Year of the Bullet Journal

I started out this year with a writer’s retreat. A few solid days of blissful writing away at a spacious bed and breakfast with a small group of likeminded writers. What a gift to spend hours writing without anyone around who was wondering when I be done, or if I would like to go out for a walk, or watch a show. Days without the silent ‘hello do you know I’m alive’ looks.

Truly, I could have spent weeks like that. It gave me great joy to find that given the chance, I could write day and night.

I also started the year with bullet journaling. I learned about it from a YouTube channel – “Elsa Rhae”.

Daily blocks

The whole concept of creativity, snippets of writing, charting and mulling over the status of my life, my health and my moods, totally appeals to me. I started out with charts on foods I ate, sleep quality, stress levels, one liners on daily things I was grateful for, worries, things I learned, goals. I had a calendar, lots of doodles and designs with colored pens. A week before the end of the month I spent an hour or so setting up for the coming month, enjoying every moment. Then March came. COVID came. The charts faded away. The journal entries got longer. By July, all the health and foods tracking were gone. The pre- dated sections were gone. Now in October, I still have a simple calendar, simple goals, simple picture of a leaf, and just a few pages of journaling. What happened? I don’t know. But in nine months, I’ve distilled my journal down to a very simple format. Maybe that’s good. Maybe that’s bad. One thing is for sure, I’m still writing and the record I’ve kept chronicles a momentous year. I don’t think I’ll ever regret having this experiment with bullet journaling to look back on in the years to come.

Just write it!

Mindfulness Writing

I remember my father saying to me “stop dragging your feet”, not metaphorically, literally. We would be walking and he would say that. I’d wonder, what did he mean? My feet were connected to my legs and they were not being dragged. I spent a lot of my childhood clueless to what adults said. Maybe my head was ‘in the clouds’ too much or go on think it, I wasn’t that bright. To understand what my father meant, I would have to be mindful of how I was walking which in this case was a kind of shuffle that made irritating noise.

Mindfulness. That’s a word I’ve been hearing repeated in many different contexts. Today I’m going to explore what that means for a writer. What I’ve come to learn is at its simplest form mindfulness is taking time to give your mind control of who you are. To me that means paying attention and focus. It means ‘taking time to smell the roses’ because I am aware that the roses are there. That is a Western view of a discipline that employs meditation and mind training with roots in Eastern religions.

Writers know a lot about purpose and driving themselves towards it. The fight against distractions and competing thoughts that interfere with the creative process is real. Often ‘writer’s block’ is the worries of life clogging passageways to where most creative energy is stored. But its not just about life invading that special zone, its about not establishing a place in the mind to go there.

Starting your day, starting your writing time by first focusing on thankfulness, on goodness, on compassion, on acknowledging shortcomings, on the truth and value you want to convey in your written word, sets the pace. Which brings me to a point. Setting the pace is what I would call the old phrase for mindfulness. I’ve lived by the axiom that it is in my control to ‘set the pace’ as in a marathon, the marathon that I am an individual runner in, responsible for how I run that race.

If I set the pace to be competitive, argumentative, defensive, abusive or defeating, that is the race I will experience. In the context of writing, if I determine that I will communicate a message of value to another person, all of my being will pursue that goal. That will take mindfulness, an act of practice and purpose.

I’ve been accused of being a ‘flower child’ born at the wrong time full of the ideals of love, joy and peace for everyone. I say, ‘what’s wrong with that?’. There are so many people who genuinely want everyone to experience those things. I suspect there are more of us then the news would indicate.

Let’s get writing and spreading some of that good stuff around.

Just another word, that doesn’t mean only stories about fluffy bunnies and happy do-gooders. A message of hope and strength comes in many forms including horror, memoirs describing painfilled lives, poetry that digs into our darkest fears, tales of dysfunctional families, fantasy worlds with battling demons. If the writer has trained their mind to be intentional in adding value to the reader, it’s all good.


