Datebooks, calendars, planners: A year in the life of a writer

daytimerI should have known it wouldn’t work for me. I know that everyone else has transitioned into the new world of technology, and I have to say that I thought I was right up there with the most tech savvy of writers. But there’s one area of my writing life – and life in general – where I am singularly unable to evolve. I cannot seem to give up my real-paper daily planner.

It all started two, years ago when I decided to try to wean myself off the expensive Daytimer™ I had used all throughout my academic career. When PDA’s (remember those Palm Pilots?) first emerged, I was one of the first adopters among my university colleagues. I do have to admit though; I never gave up that Daytimer. In fact, I even bought one of those Daytimer covers that included a paper planner as well as a slot on the inside of the leather cover into which to slide the PDA.  What that really amounted to was using the paper almost exclusively and only removing the PDA at meetings so as not to be seen as a dinosaur.  But I never really did get the hang of the electronic calendar ‘thingie.’. At least I could never figure out how people clung to it both physically and psychologically as if it were their very lifeline. Those early days of Palm Pilots have to be seen as the birthplace of the dreaded “cellphone elbow” that is so ubiquitous these days, soon to be followed by “smartphone neck.”

These days I do use the calendar in my electronic devices. Of course I do.  What would I do without that little ringing reminder of today’s dental appointment and tomorrow’s meeting at the bank? And a significant number of my friends/acquaintances/colleagues are joined at the hip to their devices so send messages that I can immediately add to my electronic calendar.

But what would I do without my leather-bound Daytimer lovingly stationed on the edge of my desk with its week-at-a-glance that not only tells me what appointments I have this week, but also contains notes about what needs to be written when? It also has an add-in page where I can continue to add items that need to be done before I head south on a vacation two weeks from today, as well as make notes on what I’ve accomplished each day. I’m sure that an electronic calendar of one sort or another (there’s an app for that) can do much the same thing, but I have no intention of finding out.

To be clear, I also use my devices for note-making – in fact I wrote the draft of this post on a mini-IPad, but it will never take the place of either my paper calendar or all those journals I love so much!

So, to justify my existence just this side of the Luddites of the world, I offer you my top five reasons for using a paper calendar.

  1. It enhances my creativity by forcing me to find innovative ways to remind myself about appointments without benefit of that annoying little sound effect.
  2. It gives me an opportunity to ensure that the lost art of penmanship is not entirely lost in my own world. Since I write longhand less and less, when I do have to write someone a note, it is usually barely legible.
  3. The sound of the pen or pencil on paper soothes my racing writer’s mind. This might be a throwback to a simpler time in childhood!
  4. It enhances my ability to see the bigger picture of my week/month/year. Maybe others can do that with the electronic calendar, but I can’t.
  5. It requires me to physically connect to the notes I write. As dumb as it sounds, I have long been a person who remembered something more easily if I wrote it down. Tapping on a screen doesn’t seem to have the same effect. So, if I write down that appointment, I’m more likely not to even need the reminder.

As I start a new year, I have a new calendar and it’s a bit like having a clean slate that is actually physically present. I’m going to use it and stop feeling like a Luddite for not being able to wean myself off!

Blogging as writing practice

Just like athletes and dancers, those of us who call ourselves writers need to “practice” our craft and “warm up” before embarking on a new piece of work.

Whenever I’m faced with the prospect of a brand new writing project and find myself sitting in front of that blank computer screen, fingers poised over the keys, I need to feel that I am in practice and that I’m warmed up to begin properly.  So, how do writers practice when they’re not writing something destined for publication in one way or another?  And how do we warm up for the task at hand?

Over the years, many writers have simply kept journals.  I’ve done that myself and I continue to do it.  I love my journals as any of my regular readers know. I have journals for a wide variety of things.  But they do serve me two very different purposes.

The first purpose is for me to have a place to write down ideas as they come to me.  Most writers do this and these days many will do it electronically on IPhones and IPads or other electronic devices.  I do this as well, but for me there is nothing like my nice pen and my Moleskine journal(s).

What kind of book notes & ideas reside in this journal? Hmm...

The second purpose for me in keeping journals is for writing practice.  Writing guru Natalie Goldberg says, “It’s good to go off and write a novel, but don’t stop doing writing practice.  It is what keeps you in tune…”[1]  I’ve always loved her approach to writing practice; keep your hand moving.  That works fine when I use a pen and notebook, but it’s not so useful when I’m at a keyboard.  Maybe it should be, but it isn’t.  That’s where blogging comes in for me.

Just like everyone else out there, when blogging first started to become a force, I started a blog.  I thought that I could use the blog to make some of the work I do at the university available to a wider audience – but I wasn’t committed to it, and as I look back on the exercise now, I think I really wanted to learn the technical aspects of blogging more than I wanted it to be good pieces of writing.  But blogging can be that practice Natalie talks about.

Consider this: if you are a writer, you need to write every day – or at least those five days a week that you devote to “work.” (I know, some of your friends don’t think you’re actually working when all you seem to be doing is sitting at home diddling away on the computer – my mother thinks that if I’m not in front of a class or at a meeting, I must not be working.  I wonder where she thinks those books come from?)  But you don’t always have a big project – and sometimes when you do, all you seem to be able to do is stare at that blank screen.  This is where blogging as writing practice comes in.

