On Walking…


There are two main ways I know to get unstuck if you need ideas and need to clear your head to write. The first is driving.  The second is going for a walk.

I don’t know what it is, why walking works. Perhaps it’s being both surrounded and confronted by the physical world, removed from one’s mind, while simultaneously submersed in our thoughts? When I walk, I feel the sun on my arms, hear the buzz of wasps that fly past or the sound of traffic on the highway, and smell the smoke from a neighbor’s cigarette. I must deal with sidewalks that end or mud that begins and I must navigate around it. I am immersed in the world.

At the same time, however, am usually alone in my thoughts when I walk, which forces me to juxtapose ideas I’ve had on the transience of life with the homeless backpacker and his dog, whom I just trekked past. Walking creates connections between the conscious and unconscious, the physical and spiritual, and those connections are sometimes just what we need to write.

When we walk, we also see things from a different angle than we do when we drive past in a car. We have a different vantage point. We see the cracks on a building. We see mildew growing in the corner of a house. We observe the Rottweiler guarding a back door with a splintered frame and imagine the children who play in the brand-new swing-set that adorns a side yard. We wouldn’t have seen this if we drove past, focused on speed limits and traffic lights.

So, if you catch yourself getting stuck with writing–or in any way–it can’t hurt to go for a walk. To immerse yourself in the world.

Missing Spoons

Every few years, I open the silverware drawer and find only knives, two forks, and one spoon.

“Where are all the spoons?” I ask.

Everyone shrugs and offers their opinions. They got left outside. They got thrown away. Someone took them to work or school for lunch and they never made it home. Lots of theories.

The forks are likewise absent.

Eventually, I break down and order them in bulk and once again, the silverware drawer is overflowing.

But the spoons and forks are still out there in the world. In the trash, or under the dirt in the backyard.

Letting Your Writing Rest and Rise

I hate to read anything that I’ve had published. Why? Well, as soon as I get over the general excitement of another one in the books and hot off the press, I settle down to read the final published project and cringe. Why didn’t I change that scene? Why did I use so much passive voice? What was I thinking? How did no one not notice the stance shift going on on the third page? Holy crap!

After doing this recently, I decided to try out the “double-rise” method of editing, a term which I just made up today (after not being able to find a good picture of a marinade and decided to use one of my photos of no-knead bread from a few months ago—and yes, the bread was as delicious as it looks! But I digress) and which I’m trying out right now with my latest project:

To begin with, the first goal as I’ve said in other posts, is just to get the first draft written. This is an area where I certainly struggle the most, so it’s worth saying again: Just get it down and get it written—even if you have to write the damn thing in pencil.

But then what? My advice (and the advice of many others who are better writers than I) is to set the piece aside for long enough to get some emotional and psychological distance from the piece. For me, that’s about six to eight weeks—long enough to nearly forget the piece entirely. When this happens, I then drag it out from the bag or the drawer—wherever I stowed it—and read it again, this time with a critical eye. I read it out loud and mark up anything that doesn’t work. Believe me, after two months’ time, the major faults of that story will shine like oil on a pimply nose.

Make the changes you see—rewrite all you need to, add and delete scenes—and after all that, you may feel up to sharing the piece with some people in your writer’s group, if you have one (and you really should have one). After all, you don’t want to share something too rough—you want them to focus their critical energy in the most efficient way possible.

But here’s the second-rise part….after you make some more of those changes, put it back in a “drawer” for another few weeks. Give it some more time and some more distance before making the “final” edits and beginning the process of sending it out. I am hoping that by allowing it to have a second rest—a second “rise”— that I can have even more distance, which will help me edit myself even more successfully.

This is what I’m going to try with the next batch of projects I have. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Starting From Nothing

I have always found it fascinating to hear how writers get their ideas or how they begin their stories. For me, stories sometimes begin with watching someone closely and imagining what it would be like to be them—or if not them, then someone in their lives. Then, that maybe gets juxtaposed with an unrelated idea in just a way to make a story emerge. Or it begins with an object or an item and a character. Or it may begin by putting someone in a situation and seeing what they do to get out of that situation. Or it may be a bunch of half-truths knitted together all slip-shod and rumpled just enough to make a story.

But on rare occasion, when I’m feeling very free and exploratory, I just start writing and see what happens, where my ideas take me.

Don’t get me wrong…I have a kernel of something before I begin. An image, maybe, or an idea of a character, but mostly, the beginning is dreamy, ghostly, ephemeral. It’s hard to pin down. And pinning it down isn’t the goal….the goal is to see what emerges.

And much of the time, it’s total garbage at first—a weaving of plastic grocery store bags and corn husks. Or a castle of damp playing cards. A tower of cans and bottles.

But sometimes—the best times—something sturdy and completely unexpected emerges. And suddenly, I’ve created something out of nothing.

Which is one of the main reasons I write.

When the Water Rises…


Let me begin with the disclaimer that our family was not hurt by Hurricane Harvey.  We are all okay and so is our house. So is most of our neighborhood.

But on Saturday night, the 26th of August–technically the 27th of August since it was 1:30 am–the shit got real. This picture is our street in from of our house. The water slowly began to rise and cover the street, which it had done in the past, but still, it was pretty intense. I–along with my neighbors, whose flashlights I could see in their windows, or dancing under umbrellas as they ran out to the street to get a more intimate view–couldn’t sleep and paced the house, checking the front, the back, the sides, for water rising to the house.

I focused on a tree in our front yard and made a plan that if the water went past that tree, I’d take more drastic measures–waking everyone else up and moving our special items to the second floor. All the photos and books….

We are lucky to have a second floor. Many people are not so fortunate.

To cut to the chase, the water never made it past that second tree and by morning, it had drained away considerably.  But in the morning, some of our neighborhood (closer to the bayou) had flooded as the water rose and the bayou and their houses became one. Now, they have their houses turned inside out on the street–piles of sheetrock and flooring and couches and furniture piled outside their homes.


This photo was taken hours after the original flood where the bayou looked like the ocean. That grass wasn’t even visible then–the water had subsided considerably by the time we took this photo.

Other parts of Houston looked like this:


And this:


I waited to write this because really, there is not much to say.  What can you say? It rained damn hard and the city flooded?  It’s no one’s fault–it’s nature. It’s no reason–it’s nature. It happens. It is what it is. Humans have war. Humans have death. Humans have floods. We can’t escape that, no matter where we live. Where we live does not matter–the water can always rise, or fires can burn, trouble can find us.

My family was spared, but most of the people I know had some loss, whether it be a car, a house, or their favorite personal items, even the life of someone they loved.  I have nothing to say to that to bring any kind of justice to it. There is nothing to be said except that I am so very sorry and it really sucks and we will have to move on.

That’s the thing. You never know when the rain will come, when the water will rise. One day, all is going well, and the next day, you’ll see signs to “gas your car, a storm brewing in the gulf.”

Then water will rise and it will creep past your door and enter your house. All the important things you keep close to you will be under water. When the water drains away, the heat and humidity will bring on the rot and the mold.

It is what it is.

So in the end, there really is no takeaway from this other than three things, according to me:

First: When the waters rise and your world floods, you need to love one another and help each other out as best as you can because in the end, you are a human in a wide world against oceans and wind and rain. So, hold each other up. Help one another gut houses, move belongings, bake bread, do laundry, give fellow humans a place to rest. Love one another.

Second: When it’s not raining, appreciate the calm.  Write about the rain when it’s calm. Reflect on what’s important when it’s calm, but remember. All good art comes from pain–everything has a price and this is the price of art.  So when it’s not raining, take time to hone your art, drawing on the bank of that pain.

Third: We may need to learn about letting go. I have not lost anything in this hurricane, but I have in the past. I have had to throw out books and papers and clothing from water damage and it’s heart breaking. But those are just physical items.  What matters–what really matters–is the ideas, the thoughts, the knowledge, and that is not so easily destroyed.

And with that, we can start again.

Tricks To Reduce Distraction When Writing

One of the challenges of making the commitment to write every day—or adhering to a writing schedule—is being able to block out the world so you can focus on your work. I struggle with this continually.  According to Stephen King in On Writing, it is important to be able to “shut the door” and not be distracted by what is going on around you as you write. King points out that we need have a space as writers so that we can write (although, on another note, he also states that art should be a supporting element of life, not the other way around).

It is important to be able to “shut the door,” but what if you don’t have an actual door to shut? What if you write in the midst of things and still need a way to focus without physically shutting a door? I have a few ideas that worked for me.

Let everyone in your life know that you are going to be unavailable for your writing time frame. Whether it is an hour, two hours, or a half day or whatever time frame you choose, letting people know that you are busy is the first step in creating expectations to not interrupt. People may still interrupt you, of course, but you can hardly expect them to know intuitively not to interrupt. Make it clear that you will be available to them, but only after the writing time is over. When they interrupt you, remind them that you are doing your work and you will be with them when you are done.

Loud music.  I have mixed results with this method. While I love music and listen to it often (and often get inspired with new ideas when driving around in my car listening to my tunes), I find I have to choose just the right music if I really need to focus. I don’t want to end up singing along, which obviously interrupts my concentration. To avoid this, I have a few tricks. First, listening to classical music with earphones works very well (i.e.: YoYo Ma playing Bach on a loop is my favorite option) because it energizes without distracting. Another method is choosing a song or set of songs that has the same vibe as whatever I am writing and then play that song (or those songs) on a loop, over and over again, so the music becomes background noise. I find the loop idea works better than a fresh new song every time (because then my brain stops writing and has to ponder, “Oh, I haven’t heard this one in awhile…..” and bam, I am out of my fictive dream).

