I woke this morning imagining a different day.

I write this afternoon to imagine a very different day.

I need an anthem for this year that is the opposite of the events that played out at the capitol.

Be a lover. Be a healer. Be a helper. Be kind. Lift up others. Lead by example. Lead with heart, collaboration, and compassion. Imagine.

Gifts and Knives: 2020

Fifteen years ago I wrote a series of stories I loosely titled Gifts and Knives. As this year comes to a close, I keep thinking about that title and how fitting it is for my experience in 2020, a year filled with unexpected blessings and devastating losses.

I’m choosing to focus my energy on 2020’s gifts. My parents’ visit extended beyond their originally planned departure date by several months, unexpectedly ensuring I was not too isolated when the lockdown began in mid-March. Because of this, we spent Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and July 4th together before they traveled home to Michigan from NorCal.

I got to spend valuable time with my step-grandson, who hiked and camped with me and the wild things during the few weeks we had together in July. As a result, I wasn’t truly alone until August, but thanks to hikes with friends (including a hike on Fergus’s first birthday where he got some great off-leash practice) and a second camping trip, I was not lonely. Through the patient encouragement of my friends, Fergus discovered he loves to swim during our second camping trip!

We managed two wonderful hikes in September, three in October, and four in November. While we cannot go as far or as fast as we used to, Beatle is happy for adventures, Fergus is learning how to be a good off-leash hiking hound, and Hiccup is slowly accepting that Fergus is a permanent part of the pack. As December comes to a close, we’ve managed a few more adventures, albeit a little closer to home.

I started meditating, journaling, and blogging again this year. I finished my 13th year participating in NaNoWriMo and, unlike in years past, continued daily creative writing in December at a more reasonable pace and with friends helping to keep me accountable.

This year has been absolutely been brutal personally and professionally, for me and for those about whom I care. But 2020 also reminded me that I have a lot to be thankful for, including phone and Facetime calls, Zoom meetings with family and friends, handwritten letters, text messages, a responsive landlord, excellent neighbors (so grateful for cacti cuttings and Christmas Eve surprise homemade chili and cheese tamales!), outdoor socially-distanced BYO lunch/dinner events, and drive-in movie nights. Every day I’m grateful to share my heart and home with my cat and three dogs – my wild things. Every day I’m thankful for my health and the love of family and friends.

I thought I might indulge in a time-machine tour of 2020 highlighting images from each month that encapsulate something positive I want to carry with me into the new year.

The Wild Things and I will be staying in and staying safe tonight as we welcome the new year.

May you find gifts among the ruins of 2020. My memories are full of family, friends, and furry companions. These are the gifts I treasure.

Merry Mischief

Heading out for a Christmas morning adventure with the wild things – and am so grateful for family, friends, and my furry companions.

So much has changed over the past year. For example, Fergus, my Goldendoodle puppy, is now about 100 pounds of puppy love.

Hiccup, Beatle, and Fergus – Christmas 2019

Last year, my parents were visiting at Christmas – this year, the Wild Things and I are on our own. We’re enjoying a chilly morning hike in the foothills and then Zooming with my family in the midWest.

Hopefully, you’re able to celebrate safely this year. No matter how this day finds you, count your blessings. Family, friends, and these furry faces are keeping my heart happy.

Beatle, Hiccup, and Fergus – Christmas Eve, 2020
Cookie? – Christmas Eve, 2020

Stay safe and healthy and thanks for reading.

Creative Reset

Sometimes it is hard to find your groove, hit that sweet-spot that balances inspiration and effort, and feel like you’re in the flow rather than against it. If you feel like you’re fighting with your creativity, maybe it is time to hit a hard reset. Here are my quick recommendations and, if you read further, why I recommend them:

  • Keep track of how you spend your time to determine what is serving you and what is not.
  • Limit investment in non-nutritional activities.
  • Give yourself permission to daydream.
  • Shake up your routine or approach.

For me, this reset process started by reviewing where I spend my time. I heard the saying “where your attention goes, your energy flows” in several different forms and forums lately, and rather than discounting the message, I chose to take action.

