The Trick

The trick, for me, is carving out time for things and trying to do them with some wit…. I am not ready for the world until I’ve had my 45 minutes with four espressos in the back garden with earbuds in…. I spend a lot of time on my own, and mostly in my office. You can emulate these obvious role-model traits by excavating yourself a cave in your back garden or taking over a room in your apartment, fitting it with uncomfortably bright lights and way too many screens, filling all the spaces with books and skulls, playing nothing but music that sounds like it’s emanating from a dead moon, and waiting for everyone to leave you alone forever, and then dying in seclusion and being eaten by cats.

– Warren Ellis

I suppose we all have to find what works best for us. I tend to stay up too late, hunched over my notebook, getting frustrated, and muttering great philosophical maxims like Sartre’s “Hell is other people.”  But for a long time I’ve wished to get a grip, buckle down, pull up my britches, etc., and try Toni Morrison’s approach.

“I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark-it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come… Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”

– Toni Morrison

So what works – or, like me, maybe sometimes almost works – for you?


It is a lonely life sometimes, like throwing a stone into the deep darkness. It might hit something, but you can’t see it. The only thing you can do is to guess, and to believe.
– Haruki Murakami


“I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.”

~ Franz Kafka

Something to Do

I found a list of daily journaling prompts online and the one for yesterday was “you have film for one picture.” I’ve also been thinking about the word shimmer. It’s a good word. So I’m working on a poem inspired by that idea and that word. Maybe it’s a poem; it’s something that wasn’t there before.

Here’s a quote for your day:

“There is always something to do. There are hungry people to feed, naked people to clothe, sick people to comfort and make well. And while I don’t expect you to save the world I do think it’s not asking too much for you to love those with whom you sleep, share the happiness of those whom you call friend, engage those among you who are visionary and remove from your life those who offer you depression, despair and disrespect.”

— Nikki Giovanni

Analog Abides

“My memory is certainly in my hands.
I can remember things only if
I have a pencil and I can write with it…”
– Rebecca West

I used to write a lot of posts on this blog about writing tools: office suites, word processing software, low-distraction text editors, note-taking apps, etc. This is going to be like that but very different, because analog abides.

I’m writing this post in a Moleskine notebook that I bought in 2011. It has ivory paper and a smooth hard black cover. It has held up well and been appreciated, humble as it is. I’m writing with a General’s Cedar Pointe #333 HB pencil, a natural wood tool made in the USA of sustainable California incense cedar. Natural means that unlike most pencils, it’s not painted. It has a cool black ferrule and a black eraser.

My choice of writing implements means that no app needs to be launched, though either the notebook or the pencil could be launched, if I were provoked. No batteries are involved, no lights are shining in my eyes, and I can depend on these devices not to suddenly beep at me.

Analog is not dead. My journey to this revelation began last summer. I was furiously plowing through an array of productivity apps, trying to find the best way to get a grip on everything I have to do for my job, my home, writing life, etc. This had been going on intermittently for years. I would routinely decide that whatever system I was using wasn’t working; it didn’t really fit my needs. I believe I’ve tried every to do and project management app offered in a free version before 2017, usually in combinations of task manager (e.g., Producteev,, etc.), note-taker (Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep), and calendar (Google). I was frustrated but I was completely immersed in the digital realms and looked there for all solutions.

I’m not exaggerating that digtial immersion. After nearly a quarter century of daily computer use, I had begun dreaming in computers. Not dreaming of being a human using a computer; I dreamt of nothing but what was within the frame of the monitor, within the functions of the program. I thought that was pretty twisted but went on searching for the best digital tools.

My search for productivity options led to YouTube videos and blog posts, mostly about the latest updates or the best tips and tricks for all those applications I’d been trying and hating forever. One night I watched a video about the Bullet Journal method, using a paper notebook to plan and track tasks, events, etc. I learned that people all over the world use variations of this method, some minimalist, others extravagant and artistic, employing a variety of notebooks.

I decided to give it a try, but opted not to buy one of the trendy or popular brands like the German Leuchtturm 1917, or the French Rhodia. Not my style. One thing I already knew was that anything too precious doesn’t get used up, it gets pampered. (Like my 7 year old Moleskine). So I ordered an AmazonBasics notebook, simple black hardcover, with good enough paper, for $8.99. I have continued to buy them. I keep my notes and tasks list in these basic lined notebooks, I work in the computer without living in it as much, and I’m less aggravated. I don’t dream computing anymore.

In October I decided to apply my new love of notebooks to my personal journal. I stopped failing to keep a journal on computer and started really journaling – a lot – with one of those Amazon notebooks. They’re 240 pages and I’m well into my third one. After Christmas, I discovered Field Notes, simple but awesome little pocket notebooks made in the USA. More about them in a future post.

