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
Photo from August 2017
Huck has a job watering a neighbor’s garden for a couple of weeks. In the early mornings, the two of us walk down the block and around the corner to the house where Juniper and Piper, a pair of small goats, live—only they aren’t home right now; they’re boarding at a nearby farm while their owners are away. Huck handles all the watering while I pick a few strawberries and cherry tomatoes. We have an overabundance of tomatoes already, here at home, but the neighbors urged us to take whatever ripened during their absence.
Every other morning, all Huck has to do is run a soaker hose for twenty minutes. We set a timer on my phone and meander through the sleepy neighborhood until it’s time to turn off the hose. A twelve-year-old can pack a universe of conversation into twenty undistracted minutes. I’m receiving quite an education—which has been the persistent thread of my experience as a homeschooling mom.
Yesterday Scott and I moved Rose into her new apartment, a trim little studio in a new building near her university. I thrilled with her over the new adventure—a ramen shop around the corner, an easy bus ride to work and to our house, a short walk to campus. She transferred to this school as a junior, and so far all her classes there have been online. She’ll get to spend her final year of college actually in the classroom—at least, that’s the plan. Portland’s vaccination rate is goodish, and we’re hopeful that the Delta variant doesn’t sending everyone cloistering at home again. Her fall semester doesn’t begin until late September, by which time this strain may have burned through the country and worn itself out.
(I am really worried about some of you. And a lot of kids and immunocompromised people nationwide. Worldwide. This everpresent thrum of worry.)
Later. Both gardens watered: the neighbor’s and ours. Hummingbird feeder refilled. Pancakes made (Huck), and a soft-boiled egg (me). So many roses blooming, and zinnias, rudbeckia, echinacea, anise hyssop. Milkweed blossoms opening, and hope in our hearts.
My notebook is full of the Delta variant, the wildfires, the worries. How is it possible I have so many unvaccinated friends?—none local, but scattered across the country in counties with spiking rates, and I’m wondering what losses the next ninety days will hold. I sent out a few Cassandra-like texts last week, and got back gentle rebuffs or silence. Don’t worry about us, one friend replied, and I groaned—it isn’t something you just turn off. I listen to the epidemiologists, and I know what’s rushing up on us.
I write this here because I don’t want to chronicle the celebrations and joys, the beautiful richness of life, without also acknowledging the dire state of the world outside my doors—the people in peril. The planet in peril.
Here, in this house, in this room? Not peril. Peace, sometimes. Contentment, often. Helpless laughter, frequently. A busy thrum of activity, constantly. I document all this, too, in various notebooks, and, when I can, here on the blog. I keep a ridiculous number of lists. Lists of work accomplished, housework done, books read, television watched, podcasts and audiobooks listened to; lists of small moments that sent gratitude or delight surging through me.
—aeschynanthus blooming at last
—two sunsoaked tomatoes in the big black pot
—chickadees and bush tits at the feeder
—how much Huck and Rilla loved Nine to Five
—The Firelings, richer every time I read it
—Thomas A. Clark’s poems
more light on the branch
more light on the leaf
than appears to fall
on light or leaf
—Holly Wren Spaulding‘s posts like manna in my mailbox
—my studio, the daily rush of appreciation I feel for this lovely space
—a piece of aqua-colored linen in my hands, a vision for what it will become, a salamander in ferns, the meditative pleasure of handstitching the raw edges so they won’t fray
—on green quilter’s cotton purchased long ago, a pink chrysanthemum blooming
—my Aunt Genia’s recipe for inside-out chocolate cake, baked for no reason at all except that I was thinking of her
—the new mop bucket, the satisfaction of gleaming floors
—Rose’s long quest for an apartment, successful at last
—the smell of morning, the expectant crows, the clatter of peanuts on the patio
—dulce de leche ice cream
—kids playing Zelda for hours
—my friend Kyleen’s viola, Allen’s upright bass
—my candy-colored socks
—the Seam Finishing 101 class at Creativebug, a true gem
—the free Bystander Intervention training at Hollaback
—the Sister Act 2 finale, which will never get old
The celebration lists, and the Cassandra letters. That’s what I’ve got for the world right now.
July 17, 2021 @ 6:28 am | Filed under: Bloggity
Oh my dears. If you subscribe to receive my blog posts via email, you may have received a message from the new service (follow.it) this morning, notifying you that I posted yesterday. A very ugly, spammy-looking message with ads at the bottom. Gross. I’ll be deleting this situation right quick. Some experiments fail, and boy howdy, is this one of them.
What this means: until I find a better option, you won’t receive my new blog posts via email. My RSS feed still works, so you can subscribe via Feedly or another feed reader—if you’re one of the handful of people who still uses a feed reader. (I do! Feedly’s just fine.)
What I can do: from now on, I’ll include a list of recent blog posts in my monthly newsletter. That way, if you subscribe to the newsletter (and I think almost everyone who was subscribed to new-blog-posts-via-email is also subscribed to my newsletter—they’re two different lists but there’s a lot of crossover), you’ll see if I’ve posted anything new here on the blog. The newsletter’s pretty, I promise. Not spammy at all. I use Flodesk for that, which I learned about from the wonderful Nicole Gulotta.
