Five Minute Book Blurb: Shrill by Lindy West

Five Minute Book Blurb: Shrill by Lindy West

I have a problem with Lindy West: none of my strong, feisty, inspiring gal friends are reading her. Admittedly, I only recently discovered her myself when an acquaintance recommended that I check out her essay Donald and Billy on the Bus, published shortly after the piggish tape of Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals hit the airwaves. In the coming days, I read a few more of her columns, but it wasn’t until I read her memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman that, as I wrote in my journal afterwards, I was “on fire with love for Lindy West.” I’m not normally so effusive in book reviews, but if none of my friends are reading Lindy West, who am I to gush with? So, here we are.

Shrill is a collection of and expansion on West’s best essays throughout the years. It touches on a wide variety of topics, including fat shaming and body positivity, internet trolls and online harassment, and period and abortion stigma. West, a fat feminist (her preferred term, by the way) is a columnist for The Guardian and has long been known in the blogosphere for her outspoken writing on feminism and social justice. Long before she was writing for The Guardian, she penned columns for Jezebel and The Stranger, and, as the age of the internet troll came about, she became known for the onslaught of online harassment she experienced while writing for each of these publications, a trend that still continues today.

Why does she get so much hate? Because West fearlessly speaks truth to power and can effortlessly eviscerate any argument thrown her way. She is a deft debater who refuses to cower in the face of relentless sexism and hatred from the deplorables of the world, and that is exactly what makes her book so compelling.

In a way that I still can’t quite pinpoint, reading Shrill felt like coming home for me. What I love most about West is that she constantly demands better from society, and rightfully so. In her most compelling essays (“Hello, I am Fat,” “Chuckletown, USA, Population: Jokes,” “Death Wish,” and “It’s About Free Speech, It’s Not About Hating Women”), she unpacks layer upon layer of nuance to illustrate how society builds and then perpetuates a system that consistently strives to shrink, minimize, and marginalize women. The haters of the world will argue that she rants, that she hates men, that she complains for the sake of complaining. But, of course, the book is none of that. In addition to being well written, fierce, and on point, it’s thoughtful, funny, and sincere. It is warm and earnest and everything I aspire to be while simultaneously fighting the each of the –isms she calls out in the course of her book. For me, the book and her style of writing is the epitome of one of my favorite mottos: Do no harm, but take no shit.

Without exaggeration or hyperbole, I can say that reading this book has made me a better person. It made me think. It made me laugh, and it made me weep. It kept me up at night. But more than anything, Shrill reminded me that our words and our writing matter, that they can move the needle of public opinion and create a better world. More importantly, it reminded me that the hard work of deciphering and analyzing our world via the written word is always a worthy and just cause.

West describes it best herself. In the conclusion of the book, she says:

I think the most important thing I do in my professional life today is delivering public, impermeable “no”s and sticking to them. I say no to people who prioritize being cool over being good. I say no to misogynists who want to weaponize my body against me. I say no to men who feel entitled to my attention and reverence, who treat everything the light touches as a resource for them to burn. I say no to religious zealots who insist that I am less important than an embryo. I say no to my own instinct to stay quiet…. It’s a way of kicking down the boundaries that society has set for women–be compliant, be a caregiver, be quiet–and erecting my own. I will do this. I will not do that. You believe in my subjugation; I don’t have to be nice to you. I am busy. My time is not a public commodity. You are boring. Go away.

That is world-building.

I, too, want to contribute to world-building. Lucky for me, West has already been laying the path for us.

If you’re interested in books about feminism, I’d highly recommend… Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. Not so coincidentally, Solnit has also produced a fantastic amount of intelligent writing on Trump in the past months.

If you’re interested in a more traditional review… check out this one in the New York Times. I have to say, though, that I read Sex Object and much preferred West’s book!

 

 

 

 

My Year of Writing: Five Months In

My Year of Writing: Five Months In

I am officially five months into my year of writing and by all outward signs, it hasn’t been very successful. As I attempt to make a number of changes in my life, I’ve learned that unlike what most habit gurus say, 30 days of a new behavior doesn’t cement a habit for me. Instead, my willpower begins to wane around the 30 day mark, and before I know it, it’s completely disappeared.

January was strong, great even. Despite my usual busy-ness, I was writing every day. If I didn’t manage to wake up in the morning to write, I found time to write over lunch or just before bed as my eyes were fluttering shut. Towards the end of the month, I could sit down at my computer and rattle off entire paragraphs in a matter of minutes. For the first time in a long time, things were looking good.

Then February came, and my writing went down the tubes. I firmly believe that February is the worst month of the year. Nothing good has ever happened to me in February.

March was busy. Too, too busy. As was April. (Seriously, where did that month go?)

And now it’s May, and I’m once again trying to return to at least a semblance of a writing routine. Rather than focusing on sitting down to write, I’ve shifted my focus to my evening and morning routines—going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, doing some morning meditation for concentration and intention setting, making time for breakfast instead of rushing around like a crazy person, and ultimately, sitting down to write for about 45 minutes before or after work every day. I’ve also worked on reducing my travel and planning writing into my schedule by blocking time on my calendar in advance (a la productivity blogger Cal Newport), and then making that time non-negotiable, as I would if I’d scheduled a doctor’s appointment or meeting with a friend during that time. We’ll see what the next month brings, but for now, I’m focusing on the small, small signs of progress.

For the first time in 7 years, I’ve started writing fiction again, and that feels really exciting.

I’m rereading the fabulous In the Land of God and Man by Silvana Paternostro and luxuriating in the memories of Ecuador that have been resurfacing as I read. Her adept descriptions and analysis of Latin America seem to unearth my own lived moments in a way that nothing else can, and I’ve been frantically recording them as I rediscover them.

