tightening Santa’s belt

Jolly-old-saint-nickThis week, I am celebrating my own personal Christmas tradition: biting my nails over whether Santa will be leaving too much stuff under the tree, or not enough.

Each December 26th, I vow: next year, Santa is dialing it back. But come the following December, I look at my Santa spreadsheet and fear the piles might be too small. (In my defense, my middle child is a total pile-assesser. He is always certain he’s getting the short end of the stick, even from Kris Kringle.) So out I run to the dollar aisle at Target, and I Amazon-Prime one or two more things (just in case), and by Christmas Eve, there is so much to wrap that my tummy hurts.

It reminds me of my grandmother, who used to look at my own childhood Christmas bounty each year and declare “Tweet, tweet!” at the extravagant excess. (She was one of eight kids. They grew up sharing two beds. They probably also grew up sharing two Christmas presents. I regret to say I never asked her when I had the chance.)

This year, six-year-old Maggie is gunning for Kanani, the 2011 American Girl Girl-of-the-Year, which is no longer available in stores. No problem! she explained; Santa can just tell the elves to pound another one out on their workbenches! Cut to me, trawling ebay and considering just for a moment whether I might need to spend $448.99 to buy the discontinued Kanani and, you know, spread the magic of Christmas or something. (I mean, it’s not a total ripoff: her paperback book “Aloha Kanani” is also included.) I didn’t do it, mind you, but I was sort of disgusted with myself for even contemplating it. Tweet, tweet.

My nine and eleven-year-old boys, on the other hand, couldn’t be bothered to make lists at all, which seems cocky in the extreme if you ask me. When you’re little you can drift off to sleep fairly secure in the knowledge that omniscient Santa will come through, list or no list. When you’re old enough to know better, just tell your mother what you want already.

In recent years, I’ve often read the suggestion that kids get three gifts because Jesus got three gifts from the three wise men. I love this idea, but it’s a little late for me to grandfather it in now. (Please wait while I text my sister and tell her to start while her kids are still two and zero.) And so I was quite happy to find, on the Overstuffed blog, this Christmas printable to keep things manageable. Four categories, clear and simple:





…to which my present-counter responded, “Interesting Stuff.” I will read interesting stuff. Got it, thanks.

My adult-gift Christmas list, on the other hand, has dwindled away to almost nothing this year. My husband and I have declared a no-exchange Christmas this year; we just moved, that cost enough, Merry Christmas. And between our two families, we were already part of three adult name-draws, making the buy-and-wrap list for our huge families much more manageable. But this year, all three of those name-draws have disappeared by common assent. When you’re sitting around exchanging fifty-dollar gift cards, it does beg the question: why bother?

But  I am, I admit it, slightly depressed at the thought that I might actually open zero Christmas presents this year. Is that horrible to say? I’d love a candle or something. Well. I’ll hold out hope and see if Santa comes through.

Over at the New York Times’ Materially Speaking page, there are tons of ideas for maintaining Christmas spending. Regardless of overall budget, it seems like a real trend.

Is Santa tightening his belt at your house this year?


50,032 words later: what I learned from National Novel Writing Month

2013-Winner-Facebook-ProfileReaders, I DID IT. I wrote fifty thousand words in thirty days! I feel like I ran a marathon, albeit one of a most sedentary nature.

I am still squinting as I re-enter the sunshine of this unseasonably warm December day, but here is

What I Learned from National Novel Writing Month 

(Some of this came as a surprise. Some of it was more like a gentle reminder.)

Don’t look back, no matter what.

The only way I could get to 50,000 words in thirty days was not, under any circumstances, to look back.


See? Looking back = easy and relaxed. But to drive Greased Lightning, one must look forward.

Editing what one has already written is the fun part. That’s why I worked on twenty pages for twenty months. (I wish that was an exaggeration.) That’s also why I needed NaNoWriMo to make me finish Chapter Two (and start Chapter Three).

Perfectionism and productivity are inversely related. 


My usual working mode– typing a sentence, backspacing back out of it, then typing something else, then deleting that, then biting my fingernails– was incompatible with the task at hand. If I was to get the work done on time, I needed to heed the words of the incomparable Chuck Wendig:

If you want to be a writer, then write. And suck. And write your way through the suck.

That can be painful, too, but it’s also a lot faster.

Keeping track of my productivity helps me write more efficiently.

Knowing I had to write at least 1667 words a day, I used Scrivener and my phone’s timer and all sorts of metrics to monitor my productivity. Turns out, I write a lot more words when I’m doing a thirty-minute sprint, or when I have a specific word count goal I must meet before I can go to the bathroom

Reviewing my metrics also taught me when to write, and how long my blocks should be. I’m a morning person, and the numbers bore that out. I didn’t even try evening; I am useless after the kids go to bed. Whether it’s organizing backpacks or outlining a chapter, I’d rather get up early than stay up late. Knowing that was my best time to work probably made it even more productive– I was living up to my expectations.

I can write much more quickly than I thought I could.

Rachel Aaron’s ebook 2K to 10K was very helpful here– she has concrete suggestions that I turned to whenever I hit a wall.

Her best tip: sketch out the day’s writing before you begin. I had done an overall outline, but the sketch-to-start each day helped me focus on why the particular scene I was writing was there in the first place, and what I needed it to accomplish. Even if I took 30 minutes to do that before I typed a word, the *next* 30 minutes would provide tons of words, because I knew just what I wanted to say next.

Writing can happen anywhere. 

First-draft writing, “writing your way through the suck” writing, at least. I prefer solitude and silence and an afternoon free of distractions- who doesn’t? But when I became hungry for my word count, I also became hungry to write, and I got 250 words done waiting for an audition, 400 more waiting for my son to come out of band practice. As long as I had headphones and Simply Noise, I could focus and work.

Writing doesn’t require as much time as I thought it did.

It took me about 80 hours, over the course of the month, to write those 50,000 words. About two-and-a-half hours a day. Not nothing, but I was able to find those hours more easily than I expected. I had to get up and out to the library on weekend mornings– no reading the paper in my pajamas– but when I got my words done by 10:30 am, and had the rest of the day free to feel accomplished and calm and present with my kids, I was actually a better parent than usual.

But it did require tons of focus.

For the past thirty days, my writing was non-negotiable. I’m usually so willing to let it come last. With a deadline, each day I had to schedule three hours of writing (which included time for fidgeting, coffee, and a bit of self-flagellation). And so I did. Stuff fell away (working out, hanging out). But everything that needed to happen for my life and my kids still did. I just had to trust that it would all work, and I found, just like my friend Laura Vanderkam says, that I had more time than I thought I did. In Laura’s words:

You have to be bold enough to do work you find compelling first, trusting that life will fill in around it the way water poured into a glass surrounds the ice.

So here I am, left with 200 pages of a book that might not be any good. Who can say? I’m going to wait until January to go back and take a look.

I’m trying to tell myself it’s okay if my first draft stinks. Jennifer Egan writes fifty or sixty drafts of all her novels before she lets the rest of us read them.

But what if my book REALLY stinks? What if fifty drafts wouldn’t help it? In that case, why did I bother?

Either way, I learned a lot about writing. And about embracing the imperfect. For me, that was hella worthwhile.

What have you learned about your own productivity?