Monday, October 26, 2015

Inspiration Monday: Problem Solving

Yesterday, I posted about how I plan to solve my plot problems for this year's NaNoWriMo challenge. I wouldn't exactly say I accomplished it, but even small progress is progress just the same.

Today, this is how I decided to solve another one.

Hello, 2001! Welcome back to the future!

Gotta love the good 'ol CRT refresh prison stripes.

Yes, I've posted before about computers I've used for many happy hours writing, and my "regular" desktop and laptop setups are more than satisfactory.

They also internet. They internet very, very well.

For all but the barest technicality, this Indigo 500mhz iMac G3 running OS 9.1 cannot internet, and therefore will not allow me access to lolcats, Buzzfeed lists, email, or let me zip across wave after wave of Wikipedia surfing in the name of "research."

It can word process, though. It can do that like a champ.

It is just old enough that I can't use it for much except writing, but new enough to directly transfer an intact document file to my regular computer. I'm hoping it will be a distraction buster like my beloved typewriter, but maybe with its own flavor and a little more utility since it affords a modern digital format. Naturally, I'll have a good fountain pen and notebook nearby at all times.

Sometimes solving a problem doesn't mean ripping your guts out and examining what's wrong with you. Sometimes, it is as simple as modifying the environment to accommodate your needs. In this case, I'll always find distractions, but the better I know myself and my habits, the easier it is for me to place obstacles in just the right place to keep myself on task. Take a look around at your own creative space--what works? What doesn't? What works a little too well? 

Bring it, NaNoWriMo 2015. I'm ready.

(Well, if you don't count not having a novel idea yet. There's still that.)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Let the Planning Begin

I've taken the NaNoWriMo challenge annually since 2007. I have "won" in every attempt, but only once did I ever actually continue the novel to the end after crossing the 50k word mark. Even that novel has had to undergo significant restructuring and rewriting, and remains stuck on the operating table, its organs splayed out and shriveling while I figure out what needs transplanting and how to go about it.

Usually, even if I put a fair amount of planning into a concept, I end up completing the challenge as a "pantser," one who writes by the seat of his/her pants. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. In the past, it has allowed me to take a relatively thin concept and flesh it out as I go along, sometimes with remarkable transformation. I might have thought I was setting out to make a cookie, but ended up with some kind of souffle. That is a good thing, but usually leads to significant rewrites to make the whole piece consistent from beginning to end.

The last few attempts at "pantsing" have been less fruitful for me. I got a few characters and concepts I can tease out and use, but more importantly, I never found myself "on fire" for the projects. There wasn't enough backbone to engage me, or to center me when I would drift off the path. I ended up getting in all 50k words each time, but even in all that prose, I never got a clear path to where I was going, or even if I knew how I wanted things to end, how in the world I was supposed to get there.

This year, I don't want to spend a month wandering in the woods. I don't want to get lost. I need a novel GPS to keep me on course. I need to...
Outline. There. I said it. (Shuddering, cringing, and smacking my mouth to get used to the taste.)

It's not that I don't like outlines. I think outlines are fabulous. I just think I'm slightly allergic to them.

Most of my outline attempts end up being just enough catalyst to send me off writing page after page of narrative idea building that never actually turns into the road map an outline is supposed to be. I get ideas for who a character is, what might have happened in the past to bring them to this point, the history of the town, the neighbor's goldfish's name, how much money is in the main character's first cousin's savings account, and what "might" happen. I even write it like that: "...then she might end up going to his house and checking to see if he has properly insulated his water pipes for winter, as that would let her know he was responsible and ripe for picking from the husband-tree."

All of that writing can be useful--it actually is quite useful in determining motivation, making characters three-dimensional, and helping me get unstuck when I am not sure what a character would do in a situation. What it doesn't do is keep me tight to a plot or tell me how to navigate transitions.

Transitions are the worst. (Any writer who tells you otherwise is not to be trusted. Unless they're willing to tell you how to breeze easily through perfect, tight transitions, in which case you listen to them and come right back here to tell ME.)

This year, I will probably do some of my usual narrative outlining, but I'm trying to be more disciplined with it. I am going to do an actual plot outline first, from beginning to end, before I let myself wander off the trail to find shiny objects in the weeds.

Every year I start a brand new notebook for my NaNoWriMo idea, and I'm about to crack open my birthday Moleskine to see what I can come up with. Right now, I don't have the first idea which idea I want to tackle, but between now and November 1, I intend to know where to start, where to end, and every twist and turn in between.

Unless the effort of outlining actually kills me.

It might.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Worth It

This week I have been sequestered in a Nashville hotel for an ASIST (Assertive Suicide Intervention Skills Training) Train the Trainer conference. It has been a bit grueling. It's a tough subject, and there's a lot to learn, especially the part about being able to adequately help others learn the material. There have been some long days, including this one. I'm sitting in the lobby of the hotel writing this post as I wait for a fellow trainer candidate to return from purchasing note cards so we can go over the material one more time. I'm tired, my back hurts, and I miss my husband and my pets.




This practice will save lives. Spending this week will allow me to go back to my community and train others to intervene with those who are having thoughts of suicide. Staying late to help my colleague learn material will help him to do the same.

