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?   

A train of one’s own

In 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer who’s probably best known for Treasure Island, published the poem “From a Railway Carriage.”  In addition to rhythms that mimic train motion—“Faster than fairies, faster than witches,/Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches”—Stevenson flings image after image at breakneck speed.  A child, a tramp, a runaway cart, a mill, a river, “Each a glimpse and gone forever!”  It’s quite possible that Stevenson, a frail man but one who loved travel, was on a train while he wrote it.   

It’s delightful to write on a train.  Amtrak or scenic railway or subway, the pluses are similar.  The sense of motion, the engine noise, the coffee-shop feel of being around people without the pressure to interact.  Because while a certain kind of person feels free to ask “What are you reading there?” nobody ever wants an answer to “What are you writing there?”  Sometimes on fancy commuter rail there are even little tables for your laptop, plus outlets for your power cords, and cup-holders.   

 I’ve gotten a lot of work done while riding on trains, although I pale in comparison to someone like Scott Turow, who wrote most of his best-selling debut novel, Presumed Innocent, on the commuter rail.  I started on the Chicago El, drafting my 50 to 200 word assignments for a banking association while I was traveling downtown.   The city was slowly upgrading its subway system, but there were still some cars from the 1940s, and these were absolutely the best for writing.   The seats were arranged in parallel rows.  They had vinyl cushions—some of them with so many rips that they were all fluff and duct tape.  The seats groaned when I shifted my weight.  The cars had windows that could actually be opened.   My stop in Rogers Park was near the terminus at the north end of the city, so I’d grab a window seat and settle in with my notepad.    It took the train about 40 minutes to get to the Loop downtown.   Forty minutes was long enough to get into a writing groove, but not long enough enough to feel oppressive.  Besides, the environment provided lots of opportunities to take a breather or spark a story idea.  We trundled past office windows, back porches with flowerpots and clotheslines, graffiti’d rooftops, elegant hotels, fleabag hotels, skyscrapers, and always in the distance the great lake.  When the train went underground there was a wonderful rushing feeling and a change in the sound, and a short moment when we plunged into black and then blinked as the interior lights activated.  The other riders kept me thinking and wondering as well.   The shell-gamers and Moonies trawling for suckers, the girls dressed as Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, sun-hardened street people, Bears fans, Cubs fans, frottagists pressing, sweat dripping down the backs of necks…  

When I moved to Boston I switched from the El to the T, but the train-writing worked the same.   I rarely ride the subway anymore, but sometimes when I’m feeling dull, I buy a Charlie ticket on the Red Line, made a desk of my knees and backpack, and write until I’m out of juice, then get out at whatever stop is closest and explore.      

The pandemic put a stop to train-writing for a while.   I feel that itch for a change, so bored with moving from my study to the dining room to the sun room.   I have two windows open on this computer.  One is Scrivener, where I’m writing the draft for this blog, and the other is a Youtube video:  Driver’s Eye View of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, which follows the Arkansas River for an hour and a half.     I’ve maneuvered things so that it looks a bit as it would if I was sitting by a window.  There’s engine noise, and the images passing by create a tiny sense of motion.   I saw a flash of color a bit ago—some people were paddling bright-blue rafts—and then I wrote a bit, and now I see the river’s all frothy.  I remember a day I spent at age 16, white-water rafting on the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania with a church group with a couple of pro guides on each raft.   Knees clenched onto the seat, water spraying everywhere, and how loud the rapids were, six foot drops scarier than a 60-foot roller coaster.  Somebody on the boat behind us fell out and broke his leg.   I think there might be a story nugget there..

It’s nice to figure out that with a little help from the internet, I can make my own train.    

May need knife and fork

Write what you know. 

As a teenager, I discovered this maxim and realized also that I knew… not much.   I believed, though, that a) one could know everything, and b) a set of books fancy enough to use the “encyclopaedia” spelling must contain all the knowledge any writer could need.  Enter our set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, big, heavy books bound in brown and gold.  My parents had made a big investment in this set, financially and in shelf space.  The 28 volumes took up a couple of yards’ worth of the bricks and boards that lined my father’s study.  Alternating the short articles of the Micropaedia with the in-depth technical articles of the Macropaedia, I persisted through the letter A, but B proved beyond me.  I suspended the reading project and the idea of serious writing for years.   

