Category Archives: writing

Writer’s Block

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Writing a Letter (1655)
The Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague

I have been writing a lot of words in the past week although they are mostly not ready for prime time. I discovered Jeff Warren‘s meditation designed to help with creative block and have been using it for the past few mornings. Warren’s approach is similar to Julia Cameron’s morning pages applied to whatever you create: just write or draw or sing or sculpt without thinking or judging. Warren even suggests that it should be terrible. Making bad art is something Austin Kleon has written about as well.

Warren uses a timer–I’ve been doing 20 minutes–and rather than writing long hand the way I have for decades of morning pages, I am using my Freewrite keyboard. I want to start producing publishable text and the morning pages don’t lend themselves to formal writing. For now, the goal is getting the habit in place.

I haven’t given up the long hand morning pages, however, and am experimenting with approaching them as letters to an old friend. Still mostly stream of consciousness but with a bit of organization and thoughtfulness.

Letter writing has been on my mind, perhaps as part of a general nostalgia I’ve been feeling as I continue my transition into semi-retirement. In the olden days, I loved nothing better than spending an afternoon writing long letters to friends and family, settled into a comfortable chair with favorite pens and paper, a beverage alongside, maybe some music playing. I had a few good correspondents over the years, including the friend I visited in Pennsylvania this summer, but time and life and technology eventually saw our letters dwindle to a few lines on birthday and holiday cards, and now have largely been replaced by email, text messages and social media messages.

I am going to make time this week to write a newsy letter to my old friend. I did send a short thank you note, one of those cards with a few scribbled lines, when I returned home, but life has happened since we sat beside her pool. I will tell her about all the tomato sauce I am making from my San Marzano tomatoes, the cool, rainy weather that seems to herald fall’s arrival, what I am reading and watching, plans for the fall. It will be, at least for a little while, as though we are together again.

Daily-ish

I have a daily routine, and it has been nice to be able to make it the focus of the morning rather than sometimes hurrying along before starting work. I have settled into semi-retirement enough that the work I am doing–facilitating a course on curriculum writing for Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit focused on domestic violence–has its place but doesn’t need daily oversight.

I usually get some part of the routine done every day. I generally draw a tarot card or two and write two or three pages, ala Julia Cameron’s morning pages. I try to do it first thing in the morning but am not always successful. Some mornings I just want to pick up the book I fell asleep over the night before. Other mornings, like yesterday, I head outside to the garden in order to get the work done before the heat of the day settles in. On those days, I may do some or none of the routine. *

Yesterday, I broke a 40-day meditation streak. I am disappointed, but it’s really ok. I try to think of the practices as “daily-ish,” a term I picked up from Dan Harris, creator of 10% Happier, the meditation app I use. The app tracks daily and weekly progress. When they do a focused challenge, you have to complete 90% in order to earn the gold medal. It seems a humane approach to me.

I am a little disappointed that I broke the streak. Today, I began again with the app. But, I am pretty sure I *did* meditate yesterday even if the app wasn’t tracking it**: while I was weeding vegetables, cooking dinner, walking dogs. I practiced focusing on just that one thing, open awareness of the world around me, not following random thoughts, coming back to the task when I did get lost in story. So, I am putting the lessons learned from the app into practice and that’s more important than any streak in an app.

*The ONLY part of the routine I always do is my four-shot latte. It is non-negotiable to the point that, if I can, I take my small espresso machine with me when I travel.

**The existential question for our time: if the app wasn’t tracking it, did it really happen?

What Are You Going To Do?

Front Porch of an old house with furniture and plantsThe number one question I was asked when I told people I was retiring was, “What are you going to do?”  I wish I had had a more satisfying answer for the questioners and, honestly, for myself. I named my  hobbies including gardening, music, reading, crafting. A desire to travel. I mentioned potentially writing a book. But, ultimately, I didn’t know what I was going to do other than not continue doing the work I had been doing. It was work I loved, which made it hard to leave behind. But, the love had made it all consuming, and I knew it was time to take the next step even without being completely sure of the path.

Because of the holiday weekend, today seems like my first real day of retirement. So, what did I do? The usual morning routine of reading and journaling then feeding and walking the dogs. Rode my bike to the post office. Watched Wimbledon. Puttered around the house and garden. Ticked a few items off the to do list.

