You Owe Yourself a Writing Vacation

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI don’t know when the term “staycation” was coined, but since becoming a homeowner in the mid-2000s I have taken a good number of them, partly because I like my house and I like working to make it feel ever more like my ideal home, and partly because, having a house and family to take care of, we have no money for a “real” vacation.

Over the past few years, my husband and I have taken a couple staycations during which we did no painting, weeding, laundry, or dishes, but instead planted our butts on the couch, steadily fed the fireplace logs, and wrote. If you do this for a week and don’t allow yourself distractions (make sure your kids are in school) you can get an astonishing number of words out of your head and into your story.

This past weekend we did one better. We left everything–child, pets, chores, and, most importantly, any possibility of a wifi connection–and spent three days writing at a friend’s cottage on Gun Lake. We fed the fire. We made some simple meals. We did spend an hour or so at the casino one night (largely because we wanted ice cream and there’s a Cold Stone Creamery in there). We spent about ten minutes trying unsuccessfully to catch a bat that was flying around the living room one night (after it was clear that we wouldn’t catch him, we named him Briscoe and left him alone). Other than that, we were pretty much planted in two comfortable chairs a few feet from the fireplace with laptops open and fingers tapping away.

I started a short story Friday afternoon, finished it Saturday, had my husband read it and give feedback Saturday night, and had it ready to convert for Kindle on Sunday morning. During that time I also read most of the Gospel of Mark, and all of Luke and John. I also had plenty of time to stare mindlessly out the window at the frozen and snow covered lake. And here’s the thing: I didn’t miss anything.

When we returned to a place that had wifi and I checked my emails and looked at Facebook, I found that, though the world had gone on without me for a few days, it hadn’t gone very far. My retreat made a difference in the scheme of my writing life and my husband’s; we got some work done, we allowed ourselves some space to breathe and relax and be creative, we enjoyed each other’s company without needing to interrupt our thoughts to rationalize to our son our assertion that he had watched enough Ironman: Armored Adventures for one day. But our retreat didn’t stop the world from getting on with things (and things that, frankly, didn’t concern us in the least–like the Oscars).

If you have a day job and writing is a luxury, you need to take a weekend or a week here and there and take a writing vacation. Whether you stay at home (and can keep yourself from wasting time with keeping the place clean) or just get a hotel room in your own town or have a generous friend with a house on a lake and no Internet, you need to make the time. No one can take the time for you. No one cares about your writing in the way you can. And if you don’t make time for it, it won’t happen.

Now then, I have one more day I’ve taken off of work and it’s starting to get away from me. There are paint cans calling me down in the main floor bathroom and, since I’ve finished my story for next month, I think I will go answer their call.

As for you, get out your calendar, pick a day or two or ten, and write “Writing Vacation” there. Write it in pen.

A Symphony to Write By

This is the soundtrack to my upcoming story for March, This Elegant Ruin.

I’ll be writing the bulk of it this weekend as my husband and I get away to a friend’s cottage. I imagine we’ll be huddled by the fireplace and the wood stove, happily typing away with no child and no pets and no responsibilities. A nice little writing vacation, something I highly encourage you to take if you are searching for concentrated time to write.

The Hardest Month to Dream

Iced OverFebruary is a month during which we are tempted to dream of the future (probably because the present is so ugly and, frankly, we’re getting sick of it). Whether it’s limited to dreaming about the feel of the warm sun on bare arms and the smell of soil and grass and grilling meat, or if it’s that lake home you want to retire in, February gets us to dreaming. We imagine trips to far-off (warm) places. We think about the goals we have for our working life. We dream of a bigger house, a less stressful schedule, a few days to get caught up.

The cruel reality is that even while February causes us to dream it simultaneously works to crush our spirits, snatch those dreams away, and tell us they are impossible (or at least the timing isn’t quite right yet). The thermometer outside the kitchen window seems to mock our dreams of warmth. Our checkbook solemnly shakes its head when we look to it for some extra money for plane tickets. News of housing markets and job markets drags our dreams down until we realize we are where we are and we will go no further (for now).

February is a hard month in which to practice contentment. And yet, for many it is a time in which we are called to give up a little, to stop thinking so much about our outward selves (like what we have or don’t have, what we can do or can’t do) and focus on our inner selves (our besetting sins, our humble place in the order of things, our desperate need to be washed clean).

