A Song of Gratitude to the Freelancing Life

We biked to where Kilauea is spitting hot lava into the sea—Hawaii is reborn!

We biked to where Kilauea is spitting hot lava into the sea—Hawaii is reborn!

Well, my typing sounds better than my singing, so let’s go with this: This past Saturday, I returned from a month in Hawaii, having spent most of the time on Oahu and some on the Big Island. I don’t sleep on golden pillows, so how could Alice and I take off for (and more tellingly, pay for) a month on a tropical island? (And yes, there were mai tais.)

For the same reason we previously stayed for long periods in the Bahamas, Panama, Mexico and Hawaii once before: freelancing.

The freelancing life can often be a scramble, particularly if you do a fruit salad of contract work like I do. I do B2B and B2C copywriting, edit books (both fiction and non), write essays and journalistic pieces, and travel articles too. I’ve never been able to narrow my work to a niche—something that’s undoubtedly affected my income—because my interests are broad. My writing palette has too many colors, and I find that pleasing. More pleasing yet is that, with the glories of the Internet, my office travels with me. As does Alice’s with her.

Thus, when we read of a house-sitting opportunity on some golden isle, and the setting and the situation fits, we go for it. Most of the time we still work close to our regular schedules, using that Franklinesque early to bed, early to rise admonition. But we get to rise in places like Hawaii! And there’s plenty of time to play, in such places where the play is often plentiful.

Sometimes the Freelancing Life Offers No Gravy At All

But I don’t want to downplay the occasional downers of being a contract worker. You do have to deal with social isolation—if you have a water cooler, you’re usually the only person to lurk around it. Some freelancers I know like to go to coffee shops or other public places to work, but that’s never appealed to me. I like the silence, which gives me plenty of head space in which to fret. And I can always go from my Airstream office in the yard to pester Alice in the house when I need some companionship.

You also have to be comfortable with marketing yourself, and with rejection. I send out a lot of article pitches, and often don’t get a response. A long while back I used to steam about that, but really, what’s the point? I just send more pitches. I still don’t hear back from many, but I’d guess I’ve had at least 40 and maybe 50 paid articles published this year. Here’s one that was in the latest Writer’s Market on one of the themes of this piece, Writing From the Road.

You also have to be comfortable with fluctuating income. As I said, no golden pillows, but I do have socks. I’m not breaking any banks (or breaking into banks), but I’ve been doing this, with a short corporate-writing break, for 25 years, and I’m still here.

But Sometimes the Gravy Is Very Good

I first sketched out above some real benefits of a freelancing life, but here are a few more:

Control: for the most part, you get to choose for whom you work, and what you work on. Sure, freelancers sometimes take on projects that are dull or tedious, but you really do have the choice to say no. And to say yes!

Choice: speaking of choices, they are vast in the freelancing realm. You can work for large businesses and small, you can sell products from your website or a place like Etsy, you can work at 3am if you are a night creature, you can use your expertise to design an online course, you can write books in your downtime, you can take online courses to spruce up your old skills or learn new ones. Choice and control are kissing cousins, but having lots of each is positively positive.

Exercise: one of the choices I make is to exercise every work day. Might be a hike, might be a bike, might be a stroll on one of the many picturesque slough trails in our area. Or if the weather is lousy, a ride on the recumbent bike inside. Many people think that exercise is a tedious chore, but for me, so much the opposite: you get to move the legs, move the blood, see some sights, change your perspective. And maybe eat a larger lunch because you did all those things. I always look forward to the mid-day exercise break, and it’s something that most office workers don’t get a chance to easily do.

Naps: what’s better than a short nap after exercise and lunch? And better yet, on the orange plaid of our ’66 Airstream? I rarely actually go to sleep, but the 20–25 minutes of hazy glow make for a more focused afternoon.

So, freelancing: there might be a pimple or two, and some days the clouds race in, but most of the time, the face and the weather are fine.

Vin Scully and the Voice in Your Head

I must mention a delightful coincidence that came from the Hawaii trip: I got to hear Vin Scully, the legendary voice of the Dodgers, announce his last six games. In the 60s, growing up in Southern California, I was a baseball maniac. It’s not that I simply played baseball a lot (in the streets at home, in Little League, in public parks), but I read bunches of baseball biographies, memorized statistics—even the heights and weights of players. My brother and I would spend hours pitching a tennis ball to each other in our driveway against the back gate. (We used a tennis ball because I’d broken so many neighborhood windows with hardballs.)

