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!

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!

 

Kim Donut
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.

Finding Focus

Despite good intentions, my year of focus is off to a rocky start. After a visit home for the holidays, a few glorious days of fun with friends and family, and an unexpected trip home again for my grandmother’s funeral, I’m struggling to get my schedule back on track and myself back in motion. I’ve spent most of this month catching up on the work stacked on my desk, the dirt layered my floors, and all the random-yet-pressing obligations scribbled on random pages of my Passion Planner (which I finally got this week!). In the meantime, my downstairs neighbors have taken to screaming at each other in a manner that quickens my heartbeat—partly out of frustration, but mostly out of fear—and my upstairs neighbors continue to walk incessant laps around their apartment, taking extra care to hit the squeakiest spots.

In this the first month of 2015, I’ve barely managed to squeeze in a half hour of writing once or twice a week, if I’m lucky, and I run so little now that I can’t even call myself a runner anymore (or justify my monthly gym fees). Sometimes, most times, I feel like I am descending into madnesss, that I will forever be swirling in this tornado of chores and overflow work and frantic running here and there. But I keep reminding myself that small, consistent actions lead to big rewards, so I continue to seek focus in all aspects of my life.

At work, I’ve relegated personal emails and texts to my lunch hour, so I can focus all my attention on work tasks. I’ve imposed a strict 8-5 work schedule and I’ve quit checking work email when I’m not in the office. Instead of giving 110% to all of my tasks, I give 100% to the things that matter and let everything else wait for the next day or the next available person.

At home, I wake up an hour earlier than before to sneak in some writing time before work. Unfortunately, like the true night owl I am, I often wander about in a half conscious state until a half hour before I need to leave the house. Sometimes I end up using those early morning minutes to pack a gym bag or consolidate leftovers for lunch. Sometimes, I sit at my computer and write a mish mash of run on sentences, half complete thoughts, and notes for later. It’s slow-going at best, but at least it’s going. I’ve moved my computer from my comfy couch to the more business-like table. I’ve created an editorial calendar for the year, outlining both my blogging deadlines and estimated completion dates for a collection of approximately 7 essays. I’ve written the first sentence of my first essay on Ecuador, and I’m picking out a handful of writing residencies that I’ll apply to later this Spring.

In the meantime, I continue my attempts to gain control over a life spun out of control. I map out my work engagements and writing times, coffee dates and bed times. A queasy, regretful feeling spreads in my stomach every time I think about my neglected running practice and my quickly deteriorating Spanish skills. I hate prioritization, for the impossibility of its nature and the anguish it causes me. But I continue to do it, because life is short and my goals are big. So stay tuned; I’ve got some exciting things in the works.

One day at a time.

I can and I will.

What I Learned from a Year of Reading

It’s been a year of transition and learning for this reader/writer/wanderer. Numbed by the most bitterly cold winter of my life and the culture shock that comes from moving between lives and worlds, I embarked on a mission to read a book a week for the entire year. After returning from Ecuador, I’d felt like a stranger blindly wandering through a life that wasn’t entirely mine; reading, I hoped, would help me learn something about why I couldn’t get back to myself, or rather, about the person I had become between leaving for Ecuador and returning to the States.

For a year, I read on the train and in the bus, in doctor’s offices and coffee shops and by the lake, while making dinner and waiting for friends, as I brushed my teeth before bed and during my limited lunch breaks at work. At the beginning, there were many successes; when it’s literally 50 degrees below zero, there’s not much to do other than read. Then summer finally, unbelievably arrived, bringing adventures with friends and family, months of 12-hour work days, entire weeks of binge watching House of Cards and Orange is the New Black on Netflix, and a fantastic new relationship that’s kept me wonderfully distracted. Now, as the temperature wanders back into the negatives, I’m finishing out the year with a total of 37 books, averaging a little more than a book every week and a half of 2014. I didn’t completely achieve my goal, but I did learn a lot along the way. Below are the biggest lessons I learned during my year of reading:

1. My threshold for finishing a book in a week is approximately 250 pages; on average, fear of flying begins at age 27; and the more you replay a memory in your mind, the more cemented it is in your brain.

You learn a wealth of interesting facts when throwing back a book a week. For instance, I learned how the use of memory palaces—or placing visual cues in a mental recreation of a familiar place—facilitates your brain’s ability to recall information. I learned what parts of the brain trigger and manage anxiety and a multitude of strategies for clearing such stimuli from an overtaxed brain. I learned how chickens are sexed. I learned about the history of machismo in Latin America and the altered mental state caused by mourning. I learned what vulnerability looks like in work, study, and relationships and why it’s important in all facets of life. I also learned exactly where in my commute I can balance on my tip toes just long enough to wrestle my book out of or into my bag, an important lesson when packed into a shifting, tilting, herky-jerky train.

As I paged through book upon book, I also began to see themes from previous books reappear time and time again, which brings me to my next lesson….

2. Everything is interconnected, or reading makes you a good conversationalist.

After a mere two months of my reading challenge, I quickly realized that the more I read, the more I had to say to those around me. I discussed the mechanics of memory with my coworkers and the science behind flying with my father who is an active sports pilot. With friends, I marveled over the dark, yet hopeful themes in Saunders’ short stories, themes that moved me to tears even while sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers on the L. As it turns out, my reading challenge was also great material for first-date conversation and an easy way to tell if I should pursue a second date.

Fun fact: I knew I’d snagged a keeper when my boyfriend confessed that the first book he checked out with his brand new library card was Pride and Prejudice. *Swoon*

3. No TV required.

Before I began my journey in reading, I spent a lot of time watching TV, particularly the low-budget reality trash that fills the MTV and TLC lineups. It’s a terrible habit that I’ve had since college. “No! You’re too smart to watch this trash,” my friends would moan as I turned on the latest episode of Teen Mom or Intervention. At the time, I told myself that I was simply giving my mind a break from studying and the literal hours of news I watched and/or read every day. (Little did I know that TV news media is just a separate but equally terrible and unconscionable form of reality TV.) When I returned to the United States, I also returned to my old reality TV habits. After my forced, long-term separation from reality TV while living in Ecuador, however, I couldn’t mindlessly consume the drivel without noticing how numb and stupid I felt afterwards or the way that society seemed to be lowering itself to meet the bad behavior I’d witnessed on my TV screen. I knew that to feel better in my own skin, I needed to rescue my brain first.

So I turned off the TV and picked up the books, and hot damn did it feel good! I could almost feel my brain cells regenerating with every new page. Of course, I always knew that I didn’t need TV, but the wonderful lesson was that I didn’t even miss it.*  I went months without even touching my remote and this year I plan to cancel my cable completely. Good riddance!

*I’m counting House of Cards and Orange is the New Black as a different kind of TV here, since I feel these series hinge on the same elements you would find in a well-crafted story.

4. Some books shouldn’t be read in a week.

When I picked up Geek Love by Katherine Dunne, I didn’t realize that the book was nearly 400 pages long. I loved the riveting strangeness of the plot, the bizarre, yet relate-able characters, and the richness of the story…until I realized that it was nearly the end of the week and I still had 200 pages to finish. I dutifully forged through the rest of the novel, feeling exhausted and annoyed by the time I finished.

Towards the end of the year, when finishing 52 books was clearly unattainable, I began The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. With no deadline looming over me, I luxuriated in the detail, taking the time to truly contemplate the characters and let the themes percolate in my mind. It was absolutely liberating. This coming year, I’m excited to tackle the fat books that have been gathering dust on my bookshelf since my challenge started, because books are richer when you have the time to get completely lost in the story.

5. Reading begets more reading.

Before this past year, I hadn’t done much reading. Thanks to post-graduate school burnout and the pervasive idleness of Ecuadorian life, I’d forgotten what it truly meant to read for pleasure.

As Malcolm X said, “The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.”

After my year of reading, I am more curious, more hungry for knowledge, more passionate about the world around me, and more connected to myself than I have been in a long time. Thanks to a regular regimen of reading, my mind has been fully reawakened, and I have never loved reading as much as I do today.

My increased book consumption naturally led to more online reading as well. I began with lists on good books for 20 somethings, then gradually transitioned to articles about gender, studies on language and memory, and interesting pieces on the mythical concept of work-life balance. As I went through the highs and lows of life, I looked to the written word for guidance. Disappointed and disheartened by the Hobby Lobby ruling, I reflected on Rebecca Traister’s I Don’t Care If You Like It, an article that I still think about with an ache of identification and a surge of determination. After discussing the sometimes dismissive attitudes of male colleagues, a friend recommended an excellent story from NPR, Can Changing How You Sound Help You Find Your Voice?, which empowered me and impacted the way I interact with my coworkers. Exhausted and overworked, I sought solace in I Came Undone and Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed. Anytime I needed a good read in addition to my designated book for the week, I also perused the always excellent Longreads blog.

As I mulled over these concepts, I also realized…

6. We are what we put into our brains.

I am convinced now more than ever that what we put into our brains dictates who we are and what we will become.

This sounds fairly obvious, but it’s easily forgotten when we just need an hour of mind-numbing TV or Facebooking to take off the edge at the end of the day. (See point #3.) As it turns out, Buzzfeed lists, crying reality TV stars, and Candy Crush Saga are easy to consume, but don’t offer the rejuvenation that we truly crave.

Within the first months of my reading challenge, I felt more creative and motivated to write than I had in years. Instead of plopping myself on the couch with leftovers and the TV remote/cell phone, I soothed my tired soul with words. The more I read, the more I wrote and desired to write. My brain was always tired, but, to my surprise, I always felt regenerated by the end of the night.

6. Minor failures do not constitute a total failure.

I may have failed at reading 52 books in a year, but I succeeded at feeling good in my skin again. Books offered me a form of escapism that didn’t numb me; instead it allowed me to examine myself indirectly through the struggles, joys, and life experiences of others, fictional or not. Through books, I found a way to work through the hard parts of my Peace Corps service and the new, sometimes unrecognizable, person I was upon returning. Of course, reading wasn’t the sole factor for my successful reintegration into U.S. culture. Reading grounded me; counseling and the unconditional support of family and friends helped me work through reverse culture shock and rebuild my life in the States. As such, I am eternally grateful for those who dedicate their lives to guiding others through their struggles, for the people in my life who love me through all the ups and downs, and for the writers who take on the risk and hard work of writing about the oddities, struggles, tragedies, mysteries, and complexities of life.

So what’s in store for this blog now that my year of reading is over? As I mentioned in a previous post, 2015 is the year of focus—on the right people, the right goals, and the right projects. This blog, fortunately, is one of the projects that I’ll be dedicating myself to this year. Thanks to a 1.5 hour round trip commute, I’ll have plenty of reading material to reflect on, and given that one of my many New Years resolutions is to finally write a collection of essays, I’ll have plenty of writing insights to share as well. To those who have been reading and commenting, thanks for taking this journey with me; I hope you’ll check back often.

Here’s to a productive and prolific 2015!

A One-Sentence Review of My Favorite Reads of 2014

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer—A quirky and insightful read about the mechanics of memory, the mysterious nature of the brain, carefully crafting our own perception of our lives, and the often-overlooked importance of forgetting.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion—Using straightforward and simple language, Didion portrays what it truly means to grieve and pay tribute to those we love in images that struck hard and stuck with me long after closing the book.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold—A magnificently crafted book about the eternal love between family and the horrors of life, portrayed in detail so real and vivid that I dreamt of losing my own sister for nights on end. (Note: That was the worst part of reading the book. This novel is truly excellent.)

Tenth of December by George Saunders—As usual, with great talent and mastery, Saunders shows us the best and worst of humanity, blurring the lines between bad and good and striking both hope and despair in the hearts of his readers.

1984 by George Orwell—Disturbing and impactful, this book made me realize that in a society devoid of freedom of speech and human rights, not even your personal thoughts and memories are safe.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green—A tear-jerker that felt more substantive than many other YA novels I’ve read and truly made me consider the differences between empathy, sympathy, and love, especially in the face of terminal illness.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg–An encouraging, affirming, and comforting guide on why writing is important, how it spiritually nourishes us, and how to create a life that centers around a daily writing practice.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Changes the Way  We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown—An insightful look into why vulnerability leads to greater self-fulfillment, better parenting, work successes, and more meaningful relationships and a practical guide on how to bring vulnerability into our everyday lives.

