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Organizing for Creatives: The Magic of Binders

Organizing for Creatives: The Magic of Binders

Many creative vocations and avocations rely on paper. We jot down ideas and sketches, make mindmaps, store research and inspiration, keep receipts and invoices.

And lose things.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Today I was searching for notes from a project idea that I had last year. This project falls squarely in the strong category for me: I’ve thought of it with increasing regularity for a year. For me, the more times something sails into my conscious thought stream, even if it eventually sails back out again, the more likely it is that I need to follow through!

So anyway, I spent an hour or so digging through the Davinci-style spiral bound notebooks that I’ve been creating for fifteen years or more. If you’re not familiar, Davinci’s notebooks contained everything from painting plans, to tank blueprints, to soup recipes.

He also wrote in mirror script, but I’m just not that good.

They were also a jumbled mess. I have no idea how he found anything after that many years of creating.


I found the notes from my first search, or at least part of them. It took forever. As I was searching, I realized that I needed the notes from another, similar project idea from the year before, but I was too irritated from the first search to continue.


There is a distinct reality that accompanies creative professions: creating requires ideas as fuel for the fire, but fire doesn’t burn when it’s buried. (Does it? I know it can smolder, but that’s not the same thing.)

The good news is, I realized I had a simple solution available to stop this madness going forward. It’s a great way to stop yourself from spending your entire writing time digging through two years’ worth of notebooks…


In the magical book Refuse to Choose, Barbara Sher recommends keeping binders for any ideas we generate. Basically, you start with looseleaf/blank paper and a binder. When you have a new idea, you start at the top of the left-hand page, put the date, and start writing and drawing your idea. Any new ideas get their own two-page spread. If the idea continues to grow, you can move it to its own half-inch binder, then one inch, etc.

I know not everyone wants to make room for a bunch of office junk in their creative space, and paper binders really aren’t that portable. Also, some people might actually prefer to use 21st century tools. Luckily there are some fabulous alternatives to physical paper and binders in this modern era. (Do I sound old or what?):

-Folder systems in Windows: If you do a lot of note taking in the computer and don’t store a lot of other types of material, you can create a comprehensive file system in Windows.

Scrivener: If you write, you need Scrivener. I know, strong statement, but it’s unbelievable. The ability to organize your writing into levels AND the corkboard feature are amazing. Also, you can import web pages and mindmap files, so keeping track of research and sources is a cinch. You can export your work as a properly formatted book or other document, too. (I’m not an affiliate, I just love the program.)

Evernote: This is probably the most amazing computerized binder ever. You can write in it, take and/or store images and audio files, link to web material- it’s almost endless. Also, your files sync over your devices, so you if you’re out and about, you can take notes/photos/etc. on your phone and have them upload to the file. Again, not an affiliate, and although I think Evernote is amazing, it’s probably the most underused tool in my arsenal.

If you’re old school like me, and you want binders you can touch, don’t buy them! Ask all your friends with office jobs to save them for you instead of throwing them away. It’s amazing how many businesses just toss them and get new ones.

Since organization is my Achilles heel, I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. Do you have any paper, or virtual paper, organization tools that you can’t live without?

(Side note: Refuse to Choose is a book for Scanners, or people who have multiple interests at all times. It’s a very practical book with honest-to-goodness tools. I highly recommend it.)


New Month, New Adventures

Halloween Collage

October has come to a close, and I’m marking the month as a success. Halloween was wonderful but low-key. I have a confession – we didn’t try any of the new traditions I was so excited about! And pumpkins were still being carved as the first trick or treaters came up the walk.

The frightful weather kept all but the most diehard kids at home. The candy contingent said they had 20 kids or less! I went out with Gray in the pouring rain. As I walked away, Alan yelled “Mother of the Year!” and at the end of the night Gray offered me all his extra candy.

It’s nice to be appreciated.

I always feel like the new year begins in November – I guess it’s my Celtic roots coming through, or maybe the fact that my birthday is this month, which always makes me contemplative. I’m starting a yearly life review based on Chris Guillebeau’s template. I may also adopt Modern Mrs. Darcy’s one word (although I’ll choose my own word, of course). I’m starting now to avoid the knee-jerk January 1st resolution list that is forgotten in a month week or less. I’m also focusing on who I want to be first, instead of what I want to accomplish. I really like this quote by Coco Chanel:

“How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone.”


