Tag Archives: bucketlist

Twelve-Week Letter Writing Challenge

I love everything about letters– the paper, pens, stamps (!), I even love the suspense of waiting for the mail carrier. Why letters?  Well, you all know I am kind of an analog girl, exhibit A: my typewriter collection.  But also, because I want to live a slowed-down more mindful life.  A letter takes more contemplation than a quick email.  Sexy texts, can be sexy, but a love letter?  That’s whole new level is only because your handwriting is more intimate than your favorite font.  If you send a real letter to a friend who is alone, she can handle it and read it over and over to remember that she is loved.  Letter writing is retro-realness and we need more of it.

So, in praise of heirloom communication, I want to start a twelve-week letter writing challenge.  Just a letter a week for twelve weeks,

To prepare, I suggest you buy yourself a book of stamps, a box of envelopes, and some paper.  I have seen many a letter sit around and go stale for want of a stamp!  Don’t worry about fancy paper.  No one receiving a letter will EVER complain about your stationery.  Good old notebook paper will do.  But I know some of you have pretty paper and cards squirreled away, waiting for an occasion.  Well, here’s an occasion.  Life is an occasion.

Getting addresses can be tricky.  You may just have to ask people, spoiling the surprise, but if you ask NOW for a letter you send in six weeks, the person will not remember.  Or you can do a little detective work or send the letter to a office address.  You’re smart.  You’ll figure something out.

Here’s the plan:

Week 1:  Write a letter a friend you haven’t seen in at least a year.

Week 2:  Write a letter to a relative.

Week 3:  Write a letter to someone under the age of 12, or over the age of 65

Week 4:  Write a letter to someone you feel romantic towards.  (And no, you don’t have to tell the person that’s what you’re doing. LOL)

Week 5:  Write a letter to a teacher who really encouraged you.

Week 6:  Write a letter to someone reminding them of a moment you shared in the past.

Week 7:  Write a thank you letter.

Week 8:  Write a letter to someone local.

Week 9:  Write a fan letter.

Week 10:  Write a letter to someone in another country.

Week 11:  Write a letter to a former neighbor or co-worker

Week 12:  Write a letter to yourself



In case you don’t have friends who meet the criteria above, here are some other options

Write a letter to someone who is travelling and may be feeling homesick.

Write a postcard.

Write an apology.

Write a letter of appreciation on behalf of a salesperson who helped you.

Write a hot steamy love letter than makes you blush.

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Tayari Jones Reflects on Book Tours in the NYT

In “Stories From The Road,” Tayari Jones, along with Junot Diaz, Sloane Crosley, Nell Zink, Gary Shteyngart, speak about the relationship between writers and readers.

In Georgia, we have an expression that speaks to our limited human understanding of our own actions and motivations. We say “I call myself.” In that tradition, I can say that I called myself writing my first novel, “Leaving Atlanta,” in order to remind the world that in the early 1980s, 30 African-American children were killed in my hometown; two of them were students at my elementary school. I believed myself to be banging on the door of History, demanding that my memories be let in.

But as we also know in the South, what you call yourself doing and what you are called to do are often two different things.  — Tayari Jones

full text here

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A Chocolate Parfait Year: To Get What You Want, Know What You Want

All my life I have had a very keen sense of what I could not have.  I think this is a natural part of childhood, the setting of boundaries.  No, you cannot drink coffee! No, you cannot run outside naked!  These restrictions keep us alive, but they also narrow our universe.  I, for one, have found myself never asking myself what I want; instead, I think of what I believe I can get.

Here is a story.

When I was about four years old, my father took me to Dairy Queen.  “What do you want?” he asked me.  Being just a little kid, I had only ever been given a small cone.  Knowing Daddy is a softie, I asked for a medium cone.  With a disappointed expression, he said, “that’s all?”  Feeling brave, I said, “A medium cone with a chocolate dip!”  He them pointed to a poster on the wall advertising a quadruple-decker chocolate parfait.  “Don’t you want that?”  For a moment I was speechless.  The “Peanut Buster Parfait” cost ninety-nine cents, and my mother had explained to me that this was the same thing as a dollar.  Could I dare even dream of something that extravagant?  Timidly, I nodded my head and my dad paid for the parfait that was so tall that it came with a special spoon so you could reach the bottom of the glass,.  To this day, it remains the most lavish gift I have ever received.

