Down to Specifics

Writers are often admonished to write vividly, to focus on the specific details that will bring a scene to life. As Anton Chekov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” We’ve all seen the moon up there in the sky, but when Chekov mentions the glint of light on broken glass, the scene becomes much more immediate–an alley, a deserted road, a trashy little backyard where something sad or bad could happen. Broken glass is a powerful, painful image.

Apologies benefit from specificity. If you can say exactly what you did wrong and how you are willing to take responsibility for it, your remorse is more trustworthy, and your wrongdoing is more likely to be forgiven. “I’m sorry,” is good. “I’m sorry I took the Prius when I knew you wanted to make a grocery run today. Give me a list and I’ll get it done right after dinner,” is much better.

Gratitude also benefits from specificity–and variety. I finish my day journaling, and fishing my journaling listing five things I’m grateful for. If gratitude is to work its mood-stabilizing, anxiety-reducing wonder, that list should vary from day to day. Not simply: My health-my family-my home-my safety-my privacy (I’m grateful for ALL of that). But rather, the ability to plant flowers, which requires cooperation from hips, knees, back, hands, and more. The phone call from my sister Maire that she made Just Because.. and so on.

And this time of year, I’m aware of a general rejoicing in the season, but again, to be more exacting about what’s making me so quietly delighted when I get out of bed in the morning makes the glee more vivid. I love the quality of the light in spring and fall especially in the morning and evening. The light is more contrasty, to use a photographer’s terms, more romantic to use mine.

I love seeing the bulbs I planted last fall, as days grew shorter and nights grew colder, waking up to the opposite–more light, more warmth. I love that I don’t have to wear as many clothes. I always dress for comfort these days, but in spring, I can shed layers. This is especially evident at the horse barn, where winter can mean bundling up and gradually peeling off layers as the lesson progresses, then peeling them back on, then layering up the horse in his blankets too.

I love to leave my balcony door open at night, so I wake up to the robins singing. Nothing says to me that the ecosystem is healthy like hearing birds first thing in the day.

The trick to being specific, though, is that it takes focus, it takes effort, and in the attention economy, the brass ring of profit goes to those who excel at distracting us from our own realities. That’s a form of thievery, in my book, and actively reclaiming my ability to focus, to experience the wonderfulness or the sorrow or the rage, is the very business of living the only life I’ve been given.

Name one detail–an impression, a memory, an experience, an object–that absolutely delights you or drives you absolutely ’round the bend. To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card.

Take Note

I am indebted to Neil Gaiman’s writing masterclass for reminding me to keep paper and pen near at hand at all times. I knew this, but way led onto way, and I got out of the habit. And all times means ALL times. By my bedside, when tromping the neighborhood in pursuit of the daily step count, in the grocery store. Why? Because we know how the old brain-eroo works.

We have an executive mental mode for Getting Stuff Done. This cognitive approach is for solving problems, doing task-oriented work, and checking off to-dos. Then there’s the unfortunately named default mode, which is equally productive, but much quieter. We kick into  default mode in the shower, driving a familiar route (say, to the horse barn and back), and sometimes when sitting in meetings (or, um,  writers’ workshops).

In the default mode we are also Getting Stuff Done, such as bringing connections up from the subconscious (sometimes experienced as an aha!), deciding what we stand for, and making long-term plans based on our values. But default mode can be coy. If you don’t jot down the brilliant aha! or what-if, it can swim away never to be seen again. When you physically write the thought down, you signal to the brain that the concept has weight and merit, and the imagination–rather than forgetting it–will embroider on the idea further.

This carries over to the classroom, where we know that physical note-taking results in greater comprehension and retention than typing notes into a computer does. Why? Because the physical act of writing is fundamentally different from typing, and something about writing helps anchor thoughts in memory more effectively than typing does. Then too, when you write on paper, you are not simply taking dictation. You must paraphrase what’s presented, boil it down, and use your own symbols, sketches, and abbreviations to record it. You have to not merely listen, in other words, you must also think.

