Best Practices

What to do with an abandoned pickup? Grow wildflowers in it!

I’ve been thinking, for various reasons, about this phrase, “Best Practices,” which I was introduced to a long time ago, in graduate school and when I was teaching as an adjunct. The idea as I understood it then was that in a situation that is stubbornly imperfect — an intractable situation, or one in which you don’t have much control — listing the best practices possible will give you some traction just when you most need it.

This could be a journaling assignment. First try listing your intractable situations, the situations that you just don’t know what to do about; the people or relationships who can’t be easily “solved,” if at all (think of that person who you can’t change); a piece of writing that refuses to lie still on the page.

Then choose one and list the small, useful things that you might do, or that maybe you are doing.

For some reason I’m reminded of a bizarre to-do list that made the rounds of email several years ago. It included a bunch of ridiculous items, which I don’t remember, but it had two that I found rather useful. One was, “Write a list of what you’ve already done and then check all the items off.” That made me feel so much better! The other was one that my kids and I loved: “When someone is behaving badly at a meal, look at them through the tines of your fork and pretend they are in jail.” Totally worked! For a long time this was a “best practice” for our family. It reminded us to laugh and it clarified for the offender that they were misbehaving.

When you’re feeling really really stuck on a writing project, maybe your best practice could be to reread a paragraph or a page written earlier. Maybe a best practice is to type up something written in longhand, or to retype a poem into a new form with shorter or longer lines, or tercets instead of quatrains. Impossible to imagine even this amount of progress? What if you just opened your notebook and sat with it in your lap for a minute or two? What if you just imagined yourself writing? fork

This week I have done a lot of driving and I’ve had lots of appointments and errands and
meetings. My daughters have been a teensy bit demanding. My mother had a doctor’s visit that I needed to attend. My best practice was to carry a book and a notebook and pens and highlighters everywhere I went. When I had a little time in my writing cabin, feeling frazzled and apt to be interrupted at every moment, I set my timer for fifteen minutes and sorted a pile of papers until I found the three short stories that I knew I had already printed out. When I couldn’t find enough time in which to work (whatever “enough” would look like), yet felt desperate to work, I reread the opening of one story and made a few notes. And ran to my next thing.

I have to admit, it’s Saturday night, at the end of this busy week, and I’m feeling weirdly elated. I think it’s because I decided I was going to make the best of things, in fact, that I came up with my first short story idea in eons — this week.

What best practices might you come up with, for your intractable stuff?

One Small Step

ONE SMALL STEPI recently came across a small book titled One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. The author, Robert Maurer, didn’t really tell me anything new, but he did reinforce beautifully what I already knew. And in an extremely simple way.

Being a small book, One Small Step was also pretty easy to just … well, read, all the way through. The interesting thing is how (given how much I read) it has stuck with me.

I’m always preaching the wisdom of writing for just 15 minutes. Robert Maurer breaks that down even further. How about five minutes? Still can’t get yourself to do it? How about one minute? What if you just thought about the change, deliberately, intentionally, for a few seconds every day at a given time?

“The little steps of kaizen are a kind of stealth solution….Instead of spending years in counseling to understand why you’re afraid of looking great or achieving your professional goals, you can use kaizen to go around or under these fears.”

One Small Step includes the story of a working, single mother Maurer encouraged to walk in place for one minute, during a commercial break of a TV show she liked to watch after her kids were in bed. For a writer who wants to start a journal habit, but has been unable to, Maurer suggests sitting with the notebook open, pen at hand, for a minute. A minute! He addresses a lot of subjects — test anxiety, relationships, business goals — and in every case, he suggests the smallest possible components toward building a solution.

Of course the beauty of writing for fifteen minutes isn’t because, over a span of days, the minutes will begin to add up, but that dedicating a little thought, a little willingness to go in the direction you want to go, tends to create more of the same.  The science of it has to do with building new nerve pathways. But you don’t need to understand the science to know that it works.

labyrinth2I don’t know why we feel so much resistance to doing what we in fact want very badly to do (be healthy, get in shape, write a book, travel, fill-in-the-blank-for-yourself), and I have been told that there are people who in fact don’t feel the resistance; they just do it. But if you’re like me, you could begin by brainstorming how to break down what you want to achieve into its smallest conceivable component — this morning or in your life (or both). Then, just do that one small thing.

I won’t go into full-lecture mode about “repeat daily.” But how can you say no? One minute!

The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. Without the step, it doesn’t start.




Creating a Life 101


This Saturday I’m teaching a class — Writing the Creative Chakras — with my friend Margaret Riordan, and I think I’m having a panic attack.

When I was a new teacher, I had a mentor who told me, “Teaching is easy: you go in the first day of class and teach your students every thing you know; and then you do that again on the second day, and the third, all the way to the fiftieth.” I’ve never been sure whether he thought he was being helpful, or funny, or what exactly. But there is a core of truth to the statement. All you had to do was show up that first day, with everything you were and everything you had, and share it, openly and honestly. If you could bring yourself to do that, your students would meet you there.

This class is a one-day class, and so my “just show up the first day” mantra is not working for me.

What I’m reminding myself of is that I don’t have to get through the whole day, not at once, at least. Same as with my writing day, all I have to do is get through the first fifteen minutes — or five minutes! — and then the next small increment, and then the next. Same with writing any project. You don’t have to write the whole book. Just a page. Just a sentence. Just the first word. And then the next.

All I have to do is bring everything I have and all that I am, and show up. That’s how we create our lives, too.

I recently came across this video on Facebook of a 102 year old woman riding a horse — and as Grandma Riggs says, “This is not the time to be nervous.”

There are still open chairs in the class. Let me know if you’d like to fill one.




Ted Kooser’s “After Years”: Playing with Images

Any excuse to share a Ted Kooser poem.

Last September, at Litfuse, I took a workshop with poet Samuel Green about working with images. He shared poems that were numbered haiku-like stanzas all dealing with a single abstraction (love, for instance). Similes and metaphors scattered over the pages and swayed through the air as we read the poems aloud.

I tried to talk about this with my writer friends at Writing Lab recently, and didn’t do a great job, so I thought I’d circle back to it. But where are my handouts from that workshop? (Where is my personal assistant?) In any case, one labster has been writing about grief, and isn’t satisfied with the results. I suggested — per Green’s advice — just brainstorming a list of “Grief is like ______” sentences and seeing what happens.

It is good advice, but it isn’t exactly a concrete example — which, even when we write about abstractions, we humans adore. The idea I attempted (rather ineptly, that day) to convey is that the images themselves will accrete and begin to add up to something, in the poet’s mind, and (ideally) in the reader’s mind, as well.

Accretion, of course is another abstraction. Rereading Ted Kooser‘s book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, I came across his poem, “After Years,” and thought, “This is what I meant.” Notice that the poet doesn’t tell us that he misses this “you,” or longs, or grieves. He doesn’t tell us how he felt love, or that his heart thumped. And yet it’s all, already there.

After Years

Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer’s retina
as he stood in the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.


All We Can Hold

all we can holdIt’s still Mother’s Day (for a couple more hours) so I wanted to post a link to a new anthology with both a print and an on-line component in which my poems will appear — along with many other really wonderful poets worth visiting, or revisiting.

Click on this link — All We Can Hold — to see the website listing contributors and events. Although the book is available more widely — perhaps at your favorite bricks-and-mortar independent bookstore — you can also see it on Amazon.

Happy Mothering Day!