I also recently read The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, which reminded me that if you’re going to wrestle with words, at the very least, you might as well try to write something important. As she says, “[W]riting sentences is difficult whatever their subject. It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick.” I love writing blog posts, here and on another secret project I’ve been working on. (To be announced soon!) But I realized that I’ve been using blog posts as a way to avoid more complex writing about the topics I truly care about: feminism, culture, politics. Reading Dillard’s book reminded me that more often than not writing is a slow, difficult slog. It is rowing against the tide, but eventually, if you keep rowing, you will arrive.

I, too, am determined to arrive.  Onward and upward!

Reading to Remember

Reading to Remember

Last May, I moved for the second time in a year. Anyone who has moved knows that it’s a special type of hell. My belongings seemingly doubled before my eyes as I attempted to jam everything into so many cardboard boxes and trudge them a whopping 3 blocks south. Such is the life of a city dweller; most Chicagoans have moved once a year for as long as they can remember, and I’m no exception.

At that time, I’d just begun reading Marie Kondo’s now infamous book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Although I still think she could benefit from a deep breath and a bit of therapy, following her parameters for successful decluttering  brought me to a big realization: I desperately needed to pare down my book collection.

Yes, you read that right. Allow me to explain.

I’m a person who loves books more than all other possessions. Since college, I’ve dreamed of having a large and extensive book collection that would transform any apartment into the most magical and cozy of places. For a long time, my primary strategy for achieving that goal was to keep every book I’d ever owned, including textbooks, compilations of works by authors that I detested but had been required reading for some class or another, childhood books that I’d long outgrown, books that I may have liked at one time but whose plot I could no longer recall, books that made no impression on me at all, and so on.

As I stared at my collection, no doubt trying to figure out how to fit it into as few boxes as possible, I realized that at least half of my books fell into those  aforementioned categories—books I had no emotional attachment to, couldn’t really remember, or flat out didn’t like. The most basic of all of Marie Kondo’s decluttering principles is to keep only that which inspires joy. I imagined a library full of only books that I enjoyed, books that inspired and moved me, or taught me something deep and true. I felt my heart flutter.

It took me two full days, but eventually I sorted out the books that didn’t bring me joy, and I donated them. My collection was whittled down to half of what it was. I felt relieved, lighter, truer to who I was as a reader and a writer.

However, throughout this process, I realized that I had also become a very lazy reader. Although it was liberating to clear out my bookshelf, wasn’t it also sad that so much of my reading time had been lost in the ether? Why were there so many books that I simply could not remember?

In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr suggests not only reading books in your genre, but studying them.

Augment a daily journal with a reading journal. Compose a one-page review with quotes. Make yourself back up opinions. You can’t just say “Neruda is a surrealist”; you have to quote him watching laundry “from which slow dirty tears are falling.” And you have to look up something about surrealism to define it.

Not only does this make you a crisper thinker, according to Karr, but it grounds you in your craft. Plus, I think we’ve all been in a situation where we struggle to relocate an impactful quote from a book we once read. (It took me 15 minutes to track down the quote I cited above, for example. But I’m working on it!)

As part of my year of reading, I resolved not only to read a book a week this year, but to take copious notes. I began in earnest by creating a Reading Bullet Journal.  If you’re at all connected to a planner community, you’ve probably already heard of the Bullet Journal. It’s taken the UK and the US by storm, and I am fully ensconced in it myself. Over the past 9 months, I’ve been using the Bullet Journal system to keep track of every facet of my life—daily appointments, my endless to-do lists, books I’ve read this year, notes about my day, shopping lists, and so on. The best part of bullet journaling is that it’s completely flexible, meaning that its principles can easily be applied to a reading journal. So I started one!

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I kept it simple, writing the title of the book, striking quotes, and a summary after I finished reading. However, as I ramped up to reading a book a week this year, I realized I couldn’t keep up with this handwritten system. For one, I do most of my reading while on public transit. When you have a book in one hand and the other is holding on to a stability pole, there’s not much opportunity for underlining your favorite quotes or jotting down thoughts. Instead, I found myself taking pictures of the pages so I could easily relocate the  quotes I wanted to remember later. In short time, my reading journal became another unopened notebook collecting dust on my shelf, and I was back to square one.

Until I stumbled upon James Clear’s blog post on strategies for retaining more of what you read. I love using an analog method to record my daily world, but I realized the ingenuity of Clear’s suggestions as soon as I finished reading his post. Clear suggests using Evernote—a platform that allows you to keep searchable notes in multiple notebooks across various devices—, or another digital note keeping system to do two things: make notes as you read and summarize the book. Using a digital system makes your notes searchable, and summarizing the book and how it intersects with other books you’ve been reading or subjects you’ve been learning about ensures that you will retain more of what you just read. I started using this system a few weeks ago. When I finish a book, I quickly write a summary, attach my quote pictures, and move on to my next book. This has been so revolutionary for me that it’s as if I finally realized why Evernote exists.

When you’re reading a book a week, your mind quickly makes connections between subjects that are seemingly disparate. It’s the most lovely part of reading so frequently and the part that I can never seem to capture. I’m excited to finally start making these connections in a way that I can easily reference later (or so I hope). To me, the intersection point between disparate ideas is where truly good writing comes from. With this new strategy at hand, I’m hoping to find more of those intersection points and jump into a truly great year of reading and writing.

 

Five Minute Book Blurb: Why Write?

