No, You can’t have too many books.

cranky book cat

Library cat says, “Don’t judge me.”

Over the course of his life, Umberto Eco amassed a collection of some thirty thousand books. The twentieth-century Italian novelist, philosopher, and medievalist housed his personal library in a labyrinthine expanse of long, bookcase-lined hallways that led to and through dozens of rooms, each of which was filled with rows of heavily laden shelves. Nestled here and there were large tables stacked high with more books and piles of manuscript pages. It was the kind of place you could easily—and if you were a bibliophile, happily—get lost in.

While my own library is immeasurably more modest than Signor Eco’s, the two do have something in common: both include a number of books never read by their owner.

I used to feel guilty about all the unread books on my shelves, but that was before I read about the “antilibrary.” The term was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Lebanese-American essayist and scholar who studies randomness, probability, and uncertainty. In his book, The Black Swan, Taleb used Eco’s unique relationship with his books to illustrate the concept of the antilibrary—a collection of books that, because the owner has not yet read them, represent the unknown and a potential for learning.

Taleb described how Eco separated visitors to his library into two categories: those who wanted to know how many of the books he had read, and those who understood that the library was a valuable research tool.

Read books are far less valuable than unread ones,” Taleb wrote. “The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.”

I find this concept very reassuring, given my penchant for continuing to buy new books even though I already have dozens of still-unread ones sitting patiently on my shelves.

Too often, people think of a personal library as a kind of literary trophy case, showing off all the books the owner has read. While I enjoy being surrounded by my favorite books (and do, quite often, reread them), I now realize there is something to be said for balancing your collection with a healthy number of unread volumes.

Taleb’s idea of the antilibrary helps us refocus our attention from the known (books we have read) to the unknown (everything else). It gently reminds us that we should neither hoard knowledge nor lord it over other people in an attempt to ascend some imaginary ladder of hierarchy. By reminding us of everything we don’t know, the antilibrary restores our humility while simultaneously inspiring our curiosity.

Yes, once I felt remorseful about all my unread books, but not so much anymore. Now, I’m actually kind of excited. Each unread book feels like an adventure just waiting to begin. Each one holds untold possibilities. What lessons might be learned? What secrets might be revealed? What inspiration might strike? What tears might fall? What intrigue and drama might erupt off the page to sweep me off my feet and into another reality?

It is comforting to have so many reading options available at my fingertips, and having so many books in my to-be-read pile means that my home library feels a little like a bookstore in that it maintains a subtle yet powerfully alluring air of discovery.

And isn’t that perhaps the most appealing thing about a book—the possibility that it will help us discover something new about the world, about life, or about ourselves? How much nicer it is to imagine each unread book on our shelves not as an unfulfilled task or a neglected obligation, but as an as yet unwrapped gift that may give us the opportunity to unlock some new knowledge, attain a new insight, or capture a new experience? Yes, that’s much better. Let’s go with that.

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What’s in your antilibrary? Do you collect books on the writing craft, novels, poetry? How do you feel about having those unread tomes on your shelf? When do you dip into that reservoir of yet-to-be-consumed stories and wisdom?

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Photo Credit: Dany_Sternfeld Flickr via Compfight cc

For the Writer Who Hasn’t Been Writing

 

In her smart and inspiring book, Lab Girl, geobiologist and author Hope Jahren writes, “A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed.” One of many gentle insights on the dogged perseverance of both budding scientists and plant life, this passage invites personal musings on dormancy, both literal and figurative.

Dormancy is a regular part of nature. At this time of year, we think of the world as “coming back to life,” but the innumerable seedlings and buds that finally emerge in spring have, in fact, been very much alive during the long, enchanted sleep of winter. They were never dead; they were just biding their time until the moment was right.

Even houseplants, which live in artificial conditions and are sometimes subject to neglect, have the ability to seemingly resurrect themselves. I have a small cyclamen plant that I saved from a holiday arrangement a few years ago. I did a passing fair job of caring for it until this winter when a severe cold trapped me on the couch for a week. By the time I remembered to water the poor thing, there was nothing left of the cyclamen except two dried leaves and one straggling bud that never had the chance to bloom.

Despite the sorry state of the little plant, I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. Not expecting any miracles, I gave it some water and a sunny spot on the windowsill. For months, nothing happened. It looked as if I was caring for a pot of dirt. And then one day there were signs of life.

Like the undulating arms of a tiny terrestrial octopus, several delicate, fuzz-covered shoots arched gracefully out from a tangle of dead stems and partially exposed roots. A few days later, the tips of several shoots had unfurled into beautiful variegated leaves that spread wide and began, imperceptibly, tracking the movements of the sun like an array of miniature radar dishes tuned into the songs of the stars.

