Why Blog? The Altruism of Giving Ideas a Home

A moment ago I did something that’s become habitual for me: I took the pitcher of reclaimed water off my kitchen counter, out the back door, and used it to nourish the semi-evergreen plants that live in my backyard and need watering year-round.

the perpetual pitcher

Reclaimed water?

It’s the best term I can think of for the water recycling project I began after attending a cooking presentation at someone’s house over a year ago. The hostess made just a tiny comment about how when you drain water, like off of pasta, you could save it for watering plants.

Honestly, she didn’t even say it that directly; it was just an aside, really. But somehow the idea stuck in my head. I began thinking of all the water I waste, pouring it down the drain when my plants, whether outside or inside, would probably love it. And shortly thereafter I elected a certain pitcher to live on my counter forever more and catch whatever water could be reused.

As I offered it to the bamboo behind my patio today, I got to thinking about the passing-along of ideas and how randomly it often happens. We just happen to be somewhere, happen to be with someone, when something is said or done that sticks with us and changes us somehow.

The beauty of blogging is that it removes the random factor. It allows those ideas a place to exist and be found.

This weekend my intermediate students are writing their first blog posts, wondering what to say. What can they tell the world on this historic occasion of their debut post? What’s the point, anyway?

I’m suddenly thinking that my pitcher of reclaimed water is the point: sharing ideas someone else might not think of on their own but that could alter their life — not dramatically, but in the small ways that feel like a difference.

For me on this blog, it’s about sharing ideas for reading, writing, and teaching, obviously. I think of how lost I once felt as a writer, totally unsure of how to tackle drafting and revising on the 300–400-page level. As I gleaned ideas from other writers — such as printing the manuscript out, putting it in a three-ring binder, slapping it full of post-it notes, scribbling revision thoughts all over the pages — I grew more and more confident in my own abilities.

At first the sharing/gleaning of those ideas was limited to infrequent writing conferences, but once I began blogging and reading other writers’ blogs, tweeting and reading other writers’ tweets, I discovered that social media creates a world-wide never-ending writing conference full of incredible advice.

tips from food bloggers gave me the secret I needed for moist & soft whole-wheat banana bread

The same goes for reading, where I used to get stuck wondering what to read next until I hooked up with other readers on the internet.

The same goes for nutrition, where I used to have no idea how to transition into healthier cooking until traditional-food bloggers gave me their tips.

It might be a personal experience, a recipe, a review, a unique perspective on some current issue — there are so many things to blog about. But I think what it comes down to is that when you put those thoughts into writing on a blog, even as little asides, someone else might latch onto them and put them to use.

A student of mine last semester asked me why I blog when it must take up so much time. Other non-blogging writer friends have asked me why I bother with it before I’m even published.

For me, it’s because I love to share ideas and because I’m indebted to all the people who have shared with me. My life is a conglomeration of all the little tidbits I’ve picked up here and there. Those tidbits have turned me into a writer, a reader, a recycler of water, a baker of sourdough breads, and countless other good things that make my life more fulfilling.

Maybe something I mention will ring true for someone else and help them the way it’s helped me.

What about you? Why do you read or write blog posts? What ideas have you gleaned that have changed you?

Leave a comment!

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.

Truths in Fiction

“What impels the writer is a deep love for and respect for language, for literary forms, for books. It’s a privilege to muck about in sentences all morning. It’s a challenge to bring off a powerful effect, or to tell the truth about something.”

~Annie Dillard, “To Fashion a Text”

I’ve said it before: reading teaches us how to write. There are books I haven’t been able to read without a pencil because of lines so beautiful that I’m afraid of losing them if I don’t stop to underline. And when I look back, the passages I’ve marked are usually things that teach me about life. The best writing teaches us about life.

Right now I’m reading The Road (yes, I kept putting it aside for other books, but now I’m finally in it for good), mesmerized by its voice and often blown away by the broken beauty he captures in such a desolate and disturbing setting. Last night I underlined this passage:

He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever. (89)

And the night before that I marked this:

The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy’s hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them. (74)

These are the kind of passages that catch my breath as I read and compel me to stop and ponder the words.  They make me want to catalog them, to thumb through every book on my shelves and type every underlined passage into this post and say, “Did you feel that? Do you see?”

But maybe you can’t. Maybe these have to be experienced inside story. All I know is that when I come across these profound bits of truth in fiction, I savor them like the best gourmet food. They illuminate the world in a new way, they make me marvel, they turn simple ideas into reverent ones.

