Common sense strikes back

Mom’s always told me I don’t have much common sense. I think she’s wrong. On the other hand, every now and then I have a lapse, and it takes a bit of effort to realize it.

For example, over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been very concerned about making sure I’m seen on Twitter, on retweeting and replying and trying to be part of the community. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, if one of the reasons I’m on Twitter is to become a familiar name so that when I have books out, people will consider buying them — well, I need to be putting more effort into the writing of the books than into the marketing of myself. Common sense.

So my priorities have been a bit mixed up. As Lazette Gifford says, “Writing comes first.” I’ll still try to be friendly, but that isn’t — can’t be — my priority.

I am going to try to keep blogging three times a week, though. It keeps me honest and on track. And it doesn’t matter to me if I can’t sum up what my blog is about in a single word. I can’t describe myself in one word, either.

What about you? Has common sense made you rethink something you were doing?

As always, thanks for reading.

Snow Q & A

We’ve got a real winter this year, precipitation coming down left, right, and center, and entirely too many snow days for the kids. I figured I’d take this opportunity to clear up some misconceptions and provide my unique take on the weather.

Q: Is it true that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow?

A: No, of course not. They have words for where the snow is — falling, on the ground, in a snow drift — and they can add suffixes to modify these, but that’s essentially like adding an adjective in English. There are people who have multiple words for snow, beyond the obvious powdered sugar, powder, packed powder, and the like, especially in areas where snow shoveling is common and snowplows leave ridges across already shoveled driveways. These words, however, are not suitable for publication on a family-friendly blog.

Q: How much does snow weigh?

A: A shovelful of snow, two inches deep, at the start of shoveling, might weigh no more than a few ounces more than the shovel itself. By the end of a sixty-foot long, twenty-foot wide driveway, a shovelful weighs roughly thirty pounds.

Q: Is it true no two snowflakes look alike?

A: To prove this, you must first assume the opposite is true — that there are at least two snowflakes that look alike. If there are two such snowflakes, it is not true. Now, go examine all the snowflakes in the world and get back to me when you’re done.

Or you can go look at Kenneth Libbrecht’s photomicroscopy of snowflakes. There’s also some interesting information on growing designer snowflakes available on Cal Tech’s site.

Q: What about the proverbial “snowball’s chance in hell”?

A: Have you seen Hoth? If that’s not hell, I don’t know what is.

Flip side: heart-warming video of snowman sent to Bahrain. (It doesn’t last long.)

That’s all the questions I have time for today. I need to get some writing done so when the snow piles up this afternoon, I can take a break and go shovel again. Thanks for reading!

How many meals?

If you cook, as I do, you probably spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen. You probably also have a cookbook collection, as well as bookmarks for your favorite sites. I discovered another site to add to my list of favorites: food52.

The “52” in the title refers to the number of weeks in a year, which is related to the contests they run on the site for best recipes in different categories.

To bring together our community, we’re creating a cookbook using the best recipes from food52. We do this by hosting weekly recipe contests: we choose the finalists and post slideshows of us making the recipes; then everyone votes and the winners go into the book. The food52 community will help choose the title, cover design and photos. In 52 weeks we’ll have our first cookbook, published by HarperCollins.

On their about page, food52’s owners talk about the value to the family of cooking your own meals, as well as how it helps with sustainability. The site has everything — lots of recipes, a service (through Twitter) of answering food questions when you find yourself in a pickle (@foodpickle), videos, a store . . . and did I mention the recipes?

I discovered it because my husband pointed out some of their soups to me last week. In the past week, I have made Lentil and Sausage Stew for a Cold Winter’s Night, Smoky Minestrone with Tortellini and Parsley or Basil Pesto, and Three Onion Chowder with Parsleyed Oyster Crackers. Each recipe made plenty — enough for at least two meals for my family, although my kids thought the minestrone needed more tortellini and the lentil and sausage stew needed more sausage. Oh, and the oyster crackers? I multiplied the recipe times four, and we still ran out the second night. Excellent snack.

