What do you hope to change?

color outside the lines“This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.” Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (273)

Before you change your life, it helps to know what exactly it is that you want to change.

So, Bethany, what would you like to see more of in your writing life?

  • If I had a more organized send-out habit, that would be wonderful.
  • If I could be more organized, I think that would help me to finish more work, and so have it available to be sent out.
  • On those days when I’m not driving to see my mom or on some other errand, I’d like to actually write for several hours. Several? 3 or 4? 6?
  • If I could go to bed earlier, and fall sleep earlier, I could get up earlier in the morning, and write, even on days when I’m traveling. As mornings are my absolute, best time of day to do creative work, this would be ideal.

The other day, I suggested that you jot down what you want to accomplish. But now, what does one DO with that list? The key, I’m convinced, is to focus on one item, and break it into parts. Into the smallest parts possible. Or as some writers would emphasize that phrase: The. Smallest. Parts. Possible.

In order to send out my current mss., what small actions can I take?

Find the emails about PEARL’S ALCHEMY that I’ve sent most recently. Draft a new email. Find addresses for all the agents and editors I met with last summer. Get a copy of the PNWA 2014 program?

Decide what exactly I need to fix in the closing section of the book, in order to follow up an initial request, or a 50 page excerpt, with the whole book.

When I look at the small parts, just one each morning, it doesn’t sound that difficult.

In her book, Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper SARK includes a wheel of small, intentional actions. If I still had the book, I’d take a picture of her version — but here’s mine (messier, less colorful) for this project of 1) making a list; 2) choosing one item; 3) breaking it into small parts; 4) figuring out what small, action I can take next.

sark2If I’m remembering it right, SARK’s wheel says “5 seconds or 5 minutes.” When you’re trying to create a new habit, the smallest action can help. Alongside other small actions, repeated over time, it can start everything sliding downhill.

One action, I find, encourages another.

In my next blogpost, I want to add 2 cents more to this thread on habits — this time about finding or creating a supportive community.

My Bad Habits

CAM00098Okay, so another blogpost about habits.

It’s easy to get all self-righteous when talking about habits, to list all the great habits one has — implying that YOU would do well to take a page out of MY book.

Let me admit, right up front, that I have many many bad habits. When I’m stressed I drink wine, or shop, or drink wine and shop. I don’t write nearly as much as I should. I watch way too much television. I have a very bad habit of saying the worst thing, the most fearful, anxious thing possible, and always the first thing that comes to my mind — a habit that has been so hurtful to my daughters over the years. (I’m working on this! I’m STILL working on it!)

I DO exercise, but in a most dilettantish way. I walk on a treadmill and read my Nook. When I slip out of the house in the evening to walk the dog, it’s never a very long walk. And it usually includes parking at the beach and reading for about 15 minutes, before we get to the walk. The dog thinks I’m nuts.

Oh, and I am addicted to Spider Solitaire.

The worst habit? I am still tinkering with my novel — my absolute worst work habit, and the most unproductive one. (One I am determined to break.)

Confession, it’s said, is good for the soul. It’s also good for making a change. And I think that’s because saying it out loud, to a journal (or a blog) or to a good friend can be a way of making it visible. If you want to address anything in your life, you first have to see it.

You need, in fact, a system for making it uber visible. A friend pointed out recently that complaining to my journal is not working for me. She suggested that I have a special notebook for those things I want to change. So I went home, immediately, and pulled out a notebook. And, guess what? It works! Well, it’s starting to work.

It can also work to designate a first page in your journal for such a list — and then to reread that page every morning. If you don’t journal, taping notes up around your bathroom mirror may be effective for you. Working with a partner will work, if you have regular, focused meetings (Charles Duhigg says you need “a community of belief”).

Since this is a writing blog — that’s where I want to go next. So answer me this: 1) What do you want to write? Could you take 10 minutes and write down a long list of what you want to write?

Then: 2) Where can you put this list so you can find it again tomorrow?

My next blogpost will be about what to do with your list.

Maybe it’s not commitment. Maybe it’s habit…

P1040290I do a lot of driving, and while I drive I listen to books on CD, checked out from my local library. Lately I have been listening to Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (another book recommended to me by Louise DeSalvo).

A lot of the book is about institutional habits — about football teams and factories. Another large percentage of it is about habits that I don’t have, such as smoking. And a huge amount of text is dedicated to advertising. If I were reading this book, I probably would have set it aside by now. But because it’s the only book on CD in my car, I’ve powered through about 2/3 of it in a little under a week, and it has finally, completely hooked me. Now that Duhigg is talking about small keystone changes (which sound a lot like my “small good choices”), I get why I have come across this book in more than one of my books about writing.

Is it commitment that has kept me married for 30 years, that makes me get up every morning and write, that helps me find the time to floss my teeth? Or is it just good old habit? Charles Duhigg would say that it’s habit.

He also has managed to get me to think about things that I believe I can’t change, to think about those things differently. Here’s a sampling: I work in the morning, and I can’t work in the evening. I can’t work when my kids are home. I don’t like to exercise. I would like to take the dog for a walk every evening, but I just don’t have the time. I was told by a physical therapist that I should sleep on my back; what did I say? I can’t. I have to sleep on my side!

