Create Your Own Writing Exercise

In those hazy moments between heavy sleep and clear wakefulness, on a morning when I woke without an alarm in a room at once unfamiliar and like every other hotel room I’ve ever slept in, the sentence uttered itself in my mind as sharply as early sunlight through a window:

Dan Foylton is flat.

Where did that come from? As soon as I heard it–and I definitely heard it rather than thought it–I knew the name was spelled Foylton, not Foilton or Foilten. I don’t think I’d ever heard or seen the name before.

New writers often wonder how to begin, how to train themselves, and the answer is simpler than one might think. Author Laura McHale Holland reminds us in Tips for a New Writer that, as with all worthwhile activities, writing grows from practice. Daily practice. The kind of practice that is throw-away, for-our-eyes-only practice, like piano scales repeated in variations or free throws made and missed, over and over, far removed from performance or applause:

“1. Write, write, write every day. It doesn’t matter so much how many words you produce or how much time you devote at first. Consistency is what counts. And give yourself permission to write whatever you want in whatever form you want. You will learn by doing.” Read More

What should you write, especially if you don’t have a larger work in progress at the moment? While many books about writing offer excellent suggestions for daily writing practice, writing exercises can be as simple as taking a phrase that comes to you with the morning sun and using it as the beginning of a story:

“Dan Foylton is flat.”

Rehearsal was already running an hour late. Everyone’s eyes but Dan’s and the choir director’s remained fixed on his individual score. The director stared at Dan. Dan slowly looked up from his tenor notes and stared back.

“Dan Foylton quits,” he said calmly.

Dan Foylton is flattered to accept Miss Katie Nelson’s invitation.

She was pleased with her script. As soon as the ink was dry enough not to smudge, she folded the page so that the corners matched perfectly, and used her just manicured fingers to press the crease smooth.

Dan would be upset with her at first, but this was for his own good. In time, he’d understand and not only forgive her, but thank her.

Dan Foylton is flat broke. Busted. Poor. Pinched. Wiped out. Divested. Yes, he prefers divested. Much more dignified. I’m sorry I can’t join you for lunch today. I’m divested.

How did this happen? Last year at this time he was full of promise, with a new job and new car and a new suit that cost more than his entire college wardrobe, a new girlfriend and new hopes for his future. A new Dan. And then it all started again.

You might later expand what you’ve written into a complete piece, or you might throw it away. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the practice, the work, even if for only ten or fifteen minutes.

The only question that remains is who in the world is Dan Foylton??

Good Morning Pages!

Recently I’ve been feeling rather scattered, not as whole as I do at other times, parts of me—parts of my self—blown here and there without a lot of coherence. So I breathed a small sigh of relief when I read the recent Psychology Today piece “Is Your Brain Like an iPhone?” by Robert Kurzban, author of the new book, Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite (the article contains a nice literary reference to Walt Whitman, by the way):

“[T]he idea that there are ‘multitudes’ in your mind helps to explain various kinds of inconsistencies. If there’s a lot of applications in your head, then they can be doing different things at the same time; oddly, this means that different applications can have different and contradictory beliefs in them. Further, suppose that, just like a smart phone, different applications are in the foreground or background at different times. If behavior depends on which applications are currently active, then individuals can seem to be very different people at different times, depending on all the details of which modules are currently active.” Read More

While the article reassures me that my scattered self is not necessarily a sign of approaching senility or lack of a meaningful integrity, I still want to feel more whole, more solid, less like a collection of apps and more analog.

That’s where morning pages come in. Recently, Christi Craig posted a link on Facebook to a blog post by Jennifer Blanchard on “The Power of Morning Pages,” and I was reminded of how, when I make Julia Cameron’s creativity tool of daily morning pages a part of my life, I do feel more whole, perhaps because they provide a continuous narrative for my days (regardless of whether I ever read them again), linking one to another in ways I don’t always notice at the time.

What are morning pages? They are a little like freewriting, but with the difference that they don’t need to lead to anything else. They can act as a warm-up to other writing, but they can also exist entirely on their own. To learn more, be sure to read Jennifer’s post. In the video below, Julia Cameron discusses how she uses morning pages in her life and why it is important to write them in longhand. She writes in The Artist’s Way:

“It’s like you’re taking a little whisk broom to all the corners of your consciousness, and you’re sort of whisking ‘this is what I’m thinking about, this is what I’m thinking about.’ It’s as if you’re saying to the universe ‘This is what I like, this is what I don’t like, this is what I want more of, this is what I want less of.’ And the universe tends to cooperate with what you spell out in your pages.”

Morning pages, here I come! I’m happy to be whisking again.

That Old Poo Poo Man and Pretty Boy Parakeet

Last night, after a busy day of errands and returning to teaching after the holiday break, I spent some time in the evening reading and transcribing my great-aunt Hattie’s diary. One entry in particular made me smile. The year was 1955. Hattie was 73 years old and living with her husband, Will, on a ranch on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She had no grandchildren of her own to enjoy, but she showered Jack and Cherrie—the children of the Parker family who worked as their hired hands—with grandmotherly affection.

Maybe her words will make you smile, too. She would like that.

