How to Create the Systems/Structure in Which to Do Your Best Work: Part 2

Yesterday, we looked at the idea that it takes effort to be in a Space Mountain mood on the day you get to ride Space Mountain — that is, if you want to enjoy the ride on a day when you’re not tired or hungover or feeling ill from too many park snacks or whatever, you need to start planning for the mood you want to have in advance.

This is easier said than done, I know. (Especially when you’re trying to create a structure that will increase the likelihood that a whole family will be in a Space Mountain mood on the day they ride Space Mountain. You can’t control other people’s feelings or desires or needs, but you can theoretically institute an early bedtime… in an unfamiliar hotel room where you all have to sleep in the same space and some people might be too excited to sleep and you all might be jetlagged and the air conditioner might be making noise and so on and so on. Best of luck.)

So let’s add on another layer — this time from an article by Kira M. Newman that first published at Greater Good and then ran on the Washington Post. The piece is titled Why You Never Seem to Have Enough Time, but since you can probably come up with a list of reasons why you never seem to have enough time on your own, I’m going to focus on the part of the article that looks at how to align disparate goals:

Why does passion seem to free up our time? The researchers who observed this phenomenon wanted to discover what was really going on.

They found a clue when they asked employees about how conflicted or aligned their goals were. Employees lacking in passion said that their goals were competing with each other, fighting for time and attention; for example, the drive to do well at work might make it hard to get home for dinner with the family. But passionate employees were different: They saw their goals as supporting each other. After all, healthy home cooking and family bonding might give them more energy and motivation tomorrow.

This is the type of example that’ll immediately devolve into a comment fight that goes something like “if I can’t get home in time for dinner then how am I supposed to do the healthy home cooking thing” followed by “I batch-cook and freeze meals on the weekend” and then by “I can’t (or don’t want) to spend my weekends cooking” and then by “there are websites that teach you how to make a month’s worth of meals in a day,” and then a reminder that some people live in food deserts which makes that kind of prepwork difficult, so now that I’ve had that argument, you all don’t have to.

Instead, focus in on the part where the “passionate” people (not a huge fan of that word but okay) are trying to be in a Space Mountain mood on the day they get to ride Space Mountain.

Once again, the typical comment: “yay I get to cook my own food so I have energy to give my labor to capitalism,” and yes, I totally get that, so let’s extend that last sentence a little. Healthy home cooking and family bonding might give these employees more energy and motivation both at work and with their families.

Or at work, with their families, and at their creative practice.

You know where I’m going with this, after all. 😉

Now that I’ve set up this idea of planning for the experiences you want to have and aligning disparate goals to support these experiences, I’m ready to tell you how I structure that planning and alignment in my own life.

I mean, I’ll tell you tomorrow.

Because I have to build the suspense just a little. â¤ï¸

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How to Create the Systems/Structure in Which to Do Your Best Work: Part 1 (of Many)

Last week, I wrote a short post about how we know when we’re doing our best work.

Over the next week (or so), I want to write several posts about how to create the systems and/or structure in which we can do our best work — because although I absolutely agree with the whole “putting your butt in the seat is 90 percent of doing THE WORK” thing, it’s that other 10 percent that can transform THE WORK into your BEST WORK.

(Yes, I know that not all creative work involves a butt in a seat, don’t @ me.)

I’m going to kick this discussion off with something I heard on a recent episode of the Rope Drop Radio podcast, since I currently have Walt Disney World on the brain.

Also, it’s super-relevant.

In Episode 148, Bad Disney Advice, Derek Sasman and Doug McKnight explain why the whole “don’t get your FastPasses 60 days in advance because you don’t know what mood you’ll be in when you visit the parks” thing is terrible advice:

DOUG: I’ll tell you what mood you’re going to be in, in each park, 60 days out. You’re going to be in the Pandora mood, you’re going to be in the Slinky Dog mood, you’re going to be in the Space Mountain mood, what other mood am I missing? Test Track, Soarin’ mood? Come on, folks. Maybe a Frozen mood? I don’t even know you, and I know what mood you’re in when you’re going to walk around the park. But then you’re going to be miserable —

DEREK: Because you’re going to be waiting in line for two hours [without a FastPass].

DOUG: Have fun with that.

I agree with the gist of this — like, most people who visit WDW are going to want to ride one of the big headliner rides, and getting a FastPass in advance will help with that — but I want to look more closely at the word mood.

Because, as anyone who’s ever done a family vacation (or any kind of vacation) knows, you can spend six months thinking about how much fun it’ll be to ride Space Mountain and then, on the day of, you’ll be in the tired mood or the hungover mood or the my feet hurt mood or the if my dear loved one complains or whines one more time I’m going to scream mood.

So what you actually have to plan for, in addition to the FastPass, is how to be in a Space Mountain mood on the day you’re going to ride Space Mountain.*

I’d say “what does this have to do with creating your BEST WORK,” but I’m pretty sure you’ve already put it together. Planning to work on your project at a certain time, getting your butt in that seat, is only half of it.

The other half is doing your best to come to that seat in the right mood.

This is why you see many creative types say things like “I don’t check the news or social media until I’ve completed my work session, because I don’t want to see something that might turn my thoughts away from THE WORK.”

Why Tara K. Shepersky’s writing ritual included an early-morning walk before she sat down at her QWERTY.

Why I don’t do email until 10 a.m.

