Life Lived in a Moleskine Notebook

"So it's a diary?"

My black Moleskine notebook is open on the kitchen table in front of me while my husband peers curiously down at it. The notebook follows me everywhere, though I rarely have time to open it. It sits on the corner of my desk while I write client articles, on the kitchen counter while I chop onions, on the nightstand next to my bed just in case I happen to wake up before the kids.

The notebook is everywhere. I'm more attached to it than my phone. It's the thing I'd grab first in a fire (assuming the kids were already safe). But I don't actually know what it is.

"Um, not really. It's just where I write down things that happen and what I think about them. But not like, everything that happens. Just important things that might matter someday. Things I might want to remember?"

I'm stumbling over my words, not making sense even to myself. I add something about creative nonfiction as a genre and how it holds the start to many of the essays I eventually publish online, but I can tell that only muddies the waters more. My husband shakes his head and gives me a small eye roll, figuring it's one of the many things that he, a non-reader, will never get about me, a person who lives and breathes words all day.

I press the tip of my pen back down on the paper, but whatever I was going to write is already lost. I stare at the black dot the pen left in the middle of the paper, letting my eyes unfocus, trying to chase back whatever fleeting idea has been flitting through my brain. 

I was ten when I first stumbled upon the Pensieve with Harry Potter. Dumbledore says something about how your mind becomes so full of thoughts, you just need somewhere to put them all. Later, you can find patterns you wouldn't have noticed otherwise. 

Harry nods along even though he doesn't get it. At ten, this is how I felt too. A bowl full of thoughts didn't make any sense to me. How could your mind not have space to think about the things that needed thinking about? My head was balancing all sorts of things that year, like whether or not I would like summer camp (I didn't), which teacher I'd get next year (a good one), and how awkward my first experience with health class would be (very).

Then Harry and I both grew up, and now a basin filled with swirling silver thoughts makes a lot more sense. 

In the six years since entering "real" adulthood, complete with marriage, home ownership, and children, I've often wished for a magical basin that could hang onto thoughts and memories until I had time and space to process them all. But J. K. Rowling's Pottermore site tells us that it's even more than that. 

She tells us that it's difficult to use a Pensieve to sort through ideas; it's not something every wizard can do. It requires work and skill, and if you're too protective of your secrets or ashamed of your past, you'll never manage it. 

My notebook is a Muggle's Pensieve, the closest I can get to using magic to sort the thoughts that need sorting. It gives the gift of mental processing and the ability to find threads of stories in an otherwise mundane daily life, though these findings don't come easily. 

I have to be willing to write down things I wish I hadn't said or done. I have to know that I could get hit by a bus someday and people could end up flipping through those pages full of unpolished words that weren't meant to be read. I have to know that all the things I write there might not add up to anything real in the end, but they were probably worth writing anyway.

And so the notebook that holds all these words I can't quite define stays with me. I carry it from room to room in our house, jotting down a quick thought in between refilling sippy cups and breaking up fights over toys.

Someday, if I'm lucky, maybe I'll find enough magic to sort through the thoughts and find the pattern that was there all along.



Planning an Ideal Creative Retreat {Chasing Creative}

Before we had kids, my husband and I would go up to his family's cabin in February or March for an ice fishing weekend. 

This meant using an outhouse and boiling snow for cooking water, huddling in a blanket and fuzzy socks next to the space heater, and carrying our things through what was often more than a foot of snow up an unplowed, hilly driveway.

It was glorious. Because ice fishing weekend meant my husband would ice fish while I sat in the cabin in blessed, glorious, non-wifi-connected silence. 

I typically got a lot of writing done, not to mention plenty of reading. Though I never called it this at the time, I realized that those weekends were my version of a creative retreat.


Spending a full weekend on creative work feels nearly impossible nowadays, and I know I'm not alone in that. We've got little kids or full-time jobs or financial limitations or all of the above. It's hard to justify time spent on purely creative things when you've got a million other responsibilities on your plate. But I still think taking a creative retreat is important.

No one else is ever going to prioritize your creativity for you.

A creative retreat is not only your chance to spend time recharging and doing something you enjoy, it's also your chance to tell the world, "Hey, this is important to me. This thing I do just because I love it is worth it, and I'm going to start treating it that way."

