Articles

On Reading, Time, & Creativity

It’s been a long, very busy couple of weeks, and things are just starting to get back to normal (though I hesitate to say that, because you know what happens next…). Hence the no blogging thing. I don’t really know how to describe it, and I haven’t really been in a “funk”, so to speak, just…treading water and trying to get my routines back to where they should be. Only every time I think it’s gonna happen, something else happens, and I get waylaid, and then my routines get all screwy and I don’t get anything done at all.

It’s annoying.

The other thing that’s annoying is picking up a box of books free from a former co-worker who was cleaning out her shelves, and staring at the box in my living room wondering when I’ll ever have time to read them all.

I used to be a voracious reader. A typical paperback would take me two, maybe three nights to finish…maybe four if it was incredibly thick. Now the same size books take me weeks to finish, and it’s generally because I short-change my very limited reading time with writing or just getting ready for bed (after staying up too late writing or whatever). Fifteen minutes a night is okay for short stories and such, but it really stretches a novel out to turn-around times bordering on the ridiculous.

Needless to say, I’ve been having trouble sitting down and writing, too. There are some writers out there who insist they just don’t have time to read, but I firmly believe that reading is important for writing – they go hand in hand. You have to fill the well, so to speak. Creativity in, creativity out. And I’ve definitely been neglecting my “well”.

What to do, what to do? The obvious answer is to read more. But when?

Well, I’m not sure. I have a few ideas, but need to see if they’ll work with existing routines, which is not always as easy as it sounds. But I have a feeling that if I get back to reading more, writing more will come naturally as well. Or I hope it will, anyways.

Books I have currently in progress are: a short story/poem collection by Neil Gaiman, and “About that Kiss” by Jill Shalvis.

What are you reading? And if you’re a writer, do you think how much (or little) you read affects how much or little you write?


Support your author:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords | iBooks

Go Vote, and Writing Related Decisions & Distractions

It’s Election Day! I’m off work, because federal election days are “holidays” around here (every two years), but I voted absentee several weeks ago. Hopefully if you haven’t voted yet, you’ll get it done today. Even if you think your voice is too small to count, do it anyways. It counts more than you know.

Whether to vote and how to vote are just two decisions you’ll make (or have made) in any given day. I was thinking about that the other day, and remembering something I read once (I’ve long since forgotten where) about how the decisions we have to make every single day are some of the biggest thieves of time in our lives.

This is particularly poignant for me at the moment because I’ve been trying (and failing miserably until very recently) to find a set time every weekday that I can use for writing. Not just any time either, but a chunk of time that I can actually “protect” as bonefide writing time without allowing anyone else to derail or interrupt me. Time that I can count on as not being beholden to any other person, pet or priority. It’s a difficult ask, because my days are very full and because I have other priorities for myself that tend to take up the spare time in my evenings. Things like working out to keep my body healthy longer, and sleeping a full six hours in an effort to keep my brain healthy longer. If I’d give up either of those things, it would be easy enough to grab more writing time, but I think they’re important enough to my long-term health that they need to take priority.

Most of my other time belongs to work, my dogs or my husband. That’s just…how things are, and how they need to be.

Back to decisions. When I was trying to find any little snippets of time in my day that I could co-opt back for writing, I found a lot of fragments, but they were scattered throughout my day/night, and none of them long enough to actually do anything with. So then I went looking for anything in my day that might yield some “flexible” minutes that I could capture, collect at the beginning or end of the day, and then use those for writing.

I realized that a lot of the places I “lose” the most time in my day are indeed the times I spend making decisions. What to wear to work, what to make for lunch, what to make for dinner, what project to work on next, what hobby to work on in the evening, what draft to work on that day, what workout to do after I walk the dogs, whether to have Murphy walk with Mica and I or take him for a ride and just walk Mica by himself, whether to watch a TV show or movie on Netflix or Amazon, and which one (you’ve all been there on that last one, right?).

There are so many times in a day where I’m spending 5, 10, 15 minutes making a decision that, if it were already made, I could get that task done and move on more quickly, and in some cases, plan ahead so that doing the actual task takes less time as well.

