the magic of finishing what you started

Hi everyone! It feels good to be back in this space. I did not intend to miss my post on Tuesday—I was so busy writing something else, that I did not have time to write a blog post here. But what happened on Tuesday spawned the idea for today’s post, so in a way everything is connected.

If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you might remember that I’ve been working on a new novel. In fact, a key cornerstone of my word of the year—FOUNDATION—has been vowing to make time each day for writing projects that nourish me: this year, my goal was to finish my new novel manuscript. Back in January, the Word document on my computer contained nothing more than a title, a handful of scenes, and a burgeoning sense of great possibility.

The idea for this novel was birthed last summer when I took a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time. I fell in love with the island and soaked up many new experiences, like snorkeling with manta rays and hiking waterfalls. When I returned home from my trip, I jotted down a few ideas for a novel that took place in Hawaii. But then, as life tends to do, it got busy. That was an especially hectic time in my life. I got married and honeymooned. I developed and began teaching a weekly creative writing class for high school students. I helped students brainstorm and edit their college essays—my workload in the fall always tends to pick up for that reason. Allyn and I navigated our first holiday season as a married couple, balancing time with our two families.

The novel idea sat on my computer in a Word document, twiddling its thumbs.

In January, I felt burned out and exhausted. I had been so consumed with my work as a writing teacher and editor and coach, helping other people bring their beautiful words to life, that I had neglected to carve out and guard time for my own creative spirit—and, thus, I felt depleted. I decided that 2017 would be different. I read a lot of articles on setting boundaries, recommitted to work-life balance, and made a promise to myself that my mornings would be for writing. My own writing. I knew that I would be a happier and better teacher for others when I was making sure to give time to myself.

In January, I attended a wonderful writing conference to work on a separate novel idea. I still do like that idea, and I might return to it in the future. But my characters in Hawaii would not leave me alone. This idea kept pushing its way to the forefront of my mind, like a rude child who refused to be ignored.

Does that ever happen to you, with ideas? One thing I have learned is that ideas may behave like children, but you do not have to treat them as such. You do not have to teach them to be patient and wait their turn. If you have an idea that keeps “cutting in line” so to speak, begging for your attention, poking and prodding you all day and refusing to leave the back of your mind—you must pay attention. That is the idea you should pursue. No matter if other, less vibrant or less exciting ideas have been lingering around the corners of your mind for a long time. Life is short, and we will not have time for all of our brilliant ideas. We need to give time to the ones that make us come alive.

So it was with my novel idea. When I returned from the writers conference at the end of January, I kept slogging away for a week or so on the other novel that I had been working on. But my brain kept drifting to Hawaii. Eventually, I gave in. Reluctant {and feeling slightly guilty} to give up the other one, I told myself that I would work on BOTH projects simultaneously. Perhaps some writers can do that. But I have a hard time holding together two expansive, spilling-over, messy novels in my head at the same time. Perhaps some writers birth neater, tidier novels than I do. Mine are always a chaotic overflow. Trying to keep on top of two volcanoes at once was not sustainable.

And so, before too long, I was working solely on my insistent novel idea. My subconscious was living in Hawaii. I was fully invested. I was excited. Actually, more than excited—I was obsessed with my idea.

I think that is a good rule of thumb about whether you should pursue an idea. Are you obsessed with it?

I began riding along the path I had chosen. Nearly always, I begin new fiction projects by thinking about the characters. Their voices came out onto the page in quick bursts, but I still did not know them very well. I still had many questions. This was the fourth novel manuscript I was embarking upon, and the beginning—while exhilarating—is always the scariest part for me. I have some writer friends who love the beginning of a new project. They find energy from the huge wide-open landscape of blank pages before them. For me, those blank pages cause anxiety. At the beginning of a novel, I feel like I am diving into a huge body of water, tentatively beginning to swim to the other shore. At this point, I cannot even glimpse the other shore that I am heading towards. There is only mist and water as far as I can see. Who knows what I will find underneath the surface. There is no other way to go but forward, and so I start to swim. I start to write. Stroke by stroke, keystroke by keystroke. I know that if I put in the work, eventually, I will reach the other side.

This novel progressed much more quickly, and more joyfully, than my previous three novel manuscripts. Some might say it is because I am “getting the hang of” writing a novel, although in my experience every novel is different. I don’t think writing a novel is a formula you ever truly “get down.” Each novel is a whole new animal, a whole new experience—and, for me at least, that is part of the fun!

This one went so much faster—six months from start to finish, as opposed to a year spent meandering around trying to find a storyline and write the very rough draft of my thesis in grad school, and two-plus years drafting my other novels. It was also a much more enjoyable and less angsty process. I believe this is for two reasons. One, I have wholeheartedly embraced the advice that novelist Elizabeth Berg gave me many years ago at a writing conference: “First, please yourself.” Unlike grad school when I was writing a novel to impress my thesis committee, or in college when I was writing a novel hoping to become A Famous Author, now I write simply to please myself. I follow my own internal compass—especially during the drafting phase. Of course, I still hope to eventually get published and please readers. And I know that my writing is far from perfect and that editors, now that I have completed the first draft, are invaluable gifts. But I believe it stifles the creative process to think about any of those things when you are birthing your story.

The second reason this novel was different from any I had written before is that I truly committed to my schedule of writing time. For the past six months, I have been immersed in the story, thinking about it all the time both consciously and subconsciously, because I wrote at least a couple hundred words five days a week. “Work on novel” was the most important thing on my daily To Do List. I treated my creative work with respect. And my idea responded generously. There were parts of the novel that were more difficult to write than others—I always feel stuck in the “muddy middle”—but I never struggled with writer’s block. I always had a sense of where I was going, and new ideas and connections were sparked constantly. Our creative brains are so incredible, once we give them our time and attention and let them do their thing.

Which brings us to Tuesday. I was getting very close to finishing the first draft of my novel. I had written the ending already, and just had a few scenes I needed to finish up. It felt like a puzzle with only two or three patches of blank space left to fill in.

I woke up on Tuesday morning with a searingly clear thought: “Today is the day. Today I am going to finish my novel.”

I don’t know why the thought struck or where it came from. I don’t know why it felt so necessary to finish that day as opposed to later in the week or next week. But it did. I felt like my creative subconscious had sent me a mission.