Totally worth it.

It also doesn't hurt that there is free coffee in the lobby 24/7. Doesn't hurt at all.

I have also been working really hard to eat better and take better care of my health and nutrition (even if it kills me). When my friend Mandy made me an amazing peanut butter pie for my birthday, do you think that even entered my mind? Do you think I felt compromised? Nope.

Be jealous.
Worth it. 

I've been thinking more and more about the things I do, and what the result of those actions actually is on my life, and the lives of those around me. If I had to guess, I'm probably not alone in needlessly worrying about ALL THE THINGS when it is not going to impact ANY OF THE THINGS. Some of that is just written in the stars, my DNA, the book of life--however you want to put it. Still. I don't have to let that be the boss of me. I can start deciding what deserves dibs on my oh-so-depleted energy reserves by deciding if the outcome of that action is going to impact the world around me in a positive way. Basically, anytime I'm spinning my emotional wheels, I can ask myself that important question: is it worth it?

When it comes to feeling guilty over not spending as much of my time and attention on my writing as I would hope to do if I wasn't so busy these days, it's complicated. I do really believe finding a way to write despite my circumstances has value. Writing is important to me, it enriches my life, and the more I do it, the better at it I will be. The part that doesn't enrich anything is the guilt. It adds nothing. It isn't worth it.

If there's something in your life that is gnawing at your mind or your heart, take a glance to see what effect it is having on your life.

Is it adding to your goals, or distracting you from them?

Is it making your path easier, or harder?

Are you doing something for yourself, or against?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Tools of the Trade: Laptops I Have Loved

If you keep up with this blog, you are not surprised when I say the technology I most use when writing away from my desk (and much of the time at it) looks like this:

I can almost always be counted on to have a fountain pen and good notebook nearby, and they do a perfect job of capturing my thoughts in a way I find peaceful and pleasurable. That said, when it comes to finished work, it is time to pull out a computer like everyone else. (A computer with Scrivener, which is a must and a post for a later day.)

In the beginning, there was this:

Good thing I touch type.
Late 2004 14'' Apple iBook G4. This computer has been through the mill with me. With some help from my mom and between my two jobs, I managed to scrape together enough pennies to buy this, my first Mac, and my first laptop of any kind. When it was brand new, we sat at the back of my favorite coffee shop with a dear friend as he taught me tips and tricks on how to use a Mac. After he died a couple of years later, the computer would sometimes jog that memory of me sitting beside him and his own weathered laptop that sported an "I'd rather be reading Bukowski" bumper sticker, sipping lattes and sharing cookies while he showed me how to survive computing with only one mouse button.

Together, this laptop and I wrote my first novel, and my second. We got through my Master's program. We procrastinated all those things with reading endless message boards, lots of games of solitaire, and so much email.

It was also with this computer that I sat curled in my Felix the Cat pajamas (a gift from my roommate), and instant messaged this adorable guy who lived in my apartment complex at the time. This is the computer he used to IM me back.

2002 Titanium PowerBook G4

Once I messaged him and asked him out to grab a doughnut I didn't even want. Once he messaged me and asked me to go with friends to his parents' lake house, and somehow no one else but us showed up. Once we messaged that we were obviously dating, so why couldn't we just say we were dating? Because we were. Dating. Because he liked me. And I really liked him. So we were, officially.

Husband and I still have them both tucked away in the closet, too sentimental to let them go. The letters on my iBook's keys are worn off from use, the battery doesn't function at all, it weighs a ton by today's standards, and after I lost a big block of writing to a spontaneous shut down, it was time to retire permanently. Every so often I get a hankering to pull it out and see if it still works. It does, loyal as ever. Geriatric, but loyal.

I replaced the iBook G4 with a desktop computer, but quickly determined that I needed a portable writing solution to go with my main system. For a while, I used an HP netbook Husband managed to Hackintosh into a fine little writing machine. It did well, and I actually did a good deal of writing with it, but it was underpowered and eventually became a bit frustrating.

Down the road, I happened to purchase this used from a friend:

Early 2008 13.3'' MacBook. My friend had used this computer pretty hardcore in her music program during college, and it had seen better days. It did everything I needed though, and without fuss or fanfare. I spent a good deal of time writing on it, in libraries, coffee shops, and my backyard. When I was working for a small nonprofit that stayed afloat entirely based on grant funds, I worked with colleagues to write some pretty darn good grant proposals on there. I typed up the handwritten pieces from members of a local writer's group for people with a personal experience of homelessness for their newsletter. More than anything I remember about this computer is the editing. This computer and I spent hour upon hour editing so many things: my work, friends' work, grants, and even helping some local college kids editing their papers. We were going along fine until the fan decided to take itself out and I lost a block of writing. As we covered earlier, losing a chunk of writing is the death knell for any computer of mine. Do it, and you're getting replaced. Stat.

This is my current machine:

Early 2015 13.3'' MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Yeah...after going through a few other attempts at used and inexpensive computers, I lost more writing, which is NOT ALLOWED. Even though I still have a desktop as my "main" computer, I decided to pull the trigger and go for a laptop that will give me many good years of service, and maybe serve up a little slab of fun on the side. Thus far, I'm completely enamored with it. Here's hoping it is a long, long time before it hiccups and I lose some writing. I would be forced to pull out the old iBook G4 again and banish the MacBook Pro to the closet.

