Friday, August 23, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 4


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 4, Recovering a Sense of Integrity

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review
first.

Week 4’s theme is “recovering a sense of integrity.” I do find the themes pretty arbitrary, but this week’s a unique one for sure. Week 4 introduces the concept of media deprivation. Originally, Cameron pitched the concept as reading deprivation and the task was no reading for the entire week. Given our technology boom, she now suggests the term media deprivation, to include: no television, no computer games, no internet, etc. If you can, no phone. (I know: I heard some of you gasp.)

Contrary to Cameron’s suggestion in her introduction, I read the whole book before I even started the program. Uncertain about trying the program at all, I first wanted an idea of what to expect. Anyway, when I reached Week 4, I promptly decided, “Nope, not for me. No way can I go a whole week without reading. Is she insane? What kind of cruel person asks that of me?” and stopped reading. Of course, as these posts indicate, there’s more to the story. After a few weeks to mull on the idea, I warmed to it, or at least to trying it. Worst case scenario: I decide on first day of deprivation that I refuse to continue it and stop, but hopefully by attempting it I can learn about myself and really that’s the whole point here. However, I’m glad I knew to expect the media deprivation assignment ahead of time; otherwise, I would have thrown a big tantrum when I reached Week 4, maybe even given up on the program then and there in protest.

Part of getting the most out of anything is tailoring it to yourself. Cameron talks about how she always receives a lot of backlash to Week 4’s media deprivation, including lots of condescension about how impractical it is in this day and age, especially given the specific responsibilities most of us have. Cameron makes the point that she’s not asking anyone to get themselves fired; do whatever you need to do to keep your life functioning but honestly ask yourself what you can cut. For my part, I didn’t use my phone at all during this week, but I did decide to do a quick check in every evening, just in case someone had called or texted with anything urgent. I also let those closest to me know about my media deprivation week ahead of time, so they understood why I only responded once a day, in the evening. Avoiding television proved difficult in a shared house where others have it on a lot. I found I became less social in my efforts at avoiding the TV. By the end of the week, I made an exception for watching television with others, but still no watching it by myself for TV’s sake.

I struggled the most with not reading. To oversimplify things, I categorize television and computer games as “bad.” Even though I do enjoy them in reasonable moderation, I’ve very much internalized our society’s perception of those activities as lazy time wasters. So I can hop on board the idea of giving them up for a week. However, I’ve always considered reading “good,” associated with intellectual enlightenment, so I grumbled a lot to myself all week about the implication that we need breaks from it. Plus I’ve gone without television, etc. before, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone a week without reading. However, Cameron made some good points supporting her idea. She talks about how we spend much of our days inundated with other people’s words, and how, worthwhile though those words may be, that makes it difficult to find our own creative voices. Sometimes we need periods where we shut out the other chatter and listen primarily to ourselves. She convinced me enough to give this whole media deprivation thing an honest try.

To my own shock, at the end of the first day I loved media deprivation. It felt so freeing; I had a good chunk of time that normally goes to certain activities and it does encourage you to explore other interests that often get sidelined. I convinced myself I liked this concept enough to maybe even do a media deprivation week once every month! However, it all went downhill for me on the second day. To make a long story short, I discovered that I am Celiac in May 2018 and since then have been trying to teach myself gluten-free cooking, especially dishes I loved with gluten and now miss. Anyway, on day two I had a gluten-free cooking failure and this was my third failed attempt trying to make this dish gluten-free. Feeling very discouraged, I wanted to curl up on the couch and watch an episode or two of television before hopping into another task, and then I felt extremely frustrated that I wasn’t “allowed” to do that. From that point on, I spent the rest of the week in more of a withdrawal. Though I enjoyed doing other activities, I mostly felt cranky that I knew I was being denied others. Then the next week, Week 5, I had a bounce-back binge. I’ve often heard dieting doesn’t work well for most people, because it’s too restrictive, only multiplying cravings. Dieting works at first, until the dieter reaches a breaking point and then overeats instead. Media deprivation felt like that perception of dieting to me. After a week of denying myself these things, I had trouble being productive the next week; all I wanted to do was the things I missed the week before: read, watch TV, play games, clutch my phone to my chest and promise never to leave it again. However, I will say that the point of the assignment is to learn about yourself and that I did. I had no idea before this deprivation how much I rely on television as a comforting transition. I also didn’t realize how intensely reading ties into my sense of identity. If I’m not reading, who am I?

