A few weeks ago, Writer’s Digest put out an intriguing invitation to readers: Submit a photo (or two, or three) of your workspace, along with comments on how you use it, why it’s set up the way it is, or anything else you'd like to say about it. The editors will pick a few to publish in the magazine.
I had every intention of submitting mine, but before I managed to assemble the pictures and send off the entry, the deadline had passed. Still, the challenge got me thinking about my own work space, not only how I use it, but also what I call it.
When I worked from home for my regular job or on freelance assignments, I called my workspace—in our previous home as well as our current one—my “office.” But something about that term grates on me now. It conjures images of deadlines, dingy cubicles, and that sense of being chained to a desk, unable to escape and have fun.
Nowadays, although I still spend a lot of time in the room where my desk resides, I’m not always working in the strict sense of the word. Sometimes I’m practicing yoga. Sometimes I’m brainstorming ideas for writing projects, or organizing and editing photos, or sorting and cutting out pieces for collages, or creating music playlists, or communicating with friends, or yes, writing. It’s as much a playroom as a workspace.
So what to call it?
“Workshop” sounds crafty—a good place to build things. But still a little “worky.”
“Study” is what spaces like mine used to be called before the home-office kick. Filled with books, as my room is, studies were places for contemplation and rumination. I certainly do contemplate and ruminate. Yet “study” sounds so studious. Not playful.
I’m partial to “studio.” With its artsy connotations, it leaves open possibilities for all sorts of creative activities. Why, I could even dance in a studio (and sometimes I do!). So for now I’m sticking with studio. And just for fun, I’ll take you on a tour.
Then, I invite you to send me photos of your own creative space and tell me what you call it and how you use it.
Where will your workspace--or playspace--take you?
Happy New Year!
Is today just like any other day for you, or do you see the beginning of a new year as a time to reflect and set intentions?
As I wrote here a year ago, I no longer make formal resolutions or long lists of goals and aspirations for the coming year. Still, the idea of a fresh start is so appealing I can't resist trying to do a few things differently.
Or maybe just one thing. This time last year, I vowed to break the habit of starting my day by checking my inbox and scanning headlines. Too often, that practice left me agitated and unfocused--exactly not the way I want to be when I sit down to write or tackle other tasks that require concentration.
It was a worthy goal, one I tried all year to accomplish. But the busy-ness of book publishing and promotion and the enticement of never-a-dull-moment national news was too seductive. I just couldn't keep myself from going online before breakfast.
Until a few weeks ago, when I finally found the mettle to break the habit. What flipped the switch for me was a piece by Colleen Story on her Writing and Wellness website that caught my attention with the subhead, "Why Writers Should Avoid the Internet First Thing in the Morning."
In the article, Colleen cites research suggesting that hopping around on the internet interferes with the ability to focus even after getting offline. She goes on to list five first-thing-in-the-morning activities that are more conducive to all-day productivity. I won't repeat the list here--you can read the full article for that.
But I will tell you about the change I've made. For the past three weeks this has been my morning routine: yoga, reading poetry, writing down dreams or other thoughts (but not to-do lists), then working on my novel-in-progress. Email and other online business come only after all of that.
I was astonished at how quickly changing that one habit made a difference in my mindset. As I wrote in my journal after just a few mornings of the new routine, "Ideas flow, I feel calmer, less focused on my to-do list; I think instead about what I'm reading and writing. This is good."
In short, simply by changing one habit I feel recharged and ready to put my creativity to work in whole new ways in a whole new year.
Do you have a habit you'd like to change? Need a little help making it happen?
Here are some suggestions I've gleaned over the years:
May 2020 be a year of creativity, connection, and contentment for us all!
In keeping with my December tradition, I've compiled a year-end list of memorable books I've read over the past twelve months. I don't rank my selections, concurring on that point with author Neil Gaiman, who believes picking five favorite books is like "picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose."
Instead, I list books I've found memorable for any of a number of reasons: the writing is exceptional, the story is engrossing, the tale is told in an unusual way, or the book just stayed with me for reasons I can't explain. The books that make the list aren't the only good books I've read over the course of the year; several others always stand out in memory. My decision of which to include here is arbitrary, but I try to pick ones I think HeartWood readers may also enjoy.
The books listed here weren't all published in the past year. One has a publication date of 2009; the others were all published in the past six years.