The recipes aren’t perfect. One called for 2 bay leaves and never said when to add them. Another said to cook something in butter — which wasn’t included in the ingredients list. However, I used the print versions to cook from; it’s possible that corrections were mentioned in comments on the actual pages.

Today, while getting ready to write this blog post, I started browsing the site again, trying to focus on breakfast recipes. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be having the Overnight Miso Porridge, and I think the Crispy Salt and Pepper French Toast is a real possibility for this weekend. Sometime, I might also try the Warm and Nutty Breakfast Couscous, although it’ll be just for me, since the rest of the family doesn’t care much for nuts. I found another couple of stews, a dessert, and — of all things — a cocktail I want to try, too.

I highly recommend this site. My only regret, as it is with many of my cookbooks, is that there are far more recipes than I will ever have time to cook. Check it out, and let me know what recipes you find especially tasty.

If you have another site you think is worth checking out for the recipes, let me know in the comments. As always, thanks for reading.

another week, another submission

This past week, I haven’t been working on anything I set up on my goals for the year. Instead, as I often do, I got distracted by the shiny — in this case, Moongypsy Press’s First Anniversary Writing Contest. When my friend Bonnie showed it to me, she was expecting me to jump in and write a short story. However, I’ve had a Mayan idea kicking around for about five years now in the back of my brain, so I figured this was the perfect time to take it out and dust it off.

Of course, since I hadn’t thought about it recently, there was a ton of research I didn’t have done that I should have, and I spent Thursday, Friday, the weekend, and a good portion of Monday kicking around, alternating between thinking I almost had everything and believing I’d never get it together. Late Monday I started writing, but I was behind.

Yesterday, I kicked myself in the seat of my pants and worked. I drank lemon tea with honey for my throat. I ate Thin Mint cookies to keep myself going. I sent my submission off at 2:45 a.m. EST (the deadline was midnight PST).

Then I went and crashed for four hours, until it was time to get the kids ready and out the door for the day.

Perhaps I should have spent part of today sleeping. Instead, I shoveled snow. I baked bread. I poked at TED talks, thinking I might embed one of them as a blog post. Not my most productive day in terms of writing, but I’ll get back to the keyboard tomorrow. I’ve still got works in progress that need to be completed and sent out.

Why do I do this? Why stay up late to meet a deadline, then turn around and face the next project? Because my stories do no good if the only place they exist is in my brain or on my computer.

In the words of Steve Jobs, “Real artists ship.”

Once upon a sixth grade dreary

I meant to post this yesterday, which was the anniversary of Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday. Ah, well, better late than never.

My sixth grade teacher for English and reading was Mr. Koliha. One of the year-long projects he had for us was the memorization of poetry. We started with at least five lines (a lot of limericks that first week), and each succeeding week the minimum number of lines grew by one. Of course, being an obnoxious little show-off at the time, I rarely did the minimum.

There was a boy in class who gave me a run for my money, though. One week, I decided to show just how good I was, and I set out to memorize “The Raven.” Sadly, I only got about 3/4 of it down pat. Mr. Koliha gave me credit for that because it was so much longer than necessary. The boy, the week following (or had it been the week preceding? Memory goes vague on the details.) recited “The Bells,” grinning mischievously the whole time.

I still don’t know “The Raven” by heart. (Perhaps I’ll work on that again this year.) Why does that one poem — or parts of it, and my work on it — still stick in my brain decades later, when I can’t recall anything else I did? Maybe because I picked the furthest, most difficult target I could and worked toward it, and discovered that there was some success even though I didn’t reach my goal. Maybe because it was one of my first tastes of not always being the best. Maybe because Poe has always been an inspiration to me.

Life has gone on, and many things have changed, but those core truths have not. I still enjoy Poe. I’m not always the best. And I always reach for outrageous goals.

What about you? Do you have any lessons from your schooling and early years that have stuck with you through time? Share them in the comments!

As always, thanks for reading.

