Showing My Work: Starting Thoughts

It seems like there are three things I want to tell you.

Maybe four things.

The first thing is about money.

No, wait. The first first thing, the pre-emptive piece of information that I want to share with everybody (now that I am sharing these posts on both Nicole Dieker Dot Com and Nicole Dieker Dot Substack Dot Com), is that I’m just going to assume that you’re already familiar with what I do and what this iteration of my narration is about.

I’ve been a freelance writer for a decade; I’ve been a six-figure freelancer for the past two years and counting. I’m the author of The Biographies of Ordinary People, a Millennial-era Little Women that follows three sisters from childhood to adulthood, and I am currently working on my next major fiction project.

I’ve been a teacher, in some form or another, for most of my life; both of my parents are teachers and my mom started asking me to help with her youngest piano students when I was in junior high. I’ve taught, at various points in my life, piano, acting, directing, and Shakespeare. Now I teach writing and the business of freelancing.

Both of my parents are also classically-trained musicians, as am I (my degrees are in music and theater, both of which are more common among professional writers than you’d think). The person we’ll call “L,” whom I can accurately describe as the great love of my life, is also a classically-trained musician. We spend a lot of our free time practicing the piano and discussing how to get from good enough to excellent.

That’s what this weekly newsletter, whether you’re reading it in WordPress or Substack form, will focus on: How to get from good enough to excellent, at whatever you’re trying to do.

I mean, at what I’m trying to do.

(I don’t know what you’re trying to do.)

The excellences I am currently pursuing include:

  • Freelance writing
  • Teaching
  • Piano
  • Chess
  • Math
  • Strength training (like, with barbells)
  • Relationships (yes, it is possible to pursue excellence in your interpersonal relationships [and once you know that, it becomes impossible not to])
  • Novel-writing

It’s that last one that has thrown everything else just slightly off balance—but that’s the second thing I want to write about, and I told you that the first thing I wanted to write about was money.

Money

As soon as I decided to write fiction again, I could feel the immense pressure of the question “is that going to be your primary way of earning money, can it be should it be will it be” settling into my neck and shoulders.

I think that is a ridiculous question, for at least three reasons:

  • The math doesn’t work. I would need to sell 20,000 books per year, at $5 net profit per copy, to pull in six figures as a novelist. I do want to write the kind of book that people will want to read (more on that in a minute), and I might even like to write the kind of book that people will want to pay money for, but to assume that I would surpass my current freelance earnings through some combination of advances and royalties is, at this point, a very foolish assumption.
  • I am, at this point in my life, excellent at freelancing. It’s my best thing. I know how to work with clients, I know how to interview sources, I know how to write to spec and turn in perfect copy by deadline. I have a decade of expertise in my primary beat (personal finance) and have not yet reached the end of my ability to share what I’ve learned with readers.
  • Pulling back on the freelancing would also make it harder for me to teach. Right now, I’m developing a course on “personal finance for the freelance writer,” which combines three of my favorite things (teaching, the business of freelancing, and personal finance). I would not be able to teach this class if I were no longer actively freelancing; while the core of the business remains fairly constant, there are enough updates to invoicing platforms, industry trends, tax law, etc. etc. etc. that trying to teach something I was not actively practicing would be both foolish and futile.

There’s also a fourth reason:

  • I’m not sure how long it will take to rework my current draft from good enough to excellent. I have the advantage of having the draft already written. I’ve read much of that original draft to L, and he agrees that this should be my next big creative project. But going through the draft, sentence by sentence, and turning every unspecific choice into a more specific one will take time.

Which brings me to the second thing.

Manipulation

This could be a 2,000-word blog post of its own, but the tl;dw (too long, didn’t write) is this: changing any aspect of something, no matter how small, changes the entire thing.

Which means that when I started trying to perfect my physical form in the squat rack (squat below parallel, keep knees in line with toes), it made me want to focus on perfecting my physical form at the piano (wrists below knuckles, keep pinky fingers from curling up).

Both are very achievable, if you are willing to focus on achieving them.

