Sharing Inspiration, Part 2

After the Ankle Incident, my friend Jenny commented, “Wow, you’ve had kind of a rough month.”

“Have I?” I said.

“Well, you got really sick a few weeks back. And now the ankle.”

“Huh,” I said. “I guess you’re right.”

It hadn’t really struck me like that. November has been an introvert month for me — turning inward, staying indoors, having quiet “me” moments. It’s easier to do when it’s cold outside and dark at 5pm. After Jenny’s comment, though, I realized what’s really been taking up my thoughts this month, if only subconsciously – replenishing the creative reserves. October was a big push creatively, what with the 30/30 Challenge and all. And creativity’s cyclical. I’ve still been tinkering away at the editing, but mostly? I’ve been thinking, pondering, reading, listening, seeking inspiration.

So I thought I’d share — what’s been inspiring me lately?

Wonderbook. One day, Jeff VanderMeer’s book will wind up on my book reviews, but my shameful secret is that it’s taken me a year to read it, and I’m still nowhere near done. It’s not because it’s not good — it’s really good — but it’s big. Like, physically big. Big books don’t fit in my purse, which means they don’t get read on the bus, which means it takes forever to read them.

Wonderbook

Anyway. This book is full of SO MUCH ruminative goodness. Its focus is how to write imaginative fiction, and it goes into more detail than any other writing book I’ve encountered. It’s forced me to examine my work-in-progress in a new light, to question decisions I’ve made, to answer why I’ve made the decisions I’ve made. And the book itself is quite beautiful — another reason I’m slow to get through it. It probably takes me 15 minutes to go through two pages — in the best way possible. It encourages the mind to check out and drift.

30 and Bookless“. I’ve been recommending this article by Rachael Maddux left and right, and I keep going back to it. It’s a great reminder that, despite my college-self’s ambition to have a book published by now… it’s ok that I don’t. It’s probably even best that I don’t, because I wasn’t the same writer back then that I am now. We’re two different people, producing different work.

Fleetwood Mac. Specifically, this song.

You guys, I just CAN’T GET ENOUGH. I listen to it on repeat, I sing along, I sway to it in the bathroom as I’m putting on makeup. The slow start, the bewitching build. It’s definitely set the contemplative mood for the month.

The Habits of Highly Productive Writers“.My college advisor recently shared this article by Rachel Toor. Nothing in it is revelatory (“Highly productive writers nap four hours a day!”), but there are some good tips. The part that really jumped out?

When someone’s doing a lot more than you, you notice it. It brings out your petty jealousy. And if you’re like me (occasionally petty and jealous), it might make you feel crappy about yourself. Which is, let’s face it, ridiculous. No one else’s achievements take anything away from yours, or mine. The fact that another writer is working hard and well should be nothing more than inspiration, or at least a gentle prod.

Sometimes, some days, that reminder is particularly important.

What are you reading, watching, listening to this month?

The Day the Dog Got Away

Things can go awry in the space of a moment.

It’s been cold in Seattle, but bright-blue skies without a cloud in sight. Yesterday afternoon I called Louie over, put on his harness and retractable leash, and we set out on a walk.

There’s a road near our house that meanders down a green belt. It’s a long road, but ulimately a dead end, so there’s not a lot of traffic. And Louie loves it. Birds chirping, no cars zooming by, lots of fun forest-y smells. We’ve done this walk… I don’t know how many times. I like it, too — the sunlight filters through madronas and maple trees, there’s a creek bubbling along the side of the road. We’ve seen pileated woodpeckers, and there are always squirrels chattering around. This time of year, fallen years pile on the side of the road, and Louie’s tail starts wagging furiously when he trots through them. In short — yesterday we were headed out on a usual walk, in a usual place.

I noticed a fern off the side of the road, backlit by sunlight, and took out my phone to snap a photo. I knelt down to get the shot, stepped into a pile of fallen leaves — and Louie startled at the sound. The leash jumped out of my hand, and the dog bolted.

