2 Online Tools to Simplify Your Reading and Writing

Some people need noise to concentrate: background music, the hiss of an espresso machine, the latest rotation on their personal listening device.

Not me. I need quiet — and I don’t just mean the soundscape. I need visual quiet too. This is why web apps like the popular Evernote don’t work for me. Not only do I find Evernote visually busy, but the learning curve to use all its features takes away from my work time instead of adding to it.

If you’re a simplicity freak like me, here are two online tools you might enjoy.

Take Your Morning Pages Online with 750Words

Are you a fan of Julia Cameron’s morning pages? Then you’ll want to check out Buster Benson’s ultra-nifty 750Words.

The basic idea of morning pages is to write three pages every day in stream-of-consciousness style, to clear your mind and stoke your creative fire. Cameron introduced morning pages as a longhand practice with a pen and paper journal.

But why not experiment with typing online instead? Buster Benson created 750Words, an elegantly simple online framework for doing your morning pages. You might love it. I do. It’s not blogging: your writing is totally private, just for you.

Nope, you can’t change the font or add fancy formatting or do anything else that will distract you from writing. The website is almost invisible — once you join, you just log in and start writing. No learning curve.

Your work is automatically saved, and you get a message when you hit the 750-word mark. You can export your entries if you like. I export mine at the end of every month and print them up.

You can earn points for writing your quota each day, get funny little animal badges and track your metadata (Benson is a metadata fanatic). Or you can just write.

It’s pretty interesting to watch your total word count pile up. I’ve now written over a hundred thousand words. Wow!

I started supporting 750Words with a $5-a-month donation a while back, when the site was free. Yes, I love it that much. You can still try the site for free for 30 days, but now Benson and his sweetie-pie are charging $5 a month to help cover their costs and time. If you really don’t have the five bucks, though, they’ll give you a free pass if you plead your case.

Clear the Way to Easy Reading with Readability

Readability is a free web app that you install in your browser. (Hey, if I can do it, so can you.)

You know those times when you find an intriguing article on a website, but you can hardly read it because the site is such an eyeball-busting cacophony of boxes, columns, pop-ups and graphics?

Well, just click the Readability icon and … presto, a clean web page opens with  n o t h i n g    b u t    y o u r   a r t i c l e .    Oh, wait till you see, it’s a thing of beauty, like when the neighbours finally turn down their stereo after hours of thumping base. Breathing space for your eyes. Room to think. (Remember thinking?)

You can customize the style and type size you want. And you can save articles to read later.

Readability works for smartphones and tablets too.

I think you might like it.


A Blog Post a Day Keeps Perfectionism Away

Art-Fear-CoverYesterday I fell under the wheel of some deadline pressures and a friend suggested I stop this Blogathon madness. “A couple of posts a week is enough,” she said sympathetically. “You don’t need to post every day.”

In that moment, I realized why I’m doing the WordCount Blogathon challenge: it’s my antidote to fear (which I wrote about on day 1 of the Blogathon) and crippling perfectionism.

This realization made me remember one of the most revelatory passages I’ve ever read on the creative process. It’s from a superb little book by David Bayles and Ted Orland called Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of ARTMAKING.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity  of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A,” forty pounds a “B” and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A.” Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

So, for the month of June, I’m aiming for quantity: a post a day. I’ve given enough of my creative life to the futile pursuit of perfection — which has indeed largely involved sitting around “theorizing,” as Bayles and Orland so aptly put it. They also point out that the very idea of perfection is, ironically enough, “a flawed concept.”

Only out of our imperfections do we learn, grow and create.

3 Lessons in Storytelling from Sir Patrick Stewart


Sir Patrick Stewart, aka Captain Jen-Luc Picard, was a special guest at Comicpalooza in Houston, Texas, last month. During a Q&A, audience member Heather Skye thanked him for his 2007 Amnesty talk on domestic violence. She then asked him, “besides acting, what are you most proud of that you’ve done in your life?”

There’s so much to praise in the content of Sir Patrick’s speech — especially his bold stand against male violence towards women. But as a writer, I’m fascinated by the storytelling genius that’s earned this video well over three million hits in just a few days.