Writing by hand has other benefits in the classroom besides improving comprehension and retention. Students who write by hand are not sitting behind a physical device, fixated on the screen and keyboard. Class discussions evolve from the teacher-student dialogues common in computer-note-taking classes, into group-wide conversations of more depth and variety. That too, makes the material more interesting and memorable.

Many writers begin their days with what are called Morning Pages, a time to physically write about what’s on their minds or where they want their stories to go. I finish my day journaling, but I’ve fallen into the habit of journaling on my computer. I’m going to go back to handwriting those final thoughts of the day, as I did for years, just as soon as I recreate a space in my house where handwriting is comfortable (ahem). You know–a desk that isn’t commandeered by a computer?

Do your handwrite anymore? Why or why not? If you were going to re-introduce the skill, where would be a good place to start? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card.

 

My Mother’s Table

My mother’s antecedents were Potato Famine Irish and Highland Clearances Scots, and she had vivid recollections of hard times as a girl growing up during the Great Depression. Mom’s reaction to this cultural and social legacy of hardship was to look after any strays or orphans who came her way.

Everybody was welcome in my mother’s house, the graduate students from Finland, Libya, Japan, and Germany; the goofy neighbor–a retired game warden–who always talked too loudly; the parish priests (dudes could eat); the lady from church who ran a hat shop that never seemed to sell any merchandise. Mom’s friends included an alcoholic mother of six who ran a hair salon in her spare room, every neighbor on our street, other professor’s wives, and anybody who needed a square meal.

The lessons I learned from her example–without even realizing it–were to try see the humanity in everybody and to regard novelty as interesting rather than threatening.

One of my dad’s graduate students arrived from half-way around the world to find her accommodations on campus weren’t ready. This woman was quite smart, but when I met her she was also extremely jet-lagged, her English wasn’t up to speed, and she had nowhere to stay. Mom of course offered her the hospitality of the house, but also asked her if she’d like to use the phone to call home at a time when “long-distance” was a big deal. This was probably the first and only trans-Atlantic phone call placed from our house.

This very smart, world-traveling tadpole scientist burst into tears. To my mom, Tuula was just a girl far from home who needed a place to stay.

The oldest siblings in my family are twin guys thirteen years my senior. The Burrowes were nine at dinner, but no matter who John or Dick brought home with them from practice, we wedged another chair (or more chairs) around the table. From infancy on, my evening meal was a place to listen to points of view other my family’s, to  hear accents other than the local Central-Pa back forty, and to learn from cultures outside my own.

I hadn’t realized what a broadening influence my mother’s generous spirit was until her  seven children were all reminiscing about her attributes, and we each had a story about Mom’s oddball friends, her welcoming spirit, and her tolerance for human foibles.

As a storyteller, I rely on the example of her open-mindedness and open-heartedness to feed my creativity just as she, all those years ago, cheerfully fed anybody at risk for missing a meal. She was a mother-at-large, who said, “I care about you,” with a plate of lasagna and sheets that smelled of Yardley soap.

Have you known any mothers-at-large? Dads-at-large? Are there oddball friends in your life? To one commenter, I will send a $50 e-gift card.

 

Mine, Mine, ALL Mine!!!!

The wild rumpus has begun! I made my first trip to the greenhouse for the season, and my second. Where I live, it’s time for the pansies to brighten up the yard as the spring bulbs rotate through their annual splendor. Not such a good year for daffodils (so far), but the crocuses have been magnificent. In honor of a milestone birthday, I finally bought some flowering trees, and the nice fellers are going to plant them for me next week.

Nobody else in my large family goes bananas over yard flowers the way I do. My parents considered the yard a place that had to be mowed, period. None of this weed-whackin’, yard proud, keep up with the Orndorff’s, stuff. We had a three-acre property, so  mowing was a big job (and riding mowers were for wimps, in my dad’s opinion). Mom had house plants, but she didn’t really do much outside other than a rose bush by the front door.

The yard flowers are my thing, and always have been. As a kid, I’d ramble through the woods and pick wild flowers, considering any bouquet with less than six different species a lesser effort. I love the fragrances and colors, but flower-gardening has other attributes of My Favorite Things.

Yard flowers are for pretty, and they get me outside into the fresh air. They make other people happy, even if it’s only in a fleeting, “Must be retired people living in that house,” way. I can undertake this activity by my little self, and I don’t have to leave the property to do it. Better still, nobody ever said to me, “I bet you’d enjoy stuffing hundreds of bulbs into the dirt.” I stumbled upon this joy all on my own.

Some years, I’m traveling for much of the planting season, and fall bulbs get the bulk of my efforts. Other years, I splurge on porch pots, or get experiment-y. I have yet to find a place on my whole two acres where azaleas are happy, but maybe this year…

Another aspect of yard-flower gardening that appeals to me is that it’s playful. Humans are the only species that stops playing in adulthood, at least in recent history, (and look how well that’s turning out). I would rather be like my cats and horses, having a morning yard-frolic on pretty days, messing with bouquets, and hearing the birdies sing. I do have a rule–I can’t buy any flowers until the ones I already have are planted–but other than that, I’m loose without supervision.

Wheeee!

Do you have a way to play that’s all yours? A frolic with no agenda other than your own joy? To three commenters, I’ll send signed copies of When A Duchess Says I Do (anywhere in the world), which goes on sale Tuesday. If you’d like a shorter read to tide you over until then, I’ve put my novella, The Cowboy Wore a Kilt, on sale in the website store and on several major platforms.

 

Let There Be Light (and Colors)!

One of the aspects of this time of year that I love most is the light. Maryland summers are often swamped with humidity, turning the hot summer sky more white than blue. In winter, we get weeks of unrelenting overcast, but in early spring, the clouds lift, the humidity remains low, the trees aren’t yet leafed out, and the sky–and life–are filled with light. Even more than moderating temperatures, the return of a bright blue sky lifts my spirits and wakes up my mind.

And then there’s the return of color. I’m crazy about spring bulbs, and this is their time to shine. Deep purples, bright yellows, and brilliant combinations abound. Then the flowering trees get into the act, and I’m am inebriated with visual joy.

And I am not the only one. The not-for-profit organization Publicolor uses the task of adding color to schools and public spaces as a means of teaching students skills for school, work, and life. They get terrific results in terms of graduation and promotion rates, but they also hear from principals that after a school has been freshened with bright hues, absenteeism goes down, graffiti stops appearing, and students report feeling safer.

If  you allow prison inmates to watch nature videos in the prison gym, disciplinary incidents decrease. If you give them a window so they can actually see the green and natural world, the rate of anti-depressant use drops by double digits (which doesn’t happen if all they get to see is the basketball court).

If you keep around you objects and images that visually represent your triumphs and accomplishments–graduation day pics, a diploma or award, your mentor beaming at the camera with you when you were nominated for some honor--you will be more resilient to stress.

According to a study done by Taskworld, if you work in a bright, colorful office space full of blues and greens and enlivened with some red and yellow, you are more likely to feel (and be) friendly, alert, efficient, and confident. Add some green plants, and productivity goes up even more. Go back to cubicle-hot-desk-open-plan gray and biege, and particularly for women, the result will be a sense of gloom and sadness. Men don’t thrive on those tones either, and the guys also aren’t so keen on purple or orange. White walls are a bad choice too, giving off a sterile, clinical vibe.

The point is, our visual environment has a tremendous impact on us even when we think we’re not noticing it. What you regard as a minor self-indulgence–some pictures, a bouquet of carnations, sprinkles on an ice cream cone–can make a significant difference in your mood and energy.  The same is true in reverse. The drab school hallways, grim prisons, dull offices, and boring nursing homes are stealing joy in the name of saving a buck. When joy is as close as a can of paint or a spray of flowers, I think that’s a false economy.

What are your happy colors and how do you keep them front and center where you spend your time? Are there places you’d love to take a paintbrush to? To one commenter, I’ll send a SIGNED copy of When a Duchess Says I Do.

