Tag Archives: things writers need

Bullet Journaling Is Not Journaling

Here’s a thing I started recently: Journaling.

Believe it or not, it’s a thing I wasn’t doing before. But the more I read about productivity and best practices and the habits of “successful” people (and especially writers!), the more I came across it. So I took it up, opened a blank notebook, and started a habit.

But because I’m me, on some level I fear that I’m doing it wrong, or at least not doing it optimally. And because it’s the 21st century, I turn immediately to Dr. Google to allay my fears and correct my faults. And what’s the first thing I see when I google “journaling”?

Bullet Journaling.

This is a term I’ve heard before without actually learning anything about it, and it sounds simply procedural. Journal in bullets! Something something guns! Usually I journal longhand, letting the drivel spill out however it comes, which is usually either in short, choppy machine-gun sentences, or in longer, rambling passages. But bullet journaling? Well, that sounds like just bullet points in a list — rather than mucking about with all those articles and properly conjugated verbs and appropriately undangled modifiers, you just list your thoughts. Okay, far out — that’s all I need to get started! So I try a day like that — and I run dry in about thirty seconds. What gives? On a normal day, I can free-write for an hour if I’m not careful. But when I simply list the thoughts without exploring them, I run out of thoughts quicker than a soda machine at fat camp. So I go googling again.

And … oh. OH.

Bullet journaling, it turns out, is less about writing and more about listing. It’s not so much about exploring your thoughts, it’s just about decluttering your head by putting on paper everything you need to get through in the day. With maybe a motivational quote attached. It’s making a to-do list. Setting reminders. Notes-to-self. Less stroll-through-your-headspace, more inventory-your-tornado-wracked-warehouse.

Uh, okay, but that’s not “journaling,” is it?

But it’s worse still. Bullet journaling isn’t just a practice, it’s a product. In fact, Bulletjournal.com has an array of notebooks ready for you to purchase, not to mention an app, and — coming soon — a book!

I don’t know about you, but the moment I hear somebody saying that their practice will change my life and make me a better person, oh and by the way, buy our fancy stuff to do it properly — well, that reeks ever so slightly of bovine defecation. The best practices in life are the ones you can start doing now, meaning right now, without any special apparatus, without any practice first, without watching any instructional videos. Drink some water, for example. Take a few minutes to just breathe. Get up and walk around a little bit. If “journaling” requires me to slap down $18.95 for a proprietary journal or invest in colored pencils or notecards lined off at laser-accurate increments, then that’s a thing I won’t be doing.

I say that not as a knock on Bullet Journal — the products or the practice. I’m sure that if I were a different type of person, I might even nurse a fetish for such things (apparently Pinterest and Instagram are lousy with people fawning all over each other’s immaculately designed to-do lists, which … okay, I guess?). But that, to me, ain’t journaling. It’s to-do listing.

So Bullet Journal, you are not for me.

For me, the journal is less about a stately declaration to myself of Things I Must Do Today. That — and the Bullet Journal MO, it seems (and again, I didn’t exactly research in depth, so, you know, grains of salt and all) — implies urgency and pressure. Which is sort of the antithesis, to me, of the whole idea of journaling. Journaling, I think, is about writing without rules, without goals, and (perhaps most importantly), without an audience. It doesn’t replace any of my daily writing, rather, it sets the tone for that writing. The journal is a clearing of the throat before I step up to the microphone. A deep-knee bend before approaching the starting line. A rev of the engine before I slam it into gear. It’s a little brain-dump to decrapify my head of all the garbage I don’t want to think about, and to crystallize my thinking about the things I do want to think about.

Here’s how I’m doing it so far:

I take five minutes every morning (and occasionally visit it on the weekend as well) just to jot down some thoughts. What makes it in is whatever’s front-of-mind: muses on the current project, nerves and apprehensions about the day, rants about the idiot that blocked me in while I was dropping my kid off at day care. Usually a reflection on the morning’s workout, since that’s usually fresh in my brain. It’s even more free-form and less coherent than what I post on the blarg, which may tell you something about the state of it. Coincidentally, it almost always clocks in at about a single side of one page. Or maybe it’s not a coincidence. Designers are cagey.

