Signing Off

April 2021

Yesterday I pulled the Queen of Pentacles in reverse. The guide book that came with the deck suggests this means I need to give myself a break from “meaningless drudgery or overwork,” that I might be letting retail therapy get out of hand, a “mean or overwhelming mother” (in this case, me), and that I’m trying too hard. Check, check, check, check. Seeing the card helped me label some of what I’ve been feeling lately. Dissatisfaction, restlessness, boredom. Even in the face of a progression back to normal: My husband and I got our first Covid vaccines a week ago (we drove over 400 miles round trip to accomplish this). We’ve planned a family trip for May. My youngest is scheduled to go back to preschool in June.

And yet I still feel like I keep leaning further into the well, desperate for signs of water. Pretty soon I’m going to lose my balance and fall headfirst into nothingness. I mean, it’s been a year and more. My reserves are depleted.

I don’t mean this to sound desperate! I am fine, just tired and needing some space. I imagine I’ll be back in July. I hope to find my center again, finish the book I’ve been talking about because I’m tired of talking about it and just want you to be able to hold it in your hands and read it, and maybe puzzle out some other ideas that are on my mind.

Take care.

one more sneaky peek at Underbelly.


Before I go…

I’m really enjoying Amy’s tender thoughts on early motherhood.

Katie has some stamps on the way and I can’t wait.

I’m a little obsessed with these handmade heirloom teddy bears

Not what I meant to write

March 2021

Way back in December, I had an idea for my next newsletter. I was going to reread a favorite book from my childhood and write an essay about it. I reread the book, and I tried to write about it, but I couldn’t. I thought I’d give it some time, but that didn’t help either. And then my grandmother died, and Austin was walloped by Winter Storm Uri, and now here we are. It’s March, and I haven’t written to you in a while.

I won’t lie: I’m dealing with the current situation less well than I did when it started. And it’s not really anything in particular, just the continued drain of everyone being home all. the. time. I don’t really want to send my children back to school, possibly because I’m lazy and don’t miss the drop-off/ pick-up routine, packing lunches, or arguing with my oldest about getting out the door in the morning. But at the end of the day, I rarely have the energy for anything beyond flopping on the couch to watch tv or paging through a romance novel. Most days, writing is Hard.

Part of me is annoyed that I had a good idea and failed to follow through. But here is something I think about a lot, too: what if it’s just not the right time?

Last year I finally complete a project I first considered in 2003, as a freshman in college. I made a soundtrack for every month in 2020. It’s funny that a project that I could never see through to the end (indeed, previous attempts only lasted a month or two, tops) as a college student with endless amounts of free time (anyone else jealous of how a former version of themselves squandered the time available to them?!), actually came to fruition as a married person with two kids whose scant free time was further diminished by a global pandemic. I mean.

To be fair, there were a few things working in my favor last year that did not exist in the early aughts. Wireless earbuds and Bluetooth in my car, both of which kept me regularly listening to my soundtracks and interested in the project. Spotify, which made it easy for me to curate a soundtrack with easy-to-use playlists and a weekly infusion of new candidates via Discover Weekly. Not having any physical space away from my kids, which necessitates turning on music in the afternoon to drown out the sounds of Power Rangers on the tv.

I’m not going to get into why this is a Hard Time for most people attempting to do creative work. But I will say, if you’ve had a Brilliant Idea over the last year (or, just ever), and failed to see it through, consider that maybe it’s not time yet.

Maybe I’ll write that essay for you next month. (Hopefully, it won’t take 15 years.)


Goals

It was nice to say goodbye and good riddance to 2020. Even if the pandemic is far from over, at least we know what we’re signing up for this year. (And at least we have a new administration that will hopefully steer the ship in the right direction instead of just going around in circles over this thing.) I spent some time over the holidays thinking about what my goals are at this point in my life. I even wrote a 5-year plan after reading Elise Cripe’s Big Dreams, Daily Joys.

  • Read the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2020: an ambitious goal (I didn’t come anywhere close to reading 100 books last year) I shamelessly stole from someone else because it seemed like a good way to read well while also pushing myself out of my comfort zone. So far I’ve read The Duke Who Didn’t by Courtney Milan (cute but reaffirmed I don’t like Regency Romance), Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey (loved), and Writers & Lovers by Lily King (already one of my favorite books of 2021).