The trouble is, putting all of your focus on one area of something seems to open up a bunch of other problems you might not have completely solved. When you’re focusing on wrist position at the piano, for example, the part of the piece that isn’t fully memorized starts to fall apart, even if you’ve been able to play it “from memory” for weeks. When you’re focusing on wrist position at the gym, you might not squat or press to your previous depth because you’re putting more of your effort towards a different issue—which means that if you’re serious about solving the wrist problems while getting your hips below parallel, you probably need to deload.

Or, as I told L earlier this week: “I started writing new fiction words for the first time in, like, two years. And then everything else fell apart, and I’m worried that I’m going to be insufferable until I figure out how to rebalance it all.”

By “everything else” I basically mean my ability to manipulate the elements around me instead of being manipulated by them, which would sound like the most pretentious thing I’d ever written if it weren’t my daily goal. To act, rather than react. To make the kinds of choices that compound positively, rather than the ones that compound negatively. To avoid the impulsive overcorrections that cancel each other out. To keep the stress of my new project from leading to stress eating, for example—which leads to spoiled dinners (nutritionally and conversationally) and indigestion and poor sleep and uncomfortable bowels and the kind of overall energy deficit that makes it harder to do excellent work the next day.

It used to take me a week or more to get out of this kind of deficit. This time around, I think it’s only going to take me two days. Part of that is because I have L on my team; part of it is because I know that being my best self makes both of us better (individually and in relationship).

The other part is that I understand the ways in which being able to manipulate the elements around you leads not only to excellence but to magic.

Which brings me to the third thing.

Magic

L and I very much want to become magicians—not in the sleight-of-hand sense (though we keep saying we’re going to study sleight-of-hand one of these days), but in the mastery sense.

This means, among other things, avoiding that which is not magic in both the work we choose to produce and the work we choose to consume.

“People who want to become magic,” as we often say to each other, “need to surround themselves with the work of other magicians.”

And we’ll know that we have become magic when people (including other magicians) want to spend time with our work.

In many ways, I’ve already achieved mastery/magicianry as a freelancer—and I hope to write more about that as I continue this narrative.

But I also want to demonstrate mastery at the piano, and in my current fiction project.

I’m also working to understand the concept of mastery itself—because I suspect that the same form-function-heuristic-building work that I’m doing in the barbell gym and at the piano will also apply to my fiction work and, if I’m lucky, my chess study.

I built my freelance career by setting myself two problems to solve, every week:

  • How can I increase my gross freelance income this week?
  • How can I increase my earnings per hour?

I don’t think those are the problems I need to solve with piano and fiction writing; with the former, it might be something like “how can I increase measures memorized per hour,” and with the latter, it might be “how can I increase word count per hour,” though you also want to make sure the words and the measures are as close to excellent as possible, there’s no point in getting faster if you just get sloppy.

Maybe the first step in showing my work—and the work I can show you next week—will have to do with identifying these specific (not to mention measurable, achievable, replicable, and time-bound) goals. ❤️

Where I Got Published This Week

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Earn $500+ in credits in your first year, and offset the Amex Gold card’s annual fee

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Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Upcoming Submission and Pitching Opportunities: July 30, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for July 30, 2021.

Job Opportunities for Writers: July 30, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for July 30, 2021.

Thoughts From My Office

The thing is that if I’m going to write (rewrite) this book, I’m going to need to take time away from something else.

The thing is that it’s probably going to be this blog.

Not completely — BLOG IS TOO IMPORTANT TO GIVE UP — but I might not do posts every day.

The thing is that I want to share how everything is connected; the work I’m doing at the piano, the work I’m doing on my writing, the work I’m doing with chess (which is FINALLY IMPROVING, I hope to explain why later), even the work I’m doing at the barbell club, and that’s going to take time too.

I could just say EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED and trust that you’ll believe it.

It’s more fun to write it into an essay.

Maybe this blog becomes a weekly “Thoughts From My Office” thing, in which I share whichever thought has been the most important that week, in more-like-an-essay form, followed by the list of Where I Got Published.

I’d probably get more readers if I limited it to one essay per week anyway. We’re all reading a lot of newsletter essays by a lot of smart people right now, and I don’t want to write a bunch of stuff that is going to make everybody feel oversaturated when I could spend that time WORKING ON A BOOK because THERE AREN’T ENOUGH BOOKS I GUESS?

On that note, should this be a (free) Substack?

It could very very very easily become the Nicole Dieker Newsletter, with “here’s my most interesting thought” and “here’s the most interesting thing I read” and “here’s the list of where I got published” and all of that.

