All posts by Lisa Schamess

Let the Dog Drive

I’ve given a lot of thought to how people think: what blocks them, how distraction plays havoc with attention, and generally what causes a train of thought to seriously derail.

Thinking hard about thinking hard, I’ve discovered a truth that may surprise you: Most of us unquestioningly believe that distraction is the culprit, without asking whether distraction might have value, might serve some purpose.

Believe me, I’ve had my share of run-ins with distraction. It’s not a friend to my time. But I believe the emotional attachment to “getting it right” is a heck of a lot worse for clear thinking than the occasional cat video or run to the refrigerator. I think shame kills our creativity faster than distraction.

Certainly, you can work on reducing distraction–especially by making your writing space more peaceful and attractive, and setting up writing time that’s sacred. But in terms of actually sitting down and getting to it, three simple shifts in practice can work wonders.

Ready for them? Here goes.

Your mind is a dog.
Think of the fairly standard allocation of time in a dog’s day. There’s roaming and sniffing, sometimes chasing and frolicking, a good amount of lying around, and of course the three important activities of eating, peeing and pooping, and loving. (Okay, technically that’s four, but you get the gist.)

My point is this: let your mind be itself. Love it. We know you need to keep it in or put it on a leash for a portion of its life, but don’t be a cruel human. Let your dog sniff and wander and even roll in something that smells good to a dog once in a while. When it’s tired, let it rest. Be kind when you bring it back to attention, and remember your mind is nothing without a little love.

Steer in the direction of the skid.
The old driving advice for dealing with a wet or icy patch is also true for distraction: Steer in the direction of the skid, don’t tighten up, and don’t resist. Go with it until you see your way through.

You may go off path a little. You may encounter other challenges. But you may also discover new information, or come back to your work with a refreshed perspective. 

This is important: Cut a mind off from distraction and you risk killing the lifeblood of thought. Tim Urban of the wonderful blog Wait But Why has done a terrifically focused TED Talk on the infuriating, somehow weirdly necessary work of following one’s distractions, even when it delays progress.

Slow your roll. I repeat: Slow. Your. Roll.
It has taken me years to accurately predict the amount of time I needed to finish work. The more tough the work, the more enduring its value, the more likely I was to underestimate how long it’d take. Part of it was the Next-Day syndrome. It was often hard for me to envision all the small parts to even the simplest assignment, and a day seemed like enough time.  A week or longer? An enormous amount of time.

I know you can’t control all your deadlines. But particularly for projects that mean a lot to you–the ambitious life’s work stuff–take your first guess on how long it’ll take and add 50 percent or 100 percent more time. Think of what that good dog, your mind, really needs in the way of reading, sifting, imagining, and yes, playing. Be good to your inner dog and put lots of play in the leash. Often, the “distractions” along the path are not interfering with the walk: They are the walk.

And in case you think that a dog can’t focus, I invite you to contemplate one of my favorite Internet inspirations, Dog With Stick.

Video by Glenn Smiles.

Photo via Flickr member Barry W. Cross-posted from LinkedIn.

They Vet Horses, Don’t They?

For more than 30 years, we’ve heard about government officials being vetted: submitted to thorough background checks to ensure they are fit for public service. Now for the first time in public parlance, the term “vetting” is being widely applied to the background searches conducted for ordinary people seeking to enter the United States.

The term itself actually comes from the world of horse racing, where vetting is exactly what you might guess: the process by which a horse is thoroughly checked for its ability to race.

One of the first recorded applications of the term to humans was in Rudyard Kipling’s 1904 book Traffics and Discoveries. Of a military guard battalion, he writes, “They’ve been vetted, an’ we’re putting ’em through their paces.”

Through most of the first half of the 20th century, “vetting” was a curiosity, a British term primarily applied to the military, according to Juliet Lapidos, writing for Slate in 2008. The term didn’t appear in American parlance until about 1960. Its gain in popularity was examined by New York Times word pundit William Safire in 1980 and again in 1993, when he commented on the birth of a spin-off word (and profession): The White House vetter.

Until recently, anyone or anything in need of vetting had to be pretty important. Thus it’s puzzling that, a time when a candidate can rise to the highest office in the land without even releasing his taxes, he can also call for a new and more stringent process, “extreme vetting,” to be carried out against people not even seeking office, but just a new life.

Because the current immigration vetting process in place is rather thorough, we have to wonder what exactly “extreme vetting” means.

It’s not only people that can be vetted, by the way. Ideas, stories, and statements can also get a background check. In this time of rising concern about fake news and alternative facts, it’d be wise to get yourself a good vetting process on what you’re told to believe.

Sometimes the observer is observed.


I’m much more used to observing than being observed. But last fall, I decided to turn the lens on myself, and I asked some trustworthy experts to help me.

Stylist Roxanne Carne (whom I found via Thumbtack) gave my wardrobe a firm and gentle appraisal one day last October. She showed me how to support my playful personality with a grounded, casual, and thoroughly classic style . Check out Roxanne’s blog–she is quiet dynamite for the sleeping style in you.

It took me another month or so to get up my courage and invite photographer William Petruzzo to my home to document who I am right now. (I found him through friend and fellow AU MFA alum Amina Hafiz Sarraf) It was a splendid time. Bill put me at ease right away, and he even made me like my face a little.

Here are the results
. Is this a face you trust? Let me know in the comments.


(Hair by Alchemy of Silver Spring. Make-up by me, with help from YouTuber Kandee Johnson ).

The Whole Thing

Once upon a time, there was a mighty word from Old Norse that meant a decision-making assembly, charged with important business–you know, futhark-laden, land-holding, axe-wielding, men-only stuff.

Over the centuries, this ancient and esteemed word became care-worn and lowly, a word to toss in the mix  when the other words in our heads block all the light and leave us grasping.


On its journey from mighty þing and mightier Alþing to simple thing, it even lost a letter. The gracefully curved thorn, along with 11 other siblings, didn’t make the cut into the modern 26-letter alphabet.

Yet, through thing‘s very ubiquitousness and utility, its insistence on cropping up again and again when a better word would surely suffice, it stands as a miracle of survival and resilience. Its distinctive starting sound, made by thrusting the tip of the tongue between the teeth and aspirating silently (‘th’) has become a hallmark of spoken English, a frustrating exercise for some non-native English speakers–and has defied the attempts of a few born speakers, too.

We suspect even Julie Andrews required elocution lessons to enunciate things with aplomb.

Favorite Things
..and then I don’t feel so bad.

Thing is, I grew up being shooed off from delicious, old words like thing. The vagueness it supposedly lends to a sentence is bad news to English teachers and buttoned-down employers who think they know what’s what. Yet try getting through just one day without it. You’ll learn a thing or two about its value.

Robby gets this.

Thing is the comfortable old blanket in many sentences, a humanizing sign that we’re actively thinking, that our minds are not perfect, our logic not impeccable, our things all in a muddle. Many things defy our understanding, and many more defy description.

The old words are the best words. That’s the thing I’m trying to say.

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