Reader Question On Getting Started

Recently a reader asked about getting started.

Hi steve,

I am just about to start to record my thoughts in an organized way.

Any suggestions plz


Hi Sara,

Thanks for writing!

Everyone’s got to start somewhere, and as you go along you’ll learn more about what you need. But, here are some things I do that almost always me stay on an even keel:

(in no particular order, or format)

  1. Simple gratitude – I write down at least three reasons I should be happy. Usually I start with a few obvious ones, like that I’m not being tortured and don’t have an infected tooth or whatever. Usually I end up finishing a page, and usually I find a few items that weren’t so obvious.
  2. What’s making me anxious or is on my mind causing worry. A simple list – things I should have done but didn’t get to (like making a dentist appointment, or paying a bill), upcoming presentation/assignment/deadline, that kind of stuff. When I have it all down, I go back and write a simple todo for each one. Much of the time there isn’t anything to do – which reminds me that I need to not get wound up about things I cannot change. Just getting this stuff down helps a lot in keeping me sane.
  3. Stuff I really want to buy. I have a list in the back of my notebook. I’m prone to getting the gottahavits for stuff, much of which I do not need and then the lust pasts and I’m glad I just wrote it down instead of buying it. If it’s already on the list, I add a check mark. If something has a bunch of marks, then I feel I can buy it with a clear conscience.
  4. What do I want? In a broader sense – to be thinner? Travel more? Learn a language? By doing this I’ve learned there are things I keep coming back to, but I fall behind when I get distracted by new things. This helps me focus better on the things that are a better fit for me.
  5. Last but not least, what is going on in my life right now? Where have I been and what have I been doing? Some of the most entertaining reading is from entries when I was single, or married but no kids, compared to now being married with three kids. Such a different life! I can see how I’ve grown and gotten a bit wiser, and it’s also nostalgic. On trips and vacations it’s even more valuable because it helps me avoid mishaps on the next trip.

This last one can be the hardest to do because it’s hard to judge how much to write, how much detail, etc. My advice is write what you’d tell your mom or a good friend, or both. Try that for a while and adjust.

I hope that helps!


The Classroom Friendly Sharpener

One of the challenges of running an elementary grade classroom is noise. As my wife, Susan, says of her class, “Asking a kid to ignore 39 other kids when they’re trying to work is asking a lot”. Most adults can’t do it very well either.

Many teachers use an electric pencil sharpener but they can be quite noisy, and are expensive to buy and don’t last very long. The good old days when the school provided these kinds of supplies (heck, any supplies) are long gone.

So Classroom Friendly Supplies offers us a manual hand crank pencil sharpener. The idea is that it is quieter and longer lasting than an electric. I also suspect, because it is work, there’s perhaps less of a tendency to use it to grind every pencil down to a nubbin.

Classroom friendly was kind enough to send a sharpener for me and my wife to look at. I compared it to the venerable Mitsubishi KH-20, and Susan saw how the kids got along with it.

Compared to the Mitsubishi

The Mitsubishi KH-20 is light, attractive, inexpensive, and entirely plastic. It also has no clamp. It sharpens very, very well.

But it is not very sturdy. The handle on the crank is held on my a rivet that likes to work itself out of its hole. The bottom has a dainty pad of foam that keeps it from scratching surfaces, but is not very durable. There is a button to limit how sharp the pencil can get, which is a nice feature.

The Classroom Friendly sharpener, by comparison, is heavy, metal, and a bit less refined. It is built like a tank but it retains the important features. The pencil is held by a clamp so it is sharpened properly. The cutter can be removed to fish out broken points (common with colored pencils) and the waste drawer is clear so at least there’s a chance to see it’s full before it gets too full and jams things up.

The sharpener has a table clamp included so it can be fastened down. There is also a permanent screw-down mount available. This both makes it easier to sharpen, and keeps the sharpener in one place.

I found the sharpening to be just as good as with the Mitsubishi, but the overall feel is a bit more clunky. The plastic gears in the Mitsubishi will always be smoother than the metal gears in the CF sharpener, but probably less durable.

The Mitsubishi is $33 at

The Classroom Friendly sharpener is a lot less, you can get 3 of them for less than $60 at They also have spare parts, and many colors to choose from.


Susan likes the sharpener overall. While more steps are required than an electric sharpener, and it is not much if any quieter and marginally less disruptive, it sharpens very well. It handles wrapped pencils well. One student has become the sharpener master, but all the kids are able to use it without trouble. It’s a second-grade class.

IMG_7594 IMG_7595 IMG_7596

The pencil clamp mechanism has two small black plastic pieces that form the handles. Those can come off, and one day Susan found one on the other side of the classroom. It doesn’t break the sharpener per-se, but it is a piece that could be lost.

A good deal

The Mitsubishi is $33 at

The Classroom Friendly sharpener is a lot less, you can get 3 of them for less than $60 at So, for the price of a decent electric sharpener, you could have three of these instead – placed around a classroom they should eliminate any line at the sharpener. They also have spare parts (try finding those for an electric), and many colors to choose from.

While I use the Mitsubishi at home and it is a bit more refined, for a classroom there’s no contest. The Classroom Friendly sharpener is much less expensive and more solidly built, and has a table clamp and spare parts available.

Have a look!

Getting past the overwhelm

It’s been a busy several months for me. Two new jobs, the second in a different state, my father’s death, a trip to Arizona, another to Disney, and 10,000+ vehicle miles of commuting. 

