Fiction Writing Prompt: Take a Walk

In lieu of this week’s Sandbox Notes, here is a writing prompt that my thesis advisor, Rita Banerjee, gave to me, and I’d love to pass it forward.


If you are feeling stuck in your fiction, take a walk and embody your main character(s).

Time: At least 20 minutes.

Where: You can walk anywhere you like! It can be around your neighborhood, a downtown area, a nearby park. Make sure to walk the same route for every character. The environment is your control variable in this experiment.

What: As you walk, take notice of how you transform into your character. Note how you (as your character) walk. Which gestures give you comfort? What do you smell, taste, touch, see, hear as you travel through the world? What stops you or keeps you walking? What pops into your brain? What are you preoccupied with or worried about? Do you talk to yourself? Do you make eye contact with the people around you, or do you stare at the ground?

Once you’ve completed your walks, write a 1-2 page scene, in which all your character does is go for a walk. Try to incorporate as many of the details from your own walk as possible.


Pro tip: Last week, I tried this exercise with my novel’s three main characters, and at times, I felt like I was forcing behaviors or thoughts onto them. In those moments, I tried to break out of character and become myself again. It’s funny I had to remember what it was like to be a living, thinking human. I made myself aware of what thoughts naturally come up in a mind. I should write to my grandmother. I said this thing to so-and-so, and are they still thinking about it as I am? Should I have soup or more oatmeal for dinner? Once I was able to identify what I, Cammie, was thinking about, I was then able to categorize “types” of thoughts and decide which of my characters were more likely to have a similar thought.  

Take what you need from this exercise! Let me know how it goes for you, and if you choose to adapt it in any way. Walk on!


New Piece “Sad Animal Facts in the Style of Ikkyū” on Queen Mob’s Teahouse

I am overjoyed that my piece, “Sad Animal Facts in the Style of Ikkyū” was recently published online as part of Queen Mob’s Teahouse‘s collection of “Misfit” documents. According to Queen Mob’s, a Misfit Document is “a text that doesn’t easily fit into any genre or category. It’s not quite a poem or short story or novel excerpt or essay. Or if it is one of those things, it doesn’t quite qualify as “literary” or sci-fi or mystery or memoir or whatever.”

I had recently created a series of hybrid, Frankenstein-stitched pieces—unexpected mashups from different sources—including this sequence which mixes Brooke Barker’s “Sad Animal Facts” with the poetic style of 15th-century Japanese Zen monk and poet Ikkyū (for this, I used Stephen Berg’s 1989 English translation of Crow with No Mouth). This sequence is original in the sense that no one has ever thought to pair these puzzle pieces together, but leans into the idea that all art is borrowed and all art is a commemoration of the art that came before.

(Puffins are called the clowns of the sea)


the lace-ruffled puffins want it too

A huge thanks to Reb Livingston at Queen Mob’s Teahouse for publishing it and being wonderful to work with!

Contest – International Young Writers Prize

Back in August, I had the wonderful opportunity to Skype with six high-school-aged writers as part of the Youth Studio at Fuente Collective. While I mostly talked their ears off about Hunger Mountain, how to navigate the labyrinth that is Submittable, and how to be a fabulous literary citizen, I also asked them questions about what teens are looking for in terms of writing and publication opportunities. I listened and considered their advice, and brought my scheming ideas back to the Hunger Mountain offices. After a brief discussion, the vote was unanimous, and so…

I’m thrilled to announce that Hunger Mountain has a brand new annual contest: The International Young Writers Prize! Do you know a high-school-aged writer whose story needs to be heard and celebrated? This prize (deadline March 1, 2019) is now open to all young writers around the world. All genres welcome. For more information and full guidelines, click here.

