Brevity is not my goal

As I have said elsewhere, I am, first and foremost, a storyteller. The writing is a secondary decision and a distant one at that.

However, I learned long ago that some people discount what you have to say if you do not couch it in terms and frameworks they accept as authoritative. So, I try to get the grammar somewhat right, anyway. As much as I wish I did not care what other people with more education than me, more credentials than me, and more platform than me… I do.

Deep inside is still the eight-year-old kid who was laughed at by a grownup for mispronouncing the word “proprietor” as I had only read the word and never heard it said. I am yet to forgive that guy. Honestly, I am yet to try. It’s on my to-do list. Admittedly, it’s at the bottom of the list, but it’s on there.

We carry so many ghosts around with us.

So, anyway, I worry about my grammar. And spelling. And usage. And diction. I use several tools, including spell check and Grammarly, to do final passes on anything I send out into the world to make sure I got all my subject/verb agreement and tenses correct. And the fights I have had with the punctuation robots over how many commas should be in a sentence are legion. Generally, the robot thinks I should use less, errr, fewer, unless I don’t think I should have one, in which case, it thinks I am wrong.

To be clear – I see them as advisors. “Here is a potential problem,” they say, and then I decide on whether to take the advice. I do perhaps one time out of three.

In almost every paragraph of any length, it will highlight at least one sentence and tell me that it is too wordy and should be rewritten. (Ironically, including the one you just read.) But the grammar robots do not understand that brevity is not my goal. Telling a good story is.

A good story needs to be understood, and proper punctuation and grammar can aid in that understanding. But it is far from the only requirement.

A good story should connect with the emotions of the audience. It should be an invitation into empathy, a connection with what is important in our humanity, a point of sameness that we can alight on together in a tumultuous world. It’s hard to do that when reducing the word count is your primary aim.

Recently, the James Webb telescope released pictures from deep space, showing us galaxies and solar systems we did not know existed. The picture accompanying this post is one of them. Here is how NASA described the picture in the Alt-Text, which is the description it provides for screen readers:

The image is divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing innumerable stars of many sizes. The smallest of these are small, distant, and faint points of light. The largest of these appear larger, closer, brighter, and more fully resolved with 8-point diffraction spikes. The upper portion of the image is blueish, and has wispy translucent cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula below. The orangish cloudy formation in the bottom half varies in density and ranges from translucent to opaque. The stars vary in color, the majority of which, have a blue or orange hue.

The cloud-like structure of the nebula contains ridges, peaks, and valleys – an appearance very similar to a mountain range. Three long diffraction spikes from the top right edge of the image suggest the presence of a large star just out of view.

I have two things to say about that description. No, three things.

  • Whoever wrote that cared about the reader. It’s stunning in its description and care.
  • It is not brief. Most alt-text is a sentence or two long.
  • The grammar robot freaked out over that paragraph of text.

People love to harp on Strunk and White’s admonition to omit needless words, but who decides if they are needless? I think clarity and connection are much better goals than brevity.


Today is payday for my day job, which means that I sit down and pay the bills that will be due before the next payday. Perhaps it just means the capitalists have won, but the feeling of it being payday and sitting down and being able to pay all of your bills – there is truly nothing like it.

I get how sad that sounds. But I have spent a not-insignificant portion of my life – both as a child and as an adult – not having a lot of access to money to pay just the regular, everyday bills. Poverty changes your brain.

In my twenties, my business card said I was an “Account Executive”, but basically I helped rich old people hide their money from the government.

I was successful, in that I made good money and I was praised for my performance, but a failure, in that I hated the pressure my managers put on me, and I hated the pressure I felt to push people into solutions that made money for me but were of dubious real long term value for them. I was a failure because I hated my life, and wouldn’t do anything about it.

If you know the movie Glengarry, Glenn Ross, my life was a lot like a weekly visit from the guy from Mitch and Murray. I once was told by a manager that I just needed to buy a more expensive car – because then I would have more debt and thus be more motivated to close deals.

I hated that money drove everything in my life. I hated that it was the only way we kept score. I hated that it was all that mattered. I made good money (especially for a 28-year-old kid) but we spent it like drunken sailors, too.

Eventually, I noticed that I had to drink a pint of vodka in my car to work up the courage to go into the office, and I quit.