Those are just some of the systems and structures people put into place to help them do their BEST WORK — but, as this post title suggests, they aren’t the only ones.

We’ll discuss more tomorrow. ❤️

*Take this advice from someone who had Blue Bayou reservations and then ate this nasty Galactic Grill** meal that made her feel so gross that, two hours later, she wasn’t in a Blue Bayou mood. HUGE REGRETS. 

**Do not make the mistake of walking up to the Galactic Grill and thinking “yay, a place with no line!”

On Preparing Your Audience for the Experience They Want to Have

Soooooo… as I hinted last week, I’m going to Walt Disney World this summer.

(Technically, since I’m going at the end of May, it’s this spring. But it’s after Memorial Day so most of us will consider it “summer.”)

At first I thought I liked Disney parks (and other amusement parks) because I liked rides; after I made my first solo trip to Disneyland two years ago I realized that I loved the solo Disney experience.

I am not the first person to discover that exploring the parks on your own can be, to borrow Disney’s favorite word, magical.*

I haven’t visited WDW since I went with my family in high school literally twenty years ago (I was seventeen); it’s changed a lot since then. Unlike Disneyland, which you can do on a morning’s notice, Walt Disney World now invites — if not requires — you to plan your vacation several months in advance.

And they guide you through the process in a way that is — did I use the word magical already? — fascinating.


The first step in the typical WDW vacation planning process is choosing a resort hotel. (This step tends to go hand-in-hand with picking the vacation dates, though it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing depending on whether you’re more flexible on dates or more flexible on resorts.)

As of this writing, you have thirty-four resort options. Each with a different theme, a specific price point, and the promise of a certain type of experience.

I picked the Port Orleans Riverside resort (which falls in the middle of the price points) because it promised me the experience of elegance combined with nature; I paid $10 extra per night for a garden-view room, and I am already fantasizing about the walking trails.

Port Orleans Riverside is also one of the quieter resorts (it literally has “quiet pools” that are separate from the big waterslide pool where you take the kids, which is in turn very far away from the hotel rooms), so it also promises the experience of being able to retreat and relax after the excitement of the parks.

And, to ensure I get to fulfill that promise of retreating and relaxing and rejuvenating myself amidst all this elegance and nature, I booked a stay long enough to allow me to enjoy both the parks and the resort.

So Disney makes even more money off my visit.**

Win-win.

Once you take care of that hotel booking, you get to start making dining reservations. You can make these reservations 180 days in advance. This is where the typical vacationer starts heading down one of four paths:

  1. “Nope, we’re bringing our own food into the park” (a perfectly viable option)
  2. “Whatever, we’ll figure it out when we get there” (also viable, but it means you and your traveling party won’t be able to get into any of the most popular restaurants)
  3. “Wow, there are a lot of restaurants, this Be Our Guest place sounds good, let’s just pick that one” (totally acceptable)
  4. “I AM GOING TO LOOK AT EVERY RESTAURANT AND EVERY MENU BEFORE I DECIDE” (that one’s me)

Notice how each person and/or traveling party is beginning to refine the experience they want.

Also pay attention to the way that Disney is providing its guests with entertainment — because a lot of us consider shopping and planning and thinking about where we might like to eat entertainment — a full six months before we set foot on resort property.

This entertainment, in the form of choice-making and experience-refinement, proceeds at regular intervals. At 60 days out, resort guests can begin selecting FastPasses (to get a shorter wait on certain rides). Guests that want the best options can set their alarms to 7 a.m. Eastern on their 60-day mark, so they can book at the first possible moment. All of this is exciting and novel and full of possibility.

And then the customized MagicBands arrive. In a beautiful box, in the mail.

And then it’s close enough to your vacation that you can contact your resort to request the individual room or block of rooms you want, if you’re so far down the mouse hole that you’ve researched individual rooms. (That is also me. I am going to make that call. Apparently they try to honor as many requests as possible.)

And during all of this time you’ve probably been buying special clothes to wear on your trip or thinking about the souvenirs you might buy on your trip or drooling over photos of donuts and Dole Whips on Instagram. Maybe you just rewatched The Princess and the Frog because Port Orleans Riverside is Princess and the Frog-themed and you want to make sure to catch all the visual references. Maybe you’re going to watch James Cameron’s Avatar for the first time because you want to ride Flight of Passage.

Etc.

By the time you make your trip, you’ve already been experiencing your Disney vacation for months.


Sooooo…. what does any of this have to do with our creative work?

This:

That kind of tweet serves four purposes:

  1. It presents an honest depiction of what it takes to draft a novel.
  2. It encourages other writers who might be considering drafting a novel.
  3. It begins to prepare readers for the experience they might get with this particular novel. This is a book for people who know what a tetromino is (or who are willing to look it up).
  4. It gets those readers excited about the possibility of having that experience with this novel.

Not everybody is going to be part of your readership or audience, just like not everybody is going to enjoy a week at a Disney resort.

But for those people who are part of your audience, well… let’s just say that I am currently studying the Disney method of bringing you into the experience months before the experience actually begins.***

Because I know I’ll learn something from it. ❤️

*One of the reasons I like going to Disney parks alone is because it is one of the few experiences that feels like the type of immersive exploration you get to do in video games. If you want to wander down some path and see where it leads, you can. If you want to follow the fastest route to the scariest ride first, you can. If you want to sit and enjoy the sensory detail, you can. (You could do a lot of this at any standard nature path for free, but those tend not to have rides. Or soundtracks. Or detailed walkthroughs with six pages of hints and secrets.)

