Jan 27

A Girl Can Dream…..


Roald Dahl’s Writing Hut

Dear Friends,
On the website Apartment Therapy, they’ve got a wonderful feature on “Famous Writers’ Small Writing Sheds.” As I eagerly browsed the pictures, I felt a mixture of admiration, excitement, and envy. Though I have a wonderful writing spot in my own house (actually several of them), I’ve always dreamed of having a little writing shed out back. There’s something about having a completely different space to go to, one that requires you to cross a threshold into a different frame of mind.

2011-2-4-gbs_shed_rect540This is a picture of George Bernard Shaw’s writing hut, which he named “London.” According to Apartment Therapy, he called it this “so his staff wouldn’t be lying when they said he had ‘gone to London.'”

Many writing friends I know have created their own writing huts—whether from a kit they bought online, or by refurbishing a garage or existing garden shed. It’s quite an investment of time and money, but one that really shows a commitment to one’s art.

I don’t have the resources for such a thing just yet, but I’m thinking of naming my writing room something like “Vancouver” or “Seattle,” so that I won’t be lying when I say “I’ll be in Seattle for the day,” when I’ve committed a day to writing. It might even keep me there a little longer, knowing I’ve journeyed somewhere else.

What is your writing space like? How do you make it “separate” from your everyday life?

Yours, in daydreams,



Jan 21

Mindful Procrastination


Dear friends,
The end of January is coming, which means we’ve all had a few weeks now to make—and break—our New Year’s resolutions.  I’m not opposed to resolutions, but I’m trying to learn to cut myself some slack if I don’t manage to keep them.  Stop Procrastinating is usually near the top of my list, and sometimes I can do it, start right in on whatever task I’ve been avoiding.  Some things are easier than others: emptying the compost, cleaning closets, purging files.

But when it comes to writing, I’m learning there’s sometimes a reason I’m avoiding it, in addition to my usual “I want it to be perfect” tendency; sometimes I’m just not ready. Is it possible to procrastinate mindfully?  As much as it may sound like an oxymoron, I think we can. I’ve learned to have other writing projects on deck so I’m not dead in the water, and sometimes these projects move forward more quickly than the project I’m procrastinating.

For example, I recently completed a poetry manuscript while I was putting off working on a collection of essays. In the process of doing this, I wrote about emotions I’d been reluctant to address in prose and now feel more ready to return to the essays. Brenda and I wrote the letters that became The Pen & the Bell as our “fun” writing, when we were both supposedly working on our respective Sabbatical writing projects .

I was heartened to read in a recent column by John Tierney in The New York Times that I’m far from alone. According to the article, Piers Steel, a psychologist at the University of Calgary, calls this strategy “productive procrastination” and says it’s his favorite of the techniques he studied while researching his 2011 book, The Procrastination Equation:

“For most of us, procrastination can be beaten down, but not entirely beaten,” Dr. Steel said. “My best trick is to play my projects off against each other, procrastinating on one by working on another.”

Dr. Steel, who has surveyed more than 24,000 people around the world, says that 95 percent of people confess to at least occasional procrastination. (You can gauge yourself by taking his survey at Procrastinus.com.) About 25 percent of those surveyed are chronic procrastinators, five times the rate in the 1970s. He attributes the increase to the changing nature of the workplace: the more flexible that jobs become, the more opportunities to avoid unpleasant tasks.

So, rather than berate yourself for being part of the 95% of people who procrastinate, procrastinate mindfully—with full awareness of what you’re doing and why. Remember that part of trusting yourself is having compassion when a writing task is difficult, that sometimes the muse responds more readily to gentle words than a whip.

This week, pay attention when you feel tempted to procrastinate and reflect on that urge. Sit with it, befriend it, fix it a cup of tea, wrap it in a shawl and listen carefully, intently. What can you learn from it?  Why are you avoiding it?  What can it tell you?  Then gather your courage and plunge in. Or decide you’re not ready and let that be OK.

