Vacation Work

I realize that the cohabitation of the two words in my post title reflects poorly on me as a human being. But as crazy as it sounds, when we leave for a seven-day cruise in the Caribbean this weekend, courtesy of my father-in-law’s 60th birthday celebration, I’m bringing work along — by choice.

I’ve never been on a cruise, but mainly what I imagine, especially with the glorious fact that our children are staying behind, is loads of free time while stuck on a boat (albeit a very large one designed to entertain your every possible whim). And as a writer, I am one of those strange people who devours free time, allocating as much of it as I can get my hands on for penning stories.

No, teaching tasks will not be coming along. I will have my summer syllabus ready to print before we leave. I will email my future students links to the websites on which they can find answers to all their questions. (If you’re one of said students, welcome! Click here.) And the new textbook that I need to read soon will not get anywhere near my suitcase.

Writing is a completely different matter. As many other writers have said before me,

When you tell me about the crazy cat that used to jump on your head every night and meow in your window well if you threw him out, I am filing that nugget away for later use. When I get a dazed look on my face, I am puzzling over a scene in my head. When our conversation fizzles out, I am restraining myself from telling you about the characters that live in my brain.

When we are stuck on the world’s most ridiculously sized boat, I will be scratching ideas for my next novel on a spiral-bound pad of paper.

Can I even describe how much I’m looking forward to this? Sure, I’ll have fun swimming and snorkeling and zip-lining and even ice skating (yes, ice skating on a boat — again, ridiculous). But a full week without the interruption of children will be the perfect opportunity to figure out the story that goes with my two main characters. I’ve been compiling all their adorable quirks in my head; vacation free time will let me explore the sticky tangles to which those quirks will lead.

I plan to buy a brand-new notebook to dedicate to world building, plot planning, and character unraveling, and I’m as giddy about it as a first-grader buying school supplies. Perhaps I’ll even treat myself to a few shiny pens to go with it. While my computer isn’t invited on vacation, especially with the per minute Wifi charges on the cruise (more ridiculousness), pen and paper might be two of the most essential items on my packing list.

So wish me bon voyage, and when I get back, if the conversation should lag, feel free to ask me what I’m plotting.

What about you? Do you ever bring creative-type work on vacation by choice?

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To Sunday Afternoons: A Dedication

I’d like to dedicate this post to the one who made it possible. Sunday Afternoons, how I’ve missed you!

A photo from Old House Online that made me think of you. How great you and I would look together in this setting!

In that quirk of Mormondom, the yearly rotating schedule, it felt like ages since I’ve had you to myself. The 1pm church time — lasting until 4pm! — made me rush past you with barely a chance for a wistful glance, as I had a strict appointment with Dinner Prep right afterward (for our exercise routine, set to the rhythm of chopping and sizzling and boiling).

But now! Now that it’s our congregation’s turn to conclude at noon, three weeks in a row I’ve had the pleasure of your company again, the gift of your lavish hospitality. You are the sort of friend everyone needs: so generous and undemanding. Last week’s sweater you helped me crochet turned out well! And the book I had today: excellent. I’m indebted to you for the hours to relax with it. How good that felt!

(Incidentally, I should introduce you sometime. You and the book would get along. If you come across John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, please say hello!)

In the tumultuous busyness enforced by the totalitarianism of Other Days, there’s rarely a scrap of time for savoring words and ideas. Each is pushed out by the next more pressing one. But you, Sunday Afternoon — you understand that relaxation is an oft-neglected task, a necessary indulgence, a luxury as mandatory as breathing. You, like a shelter, provide the space for reclaiming lost thoughts: searching them out and gathering them up and finding a spot for them and pausing over each one to see how it is doing and what attention it needs. You give me freedom to choose words at my leisure rather than rushing to settle on the first that will do. Other Days may boast of their activity, their capacity, their productivity, their exclusivity, but you deserve praise for your charity.

Thank you, kind friend, for being here for me when I need you. It was hard to be without you so long.

How Many Associations Does It Take to Implant a Word?

This is a post about revision: revising the words we link together in our brains.

A week ago, I decided — based on deep personal reflection — that I had a glitch in my system.

