Dixie Darr

Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Cursive, Foiled Again

In Learning, Learning Tools, writing on January 23, 2018 at 6:42 am

I remember grade school classrooms decorated with pages of letters using the Palmer method of penmanship. We had to practice using our whole arm to make the endless swoops and loops of what we then called simply writing, as opposed to printing. Today we hear an endless debate about whether or not schools should teach cursive.
The basic argument in favor of it seems to be that we learned it so, by God, kids these days should learn it, too. Those opposed say it’s a skill that’s lost its relevance.
Someone pointed out that to those who don’t learn cursive, our writing and that of previous generations will be unreadable to them, an impenetrable, if old-fashioned, code. Faster than printing, it is nevertheless slower than typing, at least for those who know how to type (an argument for another day).
Some research suggests that the physical act of writing in cursive leads to increased comprehension. It also develops motor skills and activates a different part of the brain than printing.
What about your signature? Maybe in these days of electronic signatures and iris recognition technologies, signing documents no longer involves putting pen to paper.
Educators argue that teaching cursive takes time away from teaching essential skills, such as keyboarding and programming. The use of our phones for everything may even eliminate the need to learn keyboarding.
Admittedly a throwback, I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t write something if only a journal entry or to do list. If nobody knows cursive, who’s going to curate those boxes of my journals going back several decades? Something to think about.
I come down on the side of those in favor of cursive if only because I don’t want to see us lose another basic human skill. We’ve already lost so much as we move into our increasingly technology-dependent future. How, for example, would we write love letters in the sand using only the phone?
It’s a thrill these days to receive an actual letter in the mail. Ask anybody. Seeing someone’s words in their personal handwriting means more than the words alone, especially when the penmanship is glorious and gorgeous and a bit difficult to read. That just means spending more time with trying to decipher it. Spending more time with a friend is always worthwhile.


The Day the Alphabet Died

In Books, creativity, writing on January 4, 2018 at 4:56 pm

Sue Grafton, author of the alphabet mystery series and creator of PI Kinsey Millhone, was my favorite author. Her passing last week stunned the publishing and reading world and left us bereft for the loss of both writer and character.

She started the series with A is for Alibi in 1982 while fantasizing about ways to murder her ex-husband. Y is for Yesterday came out in August last year and is, for my money, her best yet. I and her other fans had dreaded for years the coming of Z, the final book in the series. She had said there would be no more after that. She wouldn’t start on a second alphabet or switch to some other titling strategy. Friends frequently asked me what she would do after that, and I explained that she’d be almost 80, although she looked much younger in her pictures, so maybe she would retire. Nobody really believed that. Writers never retire.

My initial reaction to learning that she had died of a rare form of cancer was to mourn the loss of her stories. I suppose that’s natural since I never met her and had an endless, loving acquaintance with her books. Her family stated that she had not yet started Z, and there would be no ghostwriter. The alphabet would end at Y.

I wonder. Fans have extended the life of Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes by offering new fiction featuring those characters. Why not Kinsey? Maybe some bright soul will bring her into the 21st century and let a sixtysomething Kinsey use computers and cell phones and the Internet to solve a whole new spate of mysteries. I’d buy that. She’d make a terrific old lady.

I need a new button, something along the lines of “Kinsey Lives.”

The Dreaded Christmas Letter

In Christmas, writing on December 13, 2017 at 11:58 am

My Secular Advent, Day Eleven

In this era of social media where daily we can share what we’re going, thinking, eating–whatever–the annual Christmas Letter may seem like an idea whose time has passed. We don’t need an annual missive to catch people up on our family’s accomplishments when we communicate with them every day.

Still, some of us persist, and yes I’m among them.

Most of these holiday missives sound like everyone lives in Lake Woebegone “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” I read them nodding and saying to myself, “Yeah yeah yeah. Your family is better than mine. I get it.”

“This classic letter from Martha Stewart to Erma Bombeck illustrates the typical tone:

“This perfectly delightful note is being sent on paper I made myself to tell you what I have been up to. Since it snowed last night, I got up early and made a sled with old barn wood and a glue gun. I hand painted it in gold leaf, got out my loom and made a blanket in peaches and mauves.”