A few weeks before the new year, I found myself wandering through my local book shop as snow gently floated outside of the store’s big bay window. I’d come with the explicit purpose of selecting the first book to read during my year of writing and reading to come. Less than five minutes into my browsing, Mark Edmundson’s book Why Write? A Master Class on the Art of Writing and Why it Matters seized my attention. “Why write?” the inside cover asked. “Why write when it sometimes feels that so few people really read—read as if their lives might be changed by what they’re reading? Why write, when the world wants to be informed, not enlightened; to be entertained, not inspired?” I nodded so forcefully that my head felt it might bobble off my shoulders. We were only a few weeks out from the worst election in U.S. history, and I couldn’t help but think of a nation obsessed with fake news and Facebook politics. I’d only read the synopsis on the cover, but this book was already speaking my language. So I snatched it up and headed home, excited to crack the cover when the new year, and my year of reading, officially began. Unfortunately, I’d soon discover that my year of reading would not start with a bang, as they say, but with a whimper.

Edmundson begins strong with a beautiful and inspiring foreword. Among other reasons, like learning to think and building up the muscles of your mind, Edmundson says that writing is important because “by coming up with fresh and arresting words to describe the world accurately, the writer expands the boundaries of her world, and possibly her readers’ worlds, too.” Afterwards, Edmundson breaks down the book by reasons you should and should not write along with the pleasures and perils that come with the craft. Each chapter is dedicated to a possible benefit or pitfall with Edmundson using his own reflections, experiences, and interpretations of what other famous writers have said about writing to argue his position.

The first chapters of the book are enjoyable enough; Edmundson discusses the importance of writing, even in a world inundated with the mindless prattlings of everyone on the internet, and reflects upon the difficulty of transitioning from your “habitual self,” which is still thinking about the dishes in the sink and the humdrum tasks of everyday life, to the creative self, which can delve into the words and worlds of your creative mind. Despite these welcome reflections, the book quickly becomes insufferable. Edmundson takes every opportunity to wax poetic about his favorite canonical authors, leaving the reader feeling as if she were stuck in a lecture hall while Edmundson talks in circles about the greatness of old, white men.

At another point, Edmundson retells a story that appears in Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me. Without crediting the story to Solnit, Edmundson recaps her personal experience with a man who explains the premise of her own book to her, insisting that he knows more about the subject even after he discovers that she’s the author of the book he’s explaining. After his retelling, Edmundson says he’s “not sure [he] believes this one out and out.” I’m sure Solnit would not appreciate the irony of a man explaining her experience to his readers in his own words without so much as mentioning her name or granting credibility to her story. If I didn’t have a book quota to meet, I would’ve snapped the book shut right then and never turned back. One Goodreads reader remarked that “women were an afterthought for Edmundson,” and it certainly seems that Edmundson thought he could cover his bases by citing Emily Dickinson and, on occasion, substituting the masculine pronoun for the feminine one. Unfortunately for Edmundson, his lip service to women can’t cover up his white male privilege.

Despite its many downfalls, Why Write? did offer a few refreshing insights. For example, Edmundson discusses the importance of choosing the right medium for writing, noting that word processors can block our creativity, if only because our words appear so official and well-formatted, like a work that’s already complete the moment the words are written. Instead, he advocates for putting pen to paper when drafting; as a writer that mostly drafts on a computer, I was pleasantly surprised at how composing in a notebook opened the floodgates of my brain and how easy it was to edit my jottings into something more polished as I converted my draft into a typed document.

However, Edmundson’s best argument is for the importance of writing itself. Why write in the age of information overload and rampant skimming? It’s the question that hangs over the whole book. Edmundson argues that writing—good or bad, published or unpublished—preserves the timeline of our lives and is important for that reason alone. “Our writings create constellations[,]” Edmundson say. “They are the way we look back (or look up) and see that we have had a life.” Really, what could be more beautiful than that? Unfortunately, though, a handful of thoughtful or inspiring ideas does not make a remarkable book.

Last year, I moved for the third time in less than three years. As I packed up my belongings, I resolved that, moving forward, I would keep only the books that truly inspired me, books that I’d regularly refer to as a writing handbook of sorts. It’s safe to say that Edmundson’s book will soon find its way to the donation pile.

If you’re interested in books that discuss the craft of writing, I’d highly recommend… Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which also delves into the importance of writing in the modern world as well as how writing is akin to a spiritual practice.

Typically, I’d also link to a review from a more well-known publication as well, but I couldn’t find any to date. So, for now, I suppose you’re stuck with my opinion.

 

 

Writing: My Love and My Bane

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When I was in grade school, I wrote a 60 page, single-spaced “story.” Motivated by nothing other than an interest in crafting together the torrid romance of two high schoolers, I spent entire afternoons at the computer, clacking out the words to a teenage drama that was older than I was while my peers played outside. To date, it is the longest piece of fiction that I’ve ever written.

From a young age, writing has been my love and my bane. I have a way with words, but I don’t make the time to incorporate writing into my life anymore. Feeling burnt out, I gave up creative writing after graduate school. While in Peace Corps, I felt simultaneously too removed from the United States to write about home and too unfamiliar with my new life in Ecuador to capture it in words. Since moving to Chicago and truly beginning my career, I’ve attempted to write in the off hours between work days and adult responsibilities, but the results have been inconsistent at best. Even when I do manage to put a piece together, I feel like I spend most of my time writing about how difficult it is for me to write. It’s no secret that I gave up on NaNoWriMo this past year. As my daily word count lagged, I consoled myself by reasoning that I was simply behind, that I’d just hole myself up in a coffee shop one Saturday and crank out all the words that I was missing. The image was romantic: me huddled over my laptop in a bustling cafe, stopping periodically to look up from my caffeine-fueled writing binge to stare out at the passersby before diving back into a world that only my mind could create. But that Saturday didn’t produce enough words to even meet my word count for that day, much less multiple days.

As I struggled to write every night after that, I began to dread my writing time. Instead of crafting my words together to truly create something, NaNoWriMo became an exercise in cobbling together as many shitty words as possible to arrive at my 834-word limit and be done for the evening. In some ways, it was almost liberating. From the drivel, a single sentence of pure, beautiful inspiration would arise like a miracle. But there’s no time for editing when you have a word count to hit, and without the time to craft the drivel up to the standards of the inspiration, I was bound to a cycle of mediocrity and stagnation. After a couple weeks, I dreaded writing.

