It’s been nearly a month since my last post here, and over a month since I shared any of my own photos on Instagram. This time, the silence was intentional, an awareness that I needed to sit quietly and read and learn, amplifying voices other than my own. I’m working through Mia Birdsong’s antiracism resource list, reading more slowly than is my usual gulping habit. I’m trying to listen more than I speak.
(Facebook friends will know I’ve not been totally quiet over there—that’s the space where I feel most compelled to speak out, for reasons that probably merit unpacking. That’s for another post, though.)
I’ve been wondering when I would come back to this space, and to Instagram, which is where I express myself in visual images—not planning for it, just allowing the tide to carry me back. I never feel entirely myself when I’m not blogging. Last year I read Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work and thought: aha, that’s it, that’s what I was doing for a solid decade on Bonny Glen—showing my work, thinking out loud, writing to discover what I know and what I think. Learning in public.
Of course, it was easier to “show my work” when the main part of my work was homeschooling young children. Thinking my way through various educational philosophies, curating resources, and chronicling our daily learning adventures—these were practices that felt fluid and natural. Inevitable, even. Once I made up my mind about how best to approach our home education experience, I found I had less to say—just as my feverish urge to discuss a book subsides after I finish reading it.
I wrote (a much longer version of) the above across two mornings. And now today I’ve written a new post, which I thought I was going to put on Patreon but (you’ll see me thinking through it below) decided to move over here, which means now I need to go through and reverse all the heres and theres of the first draft. And it’s getting late! Breakfast is nudging me. But I’m not ready to stop. If I include this morning’s efforts, this post will be monstrously long. Maybe that’s to be expected after a month away!
I’ve been driving myself a little bit crazy in the mornings. You’d think the quarantine would have seen me sinking deeper into the creative practice that nourished me all last year—the early rising, the yoga-stretching while water boiled for my cocoa, the fervent commitment to Poetry Before Screens, the writing of morning pages or what Holly Wren Spaulding calls “zero drafts” of poems, the heady feeling of having written, no matter what else the day brought. How gratifying to have the time and space for this practice; how satisfying to feel well begun each day. You’d think!
Instead, I’ve let my good habits slip, one by one. Standing in the kitchen reading Twitter while the water boils? Ah, there’s the whole thing dashed in one swoop. No stretching, no poetry, screens first. The most agitating kind of screen. One tiny choice each morning: which domino chain will I set off?
I resisted the Twitter urge today, the gnawing desire to see what happened in the night, in the East Coast morning while I slept (good thing, because the news of the Trump administration’s renewed efforts to cancel our healthcare would have utterly derailed any creative activity). It drains you, exercising willpower constantly. That’s why habits are so important; they remove the need to expend mental energy on constant choosing.
I worked hard to build good habits around creative practice. If I start my mornings reading—poems, essays, not news—I’ll want to write. Every time, simple as that. Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, for example, sends me soaring and makes my pen twitch.
This morning I kept my rules, and here I am writing. I had a laughing revelation about myself a few minutes ago: I’d followed the steps of my creative practice faithfully, reading all the right things, and I’ve been trying (even, or especially, on the Twitter mornings) to do a tiny two-minute meditation to clear my mind for writing—just two minutes! With an aim to work up to five. This morning I couldn’t make it thirty seconds—and it hit me that what always happens, half a minute or a minute into silence and breathing, is that my mind starts writing. I wrench focus back to breath and two seconds later I’m scribbling another line in my head.
It was comical, suddenly, to realize that I’ve been trying to cultivate a habit that will help me write, and then I exasperatedly push away the writing that wants to interrupt the habit. It struck me as a bit like swatting away the action verb to focus on the helping verb. (And maybe that’s the point of meditation—sitting quietly with “I am” instead of leaping, scrawling, dashing.)
Laughing at myself shattered the silence and I gave in to the impulse to reach for my notebook. I wanted to write down the path my reading had taken before I tried to meditate.
—A Holly Wren Spaulding post featuring a Ron Padgett poem, “How to Be Perfect.”
—Linked in the post, an exchange of letters between Padgett and a bright young student about Padgett’s delightfully inscrutable poem “Nothing in That Drawer.”
—An Austin Kleon newsletter, which I can always trust to send me in good, writery directions. Such as:
• this article about the arson-suspected burning of Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire sculpture in the Presidio (reminding me, because of a long-ago Goldsworthy connection, of John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic, which I should think about rereading);
• a mention of zuihitsu (re Kenko’s Essays in Idleness), which reminded me I meant to read Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, purchased months ago on a recommendation from Kimiko Hahn in her exquisite zuihitsu collection, The Narrow Road to the Interior
—Tonia Peckover’s new blog post, especially this:
In the garden this morning, I noticed the cool-weather crops have been lingering around longer than usual and the summer plants are still small and unsteady, different than other late Junes – but not surprising for this cool and rainy one we’ve just had. There is no sense of frustration there, no anxiety vibrating off the tomato leaves. I want to live by such confidence, content with the sun I am given, and the rain when it falls, taking what I can and growing. I admit I am not there yet.