  • Finish Underbelly: my visual memoir of postpartum anxiety. This thing is just an octopus I continue to wrestle with but it is a priority for me to finish and publish in the first half of 2021.

  • Take good care of myself: 2020 was brutal for my physical health. At first, I wanted to give myself a pass. I mean, it’s a pandemic! But at some point, giving myself a pass was more uncomfortable than doing something about it. So I did what everyone is doing and bought a Peloton (my referral code ABGPMV gets you $100 off accessories!). True story: I’d never done a spin class before. It was never particularly appealing. But the Peloton experience (on-demand classes with a variety of instructors, the data provided by the bike while you’re working out, the ability to let friends creep on my workout history) seemed like it would be pretty close to my ideal workout situation. And so far, I like it! Of course, ‘health’ is so much broader than physical fitness; I am also working on my menstrual cycle (which has been not great since it returned after my second kiddo a few years ago). So far that involves taking Elix ($20 off your first order with my link), taking my BBT every morning with my Lady-Comp, and tracking symptoms and data in my Cycles Journal. (Side note: this is one of two very niche journals I bought after getting served an Instagram ad. I’m still getting Instagram ads for workbooks and journals, many of which I’ve never heard of. I LOVE IT.) I’ve also recently started eating from the Blogilates meal plan and tracking my food in a 90 Day Journal— jury is out on the meal plan and the journal is a touch too small to write in comfortably, but I like the design. [Apologies for the barrage of affiliate links but I really do use and love this stuff and if it saves us both some money then GREAT]

  • One Color a Day journal: I love the idea of this practice. I am apparently terrible at keeping it up every week. I will keep trying.

  • Make memories with the boys: This is hard. I had a bit of a meltdown earlier this month about how I could barely remember anything that happened in 2020. It was the longest year and yet most of the days just blend into each other in a sea of every day like the one before. If memory is born of novelty, how are my kids making memories if every day is the same? I’m challenging myself to bring a little bit more magic into our days— I think I was better at this over the summer when I didn’t have the pressure of facilitating home school.

    Here’s what I’m working on specifically in March:

  • Read Breathing the Page for book club

  • Finish a storyboard outline for Underbelly

  • Read a short story or essay and a poem daily (stole this idea from Rachel Khong, whose book Goodbye, Vitamin is really terrific)

  • Continue with my 100-day project of daily art journaling; I think I’m going to follow along with the Stamps! Prints! Books! class on Creativebug.

  • One Color a Day, a daily habit I am in and out of (but posting on Instagram stories when I’m ‘in’).

  • Plus, making some harem pants for my little guy.


Links


Thanks for reading. If you have a friend who would enjoy regular essays on creativity, art, and writing, please forward this along. If you’re seeing this for the first time, you can subscribe here. For more, follow along on Instagram @theworkbooks.


My Art is Divinely Supported

December 2020

Deep breath. I am going to say something a little wild.

2020 was a year in which I felt my art was divinely supported by the universe.

This sounds impossible. 2020 was the year I lost all semblance of child care. My oldest child, now 7, started a mother’s day out program when he was 18 months old. Since then, I’ve had help with the care of one or both of my children in just about every form, from very part-time nanny to full-time preschool. It was both a necessity and a luxury, and in March, like so many other things, it was gone.

And yet, when I look back at the year as a whole, I see that while my children were with me all. the. time., the universe still gently nudged me along.

The right classes presented themselves at the right times. I was given scholarships (did I mention we paid three months of private preschool tuition while my child was with me 24/7?). I dreamt about an ice blue velvet couch. I (metaphorically) figured out what to do with the taxidermic cobra I found in a closet at my grandparents’ house when I was 7. I found time to write morning pages (sometimes). I pitched (and sold!) my first essay, which will be published soon.

I was encouraged. I felt, for the first time, that someone else could really see what I was trying to do. I remembered and forgot. I found community. I found the voice to tell my story, and wow, I love hanging out with that version of myself, even when she’s breaking my heart.

When I think of what I want in 2021, at least creatively, it’s more of this, pretty please.

This year has been so hard, for so many, and for so many different reasons. I hope, no matter what hand you’ve been dealt this year, that your creative spark is burning a little bit brighter than it was back in January.

And since it’s a time for gratitude and reflection, let me add how deeply grateful for YOU. Thank you for allowing me into the sacred space of your in-box, and for actually opening my newsletters and reading my words. I’ve had so many moments of true connection this year thanks to this newsletter and it is truly the reason I write.