I saw part of this documentary called What the Bleep Do We Know? and learned how much our emotions really can overrun our whole body, producing chemicals in the hypothalamus of the brain that then attach to our cells and literally make every cell in our body crave certain emotions, from the indulgence of overeating to the drama of bad relationships. We hardwire our own brains, forming our habits based on the neural connections of the way we process our thoughts. The more you use a certain connection, the thicker the bandwidth becomes, so to speak, the faster the brain leaps to the habitual response, and the harder it is to unlearn it.

So when after watching the clip I suddenly recognized my own horrible thought process, I knew I had to work fast and hard to stop it.

The trouble? I’m stingy.

Who would have thought? Certainly not me! I’m an optimist, I guess, in that I had called it lots of nicer names like “frugal” and “efficient” and so on. But I woke up to the fact that it had gone too far because I realized that I constantly horde my time, my energy, my attention, etc, trying to grab ahold of as much of it as I can to keep for myself. Maybe it can be partially excused as a gut reaction to the overwhelming demand of three small children and wanting to preserve as much of my own life as possible. But anyhow, the point was that I didn’t want to be that way.

I didn’t want my automatic thought process to be self-pitying, begrudging my kids for taking up “my” time. Instead, I wanted to be generous — and plant the word “generosity” so firmly in my brain that it would create a detour from my stingy ways.

But how do you undo those high-speed bandwidths in your head? From what little brain science I’ve read, the best strategy is to form as many new connections as possible. The more threads you create between an existing idea and a new one in your brain, the more likely you are to remember the new idea.

Here’s a sampling of what I did.

First, I came up with a new “affirmation,” meaning a new truth to replace the old notions. It’s not enough to negate the old one; you have to move it out of the way with something better. So instead of allowing myself to think that giving away my time and energy, etc, meant less of it left for myself, I decided my affirmation would be “The more I give, the more there is to give.”

Rationally, that makes no sense, because in finite terms it’s just plain wrong. There are 24 hours in a day, and the more of those hours I give away, the fewer are left.

But, with a different set of associations, I convinced my brain that the new affirmation is true. For example, think of love. Love isn’t finite, and the more we love, the more our capacity to love expands and thus the more love we have to give. It’s also been true for me with breastfeeding my baby that the more I feed him, the more food there is. Expanding capacity.

Next, I listed all the ways that I wanted to be more generous and expand my capacity to give:

  • love/affection
  • time
  • energy
  • service/help
  • opportunities
  • friendships/relationships
  • attention/interest/listening
  • praise/validation
  • opinions
  • permission/approval
  • appreciation/gratitude
  • cheerfulness/smiles
  • friendliness/using people’s names
  • gifts
  • resources
  • prayers/thoughts/concerns
  • posture/oxygen

I went on to find dozens of quotes dealing with generosity, for example 2 Corinthians 9:6 from the Bible: “He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.” Every new quote became another link in my brain solidifying the new connection.

The last idea on the list above — posture and oxygen — actually ended up being the biggest help. I am a horrible sloucher, mostly out of laziness, and I’d recently learned that better posture improves oxygen to the brain. So, as another connection, I told myself that throwing my shoulders back and inhaling deeply would be my way of being generous to myself. How has that helped? Well, over the past week every time a situation has come up where I would normally pull back and try to withhold my energy and attention, etc, my brain has gone through a series of alternate steps:

  1. I recognize the situation as a trigger and consciously decide against taking the habitual path.
  2. I throw my shoulders back and inhale, concentrating on feeling the oxygen going to my brain. It’s a stall tactic to give myself time to reroute my thinking, but oxygen is also an enormous help for open-mindedness.
  3. I focus on the person needing my generosity, whether it’s a child who needs to tell me a very long and irrelevant story or a baby who needs me to realize his diaper needs changing.

And every time it’s been rewarding. Have I still gotten as much done this week? Nope, not really. But slowly I feel like I’m expanding my capacity to give to my children and to others around me, and that will probably pay off better in the long run. Plus I like to think that the scripture verse from 2 Corinthians is true, along with the adage, “What goes around comes around.” Perhaps generosity will be the secret to getting done what I need to as well, once I’m better at it. And thanks to all the associations I generated, I feel like I have a good shot at improvement.

This whole story was my long-winded way of saying that in order to plant a word in your head, you need to give it as much to work with as you can.