What can we learn as writers and entrepreneurs from this gifted speaker?

In his speech, Patrick Stewart demonstrates three things we all need to do as storytellers, whether we’re using story in our writing or as entrepreneurs marketing our business:

  1. Connect with the audience.
  2. Inject exactly the right amount of story to create emotion.
  3. Lead (or persuade) by connecting the dots.

1. Connect with the audience.

Patrick-Stewart-DFreeStewart begins his response by acknowledging his questioner directly for making the connection between his work as an actor and as an activist. He says to her:


I think you have beautifully linked the important things together.

He stays continuously attuned to the audience, not just talking at people, but observing their reactions. At one point (6:40), he gives a nod to the men who are applauding him, praising their support against domestic violence.

As writers, we need to cultivate a continuous feedback loop, listening to our own words while imagining the perceptions and needs of our readers. What are they thinking and feeling? Do they need a beat of silence? More explanation? A fiery anecdote? Some cool facts?

 2. Use exactly the right amount of story to create emotion.

After introducing domestic violence as a social issue, Stewart humanizes it by telling us why he’s involved:

I do what I do in my mother’s name … because I couldn’t help her then…. Now I can.

With just these few words of (mostly implied) story, we immediately feel for his mother. He doesn’t go into detail; he knows he doesn’t need to. What he says is enough to draw us in.

Then, after leading us to believe this is a story about his mother, he takes a left turn: “Last year,” he says, “I learned things about my father that I didn’t know.” He tells how his father returned home from fighting in the Second World War with what was then dismissed as “shell shock.”

Now, unexpectedly, we feel for his father.

But before we settle into his father’s story, he expands our empathy exponentially. He connects his father’s plight with that of the many soldiers all over the world today who are returning home with what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder.

 3. Lead (or persuade) by connecting the dots.

Stewart has now told us about his mother and connected the violence she suffered to the combat trauma his father experienced.

He has connected what was originally known as shell shock with what we now call PTSD, and the profound social damage it causes.

He has connected the universal social issues of violence against women and PTSD with his own personal history, then traced his family’s story back out to the big picture. He has connected the past with the present.

And he connects the men in the audience with the work that needs to be done.

In closing, he pulls it all together:

So, I work for [the organization] Refuge for my mother, and I work for Combat Stress for my father in equal measure.

He does all this in less than eight minutes. And, like all great storytellers, he makes it look easy.

Stealing Creative Inspiration from Austin Kleon

KleonI don’t know about you, but I own way too many books on writing and creativity. And what have most of them done for me other than distract me from actually writing and creating?

Still, every now and then a total gem comes along. Like Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.

Could this cool, six-inch-square graphic delight be any cuter? Talk about “the medium is the message”: every element of the book’s design embodies Austin’s hands-on ethos. You wouldn’t think black and white could be reinvented, but these pages, with their hand-drawn print, photos and doodles, feel fresh and new.

And there’s great content too, including some of the most solidly usable advice for living a creative life I’ve found. Here’s what sets this book apart from other books on creativity, at least for me: it kicks me into action.

You don’t have to consider yourself an artist or writer to benefit from Steal Like an Artist. Austin wrote it for “anyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work. (That should describe all of us.)”

Here are three of my favorite Kleon commandments:

1. Step away from the screen.

“You need to find a way to bring your body into the work,” writes Austin.

It wasn’t until I started bringing analog tools back into my process that making things became fun again and my work started to improve.

I got so excited when I read about his dual-desk work setup that I copied it: one desk for digital equipment and the other for analog. Austin allows nothing electronic on his analog desk, just tools for writing, doodling, drawing, making notes. This is where he germinates ideas and mucks around. Only when he’s ready to pull something together and publish it does he moves to his digital desk.

2. Build your own world.

This reminds me of Pema Chodron’s famous adage, “start where you are,” only Austin is telling us to “create where you are.” He lives in one of the country’s hippest cities, yet most of his peers don’t live there. “I know them from the Internet,” he says.

You don’t have to live anywhere other than the place you are to start connecting with the world you want to be in … Surround yourself with books and objects that you love. Tape things up on the wall. Create your own world.

