Creating the Judgment-Free Zone

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A year ago I decided to write morning pages. I’d read a blog post that guaranteed my writing would change if I started this simple practice. The post recommended writing three pages a day, front and back, handwritten. No cross-outs. No going back and fixing what you’ve written. I added one more rule for myself: I couldn’t write about what I planned to do (in other words, no “I need to remember to write that post for my She Writes blog.”) Everything else was permitted.

I’ll admit to picking out a really tiny journal to make sure that I would make my goal. And while another must-do for the magic formula was to write these three pages first thing in the morning before doing anything else, as the mother of three children and two cats, that would never be a realistic goal unless I was away on a writing retreat. My compromise was that the writing had to happen sometime between when waking and sleeping and it had to be done before I began my “real” writing—the work that I am consciously shaping and revising.

Usually new writing habits are difficult to integrate but once I realized that my writing didn’t have to be coherent, topical, or even legible, the practice was surprisingly easy to incorporate.

I wrote every day, three pages front and back, except on Christmas (I only managed a page and a half). After a year I’d filled up sixteen journals.

“What do you get out of this?” a friend gently asked.

It took me a moment to figure out the answer.

Sometimes I mull over a question or theme that I’ll write about during my actual writing time. (How did my husband react when they told him our newborn babies would need surgery? What does it feel like to dance on stage?) Even though I never refer back to my journal, just jotting down stream-of-consciousness thoughts helps me organize them later.

Sometimes I play with ideas that I’d never tackle seriously. Like science fiction worlds in which aliens invade our bodies and give us the ability to go back in time. For example, back to November 8th. It’s mostly silly stuff. But the point isn’t to write compelling fiction. The point is to write three pages front and back.

Some of my sentences aren’t even grammatically correct because I’ve started writing before the thought is fully formed. That’s okay. I keep writing. Or I start over mid-sentence without correcting. The point isn’t to write well. The point is to write.

And while sometimes I do find a turn of phrase that I’ll use later or conjure up a poignant memory, the biggest advantage is that for three pages, I write without hesitation or second-guessing.

There are other pieces that I write, revise, and incorporate feedback. For example, my memoir SPINNING: Choreography for Coming Home, which I’ll self-publish in the fall through Moxie Road Productions, just went out to a seventh pair of eyes.

But my daily three pages are a 100% judgment-free zone. It’s not writing that will ever be evaluated or improved. It’s like my version of a sand painting.

It’s completely freeing to write knowing that the goal isn’t to be better. The goal is simply to do. As long as I write my three pages, mission accomplished.

Spinning the Story

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The first time I wrote about the NICU (other than in emails to family and friends), it was for the NICU Testimonial binder in the Alta Bates Family Lounge. I knew I was writing for other preemie parents and so I squeezed every silver lining out of our three-month NICU stay. The way I spun the story, you’d think we had spent that time in a hotel, not a hospital.

I emphasized the friendships we’d made with the nurses, doctors, social workers, security guards and parking attendants. When I talked about the birth of my micro-preemie twins, I gave just the facts: born at 25 weeks and four days, weighing just over a pound and a half apiece. I didn’t talk about how I tried to find strength through stoicism and its polar opposite, bad jokes.

The NICU staff had offered a lifeline of support to my husband and me, much more support than I’d received thee years earlier when my full-term daughter had been born, I insisted.

The more I wrote, the more I shared my words with others. I submitted my essays to online magazines and writing conferences. At my first writing workshop, I proudly presented an essay outlining how I coped with micro-preemie twins who needed around-the-clock care for their first months of life.

“We want to see you be emotionally vulnerable,” chorused the writers in my group. To them, my words were an essay that needed to be shaped and sculpted to fit and hit certain storytelling marks.

But for me, it was my life. I couldn’t admit that I was emotionally vulnerable. That would mean acknowledging how small and fragile my babies had been. It would mean facing the long list of ailments and disabilities that my babies could have had—or might still have. At a year-and-a-half old, my twins still had developmental delays. Just thinking about it felt like a pitch-black fist grabbing at my gut.