Creative retreats don't have to be some big mountaintop experience (though wouldn't we all love if they were?). A creative retreat could be

  • spending two days in a row at the library with your notebook and a pen
  • an afternoon at your favorite park with a sketchbook
  • a calligraphy workshop you've always wanted to take
  • letting your spouse get up with the kids so you can spend the morning in bed teasing out an essay idea or doodling in your journal

Creative retreats are accessible to you if you keep an open mind about what that looks like. Listen in to this week's Chasing Creative episode for ideas on planning a practical creative retreat that fits your lifestyle. You also won't want to miss our season one episode when we interviewed Jennie Moraitis on taking a mini creative retreat.

What would your ideal creative retreat look like?


Creative Communities {Chasing Creative}

Most creatives wander around their real lives feeling like no one really gets them. Oftentimes this suits us (at least those of us who are introverted). Then we come online and find that camaraderie is just on the other side of the screen, where we can join the vast circle of other creatives who understand and support our work.

Having people who can mentor and encourage us is essential to our creative lives. But how do we find these people? Is it healthy to live this double life where many of the people who know us best live on the other side of a screen? What sorts of creative groups and mentorships are best, and is there ever a point where they do more harm than good? And of course, the question every introvert dreads: How can I find a creative community in real life?

Abbie and I are hashing through all these questions, plus sharing our own experiences with creative communities, in this week's episode of the Chasing Creative podcast. Head here to listen, or download it wherever you find your podcasts!

Lessons from the Bread

There is a spectacular science to baking bread. The basic formula is simple: flour + water + yeast + sugar = bread. It's the basis for everything from crusty ciabatta to soft sandwich bread, dimpled focaccia filled with herbs and butter to quick-rising hamburger buns. Somehow, miraculously, those four ingredients produce breads so different, you'd never know they were all cousins at heart.

In four years of baking our weekly sandwich loaf, and just about every other type of carb-y dough known to man, I've never bothered to acquaint myself with the mystery of the process. I'd find a recipe and follow it. I wouldn't tweak. I wouldn't wonder about how these ingredients came together to make that result.

  Photo by  Nikki Tran

Photo by Nikki Tran

I used to try harder, in the early days. Jacob and I had freshly returned from a trip to Europe, and our tastebuds were less than thrilled at coming home to American fare after being delighted by Italian olive oil and Austrian dumplings for three weeks. Bread and cheese seemed particularly lacking, like eating a cardboard-flavored sponge or chewing a slice of rubber that was a closer relative to plastic than to anything produced by a cow.

Making my own cheese seemed a bit out of reach for someone who had only recently stopped serving Hamburger Helper for every other meal, so I settled on bread. 

One week later, I was watching the UPS deliveryman drag 40 pounds of wheat berries up the steep cement stairs that curve toward our house (a trip he's made every few months since then). I tied a blue flowered apron around my neck, my newly pregnant belly not even making a bump in the fabric, and I poured a measuring cup filled with light brown, oblong wheat berries into the top of my new electric flour mill. 

The recipe I consulted was written for white flour, and I succeeded in making a dense brick that refused to rise. I baked it still sitting a quarter inch below the top of the loaf pan and ate every crumbly, bitter slice myself as peanut butter toast. I was proud of every crumb. 

I spent the next six months experimenting. I found a recipe made for wheat flour, and I hunted down additives like vital wheat gluten and citric acid (difficult to find because, the Whole Foods store clerk said, Dr. Oz had just advised women to put it on their face). I kneaded my dough by hand rather than in the mixer because I liked the feel of it, even though it made my hands ache. I jotted notes on scraps of paper until the recipe I had copied from Pinterest was so crinkled and scratched out, it was impossible for anyone but me to read. 

The bread got better but never great. And then I had the baby. 

Hadley cried anytime I set her down for the first four months of her life. She hated her baby swing, her car seat, her stroller, her bouncer, and at times, even the baby wrap I tucked her into. 

Baking bread turned into the worst chore of the week. With my newborn's screams in the background of every loaf I made, I started taking shortcuts. I tossed yeast into water without waiting for it to sponge, and I cut the kneading time in half (how much could it really matter, anyway?). I skipped the shaping and instead plopped the lump of dough unceremoniously into the loaf pan, then stuck the whole thing into a 170-degree oven in the hopes the warmth would make it rise faster. 

