"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Sunday, November 18, 2018

On Finishing.

Last Sunday, I finished the first draft of my novel.

Wow. It feels really weird to write that. It feels weird, because "Write a novel" has been one of my New Year's Resolutions every single year since I was about 13. And 2018 is the year that I can finally cross it off my list. That's a really, really good feeling.

Messy hair, bad lighting, but a very happy writer!
Needless to say, I learned a lot of things about craft and productivity and my own very flawed process in the writing of this book, so I thought I'd share them here. In fact, some of these things directly contradict the lessons I mentioned in the blog post I shared at the halfway point. That's one of the things I love most about writing: there is always, always more to learn.

1. I'm a slow writer, and that's okay. This draft took me two and a half years to write. That's a long time, and not exactly ideal, especially since published authors usually produce work on much tighter deadlines and I want to be one of those someday. What you don't see in those two and half years are the looong stretches between writing sessions. The waffling. The dragging of feet. The distraction. To give you a sense of my pace, I reached the "halfway point" (40,000 words) on January 15th of this year. It took me 9 months to write what some people write every November. I don't say this to disparage myself, but to remind myself that even the slowest writers can still finish. I would love to write faster. I think, with more discipline and less procrastination, I can write faster. But I will never be one of those people who writes several thousand words a day. I will never "win" Nanowrimo, because a prolonged effort of 1,600 words a day just isn't doable for me. What writing this book taught me was how to work within my own sporadic productivity, and that writing at my own pace, especially for a first attempt, is perfectly okay. So if you're feeling overwhelmed by Nano this month, just remember that every writer writes differently - and if we didn't, what a boring world it would be.

2. Planning is Key. I said in my "halfway point" blog post that I thought I'd found my ideal planning method. Well, let's just say, it wasn't enough. I wrote this book with a loose outline that was really just a list of scenes I thought should be in the book somewhere. That's a good start, but it was not nearly enough momentum to keep the story moving forward. It wasn't so much the dreaded middle that tripped me up, but the last third. I'd left most of my ending scenes blank, thinking that I would figure it out as I went along. Bad idea. It's really hard to write the somewhat compelling, halfway-decent ending you're hoping for in your first draft, when you realize the whole book has been building up to....something?? That's a lot of pressure and a lot of stuff to figure out at the last minute. For my next novel I'm planning to do way more outlining. My characters need clearer motivations. They need the escalation of problems. They need (or rather, I need) an end in sight.

3. Reading More = Writing More. Let it be known, this doesn't always work, but when it does, it works wonders! If I'm reading a good book, I'm almost always more likely to want to write. Sometimes I find myself picking up a book, reading a couple pages, and then immediately feeling the urge to write. (Or, well, think about writing and then work up the motivation to actually open the document. I'm being real here, guys.) I always tend to write more when I am actively reading something, especially if I'm enjoying it. When the delicate ecosystem of inspiration and creative output is in balance, the writing feels almost effortless.

4. Commit, commit, commit. Honestly, most of what got me though this process was commitment. Commitment to telling this particular story. Commitment to seeing this draft through to completion. On a smaller scale, commitment to getting to the next word count milestone, whatever that might be. Writing a novel is an endurance sport for your brain, so it's vital that you have little markers along the way. I'd always write more on the days when I could see the next milestone ahead of me, just out of reach. I'd sit down with the specific intention of finally hitting 10K or 20K or 30K and I'd actually follow though. I was at 78,000 words last Sunday when I decided that that I was going to finish this thing no matter what. I ended up writing 6,000 more words (the most I've written in one day, ever), just so I could type "The End." But this doesn't just apply to the final stretch. There were plenty of times when I could have stopped for the day at 9,000 or 59,000 or whatever, but I wanted to make it the next 10K milestone, so I pushed through the resistance. I wrote 2,000 words on an airplane once just so the person next to me would ask me if I was writing a novel! (They did, by the way.) (Is that embarrassing to admit? I don't know.) Getting through a first draft is not just about committing to the whole, gargantuan undertaking. It's also about finding those smaller moments where you can commit to just getting to the next level, and then pushing through the resistance to get there.

5. Trust the process, and trust yourself. There's not a writer on the planet who doesn't feel self-doubt. There were times when I felt like everything I was writing was crap. Sometimes a whole month would slip by, and I hadn't written a word. It was in these moments that I'd feel bad about myself and my work, and it felt impossible to face another blank page. "Trust the process" is not new advice, but it's so important. The more you write, the easier it gets. I slowed down considerably towards the end of my draft, partly because I was still clutching at vague ideas for my ending, but also because my self doubt kicked into high gear. I thought that if I couldn't do the novel justice in the last section, all that hard work would have been somehow wasted on a story with a disappointing ending. I inched forward at a snails pace, until finally, I decided to just go all in, and trust that things would work out. I figured out the ending as I went, and it was such an adrenaline rush, writing those last  few thousand words. So when you're feeling full of self doubt, remember that the only way to get through the fog is to keep writing, because every word you write is proof that you are worthy of the task. That's you trusting the process. When it feels like the story is rebelling, and you don't know if you can fix the problems you've created for yourself, you have to trust that future you will know how to fix them. That's you trusting yourself.

Writing is the process of muddying a perfectly crisp blank page, and then working to turn the smear into something beautiful. It will never be as perfect as the original clean slate, but who wants it to be? Writing this draft taught me that perfection isn't the goal: completion is.

So. There you have it. I hope this little list was helpful to those of you trying to get through a first draft. It's hard, y'all. But it's doable. This book still needs a ton of work (I predict a full re-write and a lot more research), but I'm proud of myself for doing the work. Now, whenever I feel the self doubt monster creeping in I can tell myself: I've done it once. I can do it again.

I've done it once. And I will do it again.

Happy Writing!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Maker's Log: Introduction

For years I've been looking for a way to document my writing progress. I tried keeping a spreadsheet of my word counts, but it always seemed too rigid - what if I wanted to work on something other than my novel? Did the words still count? Then I tried keeping a traditional journal to document the work, but I never stuck to it because the entries took too long to write and I never went back and re-read them, anyway. What I needed, I decided, was a sort of captains log for my creativity. A no-nonsense chronicle of my day, with just a little room for embellishment. A maker's log, if you will.