**Arguably Disney would have made just the same amount of money whether I had booked a four-night stay or a six-night stay; they could have sold those other two nights to someone else, after all.

***Yes, I know that Disney is not the only entity to use this technique. Every author with a cover reveal, every movie with a cast reveal and then a poster reveal and then a trailer, etc. etc. etc. does this. But Disney does it exceptionally well.

On Writing That Scene

I wrote that scene this morning.

You know the one.

The piece of the project that inspired the whole project.

The piece of the project that you’ve been carrying in your head (and in your heart) this entire time. Imagining how someone else might react when they get to it. What you hope they might think or feel.

And then you have to write the scene or, if you’re working in another medium, create the moment, however you do it, and it’s never quite what you felt, just like a retelling of a memory is not the same as feeling that memory which is not the same as having that experience the first time.

And part of you is like “Yay! I did it! I got so far into the project that I finally got to write the scene!

And the other part is like “Oh. This is the best I could do at this scene, and it’s already disappointing me, and even though I know I can always revise it I also know that it’ll never be the thing I imagined in my head because you can never make anything exactly like you imagine it.

But hey, I’m 18,547 words into this project and I finally got to write the scene.

And I’ll get to write again next Monday, and add another thousand words to the story. ❤️

How Do We Know When We’re Doing Our Best Work?

My NEXT BOOK draft currently stands at 14,526 words, and I wouldn’t consider any of those words my “best work.”

Not even the 310 words I shared with you last Friday.

It’s some of my most interesting work, and I think the plot is by far my best plot, and the questions it addresses are particularly immediate and relevant to the group of people whom I envision as its ideal readers*, but it’s not my best writing.

Yet.

Which means it’s time to bring up the question that I promised I’d explore at some point: how do we know when we’re doing our best work?

I know that NEXT BOOK is not yet my best work because it doesn’t yet communicate what I want it to communicate to an audience.

That is: I know that NEXT BOOK is never going to be the story I felt inside my head, all at once, when I climbed the stairs of the Brucemore Mansion. That was kind of like… well, I’d been digging at this potential novel about Mars that wasn’t going anywhere, and my mom and I went to tour Brucemore over Christmas because they had all the decorations up, and I saw a staircase that reminded me of the staircase in this mansion that I dream about on the reg, a big old house with a bunch of secret doors and secret rooms, and I was all I want to write about a big old house with a bunch of secret doors and one of the doors leads to another world and the person who knows that has to decide whether she’s going to go.

And then I had to work out the rest of the story, because that’s really only the exposition. The decision process can’t take much more than the first third of the book, because you can’t really dangle a portal fantasy in front of your reader without eventually having your protagonist go through the portal.

So that’s what I did during the rest of the Brucemore tour, in a very general “this is what I want it to feel like” way, and I also figured out who my three main characters were and what they wanted, and then I went to the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams seminar and started studying plot and made everything a lot more specific.

But it’s still not specific enough. With this draft, I’m putting down all the little pencil markings you do before you trace over the markings you want with ink. I’m literally writing down three different ways of describing something and telling myself I’ll pick one later.

(This probably means my actual word count, of “words that form the story and don’t just explore different ways of writing something,” is closer to 14,000.)

So… NEXT BOOK is not my best work (yet), and part of that is because I still have a lot of work left to do.

What about my freelance writing?

I still think that it all comes down to “does this communicate what it set out to communicate,” which in freelancing often includes “does this piece fulfill the client’s specs?” Did I successfully write a 1,000-word article that helps readers decide whether to sign up with Hilton Honors or Marriott Bonvoy?

When I was writing for The Billfold, I got instant feedback on whether my writing communicated what it was supposed to communicate — because if it didn’t, I got dozens of comments either asking questions about the piece or informing me of something I’d neglected to consider. I also had access to the back end analytics stuff, which meant I could see which articles were getting the most views. (This usually means you’ve got a headline that communicates what it’s supposed to communicate, i.e. “HERE’S WHY YOU SHOULD READ ME!”)

I don’t get that kind of detailed analytic information from my current freelance clients, and many sites have stopped doing comments altogether, so it’s harder to tell whether my current posts are doing what they’re supposed to do. Luckily, by this point I’ve had a lot of practice at this kind of writing. Plus, I have a new metric: am I still getting hired? Are my current clients asking me to contribute more work, and are new clients reaching out to me?

At this point, you might be asking “what about, like, beautiful prose?” I enjoy a well-turned phrase as much as the next person, but I stand by my initial assessment that it’s only beautiful if it’s understandable. Even nonliteral writing — our poets, our James Joyces, etc. — is understandable in the sense that it evokes an emotional response in the reader and by doing so communicates what it was intended to communicate.

We get Jabberwocky, even though Lewis Carroll made half the words up.

If we don’t get it, maybe it’s not for us. Maybe we’re not the ideal audience, e.g. “Pixar’s ‘Bao’ Draws Mixed Reactions From White Peeps Who Don’t Get Asian Culture.”

If nobody gets it, maybe it’s not for anybody. Maybe the writer was writing just for themselves and not for an audience. Maybe it wasn’t the writer’s best work.