I have notebooks full of these connection-lists, each entry dissolving into original writing, notes toward poems or posts. It strikes me that I used to do this kind of chronicling of the day’s rabbit trails here on the blog almost daily! Those collections of thought are invaluable to me now, and they’re much easier to revisit in my blog archives than in my heap of crammed notebooks.
I’m sure there’s a reason I needed to spend the past year writing by hand, but I’ve become frustrated with the aftermath: I can’t get to the particular note or draft I’m looking for without paging through half a dozen Leuchtturms. (Not to mention the expense. That paper is a dream to write on, but those purchases were a thing of the Before Times. My quarantine reality is: use what you have.)
I’m uneasily aware that one reason I keep dropping the blogging habit is because of my Patreon. I have the hardest time deciding where a post belongs. There, because it’s about creative practice? Here, where I’ve stashed fifteen years’ worth of booknotes? There, where I have a bit more privacy, which changes how I write? Here, where search engines can find me (meaning I’ll have an easier time, myself, finding references and quotes later)?
For better or for worse, today it’s going here.
I wrote that line on Patreon and then immediately decided, nope, wrong spot. So here it is, all of it. Way leading on to way.
This is me, showing my work.
andy goldsworthy, austin kleon, creative practice, holly wren spaulding, John Stilgoe, kimiko hahn, mia birdsong, Patreon, poetry before screens, ron padgett, ross gay, tonia peckover, zuihitsu
School started back up for Wonderboy last week, and his earlier bus pick-up time this year means a new morning routine for several of us. I’ve pushed my own wake-up time from 6 to 5:30 to give myself a full hour for my daily creative practice before my boys get up. This is a bit too early for comfort, but I cherish that quiet morning time with poetry, cocoa, and my notebook. My studio window faces east, so I get to watch the sun seep upward from the neighbor’s roof into the clouds, like rose and apricot-colored watercolors blooming on wet paper. There’s a pair of trees over the back fence whose combined shape looks like a hedgehog in profile with its paw raised to its open mouth as if it’s calling out to the sun, singing it awake.
It always makes me think of the hedgehog in Watership Down, only that one is singing to the moon, not the sun: O Slug-a-Moon!
I read from books of poems for a while—currently Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumathathil and Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo, along with daily selections from Holly Wren Spaulding’s poetry challenge or her Patreon. After a bit (and as my special caffeinated hot chocolate kicks in), reading becomes writing, and I freewrite to one of Holly’s provocations or using the method Lynda Barry lays out in her indispensable book about writing, What It Is. These scrawled pages are rough, unfiltered, as freewrites are supposed to be; and then I reread and harvest a word here, a fragment there, arranging the raw phrases into drafts of poems.
Sometimes I wake so early that I have time to stitch or sketch while listening to a few minutes of a Commonplace Pod episode before the boys appear in my doorway. Wonderboy eats breakfast and Huck snuggles into my writing chair for a bit. Scott gets up to pack WB’s lunch. Huck moseys down to the basement to watch a video. I take a peek at Instagram, maybe share a stitch-diary photo in my Stories. The bus arrives. Scott reads in bed for a while. I turn on my laptop and open a tab to WordPress or Patreon. I congratulate the green hedgehog on successfully waking the sun for one more day.
I’m sleep-deprived but happy.
Speaking of my Patreon: I’ve restructured the tiers with new benefits for fall. I mentioned last week that I’m giddily immersed in a new creative project which combines hand-drawn embroidered pieces with poems. I’m documenting the process on Patreon with lots of sketchbook and work-in-progress peeks. I usually wait until a project is out in the world before I say much about it, so this is quite a departure for me—as is the project itself.
(Am I capable of being quick? Probably not.)
1—I took some time this month to assess the ways I’m using social media and other online activities—and that was before I began reading Cal Newport’s excellent book Digital Minimalism, which hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. Highly recommended; I’ll be asking my older kids to read it, for sure. I’m going to be changing the way I use several platforms, but that topic will have to wait for later because I can’t possibly be quick about it. But one fruit of my contemplations has been an idea for a change I’m making at my Patreon. Short version: starting tomorrow, subscribers at the $3+ tier are invited to join me for a weekly live chat via Google Hangouts. Before, I was offering a monthly recorded live chat; this new thing is weekly and unrecorded. You can read more about it here (it’s a public post; you needn’t be a Patreon subscriber to read it). Think of it as an invitation to drop by my studio for a gabfest once a week. (Starting tomorrow, March 1, at 1pm Pacific time.)