I didn’t have any teaching appointments scheduled that day. I had emails and grading to do, but that could wait until later. I made myself a mug of tea, sat down at my computer, and dove in.

I wish I could fully describe to you the magic of that day. It felt like getting a “second wind” and sprinting the last mile of a marathon. It was like when you are reading a book you love, and you speed through the final pages because you are so excited to find out what happens. I knew what was going to happen—I was writing it, after all—but at the same time there was still this miraculous sense of discovery. My characters fully came alive. They leapt off the page. By noon, I had written more than 3,000 words. I had to break for lunch because my hand was sore from typing.

I could have stopped there. I knew I could always come back to the novel the next day. I could finish later. But I didn’t want to. I couldn’t stay away. I dove back in and kept typing.

I finished at 4:43pm. I texted my family and sweetie and shared the news. My final word count for that day was close to 5,000 words, or about twenty pages double-spaced. I don’t think I’ve ever written that much in a single day. If you had asked me on Monday, I probably would have told you there was no way I could do that.

{My sweetie left a note for me on our kitchen bulletin board.}

It’s funny. I spent the whole day sitting by myself in front of a computer. But I didn’t feel alone at all. I felt like I spent the whole day in Hawaii with these two people I had come to know so well over the past six months. That final sprint to the finish felt like a last hurrah with them. It was perfect.

It was 4:45 pm. I sat down on the couch. I felt so many things. I felt sad to say goodbye to my characters. I felt exhilarated and exhausted. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace that I had made good on my promise, to my characters and to myself. I had finished telling their story. I had stayed with them until the end.

There is such profound magic in finishing what we begin. In staying true to our promises. In following through with our ideas. No matter what eventually happens with this novel—no matter whether it eventually gets published and sells thousands of copies, or never leaves the hard drive of my own computer—I gave a huge gift to myself when I typed THE END on page 256 on Tuesday. I felt such extreme satisfaction and pride in myself. I had said I would do it. And I did it.

When we finish what we start, we build confidence in ourselves. That confidence keeps growing and growing. We begin pushing ourselves further. We wonder what else we might be able to start and finish. The limits of our world expand and, eventually, fall away. Our pride and confidence and imagination become limitless.

I still have a lot of work and editing to do on my Hawaii novel. But I’m already excited to start a new novel manuscript. I can’t wait to see what my creative spirit comes up with next!

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • What is a project you have started but petered out on? How would it feel to actually finish? What are some steps you could take to work your way back into this project?
  • Write about a time you finished something you had been working on for a while. What did you do to celebrate? What did it feel like to finally finish?
  • Set a timer for five minutes and jot down a list of every creative idea that flits into your mind. These could be future projects, hobbies, things you want to pursue in your personal life, trips you want to take. Write them down. Which ones jump out at you? Which ones light you up with sparks?

my morning routine

I was thinking the other day about how some of my favorite posts to read by other bloggers are the ones where I get a peek into their daily lives and routines. I have always been so intrigued about the daily details of people’s lives {maybe that’s why I’m a fiction writer!} and something about these types of blog posts always inspires me. Lately I have become super fascinated with morning routines and I’ve spent some time the past month or so trying to tweak my own morning routine to serve me best.

It seems pretty crazy that it took me this long to figure out, but I’ve realized that I am someone who flourishes with structure. I like the IDEA of spontaneity and “see where the day takes me” much more than I actually like it in practice. When I think back to my days in school, I really enjoyed the structure of classes. The clear, concrete schedule made me feel grounded and kept me from getting overwhelmed because I wasn’t trying to do everything at once. In math class, I was focusing on math class. In English class, I was thinking about English. Whereas, when you work for yourself and mainly work from home, like I do, all of that built-in structure goes out the window. I love the freedom of being able to design my schedule, and the flexibility to mix things up… but I’ve come to understand that, for me to feel most productive and centered, I need to plan out a structure for myself in advance. I also tend to be happiest when I follow pretty much the same routine week by week. Without a structure, I flail around trying to multitask and do all the things all the time — and whatever I’m doing, I feel like I “should” be doing something else! It’s my own personal recipe for burn-out.

lake-tahoe-2

One reason I’ve become slightly obsessed with morning routines is that I’ve noticed that what I do in the morning definitely creates a tone, an energy, for the rest of my day. {Although I LOVE Alex Franzen’s piece “Today is Not Over Yet” and it has become my mantra for those days when I look at the clock and it’s noon and I get that panicked feeling of, “What have I even being doing the past five hours??”… Alex’s wise words always help me get my mojo back and rescue the day.}

But, in an ideal world, each and every morning I would set myself up for success by setting the best possible tone for the rest of my day. I definitely notice the difference on days when I make time for what is most important to me first thing in the morning. It makes me feel energized and focused and abundant and ready to take on whatever comes next. Moreover, in my current work schedule, mornings are “my time”… afternoons are when I get out of the house and drive around to various appointments with students. If I waste my mornings, I’m left feeling depleted at the end of the day, feeling like I didn’t do anything for myself the whole day.

My morning routine is a work-in-progress, and it does vary sometimes. Below is my weekday routine, except for Mondays, when I go to my favorite yoga class at 8:30 and hit the grocery store and errands on my way home. Our weekend routine is quite flexible — some days we sleep in and have slow mornings; other weekend days we are up and at ’em early. I think the important thing is finding a routine that works for YOU and your own unique and beautiful life.

my morning routine

My alarm goes off at 6:40—I used to press “snooze” but I have recently conquered the snooze button, and I’ve noticed that when I get up at the same time every day, my body tends to wake up naturally at that time and it is easier to get up. {Though, as I wrote in this post a while ago, something I’ve learned about myself is that I almost always feel tired when I first get up, even when I’ve gotten plenty of sleep… it takes me a few minutes to “rise and shine.”} Allyn tries to be out the door by 7:15 to catch his train to San Jose for work. He’s always up at 6, but I sleep in a little later. I do like to get up before he leaves so we can have a little time together in the morning.

I like to make the bed and then wash my face right when I get up. I used to not wash my face right away, but it’s a small thing that really makes a difference in how awake I feel. Something about a squeaky-clean face says, “Hello world! I’m up!”