It’s a sweet story, but I have been reflecting upon it more and more as I make my plans for the new year.  As a four year old kid, a dollar seemed like a king’s ransom. I could not imagine little me being worthy of a dollar-treat.  What I couldn’t understand was that for my dad, a dollar wasn’t a major investment.  Another blind spot was that I could not yet understand that he wanted to do something special for me.  I just assumed that my own financial situation was all the universe had to offer.  (And I was on a fixed income of a quarter a week to put in my change purse!)

Somewhere between now and then, this habit of asking for the smallest thing became ingrained in me.  Part of it, I am sure is gender socialization.  “Good girls” don’t ask for things and they stay in their places.  Furthermore, keeping your expectations and desires in check cuts down on the risk of disappointment.  And, of course, it is good to have self-control– you can’t go through life like Cookie Monster gobbling up everything that looks yummy.  But even though you can’t act on all your appetites, you must at least know what they are.  When I was a little girl, I didn’t even look at the parfait because I thought it was out of my league.

So as I start the new year, I have been thinking a lot about what I want my life to look like.  Not, what I think that I can get.  Not what I think I deserve (whatever that means.)  I am just asking myself, “Tayari, what do you want?”  I realize that this is a question that no one really asks me, and honestly, it’s not one I have asked myself.  I’ve realized my answer is, “I don’t know.”  There are baby-step milestones I want to achieve, but I have never really allowed myself to imagine abundance with any sort of specificity.  And that is really a shame.

So this year, I am really thinking about my own wants, desires, and appetites. I know that asking for what I won’t is not going to miraculously provide it, but I it is the first step and you can’t even ask for what you want if you haven’t even let yourself think about what that might be.  I’m using my journal to make lists. I’m even playing around with a vision board.  I don’t want to be the girl who asks for the medium cone.  I want to be the one who points to the chocolate parfait and says, “I’ll take that one, please.”


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A Different World

I wrote a short piece about Spelman College for the “Tribes” issue of Tin House.  Working with editor, Michelle Wildgen, was a great experience.  She respected my own recollection of my experience.

On more than on occasion, I have been asked to write about my life as a black woman from the south, and the editors are ready for a tale of woe– but I tend to write about the pleasure that my life had brought me.  Sometimes, the editors actually push me to revise– certainly you can’t enjoy being you!

But I do. I love being a black woman.  Yes, there are challenges, and I write about these too,  But I feel very blessed to be the person I am and to be a member of such vibrant communities.

For the Tribes Issue, I wrote about being a student at Spelman College, a black woman’s liberal arts college in Atlanta.  My class mates will recognize a lot of the details— midnight curfew for freshman and the mad dash for the dorms, intense hometown and dormitory cliques– but at the heart of it all is out special sisterhood.  It’s not a PR piece though, I talk about the town-gown tightrope, and our sometimes-fraught relationship with our brothers across the street.

The issue is on newsstands now.

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Writing Rituals: Green Leaves– A Daily Writing Prayer

This post for last in this series, even though I think it’s the most essential.  I start each day with a writing prayer.  If you know me, you will know I am not a terribly religious person. I was reared in a secular home and I have sort of found my own way spiritually.  So when I say prayer, I mean it very loosely.  I think of it as a sort of meditation, a way that we can connect simultaneously to ourselves and to something larger than ourselves.

I started my morning writing prayer out of a kind of desperation.  The book just wasn’t happening.  I knew it wasn’t dead.  It looked dead.  If it was a tree, it would be bare of leaves and the bark would be molting in big dry patches.  But I snapped one of the branches and found live wood in the center, so all was not lost.  One day, I was sitting at my desk with a fresh sheet of paper rolled into my typewriter, waiting miserably for the muse to find me.  After an hour of nothing, I just typed out a prayer that was more like a plea.  I begged for inspiration.  I begged for just a paragraph or even just an idea for a paragraph.  Something,  Please.  Amen.

The next day, I returned to the page and I was more mindful in my prayer.  I wasn’t begging and pleading like a kid on Santa’s knee. Instead I tried to have a meaningful exchange with the Universe. To ask the Creator for the gift of Creation.