Plus occasional (though not weekly?) guest posts.

I could also say “um maybe I am taking August off from blogging” and then come back after — no, I don’t like that idea.

I WILL FIGURE IT OUT

but not today

Until I come up with a more specific plan, expect blog posts mumbletimes, and subscribe via email to make sure you get ’em.

(pull out the hamburger menu [the three little gray lines] in the top right-hand corner to get the subscription signup)

(I know that’s confusing)

(also why I should just do a Substack like everyone else)

(UPDATE: the Substack is in place, it’s called Showing My Work because of course that’s what it’s called, everything on Substack will be crossposted to this blog but you might as well sign up if you like Substacks)

On to Where I Got Published This Week!

Bankrate

Everything you need to know about balance transfer checks

This check allows you to borrow cash or credit from your credit line — but is it worth it?

Haven Life

What is an Attending Physician Statement (APS) & do you need it for life insurance?

Don’t know if you need an attending physician statement for your life insurance application? Read on to discover what one is, and when it’s needed.

Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Job Opportunities for Writers: July 23, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for July 23, 2021.

Upcoming Submission and Pitching Opportunities: July 23, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for July 23, 2021.

In Which My Problem-Solving Skills Turn Out to be Cross-Disciplinary

Nicole Dieker almost called this one “revising a novel is the process of going from guessing to knowing.

The thing is that I don’t think I’d be able to revise this novel — or any novel — if I hadn’t spent the past year learning how to solve problems at the piano.

I’d always had a top-level problem when it came to novel-revision, and it’s that I did the majority of the “work” before I ever started writing any of the story. I’m the kind of writer who will create a very detailed chapter breakdown and a character breakdown before starting the first draft, which is to say that I write the book before I write the book, which means that if you were to tell me “I think you need to rework Chapter 2,” I would say “you mean I need to rework the entire manuscript, because every individual element in Chapter 2 is there for a reason and is connected to everything that comes before and after it.”

There is very little waste, in my prose.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems.

The problems, in this current draft, are similar to the problems I’m experiencing in the third movement of Mozart K332. It’s not the problem of getting words on the page; that’s the problem I’m dealing with right now as I learn the Bach Ricercar a 6 (“getting words on the page” being roughly equivalent to “getting notes in fingers”). It’s the problem of having many, many good words on the page and several words that are just good enough.

Which, if you heard me play K332 right now, you might say “good job.”

But if you heard me play that Chopin Nocturne that I’ve been working on for twice as long, you might say “wow, you had absolute command of your performance and were making specific, distinct choices throughout the entire piece.”

I mean, you probably wouldn’t say that. L would, because he’s a piano teacher. You might just say “wow.”

The difference between good job and wow comes down to problem-solving.

And the thing is — and this is what I didn’t understand, before this year — is that you can actually solve every problem in a piece of piano music, as long as you are willing to put in the time and the effort and don’t have an external deadline (like a recital) pressuring you to cut a few corners.

I always assumed that there would be a few measures in each piece that would always be clunky or awkward or nerve-wracking, simply because the music was “hard” or I had “small hands” or whatever.

This has not turned out to be the case. L and I have come up with a solution for every problem we’ve found in Mozart K332, whether it’s changing the fingering or making sure the fourth finger doesn’t collapse at the first knuckle or shaping the phrase towards its final note.

Which means that I can also come up with a solution for every problem I have in my current draft, whether it’s a clunky sentence or an awkward transition, without having to rework the entire plot from scratch.

I mean, we don’t rewrite Mozart just because we can’t play one of the passages.

And I don’t have to rewrite my entire book just because one of its passages isn’t as solid as it could be.

I just have to figure out what the problem is — not a general “this doesn’t work,” but a specific reason why it isn’t working, just like I do at the piano — and then fix it.

Which I can do, because I’ve spent the past year learning how to do it. ❤️

p.s. in case you’re having trouble deciphering that header image, it reads “truth in a novel is the same as accuracy at the piano,” and the reason I crossed it out is because that’s my way of identifying that I’ve taken an idea out of my notebook and put it somewhere else.