After all, I did write this entire post from my old buddy the eleven-year-old G4 without the slightest problem.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Inspiration Monday: Clean Sheets

In years of housing individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, there were always two moments in particular that almost universally brought about an emotional reaction from even the toughest client.

The first: handing over the key. Even more than unlocking the door for the first time (always a seriously cool moment itself), handing someone the key meant handing them a new way of life, and the freedom to exercise it. My home. Mine. No matter what brought me here today, now I control the lock on the door, and I may come and go as I please, with dignity. I've heard those words in so many ways from so many people: in sentences, in smiles, in tears.

The second is after walking in the front door, after seeing the living room and the kitchen, the bathroom. Those are all met with due respect, as they are the rooms in which a person will bustle, entertain guests, sing with the radio/dance with the mop, store their things, and generally go about their business--the rooms where they will live. Then, usually last, they see their bedroom.

That is the moment, when they see their very own bed, with very own pillows and blankets all ready to welcome them.

There are few things that symbolize tranquility and safety more than the sight of a clean, comfortable bed. After an experience of homelessness, the impact increases exponentially. May I lay my burdens down, close my eyes, and leave all else outside behind me. So often more poignant than the rooms where a person will roam in and out in wakefulness, is the place they may finally rest.

Even for myself, there is not much better in the world for improving my sleep than the feel and smell of a fresh set of sheets. It is comforting and refreshing, and though it sounds silly, keeps me in the moment and more mindful of relaxing rather than worrying so much about tomorrow. Clean sheets, clean slate.

Each new day is an opportunity to bury the pains of yesterday and start anew. This is true in life, in writing, and muscle soreness from the gym. Of course, that's easy to say, but it is not always easy to do (especially regarding the gym). It takes mindfulness, discipline, and that which allows us to tackle our mountains and which eludes us without peace, safety, comfort (and occasionally fresh, crisp, sweet-smelling sheets): rest.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Writing Saturday (with Distractions)

Today is a beautiful day. It is the first day a long, hot summer has lifted up the corner of its tarp to give us a peek of a gorgeous fall to come, with a perfect blue sky and a hint of breeze to tickle your cheeks.

Naturally, I decided to plant myself indoors to get some writing done.

I actually thought it would go well. I have some motivation to make some progress on some projects, as I'm going on a writing retreat later in the month with a group of very talented, very productive writers. I want to at least put myself in a position to get the most out of the uninterrupted writing time by putting my projects on a solid trajectory. I picked up my pen and notebook, and told myself there would be time to enjoy the beauty of this Saturday after I had gotten some work done. I meant it. I did.

Right away, my stubborn brain did the thing stubborn brains do when they're being forced to sit and write on a schedule. At least, it is what my brain does, and I like to think I'm not alone! One thing after another popped up suggesting any other activity except sitting still and getting words on the page.

I decided I would combat the insta-ADD by writing down the list of errant, distracting thoughts as they came, then get the bit in my teeth so I could go back to my writing.

This is the gist of things:

Okay, so I did just wake up, and I haven't gotten very far in my writing project. But! There is enough of this lovely day to go around. There's still time to get more work done.

And blueberries. There's still time for blueberries, too. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Creative Revolution

It is hard to follow up a blog post like my last one with lighthearted musings on creative endeavors, or crumbs of inspiration that land in my lap. Life is like that sometimes--just when we are gearing up to zig, a zag throws your stomach in your throat and all you can do is hang on. At least I can be grateful for arms strong enough to do a great deal of hanging on.

For myself, one of the ways I make sure I can keep doing that is by keeping in tune with my creative side. I haven't done this as much or as well as I would like lately, but these last couple of weekends, I have been working hard on getting my hands dirty with a few ongoing projects. My desk has been covered in paint, string,  pencil shavings, fountain pen ink, sketchbooks, canvases, notebooks, novel manuscripts, and other people's good good novels (hey, reading is creative too!).

It's good to be making time for myself again, and doing the things that make me feel most at home in my own body. It is indeed a creative revolution, a turf war for my time and attention. I'm still too tired to think when I get home from work, and I still don't always feel like pulling a project out to lay eyes on it, but I'm doing it anyway. I must, because I can tell you, I don't like the alternative.

I'll have plenty to share here when I get a few projects whipped into shape! Viva la revolution!

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Hello and a Goodbye

I had a blog entry all planned out for today. I was going to write about how the last month or so has been so full to the brim with travel, work, more travel, more work, a little art, a little writing, and a few other new leaves I'm straining to turn over. I had planned to write that entry this very evening, my first Monday evening in a while that was not already pre-planned with all the things I mentioned above.

I'll still write that entry someday, but it won't be today. Today, I'm still trying to make sense of the most senseless, most evil, most unacceptable thing.


Today I found out a family member was murdered.

It wasn't an accident, or a sudden illness, or any of the other things that can take the life of a person in her prime. A person stood in front of her and purposefully, willfully ended her life.

