Attack of the morning page!

YouTuber.  Beautiful morning-light shot after shot as she performed the routines that have made her so successful.  She drank water, took her vitamins, made tea, and set out a notebook and a gorgeous pen on a blond-wood table in preparation for her morning pages.   Watching from home, I gave her a 10 out of 10.   Journaling in the morning is promoted on lots of lifestyle channels, but this was the fourth video I’d seen in less than a week where morning pages were mentioned.  She was also the fourth out of four people who admitted that they hadn’t actually read the book that popularized morning pages, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (1992)…  Unlike the others, though, this YouTuber had acquired the book and said she intended to read it soon.  

This felt like a sign.  I, too, had an unread copy of The Artist’s Way, collecting dust on the bottom shelf of my bedroom bookcase!  On round one I’d evidently made it to the end of the introduction, where Cameron describes how she’d become blocked after she quit drinking.    Alcohol had been essential to starting and finishing her writing, though with increasingly destructive effects on her health, and she wasn’t sure how to proceed without it.  When she found coping mechanisms that worked for her, she started teaching them to other blocked creatives and eventually turned the program into the best-selling book.   

When I bought The Artist’s Way Sonny was in elementary school and I’d stopped all professional and most personal writing, although I still had music for a creative outlet.   I remembered trying morning pages, but not how long I’d done them or why I’d stopped.  

The Artist’s Way is a set of activities and prompts intended to be used over the course of 12 weeks.  The preamble before Chapter One discusses the elements of the program.  First, of course, the morning pages:  “three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.”  Second, the “artist date,” which involves going somewhere alone once a week for a treat (none of the Youtubers has mentioned this element, so I think I must be farther along in the book already).   The purpose of morning pages is to clear the mind in order to face the work of the day; the point of the artist date is to gather inspiration.   

I didn’t hear about Cameron until the 2000s, but I’ve been free writing since the mid 1980s, when I crept into a church basement for my first fiction workshop.  The instructor started most sessions with exercises based on Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (1986).   Start writing and don’t lift your hand from the page for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, whatever.  No cross-outs, no revisions, just turn on the spigot and see what happens.    

Like The Artist’s Way, Writing Down the Bones doesn’t try to teach craft.  There are no sections on plot construction, setting, description, showing versus telling, or characterization.  No grammar hacks.  No sample query letters.   The intention is to provide habits of body and thought that get around one’s internal resistance to writing.        

Over the years I’ve done so much free writing that I can meander for as long as my hypothenar and adductor pollicis muscles hold out (along with those pesky palmar interossei).   But practically, it usually only takes a few minutes until I focus on an interesting idea or image, and then I start writing for real (aka the hard way).   

Cameron explicitly positions the morning pages as a meditation.   As I’ve hated meditation more every time I tried it, maybe this explains why I’ve been stuck for years on page 20 of the book, but who knows what might happen this time?  I double my page count with a trudge through “Week One: Recovering a Sense of Safety.”  It’s a struggle at points due in part to her dismissive language towards anyone who isn’t pursuing an artistic career full-time.   The chapter tasks run from the mundane—morning pages, the artist date, and affirmations (which I will skip, as I like affirmations even less than I do meditation)—to the rather thrilling: starting a war between “enemies” and “champions” of my creative self-worth.   There are a lot of rules.     I suppose if I see the morning pages as a substitute for the ritual of drink-writing, the rules are a bit more understandable, substituting for the rituals of bottle, pen, glass, words, sips, connections, words…  

If I’m going to give the method a try, I’ll have to bend a morning pages rule or two.  Handwritten: no problem.  Three pages, okay, that’s a reasonable goal and doesn’t take too long.  Stream of consciousness: nope.  Permission to abandon a line of thought without apology or transition?  Heck, yeah!   By the time I make it to my comfy chair by the journal most mornings I have some kind of question to pose, even if it’s just “How did I sleep last night? or “What fresh hell is this?”   My first morning pages question, three days ago, was why I had hated the Mannerist paintings (I’m taking one of those online art history things).  That led to an exploration of sarcasm and beauty and autism and embarrassment, and after I was done with my three pages, I felt calm and fairly focused.   Success?   

Tea at the clubhouse

Saturday’s in charge, so they do chores.

“Busy work,” snarls Friday as he balances a teetering pile of boxes outside the clubhouse to the recycling bin.  He should be glad of the exercise–his gut is pushing uncomfortably into his belt–but his head is still pounding.    Saturday glances his way, so he moves a little faster.  She jots a note on her clipboard.  The mask over her mouth and nose makes it hard to read her expression, but Friday knows she won’t let herself or any of them quit until the to-dos are done.