Connect with great people online, put on some music, pay attention to what’s around you.

3. Start making stuff.

Don’t wait until you know who you are before you make things.

In my experience, it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are. You’re ready. Start making stuff.

Fake it till you make it. Copy your heroes. Work it out by doing it.

Want More Austin Kleon?

Check out this talk he gave in May, buy his book, spend some time on his websites. He’s a busy guy. You better get started.

Blogging My Way Out of Fear

If you build itTrue confession: I, Marial Shea, am afraid of my own website. There, I’ve said it. I launched MarialWrites in February and, since then, I’ve published a mere three blog posts. I thought if I built the site, I might magically become a blogger. Call it the “if you build it, they will come” fallacy. I figured if I built the site, at the very least I would show up.

Now I’m realizing I was one tiny grammatical adjustment away from the truth: just change the tense of the verb “build” to present continuous.

If you are building it, they will come. A blog isn’t something you build, it’s something you are building. Blogging happens in the present continuous.

Joining the WordCount Blogathon

Today I began to exercise my fear-cramped blogging muscles by joining the 2013 WordCount Blogathon. The fabulous Michelle Rafter started this event in 2008. Every year it brings people together to become better bloggers by writing a post a day for the month of June. That’s 30 posts in a row, yikes!

Talk about present continuous.

Michelle V. Rafter

Michelle V. Rafter

I’m joining partly to get in the habit of blogging. But an equal draw is Michelle herself. I’d follow her anywhere. Her blog WordCount: Freelancing in the Digital Age ranks on many top-ten blog lists, and for good reason: Michelle delivers consistent, quality coverage of “the craft of writing, running a freelance business and the latest tech tools for writers.” No matter how work-swamped or web-weary I am, I always read her posts. If you want a taste, try WordCount’s top thirty posts for 2012.

Even though I’ve been writing for years, I’ve got a lot to learn as a blogger. Where do I fit in the digital world? Where do I want to fit? How do I dive into the hidden depths of things, as I love to do, and still swim back up to the surface with information readers can actually use?

I’m going to find out by doing what I’ve always done: write.

Present continuous: I am blogging.

Stalking the Wild Voice


Marlon Brando first played Stanley Kowalski in 1947 in a stage version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcare Named Desire. Then, in Kazan’s 1951 film version, Brando let rip one of the most famous hollers in screen history.

Brando’s scream is celebrated in New Orleans this weekend in the Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest, part of the annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.

A young actor and writer named Elena Passarello has written a quirky book of essays about the human voice called Let Me Clear My Throat. It so happens that, among Passarello’s many talents, she won the 2011 Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest. Here’s a youtube video of Passarello’s final round, filmed on an iPhone by an audience member:

After studying herself in the youtube video, Passarello wrote a play-by-play analysis of her own winning screams (from her essay “Harpy”):

I am just a faraway outline of myself … In between the first and second screams, I gasp, and I just keep breathing in, trying to extend the last vowel of “Stella!” through the inhale. The crowd howls at this. After the second “Stella!” I shake my head vigorously, like the scream is a whiskey shot that burns as I swallow it. I have no idea where any of those ideas came from.

The third scream, I think, is the scream that won it. You can hear me lose a battle in my throat. You do not have to assume that I will be mute for days afterward; you know it … I did not tell myself to make this hurt, but there I am, punching lower and lower into myself to see what comes up.

This reminds me of Annie Dillard’s much-quoted exhortation (from The Writing Life) on how to write:

… spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.

I keep going back to watch that video clip of Passarello spending everything’s she’s got, givin’ ‘er, reaching down and finding more. I love her for her balls-out full-throttle woman-roar — for striding out on stage and stripping from the inside out. She’s my proxy, this fiery clown-warrior, purging me of all the times I’ve shoved my own fist down my throat to silence myself.

In her essays, Passarello tells stories about the human vocal chords — how and why they do what they do. She explores the sound of the original rebel yell by Stonewall Jackson’s Union soldiers, Sinatra’s meticulous singing technique, the nuances of the Pittsburgh accent, Howard Dean’s political death scream, and the in-joke among movie sound-effect nerds known as the Wilhelm Scream.

