My Writer’s Notebook

I think having a writer’s notebook is one of the most important steps to becoming a writer, and one of the most important things about being a writer. I take mine everywhere I go and would be lost without it.

What kind of notebook should you use?

Does a writer’s notebook have to be an actual notebook? Well, I like using an old-fashioned composition book, the kind you can get for $1 at Walmart or Staples.

I like these for several reasons:

1. They are cheap. I find that if I buy a fancier notebook, like those lovely leather-bound ones at the bookstore, I save it for something special. I have a small collection of fancy bound books that I haven’t been able to bring myself to write in.

2. They are a standard size. I fill these up pretty fast, and they are all the same size so they stack well or line up neatly on a bookcase.

3. I hate spiral notebooks. Not only do comp books not have an annoying spiral (more annoying since I’m left-handed), but there is no temptation to tear out pages when you “mess up.”

What do you put in a writer’s notebook?

My writer’s notebook is not like a journal or diary. I try to avoid writing about my day or writing personal stuff about other people. Occasionally I put in a dated entry, or a few thoughts on an issue, but for the most part my notebook is filled with a lot of random crap. Things you can find in my notebook:

  • Lists of books I have read and want to read
  • Lists of books and stories I want to write
  • Possible titles and opening lines
  • Character sketches
  • Cool words and sentences
  • Bits of funny dialogue that I hear people say or that I imagine
  • Funny things my kids say
  • Dreams
  • Admonitions to write more (I need to include less of these and MORE WRITING)
  • Actual scenes for my novel
  • Partial essays and blog posts (some of which never get written)
  • Recipes
  • Inspiring quotes
  • Random thoughts while sitting in faculty meetings
  • Notes taken during conference presentations
  • Freewriting
  • Ideas for teaching
  • Packing lists
  • Poems

What do you do with your notebooks?

I credit my writer’s notebook with helping me come up with my award-winning play idea, Pork Belly Futures, which was based on a conversation I had with my father. I keep some notebooks, especially the ones with partial novels or lists of ideas I don’t want to lose. Sometimes I copy things from an old notebook into a new one. I just recently dug through a pile of old notebooks looking for some teaching ideas I jotted down in 2007. Because I often label my notes at the top (Teaching Ideas, Novel Notes, Novel Scene, Dialogue, etc.) it’s usually easy to find stuff. My goal is to eventually transfer my notebooks  to searchable documents, partly to make them more available to myself and others, and also to prevent a bunch of dusty clutter from piling up.

I have seen some really amazing and cool-looking writer’s notebooks. I would love to see pictures of notebooks or hear about what you put in yours. I’m also considering writing a series of posts or articles about this, including more tips on how to get started and what to include, links to blogs and sites that address this, as well as excerpts from my notebooks and other notebooks.

Tell me what you’d like to read about here, link to any cool resources you know about, and submit pictures and excerpts from your notebooks.

I don’t think I’m tall enough for this ride…

Spoiler alert: I use the word “boob” in this post. You may want to excuse yourself now.

Here’s an old cliche: Life is a roller coaster.

Everything seems up and down for me lately; I live with extremes. One moment I’m savoring a predawn cup of coffee and reading about what Gwyneth Paltrow packs for a flight to London (as if) and the next minute I’m juggling two cranky kids, one of whom wants to be permanently attached my boob and the other who can’t decide whether or not he wants jam or honey on his peanut butter toast.

Today when I left the house there were crying kids and diapers that needed changing, and let me tell you, it was wrenching. Then I drove in relative peace and quiet to my office (the fifteen minute drive to work is the only time I am truly alone). Then I advised a few students, none of whom have the faintest idea what they are doing. Now my office is quiet and I’m boiling water to make coffee. I drink a LOT of coffee.


I sit down at my computer to write. I open the file that contains my novel and get downright giddy as I nail a sticky plot point. Then I open the file containing feedback from my editor on the academic book I’m writing and I feel like jumping out the window. Then an email alert pops up and I see that I have another stupid and pointless meeting tomorrow. Academics love to call stupid and pointless meetings at the last minute. Then I take a peek at a fashion site to see what all of the hip people are wearing this fall.