I love taking time to chronicle my day, even if its only in outline form. It gives credence to both the productive days and the ones where I only manage to get a few words down. It makes each attempt seem noble and good, because look, I showed up, I attempted. I love deciding what to put into my maker's log and what to leave out on any given day. I love reading my old entries. Looking back, I can already see the shifts in perspective, and the things I'm going to have to re-learn over and over again. It makes this thing I'm doing, this endless swath of words, seem a little more worth it.

I'm planning for this to be a monthly series on my blog: a compilation of some of the entries from my log throughout the month. As much as I'd like to say I write in my log book every night, that's just not the case. I've never been good at doing anything daily (as you all can probably attest to), but it feels good to do something semi-regularly, to document even the most incremental of progress, and to honor it for what it is.

What follows is a smattering of entries from the past few months. They have been tremendously helpful for me to write, and I hope they will be helpful for those of you trying to stick to a creative practice- I know first hand just how hard it can be. Stay turned for a September-specific maker's log at the end of the month!


Today I... Went exploring with my friend for the second day in a row. I finally got up the nerve to record parts of our conversation for my walking episode [of the podcast I want to make someday but is currently on the back burner]. In the evening, even though I was really tired, I did most of a water color painting for my book postcards project. All in all a productive day.

Was inspired by... Colorful fences, houses painted audacious shades of purple, people who kept asking us if we were artists when we told them we were going to Texas Art Supply, my friend's encouragement and enthusiasm for my podcast, feeling like I could do anything!

Listing to... Linus and Lucy by George Winston while painting, so relaxing.

Reading... Nothing :( Didn't have time.

Feeling... Like I'm on top of the world! That I wish more days were like today and yesterday. That I'm exhausted...

What I learned... Spending time with people who inspire you is important. People are more receptive to your ideas that you think they will be. Make time for inspiration - it makes actually making things easier. You don't have to do everything alone!


Today I... Wrote most of a short story based off of Edward Gorey's shuffled stories. It started out as an attempt at a blog post and it feels like it could turn into something much longer. Had one of those surreal writing experiences where you just completely lose yourself in the story and it hardly feels like you're doing any work at all...Until you come out of it and you realize that it's almost 1am! I feel kind of like I'm in some sort of brain fog induced by intense concentration. Worried that I'll lose all of my momentum if I try and start again tomorrow, but I know if I kept going I would literally be up all night. I wish FLOW would happen more often!

Was inspired by... Alice Oseman. She's so down to earth and she seems like a person who knows how to find the fun in writing. Also Edward Gorey is a genius.

Listening to... The intense quite created by my headphones. Earlier today: Julia Nune's album, Some Feelings

Reading... The Wild Birds by Emily Strelow, In the park, on my lunch break. Proud of myself for actually reading on my lunch break!

Feeling... Like I should trust my instincts more. It's really nice to write something for the sake of writing, not because you want to use it for a project or publish it or even finish it.

What I learned... It doesn't help to beat yourself up over NOT working on the novel or a blog post or whatever. It does help to make what feels right in the moment.


Today I... Actually finished a blog post! I'd been feeling really uninspired with the blog recently but today I took the time to really search for inspiration. I finally found it in the form of a blog called Enjoy It - it's a really great mixture of personal posts and really helpful tips, not to mention gorgeous photography. Took some cues from her and am very happy with the result. Con: I didn't work on my novel at all.

Was inspired by... The blog mentioned above; thinking about Frank Lloyd Wright for my blog post (he was so prolific!); and this quote, even thought it's hard medicine to swallow: "A professional is one who does his best work when he feels the least like working." - FLW

Listening to... Hozier! How did I not realize he was so good!

Reading... The Honey Farm by Harriet Alida Lye. Will try to read a few more pages before bed.

Feeling... Tired, too warm, like my hair is really greasy, like I made progress today, but hoping that in the future I don't need to spend hours scrolling blogs in order to feel inspired enough to write.

What I learned... Patience is as much a part of creativity as anything else.


Today I... Wrote 360 words, painted a little watercolor illustration to go with my blog post, and then posted it!

Was inspired by... I'm not sure... mostly lyrics to my favorite songs.

Listening to... Andriene Lanker! So good!

Reading... Nothing at the moment :(

Feeling... A little overwhelmed by all the stuff I want to make....again.

What I learned... Doing that little watercolor painting lifted my spirits os much. I felt accomplished, AND I didn't even have to get up that much earlier than normal in order to do it. So nice to have tangible progress!


Today I... Wrote 27 words, aka 2 sentences. This was just a few minutes ago, after I decided that I needed to get over my creative procrastination habit once and for all. It actually felt like a bit of a relief to open the document again. I've built it up in my head as this scary thing, when really it's not. I also wrote an entry in my journal and even though I'm still unsure about where I want all of my creative projects to go, it's nice to feel somewhat in control again. I don't have to figure it all out right now. I just have to devote myself to showing up in the barest possible capacity until I'm ready to move forward.

Was inspired by... Molly de Montaigne on Youtube, esp. her video on journaling. It reminded me that journaling doesn't have to be only one thing - that it is completely private and personal and unique. Also she's one of the first people I've seen make a video about finishing a novel draft who openly and happily reveled in the fact that it's bad. She calls first drafts clay. Not bowls or vases, just clay, that you have to shape into something better. I really like that.

Listening to... 99% Invisible, specifically their wildfire series. I'm really trying to re-ignite my love of podcasts.

Reading... Recently finished Bleaker House, which made me want to work on my novel even more. It gave me the profound sense that I was reading the right book at just the right time, which is a great feeling. Am going to read at least 2 pages of Thoreau's journals tonight, after I finish this entry. I never want to pick it up, but I'm always glad I did.

Feeling... Relieved that I feel somewhat more in control of my creative life. I want to create rituals for my creativity - I think embracing small steps jus might work. So yeah, relieved and cautiously optimistic.