White noise. I have downloaded and used several white noise apps and those work really well instead of music at times. Sometimes, having a recording of rain on a tin roof is just what you need, so it’s worth it to play around with white noise.

Noise-canceling earphones work well (or so I’ve heard). Some people prefer to work in perfect silence. I am not one of those people, but if I were, I’d get some noise-canceling headphones. I love technology.

Have a back up writing location. Things super crazy at your house? Everyone calling and asking you things? Just can’t get away to write? This is when I sneak off to a coffee shop, order a beverage, and plug in the earphones. It helps to know the local coffee houses ahead of time so you know which ones get busy, which ones are noisy, and which ones no one knows about (and go to those). I once got completely derailed when every shop I went to within a five-mile radius of my house was packed full of people. I might as well have stayed at home. Come to think of it, the local library would also work well for this, or a quiet restaurant. The important thing is that you have a place you can go to that will keep you focused. Oh, and leave your cell phone on silent when you go so you won’t be electronically interrupted.

These are just some of the ideas I have to create my own writing space in my mind, if not physically.  If we want to be committed writers, we have to have plans and when things get busy, be able to adjust accordingly.  Am I missing any other ideas?  Let me know!

How To Be Efficient


This post has less to do about writing, but since much of my time (and probably yours) is spent trying to find more time to write, I think it is still relevant. I have a lot going on in my life, much like everyone else, and with only 24 hours in a day, it can’t hurt to let be as efficient as possible to make those hours count. With all I have going on in my life (the five kids, the career, the husband, former grad school, making sure my house doesn’t look like a scene from Cops, etc.) I feel I have a few things to say on the issue. So, here we go:

Focus on the most important things. The biggest thing about being efficient is knowing what is important and what is actually not important and then make decisions accordingly.  We all know that person who spends a great deal of time on X when X is actually not that important in the grand scheme of things. We all silently wonder “Why is he spending all that time on X? Why is he doing charts and graphs for X? That’s going to end up in someone’s inbox of doom.”  Don’t be that person. The first order of business before starting any task is to analyze the task for how important it is in the grand scheme of things—whether professionally or personally—and analyze how much time it is worth to you and the rest of the world. You probably still need to DO most of it, but how much time you spend fretting and stressing over each item will depend on it’s importance in the bigger picture. After analyzing what you need to get done, mentally rank each task and give it the attention it deserves. Don’t spend hours and hours on unimportant or marginally important tasks. Don’t make mountains out of molehills, in other words. For some items, you just need to get them done and move along.

Do one thing at a time. I know, I know, it sounds counterintuitive to do only ONE thing at at time when you have ten to do, but there have been several studies out lately that multi-tasking actually wastes time and energy, plus increases the odds for mistakes (feel free to google this and see the previous item for why I’m not actually providing the links). I used to be the biggest multi-tasker of all time—sitting there with five browser windows open, two Word documents, all while texting the kids, making dental appointments, all at once—but a few years ago, I tried doing just one thing at a time and in my experience, it worked well. Doing one thing at a time allows you to have zen-like focus and completely absorbed yourself in the task, thus allowing you to finish it more quickly and with less errors. To facilitate the “do one thing at a time” approach, I have my own system of creating a set of to-do’s and then once I complete one item, I move on to the other. At work, I use the tried and true “Post-It Note approach,” where, as tasks arise, I will then add them to a series of Post-It-Notes laid across my desk. Once a task is complete, I cross it off the list and then take a break before choosing a new task.  For domestic and personal items, I keep an electronic to-do list on my phone. Don’t ask me why I have different systems for different parts of my life because I have no idea—it’s just what works for me. You may not even like to write to-do lists and that’s okay. You choose what works work you. The important part is that you do one thing at a time and focus on that one item until you are done or have found a stopping point.

Take breaks. Which brings us to the next point—when you come to a stopping place, efficient people take a little break to rejuvenate. Walk around the hallways for a few minutes. Refill your water mug. Pop outside and feel the sun. Have a cookie. Whatever. But take a break for a few minutes and then go back to your to-do list to tackle the next item. If you don’t take a break, though, you will be more likely to make mistakes, rush, or just feel drained. Remember, you are trying to be efficient and you can’t do that if you are worn down and dragged out.

