The Power of the Shower Curtain Whiteboard

Hart Fowler is an independent journalist. S. Noelle Lynch is an incendiary nocturnal fiction writer and journalist.

My 24-year-old sister is younger than me, and a third-grade elementary school teacher in DC.  

She said: “We’re not writing anymore. It is all typing on the keyboard and phone.” 

She meant the old-fashioned way of writing it down on paper, in manuscript or cursive. 

10,000 years of script. From cave-drawings to scrolls of papyrus and Gutenberg’s press, to paper, chalkboards, Remington typewriters, legal pads…  and now PowerPoint.

Does writing with pen and ink still serve a purpose?

Yes, and we work to prove it. 

My fiancée and I are both work-at-home-writers, and have found success by organizing our work utilizing the age-old technique of large-scale visual display. The kind that you do not have to plug in.  

It’s like dry-erase board, but bigger and better.           

ENTER: The shower curtain  

Our number of clients and story-ideas grew because we do good work—and good work tends to beget more work, no matter what field you’re in.

We found our growing list of pitches and commissioned work, story ideas and random crude drawings, were constantly running off the edges of medium-sized dry-erase boards. Writing smaller didn’t give us that sense of importance we wanted from the display.

We knew we needed a bigger board, which is a good problem to have.    

But even the largest sized white-boards at our local art store or box stores wouldn’t fit our needs. Ordering an industrial-sized board, like the ones used in boardrooms or classrooms, was unfeasible.  

The epiphany occurred to us while trying to find a toilet plunger at Home Depot in the Bathroom Decor section.

There it was.  

 A transparent 6′ by 8′ shower curtain.

 She looked at me all-knowing.  

I looked back nodding.   

Yes was the answer, and $10 was worth the risk.

We hung it that very night, stretching it tightly with nails as if it were a large canvas.

We asked each other if the pressed creases would present a problem, if the plastic itself would hold dry-erase ink, and if it would just be tacky like you’d imagine a shower curtain could look on the wall.

But the creases came out in the hanging, the plastic held the ink, and it didn’t look bad at all. Our doubts relieved, we immediately began drawing up work-flows, with sections for pitches, work-in-progress, and lead-ideas—and we’ve never looked back.

Here’s why our shower curtain board works:

Writing big feels big

We’re fortunate to have a large office-room with a tall ceiling. Since our shower curtain is mounted with 3 feet between the bottom and the floor, the top stands 10 feet easy. We have to climb up on a chair to hit the high points.

The physicality of that means a bunch. Standing on a chair to write down a pitch—or even better, marking a pitch as accepted—adds a sense of importance that a Google Docs or a spreadsheet doesn’t.

And that feeling is important.  

Like a detective on a cold or hot case, you get to stand back and see where you stand—and climbing a chair to write down your triumphs or failures makes you feel like you are in the game.

Because you are.  

Standard dry-erase markers work great on shower curtains 

Dry-erase markers give us a sharp look, which is key. We use a standard kitchen sponge with a splash of water to wash away edits, and use an old bath towel to dry up the drips.

We use black for pitches, and green for works-in-progress. (One work-in-progress can be the result of 20 pitches, as you probably know.)

We write our current work-in-progress in big letters in all-caps in the most prominent spot on the board, reminding us of the reason for all of this: which is to write, you writer, that’s what we do. 

And naturally, we use green for the color of money, showing us the commercial value of all of our work.

We use blue for submitted pieces, or what we call The Outbox.

We’ve debated using red for late payments from publishers, or to include our freelance balance sheet on the board. That’s a part of freelance life (though we’ve had more good luck than bad with publishers) but ultimately we decided not to display the finance on the board. We chose to write the art things on the board and save the nuts and bolts of commerce and finance for a spreadsheet.

 Which leads us to the last and closing section.   

The Shower Curtain Board is no substitute for Google Docs and/or a spreadsheet

We still use Google Docs and Folders and spreadsheets religiously for organization. When you pitch 20 pubs to get one hit, you need a good place to handle dates and follow-ups.

The beauty of the board is that it complements the rest of our necessary organizational tools. The big visual display is a testament to your work, a physical, visceral element that goes a long way in the impermanent temporal “delete/backspace” world.  

A 6’ by 8’ board can also serve as a large-scale to-do list. Need-be, you can write “buy broccoli” or “toilet paper” and not interrupt what you’re really working on: “Pitch How Retail Employs More than Coal Mines.”

