Friday, December 27, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 10


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 10, Recovering a Sense of Self-Protection

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 10 discusses “recovering a sense of self-protection” by taking a look at common creative perils and asking us to acknowledge our own toxic patterns. The chapter breaks these perils down into four common ones: workaholism, drought, fame, and competition. I think they’re all pretty self-explanatory. (Drought refers to creative dry spells.)

According to Cameron’s workaholism quiz, I’m definitely a workaholic, which I find both surprising and not. I know I work and push myself very hard and that I tend to define myself by how much work I do, but on the other hand my work is my passion (writing) and I’m good about making time for others (if not myself). Actually, this program has helped me make huge strides on pampering myself, too. So I think that I have a workaholic nature, but I feel I’m managing and balancing it pretty well lately.

One of this week’s assignments is to write “workaholism is a block, not a building block” on a piece of paper and hang it somewhere prominent. It was a very effective, necessary mantra for me. To emphasize that, my partner laughed the first time he saw it, confused by a phrase that seemed so contrary to everything he’s seen from me over the years.

As for other exercises, I particularly enjoyed the touchstones and deadlies tasks. For touchstones, you simply list things that make you happy and place that list in view, like the above mantra. I agree that it’s very uplifting to glance over at a list of happiness “touchstones.” (Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and all that.)

For the deadlies assignment, you write the following each on a small strip of paper: alcohol, drugs, sex, work, money, food, family/friends. Fold and place in an envelope or hat. Select one and then list five ways that it has had a negative impact on your life. Place it back and select again six more times, for a total of seven. Yes, the fact that you’re putting them back means you’ll likely do some multiple times and others not at all, but Cameron argues that sometimes returning to the same one brings up more, possibly deeper issues. I found this very therapeutic and would be tempted to return to it another time, especially since I drew “work” three times and “drugs” twice. I didn’t write about sex, food, or family/friends at all.

Only two weeks left in the program and it feels like a natural part of my routine, something I look forward to each week. Despite my reluctance over trying this at all, I expect I will miss the program once I finish it. However, I know there will be carryover life lessons and activities.
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Friday, December 20, 2019

THE HOW CAN IT BE GLUTEN-FREE COOKBOOK


Review of THE HOW CAN IT BE GLUTEN-FREE COOKBOOK: REVOLUTIONARY TECHNIQUES. GROUNDBREAKING RECIPES. by AMERICA’S TEST KITCHEN

In May 2018, I discovered the source of various, and worsening, health issues throughout my entire first thirty years of life: Celiac disease. Since then, it’s been a fun—and often frustrating—challenge rethinking everything to do with food and eating. A significant part of this has been teaching myself gluten-free cooking.

I like to try several recipes from a cookbook before reviewing it, so this review is coming at least a year after a friend first gave me this cookbook. Honestly, the book overwhelmed me at first: by making gluten-free cooking sound very difficult and complicated. However, once I actually started making the recipes, I found them, without exception, easy and delicious; the difficulty was much over-hyped. (Perhaps because perfecting the recipes took the creators so many experimental attempts…but now it’s perfected!) And not only do I love the recipes, but my gluten-eating friends adore them as well, often saying they would never know the difference. So far this remains my absolute favorite gluten-free cookbook.

This cookbook comes from America’s Test Kitchen. What does that mean? Every recipe has literally come about from dozens to hundreds of test variations until numerous professional chefs and amateur home-cooks agree it’s close to perfection. I have tried several gluten-free cookbooks since my diagnosis. I’m still trying others and still hopeful, but so far every gluten-free cookbook but this one has been, well, gross. I try a handful of recipes that all taste so unappealing they wind up in the trash before I finally chuck the entire cookbook in, too. My point here is that this cookbook, the first one I tried, makes gluten-free cooking seem easy, even though it’s apparently not for everyone!

I planned to list the recipes I most liked, but I’ve loved every single thing I’ve made so much it’s hard to choose. I’m drawn to the comfort foods section where I discovered delicious: shepherd’s pie (especially relieved, because I’m part British and giving up my family’s shepherd’s pie recipe was a big loss), both meat and spinach lasagnas, chicken pot pie, and quiche Lorraine. From other sections, I also loved the basil pesto pasta (made several times, because it’s just as delicious cold as hot), buttermilk pancakes, sausage cornbread stuffing, banana bread, and English muffins. The only things I didn’t like clearly come down to taste. The mac and cheese is a little too creamy and cheesy for me, but everyone else at the table raved about it. The drunken noodles and tamale pie are a little too spicy, but those with a stronger tolerance loved both dishes and even I, with my British palate, like them with the spice turned down.

I have a big sweet tooth and found plenty more mouth-watering recipes to satisfy dessert: coffee cake, raspberry streusel bars, (a gorgeous-looking) plum torte, shortbread, carrot cake, gingerbread cake, and lemon pound cake. I also want to call specific mention to the chocolate cake as well as the lemon bars and lemon tart. The first, because I’m a chocolate addict and this chocolate cake not only met with my approval but is right up there with the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever had. I’ll make this one for my birthday this year and it won’t feel in any way a compromise. As for the latter, the lemon bars (and the tart that is basically one giant lemon bar) have proved so popular that I’ve made them well over a dozen times already.

As I mentioned earlier, I think this cookbook possibly makes some recipes sound harder than they are, mostly by discussing how many attempts went into this final result. I sometimes skip steps and find everything still comes out delicious. The most prominent example is that the book recommends creating your own gluten-free flour blend by buying lots of different flours and mixing the right ratios together yourself. I know a lot of Celiacs do this, but for me that seems crazy time consuming and I would love to avoid it. I used Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Flour, the one with the xanthum gum included, in every recipe and loved all the results. The cookbook will tell you that Bob’s Red Mill has a slight bean taste. I have no idea what they’re talking about. None of the people who eat my food have any idea what they’re talking about. From my experience, I think Bob’s Red Mill is a fantastic time-saver. However, I do vastly appreciate all the extra content helping the reader to understand the science and techniques behind gluten-free cooking. After building my confidence with this cookbook, I’m now using those techniques to master other gluten recipe conversions myself.