I already mentioned to you the 40 Bags in 40 Days thing that I and many others are doing during Lent. And I find as I go through things that I’ve saved (“because I might want to use that later for X, Y, or Z”) that I am an expert at packing away dreams for later. I keep a shelf or a table or a stool, even though I have no place for it in my house, because someday I might have a bigger house and more room and I’ll want it then. I keep books on crafts I will probably never do, as if no one will ever publish another book on the subject. I keep pots for plants I will never have in my house because they would just get eaten and regurgitated by my cat, but I keep them because they are pretty or were a gift.

I pack away all these tiny dreams. But sometimes, it’s best to just let those dreams float away. Sometimes dreams become burdensome. And I think that when they do, it’s a pretty sure sign that they are not the right dream for the time being.

Are there any “somedays” that are making you feel guilty for the procrastinating rather than joyful with anticipation? Any old dreams stuffed in your basement or attic that really ought to be set free? It’s never too early for physical or mental spring cleaning. Maybe it’s time to put on some grubby clothes and get to work clearing out those old dreams to make way for reality–and maybe for one worthy dream you’ll actually pursue.

Fenner Nature Center

I know that all of you in Michigan must be suffering from some level of either Seasonal Affective Disorder or Cabin Fever (or quite possibly both). One of the best remedies for both of these ailments is to get out of the house and get some exercise. And what better place to do that than out in nature?

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Fenner Nature Center is one of two prominent nature centers in the Lansing area (the other, Woldumar, will be highlighted at another time). I spend most of my nature-walk time at Fenner because it is quite close to my house and the shorter walks are good for my 4-year-old’s short legs.

Walking at Fenner

Fenner Nature Center is located at the southeast corner of Aurelius and Mt. Hope, opposite Mt. Hope Cemetery. Besides showcasing a variety of natural habitats (including open meadows, ponds, wetlands, deciduous forests, and coniferous forests) Fenner has classes for children and adults, a great interactive learning center, a library, a gift shop, guided walks of all kinds, and special seasonal festivals, like the Maple Syrup Festival in March and the Apple Butter Festival in October.

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When we go to Fenner we usually make it a point to climb on boulders.

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We also spend a good deal of time looking for frogs…

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turtles…

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turkeys…

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and deer.

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Dragonflies, bees, and butterflies abound, as do many types of songbirds.

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It is beautiful and walkable in all seasons…

Spring

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Summer

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Autumn

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Winter

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But I think autumn is probably my personal favorite.

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The Stuff We Keep and the Stuff We Give Away

Today marks the beginning of a season of self-examination and repentance for billions of believers worldwide. Some give up meat or coffee or social media in order to deny themselves, recenter their minds and hearts on Christ, and prompt them to pray.

I’ve given up various things over the years: sleeping in, Facebook, cream and sugar in my coffee. I’ve also added various things: one year I read the four Gospels, another year I made a conscious effort to do something for others every day, whether that was doing the dishes and laundry for my family or writing a note to a friend who needed encouragement.

This year I’m doing both. I will be reading the entire New Testament in the mornings. In the evenings I will be filling 40 grocery bags with stuff to give away, recycle, or trash. I will be attempting to do this sacrificially, not just getting rid of junk we don’t need cluttering up the basement or under the bed, but truly examining each room, each closet, each cupboard and removing things that are simply unnecessary to life–the stuff that takes up the time, thought, and space that could be better put to use in service to other people and to God.

One of the reasons I made this decision was due to a couple I met on Sunday. This man and woman were looking for a new start away from some bad influences from their past. They wanted help from our church to get one way tickets to another city where there is a homeless shelter that accepts married couples (most are men or women only). My husband and I took them out to lunch and heard more of their story. He had been in prison for 20 years during which he turned his life over to Christ, got clean, and got an education. She became his pen pal. They got married. He was released. Things didn’t go smoothly and their living situation became untenable. So they needed a new start.

After lunch, we took them to the bus station, bought their Greyhound tickets with church money set aside for such ministry, and watched as they packed all of their earthly possessions (two rolling suitcases and two shoulder bags full of clothes and toiletries) into a bus and left for a fresh start at life. Two suitcases and two carry-on bags. That’s it. We needed two moving trucks seven years ago when we moved to Lansing and have been accumulating ever since.

Not for the first time, I felt ashamed of all the stuff I have in the house that I never use and don’t need. How much money have I spent on things I don’t need? How much better could I use my time than having to keep all that stuff clean and organized?

So while I fill my 40 bags during the 40 days of Lent, I will remember this couple and pray for their future. I will pray for contentment with what I have and that the desire for more would be removed from my heart. I will pray for the people who will eventually get my stuff, that they would put it to good use and not just shove it in a drawer or cupboard like I did.

(Confession time: I actually couldn’t keep myself from starting a day early so I already have FIVE BAGS from ONE ROOM.)

I may also reread this excellent and very convicting (and freeing) book:

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What in your life needs to be weeded out? Are you giving your time and energy to worthy pursuits? Or are you filling up your house with stuff you don’t need (and sometimes don’t even really want)? How would your life be different if you let go of a goodly portion of your earthly possessions?

It’s a tantalizing question.

New Short Story Release + Something for Free

I’m happy to tell you that February’s short story, The Door, is now available on Amazon. Click here to preview and purchase this slipstream story for Kindle. Just $0.99.

The Door
As before, here is a very short excerpt to give you a flavor of the writing.

Wesley laid the canvas aside, sat on his stool, and stared blankly at the wall for a long time. As he sat, the weak February light moved slowly through the room as the day progressed until finally it rested upon the wall in such a way as to suggest a door where there was none. Something in Wesley clicked.

And why not? Why not a door?

In addition, for one day only I will be putting Beneath the Winter Weeds on sale. On Valentine’s Day (February 14th starting at 12 AM Pacific Standard Time for all you lovely international readers who may not celebrate this silly holiday) you can click here and download January’s short story absolutely free! It will only be free for 24 hours, so snap it up while the getting is good.

Thoughts on Submission(s)

We all run in various circles. I don’t mean that in the sense of having no direction, just a dog chasing its tail and not getting anywhere. I mean it more in the sense of social and professional circles.

In the two main circles in which I find myself running about, the word submission has two distinct meanings.

This is what submission looks like for a dog. We humans shy away from this sort of vulnerability.
This is what submission looks like for a dog. We humans generally avoid this sort of vulnerability at all cost.

In the circle labeled Writing, submission is a noun (a story or a poem sent to some contest or publication) or a process (the act of sending that story or poem to that contest or publication).

In the circle labeled Faith, submission is always a verb (us submitting to God, husbands and wives submitting to each other, us submitting our plans to God’s will).

In practice, these can feel like the same thing for several reasons.

1. It’s not easy. Submitting a story, querying an agent, sending your tender literary child out into the world–it’s hard. Taking the first step in handing control of your work over to someone else and risking their rejection is difficult in the same way it is hard to trust someone else with control of your life and happiness. It’s kind of scary at first. Submission of any kind requires courage.

2. It’s a long process. Waiting is the name of the game if you are submitting stories to magazines or entering contests or sending out queries. It will usually take months to receive a response and in the meantime you can feel like you’re in a kind of literary limbo. When you hand your plans over to God you can feel that his timing and yours do not always (usually) match up one to one. It’s going to take longer than you want it to. Submission of any kind requires patience.

3. You have to keep doing it, over and over. Submit, get rejected, repeat. That’s the process you need to follow until your work matures, hits a nerve, happens to be timed just right. You can’t give up. Similarly, submitting to God is not a one-time thing–it’s an ongoing process. You have to do it daily. You’re never done submitting. Submission of any kind requires persistence.

4. Eventually, it pays off. You can’t publish something if you don’t submit it, and if you are a good writer who is consistently trying to improve your craft, eventually you will get published. In the same way, submitting to God or to a spouse can seem at first as if you’re getting the short end of the stick–you lose the control over your daily life, you turn over the fulfillment of your needs to someone else. What if they get it wrong? What if they neglect you? But the reality is, God is better at fulfilling your needs than you are, and a loving spouse is as well. Submission of any kind requires trust.

Courage, patience, persistence, trust. Do you have those qualities? Which one do you do best? Which is hardest for you right now? If you’ve shied away from submitting your writing and sharing it with the world, what is holding you back?

Don’t let fear of rejection keep you from submitting. Everyone gets rejected. But if you never submit, never turn anything over out of fear that once you do everything is beyond your control, you can never be the writer or person you were meant to be. If you’ve been given the gift of being able to write well, that gift was given for a reason. Use it. Share it. Submit it to God. And for goodness’ sake, submit it for publication!

11 Compelling Reasons February Should Just Be Skipped

Blandford Nature Center in SpringWhat if we could go right from January to March? Right from the beautiful snowy newness of the first month of the year to the month when crocuses and daffodils start pushing through the soil? Here are 11 good reasons February should just be skipped altogether.

1. Too cloudy. I have no proof for this, but February seems a lot cloudier than January. If it’s going to be 20 degrees, shouldn’t the sun at least be out? White ground and blue sky look great together. Gray skies just make the snow look kind of dirty.

2. SAD. A large percentage of the population hits the Seasonal Affective Disorder wall in February. See earlier point about clouds. In Michigan we all get even more mopey and downtrodden than normal and the littlest things can drive us to despair. What? The timer on the coffee didn’t go off? I may as well go back to bed for a week.

3. No good holidays. Groundhog Day? Seriously? You do realize that if it just happens to be cloudy on February 2 (see earlier point about clouds) that there will be no shadow–and then spring will still come on the spring equinox. Valentine’s Day? Too much pressure and too much pink. Also, hearts are so ’80s. President’s Day? Just another reason for Art Van Furniture to make irritating commercials.

4. A culinary wasteland. All the indulgent feasting of the holidays (the real holidays) is done. The sudden desire in January for fresh fruits and vegetables in order to start the year off right by eating healthier has worn off, but it’s still too snowy for grilling and eating outside.

5. $$$. You get the heating bill for January and realize that you will now have to set the thermostat at 56 degrees in order to pay your bills.

6. Cabin fever is spreading. Forget the flu; cabin fever is as harmful to the mind as H3N2 is to the body. We’re all getting a little stir-crazy in the north. It’s that time of year people plan vacations they can’t afford and spend untold hours trolling the interwebs for time shares in Florida. We just want to see some green foliage and eat outside again. Is that too much to ask?

7. Supplies are running low. We’re running out of firewood up here. There’s that unsettling feeling in the back of our minds that soon things will get a bit desperate and we’ll be twisting straw together until our hands are raw in order to feed the cookstove like Laura Ingalls in The Long Winter. Okay, maybe we don’t have cookstoves, but we have been forced to buy wood because we’re down to the half rotted wood at the bottom of the pile.

8. We’re getting fatter. Yes, there are treadmills and gyms in Michigan, but what we need is good old-fashioned yard work and ice-free sidewalks so we can get off our big butts and get some exercise. We need to build sheds and trim our trees and mow our lawns and dig in the dirt. We need to take the dog for a walk without fearing that the sight of a squirrel will set off a chain of events that ends with us flat on our backs and in need of weekly chiropractic adjustment for the foreseeable future.

9. We’re desperate for fresh local produce. February just adds yet another month that we have to wait before we can eat real strawberries that taste like strawberries rather than the pitiful excuse for strawberries they ship up from Mexico.

10. It’s getting stuffy in here. Our windows have been closed way too long and despite the fact that we’re keeping up with the laundry and vacuuming regularly, the whole house is starting to smell vaguely of an evil mixture of wet dog, old pillow, and potato skins.

11. Seriously, it’s way too cloudy. I just can’t say that enough.

There you have it, folks–all the valid and compelling reasons we should skip over February entirely and get on to March. So, how can we get this done?

On Marmots and Busting through Writer’s Block

According to a fat little marmot, we will be having an early spring. But I don’t put much stock in what marmots say, so I imagine that spring will come officially on March 20th and that we in Michigan will still have to suffer the insult of an April snowfall and wait until May to plant our tomatoes.

However, I do know of one thing that will be coming early. One day after I wrote this, I finished this…

The Door

Once I settled my mind on the point of the whole thing, the writing of February’s short story went from slow-drip to freely flowing. And that feels so very good. I’ll leave it alone until my “editor” has a chance to critique it, but I’m itching to get it styled and uploaded to Amazon. I imagine it will be ready around Valentine’s Day. Though I’m not sure of it’s “giftability.”

I’m also eager to get started on my next story. Here’s a peek at what’s coming down the line for March…

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