As summer approaches, and some sort of quarantine continues, there’s been plenty of talk of productivity and the joy of creating “schedules” to maximize our (creative) time.
But most of our lives look pretty weird these days. The days aren’t regular, but they’re not vacation, either. Many of our imposed schedules from the outside are gone, and we are finding ourselves floating in an immense and frightening freedom.
So the question is: how can we have both accountability and kindness for ourselves?
Now that my semester is ending, I’ve been asking myself this question a lot. I decided to do a little investigating into my stack of journals to see what my daily schedule looked like last summer when I was (both highly productive and) on sabbatical.
And that’s when I discovered something important: I didn’t have a schedule. I had a routine.
I woke between 7-10 am and spent 1-2 hours in bed reading or catching up on social media (but nothing “important”).
I got dressed and walked to the coffee shop and began to journal for the next 1-2 hours, depending on how quickly (or slowly) inspiration hit.
I went home, ate lunch, and worked for 2-3 hours. This part of the routine worked especially well because the afternoon hours were the hottest.
I finished working for the day and went exploring, walking, swimming, dinner, etc.
I realize this is an idealized routine, but the important takeaway is that because this was a routine and not a schedule, there were no set-in-stone times. I did NOT set the alarm to wake up at a specific time or say “I have to be at the coffee shop by noon” or whatever. Instead, the looseness of this routine vs a by-the-clock schedule meant that everything got done every day—but the daily particulars were flexible.
We all have many routines already. Consider: many of us wake up and then drink coffee. One thing naturally follows the other—we wake up, we make coffee, we drink it. I have never set my alarm to make sure I don’t miss drinking coffee–coffee is part of the routine.
Or: I read every night in bed before I go to sleep. Sometimes I read for an hour. Sometimes I read for 15 minutes. Sometimes it begins at 10 pm. Sometimes it begins at 11 or 8. I never have to schedule reading time because it always happens last in my daily routine.
Not looking at the clock works for me. Letting one thing naturally follow the other in a predictable sequence works for me. Creative work needs creative breathing room. And yes, it also needs discipline. But when we make schedules we can become militaristic—we beat ourselves up, lording the clock and the whip to do those 30 mins of yoga/meditation/writing by a certain time instead of honoring that we are dynamic animals in an ever-changing daily flow.
That’s why I think a routine is truly the sweet spot in the middle. Think of it as the “sliding scale” schedule, a sequence of events. Rather than “I must be at my desk by 10 am”, it can be: “I must go to my desk after coffee.”
That said, some things must be scheduled. Work, classes, events have a starting time that we may have to work around. But for all the rest of the time, especially with summer birthing itself and many of us yearning for more productivity in this strange, in-between time, I encourage you to get investigative: throw out the clock, listen to your your natural rhythm, and discover your perfect routine. When in the day are you the most productive? When do you want to rest? Do you wake up ready to write? Or do you like to wake up slowly? Do you like to take a nap? Stay up late? Take a walk in the evening or after working? See if you can create a routine that really supports that flow this season, rather than imposing a schedule that may be counter to what you (and your creativity) really need.
Remember: Even the bunnies stay out later in the spring, regardless of what the clock says.
Here’s to your perfect routine!
(and check out some of the surprising routines of creative people below)
Workshops: Not Cancelled!
In honor of my delayed book release I will be running a fun, 5-day “Going Short” Writing Flash Fiction (with preview chapters from the book) workshop from June 22-26 for those of you who want to get your pens moving. Registration opens soon.
Extremely spare, the micro stories in Randall Brown’s latest collection, This is How He Learned to Love, function almost as tiny puzzles to decipher. Brown is a master of compression, and these stories are the most delicate of enigmas rupturing page after page with the rhythm of a heartbeat.
Nancy Stohlman: So in the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in six words:
Randall Brown: Short bursts of emotion, maybe insight.
NS: I absolutely love your use of titles, and I remember you sharing how to use titles unconventionally at the AWP panel on microfiction in 2019. Your titles, especially the ones in this book, almost feel at times like a classic call and response (I’m thinking of your final story, “Yes, I Knew”). Discuss.
RB: Because almost all of these piece fit on a single page, I thought perhaps readers would read the title, then the story, then the title again. So the title might work as a first line, last line, or both. Other times, the title was an original word or phrase in the piece that, in the process of editing, got deleted. In titles such as “Skip a Life Completely” and “What To Do,” they came from other sources, the first from Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” and the latter from the rhyme “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” In a piece such as “Ghost Writer,” the title sets up the reader to think one way about the meaning of a “ghost writer” and then the ending might change that meaning. I do like to find words in titles that might have varied meanings, especially if those meanings might change as the reader progresses through each piece.
NS: I’m curious about your process, especially as you have been on the front lines of flash fiction for a long time. Do you start with longer ideas and then whittle them down to these little micro nuggets? Or do they come out short? Has your process changed over time?
RB: They come out this short—and most of my ideas work no longer than a single 9 x 6 page. The idea comes first. For example, I recently thought about a guy who fires his inner voice and begins to interview for a replacement. Why would he fire his voice? What might the other voices he interview sound like? What might he learn from the process? I then write to find out myself, to figure it out, to see what happens. Most of the times, I find that the execution of the idea fails and fails and fails again. That is one great thing about the (very) short from. You can try many, many times to make an idea or piece work. For me, there’s a lot of anxiety around writing, especially the uncertainty about whether each choice is the right one. So getting the piece to end quickly is key to my surviving the process. Also, it helps so so much that, in my non-writing life, I repress most feelings. They get buried deeply, and there they compress themselves, getting deeper, denser, until they just have to explode. I let that happen in the writing. Boom.
NS: I’m laughing. Well said, and how nice of your subconscious to compress for you! So one result of the micro form, then, is that there is often a lot of white space on the page. When one flips through the pages of This is How He Learned to Love, for instance, the simplicity can be deceiving. I wanted to (and did) read most of these stories twice, and I’m pretty sure they will continue to reveal themselves to me on every subsequent read. Is this something you do intentionally or does it happen unconsciously?
RB: Maybe it’s the nature of compression, that each word is loaded so that each word continues to set-off varied meanings. Frost’s “The Oven Bird” ends with this sentence: “The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing.” Perhaps, one answer to that, for Frost, was that one makes a poem, another “diminished” thing in response to a fallen (diminished?) world in which “the highway dust is over all.” One thing I learned from Frost is the use of “indeterminate” words that seem simple but have various possible referents. In the above line, for example, Frost’s use of “thing” allows the reader to fill in that “indefinite-ness” with varied meanings. In my collection, you’ll find many examples of Frost’s technique. Just in the first story: “my father whispered something”; “somewhere, in between casts”; “I’d felt it this time”; “something entirely else.” Those “indefinite” words continually search for a referent, and that feels about right, doesn’t it, for the nature of things.
NS: This sort of nuance and complexity is (in my opinion) where prose meets poetry. How can flash writers hone this level of nuance in their writing?
RB: I learn (surely not steal) from other writers’ techniques. For example, from Kim Chinquee I learned how to remove modifiers at the end of sentences. At the end of the titular piece in the collection, I originally wrote something like “And then he’ll have to decide whether to stay or leave.” Channeling Chinquee, I changed it to “And then he’ll have to decide.” I think another time I had a sentence such as “In the crib, the baby rattled the bars.” This changed to “In the crib, the baby rattled.”
In reading Poe, I came across this line: “I quickly unclosed my eyes.” Cool way to define things, I thought, by what they are not, rather than what they are. In one story, instead of dislike or hate, I used the word “unlove.” In reading Anne Sexton, I found “my heart / is a kitten of butter.” I loved the repeated “tt” that connected the words. That might become something like “he kicked the deck of cards” in a story, not even close to the wonder of Anne Sexton, of course, but an attempt.
And so on. In Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma,” he ends the song with the line, “It’s life and life only.” Would the line “it’s love and love only” be too much of a “steal” from Dylan? Hmmm.
NS: Hmmm, indeed! So Randall, you are a very funny person in real life (and on social media!), but the stories you write are often quite serious. And yet the humor slips in very gently, in subtle ways and moments. Talk about humor in your writing.
RB: By being funny, I think you mean I comb the internet for jokes and either post them or memorize them to deliver at the right moment. I think the humor is a preventative against pretension: it helps me not take myself too seriously. It sometimes works.
NS: This is How He Learned to Love was the first runner-up in the Sonder Press Chapbook Competition—congratulations! Talk your journey to publication with this book.
RB: Not much to tell. They asked if I wouldn’t mind having them publish the collection. even though it didn’t win. Such an honor to be asked by such a wonderful press! I was over the moon. Elena Stiehler provided amazing editing suggestions—and I believe I said YES to all of them, except when she tried to cut a reference to Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh stays. I was adamant about that. No one puts Pooh in the corner. Well, unless it’s Pooh’s Corner. Then it’s okay.
NS: Okay, so here comes the genre question: You’ve published many books in many genres, including prose poetry (I Might Never Learn), a novella (How Long is Forever) and even non-fiction (A Pocket Guide to Flash Fiction) as well as being a master of flash fiction. Talk about the crossover. Does it help cross-pollinate your work or do you have to shake off one genre to fully engage in the other?
RB: To be honest, and I know we disagreed about this idea a bit on our panel at AWP, I don’t care what label gets put on a collection or piece. It comes out the way it comes out. So that’s my “real” answer. But here’s maybe a more helpful answer. The longer my pieces get, the worse they get. This has been confirmed not only by agents, readers, editors, and the like, but by the very best scientists. Big league scientists. And I have often wondered why that’s the case. To make things longer, to draw things out, things need to happen, and I find that to make the choice after choice of “what should happen?” means I’m too often going to get it not quite right. I think I’m better at making the language-level choices of what should come next than at making the narrative choices of what should happen next. After a bit, choice after wrong choice of what should happen next leads to a rather confusing, convoluted narrative. I’m working on it still.
NS: I first read your essay about flash fiction in the Rose Metal Field Guide to Flash Fiction in 2009, when I was writing my MFA Thesis. How do you think flash fiction has changed (for good or bad) in the last decade?
RB: I think I might’ve been able to get noticed way back when just for writing something so compressed and compact; now, the size itself isn’t enough to get readers interested. There might be more focus on what each writer is able to do with that compressed space—and perhaps editors and readers want to see innovation beyond the challenge “Can you tell a story in [ ] words”? So, I think when I was first writing flash, pieces were partially accepted because of the novelty of the form; places weren’t being inundated with very short fictions. Nowadays, I don’t think there is much novelty in writing flash fiction: editors are quite familiar with the form. So writers might need to push the form into new, exciting places or create content that feels fresh.
NS: I totally agree with you–short and clever isn’t enough anymore. It’s a good thing you are short, clever, and brilliant!
It’s been such a joy to chat with you, Randall. Can you share links to buy the book or other promo links?
RB: I just finished HAND IN HAND, a coffee table photo & essay book that matches the macro-photography of my wife Meg Boscov with my own micro. A weekly dose of image and words gives readers (we hope) a year of inspiration, meditation, and reflection. That makes for fifty-two macro/micro doses. It’s available at Matter Press or Amazon . We also have AFTER available on Kindle. AFTER again takes photos from award-winning photographer Meg Boscov, but this time projects them into a peopleless future, and describes, in the prose poetry accompanying each one, the time after the melting, after the rising, after the disappearing, as Earth begins the recovery, out of the woods, a return to form.
Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning collection MAD TO LIVE, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in THE ROSE METAL PRESS FIELD GUIDE TO WRITING FLASH FICTION, and he appears in BEST SMALL FICTIONS 2015 & 2017 & 2019 and The Norton Anthology NEW MICRO: EXCEPTIONALLY SHORT FICTION & The Norton Anthology HINT FICTION. He founded and directs FlashFiction.Net and has been published and anthologized widely, both online and in print. Recent books include the prose poetry collection I MIGHT NEVER LEARN (Finishing Line Press 2018), the novella HOW LONG IS FOREVER (Running Wild Press 2018), and the flash fiction collection THIS IS HOW HE LEARNED TO LOVE (Sonder Press 2019). He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College.
I was inspired to address this issue after I read multiple social media posts, all from writers I admire, all lamenting that they “weren’t writing.”
Not writing is painful. Unfinished work sitting there is painful. You might beat yourself up with a bunch of “shoulds” and berate your lack of discipline. It can make you feel hopeless, drained of energy and questioning if it’s even worth it. No wonder you keep avoiding it!
But there are usually some very good reasons why you’re avoiding your work. To start with, you’re a better writer now. Just do the math: if you started even one year ago, then you’re a better writer now. And that’s a good thing! That’s the beauty of practice paying off. But it can also feel frustrating when you realize that first story or first draft, the one you labored over, might have made you a better writer but isn’t at your level anymore.
