Now, the Next Six Weeks.

I gotta tell ya, I’ve had a tough time getting the last installment of my Mermaid Underground series written. Between moving my family to a new house, parenting, working for financial gain and general life-living, I’ve had it rough getting my creative rhythm going. About a year ago, I set a goal for myself of writing, editing and publishing these three novellas just as fast as I could, because I wanted to “call my own bluff.” You see: so, so many people say they want to be a writer of novels, but rarely put in the real work it takes to be one. I didn’t want to be one of those who just say it. I didn’t want to have a perpetual masterpiece in the works. I wanted to put my work out there. I wanted to actually do the work.

Although it’s honestly gotten me into a few fair spots of trouble over the years, my secret personal philosophy has always been, “Don’t regret the things you didn’t do!” It’s a policy that’s led to me looking like a crazy person on more than one occasion (especially when I asked out one or two guys in college) but it also led to the most amazing experiences of my life. Because I pursued him, even when I was afraid of rejection, I am now married to the love of my life. Because I persisted, even when I was afraid of pain, I had a homebirth for my second child. Even though I was nervous about what lurked, unseen, beneath the murky surface of the river, I became a whitewater rafting guide at the tender age of 18.

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This post isn’t a classical hero’s psych-up: look at the monsters I slayed! The conquests I wooed! The floods and raining fire and fearsome earthquakes I bested!

On second thought, that’s exactly what this post is.

‘Cause I finished the first draft of a book. The final book, actually, in a fantasy series I started with the motivation of a peculiar dream and a personal test of mettle.

Now, I have to let it sit. For six weeks. The words have to lie together, to get used to each other, to congeal and link and form the solid bonds of a good story. Then, I will rewrite the whole damned thing. And then, I’ll probably do it again. Then, I’ll send it off to my freelance editor, who will tell me all the plot holes, stylistic sticks-in-the-mud and other troublesome flaws in this, my final Mermaid Underground novella.

Then, my comrades-in-words, I’ll publish it: Mermaid Underground: Revolution!

In the meantime, if you’re in the market for a story about mermaids, their families and their antiquated and oppressive feudal culture in the crystalline catacombs beneath the surface of Florida, then check out books one and two of the series.

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Happy 4th, Y’All!

First things first: Happy Independence Day, all you Americans out there! It’s typically our day to celebrate independence from Britain by eating ground, grilled meat rounds and setting sparkly, loud fires in the sky.

Today might be a wash in my part of the world; I woke up to thunderstorms and the weatherman promises more thunderstorms this evening. The middle part of the day turned out to be bright and sunny: the perfect weather to turn all our puddles into an ambient atmosphere of invisible wet washcloths (it’s humid.)

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It’s exactly the kind of summer day that would drive me to heavy daydreaming as a kid, opening the conduit between the aether and my brain that usually prompted me to find a blank notebook and a pen and get working on whatever story inspired me in the moment. I’m proud to say, as I look around at the detritus of play in my house, I’m nurturing the same productive kind of boredom in my own kids’ summer days. Half-built/demolished Lincoln Log houses and plastic block underwater sea/space forts prove it: I’m a good mom.

Now let me wallow in that self-satisfaction until I lose it and start yelling “There’s just junk piled everywhere in the house!” and “You must not want these toys, because you never take care of them!”

Life is all about balance, I think, and that goes for moments of calm as well as the frenzy.

I’m proud to report that I’m making good progress on Book 3 of the Mermaid Underground series. It’s getting a little strange, but sometimes writing a book is like that. My mom often surprises herself with what comes out on the canvas when she’s painting.

“I didn’t know it was going to look like that,” she’ll say.

I know exactly what she means.

If you like quirky fantasy, and you think the existence of mermaids living in the underground, water-filled chambers below the surface of rural Florida would explain an awful lot, then check out Books 1 and 2, Devolution and Evolution, respectively.

Happy 4th of July!

XII: Poor Valley Witch. Landon’s Path.

Welcome to the twelfth installment of Poor Valley Witch! This is a serial short story I’m writing as I go along, with minimal editing. I have to admit, it’s gotten a little creepier than I had expected. If you’re just tuning in, click here to go back to the beginning. Feel free to leave your comments below!

Read on, reader!

