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tulip magnolia buds blooms

Spring is still struggling to tug itself forward. So am I. Outside my writing window, it is drizzling, and my mood matches the atmosphere—dribs and drabs of depression, a light misting of malaise. What’s wrong with me is what’s wrong with spring: I am not all here yet. Some part of me is still caught in yesterday’s winter, and that chill grip on my ankle will not let go.

—Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper

“Everything right now feels tentative, uncertain, transitional,” Lindsey wrote recently on her blog, and I felt a quiet thump of recognition when I read those words. Yes.

After a winter that did not overpower us like last year’s, I think we were all expecting an early spring. But the weather in New England – whatever else it may be – is rarely predictable.

A couple of late snowstorms (six inches of snow in early April!) and attendant cold snaps have pulled us up short, reminded us that winter isn’t quite gone yet. The evenings are longer, the light sharper and more golden, but the air still carries a bite. On most days, I’m still wearing my winter uniform of black leggings, ankle boots, green wool coat. I have been yearning for a vacation to somewhere warm, but that wasn’t in the cards this year.

During these breezy, capricious spring days, I have also been in transition at work (again): adjusting to the rhythm of a new office, six floors above the ground in Harvard Square. New colleagues, new duties and dynamics, a slight shift in work hours, a different angle on the neighborhood and the university I love so well.

I have struggled to be “all here” in this season, to live in my new-for-now reality instead of missing the one I left, or worrying over the lack of permanence. Meanwhile, various other uncertainties, large and small, keep knocking me off balance.

“We are always swept this way and that,” Jessica Fechtor writes in her gorgeous memoir, Stir, which I read last week. “We create the life we want to live, yes. Then, in return, that life creates us. We follow the tides; we have no choice. We splash about beneath the brightest of moons, then the darkest of skies, tug hard from the surface on anchors that refuse to budge, and then, if we are very brave, dive deep.”

Some seasons, as Lindsey noted in her post, feel particularly off-kilter, uncertain. And yet this is the way life is, though we don’t always realize it. We spend our days in the liminal spaces, moving from change to change. We follow the tides, as Fechtor says: sometimes floating and splashing on the surface, sometimes diving deep. I know that all these things are true, and yet I am always searching for anchors, a safe place to rest, a still point or two in a turning world.

I find it hard sometimes to look for the beauty in transition: it’s much easier to appreciate budding trees and unfurling tulips than it is to make sense of deep personal struggles. But the in-between places are where our lives take shape, and there is – I know – lots of joy to be found there.

“My job, and I do not always like it, is to imitate the season unfurling outside my window,” Julia Cameron writes in the essay quoted above. As I walk through this slow and lovely spring, I am trying to emulate the trees and flowers: to pay attention to the light, and (as Julia concludes) “to push on through the gray into greater blossoming.”

early tulips public garden boston spring

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dish rack kitchen

To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

I found this poem via the good folks at Image Journal, who are always providing thoughtful perspective and encouragement related to doing good work.

As a person who does a lot of my work digitally (and/or in my head), I spend a lot of time thinking about “real” work and what that means. I am grateful for the physical tasks of life that must be done, that require labor and muscle and provide tangible satisfaction. I love Piercy’s images of mud and harvest, of people plunging into work – of various kinds – that is good and real and true.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month.

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laptop darwins chai

On any given day, I get a lot of email. I bet you do too.

I appreciate the tabs in my Gmail inbox that (mostly) separate the pertinent, interesting stuff from the marketing emails and social media notifications. But some of the best, most surprising messages end up in the “Updates” category.

These aren’t the notes from friends (though I love those) or the emails from my editors about freelance assignments. (Though those are important and sometimes moderately lucrative.) These are the email newsletters to which I subscribe, and they are some of the best things in my inbox.

Here’s a roundup of my faves:

shelf awareness readers banner

Shelf Awareness
Full disclosure: I am biased, because (in case you didn’t know) I write book reviews for this smart, funny, big-hearted, bookish newsletter. But I still read it every single day. It comes out in two versions. (I get both.)

The longer-running daily newsletter is stuffed with book-trade news and bookstore updates, plus one book review each day. The Readers edition comes out on Tuesdays and Fridays and is chock full of book reviews and “book candy” – all those fun bookish articles/quizzes/photo galleries you see floating around the Internet.

The Shelf crew is proudly pro-indie bookstore and anti-literary snobbery. We love great books and we want to help people find them, and we love bookish fun in all its forms. Our mascot, Vik (a happily book-obsessed Buddha), likes to dress up for special occasions. I have met some wonderful people, and interviewed a few fabulous authors, through my work with the Shelf.

