Here we go again–A new year, same old resolutions

Every year I make the same list of resolutions, and this year is no different. Once again, I have resolved to do the following:

  1. Write more.
  2. Exercise more.
  3. Play more music.
  4. Set my house in order.

My son has an interesting approach to his budget, which I am also going to try to put in place. He basically only tracks money in four categories: household, child care, car and motorcycle, and discretionary. He keeps a cushion at all times in his checking account (i.e., the amount he needs to feel safe), but whatever is left at the end of the month, he drops onto one of his credit-card accounts or adds it to savings. I kind of like that. It’s simple and straightforward, unlike most budgeting systems I have tried in the past. He doesn’t try to track every single expenditure or split bills. For example, if he goes to Walmart and buys a windshield wiper blade in addition to his usual household items, he enters the entire amount into his budgeted “household” account. If he buys a soda at the convenience store when he fills up his tank with gas, that comes out of the car/motorcycle budget, but if he buys a case of soda at the grocery store, that comes out of the household budget. It’s the total amounts he is interested in and the proportions, which makes a lot of sense to me. He also has some complicated system for projecting out and modifying his budgeted amounts based on spending trends over the past three months, but I’m not going to worry about that part.

His overall system for budgeting money also seems like it would help me keep track of how I spend my time. I like the idea of only four categories, even if the “discretionary” category is huge. It helps put things into perspective somehow. Whatever you do (or spend) has to be allotted to one of four categories.

Following my son’s lead, here are my four budgeted money categories:

  1. Household
  2. Gifts and Charities
  3. Transportation
  4. Discretionary (i.e., everything else)

Here are my four budgeted time categories:

  1. Cooking, cleaning, maintaining home and gardens
  2. Writing
  3. Music and Dance
  4. Discretionary

I did the math and was shocked to find that if I divide my time equally (after subtracting out time at the office and time spent sleeping), I should have 18 hours a week to devote to each of the other categories. If I really did spend 18 hours a week writing or playing music, I’d have quite a few pages at the end of the month and would be able to learn quite a few new tunes. Of course, the discretionary time will be the one I have to watch, and much of the music & dance time will be taken up with traveling to dances (following my son’s rule of not splitting tickets). And right now, while I have a big freelance copyediting project to do, most of the discretionary time will be taken up with that. I probably should make a chart to keep track of my hours. Is that being too, too compulsive?

Okay, forget the chart. But here’s how it might look for just one of my four categories–writing.

Mom and I figured out that if we write even 500 words a day, we will produce enough for three novels (average 60,000 words) by the end of the year, which seems like crazy talk. I’ve heard that people generally overestimate what they can accomplish in a day and underestimate what they can accomplish in a year, which I guess must be right, because who would ever think you could write three novels a year by only writing 500 words a day.

At any rate, we decided that writing three new works really was crazy, but we would each try to revise two existing works and write one new one. When she was doing the math, I kept thinking to myself, “Uh huh. Sure. Whatever, mom.” But  now I’m thinking that if I really do write for 18 hours a week, that’s more than enough time to keep up with journals, letter writing, blogs, and our long-term goal of writing/revising books. I can easily write 500 words in about an hour, if I’m writing about something I know about (as opposed to something I need to research).

In the meantime, I am starting a new blog called A Mother’s War, where I plan to record my thoughts and feelings from my son’s deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past ten years, but I have not quite decided whether that will count as revising my book that I wrote during the first year of the Iraq war or if I am wanting to use the blog to see what kind of audience there might be for such a book. I’m thinking the book and the blog should be separate projects, with the blog more like a warm-up for the actual work of revising the book. I already know how to write short 500-word pieces, but I’m not so sure how to write a sustained work of 300 pages.

In addition, mom has started sending writing prompts every day or so, from a book she got for Christmas called My Book of Self. Mom is counting this as her new work, because she was already thinking of writing an autobiography. I had not thought about what new work I might like to write, so again, I’m not sure if this daily writing “counts.” It could be interesting, though, since we’re both writing the prompts together, if we put them together into a mother-daughter compilation. Not sure how that would work, but since we’ll be writing about some of the same topics, the same characters and settings, and using the same prompts, it could be quite provocative. So that may or may not be my new book.

