Tag Archives: work

Show Your Work


“Show your work.” When I was a teacher, I must have said those exact words a million times. Easily. There are a few reasons I wanted my students to show their process, rather than simply writing down an answer.

By looking at a student’s work, I, as the teacher, could identify much more easily the concepts with which he or she needed extra help. I could also give a student credit for any work that was done correctly, even if the answer was not right. Showing the steps of the process can actually help a student get to an answer, because it breaks down the problem into smaller, more manageable chunks and gives the student a place to begin.

Most importantly, a person who writes and shares his or her process becomes more aware of it, and more reflective about it.

The night I read Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, I was so jazzed to get started that I couldn’t sleep. Sure, revealing my efforts and work at all stages of the process is a terrifying prospect. By doing so, I hope to become more aware of my process, to reflect more about it, and to be a little less lazy. Nothing like announcing to all your friends and family that you’re writing a book to motivate you to write the book. We all behave better when other people are watching.

I’ve written before about how much Kleon’s work has inspired and motivated me. I’m grateful for his brief, powerful, practical books that have had such an impact on my creative journey. And perhaps that is truly the most important reason to show one’s work.

The Jacket Copy Assignment

Last Saturday was the first class in a 2-month long novel writing course at Portland Literary Arts, taught by author Emily Chenoweth. Other than those two facts, I know very little about what to expect from this experience. That’s part of what makes it so exciting. Before heading out, I had the usual first day of school nervousness: Will they like me? Will I like them? What should I wear? Where is the bathroom?

I haven’t done something like this – something completely new, completely on my own – in quite a long time. It’s exhilarating.

Emily sent the class an assignment to complete before our first class. She asked us to read examples of jacket copy from any novels we had close at hand, then write copy for the jacket of our own book. It was an interesting experience, writing jacket copy for a book that’s not yet written. I re-read my first attempt, and realized that I was still focused completely on the concept, rather than on what actually happens in the story. Understandable, given the fact that I haven’t written the story, and have very little idea of what will happen.

So, I started again. As I was writing, I realized: Emily’s tricking me into writing an outline! In the past, I’ve written scenes more or less at random, figuring out later how to string them all together. The problem with this, of course, is that I find myself with large gaps, and no ide how to fill them, or I write myself into a corner and end up having to throw out large amounts of writing. I know that throwing out work is always part of the process of creating. But, I wonder if better planning might help me to throw out less. As I wrote my jacket copy, I found myself making decisions, changing my mind, rewriting. And since I was only working with three paragraphs, rather than three pages – or three hundred pages! – the process of playing around with the story felt fun rather than painful, doable rather than overwhelming.

The jacket copy assignment is helpful for those of us reticent about outlining, but hoping to get a little clarity about an idea for a novel. It might even change my mind about planning in general.

Here’s what I ended up with for my work-in-progress, titled Nana’s Bikini.

 

Ginny had been looking forward to her trip to Italy for months. She planned on two weeks of sunning, eating gelato, and making out with boys named Fabio. She certainly didn’t plan on going to Italy with her dour, old Nana.

Now, Ginny’s dream trip is more like a nightmare. Nana walks for miles a day, barely needs to stop for food, and has a seemingly insatiable appetite for stained glass! All Ginny can think about is how to ditch her grandmother and have a real vacation.

It’s not until the travelers get on a train going the wrong direction that the trip starts going right.  In crumbling hotels and beach-side shacks, Ginny sees glimmers of the adventurer that Nana could be. The trouble is, she’s buried beneath layers of cardigan sweaters and sensible shoes, and Nana seems to want to keep her that way.

Nana’s Bikini is a story about mis-matched travelers, about growing up, about letting go, and about gelato. Lots and lots of gelato.

Since writing the story, I’ve tried a few different methods to help me plan Nana’s Bikini. Which does beg the question: Is planning the new procrastinating? Or, an extremely valuable use of time that will pay off in clarity and focus down the road? In writing, it’s not clear what will work, what will benefit the story, what will benefit the process. And that’s part of what I like about it. Making an outline might help. Staring at the trees might help. As I become more prolific, I’m figuring out what tends to work best for me, but writing a story is still a magical chemistry. I’m always tinkering with the balance between the ingredients: the practice of discipline and living with a wide-awake mind.

