Getting Rejected and Other Fun Things About Publishing a Book

At the beginning of [chess], there are no variations. There is only one way to set up a board. There are nine million variations after the first six moves. And after eight moves there are two hundred and eighty-eight billion different positions. And those possibilities keep growing. There are more possible ways to play a game of chess than the amount of atoms in the observable universe. So it gets very messy. And there is no right way to play; there are many ways. In chess, as in life, possibility is the basis of everything. Every hope, every dream, every regret, every moment of living.

Matt Haig, The Midnight Library

What an analogy to life! You make a decision, thinking you know the outcome or the desired outcome or the correct outcome. We moved to Ecuador for our family to have a new experience and make a difference in our community and become bilingual. And while the first two are actively happening in wonderful ways we could not have predicted, the third is sliming along at a snail’s pace. Not what we imagined. I tell myself that the time and effort it is taking for all of us to learn Spanish might provide experiences and (embarrassing) memories that we will come to cherish. This time and effort might be making us into better humans. I can only hope so. Because if I don’t, my forehead will start looking for the nearest brick wall.

You might remember my announcing with great grandeur and flourish that I’m going to write a book, a terrifying but exciting decision. But I felt ready. I had the support and encouragement of a successful author and educational consultant. I had a good idea. I had the work ethic.

I sat at that chessboard knowing that my first move would be just that — the first move, of many. But I also knew that my first move would be the start of a game that I would win. And winning meant that I was going to publish this book. Not a bad way to play a game, knowing that you’re going to win and knowing what winning looks like.

So I got to work. I wrote, I edited, I pondered life’s mysteries, I drank coffee. I compiled my work into the required proposal format. I sent it off to a large educational publishing company with humility to know that it was my “reach” publishing company. No surprise, I received my first rejection letter a few weeks later. I was pretty sure my first move would result in this.

Oddly, I felt a sort of pride receiving this, knowing that most great authors out there have experienced rejection. I was all set for this rejection to be a wonderful chapter in my becoming a great author story. And, really, this big bad publishing company didn’t even know me. Why would they take a chance on a complete unknown author when they didn’t have to? Well anyway, I changed their message.

Jen
you
are
valuable.
we
are in
Development.

I created the closure for this rejection and moved on in stride. I went back to the proposal drawing board for the next company. Now this company — this company was the one my mentor recommended as a good fit for me and for the type of book I was writing. I pored over the proposal, checking everything. I didn’t want a single apostrophe out of place. Suffice it to say, I was very nervous submitting the proposal. I probably checked over the email and the attached proposal for 20 minutes before simply pressing that blue SEND (while holding my breath and twitching my toes).

In a few weeks, I received the reply.

You know, I felt like I had a knight-fork chess move going with those two publishing companies. Surely I would get one, but there was a countermove I hadn’t expected, and I lost my knight. (Steve helped me with this one: a knight-fork move is when a knight is attacking two pieces at the same time.)

Jen, you again

keep writing.
be
your best

Because losing my knight didn’t mean I was going to lose the game. I still had all my major pieces. I had my queen and two rooks (or if we care to remember the analogy to life — I still had my physical and mental health). I would keep playing and doing my best. But I was sad all the same. And that was OK.

Wipe the tears away . . . and ONWARD to the next publisher I go. I rewrote and reorganized my proposal to fit this publisher’s particular format and even added some details that I thought would help. Looking back, this third proposal really was the best. I had been so confident in my first proposal and then even more in my second, but those two rejections had forced me to see that my best hadn’t been that first or second proposal. It was my third. I was feeling good. Again I waited the several weeks for a reply, and when I saw it sitting unread in my email, I had butterflies. This could be good!

Neat. And, you’re welcome for the bit about the iPad and melatonin! How exciting that you liked that! So so great!

Sigh.

This trying-to-publish-a-book thing is not for the faint of heart. Luckily I have a nice strong heart. So that’s one thing goin’ for me. And a wee bit of creativity to bring me out of the black and white chess game for a little break.

We’re not
moving.
That was
you!

And speaking of movement, I remember another tidbit of advice Mrs. Elm, the wise librarian from The Midnight Library, gave to the hapless protagonist, Nora:

. . . a pawn is the most magical piece of all. It might look small and ordinary but it isn’t. Because a pawn is never just a pawn. A pawn is a queen-in-waiting. All you need to do is find a way to keep moving forward. One square after another. And you can get to the other side and unlock all kinds of power.

All you need to do is find a way to keep moving forward. And I’d humbly add to that: AND NOT GET CAPTURED BY THE ENEMY AND DIE. Simple yet powerful advice for playing with a pawn. And for living life. And for trying to publish a book in the time of COVID when publishing companies have had postponements and they’ve downsized and they’re only going with sure-deals and they’re only looking at known authors and
and
and
and.

Interestingly, two friends recently gifted me with the book Get to the Publishing Punchline, by Joy Eggerichs Reed. I devoured it. It was an easy, fun, funny read, and I enjoyed it. But it was discouraging, too. I read through all the advice Reed gave, and for most of it, I can say that I enthusiastically followed it. But just like reading a chess book can’t prepare you for every possible move you might need to make in a real game, reading a book about publishing didn’t help me for this particular move in this publishing game. But it might for the next move.

That is, when I figure out what that next move will be.

So that’s what’s on the agenda for me: stare at the chess board and do some serious thinking. Perhaps it’s time to pay a little more attention to my pawns.

And, hey, if you know of any good educational publishing companies out there, let me know. I’ll take all the help I can get.

There is always a time to say it with fresh eyes, a fresh voice, and, frankly, an alive voice. And if you are alive, and something is in you to write, get it out.

Joy Eggerichs Reed, Get to the Publishing Punchline: A Fun (and Slightly Aggressive) 30 Day Guide to Get Your Book Ready for the World

Grief and the End of the World — in Quito, Ecuador

The sting of a fly, the Congolese say, can launch the end of the world. How simply things begin.

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

Even though we are still lumbering through this pandemic — this pandemic that all simply began with one itty bitty bat (or an itty bitty pangolin, or an itty bitty lab leak) — when I read this quote from The Poisonwood Bible, I don’t think of a global pandemic that started with one infection and led to over three and a half million deaths.

I think of my own grief.

And when I realize this thought process of mine, I feel selfish. How can I possibly think of my personal grief when people are dying every single day in every single part of the world?

So I’m selfish. Because there are so many simple things that happen in the course of a day that launch me into the thick gray fog of grief.

Lately, everything reminds me of my mom.

When I tuck my legs up on the couch to read my book, I think of how my mom would tuck her legs up the same way.

Mini emotional breakdown right there on the couch.

