Weird Food Faves and Fails

I admire adventurous cooks. Especially ones who make something out of what’s already in the house instead of going to the store for a double rack or ribs, which requires taking out a meat loan. If it’s in the fridge, freezer, or pantry, it’s fair game. Unless it’s game in the pantry, in which case you have bigger problems than what to eat.

People who cook this way inspired me and my husband to start cooking again after a long spell of frozen, pre-cooked Useless People Meals™. Tom and Leslie had a dish called “Experimental Chicken,” which, as you can probably guess, never came out the same way twice. It did, however, have a consistent theory – chicken, salt, pepper, garlic, and some kind of sauce. Any kind of sauce. Chili. Thai. Mexican. Indian. Martian. (They are both science fiction fans.)

My husband and I were inspired. Our dishes were not just experiments; at times they seemed straight out of a mad scientist’s lab. The trend was encouraged by the fact that my husband likes the one-of-a-kind and slight-irregulars tables at the stores where he shops. He’ll bring home a “unique” ingredient and then try to build a dish around it.

For example, he recently brought home spaghetti sauce in two flavors: regular and chipotle. The only problem was, the sauces weren’t tomato-based. They used pumpkin as the main ingredient. And he decided to try them out not with regular spaghetti, but with spaghetti squash.

Now, I’m not a big fan of spaghetti squash, which I find watery and tasteless. And the pumpkin sauces looked, shall we say, dubious. I instantly knew why they had appeared on the “Manager’s Special” table. But there they were, so in the interest of science and encourage culinary courage, I agreed to try it.

Given the bland nature of spaghetti squash, I picked the pumpkin-chipotle sauce to go with it. We figured out how to solve the wet-noodle problem thanks to Google, which has replaced cookbooks in our kitchen. And Dan decided to add some bite-sized chunks of leftover pork chop because he feels that every meal should contain meat, unless he has to kill it himself.

The first forkful was not inspiring. It was definitely pumpkiny, with a brief finish of chipotle on the back of the tongue. The more we ate of it, the less odd it seemed to get. The result was what I like to call a “Work in Progress” – something that’s survivable but needs either tweaking or a major overhaul before it enters our regular repertoire. I still hope the manager never finds that sauce “special” again, though.

Another one-of-a-kind item that appeared in the grocery bag was apple-bourbon salsa. It struck me as an awful combination for salsa, though I do enjoy peach or mango salsa. But, valiantly, I dipped in a chip and made a discovery. “This is horrible salsa,” I said. It reminded me of all those weird new alcoholic drinks like cranapple schnapps and birthday cake tequila and whatever that liqueur is that comes in a bottle that looks like Oil of Olay.

“But,” I added, “it tastes like pretty good barbecue sauce.” We tried it out on a handy pork loin that had survived in our freezer, and declared it delicious. Now I wish we could find another jar of it.

Our best culinary invention came when my husband, disappointed by a frozen cheeseburger mac that contained only ground meat, macaroni, and cheese, declared, “We can do better than this!”

Our new, improved version included those basics, plus garlic, diced onion, diced tomatoes with green chiles, and diced dill pickles. And way too much cheese – our theory is that everything should come with way too much cheese. Occasionally we add mushrooms or bacon if some happens to be around.

But the ingredient that really makes the dish – and makes it taste like a real cheeseburger – is a drizzle of ketchup over the top. As over the top (sorry, not sorry) as that may sound, it brings the whole dish together. Even I, ketchup lover that I am, had my doubts, but once I tried it I loved it and we have never made this one-skillet meal without it since.

Unfortunately, not every experimental dish goes that well. A man I once knew had a “signature dish” that he regularly made. It started innocently enough, with ground beef and rice in a stew pot. Then it started to get weird. Knorr instant split-pea soup was the next ingredient. After that all cooked together to a porridge-y consistency, at the last moment before serving, he added pineapple chunks “for the contrast in flavor, texture, and temperature.”

And that wasn’t even the worst of it. He made huge batches of it and kept adding things as the days went by. The most, uh, memorable addition was leftover Chinese food. The actual “recipe” has not survived, and neither did the relationship.

The porridge may not have actually ended the romance, but it’s surely no accident that I ended up with a man who at least understands the concept of flavor profiles, even if he does shop from the quick-sale table.

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A Not-Mother’s Mother’s Day Post

This is my mother. I’m not like her – I never had children. But what if I had? What would my life with children have been like?

In my younger days, I never really expected to get married and had never pictured myself having children. But I married in my mid-20s and kind of assumed that I’d have children, or at least one child. I remember telling my husband that if we did so, I would like to have said progeny before I turned 30.

That never happened. Then or later. There are various reasons for that, most of which boil down to choosing not to procreate. Suffice it to say that my husband and I have remained childless, or child-free, or whatever you wish to call it, and (as far as we know) not because of any medical complication.

But recently I stopped to think: What if I had had those theoretical children according to my imaginary schedule? Where would they (and I) be now?

First, I assume they would have been boys with bad eyesight and funny hair. My husband’s family runs not-quite-exclusively to boys, he’s near-sighted and I’m far-sighted, and he has a non-Afro-Afro, which his mother determinedly tried to part and subdue, to little effect.

I also picture them – or him, at any rate – being a difficult child. Dan’s “inner child” is, shall we say, very close to the surface, and I’m certain that among the three of them (Dan, inner child, and outer child), the testosterone level would have been high enough to cause a flight hazard for jetliners. I would have been severely outnumbered and completely unprepared, never having had even one brother. They would have ganged up on me, I feel sure. That would have left me to be the “Bad Mommy,” in the sense of being the one trying vainly to impose a little order, something I’ve never really been able to do in my own life.

Long before now, we’d have been paying for little Jim’s therapy. (James is a name that appears in both our families, so for simplicity’s sake, I’ll leave out all the negotiating that would have happened.) Jim would have needed the therapy because my bipolar disorder would have not just affected my parenting skills, but might have increased his chances of having the disorder too.

(I’m sure there are bipolar people with children who manage somehow, but I don’t understand how they do it. Really, I don’t understand how parents without bipolar do it.)

Most of my friends who reproduced around the same time I “should have” turned out children that are intelligent, sociable, as well-behaved as one could reasonably expect, and likely to be talented at artistic or scientific endeavors. They are now, by and large, collegians, college graduates, and productive members of society – and some even parents themselves. (And wasn’t that a shock when someone I was in Girl Scouts with became a grandmother!)

One or two of the kids have had difficulties of the kind that need extra nurturing and support, or illnesses or conditions that require medical treatment – but there’s no way to predict those or blame them on the parents. Only one that I know of has had trouble with the law, which is a pretty good average, considering all the friends I have and the propensity they’ve shown for reproduction.

The children have brought the families love, satisfaction, struggle, pride, work, expense, joy, tears, and excitement – exactly as we kids brought my parents, I believe. And that’s what I believe children would have brought to me as well.

I don’t regret not having children. Eventually I learned that was not the path for me. But still sometimes I wonder:

Could I have done as well as my friends? As my own mother? I’ll never know.

 

A Brief Guide to Gaslighting

“You’re crazy. I never said that.”

“That’s not the way it happened. You’re crazy.”

“No one believes you. You’re crazy.”

“You’re crazy. You’re just overreacting.”

What do these statements have in common? Obviously, they involve one person telling another that she or he is crazy.

More subtly though, the speaker is saying that the other’s perceptions and feelings are invalid, untrue – wrong.

And that’s gaslighting.

Gaslighting describes a mind game that emotional abusers use to control their victims. (Gaslight is also an old movie, in which a husband uses the technique to try to convince his wife that she is insane.) The victim of gaslighting is usually a woman and the perpetrator usually a man. Of course this is not always true. Either sex can be the gaslighter and either sex the gaslightee.

Back when I was in college and extremely depressed, I had an experience of being gaslit. My grasp on reality was not entirely firm at the time, both because of the depression and because I was physically, socially, and emotionally cut off from the outside world, family and most friends. This isolation left the gaslighter, Rex, in a position of control.