Pointing to art

Justine Musk has blogged a couple of times about Seth Godin’s book, Linchpin. Based on what she had to say, I checked it out from my library, and I’m glad I did. The book is about choosing to be indispensable in your work, whatever it may be. Even without that meta-topic, however, he covers a lot of ground. So far, I’ve hit three important ideas that resonated with me.

Obedience versus art

Would your organization be more successful if your employees were more obedient?
Or, consider for a second: would you be more successful if your employees were more artistic, motivated, connected, aware, passionate, and genuine?
You can’t have both, of course.

This hit home for me not in discussing employees, but in thinking about my children. He summarized the ongoing struggle I have between wanting my kids to listen to me, to their dad, to their teachers and wanting to not stifle their creativity and free spirit because I know they will be much happier later in life if they don’t have to fight to reclaim what they have naturally now.

There aren’t easy answers for this dilemma in Godin’s book. I don’t think obedience is, in and of itself, bad. Without rules and obedience, we get anarchy, as even he admits. (“Yes, we need facts and rigor and systems.”) However, the book is helping me to rethink my approach to parenting, and to cut myself short when something the kids are doing isn’t actually bad, just annoying. (Okay, yes, I have a ways to go with that, but I’m working on it.)

The nature of art

“Art is never defect free.”

“Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient.”

“Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people.”

He says an awful lot about art. That’s what the book is about — art, creativity, how to make your work art (whether you’re a designer, a painter, or a coffee shop worker). The way he’s defined art as requiring a change is, I think, what separates the merely competent writing (of which I have done much) from the stories that stand out, get bought, get talked about.

That’s what “needs more cowbell” boils down to: The story didn’t affect the editor or the agent. She might have admired the prose; he might have liked the twist in the plot. When all was said and done, though, the story didn’t touch them. They weren’t changed.

That’s where I need to focus my efforts. Not on merely telling a story. Not on writing impeccable cliffhangers to keep the pages turning. Not on finding a plot that has been miraculously overlooked by every writer since the dawn of time.

On touching people. On changing my readers. On making my art real.

Emotional labor

The next question, of course, is how to do that. I think the key is in putting in the emotional labor. It’s work. It’s hard. I have to put myself into the work.

Don’t I already do that? Sometimes. Sometimes, I write a story just because I have an interesting idea or I have a character and a plot. I need to care about the writing, need to think about what I find important in what I’m doing, and need to see the change in myself that I hope to evoke in others.

To that end, I’m taking some time this week to think about what sort of change or shift I’m trying to achieve in each of my works in progress. Where is the art? Have I taken responsibility for making sure it’s there? Am I changed because of what I’m writing?

Sometimes the change I’m hoping for may be something I’ve already experienced in my life. It may be something as simple (!) as sweeping readers into the story and letting them step away from their own lives for a time. But I think that thinking about what the change is that I’m looking for may help me more in the long run than contemplating themes and character arcs.

****

Linchpin is an excellent book. I’ll blog soon about Godin’s discussion of resistance and how it differs from Stephen Pressfield’s. There may be other topics I blog about, too — I’m only halfway through the book.

Do you have any thoughts on obedience versus art, the nature of art, or emotional labor? Or perhaps you want to recommend another Seth Godin book? Please leave thoughts and questions in the comments.

As always, thanks for reading!

Winter weather gives me an excuse

Dogwood after January snowstorm.

Dogwood in our front yard, January 12.

Lovely day to wake up to. Unlike a lot of my friends farther east and north, I saw the sun shining when I got up this morning — much to the dismay of my son, who really wanted another snow day.

Of course, all that snow on the ground meant the only time I went out of the house (other than barely stepping out the door to grab pictures) was to check the mail (never know when I might get an acceptance or rejection). No walking. No driving to the doctor. Nothing that involved stirring away from the warmth of my computer monitor.

Yes, I know the monitor’s not warm.

The “no excuses” isn’t going as well this week. Haven’t walked. Haven’t written. Haven’t quilted. Spent some good family time, though, and started reading an excellent book that I should have read years ago (The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss). Also, paying work is going well.