In the meantime, make a list of projects you can work on until you DO feel ready.  Keep the list at your desk, so the next time you’re avoiding sitting down to work, you have a list of projects at hand you can complete.  In doing so, you’ll join the ranks of the “positive procrastinators.”

Yours,  procrastinating mindfully,


Jan 14

The Power of Your Word

Dear Friends,
I had a marvelous winter break, mainly because I did some writing. And the only way I did my writing was by making a contract with my writing buddy Lee. We agreed to each write one short piece a day and send them to each other. They didn’t have to be good pieces; we just had to write them.

When I returned to teaching, I started out by asking my students to tell us something fun they did over winter break. We heard stories of cross-country train excursions, indoor sky-diving, and a trip to India to help with waste-water management projects. We heard about movies and meals and time with family and friends. Finally one of my students asked what fun thing I had done. What came out of my mouth: “I wrote ten new pieces.”

I used to think I could write all by my lonesome. I used to drag myself to the writing desk and dutifully plug away until something not-so-awful emerged out of the mess. And I never called it “fun”; I called it “work.” And I often said the phrase: “I’m trying to write,” which is worlds away from actually writing.

When I enlist allies—in the form of contracts or writing groups—the “trying” part disappears. I no longer have to “try” to write; I simply write, because I’ve given my word. When you “give your word” you are essentially honoring the most authentic part of your artistic self. Your word, as they used to say, is your bond.

Some days during this contract period were easy; new pieces seemed to simply appear with little effort. Other days it might take me until late at night to come up with something, It didn’t matter, though, because I was writing. And Lee was writing. Our pieces crossed mid-air. We met a few times to discuss what we wrote, having lunch in our favorite cafe downtown. This was our reward, but the compensation of the contract was truly the writing itself.

The meaning of the word “contract” comes from the old French “to make narrow, to draw together.” By establishing a contract with a writing friend, you narrow down the possibilities for your time. You draw together your intentions and, paradoxically, multiply them.

Do you have a writing ally? How do you give each other support? Consider drawing up a short-term contract with someone else, even just for a weekend’s worth of writing, and see how it feels to give your word to another.

Strength to your writing arm,

Jan 07

“Memories and Meditations”


Dear friends,
This year, one of my resolutions was to spend more time with art.  So, last Saturday, I saw photographer Michael Kenna’s retrospective exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum. I’ve long been a fan of Kenna’s work and knew I’d love seeing the actual prints—not on a computer screen or in the pages of a book—but I wasn’t prepared for how they transported me within just a few minutes of entering the gallery.

His black-and-white fine art prints are small, intimate, inviting the viewer in. Yet the landscapes they capture are vast, lonely, evocative. The images are stark, yet somehow transcendent: the delicate branches of a single tree in winter, 50 fences in a field of snow,  pilings rising up out of a serene sea. His images aren’t just of the natural world; he also shows the beauty of rain-slick streets and city skylines lit up at night, the stunning architecture of bridges and, in one of his most evocative images, nuclear reactors with their halos of steam.

Because these images invite reflection, many are, fittingly, called meditations. But these prints are anything but static, capturing in deceptively simple images the complexity that is our natural/human world. Because I wanted to linger in their spacious complexity, I used Kenna’s photographs as my contemplative practice this week, each morning choosing an image to respond to. Here’s a short one:




Posts suggest stasis, clouds motion.
Who says we must decide?
Like the horizon balancing between
We can live in both worlds. 



You can do this, too.  Of course, you can find many images online, but even better if you can visit a gallery, stand in front of the work and be transported. Choose a photographer or artist you admire and respond to a photograph or painting as your morning practice this week.

If you write a poem, you’ll join the time-honored tradition of ekphrastic poetry. At the Poetry.org website you’ll find some famous paintings and the poems they’ve generated.

But it’s fine to just use the image as a meditation, with no pressure to produce a poem, just to let the image take you where it will.

For those in the Seattle area, consider attending the Hedgebrook Salon offered by  poet Susan Rich and playwright Amy Wheeler at the Seattle Art Museum next Saturday January 12  1- 6 pm. You can find the registration information here.

With gratitude for all the artists who transport us,