One more note before I finish this up: when I teach my How to Freelance class, I ask my students to draft short posts “to spec,” and many of them use this assignment as an opportunity to show off the most beautiful and/or clever phrases they can come up with. The problem? Online writing favors clear, simple sentences. I’ve worked with clients that have required me to submit text at no higher than a seventh-grade reading level, because they want to make sure it can be understood by as many people as possible.

In this case your definition of “best work” may be different than your client’s definition — so go with theirs, and find an hour every day to write the glorious, elegant, delightful, quippy little phrases that may someday end up in your novel or memoir or poetry collection.

Make sure you write down every one that pops into your head, so you can go back and choose your favorites when you edit the draft. ❤️

*Ideal reader for NEXT BOOK: the Millennial who totally wishes they could go to a fantasy world if they had the chance, but might not actually say yes if it were offered because they’ve, like, got responsibilities. (Or, more specifically: readers between ages 23-38 who loved Narnia and Harry Potter and The Magicians and want a book where a grown adult in a time period a lot like our own gets the opportunity to travel to a magical kingdom.)

Why Financial Independence Is Like Self-Publishing

As of this morning’s freelance paycheck, I have $100,203.85 in assets and $825.44 on two credit cards that will both get paid off tomorrow, giving me a total net worth of $99,378.41.

I mean, I’m more excited about the “$100K in assets” figure, since I’ve been working towards that goal for a while (even though I know I probably won’t hit a for-real six-figure net worth until I get my next freelance paycheck).

After this, I guess the next big goal is a total investment portfolio value of $750,000, which — at the recommended 4% annual withdrawal rate and the level of frugality I’ve managed to maintain since college — should render me financially independent. 

In other words, I’ll be able to live exclusively off my investments if I choose.

The various online calculators suggest this will happen in the next 10-12 years. I am smart enough to understand that other things may happen in the next 10-12 years to shift that goal, but optimistic and/or dedicated enough to decide it’s a goal worth working towards regardless.

Being able to live half off my investments and half off my freelance writing and teaching and self-publishing income, for example, would also be good.

There are a lot of potential success scenarios here.

There are also a lot of potential success scenarios for a self-published book — like, it’s literally the first lesson I teach in my online Finances of Self-Publishing course (which you can take next month, sign up here).

You could write a runaway bestseller; you could write and publish a book a year and sell it to your 1,000 True Fans; you could write a book to preserve a piece of family history and use tools like Reedsy and IngramSpark to create a beautiful hardback copy that’ll last for generations.

Self-publishing can also get you many of the aspects of “the author’s life” that a lot of us dream about: a book launch party with cake and sparkling beverages, the opportunity to do readings and signings at bookstores and libraries, the professional expertise required to teach classes or speak on panels at conventions. A quiet home office with plants in it. The ability to say “I will block off X amount of time, every day, just for writing my next book.”

(Current NEXT BOOK draft: 12,253 words.)

Of course, you can get the plants and commit to a writing schedule before you finish that first draft — and if you want to learn more about how to do that, you should sign up for my online course How to Develop a Writing Practice, which runs end-of-April through end-of-May. (It’s a self-paced group course, so you’ll take it as a group but won’t have to be at your desk at any specific time for mandatory webinars or anything like that. You’ll be free to do the readings, chat in the group discussion forum, etc. whenever you have time available.)

Just like I’m already thinking about myself as having committed to financial independence — and behaving and budgeting like a financially independent person might behave* — 10–12 years before I’ll actually get there.

But I thought, during my early-morning yoga practice where I usually get my best thoughts, that the whole financial independence thing was strikingly similar to the self-publishing thing. A nearly identical mindset.

Self-publishers take on both the author role and the publisher role. They develop various “success scenarios” for their books — maybe they want to crowdfund their “advance,” the way I did for The Biographies of Ordinary People; maybe they want to sell more than 500 Kindle copies in the first three months**; maybe they want to to go on book tour or get their book reviewed by Kirkus or submit their novel for various awards.

There’s a lot that a self-published author can’t control, such as who wins those awards or how much money Amazon pours into its Kindle Unlimited Fund or whether the market for their particular genre changes, but there’s a lot they can control through research and careful budgeting.

The biggest factor under their control is whether they spend more on their self-published book than they plan to earn (THIS IS THE NUMBER ONE MOST IMPORTANT THING I WILL TEACH IN MY CLASS, BTW).

That’s also one of the biggest factors that will determine whether they’ll self-publish another book and slowly build up a career as a self-published author.

Likewise, the person going after financial independence takes on both the worker role and the employer role, even if they already have another employer. This person is setting aside money for to pay their future salary the same way an employer sets aside money for payroll, and deciding how much they might want to earn in the future the same way an employer decides how much to pay employees.

There’s a lot that this person won’t be able to control, such as whether they get laid off (or lose their biggest freelance client) and have to cut back on their savings goals (or spend money they’ve already saved) until they find another source of income. They won’t be able to control market changes or recessions.

The biggest factor under their control is — you guessed it — whether they spend more than they earn.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because several years ago I got myself into $14K of credit card debt during a period of underemployment. There are 100% for-sure times when you cannot spend less than you earn because you are simply not earning enough. I have been there. Lots of people are currently there.

If that’s where you are, and you’d like to not be there, I’d recommend reading Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence. This book should be available at your local library (get the 2018 edition if possible; if not, the older editions should be just as good though slightly less relevant to today’s economy) and it absolutely changed my life when I read it while working as a part-time telemarketer.