The only problem with being that organized is that most people recommend planning a week or month ahead on those types of decisions. When I’ve tried that in the past, it never lasts longer than a couple weeks (if that – a week is pushing it) before I go off the “plan” and do something different because I just didn’t like the decision I made three days ago for that particular meal, outfit or project. I think that’s fairly common, really – while some people can make and execute a monthly meal plan or whatever, I think it’s more likely that people will create that monthly plan and then start deviating from it after a couple of weeks just because that’s how life tends to work overall.

So, last week, I decided to try just making a daily plan. I figured that if I made a plan every night right before bed that only covered the very next day, that maybe I could make decisions that would be “close enough” for me to just stick to, even if they didn’t feel perfect at the time, and that would save me enough decision-making time during the day to gain some extra time every night just before I did my next plan to write.

Needless to say, Mon – Weds were total failures, because…Halloween. But Wednesday night before I went to bed, I made a plan for Thursday. It included my wardrobe, meals, and the projects I wanted to work on – including which draft I wanted to write in that night, and how many words. Thursday I followed the plan and was pleasantly surprised that by 11pm, I actually could sit down in the office and just write for 45 whole minutes. Friday, I had slightly less time, but still, plenty of time to reach my word count for the day.

I think the key to this for me is that I can’t try to think or plan any farther ahead than one day. Because that’s when it gets too big, and my mind doesn’t focus on the present, it focuses on the future. So the present gets “short-changed”. When I’m constantly looking with an eye to the future, my head isn’t in whatever I’m doing at present, so that particular task takes longer, too.

So, last Thursday and Friday, I did this. I made a plan for just one day ahead, and then stuck to the decisions I’d made the night before, no matter what. and I had time to write, but more importantly, I had head space to write. When doing creative things, you need to have a relatively uncluttered mind that isn’t constantly worried about what else it should be doing, which is another big problem for me. But by making all those decisions early, I freed up my mind, and I found sitting down to write much, much easier.

None of this will work for me on the weekends just because weekends have to be flexible by design. But I made sure to create my daily schedule for Monday on Sunday night, and wouldn’t you know it…Monday went well, I found one small “bonus” writing time chunk early, which helped me reach my word count, and still got everything else I needed to do, done.

I did one other thing last weekend to help myself out, and that was to take my old Samsung NC10 netbook that came standard with Windows XP (long since dead), and reformatted it to a Linux machine. I hooked it up to our wireless, but I didn’t put a copy of my password manager on it, and I have zero access to email or social media on that little computer. The only site bookmarked is Novelize, which is the program I’m currently using for writing. It does have Libre office on it, in case I need an offline word processor, but that’s about it.

The keyboard on that is tiny, but still better than my laptop keyboard, and not quite as good as the keyboard on my Alphasmart Neo. The Neo is a great little word processor and the keyboard is awesome, but the screen in mine seems to be going out, and it has trouble keeping up with my typing speed.

I rarely write for longer than an hour at a time before taking a break (often 30 – 45 min.), so the tiny keyboard won’t be a problem. That netbook is now my dedicated writing computer – I do nothing else on it, and last night, it worked great to ensure I had no distractions while writing, it’s not the speediest little machine, but it keeps up with my typing speed better than the Neo, and I can work directly in my writing program, which saves me download time each night. The screen is big enough for writing, but that’s about it (it’s a 10 or 11 in, I think…tiny).

As you might have guessed, distractions are my other major issue. If I sit down at my normal laptop to write, I’ll be getting notifications from email and Facebook, or checking “just one thing”, or I’ll remember a bill I should pay “super-quick” or something I need to order just then, or I’ll check my sales stats for “motivation” (that never works, incidentally)…

Yeah. While I like to think I have good willpower, I really don’t when faced with all that other “stuff” I could/should be doing. So having a dedicated writing machine of some sort makes perfect sense. And I can’t really afford the technological “upgrade” to the Neo that is the Astrohaus Freewrite just yet, so an old repurposed netbook will work just fine, at least for now.

So, I think after months of floundering around trying to figure out how to work myself back into a regular writing routine, I’ve finally got something workable. This does, of course, mean less time on social media (less distractions!), and I still need to work out time for the publishing aspects on the weekends, but publishing time doesn’t matter if there’s nothing to publish. The writing has to come first.

I tend to downplay the role that writing has in my life, and I need to stop doing that. It’s not just “a hobby”, even though I’d like it to be, it’s more something I need to do, whether I’m good or not, whether I sell books or not, it’s just something I need, like exercise and sleep. I’m sure that sounds hokey to some, but I need to care less about what others think, and more about what I need. And make sure I get to do what I need to do to be happy.

Do you know what makes you happy? Are you allowing yourself to pursue that, and finding ways, however small, to feed that part of your soul? If not, why not?


Resolution Check-In
Sleep 6 hrs: Doing better, recently. Forcing myself to make it a priority.
Goals check-up: Yep – moved a few things around, and switched up my priorities a bit.

Writer’s Notes

Stamps, Focus, & Accountability

I miss my stamp collection. Just thought I’d throw that out into the “void”, so to speak. I haven’t had time to work on it in the last few years, and I miss it. I miss getting random stamps “on approval” that I can look through and either send payment for, or send the stamps back. I miss going through my albums and organizing stamps and first day covers, and learning about the postal history for each.

This seems like a problem I should be able to fix, but I’ve said that before about other things I’d like to do more of, and I never seem to figure it out. I always feel like I should be able to rearrange my time so I can fit in more of the “fun stuff” I want to do, but it never seems to work out. Or I never seem to be able to work it out, rather.

It’s all about priorities, I know, even though I hate that reality more than I can tell you (and I hate it when other people spout it back at me even more). It’s also about scheduling, and between making my dogs and health and writing priorities, and having to keep my weekends flexible (because my husband is a spontaneous sort, rather than routine-driven like I am), I just can’t seem to get what time I do have organized for better flow.

And there’s also the little issue of my lack of multi-tasking abilities. I can’t watch TV and read a comic book (now that there are no commercials in the majority of what we watch). I can’t focus on looking at/cataloging stamps in that environment either. Heck, I can’t even follow a knit or crochet pattern while watching a commercial-less show, because I can’t focus on both the pattern and the show at the same time. With commercial breaks, I can switch focus for a few minutes here and there and not miss anything. Without them, I can focus either on the show, or whatever else I want to be doing. I can’t do both (and I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing – being able to focus on one thing and really take it in is good, IMO). If it’s a show or movie I’ve seen before, that’s one thing, but something new? No way.

Basically, I need either a show I’ve seen before (or sports, but we don’t watch much of that), or quiet time to indulge in any of these activities. Two things that are rather hard to come by on a day-to-day basis, sadly. And before you say “less TV”, I watch about two hours per night, sometimes less. Half hour while we’re eating, an hour when we both finally settle in after dog exercise & workouts, and half-hour for the news. Not like I can do anything while I’m eating, either.

It kind of sucks. But, as much as it may sound like it, I haven’t given up yet on figuring out how to make time for the things I love. One of these days, I’ll hit on the “magic formula” (or be old enough to retire – still a long ways off), and life will be good. Or richer, anyways.

Regardless, I will get the new Scooby Doo stamps soon. Because Scooby. Seriously!

Which reminds me – I have new issues of the Scooby Apocalypse comics waiting to be read at home.

Ooo…all this whining has given me an idea. Sometimes whining can be productive, if you focus on it hard enough. It’s early in the week, so if my idea works, I’ll report back next week. If not, we’ll just forget I ever had it. Deal?

On a somewhat unrelated note, for accountability’s sake, I’ll be posting my resolution progress (or lack thereof) at the bottom of each post here until the end of the year, and also a link to my writing-focused blog for anyone who cares to see how that’s going from week to week. It’s mostly for my own edification, to push myself to keep my goals forefront in my head, and to keep up with the writing blog too. Because posting in public is motivating. Even if the audience is small.

Now, back to catching up on my budget (or rather, starting over, because it’s a mess). Having money won’t do me any good if I can’t manage it well, right?

*Note to self: buy lotto ticket tonight. And one for my hubby, who is 54 yrs old as of today and would like to retire soon!

Resolution Check-In
Sleep 6 hrs: Missed it by at least 10 minutes every night last week. Dammit.
1 push-up per day: Missed one day, did at least one all other days. Highest daily count: 8.
Goals check-up: Completed Mon. night, adjusted some goals to fit current routines/desires.