One caveat: your to-be-read list (or library holds list) will grow after reading the Shelf. But if you’re a bookworm, that’s not really a bad thing.

 

modern mrs darcy banner

Modern Mrs. Darcy‘s newsletter
Anne Bogel writes a smart, thoughtful, charming blog at Modern Mrs. Darcy. I also love her monthly-ish newsletters, which inevitably contain thought-provoking musings, lovely photos and links to blog posts you might have missed. I sometimes save the newsletters to read again.

Anne’s voice is warm and inviting, and she’s always finding and sharing good stuff. It’s a pleasure when her newsletter pops up in my inbox – it’s like getting a letter from a friend. (I count her among my Internet friends.)

 

innocent newsletter banner smoothies

Innocent Drinks newsletter
When I lived in the UK, I developed an addiction to Innocent smoothies, which are tart, fruity, delicious, and (sadly) not sold in the U.S. Innocent sponsors the annual Big Knit, in which they ask folks to knit tiny hats for their smoothie bottles, then donate part of the proceeds from each behatted bottle to charity. They publish a weekly e-newsletter full of updates from Fruit Towers (their office), tidbits about smoothies, and humorous absurdities. (I’ve always thought it would be a hilarious place to work.) The newsletter makes me laugh, and crave smoothies.

I also subscribe to a few bookstore newsletters (from Brookline Booksmith, the Harvard Book Store and the Bookstore in Lenox); Hollywood Housewife’s newsletter; and the New York Times daily headline email. And, of course, I always like to see an email telling me I’ve got a library hold to pick up.

What are the best things in your inbox?

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journals bon voyage red stars

When we are unable to work, we can work at the work of getting ready to work. Writers can lay in supplies of paper and enticing pens, notepads that plead, “Please write on me.” Painters can prepare their canvases, clean their brushes, neaten their studio space. Potters can acquire a new lump of cool clay and clear the table spare where they will knead and shape it. Gentle things can be done.

—Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper

I’ve written before about how Julia’s words – especially in this book – are touchstones for me. She writes honestly about the frustrations and fears of the creative life, but is always nudging herself and her readers gently forward: Easy does it, but do it.

Write a few pages by hand, she says. Slip in an “artist date” on your lunch break. Pick up a few books that inspire you. And then there’s the advice above: so small and simple that it’s easy to overlook. But on these long winter afternoons, it is saving my life.

Some days I am able to move quickly and efficiently through projects, crossing tasks off my to-do list. (I love those days.) Sometimes I have a deadline prodding me along, or a colleague who needs something from me. That’s the easy part. The hard part is when I know I need to do something – send an email, draft a piece, tackle a nagging task – but I can’t make myself get started. This is where Julia comes in.

I like the phrase “the work of getting ready to work.” For me, that sometimes looks like buying nice pens or vivid, lovely journals (see above). But more often, it’s an even smaller step: Creating a Word document. Starting an email. Making a list. Figuring out what a task actually entails, breaking it down into manageable steps, and then tackling the first one.

Sometimes, the very fact of that waiting Word doc or email draft or to-do list is a scaffold I can climb on, materials in hand, and start to build something good and true. It may be only a stark outline, but it’s often enough to nudge me forward, toward the real work. (Bonus: these things also mitigate the terror of the blank page or screen.)

How do you nudge yourself to get ready to work?

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stories matter nanowrimo sticker

A story is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle that would cover the whole floor of a room with its tiny pieces. But it’s not the sort of puzzle that comes with a box. There is no lid with a picture on it so that you can see what the puzzle will look like when it’s finished. And you have only some of the pieces.

All you can do is keep looking and listening, sniffing about in all sorts of places, until you find the next piece. And then you’ll be amazed where that next piece will take you.”

Finding Serendipity, Angelica Banks

I read Finding Serendipity in mid-November, and this quote struck me as perfect for NaNoWriMo.

Most people (including me) start NaNo with a shiny but elusive idea, and we spend the month chasing those ideas – or, as Banks would have it, sniffing about for the next puzzle piece. Some folks work from detailed outlines, but I tend to make a few notes and then plunge in.

