Monitoring Your Time

Journal-Writing Workshop for Hermosa Arts and History Association 2019--3-16

I mentioned this exercise in a journal-writing workshop I just taught for the Hermosa Arts and History Association (HAHA) on Saturday, March 16th, 2019.

If you take one week to monitor where you spend your time you will discover what your current priorities are, even if they are unintentional. Once you realize where your time is going, you can choose your priorities and make changes in how you spend your time so that you can accomplish your goals– in this case, writing goals.

Here’s how:

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The Time Monitor

Create a graph of an entire week, breaking days into increments of 15 minutes. To be precise, you will need 48 lines to record what you do each 15-minute segment of a 12-hour day [96 lines for a 24-hour day]. You can shorten the graph by using larger blocks of time for activities that don’t vary, such as sleeping and going to work.

Along the side of each page, use a separate line to record each category of activity on which you spend time: sleeping, eating, work. Add other personal major categories: … cooking, other employment, television, walking. Leave some blank lines to add things you don’t think of at first. I suggest you devote a single page to each day, and staple the pages together to form a handy-sized booklet.

Yes, this is a lot of work. It’s worth your time.

Time Monitor* Schedule the things you must do first: work, appointments fixed in advance. Then add daily activities like sleeping and eating; be realistic.

* Include errand time. Little things can destroy any schedule if you let them crop up in the middle of other jobs. Once you set aside time to do laundry, get groceries, ONLY do those jobs at that time. DO NOT allow yourself to leap up in the middle of a poem to run to the store. Tell your family, “Sorry we don’t have whipped cream, but we were out (maybe someone used the last of it without writing it on the grocery list?) and I was working, so I couldn’t go get it.”

* Schedule enjoyment, and choose what it will be. Rather than sit blindly in front of the TV, decide you’ll take a walk during that time, refreshing mind and body. Remember, physical activity is necessary for health, and many writers say it helps break writer’s block.

* After you have included everything above, then set goals for your writing time; be realistic; don’t schedule yourself for 8 hours of writing beginning at 9 p.m. Friday.

Carry the chart with you for one week. The time spent filling it out will be worthwhile in helping you create a realistic plan for scheduling writing time along with your other responsibilities.

How to Benefit from the Time Monitor

At the end of the week, add up the time you spent doing each item. These figures will tell you how you really spent your time during that week. This means that, for that week, the categories that took the most time were your REAL priorities– no matter what you might have told yourself or others.

Time Monitor with notesIf you say writing is a priority, but at the end of a week have spent more time baking cookies, then you know you have to work hard to change your priorities by altering your mindset as well as your actions.

Analyze how you might switch your priorities. Keep in mind your own tendencies, and don’t try to change too much too soon. That is, don’t immediately say, “Well, NEXT week I’ll spend 5 hours a day writing.” Work up to it. Figure out a new schedule, changing what you can. Maybe this week you will deduct a half an hour from one activity and add that time to something that has a higher priority. Move step by step. Don’t try to change everything at once. Follow the new schedule for a week or two, until you feel you have made improvements or until you’ve discovered what changes you still need to make.

Then make out a new time monitor, and keep track again for a week, so you can see where you have succeeded, as well as where you have failed. Give yourself rewards for what you have done well. Don’t beat yourself up with guilt. Keep working on it, and maybe once a month or so, do the time monitor again so you can see where you are improving or not.

Suggestions to Consider While Changing Your Priorities

* Try doing the jobs that are most boring first while you’re fresh, so you can get them out of the way efficiently.

* Avoid marathons sessions doing anything. Don’t try to write eight hours a day at first. When you get organized and have worked up to it, you may be able to do that once in awhile. But if you try it and “fail,” you may have a harder time convincing yourself you can, and want to, do it.

* Figure out your best time of day and write then, so you can be more forgiving of interruptions later.

* Carry your journal so you can use time spent waiting for appointments, at traffic lights, for children after school. Some people think “Five minutes isn’t long enough to do anything,” but if you’ve been thinking about or working on a poem or story, it can be time enough to come up with the solution to a problem, to outline an article, to brainstorm new ideas. Write grocery lists while waiting so you don’t have to shop more than once a week. Use waiting time to think of little jobs you can accomplish during waiting time! Often if I’ve been struggling with a particular problem, I find the solution when I leave the computer to do something else that requires little thought–washing the dishes, say, or walking dogs.

* Write regularly in one place. Obviously, one advantage is that your working materials, such as reference books, paper, pens, are together. But also your body knows where you are. When you use the same place to work every day, your body and mind become trained, sensing that it’s time to work when you are in that place, allowing you to focus more quickly and more intensely. For that reason, don’t write where you sleep– where your body and mind are trained to slow down– or vice versa; don’t eat or watch TV in your writing place.

* A ritual may be useful: perhaps looking at a particular quotation, or sharpening your pencils, or prayer might help you focus, to tell you, “OK, it’s time to stop thinking about dinner and start thinking about writing.” Anything that works for you is acceptable.