What I learned... I can make myself write 2 sentences even when I don't want to. Sometimes, letting go of the big picture helps.


Today I... Wrote 56 words. A couple more sentences. I feel like I have the urge to write but my procrastinator's brain keeps getting in the way. I'm hoping that this little mini vacation to Austin will free my mind up a bit. I want to associate writing and creativity with that vacation state of mind - maybe then it won't feel so much like work.

Was inspired by... My own imagination (is that arrogant to say?). I keep thinking about all the stuff I'm magically going to fit into 3 days. It's not going to happen, but it's fun to think about.

Listening to... The Bundyville podcast. So addicted! Also my Meld playlist which is just a good upbeat mix of songs I love.

Reading... A couple more entries in Thoreau's journals.

Feeling... A little stressed, but mostly just excited. I want this weekend to be restorative and fun, but I really want to come back from it refreshed and inspired and ready to FINISH MY NOVEL!


Today I... Wrote part of a recap of our Austin trip for the blog, which I'm actually really proud of. It feels funny and interesting, and like something someone else might actually want to read.

Was inspired by... The guy with his golden retriever at the lake. He was standing waist deep in the water and every so often he would hold the dog up so he could swim a little bit. We should all aspire to be more like that guy and his dog.

Listening to... My Earthy playlist while driving through the hills of Austin.

Reading... A few pages of Wildlands by Abby Geni. I can already tell I'm going to be totally sucked in.

Feeling... Rejuvenated, excited, inspired.

What I learned... Sometimes breaks are good. You can still have "busy" days that feel relaxed and leisurely if you do them right. I need to find a relaxing ritual to do each morning, like swimming at Barton Springs has been for us this weekend. Maybe I just need to bring that calmness to roller skating.


Today I... Wrote about 350 words. Not as much as yesterday when I wrote 600 (didn't have time to write an entry about it). I think writing this novel is just going to be a bit rough for a little while. Not everything about novel writing is easy, right? There's always that point where you think you can't do it. Well, I'm telling myself that I can.

Was inspired by... Roller skating! Went on a relaxed evening skate tonight and felt completely refreshed. I think roller skating is like a palate cleanser for me. It makes my day instantly better and reminds me what's really important: feeling alive, and free, and happy.

Am reading... The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. The language is very clean and sparse, but somehow that just makes the imagery even more beautiful.

Am listening to... Silence, mostly. The whirr of the air conditioner. The sound of my pen on the page.

Feeling... Like today was a full, productive day without even trying too hard to make it one, which is a nice feeling.

What I learned... When in doubt, go skating. :)

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

A Perfect Weekend in Three Parts

This weekend my family and I took a mini vacation to Austin. It's been years since I've been to Austin. Years. Even though it's only three hours away! The last few times, I was there for the Texas Book Festival, so I spent most of my days gallivanting around the capitol, soaking up the words of authors I admire, and trying to fit as much in as possible. This time, we're just here for the sake of getting away, being in a new place, and going where the wind takes us.

I don't think I realized how much I needed a vacation until this trip. These August days have been oppressive. This month feels like it's gone on forever, and more and more I've been feeling like every day is the same. The truth is, I've been wallowing and feeling sorry for myself for a while now. And boy, does it feel good to have done something about it.

If you've been feeling the same way, I hope you'll take matters into your own hands and plan yourself a little weekend getaway. It works wonders, I promise.

Here's a recap:

Day One - Friday

Afternoon: I get off work at 2pm and stock up on road food (aka Cheezits) on the way home. Dad is already in Austin for a seminar, so it's just mom and I, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and taking care of last minute preparations. We consult google maps before heading out, but it still feels like it takes us forever to get out of the city. Houston is a sprawling, tangled mess of a city, and it feels like rush hour officially starts at 3pm. When we finally reach a two lane highway flanked by fields and trees, we breathe a collective sigh of relief. Conversation consists mostly of reminisces of previous trips, musings on the pros and cons of technology, and confusion over toll roads.

Evening: Hit some traffic coming into Austin, but ultimately escape unscathed. Eventually we pull onto the street where our air bnb is. My parents being my parents, we're staying in an airstream. (Why not?) The neighborhood feels strangely deserted. My dad meets us on the curb and leads us through a gate into our host's backyard. The airstream gleams in the evening light. It's cramped but comfortable. We drop our suitcases and immediately decide on Mexican food, at a place known for their avocado margaritas (Totally Austin Thing #1).

Dad fills us in on his seminar, and we all eat our weight in Mexican food. There are lots of Mexican restaurants in Houston, but there's something special about Tex-Mex in Austin. Maybe it's that taco trucks are everywhere here. Maybe it's the plethora of neon signage. Maybe it's that all the waiters have man-buns. Who knows? Whatever it is, it's delicious.

By the time we leave the restaurant, we are all beat. It takes a little bit of configuring to get the dining area of the airstream converted into a bed for me, but it all comes together. Lights out. I wake up frequently due to the noisy air conditioner, and have a weird dream involving time travel and a city like Las Vegas if Las Vegas was on a beach.

Day Two - Saturday

Morning: Here's something you should know about my family: We're morning people. We hate crowds to the point where if it means getting up at an ungodly hour to avoid them, we'll do it. This is how I end up being roused from a restless sleep at 6am to go swimming. Really, I did this to myself. Mom said that getting up at 7 would have been plenty early, but I insisted that earlier was best. So here we are.

We groggily get ready while trying not to run into each other, and finally make it to the car with towels and non-pool clothes in tow. We are headed to Barton Springs.

Barton Springs is a spring-fed swimming pool. It looks more like a lake than a swimming pool, with limestone sides and a natural rock bottom that is covered in algae. The water coming up from the ground is a chilly 68 degrees, which may not sound that bad, but on an 80 degree morning it feels like swimming in glacier run-off. We discover to our delight that it's free to swim before 8am. Because of this, the pool is moderately crowded, but it's the early morning crowd, which is the best kind. The demographic is mostly dedicated (crazy) lap swimmers, and people like us, who are content to wade around and enjoy the sunrise.