As for some of the other exercises, I wasn’t expecting to but I really liked writing our own artist prayer, a kind of poem encouraging your creativity. I write fantasy and I ended up pulling on references to the magic systems within my own books to write about yearning and empowerment. The process and end result were both very rewarding, especially because my prayer was so specifically individualized to me. On the other hand, I really didn’t get much from the time travel letter exercise, where you write a letter to your current self from the perspective of your 8-year-old self and then your 80-year-old self. I can be a literal person and didn’t like the level of imagination over fact required for writing from the perspective of my future self.

The morning pages no longer feel like stewing to me, but I do often struggle filling an entire three pages and still worry it’s a time waster. For my artist date this week, I did a puzzle. I love puzzles and think they’re one of the few mindful activities I enjoyed before ever “discovering” mindfulness. With puzzles, you work hard on something challenging only to promptly “undo” it once finished. It’s about the activity, the present moment, and not a practical or prestigious finished product.  

I may try to do a media deprivation day again here and there, but I think a week is far too much for me. However, this challenging week certainly helped me become more aware of my habits related to media as well as what other activities I miss doing, such as coloring. I also like baking and exercise, but found there’s a reasonable limit to how much I can do those in a week! All that said, I’m relieved to have the media deprivation week behind me!
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Friday, August 16, 2019

HOW TO BE A VICTORIAN


Review of HOW TO BE A VICTORIAN: A DAWN-TO-DUSK GUIDE TO VICTORIAN LIFE  by RUTH GOODMAN

In my Victorian era research for a short story, I’ve read dozens of books that would really only appeal to a researcher or extreme era enthusiast. However, this is the second one where I see some larger scale appeal for anyone interested in learning a bit more about this era.

The first book I reviewed regarding the Victorian era, INSIDE THE VICTORIAN HOME, organized its content by room, which makes sense given the shifting Victorian ideology that each room should have a specific purpose. However, Goodman’s organizational scheme also makes a lot of sense: she organizes her content by following a typical Victorian person through a typical day.

This will sound odd, but I loved that this book discussed sex. For all that I’ve read on the Victorian era, writers are suspiciously quiet on that topic. In conversation, I hear many people say, “Oh, well, that’s because Victorians were such prudes.” First, that’s a slight misstatement of complicated differences in attitudes. Second, the fact that there are still English people proves that Victorian English people had sex. Third, most of what I read simply doesn’t even mention sex at all. So it’s not that the author cites historical prudery as their explanation for not delving deeper; they omit the topic entirely. In my opinion, this says much more about our modern prudery than it does the Victorian era.

I’m reading all these works for my own fictional stories, so I want to know as much as possible about all aspects of life, including the intimate parts. Goodman addresses, with exceptional detail: periods, contraception, abortions, childbirth, and more. Oh, and she does clarify that supposed Victorian prudery limited talking about sex, not having it.

What makes HOW TO BE A VICTORIAN especially unique, though, is that Goodman doesn’t simply talk the talk; she walks the walk. In other words, she actually lives the Victorian life, so her knowledge is peppered with first-hand accounts. From clothing to cooking to household setup, Goodman not only details what she’s learned in her research, but how she fared abiding by Victorian norms.
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Friday, August 9, 2019

I'LL SCREAM LATER


Review of I’LL SCREAM LATER by MARLEE MATLIN
(with BETSY SHARKEY)

I find myself filled with curiosity, confusion, and admiration towards people who can lay their whole life out for examination by strangers, especially those who share intimate and/or traumatic details. Matlin definitely falls into this category, as she walks her readers through her life from childhood to present (well, publication), including the losses, heartaches, and nightmares.

At times the book did read a little too celebrity-biography for me. There’s a lot of name-dropping as Matlin recalls everything from little exchanges to long-term relationships with other stars. As a book nerd, I know authors, but am often far behind the curve in terms of actors, athletes, and musicians. I might have found these sections more interesting except for the fact that I often didn’t even recognize the names being mentioned like I should know.

That said, what I love and admire about Matlin’s book is how she bravely lays herself open. She’s blunt about her own insecurities, doubts, missteps, and shortcomings, and heartwarmingly giddy when she writes of her accomplishments and happier memories. Despite (or perhaps because of) specifically telling us that she’s keeping some stories for herself, it feels like Matlin doesn’t hold anything back. What I so admire about memoirs that do this is the selfless hope that others might gain something positive from the author’s vulnerable honesty.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 3


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 3, Recovering a Sense of Power

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Week 3 focuses on “recovering a sense of power.” I particularly loved what Cameron has to say in this chapter about anger, talking about how we push it down because it’s a “bad” emotion but anger is actually a very good navigator. Anger tells us when we’ve been wronged. Anger tells us what we want. Cameron also discusses shame as another major contributor to “being blocked.” She says, “Art exposes a society to itself.” and sometimes we shoot the messenger when we don’t like what we see. Cameron’s dissection of the difference between useful and useless criticism is very helpful as well. In short, useful focuses on improvement whereas useless just insults.