I used to think of this way. You enjoy the ups and endure the downs. When you’re miserable you think, “This too shall pass.” Then I saw the following quote:

“Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

If we wait for life to get good before we enjoy it, we will be waiting a long time, and it will be over before we know it.

I felt a sense of peace when my five-month-old woke me at three o’clock this morning. I brought her to bed and smoothed her sweet fluffy head and let her nurse. I was deeply, deeply exhausted. I started thinking about all of the things I have to do, about all of the things I want to do, and about all of the things I will probably never get a chance to do. And then a voice in my head said, “You’re doing the most important thing you could be doing, right now.

I’m doing what I should be doing when I take care of my children. They love me and need me and I will be the center of their universe for such a short time.

I’m doing what I should be doing when I grade papers. My students value my feedback and I have the opportunity to help them become better writers.

I’m doing what I should be doing when I read and swallow the difficult feedback I get from my editor. This will make me a better writer. My editor values me enough to keep pushing me through this project.

I’m doing what I should be doing when I read People Magazine and drink Starbucks. We all need downtime and mindless entertainment.

When we took Oscar to the fair this year we put him on his favorite ride, a little red roller-coaster made just for kids. Last year he loved it. This year he cried helplessly in fear for the first few minutes of the ride. It was so hard to watch! Then something happened. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and endured. Finally, he looked around and smiled. And when he got off the ride, he wanted to go on it again.

There is no such thing as balance

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~Howard Thurman


a state of equilibrium or equipoise; equal distribution of weight, amount, etc.

I don’t have it, I’m never gonna get it, and I no longer want it.

I know mothers who have it all. They are beautiful, thin, popular, and happy. They have nice houses and bake cupcakes in rainbow colors. They undertake projects that would make Martha Stewart blush. They arrange play dates and act as community organizers.  They have good hair and buy organic and vacation in places with beautiful blue water.

1. They are insane.

2. I call bullshit.

I sat in the audience yesterday at a conference listening to Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak, talk about being a writer. She talked about writing and life and anger and childhood and teaching and being yourself. She said,

“Speak the truth, even if it makes your voice shake.”

I had a revelation when I was listening to her. I don’t want balance. I want passion.

Heather Sellers writers:

“Successful book writers are very rarely also:  history society presidents, garden club secretaries, book group members, rumba instructors, feng shui consultants, yoga experts, and leaders of the town’s spring clean-up committee. When you’re writing a book, you do not have time for: meetings, grant writing, sonnet competitions , sprawling vacations, breeding dogs, or renovating the bathroom.” ~from Chapter after Chapter

The subtitle of this is  “Balancing Writing and Motherhood,” but who the hell am I kidding?

The only thing I balance is a plate of cheese and crackers as I ignore cobwebs and crying babies and go upstairs to sit at my computer and write.

The only thing I balance are teetering stacks of ungraded papers on top of books about how to write and novels I love to read and wish I could write.

The only thing I balance is a baby on one hip while I turn up the volume on Yo Gabba Gabba, stir the soup, dodge Legos, step on Cheerios, pour juice for my toddler, and pour myself another cup of coffee.

If you don’t like my house, my hair, the way I dress, the way I parent, or how I spend my time, frankly, I don’t want to know you.

I’m done with balance.

I’m done with waiting to give myself permission to be the writer and the person I want to be.

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…

Ah, sleep deprivation. I’d forgotten how bad it is. It’s a unique form of torture and I wish congress would pass a law to put a stop to it. Luckily for me, my little torturer is very cute, so I forgive her.

We are not accomplishing a lot around here lately, unless you consider eating too many carbs and downloading blogs to the Kindle to be an accomplishment. I can really pack away the egg sandwiches and spaghetti! I might write a new diet book: How To Lose The Pregnancy Weight…Never! As for blogs on the Kindle, what a revelation! I’ve been devouring books and novels, but figuring out how to subscribe to and read blogs has been life-changing. Reading other blogs always makes me want to be a better blogger.