Blogging, however, can only be a practice if you are committed to it.  This means that you commit to writing almost every day and posting at least every week or two.  But do you have to make your every blogged thought available to the masses?  In a word, NO!

Not every blog has or needs to have an audience.  You can actually blog away with your settings set on private.  It does not need to be searchable by the Googles of the world.

For most people, blogging requires an idea that triggers a personal response that then becomes the basis of a blog post that begs for reader response.  Blogging in this scenario is a very public activity that begs for that dialogue.  Blogging as writing practice, on the other hand, does not need an idea, or an angle.  It does not need an audience, and certainly doesn’t need any feedback.  It just needs the writer to begin with a word or two – such as “I remember…” as suggested by Natalie Goldberg – and fingers to the keyboard, repeating that two words every time the ideas stop flowing.  What’s very important here is that what you write doesn’t even have to be good – it just has to be.

This is how I justify spending time on this and my other blog – the other blog is one that chronicles my other passion – travel.  They started out as ways simply to practice and warm-up before a big project.  They have, obviously, evolved.  That’s the nice thing about writing practice (even in your journals): you never know where they might lead.  They just don’t need to have an objective at the outset.  Happy blogging!

The Common Craft video reminds us that blogs are “news” of the 21st century – but as writers, we know better.  Blogs can be anything we want!


[1] Goldberg, Natalie. (1986, 2005). Writing Down the bones.  Shambhala Publications, p. 17.

One writer’s sabbatical

Morning ritual?

It’s September again.  That usually means some new school supplies and back to the classroom for a hard-working university prof.  But not this year.  This semester I’m on sabbatical.  It’s funny how people respond when you tell them you’re on sabbatical.  Usually they say something like: “Gee, must be nice.”  (With just that slight edge of sarcasm.)   Or they say, “You university people have all the perks.”  Well, let’s just say that there are few people who would not like to be in my shoes right now regardless of how  much they like their jobs.  So, what’s a sabbatical for anyway?

Naturally, the web is full of definitions.  Let’s start with the etymology of the word (where the English word has its source).

The word itself derives from and is related to a bunch of words in other languages.  The Latin sabbaticus, the Greek sabbaitkos, and even the Hebrew Shabbat, all have similar meanings.  They refer to a hiatus from work.  This is interesting to a university professor, I’m sure, since a sabbatical does mean a break from one’s regular teaching and administrative responsibilities, but the requirement to produce work related to the other components of a prof’s contract is even higher.  That part, of course, is the research and writing part.  A university professor on sabbatical is supposed to be researching and writing.  The idea, though, that one can be freed up from other daily responsibilities to focus more fully on the kind of work that really is done better with single-minded focus from time to time, is a forward-thinking one.  Everyone should have a sabbatical once in a while.  But not to lie around slothfully and vegetate, in my view.  So, what kind of productive work can a writer produce when she is on sabbatical from other work?

Believe it or not, there is a web site called YourSabbatical.com that provides services for employers and employees regarding sabbaticals.  Who knew?  According to their web site they partner “…with businesses to implement customized sabbatical programs that attract, retain, and accelerate top talent through personal and professional enrichment…” They do, however, have a useful blog for people on sabbatical, and I was especially interested in their interview with a “prolific writer” who has the following tips for productive writing when taking a hiatus from your regular work.   According to Casey Hawley (author of 10 Make-or-Break Career Moments: Navigate, Negotiate, and Communicate for Success, a book that I cannot recommend since I have not read it), we all need to…

  1. Have a schedule for our writing.  To tell you the truth, this is a no-brainer for me.  I think that if you can’t even make a date with yourself to write, then you’ll never get a project finished especially when you have so much more freedom than usual.
  2. Reward ourselves.  She suggests that if you set a word goal, for example, then you reward yourself – perhaps you can go out to lunch.  Whereas I do agree with this suggestion, I also think that you need to revisit tip #1 and add that your goals should be realistic, and also more than the minimum.  I can write thousands of words a day but that doesn’t mean they will be the words I should write.  On the other hand, if I were to set my goal for 500 words a day and then went out for lunch as a reward, not only would I be under-performing, I’d probably be fat!
  3. Have writing rituals.  Lots of creative people tell us this.  Twyla Tharp, world-renowned choreographer and author of The Creative Habit (which I can and do recommend), says, “It’s vital to establish some rituals – automatic but decisive patterns of behavior – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back…Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, why am I doing this?” She then provides numerous examples of artists’ rituals.  Evidently Igor Stravinsky always did the same thing every morning as he entered his studio: He sat down and played a Fugue by Bach.  Then he got to work.  These days we’re more likely to check email or a Facebook site – but that little ritual can get you into a whole lot of trouble as the act itself begins to consume ever larger portions of your day.  I suggest leaving the online rituals until later.  Perhaps make them the reward! (see #2 above)

So, those are the three tips for being more prolific in your writing.  I better move on and set my goal for the day which will be followed by my reward, but not until I perform my ritual.  That ritual is setting my goal for the days and deciding on what kind of a reward I’ll have if I produce.  A bit circular, non?

Off to San Francisco tomorrow for a wedding and a bit of a reward for all this writing.