Despite what should be a cautionary tale, I still seek out writing advice.  I can get derailed, though, by my tendency to mix up the literal and figurative…    

“Be voracious about collecting new words…”  — Jess Zafarris

I woke up empty-bellied, my word-hoard depleted.   I felt ravenous.   My toes recoiled from the chilly floorboards.  I squinted against the morning light and fumbled for my slippers.     

“Person, woman, man, camera, TV.”  —Voldemort

Window, chair, lamp, bedspread, cat.   Plain food couldn’t provide the sustenance I needed.   Wall, doorway, staircase, kitchen, carpet.   My heart pounded as I searched.  Then I saw it, slumped into the armchair.  Five faded syllables.  A trembling crossbar, collapsed counters and broken serifs, ascenders fallen.  The tittle was missing altogether.     

“It is in your hands.”  Toni Morrison

I touched the thing with my pointer finger, the barest tap.  It seemed as though it might crumble to dust at any moment.  I thought of Toni and dead words  “content to admire [their] own paralysis.”   A serif twitched.  I let the thing lie while I looked for the tittle, which had taken quite a bounce, rolling almost to the radiator.   I chirped to it in its whistling, hoppy tongue, and at last it rolled onto my palm.    

Its color had improved while I was away.  At last I got it spread out over the top of the chair.  I had to press just a bit to set the tittle atop its stem;  it gave a brief squawk as it settled in.      “You’re a fine, fine word,” I reassured the antimacassar.  “Protecting generations of upholstery from gentlemen’s locks lacquered with the “incomparable oil, Macassar,” as the poet Byron put it.    Representative of dusty Victorian propriety as well as the close-up messiness of beauty.”  

“Words, words, words!” — Eliza Doolittle

I stroked its capline gently, and the word plumped and purred.    I wasn’t as confident as my tone, still confused about whether it was antique or antiquated.   Eventually my efforts were rewarded with a susurrus of snores.    “Be right back,” I said, moving softly in the direction of the kitchen.   

Penciled in

My favorite pencil sits beside the keyboard as I type.  The design’s vaguely Art Deco: black paint with swirly gray squiggles that look vaguely like treble clefs dancing.  The eraser (a good one, not one of those that leaves smudges) is gray; the ferrule is silver.  Embossed in gold on the body, in sturdy capitals, is advice from the Muse:  “Write that shit down.”  I do like a salty muse.  The lead makes nice, dark letters and the point never breaks off.   I sharpen it in using old-fashioned blade sharpener with the same mechanism of the ones I lost annually on the second or third day of school.  This is a fancier one, shaped like an upright piano, surprisingly heavy, with the sharpener in its base.  There’s no reservoir for the wood shavings, which means they scatter like loose tea, but it’s an enjoyable mess.   It produces the kind of point I prefer: enough edge to glide along the page, enough dull so that I don’t  stab through the paper when I speed up or press harder.     

Mostly I use the pencil for marking up music scores (“Always bring a pencil to your lessons!” an echo from every music teacher ever).   My earliest stories were in pencil, but I switched to pen around fifth grade.   My son and husband are also pencil aficionadoes.  Sonny uses pencil for his stories; Dave for work notes and crossword puzzles.    Our house may have more pencil cups than average.   Fine by me: the sight of a mug packed with sharp-tipped pencils makes me want to write.       

 I’m grateful for the brilliant Nicolas-Jacques Conte.  In the age of Napoleon, when embargoes prevented the French from buying pencils from England and Germany, Conte was tasked with figuring out how to manufacture the implements locally.  People had been writing with graphite, the soft-solid that is used in pencil lead, for a few centuries at that point, but figuring out how to contain that material for this use had proved tricky.  