Listening to the comments of my colleagues brought me back to the NICU, the way I’d been 18 months earlier, standing over my twins’ isolettes, watching the numbers flicker on the monitors. Wondering if the boys would stabilize by themselves or if they’d trigger the alarm. Never sure what the long-term impact of their prematurity would be. Before I knew it, I was sobbing in front of twelve people, who, just a week earlier, had been total strangers.

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed, chewing on my lip. “I just realized that the NICU was really scary.”

“Of course it was,” said the workshop leader, a novelist who herself had had a baby in the NICU.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around in a daze. From time to time I would remember a certain detail—the cinnamon smell of the soap in the family lounge, the teddy bear magnets with all the babies’ names on them, the hum of the breast pump—and it would take me right back to the NICU.

And then a curious thing happened. I began to notice sounds around me. Birds chirping, crisp footsteps, the whistle of wind. It was as if to block out the gravity of the NICU, my brain had stopped listening to the world around me.

From then on, when I wrote about the NICU, I added what I saw to how I felt. Now, in addition to describing the nurses who had carefully arranged tubes and wires so I could hold my babies skin-to-skin, I also recalled my nervousness and my doubts. When I found just the right words to describe my memories, the fist in my gut would loosen. Being honest with my feeling and being authentic in my writing was actually a comfort, like those pastel blue scent dolls I used to put in the boys’ isolettes.

Seven years later I still bite my lip when I think about those early days. My stomach still flips to think about the texture of their skin, so thin and papery or their squawky cries when I had to put them back in their beds. But I also think about the moments before the cries—the warmth of their tummies, the smell of baby boy in the whorls of their hair, their tiny fingers clasping mine—and the images dance together to complete a picture of hope, fear, uncertainty, and love.

Forgotten Anniversaries

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These last two weeks I’ve had the nagging feeling that I’ve forgotten someone’s birthday, someone close to me. In other words, a date that should be committed to memory forever and always.

But when I go through the list: husband, children, parents, in-laws, nieces, nephews, siblings, and good friends, I come up with nothing. Nothing but the tug that I have missed celebrating a milestone.

Yesterday it dawned on me. Seven years ago, on March 30, 2010, after three months in the NICU, Wagner came home. Two days later, on April 1st, Michael followed.

Chiara was only three years old at the time, and we made a banner to hang in the dining room: “WELCOME HOME MICHAEL AND WAGNER!” We made thank-you cards for the doctors and nurses and everyone else who’d stood by our side during those three long months.

We took pictures to commemorate the day. Pictures of Michael’s nurse with her finger on the “off” button of Michael’s monitor. Pictures of Chiara’s artwork that we’d hung over the boys’ isolettes. Pictures of our locker in the family room. We brought home souvenirs: bottles, preemie diapers, thermometers, and even oxygen-saturation cuffs.

With each photo I knew I was committing our NICU stay to memory, finally allowing myself to exhale. We’d made it this far. Taking our three-month old babies (who were really newborns for all practical purposes) home.

It was a day I vowed I would never forget.

But then I did. This year March 30th and April 1st came and went without acknowledgement. When I did remember, the boys were swimming in Grandma’s Florida pool, splashing and shrieking, playing some kind of intricate game of tag with the pool noodles. You can still see the scar from their PDA surgery that traces the edge of their shoulder blade, but if you know what to look for. Other than that, you’d never guess.

You’d never guess that they were born three and a half months early. Or that they weighed about a pound and a half apiece. You’d never guess we had to do special exercises for their joints or that Michael didn’t breathe on his own until the week before he was discharged.

If you looked at them now, you’d see very little evidence that they had any challenges at all. No traces of what impacted their first two years of life. None of it has any bearing on their lives today.

But I don’t think that’s why I forgot our homecoming anniversary. I think I forgot because I’m not the same person I was seven years ago. I’m not the person who was so terrified to be vulnerable.

The irony is when I vowed forever and always to remember our NICU stay, I began writing about it. And writing. And writing. I was writing to remember but I was also writing to convince myself that I wasn’t affected by our experience, not negatively anyway.

The more I wrote, the deeper I had to dig. (I should point out that this was not by choice—the deep diggers were my writing partners, critique groups at writing conferences, and later, my developmental editors.) As I revised and dug and polished and repeated the cycle, truths emerged. Such as, yeah, that NICU stay was pretty awful. And, yeah, I’m not cut out to be a family advocate for parents of preemies.

