40 Days in the Desert (or “Why I Gave Up Blogging for Lent”)

desertLent is a solemn time of prayer, preparation, penance and self-denial and commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert.  It’s a time of quiet reflection and renewal.  And this Lent, one lonely blogger retreated from WordPress, practiced silence and abstained from reading or posting.

Why did I do it, and what on earth did I hope to accomplish?

Retreat.  For 6 weeks I went into hibernation.  Sometimes it’s good to experience what my friend calls “the neutral zone,” where you surrender to nothingness.  Last week I read an interview in The Guardian in which Ryan Gosling revealed that he is taking a break from acting.  “I’ve lost perspective on what I’m doing.  I think it’s good for me to take a break and reassess why I’m doing it and how I’m doing it… I need a break from myself as much as I imagine the audience does.”  I’m no Ryan, but I understood what he was saying.  Retreat and reassess.

Self-Denial.  Sometimes blogging feels more self-indulgent than dark chocolate or champagne.  Taking time out let me feel deprivation and longing, which is unusual in a culture of excess and overwhelming access.

Quiet.  As Sting said, “Great music as much about the space in between the notes as it is about the notes themselves.”  The same is true of writing.  Taking the time to experience, observe and quietly reflect can make writing less frequent and more meaningful.

Renewal.  The end of Lent coincides with the beginning of spring and renewal is in the air.  In the quiet isolation of this figurative desert, fresh thoughts stand out more sharply against the arid landscape and ideas appear in the void.  I’m ready to re-join the world and contribute with renewed energy.

Decision.  Others decide to give up meat or chocolate.  I chose to give up writing, a harmless vice that doesn’t lead to obesity, intoxication or any other state of ill health.  But just the sense of intention gives it purpose and meaning.

I’m back to writing and will enjoy catching up with the recent posts of all my blogging companions.  Happy Spring!

How to Attract Followers and Build a Blogging Community

Sending up a flare

Sending up a flare

“It’s kind of like, when you make a film, you’re on this ocean at night. It’s black. There’s nothing. And I’m out there in my little boat. I send up a flare, saying “these are my thoughts.”  And you discover there’s a lot of other people out there in their little life rafts, thinking ‘Oh! I’m not alone! These thoughts exist!'”  (Terry Gilliam on film making)

To me, that’s exactly what blogging is like.  Your goal may not be to broadcast wildly and attract the multitudes, but chances are good that you are blogging because you’d like to connect with others.  Otherwise, you’d probably be writing in your diary or keeping a private stash of your photos.

So how can you attract followers?  Even better, how can you build a community?  In the months that I’ve been blogging, I’ve learned everything from you!  I’m not an expert, but I’ve seen unique approaches and connected with some remarkable people and can only tell you what works in my opinion.  There’s no handbook but here are some lessons learned.

1.  The naming is the hardest part.  A name tells others about you and the purpose of your blog.  A good name should be clever and/or clear.  For example, More Than Bratwurst features great contemporary and traditional German recipes and FrugalFeeding is about eating well on a budget.

2.  It’s all About you.  The “About” section of your blog or Gravatar bio is an opportunity to tell about yourself and connect with others.  How would you describe yourself or your blog in a 140 character tweet?  The first blog I followed on WordPress was The Edmonton Tourist.  Why?  Because of her “About Me” that described the decision to become a tourist in her own life.  I was hooked.

3.  There’s someone for everyone.  There’s a 100% chance that someone will relate if you write about an interest or a challenge, or post a photo, travel story or poem.  Be authentic, be yourself and others will respond.  Ido Lanuel describes his journey from Combat Officer to journey to India to yoga practitioner and self-awareness writer and, at last count, 2,518 readers responded by liking his story.  It’s like The Secret for bloggers – whatever you focus on, you will attract (in the form of followers).

4.  Visuals aid.  It might go without saying, but readers are attracted to interesting visuals.  Posts with photos stand out when browsing the WordPress reader.

5.  The sense of Purpose.  Having a purpose helps you as a blogger and it helps others to find you.  Here are some common themes.