Washing dishes the other night, I got to thinking about how my mom would keep her house so sparkly clean all the time.

Full, heaving sobs over the sink of dirty dishes and soap suds.

I made brownies tonight and was excited to add toasted walnuts to the batter. I remember my mom first discovering the magic that is brownies with walnuts and talking to me about it, going so far as to add a bag of them with a boxed brownie mix as part of a college care package.

Overwhelming sadness and nostalgia.

I sat down at the piano tonight to sing and plunk out the chords to Toto’s “Africa” and thought of how my mom wanted so badly for me to enjoy playing piano and here I was doing just that.

Fat tears. While I’m playing “Africa.”

When I watch old episodes of Call the Midwife, I think of how my mom would have absolutely loved watching that show with me.

Just miss her so much.

Typing that just now, thinking about how silly it is to be sad from watching some random TV show — a show that my mom was never even alive to watch — a fresh spring of tears to my eyes.

How simply things begin.

And while I don’t feel like it’s the end of the world, I do feel deep surges of anguish.

It’s been 12 years since I got to hang out with my mom, watching HGTV on her couch, walking over to downtown Sunnyvale to shop at the farmers market, grabbing lattes at Peet’s Coffee and talking about hopes and dreams.

Time has made things easier, and yet, at the flip of a switch, at any moment, tears can start rolling down my cheeks. I’ve accepted it. And I’ve learned some things about my own grief that might help you:

  1. Accept it for what it is and how it manifests. For me, it’s mostly tears — sometimes at inopportune times. Oh, well.
  2. Surround yourself with people who can handle it. And who care about you. The last thing you need is to be embarrassed about your grief.
  3. Don’t suppress it. I’ve found that my tears are pretty cathartic for me. Maybe they can be for you, too.
  4. Find outlets for your grief. Clearly one of mine is writing, as you know if you’ve been slinking around on my blog. Singing and playing piano is another. Reading books here and there about other humans experiencing grief has been helpful to remind me I’m not alone.
  5. Love others. Tight hugs and shared belly laughs can do wonders. But also being able to channel some of those deep, heavy emotions into love for other humans can be a boon.
  6. Do something that scares you. Perhaps a jump off a zip line tower. Or perhaps a telephone call to a dermatologist’s office to schedule an appointment — in Spanish.

This past Monday, I called a dermatologist’s office here in Quito. I was terrified. Speaking Spanish is already scary, but over the phone? I hate calling to make appointments in the States where I can speak English! But, as I mentioned, I’ve been watching old Call the Midwife episodes, and in one scene, one of the midwives is terrified to do her first solo birth. She knows that if she makes a mistake, a baby or mother could die. So when I started dialing that Ecuadorian phone number, I told myself, “NO ONE IS GOING TO DIE IF YOU MESS UP YOUR SPANISH.” And that made things a lot easier. Thank you, Call the Midwife.

But after I successfully made my appointment and got off the phone, I felt transcendent. I could fly! I could do anything! Silly, I know, but it sure put me in a happy mood.

So there you have it: a great way to deal with grief is to move to a country where you don’t know the language well and make an appointment over the phone. Let me know how it goes for you.

Until then, tuck your legs up on the couch and read a book. Or watch some BBC and have a little cry. Preferably with someone you love. Happy grieving, Friends.

I think my favorite part of this 17-year-old photo is that white-knuckled GRIP my mom has on my arm. Fierce is the love my mom had for me.

I’ve Had an Accident. So May You All.

I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

Listen 8:09

Never have I resonated with this more than now. (OK, well, maybe with the exception of middle school because that was a complete nightmare of no one knowing anyone.)

I left a great job teaching English literature at a school where I was loved and admired and known by students and teachers.

I moved to another country where I barely know how to communicate with other humans.

I am now a stay-at-home Zoom Mom.

Ah, how the mighty have fallen.

So I’m at home a lot these days. And Quito has just mandated stay-at-home orders for the next four weekends. I am not in a classroom, I am not teaching, I am not making lesson plans, I am not pestering my students about what books they’re reading. As a teacher, I am not known here. At all. I feel like I’ve lost part of my identity. But while I am sad that people here don’t know me and the skills I bring to the table, something exciting is happening.

I am learning new things. New doors are opening for me. Dormant skills are bubbling to the surface. Dare I say, I am getting to know myself better. And while it’s great to feel known by others, it’s also great to know yourself.

It’s funny that we float through life just assuming we know all there is to know about ourselves. We are the only ones with full access to our own brains, after all. But it’s scary how easy it is to simply flip off the switch, darkening most of that mass inside our skulls.

I have to stop and wonder what we’re missing here. If we don’t know ourselves, how are others supposed to know us? And don’t we desperately want to be known by others?

It took a seismic shift of events for me to realize that there’s more to me than being a teacher. And I bet it’s similar for most humans. Maybe for you.

I learned something new this week about the word “accident,” all because of my 9-year-old’s Spanish project that asked him to write about “coastal accidents.” My son and I were both very confused — coastal accidents, like shipwrecks? Natural disasters on the coast? We were struggling. Finally, after a desperate email to the teacher, we realized that the word “accident” refers to how various landforms come into being. A bay, for example, is formed through the erosion of rocks. In the Spanish language, this is considered an “accident” because erosion is not intentional. But go ahead and Google “Tortuga Bay, Ecuador,” and you tell me if that looks like an “accident.” I’d visit that accident any day of the week.

What a mindset shift to think of accidents creating beauty. And though leaving the teaching profession, moving to a new country, and becoming a Zoom Mom weren’t accidents, per se, they certainly were in line with a seismic shift of events. And let’s remember that during seismic shifts when tectonic plates collide (accident!), beautiful mountains are formed.

I am reminded of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen,” a poem about a man who floats through life, doing things and saying things and being things. He is “normal,” “sensible,” “proper,” “popular,” and even a “saint” — descriptors we’d probably appreciate being said about us. His life is smooth — no accidents. But when he dies, we realize — with horror — that no one even knew his name. No one even knew if he was free. Or if he was happy.

Go ahead and read the poem. Take your time.

The Unknown Citizen

W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378

This Marble Monument

Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

One against whom there was no official complaint,

And all the reports on his conduct agree

That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,

For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.

Except for the War till the day he retired

He worked in a factory and never got fired,

But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.

Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,

For his Union reports that he paid his dues,

(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)

And our Social Psychology workers found

That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day

And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.

Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,

And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare

He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan

And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,

A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content

That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;

When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.

He was married and added five children to the population,

Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.

And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

What a truly devastating poem. To go through your entire life, doing and saying and being all the things, only to die, in the abyss of obscurity.