My first two weeks of NaNo were, shall we say, prolific. I was a little hopped up on both caffeine and words by the end of Week 1:

 

I wrote so much, in fact, that my wrists and hands (not to mention my tired brain) began to protest:

 

I slowed my pace a little during the second half of November, but I still made an effort to crank out a thousand words or so every day. My story is full of plot holes (and too much dialogue), but I’m proud to say I hit 50,000 words over Thanksgiving weekend, which makes me a NaNoWriMo winner.

nanowrimo 2015 winner banner

My novel, Pies and Plies, isn’t nearly done, and I’m not sure it will ever see the light of day. But that isn’t the point. It’s flawed in a hundred places, but I still love the premise – which came to me in a dream this summer – of a family running a ballet studio-cum-pizza parlor (hence the title).

Every time I attempt NaNo, I take on a new creative challenge. This time, I enjoyed the process of drafting a young adult novel. (I read a ton of YA novels, but I’d never attempted to write one.) This story is set in the suburbs of Boston (instead of Oxford, where my previous two NaNoNovels take place). And while all my narrators end up sharing some of my thoughts and preoccupations, this narrator, Elise, is not a carbon copy of me. That was also a creative stretch, and a satisfying one.

I don’t think I’m a fiction writer at heart. I tend to write about what I know, or more specifically, what I think about what I know, and what happens to me. But I love stories and I believe that they matter, and I love joining in this annual, gleeful, worldwide burst of creativity. And it’s so satisfying to say it: I won!

Onward to December – wherein I will still be writing, but giving my wrists (and brain) a bit of a break. Whew!

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harvard yard leaves light

For long walks under bold blue autumn skies and vivid red and golden leaves.

For bouquets of yellow tulips and sunflowers, and a florist whose smile is kind.

For two groups of bookish colleagues, at Shelf Awareness and Great New Books, who make me laugh and make my to-be-read list grow every week.

For a new temp gig in my beloved Harvard Square neighborhood, which I’m already loving.

For chai lattes and strong black tea and spiced apple cider, sipped from paper cups or my favorite mugs.

For a husband who believes in me and cheers me on no matter what.

For family and friends whom I adore, who are wise and funny and supportive and kind.

For text messages and email and social media – all the tools that allow me to keep in touch with those I love.

For good books – stories and poetry that move me, make me think, entertain me, and make me want to be a better person.

For a small but stalwart church community of faithful, loving people.

For scented candles and funny TV shows and cozy slippers – all the little luxuries that make life more enjoyable.

For the blessing of having all I need – really, as Jaclyn said this week – more than enough.

gold-red-leaves-grass

It has been a hard couple of weeks in this world, and a hard few months in my own life. But today, I am pausing to remember the good, and give thanks.

If you’re celebrating, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving.

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nanowrimo laptop chai darwins

We are deep into November: golden leaves, crisp blue skies, vivid orange sunsets (which come all too soon every day now). And I am deep into my NaNoWriMo novel, because November is the month when writers around the world pick up their pens (or open their laptops) and begin writing furiously, trying to draft a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

Yes, it’s crazy. Yes, my wrists and fingers are sore. But it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo twice before, writing a novel set in Oxford (mostly to assuage my deep homesickness) in 2008, and drafting a murder mystery, also set in Oxford, last year. This time around, I’m doing something a little different.

One morning this summer, I woke up from a dream about a combination pizza parlor and ballet studio, run by the same family. When I told my husband about it, he said, “That sounds like a young adult novel.” I came up with a title (Pies and Pliés) and put it on the back burner until November. Now, I’m in the thick of it, carving out chunks of time to write each day, in between job applications and freelance work and snapping pictures of leaves.

I love NaNo for many reasons. It’s a small but exuberant nonprofit run by fun people; it encourages school-age writers through its Young Writers Program; it provides writerly entertainment on Twitter for those of us plugging away at our projects. But mostly I love it because it celebrates creativity, and stories. The folks at NaNo believe passionately that stories matter, and they spend all year – especially November – encouraging others to put their stories out into the world.

There are several tricks to winning NaNoWriMo – “winning” being defined as producing 50,000 words on a new manuscript over the course of November. I’ve found it helpful to have an idea I’m really excited about, and to do a little noodling, a little plotting and note-taking, ahead of time. I haven’t worked from a detailed outline, though I know some writers do (and some writers simply open up a new Word doc and fly by the seat of their pants).

I also find it helpful, like Hemingway, to stop in the middle – of a scene, a chapter or a narrative event (not necessarily a sentence). Then I jot down a few notes so I have somewhere to start from the next day. And, most importantly, I’m enjoying the process. It’s fun.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo – or have you done it before? (Or attempted a similarly insane creative challenge?) I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!

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