I don’t use an eraser at all, I don’t go back for misspellings, and I try to keep the pencil moving for the full five minutes. And once the five minutes are up, I stop! (I actually wrote out “I STOPS” and conjured in my head a grumpy Gollum hunched over a desk with a pencil and now I’m giggling inwardly, you’re welcome.) I finish the sentence I’m writing, close the book, and don’t think about it again until the next morning.

And, you know, it’s nice. I can’t tell if it’s actually helping my process or adding productivity to my day, at this point, but it’s nice to have a little ritual, since I don’t drink coffee or take the morning paper or anything thoughtful and meditative like that. I mean, I run, and there’s that, but that’s not every day. And as far as the free-form writing goes, there’s something about putting pencil to paper that isn’t quite approximated by any amount of typing in any form. The skritch, skritch of a pencil (mechanical pencils only, DON’T GET ME STARTED) creating words is its own kind of soothing. And the fact that it’s for my eyes only is comforting as well — I have even allowed myself a few unintended sentence fragments and misplaced modifiers (gasp!).

It comes out looking like this:


(Typing was invented for guys like me!)

Notice the total lack of anything like a pretty color, the discounted-for-the-season 25-cent composition book, the handwriting that would put a doctor’s prescription pad to shame.

THAT’S a journal.

What’s yours look like? (And, if you’re a practitioner of Bullet Journaling — what am I missing?)


Winnie the Pooh is a Masters’ Level Writing Class

I’m sitting here watching The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh with my kid. You know, the one from the 70s that’s less a movie and more a bunch of cartoon shorts slapped together with honey-flavored caulking.

Now, there’s a lovely little book that came out some time ago called The Tao of Pooh, which takes the silly old bear and infuses him with all sorts of Zen mysticism. (Actually, the mysticism was in him all along, we just didn’t always realize it.) And that book has a companion called The Te of Piglet. Fantastic reads that you can pick up and put down as often as you’d like; the kind of books that grow with you. The kind of books that mean something entirely different to your full-of-piss-and-vinegar twenty-something self and your tired-as-fargo-from-wrangling-toddlers-all-weekend thirty-something self.

But I realized, watching the cartoons just now, just this instant, that you don’t need a zennified book to appreciate the dubious wisdom of Pooh. The beauty is in the simplicity. And as a writer, the simplicity resonates on several levels.

Let’s take the opening short.

We meet Pooh in his house, and Pooh wants some damn honey. Why? Because he’s a stuffed bear, and fargo your reasoning; his honey stores in the house are empty, so he’s got to go get some more. But he doesn’t have a grocery store with a plastic bear full of honey to overpay for; he’s got to go straight to the source. Who makes honey? Bees do, so Pooh goes after the bees.

He climbs a tree and tries to just straight-up jack some honey, but the bees aren’t playing that, and the twiggy brances at the top of the tree can’t support his honey-eating behind, so he falls all the way back down. Is Pooh discouraged? Not for a minute. Along comes his pal, Christopher Robin, with a balloon of all things, and Pooh says, hey CR, let me snag that balloon so that I can use it to get some honey. CR is no fool, and he asks the question that we’re all asking, watching this: how are you going to get honey with a balloon?

Don’t be silly, says the bear, I’m going to use the balloon to float up there. The bees will think I’m a raincloud, and they’ll let me have the honey. Now, this is patently idiotic, and being a good friend, CR points this out to him — you don’t look like a raincloud.

Right, says Pooh, let me roll around in some mud so I’m all dark like a thundercloud. So he rolls around in the mud for a minute, gets good and disgusting, then floats up to the treetops. This works until the bees realize that the bear is ganking their honey again, so they attack him and he ends up falling all the way down again.

Bees aren’t parting with their honey, he realizes, and goes off to his buddy Rabbit’s house, where he just asks for some honey without any niceties or prelude. And Rabbit gives it to him. Gives him so much, in fact, that Pooh can’t even squeeze his honey-stuffed stuffing out through the door anymore, and he has to go on a two-week diet before he can even go home again.

Let me not spoil the whole program for you if you haven’t seen it, but suffice to say, the shenanigans continue. All are ridiculous and wholesome, and all are approached with the same oh-well-I-guess-if-that’s-the-way-it-is-we’ll-just-have-to-change-the-way-we-think attitude.