Now, Louie is a nervous dog. He always has been, and we do things to try and build up his confidence, but I think he’s just always going to be a nervous dog. However, in this instance, I think he would have startled initially, seen things were ok, then stopped… if it weren’t for the retractable leash. As he ran, it dragged behind him on the cement, creating even more noise. And Louie ran, terrified.

Louie’s built like a whippet, and when he runs, he runs. In a matter of seconds, he was far down the road. I started calling his name and headed after him, hoping to calm him down. Then, as Louie was sprinting down the center of the road, a car came around the corner.

I started running, waving my arms to make sure the car saw the situation. The car stopped. But Louie was still running. Before he reached the car, he made a 180 and started running back up the road towards me. I positioned myself to try and get in front of him, to grab him as he zipped by — but I missed. He sped past my left side, and as he did so, the leash wrapped around my ankle. Louie jerked to a halt, the leash tightened, and I fell, hearing a pop as I went down.

I sat in the middle of the road, holding my leash-wrapped ankle, the dog secured but freaked out. I realized that the car was still down the road. I unwrapped the leash, got up, and hobbled to the side of the road.

The car drove forward and stopped when it reached us. The window rolled down, and a woman came into view. “Are you ok?” she said.

Embarassed? Twisted ankle? Still trying to figure out what the hell just happened?

“I’m ok,” I said.

“Can I give you a ride home?”

Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers.

We got back home, shaken up and slightly worse for wear. Louie had clipped a nail and was bleeding, and my ankle was swollen. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the living room, me RICE-ing my ankle, Louie on his bed, licking his paw.

I’ve had a zillion ankle injuries in my life, and this one doesn’t seem too bad. So while the ankle is frustrating, the most “WTF” part of the whole situation was the suddenness of it — how we could go from a sun-dappled autumn walk, to the sudden panic of running down the road with a car coming towards me and the loose dog. The day turned on a dime in about ten seconds.

Tomorrow will be a-ok. But today calls for licking wounds and curling up.

Cold Snap

There are currently half a dozen blooms on the three rose bushes in our front yard. They’re not the full, sultry blooms of high summer, but they still unfurl defiantly against the grey November sky, shaking off raindrops as they stretch wide.

Sedona Rose in November

They’re in for a nasty surprise. We’ve been living a mild fall — 50′s, sunny, only the occasional rainstorm. But this week, the cold arrives. It’s supposed to drop below freezing tonight. So they say. So it feels.

In September I wrote that I was not ready for summer to end. And I wasn’t — I let it go begrudgingly, kicking and screaming the whole way. But the sunny fall eased me into the next season, soothed the transition.

This weekend — just in time, it seems — we got the house ready for winter. Mulched the flower beds, brought in the delicate potted plants, turned off the outdoor hoses so the pipes won’t freeze and burst. By Saturday evening, there was a damp bite to the air, the kind of chill unique to the Northwest. We went inside and pulled on sweaters and turned up the heat.

Maybe it was the act of physical preparation, but I feel ready. I feel ready for extra comforters, for nutmeg and allspice, for the windows to fog up from brewing soups. I’m ready for hibernation and creativity, snuggling up and letting the mind wander.

Cat snuggled under a blanket.

This one is clearly ready for hibernation.

The cliche about Russian novels being so long because of the long winters — there must be a truth to that. Dark nights inspire the imagination to run amuck.

 

30/30 Wrap-Up

Well, it’s done.

I wrote for 30 minutes for 30 days, each and every day. Through some very generous donations, I raised $110 for Seattle’s Hugo House.

I’m not gonna lie, the past week and a half were tough. We were traveling, there were work events, and then — icing on the cake — Byron and I both caught the cold from hell. Multiple days I thought, “I could just skip today. No one would know.” Except I would know, and I would feel guilty, so I sat down for the 30 minutes anyway. Maybe fever-dream writing will be the pinnacle of my book.