The recycling bin’s already half full.  The Days get lots of packages, more than before.  Friday clears out the styrofoam and plastic packing materials and breaks each box into strips.  Out of Saturday’s sightline, he can take his time.  He could use the box cutter, but it’s more satisfying to rip the cardboard.  His hangovers feel worse, now that there’s nowhere to go, but steam to blow.   He wants a better regret than eating the full rack of ribs, drinking too much craft beer, and dozing off during a Bourne marathon.

In the final box, underneath masses of crumpled paper he feels something solid.   What the heck?

Sunday’s making a pot of tea for a break.  Real tea based on an online tutorial.  Her siblings hadn’t been enthusiastic about crowding the kitchen counter with yet another gadget, but Sunday ordered an electric kettle anyway, along with a teapot and cozy.   Cozy like yoga pants, which she lives in these days.   No more brunches or gym visits.  Back in the day she said she’d be happy for a life spent in yoga pants, and she feels bound by those words.

Saturday fuels her days with iced coffee, and Monday has already had a couple of espressos this morning, but Sunday’s sure they’ll still want a break from vacuuming and dusting and all the rest.  Wednesday and Friday will eat anything she puts in front of them, as long as there are no visible vegetables.   Tuesday will want sugar, and Thursday will be curious, at the least.

The electric kettle takes forever to heat the water to the desired temperature, but Sunday tries to be patient.  She packs loose tea into the tea ball and warms the teapot before setting the tea to steep.  What a lot of steps this involves, compared to a teabag.   She dumps cookies on a tray and sets mugs on the kitchen island, taking one of the six stools surrounding it.

The timer shrills.  “Tea time!”

Monday stacks two cookies and pours herself a tiny cup.  She’s lost weight over the past few  months, always worried about what the workweek has in store.   Her bangs are crooked–she cut them herself, and her flip-flops are peeling.  From the ankles through forehead, though, she is all business, her blouse pressed, her makeup done.   “Oh, you got the chocolate this time?”

“It was literally the only box on the shelf,” says Saturday, sanitizing her hands. “You never know what’s going to be in stock.”

“Chocolate’s my favorite,” says Wednesday, dribbling crumbs.

Saturday takes a cookie, no tea, and retreats a safe distance from her siblings before she pulls down her mask.

Wednesday swipes another cookie; he’s already had three.  He hopes Monday and Sunday keep sniping at each other.  Boss babes, the both of them.  He wouldn’t mind seeing them get into a bigger dustup.  Even if it didn’t clear the air it might make life more interesting for a bit.  And Wednesday is so bored.

Thursday sniffs suspiciously at the tea and turns up her delicate nose.  She twitches her whiskers and jumps to the floor.

“Should you let her on the counter?” asks Tuesday.    She pushes her hair–frizzed in the humid summer air, roots growing out–behind her ears.   A little tea has splashed from the cup to the saucer to her blouse, joining a couple of other unnoticed stains.

“She’s still our sister,” says Sunday.

“Look what I found!” Friday, too excited to bother about tea or cookies, plops his discovery onto the center of the island.

“Not too close to the food!” warns Sunday, but they all crowd round regardless.   Even Saturday moves in for a closer look.

It’s a picture of them from New Year’s Eve, 2019, blown up to 11 x 14, in a silver frame.  There’s a whole week of holiday between Christmas and New Year’s, so everybody’s dressed up.

The clubhouse is filled with streamers, banners, and balloons and packed with their friends.  There are the Months, eating their way through the hors d’oeuvres, plus some AM pals of Saturday’s and Sunday’s (this was back when Saturday had more to do on her day than chores and risky shopping).  There’s that PM that Friday was so crazy about for a while…Off to the left, there are the Seconds, in perfect harmony, counting down the final bits of the year.

“Oh I remember…this was the one we had framed for the picture wall,” says Sunday.  “Didn’t Wednesday send it off?”

“I think Tuesday did it.”

“Back in January!” says Tuesday.

Everyone looks so happy!  Thursday in sequins, smiling over her champagne, Friday in a tuxedo, his arm around that PM.  Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, their arms locked, Saturday with her nails done and her hair in a French twist, Sunday in a modestly shocking dress, not even thinking about the resolutions.

The Days drink their tea and complain:  delivery times these days, shocking, you never know when your order’s going to arrive.  Tracking numbers just set up unreasonable expectations.  Also they wonder how the picture got overlooked in that week’s packages.