Or you’re in a different emotional place. Often the impetus that drove us to the page resolves or fades; whatever we were grappling with has been settled. Perhaps we’re on the other side of a life change, and the early writing was part of our process, but now we aren’t “feeling it.”
Or you’re overly loyal to your original vision. After all, you’ve probably put in countless hours of work. But sometimes we become too attached to our original vision; sometimes we’ve read and reread our sentences so many times we can’t imagine them any other way. And when we can’t imagine new possibilities for our work, when everything is known and nothing unknown…well, then it’s no wonder we’re not writing.
And, finally, you might be shifting gears. This almost always happens to me after finishing a big project. After a book for instance, I like to consider myself creatively postpartum, recovering from the birth and taking care of the new baby for at least 6-12 months. Anything I try to write in that time will end up sounding exactly like what I was writing before because I haven’t shifted gears, yet.
But it’s discouraging, regardless of the reason, to find yourself fallow, quiet.
So what to do?
1.Give yourself a break. The creative process ebbs and flows, and what goes up must go down…and back up again. Trust the process.
2. Read. I especially like to reread favorite books in these periods. Sink into the familiar and remember why you love words.
3: Remember: creation is ultimately play. Get silly and messy and re-discover what is joyful. Be curious. Be ridiculous. Be shameless. Take a bold risk into new territory and allow yourself to fail. Remember: no one has to know.
Love, Nancy xoxo
*excerpted from Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction coming this summer
Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction is a craft book that has been seven years in the making and is the product of my 12+ years in the flash fiction movement. I draw from workshops, lectures, interviews, and my experiences as a flash publisher, editor, curator, and teacher, but most importantly as a fellow writer, in the beautiful trenches of a new genre.
I’m THRILLED to be joining the ranks of Ad Hoc Fiction writers! Ad Hoc Fiction has been a leader in flash fiction publishing both in the UK and abroad, winning the 2019 Best Publisher Award at the Creative Bath Awards. Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction will officially release at the 2020 Flash Fiction Festival UK, in time for the Fall Semester writing classes.
(Educators and reviewers, please contact me if you would like early previews.)
“In Going Short, Nancy Stohlman captures the true spirit of flash fiction, those brief narratives imbued with all the urgency of life itself. An extremely practiced flash fiction writer, Stohlman is also a veteran teacher. She knows the territory and takes us on a trip from getting started to the finishing line, and everything in between. It’s hard to think of a more thoughtful, adept, and enthusiastic guide.”
~David Galef, author of Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook
“Nancy Stohlman has written the definitive, and appropriately concise, book on the flash fiction form. You’ll learn what flash fiction is and isn’t, tips on writing it, tips on honing, sculpting, and polishing it (I especially like her idea of “swapping” sentences and paragraphs in revision and “strategic cutting”), along with thoughtful discussions on the flash novel and tips for pulling together a flash collection. As a widely-published master of the form herself, Stohlman brings years of teaching experience and her own engaging voice and wit to this useful, encouraging, and entertaining guide. A must-have for flash writers of all levels.”
~Kathy Fish, author of Wild Life: Collected Works 2003-2018
“This book is an invitation to flash dance with Nancy Stohlman, an accomplished partner who will show you the steps you can take, the fluid moves you can make on the flash fiction studio floor. It is all about practice. She will spin you around and show you things you didn’t know you could do, and lead you to a kind of prose performance you didn’t think possible. It’s all about paying close attention and getting it down with the necessary urgency. It’s not easy at first, it’s a tricky art form, but Nancy shares her sharp insight and offers short cuts to get you more quickly to your own satisfaction and your reader’s delight. And at the studio door when it’s time to leave, she hands you a scroll of a hundred good ideas and wishes you happy travel. Just follow the map.”
~James Thomas, Co-editor of the Norton Flash Fiction books
Recently I was asked to speak at a local community college for National Day of Writing. Driving there, I decided to scrap my prepared speech and instead asked myself: What would I have wanted someone to tell me when I was an undergrad who dreamed of becoming a writer?
1. You need to practice–maybe not every day but most days.
2. You need to have something to say.
3. You will get better.
4. You need writing colleagues.
5. You need writing mentors.
6. You don’t need degrees.
7. You will write some bad stories.
8. You will write some practice books.
9. The good news: You never get too old to be a writer.
10. Don’t just write what you know: go into the unknown.
11: Write what is dangerous.