  • Travel.  Blogs can be better than a tour guide.  They’re up close and personal and you can see new places and old favorites through someone else’s eyes.  Have Bag, Will Travel takes readers on journeys around the world with wonderful descriptions and stunning photography, and with 416,708 hits, I’m not the only one who enjoys Andrew’s blog!  Everywhere Once details the story of full-time wanderers traveling the globe since 2010.
  • Food.  A constant source of inspiration, food blogs can teach you to make any type of cuisine.   Kiran’s Cooking Club is described as “Everyday Indian Food” which seems anything but ordinary to me and Vina’s Delicious Recipes has also introduced me to Bengali cuisine.  My Custard Pie has a very professional style and clearly conveys Sally’s passion for cooking.  Vegan, vegetarian, low-cal, Asian, Paleo…it’s all there!
  • Inspiration.  Some blogs are there just to inspire and to encourage readers, the writer or both.  Penny at The Why About This   brightens your day with inspiring thoughts and music.  No Fries for 365 is more physical kind of inspiration blog charting progress on a journey to fitness.
  • Craft.  Are you a crafter or a maker?  There’s sure to be plenty of material for you!  Sites like Pillows a la Mode, iMake and other DIY blogs are full of project inspiration.
  • Photography.  Photos can be a quick pick-me-up, a work of art, interesting, provocative or all of the above.  Mobius Faith specializes in urban photography, while others document travels or try their hand at landscapes or portraits.
  • Poetry and Writing.  Whether it’s haiku or a serial novel, writers like to share.  Rivers of the Heart and Another Wandering Soul create beautiful images with words and other writers share tips and success stories.
  • Lifestyle.  Bloggers share their experience of urban life, rural dwelling, retirement and other lifestyles.  Retiree Diary is written by a Hong Kong native sharing his adventures for the first time by blogging.  As Michael says, “I have never written anything. Pre-retirement, the only thing I need to write were emails.”
  • Challenges.  Some bloggers aim to help others through shared difficulty by writing about illness, loss, and other challenges.
  • Sharing Knowledge.  Writers like Thomas Cotterill share thoughts and philosophy and many others educate about every subject imaginable.
  • Blogging.  Bucket List Publications is an exciting site about adventure travel, but Lesley has an incredible amount of traffic (more than 10 million hits!) and is generous with tips and advice for other bloggers.     

6.  Active engagement.  The best way to find your tribe and build a community is through engagement and interaction.  Visit others, like posts, leave comments, give encouragement.  Share and give and good things will come back to you – in blogging and in life.

7.  Be a regular.  Write or post.  Period.

8.  Great content.  Write well, post great shots, share something of value and others will respond.

Think Inside the Box: With Constraints Come Freedom

Creativity may bring to mind brainstorming and unlimited possibilities.  It appears to be free-flowing, expansive, open.  It may be anti-intuitive, but limitations can boost creativity.  Constraints provide boundaries and clarity so that the artist can focus on the problem or challenge at hand.  They’re a decisive starting place that leads to clear results.

Challenge:  Using a 4′ x 4′ square of cardboard, design and construct a chair capable of bearing your weight when seated.  You may fold, score or cut the cardboard, but no pieces may be removed and you may not use any type of adhesive.

Industrial design students were given this assignment – a more difficult task than it appears.  Because of the limitations – 4×4, cardboard, no pieces cut out and no glue – and the requirements – you must be able to sit on it – they could focus on the creative aspects.  What shape would function best?  How can I make something functional and elegant from this simple material?  How will it all fit together?

Cardboard Chair

Cardboard Chair

My “400 Words” writing practice is much the same on a smaller scale.  When I set a manageable limit there are no excuses.  The title, centered and bold, serves as the starting line and the 400th word is the finish.  I’m free to say anything about the chosen topic, but it ends at 400.

I also like the concept of limitations when it comes to space.  Living in a small apartment means looking at usable space with a different perspective and finding creative solutions such as multifunctional furniture or equipment.  Bookshelves are installed in the space above the door.  Beds have drawers beneath.  Tables expand and chairs stack.  Futons are rolled and beds fold into walls.  If something new comes into the house, something else must leave out of necessity.  Even better are boats.  Have you ever seen a sailboat with an attached garage or basement?  With limited space, you’re confined to essentials and there is beauty in the smallest detail.