I start my daily prayer with a message of thanks and gratitude. I list all the things that have already been given to me to make this writing possible.   When you think about it, we have already been given so much toward this dream.  I give thanks for everything– the small writing table, the project idea.  I remember that I am grateful that I woke up early enough to get some work in before work, and even that I woke up at all.  I give thanks for my mentors.  This morning I gave thanks for the cool breeze from the window because my air conditioning is not working and the room was so pleasant for writing.

What I give thanks for changes from day to day, but I always remember to express my gratitude for the gift of writing itself.  By gift, I don’t mean talent, but just the joy and possibility writing offers me, as a human being.  And then, I remember all of my ancestors and people all over the world who do not have the privilege of literacy.

When I start with gratitude, it reminds me how prepared I am already for this task.  How much has already been given to me.

In the second part of my prayer, I ask for the qualities that I feel I lack.  I ask for greater focus, discipline, and endurance.  I also pray to be rid of toxic thoughts and feelings like ego, ambition, jealousy and fear.  I ask to be purged.  I ask that the story I am writing serve a higher purpose, that I be given words that will be healing to someone else.

Then, I ask permission to set down my responsibilities for a few hours while I write.  I always imagine this plea in an African American vernacular.  “Lord, watch my stuff for me.  Watch my pocketbook while I’m gone writing.”   (Then I imagine myself setting down a very stylish bag crammed full to bursting.)

Lastly, I make myself comfortable in my chair, set my feel flat on the floor, and read the prayer aloud.  I close my eyes, take a couple of deep breaths, open my eyes and begin.

Of all the writing rituals, this is the one that is the most meaningful.  Since I have added this mindfully spiritual dimension to my practice, I have seen my ailing novel come to life.  You could say that it is sprouting tiny green leaves.

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Writing Rituals: Building Up My Stamina, Breaking Up With My Smartphone

I have often read about writers who can spend all day in their writing rooms, working on their novels like a 9 to 5.  For me, I can never sit that long.  When I was writing my first novel, I could sit for four hours, maximum.  But now, as I work on my fourth, I found it difficult to keep my mind on my work for more than an hour at a stretch.  What the heck happened?  I’m no neuroscientist, but I think the internet happened.  Since the advent of facebook, twitter, and smart phones, my mind has started to work differently.  I had always been a multi-tasker, out of necessity, but in the last few years, it has become ridiculous, and ultimately destructive.  Once I found myself eating lunch, reading a book a book, and playing Words With Friends all at the same time.  I check email while I am talking on the phone. On a lunch date, I neaked glances at my phone while I friend was gone to the ladies. When I saw something awesome rather than study it, I thought: INSTAGRAM! Watching TV, I also solved Sudoku puzzles. To do so many things at once, I dipped into only the top layer of my experiences and constantly darting in and out. I was doing a lot of things, but I wasn’t doing any of them well.  I tried to get back to my old way of doing things but my attention span was shot and I was incapable of that deep thinking that creativity requires.  I knew I had to make a change.

If you have tried to reach me lately, you know what that change is.  I am friend-zoning my smart phone.  By that I mean, I still use it, but me and my iPhone are no longer in love.  I avoid taking it it with me when I go out.  If I am meeting a friend or going to a movie, that’s what I’m doing.  Email can wait until I get home.  When I see something awesome, I look at it and try and imprint it on my mind rather than distract myself thinking about what it will look like as a twit pic.  Just being without my phone for a few days, it was really clear how different life is without a tiny computer in my pocket.  Not being able to google everything makes me dig into my memory to remember song titles.  If I have forgotten the name or location of a restaurant, I have to roam the streets of NYC looking for it.  I feel like I am getting my main brain back.

And it is helping me get my writing mind back as well.  As you may remember, I used to blog all the time, but then I stopped and I believe this is because I was always on twitter, communicating 140 characters at a time.  It was fun, easy and more interactive than taking the time to construct a blog post.  But you see, I’m back here in blogland and I really think it’s because I have changed my relationship with my smartphone.

But on to the writing ritual part of the post.

To build my stamina back up, I use my faithful egg timer.  For the first week, I set the timer for 45 minutes.  For 45 minutes I sat at the desk and tried.  At first I was looking at it all the time and i couldn’t believe that only 15 minutes had passed.  Slowly, I increased the time. An hour, an hour and a half.  Now, I can sit and work for three hours, although I do get up and have a snack or two.