How James Brown’s Music Taught Me That Creativity Is Work

Photo credit: Lam Nguyen

Sergio Lopez is an author, columnist, and historian. His work has been published in Teen Vogue, America, Geez, and Hanif Abdurraqib’s 68to05. He graduated Yale University and currently attends Duke Divinity School, and he proudly serves his hometown as City Councilmember. Read more of his creative work here or follow him on Twitter @LopezForCA.

Whenever I need some inspiration to get to writing, I look to music. So I was thrilled when I spotted a new James Brown record I’d never seen before, 1966’s Handful of Soul. Its bright red cover, featuring a grinning James Brown, was held together by yellowed Scotch tape; a name scrawled in one corner in ballpoint pen attested to the fact that this record had been loved. I got home, took the record out of its sleeve, placed it on my turntable, and dropped the needle. The horns proudly announced the arrival of Brown’s band, guitar and bass locked together to lay down the groove, and flawless drumming formed the foundation. Then I waited for Brown’s distinctive voice—and kept waiting, all through the first side of the record. Grabbing the cover, I finally read the fine print on the back: “Handful of Soul, featuring James Brown—on the organ.”

I felt, personally, like I’d overpaid just a bit for the record, considering he wasn’t even featured as a vocalist—but curious about the unusual find, I started doing more research on Brown, his life, and his work ethic.

James Brown rose up from working in the fields of Georgia in the hot summer sun. Where he came from, what you did was work—something Brown and his childhood friends never forgot. While music was his craft, it was also his job—and he took that work seriously, putting out over the course of his career fifteen live records, fifty-nine studio albums, and one hundred and forty-four singles. He took the same approach to his live shows, telling members of his band, “if you’re performing for ten people or 10,000, you perform the same way. You don’t slack off, ever.” Marketing materials in the mid-60s began billing him as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” That discipline helps account for his rise to the pinnacle of his craft—because sometimes there’s no better practice than simply working.

Reading about Brown, I wondered what it would look like to rethink my own relationship towards work and my creative practice. I had grown up dreaming about what it might look like to be a writer, and in the years since I had read plenty of pragmatic tips and advice before from other writers—to always write at a particular time, or to reframe expectations to just get some words down on paper each day. But I was less interested now in these practical aspects of creating than in thinking about the spiritual dimension behind work—the ways in which work can confer dignity and purpose to those who participate in it. The concept, for me, also implied a relationship—the idea that work was ultimately meant to be produced and consumed by an audience, at which point it was no longer solely the property of the artist.

The Handful of Soul record, I learned, was actually a bit of a side hustle for Brown. Starting in 1964, the Godfather of Soul had been involved in a legal dispute with his longtime label, King Records. Since his contract banned him from performing as a vocalist on another label, Brown immediately turned to a smaller label, Smash Records, to release a series of instrumental albums of mostly cover songs of hits, giving him a stream of income while he dealt with his legal issues. These instrumental records—I soon had to have more—have the feeling of a production line; Brown’s band was unmatched in the business, but these records consist mostly of covers rather than James Brown originals, and they were turned out at a rapid pace, with four releases in 1966 alone. James Brown and his band the Famous Flames, I thought, could probably record these albums in their sleep. 

But as I listened more closely, I found an important lesson that lay hidden in the vinyl grooves: the immense skill and experience that went into each track on the album. On each and every record he put out, Brown set the highest of standards for himself and his band, practicing each part ruthlessly and relentlessly, locking in those rhythms and grooves until nothing else could get through, nothing but his signature sound, with all the precision of and power of a locomotive. 

While this could easily have been a fallow creative period for James Brown, in some ways it ended up being one of the most important for his artistic development. That’s because, although few of these cover instrumentals will make anyone’s list of top ten James Brown recordings, they were essential to his development of funk—perhaps his greatest musical impact. In 1966, when Handful of Soul came out, James Brown had gotten funky, but he was still a couple of years from truly laying down the funk—the tightly woven blend of guitar, bass, and drums he invented and for which he has forever earned a place in the pantheon of true originals, one of the most creative and singular artists America has produced, influencing everyone from 1970s funk groups to rap and hip-hop artists who took those sounds as the foundation for countless freestyles. That history traces its way back to these instrumental cover records, where, if you listen closely enough, you can hear James Brown on these instrumentals developing new creative ideas, drawing out a beat or a groove for as long as possible, stretching the sound to its limits—working out the beginnings of what would become his signature sound, and one of the defining sounds of the 1970s. The realization demonstrated for me how no work is wholly without value or purpose, as it’s often precisely when we quit overthinking and simply create that we are most free to progress and grow.