Thursday knows, but she’ll never tell.  She gets into every box, clawing at the edges, wiggling inside, finding a shelter within the gray present.

 


Author’s note: This blog was inspired by a writing prompt from Reedsyprompts (blog.reedsy.com).

Blockity block blocked

Most weeks, I figure out a blog direction on Wednesday or Thursday.   Unfortunately, here it is, Friday morning, and I got nothin’.  Panic!

At the auto repair shop this morning—my car’s brakes are acting up—I text Dave to come get me and check out online topic generators.   I’ve read about them, but never tried them.  Once I get home, ready or not, I will be applying the seats of my pants to the seat of my blogging chair.      

I start at hub spot.com, whose Blog Ideas Generator instructs me to “enter a noun to get start” and generates five blog titles for up to five nouns.  I settle on three:  block, writer, and turtles.  I don’t know why turtles floats through my brain.  Each of the five titles uses just one of the nouns rather than combining them.  All the titles are familiar and, admittedly, clickable.   Block: Expectations vs. Reality.  This week’s top stories about Writer.   The Next Big Thing in Turtles—my strong favorite.  Even though my experience with turtles as an adult has been limited to the occasional encounter in a park or zoo, I’d still want to know what the next big thing in them might be.

As a kid, for a while we had two tiny turtles as pets.   They were almost certainly red-eared sliders, which breed was banned as a pet in the US in 1975 because they were a common source of salmonella  poisoning.  My family dodged that particular bullet.  The turtles lived in a what the pet store sold as an appropriate habitat (unacceptable nowadays): a small plastic tank that could be filled with a few inches of water, as well as a basking ramp rising out of the water and leading to a ledge  with a screw-in plastic palm tree.

Capitalizemytitle.com’s Random Topic Generator and Conversation Starter includes ice-breaking questions, fun to answer (“What do you do after you get done with work?”) and useful as writing prompts.   If I’d tried this site yesterday today’s blog would be different, but the turtles have grabbed me.  Inputting “Turtles” into the blog title generator provides some interesting, if not particularly pertinent, titles.  Number one is  10 Celebrities Who Should Consider a Career in Turtles.  Number two: What Freud Can Teach Us About Turtles, an article that I’d read in a heartbeat.

Our turtles were named Batman and Robin.  My three-year-old brother came up with the names.  Definitely the monikers were not my parents’ choice.  My father tolerated pets but interacted with them very little.    During his between-marriages years, he had no pets; his second wife brought along a dog, Honey, but the dog was very much hers.   My mother named our miniature French poodle Leonidas Menelaus and our parakeet Plutarch.  Freud might have made something out of that…

Essaytopicgenerator.com lets me enter several words, then generates a lengthy list of titles, only the first of which relates to turtles: Ecological effect of ecosystem on sea turtles. It’s not really an intriguing title, is it?   I refresh the list; the top entry now is  Discussion 8: training and staff development.     An ad in the middle of the page promotes custom essays for $12.93/page and suggests that I’ve stumbled onto a term paper factory.   Move on.

Batman and Robin were the first of the animals in our house that my mother let us take care of ourselves.  Like many kids, we were sure we would take care of them every day.  Mom managed Leo, Plutarch, and the cat, Wimpy (named before he came to live with us).  She showed us how to scatter the flakes of turtle food into the water and how to clean our shelled crusaders’ tank.  Tank cleaning was done in the bathroom.   Batman and Robin would scrabbled around the bottom of the bathtub, the claws on their stumpy legs unable to get much of a purchase on the porcelain, while I scrubbed the muck off their home.

Randomlists.com looks promising in terms of writing prompts, ice breakers, but I can’t find a title generator or a place to enter turtles as a search term.  The lists, though, are great.  Eight nouns.  My first pass yields  “typewriters, shoes, dogs, justice, pottery, dentistry, cycling, volcanoes.”

You could get a plastic island with a volcano at the pet store to decorate your turtle tank.  I wanted one, but it cost more than my mother was willing to pay, especially since there were more animals in the house these days.   My sister had discovered rodents, and our room had a cage in one corner with smelly bedding, her first pair of white mice, an exercise wheel, and a mouse house.   I eventually talked Mom into a second palm tree and a pirate treasure chest for the turtles.

Portent.com has a title generator.  I like it immediately because the font looks as though it were typed on a manual typewriter with slightly misaligned keys.  The first title suggested is a listicle—10 Ways Turtles are Cooler than Michael Jordan—moderately click-worthy, as well as annotated with useful writing reminders.   A second title: Why Mom was Right About Turtles.