I made $96,000 in my last year of selling money at the beginning of this century. The next year I made $18,000, got a divorce, and moved into a friend’s attic apartment.

So, all that is to say, I have lots of screwed-up narratives in my head about money.

Earlier this week, one of our cats had some weird symptoms that we needed to take her to the vet. This was unplanned and unexpected, and I hate that my only hesitancy around taking her was that I was unsure how much this would cost. To be clear – it wasn’t that we had no money to pay for it – we do – but that open-ended question just hung over me.

I have broken teeth in my mouth I am scared to go to the dentist for. Not because of fears around pain or fear of dentists or even that it is likely that at some point in the next ten years I shall have to migrate to dentures – it is that it is a huge open-ended question mark around how much it will all cost and that there is every possibility that I will have a pleasant visit with a professional who will, at the end of our meeting, tell me I owe them $3500, with no warning in advance.

The lowest I have ever felt in my life was one summer morning in May, in Durham, NC. We had just left Duke Hospital, where my wife was being evaluated for eligibility to have a heart transplant that would save her life and give her a normal life expectancy, rather than the 3-7 years she had if she did not get it.

That morning, we had a meeting with the financial counselor, who looked at our insurance coverage and told me that if we did not get approval from one of our insurances to cover this procedure, I would have to show evidence that I had $20,000 in cash before they would list her as eligible for transplant.

I did not have $20,000. I worked at a small, scrappy grass-roots severely underfunded nonprofit that I had founded, and I made very little money while doing good work. I did not know where I could get $20,000. I had very little hope, under normal circumstances, of ever seeing $20,000 at one time.

And so, with a smile on her face, this nice person at Duke told me that because of choices that I had made around vocation and income and yes, money, my wife might die.

Spoiler alert: We got it worked out, she had the surgery, and she did not die.

But I still feel all sorts of anxiety about money. While writing the passage above about that day at Duke Hospital, I had to stop and get up and walk around, because even though it is almost 7 years later, it is all still too fresh in my brain.

So, when I decided to launch the membership program earlier this month as a way to make my writing economically viable, I had butterflies galore. All the old stories reared their head.

“Who are you to try to get paid money because you write things on a blog? It’s not like it’s real writing.”

“You aren’t good enough to get paid to write.”

“Nobody will support you, and you will just look stupid.”

“Writing is fun for you. Things that are fun we should do for free.”

“You are just going to be let down.”

But those are just stories I tell myself and have no bearing at all on what happens in reality. Because my brain is filled with old stories. Stories that are not kind to me.

In the Spike Jonze movie Her, the titular character says that the past is just a story we tell ourselves. And we can learn to tell ourselves better stories.

So, I’m trying to write (in my head) better stories about money, abundance, and scarcity, and better stories about my worth as an artist, as a writer, and as a person.

I’m trying to learn to tell myself better stories about myself.

And part of that is coming to believe that my labor has value and that other people believe that as well. That I need not apologize for making money for doing something which I both enjoy and do well. And that it is OK for me to ask for what I need.

Letters From Strangers

Since 2015, I’ve been publishing a newsletter every Monday morning. In the world of newsletters, it’s small, but there are a few thousand folks who faithfully read it, and while I have never really marketed it other than occasionally mentioning it on my social media accounts, I try hard to do a good job with it.

Over the winter, I began to consider what it would look like to be more intentional with making money from my publishing projects (including this blog) and asked myself what it would look like to take the newsletter seriously. To be intentional in how I do that work.

I knew from a recent survey of my readers that for a lot of people, my weekly emails end up in Google’s promotions tab, so I thought that since I am sending an automatically generated “You’re subscribed” email anyway, why not put the instructions on how to keep the email that matters to you out of that folder and in your inbox in that email too? So I did.

And people started responding. I mean, like writing back to the automatically generated email. With how they found the newsletter, how they heard about me, and where they lived in the world. That had never happened before. Ever.

I guess my new email was just personal enough that it no longer looked like a “form” email. So, not wanting to be rude, I wrote back. I thanked them for writing. I told them I looked forward to writing for them.

If my transactional form email was getting responses as if it was a personal email, what if I cranked that up just a bit and made it more personal, and invited responses?

So now, if you subscribe to my newsletter, you get the following email a few hours after you subscribe:

Thanks for subscribing to Life Is So Beautiful!