I loved baseball, and more so because I heard a voice in my head while I played, declaring my glory on the field. The voice I heard was Vin Scully, the announcer for the Dodgers for SIXTY-SEVEN YEARS. Sixty-seven. Because I’d grown up with Vin, I thought all baseball announcers were like him: sunny, smooth, always ready with a story that no one had ever heard or told before. A great, boundless lover of the game, but never a “homer” for the Dodgers. It’s almost impossible to express what warmth and human connection came through the radio from this modest guy—he was baseball’s easy-spoken orator, an open-hearted genius behind the mic.

There’s a quote from the writer William Dean Howells about Mark Twain that says, “Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes—I knew them all and all the rest of our sages, poets, seers, critics, humorists; they were like one another, and like other literary men; but Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.” Vin Scully was the Lincoln of baseball announcing. It was a profound pleasure that I happened to be in Hawaii to listen to the last of his games, when since moving from Southern California forty years ago, I’d hardly heard him at all.

Vin, you lazy guy, you’re only 88, why not go a few more?

That was a gift from the freelancing life as well—Vinnie, wishing us all a pleasant evening, wherever we are, forever.

[Note: the gracious folks at Invoice2Go, who make simple-to-use invoicing applications for freelancers and the like, are going to excerpt some of this post on their site for a helpful infographic on freelancing tips. Check out their stuff if you have invoicing needs.]

Writers: Drink the Champagne While It’s Bubbling

Yeah, that was a good sentence. Pop the cork(s)!

Yeah, that was a good sentence. Pop the cork(s)!


There’s a lot of dreck you have to wade through as a writer, whether you’re working a day job and writing on the side, working on commercial writing for the dough and on creative writing for the love, or writing creatively full-time. Or maybe writing only a haiku every ten years.

You have to wear the high boots for the dreck wade because the obstacles are considerable:

• The vast numbers of entertainment options these days has most people reading less.
• Self-publishing opportunities (and their variants, like hybrid publishing) are excellent ways for underserved voices to get their works out there. But that means their works are out there competing for mind-time with yours.
• Very few people make a living with their creative writing. In fact, very few people can afford their daily lunch with what they make from their creative writing. (Once in a while I splurge on sparkling water.)
• Maintaining a writing habit, particularly with some of the hindrances above, is challenging, particularly when you get little recognition or praise.
• Some days you just can’t remember how apostrophes work.

There are a hundred and one other ways that writing is hard, but I don’t want to type them out, because they make my nails sore. What I do want to focus on is giving yourself a clap on the back when you take a writing step forward, dreck and all.

Shush the Grumbly Inner Editor
If you have a grumbly inner editor like mine, you hardly ever hear “That’s great! Good work! Do it again!” Instead, you might hear: “That’s how you’re going to phrase that? Sheesh, my cat could write a better line.” But that inner editor is a bully and a fraud.

Instead—and this isn’t at all a call to sugarcoat some writing realities—nod agreeably at that editor, and leave the room he infests. If you wrote 500 pretty good words, whether on an assignment, on a short story or on the novel you’ve been groaning through for six years, acknowledge to yourself that those are 500 pretty good words. Even if they took you a week to write.

They are still 500 pretty good words. And that ain’t moose urine.

Deep Feelings for Fiction
Since I’m the one sitting here, I’ll use me as an example. I am lucky enough to get a fair amount of things published, even enough to buy sparkling water. But almost all of my work that’s out there is nonfiction. And that’s great—really!—and I’m grateful for it.

But the fiction writing, the painting-in-the-mind’s landscape writing? Not so much. I’ve written three novels (well, two-and-a-half, since the latest is a collaboration), but I’ve only self-pubbed one of them and the rest wait for God. I had a small press publish a book of my short stories that has sold enough copies to buy some ice for the sparkling water.

So when any of my fiction gets accepted, it feels like a breakthrough.

Example: a couple of years ago, I wrote a creepy story about a woman who obsesses over her vast horde of realistic-looking dolls in her basement, arranging them having tea, sitting up in conversations on beds, having dinner with guests at tables. Her tenants go down for a look, and weirdness ensues.

I sent it out to a bunch of literary magazines over time, with no acceptance. But I sent it a couple of months ago to Catamaran, a lovely magazine I’d had a nonfiction piece in a ways back, and this week, goodness gracious, they liked it and want to publish it.

So, small victory. But a victory, nonetheless! One that crotchety inner editor can’t take away.

Two items here: celebrate the victories, and keep sending stuff out (and send it out again), because without doing that, no one will ever get a chance to accept it. As for the rejections, cut them into ribbons, mash them up into a malleable pulp, and make a Donald Trump voodoo doll.

(I wrote a post some years back on writing rewards that touches on some of the issues here, and it’s good fun: Tequila and Cookies: Writing Perks to Push Your Pages.)

Writers, keep celebrating the victories, no matter how small. Writers: drink the champagne—then keep writing, to prompt more celebrations.

Deadlines: The Sacred and the Profane

Only 55 years late sending in my jazz class homework—think the teacher will notice?

Only 55 years late sending in my jazz class homework—think the teacher will notice?

Around eight months ago, I saw a notice for a travel writing contest I wanted to enter, so I pulled the site’s URL icon on to my computer’s desktop. Being the tidy sort, my desktop isn’t very cluttered—there are usually only 8–10 items on it, a few related to work that’s current, and a few, like the travel writing contest, related to upcoming prospects or something I’m researching. Or something totally frivolous.

Because of that tidiness trait, I sweep the desktop clean of extraneous things fairly often, so I was regularly reminded—at the very least at some murky level of consciousness—that there was a contest deadline out there in the vague future. Hey, I still had seven months, right? Or was it six?

Even though I have been trying various productivity processes lately (“Get out of bed”), and I could have set an electronic alarm to insist I write the dang thing and get it submitted, I continued to check the link out every month or so and continued to think a bit more about what I’d write about.

Word Seeds Don’t Grow Without Water

Maybe two months ago, I wrote some notes, what I call “word seeds” for the contest essay, sort of scribbled writing prompts that can, even from a single word, provoke a paragraph or two and suggest a structure for an article. But I didn’t check the contest link itself, because, hey, I still had a few months, right? A month away, I did click the link to check the deadline again, and thought, “OK, plenty of time.”

No.

A couple of weeks ago, I clicked on the link, and saw that the article was due THAT DAY. I’d had that wily URL on my desktop for months and months, had patted my ideas for the piece into nice little mental cakes, but hadn’t written a sentence. But, like a shiv to the back, a deadline is very bracing. However, taking my barely germinated word seeds out of their box and growing a 1200-word tree in a few hours is gardening that’s usually beyond my pay scale.

Deadlines, the Bitter and the Sweet

Ahem, the deadline. Deadlines have always had a salutary effect on me, from way back in my college days, having spent four years on the college paper. Even when I’d had a long date with Jack Daniels—such a cute mustache!—the night before, I always made my deadlines. That has been the case for most of my professional life, unless I was in the hospital having a limb stitched back on. I’ve even become much more accomplished in getting pieces in before the deadline, which surprises me more than the publication.

This deadline was personal, not an assignment, but it was still fixed as a deadline in my mind. And I was embarrassed that I’d had it lurking for months, and guilty that I’d written nothing. (That old Catholic in me is always muttering in my subconscious.)

So, to it: I pulled together the convoluted pieces of my story, which is an account of the crazed experiences I’ve had driving in foreign countries (ever destroy your host’s car, anyone?). And wrote, for several hours, with a small break.

And lived.

What I can report is that I made the deadline, and that the article is serviceable—in other words, it’s a decent travel piece, though I doubt it’s a contest winner. But the contest outcome isn’t the point of this post. The point is that a hard deadline can throw ice cubes on your bare back when you’re sleeping, and that you can go from nekkid to clothed, article-wise, faster than you might imagine.

But next time, I’m setting a simple alarm: “Tom, article on nutzoid driving due in three weeks. Start it today.” I’ll keep the ice cubes for my cocktails.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Perhaps everyone would be  in a better mood if someone added a shot of whiskey...

Perhaps everyone would be in a better mood if someone added a shot of whiskey…

Out in the old Airstream office again, starting to work on an essay. “Starting to work” means looking out of the windows for a spell, straightening a counter that’s already ruler-straight, peeking at Twitter—but with eyes wide open, so that a peek becomes a stare—and on and on.

If you’re an at-home working writer, and one for whom discipline is a comrade who sometimes leaves early for lunch, you might shy from the tyranny of the page, and look for like cronies to complain to. But it’s been years since I’ve had office mates that could tolerate hearing my sighs about bad sentence structure over the cubicle walls. Sometimes my cat comes out to the trailer to discuss subject-verb agreements, but most of the time, it’s just me.