I wanted better payoff with less work. I lost sight of the process, and I didn't get it back for years. 

The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

The Italians don't have better bread than we do because they rush through a set of instructions. They take their time. They find the best ingredients. They press their hands into the dough and respond to what it needs.

This is what I'm remembering this winter, largely with the help of The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. It was in this book I learned that my shortcuts were literally killing my bread. The very things that keep yeast happy and growing can also kill it dead in one fell swoop. 

Yeast needs warm water to activate, but not too hot. Yeast needs sugar to eat, but don't let it touch honey directly. The same goes for salt, which adds to the bread's flavor but has the potential do harm if you're not careful. And don't let the dough rise somewhere too hot! Warmth is good, but nothing more than what the glow of the oven light provides.

I read all this and immediately started applying it to myself instead of the bread, like the good English major I am. 

I am the yeast. I've been trying to give myself the ingredients necessary for an intentional life, but I take shortcuts in the process. I do more harm than good. My ambition is killing my creativity, not feeding it. Social media is causing me to burn out, not to rise in the warmth. I need more time to rise, more opportunities to be carefully shaped into what I'm meant to be.

In just six weeks of owning this book, I've gone from flinging together a haphazard dough in ten minutes to committing to a bread-baking process that begins at 10:00 a.m. and wraps up around 8:00 p.m. It includes making a sponge to get things started, kneading the dough in the KitchenAid for seven minutes at least, and giving the yeast time to work through three full rises plus a rest period. 

It's more work than it's ever been before, and yet, it no longer feels like a chore. Checking the dough is a restful reminder to be present to what's happening in my own home. Moving it from step to step is practical art in the middle of a long day. 

And, of course, the bread tastes better now than it ever has before.

Here's to hoping the lesson holds true for the rest of life as well.

When Your Friend Writes a Book {Chasing Creative}

I don't remember the details of how I started following Callie Feyen's writing. It probably had something do with Twitter circa 2013. I do remember how we went from being occasional commenters on each other's blogs to that weird space of internet friendship: Abbie and I interviewed her in the early days of the Chasing Creative podcast. 

She spoke about writing and motherhood with more raw honesty than I'd ever heard before. She refreshingly didn't have much to say about building a platform or getting mired in the work of maintaining your personal brand. Callie was, and still is, all about the work: showing up and writing whether you feel like it or not. 

In that first interview, Callie shared a quote I will never apologize for recycling through my Twitter every few weeks:

It’s my story. Nobody is going to write it except for me.
— Callie Feyen

We had Callie on the show again in 2016. Her life had changed quite a bit since we spoke the first time, and she was going through a rough season of transition with a cross-country move and a major job transition. She didn't know where she was going yet, but she was still writing. 

So Callie took all that drive and energy, and she kept doing the hard work during hard times, and she came out on the other side with a published book.

We celebrated by having her on Chasing Creative for a third time to talk about how someone who was a little unsure, someone who has two kids and a job and not that much time to write, followed the threads of her own life and turned them into a book. 

This episode is for the ones who can't seem to find time to do the work, who aren't sure if they'll ever accomplish that big creative dream, or who are just plain worn down by the season they're in right now. (I'm raising my own hand here.) Callie will speak right to you and give you the hope and encouragement you need to keep pushing through. Listen wherever you find your podcasts or by clicking here.

The Teacher Diaries Callie Feyen


The Teacher Diaries: Romeo and Juliet is a series of essays on teen love and teaching Shakespeare to a group of adolescents. It debuted on Valentine's Day 2018 from T.S. Poetry Press. Grab a copy here (affiliate link).

Why I'm Giving Up Podcasts for Lent

I understand the spiritual practice of giving something up for Lent, but it's not something I've actively participated in as an adult. Either I never choose something soon enough, or I give up halfway through because my choice wasn't meaningful enough to me . . . the usual reasons I give up on setting goals or forming habits. 

(Or maybe it all points back to the arbitrariness of being encouraged to give up chocolate or pizza as a Catholic schoolchild . . . neither of which held much spiritual significance for me, but both of which made me resentful as a kid whose March birthday always falls during Lent.)

This year, though, I've been feeling unsettled. In this uncomfortable season of waiting and not knowing what's next, what I'm giving up for Lent seems to have fallen into my lap. 

And so, I'm giving up podcasts until Easter. 

The giving up

It probably seems like an odd choice, nearly as meaningless as candy. But here is what's been happening to me in increasing frequency over the past few months:

I wake up in the morning, and I scroll through my podcast playlist to see what's new. I distract myself from the chaos of getting the kids breakfast by choose one and hitting play. Hadley talks to me and I only half hear her. I tell myself it's just this once, just today, but of course it isn't. 

I get in the car and I turn on a podcast. I feel bored and I turn on a podcast. I fold laundry and I turn on a podcast. I tell the kids I'll build towers or color with them, but my mind isn't there; it's with a podcast. Reagan cries or Hadley asks a question, and I'm annoyed and impatient because they're pulling my focus away from the episode of the moment. 

In general, I think podcasts are a good thing. (Of course I do, or I wouldn't record my own.) I've culled my playlist down to include only the very best. The podcasts I listen to are filled with wisdom about creativity and writing, marriage and parenting, and Christian approaches to everything from money to business. 

The problem isn't with podcasts. The problem is with me.

In this rather stressful season, I've started relying on them in the hopes that they'll show me how to fix my life (at best) or escape from it (at worst). I've filled every moment of my day with chatter, voices that are wise but that have left no room for me to sit with my own thoughts or to notice any guiding signposts from God.

The taking up

Giving something up is the more well-known half of the Lenten practice, but the other option is to take something up (something I don't think I've attempted even once). This year, alongside giving up podcasts, I'm adding a new spiritual practice to my days:

Resting in solitude.

The idea comes from a book I read recently, The Sacred Enneagram by Christopher L. Heuertz (affiliate link). The gist of it is this: Christians need contemplative prayer in our lives as a way to draw closer to God and to become better versions of ourselves. The practice of contemplative prayer has been largely lost (though I think it still has a good foundation in Catholicism), and we need it more than ever in this age of never-ending distraction.  

I'm removing the distraction of podcasts, and I'm taking up the contemplative prayer posture Heuertz recommends for my Enneagram type, 4 (rest in solitude). 

I'm a bit skeptical about this, to be honest. How much solitude can I be reasonably expected to find as the mother of a three- and one-and-a-half-year-old? But something about it feels right, like it's a missing puzzle piece that will help me hit "reset" on so many things that have gotten out of line. 

I don't expect a huge spiritual transformation, but I'll take even the smallest baby step in the right direction. 

What are you giving up / taking up for Lent this year? 

Overcoming Things that Drag You Down

Vacuuming. Dusting. Washing dishes. Thinking of food to feed the people in your house for three meals a day . . . then actually shopping for it, cooking it, and cleaning it up. 

Just reading this makes me want to sit down and watch something mindless on Netflix while ignoring the filth in my house. But ignoring the things we don't like doing isn't a good option. It's the adult equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and singing la-las to yourself while the things that have gone undone only continue to pile up higher.

These things that drag us down in life are almost always necessary responsibilities that need to be dealt with, but they're also the things that steal our time and energy away from our creativity. Luckily, Abbie and I are masters at finding solutions (or creative ways of just NOT adulting) so we can get back to the things we actually want to spend time on.

Join us in this week's Chasing Creative episode to find out which tasks we hate dealing with most and how we overcome them. 

What are your most hated responsibilities as an adult? How do you deal with getting them done?

What's Saving My Life This Winter

We've all got those small but important things that help us keep our lives on track in different seasons. Is it too dramatic to say that those little things are saving my life? Probably. But they're definitely saving my sanity, and I have no regrets about any of these. Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy to share the small things that are saving my life this winter. 

Saving My Life Winter 18.jpg


I'm in a season of facing a lot of big Adult Life Decisions, and it leaves me feeling fried at the end of nearly every day. A lot of things are up in the air right now, and not only does that mean lots of decision fatigue, it also means living with a mind that won't stop racing because I can't handle not knowing the future.  

