Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On Working from Home Without Losing What's Left of Your Mind

I am writing a book. I have been writing this book for what seems like the entire history of time.

At some point, the wonderful people at Scribner decided they would take a chance and agreed to publish said book, so long as I finished writing it within a respectable framework of time.

And so, when school was done, Jared and I left behind our normal-person teaching jobs and our easy Iowa life and moved back to my homeland of California. Here we started a new life, one comprised of Jared leaving every morning for his normal-person teaching job, and me staying behind for the abnormal-person work of writing a book.

Now, I think that there is a certain type of person who is perfectly suited to the bizarro-world that is having an enormous chunk of completely unstructured time with a deadline planted waaaay down at the end of it, but that person?

She is not me.

BUT! All that really means is that I have had to develop strategies to get my lazy, distractible, procrastination-prone self to do the work that needs to be done. And so, since I think that the best people to take advice from are the people who are naturally bad at something themselves, I present to you my time-tested tips on working from home without turning into a toothless hermit muttering into the darkness and plucking on a one-stringed fiddle.

Tip One: Shower and brush your teeth! This may seem obvious, but let me tell you, when you roll out of bed morning after morning to an empty house where there is no one to see you or be offended by your slovenliness, it can sometimes be hard to remember why such things are even important. Don't fall into the trap! For Heaven's sake clean yourself.

Tip Two is related: Dress yourself in some halfway decent clothing, maybe even dab some makeup on your face. Again, it's tempting to feel like it doesn't matter what you look like when you are all alone, but I'll tell you, working from home is a mind game. Looking like someone who might be seen in public is a trick that will give you a psychological edge. Besides, the UPS man will see you. He sees all.

Do you see where I'm going with this? Working from home is just like having an actual job. It's just that you are the only one around to enforce the actualness of it. It's sort of like how you have to set aside tax money from your advance because there's no one to withhold it from your paycheck and you do that, right?

<cough> moving on...

Tip Three: Designate a fixed portion of your day to the work at hand and then stick to it. Start your work when it is supposed to start, and, perhaps even more importantly, END IT when it is supposed to end. This is actually the most crucial point of this whole lecture besides brushing your teeth. Before I figured this out my entire life was lived in a fog of guilt-induced anxiety. I couldn't take pleasure in anything I did because deep down a voice would be scolding, you could be writing right now! Nothing is worse for your creativity than that stupid voice.

So, figure out what time of day you are best at what you do and then stick to that time. It will probably not be eight hours. It must be manageable and realistic if it is to work. The important part is you are not allowed to watch puppy videos during that time. You are not allowed to read blogs during that time. But when the time is up, you are to wrap up what you are doing, and then you are to leave work.

"Leaving work" is such a crucial point that it deserves its own tip. Tip Four: Dedicate a section of your house to your work that is not related to the other things that go on in your house. Best case is you have an office with a door that closes, but I realize that may be a bit of a luxury. So. If you must work on the couch in the living room, try to do your TV and puppy video watching in a chair. If you must work in your bedroom, set up a little desk for yourself, don't work in your bed. Boundaries can be very tricky to manage when you work from home, but they must be maintained if you are to hold on to your sanity and not fall into believing that every minute of your day is about your job.

work-free zone
Tip Five. Keep your house tidy, and spend some time getting it set up to be as pleasing as it can be. You are going to be spending a LOT of time in this space. Do whatever you can do to make it a place of calm and not chaos. The chaos will get you down and the UPS man will judge you.

Tip Six is the happiest. Get a dog.

Then you can walk him. This is a very very good thing to do. Moving your stiff, chair-addled body, feeling the sun on your pale face, looking at things that are three-dimentional and not part of your computer screen, these are the things that will keep you from going off the deep end. You can also talk to your dog, if you feel like it's strange that hours pass every day without the sound of any human voice.