My mother reminded us regularly that animals were a big commitment.    I was nine and probably not ready.  One day I took Batman and Robin to the bathroom to clean their tank.  I slipped on the rug, the tank angled, and both turtles fell into the open toilet.  At first this seemed a lucky accident; they were both strong swimmers.   I put the tank on the floor and pushed up my sleeves, then stared, horrified, as Batman dove straight for the drain and disappeared into it, followed in a flash by Robin.  I stuck put my hand and arm as far down the drain as it would fit (not very far) (feeling no turtles) and yelled for help.   My father came in, listened as I gasped out the story, and flushed the toilet.

I cried in my mouse-scented bedroom.  My father tried to comfort me by speculating that Batman and Robin possibly could have traveled the sewer system to freedom.   (It turns out that theoretically, turtles can survive a sewer, sometimes.)   Maybe anything seemed better to the turtles—animals that I know now could live into their 50s or even longer—than a 12-inch-diameter world featuring two plastic palm trees and a pirate chest.   I hope they made it, that they’re somewhere in the wilds of Fairfax County,  grown to 10 times their size.

 

Wheel! Of! Inspiration!

Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, Urania.

Urania, Thalia, Terpsichore, Polyhymnia, Melpomene, Euterpe, Erato, Clio, Calliope.

Pick a muse, said the writing advice book.  For the fun of it and to add a little zest to your writing practice.

There are nine muses, all daughters of Zeus, the head god in the Greek Pantheon, and Mnemosyne,  goddess of memory.   The muses help inspire creativity for artists, writers, musicians, scientists, etc.  It’s fun to imagine them as a benevolent presence, ready to improve boring concepts.  (Of note: although I’m talking about nine muses here, there are several sets of muses, with varying numbers,  names, and back stories.  Also, the muses could punish as well as reward; I prefer to keep the ones in my imagination friendly.)

One by one, considered I them:

Calliope:  epic poetry.   I love her name, which is also the moniker of one of my favorite outlandish instruments, a steam-driven keyboard.   But the scope and scale of epics is beyond my ambition.  

Clio: history.   I love reading history and historical fiction.  I haven’t written any, though.  I did just have to set my novel-in-progress back a year to the summer of 2019–which feels like another millennium, at this point.  Somehow I doubt this would count.  

Erato: love poetry.   I’d enjoy being good at this.  Although I am not writing a romance novel, occasional scorched pages would be wonderful.  

Euterpe: music, lyric poetry.  Also flute playing.  I play flute!  Plus I like to write poetry.  But can Euterpe help when I’m stuck on plot points?  

Melpomene: tragedy.  Love to read it, hate to live through it, don’t want to write it.    

Polyhymnia: hymns/sacred music.  I have a church music job, but not sure how this would mesh with my ambition to write the occasional red-hot love scene.   

Terpsichore: dance.  I have two left feet, so probably not.  

Thalia: comedy.  Who doesn’t want to be able to make people laugh?  Comedy’s one of my favorite things.   Not sure I want to do it all the time, though.      

Urania: astronomy.  She’s probably better off attending to people with more scientific brains than mine.  I do love to look at the stars, though. 

How to choose?  I wish there was some kind of game-show or roulette wheel I could spin, with flashing lights and a segment per muse, maybe even a “spin again” or “lose a turn” option.   Then all I’d have to do was get the wheel started and wait.

The internet has thought of everything, as always, and when I googled I found quizzes that promised to tell me which muse was my ideal match.   Some of the quizzes wanted to know what brand of tennis equipment or makeup I preferred–an issue that seems to have been left out of the historical data about the muses’ inclinations–but all of them seemed confident they’d matched me well.

Here are my results: Euterpe, Euterpe, Clio, Euterpe, Urania, Euterpe, Thalia, Euterpe.   Therefore, Euterpe seems the best match, but what if I am struck by the urge to write an epic tragicomedy set in sixteenth century London?

 In the end I chose not to choose.   But if a Muse wants to swipe right, I’ll be here.  Seat of the pants applied firmly to the seat of the chair, pencils and pens to hand, document open, staff paper ready.

Oasis

I love writing prompts.  This is a mildly controversial position in the writing world.  The contrarians argue that prompts bind creativity and turn us away from exploring the uncomfortable truths that may be causing writer’s block.   But once a project gets past the first verdant rush of preparation, once I’ve been trudging in the desert for a while, I need a break.  Things work better if I use that break to do prompts and exercises than if I  do nothing.  A prompt is the writerly equivalent to improvising over a chord progression during music practice.  Even if what comes out isn’t great or ground shaking, it keeps the process familiar and reduces the fear factor.