Despite the cold, the whole endeavor feels luxurious. How often do you get to float around in crystal clear water before the rest of the (not crazy) world wakes up? It feels like we've stumbled across some big secret. A snowy egret lands near us and goes about its business, not seeming to care about the swimmers. I overhear one of the swimmers talking about his daughter, presumably in college, and how proud he is of her for "not trying to be the best, you know?" (Totally Austin Thing #2).

When the water finally gets to us, we get out and warm up by the side of the pool. It's not even 8am, and we already feel rejuvenated. Onward and upward.

Our next stop is obviously food and coffee. In true Mills fashion, we just drive around until Mom spots a tiny hole-in-the-wall diner. It looks busy, but not horribly so (always a good sign), so we go inside. We were expecting a greasy eggs and soggy hash browns kind of place, but instead we get a restaurant with items like "bacon-infused collard greens" and "soyrizo" (veggie sausage) on the menu, with local, farm-fresh eggs. (Totally Austin Thing #3).

By the time we're done with breakfast it is finally mid-morning, and it's time to do something we have been meaning to do for years. My grandfather requested that his ashes be scattered at the same lake that my grandmother's were, which happens to be in Austin. It takes lots of driving through the hills around the city to find the correct spot. Finally we find a secluded spot to say goodbye, but not before witnessing one of the sweetest dog/human interactions I've ever seen. There is a guy standing waste deep in the water with his very old golden retriever. The dog seems content to just be in the water, near his favorite person, but occasionally the guy will gently hold the dog up so that he can swim a little bit. The guy is so patient and the dog is so mellow and content, and it honestly made me want to cry. (Totally Austin Thing #4).

Afternoon: We eat lunch at a place called Pool Burger, so named because it's adjacent to Austin's other spring-fed pool: Deep Eddy. Pool Burger feels like a little slice of Hawaii. The bar has a thatched roof. The kitchen is in an airstream trailer. Inside, the stools are made of bamboo and there are vintage surf posters on the walls. All the bartenders wear Hawaiian shirts. I order a mojito because I'm feeling extra vacation-y. It's possibly the best mojito I've ever had. I don't know if it's because only sometimes like mojitos, or I've only ever had ones that were sub-par. Maybe it's just really good rum. The burgers are delicious, too, but we eat them so fast I hardly notice.

Next we make an obligatory, almost compulsory stop at Book People. It's just a fact that I can't go to another city without visiting at least one bookstore. This time I'm seeing it with slightly different eyes because I work at one. I'm happy to see one of my favorite books, Gold Fame Citrus, on a display of "CliFi", a term I'd never heard before that stands for Climate Sci Fi, or science fiction about climate change. Because so many books cross my desk every day, I'm mostly just looking for titles I don't recognize. There's not a lot I haven't at least seen the covers of, and it's a strange feeling. For a slow reader like me, working at a bookstore can be overwhelming. Visiting Book People makes me thankful I work in a pretty small store - I'd be really overwhelmed in a store that's got two floors worth of books.

By this point it's almost 3pm and we are all exhausted. We head back to the airstream and sleep for the rest of the afternoon. Luxurious, right?

Evening: When we finally roust ourselves from our collective nap, it's almost 7pm. We decide to eat at Lucy's Fried Chicken, a place I have weirdly distinct memories of. I was probably around 9 or 10, and there happened to be an open-mic night going on the back patio while we were there. By this point I was well into my dream of becoming a writer, meaning it was what I told everyone when they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I forget exactly how it came about, but  someone at a neighboring table ended up giving me a little spiral notebook. They told me to write something. Looking back, it's kind of amazing that it even happened: that we happened to be there that night, that the people next to us (or maybe the restaurant staff - the memory is fuzzy now) had a notebook to spare. Anyway, I did write something. A tiny poem, something about cigarette smoke and mountains. It took a lot of encouragement, but somehow my parents convinced me to volunteer to read. I didn't even read the poem myself - my mom did while I stood on stage next to her, but I think it still counts as one of my first public readings.

Now, the patio of Lucy's Fried Chicken looks completely different. There are no events being held, and we eat inside to get out of the heat. We still spend the time creatively though: Mom and I crack open a box of colored pencils. I sketch the restaurant while she draws a picture of the airstream we're staying in to tape into the guestbook when we leave. I forgot how much I liked drawing in public - it makes me really notice things I would have completely ignored otherwise. I briefly consider carrying a sketchbook from now on, but decide I carry around too many notebooks already.

By the time we are done eating boatloads of fried chicken and finishing our drawings, it is almost 9pm. After that it's back to the airstream and back to sleep. I sleep straight through the night and don't remember my dreams when I wake up.

Day Three - Sunday

Morning: The previous day we had decided to make the most of our time in Austin and go swimming at Barton Springs again. Day two is definitely harder to wake up for. At 6:15 my dad asks if I still want to go swimming and I groggily say yes even though I'm not sure I do. Somewhere in my sleep-added mind I know it will be worth it, but my body needs some time to catch up. Mom is already cheerfully in the car by the time I stumble into clothes and grab my swimsuit.

Barton Springs is just as wonderful as it was the first time, and the cold water definitely wakes me up. The cold doesn't bother me as much as it did the day before, and I end up staying in longer than both of my parents. On this morning there are people doing back flips off the diving board, a German couple shivering in the shallows, and several swimming instructors giving lessons. I watch one of them, a wiry older woman in a wetsuit, teaching someone breathing techniques. It's obvious she isn't coaching a professional, just teaching someone how to swim recreationally, as a skill they should have. I briefly think that swimming instructor would be a nice career- getting to spend time in water, getting to teach people a skill that is not necessarily useless, but definitely under appreciated (at least at the recreational level). It's a moment I have quite often, a curiosity about other people's lives, how they spend their time. I like seeing people doing work that is completely alien to me, and wondering if they are fulfilled by it. I wonder what this elegant woman would be doing if she wasn't a swimming instructor. I imagine her in a dance studio, or a museum. Maybe teaching people to swim is her second or third career. Maybe she's mostly retired. If I follow this train of thought too far, I end up back at myself, at what I'm doing with my own life. Stringing words together, one after the other.