Writer’s notes for this week


Like this post? Support your author!
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords | iBooks

On Personal Rituals

A week and a half ago, I broke my Matcha bowl. For those of you asking “your what-now?”, a Matcha bowl is a small bowl or cup used to make matcha, which is a powdered Japanese green tea. It’s got a gentle form of caffeine that makes you alert without giving you the jitters, and like most green teas, it’s got all sorts of good-for-you compounds in it.

Matcha is what I start my weekdays with, without fail. And while you can certainly make it in a regular mug, it’s never going to come out as well as preparing it more traditionally in a bowl with a bamboo whisk, IMO (and yes, I have tried).

So, when I dropped my first and only matcha bowl after my shower that Thursday morning, I was pretty horrified. Matcha bowls – good ones, aren’t sold just anywhere, and normally I’d have to order one online. Luckily, I’d seen several at the local bookstore just down the block from where I work the week before, and I had enough money to splurge on a locally made one instead of going with something cheap and mass-produced. Whew!

That afternoon, I walked to the bookstore on my break, got a cup of tea and spent a good 10 minutes choosing which matcha bowl I wanted, and headed back to the office with a sense of relief that my morning matcha ritual would still happen the next day.

I’ve run out of matcha before, and it’s not pretty. So it goes for a few other “rituals” in my life – not normal routines, though messing with one of those throws me off pretty heavily too, but there are certain things I do either daily or weekly or whatever, that when I don’t get to do them, my whole world feels so off-kilter that I have trouble functioning until I can “reset” and partake in whatever ritual it is again.

The difference between routines and rituals for me is…a routine is something I can do without much thought. It needs to be done, and I do it at a set time on a set schedule so I know that it gets done, and I don’t give it much thought aside from “it’s time to do [whatever]”. The only tools that really matter for a routine are whichever tools will allow me to complete the task as quickly and efficiently as possible so I can move on to the next thing.

A ritual is something I pay attention to. Something that gets my full attention and focus, even if just for a few moments. Something comforting and restful that centers my mind. And something where the tools are just as important as the motions.

Making the tea that my husband and I each take to work every morning and afternoon is a routine. I use travel bottles with tea strainer inserts and a loud timer because I’m always multi-tasking while it’s steeping. I fill the baskets with our favorite daily black teas, do other things while waiting for the water to get hot, fill his first because he likes more bitter brews than I do, do one more thing, go back and fill mine, and when the timer goes off, take the baskets out and let them sit to cool for just a minute while I do one more thing and then come back screw the bottle bottoms back on and put them in my work bag to keep warm while we’re getting ready for work. Pure routine, I could do it in my sleep.

With my matcha though, I put the water on to heat, get my bowl and set it on the counter. I notice the texture on the outside, the smooth glaze on the interior. I get the matcha power from the fridge and sift through it with my little bamboo scoop, noting the texture of that and breaking up any lumps in the tea powder before putting two small scoops of tea in the bowl and tapping the scoop on the side. I put the powder back in the fridge and get my bamboo whisk, feeling how light and small it is in my hand, and then I pour a little warm water in to make a smooth paste with the powder before pouring enough water to make the brew (maybe 1/4 of the bowl full…depends on the bowl and how thick/thin I want it).

I whisk it briskly, watching the water take on that beautiful emerald green hue and those creamy bubbles form on the top, feeling the texture and how much resisting energy there is. I tap my whisk on the bowl a couple times, rinse it under water and put it back on its ceramic stand to dry.

Then I hold the bowl up to my nose and breathe in deep, letting the fresh, grassy scent start to wake me up. I take a small sip to test, close my eyes and enjoy the flavor and the texture on my tongue, and set the bowl on the counter to wait, carrying it with me to sip on as I go through the rest of my morning routine.

The ritual part of that routine takes an incredibly small amount of time – only a couple of minutes before I’m forced to refocus on the routines that get me out the door (mostly) on time. But that few minutes makes all the difference in the world as to how my day starts and continues. It’s a quick but satisfying reset in the middle of my normal morning bustle. I perform this particular ritual every single weekday without fail – even Tuesdays when I’m in a bigger hurry than normal.

And that’s why breaking my one matcha bowl was such a huge deal to me – the incredibly rare times when I’ve run out of matcha powder have consisted of poor substitutes and serious angst on my part simply because I can’t recreate the actual “ritual” with anything else. Can I survive without it? Sure – absolutely. In time, I’d learn to live without it if I had to. Do I want to? Not if there’s any way on earth I can hang onto it.

As I mentioned earlier, I have lots of routines (I am 100 percent routine-driven), but very few actual rituals, and that’s because it’s very difficult for me to make time for such things. I have that little bit of time in the morning, and a tiny slice of time late at night…and sometimes, I don’t even get that depending on what the other “lifeforms” in my house are doing/needing/whatever. If I can’t keep a very rigid schedule, then I generally give up on elevating something from routine to ritual, because it’s frustrating and generally futile. In order to “care” and focus, I need the time and mental space to do so. Mental space and quiet are often harder to come by than time, just due to interruptions, unfortunately.

I think we as constantly busy people don’t make enough time for personal rituals. We’re forced by tradition or family or social mores to make time for social ritual, but taking/making time for personal ritual is too often seen as “selfish” or “introverted” (like that’s a bad thing…which it’s not), or a snub to others around us. Or it’s just not taken seriously, and we’re interrupted constantly, which keeps us from that deep focus and tactile/sensual attention (“mindfulness”, if you want to use a buzzword) that a ritual really requires.

Do you practice a particular ritual regularly? Something where the tools and environment matter, and it’s not just a rote routine? Do you find it difficult to maintain, or are you better at protecting yours than I am at protecting mine?


Like this post? Support your author!
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords | iBooks

On Clocks, Time, & Planning…

The pocket watch I carry when not wearing a wristwatch.

The pocket watch I carry when not wearing a wristwatch.

I love clocks. Specifically, analog timepieces like watches, wall clocks and desk clocks. Even better if it makes that steady ticking sound as the second hand moves around the face. Odd, for someone who prefers silence for any kind of cerebral activity (writing, coding, etc), but there’s something soothing and stabilizing about that steady tick-tick-tick that keeps it from irritating me like most other sounds in that situation.

I can’t really say what exactly it is about clocks I love, but it started when I got my very first watch – I think it was a

My normal wristwatch.

My normal wristwatch.

birthday present one year from my parents. I was pretty young, and the whole purpose of the gift was to teach me how to tell time – which I learned quickly. It had a simple white-plastic face with red hour and minute hands and a blue second hand, and a red, white and blue striped band. As usual, I did things my own way, and while pretty much everyone I’ve ever met wears their watch on the opposite wrist from the hand they write with, it always made more sense to me to wear mine on the same wrist (I’m right-handed, and wear my watch on my right wrist), because I was already looking at that hand while writing, and that way I’d just have to turn my wrist a tiny bit to see the time while still watching what I was writing, rather than move my whole head/eyes and take my focus completely from the task at hand.

Even when I was young, the desire for maximum efficiency was strong with me.

I’ve always appreciated time itself as an organizational construct as well, though I happened to marry someone who has very little respect for time (and thus, I end up late to…wherever…far more often than I’d like). For someone who embraces routine and daily structure as I do, time is my friend, and gives me a concrete framework from which to build my personal, daily schedule. And my daily schedule is the framework for achieving my goals, both long-term and short-term, so it’s vitally important, in that respect. If my daily schedule falls apart, my long-term goals won’t get met. Funny how everything works together so tightly…

A very Smurfy wall-sized wristwatch.

A very Smurfy wall-sized wristwatch.

I know you all know why I’m thinking about this for this particular week, right? It’s time to take a look back at last year’s goals, and make new plans for 2015. I know a lot of people scoff at resolutions, but I love them. And I generally try to make them in such a way that I can put a daily, weekly or monthly plan in place that will allow me to reach those goals, as long as I follow the plan.

So…to that end, this Wednesday I’ll post my annual “Year in Review” for 2014, and then on New Year’s Day, my goals for 2015.

Friday, of course, will be the serial installment of Under His Wing. And if I get hoppin’ this week, hopefully the final installment. We’ll see.

Pop in and join me this Weds/Thurs if you have time (*ahem*). It’ll be fun! Or I’ll try to make it interesting, in any case…

 

SmurfAlarm1