This Little Life

A news story caught my attention yesterday, a startling story about a group of Taliban soldiers who dressed as Americans in order to penetrate a U.S. military base. As I stood at the stove cooking dinner for my kids, I couldn’t fathom that something like this had really happened. The event sounds more like a movie, or a dream, than real life. Real life – my own life – is the furthest thing from a violent, dangerous event like that.

I struggle, sometimes, to envision a world in which the whole spectrum of experience coexists. How can it be that I am making a vegetable saute while another mother is watching her son leave the house for the last time? We’re all the same, tiny vessels of emotion and intellect, roughly four and a half cubic feet of hormones and synapses, bones and sinew. Each of us is consumed by our own worries and desires, so consumed that it’s hard to have perspective about whether our pursuits are important or meaningful. If I had such perspective, would I still feel anxious that dinner was late to the table? Or that the countertop in our new house might need replacing?

Our lives are all, by definition, small. Our days are tragically short. Our hands only reach so far. Yet, some lives seem smaller than others. As I listened to the world news on the radio, usually not much more than a bit of background noise, I realized that my mind has lately been occupied with issues that are unique to myself and my family: our son’s birth and infancy, our daughter’s needs and schooling, sick relatives, my friends, moving to a new city, finding a house. Big things to me, yet irrefutably small, in the scheme of the world.

I can’t live the life of an Afghan or anyone else. I can only live the life I’ve got, and I am grateful for and baffled by the blessings I have. That can’t be the end, though, to just feel grateful and go on with the vegetables and the countertops. I can only live my life, yes… can only reach my arms so far, yes. But, perhaps they could reach just a little farther? Perhaps my life, while it will always be small, could be just a little bit bigger?

It seems to me that we who are born into a family – or a country, or a time – with so many advantages and opportunities, have more of a responsibility than others do. A responsibility to use whatever meager time and talents we have for something bigger. Sadly, it sometimes feels as though the opposite happens. We who are born into lives of ease, we take it easy. Let others stretch and struggle.

I am grappling with this. It’s easy enough to say, reach. But how?

Playing with Dolls

Two rather serious looking character dolls.

On Mother’s Day, Win presented me with a kit for making wooden figures. She hovered as I unpacked the teeny wooden dolls and acrylic paints, eager to get started. I decided to indulge her; clearly, this was a gift she’d given me with her own enjoyment in mind.

Win had no shortage of ideas for her doll. In fact, she painted it quickly and started on another. Soon, a small flock of wooden figures accumulated on the table, while I was still starting at one bare wooden piece. Finally, I conjured an image of Marin, the main character of the Young Adult book that I’m writing.  I dipped my brush in brown paint and started with the hair.

I have been writing the novel, called Weaving the Sea, for two years. I thought that I knew what Marin looked like. I knew that her clothes would be the plain, rough peasant clothes she chooses over the splendid finery that would be more appropriate for a girl of a noble family.  I knew that her hair would fall in unruly curls.

But, there were other details that I didn’t know until I began painting. For example, I didn’t know that she would wear a red cape, which had, of course, belonged to her father. More interestingly, I didn’t know that her curls would be streaked  with thick ropes of silvery white, a physical manifestation of the mysterious magic that hums through her.

This was such a fun way to explore and discover my character that I repeated the process with Brocht, another important character from the same story. I found that, similarly, there were details that I knew would be present (his dark hair) and others that I hadn’t expected (his bright blue military uniform and his general emo look).

The Marin and Brocht dolls have become an inspiring presence on my writing desk. The characters feel real to me now in a way that they didn’t before because making the dolls forced me to make choices about the characters. And, even though the process felt too playful to be called work, the dolls have moved my writing along in important ways.

I went to the craft store and bought more paints and more dolls so that I could bring this project to my writing group. If I was still teaching in a classroom, I would do this with students, too. I’d ask them to make dolls of the characters in their own writing and of the characters in the books they read, as a creative envisioning practice. It might not be a powerful tool for every writer, but approaching a story from a different direction, and in a different medium, will at the very least give the writer a break and a fresh eye on her work.

