April 17, 2014 § 7 Comments
Get your bookmarking finger ready – lots of blogging resources ahead.
I received a care package from the WordPress.com team a few weeks ago after I guest hosted a writing challenge for The Daily Post. In that package was a book: The Year Without Pants, the cover of which our children thought was hilarious. I put aside whatever I was reading at the time and read Berkun’s story cover to cover. In it, he writes about his year at WordPress.com during which, as the title suggests, he worked remotely and had no need for pants.
This book made me want to work for WordPress.
(And when I told our kids why the book was called The Year Without Pants – because Automatticians work from home and therefore don’t need pants – they wanted me to work for WordPress too).
In addition to making me want to work for Automattic, the company that makes WordPress.com possible, this book also opened my eyes to how powerful WordPress is as a blogging platform, not just because of the tools, themes, and continual upgrades it provides, but because of the culture it cultivates. The WordPress community is vast – users produce about 44.5 million new posts and 56.7 million new comments each month (from WordPress.com Stats) – and the folks who work for WordPress, as Berkun describes in his book, are constantly striving to provide tools for bloggers to improve and become the best we can be.
The editorial team’s efforts include writing and photography challenges to spur users to posting, free Ebooks covering Photography 101, Writing Prompts, and How to Grow Your Traffic and Build Your Blog, essays on the craft of writing, and the course I am currently enrolled in – Blogging 201: Branding, Growth, and Traffic.
In my two years here on WordPress.com I have read many articles that I knew would help me hone my blogging skills, but at the time they pinged my inbox, I was not ready to process their information. Now that I feel comfortable in my blogging skin – enough so that I’m no longer focused solely on writing but also on crafting a user-friendly, easily navigable resource on my new Andrea Reads America blog – I am digging deeper into the tools WordPress provides. And despite my advice to you to warm up your bookmarking finger, I decided that instead of bookmarking (because I never go back and look at my bookmarks), I would list the resources I plan to dig into for Andrea Reads America (and possibly Butterfly Mind) here.
- It’s about Time: On Editorial Calendars (and Why You Might Need One)
- Going Serial: The Power of Intervals
- Digging In the Dashboard, Part II: Features for Longform Post
- Five Elements For Your Front Page
- Make a Great First Impression with a Homepage
- Custom Menus
After two years of blogging on WordPress.com, these are the elements that I keep coming back to each time I find myself wanting to tailor my sites. Over the next few weeks, as I work towards achieving the goals I set for myself in the debut Blogging 201 assignment, I plan to dogear – and ultimately implement – the pages listed above. I hope you find them helpful too.
Do you have any go-to articles that helped you get your blog just the way you like it? Please share if you do!
April 14, 2014 § 13 Comments
There’s a Dar Williams song, “Mark Rothko Song,” that affects me. I have listened to it over and over again over the past ten years, and though I never knew who or what it was about there is something about this song that makes my heart shift every time I hear it, that makes me feel something: something warm and also like marine blue currents, something both smiling and melancholy, something incandescent like flashes of sunlight on the surface of dark fathomless water. Something I can’t contain with words.
She said, “I don’t know what he meant to me
I just know he affected me”
-Dar Williams – Mark Rothko Song lyrics
Despite my love for the song, I only cared about how the song made me feel, and I never bothered to research Mark Rothko. Then, last year, quite by accident, I came face to face with his work. In season two of Mad Men, on the wall of Bert Cooper’s office, was a Rothko. I saw his work for the first time, and my heart shifted. When I saw his work I felt the same feelings I feel when I listen to “Mark Rothko Song” and I thought, “Ahhh, now I see,” and I understood, for the first time in my life, abstract art.
Many people make the same claim when they see a Rothko or a Jackson Pollack: they snort and say, “I could have done that!” But the thing is, they didn’t. And I would argue that they couldn’t. Sure we can all draw rectangles, maybe even color them in, but I know I can’t mix those paints: that saturated sunshine yellow, the white like shimmering silk, that vermillion red as rich as blood. I can’t scrape a pallet knife to create dimension, I can’t achieve proportions and balance, I can’t intuit where to place the white blocks, the orange blocks, the turquoise blocks, evoke tension with shape, movement with spatters or brush strokes or angles; I would not be able to stop when it was time to stop, to restrain myself from muddying the colors.