Reframing my relationship toward creating and work allowed me to let go—to not just dream of being a writer but to actually become one in my own mind and practice. I found it easy now to sit down for an hour and simply write. I’m grateful to be able to write, but it’s still work—and there’s dignity and honor in any kind of work.

And when I do find myself stuck for the right word or sentence? I can just switch on the turntable and spin Handful of Soul.

In Which I Start Writing Fiction Again

Nicole Dieker is already thinking about the ways in which solving the problems in her novel are like solving the problems in a Mozart piano sonata.

The first big change, after I came back from vacation, was the way I ate breakfast. (The hotel had this thing that was essentially a giant bowl of fruit with a handful of nuts and cheese cubes mixed in, and I ate it every morning I was there and have been recreating it every morning since I got back.)

The second big change was that I (finally?) broke the cycle of going to bed between 11 and midnight, waking at dawn, and taking a nap in the middle of the day to make up for the fewer-than-eight-hours-of-sleep. Our hotel room had blackout curtains, and because of that I got into a sleep cycle that took me from about 11:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. — and even though we don’t have blackout curtains at home, I have somehow broken myself of the habit of rising with the sun.

Which, I mean, thank goodness. I was wondering how long the nap routine would last, and it was getting tiring (pun intended) to lie down in the middle of the day, every day, for a 45-minute sleep.

The third big change is that I started rewriting a novel.

L and I were talking, as we are wont to do, about what we’d like to do with the rest of our lives. We both want to become absolutely exemplary pianists, even though we always immediately modify those ambitions with “I mean, I want to be the best pianist I can be,” giving us the possibility of sub-exemplarism if that’s what our best turns out to become, and then I jack the ambitions back up again by saying “and I want to compete in the Van Cliburn amateur competition and the Paris amateur competition before I turn forty-five.”

We also want to continue working towards polymathery, with our chess study and our Gödel, Escher, Bach and so on. Between now and when I turn forty-five, we’d like to study chess, math (neither of us learned calculus the first time around), Go, bridge (we started getting into bridge last summer, but there’s only so much you can do if you don’t have a second set of people to play it with), origami, and drawing. Maybe a language or two. Maybe ballroom dancing.

“I guess I could figure out how we could become chess grandmasters,” I said, “even though the internet says that the best way to become a grandmaster is to start studying chess when you’re three years old. But we could come up with an action plan to get us there, and even if we only won some local tournaments, we’d still get to keep everything we’ve learned.”

“I’m ready to put a good chunk of our free time into studying chess,” L said, “but you know what I think you should do instead of trying to become a grandmaster, right?”

“YES I KNOW,” I said, in exactly that tone of voice. “I SHOULD WRITE ANOTHER BOOK.”

“Yes,” L said. “You should write another book.”

And then I told him that I had these two novels that I had drafted in 2018 and 2019, neither of which I was completely happy with — though one of them had potential, and I just happened to have the first chapter printed out and tucked into my bag because I had already known he was going to bring this up, and now I was going to read him the first chapter and maybe he could please tell me if he thought I should continue working on it.

He definitely thinks I should continue working on it.

This is worth noting, because when I was doing some musical composition work earlier this year (and, like, earlier last month), L essentially said “this is competent but kind of derivative,” which was fair enough, we both trust each other to say whether or not something is any good, and my compositions were at least as good as a college-level final project but not much better than that.

When I read him the beginning of my story, he said “I want to know what happens next.”

Luckily, I have most of it already written — so he won’t have to wait very long. ❤️

What I Dreamed, the Day I Came Back From Vacation

I had a dream, as the poets say, which was not all a dream.

I was at some kind of literary convention, and Louisa May Alcott was at one of the booths, and she told me that my writing was promising enough that she would introduce me to her publisher. This publisher, she assured me, would be eager to purchase whatever my next project happened to be, even though I told her that I didn’t have any new ideas at the moment.

“That will all be fine,” she said. “Sign the contract now, and figure the rest out later.”

