Brett Jenkins’s List of 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Writing and Life


Earlier today I was clicking around, procrastinating, and I found Jack Kerouac’s “List of 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Writing and Life” on some lose-your-life-down-a-hole-of-links website. I hadn’t seen it before, and it was quirky and interesting and something I found myself thinking about most of the day. I decided I needed to have my own, as a sort of guiding star. And because it was fun.


Brett Jenkins’s List of 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Writing and Life

  1. write a lot just write everything down write it all write as much as you can.
  2. fuck capitalization we are only alive for so many years.
  3. If you want to capitalize things, do it. What do I know.
  4. listen to me or don’t.
  5. write down all of your dreams.
  6. don’t be afraid to fail we are all failing every single moment we are humans (we are also succeeding by living through this failure) (we are suns we are stars).
  7. keep everything you write – don’t throw anything away.
  8. doodle sometimes.
  9. “find those with whom you have rapport and proceed.”
  10. break rules. make new ones. break those too.
  11. stumble onto things topple onto things fall headfirst onto things.
  12. let yourself miss an appointment because you got caught up reading weird articles about horses or exorcisms or unexplained disappearances
  13. don’t apologize so much. stop giving so many fucks. start taking fucks back.
  14. write fast and write often.
  15. find something small and hold it with your hands.
  16. keep a box full of weird stuff you wrote down in your sleep (it’s good for parties).
  17. latch onto a fireball every now and then.
  18. honestly? sometimes quantity over quality is the best philosophy.
  19. if you’re stuck on something, sing as loudly as you can.
  20. don’t write like your parents are dead but DO write like YOU are dead (pretend you’re a ghost).
  21. what works for somebody else might not work for you. if you don’t want to get up early DON’T. you can write anytime, any day. just write, you ding dong.
  22. if you mis-read or mis-hear something, just go with it. nine times out of ten your brain will make whatever that person said or wrote much better/funnier/more insightful.
  23. everyone/thing has inherent value – if you want to write about a goat or a toaster, go for it.
  24. read everything.
  25. have at least one notebook or journal or diary or pile of index cards that will always be SECRET and let yourself write whatever you want there. everything is permissible.
  26. let your obsessions lead you like a river
  27. [make up your own rule and put it here.]
  28. if your shit is far apart, get it together.
  29. keep writing. especially when people tell you you’re doing it wrong. at least somebody’s reading it.
  30. make time (there is enough time) (there is always enough time).

Sunday Mindfulness

There is still a fourth of the year left. I’m trying to do small things well, like make to-do lists full of accomplishable tasks. Grind the perfect amount of coffee for one person. Flip the record and put the needle in just the right place. Tend to the plants when they need tending to.

The school year started for me last week, which means that in a matter of days I’ll be thrown ass-first into a mountain of grading, student meetings, and low-level anxiety about staying on top of class preparation. (I’m not kidding anybody when I say low-level. I’m not a low-level anxiety kind of person.) And so the reason for the small things. If I can carry these small things with me every day–the coffee, the plants, the records, the accomplishable tasks–then I’m relatively convinced I’ll be okay.

21167634_777452114109_5907398205336831710_oI think this is, in part, what mindfulness is.

A person once explained mindfulness to me like this: your life is a room full of furniture. If you hate all the furniture, it’s easiest to walk through the room with your eyes closed or the lights off. Then you don’t have to look at it. But if you open your eyes and turn on the lights, you can make changes to what’s there. You can get rid of the tacky lamp your grandma gave you. You can assess what’s in the room, even if it sucks. But you can’t change what’s there if you refuse to look at it.

So I’m trying my hardest to take mental stock of my furniture. Be more mindful about how I’m living my life and what’s working for me–and what’s not. It’s the only way, I think, that I’ll ever be able to implement meaningful changes. What do you know about mindfulness? How do you implement it? I’m looking for suggestions and your knowledge about this, because sometimes paying attention to who you are, what kind of life you live, and how you react to things–it’s not fun or easy.

Today I’m going to fold laundry. I’m going to drop off some Goodwill donations. I’m going to move around the literal furniture in my apartment. And I’m going to try my hardest to stay with each task–to bring my attention back to the present moment each time I start worrying about my syllabi that need printing, or my bank account balance. This is not uncommon: to bring my attention back again and again and again and again. It’s practice.

Operation Forgiveness

Here I am on a Friday morning, sitting at home, reading articles on WebMD and Psychology Today about forgiveness. I’m not going crazy–that happened years ago. But forgiveness has always been such a foreign concept to me. Even though I grew up in the Catholic church and went to Catholic school until I was in middle school, forgiveness still remains pretty abstract to me.

I like to organize things. I like when my desk is tidy, when all my dishes are clean and put away. When I think about forgiveness, I don’t know where to put that. Where is the checklist for how to complete that task? And what’s more, I’ve been thinking about forgiveness of the self lately. How in the actual hell do you accomplish that?

Part of the reason I take such issue with most of what I read or hear about forgiveness is that it’s often accompanied by other, much more abstract phrases, like “let go” and “move on.” I have no place to put these phrases, either. No way to figure out if I have let go successfully. This isn’t the end of the movie Titanic. I’m not prying cold, dead hands off of a floating door.

So I think I have to make my own way. Forge my own path to self-forgiveness. One thing that is common in a lot of the articles is to pinpoint what you feel you’ve done wrong, so I’ve done that. I’ve written it down. As far as letting go and moving on are concerned? I’m going to substitute this: be kind to myself. Being kind to myself is something I’ve struggled with enormously. But I think it can be a way of moving on. Moving on from the way I used to behave in my body to a new way of behaving in my body.

Some of the things I need to do to be kind to myself won’t feel easy because, honestly, I’ve been acting like I hate myself. And maybe I’ve come to believe that I do. Being kind to myself–even just doing small things like drinking enough water, taking showers, putting on makeup, and going to the gym regularly–feels like I’m taking care of somebody who I have come to hate. And realizing that makes me kind of sad.

But today I resolve to drink enough water. I’m going to take a shower and go for a walk. Because if I don’t start now, I won’t ever start. And I have to live with myself for the rest of my life. I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand forgiveness if I don’t start trying. Today’s day one. Here goes nothing.

The Summer Day

I’ve been sick lately. Physically ill. And while it’s likely nothing serious (never know, it could be a demon possession in its early stages), it’s got me thinking: I’ve got just one body. I’ve got just one life. I know this is nothing novel. Poets, saints, and random college students smoking weed have been saying the same thing for centuries. But while it’s not a novel idea, it doesn’t make it any less true. It just means it’s something it might be nice for me to remember more often. 20280683_771497112979_2300797240628028966_o
What if I acted like I only had one life? What would be different? Mary Oliver asked us in her often-quoted poem “The Summer Day”:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I like to think of my life as a wild thing. Some thing outside of me that needs taming. I do that in various ways: with routine, with work, with healthy eating, exercise and positive daily structure. Well, I do these things sometimes. I’m working on it. But if I remembered more often that my life is wild, and unique, and feral; an endangered species; something there is only one of? What would I do differently?

I want to read more. More widely, more diversely. (I recently started reading There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker, by the way, and it’s amazing–you should pick it up). I want to write. Every day. I feel more myself when I’m writing. I want to spend more time living my values: creativity, community, love, intelligence, openness. I want to spend more time with the people who matter to me, and less time in bed thinking of all the things that have gone wrong, or could go wrong.

Last week my therapist asked me, what are you willing to do to improve your “now” experience? I thought about it a little bit and wrote down these things:

Do a little good each day.
Say yes more (without whining first).
Be vulnerable. Be willing to learn and make mistakes.
Do one thing at a time. Live the now.
Think positive. Think forward. Plan for the future.

It’s telling, to me, that included in my list was “plan for the future.” I would tell Mary Oliver that, with my one wild and precious life, I’m going to live it. And that’s a huge leap from where I was a few months ago.

Best Day of My Life

I stole something. I stole something from a writing professor I used to have in college.

What I stole wasn’t an object, though. It was an expression. Whenever Del Doughty was asked how he was doing, he would, without fail, respond: best day of my life. It was the tone that pulled the expression through. It never seemed trite, disingenuous; never phony or insincere. I always felt like he was, really, having the best day of his life. I never felt compelled to ask why. 

How’s it going?