So why is this relevant to the writer?

Pooh wants honey and he sets himself to the task with the single-mindedness of a cat stalking a crippled lizard.

He tries the direct route. When that doesn’t work, he doesn’t just think outside the box, he turns the box inside-out. When that doesn’t work, he dispenses with the pleasantries, doesn’t hem and haw his way around it, he just goes to somebody who can help and gets some damn help.

In short, once he decides he wants it, there is no force on earth that is going to stop him.

So it must be with the writer.

Sometimes the direct route is all it takes to get us there, but more often, the direct route is a boring and ineffectual route. We have to get outside the box. Sometimes that means redesigning the box, burning it, designing it again, throwing it down a flight of stairs, and building another box from the shattered pieces, then stepping into the box just for the purpose of stepping back out of it. And sometimes, we just need a little help.


Let’s get some honey.

Sideways Short Fiction

I’ve written a bit about the workshop I’m undertaking over the past several weeks, though I haven’t said anything about the works. (I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do with these stories, so, y’know, sharing about them seems premature.)

But I’m on to the final “lesson” — writing the endings — and the workshop has offered some advice that really turns everything I thought I knew about narrative writing on its head.

It’s so different and powerful, I feel like I might actually do better writing in the future literally standing on my head. Because I feel like I’ve been doing this stuff wrong all along. Well… not wrong, per se. But maybe as if I’ve been driving a car around for hours, and I didn’t realize that the sun shield with the big dumb sunglasses painted on it was covering the windshield.

(Don’t pretend you don’t remember those things.)

I’ll shill for it again since I’m enjoying it so much — the program in question is Holly D. Lisle’s free fiction workshop at How To Think Sideways, and again, if you write a lot of short fiction like I do, it’s absolutely worth your time to check it out.

Anyway, the short fiction projects in progress should be wrapped in a week or two, and then it’ll be back to the Capital-P Projects — whether 2nd editing my first novel or 1st editing my second — and maybe finding some stability in my writing routine again.

Or not. God knows with Christmas rolling around, any sort of routine tends to go out the window.

Things Writers Need — The Hemingwrite

I’ve just seen a thing.

I don’t know what to make of it.  I’m very much of two minds.

I’ve had my say about typewriters before.  I think they’re cute and quaint and entirely impractical for any writer to be using to do any real writing in the — and I say this with no irony whatsoever, except for the implicit  — modern era.  I stand by that wholeheartedly.  When you consider the gamut of writing devices, a machine that uses paper, has no means to erase or edit on the fly, and that cannot multitask in any way, shape, or form, is simply an inferior alternative to any device which can, you know, backspace, or fit in your pocket, or at least your carry-on.

Don’t get me wrong.  There’s a certain romantic nostalgia about typewriters.  The sounds they make as you click away at their keys are soothing and hypnotic — much more so than the impersonal muffled thumps that issue from the plastic construction of a laptop or a multi-function bluetooth keyboard.  And, you know, the greats wrote on typewriters, or something like that.  So there’s hero emulation thrown in there to boot.  I see the draw, even if it doesn’t measure up to even the flimsiest of word processors.

But then tonight, I see this.  The Hemingwrite.


It’s a word processor stuffed into the body of a typewriter analog.  It syncs wirelessly and automatically with backup services like google docs and Evernote (which I love).  It has weeks and weeks of battery life.  It’s about the size of a very large book, or a very small chessboard.  It’s adorable.  And all it lets you do is write.

It looks like much of what I love about WriteMonkey (my drafting software of choice) literally crammed into a box that lets you write without the distractions of the wily internet and whatever apps you have chiming and sucking your life away.  And my Id-Writer stops slavering, looks out through the bars of his cage toward this unassuming little box, and ponders.

I can’t decide if I love or hate this idea.

The pendulum swings in favor of this thing initially.  It’s undoubtedly brilliant.  There are, I have no doubt, scads of writers and would-be writers, their heads clouded with that romantic image of Hemingway bent over a buzzing machine, the keys clattering into the night, who will happily throw money at the manufacturers of this thing just for the chance to ape the greats while still maintaining the creature comforts of cloud backups and wireless syncing.  The Hemingwrite website, which has only been up for a few months, overtly states that the creators are overwhelmed by the response already, and they’re not even past the prototyping phases yet.  This thing is going to sell like crazy to people wanting one for themselves, let alone as gifts for the writerly types out there.