As a ballet dancer, I spent a lifetime evading truth. You have to. If you acknowledged what you look like in a white leotard and tights, you might never have the nerve to get on stage. Embracing the truth as a writer meant that I had to get on stage anyway. Little by little, I changed. Until the one thing I vowed to remember became an event that I didn’t need to commemorate.

Taking Matters Into My Own Hands

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Breaking news! This blog post was recently featured on She Writes. Click here to read the same thing there.

Before I became a writer (or a wife or a mother), I was a ballet dancer. I danced in Europe for most of my career—in Iceland, Italy, Germany, and Austria. For nearly six years I stitched together gigs here and there, which required a mix of talent, timing, and connections. I thought I’d finally cracked the code when I landed three great jobs that would keep me employed for the next year.

But then, all in the same week, the three companies contacted me again. I sat on the couch with a letter from Austria, a fax from Germany, and a telegram in Italian—all informing me of the same news: they were rescinding the job offers. None of the companies was willing to file the paperwork to extend my EU visa. It had nothing to do my dancing.

This is the scene that came to mind this summer when I read email after email from the agents, editors, and publishers I’d come to know in the six years since I started writing the memoir about my identical twins boys who’d been born three and a half months premature.

“The writing is lovely,” they all said in one form or another. “But we don’t know how to market your book” (which, I realized, is code for “we don’t know who will read this.”) The emails wished me luck and sometimes even said that mine was a story that deserved to be told (after, of course, informing me that they would not be the ones helping me tell it.)

I had a choice. I could continue to fish for agents. I could send out a hundred queries to find the one agent willing to go to bat for me and hope that she would have the same persistence looking for editors and publishers.

Or I could take things into my own hands.

I didn’t have to go back to America all those years ago. I could have stayed in Italy and appealed the decisions. But I didn’t want to spend months writing letters in languages I didn’t quite know, filing papers and calling offices when I could just go back home and dance.

That’s how I feel about my memoir. These last six years I’ve learned a lot about writing and the publishing industry. I’ve learned a lot about building a writing community. I even helped found a nonprofit writing group for moms. Three years ago, we self-published an anthology of our essays. When I realized that I knew who to contact to edit my work, who could design the book cover, and who would be my publicist, the decision to publish my book myself was as easy as boarding the next plane for home.

Which brings us back to me crying on the couch with three rejection letters. The week after I flew home from Italy, I was offered a job dancing with a ballet company in San Francisco. Shortly after that, I met my future husband. The friend who introduced us is now godmother to my daughter.

I still wonder what might have happened if I’d tried to keep dancing abroad, just as I might always wonder what would have happened if I kept querying agents. But I also know that leaving when I did helped set the stage (no pun intended) for future accomplishments—a college degree, a family, a new career as a writer.

Sometimes it’s up to you to shape your own destiny. And when you recognize that the time is right, it’s up to you to make it happen.

 

 

Metaphor or Advice?

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img_0687At the beginning of the month I went to the Holy Grail of women’s writing residencies: Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island. I leave three weeks later (plane takes me home tomorrow). I have managed to stay off of social media (unless you count joining Instagram and friending five of the women I have gotten to know during my stay).

Everything they say about radical hospitality is true. I started out in Willow cottage but roof repair necessitated a move to the Meadow House, and here, in the quiet of my loft desk, I have completed a draft of my next book. I have read books—plural! I have walked around the lagoon and talked to bunnies and slugs. I have discovered quite a bit about the silence of the mind and untapped potential of an unscheduled day.

I have learned how to build a fire. I have discovered that I make terrible coffee. I have also discovered that I will drink terrible coffee if it means not having to leave the cottage.

Here’s some other stuff I’ve learned. Is writing advice or is it metaphor? You be the judge.

 

You don’t have to stay on the path in order to find your way.

Sometimes a fire doesn’t burn until you leave it alone.

The red thermos holds three cups of coffee.

Take time to feed the llamas.

Take baths. Take naps. Take walks. Take the cookie jar if you are hosting.

