Mucking Out

As I believe I have mentioned (probably numerous times), I have been mucking out my writing cabin. To give credit where credit is due, the idea of hiring someone to help me came from my Writing Lab friend, Lori, who is going through this process in her entire house, and then from a new book, Minding the Musewritten by the inestimable Priscilla Long.

I have known Priscilla for twenty-five years. This is a woman who knows how to get writing done. In Minding the Muse, she reminded me, yet again, that it is good for creators to have an up-to-date inventory of their work. And, as I have countless times before, I thought, “I can’t.” I had great excuses. I lined them all up and danced them across my journal pages. But there sat “I can’t,” exactly the words that I am always telling other writers that they must not say.

“I can’t” is not a small, harmless phrase. Repeated use of it will damage your creative life, and your life. You can, however, decide to transform it from something you hide behind like a mother’s skirts, to a red flag. When the “I can’t” flag goes up, from now on, that’s your signal to go to work.

Of course I can inventory my work. Of course I can sort through my boxes (and boxes) full of papers (and poems I’ve forgotten I ever drafted). Of course I can be organized. I have arms. My brain is still working. If I have a bad habit of letting things get away from me, it is just a habit. I can change a habit. 

I have mucked out before, but never as fully as I needed to. I tried to content myself with a stack of boxes and bins tucked in the corner. Since leaving my college office, since my mom’s illness escalated, things have gotten much, much worse. The so-lovely writing cabin had become a place of unrestful distractions.

So, not knowing where or how to start (feeling — I have to admit — paralyzed), I asked Lori for a referral to her professional organizer, and I emailed her and set up an appointment. In about 7 hours of work, I have made an excellent start. Formerly unlabeled boxes full of mixed papers and notebooks are now sorted into labeled bins (or recycled — lots was recycled). A few books went away, but it was gentle. A whole box of pictures and knick knacks went into storage (for when I have a guest room again some day). I got everything off the floor except a couple boxes of homework to accomplish on my own. It may still look messy to the neatniks among you, but it’s a big change for me to know where everything is. What felt impossible now feels possible.



What’s the Worse Thing that Can Happen?

dhAbout “dh.” I don’t know the first thing about sports, or what exactly a “designated hitter” is. But I didn’t mean to suggest anything violent with the reference. No one is hitting anyone.

It interests me, how even when communication gets strained my husband and I continue to work together and balance things out. One of our jobs, it seems to me, is to figure out how to fine-tune this balance, how to keep communicating, even when we’re busy and the lines are tangled.

This morning, for instance, I have an appointment with Emma’s high school principal. Dh thought he should go, too. He wants to tell the principal that we will sue the school district if Emma’s classes aren’t allowed.  He was leaning into my cabin doorway, his legs apart, his jaw set. I have been reading Steven Pressfield’s Left of Bang (which I found because I’m sorting through my cabin), and a little warning bell went off in my head. I should listen to that bell, I told myself, or Pressfield whispered to me. “I’ve got this,” I told my dear dh, “you don’t need to go.” So, already dressed in his gym clothes for the morning, he left to get through his workout.

Another book I’m reading is Michael Michalko’s Cracking Creativity.  Like Pressfield, he reminds me to not go with that first impression, but to keep looking, keep asking questions. To look at the problem from every angle and to be open to numerous solutions, not just the first one I find. He quotes an older book, Scientific Genius by Keith Simonton, in order to point out some word etymology that is useful here:

“[Simonton’s] theory has etymology behind it: Cogito — ‘I think’ — orignally connoted ‘shake together.’ Intelligo, the root of intelligence, means to ‘select among.'”

cabin dogwoodToo often, writing or just living (and surviving the presidential election season), we believe the first thing we’re told. When you write (or do a crossword puzzle, as dh likes to point out), it’s crucial that you remain open, that you listen for the hints and nuances that arise as you write. The first thought may be your best thought, but a character has many facets. Your job is to represent all the facets. So keep looking. Keep thinking. Keep shaking it all together, and following the fascination.

