Writing Life

A Change of Plans

Last Thursday, as I lay facedown on the chiropractor’s table for my regular adjustment, my doctor’s business partner made small talk while he checked exactly how different my legs were in length this month. He was helping out, getting me set up with the electric muscle stimulation pads that would loosen my lower back and shoulders over the next 10 minutes, until my doctor could come in, perform his usual six to eight cracking maneuvers and send me on my way.

“Do you get the weekends off?”

The question wasn’t quite so easily answered as he might have expected. We’d been discussing the amount of time I spend sitting, standing, or lounging at a computer. Also the horrific cold that continued to plague me 10 days after its onset but that had not, thankfully, turned into either the sinus infection or walking pneumonia raging through the area along with the unseasonably unsettled temperatures.

“As long as I get everything done. I mean, I work for myself and I try to plan for that, because otherwise I might go completely crazy.”

He gave a knowing chuckle.

The fact is, 2018 was an excellent year for me financially. However, it cost about six straight months of weekends and evenings because everything opened up at once. Time costs health and emotional and spiritual well-being, especially when you work in isolation much of the time.

Just consider: I started this post around Halloween. It’s been on my to-do list to finish since then. For those counting, that means it’s taken two and a half months to find the time to write a post the content of which I already knew.

And that’s an indication of a real problem.

So there are some changes in the works. I am:

  • Closing the book on this blog as you’ve come to know it. Instead of fracturing my attention into the blog and other writing, I’m shifting my writing energy toward pitching and placing my work in paid or monetized venues. I’ll still link to anything that makes it into publication from here and I may make a post now and again to provide updates about changes in work, progress on books, or other major developments.

  • Scheduling to set hours. I like having a fairly routine start to my day. I like being done with work for others by late afternoon. And I need evening and weekend time to pursue my own endeavors, which might be as simple as reading a book (something I haven’t done more than once or twice this year). So I’ve done the math and figured out that my weekdays need to contain about six to six and a half hours of paid work, on average, most of the year, to make my revenue goals. Unless there is a vital reason to break that pattern, I’m scheduling that amount of work each day and then writing “-NO MORE-” on the next line in my planner. Business admin, sales efforts, and my own writing all happen outside that time. And by protecting the time I work for others, I protect the time I need to work for myself.

  • Rethinking technology. Until now, I’ve been riding the wave of hardware and software and apps and things and stuff like most everyone else who works in tech-adjacent fields. However, I’ve never taken the time to kill all of the interruptions. I’m investigating how to use the minimum number of tools to achieve maximum benefits—and how to use the tools to create a virtual workspace so I have a way to “leave the office.” Different user profiles on my computer? Working on it. Even the simple decision to set my phone to “nighttime” from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. means that texts, especially, don’t disrupt my downtime.

  • Letting productivity gurus lead the way. I don’t much care how other folks do things. They’re them and I’m me. Lately, though, I’ve been surveying suggestions from a few productivity folks who value both work and healthful living (emotional, physical, spiritual). While I may not follow all of their tips, I’m finding some encouragement for the rest of the steps I’m taking. It’s good to be reminded that rest and following one’s own interests are valid and necessary pursuits.

  • Changing the scenery. My work doesn’t require me to be in one place, so I’d intended my 2017 research trip to lead me somewhere new. Because it didn’t—at least as quickly as I’d hoped, I’ve felt a sense of suspended reality for more of the last 15 or 18 months than not. There have been exceptional moments with my folks, but beyond that, very little to mark the year. I look forward to the spring with a mixed sense of excitement and trepidation, because I’ll finally shift my base of operations two time zones west and a few climate zones south. By making some of these other changes in the meantime, I hope I’ll be able to better balance my work with new opportunities in my off time when I get there.

For now, thank you for staying up to date with my many ramblings. Stay tuned for links and updates as the year moves on!

Hanging With My Clan

“You need a guy who gets the musical side of you.” My writing classmate lobbed the comment into conversation over fish tacos in a suburban Halifax bistro two summers ago. It smacked the table like a cod hitting the deck.

I have no recollection of the topic at hand, except that it was totally unrelated. Most of my memory of that meal centers on the third member of our party incrementally ramping up her level of Francophone-and-restaurant-professional indignation at our server’s glacial pace, and all three of us repeatedly checking our watches, lest we miss our residency’s keynote address by one of Canada’s most respected nonfiction writers.

My friend absorbed my stare of abject confusion and my awkward chuckle. I will never know exactly why that thought popped into her head (or out of it) at that particular time. There’s a chance it had to do with a boisterous singalong at the pub sometime during that residency, but I can’t be certain. Still, it’s come back to me on a couple of occasions since then.

One was when I found myself chatting with a stranger on a train outside New York City. I’m usually a pleasantries-and-silence sort of seatmate, but if someone wants to chat, I’m up for passing the time. In this case, an older woman had sat down next to me. She was headed to see her family. I was meeting my cousin to catch a matinee of Come From Away on Broadway. Questions about the show turned into rambling chatter about music. As I described my young “drum dudes,” as I called my elementary and middle-school Scottish drumming students, she pointed out how clear it was that I truly enjoyed working with them, and how refreshing that was to see. I supposed, at the time, that was true. I did genuinely enjoy watching the kids learn new skills … both as musicians and as part of a corps, as teammates, as people who could respect one another’s contributions and personalities, different though they were.

The most recent reminder descended this weekend. After several months of flat-out, all-consuming, all-colliding work, I’m starting to emerge from my cocoon. So, when I found that two of my former pipe majors and a former bandmate would be playing a Celtic traditional music concert at one of my usual haunts on Saturday night, I decided to head down and hang out with the crew. Another former bandmate and his family, along with the family of one of my former co-instructors also arrived, and we all got to have a good catch-up.

I was reminded that I’ve been lucky enough, through the years, to play in pipe bands with a host of extraordinarily talented musicians. Bagpipes and drums attract their fair share of rogues and rakes and unsavory individuals. They also attract an unusually high number of prodigies, honors students, sensitive souls, brilliant brains, and upstanding characters. The competitive side of the genre doesn’t always bring out the best of the participants (myself, for example). But the broader playground is full of good music, good people and good fun.

After seeing my friends put on their usual stunning performance (and wishing the audience was both more ample and more animated), I put myself in the car and took myself up the road toward home. I realized that I was smiling at nothing as I cruised along through the fall darkness, just enjoying the residual warmth of the greetings, the hugs and the grins.

And I realized that for those who know me as the serious, calm and measured problem-solver, it might be a bit hard to picture me clapping loudly to reels, swaying and stomping along to jigs, or belting the chorus to a favorite song. While, on the flip side, the people who know me as a musician have seen me grinning and winking, hooting and hollering in beer tents and kitchens … and they’ve seen me being focused and serious on the music and the logistics, too.

Which means, in fact, that my friend in Atlantic Canada may have made a valuable observation, as odd in timing as it was. After all, if only the music and arts people get to see me as a whole person, then maybe I should be spending more time with music and arts people.

Pa and Ma and Me

I probably shouldn't start this with, "What is revisionist history?" or, "Whose 'truth' is more true?" or, "Does deleting all mention of something mean it didn't happen?"

These are just some of the questions that have been passing through my mind over the past 48 hours or so, since I learned that the Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, has renamed the 64-year-old Wilder Medal. It shall henceforth be called the Children's Literature Legacy Award. 

Now, let me be clear about something. Until Monday, I couldn't have told you there was a Wilder Medal. I don't have kids, nor siblings, nor nieces or nephews. I do come from a family full of readers and I have an aunt who somewhat recently retired from a career as a librarian. Needless to say, my own childhood bookshelves were filled with loads of European and American classics. And I still have some of them.

Among those are most of the tomes from the series of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books. Every Christmas season, I revisit the arrival of Pa and Mr. Edwards with the sticks of candy and small sugar cakes and the shiny tin cups and the pennies and the tale spun about meeting Santa Claus. Cap Garland is still, in my mind's eye, the handsomest town rescuer there ever was. Handsomer, even, than Almanzo Wilder. 