Okay, maybe Martha was being the tiniest bit self-deprecating.

Using humor is one way to make your letter more interesting. Google Christmas letter and you’ll find dozens of articles with tips on how to write yours. There’s probably even a class you can take. If that seems like too much trouble, just hire a company to print and mail your letter using their online templates. Or hire someone to write the letter as well.

That doesn’t exactly reflect the personal touch, but those are the times we live in. A professional can decorate your house, cook your Christmas meal, buy and wrap your gifts. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of a service that will attend the Christmas Eve candlelight service at church if you just don’t have time.

That’s the spirit.

Waiting for Christmas

In Church, writing on November 27, 2017 at 9:13 am

Last year, I had the idea to create my own secular Advent calendar by choosing short stories, essays, poems, children’s books, and prayers, some well-known and others I, at least, had never heard of and basing my posts on those readings. It was so much fun reading these pieces and spending time thinking about the meaning of Christmas that I did a similar project for lent and then continued to write about a wide-ranging selection of topics.

My objective was to simplify Christmas and focus on what’s really important without all the frantic activity and also without being pious. I’m doing that again this year.

Advent is the four Sundays before Christmas and a time of expectant waiting and preparation for Christ’s arrival. Last year, with Christmas falling on Sunday, Advent was four weeks long. This year, Christmas is on Monday, so the four Sundays of advent make only three weeks. (I know that’s confusing, but just look at a calendar and you’ll see how it works.) At my church the pastor thought having the final Sunday of Advent at the same time as all our traditional Christmas Eve services would be too much, so we started Advent yesterday, a week early. For this series of posts, I’m sticking to the official dates, December 3-24.

I’ve collected quite a few options for my advent writings, but if you have a favorite, let me know and I’ll try to work it in.

Friday Favorites

In Auntie Flat, creativity, Learning, small houses, writing on November 17, 2017 at 8:49 am








“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” The nineteenth-century French novelist and author of Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert said that, and John Nieto, who painted the above, exemplifies it in the twenty-first century. One of my top three favorite artists with Georgia O’Keeffe and Vincent Van Gogh, I have two of his posters framed in my common room. You can watch him in his Santa Fe studio in the 80s here or a listen to a longer Facebook interview from just a couple of months ago as he approached his 81st birthday here. I love his use of color and also his Native American subjects. “The colors I work with are a reflection of what I feel.”

Another favorite is writer Joan Didion, whose 1968 book of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, boasts some of the best writing of that decade and the best title bar none. I’d been wanting to watch the new documentary about her life, The Center Will Not Hold, on Netflix, when I found an interview with the director, her nephew Griffin Dunne. After hearing him talk about his respect for her as a “real writer” and his love for her as a member of his family, I finally settled down to watch it. A clear and frequently painful view of her life and work, the film is a reminder to all of us that relationships and work are what’s really important in life. I bought Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, another collection of essays, when they went on sale for $1.99 each on Kindle earlier this year and I’m looking forward to revisiting them now half a century later.

And finally today, I bring you tiny houses and shipping container houses that you can now order on Amazon. Free shipping! You know that I’m a little obsessed with tiny houses, but you may not know that I once plotted to have my garage converted into a granny flat (or, in my case, an auntie flat) for myself with my brother and sister-in-law remodeling and living in the main house. That didn’t work out, but I retain a strong interest in the idea of living small. The now out of print book, Little House on a Small Planet by Shay Salomon, provided great inspiration and examples of how smaller is better. In-laws, Outlaws, and Granny Flats by Michael Litchfield is another good, though more conventional, introduction to the topic.

Hope you have a great weekend planned. As always, if you miss my posts, you can always find them on my blog, The Constant Learner.

Book of Days

In creativity, Learning, writing on October 25, 2017 at 10:26 am

I don’t know when I started keeping a journal. One of the earliest was in high school wherein I noted the “Qualities I Like in Boys,” chief among them being “a good complexion.” So, one reason to keep a journal is to look back and see how ridiculous you used to be and how far you’ve come. Other reasons include optimizing creativity, clearing emotions, and ingraining learning.