Hey there!

Thanks for signing up for my newsletter, Life Is So Beautiful! I appreciate it.

Every Monday (barring US Federal Holidays), I send out an email with a short essay on where I found some beauty in the world that week and links to five things I discovered that week that I thought were beautiful.

And now you are on the list!

I think I have some of the best readers on the whole Internet, and more than anything else, I believe that writing is a relationship between the writer and the reader. I am a pretty personal writer, sharing a lot of “me” in this newsletter.

So I can get a better sense of who is reading my stuff, just hit reply to this email (or email me directly at and let me know something about you, like:

  • What is your hobby is
  • Where you live in the world
  • What your favorite thing to do to recharge is

Don’t overthink it – anything you want to share is fine.

This lets me do a better job of writing things that make sense to you, and also, I just think the world is a better place when we are more personal and less formal.

Thanks again. And welcome!


PS: A few things you might want to know:

  • Emails for the newsletter will come from this email: It would be best to add it to your email address book or contacts. If you haven’t gotten it by noon this Monday, check your spam filters.
  • If you are on Gmail, you may find it gets shunted to your Promotions tab. (How rude is that?) Instead, you can drag it to your Primary tab. Then Gmail will ask if you want to make that change permanent. (Of course, Google! How silly.)

About 10 percent of the people who get that email respond. Like, with letters. Real, engaging letters.

They don’t just say they live in England, but rather that they live in Hertfordshire, just north of London, in the UK, with their husband and two daughters. Or that they live in Durban, South Africa, though they will likely soon be moving to Toronto, Canada this fall. Or tell me that they have been single their whole life, but recently met a potential partner who makes them swoon. Or that they read Victorian lit and live in Dehli, India and help run a food bank there. Or they explain, with links, what netball is, and why they love it so.

I make sure to reply to every single email. Sometimes it takes a few days for me to get to it, but I always respond. I make it a point to use their name, to discuss something they said in their email to me, and to thank them for writing.

Some of them write back. The longest exchange thus far is more than 10 emails long. And then some of those same people kept writing after each issue of the newsletter is sent. They tell me what they liked and send me submissions and in general, become highly engaged.

It shocks me that the emails are as personal as they are. After all – these are people I don’t have a relationship with at all. They just subscribed. But I think we are all hungry for connection these days and have a deep desire to be known and seen. I’m glad I get to play my small part in that.

I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

Every Monday morning, I send out a newsletter. I have done this for more than seven years now. At this point, it’s just something I do, and I suspect that if everyone unsubscribed, I would probably still do it.

And amazingly, people read it. I know that sounds like I’m fishing for compliments, but I mean it – that people read anything I write amazes me constantly. That other people spend folding money to make sure I have the freedom to do that writing is staggering to me.

Last week, I started a survey of my newsletter readers – a thing I’ve never done before. There are some demographic and informational questions I have wondered about – how old are my readers (mostly between 35 and 65, it seems) and when do they read my newsletter that I publish on Monday mornings (almost perfectly evenly split between “as soon as it hits my inbox” and “I save it for later when I can savor it”), but mostly I wanted the more subjective comments to questions like, “What do you like about this newsletter” and “How would you describe what this newsletter is about?”

From a marketing perspective, these are mostly useless. Knowing that an anonymous reader (I didn’t tie responded to email addresses, so people would be more honest) thinks that I need to do more of what I’m doing, or that another anonymous reader thinks that I am a “breath of fresh air” won’t help me get more readers, but it does reassure me that at least some people get value from what I’m trying to do.

But what I love about reader responses is what they tell me about myself. As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe writing to be a partnership between the reader and the writer. A friend who is a movie critic once told me that it’s the job of the critic to tell the artist what they are doing – that it’s actually the critic (or audience), for example, that decides whether a movie is sad, or inspiring.

So when I get responses to my question “Is there anything you would like me to know?” with things like “I love reading your newsletter because it calms my anxiety” or “You are like a Southern Bob Ross” or “I love how calm you are in the face of the tragedies all around us, without ignoring that they are happening”, it tells me something I would have never guessed on my own about what people get from my writing.

Because I don’t really feel calm, or even like I am trying to be calming. I mean, there are a couple of people who ostensibly have things in common with me who are sorta famous on the internet who are very viral, and who are always angry and post click-bait posts designed to provoke a reaction and make you angry at other people. I decided a long time ago that I don’t want readers that badly. So, it is not so much that I’m trying to be calming as much as I’m just trying to not be an asshole.