A great privilege it is to be able to work from home, and a greater gift to be able to work with words, the dizzying whirligigs that they are. Writers need to sequester their minds in order to stew, consciously or not, over their word soups, but sometimes the kitchen seems a little quiet. The habitual patter of your mind can be a little wearing, especially when it flies off center, and you start thinking things like “Tom, when you tilt your head just so, you look a lot like Madeleine Albright.”

When the Idea Salon Is an Asylum

But when you realize that the errant voices in your head are, shockingly, less crazy than the ones on the Internet, you know that going out in that uncivil commons is no way to relax and exchange ideas in the idea salon, finger sandwiches at the ready. I have a standing policy to not read the comments pages of many postings, because their curdled sourness doesn’t offer companionship to any but the crazed.

Even more crazed than me.

But thankfully there are a few spots on the InterTubes that can offer solace—and even fine writing advice, so you can coddle yourself into thinking you are working, sort of. One of the best is WriterUnboxed, with its daily postings on craft, marketing, personal writing foibles, the publishing industry and much more, written by a splendid range of seasoned experts, newbies and specialists. Equally as helpful as the sound writing advice is the collective community of peers and writing chums, who share comments in the sandbox that are insightful and warm, but without too much mush. (Mush causes mold.)

For writers like me, living in their hollow, echoing wooden heads, a place like WriterUnboxed is a godsend. Now and then, they even let me write something there.

Combat the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer: Collaborate

Another way a writer, who might be out in his ’66 Airstream with screaming orange plaid upholstery for eight hours a day, might reach out and still get some writing done is by collaborating with another writer. Rick Wilson and I have been working on a novel together, based on this short story, for a couple of years, and the final chapter is just a whimsy of words away from being done.

Working with Rick has been delightful, and in the many moments when I’ve staggered in the process and lost my oxygen, he’s opened the valves on new tanks of enthusiasm. And since Rick’s a dentist, I’m going to ask for nitrous for the home stretch. I’ll post more about the book in blogs to come.

Lastly, when a writer is feeling low or lonely, there are the works of other authors to lift and educate. Books are great companions too, and have been through my life. I just finished the delightful and hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I shock myself by never having read a Toni Morrison work before, so Jazz is next.

Books themselves are quiet company, even if the upholstery is too loud.

Writing Ideas Are Spring Flowers for the Plucking

North Flowery Trail

I’ve written before about how writing ideas are everywhere. It’s a commonplace that people ask writers how or where they get their ideas, as though there’s a shortage of the little buggers. Hugely the opposite: whether you are a fiction or nonfiction writer, or both (like me), ideas will rain down on you like monsoon waters—you only need to stick out an empty glass to have it filled.

One of the keys to filled glasses is to Think Like a Writer, which is why I titled my latest book such. Thinking like a writer means that when you see an interesting snippet of news in a magazine article, instead of mumbling to the cat, “That’s interesting,” you go and write down a note to research it further. Writing it down is key, particularly if you’ve reached my state of age-induced somnolence. Ideas are everywhere, but they are like a puffed dandelion’s seeds, which will all blow away unless you capture them.

Wait—Was That a Falling Idea?

This past week is a perfect example of ideas falling on my noggin and me catching them while the bumps were still rising on my head. My sister-in-law was visiting, after having gone to a Mission Day event at Mission San Antonio de Padua. She casually mentioned that she saw an exhibit there from a company called Access Adventures, which provides outdoor recreational opportunities for disabled people.

They provide free “therapeutic driving events” and other special opportunities to people with restricted mobility. The company was founded by Michael Muir, great-grandson of John Muir, and a person who has lived with MS since he was an adolescent. There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.

My Name Is 409 (and I Don’t Do Windows)

My galpal Alice and I had a little dinner party the other night. One of our guests is an old car enthusiast, as am I. He was describing how he is having the 409 engine for a ’64 Chevy Impala SS rebuilt. The guy who is rebuilding it has worked on 409s for thirty years, and nothing but. His name is Jack, but they call him “409.” There’s a story there, so I scribbled it down.

Last, I was skimming through the annual typography issue of Communication Arts magazine. It’s a beautiful design magazine, and I’ve had a mild interest in typography for years. But combine that interest with the one I have for distilled spirits and you have a story knocking: there’s an article in the issue on a design firm (with wonderful images) that designs labels for craft spirits bottles. I write about spirits now and then, and love the labels shown in the article. That’s another potential article I can drink to.

