Sunday 31 Jan – Shareworthy Reading and Writing Links and Sundry

So, we finally busted out of Mercury retrograde this week. I don’t know about you, but I definitely felt a creative shift. (If you’re not sure what that’s all about, check out this post where I explain a little about Mercury retrograde.) We’re also having a bit of a mid-winter warm up around here. Though we New Englanders know better than to let our guard down, it’s nice to be able to get outside without quite so many layers on. The scent of spring is on the air and it’s got my imagination stirring.

To help boost your creativity and inspire your imagination, here are this week’s links and picks for all things writerly (and some that are on the fringe, but still worth exploring).

Enjoy!

Jamie


Books I’m Reading:

book magicians landLast week I finished the final book in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, The Magician’s Land, and now I’m having fiction world withdrawal. Often described as Harry Potter for a (much) more mature audience, the Magician’s books are, in my humble opinion, very worthy reads. Yes, they are action-packed fantasy stories that feature sex, violence, and loads of swearing; but there’s more to them than that.

Grossman’s magical world is unique in the way it intersects with ours. As a friend (and fellow Magicians fan) pointed out, Grossman does an excellent job of anchoring his fantasy construct in our modern world without sacrificing wonder or charm. The story is also, at its heart, not about magic, but about becoming yourself. In the same way that J.K. Rowling’s books are really about friendship, the Magicians novels are well-rendered coming of age stories.

I won’t risk any spoilers about this final book in the triology; I’ll just say that I was very impressed with how Grossman wrapped things up – brought them full circle without resorting to 100% neatly tied bows. I’ll also say that despite the heartache readers have to endure throughout the story, the series ends on a hopeful (if unexpected) note. I found that refreshing.

Coincidentally, just as I was devouring the final chapters, SyFy premiered its series based on Grossman’s books. I’ve watched the first two episodes (how could I not?), and I’m still undecided about whether I love it or not. My loyalty to the books is influencing my judgments of the adaptation, which takes a fair number of liberties with Grossman’s world and story. (They even changed the name of one of the primary characters for no apparent reason.) It may be too soon for me to fully enjoy the show. We’ll see.

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book old countryBecause I’m still hungover from my time at Grossman’s Brakebills Prepatory College of Magic and the world of Fillory, I’m not yet ready to dive into a new novel. Instead, I picked up a novella from my own collection, something I read a while back, but couldn’t quite remember. The Old Country by Mordicai Gerstein is a classic-style fairytale full of talking animals, faerie folk, peasants, and royalty.

I enjoyed being able to recognize many fairytale tropes – the old granny telling a tale to her inquisitive granddaughter, the journey into the forest, the protagonist doing the one thing she was warned against, transformation, the creation of a team of unlikely allies … it was all there; but there were also enough twists (including a surprise ending) that I never felt like I knew what was going to happen next.

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My Favorite Blog Reads for the Week:


Sundry Links and Articles:

Podcast Series: The Elemental Genre

writing excuses season 11I know I gush rather a lot about the Writing Excuses podcast, but I just can’t help myself. I’m already looking forward to a re-listen of Season 10 which walked listeners through the story creation process from idea to first draft to revision and beyond. This year’s season – Season 11 – is all about the “Elemental Genre.” Here’s how they introduce the idea of the Elemental Genre in the season intro:

The word “genre” has a lot of weight to it. Arguments about whether a particular work is, or is not, part of a given genre are long, and tedious. Season Eleven will not be engaging in those arguments. We’re giving all that a wide miss by adding an adjective, and defining a new term: Elemental Genre.

During 2016 we are going to explore what we write, why we write, and how we write in much the same way as previous seasons have, but our guidepost this year will be this concept of Elemental Genres. In January we’ll stay high-level and firm up the framework. Starting in February we’ll drill down on each of the Elemental Genres, and explore the writing process.

I’m really looking forward to this!

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Free Online Course: Literature and Mental Health – Reading for Wellbeing

future learnThis free online course is offered by the University of Warwick and begins tomorrow – February 1st. It’s part of the FutureLearn program that offers “a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.”

Literature and Mental Health – Reading for Wellbeing is taught by Professor Jonathan Bate and Dr. Paula Byrne. Here’s a little bit about the course from the FutureLearn site:

The great 18th century writer Dr Samuel Johnson, who suffered from severe bouts of depression, said “the only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life or better to endure it.”

This free online course will explore how enjoying literature can help us to endure life.

Taking Johnson’s phrase as a starting point, the course will consider how poems, plays and novels can help us understand and cope with times of deep emotional strain. The reading load will be flexible, and you will have the opportunity to exchange ideas and feelings via the online discussions with other learners.

I’m looking forward to exploring these ideas further. Maybe I’ll see you there!

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Finally, a quote for the week:

pin you can king

Thanks for sharing part of your weekend with me.  Hope you enjoy exploring the links. Happy reading! Happy writing! Happy New Week! 
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Sunday Shareworthy Reading and Writing Links and Sundry

It’s the dead of winter here. The threat of snow looms on the horizon of each new day and hovers around the cold moon at night. The wind has been working itself into a frenzy, sending empty trash barrels rattling down the street and causing tree boughs to sigh and moan in a melancholy chorus that’s punctuated by the cries our resident crows.

It’s perfect reading weather.

This past week I enjoyed two books – one fiction and one non-fiction – as well as my usual helping of fantastic essays and articles across the blogosphere. All the links and details are below. I hope you enjoy perusing this week’s selection of shareworthy bits and pieces.

Happy reading & happy writing!