It’s a reminder to us to live. To live in a way that we are known to others and to ourselves. And for that to happen we might have to endure some accidents. We might have to induce some accidents.

Leaving my profession, moving to another country, becoming a Zoom Mom — these things propelled me to dig deeper into what I have to offer to my community, to my family, to myself.

And digging deeper, I have discovered within myself something very exciting — something that has been waiting patiently for me.

That something? It’s a book. A book that I will write.

(I’m terrified. Maybe terrified like those tectonic plates when they were inching closer to each other, knowing they were going to collide and there was nothing they could do about it.)

When people look at my life after I die, I want them to see beautiful bays and mountains, knowing the erosion and shifting of tectonic plates it took to get like that.

Because sometimes it takes an accident to create something beautiful. And to be known.

How Not to Fall to Your Death: Climbing Life with No Ropes

But once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do a move or even an entire route, it’s like a tiny door opens inside your mind, and the belief that you can do it, that you will succeed, creates a powerful positive visualization.

Mark Synnott, The Impossible Climb

Listen 7:34

I don’t know a whole lot about rock climbing. But there’s something about those granite walls and cracks and slab pitches that lures me in. I don’t need to do it; I’m happy in my platonic voyeurism of the sport. And I admire the mental keenness it takes to get from ground to peak.

The context of this quote is that climbers can fail again and again and again on one particular move, but once they complete it, they’re likely to complete it every subsequent time. Synnott mentions a certain “warrior spirit” that enables climbers to give just a little more to succeed on the move. And when they keep coming up short? He says that it could feel like an intentional fail, called “punting” in the climbing world.

I want to have a warrior spirit.

But isn’t it interesting that a whole phenomenon exists where people intentionally fail? I have to wonder what that looks like off the wall.

For the longest time, I failed at writing. Intentionally. I was an English teacher teaching writing who didn’t write — not really. And the reason I didn’t write? Funny enough, fear of failure. So let’s climb through this, rock by rock, crack by crack: I taught writing without writing myself. The fear of failure (negative feedback, judgment from colleagues and students) kept me from it. But listen: the actual failure was not “turning on the faucet” — not writing that first sentence, and then that second one, and then the third, the fourth, and on. That first sentence for me was like that move on the granite wall that the climbers just couldn’t muster the spirit to do.

It seems silly comparing a sentence to the wrinkle of granite being used as a hand hold. Sentences don’t seem quite as scary — or dangerous. But in my bubble, I felt like I was on that wall, holding on for dear life, refusing to grab that granite wrinkle. I’d rather stay frozen, splayed to the side of the wall. No progress. But a feeling of safety.

I’d rather fail than take a chance on that move.

But just like some of the great rock climbers who scale a wall only after experiencing a traumatic event (watch the documentary The Dawn Wall to see Tommy Caldwell succeed only after heartbreak), it took a traumatic event at my school to finally light that fire under me.

I recently became “email friends” with Berit Gordon, and she mentioned that teaching is an “oddly lonely endeavor.” So true. We teachers don’t get much attention or validation from our peers. What validation we do get normally comes from the students themselves, which is great, but they’re not in charge of scheduling, pay raises, tenure, etc. So when I came back to school after taking maternity leave in the spring of 2019 to my department head demoting me, I was stunned. I would no longer be teaching my beloved AP Literature class.

There’s a whole messy story behind it, but suffice it to say, I was traumatized. And even though formal apologies were later made to me and I didn’t completely lose my AP class (I taught one section; a colleague taught another), the damage had been done. To liken my teaching to climbing, for years I felt like I was basically alone on the wall, taking care of myself, making sure I was taking all the safety precautions, successfully making my way to the summit. And I felt very confident in my abilities.

But then, in the middle of being alone on the wall, someone came out of nowhere and started fiddling with my rope, unclipping it from my harness, pulling it loose from the anchor. And then I was alone again. Without a rope. Scared. I was at the point where either I needed that warrior spirit or I was going to fall to my death.

Finally (finally), I decided to write. My starting a blog and putting my writing out there for the world (reality: tens of people) to read was my way of free-soloing the rest of my climb. No ropes, just me on the wall at my most vulnerable.

And did I mention that I’d never been on this particular wall?

But I’m making it up, trying to hold on to that warrior spirit, allowing that tiny door to open inside my mind. And let me tell you, it’s freeing. I don’t need to actually climb up a mountain wall sans ropes to feel liberated from the boundaries of this world.

And that’s the beauty of the analogy. What is rock climbing for you? What is that move you just can’t let yourself do in life? And do you realize that it’s you holding yourself back, failing intentionally? It’s a harsh reality, but one that we can face. And this difficult move you’re facing — you don’t have to wait for a traumatic event to happen to force you to make it. Alex Honnold free-soloed El Capitan without just having broken up with his girlfriend (he did wonder, though, if he was in the right headspace because his previous climbing feat was a result of a bad break-up).

So make the move. And live the rest of your life believing that you can do it, that you will succeed. Meanwhile, I’ll keep tapping the keys, wondering what my next move will be. Because, remember, I haven’t been on this wall before.

And neither have you.

Last weekend, my family and I went to El Refugio retreat center up in the mountains near Quito. The rock wall beckoned us, so we climbed. That’s me on the right and my 8-year-old son Asher on the left. We both made it to the top. With ropes.
At the top of one of the mountains. We didn’t have to rock climb to get up, but it was a feat nevertheless. No ropes.

Truth — What Is It Good For?

The baseboard may possibly have been loose because Roger had spent ten minutes kicking it, but for a man like Roger a truth is a truth, regardless of its cause.

Anxious People, Fredrik Backman

Listen 8:14

The truth is, there is a no-peeing sign posted in a public park we hiked to last weekend. More specifically, a FORBIDDEN TO URINATE! IN THIS PLACE sign with a pic of a dude takin’ a leak. But if that’s the only truth we have, it wouldn’t really show the whole picture. And the whole picture is that there must have been enough of a problem of people openly peeing in this particular area to justify the bureaucracy paying for, creating, and posting a sign.

It’s silly to think that people didn’t have at least a little (yellow) influence on the posting of that sign.

It’s silly to think that by kicking and kicking and kicking Roger didn’t cause the baseboard to become loose.

There is action. And then there is reaction. Kicking the baseboard –> loose baseboard. Peeing on the fence –> posted sign on the fence.

It’s silly to think that we can kick and pee without taking any responsibility. Truth is there, but that doesn’t mean that a human didn’t kick or pee it into existence.

So I want to focus on those truths that come about because of human action.

I start thinking about the upcoming US election and the debates and the pandemic and the protests and the fires and the conspiracies. All of those came about from human action.