This is especially exciting to me because it is my way of contributing to the mission of Write for a Bright Future, an international conference I attended in 2015 while interning at the Ministry of Stories in England. I wrote about the event in the blog I was keeping for the duration of that trip:

Write for a Bright Future was the first international gathering of organizations and projects that have been inspired by 826 centers in the United States (like 826michigan that I work with!) The Ministry of Stories hosted the event, which enabled them to let part of the week be led by children from its writing clubs. This was super important to us – if we are meeting for and about children, they should be represented at the event, too! There were 26 sessions over 4 days, which were attended by over 150 delegates and guests (all of whom I made the name badges for, so I knew everyone’s name!) The range of content included presentations and workshops by the various centers’ ambassadors,  panel discussions with writers, a walking tour of Hoxton, a literary battle and the launch of a book contributed to by over 200 children from across the world. (Read the full blog post here)

Working as the Project Manager Assistant at one of the most inspired weeks of my life, I vowed to continue to champion young people’s stories for as long as I am able. This prize is one such way to encourage young writers and give them an opportunity to be supported by the generation above them. I’m so thankful that my lovely team at Hunger Mountain holds the same values and beliefs as I do in our youth’s wisdom and creativity. The idea is not to promote competition between young writers, but to show them that adults care about their stories, that we will give our full attention to them, that we will listen. We are all in this crazy world together, after all. So, let us spin some flax-golden tales.



Introducing: Sandbox Notes

A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure to pal around with the exquisite musician and composer Carla Kihlstedt during the MFA in Music Composition residency here at VCFA. Over cans of Conehead IPAs, we talked about anything and everything. Favorite books, social and language development in children, Carla’s latest project “Black Inscription,” the Borges lectures,  Mary Ruefle, etc.

Later, Carla mentioned Marina Keegan’s lists of “Interesting Stuff.” I don’t recall the context around why she brought this up, but I remember being afraid to say I didn’t know about Keegan’s lists. I, of course, did know about Marina Keegan and her posthumous book of essays and stories, The Opposite of Loneliness. Curious to know more about the “Interesting Stuff,” I scoured the internet and found this beautifully genuine and heart-wrenching tribute written by Anne Fadiman, one of Keegan’s professors at Yale. On her application to take Anne’s creative writing class, Keegan wrote: “About three years ago, I started a list. It began in a marbled notebook but has since evolved inside the walls of my word processor. Interesting stuff. That’s what I call it. I’ll admit it’s become a bit of an addiction. I add to it in class, in the library, before bed, and on trains. It has everything from descriptions of a waiter’s hand gestures, to my cab driver’s eyes, to strange things that happen to me or a way to phrase something. I have 32 single-spaced pages of interesting stuff in my life.”  

I continued reading the article, to the part where Anne retells how she received an email from another student, breaking the news that Keegan had died in a freak car accident, five days after graduation. Below, a smiling girl in a mortarboard was shown in a photo with her mother and father. I couldn’t read any further, suddenly blurry-eyed and sobbing alone in my tiny studio.

It’s odd, isn’t it? Staring at a photograph of someone about your age, who is no longer alive. It’s a much different thing than reading, say, Charlotte Bronte or Virginia Woolf (someone you know lived in a very different time than now. We have come to accept the fact that they are no longer living.) But Keegan should be here. I  couldn’t stop thinking about her all that day.  I was so moved by the stories of Keegan, her curiosity, her realness, and something clicked for me. Marvelous things are all around us, brimming with stories and captured detail. I wanted to capture it too. I don’t want to let all these hints of stories pass me by.

So beginning this past Monday, I decided to pretend 10,000 eyes were covering my entire body and opened my whole self to whatever the world wanted me to pay attention to. I carried a sketchpad with me everywhere I went, and recorded every marvelous thing, thought, wonder.

It was also Carla who told me that she often encourages her music students to take the first two months of their semester for playing “in the musical sandbox.” She explained the sandbox phase to me as “a period when you’re just playing with your materials to see what they want to do before you ask them to jump through flaming hoops with bows on their heads for the paying people.” The sandbox is just as applicable to any art, but especially to writing.

Each grain of sand contributes to the fullness of the sandbox. The more sand, the more castles and faces and cakes you are able to create. Simple, right? It also isn’t lost on me that some of our best development and thinking as a kid happened in those sandboxes. Time evaporated, dripping off your head with all that sun sweat. This was where we went to focus in the extreme. For many children, this is still the loci of their first go at creative flow.

That being said, let me introduce you to Sandbox Notes.