She was relatively close on the family tree, but after we both moved in different directions, I had lost touch with her since I was a kid. We had recently reconnected on Facebook, and I was happy to see how well her life was going. She had her family, she had her business, she had her friends. I thought, as I "liked' her photos, as I left little empty comments of "Cute!" or, "That's awesome!" on her pictures, that I should reach out and start a conversation. I thought that as recently as this past weekend.

There was no reason not to, except maybe a little shyness on my part. There was no real barrier to reconnecting with her or a dozen other family members except someone starting the conversation. I figured I would get around to it eventually, maybe around Christmas, or some big event I could use as an opener. I figured there was time.

I never figured someone would kill her.

I'm going to say the same thing I'm sure you've heard over and over from anyone who has recently lost someone. It isn't any less true when you aren't stinging with grief, but human beings have a remarkable capability to numb themselves. Here's the inspiration for your Monday: whomever that person is you've been meaning to reach out to, do it. Do it now. Don't wait for a reason, don't wait for them to make the move. If you're thinking of someone and you care about them at all, if you see their pictures on social media and you wish you could talk over old times, do it. Now.

I'm grateful to the family member who remembered me, a thread hanging by myself apart from the rest of the seam, and told me so I wouldn't find out on Facebook.

I'm grateful to feel how much that meant to me.

I just wish I would have said "Hello," before I had to say, "Goodbye."

*If you or you believe someone you care about may be experiencing domestic violence, don't wait. It IS your business. You can find help at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Fan Profile at Rhodia Drive

I all puffed up with pride to have been interviewed for a fan spotlight at Rhodia Drive! If you follow my Tools of the Trade posts, you know Rhodia is as much a staple in my house as flour and sugar. You can't build a house without nails, and I can't write a novel without Rhodia! If you're a writing enthusiast like me, I highly recommend enjoying their blog on the regular. It is full of interesting reads. Go check it out!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tools of the Trade: Ink Review - Callifolio Yalumba

As much a writing enthusiast as I am, I had not heard much about Callifolio inks until recently. They're manufactured by L'artisan Pastellier, a French ink and calligraphy tool producer, and have had a good reputation amongst the lucky few who were able to try them over the last several years. They've been notoriously hard to source in the U.S, but not anymore.

Vanness Pens is carving a niche sourcing hard-to-get international inks and making them available to the American market. Callifolio is the latest to crawl ashore and pick up citizenship on their vast ink shelf. Vanness graciously provided me this ink in exchange for an honest review. Since I don't know how to do them any other way, I was happy to oblige.

The first thing I noticed about the ink was that it is in the exact same bottle as the Diamine 150th Anniversary inks. I opened up the bottle of Yalumba and saw instantly a similarity to Diamine Terracotta, a standout from the Diamine 150th Anniversary set. I wondered if maybe it was a rebottled Diamine ink, since Diamine has been known to allow retailers to relabel their inks. I checked them out side by side and saw that while they're part of a similar color family, they're definitely not the same ink. From what I've been able to glean about L'artisan Pastellier, they take pride in formulating their own inks, which they state are Ph neutral and ideal for fountain pens.

I would say right away that I would not fear putting this ink in an expensive pen. It is not highly saturated, and doesn't cling to plastic or metal. It knows what it is there to do, and does so with little fuss. I do like that in an ink (though sometimes the fussy ones are worth it).

I started out writing with my Sailor 1911s with H-MF nib. The Sailor has a very rigid, fine nib with a small sweet-spot that can seem to be scratchy at first if you're not accustomed to it. Even with my overwhelmingly positive relationship with this pen and the miles of paper we've covered together, I couldn't shake the scratchy feeling. The ink is very thin and doesn't give much cushion to ride on. I am not blaming the pen--I imagine any fine nib you use will have similar results. The ink itself appeared to be rather light and unsaturated, but I was pleased to see that it went down legibly even in such a fine nib.

I switched to my Lamy Al-Star with medium nib. This is an exceptionally smooth, cooperative German medium nib, which is significantly broader than the Japanese medium-fine I had been using on the Sailor. Right away, I experienced a much cushier ride. The broader nib also gave the ink a chance to show off its superpower: shading.

I really enjoy the color of this ink, which is somewhere between a brown and an amber, but part of the fun of a lighter color is the shading that can be developed to add character to your writing. This ink has character in spades, and I'm looking forward to trying it out in a flex nib. I have a feeling it will be stunning (though my unskilled flex lettering will leave much to be desired).

Check out my handwritten review of this cool boutique ink, and if you like what you see, you can find many more like it at Vanness Pens.

Click to Read

Monday, May 18, 2015

Inspiration Monday: It's Just a Habit

Every once in a while, it's time for a blank slate.
Once again, I find myself apologizing for being away from the blog. I'm starting to think this has become a habit.

I've been thinking a lot about habits lately, especially as I am currently developing some new ones and shedding some old ones.

For one, I changed jobs a few weeks ago. It wasn't a sudden change--it was well-planned, expected, and full of goodwill. I'm still working with people experiencing homelessness, a population I care deeply about. Instead of working on the housing side, I'm now directing a program centered on mental health supportive services. I'm working for a community mental health center with whose staff I have collaborated for years with numerous shared clients. Long before I took this job, I knew that lobby like it was my own bedroom: where the most comfortable waiting chairs were, the best time to arrive to keep from having to wait too long for the lab, and that The Price is Right and Let's Make a Deal, always on the waiting room TV, make good conversation fodder to keep waiting clients from getting too antsy.

