Category Archives: Writing

The Morning Journal of a Distracted Writer

The phone buzzes loudly, overbearing the softer sprightly tones that serve as the alarm. The dichotomy is odd and causes brief disconcert, before I snap awake and slap around the nightstand for the virtual snooze button. What’s odder still is that I consciously respond the first time.
It’s dark. The usual noises drift in: soft regular breathing, gentle house creaks, a car passing by, chirping. It’s normal—I haven’t woken anyone else. The phone is still my hand, so I check the time, momentarily brightening the room and forcing myself to squint. Too early. It’s spring, but why get out of bed? It’s harder to, now.
Which way is the bathroom?
The house feels cold. Must’ve forgotten to turn the heat back on last night again. Spring weather…
I check on the kids. They’re where they should be, everybody still bundled.
The hallway creaks, amplified in the darkness; the stairs sound as if the house is about to collapse. Through the front windows, it looks like the middle of the night.
Turning toward the kitchen. I need something hot, or I’ll never get anything done. No coffee today, tea. Very hot. The microwave finishes, shrieking like a scalded banshee, while I squint at the thermostat. I look at the ceiling for a few seconds, concerned that was louder than it probably was.
My tablet sits on the counter. The news feeds beckon; I have to know what happened the last six hours, the best ways to pack an overhead bag, my new favorite vegetables to roast, who the latest March Madness underdog is. Half an hour passes.
I’m wasting my opportunity. I got up when I wanted to for a change, and I haven’t thought of a word to write. My tea is cold. I can now make out the lawn chair that my youngest child dragged out to the small tree in the back to help him climb it. Where are the tissues?
I realize it’s been two weeks since I worked on anything important. I’m slowly losing confidence. Maybe it’s just a valley between peaks. Just start!
But now with ideal conditions, what to do? I haven’t finished the last post I started. The outline for my kids’ story has to be finished or I’ll never get that out. The book review I wanted to start weeks ago still haunts. A case full of family history remains untouched at my feet.
I turn on the desk light. It illuminates the wood harshly, like a new headlight, when it’s the only one on. I gingerly drop to the chair, avoiding a spill, only to bump the desk and freeze in panic as my tea sloshes dangerously.
The computer wakes, brightening the room and showing me where I left off the last time I got distracted yesterday. Ironically, I had been adding more distractions to our virtual calendar, licensing it to consume more of our time.
I got that many emails overnight? Delete, delete, delete.
I open my writing app. A blank page. Daunting. I think about free writing, just as a way to get started. No, I’ve never liked doing that—I always make it sound forced, as I have to concentrate on something. Something…
It occurs to me that part of the reason I’ve stopped getting ideas is that I don’t stand back and listen for them. Maybe that’s worth exploring. I make a note.
Still, where to start? I consider just journaling, but I prefer the end of the day for that. The journal idea persists. How about focusing on a scene, instead of cataloguing a whole day?
Words, then a sentence. Then another, a paragraph. Rewrite that. The idea solidifies. My intimidation recedes, and I begin to feel focus. I am able to follow the path that’s opening, recalling details, turning it into what I would not have thought it could be unless I stopped to think. I feel like I’m able to close this arc.
Creaks from the ceiling. Three hours have passed, and I’m near 700 words, feeling accomplished. The sun is up.
The phone buzzes loudly about an event later this morning, waking me for the second time.

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Lists are for kids

It’s 1140 p.m. and I’m slouched at my desk, feeling as foggy as a morning on the lake and wondering where the evening went. I’ve just finished plowing through the unremarkable chores that I set aside for this week: watch videos on creativity, sort out the mess in my digital notebook, read my saved bookmarks at a home/design site (always looking for new ways to spruce things up, every season), and check the hundred or so flagged emails and schedule or answer those that I can. And it all cost me only four hours.
That I sometimes allow the buildup to get a wee bit out of control is evident.
This catch-and-pile-and-release serves as a crutch for the times when I have little brain power left. With my hectic family life (which I sometimes write about), circumstances are often less than favorable for concentration. So, I’ll spend mental reserves to shrink the pile. It’s not the best way to manage productive time. I’d rather spend it writing and working on essential projects–and not being annoyed about not writing and working on essential projects.
(As an aside, I find this avoidance to be crucial. I have boiled over on occasion. During a very recent incident, I loudly gave the whole creative thing up then dramatically bagged my writing and essay books for donation. My wife looked at me as if I had just insisted that the moon is, in fact, made of cheese. Temper, temper.)
I have practiced some great methods to handle this instability. Advice and ideas abound. At my day job, I work as an information developer for a software company, so keeping everything straight among multiple release projects is critical. I diligently plan, write, and note using concepts from The Accidental Creative, Peter Bregman’s 18 Minutes, and Bullet Journaling, along with other tools. My productivity mashup works fine during the work day.schedule
However, I can sometimes flounder when it comes to my personal creative stuff. I lay out everything similarly as for work, but managing it among family issues feels like plugging leaks in a dike without enough fingers; normalizing pressure in one place (the important thing I’m working on right now) increases it everywhere else (the other important things I want to work on right now, not even considering homework, lawn care, and meal preparation).
No wonder people are less stressed at work than at home.
In the end, it’s going to be about what I consider important, then paring down and deciding what can wait or move off the list. To something like this. I just have to make the time. And not boil over if I don’t.