A One-Sentence Review of My Least Favorite Reads of 2014

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney—Another forgettable book about a self-pitying 20-something wallowing in drugs, alcohol, and despair.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro-Yawn fest.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg—Although this book contained some nuggets of wisdom, I couldn’t get past Sandberg’s focus on working within the confines of the patriarchy to rise to the top or the in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time luck that contributed to much of her success and therefore greatly separates her from the majority of the working women that she aims to address and motivate.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Marukami—In spite of a very catchy name, Marukami’s book offers mostly train-of-thought observations and lacks the originality and insight that I expected and craved.

To Be A Creator

“Remember, misery is comfortable. It’s why so many people prefer it. Happiness takes effort.

Also, courage. It’s incredibly comforting to know that as long as you don’t create anything in your life, then nobody can attack the thing you created.

It’s so much easier to just sit back and criticize other people’s creations. This movie is stupid. That couple’s kids are brats. That other couple’s relationship is a mess. That rich guy is shallow. This restaurant sucks. This Internet writer is an asshole. I’d better leave a mean comment demanding that the website fire him. See, I created something….

Whatever you try to build or create–be it a poem, a new skill, or a new relationship–you will find yourself immediately surrounded by non-creators who will trash it…. Just remember, they’re only expressing their own fear, since trashing other people’s work is another excuse to do nothing.”

6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person; I can’t say I agree with everything in this article, but it made me reflect on the risks and rewards of creativity and why it’s important to silence the critic and press on.

Public Service Announcement

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Today, I broke down and bought a passion planner. In spite of its suggestive name, a passion planner is a yearly agenda that combines an appointment calendar with pages for journaling, to-do lists, goal setting, reflecting, drawing, mind mapping, and logging gratitude. This is the kind of organization my wayward schedule requires these days.

Upon returning from Ecuador, I looked at my life and saw nothing but large swaths of time. After two years of living off the “American grid,” it was as if I didn’t exist in the adult world. With no job, no commitments, and no pressing social engagements, I wallowed in days filled with endless hours of reality television, luxurious runs, and extended visits with friends. It was a wonderful existence, a continuation of Ecua-time that I simultaneously cherished and longed to replace with a real schedule.  Now, I can’t begin to account for the minutes of my day. Every Sunday night, I look at the week before me and mentally plot out when I’ll do my writing, my reading, my workouts, my meetups with friends and boyfriend. Then a dinner with colleagues pops up, an early meeting appears on my calendar for Tuesday, then again on Wednesday and Friday, an empty fridge leads to an impromptu shopping trip, and before I know it, the minutes have somehow slipped away until what appeared to be an ordinary week has once again become an overwhelming one.

It’s no secret that I’m not good at balance.

More than anything, my life lacks focus. I spend my work days jumping from one task to another while texting with friends about after-work plans. Tasks small and large escape my view. At any moment, there are fifteen open tabs on my internet browser and three partially-drafted emails on my smartphone. I make lists on lists on lists—of people to call or write, errands to complete, forgotten tasks to follow up on. I can’t finish a blog post. (This post alone took me over a month.) I can’t finish a book. And yet, I can’t tell you where my time goes. I’m running as fast as my little lungs will allow, but the horizon never seems to get any closer. (Of course, the ultimate irony of this statement is that I struggle to fit running into my schedule at all these days.) And, as always, when the week gets busy, the first thing to be compromised is my writing. Or as Jay McInerny writes in Bright Lights, Big City, “But between the job and the life there wasn’t much time left over for emotion recollected in tranquility.”

This, I’m learning, is adulthood: a constant battle with tedium and minutiae. I have the distinct feeling that if I’m not careful, this constant struggle to eat three meals a day, keep up with laundry and cooking, follow a budget, sleep enough to function, and stay on top of work will carry me right to the end of my days before I’ve even set down a single word worth reading. On a daily basis, I am paralyzed by the fact that I cannot write fast enough, learn fast enough, or even think fast enough to accomplish all of my life goals. And I don’t even have kids or work two jobs or take care of elderly parents or commute an exorbitant amount by today’s standards.