Shortly after giving up on NaNoWriMo, I finally admitted to myself that although I love writing (mostly when it’s going well), it doesn’t always make me happy. In fact, the times when I’m most stressed and most anxious are when I try to fit writing into my already jam-packed life. I’ve told myself for at least three years now that I’m going to calm down my crazy schedule and make writing my focus. A few times I got close—for a few months—before I finally fell off the wagon again. But I’ve never succeeded. It occurred to me that I’m no longer sure if it’s my inability to commit to a regular writing schedule, and therefore my disappointment in myself, or writing itself that is making me unhappy.

Part of the problem is that I have too many interests, and I’m never content with being mediocre at something. This is a problem for multiple reasons. First, writing requires that you live in the land of mediocrity; in order to become a better writer, you must work through the mediocrity to hone your skills, and generally, no matter the skill of the writer, the first draft of anything will always be mediocre at best. Second, all of my other interests—learning how to make logos in Illustrator, or learning how to make cross stitch designs, or improving my hand lettering—take time away from my main goal: to write. Yet, all of these things currently bring me more joy than writing has in a long time, because they are easy, they require no brain power, and they are inherently less frustrating. Writing requires unraveling your thoughts and then transferring them into the written word. Cross stitching requires nothing but the movement of my hand and the minimal attention it takes to read a pattern. Typically, I can cross stitch and watch TV at the same time. You can see how that would be more appealing.

Peace Corps taught me that knowing when to quit is a strength. It takes self-understanding and the ability to confront reality to give up on something. After all of my failures in writing, I’m left wondering why I still do it. Why do I keep guilting myself for not making time to write if I just don’t love it anymore? Maybe it’s time for me to quit on writing. The only problem with this is that I’ve never tested out my writing chops in the first place. At best, I’ve made a series of half-hearted attempts.

Thus, my sole focus and my top priority for 2017 is to write and read like never before, to truly give it an honest try.

The parameters for a year of writing:

As I prepared for a year of writing, I asked myself, “What’s my plan? What do I want? And what do I need to do before 2017 to make this year successful?”

I have no illusions that the year ahead will be easy, so I came up with a mission statement as well as a series of rules and goals to keep me focused for the next 365 days.

The mission

My mission this year is to write about complex topics with compassion and clarity, to dedicate myself to the practice of writing, and to commit myself to doing the work needed to become a better writer. I am committed to making things complicated for the betterment of all of us. (No politician has ever run on that stump speech!) In other words, I want to use my writing to fight the concept that life is black and white, because in almost all cases, life is made up of shades of gray. We don’t deal well in shades of gray, but the betterment of this world depends on understanding the subtle complexities of life and the people in it.

The Plan
  • For one year, writing and reading will be my priority. I will carve out time daily to write. That time is non-negotiable and social commitments will be canceled if I haven’t fulfilled my writing time. (Heads up, friends! I’m about to become so flaky.) Along the same lines, I will make time in my daily life to read. It’s my goal to finally read 52 books (1 book/week) this coming year.
  • I will keep track of my word count for the year. There is no word goal, but I want to see how many words I’ve generated by the end of 2017.
  • I will create an editorial calendar for both my blog and fiction/non-fiction writing.
  • To the best of my ability, I will write for at least an hour every day, knowing that there will be some days that I will miss that goal and that that is no excuse not to sit down the next day and get right back on track.
  • My main aim is to write. Any publications, official or not, will be a welcome bonus. That means that if I write nothing but diary posts for the next year, I’m fulfilling my goals.
  • I will have multiple backup plans. For example, if I can’t maintain a morning schedule for writing, as was the case for all of 2016, I’ll write over my lunch break or for an hour before going to bed. I’ll continually search for the cadence that works.
The Rules
  • I will never ask myself if this is my most important work.
  • I will never ask if people will read it.
  • I will be honest with myself.

If at the end of this year, I still don’t feel some form of gratification in a daily writing life, it’s time to move on to those other passions. But I’m truly hoping that maybe, just maybe, I’ll finally rediscover that love for writing that I had when I was in grade school, when I spent my free time writing cliched stories because they made me happy.

To the year of words! May they be many!

Still Here, But In the Moment

Hi. Remember me?

Despite nearly six months of radio silence, I’m still here.

As it turns out, getting married, moving a week later, unpacking, frantically planning a second wedding, trying to keep up with a chaotic work schedule, and 10 consecutive weekends of summer plans are enough to completely shut down my writing muses. Hell, it’s enough to shut down everything. My morning writing habit dropped off the routine in April. We finally managed to unpack the last box a month ago, but our decorations and miscellany are shoved away in empty drawers and any spare inch of closet space we can find, because there’s no time to decorate or organize our house right now.

That musical is still waiting.

All those story ideas that I’ve scribbled in my journal are fading from my memory.

And as I sat down to compose this post, my husband looked over my shoulder and said, “Oh, you still update that blog?” Yeah. We’ve been busy.

More often than not, I’m frantically bouncing between a dozen different things. At any point in my day, I’m completing a work task, pinging V. about dinner plans or a smattering of random wedding details—what color should the suits be? when can we Skype with the officiant? how much should we spend on flowers?—while also trying to find time to keep up with normal life tasks.

I’m excited about our wedding. I am more than thrilled to see so many dear friends and family from all corners of the country. Having a wedding is wonderful and exciting and such a great privilege. But planning a wedding sucks. (Hey, no one said I had to like this stuff.) It’s death by a thousand inane decisions, and each decision only produces a thousand more. What color will everyone wear? And should the dresses be long or short? What color shoes should the ladies wear? Are the men wearing suits or tuxes? And how do we guarantee that everyone gets the same shade of red or grey? Make a decision on what time you want to start the ceremony, and you have to decide if you’ll do pictures before or afterward. But wait—the wedding package only includes a 4 hour ceremony so do we want to lengthen it by an hour? How will people get home? And speaking of that, how should people get there?