Most importantly about this cookbook, if I don’t tell people the recipes are gluten-free, they can’t tell. I’m lucky and grateful that this was the first gluten-free cookbook I tried. When I did start trying others, I mostly found the results inedible. I imagine trying any of those cookbooks first and think how discouraged I would have been about gluten-free cooking. Thank goodness a thoughtful friend sent me this one the week of my diagnosis! Without caveats, people have told me the recipes I make from this cookbook are some of the best food they’ve ever eaten.
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Friday, December 13, 2019

EATING MINDFULLY


Review of EATING MINDFULLY: HOW TO END MINDLESS EATING & ENJOY A BALANCED RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD by SUSAN ALBERS

As will continue coming up in my reviews here and there, in May 2018 I was diagnosed with Celiac disease. I could fill post upon post with my experiences before and after the diagnosis, but for the purposes of this review let me say that I have always had a weird relationship with food. However, once I pinpointed that an undiagnosed autoimmune disease triggered by gluten explained all my health issues and what I simply thought of as “weird eating habits,” I wanted to teach myself something that some people master as young children while others spend a lifetime never mastering: how to eat healthy. And I do not mean what to eat. I indeed mean how to eat.

I loved this book. It feels odd raving about a book that discusses, of all things, eating, but the content was truly, and no exaggeration here, life-changing for me. I have always hated diets. As Albers acknowledges in this book, diets are about guilt, shame, and restriction. They also don’t work. Even if the dieter feels great on the specific diet or loses weight, if that was the ultimate goal, the restriction is like a tightening rubber band and eventually it springs back; the dieter either binges or falls back more gradually into unhealthy but familiar habits. I want to genuinely adjust my long-term relationship with food rather than force myself to eat how I think I “should” until I snap back to bad habits that I never really “fixed.”

I found this small book chockful of useful information, especially in terms of specific exercises and mantras. While I have maintained a food journal for short periods throughout my life for health reasons, I’ve never approached it with Albers’ emotional, mindful element. Don’t simply write what you ate, but how you ate. Were you hungry or just bored? Did you feel satisfied or overfull afterwards? Were you multitasking or really savoring the food? Note when eating or not eating, or what or how much you eat, triggers a particular emotion. You may think you know yourself, but a journal like this can be an excellent self-awareness technique for observing and tracking trends.

Among other suggestions, I like that Albers suggests putting away the scale. She’s hardly the first nutritionist to recommend this, and their similar reasoning makes sense. The scale encourages obsessive fixation with a number that doesn’t even represent your overall health and well-being. Many people already emotionally attached to their scale fear their weight will promptly balloon out of control without that accountability, but Albers and others make the point that you can tell whether your clothes are tightening or loosening and you can see if you’re looking slimmer or heavier in the mirror. The scale merely perpetrates a guilt-driven attachment to a misleading number. For anyone wondering how mindful eating affects weight loss, it’s a little bit of a circular logic. Many people eating mindfully do lose weight. However, if you treat it like a diet and begin the process with the goal of losing weight, you’re not really eating mindfully and you probably won’t lose weight. The idea is to learn to accept yourself (and that includes your body) as you are, honest not feigned acceptance, and learn to eat what you need, rather than eating for emotional reasons.

A few other concrete tips include seeking out non-edible stress soothers as well as eating with your non-dominant hand; this forces you to slow down and think about the process and the food a bit more.

As for mantras, I filled near two pages worth with those that inspire me, some food related but many others more general mindfulness. I’ll share a few:

Acknowledge food for what it is, rather than categorizing it as good or bad.
Name and then accept my emotions, whether positive or negative.
I can eat anything and everything I want; just ensure I actually want it.
Don’t defer “trying harder” to a later date, with food or anything else.
Life is about progress, not perfection.

I literally have dozens more of those. As someone who has struggled with stress, anxiety, and overthinking my entire life, I’ve recently discovered and embraced mindfulness. Mindful eating is really one aspect from an entire way of life focused on slowing down and living in the present, but it can be a great introductory starting point. Change the way you eat; change the way you think.
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Friday, December 6, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 9


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 9, Recovering a Sense of Compassion

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 9 focuses on “recovering a sense of compassion,” or healing past shame. In this week’s chapter, Cameron discusses how failure can make us give up and introduces her concept of “creative u-turns.” A creative u-turn is when you let a great opportunity slip away, usually out of fear. Cameron’s examples include: a screenwriter has an agent offering representation if the writer only makes a few minor changes and the writer never makes those changes or a painter is accepted into a group show only to pick a petty fight with the owner and be kicked out.

Cameron insists everyone suffers creative u-turns, so I feel self-conscious admitting that I don’t think I do. At least, I can’t think of any. But her concept fixates on self-sabotaging an opportunity. In contract, I know I definitely have given up after failures. As I mentioned before, I never felt “blocked” with writing, and, no surprise then, I don’t do this with writing. I always—proudly, sometimes painfully—power through with writing. However, I have given up after a failure with other creative pursuits. A serious injury made me give up aerial silks, even after my physical therapist cleared me to return. Being rejected from an art program is what made me stop painting and sketching. I keep calling Cameron’s program self-therapy and this week triggered some interesting self-analysis for me: I realized I push through failure with writing because I’m pursuing it professionally while with creative hobbies I tend to bail at the first big problem. In other words, I don’t value creative pursuits enough to move past challenges unless I’m pursuing some financial gain from them. While Cameron does encourage those craving a creative career to follow that passion, her program also emphasizes that creativity is for everyone. Creative hobbies are as vital to our well-being, both as individuals and a society, as creative professions. (And, as a side note, I recall a convincing speaker at a writing conference urging that all creative professionals need creative hobbies as well, specifically ones that don’t earn any money and are simply creative outlets with no financial strings attached.)

I also really resonated with Cameron’s claim that fear of success is just a real as fear of failure. I definitely have both, but the former is much less understood. I’m well-networked in the publishing industry and, as eager as I am for a book contract, well-aware of the new stresses that each stage of my career will bring. In some ways, seeking an agent feels comfortable. If it’s an emotional rollercoaster, it’s one I’ve ridden so many times, I know exactly what to expect. I do want an agent and a book contract, but those are entirely new, unpredictable, and, therefore, scary coasters!

The biggest assignment this week is rereading all your morning pages. Cameron tells you to go at it with two different-colored highlighters. Use one color for insights and another for actions. Insights mean any of those wonderful or helpful revelations you may jot down while doing these pages. Actions are all the times you’re writing about things you want or need or feel you should do. I decided that every week, along with doing an artist date, I will pick one of my pages’ actions to do as well.

I had the exact same experience with the visualizing exercise as the first time I did affirmations. Cameron has you write out all the “juicy details” that would indicate meeting your dream goal. I approached the task with skepticism, convinced this cheesy assignment wouldn’t do anything for me. However, like affirmations, I found myself surprised by how empowering visualization can be. Cameron is definitely convincing me that daydreaming plays a vital role in creative motivation.

While I don’t feel creative u-turns are a big issue for me, I can certainly relate to creative setbacks and those moments, usually failures, that tempt you to give up. I’m a broken record with the way I harp on about mindfulness in these posts, but I think creativity should be more about the process than the product. Focus on the present, not the future nor the past.
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Friday, November 29, 2019

BEAUTY


Review of BEAUTY by SARAH PINBOROUGH
(third in the TALES FROM THE KINDGOMS series)

With BEAUTY you get exactly what’s advertised: a dark twist on familiar fairy tales. For anyone sick of fairy tale twists, well, I don’t expect it’s for you, but for readers like myself who genuinely feel too many fairy tale twists isn’t a thing, this novel a skillful addition to a growing collection of varied perspectives.

The primary fairy tale being retold here is "Sleeping Beauty." However, you will find elements of "Little Red Riding Hood," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Beauty and the Beast," to name the most prominent influences. Do not forget that these novels are labelled “wicked” retellings. This is no cute, childish spin on sweet little fairy tales, but a dark, sinful twist on the bleaker originals behind the “Disneyed” version.

Aside from twisting fairy tales, I love some of the plot twists worked into this slim novel. The book succeeded in surprising me, and I loved discovering further layers to the interconnectedness of the various tales.

At less than 200 pages, this is a short, satisfying read. Thoroughly engaging and absorbing, I am relieved to say, that rather than a sensation that I lived the story, instead I felt more like I watched this dark tale unfold safely removed from the danger, as though through a magic mirror.

Friday, November 22, 2019

ACROSS THE WALL


Review of ACROSS THE WALL: A TALE OF THE ABHORSEN AND OTHER STORIES by GARTH NIX
(including a story set in the ABHORSEN series)

Garth Nix remains one of my favorite authors, a master of stellar writing and fast-paced plotting that even I, an overanalytical reader, struggle to nitpick. This eclectic collection of stories also showcases his breadth.

The first, and the longest, “Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case” is set in his ABHORSEN series and epitomizes the gripping action scenes I associate with Nix. Though not a fan of action myself, when Nix writes an action scene I feel glued to the page and invested in every word. This story perhaps especially so. While Nix’s books may have an action scene here or there, this short story breaks into a fast stride early on and doesn’t let up.

I want to call out a few other favorites. “Charlie Rabbit” is about how war affects children and is not fantasy. (Not everything here is; it’s actually quite an eclectic collection of stories that really showcases Nix’s range.) “Lightning Bringer” is right up my alley in terms of taste, but—since it’s so short—difficult to describe without giving too much away; suffice to say I recommend it. “Down to the Scum Quarter” is a very fun, nostalgic experience for anyone familiar with the “Choose Your Own Adventures” books. (For those unfamiliar with the concept, the protagonist is you, second person, and every scene ends with a choice. Based on your selection, you’re directed to a specific page number. Many fans enjoy systemically re-reading to discover every possible ending and route through the book.) I also giggled a lot at “My New Really Epic Fantasy Series,” a humorous satire poking fun at overdone fantasy tropes.

Aside from the stories themselves, I really liked that Nix provides a brief 1-2 page introduction for each story. Especially with such varied pieces, it’s intriguing to read what inspired him for each. It was also amusing to learn how many readers send him emails wondering when his “New Really Epic Fantasy Series” will be published. For at least one piece, “The Hill,” I found the opening—a discussion of cultural appropriation—possibly more interesting than the revised piece itself.

Nix is a solid, consistent writer. I know what to expect from him, and I always enjoy it. While my taste runs more towards the fantasy, he’s a skilled enough writer that I enjoyed reading every piece in this varied collection.
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Friday, November 15, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 8


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 8, Recovering a Sense of Strength

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 8’s theme is “recovering a sense of strength” and focuses on time. We already discussed money and now time is the other big-ticket creative block. Cameron focuses more on age than on making time in our day. “It’s too late.” and “I’m too old.” are some of the most common excuses she hears for avoiding one’s passions.

While I didn’t entirely follow how it connects to the time theme, Cameron also has a long discussion of academia in this chapter. Academia doesn’t have to be but sadly often is an enemy of creativity. I entirely agree with Cameron that the reason this happens is because many academics are blocked creatives themselves. She discusses creative writing programs in particular. While they have a lot of potential for nurturing, many do fall into the stereotype of creatively unfulfilled professors cutting down their students as a way to vent their own frustrations. I majored in Creative Writing and found it more harmful than helpful towards improving my writing and actually pursuing publishing. Also, as a bit of the black sheep creative in a family and extended family consisting almost entirely of academics, I definitely experience an internal struggle of intellect and creativity. Prestige versus passion. Increasingly, I tell myself that these concepts can co-exist, but society certainly tries to tell us otherwise.

As for this week’s assignments, I really enjoyed returning to affirmations, especially now that I’m more open to them than the first time I tried them. I also enjoyed “early patternings,” another fill-in-the-blank exercise, this one focused on parental influence about art and creativity. Last, I appreciated listing twenty things I like doing and then “sorting” them, in a manner of speaking. Which are free and which cost money? Of the latter, are they cheap or expensive? Which are solitary activities and which with company? Are they job related? Is there physical risk?

Writing out my ideal day, while a nice idea, seemed counterproductive for me personally. Since I battle perfectionism, I avoid synonyms like “ideal,” too. Giving myself an ideal day sounds wonderful, but the minute my day doesn’t go exactly according to my carefully crafted plan, the day is ruined, no longer ideal anymore. This is the all-or-nothing thinking I’m working hard to disengage. So rather than planning some single perfect day, I think I would rather take elements of what I like and scatter them throughout my life. Balance, balance, balance!

I missed morning pages one day this week. First time that’s happened. My partner returned, bright and early, from a long trip and I was so excited to spend time with him that I entirely forgot about my pages. However, this week’s check-in asked if I’m tempted to abandon the pages and…not at all! I really like them now. I also started a file this week listing a plethora of artist date ideas. I like Cameron’s suggestion of doing two artist dates in one week as a special treat.

Part of why Cameron’s program reminds me so much of mindfulness is that she emphasizes moderation. We often decide we don’t have time for something when we think too big, but sometimes we can work it into our lives on a smaller scale, even possibly expand from there as we grow more familiar with it. Yes, there’s never enough time in the day, but more importantly it’s never too late.
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Friday, November 8, 2019

THE GLASS CASTLE


Review of THE GLASS CASTLE by JEANETTE WALLS

Several people recommended this book to me over the years, but they recommended it generally: it’s a good, popular book. When someone finally recommended it to me personally—it’s about a complex, dysfunctional childhood and you, Rachel, will relate—then I immediately made time for it. What a read. While I experienced my own dysfunctional childhood, Walls made me hyper aware that it could have been a lot worse. Ah, perspective.

However, I think I related to the complexity more than the dysfunction. I’ve read plenty of survivor stories detailing the writer’s specific trauma. Something Walls touches on that makes everything more poignant and real is that her childhood wasn’t all bad. Oh, there was plenty bad. But along with lighting her dress on fire and falling out a moving car, Walls also remembers the adventure, the creativity, and the knowledge.

The chapters are very short, a few pages each dedicated to specific memories that all piece together into a startlingly unique family portrait. I find myself both impressed and entirely unsurprised by Walls’ factual, detached tone regarding such personal subject matter; there is no doubt that detachment became a survival skill for her. By focusing on events over emotions, she leaves plenty of room for empathy, letting us imagine how we might feel if each memory happened to us. (See my opening paragraph about the wonders of perspective.)

I cannot imagine how Walls “summarizes” her family in conversation, if she does, beyond a vague, evasive “it’s complicated.” I like to imagine her handing this book to anyone who asks.
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Friday, November 1, 2019

CHARM


Review of CHARM by SARAH PINBOROUGH
(second in the TALES FROM THE KINGDOMS series)

Like any fairy tale retelling, this one comes alive with distinct, dynamic characters. Pinborough interweaves allusions to several well-known tales, but the primary storyline here is “Cinderella.”

All of the characters feel familiar, believable, and their own twist on more typical interpretations. Though shoved unfairly into a servitude role, this Cinderella is no Mary Sue saint. She’s vain and materialistic, and daydreams of the day when she has her believed due and can lord her power over those who once made her feel powerless. The stepmother, while indeed cruel, is clearly driven by bitterness. She married for love, but it cost her wealth and status and some days she doesn’t know if it was worth it. As for the stepsisters, one is already well married off while the other is kind, but – as Cinderella observes – not pretty enough for the marriage prospects her mother entertains for her.

This is a short book, at 187 pages, so no surprise I’m writing a short review. I find readers rather split on fairy tale retellings. Some have had enough of them, no matter how original, while others can never get enough. I fall into the latter category, but I do want every version I read to feel slightly different. CHARM stands out with complex and unexpected portrayals of familiar characters. I would happily gobble up dozens more of these satisfying twists.
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Friday, October 25, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 7


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 7, Recovering a Sense of Connection

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 7’s theme of “recovering a sense of connection” is another title that seemed very arbitrary to me. However, what I related to most in this chapter are Cameron’s discussions of both perfectionism and jealousy.

Perfectionism is one of my biggest blocks, not just creatively. I’ve been aware of this for a long time, but it’s easier to label our flaws than to fix them. My unhealthy draw towards perfectionism is the reason I found myself interested in mindfulness in the first place; it seems like exactly the kind of self-reflection that could benefit me. I pretty much want to quote Cameron’s entire section on perfectionism because I related to it all so much, but instead I’ll pick out two favorites: “Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead.” and “Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough—that we should try again.” I read a psychology article a long while back that insisted people often have difficulty moving past their flaws when, on some level, they see those flaws as strengths. For me, this is definitely true. While I can logically, intellectually discuss how my perfectionism is harmful, deep down I think my conviction that I will never be good enough is what drives me so hard and I’m scared to let that go, scared accepting my present self means a decrease in output and/or quality.

Jealousy is also relatable to just about everyone. (If you can’t relate, I’m jealous of you.) I want to say jealousy is especially applicable in creative fields, but that might be an egocentric view; after all, jealousy is everywhere. I like Cameron’s quote: “jealousy is a map.” Figuring that out is what first drove me to writing. When I was seventeen, I read somewhere that you should listen closely to your jealousy, because it’s telling you what you want. I promptly realized I was more jealous of writers than any other human beings, and I wrote my first book within a year of that realization.

