Writer’s Log, September 1st: Unicorns on a Racetrack

It’s hard to be a parent in the 21st century without having to grapple with standardized assessments of your kids. There you are, puttering merrily along, enjoying and supporting your kid quirks and all, when out of nowhere a letter arrives in the mail reducing said kid to a series of rankings, percentiles, and scores. In five seconds flat, you’re projecting twenty years in the future, trembling with the kind of specific, long-reaching projections even biblical prophets wouldn’t dare to make.

It’s entirely possible that you’re harboring just a smidgen of PTSD over however you were also unwittingly pigeonholed at a young age. Thanks to a very literary household, I started reading when I was four, but I was placed in the lowest reading group in second grade because I was much more interested in staring out the window than answering questions about the cat on the mat. And it only went downhill from there.

Maybe, like me, you’ve found a silver lining when it comes to navigating these tests for your kids, learning how to advocate for what they are, rather than get tripped up by what they aren’t. But even if you have, I’d wager good money that you haven’t extended the same kind of protection and support to yourself. Yet how can we teach our children to stand up for themselves if we’re not doing the same for ourselves? How can we tell them to carve out a meaningful place in the world if we insist on keeping up with the laundry instead of staking out time to write, or answering every email within 24 hours instead of fiddling around on the piano, or seeking a promotion we’re not even sure we want instead of staring out the window?

When I was studying education in graduate school, I continued to feel like I was swimming upstream, struggling to find a toehold for a more fulsome concept of lifelong learning. With so much work to be done on the K-12 front, it’s understandable that many of my colleagues looked at me askance. But I still believe that the most beneficial learning environments are community based, that our children will only be willing to remain curious, open, and brave if the adults who are asking this of them are also working to remain curious, open, and brave. It can be so hard, though, particularly in a society that views education so narrowly.

Last year, my fifth grader was applying to an accelerated program for sixth grade, so we were navigating tests galore. When the admissions team emailed to ask what I made of his glacial processing speed relative to his other scores, I thought of my sweet, daydreaming, pokey son, and was immediately transported back to that window view that fascinated me when I was younger. “I suppose it’s a bit like putting a unicorn on a racetrack,” I wrote back. “Sure, he might run the race, but if you focus only on his speed, you’ll miss all the magic.”

Similarly, I often get unpublished clients or students bemoaning how little they’ve accomplished, or pawing at unyielding ground and twisting their tightly braided forelocks when asked if they think of themselves as writers. But what is a writer if not, simply, someone who writes with intention, care, and hope? Why must we continue to measure even artistic success by the stalest of parameters?

So I ask you: What can you do to release yourself from false constraints? How can you honor your truest self, no matter how she might be measured? How can you start your own, small rebellion from within?

Art: James Emmerson, Sunlight through Stained Glass

Writer’s Log, August 1st: Listening

Earlier this week, I unwittingly managed to make my normally even-keeled, happy-go-lucky teen daughter dissolve into a weepy, angry ball of misery. It was a really nice addition to the already crowded, shadowy side of my parenting hall of fame. I’d like to say it was because I needed to teach her a tough lesson, and that I was gritting my teeth and standing up to a significant parenting challenge despite the emotional shrapnel ricocheting around us. But that’s only what I thought I was doing. Toward the end of the conversation, I realized I just hadn’t been listening.

Sometimes, life teaches us so much more about our writing than the writing can. When we write, it can be so tempting to think only of what we have to say, to focus on what others make of our words, to mistake the output as more critical than the input. But how can we learn to say anything worthwhile if we’re only listening to ourselves?

This failure to listen to my daughter was particularly notable not just because she is so notoriously hard to rattle, but because the question of whether to listen or speak up was the actual subject of our argument. That’s right. I failed to listen during an argument that was, essentially, about listening.

Like many young women, my daughter has developed a very appealing outward persona. She has a tendency to lead with empathy and warmth, to be helpful before anyone even realizes help is needed, to soothe the lost sheep around her as she organizes them into tidy lines. But although she receives a thousand compliments for this behavior — or because she does — I’m terrified that she will fall into the same trap so many women have before her, believing that her worth lies in how agreeable her behavior is.

And my concern is amplified by the fact that the only complaint I ever hear from her teachers is that she doesn’t speak up enough in class, which makes me afraid that she is hiding her true opinions for fear of making waves. What’s more, I find her classroom silence particularly baffling because when she’s home, she loves nothing more than a good verbal sparring match with one of her brothers, frequently makes her ideas and directions known, and is even occasionally snappish, moody, and temperamental. I just love it. Because from where I stand, the spicier parts of her personality are those that will be most beneficial to her once she goes out into the world, the ones that will keep others from using her kindness to walk all over her.

Or so I thought.