If you like cats and glitter, I also recommend Lillian Karabaic’s Get Your Money Together: An Illustrated Purrsonal Finance Workbook to Help You Budget Your Money, Save for Retirement, and Smash Debt. This book might not be available at your local library, but it’s exceptionally useful if — well, to quote Lillian Karabaic:

I only started teaching personal finance only because I was frustrated with the lack of queer-friendly, feminist, and, most of all, fun personal finance education out there — especially stuff that deals with actual real-life money issues and doesn’t assume you have one full-time job with benefits, 2.5 kids, and a white picket fence.

I’d also suggest reading Grant Sabatier’s Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need, because Grant devotes the first half of the book to “how to earn more money” and the second half to “how to become financially independent,” so if you’re interested in that, go check it out. Literally.

And if you’re interested in the finances of self-publishing, well… you could always take my class. ❤️

*Contrary to popular belief, “financial independence” doesn’t mean “having more money than you could ever spend.” It’s more like you’re paying yourself an annual salary based on your investment returns. Which means you’ll still need to stick to a budget, and in some ways you’ll need to be more careful about your budgeting and spending than a person who isn’t “financially independent.” After all, you want that pool of investment money to last for the rest of your life.

**The average self-published book sells fewer than 500 Kindle copies, so hitting this benchmark is an early sign of success.

On Writing for the Reader, Not (Just) for Yourself

My NEXT BOOK draft is currently at 8,916 words, and I’m hoping to break 10,000 by this weekend.

(Remember, I started drafting on February 21, so… two weeks ago.)

This draft is delightfully messy and somewhat ridiculous, in the “I don’t know which vivid description is the vividest so I’m just going to write three different options in a row and pick one later” sense. It’s a very different process from The Biographies of Ordinary People, in part because it’s a very different book — this story is about mysterious strangers and hidden doors and unexpected worlds, and since I’m not doing the whole “let’s just describe the library in my hometown but make it a little different” thing, there’s a lot more “is it this? is it that? let’s get something on the page now and we can make it more specific later.”

There is one area in which I am trying to stretch myself, and it has to do with something I learned at the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams seminar: whenever possible, make the most exciting choice.

This has made this draft… a lot more fun. 😉

The trouble is that I’m second-guessing myself, a bit, on what I might find exciting compared to what a reader might find exciting. For example: at one point in the story our heroine sees the Mysterious Stranger, for whom she’s actively been looking after committing the grievous error of refusing his initial call to adventure. (Because that’s how heroes journey, y’all.)

So.

Option one: she goes to Mystery House and there he is, just hanging out in the lobby. Meh.

Option two: she goes to Mystery House, thinks he isn’t there, and then when she turns around to leave THERE HE IS. Slightly more exciting. Also kind of cinematic, but in a cliched way. What you’d expect, really.

The option that’s currently in the draft: she goes to Mystery House, does not find him, gets frustrated with this whole biz, pushes her way through a group of people who are getting ready to tour the Historical Landmark House That Is Definitely Not Full Of Hidden Doorways, opens the coat closet, and MYSTERIOUS STRANGER IS THERE AND HE PULLS HER INSIDE.

Now, I’m already seeing as I write this blog post that the way to fix this scene is to change the PULLING ASPECT, which is EXCITING TO ME (because I have had the specific experience of being pulled into a secret makeout nook by this person I had a crush on, and even though I had not verbally consented I had already consented multiple times in my imagination, so I was all, like, finally*) but PROBABLY NOT EXCITING TO EVERYONE FOR REASONS THAT SHOULD BE OBVIOUS, to a BECKONING ASPECT.

I can probably keep the part where he takes her hand. That’s exciting! His mysterious touch is mysteriously electric! I can definitely keep the part where they hang out in the closet until the tour group goes by and then sneak out so they can go into one of the Hidden Doorways, because that’s also exciting IF WE KNOW AS A READER THAT OUR HEROINE WANTS TO BE THERE.

Which I’ve totally established with the whole “she goes back to Mystery House looking for adventure” thing, but could make a little clearer by having him take her hand — or even just hold it out, Aladdin-style — and say something like “Come in,” or “you can hide in here,” or whatever, you get the idea. An exciting version of that.

I mean, there’s got to be some balance at this point in the story, because our heroine isn’t full-on ADVENTURE LET’S DO THIS yet. She’s more like “I can’t stop thinking about that mysterious guy and his stinkin’ mystery doors, so I’d better go back to the mystery house so I can just stop asking myself whether I should go back to the mystery house.” This part of the story shouldn’t be THIS IS EXCITING, it should be more like IS THIS EXCITING? YES IT IS! BUT ALSO A LITTLE SCARY.

But the scary part shouldn’t be WORRYING THAT THIS GUY JUST PULLED HER INTO A COAT CLOSET WITHOUT ASKING.

Okay, so I think I just solved this problem.

Anyway, MAKE EXCITING CHOICES! And then figure out if they’re equally exciting to the reader, for the right reasons.

Also, feel free to take bets on whether any part of the “getting all flirty in a coat closet” thing will make it into the final draft. It’s a little Chronicles of Narnia-esque, plus there are connotations associated with the words “hiding in the closet” that I may want to avoid. So maybe he invites her to hide in the pantry, instead. Or something else. I’ll figure it out. ❤️

*I should note that, although being pulled into Secret Makeout Nook by Secret Crush ranks as one of the best makeouts I’ve ever had, it was also a good prognosticator of the way that very brief non-relationship was going to go (he got to decide when and where and how we interacted, I got the anxiety of sitting around waiting for him to decide to spend time with me). INTERESTING.