The sense of satisfaction we get from looking at our work on a grander scale than the laptop can provide has helped our morale, confidence and camaraderie immensely, a welcome innovation on an old-fashioned tool that works for us in the fast-moving world of freelance writing.  

It is an age-old technique, after all—writing things down with a pen and ink.

Photo credit: Hart Fowler and S. Noelle Lynch

The Nature of Magic (and the Magic of Nature)

It took me about three weeks to read Maggie Stiefvater’s newest book Call Down the Hawkwhich should say something about how much free time I have these days—and I can’t stop thinking about how one of her characters described the nature of magic:

If you’ve ever looked into a fire and been unable to look away, it’s that. If you’ve ever looked at the mountains and found you’re not breathing, it’s that. If you’ve ever looked at the moon and felt tears in your eyes, it’s that. It’s the stuff between stars, the space between roots, the thing that makes electricity get up in the morning.

[…]

The opposite of magical is not ordinary. The opposite of magical is mankind.

Part of me wonders if this is a direct response to all of the readers (including me) who read The Raven Cycle and wished they lived in a world that had actual magic in it—not like Harry Potter do-a-spell magic, but mystical set-your-intention-and-see-what-responds, draw-a-Tarot-card-and-see-what-it-inspires magic.

But you can only see what responds and what inspires if you have time enough to look.

***

There’s this thing I’ve been trying to do lately, which is basically “no laptop after work,” and the nights I can pull it off are remarkable. The evening stretches into presence, whether it’s me and a group of people singing in a church or me with a book and a candle and a piece of jade in my left hand.

I let myself use my smartphone for podcasts and ebooks and streaming video (the latter because I don’t have a television) but try to stay away from email and social media and web browsers and all the rest of it—which is hard, because that means getting every little fiddly piece of modern life management done during my work breaks, whether I’m ordering groceries, depositing checks, or applying for health insurance (which I really really really need to do this week).

But, as you might have guessed from the fact that it took me three weeks to get through a 480-page book, I don’t get as many no-laptop evenings as I’d like. Sometimes I have to make the choice between “no laptop after work” or “no opportunity to draft MYSTERY BOOK today.” Sometimes it’s more like “if you do not complete your passport renewal application tonight, your passport will expire.”

Which, like, of course adult life has always been like that. I can remember my mother spending her evenings paying bills and balancing the checkbook. You either get those tasks done while you’re “on break” (which can mean feeling like you’ve gone eight hours without a break), or you fit them in after work and on the weekends.

But I don’t yet have the self-discipline to finish my passport renewal application without also deciding to check Feedly and The Washington Post and The New York Times (I have successfully broken the social media cycle, though I may have just substituted feeds and articles for social scrolling), and then the majority of my evening is gone.

And there’s been no magic in it.

Only mankind.

***

We’re coming up on the holidays followed by the fresh start of a new year, which means that I’m thinking about everything I’d like to reshape and recast and resolve and revise and make holy.

Earlier this year, I started doing shutdown rituals at the end of every workday, which really meant turning off email (though I could still use my laptop for literally everything else) and, once I got back from my after-work Les Mills class at the YMCA, lighting a candle.

Now, while there are still a few days left in the year, I’d like to start making a little more space for magic—which seems to mean making more space for nature (yes, plants and candles and baking bread all count as “indoor nature,” also, ask me about the three loaves of bread I’ve ruined in the past week) and more evenings with no laptop and no internet and nothing but the world in front of me.

And then, see what responds. ❤️

Where I Got Published This Week

Lifehacker

The Best Cyber Monday Shopping Strategies

Set Up Balance Transfer Autopayments to Pay Off Your Debt Before the 0% Intro APR Expires

How to Budget for Unexpected Expenses

Why Your Budget Needs ‘Sinking Funds’

Here’s an update on how posts will run starting next week, if you were curious:

MONDAYS will feature insights directly from me.

WEDNESDAYS will feature insights from someone else—guest posts, articles I’ve been thinking about recently, books I’ve been reading, etc.

FRIDAYS will feature writing I’ve done for other publications (the “where I got published” list).

Hope that’ll help you decide when to visit Nicole Dieker Dot Com! Thanks again for your readership and support. ❤️

How Going Incognito Sparked My Creativity and Deepened My Practice

Samantha Hoilett is a freelance content writer and strategist. She’s a specialist in value-packed writing for digital marketing, entrepreneurship, and lifestyle brands. Find her latest writing on Medium, say hi on LinkedIn, or visit her website at forwardthinkingcontent.com.   