One of this week’s exercises also centers on jealousy: list people of whom you are jealous, then list why you are jealous of them, and last consider what actionable step you can take towards satisfying that jealousy. This will probably sound like bragging, but I am rarely jealous. I think my seventeen-year-old revelation showed me early on that this stigmatized emotion is actually a powerful key. I reroute any jealousy promptly into self-reflection on what I want and hard work towards it. Also I think jealousy is often a very misguided emotion. We look at others and see their reward but not the sacrifice. We want the good and not the bad. I believe everything in life is a trade-off and we each make trades that feel worthwhile to us.

This week also has you use the following phrase as a mantra: “treating myself like a precious object will make me strong.” I found that extremely valuable, because I don’t naturally agree with the statement. As Cameron discusses, I fall into the trap of believing I must be harsh with myself to achieve anything. She argues that nurturing is just as effective a motivator as guilt, with the added benefit of making you more happy than miserable! This week, and that mantra in particular, contributed to a significant shift in my mindset towards being kinder to myself.  

I entirely skipped two assignments this week: going to a sacred space and doing the collage. I couldn’t think of any “sacred space” I had any interest in going to within my own town. I might well be making too much of the word “sacred,” but if I downplay it then my answer is “home,” anyway. So I guess I went there! As for the collage, I’ve done them before, way too many times in my opinion, and I never once gained anything from them. Especially since I don’t read magazines and I have zero interest in buying several I don’t want for the specific purpose of doing a collage I didn’t want to do in the first place.  

I’m actually starting to enjoy my morning pages. Every week also features an “end-of-week check-in” with a few questions, the first always about these pages. I found this week’s check-in phrase of “coddling your artist child with childhood love” inane, but I know that’s my cynical skeptic speaking. And, more seriously, yes, I am definitely being kinder to myself.

I noticed a distinct mind shift this week. Cameron mentions that, while most of her students gain something from the program, for the majority change comes so gradually as to be imperceptible at first. This week, I felt like I really noticed my own changes. I’m happier as well as more relaxed and content. I feel like I’m finding balance in my life by pursuing the things I want in manageable moderation.

Friday, October 18, 2019

MURDER OF CROWS


Review of MURDER OF CROWS by ANNE BISHOP
(second in THE OTHERS series)

The fact that it has taken me so long to read this book is merely a testament to how many books I want to read, since this one has been high on my list since I read the first one way back in 2016. Be forewarned that this review contains spoilers for the first book, WRITTEN IN RED.

After blood prophet Meg’s former master attempted to reclaim her, everyone in their community is on edge. Not ideal when “everyone” includes werewolves, vampires, and plenty of scary beings without easy names. Someone is clearly trying to stir up tensions between humans and the Others and incite a greater conflict.

Typical for a Bishop novel, this book features a huge cast of intriguing characters. Yes, sometimes the names and relations become difficult to track (still a far cry from A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE levels), but Bishop knows how to place emphasis so I always remember what I need for following the plot. To make it all the more impressive, I read this second book years after the first without missing a beat.

After reading most of her works, Bishop’s stories start to feel formulaic. However, I absolutely mean that as a compliment; it’s her own formula and it’s one that works. While “formulaic” has a negative connotation, I’m happy to read as many books written to this formula as she’s willing to write. Many characters seem to have their doppelganger equivalents in her other works. A quiet and mistreated, but notably powerful heroine. A wide network of her friends and allies offering protection, emotional support, and comedic relief. A gruff love interest confused by his own romantic feelings. A psychopathic villain who sees others as tools not people. Bishop’s work always looks at both the worst and the best of human nature, skillfully coupled with the comforting mundane.

There’s something soothing about reading a favorite formulaic author. You know what to expect. You know you love it. While some books feel like “taking a chance,” I know I can settle down with an Anne Bishop book and a cup of tea, and I’m in for hours of cozy, rewarding reading.
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Friday, October 11, 2019

JESSICA PAGE MORRELL



Interview with JESSICA PAGE MORRELL

Jessica Page Morrell understands both sides of the editorial desk--as an editor and an author. She has written several books on the craft of writing, and she works as a developmental editor where she has learned how to quickly size up a story’s merits. Jessica lives in Portland, where she is surrounded by writers.

What are you reading right now?

I usually have several books in progress, also read a fair number of short stories and am currently reading Dorothy Allison’s collection TRASH. I believe short stories can teach us so much about crafting fiction. I call it fiction on a budget—sort of like film shorts. We can note which details the author homed in on, especially to establish the main story problem or situation, the protagonist’s key traits, voice, setting, and atmosphere. I also listen to The New Yorker podcast where short stories are read from the magazine. Really relaxing way to end the day before I nod off to sleep.

I’m also reading RIVER OF DOUBT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT’S DARKEST JOURNEY by Candice Millard. It’s about Roosevelt’s exploratory trip on a tributary of the Amazon after he lost his bid for the presidency as a third-party candidate. It’s a great story to read while there’s an international conversation about what true leadership means. I’m also re-reading Daniel Woodrell’s TOMATO RED because it’s freaking brilliant and Woodrell creates indelible characters and story worlds.    

What first sparked your interest in writing and editing?

I’ve been interested in writing since I was a kid, was an avid reader, and wrote poems and stories. In fifth grade our oddball teacher, Mr. Becker, tuned in an old radio in the back of the classroom to a public radio show for young writers. The woman’s voice was as old and creaky as a haunted house, and she’d assign weekly stories. One assignment was to create a story about a monster with a far-out name; and once I read about my shambling creature in front of the class and was met with approval, I was truly hooked. I took journalism classes in high school and edited a column in two local newspapers and created a literary magazine.