Once Upon a Life

I happened into Eastern Mennonite University’s master’s curriculum as one of only three North Americans in a cohort of about about thirty students. This was delightful. I learned so much from my classmates, about listening, about tolerance, about humor and other vital nutrients for healthy people and healthy communities. One of my classmates was Babu Ayindo, and his focus was and is on theater, art, and storytelling to transform conflict into an opportunity for growth and healing. Babu is Kenyan, and the Rwandan genocide was very much a recent memory as he pursued his master’s.

I fell in love with Babu’s voice. He could relate how he got lost on the way to the convenience store, and I’d be enthralled. Here’s a short clip of him talking about the EMU program.

I hadn’t started writing romance yet, and my reaction to storytelling as a means of transformation was intrigued puzzlement. But then I realized that stories to shift perspective have been around probably as long as language itself. Name me a source of spiritual strength–every religion or indigenous culture, strong communities, strong families, healthy businesses–and stories will figure prominently in their traditions. My family got to group-texting this week about that time fifty years ago when my dad went to a costume party dressed as a frog… everybody hopped on the thread.

Then I came across this article, about the Inuit, who live in as inhospitable a climate as a people can, one that forces them into close proximity with each other–really close–for months at a time. They don’t hit their kids, they don’t yell at their kids. To the Inuit, that kind of “dominance parenting” models the exact behavior that nobody wants to see in an adult–and I absolutely agree.

Easy to say, but when something as simple as going outside without a hat can be a life or death mistake, how do they keep their children safe? How do they inculcate the values necessary to survive in a very challenging environment?

They tell them stories. They turn those stories in to parlor-plays. When the bad moment for the child has passed, they humorously play-act the consequences of the child’s undesirable behavior.  They model self-control and loving kindness. What a concept.

I’ve watched our political dramas over the past few years, and seen a struggle over what our national story will be, and who will get to tell it. Many people have referred to national politics as a “farce.” Effective propaganda is nothing so much as a false but convincing story loosely tethered to a few conveniently chosen facts. A parable that endures for centuries is another kind of story with very different power–it uses fiction  to aim at an eternal truth.

Once I started looking for stories, I realized how powerful they are and how a coherent culture depends on them for identity. I write romance in part because I believe the central story is vital to human survival: People who choose love and courage over spiritual compromise and safety will merit the happily ever afters—for themselves and for the cultures they belong to. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What stories have influenced you? Do you see romance as standing for a different tale than I do? Has one story stuck with you throughout your life? To three commenters, I’ll send a SIGNED copy of When A Duchess Says I Do.

 

The Invisible Woman

I saw a social media post this week by an author friend who said that since turning fifty, she’s become “invisible.”  In retail situations, she can’t get good service, and when she does manage to get the attention of a store clerk or customer service rep, she’s talked “at,” not listened to. Men interrupt her more, when they even speak to her, and automotive techs talk to her like she’s an idiot.

The comments were interesting. Some women said it was a relief to be invisible, to finally be able to go through life without having to ignore pick up lines (and without hinting they might be offensive), without dressing to impress (but not flirt), without worrying constantly about both rape and robbery.  Another lady’s observation was, “If they can’t see us, they will underestimate us, and that’s when we do our best work.”

There wasn’t a single comment along the lines of, “Don’t be silly. Nobody treats you any differently just because you’ve gone gray and a little wrinkly.” And out of dozens of comments, only one guy contributed to the discussion.

I have to agree that I’ve been treated differently as my appearance has aged, at least by some of the people some of the time. One of my micro-joys is my mouse pad, which has–wait for it–a fluffy kitten on it! When I was in the Apple store to purchase a very expensive Mac, I asked the sales guy, “Where are the mouse pads? I delight in having mouse pads that make me happy.”

He looked at me as if I’d slipped in an arcane French phrase or two. “Nobody uses mouse pads anymore. ” The logic there was simple: No person uses a mouse pad. I use a mouse pad. Therefore, I am not a person. Now, in fairness to this horrendously overworked, under-trained, underpaid, young fellow, he might have offered that same reply to a thirty-something who asked about mouse pads, but probably not. In the thirty-something, needing a mouse pad would have been a quaint quirk. In the fifty-something, it’s an antique and un-charming whine.