Love and light,

Julia


What I Learned in 2020: Classes and Workshops

This year was ripe with learning and pushing past my comfort zone. I wholeheartedly recommend these instructors and their offerings:


Best Books Read in 2020

Is it too early to start the Best Of lists? I hope not. The best books I read this year, in no particular order:

It was a weird year for reading for me and not much made the “best of” list. I spent March-June circling through my favorite romance novels as I attempted to self-soothe from the anxiety and uncertainty of Covid. I also started a lot of books this year that I ultimately didn’t finish, but will surely come back to. (I also, once again, did a terrible job of tracking my reading and couldn’t tell you how many books I read this year, or what their titles were. Something to strive for in 2021, I guess! Feel free to hit reply and let me know how you keep track.)


Links

A new kids art book with simple prompts

“I have to wrestle with it, refine it, bend it into shape. I can set goals, make timelines, but ultimately these edits will take as long as they’re going to take. All I can do is listen to the words.” Jami Attenberg’s thoughts on editing a memoir

Life Love Paper has the cutest stickers

Katie Licht has a fun new class, and it’s super affordable


Wish list

Just for fun. (Does my husband read this?)

This tarot deck from Kittenchops (plus basically all of her stickers)

Needlepoint kits- hard to choose a fave but I love ‘reading in bed’ and ‘hen in the house’

Super Vision aromatic spray from Amulette Studios

Tantric Mala kit + workshop from Satcha Malas

Basically anything from Case for Making, but specifically the fill-in letterpress chart, watercolor cup, and (dreaming big!) the 48 color XL palette.


What’s Coming Up in 2021

  • I plan to publish my visual memoir about postpartum anxiety in the first half of 2021.

  • Blog posts.

  • Switching things up with this newsletter and telling deeper stories.

  • Continuing to plug away at my coming-of-age memoir.

  • Showing up more consistently on Instagram.

Again, THANK YOU. I wish I could buy all ya’ll an iced coffee. See you in 2021.


Thanks for reading. If you have a friend who would enjoy regular essays on creativity, art, and writing, please forward this along. If you’re seeing this for the first time, you can subscribe here. For more, follow along on Instagram @theworkbooks.


organic shapes | NOVEMBER

A few months ago I was lamenting to a writer friend that while I felt really solid about the arc of the story I’m telling in Underbelly, my visual memoir about postpartum anxiety, every time I tried to make art for a page, it was wrong. I knew what I was looking for, and I wasn’t finding it on the page.

“There’s an ease I’m going for,” I told her, “and it’s just not happening.”

I’d prep a page with gesso, wait for it to dry, and then try to coerce watercolors into doing what I wanted them to do. (Watercolors, in my experience, do not respond well to coercion.) If the shape was right then the color wasn’t bright enough against the off-white paper I wanted to use. If the color worked, then the shape was all wrong— much too sharp-edged and intentional. I needed control over the shape but for it to feel organic, I needed color that had some translucency and yet still felt bold. A conundrum.

I did not know how to do what I need to do, so I set it aside. But I thought about it constantly.

Recently I workshopped a couple of my coming-of-age memoir chapters with a small group. One of the participants was familiar with my memoir from its baby germination phase and remarked on the level of development. Great to hear! But also, getting to this point (where I can take one aspect of my life and write a very crystalized chapter with a clear point of view) feels less like development and more like s-l-o-w-l-y chipping away at rock and finally getting a glimpse at the shape of the thing you know is buried underneath.

I’ve had moments of extreme doubt (with my inner critic sneering “no one cares about this!”) with that project, but ultimately keep coming back to what made me sit down and start writing it in the first place: a whisper that said “there’s a story here.”

Notice that the voice didn’t tell me what the story was, just there was a story. At first, I assumed it was a different story, the story that seemed most obvious to me. I knew the shape of this story, only it turns out the shape it makes feels wrong once it’s on the page.

Faced with a shape that wasn’t the right one, I (eventually) decided to keep going. If someone told you there was treasure buried in a specific spot and handed you a teaspoon, would you walk away if you didn’t find it immediately? Or would you find better tools and carry on?

So I wrote and I workshopped and I thought about the feedback I was getting and I learned about craft. (And repeating all of these things, until the end of time.) I wrote some more and - surprise!- underneath the shape of the story that didn’t work was the treasure: the story that does work (at least, for right now).

It’s not a story I want to tell. I wish that some of the characters weren’t ghosts. I wish it had a different ending. It is, as I wrote in Underbelly, “a piece of my heart on a platter, offered up with a steak knife.” But there really aren’t many ways to get out of writing the story that won’t leave you alone. And then, of course, there’s this poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty:

But the point is I would have never found the right shape if I hadn’t started with the wrong shape.

Around the same time I workshopped the memoir chapters, I had an aha moment. I could make the shapes I was after for Underbelly with a gelli plate and a piece of cardstock. I’ve never come across a tutorial for this technique although I am pretty positive I am not the first person to try it. I was delighted when it worked the way I wanted it to and I’ve done some experimenting.

If you think about something long enough, you’ll find the shape of it. It might look different than you thought it would. It might take months, it might take years. Keep digging.


Reading/Watching/Listening

“Watching Emily in Paris is like drawing a warm bath for my brain cells” this show (on Netflix) has been widely panned and it’s probably deserved but I did enjoy it as it was pure escapism.

Loved this interview with Alisson Wood on her memoir Being Lolita (which I still need to read!)

I read a new short story from Curtis Sittenfeld called Giraffe & Flamingo and I might be able to forgive her for Rodham (which I hated).

I recently joined Book of the Month Club (affl link; getting shit in the mail is one way I’m ~*coping*~); my first book was Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. I loved it, highly recommend.

Then I read Midnight Library by Matt Haig. Loved that, too.

I watched American Murder: The Family Next Door and was disturbed.

Recently discovered Nina LaCour’s podcast, On Keeping a Notebook. Podcast listening time is in short supply these days so I appreciate her short episodes.


Thanks for reading. If you have a friend who would enjoy regular essays on creativity, art, and writing, please forward this along. If you’re seeing this for the first time, you can subscribe here. For more, follow along on Instagram @theworkbooks.

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inventing new paint colors | OCTOBER

This is probably not revelatory information, but I have A Thing for children’s art books. Some of my favorites are Meri Cherry’s Play Make Create, Bar Rucci’s Art Workshop for Children, and Collage Workshop for Children by Shannon Merenstein. They’re all pretty similar in that they show parents and caregivers how to set up various invitations to make art, like mixing up new paint colors and encouraging the kids to come up with names, or making prints using the bottom of a muffin tin. The prompts are open-ended and encourage creative interpretation. There is no preconceived idea of what the result should look like, the whole point is to just enjoy playing with the materials and see what happens. It’s usually referred to as “process art,” and having fun, enjoying the experience, and trying new things are all more important than what the thing looks like in the end. (Does this sound like what many adults would call art journaling? Exactly.)

My writing process was on my mind a lot in August, since that’s what we were talking about in The Well. Naturally, before I started I thought, “we-ell, I’m not sure I have a process…” Creativity is magic and so who knows how it works! Why does sitting down to write sometimes feel like being wrapped in a cozy blanket and other times like pulling teeth? Where do ideas come from, anyway?

Most days I feel like I spent a lot of my (very limited) free time making things but not actually ~*writing*~. Morning pages are spent whining, or writing down a dream I had the night before, or listing all the things I need to get done that day. I doubt very much that anyone would want to read them, ever (which is good, because that’s the point). My Hobonichi pages are fun to make (and look at!) but don’t really mean anything or say much about my life other than how tired I was on any given day or if I found time to meditate.

And yet. Every time I’ve skimped on these practices, I’ve regretted it. I’ll sit down to write and instead of feeling all lit up and in the flow and all that super good stuff, I feel gunked up and cranky. Getting words onto a page then becomes a lot like herding cats, which is to say, impossible. So while sometimes it’s tempting for me to think I’m wasting the precious little writing time I have on things that are not and will never be a finished product, without them I really wouldn’t have a finished product.

I’ve been working on a memoir for two years now. It’s slow going. I’ve invested a lot of time and emotional energy into it already, and it’s nowhere close to being done. Possibly because when I started working on it, I had no idea what I was doing. I never thought I’d write a book-length anything, because that was for the Real Writers. lolol.

Now I’m in it, and I still really know what I’m doing. But it’s okay, because writing is one of those things that you can only really learn by doing. The first scene you write might not be good, but I bet the hundredth one is better. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic: “It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at.”

I don’t know if this book will get me an agent, or a book deal. I don’t know if it will worth it to self-publish and market it myself. I don’t know if this book will be read by anyone other than my nearest and dearest. It’s still wholly worthy of my time, even on the days where I spend 45 minutes writing morning pages just so I can write 4 sentences. The creative miracle is in the process of making the thing, not the thing that results.

This is the part of the newsletter where I confess that I have been REALLY BAD at doing the things I know work for me creatively. I’m going to cut myself some slack since we’re in the middle of a pandemic and nothing is easy right now, but know that when I say this I mean it as much for myself as for anyone else reading:

Go practice! Have fun, enjoy the experience, and try something new.


Watching/ Reading/ Listening

My September playlist, which possibly includes Christian Rock, based on the suggested songs I’ve been getting for the last week. Listen at your own risk, lest you mess up your carefully curated algorithm as horribly as I have.

I binge-watched High Fidelity on Hulu. I loved it. Zoe Kravitz is *chef’s kiss.*

I loved Alden Jones’ The Wanting was a Wilderness, a memoir about writing memoir using Cheryl Strayed’s Wild as a jumping off point. In particular, I love what Jones said about the urge to revise the past, to rewrite yourself:

It is easer to mock one’s youthful concerns that it is to have sympathy for them. Insulting someone is the ultimate act, the basic schoolyard instinct, of Othering: I am not that. In order to write a true story, you must be unrelentingly sympathetic towards the person you truly were at the time of the events. The fallibility of memory makes this difficult, but the effort must be there. (Diaries help. Conversations with people who were there help.) If you impose the belief system and the knowledge you have now on the person that you were many years ago, you are not writing a true story at all.

In order to render sympathy for that person, you must hold them accountable, and you must also forgive them.


Making

I don’t know if it’s the weather or the general state of the world, but I am very into projects that use up scraps. A few weekends ago I tackled an organization project in our office, the room has been a mess more often than not in the almost 2 years that we’ve lived in this house. Now that my husband is working from home for the foreseeable future, it needed to not be. It’s a shared space but to be completely honest, it was mostly my crap that was piled and stacked everywhere, which is how I found myself face-to-face with a small mountain of fabric and yarn. (Note that I don’t actually work in this room. About a year ago I set up a desk in our sunroom, because it has the best light. Also, exposed brick.)

I’ve never been a “stasher” and typically buy with a specific project in mind but… things accumulate. Especially in my late 20s when we had a few indie fabric stores in Austin (they are, sadly, all closed now) I accumulated more than I should have, I think. I don’t have room to keep this stuff forever, so while I couldn’t bring myself to donate it to the local creative reuse, I realized I needed to find a way to use it up.

I really liked the idea of making a quilt, especially since my kids are a little obsessed with blankets. I went searching for a simple patchwork quilt pattern and remember Alicia Paulson’s Calicozy pattern, which turned out to be exactly what I was looking for (it uses an IKEA comforter as the batting and is hand-quilted). I think I have enough fabric for like 6 of these. It’s nice to take a few fabric scraps and zone out for a bit while cutting them up into neat little squares.

For my yarn stash, I’m eyeing The Beekeeper’s Quilt (although I don’t think I have enough sock yarn scraps to complete a whole quilt) and Penguono (and the mini version, Pengweeno!). I also love the Heirloom blanket.


October Things to Do

My goals have all been epic fails lately, in that I have not completed a single thing I’ve set out to do. (I’ve also been starting, and then not finishing, a lot of books.) So I’m not going to set specific goals for October, since I very clearly need to reevaluate a few things!

Here’s what I’ll at least be dabbling in:

Here: 5 Things with Liz

Enchantment over on The Well (a really terrific community if you are seeking support around your writing practice; affl. link)

Continuing Platform Sparkle with Writerly Love

Likely continuing my annual rabbit hole into planners— I’m currently obsessed with Filofaxes and the whole minimalist aesthetic (one rando example). Already on my shopping list are the daily and weekly notebooks from Wonderland 222, as well as The Annual from Alter Planning Co. (a Black owned business, should you be looking for BIPOC businesses to support in that area).

The Creativebug daily practice class this month looks fun— 31 Creative Prompts from Modern and Contemporary Artists.


Thanks for reading. If you have a friend who would enjoy regular essays on creativity, art, and writing, please forward this along. If you’re seeing this for the first time, you can subscribe here. For more, follow along on Instagram @theworkbooks.

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