“Artist Dates” – good idea or waste of time?

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Hello everyone,

If you’ve ever read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, you’ll be familiar with Cameron’s advice to regularly take time to do something that interests you – but that is not directly part of the work you are doing as an artist. If you’re a musician, a painter, a photographer, a poet, or a writer, the Artist Date is doing anything fun or interesting that is not writing a new song, applying paint to a canvas, looking through a camera lens, putting words on paper, whatever you do in your art practice. The idea is to give yourself a new perspective, to gather new material, to have experience that may fuel a future creative effort, even if you can’t see how it will fit.

If you’re like me, you probably think, “What a great idea. I should do this more.” But then, you get busy with your art – writing, making music, photography, painting – not to mention Life – preparing food, caring for family members, working to pay the bills – and it’s all you can do to just make a few pieces of art around all the other tasks you have to do. It feels awkward to take time that you could be using for art and do something else.

Experimenting with nanowrimo last month, being intensely focused on writing a couple of thousand words each day, I felt that same reluctance to go out for an Artist Date. But I also knew it would help make my art more magical, more engaging, more interesting, if I did.

In Seattle we have a lovely place called the Japanese Garden. Oh my gosh, this is a special place. Toward the end of November on a cold Thursday morning I turned away from my desk, bundled up, and went over to walk through the garden, catching glimpses of bare-limbed trees and one amazing persimmon tree with small golden orbs of glistening fruit hanging from its branches. It was a gray day, but it felt delightful. Maybe one day those persimmons will turn up in a story I am writing!

If you’re like me and you’d like to experiment more with Artist Dates, here is one list of ideas: https://theartistswayblog.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/101-artists-date-ideas/. Meantime, here’s an excerpt of my writing from November that happens to be about a garden!

The garden was weedy and overgrown when we moved in. Charles wanted to pull it all out and get a landscaping company in to put in rocks and gravel pathways and a huge stone patio and things on the outside borders and things on the inside beds. I said No. We could not do such a thing to a garden before we had been there, before we had seen the light in the morning, the light at night, the seasons change, the way the leaves floated down and caressed the heather and foxglove. He frowned and pouted like he always does, but he did not hire the landscaper after all. He told me, you wanted to leave it as is, you deal with it. I did, gladly. In the fall I started with just a little tidy-up, trimming the brown branches that stuck into the lane between the rosebeds, raking the dusty pathway, speaking to the flowers and telling them how beautiful they were. Charles huffed. It wasn’t worth it to him. But it was to me.

I wish I could say our marriage lasted longer than the garden, but it wasn’t true. You’re thinking, after all that, she left Charles, or asked him to leave, and she stayed in the garden. Didn’t she stay in the garden? She loved it so much! But no. Charles was a professor, he was a literary man, and he met another literary woman at a conference who turned out to be the woman he left me for. He left me. Don’t cry. He got to have a downtown condo penthouse in Chicago with his woman and I got to stay in the garden.

Take care and good writing,



Two takeaways from nanowrimo

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Hello everyone,

Have you ever found yourself turning down something new simply because you were already happy with what you had going? Maybe your friends try to convince you to try a new gelato place down the street, but you say no, because you already have a favorite ice cream place and you’re very happy with their chocolate chip-raspberry ice cream and you’re not ready to try something new. But then one day you happen to be passing by the gelato place and your friend drags you into the store. You order a cup of the honey-lavendar gelato, take one taste, and you’re hooked. What were you missing all this time? you ask yourself. Why didn’t you try this sooner? And perhaps honey-lavendar gelato becomes your favorite sweet treat after that.

For YEARS my friends have been suggesting that I try this, nanowrimo, a once-a-year November project. “Write a novel in a month,” is the idea, and when you sign up you try to meet a wordcount goal each day that will result in a total of 50,000 words on November 30th. For YEARS I said, no thanks, I’m good. I’m happy with my own writing process, I’m not ready to try something different. (It’ll just mess me up.) But at the behest of a couple of writing friends, this year I went over to the nanowrimo website, signed up, and started logging my writing progress.

Surprisingly, remarkably, I made a couple of discoveries through being part of nanowrimo for the first time. These may be things that are helpful to your writing process, and if so, I hope you’ll let me know!

Word Abundance

I started the month with the idea of writing short stories or flash fiction, and I decided to try for at least 1,800 words a day, a little more than the 1,667-word per-day target from  nanowrimo. For the first fourteen days I was writing 2,000 words every day. I let myself write whatever came to mind; they were often improvisations, short riffs on a line of poetry or a phrase, stream-of-consciousness, poetic musings, snippets of things that might contain a satisfying phrase or unusual point of view character. Here’s an example from Day 2 (written Nov. 2):

Poetic line for inspiration: At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee (from “A Miracle for Breakfast,” Elizabeth Bishop)

My piece:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

At ten o’clock we were waiting for coffee. The server was late, standing on the other side of the room from us. Talking. We did not know when she would leave off her conversation to bring us our coffee cups. Helen wanted cream and sugar, Marjorie wanted black, and I wanted decaf. We waited, talking among ourselves as though it didn’t matter, but in truth we only wanted our coffee. We were like savages before drinking it, all dark thoughts and knives out for gossip. We needed civilization.

Isn’t this a fun piece? I can just see these three women waiting at a table in a diner for the server to come over with coffee. After fourteen days I had a whole collection of these random pieces, and I had logged more than over 26,000 words in my monthly total. Something very startling happened. Writing that many words for that many days in a row, I started feeling a kind of “word abundance” – the feeling of having “extra” words. More than enough words. Words to spare. I had never written that much for so many days in a row before, although I have completed three full novels in the past and a great number of short stories. The sense of abundance from those fourteen 2,000-word days helped me feel much more flexible toward my writing efforts. It gave me a sense of empowerment, an ability to write longer and less-constrained work. It made the world of writing seem wider and easier to explore. It boosted my confidence in myself as a writer.

Letting Go

On Day Fifteen I decided to come back to some of my ongoing projects with this new word fluency. I started looking at my novel “Assassin” (working title). I wrote a new scene. But it wasn’t quite as interesting as I’d hoped. I re-wrote the scene from the other character’s viewpoint, something suggested by nanowrimo experts to “expand” your wordcount. That was better. But still both scenes bored me. Huh. Well, what part of the story did I want to write about? What would keep my interest more? I set aside both of the new scenes.  Now I had more back story, even if I didn’t like these scenes well enough to be part of the novel itself.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Next I wrote a really fun scene that surprised me. In this scene the royal child that my assassin-main-character had brought back from the kingdom after executing the unlawful ruler had to be sent back now that there was a regent in place. But the child would only agree to go if they sent the assassin with him as a bodyguard. Something that had never been done before. But for various reasons they agree to the boy’s demand. Here is an excerpt (written Nov. 17):

Excerpt from new Assassin scene:

The boy was refusing to go back.  What gave him the temerity at age twelve to refuse? Not only that, he was asking impertinent questions about Saska, the operative who had brought him here. Twelve was a young age, but they had a regent and the contract was clear the child should be returned when that occurred.

Simon suppressed a sigh and attempted to explain again. “The contract is very specific. Conditions have been met to return you to your proper place.”

“No one asked me about it,” Colin said. Then, quickly: “I want to see her. The one who brought me here.”

“That is impossible,” Simon responded in his calmest voice. Contact between operatives and clients was strictly forbidden.

“Why not? I’m sure she’ll remember me,” Colin said.

Stubborn, intransigent. Demanding. Royalty can be difficult, Simon thought. Why was it even the young ones seemed so imperious? Of course, he reminded himself, it was bound to be part of the boy’s training. He had had to be prepared become the ruler of the city.

It may sound strange, but I had never been comfortable setting aside scenes that didn’t appeal to me before. Somehow the 2,000-word-a-day habit made me less “clutchy” about clinging to a piece of writing for the novel that wasn’t that exciting. At the same time, setting aside those scenes did not make me feel like a failure, for once. Instead I was able to write a different scene and move forward with the story. I was thrilled.

So – word abundance and letting go – two nanowrimo takeaways that have helped take my writing to the next level. I hope you find ways to be more flexible toward your writing, and I hope you, too, can feel an abundance of words for your writing work. I’ll be sharing more soon about the novel projects I’m creating. Keep writing!

Take care, and thanks for reading!

– Theresa

nanowrimo – love it or hate it?

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Hello all,

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of National Novel Writing Month! – also abbreviated to “NaNoWriMo.” This is a month-long effort started several years ago (first year:, 1999) by writer Chris Baty in the San Francisco area, with 21 participants. Nineteen years later, in 2018, it has become a worldwide project, with over two thousand writers participating, almost 40 million words written during this past month of November., and every day these 2000 writers produced  almost 20,000 words on average.

You can’t help but be inspired by this blurb from the NaNoWriMo website:

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. 

On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.

For years my writing friends have been urging me to give nanowrimo a try. My co-writing collaborator has done nanowrimo for several years in a row, and she always asks me if I’m going to try it this year. I had considered it, but the goal is to write 50,000 words on a novel, and that means writing 1,667 words per day (or more) in a single story. What I know about my writing is that it needs intervals of “real life” to make it sing. If I try to write a single narrative non-stop, especially in bursts of 1500 words or more per day, I run right up against Writer’s Block. Badly. I’ve found I need to break up my writing stints in a single narrative so that I can really live with the story; I pick up small ideas from my daily life that make their way into the narrative, slowly moving forward. Otherwise – I get stuck. Really stuck..

So, sheepishly, self-consciously, I always said, “No, not this time,” or sometimes, “I’m afraid I can’t work that way,” when my co-writer asked me. But this year my collaborator on our Two Hour Transport reading series was also going to give it a try, and she mentioned that some people (shhh! don’t tell!) DON’T write novels, they write . . . memoir, nonfiction, short stories . . . and there’s even a name for it: The nanowrimo Rebel. I was intrigued. Maybe, I thought, I could just write a couple of 900-word flash fiction pieces every day, practice my short-story writing, and see what this nanowrimo was all about.

Photo by Theresa Barker.

And, that’s what I did! You can see in this photo what some of my stories looked like during drafting. I hand-wrote at times, I computer-typed at other times, I participated in physical write-ins at nearby coffee-shops and other locations, I participated in virtual write-ins organized by our regional liaisons. I started out dreading nanowrimo – “I can’t do this,” – and I ended up LOVING it. So many insights came out of my work this month! In the next couple of weeks I’ll be sharing more of my experience, and I hope it will inspire you to Keep Writing. You’ve got stories, poems, memoir, essays, and more inside you just waiting to be released. Go for it!

Here’s a sample of my work; this was written on Day 1:

You are staring out a black postage stamp of a window in your bedroom. They have told you it’s all in your head, this sense of the supernatural that seems to permeate your minutes, your hours, your daily life. They tell you should pay no attention, that you should focus on specific concrete details that will lead you to reality. Reality. But what they have not told you yet is that they want you to pay attention to specific details because that’s how they control you. You are brought down to the world, the Real World when you think about stair steps in your dorm, about the orange chairs in the floor lounge, about the sneering smiles of the boys on this floor, the ones that drink all weekend long and try to deceive the RA about it. You don’t want this. You want to be clear, you want to know what is really happening, not what they want you to think is happening. But your parents sent you to this Ivy League college not to think but to come out with a Degree and to start your Life. They would love it if you went to Law School after, like your father did, or to medical school, like your mother did. Another lawyer or doctor in the family is what your parents want. You tried to tell them you were interested in the art class you took in your freshman year, and that was a big mistake. They let you think they were supportive and then before you knew it you were on Prozac and your parents had you in once-a-week therapy sessions with Dr. Morse. Dr. Morse who asked if you knew what you wanted to do, and you tried to say what you thought about art, but it wasn’t helpful and after that you did not say anything. You went into yourself, and now you’re sitting in front of a dark window and you’re watching for, well, for anything that’s different. Something not concrete. A thing that sails past you into the dark-dark of the night and flaunts its lively sense of irony at the gloating moon.

Thanks for reading!

Take care,


New fiction published: “It Started With the Scars”

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Hello everyone,

I’m thrilled to announce my story “It Started With the Scars” was published last month in Freeze Frame Fiction. Here is a link:

It Started With the Scars

I met Ruby on the second day of Burning Man. I knew the risks, but I have learned to conceal my scars well. Perhaps I was distracted . . .

I wrote this story quite a while ago, and I loved it, but when I sent it out it was rejected over and over. I still liked it, even after all that bruising rejection. Freeze Frame Fiction had sent me an encouraging rejection on a previous story submission, saying they liked my writing even though they couldn’t use that story. They need pieces that are under 1000 words, and the story was a bit longer in its original form. I condensed the story a bit and sent it in. Happily, they enjoyed it and published it on Sept. 1st. This is my first acceptance in 2018, and I am delighted.

So — keep persisting! It’s worth it!

Update – Op-Ed piece published in The Seattle Times today!

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Hello everyone,

I’ve never been very confident writing nonfiction, e.g., essays and personal memoir, and I’m always envious and admiring of those who do it well. This week I’ve had a nonfiction piece published in the Seattle Times, our local newspaper. It’s an Op-Ed piece that is part of their “My Take” series, in which Seattle residents write about an issue they are concerned about. I was reluctant to even try submitting an Op-Ed, as I know it’s hard to get a piece published in the local newspaper these days. But my neighbors who are involved in helping me advocate on a local neighborhood issue really wanted us to get an Op-Ed in the paper as a way to reach out to other neighborhoods in the city, to inspire them to take action on the same issue. And to let the city know we’re serious about this issue.

So, I hesitantly sat down to draft a piece for submission, and after I drafted it I got feedback on it, which helped me to revise it into a final form. I sent it early this week and heard back that they will be publishing it today! Here it is, if you’d like to take a look:

“Seattle parks and greenbelts are too wonderful to be trashed “, The Seattle Times, 10/19/18

Happy writing, everyone!