When you step on a ladder from a lofty height, don’t look down.
When you are climbing the ladder, don’t look down.
When you are descending, it doesn’t matter so much
if you are looking up or looking down.
It only matters that you have a firm footing.

Not every recipe is in the cookbook.

The puffy llama doesn’t want the fruit you have to offer her.
She just wants to snort at you.
Don’t take it personally.
The other llama is not so picky.

Fire needs to breathe to live.
Sometimes kindling and a little air is enough to reignite the flame.

Hedgebrook is the place where you fall out of your routine
in order to fall into a rhythm.

Big flames don’t always carry a lot of heat and they burnt out quickly.
Those orange-hot embers, on the other hand, will cause other logs to catch fire
And will keep you warm through the night.

You don’t have to finish everything on your plate.
You can even throw it away.
After all, making yourself eat more than you can handle is also a waste.

Don’t pay attention to the smoke.
Well, sometimes you should pay attention to the smoke.
Especially if you left a towel on the wood stove.

Sometimes the flowers you cut bloom.
Sometimes they die right away.
Sometimes they have bugs.
Dead flowers have their own picturesque beauty.
Buggy ones—less so.

Burning your manuscript as kindling is fun, but newspaper is more effective.

Even Hedgebrook makes chocolate chips cookies
from the recipe on the back of the Nestle Tollhouse bag.

Vito isn’t making it up—you really can see Mt. Rainier on a clear day.
It will shine there a hundred miles away, iridescent pink and glowing.
And once you see it, you can’t un-see it.
You can see its outline in the clouds.
You can feel that it’s there.
This is how you will be when you leave this place.
What you need is already inside of you.
Even if you don’t believe it.

P.S. Don’t kill Gloria Steinem’s spiders.

Orphaned Post #638

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desk from a cottage in the woods

I am sifting through a very rough draft of a book I’ve been kicking around in my head for years—a book about ballet. This is from the introduction. It doesn’t fit anymore but it deserves to have a home. So here it is. A little nugget from March of 2011.

 

Dear Gentle Reader, (Aren’t readers are always gentle when referred to by their authors?)

            I imagine you curled up on your sofa, drink on the coffee table. Maybe it’s hot chocolate (I myself am partial to hot chocolate) or maybe it’s a hot toddy (perhaps you are partial to those). Or maybe you are sitting on the bus reading during your commute or maybe you are too young for a job and you are instead a budding ballerina, reading this book at night in secret because you are afraid that your mother would never let you read a book that occasionally makes use of the “F” word, which—and you may not be aware of this—is a very handy word when you work in the theatre.

Perhaps you picked up this book because you wanted to know the inside story on ballet—if it is like the movie Black Swan: all sex, drugs, Rachmaninov, and I can assure you that it is. The inside story on ballet, that is. Not necessarily the stories inside this book. There isn’t much sex inside this book. The drugs are limited to over-the-counter narcotics such as nicotine and Dexatrim and the occasional extra-strength laxative. And ibuprofen. Oh, how there ever were ballet dancers before Motrin, I’ll never know. But that’s the extent of the drugs and as for Rachmanianov, really, the only thing he has in common with Tchaikovsky is the fact that they are both Russian.

            But it is the inside story of ballet, the real inside story. Of hope and ambition. Of leaping and falling. Of little girls and grown women. There are shattered dreams just as there are shattered metatarsals. It is the quest for identity—artistic identity, personal identity. It is negotiation between dancing for oneself and dancing for others. After all, if all you do is run around trying to please others, you will never cultivate that one thing that people don’t even know that they want to see—that thing that constitutes your inner you. And yet, if your inner you doesn’t please at least somebody, nobody will offer you a job.

            There is something very strange about the ten-year-old who can see the next twenty years of her life with perfect clarity and feels that there isn’t a moment to lose. It’s probably even stranger when she is right. And there’s something very exotic about teenagers on tour away from home, especially when they grow into long-limbed dancers who wear scarves and soak their feet and agonize over the varying slippage factors of different ribbons. But the real beauty of the stories, just like the real beauty of the dancer (or anyone, really) is what’s within. The real beauty isn’t in the shiny stuff; it’s in the grit and not because dirty is the new shiny, but because the dirt represents the humanness—the vulnerabilities. The falling down, the occasional humiliation.