I was walking with my friend last week and I told her, “We finally got curtain rods and throw pillows for our living room.” We panted and pumped our arms. “All we need now is art,” I said.
The new spring heat was getting to us, and she perked up. She’s a photographer and likes talking art. “Oooh, what kind of art are you looking for?” she asked.
My heart thumped as I thought about the Rothkos I binged on, the Rothkos I browse on a weekly basis since seeing his painting on Mad Men. His yellows like sunlight blazing on the wall, the electric reds, the horizontal blocks that make me feel stable, that make me feel like the ground is solid beneath me, unlike vertical compositions I’ve seen that make me feel like I’m sliding off the edge of the world.
“Well,” I said, “I really want something abstract.”
She cocked her head at me. “Go on,” she said.
“We get bored with things,” I told her. “We’ll buy a print we like and a year later we’re over it.” I thought of the wooden boats from Maine, the fat fruit from Naples. “A picture of an object will always be that object, you know?”
Krista Stevens recently wrote a writing craft piece for WordPress, Let the Reader’s Imagination Do the Heavy Lifting, wherein she advises the writer to hold back, to leave things open to the reader for interpretation. To let the reader create his or her own experience. The evening I read her piece, we watched an episode of Mad Men and I started noticing the art on the walls in Don’s office, in Peggy’s office, in the meeting room at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce. I thought about art in the terms Krista had written about, and how abstract art leaves interpretation to the viewer. Whereas a painting of an object puts you in a box – a boat is always a boat, a tree is always a tree – with abstract art there is no box. Concrete art is relatively closed, it is mostly interpreted for you by showing you exactly what it is (a pear, a flower), while abstract art refrains from explaining itself to you or telling you what to think. Abstract art encourages you to create your own experience.
The creators of Mad Men are smart. Don Draper and the creatives display all the behaviors of successful creative types: they free associate, they alter their consciousness, they think, they stare into space, out the window, at a real life dramatic scene. They nap. A lot. And they hang abstract art on their walls.
Throughout the offices of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, and Pryce are pieces of art that box nobody in – pieces of art that, in Krista Stevens’s words, allow the viewer’s imagination to do the heavy lifting. On the walls of every creative is art that suggests, evokes, moves, art that nails nothing and nobody down, art that can be anything to anyone. Art I want to look at more because it makes me feel something, because it affects me, because my mind opens both into it and outside of it.
This has been revelatory to me. A creation – whether a successful ad, a piece of writing, or a piece of art – does not have to be an end point, someone else’s rendering of a thing that already is. A rendering that says “This is a boat. It was a boat yesterday, and it is a boat today, and it will be a boat tomorrow and for all of eternity.” An artist’s creation can instead be a jumping off point, a piece of work that walks the viewer into his or her own story.
I want this type of art for our home. I want a piece of art that doesn’t box us in, that doesn’t tell us what it is, that we can interpret however we like. I want art that makes me feel something; I want art that affects me. I want a painting that can be a city scape today, a forest tomorrow, contemplation yesterday, passion next week. That right now is warmth, just a second ago was chaos, and in five minutes is a tunnel into the best idea my creative self ever had.
In honor of NaPoWriMo, this post is in tribute to the poetry of Dar Williams and her wonderful “Mark Rothko Song” which led me to the happy place I am now: in love with modern art.
April 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
She irons and she packs and her heart buzzes like a hummingbird’s wings. She watches the clock and checks the mountain’s weather and washes dishes and taps her pen and eats and checks the clock and when it says 2 she stands at the window and watches for the car.
This is my entry for the fifty-word-story writing challenge.