But knowing that people perceive the project I’m working on to not just be about beauty but also as calming and restorative is useful feedback and lets me know that I am doing things I didn’t know I was doing.

Just like how, when a friend says, “I don’t think you know you are doing it, but you chew with your mouth open, and it’s pretty gross”, you can stop. And once I know I’m doing a thing, and that people like it, I can do more of it.

I’ve been writing nearly daily on this blog for more than four months now – almost 99,000 words since the beginning of November, and during that time, I’ve sorted into a rhythm of sorts. I know that posts about self-care get shared in ways that nothing else I write does, and I know that posts about food are loved and heavily commented on, and I know that people respond well to my posts that are heavy on memories and nostalgia. But I’m not sure yet if the blog has figured out yet what it’s doing.

I mean, I know what I think I’m doing, but like the newsletter example shows – what I think I‘m doing and what people see you as doing can be different things. So, expect an anonymous reader survey soon, because I’d love to know what you think I’m doing.




The partnership

I carry a notebook around with me, and I jot down things I want to remember to write about. But it’s a small notebook, and I have 50-year-old eyes, and so sometimes in the name of expediency, I lose either legibility or intelligibility and sometimes both.

Like the entry that I wrote a few weeks ago in bed, late at night. Here it is, in its entirety: Paul McCartney, song (talk to Renee) / partnership between reader and writer.

Now, this time, I happen to completely understand what I was getting at. For Christmas, I got Renee, who is a huge Beatles fan, this two-volume book of Paul McCartney lyrics and commentary, called, fittingly enough, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. It’s huge.

And one night we were lying in bed, reading our respective books, when she told me that she had just learned an interesting thing about a particular song – that while the lyrics were powerful and moving to us both, it turns out that when he wrote them, it was meant as a fun song, almost whimsical.

I bet you are wondering what song it was. I am too because while I wrote down the event, I made no mention of the song because I would surely remember it.

I do not remember it. My brief note was a bit too brief.

But I wrote it down because it so perfectly encapsulates the partnership that exists between the writer and the reader.

In 1994, I was dating a woman who was my superior in practically every way. She made more money than I did, she was older than I was, and she was smarter than I was. And when we broke up, which was, in hindsight, inevitable, I took it rough. Really rough, in the way only a 22-year-old could.

I went on a three-day drunk. I drunk-called her house at all hours. I showed up outside her house and the police got called – not by her, but by the neighbor who took umbrage to my declarations of my love in her front yard at 3 in the morning.

Eventually, I came to terms with the breakup, but like 22-year-olds everywhere that go through tragic breakups, I found solace in music.

At the time, there was a popular country music song called Little Rock, by Tom Douglas, sung by Collin Ray. In it, the protagonist is starting his life over in Little Rock after destroying his relationship and is now trying to rebuild his new life while mourning the loss of the life he had.

A sample of the lyrics:

Well, I know I disappeared a time or two,

And along the way, I lost me and you.

I needed a new town for my new start

Selling VCR’s in Arkansas at a Wal-Mart.

I haven’t had a drink in nineteen days.

My eyes are clear and bright without that haze.

I like the preacher from the Church of Christ.

Sorry that I cried when I talked to you last night.

I think I’m on a roll here in Little Rock.

I’m solid as a stone, baby, wait and see.

I’ve got just one small problem here in Little Rock,

Without you, baby I’m not me.

Now, you might look at those lyrics here in the cold light of day in the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-Two and say to yourself that they are trite and sentimental. And I would agree with you. But 22-year-old me in 1994 drank at least a few cases of beer while sobbing and listening to that song on repeat, for weeks and weeks. I wore out that cassette tape; playing that song, then hitting rewind and playing it again. One thing you can say for MP3 players – listening to sad breakup music is easier than it was back in the day.

I already knew the song, of course. It had been out a while. But when I went through that breakup, it perfectly captured the struggle, the mourning, the lament, and the hope of it all.

When Tom Douglas wrote that song, he had no idea who I was. He had probably never set foot in Southaven, Mississippi, the scene of the yard incident. But he didn’t have to. He wrote the words, but I supplied the meaning. We were in partnership, Mr. Douglass and I.