I can barely decide what color shirt to put on in the morning, much less plan a huge event with hundreds of moving parts. More than anything, I want the wedding to honor my relationship with V., and I want people to have a good time. Can someone just tell me what to do to make that happen? *

* This is a rhetorical question, for the record. Thankfully, we’ve mostly figured it out by this point. 

With so much going on, my creativity meter has been at zero lately. Five months of craziness has left me mentally exhausted. Nearly-thirty-one-year-old, out-of-my-mind-with-work-and-wedding-decisions me curses twenty-five-year-old-too-lazy-to-write-Peace-Corps-volunteer me. When I had copious amounts of time, and an exotic world at my fingertips, I did absolutely no writing. Instead, I pissed it away on reruns of the L Word and hours of internet surfing. (When you live in a country where you’re paying by the hour to use the internet or using someone’s rare in-home wifi, that’s a pretty astounding feat.)

Normally, I would shame myself relentlessly for not writing during my every spare moment. I’ve been working towards a daily writing habit since graduate school, and I have to admit that I’ve never fully mastered it. When I succumb to laziness or exhaustion, I berate myself, which, naturally, leads to more of the behavior I’m trying to avoid. A riveting TV show or a nap are a great way to shut your mind up when all it wants to do is guilt you. But, no more. Writing is important to me, but no one will die if I don’t do it, and I refuse to look back with regret and guilt on this time of exciting transformations. Years from now, when I recall setting up my first home with my new husband, do I want to remember being riddled with anxiety because I couldn’t squeeze in writing between unpacking, wedding planning, and work? Or do I want to remember the simple joy of finally merging our lives, the pure elation I felt at setting up a shared space and officially starting our married lives together? For now, I choose to live in the moment. So, I have a different plan.

I’ve always thought that part of being a successful writer is having the brain space to let ideas percolate. But with no time or energy for brain space, I’ve decided to take on other creative endeavors, as a means to inch myself ever closer to the creative world I want to live in.  One of my favorite quotes on creativity comes from Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve quoted her here before, but the words are wise, so one more time won’t hurt.

Whatever else happens, stay busy. Find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure…. In other words: If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else.

Go walk the dog, go pick up every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with brightly colored nail polish and put them in a pile. You might think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t; it’s motion. And any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.

So wave your arms around. Make something. Do something. Do anything.

Call attention to yourself with some sort of creative action and—most of all—trust that if you make enough of a glorious commotion, eventually inspiration will find its way home to you again.

Most of me wants to do nothing but lay on the couch these days, but I’m making an effort at making a glorious commotion, even at work. This week, I went to a two-day, work-sponsored Illustrator training to learn how to make computer graphics. By hand, I can barely draw stick people, but few things give me more pleasure than creating a visually appealing infographic or instructional video. I even managed to impress myself with a few of my creations! I created a very spiffy replica of the Salesforce logo, and I even managed to freehand a donut graphic!

 

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Admittedly, it looks like it was done in MS Paint, but not bad for a first attempt!

I’ve also taken up cross stitching; I already have over 50 patterns saved on Etsy and a list of potential gifts for family and friends.

 

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My first cross stitching project
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It doesn’t look like much now, but just you wait….

And fancy hand lettering and doodles have made their way into my journal. Calligraphy classes are also on the horizon.

These are small things, but the effect is big. I feel like I’m slowly growing closer to my creative self. At this point, any creativity is a much needed break from the pull and grind of daily life.
Soon, very soon, I’ll be back to my writing routine. As always, I’ve got big plans. Until then, I’m living life from one moment to the next, no regrets.

Memories Once Forgotten

 

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I’m attempting to write an essay, just one freaking essay, about my time in Ecuador. I say attempting because I haven’t made a break yet. I jot a lot of notes, write little scenes in a notebook that I carry in my purse, scribble down random thoughts and flashes of memory, and I spend a lot of time thinking about why I want to write these essays and what Ecuador meant for me, then and now. Yet, at the end of the day, I have nothing complete, nothing even close to a comprehensive picture of my time there. So I keep digging deeper into my mind, desperately collecting all the memories I can and translating them to the page, hoping that the right one will trigger the waterfall that causes my essay to just, well, flow.

About a month ago, I was once again staring into space as I tried to piece together the blurry details of a distant memory when it occurred to me that I didn’t have to rely on my recollections alone. In fact, I had a wealth of written records of my time in Ecuador. I had my own Facebook posts as well as hundreds of Facebook messages exchanged between friends and family near and far, including fellow Peace Corps volunteers, my sister, close college friends, and Ecuadorian friends and students and love interests. I also had the long, detail-packed emails I’d intermittently exchanged between friends and family in the States, the mode different but not entirely unlike the longhand letter writing of my grandmother’s generation. And Gmail logged all of my chats during that time, capturing the banal and heartbreaking moments alike.

As I attempt to cobble memories of my Ecuadorian life together, I read through hours of random emails and chats. It’s a phrase that’s used too often, but sorting through these written records can only be described as an out of body experience. As I read those words, emotions that have long since vacated the sights and sounds still lingering in my memory came flooding back with full force. It’s bizarre, how blurry certain memories are, and yet these little snippets of time are forever frozen in the words exchanged through an unreliable internet connection spanning between Ecuador and the United States (or Facebook’s servers, wherever those lie). If I could find the palm-sized, 90s-era Nokia cell phone I carried during the last year of my service, imagine the records I’d have!