I vaguely remember that there was some interaction with the original residents of the Plains, but I couldn't have told you off the top of my head what the author's lexicon was in those scenes. I could tell you that my recollection was that the appearance of the locals made the Ingalls characters feel either curious or scared, and ultimately turned out to be fairly benign. I pictured it as somewhat akin to my feeling that there might be folks around the corners during my family's long-ago visits to gold-rush and silver-rush ghost towns.

My parents (christened "Pa" and "Ma" around the same time we read the Little House series) and I spent lots of times at historic sites and in the woods and at museums learning "stuff" when I was a kid. I wasn't reading the books in a vacuum that assumed they were my only exposure to "frontier" history or to history in general. Which, I think, is likely why the specific terminology Wilder used only added to my picture of a complex interaction among people. Over time, I would learn about the nuances of those interactions and the actual historical context for Wilder's mostly autobiographical work of fiction.

It also helped that I was raised as a Baha'i, so Ma and Pa worked hard to be sure that I understood that all people are one. That viewpoint is central, but not unique, to Baha'is and it certainly colored how I absorbed information about different cultural groups, including stories, from a very young age. 

All of that being said, when I initially saw the Wilder Award name change announcement, I was annoyed. That is, in part, because the ALSC also awards the Carnegie Medal. Wilder's name was removed from her medal because the language she used in a work about her family's experiences is no longer considered acceptable in literature. Shouldn't Carnegie's name be removed from his medal because his company manufactured something like 90 percent of the steel rails that facilitated the rapid and total disenfranchisement of the very people Wilder described?

But that won't happen. Because Carnegie was male. And rich. And because when he'd used every possible robber-baron trick in the book to gain more money than he could spend in a lifetime, he endowed libraries. So that people could read about the people who no longer lived where his rails ran, I imagine.

In other words, seek a reason why someone's work is inadequate and ye shall find.

After I calmed down, I remembered a conversation I had last summer with the education director of one of the pre-eminent native culture museums in the country. He was hard at work with a team of brilliant specialists developing a completely revamped way of incorporating a balanced history of the continent's indigenous population and European interactions into school curriculum. The concern he raised about the status quo is that American Indian children, both on reservations and integrated into the general population, learn from the same curriculum, use the same library books, and observe the same stereotypes as every other American kid. 

What does that mean? Well, for one, it means that the narrative typically relates how hostile indigenous groups for no reason at all attacked nice white folks who were just minding their own business and building this fort, or house, or what-have-you on this prime stretch of river. Flip the script and you have this nice group of indigenous residents who went out to the grocery store, came back to find an armed gang piling up a bunch of logs in their living room, and took steps to remove the gang forthwith. Both behaved in ways that made sense from their own perspective. But the group with the written language got to perpetuate their side of the story.

Can you imagine? Generations of kids being told in classrooms that Columbus discovered America ...

"But we were already here."

"No, you weren't. I mean, you were. But you didn't matter."


Or, you know, what do you do when the cowboys always win in the movies and the Indians have to be stoic? Yes, I am citing Smoke Signals

So, doing my best to look at the situation from that perspective, I considered how Wilder's words might strike the impressionable mind of a young Osage kid. If Laura and her family were on the prairie, then I imagine the Osage on whose land they were illegally living probably had a family, too. (Now that would be a fascinating book.) Despite the nuances that I may find in Wilder's depictions, because of my own background and exposure to critical sources, I get the problem. 

Then I read up on the longstanding concerns about this literary classic (yes) also being considered a historically accurate record (no). 

Still, though, something about changing the award name irritated me. So I went to see what the ALSC had to say. I found the wording of the newly renamed award's criteria suspect. It sounded a bit too au courant to have been in place when the award was first presented to Wilder (and named after her) in 1954. So I read into the organization's task force recommendation regarding the name change.

And I was right. The criteria statement was amended when the name was changed, to reflect the organization's values in 2018, as opposed to its values in 1954 when it created the original award. What I find interesting about this is that the ALSC, by changing the name, condemns the author for deviating from the ALSC's current norms ... but by changing the criteria, avoids drawing attention to itself for having held those norms. In other words, if Wilder's work contains "racist" and "derogatory" language (which, it does, by today's standards of speech) and the ALSC awarded it the medal in 1954, then the ALSC by its own definition was racist in 1954.

Needless to say, I have a problem with the picking and choosing and revising of the past. Apparently, the ALSC had to decide between renaming the Wilder Medal or ending it and introducing a new award in its place. In my opinion, they made the wrong choice because, by renaming it and changing the criteria, the organization makes it appear that Wilder never deserved the award for her work. By ending the award and creating a new one, the organization could have taken responsibility for its own role in mid-century America's racial and ethnic struggles, while recognizing its evolving knowledge.

Looking Back at Love Languages

A battered index card slipped out of the blue plastic folder I'd dropped on my desk a few days ago. Just one more piece in my ongoing tossing of things I've picked up along my way. 

As I glanced at the names and descriptions on it, I instantly found myself back in a friend's cozy, bright living room more than a decade ago. Nineteen friends and family gathered every week for nearly all of 2006, some driving from an hour away after work each Wednesday, to study together amidst uproarious laughter, rapid shifts in conversation, and whatever snacks the lady of the house had picked up on her way home.

One particular night, the group's facilitator (and purveyor of snacks) mentioned that she'd been reading The 5 Love Languages, which had made her curious about the way our group members might align with the different "languages" described in the book. We tended to go off track at the slightest opportunity, so we all set aside our materials for the evening and agreed to identify our preferences and discuss them. It seemed, after all, like a fun way to learn new things about old friends. 

The goal was to identify the way we each preferred to receive love, which may or may not have echoed the way we demonstrated love for others. It was no surprise that the group's best distributor of hugs preferred to receive physical contact. Nor that another, always willing to pitch in and help, liked to receive acts of service. Four more valued receiving quality time, marked by undivided attention and the sharing of thoughts uninterrupted. The largest number, seven, preferred to receive words of affirmation, whether compliments, encouragement, gratitude, or acknowledgement.

Then there were the four of us who most preferred to receive tangible gifts ... or treasures, or any expressions that someone was or had been present. We took a fair amount of razzing, especially since none of us were the type to ask for gifts nor the type to expect them. It also sparked quite a lot of discussion about exactly what gifts are. 

One friend of mine was surprised that I, the person who deals with words, didn't gravitate toward words of affirmation. I remember explaining that working with words was the very reason why I didn't care for them. That I understood how words could be used as a commodity to make people do or think what the speaker wants them to do or think. In the context of receiving love, I didn't trust pretty words tossed out into the air. 

When someone takes the time to handwrite a card or even type an email, though, words might count as a gift, at least in my opinion. So could the fortune from a fortune cookie, a flower picked from the yard, a pebble lifted from a path, a tiny bundle of leaves, or the pocket-sized Dala horse that accompanied me on last summer's travels. Gifts, after all, have everything to do with thoughtfulness and care ... and nothing to do with the hard dollar value of a particular thing.

Already far off track that evening long ago, we carried on exploring how we each preferred to receive an apology. A few wanted to receive sincere words of regret. A couple preferred to receive a genuine promise to change. None, interesting to note, wanted to receive someone's acceptance of responsibility or for someone to admit wrongdoing. The conversation there had to do with the lack of a change in behavior.

The remaining nine of us preferred to receive an apology in which someone demonstrated action and made restitution in some way. Of course, we all noted, we didn't want to have to explain that to whomever had wronged us. We wanted them to be of such character that they would, of their own volition, right the wrongdoings. 

As I flipped the card over in my hands the other day, that was the idea that stuck with me. Ultimately, whatever way we prefer to have others interact with us, doesn't it all come down to character?

The Human IKEA?

For the last several days, my living room has smelled of birch veneer and plywood. That's because I was in Boston for the weekend, which provided the opportunity to veer sideways and take my list of IKEA needs to what I fondly think of as Little Sweden.

I've been considering for some time how to make sure I can actually get to my office supplies and files and writing books. And printer, for that matter. In day-to-day life, I just carry around my laptop and a Staples ARC planner. But sometimes, I do need to use a Post-It or my stapler. Stowing them in plastic tubs stacked to chest height behind other things was not proving an appropriate storage plan. 