Now, as the afternoon wanes, I am getting around to doing the one thing I did want to accomplish on this first day of retirement: writing a blog post. And, in writing, I have come to a short time answer to the question: I have blogged on and off almost since blogs existed. But I never got into a regular practice. Now, I have the time, and I want to use at least some of it to establish that practice.

Not sure what I’m going to write about: technology, education, gardening, cooking, and pretty much whatever else takes my fancy.

Writing By Hand

While most of my professional life is spent typing, my personal life revolves around the handwritten word. I keep an analog weekly calendar that gets littered with post it notes. I keep a book of lists and one where I copy out powerful writing I encounter. And, while I tried to abandon the practice in 2014 in favor of blogging, I continue to write at least one or two pages in a spiral notebook every morning, my version of Julia Cameron’s morning pages. This year, I have added a daily log that I am keeping in an old fashioned composition book: simple two- or three-word descriptions of what I read, listened to, made, wrote and did each day, one page per day.

All of these items are hand written, usually with Pilot G-2 pen with .7 mm points and mostly black. The pens are a recent change as I was a Pilot Precise .5 mm point rolling ball user for decades. I still take one out now and then. And I’m also playing with Paper Mate Gel Inkjoy Pens, also with .7 mm points. Just ordered a 10-pack of fun colors like Pink Pop and Bright Blue Bliss. I have a reading friend in England who keeps his readings logs on ledger books with special fountain pens and ink. For him and me, handwriting is more than scribbling a grocery list or a thank you note.

I love making handwritten journal entries, the press of the pen on paper, the comfort of college ruled lines, the sense of capturing a personal moment with no intention to share. The morning pages provide a moment to be completely and utterly myself. I know lots of people who keep these kinds of writings in digital form and are completely happy doing so. It certainly makes them easier to access and use in later years, if that is the intention.

I’m not sure about my intention for all these words: the notebooks fill boxes and shelves, and I have a temptation to simply heave them on the next family bonfire. But the larger temptation is to start returning to them. Two decades of words about work, life, marriage, spirituality, relationships and sometimes just plain drivel, I’m sure. I don’t think I want to start at the beginning. Maybe read entries from the same date across different years? Or just pick one entry from each notebook. They span anywhere from two to three months, depending on how many days and pages I wrote. In the first decade or so, I was much more committed to Cameron’s specific process. But as it got stale or repetitive, I gave myself permission to make it work or me, incorporating readings and journaling prompts.

I’m not sure I have a big lesson here: I am grateful for word processors and blogging software and spell checkers. They make publication so much easier. But, I am also grateful for growing up in the age of handwriting, which means I have options when it comes to “writing,” or actually producing the text.

Begin Again: On Challenges & Change

YourselfAs at least one nice person noticed, I have been blogging regularly for the new year. I do personal writing every day but have never developed a public practice. For now, my goal is to post every day, but I am giving myself lots of space around topics. Just post.

I did miss yesterday and didn’t even think about it until I was tucked in bed, too tired to do anything about it. So, today, I begin again.

Begin again: Those two words come up often in the other practice I am establishing: meditation. I signed up for the 10% Happier app challenge that started this past Monday. The goal is to meditate 15 out of 21 days, but I am working on finding time every day. I want this to be more than just taking ten breaths, though, but a real meditation practice that helps me understand how my perspective impacts my world.

The basic lesson so far has been that meditation is not about emptying the mind, as that is impossible, but about getting still and seeing how the mind works, the ideas that appear and disappear, the paths we wander down and those we ignore, the emotions that arise and their impact on our thoughts and body. There’s a lot going on when we are sitting quietly with our eyes closed. And we should view all of it with self-compassion and a sense of curiosity.

I know schools are adding mindfulness activities and training to the curriculum and am interested in learning more about how they work. I plan to make this a focus of my reading and research this spring. It would be possible, I think, for this to do more harm than good depending on the approach. But, at a basic level, learning to be able to identify your state of mind and use mindfulness techniques to connect and tinker with that state could be a useful skill in a stressful world.