There are parts of ourselves—dreams, hopes, beliefs—that are like seeds waiting to germinate or like neglected houseplants that seem half dead, but have really just drawn their life force back into themselves for safe keeping.

Maybe you grew up wishing you could be an explorer or an artist, but life led you down a different path, and now you can hardly recognize yourself as the child who dreamed of sailing the seven seas, writing poetry, or capturing visions in paint. That piece of yourself is not dead and gone; it is just dormant, waiting for the right time to stretch into the light.

You can often coax new growth simply by providing a little sustenance. Just like my cyclamen needed water and sunlight, your sleeping dreams need time and attention. For now, they may be curled up in the quiet dark, but there is no expiration date on their potential.

Our dreams can even benefit from time in stasis. Like a seed that must hold itself in limbo until there is enough space, sunshine, water, and nutrients to sustain it, sometimes our dreams have to wait until we have the right life experience, confidence, or motivation. While our Western sensibilities tend to encourage a state of constant striving, sometimes we would be wiser to practice a more organic way of becoming.

Jahren tells a story in Lab Girl about a lotus seed that scientists dug out of a peat bog in China. After the seed sprouted in the lab, the researchers radiocarbon-dated the discarded shell and found that the seed had been dormant for two thousand years. Truly, you can never say never.

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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The World Needs More Fairy Tales

Artist: Seb Mckinnon — http://www.sebmckinnon.com/

The world needs fairytales more than ever. Besieged daily with news headlines that are by turns terrifying, infuriating, heartbreaking, and straight up unbelievable, we are desperate for solid footing in our new and wildly uncertain reality. Ironically, fairytales may be just the thing to ground us in this upside-down world.

While fairytales and myths may at first appear to live squarely in the land of make believe, their roots run deep in our collective psyche, easily reaching across barriers of time, geography, and culture. Masquerading as entertainment and escapism, they are in fact ancient threads in the tapestry of civilization. And they serve a critical role, especially in the lives of children.

The author Neil Gaiman sums up the special magic of fairytales thus, “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” The sentiment is a paraphrasing of a longer quote attributed to another British writer, G.K. Chesterton. In the original, Chesterton adds, “Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

In short, fairytales teach us how to deal with monsters. They prove to us that monsters can be vanquished, and by so proving give us hope and courage and the audacity to take up arms against the darkness.

Fairytales also help us to recognize the monsters that we face in real life. Those well versed in fantasy and myth can spot a bad guy a mile off. We know their traits and their tells. They cannot fool us. We’ve read this story before.

Fairytales, myths, and their contemporary counterparts (urban fantasy, science fiction, superhero stories, and so forth) also help us recognize the heroes and heroines within ourselves. The stories we read become part of our internal identity. We become the protagonist on a journey or quest, and we learn through  vicarious experience what it feels like to do battle with evil and emerge victorious. Fairytales, in particular, seem to possess an especially potent magic that causes their DNA to merge with ours, changing us forever.

The real world is full of monsters. They may not look like the beasts and demons of mythical lore, but their hearts are as dark and their intentions as evil. There are people marching under Nazi flags, serial killers, and corporations savaging the natural resources that sustain us all. There are Machiavellian demagogues, morally bereft political operatives, and narcissists who are dangerously out of touch with reality.  There are schoolyard bullies, backstabbing co-workers, and online trolls. We have no shortage of villains.

But I like to think that we also have uncounted numbers of fairytale-reading heroes and heroines, just waiting for their chance to put the monsters in their place. You cannot tell me that a generation raised on Harry Potter doesn’t have the advantage against the forces of darkness. We may not have magic wands, but we carry within us the magic of those stories and hundreds more like them — stories in which the powers of kindness, friendship, and justice prevail against any adversary.

And I would add a gentle reminder that fairytales are not just for children. As C.S. Lewis, the author of the beloved Narnia tales, said, “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Perhaps it’s time for more adults to recognize the gifts of clarity and inspiration that are folded in the pages of magical stories. There is wisdom to be had, and great insight, if only we can be brave enough to look.

 

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Tempting the Muse – A Quick Bit of Advice

Sharon Stone in the Albert Brooks 1999 movie, The Muse

I’m going to bet that your muse doesn’t always show up when you want her to.

Muses are tricky, fickle creatures. They are like cats in that they prefer to do things only when they damn well please and never according to anyone else’s schedules or needs. Also, like cats, they have a tendency to show up when you least expect them. How often have you been struck by inspiration in a moment when you absolutely cannot act on that inspiration (like in the middle of a business meeting, for instance)?

But then, when you’re ready to make your move and itching for that lightning-bolt-out-of-the-blue whack upside the head, your muse is nowhere to be seen. You’ve set up the perfect conditions: steaming mug of tea, a quiet environment, your lucky sweatshirt, several hours of uninterrupted time, and a handful of Dove dark chocolates. You’re ready to rock and roll, but … no muse.

It can be infuriating.

The thing is, your muse is not a creature of habit or a 9-to-5 worker who is going to clock in at the same time every day. She’s more wild and spontaneous than that, which is why you need to learn to work without her – butt in chair, fingers on keyboard, muse or no muse.

Your muse likes to sneak up on you while you’re in the shower, driving down the highway, or cutting cauliflower florets for dinner. It amuses her to stop you in the middle of doing something else and surprise you with an epiphany that leaves you frozen in thought under the shower head, missing your exit, or knife paused mid slice.

While I’ve learned to work without my muse and to adapt to her capricious ways, I’ve also recently realized that I can be sneaky, too. I’ve discovered that I can lure my muse to me with the right bait. Lately, the bait that has been most effective is a morning power walk to the epic sounds of my Lindsey Stirling station on Pandora. I walk and listen, and the world of my book opens up before my inner eye. Scenes play inside my head as though I’m watching them on a movie screen. Flashes of character insights pop into my mind unbidden. I keep moving. I keep listening. If my logical brain tries to veer into the mundane territory of the days To Do list, I gently lead it back down the rabbit hole of my story daydreaming.

And every once in a while, I take out my phone as casually as I can (don’t want to frighten my muse away) and type in a few notes to help me remember the things that I’ve discovered.

If you’re having trouble managing your muse, maybe a different approach will help you reconnect with your inspiration. Sometimes, inspiration is something that you can only see out of the corner of your eye. Squinting at it head on will only give you a headache, but if you just pretend you’re not paying attention, your muse may just sidle up and make herself comfortable.

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. In addition to my bi-weekly weekday posts, you can also check out my Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy archives. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Dear Writer, You need more magic in your life.

Hidden Magic (Instagram: @suddenlyjamie)

Do you ever plunk yourself down, pen in hand, and feel like there’s nothing left? Do you ever come to the keyboard and only to find that your inspiration has been thoroughly depleted? You don’t have to answer. I’m betting you’ve had similar experiences. Some people call it writer’s block. Other’s call it life fatigue. Whatever name you give it, there’s a can’t-miss solution to get you back on track: get more magic in your life.

You see, magic begets magic. When you make more room in your life for magic, you’ll find that it fuels your creativity like nothing else. Even better, finding magic is easy. You can do it in the spare moments of your day. All you need to do is keep your eyes open. It’s there, all around you.

I wrote the following column for my local paper, but I’m hoping it may also be suitable to share here among fellow writers. Artists and writers should take special care to seek out magic in their daily lives. I consider it part of my self-care routine, and I can tell when I’ve been neglecting it.

So, here’s to finding magic in unexpected places. Enjoy!

 

 


One of the best things about hanging out with little kids is getting the chance to see the world through their eyes. A child’s view of reality isn’t clouded by doubt or cynicism. It isn’t limited by things like logic or so-called “common sense.” When a kid looks at the world, it is with an open mind that is ready and willing to embrace things an adult would overlook simply because of our grown-up prejudice against the impossible.

But, as Alice’s White Queen would tell you, you can believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast if you simply draw a long breath, shut your eyes, and try.

The truth is, there is magic all around us, each and every day. To see it, we just need to take the queen’s advice. There’s a lot to be said for deep breaths and other things that help us pause for a moment and become fully aware of the wonders right in front of our noses.

It’s much too easy to surrender to the tugging and nagging of the Everyday World. As grown-ups, we’re supposed to be responsible and realistic. We’re supposed to know about things like taxes and flu prevention and the latest dreadful headlines (of which there seem to be so many these days). Our lives are busy-busy-busy and packed full to bursting with all kinds of Serious Matters and Important Tasks.

But we all need magic in our lives. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Thankfully, magic comes in an infinite number of flavors. In addition to the magic of a child’s imagination, there is the magic of sunrises and sunsets — brilliant and subtle sky paintings in every hue and shade, all lit from within and turning the world pink and blue and purple. There is the magic of spring’s first buds emerging into the bright air despite the cold and lingering pockets of ice and snow. There is the magic of last year’s seedpods, looking for all the world like perfect, faerie architecture with arches and catacombs.

One of my favorite kinds of magic is dog magic. I have yet to meet a canine who lacked the ability to work a spell on me. I see a dog, and I smile. I can’t help it. Dogs lighten my heart and remind me of all the goodness in the world. I can be walking down the street, dragging my cloud of worries behind me, and then I see a dog and those worries just evaporate into nothing. All it takes is one furry-faced smile.

And, of course, there is magic in stories and poems and music and all manner of art. During especially stressful times, I make sure to pepper my day with creative magic. My morning usually includes the enchantment of classical music, each movement and piece offering up a wordless story that is clearly magical. Throughout the day, I take a moment here and a moment there to visit the Facebook posts of certain friends who have a knack for curating the most whimsical and inspiring collections of art. Each visit lasts only a minute, but the effects linger for much longer.

I have reached an age at which I believe I have earned the right to be taken seriously when I say, “Life is short.” The more years I live, the more quickly each year seems to fly by until one blends into the last, blurring experiences and memories into one another. But the moments of magic that I weave into my life always stand out. Whether they are solitary moments standing in awe of Nature’s creative brilliance or shared moments experiencing a work of art, an adventure, or an unexpected encounter with a magical person or creature in the wild, those small moments are the ones that sparkle in my memory like stars in the night sky — constellations that guide me to remember what matters most in this short life.

 

 

 

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. In addition to my bi-weekly weekday posts, you can also check out my Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy archives. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Late to the Party – Finally Reading The War of Art

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is one of the books that, as a writer, you feel obligated to read. It’s right up there with Writing Down the Bones and Bird by Bird, but it perceives and talks about art in a completely different way. It takes a “harder” and more pragmatic view of the creative process and the writer’s life. It’s a no-punches-pulled, nose-to-grindstone, get-off-your-lily-ass-and-do-your-work kind of pep talk.

And, it isn’t.

Despite the fact that he employs a lot of  military and warfare metaphors, Pressfield actually has an almost lyrical view of how writers get their ideas and develop their work. He talks a great deal about angels and muses; and he’s not referring to them in a strictly conceptual way. He believes that there are various intelligences operating on different planes of reality who are helping the human race evolve by inspiring artists to bring their work into the physical world.

Pretty cool, right? Almost magical.

I found it interesting that a book titled, The War of Art, has so much to say on the subject of love. While Pressfield is unflinching in his admonitions to stop making excuses and just do your work already, he always circles back to love as a touchstone – as the driving force behind our creative impulses. This is always a helpful reminder. When you are, as my friend puts it, “slaving away in the word mines,” it’s important to remember that you crawled in there of your own accord, and you did it for love.

If you haven’t read this classic yet, I do recommend it. It might not be exactly what you expected, but I guarantee that you will come away with at least one (and likely many) nugget of wisdom to help you beat your Resistance demons. While I’ve had a paperback copy of this book sitting on the shelf forever, it wasn’t until I stumbled across the audio book version (read by one of my all-time favorite narrators, George Guidall) that I finally took the plunge. It’s a short listen – just under four hours including the foreword by Robert McKee.

Love to hear what you think of it if you have already read it or if you decide to listen now.

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. In addition to my bi-weekly weekday posts, you can also check out my Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy archives. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Keeping the Creative Fires Burning

“The world is violent and mercurial—it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love—love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”

Tennessee Williams

A friend posted this quote on Facebook this morning. It was a gem in my newsfeed, glittering darkly amidst a colorful cacophony of political posts, vacation pictures, and LOL cats. I held each word for a moment – violent, mercurial, love, burning – and then, as the bigger concept coalesced in my mind, I was surprised to realize that the idea of living in Williams’ burning building was actually comforting.

Making time in our lives for any creative endeavor is a challenge, but the effort seems particularly Herculean today. Not only is the house burning, but the entire world is ablaze – global warming, political unrest, racial tensions, Brexit, wars, not to mention the dumpster fire of American politics. And yet, even in these precarious times, we feel compelled to write. The fire in our hearts yearns to escape the secret confines of our minds and leap into the conflagration of the real world where it might ignite passion (or at least curiosity) in someone else.

The interesting thing about fire is that while it can be an instrument of destruction, it also provides inspiration, warmth, and fuel. Fire can consume, but it also helps us to build and create. Staring into a fire, it’s impossible not to be drawn into thoughts of the balance between light and dark, the truth of ashes to ashes and dust to dust, and the dream of the phoenix. It is impossible not to think about the metaphorical fires that burn inside us.

And yet, even when the fire burns down and the ashes turn cold, there is always a spark or a coal buried deep, just waiting for the right conditions to spring back to life as a dancing flame that lights up the darkness, bringing hope and warmth and the power to pierce the night. Our creative fires never truly go out. They may burn low for a while, or even disappear underground; but then something to turn the earth over, exposing the smoldering coals to the air, and we’re ablaze again.

 

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings.  Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
Photo Credit: Christian Ferrari Flickr via Compfight cc