Enter the Kallax system of versatile cube shelving, with drawer inserts and seagrass boxes to reduce my exposure to the dust that rivals only cats, according to my allergist.

Do I live at least three hours from the nearest IKEA store? You betcha. Could I have had some pieces of this system shipped to me? Sure. All pieces? Of course not! Besides, a $5.99 plate of chicken meatballs, gravy, lingonberries, mashed potatoes, and veggies doesn't arrive with every shipment. But it does accompany every visit to Little Sweden. 

In this case, Sunday at IKEA Stoughton was less packed than it could have been. Fresh off 45 hours at the Boston University/Boston Globe Power of Narrative conference, I needed the chance to process the reflections offered by exceptional writers. Strolling through the ruthlessly organized showroom and marketplace offered that opportunity.

The weekend didn't provide "lessons" so much as "refreshers," which was encouraging. It's been 20+ years since I took a basic journalism class, after all, and more than a year since I completed my master's in creative nonfiction. I'd spent much of the conference mumbling vague answers to versions of, "What do you do?" But more on that in a minute.

I realized as I looked back at my notes that I'd jotted down amusing turns of phrase more than useful information. That might have been because much of the content seemed to target the students in the room more than it did the folks who'd been working through the practicalities of the field for years. I spent a chunk of my time comparing notes in my head between the stringent requirements of reporting hard news and the freedom that a book's artistic structure offers to a writer.

Case in point? Sacha Pfeiffer (Boston Globe Spotlight team) and Emily Steele (The New York Times), who are both brilliant investigative journalists. discussed the need to get their sources on record describing in clear and clinical terms how they'd been touched by priests and celebrities. The point was to fully convey to their readers exactly what the level of abuse was within the power dynamics they described. Meanwhile, I was thinking about my specific decision not to press my sources about the details of their torture sessions, but instead to take my readers right up to the line where a source's eyes plead not to go further ... and then to use exposition gathered from in-depth, verified testimony to describe the nature and pattern of torture techniques in the same prison in a similar timeframe. It's a technique that works to preserve dignity and reveal truth in a book, but not in an investigative news article or series.

So what were some of those turns of phrase I mentioned?

  • "We come to these things to rub shoulders with people and maybe pick up a couple of things." - Barry Newman (Wall Street Journal), describing the purpose of professional conferences
  • "I say what I want to say, even though you know these wingnuts are gonna call your job." - Best-selling author Roxane Gay, explaining her perspective on whether she considers her audience's potential reaction when writing her essays
  • "I hate that word, peg. 'What are you going to peg it to?' I'm gonna peg it to fuck all, that's what." - Roxane Gay, getting into the relationship between her personal essays and news and current events
  • "Narrative can be the enemy of truth." - HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen, on the need for straight reporting as well as narrative technique
  • "News is what happened yesterday. It's always past tense. If you hear somebody talking in the future tense, turn that shit off. It's opinion." - Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird (Tampa Bay Times and Politifact), describing the importance of vetting facts before reporting anything (and facts are things that have happened, not things that might happen)
  • "You're the intelligent agent. The computer is stupid." - Caryn Baird, on the need to search alternate spellings, time ranges, locations, and more that a computer can't currently suss out
  • "I use the 'if you give a mouse a cookie' approach to sources who distrust the media or you." - Claire Galofaro (Associated Press), explaining how she introduces herself and starts a conversation, then asks if she can take notes, then asks if she can record
  • "My opinion doesn't matter. I'm just one person." - Ellen Gabler (The New York Times), on separating personal feelings from her role in reporting a hard news story
  • "I don't think we're advocates as journalists. I think we're truth-tellers and we need to remember that." - Claire Galofaro, describing how she approached writing about life in Appalachia amid the current political environment (and drew heat from both ends of the political spectrum, which told her she'd achieved her goal of balanced reporting)

Over my plate of Swedish delights, I considered the range of fascinating details I'd picked up throughout the weekend. Something that stood out was the way in which some of the women attendees asked their questions of the speakers. 

One mentioned the challenges of "asserting while female," while others seemed to be looking for permission from an authority (whatever that means) to do ... something. I don't even know what. I just know that I've never been aware that I was supposed to wait for permission from anyone, for anything. So I haven't. Perhaps that's among the reasons why I infuriate everyone I know at one time or another. 

So why had I been dodging questions about what I write all weekend? I told you I'd get back to this. Well. Because when I did my undergraduate work and even for several years after that, I wore my white hat. The journalist hat. The truth-teller hat. The principled realist hat. And then, 15 years ago or so, I stumbled over into custom publishing, sponsored content, and content marketing. While it was a necessary financial decision, it also felt like a sell-out. To someone trained as a journalist, marketers wear black hats. They spin the truth. They set out to alter opinions. They obfuscate. And nothing will make a trained-journalist-turned-marketer feel the weight of the black hat more than returning to the land of the white hats. 

That is, after all, a good part of why I went back and got my MFA ... so that I could begin to bridge my way back to a white hat. It's also why I am much more comfortable working under my own name ... so that I have some control over the companies with whom I collaborate as a marketer and can don a semi-altruistic grey hat.

And with all of those thoughts swirling in my head, I prepared to set off into the depths of Swedish Furniture Disneyland in search of my multipurpose shelving system. It could be a bookcase. With the right pieces, it could be a hutch. Or a sideboard. Or a room divider. Possibly a Murphy bed. It could, in fact, be hacked into all sorts of furniture and decorating solutions.

Professionally, I think, that's me. I span the gamut. Bridge the gaps. Combine skills and experiences, theory and knowledge. And offer something not just general, but in fact, able to be reconfigured and redeployed in all sorts of situations and circumstances. I am, perhaps, a human IKEA, in the sense of writing and content. I just smell less like plywood and particle board.

Today, I Fell Down the Internet Rabbit Hole

An hour and a half ago, I sat down to write this week's blog. I had a vague idea for a topic, but then 90 minutes had passed and I'd learned fascinating things, none of which had to do with that subject at all. 

It's an occupational and a personal hazard. I work, for the most part, in some level of isolation and rely on the nifty network of online stuff for my research in nearly every facet of my professional life. So my likelihood of finding interesting tidbits is rather high.

Then there's the fact that I'm naturally incredibly curious and something of a knowledge sponge. Anything related to people, in fact, catches my attention. So my likelihood of finding tidbits interesting is also rather high.

And I'm likely to remember whatever bits of info I find, which leads to my friends asking, "How do you know this stuff?" often and in exasperated tones.

When I'm actually researching something, this willingness to follow a stream of questions comes in quite handy. I learn the coolest things that way. However, when I have to-dos to be done, it's not exactly a great use of time.

So, let me take you along with me on today's journey, just for fun. 

As I sat down to write today's post, I happened to be listening to Joe Tohonnie Jr.'s Apache Blessing and Crown Dance Songs. Which made me wonder who Joe Tohonnie Jr. is, for one, and what a crown dance is, for two.

That led to me reading "An Audacious Dancer's Apache-Navajo Mashup--and the Outcry That Followed." Which led me back to wondering what a crown dance is and what exactly Mr. Tohonnie's dancers are doing. 

So I watched a Native Media Network clip of the group performing at the New Mexico State Fair. I found a couple of other clips that said they showed crown dances from other Apache tribes--but it was pretty clear within the first couple of seconds that they probably showed traditional ceremonies that are intended to be private, so I clicked off. (Respect. Even when you're not the one holding the camera.) But then I was still left with the question about crown dancers, who represent mountain spirits.

So I read up a bit on the Apache legends of the mountain spirits in articles like this one, and this one and several more that I can't find again right now. But that made me curious about the distinctions between the various Apache tribes and geographies.

So I started at Wikipedia and then looked up some of the tribal websites. Which is when I couldn't remember from which group Geronimo hailed. 

So I went and read this entry and a couple more about his history, and then turned up his New York Times obituary from 1909. Which made me think of a song that I love, "Geronimo's Cadillac."