I endured everyday denials of reality, like those mentioned above, but the most obvious one – the one that made me aware that I was being gaslit –happened when I suggested that we go for couples counseling. Rex asked if I was sure I wanted to, as he and the therapist could declare me a danger to self and others and have me put away. That, of course, was not true and I knew it wasn’t, which gave me my first clue that something was amiss.

When we got to the couples sessions, Rex tenderly held my hand and spoke of how concerned he was about me and how much he wanted to help me get better. In other words, he was saying that I was the crazy one and that he wasn’t. That is the very basis of gaslighting – to make the other person seem or possibly even become crazy.

Once a person recognizes the gaslighting for what it is, she can begin learning to trust her own perceptions again. This will not be easy. I know it wasn’t for me.

It took a long time and a lot of healing before I could recognize what had happened, how my circumstances had been controlled, how my perceptions had been invalidated – how I had been gaslit. That was a vast revelation. It was like turning the tube of a kaleidoscope and seeing a different pattern come into focus. The elements that made up my life may have been the same, but the new perspective changed everything.

Having someone outside the situation who can validate your perceptions is an important tool in recovery. Sometimes a friend or family member can perform this function, but mental health professionals who have been trained in the process are often more successful. They are the people we often turn to who can tell us we are not crazy, that our feelings are valid, and that the mind game of gaslighting has affected us.

With help, a person’s thinking becomes more clear, accurate, and trusted. Turning off the gaslight is like turning on a much more powerful kind of light – one that illuminates your life, improves your clarity of vision, and begins to break through the gloom and despair.

And that light is more powerful than gaslight.

 

A version of this post appeared earlier in my “Bipolar Me” blog (bipolarjan.wordpress.com). It proved so popular that I thought I’d share it here.

Why I Wear Plaid Flannel to Work

If you guessed that I’m a lumberjack, you’re wrong.

Photo by Kelly

I am a writer, editor, and proofreader, and I work at home. In my pajamas.

It’s great. My commute to work is from upstairs in the bed to downstairs at my desk. I have a coffee maker in my study and a box of cold cereal under my desk. That takes care of everything from breakfast to my mid-morning break. Lunch is only a kitchen away and the sofa is in the next room for TV watching. Then voilà, I’m all ready for bed again.

Of course, there are other choices than plaid flannel, but I like to stick with the basics. (And, hey, lumberjacks can be beefy and hunky and… stop that, Janet, get back to work! Try to think of Sheldon Cooper instead.)

Personally, I buy men’s flannel pajamas, as women’s have the curse of all women’s clothing – no pockets. At least men’s pajamas have a pocket or two where I can stash my cell phone or a snack for later. And I like my pajamas loose and comfortable. If you can’t be comfortable, there’s no sense in working in your pajamas.

In the summer, I prefer nighties that are basically long t-shirts for comfort and clever sayings and graphics (I ❤ My Bed, It’s Meow or Never, a kitten in an astronaut helmet). Or plain men’s big-n-tall t-shirts, again because of the comfort and the pocket.

It’s true that my study is on the first floor, and has a window that faces the street. Fortunately, there is a strategic shrub in front of it and a set of blinds so that I can keep my pajama-clad work habits to myself. But I live on a little-traveled cul-de-sac and my neighbors already think I’m weird, so it’s really not that much of a problem.

Another problem I don’t have is business meetings. Most are handled by telephone conference calls, so there’s no problem there. But even if I must Skype, all I have to do is keep a respectable top in my study (and not allow the cats to sit on it). No one will ever notice – or even see – my pajama-clad legs. (Or bare legs in the summer.) It gives me a nice rebel feeling too, like I’m getting away with something, which of course I am.

On-site business meetings are something I can well do without. Suit or dress, pantyhose (if anyone still wears those), shoes (instead of fuzzy slippers, part of my usual ensemble), coiffed ‘do (did I mention I can have bedhead or at most a simple ponytail at work?).

To tell the truth, I’ve even worked in my underwear on really hot summer days. You can conduct a phone interview in your delicates (especially if you have plaid panties) with no one the wiser (except maybe the neighbors, see above). Just imagine you have a suit on; people can hear it in your voice. They really can.