What troubles me about this topic is that I don’t think I’m more invisible now than I was as a younger woman. Now, it’s gray hair and spare chins that obscure my personhood, earlier in life it was a pair of 36D’s and the cultural imperative to Be Desirable (but not slutty). In both cases, all factors other than my body are dismissed, either because that body is desirable or because it isn’t.

I like the invisibility I have now much more than the invisibility I put up with as a younger, prettier, less self-assured woman. I have a clearer sense of my own depths and dimensions, I’m not reacting to cultural expectations as readily or as often. I am real and visible to myself in ways I wasn’t earlier in life. So if I must be invisible, this version of obscurity is the one I prefer… but that’s a big if, isn’t it?

What about you? Has the passage of time or have changes in your appearance resulted in people treating you differently? Are any of those changes for the better?

To one commenter, I will send a $50 VISA gift card.

 

 

Vive la France!

The French are frequently cited as among the most productive workers in the world, despite having a 35-hour work week, a minimum of five weeks of annual leave, and a dozen federal holidays. They also have interesting laws, such as a prohibition on overtime, and a prohibition on employees being required to check or respond to work-related emails outside of working hours.

The thinking seems to be not only, “work hard/play hard,” but also, “Never the twain shall meet.” In July and August, many French shops are simply closed–for weeks at a time. When the family is on vacation, they are on vacation. Of course, if health care doesn’t come out of your paycheck, if higher education is all but free, if the minimum wage is about $11.25/hour for all adults, if owning a car really is optional, then taking some vacay rather than keeping the old proboscis ad carborundum becomes possible.

French culture makes clear, bright distinctions between work and not-work, and the result is, apparently, more productivity and more leisure. That strikes me as a win-win, so I’ve been thinking about how to punctuate my day, when I work and live in the same space. How can I have bright lines between”Go for it, Grace Ann!” and “Chillax, Madam Author. Ya done enough for one day.”

One way to make a bright line is to work someplace other than home (duh). Many writers go to a third place to write–a coffee shop, a library, a co-op. I’m not built to do that. I don’t want the carbon footprint (the nearest Starbuck’s is 25 miles away), and I can’t write where there’s ambient noise (much less music).

Another way to make these bright, clear lines is with the clock. Write like a demon until, say, 2 pm, then pack it in until evening. I have better luck with this one, because I wake up knowing my best writing hours are immediately upon rising. I also have a firm, no-slip rule that I am forbidden to be on social media before noon. And I have days when I’m off to the barn to ride rather than jamming out the words.

I no longer have a commute to make a clear distinction between work and home, no longer have a landline that’s “personal” versus office phone numbers that are for business. The court schedule doesn’t result in weekends “off,” and my  office is my kitchen.

The result is that weekends are frequently my most productive writing time–when nobody working a regular 40 hours is likely to bother me–and Tuesday and Friday are my errands and fresh air days. It’s working for me, but finding my balance is still very much a work in progress. I do OK with the work end of the continuum–the word counts are piling up!–but the play end of the equation will take more thought.

How do you divide your energy between roles? Between work and play, between hobbies and housework? Is there any significant change to the schedule or work allocation you’d like to make some day? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Heir, which re-released this past week, and a $50 Amazon gift card.

In Praise of Boredom

Children in my family learned very early in life to never, EVER imply, mention, intimate, or hint to my mother that we were bored. Her response would be to assign some chore or other, as if an admission of boredom merited punishment instead of an application of imagination.

And yet, we were bored a lot. My father believed television was a tool of Satan, and resisted allowing one into the house until some neighbors gave us one (I was was in middle school by then, or close to it). We were never allowed to  watch TV on school nights, not even if all the homework was done and a foot of snow was predicted overnight. There were no girls my age in my neighborhood by the time I was seven–not a one–and by the time I turned eight, my next-up sister wasn’t so keen on being my playmate anymore.