  • The election: constitutional framers trying to create a democracy
  • The debates: people realizing that the public would be interested in hearing the candidates talk about controversial topics
  • The pandemic: person to person spreading
  • The protests: people taking a stand against systemic racism among other things
  • The fires: human-influenced climate change (oh, and a gender reveal party that used pyrotechnics — WHOOPS)
  • The conspiracies: um . . . people with too much time on their hands? I don’t know on this one.

When we pee all over the place and then refuse to believe that we had anything to with the sign going up, what happens to truth? The truth is the sign. With no context. And that’s confusing.

Before 1950, carbon dioxide had never reached over 300 parts per million. Now it’s at over 400. It’s silly to think that big-truck-driving humans have nothing to do with that number (and neither do the cattle farting it up in the human-designed, human-built factory farms). Right?

What a life of luxury we must have to sit on our leather armchairs waving away all responsibilities of our actions and entertaining all of the conspiracy theories.

But guess what? We don’t have to be like kick-the-baseboard Roger. And we certainly don’t have to pee in public parks.

Because even if we doubt truth or get confused about truth or get swayed to distrust the truth, we can still be good humans.

Good humans take responsibility for their actions.

Better humans take action because of their responsibility.

I get it. The truth seems to be sitting on shifting sands. So we try our best. We don’t waste the precious time we’ve been given on this beautiful earth by retweeting the Babylon Bee actually believing that Twitter has shut down “Entire Network To Slow Spread of Negative Biden News.” As a quick aside, let’s remember that Babylon Bee is a satirical news site.

What is one to do, though, when it seems that all the messages careening towards us are designed to twist and spin and distort and dismay?

Here’s what I do. Maybe you might resonate with these ideas, too:

  • Instead of doomsday scrolling, go outside and take a walk in nature. Breathe in fresh air. Look at the expansive sky. Realize how very small we are in the universe. Then look down at your fingerprints and appreciate yourself as a unique being.
Where I got to go outside today. Ecuador, I love you, even though I couldn’t really see the expansive sky through the fog.
  • Instead of YouTube rabbit-holing, grab a notebook and write. Grab a book and read. Grab some string and make art from a random wooden frame you have lying around in the apartment, left by the previous tenants. Exercise. Work with your hands.
  • Instead of fretting over politics, think about what you can vote for right now with your money. Yesterday at our little local grocery store, Santa Maria, I bought flour packaged in fabric scraps sewn together. For me, avoiding plastic packaging is a huge win. I voted with my money when I purchased my bags of flour. It’s just a small act, but it’s something — and something is certainly better than nothing. It’s also better than doomsday scrolling, YouTube rabbit-holing, and fretting over politics.

(Important qualification: Vote with your money, yes. But please, please also vote in the election.)

  • Lastly: LOOK UP. Look up from your screens. Look up from your bias. Look up from your carefully curated construct of life. Look up so that you can see others that may need your help.

I really do believe that when we are face to face with the truth of people who need help, we help. It’s just that it’s so easy to sink deeper into the leather armchair, looking down at our screens, losing sight of reality — bit by iPhone bit.

“Lifting your eyes from the things of this world is an activity that must begin WHERE YOU ARE.”

K.P. Yohannan

So look up, get up, and go do something good.

The truth? We can be good humans. Let’s start there.

Here are a few be-good resources:

  • International Justice Mission, “a global organization partnering with local justice systems to end violence against people living in poverty.”
  • Education Equals Hope, a mission dedicated to providing “for the education of those living in desperate and difficult situations” in Ecuador, Rwanda, Kenya, and Haiti.
  • Us! We are mindful to vote with our money, and we vote to support the local people here in Quito whenever and wherever possible.

Sourdough, Love, and Life (And an Oxford Comma, of Course)

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” –Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

So I’m making bread today. And I say “making,” not “baking,” because the actual baking of the bread will happen tomorrow morning. Let’s just say that making bread is a process — for me, a process that normally takes around 24 hours. But about six years ago when I popped that first loaf out of the oven, I was hooked. I’ve been baking sourdough bread just about every weekend since.

And I confess: I really wanted to write about bread today. So I “cheated” and found this quote on Goodreads. I haven’t read the book (yet!!), but it is definitely on my “to-read” list. (Quick update: I FINALLY finished Dance of Thieves for those of you who remember the promise I made on this post.)

Taking a quick look at the quote itself, the Literary Prude English Teachers of America (LPETA, for those of you who don’t remember) would be simply appalled. It’s clearly a run-on. “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone” –> independent clause. “it has to be made, like bread” –> independent clause. What connects the two? JUST a comma? THE HORROR. Any self-respecting, English-speaking human knows that a comma by itself cannot connect two independent clauses. AND THAT’S NOT EVEN WHERE THE SENTENCE ENDS! Le Guin then goes ahead with a semicolon (LPETA, deep breaths here), and what follows is a fragment. (OK, I’m — proudly — not a part of the LPETA, but this punctuation makes even my English-teacher blood pressure go up just a bit.)

So here’s the deal: Look up Le Guin, and you’ll see that she’s clearly a very intelligent, very prolific author. Her books have extremely high reviews, and she has the kind of readership who reads her books more than once.

Well.

I will say it’s yet another reminder to me as an English teacher to SETTLE DOWN when it comes to following all grammar and punctuation rules ever in existence (more about being a rule-following robot here). And if you’ve ever experienced my correcting your grammar (i.e., if you’ve ever said “I just want to lay down . . .” *shudder*), here we go . . . I’m sorry. But I will say this: in a weird way, if I correct you, it’s like a compliment. It means that I consider you a true friend — one who can laugh or shrug it off and continue putting up with me.

But back to the delicious bread. As I mentioned, it’s quite the long process. I use what’s called sourdough starter (fermented flour and water) as the leavening agent (i.e., what makes the bread RISE). Because I don’t use commercial yeast, the entire process takes longer. My basic timeline typically consists of the following:

  • In the morning, take my starter out of the fridge and “feed” it equal weights of flour and water.
  • When the starter has fermented and bubbled and doubled in size (around midday for me in the heat of a Florida summer in a house that is always quite warm because I married a man who likes to save money and the thermostat is one way he does that), I start putting bread ingredients together: water, starter, white flour, whole wheat flour (lately I’ve been on a spelt kick; 10/10 recommend), salt, and perhaps some seeds or other whole grains if I’m feeling particularly clever.
  • Mix all that together and then let it sit for around 6 hours, stretching it about every hour.
  • So at around 7 pm, let’s say, I dump out the dough onto the counter and form it into balls. Balls on my kitchen counter. It’s a treat. I let the balls sit for about a half an hour.
  • Then I shape the balls according to the proofing container I’ll be using.
  • I put the shaped dough into the proofing basket and the loaf pans, and I let that sit for about another hour.
  • Then I stick the basket and the pans into the fridge to slowly continue proofing until the morning.
  • The next morning, I bake!