I always wake up thirsty, so right away I down two or three glasses of water. Then I drink a glass of this supergreens drink — it looks like sewer sludge but I swear, it doesn’t taste *that* bad.

my green drink

Then I help Allyn get his lunch packed and ready — I often chop up veggies for him to take. He, meanwhile, steeps a mug of tea for me while he makes his own coffee to take to work. I kiss him goodbye and he heads out the door. I always watch him carry his bike down our apartment hallway. He turns and looks back at me when he gets to the outer door, and I wave. It’s a little thing, but it’s a moment every day that I treasure.

As soon as my hubby leaves, it’s my time to par-tay! Haha, just kidding. Usually the first thing I do when he leaves is clean the kitchen.

For some reason, I’ve noticed that I really like starting the day with a clean kitchen. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen throughout the day — since I work from home, I make all my meals and snacks throughout the day whenever the hunger monster strikes — and Allyn and I rarely go out to eat, so most nights we cook dinner at home, too. Often when we get up, there are dishes soaking in the sink, some dirty pots sitting on the stove, or a clean dishwasher to empty. If I don’t get the kitchen cleaned up first thing in the morning, I tend to feel “behind” in the kitchen the rest of the day — I’ll need to wash a cutting board before I can cut up my veggies for lunch, or unload the dishwasher before I can load it with new dirty dishes. When I get the kitchen straightened up and wiped down first thing, I feel like I’m starting my day with a “clean slate.” Something about a clean kitchen makes me feel like I can conquer the world!

clean kitchen

I like to do some stretching and exercises in the morning to get my body moving. My current favorite yoga routine is this gentle slow stretch video by Sara Beth Yoga. Then I do some hip exercises {I’m always tight in my hips for some reason} and some core strength work like squats, push-ups, and planks. I usually spend about 30-40 minutes doing my various exercises and afterwards, I feel both more energized and more relaxed, if that makes sense. I’m excited to get to work, not bogged down with stress!

After yoga and my exercises, my computer time begins. I sip on a mug of herbal tea and eat breakfast #1, which is usually a muffin or avocado toast. I seriously can’t get enough of avocado toast, generously sprinkled with sea salt and fresh-ground pepper.

avocado toast

One thing I’ve been focusing on this year — my year of FOUNDATION — is to work on the projects that matter most to me when I first sit down to start my workday. For me right now, that is my novel-in-progress. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the manuscript, and it’s really starting to “gel” and come together. The characters feel alive and I’m excited each day to see what they have to tell me! So right now, as I am blogging about this, it during a lovely creative period when is fairly easy for me to get into the writing each day. But my goal is to have writing time be a focused component of my day even when the writing is NOT going so well or is not so easy to get into. Again, like getting up in the morning, I’ve noticed that it gets easier if I “train my mind” by writing around the same time each day. A good time for me is from about 8:30-10am. Sometimes I’ll keep chugging along to 10:30 if I’m really in the groove. But I do like to follow Hemingway’s advice and always end my writing session in the middle of a scene — a place where I know what is going to happen next. That makes it a million times easier to jump into the writing the next day. If I stop at the end of a chapter, that is just asking for writer’s block when I sit down the next morning.

When my writing time ends, even if it’s been a sluggish day, I always feel happy and proud of myself. I may not always enjoy the process of writing, but I always love the feeling of having written. Sometimes I’ll have those special days where the words are really flowing and all of a sudden it’s been an hour and I’ll have written 1,500 words. Those days make my entire week! But no matter how the writing goes — it’s a good day if I kept my promise to myself and put in the time. No Facebook, no emails, no distractions. Just steadfast work towards my biggest goal. Nothing beats the feeling of looking at the clock and it’s 10am and you’ve already checked off your most important task of the day!

Usually when my writing time ends, my stomach is growling again, which means time for breakfast #2! This is almost always a green smoothie. My favorite blend is a couple handfuls of spinach, some frozen berries, half a banana, almond milk, ground flax and chia seeds, a spoonful of collagen, and a teaspoon of spirulina powder.

I’ll usually drink my smoothie while checking my email {although I don’t always succeed, my goal is to wait until this time of the morning to check it} and taking care of some business-y tasks. Then, I spend the next 2 hours or so powering through work for clients and students. This might entail editing essays and reports; writing copy for a client’s website; creating curriculums and lesson plans for my writing classes; conducting interviews for literary journals {I have one forthcoming in The Tishman Review this summer!}; updating my website; having Skype coaching calls with students; or a thousand more projects. One thing I love about my work is that it varies every day! I feel like I am constantly taking on new challenges, creating new content, learning and growing!

Something that has helped me that might be helpful if you are a fellow structure-lover, is to explicitly write down what tasks I am tackling that day and how much time I estimate each one will take. I do this the old-fashioned way on lined paper, because I love to cross things off a list. I’ll draw a simple grid with the hours on one side and the corresponding tasks on the other, and plan out what I’m going to work on during what time. This has been immensely helpful because it forces me to be honest about how long things will take and how much I can realistically get done in a day, and it also forces me to focus on one task at a time instead of jumping around, trying to multitask, and losing productivity.

When you’re juggling lots of clients and students, it can be easy to fall into a “guilt trap” of never feeling like you’re getting enough done. What used to happen is I’d be working on a report for one client while my brain was freaking out about the lesson plans I still had to create and that other potential client I needed to follow up with, and and and… Does this happen to anyone else?? Specifically writing down tasks and assignments for each day, with corresponding times, has freed me from this mental merry-go-round and has made such a huge difference in my happiness AND productivity!

Aaaaand that pretty much brings us to lunchtime. Thanks for joining me on this virtual tour of my morning!

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use these questions as inspiration for some free-writing.

  • What does your current morning routine look like?
  • What does your IDEAL morning routine look like? Is there anything you wish you had time for that you aren’t currently doing? Is there anything you are currently doing that you wish you could stop?
  • What are your biggest priorities that will help you make the most progress towards your goals? How can you dedicate more time for these priorities in your day?
  • What is one thing you could add to your morning routine that would make you feel more centered, calm, and happy?

what’s your word for the year?

Happy Wednesday, everyone! It is a brisk, clear day here in Northern California… a little break from all the rain we’ve been getting! I’ll take the rain anytime — a welcome respite from the drought we’ve been under the past several years — but it is nice to have a string of sunny days in the forecast.