This chapter introduces synchronicity, which will be a major repeating concept throughout the rest of the program and, unfortunately, one I never quite understood. I know the definition of the word, but some of Cameron’s examples strike me as either coincidence or, less than that, plain logic. If you make more effort at something, more relevant opportunities crop up in that area. To me, that’s common sense, not magic. To be fair, I think Cameron is talking about related but seemingly unconnected events; one of her examples is a woman admitting to herself that she wants to be an actress and the next day finding herself seated next to an acting instructor at a dinner party. However, I don’t feel I experienced anything like that throughout the entire program. And I found it odd, cultish—for lack of a better word, how much Cameron carries on about synchronicity with the implication that we should expect to experience it. I didn’t.

As for the exercises, I really enjoy any that have you finish a sentence. I find my answers are sometimes quite surprising, so these make for good self-reflection. I’ll share two of mine from this week. First, “My favorite childhood game was…Operation.” I was quite obsessed with that game. I could tell you who among my friends owned it and even made an extra effort to go their houses. I think Operation tapped into my perfectionism. Close enough won’t stop that buzzer! Second, “My most cheer-me-up-music is…The Parent Trap and Princess Diaries soundtracks.” I think I bought these as a pre-teen and listened to them obsessively. Not only are they both upbeat collections, but I’ve listened to them so many times that all the songs now feel familiar and comforting. 

The exercise where you list your favorite childhood foods and then pick one to treat yourself felt mean to me! I learned over a year ago that I’m Celiac and therefore can’t eat gluten. Most of my childhood favorites are now off limits. However, I did use my disappointment over this task as a push to make gluten-free toad in the hole. It came out delicious and also triggered me listing all my favorite gluten foods in the hopes that one day I’ll master a homecooked, gluten-free version. My list includes: crab cheese wontons, bao, samosas, naan, tonkatsu, and okonomiyaki. And now my mouth is watering.

I really liked the exercise where you list several people you admire and then specify what traits you admire about them. The trends in traits show you what you value in other people as well as yourself. To mention some of the traits that repeated for me, I like honest and direct, down-to-earth, nontraditional, considerate listeners. The next part of the exercise threw me a little: listing people you secretly admire. I don’t secretly admire anyone; anyone I admire I do so openly. When an exercise stumps me, I try to be flexible in how I interpret it, so I ended up writing fictional characters for this set. My list includes Amy from Brooklyn-99 and Lesley Knope from Parks & Recreation: both overachievers with a silly streak.

My morning pages feel easy and natural now. Three weeks in and they’re a habit. For my artist date, I used some flying wish paper. It was fun and the exact type of thing I normally brush off as a “time waster.” (Case in point, someone gave me that flying wish paper perhaps eight years ago and then it only took me half an hour to finally use it.)

I’m starting to view The Artist’s Way program less as hard, sometimes cheesy work and more as fun play. I look forward to the reading, exercises, and artist date each week. I relish all the reflection and exploration; contrary to my first week impressions, I’m finding this program aligns nicely with my mindfulness efforts. Allowing myself to pursue whatever calls to me is making me feel much more relaxed and balanced.
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Friday, July 26, 2019

AT HOME


Review of AT HOME: A SHORT HISTORY OF PRIVATE LIFE by BILL BRYSON

Known for writing compelling nonfiction, Bryson delivers again with eclectic content. While AT HOME focuses around our private space, taking us room by room, the topics explored are so variable as to make the theme seem somewhat arbitrary. The chapter on the dining room touches on everything from nutrition to a brief history of the salt and coffee trades. The chapter on the bedroom, which was often used as a sickroom, includes discussion of historical medical practices. In truth, AT HOME is a treasure trove of fascinating trivia convincingly sorted around the concept of “home.”

My favorite aspect of Bryson’s writing is its accessibility. That really makes or breaks a good nonfiction piece, as plenty of experts don’t know how to condense or organize their knowledge into something compelling and logical to a layman. Despite Bryson’s varied content, he leads us naturally from one topic to another. Reading this book feels a bit like sitting down for a cup of tea with a chatty friend (whom you’re happy to let go on and on, and do all the talking, because, boy, can they ever spin a yarn). The color photos also add to the book’s appeal, breaking up the chunks of text with relevant and interesting images.

AT HOME is a traveler of a book. In regaling his readers with the history of each room, Bryson takes us from Ancient Rome to the Victorian Era to modern day and at times theorizing into the future. In terms of geography, Bryson mostly bounces us across the pond between the United States and England. However, topic is where we see the most distance from one stop to another. In one book, Bryson weaves in mentions of: the Crystal Palace, Skara Brae, slavery, Mrs. Beeton, whaling, scurvy, the Eiffel Tower, patent politics, stair statistics, humorous chamber pots, mouches, and natural selection.

