Quote for today’s work

“Coffee falls into the stomach . . . ideas begin to move, things remembered arrive at full gallop . . . the shafts of wit start up like sharp-shooters, similes arise, the paper is covered with ink . . .”

~ Honoré de Balzac


Photo credit: Kartlkay Sahay. No changes have been made.

5 Ways Keeping a Nature Journal Will Improve Your Writing

Once upon a time, drawing was considered an essential academic skill. Necessary to explain visually the concepts being explored, the ability to render an image allowed a teacher to explain or describe a subject in more depth. Of course, the invention of the camera changed things, and the inclusion of drawing in school curricula fell by the wayside. These days drawing is considered a frivolous activity, yet it is anything but.


The act of observation married to the act of moving a pencil across paper leads to an increase in brain activity. According to Milton Glaser, author of Drawing is Thinking, “When you draw an object, the mind becomes deeply, intensely attentive, and it’s that act of attention that allows you to really grasp something, to become fully conscious of it.




Add in the nourishment that the natural world offers, and nature journals become a winning hobby. Here’s how keeping a nature journal can give your writing projects a boost:


1. You’ll learn to see the details in what you are looking at. Over time, you will become attuned to the branching vein patterns of leaves, the rounded edges, and the nuances of color in overlapping leaves in the canopy overhead. Selecting colors to represent the reality of what you see becomes an exercise in precision and decision-making.

2. You’ll learn to determine scope and scale to suit your page and purpose. Will you zoom in and draw a blossom on a tree? Or will you back out and draw the entire tree? Either way, your thought process will involve planning and composition. How much do you want to show? Is a piece of the whole enough to represent your experience? These choices apply to writing as well.

3. You’ll learn how to see what is truly there in front of you, without bias. When you draw what you see, you learn to distinguish between what you actually see and what you imagine. Pay attention to the parts of the leaf that folds down, the flower petals that are chewed or misshapen. If you want to draw the ideal, then you’ll be making a composite of bits and pieces, but if you want an unbiased rendering, draw just what you see.


4. You’ll see small narratives playing out in the natural world. Squirrels chase each other and cardinals splash in the bird bath. Pollen floats in the air and rain dribbles down tree trunks. Try making lists of verbs. In what may seem a quiet ordinary scene, you will be krzysztof_coloredpencilssurprised to find plenty of action.


5. Changing the channel and switching creative media can jump-start your creative juices and feed your writing projects. Sometimes it helps to take a break from a writing project and think about something else. Especially when you walk away from screens.


There is something about the natural world that refreshes the mind and spurs new ideas.

To start a nature journal, you don’t need anything fancy, just some blank paper and a pencil. The important part is the doing. Happy drawing!


19th century asylums: a reading list

Last year I developed an interest in the stories of women committed to insane asylums. Why is this intriguing? For starters, it is important to understand the history of women’s rights in general, and of women’s power to determine their own identity and role in society in particular. The 19th century insane asylum is a hotbed of power issues and a fascinating–yet disturbing–setting for a story. You’ll see this as a common thread in these stories as women attempt to fight back against their prescribed roles.


from “The Insane in Foreign Countries” by William Pryor Letchworth, 1889. “To prevent the body strap from slipping down, a loose circular band of leather extends from the front edge over the head and lodges broadly on the shoulders, which is also secured behind by a loop-hole and small strap attached to one of the rings through which the pin is directed. By this method the whole is preserved from being shifted, and it most completely prevents the use of either hand for any injurious purpose. “


The novels on this list each create a world in which the writer can ask big questions. I’ve got a quotation from Barbara Kingsolver tucked away in my commonplace book that speaks to this:

I devise a very big question whose answer I believe will be amazing, and maybe shift the world a little bit on its axis. Then I figure out how to create a world in which that question can be asked and answered.

~ Barbara Kingsolver, on her writing process

Without further ado, here’s my list:


  1. Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. I haven’t read this yet; I’ve only just come across its existence after reading Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley. Mary Wollstonecraft blazed a path into feminist territory, introducing the concept of egalitarian relationships between men and women. I am a huge Mary Shelley fan (I believe she is the Kevin Bacon of the literary world) and have only just dipped into her mother’s work.
  2. Sarah Waters, Fingersmith. Set in the late 19th century London slums, this novel twists and turns through a broad range of emotional, physical, and ethical territory. Definitely a provocative page turner.
  3. Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White. I haven’t read this, but just saw that it likely inspired Fingersmith, so I’m including it. It was first published in 1860 and is a classic mashup of Victorian Gothic and Realism.
  4. Kathy Hepinstall, Blue Asylum. This one is from the Civil War period and sets the protagonist, Iris Dunleavy, in a state of powerlessness rooted in isolation, both political and geographic. The muggy swampy Florida landscape will draw you into the slow hot world of Iris’ story.
  5. Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace. This was the story that got me started down this topic path. Set in 1843 Canada, this is based on real events.
  6. Marcia Hamilcar, Legally Dead: Experiences During Seventeen Weeks Detention in a Private Asylum. This appears to be a work of nonfiction, and it’s interesting to see that the preface was written by a doctor who offers disclaimers and defense of contemporary practices.
  7. Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-House. This one is also nonfiction, the work of journalist Nellie Bly who in 1887 pretended to be insane in order to report on the conditions inside Blackwell’s Island Asylum.
  8. Megan Chance, An Inconvenient Wife. Chance’s narrative gets to the heart of female identity and power in ways that modern readers will relate to. Lucy is an upper-class woman in the 1880s who longs for sex and art, both completely taboo desires for a woman in her position.

Goodness knows there are many more titles out there, and you can easily find longer, better descriptions that what I’ve written here. I’ve linked to Goodreads for most of these, so that’s a great place to start. Listopia has a list called Victorian Asylums, so check that out too. I’m planning to work my way through that list over the course of the year, but I’m terrible at recording what I read on Goodreads. If you are there, let’s connect.

Happy reading!


Here’s a bonus nugget of Quaker history from Max Carter regarding this drawing below:

The Quakers, following in the footsteps of the English Friends who established the world’s first mental hospital, the Retreat in York, in the 1790s, purposefully described it as a hospital and pioneered in using botanical therapy. The azalea gardens are still a major attraction and opened to the public each spring


Philadelphia, 1817. Established by the Society of Friends “for the care of such of their members as may be deprived of their reason.” Image from page 136 of “The institutional care of the insane in the United States and Canada” (1916)