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts yesterday, Susan Hyatt’s weekly GO podcast, and it struck a deep chord with me. Susan’s no-nonsense words never fail to light a fire in my belly, and this episode was no exception. She was talking about setting an intention for your year that is just a single word or a short, memorable phrase. Examples might be: steady, rise, slow, patience, shine.

I love this idea because it feels both manageable and highly motivational. While I am a sucker for setting goals and taking baby steps, sometimes — especially at the beginning of the year — having a long list of goals can seem overwhelming. Setting a one-word intention is simple. It is a touchstone you can come back to, again and again, as you move through your day and week and month. Instead of a long list of goals, a one-word intention is more of a habit or a mindset: something that all of your other goals flow out from. The center of the pinwheel; the eye of the storm.

When I look back on 2016, I think a word for my year would have been CHANGE. From my personal life to the larger world, there was so much change and upheaval in 2016. For me personally, that change was wonderful and celebrated — moving in with Allyn, getting engaged, getting married. But even happy change can be stressful, and now as I take stock of where I hope 2017 leads, I find myself wanting to slow down and settle in a bit, getting comfortable in the routines of this new chapter in my life.

me-and-al-holding-hands-married

So, my word for 2017 is FOUNDATION. {Which always puts this song by Kate Nash in my head… but I digress.}

I want to work on getting the foundation of my life in order. For me, that is broken down into four main areas: my health; my relationships; my writing; my home environment.

Health

For health, when I think of foundation, I think of building a solid exercise routine and working more plants into my diet. I already take yoga class every Monday; now, I am striving to do yoga every day, even if just fifteen minutes. I am also hoping to start a routine with my hubby where we got to the gym twice a week before he heads off to work. I think this would be a really great practice for us to undertake together, and I know that doing it together will be really good for my motivation!

I also am experimenting with quitting sugar. I have been curious about this for a long time and have been wanting to try it out, but have been too afraid to take the leap. In 2017, I am bravely giving it a go. After all, I can always go back to sugar! But I want to see how my body and brain feels without it.

Relationships

My relationships are the most important thing in my life and they bring me so much happiness. I want to continue to nurture old friendships and establish new ones. In 2017, I am making time to visit my family and friends who are far away. I am also making more time for phone calls and emails to stay in touch. And, I am reaching out to fledgling friendships to help nurture these new relationships and create stronger bonds. As far as my marriage goes {hee hee, it still gives me butterflies to type those words!} Allyn and I are making time every Sunday for our “check in” with each other about how we are doing, what is on our hearts, what we might be struggling with, and what we are grateful for.

rehearsal dinner

Writing

This is a big one for me! I just returned home from a marvelous writing conference, the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway sponsored by Murphy Writing, and I feel rejuvenated and bursting with ideas for a new huge project I am embarking upon. This book scares me, but I think that just means I need to lean into it more — it scares me because it is pushing me to grow, because it feels braver and bigger than anything else I have tried to write before. Instead of worrying about how many pages I want to write each day or what writing projects I aim to complete by the end of this year, FOUNDATION reminds me to focus on the process of writing. If I make writing a part of my daily routine, then the pages will get written. I will move forward on the projects I want to complete. All I need to do is put my energy in the daily process and show up every day. That is why I am committing to spending the first hour or so of each day working on my own writing projects, whatever they may be.

Home

I have this image in my mind of what I would love my home to look like: clean, comfortable, simple, organized. I feel like I am on the road to getting there, but I am not there yet. A part of me was resigned to never quite getting there. But then I thought, “No — this is your life. You deserve to create an environment that makes you feel wholly calm and at peace. You don’t have to settle for your slightly-messy tendencies.” I was also thinking about what wonderful writer and life coach Maggie Reyes once told me: “My home is my sanctuary.” My apartment is my sanctuary as it is right this very minute, but I want to help it become even more so. To do that, my intention of “foundation” motivates me to finally go through those old papers and receipts, donate the rest of those clothes and items I do not need or want, and incorporate a more regular cleaning routine so chores do not feel so overwhelming.

bookshelves

Above my desk, I have made a sign that has my word on it. FOUNDATION. Every time I see it, I feel inspired and centered.

What will your word be for 2017? I would love to hear in the comments!

taming the excuse-monster in my mind

As I’ve mentioned before, I recently moved to a new apartment. Habits researcher and author Gretchen Rubin writes, in her book Better than Before, that an excellent time to adopt new habits is when undergoing a shift or change in your life: a break-up, a new relationship, a new job, a home renovation, etc. Moving to a new place, it turns out, is actually the #1 time to successfully adopt new habits! So I leaped upon the opportunity to try cementing some new healthy habits that I had been wanting to fully integrate into my life.

{Image source}

One of these habits is going to bed earlier, so I can wake up earlier feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day. Another is to focus on simplicity; I did a huge purge of clutter and papers before I moved, and I want to keep these nonessentials from slowly re-accumulating in my life, as they so often do. Also, I now begin every morning with two big glasses of water and a green smoothie. I try to write at least a couple hundred words on my creative work-in-progress each morning before I even check my email or work on projects for other people. And I am trying to set in stone a regular routine of going to the gym.

I belonged to a gym close by where I used to live, and I would go there fairly regularly, but it was never something I especially looked forward to. I could never figure out why. It was a nice gym, with lots of classes available and fancy amenities. I realize now that I did not fully feel comfortable there; the atmosphere was a bit competitive and intense, and I prefer my gym time to be low-key and low-stress. This new gym I joined by my new apartment is much less fancy, but much more my vibe: like me, the people who go there seem friendly, a little rag-tag, and much more interested in exercising for good health than for looks.

One of my favorite classes is a Monday morning gentle yoga class. The instructor is funny and upbeat, and the class always flies by and is the perfect way to ease into my week.

Lots of other people must think so, too, because the class is pretty much always filled to capacity. Classes work on a first-come, first-serve basis; when you arrive at the gym, you can ask for a pass to get into the class, and if they have any more available the person working the front desk will hand a pass to you. If not, you’re out of luck!

{Photo cred: tricsr4kidz, Flickr Creative Commons}

One week, I was a little late getting out of bed and, even thought I arrived to the gym ten minutes before class was scheduled to begin, they were all out of passes. Rats! I thought, but it was not a big deal. I stashed my yoga mat in the locker room and worked out on the elliptical machine instead.