I know that who we are is a direct result of what we do, but I tend to create a task list for myself instead of a path to the person I want to be in one, five, and ten years.

On a lighter note, we’re off to New York City this month! I’m so excited to see the Radio City Rockettes and hopefully a Broadway or off-Broadway show! Since I’m Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade-obsessed, I also want to see the Believe Meter in person. I think we’ve all picked one or two things that will make the trip for us and we’re going to try to fit them all in. I’ll be posting pictures and what we’ve learned after we get back.

In the mean time, I’m off to re-read Creating a Charmed Life by Victoria Moran and read First Impressions by Charlie Lovett and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I’m listening to Eighty Days, which I was originally reading but decided would be better as an audiobook. I was right!

Does anyone else start their new year’s planning at an odd time? And what are you reading right now?



Newer isn't always better or worseI talked recently about how I’m abandoning a lot of good books, and I’ve been trying to figure out why the percentage is so high. I’ve come up with a few possibilities:

Casting the net a little too wide.When your usual fare is YA, children’s books/classics, and junk food reads, a sudden diet of literary fiction might not be the best choice. I’ve always been more of a genre girl – mystery, historical fiction, fantasy, romance, and classics are more my style.

Reading too fast. Deciding to blog about books bumped up both the quality and quantity of my reading. Good fiction deserves to be savored, and maybe rushing through it stops me from really digging in to the characters and settings. Would I like these people better if I wasn’t in such a hurry?

Choosing too many “new” books. Recently on Modern Mrs. Darcy, she talked about advice she received in college: read books that are at least 30 years old. I get this. Older books have stood the test of time. Someone is publishing them or checking them out at the library, which means someone is reading them. Bad books generally go away after a while – though not always.

The problem is, I don’t want to give up new books.

For one thing, I’ve found some beautiful roses in the thorns. Unforgettable characters, settings so real I can see them, intricate plots. Some of the books I’ve read this month have already been added to my re-read list, and I’m on the waiting list for those authors’ new books.

For another, new books are written by a wider group of people, offer a wider perspective on life, and generally portray history, ethnicity, and gender more accurately than old books.

Also, I’m a writer. If everyone gives up new books, I won’t have a (potential) job! I want to give other writers the chance I hope someone will take on me.

But I still don’t want to waste my time on books that I don’t engage with, so I’ve come up with a plan:

Give the first few chapters of each book my full attention. I have multiple books going at any one time, and I like it that way. By having audio books on my phone and tablet and (stacks of) real books in every room, and my purse, and the car, there’s always something to grab my attention. When I start a book, though, I’m going to keep it in my evening read pile so it gets some uninterrupted time.

Use my Book Psychic powers more often when choosing books, which means spending more time at the library. Recently I’ve been running in to pick up my reserves instead of wandering the shelves. It’s time to reverse that trend.

Find a few more sources of book recommendations that I trust. Any suggestions?

Continue abandoning books. Life is way too short to waste it on lives I don’t want to live.

Speaking of new/old books, I’m finally jumping on the Outlander bandwagon. I read the first book when it originally came out, and I remember it well, but had no interest in continuing. My mother says I have to at least finish the second book before I decide. We’ll see…

On a completely different note, I was reminded yesterday how much I love the word penultimate. It sounds so much better than next to last, doesn’t it? Or is it just the Anglophile in me coming out?


Book and movie versions of Cinderella|Story and StardustI’ve had pumpkins on the brain, thanks to Halloween. Pumpkins are by far my favorite Halloween symbol, and sooooo delicious. Pumpkin Spice Everything!!! Last night we tried Kitchen Treaty’s One Pot Pumpkin Pasta. It was a hit with half the family, which in my house makes it a success. We love to carve and paint pumpkins, too, but we always wait until the last moment. We’ve even been known to carve pumpkins right before trick or treating!

In honor of all the pumpkin transformation going on all over the country, I thought I’d talk about the ultimate pumpkin transformation. I mean, bibbidy bobbidy boo, you’re a carriage! Talk about getting a purpose in life!

Here is a smattering of the Cinderella stories that I love.

Novels/novellas, great for family reads:

Ella Enchanted – I think everyone’s heard of this one. Gail Carson Levine is absolutely brilliant at reimagining fairy tales, and this is no exception. As always, the book is better than the movie.

Cinder – A cyborg cinderella in a dystopian future. It’s much better than it sounds. Read my full review here.

Cinderellis and the Glass Hill – A male cinderella with magical powers and rotten brothers. His relationship with Princess Marigold gets off to a bit of a rocky start. This story is part of Gail Carson Levine’s Princess Tales. You can find volume 1 and volume 2 here.

 Picture books with really compelling stories. (Three of these stories are by Shirley Climo. There are many others in the series and my kids enjoy them all):

The Egyptian Cinderella – Cinderella is Rhodopsis, a Greek slave girl in Egypt, and the prince is none other than Pharaoh himself!

Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China – The “fairy godmother” is a magic fish.

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters – The king disguises himself to determine which of two beautiful daughters he should marry.

The Irish Cinderlad – Cinderella is a boy with big feet and a magical bull for a fairy godmother.

Two nontraditional movie versions that we love:

Ever After – Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella is a feisty go-getter, but the Leonardo Da Vinci character very nearly steals the show.

The Slipper and the Rose -This is a lovely musical version of Cinderella.

There are literally thousands more out there, so I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of good ones. What are your family’s favorite Cinderella tales?


Pumpkins and Cider

Pumpkins and Cider

When I was a kid,I lived in a small town surrounded with farms and other small towns. Every fall we would go to Hast apple orchard and cider mill in Berlin Heights, Ohio. Hast Cider Mill is the oldest cider mill west of the Appalachians. The cider tank was in a big old barn. The inside of the barn was always dark, but the giant sliding doors at either end made it feel light. The smells of cider and apples and pie were practically a meal on their own.

The cider was different every time. Sometimes it would be tart, sometimes super sweet, always fresh. Customers could taste the cider before buying. There was a small tap with a stack of tiny paper cups next to it, and we were welcome to help ourselves. My mother would wander around, picking out apples, cider, vegetables – and I would drink tiny cup after tiny cup of cider. By the time we left, I would be gloriously full. And in need of a bathroom, which they didn’t have!

There are orchards near where I live now, but the experience just isn’t the same – and the cider is pasteurized, which completely changes the flavor to something akin to strong apple juice. Happily, after years of nostalgic thoughts of “our” cider mill, a replacement has finally arrived in the form of a pumpkin farm!

We found a lovely pick your own farm last year. After a glorious hour wandering around the fields and choosing pumpkins, we went to pay, and I found fresh, unpasteurized cider right next to the register. Serendipity!



No Fear Halloween TraditionsHalloween is in a state of flux in our house. As of this year, only one child is still young enough to trick or treat (our house rule is that you can only trick or treat until you’re twelve). Every year, it seems like there are more kids sitting on the porch handing out the candy and less working hard and planning for months to get just the right costume.

I’d like to find some activities to make Halloween more exciting for the whole family, so I went digging for some traditions to try out. We’re a no-fear group: none of the kids like scary movies or being scared, and frankly, neither do my husband or I. This pretty much knocks out current popular notions of Halloween “fun” – no haunted houses or scary movie marathons for us.

Instead, I’m looking more to the origins of the holiday we now call Halloween. It originated as a pagan holiday called Samhain. It was the final harvest festival of the year, as well as being New Year’s Eve. Pagans believed that the barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead were more open that night, and they honored their ancestors, assuming they were closer than usual. This was not fear-based; they just figured that if Aunt Bessie was around, it would be nice to tell her how much she was missed.

When the Romans joined the mix, they added elements from their harvest festival, honoring the goddess Pomona. This is where the apples come in. The holiday morphed and changed over the many centuries and only became a child-oriented holiday in the mid-20th century. As a matter of fact, Victorians used the holiday as a matchmaking opportunity!

While I don’t want it to be a matchmaking day, I do want to approach the holiday from a different perspective: I want to bring back some of the non-sugar, non-fright elements of the holiday, without making a lot of work for myself. Here are the low-effort activities I’m considering this year:

Have an Ancestor’s Dinner: Have a fancy holiday dinner, but “invite” some special guests. Ask each person to choose someone who is no longer living that they would have loved to have dinner with. This can be anyone from Great-Grandma to Albert Einstein.

Eat a Fortune-telling Dessert: Make a pudding or a cake and insert small plastic or metal symbols, like a ring, a “gold” coin, a pirate’s chest, a ballerina. (For safety, insert them after cooking.) You can personalize them to your family. We would probably choose a set of Disney figurines.  Another possibility would be a set of animals like the ones made by TOOB.  Then you can assign each figurine a meaning, like riches, good grades (0wl), etc., or actually write out a fortune for each one. Pass around the bowl and have each person tap until they hit something, then scoop out a serving onto their plate.

Play the Spiderweb Game: While the kids are otherwise occupied, take yarn or twine and create a spiderweb through one room of the house, probably whichever one has the least breakables! Give each child their own web to untangle, and put a treat at the end. Make it easier for younger children by using different colored string.

The first two ideas are from an out-of-print book called Mrs. Sharp’s Traditions. Look for it at your local library. The third I originally saw in The Tightwad Gazette.

What non-fright Halloween traditions does your family celebrate? Is Halloween a big deal in your house, or just an excuse to eat candy? (Yum. Candy.)

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Links to Think About

Today is a sad day in our house. Our dog, Potter, is being put down. Potter is 13 1/2 years old, and by far the best dog that has ever lived. Not only did he star as “dog” in a local production of Cheaper by the Dozen, he also saved the life of a young boy-really! Of course, he also ate an entire pound of Godiva dark chocolate that I had received for my birthday (I had eaten one piece, ugh) and multiple pencils and kids’ toys, but nobody’s perfect…

He will be missed forever and ever.

Here are some great links from around the web this week.

Ursula K. LeGuin on Aging and What Beauty Really Means– As always, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings distills an already brilliant book into a series of even more brilliant observations. LeGuin looks at how dogs, cats, and dancers see themselves, and how we would do well to adopt some of their attitudes. Two great quotes, as quoted from the book:

“Dogs don’t know what they look like. Dogs don’t even know what size they are. No doubt it’s our fault, for breeding them into such weird shapes and sizes. My brother’s dachshund, standing tall at eight inches, would attack a Great Dane in the full conviction that she could tear it apart. When a little dog is assaulting its ankles the big dog often stands there looking confused — “Should I eat it? Will it eat me? I am bigger than it, aren’t I?” But then the Great Dane will come and try to sit in your lap and mash you flat, under the impression that it is a Peke-a-poo.”

“There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.”

Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter – Annie Murphy Paul studies intelligence and what affects our intelligence. This talk is an overview of her “forthcoming” book (no release date as of yet) positing that by affecting the environment we function in, we can affect how well we function. Some fabulous quotes from the talk:

“Is this an environment that is evoking or suppressing the intelligence of all the people in it?”

“We would see our own bodies as the most intimate of microenvironments.”

“The way we get smarter is by structuring the microenvironments in which we learn and work so that they evoke from us as much intelligence as possible.”

I Got 99 Problems and Palsy is Only One– This TED talk by the very funny and oh-so-real Maysoon Zayid made me laugh a lot and cry a little. It was in the TED category “Charming talks for a bad day.” Her brilliant look at being both Arab-American and disabled in America is truly proof that laughter can teach. I’m not going to quote from it because frankly, none of it would be as funny coming from me.


The No Time to Read with Your Kids Reading PlanIn my quest to bring back the Family Book, I’m testing out ways to make time to read books together with my kids. I’m open to any plan that has us reading the same section of the book on roughly the same day. Here are four ways I’ve brainstormed so far:

Eat an Elephant. Remember that very old and very bad joke – How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I just timed it, and it took one minute and one second to read one page of The Magician’s Elephant aloud. If we get in five pages a day during the week, and slightly more on the weekends, we could read at least a few books a year together.

Book Club Style. If everyone reads (or listens to) a prearranged section of the book separately, we can discuss it over dinner.  One big advantage to this plan is that my husband, who frequently listens to audiobooks during his commute, can join in. Last year he listened to the first six Harry Potter books and the kids really enjoyed discussing them with him. He is waiting to listen to the last one when Gray, our youngest, gets to read it. We allow one new Harry Potter on each birthday once they reach book five. That allows a little time for maturing, since the books certainly mature as they go.