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For the Greatest of the Greatest Generation

My grandmother turns 96 in June. Last year, at her 95th birthday party, an extraordinary opportunity to tell a great story presented itself. On this Memorial Day, I can think of no better time to kick it off.
My uncles had arranged a celebration for her to take place during a re-enactor’s weekend at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum in Reading, PA. The event was their huge annual World War II weekend, with collectors from everywhere showing off their gear–everything from uniforms to campsites to fully functioning planes and vehicles. Thousands of people wandered the grounds. There were flights, displays, mock battles, concerts. It was a history buff’s Heaven. My son, who had just turned eight, found it particularly fascinating (as a side note, it was enormously valuable for him to see it all firsthand; he still asks questions).

My grandmother receives her shadow box. It contained priceless looks at family history.

My grandmother receives her shadow box. It contained priceless looks at family history.

To one side of the grounds a small quonset hut squats permanently, its interior and small fenced yard decorated as if it had just been dropped in from the 1940’s South Pacific. Everyone gathered there for the party, where my grandmother received a large shadow box containing some of her photos, letters, and other memories from that time that had not been seen in decades.
This was all highly significant.
According to family history, she met my grandfather when they both served in the U.S. Navy during the war. They corresponded frequently, spending most of it in different parts of the world. She left the service at the end of 1944, when they married and settled into my grandfather’s new funeral business (he had actually aspired to journalism in high school) in Philadelphia. My mother arrived a few years later, the first of five children. My grandparents lived and worked together until he passed away in early 1982, when I was 11.

A detail from the shadow box, with my grandfather as a young man in uniform.

A detail from the shadow box, with my grandfather as a young man in uniform.

I had always thought it a very interesting story, something to look further into if I could find any records. This chapter of the family’s history was worth telling and preserving.
I had some experience writing about veterans. During a short enlistment, I aspired to journalism myself and worked as a reporter and editor for a paper at a medical center where many of them received care. I heard some amazing stories and met many wonderful, honorable people, such as Jimmie Kanaya, who mailed me handwritten thank-you letters for a piece I once wrote that included him.
Though my time in uniform was limited, I can say with no uncertainty that I left the better for it. Serving and talking with those who had taken part in history themselves was more educational than any experience I ever had in school. I still keep Kanaya’s letters.
As we walked out of the party, a portrait of my lovely young grandmother, in uniform and looking into the camera with the confident grace I have always known of her, brought it all back to me almost immediately. There was definitely a mission for me here, and I could not live with myself if I did not do something.
But what? Where to start?
A couple of months later, my mother and I were looking through some of my grandmother’s records that she had kept for nearly 70 years, poking around for any details about her service. She suddenly asked me to get a box out of the closet; there was something to show me.

My grandmother, during that world-changing time.

My grandmother, during that world-changing time.

High on a shelf sat three large binders full of the letters and telegrams my grandparents had written to each other during the war. She had recently decided to protect them and put them into individual sleeves.
That they should not be relegated to a closet shelf was as obvious as daylight. And there was something else.
In looking for items for the shadow box for my grandmother’s birthday, my uncle found a stack of photo books, most of them falling apart with age, from those years. The irreplaceable black and white images show family, places, friends, and events long forgotten. It was like time travel in a box.
My uncle also discovered that my grandfather, unknown to most of his family until now, had kept a journal during some of his service. The fraying, leather-bound book is not much bigger than a deck of cards, the cream-colored pages jammed with tiny and perfectly legible script. I have no idea what I will find in them, but the journalism bug pparently held on to him for quite a while. It should make good reading.
This priceless window into our family’s history is but one tiny bit, among countless others, of those world-changing times. It is a story that has only been partially passed down. And it could be lost.
Standing there with my mom and the sleeved pages, I could not think of a single reason to not take this open path and find where it leads. We have already forgotten so much about then. We lose more every day. At the least, I could help to preserve this history for us. So for my grandparents, my family, and all of those veterans with stories that will never be told, I pledged that I would do no less than my best work.
Somewhere, my grandfather smiled.