* Don’t get too comfortable. Especially if writing is new to you and you haven’t created your own disciplines and habits, trying to write while leaning against pillows on the bed can make you associate writing with drowsiness, for example. Learning– as writing is– requires energy.

* Pay attention to your attention span. Breaks in concentration may be caused by internal interruptions, your own thoughts jumping in. These thoughts may be related to what you are doing– your subconscious may be trying to give you information. Stop and examine whatever seems to be causing the gaps in concentration. If it’s not relevant, make a note to deal with it later and go on.

* Avoid noise distractions. I can’t write with the radio on– the ads drive me crazy or distract my thinking. But I do have particular music on tape or CD that seems to help me shut out other noises– traffic, for example– and which I can play while working without interruption. In my case, I don’t play music with song lyrics, because my word-oriented mind follows the lyrics instead of what I’m trying to write.

* Notice how others misuse your time. Be aware of people who call you or enter your writing space even after you’ve asked them not to. If certain friends or relatives constantly interrupt, ask yourself what this means. Are they consciously sabotaging your work? Do they not understand your need for solitude? You may have to send a clear message. Sometimes they really don’t know what kind of concentration is required by thinking. Start with gentle reminders.

In order to relieve yourself of the responsibility for making a decision about every potential interruption, try putting a humorous sign on the door:

Great American Novel Disrupted - sign

A painter in the Rockies hangs this sign on the chain that closes off the road to her house when she is in a painting or thinking mode:

“I am working today and am not receiving visitors. I know you think this doesn’t mean you because you are my banker, agent, or best friend. But it does.”

Another sculptor hangs this sign on her gate:

“Do not disturb unless I’ve won the lottery
or Jesus has been sighted on the Old Taos Highway.”

— from Women Who Run with the Wolves
Clarissa Pinkola Estés (NY: Ballantine, 1992)

If these gentler messages don’t work, discuss the problem with that person. Rather than being negative– “You are rude, you are ruining my work”– try putting the message more positively: “I am having trouble with what I’m working on and I need your help in order to concentrate. Can you keep me from being interrupted for [insert number of your choice here] hours? ”

Asking for help allows people to show their innate generosity, and they are less liable to resent it than if you lecture. Can you find a way to compliment someone– your mother, for example– while asking her not to interrupt: “Mom, you were such a help to me when I was studying French. I need you to help me now that I’ve created this writing job for myself.” Pat yourself on the back with relatives and friends; they have no idea how hard what you do is, so remark on it to them, not as a boast, but because you know they will be happy to know you finished writing five feature stories and mailed them the same day.

* Remember, writing is a job. As you begin to get organized, keep adding up the hours you spend on it, and if your goal is to be a full-time writer, aim for a 40-hour week. (And DON’T estimate what your wages are until you have prepared yourself for the shock of how far below minimum wage most writing jobs are!)

Grafton rises at 5:58 a.m. to walk on the beach for three miles before repairing to her office at 9 o’clock to begin the day’s writing. “I don’t wear pantyhose and heels, but I treat this as a job and I wear makeup. I don’t work in my pajamas.”

interview with Sue Grafton, mystery writer
Publishers Weekly, 4/20/98, p. 40-41.

* Treat the telephone as just another tool. Remember that you are in control of this machine; you pay for it. It’s hard not to answer if you hear it ring, but try not to be a telephone victim. Consider various alternatives– turning the ringer off and using answering machine or voice messaging. Again, if you have made yourself available to everyone by answering at all hours, you will need to make changes slowly. Two mornings a week, for example, you might replace your regular message with one like this: “I’m working against a deadline, so please leave a message and I’ll return your call as soon as I can.” The deadline might be your own– “I’m going to finish this today”– but use of the word implies someone is paying you, guaranteeing callers will take it more seriously.

* Learn to say “No,” a simple word that is a time saver and skill for managing your life more effectively– not rude behavior. Tell the person making a request that you have other commitments right now, and that you don’t like to take on work you can’t be sure of finishing without jeopardizing other obligations.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Organizing Your Time

* What little task can I finish in five minutes?

Maybe you can brainstorm a bit on that poem idea you had while doing the dishes. Or record the day’s writing expenses in your accounts. Doing small jobs trims a little of your list of jobs, and gives you positive feedback: “I am making progress.”

* Am I beating myself up?

Are you being too hard on yourself? Lighten up– berating yourself only wastes time you could spend on the job. Take a few deep breaths and get on with it.

I copy this combination breathing exercise and prayer into the front of each of my journals and repeat it as needed. I highly recommend going through this once if you are about to get into an argument. Rarely do I get through a day without using it once!

(Breathing in)
I am arriving;
(breathing out)
I am home.
(Breathing in)
I am here;
(breathing out)
this is now.
(Breathing in)
I am rooted;
(breathing out)
I am free.
(Breathing in)
I dwell
(breathing out)
in the ultimate.

