Monday, February 24, 2020

Virtual Nature Walk: The Coast in Winter

One of my favorite things I did when my kids were younger was go on nature walks. It might be just to our backyard or the nearby park, but we'd look for leaf miners (those interesting bugs that make leaves transparent), mushrooms, the new growth on pine trees, to name a few. It taught us all to notice things.
My son's drawing of our hermit crab molting from '09.

And now, even though they are in their teens, they are still noticing things. My 15 year old likes to call that being a detailist. :)

As writers, isn't that our job too? In my first writing class, we had to keep a journal of details from daily life--interactions with people, descriptions of nature. Doing so teaches you to pay attention.

Here is my online nature journal of our recent trip to the Oregon Coast. The coast itself wasn't very hospitable, so we had to settle for enjoying God's creation at the aquarium. They were having a sea punk exhibit. Combining sea creatures with steam punk. I call that brilliant.

Barnacled log from the one moment we made it onto the beach before the waves attacked.

The Oregon Coast in winter

A porthole of clownfish

Sea nettles


A puffin in winter. Fun fact: They don't get their famous plumage till mating season.

All these creatures are native to the West Coast of the United States except for two. Can you guess which?

Monday, February 17, 2020

What I’ve Learned about Managing my Time from I Know How She Does It

Going back to work full-time, albeit from home, was a huge adjustment. There was a huge learning curve, learning how to teach online and a new system for communicating with staff and parents. Every day brought a slew of tasks I’d never done before. I felt like I was always pestering people with questions! Thankfully, my second (and third) year of teaching has been so much easier if only because I know what I’m doing.

Still, I noticed that this year I’m still complaining often about not having enough time to write or that I’m too tired. Often this “lack of time” has got me frustrated.

But then I started reading Laura Vanderkam’s work. See, she actually did a study (I KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT) where she asked professional women to log their time. To her amazement, they were working less than they thought (about 40-50 hours/week), and still managing to squeeze in time with their kids, their husband, and often crafts or hobbies. It turns out that how much time we have has a lot to do with the stories we tell ourselves.

Here are a few tips that I’ve learned from Laura:

1.   Look at your whole week rather than the 24 hours. I know, for example, there’s a lot of writing advice that says to write every day. Instead, Laura talks about looking at your whole week. We each have the same 168 hours. Maybe you can’t write or do your creative hobby every day, but look at what you’re doing the whole week. The weekends count too—if that’s the only time you can find!

2.   Pay yourself first. I use this for budgeting, but this is also a good time management principle. I don’t know about you, but I tend to put the things that matter only to me (writing, hobbies, reading) at the bottom of my list—after I’ve completed everything else. And then I’m frustrated because I’m too tired to write. Instead, she says to make your creative pursuit something you do first. This could mean getting up early and writing before work. It could be making sure you write on Monday instead of waiting till the end of the week.

3.  Use the BTN (Better Than Nothing) Principle. She says she commits to running about 10 minutes a day, but always ends up doing more. How can you lower the bar enough for yourself to be able to do something each day? Maybe it’s committing to writing 200 words or if you’re having trouble finishing books, reading a page each day. If the bar is low, it feels easy to reach it and you’re more likely to do it often.

4.  Be Gentle with Yourself. Being overly critical of yourself will kill the fragile bud of creativity. She told a story about an artist who wanted to paint more, but beat herself up when it didn’t. She suggested the artist tell herself to make art as much as possible, but if she didn’t, that’s okay too. This has revolutionized my way I look at my own art of writing. If it happens, it happens, but I’m trying not to pull my hair out if life intervenes. We all have bad days or bad weeks.

5. Limit TV or endless scrolling on the internet. I found it fascinating that the average American watches 30 hours of TV a week. No wonder no one has any time. Laura emphasizes that you always have a choice—you could binge watch your favorite show on Netflix or write another page in your novel. The choice is yours—but I bet you’ll be happier if you choose the second one.

6. Find the space/time you work best (my discovery). Now this isn’t in her book, but this is the best thing I’ve done for my writing: I’ve left my house to write. My town started a “Writing League” that meets every Saturday morning at our cultural center. We don’t talk, except to say what we’re working on. It’s just focused writing time. There’s no internet, no kids to interrupt.  These two hours a week have made such a difference in my creativity. I still try to write during the week, but if that doesn’t happen, I have my Saturday time.

Find what works for you and do it. I’m a happier person when I write—and so I don’t feel bad for taking the time. It makes me a nicer person, which blesses my family as well.