I’ve tried to write as much as possible given my hectic schedule, but it’s been less than successful. Every day, I wake up at 5:30am to write unintelligible sentences with my eyes still half closed. Even at that unbearable hour, I feel the pressure to get it right the first time, because who has the time to rewrite anything with all the early morning meetings, phone dates with friends (on this continent and beyond), and boring adult things to tend to? And even as I’m attempting to write the perfect first draft—ha!—I’m scrutinizing whether I should be spending my valuable time on this particular writing task at all. Would my time be better spent on a different essay or short story? I think as my fingers move blindly over the keys. If I were to die tomorrow, is this the last piece I’d want to be working on? With thoughts like these bouncing around my brain, there’s not much energy left over for creative fission.

I realize that being an adult means making choices. I just never imagined that I’d have to choose between advancing my career, maintaining friendships, and building a writing practice. I certainly never thought that these grandiose life moves would boil down to such common place decisions. Do I spend my few hours of free time after work writing tonight? Or do I wash my stinking dishes and iron my work clothes for tomorrow? Do I sleep till 6 so I can focus on my long day of meetings and stave off that imminent cold for another week? (Thanks, public transit!) Or do I get up at 5 to eke out a few garbled lines before hopping on the train?

No matter what I choose, it always feel like the wrong decision.

Part of my problem is—and always has been—that I want to excel at too many things. This, of course, is not just my problem, but a larger societal issue. Our newspapers and social media are full of articles on the “disease of busy” and the somehow newly discovered importance of sleep. We’ve all seen these articles, and yet we continue filling our schedules to the breaking point. A  couple weeks ago, though, I came across a Thomas Merton quote in the On Being blog that made me see the busyness of my life in an entirely different way:

“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist…most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his (or her) work… It destroys the fruitfulness of his (or her)…work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Violence? Destroying the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful? That’s some heavy stuff, and yet, that’s exactly what it feels like.

Now that I’ve had time and space, I yearn to write a collection of essays on my time in Ecuador. Despite my best intentions, I’ve yet to begin. I’m terrified that by the time I cobble together enough time to write the first draft, the details will be tarnished and dull, lost in that black hole where memories go when they are too often unthought of.

Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell says that to make time for writing you must first neglect everything else. I instantly prickle at the thought; my heart pounds a little faster and my obsessive need to be good at this “being an adult” thing sends me into a spiral of rationalizations as to why this approach won’t work. What about that pile of laundry, the multiplying dishes, the vacant refrigerator? I already struggle to keep up with friends; what will they think when I’m even more unavailable than before? How can I excel at work if I’m not willing to stay extra time, always go that extra mile? It’s when I’m exhausted and panting from a crazy week that I feel the need to see where my time is going, to reclaim those fleeting minutes for myself.

As I look towards the new year, I know that something has to change.

So this is a public service announcement: The be-good-at-everything, surrender-to-too-many-demands me is out of commission. If you don’t hear much from me in the coming weeks and months, know that it’s not you; it’s me.  The focus of this past year was reading a book a week; the focus of next year will be focus itself—on the right people, the right goals, and the right projects. So if you haven’t heard from me in a while and you begin to wonder where in the world I am, know that I am squarely in front of my computer, desperately putting digital words to digital paper. Because I can’t keep living in a reality of tomorrows, and I can’t keep putting my writing on the back burner. I officially proclaim 2015 the year of wrinkled shirts, mile-high dishes, bags under the eyes, and pages and pages of writing.

Essay Collection Titles: How the Colon Got Its Groove Back

I’ve been thinking lately about writing a collection of essays. In her book, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg writes: “When you want to write in a certain form—a novel, short story, poem—read a lot of writing in that form. Watch how it is paced. What is the first sentence? What makes it finished? When you read a lot in that form, it becomes imprinted inside you, so when you sit down to write, you write in that structure.”  

With this in mind, I promptly began researching essay collections to read for next week.  Below are a few of the collections that came highly recommended by strangers all over the Internet.

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems by David Rakoff

And the list goes on.

Thus far, I’ve learned that when writing a collection of essays, your title must involve a colon and a subtitle. 

Do you have a favorite essay collection that I should read? Leave it in the comments for me so I can check it out!

We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter. . . Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer’s task to say, ‘It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a café when you can eat macrobiotic at home.’ Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”

—Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within