My Slow Christmas

I’ve mentioned before how much difficulty I’ve had getting into the spirit of the season. I know I’m not alone. And I have been “busy.” Aside from obsessing about politics (looking forward to having it all take a back seat–as David Brooks has promised), I have several different writing projects going.

And I’ve been acting “as if“: sending out a massive amount of Christmas cards, sneaking in some shopping and trying to organize gifts for my daughters to pick up at the house. I’ve been negotiating our Boxing Day Zoom for opening gifts (as our youngest daughter is working today and tomorrow). I’ve been hanging out with my old dog. I’ve kept up with my goal to walk 5 miles a day. On the Solstice, given torrential rain, and snow (!), I did almost the entire 5 miles inside the house. (Pabu and I did make it outside for a bit in the early evening–a Tibetan Terrier, he likes snow.)

But now it’s Christmas Eve, and I’m feeling that maybe an Ann Cleeves’s novel and some tea and shortbread are in order. Even if I can’t get the picture to shift.

One of the gifts I splurged on for myself recently was to sign up for BookFox’s “Master Your Writing Time” course. I’m dawdling my way through it, but finding–despite my best efforts, or the opposite–that it has helped. Some of the lessons are action tips, and adopting the Pomodoro method has worked beautifully for me. Sitting for very long makes me feel achy and stiff. But working for just 25 minutes, then spending 5 minutes moving around, doing a few chores (avoiding my phone & computer), has been pretty amazing.

Then I came to his lesson “Hasty Writing vs. Slow Writing.” As a huge fan of Louise DeSalvo, I was already primed for what Matthew Fox called a “mindset” lesson. It ended with a link to the blogpost below.

I’ll still find a way to walk my 5 miles today. But I wish us both a slow Christmas.

John L. Wright

THE LOVELINESS OF THIS WORLD, John L. WrightFinishing Line Press, PO Box 1626, Georgetown KY 40324, 2020, 36 pages, $13.00 paper, https://www.finishinglinepress.com/.

It is always a pleasure to recommend a local poet. Wright lives in Edmonds and until 1988 was a physician at Swedish Medical Center. I’m so glad he made his way in retirement to poetry, or that poetry made its way to him.

Among many poems taking a fond look at people and dogs he has known  (and many, lost), The Loveliness of this World also catalogs Wright’s walks through a northwest landscape. After I walked at Japanese Gulch in Mukilteo this afternoon, I sat in my car and read this prose poem:

Walking in the Woods without an iPhone

–the red crest of pileated woodpeckers their drumming the whinnying flight of the flicker its white rump the call of the owl the eagle and the quail the basket bark of cedar the insipid taste of salmonberries the wild huckleberry’s tartness licorice fern rooted in the bark of big-leaf maple the purplish blush of alder its hanging catkins the Indian plum its white blossoms the leathery leaves of salal the yellow flowers of Oregon grape the fragrance of evergreen after rain.

Yes, I thought, exactly so

Let me add that this poem is not representative of the collection–many beautiful, more conventional poems I could have chosen–but I love the joyful and playful compression of this.

 

Writing the Circle: Prompt #3

“Your ability to make a choice and stick to it—your will—is your most powerful inner resource.” –Laura Day

Whether you used the last prompt as encouragement to generate 8 of your top writing wishes or 100, today’s prompt is all about choosing just one of these, for now, to focus on.

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around this prompt for awhile, and I think part of the difficulty for me lies in a reluctance to encourage anyone to have pie-in-the-sky dreams about their writing career.  Two books that have helped me with this are Rachel Ballon’s The Writer’s Portable Therapist and Robert Maurer’s One Small Step Can Change Your Life. 

In short, Ballon showed me how “unrealistic expectations [can] block your creativity and prevent you from ever realizing your writing dreams,” and Maurer taught me to take on the big stuff one small–really small–step at a time.

There’s (still) nothing wrong with your desires, by the way, no matter how large, but I want to give you a lesson now in imagining the smaller, moving parts to your desire. (Because before you can have a novel hit the best-seller list, you have to write a novel. Before you can write a novel, you have to develop a habit of writing that will sustain a long-term project.)

Even the “baby steps” can turn out to have smaller moving parts. If you need to learn how to write dialog, you’ll have to figure out the steps for how to learn to write dialog. (Buy a book? Take a class? Study authors who have killer dialog? Join a writing group and practice? All of the above?)

I learned this the hard way. If you look at my 10-year planner (or the one before that) you’ll see that I’ve been writing “Take a walk every day,” or “Be a person who walks every day” (and other variations) ever since my kids were small. For a short time I was able to muscle my way through this and actually do it, but then I missed a few days, and soon I was back to almost never taking an intentional walk.