When I was leaving, about twenty minutes before the class was scheduled to end, another woman was standing by the front desk holding a yoga mat of her own. She spotted my yoga mat and summoned me over. “Were you kicked out of the class, too?” she asked.

“Well, I wasn’t kicked out… there just wasn’t enough room when I arrived.”

This woman shook her head angrily. “It’s not fair! They should have two classes! I got here at the time the class was supposed to start, and I wasn’t able to get into the class! They kicked me out! It’s not fair!” She was like a toddler having a tantrum, blaming everyone else but herself for her predicament.

The manager behind the front desk met my eyes with a helpless expression. I realized this other yogi had probably been angrily complaining to her for the past half hour. And now she was trying to get me to gang up on the manager about the completely fair gym policy.

“It was my fault,” I said, shrugging. “I should have gotten here earlier. But I still had a great workout anyway!” And then I smiled at the manager and headed out the door. I could still hear the other woman sputtering.

This woman, with her countless loud excuses, reminded me of someone familiar: myself, at times. Especially when it comes to my BIG goals. Which, for me, pretty much all center around writing. The truth is, as much as I want to spend my days writing up a storm, on a minute-by-minute level it often feels like writing is the last thing I want to be doing. Because writing is so often difficult! It requires so much thinking and feeling, so much honesty and bravery, and so much willingness to fail, to deal with uncertainty, to feel like you have utterly no idea if what you are creating is going to ever come together at all.

Usually, I find it is especially difficult to begin. To climb back into whatever I am working on. To bridge the gap between the shining potential of the idea in my head and the stark lines of words marching imperfectly across the page. And the act of beginning is often when my excuse-laden self pops up and brightly says:


Oh, you can’t possibly write today! Look how beautiful and sunny it is outside! You don’t want to waste a day like this. Go make a picnic! Go for a hike! Now, now, now!


Oh, look how rainy and dreary it is outside. Why don’t you curl up with that new novel you’ve been wanting to read? Reading a couple chapters will be good for inspiration. Go on, just for a bit. … Oh, why not read for a bit longer? Reading is important for writing, after all.


Oh no, you woke up late! You’re completely behind schedule! No time to write today!


Oh, you woke up early! Aren’t you feeling a little groggy still? Why not get a jump on some other projects, and you can come back to your creative writing once your cup of Earl Grey has kicked in?


Shouldn’t you clean the bathroom? Wash the dishes? Put in a load of laundry? Vacuum the carpet? Your desk is looking quite messy — probably best to organize it first, before you start writing.


Don’t you have a little headache? Your back is feeling kind of sore? Maybe you’re getting sick. You should go back to bed. You should rest. Is that a pain in your gut? Maybe you should eat something. Drink something. Go put on the tea kettle. Go make a sandwich.


Oh, and you should definitely check your email and your cell phone! Can’t miss any messages! It could be something important!


Does this sound familiar to anyone else? I’ve grown to recognize the sabotaging excuse-monster in my head for what she is: afraid. She doesn’t want to sit in the discomfort. She doesn’t want to risk failure. And so she tries to veer me off course. And, on those days (thankfully, becoming rarer and rarer) when I give in and I don’t get the writing done, and I feel guilty and angry for not writing, she always pops up on those days, too. She is filled with those same excuses for why I did not put time into my most meaningful work. She always wants to blame everything else in the world but my own decisions. She is like the other woman who did not get a pass for yoga class.

She has taught me: only by taking responsibility for my own actions, can I change them. Only by recognizing when I am making excuses can I put the brakes on the excuse-train. And only by truthfully assessing my old habits can I build new, better habits.

In a recent podcast with Arch Street Press, Dr. Douglass Jackson, founder of Project C.U.R.E., says, “Figure out what gets you so excited that it gets you up out of bed, puts your feet on the floor, and you just can’t wait to get back to it.”

Writing has always been that something to me. Now, my habits are reflecting this, too.

Ever since that week when I was too late to get a pass, I arrive to yoga class half an hour early. That early, I always am able to get a pass. I walk into the yoga room and lay out my mat on the smooth wooden floor. I have my pick of places in the room. And then I go ride the exercise bike or run on the elliptical machine until it is time for class to begin. Instead of feeling guilty and upset, I feel empowered.

I think that is one of the best ways to feel in our creative lives and our work lives and our personal lives and our whole lives: empowered.

And the best part of all? It is in our power, every single day, to create that feeling for ourselves.

weekend getaway to south lake tahoe

Hello, friends! This week’s year of living simply post will be comin’ at ya tomorrow, but this morning I wanted to bring you a special recap post of my weekend in South Lake Tahoe! It was my first time there and ever since I moved to the Bay Area, people have been telling me and telling me that I needed to go. I knew it was a gorgeous place, but let me tell you — it was even more gorgeous than I was expecting!

Plus, it was the perfect time of year to go: the weather was cool in the evenings but warm during the day; the area was peaceful and not too crowded with summer or winter tourists; and the few trees in the area that were not evergreens were changing colors into beautiful yellows and oranges. And the lake absolutely shimmered, such a pure and vibrant blue.

lake tahoe

Boats on the lake!

tahoe boats

I took walks along the shoreline each day I was there. I could not get enough of this view!

lake tahoe 2

The whole reason I was invited to South Lake Tahoe was because of the inaugural WordWave Literary Festival; I was honored to win first place for drama in the playwriting competition, and the organizers of the festival put me up at the Camp Richardson Resort for three nights so I could attend rehearsals and the performance on Saturday! What an incredible experience it was to see the talented actors and director bring my words to life onstage. I can’t even adequately describe it, you guys. I just felt — still feel — filled with light and gratitude. And magic. Yes, it was an utterly magical experience.