(And I don’t know that this counts as a ritual, it’s more of a habit, but I try not to look at any thing with internet connection until I have written for two hours.  I turn off the WiFi card on my computer before I go to bed.  I put my phone and iPad in airplane mode.  If I need an alarm, I use a regular clock.)

I know this may seem crazy because we are in such a connected moment in history.  But face it, writing a book is a crazy thing to do.  It’s not a part of everyday normal life.  Writers are outside of the fray.  We do things differently.

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Writing Rituals: I Keep Not One, Not Two, But THREE Journals

I have become a journaling fanatic.  I have three now, and am considering adding a fourth to the mix.  This is what I consider my sanity writing.  Yes, it takes precious time that I could be using for my project.  Sometimes I consider it like tithing and other times I think of it like the stretching you do before exercising so you don’t hurt yourself.  Either way, it must be done.  Journal writing is a time to slow down and figure out what you think.  It’s a place to write where you don’t worry about the quality of your prose, you just work out your ideas and explore your feelings.  I recently looked over an old journal entry and almost every sentence began with “I”.  Now, at a cocktail party it would make me a bore.  In a story, it would be too one-track.  In my journal that day, it was what I needed to do.  Other times, I may hardly mention myself at all.  It doesn’t matter. It’s a place of absolute freedom.

There are the three journals I keep, and  descriptions of each:

JOURNAL #1:  I call this my “journal-journal”.  In this book I do more of a traditional diary keeping. I recount the events of the day before.  I manage my to-do lists, record my dreams.  Whatever, I feel like making a record of.  I like this because it is my way to unburdening my mind of my life’s concerns, freeing me up to enter the imaginary world of my fiction. (It reminds me of the Morning Pages made popular by The Artists Way)  All the teeny tiny worries that eat away at my peace of mind, I leave on the page.

JOURNAL #2: I call this one my “prayer book”.  In this book I write a blessing, or a prayer for another person.  I like it because it gives me room to be as generous as I would like to be with no worries about lack or deprivation.When you write a prayer for another person, you can wish for her whatever you would like to see her have– be it material, emotional or spiritual.  When I buy lottery tickets, I fantasize about all the charities I would fund.  When I write in the prayer book, it makes me realize that when it comes to my intention— my ability to give is limitless as though I have won a lottery of sorts. I can concentrate on one person and visualize any blessings or gifts for her.  It is an exercise in abundance.

JOURNAL #3:  This last one is the “project journal”.  In this notebook, I write down my progress from the day before, and my plans for the writing day ahead.  I also use it while I am writing to take notes on things that I worry that I may forget.  At the end of each week, I read over the journal with my highlighter to bring my attention to things that are important.  (There is a prayer/intention/mediation dimension to this too, but I will save it for a post all by itself.)

Journal writing takes me about an hour, but it has become an essential part of my process. One I am all journaled-up, I can look at my project with a certain confidence and readiness.  I feel like I have real purpose.


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Writing Rituals: Pick Your Poison, Or Not

I used to be a coffee addict and when I was writing hard, even more so.  If I was going to an artist colony, I would even take myself through the torture of coffee detox, so that I could start up again at the colony with that full-rev.  I think I liked that speedy feelings of being amped up on caffeine, writing like a demon.  When I was at MacDowell, I bought a 42 once thermos that I would fill with coffee and suck it all down.  But now, I have really started to think more closely about what I put into my body and how it affects my writing.

For now, I have drastically cut down on the coffee. (Just a little sip in the morning.)  The coffee rush was almost like that tequila shot that convinces you that you are the greatest dancer in the world.  Coffee was my liquid courage and I incorporated it into my writing ritual for years.  But lately, I have been wanting to write a little more slowly and thoughtfully.

I’ve also tried my best to lay off the sugar and the wine the day before.  When I avoid sugar and alcohol, I sleep better and wake up better.  And then I have better writing day.  To figure out what is, and isn’t working, I recommend keeping a food/drink diary, when you record what you eat and then how you feel in the morning.  You may see that there are some things that don’t agree with you, but you didn’t realize it.  One of the key elements in creating effective rituals, is becoming very mindful of your own body and mind.  Get quiet and listen to yourself.

This is not to say that I don’t indulge, but I am aware of the effects of my choices.  I suppose what my more mindful writing practice has shown me is that I have to think about my writing day all day long and not just when I am sitting at my desk.  When I’m at dinner and I pass on that second glass of red wine, it’s part of my practice.