April 8, 2014 § 12 Comments
My husband lowered a glass bowl from the top of the refrigerator, peeled back an edge of plastic wrap, and peered in. “Does this look dried out to you?” he asked.
I looked into the bowl he held in the palm of his hand and saw a tan spongy mass. A dry crust was forming around the edges, but in the middle it was moist and bubbling. My nose got too close to the opening in the plastic wrap and I flapped my hand in front of my face. “Hoooo, it’s fermenty,” I said. He pulled it back to his face and inspected it again; he furrowed his eyebrows as he studied it.
A friend recently called me a food Nazi. She meant it in the nicest way possible, as in, “I wish I were more of a food Nazi like Andrea.” I had no idea what she was talking about. I thought she meant towards our kids, but unless I am totally off base, I feel like we are pretty relaxed with our kids’ food choices. We eat pie for breakfast, enjoy treats after lunch and dinner, eat lots of pizza, mac and cheese, and hamburgers, and the kids almost always have a supply of candy on hand. You know, normal stuff. So when my friend said that about me being a food Nazi, I was confused.
“No, I mean the way you make all your own foods,” she said. Ahh, yes. We do make our own pizza and mac and cheese and hamburger patties. “I wish I made our own Nutella and hummus and hamburger buns like you do,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “We don’t do that because we have some set of strict rules or anything.” And we don’t. My God, if good pre-made food was available for the buying, and we had the money to buy it, I’d totally buy all the stuff we currently make. Making our own food is time-consuming and, frankly, annoying. You’ve got to start with raw ingredients, prep them, cook them, assemble them, and then clean up afterwards. I would love to eliminate all that work and buy food already made. But the fact of the matter is this: I am a food snob.
I like good food, as does my husband. Good food is one of our favorite things. He and I go out once a year for a dinner date, just the two of us, and those dates are some of my fondest life memories. I remember the velvet of bouillabaisse on my palate, the crisp tang of Hendrick’s gin and blue-cheese stuffed olives, the melt of fresh fish on my tongue. We only dine this way once a year, usually for our anniversary, because we splurge big time when we do: as far as I’m concerned, the only way to get really good food, as good as we want it, is to pay the big bucks for it.
Unless we’re going ultra cheap (fast food) and therefore have no expectations, convenience foods at the grocery store or dinner out in a casual restaurant almost always leave us disappointed. We might spend a decent chunk of change on a family dinner – enough to buy a new shirt, say, or replace that ghastly light fixture – and it’s not as good as what we can make at home for a fraction of the cost: pies, pasta, cakes, Tom Collins; hamburger buns, Nutella, salsa, Gin Slings.
If you’re a food snob on a tight budget, consuming fine things means making them for yourself. It means buying dried beans, soaking them, cooking them, cooling them, processing them, washing the Cuisinart by hand. It means squeezing lemons, soaking cherries, simmering simple syrup. It means weighing flour, kneading dough, shaping buns, brushing butter. It means washing tons of dishes.
In other words, it means work. Lots of work. Lots of work that I don’t always want to do. I used to think I loved the kitchen, I used to think I loved preparing foods, I used to think I loved cooking. But when my friend said that about me being a food Nazi I realized it’s not the cooking I enjoy, it’s the eating; cooking is a means to an end. We cook from scratch not because of a health agenda or an environmental agenda but because home made food is good food we can afford, because we can cater to our own palates, because our taste buds are beasts who demand flavor and complexity, heartiness and wholesomeness, real food that is food, not “food” that is chemicals.
Which is why I can’t stop adoring my husband for his latest culinary exploration. When he lowers his glass bowl to inspect and prod, poke and punch, it makes me want to skip around him like a butterfly in our kitchen.
“I’m not sure if this is doing what it’s supposed to do,” my husband said. He pulled The Bread Baker’s Apprentice off the shelf and paged through to the sourdough starter.