***

Landon and his mother trudged down the faded, cracked, asphalt road to hell. They passed the house trailer where Landon had run over the corpse of a dog, and two boys (heathens. minions. lost boys.) had drug it out from under the car by its leg. The old woman stood near the canted cement steps to her front door, watching silently as they went past.

Out of some sense of ironic fatalism, Landon raised a hand in greeting. She shook her head and he thought that was all she’d do, but she hesitated and then waved in return before turning and walking around the back of the trailer house. The boys were nowhere to be seen.

“Friend of yours?” his mother asked.

“Yeah,” he answered. “We go way back. I ran over her dog.” She looked over at him, perplexed by his glibness.

“It was already dead,” he said, as though this explained the whole story. They walked along a few more steps, heading into the woods. The light dimmed immediately, as though they’d crossed a substantial border. It felt nice under the trees, though; the morning sun was starting to get hot back there, baking up at them from the old blacktop.

Landon was about to open his mouth to say so, when a resounding CRACK sounded in the air, causing his heart to jump into his throat. This time it was he who put the “Mom-belt” in front of his mother, pushing her back in time to miss being hit by a falling tree by mere inches. They both fell back on their asses, breathing hard, studying the slim oak over the road in front of them. Slim by tree standards, but still substantial enough to have knocked them out, or worse.

“She’s trying to kill us!” Landon’s words came out in a high-pitched wheeze.

“No,” said his mom, struggling to get up. Shaking with adrenaline, Landon pushed himself up off the road and extended a hand to help her out. “No, if she wanted us dead, we’d be dead. Trust me. It’s cat and mouse.”

“Nice,” he answered. They flinched as more trees fell over the road beyond, one after the other like dominoes, except out of sequence. Their road had become vastly more difficult. The woods echoed with crackling limbs and the ground shivered beneath their feet with each impact.

“Nice,” said his mother, wryly. They looked at each other, still breathing heavily, then broke out into matching grins.

“So,” said Landon. “Are we being blocked, or herded?” The last trip he’d taken down this way—what, two days ago?—he had lost memory of this part of things. He’d ended up just outside the witch’s house, about to open the makeshift plywood door. But he’d chickened out, and she’d made fun of him, and he’d been spit out by the valley back in town, at the old gas station. So what was she doing with them now? More cat and mouse, but he had a gut feeling that she didn’t want to drive them away, just freak them out on their way to her.

Landon took his mother’s hand and started back the way they’d come, back toward the trailer house, toward the sunny part of the road.

“What are you doing?” she asked. She didn’t resist him, though; she sensed he was working an angle. She was just genuinely curious about his motive.

“Not sure yet. Trying to flush it out.”

“Flush what out?”

“That.” Landon stopped and nodded his head toward the two boys he’d seen at the trailer house a couple days earlier. They were around, after all, and they were peering out at them from up in a couple trees, just up the bank from where Landon and his mother stood on the road. “Them. I think we just found our guides to the path we’re supposed to take.”

The two travelers scrambled to climb the bank even as the two boys jumped down from their perches in the trees. They were shirtless, and dirty in the way that boys who play in the woods always are. They didn’t say anything, just turned and started walking away from the asphalt, up a path that wouldn’t have been visible from any vehicle down below.

Landon and his mother followed.

They hadn’t gone far when Landon realized he was alone with the boys. He stopped short, looking around wildly for his mother. She was gone. Gone. Disappeared, with no word, no sigh, no rustle of undergrowth. He opened his mouth to call out for her when one of the boys was suddenly by his side, taking his hand. Landon looked down, bewildered, and the boy shook his head, bringing one finger to his lips. Landon looked around again, hoping that his mom had only stepped off the path to pee, or something, but the boy tugged his hand insistently. He scooped air with his free hand toward the path, in the universal sign that meant “Come on! Get going!”

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Landon followed, his spirits plummeting. They’d said he’d have to sacrifice himself. Mamaw had mentioned it, first, and then his mom had said it outright. She’d said he’d have to give himself to the witch. It was the only way, she’d said. He had hoped, up until this moment, that she had a plan, some master, secret way to defeat the witch in the valley. He kept waiting for her to reveal it to him, on their walk. But she’d turned tail and run. Left him. That was it, after all.