“Oh, that’s nice.” If you’re an amateur artist, you’ve probably heard this phrase before—and when you regularly share your art with friends and family, it can get exhausting to hear this canned response. No one is all that interested in your daily sketches, artistic process, or why you chose ink over watercolor. They also don’t understand why you’d practice drawing if you aren’t planning on using your skills professionally.

Although I drew often, I felt like I wasn’t receiving the support my hobby deserved. At times, I was worried I would stop drawing all together. Then I discovered Instagram’s art community—and decided to join it not as myself, but as an incognito artist. Here are the five ways my anonymous Instagram account improved my art:

I could experiment without explaining

When you share your art with friends and family, you’re getting the same perspective from the same people over and over. It can also be awkward when they ask you to explain a piece—Is that meant to be you? Why are there flowers coming out of her head? Does this mean something deeper?

Sharing my art online exposed it to people all over the world, with no explanation required. People take it at face value or provide interesting perspectives I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. For example, one commenter said one of my pieces reminded her of a Polish children’s story she read growing up.

My Instagram account has helped me see my art from fresh point-of-views and get excited to try new subjects. Sharing my art anonymously let me draw things that were deeply me, without feeling like I was exposing the inner workings of my mind to distant acquaintances. 

I could start and stop projects

When you tell your friends and family about a creative project, it can feel like you owe them a regular update. The truth is, creative projects always take longer than people expect—and sometimes you realize the project you’re working on isn’t going in the right direction, or you get inspired halfway through your project to change directions and try something entirely new.

Explaining this to friends and family can make you feel like you failed or disappointed them, when in reality, it’s a healthy part of the creative process. For me, an anonymous art account felt like the perfect workaround. I could experiment with new things, start and stop new projects, and update my audience on my progress without feeling like I had had to provide a success story. It was incredibly freeing.

I could make as much art as I wanted

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” — Andy Warhol 

As amateur artists, we know that creating a final product is a long process. It can feel obtrusive to regularly share messy, unfinished drafts to friends and family. Instead, we only share the final product and hope that the hard work that went into it is implied.

Like the Warhol quote suggests, it’s easy to wait around and see who loved it and who hated it. When you’re finally done, it’s tempting to squeeze out as much praise and recognition as you can before moving on to your next piece. 

Sharing art anonymously on Instagram is a great reminder that it’s not your responsibility if people like your art. Your only responsibility is to never stop creating. You come to accept that not every piece is going to popular, and that not everything you share will be a masterpiece. This same process helps you come to appreciate that your creativity is an infinite resource, and you can always create something new. 

I became a more confident artist

If nothing else, having a private Instagram account has helped me increase my confidence. With friends and family, no matter how much praise they give, there’s always a nagging feeling that their positive words and encouragement only come out of obligation.

Building a small following on Instagram has let me see that there are people out there who enjoy my art and find it worth sharing themselves—even if they know nothing about me. This gave me the extra confidence I needed to keep creating, experimenting, and practicing. 

I found an artistic community

There are millions of people who are Instagram just for joining the art community. By joining this community anonymously, I was able to be honest and vulnerable about my art. I regularly commiserated with fellow artists about the struggles of different mediums, capturing certain emotions, dealing with plagiarism, and other challenges we faced. I got to show up as myself and connect with others who shared similar ambitions.

In addition, this community offers endless inspiration and support for your creative process. In my two years on the platform, I’ve never received a negative comment on my work. Monthly drawing challenges like Inktober keep you motivated and encouraged to keep drawing. Professional artists share their preferred materials, drawing process, and a range of other resources that can help you grow as a creative.

At some point, I believe I’ll be ready to share my account with friends and family. And thanks to Instagram, I feel like I’m a better artist for it.


Maybe This Shouldn’t Be a Daily Blog…

So the other day I was writing about why I thought I probably wouldn’t finish the MYSTERY BOOK draft by the end of the year, and Vaxtyn commented that maybe I should take a blog sabbatical.

I don’t really want to take a blog sabbatical, but I really really like the idea of not blogging every day.

Seeeeeeee I originally intended this to be a daily blog full of rich insights into the art and the finances of a creative practice, and while I began the year writing these long, detailed posts about the work and the life being two separate things and how to earn money from your creative work, I have done a lot of shorter, splattier posts as of late.

HERE ARE SOME FEELINGS

IN ALL CAPS

And so on.