If you find that list hard to believe, you’re just going to have to read this book for yourself.

Friday, July 19, 2019

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ANIMAL ENCYCLOPEDIA


Review of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ANIMAL ENCYCLOPEDIA by DR. LUCY SPELMAN

I’ve recently read several animal encyclopedias for research. I doubt many people want to read more than one, but I picked out a couple worthy of reviews. This one in particular is great for kids: with colorful topic coding, referenceable icons, and plenty of photos. That said, interested adults will appreciate the fascinating content, too.

I particularly liked the “from the field” spreads that focus on researchers studying a specific animal. Especially for younger readers, I feel this presents and encourages the option of a career in science.

With about a half dozen different animals on most of the pages, this encyclopedia is truly packed with absorbing information. The “fun” vibe makes it more kid-friendly, with color-coded maps and “animal records” that list some of the ways specific animals are uniquely impressive. For those eager to know more, the book features shorter descriptions of many more remarkable animals in the back.

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 2


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 2, Recovering a Sense of Identity

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Week 2 of The Artist’s Way program focuses on “recovering a sense of identity.” I very much related to Cameron’s insistence that the fear of being selfish often keeps us blocked. However, she mostly discusses people who are not doing what they want, because they don’t want to be selfish. I am a slightly slanted case. I am doing what I want, but I nevertheless battle the same fears that I am selfish for living my life this way.

In this chapter, Cameron urges that you surround yourself with the right people while you do this program. She warns that most of us know other people in our life who may be “blocked,” by which she means those who observe life from a cynic’s bench seat without taking any active creative risks themselves. “Blocked friends may find your recovery disturbing,” Cameron says, a warning that might be more familiar simply phrased as “misery loves company.” She urges protecting yourself from “well-meaning doubts” and “subtle sabotage.” This program is about exploration and shaking off those negative voices; the last thing you need is people teasing and mocking you for doing any kind of self-therapy.

I want to make mention of some of the exercises from this week. First, there was the life pie. You draw a circle with six wedges each labeled for a different aspect of life. Then put a dot in each wedge: closer to the edge the more fulfilled you feel, closer to the center the less. Then connect the dots. In a balanced life, you’ll have a nice, symmetrical shape, in a less balanced life you see what Cameron calls a “tarantula.” This exercise made me laugh. My shape was not at all a surprise, but a visual reinforcement of what I already know: elongated depictions of work and exercise with a rather dented in wedge for friends. I often convince myself that too many friends or social plans will only interrupt my productivity. My expectations also lined up with another assignment: where you list the five biggest draws on your time and actually track how many hours you spend on each one. Interesting actually writing it out, but I knew the gist.

I didn’t gain much from reading the Basic Principles every morning and night. I considered them a kind of saccharine gibberish, having only as much meaning as you infer into them. I suppose the same could be said of any quote, but I found these especially convoluted and meaningless. Two examples include: “There is an underlying, in-dwelling creative force infusing all life—including ourselves.” and “We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, are meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves.” On the other hand, I really enjoyed picking five of my own affirmations and writing them a full five times every day this week. Naturally, my affirmations are more tailored to me than Cameron’s Basic Principles. Plus it was interesting to see how writing them so many times really drilled them in far more than reading something nice once and promptly forgetting it. Repeating them made the affirmations more into mantras, and all the more powerful.

My attitude about the morning pages might be shifting. Last week I was adamant that I would not continue them after the program. Now I am at least open to the slim possibility that I might. (At the very least, I’m no longer dead set against it.) Last week’s pages were mostly obsessive stewing, which I am now blaming on an allergy medication that caused extreme agitation. Off that medication now, my pages are more random, disconnected thoughts. And I really do like the routine of waking up and doing the same thing every day, especially since it’s something that doesn’t require too much from me. I normally wake up at five am and immediately stumble to my writing desk and start writing. While initially I felt frustrated to have the “real work” put off for the approximate half hour my morning pages take me, this definitely is a much gentler way to ease into the day. At this point, I expect I will stop morning pages for a week after the program and just see if I miss them. I also loved my artist date again this week; I have absolutely no doubt that I will continue that weekly habit. They’re extremely rewarding.

The second week of the program definitely found me getting more “into it.” The assignments are striking me more and more as self-therapy and I’m gaining a lot from the reflection. Last week triggered my return to aerial silks after two years. This week, I started sketching again after, well, a lot more than two years! I still sometimes find Cameron’s prose a little cheesy, but I’m also understanding what in myself makes me view it that way and accepting that I have a lot to gain by giving this program my sincere effort.
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