I never set out to read books that conform to particular themes, but when I look back at what I've read, I do notice common threads. A number of these books are testaments to perseverance and the ability to overcome adversity, from physical injury to neglect to dysfunction and abuse. Sounds like heavy stuff, I know, but I found all of these books inspiring in one way or another.
Just as I wrote this time last year and the year before, I'm not really sure what to call this list. My Most Want-to-Tell-You-About-Them Books of 2019? Or simply A Bunch of Books I Read This Year and Actually Remember Something About?
Whatever you want to call it, here it is:
Ten Something-or-Other Books I Read in 2019
Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom by Ken Ilgunas. Burdened by crushing student debt and inspired by Henry David Thoreau, Ilgunas took off to Alaska, where he scraped together enough money from odd jobs—cook, tour guide, and the like—to repay his loans. Finally debt-free and determined to stay that way, he enrolled in graduate school and bought a used Econoline van that became his mobile dorm room for the next two years. What began as an experiment in frugality became much more: an educational experience in its own right.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. You might think the title and subtitle say it all: American boys, boat, epic quest, 1936, Berlin, Olympics. You pretty much know how it's going to turn out, right? But how it turns out is not the whole story. The beauty is in the details of this tale about a ragtag team of working class kids from the Pacific Northwest who learned—literally—to pull together, challenging elite rowing teams from the East Coast and Great Britain and ultimately defeating Hitler's vaunted rowers in the Olympics. Like a good novel, this saga portrays characters in ways that make you really care how things turn out for them. And just as I couldn't have imagined—until I read Barbarian Days last year—being engrossed in descriptions of one surfing wave after another, I could not have imagined—until I read Boys in the Boat this year—getting so wrapped up in descriptions of boat races. Yet I found myself riveted until the last page.
Monsoon Mansion: A Memoir by Cinelle Barnes. One reviewer described this book as a "fairy tale turned survival story," and that's an apt characterization. Barnes's childhood world of opulence and privilege in the Philippines is shattered when a monsoon hits with destructive force, her father leaves, and her mother takes up with a shady character. Still a child, Barnes is forced to fend for herself, navigating not only complex relationships with flawed people, but also such practicalities as finding fresh water. Hers is an inspiring story of resilience.
Never Stop Walking by Christina Rickardsson. This book is also a story of resilience and adaptability, but it's almost a mirror image of Monsoon Mansion. Rickardsson, née Christiana Mara Coelho, was born into abject poverty in Brazil and lived with her loving mother in forest caves for the first seven years of her life. Her mother did the best she could, but eventually Christiana ended up in an orphanage. Adopted by a Swedish couple and taken home to Sweden, she was swept into a life that could not have been more different from her earlier years. The story of how Christiana/Christina adapted and came to terms with her dual identities is both heart-rending and heartening.
Listening to the Bees by Mark L Winston and Renée Sarojini Saklikar. I am truly blessed to have so many talented friends who find the most interesting outlets for their creativity. My bee buddy Mark Winston just keeps amazing me with his ideas and output. You may remember Mark from his guest post on collaboration, "Everything I Know I Learned From Hermit Crabs." Listening to the Bees is the delightful fruit of one of his collaborations. Merging Mark's scientific knowledge with Renée's poetry, the book explores the challenges to bees in the modern world—and to humans living in complex societies. That's all I'm going to say about this book right now, because I've promised to devote a more space to it in a future blog post. Stay tuned.
Personal History by Katharine Graham. Not long after seeing the film "The Post," which dramatizes The Washington Post's struggle to publish the Pentagon Papers, I was browsing at Flying Bear Books and saw a stack of copies of this autobiography by Katherine Graham. Graham (played by Meryl Streep in the movie) was at the helm of the Post during both the Pentagon Papers and Watergate exposés. I snapped up the book and devoured it, fascinated not only by Graham's accounts of these two infamous periods of history and their relevance to current times, but also by the insider's view of a bygone era of journalism and the story of Graham's own evolution from awkward child to overshadowed wife to confident and competent businesswoman.
Grit, Noise, and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock 'n' Roll by David A. Carson. I didn't live in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, but the city and its music were certainly on my radar and in my record collection, even when I was more than six-thousand miles away in the South Pacific. Carson's chronicle of Detroit's music scene and its ties to the culture and politics of the time makes for an engrossing read—especially fun for me because when I finally did move to Detroit in the early 1980s, I came to know some of the people who are mentioned in the book. Though I knew a bit about their roles in the music and political scenes of those earlier times, Carson's comprehensive account filled in the blanks.