Until the Ides of March, I wrote in my notebooks exclusively with pens; mostly my favorite pen, the Pilot G2 gel pen, black .07mm. I hadn’t used pencils for many years. Then one day in March, I happened upon a box of Dixon Ticonderoga pencils in a drawer. Just for fun, I sharpened and tried a couple of the Ticonderogas and decided they write too light. (Remember I was used to heavy black ink.) I did some googling and learned that my box was made in the USA and pre-dates the millennium. Dixon has made pencils in China and Mexico since 2000.  In fact, I used to brief cases for law school in pencil, and these probably survive from that time, the mid-1980s.

I soon discovered that pencils are interesting – their history, manufacturing – they’re fun to write with, they feel right to the mind. They’re (mostly) surprisingly inexpensive. A box of pencils for the price of a coffee or two. They’re tactile, organic, and real. I have been learning, and become an enthusiast for pencils. I found there are podcasts and blogs, countless YouTube video reviews, and social media groups of people whose hobby centers on pencils, pens, and notebooks. There are worse things to be enthusiastic about, especially in these bleak days of the rise of fascism, resurgence of racism, and The Great American Stupid. But I digress.

I’ve learned something about myself through this process; something more important than the fact that I was a little too dependent on technology to meet all of my everyday needs. I learned something about my personality.

I am a very tactile person. I value the inner life of the creative mind and enter the world by writing about it, but I find the sense of touch in outer life profound and essential. And in these times of extreme sensory overload, of sights and sounds that can in no sense be called real, the tactile sense can be a soothing touchstone for consciousness and Being, and a consolation in mundane life. It can even be an antidote to the psychological impacts of digital burnout.

The quilt presently and often on my bed was made for me by my grandmother. She gave it to me for Christmas 2000, and she passed away in 2004. Sometimes when I get into bed I’ll run my hand over it for a moment and believe that I have been loved, I am loved, I share love in this hysterical and sometimes demoralizing world.

I like the feeling of touching cloth, leather, and wood. I love the feeling of warm water in the shower. The feeling of a warm cup of coffee in my hands is nice. I enjoy the textures of paper, copper, and stone. I have 2 small polished stones on my desk, both imbued with thoughts of people I love. I pick them up and hold them sometimes.

Organic and tactile, pencil and paper have become the imperative first step in my creative process. Always, my favorite thing to touch is a dog. Happiness, Charles Schultz said, is a warm puppy.

Antonio Machado wrote:

“All over I have seen
caravans of sadness,
pompous and melancholy men
drunk with black shadows.”

The meaning of life is found in the life being lived and it’s a process of self-discovery. A deep life is a good life. But it’s not easy. We live in a destitute time, what Heidegger would have called “the world’s night.” So it’s incumbent upon each of us to find what consoles and inspires us and hold fast: the music that gives us joy, the distant tree that defies the lowering sky, the words that we know to be true, the faces and memories that we recognize and love. And write those things down.


Pencil Notes:

In writing this post, rather than sharpening one, I used the following pencils:

General’s Cedar Pointe #333 HB pencil. It’s a favorite because of the natural finish, which feels good in the hand. I got a dozen from Amazon for $6.94.

Palomino Golden Bear, made in Stockton CA. Possibly my #1 favorite. It’s blue with gold imprinting, with a silver ferrule and a white eraser. It’s a little darker than the Cedar Point, writes smooth. $3 for a dozen from That’s 25 cents each and it’s a good pencil.

Mitsubishi 9850 HB General Writing pencil, a beautiful deep maroon thing with gold lettering. Made in Japan. Japanese pencils are generally considered excellent; it’s very smooth. It’s the most expensive I have at $8.90 for a dozen from Amazon.

PaperMate Miardo Black Warrior, a round pencil with flat black finish. It writes dark and is a great pencil for the price. It was a total impulse buy in a drug store, about $2 for the package of 8.

It’s important to buy pencils made of sustainable wood sourced from managed forests.




The End is Never Told

A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel— “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” Of course a writer rearranges life, shortens time intervals, sharpens events, and devises beginnings, middles and ends. We do have curtains—in a day, morning, noon and night, in a man, birth, growth and death.
These are curtain rise and curtain fall, but the story goes on and nothing finishes.
To finish is sadness to a writer—a little death. He puts the last word down and it is done. But it isn’t really done. The story goes on and leaves the writer behind, for no story is ever done.
– John Steinbeck

The storyteller makes no choice
soon you will not hear his voice
his job is to shed light
and not to master

Since the end is never told
we pay the teller off in gold
in hopes he will come back
but he cannot be bought or sold

– The Grateful Dead, Terrapin Station

Finding Time


Now what challenges me is finding the time to write. I suppose this is the pact I’ve made because I’ve published my work and if I want to keep publishing my work there is all this work around the work; writing things to get people to read the original thing I wrote can feel so absurd!

Jenny Zhang