A shorter way to prove the point would have been telling you my strategy for vocab acquisition when I was studying for the GRE seven years ago. I made it a point to find as many of the words as possible in a context that I knew, such as in the books I was reading at the time. (By the way, the Harry Potter series uses more GRE vocab words than you would think!) The result? Seven years later, the words I can still use and define from all that memorizing are the ones where I created dozens of extra associations via the context of a story.

Anyhow, what do you think? Ever tried to rewire your brain or ever needed to implant a particular word? What strategies have you used that work?

Leave a comment!

Undigested Beef? Or an Undigested Idea? The Physical Manifestation of Words

In Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, when the ghost of Jacob Marley visits, Scrooge accuses him of being “a bit of undigested beef.”

I’m at my parents’ house in Arizona this week, and last night my siblings and I were laughing about that line (maybe mostly because my youngest brother declared we were quoting Michael Caine — who, yes, gave a brilliant performance in the Muppet version of the story, but still!). Is it really possible that indigestion could cause hallucinations? And what about the other way around? Could an undigested idea — an idea that you have trouble assimilating because it’s too far out of your comfort zone — cause indigestion?

I’ll tell you the book that got me thinking about this in a minute, but first I think I’d better prove that I’m not crazy.

Think of nausea. Nausea is physical, right? It’s in your gut . . . somewhere. Sometimes it’s caused by food poisoning, etc, but we’ve all felt the kind of nausea that results from fear or panic or revulsion. Though they feel roughly the same, one is physical and the other is entirely mental. Thoughts in our brain cause the nausea.

I experienced another mental–physical connection with the births of my kids. I’ve already discussed it to some extent in this other post, but the detail I didn’t mention before is that with this latest baby I talked myself through natural childbirth.

I’d read that the key was to tell yourself that contractions are good because they are bringing your baby to you, so that’s exactly what I did. When real contractions began (the “painful” ones), I told myself not to tense up, not to cringe, not to focus on the pain. I told myself to look forward to the next contraction. When each one came, I thought, “Oh good! Here we go! This is it! Keep coming! I want to have this baby!” And I also thought, over and over: “Relax!”

It also helped that I’d had false labor all week long, so I really did want those contractions to keep coming. And thanks to that attitude, I walked into the hospital calm and composed, handing the nurses a plate of cookies I’d baked, asking could I please soak in a bathtub, and finding out I was already eight centimeters dilated.

Yeah, I would have looked at me like I was crazy, too. It was surreal.

Sometimes I wonder if it was easier simply because it was my third kid, but a neighbor of mine told me about a completely opposite experience her cousin had with a third or fourth baby (I don’t remember which). The cousin had always had epidurals and was counting on that again for this birth but was told that she was too far along and couldn’t have it. She wasn’t prepared to go natural, felt angry and scared, etc, and kept screaming and screaming. Finally the doctor tried to get her attention by calling her name several times, but she was too immersed in the pain and just kept screaming. When he then yelled her name, she cautiously cracked open one eye and discovered that the baby was already out! Needless to say, she felt chagrined and recognized that all the pain was in her head.

Anyhow, I think it’s because of all those experiences that when my dad handed me a book yesterday called Heal Your Body: The Mental Causes of Physical Illness and the Metaphysical Way to Overcome Them I couldn’t help feeling curious. If nausea can be mental, and even labor pains can be mental, could other problems, too?

So I looked up some of the physical issues I’ve had recently. No, I’m not going to disclose them here because that’s getting just a little too personal, but let me just say that they all made sense. They were all physical manifestations of mental issues I’ve been dealing with lately.

Next, I looked up issues my kids have been having. For example, one kid bites his nails and the other recently began snoring. And again, the associated mental issues made sense.

In fact, they were a revelation.

Not that I’m trying to give anyone indigestion here with crazy ideas. I bring it up because this blog is about words and I’m continually astounded by all the various applications of a title I spent comparatively little time choosing. When I named the blog, I was thinking strictly of analyzing fiction and story and how words create pictures and entire worlds in our heads. And now . . . well, now I continually find myself in awe of the power of words for one thing or another.

Heal Your Body is a tiny book, the size of a five-by-seven photo and very slim. Its content is simple: an alphabetical list of ailments in the first column, the probable mental causes in the second column, and a sentence or two in the third. And I think it’s the third column that fascinates me most.

For example, under “Nausea” the suggested causes are “fear” and “rejecting an idea or experience.” Simple enough. And the cure? To tell yourself, “I am safe. I trust the process of life to bring only good to me.”