From Leonardo to Edison, artists, scientists, writers, business people and others from all walks of life keep journals, also called diaries, daybooks, common books, or logs. The why is as personal as the how and the where. Scrapbooks are a popular type of visual journaling and art journaling a fun creative hobby. Although books and the internet are the most popular forms to use, Ryan Holiday keeps his on index cards organized in a photo box.

Currently, I keep a morning pages journal as recommended by Julia Cameron in her classic book, The Artist’s Way—three handwritten pages every morning. When I occasionally skip a day I don’t worry about it or try to catch up but just write again the next day. These Monday-Friday blog/Facebook posts are another kind of slightly more structured journal. In addition to these, I keep

A book diary listing all the books I read and a few notes about how much I liked them

A diary of things that make me happy

A journal of ideas

An online food diary at myfitnesspal.com

A collection of quotations

Various project notebooks

And probably a few others I’ve forgotten.

The photo shows a selection of my current journals. As you can see, I like to keep changing them so I don’t get bored.

Journals fascinate me. If you’d like to explore the various kinds of journals kept by famous people, check out this video of Austin Kleon on his research for creating his Steal Like An Artist Journal.

Someday I’d like to write a book about journals although I doubt many people would be interested. Meanwhile, the boxes and boxes full of my handwritten journals (sadly, not an exaggeration) are in my storage locker, easy to access for my future biographer.

Looking Back

In Church, Learning, spirituality, writing on October 24, 2017 at 1:12 pm

Many of you know that I spent part of the past year working to update our church history for our 125th anniversary celebration last Sunday. Ruth Wiberg, the well-known author of Rediscovering Northwest Denver and a member of Highlands United Methodist Church, wrote the story of our first 100 years, soon to be available as a PDF on our website.

Although I had eagerly volunteered for the assignment, I kept putting it off. Procrastination is one of my superpowers. I’m good at meeting deadlines, just not self-imposed ones. When Pastor Brad announced the date for the official celebration, I finally got down to business. I started by interviewing previous pastors, current staff, and longtime members about their memories of HUMC.

That was the fun part.

As they spoke of the warm and open congregation and how people pulled together through the hard times, I began to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of a church family. In many ways, it’s like any other family with quirks and drama and frustration with an overlay of love for God and one another and the knowledge that we all pull together.

I think that’s why one new member was astonished that a church council meeting went so smoothly. Nobody has an agenda other than trying to do what’s right for the church. It’s never a tug of war because we’re all on the same side. Apparently, that’s not common.

When I started coming to Highlands, I thought going to church consisted of one hour on Sunday morning only to learn that it takes all of us working together to make things run smoothly (or at all). So, I finished the history of our last 25 years in time (barely) for the anniversary because I couldn’t bear to let anybody down and because it deserved to be written.

I could have done better. Some stories didn’t get told, but that’s okay. In the end, I did my job if I managed to convey in a small way how the people of Highlands UMC fulfill the promise of Galatians 5:22 that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.”

The Reading Life

In Books, Learning, writing on September 22, 2017 at 6:29 am

Two of the things I like most about Kindle are the ability to publish things quickly and to publish things that are less than standard book length, for instance, short stories as Kindle Singles.

Traditionally published authors use these capabilities to extend their brands, attract new readers and nourish old readers during the year or more long drought between published books. They write and publish short stories about much-loved characters and introduce new characters to their readers.

I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan not long after it came out in 2012, and it charmed me with its offbeat characters and storyline. It featured a bookstore, technology, the key to eternal life, a secret society, and a mystery all rolled into one slim volume. I loved it.

When Sloan’s new novel, Sourdough, came out this month, I immediately ordered it from the library, and I also noticed a Kindle Single prequel to the first book titled, Ajax Penumbra, 1969. Only 61 pages long, it was the perfect quick read while I waited to receive Sourdough. After reading the prequel, I wanted to reread Mr. Penumbra and found the audio version on Hoopla.

