that to the Muse. What I am aware of is Resistance. I feel it in my guts. I afford it the utmost respect, because I know it can defeat me on any given day as easily as the need for a drink can overcome an alcoholic.
I go through the chores, the correspondence, the obligations of daily life. Again I’m there but not really. The clock is running in my head; I know I can indulge in daily crap for a little while, but I must cut it off when the bell rings.”
I set this afternoon aside for reading, a whole glorious seven hours of it, and reading always makes me want to write. So here I am, blowing the dust off this dear old blog. I neglect it for weeks at a stretch because I spend so much of my day writing other things, and when I open this tab I often feel drained or blank.
There’s also an aspect of blogging that feels like homework—combing my photos for the right image, choosing tags, looking up books on Bookshop.org or Amazon to add links, the kind that send a few cents my way, defraying the costs of maintaining the site. Chores I find tedious and sometimes embarrassing. The book links aren’t as necessary as I tell myself they are—you can Google anything that catches your interest—but money’s as tight for us as it is for most everyone else right now, and omitting the links always feels, in the end, a bit irresponsible. Even now I’m staring at the word Bookshop up there, feeling internal pressure to stick my affiliate link in place like a sensible blogger.
But this is my magic week, when I don’t have to be sensible. I try to reserve the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day for combing through the year’s notebooks, revisiting, panning for gold. It’s mostly iron pyrite so far, but that’s often useful in its own way. I gave yesterday afternoon to a single notebook, distilled now to a page of notes and asterisks. Today, as I mentioned, was hours and hours of reading other people’s work. Twyla Tharp’s Keep It Moving, a packet of poems, a Mary Oliver essay that cut me to the quick. Lordy, I love her. Both of them. Twyla shakes you by the shoulders and Mary raises her eyebrows at you until you cry uncle. You’re right, I’m constantly shouting back, of course you’re right! I’ll go for a walk! I’ll try to enter the long black branches of other lives! More birds, less Twitter!
The line that made me gasp tonight—it was like an adrenaline syringe to the heart—was in her essay “Of Power and Time”:
In creative work—creative work of all kinds—those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.
She writes about her three selves—the child she was, who exists now in remembered experiences; the “attentive, social” self who makes dentist appointments and remembers to buy mustard; and a third self, “occasional in some of us, a tyrant in others.” A self “out of love with time,” a self that “has a hunger for eternity.”
The shock of recognition was severe. These past several months, my capable, responsible second self has—out of necessity—run the show. I’m a bit sick of her, to be honest. My third self, more tired than tyrannical in this bizarrest of years, is stretching her limbs and wondering when the prime minister took over running the kingdom.
I’m being a little unfair to the second self: someone had to get the FAFSA done and the health insurance renewed, and it certainly wasn’t going to be the poet queen. Mary Oliver’s delight was in lying down in the grass, as though she were the grass. My delight has been in showing the grass to my children and teaching them how to find its secret name. We walk in different fields, is what I’m saying.
But. Sometimes the second self tumbles or leaps into the whirlpool of distractions—most of them connected to the internet—and promises the third self her turn will come “as soon as.” As soon as the election is over, as soon as this assignment is turned in, as soon as the bathroom floor is mopped. The as-soon-as train has an infinite number of cars.
Twyla Tharp would say: you must make a pledge to the third self. Promise her time on the throne. Mary Oliver says to put your foot into the door of the grass and to sit down like a weed among weeds and rustle in the wind!
Every day, I get up before dark to give the third self a little time in the chair. I’m dedicated to this practice and it bears fruit on a long, slow timeline. But here at the end of an infuriating, stupefying year, those morning hours already feel like a distant memory by the time breakfast is over. The poet queen refuses to compete with Twitter. She won’t come back until all the tabs are closed. That’s Mary Oliver’s point.
“It is six a.m.,” she writes, “and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be.”
This last week of the year, I invite the third self to occupy the chair not just in the dawn hours but for a string of entire days. The second self can go jump in a lake, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, jump! urges Twyla—there is literally a chapter about jumping in Keep It Moving, in which she recommends four different kinds of leaps you ought to fold into your day. Beside her, Mary is calling: Fall in, fall in!
Always leave thread in the needle and the sentence half-written.
The plunge into chill water is the hardest part, so leave the burner on, the hot tap running.
Don’t let ink sit in the pen for too long — it clogs the nib. You’ll lose time momentum interest scraping a dry point across your skin until the clot dissolves.
Always leave the iron on. You may return to find useful scorch marks, or with luck ashes you can read like tea leaves.
Fail to secure the lids of your garbage bins. While cleaning up the raccoon rummagings, you may happen upon lost notions or revelatory peelings. Sweep up the spilt verbs and reassemble them into cracked sentences. Smells are the best glue.
This is the light that greets me when I slip out to the kitchen early in the morning to heat water for my cocoa. I open the back door and listen to the quiet. I drink in the cool air, the pale apricot sky. I’m always stalling a bit; in a moment I’ll have to sit down and start work. The hydrangeas are paler this year than the vivid sky-blue petals of last summer. In the big crumbling clay pots on the patio, the coneflowers and anise hyssop are in abundant bloom, all pinks and orange. The dahlias are thinking about getting around to flowering. A ripe blueberry here and there. Cosmos tall under the bird feeder. The neighbor’s rooster crows, the early train rumbles by in the distance: all these soft alarms telling me it’s time to get to work.