What are some of your time management tips and tricks? How do you manage to write and balance work and/or a family? 

Monday, February 10, 2020

If You Love Jane Austen, Meet Elizabeth Gaskell

With Valentine's this week and a new Jane Austen movie coming out later this month, who is not thinking Austen? Sadly, she only left six finished novels, so if you're hankering for more in the same vein, read on. And check out the trailer for the new Emma below!

If you like Jane Austen, imagine a similar study of manners and romance but with more social consciousness. While I love dear old Jane, she often leaves out the less satisfactory elements of life in her time period. The poor are rarely mentioned, except as an example of what might happen to the protagonist if she makes a few missteps. (Think of the exemplary tale of Colonel Brandon’s niece in Sense and Sensibility or Fanny’s family in Mansfield Park.)

But Elizabeth Gaskell, a contemporary of the Bront√ęs, thinks differently. While she’s still centered on romance and manners, she often shows us people struggling on the outskirts through no fault of their own. She shows us prejudice in a completely different way—not just in the way that Elizabeth misjudges Darcy, but the way we think we know everything about someone’s motives, especially if that person happens to be from a different class or geographical location. She also takes inside mills and courtrooms, somewhere Austen would never go.

Mary Barton—This Gaskell book doesn’t have a film version, although I’ve heard one is in the works. It’s her first book, and in many ways rougher than Wives and Daughters or North and South. But I loved the spunk of Mary. It has a murder mystery, courtroom drama, romance, and a slice of lower class provincial life. This book is also a beautiful meditation on the power of grace, which reminded me of Les Miserables.

Wives and Daughters—If you haven’t seen the movie, this is about two step sisters, Molly and Cynthia, who couldn’t be more different. Think of it as Sense and Sensibility, but Cynthia isn’t in love with love, like Marianne, but instead enjoys playing with men’s hearts. And when Roger, whom Molly loves, falls for Cynthia—it is as heart wrenching as any Victorian novel can be. Another thing I loved about this novel was that Roger was a naturalist. As my son has this bent, I just loved that he collected bugs and specimens.

North and South—This is like Pride and Prejudice, but instead of Mr. Darcy being an independently rich landowner, John Thorton is a man who’s worked his way up from nothing to own a textile factory. What I loved about this is that Margaret teaches Thorton how to have more compassion for his workers, and he teaches her how to have more compassion for men like him. (Not all business owners are monsters). There’s so much incredible depth to this novel (and the film). And Brendan Coyle (of Downton Abbey) is in the miniseries. Not to be missed.
North and South Miniseries (BBC photo)

Have you read any Elizabeth Gaskell? What are your plans  for Valentine's Day?

Monday, February 3, 2020

Little Women—a Writer’s Perspective

I hate to admit that Little Women is one of those books where I watched the movie before I read the book. I saw the Winona Rider version in the 90s, and fell in love with the story. Not just the sister aspect, but Jo's character arc as a writer. 

Jo learns to write what she knows, her story, instead of what she thinks other people want to read. I may be in the minority, but I prefer Bauer to Laurie. Bauer isn't afraid to tell Jo the truth, something every writer needs.

I recently saw the new adaption with its lush New England scenery, cinematography, and acting. The music was beautiful, and the scenes with the sisters were poignant. Overall, the acting was much stronger than the 90s version. Certainly, this is a new classic.
Here are a few of my other thoughts. (Spoilers ahead!)

1. The back-and-forth timeline was very jarring, and I was often confused as to which time period we were in. The switching back and forth between Beth getting well (as a child) and dying (as an adult) was overtly confusing. Structure must serve the story.

2. I did not like the emphasis on money being the be all, end all for women. Money is Jo's main motive for writing, and Amy gives a speech about marrying for money. This didn't feel true to the story, but a modern interpretation of life back then. Marriage was more than a contractual agreement (even in those days!), and the idea of writing for money is almost laughable. (Louisa Mae Alcott was financial successful, but even in those days that was very rare, especially for female writers.)

3.  The ending. I  didn’t get the ending until a few days after I’d seen it. I thought Jo had gotten her book and married Bauer. Instead, it’s a choose-your-own adventure. It reminded me of  La, La Land in that way. I disagree that following your dream means you must give up love or a family. It’s not either/or. And if I truly had to choose, I’d choose my husband and family over writing.

However, as a writer, my favorite scene was her book being printed!

Have you seen the new Little Women? Do you think someone must choose between making art and having a family?