My point is, that we — or I, at least — say these things without thinking.

Now you try. What stock “can’t” or “won’t” statements do you keep ready in your quiver? I’ve tried to lose weight and I can’t. I’d like to take a walk (join a bookclub, see a play) but I can’t miss NCIS. 

(There’s also the stock phrase, “I don’t like ____”  [you fill in the blank]. And here’s one of my parenting deadends: I have a daughter who won’t eat lettuce — not if she is starving! Not to save her life! But I read [in yet another source] that taste is largely a matter of habit, and if you will eat a little bit of one of your forbidden foods every day, after three weeks your taste buds will adapt. My daughter won’t hear this from me, but maybe it will help you.)

Or that bugaboo that I’m always addressing here: I’d love to write, but I can’t.  

What if those obstacles were not huge personal character flaws? What if it wasn’t actual, physical limitations of your life that prevented you from achieving what you would like to achieve? What if it was merely habit? 

Guest Poet

On occasional Friday mornings I am able to meet with two other poets and spend an hour or two writing, and talking about writing. One of those poets is Darby Ringer. We first met in Nelson Bentley’s workshop a million years ago or so, and whenever I read her poem, “On Raven’s Wing,” I can hear Nelson say, “Send this out IMMEDIATELY to some lucky editor!”

The image, by the way, is borrowed from Loren Webster’s blog, In a Dark Time…the Eye Begins to See, which I began following for the reference to poet Theodore Roethke, and kept following for the birds.

On Raven’s Wing

He’s a half full gunny sack,
his eyes, black and burning.

He’s slow to wake,
sees raven’s wing in a dream,

follows its black shape,
the green line of its path.

He walks along the incoming tide,
squints into sun,

picks up a bone and throws it out to sea,
slicing the seaweed air.

With another bone, he carves a mask
to honor his Haida clan.

He returns to the beach,
carves and throws,

throws and carves
a thousand carving slices.

The tide curls over rocks,
takes his raven, his breath,

his life, a crescent of bone.
He plants himself on this spit of land.

And the tide keeps coming, taking.

Crossing Over

I have been singing the praises of Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor for some time. I have not mentioned that I have been a fan of Priscilla’s poetry for…about 30 years. A popular writing teacher in Seattle (I’ve taken two of her classes), Priscilla is better known as an essayist; among her accomplishments, she authored the wonderful Science Frictions blog at The American Scholar from 2011-2013. But now, at long last, we have a book of poetry.

In her first poetry collection, Crossing Over (University of New Mexico Press, 2015), Long once again demonstrates her intense love of language. I have read most of these poems before, some of them, many times. There is a dark and desperate beauty here. A number of the poems deal with death, especially untimely death. Bridges are a literal and symbolic presence, and are interwoven with authors (some named, some alluded to or quoted) whose fictions and poems are bridges into otherwise obscure or unknown worlds. War raises its ugly head, and trash glitters amid the (always precisely named) weeds. But what strikes me most, in seeing these poems together, in this setting, is the playfulness of the language. Lines are littered with vowel rhymes and alliteration. Words repeat and ping off one another line to line and poem to poem, section to section.

Here is the first poem, which sets off a volley of sounds (and themes):

SISTER GHOST

Your beauty stuns, but
it’s static, photographic.
Your stories stir the dust,
stick to the broom.
Your drawings dream
your fine-stitched quilt.
Your death–your gift
of stones to us. No blame.
Suicides are deranged
with despair. Oh Susanne.
Were there a bridge back to you,
I would take it anywhere.

The next poem, “Queen of the Cut,” is a tribute to a Washington State bridge (the first of several), but seems as though it could be part of a diptych with the first poem, its images mirroring back toward “Sister Ghost”: “Night-gem, sun-brooch, sky-jewel,” “girl-queen,” “smoke-daughter.”

The back cover copy suggests–spot on–that these poems beg to be read aloud. And even a quick sampling of lines proves that true: “Derelict brick,” “Bluebells ding the dipthongs,” “Shall I tuck a notebook / into your rucksack, your rum cake?” But I hope no one will miss the dark undercurrent of these poems, themes of fire and smoke and ash that pull and tug at a reader’s body and threaten to pull us under.

To read a 2011 Authornomics interview with Priscilla, click on the link. Her website is http://www.priscillalong.com/.

Ah, July!

orlando19July is birthday month at our house. Ever since my oldest two turned one, we’ve found ourselves indulging in multiple parties. Adding Emma to the mix, six years and ten days later, didn’t slow us down.

So, today, Annie and Pearl are twenty-two years old. They’ve invited some friends over. I’m buying a cake, and bracing myself. Here’s an old poem to mark the place.

CIRCLE

In the womb’s basket
your two bodies form

a circle, a daisy chain
of babies, head up

and head down, legs nested
through your dark mirror

of the chorion.
If a circle

is life’s symbol
for completeness, for “whole,”

then our dreams find you:
a perfect pebble, sliced apple,

bubble, the moon’s toe
testing its “O”

of pond. Chosen
to adopt you, we bless

the chambered heart that calls you
into existence, the hands

that will let go,
counting our hearts’ desire

into our hands.
The doctor calls you “Baby A”

and “Baby B.”
We call you home.

a&p