–Buddhist gatha, prayer

Little Buddha on the Prairie

* Is this a piano?

Carpenters who build rough framework for buildings have a saying they use when they bend a nail or dent a two-by-four: “Well, this ain’t no piano.” If what you’re doing does not require perfection, don’t ask too much of yourself. On the other hand, being organized encourages you to take enough time to do each job well– doing it poorly may only mean you have to do it over.

Accept lower standards where they are appropriate, reducing your tension, and saving your energy for the times it IS a piano. Your research notes, for example, don’t have to be written in full sentences or be grammatically correct.

* How did I waste time today?

As you build better work habits, ask yourself each evening how you sabotaged yourself during the day. Once you note things you do that kill time, you’re more likely to stop yourself in the act next time. “Well, I’d love to visit some more, but I spent so much time having coffee with you yesterday that I didn’t finish this project.”

* Do you spend large blocks of time doing a single task or leapfrog from job to job?

Each of us must find our own best work method, but if you bounce from one task to another, you may never quite finish anything, growing more frustrated and scattered as you survey the undone jobs sitting around you. Blocking out a specific period of time to accomplish a single task also allows you to notify people who interrupt– that deadline, you know– and at the end of the job to feel a sense of accomplishment.

* How many of the jobs on your time chart are things you really WANT to do? Can you cut any of them out?

Using what you have learned from the time chart and your analysis, set up a schedule reflecting how you WANT to spend your time. Remember, as soon as you get serious about writing, it becomes real work and you will try to weasel out of it.

* How many of the categories on your time chart are really unavoidable? Can anyone else help you? Are all of those jobs really your responsibility? Did you take over doing dishes because your ten-year-old or your husband didn’t do them QUITE to your satisfaction? Maybe you should lower your standards, or train someone else how to do the job well.

The investment of time will pay off– often our companions have no idea how much time we spend in household chores. Your family should support you by helping with work that benefits everyone. Women often do household tasks like cooking, washing dishes, washing, folding and ironing clothes, cleaning, taking out the garbage. Yet everyone in the household eats, creating dirty dishes, wears clothes, and creates dirt and garbage. Spreading these tasks among family members can be viewed as an educational program, helping each member of the family understand the responsibilities of living. This educational program is especially useful to children, who will grow up and have their own homes where they are responsible for all these jobs.

writing and cooking -- does multi-tasking work

* Spend five minutes brainstorming, scribbling ways in which you waste time. Limit yourself to five minutes. Think about the list. Put an X by the two time-wasting habits you use most often. Write down why you think they are so attractive to you– what rewards do they offer you? What is the cost of wasting time in those ways? Review the list. Which two or three time-wasting activities can you give up tomorrow? This week? Repeat this exercise as needed.

* Would I pay myself for what I’m doing right now? A good question during the work day, particularly if you’ve just taken your third popcorn break.

An Exercise That Refreshes and Recharges

The Roaring Lion

Lock the door if you are easily embarrassed. Sit on the floor, cross-legged– with each ankle on the opposite knee if you can manage it. Shoulders back, arms extended, hanging loosely over your knees. Take a deep breath, exhale hard through your mouth. As you exhale, open your eyes wide and stick out your tongue. Spread your fingers apart and stretch your arms down. Hold the pose without inhaling for a few seconds. Close your mouth. Inhale deeply through your nostrils. Breathe out slowly through your nostrils. Relax. Repeat three times.

The work of art which I do not make, none other will ever make it.
–Simone Weil
The Notebooks of Simone Weil, 1951

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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(This blog was originally published on my website’s blog page on April 18, 2012)

 

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Book Remarks: Prairie Fires

George Catlin prairie meadows burning 1832 - Smithsonian American Art Museum

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Caroline Fraser. (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co., 2017).

From the ironic epigraph to the 626th page, this monumental work held my attention. I’d hoped to skim a few pages, since I’ve read all of Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books and know a great deal about her. Caroline Fraser’s work provides not only a deep study of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, but a fuller understanding of the entire prairie pioneer experience in details supported by 2,074 footnotes.

The ironic epigraph?

“The prairie burning form some of the most beautiful scenes that are to be witnessed in this country,” said George Catlin.

Just as the destruction of a prairie is a beautiful sight to some, the book sweeps back and forth between the splendor of the prairie and its harshness, between Laura’s writing and the realities of the life she disguised.

book Prairie Fires Caroline Fraser from author websiteBecause Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were so widely read, as well as the subject of a TV series, we may think we know her. But as Fraser says, “Her story, spanning ninety years, is broader, stranger, and darker than her books, containing whole chapters she could scarcely bear to examine.” Fraser shows us the pioneer woman and writer as part of a deeper history which includes the Homestead Act, the spread of railroads and the closing of the frontier.

Fraser notes that, “Across every inhabited continent, just as on the Great Plains, mass land clearing and wheat farming has led to significant drying, exhausting the soils and throwing fragile ecosystems out of whack. Combined with the market forces controlling distribution, human-caused climate change joined with natural weather patterns to wreak absolute havoc.”

During the 1930’s, the Great Plains were known as the Dust Bowl because of severe dust storms as a result of the foolish plowing of two and a half million acres of native grassland, destroying an ecosystem that had flourished for millennia. This horrendous phenomenon was no act of a god or freak natural accident. “It was one of the worst man-made ecological disasters of all time,” Fraser says. “Farmers had done this, and they had done it to themselves.” We’ve known for centuries that plowing native grassland is destructive, but then and now, plowing is misguidedly encouraged by the government.

 

Oddly, while discussing grassland destruction by farming in depth, Fraser never distinguishes between the tallgrass prairie where Laura’s families lived, and the shortgrass prairie farther west.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s farming families, memorialized in the Little House books, were part of what Fraser terms a “game of chance,” with the prairie as the casino. While the published version of Laura’s story has been popular in many cultures, Fraser tells us how she really lived. Laura wrote that “The commonplace, home work of women is the very foundation upon which every rests,” and her own writings reflected that view. Though she often acted courageously, and supported the education and independence of women, she was discouraging on the subject of woman suffrage.

book Laura Wilder Little House series

I was surprised to learn in this book how thoroughly Laura’s daughter Rose dominated the creation of the Little House books. Rose’s dishonesty and distortion of the writer’s life were aided by a profit-seeking shyster. History conspired in helping make the books popular: the tales of rural steadfastness were a heart-warming antidote to the Vietnam era. The TV show inspired by the books was even more misleading and simplistic, but audiences loved them. Teachers in South Dakota even read the books in classrooms, ironically at the same time as we began to come to terms with our treatment of our Lakota population.

In spite of all that is wrong about the books, and in spite of the profiteering that warped the way they were published, they endure because they show us over and over Laura Ingalls Wilder’s belief in the value of honesty, endurance, and of making the best of what we have.

If I decide to keep one of the hundreds of books I buy a year, I write in the back the page on which I made that decision. I chose this book because Fraser quotes Wilder in a speech as saying, “All I have told is true, but it is not the whole truth.” She acknowledged what every writer knows, and every reader should realize: that no matter how hard we may try, and how strenuously we may declare we have succeeded, we can never tell the whole truth.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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This book review was first published by Story Circle Network book reviews in September, 2018. See: http://www.storycirclebookreviews.org/

Caroline Fraser’s website may be found here
https://prairiefiresbook.com/

The photo of her book with flowers was borrowed from her website.

Learn about American artist and author George Catlin (1796-1872)
https://www.georgecatlin.org/

Catlin’s painting, “Prairie Meadows Burning” (1832, Smithsonian American Art Museum), is used at the top of this blog.

Build a Book with Journal Entries

Journal under pillow

If you begin the habit of writing in your journal every day, you can lead yourself into writing a book– not quite painlessly.

If you sit at the computer and think:

I am going to
write a book

you may terrify yourself with the monumental nature of the task.

Instead, resolve to write a journal entry every day. Let your book build itself.

In order to make this a habit, you should choose to write at the same time. And because our days so easily fill with tasks, you might be most successful if the time you write in your journal is when you first wake up.

This arrangement may depend in part on your sleeping arrangements, but all of us require privacy early in the morning. I keep my journal beside the bed. When I get up, I usually have to let the dog out, so I also turn on the coffee and turn up the heat. By the time I’ve had a few private moments in the bathroom, the dog is ready to come in and the coffee is finished. I put a cup on my bedside table, arrange the pillows behind me, take my journal out from under the pillow beside me where it spent the night, and begin the day with the date, time, temperature and thoughts.

I keep the journal under the pillow, with a pen slipped to a blank page, because I often have a thought in the middle of the night, and can write it down immediately. If I need more light, I have on the bedside table a tiny light that clips around a pen.

WindbreakIf sitting up in bed doesn’t afford you the privacy you need, then take advantage of the bathroom: take your journal with you and begin your day in peace and quiet, writing.

One more element exists to this method of building a book from journal entries: begin thinking about, and writing about, a particular topic. No matter what else you write in your journal to begin the day, devote a few minutes to writing about that topic.

Journal entry, from Windbreak, September 29, page 22:

When the folks came back from town this afternoon, the cats had a young bird down on his back. Mother rushed over to him, and realized it wasn’t anything she’d ever seen before. They rescued it, handling it with thick gloves because of its talons, and put it in a box in the garage. I believe it’s a falcon, because of the beak, one of those tiny fast ones. They called Game, Fish and Parks, and an officer came out and picked the bird up. He’ll be fed and checked for injury, and then released. I can’t imagine how the fat, lazy barn cats ever got their claws into him in the first place, but he’s not badly hurt.