Writing Ideas Not Acted Upon = Dead Ideas

Of course, these are just article ideas. I still have to research a good publication that would be a good fit and that would pay. I have to write the query letter and get it out there. And probably get several query letters out there. Then I have to be on the lookout for new ideas. But as I’m trying to make clear: you don’t have to look that hard, as long as you keep your writer’s eyes open.

This same mechanism of idea and story association works for fiction too. Seeing a face might trigger a story idea (or perhaps more often, a story scene), or seeing a dark doorway, reading an article or having a simple conversation. Truth might be stranger than fiction, but it often provides the match to light the way of a story.

So get out there and look—and don’t get any paper cuts from picking up all those fallen ideas.

Turkeys, Tilted Windmills and Imaginary Writing Enemies

Turks

Yesterday, they conquered my garage. Tomorrow, the Vatican!

There’s a flock of wild turkeys, maybe 20 in all, that has been periodically visiting my neighborhood for the past couple of years. They are expressive birds, and their neck-bobbing, en masse hillside treks, gobbling bursts of flight, and prancing posturing is a pleasure to watch. And to laugh about. Since they frequently pass by my Airstream office when moving through the neighbor’s fields, I have a fine old time seeing close-ups of their antic behavior.

A trio of the males displayed a new move the other morning, when the recycling truck came by on its rounds. It’s a rumblingly loud vehicle, and it descends the narrow road flanking my house with a roar. I was in my yard and three male birds were on the other side of my neighbor’s fence. When the truck began going down the hill above both our houses, I was looking at the birds. When the truck’s clamor hit them, they reared around in unison, facing the truck’s direction. They lined up side-by-side, almost symmetrical, beaks raised and thrusting out, synchronized swimmers on the land.

They froze in this posture, and when the truck passed, they shot their heads forward simultaneously, and as if on signal, together gobbled a furious cry. Then they all ran out to the road, and down toward the truck, which would have taken several hundred turkey soldiers to have taken it down. But these birds were up to the challenge, running in that splaying, hunching, ducking way that large birds do, ready to remove that truck’s transmission and make the world safe for democracy.

Talking (and Thinking) Turkey
Because I often turn these natural neighborhood expressions into writing fodder in my mind, I had a few quick thoughts. One was marveling at turkey bravado—no 6,000-pound truck was going to rumble through their territory without a challenge. The other was to puzzle over turkey thinking: how did these featherbrains come to the conclusion that it was in any way a sound gambit to take on a giant truck armed with three beaks?

That had me musing on the Don Quixote aspect of it all: tilting at windmills, a heroic, impossible—and quite blind—quest. Our birds, no matter the courage tucked in their puffed-out chests, had manufactured an unconquerable enemy where there was none, fabricated a problem out of thin (if noisy) air, and were chasing illusory victories.

Gobble, gobble.

Fewer Writing Turkeys in 2016
I found that colorful scene to be a fine example of how not to treat my writing in 2016. I conjured up a few false enemies of my writing over the past year: treating time as an enemy, writing from a sense of scarcity and not abundance, letting dull doubt overrule my instincts—too many trivial (but in effect, consequential) things to list.

This year, I’m going to work more creatively, not reactively. Not sternly guided by having to write so many words, make this much money, read this many books. But rather, to write at a good pace, without always looking over my shoulder. To write with more feeling. To take energy from idea windmills, rather than joust at them. (And to act less like a turkey.)

How about you?

New Year’s Cake
Feel like getting your writing voice in fine tune? My ebook, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See, is reduced from $5.99 to $2.99 until January 11, if you use the coupon code BM85N on Smashwords. Check it out. There are a couple of turkey stories in there, but only ones that help your writing take flight.

Writing Tips, Ticks and Tics

Malibu, tickled that she's tick-free

Malibu, tickled that she’s tick-free

A couple of days ago, my cat came in with a large tick between her shoulder blades. Ticks are things that should never be invited to champagne parties, debutante balls or bar mitzvahs. They are vile things, going from the size of a fairy’s sneeze to a small olive in a few days by gorging mightily on their host’s blood. When I discovered the tick, I immediately did the wrong thing: I Googled “how to remove a tick from a cat.”

