Posts Tagged ‘creative practice’
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
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.
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
In a recent blog post, Austin Kleon quoted Tiersa McQueen‘s spot-on insight about parenting:
And I burst out with a delighted laugh, because moments earlier, I had scrawled in my notebook: I need to Rule-of-Six myself.
Long ago and far away, I wrote a post here on Bonny Glen about the six elements I tried to make sure were a part of my children’s days.
• encounters with beauty (in art, music, nature);
• encounters with living books
• meaningful work (not busywork, but work that makes a real contribution to one’s mind, one’s home, or one’s community);
• imaginative play; and
• big ideas to ponder and discuss.
That’s five. The sixth was prayer, which I would frame differently now, fifteen years later, as meditation/contemplation/white space. Time outside the hustle of time. Time apart from the barrage of stimuli that has become 21st-century life. Time to sit (or walk, or stitch, or garden) in quiet thought.
After this past year, I think I’d add a seventh ingredient to my recipe for a good day: connection with others—something I certainly took for granted back then, in my years of lively inter-blog discourse, and daily breakfast phone calls with Alice, and nature club and Shakespeare Club and Journey North club and group piano classes. How different life is now, rolling into this pandemic’s second spring! Huck and Rilla take piano lessons via Zoom, the same platform on which most of my face-to-face connecting happens these days, in daily afternoon coworking sessions and occasional friend-group meetups.
Avoiding the temptation to overload
In the days when the Rule of Six post was traveling to other homes, it was often tweaked and adapted to fit a family’s individual priorities, which I loved to see. One oft-added item was “exercise,” which I hadn’t thought to include in my vision for my own kids because they were young enough that movement was as ubiquitous as breathing, no matter what they were doing. I see myself moving to add it to the list now, and I hesitate, hand hovering over the page, because I recognize the fine line between enough and overload. Even the urge expressed above to add connection with others risks opening the floodgates to a host of other daily aspirations and habits. I have always had a hard time not including All the Things on any list.
Containers, not habits
A helpful distinction is to understand the Rule as something separate from habits (a topic I also loved to explore in discussions on this blog, back in the day, and with which I remain fascinated and even professionally involved). This past year, I gave a lot of focus to cultivating certain habits—exercise being one of them. It’s perilously easy for me to overload myself with lists of habits I mean to develop, so that over and over I have to remind myself to return to core principles: one simple habit at a time, worked at faithfully for weeks until it becomes automatic. When my children were small, it was easy to allow habit-building a long and gentle timeline: they had their whole lives stretched out before them! With myself, it’s harder to be patient.
Embracing core principles
My old Rule developed out of core values. It began, of course, with Charlotte Mason’s notion that a child should have, every day, “something to think about, something to do, and something to love.” And so I find clarity when I view the items on my Rule list as principles that inform good habits, not habits themselves. The ways in which I (or my kids) encounter beauty shift and change over time; the kinds of meaningful work each of us engages in have changed many times over the years.
And I can see the ways I’ve worked to create habits that support the Rule’s principles, like coaching a child through the formation of a habit for a household chore like taking out the recycling (a kind of meaningful work: contributing to the pleasant atmosphere of the home). I have lots of habits and practices to support my own “meaningful work,” like take a walk between lunchtime and writing time; or write down my top three work priorities each morning. From time to time I have to re-establish good habits around reading (poetry before screens, or no phone in bed) to ensure that “encounters with living books” doesn’t disappear from my list.
And so, as I contemplate my growing sense that I need to Rule-of-Six my own self, I have to keep remembering to focus on the core principles, the containers, not the granular habits that support the principles.
Why this strong urge to revisit the Rule?
I think my old Rule leapt back into my notebook because the pandemic’s limitations and stressors have, inch by inch, shoved me into a space that feels alien and incompatible, like when Mrs. Which accidentally tessered Meg & co. to a two-dimensional planet for a moment, and their lungs couldn’t expand. Perhaps that’s overstating—the essential elements on my list are present in my life, say over the span of a week instead of a day—but still, I’ve been feeling restless, yearning, nostalgic.
I’m off balance: way too much work (meaningful though it may be) and not nearly enough white space. Encounters with beauty: easy, because Portland is a fairyland in spring, and spring lasts for months and months here. But “encounter” becomes too shallow a word when I put it in the context of “encounters with art”—to simply scroll Instagram is to encounter so much deeply beautiful art that I can’t take it in, can’t fully appreciate it. I think back to the time I spent two full afternoons in one Barcelona museum, even though it meant not visiting some other sites. I gave myself time to stand quietly in one room and taste the paintings, not brush past them like people on a subway platform.
And so I remind myself that “encounter” meant a close encounter, a slow one, a deep one.
Carrying my Rule into spring
I can see the ways my ideas have ripened, matured, since I first put it into practice. I can see ways that it has slipped right off my radar as a mother—things I came to take for granted, as givens, or as items on a checklist. Revisiting the Rule nourishes me and reminds me of the core values that inspired it in the first place.
• encounters with beauty
• encounters with living books
• meaningful work;
• imaginative play;
• big ideas to ponder and discuss;
• white space; and, yes, I’ll add—
So, er, Rule of Seven?
I think connection is important for me to include because it reminds me to step outside myself and make sure I’m letting ideals become actions. And of course connection is a word of immense significance to so many of us who homeschool, whose understanding of education is centered on helping facilitate connections of all kinds for our kids.
