Category Archives: On writing

What I’ve learned from writing 799 blog posts

So this is my 800th blog post. (No, I don’t keep track of these things; WordPress does).   My thoughts on this milestone range from Holy cow, that’s a lot of writing  to I never thought I’d last this long to Let’s go get some cannoli to celebrate!  (see Blog Post #792).

I also  thought, I guess I’ve learned a thing or two about blogging over the last five years, haven’t I?  And since many of my readers are bloggers too, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned just in case it proves helpful to others.  (It’s certainly  less messy than trying to share a celebratory cannoli, though I do believe life is exponentially better when it includes Italian desserts.)  So here it is: What I’ve Learned From Writing 799 Blog Posts.

1.  What you write about may change over time.  When I started in 2008, I’d just published a book about Mary, and my blog was very focused on Mary and how she can relate to modern women.  But as time passed and my second child began to exit the baby stage, my focus became less about one particular mother and more about motherhood in general.   That change happened organically; I just went with it.

2. If your blog focus changes, the name might need to change.  The Blog Formerly Known as Mary and Me became Random Acts of Momness in early July of 2011.  I owe the name entirely to Scott, who turned to me suddenly in the middle of watching a Fourth of July parade and said ,”I have the perfect new name for your blog.”  (See why I love him?).

3.  Blogs can be the catalyst for getting to know some pretty fantastic people.  In some cases, you actually get to meet them in the flesh (hi, Chris!); in most cases, my blog-buddies are people I have never seen face-to-face, people whose voices I could never identify.   But their comments led to actual email conversations, and now I count many of them as true friends.   I had no idea that would happen when I started blogging.  It’s been a beautiful surprise.

4.  Blogging energy,  like anything, ebbs and flows.  There are days where I’m so into this whole thing that I could post something every day, and then there are other times where I feel like the blogging well has run so dry that if you were to drop a bucket into it, the ensuing clank would echo until Kingdom Come.  Sometimes, you need to take a little  hiatus and let the rainwater fill you up again.  I’ve found that it always does.

That said, I do have the mental escape hatch that if this ever stops being fun for a long period of time, I can give it up. After all, no one is making me do this but me.  (But if I stopped blogging, would I miss it?  Yes, I probably would.)

5.  You have to figure out what you’re comfortable sharing, and not.  I made the call early on not to post pictures of my kids on the blog, for their privacy’s sake.  (God knows I share enough embarrassing stories about them as it is.)   Your line may be different, and that’s great — you just need to decide where it is.

6.  When it comes to developing your craft as a writer, blogging is both good and bad.  On the plus side, blogging can let you develop a totally authentic voice.  If you aren’t trying to match the style of a certain publication or editorial vision, you are free to let yourself go and write however the heck you want to write.  Blogging has helped me solidify my own personal voice, and that’s nice.

That said, there is a reason why most published material goes through an editorial process: we aren’t always able to see what works and what doesn’t in our own writing.  If you don’t have someone else giving you feedback, it can be hard to grow as a writer.  Anytime someone else edits my work, I learn … a lot.  When  you are publishing your own stuff, it can be hard to get that feedback unless you actively solicit it from others.

7.  Go with your enthusiasm.  My blog is about  motherhood and spirituality, but not every post fits under that umbrella.  Sometimes, I am so into something that I just have to share it.   (And I’ve never had a reader ask, “Why the heck are you writing about Jane Austen when you are supposed to be a blog about motherhood?”)

8.  A blog is a zillion times more interesting with readers’ comments  … so what would you add to this list?  If you are a blogger too, whether you’ve written one post or one thousand, what have you learned from blogging?  I’d love to  have you share your wisdom in the comments field below.  (And  please stick around for the next 800 posts!).

Writing about our parents

My relationship with my parents has always been a solid one.   I like to say that in the cosmic lottery of parents, my sister and I hit the jackpot — Mom and Dad  are kind, wise, ethical people whose love and counsel have helped me through more than one rocky period in my life.    I think I always took that for granted when I was younger, but it’s fascinating how, as an adult, I have learned to think about them more consciously, to trace all the ways that their lived example has shaped and influenced me.  And that in turn makes me think about the ways that I am influencing my own kids.