Repeat every weekend. Whew! I’ll tell you, it’s certainly not difficult, but there is also definitely a learning curve. I’ve been baking for years now, and I still don’t get super consistent loaves from week to week. I can understand that for some of us, the lack of consistency (especially when doing something we’ve done hundreds of times before) would drive us mad. (Quick pause here: I did the math, and baking an average of three loaves every week for 6 years adds up to 936 loaves. What a great number, by the way — all numbers divisible by 3.)

UPDATE: As I am working on this blog post, my dough is in the I’m-stretching-every-hour stage, and WOW is the dough wet! I keep looking back at the recipe, making sure I weighed everything out correctly — and I did. SO WHO KNOWS.

But that’s life, isn’t it. If we think about it, what we have the most experience doing is living life. And life is most definitely inconsistent. Sometimes plans turn out with wonderful (maybe even delicious) results. I like to think of those times like my loaves that come out with a nice rise, open crumb, and crisp crust. Sometimes plans turn out with awful results. Those times would be my loaves that come out looking like glorified pancakes instead of artisan sourdough.

But here’s the delicious part of it all: even when my loaves come out flat, the bread always tastes good. I have to remind myself of that when I start getting uppity about how my loaves look. (Speaking of which, I am a wee bit nervous today because I do plan on bringing a loaf to school tomorrow to share with the English department. So as I am in the process of making my 937th loaf of bread, I’m nervous. And actually, I think that’s OK.)

And apart from the bread always tasting good, I’m constantly learning and tweaking (tweaking, not twerking). So it’s a win-win for me.

It’s how I try to live my life.

It’s how I try to love.

Like Le Guin says, love has to be made and remade and made new. It’s not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of deal. I don’t dump my ingredients into a bread machine to have perfect loaves pop out. I take my time with the dough. I use my hands. I come back to it again and again. I let it rest. I help shape it. And at the end of it all, it’s still going to do what it wants.

So whether you’re baking bread, loving another human, or living life, there’s a lesson here. Do expect a process. Don’t expect consistent results. Do expect a learning curve. Don’t expect to become an expert. Do try your best anyway.

And my hope for you today and always is that even if your bread doesn’t quite come out the way you’d hoped or planned, it still tastes good.

Good bread, good love, and good life to you. (And now I’m up again to stretch my dough.)

Sourdough Bread Resources:

  • Bread Baking for Beginners, by Bonnie Ohara: This one is best for beginners who are OK with starting the learning process by using commercial yeast. The book is in order of easiest to most difficult breads, and it has great step-by-step instructions that anyone can understand. I don’t own this one, but I borrowed it from the library and read it cover to cover like a novel. I ate it up!
  • Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, by Emilie Raffa: This is good for intermediate level to advanced bread-bakers. Every recipe in the book uses sourdough starter, so you’ll want to make some or get your hands on some. I own this book, and I’ve been using it as of late. I love it.
  • Tartine Book No. 3, by Chad Robertson: This one is for the bread foodie, the broodie. I’d recommend it for the more advanced bread baker. I read this one like a novel and felt a genuine understanding and love for sourdough after reading it. It has lots of background information on the history of sourdough along with interesting tid-bits about different types of whole wheat flours. The recipes are more difficult mostly because they call for a higher ratio of wheat flour. I felt kind of snobby reading this one. Which was kind of fun for a crisp minute. I own this one and find myself coming back to it every now and again.
  • Me! I always have sourdough starter to share, and it makes my heart happy when someone actually wants to give sourdough bread baking a try.

Be an Idiot! (Sometimes.)

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” –Bill Gates–

Spotting this quote on a wall at a pizza joint called Pieology, I immediately resonated with it and committed it to memory. I have a quote board in my classroom, and I was excited to share the quote with my students. I wanted to talk to my students about why Bill Gates would have said it and how it relates to their lives. I hoped that by someone famous — that, and anyone other than me — saying these words, the students would finally get it: success isn’t the end all.

And in fact, success can actually be harmful. If we float through life bobbing from one success to the next, when we do (inevitably) lose, we might just lose our minds (and drown, to continue the analogy). My students are hard working, grade oriented, and college bound, and they like to think that they don’t have time to lose or to fail. But I try (SO HARD) to help them understand that failures here and there actually help us learn to be better.

(So that’s one of those things that’s easier said than done.)

Because at the end of the day, who in their right mind actually wants to fail at something (a test in physics that brings the overall grade down)? And then have the failure documented (on a report card)? And then have that (report card) never go away? And then have that (grade on the report card) ruin our chances of getting into a good college which will then squash any hope of having a decent career which in turn will make us totally disgusting to a potential future partner which will of course lead to our dying alone in a ditch with not a dime to our name? All from failing one test in physics.

My sweet students. This is how they think. Now don’t misunderstand: I don’t advocate failing tests. What I do advocate is failing-but-learning-from-the-failure on the small stuff here and there leading up to the test and then acing the test! Again, easier said than done.

Alas, what can be done?

It’s difficult being a teacher (who gives grades) to tell my students to fail sometimes. I don’t want to see failing grades on any of their reports either. But ever since they started school in PreK, we’ve been judging them on how well they do everything and assigning grades. In PreK it may not be grades, but there is probably still a report card comparing the kiddos to some golden standard. Then all the way through school, students are assessed and assessed and assessed until it’s ingrained in them to do what they need to do to get the “A.”

What a pain in the ass(essment).

And who can blame them? It’s the system we’ve set up for them! I’ll get students coming into my 9th grade class who have never gotten below an “A.” They end up with an “A-” in my class, and they hardly know what to do with themselves they’re so distraught. It’s easy for me to scoff at them and tell them what a good lesson you’re learning in my class or you’ll thank me some day for this or simply you’re welcome, but the more I teach and the more I live, the more I feel for the students.

They are simply doing what they’ve been taught to do. And when it doesn’t work out for them, it’s tough. They don’t know what to do. They might get mad or bitter. They might lose self confidence. They might start experiencing anxiety or even depression. It’s not a good situation.

This is where it is so important for teachers and parents and other good humans to walk alongside our students and help them. Be there for them when they fall. Help them back up. Turn them in the right direction. Give them a little push. Share with them our failings. Be real. Be humble. Laugh together if possible. And continue to remind them of the folly of success and the benefit of failure.

And for those students who somehow get through all of school without getting any failing grades, well, therein lies the danger that Gates references: the seduction. It is definitely seducing to think that we can’t lose.