 I moved to Portland, Oregon in 1991 and landed an editing job with a local publisher in about 1996. The publisher was a former magazine journalist for major magazines and while working for him I learned a lot about copyediting and how to rewrite inaccurate and unformed writing. Gradually I was assigned fiction titles and learned how to work closely with authors to create a better story. Somewhere along the way they laid me off because of a company downturn and I started my own editing gig.

Before I worked as editor, I wrote a suspense novel and submitted it to an editor at a publishing house. The editor sent me a rejection letter that began “this is the hardest letter I’ve ever written” and explained why he was rejecting it. It was a blow, but I made up my mind to learn everything there was to learn about writing fiction. By this time I was also in love with teaching writers and passing on what I learned to other writers.   

What do you love the most about writing? The least? What about editing?

I love so much about writing, but maybe these days it’s how writing makes me feel doubly alive and gives me a means to indulge and explore my love of language. It’s also a repository of my general wonder at this planet and fellow humans. The least favorite would be the physical toll. Sitting a lot and typing a lot just causes eye strain, neck and back pain, and such. I’m not able to settle in and write for long swaths because I need to get up and stretch and move.

Editing is simply a satisfying endeavor. I love helping writers become better writers and good writers get published. My least favorite part of it is writing memos to writers to explain why their stories or techniques just aren’t working and why they need to rethink their approach. I jokingly call myself the Angel of Death, but the truth is, every time I return a manuscript to a writer I’m a little sick. 

Tell us a little about your writing process as well as your editing process.

I’ve been writing so long that I don’t have a lot of problems with starting or jumping back into a project. I also have a backlog of ideas and projects. I carry notebooks with me at all times where I jot down ideas and I’ve trained myself to be able to write anytime, anywhere. I used to be an early morning writer and believed those were the only hours I could write at my best level. I struggle with being distractible so I give myself little rewards along the way. I also have a document open on my laptop or computer most of the time that I call my Commonplace Book and I start a new one every season. It’s another place I jot down language, ideas, inspirations—usually snippets I find online while I’m researching or reading. And all this capturing of ideas and snippets is simply fun and reminds me to be observant, listening in at all times.

As for editing—with new clients I start the process by reading a sample and learning where the writer is at with his or her skill level and what his/her goals are. I work in Word’s Track Changes program and start with a read-through and quick edit. As I’m reading I open a document and start noting what’s working and the gaps and issues that are in the way. This will become a detailed memo—usually 10-25 single-spaced pages. After I’ve figured out the main problems, I delve back into the trouble spots—usually going through the entire manuscript twice and certain scenes three or four times, and really dig in with copyediting, revisions, and comments in the right-hand column of the document. It’s laborious and I like to mull over every story for about 3 weeks so that solutions can start taking shape as I work along. Some of these occur as I’m drifting off to sleep or going for a walk. This means I don’t take on a lot of full-length manuscripts in a year, but I also edit short stories and lately have been working on a kids’ book series. And I work on nonfiction from memoirs to business books. It’s a meaningful gig.

What are your passions?

Gardening, cooking, politics, hiking in the Pacific Northwest, taking in stories in all forms such as attending the theater, history, and art. And the Green Bay Packers—I grew up about 100 miles from Green Bay. Three years ago I bought a small fixer-upper with a long-neglected yard. I’m working at rehabilitating both. This year I grew more than a dozen tomato plants.  This means I’m busy harvesting tomatoes, giving some away, creating roasted sauces to freeze, and finding new ways to eat tomatoes at most meals. Last night it was roasted cherry tomatoes with scallops.  
About 15 years ago I started a picking garden because I need fresh flowers in my house and growing flowers, especially dahlias, brings me great joy. My secret wish is to be a flower farmer.  I began cooking when I was eight, was in the restaurant/food business, and became a food writer so I’m always inventing and trying new recipes. Currently I’m creating a cookbook for my oldest granddaughter of our favorite recipes. I spend too much time on Pinterest collecting recipes, rehabbing and garden ideas. HGTV and Brit gardening and cooking shows are my guilty pleasures.

I’d always planned on going back to college to study history and political science when I retired, but retirement might never happen. So I decided to start learning from home and have been taking Great Courses and listening to podcasts on topics that fascinate me. For the past year I’ve been studying the history of English and it’s been so enriching. I’m also studying how history, food, and culture intersect. A few years ago I was in Dublin and was blown away by the Viking display at the National Museum of History and have also been studying their fascinating history.
I’ve been interested in politics since I was a teenager, subscribe to a variety of newspapers and magazines, often have CSPAN and MSNBC on in the background when I’m puttering around, am part of the Resistance, and am volunteering to elect progressives in 2020.

What inspires you?

I find inspiration everywhere. Then there’s reading, of course. Poetry, especially reading poems first thing in the morning. Forests with old growth. Writers’ conferences.  Bookstores.  The endless Pacific. Perusing writer’s blogs and Twitter feeds. Farmer’s markets, gardens, film, hanging out with children, country drives and exploring Oregon, inventors, attending the theater and concerts, long deep conversations with old friends, wandering around new towns and cities, any activity that allows my mind to roam free. I’m also big on wandering around in neighborhoods and simply paying attention, wondering about the people who live there.   

Why write books about writing?

I started teaching writers in 1991 and over the next five years or so I’d run into students all over Portland. We’d meet in checkout lines or at music venues or farmer’s markets and we’d chat and these former students would enthuse about my classes and all he/she learned. Then I’d ask what seemed to me the obvious next question: So how’s your writing going? And most of them confessed that they weren’t writing. They’d stopped writing when the class ended.  It was borderline heartbreaking. It set me thinking and asking people about why they did not write even though they wanted to write. This led to my first book WRITING OUT THE STORM, which is one of those get-off-your-butt-and-freaking-just-write books. It addressed how most people who avoid writing are afraid to write and simple ways to sneak past those fears.