So I chased down the picture that the song is based on, along with a very interesting article about the other photos of the day. And then I watched several live videos of Michael Martin Murphey singing "Geronimo's Cadillac," including this one where he explains how the song landed him on the FBI's watch list. Which then took me to this video of the song being performed with acclaimed Native American flutist Gareth Laffely. (Check this out--it's so cool!)

So, of course, I had to look up Gareth Laffely and check out some of his tunes. He is Mi'kmaq and Cree. Mi'kmaq geography and history is somewhat familiar. Cree is less so, but is also synonymous to me with the Northern Cree Singers.

So that reminded me how much I like the Northern Cree drum (in this case, the drum is the group of performers, not the instrument they play), and that led me to this video of them playing for the women's fancy dance at a pow-wow last year. 

And that made me miss summer and want a frybread taco. And realize that I have absolutely no idea what my actual blog topic was going to be today. 

You're welcome.


The Quiet Week

This morning, I had every intention of rolling out of bed bright and early to get a head start on the day. Instead, when the sweet sounds of "High and Low" rolled into the room, I poked my nose and eyes out from under three layers of quilt and blankets, confirmed that my room was definitely cool, if not cold, and that the quality of light through the blinds promised frigid sunshine rather than another morning snow. Then, with apologies to Joshua Radin, I tapped stop on my phone, flipped the covers back over my head and granted myself 45 extra minutes of sleep. 

It's rare that I do that on a weekday. Even though I work for myself (and by myself), I aim to be at my desk and functional no later than 9 a.m., so that at least part of my workday is in sync with my clients. Around lunchtime or after, I often change things up. I'll run errands when shops and offices are empty and then come back to the screen in the mid-afternoon or evening for a while. That lets me roll with clients in different time zones or who are on rush schedules that require turnaround after they leave their desks for the day. Or, I might eat lunch at the computer but finish up the day in the mid- to late afternoon and turn my attention to housework, some unpaid pursuit, or in the summer, a little outdoor adventure. 

Sleeping in throws off the rest of the day, so I avoid it except on weekends. And this week. This is the quiet week. Some of my clients are closed between Christmas and New Year's Day. For others, I'm covering for people who are away. And, in general, anything that hasn't started yet isn't starting right now. 

So I cut myself a break. Unless I'm on a firm deadline, a little more sleep is okay. I try to line up everything that comes next, but I don't necessarily start it. This year, I'm slowly tackling the transcription of this summer's interviews so I can get back to writing my book over the course of the spring, with fingers crossed that Mr. Khanjani will be released in the meantime. I'm also puttering away at office organization and decorating, now that everything's unpacked. And, as has become my habit, I'll spend New Year's Day figuring out what gets my attention in 2018 and straightening up all my finances and taxes for the coming year. 

This week is not one of my favorites each year. As much as the professional value is incalculable, it's too quiet on the personal side. I am usually entirely alone. My parents were here for a few days, leaving on Christmas Eve to beat the snow, since this isn't really a holiday we celebrate amongst ourselves, anyway. And for the rest of the week, it's too easy to find myself thinking of long-ago holidays with my grandparents, all four of whom are now gone. Or of laughter and parties with now-distant or departed friends. It's too easy to see ahead of me about two months of icy cold, wind, snow, and holidays that I last anticipated when I had them off from school or received punched-out Valentines from classmates. Now, I know I'll spend these months with my head down, plowing forward toward the relief of Ayyam-i-Ha, the 19-Day Fast, and springtime. 

So this week, I'll take things a little easy. I'm savoring leftover pilaf, enchiladas and chili. Watching the yellow wax windows of my tiny sandcast casa glow each time I light the wick. Continuing to spend my evenings watching NCIS from the very beginning, despite having seen it almost completely from the very beginning when the episodes aired. Reading The Little Book of Lykke, just received today thanks to a fortuitous pre-order. And reminding myself how lucky I am to have a quiet week to set me up for a productive, calm, and creative year.

Clutter Is My Kryptonite

In week two, I learned about the cats. I am so allergic to felines that my allergist told me I "shouldn't have friends who have cats." It's no slight to the character of cat owners, but I am so sensitive to the little critters' dander that I react to the amount folks typically pick up on their clothes. For the most part, visiting the homes of cat people is right out. Five minutes in and my sinuses are simultaneously stuffed up and dripping, my eyes are so itchy they're tearing up and making it hard to see, I'm sneezing, and I'm starting to develop tiny hives on any exposed skin.

As you can imagine, then, learning that the former occupant of my new apartment had cats (yes, plural) went a long way toward explaining why I've been in a constant state of allergic unpleasantness since I moved in. Also, he's a guy and lived alone. So it's not like fastidious cleaning was at the top of his hobby list.

Don't get me wrong: My landlords are the kindest and most well-meaning people I can imagine. It just never occurred to them that evidence of Cat-Man and his Feline Followers couldn't be eradicated with a good scrub-down and a steam-clean of the carpets. And, due to the lack of attention to detail shown by the realtor in listing the rental, I was under the impression that the no-pets clause in the lease meant that the prior tenant also had no pets. So I didn't ask about prior furry residents. Whoops.

The Great Kitty Kachoo is just one of the things keeping me off kilter right now. People talk about creative types and how they thrive on chaos and disorder. Art allows them to create order from the chaos. They love the stimulation that comes from being surrounded by color and shapes and such.

What. Ever.

I'm certainly no minimalist, but I am a big fan of curated displays. From order and organization, I can absorb the information I need to inspire and inform creative efforts. (I'm also wildly allergic to dust and dust mites, second only to cats, so I really appreciate order, organization, and displays that are neatly housed behind glass or doors, or in drawers or boxes.) 

The bane of my existence is open shelving. And in this lovely little place I now call my own, open shelving is everywhere. Despite having lovely blue and green Ball jars to corral small items in Pinterest-worthy fashion, and despite all of my small kitchen appliances being fashionable stainless steel or empire red, the open shelving drives me bananas. And that's the part of the apartment that's organized, not still filled with opened storage tubs or stacked with things to donate or sell.

So what does this all mean? Well, on the surface, it means I haven't been able to relax since I moved in, because there's stuff everywhere. In the next two days, I'll be revisiting the Salvation Army store to drop off more things that I don't need, but might make someone else very happy (matching set of of Coke fountain glasses, I'm looking at you). And I'll be swinging by the local animal shelter with an armload of fleece blankets. And I'll be making a special delivery of cardboard to the local transfer station, because winter has fallen from the sky and I refuse to make the garbage collectors heave stacks of frozen, wet boxes into the trucks when I can just as well heave dry, unwieldy boxes into my car and from thence into a giant dumpster. 

At a deeper level, it means that I am forced to confront the concepts of need and want in a very physical way. As a Baha'i, I pay what is called "the right of God." This isn't the same as the tithes paid in some other religions, and it's not the same as a voluntary contribution to keep a building open or the lights on. In fact, it's more like a spiritual tax that's used at the discretion of the Universal House of Justice (the elected, global Baha'i leadership council) to pay for things that improve the well-being of communities around the world and that protect and provide care for those in need of assistance.

Adult Baha'is periodically tally up everything we own (cash, investments, property, real goods, etc.). We subtract the value of necessities, such as household furnishings, and we subtract a sort of "standard deduction" (there's a tax term for you). Then, we pay about 20 percent of whatever remains into this pool of funds. The next time we go through the exercise, we only calculate the 20 percent based on new wealth that we've gained since the last time we did the math, so we don't pay twice for the same vinyl record collection (hipsters) or kayak (me).

Like many Baha'i laws, much of the execution is left up to the individual. How often we pay is up to us. Some people do this daily, others every pay day, and still others only every few years. What counts as a "necessity" is open to interpretation, too. It's perfectly fine for Baha'is to acquire wealth; but a wealthy Baha'i is held to the same standard as a poor Baha'i when it comes to calculating the right of God. So both may say, "I need my car." But one may own a brand new sports car and the other a used pickup truck, and that's fine ... a third person may decide their car is a want because they live in a city where they could take public transportation everywhere they go. Ultimately, the "standard deduction" is the same for everyone, though, so the wealthy person will pay 20 percent of their significant wealth, while the poor person will pay 20 percent of very little wealth (or may not have to pay anything at all).

As I said, it's a spiritual tax. So a person has followed the law if they have made the calculation, even if they find they don't need to pay anything. Of course, if a person does possess enough wealth that payment is due, then that person has to hold himself or herself accountable for paying. There's no Baha'iRS (see what I did there?) chasing anyone down. The reason it's the "right of God" is because we see that money as never belonging to us to start with, so by giving it up to be used for the good of others, we "purify" what remains.  

What does this have to do with clutter? For me, clutter makes it very hard to calculate this number. I've moved so many times, and am so sentimental about the things that I've picked up along the way, that I have a ton of stuff. Much of it lacks any financial value at all. Case in point: Much adored, totally threadbare and squished Teddy who inhabits an interior corner of my hand-me-down cedar chest. Household furnishings comprise another chunk. Having grown up in a house with plenty of love and fantastic experiences, but without lots of conveniences that my peers took for granted (ahem, waffle maker), I wrestle with what counts as a household furnishing and what is really just a want in sheep's clothing.

The more stuff there is to sort through, the harder it is to figure out what's needed or wanted, or why it's there at all. And, the more likely it is that I will start comparing my own abundance (ahem, waffle maker) to the situation of people who are without a home or food. On one hand, that's a good awareness to find. On the other hand, our realities are different, and I have earned the funds to pay for some conveniences and luxuries, so there should be no guilt associated with owning them ... although perhaps I should be cautious about how many more things I acquire. There are many ways to share the wealth, instead, whether modest or extreme. It's a fine balance.

As a writer, my issues with clutter and the valuation of needs and wants are showing up in my current stymied state, too. The madcap research adventure of the last two years has left me with stacks of information to be organized, sifted, augmented, and molded into the story I'm trying to tell. Some of that is info is needed and some is just extraneous detail. The writing isn't the hard part (legions of writers just flung projectiles at me, I'm sure). Processing the research is the bigger challenge for me. Right now, the information wants and needs require some un-jumbling.

Little by little, I'm making my way through the physical clutter of this new place, so that I can wade through the information clutter that stands between me and a story that needs (finally) to see the light of day. And somewhere in all of that, I'll find a way to de-catify things, too.

One Worthwhile Moment

It's no secret that the last couple of months have been more of a struggle than I anticipated (or desired) in any number of ways. In this world of war and pestilence, as my parents used to say, I know my troubles are trivial. But still ... the latter half of this adventure has not looked the way I thought it would.

So it was that, last week, while I was shuffling my search for temporary accommodations, and the need to eliminate possessions before seeking permanent accommodations, and work with my clients, and inquiries from potential new clients, and ideas for research and writing on the book, and the timing of pitching agents, and the time it takes for a required review to be completed, and the Thanksgiving pie baking and travel plan, and ... what was I saying? Right. So amidst all that, I learned that Mr. Khanjani's brother would be nearby for a few days.

It's funny how, in the midst of all the craziness, such fortuitous timing brought distinct clarity. That issue of proximity to important characters and resources is, after all, one of only two-point-five reasons why I am sticking around the increasingly dark and cold northeastern U.S. for the next little while, despite my desire to flee. (The other reasons are the need to divest "stuff" and the location of the parental folk.)

And so, days later, I found myself sitting down for dinner in a warm kitchen, at a broad and worn farmhouse table. Beside me sat a woman from the U.K. Across from me sat a man and woman from Iran. And at the end of the table sat my dear little sister from China, who had greeted me at the door with a gleeful grin and brushes of her small hand against mine, her strong voice announcing, "Aunty JoAnn," on repeat, to her mother and the assembled guests.

Together, we served ourselves tender baked chicken and veggies, lemon-dressed greens, and heaps of fragrant Persian rice with crunchy potato tahdig. Berry-infused water added festive color to our glasses.  

Through a mixture of questions and translation gaffs, colliding accents and amused grins, Mr. Khanjani's brother told us about the man he remembers as his eldest sibling, surrogate father, business partner, and beloved friend. 

"He is brave. He is wise. He is kind. So kind." His voice softened by age and affliction, his English gently accented, he offered one of the evening's stories.

"I was in the car with him once in Isfahan. There was a man on the corner who was very poor. He had a length of that thin Turkish toweling that he was ripping into smaller squares and selling for maybe two or three pennies each. But as he did it, he was dancing and laughing." He gestured, twirling an imaginary cloth around him, a bit like a lasso.

"My brother pulled over and bought a few squares. I asked him why. After all, he didn't need them. He said to me, 'I like him! He is happy! So I'll buy a few pieces of cloth because he makes me happy.'"

It struck me, that image of Mr. Khanjani, whom I now know to be a wealthy man given to flawless tailoring and immaculate suits, stopping at the curb to buy rags from a man who made him smile. And I smiled, too. 

Uff Da and Up Helly Aa

Every now and again, folks ask me why I write more about life experiences, book writing, and my experience as an author newb, and less about the things I do that actually make money. After all, content marketing, sponsored content work, writing, editing, and communications strategy consulting is kind of my jam. Shouldn't I be spouting all of that wisdom?

The answer is a little more complicated than a straight-up yes or no.

First, I get paid for that wisdom because I'm a fixer. In fact, that's a big reason why I went freelance a couple of years ago. A fixer is the person in a particular role (and often not the role that's supposed to be responsible), who gets called when one or more of their collaborators are flat-out stumped. He or she can cut through the hemming and hawing, set a path, define a strategy, ask new questions, or Google it (fer pete's sake) to help clear a roadblock. 

A fixer often can't turn off what others might assume is "playing devil's advocate" or "always having to be right." So, as a staff member, she or he may annoy the bejeepers out of colleagues, throw off the curve for hourly estimating ("I'm done already. What's next?"), and become someone everyone respects but no one likes. As a freelancer, a fixer is often very well-liked and a welcome addition to temporary teams. After all, she or he will swoop in, help make things better, and leave. Confident, happy, reassuring, efficient!

Since I hung out my own shingle, I've been very fortunate to receive plenty of calls and emails from former coworkers who went on to other endeavors. They reach out to me, specifically, when they reach the stumped point. "Our advancement office needs ..." "I don't know what I'm dealing with yet, but we're gonna need you ..." "So we got this RFP and I don't know how to ..."  

That means I tailor the wisdom to my clients' specific needs. I don't believe in one-size-fits-all writing, editing, or strategy ... which is typically what winds up in blog posts. Instead, I believe in discussing business goals, challenges, resources, preparation ... all of the pieces of the puzzle. In initial meetings with clients, before they ever pay a cent or even have a contract in place, I try to provide some value that can help them as soon as they walk out the door or hang up the phone.

Second, marketing is manipulation. Folks don't like to hear it, but it's true. Marketing is the art of manipulating people to do what you want them to do, while making them think it was their idea. It can wear a white hat or a black hat. I've worn both.

I prefer the white one. That's another reason I chose to go freelance. Slowly but surely, I'm gaining more control over the projects I take on and the tenor of the relationships I form with clients. I'm also starting to dabble in the shift back to the storytelling, journalistic writing I originally loved. The kind that's less about manipulation and more about elucidation. 

As a result, I have a pigheaded resistance to marketing-as-usual. I work in communications. I specialize in making complicated things easy for people to understand. 

You want the big secret of marketing? It doesn't matter what you say. It matters what you do.

Run your organization responsibly, provide a valuable product or service, and treat both your customers and employees like they matter. That's. It. I can help you talk about that once you're doing it. What I can't do is wave a shiny wand and make everything okay if you're not on the up-and-up.

Finally, I prefer to work with people who know me. That doesn't mean I don't want to meet new people! But it does mean that I am a whole person, and so are each of my clients and each of my collaborators. If someone gets sick, takes a vacation, needs to make a soccer game, or whatever, it's not a crisis. It's life. We can handle it.

That's why I write about other things in my world. Where I am, what I'm observing, stuff I'm learning, how I'm feeling, things I'm writing, what I'm celebrating. I expect to learn the same about my clients. It helps me know how to plan ahead and how to interact with different people.

So, what's up with the post title? I just happened to be feeling a little Viking-y today.

Uff da is a Scandinavian-American expression picked up from Norwegian immigrants. It's used exactly as it sounds ... kind of like an oy vey for the Norsk, Dansk, and Svensk set.

Up Helly Aa is a festival in the village of Lerwick, in Shetland, which involves much merrymaking and the burning of a life size, floating Viking galley. It takes place at the end of January. (Along with the Chincoteague Pony Swim in July, it's one of the events I would most like to attend, but that's not the point.) This year, it's the time by which I hope to have a number of administrative, work, book, and life ducks in a row. Which I will likely celebrate by setting something more modest aflame, possibly while wearing a Viking helmet.  

Stuck in the Middle With Me

It's been a month and a week since I last wrote a blog post. I would like credit for the several times I've sat down, opened the laptop, logged in, and drummed my fingers on the keyboard, however.

What have I done in the meantime? Altered my path two-plus times to avoid bobbing and weaving hurricanes. Spent most of a week working on deadlines in a hotel room in the Blue Ridge (which the window indicated were lovely). Wandered battlefields in Virginia with one of my closest pals. Spent most of another week working and exuding vast quantities of viral fluids in a hotel room just beyond the Beltway. Blew my nose for several more days at a friend's home outside Philadelphia. Visited my old haunts to catch up with clients, friends, and medical folks. And now I'm in the blazing leafy beauty of coastal New England, working some more and visiting with family. 

Of course, most of my time in the latter half of the trip has been devoted to debating what comes next. Everything I own, with the exception of what I've carried in my car these last few months, remains in storage. I remain entirely in limbo. And my two most desirable locations are the middle of New Mexico and the seacoast of New Hampshire/Maine.

Considerations include client diversity, cash flow, cost of living (and availability of rentals to the self-employed), tax ramifications, ease of travel, book contacts for research and acquisition, outdoor fun availability ... and, let's be honest, the desire to keep exploring. Welcome to the place where freelance life and writing life collide!

At the moment, I'm seriously considering finding furnished lodgings back in my old neighborhood for the winter. My responsible streak is showing, I know. That plan would allow me to avoid a temporary change in business arrangements and buy me a little time to offload more furnishings, identify a place to live, make moving plans, approach more diversified clients, and move the book forward significantly.

For the long-term, though, returning to my long-time neighborhood is not on the table. I've done my best these last years to shake off the predictability and general malaise; I certainly don't want to wrap them around me again like a heavy sleeping bag.

So, what's next? To quote Winnie the Pooh: "Think, think, think."

I Want to Stop There

At the end of this week, I will have been on the road for two months. I've reached a point where I routinely don't know what city I'm in, nor what day it is. Time zones are irrelevant (I've been an hour behind myself all day today). So, I'm giving a quick recap of the important stuff this week!

I've answered any number of questions:

  • "Do you really not have a home right now?" That's correct. I have an address, courtesy of wonderful friends, and my belongings are all in a storage unit, but I have no actual home.
  • "You're driving around the country alone?" Yep. When you're not attached to someone, that's pretty much the default setting for any length of drive, whether to the store or the opposite coast. Bonus points for the two or three very not-scared-of-anything men who have followed up with, "I don't think I could do that. I'd be too scared!" 
  • "What kind of book are you writing?" It's a true story about an Iranian man in his mid-80s, who is currently in prison, nine years into his sentence. He was arrested on false charges and tried without due process because he's a member of the Baha'i religion, which is a minority there. But throughout his life, he's been an entrepreneur and philanthropist who has constantly served those most in need, and I'm writing about that legacy. 
  • "How are you supporting yourself?" I'm a self-employed writer, editor, and content strategy consultant, mostly in business communications and marketing, and I'm working on existing contracts while I travel.
  • "Is your husband Persian?" (Specifically, I got this one several times at a conference for Persian emigrants since I clearly am not Persian, do not speak Persian, and was not with a Persian.) Nope. No husband or prospect thereof, Persian or otherwise, at least right now, as far as I know.
  • "What would you like on that?" Mayo, mustard, pickles, lettuce. Or in New Mexico: green chiles.

I've realized several things:

  • It takes nearly as long to plan or rejigger trip stops as it does to actually drive from place to place. I've explained to folks that this is both the best-planned and worst-planned trip of all time, and that my time is basically split between driving (50%) and a combination of planning, working, and chasing research contacts. The opportunity for sightseeing is very limited, so I've tried to make the most of the rolling views out the windows.
  • By my observation, the people who live in areas hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are not "victims" or "suffering" until you get to Missouri and points north and east. In New Mexico, the rest of Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Kentucky, at least, they are "neighbors," "people," "citizens," "residents," and "folks." Using language that indicates an "us/them" dichotomy ("they" are "victims," "we" are "#blessed") makes it okay for separation to develop between groups. On a small scale, it's a representation of what's wrong with our worldview(s) on any number of issues right now.
  • The things folks put on their cars and trucks make no sense. Confederate flags in a non-ironic manner? It's been 170 years or so; we need to move on. Giant American flags on poles mounted into the trailer hitch? Unless you're leading an invisible cavalry charge up the freeway, just say no.
  • The best way to understand an area is to turn off the iTunes and turn on the radio. A country's worth of country stations and I am pretty solid on regional agriculture, income levels, local concerns, and musical tastes. I've also added a couple good ol' tunes to my playlist. And I'm completely hooked on "No Such Thing as a Broken Heart" (been hearing it nonstop for 60 days) and "Greatest Love Story" (which first entered my consciousness somewhere around Fresno on a sunny, 104-degree cruise down CA-99).
  • I am very comfortable where cowboy boots, jeans, and cowboy hats or ball caps are the uniform of the day. Pickup trucks are good. Corrals are good. Anything with hooves is good. Spanish is good. Sadly, we've mostly, though not entirely, priced the people who have such things out of the vicinity of oceans and beaches. 
  • Truckers are better drivers than most folks on the road, most places. Yes, I would be the little blue car who will pass the trucks on the uphill but fall in line on the downhill. Why? Because the uphill is just a matter of speed maintenance, so if I pass, I'll stay ahead. The downhill is a matter of gravity, and I have no desire to race. In the Siskiyous, through the Cascades, through the northern Rockies, over Snoqualmie, over Tehachapi, over the Sandias, truckers stay to the right on the uphill and rarely impede the flow of traffic, and engine brake on the downhill to maintain a controlled descent. Very pleasant, very safe, very easy. I-81 in the Appalachians? Not so much.

I've put a smattering of things on my "want to" list:

  • More time on the Oregon coast
  • More time in New Mexico
  • More time in northern Arizona
  • More time in North Dakota
  • Cesar Chavez National Monument
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Glacier National Park
  • Crater Lake National Park
  • Okay, so mostly, I wanted to pull off the road at places where I could go hiking and rambling around, but I didn't have time and it would have been unwise to do so alone.

In any case, I still have miles to go before I sleep. And I have to figure out where I live, before I sleep, too. 

Do You Know Mr. Khanjani?

The time has come! I'm now scheduling interviews across the U.S. and Canada for late July through late September with people who knew Jamaloddin Khanjani. If that describes you, and you're willing to talk with me, please watch the video below and contact me.

If I can't meet you in person during my summer road trip, we can chat by Skype or Facetime. Please also share this post with your friends and family members who may have known Mr. Khanjani, and who are now living in countries where they are able to speak freely.

Curious about how I started writing about this particular man at this particular time? Watch Why Tell This Story? at the bottom of the book description.

(And if you don't know Mr. Khanjani personally and you don't speak Persian, you can still be involved! Watch How to Help for details.)

Hitting the Highway With #ProjectRoadWork

Over the last month, whenever I've told anyone what I'm planning, I've expected to hear, "Have you lost your mind?" So far, though, every single person has either responded with excitement and delight, or asked me if I'm excited. The answer to that is, "Yes, sort of. And also terrified."

That's because I'm veering off the traditional, pseudo-settled, and adult path. In fact, I'm hurtling off the merry-go-round in a way I couldn't have begun to imagine even a year ago, let alone two or three. 

You see, good stories, like lives well lived, demand some risk.

From the moment I decided to write Mr. Khanjani's story, I've begun to grow accustomed to throwing everything into the air and trusting that it will come down where it should. (If you now have the old Shaker song, "Simple Gifts," running through your head, I'm right there with you.) 

So far, that approach has worked out just fine. Masters degree: done. Gainfully employ oneself: done. Pursue health: working on it. All of these things have required forethought and flexibility, of course. But in general, each one has set up the next, and a certain amount of trust, prayer, and gut instinct has led me in what seems to be the right direction. Robert Frost would be proud. 

Now it's time to push the envelope. In order to finish the first full draft of the book and start pitching agents before the end of this year, audacity is required. So, in just a few weeks, I'll be embarking on a two- or three-month road trip around the U.S. and southern Canada to interview people who knew Mr. Khanjani, beyond the individuals with whom I've already spoken. While I may still have to make a few targeted trips after that, or conduct a few interviews over FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom, this will put me in a very good place to round out the story.

That might not seem like anything out of the ordinary, until you realize that I'm doing it without a net. I'm putting all of my worldly goods into storage and even selling or giving away a few things. After eight years in one place, I'm letting my lease expire. And I'll be working from the road with a few select clients. Thank goodness for Airbnb, Hotel Tonight, Priceline, and friends with couches.

What happens next? Well, I'm hoping that somewhere along this transcontinental jaunt, I'll find someplace I might like to live or someone who inspires me to stick around for a while. This is lifetime move number 21 for me, if I counted correctly, and I'd like to make sure there's a point to it. So as I'm writing, working, and exploring the continent, I'll be trying to keep my eyes and heart open (a challenge!), while also investigating fallback locations near oceans. 

At the moment, my soundtrack is Lauren Alaina's "Road Less Traveled." For an introvert with a shy streak and only half a plan, it's a good anthem.

Now, for the hashtag. At the prompting of my classmate and pal Karalee, who ran away from home and embarked on "Project Friend" a couple of years ago, this combined research trip and quest now has a name. "Project Interviewing People With Accents" is way too long, so #ProjectRoadWork it is. Yes, I'm working from the road. More importantly, I'm accepting that both book and life are under construction this summer.

I hope you'll come along for the ride.

9 Notes From a New MFA

During my latest 14-hour drive home from Halifax, and the last drive of its kind for some time to come, I got to thinking about what I've learned over the last two years. I think I was lucky, in that I approached the process of getting my MFA as something of a lark and a means to an end, so I didn't have any particular preconceived notions or expectations about the experience. I was free to ride the tide and see what happened along the way. Here is some of the flotsam and jetsam I picked up, both in the classroom and out, from my mentors and instructors, my classmates, and myself.

1. Murder Your Darlings. Every writer has heard this at some point in time. It's easy to fall in love with a specific turn of phrase, even when it just doesn't work for some reason. So it has to get the red line of death in the editing process. After a couple decades writing for hire, I rarely have darlings on the page and tend to be very open to suggested edits. So in my case, this takes a different meaning, which is: Understand when to let go of your grand plans, whether for research, structure, or purpose, and just let the current take you along to wherever you should be.

2. Find Your People. The idea of a writing community is a critical one. Most research and writing is done in a fairly solitary state out of necessity. But the improvement of the words on the page depends on exposure, inspiration, and conversation. Having a writing group nearby is a great idea; not always possible, but advantageous. And when it's difficult in person, it's certainly an option remotely, as my classmates and I have learned over the last two years. Whether we've cheered each other's successes, celebrated personal events, or commiserated in writerly angst, we've all had one another's backs and will, no doubt, continue to do so in the years to come.

3. Money Opens Doors. Let's be honest: An MFA is really expensive, and if someone thinks it's a one-way ticket to fame, they're delusional. That said, the degree serves three purposes, as I see it. First, it's terminal, so it indicates a level of accomplishment that can serve as the foundation to teach at the university level; a useful option for someone cobbling together income streams. Second, it can offer the nudge an agent or editor needs to take a look at your work; the expectation is that you have spend time and money improving your craft and may generate a higher-quality product. And third, for those of us who already write professionally in one capacity or another, the MFA provides validation of the practical skills we've developed; it's an acknowledgement of the value and quality we provide on a daily basis.

4. Start a Project. Just start. A book's structure may be reworked endlessly, or the voice shifted midstream. The research may be a beast (mine is) or the apparent path to completion may hit a snag. But the first step is to grab a hunk of clay and start working it. Even if your project is only tangentially related to your goal, it still counts. For example, while working toward her MFA and writing her book, one classmate moved to a new city and set herself the goal of stalking (erm, that's making) friends. Fodder for the book? Yes. Ultimately a much larger framework for living? You betcha. In my case, my new endeavor is #ProjectRoadWork ... details on that soon! 

5. Remember to Laugh. If there is one thing that characterized my MFA experience, it was laughter. It's very easy to take oneself and one's efforts way too seriously. High art. Serious literature. Profound issues of humanity. They're all parts of the conversation. However, the minute you buy into the hype is the minute you become insufferable to yourself and others. Laugh. At the difficulties of research. At the absurdities of academia. Even, as a cathedral full of people did last week, at the questionable Latin of a graduation ceremony. Laugh with joy at the company of compatriots. Laugh with pleasure at the sound of locals and come from aways alike singing sea shanties at a post-graduation kitchen party. Just laugh.

6. Place Does Matter. On one hand, this applies to my place as a writer and my place geographically. I promised myself when I started my MFA that I would not move until I finished it, so that I could control my living expenses. On the other hand, this also applies to the location of my MFA program. I don't know if all low-residency students have the benefit of such a warm cocoon when they are in session. For me, Halifax has become as much my place as anywhere else I've been. In fact, I trooped my parents up to Nova Scotia so they, too, could get a feel for this port city at the edge of Atlantic Canada. My educational experience is inextricably tied to my experiences at Canada's oldest chartered university and in the city it calls home. I am very proud to say I took my MFA at the University of King's College and Dalhousie University ... in the summers, while consuming copious amounts of seafood and Propeller ginger beer. 

7. Always Keep Learning. It's easy to convince ourselves that we know all we need to know at a certain point. Taking my MFA after establishing myself in my career was a wonderful reminder that learning keeps us sharp and bright and ever so much more interesting, both in our own minds and to others we may meet. It was a grand opportunity to spend time with people who shared a thirst for knowledge. At the moment, one of my classmates is serving with a nongovernmental organization in Myanmar. Another is recovering from heart surgery. One just got engaged. Others are plodding through information dug up from Afghanistan and Japan. And those are just the ones who didn't make it to graduation.

8. Believe In Yourself. One of the questions we answered (repeatedly) over the last two years was, "Why are you the person who should write this book?" We each needed to be able to explain exactly what made our take on our subject unique. As a side effect, we all gained clarity about why we'd chosen our topics, how we were approaching them, and why our voices were important. This whole writing process is not for the faint of heart. In fact, I'd venture to say that if you truly can't come up with a reason why you're the right person to write your book, you're probably the wrong person for that book. Once you answer the question, though, don't look back. You know what you can do; move on to believing what you will do.

9. Adventure Begets Adventure. Perhaps the most important thing I've learned is that earning the parchment is not the end of anything, but the beginning. In fact, the process of taking the MFA has the potential to open your mind to any number of things, from professional pathways and specializations to personal opportunities and relationships. The trick for me, now, is to keep surfing from adventure to adventure as long as the inspiration holds!

How Escapism Fuels Creativity

I thought about titling this, "Teen Vampires Are My Spirit Animal," but that seemed a little too much, even for me. In recent weeks, though, my entertainment viewing has almost exclusively comprised all eight seasons of The Vampire Diaries ... and I'm now well into the second season of The Originals. Bear with me. I swear there's a point to this.