As I sort through these flashes of my Ecuadorian life, my thoughts span the gamut. In some instances, I am immediately transported into the moment, suddenly inhabiting my 26-year-old body again like a time-traveling character in a science fiction TV show, and in others, I am completely foreign to myself, unrecognizable in my culture shock and compassion fatigue. Over time, you can see the state of my mind shifting in the text; I have fewer substantive conversations. My correspondence is filled with the surface level, vague notions of what I’m doing and how much longer I’ll be in Ecuador. In these cases, the text conveys next to nothing, but I can see myself drowning in the whirlpool of my own emotions, too involved in my own struggles to perceive anything of my friends’ and family’s lives. The longer I’m in Ecuador, the bigger the gap between my understanding of their lives becomes and their understanding of mine.

At some point, I find myself thinking of Ira Glass. Recently, I listened to an episode of This American Life, fittingly entitled Captain’s Log, which discussed the hidden histories behind the random notes and snippets of our lives that we leave behind. In it, Ira Glass casually mentions that he and his wife  once had an argument via text that was so intense that his wife suggested that they delete the texts afterwards. She didn’t want any living record of the hateful words they’d exchanged, even though they had long reconciled and the hate had gone out of those words now. I thought that was strange—after all, who would be casually reading their texts?—until I started paging through all of these emails and chats. While listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for the hundredth time, I finally notice a lyric that I had never truly heard before, despite my repeated listenings. In the song “Burn,” Eliza describes her heartbreak at being betrayed by her husband, then defiantly tells Hamilton that she’s “erasing myself from the narrative. Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart. They don’t get to know what I said. I’m burning the memories, I’m burning the letters that might’ve redeemed you.”

On any given day, we snap off 140-character opinions and plaster the internet with pictures of our lives with little to no thought about what happens to that information years from now, when it’s buried in the depths of our Facebook news feeds but still accessible to anyone patient enough to click through all your old posts. And as I continue to write through this confusion and darkness, I can’t help but wonder: what will I make of all these words already thrust into the universe, these detailed records of my life that I was barely aware of? I can’t burn them, like Eliza does in Hamilton; long after they’ve been deleted out of my inbox or news feed, they will always exist on a server somewhere. So what becomes of them now?

Five Minute Book Blurb: The Art of Memoir

I’ve always identified myself as a fiction writer. Creative nonfiction, as a genre, didn’t enter into my awareness until I was a couple of years into college, and even then, the idea of writing it never occurred to me. Creative nonfiction was for those who had lived extraordinary lives or those who had survived horrendous childhoods plagued with alcoholic or drug-addicted parents, those who had built schools in Afghanistan or those with collections of exotic stories after traveling the world. It wasn’t until my last year of graduate school that I made my first attempt at writing my own true stories as part of a nonfiction class and started to discover what writing nonfiction meant.

Compelled by my experiences in Ecuador and a need to reconcile my life there with the high-paced American life that I live now, I recently picked up Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir in an attempt to figure out how to render lived experiences to the page. The week before, I had settled down to begin unwinding the matted yarn ball of memories that is my Peace Corps life and realized that I had a multitude of questions about writing in this genre: What if the details are fuzzy and I can’t remember every event in a sequence of occurrences? How do I tap the mixed up card catalog of memories that is my mind so I can render the details on the page?  Is there a secret strategy for rediscovering memories long forgotten? How do I muster the courage to include the details that portray myself and others in a less than flattering light? Does writing nonfiction necessarily mean giving up all of your secrets?

If you’re not lucky enough to be one of Karr’s students at Syracuse University, reading The Art of Memoir is the next best thing to taking her memoir writing class. Citing her own creative process while writing her three best-selling memoirs and referring to a list of others that she regularly teaches, Karr explains the ins and outs of writing memoir, dedicating entire chapters to unraveling the thread of memory, dealing with difficult portrayals of friends and family, and defining what truth means in the context of memoir. The reoccurring theme that ties the book together is why we write memoir in the first place. As Karr points out, good stories don’t always make good memoir material; instead, she says, we write memoir to make sense of lived experience, to explore the details of our lives more fully and understand what it means in the greater context of who we are. Throughout the book, she dissects passages, line by line, from other admired memoirs, illustrating how any lived experience, if rendered truthfully and with emotion, can capture a reader’s interest. Multiple chapters also contain lists of practical writing strategies, and what many disliked about this book—the extremely technical discussion of the craft of writing—is what I so loved the most.

As I sit with my thoughts and memories now, I find myself weighing the emotional significance of each and reconsidering how snippets of my lived experience can be incorporated in a way that impacts the reader rather than just tells them a good story. Karr’s book also provides a good reminder as to why we write, even in the face of doubt and unpromised reward:

“Writing, regardless of the end result—whether good or bad, published or not, well reviewed or slammed—means celebrating beauty in an often ugly world. And you do that by fighting for elegance and beauty, redoing or cutting the flabby, disordered parts.”

It’s an argument for revising, but it reminds me why I get up before sunrise every day to scribble down my thoughts, even when the words come slow and the work is frustrating.

Writers who are well versed in the world of memoir or who are looking for prescriptive rules on how to write a best-selling book will be unsatisfied with Karr’s book. If there’s anything a true writer knows, it’s that there isn’t a one tried and true method. For this nonfiction novice, though, Karr’s book struck the right balance between instructional and theoretical, helping me to reimagine how to approach writing about a complex time in my life and nudging me to finally put some words to paper. If you’re a memoir lover, you lose nothing from reading this book. At the very least, you’ll walk away with an expansive list of memoirs to study as you journey down your own path of turning memories into pages.

This is a great book to read if… you’re making your first venture into nonfiction and/or memoir writing, or if you’ve already begun and you just need a helpful nudge to get back on track.

If you’re interested in books that discuss the craft of writing, I’d highly recommend… On Writing by Stephen King, which also discusses the craft of writing in specific terms.