But is it necessary?  I mean, my laptop automatically backs up my work as I write and is just as portable as this little gadget.  It also allows me to browse the web, watch movies, play games, and you know, anything else you can do with a fully-powered computer.  For that matter, it allows me — with the use of the proper programs — to have the same uninterrupted, distraction-free writing experience that the Hemingwrite seeks to provide, minus of course the vaguely romantic notion of typing on a typewriter that’s not really a typewriter.

But there’s something to that, isn’t there?  The feel of creating on something that’s not a do-it-all magic box.  They say you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have (though that’s perhaps a bad idea if you’re a businessman who wants to be an ice fisher), and doesn’t this gizmo allow you to advertise to the world that “I AM A WRITER” in a way that no simple laptop can?  And isn’t writing all about being in the proper mindset to create?  By extension, then, if this tool helps you, in any small way, to get a little bit closer to the zone, isn’t it worth the trouble?

And then my pendulum swings the other way again, because don’t I — don’t we, as Americans (make no mistake, this is for Americans, much as I hate the “we as fill-in-the-blank” construction) — have enough stuff already?  Part of the romance of writing (and I’m overusing the word “romance” in this little entry, I now realize, but fargo it, it cuts both ways) is the simplicity of it.  From the blank screen, the blank page, the flashing cursor on the screen, I craft worlds and people and plots and MacGuffins and really wild things.  If I’m a writer, I already have a computer or laptop to help me do those things.  Do I need another thing on my desk to help me do the same things?  I’m not sure I do.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t.  I have enough of a headache working on two different computers in two different settings; I can only imagine the frustration of getting all keyed-in and in love with this little machine and then having to haul it back and forth from home to work.  And then forgetting it and having to work on my laptop anyway.  Or finding room for it on my already cluttered desks.  And justifying to myself and my wife the existence of this thing which doesn’t really do anything for me that the stuff I already had isn’t capable of doing.

Then again, it looks like they’ll offer it in Georgia Bulldog Red.


I think it’s a fascinating little thing.  I’m sure it will help writers if only in a Placebo Effect, I’m-becoming-a-better-writer-because-I-feel-like-a-writer kind of way.  But the more I think about it, the more it feels like too much novelty, not enough practicality.  I think I’d love to test-drive one, but I definitely can’t see buying one for myself, unless, when they finally get around to selling these things, the price tag ends up in the realm of the ridiculously low.  Based on the hype around this thing, though, I’d be shocked if it goes for less than $80, and I even think that might be optimistic on my part.

What do you think?  Am I being too harsh on the little Hemingwrite, which for all intents and purposes hasn’t even been born yet?

Things Writers Need — Sanctuary

This week, in “Things Writers Need,” perhaps the last of the BIG ideas: a sanctuary.  If the series is to continue, it’ll have to start diving into the nitty-gritty, the finer, more specific things.  Lots to ponder.  But at any rate, the Sanctuary.

Let’s get one thing clear: writing is hard.  To be specific: coming up with ideas is hard, writing the ideas down in a coherent and meaningful way is hard, making the time to write is hard, not getting distracted from writing is hard.

On a good day, writing is like chasing butterflies with a net that instead of a net uses bubbles.  Just when you think you’ve snagged one of the buggers, the net bursts and you have to dunk your wand in the solution again.  (That’s not nearly as sexual as it sounded coming out.)  On a bad day, you have no net and must entice the buggers to land in your mouth using only the hypnotic ululations of your tongue.  (Also not directly intended to be sexual.)

On a good day, you’re tracking the movement of radioactive particles through the vacuum of space, standing in your backyard with a whacked-together dish of ceramic and tinfoil hoping to snare quarks from the ether.  On a bad day, meteorites are smashing your house to bits and your dish is on fire, and also the quarks are superheated and are burning your satellite dish to a cinder.  Burning it for a second time.

On a good day, you’re on the Atlanta perimeter trying to catch somebody using a turn signal.  On a bad day, the interstate has snowed under and everybody’s walking home.  Except you’re still in Atlanta and the walk home takes a day and a half.