It took me a reaallllly long time to hear this, but what she was trying to tell me was that she doesn’t speak up in class because it doesn’t benefit her. She learns by listening and observing, and trying to go against her nature to speak up just because someone else wants her to creates exactly the kind of external pressure to be someone she isn’t that I so want her to avoid.

And when I say it took me a really long time to hear this, I mean a good 45 minutes of back and forth that made her feel, by turns, misunderstood, miserable, and furious.

It’s hard to resist the appeal of strong defenses for both our children and ourselves. My entire life, I’ve also been told that I am too nice, or too gentle, or too soft spoken. I’ve worked very hard at being comfortable taking charge and speaking up, and I do both quite effectively. But the only time I ever need to draw on this learned behavior is when I’m on the verge of losing ground in a crowded room or a crowded profession. And when it comes to adequately expressing my power, intellect, or perspective, being disingenuously outspoken only works against me. In fact, when I’m at my very best, I’m doing what my daughter does, which is listening very carefully to the world. Not because I am afraid to speak up, but because I learn so much more when my head isn’t dominated by the sound of my own voice. This, incidentally, is also the place where my best and most genuine writing emerges.  

And at this moment of heightened sensitivity around the insidious effects of loud, privileged, narrow-minded voices who have a tendency to only get louder and more self-righteous when the chips are down, it might not be a bad time to revisit the power of listening. Listening to ourselves, to our children, to those voices we’ve never really heard before and those we don’t want to hear. Listening not because it protects us, but because it opens us up. Listening because, as writers, what we take in is impossible to separate from what emerges on the page, and because having the courage to soften, learn, and challenge our favorite viewpoints is the only way we can ever hope to grow.

Art: Erin Clark, Quiet Forest

Writer’s Log, July 1, 2020: Cultivating Ease

Consider this as a hypothetical situation: For the past three months, you’ve been holed up inside your house, trying to be on your best behavior while secretly nursing a seriously bad attitude and getting blindsided by tsunamis of anxiety. Maybe you were OK at first, and maybe around the second week or so you looked up and realized that every fantasy you’ve ever had about having enough time to write was actually coming true. But maybe, just maybe, instead of sitting down every morning with a cup of coffee and a quiet mind, you are now, instead, either (A) a Words with Friends ninja, (B) carrying around 15 new pounds of self-loathing, (C) thinking that you’d rather peel your own fingernails off, one by one, than return to your writing, or (D) all of the above.  

Congratulations! You’re on your way.

Every single time we make a new level of commitment to our writing, we run head on into our own hidden caches of misinformation around writers and the writing process, most of which we build up unwittingly as participants in a culture that knows diddlysquat about creativity, artistry, and authentic expression. And the longer you’ve waited to make the kind of commitment to writing you’ve been craving, the harder this collision will be – sort of like how thunder comes in after days upon days of unshifting heat. This isn’t because you aren’t talented, disciplined, or driven enough, and it breaks my heart into a million pieces every time I hear this from a writer. It’s because finding your way to an actual writing practice probably looks a lot different than almost every single impression you’ve been given of the writing life. It’s highly unlikely, in other words, that you’re going to find yourself able to sit down at the same time every day for a set number of hours and turn out a set number of words before you break for lunch. And even if you do, this rhythm, like most, will run its course. Again, this is not because you are a failure as a writer. It’s because you’ve failed to understand what it means to actually invite writing into your life.

I could make a laundry list of what I have found – after two decades of writing and teaching – to actually be the essential elements of writing, and I sort of have, in the form of this log. But today’s subject is ease, primarily because we all seem to be living in the midst of a storm of concrete emotional boulders from which there seems to be little protection. Indeed, cultivating ease might feel like the very last thing you can do right now, but so does drinking a glass of cool water when your throat is parched and inflamed.

Even in the best of times, many of us have a natural suspicion around ease. It is, after all, just one letter way from the word ‘easy’, which probably means that we’re one slip of the pen away from sloth and disaffection when we dare to court ease. And so many of us are so freakin’ exhausted from the onslaught of social, political, and emotional hailstones out there that we secretly fear that the minute we give ourselves some breathing room, we’ll wind up on the couch eating bonbons for three months.

Here’s where the real work begins. Instead of running from that thought, try to gently ask yourself what’s behind that impulse. If you spend three months on the couch eating bonbons, so what? Maybe that’s exactly what you needed to do. Maybe you needed that time to release a lifetime of bottling yourself into small, acceptable containers. Maybe becoming zaftig and glossy-haired with good eating is the best possible thing you could do for yourself. Or maybe you’re eating bonbons to anesthetize yourself, hoping that if you can cram enough chocolate and sugar and fat down your throat, you’ll be able to suppress the voice that wants to come out, the one that will express what you really think and feel. You know, the kinds of things you need to say to get anywhere near the writing you need to do to feel fully actualized. Maybe you’ll have to go waaaaayyy down deep into the realm of self-loathing in order to finally put a line in the sand and do something meaningful for yourself. But I promise you this. If you really want to write, there’s nothing like a few months of not writing to get you itching to return to the page.  