It doesn’t matter if he had ever been through a breakup. It doesn’t matter if he had ever dated anyone, ever. I supplied every bit of meaning that I put on that song. And while I hear that song today and it reminds me of that time, I recognize that, objectively, it’s not a great song.

But it didn’t matter.

I try hard to write in an accessible way – people who know me say they can hear my voice when they read my writing, which is 100% what I’m shooting for. And I’m fortunate that I have a really interactive group of readers. Not a day goes by when I don’t get an email or Facebook message from someone who read something I wrote, and often they will tell me the story of how something I wrote – sometimes something I wrote years ago – really spoke to them.

And sometimes, they see things in my writing that perplex me, because I didn’t put them there. Luckily for me, they tend to be good things, by and large, but still. But I guarantee you I saw things in the song Little Rock that neither the singer nor the songwriter put there. In the partnership between the writer and I, he supplied the worlds, and I supplied the meaning.

Now, I have to confess that as a writer, there are times this frustrates me. I will spend a great deal of time crafting an essay about, say, birds, and then I see where someone shared it on Facebook, and they talk about how it’s a testimonial to the enduring power of the human spirit.

I really thought it was about birds. But if they needed to hear about the enduring power of the human spirit right then, I’m willing to let them have it. After all, I just bring the words – they supply the meaning.

The First Time

I was 15 years old when I wrote my first short story. I have no idea what the impetus was for choosing the short story format, but if I had to guess, it would be because it would have seemed like less work since, you know, it was short. I wrote most of it in Study Hall and finished it at lunch, so, perhaps 2 hours was spent on this.

The experience was magical. Scenes and words were in my head and flowed from my fingers, pouring out like a gushing stream. I was so proud, and I showed it to three adults, all of whom I trusted, and all of whose remarks involved how violent it was, and I was made to see the guidance counselor as a result. I had no management.

I wish I could talk to 15-year-old Hugh. I wish I could tell him, as someone whose writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers and published books and other esteemed places that he had really good instincts. That his 800-word story that involved *checks notes* three scene changes, drug use, three homicides, teen pregnancy, and suicide was probably a little ambitious for his skill level, but that the plot was great for a first time effort, and that the plot twist at the end was ambitious as hell and something he should be proud of himself for trying.

I would tell him that he told when he could have shown, and that if all his knowledge of drug culture came from Miami Vice, maybe that shouldn’t be central to the story. I would also say how proud of him I was that he took a moral position in his writing, even if it is heavy handed, and that giving the drug dealer a Hispanic name was a bullshit move, but was no doubt also learned from Miami Vice.

Then I would have hugged him, and told him he could, at 15, do things and see things other people couldn’t, and that he could already tell a good story; that the people we trust don’t always know what to do with people like us who make things, and that sometimes they are afraid of us, and sometimes they are afraid for us, and because of that, we have to be careful who we let see the things that matter to us.

But mostly, I would have told him to keep going.

Content Warning: The following story is pretty violent to have been written by a 15 year old virgin who couldn’t bring himself to write out the word “fuck”, even if that is clearly what he was thinking, and involves depictions of murder and descriptions of suicide, but is pretty tame by modern movie standards.

* * *

David had been my best friend since kindergarten and I am a senior in high school now. David’s and my parents were out of town together and left us there so we could go to school Friday.

It was Friday night when, after drinking a ton of beer, David told me about his “enterprise”. He was taking cocaine and cutting it with roach poison so he could make more profit. I was appalled. The very idea of drug use repulsed me, let alone something as deadly as this. I knew David had been doing coke since 10th grade, but I couldn’t have believed him to be capable of so sadistic a crime as this. However, out of ignorance or fear, I ignored it.

Saturday afternoon, I went to his house and then we went over to the mall. That night, about 1AM, we pulled into a Circle K for gas.

“You pump the gas, Johnny,” he said. “I’ve got to use the john. Pull up and wait for me when you’re through.”

I pumped $10 worth and pulled up to the front of the store to wait for David. Rstless, I got out nd was pacing in front of the store when a move caught my eye.

Why was the store owner holding his hands in the air? Why was the woman screaming? WHY GOOD GOD? Why was David holding a gun? The old man handed David a wad of money, and David shot him in the forehead. His wife never stopped screaming. Wet sticky pieces ofher husband’s skull sliding down the wall and all this woman can do is scream.