In the spirit of that, I wanted to share this great article  called Go Ahead: Write About Your Parents, Again.  It’s by Tarn Wilson, whose beautiful guest-post about her mom was featured on this very blog last fall.  It’s geared towards writers, but there’s wisdom for everyone here because it really explores the impact of our parents on our lives.  One great quote:

All cultures have their origin stories, their creation myths, which reveal their foundational beliefs about human nature, good and evil, power hierarchies, and the qualities of a hero. Our family story is our personal origin story. When we examine it, we see more clearly the assumptions—faulty or inspired—by which we live.

If you blog or journal or write about your life, it’s totally worth a read.   If you are a parent — or if you’ve ever had a parent — it’s also totally worth a read.   Guaranteed to get you thinking.

The Mother and Sister of the Artist by Berthe Morisot

Mary as a model for writing, and living



Intriguing words from the writer Madeline L’Engle:

What would have happened to Mary (and to all the rest of us) if she had said No to the angel?  She was free to do so.  But she said Yes.  She was obedient, and the artist, too, must be obedient to the command of the work, knowing that this involves long hours of research, of throwing out a month’s work, of going back to the beginning, or, sometimes, scrapping the whole thing.  The artist, like Mary, is free to say No.  When a shoddy novel is published the writer is rejecting the obedient response, taking the easy way out. But when the words mean even more than the writer knew they meant, then the writer has been listening.  And sometimes when we listen, we are led into places we do not expect, into adventures we do not always understand.

– Excerpt from Madeline L’Engle: Herself

P.S.  Just in time for the Feast of the Assumption, Amazon has posted the “Look Inside this Book” feature for Mary and Me.  Have you read it yet?  No?  Take a peek!

Sereni-tea

Are you a coffee person, or a tea person?

I’m both, honestly.   I love coffee for its delicious darkness (especially when it’s really strong, the way my husband makes it).  It is the fuel that gets me going in the morning, the brew that gets me out of the murkiness of sleep and into some semblance of focused coherence.   And there are times when I’ll drink it in the evening, too.  On those rare occasions when Scott and I escape for a dinner date, there is nothing like a nice decaf cappuccino to round out the meal.

But for the most part, if it’s not the morning, then I’m drinking tea.    This is especially true when I’m writing.  There is just something about a cup of tea, its steam rising up like incense, that gets my creativity going.  Perhaps this is because drinking tea is, by its very nature, a slow and meditative process; you have to sip it, not gulp it, and that leisurely pace is very conductive to writing. Perhaps it’s because I associate tea with the English authors I’ve loved ever since I was a child, when I devoured The Secret Garden and the books of Noel Streatfeild.  Tea has an emotional resonance for me, reminding me of those stories where characters routinely stopped for the afternoon ritual around the pot.  And there is something innately soothing about dunking a teabag in a cup of hot water, seeing the dark flavor spread like ink.   It’s very familiar, but still beautiful.

So what about you?  Are you a coffee person, a tea person, or a hybrid like me? Is there some other beverage that fuels your creativity or your quiet hours?

The writer’s notebook

Blame the nuns at my elementary school, but I have a passion for copybooks. After all those years of using them for religion notes and sentence diagramming, they feel like home to me.  And when I have some time to scribble freely, they are my go-to notebook of choice.

There’s a lot to be said for these books.  They don’t have those annoying metal spirals that get flattened and then stick out at crazy angles, catching on fabric and tender forearms.  Their pages are lined, which helps me keep my terrible handwriting somewhat in check.  (My penmanship is one area in which the  nuns did not leave a lasting legacy.)  The copybooks naturally lie flat, so I don’t have to lean an  elbow on the pages as I write.  And I find they are just the right size to tuck into a bag — they’ll even fit into my purse.

And though I sometimes write directly onto my laptop, there is no denying that my writer is often looser, more daring and more edgy, when I am filling pages in my copybook.   When it doesn’t look like something that I will send to an editor, I’m freer to write what Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, memorably calls “shitty first drafts.”   It is a fact of writing that sometimes you have to write a lot of dross to get to the really good ideas.  It is also a fact, at least in my world, that it is pretty easy to get obsessed on the details when I’m writing my first draft on the computer.  I go back and re-read and polish endlessly, and the writing gets a little stunted from too much overattention too early in the game.  Far better to let my thoughts and handwriting go wild and loopy, and then to stop and come up for air and look back and go, “Wow.  Some of that is actually good.”