(This seems a very LMA thing to say, given what I know about her career.)

So I let her take me to meet her publisher.

As we were running through what appeared to be subterranean subway-like passages, she in her long black nineteenth-century dress and me in my usual clothes, Don Draper appeared. This did not register as a surprise to me, since L and have been watching (or, in my case, rewatching) Mad Men for the past month or so.

Don Draper was wearing a trenchcoat. We were, after all, technically outside — I mean, we were inside, but we were in the kind of inside that you only go through as a way to get from one outside to another, and if that isn’t a metaphor then I don’t know what is.

“Don’t do it,” he said. “Don’t go to this meeting. The second you start thinking about that kind of stuff — the money, the contracts, the awards, even the potential audience — your story is over. It becomes someone else’s story, and in your case you don’t even know what the story is yet. Why would you turn it over to someone else before you’ve had the chance to create it? Why would you give it up before you’ve gotten to live the experience of doing the best work you possibly can?”

That was the point at which I woke up.

Later that day, I told L about the dream.

The day after that — well, I suppose I’ll tell you about that tomorrow. ❤️

Thoughts From My Office

We are back from Chicago! It was a lovely vacation, we stayed in a hotel that had robots, went to a jazz club, took a few long walks in the rain (simply because it would not stop raining, don’t get the idea that long walks in the rain are romantic or anything, the non-rain walks were much much much much more pleasant) and made our long-awaited visit to the Art Institute.

There is much I could write about the Art Institute, most of it about the conversations we had while we were inside. (One of the more interesting conversations was about art that centered the subject vs. art that centered the artist, which is coincidentally what I had just started writing about before we left.)

But, to keep at least some part of our first-ever vacation private, I’ll only share my half of the very obvious conversation we had while we were in the Art Institute, the conversation I hope everyone has when they are in any art museum of any kind, specifically: “If you could take a single item from this museum’s collection and display it in your own home, which would it be?”

I cheated and picked two, since the first one was inspired by the second one and it would be like separating two kittens that grew up in the same litter. Claude Monet’s Houses of Parliament, London from 1901, and James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southampton Water from 1872.

Also, I was delighted to learn that Monet was inspired by Whistler. If I hadn’t known that, I would have assumed it was the other way around. ❤️

On to WHERE I GOT PUBLISHED WHILE I WAS AWAY:

Bankrate

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Tana Williams, a digital marketer who blogs about her financial journey at Debt Free Forties, worked with her husband to pay off $26,619 of debt in just 17 months—$3,251 of which was credit card debt. 

How to do a balance transfer with Wells Fargo

The best balance transfer credit cards offer lengthy 0 percent introductory APR periods that can help you pay off your transferred balances without accruing interest charges.

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What are the different types of wills?

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Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Job Opportunities for Writers: July 9, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for July 9, 2021.

Upcoming Submission and Pitching Opportunities: July 9, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for July 9, 2021.

Job Opportunities for Writers: July 16, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for July 16, 2021.

Upcoming Submission and Pitching Opportunities: July 16, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for July 16, 2021.

Thursday Thoughts

L and I are getting ready to head out on a much-much-much-much needed vacation.

This means that there will be no posts from me until… next Friday, probably. It’s also why there wasn’t a post on Tuesday; I was using that writing time to get my freelance work done, so we could take a few days off and go out of town.

On that note, here are all the places I’ve gotten published this week!

Bankrate

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Earn as much cash back as possible from your rotating bonus category credit cards.

What is a credit card?

What is a credit card? Let’s take a look at some credit card definitions — cash back credit cards, no-annual-fee credit cards and so on — and explore the pros and cons of using credit.

Guide to Chase’s Pay Yourself Back

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Moving Water

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Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Her first book is Tell the Turning, a collection of poetry with pen-and-ink illustrations by Lucy Bellwood, to be published this autumn by Bored Wolves.

This is the latest installment in Tara’s monthly column about the creative practice.

If you connect with Tara’s work, consider supporting her Patreon. You can also write her a letter via The PenPalProject. 

Martin Shaw gave an interview* last winter, from deep in the UK’s first lockdown, in the who-knows-anything time before Covid vaccines. Someone in the virtual audience asked about trauma: what do you do with it? “Get to moving water,” he said. “And sit there. And sit there. And sit there.”