Mostly now, I want a break. I want a nap and a day where I don’t think about writing at all. (It is highly likely this is the residual sickness talking. But it’s still how I feel.)

Still… in the past 30 days, I’ve edited 89 pages of my book (89 single-spaced pages, to boot). That’s a little over 45,000 words. That’s a hell of a lot more than I’ve gotten done in the past several months. All from just sitting down for 30 minutes a day.

I’d like to keep this up. Habits are hard to make and easy to break, so I should keep it up. The lesson learned through this whole thing is that it’s entirely possible to prioritize your writing if you make it a priority.

 

Reading Diversely

Last week I was wasting time getting up-to-date information on Twitter, when I stumbled upon a couple tweets by Amanda Nelson, the managing editor of Book Riot.

Curious, I watched Nelson’s video. Her point, in a nutshell: “If you’re not paying attention and doing it on purpose – reading diversely on purpose – what you’re going to do is read mostly white people.” Due to a LOT of different factors, the majority of books that people read are by white authors (and mostly white male authors, at that). It’s not really through any fault of their own, but unless people consciously pay attention to the diversity of their reading list, that’s just the way the chips are gonna fall.

To demonstrate this, Nelson shared the numbers from her own reading logs, both before and after she started paying attention to reading diversely.

  • In 2012, Nelson read 92 books — 4 were by “people who were not white,” so 4.3%.
  • In 2013, her percentage was 3.6%.
  • So far in 2014 (after she started paying attention to reading diversely), 15 out of 91 books have been written by people of color, putting her percentage at 16.4%.

So I was curious. I took a look at my Goodreads account and studied the authors from the past couple years. (Note: I only started using Goodreads in 2013, and don’t have a log of my reading prior to that.)

  • In 2013, I read 23 books. 7 were by women authors, putting that percentage at 30% (admittedly, 3 of the 7 were Margaret Atwood). 1 was written by a person of color (Haruki Murakami), so 4.3%.
  • So far in 2014, I’ve read 21 books. 10 were by women (47.6%), and 1 has been by a person of color (Sherman Alexie — 4.7%).

Ouch. I assumed my percentages wouldn’t be great, but interesting to note — even though Nelson reads a LOT more books than me, our percentages are similar. Which goes to prove what she’s saying — if you’re not paying attention, you aren’t reading diversely. My percentage of women writers is pretty damn good. And you know why? A couple years ago, I made the conscious decision to start reading more books by women authors. If I made the same decision regarding ethnic diversity, how much better could I make those percentages?

(I know some readers at this point are asking, why does it matter? Why should I be concerned at all by the ethnicity of a writer? To which I would say — watch Nelson’s video. She more eloquently explains all of this than I ever could. Why do I personally care to make my reading more diverse? Because it’s a big, big world, with a lot of people, and a lot of different experiences. I feel more educated, more aware, if I get even a snippet of that diverse experience.)

I’ve had Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison on my reading list for a while — think I’ll boost them up. Any others you’d recommend? How do you ensure that you’re reading diversely — or do you decide to at all?

My Fellow Americans

Like many of my fellow Americans, I have a complicated relationship with patriotism.

In college, I minored in history, focusing mainly on early 20th century United States and Latin America. Studying those two surprisingly related topics — well, you don’t come out of it with the greatest view of our nation’s past. It’s a very different perspective than your typical high school course. Our country has a history of doing really shitty things, and an equally prevalent history of glossing over them for future generations.

Because of this (and let’s be honest, probably also because of many, many other reasons), I’ve never been your “rah rah” patriot type. Blind patriotism serves no purpose. Nor does blind cynicism. You study history, it shows one thing clearly: there is a lot of grey. Black and white rarely exist.

