• me_vanou https://www.flickr.com/photos/me_vanou/5958633851/in/photolist-a5xyfp-dVQX8j-a9g9xX-8g9EjT-STaja-dGwTa9-aeHvLA-72BaM-btrC8U-pXTmvx-q1LCsj-8F37Ne-cUiBnA-nMUaB1-4jyEr1-dcKDfQ-6tKF42-bjLtYT-83mYWp-6pnWGR-8ytoZb-8yqkST-6HDVzH-4HU1hm-nj15N8-53niJE-4fivMH-6HJ1z7-4e6fbZ-9rYAb5-nFTtE3-qDEY7C-HdZUaY-bbUJNM-q96zgL-5WUYDc-nK1juV-7DZarw-4ik7Tk-nTGcWJ-rfQQw6-pT6nUL-bunoF2-nFT1vd-4TvXGT-qiqNu4-jVhE3J-5uWvcg-mHME8R-75XbXi "be quiet" (CC BY-ND 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

How Election 2016 Has Changed Me for the Better

me_vanou https://www.flickr.com/photos/me_vanou/5958633851/in/photolist-a5xyfp-dVQX8j-a9g9xX-8g9EjT-STaja-dGwTa9-aeHvLA-72BaM-btrC8U-pXTmvx-q1LCsj-8F37Ne-cUiBnA-nMUaB1-4jyEr1-dcKDfQ-6tKF42-bjLtYT-83mYWp-6pnWGR-8ytoZb-8yqkST-6HDVzH-4HU1hm-nj15N8-53niJE-4fivMH-6HJ1z7-4e6fbZ-9rYAb5-nFTtE3-qDEY7C-HdZUaY-bbUJNM-q96zgL-5WUYDc-nK1juV-7DZarw-4ik7Tk-nTGcWJ-rfQQw6-pT6nUL-bunoF2-nFT1vd-4TvXGT-qiqNu4-jVhE3J-5uWvcg-mHME8R-75XbXi "be quiet" (CC BY-ND 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

“be quiet” by me_vanou (CC BY-ND 2.0)

There’s not a lot of joy in this election. Like many other Americans, I sometimes wish I could sleep ala Rip Van Winkle through the next twenty-four days (I’ve already voted, so I could actually sleep for twenty-five days).

However, while watching Michelle Obama’s New Hampshire speech yesterday (video at the end of this post), I was reminded that this election season has changed me—is changing me more each day—and for the better. For the first time in my fifty-two years (the same age as our First Lady), I am realizing just how much I have allowed my own voice and emotions to be hushed.

How is this election season changing me?

Silence no longer feels like an option.

I am expressing my views more readily, regardless of whether those around me will understand or be offended or take me seriously or even listen.

I am examining more carefully what it is inside my mind and heart that holds me back and makes me feel powerless and less than, knowing I have the agency to change.

I am reminding myself that I can be compassionate and giving and supportive while at the same time attending to my own needs and desires and voice, that self-compassion and self-care are not selfish.

I yearn to follow Michelle Obama’s example in learning to honor my own emotions, in refusing to internalize the belief that just because they are a woman’s emotions, they are trivial.

“Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet” ~ Michelle Obama

As I am fortunate enough to be able to speak—and to write—I now more than ever feel obligated to do so.


she stopped talking as an anorexic stops eating, slowly at first
forgoing the extra word, skipping the unnecessary reply in
favor of the nod or smile, a simple experiment, really, a
goal to improve oneself, until she got the taste for it
no one noticed as she purged the superfluous, sent
phone calls to voice mail, rationed herself to one
hundred spoken words per day by hoarding
sentences in a notebook and bingeing on
thoughts, saving precious syllables
for public use, bringing them
out only when necessary
speaking less and less
until she was finally
engorged and

The above poem was one I scribbled years ago and recently pulled from a pile of drafts to share with my writing roundtable. Only now am I beginning to understand the depth and breadth of lives and experiences that make up the collective “she.” My understanding will no doubt continue to deepen, and I will continue to grow.

All because of a presidential campaign.

“We simply cannot let that happen. We cannot allow ourselves to be so disgusted that we just shut off the TV and walk away. And we can’t just sit around wringing our hands. Now, we need to recover from our shock and depression and do what women have always done in this country. We need you to roll up your sleeves. We need to get to work.” ~ Michelle Obama (read full transcript)

Post update: Michelle Obama transcript quotations added October 15, 2016.

  • Photo credit: Courtney Dirks https://flic.kr/p/9Lcbki (CC BY 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Self-compassion for writers (it’s not what you think)

In a recent Study Hacks blog post, Cal Newport, “a computer science professor who writes about how to perform productive, valuable, and meaningful work in an increasingly distracted digital age,” quotes Kalonymous Kalman Shapira’s advice on learning:

“If you have compassion on yourself, you will learn to budget your hour; every hour will have its own task. You should decide before you begin how much time you want to spend at even mundane matters…Your hours should not be left open, but should be defined by the tasks you set for them. Write out a daily schedule on a piece of paper and don’t deviate from it; then you will reach old age with all your days intact.” [Rabbi Shapira, quoted by Cal Newport]

Read the entire short and accessible post here, and see an example of how Cal plans his day here.

Photo credit: Courtney Dirks https://flic.kr/p/9Lcbki (CC BY 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Photo credit: Courtney Dirks (CC BY 2.0)

What struck me about the quotation was the word compassion. We are all busy. We are all easily distracted. Some of our brains have been hijacked by the election season. Finding time not only to write but to have a writing life of purposeful reading, daily practice, long-term goal setting, and regular submissions may feel like anything but a form of self-compassion.

However, if we think of such habits as self-care and kindness toward ourselves by creating a more meaningful life, rather than an obligation imposed from the outside, perhaps they will get easier.

TTFN. On to sketch out today’s to-do list.

  • social media apps

Writers, have you ever taken a break from social media?

This summer I have taken a bit of a social media sabbatical. Only after a couple of months now have I started dipping into Twitter, and, to a lesser extent, Facebook, and have yet to add the apps back to my phone.


Next week I’m going to write more on my reasons and what, if anything, I’ve learned, but first I’d love to know if others have done the same. Reply in the comments, drop me an email, or answer on Twitter or Facebook (yes, I see the irony).

Have you ever taken a break—complete or partial—from social media? What was the result?

See also Kristen Lamb’sBreaking Facebook Dependence—How to Create an Enduring Author Brand.”

Social media apps

Photo credit: Jason Howie, Social Media apps, (CC BY 2.0)

  • Photo credit: Denise Krebs, 
2012-259 A Writing Six-Word Story, (CC BY 2.0)

Writers: Stop pretending to yourselves to be anything but what you are

Why do we write?

It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot and one I’ve asked here before. I always come back to the same answer:

I write because life is more meaningful when I do.

As August begins—and on a Monday (!), which adds an extra oomph to the feeling of starting anew—we can pay attention this month to how we feel 1) when we write, 2) when we have written, and, perhaps most important, 2) when we have not written. This summer I’m working on strengthening my commitment to a life spent writing, with a goal to write 500 new words per day, and here’s what I’m finding: On those days when I don’t write, I go to bed feeling worse than on the days when I do, regardless of what else happens during the day.

Photo credit: Denise Krebs, 2012-259 A Writing Six-Word Story, (CC BY 2.0)

Photo credit: Denise Krebs,2012-259 A Writing Six-Word Story, (CC BY 2.0)

This is the part that has surprised me the most: the feeling of well-being (or lack thereof) has nothing to do with what I’ve written, what genre or topic, whether it is for publication or just for myself, or even whether what I wrote was any good. It depends only on accepting the challenge of the blank page. Somehow the very act of writing makes me feel more myself, more authentic, more grounded, and better able to tackle the rest of what life offers.

J. K. Rowling offers a clue as to why this may be the case in her 2008 Harvard Commencement speech (video at end of post):

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” ~ J. K. Rowling [emphasis added]

In order to grasp fully Rowling’s decision at that point in her life, we need to allow our imaginations to go back in time before the world had heard the words “Harry Potter” (difficult, I know). When she committed herself to writing as a way to be who she was and to do work that mattered to her, it was not with the guarantee or perhaps even dream that she would create a cast of characters and books that would define a generation. That wasn’t the point at all—the success was only a byproduct. The turning point was that she fully accepted that she was born to be a writer and changed her life to be more in line with that realization.

What will it take for us to stop pretending to be anything but who we are, and to start directing energy into what really matters to us? What does that mean for your daily life?

The topic for Wednesday’s post will be social media, especially the idea of taking a social media sabbatical. Until then, I’d love to hear why you write.