At that point, I’d told the falcon’s story and believed I was finished with it– though I didn’t even know what kind of bird the cats had caught. I did, however, study the bird closely before it was released, and identified it as a kestrel, a small hawk common on the plains as hunters of mice, grasshoppers, and the like.

But I kept thinking about the story– the cats were following their own habits, doing their feline duty by catching the bird. We interrupted the food chain by rescuing it and turning it over to a government official for release. But the bird, too, has a job — kestrels may occasionally kill cats; certainly their larger cousins the owls do. The thoughts percolated in my mind until I wrote a poem, in partial reaction to heckling by vegetarians who Land Circlebelieve I ought to get rid of cows and raise gardens, an action which would be contrary to the nature of the landscape since it would require plowing up the thin soil, exposing it to erosion. Here’s the poem I wrote from this journal entry:

What the Falcon Said

Flat on his back, feathers bloody,
surrounded by drooling cats,
the young falcon hissed,
clacked his beak, clawed air.
His feathers were bloody;
one cat licked a bleeding ear.
Falcon’s yellow eyes didn’t blink
when I picked him up
like a handful of springs,
like a grenade with the pin pulled.
None of the blood was his.

I put him high in a cedar tree.
He clutched the branch and panted,
glared at me,
then shot straight up like a bullet.
Next day, on my horse, I saw
a redwing blackbird whistling on a post
explode in the middle of a fluid run of song.
The falcon shot away, clutching the corpse.
He screeched once but I heard what he said:

Don’t expect pretty lies from me.
I know my job.
You saved me from the cats
so I could live.
I kill to eat.
So do the cats.

So do you.

© 1991, Linda Hasselstrom, Land Circle, page 192

The metaphors are not country ones, but I tried many others while I remembered and considered the feeling of that small bird in my hand.

That single event also grew into a prose piece:

Falcon Dreaming

The mind heals itself in intricate and surprising ways, and even during such serious work, demonstrates its sense of humor. One winter night I dreamed I was walking up the entrance road after getting the mail, and came upon a pile of clothing. I immediately recognized it as George’s: his worn belt, the big shoes, the circle his Skoal can left in his shirt pocket. Everything he might have worn on a normal work day was there; I unfolded each item and looked at it closely, breathed his clean scent from the wrinkles. Tucked inside, I found a note; George explained that he was really an explorer of our world, sent from an advanced, star-traveling race to see if we were civilized yet. He said he was sorry to go, but he had other planets to visit; this was his third visit, and when he came back, I would be long dead, because his kind lives so much longer than ours.

I woke up smiling, and then laughing. George was always fascinated with space, and would have traded his rifle for a chance to ride a space shuttle. He loved to read science fiction, and speculate on the possibilities of advanced races. Part of my mind was still not willing to believe that he is dead; it was comforting to fantasize that a higher duty took him elsewhere. And I still resented the well-meaning person who had laundered all the dirty clothes we left behind when we went to the hospital; only his oldest work coats and his leather buckskinning clothes still held his scent, and I longed for it enough to put it in my dream.

Another night, later in the winter, I dreamed I was on a pack trip with three other people in terrain that resembled Jackson Hole. We were well-equipped, carrying our gear on pack mules and riding good horses. The day was sunny and cold, but we were comfortable in our wool and leather rendezvous clothing, or perhaps it was really 1840. I felt no fear, only a deep freedom and joy to be riding through such country before the white man’s greed destroyed it. George wasn’t with us, but I felt comfortable with the other riders, though I can’t name them. I sensed that George would meet us somewhere ahead. I felt vibrantly alive.

While we rested high above a broad valley a brilliant turquoise falcon with gold wings alighted on my wrist. The other riders simply nodded as if he was expected, and we rode on. I was following the snow-crusted rump of a buffalo, which didn’t seem incongruous. Glancing up, I noticed that a large eagle was circling above our group, and accepted it as a sign of George’s guidance. I knew the little falcon wouldn’t leave me, and put him on my shoulder.

Suddenly the lead rider galloped over a steep wall into a streambed, and the buffalo followed. I was worried about my horse falling, so I dismounted and ran ahead; I heard the horse thrashing behind me. The falcon lifted a little from my shoulder, balancing himself with spread wings. I fell, rolled over in a flurry of snow, and stood again, brushed myself off and was ready to mount and ride on. I felt no fear, only assurance.

Almost at once I woke, encouraged by the dream. I knew the eagle was symbolic of George’s protection, as the falcon was of my own strength. I’d been doing something I was capable of, with strong friends, in the freedom and magnificence of a mountain wilderness. The white buffalo, sacred to the Lakota, was with us; I had seen him stalk into George’s hospital room, heard the rumble of his hooves, which an airman mistook for a B-1 taking off. George and I had often daydreamed about being able to live the old mountain life full-time, and apparently the dream still lived inside me. I was going to survive George’s death.

A phrase from the Navajo Beauty Way chant is inscribed inside our wedding rings: “In beauty may I walk.” George’s ring rests in a parqueted wood box on the dresser; mine is still on my finger.

-– Land Circle, p. 165-168.

Much later, I learned that the little falcon I saw was a kestrel or a merlin–it’s hard to tell the difference even with a bird book. And now, many years after George’s death, a kestrel flies overhead nearly every time I drive our entrance road.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Kestrel on electric line along ranch lane January 2019

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Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains
$14.95 – paper
Nonfiction, with poetry. A diary of a year on a cattle ranch in western South Dakota, documenting the “work, worry and wonder” of this life. (Barn Owl Books, 1987)
Read about WINDBREAK on my website

Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
$16.95 – paper
Essays and poetry on ranching, the environment, isolation, working, rendezvous, travel, teenagers, and the death of a spouse. (Fulcrum Publishing, 1991; new edition 2008)
Read about LAND CIRCLE on my website

Neighborliness

Synchronicity! On the day I took notes for this commentary, Joan Bachman, who has been a writing guest at Windbreak House, wrote in her blog just what I was thinking:

Neighborliness doesn’t seem to hit the papers as often as hate-speech and noisy people demonstrating against something.

You might not get as much attention by being neighborly as you would by marching in the streets screaming, but you’ll feel better, and you’ll improve the lives of others. And you don’t have to make any signs.

For example, I have a friend-by-correspondence who knows that I have found a particular way to help save my writing time while responding to those who write asking for my help.

I can’t simply ignore people who write to me; I learned guilt at my mother’s knee– so politeness requires that I acknowledge those who write to admire my writing, or who ask how to get published. No matter how basic their questions are, or how easy it would be for them to find the information elsewhere, I feel guilty if I don’t respond.

Postcards and stampsSo instead of writing long letters, I often write postcards. This method saves some of my writing time and energy and requires me to compress my comments into the small space.

Knowing this, my correspondent friend often sends me 20 postcard stamps. And she even warned me that, beginning January 27, the new rate for postcards would be 37 cents, so I’d have to add some postage.

What a neighborly act this is, in the true sense of the word! I have never met this woman, though I know we share certain interests because of the clippings we exchange on news items that catch our attention. But we are neighbors in what I consider the best sense of the word: one who is generous, who shows kindliness or helpfulness toward his or her fellow humans.

As Joan Bachman says, neighborliness has to do with positive actions. Well, read her blog for yourself. (find a link below)

She says, “I hope that you appreciate this BLOG and will take action to demonstrate what you are FOR.  A ‘positive’ action is energizing.”

Overloaded ClosetJoan’s positive action for that day was “cleaning a closet.” She intended to “recycle some, but toss most of the stuff. (I have a tendency to use things until there’s not much worth left). This will be my ‘positive’ action for the day.”

So her definition was a positive action that didn’t affect her neighbors directly, showing that the definition need not be narrow. Any positive action will improve your own mood, which will in turn make you more likely to be kindly toward your neighbors, whether they are nearby or across an ocean.

As Mark Twain said,

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear, and the blind can see.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Read Joan Bachman’s February 5, 2019 blog post “The Way Things Are” here

http://optionsunlimitednd.com/blog

 

Book Remarks: How to Cuss in Western

How to Cuss in Western (and other missives from the high desert).
Michael P. Branch. (Boulder: Roost Books, 2018)

book branch cuss in westernBecause I have always—well, since I was four years old—loved and respected my local library, I do not write in books unless I own them, and intend to keep them.

Therefore, when I own a book, the page on which I begin to underline or scribble comments becomes a gauge to my evaluation and respect.

I started underlining in How to Cuss in Western on page 2, where Michael P. Branch explained the system of “restrained communication” embodied by the way Westerners wave.

“You lift only your pointer finger off the wheel for a routine ‘howdy’ to a neighbor,” he notes. “. . . Under no circumstances do you ever allow your palm to leave the wheel, which would be a greeting so effusive and emotional—so perfectly hysterical—that anyone foolish enough to display such loss of self-control would never regain the respect of their neighbors.”

Laughing, I recalled that today I received a full-hand wave from a female resident of the neighborhood who is practically giddy with her desire to be my buddy. Yet in several years of residence here she has not grasped this simple rule, one of the most basic principles of country acceptance. By the time children learn to drive here—at age ten or so—they all know enough to keep their hands on the wheel while greeting friends. If one is truly enthusiastic about the friendship, one might nod an inch or two while raising the trigger finger, but that’s all that’s acceptable.

“Oh, you’re so lucky to live in the country,” coo some of the folks who read my books or know I’m a rancher.

And some of these folks buy little plots of land from my ranch neighbors whose kids have gone off to college and now live somewhere else, so the rancher is retiring and moving to town.