Here is a photo of the beautiful Valhalla Boathouse Theater… it used to be an old boathouse but was renovated and turned into a theater. It is one of the coolest performance spaces I have ever seen!

valhalla theater

Backing up for a bit, on Friday night the WordWave Festival officially began with a Steampunk Ball in the woods! Do you guys know much about steampunk? I was not very well-versed in the trend but WOW, the costumes people wore were out of this world. It was explained to me as a Victorian style meets modern technology/gadgets/gears/etc. Like the Robert Downey Jr. style Sherlock Holmes. I did not have a steampunk costume but enjoyed mingling at the ball, admiring the decorations and chatting with people. I took this photo for you guys of this steampunk octopus sculpture!

steampunk octopus

On Saturday morning, I went to a relaxing gentle yoga class, walked along the water, and attended an amazing keynote speech by Pam Houston, who has long been a favorite writer of mine. {Her latest story collection, Contents May Have Shifted, is in my top five books I have read this year.} Pam talked about how being an artist is most of all about noticing things and being present to the world around you. I could not agree more! And she spoke about how telling our stories and sharing our voices is desperately important, especially to celebrate our wondrous and one-of-a-kind and precious Earth. She inspired me to use my voice to spread messages and tell stories that are deeply important to me.

contents may have shifted

Early Saturday afternoon, Allyn arrived! {He had to work Thursday and Friday.} He actually took Amtrak up so that we would only have one car and could drive back together on Sunday. Neither of us had much experience with Amtrak, but he said it was great! He took a train from Oakland to Sacramento and a bus from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe. The whole journey took about 4.5 hours, not much longer than it would have taken to drive, and both the train and the bus had wi-fi so he was able to get some work done during the journey and also just relax and enjoy the scenery. {It is a very pretty drive for the last hour or so!} I was relieved that he was on time and had such a pleasant trip. And it was sooooo nice to drive back together instead of taking separate cars on the way home!

tahoe trees

I picked Allyn up from the bus station at 12:30 on Saturday afternoon, and we grabbed some sandwiches at a cute little deli and then headed to Fallen Leaf Lake, which one of the actors in my play had recommended as a gorgeous place to hike. We ate our sandwiches along the trail and explored the area for a couple hours. It was so pretty! Tall trees, a gurgling creek, and well-maintained hiking trails.

me and al tahoe

When we reached Fallen Leaf Lake, I could see why the actors were raving about it! This picture does not come close to capturing its peaceful beauty.

fallen leaf lake

Mid-afternoon, we headed back to our room, showered, and got fancied up for dinner — and for my play debut!

ready for my play!

Allyn took me out to a celebratory dinner at The Beacon Restaurant, which Dana had recommended as one of her favorite Tahoe spots! We made a reservation in advance, so we were able to snag a table out on the patio looking onto the lake as the sun began to set. It was perfect!

beacon restaurant

Oh you guys. I was a giddy bundle of nerves before the performance! But my play went wonderfully. {All three plays went wonderfully!} It was a full house and the audience was terrific, very engaged in the performances. They gasped during the surprises and laughed at the humorous lines and during the dramatic moments, you could hear a pin drop. I was so proud of the actors and grateful for the way they treated my work with such respect and enthusiasm. They brought their own artistic vision to my script and, by bringing the characters and their relationships to life, made it even better than simply my words on the page.

The stage right before the lights dimmed and my play began!

The stage right before the lights dimmed and my play began!

On Sunday, before heading home, I wanted to check out Emerald Bay, which was another “must see” spot many people told me about. Allyn and I started to drive towards Emerald Bay around 11:15 am, but the Tahoe Marathon was still going on so the road was closed until noon! We solved the problem by driving back into town and picking up some lunch to-go at a Mexican place that was recommended highly on Yelp, Jalepeno’s Taqueria. We both went with breakfast burritos, and also picked up a chocolate croissant at a bakery next-door, Don’s Cakes by the Lake. By then, it was late enough for us to drive back and get through to Emerald Bay. We ate our lunch while gazing out at this spectacular view:

emerald bay

Apparently, it is one of the most photographed spots in all of California! I can certainly see why. I could have stared out at that peaceful view for hours.

me at emerald bay

Eventually, it was time to hit the road so we would make it back home in time for dinner. It was an easy drive with just a few spots of traffic — bopping along to music and chatting with my sweetie made time pass quickly. I already am looking forward to visiting Lake Tahoe again!

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a year of living simply: week 12

Hi there, everyone! I’m back from a family reunion trip to Pittsburgh to celebrate my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary! It was wonderful to spend time with my family, especially some relatives I had not seen for years and years.

3 generations

the ladies

me and grandpap

My Grandpap’s sister Muriel came — I had never met her before! She is a hoot.

mom and muriel

One day we went into Pittsburgh and had a delightful time exploring the city. We lucked out with a gorgeous sunny day!

pittsburgh

with my girls

on the incline

I’ve spent the past couple days unpacking/shopping/laundry-ing, and getting back into my normal routine. I’m finally feeling like I’m back on the right timezone! Onto the simplicity…

year of living simply

Last week’s challenge was to say no to something. As I mentioned, I’ve adopted this bad habit of “hedging” instead of declining outright when asked to do something I have no time or interest in. Instead, I tend to say, “Maybe” and then end up worrying about it, or sometimes just doing it because I can’t bring myself to “let down” the other person. It’s ridiculous.

This past week, I practiced flexing my “no” muscle! I’ll be honest: it was difficult. I felt a pang of worry every time I stopped myself from hedging and said, “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to do that — I’ve just got too much on my plate right now.” Even if I wasn’t saying the words out loud but typing them in an email response, I still felt my nerves clench! But, guess what? I don’t think anyone I said, “No” to hates my guts now. I think everyone understood. In fact, I think people appreciate an honest, up-front response — it is actually much kinder to say, “No” outright than to hedge and hedge and finally flake out on someone. In turn, I don’t feel resentful of “having to do” tasks I have no interest in, and I don’t feel like I’m running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off trying to please everyone and get everything done. Now I have more energy and time for the projects and people who really matter to me.

This week’s challenge is to set aside a small block of time every day to do something you absolutely LOVE. So often, we fill our lives with so much busy-busy-busy-ness that we don’t have any time left to do those things that bring us pure pleasure. I’m not talking about being productive or getting things done; I mean those “frivolous” activities that are simply FUN. Remember back when we were kids, and “fun” wasn’t a luxury — it was a priority? When we actively made time to play? Why do we have to lose that when we become adults?

This week, spend some time thinking about activities that make you feel good — maybe it’s reading books by a certain author or in a certain genre; perhaps it is knitting or scrapbooking; or maybe simply sitting outside under you favorite tree, doing nothing but enjoying the breeze and birdsong. Make time every single day to savor what you love. Put FUN on your to-do list!

