Posts Tagged ‘writing’

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Keeping My Resolutions

March 31, 2016

How are your New Year’s resolutions holding up? I’m batting .530.

The year is now a quarter over, and for two reasons I still remember my resolutions for 2016. The first is that, on New Year’s Eve, Vicki and I went to a “letting go” ceremony at my Won-Buddhist temple. Everybody wrote their regrets and missteps of 2015, and then burned them in a fire on the temple deck. When we returned to our cushions, we wrote down what we wanted to do in the new year. After I brought home my list, I glued it to the inside of my notebook for the year (see photo). I use my notebook to jot down ideas and reminders when I’m teaching, or participating in meetings, or other times when I think of ideas or want to remember to do something. I figured putting the list there would help me keep my resolutions top of mind. Yet I hardly ever look at it.

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Resolutions captured at 2015 “Letting Go” ceremony, Won-Buddhist Temple, Chapel Hill.

I don’t need to, for the second reason I still remember my resolutions: Momentum, a MacOS/iOS app for tracking habits. I love love love this app. Each time I do one of the five resolutions I made for myself, I get to check a box on the app, which turns green and makes a lovely little sound. I can see at a glance how well I’ve done over the past week, and how long my streak is for each habit. If I want to measure my progress, with one click I can export the data to Excel, then quickly total how many days, and thus what percentage of the year, I’ve done each habit. I’m a little disappointed that, overall, I’ve done just a bit more than half of all possible actions (reading and Korean are pulling me down). But those numbers are actually amazing, because I’m meeting way, way more resolutions than any other year, because the app, which sits on the dock of my Mac and the home screen of my phone, is always there. The net effect of Momentum: I’m slowly learning some Korean, I’m reading more books than usual, I’m walking/running regularly, I’m meditating more than ever, and I’m writing more than ever.

I am using other apps and web sites to help me reach my daily Momentum goals. If I have 15 minutes to learn Korean, I launch Memrise on my phone. I use RunKeeper to track my walks, runs, yoga classes and meditation sessions. I alternate between “hard copy” books and my Kindle (a must-have for a frequent flyer) and track my progress on GoodReads.

For my writing habit, I am using 750words.com, which I learned about from Vicki. This site, which I’m using right now to draft this post, gives you a blank screen on which to type (at least) 750 words a day. This number is based on a practice recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. She suggests starting your day with a 750-word free write, to get the creative juices flowing first thing. Possible side effects: the processing of dreams and otherwise unearthing of subconscious stuff that may or may not be important to surface, but which help you see what is really on your mind. You earn “points” each month for each day you write, and you earn more points if you write for consecutive days. It’ll congratulate you for streaks of 5 and 10 days (and, I’m guessing, more–so far my best run is 13 days). 

Thanks to methods both old school (writing down goals on paper) and new (apps and web), I’m feeling like I’m using my time this year more effectively than ever before. Even better, I feel like I’m slowly becoming more of the person I’d like to be.

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Sustained Attention

November 9, 2013

We are revising our workshop content, and I love the changes we’ve made. The approach is more positive, more affirming of work, and more active. In fact, our beta tests thus far have left our participants looking exhausted my mid-afternoon. After a session in Hawaii, I fell asleep restless. I couldn’t articulate what was bothering me about the way the day ended. When I awoke, the first two words that popped into my head were, “sustained attention.”

One of the central lessons we are teaching people is that, in an age of constant distraction and overwhelming amounts of information coming at us, we need to be able to give sustained attention to our work. And yet the second half of our workshop was a continuous feed of interruptions: a bit of direct instruction, some quick practice, a debrief, some video, find a new partner, on and on. We were not letting them practice what we were preaching. We need to provide them with some sustained attention to a new skill. I’m not talking about a day-long retreat or an hour-long work session. I think it’s hard these days to give something five minutes of focus.

The same issue has been dogging my lack of a writing practice. This post is an attempt to merge these two frustrations. I’m now going to look at my blogging as a place to practice sustained attention. I figure writing for five minutes is infinitely better than not writing at all.

This has actually taken more than ten minutes. I started on Tumblr, then decided this topic was WordPress worthy. I was briefly interrupted by the guy next to me on the plane here in Atlanta; he needed his charger for his phone while we’re still on the ground.

Here’s my challenge to myself: make a five-minute space in my day to write about something.

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Returning to Ireland

February 13, 2012

The timing is perfect. The day I leave for my fourth trip to Ireland, the NY Times Sunday magazine ran this wonderful piece by John Jeremiah Sullivan on his return to Ireland. Like Sullivan, I figured out not long after my arrival here that being an Irish-American isn’t worth much here. One way of looking at my ancestry is to conclude, “Your family took off while mine stuck it out here. Now you want me to be excited you’re here?” I read Sullivan’s story on my iPad in a restaurant in County Dublin tonight. The place was too nice to call a pub (and the bar was far too small), but it was not a fancy place either. The burgers are 100% Irish beef, and when combined with a pint of Guinness made for a fine meal. The PA played a string of Whitney Houston songs recorded in concert; red balloons painted with hearts were already in place to attract Valentine diners tomorrow. A couple of families were amongst the few patrons at the late hour (after 8:30 pm–a late lunch for my East Coast belly).

When I look at the Irish I see layers. On the surface is the great sense of humor and general decency. But just below that is a sense of caution. This is a people who’ve been invaded, enslaved, and discriminated against for centuries. They’re just coming off the spectacular bursting of their spectacular housing bubble, shattering the newfound confidence borne of the Celtic Tiger; they can be forgiven some caution, especially when an American trainer is selling them a better way to conduct business conversations. (The moxie it takes to tell the Irish how to improve conversation!) They’ve heard it before–and plenty recent enough to be fresh in their memories.