So far this summer my days have been structured around feeding Aria, entertaining Oscar, trying to get enough work done at home to keep from getting fired, and struggling to keep the house from sliding into chaos.

I have a huge to-do list, which includes finishing a report for work, getting a chapter to my editor, catching up on prep and grading for my summer school class, prepping my fall classes, writing articles for this blog, taking pictures of my babies before they grow up, and doing something that resembles exercise.

I am aching to get back into my own writing. I miss writing. This blog calls to me. My novel calls to me. I’m finally beginning to stretch my creative brain in the sunlight after a long, cold winter and I’m starting to get ideas for articles, stories, and poems.

Now, if I could only get some sleep!

But Mr. Sandman brought me a dream more real and wonderful than any I could have imagined. He brought me this:

Early Riser

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.  ~Benjamin Franklin

I’ve always hated that quote.

It sounds so bossy and goody goody to me. I’ve never been a morning person. Night, when everyone has gone to bed, has always been my time, a time to read, reflect, and rest. I always get my second wind around 10:00 or 11:00 P.M. One of the reasons I went into academia was the possibility of setting my own hours, not being chained to the routine of 8:00-5:00. Because if there is anything I hate more than getting up early, it’s having to get dressed and drive somewhere early.

Recently, I’ve decided to revisit the possibility of getting up earlier. For me, it’s a process of trial and error. I’m finding that I absolutely love getting up at around 7:00, and I’m going to experiment with 6:30. For those of you who have to get up earlier than this for work, I sympathize and apologize if my quaint resolution fills you rage. I offer you this consolation: as a teacher my work is never done. There is always a pile of papers to grade or another class to prep. My inbox is always packed with student emails and advising questions. These things press on me even after I get home from teaching. I often fantasize about having a job that has no homework. A flexible schedule is nice, but it also comes with a price.

6:00 or 6:30 is my ultimate goal, because this will give me about two hours of solid writing time before Oscar gets up. This morning I got up at 6:55 and wrote nonstop for an hour. It was an astonishingly productive time.

Steve Pavlina recommends 5:00 A.M., as do many other self-help gurus, but I find that getting up too early ruins me for the rest of the day. I’m completely exhausted from about 10:00 A.M. on and can barely keep my eyes open after supper. So far, 6:30 is great. I haven’t pushed myself to get up at 6:00 yet, but I will. That, however, will be as early as I go.

I changed my mind for a variety of reasons. Most of the successful writers I know get up before their children. Sylvia Plath called it “the blue hour.” She wrote her best poems between 4:00 and 8:00 A.M. I can see why. I have found that this is really the only time when I can write without interruption, and constant interruption is death to good writing.

There’s another quote from Benjamin Franklin about the early morning. This one I like:

The early morning has gold in its mouth.


Fall is a season of harvesting, and giving thanks for the harvest. I am lucky to live with a gardener who brings all manner of wonderful vegetables into our home, after all of his hard work through the spring and summer.

I am also harvesting a lifetime of studying and working, having applied for tenure after five years of being tenure-track and after over ten years spent earning degrees. Now I wait, as the final decision for tenure won’t come until spring.

I am still working on my book about using new media in the language arts classroom. It’s a long, tedious, difficult learning process. I am lucky to have a kind, patient, and helpful editor.

Finally, we are expecting another baby in the spring! We are thrilled, but also anxious and hopeful that everything will go smoothly. If there was any child in this world who was meant to be a sibling, it’s Oscar.

I’m 14 weeks pregnant and due April 30, 2012.

Pencil Me In

I’ve been struggling lately to get done everything I need to get done. I need more time, but who doesn’t? I constantly admonish myself with that old adage, “We all get the same twenty-four hours.” Some people are just better at managing it than I am.

I think having a schedule will help me.