This isn’t exactly what I want for Nicole Dieker Dot Com, especially because my short blah-blogs are now interspersed with more substantive guest posts—and I can’t let the guests be the ones writing the best posts on the site!

Also, you know, because this is theoretically my professional portfolio. So it should look PRO FRESH.

(Also I gotta stop doing the all caps thing. It’s outdated internet language.)

Sooooooooooooooo what if, instead of trying to crank out a post a day no matter what, I only posted when I had something worth sharing?

This solves, like, five different stressors that I knew I’d have to address before the end of the year, specifically:

  1. What am I doing with this blog
  2. I need to drop three discrete writing assignments per week because I am OVERLOADED (and yes, this blog counts as an assignment)
  3. THE BOOK THE BOOK THE BOOK
  4. I want to do better blog posts, not more blog posts
  5. “Like, five” doesn’t have to mean “five,” this time it turned out to mean “four”

So. On to the book, then.

And more posting when I’ve got something substantive to say—which should be at least once a week, don’t worry.

Also, I’ll still do the weekly “here’s where I got published” posts, so you can read everything else I’ve been writing. ❤️

Another Novel-Writing Update, or “Why Did I Think I’d Be Able to Finish This Draft During the Holidays”

So… I am pretty sure I won’t finish MYSTERY BOOK by the end of the year.

First because I followed the Lee Child method of letting the characters tell me where they wanted to go next, which unlocked a new subplot (which is a good thing because I really wanted this book to be closer to 70K words than 50K).

Second because there have been several days in which I’ve chosen to prioritize rest over novel-writing—which actually means I’ve chosen to prioritize other stuff, like client assignments and filling in as a piano accompanist and doing community volunteer things, and then in the time left over I’ve chosen to prioritize rest.

Which, part of me is all “this is the time of year in which people are asked to do a bunch of extra stuff, and here you are doing it, and it’s good to be part of the community,” and the other part is “I have written so many Lifehacker posts about the ways in which our priorities reveal our values, so does that mean I don’t value my MYSTERY BOOK draft?”

And then I remind myself that it took nine months to draft the 90,000 words in The Biographies of Ordinary People Volume 1, and another nine months to draft the 90,000 words in The Biographies of Ordinary People Volume 2, and I’ve been working on MYSTERY BOOK since October 1 and I’ve already got 30K good words. (I had closer to 40K words at one point, and then I chucked a bunch of them out because they led the characters into a corner and then the characters stopped wanting to do things and then I had to open a new doc and paste in only the words I wanted to keep and memory wipe all of the corner-path words from my characters’ heads so they could start making choices again.)

So maybe now really is the time to prioritize holiday caroling at the community center, because MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF YEAR and etc.

But I’ve also got this January writing retreat hanging over me, and although the absolutely eminently sensible thing to do would be to WORK ON THE MYSTERY BOOK DURING THE RETREAT, since the whole point of the thing is to “dive deep into your creative work” and “focus on your manuscript,” the event ends with the opportunity to pitch a bunch of agents.

Which means I feel like I should be in a position to show them an entire finished draft, instead of saying “I’m still working on this.”

Except we’re also going to be workshopping our manuscripts during the retreat, so even if I had a complete draft I’d probably want to rework it after it went through the workshop process. I’m feeling a lot of confusion and stress about this whole “end the experience with an agent pitch” thing, and maybe I should just email the organizers and ask whether we’re supposed to pitch finished work or the stuff we’ve been workshopping for the past week.

I still feel like MYSTERY BOOK is the exact right project for me to be working on right now, because every day that I don’t get to jump into the draft is a huge bummer. (When I was writing that PORTAL FANTASY DISASTER, there was a point at which every day I managed to avoid working on the draft was a relief.)

But I’m pretty sure it won’t be done by the end of the year. ❤️

December Financial Update

Happy December! It’s time for another financial update, so HERE WE GO:

This month's YNAB net worth screenshot.

In December, I received $11,024.43 in freelancing income and $2.51 in publishing royalties. My current net worth is $164,475.44, which is up $10,578.49 from last month’s $153,896.95—and, like last month, a lot of that came from stock market gains).

That said, I haven’t put any money into investments for December yet because I’m holding on some numbers from my CPA. We’re doing 2020 tax prep already, in anticipation of me owing more money than, um, anticipated.

Because I just crossed the six-figure mark in gross freelance income for the year, which—well, I’ve known that was coming for a few months, but it still feels very, very weird.