After our swim we head off in search of breakfast. We pick The Magnolia Cafe , which is somewhat of an institution in Austin. It's still early (and I'm still chilled from the pool) so we choose to eat on the patio, which turns out to be perfect: lots of shade and dappled sunlight. I order eggs benedict with sausage and spicy hollandaise. By the time we leave the restaurant there's a line out the door and all the tables inside are full. There are definitely perks to being an early riser.

We spend some time at the airstream packing up and cleaning. Mom braids my hair while I write a thank you note in the guest book of our airstream. I flip through the previous entries for inspiration and learn that someone from Italy once stayed here. I wonder how they ended up in Austin, and what they thought of it. Italy and its culture seems worlds away from the middle of Texas.

Next I want to visit the Modcloth store, because I keep seeing pictures of it on instagram, and I like the idea of experiencing it in person. Upon entering, we learn that it's a "fit shop," meaning that you can try on the item in your size but instead of taking it home, they order it for you and it gets shipped to your door. The whole concept seems strange to me, almost hollow. What's the point of having a beautiful space where you can touch the things you'd normally only see online, only to leave empty handed?

After that we wander into a few more shops, and I finally stumble across a pair of sunglasses I like. I recently lost a pair of my favorite sunglasses (they were green!), and I'd been pining for them almost the whole trip. It just doesn't feel like a vacation without them (not to mention it's bright outside). These have slightly purple lenses with gold accents, and they feel chic and different from what I normally wear. I don't think you can buy happiness, but it is amazing how a single purchase can instantly make your day better. I don't know what it is, but new sunglasses are one of those things. Books and haircuts fall into this category, too.

Afternoon: Armed with my new sunglasses, it's finally time to take on South Congress. It's hot, the middle of the day now, and our progress is slow.

Because it would probably be boring for me to narrate entering and leaving every store we stopped in, here they are in list format for easy reading (Honestly, if you've made it this far, I'm impressed):

Warby Parker: So my glasses-wearing parents can try on some different frames. I try some on, too, and consider what I would look like if I wore glasses. Am mildly afraid that I will find some I really like and be disappointed that I don't wear glasses. Kind of a silly worry, when I type it out now. All of the employees are wearing glasses, and I wonder if it's a requirement to wear frames, wether they need them or not.

 Madewell: A store that is basically my style in a nutshell, but I can't afford anything. In fact, I've been inside often but I don't think I own anything from there at all. Pine after red and white floral tank top with beautiful covered buttons.

Service: Menswear store that we go into mostly for my dad's benefit. To our delight he ends up buying something! Mom and I have too much fun joking about weird menswear styles and commenting on the decor. I'm surprised by all the florals.

Manana: A beautiful coffee shop we step into to cool off and refuel. The iced coffee glasses are a sort-of pointy hourglass shape (there's a word for it, I know there is) that helps distribute the cream evenly when you pour it in (Totally Austin Thing #5). It has floor to ceiling windows on both ends and lots of mirrors. If I lived in Austin, I'd probably come here all the time to write and get nothing done because I'd be too busy people watching and staring out the window.

Tesoro's Trading Co: An eclectic, beautiful store that reminds me of Henley Market in Galveston. I buy a gorgeous skirt that is made out of sari fabric. You're supposed to be able to wear it about 12 different ways, and I can't wait to experiment with it! Everything in this place is embroidered or hand carved or interesting in some other way. The textures and variety are kind of overwhelming. I love it.

Our last meal is from Bouldin Creek Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant. I'm not usually into vegetarian food (I like fried chicken too much), but I'm so hungry it doesn't matter. (Also, this place has really good food) I order their veggie burger on sourdough bread with garlic aioli. It's amazing and so filling and I eat almost the whole thing.

Evening: At this point, I'm officially exhausted, and it's time to make the long trek home. I attempt to sleep some in the car so that I can be awake enough to drive later. At the halfway point we stop at a gas station and I get an Arizona Iced Tea, my go-to road trip beverage. I haven't had one in such a long time, and maybe it's silly, but it just reinforces how great this weekend has been. I've gotten to do basically everything I think vacations should be: getting up early (if there's a good reason to), eating fantastic food, discovering new places, people watching, daydreaming, afternoon naps, bookstore browsing, and collecting the odd souvenir. It was just a couple of days and it felt like a week.

I wanted to write this post, not just because I want to remember this trip, but also because it felt like it filled something that was missing since I graduated college. I've been adjusting to the working world pretty well, but travel feels more difficult when you don't have the designated breaks that school provides. If anything, this weekend proves that you don't need lots of time or exotic locations to get away. The best travel is travel that you go into open minded. It's easy-going and relaxed, with not too much pressure to stick to an itinerary. If it seems like we did a lot, well, we did, but we did it moment to moment, and it was dictated by our moods (and our hunger levels) rather than a schedule. I want to do more trips like this in the future, to discover new/old places with new/old friends.

Today is Monday, the start of a new week, but I want to keep living on vacation time. I want to get up early and sip my coffee slowly. I want to keep buying the little things that make me happy, and keep imagining myself in other lives. Vacation time doesn't have to exist only on vacation. With a little imagination and little effort, it can be most of the time. Sometimes it just helps to get away a little in order to see home with new eyes.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Writing is Like

Writing is like trying to piece together a puzzle from a bag of puzzle pieces you found in the back of your closet: no picture on the box to follow, no way to know if the pieces you have are for one puzzle or several.

Writing is like trying to take a decent picture of the sunset on an iPhone. The colors never come out as beautiful as your brain interprets them.

Writing is like cracking pistachio nuts and then dropping them into a box. The pistachios are words, and the box is your novel. You can't see the progress you're making because the box is opaque. You crack open a nut, discard the shells, and drop the little green kernel into the darkness, hoping it's enough. The only way to know how far you've gotten is to pick up the box and shake it, to hear the satisfying rattle, to feel the weight. But actually see your progress? Harder than it seems.