Jocelyn Glei urges us to actively schedule time for white space (thinking/contemplating/daydreaming/staring out a window/praying/meditating) immediately after a focused “deep work” session. It’s an intriguing notion! And a wise one. If I meander out to the garden after a writing session, roadblocks I hit in the day’s writing have a way of dissolving into the air. But too often, too often!, I rush directly from a writing session to some other kind of work. In my earlier Rule of Six days, I had an abundance of white space that was organic to life in a household of littles—nursing a baby, or sitting on a blanket at the park, physically tethered and mentally free to roam.
It’s funny to hear myself think: maybe try to be a little less efficient. Stay playful. Fritter more, but fritter well. (Scrolling isn’t frittering.)
If I apply the Rule to myself, it will spill over to my family
Core principles are infectious. If you’re making space for pondering and discussing big ideas, you’re going to be discussing them with other people—most especially the people you live with. If I’m having a close encounter with something beautiful, I can’t help but share it.
The practice of the Rule itself used to provide an opening for discussion, in the days when I would ask the questions at bedtime: where did we encounter beauty today? Or: tell me about the game you were playing in the back yard. At one point I had a side-blog where I recorded our answers and my own observations. At other points, I chronicled them in a Small Meadow Press notebook or on Listography. Just writing that sentence fills me with longing!
I love the feeling of longing because it spurs me to action. And no action could be simpler than returning to my old practice of spending a few minutes at the end of each day sifting through the day’s activities and seeing where they fit into my Rule.
Do you have a practice like this? I’d love to hear about it.
Photo from July 2011
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.)
What are your flowers? What are your forests?
When you mention A Ring of Endless Light in a post, naturally you check for dolphins among your photos. Here’s Beanie making a friend in 2008.
My morning routine has been a bit out of whack lately, and I’m trying to get it back in what an etymological site tells me is the opposite: in fine whack, meaning the same as in fine fettle.
There seems to have been a phrase in fine whack during that century, meaning that something was in good condition or excellent fettle. (It appears in a letter by John Hay, President Lincoln’s amanuensis, dated August 1863, which describes the President: “The Tycoon is in fine whack. I have rarely seen him more serene and busy. He is managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and planning a reconstruction of the Union, all at once”.) It doesn’t often turn up in writing, though, so there’s some doubt how widespread it was.
And now I’m trying to remember which Madeleine L’Engle book discusses the word amanuensis—I’m hearing a small boy saying it; he’s proud to be someone’s amanuensis, a literary or artistic assistant; which means it’s either Rob Austin or Charles Wallace Murry. Hmm, no, neither seems right, although in my memory there was an element of precociousness in the character’s use of the word. I reread A Ring of Endless Light for the umpteenth time last year—always my favorite L’Engle novel—so that’s probably where I’m recalling it from. But would it have been Rob? Was Adam Jed’s amanuensis? Sort of?
Well, this digression is indicative of the way I sometimes allow my morning routine to skitter off course. I have a no-screens rule for the first hour minutes, and then I allow myself to open the laptop for an hour or more of writing time. I’ve been trying to keep to a strict one-tab-at-a-time habit, but a rabbit trail like the one above has generated three extra tabs and a jaunt to the library website to see if A Ring of Endless Light was available in ebook. It was! But my search for amanuensis in the text revealed zero hits. Hmm. My brain will keep poking this question until I find the answer. Watch me: I’ll wind up rereading all of L’Engle to find the quote!
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!
(Reposting with corrected link)
Two months free, then 50% off for life! Our Creativebug membership continues to be a mainstay of our homeschooling life. I get positively giddy when I scroll through the courses. I bet I’ve taken forty courses by now—drawing, painting, embroidery, sewing! And that’s just me—the kids use it too.
Nerviest Girl readers—check out this Creativebug class on how to Make a Parachuting Ostrich! Go Jezebel!
(Affiliate link but I’m a longtime paying customer too.)
September 21, 2020 @ 8:55 am | Filed under: Books
Oh my dears, what a time we’ve had! All of us—you and I. Our ten or so days of unbreathable air really did a number on me. Losing our daily walks, and my ritual of walking around the yard and literally stopping to smell the roses—brutal. On Friday the rain came at last, and the air went from Hazardous to Very Unhealthy to the miraculous-seeming Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. Imagine celebrating a designation like that! Especially since three of us in this household fall in that Sensitive Group.
Today the AQI readout is green, glorious green. We can breathe deeply once more. Scott and I went for a walk yesterday evening and of course the world had changed during our days of huddling indoors. Summer slipped away and autumn is coming in: air quivering with golden light, trees tinged with color, asters and brown-eyed Susans stretching out their arms. All over the neighborhood, we saw giant sections of tree trunk sawed and awaiting removal—very likely casualties of the fierce winds that ushered in our days of smoke. Just around the corner, an entire treetop is sprawled on the side of the road, cordoned off. Scott and I had a moment of retroactive alarm, imagining what might have happened if our next-door neighbor hadn’t taken down the dear old dead birch in the sidewalk strip right next to the boundary of our yard. We were sad to see it go—but it kept dropping larger and larger limbs, and safety demanded its removal. Just in time, I think. If the winds had taken it down, all the power, phone, and cable lines would surely have gone with it.
This morning feels like a fresh start. I love fresh starts! I began a new embroidery piece during my creative-practice time—a Sarah K. Benning design, a tumble of fall wildflowers. Usually when I work designs created by someone else, I like to change up the colors to put my own stamp on the project. But this time I think I’ll stick to Sarah’s palette, which is full of yellow and gold and orange and brown—colors I seldom reach for on my own! Those brown-eyed Susans are insisting on it.