Conte—a dauntingly talented person who worked as an artist, a scientist, a teacher, and a French army officer—solved the pencil problem after experimenting for just a few days.  He developed a mix of graphite, clay, and water and figured out a way to press this mixture between two cylinders of wood.   He patented his invention in 1795.  You can still buy Conte brand pencils today.  

Another thing I like about pencils is that they can be erased.  I’ve tried erasable pens and correction fluid, but pencil erases the best and thereby lets you start again sooner.  Because it’s erase and start over, not erase and leave the page blank, amiright?  Brush off the pencil dust and lay down a new line, and eventually…  

   I bet Conte went through bunches of pencils in the process of developing his various inventions.  He was a practical and productive guy, the kind of person you go to when you need a quick, smart solution.  When he was posted with the French army in Egypt, he fixed lots of logistical problems— while also organizing hot air balloon expeditions in his spare time.   Some of the balloon trips went well, and others were near disaster.   That’s not how he lost his eye, though.  

He lost the eye in a lab explosion; that didn’t stop him.  Sadly, it was grief related to the death of his wife that blocked his desire to invent.  Conte followed her within a year, suffering a fatal aneurysm at the age of 50.   All those pencil cups.  Is it the cups or my family members who stock the cups (or leave the pencils all over the coffee table when the cup is right there, dammit) who spark the urge?   I don’t want to know.  For now, I’ll just write that shit down.      

Excuses, excuses

I wanted to write but I was afraid the basement would flood again.   Passing trucks splashed shiny angel wings of water onto our driveway.  Angry gray clouds made eight a.m. as dark as eight p.m.  I left my study with its rain-streaked windows and crept softly down the basement stairs in my stocking feet, as if I could catch the leaks by surprise.  The sump pump was gurgling merrily and the floor was dry.  For now.        

After a while the sun came out, almost painfully bright.   I wanted to write, but I was afraid the rain would come back soon and I’d miss the opportunity to take a walk.  A brisk 20 minutes would get me around the pond and back, and if I saw the swans it would clear my head.       

I wanted to write, but I was afraid I’d burn the fish.   A word becomes a sentence becomes a paragraph and you don’t always hear the timer.   The house filled with cooking smells.  Capone the cat wove figure eights around my ankles.  Even paying attention, somehow I missed the time to turn the fish by a minute or two.       

Dave and Sonny reassured me that their dinner was still tasty.  Smoke from the kitchen had drifted to my study.  I sat before the computer and wiggled my fingers to loosen them up, then coughed once.  Then twice more, and then I sneezed.  I wanted to write, but I was afraid I might be showing early Covid-19 symptoms.  I left to take a quick temperature and consider how I might handle my last month on earth.  

After a toasty but not feverish reading of 98.9 degrees F, I returned to my desk to find the wifi had gone out.  This happens at many odd times of the day.  I wanted to write, but I was afraid that I would misspell a big word, perspicacious or orrery or diverticulosis, and show myself a fool.   Eleven bookcases in the house; there would be a dictionary in at least one of them.  

As it turned out, our dictionary wasn’t to be found in any of the bookcases.  I eventually located it beside the Scrabble game in the family-room closet.  Capone found our travels fun and placed himself in prime tripping-over position just as I uttered a triumphant “Aha!”  The Monopoly game tumbled to the floor along with me, scattering hotels, houses, $500 bills, and metal playing pieces.   It hurts to step on the Scottie dog.   I limped back to my study and put the dictionary next to my computer.  The lights flashed off, and a long second later they came on again.  The microwave went “beep,” a cry that its clock needed resetting.  I wanted to write, but I was afraid that we’d lose power before I saved my work.  I found a blank notebook.  

Dave and Sonny were hanging out in the living room, watching MST3K.  Seeking the closest my house offers to a coffee shop ambience—good for pen and paper composition—I sat down nearby and was immediately distracted by the adventures of Springee, a malevolent animated goblin who punished any 1950s human who dared complain about springs.  Springee would relent only if the apostate apologized and swore to spread the good word about springs to everyone around him, forever and ever amen.  I wanted to write, but I was afraid to lose the plot.       