As comfortable as I was with the center, I didn't know how much I didn't know. Even transitioning into a job you already know how to do at a place you are already familiar comes with some new territory. There are the things all new jobs come with--new people, new rules, designated parking spaces, and new workspace. Then there are the things you don't think about before you make the switch, the million little habits you will find yourself making anew, and all the ones you end up breaking cold turkey.

My first week, I drove to work a different way every day. I bobbed and weaved my way through so many different roadways looking for the fastest, most efficient route I started to feel like I was playing a really boring edition of Grand Theft Auto: Commute or Die. I learned one thing on my attempt to carve myself a new rut in which to carry myself to work everyday: Memphis traffic is a strategy game that cannot be won. A few times, I caught myself "homing pigeoning" and getting onto the interstate at the same place I used to for my old job. It was just second nature, and depending on the amount of coffee in my system, a harder habit to break than I would have reckoned.

I eventually found what I would call "the path of least resistance," but it took a while before it was really comfortable. After a while, the landmarks weren't so weird anymore. The signs were familiar, the lane changes expected, and some fellow commuter cars recognized. I found a new pack to run with.

Of course, getting to work is only half the battle. There are a million new habits to forge once in the office. It took a while to stop reaching in the wrong drawer for my stapler, and to get used to the new squeak of my desk chair. I found myself carving out times when I could beat everyone to the microwave at lunch, and to avoid peak times at the restrooms. I noticed myself making new habit after new habit, finding comfort in the turning of new to old. Likewise, I've visited my former office a few times to staff cases with my former colleagues, and I was surprised to find that even when it felt so much water had flowed under our bridges, I sunk right back into the rhythm there.

It is human nature to develop routines and habits in our homes and in our jobs. They carve their way into our behavior,  silently at first. Sometimes they bring comfort and the certainty of safe passage. Then, when they get near the bone, they can ache a little.

The patterns we create are part of what it is to live and interact with the world around us. Writers and artists need their favorite tools, their favorite spots, their go-to music and muses in order to create. Routine is often the friend of hard work, and creative work benefits from structured practice as much as anything else. Likewise, the creations themselves benefit from the structure of the world around it, either as context or something to riff on. If you're writing a character whose life is nothing but routine, it's probably smothering him or her to death. Break the mold, shake them up, and watch them navigate the transition. If things are already topsy-turvy in his or her world, look for the little anchors that would realistically crop up--is it that he or she uses the same bathroom stall every time, even in the midst of great angst? That he or she notices what time the coffee runs out at the office? Maybe it's just noticing that they see the same gray car at the same intersection twice a day. Even if these mundane details don't make it into the text, as always, it is these things that inform your writing backstage, and that allow your characters to come to life when the curtain is up.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Inspiration Monday: A Home by Any Other Name...

This is my neighborhood in early spring:

Taken just a few days earlier, this is a client's neighborhood in early spring:

Here's what you have to know: my client loves her neighborhood just as fiercely as I love mine. More. She loves it without lakes and ducks and communal flower beds. She loves it without a homeowner's association, without a patio set, without any strings at all attached.

If you're expecting me to tell you she loves it because she has known homelessness and she's grateful enough to love anything anywhere, you're wrong. The truth is, she begged for this apartment, this very one surrounded by the barbed wire wall and the crumbled pavement. Her unit is nice, but that isn't why she chose it over the one with the big kitchen, or the one beside the restaurant, or the freshly remodeled one with the comfortable balcony. She chose it because it was where she felt the most at home, and there's nobody walking the earth who can tell her differently. Maybe that's a clue that no one should. This is the place she feels the safest, the most accepted, and the most herself. She picked out this place because she wasn't just looking for a place to house her, she wanted a place that would be her home. Her home. Not mine, not for anyone else with their well-meaning raised eyebrows. Hers.

There are a lot of ways to define "home," and a great many of them have nothing to do with houses. A person could find a home of sorts in the people one cares about, the work we spend our time and energy devoted to, and in the little things we do that makes us who we are.

For me, wherever I am, I can feel utterly content if I can find enough peace and time to pull out one of my ever-present notebooks and a beloved pen to scratch out a few words that will either become something artful...or not. It sews my mind to my body, and keeps my feet on the ground. I love playing music, and know my instrument as intimately as my own limbs. No matter how long I let it lie fallow, playing it always feels like I have just thrown open the door to a place I've always known. I'm at home wherever Husband is, because the deepest, most neurotic parts of me settle down and purr when he's near. I love all that he is and I know as long as I can find him in the dark, I will never be lost. The point is not in where I am, but in who I get to be: freely, safely, happily myself.

What is your home like, both the one you live in and the one that lives in you?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tools of the Trade: Staples Sustainable Earth Spiral Notebook

Anyone who writes a great deal (especially with fountain pens) is usually on the lookout for a good value on paper. There are a few good options out there, especially if you're willing to dive into a vat of Norcom Composition Notebooks and pull out all the good ones, but that's another post. The Staples Sustainable Earth notebook is a good place to start.

Sustainable Earth by Staples isn't your mama's recycled paper. The paper is made from recycled sugarcane called "bagasse," which is the by-product of sugar production and a highly renewable resource. That means my notebook has as much in common with a cupcake as a tree, and that's pretty cool.

So the paper makes mother-earth happy, and me too. How about my pens? Yes. Yes, they're happy. Even now.

You see, Sustainable Earth paper has gone through an identity crisis in the last few years. When it was originally launched, it had slightly different branding. More importantly, it had slightly different paper. I heard over and over from other fountain pen users that this paper was incredible (and cheap!), so I had to have some. There was only one problem: there was no Staples in my area. Not even close.

I eventually dropped by one while traveling and got that kid in a candy store feeling. There were options. Large or small spiral notebooks, composition books, several cover designs. The covers were heavy and durable, and the spiral substantial and strong. There was even a kraft paper two-pocket folder on the front page.  I wish I would have filled my arms with them and bought all I could carry. Instead, since this paper was as of yet untested, I bought only a single letter-size one-subject notebook.

The paper in that notebook was incredible. It was very thin paper, but had an hard finish on it. The paper was smooth, but the finish on the pages gave it an almost "cockle" effect, like old-school onion skin paper. Every line I drew was crisp and vibrant and there was zero bleedthrough with anything I threw at it. As much as I wanted to gobble up that notebook with my daily writing, I decided to conserve it. I cut up a few pages to make cahier-style handbound notebooks to hold me off until I could get back to a Staples to buy more.

That took longer than I hoped, and by the time I got my hands on another one, the changes had begun. They looked the same, had the same quality cover, spiral, and kraft-paper pocket, but there were a couple of distinctions. First, the price had gone up, double. It had been so inexpensive before, it wasn't too much a price jump for the quality of the paper, so I bought two small spirals this time. One for me, one for Husband.

We could tell right away it was different. The paper no longer had that hard finish. It was still thin, but not "crispy" like before. When we tried them, our fears were confirmed. Not only was the paper different, it was inconsistent. We had grabbed our two notebooks at random, but I came out the lucky one. The paper in mine was noticeably softer and more absorbent, but it was still very good. Husband's was not so good. His notebook feathered and bled like a sieve. It also had a distinctly fibrous look to the paper grain that wasn't present in mine. We also noted that the ruling lines on mine were much crisper than his, which were feathery and bloated.

By the time I filled that good little spiral, we had gotten a Staples in our area. That left me free to paw through their inventory for the good ones. The good news is that I hit on more good than bad. The trick I used was to look for the notebooks with the crispest printed lines. For the most part, I've been happy with my findings, and I stocked up. It's a good thing I did because we didn't have our Staples long before they decided to move out of our market and closed them up.

I still long for the older formulation, but that's because I'm spoiled. If I had never found that original notebook and got the newer kind, I would have been completely over the moon at its performance for the price. It's not perfect, but it's darn good.I've filled a couple of these, and they get the job done without too much fuss. Paper this thin inevitably has a lot of showthrough, but I haven't seen much feathering or bleeding with any of my pens. It actually behaves better than some much more expensive papers (I'm looking at you, Moleskine). The covers and spirals have proven to be just as durable as they look. I haven't had the problem I hate second-most with spiral notebook: the dread crimped spiral of doom, scourge of page turns everywhere. (The problem I hate first-most is that left-handers end up with spiral embedded in our arms when we try to write on the front side of the paper. Turning the notebook and being an underwriter helps.)


So what now? Should you buy one of these?

As of this writing, the smaller size spiral (9 1/2 x 6) retails for $4.49 each, and the larger letter size goes for $7.39. The composition notebook goes for $5.29. Those prices are getting pretty high when you can get Rhodia pads for around that. The redeeming factor for me is that it is a sustainable/recycled product that is constructed durably and, I think, attractively.

If I still had a Staples store near me, I would probably sift through their stock every so often, but in my case, I would just be chasing a memory.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Inspiration Monday: The Last Night

As I passed by on my nightly walk, he stood in front of his house and leaned on his cane. His thick white hair and beard made him easy to see in the anemic light of the streetlamp. He waved like always. I paused my music as I waved back, just in case he decided to speak. He didn't always, but when he did, he liked to talk for a long time.

I met him about a year ago. I had been on a walk then, too. The neighborhood geese had lined up in the street in front of his house, blocking my path like an army battalion. He had ambled over beside me, shaking his head at them. I paused my music and we chatted while watching the teenage geese waddle stubbornly behind their parents. He didn't mind the geese, he said, as long as they stayed out of his yard. They scared his squirrels away when they came on his property, and that was a problem.

He told me about the squirrels, how he liked to sit on his back porch and watch them run in his trees, fueled up from his feeders. They never chewed on his roof like they did mine. He said it was because he gave them a home of their own and made sure they always had enough to eat. They respected him, he said. They communicated.

Partly because I was simply too shy to end the conversation, partly because I could see how lonely he was, and partly because he was simply a kind, interesting person, I stood there and stood there while he talked. He told me about his good wife who had died and left him alone a few years back. When it happened, he hadn't known how to cook or where the checkbook was. She was the best part of him, he said, and that was harder to find again than the checkbook. He told me about his son who was smart and stubborn and didn't come around anymore. He smiled and told me about his youngest daughter who used to live close and was his rock, but she had her own family now and left him missing her more often than not. He had Sally though, his little rat terrier who had slept between him and his wife, and who never chased his friendly squirrels.

We never had a conversation quite like that again, though he never failed to wave to me on my walks. I always waved back and paused my music, just in case. Sometimes he would chit-chat about the goings on of the neighborhood, but my restless feet kept me from standing there like the first time. Still, I kept my eye out for when his daughter's SUV would show up in his driveway and I'd smile, knowing he was enjoying her visit. I would sometimes pet Sally as she ran around in the yard, never setting more than a foot in the road. I grinned when I saw squirrels scurrying through his trees and hoped the geese wouldn't bother them. That was it, though. Waves, smiles, and a few kind thoughts to interrupt my own worries.

Last night, while he leaned on his cane under the glow of the streetlight, he waved me over to him. "Come see Sally," he told me. "This is her last night."

We both looked down at the little black and white terrier, and she wagged her tail. He told me about how it was, with her pancreas not working anymore. "She's sick, but she doesn't want me to know it. It's in her eyes, though," he said. "I can tell she knows she's sick by the way she looks at me." He told me she had never suffered a day in her eleven years, except for missing his wife when she died. He told me how they had saved her from going to the pound as a tiny puppy by scrounging up $50 to give a woman who couldn't afford to keep her. "It was meant to be," he said.

The little dog came to my hand and licked my fingertips. I saw what he meant about her eyes, but she wagged her tail anyway. I told him I was so sorry, but it felt hollow. Then I told him about losing Bella, and how I hadn't known her last night was her last. I told him I was glad for the weather, for the both of them. I didn't know what else to say. I still don't know what I should have said.

A car came by and I moved to the other side of the street. I called to him that I would pray for him and I would think of him and Sally the next day. "Come say goodbye to Sally one more time before you go," he said, beckoning me back to his side of the street. "She needs to say goodbye to all her friends." It wasn't until that last sentence that his voice ever cracked.

Bella, my copilot
I didn't expect that. I didn't expect anything when I went out for my walk, except maybe some shin splints and a little bit of a backache at the end of things. The rest of my walk back to my house, I thought about how many nights pass me by that mean so little to me but may change the world for someone else. I thought of Bella again, and how I couldn't decide if it would have been better or worse to know her last night was her last. I thought of my new puppy Ally, waiting at home for me, still recovering from surgery and craving all the comfort I could give her.

That conversation definitely changed my night. It got me thinking about the blessing and curse of a last night, of knowing it. I still don't know if I was given a choice if I would trade the bliss of ignorance for the dread of dawn. I don't want to think about choices like that, but sometimes I may need to. I do know I'm glad I got to say goodbye to sweet Sally on her last night.

My neighbor will be on my mind. I don't know him well, but how well do you have to know someone before you can care about them? He's gone through so many last nights in his life, and I know that someday I will walk by his house and pause my music to wonder where he is. I probably won't know that the last time I wave to him will be the last. Probably neither will he.

If you're ever struggling to figure out what's important, either in your life or your creative endeavors, think about The Last Night. Think about what you (or a character) would do if you knew it, and think about what you would miss if you didn't know it. Think about what piddling worries would leak out your ear, and how much more you would appreciate the simple blessing of a clear night kissed with a warm spring breeze.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tools of the Trade: Moleskine Le Petit Prince Limited Edition Gift Box

I have long said I think Les Miserables is the greatest novel ever written, and The Little Prince is the wisest one. I love so much about Le Petit Prince, from the sweet illustrations to the philosophy tucked into the so-simple-it's-complicated story. I've got multiple copies of the book in several translations, and an untranslated French copy. It even inspired me to respect a snake. Sort of.

My friend Stacey (who is the very, very coolest) shares my love of the book, and knows me well. For Christmas, she gave me this the Moleskine Le Petit Prince Limited Edition Box Set. As if that wasn't enough, she also gave me the Le Petit Prince Moleskine Planner.

Moleskine Le Petit Prince Limited Edition Box Set

I've been a Moleskine user for nearly a decade, and I've sampled pretty widely from their product line. I've seen a few limited edition sets come and go that I thought would be cool to have, but they're pricey and I never pulled the trigger to buy one for myself. When I heard about this one, I didn't even look at the pictures because I knew I would want it, and I didn't expect I'd ever lay hands on it. Well. Stacey proved me wrong on that one, and I'm so glad she did.

The set contains:
  • One photo/keepsake box
  • Three Le Petit Prince postcards
  • One sheet of Le Petit Prince stickers
  • Six ruled Volant notebooks, each with a Le Petit Prince illustration on the front cover, three orange, three Prussian blue
First, the box. It's a nice, big box for photos or other small objects. It is styled like a large Moleskine notebook, with an elastic strap closure. It's a nice package, and I like that it is useful rather than designed to be discarded. The front is engraved with text from the original French Le Petite Prince, but there is no illustration or imagery otherwise beneath the paper label. The interior of the box is designed to cradle the 5 x 8.25 Volants perfectly, and there is a ribbon attached to assist in removing them. Once I have used up the notebooks, I will probably use this box to store ink samples and pen parts. It is certainly much nicer than the shoebox I currently use.


Next, the postcards.  The scenes depicted on the three postcards fit thematically with the the "acts" of the book. I eventually plan to mat and frame mine. The stickers included are nicely colored and include some iconic (and heartbreaking) scenes from the book. I don't know if/how I will end up using them, but they're a nice addition to the set.

Lastly, the notebooks. I've used Moleskine Volants in several sizes over the years, and I enjoy the form-factor. The covers are flexible plastic, and the binding is glued. They're a little more durable feeling than the Moleskine Cahier, which has a thick paper cover, but the plastic makes it feel a little less romantic. They open flat and are consistently constructed across all six. The paper is off-white and ruled with relatively subtle gray lines.

My one gripe with Moleskine has always been their paper consistency. You might get one that has amazing smooth paper that can take the wettest fountain pen and make the ink pop off the page, and then turn around and get another one that feels like writing on the illegitimate child of a grocery bag and a roll of toilet paper. That hasn't been enough to stop me using them because I really like their durability, form-factor, ruling options/styling, and relative availability, but I know a lot of extensive writers who spend a lot of money looking for quality notebooks that no longer touch them. It's not enough to give us a good notebook once in a while. We want to know that when we pay for a premium writing experience, we're going to get one every time.

I've found the Volant from this set I've been using to be on the lower end of the Moleskine quality range. The paper looks great, with a smooth finish and crisp ruling (especially compared to some of the lower-quality Cahiers I've had that looked and felt like sandpaper). I thought I was in for a lucky Moleskine experience, but the ink test page never lies. There are some considerable feathering and bleedthrough issues, especially with wetter/broader fountain pen nibs.It can hold its own with a fine nib and relatively conventional ink, but there is still some spotting and showthrough. If you're a ballpoint or pencil user, you won't have a bit of problem.

Personally, I'm not that bummed about the paper because it's definitely not the worst quality Moleskine I've ever used, and for what I need out of this notebook, it'll do fine. This Volant trucks along with me in my work bag where I tend to hustle in notes with either a Uniball Signo gel pen or (if I'm lucky), my Pilot Metropolitan or Kakuno, both fine nibs and nearly always inked with well-behaved Pilot Iroshizuku Take-sumi. I'm not afraid to write over blots and bleedthrough, and I still adore the cover, the form-factor, the ruling, and the flexibility of the notebook. I'm still not sure what surprises are in store for the other five in the set; this is the only one I've tested, and there's no guarantee the other that came with it will have the same paper quality.

This set was originally released in 2012 and is currently discontinued, but can be found in new condition with a little digging.

Le Petite Prince 2015 Weekly Planner

But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you.”  --Antoine St. Exupery, The Little Prince

This planner was not part of the Gift Box, but is a welcome companion. It seems appropriate to drop in a little review of it as well.

The planner is designed like a standard large Molekine hardcover notebook, and feels much the same to use. The opening section of the planner includes yearly calendars, time zone information, flight destinations, and even a ruler printed on the edge of a page. Some of these things may come in handy to some, but for me, they're more or less filler except for the yearly calendars.

The calendar pages are set up nicely for my purposes, with a week on the left and a note page on the right. It works out that the note page provides guide lines for the following calendar page, allowing me to keep things neat if I'm so inclined. (So far, I am. Check with me again around November.)


I have a separate planner for work--I use a battle-worn Staples Arc with custom pages--so this has become my personal planner. I keep up with band performances, travel plans, visits and activities with friends, bookbinding orders/shipping dates, and blog posts. (Yes, I do try to plan those. No, I don't often succeed. I'm trying!) 

The paper is thin and prone to bleedthrough, but is smooth and pleasant to write on. Again, I'm not too uptight about bleedthrough and have no problems writing right over it.

Maybe moreso than the Le Petit Prince Gift Box Volants, Moleskine really turned on the charm with the theme. Even the label, which I almost crumpled and threw away, has a little Easter egg on the reverse side: The Little Prince's passport.

Instead of the usual Moleskine "If found, return to..." page, they did a special version that made me smile. Here is the one in the Le Petit Prince Volant and the one in the Le Petit Prince planner. 

On the back pocket is printed a passage from the book in English and French. It happens to be one of my favorite quotes, and had it not been printed there, I might have written it in myself. Lovely.

The pocket contains some Le Petit Prince stickers to use however you wish, and in my case a heck of a lot of post-it notes, receipts, and some flags to keep all the planner sections easily accessible.

My biggest fear with this planner is that I will grow attached to it over the year and be sad when it expires. I may have to try my hand at using the cover to rebind a journal or something when the time comes. 

The End

This has got to be the longest review I have ever written, but there are a lot of components to cover! I hope it was helpful, and I hope it might inspire someone to read one of my all-time favorite books. Thanks again to the wonderful Stacey for such a thoughtful, perfect gift, and for remembering, "All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.”