I’ve been waking up in the mornings and ignoring my phone. Heating my water for tea and looking out the window instead. I started doing this before Christmas, but in the past week it’s been saving me, as I’m sure you understand. Austin Kleon made me do it. I wrote last month about listening to the new audio version of his three books; in one he shared his practice of writing morning pages without first looking at his phone.
“The first necessity is to claim the morning, which is mine.”–Patricia Lockwood.
I’ve written morning pages in the past. If you don’t know morning pages, they come from Julia Cameron’s creativity classic The Artist’s Way. Three pages of first-thing-in-the-morning stream-of-consciousness writing. I did morning pages way back in 1992, when Cameron’s book was first published and I needed its encouragement to claim my voice as a writer. And I’ve done them at other points in time since, but never for long.
Something is different this time. And that something is my phone, sitting on the kitchen counter, ignored.
“If I look at a phone first thing the phone becomes my brain for the day. If I don’t look out a window right away the day will be windowless, it will be like one of those dreams where you crawl into a series of smaller and smaller boxes, or like an escape room that contains everyone and that you’ll pay twelve hours of your life for.” –more Lockwood, from the same essay
My habit while heating water for tea was to look at my phone—at email, at the news. And then I’d take the phone to my desk and keep going because my mind was just blinking its eyes, still moving in slow motion, so I’d keep at it, keep scrolling, telling myself I was doing the noble thing, keeping up with the news.
I don’t need to tell you, though, that the news right now is no small distraction.
On his blog, Austin–I’m calling him Austin because he seems like a friend now–shared the different ways he does his own morning pages. He inspired me to use my former email/news-time not just for three morning pages, but also to catch up on the previous day’s record in my Lynda Barry-esque “four-minute diary.” (Which always takes me much more than four minutes.) I’ve kept this practice for a few years, after reading Barry’s mind-igniting Syllabus, but I’ve been spotty about it. No more! Thanks to my ignored phone, I’m getting to it every morning.
And also later in the day. Because once you start something, you keep going.
The magic in all this is that I’m paying better attention to my life. And I’m making connections, which is what keeps my brain electrified, its happiest state. And eventually I get to the news and email, but by that point my electrified brain swipes and deletes like a toddler because a much more interesting party is happening in my own head.
For instance. The Patricia Lockwood essay, quoted from above, which I loved when it came out and revisited last week because my friend Molly–again Molly, my fellow lover of connections–wrote about reading Lockwood’s Priestdaddy on Instagram and I leapt on her Lockwood-is-weird-and-wonderful ship and recommended this essay and then went and read it again and there was Lockwood in the morning, also ignoring her phone.
And then I was back to Austin again, because his weekly newsletter is one of the best things to come out of 2020 for me–subscribe!–and he linked a post from just last week about not letting anyone tell you what to read, which happens to mention Lockwood and how she didn’t go to college, which he thinks is probably why she’s one of “the more original voices out there.” (Original, an understatement. She’s hilarious and lyrical and irreverent and observant and absurd and not-for-everyone and she writes like no one else, some of the most poetic endings I’ve ever come across, endings that have me underlining line after line, knowing I’ll come back to them when I attempt to write my own endings.)
And in the same newsletter Austin linked his timely post on Friday, How much do we tell our kids? about being a parent in this country right now. And it’s so good–please go read it if you have young kids–but even better because he references John! Holt! who I’ve been rereading a lot these days as I revise the first chapters of my memoir and drift back in time, to when I didn’t know a single homeschooler, to when John Holt was an encouraging voice in my head, nudging my intuition along, telling me homeschooling was a good idea.
I only discovered this in December: Holt encouraged Austin and his wife last spring, too, when they pulled their boys out of “zoom school” to give them more freedom in their learning. Austin started reading Holt’s newsletters from more than 40 years ago, which I read more than 20 years ago, and he tweeted each day some good bit discovered there. He wrote about it here, on a day that happened to be my birthday, and it all seems like some collective magic, parents still reading John Holt, my sources of inspiration all talking to each other, indirectly, pinging in the ether, which I’m noticing because I’m paying attention, writing it down, starting my day right, my phone on the kitchen counter, ignored.
* * *
more inspiration from this past month: (I’m back after just a month! See: phone ignored–at least first thing in the morning)
- This powerful essay by Mitchell S. Jackson, which Jackson reads for This American Life. An incredible, wrenching portrait of Ahmaud Arbery. I listened while out walking, not anticipating that it would make me cry in public, though I’d already read the original essay in Runner’s World months before. Jackson revised it for This American Life–exploring both versions is an interesting study in craft. (Speaking of craft, in the fall I took an online course with Jackson called Voice: The Never-Ending Pursuit of Eloquence with StoryStudio Chicago and it was superb. Sent me down a rabbit hole of syntax and language study. Follow him on Instagram and if he offers the class again, take it!)
- And speaking of Instagram, have you discovered Taylor Swift as Books? Writer Amy Lorraine Long pairs book covers with photos of Taylor Swift and you have to have to check out the genius. Partly for the art of the twinning but also for the savvy book taste. I’m smitten, especially as a very late convert to Swiftie-ism.
- Another essay! Because you can always count on essays here. And another that you can hear read by the author! This one by Erica Trabold, a lyrical swirling of Swedish reality TV and family inheritance and cancer and questions. (I also loved Trabold’s essay collection Five Plots, especially “A List of Concerns.”)
- This month’s listen-on-replay-while-I-write: orchestral covers of Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift and others from the soundtrack of Netflix’s Bridgerton. My girl is still home and we guzzled down the series, though usually, snootily, I prefer essays and memoirs to romance novels. But this one’s an exception, because the Shondaland adaptation is wicked fun, and I love how they kept the romance novel angle in the telling, and I’ve been having this book series pushed on me for years, even though I’m a book snot, because the author, Julia Quinn, is the sister of one of my besties since college. (And did that bestie found the company that designed Julia’s website? Why yes, she did. She’s brilliant. One of the smartest people I know.)
I’d love to know: Are you managing to stay inspired and distracted from the chaos? What’s working for you right now?
“ And I’m making connections, which is what keeps my brain electrified, its happiest state.” This. Exactly this. I love this state where fireworks are exploding all over my head! One practice that I’m loving right now, which unfortunately involves my phone, is the NYT Spelling Bee game. I’ve been playing it daily via the email newsletter, but I just discovered the other day that I can go straight to the game on the web! If I don’t solve the word puzzle right away, I write down the letters at play and work with them until I crack the pangram. It is the strangest joy when I get it!
I’m going to subscribe to Austin’s newsletter. My friend Jane, who lives across the bay from you, recently reminded me about his brilliance. I don’t know why I haven’t been following him on Instagram all this time! And let’s make a date to talk about our mutual friend Patricia. I listened to an interview with her on the Longform Podcast, and the interviewer seemed to put her down for her lack of degree and her unusual path to success via Twitter. I have many thoughts about this! I’m so looking forward to her next book, especially after reading the excerpt in The New Yorker.
Well, I knew that one reader would *get* my electrified brain–and that reader is YOU! We’ve talked about this–I love seeing all the connections your brain makes. And I’m not anti-phone; I’m just loving not picking it up first thing. That’s working really well for me. (Though the NYT daily newsletter was one of the things I was starting my day with, and now that I read it later, I don’t always make it to the bottom, which is where the puzzles are–haha! But I will have to try the Spelling Bee.)
I think you’ll love Austin’s newsletter, precisely because his inspirations are so sprawling and I know you’ll dig seeing all the connections HE makes. He’s often inspired by random things I’ve been inspired by–Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and the Carpenter was on his list of top books last year along with Holt’s newsletters, which made me giddy as the philosophy of that book aligns so well with the story I’m telling in my memoir. And phooey to the interviewer on the Longform Podcast–though I want to listen to any long interview with Lockwood! I think Austin is right–her self-designed education is probably a big part of her unique literary voice. Her next book was excerpted in The New Yorker?! I have so much to read! Which I always do, after we talk or write. Which is what I like about you. (Cue up The Romantics…or you’re probably too young to remember that song…ha.) xo!
Hey! I so enjoyed reading this and feel inspired and heartened by all you are saying here. I did morning pages and worked my way through The Artist’s Way back around 1995, and I recently bought Cameron’s It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again and have been thinking about starting a morning pages practice. It’s been hard for me lately to feel that creativity is a practice worth cultivating, with everything going on in the world—I know you know this, based on other conversations we’ve had. But I also feel so depleted, foggy, and unhappy when my brain isn’t making new connections and discoveries in the ways you’re describing here. I want to read everything you mentioned here and commit to claiming the morning for myself the way you have. Thank you for the wonderful post!
Carrie! I miss you! I owe you an email to get our pings started back up again. Everything went out the window with the kids being home–though not my morning pages, which is now a practice I’m holding on to! I get what you’re saying about feeling that creativity can feel like the wrong thing to focus on when the world is in flames around you, but I’m coming to see how I’m more engaged, more able to focus on what’s truly important when I start my days this way. That feeling of depletion you talk about seems, for me, like a direct reaction to starting my mornings off with news and emails. It’s so much easier to put that stuff into perspective when I start my day off right.
I didn’t know about that other Cameron book–sounds intriguing and like good inspiration for a new year. Claim your mornings, my friend! And let’s get back to pinging. xo.
Those Swift-as-Books: brilliant. I am definitely going to check out the orchestral versions of those singers mentioned above (and ay yi yi, the third person in 24 hours to recommend Bridgerton. I’ll get to it already!)
One of my favorite things from 2020 as it pertains to writing/reading has been newsletters. One of my favorites is Gracy Olmstead’s “Granola”. It’s *fantastic*. I think it actually slows my breathing when I read it. You can see an example here: https://mailchi.mp/5253d187d15d/january-2021?e=8a076478de
The other? My hot water bottle with sweater. Boiling the water, pouring it in, and snuggling with something warm and comforting for hours at a time has been my go-to Fall + Winter “best practices”. It started when I had a muscle ache/injury, and it’s continued with my kids now wanting one at night near their feet in bed.
Hello Sarah! Please forgive my belated response. I’m interested in newsletters too! I’m trying to think about how to make them work with a blog–because I don’t want to abandon my blog. I’m thinking my blog will start looking more like a newsletter… “Granola” looks lovely–a nice model to study.
And your hot water bottle recommendation reminds me that a dear friend made me a felted hot water bottle cover–and I need to get a hot water bottle to put inside! Especially because I’ve been seeing my parents outdoors during the pandemic, and a hot water bottle would be so nice for my dad, who gets cold. And an evening perk for me too, even here in California. 🙂
Thank you so much for taking the time to say hi and share. xo.