Lately I've been feeling jealous of visual artists. Not because I wish I was better at art (though sometimes I do) but because their progress is so obvious. From a blank canvas, an image emerges. The pieces of a quilt come together, square by square. A sweater is birthed from the apex of two knitting needles. The results of this kind of effort are tangible: you can touch them, see them.

Writing a novel is different. It feels transient. Your progress is marked by pages and word counts, by how long it takes you to scroll. When I open my word document, I don't immediately get a sense of how far I've come, or of how far I need to go. All I see are the last few paragraphs and a little blinking cursor. It's the same no matter where I am in the process, which makes it feel like I'm starting from the same place, every single time.

I suppose it was different before computers. When you pulled a finished page out of your typewriter and placed it on the stack of pages that came before it: physical, tangible proof of something that was once in your brain. I like the idea of this, but the truth is, I've tried writing big projects on typewriters, and the form is too rigid for me. I can barely get through one page before I'm dying to change something and frustrated that I can't.

In a lot of ways I love how mutable writing on screens is. I can sit down and put whatever is in my brain on "paper", knowing that it is instantly changeable whenever I feel like it. It's freeing. I can tell my inner-critic to take a seat and not interrupt until I tell her it's okay to do so. On the page, anything can happen, and if I don't like it, no big deal. One click, and its gone.

The flip side of that coin, though, is that something so changeable is hard to hold onto. A novel in itself is hard to picture all at once, while if I asked you to visualize a painting you could do it, no problem. I feel as though I'm trying to hold water in my hands but it keeps slipping through my fingers. I want to be able to hold something up, to say, "Look what I'm making. Look how far I've come." But all I have are word counts. All I have are page numbers. They work as markers, as flags. But they don't feel substantial. You can't glance at them and see the whole picture.

Instead, I just catch glimmers. A shape appears out of the fog. I hit milestones, and compare them to things I can visualize more easily. For instance, I recently passed 50,000 words, which is about the length of The Great Gatsby. When I don't have a good frame of reference, I try to make time the thing I can measure. I've been logging my writing using a time tracking app. There at least I can see how much of my day goes to this thing, this growing, changing thing that is impossible to see.

Most of the things I want to make are intangible. Things like novels (which will hopefully be book-shaped one day, but probably won't be for a long time) and podcasts and blog posts. It's been plaguing me because I want to share my progress, to have something to show for my efforts, but all I have are these words and pixels.

And so, I build my days around them. I carve out the time and record and measure and make due with flags and markers. When my first draft is done (and it will be soon, I hope) I will print the entire thing out (warts and all) and hold it in my hands. I've always imagined myself lugging a manuscript around with me to coffee shops, marking it up in different colored pens, but honestly I'm not sure that's the fate for this project. This feels almost like a practice round, like the challenge I cut my teeth on. I may come back to it, I may not. Either way, I'll have it. Physical proof of something I made. And that will make all the guesswork worthwhile.

Until then, I'll just keep dropping pistachios into the box.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Ten Things I Learned from Taliesin West

Last month my family and I went to visit my friend Ruth, who is currently the graphic design fellow for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation at Taliesin West. (Yeah, I'm proud of her, too.) It was a lovely weekend where we were continually in awe that such a place could exist and that we had the privilege of being there. I've been trying to write about it for a couple weeks now, but while I've seen more of Taliesin West than most people ever will (it's only open to the public through tours), I feel like I've just barely scratched the surface. Listed below are a few things that struck me, thoughts that sparked other thoughts; in short: ten things I learned from a few days in a fascinating place.

Some background: Taliesin West near Scottsdale, AZ is the "western" campus of the apprenticeship-turned-architecture-school Frank Lloyd Wright founded in order to shape a new generation of architects. The original Taliesin is in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The word Taliesin means: "shining brow."

1. Be prolific. On our official tour of Taliesin West we learned that Frank Lloyd Wright designed 1,141 architectural works in his lifetime (the majority of which were late in life). 511 of these were actually built. I mean think about that. 1,000+ designs. 511 buildings. Imagine how fewer Wright buildings would be in existence if he'd only created half as many designs. Or a third of that. Those numbers reiterated my desire to be the kind of person who makes a lot of things. I want to find a way to bring creativity into my daily routine. I'm a long way out from that (a lot of thinking, not enough doing), but hearing those numbers made me inspired to start again, to make more than I ever have.

2. Help people see your work the way you want it to be seen. Wright is notorious for being unwilling to compromise his designs for a client's personal preference. His ceilings are often comically low, partly because he was short, but also because he believed that houses should be "human sized" and that they shouldn't tower over the people living in them. In the guest-house we stayed in on campus, you could really only see out the windows unless you were sitting down. As such, all the chairs were perfectly aligned so that when you sat down you were at eye level with the landscape. While it's not a good idea to be so uncompromising that you alienate your audience, I think artists can take cues from Wright when it comes to nudging people in the right (ha!) direction. His designs force you to experience the architecture in the way he wants you to experience it. I couldn't help but wonder if there's a way to translate this into other mediums.

3. The kindness of strangers goes a long way. Everyone we met at Taliesin was gracious and kind. Even though it's a close-knit community of students, teachers, and staff, we never felt like we weren't welcome, and everyone was happy to answer our questions and ask some of their own. That kind of openness seems like it's getting rarer and rarer, and it was a nice surprise to be surrounded by it, even just for a weekend.

4. There's nothing desolate about the desert. I'd forgotten how full of life the desert is. We chose the perfect time to go because the aloe and the bougainvillea were in full, astonishing bloom. It seemed like everywhere we turned there were flickers darting between the trees, flocks of quail skittering about, and flashes of hummingbirds among the flowers. One night we even heard the eerie sound of coyotes yipping in the distance.

5. Sometimes the greatest luxury is to do nothing in a beautiful place. Despite Ruth's best efforts to keep us busy, we spent a large chunk of the weekend doing nothing, and it was glorious. I sat in what little shade I could find and did watercolors or read. We went on walks, visited the gift shop and the cafe, and just generally watched the light change. The whole time I kept having to pinch myself that it was real, that the sunset and the mountains and the strange spiky plants weren't some sort of dream. What a luxury to just be in that place. What a luxury to be able to truly enjoy it.