It took me seven years of full-time freelancing to build up to a six-figure income, and there is no guarantee that I’ll earn this much next year (though I’ve got my schedule blocked off through first quarter 2020 and earnings look like they’ll stay pretty level).

But if you are reading this and are, like, “I’m only making $30K as a freelancer,” I want to say keep working and this kind of career is both possible and achievable.

Though I wouldn’t have believed it was possible until I did it myself.

And I have no idea if I’ll be able to achieve the same thing next year. My gross annual freelance earnings have gone something like $20K, $40K, $60K, $80K, back down to $60K, then this year’s $100K, soooooooo… well, all any of us can do is keep working. ❤️

Yet Another Excerpt From MYSTERY BOOK In Lieu of a More Substantive Post

Because #amwriting. ❤️

(This is one of the sections that doesn’t directly involve any amateur detectiving, so there won’t be any spoilers for the murder mystery plot.)

(Also, you’ll have to read the book to find out what Larkin and her mother fought over. It was a pretty big deal.)

***

Larkin knew that her mother had signed her up for an 8:30 a.m. job interview before the two of them had fallen into their largely un-commented-upon conflict, in the sense that neither of them were really talking to each other except to say the kind of bland, polite courtesies that were intended to assure the other that they were still loved, deep down, underneath all of the anger. They avoided each other in the kitchen and the bathroom, except to say “excuse me” and “thank you for making the coffee” and, as Larkin’s mother had said before Larkin left that morning, “I hope you have a good interview.”

Nothing could be good about an interview that Larkin didn’t want, for a job she didn’t want, at a time of day in which nobody should actually be working, while wearing an armpit-scented suit that fit so badly that she’d had to loop a hair tie through the buttonhole on her pants. Although her mother had not set any of this up as a result of their fight—if anything, it was one of its instigators—it still felt like a punishment. Larkin was being anti-grounded; told to leave the nest and report to duty and strike out on her own (she couldn’t come up with anything but cliches this early). 

The administrative assistant whom Larkin might be replacing did not offer Larkin any coffee. Instead, she let Larkin sit in a black plastic chair while she fielded phone calls, typed rapidly at her computer, and kept the copy machine continuously running. Larkin wondered if she was even qualified to take over this woman’s position, even for two months. She could type fast enough, but she hadn’t touched a phone that wasn’t attached to a pocket-sized supercomputer in years.

And then she was called into another office, and introduced to a couple of people who said nice things about her mother, and asked why she was interested in the job.

Larkin wasn’t expecting this question. Well, she was expecting it at some point, but not right out the gate (cliches, again). She was supposed to tell them a little bit about herself first; set the room at ease with stories of her ambition and competencies. Instead, she said “Because my mom said I needed to get a job.” 

“You know this is just a short-term position,” one of her interviewers told her. “To cover a twelve-week maternity leave.”

“Yes,” Larkin said. “That’s why I’m interested in it.” Good. “Because I don’t want to do this kind of thing forever.” Bad, bad, bad. “I mean, I’m currently working on my dissertation.” Better? Larkin tried to recall how her interviewers had been introduced. She realized that none of the people at the table were faculty; that they were all administrative assistants and HR associates who might very well want to do this kind of thing forever. 

“Larkin, can you talk us through your resume? Have you done administrative work before?”

Larkin had been ready, when she came in, to say something ease-setting about how anyone could make photocopies, and how she’d made plenty of them when she was working for various theater directors  in New York. Now she was pretty sure her name-dropping wouldn’t impress and her joke wouldn’t land. “I haven’t worked the kind of admin job that’s behind a desk,” she said. “I’ve been an assistant director and an assistant stage manager, both of which require a substantive amount of support work including taking notes, typing and distributing those notes, making copies, running errands, and so on. But no, I have not had a job like this before.” She added, as convincingly as she could, “I am eager to learn.”

 “Well, we were hoping to get someone with a little more experience,” another interviewer told her, “but your mother said you were as sharp as a tack.” (Apparently everybody thought in cliches at this time of day.) “Of course we’re interviewing a few other people”—and Larkin knew she hadn’t gotten the job—“but we’ll let you know.”

They stood, Larkin stood, hands were shook, smiles went all around. Then Larkin was escorted outside, into a brilliantly warm October day, the air like a thousand Post-It notes clinging to her skin. It was 8:52 and she had no idea what she was going to do with herself—for the next ten minutes or, if she was honest with herself, the next ten years.

Then she heard a familiar voice call her name.