Protect Your Morning! Protect Your Brain!

In Cal Newport's Deep Work*, we read about the importance of protecting the time we spend in focused work, allowing creative accomplishment otherwise impossible. The Hidden Brain podcast introduced me to his work.

This book has inspired and supported me in my goals of completing fiction and nonfiction.

Right now, the principles are immensely helpful as I write thirty poems in thirty days for the poetry marathon that is the 30/30 Project, raising funds for Tupelo Press. 

Technology entices, especially during the pandemic. Without social media connections and the little zings of conversation, life can feel like a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough in which someone left out the sugar, as well as the chocolate chips. 

What I'm saying, what we don't hear enough, is that foregoing the thrill of online connections is hard.  

And so I try to create tech-free times: an hour or two in the morning, and on Sundays, a phone-free Sabbath. The morning feels especially powerful: it happens every single day. After I'm awake, I have a smooth, fresh, inviting playfield like the sandy beach I get to walk near my Oregon Coast home. It is a beautiful thing to make footprints in newly-minted, barren sand.

Is your morning protected, nurturing? Or is it trafficked every which way with all sizes and shapes of passersby?

From time to time (yesterday, Day One of the marathon) I notice that I am not getting anything accomplished in the day, basically. An honest assessment means usually admitting that my social media addiction is playing a role. As one of my favorite Wildfire Writers, Jessica Slatten says, "It's faux work. It makes you look busy, but you're not really accomplishing anything." 

It helps me to review Deep Work, or Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, or to listen to other sage reminders of what technology is doing to my brain. I am not going off grid anytime soon, though. I must balance my Party Girl with my Monk, my social butterfly-ing with my silent, aloof ascetic. 

I can't ignore the struggle. I can't go numb to it, or enter a sweet denial in which I blissfully hum along, texting, posting, giggling, meeting interruption a hundred times a day and pretending I don't really care whether or not I complete my writing projects.

 I invite you to think critically about the role technology is playing in your life, and in your time. What could you accomplish if you didn't have to constantly tend to it, like a puppy in your lap at all hours of the day? I challenge you to challenge yourself, and set some limits, and find out how you can change your brain to one that pays deep attention to your most powerful goals. 


*The audiobook version pictured lists different authors.

Extra! Extra! Sensory! You've Got More Than Five Senses!

For twenty years, I've been pressing writing students, "Use the five senses!" 

It's a simple formula that transforms your writing. Scenes, stories, poems–they all come alive when you invite us to breathe, smell, taste with you. Senses on every page are a brilliant way to vivify fiction and nonfiction alike.

But now I'm behind the times. Scientists have uncovered far more than five senses in the human repertoire. Your sense of balance, for instance. Write about a dizzying feeling! It can belong to you, or to one of your characters on the page. The fancy word is equilibrioception.

Another sense, which can make any story compelling, is that of hunger. How would you describe the gnawing, yawning, empty, or growling feeling of a belly asking for food?

A third sense is thermoception, which is the ability to detect heat. What is the sensation of trudging through a desert landscape, or simmering alongside a summertime pool? By the same token, we can feel cold within our bodies, from our chest to our toes, to the tips of our ears; or we can sense a chill that comes from the outside.

Another interesting sense is proprioception. This is feeling where you are in space, and includes the giddy feeling standing on a twentieth floor balcony, or the precariousness of walking a tightrope. 

Wake up to your senses - they are legion, and they fill each human moment with possibility! For more, check out Wisegeek.

Letter from the 9-Year-Old Boy on the Bus

Some time ago, when I had to commute for work, I met this kid.

He sat in the back of the bus with a somber expression.

He burnished a Moleskine notebook in his long, thin fingers. He chewed on the eraser end of a pencil.

He spent most of the time writing and looking out the window.

Every now and then he would say something, usually something that made me think.

Currently, with the state of the world, I'm not riding the bus. So I was beyond thrilled to get a letter from him in the mail. We've been corresponding since then.

Every philosopher needs an audience, I guess. So I'm passing along excerpts from the 9-year-old boy on the bus.

Dear Lady Who Carries A Backpack:

Glad you're staying home and mostley happy. But you don't always have to be happy. Some people think emotions can only do one thing at a time.

It’s not true. My emotions can usually do five things at a time, with a sixth emotion doing double time.

Most people who survive awful things are the funniest people you ever met in your life.

Aunt Rosabun, she juggles spatulas between flipping three pans of pancakes, but she lived in an orphanadge once. And my bus driver had his teeth knocked out when he was 9 but his new teeth lasted him all the way to 74, which is now, and he was voted Most Handsome Smile by all the girls at Klamath Falls High School.

Anyway, emotions are interesting if you’re the kind of person who invents things in the kitchen.

Today I found out, too much apple juice in chocolate peanut butter cookies doesn’t work--

IT’S TOO STICKY--but a little is just right.

What I love is mixing sticky and fruity plus crunchy or sour. Plus the dark, heavy feelings. And sprinkle the thin, shredded ones on top. Sometimes you’re in the mood for grainy ones. That can be good, too, if you like nutrition.