And, fittingly enough, the book even has a soundtrack. Go to the author’s website and listen to CJ Bargamian’s moody tunes.


Standing Up on the Job, Part 2

Standing desk 1New research on the dangers of sitting

We sit too much. Common sense tells us this and now research confirms it.

If you think you can make up for all the sitting you do with regular exercise, think again. Even if you’re getting the recommended 30 or 40 minutes of exercise each day, a recent small study shows that it’s negated by hours spent parked on your keister.

And this study found that sitting causes us to put on a specific kind of fat around our hearts that’s dangerous because it’s strongly related to heart disease.

Glycemic response in overweight people was measured in this new study, which showed that glucose and insulin levels increased by 20 percent in those subjects who sat for two hours after the test meal instead of engaging in moderate activity.

A recent Australian study of over 63,000 men examined links between sitting and chronic disease, comparing men who sat less than four hours a day with those who sat from four to six hours, six to eight, and more than eight hours. Significantly more men over the four-hour mark reported having not only diabetes, but also cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure, and the risk increased as the hours of sitting increased.

Idle muscle has negative effects on fat and cholesterol metabolism. But here’s the good news: standing can double your metabolic rate, with no additional exercise.

What about treadmill desks?

Some people turbocharge their standing desk by adding a treadmill. Great idea, right?

Well, maybe not. My go-to movement expert, Katy Bowman, warns in this post that the mechanics of movement on a treadmill are more like falling than walking:

[Treadmills] often contribute to spine, hip, and knee problems. Because the belt moves backward, our feet meet little or no resistance when they push off. This requires us to lift our legs out in front of us (holy psoas, Batman!) and then fall forward. The hips, knees, and feet, unfortunately, then have to provide the cushioning for the crash landing.

Build your own standing desk

You can purchase a purpose-built standing desk, but why not jerry-rig a temporary setup first to see if you like it? I reconfigured the desk I had by fully extending the legs and piling my keyboard and monitor up on piles of books (see the photo in Part 1).

Here are some other ideas you can cobble together on the cheap:

Treadmill Desk Diary — I know, I advise against treadmills, but this delightfully geeky site has tons of useful info.

“Hack a Standing Desk from IKEA”

“A standing desk for $22” 

More inspiration to get you standing

“Office Workers Beware: Sitting Time Associated With Increased Risk of Chronic Diseases” 

“Taking a Stand for Office Ergonomics”

Standing Up on the Job, Part 1

Standing desk close-up

After years of working as a freelance writer, I was starting to worry that I hated my job. I’d spot the mail carrier walking by and fantasize about applying to the post office. My whole body was screaming “get me out of here!” and I didn’t know why.

Then I stumbled across some recent research showing that sitting down on the job puts us at risk for all kinds of negative outcomes (like death, for example — see Part 2 for details).

Turns out I didn’t hate my work, I just hated sitting at my desk. Time to experiment. I extended the legs of my Ikea Galant desk to maximum height, propped my computer, keyboard and mouse on piles of books and launched my own study of standing on the job.

Results were instant and remarkable. Right away, I felt light and loose, mobile and engaged, instead of compressed, rigid and disembodied. I noticed that I was constantly in subtle motion, swaying from side to side, twisting, shifting my weight from one leg to the other, bending and straightening my knees. Standing, I had become a body in motion, whereas sitting I am a force resistant to motion.

Mine is not an original observation. Newton accounted for it in his first law of motion: an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion. Standing places me firmly in motion, enlivening my whole working day.

As a bonus, within a week and a half of switching from sitting to standing, I found that my legs had grown noticeably stronger. No exercise I’ve ever done has strengthened me so quickly – and without any special equipment or dedicated exercise time.

Sitting at my desk, I’m a talking head floating in space. Standing, I’m firmly rooted, engaged, ready for action. Apologies for sounding evangelical, but I’ve never made a change with such immediate and positive results.

In Part 2, I’ll review the research on the health risks of sitting and suggest some ways you can set up your own standing desk.