Then I decided to make my goal of walking more specific and way, way smaller. I committed to taking a 5-minute walk each day (click on the link to read my blogpost about this), and just like Maurer promises in his book, accomplishing that small goal led me to increasing my minutes until now it’s a rare day that I don’t walk 30 or 40 minutes.

This achievement made me wonder if I couldn’t use the same strategy to move closer to one of my big writing goals, which was to write a mystery novel. (Something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid!)

Unlike earlier attempts at writing novels, this project was not going to be open-ended. I set myself up for failure to start with by saying I’d write my mystery in a month. I had to regroup at the end of the month, but it worked to an extent–I had something tangible by the end of 40 days of writing, a working premise, a cast of characters, and about 100 pages. It was enough to give me forward momentum. Despite being a rather slow writer (and my mom…and teaching fall quarter…) I kept the project inching forward and by December 31 I had a complete if very rough draft. And on January 1, I turned my sights toward revision. I am still working on the steps: I enlisted another wannabe novelist to revise with, creating our own very small mastermind/encouragement group, and I set some interim goals (submit to PNWA in February) to motivate me.

So, to return to Laura Day, she gives very clear advice about how to word your desire in positive, present-tense, specific language, and why that’s important.

1) To start with, narrow your focus to a single wish. Yes, you can take on more, but for now you’re practicing focusing–and focus requires us to, well, focus.

Distinguish, too, between the things you can control, and the things that are better given over to God or the universe. You have no control over the whims and moods of the editors at _______ poetry journal, but you do have control over how many submissions you make this year. You have no control over whether your book will be a best-seller, but you do have control over writing the best book you are able to write.

“One of the most profound traits that distinguishes you from other animals is your ability to imagine things that do not yet exist; your ability to envision future possibilities and to choose among them; in short, your ability to create.” -Laura Day

2) State your wish in positive, present-tense language. Not, I will no longer suck at dialogue, but I write AMAZING dialogue!

Stating your wish positively simply means saying what you want, not what you don’t want. While you’re at it, you also need to give up the word “wanting.” There’s a little psychological roadblock here (think of it this way, want = lack), and I think it also has to do with our deeply engrained language patterns. In essence, I’ve come to feel that a “want” list is often a “can’t list” in disguise. I want a new car, but I can’t have one. I want to get my novel published, but it can’t…. I want to have a better marriage, but there are all these reasons that I can’t. (Wah, wah, wah!)

Of course you want it, but let’s try putting it into different language. Not I want to write a mystery novel or I want to walk every day, but–

I am writing a mystery novel.

I walk every day. 

3) Finally, be specific! I’ve already addressed this above, but I want to emphasize the power of breaking your wish into smaller parts, and making it visible. Even “write a novel” is on the vague side (and so large it is more the universe’s job than yours). But you can write an outline of a novel, and then a paragraph and a page and a chapter. You can decide what sort of novel it is, who your readers are, and how long you want it to be. All of these things are specific and they’re 100% in your control.

I am revising my first chapter so I can read it aloud to my Wednesday writing group. 

I’ve used this strategy, by the way, on poems, too. This summer I was invited to write a poem for an Orca anthology, and–given that my mother was dying–I just couldn’t seem to do it. But I knew that writing a single poem wasn’t an unrealistic desire, and I truly wanted to write it. So I began drawing my circle in my journal each morning and writing inside it: I am writing a poem for Tahlequah and her calf. I built that poem image by image and line by line, but I managed to workshop it with an amazing group at Litfuse, and I submitted it to the anthology editors five days prior to the deadline–and three days before my mother died. I didn’t know if they would accept it or not, but they did. The poem, as it turned out, is as much an elegy for her, as it is for the orcas, and I’m grateful that I made time for it.

Here’s your assignment:

I’m a little worried that all my qualifiers in this prompt will be discouraging. They’re not meant that way. What I wish for you is traction for your writing dreams.

Whatever you’ve come up with–this wish that you know you can turn into reality, given the focus–your job right now is to draw a circle in your journal (the bottom of a coffee cup or a lid or a round coaster work great for this), then to write your wish in that space (in positive, present-tense, specific language!). You may want to write it on another sheet of paper to post above your writing desk.

I’d love it if you’d take a picture of your circle and send it to me!

On this first time through The Circle, this is a free series, and I plan to continue with emails to a small group of subscribers, so comment below or email me at bethany.alchemy@gmail.com — I’d love to have you on the journey with me.

Got Steps?

May is turning out to be my month for focusing on wellness (or, focusing on reporting to you on my wellness obsessions). And, yes, this really does have everything to do with your writing. (Just stick with me, and you’ll see.)