“Just as the difference in point of view between your eyes allows you to perceive depth, multiple perspectives about your subject deepen your understanding.” (Michalko, Cracking Creativity)

Most of all, stay open to those intuitive hints. (And check out what you hear in the media about your candidate at






Too Many Irons in the Fire?

directionsI don’t know how I let ELEVEN days get away from me, without blogging. Oh, wait, I DO know:

  1. First week of teaching a class at my old college.
  2. Daughter number 1 moving back to Bellingham.
  3. Daughter number 2 working temporarily down at Pike Place Market and bumming rides from me (and her dad) while she figures out the buses and timing, etc.
  4. Daughter number 3 taking Driver’s Ed.
  5. Meetings FOUR evenings this week (including my very last curriculum night!).
  6. A professional organizer taking my writing cabin in hand (3 hours Wednesday morning, plus homework).
  7. A church committee (I know, “What was I thinking?”)
  8. The September Sendout of poems.
  9. My dh (dear husband or designated hitter) deciding to paint the entryway and hallway of our house.
  10. Mom’s seizure yesterday morning and appointment today with an ARNP.

I could list a few more, but I’ll stop there. And, anyway, the class is going swimmingly (and it’s easy-peasy, only two mornings a week); my daughters’ schedules are calming down (no evening meetings at all this coming week, and daughter #2 has mastered the art of the bus pass); plus, I have wisely put my September Sendout on the back burner for a few days.

A friend called me yesterday afternoon — we had made plans, because she had an errand to do regarding her mother’s recent death, and I wanted to be supportive. “I’m not as busy as you are,” she said. “And I’ve got this. You don’t need to come.” Had I not been juggling my mom’s needs, too, I would have gone anyway. But it felt a bit like divine intervention. We had a good talk on the phone, and then I turned my car toward the ferry, and I’m here now (in Allyn). A restful evening. Reading, watching some TV. A very small glass of wine. A much needed good-night’s-sleep.

What I’m thinking this morning, however, is that I do not have more to do than anyone else. ALL of us have too many irons in the fire. It’s become our way of life. A former student — now a friend — recently told me that she is writing some character sketches, pretty excited about the work, but she keeps asking herself, “Do I have time for this?” One could argue that my friend, the one who called yesterday afternoon has more time than the rest of us, and fewer excuses: she’s single, her children are young adults who are (theoretically) on their own. But I know that she has just as long a list of “stuff to do” as I have. Connections to be made, housework to keep up (and no dh to step in where needed), errands, meals to shop for, oh — and a job (that!), a commute five days a week, a car to keep maintained…well, we all know. My former student, the one with the character sketches? She cannot wait to write until her children leave home .

None of us have any time.

Perhaps I’ve told this story before, but when my older daughters were about two years old, I told one of my sisters-in-law that I thought I would put off my dissertation until the girls started school. “It will be easier then.” She had three grown children, and was a Ph.D. and a teacher herself. She looked at me, eyes wide, and said, “It will not get easier. It will be different, but it will not be easier. Write your dissertation now.”

That advice proved to be a huge gift. I wrote my dissertation that year and defended it when the girls were three. We moved into a bigger house; I got a full-time, tenure track teaching job; we added a third daughter to the mix. At some point in there, I realized that if I wanted to continue writing, I was going to have to keep following that advice. Do it now. Write today. You can negotiate with it. You can limit yourself to a two-hour block, or one hour, or fifteen minutes. If life crashes around you, you can pull out a notebook and write a short description of it, five minutes.

This is your life.

I’ll be back (soon) to let you know how the organizing is going — and helping.




5 lessons I learned while submitting to literary journals

As you know, I’ve been sending work out this month. So, in that light, I thought I’d reblog this very useful post from Dear Reader: A Writing Life Beyond the Page. 


Dear Reader, What a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon! The national organization, Women Who Submit, organized a national Submission Blitz on Saturday. Blitz as in everyone get in Formatio…

Source: 5 lessons I learned while submitting to literary journals

A Reflection on Not Working

Today I am off on an adventure. With my youngest sister and one of my cousins, I am going to stay at a cabin on Elk Creek, only about a half mile from where I grew up. I need to get moving — breakfast, a shower, packing up the car — but first, I want to spend a few minutes being the contemplative poet that I dream of being. First, I want to reflect on what this weird anxiety is that I’m feeling, this sense that I don’t have time for this. 

I’m signed up to teach a class this fall — a single section of English 101. (Long story short: my former boss asked me if I’d pick it up, at the last minute, and I said yes.) “Are you enjoying retirement?” people ask me. “What’s it like, not having to work?” “Do you miss working?”

I can’t really say that I’ve had time to miss working. I miss having students. I miss sharing the insights that come up for me and the books I’m reading. But I’m sort of busy. Time is not weighing heavy on my hands.

