Self Improvement

Meditate to train your brain, calm your mind, and awaken your creativity with little fuss and lots of benefits

Meditate anywhere. Don't over think it. Under think it. (Photo via Stencil)

I write novels. That artistic effort requires concentrating on story problems for multiple hours a day. It demands that your mind enters a state of flow and to enter the invented minds of your invented characters as you write down their story. Because of the length of novels, you must pull off these mental miracles for months, or years, at a time.

In the first 25 years of my writing, I wrote a score of short stories, four novels and half a dozen screenplays. I improved with each effort, but never had anything resembling commercial success. I was a rank amateur with only a stack of rejected manuscripts to show for my labor.

Yeah, that's about how many drafts of all my manuscripts I had. (Photo by Stencil)

In the past 10 years, my writing has leveled up, especially my ability to solve story problems, which demands the most creativity of all. When I started, I wrote simple stories with hardly anything happening because that's as much as I could handle in a story. I now write multiple point-of-view novels, juggling personalities like a politician at a Florida political rally, with lots going on in the stories.

What changed? Part of it is just practicing for ten more years. But I think meditation is a big part of my improvement.

Meditation was recommended to me ten years ago by two writing instructors. When I started meditating, I immediately noticed the benefits, calming me and strengthening my mind's ability to focus and let interruptions slip away like ducks over a waterfall.

Of course, correlation is not causation, but I'm convinced that meditating has allowed me to learn to write better during my recent classes. It's not the solution, but a critical part of the solution. (The other parts are exercise and better sleep habits — and meditation is also what helps me keep those habits, as well.)

You should try it.

Breathe. (Photo via Stencil)

How to get started meditating

To begin meditating, find a quiet and comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, and pay attention to your breathing.

If another thought emerges in your mind, let it go. Tell yourself you'll think about it later. Then pay attention to your breathing again.

That's it. Do that and you are officially meditating.

If the simplicity of that seems like it's a joke, it's not. That deceptively easy thing to do is what delivers great benefits to you mind and body.

Try it — right now! — then come back and ask yourself this question:

How can something that easy be so valuable?

If you can concentrate, then you can write. (Photo via Stencil)

Does this sound like you?

We are constantly assaulted by distraction in the modern world. If you work on a computer, you likely check your social media feeds or scroll through email. (I do those, but I'm also addicted to reading the news.) If you have a smartphone, you may check your social media, check your email, read the news and also play a game.

On top of that, you may listen to a podcast or the radio in your car, then watch streaming television in the evening, and go down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos before falling asleep.

If that's you, your brain is dealing with a lot of input that is telling you what to think. Other people's opinions and judgment. Stories that you are expected to enjoy.

None of that input gives your brain a chance to think for itself about something. Maybe not anything.

So a break of as little as five minutes can give your mind a chance to recover and even strengthen itself. That little bit of calm goes a long way, and feels pretty good.

Find a quiet place and meditate. (Photo via Stencil)

How long should you meditate?

You can meditate for a minute, or an hour, or any number of minutes in between. I declared six (6) minutes to be the threshold for me. I set myself a goal to sit quietly once a day and pay attention to my breathing.

Six minutes works for me, but ten or twenty might be better for you. You have to try it and figure out what works for your schedule, even if it's less than six minutes.

Are you familiar with that adage about how to control your anger? You count to ten before responding. Even that tiny amount is a form of meditation. You are focusing your mind on counting, giving it a chance to calm down.

I recommend you keep track of your mediation efforts because the act of tracking encourages you to keep doing it, turning it into a habit. You can use a calendar, a journal, or a rosary.

Journal to keep track of your meditating. (Photo by Stencil)

What else does meditation do?

By focusing on your breathing, you are training your mind to concentrate on something. It's like practicing scales in music: we play an ukulele with our hands, but the real work is done in our brain.

This modern world constantly interrupts our thoughts, teaching our minds to deal with the next thing, the next headline, the next level in a game. It's become a big casino with bells and blinking lights beckoning for our attention.

Taking five or ten minutes to practice focusing your mind strengthens your ability to filter out some of the noise. Remember how I mentioned that, should a thought intrude upon your meditation, just let it go, reminding yourself you'll worry about it later. Then focus your attention again on your breathing.

Letting go of an interruption must also be strengthened.

So that's two critical things meditation does for you:

  • strengthens your ability to focus
  • strengthens your ability to ignore interruptions

What if you want to do more?

This takes a lot of concentration. (Photo via Stencil)

Take your meditating to the next level

The simplest thing to do with meditation is just do more. Sit in a quiet place for longer stretches of time. I find that, on weekends, I linger after the six minutes are after, often until my crossed legs fall asleep.

Try walking meditation, which is just like normal walking, but a little slower. Pay attention to your surroundings. It's best done away from a busy, noisy street, like in a park. Notice the trees. Look for birds. Watch where you're going, and also what's underfoot, such as grass or gravel or pavement.

If you play music, or want to learn, practicing scales, with its repetitive concentration, is a form of meditation. I play ukulele, and Danieal Ward created a song book of meditations that are delightful to hear, fun to play, teach me chords and finger-picking, and also are a meditative break for my mind.

Finally, there are forms of mantra meditation, during which suggestions are repeated to yourself.

How frequently should you meditate?

Meditating should be at least like bathing, in that you try to do it daily, or more often if you get yourself messy. During particularly frustrating or stressful times, a few minutes of meditation can restore balance and energy, while also strengthening your mind to better withstand assaults in the future.

Meditating can make you smarter. (Photo via Stencil)

What will meditating do for you?

Meditating won't in and of itself make you a novelist, pianist, or surgeon. But if you want to learn any of those skills (any skill, obviously) training your brain to focus, remain calm, and ignore distractions is fundamenntal.
The world needs more people who can use the power of their mind to solve problems.

Give it a try.

Mickey Picayune

Facing Problems Head On Ain’t Fun But Neither is Running Away

Mickey Picayune for November 18, 2019

Last week was a kick in the stomach reminder about harsh weather. We got around eight inches of snow in brutally cold fashion. It doesn't help with the days growing shorter. Harsh weather messes with your mood, and it's for real.

I'm tempted to think of escapist strategies at such times. Wouldn't it be nice to have a place in Florida? Should we sneak off to Arizona? (Am I the sort of Boomer with enough discretionary money to do such things? Not really, but I have good credit.)

But there's a much healthier way to deal with harsh reality

Tough problems have to be dealt with directly. Escaping (or ignoring) the problem only worsens the situation. The solution might take an indirect route, but your mind, and your heart and your spirit will be stronger for confronting the problem.

In my case, I cleaned out enough of my garage to park a single car in it. That may seem a bit ridiculous, but it opens up enough driveway space that I can shovel when the snow falls.

I also took my snow blower to the shop for repair. It's not a big honking thing, but it's enough to help me when the worst snow falls.

I picked up the leaves before the storm, put away my rake, and stationed shovels at all the doors so I could dig my way out of the garage, the side door, and the back door.

Finally, I bought a new pair of water proof shoes. I've worn half-assed boots for fifteen years and decided that having dry, warm feet might help me deal with winter. I found a pair on clearance and I love them.

I'm not looking forward to winter, but I'm not afraid of it either.

Recent Writing

I spent this past week trying to get my act together. My writing act. Namely, I'm working on more of the shorter pieces I had been writing before I tackled the novel over the summer.

I've worked on my content strategy for several years, but never implemented it. I know a few things about the topic, taking courses and reading books, and using it at my day job. Like the cobblers barefoot children, I never did it for myself.

In my defense, the cornerstone of my strategy is to write novels that people love and share. Everything else depends on that. So I'm laying the ground work, and you'll see an upsurge of shorter, entertaining or enlightening stuff.

To wit, here is a piece published in The Haven on Medium:

Remember, "Knowledge is good."

Things to Read

In a not-so-subtle call back to dealing with problems directly, and dealing with harsh reality, I'm doing what I can to be a Climate Changeling. I'm composting, added insulation to our house, and installed high-efficiency furnace, hot water heater, and A/C.

Really, I should just get rid of the A/C. I'm considering installing a green-house pit garden. My next car will have a battery, and I'm going to commute to work on a scooter. (As long as my credit holds out.)

I'm certainly not looking to escape anywhere because there's no where else to go. We all need to do what we can without looking away. It's painful, but we've wandered into hell. We need to keep walking.

Read this if you need help looking at the problem without flinching:

For something very entertaining and uplifting, here is as story about Mary Steenburgen (Danny the Elf's step-mother) who had a change in her brain and turned it into musical gold:

Mary Steenburg, Oscar-winning actress and songwriter

Self Improvement

How to Email Like a Pro to Get Shit Done – The Mickey Way

I used to have a boss who didn’t understand email. The root problem was that he neither understood correspondence, nor the art of conversation. How he got to be my boss remains a mystery (but I have a few theories). So…

What didn’t he understand about email, you ask?

My boss thought that email worked fine if you typed all your thoughts into a single paragraph, using only an occasional period for punctuation. Furthermore, he wrote the entire email in ALL CAPS, which is off-putting at best.

I frequently rewrote his email for him. It never occurred to him that he should learn to correspond in any other fashion. He hardly believed me when I told him the email needed to be rewritten. (Of course, he did believe me because he returned for help, and sent my version as his own. He just never admitted he was wrong or thanked me for helping.)

This is not about sales or marketing

A lot has been written about email to make sales or expand your marketing reach. This article is about advancing projects, solving problems and getting stuff done when it’s your job on the line.

I’ve been working for 35 years, since before email, and have evolved and adapted to make email an effective and reliable tool that helps me do my job. Using the techniques I describe, you will worry less and produce more. And it’s no more difficult than having a conversation.

First things first: what is email?

Email is a form of correspondence, and correspondence is the one-sided form of conversation. When you converse (or correspond) with someone, you bring up a topic, you listen to their thoughts on the topic, and you share your own thoughts. If a decision (or action) is required, you then base the decision on the thoughts just shared with the other person.

At the risk of being pedantic, those principles of conversation are:

  • Bring up a topic
  • Listen to the thoughts and opinions offered
  • Share your own thoughts and opinions
  • Suggest a decision (or action) if one is needed
  • Confirm agreement (if needed)

That pretty much covers how all human civilization arranges and advances itself. When you send an email, you are participating in human civilization. But, being one-sided by its nature, it’s even more important to be exactly clear in an email about:

  • Topic
  • Your thoughts and opinions
  • Whether or not a decision is needed

As tempting as it may be to avoid confrontation, or to be chatty, don’t do any of that stuff. Stick to the topic and ask tough questions if needed. Tangential thoughts may ruin your chances of getting an answer. Most business correspondence is done via email, so it’s imperative that you are skilled in it if you want to flourish in your work.

Business conversations should be focused on reaching (or sharing) a decision, leading to an action for the business. Email is a great way to have those conversations, allowing the participants to respond at their convenience.

Here are a few rules for business email done The Mickey Way:

Rule #1: Put the topic in the subject of the email

Email has a subject line that’s displayed for all recipients. Put the topic of this one-sided conversation there. Write it in a clear and interesting way because this is your first and best chance to get the opinion, decision or action you need for your business.

Don’t reuse an old email’s subject line because you can reply-all and send it to a particular group. Go ahead and hit reply-all, but take the time to put the correct topic in the subject line.

Rule #2: Greet the recipient in the body of the email

Email has a To field which specifies one or more recipients. If the To field is crowded with names, most people will think somebody else is going to deal with email. This is called the Bystander Effect.

The Bystander Effect is when people witnessing an accident, crime or disaster will assume that someone else is going to take care of it.

You must combat the Bystander Effect by naming your intended in the body of the email. It’s best to do this as a greeting. Make it absolutely clear who you are talking to. This gets their attention, and is the next best chance to get what you need out of this email. It’s best to keep it simple, and here are three examples:

  • Dear Tom,
  • Felix:
  • Hey Bethany…

Don’t salute them with “Hey girl,” or “How are you?” or “What up?” Use a name. Use the name of the person whose attention you seek.

Rule #3: Repeat the topic in the first sentence of the email

Email is one-sided, so it’s your responsibility to share your thoughts and opinions on the topic to be discussed. But the recipient may have already forgotten the topic of the mail (which they saw in the subject line) by the time the email opens. I’m not kidding: it’s better to assume the recipient is under a constant bombardment of interruptions, and may forget in the two seconds it takes to double-click an email and begin reading it.

Often, people are skipping through email, trying to find high-priority things they need to do, and are just glancing at the sender and the body. The subject line may only get a cursory glance.

You must set the recipient’s context for this conversation by telling them the topic. Remind them why this topic is important. Tell them what’s at stake if they mess this up.

Here are a few examples:

  • Last week, I was asked to document the user interface requirements for the new cash processing system under development. You’re the designated subject matter expert on cash processing, so I need to speak to you about those requirements.
  • I received a call from our custodial vendor regarding the change in schedule for cleaning the bathrooms. It’s ultimately your decision, so I’m reaching out to you.
  • I’d like to take next Friday off on vacation

Don’t begin by asking about their weekend, or lamenting that you missed lunch the other day. If you don’t immediately hook them they are vulnerable to interruptions, and may never get back to your email.

Rule #4: Solicit the recipient’s opinion

It’s important to activate the recipient’s thinking on the topic, and the best way to do that is ask them what they think. Following on the examples from Rule #3, here are some ways to do that:

  • Do you think we should meet and discuss the requirements, or can we exchange the requirements document and develop them that way?
  • Do you have a plan for the bathroom cleaning schedule, or do you need more time to consider?
  • Do you think it would be okay for me to be gone next Friday?

Exception to the Rule

You may be informing someone of a situation, but no decision or action is needed. In that case, tell them that explicitly:

  • This is just for your information. We don’t have to decide this matter now, but I wanted you to be informed. I’ll let you know as things develop.

Don’t muddle the topic with mitigating factors; i.e., don’t give the recipient a reason to withhold their opinion. You might do this unconsciously because you are conflict adverse and regret putting the recipient on the spot by asking their opinion. For instance, don’t add, “I don’t know if it matters, but what do you think…” or “This in no big deal, really, but what do you think…” By couching the question to avoid conflict, you are granting the recipient permission to pull their punch. If they don’t have to commit, they won’t. Even if it’s a simple question like “want to go to lunch?”

Rule #5: Share your thoughts

This being a one-sided conversation, you must present your position on the topic. This gives the recipient something to react to, and helps them formulate a response. For example:

  • I think the requirements are complex and we would reach mutual understanding faster if we meet face to face. It will likely take two hours to get through them.
  • I will let the vendor know your decision, as it is entirely up to you
  • I have no meetings next Friday, and it won’t impact my work if I’m gone.

Exception to the Rule

If you have no opinion, say so. We are often just messengers in business, and merely connecting decision-makers. There is no shame in that, and it’s best for all parties to be clear about it. Claiming mastery of a domain where you don’t belong will confuse matters, at best. In the worst case, you’ll make an enemy at work.

Don’t be shy. If you have knowledge on the topic, say so, cite your sources, and be clear. No reason to pat yourself on the back. Similarly, if you’re confused or ignorant, say so. There’s no shame in that. Sharing vulnerability is a form of strength. The recipient should respect it. (The hell with them if they don’t.)

Rule #6: Explicitly suggest or ask for a decision (if one is needed)

If the topic requires a decision, then suggest one or ask for one, as appropriate. Be explicit about the need for a decision and specify deadlines. If you’re informing them of your decision, be clear about it so that they understand your position and reasoning.

Here are examples continuing from the previous ones:

  • Let me know by 3 p.m. today so that I can inform the project manager and arrange the schedule appropriately.
  • The vendor wants to know by noon tomorrow so they can make arrangements.
  • If you can let me know before lunch, I’d appreciate it because we’re trying to make plans for that weekend.

Don’t assume that the recipient will understand any deadlines or the basic need to decide. People are busy, distracted, and looking for things they don’t have to do. The email you sent to them is a candidate for something they can read and forget. Give them a reason to not decide and that’s exactly what they’ll do. And then you’ll only end up sending another email.

Rule #7: Thank them

Everybody is busy, or distracted, and the fact that they read your email should be rewarded. Thank them, and maybe even wish them a happy day. Here are a few examples I like:

  • Thanks
  • Thanks very much
  • Thanks for your time

Don’t overthink the thanking. I guess if telling people to make it a great day is your thing, you can add that. But I don’t. (I’ll say that stuff in person, in an actual conversation, but not in a business email.)

Do we have to follow all the rules all the time?

Of course, I break some of my own rules, or combine things when I’m confident I won’t muddle the message.

Not very email you send at work is a “business email.” You may be connecting with someone, or congratulating them, or fishing for opportunities, or scouting for danger. In fact, I’ll probably tell you how to write all of those, The Mickey Way, in the coming weeks.

Back to my boss

The reason my boss got away with not being able to email or correspond is because he had me do it, instead. After a while, I got tired of him asking, and I just stopped, feigning excuses or avoiding him. He went to other people in the office.

Eventually, everyone had been tapped to rewrite his crappy emails, memos and letters.

We made fun of him but he had the last laugh. When I tracked him down last year, he was a Vice President of a Chicago-based talent company. Well fuck it all, because that brings up…

Rule #8: If you can’t fucking write an email, get help

If you’re not sure about an email, ask for help. Find someone to discuss it with (in a conversation!). I do this with critical topics or in volatile situations. Thankfully, I can handle most email in my life and career, but when I’m nervous about one, I get a second opinion. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.

Also, I don’t sweat hanging prepositions and split infinitives. If you don’t know what they are, that’s cool too. That is, your email doesn’t have to be grammatically perfect. But I will offer one more rule…

Rule #9: Sentences, paragraphs and DON’T USE ALL CAPS

Construct your email in sentences and paragraphs. If you have trouble with those, get help; but if you can talk, you’re probably using sentences already. Give yourself credit.

The trick with paragraphs is that they need to be built around a single idea with one or more sentences developing that idea: raising a point, making the counter-point, and wrapping up the idea so that the next paragraph can raise a different point. When in doubt, go with a shorter paragraph.

Often, the body of my business emails are four, one-sentence paragraphs, with a line in-between each to allow them to stand out; i.e., use white space. (You definitely don’t want to write it all in a single block of text without punctuation.)

And for the love of God, don’t use ALL CAPS.

Seriously, I could not believe that guy was a manager. And then he made God damn VP. Fuck.


The 3 Notebooks of Creative Productivity

How Pen and Paper Tap Into an Endless Supply of Ideas to Fuel Your Creativity

I've worn those gloves while trying to write in an impossibly cold room. But I had to write.

In the mid-70s, when I was in middle school, I hung around the public library a lot. It was close to my home, I loved books, and they showed movies during the summer. Not blockbuster or even well-known movies, but feature length or short films, shot in the 60s or early 70s. One film sticks with me to this day. It was about a middle-school-aged kid who was trying to earn a scouting badge of some kind, and had to go out in the wilderness and survive one night alone.

The scout leaders taught the kid to make shelter, find water, and build a fire. Do it in that order, and you'll survive the night. They gave him some basic supplies like twine and a hatchet. They also gave him three blue-tip matches, the kind you can strike anywhere and light. Then they dropped this poor dumb bastard kid in the woods.

He found a stream, built a shelter, and then gathered wood for the fire. He was racing against the setting sun so that mountain lions or coyote wouldn't gut him and eat him in the dark. It was implied by the story that once it was dark, he was fair game. Or so it seemed because he hustled his ass off.

Don't forget the kindling!

As the sun set behind the mountains, he tried to start a fire. He piled up a bunch of sticks in a pyramid shape. That was going to be the fuel for his fire. Then he took his first match, struck it against a rock, and tried to light one of the sticks.

But the match didn't have enough heat to start the fire. So he tried again, the same way, and again he didn't start the fire.

Finally, he took that third and final match and struck it against a rock to start it, then held it against the stick to light it. Same as before, the stick didn't ignite, the match burned out.

The kid was plunged into darkness, and the movie ended on him huddled in his crappy lean-to, shivering, afraid, and certainly about to die.

That was depressing as hell but it stuck with me for 43 years so far. I think I cling to that story because I'm a writer, and every time I write a story — be it a short, a screenplay, or a novel — I'm like that kid holding a match to a fucking log, hoping it's all going to catch fire and keep me warm through the night.

And, like that kid, I didn't learn how to gather my creative energies together into a proper fire that would spark, ignite, and burn through the dark and cold night, keeping the wild animals at bay.

Never run out of notebooks.

That brings me to notebooks

Notebooks are a way to gather fuel, assemble your sticks and ignite a fire. A creative fire.

If you’re trying to be creative, you may have had a story bugging you that you’re trying to get out, or you are fascinated with becoming a writer, so you’re trying to create something out of nothing. It’s possible to get started as a creative that way, but it’s like wandering into the woods.

You’re going to need to survive in the woods. You’re going to need notebooks.

But if you don’t know how to use your notebooks, no creative fire will spring forth from the pages. They will grow cold beside you in the dark as you wait for the lions and coyote.

Mixed media on bond paper.

Why notebooks and not ebooks

The modern world has provided hundreds of note-taking apps. You can get these apps for your smartphone or your tablet or you laptop computer. But I think you should use old fashioned notebooks and pens.

Using paper and pen directly engages a part of your brain associated with creativity. Cursive writing, doodling, and mind-mapping are a form of play that both captures and generates ideas.

Using paper and pen is a direct connection to your earliest form of self-expression. It’s connects you with your youngest self and your oldest memories, even if you’re not conscious of it.

To play is to create, and to be creative you need to play. Creativity requires inspirational fuel. Collecting your playfulness on the pages of a notebook is a way to gather fuel for a blaze of creativity. 

I’m willing to bet that, if you’re reading this, you already use a notebook. But now I’m going to add just enough structure to your concept of notebooks that they will become the single most valuable tool you have for creativity.

Nay, notebooks are the only tool of creativity.

Grids are fine if dotted-grid is not available.

The first notebook of creative productivity

You must have a notebook you carry at all times for capturing ideas, or to write down weird shit you see on the street. This everyday carry notebook can be big or small. Size doesn’t matter. Only that it is there when you need it.

You may see and hear crazy shit every day. Write it down in this notebook.

You may have weird and wild ideas throughout the day. Write them down in this notebook.

You may have story or design ideas that emerge from the depths of your subconscious. Write them down in this notebook.

At some point, you’ll settle on a story to write (or some creative project to design) and sit at a table to work on that one thing. Even then, more ideas will emerge about still other projects. Write those down in this notebook so you can get back to your primary story/project.

Because it’s a take-with-me-everywhere notebook, I’ve have gone for diminutive dimensions and use the Leuchtturm 1917 pocket-size. I get the dotted-grid pages, rather than lined, because I may doodle or sketch, and the dotted-grid is great for that and for writing line-by-line. The paper takes to pen very well. (You could also go with the Moleskine pocket, which is slightly smaller than the Leuchtturm, and you'll probably love it.)

This notebook is for phrases, bullet lists, or snatches of dialogue. Bear witness to the world you experience and make notes about it. You are gathering wood to build your fires at night. 

You don’t use this notebook for lyrical composition, sweeping panoramic drawings or to design your project. To do those things, you’ll need a second notebook.

Nice firm grip on both the pen and the notebook.

The second notebook of creative productivity

You must have a notebook with paper large enough to establish a flow of ideas on a page. You will use it as part of your work on various projects to develop characters, settings or plot possibilities (if you're a writer) or sketches, designs or whatever (if your creative work is not writing).

I use mine every morning (or as close to morning as I can) to capture dreams from the night, or story ideas that popped in my head upon waking (it happens) and free writing. Also, it should be part of your creative process to engage the brain with the act of writing while thinking about your projects in development.

Thanks to the late novelist Sue Grafton, I now journal specifically about my current project, and use this notebook to do it. Every morning, I journal what part of the story I wrote, how the writing went, and what's next to be written. I'll do a page or two; whatever feels write for that morning.

I will also use this notebook to write up the characters and the story. This may take an hour or more and use up a dozen pages. It's very rewarding to engage your brain this way, especially in the morning after a good amount of sleep, and ponder story problems and how to solve them. Later on, I'll track down these pages when I'm ready to compose the actual story in my writing tool on a computer, flip through the pages, and get busy writing.

You could carry this notebook with you everywhere but I generally don't. I have a place to write in the mornings at my house, and it's mostly to be found there. If I'm traveling, it's with me, and the beauty is that it's easy to take along for the ride.

I use the Moleskine Classic XL hard cover. It's a nice balance between size and portability. The paper is a delight for writing, of course, because quality paper is the main feature of Moleskine notebooks. Over the years, I've used the large size and the cahier covers in both sizes. This classic XL has a few more pages, college-ruled lines, and the paper won't pucker if you use a gel ink pen. It's actually fun to write with the space and how the gel ink flows on the paper.

You can use whatever notebook you love. Once you find one and fall in love, put in a good supply so it's there at the ready. There's nothing more off-putting than waking up early to write and realizing you don't have the notebook you love.

The work you do in this notebook is like chopping wood, getting ready to build your fire. You may recall something you captured in the first notebook, and you'll look there to refresh your memory. Then you settle in and make a little something of it.

To build a fire, you need to plan a little bit, especially if you’re going to wander the woods for more than one night. (As a writer, I hope you will wander the woods for the rest of your life.) To plan, you will use the third notebook.

Nice nib.

The third notebook of creative productivity

Notebooks are great for planning. Yes, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of electronic tools for planning your creative projects. But for my money, a notebook you control with pen and ink is the best approach.

Planning is day-dreaming with a due date. When you sit down to plan, you pick a period of time, and figure out what you’re doing to do. You’re answering the question, “How do I turn fantasy into reality.”

Planning also forces your rational mind into dominance as you identify and prioritize the steps. Using a phone or computer application to help with the work reinforces the use of the rational mind, taking you one more level away from creativity.

You’ll likely need some creativity to make a workable plan, especially if your creative life has to somehow exist outside of (or in spite of) your day-job. Wouldn’t it be nice to somehow tap into the artsy part of your brain?

Writing in a planning notebook with a pen still engages that artsy part of your brain. There’s that thing in your hand you use to make marks. You touch and feel the paper as you mark it, and images appear before your eyes. Sure, it’s called writing, but it’s a specific form of drawing.

That’s why I love using a notebook for the tedious work of planning.

I haven't met the pencil yet that I want to use in a journal.

What notebook should I use?

There are several notebooks designed specifically for planning. The granddaddy of them all (at least in my lifetime) is the Franklin Planner. It’s marketed more for organizing your information and your life, but that’s a form of planning. Using special inserts, you can dedicate sets of pages to planning various projects. Another classic of similar design is the Day-Timer notebooks.

What I currently love and use is the BestSelf notebook, designed specifically for planning in three month intervals. Every page of this notebook is intended for a specific step in planning and tracking the progress of a project. I use it for the screenplay, novels and side hustles I work on.

BestSelf comes with training and tutorials to help you master the techniques. I picked it up quickly, but there are Facebook groups where people help each other out on how to apply the principles to their specific situation or project.

The other recent trend in planning with a notebook is bullet journaling. The idea is you can use any notebook and you make bullet lists, like to-do lists, project plans, short-term or long-term goals. It’s entirely up to you how you want to organize and plan your projects this way. One of the great features of this approach is the flexibility lowers the cost of getting started. You can grab any notebook, declare it your bullet journal, and get started in less than a minute.

My hesitation to recommend bullet journaling as your third notebook is that lesson I learned from that short film I saw in 1975: the kid was sent out into the woods with minimal training and told to build a fire. The cost of getting started was low; but he failed.

Planning your creative projects (or any project), especially something like a novel that may require months or years of consistent engagement, is very difficult. The better your plan, the better you can focus your talent and energy on the creative process.

I carry my planning notebook with me most days, in case I have a moment to refine the plan or advance a project. The BestSelf notebook has space for daily brainstorming and project brainstorming. After four years of using it, I find it indispensable.

I'll have what she's having (as in that cool little Zibaldone-like notebook).

Couldn’t I just use one notebook for all three tasks?

Yes, you could use one notebook. In the Middle Ages, such journals were called Zibaldones, and were used for reminders, to-do lists, design sketches, or accounting ledgers (paper was really expensive then, so any notebook was a major investment and was used for everything except, maybe, wiping your ass).

In more recent times, the idea of a commonplace book was practiced, where a single notebook was used for any and all ideas someone had, whether reading a book, notes to yourself, or any of the many notebook-tasks previously mentioned. Said another way, it was the common place to gather all your thoughts about everything.

Part of the spirit of bullet journaling is that you can dedicate pages of your creative journal to organizational tasks or planning. It allows you to shift gears quickly to capture ideas, shape them, and plan how to use them. That’s fine if it floats your boat. Use one notebook if you only want to have one notebook.


The one thing I hope you embrace is the idea that being creative requires lots of on-going, damn-near constant activity that supports your works of art. Storytellers must constantly look for characters and situations they can use in stories. Artists and designers must be ever watchful for colors, shapes, and compositions that excite their heart and mind. That is to say, you must be searching for fuel for your fire all the time, and use your everyday-carry notebook to gather it.

You must take time to prepare your fuel for the fire and have the proper tool to shape it. Your larger notebook is the tool, and shaping the gathered ideas should be a fun activity.

Finally, you need to plan your creative projects. Using a notebook to plan taps into your creativity, and can also be fun to do if you love your notebook.

Whether you use one notebook to do all of these things or have specialized notebooks is up to you. I suggest you play around with each approach. And I mean play, because it should be fun to mess with notebooks. (For extra fun, I keep a few stencils at the ready, as well, to add simple pictures to the written word.)

He's probably a good boy, but I don't want to meet him on a dark night in the woods.

The End

Just don’t let the short film of your life end on a sour note, like that kid who couldn’t build the fire. Spend some time learning to use the three notebooks of creative productivity so that you can wander the woods, do your art, and never be afraid of the lions or coyote.

Post Script

In up-coming articles, I'll discuss the best pens for each of these notebooks, and various accessories and techniques to help you as creative and as productive as you can be.


Laboring Under the Delusion of Love, Hope and Good Will

We, like many families, have two cats and two dogs. But let’s be real: the dogs and cats own us more than we own them.

Emily, our daughter, is particularly fond of the pets, and showers them with love and affection. It’s contagious and welcome, as we all enjoy the pets a bit more when Emily visits.

The other night, I went to bed at my normal time but was awakened at 1:30 a.m. because Mrs. Bigglesworth, one of the cats, could not be found. Both our cats go outside, but this is winter and they don’t stay out long by their own choice.

My wife stood in silhouette in our bedroom doorway and asked me at what time I had let the cat outside. I didn’t remember letting the cat out. Downstairs, our daughter was upset and crying because Mrs. Bigglesworth was outside and the temperature was plummeting.

Disoriented from the brief sleep, I went outside to assist in the search.

Earlier that day, the cold snap had broken and much of the previous week’s snow from the blizzard melted off. This day had been the first time in weeks the cats were allowed outside. The good news was that it was cold but not yet bitter at 1:30 a.m. Hoping for a speedy search, I went outside dressed only in my pajamas and slippers and checked the usual hiding places around the yard.

Biggles was not in my neighbor’s shrubs, or at the edge of our property overlooking the school yard, or in the bushes out front near the cul de sac.

Three years ago, Biggles had run off and was still missing after two days. My daughter was distraught, fearing the worst, and I was sick at the thought of having to tell her that her beloved cat was gone. I searched the woods behind the school, biked through all of the neighborhoods surrounding our own, and went out every night at midnight to call for her, roaming through back yards, hoping that I didn’t awaken an asshole with a gun. We plastered notices on every street and on the school doorways. It was a fifth grade girl who saw a notice and recognized the cat hiding in the woods behind her house. Ten days had gone by, and her fur was a mess, but otherwise she was fine.

Fearing a repeat of that tumultuous time, I went back inside for a warm coat and better shoes.

I, my wife and my daughter roamed the vicinity of our house. There are several overgrown areas near the school that the cats frequent. On the other side of our yard, the adjoining properties have gardens. I took to the sidewalks, covering the outer limits of what I thought our morbidly obese cat could reach in the few hours thought to be missing.

 As I walked along the sidewalk, the cold air still, the houses dark, and the streets quiet at 2 a.m., I reviewed the facts as I knew them:

  • My wife had let the cats out in the afternoon when the sun had come out.
  • I let Mrs. Bigglesworth in some time after that, but out other cat, Ja’mie, chose to stay outside.
  • Ja’mie came in several hours later when our daughter arrived at 11 p.m.
  • My wife could not find Mrs. Bigglesworth inside the house, so she was convinced that Biggles was outside.
  • My wife assumed I had let Mrs. Bigglesworth out some time between then.
  • I assumed my wife had let her out, but didn’t remember doing so.
  • It was getting pretty fucking cold out.

Two ideas presented themselves to me as I walked along the street. First was that I was doing this out of love for my family, trying to save them from the pain of losing a loved one. It’s a fool’s errand for a couple of reasons. The pain of loss is part of the bargain of the joy of loving, especially pets. Their life spans all but guarantee that to love a dog, cat, or gerbil is to suffer a broken heart when they’re gone. But here I was, wandering the streets at two in the morning on a frigid winter night, hoping to postpone that broken heart for our family just one more day. I seemed willing to do anything possible to return Mrs. Bigglesworth to the hearth of our home, and let us all have a night’s sleep knowing that all loved ones were present and accounted for.

The other idea that presented itself was that Mrs. Bigglesworth was not outside at all. My wife assumed I let her out, as I assumed she let her out. But I was confident I had not let her out.

I was not so confident in my wife’s ability to thoroughly search the house.

I returned home at 2:30 a.m., cold, tired and suffering the additional regret of not having worn my Fitbit while walking for almost a solid hour. I assured our daughter that I would resume the search in the morning, and that any cat would be fine in weather such as this. Mrs. Bigglesworth, who carries thick fur on a heavier-than-normal frame, could handle much colder weather, in fact.

Then I re-checked her favorite indoor hiding places.

The first (and last) place I looked, I found her behind the television in the family room. Her ample body was spread over the heat vent on the floor. She looked up at me with her signature glance of uncaring detachment.

So my wish was granted, and we all went to bed reasonably confident that all of our loved ones were accounted for this night. I know our hearts will break soon enough as time takes its toll, but there was joy and peace to be savored for one more day.