The Chicken Who Saved Us: The Remarkable Story of Andrew and Frightful by Kristin Jarvis Adams. I learned about this book when I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in Seattle a few months ago, where The Chicken Who Saved Us won the Nancy Pearl Book Award for memoir. I would have bought it and read it for that reason alone, but the cover and the story behind it also drew me in. In this memoir, Adams relates how her son Andrew, who has autism, formed a close bond with a pet chicken named Frightful, and how Andrew's conversations with Frightful ultimately saved the boy's life.
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly. In this age of fractured attention and information overload, it's sometimes hard to commit to reading a book of four hundred pages or more. Yet that's not the reason I find myself increasingly attracted to extremely short pieces of fiction and nonfiction. I delight in the authors' skill in telling a complete story in very few words, and I've started playing around with flash nonfiction myself. In this collection, Fennelly celebrates childhood memories, cultural observations, glimpses into domestic life, and other moments that make life rich.
The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. Yes, I know I just extolled the virtues of short works, but there's also a place for mega-books like this 528-page political thriller. Mysteries and thrillers are not my usual fare. However, the idea of a former president collaborating on novel intrigued me. Whatever you think of Bill Clinton—and I realize there's quite a range of opinion—it's fascinating to read details that only a president would know, and to get a glimpse into how a leader's mind works in a crisis.
An Imperfect Rapture by Kelly J. Beard. I met this author when we both attended a master class at the Tucson Festival of Books, and when I learned that her memoir was headed for publication after winning the Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award, I could hardly wait to read it. Kelly has kindly agreed to an interview for an upcoming blog post, so I won't go into detail about the book here, except to say that the writing is exquisite, and the story of finding her way in the world after growing up poor, within the strictures of fundamentalist religion, is remarkable. Stay tuned for more.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Oh, man. This book sounded so far out when I read reviews of it, I just couldn't imagine getting into it. I know, George Saunders is no slouch, and the book was acclaimed by The Washington Post, USA Today, Time, and The New York Times. But come on, a bunch of ghosts—who don't know they're ghosts—gossiping, griping, and skim-walking around a graveyard where they're caught in a sort of purgatory and trying to help Abraham Lincoln's recently dead son Willie escape such a fate? Really? All I can say is, I was hooked from the first page. The fact that I loved the book so much is a reminder that it pays to step out of my literary comfort zone (which for me would be reading yet another Anne Tyler novel—see list below) and take a chance on something completely different.
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel. In 1986, a young man named Christopher Knight disappeared into the Maine woods—on purpose—and lived alone there for twenty-seven years. Not exactly self-sufficient, Knight broke into nearby cottages for food and other necessities (including lots and lots of batteries), and though locals knew he was around, he and his secluded encampment remained out of sight for all those years. Journalist Finkel pieced together the story from interviews with Knight after he was found and arrested for the thefts. The story of how Knight survived, and the difficulties he faced in trying to readjust to the life that most of us consider normal, is revealing.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
- Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler
- Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
- Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters
- What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
- The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler
- Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
- Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman
- A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler
- Crossing Over by Ruth Irene Garrett
- Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
- Love & Vodka by R.J. Fox
- Awaiting Identification by R.J. Fox
- A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures by Ben Bradlee
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
- Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
That old-fashioned mode of communication seems to be a vanishing species these days. The average American household receives only ten pieces of personal mail per year (not counting holiday cards and invitations), according to a New York Times article by Susan Shain.
I thought about that kind of connection recently, when my friend Laurel gave me a packet of letters I'd written to her in the 1970s and '80s. Reading through them, I found verbal snapshots of that period of my life: vivid descriptions of my friends, amusing anecdotes about everyday incidents, accounts of the books I was reading, ramblings on romances, ruminations on my college and grad school anxieties.
Among those treasures was a note written on a Buckaroo Club napkin by my friend Darwin in 1981, shortly after he'd completed a 300-mile kayaking odyssey on the Yukon, Porcupine, Sheenjek, and Kongakut rivers, culminating at the Beaufort Sea.
"Right here you have a prime example of a Communications 301 class," he wrote. "Notice the yawns and the chins propped drowsily on hands. Notice the blank sheets of paper without any notes. Notice the guest speaker getting shook. Notice chair #213 back there writing a letter to some girl in Oklahoma."
from the heart of the woods
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.
Last Wednesday Wisdom