I still have a while to wait for Sourdough to come in, and that gives me time to read Lisa Scottoline’s latest Rosato and Associates book, Exposed and who knows what other lovely stories?

Book nineteen in my favorite Bellingwood series by Diane Greenwood Muir comes out Monday, and I have three books to pick up at the library on Saturday.

Life is good.

Tag, You’re It

In Church, writing on September 15, 2017 at 7:21 am

People tell me they like these posts and wonder why I’m writing them. Do I plan to collect them into a book? Nope.

I started writing them for Advent last year. I’ve pared my Christmas down to about as simple as it can get. I don’t participate in gift giving or parties. My decorations consist of two 4-foot trees and a collection of teddy bears. I do write a Christmas letter and mail a dozen or so cards. I don’t attend a family dinner, but I look forward to the Christmas Eve candlelight service at church.

So I wanted to do some kind of Advent devotional to force myself to think about the meaning of Christmas every day leading up to the holiday. Those books that direct you to read this or that Bible verse and read a short piece illustrating the point just don’t do it for me. Truth be told, I’m not much for reading the Bible.

I decided to write my own daily devotional using secular Christmas stories. It was a challenge that had me scrambling to find short stories, poems, essays, songs and cartoons to write about. It required discipline and it was fun.

Then came Lent, a longer season but only six days a week, and I did the same thing. My theme was Season of Change. Again, I enjoyed the daily demand of finding something to write about, and friends asked me to please not stop when Lent ended.

Now I write around 300 words five days a week. No theme unifies the posts although several topics pop up regularly. I’m surprised at how often, for example, I write about church since I’m not especially religious (see above). Still, my church is an important part of my life, and I write about whatever refuses to let loose of my mind. Frequently subjects come to me in the middle of the night.

I make notes, look up quotations or news stories, and try to organize them into a coherent whole. More often than not, the endings surprise me. Like many writers, I don’t know what I think about something until I work it out on the page.

My only goal is to get things off my mind and onto yours.

Y is for Yesterday

In Books, creativity, writing on August 31, 2017 at 6:46 am

Sue Grafton’s beloved alphabet mystery series started with A is for Alibi in 1982 when protagonist Kinsey Millhone was 32. Thirty-five years and most of the alphabet later, she has only aged seven years. More importantly, the world has only aged seven years.

In Kinsey’s world, people must rely on public telephones or other landlines. They listen to music on a Sony Walkman and still use video tape. The detective can’t use computer databases or the internet. She types her reports on an old manual typewriter. Social media consists of actually talking to one another.

Sometimes as a reader, I get impatient with this. We’ve all moved on; why can’t Kinsey? On the other hand, I think it was a good choice because otherwise she would now be 67 and the books would have a much different flavor. I know a few people who are still badass at that age, but they don’t get into physical confrontations, or if they do, they don’t come out of them as unscathed as would someone in her thirties. On the other hand, if I can be permitted three hands, it would be fun to see what she would be like at 67.

In Y is for Yesterday, the story returns to 1979 when a group of wealthy high schoolers gets in trouble by filming a sexual assault and then turning to murder when the tape goes missing. Back in 1989 when the murderer goes free, the tape resurfaces and threatens to unravel the lives of the students, now young adults involved.

As Kinsey tries to untangle what happened, she also faces danger from the man who almost killed her in her last case and some family problems without her usual support system. Landlord Henry at 89 seems like a sap for letting two homeless people take advantage of him.

Grafton, of course, is at the height of her powers as a writer, but as a friend pointed out, nobody except Kinsey was the least bit likable in this book. Maybe that’s why I didn’t find it as compelling as most of her earlier works. I always try to stretch them out as long as possible, especially as we near the end of the series. Usually, that means a book may last three days. This one took me a whole week to read.

In a couple of years, we’ll get the final book in the series. Any guesses as to what Z is for? It will take all of Grafton’s skill to wrap up this series in a satisfying way, but I think she’s up for it.