12: Don’t outline (at first)–let it surprise you.
13: You need a writing routine if you want to accomplish a big project.
14. You style may and will change.
15: Cultivate beginner’s mind: hold onto that feeling of creative audacity even when you’ve been doing it for years.
16: Learn how to (really) revise.
17: Find readers you trust (and shower them with gratitude).
18.You must publish small before you can publish big.
19. Don’t rush to publish: wait until your work is ready.
20. Agents (publicists, etc.) are not fairy godmothers and they don’t have magic wands.
21. Learn how to advocate for yourself.
22. Support other writers.
23. The publishing world is small: be nice.
24. The creative process ebbs and flows–don’t panic.
25. You will change as a writer. Embrace it.
P.S. Come revise with me in December! Just in time for your New Year’s Resolution, in this 3-day intensive we will revise some of your flash fiction drafts and get them ready for the next page! Just a few spots left!
I first wrote this article a few years ago, but every year, when I hear a writer preface a moment of celebration with “here comes some shameless self-promotion, but…” I realize it’s time to pull it back out.
Self-Promotion or Self-Prostitution?
Do you hate the idea of self-promotion? Do you tell yourself that you’re not good at it? That you shouldn’t have to do it? Do you apologize every time you do it? If you hate self-promotion, or even the prospect of self-promotion, you’re not alone. We all want to be left alone with our writing and let someone else handle the promotion part. And no matter the genre, all artists seem to share a similar aversion. Most of us are still waiting for an agent/manager/publicist to come and rescue us from the prospect of having to promote…ourselves?
As artists, we’ve internalized certain agreed-upon stories, certain cultural mythologies that may be blocking our ability to put ourselves and our work out into the world. But the catch is if we want to be taken seriously, we have to start playing seriously. And since most of us agree that self-promotion is necessary, it’s worth taking a look at these stories and deciding whether perpetuating them is serving our art and our careers—or not.
1. The Starving Artist Story: “I’m not going to make any money at this, anyway.”
If we were running a company, a large portion of our budget would go to marketing, right? If we were selling shoes, our livelihood would depend on us getting out there and selling some shoes. Even if we were running a lemonade stand, we would understand that, in order to sell lemonade, we would need to make signs or hire neighborhood kids with megaphones to let people know that lemonade is available. If no one knows about our lemonade, then no one will buy it no matter how fantastic it might be.
But when it comes to our art, we’ve subscribed to a “starving artist” story that tells us that we’re probably not going to make any money at this, anyway, so we don’t take the task of promotion seriously. In fact, most of us would probably do a better job promoting the lemonade than we would the art that we have poured our blood and souls into.
It’s crucial to realize that if you want to make a career out of your art, then you have gone into business—with yourself. My product is my work. If no one knows about my product, they can’t buy it. And then I’m out of business.
Many of us don’t promote because we would rather fail privately than publicly. We fear rejection and ridicule; we retreat into craft instead. But as long as we are stoking the starving artist story, then we’re going into the game already defeated. If we believe we cannot make a living out of our art…then we probably won’t.
2. The Overnight Success Story:“Once I’m famous someone else will do this.”
This is the mythical story of the artist who is catapulted into fame from obscurity with little effort of their own. While this mythology is exciting, and the media loves to dangle it as some warped version of the American Dream, it’s also a bit like expecting to win the Powerball.
This overnight success story is a darling of artists and runs deep in our culture. But if you look carefully behind most successes, you will usually find a different story. Madonna made hundreds of demos with her own money and personally brought them to every DJ in New York City; Truman Capote sat for 8 hours a day in the lobby of the publisher who refused to see him. Even Rosa Parks, our favorite “little old lady” who wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus and thus triggered the Civil Rights Movement, was actually a veteran activist for 15 years when she was finally in the right place at the right time.
Because that’s what it comes down to: “It’s not enough to be at the right place at the right time—you have to be the right person at the right place at the right time,” says musical agent Justin Sudds in his interview for “Take Your Talent to the Bank.” The truth of the overnight success story is that it is usually not overnight at all.
But what’s most problematic about this story is that it’s disempowering because it takes the responsibility for our careers out of our hands. Our careers become like playing roulette, and we feel powerless to affect real change. And I like playing roulette, but only with what I am prepared to lose.