First, I examined where I invest my waking hours, especially my free time, and determined whether each activity was serving my creative goals or detracting from them, energizing me or draining me. Going through this exercise, I found I engage in several non-nutritional activities – especially around tuning in and tuning out on social media or television. I’m a daydreamer, and a firm believer that you need space in your day for dreaming, but I also recognize that when I spend my time online or watching programming, I can slip down a rabbit hole of disconnection rather than true engagement and, in turn, be drained by that activity. There is an enormous difference between consuming content and engaging with it.

My attempt to give up social media and television for blocks of time, especially when I found it triggering negative emotions, proved sustainable for only days, not weeks or months. So, rather than quitting these activities entirely, I try to limit my time and performing regular gut-checks; if I’m not engaged in a positive way, I’m logging out of social platforms or turning off the television.

I’m currently using Facebook for collaborative creative accountability in a private group. I am engaged there, and not as engaged elsewhere on the platform. I’m setting aside specific chunks of time to engage on social media and continuing to limit my time watching or streaming programming to help reset my energy and find my creative flow.

In addition, I’ve given myself the latitude to daydream, without judgment, a little bit each day.

When I was a child, a teacher wrote on an elementary school progress report that I tended to daydream as though this was a negative trait that my parents should discourage. But children and adults need that small creative mental break-time in order to focus when it really matters. It has taken me four decades to celebrate daydreaming as a necessity for a well-balanced life that actually makes me more productive, rather than less. The key is not to punish or discourage the daydreaming, but to welcome it, as long as there is also room for focused action.

Finally, changing up how I create is part of my creative reset. This month to shake up my process I write creative prose longhand to a daily writing prompt. While I only have six days behind me and a lot of ink staining my fingers, the activity is absolutely what I needed. When I type my prose, I find it much harder to tap into that creative spark, stay focused, and not edit as write. When I write by hand, my mind feels focused in a much different way. I’m actually watching the ink flow from nib to paper, relishing the scratching sound of the writing, and feeling the story flow through my body from thought to pen to paper.

I confess I haven’t written creatively by hand in well over 10 years (perhaps over 15). The last time may have been while attending a long-weekend writing retreat. So even though I’ve written creatively by hand before, this tweak in my creative approach feels fresh.

The honeymoon glow may wane as I continue to use this process. Then again, it might not.

My recommendations if you’re feeling stuck, are to examine how you’re spending your time and tweak your circumstances. Give yourself permission to daydream, but schedule a little time, every day, to do something creative in a different way than you’ve done in the recent past and see what results the reset yields.

What techniques are you using to change and recharge your creative game?

Destination: Inspiration

Today not only marks the end of November but also caps another year of wild creative writing as a part of NaNoWriMo. While I hit the 50,000-word count target on the 21st, I continued a less aggressive daily writing practice and plan to write “The End” on this novel draft shortly.

When I hit the goal, I entertained the idea of stopping. I had accomplished what I’d intended by hitting the word count, but the thought left me feeling disappointed.

Then I considered how much I enjoy the act of creative writing every day and decided that there is no reason to stop. I need to find a way to make creative writing a sustainable daily habit.

Focusing on the journey rather than the destination provides a way to stay present and trust the process rather than fixate on an outcome or result. But when inspiration is your destination, I think it is safe to relish both.

To that end, I’ve revisited some of my treasured resources on writing and creativity, invited a trusted group of creative souls to write with me and act as accountability partners, and set my sights on December. We’ve got 31 days to experiment with short, timed responses to daily writing prompts as a way to kindle creative fires and find inspiration in the journey and the destination.

A Little Gratitude

This year I’m working on developing better habits by either initiating something new or taking unhealthy or un-valuable behaviors and re-engineering them.

For example, at the beginning of November, I started a gratitude journal. Every night, before bed, I write down at least three things for which I’m thankful in a pocket-sized journal kept on the nightstand. These things don’t have to be earth-shattering, big-ticket items; in fact, I told my family that one night I wrote down that I was grateful for warm pajamas, wool socks, and extra blankets. The idea is that if you go to bed thankful, you are more likely to wake with a grateful heart. In my experience so far, this proves true.