January 3, 1955, Monday: Nice, a little chilly. Men gave cattle hay, caked and salted them. Will went to store to mail letters and get mail. He and Dave took thresher apart. Jack came up before noon, also Cherrie as Jack went with men to cake and salt cattle. Cherrie came to visit and play some, then Dave and Jack came to go home for dinner, so she went along. She has a saying, “That Old Poo Poo Man,” where she got the saying, no one knows. Parkers have a Parakeet Bird and it is some pet, and a cage, but it does not stay in it. Flies and sits on folks’ shoulders and all around on furniture up high. I wrote in diary, got eats, and when Will brought the mail, we read it. Jeanne, Jack and Cherrie came late p.m. with Pretty Boy Parakeet and we enjoyed it flying around.

Complacencies of the Pen

Sunday Morning

by Wallace Stevens

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little…


Complacency: 1. The fact or state of being pleased with a thing or person; tranquil pleasure or satisfaction in something or some one. ~ Oxford English Dictionary

Okay, I have to admit that the title doesn’t exactly express the point of this post (especially the smugness which “complacency” can connote), but I’m too enamored with lame puns to resist.

As I was sitting in my sunny chair this morning, with coffee but minus the oranges and cockatoo rug, I decided to do my hour of writing—by hand.

I’ve written before about the lure of writing longhand, but, until today, I met my new writing goal on my trusty laptop, browser closed, Word document open. So, why the change today?

Since I have been paying closer attention to my writing habits rather than just going through the motions, I have noticed that, when I write on a computer, I spend a lot of time backspacing, second-guessing, typing over. I find it very hard to turn off the editor in my head, who has not yet been called to the office and really should be still in bed while the writer takes her shift.

I also wanted to try out a new pen I got recently, a Pilot Precise V5 RT (note: this is not a paid endorsement!). Finding a good pen that doesn’t glop or run or smear and that moves smoothly over the paper is really important to how well I write and how much I enjoy writing by hand. It probably shouldn’t matter so much, but it does. The other writing implement that works well for me is a good mechanical pencil.

Anyway, I sat in my chair and wrote on a legal pad. An hour later, I had written more than I normally do at my laptop (over 1000 words), and I wrote with fewer stops and starts. I could hear the editor snoring softly, still in bed.

Maybe complacency is the right word, after all. From Merriam-Webster:

Complacency: Self-satisfaction especially when being accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies

Writing without premature editing does require a kind of self-satisfaction and willful suspension of awareness of one’s deficiencies. Otherwise, we backspace ourselves right off the screen. As K. M. Weiland writes in 8 Ways Longhand Writing Frees Your Muse (definitely worth reading if you are interested in this topic), “Removing the temptation to glance up at a previous paragraph and switch out words and phrases allows my raw thoughts to flow onto the page. I don’t judge them, I don’t edit them, I don’t censor them. I just pour them out.”

By the way, the pen was terrific. I’m stocking up.

A Couple of Cool Blogs about Handwritten Letters

Letters in Longhand

Post Girl: “I’m a girl who still clings with much reverence to the kind of writing that I can hold in my hands–my stamps and stationery, my pen-and-ink greetings and salutations, and the triumphant, cool-metal of the mailbox flag. I still harbor an expectant hope in the sound of the mail carrier rustling about in his jeep to find a bundle of mail with my name on it. And I still hold my breath for that inevitable ‘p.s’ that can often say more than the letter itself. In the hopes that I may inspire ONE letter to be written, sealed, and sent(that wouldn’t have been otherwise), I would like to extend the invitation to everyone to read along with me the entirety of all my future correspondence.”

The Letter Jar

Lynn, The Jar Keeper: “I am composing 365 handwritten letters in 365 days. Each day I pull a name from THE LETTER JAR. This paradoxical blog is my way of sharing, in a very 21st century way, the lessons I am learning from my ‘old fashioned’ communication project.”



The Quickening, by Michelle Hoover

Today I updated my reading lists (on the right side of the blog), and I want to share a book I am now reading: The Quickening, by Michelle Hoover.

Ever since I began working on the book that only I can write, I have been on the lookout for other works that are based on or inspired by family journals or diaries, especially diaries by farm women. When I first learned about The Quickening and the fact that it was born of the journal of the author’s great-grandmother, I could barely wait to read the book. I have not been disappointed. Ms. Hoover writes with lyricism and grace of the lives of two farm women, Enidina Current and Mary Morrow, in ways that cut to the heart of passions particular to the Midwest. In the blog post “An Old Resilience: Writing and Familial Duty in Early 20th Century America,” she describes her great-grandmother’s temperament:

“For the most part, the pages show her determination, persistence, and toughness. Yet after I finished the last sentence, I realized I’d never before heard a family member cry out with such loneliness. I myself have tried to explain and defend what I consider a very Midwestern temperament ever since my move out east. I carry this temperament with me, both admire and try to break from it. In the novel as in its inspiration, extreme emotion is simply not allowed. Upbringing and values, family and town, even the surrounding landscape all support this resistance.”

I am nearly struck still and silent by this description, remembering one of Aunt Hattie’s entries from July 4, 1950, when she was 68 years old:

“…we had to stay home this late p.m. in such a beautiful part of the day, and I had such a lonesome feeling, felt as if we were entirely out of the world.”

My challenge is to capture that stark feeling in a way that is real and unsentimental. Strangely, as I read The Quickening, I feel none of the anxiety of influence I might expect, but am instead buoyed by Enidina and Mary and Michelle Hoover, knowing that these are the stories that must be written.

To learn more about The Quickening, visit Michelle Hoover’s website and watch this video where she discusses the novel and the journal that inspired it:


Oh, I almost forgot! Day 8. 🙂