6. Compress and release. Another thing we learned about on our tour was the concept of compress and release. Often we'd enter a building through a dark hallway, or some tight, cramped space, before it opened up into a long, light-filled room, usually with a view that stretched on for miles. I'm not really sure what the takeaway here is, except that I've been thinking about and noticing this concept ever since. Maybe it's that you appreciate things more right after they've been taken away from you.

7. Life-long friendships are rarer than you think. Every time Ruth introduced me as "my friend Laura, who I've known since the second grade," the most frequent response we'd get was "Wow. That's amazing!" It's far too easy to take really good friends for granted. They've always been in your life, so there's no reason to think they won't continue to be. I've been lucky enough to have several friends like this, so it often doesn't occur to me that not everyone has kept the friends they made in elementary school. Their reaction reminded me to cherish the friendships I have and not to grow complacent about them.

Side note: It's amazing to me how Ruth and I can fall right back into normal routines, even in a completely different setting. One of my favorite things we did that weekend was hang out at a bubble tea place in Phoenix and chat about our creative projects. It's something we do all the time when we're in the same city, and it's nice to know that some things never change.

8. Never underestimate the importance of a good hat (and sunglasses). Both the hat and sunglasses I took on this trip were last minute decisions. I almost couldn't find my sunglasses before leaving, but I discovered them on the kitchen table literally moments before walking out the door. The sun hat had been sitting unused in the car for the past month, and I made my dad grab it as we were loading our stuff into the shuttle that would take us to the airport. Both were completely invaluable and made being in the hot, bright desert WAY more pleasant.

9. Environment matters. One of the most amazing things about Taliesin West was that most of the architecture students live in structures called desert shelters. The shelters are built by previous students and current students can choose to design or modify a shelter for their final project. Most of them are completely open-air with a platform for a bed and place to build a fire on cold nights. What's amazing though, is how different each one is, and how they are tailored to the environment. Each one takes into consideration the heat of the day and the cold of the night, the way the breeze flows through the space, elevation from the ground, and how a person might spend their days in this tiny piece of the desert. While it takes a special kind of person to want to spend an entire semester in a desert shelter, I love the idea of being so connected with the environment around you, and of building structures that allow for that connection. These structures are built for the uniqueness of the desert, rather than in spite of it. I feel like there's all sorts of metaphors here for creativity that I haven't quite figured out yet. Something about tailoring your creative practice to your environment rather than trying to muscle through all the time. Or maybe just about paying attention to your surroundings and bending to them, rather than expending so much energy trying to shut them out.

10. Details, details, details. And lastly, what would Frank Lloyd Wright be without details? Everything in his buildings is meticulously planned. No piece of decor is out of place. I try to imagine living with that kind of cohesiveness and intention. Honestly, it sounds exhausting. But I can't help but admire someone with that kind of vision. And when you're surrounded by it, like I was for a few short days in March, it feels like the most natural thing in the world.

"As we live and as we are, Simplicity–with a capitol S– is difficult to comprehend nowadays. We are no longer truly simple. We no longer live in simple terms or places. Life is a more complex struggle now. It is now valiant to be simple: a courageous thing to even want to be simple. It is a spiritual thing to comprehend what simplicity means." - FLW

**This blog post would not have been possible without Ruth: For being an awesome human being, and a wonderful host! **

Friday, February 23, 2018

Books & Clothes

My parents are planning to move soon, and we've been feeling overwhelmed by sheer amount of stuff we own, so this past weekend we made a pact to clear out the two things that take up the most room in our lives: Books and Clothes.

Books and clothes. I often joke that I could almost be capable of becoming a minimalist, if it weren't for all the books. I love my bookshelves. I find the presence of all those words, written by some of the people I admire most in the world, extremely comforting and inspiring. I also have a very hard time walking into a bookstore and leaving empty handed. Needless to say, working at a bookstore has just thrown fuel on the fire.

I know too that I don't like being surrounded by books I know I'm never going to read. Or books I have read but only remain in my memory because they're sitting on my shelf. In an uncharacteristic turn of events, I was actually excited to get rid of books.

A cute outfit and some current reads
Clothes, on the other hand, were a little more amorphous. I tend to go through phases where I'm obsessed with clothes and phases where clothes are simply functional. The obsessed phase looks like this: pinning style ideas on Pinterest, pining after gingham tops and velvet dresses, mixing and matching things in my wardrobe in a half-desperate attempt to shake things up. The "meh" phase looks like this: not caring if my Darlingside t-shirt is too informal to wear to work, ignoring half the jeans in my drawer and alternating between the two most comfortable pairs, and generally not being bothered by clothes except when putting them on.

Recently I've found myself at an interesting cross roads with my wardrobe. A lot of the things I wear are perfectly acceptable for a college student (and frankly, above the "t-shirt and sweatpants" standard of most college students), but not quite for a young-adult woman with a big-girl job. While the bookstore is pretty lax in its dress-code, the things I'd wear in the summertime in my home just don't quite cut it. It seems obvious to me now that as your life changes, you clothes might have to also, but seeing items that I used to wear constantly relegated to "weekends only" was a little disconcerting.

That's not to say that I thew out all of my summertime clothes (you can't live in Houston without a great pair of shorts and a breezy tank top). It's not even that my dividing line was really "work appropriate" vs "not work appropriate" because a lot of the things I own could go either way. Cleaning out my closet made me realize that maybe I'm growing out of my wardrobe. A lot of my "summer" clothes feel like high school me, and a lot of my "work" clothes feel only tangentially like something an adult would wear. I'm in this weird in-between phase where I don't want to dress like an old lady but I also want to look a little more put-together than my high school self. And if my style isn't "college girl chic" anymore, then what is my style?

Am I overthinking this? Probably.

Am I strangely fascinated by it? Absolutely.

So what did I do when faced with the task of cleaning out both my closet and bookshelves? I went with my gut, and I'm pretty happy with the results.