Questions for the morning:

  • What did you say, “No” to this week?
  • What is something you absolutely LOVE to do?

a year of living simply: week 11

Hello, friends! Hope you had a lovely Easter weekend. Allyn and I went into the city to a friend’s house for a brunch celebration. It was cold and rainy here yesterday morning, so we were all smiles! {We need rain badly here in California… every drop feels like a blessing!}

me and al easter

We put together an Easter basket that we brought with us to brunch. It was fun to fill the colorful plastic eggs with jelly beans and chocolates, and I enjoyed reading the cute little sayings on them: You’re a Grade A! Chicks Rule. You Crack Me Up. It was a hit at brunch, especially with the little kiddos.

easter basket

Backing up to Saturday, Allyn and I went out to dinner and saw a play in Walnut Creek. The play was called “Mirandolina!” and had been translated into English from Italian. It was a lighthearted romantic comedy and though I went into the play with high expectations {every play we have seen at this theater has been wonderful} this one exceeded my expectations!

mirandolina play

There were multiple laugh-out-loud moments, the cast was superb and had great chemistry, the set and costumes were excellent… plus this theater sells little tubs of Haagen Dazs ice cream at intermission, so that is an added bonus. Overall, it was a really fun date night! I love seeing live theater and I’m so glad that Allyn enjoys going to plays with me.

Now, onto the simplicity…

year of living simply

Last week’s challenge was to tackle the magazine clutter in your life! Magazines pile up in my house so quickly, especially The New Yorker, which comes weekly. Magazines tend to grow into a pile that I tell myself I will read “one day…” while in the meantime, the huge stack of them stresses me out. This week I took a hard look at my magazine subscriptions, and ended up unsubscribing to three of them. {Though I am keeping The New Yorker!} I am donating a bunch of New Yorkers to the high school library where Allyn’s sister Allyson is librarian… they don’t have much of a budget to spend on magazine subscriptions, so rely on donations. I’m sure many other school libraries are in the same boat, so if you have magazines to donate, you might check with your local schools!

magazines

This week’s challenge is to say no to something. I don’t know about you, but I have the hardest time saying the simple word, “No.” I’m worried about disappointing people or letting people down, so I’ve adopted this bad habit of “hedging” — even if I know that I absolutely do not want to do something or do not have time to commit to something, I have a hard time declining outright. Instead, I say, “Maybe” and then end up worrying about it for a while before finally getting up the nerve to opt out, or just doing it even though I don’t want to do it because I can’t bring myself to “let down” the other person. It’s so silly! Especially writing it out here, I can see how ridiculous my process is.

The older I get, the more I realize how precious time is. It is a valuable gift that passes by so quickly, and we cannot afford to waste our time doing things that are not meaningful for us simply because we’re afraid of that moment of discomfort that comes with saying, “No.” Sure, there will always be things we have to do that perhaps we aren’t thrilled about {dentist appointments, DMV renewals, household chores} but when it comes to actively committing to an activity or task, I want to be more aware of what I’m adding to my plate. I want to guard my time, so I can use it to invest in the people and projects that are most dear to my heart and most important to me.

Questions for the morning:

  • Did you get rid of any magazines this week?
  • What do you have a hard time saying no to?

a year of living simply: week 10

Hello, friends! It’s been way too long since I’ve checked in with you guys. I took an unintentional blogging break when I traveled down south to visit my brother and my parents for a long weekend. My brother organized this fantastic event about girls education for USC’s “EdMonth” and I did not want to miss it! Thanks to an inexpensive flight on Southwest, I was able to rearrange my tutoring schedule and travel to L.A. to attend. Greg is passionate about women’s rights and his enthusiasm shined throughout the evening! He recruited amazingly impressive and eloquent panelists to talk about “The Girl Effect: From Why to How.” It was such an inspiring event and I am SO proud of him for putting it all together!

greg edmonth panel

greg edmonth panel

I took advantage of being down in Southern California to visit my parents in Ventura before I headed back to the Bay. It’s always so relaxing and happy to spend time with my parents. On Sunday we went to a talk by Garth Stein, author of the wonderful book The Art of Racing in the Rain. I am fascinated to hear other writers talk about their process, and Mr. Stein was as insightful as he was humorous! I also ate way too many strawberries {Mom bought an entire flat from a local farm}, visited with Gramps, and played many rounds of fetch with crazy-eyed Mr. Mur-dog. Soaking up time with my family always makes my soul feel refreshed.

me and greg

Now, onto the simplicity…

year of living simply

Last week’s challenge was to get rid of some paper clutter in your life. I cleared out my box of old receipts and also organized my tutoring folder, which had become a mess of worksheets and assignments. Now I have everything organized based on age/grade level. Moving forward, my challenge will be to take a little time each week to do inventory and KEEP the folder organized. I am motivated to do so, because I feel much more prepared going into each tutoring session — I know that I will be able to find what I am looking for to engage my students!

This week’s challenge is related to paper clutter… time to tackle the magazine clutter in your life! Magazines pile up in my house so quickly, especially The New Yorker, which comes weekly. They tend to grow into a pile that I tell myself I will read “one day…” {Sound familiar to anyone else?} This week I’m going to take a hard look at my magazine subscriptions, decide which ones I don’t need to renew any longer, and donate all the magazines I honestly don’t plan on reading.

Do you have magazines to get rid of, too? Don’t just toss ’em — donate ’em! I’ve donated magazines in the past, and libraries have always been grateful to receive them. You could also consider donating magazines to nursing homes, hospitals, or community centers.

Before I go, an update: I have become a podcast junkie! I especially love This American Life, RadioLab, and Invisibilia. In the past few weeks I’ve learned about:

Questions for the morning:

  • Do you listen to podcasts? If so, what are your favorites?
  • What paper clutter did you get rid of?
  • Do you subscribe to magazines?
20150326_203634

My new teaching mantra!

a year of living simply: week 9

Happy St. Patty’s Day, friends! Hope you are wearing green today so you don’t get pinched! 🙂 I’m excited to get together with Dana tonight to continue our tradition {started last year} of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with homemade Irish coffees, created by the talented Dana herself. I’m really looking forward to seeing her and catching up!

Photo from our St. Patty's date last year!

Photo from our St. Patty’s date last year!