Seducing, but totally unrealistic.

If you know me, you know I’m a confident person. I’m a confident teacher to my students and a confident employee to my school. I do consider my professional life to be a success, and I’m happy about it. But I guess it’s here that I might veer just a bit from the Gates quote to say this: just because we experience success doesn’t mean that we’re not experiencing failures along the way. And if not failures, experiences that we can use to avoid complacency and keep us humble. So as a teacher, teaching from year to year to year, how do I stay fresh? How do I stay humble?

(1) First, I am mindful never to think or assume that I am the smartest person in a room, or even the classroom.

(2) I have learned that even if I feel 100% certain about something, to leave some room for doubt, especially when it’s giving a student the benefit of the doubt. If a student says he turned something in, and I just know he didn’t, I invite the student to check again on his end and I’ll check again on mine. There have been times that the student is right and I am — gasp — wrong. But when I can refrain from coming at students, all guns blazing, knowing I’m right and they’re wrong, I find I’m able to maintain respectful and professional relationships with the students, regardless of who’s wrong.

(3) I try to use the embarrassing moments in the classroom as laughable learning experiences for me. Here’s one:

In my AP Lit class one year, we were discussing Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and came across a lovely outdoor scene with this sentence:

“Yet this mildewed leaf in the sturdy and flourishing Casterbridge plant lay close to the open country; not a hundred yards from a row of noble elms, and commanding a view across the moor of airy uplands and corn-fields, and mansions of the great.”

Oh man, I just knew there was significance here. I especially thought the word “mildewed” had some deeper meaning that we should explore. I was trying to get the students to pay attention to the word and said it out loud a few times. The problem here is that I was not seeing that word as the past tense of the word “mildew.” Nope. I saw it as some weird, new-to-me vocabulary word. And it was, in my mind, a three-syllable word pronounced “mil-deh-wed.” One sweet girl timidly raised her hand to say, “Um, Mrs. Knapp, I think that word is pronounced ‘mil-dude.'” When the realization hit me, I simply had to shake my head in defeat and say, “Yes. Yes it is. You are right. That’s embarrassing.”

Well whoops.

But now it’s a story I often tell my students, and we laugh together about it. And let me tell you, there’s something very humbling about making such a dumb mistake — mispronouncing a word — in front of the smartest students in the school.

(4) I read. I read books the students are reading, and I read professional development books, and I read articles on psychology and education. I embrace new ideas and implement them. Sometimes they’re great! And sometimes they’re not! But I’m trying and I’m changing and I’m never stagnate. I think that’s what Gates means about success — that when it becomes a stagnate success, there’s trouble (right here in River City). I’m reminded of the quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when Brutus is talking to himself (as characters in Shakespeare often do) and is wondering if when Caesar becomes successful, he’ll turn his back on everyone who helped him and get lost in the clouds of success:

“But ’tis a common proof that lowliness is young ambition’s ladder, whereto the climber upward turns his face. But when he once attains the upmost round, he then unto the ladder turns his back, looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees by which he did ascend.”

It’s certainly easy to be seduced by success. And if we’re fortunate enough to consider our lives to be pretty successful, we have to be mindful to avoid complacency and to stay humble. As the wise Kendrick Lamar once said, “Sit down . . . be humble.”

So go ahead: Be an idiot sometimes! Make mistakes! Lose! But make sure that there’s movement — and that the movement is towards something good.

In closing, I’ll tell you that this post was the most difficult one I’ve written. I never felt the ideas flowing, and I had to keep coming back to it again and again to refine. And at one point (to be exact, when I had written 897 words), I decided to scrap the entire thing and start again. It couldn’t have been a better lesson for me in failing. I was frustrated and impatient. But I kept at it, and now I’ll publish this post. I still don’t think it’s my best work.

But there’s the beauty: we do our best, but we always believe we can do better. (See my other post: “Are you a human? Then do better.”) So if you take anything from this entire post, take this:

Avoid complacency.

Stay humble.

Fragments: A Lesson in Writing and in Life

“And then, the vague flicker of a lightbulb.” –Kate Morton, The Lake House

I’m really enjoying reading this book right now, and when I came across this sentence, I had to stop. I loved it. I love that it’s a fragment — that it defies conventions. I love that the sentence structure itself mimics the thought process of having an idea — the quickness, the fleetingness. I love that it’s its own paragraph. (Here’s a quick aside about the beauty of the English language and the art of writing: never in my life can I recall having written “it’s its.” It was satisfying to write in an odd sort of way.) And if you’ve gotten to know my writing style, you’ll know that I love that it starts with a coordinating conjunction.

The Literary Prude English Teachers of America do not approve this message.

And that’s why I have to write it.

When I became an English teacher fresh out of undergrad, I would occasionally email one of my high school English teachers to chat about lesson plans and ideas (and hopefully to get into my grimy little hands ANYTHING he would give me to help in those first few years). Because I was, at that point, An English Teacher, I was nearly paralyzed even just writing an email to him. What if I left out a comma? What if I didn’t write in complete sentences? THE HORROR. I wanted to communicate in a casual way, yet I found my sentences stilted. I didn’t really sound like me. I was terrified that if I wrote a fragment or broke whatever other fill-in-the-blank Convention of Standard English rule, he’d see right through me. And that I wouldn’t be worthy of being An English Teacher. I opted to write in complete sentences, and to keep the emails short.

There’s a reason it’s called “the writing process”: it’s long; it’s ongoing. It took YEARS before I felt comfortable enough to write emails to my former English teacher and colleagues in my voice as a writer. The Literary Prude English Teachers of America (LPETA) had been strangling me, and I had to bring myself back to freshman year P.E., in the sweaty wrestling room where I learned self-defense, to get those prudes off my neck. And when I did, I tasted the glorious fresh air of being a writer with stylistic freedom. (I also realized that my former English teacher and colleagues weren’t going to scoff at me. They’d respect my voice; they’d respect my confidence. And if they didn’t? Well, then, they must have joined the LPETA at some point. And frankly I feel sorry for them. That, or I made a legitimate mistake in my writing. So I learn, (try to) stay gracious, and move on.)

Writing with stylistic freedom is all well and good. But what about standardized tests? What about AP English tests? Wa wa wa.

Listen:

If you can manage to learn the basics — parts of speech, sentence parts, grammar, and punctuation (OK, when I write it all out, it seems like a lot) — you can break the rules. But hear me when I say this:

Know the rules.

To break the rules.

So yes, there’s work involved at the student level. (PAY ATTENTION IN SCHOOL, KIDDIES!) But if you can hang in there in English class and learn the rules, you’ll be able to break them!

AND BREAKING RULES IS FUN!

Not only that, I’ve read many a post about AP English readers coming back from grading 5 gazillion essays from the exams saying that they appreciate a fresh style from the students. It makes sense: why would they want to read stilted formality all stuffed into a five-paragraph marshmallow from 5 gazillion students? GAG ME. Hear this piece of advice from AP reader Conni Shelnut:

. . . both writers and readers get bored when everything is formulaic, lacking some individual pizzazz! I suggest asking them to experiment with different sorts of syntactical devices to help them develop a sense of style.

An Exam Reader’s Advice on Writing

I was lucky enough to attend a session that Conni led, and she encouraged us to encourage our students to write without feeling like the LPETA is lurking over their shoulders, breathing foul, hot breath onto the back of their left ear. (Odd: for whatever reason I first wrote “fowl” instead of “foul.” I don’t know why. But when I caught it, I have to say it gave quite a nice image of old women in turtlenecks breathing out ducks that then waddled onto students’ left shoulders. Writing is fun. Sometimes mess-ups are fun, too.)

And speaking of mess-ups:

It’s now time to talk about life!

I don’t know about you, darling, but it’s simply exhausting being perfect all the time. I’m sure I don’t know how I do it. (But here’s a picture I’ll put on my Instagram story of my messy laundry room just to show you how “real” I am.) Sigh.

I actually don’t know how to be perfect. DUH. Newsflash: no one is perfect, and neither is their writing. (LPETA, I acknowledge the pronoun-antecedent disagreement and will say this: I don’t want to assume “one’s” gender, and “his or her” is awkward and binary and I JUST DON’T LIKE IT.)

And if you didn’t catch it, Instagram influencers aren’t perfect.

Here’s the deal: We don’t live in complete sentences. Our lives are rough drafts (more about that here: Ernest Hemingway and Shitty First Drafts). One day might be a nice, full-bodied compound-complex sentence, but the next? A one-word sentence. A one-word sentence that is its own paragraph. (That’s a day of only folding laundry, for sure. “Folding clothes, / I think of folding you / into my life.”) But just as the next sentence will come in writing, the next day will come in life.

And I think it’s good to acknowledge that not all the sentences we create are great. Not all the days we live are great. But the potential in each is undeniable.

We are the creators of our lives. How cool is that? Each day we get up and get to decide how we’ll live. Will we hit the snooze button again? Will we go to school? To work? Will we follow rules? Break them? Will we have a good attitude even when we want to punch someone in the face? Will we advocate for ourselves? For others? Will we mess up?

I am reminded of the William Ernest Henley poem “Invictus.” Though Henley’s situation was probably worse than ours (he was diagnosed with tubercular arthritis when he was 12, which led to amputation of one of his legs; and his dad died when he was a teenager), we can still resonate with the perseverance and strength of the human spirit that he so masterfully conveys in his poem. Please take the time to read this (maybe even twice). It’s really good:

Out of the night that covers me, 

Black as the pit from pole to pole, 

I thank whatever gods may be 

      For my unconquerable soul. 

In the fell clutch of circumstance 

      I have not winced nor cried aloud. 

Under the bludgeonings of chance 

      My head is bloody, but unbowed. 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears 

      Looms but the Horror of the shade, 

And yet the menace of the years 

      Finds and shall find me unafraid. 

It matters not how strait the gate, 

      How charged with punishments the scroll, 

I am the master of my fate, 

      I am the captain of my soul. 

Damn. That’s some good perspective for us right there. In the face of adversity, he chooses strength. And though he might not have strength of body, he has strength of spirit.

So as we continue to create sentences and life (zeugma, check it), let’s be strong, show humility, laugh at ourselves occasionally, and allow for mess-ups. Let’s learn the rules. Let’s break the rules. Let’s find our voice.

And write fragments sometimes.

Ghosts . . . And the Power of a Good Sentence

“The ghosts are still here.”

Well I’m hooked. What a fun first sentence from Dance of Thieves by Mary E. Pearson! I’m especially glad because this is a book that I am otherwise not drawn to. I’ll be honest: I just don’t care for the fantasy genre. But I’m reading it because I’m a high school English teacher, and I know I need to be familiar with all genres. There’s nothing better than being able to know my students and figure out a book they’d like.

And more than once, I’ve had students come to me first thing in the morning to tell me that they read the book (woo hoo!) and loved it (what??). It is the best.

Anyway, thank you, Pearson, for writing a great first sentence. The eerie simplicity of the sentence surely foreshadows the complexity that is to come. We’ll see! I will read the entire book, I promise.

So why a blog post about first sentences? Because they are fascinating! Think of some of your favorite books, and go look up the first sentence. You’ll be surprised at how much goes into that sentence, and sometimes you realize how much only after you finish the book. Do something for me right now:

Open up whatever book you’re reading right now, and write the first sentence in the comments below.

I’ll also share the first sentence from the other book I’m currently reading: How Not To Die, by Michael Greger (a must-read, by the way). Here’s his first sentence:

Imagine if terrorists created a bioagent that spread mercilessly, claiming the lives of nearly four hundred thousand Americans every year.

Pretty good, right? Especially for a book that basically goes through research studies that have been done on diet and disseminates them. Maybe not the kind of writing style you’d choose for a summer read. (Side-note: Yes, this book dumps a ton of information on you, but I have been quite impressed with the writing style. I genuinely enjoy reading it.) And if you’re wondering, Greger uses the first sentence as a lead to his chapter on coronary heart disease and how many lives it takes each year (you guessed it: nearly four hundred thousand).

There’s so much riding on that first sentence.

I can imagine authors wanting to give up before they’ve even begun.

And that’s how I felt about starting a blog. I hemmed and hawed and fretted . . . and worried way too much about what other people thought. It was only when I decided to write for myself that my fingers relaxed enough to tap keys and form sentences. And if other people read it? Bonus! (Two of my friends scoffed when I told them I had started a blog: “Ten years too late!” . . . “It’s only podcasts now.”)

But what I’m discovering is that if I write about something deeply important to me, more than likely someone out there will resonate. And even if it’s just one connection, it’s something. That’s special.

And you know what else? The written word is a beautiful thing. I would be a hypocrite to believe that and not be writing on a regular basis. In fact, one reason I started a blog is I felt convicted to. I’m in the classroom every day telling my students all about the beauty and importance of writing when I’m not disciplined enough to be doing it? (Note: For me, journal writing wasn’t enough. I needed something to be published. And whether or not I have a readership, I need to know that others might read what I write.)