The boys led him around the bend in the path. It was totally silent in the woods. Not even a bird trilled, or frog croaked. Nothing made noise except him, walking along the path. There was a building of some kind up ahead. An old outhouse, maybe, or a hunting shack. The boys trooped up to it and stopped, turning around and crossing their arms, standing sentry at either side of the doorway. He was supposed to go in.

Sighing, feeling strangely like he was on a conveyor belt—he certainly wasn’t directing his own feet, anymore—Landon went to the shack and peered into the deep gloom. There, on the floor, was a gleaming, white mint tin. The very one that held the nubbins. Landon instinctively felt the ring on his finger, making sure it was still there, that it hadn’t disappeared like his mother had. He shuffled through the doorway and bent to pick up the tin, but before he could get a grip on it he fell—and kept falling.

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“Here, hold this,” his mother’s voice whispered in his ear. “No, don’t look around, you won’t see me. But hold this, it helps with the vertigo.” Landon groped around until he found a stick and gripped it, hard. True to his mother’s words, his sensation of falling eased and he felt the solid dirt beneath his back. He couldn’t see a thing, not one photon of light. His eyes kept trying, kept sending little phantom shapes to his brain. He’d read that that happens, when people go into deep caves where there is no light at all. Their brains kept trying to create things to see.

“This is a safe place,” his mother said. “We made it safe from the witch. She controls all the roads in the valley, but other creatures have laid claim to the old paths in the woods. And this place, this old shack, is a very special place indeed.”

“Who … who’s we?” Now that Landon no longer felt like he was falling, he felt a bit nauseated. Carsick.

“I’m here, too, son,” his father’s voice spoke in the blackness. “I had to wait on the sidelines. Your mother and I, we’ve found the way to beat the witch. At least, we think so. But it’s all you. We tried. We looked for every solution, read every book, spoke to any weirdo who might have a better answer, but this is the only way.”

The relief and pleasure Landon felt at the sound of his dad’s voice ran out of him. “I have to sacrifice myself.” His parents’ silence was answer enough.

“And you have to …” his father began, but Landon had the distinct feeling his mother had shushed him up. She put the mint tin firmly into the hand Landon wasn’t using to clutch the stick.

“Take the nubbins,” she said. “Go to the witch. You’re almost there. Tell her you’re ready to give yourself up. Landon—and this is very important—you must hide the nubbins. Put them down in your underpants, if you have to. And go in to the house. You have to go in. All the way in.”

“I love you, son,” said his father’s voice in the dark. And with that, Landon was alone.

***

Long Live Print!

You know the lament: print is dead, and nobody reads anymore, anyway.

I think that’s wrong. And it’s not just because I’m a writer. And, I don’t think it’s as simple a matter as “print is dead;” I think it always comes down to the content.

Take my old hometown’s newspaper, for example. It would be easy to jump on the lamentation bandwagon, beating my chest and crying out that subscriptions have all gone down because the people just won’t support hometown journalism … but, quite frankly, it’s a terrible newspaper that has always been terrible. They consistently print wrong news (not sayin’ it’s fake. No Trumpisms here. It’s just … not correct.) and they can’t seem to find an editor worth her semicolons. They’re a rag. Pure and simple. So I don’t much care whether that particular publication survives the Great Print Purge of the 21st Century.

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But there’ve been some truly great papers starting up lately and, yes, they’re in print. They’re online, too. Take a look at this little beauty: The Knoxville Mercury. It’s one of my favorites, consistently printing stories running the gamut of the Knoxville lifestyle, from a day in the life of a junkie (which spurred an actual lawsuit against Big Pharma for misrepresentation of opioid use. Now that’s good journalism!) to musing on the human detritus that washes up (or away) in the Appalachian wilderness.

I’m a fan of print. I like that I can hold a paper, or book, in my hand. I like that these things aren’t firing photons at my retinas at a rate of one thousand strain-decibels per second. (I made that measurement up. Pretty sure decibels measure sound, anyway. You get the point.) I like that I can pass a print publication to my friend, in person, without a password (unless I just feel like using the old treehouse password for old-time’s sake.)