Today, try thinking inside the box.  Make a feast from the contents of your pantry and fridge.  Draw a masterpiece the size of a business card.  Instead of a coffee break, write a haiku.  Read 20 pages, walk 2 miles until the sun rises, fill a flat rate box with surprises and send it to someone you love.  As my daughter, the designer, says, “With constraints come creative freedom.”

Cardboard Chair

Beauty, Form and Function

The Art of Baking

When my first daughter was a baby, I tried my hand at baking bread.  I loved the smell of bread in the oven, loved the taste of a warm slice spread with butter.

Homemade Bread

We didn’t have much money for cookbooks then, and didn’t have the internet with its millions of recipes.  So I went to the library, checked out books on baking, and set to work.  My first attempts weren’t too bad, but the results were irregular.  Sometimes the dough didn’t rise well, sometimes the finished bread was dark brown and hard.  I tried white loaves, healthy whole wheat, and even attempted to make French baguettes.

I continued baking over the years, and then met my friend Carlo.  Carlo was Italian, and returned from visits to his family with olive oil his father had pressed and jars of tomato sauce from his mother’s kitchen.  Carlo’s family often ate pizza, and he told me how his mama made the dough for the pizza crust.  “She has the touch.  Not everyone has it, you know.”  I knew what he meant, and I listened carefully as he shared her dough-making secrets.

Every Friday I made pizza.  I had cheated for a couple of years and used a kit bought from the grocery store.  The pizzas were fine, but I wanted to have the touch like Carlo’s mother.   I followed the directions that had been given like a gift to me.  The ingredients were simple, but it was the technique that counted.  Week after week I mixed and kneaded and baked, and as I worked with the dough I connected with generations of women all over the world who made bread with nothing but flour, yeast, water, salt and oil.  With the same ingredients I learned to make pita bread and foccacia, and with extra eggs, milk and butter I braided challah.  After many years of practice, I, too, had the touch.  I learned that I had to feel the dough and know what it needed.  The process became so familiar that I didn’t even have to think.

Now I am someone’s mama, and I bake bread.  Two of my daughters have already left home, and sometimes they miss our weekly tradition.  Every once in awhile on a Friday, one will call and ask, “Are you eating pizza?”  She may even tell her friends, “My mother has the touch.”  Not everyone does, you know.

Challah Bread

Homemade Challah

Bird Watching

Here’s another “400 Words” essay I wrote awhile back.  I’m also submitting it in response to this week’s writing challenge:  “From Mundane to Meaningful.”

A funny thing just happened.  I was sitting here at my desk, trying to squeeze some inspiration from the scribblings in my little notebook.  My brain moaned in protest as I tapped the keyboard, and I waited for some jewel to drop from the sky onto my screen.

I looked through the open blinds and noticed little sparrows flitting around my yard.  They resembled dead leaves, grayish brown and fluttering from tree to fence to tree.  One bird was blue with an orange chest, the only color in a dull winter landscape.  Suddenly, a little sparrow flew right toward my window and hit the glass in front of my eyes.  The creature then took off sideways and hit another pane, and once again headed my direction.  Finally, it lighted on a very narrow space on the lower ledge.  Looking for footing, it clung to the screen, and I watched without moving, not wanting to startle it further.  I could see it breathing rapidly, and its chest quivering.  After a few minutes the sparrow seemed to calm down and its breathing was more even.  Another bird just swooped down, gave it a tap, and it flew off to perch on the edge of the gutter on the roof as if nothing had happened.

That sparrow was telling me something.  I watched as it hit the glass – three times!  The bird was like me, floundering one way then another, hitting obstacles left and right.  But then it found a place to recover, catch its breath, and regain its sense of direction.  The little sparrow then flew off again when the time was right.

I’ve never been like those ducks and geese that fly south for the winter in a perfect “V”.  There is no doubt of their timing or destination.  It’s something that they’re born with, that sense of direction.  They follow the leader in formation, never deviating from the plan.  I’m more like the sparrows. They migrate too, in well defined routes, and go with the flow to find warmer places.  But each bird has its own pattern and flies in circles and swoops and hops and waves.

I marvel at the geese with their strong wings flapping regularly, necks outstretched and head like the tip of an arrow.  They are so sure of themselves.  But I’m more delighted by the sparrows, weaving their invisible maypole ribbons just outside my window.

Doors

Hi All!  In another post I introduced “400 Words” – a practice I’ve used to free up creativity and get the juices flowing.  It’s simple.

  1. Think of an everyday word or concept and type it in bold font, centered at the top.
  2. Start writing about the word and the experiences and feelings that come to mind.  For example, “Ice Cream” might lead to an essay about a favorite childhood birthday or the creeper in the ice cream truck.  Who knows!
  3. Don’t worry too much and keep the words and ideas flowing.
  4. Use the “word count” feature to make sure it’s exactly 400 words.
  5. Make a few edits if you want.
  6. Stop.

Doors

When I lived in London, I traveled lightly.  I walked out the door of my apartment with three things in my pocket:  a front door key, my travel card, and a debit card.  Even though I was mother to three children, with many responsibilities, I didn’t need a large bag crammed with band-aids, tissues, snacks, remote controls, or phones.  With two cards and a key I could travel the city by bus or tube, I could purchase anything I needed, and could enter my only door.  My mother-in-law worried that we only had two locks and used one, but we lived five years in the building without incident or fear.

Now I’m back in the U.S. and things have changed.  I’m a homeowner for the first time.  I have three doors, a garage door, two cars and a security system.  On my key ring dangles a mess of keys and remote controls to open gates, boxes, doors.  But rather than representing open gates and promising possibilities, each feels like a weight on my mind as well as in my pocket.  When I leave the house, I no longer pat my pocket reassuringly, feeling the small wallet with the two important cards, and lock my door without another care.  Instead, I check front, back and garage entrances, set the alarm, hop in the car, close the garage door.  I test each door, consciously watch the garage door slide down, wonder if intruders will try to invade my property.

I remember visiting my grandparents who lived in a small town.  The front door was always unlocked, just like all the others in town.  Relatives and neighbors would drop by and call out a cheery “hello” as they walked freely through the screen door.  The only security system necessary was my great-great-aunt who lived alone next door or the neighbors across the street sitting on the front porch swing, talking, laughing and drinking iced tea.   I wonder if things have changed in that town.  Do people pass each other without greetings?  Do locked doors change guests into possible intruders?

I’m grateful for my house, for the things I own and use.  But I hope those things don’t own me.  I won’t build brick walls around myself, install a security system that triggers alarm with life’s little invasions.  I want a mind with an open door, and a heart with a big porch swing.

Word Sketches

One day I just started writing.  A magazine editor had casually said he found it hard to keep his short pieces down to 400 words, and that made me think.  400 words seemed so few, but it’s enough to say something clearly and cleanly.  So I wrote short pieces with exactly 400 words.

I had always been intimidated by writing, and afraid.  I attached too much importance to it and recalled the Freshman English professor who scrawled “BORING!” across a writing assignment in angry red letters.  They were probably actually tired, bored red letters, but they imprinted on my brain and glowed for another 24 years.

Instead of setting out to write something important, I decided to write like I sketch.  I remember art teachers instructing us to free up our hands, keep moving, catch the essence and general form.  “All right – 2 minutes!  Don’t be too precious!”  So I studied my subject, and the charcoal stick in my hand quickly recorded the shapes, the angles, the curves, light and shadows.  After a while I disappeared, and so did the distance from the subject.  As my hand moved, I felt the weight of the breast, the cold porcelain of the pitcher, the juice of the orange and smooth bumpiness of the peel.  I wanted that feeling when I wrote.

Quick sketches with watercolor, crayon and colored pencil

I have my own method.  First I type a word or two in bold letters, centered on the page.  My subject or still life.  That provides the structure and focus.  Then I just type.  Don’t get too precious.  No heavy editing – just a little erasing here, blend a little, correct the line slightly.  I just keep moving and record what I see and hear when I think “bread” or “bird” or “shell”.  Pretty soon I’m not thinking too much at all.  I just think of each piece as a little sketch, capturing a thought or a moment or a feeling.

When I drew, I had a hard time knowing when to stop and when to say something was good enough.  Sometimes those first bold lines were the truest, capturing the first impression with freshness and clarity.  It helped to have a limit and know that it was play, not a Rembrandt masterpiece.

Now when I write, I don’t worry where it will end up.  Each piece I write is like a message tied to a balloon and released into the air.