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You too can do a review

I’ve written my first online book review. I’m not sure what to think about it.
Until a couple of weeks ago, I had never voluntarily read with a commitment to give public feedback. I had never shared what I liked or disliked about a book. It always seemed presumptuous on my part to analyze someone else’s work, or even to click stars. Who am I to criticize another’s labor? Who would care about what I thought? Why should I put this pressure on myself?
My thoughts were the price of an opportunity to download a new e-book on effective storytelling. This is a skill that most people take for granted and think themselves better at it than they are, so I decided to presume guilt for myself.
It couldn’t be that hard. I’ve read probably hundreds of reviews over the years, on the web or in publications that I subscribe to, often by authors I respect. Articles on how to write them are as numerous as stinkbugs in spring (Google returned a mind-boggling number of links when I searched how to write one). Everyone else who has ever been on the Web has apparently already done this.
But actually sitting down to write it was something else.
I figured to compose a review just like those I enjoy reading–with cultural context, historical references, broader discussions of ideas. Get into the whys, connect the dots, dissect the relationships, clarify the Big Picture. I would tell the author things about his work that even he didn’t know.
So heavy research would be involved. No problem, I could do that. These people have all obviously been at this for years. So long experience would help. Fine, I’ll get there, I’ve read a lot. Insightful prose was needed to tie everything relevantly together. Writing ability, working on it.
Yep, this was going to make me look like a backbencher, at best.
Still, I looked forward to reading it. There was an interesting subject. I wanted to give an honest review. And since it was my first try I’d likely remember it, so it counted.
With all that in mind, I read it straight through. By straight through, I mean as time allowed in the small flashes of free time one gets every so often today. In actual time, it took more than a week. Since it did not occur to me that a second, more measured attempt was unlikely, I had not bothered taking notes.
So I had no idea what to write after that. No insights, no engaging observations, nada. I learned a lot and enjoyed the work, but the blank page just stared back at me, daring me to make sense of my jumble of thoughts.
I managed to reread most of it in bursts, intent on stumbling across some worthy bit that I hoped someone else wouldn’t think to post. Might have found a couple. In any case I missed the deadline that was asked for in the confirmation, because I was too busy swiping the pages faster than I could read more than a couple of words on at once.
I ended with three mediocre paragraphs, and the same feeling I used to get in school every time I turned in a blue essay test book. Maybe I passed, and maybe I didn’t.
In any case, I can’t wait to try it again. Maybe something a bit less complex next time, like Hop on Pop.
This is the book I reviewed. It was quite helpful and well done. My feedback is probably somewhere among the middle of the Customer Reviews, or if they were watching, removed by now as Least Helpful.
I did get something out of it though. The experience did force me to read much more carefully, and make an effort to fully understand. That can’t be bad, even with a blank review page staring at me.

Have reviews ever affected your decision whether or not to read a book?

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If it matters, it waits

Given a choice, I tend to put things off. And the more important to me, or the better for my career, the more likely I apparently am to make it wait.
Ball game coming on television? Give me the remote. Out of cheese? On my way to the store. Finish and submit a guest post to a high-traffic, well-respected travel blog about a great time I had on my first day ever in Ireland, which happened to be my tenth wedding anniversary? Wait a year or so.
At least I didn’t have a deadline. I would have just let it go.

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February 19, 2014 · 5:15 am

Hello world, redux

Welcome to WordPress.com. This is your first post.

I think now I can overcome any apprehension I might have had when I first saw that sentence in 2008. Time to get on with it.

I got interested in writing as a kid, and seemed to follow along that path as I grew, muddled through high school and college, and served an enlistment as a print journalist. The job market being what it was then, I had to find some other way to support my new  family and take care of the future.

That lead to digressions in information support jobs with little long-term prospects, and, quite frankly, even less interest for me. But it eventually turned out well, because all that other experience led to the opportunity for a career in technical writing that changed everything.

So here I am. Having never lost interest in the art and craft of writing, the careful expression of ideas, or compelling stories, I’ve realized that for me these things are not only of value, but that participating in them means doing what I love and building a happy life. But I have to work at it. I can’t really think of myself as a writer if I don’t actually write anything.

My objective is to explore writing that inspires as examples of the craft. While I will find the opportunities to create, I also have found favorites, writers of columns and essays, biographies, great novels, and everything in between.

I hope you will come back from time to time and keep me at it.

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