If you’re interested in a more traditional review…(especially one with an opposing point of view), I’d suggest this one by Gregory Cowles, who believes that Karr’s book is scattered and that her treatment of truth in memoir overlooks exactly what makes the genre so appealing: the formation and subjective recreation of identity.

 

 

 

The Hard Work of Becoming a Morning Person

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This year, I resolved to start a daily writing practice. It’s something I’ve resolved to do and failed at many times before, but here I am, attempting it again.

In the past, I told myself that I would simply write when I got home from work. No matter what happened, I would make myself do it; it was just a matter of making time for it. As it turns out, I was right, but only partially. Despite my best intentions, I never did establish a writing practice, because while it was just a matter of making time for it, I never had the energy to produce anything by the time the hour before my bedtime rolled around.

Years later, I’ve finally resigned myself to the fact that, whether I like it or not, I can only establish a daily writing practice if I  write as soon as I roll out of bed in the morning. The only time I’ve come even close to maintaining a daily writing schedule was for a month last year when I woke at 5:30am every morning to sip coffee and blindly type until the very last minute before I had to go to work, until I literally had to run for the train to make it on time.

The purported habit-guru Gretchen Rubin—who apparently only had to do some pseudo research and write a book full of anecdotes to become an expert on habits (who knew?)—asserts that in order to master your tendencies and establish productive habits, you must know yourself first. You have to fully understand your predispositions beforehand so you can, essentially, account for your shortcomings when you establish your goals and plan them in a way that makes you the most likely to succeed. For example, if you are a night owl, she says, you will never be able to simply turn yourself into the type of person who wakes up early every morning to exercise or write. Instead, you’ll fight against your night owl tendencies, try to wake up early for some time, then eventually give up once you fail a time or two. Yes, she admits that if you’re night owl and you also happen to work a regular 9-5 job, your options for establishing good habits—i.e. habits that work with your night owl tendencies—are limited, but oh well. Onward and upward! Try your best.

For a whole month, I lived the life of a true morning person: getting out of bed upon the first sound of my alarm, eating breakfast at my table like an adult, and sipping on my coffee while I wrote for about 45 minutes. No matter how tired I was, I plopped myself in front of that computer. Eventually, however, my good habits slipped. I’d still wake between 5:45 and 6:00, as per usual, but then I’d spend an hour between my cozy sheets, scrolling through my Facebook feed, then my Instagram feed, then perusing the headlines on NPR before finally dragging myself to the shower. I spent weeks waking at that time only to scroll through anything and everything I could find on my phone, anything to avoid the hard work of getting out of bed and getting my day started. Eventually, I gave up. I didn’t, I told myself, wake up that early every day to look at my social media. Gretchen Rubin was right, I reasoned; my long-time night owl nature was simply working against me. I was never going to win in this situation.

For nearly a year, I used Rubin’s “research,” or a handful of stories about how her acquaintances had tried and failed at their own habits, as an excuse to justify not waking up early to write. Eventually, however, I realized that there was simply no other way around it. I needed to write every day. Not doing so would mean wasting a talent that had been granted to me by pure grace. And I clearly needed to write before work, because experience proves that I never find the time or energy later in my jam-packed day. And in order to write before I go to work, I have to become a morning person. Oh well; I never really did believe much in Rubin’s theories anyways.

So I began reading articles about how to become a morning person, noting strategies that others had tried, inventions that help you to wake up naturally, the science behind sleep, how people wake, and the best way to wake for productivity. Then I resolved to do it, with some rules and strategies to help me along.

  1. Throughout the week, I will wake between 5:45 and 6:00 am. During the weekend, I’m allowed to sleep in and write at my leisure, as long as I actually do it.
  2. Immediately upon waking, I will sit up, then drink the tall glass of water sitting on my night stand, all in one breath if possible.
  3. At the very reasonable recommendation of another writer and night-owl-turned-morning-person, I will not use my phone as a way to wake up. Instead, I will leave my phone face down on the night stand while I stumble to the kitchen and do something routine, something that requires no thought, gets my hands working, and allows my mind to slowly wake up in the process. In my case, this is throwing out the coffee grounds from the day before, putting new ones in, and getting the coffee brewing. Added bonus: After I slowly join the living, I get coffee!
  4. I will sit down in front of my computer and write something, anything, for thirty uninterrupted minutes.The faster and fiercer, the better. No internet surfing. No answering emails. No flipping through my Spotify list. No checking my work calendar. Only writing.
  5. I will stop writing after 30 minutes, even if I have more to say, even if my mind is running wild with inspiration. This has nothing to do with becoming a morning person, but I read that doing this reminds you that that sitting down to write is about showing up daily and working, not about the muses being on your side. Conceptually, I know this, but it’s something I still struggle with.   While I would like to build up to writing for an hour every day and also allow myself the freedom to continue when I feel like I’m tugging at the strand of something wonderful, I think I can benefit from showing myself that writing can happen even when inspiration has packed its bags and left, even when I’m typing with one eye open and there’s not enough coffee in the world to get my brain running. So the typing stops after 30 minutes, no matter what.

Thanks to Murphy’s law, I woke up with an awful head cold on the first day of my new morning routine. Determined to succeed this time, I walked myself through the steps, escaped the allure of my bed, and completed my 30 minutes of writing. And I’ve written every day for the past month. Through sickness and fatigue, dark winter mornings and mornings so cold that I have to wrap myself in a blanket and sit between two space heaters, I write, write, write. At first, I could barely focus my attention on writing for more than 10 minutes at a time; the seconds seemed to crawl. After a month, though, I can already feel the difference. My fingers fly over the keys, and before I know it, it’s time to wrap up and run out the door. It’s a tiny step in the right direction, but it’s something.