How to Look for Owls: On Writing, Ritual, and Intuition

Today’s guest post is from Tara K. Shepersky, a writer who holds conversations with inner and outer landscapes via essays, poems, photos, and feet. Read more of Tara’s work at pdxpersky.com or follow her on Twitter @pdxpersky.

I used to have what I thought was a writing ritual. With earnest intent — though perhaps without full possession of the truth — I could tell you that my setting aside of space and time to write had three ingredients: there was a QWERTY; there was an appointment; and, usually, there was an owl.

Some of this, perhaps, is still accurate. More of it may still be useful, as lessons learned. In the last few days — since I sat down to draft this post, in fact — I’ve felt an existential shift, an unmooring of what I thought my practice was.

I will explain, but be warned: you’re reading this almost in real time. You’ve got a front row seat to the dissolution of a writer’s successful creative practice ritual, and I don’t know what’s going to happen either.


The shift began at depth, impossible to ignore but still unnamed. The way I imagine the Santa Barbara Channel feels, when great masses of cold water from its deepest reaches begin to roil toward the surface. The comparison offers some comfort. In the Channel, upwelling is a regular(ish) phenomenon with useful results: a dense flourishing of microscopic life that in turn refreshes everybody else.

I don’t feel refreshed yet; I just feel cold. But maybe I can look at this as an opportunity to examine the elements of what I thought of as my ritual, and explore what works, what has shifted, and how to create what’s missing.

First, though: why do I need a ritual? What even is that? What use is one to an artist? And why have I never asked myself these questions before?

Religion has been a deep part of my life from birth, one way or another. Both religious traditions I’m connected to are ritual-heavy.* It’s the very thing about them that keeps them grounded, and has kept me coming back for their wisdom. Done well and with love and for a right purpose, rituals help us celebrate and live into what is most important, particularly in the everyday.

You know how sometimes you know you look a certain way — you have blond hair, for example, always have — and then one day you look in the mirror and realize your hair is brown? It’s been brown for months, maybe years, and you never noticed the shift. I wonder if I’ve been coasting in a similar way on my self-image as a “ritual person.” I “know” this is a part of me, and my writing is a crucial part of me, so perhaps I’ve only assumed that ritual plays a part in my writing.

So. A ritual is a set of physical actions performed in a particular order, using (maybe) one or more tools. It functions as a signal, defining, in this case, a mental space which the writer commits to her practice. It helps push aside distractions, settle the mind, and offer reassurance to your imposter syndrome that you, and your art, are worth regular energy and time.

In my experience, rituals work best when you do them regularly. Like anything else, they get stronger with practice. And those times life gets in the way, pleasantly or otherwise, so that you don’t write for a few days? That’s when they really come in handy. They bring you back.

My own supposed ritual has those three components I mentioned earlier. I haven’t asked myself how they function. I’m asking now.

The QWERTY represents the only attention I manage consistently to pay to my father’s maxim of “having the right tool for the job.” I can use a keyboard — specifically this common, adorably named configuration — with the same unconscious ease that shapes a thought in my native tongue. I also use it quickly; it lets my fingers keep so nearly up with my thoughts that I’m rarely frustrated by the lag time. And I can use it by touch, allowing to me look out the window, rest my eyes, sometimes even daydream while still in the flow of composing. So it’s my exact right tool for translating prose to page. And it does just fine for revising — though not composing — poetry.**

The Appointment is critical. It comes from the best piece of writing advice I have yet to receive: show up for the same kind of work at the same time every day. Mary Oliver said it, Nicole wrote it; a little less than a year ago, I finally got the memo.

To really nail this one, you need to know what time of day and under what physical circumstances your mind is most interested and agile, and also most willing to be solitary. Clock-time doesn’t mean much to me, though your mileage may vary. I tune instead to light levels and body rhythms, so my writing appointments begin in the liminal space between night and day, outdoors and indoors, walking and settling. Which brings us to The Owls.

Walking, several miles at a time for pleasure, is so much a part of my life that it’s also part of my identity. So there’s a physical circumstance that meets the above criteria. Walking in the very early mornings, before the dawn and sometimes accompanying its unfolding, is a practice I began as a way to access exercise and fresher air in the over-heated, smoke-choked summers that have become the new normal here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s pure serendipity that I began to do this immediately before my high tide of solitary mental engagement: the first few hours of daylight.

The place I came to favor for these early walks mixes forest and field, wetland and hedge, and it’s less fragmented than most of what passes for “the outdoors” where I live. It’s perfect habitat for barn and great horned owls. Realizing this, and keeping my eyes and ears alert, is all it took for the owls to find me first.

Great horneds are not too talkative in the summer, and their flight is silent, but catch half-sight of one crossing a waxing moon, and you’ll look for them ever after. Barn owls get described as “ghostly,” and indeed they seem this way, in pre-dawn not-quite-light, as you stop in your tracks and try to follow the dipping, fluttering hunt, low to the grass. Your eyesight will fail you; this is not a human hour. From the vagueness comes a sound like a waterlogged zipper, then pale maybe-wings tilting sharply to dodge your confused and clod-bound presence. Then a long cry, soft and terrifying — scraaaaiiil! — and if you didn’t know yet the presence of Mystery, now you are beyond invited — you’re impelled.