It's a stressful place to be. When I don't even want to pick up a book to unwind, knitting is a strong second for keeping my hands busy and letting my anxious brain focus on something with soothing repetition. I can even use knitting to deflect some of my stress while my husband and I are debating Big Life Decision options, which is a big plus for helping me stay grounded in logic and not let my emotions take over the conversation.

Root Vegetables

We try to eat seasonally, in part because non-seasonal fruits and veggies are absurdly expensive and not great quality here in Minnesota. That means winter is all about root veggies. And they're kind of the best, aren't they?

You can put them into any sort of soup, stew, roast, or just toss them on a sheet pan in the oven. Kids will eat them. They last for-ev-er. Winter dinners almost can't go wrong, and it's all thanks to carrots and potatoes.

Homemade Iced Mochas

Okay, so my espresso machine is pretty much always saving my life. But it's extra appreciated in winter that I can have a home-brewed iced mocha without needing to brave the cold and wind with the kids. (Or worry about getting in the drive-thru line only to discover that your car's window is frozen shut . . . not that that's happened to me more than once or anything.)

Rosemary Mint Candle

When the kids are behaving at Target, I almost always take a trip down the candle aisle. That's where I found my new favorite candle, Rosemary Mint by Smith & Hawken. (It's already out of stock online, so I'm definitely stocking up if it's still in the store the next time I go.) It smells light and soothing, and it immediately calms me down if I'm feeling stressed. It's my current go-to scent anytime I'm at my desk.

Runner ups in the "things that smell good" category is Bath and Body's Works' Aromatherapy lotion line. I hate going to their store because all the smells mingling together gives me a headache, but I love these so much I'm confident ordering them in bulk online. My favorites are Eucalyptus Spearmint to feel like you just walked into the spa and Lavendar and Cedarwood for an instant dose of calm.

Remote Start Car

I live in the tundra with small children. This is self-explanatory. Let's just say there's a world of difference between loading two kids into an ice-cold car when it's -10, and a slightly warmer car that's been running for five minutes.

Making Friends

I'm introverted to the core, but one of my not-quite goals for 2018 was to find more of my people and put in the effort to engage with them and grow strong friendships. In my head, I want this to look like finding those friends that are more like family, who can stop over or call anytime and it will always feel energizing rather than draining. The reality doesn't look anything like this (after all, friendships like that take time), but I've done better than usual at putting myself out there and finding people to connect with.

I've spent a surprising amount of time chatting with other writers this month, and it's been so good for my soul. Talking with people who get me has been like a giant exhale. I'm also (kind of? sort of?) starting to make more mom friends for the first time ever, which is the most awkward thing in the world but has the potential to be so good down the road.

What's been saving your life this winter?


January Book Report

January is done and gone already, and with it the five (!!) books I've already managed to read this year. I wrote earlier about my goal to read deeply in 2018. This is partially to make sure my reading life is aligned with my values overall and partially to make sure my reading doesn't eclipse other creative projects I'd like to tackle. 

I'm not sure if I'll keep up with these book reports every month all year, especially if I start reading fewer books each month, but this seemed like a good way to check in on how I'm doing with my goal of reading deeper.

Here's what I read in January and how each book fit my criteria for reading deeply. Check back to my original post about deep reading to learn more about the criteria I use when choosing "deep" books! This list contains affiliate links.

The Sentient Machine by Amir Husain

Deep reading category: Makes me think

Star rating: N/A. This one was so complex for me that I decided not to give it a star rating.

I'm a little bit of a conspiracy theorist at heart. One of my secret hangups is the fear that artificial intelligence (AI) technology is developing so rapidly, and oftentimes with so little care for the consequences, that it's going to get away from us one of these days. So when I heard about a book dedicated to exploring the future of AI and why we shouldn't fear it but should look for the benefits, I knew I had to read it. 

The Sentient Machine definitely made me think, but I disagreed with the author at nearly every turn. We just look at the world from such opposite viewpoints, it would have been almost impossible to get on the same page with the moral issues surrounding AI. Husain rushed headfirst into the benefits of AI based on ethical and moral assumptions that I, and I'm guessing many other Christians, don't agree with. He also referred to all the major religions as "myths" and, at one point, collective lies we tell ourselves as humans. So that's problem number one. 