I wrote more books about writing because I saw gaps that needed filling. For example, I noticed that would-be fiction writers needed to focus more on the subtler aspects of the craft. I noticed the rise of the anti-hero across all storytelling platforms and it seemed few people were talking about it. And as much as I love teaching, I realized I could reach more writers by creating books instead of teaching live, even when I had the chance to address hundreds at a writing conference.
I also write about writing because I believe the world needs more stories. More shared realities. More truths from marginalized people and working-class people and people we’ll never get to meet except on a page. So that our shared humanity can make sense, can unite instead of divide us.  

Do you have genres that you prefer editing? Are they the same ones you prefer reading?

I try to read widely and keep up on publishing trends. I regularly read first chapters online because I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like. In the past 10 years or so I’ve become particularly interested in dystopian fiction because it’s so easy to envision as this country and the planet are teetering towards disaster with icebergs melting and oceans warming.

I’ve probably worked the most with suspense and thriller manuscripts and they’re a lot of fun because I like helping assemble and arrange the puzzle pieces and make sure that tension shivers and whispers beneath everything. I love the challenge of editing historical fiction because I have an ear for period dialogue and a nose for using accurate period details. Well, maybe not nose. But I’m a curious person and have always paid attention to the smallest details. I want the stories to transport readers into another time and place, a place that’s pulsating with authenticity and redolent with smells of the era, lit by candlelight or lamplight so that readers can sense the shadows and hush and backbreaking toil before household gadgets and technology, all without it becoming a dissertation. Same goes for world building in fantasy and science fiction. Horror is fun to edit, also a cool challenge, but man, it’s hard to get right.

Do you have advice for aspiring authors?

First, harden up. Writing is a meaningful but tough life.  Start out humble and stay humble. Learn structure. While not glamorous, the more you understand the underpinnings of storytelling, the easier it will be to write.

Keep it simple. Most beginning writers overwrite and add dollops and modifiers and digressions. Every word in every sentence needs a job to do. If not, fire it.  

If you hate marketing, don’t want to maintain a website, and somehow promote yourself on social media, then it might be best to back out now. These days writing requires reaching out.  I’ve met countless authors who complain about how they hate marketing—they’re usually the same ones who also complain about poor book sales. There are way too many people willing to Instagram and tweet and post on Facebook to take your place. There are way too many people with high social media profiles. Publishers want to publish them, because their followers are likely to buy their books. Sad as it might sound, you’re creating a product. As the creator of a product, you need to find people who want your product. This doesn’t diminish what you do; separate you from your passions and artist’s sensibility. Storytelling in all forms is an important contribution to the world. Having a social media presence doesn’t negate that.   

Listen. Stop defending your work, your plot, and your pantsing approach. Instead listen to writers and editors who are more experienced than you. Along that line, search out mentors. If you live in small town or remote place, find these writers online. Pay attention to how writers build their careers. If possible, hang out with other writers. No one else will understand you the way writers do. If possible, take part in a critique group or find a way to receive intelligent, unbiased feedback.

Expand your vocabulary. Word gathering and collecting adds up and pays off.  Create word lists. Fill notebooks. Keep a running list of potent verbs on your phone. Snatch up metaphors. Start now if you already haven’t made this a lifelong habit.

Go through your days looking for deeper meaning and truths.

Stay true to yourself.

The more you write the more you write. It’s a muscle thing—keep at it. If your writing practice is scant or shaky, make writing a priority. Be ruthless, laser-focused, and smart with your time.

And speaking of time—it’s the main commodity you’ll never have enough of. Or at least it will feel that way. Protect your writing time or schedule, like you’re protecting a babe from slavering wolves.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself?

If I can write books, so can you. I’ve written books while recovering from a head injury, while juggling three jobs, while my back ached, and my heart was breaking. Life can go to hell or become seriously complicated in an instant—illness, accident, death in the family, colicky babies who won’t sleep. In the midst of chaos, try to keep notes about how you’re coping, feeling, grieving. Some of these potent, raw emotions can become your richest treasures. But capture them. And sometimes you’ll find that writing, despite or through hard circumstances, just might save you, hold you up.       


Friday, October 4, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 6


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 6, Recovering a Sense of Abundance

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.

This week’s theme of “recovering a sense of abundance” really means “let’s talk money.” Most importantly, Cameron is not pushing some spend-everything-in-the-name-of-art-and-go-bust agenda, so those of you whose hackles lifted at “money” (mine did) can relax now. Instead she discusses how money can be one of the bigger practical concerns blocking creative impulses. Along the lines of avoiding an all-or-nothing mindset, Cameron pushes her readers to find that balance between exploring their creativity without being financially irresponsible to themselves or their loved ones. She understands that we all have different financial means, but she does ask you to consider whether there’s any reasonable wiggle room in your budget for even a small creative indulgence now and again.

I had fun with a lot of the assignments this week. “Money madness” is another fill-in-the-blank exercise, this one specifically exploring your own attitudes towards money. I also liked disposing of five ratty pieces of clothing. I strongly agree that clutter can be its own kind of creative block, and it’s another good mindfulness practice: periodically assessing what you actually need and want among your possessions and discarding everything else. I loved baking something, although in confession I do that most every week, anyway, since I’m teaching myself gluten-free baking. But this week is was an official assignment! And my morning pages have become a natural habit by now. They’re easy and even quite relaxing at times, though I do still struggle filling a whole three pages.

I didn’t much like the task of finding five pretty rocks and five pretty flowers. I did the assignment, but—um—just didn’t much see the point. There’s also a subtle philosophy difference here. I’m not wild about removing something from its place. Noticing pretty rocks and flowers is one thing, but I would rather observe them and then leave them where they belong than take them for myself. This week also had us rereading the Basic Principles every day again. I obliged Cameron, but I still find them sweet gibberish. Same with synchronicity. I haven’t written about it again, although Cameron brings up the concept every week, because my attitude hasn’t changed at all. Suffice it to say I never gained much from the whole synchronicity concept throughout the entire 12-week program.