See also

The Purpose of Your Writing Life

  • Ball_of_String

Grandma’s Ball of String

The following flash non-fiction essay was first published in the December 2015 issue of HippocampusThis version includes a few links and photographs of my grandmother. And, yes, the header photo is the ball of string.

String Theory

The ball of string fits reassuringly in my hand, smaller than a softball but just bigger than a baseball. Its perfect sphericity seems impossible against my palm, testament to the care and diligence with which it was wound.

For a long time after I brought it home from my grandmother’s kitchen, where it had been stored in a coffee can in a low cupboard drawer, the orb sat as a kind of museum piece on a bookshelf in my house. The string itself is aged, not quite yellow but certainly not white, smoother than one might expect, and tied together in pieces of about two feet with knots so secure that only magic could pry them apart. I have looked in every hardware store I pass for string of the exact diameter and strength and texture, without success.

Grandma, born in 1902 and the youngest of 10 children, is the girl with the white bow in her hair

Grandma, born 1902 and the youngest of 10 children, is the girl with the white bow in her hair. Her father left his New York state home just shy of his 16th birthday to fight in the Civil War.

In recent years I have begun to use the ball with college students in a classroom creativity activity that requires exactly one yard of string. Each time I cut three feet of string, I am struck that my grandmother would have added her final piece long before any of these students were born. Will I ever get to its center?

Do I want to?

Grandma, late 1920s

Grandma, late 1920s

Grandma Louise raised four children on a farm and ranch in Todd County, South Dakota, the third poorest county in the United States per capita income, with a population density of six residents per square mile. My parents lived on the same farm, so I spent much of my early years at Grandma’s compact, white, two-story house, especially after the birth of my brother when I was two. He was colicky, my mother was depressed, and it was good for all involved for my chatty, impulsive self to be out from underfoot.

Tucked near the center of my being are long, delicious, formative hours watching Grandma roll dough for cinnamon rolls and wipe the flour from her hands onto her ever-present faded, calico apron that slipped over her head and tied loosely in a bow at the small of her back. From her I learned how to embroider dish towels and crochet potholders and iron men’s handkerchiefs. Together we listened to a radio program called Kitchen-Klatter, during which I would be shushed several times as I impatiently waited for it to end.

Yours truly, with Grandma and Grandpa

Yours truly, with Grandma and Grandpa

While rarely idle, she would have never described herself as “too busy.” She was a farmer’s wife, accustomed to waiting for bread dough to rise and cookies to bake, for crops to sprout, cattle to fatten, alfalfa to dry and wheat to ripen. For children and grandchildren to grow up.

Office of War Information poster, 1943.

Office of War Information poster, 1943.

A member of the “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” generation, Grandma repurposed long before repurposing was a thing (logophiles take note: the word “repurpose” was coined in 1984). The women of my youth never remodeled for the sake of remodeling nor bought anything new before the old was useless. Threadbare work shirts that could no longer protect from the sun willed their buttons to the button jar, their fabric to rags and quilts. Gravy turned any leftovers into feasts. Even dryer lint was transformed into stuffing for pincushions.

String was repurposed perhaps more than anything else. In an era before cellophane tape or plastic bags, grocers wrapped food in brown paper and string for its journey home. Parcels to be mailed were similarly packaged, as were holiday gifts. As I use my grandmother’s string one yard at a time, my appreciation swells for the simple and useful and for the cumulative significance of time. I imagine her unwrapping each package in her measured way, pulling the string taut to remove any kinks, knotting it expertly to the waiting naked end, then rewrapping the new addition tightly before returning it to the coffee can. Later she would cut new pieces to bind turkey legs or secure climbing bean plants to poles or show children how to play Cat’s Cradle or Jacob’s Ladder or telephone with tin cans. Then another package, another measure of string, and it all would start again.

In String Theory, everything—planets, trees, human beings, computers, energy—is ultimately the same at its core, a simple, one-dimensional, vibrating thread that unifies the universe. I cup my ball of string in my hands—hands that look with each passing year more and more like my grandmother’s, age spots and all—and the theory of everything slowly unfolds.

Do you write about family papers and other historical records, or know someone who does? A new anthology of family narratives currently is calling for submissions of creative nonfiction, essays, and poetry based on family diaries, letters, and other artifacts. Click here for more information. Deadline: September 1, 2016.

%d bloggers like this: