The fleas of life, the magic of daily progress, and a free online writing workshop . . .
What's On My Mind This Month
When my best friend and I graduated from college with a degree in art (her) and creative writing (me), we dreamed a lot about an “empty room”—a place where we’d be free of the daily demands of life, where we could do the work we knew we had inside us. Back then, I couldn’t conceive of a life in which I balanced creative work, a job, and all the little distractions William Styron once called “the fleas of life.”
But then fifteen years passed, and my responsibilities piled up even more. It wasn’t until I committed to writing from the middle of my life that I finally figured out a way forward.
The first thing that helped? Setting much smaller goals.
When I was struggling to finish my memoir, a good friend listened to me complain about how I never had enough time. She suggested I let go of the lofty goals I’d made for myself and instead commit to just opening the word document that housed my memoir every single day.
I couldn’t believe how much this helped. No matter how busy I was with work and motherhood, I could always find time to skim a few pages and make some notes. Before I knew it, I was dashing off a few sentences before picking my son up from daycare, then getting back into the narrative once he was in bed. The ridiculously small step of opening a document ended up giving me the momentum I needed to finish my book.
I recently came across the above picture on Susan Orlean's Twitter page. It's a scrawled list with four columns: the day's date, her word count when she started out, her word count when she finished, and the total number of words she wrote that day. I love the fact that even bestselling writers need to celebrate their daily progress.
Isak Dinesen used to say "write a little every day, without hope and without despair." When I started my novel this year, I set another very small goal: writing 250 new words every day. That was something I could do even when completely wrapped up in other priorities—but consistently writing 250 words every day gives you a full draft of a manuscript in a year.
Little by little, I've been increasing my daily word count. Every day I write down my progress on a dingy piece of green paper that's thumb-tacked on the wall next to my desk. For me, that piece of paper is daily proof that if we can find the time to invest in our creative work every day, it will add up into something much bigger than we initially envisioned.
What I'm Reading
“Place, Origin, and Stalks of Corn” by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo: I first heard about Castillo's work earlier this month when someone read from this essay at the Houston Writers for Migrant Justice event. In it, Castillo talks about his family's immigration journey to the United States. Here's an excerpt: Perhaps to be a writer of color and to write about place is to always write about what has hurt you. His debut memoir, Children of the Land, is coming out from HarperCollins in January and is available for pre-order now.
“Dawn of Man” by Max Ritvo: I’ve been on a big poetry kick lately, and this poem has been in my head like crazy ever since hearing Ritvo read it on the Poetry podcast. You can read it at the link above – but I recommend listening to him read it by clicking on the link near the title. He made the recording about a month before he died of cancer at the age of twenty-five years old.
Upcoming Classes & Events
Free Online Writing Workshop! I’ll be hosting a free 90-minute writing workshop on the Zoom platform on Sunday, October 27th from 2-3:30 pm central time. More info to come soon. If you’d like to join, just send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll add you to the list.
Upcoming Talk at Rice University: If you’re in Houston, I’d be thrilled if you joined me on November 8th at Rice. The Department of Religion invited me to present about "Research as Creative Process." I’ll be talking about the two months I spent with Pentecostal communities in Southern Nigeria, and how, for me, research can often be a portal toward a much deeper personal story. More info here.
Last month I promised I'd report back from my first open-water birding trip into the Gulf. The weather wasn't ideal—rough seas and rain throughout the day—but it was still amazing. We saw tons of birds: storm petrels, shearwaters, a Masked Booby, Sooty Terns, a Magnificent Frigatebird, migrating warblers, even a pair of dragonflies seventy miles out. I also loved watching the Gulf of Mexico change throughout the day...it must have gone through twenty different permutations.
Tomorrow I'm setting my alarm very early for my first trip to Smith Point Hawk Watchoff Galveston Bay, where you can watch thousands of hawks gearing up for their fall migration to central and South America. Hopefully the weather cooperates...more to come on that next month.