After the first encounters, I had to do the work. Owl-listening became something between a habit and a passion. Besides how to find owls (in my particular place), it reminded me how to walk in my surroundings, not merely on them; how to be, as Thoreau said, entirely present “in the woods,” thinking of the woods and not of things outside them. How to meditate, in fact.

And meditation is very good for writing. The regular practice of emptying your mind, then allowing just your immediate experience to fill it, singly and slowly, like dropping pebbles in a pool, both stokes and soothes that restlessness from which you shape the writing you know for truth.

There are about a hundred ways to meditate; mine is to dress in quiet colors and go out to meet the darkness. Before I can completely see the earth and sky, I have to reach for them, feel for them, listen. I enter a state that is set apart, reserved out of regular time for something Other.

So this is a pretty solid ritual, right? Five days a week, rise in darkness to walk a couple of miles with full attention on the natural world and your own internal state. Come home around dawn, at the beginning of peak creative hours, and settle to your practiced partnership with the tool best suited to help you spin experience, emotion, and thought into words on a page.

Here’s the wrench I didn’t know I’d left in the gears, though. I didn’t start meditating by happy accident, and I didn’t start doing it as a way to shape space for my writing. I did it specifically to control my anxiety. There was a synchronicity involved: I discovered that walking with attention was just as good as say, sitting in your bathtub for 20 minutes with the lights off, thinking of nothing in particular. And then I happily combined meditating into my pre-writing walks and thought no more about it.

When I subsequently went back to therapy and (yes, I know this is a big claim, and it’s true) got rid of my general anxiety, the first component of what I had imagined to be my writing ritual sort of… shook itself loose.

I used to return from my pre-dawn forays absolutely itching to meet up with my keyboard. I didn’t always know what I wanted to say until my fingers touched down, but I was that perfect combination of emotionally settled and creatively provoked.

Lately I leave the fields feeling unsettled and unfinished. I still want to write, but I don’t settle to it. The currents that used to push me straight there are shifting, and I’m occupied trying to watch and understand.

My owl-time itself is almost speaking to me about this, insisting it is actually a different sort of ritual, about identity and inner quiet and connection. It used to be a tool, and it wants to be, instead, a deep well and a refuge. I think the direction it’s ultimately pulling me is toward a spiritual practice.

My religious identity is complicated, and I’m so confused about praying I’ve been known to conflate it with my writing practice. So what kind of spiritual practice my owl-walks or their successors want to be is an open question I will take my time and invite all my patience to live into. Meanwhile, there’s this other opportunity: I need a new writing ritual. How do I find that?


Here’s what I know: there is a compass inside me. It pointed toward owl-walking, it pointed toward therapy, and as of the morning I sat down, fresh from the fields, to write this piece, it spun around and pointed clear off the established map.

I’m not sure what’s over there yet. Ever play one of those role-playing video games where the map is covered in fog that dissipates only as you walk right into it? I’m well-practiced at walking into literal fog and darkness; I am totally up for this metaphorical challenge.

So. Watching for the path forward, what else do I know?

I know the QWERTY and the appointment and the timing of that appointment are elements I want in my creative practice. In the not-quite-one-year I’ve set my intention to partner with them, they’ve powered seven drafts of two manuscripts, uncountable new compositions, and 155 single essay and poem submissions. Even when I was too sick to owl-walk, or I couldn’t meditate, or my mind refused me the right words, they helped me deliver.

I also know how to look for owls. It’s a knowing I was graced with at first, and then had to learn in order to continue to succeed. So I know I can learn to follow my compass when it points somewhere I don’t yet understand.

Intuition: that’s probably what this is. I used to believe I didn’t have any. Great at introspection, I never knew where to take what I had learned. My compass has constructed itself over the years through wildly varied efforts to figure that out: psychological study, prayer, meditation, acquiring a contemplative practice, reading tarot. And also just experience. I might be figuring out that the secret isn’t actually knowing. It’s trust.

So I don’t know how my writing ritual will re-shape.*** Nor, since this shift is so much larger than one area of my life, how my spiritual practice will coalesce. Nor how to reckon with whatever else I am without the anxiety I carried for so long.

But I am learning to trust myself to ride the upwelling currents. My compass has let me know when the course is changing; my job is to keep my eye on its dance, and follow. In itself, this trust is more valuable than any specific rituals that result. It is their source, and maybe my access to much that is deep and worthwhile within me. I am so grateful, finally, to have found it.

*I was born, baptized into, and participate today in the Lutheran Church. Some other important connections I discovered in early adulthood, via a moderately traditional version of Wicca. I suppose they do seem quite disparate, on the face of things.

**Poetry, in my experience, happens everywhere except at the neat-and-tidy keyboard, and often inconveniently. It’s the unruly friend you love being around — if she would only stop inviting herself over without notice. (At least she brings wine.) If I specifically want to be the one doing the inviting, I go for a walk and I pay attention. That’s it. Poetry is about rhythm, and so is walking; it’s basic sympathetic magic.

***I do certainly keep trying new ideas. But so far when I reach for one, my compass just wobbles. It’s an encouraging wobble, if that makes sense, but it’s not a Heck Yes. The closest we’ve come is lighting the fire and just staring at the flames until it feels right to pull away. My otherwise well-behaved tuxedo cat, d’Artagnan, takes this as an invitation to shout about how much he has missed me on my walk, and how I should settle in our chair now so he can snuggle. So this may not, in fact, be the best way forward.