I used to make bread for us, but then gluten went out of vogue, and bread’s calorie count is outrageous, and bread-baking is time consuming, and a million other reasons. But the thing is, bread is one of the most beautiful foods there is. It is golden, wholesome, can be savory or sweet, can be eaten as breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack, a side dish or a main dish, toasted or soft, buttery, drizzled with rosemary olive oil, broiled with cheese, dipped in onion soup, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, slathered with jam, smoothed with almond butter and honey, dipped in batter and fried with cinnamon. Bread can be all of these things and more, and store-bought bread is not recognizable to our taste buds as the same crust and crumb we pull warm from our oven. Also: bread is our son’s favorite food.
So after a year without homemade bread, my husband has decided to take over the bread baking.
“Is it done? Do you need to do anything else to it?” I asked after he read the sourdough passage.
He pulled the gooey mass out of the first bowl and placed it in a new bowl. The lump was the size of a sea biscuit. He added flour, kneaded the dough, turned it in the bowl, worked it in his hands. “I need to keep feeding it,” he said.
And so he feeds our beasts.
The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart: this is the book I recommend if you want to bake your own bread. If you want to explore whole grain breads, Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor is also excellent.
April 1, 2014 § 6 Comments
Last weekend, when the sun finally shone bright after weeks behind steel clouds, and the air was warm enough for short sleeves, our daughter and I waited on the front stoop for company to arrive. The sun was like warm honey on our skin, and for the first time since October, I peeled my socks off. I wiggled my naked toes in the yellow light and realized, my toes are out!
“Let’s paint our toenails,” I said. “You want to?”
We sat on the concrete steps and clipped and buffed and listened to the clink of glass polish bottles as we explored the bright pink cosmetic bag of color. I found a red like a Corazon rose, propped my right foot beneath me, and painted new life onto my toenails.
Two days later, winter returned. My toes went back into their socks, their electric happiness hidden, like a surprise party waiting for the honoree to arrive. At the end of the week, our Florida guests departed, bundled against the cold.
When Saturday came around again, so did the sun. We opened the house back up to let another day of warmth inside, and the kids asked to take a walk to the duck pond. After telling them, “In a minute” for about an hour, we finally threw on flip flops and told them to grab their ball. We walked out the door to dark grey clouds looming, shrugged our shoulders, and went anyway.
A huge raindrop splatted on my cheek as we arrived at the pond. Five minutes later, the clouds burst, and I ran under the gazebo with my go-cup of wine. The wind blew rain in sheets across the pond, and when thunder boomed, the kids and their dad ran laughing to the shelter. Our teeth chattered as the temperature dropped, and our son said, “Can we go home now?”
“Uhhhh, I’m not leaving in this.” My husband gestured to the torrents of rain coming down. “You can go if you want.”
Our son took his ball and stepped out into the downpour, and a few seconds later, our daughter followed. Soon they disappeared up the hill towards home, while their dad and I shivered under the gazebo, the wind blowing spray onto us despite the roof over our heads. When it finally seemed to let up, I said, “You wanna make a run for it?”
We walked out into the now light shower, hunching our shoulders against the chill. Thunder boomed, a new deluge began, and we ran in the rain, our squeaky flip-flops splashing, our heads down. My red lacquered toes flashed bright against the wet gray sidewalk.
My husband shouted, “I like your toenails!”
And we smiled at their fun color in the spring rain.
I am on vacation! This is a revision of the entry by the same name published March 18, 2013. Now that it’s spring, I am happily reliving that day.
March 26, 2014 § 2 Comments
Dear lotion pump manufacturer,
This may seem a strange request, but I am a writer who loves words, and I wondering if there is an industry term for the crusty glob of lotion that clogs the tip of a dispenser. Because you attempt to design products to prevent these clumps, I thought you might have a name for them. If so, would you mind sharing the term with me?
Sometimes I feel like a lunatic, like when, on the day I wrote a collage on Lunacy, I sent the above email out to several soap and lotion dispenser manufacturers. I have no need for the term. I’m not working on a piece about lotion or its dispensers; I have no place for the name once I have it. I just want to know: what is the word for that crusty bit?