There are plenty of books that I love just for the stories, that I own and savor and recommend to other readers. But the books that I cherish above all are the ones that I’ve underlined, the ones full of profound truths.

As Annie Dillard says, it’s a challenge to write a book that way. I hope I’m up to the challenge, though. My biggest goal as a writer is to give back like this: to catch a reader’s breath with an idea worded so well that it pays tribute to the writers who have shaped me, like the sincerest thanks.

What truths do you glean from fiction? What books have caught your breath with beautiful passages?

Leave a comment!

Power of a Picture to Persuade

Last week something pretty insane happened.

I began cleaning my kitchen as I cook.

It’s insane because I am a tornado in the kitchen. Hubby will get the whole thing sparkling clean before we go to bed at night, and by the time he comes home (after I’ve cooked two meals and am in the middle of the third), the poor guy’s effort has been all undone.

Yes, I can see how that would be frustrating for him. I can see exactly why, even when I’m in the middle of cooking and still using the measuring cups around me, he sometimes swipes my cooking utensils and throws them into the sink, just for the sake of making more of the counter top visible.

Cleaning house is not my strength, and yet the constant state of disorganization frazzles me almost as much as it frazzles my poor husband. So when a blog I subscribe to mentioned the e-book One Bite at a Time: 52 Projects for Making Life Simpler, which only costs $5 and would give me amazing tips like “Eat your frog first,” let’s just say it’s the first time I’ve bought an e-book without hesitating.

The author’s recommendation is to choose where you want to start, and after reading through a dozen or more of the projects, I knew “Clean your kitchen as you cook” was the winner for me. I read it while nursing the baby upstairs for his nap and then came down and announced my intentions to Hubby, expecting him to be thrilled.

“What?!” he choked. “I’ve been begging you to do that for nine years.”

Poor guy.

But it made me think about persuasion. How had these couple of pages in an e-book succeeded where the man I love had not?

Sadly, Hubby’s main point didn’t work well enough for me. Yes, crusty, dried-up food takes five times as long to clean off as it would before the food cakes. But I figured I didn’t have time to deal with it while cooking. Cooking is not a leisurely activity around here. It’s a stressful effort, accentuated by cries of “Mom! I’m hungry!” So I always dealt with tossing dishes in the sink once the food was in the oven, etc.

That’s where the e-book spoke my language by showing me how cleaning as I cook would actually simplify my life. And it did that by using an image that gave me an instant association: what a professional kitchen looks like. The author of the project says she learned to clean as she cooks in her first day of cooking school.

That was when it started to click for me. Oh! Of course! A professional cook would quickly wash and put away a cutting board before moving on to the next step. I could picture that, and then could visualize myself doing the same.

And thanks to that effective analogy, everything else clicked into place for me.

I could see how important that would be in a professional kitchen, how they need the cutting board and other kitchen tools to be always ready for the next thing. How many meals have been delayed at our house when I discovered that the needed bowl/knife/measuring cup/chopper/blender/etc I needed was buried in the sink?

I could see how washing those things immediately and putting them away would also save me time trying to push things aside to create enough counter space.

I could see how other tips like having a bowl for scraps next to me while chopping veggies would mean my veggie chopping wouldn’t create a mess.

I could suddenly picture myself cleaning as I cook, and that allowed me to begin doing it.

It’s ironic that in the e-book the “Clean as you cook” project doesn’t come with a photo (other than the author’s portrait). What I mean here is simply the pictures created with words. When someone is trying to persuade us to change, I think that helping us visualize that change is essential to the transformation. We need the right details, like the “garbage bowl” and the analogy of the professional kitchen, to catch the enthusiasm of the idea and adopt it in our lives. And we need to see how the change will actually overcome the obstacles we thought prohibited it in the first place — like not having time to clean while cooking.

Yes, it might take me several weeks to fully master this first project and conquer my tornado habits, but visualizing the change has already made a huge difference.

Are you as visually dependent as I am? What does it take to persuade you to start a new project or transform a habit?

Leave a comment!

Back in Time to Grab a Pencil

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

~Billy Collins, from “Marginalia”

This morning I’m groaning, wishing I could twist back time and tweak small things. I would buy my own copy of Maggie Stiefvater’s Forever instead of waiting a month on the library’s hold list. Not because I minded the month. I had other things to read in the mean time. But I wish I had had my own copy on this first read so that I could mark it with a pencil as I went.

Maggie Stiefvater is an author I want to be friends with, because she’s a writer I want to write like. Not in subject matter — werewolves are not my thing, nor is paranormal romance in general — but because of the way she puts words together.