3. “It’s Not Polite to Brag”
This is the story that really paralyzes us.
Here’s the truth: Will some people be annoyed by your promotional efforts? Yes. But usually the ones who are annoyed, offended, or otherwise triggered by your efforts are the ones who have not embraced their own. So their support or non-support for you and your work really has little to do with you and more to do with them. It’s pretty hard to jump on someone else’s bandwagon when your own bandwagon isn’t moving. It’s pretty hard to muster up enthusiasm for someone else when you haven’t really put your own work out there. So when you encounter this kind of resistance: be kind.
But they are in the minority. Most of the people won’t care, and in fact they will be happy that you’ve made it so easy for them. It’s said that a person needs to hear something five times (yes, five!) before they take action, and in our busy world most people are happy for the reminders.
So bottom line: self-promotion is not bragging. It’s asking for the support we need to create the artistic lives we want.
In this Puritan society we are told that “it’s better to give than receive,” so we give, we give, we give…but most of us have a hard time receiving. And most of us have an even harder time asking for what we want. If I want people to read my work—I have to ask. If I want people to come to my website, my lecture, or buy my latest book—I have to ask. You can’t fault people if you haven’t even asked them.
In our everyone-for-himself society we’ve attached a stigma to asking for help. But we also have to remember that artists must exist in community, and you have to put yourself out there with honesty and authenticity. Self-promotion is about asking for the support we need and building relationships with those who are excited about us and our work. It’s the greatest thing you can do for the promotion of art outside of creating the art itself.
And yes, it’s true that Emily Dickinson did no promotion. But then again, she never got to enjoy the rewards, respect, or recognition of her work while she was alive.
I want more for myself and my art.
And I want more for you, too.
First, a confession: I’m a slow reader. It’s a curse because I know I’ll never finish all the amazing books out there (I even wrote a story, “What Happened in the Library”, where the narrator hired a reading clone). I’ve had to accept that I can only finish 1 or 2 books a month while other friends (you know who you are!) get through a book or two every week.
Seeing this as a weakness, my life was changed forever when I read and photocopied for posterity an article titled “The Intentional Reader” by Bob Hostetler in Poets and Writers back in 2000. The original is no longer available but here are two excerpts that together capture the essence of what I read back then: The Intentional Reader and Do You Plan Your Reading?
In the article, Hostetler encourages writers to intentionally read out of our comfort zones. This “intentional reading” is a potent way of keeping ourselves “schooled” and challenging our minds…and that will ultimately improve us as writers (and human beings). Too often we habitually reach for a certain style of book (because we like it!) or we read what was recommended/loaned by a friend (and if you are like me books by friends–woohoo!). While there is nothing wrong with reading spontaneously, it can keep us from challenging ourselves as readers because those books are never at the top of our list/bedside pile. And sadly, without a clear action plan to purposely challenge ourselves as readers and approach different/more intimidating texts…it usually doesn’t happen. Not because we don’t have good intentions to read this or that book or author or more about that topic…but because time and reading have a way of slipping away from us. Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce’s Ulysses
So… the Intentional Reading Syllabus is an action plan, a way to take charge of our own continuing education.
For many years I created my reading syllabus as part of my New Year’s Resolution (and that works great!), but it works equally as well at the start of a new school cycle. As teachers and professors are putting together their syllabuses and outcomes for their students, it’s a natural time for writers to do the same, setting clear reading goals for yourself so you always know what to read next as well as why you are reading it.
Inspired by Hostetler’s original list, and refined over the last 20 years, here’s my modified Reading Syllabus Template (feel free to steal it!)
· 3 books by authors I’ve never read before
· 2 classics
· 2 rereads
· 1 new book by a favorite author
· 2 books on writing
· 2 nonfiction books on topics I know nothing about
· 1 book of poetry
· 1 memoir
· 1 biography
· 1 children/YA book
· 1 play
· 1 book in translation
· 1 mule choker (Hostetler’s term: i.e. a book over 700 pages)
That’s 18 books. Add to that various other books that come up during the year and that’s about all I can handle.
What I’ve found after doing this practice for almost two decades is that even if I don’t get to everything on my list, having the list at all keeps me focused, consciously choosing to read away from what is familiar or comfortable and into what is not.