Of course, there is one drawback to working at home in your pajamas – cats. Besides sitting on your one respectable blouse, they may try to sit on your lap, keyboard, or papers; or nuzzle your screen; or try to capture your mouse. You can shut the door if you have one, but that will only lead to a lot of meowing, hissing, squabbles, and thumps. (What happens if you have kids, I don’t know. Probably more meowing, hissing, squabbles, and thumps. Plus the kids are likely to want to go to school in their pajamas, citing parental precedent.)

By the way, men can join the work-from-home-in-your-pajamas club too, but since I wear men’s pjs, I think it only fair that they wear women’s.

 

This post was inspired by a comment thread in the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop (EBWW) attendees Facebook page.

 

What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

Better Than Gold and Diamonds

It is a truism that women love gold and diamonds (and are even BFFs with an arrangement of carbon subjected to great heat and pressure). As a truism, of course, it is not always true.

So, as far as other friends go, there are always rubies, sapphires, and emeralds, the other precious stones. And topazes and opals, the hangers-on.

But for me, semi-precious stones and minerals are my best buds. And the only BFF I can choose is amber, which I’ve written about before. (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-pO)

photo by Bob Richmond

My next favorites have to be malachite, lapis lazuli, and azurite, which is like a combination of the other two, visually at least. (I think the chemical composition may differ.)

Malachite, as you can see, is a mineral of varying shades of green, all swirled together. Lapis is a dark blue stone, often with flecks of golden pyrite.

photo by Deidre Woollard

Blend them together and you’ve got azurite, an excellent stone for dramatic jewelry. (I have earrings that look almost exactly like these.)

Looking more like traditional gemstones, because they are translucent, are garnets and amethysts. Garnets are red, though sometimes with a purple or brown tinge that, along with their greater availability, makes them much less valuable than rubies.

photo by Warren Barker

Amethysts are those purple crystals often found inside geodes (round-ish rocks that when split open reveal gorgeous crystals inside). Amethyst comes in a variety of shades, from pale violet to deep purple, with the darker shades being more valuable. Huge crystal amethyst specimens make great coffee table decorations, but again I prefer them for jewelry. Similar in color to pale amethyst is iolite, which has more of a bluish tinge to it.

After the amethysts and similar colored stones, I like many of the minerals, which can also be used in personal ornaments. There are different forms of these stones as well. The agate and quartz families are good examples. Tree agate sports threads and vines of a deep evergreen against an off-white background, while blue lace agate and rose quartz make a lovely combination as beads in necklaces.

Photo by Renee Ford

The jaspers are interesting too. They are usually named for what they resemble. Leopard jasper has dark spots on a yellowish background that makes it look, well, like a leopard’s skin. My favorite of the jaspers in picture jasper, which forms in layers that often resemble southwestern landscapes. It’s not unusual to see picture jasper cut into cabochons (stones that are rounded on top rather than faceted like most of the precious stones) and used as dramatic belt buckles.

photo by PresidenciaRD

Lately, another of my favorite stones is larimar. It is found only in the Dominican Republic (and a few other spots in the Carribean), so it is fairly rare. Larimar resembles turquoise, except that its color is a light, sky blue with occasional swirls of even lighter blue or white. Set in silver, it makes quite a striking appearance. It certainly attracts attention, the most common comment being, “What is that? And where did you get it?”

Of course you can order semi-precious stones and minerals on the internet, but it’s better to find a place where you can examine the pieces closely for flaws, exact color, and even authenticity. Small rock, fossil, and mineral shops, often in the southwestern U.S., are good places to look, as are gem and mineral shows for hobbyists in your local area.

Surprisingly, another good place to look is at science fiction conventions and Renaissance fairs. In both those venues, the desire to decorate oneself combined with lower budgets results in private dealers and hobbyists who display their wares in these locales. (I’ve bought a fair number of my semiprecious stones and mineral jewelry while dodging Klingons and orcs.)