After I sent in my last MFA assignment a month ago, I took a very short, but deep breath. Then I started making lists. What comes next professionally. Geographically. Physically. Spiritually. In research. In writing. What I have. What I want. Who I hope to find. What adventures I seek. 

Of course, in no time, the immediate priority bubbled up, and it was good, solid work. So the lists sat. I made a little progress on one thing or another, but without passion or direction. Part of that was just the inevitable easing of focus at the end of a two-year endeavor. And part of it was that I didn't let myself truly relax, knowing that I have a brief vacation coming up soon enough.

My brain seemed hyper-aware and never off. In an effort to slow the roll, while tackling administrative tasks or in spare moments at the end of the night, I turned to NetFlix and the allure of supernatural dramas with no redeeming social value. As in, most of the plot lines feature a few deadly sins and several that may not be deadly, but sure ain't good. Plus skewed loyalty, odd interpretations of love, and seriously maladjusted family dynamics. Also romance, chivalry, and somewhat cracked fairy tales.

The technique did its job. Even through such a busy time (which is nowhere near its end), I've been able to snag glimmers of inspiration. Solutions to writing challenges in the book have come to mind here and there. Thoughts about how I'd like to tailor my professional life. Ideas for how to make my next brief step into the nomadic life. By letting at least part of my brain flit off into the stories on screen, I freed up a little bit of creative battery power.

It was only after I met up with two of my high school friends (one of them actually goes all the way back to fifth grade) for dinner last weekend that I realized why the televised undead, specifically, seemed to generate that response. Between the chicken flautas and the hysterical laughter over a nesting duck, it occurred to me that my friends and I had much more in common with our younger selves for those few hours than we did with our everyday lives. There was something freeing about that, as much as there was in the perpetual youth of the vampire crew.

I read so often about people taking long breaks to reset their minds and refocus their creative energy. I absolutely agree that's valuable and ideal. I certainly wouldn't turn up my nose at the opportunity to relocate to beachfront property with no responsibilities for an extended stay. But for me, and for most people, that's not exactly a practical or realistic option at any given time. We find ways to mimic the effects of a physical escape by taking a mental one and reaping the rewards. And when prayer or meditation is already in one's bag of tricks, one's mental escape may involve weeks of TV vampires. It's all good.

When It Rains, It Pours

I should have remembered. Over the last month or so, I've thought of that phrase numerous times and pictured myself thumping my head against my desk. The subject of my should-have? That the second quarter of the calendar year is bananas for freelancers of all sorts.

This is something I realized last year. Just as my spring MFA term wound down, assignments and requests flooded my inbox. April, May, and most of June remain a blur of projects and activity. At the time, I couldn't put my finger on why that was so. Now, I can.

I work at the intersection of two types of work. One involves articles and interviews that go on year 'round, but have a special sort of uptick in the last half, or last quarter, of clients' fiscal years as they are trying to justify the next year's budget requests. The other includes large-scale content strategy and development projects that typically get started, after some form of RFP or bidding cycle, in clients' second fiscal quarter, before their budgets are depleted.

Most of the first type of clients don't work on a calendar fiscal year. And most of the second type do. Making April through June and, to a slightly lesser extent, July through September, prime time for the self-employed and strategi-creatively minded.

From the freelance perspective, that translates to a state of being that can best be described as "make hay while the sun shines." In other words, work can become nearly all-consuming while it's abundant and available, because there is no guarantee that the phenomenon will reoccur. It's a very good challenge for me to have, since it means I can plan to take research trips that feed the book at other times of the year, under far less stress. 

This year, though, I'm also doing my best to keep a healthy focus on the rest of life even during this busy time. Some things do matter much more than work. After all, without a healthy body, an enriched spirit, and a little bit of emotional magic, what are we working for? 

The Joy of Opposable Thumbs

Technology  and I are usually fairly good friends. After all, I am kind to my electronics. You never know when they might stage a revolt and take over the world, though. In my case, that revolt is currently in progress. 

It all started last Monday, when I was working away on the last set of revisions on the last chunk of material I needed to turn in for my Master of Fine Arts, so that next month, some lovely folks from Dalhousie and the University of King's College can hand me a pretty parchment. At the same time, I was doing some initial planning for what promises to be a busy few months of freelancing. 

All of of a sudden, my faithful and long-lasting computer ground to a halt. And I mean, full stop, not playing, restart me or bid adieu to anything getting done.

Only it wouldn't restart. Two days of severely hampered workarounds and frustrating visits to electronics and hardware stores later, I had a snazzy new computer on order. You can't buy a snazzy computer at the local Apple Store anymore, I learned. You have to order anything above the basic option online. That part was easy. I wandered off to borrow a friend's spare laptop for the week or two until my new space gray beauty arrived. 

My cheerful acceptance was ruined when my credit card company declined the charge for the computer. Sent me a text message asking if I meant to spend such an obscene chunk of money. YES, I chose from the menu. They sent me an email asking the same thing. YES, I chose from the menu. Still, the charge wasn't accepted ... and my card was restricted.

Saturday, a phone call theoretically should have led to an accepted charge. But it didn't. Yesterday morning, a phone call had the same result. Still, the charge was rejected again in the afternoon. I called again. The card company called Apple. No one knows why the charge wasn't going through. Long story short, Apple had to cancel the order and create a new one. My fingers are crossed that it actually arrives.

In the meantime, I'm using a borrowed computer for work things and my phone for quick email checks and typing this blog post. 

The whole thing has been a good reminder that the more our world relies upon technology, the more vulnerable we are to the complete disintegration of industries when that technology fails. Not just the computer that spit the bit, but the financial and commerce systems that can't communicate with one another. Certainly a big thing to ponder, especially for someone who has a foot in both worlds. 

That's why, today, in the midst of workarounds, I'm giving thanks for opposable thumbs, wall calendars, planners, and patience. 

When Is Dinner in Australia?

"I'm fine most of the time during the Fast. I just can't do very creative things." A numbers-oriented professor friend lobbed this into the conversation over a potluck serving table a couple weeks ago. The chatter had turned to the ways various Bahá'ís dealt with the upcoming 19 days of fasting from sunrise to sunset. As his hand reached for the serving spoon to move a crunchy piece of tahdig from platter to plate, he looked up and met my glare ... I mean stare. "Oh. That's probably everything you do ..."

Perhaps it's not everything I do. But with the exception of some strategy work and a bit of editing, most of what I do falls into the creative side of things. While I, too, am usually fine during the Fast, the timing does present some interesting challenges to my usual routine.

My biggest hurdle isn't food. I'm a very light breakfast eater anyway, so it's hard for me to get up super early and inhale a feast before sunrise. Instead, I choose a specific morning menu of small amounts of protein-rich foods and plenty of water, and I stick to the same meal for the duration. Do I get hungry? A little. But no more than if I'd skipped lunch at one of my old office jobs.

No, my challenge is sleep. And this is where the creative issue comes into play. I normally head for bed between 11 and midnight, and get up between 7 and 8 a.m. During the Fast, I rarely get to sleep much earlier, but my alarm goes off between 5 and 5:30 a.m. I can try to stay awake and pound through all of my work early in the morning, but then my energy is used up by afternoon, when I still need it. I can eat quickly and try to catch another hour or two of sleep before really getting up for the day, but that pushes my day later. Or I can split my day into a morning shift and an evening shift, cutting short my night's sleep and trying to catch a nap in the afternoon if my schedule allows.

Throwing a wrench into things is the fact that I'm in the last month of my MFA studies, which means I would have been writing at night and in between professional assignments anyway.

All of this leads me to days like today. It's been dark and pouring rain since before sunrise. I'm up to my eyeballs in my book's sample chapters. Some portion of my core is staging a mutiny after yesterday's workout. I'm operating on too little sleep. And my uncertain schedule as a freelancer remains a constant.

This is definitely when I think to myself: terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. And I think I'll move to Australia.

But then I wonder what time sunset is there and start dreaming of cheeseburgers with guacamole, and decide perhaps I do have enough creative gumption to just get on with things. Which I'll be doing right now.