So, as the new school year approaches, consider making your own Reading Syllabus for the year. Then print it out and hang it above your desk or work area.
Because, if you’re like me, you get crazy satisfaction from checking things off a list.
I’m bored the kids whine as soon as summer begins. Boredom seems bad. And it’s so easy to fill the empty spaces with a million easy-to-reach options: from food to electronics to conversation. “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean!” say the Ghosts of Restaurant Managers Past. Empty time seems wrong somehow.
But let me suggest, after putting it to the test myself, that the real key to finding inspiration no matter where you are is a healthy dose of Holy Boredom.
I’m writing to you now at the end of my sabbatical. (After 10 years of teaching college I decided that I was giving myself my own sabbatical!) And I’ve discovered that even on sabbatical, once the initial excitement wears off, it’s easy to get bored. My budget wine-cellar-turned-apartment has no television. Internet is spotty and unavailable altogether once I leave my apartment. But it took me about a week to discover this because, of course being someplace new makes you want to walk, explore, snap pictures. Which is why inspiration, real inspiration, did not arrive for me until week 2, when I’d explored all the crannies, eaten at all the restaurants, took all the pictures, and finally found boredom.
Holy Boredom—that place of nothing-ness where everything already lives.
My guru is always (gently) reminding me that I need to meditate. I try. I have an app. I schedule it in my normally busy schedule, in between A and B. But the real point of mediation, as I understand it, is to quiet the mind, to silence the honking horns of urgency.
Holy boredom is to creativity what meditation is to the mind. Intentional stillness. Wide open space with no agenda. We think we’re so busy because the outside world is always pushing down on us (insert job, obligations, etc.) But also we do it to ourselves. We keep our mind busy, spinning, distracted. it’s not until you reach a place of actual boredom that inspiration, that deep inspiration, can shyly arrive.
So it’s not the table with the view by the sea that creates the inspiration—it’s the wide spaces of nothingness you create around the table. Staring out a window with no agenda. A long silent walk (with no phone). Room for boredom without the usual distractions: music, television, conversation.. It’s from that deep stillness your most original ideas can finally bubble to the surface.
As a disciplined person, one who normally uses all time available with military precision, scheduling in boredom seems, well, silly. But the good news is that this can happen here, now: you don’t have to travel anywhere to create pockets of holy boredom—they already exist, we just fill them so fast we don’t even see them: whoosh! Gone. So this summer, if scheduling “writing time” seems too intimidating or exhausting, why not just make room for a bit of daily boredom in those spots that you usually fill with blur and noise and see what bubbles up instead?
To Your Success!
PS: Maybe find a Boredom Buddy to keep you accountable?
I’m a big believer in writing retreats. Even if you write every day, it’s important to periodically dive more deeply into your work for a sustained amount of time. But sometimes a week-long retreat isn’t possible or maybe it is possible but it’s too far away and your writing relationship needs an intervention right now.
Enter the solo writing retreat weekend.
I’ve been doing mini solo writing retreats out of necessity for many years, and I like to think I have just about perfected the micro condensed, inexpensive yet highly effective solo writers retreat. Don’t get me wrong–while it’s absolutely amazing to give yourself the gift of an official retreat, MUCH can be done in a solo weekend or even daylong retreat if you do it right.
Here is my mini retreat formula and some guidelines:
1. You must get out of your house but you shouldn’t go somewhere too interesting. Some of my most productive mini writing retreats have happened at a friend’s empty condo or the cheapest Travelodge or Motel 6 I can find. The point is to stay in your room and write. Bad weather is a bonus.
2. You must be alone. No visitors. Non-negotiable.
3. To really dive deep you need one entire 24-hour period, so I recommend you arrive at your retreat spot the day before if you can so you can wake up ON your retreat. If Saturday is my retreat day, I check into the hotel on Friday after work.
4. Take food with you lest you be tempted to go out exploring. Food should be simple, relatively healthy, easily available, and not overly interesting, food that won’t put you into a junk food/sugar coma (and needing a nap) but will keep you from needing to interrupt your work and go out to eat.
5. Try to avoid alcohol (and other substances), and sugar until you have FINISHED your retreat.
6: Beware of cable television and internet surfing, both of which are distractions on retreat as they are in real life. Consider only checking the internet during designated times (I give myself 10 minutes at the top of each hour).