Apologies for that spammy little detour! It won’t happen again. (Not even with this post. Which means you might not see it! LOL!)
This photo (Rilla, circa 2008) has summed up my mood all week. I’m just…beat. Among other things, I’ve been wrestling with this blog-post-by-email transition and—long story short—you may or may not get this post in your in-box. Who can say, really?
I had a ton of things saved up to talk about here, but instead I think I’ll just post pics of the July accomplishment I’m most excited about: I made this reversible drawstring bag! The pattern (“Modern Japanese Rice Pouch” by the wonderful KZ Stevens) says “Difficulty level: beginner” and yes! This is accurate! If I can pull it off, anyone can.
It only took me 16 months—or 10 hours, depending how you count. I assembled the patchwork pieces of the outer panel in early March, 2020, and then FOR SOME MYSTERIOUS REASON I got distracted and set the project aside. I picked it up again about a year later and embroidered a few embellishments, and then once again I got sidetracked. But about a week ago I felt a powerful need to finish something—preferably something I could hold in my hands. I remembered the drawstring bag and dug it out of my project pile.
To my surprise and delight, I was able to assemble the bag in a few hours’ time—and that included all the time I spent watching Youtube videos to troubleshoot Beanie’s sewing machine. (My own machine, a perfectly wonderful cheap little Brother that I bought in 1995 with my first-ever publishing check, decided a 25-year romance was long enough. Farewell, old friend. It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.)
So anyway, now I’m obsessed and want to sew ALL THE BAGS. I’m thinking this square-bottomed drawstring pouch would be a perfect way to use some of the eleventy-million pieces of embroidery I’ve amassed these past few years. I might even see if I can add a pocket or two.
But first I think I’ll work through this Seam Finishing 101 class at Creativebug. (That’s an affiliate link because I remain as wildly enthusiastic about Creativebug as ever. I’ve taken soooo many drawing, painting, and stitching classes there. The kids have done a bunch, too. In my opinion it remains the best bang-for-your-buck subscription for a crafting family. They have a deal right now where you can buy an annual pass for $50 and get $50 to spend at Joann’s. Or you can do a free trial and sample a bunch of different classes.) Whenever I sew something that more or less works out, I feel sort of dazed and lucky, as if success were entirely a matter of chance instead of, you know, skill. I could stand to make a little headway in the skill department.
Another sewing class that caught my eye is this one on the Physics of Sewing. Color me intrigued!
Meanwhile, I’m rummaging through the archeological dig I call a garage, unearthing fabric purchased by earlier iterations of myself. Thanks for the stash, Lissa of the 1900s.
July 4, 2021 @ 1:58 pm | Filed under: Bloggity
UPDATED 7/17/21: The follow.it experiment was a bust. Their new-post emails looked spammy and gross. I deleted the account and posted an update here.
I know, I know, I disappeared again! After dormancy, uh…more dormancy. At least here on the blog, and on social too, for the most part. I spent May and June feverishly busy on other projects, and when I wasn’t working I stayed offline as much as possible. I completely overhauled my studio, deep-cleaned the main floor of the house, reorganized the garage, fiddled with a picture-book manuscript, studied all ten Brave Writer Dart books for the upcoming academic year (I’m writing the whole batch of Darts), survived the heat dome, and read or reread all the novels of Emily St. John Mandel. That’s right: my pandemic lockdown began and ended* with Station Eleven.
*Oregon lifted all COVID-19 restrictions last week, but our home life hasn’t changed much yet. The spiking numbers of the Delta variant have me feeling cautious still, so I won’t be ditching my mask quite yet, not in indoor public spaces. I did get to spend a delicious evening with a circle of fully vaccinated chorale friends, singing around a firepit, and I’m hoping for an encore soon.
It’s a bit surreal to be all caught up on chores in the real world, and way behind on things in my digital spaces. But the former couldn’t have happened if I’d kept up with the latter. My sidebar booklist is months out of date. My whole site needs a spring cleaning. I didn’t even announce the Nerviest Girl audiobook and paperback launch here! Yikes! That is extremely bad authoring. More on that soon?
One of my looming digital chores was to deal with the demise of Feedburner’s email subscription service. If you’ve been accustomed to receiving an email whenever I publish a new post here, it may look different now. This particular post is meant to test the new delivery vehicle (Follow.it). If you received a notification email, would you mind letting me know in a comment? And if you should have received that email and didn’t (and you happen to drop by and notice this post), please let me know that too. The transfer was supposed to be seamless, but the subscriber number changed, so there was a puckered seam somewhere.
To my vexation, the new service seems to have added little ‘follow’ icons on mobile, hovering over the text in a seriously annoying way. I’ve checked all the settings and I most definitely have NO ICONS selected. Yet there they are on my phone, irritating as mosquitoes! If you’re a mobile reader, I apologize and I hope to disappear the icons very soon.
All right, this post is like a phone call to a friend you haven’t talked to in way too long. Too much to catch up on! I’ll hang up now and hope to chat again in a day or two. I hope you’re well. I’ve missed you!
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.