“Shut up!” David yelled.

The woman continued to scream.

“Shut up, I said!”

David emptied the gun into her chest. The woman, not willing to die, lay writing on the floor.

I know all of this could not have taken more than 5 or 6 seconds, but everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.

David hopped in the truck.

“Drive, dammit! Drive!”

David gave me directions to his “place”. As I drove, my sphincter muscles were clenched tight with fear. Here I was, sitting next to a double murderer, who was calmly sitting there. Every time I would look at David, I instead would see that old woman, writing on the floor, spitting up pink blood.

David’s place was an old beat up shack at the old railyards I had heard about it for years, but this was the first time been there.

David was bad off. It had been six hours since his last hit and he looked pretty bad. He was shaking and breathing fast. Even though it was November 8th he was sweating like a cold water pipe in the middle of July.

“Did you see them? Did you see that woman scream,” David asked?

David had went pretty far before, but this was it. He had done the unthinkable. He had killed 2 innocent people in cold blood. I made up my mind. In the morning I was going to call the cops. I had a load of scholarships, and I did not want this to mess them up.


He was whimpering, crying with joy from the money and pain from his habit. It was too much. I flew into him.

“Dammit, why did you rob that store?”

“Why not?”

“You killed 2 people for…” I counted the money “245 dollars. Why?”

“I needed the money to buy a rock. I can make over $2,000 with that.”.


I was disgusted. Then it was about the same old thing. Money.

“Look Johnny. Go to the mall. Just outside the door is a guy named Ramone. Tell him it’s for me, and give him the money. He will give you a package, OK?”

Why I agreed, I’ll never know. Maybe I was still in shock over what happened. Or, maybe I already had an idea of what would happen.

Well, I went to the mall and got his package. I also stopped by the hardware store.

I went into the shack. David was sweating bad. I gave him the package and he tore it open like a kid at Christmas. He cut a line and snorted his life-giving powder. Revolting how one’s life could be dependent on something so terrible.

He stood up, euphoric, for about 30 seconds. Then he toppled, fell, face first onto the floor, writhing and hacking at the fluid in his lungs. Amazing what effect roach poison and coke will have on a person.

If I live to be 100, I will never forget how he looked at me as if I had betrayed him. Well, maybe I had, but what I have done is wipe a little of the scum off the earth. Is that so bad? I know I must answer in hell for what I’ve done, but my girlfriend is pregnant, and I want my kid to grow up in a decent world.

The above was the author’s last words, found in a sealed letter beside his body. He shot himself through the head at approximately 4AM Sunday morning.


The Woo Woo

I tend to be very pragmatic. It’s not that I don’t have room for the supernatural: It’s just that it has, in my experience, often been used as an excuse by people who don’t really want to actually take tangible action.

Many is the time when I have been faced with needs that surpassed my abilities and have asked for real, tangible help – Help me get this person fed. Help me pay this person’s light bill. Help me get this person a job. Help me get this person some clothes. – and I have been assured of their prayers.

They often reply to my Facebook request with a hasty “Praying!”, apparently in such a rush to get on their knees and beseech the Almighty on our behalf that they can’t use sentences. The fervent prayers of the righteous may avail much, but in my experience, landlords require negotiable tender.

My friend Kathy once wrote a fundraising letter, and when someone replied that they were praying for her organization to have the resources they need, she replied back that their prayer team was full, and they really just needed somebody to write checks.

That said, I have had experiences I cannot explain pragmatically. As my buddy Brian said, I hate it when my experience of God contradicts my theology. So, I try to be open minded, especially as I strive hard to not yuck somebody else’s yum, and I never want to take away something that brings somebody comfort.

This has led me to interesting places over the years. Meditation retreats. Sweat lodges.  Pentecostal worship services. Folk slain in the Spirit. Other folk speaking in tongues. Prayer walks. Beads. Dream catchers. Familiars. Teas and tinctures. Spells. Healing services. Oil anointing. Tibetan singing bowls. Sitting with the dead.

All of which is a preamble to my friend Amy, who several weeks back mentioned she was starting up a book group around The Artist’s Way, and did I want to be part of it.