Even with Springee placated, the living room vibe didn’t settle for me, so I retired upstairs.  I pulled the bedcovers over my knees, propped my back against the pillows, and uncapped my favorite pen.  The notebook pages looked like monsters’ teeth and felt weirdly smooth, as if a giant tongue had just run over them.  I wanted to write, but I was afraid that the pen would slide off the paper and spatter ink all over the bedspread.    

I turned off the light, hoping to dream of something, anything, to write about tomorrow.

The bullet ballet

After absorbing a ton of tutorials and testimonials, I’ve joined the bujo people.   Bujo stands for bullet journal, and many Bujoistas say starting one has been life-enhancing.  Frankly, the deciding factor for me was the opportunity to shop, though I am hoping that my life will be enhanced as well.    

For the past 10 months, I’ve kept to the resolution to “shop” only my closetful of blank or mostly blank notebooks.  I’ve gone through eleven, filling them with events of my day, daydreams, nightmares, class notes, stickers, washi tape, to-do lists, drawings of stick people, first drafts, and brainstorms.  Sure, sometimes I’d head for the stationary aisle of Barnes & Noble, or Target, or Michael’s, gaze at the cover art, run my fingertips down a wire coil, maybe fan the pages for a little huff of fresh paper.  As you do.   But I’d always walk out of the store emptyhanded.  

Finishing my stash of empty journals will probably stretch another couple of years even at my current rate.   But all of the notebooks in my backlog feature lined paper, while a bullet journal…well, it’s complicated.   

Author Ryder Carroll, who literally wrote the book on bujos (The Bullet Journal Method), says the system’s only requirements are a notebook, any kind of notebook, and a pen.  The many tutorials I absorbed agreed enthusiastically—then showcased bujos on thick dot-grid paper, several classes of pens, plus numerous markers, paints, rulers, washi tape, and stickers.    

I had everything but the dot-grid notebook.  Finally, a rationale to buy something from the stationery aisle!   I set aside a morning in mid December for the trip to Barnes & Noble.   

In the meantime, I did research.  To simplify massively, bullet journaling is a method of getting thoughts from your head, where they can disrupt concentration, increase stress, or go AWOL at inconvenient moments, to paper.    The journal is organized by you so that you can keep up with short-term and longer term commitments and never lose a thought in the process.   Carroll also adds  graphic elements like dashes, crosses, squares, and circles to help keep a bird’s eye view of his productivity.   Bujo enthusiasts range from check-and-list minimalists to those who embellish their journals like medieval monks with special lettering, collage, paintings, and elaborate graphs.  

For me, writing through eleven journals in ten months led to the realization that some things worked better grouped in a single place.  I wanted easier access to stuff like Covid-19 statistics, books read, task lists, complicated projects, writing pieces completed, cool words, and slant rhymes.  Many writers add daily word targets to their task lists and include things like manuscript submission trackers, also.   I decided to find a monster that could live on my desk all the way through 2021.  Specifically: an A4 (8.3” x 11.7,” about the size of filler paper) dot-grid journal with at least 100 bright white pages.    

Barnes and Noble had moved stuff around in order to store more Elf on a Shelf products, but there was still half a wall of shelving devoted to blank books.  Leuchtturms, Peter Paupers,  Moleskines, and more, bound in cloth, leather, cardboard.  The dominant color was basic black, you can’t go wrong there, but with many other hues and designs available as well.   Not a single A4 dot grid among them.     

 I huffed out of the bookstore and headed for Staples, where a somewhat smaller, more muted supply of notebooks is spread over a larger area.  No luck.    Coffee break—large black Dunkins.  More stores; my caffeine jitters made the lights hum louder and made the white paper look way too bright.  At last I found a 96-page dot-grid A4 with yellowy-cream paper and headed for home.  Close enough, and a fine foreshadowing of 2021, which seems to be shaping up so far as a year of compromise and dealing with flawed realities.   