So I open my journal to write an entry, and I look at the last entry date – over a week prior, maybe longer – and realize how much stuff has happened since then. I’ve traveled, worked a week in a new job, lived in a room far from home. Not to mention all the feelings about a what is going on. It could fill pages! 

I always imagine that my journal entries will be this awesome prose mixed with sketches, and when I think of how much writing I need to do to catch up it’s hard to keep going. 

It threatens to overwhelm. 

To get past the overwhelm, I cheat. I skip the prose. I accept that there will be no sketches. I write bullets:

  • Went to Arizona
  • Swimming at Grasshopper point

  • Saw the Grand Canyon

  • Swam a lot

Then I may add some detail or notes on something in particular, and then I move on. 

Remember the point of doing something is to enjoy doing the something – the writing can come later, and it doesn’t need always need to be awesome. 

Now, the folks who are fond of Bullet Journaling will say that’s the way it should be done all the time. When I first saw that method I thought it a bit dry, but I see the value now. The bullets do bring back memories. But it’s not what I’d want to fill a book with. 

The Struggle to Journal Adventure

Some of the best stuff I put in my journal is the stuff that gets written while on vacation or on an adventure of some kind.

The problem is that by definition, adventure is what a trip turns into when things aren’t going as planned. How to remember to write in the journal under those circumstances?

Heck, even when things are going exactly as planned, how do we remember to write? In the heat of something we enjoy, it’s hard enough to find a spot to sit and write, let alone take the time to do so.

This year I’ve resolved to do a better job. I figure this breaks down into three major parts:

Make sure the tools are there

It’s hard to write in a notebook that isn’t there with a pen that isn’t there, so both have to be there. The good news is that for you folks who share office supply addiction, this is the perfect chance to try new materials. Especially disposable or inexpensive pens, pencils, etc. Not to mention the many paper notebooks folks are coming out with. It doesn’t have to be your main notebook, although if that works, by all means!

Reminders of what you want to accomplish

I usually have no trouble getting the tools along. I’m a packrat when I hike, wanting to be prepared and all that. The big challenge for me is that writing and drawing take time, and are usually an interruption. There isn’t really a trigger for that. State Parks often put up signs warning you to stay on the boardwalk, or throw trash in the receptacle, but they don’t have signs saying “write this down”. I always convince myself that I’ll write about it later.

I need to remember what I want to accomplish. Now, I’ll probably never get quite as good as The Hike Guy (Go look at his stuff. I’ll wait… It was worth a look, wasn’t it?) but that’s the feeling I want. I can’t get there while sitting at my desk or in the car on the way home. I have to sketch a bit while I’m there.

Make it a priority

It has to be something I make time for. I have to tell the family that I want to sit down and write for a while. If no one else is drawing, then it can be pretty boring. This can lead to kibitzing, and I really don’t write or draw well in front of an audience. Particularly an 8-year old one that’s saying “What’s that word?” or “What is that supposed to be?”

I will bring spare notebooks for the kids, along with a few extra pens. I may not get them as engrossed as I will hopefully be, but it should work for a while.

It’s not a perfect plan

I’m still figuring this out, and the only family hike we’ve been on so far saw zero writing or drawing. I didn’t even bring a pen, let alone a notebook. I will have to do better if I want to get what I’m after.

How do you make this happen?

LBI14DWPAP Day 14: Write Someone A Letter

Woo hoo! The last day of Live Better In 14 Days With Pen And Paper! Today we’re going to do something a bit rare these days. We’re going to write someone a letter.

Go on, think of one of those people (maybe a relative?) who you haven’t kept in touch with very well.

Get a piece of paper and an envelope. Write a letter by hand. Just tell them what’s going on. It doesn’t have to be prose. It doesn’t have to be neat. Tell them what’s going on and ask a question or two.

More than half of the value of a letter is just in seeing it in the pile of mail. A real god-damned letter written to just that person that isn’t a bill or junk mail. They’ll thank you for it.

If you’re lucky (and this is pure luck, by the way, don’t take it personal) you’ll get a reply some day when you’ve forgotten about the letter you sent. Then you’ll get a nice surprise as well.

LBI14DWPAP Day 13: Give Yourself A Pat On The Back

On the penultimate day of Live Better In 14 Days With Pen And Paper we’re going to take a moment to give ourselves a pat on the pack and make a list of things we’ve accomplished in the last year that we’re proud of.

If they involve curing a major disease so much the better, but “Finally emptied the last box from our last move” works just fine.

The point here is to understand that you do make progress. You do accomplish things.

We often forget what we do, its value, and that we matter to people. If we look backward and see what we’ve done, we feel better. It blunts the sting of some of the things we didn’t get done.

Pro tip:

Ask your spouse, family, and friends. Asking your kids yields interesting results, and a much different perspective.

LBI14DWPAP Day 12: Write Some Fiction

In the home stretch – day 12 of Live Better In 14 Days With Pen And Paper.

So why fiction? Because often we need to tell a story. I’m not just talking about copywriters selling you new soap, I’m also talking about students selling the professor on why they need a makeup exam. Or your potential mate/lover/boss/financier on why they should pick you over the rest. A lot of effective communication involves telling a good story.

A good way to learn to tell a good story is to tell them. Start with a short one. It doesn’t have to be a classic tale. In fact, the stranger and the goofier, the better. It’s also fun.

You don’t need a complicated story with lots of plot twists or characters. Shoot for a page or so in length. A novelist would call it an outline, but it’s a complete story in brief. It doesn’t have to be about anyone or anything you know, but it can be. It’s fiction. That means made up, so make something up.

It does have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A conflict arises, the conflict is experienced, the conflict is resolved.