But, more than being a fan of print, I’m a fan of good content. Not something recycled, not something meme-ed, although I like a good otter pun as much as the next gal. I think that’s what the traditional papers should be pursuing, if they’re interested in staying alive: hire good writers. You’ll probably have to pay them a decent wage. It’s a trade-off that’s worth it.

And if you like the Knoxville Mercury, give ’em five bucks. Their writers probably need a raise.

 

Poor Valley Witch XI: Walk Into the Fray

Welcome to the eleventh installment of Poor Valley Witch! If you are just tuning in, go here for the first story post.

***

I have to sacrifice myself. It’s what his mother had said. Landon sat on the front stoop of his grandmother’s house, staring out at the tops of the tall pines that marked the highway, way out beyond Cherry Street. And, beyond the highway: Poor Valley. Fireflies were starting to come out, blinking their codes for all to see, if only they could understand it.

Landon felt like he was stuck in that firefly language. He was here, with his family, but he didn’t recognize anything about his life. Everything he’d thought he understood about his family, his history, was upside down. It was sideways. Hell, it wasn’t anything that resembled sense.

He’d thought all the bustle, all the business with the vultures in the attic, and his grandmother’s hoarding the nubbins for the ring, his mother flying up so suddenly from Florida … he’d thought all that had been to save his life, because the witch had put her eye on him. But no, he was supposed to fall on the sword. You’re going to have to sacrifice yourself. It’s what his mother had said. And where the hell was his father? Landon had no idea, hadn’t heard back from the man after texting him earlier.

His mom was asleep in the house, now. Mamaw had made fried bologna sandwiches for them all and tucked his mother into bed in the small guest room, before going to bed herself. Landon had camped out on the couch, but he couldn’t seem to settle his mind, so he came out into the humid night. The summer air humming with cicadas always seemed to soothe him. It made him think of nights, so long ago the memories seemed made-up, he and his family had gone camping.

Landon was afraid. He didn’t know what the witch wanted with him, and his mother hadn’t given him any clarity at all. Did she want a slave? Did she want to marry him as a proxy to his father, who’d left her behind? Did she want to kill him? The tall, black pines swayed against the starry sky. Landon shivered in the warmth.

***

“It’s time to go,” Mom said. Mamaw stood at the kitchen sink, washing the breakfast dishes. Once, when Landon was a kid, the family had gotten together for a great-uncle’s funeral. They had stayed together at Mamaw’s house, had breakfast together. They’d gotten dressed up in their Sunday best and it had felt almost like a vacation, like a reunion, except that between jokes and conversation came waves of tears from Mamaw and even Landon’s dad. He felt like that today, like the warmth and comfort of being with family in the familiar kitchen was a blanket that only hid the sadness that came through like a sharp knife, ripping holes in the illusion.

Landon and his mother stood and walked out of the kitchen. He looked back at Mamaw, once, wondering if she’d come with them. She stood resolutely at the sink, gazing out the window, tears coursing down her cheeks. Silent. Landon turned away and went out, walking to the car, opening the driver’s door. He looked around for his mother and saw that she had already made it to the end of the small gravel drive on foot. He closed the door again and hurried after her. CDs twinkled on their strings in the morning light, tied to the patio chairs and low branches. No vultures were in sight, though. Not this morning.

“We’re going on foot?” Landon caught up to Mom. She nodded and reached out her hand to take his. They set off on Cherry Street, headed toward the highway. To cross it. To get to Poor Valley.

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“When you were born,” said Mom, startling Landon into missing a beat and almost stumbling, “We thought it would be alright, your father and I. Cecilia seemed to forgive us, seemed to wish us well. She even gave you a present!” She shook the mint tin gently in her free hand.

“The ring,” said Landon. He wore it today, on his right pinkie finger.

“The ring.” Mom nodded. “But you got sick the day she gave it to you. You almost died.” She sighed, like telling the story made her tired. “And we knew she’d done something. She’d cast a spell on the ring. So, I took it to a professor. I was still in college when you were born, you know.” He nodded. They walked quietly for a few steps. They were almost to the highway, now. Almost ready to cross over.