If you study past events — if you pay even a sliver of attention to current events — it’s easy to feel like our country has lost it way (if it ever had one to begin with). Jump on in the handbasket, we can all ride to hell together.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to join a group of World War II veterans on an Honor Flight to Washington DC. I’d never been to “the other Washington” before. From what you’d hear on the news, you’d think the city is Gomorrah reincarnated — a hot bed of corruption, the living embodiment of everything wrong with America. Maybe it is. Here is what I saw:

At every memorial we visited, I saw strangers approach a veteran, shake his or her hand, and say, “Thank you.”

I saw a protest in progress directly in front of our nation’s capitol, proceeding unmolested, with no guards or policemen telling them to move along.

I saw smudged handprints on the Declaration of Independence.

At the Vietnam Memorial, I watched a family take paper and pencil and create a stone rubbing of a man named Smith.

Also in front of the White House, I saw a smiling group of people — men, women and children — unfurl a Kurdistan flag and take a family photo.

One thing that’s easy to forget while reading the history books — it’s all made up of people. History if palpable. It’s complicated and evolving. The Americans who came before us did a lot of good — they also did a lot of bad. But if you take a close look at people… I think over the long, slow curve of history, our arc trends towards progress.

United States Post Office.

United States Post Office.

DSC00934

The White House

The National Archives

The National Archives.

Column on the National Archives.

The National Archives.

DC Metro.

Autumn in Washington DC.

Autumn in Washington DC.

Natinoal World War II Memorial

National World War II Memorial.

World War II Memorial

Ceremony honoring the veterans at the World War II memorial.

My grandfather, World War II veteran.

My grandfather, World War II veteran.

World War II Memorial

World War II Memorial

Washington Monument.

DSC01090

Lincoln Memorial.

Lincoln Memorial.

Lincoln Memorial.

At the Lincoln Memorial, the spot where Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

At the Lincoln Memorial, the spot where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial.

Arlington National Cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Honor Flight Honor Guard.

The veterans being greeted by an honor guard on their return home.

30/30 Check-In

Here we are, day 15 of my 30/30 Writing Challenge — writing for 30 minutes a day for 30 days to raise money for Seattle’s Hugo House. I’m proud to report that so far I haven’t missed a single day, even though some days were like pulling teeth. A brief check-in, then, on lessons learned from the challenge thus far.

(Oh, and a reminder — the whole “point” of this, aside from creating good writing habits, is to raise money for the awesome Hugo House. If you’re so inclined, you can donate here.)

Lesson #1: It is much, much easier than it sounds like to get in 30 minutes of writing a day. I admit to being a little bit daunted by the number, especially considering how my writing schedule had been going recently. But once you commit to it… you guys, there are 30-minute chunks everywhere. In the morning before work, on your lunch break, while dinner’s cooking. I knew it before, but this has just highlighted the fact — the time is there, if you prioritize. (And here’s the usual caveat how I don’t have kids, I’m sure it’s harder with kids, but you know — same general theory still applies.)

Lesson #2: Earlier is better. Again, this is something I already knew (are you seeing a theme here?). Last year, while finishing the first draft of my book, I got up early every morning to get the time in. Now, I find myself returning to that schedule. There have been two days where I skipped the morning, thinking “Oh, I’ll have time to write later.” Both times, it bit me in the ass. Days have a way of spiraling out of control. The earlier you can check off the writing, the better. Plus, then you have the benefit of already having accomplished something with your day, before it’s even really started. (I find this true with running, too.) I love being able to head into work and think, “No matter what else happens today, I already accomplished this.”

Lesson #3: Getting up early sucks. Look, it just does. Maybe not for some people, but every time that damn alarm clock goes off, I want to smash it over the head and go back to sleep. Instead, I turn it off and roll my sorry butt out of bed. (Related tangent: my dad hated his childhood alarm clock so much that he saved it and, as an adult, used it for target practice. Early-morning dislike, it runs in the family.)

Lesson #4: If you work consistently, you get shit done. 30 minutes a day adds up. Prior to this, I had edited 3 chapters of my book. Now I’m up to 7. It took me 15 days to make that leap. Admittedly, the editing is getting easier the further I go (ooph, the beginning of the book was rough, you guys). But this rapid accumulation is an obvious result of sitting down and working.