The point is, you need to start trusting your creativity before it will show up in any meaningful way for you. And at first, it will be like a 90-pound weakling trying to lift the 200-pound barbells you’ve hoped to bench press all your life. But creativity does not flourish if you bear down on it with all your weighty intentions. If, however, you listen very carefully to it, and appreciate, respect, and nurture what it has to offer you on a daily basis, it will show an astonishing amount of strength.

“But, but, but…” you say. What if it tells you it has nothing to say, and wants to go to the beach? Well, you go to the goddamn beach, if you can, and bring a notebook. Follow your nose for fifteen minutes. Jot down three sentences. Go back to following your nose, and make it thirty minutes this time. I promise you will have opened a line to your creative self far more quickly and efficiently than if you shoehorned all your efficiency and rigidly good intentions into a schedule designed to be both resistant to all Acts of God and waterproof.

The key is to remember that the writer’s job isn’t just about nurturing the writing; you’ve also got to nurture the writer. Before you start rolling your eyes, think about it. What happens when a pianist stops tuning a piano? Or when a writer leaves all her paints in the sun to shrivel up and die because they’re not covering 40% of the canvas, as per her excellent plans?

Instead, devote your vigilance to developing a keen awareness around the fact that you are the instrument of your writing, and you are an organic, changeable, unpredictable thing. So instead of insisting that you must write every day, insist instead that you must check in with your writing brain every day. At first, it will be a bit like checking in with a straightjacketed lunatic who can’t decide if she wants orange juice or the blood of virgins for breakfast, but that’s just because you’ve kept her locked up all these years just for being a little bit weird. Or unconventional. Maybe even stubbornly resistant to common wisdom around writing. Most of my favorite authors, incidentally, are weird, unconventional, and uncommonly wise.

Perhaps this means you’ll have to drop the stellar advice you once received from a Published Author to write a minimum of 20 minutes a day and exchange it for writing for five minutes twice a week, but who cares? Will you shrivel up and die if, after dedicating yourself to your writing, you enter a dry spell? Sometimes the writing doesn’t come for a reason. Maybe you’re defining it prematurely, like a stage mother with too much access to blue eyeshadow. Maybe it needs time to gestate or cook or otherwise wander freely around those areas of your brain that are gloriously wireless. Maybe reading this week, or walking, checking in regularly and honestly all the while, is what will get you where you need to go. Expect the dry spells. Expect that every so often, you’ll find that you’ve had to beg, borrow, and steal just to gain three uninterrupted hours over the weekend, but you wake up on Saturday thinking that everything you’ve ever written is crap and that the cat secretly hates you. Rather than put on your best Victorian look and descending dramatically into a spiral of misery by sticking to your plans, try to work with what you have instead. See if you can summon five minutes without having to get a restraining order against your inner critic. There are certainly days when I can get more done with five minutes of depressurized writing than I can with three hours.

The point is that to find flow, you often need to do some seriously releasing. You need to soften, and trust, like the earth does when we plant seeds in it. Who knows what will happen beneath that rich, impenetrable dirt, but time and time again, that miraculous sprout of green fights it way toward the sun. Not because you want it to, but because with the right tending and dedication, it gains enough strength to bypass all your grand ideas and blossom anyway.

Art: Pablo Picasso, The Dream

Writer’s Log, May 1: The Rules of Engagement

So recently, my sister got me hooked on this particularly odd show on the History Channel called “Alone.” It features 10 survivalists who are each flown to an uninhabited area of Vancouver Island during the rainy season. It features a surprising number of grown men crying, curious bears and indignant cougars, and an up-close-and-personal exposure to what happens when people are left to wander the recesses of their own minds unimpeded.

I began watching because I’m fascinated by humans who can do things way beyond my own capabilities, so the last thing I expected was to feel solidarity or recognition in their experiences. But as the footage from their personal cameras started rolling in, there was far more white-knuckled, panicky-eyed references to spending time alone and in your own head than I ever imagined. Oh! I thought by the end of the first episode, it’s just like writing!

Sure, with writing, many of us have snacks and couches and central heating to help us navigate the inner reaches of our own minds, but if you’ve ever been on the wrong side of a trip down memory lane, you know that these things are worth jack when it comes to confronting your inner demons. And now that so many of us are spending far more time alone or away from those delicious distractions that seem important but are really just there to keep us from going down those dark paths, I’m sure this is feeling more real than ever. Maybe, when the quarantine started, you thought you might get some more writing done. Maybe you secretly hoped you’d get a lot more writing done than you have for a while. And maybe you did, or are, or have.