The Work You Do While You’re Waiting

So after getting really excited about Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign (and his plan to give every American a $1,000/month Freedom Dividend, plus Medicare for All) I began picturing the future.

I saw myself going to Yang Gang meetings in Cedar Rapids.

Attending the Iowa Caucus, which I’ve never done before.*

Standing in a room filled with balloons and pizza boxes and all the friends I’d made along the way, watching election returns.

But it’s going to be a long time before any of that happens, if it even ends up happening. The Iowa Caucus isn’t until February 3, 2020. A year from now.

A year from now, I might be sending advance copies of NEXT BOOK to industry reviewers. I’ll be one year closer to my goal of being financially independent by 47.** I’ll have been part of at least three and maybe four Chorale Midwest concerts, including our upcoming performance of the Brahms Requiem with Orchestra Iowa. I’ll have taught more classes and written more articles and connected with more people and done many of the things I’m currently hoping I can accomplish.

And my mind has given me pictures of what all of this could look like, down to what I’m wearing and how long my hair might be.***

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that generating a highly detailed mental image of the future you want for yourself actually eliminates that future from the realm of possibility.

Every conversation you rehearse in your head is a conversation that will never take place as rehearsed

You’ve had those conversations in your head, right? You imagine yourself saying something, and then you imagine someone else saying something, and so on?

At some point â€” and I don’t know exactly how I put this together — I realized that every conversation I imagined was a conversation that would never take place in the real world.

Because people aren’t ever going to follow the script I wrote in my head.

So every time I imagined a conversation where I set a boundary and then someone else got really angry with me (for example), I reminded myself that by generating the conversation in my brain, I had pretty much guaranteed that it wouldn’t happen in real life.

This isn’t to say that the other person might not be upset or disappointed with the boundary I set. But they probably wouldn’t react at the level I had imagined, and they definitely wouldn’t use the exact words I had written for them.

Likewise, I might in fact end up wearing a Yang 2020 T-shirt to an election party, but the party will never look exactly like the one I’m currently dreaming.

Nor will NEXT BOOK look exactly the way it did when I first thought it up. I can follow the plot structure I outlined for myself, and build an emotional journey for the reader that’s similar to the one I had when I told myself the story I wanted to tell, but it will still be a different book than the one I initially imagined, because exposing something to the world always changes it.

(This is why so many stories include antagonistic forces — parents, governments, societies — that try to prevent people from learning about the world.)

You can’t have the future you imagine, but you can work towards the future you want

So. Creating some mental image of my sitting at a table with a stack of NEXT BOOK next to me, ready to sign copies for a queue of readers, does in fact guarantee that this particular scenario will never happen.

But it doesn’t prevent a similar scenario from happening.

It doesn’t prevent me from doing the part of the work that might someday get me to that table with that stack of books, e.g. spending one hour, Monday through Friday, working on my current draft.

And when that part of the work is done, turning that hour into editing-and-revisions time.

And, because that part of the work isn’t so far in the future that I have to imagine what it might be like, I can decide what it will be like. Right now. When it will happen and where I will sit and whether I’ll turn my phone and email off while I work.

Likewise, I can decide that today I’m going to do my bit for Yang 2020 by sharing the link to Andrew Yang’s Reddit AMA (which will take place at 2:30 Eastern today, go ask him anything), and I’m also going to share a fun article with my mom on Facebook, and tomorrow I’m going to ask my sister and nephew if they want to do a FaceTime call this weekend.****

HERE’S WHERE IT GETS REALLY INTERESTING

This method works for the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. That terrible scenario you imagine happening to your job or your loved ones or your small business? Those hours/days/weeks you spend waiting to hear back from doctors or lawyers or potential employers? Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Whatever horrible thing you just imagined will never happen. Or, at least, not in exactly that way. No, it won’t happen in the slightly different other way you imagined either. It might still be stressful and difficult and complicated and a lot of work, but it won’t be whatever you just visualized. It can’t be.
  • You can still do small things, every day, to get yourself closer to the experiences you want to have right now — the tasks you want to prioritize, the connections you want to strengthen, the time you want to take to care for yourself, etc. — and those experiences will help you deal with the hours/days/weeks ahead.

I’ve found this to be one of the truest things about life I’ve ever learned. The balance of what you can’t control and what you can.

So that’s what I’m thinking about this morning, mostly because last night I was thinking about how long it was between now and next year, and how I didn’t want to have to wait for what I wanted.

Then I reminded myself that I didn’t have to wait to write another 1,000 words of my draft, or pitch another client, or send my mom something nice on Facebook, or any of the stuff that I thought I wanted in the future but actually wanted — and could go after — right now. ❤️

*I grew up in the Midwest (before leaving to bounce from one coastal city to another and then decide to move back), but I did not grow up in Iowa. My hometown is actually in rural Missouri, a two-hour drive from where I live now.

**My current projections indicate it’s more likely I’ll hit financial independence — aka “the point at which I can live off my investments” — by 50, but that’s just incentivizing me to try to beat that target.

***I’m growing out a pixie cut. “How long my hair might be” is a relevant concern.

****Why not do all of this stuff today? Because you can’t do everything today. Nobody can.