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Writing Rituals: Getting My Space Together

What I saw first thing this morningEveryone has somewhere that they prefer to write.  There is a photo of Ann Petry that I love that shows her writing at her kitchen table.  Over the years, I have written in a lot of different places.  My very first novel, which was never published, was written in the ladies room on my break from my day job.  My first published novel was written in a closet and also on a patio so tiny, that I had to climb over the little table in order to get in and out.  These days I have a writing room, but I have realized that I was not using my space in a way that was fostering my writing.

When I selected this apartment, I had to decide which of the two bedrooms would be the writing room.  There was the sunny room up front, or the slightly less appealing room in the back.  I decided that the best room would be the writing room.  This decision made me feel good about myself and my commitment to my work.  I bought a desk, and some filing cabinets.  But I also installed a futon to be used as a guest bed, if necessary.

This is an example of the ways that we can undermine our own goals.  Putting the guest bed as a permanent fixture to my writing room was my way of sharing my writing time/space with other people.  Look at it symbolically.  When other people had needs, it would be taken out of my writing space.  I have sometimes had long-term guests and I would wake up and have coffee and feel like my writing room was being held hostage.  I would be frustrated and testy, and my guests would be bewildered.  After all, I had invited them.

This is not to say that that I will no longer have guests, but I will not have a guest bed in my writing space.  I bought an airbed, which can be set up for guests (and it will probably be in my writing room), but the energy is different now.  This room is a dedicated writing room.  It’ s not a writing-slash-guest room.  You know, I think that is part of what makes writers colonies so appealing, the gift of a writing space that is only for writing.

I know that everyone doesn’t have the space to have a room only for writing, but maybe you can set up a corner of a room.  A table that everyone knows not to touch because it is your space.  If you work at a coffee shop or at a library, is there someway you can make it plain to yourself that you are in a physical space set aside for your work?  Maybe you can bring certain items with you, a favorite mug, paperweight, or some other talisman?  You need something that makes it clear who you are and what you are here to do.

Now, on to the ritual.

For me, it’s important that I set up my space the day before.  My desk has a glass top, so I wipe it down with windex the night before.  I set out the pens, pencils, typewriter I will be using. I make sure the pens have ink, that the typewriter has plenty of ribbon. I put water in the pitcher.  I get everything just the way I need it so I can write.  This way, I am committing to writing the night before.  When I wake up, my plan is in motion.  There is nothing in my way.

If you work away from home, you can still do this preparation ritual, by getting your bag ready the day before.  Make a checklist of everything you need for your writing day and go to bed with your bag packed.

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Writing Rituals: A New Take on My Writing Practice

I have never really been one for rituals.  As a matter of fact, I have argued against them, believing that they can trigger writers block.  After all, if you feel you can only write when facing east and wearing your lucky socks, what happens when one sock gets eaten up in the dryer?  But I am not learning the difference between ritual and superstition.

Sometimes people ask me about my “process” but what they really are looking for is ritual.  I see process as something that happens on the page, but ritual is a serious of steps I take to prepare myself for writing. Unlike superstition, which sort of implies that certain random details will cast a protective spell, a ritual is something that it performed with intent and purpose.  It is can be spiritual, but not exactly magical.

I have been having a hard time with my writing over the last few months.  I was showing up, but the muse didn’t join me.  I tried to tell myself it was a job and only fools wait for inspiration. So I just sat down and put some words on the page.  But it wasn’t the writing that I needed and it wasn’t bringing me any pleasure.  So I stopped showing up and the days and weeks ticked by.  My deadline passed. I wasn’t sure what to do.

But all that has changed and I really think it’s because I have added ritual and meaning to my writing process.  it’s complicated so I don’t want to overwhelm with one post.  For the next couple weeks, I will share one aspect of my writing rituals and explain why it has been helpful for me.

The thing to keep in mind as you read is that my rituals may not work for you, but they might!  Also, I hope that talking about my ritual may inspire you to devise rituals of your own.  Because it’s summer and my schedule is flexible, my rituals are kind of elaborate and time consuming, but I will have to figure out how to streamline them when school starts.  The trick is to figure out what works for you and you life.

My new deadline for a tight draft of my new novel is Labor Day and I really believe that I can make it.  For the first time I feel confident and in-the-zone.  And it’s all because of the rituals.  So watch this space.  I’ll start posting the on Monday.

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