And while you’re at it, don’t overlook the even lesser-known stones, like unakite, which is a dusky green and rose mixture, and zoisite, darker green than malachite and mottled with black, often with ruby inclusions. And aventurine, pale green and translucent. And watermelon tourmaline, which looks like what it sounds like. And hematite, shiny like black chrome. And…and…and….

Ring! Ring! Banana-Gram!

When I was a teen, I once said to my mother, “I think I’ll put a banana in my ear.”

“Why?” she asked, incredulous.

“Because if anyone says ‘Why do you have a banana in your ear?’ I can say, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t hear you. I’ve got a banana in my ear.'”

Mom laughed and said I had my father’s sense of humor. I don’t know what she meant by that, because Dad never told those kinds of jokes.

Later in life I learned that there is such a thing as a “hearing banana.” It’s what results when you have a hearing test that produces an “audiogram.” If your hearing is good, the chart is shaped like a recognizable banana. If your hearing is wonky, so is the banana.

I think the hearing banana must be involved in what are called “mondegreens,” though hardly anyone knows that’s the name for them or where it comes from. A mondegreen is a misheard song lyric that produces an unexpectedly comical result. The term was coined by a woman who misheard the words in a Scottish ballad. The song really said, “and laid him on the green,” but she heard “Lady Mondegreen.”

Perhaps the two best known of these hearing mishaps are “There’s a Bathroom on the Right” by Creedence Clearwater Revival and “‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy,” by Jimi Hendrix. Well, and all the little children who sing, “Stand beside her/and guide her/through the night with the light from a bulb,” which might be better than the original anyway.

It was a running gag on the TV sitcom Dharma and Greg that the character Greg misheard (and mis-sang) various song lyrics. Two of my favorites were “Got a black magic woman/and she’s tryin’ to take a pebble outta me” and “I can see clearly now, the rain has gone/I can see all the popsicles in my way.”

Working in a place where there is canned music playing can spawn mondegreens like crazy. A friend of mine who works in a retail establishment swore he heard a song that went, “I want the royal gravy. I want the royal gravy. I want the royal gravy. Give it to me.” There was another one that he heard as, “Do you want an egg?”

Being a brave sort, he asked his coworkers what the song lyrics really were. They were, respectively, “I want the good news, baby” and “Do you want to dance?”

I suppose I shouldn’t make fun of this guy. When you’re working in a large store filled with bustling customers, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what someone right next to you is saying, much less something that’s coming over the loudspeaker.

And it may be that my friend just gets hungry at work and that’s why he hears songs about gravy and eggs. Or maybe he goes to work with a banana in his ear.

But the most likely explanation is that his hearing banana looks more like a kumquat or a coconut or something.

Or it could be there’s nothing wrong with him at all.

After all, “egg” does sound a lot like “dance.” Anyone could make that mistake.

 

Real Crime and Fake Crime

I am a fan of both kinds.

Perhaps I should say that I am a fan of writing about both kinds. Better known as true crime and mysteries, the two types of writing have made up a large percentage of my reading for many years – as well as science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction that deals with science, nature, adventure travel, and more. (Think Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and you’re in the right area.)

I first got hooked on mysteries when we were visiting my grandmother and I dipped into her collection of Agatha Christies and Rex Stouts. I can’t remember when I first latched onto true crime books, but it may have been around the time of Jeffrey McDonald’s Fatal Vision.

Nevertheless, the two are decidedly not the same and no one should – or could – confuse the two.

Let’s get the really fictional crime fiction out of the way first: cozy mysteries and animal mysteries. Cozy mysteries are the sort with no blood and guts and no actual detective (except perhaps as a minor character to be out-thought by the intrepid librarian, gallery owner, or suburban mom). There is no way to confuse these novels with real life. Sorry, but bed and breakfast owners, golfers, and caterers do not solve crimes (though they certainly can be the victims of them), and the CIA doesn’t recruit grandmothers (though I like Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax series because they contain little travelogues and are soothing when you’re in bed with a cold). In real life, talking animals do not solve crimes either, though dogs may occasionally dig up a bone and thus start an investigation.

