Posted in Sunday mornings, Writing

Notes on a Sunday

I mentioned yesterday that I want to incorporate running as much as possible back into my life, partly as a stress-reliever (few other activities relax me nearly as well and as completely as running does, and it adds so much more energy to my day to boot!), and partly as a health and fitness activity I actually enjoy and need more of as I get older and my body needs more movement than it used to just to function properly.

Well, today, I took the opposite direction and went hiking instead, and it absolutely counts! Living out here in the high desert region of the American West, I literally am less than a 10-mile drive from thousands of acres of fantastic hiking and cycling trails. This morning we took our senior pup, D-Dog, to a one-mile loop in a park that’s renowned for its preserved fossils and breathtaking rock formations. We weren’t sure he was going to be able to handle the sometimes-rocky terrain, but he was a trouper and enjoyed himself immensely. The topography is only slightly undulating, with a mostly level dirt trail that sometimes crossed ancient riverbeds, but it was a decent effort for all of us under a dazzling blue sky and lots and lots of sunshine.

Afterwards we stopped at our favorite coffee shop and picked up some fresh-baked scones and coffees. (Café au lait with whole milk for me, café au lait with oat milk for P.) Their scones are so popular that they usually sell out by 9am, but having learned my lesson too many times, I’ve taken to calling first thing in the morning and asking them to reserve a couple for us. This morning they had lavender scones, something called “blue basil” which I think is blueberry + basil, and a vegan lemon rosemary scone. We picked up 2 of the lavender and one each of the blue basil and vegan scone. And then we couldn’t resist adding a pumpkin muffin because the barista said it was literally fresh out of the oven, and I would have been mad to pass that up.

We came home, dropped off D-Dog, and then almost immediately turned around and headed to town to attend a new dog training class for our big dog, M. It’s the first session, and the trainer said it’s an orientation for the pet parents only, so this time M. stayed home, but will be attending all future sessions.

Although we’d worked with this trainer for almost a year now, all of her sessions to date had been at our home, but this time M. had “graduated” to an in-class session. We hadn’t ever been to the training facility, so when we pulled into the parking lot of their building, we were distracted and in awe of the location: right next to a nondescript government building housing an outpost of the US Department of Energy. It turns out to have been the site of a uranium mining and processing facility that was built to support the Manhattan Project. There are signs along the river behind the building telling visitors not to swim in the water nor consume any fish caught in it. Wow.

As it’s a Sunday, there was no one around the property other than the trainer, so the quiet and somewhat remote location lent an almost otherworldly atmosphere to the desert surrounding the buildings. We left there a little over an hour later vowing to return once Covid had opened up the facility to public visitors.

I just finished writing 761 words in my novel, so now I’m going to spend the rest of the day reading a new mystery novel I picked up at the library and basically just relaxing. The part of me that is obsessed with productivity and ambition wants to get up and start preparing for work tomorrow, but I have to remind myself that, no matter what stories I tell myself, burnout is real, and if I’m not careful, I’ll end up as frazzled and depleted as I found myself last week. It’s interesting that I have to will myself to relax, but I guess that’s the “-aholic” part of “workaholic”. And why I titled this blog My Inner French Girl: she’s a constant reminder to myself to enjoy life and indulge in all its pleasures. Including the pleasure of doing nothing.

Posted in Writing

Writing letters with a fountain pen

This week has been one of those weeks that make one forget that there is a serious global pandemic of which there appears to be no end in sight; wildfires consuming the entire western half of the United States; widespread civil unrest; and, oh, the potential for further social and political upheaval in November.

In other words, work has been incredibly stressful, and every evening I’ve crawled into bed, my head throbbing, and I collapse into a deep coma for about 4 hours. If I’m lucky, I get 5. Don’t get me wrong, I feel very fortunate that I have a job, and a challenging and usually fulfilling one at that.

But this week I’ve spent so much time staring at the screen and clicking clicking clicking, pushing my creative and analytic abilities to their limits, that my brain feels like it’s just a soft pile of mush sloshing around my brain.

I know, lovely image.

Some people drink to excess. Some overeat. Some hit the malls for some retail therapy. And others insert quarter after quarter after quarter into a slot machine, an endless, mindless loop into mental lockdown.

I, on the other hand, look at pens. Specifically, fountain pens.

Look at this stunning beauty:

BENU Briolette Fountain Pen – Pacific Coast – Extra Fine Nib

Isn’t she beautiful? (For some reason I think of fountain pens as being either masculine or feminine, and this particular one seems very, well, womanly to me.) She’s a Limited Edition fountain pen available only at one of my favorite pen shops,, and while I was browsing the site last night, restocking my paper collection (yes, I also collect paper, bien sûr), my eyes fell on this item and I fell in love.

I hesitated for just a few minutes before adding it to my cart. It arrives in two weeks!

And just like that, I felt a hundred times better.

I bought my very first fountain pen about two years ago during a long trip in Minnesota. Maybe it was the three feet of snow outside, or the quiet charm of the tiny stationery store in which I found myself one afternoon, the feel of velvety carpet under my frozen feet. I was checking out the neat row of colorful fountain pens in the display cabinet when the saleswoman offered to show some of them to me.

There was no one else in the store at the time, so we spent more time than I realize one could spend talking only about pens. I met a fellow pen aficionado! I’ve always loved visiting stationery shops in Asia, where you can browse literally a dozen or so aisles (no mere single shelf for us Asian pen fanatics!) of pens, and at one time I think I had about two drawers full of various pens I’d picked up over the years: hotels, airlines, restaurants, medical clinics (pharma pens are some of the best and heftiest, although for some reason they won’t spring anything finer than a medium point).

I use them all. Even though I spend at least 10-12 hours per day on my computer, I still write pages and pages by hand: notes during meetings, notes during my “deep work” time, notes while I’m paying bills, and lots of letters. Real, handwritten letters that I send mostly to be best friend, but also birthday cards and thank-you cards. I’ve two shelves full of various cards in my home office closet, plus another shelf of just various letter kits and stationery boxes I’ve picked up over the years. During my trip to Singapore last February, I spent my last night buying armfuls of stationery kits from the Japanese variety store tucked in the basement of my hotel, and for good measure I also picked up a few more at Narita airport during my long layover in Tokyo.

So on that wintry afternoon in rural Minnesota, while the saleswoman and I talked about the joy of pens, I let myself be seduced into buying my very first fountain pen.

I’m certainly not rolling in money, so it wasn’t a Waterman. Instead it was a Kaweco, a German pen brand with both high-end and more practical, reasonably priced pens. At $35, my Kaweco Classic Sport was still the most I’d ever paid for a pen ever in my entire life, but I loved its lightness, the wide, ridged and short body that tucked nicely into my fingers. Replacing a fountain pen cartridge — I don’t feel confident enough to even think about trying a converter and bottled ink — is fairly straightforward, but I needed her to walk me through it at least twice just to make sure (even knowing that there were probably a thousand YouTube videos available that would show me the same thing).

I bought this one, plus a half dozen cartridge replacements in three different colors:

I bought a second one to give to my best friend for his birthday, too, even though it wouldn’t be for another 9 months. I knew I could probably buy it easily online anytime, but when does one ever get a chance to buy from a real pen expert in a real, old-fashioned stationery shop?

I’ve since bought another fountain pen, a popular Pilot with a silky dark purple barrel and which requires the lightest touch. I find myself writing even more letters, partly because I find the exercise of actually writing vs. typing to be elegant but also relaxing and grounding.

And now I’ll have one more to add to my collection. Again, it’s not that one ever needs more than one or two pens, and certainly not fussy, not-cheap fountain pens (I had to carefully rinse out and air-dry my Kaweco for three days a few months ago after I had let it sit too long without using it), but in a world where you can get just about anything in the world delivered to your door in mere weeks, if not days; where I can go for months without ever getting a single personal phone call (although I get plenty of text messages and work-related Slack pings); and where birthday greetings mostly come in digital form, the simple act of writing a letter, a journal entry, or even just a quick note in my paper planner, feels like an act of deep creativity, even love.

Posted in NaNoWriMo, Writing

Getting ready to NaNoWriMo

I’ve officially participated in NaNoWriMo nearly every year since, I think, 2006 or 2007, but I’ve only actually completed it once. Eek. And it only took me about, oh, 10 years to finish that original novel. (What started out as a rough 50,000-word manuscript clocked in at over 500 pages when I finally finished the first draft last February. What can I say, I’m wordy and really lean hard on the pantser part of me when I’m in a writing groove.)

Okay, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, a quick primer:

NaNoWriMo is shorthand for National Novel Writing Month. It began, like so many Internet-based popular endeavors, in San Francisco in 1999 as a fun project among a handful of creative friends, and has since blossomed into an annual global creative writing movement with hundreds of thousands participating around the world. The big “prize” is the satisfaction of having completed such a heady challenge, especially during what for many is the busiest time of the year, which seems to only add to the excitement and thrill. (Or maybe that’s just me.)

The rules are simple: write a 50,000-word novel in November. You can break that down to whatever schedule works for you, but for many the magic number is 1,667 — the average number of words you need to write per day for 30 days. To qualify as a NaNoWriMo winner, you must have typed or written the 50,000th word by midnight local/your time on November 30.

To “win” NaNoWriMo, you need only have completed the challenge. There’s no strict validation process; everything is run under the honor system. Since the “prize” is the sense of achievement for the participating writer, there’s no incentive to “cheat”. You’re a winner simply if you follow the rules and write those 50,000 words.

The fact that the majority of participants each year don’t “win” just goes to show you how special that accomplishment is.

Anyway, I’m trying again! If you’re reading this on my actual site (rather than from an RSS reader or the email) you might have noticed that I’ve already put up this year’s official banner in the sidebar. A little motivation for me, with the added bonus of public accountability to boot.

Traditionally, I’ve always been a dedicated pantser. In NaNo-speak, that’s someone who writes by the seat of their pants, i.e., without planning or outlining (much). You simply start typing until you hit 1,667 words, repeat 30 times, letting the story go where it needs to go.

The opposite, and probably more successful folks (I’m guessing here) are known as the plotters. They outline, develop full character sketches, use copious index cards, build entirely new worlds, and probably launch the month with a box full of newly sharpened pencils.

I joke, but you get the point. They’re not taking any chances and are planning for success.

At heart I’m still a pantser, but this year I’m trying something different. I’ve already started outlining the characters. I spent an hour just thinking through the male hero, everything from the exact shade of brown of his hair to his sister’s name. I also plan to create a chapter-by-chapter outline. The other day I’d pulled a figurative thread on the Internet and stumbled on the writer Jami Gold’s website. It’s full of incredibly useful resources and tools, like this article about plotting a romance novel that actually includes a free, downloadable romance novel beat sheet that marks page-by-page what should happen by which page. Sounds strict? Sure, but having that structure might help that diehard pantser part of me be a little bit less wordy and meandering, and more focused on the whole point of a romance novel: getting the two protagonists together in the end, sooner rather than later.

Even the brilliant Picasso had to become a master of basic techniques before he could play around with them and create something entirely new.

After the dumpster fire that is 2020, I’m looking forward to throwing myself into a new world, with characters I want to love and to whom I want to deliver a worthy happy ending. I’m basically creating my own escape hatch. And while so many NaNoWriMo enthusiasts grumble about the timing of the event — right before Christmas! Thanksgiving! Family visits! Final exams! — I love that it happens when it’s cold outside and of course I’ll have a cup of hot chocolate and some little cookies with my evening writing ritual.

Any other bloggers and writers out there who are thinking about joining the merry band?

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels.