Routine creativity, and drunken parrots

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I just started reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, and I don’t know why I never have before. Other than my generalized dislike for “self-help” type books.

The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life

Already on chapter two, I feel inspired. On the topic of establishing rituals, Ms. Tharp shares that her morning routine is to wake up at 0dark:30, take a cab to the gym, and work out for two hours. Which is exactly the kind of nonsense advice you find in a self-help book.

BUT, Ms. Tharp in her wisdom is not trying to tell me to do that. The ritual part she’s stressing is the fact of going downstairs and giving the gym address to the cab driver. I LOVE this concept of breaking it up, and telling yourself you only really have to commit to that first part. That’s the hard part, isn’t it? Routinely getting yourself in too deep to turn around?

That much, I can do. So starting this morning I’m trying out a new ritual. Set the alarm 45 minutes earlier than normal, and get up and make the coffee. From there (cup in hand, contacts in), it should be easier to sit down at my table and pick up a pen than it would be to go back to bed.

Ha ha ha, yes I’m obviously not going to the gym. That’s still nonsense. No, this is a writing ritual.

I’ve been writing only on lunch breaks and at night for a long time, because that’s when my free time is. I do have plenty of time at night, once the kid goes to bed at eight-ish. Single parenting isn’t as hard as it’s made out to be, in my experience (as long as the bills are paid, and that is admittedly a huge caveat). You can devote quality time to the parent-child relationship, and still have plenty of free time to read and write, so long as you cut out the less important things, like cooking, cleaning, exercise, shopping, personal hygiene, social life, and other supererogatories. It’s about priorities.

But by night, when my free time rolls around, I tend to have very little brain power left. And no discipline. After nine hours at the office, I’ve used up my daily allotment of discipline in the endless two-part struggle to not roll my eyes at people, and also not flip them off until after they’ve walked away.

But when I set the alarm to wake up early, it’s far too easy to lay in bed and decide it’s not worth getting up, because I can’t think of a single thing worth writing at the moment.

But just committing to making the coffee, that seems doable. It went great this morning.

Wish me luck for tomorrow!

Off-topic. I accidentally ordered a book that was untranslated from the original Latin. Rather than return it, I decided on a tremendous side-track, and now I’m learning Latin. I still have a copy of Wheelock’s from college, and I even still remember a little.

But Duolingo has Latin up now, and I highly recommend it. They use the normal Duolingo conversational format, the opposite of Wheelock’s structure. I’m using both at once. Duolingo is more portable, more “naturalistic” in patterns, and has a greater emphasis on drunken parrots, for some reason I don’t know, but for which I am grateful.

Day-drinking parrot.
Jimmy Buffet parrot.
Theirs too.
Drunk animal abuse.

How many deniers are in a livre?

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1 livre = 20 sous = 240 deniers. I’m relieved we switched to a base ten system. That’s a whole lot of math. In the Carolingian period, only the denier was an actual coin, livres and sous were accounting tricks.

Here’s something I was fascinated to find this week, in the book “La Vie Quotidienne dans l’Empire Carolingien,” by Pierre Riché, and maybe it’s just because my mind is on tax season.

This is a list of typical market prices in France in 794. Obviously things fluctuated year to year and location to location, but here at least, is a ballpark. There was a famine in 793 that drove up the price of everything. So in 794 the emperor published a list of market prices that necessities had to be sold for. That’s where at least some of this comes from.

The government did step in and control prices from time to time. To enforce the fixed maximum prices, it was for a long time apparently required by law to transact sales only during the day and with a witness.

1 hogshead of oats = 1 denier.
1 hogshead of wheat = 6 deniers
1 sheep = 12-15 deniers
1 sword = 60 deniers
1 male slave = 144 deniers

Price fixing was made a more complicated endeavor by the fact that units of measure varied from region to region and time to time. A hogshead could be anywhere from 20 to 70 liters.

I don’t know why pricing is given here for male slaves but not for female. Maybe women’s values were more subjective? Or maybe the author just didn’t want to get into that.

M. Riché passed away last year, sadly. This is the first of his books I’ve read, but I’ll be ordering more. He did a fantastic job taking a huge amount of random information and compiling it into a dense but still very engaging (even funny) read.

Best novel editing tip I've ever heard

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And this has nothing to do with “show, don’t tell” or “avoid passive voice” and subjective things like that.

This is the best advice I have ever heard, and it came from Maxwell Alexander Drake, who is a reputable author, and who also gives free advice at

For those of us lucky enough to live in Las Vegas, he does free monthly classes, year-round. And he has several excellent craft books out.

Now I think I’ve said enough to make me feel like I’m paying homage rather than just sharing this genius tip without his permission:

Go through your completed book, and highlight all the dialogue. Choose a different color for each recurring character. Then, you can scan through quickly, reading all of one person’s lines all at once, to make sure they sound like they’re in character throughout.

Genius, right?


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I was absolutely going to trim myself back down to one project at a time, and focus, but then my new books came in! Now I just can’t stop reading. And I shouldn’t. It sets a good example for the child, right? Right.

First, I love the fact that you can now buy scanned copies of very old books on Amazon. I now have “original” copies of some books I could never afford otherwise. The type, the drawings, they’re just a pleasure to read.

I’ve bought several now from a company called Wentworth Press. If you’re into old books, I’d recommend them. I’ve only had one so far that had any issues with the scans. Sadly, it’s the current one, where some of the pictures didn’t scan correctly. Including one family tree that probably would have been interesting.

Dedication page of Traité Historique et Critique sur L’origine et la Généalogie de la Maison de Lorraine… by Charles Louis Hugo, 1740, published by Wentworth Press.

Also, I think every sort of early-ish modern history book I’ve read, the historian opens the book swinging, and I love that. They like to name the names of fellow historians with whom they disagree, and then openly insult them and their work. Makes for much more entertaining reading. Charles Louis Hugo, who wrote this treatise on the origins of the Counts of Lorraine, was not a fan of Chantereau Le Febvre. I googled to find they never met, Hugo wasn’t born until after Chantereau’s death, so the personal drama I was envisioning sadly never happened. I pictured two old men arguing and mean mugging through every dinner party they attended together.

Oh well.

I also got this one:

Fabliaux érotiques by Luciano Rossi and Richard Straub

Dirty stories from the 12th and 13th centuries! The stories are old, so that makes them academic, and totally legit.

In the first of these fabliaux, which I am reading for academic purposes, a man brags that he can never be cheated on, so his wife, to prove him wrong, arranges for her lover to come in disguised as a female bloodletter. The wife tells her husband she’s been having some pains down there, and so she and the bloodletter go upstairs and get it on. Then the wife gives a full account of the bloodletting session to her clueless husband. ‘Oh, I’ve had a working-over, I had to get poked more than a hundred times, I’ve been beat to death. But then there was a white ointment that fixed everything, it was stored in an ugly little bag, and applied through a hose.’ The husband’s just glad she’s cured now, and he’s all – well don’t forget to pay for the bloodletting.

My translation is not as good as Rossi’s, whatever. These are great, and I can picture the laughs they’d have gotten in the old feasting hall. I’m completely sidetracked now.

Querying (why am I doing this to myself??)

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I have thought before that, instead of working on one writing project at a time, it makes sense to work on three:

  1. One to research/brainstorm/outline.
  2. One to write.
  3. One to edit.

In this way, no matter what kind of mood I’m in, I’d have something to do. Sometimes the creative juices are flowing, and I just can’t keep the words off the page. Sometimes I’m in a scholarly sort of mood, wanting to read textbooks and take notes. Sometimes I’m in a hyper-critical mood, ready to rip every sentence ever written into tiny shreds, no error too tiny to escape my judgment (this is maybe one week out of every lunar cycle…).

I’m kind of doing this three-project system now, but by accident. While I do think this would be a good system, I’ve never adopted it, because I already have:

  1. A full time kid
  2. A full time job
  3. A full time house to clean, repair, and provide for
  4. Occasional attempts at a social life

Plus I have a blog! For some damn reason.

I don’t have time to maintain three writing projects at once.

But I’m in first draft stage of one that I’m loving, and don’t want to take a break from. Then somebody requested some edits to the one I’d already finished and started querying, so I’m tightening that one up a little more. Then I got the germ of a new idea that I just can’t let go of, and researching is a totally fun way to feel productive, learn something new, and take my mind off the soul-extinguishing merry-go-round of eternal rejection that is the querying process. So now I’m accomplishing next-to-nothing every day on three projects.

This is not sustainable, when you don’t have much free time to work with. I’m going to have to let the new baby project sleep for now, I guess. Even though I just ordered four new books on the subject. (Here by Friday! Yay!)

And the edits shouldn’t take too long, to satisfy the one Revise & Resubmit on the old project. So I’ll soon be back down to one at a time.

But why query at all? I’m asking myself this question more and more. The rejections and no-responses seem to be in danger of sucking all the joy out of what was once a very pleasant hobby.

It’s not like I’m under the illusion I’ll ever get rich and quit my day job. My day job is reasonably cushy, with great benefits, and frankly I do my best work on my lunch break. I mainly want validation. But is all this worth it?

I thought about it more seriously when my daughter (with whom I over-share everything) showed me her sketch book last weekend. It’s full of things like this:

“in area 51”

Her drawings have prices on them! Have I bitched about querying so much that I’ve warped her tiny perception of the world? The only reason to create is in the hopes someone will buy your creation?

You never understand yourself quite as clearly as when a kid explains you.

I’m not quite ready to give up querying yet. I think I’m getting better at it, and the rejections are… not as overwhelming and humiliating as they were at first.

But I am going to spend more time focusing on what I like. Writing. Learning about writing. Ordering esoteric history books.

If you would like to purchase “in area 51” you can PayPal me, I’ll forward the proceeds to the artist.

Work Space

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I just drove out from Vegas to spend a week at the beach for Christmas. It was glorious. Getting out of the desert periodically re-hydrates my mind. All the vacation wine too.

The rental apartment had a selection of books, including this one:

“Where Muses Dwell” by Massimo Listri

Normally, it’s reading a great book that gives me a writer’s inferiority complex. Someone else’s compelling concept, poetic prose, astonishing plot twists, can be bittersweet to read. Enchanting as a reader, but discouraging as a writer, realizing how much I suck when compared to Melville, for example.

So this book was a refreshing change. Now I feel incompetent not only because my skills and talent are lacking, but also because my work space is so very uninspiring. To be fair, if my house was going to be photographed for a book, I would clean it up a bit. But it still wouldn’t look like this:

A wall in Franz von Stuck’s house, in Munich, Germany.
“When Orpheus sang, then came the animals of the earth, the birds of the sky, the fish in water, and listened.”

I hadn’t heard of von Stuck before. I like his stuff.

“A Bad Conscience” by Franz von Stuck

I especially loved Rodolphe d’Erlanger’s house. It looks like if Jane Austen novels had been set in North Africa.

Rodolphe d’Erlanger’s house Nejma Ezzahra in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia

How could you not create beautiful things in a room like that?

And Gabriele d’Annunzio’s workshop is my ideal, everything I would want in my house if I had a ton of money, and better interior design sense than I do.

Gabriele d’Annunzio’s house, Lago di Garda, Italy

How could you be a fascist surrounded by such beauty? A fascist who wrote beautiful poetry though.

My kitchen table is not an inspiring place to work, by any stretch. I can’t bring myself to post a photo. Maybe I need to redecorate.

Medieval Irish Shoes

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From clothes, to shoes! I was so happy to run across this old post on Ahcuah, a blog for barefoot enthusiasts:

Partly I was just happy to discover such a thing as Barefoot Enthusiasts. I now know there are people out there who would appreciate my callouses, and not side-eye me like the pedicure technicians at the nail salon. I’ve felt so alone in this for so long.

But mostly I was surprised to find out the Irish barefoot tradition continued so late as 150 years ago. It makes me even prouder of my Irish ancestors.

The Irish have had shoes forever, clearly. Like this very nice one Joyce shows in “A Social History of Ancient Ireland.” In his book he describes several common types of shoe, and goes into attention-span-taxing detail on how the leather was prepared and sewn, if you’re into that sort of thing. Shoes, sandals, leggings with stirrups like the 1990’s, the ancient Irish had it all.

Ancient Irish ornamented shoe: in National Museum
Very nice ancient Irish shoes, no reason not to wear them.

I discovered Ahcuah’s post while looking for more information about barefoot Irish warriors, though. I knew the ancient Celts went barefoot at least some of the time, way back when. It was a proof of hardiness, and a way to be stealthier in the hunt. That, too, continued on much later than I’d thought, according to this very entertaining article by Katharine Simms

She describes a medieval Irish fascination with going barefoot, possibly more as a nostalgic practice than as a practical way of dressing every day. Apparently, before any warrior could enter the legendary band of Finn’s Fianna, he had to pass a number of tests, including that “without slackening his pace he could with his nail extract a thorn from his foot.” So Finn’s spiritual descendants would have felt some pressure to keep up the tradition.

Simms associates the medieval barefoot warriors with a period of collective nostalgia for their own mythical past (retelling of ancient stories, rebuilding of feasting halls, etc.). This makes sense to me, kind of the way some people today are out to re-make John Wayne movies in real life, never mind the fact that John Wayne movies were never real to begin with.

I do think barefoot pairs well with breechless and a kilt, so I hope it was, in fact, common. I’m writing it that way.

Also from Joyce’s book, this nice diagram of what (he says) is a fairly common archaeological find: leather or metal shoes joined together so as to be completely unusable for anything other than sitting or standing in place.

Pair of shoes permanently connected by straps: two soles and straps cut out of one piece. Most beautifully made.

He says nobody knows what purpose these may have served, but there have been enough of them found that it must have been something fairly well-understood to contemporaries.

My theory is that it was an early medieval Mother’s Day gag gift, something like this:

Socks that read "If you can read this, bring me a glass of wine" on the soles.
My favorite socks.

I can picture barefoot medieval guy giving his wife a pair of stationary silver shoes and a new wineglass, and they have a good laugh together about how she never does any housework, and then she tells him to go fill her new wine glass, and he argues it’s not his job, but then he goes ahead and does it, because divorce was already legal in Ireland in those days, and she would have kept 60% of their sheep.