Quick Review of “MyLife” mindfulness app:

This app has a comfortable platform allowing you to pick attributes that you want to focus on such as: kindness, gratefulness, strength. Depending on which topics are chosen, meditation sequences are offered. The sessions include instructions on how to submerge your mind into the topic. For example, for kindness the speaker will first draw you to focus on your body and how you feel then toward feelings of kindness to someone you love, someone you don’t love or hate and someone you dislike. The instruction is to direct your thoughts to wishing kindness in all those situations to train your mind to always choose kindness; a worthy goal.

There are also modules called “Journeys” on reducing stress, knowing your body, improving sleep etc.

This app has a lot of variety and choices which to me translates into ‘fun’. There’s something for everyone. Be advised, to access most of the options, it requires a subscription. So, if spending money knocks you out of mindfulness, you may want to consider…a book.

Fiction Writer Weirdness

Writer of fiction, this one’s for you. Have you ever walked into a room and felt like you’ve been there before? Or looked at a random photograph and think it is familiar? But then realize in the next moment that no, you have not been there, but it resembles a scene you wrote about. Worse yet, have you considered how a character would cope with a situation or worried about a character?

Maybe it’s just me, but there are times when I’m so immersed in a story, in the people, that my brain accidentally believes on some level that they exist. I say accidentally because in a way I’ve tricked myself by thinking so deeply in character, that it mimics personal introspection.

To be honest, writing fiction makes me just a little bit weird.  What about you?

It may be unavoidable, it may be that a fiction writer’s mind expands from use, pushing the envelope of normal and reaching into the bands beyond like a pioneer in a new territory, blazing the way.

Truly to write good fiction is to call into existence, lives, places, events that have no substance, that are invisible, that are not chronicled in the book of life. If well done, it is caught by hearts that beat and lungs that breath and minds that say ‘yes I’ve been there’.

Get to it people! Write the good stuff!

Storm Weaver

100 Word Story

Bells clanged as I exited the Pharmacy. Ice pellets and giant drops of cold rain pelted the cracked sidewalk and pinged off the metal canopy overhead. I shared the shelter with an old man who sat on a folding chair. His whiskered chin jut out. His lips caved in over toothless gums. His thick knuckled fingers worked a string through holes on an oily leather pouch. He peered inside like it held treasure.

“What’s that you got there?” I asked.

He looked up with grinning eyes then pulled the string taunt, closing the opening of the pouch.

The storm stopped.

Practice Makes Perfect

Writer’s Tip#2

It’s no secret that running every morning, taking time at the ball field to swing or pitch, playing scales on a piano, riffing through chords on a guitar, or well, any skill that requires physical coordination, improves with practice. But practice writing? Not just writing and revising a project, but actually just writing for the sake of practice?

I had the first ten pages of my current project critiqued by Eric Witchey (http://www.ericwitchey.com/). I have to give a plug for his critique service. I’ve not had a review of my work done more professionally and thoroughly, ever. Worth every penny and then some. I gleaned several tips and recommendations but one that surprised me was to practice writing techniques.

I’m not very good at casual writing. My current project started with the intention of writing a short story to enter in a contest so I could build credits. I don’t how it turned into a novel except that I couldn’t stop writing my character’s lives. There was more to tell than a few thousand words.

So how does a novel writing addict reign it in and just ‘practice’ creating characters and scenes? Before I answer that question, I need to mention that studying characters by putting them into the same situation and writing the scene of how each would respond is a tool I have truly enjoyed. There’s no separation anxiety with that exercise. The characters are on my stage and I’ve got a plan for them.

Back to the question, how to practice without engaging the passion of a project. I found a way by accident. I’ve been known to wander through flea markets with tables piled high with junk, true junk. Chipped coffee cups, mustard yellow electric can openers, rusted adjustable wrenches frozen a quarter inch open, five crock pots in a row and then, if I’m lucky, I’ll find the mother lode, a dirty, ragged cardboard box of books.

Last time this happened, I plucked out three, would have been ten but my husband was hovering nearby and although he would say nothing if I bought ten, he would have shook his head all the way home and mutter ‘you don’t have time to read all those…”.