I was recently rereading one of my favorite old self-help books, Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want. The author, Barbara Sher, believes strongly in the power of a schedule. She believes you should schedule everything, including frivolous activities, or what she refers to as avoidance patters. For example, if you tend to surf the internet instead of writing or grading, she believes you should actually write it into your schedule. Pencil in an hour of grading followed by an hour of web surfing. Most of us don’t want to admit to our avoidance patterns, whether it’s napping, reading magazines, playing Facebook games, socializing, or whatever. She writes,

“Setting a definite and regular time for getting certain things done makes it much likelier that you will do them.”

I tend to live, not by a schedule, but by inclination and deadlines. This is a recipe for procrastination, stress, anxiety, and failing to achieve short and long-term goals. That’s because inclination is pretty fickle. For me, it usually goes like this:

  1. Collect papers
  2. Tell myself I have a week to grade them and so why not get started on reading that new novel I just picked up
  3. Stare at pile of papers all week, feeling anxiety in the pit of my stomach as I turn away from the pile and mindlessly read blogs to quell my anxiety
  4. Wait until the last possible minute to grade, staying up late, or grading frantically before class begins
  5. Lather, rinse, repeat

This is not a healthy cycle.

The idea is, if I have a week to get my grading done, maybe schedule 30-60 minutes each day to grade, followed by the frivolous activity of my choice.

I have a friend who schedules each week and each day, right down to when she wakes up, does dishes, tidies the house, feeds her son, etc. I am full of admiration for this, but it won’t really work for me, because I don’t have a consistent schedule. During the school year, I teach two days a week, have one class online, do drop-in academic advising, and travel to supervise student teachers. Some weeks I see student teachers and some weeks I don’t. Some weeks I have meetings and some weeks I don’t. On certain days, students will call or email asking for an appointment, and if I have time to squeeze them in I will make an effort to do so. Sometimes a colleague or student will drop by to chat.

So, I’m thinking of solving the problem by making a new schedule each week or even each night before I go to bed, blocking out certain times for writing and grading, and not allowing myself to be free during those times. It’s not a perfect solution, but one that I hope will work for me.

I would also love to set aside time to write very early in the morning, and very late in the evening, but this requires a kind of discipline I don’t know if I have. Maybe if I actually write it down, like Barbara Sher recommends, I will be more likely to do it.

How do you manage your time? Do you use a schedule or go with the flow?

A Day in the Life of Elephants

I spent the morning being very productive. How could it have all gone so wrong?

First, I answered a slew of work emails, most with dumb advising questions that as an undergraduate I never would have dreamed of asking a professor. I spend about two hours each day answering these types of emails, and for awhile today this led me to contemplate the downfall of civilization.

Then I had a brief conference call with two university colleagues. It went surprisingly well, and I said very smart and helpful things, which is rare for me. All the while Oscar ran around the house making elephant noises.

Then I crafted a long and quite stunningly well-written email for the two said colleagues, and they were suitably impressed. With a sense of accomplishment I moved on to scrub my toilet, because nothing else can make one feel as virtuous as cleaning the toilet. I cleaned the bathroom, vacuumed, dusted, washed dishes, made lunch, and tried to teach Oscar how to put together his rocket ship puzzle. He has already mastered his elephant puzzle, his new favorite toy, which I bought at Bookman’s for $1.

I got Oscar hooked on elephants to help him get over his previous obsession with whales. Why he is drawn to enormous mammals is beside me. At night, he sadly waves bye-bye to his elephant puzzle and falls asleep making elephant noises.

After Oscar was down for his afternoon nap I should have just kept going, should have never sat down, really. Even so much as sitting down while Oscar is napping is asking for trouble. But I couldn’t resist. I thought, I’ll just sit and read the latest issue of Good Housekeeping, the one with Heidi Klum on the cover. So I sat and read about how she single-handedly runs a multi-million dollar empire while raising four beautiful children which she could not possibly have carried and birthed from her perfect body. Worse, she’s one of those annoying celebrities who claims not to exercise or diet. She keeps in shape by “chasing her children.” These kinds of statements make me want to both laugh and cry. During the past two years I chased an extra twenty pounds onto my body. I guess I should have eaten more chocolate.