Plus the nice thing about these notebooks is that they invite decoration.  Over the last few years, I’ve taken to gluing pictures onto the covers.  It’s a great way to use pretty cards that people send me, cards that I want to keep but don’t want to stick into a box somewhere.  Since I am a visual learner, I can often remember the contents of a notebook by what’s on the cover.  (“The red cover with the Nancy Drew postcards on it — that was when I was back at school after Matthew’s birth.”)  These copybooks work, on lots of levels.

But maybe that’s just me, with my own Catholic school background and unruly handwriting and random assortment of cute cards.   Every author is unique, and in the end, the best writer’s tools are the ones that get you writing … and that keep you writing.

The five hundredth post!

Holy cow … this is my five hundredth blog post.    I can’t believe I’ve written that many.  I was pregnant with Lukey when I started way back in 2008, and now he is a strapping two-year-old.  Matthew, who was barely talking in complete sentences,  is now a four-year-old who can write his name.  And me?  Well, I’m  a little grayer, a little more wrinkly, and a little bit wiser.  Life does that.

People often ask how I find time to write.  I always answer that it’s my outlet, my sanity-saver.  And really, no matter how busy you are, you make time for the things you love and need, don’t you?    I love writing because it gives me a chance to play with words, my artistic medium of choice.    And I need writing because in a life that is so often oriented towards the needs of others, it reminds me that I still exist as my own person.  It sounds strange to write that, because I don’t in the least begrudge my kids, my husband, or my students for the time I give them.  But writing affirms that my inner life, the life that ponders and questions and reflects, is still a vital and valuable part of this person called Ginny.

Anyhow.

As a way of celebrating this milestone, I went back through the archives, and plucked five posts (one from each hundred)  to share here.  I’ll call it a “Mary and Me Retrospective,” which makes it sound terribly grand.  At any rate, these are five posts that I’ve always kind of liked, and which I think give a pretty good sense of what this blog has been for me for the past two and a half years.

And to all those who are reading this: thank you for doing so.  A blog without readers is a journal, and though there is nothing wrong with journals, I’m always gratifed that people find my random musings interesting enough to read, ponder, and comment on.   I hope you enjoy reading the next five hundred, too.

Impractical Beauty (or why it is okay to sacrifice prime San Francisco parking space for a good cause)

* On how my toddler learned to Reach Out and Touch Someone

* Read all about A Teaching Mom’s Life, By the Numbers

* September is a really big month for me. Here’s why.

* A football player? Me?

The reality of writing

Sometimes, the act of writing is exhilarating.  It’s like running through a meadow with the wind in your hair, wild and weightless.

And sometimes, it’s like unpacking an entire moving van and hauling the boxes to a fourth-floor walkup.

That’s why I really like these words  from the writer Madeline L’Engle:

For me, to work on a book is the same thing as to pray.  Both involve that unpopular word discipline. If an artist works only when he feels like it, he’s not  apt to build up a body of work.  Inspiration comes far more often during work, as things get rolling, than before you sit at the typewriter.  This is because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen.  To listen to the work and to go where it tells you to go. And this involves faith.  Letting go of your own control and having faith in something you do not control.

To pray is also to listen.  To move through my own chattering to God, to get beyond those  words to that place where I can be silent and then listen to what God may have to say.

Excerpt from Madeline L’Engle, Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life, edited by Carole F. Chase.

“Why?” and the writing life

So Matthew, who is three and a half, is very full of questions these days.   Actually, let me be more precise: he’s very full of one question these days.

Allow me to share a recent conversation between my eldest son and me.  It took place the other night, as I was getting Lukey ready for bed.

ME: So you’re going to Grandma and Grandpa’s tomorrow, Matthew.

MATTHEW: Will Megan and Mandy [his beloved cousins, who were visiting last week] be there, too?

ME: No, they had to go back to their house.

MATTHEW: Why?

ME: So they could go to school.