Which is how I have ended up writing three pages longhand every morning for the last two weeks as I lean into the program, which involves, among other things, writing three pages longhand every morning, in a ritual they call Morning Pages.

Now, I will confess, it seemed somewhat silly to me, but I am doing it. And because I have learned that rituals are important, and the more I take a ritual seriously, the more value I will get from it, I have tried to ritualize it as much as possible.

The same time, every morning. The same notebook, that I don’t use for anything else. I bought a special pen that I use for writing these pages, and I always start them the same way. In short, I am taking it seriously.

Now, I don’t know if this will “work”. In fact, I am unsure how I would know if it did work, or define what I expect it to do. But I can tell you that somewhere after day 7, it ceased to be a chore, and now I actually look forward to it. And the other day, I kept going after my three pages were done, because I had more stuff still waiting to come out. And Friday morning I had an idea for a book come to me while I was doing it, for which I have since done a rough outline.

And I’m just getting started – I committed to another 13 weeks of this. And while I can’t make a pragmatic case for it, I guess it doesn’t hurt to be open to the woo-woo, either.

The Notebook

There are some authors who were made for audiobooks. They are more spoken word artists than true writers.

Rick Bragg is one of them. Another is David Sedaris.

Like many people, my introduction to Sedaris was through This American Life, when he reads excerpts every Christmas from his essay The Santa Land Diaries. At the time, I lived in Raleigh, NC, where he grew up, so there was the additional level of cool because I knew many of the places he mentioned, and often ate at the IHOP where he stayed up late and wrote while in college.

As someone who writes and tries to tell stories, another thing I like about David Sedaris is that he basically writes about himself. He does do occasional fiction, but it isn’t his strong suite by any means: He is at his best when he is talking about himself, and the world as he observes it.

In his essay Day by Day, found in the collection Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, he lays out his process:

  • Keep a notebook with you all the time, and make notes about things you find interesting.
  • The following day, refer to your notes to write a diary entry, fleshing out details while it’s still fresh in your mind.
  • Periodically review the entries for items that merit fleshing out into stories
  • In front of live audiences, read the stories out loud and get feedback, which you use to edit the stories.

In short, it all starts with a notebook.

Trying to blog daily while living with ADHD in the middle of a pandemic ain’t no joke, y’all. I will have really cool ideas while on a walk, or while doing something else, and will think, “That’s it. That is what I will blog about. But then I sit down in front of my computer tomorrow to write one of the 8 things I have committed to write this week, and suddenly, I got nothing. It’s like every single thing I wanted to talk about is gone.

So, I bought a notebook.

It’s a simple pocket notebook, roughly the size of an index card, which I carry in a leather wallet I bought for the purpose. There’s room for a pencil in there, too, and when inspiration hits me, I stop and make a note. But really, I think any sort of notebook would do, as long as you remember to carry it with you. Thus the wallet, as I need my license and debit card, so this way it’s all together.

Should this notebook ever be stolen, it will make no sense to anyone. For instance, the entry that led to my post I called No Man’s Land literally says:

Pool, skylight, abundance

20, 21, 22, Thunk!

Guy splashing in next lane

And that’s it. I sat down in the locker room at the gym and scrawled it down as soon as I got back in from the pool, and the next day, that was the backbone of my entry.

So, that’s what I do now: I scribble in a notebook. Yes, I know you could do this on your phone, but I really hate writing on my phone. Like, really. I also forget it’s there. All the apps on my phone – it’s like they are not there – that whole object impermanence ADHD thing. But with a wallet in your pocket, it’s somehow more real, and I don’t forget it.

Yesterday, I was thought about something else to write about, and when I pulled my notebook out, I thought, “I could write about this notebook habit!” And wrote the following entry:

Carrying a notebook!

And that is this post.

Writing Hopefully

I was afraid I had lost my voice.

Three and a half years ago, I walked away from a ministry I had founded and built for 12 years because it was killing me.

The Rabbi Abraham Heschel said something to the effect that the Biblical prophets were enraged by things everyone else assumed were “just the way things are”. For the first 12 years of my career, I was enraged all the time. If someone died in the woods because there was no trans-friendly shelter for them, I not only became angry – I took it personally. I saw it as a personal affront to me and my work.

That sort of rage is… useful. That sort of rage helps you win fights, helps you change things, and will give you focus and clarity when everyone else is in a fog. It also makes you hell to be around, will risk your deepest relationships, will drive you into deep depression from which you may not survive, and is generally unsustainable.