I started the bujo on January 1.  So far it’s working okay.  For now I have my closet journal to make sure I get stuff (the little ideas, the emotional discharges, my stick people drawings) down, and my bujo to make sure that I get stuff done.     And the blister on my left heel to make sure that next time I go shopping, I wear sneakers.  

NaNoWriMo: The final entry

It timed its entrance perfectly. A peaceful early morning, a little before six. My husband Dave was folding laundry, making piles of towels, jeans, t-shirts, etc., on the bed. Capone the cat had settled onto the socks pile to wait for the blessed moment where someone would try to move him off of it. Sonny was asleep down the hall, enjoying a lie in on his first day off after nearly a week of four a.m. shifts at Target. I sat in my comfy chair beside the window–still dark outside- the windowsill just wide enough for my coffee mug, journal open on my lap. I uncapped the pen, wrote “November 29” at the top of the page, and stared off into space to look for the first word of the day.

A couple of inches from my face, a spider was almost halfway through its commute from ceiling to floor. Large, a soft, translucent brown, the legs in constant motion. The first word of the day was “AAAAAAAAAARRRGH!”

I’d have written it in my journal, except that I’d just thrown it in the spider’s direction and leapt to the other side of the room.

The scream left a breathless uncanny silence in its wake. Capone stood atop the sock pile, back arched and tail bristling. A couple of seconds later I heard Sonny’s bedroom door open, then close.

“Jesus Christ!” said Dave. I begged him to make sure that the spider hadn’t been diverted into my coffee. It hadn’t, nor had it scampered between my journal page. As of this writing, the spider’s location is unknown. Probably off somewhere plotting its revenge.

I recognize that spiders are generally good for the environment. They eat pests, and their webs are wonders of nature and all that. Yet I keep writing about mean things about them in this blog. I blame the spider bite when I was pregnant with Sonny that required hospitalization and IV antibiotics. And I find spiders aiming themselves at my morning coffee (this is the second time!) to be beyond the pale. Clearly this violates the three-foot distance rule and must be some move in an interspecies campaign. I wonder if the situation will escalate…

The three-foot thing, by the way, turns out to be a myth. It probably arises from misinterpretations of a throw-away line from an article by spider expert Norman Platnick, in which he estimated the common human-spider distance to be within “several” yards. I’d made the idea work for me by turning it backwards and thinking that three feet was the distance that spiders want to maintain from people. This has been a helpful courage-booster when I have to venture into the dark corners of the basement. So disheartening when reality appears, waggling its egg-bloated abdomen and extruding sticky thread from its spinneret.

At least no spiders have descended onto my computer keyboard. This past week I might have welcomed some more time to jump and scream. My National Novel Writing Month project was up and down. I started the week a couple of thousand words down and have made up most of the deficit at a pace of around 2K words per day, with a current total as of Sunday morning of 47,236! I worked out a couple of twisty plot problems, and when I couldn’t move the book forward I moved it sideways. Even in the low days when I wanted to abandon every character and the stuttering plot, I typed in my stupid, stupid words in their thousands. Meanwhile I consoled myself with counting down the days to November 30 and mistruths that may be as mythical as the three-foot rule. Winners never quit. You can’t finish if you don’t start. Perfection is the enemy.

Two other things kept me at my writing desk every morning at 7:30. The first was a determination to keep a promise to myself to give this month a good effort. The second was knowing that I would write this blog on November 29. To anyone who’s reading along and trying to win NaNoWriMo thing: Thanks! There may be many spiders between us, but I feel that we’re sharing the struggle.

The uncomfortable questions are ever present: do I really want to tell this story? Yes. Do I have the skills to tell it? Not sure. But as I’m dangling by a thread, six feet from the ceiling, I may as well try to make it to the floor.

First stories

From my father’s capacious basement—possibly it occupied one of the shelves east of the entrance to Narnia–comes another musty box, marked “Jean: misc.” The downsizing process has uncovered boxes packed in the ’70s and not touched since. Not a surprise: stuff builds up over time. If I’d been given this box in the ’80s or ’90s, it would be long gone. I anticipate a weird jumble, as all of the boxes that my father’s efforts have uncovered were clearly packed in the late stages of a move, when people have run out of patience and time and things are thrown in any old way.