Which brings me to Tip Seven: During the parts of your day that are not your working hours, try to have some form of human interaction. This could mean walking to a coffee shop or going grocery shopping etc, but it could also mean simply opening up your gchat window and making jokes with your sister Olivia, who has a real job in a real office, or with your friend Matt, who is also a crazy home-based writer like yourself. Just don't let these chats bleed into your working hours like I sometimes do. Be vigilant!

Tip Eight. Don't allow your online Scrabble accomplishments to stand in for actual accomplishments.
Am I the only one who does this? Don't do this.

Tip Nine. The weekends are weekends and should be treated as such. Is it Saturday? Get out of your house! Go! What are you doing sitting here looking at a computer screen? You have all week to do that. Go be around the actual people! Go on a hike! See some music! Go to a nerdy party! Whatever. Just don't let me catch you here.

Tip Ten. When the walls are closing in on you and the words you are writing are all meaningless drivel, and your dog looks like he has lost all respect for you, and you feel like throwing it all away, do two things. First, lie on the floor of your living room for ten minutes with your eyes closed and play this song.

Then pick yourself up off the floor and read this.

Then get back to work, you old so and so.

You can do this!

(top photo by Shelby Duncan)

P.S. Below are my four favorite books about the writing process. I cannot recommend them highly enough. I've also heard great things about Writing Down the Bones, but have yet to check it out. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Seven Emoticons of Downton Abbey

Have you noticed how the characters of Downton Abbey all seem to have just one representative facial expression?

It must be hard, living in that giant house, in those changing times, having to make the same face day in and day out, come war or scandal or evil bars of soap.

I thought we might all like to see what it's like to live that way, so I created some Times New Roman emoticons for your chatting and emailing pleasure.

Feel free to make your own and join in on the repetitive fun!

PS for copy/paste purposes here they are in text format. Happy emoting! 

$;-}    @`;- «      ,‘- I      }:^ c      ;- <      - o     §: - c       

Thursday, February 23, 2012

T-Boz, Left Eye, Chilli

Can we all just stop what we're doing for a few minutes and watch these TLC videos one after the other?

There. Don't you feel, I dunno, invigorated?

Seasonal Affective Disorder who, amirite?

P.S. Did you know that there is a website called where you go to say things and have other people vote on whether or not you are "right"? I just love you, the internet.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Genius Little Magnets

Have you seen these Tiny Polaroid Magnets that Ambrosia Creative made?

So perfectly executed. I plan to make a million of them in short order.

Though, they will have to vie for space with my current magnets, which are these little ceramic animals from Anthropologie that I love so much I can't bear to use in any functional way. 

True story. I just move them around the refrigerator and like, gaze at them. 

So good!

Anyway, full tutorial for the polaroid magnets here. Go forth and multiply.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Caravelles

You know when they say someone has a voice like a silver bell?

They are talking about these ladies.

(Also, listen to the lyrics of this song, they're pretty intense! Joan Baez has a great version as well.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

***Happy Birthday Jared***

Happy 27th birthday to my darling husband

**who loves John Cage unpretentiously, and Taylor Swift unironically**

**whose generosity knows no bounds**

**who makes me get up off  the couch to go on adventures**

**who understands when I sometimes need to stay on the couch**

**who writes me the loveliest of love songs**

**who never stops wondering**

      **whose only request, when he washes the dishes every night after dinner, 
    is that I come sit with him in the kitchen and keep him company**

I am the luckiest.

Past, Past, Present/Future

For Valentine's Day this year I got Jared a gift for our wall, which really means it's a gift for the both of us, which might mean, looking at it now, that it's actually more of a gift for me... 


It's a series of beautiful prints from Dutch Door Press featuring the bird and flower of each of the three states we've lived in together.

look at that letterpress action!

I got some simple white frames from Target, then mounted the prints on watercolor paper. (Someday when we are rich maybe I'll go back and do a fancier job.)

From left to right: Florida features a mockingbird and orange blossoms, Iowa has a Goldfinch and some wild roses, and California's got my favorite quail and some bright orange poppies.

I like that they can be read chronologically (we met in Florida, were married in Iowa, and have made our home in California) OR with the side pictures representing where we each came from, and the middle one where we joined our lives.

I also baked some chocolate espresso cookies and got to use the little cake stand I got at the Mennonite thrift store in Iowa, so pretty much everything was all fancy when Jared got home.

Then we went out for a cozy dinner at Mohawk Bend, and Jared presented me with tickets to an upcoming Jon Brion show, about which I am beyond thrilled.

It was a sweet, romantic day, I must say.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tree Line

I am basically just stealing this post from The Jealous Curator, but just look!

Look at what Zander Olsen made!

Are these not fantastic?

I love and I love.

btw, I also love The Jealous Curator, check her out if you wanna get jealous too.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Radio, Radio

Today's weather has been doing a sort of back and forth cloudy/sunny thing, which I refuse to get behind, so instead, I am casting my mind back alllll the way to last weekend, to a sunny Saturday when Jared and Loki and I walked the funny urban/nature trail up to Radio Hill.

I even took some pictures along the way.

I, Blogger!

The first part of the walk took us through Chinatown:

Where the streets are paved with dragons.

(Loki could slay a dragon)
 We stopped by a man pushing giant stalks of sugarcane through an extractor

He was selling the clear green juice for three dollars

It was delicious.

Eventually we made our way out of the bustle and up this partially paved road.

As it wound higher and higher around the hill, the city fell away, and we found ourselves in a little grove of crepe myrtles.

On one end an old radio tower stretched into the sky

On the other end, there were heart-shaped cacti.

Downtown was one direction.

The San Gabriel mountains were another.

We hung out.

Then we walked down the hill and ducked under the 110 freeway, where someone had drawn a ferocious picture of Loki (or possibly a wolf.)

We emerged, walked through a quiet neighborhood, found the hidden steps to Elysian Park, hung out some more in the pretty nature, ate a couple of granola bars, etc etc.

And then we followed our long shadows home.

And by home of course I mean our car.

We followed our shadows back to our car and then we drove ourselves home. This is Los Angeles, after all.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Smartest Thing I've Done All Day

This morning, as I sorted through and assembled our seemingly endless pile of tax documents, I looked down at my fading manicure and sighed.

Tax time is dreary enough without having to look at such uninspired fingernails.

So, I unbent a paperclip, dipped it in white nail polish, and added tiny polka dots to my chipping fuchsia polish.

And just like that, tax time became delightful!

OK maybe not delightful, but, you know, at least it's polka-dotty now.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What to Do With 100,000 Toothpicks

Well, if you've got 34 years, here's an idea:

There's something to be said for obsession.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Future DIY

I saw this vintage suitcase charging station DIY on Design Sponge today and fell in love.

Full instructions are here.

Someday, when I have a table saw and a giant drill and some pegboard and a vintage suitcase, I will make this puppy.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Lucky Donut Morning

This morning as I slept, Jared crept out of the house and drove to the neighborhood of Herman, where he procured for us an abundance of fresh donuts and juicy tangerines.

He then woke me with coffee, the Sunday Times and a scratch off lotto ticket, because this man that I married? He knows me.

And he's pretty much the awesomest.

Even if I never seem to win the lottery.

Oh Don't Mind Me, I'm Just Rocking Out to Some Mahler

On Thursday night we went to the Disney Concert Hall to see a performance of Mahler's Symphony no. 9.

Jared, classically trained bassist that he is, loves this stuff.

I, short attention spanned as I am, went only out of love for my husband...

Turns out? Mahler is sweet!

I was literally on the edge of my seat in the balcony, gripping my program and leaning forward, not even counting down the 87 minutes until it was over and I could get back to my sweet sweet internets.

Me and my boyfriend Gustav

It was an awesome night (and not just cause I got to wear my new polka dot dress from Forever 21). 

The hall was packed; Dudamel was all theatrical and inspired; no one's cell phone went off (at least until the very end); people stood up and cheered when it was over.