Here is what a mini weekend retreat schedule looks like for me:
Friday: Take overnight bag and computer with me to work and drive to location right after. Check in. Go to closest grocery store and buy food for the weekend. That night: Spend 1-2 hours rereading my work so it’s fresh in my mind and percolating in my dreams. Go to bed early so I can wake up early and begin.
Saturday: Retreat Day Morning: Wake up and start writing. Eat and do a good 2-3 hour chunk of writing before noon. Lunch Break: (no more than 1 hour). Weather permitting take a quick walk to get the blood pumping. After lunch: another 2-3 hour chunk of writing. Late afternoon/early evening—At this point if the work has been going well I might take a few hours off. Take another walk or maybe eat a quick dinner out. Maybe take a nap if needed (but set alarm!). Evening: Another 2-3 hours of writing after dinner. Night: NOW watch bad cable, eat sugar, drink wine, and decompress. Sometimes if I’m feeling particularly accomplished I’ll go to a late movie.
Sunday: Wake up and get at least one more 2-hour chunk of writing in before checking out.
Go out to celebration lunch on the way home. *Very important to celebrate your successes!
If you’ve been doing the math, that’s somewhere in the range of 9-13 hours of writing in less than 48 hours! That’s A LOT of writing. And as a bonus you will probably also get good, extended sleep, lots of self-reflection time, and maybe a dip in the hotel hot tub. You will leave feeling accomplished and in motion with your writing and you will wonder why you haven’t done it before…and whether you can pull it off every month.
Maybe you can????
To your success!
PS: Let me know how this works for you!
PSS: AND if you also want to come on a longer retreat with me and other writers, consider 4 days in the Rocky Mountains in August or a week in Costa Rica in March 2020! Find out more
Shakespeare was the first to call it the “green-eyed monster.” And since we are here, in a month of green, with green holidays and the Ides of (backstabbing) March, let’s talk honestly for a second about artistic jealousy..
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that, despite our very best efforts, artistic jealousy affects us all at one time or another. Recently, on a low day, I was feeling a twinge of the green and decided to put it out there on social media: “What do you do to not ride the green spiral down?” So many responses from funny to inspiring to serious, but the bottom line: most people could relate.
If you have never been jealous of a colleague’s work or success, then you are a bigger person than me. Mind you, I try very hard to not go there, and I genuinely like my colleagues and I want them all to succeed. Nineteen out of twenty days I subscribe to the “we all win when we all win” mentality, and I deeply believe it’s the only way to have a rewarding artistic life.
But… no matter who you are, there is probably somebody out there who is kicking more butt than you, and it seems to be happening effortlessly (even though we rationally know that’s probably not true).
Over the years I’ve been jealous of many things. When I was overworked I was jealous of those with open, breezy writing schedules. When I was broke and raising two small children, I was jealous of those without financial worries or those who had the financial means to support their writing. When my creative well was dry and parched I was jealous of those whose muse never seemed to grow tired. When I couldn’t get published by a dream journal I would be jealous of those who did. When I was struggling to sell a manuscript or get a publisher/agent, I was jealous of all the new books birthing.
And…on and on.
If you look at the world through this lens, it truly doesn’t end. Of course you might have noticed that the common denominator in all these examples is ME! When I was feeling low, then I was jealous. And for me, that’s the key discovery here: Jealousy is triggered by a feeling of lack inside of ME–it really has nothing to do with them. Because if we were having a gold star day, then our colleague’s success, muse, money or time wouldn’t affect us at all.
To deny these feelings only stuffs them down deeper and then you end up with hemorrhoids and cancer. So while I don’t have a magic answer, here are three things that help me:
1. Speak it. Acknowledge it. Don’t pretend you aren’t feeling it. Tell someone. Or tell everyone on social media. Jealousy grows when it’s allowed to fester, so don’t let it fester. (Did you notice that “jealousy” contains the word “lousy”?)
2. Do something nice for yourself. You probably wouldn’t be feeling this way if you were having a gold-star day, so you probably need a little extra something. There was a time in my life when I would go eat a banana split every time I got a rejection. It just made the rejections go down easier and I love hot fudge. So…do something nice for yourself.
3. Try to remember Georgia O’ Keefe’s best advice ever: “I have already settled it for myself, so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.”
Meaning: Take all the good days and good reviews and all the bad days and bad reviews and flush them both down the same toilet and get back to work.