One More Makes Four

When I was pregnant with my daughter, people often told me, “It goes by so quickly!” Several times a day I heard this, so frequently that I got a little tired of it. I know now how true the sentiment is, and also how many different things that simple phrase can mean.

It can mean how hard it is to see your sweet baby pass through phases that she will never visit again. These days, I linger over photos of my girl when she was just a baby, and my heart swells with love, along with a bevy of other emotions – nostalgia, sadness, joy, pride. I can not believe that she will never be that size again. Each day that passes is too short, and she changes so quickly in each. Each day she grows up more and more, and she needs me less and less. It makes me want to weep, freeze time, push on her head… anything to slow it all down.

Meanwhile, another voice in my head shouts, “Thank heaven that the time passes so quickly!” Because the truth about parenting is that, while those early days are precious, they certainly don’t leave much time for one’s own pursuits. That the neediness of her infancy is finite means that I get to enjoy parts of me that I’ve sorely missed over the last couple of years. I get to go back to being a creative, social, working, WHOLE person again. And it feels really, really good.

Our little family is pretty sweet right now. The fact that we big people have little people outnumbered means that the dude and I can easily tag team parenting duties, and help each other make time for the things we love and need to do. Living with one child, which used to feel so overwhelming, now feels quite manageable. In fact, living with Winnie has become a little like living with a foreign exchange student. (Not a hot French one, but more like a slightly geeky one from Poland.) We have to explain absolutely everything to her and put up with her hanging around us all the time, but she also says hilarious things because of her limited English skills, and she helps me to see the world in a new and more expansive way.

There are a million reasons to be glad for what we’ve got, and not mess with a good thing. And, yet, messing with it is exactly what we’re doing. We’re having number two.

Deciding to have a second child means signing up for exhaustion, physical and emotional upheaval, dirty diapers, and mountains of laundry, not to mention the strain on our relationships and the cost to our professional lives. But we’re doing it anyway. Why? Are we gluttons for punishment?

Perhaps. But we also know now, better than we did before, how fast these days, weeks, months, and years will fly. How the drudgery will be sprinkled with delicious moments of laughter and delight. How those moments will rush around us like water, buoying us up (and sometimes threatening to pull us under).

I need the miracle and mystery of parenthood in our lives. When our second is born this summer, I know that our hearts will crack open in a million painful and beautiful ways, just as they did when Winnie was born. Only now Winnie will be here, with us. It will also be her world that is shaken and rattled. We will each – all three of us – miraculously become more than we were before. The dude and I will grow to adjust to the new challenges of parenting two children, and our little girl will become a big sister. She’ll face her challenges, too, I’m certain. She’ll be forced to practice patience and compassion, and sometimes she will fail. She will love and protect her sibling, even while she resents and even dislikes him or her at times.

As she accommodates – or not – the newest member of our family, she’ll learn her first lessons about love and all its mysteries. Loving someone when you hate him. Loving someone when you’d rather not. Loving someone, and being in awe of the hugeness and complexity of your feelings. We’ll try to explain it to her, and I’m sure she’ll have plenty to teach us, too. I hear it’s different in Poland.

No Vacancy

My mind is more crowded than the heated pool at the Forks Motel.

Five months ago, I challenged myself to a week-long reading deprivation, inspired by Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. Perhaps a week does not seem to you like a long time to go without reading, but for someone like me who begins to hyperventilate if she’s got free time and no reading material, it seems interminable. Anticipating a week without reading – no magazines, no books, no blogs, no catalogues – is like trying to imagine getting through a week without talking. As in, not impossible to do, but darn difficult. And I couldn’t figure out what the value was. Reading’s a good thing. Right?

Reading is something I take for granted. If I’m eating a meal at home alone, I read. If I’m up early, I read. If the babe is taking an extra long nap, I read. At night, I read. (Sometimes all night.) Reading is a crutch, so I don’t have to think about how I spend my time, or figure out whether there is something more important for me to be doing.