That’s it — even for “dis-eases” as serious as a brain tumor. (Tumor prescription: “It is easy for me to reprogram the computer of my mind. All of life is change and my mind is ever new.”)

Isn’t that fascinating? Not a prescription for drugs or herbs or surgery, etc — a prescription of WORDS!

I wonder what Charles Dickens would have thought . . .

What do you think? Ever had an experience where something physical was “all in your head”? Ever talked yourself through it?

Leave a comment!

Feeding the Muse

The first week after the baby, I was in minimum mode. I fed the baby, put the baby to sleep, and put myself to sleep. I let my mom be in charge of feeding me (okay, not literally spooning things into my mouth; just fixing the food). And when I fed the baby, I just focused on him. 

The second week, I began to itch. It’s an itch that other readers and writers probably know well. It happens when you’re feeling dried out from a reading and writing drought. I’d been feeding the baby well (he gained A WHOLE POUND (on top of the nine pounds he was born with) by his two-week check-up), but I hadn’t been feeding my muse. 

So I acted. First, I moved my laptop to the couch, where I could revise one-handed while nursing. Second, I got on my library’s website and reserved the first book that sounded good to me (Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl), even though it was one I’d already read (which is sometimes better when easing yourself out of a drought). Third, the moment Hubby said, “I’m headed over to pick up tee ball stuff, need me to stop anywhere else?” (he’s coaching our five-year-old’s team), I pounced and said, “Here’s my library card! The hold shelves are on the left right as you walk in.” 

Ingrid wearing the hat she had on at the awesome concert we went to a couple years ago

Yesterday as I drove to and from the chiropractor (babies give me wrist pain), I found myself in such a great mood. I had the windows rolled down, I turned the volume way up as Ingrid Michaelson played on my ipod through the car stereo, and I sang along loudly (because her lyrics are super cool). And as I listened and sang, I had all kinds of parenthetical thoughts (sort of like this post) about my novel and writing tips I’ve been gleaning from Beautiful Creatures, etc. 

For me, that’s when I can tell I’ve been feeding the muse well: I’m happy, I want to write, and my brain feels fattened up with ideas, like the pudgy cheeks, belly and limbs of a well-fed baby. 

What about you? What inspires you toward your craft? 

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Organic Processes

Inside versus outside, it turns out everything and nothing’s changed since last Friday:

I’m still carrying around a nine-pound baby and wearing maternity clothes.

It’s still uncomfortable to sit for long periods of time.

I still take afternoon naps.

I’m still daunted by two sets of stairs when I need to get from the basement to the bedrooms.

I’m still not sleeping well at night, what with the largish mass in our bed (though it is nice that sometimes we can talk him into sleeping in his bassinet — he is more detachable than he was last week).

Really, the biggest difference is that now I rarely have my arms free anymore. When you’re pregnant, at least you’ve got that going for you.

But we’re doing well around here. He eats like crazy, which means he hasn’t lost any birth weight and has probably gained some since then. He sleeps three hours at a time, which is decent; if we time it right, I only have to get up with him at 2am and 5am. He poops regularly and loudly, so we know everything’s functioning in that department.

It’s made me think that he could have his own movie: Eat, Sleep, Poop. Starring Brad Pitt . . . or one of Brad Pitt’s babies.

It’s also made me think about writing (of course! doesn’t everything?).

See, newborn’s don’t feel obligated to do their three moves in a set order. Sometimes they eat, then poop, then eat some more, then sleep. Sometimes they eat, then sleep, then eat, then poop, then sleep. Sometimes they sleep, then eat, then poop. You get the idea. It’s definitely what you would call an organic process.

And I still remember a writing professor in college showing us how The Writing Process is too often described as linear, as if once you’re finished prewriting, that’s it — you have to move on to drafting. Ditto from drafting to revising.

Not so! Sometimes I write first — just start drafting a first chapter of something brand new to see how it might take shape. And then I might revise that idea and then go to “prewriting” to research or brainstorm other possibilities. Writing should be organic. We should move around in the process according to what’s needed. We should even feel free to sleep on it.

Anyhow, not a hugely brilliant revelation, I realize, but I had a baby last week. Cut me some slack. 😉

How about you? What’s your creative process like? What moves do you switch between?

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