I'm telling ya. Culture with a capital C around these parts.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Ears on the Table

*This is a story about this.*

When I was in writing school in Iowa, during my second semester I took a workshop led by John D'Agata. He was and is the type person who intimidates me into becoming a mumbling, gaze-averting dullard, which is usually how you can tell that I think someone is pretty brilliant.

On the first day of the class he sent us home with a packet of inspiring nonfiction to read, some of it essay, some of it poetry, and I was particularly struck by one poem called The Colonel by Carolyn Forché. Please click on that link and read the whole thing right now. Then come back. It's short. I'll wait.

So, as you know from your reading, it begins with the line "What you have heard is true." And goes on to describe this dinner party at a colonel's house in El Salvador in 1978. You remember El Salvador in 1978? Messy times. During the dinner party, you may recall, the colonel dumps a grocery sack full of human ears onto the table, and we are left with this:
        Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught 
        this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground. 

What an incredible image, right? And what a totally horrific yet believable thing to be happening in El Salvador in 1978.

Anyway, during the next class meeting we discussed the packet, and then sort of got to talking about the idea of "truth in essay" (which, if you are attending school for an MFA in nonfiction, is inevitable.)

John (can I call him John?) began talking about the poem and we all sighed about how wonderful it was and how that image was so incredible etc etc. Then he said, "would it affect you in the same way if it wasn't actually true?" He then went on to mention casually, but with the subtly provoking tone of someone who is making a grand point, that the event in question was not in fact true, even though Carolyn Forché went on record saying that it had literally happened.

Now. This is where I should have followed my usual instinct to clam up and just listen to the wise professor. The presentation of this scenario (both the inclusion of the lovely, symbolic poem in a packet of ostensible nonfiction and the (shocking!) revelation of its fabrication) was so obvious that I should have seen it coming. I had been in a nonfiction writing program for a whole semester at that point. I had had the Truth discussion a dozen times already.

But I was feeling strangely outgoing that evening, brazen, you might say, and so instead of merely accepting the lesson as it was being presented, I said something eloquent and thoughtful like, "Nuh UH!!"

My classmates swiveled their heads to look at me.

John smiled.

"You have a problem with it being fabricated, Annie? Why don't you tell us why..."


I mumbled, I rambled, I averted his gaze. I said things that managed to plunge me toward the bottom ranks of the classroom intelligence contest (which is usually something I like to happen organically over a few class meetings.)

It was all pretty bad.

Now, I understood on some level that someone had to take the fall, that in order for the important point to be made there needed to be a student who would wave the TRUTH flag all over the classroom, and that only then could there be a meaningful and complex discussion about art, and we could all come to the rightful conclusion that essay need not be one hundred percent accurate. That it was art, and not, heaven forbid, journalism.

But what killed me then and continues to even now, four years later, is that that student shouldn't have been me. I am not the kid who believes factual accuracy is thing one in our genre. On the contrary. I believe in art. I believe in composite characters and sentence rhythms and noteless impressions and playing fast and loose with childhood reminiscence. In fact I had more than once been on the other side of this argument with some of the very classmates who were now sitting in this classroom, looking at me with this mixture of pity and relief, and who remained silent as John listed all the thoughtful, eloquent reasons why I was wrong.

The class had its meaningful discussion in the end, and all agreed that Art was the thing. And to their credit, no one treated me like a dullard after all, though the experience (and the suspicion that John D'Agata thinks I'm a philistine) has stayed with me. It's become one of those moments that I draw and redraw in my head. Sometimes I'll stand lathering my hair in the shower or something, and I'll recall the conversation, and my limp answers to John's questions, and suddenly the perfect response will come to me, and I'll become so intoxicated by what I should have said, that for a moment, it's as if I have traveled back through time and actually defended myself. Yes! My reading was affected, momentarily, when he revealed that the event wasn't true. I'm human, after all. But! It never diminished the thrill of that poem, the art of it, etc etc etc oh for chrissake, John will you please just think I'm smart??


Anyway, ALL OF THIS is merely to mention that this delightful exchange came out in Harper's the other day and it tickled me pink. John D'Agata is my hero. Even if he thinks I'm a fool.


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