The worst problems to have are those that are destructive, yet socially reinforced. In our social media driven world, the sort of rage I used to have is celebrated and applauded. We love people who are angry like that, who are “passionate” and “vulnerable” and who “tell it like it is”. On social media, anger is celebrated and reinforced.

I used to routinely “go viral” writing about things that made me angry. And I was good at it. There are people who ended up with large book deals that are worse at being angry on the Internet than I was.

But the depression that follows long periods of unresolved anger almost killed me. Literally. So, I have spent the last three years trying to not be angry. Oh, it still happens sometimes, and all the old anger comes back and my body knows what to do – the flared nostrils, the tingle in the upper back, the accelerated heartbeat, that vein that pops out on my right temple.

When it happens, it’s like like welcoming back an old friend – but the old friend you used to get high with when you skipped work and cheated on your spouse, who met your emotional needs but in a way that was corrosive and slowly suicidal.

It feels good to be angry. And it scares the hell out of me.

That was part of my blog silence until this Fall – having written perhaps 5 things in the prior two years, and having nothing I’ve written published since I left. I didn’t know how to write when I wasn’t angry, and was unsure if I had anything to say if I wasn’t angry. And I can’t do that again. I’m not interested in being that guy any more. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t survive being that guy, actually. And I want to stick around.

I was afraid, though, that I had lost my voice. I didn’t have any words. And God almighty, the world needs words right now. There is a lot to be angry about these days. And my personality type is such that I will always have a dissatisfaction with the world as it is, and will dream of the world as it could be, and will work to build that better world. But it’s a quieter, more gentle anger these days.

And slowly, the words have been coming back. I’ve been learning that hope is also an emotion, and one worth sustaining and building on. I like me better when I’m hopeful. And if I can’t write things that make people angry in ways that make me popular, perhaps I can write things that make people hopeful in a way that makes the world better.

Habits Are Things You Get for Free

Yesterday, my friend Don told me that he admired my output since I began daily blogging. What he didn’t know is that if I don’t do it daily, it pretty much won’t happen at all. I write every day, because if I only write when I get in the mood, I will write never. In the first 9 months of 2021, I wrote 9 blog posts. Since October 1st, I’ve written 72, and since November 1st, I’ve written one every day.

Today I have written more than 2500 words, between two very rough draft blog posts, a newsletter, and this blog post. I have written about 25,000 words in the last 30 days, which is about half the number of words in The Great Gatsby, by writing every day. That is 25,000 more words that I would have written had I written when I felt like writing.

I publish newsletters on Monday and Friday, every week. As a result, I have sent hundreds of newsletters to my lists in the last 5 years. When I had a newsletter that I sent when I had something to say, I sent perhaps 3 in two years.

I was talking to a friend this morning as I was on the way to the gym to swim.

“I really admire your regularity. It’s impressive,” she said.

I told her that regularity was sort of my super power. Regularity can make you unstoppable. My ADHD brain thrives on structure, but has a really difficult time creating structure. Like many ADHD folks though, I thrive in structured environments, because it drastically reduces my choices, and choices are paralyzing for me.

That is why, for example, I wear the same clothes day after day. I don’t wear shirts with letters or graphics. I tend to wear earth tones, and literally I grab whatever shirt is on top of the pile.  When I wore suits for a living I did the same thing, only with blue and white shirts, red ties, and blue suits. I don’t have to worry about what I will wear, or if it matches or is appropriate. I have casual clothes and work clothes and dress clothes and there are rules for all of them, and I only own clothes that follow those rules. As a result, I bet I spend less than two hours a year thinking about clothes.

Some people exercise on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I would exercise Monday, Wednesday, and the forget and it would be Saturday and I would get mad and then forget Monday and say to hell with it.

Doing it every day means you don’t have to remember. How much time do you spend thinking about brushing your teeth? None, because it’s a habit. And as the writer and activist Corey Doctorow said, “Habits are things you get for free”.

I have a habit of exercising, whether that is a walk or a swim, every day. A habit of working in the shop after supper. A habit of reading before bed. A habit of writing. All things I get for free.

In fact, it’s the parts of my life I haven’t figured out how to create structure around that give me fits.

But I’m trying.