There were sentences that I had to stop and reread. Not because they were confusing or out of place, but because I wanted to savor them — because she had phrased a simple thing in a way that made it profound.

Instead I lazed in an armchair turning pages, too absorbed in the book to get up and copy the sentences down. The story had me by the hand, pulling urgently, and I couldn’t let go.

If only I could have pressed a thin line under the words with a pencil, I’d be happier now.

Ridiculous, I know, to wish for time travel for such a silly thing. But on Wednesday I read “Marginalia” with my students; I rallied them to read with pen or pencil in hand in order to glean the most from every book and article they devour and make it their own. And here I didn’t listen to my own advice.

Small things make me happy, like knowing my absolute favorite parts of some of my absolute favorite books on my shelves are underlined, like Life of Pi or The King of Attolia or Gilead. I can thumb through them any time and savor those words again.

In fact, with Gilead, I read the first 30 pages of a library copy and then forced myself to stop and buy my own before reading any further. Thirty pages in, I knew I had to mark that book and keep it.

So today when Amazon reminded me that another of my favorite authors has a book releasing in September, I didn’t hesitate to preorder it. Laini Taylor’s books have all wowed me, most of all her National Book Award finalist Lips Touch. So I’ll be reading my own copy of her next book, pencil in hand.

And I might just have to buy Forever and read it a second time.

Have you ever marked a novel? What books or authors have wowed you enough that you might consider rereading them just to underline your favorite passages?

Leave a comment!

[UPDATE 9/1/11: Maggie Stiefvater gives a great description of what you can learn from a single page of a novel here. I can totally relate to the part where she says the same page in her early days would have had nothing but dialogue. One of the things I’m always working on is adding the right blocking to a scene like that.]

Words for Summer

Summer is swimming. It’s zucchini growing huge, tomatoes turning red. Bushels of peaches and pints of blackberries. Lazing on the patio. Boating on the lake. Vacations. Ice cream. Long days. Bright flowers. Camping. Barbecuing. Thunder storms. Beaches. Sunglasses. Shorts.

It’s interesting to me how we have sets of words for every season — the things that make us appreciate this time of year before it drifts into the next. How there are certain markers we watch and wait for, anticipating the full sensory experience behind a word like peaches.

Today the farmers market pulled me into summer with the peaches and the blackberries. I’ve been waiting since Christmas time to try a peach-blackberry crisp suggested in a book I got over the holidays, and now the season is here!

I thought I’d make homemade vanilla ice cream to go with it, but I ended up with so much fruit that now the ice cream that’s hardening in my freezer is peach instead. Maybe it’ll be a peach overdose, but the season is so short that we might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

It also interests me how, even without a photo to go along, just the words of a recipe can win me over — how the words translate into flavors in my head and my brain can imagine the flavors melding and estimate the final result and judge based on nothing but words whether or not I’ll like it.

I figured that even though this is a blog about reading, writing, and teaching, I could stretch it a bit to share a taste of summer with you: two recipes that I’m preparing tonight while a lovely, booming summer rainstorm gathers outside.

Peach Ice Cream

Makes 1/2 gallon

5 peaches, peeled and pitted
3/4–1 cup honey (depending on how sweet you want it)
3 eggs*
3 cups cream
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat the eggs with the honey. Puree the peaches and add to egg mixture. Stir in cream, vanilla and salt. Pour into ice cream maker and let it do its thing.

(Or, if you’re like me and ice cream maker–less, pour into a 9×13 pan, set in the freezer, and stir every 15 minutes for 2–3 hours. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze several more hours until solid enough to scoop.)

*If you’re nervous about raw eggs, you can cook them with the honey and cream on the stove, simmering and stirring until the mixture coats the back of a spoon, before combining with the peaches. Just make sure it never boils. I’ve tried making ice cream either way (raw or cooked) and love both types.

Variations: Substitute other fruit purees, equaling roughly 2 1/2–3 cups, for the peaches. For chocolate ice cream, omit peaches, increase to 4 eggs and 4 cups cream, and add 1/4 cup cocoa powder.

Peach Blackberry Crisp

sliced peaches
honey or maple syrup
melted butter

Fill any size casserole dish (I prefer a 9×13 so there are plenty of leftovers) with desired amount of peach slices and blackberries. Dust with flour and pour honey or maple syrup all over, then stir to coat fruit. Cover with granola. Drizzle butter over granola. Bake at 350 for 30–35 minutes.

What are the words you associate with summer? What are the sights, tastes, sounds, smells or textures that bring the season into focus for you?

Leave a comment!