Money is one of life’s biggest issues, from lots of angles. Biggest general stress. Biggest source of relationship tension. Biggest decisions. So it’s no surprise that it’s one of the biggest factors in blocking creativity. But the fact is that you don’t need to be rich to be creative. Money (and time) are major limiting factors and it’s disappointing to settle for a lesser version of what you “dream-want,” but there are ways to explore your interests that are reasonably within your means.
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Friday, September 27, 2019

POISON

Review of POISON by SARAH PINBOROUGH
(first in the TALES FROM THE KINGDOMS series)

POISON markets itself as a dark (“wicked”) fairytale retelling, and that it is. Despite the elegant hardcover packaging, this is no sweet story twist for younger readers. Though twisted motivations are hardly new in fairy tales, even the kiddy versions, you’ll find a bit more gore and lust in this one.

POISON retells “Snow White.” The bones of the story feel very familiar: a cruel stepmother queen, a beautiful young princess, seven dwarf friends. However, Snow White has a wild streak and her stepmother’s hatred has an unexpected root cause. There’s a dark happily-ever-after of sorts, but really only for one person and likely not the one you expect.

Despite being such a short book, Pinborough brings a familiar story to life in a new twist with vivid, sensual writing and intriguing, imperfect characters.

Friday, September 20, 2019

DAILY LIFE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND


Review of DAILY LIFE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND by SALLY MITCHELL

I’ve been reading dozens of books about and written during the Victorian era as research for a series of short stories that I’m writing. A lot of what I’m reading would only appeal to the researcher or hardcore Victorian era aficionado. However, with some of them, such as DAILY LIFE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND, I see a mass appeal for anyone interested in learning a little more about this era.

The other Victorian era books that I’ve reviewed so far organized their content by either room or time of day. This one is a bit more classically organized, with chapters such as “A Brief History,” “House, Food, and Clothes,” “Education,” and “Victorian Morality.” The logic is natural and easy to follow with strong, accessible writing as well as interesting excerpts from era material. I especially liked the entry from Queen Victoria’s diary the day her uncle died. She was young, but, of course, groomed for this role all her life, and she sounds admirably mature for any age but especially her mere eighteen years.

This is the third book about the Victorian era that I’ve reviewed. Unless you have a particular interest in the subject matter, I think you’ll be content reading any one of them. This one I found more traditionally organized, but most distinctive for the excerpts the author chose to include as well as a few less common topics, tangents, and unexpected facts.
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Friday, September 13, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 5


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 5, Recovering a Sense of Possibility

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 5 focuses on “recovering a sense of possibility.” Cameron discusses this concept of “being blocked” repeatedly, which I interpret as holding yourself back from what you really want out of some type of fear. This week has us examining those fears. For the first four weeks, we spent a lot of time exploring our interests: activities we miss, activities we would like to try. Week 5 starts asking hard questions about why we aren’t doing those things then. From there, Cameron pushes you to assess whether or not yours reasons are valid. Tying into mindfulness again, she also urges against all-or-nothing thinking. So you won’t be an Olympic gymnast. Doesn’t mean you can’t take a few beginner gymnastics classes (or yoga or Pilates if you need something gentler). Find small ways you can introduce ambitious activities or interests. For that matter, think of it as exploration, not mastery.

Cameron also introduces what she calls the “virtue trap,” to which I could relate. To paraphrase her description, the virtue trap is the sense that we become noble martyrs by sacrificing our creative yearnings for the more practical responsibilities in life. We feel virtuous for this sacrifice, but Cameron argues it is entirely unnecessary. By allowing ourselves to pursue our creative yearnings, especially in small, manageable increments, we will likely become happier and more relaxed, which makes practical responsibilities easier to handle, anyway. There can be an up-front cost: telling your partner/children/friends you need some time for yourself. However, I subscribe to the old adage that you can’t take care of others until you take care of yourself.

I also resonated with Cameron’s discussion of belief. She claims most of us are suspicious of belief, more specifically hope. It’s too out of our control. Hope feels scary and dangerous. What if we let ourselves hope and dream and believe, only to be massively disappointed? Cameron argues that hope can be empowering. That it’s a strength, rather than the naïve weakness it’s sometimes labelled.

This week had more fill-in-the-blank exercises and I always enjoy those. I find surprises sometimes pop up in my answers. I liked the virtue trap quiz that encourages analysis of how you might fall into this trap’s fallacy as well as the “I wish” list that simply has you finish that sentence about twenty times.  

I'm starting to like the morning pages a little. I’m not a total convert, but I don’t dislike them anymore. On the other hand, I love my artist date every week and have no doubt that will be a continuing tradition for me. This week I organized my recipes. That may not sound like creative fun to most, but I’m one of those oddballs who loves organizing, listing, tidying, planning. Since discovering I’m Celiac, I’ve been exploring gluten-free cooking and baking and I wanted to consolidate my recipes in one place, especially because I often make my own adjustments to the original. So now, after trying a new recipe and deciding I like it, I type it up using the same format for all, make my own adjustments and list where the original is from, note any variations I want to try, add a photo from when I made it if I took one, and add approximate nutrition facts from a helpful calculation tool I found online. All the information I want how I want it and consolidated in one place!

As I mentioned in my original review, one of my biggest doubts about trying this program is that it’s pitched as a program to help “unblock blocked creatives” and I never considered myself blocked in the first place. This week has you ask yourself what the “payoff” is in staying blocked. That felt less relevant to me, but I do think I’ve been “blocked” in other non-writing areas, convinced I only had enough time in the day to pursue that one creative thing. The payoff for me has mostly been staying in my comfort zone. I’m very much a creature of habit and will often opt for same over new even if new is clearly better. Trying anything new involves taking a risk and possibly failing at something. Since the program is very much about mindful self-reflection, I’ve been working on internalizing the mantra that failure is merely an integral part of success. Sometimes failure is proof of trying.
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