The Commute Plan. Audiobooks are another great way to get in reading time. We used to listen to a lot of books while driving to and from activities, and it makes the time pass so quickly. Between free audiobook download sites,, and the public library, there’s always something good to listen to out there.

The No Television Plan. I wish this plan would be more helpful, but we’re not big TV watchers. We record several shows to watch together as a family (Dancing with the Stars, The Voice, stuff like that) and rarely end up watching them because we’re all so busy.

Do you fit in books with your older kids? How do you choose which books to read together? Have you tried any of these strategies?


Family Storytelling: Defrost the Chicken

Family Storytelling DFCFamily Storytelling is part of the fabric of nearly every family. We all have stories that we tell over and over. These stories may come from our family history, from books or movies or television, or even from the time in our lives before we were a family.

We drive into Chicago to visit my husband’s family a few times a year, and every time, as we drive up Lakeshore Boulevard, he tells the same stories of family happenings or things that impressed him as a kid/young adult.”I’ll stop telling the stories once you can tell them to me first,” he says.

So last year, they did.

“That’s where Bubbe had her prom,” says Sky. “That’s the building where they filmed While You Were Sleeping,” says Scarlet.

It’s fabulous. Little pieces of who we are, and who we were, are part of the fabric of our children’s lives – though I suppose what they’ll remember most is that they learned the stories so Dad would stop telling them!

Here is a story that is a part of our family culture now. It doesn’t have the same weight or history as the stories Alan tells as we drive through Chicago, but it’s meaningful to our family. I have absolutely no idea where I found it, and it’s not true according to, but it’s still a great analogy. When someone in our house isn’t thinking through a problem, one of us always says this tagline. I’m paraphrasing here.

When NASA was tasked with developing new technology for high-speed trains in the U.S., one of the issues they had to address was the fact that birds kept hitting and cracking the windshields. They tried everything and finally came up with a material that they were sure would work. The problem was that they had no good way to test it. They contacted Eurail, who had been running high-speed trains for decades. Eurail sent them the following instructions:

Take an averaged-sized chicken carcass and fire it out of this cannon (design enclosed). It will approximate the speed at which a bird hits the windshield.

So NASA built a chicken-sized cannon and proceeded to test their windshields. Epic fail – the windshield shattered. They built another prototype. Again, it shattered. After a third fail, the engineers contacted Eurail, explained what they were doing, and asked for their input. They received the following reply:

Defrost the chicken.

I know, it’s a groaner. Thanks for staying with me. Here are some delicious-looking recipes from Pinterest to make up for your pain. I’d give you some of my own chicken recipes, but I’m probably the most boring cook on the planet.

Crockpot Chicken Corn Chowder from A Kitchen Addiction. This looks sooo good.

One Pot Paprika Chicken Thighs from Reluctant Entertainer. One pot – need I say more?

Quick and Easy Chicken Gyros from Brunch Time Baker. I’d have to quadruple the recipe…


Does your family have any shorthand sayings like defrost the chicken? We have several – I’ll torture you with them share them with you soon.



Twitterature October 2014

I’m joining up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for Twitterature – short (ish) reviews of recently read books. This month has been a reading and writing doozy. I’ve abandoned more books than I’ve read, mixed up my genres more than ever, and generally had a great time. Here are three of my favorite titles this month:

The Golem and the Jinni – Helene Wecker’s debut novel is a lyrical and moving story, set in turn-of-the-century New York, of love and what it means to be human. It’s a slow read, but well worth the wait.

The Bookman’s Tale – Charlie Lovett’s debut novel about a grieving antique book collector follows a trail to the Holy Grail of book collecting: proof that Shakespeare wrote, well, Shakespeare. Murder and mayhem quietly ensue. I will never look at an old book the same way again. (Austen fans, don’t miss Lovett’s First Impressions, out tomorrow!)

The Information – Take the history of language and communication, mix with riveting biographies and an absolutely perfect non-linear chronology, and stir. The result is nothing short of amazing. James Gleick’s tome is by far the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read. Once again, it’s a slow read: you can’t absorb it all quickly.

Now that we’re entering the holiday season, I’ll be spending more time on crafts and making homemade gifts. Thank heavens for audiobooks!