The books were easier than I thought they'd be. I gave myself room to let go of books I'd once wanted to read but not longer had any desire to. I gave away books I'd read but hadn't loved, or that I knew I'd never want to re-visit. I did a slight re-organization of my shelves so that now I have one full shelf and two half-full bookshelves with room to grow. (As they inevitably will ;) The one nearest to my bed only has books I'm most excited to read right now. If that changes before I get to them, they either get donated or put on another shelf until I feel like reading them again. With so many new books coming into my life, I either have to read faster, be vigilant about culling, or both. Preferably both.

[Side note for people who care about what I'm reading right now (pictured above): Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, Too Much and Not in the Mood by Durga Chew Bose, and Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer. Annihilation is currently at the top of the list because I'm planning to go see the movie this weekend and what if I actually read the book before the movie! That never happens! Wish me luck :)]

Anyway, what I'm trying to say with all of this rambling is that cleaning out my bookshelves felt really good. I'm now surrounded only by books I love and that I'm pumped to read. Strangely enough, cleaning out my bookshelves felt a little bit like de-cluttering my brain. Now, when I look at each book on my shelf it sparks something: whether that's an idea I had while reading it, or simply excitement to pick it up.

As for the clothes, I think I did well pretty well. I got rid of the things I never wear, kept a few things for sentimental value, and even though I know my wardrobe won't change overnight, it's heading in the right direction. Right now I'm in the "meh" phase when it comes to clothing but I know when the pendulum swings back towards "obsessed" I'll be ready to tackle all of my wishy-washy feelings about clothing and growing up and what I want my wardrobe to say about who I am. I also think it's important to note that I don't hate all of my clothes. In fact, I like most of them. But I'm looking forward to seeing them evolve and change with me.

Some people might think it's silly to put so much thought into inanimate objects, but I would argue that books are anything but inanimate because they engage our minds so fully, and that clothes serve a similar function because they are an active form of self expression -- they literally move with us. I don't know where any of these thoughts will take me. If they don't go any further than  "thoughts I had while cleaning out my room," so be it. But something tells me there's more to it than that. And I'm going to follow it wherever it leads.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Bitter Sweet (Or Songs I've Cried To)

I. It is March of 2017. I am in the bedroom of my on-campus apartment. It is chilly outside, and I'm longing for sunny days, for the first time I can wear dresses without tights to keep my legs warm, for freedom, and in this case: the unknown. My first summer not bookended by school. The summer of the rest of my life. Instead of the overhead I just have lamps lit so my room is full of warmth, the darkness pressing against the glass. I'm laying in bed with headphones on, trying to find something to listen to. I turn to an old favorite on a whim. Alela Diane. I liked one of her songs once but not the rest, her voice dipping away from folk, too close to country twang for my liking. I find her most recent album: Cold Moon. Hit play. The songs are otherworldly, slow. They meander, Alela's voice lifting like a white sheet on a windy day, floating, longing to break free.

The ocean is the color that you saw
The ocean is the color it will always be
with or without your hands to paint it

As I sang into the night sky
I knew that you were stopping by
to say goodbye
Goodbye, Goodbye

I listen to the album all the way through. I don't move. I am transfixed. Even for all the talk of the ocean, the album makes me think of the desert - the way sounds carry, the sky so vast you can barely see the edges. As the album progresses I begin to sense the story the lyrics tell, of loss and questioning. Of wondering what happens when we die. By the end, I want to believe in souls.

Call it God
Call it whatever you like
to believe in souls
To believe that death is someplace
where there are no eyes
where there are no faces
no hands no war no death

Is it a colorless night
shrouded in white
do we return here again?

II. I am little, sitting on my parent's bed.  Joni Mitchell's "Little Green" emanates from a tiny first-gen iPod speaker. Her words, twisting like vines around the room. Her details, so tactile you can almost taste them:

Call her Little Green
For the color when the spring is born
There'll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow
Just a little green
like the lights when the northern lights perform
There'll be icicles and birthday clothes and sometimes
there'll be sorrow

I'm filled with childlike joy - the kind that only comes from the simplest things like stacking blocks on top of each other or painting blindly on fresh paper. Joy for the beauty of the music and the melancholy of the words, though in my child's brain it isn't melancholy, just specific: Birthday clothes. Icicles. Northern lights. Sorrow. My mother tells me the song makes her sad. When I ask why, she tells me that Joni wrote it about giving up her child for adoption. I listen to it again, and the lyrics snap into place where before they were only pretty words:

Born with the moon in cancer
choose her a name she'll answer to
Call her green and the winters cannot fade her
call her green for the children who've made her

Suddenly, I'm crying. Suddenly the world seems bigger and more unfathomable. Suddenly the simple details take on so much meaning. I know my mom feels bad, but looking back I'm glad she told me what it meant. It cracked the song, and its details, wide open.

III. It is December 2017. I'm in bed again. I can't fall asleep. Too much coffee too late in the day and my heart feels like it's trying to patter it's way out of my chest, but my eyelids are heavy and my limbs feel like they're made of lead, like at any moment I could sink into the mattress. I listen to my "Sleep" playlist. I listen to "Cold Moon." Drift in and out of sleep. Somewhere in an old playlist: Anais Mitchell. I click on an album called "Xoa", hit play. Her voice, elvish, etherial, pierces and lulls at the same time. I'm more awake now, the opposite of where I want to be, but I don't care because I just want to listen to her words. Her songs are stories, tales of sorrow of grace of beauty and light.

Come out the streets are breathing
heaving green to red to green
come with your nicotine and wine
tambourine keeping time
you come and find me in the evening
Way over yonder I'm waiting and wondering
wither your fonder heart lies

Sometimes her voice molds itself into a wail. It tapers and grows, vibrates with something sad and beautiful and little bit jagged like unpolished crystal. I listen to it on repeat. Drift in and out of sleep. When I wake up, her voice croons softly through one earbud, the other slipped away from me in the night.

She's leading you home from the heat of the bar
to lie on the levy and look at the stars
you can hold her hand
you can kiss her face
go slow if you can
cause the world is a very sad place
cause when she leaves she'll leave no trace
and the world will still be there