But back to first sentences. Hey, are you a teacher? Do you have kids? Do you talk to other humans? Talk about first sentences. What clues do they contain? What words? What’s the verb? What kind of sentence is it? Is there imagery there? Does it belie what’s to come? (Thinking of Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” here: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.” OK, Jackson, we see you. Spoiler: MURDER AHEAD.) What’s the vibe (in teacher terms, “mood”) of the sentence? Is it narration? A character speaking? Ah, I love teaching. (Can you tell?) I love how Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea begins with a compound sentence sans comma (gasp!). Take a look:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

SO MUCH TO TALK ABOUT HERE! So much, in fact, that perhaps I will use this first sentence as an essay prompt for my 9th-grade students at the beginning of the year (they read Old Man — and a YA novel — for summer reading). First of all, the sentence is a mouthful, stuffed with prepositions, an adjective clause, and two independent clauses — all with no pause (no comma) to take a breath. Taking that into consideration when looking at the mostly-negative diction (“old,” “alone,” “without”), we can feel the immensity of something here. Futility? Despair? Loneliness? (Spoiler: it’s none of those.) And now I’m excited all over again to reread it this summer.

But maybe what I most appreciate about first sentences is the application to life. Starting my blog was one of my first sentences, but there have been many in my life. Deciding on my master’s degree. Working in retail to pay the bills. Teaching that first day. Deciding to have children. Having first child. Some sentences have been better than others, but even the terrible ones are beautiful because we learn from them.

Life is pretty cool like that.

And as we continue living (and getting better at it), we learn how to get better at our first sentences. I like thinking about what it is I love about actual first sentences of books and applying those same qualities to my first sentences of life. So in that way, I like to go forward in new directions in life feeling:

  • Confident
  • Strong
  • Well-equipped
  • Efficient
  • Vulnerable

So — whether you’re a reader or not — take a moment and thank those first sentences of books for the life lessons they provide. They teach us to be confident, strong, well-equipped, efficient . . . and vulnerable.

They teach us that sometimes simplicity is best.

That sometimes you don’t realize the significance until the end of the book.

Wanna Write? Turn On the Faucet.

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” –Louis L’Amour–

What a great visual to the writing process! Through the analogy, L’Amour gives some simple advice for all the writers out there: just start.

I have thought about blogging for years now. I have put it off and put it off — and I don’t even really know why. But isn’t that like us all? Oftentimes in life we don’t even have solid reasons for what we do (and don’t do).

I blame it on the Keep-Your-Life-So-Busy-You-Don’t-Have-Time-To-Think Syndrome, KYLSBYDHTTT Syndrome for short. As Chandler Bing would say, “Could we have busier lives?” Even when we are forced to take a break from life (sitting down for a quality poo for one example), we still take our phones with us! And I bet there are people out there who have checked their phones mid shower. So when we’re not scrolling on the phones, why do we feel the need to fill our lives with so much work and so many activities?

What is our busyness actually preventing us from doing?

I remember years ago when I worked at Pier One Imports, my manager would talk to me about how she wanted to lose weight but hated going on walks. She hated walks, she said, because when she walked, she would think. And then she’d get sad. So instead, she kept her life busy working extra shifts, singing in the community choir, and reading books at Barnes and Noble. Working and singing and reading were certainly not paving her road to Hell, but they were keeping her from facing reality. When the activities we do are good (and maybe your activities include working out — great!), we justify doing them — even if they are preventing us from really thinking about our lives.

But why is introspection so avoided and feared? Perhaps when we look inward we begin to realize that things aren’t 100% OK (this is reality, people). And then what? I see two potential responses here:

  1. We accept that things are not OK in our lives and just keep living, knowing things could (should) be better.
  2. We make changes. We make changes so that we can have better lives.

Clearly the second response is better. But change is hard. It takes effort. And honestly? It’s easier to just stay busy, which is what most people do.

But we don’t have to be “most people.”

So in our thinking/introspecting/writing journey, the first step is to be less busy. Let’s give our brains a chance! And as L’Amour references the faucet, I think it starts in the bathroom.

I’ll tell you, as a teacher, I come up with some of my best ideas when I’m sitting on the pot (sans phone) or taking a shower (also sans phone). So I really appreciate the analogy of turning on the faucet — and in my mind it’s the shower faucet. Here’s a beautiful thing about our brains: they don’t really ever turn off (well, maybe if you watch The Bachelorette). It’s no wonder that mankind has accomplished such feats century after century. It’s like God created our brains to be faucets that are always turned on, water running. But sometimes it seems we’re doing everything we can to turn the faucet off. Here’s how:

  • being phone zombies
  • being TV/computer/iPad screen zombies
  • scheduling our days to be full of activities
  • using our kids to justify scheduling our days to be full of activities
  • working ridiculous hours
  • always being with people
  • cleaning house

I am totally guilty of several of those, and I think they probably prevented me from starting this blog years ago. The thing is, there are always going to be activities that we prioritize over quiet reflection. Right now I could easily be vacuuming my house. With two furry dogs and three (not furry) boys, the floors in my house sometimes feel like a walk on the beach — a sandy yet furry beach. But I’ve decided to (try to) ignore the floors and let my fingers tap keys.

Writing, like reading, is something I think every human should do. It’s amazing what happens when we force ourselves to write. I preach this to my students all the time (after nagging “Keep your pencil moving!” during various writing activities). Often with writing, we can’t predict where we’ll go. I normally write with my students, and even after 14 years of teaching, as I write about a passage from a book we’re reading, I find myself analyzing it in ways I never would have predicted had I not written down my thoughts in sentences. It is seriously magical! And aside from the magic, it’s exercise for our brains! Win win on that.

Magic and exercise — how can you say no to that? So now it’s time to decide how you’ll do it. For me, starting a blog was the accountability I needed. But for others, keeping a journal might be the way to go. If you’re a teacher, you better be writing when you’re asking your students to write. (Even if you’re not an English teacher — the horror!) Let’s help each other out:

  • How do you make time to think and write?
  • In what format do you write?
  • And finally, how does writing make you feel?

For me, I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile — for myself and hopefully others. But at the end of the day, I know I need to write, regardless of how many views or likes or comments my posts get. Because when I write, my brain gets to play. The pace of my day slows, and I come away feeling invigorated. And you know what? My floors are so incredibly patient. They don’t mind if I hold off on vacuuming.

So turn on the faucet, and let’s do this. How? Check it out:

  1. Be less busy. Unschedule yourself.
  2. Allow yourself to think. Peel yourself off the screens, and use the bathroom by yourself.
  3. Put pencil to paper. Or fingers to keys (thumbs are for the space-bar). Or stylus to — ew, no, don’t do that.

Happy writing, everyone.