Once, way back in the day, when my daughters were much younger, my husband left a message at the Writing Center, where he knew I would arrive in the next hour. My friend Ann picked it up, and though I can’t remember the specific content, it was a list of things and kids I needed to pick up or drop somewhere, and all between leaving work and getting to bed. Ann said, “It makes me tired just to listen to it.”

My life is still a lot like that. Yesterday I had laundry to do and more boxes to move and unpack (this week we moved Annie back to Bellingham and are moving Emma into her downstairs room). The car had to go to the mechanic. I took two boxes of books to Half Price Books ($8.75!). I bought groceries ($103!). I made a lasagna to take on the trip with me. I took Emma to do homework at Barnes & Noble ($7.41 — why am I listing dollar amounts?).

Somewhere in there I managed to submit two sets of poems to journals (Silver Birch and Third Point Press). I also sat (at Half Price Books) and read a novel for 30 minutes. I ate dinner with my family (the ones who were home). There were quiet moments. At 10:00 I sat down again (while waiting for a load of clothes to dry) and read some more.

True, I had no papers to grade. I didn’t have to show up to a class and coax reluctant (or enthusiastic) students to discuss “The Horsedealer’s Daughter.” Even so, 24 hours, that’s all any of us get.

P1040277At the creekside cabin, I will not have to do laundry or cook (just warm up the lasagna). I will not have to buy sandwiches for hungry young adults or drive late papers to the high school. I won’t have to worry about my cluttered house, or the appointment with Emma’s principal, which I’m avoiding making, or … anything. I can put my feet up (on the rail on the back deck, I hope). I can talk. Maybe there will be a moment when I can pick up a notebook and a pen.

Mostly, I can just be there.

And maybe, while I’m there, I’ll remember that all I ever have to do is “just be here,” fully engaged, paying attention, embracing my life. There is not going to be a magic time — in the future — when you can write. If you want to write, you have to find time in the interstices in your life today.


Why do you do what you do?

Back in July (about a millennia ago) Steven Pressfield began a Writing Wednesday post by quoting from the documentary, I Am Not Your Guru, featuring Tony Robbins (and available on Netflix). If you know anything about Robbins, you know that he relentlessly asks, “Who are you?” “What is your destiny?” “Why were you put on Earth?”

Even though Pressfield admitted to watching only a fourth of the documentary, I had to see it for myself. One of my takeaways was this tee-shirt:

This summer I have done a lousy job of keeping promises to myself. I didn’t finish my novel by August 1, and then I didn’t finish by Sept. 1.

What I did manage, however, was to keep my promises to other people. I said I would send out 31 original postcard poems in August, and I did. I said I would start a “September Send-Out” project (sending out poems to journals every day in September), and I’m now 6 for 7 (and today isn’t over yet).

I said I would get my teenager through her on-line classes, and I did.

Another thing I said I would do is to coach my very first real client with her writing project. In August I said I would meet with her on Mondays, and except for Labor Day we have been able to do that. We’re both busy people, and one of the things we’ve talked about at our Monday meetings is how being accountable to someone else can help.

So, in that spirit, here’s the short list for how you can use accountability to make your writing project take root:

  1. Your first job is to find someone to communicate with who cares that you meet your goal. If they don’t care in quite the same way you do, they can still care that you keep your word to them.
  2. Think about what your goal is. “Write a book,” or a “30 page essay,” or a “brilliant poem” may be too daunting, at least for now. Brené Brown tells a story about helping her daughter see that her goal wasn’t to win her swim meet, but “to get wet.” Maybe, at least to get yourself rolling, your goal has to be to scribble for five minutes a day. When I’m trying to break into new material, I always tell myself that fifteen minutes count. Five minutes can count, for that matter. It all depends on what you agree on. Just get in the water.
  3. Agree, too, on the duration. Are you going to do this for 20 days or 30, 40, or 60? Do you get to take a day or two off each week, or is it really every day?
  4. So how do you use this caring person? (See item 1 above.) Send an email, a text message, or make a phone call once a day to update her on your progress. Maybe a weekly update is good enough, but an alternative (especially if you’re really feeling unmotivated, undisciplined, and maybe even completely undone) is to send a text when you sit down to begin, and another when logan1you finish.
  5. And just as you can write for a very short time (at least at first), you can also use very small rewards. Say “Yay!” Do a little victory dance at your desk.  Give yourself a gold star.

If you nurture it, it will grow.