Now I think that it might be genetic, my tendency to unpack until I find the toaster oven, the pillowcases, and the clock radio and then leave off with the intent of getting to the rest tomorrow (“tomorrow” = sometime within the next year). Who knows what weird things from 2005 I’ll be mailing off to Sonny one day…

Today’s package goes way, way back. It includes my baby book, with a padded fabric cover and pages for cards and pictures and all kinds of notes, intended to stretch over the first five years. Similarly to my experience with Sonny’s baby book, my mother makes entries with enthusiasm and energy for the first few months. Then things get spottier. The entries thin around three years in. (By that that point she had a second baby) Year four is entirely blank, but there’s a short summary at the five-year mark noting my voracious reading habits and love of drawing and writing stories.

The things I don’t remember! Reading, yes, but that I wrote stories at this age is news to me. I suppose most kids are story-making at that age–Sonny was, for sure. However, I don’t remember writing much until around age nine or ten, when I produced mostly “reports” about animals and insects.

Also in the box was a construction paper drawing of my family, folded into sort of a dust cover for 10 stories that I wrote when I was five and six. Packed away from light for decades, most of the lettering pencil on filler paper, the lines haven’t faded much. A few pages have crumbled corners. Each story is folded or stapled into its own little book. My first grade printing is way neater than I’d have expected. Included is an alphabet sheet for reference. Like the banner that used to hang above the chalkboard in my classroom, the capital letters stretch between two lines, alternating with their lower case versions, AaBbCc, etc., followed by a parade of numerals, 0 to 9.

The stories are modeled on picture books. They have titles, dedications (“To My Family”), page numbers, and illustrations that reveal my art skills haven’t progressed much over time. I love the journey into this little head and her preoccupations: trips to the zoo, bedroom decorations, trouble-making cats and monkeys and sad dolls.

Here’s one of them. The spelling is mostly corrected, though my idiosyncratic punctuation and capitalization are preserved.

Page 1: The Story of Grandma, Jean and Joy

Page 2: Chapter One: By a pleasant Brook with some fresh nice soft grass on its bank. You will find a path that lead’s you through a forest. Once three girls found this Path. The girls’ name’s were, Jean Joy and Grandma and they decided they would. So they did. [illustration: the three girls by the brook]

Page 3: Jean said “This Path looks “strange.” It’s not like the “others.” “Yes,” said Grandma. It’s crooked and the other’s were “straight.” [illustration: the girls look at the path]

Page 4: They did not know that this was an enchanted Rd. It led to a witch’s house. A witch that ate children like them. And– [illustration: witch]

Page 5: She Saw them. [no illustration]

Page 6: [blank]

Page 7: Chapter two: But she did no harm. By that time it was dinner time. And the place that they were there were lots of fruit trees. The fruit was good. [illustration: trees, girls eating fruit]

Page 8: The Road led to a house. They went into the house. The sign said That nobody lived there, but the room was furnished. [illustration: table with candles and plates]

Page 9: The Bedroom was furnished too. This is how it looked. [illustration: a picture, a window, a cradle]

Page 12: They walked away from that, but their faces were different. [Illustration: one girl’s features have turned upside down; another’s have turned into sideways blobs, and the third girl has an X across her whole face].

Page 10: Chapter three: A cat was causing the trouble. [illustration: cat]

Page 11: They told him to stop it. He did.

You may notice that page 12 comes before Page 10 and 11. My theory is that my mother may have exercised some editorial discretion and reordered the pages. (I prefer my original ending.)

Introduce characters and setting, show the equilibrium, destabilize it, add obstacles and opponents, achieve a new equilibrium where the characters have changed.

Storytelling, such a natural thing, but so easily forgotten.