The crime fiction that comes the closest to real life is the subgenre called “police procedurals.” They don’t seem to be as popular lately as the police-or-private-detective-identifies-serial-killer-murderer-and-gets-to-be-a-target-as-well ones. But there are definite gems. Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, is perhaps the best and the epitome of police procedurals. The main characters are police officers and the plots bear at least a slight resemblance to, well, police procedure.

In true crime, however, there is no tidy plot, nor a single detective (with or without civilian sidekick). Most real crime investigations involve dozens, if not hundreds of officers – unless they’re “cold cases,” when they might feature at least a handful. In crime fiction, the crime is solved neatly, with no or few loose ends unless a series of books is planned with a continuing arc for the criminal.

What happens in real life is nothing like that. There are crimes that are never solved. There are questions that will never be answered. There are “plot twists” that no editor would approve. In one true crime book I read, the serial killer was caught because he was stopped by a low-ranking police officer for a traffic infraction and was caught with a dead body in the back of his pick-up truck. That would be a crappy ending for a novel, but worked just fine in real life.

Of course, there are other crime-type books that are of interest. There are true-crime works like The Green River Killer (Jeff Jensen) that follow a complex investigation from beginning to end and Ann Rule’s books which read almost, but not quite, like fiction. And there are forensics-based fictionals like those by Kathy Reichs (which are nothing like the Bones TV show supposedly based on them), as well as forensics-based fact books like Teasing Secrets From the Dead by Emily Craig. Legal thrillers like the John Grisham novels also have wide appeal. Again, there are real-life legal cases that are comparable and have the added advantage of being true – Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi being the most famous.

I don’t watch much TV, but there are comparable forms of crime fact and fiction available there as well. Squeezing the cases into a scant hour may be preferable for people with short attention spans, but I always figure that they could, if they chose, read a book for an hour at a time and stretch out the fascination.

On the other hand, if you prefer cookbooks to “plucky baker solves crime” books, there’s plenty out there for you as well.

How to Write When the Muse Takes a Hike

We’ve all had those days when we simply turn away from a blank screen (or a blank piece of paper, if you’re a traditionalist) and say, “I just can’t write today.” And we’ve all had those passionate days when writing draws you to your keyboard and sucks you in and you can’t not write.

But what about those in-between days? Those when you think of writing and simply say, “meh.” How do we find inspiration or motivation or something to get us writing on those days?

There are the traditional motivators: deadlines and schedules. I’ve used both myself. (And most writers cherish the quote from Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”)

In fact, for my blogs I use both. I have a loose schedule in which I start writing on Wednesday and have a hard deadline of Sunday by noon to post them. Those have worked for me. But if I haven’t written anything by Friday, I get nervous, and that motivates me. Or it makes me consider reposting or repurposing an old post or one from the other blog. And repurposing is a form of writing.

But there are also less traditional motivators. Here are a few.

Boredom. This is closely related to avoidance of worse stuff. If there’s nothing happening in your life or in your house (I can hear all you parents laughing), don’t waste your time on tedious household chores. Sit down and write. Unless you’re writing ad copy for funny-looking tables, writing is not boring, or at least not as boring as, say, ironing. The ironing will still be there when you’re done writing. Believe me, no one else will do it. And no one else can do the writing.

Faking it. This has worked well for me when even the writing is boring (see ad copy, above). Pretend to write, just so that anyone walking past your desk will think you are writing. Write just one sentence. I’ve found that if I do that, I pretty much know what the next sentence should be. Before I know it, I’m writing!

If you really want to get some writing done, set out to write the first paragraph. Either you will realize what the next paragraph should be or you will realize that the paragraph you’ve written shouldn’t be the first one. Maybe it needs an intro. Maybe it should come later in the piece. By the time you’ve shoved it down, paragraph by paragraph, you’ll find where it goes, use it as the conclusion, or dispense with it altogether.

Reading. Read with attention and intention. Read something by your favorite writers and try to see the “bones” of their writing. Highlight whatever it is you’re struggling with, be it description, dialogue tags, or first-person narration.