On the banks of a creek who wishes to remain anonymous, I am sitting. It is mid-day, it is not cold, and my creekbank “belongs” to a U.S. State Park. Which is to say that it would be crowded — as it is, at its nearby confluence with a medium-sized river — but I have rolled my pants and taken my chances with slippery rapids and teetering log jams. Here upstream I am not alone, but neither are there any other humans in sound or sight. 

I have been here a while: watching dragonflies and hummingbirds, and columbine nodding above an undercut bank; reading a letter from a friend; listening to the breeze changing its mind from downstream to up. 

I find I am saying to myself it’s time to go. It does not feel like time to go, it just seems like the next thing. I’m addicted to progress. But I have got here, to moving water. My own wellspring, in fact. I slide my feet in the creek, skin on stone. Sit here. Sit here. Sit here. 

I came here to write poems. Here, in this case, is a wider locality: a particular gathering of river/forest/ocean margins, my favorite place in all the world so far. I cleared a space on my calendar, found a one-room cabin, and hung on by my gritted teeth until the day arrived to make the journey. I am writing a book — no one is surprised — and so I have told myself that is the purpose of the trip. 

I came to write poems, and I am writing poems. Creating is a primary way I encounter and explore; I can’t not do it. To do it well, I need space. I write from spaciousness. Here is space. Here, in fact, is home. This place is a great love of my life. I am writing poems; of course I am writing poems.

But I cannot only write poems, only be a poet. If I didn’t have to make money, this is what I say I would want to do—but poet is an identity that cannot exist alone. A writer of any kind must have something to write about, or all the love and skill and dedication have nowhere to flow, no work in the world to do. 

I have plenty of work in the world. I’m conflicted, confused, frustrated, or downright despairing about all of it. Some of it is worthy, I don’t doubt. Much of it is pure garbage: concerned only with money and obligation. I am looking for more that fits in the first category, yet I can’t imagine taking on more, period. I’m exhausted. I’m traumatized. I’m depressed. I’m ashamed and angry even to write those words. How can they be me? I’m better than that. 

So. My obsession with progress says I’m here to write poems, to make something I can point to with my name on it. But really, I’m here to sit by moving water. I am here to rest. I’m here to excavate — patiently, kindly, bravely, if I can — who is this person who is not, in fact, better than, or even okay. 

The several voices of the creek are just what I need. I listen to them — really listen, separating them mentally, and noting their pitch and volume. They’re not saying anything. They’re saying everything.

Possibly this is not a time to make sense of things. But I — like humans everywhere, and especially like humans who find their deepest work in art, in priesthood, in leadership — am a meaning-maker.

Just now, I was gathering stones. This beach is 98% stones. The longer you look, the more interesting they get. I would name aloud one of my roles or labels, and search for a stone to match it.

A palm-width stone, shaped like a lightning bolt and faced with quartz.

A slick black circle, split almost in two, like a broken-heart emoji.

A smooth and water-polished oval, warm brown and soft grey whirled togther.

A tiny, tumbled pebble, red as a berry, vivid. I perched it on top of a deep green rippling globe.

Each stone I held let me hold at arm’s length a role I inhabit or a label I’ve acquired: things I am, things I am called in certain contexts, and things I kind-of-am, because words for our experience are a collective obsession of a culture trying to re-found itself.

When I ran out, finally, my hand was overflowing: a strange beach offering, word and rock balanced on palm and fingers. I picked them back up, one at a time, and cast them to centerstream, saying to the stone and its label: You are loved here. You are held here. You are worthy. It’s okay if I don’t understand you. You are anchored here. 

I am home on this creekbank: sitting, walking, resting. Making up rituals and scratching out poems. Not figuring myself out, just watching me be. Asserting that’s okay, and learning to believe it — a process, not an accomplishment I am claiming. 

This creek, its river, its woods, its ocean-perfume — this is the one landscape where I belong, in a way I’ve tried to understand all my life, and I no longer need to. I cannot only belong here, only be here. Home and belonging must have some work in the world to do, too. 

For this long summer moment, though? I can rest awhile yet. 

*This is a fine introduction to Shaw’s work, if you’re not familiar. Though the quote I’m referring to comes from a sort of joint interview with Paul Kingsnorth, moderated by Point Reyes Books.