When I sent out that email, I was researching lunar words for my Wednesday word work – moon, lunacy – when I came across this entry in the dictionary:
lu·nu·la n. A small crescent-shaped structure or marking, esp. the white area at the base of a fingernail that resembles a half-moon.¹
Who would have thought there was a word for that half-moon at the base of our fingernails? I was awed by this for some reason, that this seemingly useless body part (is it even a part?) would have a name. In a quest for a decent photograph of a lunula, I followed the word down the internet rabbit hole and, as I gagged over photos of thick, yellowed, and sometimes even green finger and toenails, I discovered that our nails are evaluative tools for doctors: the health of a patient’s fingernails can be indicative of nutrient deficiencies, diabetes, anemia. And it occurred to me, when a doctor evaluates, she needs a name for each body part; she can’t be writing a report and say “that little white thing at the base of the fingernail, the half-moon shaped bit, is not the right shape.” She’s a busy woman. She needs to have language to say “Lunula is malformed.”
This precision of language is my favorite takeaway from Strunk and White’s gem, The Elements of Style:
Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise.²
In order to be concise, writers, like doctors, need to have language that allows for this precision. We need to have words. We need to have names.
Everything has a name. Even the snipped tips of green beans. On a recent radio quiz show episode, a guest player canned green beans for a living. The host asked, What are the tips of green beans called, the end things that we cut off? I hate those things – surely you guys have a name for them. Snips. They are called snips once they’re snipped off (EVM when they are still on: extra vegetative matter).
When you need a name for a thing, you go to the people who work closely with that thing, like doctors for human anatomy, or green bean canners for green bean anatomy. And for lotion dispenser diagnositcs? You go to lotion dispenser manufacturers. In writing group, we talked about words, and precision of language, and how everything has a name. Like the globby chunk of dried lotion that clogs the dispenser. My friend Lesley said, There must be a name for that. I’ll bet people in the lotion industry have a name for it.
I have not yet received a reply to my emails, but that day, when I was under the lunar influence, I thought a good name would be operculum, like the door attached to a moon snail’s foot, the door that seals off the entrance to its shell. If I do not hear back from the lotion pump people, and if I ever have occasion to write about the crusty bit that clogs a pump’s tip, that is what I’ll call it. An operculum.
*log·o·phile n. a lover of words.³
¹ “lunula.” The American Heritage College Dictionary. Third Ed. 1993. Print.
² Strunk, William, Jr.; White, E.B. (2000). The Elements of Style (Fourth Edition). Boston: Pearson. p. 23.
³ “logophile.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 26 Mar. 2014.<Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/logophile>.
March 24, 2014 § 7 Comments
Okay, so there’s not really a party on my new site. BUT. After six weeks of tireless editing, revisions, uploading of media, arrangement of photo galleries, and transferring of posts from Butterfly Mind, I have finally patched all the holes, arranged all the furniture, fluffed all the pillows, and moved Andrea Reads America entirely into its new home at andreareadsamerica.com.
For those of you who have been following my reading project – 3 books set in each US state and authored by men, women, and writers of color – thank you for you patience as I’ve moved over to the new site. From this point forward (actually, as of yesterday, with Favorite quotes from Arkansas literature) all material posted on Andrea Reads America will be new and previously unpublished. If you have been following the project here and have not yet subscribed to the new site, please take a second to follow me there; all essays, book reviews, and literature capsules pertaining to my literary tour of the US will now be published on the new site and not here on Butterfly Mind.
Huge thanks to those of you who subscribed before the transfer was complete and have had your email bombed with notifications of posts you already read here on Butterfly Mind. You are the AWESOMEST READERS EVER. If there were a real housewarming party over on Andrea Reads America, you would be the VIPs with gold stars and backstage passes and personalized dangly things for your wine glasses. For real.
For those of you who have not yet subscribed, please join me. I’ve got a little bit of Arkansas coming up and a whole lot of California. Just go to the new site, scroll all the way to the bottom, and sign yourself up. It’ll be fun, I promise.
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. To follow along, please visit me at andreareadsamerica.com.