Best day of my life.


I’ve been thinking a lot about this response to the question “How are you?” I ask customers at work all the time how they are and they all seem to answer the same. They’re good (which is, technically, not grammatically correct, but I take off my English professor hat when I’m selling fish), or they’re alright, or they’re well, or if they’re feeling a little saucy, they’re “still kickin’!”

But I’ve stolen the Del Doughty. When they ask me back how I’m doing, I tell them it’s the best day of my life. Sometimes they act like they didn’t hear me and proceed with their order, or they become very surprised and want to know why. Did I just get married? Did I win the lottery? (If I just got married or won the lottery, would I be selling fish on a Wednesday evening?)

Some people just laugh when I tell them it’s the best day of my life. And some people say “right on!” or “I like your attitude!” But I find that more than having an impact on the customer, it’s begun to impact me. I start having better and better days. Each day, a little better than the one before. I start acting like it’s the best day of my life, and it becomes a better day.

R says words have power, and he’s right. God created the world with words, and we’re made in his image. Whatever we say can come into being. If I call myself stupid, I might start to believe it. And maybe others will, too. If I say it’s the best day of my life, it might become the best day of my life.

I’m still working on the tone. A little off-the-cuff, aloof, unpremeditated. It’s livened up my interactions with customers, for sure. But tone aside, I just need to keep saying it. Doing it. It’s the best day of my life. Because today’s what we got. Not yesterday or tomorrow.

One Thing at a Time

Each day I do my best to do one thing at a time. I sit on the balcony and drink coffee and I do just that. I wash the dishes with grace and ease. The birds fly over and I watch the birds.

19466400_765904730159_3546991413190197803_oI don’t live in the past—not on faraway bridges, not in Ohio cornfields where my pets are buried. There are parts of me there and they stay there. Today I sit at the desk and that’s where I live. With the quiet bamboo and the stack of bills, with the staple remover, the hand cream.

My calendar tells me what’s coming but I don’t place myself in its boxes yet. I live with the slow swing of the now, or I try. The finches taking dust baths by the curb of the street: I put myself under their tiny wings.



Writing Habits

I like to think of a writing habit like a thing a nun puts on when she sits down to write. Maybe that’s a little bit what I need to do. Get a uniform or an outfit that I put on in the morning when I sit down at my desk. A writing sombrero. A pair of writing overalls, or special writing underpants.

The past couple of mornings I’ve been trying to get up early and write. I’ve never really been a morning person. I like to sleep in, and getting up before 7 or 8:00 is kind of a pain for me. During the semester, when I’m teaching, I do get up early and (I admit) I kinda like it: to have the whole day ahead of me, time to get things done while the sun is still up. I teach early morning classes, hold office hours, and am usually home before noon, so the rest of the day is mine to work and write. Getting up early does have its benefits.

My summer job at Whole Foods, selling meat and fish, usually has me coming in around 2:00, so I’ve been taking advantage of being able to sleep in late. But I realized I need to make writing a priority, so I’ve been trying to get up earlier. I can’t write when I get home from work. I used to be a night owl: staying up until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning in college and writing terrible poems while I looked at the moon and thought about how terribly special and alone I felt. All college poets feel terribly special and alone.

A few years ago I entered a love poem contest through Common Good Books in St. Paul. My poem didn’t win, but it was chosen as a finalist by Garrison Keillor, and I was invited to a small poetry reading celebration to honor the winners and finalists. GK read my poem aloud, which made it sound very serious, like a serious poet had written it. But after the event, I asked if I could take a picture with him, and he obliged. I don’t remember his exact words, but he told me he admired my poem and “fought for it.” He told me I was young (I guess next to Garrison Keillor anybody would look young). He told me to keep writing. And then he leaned in close like he was going to tell me something very secret. “Get up early,” he said. He says he writes at four o’clock in the morning, when nobody else is awake.

I don’t think I’m ready for the four o’clock writing habit, but I think I’m ready to try out a regular writing routine. When do you do your best writing? What are your writing habits? I find that I don’t usually write at the same time of day, nor do I have any special habits or traditions that follow me into my writing practice. I just kind of have to sit down and do it. It’s the sitting down that’s the hardest part: just starting.