I also want to go through my old poems and journals and prose pieces that are shoved in boxes in the basement, so that will be my second revision project. People used to say I was a good writer, and I won awards for both fiction and poetry while in graduate school, so there is probably something worth salvaging down there, something I could submit for publication. Okay, so here’s my writing plan for the year.

Three main projects

  1. January-April—Revise books of poems (submit individual poems for publication and enter contests)
  2. May-August—Revise war journal (post short pieces on blog)
  3. September-December—Write novel about 13-year-old girl (watch for ideas while writing autobiographical prompts)

Way to Block That Writing!

Apparently, I always equated writer’s block with fear of facing a blank page, so I thought I was immune to the malady that afflicts many writers. After all, I have more ideas jotted down in my notebook than I will ever be able to write about, and I generally look forward to the blank page. But the last few days I have encountered real blocks to my writing, which stopped me in my tracks as effectively as a line of stalled cars on the Interstate, with no exit in sight.

The first block was at least somewhat familiar–more a detour than a block, I thought. We had overbooked our weekend, as we often do, so I knew I would have difficulty meeting my challenge to myself of writing every day. But I still thought I could do it, and I believed the extra activities would give me new things to write about, even though the time to write would be severely limited.

The next block was a physical limitation that I had not experienced before to this extent. After a week of cutting and pasting literally hundreds of files at work for a special project we were working on, which is too boring to even talk about, my wrist and index finger became so sore that I could hardly use the keyboard. I tried typing with an ice pack velcroed around my wrist, but that wasn’t very satisfactory.

Next, my built-in mouse on the Netbook I like to write on went haywire. At first, it seemed as though the buttons somehow got switched; then they would hardly work at all. I couldn’t click to open files or browse to my blog or do anything, without extreme aggravation and pain. Eventually I was able to get into the control panel and find out that the buttons were not, in fact, switched. So I got disgusted and went to bed early. The next day the buttons started working again, just for spite.

And now, I’m facing the most difficult block of all–that inner voice that says, in a sneering tone, “Well, well, looks like you might as well give up now. You missed writing for three whole days, so you lose. I knew you couldn’t write every single day!”

But I say to all of these clever blocks, “You’ll have to try harder than that! Get out of my way.  I’m coming through.”

Starting Over

I wonder how many posts to blogs begin with an apology for not having written sooner. Of course, I’ve got the usual excuses—I’ve been busy—but who isn’t busy these days? (I like to say that if you don’t have attention deficit disorder these days, you should try to develop it as a necessary job skill.) Keeping busy has become a lifestyle for most of us, what with our day jobs and our avocations, our volunteer committees, our so-called leisure activities, not to mention all the time it takes just to keep up—going to the grocery store, preparing meals and cleaning up after, washing and folding laundry, dusting and vacuuming, scrubbing the sinks, bathing and brushing our teeth, phoning our family, checking in on Facebook, reading the newspaper, sorting the recyclables. Still, I should have more time than most to do what I say I want to do, which is to write. We no longer have children at home, the grandchildren live far away, our last pet died a year ago, I’m not trying to work on an advanced degree in my “spare time,” and we don’t own a television. But I do like my sleep, and the hours are sadly limited.

By the time I get home from a full day of staring at a computer monitor editing other people’s writing, the last thing I want to do is sit at the computer and write. For one thing, the editor in me is all too eager to say, “No good! Delete that last sentence. Don’t say that! That’s boring!” For another, there are so many other things I also want to do. For example, I’d like to have a glass of wine and finish that book I’ve been reading about Antarctica. I’d like to plant my spring garden. I’d like to go for a walk through the woods or play music or dance with my husband. I’d like to work on the sweater I’ve been knitting. I’d like to knit baby hats for my coworker’s triplets and a poncho for my granddaughter. I’d like to get out my watercolors and paint. I’d like to reupholster the wing-backed chair in the living room.  I’d like to go on one of those eco-tours to help save baby sea turtles or repair fences out west somewhere. I’d like to learn Chinese.

Lately I have found myself doing the math in my head to try to calculate how much time I likely have left, how much time I’ve wasted so far. It is obvious that I am well past middle aged, unless I expect to live to be 110. I hope I have at least a good thirty years remaining, but of course, there is no way to know. Still, my genetics seem fairly sound, and I try to take care of myself. But there are always accidents to worry about and new diseases we haven’t yet discovered. Occasionally, I am caught off balance by a line from a poem by W. S. Merwin that comes back to me at odd moments when I am least expecting it and reminds me that “Every year without knowing it, I have passed the anniversary of my death.” What a thought! When I was young, I used to think I didn’t know enough about life to write with authority, and so I missed many opportunities to write about my experiences at the time. All these years later, I still feel as though I am not wise enough or experienced enough, but I’m beginning to think that there are a few things I’d like my children and grandchildren to know, which they may not have an opportunity to learn if I don’t try to pass them on in the years I have left.


I have finished cataloguing the first three shelves of books. The first consists mostly of poetry books from the 1980s, several with inscriptions from the authors wishing me good luck with my writing. They make me want to read and write poetry again. I wonder how many other books these particular poets have written in the years since. Have they lived up to expectations? How many of these poets have since died or been forgotten? I wonder what it would be like if I had continued writing and publishing poetry after graduate school. Then I would have books with photos of myself as a young artist on the back covers and poems that revealed what I thought and felt twenty years ago, my whole life laid out for others to interpret.

Jimmy Santiago Baca

The first book on my shelf now (after alphabetizing and straightening) is a small volume of poetry by Jimmy Santiago Baca, Martin & Meditations on the South Valley, with an introduction by Denise Levertov, published in 1987 by New Directions Press. The cover, based on a black-and-white photo by Migel Gandert, shows a close-up of a man’s back with three large tattooes etched into his skin.

The central tattoo, which extends along the man’s spine from just below his shoulder blades to his waist, is of Jesus dressed in long robes, with a disc-shaped halo framing the back of his head; he is holding a cross, looking off to one side. A second Jesus—this one dark-skinned with full beard and long straight hair, wearing a crown of thorns pushed down low on his forehead—appears on the man’s left shoulder. A third tattoo, on the right shoulder, is covered by a gold sticker announcing this book as the 1988 winner of the American Book Award.

Two other tattoos, on the backs of this man’s arms, are somewhat difficult to make out. The one on his left arm shows what might be a long-haired worker heading down a path, wearing t-shirt and loose pants, with a handkerchief sticking out of his right back hip pocket, but I can’t tell whether the man is wearing a hat or a halo tipped to one side. The tattoo on the right arm shows a bare-breasted woman wearing tight leggings and high heels and carrying something like a knife. There is a wide strap across her shoulders, between her breasts, and a large circular something on her back (a shield, perhaps).

I don’t remember for sure, but I suspect that I acquired this book while in graduate school studying creative writing under Garrett Hongo. He was always after us to find our own voices, rediscover the places we had come from, listen to the language and the rhythms of our people, tell our own stories—as Baca has surely done in his book. Hongo, of Japanese-Hawaiian descent, could be abrasive within a department that at the time consisted mostly of white men deeply entrenched in the Western canon, but I appreciate the way he encouraged us to seek the myth within the reality of our day-to-day lives.

As I read the two long narrative poems in this book, I am struck by Baca’s powerful voice, his startling images, his syntax and language so different from my own, his moving portraits of the people from his barrio. Denise Levertov in her introduction to this volume calls his work a “Hero’s Tale.” And it is epic in scope. While a distant voice reminds me that what seems exotic to me may seem ordinary to the people living through it and points out that my own life has been filled with experiences worth transforming to poetry, the ungracious, peevish part of me wonders if I could have written more or better if I had been abandoned by my parents at a young age, had been placed in an orphanage, had struggled for survival and ended up on the streets, had taught myself to read and write while in prison.

I do a quick Google search and learn that Baca is two years younger than I and has written ten books since this one was published: seven books of poems, a memoir, a book of stories and essays, a play; and that he regularly teaches writing workshops to Chicano youth. And what have I been doing all those years?