But below the caution is an authenticity I only occasionally encounter in my travels. So many of the people I have met here are so genuinely kind, willing to talk in ways that make American conversation look very very shallow, and almost humble to a fault. I have told new friends how much I love coming here, and they have been genuinely surprised–as if they could not think of a reason why someone not from here would enjoy their country. When the Icelandic volcano gave me an extra week here back in 2010, I decided that rather than continue to visit a couple of different pubs each night, I’d stick to one and see how long it took until the regulars would begin to chat with me. The answer: three visits. By the time I was heading home, it was handshakes and well wishes all around. As Sullivan writes, Ireland is a special place. But the specialness lies much deeper than sparkling green eyes and Clancy Brothers ditties. It is rooted in having felt the limitations and harshness of life and still finding belief and joy. You don’t have to use your ancestry to try to belong to Ireland. Just be yourself, take the time to get to know some people, and they’ll make you feel like you’ve always been here.

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Blogging vs. Term Papers

January 22, 2012

I’m a big fan of Matt Richtel’s writing at the NY Times, ever since hearing him talk about his series on technology and the brain on Fresh Air. Today he has written a piece on the debate in higher education between professors who have their students write “new literacy” blogs and those who prefer the “old literacy” term paper. The argument for the former says that the authentic audience and possibility for response are part of what makes blogging impactful. Supporters of the term paper feel its research, argumentative logic, and structure make it more intellectually rigorous than the blog, which from this vantage point generally looks like so much navel-gazing.

I think the longest paper I wrote in college was a 12- or 15-pager written for a seminar called Photographs as Historic Documents. I researched a Civil War photograph of a Union construction of a railroad trestle. In addition to the paper I gave a short presentation to my classmates and our instructors, the fabulous Wanda and Joe Corn (Joe was my advisor). I remember how great it felt to dive into a topic and to emerge feeling like a bit of an expert on this one glimpse of our nation’s history. I thought it was a highly valuable experience, and I know it helped me develop both analytical and expressive skills.

The flip side to this, of course, is that like most of us, I don’t often do work that produces anything that looks like a research paper, nor does my urge to write ever prompt me to crank one out. Yet intellectual rigor can also be a hallmark of effective blogs–it certainly is something I strive for in my writing. While millions of us blog because it lets us share our passions, reach a real audience, and react to the world around us, the best ones are those that produce new ideas, which we then mix with our own to deepen our understanding of ourselves and the things we care about.

The most compelling idea in Richtel’s piece comes from William Fitzhugh, founder of The Concord Review, a publication of high school students’ research papers. Fitzhugh suggests the issue is not really which form the written expression takes, but rather the lack of reading students are now asked to do prior to writing. What we read is the spring that keeps the ideas flowing in our minds. The worst aspects of blogging–the much-ado-about-nothing posts and vacuous comments–lie in their lack of original thought. So the central concern for us should not be what kinds of writing college students have to create, but the amount of reading they do while writing. This is why liberal education can still serve us well, by demanding broad reading and rigorous writing that feeds ours souls and develops our culture.

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Recommending a Writing Retreat

January 19, 2012

My good friend Angela Winter is co-hosting a retreat focusing on both writing and mind-body practices that can unlock your writing voice. I have found work I’ve done with Angela in the past to be incredibly fruitful, and I would expect nothing less from this retreat. I cannot attend this session but I hope there will be others to come.

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Resisting the Urge to Panic on Monday Morning

August 23, 2010

I woke up later than I’d planned. I’ve got a couple of writing tasks to accomplish this morning so I wanted to dive in early. My immediate reaction is to abandon the things I like to do at the start of the day (like a few minutes of yoga and/or 15 minutes of meditation) and just rush to the keyboard.

But I decided it would be a better plan to sit for the 15 anyway, and postpone the yoga until I need a break–perhaps after the first assignment is done. My hope is that my focus will be stronger if I swallow the panic, slow my whirling brain, then get to work.

I even sat for a couple of minutes at the table and ate my breakfast–no email, no Kindle. It felt great–I am ready to go. But the time of preparation is over. Time to produce. Let’s see what kind of writing this morning’s chosen path helps produce.

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18 Amazing Years

August 6, 2007

Today Vicki and I celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary. That number seems ridiculous–I cannot believe how quickly the years have flown. We had a low-key celebration: listening to a writer at our favorite independent bookseller, The Regulator. Linda Greenlaw is a terrific writer and even better fishing boat captain. She said enough about writing to captivate me, and enough about fishing to captivate Vicki, whose passion for pier fishing in Wilmington, NC, runs at least as deep as the 150 miles she traverses every time she drives there to fish.

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Linda Greenlaw

Then it was off to the Cosmic Cantina for margaritas and burritos on their rooftop patio, then home to watch "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Garden State." This morning we went for a trail run, where it was a bit cooler than out on the street.

We have had anniversaries where we've gone away, and loved the trips, especially to The Pilot Knob Inn near Pilot Mountain, but these last two have been low-key and quiet, and very satisfying, if no less celebratory. We pride ourselves on not taking our great relationship for granted, and we try to resist social pressures that can suggest you have to celebrate your anniversary with a large and expensive meal and/or an extensive getaway. As you can see from the picture of our new table in my post below, we live in a beautiful place, so it's hard to feel an urge to get away.

It's a bit ironic to celebrate a marriage by watching two movies that feature dysfunctional families, but we are terrible Netflix users–often movies sit for months on top of the TV–so a double-feature, even those two features, was another cause for celebration. And we thoroughly enjoyed both movies.

It's now midnight, and though the day has technically passed by, we're going to sip a bit of champagne before calling it a night. My toast can only be in gratitude to Vicki for sharing her life with me, and the amazing impact she has had on each day I have known her.

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