The requisite year-end reflection

All over the Internet, people are taking stock of 2017. Like many, I found it stressful to keep up with the news this year. However, the past few months have also brought important milestones in my personal and professional lives. Here is the requisite year-end reflection along with some intentions for 2018.

In 2017 my freelance writing work grew to the point that I had to scale back my teaching load. After a spring and summer so busy they left me feeling burnt out, I decided to give up a part-time academic job and dwindle my remaining fall course assignments down to one accelerated six-week class. When I made this decision in August I felt both scared and exhilarated. What if I failed? What if I succeeded? Would I like mostly working from home?

Four months later, life feels more settled, though there is always an element of unpredictability in the freelance life. I’m going into the spring with one class at Temple and a full roster of writing work. Just a few years ago I couldn’t have imagined this life for myself. Now I get to tell people, “I’m a writer,” when they ask what I do. I’ve written about my journey from brand-new freelancer to busy working writer in “How to Outsource Your Freelance Blogging Work with Integrity,” my Pitchfest-winning article for Be A Freelance Blogger.

So, what’s next? My challenge in 2018 will be to return to my Creative Writing roots. I put fiction mostly to the side when I had my first child four-and-a-half years ago. Now that my second child is almost two, it feels like time to dip my toe tentatively into the water. I’ve read more articles than I can count by women writers describing how they do (or don’t) balance motherhood with a writing life. But while these articles have shown me I’m in good company, they can’t really tell me how to find the balance in my own life. It looks a little different for everyone.

After thinking about it for a few days, I’ve decided the first step is to write regularly here on my blog. So expect one-two posts a week from me on whatever happens to be on my mind. It will be a little bit like creative writing, a lot like free writing, and give me a space to play around with words. After years of thinking I can’t have a blog because I don’t have one specific niche in mind, I’d like to return to the style of online journaling that first captured my attention in the early 2000s. On LiveJournal and elsewhere, I loved reading about other people’s lives in eloquent prose that captured ordinary details along with some wisdom. Many of the blogs I read were written by women older than me, and reading about their hopes, dreams, mistakes, and day-to-day routines gave shape to my wishes and plans for my own life. I shall strive to do something similar here.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Back to School for Teachers

Back to School for Teachers

Classes begin next week at one of the two colleges I teach for. As an adjunct, preparing for the semester can be a gamble. You don’t want to begin too soon in case your class is cancelled, but if you start too late it’s hard to catch up. Being prepared is the number one thing that gives me confidence as a teacher, but I also struggle with procrastination. So what to do? I turned to my friend and fellow writer/teacher, Katie Ionata, for help.

Katie and I share an office, so I’ve personally witnessed her organization skills. I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing her teach, so I know she prepares great classes to engage her students. Recently I asked Katie how she prepares for the semester. These are the tips she gave me:

  • Make a big list of everything you need to do before school starts. Then try to do a few things each week, starting in August. Breaking a long list into manageable portions makes it feel less daunting.
  • Write or revise your syllabi.
  • Proofread/have someone read your syllabi.
  • Submit syllabi for copying.
  • Set up Blackboard or Webstudy (or whichever online learning platform your school uses) sites for your classes.
  • Review new readings.
  • Complete lesson plans for Weeks 1 and 2.
  • Start thinking about the first paper assignment.
I’m proud to say I’m off to a good start so far. My syllabi are finished and off to the copier and I designed a new assessment and writing sample prompt for the first class. I’m going to work on subsequent lesson plans next. Another way I’ll improve my planning and organization this year is to record paper due dates on my calendar and block off extra time for grading. So although it’s still 90 degrees outside and seems too soon for the “fall” semester to begin, I’m ready.
How do you get ready for a new semester or school year? How do you stay organized throughout the term? Please share any tips to add to Katie’s list.

The Power of Reflection: 3 Reasons it Will Change Your Life

Power of Reflection

Reflection is a big part of my approach to teaching. On the first day of class, I ask students to reflect on their lives thus far as readers and writers. What roles have those activities played in their lives? What goals do they have for the semester ahead? As we move through the syllabus, students write reflections on each essay they draft. I ask them to write about the strengths they see in their work, as well as the challenges they faced, and the skills they hope to improve on in the next paper. At the end of the semester, my students reflect on what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown as writers throughout the term.

When they leave my class, I hope they will take the habit of reflection with them. It’s a habit I’ve practiced in my own life since I began to keep a diary in elementary school. As my life has gotten busier with the demands of adulthood and noisier with the everyday racket of the digital age, it’s harder to stop and reflect. But not coincidentally, the more pressed for time I feel, the more I benefit from reflection. Here are 3 ways to make reflection a powerful tool in your own life.

Know where you’ve been.

Have you ever drawn a blank on a Monday morning when a friend asks “how was your weekend?” Too often we rush from chore to activity and back again without repose. You may have been trying to cram a weekend’s worth of fun memories into your Saturday and Sunday, but what good is fun if you can barely remember it the next day?

Build little breaks into your days so you’re not just sprinting from one thing to the next. Even if it’s just sitting in your car a few minutes before you get out, take the time to think about, talk about, or write down what you did and the ways it contributed meaning or value to your life. For example, after a family outing at the zoo, ask each family member to name their favorite part of the trip before you go home. Or before you leave your desk for lunch, think about what you accomplished that morning.

Keeping a personal or family diary of happy memories is another way to benefit from reflection. Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin describes some of the ways we benefit from recording and rereading memory logs. If writing things down feels like an imposing task, keep the bar low. Set an interval, such as weekly or monthly, that works for you and make it short. Tell yourself you only need to write one sentence. If you end up writing more, that’s great, but you’ll be less intimidated by the smaller expectation.

Go into your future with intention.

Knowing where you’ve been helps you articulate where you want to go. So many of our dreams remain abstract images on the horizon because we don’t stop to figure out what we need to do day-to-day to achieve them. Instead of idly dreaming about writing a book or starting a business, use reverse engineering to plan your goal and keep yourself moving forward with reflection.

Let’s say your dream is to write a novel. Maybe you haven’t started yet because you never have three hours to sit down uninterrupted and bang out that perfect first chapter. First reflect on how much time you can devote to novel writing in a day or week. Can you get up earlier? Stay awake after everyone else has gone to bed? Even if you can only write one paragraph or one page a day, you will reach your goal a lot faster than by writing nothing at all.

Plan your writing sessions with a few minutes at the end to reflect on your progress. You may want to record how much writing you did, whether less than, more than, or exactly your target. Why did you write as much or as little as you did? What will you do differently or the same tomorrow? And finally, remind yourself how this individual session, though seemingly insignificant, brings you closer to realizing your bigger dream.

Calm your racing mind.

Buddha used the term “monkey mind” to describe the loud and chaotic environment our thoughts create. I’ve dealt with anxiety all my life, but I’ve felt more mentally stressed since having a child. Part of it is the constant multi-tasking and anticipation that is part of caring for a baby and young toddler. And it also stems from giving up the regular yoga practice I had before I became a mother, as well as the increased ways I use technology in my daily life. But no matter the origins, the best way to calm a racing mind is to take a timeout.

That’s right — treat your brain like the unruly toddler it’s acting like and force it to sit still for a few minutes. This timeout can take the form of meditation, which I’ve recently incorporated into my morning routine. Or it can consist of writing down the thoughts swirling through your mind, especially things you’re worried or upset about. The act of writing is powerful. Many thoughts lose their power once you get them down on paper.

Building reflection into your daily life is a powerful way to improve your mood, act with intention, and decrease stress and anxiety. How do you make reflection part of your routine? Have you noticed any positive changes since you started?