Lesson #5: It’s about priorities. Lauren at I’m Better in Real Life wrote a great blog post about writing seasons. It’s a reality of life that, over time, priorities shift. You expend more energy in one facet of your life than another. I’m prioritize my writing right now — which means, yes, some other things may drop off a little bit — and that’s ok.

At this point, I’m thinking I may continue the 30 minutes a day, even after the 30/30 Challenge is done. Which, I mean — we’ll see. It’s still early days. I’m halfway there. But really, there’s no downside. Whatever you do, whether it’s writing or coding or creating whatever, consistent work habits are key.

New Coat of Paint, Part 2

Six months ago, I announced that I had finally, finally found the living room paint color: Benjamin Moore Light Breeze. It took me months to find a color I was happy with (along with a zillion paint swatches applied haphazardly to walls), but I landed and started painting. I wasn’t entirely sure about the color at first, but it quickly grew on me. After a few weeks, I was in love.

So why, you may ask, has it taken me six months to finish?

Partly laziness. I’ve been painting the living room / dining room one wall at a time, section by section. Yes, I could have devoted an entire weekend to it and just finished the job, but it seemed somehow easier to steal 2 hours here, 3 hours there, and just go wall by wall.

The larger reason? I didn’t feel ready to commit. What if I made the wrong choice? What if this color — which looked so great in the dining room — looked terrible in the hallway? In the living room? Would it look boring to have the entire living area one color? Would it turn the house into one big room? Was the color cool enough, chic enough, to commit to having it on ALL the walls? WHAT WOULD PINTEREST THINK?

I thought I landed on a solution — the dining room and hallway would be Light Breeze, while the living room walls would be white. It’d break up the space, create some separation. Still, I hesitated.

And then I was browsing Benjamin Moore colors online, and saw a combo that made me pause. It made me “ooh” and “aah”. I asked Byron, and he said, “Sure, go for it.” But I still wasn’t convinced. Had I seen other blogs do something similar? Was this an “ok” thing to do? Would I regret the end result, immediately hate it and realize I could have done better?

Finally one morning, I realized: it’s paint. Just paint. The worst thing that could happen was I wouldn’t like the color, and I’d have to paint over it. That was literally the absolute worst thing that could happen in this scenario.

Isn’t it funny, these small dilemmas that we build up to be so big in our heads?

So this weekend, I finally finished painting.

Benjamin Moore Day's End and Benjamin Moore Light Breeze.

Most of the living room I finished up in Light Breeze — the back wall I painted Benjamin Moore Day’s End. A deep charcoal with blue undertones. It satisfies my original desire for bold color, plays beautifully with the yellow in Light Breeze, and makes the living room feel like a cozy cave. My own little retreat.

Am I in love with it? I’m not sure yet. But it’s done — a decision was made. I went with my gut and forgot all the rest. And at the end of the day, that’s sometimes just what you need.

 

 

The 30/30 Writing Challenge

So, here’s roughly how this went down.

Last week, a group of coworkers and I journeyed up Capitol Hill to attend the Cheap Bear & Prose night at Hugo House. Hugo House, in their own words, “is for writers.” Seattle is a bookish city, and nonprofit Hugo House is one of its most awesome literary enclaves. Named after local poet Richard Hugo, they provide classes, workshops, free events… essentially a hub and supporter for a zillion and two literary happenings. I only recently started attending their events myself, and was so pleasantly surprised by the amazing environment I found there.

Cheap Bear & Prose night was a ton of fun – good people, good writing. I left the evening feeling excited about the great work I’d just heard… and also disappointed. Disappointed in myself for not taking my writing more seriously, for not pushing myself harder, for not being active in the larger literary community. I resolved to remedy that last bit by attending more events and classes at places like Hugo House.

The next morning, I hopped on Hugo House’s website to check out their class listings. And right there on their homepage was the 30/30 Writing Challenge — a fundraising challenge. The idea is this: people write for 30 minutes each and every day for 30 days and raise money for Hugo House. Simple enough. The next challenge was starting October 1.

“That’s a cool idea,” I thought, and moved on with my day.

I went on with my week, my weekend. On September 30 I got an email reminder about signing up for the challenge. “Oh yeah,” I thought, and ignored the email.

And then yesterday, on October 1, I woke up and — essentially on a whim — signed up for the challenge in about 5 minutes.

That’s how I typically sign up for stuff like this — in a flash, on a whim, because otherwise I might over-think it and back down. It scares me a little to commit to this — it feels a bit like going down the NaNoWriMo hole — but it feels right. In the past several months I’ve grown apathetic towards my writing, and I need a kick in the pants to change that. Plus, I believe in what Hugo House stands for. If I can raise some money for a great organization and ALSO get my writing time in? Win win.

I’ll be keeping track of my progress here on the blog (check the right-hand column), using Jerry Seinfeld’s Chain method. I figure if I make it public, there’s more accountability. And if you’re so inclined…

Donate Now

Ok. 30 minutes down. 29 more days to go.

 

Unfocused

Like any born-and-bred American, road trips are in my DNA. Growing up, they were an integral part of family vacations. We never did any truly epic routes — the longest was Seattle to Santa Monica, with a $20 bribe on the line if my sister and I refrained from asking “Are we there yet?” — but there were numerous shorter trips. Bellingham, Oregon, Idaho. The Pacific Northwest was well-explored from the confines of an ’89 Honda Civic.

My parents were pros: a white plastic bucket sat in the middle seat between my sister and I, filled with entertainment. Most of the goodies were designed to draw our eyes outward, past the car window and to the world beyond. License plate bingo, “I Spy”, plastic-coated maps and dry erase markers so we could mark our progress. Inevitably, though, our eyes left the windows and turned to our laps.

“Stop reading,” Dad would say. “Put your book down and look out the window. You’re missing it.”

A terrible problem to have, a child who reads too much. We raised our eyes back to the world , but after a respectful amount of time — after we thought we could get away with it — it was back to the books.

Of course, the problem was that my sister and I were young, and we still had that capacity only truly understood by the young: boredom. Looking out the window was boring. The trees whipping by all looked the same – or maybe there were different, but it took far too long for them to change. Rocks, grass, dirt – we had all of this back home. Looking out the window, there was nothing to do but get lost in your own thoughts. My brain wanted focus.

In adulthood, there’s more than enough to occupy your thoughts. Boredom becomes a concept rather than an actual practice. Nowhere is this more obvious than on a road trip, when you’re confined to a small space with limited resources for hours on end. If you’re lucky enough to be in a stretch of the country that defies cell phone towers, you’re disconnected from internet, too. I now find myself sitting for hours, doing nothing but look out the window. What once would induce boredom brings on something new and foreign; you become unfocused. Not in the way we’re accustomed to in the digital world — not in the way of emails to be sorted through, of pings and dings to pay attention to, of I swear I was about to do something now what was it? That is frantic — a forced unfocus.

This is gradual, natural, a slow progression after days on the road. The smell of pelicans, the sun burning against an SPFed thigh. The very conscious movement of wind over skin, thick and strong as a wave drawn back to the ocean. The uncomfortable yet comforting thought that this will all be here, after we’re gone — changed, changing, but still here. The sea today will not be the same one we see tomorrow.

Of course this doesn’t appeal to a child, who lives in the present and feels acutely the whole wonder of the world. They have no need to gaze for hours at nothing in order to see everything.

Back off the road now, no more transience, I feel myself coming back into focus — edges sharpening, the line between body and air growing clear. Focus is good – it’s necessary to function in our daily lives. But I close my eyes and see the shimmer of air on skin, feel my mind slip loose and drift. We see clearer for being unfocused. Every once in a while it’s good to wander.