I was bored, hence I developed a passion for reading–and we know where that led. At age ten I started piano lessons, and that was a fine way to sop up free time. I ended up with a degree in music history because of that desperation hobby, and paid my way through college by accompanying ballet classes too.

For all of my childhood I lived on the edge of a woods, and “going for a walk,” was permitted pretty much without limits, even alone after dark. I rambled a fair amount on my own, especially when the wildflowers were in bloom. Just went out for some fresh air, because, well, what else was there to do?

And now, I am so very, very grateful that I came of age before screens–smartphones, tablets, computers, game stations–were around to whisk away our boredom. When our attention, focus, and privacy are the most valuable commodities in the marketplace, very shrewd people have made it their life’s work to winkle those treasures from our grasp. Young people who’ve never faced boredom without a screen to slap over it, are proving to be less creative, less motivated to solve communal problems, less socially skilled, and less able to focus on anything for extended periods than their elders.

It turns out that when we’re bored–just idling between tasks, ignoring the to-dos–that’s when our subconscious goes to work crafting our personal narrative (“Who am I really?”), deciding what our priorities should be, and figuring out how to achieve them. Take away the down time, the I-don’t-really-feel-like-doing-anything time, and you take away a significant resource for building a person who does know what they want and who they are.

So I’m really careful about the screen time as I figure out how to be a full-time writer. Netflix is waiting to suck me in like that intergalactic garbage scow from Startrek, with “the next episode” always queued up before I’ve even finished the credits on the segment I’ve just watched.

I’m not falling for that. Yesterday I got so bored I played the piano for the first time in years. Pretty soon the weather will be nice enough to inspire some gardening. I might even–don’t quote me–take up regular housework, but I am not surrendering my boredom to the greed, manipulation, and invasion of privacy that wears the face of the typical screen “engagement.”

Can you go a day without using your phone for anything but phone calls? Have screen distractions eliminated boredom from your life, or are there hobbies you no longer pursue because social media, games, and apps have invaded that space? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Love by the Letters AND a $50 Amazon gift card.

 

More Snow

Welp, it’s February in Maryland. This has meant temperatures down to zero, windchills well below zero. Back-to-back ice storms, sloppy snow, and unrelentingly gray skies. Getting to the horse barn has been a dicey proposition in recent weeks, and days when I can air out the house have been few and far between. I love me some fresh air inside the house, but I do not love me those winter heating bills.

I’ve gone through the, “But there aren’t any bugs, Grace. You hate all the summer bugs, ‘member?” phase, and I’ve told myself, “The daffodils will soon be up!” though it looks to me like soon is, at best, weeks away. This time of year is just a dreary slog, much like the unrelenting heat and humidity of August can be dreary slog.

And yet, I am getting a lot of writing done. Snow days are the best thing for my productivity since the invention of the word processor. That weather-reprieve from having to go anywhere or do anything outside the house always echoes with my childhood glee at seeing heavy snowfalls. No school! Wheeee! Even if I spend the whole day chained to my writing oar, I’m happier for doing so with a sense of having cheated the to-do gods.

I also like watching the days slowly lengthen. I feed animals outside, every day, twice a day, so whether it’s dark at 5:30, 5:45, or 6 pm registers with me. I like seeing the bulbs start to push up through the snow. If those flowers can reach for the light, so can I. I like having my first cup of tea out on the porch on sunny mornings, even if I have to wear my puffer jacket AND my fleece vest. Sunshine is my friend these days, regardless of temperature.

I like how good a cup of hot tea feels when it’s cold outside. Whether I’m sitting down to write, coming in from outside, or settling in for an episode of Nicholas Le Floch, that steamy cup of tea is a real treat. In summer… not so much. I like that the heat is much quieter than the AC. I love my flannel sheets, and I adore paddling around the house in my Maggie Moo organic wool socks.

Listing these pleasures and treats makes the dreary weather more bearable, and inspires me to savor my current cuppa tea. What are you savoring about this time of year, or–because sometimes a slog is just slog–what are you looking forward to in the next month?

To one commenter, I will send a print copy of Love by the Letters, on sale Tuesday, AND a $50 Amazon gift card.