NaNoWriMo 4: an educational week

Moving into the final full week of November, and I have not abandoned NaNoWriMo. Today’s my Sunday review. Last week, after a frustrating week #2, I made these adjustments: write at the dining table. Write in the morning. Drink tea while writing. I achieved the time and location. But when Dave would ask “Do you want another cup of coffee?” I kept answering yes. I’m extra twitchy, but as of Saturday I had cut my word deficit from a bit more than 4K to 2,006 words behind target. So…yay?

7:30’s turned out to be a decent time for me to write. Not much going on in my life at that point in the day beyond the breakfast dishes and the news that makes me angry and sad. Coronavirus triumphant, the loser of the 2020 election occupying his time with golf, complaints, and treasonous plots. Even on the worst days, the days when every word turns out to be crap destined to be deleted from the second draft, writing is better than news-crying.

When I was stuck (after I stopped swearing at the computer screen) I did research. This week’s discoveries included new-to-me information about

  1. Cuckoos. Beethoven, Mahler, and Saint-Saens, and other composers have written music where the cry of the cuckoo is given to the clarinet, so I’ve been imitating these birds on stage for years. One of the rabbit holes I went down this week involved cuckoos that practice brood parasitism, or laying their eggs in the nests of other birds (hosts). Which led to the term coevolution, which happens when two (or more) species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution. Thus, cuckoos, as they evolve ways to get better at sneaking their eggs into the host nest, are matched in an evolutionary arms race by the hosts’ defense tactics. The cuckoos lay more quickly, produce eggs that hatch earlier than the host species eggs, or eggs that look like the host species eggs. In response, the host species evolves new defenses to the cuckoos, such as getting better at recognizing cuckoo eggs, proactively driving cuckoos out of their territory, etc.
  2. Pretzel rides. As opposed to the fast scares of a roller coaster, a pretzel ride gives a slow scare. Pretty much anyone who’s visited a carnival or amusement park has been on one of these. You get in a car that moves along a twisting track through a dark building filled with spooky sounds and glowing scary sights. The inventors of the ride, which debuted in a New Jersey amusement park in the 1920s Leon Cassidy and Marvin Rempfer, reportedly decided on the name after one early rider said he felt “twisted like a pretzel” during the experience. Voila! the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company was born. By the time it went out of business, in the late 1970s, these contraptions had become known more commonly as dark rides or ghost trains, and that’s how people refer to them today.
  3. Queen bees. In the nature shows and books that I read as a kid–pretty much the last time I learned anything about bees–I absorbed the idea that queen bees (who have mated) and virgin queen bees (who have not yet mated) were each others’ mortal enemies, and that a new queen and the old queen would fight each other to the death, winner take hive. If one of them survived, she would have to leave the hive. Now I learn that there are often several virgin queens, and their greatest enemy is one another. It’s the virgin queens who fight each other to the death. A new mated queen doesn’t drive the old queen out. She doesn’t have to, as the old queen tends to weaken and die shortly after a new queen comes along. Also, queen bees and virgin bees communicate by “piping” (vibrating) in their cells at the pitch of G#. Also, to keep track of the queen, beehive keepers often dab her abdomen with a dot of paint, and this paint is frequently color-coded to the year that she was born.
  4. The Berkshires. I first encountered this scenic part of Massachusetts when I drove from Chicago to Boston. (I wanted to shake up my life by moving to a coast; I flipped a coin and drove east. It turned out great.) The Berkshires in August, when I first saw it, is a place of rolling hills, hiking trails, and arts festivals. Even with all the tourists, it feels laid back. However, in the 1770s the Berkshires was the site of civil unrest. A citizen uprising prevented judges from meeting in 1774, just a few months after the Boston Tea Party. The Berkshires were also the forbidding terrain through with Continental Army Colonel Henry Knox moved 59 cannons from New York to Boston in the winter of 1775-76. The cannons had been captured from Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point, and the journey entailed 300 miles in the miserable conditions familiar to anyone who has suffered through a New England winter. Facing frozen lakes, mountains, and swamps, Knox still managed to deliver the artillery to Boston by the end of January.
  5. My writing preferences. When it comes to pantser or planner, it’s been a scary time pantsing. I enjoy the moments when some interesting twist comes out of my back brain, something I’d never have included in an outline. When I blow yet another tire on a plot-hole, though, I regret that I haven’t planned things out more elaborately in October. Still, I like pantsing enough that I’m going to alternate writing and planning on my next project.