Some of these folks who move to the country build a monster mansion on top of a hill where they can see from the Black Hills to the Badlands. They may not realize how well the rest of us can see them. They get a couple of SUVs, and erect a shed to shelter the horse, or the goats, or a cow or two. Their dogs come to visit me and to chase the calves in my corral until I can draw a bead on them. Rather than ranting, I’d like to mention these things politely in the local store or church or Bingo parlor but that doesn’t work because they shop and worship in the larger town to the north.

So instead of ranting, maybe I’ll hand out copies of this book with a bookmark at “Shit Happens,” one of my favorite essays. Folks used to living in town are also used to systems that whisk their personal wastes away without much fuss. If you live in the country, you soon learn there is no away for any of your discarded trash.  Living in the country means someone in the family must be the Fecal Sludge Manager, and study Septic Tank 101, a lesson in rural living rarely mentioned in real estate brochures or ballads.

Profanity? Here are Branch’s comments on the dwindling ability of Americans to cuss effectively and colorfully: “If we cannot communicate through the use of profanity, I wondered, what the hell is left? Have we been reduced to sonnets and tweets?”

One essay, “Such Sweet Sorrow,” centers on a topic tackled by such writers as Aristophanes, Dante, Shakespeare, Twain, Joyce and Edward Abbey, a topic Branch suggests was first written about in 1900 B.C., and which still challenges writers. Branch’s approach is a writer’s challenge; The Urban Dictionary lists 261 synonyms for this topic, and Branch attempts to use all of them, from “breeches burners” to “wee fluffy.”

Michael Branch photo from his websiteThese aren’t perfect essays, in part because Mr. Branch is a real working writer; he writes to deadlines, so he doesn’t have the luxury enjoyed by some writers of tinkering with a piece until it satisfies every editorial quibble. He meets a deadline, and then goes back to cutting cords of wood to keep his family warm, teaching, helping raise his children, and walking a thousand miles a year; clearly he uses some of that time to think.

Besides humor, Branch provides information about a wide array of fascinating country topics, from the extinct American cheetah, to the reason ranchers’ fences are hazardous not only to pronghorn but to hawks and owls—a fact that was new to me. In one quick sentence, for example, he sums up the Bureau of Land Management’s horse problem in Nevada: “We do not have too many horses; we have too few lions.” He understands that the prairie as it should be is a wild place, despite the domestic animals and people who dwell here, and to be healthy, it must remain so.

As a graduate of the College of Fecal Sludge Management, I highly recommend that anyone contemplating a move to the country read this book.

Now excuse me; I have to go find another one of his books.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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At the website http://michaelbranchwriter.com/ you will find information about the author and his books, his upcoming public appearances, links to essays (some of which are chapters in his books), and a note about how to get podcasts of his essays which appeared in High Country News.

book branch raising wild and rants from hill

Flying into Oblivion: How to Keep Your Writing Spirits Up

Proulx books

Annie Proulx (that’s pronounced PROO according to my conversation with her some years ago) has been named winner of the 2018 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.  The honor recognizes a knowledgeable writer whose body of work has told the readers “something new about the American experience.”

Proulx is a wise woman who said, in a May 2, 2018 article in the Washington Post, “I feel sorrow and urgency about the state of the natural world. So many extinctions loom, so much plastic chokes the waters, so many stars are blotted out by light pollution, so many birds have flown into oblivion.”

She asked friends who are passionate about the natural world how they manage to stave off grief at the “visible decline of the world we took for granted only a few decades ago.” Their response? “The consensus is to keep working in personal ways to protect what we still have, through citizen science or private behavior.”

I absolutely agree. I don’t own a television, so it’s easier for me to avoid the news of devastation and idiocy that blares from its shiny and deceptive face. I can’t imagine how folks who stare at it all day long save their sanity or equilibrium. Still, some people do despair, and believe that all hope is lost. I suggest that people who are saddened by the state of the world turn off the noisy box and get out into their community. Look at the parks littered with trash, the pet shelters. Does the local library have enough volunteers to help children find books? Does the Meals on Wheels group need more volunteers to deliver food to the elderly or homebound? Can your elderly neighbor shovel her walk after a snowstorm?  Somewhere you will find a way to help.

At age 83, Proulx has won numerous awards, but she’s especially delighted by the library award, which was formally presented September 1st at the National Book Festival in Washington. She says that the American experience that has “charged most of what I write has been place—the geography of North America and how different locales affected the way the inhabitants made a living, how they spoke, dressed, ate, thought.”

Proulx book brokeback-mountainThe West is my place, and Proulx is only one—but surely the most famous—of the writers who have focused on it.  Always curious about regional differences, Proulx began writing about rural places in her late 50s, focusing on the way people worked. She’s bounced from topic to topic, writing about forestry, shipping, and finally about cowboys—notoriously the short story “Brokeback Mountain” which drove western readers into frenzies of hatred or admiration. Her view of the West has become one of the best-known while many fine writers with a deeper understanding of the West continue to be ignored.

In 2017 she received and richly deserved the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, said at the time, “Proulx has given us monumental sagas and keen-eyed, skillfully-wrought stories” that capture the “wild, woolly heart of America from its screwball wit to its every last detail.” Hayden’s nomination was based on recommendations from previous winners, literary critics, and other writers.

I admire Proulx’s determination to begin a new life in late middle age, and her honest attempt to write what she sees, and she has seen a great deal. Because one of her topics resulted in the making of a successful movie, her view of the West has been widely accepted as the only view. This is not her fault, but it’s unfortunate.

Like all writers of an advanced age, Proulx is looking toward the end of her life, at flying into oblivion. We live in an era that seems to demand that everyone who accomplishes something deserving of attention immediately go “on the road”—or on talk shows—to engage in promotion. An inventor may have created a pill that saves lives, but unless she has discussed it with some late-night television personality whose primary claim to fame is white teeth, that achievement may be forgotten tomorrow.

Writers are particularly susceptible to the pitfalls of quick fame. Even many college professors these days pride themselves on teaching work from the hottest writing sensation rather than work that has been read for generations because it’s good. Perhaps, though, these awards will help Proulx achieve a more lasting recognition.

Most writers already know that the way to achieve instant stardom is to be chosen by a moviemaker. Few of us can make that happen, and the authors I have known whose work has been brought to the silver screen were universally horrified at the results.

We writers don’t get to choose what the public decides, but the alternatives are available to all of us: do you want fame? Or do you want to write what you believe as well as you can?

If you want to be famous, you need to pay attention to trends, be constantly alert to what interests the public—not necessarily the reading community—and make your work splashy enough to attract that fleeting and fickle attention.

I’ve had some amazing and startling experience with people who are Lakota, or gay, for example. Since I’m neither gay nor Lakota, I believe writing about them would be exploitive, or would smack of trying to create sensation. I stick to subjects I know more thoroughly, and encourage others to create their truths, whatever they are.

Computer hands - small copy for blog

I believe that if you want to write well, you must just keep writing. You may never achieve fame, but if you create the best writing of which you are capable, you are a success. As Proulx advises about the environment, “keep working in personal ways.”

Keep writing your own truth. Don’t look at extinctions; look for births. When writing seems especially difficult, don’t read about awards. Don’t subscribe to all the writing magazines. Instead, read your own old drafts and commend yourself for your improvement.

Or, in that journal you carry everywhere because you are a serious writer, try one of these suggestions:

The Daily Story
Try starting a story in a different style every day; set a mood of mystery, of horror, of humor; try to begin a romance novel like those in the supermarkets, whether that’s what you want to write or not. Test your limits and abilities as a writer; can you sound like Hemingway? Faulkner? All of this will be useful practice for writing, and any of those stories might turn into something you want to pursue further.

Field Notes on Your Culture
What cultures do you belong to? White? Hispanic? Single mother? Adults wearing braces? Women obsessed with their hair? Women who don’t give a darn about their hair? Middle-aged brides? People with 20-year-old cars? Sticklers for commas? List at least 20 cultures that you belong to. Get wild. Choose one from the list and begin writing, “I belong to the culture of . . .”

Sensory Impressions
Write as many sensory impressions as you can of one day, one year, one place; a room, a river; a neighborhood. Be sure to use all the senses: taste, smell, hearing, sight, touch.

Inventory
Inventory your check book stubs and credit card receipts; list what seem to be your priorities, based on this evidence. If these are not the priorities you believed you had, write about how they differ from what you are actually doing.

The primary point is this: if you want to be an 83-year-old writer someday, famous or not, looking back on your years of writing with a smile as you fly into oblivion or whatever follows this life, then keep writing.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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A Chicken in Every— House

Hen and chicks 2015--5-5

My favorite news story of the week and possibly the month comes from Pakistan, where the Prime Minister Imran Khan hopes to alleviate poverty by giving women chickens. The response to this plan has involved a lot of snickering and jokes at his expense.

But as Myrah Nerine Butt pointed out in Dawn, quoted in The Week magazine (12/21/18, p. 15), the people doing the jeering are far removed from the context and experience of real rural women.

This situation is strikingly similar to the way politicians in many countries, including this one, approach rural problems: from a safe distance that means they are ignorant of the issues.

Hen and chicks 2014--6-13In Pakistan, for example, chickens are better than cash because while money can be spent on anything, including gambling, a chicken can be primarily an investment or a saving. The man of the house may take cash for his own uses, but most of the men want nothing to do with chickens which are seen as “culturally inferior” to cows or goats. (Ranch women in this country, who know how tough cows can be, are laughing uproariously at this idea.)

Meanwhile, the chicken owned by a woman can produce eggs to sell. Some of those eggs can become more chickens, allowing a woman to increase her own business. This is no get-rich-quick scheme, but even a single chicken can produce a steady basic income for a woman who pays attention to detail, as well as helping to nourish her household.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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