Prompts are easy to find online, and how-to writing books are typically loaded with them.    On a bad day, when I’ve chosen a prompt that doesn’t work for me, I rant about the exercise and throw down my pen.  On a better day, the prompt makes a connection or suggests a plot point.  On the best day, I’ve found the oasis, and the project is green again.

Here’s the prompt that gave me the most fun this week, from Creative Writing Exercises for Dummies by Maggie Hamand:  Write a short dialog that starts with…

What are you doing?

I’m ruminating.

 Does it hurt?  

Of course it doesn’t hurt.  I’m just chewing over my problems.

It looks like it hurts.  You’re hunched over.

You’d be hunched over, too, if your boss was off haggling and didn’t take the big load off your back.  I’m conserving my energy.   

And you’re breathing kind of funny.

I always breathe funny when someone interrupts my lunch.   

Maybe I could have a little, tiny nibble?  We could ruminate together.

Are you blind?  Can’t you see that I’m tied to this post, and there’s no room? Find your own post!  

You don’t have to be rude about it.

…  Does the wood always get stuck in your teeth like that?

It’s called texture, Dear.  An essential component of the gourmet post experience.    

It does look very tasty.

Look: I will spit in your eye if you don’t back off!  

Sorry, Darling.  I guess I’ll just pick at this straw, then.  All the way over here.  It’s a pity how straw goes straight to my hips.  Not enough fiber, apparently.  I read somewhere that posts are now considered a super food…

Not your diet again.  Eight gallons of water a day.   Apples only in moderation.  Straw wouldn’t be a problem for you if you didn’t graze so much.  

I’ve seen you snacking on straw plenty of times.

I’m not worried about my hips.  I’m quite happy with them, in fact.  

Shall I leave you a bit of the straw for after you’ve finished ruminating?  I’m not as hungry as I thought.

If you want to.  Sorry I was cross, Dear.  

I’ll just drop a bit…right…here, so you can bite at it easily…

No, not there!  (loud cracking sound)

Now you’ve done it!  You’ve broken my back!  

Darling, I am so terribly sorry.

Bit more room at the post, though.  I’ll just try the smallest sliver.

———————————————————————————————————————

Question for the reader: If you tried some writing prompts this week, did you have a favorite?

Pandemic Diaries: Life in the Lemonade Factory

Making dinner on the first day of spring with my husband and son: a comfort food extravaganza of ribs in barbecue sauce plus stuffing.   It’s cold and rainy outside, but at least it’s still light after five p.m. now.   CNN on the TV in the adjacent family room, so that we can catch up on the latest grim statistics before my husband turns to his sports-yelling shows.  Suddenly there’s a thump and rattle from outside.  We rush to a window: the turkeys are back.  A flock, more than 20 birds, moving slowly through our yard.

The males bob their heads with every leisurely step, their wattles wobbling.   The females–a little smaller, less bouncy–take slightly faster, daintier steps.  The flock moves down our driveway, heading in no particular hurry for our green spaces, including the wooden-fenced front yard where our dog used to play.   Fences are no obstacle to a turkey, as these birds can fly and jump just fine.   I was dumbfounded the first time I saw a  line of turkeys navigating our fence.  They flutter-jumped up to the top rail, balanced briefly, then plummeted to the other side, letting gravity rather than wings do that work.  There was something penguin-like about it.

Sonny’s car is in the driveway, and for a moment we wonder if the thump was a turkey slamming into it.   Mating season is spring, maybe some turkeys were fighting?  The window by  the kitchen sink shows the real reason: there are two turkeys in our cherry tree.  The cherry tree is just outside the window, putting the turkeys at eye level with us.   I’ve seen more than a dozen robins in this tree on occasion–hungry robins can strip every cherry off the tree in a matter of minutes–plus lots of other birds, but turkeys are not robins.  The arrival of the turkeys functions as a stress test for the tree, and the branches are trembling and bowed close to the ground.  The turkeys don’t seem to notice, and snap cherry after cherry.

Plump and happy and out for a stroll.   They could be a PSA for social distancing, as they travel and forage spread out at least a wing’s-length apart.   For a minute we put aside the news, except that now Wolf Blitzer catches our attention with news that another border is being closed.

“How long do you think it’s going to be before we get a shelter in place order?” I wonder.  “How will they enforce it?”

The Border Patrol is here already,” says Sonny, pointing to the turkeys outside, and for some reason this cracks us up and we laugh and laugh.   

 

Writing prompt (for anyone who wants to play along):  what’s outside your window today?