One of the books I bought was “The Gazebo” by Patricia Wentworth, a British author. I started reading it in the car on the way home from the flea market. The set-up of the story was stellar. Then it hit me. I’ve only read the first thirty or so pages. I’ve met the main characters, but I don’t know exactly what they’re going to do. Why not practice with these? Write them into the scenes I think will happen. I don’t have any other connection to this story except my entertainment.

So, that’s the tip I received and the way to make it work. Pick up a book. Read the first thirty pages or so then play with someone else’s kids. Write on! The world awaits your voice.

Simple Answers

100 Word Story

It was her routine. Didn’t matter that this morning everything was different.

“Excuse me, ma’am, what can I get you?”

Her mind was a mess. Even the simple question threw her off. She couldn’t crumble like this.

“Coffee maybe?” the Barista said with a smile that seemed to say she’d seen it all before.

“Yes,” she managed to answer. “Mocha. Shot of espresso. Need my caffeine.”

“Don’t we all. It’s why I’ve got a job.”

Could the answer be that simple? “Are you hiring?”

“As a matter of fact we are.” She pointed to a sign. “You can apply now.”

Didn’t Expect That

Have you ever watched a show with funny video clips like “America’s Funniest Home Videos”? If not, picture these scenes and guess what comes after the first few seconds of footage:

Fearless
  • A man is vaulting through the air toward a horse, arms stretched
  • A teenager starts down the handrail of a flight of concrete stairs on a skateboard
  • A grandma dressed to the nines with a plaid skirt, bleach white top and sneakers, raises a golf club

Did you guess that in all three scenes, the unexpected happened? The man does not make it onto the horse, he misses and lands in manure. The teenager slides off the handrail and saves himself in a somersault. The grandma raises the golf club and swings like her life depends on it, does a couple of spins only to find the ball hasn’t moved.

What do all these instances have in common? Someone is trying very hard to go beyond the typical, pushing themselves to do the amazing. I’ve noticed in these video clips that when people really want to do something and believe they can do it, they put it all out there. Though that is oddly (dare I say uncomfortably?) the source of the humor. Watching a person focus like a pro and then fail tickles the funny bone. Still, a person that intends to jump on a horse from behind must leap with all his strength. Same for doing a crazy stunt on a skateboard or swinging a golf club at eighty years old.

All these funny video clips chronicle the diehard spirit of humans to give whatever they truly want to do, the best shot ever. It’s inspiring. That is exactly my point. Be inspired. People make themselves the brunt of a ten second joke that at best might win them a T-shirt from a television show. They do it again and again because if it’s worth trying, it’s worth risking failure, even laughter, even the mocking of a gaggle of naysayers that seem to be at the periphery of everyone’s lives.

So put your all into whatever project you’re working on. Don’t worry about if you’re the right stuff or not. You are part of a community of people who jump high, slide fearlessly and swing like champions.

That’s something to be proud of.

Submerged

Photo by Oliver Sju00f6stru00f6m on Pexels.com

But not for long,

Light shines above,

Sounds,

Yes, music,

The anticipation of,

Oxygen,

Fresh in the lungs.

How long have I drifted,

In darkness,

Murky,

Kept beneath the weighted waters,

Too deep in the caverns of choice,

Going as the undercurrent,

Took me,

Lost from who I could be?

Long enough.

I almost forgot,

There was a world,

Not submerged.

How to Get the MOST out of a Virtual Conference

Photo by Jaymantri on Pexels.com

We’ve all been pushed to the outer reaches of cyber-space by COVID-19. Thankfully, it isn’t an alien species. Science can push back and bring us back to near normal earth again. Meanwhile, we regular humans are learning to live in a way that is not our preferred style of social interaction. So, instead of the melee and crescendo of creative energy that normally accompanies a writer’s conference, there is the potentially sedate, introspective experience of a virtual conference. (See my last post “The Pros and Cons of a Virtual Writer’s Conference” for my observations about this.)