Juggling hand grenades would have been safer. Not only did I learn that ticks can give a cat Lyme disease, kitty paralysis and illegible handwriting, but removing them in the wrong way (and all suggested ways were deemed wrong or contradictory in the next link) would leave behind all kinds of tick mouth machinery, plus a toxic squirt of the poisons ticks carry when the tick-removal service (me), in his stress to remove it, inadvertently squeezes the tick.

The Tick (or Tic) of Writing Paralysis

What has this to do with writing? This: Invariably, with writing projects or assignments pending, my brain freezes. “I can’t write about that, I’m not qualified, I don’t know the subject well enough, the editor won’t like it, my keyboard is dirty.” These are the songs in the skull that stop the first word of a story, article or essay. Thus, after thoroughly immersing myself in how to remove a tick, I got to work: for 24 hours, I fretted on the tick’s removal from my skittish cat, which resulted in my tick swelling a third again in size, and tick lobbyists everywhere rejoicing.

Note: this feckless ticking coincided with me not having started two article assignments for which I had the interviews transcribed and the background info recorded. Why hadn’t I started? My keyboard was dirty. Besides, the editors wouldn’t like what I came up with. [Note, I know from years of experience that just starting writing, even if the writing is crackers, gets the story in gear. But why should I listen to writing tips from me?)

When I touched the tick the next morning, its ghastly growth sickened me. I dithered for a bit, then grabbed Malibu (who is quite resistant to more than a moment’s grabbing), got my fingernails under the hairline and twist-yanked him out clean. She took it placidly. Look, 30 hours of shilly-shallying, and with two seconds of work, tick-free!

Or so I thought. I was astonished when I thoroughly ran my hands through Malibu’s fur again, and I found another tick! Much smaller than his engorged ancestor, but head in, and working away. But this time, I didn’t spend any time thinking about the process. Same procedure, same result: Tick in a jar of rubbing alcohol, cat on the floor not acting as though anything out of the ordinary had happened.

Grabbing the Assignment by Its Bloody Neck

Oh, after I removed the ticks, I started (and finished) one of my writing assignments. I started and finished the other today. I KNOW that I have a brain-itching resistance to starting a piece, I know that once I start that the gates of serendipitous writing will open, but yet, I have to dance this same ding-dang dance almost every time. Ticks me off.

Lesson: just start. Start anywhere, start with random words, start with a single sentence. Type and ye shall be free. And you ticks out there—I’m on to you.

Please share your tick-removal tips (no blowtorches) in the comments. Or how you manage to start a writing project without bedeviling yourself. Happy Holidays!

A Writer’s Muddled Meditation on Gratitude

Oh, let those thanks go out to whoever’s listening (and whoever’s left over)

The other day I was walking with my girlfriend in the semi-rural area around my house. There’s a paved road, though it’s narrow, winding through some brushy, forested hills among which some houses are scattered. There’s a section of our walk that rolls up and down and into a small flat stretch that we call “the hollow.”

There aren’t any houses that look directly into the hollow, which is surrounded by trees and scrubby underbrush. That’s why it makes a great drop-off site for all the miserable trash—mattresses, chairs, even car transmissions—that miserable people toss there, probably when they find out that the landfill that’s a couple miles away charges money for their discards. We’re always trying to get the license number of the nimrods that do this littering so we can report them, but we’ve never caught anyone in the act.

Have at Thee, Varlets!
That’s why when we started down the hill into the hollow and spotted the two standing people, half-hidden by their truck, that I moved toward them. I wanted to catch them in the act of dumping their trash. Alice and I had both already started to memorize the truck’s license number, but we couldn’t quite see what the people were doing, because the vehicle was pulled into the dirt on the roadside, and they were behind the highest part of the truck’s cab.

It wasn’t until we moved almost behind the truck that I figured it out: no trash, no dumping, just an old guy holding a bucket, which he was going to use to rinse the heavily soaped head of his companion—his wife, his girlfriend, his sister?—who was obscured by the suds and a big draping towel. I had been moments from saying, “Hey, are you dumping crap in here?” to them, but realized that this was a spot they’d chosen to wash her hair. Because they had no shower. I glanced away, and glanced at the back of the truck, filled with some boxes, suitcases, a couple of big coolers.

Not just a truck, a home.

My puffed-up righteousness deflated.