Or maybe you started out with all these great plans, only to run inwardly shrieking from the unleashed thoughts that started piling up after a few hours in the wilderness of your own head. Because when you open the gates to your unbuttoned thoughts and let yourself soften into the truth and vulnerability of what you most want to say, lots of creepy crawlies are going to make their way through, too. There’s no filter or watchdog at these gates, no sign that says “No Neuroses Allowed.”

And so your best intentions might have left you feeling like you should throw in the towel. But the truth is, if this is happening to you, it’s an excellent sign that now might be an ever greater opportunity to move your writing forward than you imagined. Just now might be the perfect time to notice that these demons aren’t going anywhere, and managing them has less to do with shouting word counts at them and more to do with establishing some boundaries around how much attention you’re going to give them. Naturally, you’re going to notice them. But if you find that you can draw every inch of their craggy faces from memory, it might be time to set up some of your own rules of engagement.

You might, for instance, remember that you are 99.9% responsible for whether or not you are writing. It doesn’t matter what invisible monsters or visible toddlers are shouting in your ear; you can put your hands on a keyboard or grab a crayon for five minutes a day and scribble something down.

By the same token, you might set yourself very low expectations, production-wise, and very high expectations, integrity-wise. Instead of wrassling with that horrible childhood memory, trying to wrangle it into 2000 words, maybe you just ask yourself if you can release it for five minutes and see what else comes forward.

Or maybe you choose to stand up for what you believe in and the meaningful life you want to model for your children and get clever about merging parenting and self-care. Maybe you write for 20 minutes by the nightlight, or lock yourself in the bathroom for 20 minutes if you’ve got another responsible adult around. You might insist on this M-F, like it’s your job to, say, show the people you love that you respect your creative impulses and dreams and think that tenacity in the face of a culture that regularly demeans and discourages artistic work is worth cultivating.

Just saying.

I hope you’re already writing. I hope you need none of these reminders. But I need them approximately every 14 minutes, so know that you’re not alone. And please consider that this incredibly rare moment is one that is calling for you to shift your focus, at least temporarily, to refining your engine, rather than covering great distances. It’s not that you won’t write a lot. You might write acres, particularly once you ease up on that throttle. Or you might write two sentences before deleting five. Just don’t forget that some of your greatest accomplishments as a writer will happen not when the words are flowing, but when they’re not.   

Art: Henri Matisse, Icarus

Writer’s Log, April 2nd: The Uncertainty Principle


Physicists tell us that the more we know about where a particle is, the less we can know about how fast it’s going. This idea is meant to help us understand the limitations of our knowledge in the quantum realm, but it seems to pretty handily capture what it’s like to sit on your sofa in a Netflix-induced coma for weeks on end, knowing that the closer you get to becoming one with your upholstery, the harder it is to tell if you’re coming or going.

We live in Northern California, so we’re well into week three of quarantine, and while I’m happy to report that it finally feels like we’re settling into a rhythm – a very jangly, jazzy rhythm, but a rhythm all the same – that shift has also come with the sudden realization that I finally have the chance to do many of those things I’m always claiming I never have time to do. Go through all those old family photos and make a scrapbook. Sketch, paint, draw, decoupage, dance. Get the kids to bed and go straight to my writing, knowing that having nowhere to go in the morning means I can sit up with it as long as I want.

So why is it that I fall asleep, slack-jawed, at 9 PM, after spending the day devoting laser-like focus to Words with Friends, re-watching Sherlock for the umpteenth time, and napping with the cat?

Because uncertainty isn’t just a principle, it’s also a condition. Usually, creativity flourishes within it. Uncertainty causes us to question what we know, to imagine possibility, to perhaps even see the world in a different light. It is, in fact, essential to creating art. But even though air is essential for breathing, expecting to take a refreshing constitutional in gale-force winds is nuts. And even though water makes up more than half of our bodies, that doesn’t mean we thrive when fully submerged in it. By the same token, a little uncertainty can be the sand that creates your creative pearl, but when it lands in your life like a ton of rocks, it will probably squelch any and all desire to voluntarily court vulnerability or wander gleefully into the unknown terrain of your mind.

As I’ve said before, an artist’s primary medium is herself. And when the self is heroically navigating unprecedented levels of stress, perhaps it’s OK to say it can’t be relied upon for much of anything. Perhaps, if you’re kind and gentle and appreciative of it, it will actually want to talk to you when all this passes. Because once you’re on the other side of this, once you’ve given all you have to slog through what feels unbearable and impossible, you’re going to be even braver and stronger, with more than a few stories to tell.


Art: The Fog Warning, Winslow Homer