On top of building up my writing muscles, establishing a morning writing practice has brought more calm to my life. It affords me at least an hour of quiet and order before I step into the madness of the world. It’s time just for me and my creativity, an hour to leisurely eat my breakfast like an adult, sing along to my jams, sort through my albeit muddled thoughts, and put the words bouncing around in my head in some semblance of order. It’s hard to believe, but 6:00am has become my favorite hour of the day.

The general pseudoscience behind habit formation is that it takes at least 30 days to form a new habit. After a full month of writing daily, it looks like this night owl has discovered the hack to becoming a morning person. So take that, Gretchen Rubin! I’m officially a morning person now, and soon I’ll be a morning person that can say she’s truly a writer, too.

Finding the Novel Cure

A few months back, as my bus trundled along Lake Shore Drive, carrying me to another hectic work day, I opened an article—entitled Can Reading Make You Happier?— that one of my most wonderful English professors had posted to Facebook. I already knew my personal answer to the question, but I love reading articles that confirm my anecdotal evidence, so I opened it on my cell phone and dove right in. (If you haven’t read it, stop right here and click that link immediately. Seriously, hop to it!)

To my surprise, the article that I thought would be full of statistics and scientific evidence on the mood-lifting effects of reading was actually an article on bibliotherapy, the practice of using books as therapy in the treatment of mental or psychological disorders. Despite having both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English, I had never heard of bibliotherapy. The idea was immediately enticing. Using books to cure one’s ailments? What could be more magical and lovely?

Like most avid readers, I’ve been experiencing the power of the written word since I was young. Despite my interest in books from a young age, the first time I can remember the saving grace of words was as a junior in college. I studied abroad in Ecuador for a summer, and as I boarded the plane to go to a developing country alone, the words of Christopher Robin from the Winnie the Pooh series kept echoing in my head: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Those words became my mantra that summer, lending me courage as I teetered above the Andes mountains in a small propeller plane flying from Quito to Cuenca, mimed my needs to my host family while trying to speak a foreign language that felt like speaking with a cork in my mouth, and navigated foreign streets in a city 15 times bigger than any city I’d ever lived in. They say that you are the stories you tell yourself, and Christopher Robin assured me that, despite my doubts and fears, I could do this on my own.

Since then, there have been plenty of times when the words of literature have surfaced from the dark of my mind, right when I’m experiencing something difficult, like a whispered thought from God. When I’m taking on a new project or I feel nervous about putting myself out there creatively or professionally, I remember “I had to do it for myself” (Everything is Illuminated). While mourning the death of my grandmother and watching the terror of the January 2015 Paris attacks, I thought of one of my most beloved protagonists, Oskar, and his “heavy boots” (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). When I’m struggling with anxiety, I think of Sylvia Plath’s “I am, I am, I am” (The Bell Jar). When I feel jealous of others’ success or find myself sizing up my accomplishments with those of my coworkers or friends, I remember Amy Poehler’s “Good for her, not for me” (Yes, Please). When I’m trying to find the motivation to write or exercise or simply follow through, I think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s theory that “any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion,” and I push myself to simply keep moving (Big Magic). Needless to say, after many books and many experiences, I’m inclined to believe that books can help with anything.

For weeks after reading that article, I’d found myself idly thinking about The Novel Cure, a sort of medical dictionary put together by two bibliotherapists, and wondering what sorts of great book recommendations lay within. So, for Christmas this year, I bought myself a copy! There’s never a time that I couldn’t use a good book recommendation to cure what’s ailing me.

The day the book arrived, I sat on my couch, leisurely paging through the list of ailments and their novel remedies. There were many that I felt applied to my life; some were concrete and diagnosable medical ailments—anxiety, having; panic attacks; flying, fear of; claustrophobia. Others were more general, abstract, and even funny ailments—Monday morning feeling; brainy, being exceptionally (an ailment that I totally understand); writer’s block; tired and emotional, being.

I continued to peruse the pages, searching for the perfect diagnosis to start with, confident that I would know it when I saw it. Then it jumped out at me. My soul gave a little gasp of immediate understanding before I even read the description for this ailment, and I knew this was where I needed to start.

City fatigue.

It is exactly what it sounds like. In my case, it’s not being able to truly nap in over two years. It’s wanting to ride the bus without having to listen to the prattling, inane conversations of 20 strangers yapping on their cell phones. It’s every time the bus doesn’t show up and it’s -25 degrees outside. It’s the drug-addled person shouting on the train while you’re locked in a tiny car in a tunnel beneath the earth. Or listening to your downstairs neighbor relentlessly blast his bass for literally 10 hours without reprieve on the day after the Paris attacks when you are hungover, weary, and sure that all of humanity is spiraling into a pit of absolute madness. It’s that unending craving for space, quiet, and delicious solitude. Yes, city fatigue and I are well acquainted, but it’s time to finally distance myself with this constant companion. So I’m starting with The City and The City by China Miéville, the recommended cure for city fatigue and a murder mystery that focuses on the tiring matter of “unseeing” those around us. With any luck, maybe I’ll learn a few coping mechanisms.

This year, I’ve resolved to read at least 27 books, or one book every other week; it’ll be challenging given that I’m planning 2 weddings and trying to establish a daily writing practice on top of regular adult duties. Moreso, the goal is to remind me of the importance of reading during every available opportunity. With The Novel Cure in my library, I know I’ll have plenty of great recommendations at my fingertips. For those of you who aren’t so interested in the physical index, you can also find plenty of good advice, book recommendations, and inspiration on The Novel Cure website. Incidentally, they also do “surgery,” or provide customized diagnoses for readers who write in with their ailments.

As for me, by the time of my next post, I’ll hopefully be ready to face the city with abandon once again. If not, there’s also a novel cure for misanthropy, so that may be the one to check out next.