MATTHEW: Why?

ME: So they could get an education and learn things.

MATTHEW: Why?

ME: So they can be successful in life.

MATTHEW: Why?

ME: Well … because usually people who are successful are happy. [Here I start to doubt my own answer.  Everyone knows that many CEOs lead hollow, unfulfilled lives.  And how do you define success, anyhow?  Why does my mind automatically fly to thoughts of money? ]  And Matthew, we all want to be happy.

MATTHEW: Why?

ME: Because we do.

MATTHEW: Why?

ME: I don’t know.

Many of our conversations now end this way.  “I don’t know” is the only answer that stops the “whys” in their tracks.   It gets pretty wearying, this kind of conversation.  It’s a bit humbling, too.  Earlier today, passing by a dry fountain, Matthew asked why the water wasn’t running.  My answer sparked another string of “whys,”  ultimately leading me to  the cold hard realization that I have no idea why, exactly, water is necessary for life.   I really don’t.  Does it keep our cells oiled, or something?  Put me in Bio 101, and I’d clearly fail.

Here’s the thing, though: Matthew’s repetitive but earnest line of questioning may be wearying to Ginny the Mom. To Ginny the Writer, though, it’s pure gold.   Frankly, what he’ s doing is exactly what I should be doing.  Too often, I find myself going on to another topic or another idea before I’ve fully explored the depths of the first.  If I’m writing about something spiritual, it’s worth it to keep going down, down, down, into whatever it is that I’m really, truly feeling.  That’s where the really good stuff is.  That’s where the surprise, the honesty, the revelation is.  And I like reading pieces by writers who don’t rush on to the next idea but who linger, who take time to ask the hard questions.

As a friend of mine once said about the author of a bestselling memoir that he didn’t really like: “She snorkels when she should be plumbing the depths.”  In my next book or writing project, whatever it is, I want to be plumbing the depths.  I want to be way down there near the ocean floor, in the strange and mysterious waters, where the wild and astonishing and crazily beautiful fishies are.

Thank you, Matthew, for reminding me.

Is the letter dead?

Do you write letters anymore?  I mean honest-to-goodness letters on paper, that you put into an envelope and send children-r12with a stamp?

I’ve been thinking about this lately, because  I’m reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. As many of you know, it’s a novel told in letters.  (It’s also UTTERLY delightful, and I recommend reading it, even though it took me about a week to learn the title.)

Unlike the charming characters in the book, most of my communication these days takes place by email.    I write letters by hands less and less frequently these days.  Usually, when I do, they are either 1) thank -you notes or 2) epistles to my friend in Paris.  Those missives are pretty infrequent, though, which is totally my fault; it takes a certain amount of energy for me to scour off my rusty French and write her.

But I love it when I get a letter in the mail.  It’s so tangible and timeless.  It makes me feel special, as if the person sending it feels I am worthy of the effort involved in finding stationery, looking up my address, and affixing a stamp.  It IS different from electronic communication, in lots of ways.  Gosh, there’s so much more to say about this.  I think I feel an article coming on.

But I’m curious about your written communication habits, too.  Do you write letters anymore?  If not, why not?  And do you ever miss them?

What to do when you don’t feel like writing

1. Blue hydrangeas
2.  Sangria
3.  Vintage holycards
4. “Cheers” reruns
5.  Lazy weekend mornings
6.  When my boys laugh in tandem
7. Bookstore browsing
8. BBC miniseries where people live in huge estates with names like “Henleigh Hall”
9. Otsego Lake
10. “A Little Respect” by Erasure

IMG_4333Three years ago, I read Julia Cameron’s book The Right to Write.  It had a fabulous exercise: Number a sheet of paper from 1 to 100 and write down 100 things that you love.

At first, it seemed daunting.  Then, as I went along, it was amazing how one idea led to another.  And most of all: it was FUN.

I still make lists from time to time.  It works well for those days when I want to write but just feel … well … sort of blah on the creativity front.  It’s freeing because all I have to do is write down ideas; there’s no pressure to make those ideas sound good.  And, of course, I know that somewhere below the surface, this enormously fun exercise is planting the seeds of future articles,  blog postings … even books.

Try it.  I think you’ll like it.