“My professor, she thought I was doing research for old Appalachian lore and customs,” his mother continued. “And she found me some books to research, full of stories like what people used to do with placentas, or how the old herb doctors would treat pain. Stuff like that.” She barked a short laugh. “Made me glad I’d had you in the hospital, where they dispose of placentas like they are a biohazard. Probably put it in the incinerator, for all I know.” Landon had no idea what she meant by that, but he decided to let it lie. She seemed to need to talk, so he let her.

“Anyway, I found the information I needed, and I put our blood in a new ring. I remade it in the shop at the community college. I had to carve a mold out of wax, and put it in this clutch of clay, and fire it so the wax dripped out.” They stopped at the edge of the highway, now. A semi truck went by, blowing hot air and tiny bits of road debris into their faces. They turned away, squinting to keep grit out of their eyes. When the coast was clear, mother and son crossed the highway and started up the gentle swell of road on the other side. They passed the little cemetery on the right hand side.

They were going to Poor Valley.

“After the wax dripped out, and the clay cooled, I used the centrifuge to spin the metal, and our blood, into the mold,” his mother continued. She sounded a little strained. He looked at her face, now below his. It gave him a pang to realize that; he was taller than his mother. He’d been taller than her for years, now, but she’d been so distant that he tried not to remember when she had been the one towering over him, bending down to hand him a cookie with a kiss in the soft light of their kitchen. Now, she seemed to be walking against a stiff wind, though Landon could not feel it. She saw him noticing and shook her head, warding off questions. They walked on. Under the boughs of a huge oak tree, now, its roots so old and powerful they pushed up the side of the asphalt road.

“I gave you the ring and kept the nubbins,” she rattled the tin again, “Until Cecilia realized she couldn’t just outright kill us all, anymore. The ring is a powerful charm. But she could hurt us, and she did.”

“She made you leave,” said Landon, his heart pounding. He swallowed down a sob. Walking, and sweating, and dredging up sad memories almost undid him. Mom put an arm out in front of him, like she’d done when she’d taken him places in the car as a kid. She’d called it the Mom-belt. She put her hand holding the mint tin, nubbins inside, out in front like a talisman, then walked forward, pulling him along. They passed through something invisible, and Landon felt a weight he’d only barely been aware of lift away. He could breathe better, and as they kept going, he saw that his mother no longer fought an invisible gale.

“She’s putting up barriers,” said his mother, when he looked at her questioningly. They held hands again. The old trailer house was next, the one where he’d run over the dead dog.

The witch was putting up barriers, and Landon wished with all his heart they weren’t pushing through them. He wanted to turn around with his mother and fly back to Florida with her. He wanted to leave this podunk town and never return.

Landon did not want to see the witch.

***

 

 

 

Poor Valley Witch X: Beginning of the End

Welcome to part X of Poor Valley Witch, my little Appalachian gothic yarn. I’m experimenting with writing this short story as I go, leaving (mostly) warts and all, installing it on my blog on the fly. To start at the beginning, go here. I hope you enjoy!

***

Landon stood looking at his mother through his grandmother’s screen door. It was very late in the day, and the gloom plus the screen made his mother’s face shrouded. Like a bride. Like a widow. He shivered.

“You going to let me in?” she asked. She reached for the door handle with the hand not holding her overnight bag. He stepped back. It had been months since he’d last seen her, and with all that had happened, he felt like he’d never even met her.

They stood in the kitchen together, regarding each other like strange cats.

“You have the ring? The nubbins?” she reached out her hand. Landon put his hand in his pocket, curling his fingers around the mint tin. Something in her face made him hesitate; he didn’t want to hand it over. There was a hardness to his mother’s eyes he’d never seen before. Usually, when he visited her at her condo in Florida, she looked vapid, spacey. Not anywhere near this aware. She curled her fingers in a “come on” motion. He sighed, pulled out the mint tin and put it in her hand.

Opening the rusty lid, she greedily looked inside, counting under her breath before letting out a sigh of relief.

“They’re all there,” she said. “All the nubbins accounted for.”

“Why are they so important?” Landon asked. He followed her to the kitchen table, where they both sat in Mamaw’s old chairs.

“I was still in college when I was pregnant with you,” she said, tapping the metal lid. “I made this ring in class one day. Cecilia had tricked us, your father and I, made us think we’d found a way to protect our little family from her. So, I put some of my blood into the metal before I spun it into the mold. It was the blood we shared, you and I.” She reached out to cover Landon’s hand with her own, caressing the tiny ring on his pinkie finger.

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“Cecilia? That’s her name? The Poor Valley Witch,” he said. His mother nodded. She opened the tin on the table and took out one of the little metal chunks inside.

“If she had the ring, or any part of the metal, she owned us,” she said, softly. “That’s what the spell really did. I got the nubbins back, after I realized how we’d been tricked, but there was a price.” She looked into Landon’s eyes and all her careful barriers dropped. There was no spacey look, no hardness. Only his mother, the way he remembered her from when he was a boy.

“You had to leave,” Landon said. She nodded. “But, she had the ring,” he said, remembering the vultures’ nest up in the attic. “She had all kinds of things of mine.”

“Tell me about it,” his mother said. “Did she give it to you? Or did the vultures have it?” Landon told her everything, about visiting the Valley, about the Baptists singing in the front yard–she laughed aloud at the thought of them being bombarded by streams of vulture crap–and about the quiet, hulking vultures ushering him in to see the nest.

“They gave you back the things?” she said. “Usually the witch keeps … collections, I guess you’d call them, to herself. Sentimental things give her power. But where was the ring?”

“It must have been in the pocket of my old sweatshirt,” he said.

She nodded. “Yes, your father told me you’d lost it years ago,” she said. “You used to wear it, for protection.”

“I used to wear the ring that connected me to the witch?” he asked, incredulous. “That doesn’t make sense!”

She shrugged. “Catch a tiger by its toe.”

“What does that even mean?”

“If you hold your enemy close, they can’t strike against you,” she said. “I’ve spent years researching how to beat her. Your father has too, though we couldn’t be in contact often; she would have known.” Landon’s mother stood and walked to the kitchen sink, gazing out the window into the darkening twilight. “I think I have found a way to stop her,” she said. “Finally.”

“You have to be willing to go to her,” she said, turning to face him.

“What?”

“You have to sacrifice yourself.” A single tear spilled out of her eye, but her face was stony.

“You’re here! I wondered when you’d show up.” Mamaw bustled into the kitchen, startling Landon and looking much better after her nap. She shocked him further when she wrapped her arms around his mother, squeezing her tight.

“Welcome home, dear,” she said.

***

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Procrastination as a Strategy

I don’t know why it is, but I sometimes find myself the most inspired to write if it’s avoiding the story I’m SUPPOSED to be writing. I keep peeking around the tree right in front of me to admire the one just a little ways beyond. Why do I feel so compelled to ignore this tree that’s so immediate? The one that requires attention because, if I keep ignoring it, I will bash into it. See, you can’t actually move past the tree if you keep pretending it’s not there. Maybe a some bark-rash would be well deserved.

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As it is, I’m currently working on an Appalachian fantasy novel I’ve been chipping away at for a few years, now. I’m supposed to be finishing the last of my Mermaid Underground series–which I’m not ignoring, exactly, just … well, it’s right in front of me, so how can I possibly see it?

Luckily I’m putting off another blog I’m supposed to be working on, otherwise I’d never have written this one!

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Maybe it’s not procrastination, after all. Instead of ignoring trees, I’m following the old rule about confronting wild animals: Don’t look them in the eye; they’ll think you’re being aggressive. If I sidle up to the story quiet-like, gazing all the while at the further, less threatening project, then maybe the beast will let me reach my hand out like … this … and stroke its fur. It’s pretty soft, if you can overlook the burs. I’ll get those out with a bit of editing. Ok, maybe a lot of editing. Burs are tricky.

If you Google “Procrastination as Strategy,” you’ll get a whole list of articles about how to beat procrastination, how to beat your own self into submission and get shit done. But, really, when it comes to creatives … isn’t a little procrastination good? I mean, I’m taming beasts over here. You can’t do that quickly.

I heard a TED Talk, once, about how procrastination can actually be a good thing. I’ll give you the link to that. In a minute. I’ve got some other stuff to do first.

Aaaaand, here we go: it’s buried in this TED Talks blog. Second entry. Pretty interesting stuff. If you’re looking to procrastinate, check out some of the other TED Talks listed here. They’re always good for food for thought. Who knows? Maybe they’ll help you tame some beasts.