Or read something serious and look for quotes that make you think. Then write about what you’re thinking. Agree or disagree; just write. Read a headline that makes you angry or puzzled or skeptical. Read the article and write a reply to it. Read the newspaper and write an op-ed. If you like, you can call this research, even though it looks to your family or your co-workers like you’re loafing.

Introductions and cover copy. Writing the preface to a book, even one that doesn’t exist yet, will (or should) give you a sense of the theme of the book. So what if you re-write it after you’ve finished the book? It’s a way to get started. Writing the cover copy or inner flap description can make you realize what you need to be writing. Say the cover copy you write says, “A suspenseful thriller that follows in the footsteps of Tom Clancy.” That can make you realize that what your book needs you to write is another suspenseful or thrilling scene. Or that you need to read more Tom Clancy (see reading, above).

Bad writing. You ought to know bad writing when you see it. It’s all around. Say to yourself, “I could write a better short story/blog post/advertisement/headline/sitcom script than that.” Then go do it. Even if that’s not the style or genre you usually write in, do it anyway. You’ll be exercising your brain and writing muscles. And at least you’ll be writing something, not staring at the blank screen or paper.

The future. If you want to be a published writer, you have to write. It’s not enough just to want it. You’ve got to do it. Every time you sit down and write will get you closer to that goal. Remind yourself of that dream and write, dammit! Even if what you write isn’t very good yet, there’s always the next draft, or your writer’s group, or the example of your favorite writers to encourage you.

At first, you may have to trick yourself into writing. But your writing may go more smoothly the next time. And the next time. And the next – until at last you summon the muse or the passion takes over. You know, the way you’ve always heard writing should be.

 

 

 

Is Today a Pants Day?

Believe it or not, there is a holiday on which people walk around with no pants. (This year it’s celebrated on May 4 – the first Friday in May.) There are no official rules, other than not wearing pants and pretending that nothing is out of the ordinary. For the shy men, skirts or kilts may be worn. The traditional way to celebrate No-Pants Day is to ride the subway, but we don’t have one around here, so the idea hasn’t really caught on.

(It is a day, I suppose, to work out those dreams you have when you show up at work with no pants on. My problem is that I dream about showing up naked AND NO ONE NOTICES.)

Having a day to celebrate no pants is all well and wonderful. But what about people who wear no pants year-round? People like me.

As a freelance writer and editor, whose only commute is from upstairs to downstairs, I don’t really have to worry about pants. Other writers I know like to wear pants (or skirts) because it gives them a feeling of being at work officially, even if they’re doing that work in the privacy of their own home.

Not me. I relish the freedom of being a work-from-home person and I almost never wear pants while I work. Oh, in the winter I break out the Sheldon-esque plaid flannel jammies and work wearing those. But when the weather is warmer, I settle for a nightshirt or a t-shirt, sans pants.

Really, I could work in even less, except my study is on the ground floor and there’s a window. There’s a shrub in front of it, but still, I find it best not to encourage the neighbor boys.

I find nightshirts soothing and relaxing and completely conducive to work. They also make it easier for me to take naps in the middle of the day, which is one of the other perks of being a freelancer.

But there’s another aspect of the pants vs. no pants dilemma to be considered. A friend of mine and I refer to days when we actually have the energy to go outside and run errands or be social as “pants days,” because we have to put on pants to do so. He’s a writer too and has as much right to work in his bathrobe as I do.

Plus, both of us are given to spells of depression when we can scarcely get out of bed, much less out-of-doors. So we report, “I’ve had three pants days this week” or “I finally had a pants day yesterday,” and congratulate ourselves and each other for having the stamina to insert legs and zip.

I suppose I could wear a skirt or a dress and call it a pants day, but if I do go out, I almost always wear jeans – unless I’m going to a job interview or a meeting with the IRS. I’d be much more relaxed in pajama pants, but there you are. Society has dumb rules. And please don’t tell me that there are things called pajama jeans. That’s cheating.

And by the way, in case you wondered, for me, no-pants days are also no-bra days – but that’s a subject for another time. (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-c8)