2—My friend Julianna Baggott has launched a six-week audio course on Efficient Creativity. You can listen to the first episode for free; the full course runs $25 (the price of a hardcover, Julianna points out). Julianna’s the most efficiently creative (and creatively efficient) person I know, and she’s endlessly engaging to boot, so I’m really excited to listen to this course.
3—I’ve just started three different sentences and scrapped them because they aren’t quick topics. Argh, this is always my problem! I’m forever trying to fit a novel into the space of a haiku (figuratively speaking). All right, never mind. Here, I’ll just say what else I’m reading. (When in doubt, etc etc.)
• lots of poetry, especially books by Olav Hauge (forever grateful to Holly Wren Spaulding for introducing me to him), Basho, T’ao Ch’ien, Maxine Kumin, Kimiko Hahn, Rachel Zucker, Nayyirah Waheed, Danez Smith, and Julia Hartwig (with regular doses of Mary Oliver and Billy Collins because OBVIOUSLY)—and yes, that’s a good many books, but that’s what’s nice about poetry; you can dip in and out. These days, I’m mostly in.
• When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams—I will have to circle back to this in a future post, because it is blowing me away.
• The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett—readaloud to Huck and Rilla
• also In the Beginning by Virginia Hamilton (collection of creation myths from various cultures)
• The Haunting of Hill House because it finally came in at the library, but then so did Digital Minimalism and I’ve been ignoring Hill House for a few days.
How about you? What are YOU reading?
Ahhhh. Here it is, the day I’ve been working toward. There was no nice clean line between buried under work and wooo I’m free!—it’s been a gradual digging-out process, like shoveling snow. But my walks are clear now and I can at least emerge from the cave.
I’m blinking a bit. It’s ironic that this hemisphere is heading toward its darkest, coldest season, and here I am feeling like spring is on the way. The icicles haven’t even formed yet and I’m already hearing them drip. Sometimes the seasons of our personal lives don’t sync up with what’s happening in nature.
I’m glad, though, that the chilly weather, the rain, the early dark, will keep me physically cloistered a bit longer. I need some time to regroup, to restore balance. And of course there’s the holidays to consider…I’ve just barely begun the shopping and the house is still wearing autumn clothes.
This time last year I started a practice of writing Morning Pages a la Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Three pages longhand immediately upon waking, before opening any tabs or apps. I kept it up for a couple of months, then fizzled out. Resumed the practice in June and shifted my work routine so that right after finishing my morning pages, I worked on the novel for a couple of hours before breakfast. That was a wonderfully productive schedule for two or three months, and then summer ended and the family’s morning rhythm changed, and I had less solo time before breakfast. I dropped the morning pages and kept plugging away at the novel.
I’m shifting back now to my summertime rhythm, with tweaks. Up early, twenty minutes of quiet writing time, then Huck joins me in the studio for an early morning snuggle and chat. We watch the black sky fade to navy blue, steel blue, sky blue streaked with cream-colored clouds. The birds wake up, crows winging past the window, goldfinches arriving at the feeder, juncoes perching on the rain dome. Steven wakes for school and comes in to tear off the page on my ‘year of tiny pleasures‘ calendar. Then both boys scoot out to get their breakfast and I try to work for another hour or two. The temptation to climb back in bed next to Scott for a few minutes is strong, and some mornings I succumb. Never for long, because he gets up to make Steve’s lunch, and then the bus comes, and the girls begin arriving in the kitchen, and the busy day has begun.
For the next few weeks, instead of morning pages I’m going to do the lessons in Holly Wren Spaulding‘s 21 Day Poetry Challenge. I’m excited: I don’t think I’d be enthusiastic about getting up in the early dark on these cold December mornings just to write my morning pages. (I find the pages to be a valuable practice, but I don’t enjoy writing them. I’ve never been a journaler.) The theme for Holly’s course is “interior,” which is just right for this change-of-season I’m in. I also plan to choose a corresponding art practice for these twenty-one days, something simple—a daily sketch of some kind, perhaps sparked by a Creativebug* lesson, perhaps just something on my desk. My sketchbook practice has been a bit sporadic of late, although I did manage some good work this fall.
I recently read Austin Kleon‘s Show Your Work, a book that felt like a fresh pair of batteries for my blog. It made me realize that “showing my work” was exactly what I did here from 2005-2015: I was thinking out loud, learning in public, about homeschooling and parenting. Tidal Homeschooling grew out of that pondering. My sketchbook habit great out of it. A lot of things grew out of it! And I realized that’s what I want to return to. I don’t yet know where in the day a regular blog practice will fit but I plan to spend December playing with rhythm to see if something clicks.
What does your December look like?
*That’s an affiliate link because there’s a sweet deal on right now: three months of Creativebug for $1. I consider our CB subscription to be the best five dollars I spend every month.