To get the most out of this kind of conference, some planning and foresight are needed. Here are my recommendations, some are my ‘should have’ and others are ‘glad I did’ actions from the last virtual conference I attended:

  • Schedule management
    • Be very clear on what classes you are signed up for or are available to you by printing the schedule or having it on screen.
    • Forward the registration confirmation with final class information / Zoom links to the top of your email.
    • Print out or write out your schedule / highlighting breaks in between and post in a prominent place in the household (kitchen/ refrigerator) so that everyone knows your schedule.
    • Keep handy the zoom class id#’s and passwords. (If you are rushing back to start a class, you don’t want to have to scroll through a class list that has extraneous information. All you need are the 2 numbers to pop into the class.)
  • Set- up / Environment
    • A secluded/private location is a must. That may mean going to a friend’s house or the library. My experience was that there was not a lot of verbal interaction with the presenter so a public location could still work.
    • Make it fresh. I am working from home 75% of my work week. I didn’t want to feel like I was at work. I set-up another office space that looked and felt different. This could be a corner of your bedroom using a folding table. I have a vintage cabinet with a pull-out counter. Be creative! It’s what you do. But make it so that you can shift into a different mind-set than the normal everyday situation.
    • Splurge on treats; the best coffee creamer, fancy tea, a box of chocolates…whatever makes it feel like you’ve traveled to a new place and you’ve thrown some inhibitions to the wind…safe throwing people, don’t build a path of regrets!
    • Have snacks, beverages, tissues, basic necessities at arm’s reach. It only takes a few minutes to miss that key point a presenter makes or a comment from someone in the class; the one nugget that would save you from failure. You’ll have access to recorded classes, but truth be told, the likelihood of going back and listening to a class to make sure you didn’t miss something is slim.
    • Set-up two monitors/keyboards if you can; one to view class and the other to type notes (a laptop with a desktop and monitor, tablet or second laptop)

  • Pre-conference actions
    • Download the platform being used (ex. Zoom / Teams) and verify it works.
    • Attend any pre-conference gatherings to get inside information
    • Set-up monitors; prep to have a mouse for each situation (meeting & notes/hand-outs/email)
    • Create a notes file/document. I used Microsoft OneNote. Days before the conference, I created a file for each class with the class time/title/ subject and presenter. This way I don’t have a mish-mash of notes.
  • Other Pointers
    • Have a contingency plan – Where can you go if WiFi goes down at your location?
    • Take notes on classmates that share during a class that seem like you might have a genre or style in common. Later when class list is shared, you might be able to reach out that person and find a beta-reader.
    • Like any meeting, in-person or virtual, take some time on your appearance on camera.
    • Like any virtual meeting, be mindful of what is in the background when video is on.
    • Don’t hide! Use the video. This not only psychologically makes you feel more like you are present at the virtual location but is considerate to the presenter. It is truly difficult to teach to a class of printed names. It may seem unnecessary, but I believe there is value in human interaction that includes facial cues.
    • Press off video when you leave the room; have to interact with an actual human in the room or any other time that it’s best people are not getting a cinematic view of your activity.
    • Have a scratch pad handy to jot down thoughts/lists/ questions. Sometimes old-fashioned manual writing works better but not if you have to hunt for paper and pen.
    • Pull PDFs of any class handouts up on your screen. This way you can follow the class presenter but will be able to scroll up or down.
    • Read class description and pay attention if there is pre-work to be done. I missed this with one (the only) class that had a pre-read of an article which meant I was less prepared.
    • Set alarms/timer for class times. If you divide your attention between the conference and things going on in your household, you’ll need a reminder to stay on track.
    • Don’t hesitate to share….which means start typing in the chat box as soon as a question is asked or an exercise is finished.
    • Don’t be a share hog…if you have fast typing skills and shared a few times in a class, hold back and let others beat you to the mic. There were a couple of classes where the same person shared over and over. When finally, a different person got a chance, it was a refreshing point of view. (I swear it wasn’t me who kept sharing).
    • Finally, have fun…actually that’s just the trite ending to an article like this so….Finally, be thankful, you’re a gifted writer! That makes you special in my book. Write on!

Pros and Cons of a Virtual Writer’s Conference- full article.