Gratitude grows when shared. My mom sent me this card she made, listing the things she and dad count as blessings.

Handmade and Heartfelt

Another habit I’m building resulted from a TedTalk video shared a few months ago by a friend after I mentioned successfully incorporating meditation and journaling into my daily routine. In the video, Shauna Shapiro shares a specific action she takes each day that I’ve since made part of my wake-up self-care regimen.

Every morning, in addition to telling the wild things (my shorthand for the cat and three dogs who share their lives with me) that I love them, I also greet the day by reminding myself that I am loved. It is easy for me to tell the wild things and, as I continue this practice, it grows easier for me to say it to myself. I’m more aware now when I slip into negative self-talk; as a result, I’m better able to shut it down before it grows traction and replace it with something positive.

In fact, I like this “good morning, I love you” practice so much that I’ve shared it with a few family and friends. And now I’m sharing it here, too.

What I find is that my focus each day is more positive; I’m able to approach stressful situations from a grounded place and recognize opportunities in challenges.

I invite you to find three small things for which you give thanks and remind yourself you are loved. If you can make this part of your daily practice, please do. You won’t regret it.

A Little Magic

No matter what little patch of our planet you call home, no matter your age, gender, occupation, or persuasion, I suspect we share in common that this year – 2020 – has been choc-a-block full of the unknown.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ve found this headlong rush into the unknown a grand adventure. If so, kudos!

If not, I feel you.

Over the past several months I returned to daily journal writing as a way to manage stress and to make sense of my thoughts. I filled one large hardcover journal already and am on track to fill my second journal this weekend. I’m not doing anything too fancy, although I am writing longhand with fountain pens and lovely inks (another joy resurrected during these strange days). I write several pages every day of whatever is on my mind when I open my journal.

Some days, I’m tired and cranky and that is what shows up on the page. Other days I’m full of hope, or fear, or frustration, or happiness – and those things are what show up on the pages. I write about the books I’m reading, hikes I enjoyed, movies I watched, Zoom meetings, phone calls, Periscope-streamed hockey games, messages from my step-grands, the weather, and what I saw while walking the dogs.

Here’s what I discovered in my journals: I write about what I know. Sometimes what I know is that I don’t know. And when I write about what I don’t know, it seems to occupy less of the real estate in my mind.

November is NaNoWriMo, which means that in addition to my journal pages, I’m in a rush to write a 50,000-word novel before the end of the month. I’m typing a lot of words and right now what I know is that I don’t know.

Not knowing in my first draft is great fun because it’s fiction! I have no idea where my story is going until my characters show me. In this draft, I’ve given myself permission to fly by the seat of my pants and write whatever comes to me each day when I sit down to write. I’m not constrained by an outline, a plan, an over-arching theme – in fact, even the title I brainstormed may not fit once I finish – and that is all fine. I don’t need to know where this is going yet. I just need to write my words each day to reach my goal. Once the draft is written, I can go back, see if there is something there worth exploring further, and start tightening the story threads into a more complete, cohesive narrative.

What strikes me is that I can approach NaNoWriMo without knowing where I’m going, what I’m doing, or what will happen – I embrace the unknown instead of resisting or fearing it. In NaNoWriMo, the journey into the unknown is a grand adventure.

I realize my greatest takeaway from this year’s novel-writing experience is that I need to channel this technique into other aspects of my life. Approaching the unknown with curiosity instead of resistance is a little bit of magic.

Write Now: Timed Writing

Today is NaNoWriMo 2020 day 6 and I’ve surpassed the 15,000-word mark, which is possibly my most prolific start. I’m spending under 1.5 hours per day focused on novel-writing activity.

Of course, NaNoWriMo is all about quantity over quality to get that first draft written, so I’m not spending any time or effort on editing, spell-checking, or reading what I’ve written. Instead, I show up at the keyboard, focus, and type like mad.

One technique that I’m employing this year is to use a Pomodoro timer application on my laptop to keep me focused on writing.