During my reading deprivation, I filled my time with other activities: knitting, thinking, writing letters, sleeping, going for walks. It was refreshing to change my routines; I hadn’t realized how staid they’d become. But, there was another, more surprising, outcome of my reading deprivation. My imagination – no longer populated with the worlds and characters of another writer’s creation – went into overdrive, creating worlds and stories of its own. Walking down the street, thinking about nothing in particular, I found myself suddenly struck by images, stories, characters, and memories. I scribbled away, filling pages of my notebook.

I count this as one of the more important lessons I’ve ever learned about my writing (even though it might seem embarrassingly obvious): that there must be space for it, in my schedule and in my creative mind. When I spend all my free time reading, not only do I not have the time to write, I don’t have the energy for it. I might as well hang a “No Vacancy” sign in my brain. My mental real estate is so taken up with thinking about the stories that other writers have created that I do not have the creative juice left to craft my own.

In these too-short lives of too-finite days, choosing to do one thing is always not choosing to do another. What do I really want? What will I be known for? Much as I love books, I don’t want to be known for being a really good reader. I want to be known for having the strength to attend to my own dreams and tell my own stories. I think of my friends who inspire me daily with their dedication and focus: Tara, who has given up countless evenings of relaxing or socializing to realize her dream of being an actor and comedian; Simone, who sacrifices so much of her own time and resources to nurture her non-profit organization; Julie, who schedules the rest of her life around her wonderful writing. They – and many others who are out there living their dreams – remind me that sacrifice is always the way, and there’s isn’t any other. My big dreams will never be more than that until I  make a habit of choosing to make them real. As one of my first steps, I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November and, if I want that to be successful, I’ll have to choose writing, many times, over many other activities, even when I’d rather not. Especially then.

Five Must-Read Blogs


Young Adult Fiction – YA, to those of us in the know – is all the rage right now. With Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay recently released and following in the age group-transcending footsteps of Harry Potter and Twilight, everyone seems to agree that it’s okay for a grown-up to read a kid’s book. Even the New York Times Book Review concedes that adults – even smart, literary adults – need have no shame about enjoying YA.

What a relief.

As someone who has been reading YA books for quite a while (I started when I was about ten and I haven’t stopped yet), I’m glad that my reading habits are finally on trend. I’m very much enjoying watching some of the most talented storytellers in the publishing business get the rockstar treatment.

Sometimes, I can’t get enough of my favorite authors between the covers of their books. Fortunately, many authors write wonderful blogs. Here are five of my favorite blogs by YA authors. These are a must-read if you are interested in YA fiction, want to learn more about how to be a fiction writer, or simply love reading the musings of interesting folks.

  1. Kristin Cashore, author of the best-sellers Graceling and Fire (Graceling), blogs about everything from the fun – trapeze lessons – to the political – gay rights – at This Is My Secret. Her blog is always thought-provoking and has, I’ll admit, sometimes even moved me to tears.
  2. Maggie Steifvater’s newest book Linger (the follow-up to the wonderful Shiver) debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List this summer. Read her blog The World According to Maggie for funny, inspiring, and PRACTICAL advice on how to draft, revise, write a query letter, and, most importantly, make the time to be creative.
  3. Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing is powerful and haunting – from her YA fiction like Wintergirls
    to her historical thrillers like Fever 1793. And her blog Mad Woman in the Forest is pure inspiration. It is a community of writers with Anderson herself at the helm, equal parts teacher and cheerleader. In August, Anderson encouraged her readers to join her in a month-long challenge to write for fifteen minutes each day. If you have a writing project that’s stalled or you’d like to jump start your creativity, I highly recommend partaking. The challenge can happen any time at all – just start with Day 1.
  4. You know Sarah Dessen for her best-selling books such as The Truth About Forever and Along for the Ride. But do you know Sarah Dessen? Her blog is a personal and funny account of motherhood, writing, and life. She doesn’t sugar coat or pretend that she doesn’t watch TV. In fact, she’s a very vocal fan of Friday Night Lights. Like I said, she’s real. And I love her for that.
  5. John Green is the author of several books including Looking for Alaska and the co-author (with David Levithan) of the recent Will Grayson, Will Grayson And he happens to have the funniest and smartest vlog (that’s video blog to you) in the world. John and his brother Hank – the “nerd fighters” – roam the world making stream of consciousness videos “to decrease the overall worldwide level of suck.” They also post videos to their  vlogbrothers YouTube channel.