I could never have imagined that half my life would be lived on Zoom, didn’t even know what it was less than a year ago. Yet I spent a long weekend ‘attending’ a writer’s conference entirely as a virtual experience. What does ‘virtual’ mean anyway? One definition on vocabulary.com said “exists in essence but not in actuality”. Hmm try to live in the essence of something meant to be actually there. It’s a challenge but surprisingly there are some benefits when it comes to a writer’s conference.

There are obvious advantages like eliminating the cost of travel, hotel, and meals and in these COVID times, not needing to wear a mask or use excessive hand sanitizer. But there are also lesser positives that altogether make a nice package. Here are a few I noted:

• Don’t need to rush to a class or cross a campus to get there or wonder if you’ll get a seat close enough to hear, see or get a chance to share.
• All you have to do is be quick at typing in a chat box to be able to share
• Don’t need to figure out where the next class is
• Can see all the names of the people in a class – might see someone you know. In a classroom you can’t look around too much or people will think you’re weird(er)
• Always have hot coffee in your favorite mug (or a cold brew)
• Can eat a meal if you turn video off as opposed to being hungry because classes are back to back and you don’t want to be impolite and chomp away while the presenter talks about the spiritual nature of writing.
• You can leave, quietly, without worrying about the people around you and hearing their silent questions, ‘what’s wrong with her? This class is great’ or ‘she looks like she might pass out from hunger’ or ‘wish she would stop making so much noise packing up her stuff…’. Just turn video off and slip away back to the familiar actual location of your comfortable home.

I guess it could be summed up that a virtual conference affords convenience.

There are some things lost however. For example, if there are handouts, the printing is on you. You’ll not walk away with any freebies either; prizes, literature or writing themed merchandise. You have to have decent equipment, two monitors (a laptop and a monitor works) so you can view PDFs if not printing them, take notes and also view the class and presenter. You need a reliable internet connection. If you have IT issues, you’re going to miss live classes and only have recordings. On the flip side, there are recordings, so if your dog chews up your router, no worries, all is not lost.

You should consider when you’re in a video classroom, the presenter has as much ability to look around at the faces on the screen as you do. If your eyes are closing or you roll your eyes, mute won’t save you. The presenter may be staring straight at you…kind of feels that way even if faces are spread out over three screens. One of the biggest drawbacks to virtual from live is that you can’t just get up and leave class (enduring the silent attention) and find another class that is better suited for what you want to spend your time on. You only have access to the classes you signed up for.

That is a problem if the class is small and the presenter is painfully ill prepared or just has that kind of creative mind that strings all kinds of thoughts together and nods, ‘okay, as you can see it’s really quite easy to learn these principles for success’. Yeah, not so much. Another soft miss with virtual is that the presenters don’t fraternize any more than participants. That means that when you share your story idea with one person he won’t be connecting with the editor he knows that told him at breakfast that she’s looking for exactly the type of story you’re writing. That’s probably a long shot that such a miraculous connection could be made, but it’s not happening in a virtual setting. In the same way there’s no connections with other writers. Okay so there could be and maybe larger conferences handle this better. There was one event for ‘socializing’ and there was a ‘break out’ room but I stopped by and it wasn’t the chatroom I had hoped for, more like a crossroads between classes.

However, though I know it’s supremely important to network as these events, I didn’t miss the opportunity to mix all that much. Enjoyment of the company of strangers wanes thin super fast for me. Especially when those people are often subtly competitive. There is always a person dominating conversation who finds a way to mention how their book is about to be published or they just landed a job with a major publisher or they have three agents fighting over their manuscript. Then there’s all the posturing and arranging to sit with agents and editors. By the end of a live conference I’m exhausted from all the information and ideas and stressed by all the social failures I’ve had. I almost always battle a bout of depression just after.

Not so this time. Being able to sleep in my own bed. Being able to retreat from the eager, ambitious faces of my classmates every night, I was more focused on learning, less tired and worn out which leads to my conclusion.

If you’re an extrovert and people energize you, a virtual conference will fall flat but you’ll get something out of it. If you can skip the social networking and won’t miss that you don’t have five new friend requests after it’s all said and done, then a virtual conference is a very good use of your time.


Clare’s recommendations to get the most out of a Virtual Writer’s Conference coming in next post.