That is to say that if you’re going to write properly, you need supreme focus, free from as many distractions as possible.  You need a sanctuary.  A safe haven from the world.  A bunker to protect you from the bombs, big and small, that blow up every day in your world.  A soundproof chamber to block out the low drone of life.  A treehouse you can climb into to escape the leaping jackals.  A little bubble of air at the bottom of the ocean.

Ideally, this would be a room of your own.  A room free of needless ornament and away from regular foot traffic, or maybe full of little bric-a-brac (is bric-a-brac plural?) that inspire you or fill your head with strange and wonderful ideas, and just off the hallway so that you can hear the soothing sound of footsteps as your significant other or your kids or your cats or your hamsters or the neighborhood dog approaches.  A room that has no television, or maybe one that has a television receiving no signal so that it only plays soft soothing static, or perhaps one hooked up to a DVD playing old episodes of Leave it to Beaver on repeat because that’s what stimulates your brain.  A room with no windows, or maybe a window overlooking the dense cruel cityscape below, or a window overlooking your children’s playground, or the soft contours of a white-sand beach, or the sweeping majesty of the Appalachians, or a painted backdrop of unicorns leaping over rainbows and farting out quarks for you to catch in your satellite dish.

Look, the makeup of the room is not a standardized thing; it should have the things that benefit the writer’s process in it, and it should forcefully reject anything that obstructs that process.  Writers need a space that keeps their heads level.  A space that can shut out the demons and distractions and the e-mails and the worries and the crises and the bills and…

Okay, I’m actually stressing myself out a little bit thinking about all the things that get in the way when I’m trying to write.  The simple fact is that there is no end to the stream of things that will try to stop a writer from writing on any given day.  If the writer is not equipped to fend those things off, they will sweep him under like so many tons of thrashing white water and deposit his soggy corpse with the rest of the broken dreams at the shattered delta of Unfinished Projects.  A simple place to write is one of the best defenses for keeping those things at bay.  It doesn’t have to be lush and finely furnished.  It doesn’t have to be lined with polished mahogany or stocked with leather-bound books or busts of famous dead people.  It doesn’t have to overlook a sunlit veranda or a tranquil garden.  It doesn’t even have to smell like scotch and candlewax.  It just has to be a place that makes a writer feel comfortable and safe and relaxed and creative.  It helps if it has a door.  But you know what?  It doesn’t even have to be a room.  It just needs to be a space where you do your writing.  Thoughts are semi-tangible things, I think.  Bits of them bleed out and seep into the walls, the floorboards.  They mingle with the air, and discolor the carpet over time.  You need that space to soak up the essence of your thoughts so that on the days when the ideas don’t want to flow, you can stew in those ambient thoughts to release some of the locked-in juices.

I’m lucky in that, at work, I can sneak a half hour at lunchtime, close my door and be alone with my thoughts in total silence if I like.  I’m not so lucky in that my house (which my wife and I once thought so huge and cavernous) affords me no such luxury.  Between two babies’ bedrooms, our bedroom, and a guest room (which has also sort of become a makeshift library and cat bedroom), there is no sanctuary to be found.  The best I have is the use of the desk adjacent to the kitchen, which butts up against the stairs which are essentially the heart of the house.  There’s no door, even, to shut the world out.  Also, of course, when I’m at home, I’m Dad, which means I am always on call.  So I have to make the most of my time at work and enjoy what little sanctuary can be had while I’m there.

That’s not to say that I can’t write at home.  I can, and often do.  But it only works because I’ve talked to my wife and she respects my time and space while I’m writing, provided I don’t ask for too much of it.  It works because I take that time when the kids are asleep and don’t need my attention.  It works, in short, because it has to work and because I make it work.

That said, when we ever get around to buying a new house, it’s gonna have to have at least a walk-in closet or something I can turn into a study.  You know, in addition to the basement we need, and the bathrooms with reasonable fixtures, and the less ridiculous plumbing situation, and a lot fewer trees in the backyard, and a porch that isn’t falling apart, and…

Sorry, I got distracted.

What’s the most important thing inside (or outside) your writing sanctuary?

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