Before heading over to Dana’s this evening, my plans for the day include a few hours of tutoring, making headway on a copyediting project, and some festive baking! I’m going to attempt to make snickerdoodles with green sprinkles mixed into the cinnamon-sugar topping. We’ll see how they turn out!

Now, onto the simplicity…

year of living simply

Last week’s challenge was to do something to simplify or improve your commute. I did a couple things that were SO simple, but that have improved my car time a great deal!

1. The first thing I did was to clean out all the miscellaneous items and trash old Larabar wrappers that had accumulated in the backseat of poor Charley, my PriusC. I was amazed at the difference it made! Even though I hardly ever use the backseat to transport people, glimpsing a clean car as I climb into the driver’s seat just makes me feel good, like I’ve got my life in order. Combined with my new “arrive everywhere five minutes early” habit, my drive time has never been so stress-free! It’s crazy what a difference a few minutes can make.

2. I started listening to podcasts while I drive. I love music, but I was getting tired of my CDs and the same old radio tunes. Dana told me about a podcast she listened to at the end of last year called Serial, and after listening to the first episode I was immediately hooked. I stopped by the Verizon store and bought an inexpensive auxiliary cable so I can listen to my phone through my car’s speakers; all I have to do is load up the podcast, click “play” and I’m set to go! {Apologies if my excitement is lame — I’ve never really stored music on my phone, so this is a new experience for me!}

Listening to podcasts during my car time has opened up a whole new world for me. I love learning and I love podcasts, but I can’t ever seem to find the time to listen to many — that is, until now! Twenty minutes in the car here and fifteen minutes in the car there really adds up. I’ve finished all twelve episodes of Serial and today I started listening to This American Life. Now I actually find myself looking forward to my car time instead of being annoyed by my commute! If you have any podcasts to recommend, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.

charley!

This week’s challenge is to get rid of some paper clutter in your life. How you interpret this is up to you! Perhaps you want to sort through/get rid of one of the paper piles on your desk. Or maybe clean out your desk drawer filled with old receipts. Paper is personally one of my major clutter weaknessnes. I’m planning to attack a certain shelf in my closet where all the pieces of paper I don’t know what to do with tend to congregate in a big tall lilting stack.

Before I go, a couple updates:

  • This month my friend Julie is participating in The Minimalism Game {hosted by The Minimalists} and invited me to play along! The game is to get rid of one thing on the first day of the month, two things on the second day, three things on the third day, etc. I’m doing a slightly less intense version where I am trying to get rid of one thing every day in March. So far I’ve donated 8 books, 3 magazines, 2 shirts, 1 sweater, and recycled 2 boxes I was hanging onto in my closet for I have no idea what reason. Not sure yet what I’m getting rid of today, but it will be something!
  • A few weeks ago I said that I wanted to continue arriving everywhere a few minutes early, and I’m happy to report the routine is still going strong! Setting my clock three minutes early was a BIG help {I usually forget it is early} and, generally, I’ve gotten into the habit of getting ready to leave about ten minutes before I *think* I need to start getting ready to leave. I’m feeling so much less rushed in general, that I’m definitely planning to hang onto this habit!

Questions for the morning:

  • Do you listen to podcasts? If so, what are your favorites?
  • What brightens up your commute?

a year of living simply: week 8

Hi there, everyone! Hope your week is off to a great start. I had a nice day yesterday… before tutoring, I met up with a sweet woman from my church who has been checking up on me since Celine died. She is a wonderful listener and a very warm person, and she brought me this beautiful Calla Lily as a little surprise. So thoughtful! When she had to leave, I stayed at the cafe for another thirty minutes or so, reading and sipping on an Earl Gray tea latte called “London fog” that was absolutely delicious.

calla lily

My grief process has been filled with shock, disbelief, sadness and anger, and yet I also feel intensely aware of all the loving people I am so fortunate to have in my life, who have taken care of me and checked up on me and sent me nice cards and notes and text messages. My profound grief is inextricably linked with profound gratitude.

year of living simply

Last week’s challenge was to be five minutes early to every appointment you have. As I mentioned last week, while I always have the best intentions to be on time early, I had a hard time actually getting out the door when I planned. After some reflection, I realized this was due to my impulse to try to squeeze in “one more thing” before I left the house, and also my tendency to underestimate how much time I will need to get ready, make breakfast, etc.

This week, I did a few things that all combined to helping me actually arrive not just on time, but EARLY, to my various appointments and responsibilities–even during my crazy-busy Saturday, and even with some unplanned traffic.

  • I set the clock in my car three minutes fast {and am trying to forget that it is fast and act like it is the correct time!}
  • When I determined what time I would need to leave the house to get somewhere on time, I set my “goal time” to leave a full ten minutes before the actual time I needed to leave. That way, even if I was running five minutes late… I was still five minutes early.
  • Instead of trying to cram in “one more thing” I forced myself to step away from the computer and get ready to leave. I realized that I used to neglect to build in time for little things I need to do before hitting the road: brushing my teeth, filling my water bottle, and going to the restroom. These things only take a couple minutes, but still–that’s a couple minutes I need to build into my schedule so I can leave on time!

This week’s challenge is to do something to simplify or improve your commute. I am fortunate in that I don’t have to drive to work each morning and home each evening in rush hour traffic, but between driving to teach and tutor — not to mention to see my sweetheart or meet up with Dana — I do spend quite a bit of time in the car.

charley!

My poor PriusC Charley can quickly become a bit of mess, especially the back seat. I usually just drive myself, and hardly ever have passengers in the back, so it is mostly used to store various things I am taking somewhere or bringing home… and a few things that I just haven’t bothered to do anything with. So this week, in addition to thinking up ways to make my driving time a bit more fun, I am also going to simplify my car environment and get rid of the nonessential clutter!

A timely reminder from my Yogi green tea bag! Happiness comes from being contented with what you have.

A timely reminder from my Yogi green tea bag! Happiness comes from being content with what you have, rather than always wanting more.

Bonus challenge: this month my friend Julie is participating in The Minimalism Game {hosted by The Minimalists} and invited me to play along! The game is to get rid of one thing on the first day of the month, two things on the second day, three things on the third day, etc. I’m doing a slightly less intense version where I am trying to get rid of one thing every day in March. We’d love for you to join us!

Questions for the morning:

  • What helps you leave the house/arrive to things on time?
  • What brightens up your commute?