A broken spirit isn’t inherently beautiful. But you know it what it’s like. You’ve been there. You have been to the place where you dance between what is expected of you and what you expect of yourself and how the universe actually operates. Sometimes the universe isn’t fair and sometimes things don’t happen for a reason. Life events do not have to have a meaning in order to be meaningful. In fact, the mantra “Be in the moment” (which I believe is the new “Just do it”) tries to illicit just that.

            Maybe this book is like fog. Fog always looks like it’s somewhere else. Even when you’re deep in it. You can’t hug it. You can’t touch it. But you feel it. It embraces you. It wraps around you. And sometimes it’s heavy and sometimes it’s light. But it’s not something to take; it’s just something to experience.

            I hope you enjoy the experience of this book.

THE BOOK OF KID: the origin story

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BookOfKidCoverI didn’t write THE BOOK OF KID. My daughter’s third-grade class did. I just published it. Their teacher, Ms Diamond, asked her students to give their parents some child-rearing advice. And it turns out they have a lot to tell you (spoiler alert: they want you to get off Facebook and play with them.)

It started as the classroom project for the school auction. I thought I’d get involved. After all, I like books. And I had a printer. Match made in Heaven.

The kids made a list of stuff they wanted their parents to know. For example, my daughter wanted me to know that “Just because we are little versions of you, doesn’t mean we act like you.” Which is interesting, because we look nothing alike.

From their list, each child picked one snippet of advice as the caption to a picture they drew. The picture was then traced onto foam, which became the cut for a color print. Then each 8.5″ x 11″ page was bound accordion-fashion into a book. The winning bid for the book was $800.

Since the class made two copies of their print, I had a complete set which was then scanned and put into a book-book with the rest of the students’ advice. I have to say, it’s really heartbreaking, and if I had a little more editorial control, I might have sat them down and said, “So let’s start with all the stuff your parents do that you really like.” Because it’s not so pleasant to realize how much your kids notice. Like, how often we’re on our phones or how often we complain about someone else.

Because the impetus for the book was a fundraiser, it only seemed right that the royalties from the sale of the book would be donated. We discussed it, and the students were given three options: 1) the money would go to their school; 2) the money would be donated to the middle school that many of them will attend in sixth grade; or 3) the children would donate the money to another elementary school in Oakland Unified School District.

To make the decision, Ms. Diamond didn’t just ask for a show of hands; she made them write opinion pieces. What were the pros and cons of donating money to the neighborhood middle school? The kids had to address tough questions that accompany any gift. What would the school spend it on? What if the kids wanted the money to be spent on computers but it went to something more boring, like school supplies?

After a month of discussion, each child wrote an essay and read it to the class. A blind vote was taken. The winner? Another elementary school in Oakland. Stay tuned to figure out which school will receive the royalties generated by the book sales.

The book is available on Amazon and Create Space as well as Diesel Books and Pegasus Books.

OH, and here’s what some superstar grownups had to say about THE BOOK OF KID:

“A great reminder for parents of kids of all ages: Kids are taking notes every time we swear, check our phones compulsively, or say something negative about someone else. This book is an inspiration to be the best role models that we can be. Moreover, this advice from children to parents mirrors what research shows is best for them; sometimes kids really do know best!”
Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents 

“The Book of Kid is evidence that kids hear and see and know more than we sometimes give them credit for. This book is chocked full of sound advice from kids to parents, advice that will help us be our best selves and also the parents our kids need. Read this book and then go play, listen, hug and challenge your kids. They’re begging for it!”
Kate Hopper, founder of Motherhood & Words & author of Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood and Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers

“This little book has the potential to transform lives – if parents follow the sage advice in these pages, relationships can improve, children will thrive, and the benefits will radiate out into the world with positive repercussions for generations to come. I highly recommend this book for parents of young children everywhere.”
–Nina Lesowitz, co-author of the bestselling titles Living Life as a Thank YouWhat Would You Do if You Knew You Could Not Fail?; and The Grateful Life.