I’m not quite hibernating, but part of me wishes I could. This blog post is a step toward doing something more, stretching out. I’ll work on an outline later, after dinner. Tomorrow, I call to make a doctor’s appointment. I can’t move forward if I’m standing still.

Even if “still” is lovely and pristine, like a tree covered with fresh-fallen snow.

Resolution Q & A

It’s January. Of course, the topic is New Year’s Resolutions. Everyone’s either doing that or a top-10 list from 2010. I don’t have strong enough opinions to have a top-10 list. Either that, or I can’t think of 10 anything I’d put on such a list. You decide.

My dad always had two fall-back resolutions:

  • I resolve not to punch any tigers in the teeth.
  • I resolve not to make any other resolutions.

They worked well for him, but he always thought he didn’t need to improve at all. As it’s true that he excelled at being himself, he may have had a point.

I’ve made resolutions in the past. I’ve also written myself letters to read five years in the future. (I really should find those and read them, since it’s been over fifteen years now — maybe even twenty.) Currently, I tend to create goals, rather than resolutions — it gives me something more concrete to work toward, and a single mis-step isn’t a failure.

On to the questions:

Q: Shouldn’t you have posted this last week, before the new year started?

A: Would it help if I resolve to be more timely at the end of this year?

Q: Should I tell other people what my resolutions are?

A: Only if you’re willing to listen to them mock you.

Q: My friends/family/significant other wouldn’t do that!

A: If that’s a question, you’re not going to like my answer.

Q: Should I make SMART goals and resolutions?

A: Well, that would beat DUMB ones, wouldn’t it?

Q: Are you ever serious?

A: Yes. Second Tuesday of every week. Also, when facing a stack of bills.

Q: Do you have any resolutions this year?

A: Sure. I’ll resolve not to punch any tigers in the teeth.

If you have any questions or thoughts, leave them in the comments. As always, thanks for reading!

Any excuse . . .

No excuses.

That’s my motto for 2011. No excuses for frittering away time I could be writing, playing on the Web. No excuses for giving up on exercise. No excuses for not spending time with my family. No excuses for holding on to stuff I don’t use and have no idea if I’ll ever need.

Let’s be clear, here. Some things are reasons, not excuses. If I sign up to run a 5k race, and I get a broken leg or I’m in the hospital — well, I can’t run the race. That’s a reason. If, however, I then stop running at all, don’t try to schedule a different 5k run, and give up — that’s letting a setback become an excuse.

I’ve done that. Just looking at the exercise — well, after my accident, I tried. I tried running, wound up with blood poisoning in my foot, and spent another couple of months on crutches. I sporadically tried again, but with each setback, I stopped longer. It didn’t help, perhaps, that I had “drop foot,” meaning that my left foot twisted to the side because of uneven pull of the remaining muscles in my leg. (It’s very hard to run on the edge of your foot.) However, I got my foot straightened out and my ankle fused to fix that problem — in 2004.

What’s been stopping me since then? Habit. Laziness. A toddler at home. Heat and humidity. Ice on the road, making me unable to balance. Cold. Rain. Too busy.

Excuses.

I can’t change my entire life overnight, and I really wouldn’t want to. I love my family, I love my home, I love my work. Overall, I have a very good life. I just think I can make it better if I focus on changing the habit of making excuses.

Over the course of this year, I’ll post once or twice a month about specific areas I’m working on, an excuse I caught myself in, or progress I’ve made. I’ve added a new “No Excuses” tag to the blog, so if you’re interested, you can follow along.

What about you? Do you have a motto, a mantra, or a guiding word for the coming year?

As always, thanks for reading!

Monday drabble: Recycling

Len measured out the polymerization agent for the overnight run, the last step in his end-of-shift routine. The suppliers had been and gone earlier, and even the renderers’ shifts had finished for the day. He double-checked the volume in the tanks one last time before adding the agent. He didn’t want either soup or rock.

Satisfied, he set the mixers in motion. In the morning, the slurry would be poured over screens to dry: 30% post-consumer content, as advertised. He turned off the lights on his way out the door, ignoring the tattooed skin that surfaced briefly in the nearest vat.