I’ve used timers in the past for short freewriting activities, but not for NaNoWriMo. So far, this additional tool in my writing bag-of-tricks is really helping me to hit my word-count daily target.

If you feel stuck or like you’re unable to focus, I encourage you to turn off the alerts on your computer and phone, set a timer or try an app, and devote a manageable 25-minute block to nothing but writing. Do not worry if your sentence is well-structured or your spelling is incorrect – those are tasks for revision, not for drafting, and require allocation of a different block of time (preferably after you reach your 50,000-word goal in November). You may surprise yourself by how much you’re able to accomplish!

Fellow WriMos – what techniques do you employ to hit your daily word target?

5 Helpful Distractions

It is election day here in the United States and the contentious presidential race is all over the media. Today, I’ve promised myself the following five distractions as a way to focus and stay positive:

  1. Read a book. I’ve got a novel and two non-fiction books going at the moment, so I’ve got plenty of reading to occupy my time.
  2. Turn off notifications. I turned off all news alerts on my phone, tablet, and computer so that I focus on whatever work is in front of me, rather than seeing yet another news story about how we won’t know the results of the election tonight.
  3. Limit time on social media. Personally, I’m trying to stay off of Facebook as much as possible today. I’ve probably spent 10 minutes total – once to post my daily NaNoWriMo word count and twice to check out links sent to me by friends – one for a new Diamine ink, and another for an upcoming event. If I do go onto Facebook tonight, I’ll set a timer.
  4. Spend time with someone you love. For me, it was a 30-minute Zoom chat with my step-grandchildren.
  5. Watch a foreign-language movie. I have not watched the second season of My Brilliant Friend; I plan to start that tonight. If you read subtitles, you cannot search the news on your tablet or phone at the same time. Watching a foreign-language movie or show requires you to be present; if it is a good show, it will transport you.

The results of the election will not be clear for at least a few days, if not longer, so I may need to repeat these distractions.

What are you doing to stay distracted?

Words, Words, Words

In November, I write what Anne Lamott calls a “Shitty First Draft” by participating in an outrageous phenomenon known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in November. To accomplish this, a writer must silence any internal (or external) criticism.

Writing Wisdom

Participating in NaNoWriMo has taught me a number of things:

  • If I tell one person that I’m participating in NaNoWriMo, I will hit the 50K target by the deadline. Making a goal “public” means I am accountable for completing the mission.
  • I can accomplish seemingly impossible things if I work backward from a “drop dead” date. In this case, the November 30th deadline means I need to write a minimum of 1,667 words each of the 30 days in the month. Giving myself a daily target makes the end-goal considerably more achievable.
  • Sharing my daily progress toward the goal on social media also helps me stay accountable and keep forward momentum.
  • I like to exceed goals, so I often ratchet up my daily target to 2K words – that usually allows me to hit the word count goal before the end of November and gives me breathing room if I have a day that I cannot write or write as much.
  • Writing makes me happy if I allow myself to abandon the need for perfection in a first draft. The goal for November is quantitative. You have to get the words written – once you have what Anne Lamott calls the “Shitty First Draft” you can start revising, but if you attempt to revise as you write, it is more challenging to reach 50,000 words in the 30 days.
  • Sometimes a change of scenery helps shake things up if I feel stuck. I might go outside and write while sitting in the yard. In years past I’ve written at the library or at a park. Writing is a portable art.
  • Music can help me get into the writing groove (pun intended), but I write best to music without lyrics – classical, instrumental, and motion picture soundtracks are the write tunes that suit me best.
  • Even though writing for me is a solitary practice, connecting with other creative people helps keep me inspired. This year, my step-granddaughter created a mini writing group and invited me to join. I have a few friends who plan to participate, too. There are also virtual write-ins happening in November to help WriMos worldwide reach their word-count goals.

One of NaNoWriMo’s taglines is “The World Needs Your Novel.” Perhaps this year, more than ever, we need stories to transport, inspire, teach, and entertain us.

I’m making my goal public. I’ll be writing this November – my 13th time.

So, fellow readers, what do you have to lose? Be brave. Be bold. Write on.