Complaining as Reflex
I complain a lot about a lot of things. Some things I can’t do a damn thing about, but I complain anyway. Some things I could do something about, but I’d rather complain. Sometimes I even complain about what I do, which is write on a broad variety of subjects, and often people pay me for that. I even get to write stories, and sometimes I even get paid for those, which seems a bit of a miracle.

But that guy, washing his sweetheart’s head, looked like he had some real things to complain about. Maybe he does. But that’s not my business. My business is to pull some perspective from that moment, and have a little gratitude for how good I actually have it. Being able to work out of my house, writing for a living, having people around who care for me. A few weeks ago, I got to house-sit for five weeks in Hawaii, only because I can freelance from anywhere. That’s pretty good. Damn good.

When we circled back for the second part of our walk, I was thinking I’d like to offer those guys some money, but I didn’t want to insult them with any presumption. But they were gone, and the truck with them. All that was left behind was some watery dirt and a tire track. No garbage, nothing, just a temporary whisper that they had been there.

Cat Vomit? No Problem
But I want to hold on to that reminder, of how good things really are, for a little bit. I want to consciously pull it up when I fling an oath because a client hasn’t understood my work, when the cat has vomited on the bed, when my dinner seems slightly too spicy. It is challenging to be grateful about cat vomit, but occasionally, I want to rise to the challenge.

Hope you’re able to find some flowers in your garden (and can step lightly over the stones).

Words Are Sleeping in Your Keyboard—Wake Them!

Writing by Candle

I begin every working morning with a pre-dawn ritual involving ear-searing animal cries and a hobbled, bleary-eyed march through darkness. Yeah, before six am, I get up to feed the cat. And thus the day—and all days are writing days, aren’t they?—begins. Think of Gustave Flaubert’s approach: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

What Gustave was getting at is that some orderly routines and habits built around a writing practice can give you a sturdy bourgeois frame upon which to hang your original compositions: metaphorical puce feather boas and thigh-high disco boots. Flaubert’s frame is: first there’s breakfast, then the revolution. And no doubt I can be violent in my work: on many occasions, I’ve slashed a worthless “very” or a “just” modifier out of something I’m editing without considering if that errant adverb or adjective has any feelings at all. Take that, unnecessary word!

In that light of bringing the writing mind from sleep to wake, let’s take a candle into the darkened room of my own daily writing world, so that you can compare your animal screams with mine.

The Morning Harkens
Once that cat has done its rooster act in my ear, there has to be stimulants down the throat: coffee. But for me, caffeine’s sweet song is best heard right back in sleep’s chamber: I always bring the warm cups (one for my sweetheart too) back to bed, where we read for a half-hour or so, and dazedly converse.

By six thirty, I’m up just to get down: sitting down to a 20-minute or so morning meditation. I’ve written about this before—the months I’ve been doing this have really made a difference in my days, and in my peace of mind, which can be elusive. That window-washing of the mind is either followed by a quick run through email, answering those things that can be answered in less than two minutes (and sending to the black hole of deletion those mails most deserving).

I’m trying to develop the habit of not burying myself in mail right off the bat, but rather getting whatever writing projects are on for that day in position, whether that’s reviewing where I left off yesterday, or writing article notes, or even putting a bit of concerted writing time in. Then a decent breakfast. (I rarely add bourbon to my corn flakes any more.)

Getting Out of First Gear
Between 8:30 and 11:30 are probably my most productive hours, either delivering words by the count or harnessing ideas to spur that delivery. My work is always eclectic: this week I’m editing two books, one a children’s book and one a book on the history of our financial system (and how it’s bent us into an unbecoming position). We won’t let the children read that one yet. With my broad experience with weddings (more champagne, any one?), I’m working on a long magazine article on how Airstreams were incorporated into five different weddings. The process right now is assembling the interviewees’ answers into something that won’t prompt any divorces.

Pre-lunch Launch
Unless there’s a deadly deadline, I break at 11:30 for some kind of exercise. That could be a nice walk around our semi-rural neighborhood, a walk around one of the many pretty slough trails close by, a walk at the beach, a bike ride, shooting baskets in the driveway, riding the recumbent indoors bike if the weather is unweatherable—anything to move, man!

The freedom to get out and move is one of the greatest things about freelancing. It clears the mind, gets the body breathing, sings lullabies to the soul. And makes lunch taste all the better. What’s almost as good as the freedom to get out and move? The freedom to nap after. For me, twenty minutes in some kind of hypnagogic state after lunch returns me to this world in fine fettle. I really recommend it.

No Swoon in the Afternoon
Back at the keyboard at 1:30 or so, bolstered by another cup o’ joe. If I have a main project, I’ll put a couple of hours in there. When I have two fairly big projects at once, like the two books I’m editing, I’ll often split the time between, so that each work feels fresh. When the later afternoon hours roll in, say between 3:30 and 5, I’m usually all about the housekeeping: check/answer emails, send out article queries, check my calendar for upcoming projects, deal with money matters (where does it all go?), set up any existing projects that need a push for the next day. It’s also when I will work on my own personal writing projects.

But at 5, I’m done. Shut the Mac down, go in and do some stretches, maybe lift some light free weights. (I only want to stay toned enough to easily lift an Old Fashioned or two.) Of course, if I have a heavy deadline, or some project is really flowing, I won’t staunch that river. But I rarely work into the evening hours, because my productivity declines. There’s dinner, there’s PBS, old movies, an occasional inane show, reading—and there is feeling the world breathe and breathing with it.

I do get the iPad out at a couple of points in the evening to check if any client or potential client has asked me for anything, and I might answer a few emails or look at a video of cats teaching French to kindergarteners, but I don’t do heavy screen time after dinner. My life isn’t in startup mode, so I figure 8 or 9 hours of the electron bath is enough.

Do Weeks Ever Really End?
I do work on the weekends, but as a writer, I don’t look at that as work. I’ll usually put in some hours working on personal projects: articles, or fiction, or essays, or like this very Sunday minute, this blog post—but none of those projects pursued with any brain-banging sense of pressure and anxiety. (Well, maybe never is too strong a word.) Weekend writing is an expression of my life. Except for those weekends—and there are many—where we get out of town to see some sights. San Francisco beckons, as does Big Sur, and myriad other places to play. And don’t forget the travel articles that can come of that.

So, how about you? When you night owls are hooting, I’m snoozing. Are you a burner of midnight oil? And some writers I know will only work some prescribed hours, say 10am to 2pm. And then there are those folks out in the corporate wastelands who can only work on their writing after they return home from the cubicle.

That takes some dedication, and I admire that effort. Gustave would be proud.

My Year of Sneezing, Chipotle, and Fake Jon Stewarts

Old calendar

I’m not that big on end-of-year summation or highlight posts. When I read others, I’m reminded of how much I’ve forgotten over the year, or how much I missed. Or worse, who died, and how that makes me feel bad all over again.

If I’d thought of it, I would have kept track of something more arbitrary or offbeat, like “How many times over the year I sneezed more than twice in a row,” or “Which days at lunch I reached for the chipotle pepper and then thought better of it,” or “Day I once again was sure that I saw Jon Stewart at the airport, but it really wasn’t him.” Because sometimes those little forgettables are as much a notable moment as having published something in the NY Times.

Mostly I’m simply grateful for having made it through the year, without major losses. Many people didn’t.

However, in reading some of the advice given by Michael Hyatt on attaining goals, I did decide to put a few in writing for the coming year. He convincingly says that putting an intent down on paper (well, in this case electrons) solidifies it in your consciousness: it clarifies what you want and motivates you to take action, among other things.

In that spirit:

  • I will finish the content of my nonfiction “how to see through a writer’s eyes” book by the end of January [preparing it for epub will take a bit longer]
  • I will publish my second novel by the middle of the year [again, going to be a self-pubbed masterpiece—after I do some master-piecing on it.]
  • I will get an article/essay in a national publication by the end of the year [shooting for NY Times. The travel pieces I’ve had in the LA Times and my work in The American Scholar don’t count.]

And a couple of “soft” goals, which doesn’t mean they aren’t hard:

I’m going to try to be more of service to others this coming year. I can too often get in a crabbed, selfish state, which is fear based. As I recently wrote in a comment on a Jeff Goins post, “I spent too much time working from the poverty mindset last year: too much grasping and the hearing of repeated refrains of the tired song of “me.” This coming year I intend to be of more service to people and to stretch the kinds of writing I do.”

So, yes, giving and stretching—not playing it so safe. But still playing: I’m going to drink more unusual cocktails this coming year, because my sweetheart was given an eclectic collection of bitters—what’s better than adding bitters to make all of life seem a bit more sweet?

Hope you guys had a good year, and that this next is going to be a humdinger. And if you want to write a few of your goals in the comments, who am I to stop you?