Sandbox Notes is an experiment in observation and openness. In just one week, I’ve already found the value in this level of awareness. Writers frequently talk about keeping their “writer’s notebook” which always seemed to daunt me. I suppose this is my own way of keeping a kind of practice, one I know I can sustain. After a particularly difficult and down day yesterday, feeling guilty for a lack of productivity, a friend told me: “You processing life and your emotions is helping you to create what you will eventually create.” Perhaps Sandbox Notes is one potential way for me to process, discover, and absorb. After all, in order to write and create things, we do need to get out there and experience life. This practice serves to encourage me to be a witness, a detective, a collector of EVERYTHING. 

Each Monday, I will post a photograph of the sandbox collection from the week prior—always right here on the blog, so stay tuned!

I’ve had a lot of fun this week digging in the sandbox, and I hope it continues to be fun to both collect & read as it goes along and as the project evolves.

Comments and suggestions are always welcome! 

Why We Write: A Community Space for Reflection

A few months ago, I wrote a post about “why I write” which I concluded may change as I go through my days, and that’s exciting to me. Reflection, self-awareness, and self-love is something I’m really trying to work on this year. I’d suggest that all of us could benefit from constantly working to improve this aspect of our lives, this listening to ourselves. Especially writers and creative minds – who are not always inside our own brains or bodies at any given moment, but may be inhabiting characters, dreamscapes, rhythms, trances of flow, colors, etc—we’re always confronting reality through a complex lens that wavers unfailingly between hyper-connection and ultra-detachment.

I created this brief writing prompt for the students at the Fuente Collective Youth Studio, but I hope that you are able to take what you need from it. (This is geared toward the writing field, but feel free to bend and shape it in any direction you need it to go):


Writing Prompt: Why We Write

It can be very exciting to talk about all the ways we can get published, but it’s also important to know WHY we want to get published. And this answer can be different for each person. What do you want to get out of your writing experience?  It’s easy to look at JK Rowling, and think wow, her life seems pretty great, right? But not everyone WANTS to be JK Rowling and that’s okay!

This exercise invites you to reflect on why you write now, and to project into the future of your career as a writer. Spend a few moments, or however long you would like, thinking through these four questions below, jotting down notes. Remember you can come back to these questions at any time. Keep them with you. Return to them often.


I write because…



(A few prompts in case you get stuck: Why do you write? What draws you to creating stories and putting them on paper? Do you love characters? Do you love how delicious certain words sound in your ears? How does writing help you think and process your life and the lives of others? What does it mean for you to be writing “in the zone”? Do you remember the person or experience that first got you interested in writing?)


In the future, I see myself….



(A few prompts in case you get stuck: What does your writing life look like in the future? Would you like to publish a book? Do you want to get paid to read other people’s books and write reviews? Do you want to give readings and do public tours? Do you see yourself as a private writer who doesn’t want to be famous, but just wants to share work with people? Do you want to make your work free and accessible?  Do you see yourself as an editor of a magazine? A teacher? A writer, although writing won’t be your day job? Anything is okay. This is your chance to dream.)



My audience is…




(A few prompts in case you get stuck: Who are you speaking to through your writing? Who do you want to connect with? Who do you envision reading your work? Are they people in your hometown? People with an interest in sports, in food, in animals? Do you want to teach your audience something they don’t know, or share a new perspective? Is your work for people older or younger than you; is your work ageless?)


I’m interested in writing about…



(A few prompts in case you get stuck: What are the topics, themes, ideas, places, people, cultures, subjects that make your writing uniquely yours? Write a list of nouns. A block of text. A word scramble, map, or tree, perhaps. Just write what comes to mind. What are you obsessed with? What are you curious about? What do you not understand but want to try? What are you afraid of? What brings you joy?)

This is a community space – so please feel free to share your answers and comments below! I’d love to see the diversity in thoughts, in why we write, in what we want to do with our writing, in what we want to write about. Perhaps I’ll even share my own answers, too!

Words of Encouraging Advice

Yesterday, I Skyped with Fuente Collective, a Houston-based writing center for both young and adult writers, to talk about Hunger Mountain and debunk the mysterious world of submitting creative work, but mostly my aim was to emphasize the importance of literary citizenship and how young writers can start being active in their own literary communities now. The talk went really well! The 14-to 18-year-olds are in such a great space, what with the support and generosity of their instructors Layla Al-Bedawi and Tayyba Kanwal, and the opportunities for writing and growth that FuenteCo provides. I’m very excited to work with Fuente again in the future!

In preparation for the talk, I put together a tear sheet for the group, including a brief overview of Hunger Mountain, and information about our current submission call. 

Also included on that tear sheet were a few “words of encouraging advice” that I collected from my fellow students and a few of the professionals I’ve had the pleasure to work with. The blurbs I received back ranged in topic from encouragement to follow one’s passion, tips for the act of writing itself, engaging in the literary community, and advice on how to send out work and get published. I think these words of wisdom are great reminders to keep us on our heart’s path, no matter your age or years of experience. I know I will print these words out  and paste them on my wall above my writing desk.

Enjoy these heartfelt blurbs below. Let them inspire you, speak to you, and stir up your creative juices:

Encouraging Advice from VCFA Students and Faculty: 

Everything I’ve ever learned about writing came from my mother and my father. My father taught me that nothing beats working hard. And that is exactly true with creative writing. The only way to be a successful writer is to make writing something that you do often and ferociously. But you cannot just work hard and become a great writer, and this is where my mother’s advice comes in. My mother taught me to be passionate about what I do. And for a writer to be great, they need to not only work hard but also love to work hard. They need to love the act of writing, the act of thinking about writing, the act of revising, the act of sending work out into the world. So write hard and love writing hard. ~ Sean Prentiss, author of Finding Abbey


Someone told this to me when I was young: Keep writing and always believe in the wilds of your imagination. ~ Kayleigh Marinelli, VCFA student


Don’t procrastinate. If you want to be a better writer, read carefully and pay attention to what others do and how they do it. Ask questions. Go to classes. Write as often as possible. Play with words. Enjoy telling stories. Find out as much as you can, read widely. And yes, don’t put it off for another day or year, but claim it now.  ~ Sarah Leamy, VCFA student


Don’t wait for inspiration to write. Simply write regularly and often. Sometimes, the work will fall apart. Sometimes it will come together and surprise you. It’s not so simple as “journey over destination” or “practice over product…” nor is the point of writing in the finished product alone. The point is that you weave writing into your life and let it become your inspiration. And do this with your reading to. Read. Read. Read. And keep reading. ~ Lizzy Fox, Associate Director of the MFA in Writing and Publishing program


There are two things that every writer needs: willingness and a community. Willingness is the ability to just make yourself start writing: even if you’re not feeling it, even if you think you’ve somehow lost any talent you might have once had, even if you’ve convinced yourself that your current work-in-progress is a worthless dog’s breakfast. You may need to fill a page with nonsense before you start to flow, but flow you will. The other thing you need is a community. We can get lost inside the hard bone casques of our skulls, and having trusted friends around keeps us grounded. When one of us is doing well, it gives the rest of us encouragement to push on. When one is having a hard time, there’s probably at least one other of us who just finished a story, or solved a vexing plot puzzle, or at least just learned a great new macadamia-nut cookie recipe. Find a crew. For writers, who are often temperamentally a solitary lot, this can be the biggest challenge. But it always, ALWAYS pays off. ~ Paul Daniel Ash, VCFA student


You are not alone. There are billions of people in the world and some of them need to hear your story, and this will only happen if you tell it. ~ Valentyn Smith, VCFA student




The Thole Life

The first thing you should know is that I am now the proud owner of a t-shirt with the following quote printed on the back:  “You must thole” ~ Colm Tóibín

What is “thole” you ask? (Don’t worry, I had to ask the same question!)

First appearing in Beowulf, migrating to Scottish, then Gaelic, and most surprisingly, leaping to the American South, “thole” roughly translates to “You must suffer and endure to make meaning out of life.” However great a word “thole” is, I don’t think that “tholing” is an activity that we must seek out. It comes naturally to all of us. When we are born, an invisible “thole” stamp is embedded into our foreheads. It is in our destiny to thole. Everyone’s tholing experience will be unique, but thole we shall do. This is a great reminder for writers. If we are to craft stories of the “real” human experience (even if our stories are populated with fictional characters), then we must let our characters thole.

This is just one of the great lessons I learned during my week at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, which was indeed a challenging week, but oh so rewarding. I produced four (rough) first drafts of short stories, and one piece of journalism, in which I interviewed a sweet local Gambier, OH resident name Deb, who works part-time in the local clothing boutique. I met the poet Carl Phillips, who coincidentally was the high school Latin teacher of one of my current VCFA professors. Most of all, my workshop group was the best class I could have asked for. Our group of ten writers, all ages and experience levels, was immediately comforted and encouraged by our instructor, Ghassan Abou-Zeineddine. Whenever I attend a class/workshop/conference, I make note of the structures, discussion questions, etc—anything that could inform my own teaching styles in the future. I was very impressed with Ghassan’s workshop structure:

  1. The writer whose piece is to be workshopped stands up and reads the piece out loud to the class. After this, the writer will remain quiet during the discussion (unless asked directly to speak).
  2. Ghassan asks, “What is this piece about?” While this question may sound trivial, it is one of the most important questions for the writer to hear answered. If there are disagreements in the interpretations of major plot points by the reader and writer, then the writer needs to work on clarification of those points before anything else. In addition to plot points and narrative events, the workshop group can also point out themes or deeper issues the story is pointing toward.
  3. “Let’s check in with the writer. How are you feeling about what the workshop group said this piece is about.” It’s important for the group to know if they were close or way off in regards to the writer’s intentions.
  4. “What is working in this piece?” This is where the writer’s morale is boosted. The workshop members can freely speak about what they admire in the story and in the writer’s unique way of crafting the narrative.
  5. “Any suggestions for this writer?” At this point, workshop members may point to places in the text where they were confused, may offer suggestions for places where the writer could linger and expand on certain details, or ask questions to spark further ideas.
  6. “Does the writer have any questions for the group?” The writer gets the last word of the discussion and can either comment on the suggestions given to them, or ask questions to the group that may have come up during the workshop.
  7. Workshop members with any written notes may choose to give them to the writer.

I feel very grateful for the experience I had, spending a week geeking out over words and books with so many wonderful writers. And now it’s back to the everyday summer grind.

I am working on the thesis—slowly. I’m finding I am in a deep research mode, wanting to read anything that could be relevant. Yesterday, I read the entirety of John Hersey’s Hiroshima and am now in the deep throes of learning about the mysterious johatsu. Each time that I read something, I understand my characters that much more clearly. Of course, with the World Cup on all day, I am currently at my most distracted state.

Can you believe it is already July?! Here are some flowers that have tholed through the elements and are all the more beautiful because of their strength: 

April is a Good Month to Buy a Beer for Frank O’Hara

I haven’t been posting here as much as I mean to because my days seem very routine lately, but in a very good way. It’s Poetry Month, perhaps my favorite month of all, and perhaps the most challenging of months because I slap this extra task each day on my head like an old-school Big Red gum wrapper that says I must write one new poem each day. It’s exhausting and yet it is the one thing I’m most proud of accomplishing at the end of the day.

I haven’t been writing any fiction lately, but I’ve been wholeheartedly delighted to explore storytelling, my thoughts and obsessions, and language in my play with poetry. To me, April is my sandbox and I can kick down and smooth out and build up sand structure after sand structure with all of the architectural creativity I can imagine. Note: Writing everyday is a great way to find out what your subconscious obsessions are.  Perhaps the most exciting thing is that I have created a poetry exchange this entire month with several writerly friends in my cohort this month. Sharing work can be extremely difficult, especially if the work is personal in any way (and it always is, one way or another). And yet, I feel an immense sense of trust and admiration for my poetic confidantes, due to these daily correspondences over our work.

This poetry month (the fourth one I’ve actively participated in) is especially exhilarating because of where I am geographically. Each April, the city of Montpelier waxes poetic, and in fact changes its name (unofficially) to Poem City. Over 400 poems cover the windows of downtown establishments as part of a “walkable anthology.” Buying groceries? Walking to work? Catching a movie at the Savoy? Picking up meds at the pharmacy? Wherever you need to go, a poem is there, waiting for you. In addition to the poems, events are held every night in various reading spaces, featuring local Vermont and New England poets. I’m still thinking about the event I went to: a poetry/music mash-up performance by the group Los Lorcas (comprised of poets Partridge Boswell and Peter Money and guitarist Nat Williams). In the spirit of Federico Garcia Lorca, the performers fused spoken word with song in an eclectic variety of pieces, ranging from blues, rock, folk, jazz. Thanks to Peter Money, I also learned what a drone poem is. (Hint: where the narrator’s point of view is that of a drone hovering over a city, seeing life lived in little pockets of individuality below).

Serendipitously, Poetry Month also collides with our craft module class taught by Matthew Dickman. He’s assigned us brilliant collections of poetry and other writings, based on the topics of Grief/Mourning, Violence, and Love. Each of these topics are perhaps the most human of qualities, and yet it’s astounding how stilted our conversations in class can feel, due to our inability, or rather discomfort and lack of practice, engaging deeply in these topics. Which is partly why this class is so essential! Through our readings, we explore the work of writers who also have a difficult time writing about the challenging topics that can so easily become banal and cliched, but who do so with such fiery innovation and eloquence.

Our reading list includes:

  • Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes
  • Book of Hours by Kevin Young
  • The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
  • Vice by Ai
  • Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson
  • Fort Red Border by Kiki Petrosino


I’ve also recently discovered Frank O’Hara this month. Not sure why it took me so long, but I am hooked. I even started copying down a few of his Lunch Poems on paper to tape up in my room. I also could watch this acrobatic video of O’Hara at work on repeat for days. I mean, who else could type up a poem while talking on the phone and talking to a camera for an interview? Oh, Frank, let’s go to the pub so I can buy your ghost a beer.

More poems await me now. Tomorrow, my class is off to Boston for the weekend. We have plans to meet with a few godly literary journals and presses (Agni at BU, The Harvard Review at Harvard, and Black Ocean Press). Maybe when I return to Vermont, spring will remember itself. The poems, though, will continue to bud.

Why I Write (Today’s Version)

Why I write has been a difficult question for me to parse out properly. Maybe it never changes. Maybe it always is and will be “because I must.” But I don’t think that’s true, and that description doesn’t satisfy me anyway. If I’ve learned anything over the past months at VCFA, it’s that self-reflection is an important part of realizing one’s goals, and for me, writing those reflections down makes me accountable for my goals and intentions. Writing these thoughts down means that I can’t hide from my emotional truths. The page is safe, like the air. Non-judgmental. A clean slate. A silently listening ear.  And yet, these writings also serve as documents of past versions of myself, this ever-changing self, so I can look back tomorrow, in a month, a year, a decade, and understand the time and space I was operating in. Who I wanted to be, what I was concerned about, why I did what I did, why I continue to do what I am impassioned to do, all of it is there on the page. We are changing always, shifting and rearranging the furniture of our bodies to accommodate to the personal and global situations around us. And so, I don’t think it is silly to ask why I write. On any given day, the intricacies and the molecules that make up that question will inevitably be unique.

So, on this day of March 15, 2018, this is why I write.

At this point in my life, I write because if I didn’t, my head would explode. It is how I empty out my thoughts, like the garbage disposal in a sink. It is how I connect wholly with someone outside of myself, as well as with other parts within me. In the real world, we never truly can understand another human. Never fully know what they are feeling or hiding or thinking on the inside. But when a character is inside me, sleeping in my little brain cave each night, I am always practicing empathy. I think writing makes me a better person in the world. It keeps my brain healthy, even when I’m producing and processing dark topics, because it is healthy to acknowledge the dark and light, and writing is the only way I know how to filter through all that grayness. I also write to play with language. I write to form words on paper and in the air, the ear, the tongue. I want to stretch words like taffy, turn them technicolor, blast sunlight through their thinnest middles, hear them crackle, and stick to tacky teeth.

Someone asked me recently how I write characters who seemingly are so different than myself. The writer whom I am today has to first find the emotional core of the story I want to write. I have to locate that emotion within myself, within my heart, and only then can I pluck out my heart and hold it in the palm of my hand, and begin the search. The search for a vessel to stick my heart inside. It doesn’t matter if the heartless character is male or female; a mother or child; a shade darker or lighter than me; a botanist or a locksmith or a sonic statue sculptor; blind or deaf. All I need to know is that when I stick my heart inside their chest, I will be able to navigate their lives through my own intuition, through my own personal experience with that emotion.

A few months ago, I might have thought that the lucky people were the ones whose answer to “why they write” never changed, whose answers always stayed the same. They knew themselves. They knew their path. They knew why they got up in the morning and what they were going to accomplish. But now, I’m not sure that is true. Perhaps the truly lucky ones are the ones who continue to be curious, to reflect but not dwell. The ones who are willing to adapt their passions to fit new lifestyles. The ones who aren’t satisfied with one answer. The ones who thrive to know more, to understand more, to ask…what else could be true?

Perhaps my answer won’t change tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. But this is definitely a question I will return to again and again. One thing I do know…I will always write my answers down.

On Time Management

People often ask me how I get so much done. How do I possibly go to school and work as an editor and do freelance writing gigs and volunteer and read for fun and exercise and do those frazzling adult errands that must get done and socialize with friends? I’ve even been asked how much sleep I get each night, and when I answer 8 hours, people always look shocked.

I’ve always been a fan of hustling (not the illegal variety – I’m talking about working hard). Many of my artist mentors are also wizards at the art of the hustle, and I find myself looking at them the same way that others look at me. I think, “How in the world does [insert my dream writer or professor] have kids and a good marriage and a full-time job and write and eat and stay fit and thrive as a social being and…?”

I’ve thought and thought about it, and the answer always seems very counterintuitive. It seems that to get “more done,” one needs to be “more busy.” Think about it. The most wasted of days are the ones where  you have long languorous periods of time in a day with “nothing” to do and suddenly the moon is up and the time is 9 pm and you think, “Wow, where did the day go?”

An important note: I am a person who feels satisfied by crossing off items on my to-do list. That mark of achievement gives me great pleasure. It is important to know what it is that gives you pleasure. What are your goals for the long term and how are you going to get there?

Time management really comes down to knowing yourself: knowing when you feel most energetic, knowing what makes you feel fulfilled, what you find rewarding, and when to say yes or no to something else. It’s about setting aside time for the things that are important to you, and sometimes may involve making sacrifices – choosing one thing you love to do over another at any given moment. It’s about creating a ritual for yourself so you can get into your “zone” faster. Time management is just like a sport or a musical instrument. You have to work that muscle memory, so that you can snap your fingers and get into your “working flow.” It’s the closest thing we can do to stopping time, freezing the world around us.

Paradoxically, learning how to manage your time takes time! It’s a practice. You have to want to do it. You have to be dedicated to learning how your individual body needs to manage time. Don’t look at your neighbor. This is a very internal practice.

I’ve created a few exercises to help people reach their full time management potential:

  • Make a list of a perfect day from sun-up to sun-down. Once you have done that, really analyze it. Do you have “tasks” on your list? Do you have social engagements? Exercise? Do you make time to read? Or sleep?
  • How do you stay organized? How do you keep track of what you do or if people are counting on you to do something? What materials do you use? On a scale of yes, this works for me – I could try something better – or no, this doesn’t work at all, how is your method working for you?
  • What kind of environment do you need to be in to get work done? When are you most productive? Describe the setting (room temperature, what you are wearing, desk/bed/couch, noise level, lighting, alone or with others, time of day, what’s the view)?
  • What do you do before and after you are most productive? These will be non-“work” related activities. Do you eat? Exercise? Talk on the phone? Listen to music? Nap? (Remember, this may not be every time you work, but can also be your ideal activities).
  • What makes you happy? That seems like a silly question. But really, list specific things/actions that you do that make you happy. For example, in my note above, I feel happy when I can go to sleep knowing I have accomplished the PRIORITY items on my to-do list. I also feel happy when I have started the day with yoga (which is why I do it everyday first thing when I wake up) and when I have sufficiently exercised. I feel happy when I have read even a chapter or two of a book (not assigned reading – just pure fun reading).

Have fun with answering these questions, and please do let me know how it goes! I’m curious to see if this helps structure or organize anyone’s daily routine. Once you have your answers, the next step is to begin adding them slowly into your life. If you need to buy a planner, do that and use it. If you need to set a timer every day for a 20 minute nap at 4 pm, do that and don’t press snooze. Ask friends and family if they will help keep you accountable for your actions. Ask them if you can check in with them daily or weekly to let them know you’ve completed a certain task.

I recently read a Paris Review interview with Toni Morrison and was surprised to see that she said something very similar to my list of questions. She wrote: “I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?”

If Toni says it, it really must be true. Now go boil some tea and have a grand conversation with your most productive self. Interrogate it. Interview it. Squeeze all the citric vitamins that you can from it. And then go off and do great things!