It is important to have heroes and mentors, and the writers listed above are a few of mine. I hope you all know – or know of – people who are doing something that you aspire to do, perhaps a few steps (or, in my case, a few hundred steps) ahead of you. Seek out people who inspire you to be better at whatever you aim to do – whether it’s writing a book, running a faster race, baking a cake, or standing up for your beliefs.

GLI: New Community, New Opinions

So, here’s a new project I’m working on: The Girls Leadership Institute Community Site. You’ll find articles by and for girls and women, plus photos and videos of GLI-ers doing their thing and lists of our fun finds. Check it out often, as it will be changing frequently.

My most recent article on that page “Join Team Kristen” explains my growing – and surprising – fondness for a certain actress who portrays a certain vampire lover in a certain teen phenom movie that I just might have seen on a certain opening night.

But that’s all I’ll say about that. At least, for the moment.

Olé to You Nonetheless

I’ve already written (here and here) on this blog that I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I resisted reading it for so long – it just seemed so everywhere, so trendy, so Oprah – but, when I finally did, I found out why readers of all types (yes, though, mostly women) love it. My life is not like Elizabeth Gilbert’s… yet, it is. Reading her story made me think deeply about my own life, about love, about our expectations for ourselves and each other.

And, here she is again, making me think (darn her!). Oh, yes, and inspiring me, too. On her website, Gilbert posted this Ted talk she gave last year about creative genius and where she thinks it comes from. And, you know, my life is not like Elizabeth Gilbert’s, with its awards and accolades. Yet, it is. There is much overlap in any creative life – much to hope for, much to fear.

The speech is funny and inspiring, a morsel of encouragement for a fledgeling, just-trying-to-make-a-go creative type like me to tuck away for a day when the harvest is low. She really gets going toward the end. Here’s my favorite bit:

“If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cock-eyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then olé. And if not, do your dance anyhow. And olé to you nonetheless. I believe this and I feel like we must teach it. Olé to you nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

And, if you’re interested in watching the whole thing:

Internet 1, Shannon 0

After just a day or two of my reading deprivation, I had learned something that, really, came as no surprise. I learned that the Internet wants to take me down.

The Internet was not interested in my week of reading deprivation, and it would not be ignored. The Internet slipped me a rufi, stuck me in the trunk of its car, and dropped me out in the middle of the desert, where I woke up hours later, groggy and confused.

Here’s what happened: I’d read an email from a friend that happened to contain a link. A harmless, friendly little link. Something like, “Hey, here’s this recipe that you might like.” Or, “Here’s an article that’s right up your alley.” And, I’d be all, “Oh, that’s so nice!” Click. And, then, the blackout.

One little click, and then I’m looking at a recipe that actually lives on someone’s cute little cooking blog. So, then, of course, I have to read the whole article about homemade health cookies or how to roast mushrooms. And, then, I see the related posts. So I check those out, too. Or, my eyes happen to scan those clever comments and I end up delving into someone else’s blog so I can see her slightly different approach to fungi. Or, perhaps the blog reminds me of another recipe that I then need to go hunting for…

You get the idea. Perhaps you’ve even visited the blackness of this particular trunk.

The Internet is not evil. Neither are books, or news radio, or papers, or magazines. The reading deprivation is not about judging the quality your reading. It’s about re-claiming your time. And, for me, it’s about becoming aware of my own habits and how they sabotage my productivity on a daily basis. I’m going to start reading again today, and I’m looking forward to delving back into my stack. At the same time, I’m determined to do a better job of safeguarding my work time. Even from friendly little links like this one.

I know you’re out there Internet, and it’s true you’ve got an approachable vibe and an easy smile. But, I’m not answering your calls anymore. I’ll be the one doing the dialing.