So that was my week, ghost trains, queen bees, and revolution, along with a moderate amount of catching up. On the bright side, if I can stick to 7:30 at the dining table it looks as though 50K might be possible I hope, dear readers, that things are going well with your NaNo projects/other creative work, and that you also learned some cool new stuff this week.

NaNoWriMo diaries–part trois

When, and how, do you eat your vegetables? (If you eat vegetables) If you love vegetables, substitute whatever element of any meal that you least prefer. I have the palate of a five-year-old, so vegetables are my least favorite. Do you mash everything together on your plate? Alternate bites between main and side dishes? Eat all of one item before moving on to the next dish? The last is what I do. I save my favorite for last. I’m a vegetables first person. (Or, if the meal involves a sandwich, crust first.)

This week in NaNoWriMo my vegetables have been all over the place. Vegetables first, in the middle, last, fork-sculpted into carrot houses surrounded by broccoli trees. I’ve been putting words daily into the novel project, but fiddling around with my work time, location, and accoutrements. Thirty-minute timers or writing until I felt like I had to stop. Coffee, tea, water, wine, cookies, sandwiches. Morning, afternoon, evening, three a.m. (which I don’t recommend). Dining room, study, bedroom, living room with the TV blaring and Dave and Sonny talking about their day.

As of Sunday morning, November 15, I’m a little over 21K words in. Today’s target is 25K. I’m not confident that I can add nearly 4K words over the course of the day, so I’m behind, but not impossibly so.

I write on my laptop, which means research is just a matter of popping to another tab. This week I read even more articles on famous authors’ writing routines. It turns out writers like talking about their habits. I was hoping for something more doable than Balzac’s 50 (or however many) cups of coffee, while also enjoying tales of habits like James Joyce, belly down on his bed, filling pages with blue pencil, Schiller and his writing desk stuffed with rotting apples, Scott Turow’s yellow legal pads on the commuter rail, and, of course, Victor Hugo locked, naked, into his bedroom. We’re having a warm November, but not warm enough for that…

It turns out that many writers work to a somewhat more pedestrian formula: write, every day, in the same location, with the same starting and finishing time. Start writing in the morning. Take a break for some exercise, most usually a walk or swim. Maybe write some more. Finish the day with something fun or social. Go to bed early enough to do it again the next day. Even when the words don’t come, stick to the schedule. Of course there are many writers who don’t work that way at all. There are night owls, writers who have full-time jobs and obligations who write in the little cracks that surround their jobs and obligations, and writers who get stuff done without a schedule.

My paid work is generally done in the afternoons and evenings, and my long habit has been to think of mornings as fun time, when I do some reading, work out, drink coffee and watch the news, scribble in my journal, etc. But as I want the daily novel-writing habit to extend past November, I need a plan that sticks. I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits a few weeks ago. One niblet of advice was to set up a habit in a way that works with your tendencies rather than against them. And this week’s tests showed that for me, writing is a vegetable. Not a main, not dessert. It needs to be tackled early in the day, when my energy level and tolerance for frustration are highest.

The experiments did find the sweet spot. (The hard thing is knowing when to stop fiddling around; I decided that 4K words down is that time.) Write in the morning, in the dining room, with a cup of tea. I have three windows for entertainment; two let in the glittering morning sun and, as the day progresses, I can peek at my neighbors and see what the kids and dog are up to. The other window faces onto the oaks in our back yard, so that I sometimes catch the moment when yet another russet leaf journeys to join its brothers on the ground. I have a spare face mask in case anybody rings the doorbell and am near enough the kitchen to brew tea and be reminded of the vegetables from time to time.

Will it be enough to make up the word count? We’ll know in 15 days.