Know yourself and have a plan.  Everyone is different when it comes to how they function.  For me, I am a bit of a morning person and by around 3:00 pm, I begin to lose focus. Don’t get me wrong–I can still function at that time, but I feel my brain getting flaky and you probably don’t want me doing anything too complex much after 3:00 unless I have plenty of snacks. Because I know this about myself, I tackle all of the difficult things as early as possible in the morning (which is one reason I prefer to write in the morning, specifically if I am writing fiction, which takes more concentration for me than other types of writing) and save more mundane things for the afternoon.

Delegate appropriately.  As a perfectionist, I struggle with this. I AM one of those people who will take the stance of “I want this to turn out well, so let me just do it all so I can make sure it gets done correctly.” I am here to tell you that this approach is not efficient.  While I still struggle with delegating, it is important to know how to do it, or at least have a strong understanding of where our own responsibilities lie and where they don’t. It is important to be able to say, to a work group, “I will do X….who wants to do Y?” When you get a volunteer to do Y (or if dont, you then have to say, “Joe, I think you’d be GREAT at doing Y! Let’s meet and talk about what that’s going to look like”), make sure you outline what the expectations are for the task at hand (or you will make more work for yourself by having to harass poor Joe to make sure he is doing Y). This works very well in your personal life as well. Just this morning, one of my teens overslept and said, “You didn’t wake me up!”  I reminded her that waking people up was not my job (I didn’t even add that there is nothing like teaching responsibility to a teen by refusing to wake her up every morning. My refusal to wake her up is actually some rockin’ parenting right there. She just doesn’t realize it yet).  Don’t take on roles by default.  It is perfectly fine to remind people that they are equally accountable for x, y, and z and hold them to that. Having to wake people up in the morning or chase them down to remind them to do things is not efficient.

Have routines.  It can be tiring and inefficient to constantly adjust the plans for the day.  We have to do enough of this as it is, so it helps to know the routine you will have each day waking up, writing, dressing, driving to work, checking email, then looking at the to-do list….etc. You can also have weekly routines.  One big one for me is doing all errands and grocery shopping on a specific day, rather than wasting time going to the grocery store three or four times per week, whenever we run out of eggs. If you run out of something, oh well. Make do. Now, this does’t always work, but I know for a fact that it is not efficient to have to stop by the grocery store to buy cat food after work instead of just driving home and getting on with the rest of your evening.

Wear a “uniform.” This one goes out to my former writing professor at UT Dallas.  He wore the same black shirt, black jeans, and black boots every day of the week.  He claimed to switch it up to a black t-shirt on the week-ends. Why? His uniform freed his mind to do other things in life rather than spend time worrying about whether he should wear the gray slacks or the blue button up. (You can Google this work uniform approach, too, but be prepared to read a lot about Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck.)  You don’t even need to be extreme about the uniform, though. Two years ago, I launched an entire system for whittling down my wardrobe and the end result (still a work in progress, but better) is a selection of work clothes that largely consists of a variety of black and gray skirts and dresses, with with red or burgundy accents.  The goal for this system is to have a wardrobe which, while it does not consist of all black, still doesn’t require a great deal of thought in the morning because I like all of the items, they all fit, and they all coordinate with one another. I also know that all my work clothes are right there on the “work” portion of my closet, so I can just grab them. Whatever you can do to limit your energy about anything is a win in the morning. I also eat the exact same breakfast every day as well.

Use technology wisely. I love technology and I am one of those people who is never more than five feet from my phone.  I use software like Evernote for everything and there is nothing more efficient than being able to access all my notes I ever wrote by just searching one word. I, like everyone else I know, lives by my calendar. If it’s on my calendar, I will be there because The Calendar will tell me when to leave, according to the traffic patterns.  Also, I have already written about how I can get a lot of work done in an orthodontist’s office waiting room by using Scrivener, so technology is great. That said,it is also important to also know when to turn it off.  Just yesterday, I went to the grocery store and I somehow managed to forget my phone. I shopped with my son and got done quickly before realizing that my phone hadn’t buzzed once. How odd!  When I looked for it, though, I realized I had just forgotten it (and then went into a panic and felt the shakes of withdrawal until I got home, but that’s another post). No wonder no one texted or called me–I just didn’t have my phone.  When I got home, I saw that actually, I had twenty different texts from family members with their shopping requests, in addition to other texts.  The fact that I got done shopping in record time without my cell phone wasn’t lost on me—the fact that no one could reach me to interrupt my shopping played at least a small role in that accomplishment. So, sometimes, it’s important to unplug and focus on a task at hand in order to be efficient.

Spend time reflecting and adjusting. Finally, at the end of the day, it pays to spend a few minutes reflecting on how the day went.  Did you accomplish what you wanted to do? Did you live a good day? What might you try differently next time? What will you continue to do? It may be only five or ten minutes, but taking that time to reflect and adjust can help your future plans.

Well, that’s it. I hope those ideas work for you, too.  By increasing our efficiency in our lives, we can do more of what we love to do.