At some point I felt the seductive pull of the afternoon nap. The afternoon nap is a vice that should be listed right up there with being addicted to crack cocaine. It will destroy lives. One minute I’m snuggling up on the couch with a throw pillow and the next minute my day is completely over.

Now I’m drinking coffee to get rid of my post nap hangover, and contemplating my to-do list.

Rediscover Your Enthusiasm

Lordy, am I tired. Tired of work, tired of meetings, tired of diapers and dirty dishes. Sick to death of revising the same damn book proposal again and again. I’ve been writing this proposal since last March, when I wrote the first draft during my spring break. Since then it has been revised and resubmitted to my editor seven times. I no longer remember why I wanted to write this book in the first place.

Ask any writer, editor, publisher, or agent and they will tell you that success in writing and publishing is all about persistence. I believe that. I also believe that there must be hope for my book, or the editor would have rejected it outright. She has put tremendous time and energy into working with me on these revisions, which means she hasn’t given up on either me as a writer or on my idea. This gives me hope, but it doesn’t change the fact that I feel like I’m slogging through a lake full of concrete.

I need to reboot. I need to rediscover my passion, my enthusiasm, and my love for this project. Although I hate to admit it, I also need to focus and work harder than I have ever worked before. It’s time for me to dig deep and find it in me to revise this proposal once again and write this book once and for all.

The original meaning of enthusiasm is to be inspired or possessed by a divine presence. Some people go to church to be possessed by a divine presence. I read.

Specifically, I read about or watch movies about people who have achieved greatness.Watching the process that leads to excellence is when I am possessed by the holy spirit. Educator Sir Ken Robinson addresses this in one of speeches:

“An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak. When you’re present in the current moment. When you are resonating with the excitement of this thing that you’re experiencing. When you are fully alive.”

There are two things that are guaranteed to make me feel fully alive. One is reading great writing, and the other is writing. Lately, I have been reading about hard work, brutally hard work, and how it can lead to success. It’s an old-fashioned idea that’s making a comeback.

In Amy Chua’s controversial new parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother she argues that “nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” While I’m not here to debate the merit or lack thereof of her parenting strategies, I would agree with this quote while making one slight amendment. I would say that nothing is fun until you’ve practiced it consistently. For me, this has been true of everything from writing to running to video games to yoga. As a teacher, I would argue that many students hate reading because they don’t do enough of it. You have to be fluent, moving past the point of reading and decoding one word at a time, before you can get lost in a story.

The reason I struggle with writing, the reason it fills me with gut-wrenching anxiety, is because I don’t do enough of it. I don’t throw myself into it wholeheartedly, embracing the challenge and loving the fact that it’s hard. I recently read an amazing blog post titled, “Blood, Sweat and Words: How Badly Do You Want This?” in which the author talks about how Mark Wahlberg spent five years trying to get his movie The Fighter made, a movie that was just nominated for a number of Academy Awards, and that he trained as a boxer during that entire five year period. This reminded me of Natalie Portman’s performance in Black Swan, a movie that she trained for eight hours a day for over a year, starving herself and learning to dance as well as someone who had spent a lifetime learning ballet. Her award-winning performance is extraordinary, and I take strange comfort in reading interviews in which she says it was the hardest thing she ever did.

In Geoff Colvin’s book Talent is Overrated he argues that it takes ten thousand hours of hard work to master a skill at the level of a world-class performer. Working at it for three hours a day, that’s approximately ten years. I can’t think of anything that I’ve worked at consistently for three hours a day, except watching television.

It’s time for my writing apprenticeship to begin.

There’s an amazing scene at the end of Black Swan in which a dancer who doubted herself all along finally grows wings and becomes a swan. She is possessed by a divine spirit, she has enthusiasm.

I can’t wait to fly.