“If you don’t want to wait until your child grows up to find out how you could have been a better parent, read this book of heartfelt and surprising third grade wisdom. These children know better than many adults what is really important. Their beautifully illustrated jewel of a book has a prominent place in the waiting room of my child psychology practice.”
–Lucinda Cummings, PhD, Licensed Psychologist

“Listen to your children, Put down your phone, swear less, don’t bad mouth family–easily the best parenting advice I’ve ever read, and straight out of the mouths of funny, honest, wise kids.”
Ann Imig, founder of the national live storytelling series, video-sharing company, and acclaimed book LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER

Seven Ways to Make Your Blog a Success—#2 Will Surprise You

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toast(I was going to call this blog post “The Festival of Posts” but I went for click-bait instead.)

The Festival of Posts is a twist on an inside joke at our house: The Festival of Toast. When my husband wants to transform something boring, he calls it a festival. At least twice a week he’ll serve the kids breakfast he calls “The Festival of Toast.” It’s no festival. It’s just toast. Buttered toast. Peanut buttered toast. Toast with jelly. Voilà! Instant festival.

The idea here is that you could pledge to blog once a week and share it on Facebook. Or you could join one of those blog hops in which you and 10,000 other bloggers pledge to blog once a day for a month and read and comment on 10,000 blogs.

Or you could set your expectations really, really low, rope in some friends and call it a Festival.

Here’s what six writers from Write on Mamas have decided to do between February 15th and March 15th:

Step 1: Write a blog post
Step 2: Publish that blog post
Step 3: Share that blog post
Step 4: Read someone else’s blog post
Step 5: Comment on that blog post
Step 6: Share that blog post
Step 7: Rinse and repeat for each blogger

 

Voilà! Instant festival.

And here are the blog urls:

Emily Meyers: Happy Day You

Claire Hennessy: Crazy California Claire

Jilanne Hoffman

Megan Schultz: Musings from Megan

Vicki DeArmon: One Mother’s Edge

Cynthia Lehew-Nehrbass: Joy and Pathos

VACATION RESPONDER: LEGALESE

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Go ahead and say it loud and proud: “I’m self-important and I know big words.” Note: while this responder is intended to just let people know that they are low in the pecking order, it can be easier converted to your average vacation responder. Special thanks to Liz Kramer (not her real name) for this idea.

SUBJECT: Automatic reply for [REGURGITATED EMAIL SUBJECT]

I am out of the office today at client meetings. As time is of the essence, I will only be able to attend to material requests.

However, if you need immediate assistance, please contact my assistant Ida Nough and she will direct you to a consultant to assist you in my absence.

Alternately, if this matter is urgent, you can try to reach me on my mobile phone and I will return your call as soon as possible.

CONFIDENTIALITY NOTICE:
This electronic mail message and any attached files contain information intended for the exclusive use of the individual or entity to whom it is addressed and may contain information that is proprietary, privileged, confidential and/or exempt from disclosure under applicable law.

THE INFORMATION CONTAINED IN THIS ELECTRONIC MAIL TRANSMISSION IS CONFIDENTIAL AND MAY BE PROTECTED FROM UNAUTHORIZED USE OR DISSEMINATION. If you are not the intended recipient, you are hereby notified that any viewing, copying disclosure or distribution of this information is strictly prohibited and may be subject to legal restriction or sanction. Please notify the sender immediately by electronic mail of any unintended recipients and delete the original message without making any copies.

VACATION RESPONDER: HONEST

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Emoticon_Smile_FaceC’mon. When was the last time you really didn’t have access to email when you were on vacation? It was 2007 and we all know it. If you wanted to check email on a plane, on a train, in a car, or off the grid, you could do it, and probably from six different devices. Hell, even the yoga commune where I go to write every January has wifi. So just be honest and tell us—you read our email. You just don’t feel like answering it.

SUBJECT: On Vacation

Hello! I’m on vacation from October 26 – October 31st. Yes, I’m reading each email as it comes in, but I’m only responding to the ones that a) I can answer within six seconds or b) have nothing to do with work. If your email doesn’t fall into either category, I’ll probably answer it when I return, although there is an 86% chance that now that I’ve read your email, I’ve already forgotten all about it.

Cheers!

[YOUR NAME]