Because I keep a journal, I know that for an embarrassing number of years I have wanted to be a person who walks every day. I don’t know why exactly I wanted this, and it sounds a little lame to just state it bluntly like that. General good health was a reason. Because I’d heard that moving my body is  necessary if I want to keep my brain. Because I knew that walking would make me happy. And I didn’t mean just walking, of course. I wanted to be a person with a real super-power walking habit. I wanted bragging rights about walking.

So I tried. If I felt inspired I walked. And I had a few good habits in place: taking the stairs, always taking a walk when I rode the ferry. In Ireland, last fall, I did a ton of walking. But, for the most part, I could not credit myself with a habit of walking.

In fact, my desire to be a person who could say, “I walk every day,” had begun to weigh on me and make me ashamed. Not walking made me feel like a failure.

Shaming myself was counter-productive to walking.

Every time I thought about walking, I felt bad. And feeling crummy about it did not inspire me to walk. (And has shaming yourself about not writing led you to write?)

This year it occurred to me (finally, duh!) that maybe I could apply my “small steps” writing advice to walking. What if I set my phone timer, and walked for just five minutes a day?

This is how it’s gone for me, and how it might go for you, should you decide to finally become that person who writes every day.

Step one: Keep It Small

Every day, I set my cell phone timer for five minutes and during that five minutes, I walked. It did not have to be pretty. It did not have to be vigorous. It didn’t even have to be outside. It just had to be deliberate, non-stop walking. A few times, in early days, I walked around the grocery store for five minutes before I shopped. A couple times I walked around the house for five minutes — at, like, 11:45 p.m. (My dog thought it was interesting. Or weird. But I did it.)

But, despite its being an embarrassingly small start, after a few weeks I found that I had begun to make excuses to walk, rather than making excuses to not walk.

Step two: Increase It … as Slowly as Necessary

Once I had proven to myself that I could walk for five minutes, no problem, I began walking somewhere–out in the neighborhood, maybe — for five minutes, then resetting the timer and walking back. Presto! Ten minutes of walking! Worth noting here, the increases were gradual. Five minutes is STILL my fall back, my “can’t fail” strategy. Everything imaginable can go awry, and I can still stand up and walk for five minutes. No special shoes, clothing, or fancy trails required.

Step three: Notice (be conscious of) How It Makes You Feel

I can’t remember if walking felt so great to begin with. For one thing, it was wet and cold when I started. But it always felt great to have walked. Gradually, I began to notice other benefits. My Fitbit gave me activity minutes (which had been mostly not happening, previously) if I walked at a fair clip. And that was rewarding and made me feel good. So getting the activity minutes became a new goal.

And walking outside, in nature, made me so happy. Even in the rain. On a really hectic day, which I seem to have a lot of, taking my dog out at 10:00 at night, or later, made both of us feel good. (And late at night there are no other dogs for him to flip out at — small win there.)

Step four: Push It a Bit More

Think of your increases as an experiment. (And forgive yourself if you fall back.) I was soon walking for 15 minutes — 7.5 minutes there; 7.5 minutes back. But recently I decided there was no good reason not to do 15 there, 15 back. And I did it. So, every day for 11 days now, I’ve gotten 30 plus activity minutes.

Step five: Reward Yourself

You know how you’ve played that game on your phone 479 days in a row? You did not need to reward yourself with gold stars or lattes or anything else in order to do that. It’s the dopamine hit. You get a little tiny reward every time you complete a game.

My Fitbit rewards me with activity minutes, though it took a while for me to make the connection to my dopamine level. At some point, maybe in March, I realized that I was no longer ignoring or resisting my Fitbit. Now when it prompts me to get up from my writing and take 250 steps, I do it without thinking. If I’m driving, I pull over and find a place to walk. (I think I need a trail app.) How late will five minutes of walking make me?

Basically? My resistance to walking is gone, gone, gone. In the past I seldom ever hit 10,000 steps,  even though that was my Fitbit goal. Now, I routinely hit 10,000. If I’m at 9100 steps at bedtime, I take another walk! Whoohoo!

Step six: Report In

My way of reporting was just to take a pic of the trail or beach or wherever I was walking — with my phone — and post it to Instagram. But now I’m reporting to you, too.

Saying, “I’ve walked for at least 5 minutes every day since January 5,” may not impress anyone else, but I get this expansive, happy feeling when I say it. That is a huge change. When I think about walking now, I get the same “lit up” sensation that walking in the hills above Sligo, Ireland, gave me back in October.

I am a person who walks every day.

If you are a person who wants to write every day, but you’re not writing–you can apply these same steps. Yes, yes, I know that what works for me will not necessarily work for you. (That argument, my dear, is called resistance.) But, what will work for you? Have you given it a chance to work? Can you make a few experiments and see what happens?

So, as Nike used to say, Just do it.  Five minutes.