Husain gave thorough breakdowns of what sentient AI could look like in different industries, but he never stopped to consider the ethical problem of basically creating a race of sentient robot slaves. Though Husain's arguments were interesting, they didn't have enough of a foundation to convince me of anything. 

Bottom line: Recommended for people who are already interested in AI or the future of technology. Pass for everyone else. 

A Simplified Life by Emily Ley


Deep reading category: Teaches something specific

Star rating: Two stars

I generally like Emily Ley's work, but this one left me disappointed. The goal of the book was to walk readers through different areas of their lives---marriage, parenting, wardrobe, spiritual life, etc.---and help them simplify each category so they could focus on intentional living.

Unfortunately, the whole thing was too shallow to be of much use to anyone. I've read blog posts that go deeper than some of these chapters! My (potentially too harsh?) opinion is that this was just another that was only written because a publisher saw potential in the author's platform. There was nothing new here, and it ended up being the opposite of deep reading.

Bottom line: Recommended for anyone who's literally never read a minimalism or simplicity blog or has never heard of Marie Kondo. Everyone else can probably skip this one.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: Five stars

I'm a sucker for fiction based on fairy tales or folklore, and this one didn't disappoint. The Bear and the Nightingale is set deep in the heart of the forest in medieval Russia. Vasya is a strange, wild girl who doesn't accept that her only options in life are to marry or join a convent. She and her siblings have grown up listening to fairy tales about the creatures who lurk in the forest, especially those about Morozko the frost demon, but Vasya has never feared the wilderness. When the household gains a strict new stepmother and a priest from Moscow after Vasya's father remarries, something begins going awry with the forest spirits. It's up to Vasya to find out why if her village is to survive the harshest winter they've ever known.

This is one of those books with a plot that's tricky to explain, but the writing is gorgeous. Take it from me, it's better than it sounds. This is the perfect book with atmosphere, and the rich history of Russia make it reminiscent of historical fiction along with its obvious fantasy bent.

Bottom line: I'm tempted to say everyone should read this, but it's an especially good choice for anyone who loved The Night Circus or who's interested in Russia and folklore.

Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday

Deep reading category: Teaches something specific; could help me write a novel

Star rating: Four stars

Perennial Seller is the ultimate meeting place between books about making art and books about selling that art. Holiday dives deep into what makes certain works timeless. Why do people return to Jane Austen's novels as beloved favorites hundreds of years later? What makes one book or song or painting stick while others are forgotten? The conclusions Holidays reaches are fascinating and something I'll be keeping in mind with my own creative projects.

I was afraid this book would tend too heavily toward business and marketing, but that wasn't the case. Holiday spent the first third of the book focusing on the creative process. I especially appreciated his stance that mediocre work will never become timeless. It's worth it to focus on the art and create something great. I also liked his view that creating and selling art is a cyclical process: some seasons will be devoted to creating, and some will be spent marketing. It's when we try to mix the two that we get into trouble. As someone who's trying to go deeper with my focus on creative projects this year, that was such a relief to read!

Bottom line: Recommended for anyone who ever wants to create something that lasts, or even create something that sells. I think it's a great starting point for creatives who are skittish about the marketing world, but if you're currently burned out on business-y books, you might want to save this one for later.

The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh

Deep reading category: None

Star rating: Three stars

I cheated a bit on my deep reading goals with this one. The Rose and the Dagger is the sequel to The Wrath and The Dawn, which I finished in December. I didn't want to leave the duology unfinished for the whole year (even though I was pretty sure I wouldn't like the second book as much as the first), so I gave myself an exception. 

The series is a retelling of the Thousand and One Nights, with Shahrzad volunteering to become the next wife of the murderous king, Khalid, after her best friend is killed at his hand. It's hard to talk about the sequel without giving anything away from the first book, so I'll just say that it's a decent enough YA read. Once again, I was drawn in by the "retelling of a classic" spin, but the writing style really bothered me. I actually ended up skimming through much of The Rose and the Dagger just to catch the main plot points because the writing and POV switches were getting to be too much. 

Bottom line: It's a good middle-of-the-road choice for YA lovers, but nothing groundbreaking. (Though the series has a cult following, so I might be in the minority here.)

What have you been reading lately?