You have to be careful not overmixing.

Also, your oven has to be hot.

Also, maybe your emotional taste buds aren’t ready. They have to get mature. You might have to wait to grow up some.


P.S. It snowed right after we got sent home. How weird and cool is that? We'd never be able to make a snowman if we couldn't freeze our fingers off and laugh at the same time.

Dabbling, Dead or Alive: Kodachrome

As a fan of all things Portland Center Stage, I loved hearing "Kodachrome" had its beginnings in 2015 at JAW, an annual festival of staged readings where unknown playwrights have a chance to show their work - to move, perhaps from dabbling to official.

"If the casual is made official, would it stop the rest of us from dabbling?" That's the question asked by Suzanne (Lena Kaminsky), who photographs everyone in her small town, capturing events large and small. When the Young Man (Ryan Tresser) proposes to the Young Woman (Kelly Godell), it's a sketchy moment - we're not sure if they'll make it out alive. Suzanne photographs this drama gone comically awry. Next she introduces us to the hardware store owner, librarian, history professor, mystery novelist, florist, perfume maker, waitress, and policeman.

Everyone has a story, and Suzanne is amused, bemused, yet removed somehow. She recounts how the Young Woman wrestles with ambivalence over her engagement. "It gets eerily quiet as the young woman has eight separate feelings."

I love the hilarity and truth of that. How does a human being process multiple feelings all at once? How do we sort out how to love and create in this world when we want so many conflicting things?

"Sometimes I can't tell the difference between what I want, and what I think I should want," says the mystery novelist.

Dabbling - making something without too much care for the outcome - gives us a chance to discover what we truly want, a chance to experiment. When we're creating, we can inhale, get to know our relationship with the subject matter - a story or play we're writing, a flower bouquet we're arranging, or perhaps a space we're brightening with the change of a light bulb. Dabbling can help us in everything we're doing, without needing the finality of black and white. We can allow full color. We can allow the full spectrum of emotion.

In the background is my favorite character, Earl, an unassuming grave digger (Ryan Tresser) who seems rather slow - but who sees more than anyone else in town. The reason for this? He can see dead people.

Earl and Suzanne have a chat one day, and it dawns on us why she seems so removed from her world. She's dead.

Even so, she's having a hard time letting go. With every picture she takes, she's dabbling - processing the life she's left behind. She asks questions. "Why is the goal happiness?"

Meanwhile, Suzanne's widower, the hardware store owner, goes about his days, empty and broken.

As a creator, even dead, this photographer has to allow all her human emotions and experiences. She can't pretend she's ready for the next thing when she isn't.

Everything comes to a standstill, and even the quirky, adorable Earl has to face heartbreak. And then there's the moment Suzanne says, "I'm feeling five distinct feelings. One . . . two . . . three . . . ."

This allowing, this dabbling, this feeling - it can move you out of stuckness into something rare and new.

The hardware store owner says he's forgotten how to be alive.

He's given sound advice, what you might tell someone who has forgotten how to dabble: "You'll pick it back up."

Photos by Patrick Weishampel 

Creativity, Loss, White Christmas, Irving Berlin, and You

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin offers warmth, inspiration, and the chance to lift one's own voice—wonderful things to cultivate over the holiday season.

I now have a history to connect with the plethora of charming songs written by this unlikely creative hero—and I want to watch those old movies and sing along.

Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant, survived a traumatic, impoverished childhood, exhausted a sixth grade education, and created all of his 1200-plus songs at the piano. “Annie Get Your Gun,” and “Cheek to Cheek” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” have all the pluck and humor and resilience of their author.

Hershey Felder, inhabiting the role, is a wonder. He embodies the above characteristics all while performing Berlin’s music masterfully. 

This Portland Center Stage world premier drew me into Berlin’s life, the bittersweet memories of his family, and his idiosyncrasies. Most of all, though, I absorbed the sadness of all the goodbyes said over his lifetime. A simple, sweet song like “What’ll I do?” reveals a hard, heartbreaking question.

What do I do when I have to say goodbye? What do I do when I feel alone?

Recently, goodbyes have been weighing on my heart. I witness Berlin finding his way despite his own untimely losses.

When the love of his life dies, a friend urges him to write a song about it, but Berlin resists. All he has ever done is write breezy stuff. “What it’s not going to do is make it any worse,” admonishes his friend.

It’s true. Creating in grief doesn’t salt the wound; it helps us own and live and grow through the experience. For this reason, my daily journal, my creative walks, and my poetry have become my dearest companions in loss. 

Berlin, too, came to understand that creating was his ally, and this new “serious” songwriting paved the way for something entirely new and beautiful in his career. Those songs of his that we know best touch the deepest, most poignant places of loss.

“I don’t like being alone,” Berlin says. “What a song does is never leave you alone.”

In our creating, in our singing, we find a witness to all our grief. When we pick up the pen or the paintbrush or sit at the piano, we gather hope and sweetness even in the dead of winter; we stumble upon our own “Russian Lullaby,” our forever “White Christmas,” our beautiful, impossible “Always.” 


Photo credits: Patrick Weishampel