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book the curiosityI scored a free ARC (Advanced Reader’s Copy) of The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan a couple years ago when a Newburyport bookstore was purging its inventory. (I’ve never been one to pass up free books!) It sat on my shelves all this time until it was suddenly the right time for me to read it. (Isn’t it funny how you know when it’s time to read a certain book?)

The back of the ARC billed the book as “Michael Crichton meets The Time Traveler’s Wife.” I’m not terribly familiar with either point of comparison, but I know enough to understand the intended meaning – it’s a page-turner with emotions – and I agree. The premise, as featured on the publisher’s website, goes like this:

Dr. Kate Philo and her scientific exploration team make a breathtaking discovery in the Arctic: the body of a man buried deep in the ice. Remarkably, the frozen man is brought back to the lab and successfully reanimated. As the man begins to regain his memories, the team learns that he was—is—a judge, Jeremiah Rice, and the last thing he remembers is falling overboard into the Arctic Ocean in 1906.

Thrown together by circumstances beyond their control, Kate and Jeremiah grow closer. But the clock is ticking and Jeremiah’s new life is slipping away…and all too soon, Kate must decide how far she is willing to go to protect the man she has come to love.

Interesting, right? The story is told in alternating points of view: Dr. Kate, a slightly seedy journalist covering the story, the egomaniac funding the project, and – eventually – the frozen man himself. I was impressed with Kiernan’s ability to shift so effectively between the four voices which, between them, covered both genders, multiple age groups, very different personalities, and a couple different eras. I also found it so interesting that Kiernan chose to use the second person for the sections narrated by the egomaniac. That’s not something you see everyday.

The story was fast paced but well written. I kind of knew where it was heading, but even so I stayed engaged and interested, right up to the end.


 

book dillard writing lifeI’ve heard Annie Dillard‘s name many times, but until now I’d never read her work. I picked up The Writing Life, a collection of short essays on the experience of writing, from my local library on a whim. I found it by turns inspiring and infuriating. I gobbled it up in only a couple sittings. (It’s short.) Parts of it made me whisper “Yes!” under my breath, other parts made me want to give up writing altogether (either because Dillard’s prose was so beautiful or because she makes being a writer sound like a journey through all seven circles of hell), other parts made me cringe as I caught a whiff of the elitist literati and pretentious “artiste.” I finished the book feeling confused and conflicted – drawn in, and yet repelled. I already want to pick it up and reread certain sections, but it’s not a book that feels like an old friend.

That said, it’s definitely worth a read. Whether  you can relate to Dillard’s experience of writing in full or only in part, it will make you feel something and it will make you think to ask yourself questions that hadn’t occurred to you before. And, I must admit that Dillard’s own description of the book on her site as “… an embarrassing nonfiction narrative fixed somewhat and republished by Harper Perennial …” endeared me to the author.


And here are my favorite blog posts and articles from this week:

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And here’s  a little inspiration: 

pin write anything cs lewis

Happy reading. Happy writing. Happy staying warm and cozy for those of you who are also in winter’s thrall. 
.15 Inspiring Writing Podcasts to Subscribe to Right Now
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition – a long-form post on writing and the writing life – and/or introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Weekend Edition, Part Two – Massive Catch Up on Writing and Reading Picks

Hello, fellow writers. Happy Sunday!

Regular readers of the Weekend Edition may have noticed that my last few Saturday posts have been missing their second half – the overview of what I’ve been reading, what I’ve been writing, great blog posts from around the web, and other miscellaneous “shareworthy” items. Today, I bring you a massive catch up on all the linky goodness that I’ve been collecting since before the holidays.

Ready? Let’s do this.

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BOOKS I’VE READ RECENTLY:

bella and booksThe Christmas holiday afforded me the luxury of several long afternoons of quiet solitude, so – of course – I took the opportunity to indulge in a good, old-fashioned reading binge. I felt like a kid – curled happily on my couch with my cats, a mug of tea, and a pile of library books. What could be better?

 

.book king on writingI began my armchair journey with a book that has been on my To Read list for a very long time: Stephen King’s memoir on the craft, On Writing. I know, I know – what took me so long? I have no good excuse. Although I have huge respect for King, I’ve never been a fan of his books because – quite frankly – they are too scary for me. (I tried reading It when I was a teen, and wound up with such terrible nightmares that I not only had to stop reading, I had to remove the book from the house.)

Now that I’ve finally read On Writing, I recommend it wholeheartedly. King’s advice is excellent, and his tone is a perfect mix of pragmatism and encouragement. He manages to be the voice of experience and reason without being at all pretentious or pedantic. In fact, the entire book is so damn readable that I found myself staying up quite late into the evening, reading.

I do still take some issue with King’s opinion on plotting. He calls himself a “situational” writer – someone who takes a character, puts him or her in a situation, and then stands back to see what happens next. While I agree that the “what it?” approach is an excellent way to start a story, I can’t quite bring myself to abandon the idea of story structure in favor of discovery writing. Though King may be able to craft stories without the aid of an outline or other planning device, I think this is mostly due to his innate sense of story.

Despite our differences on that point, I not only found this book extremely valuable, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it – cover-to-cover.


 

book byatt storiesNext up was a collection of stories by A.S. Byatt called Little Black Book of Stories. This was my first time reading Byatt, who is probably best known for her novel, Possession. The spine of the book caught my eye as I was wandering through the fiction section of my library – a gothic-style cover with gold leaf embellishments and a rather mysterious air about it.

The stories contained within sparkle darkly with images and ideas that have stayed with me. Though each tale is unique from the others, together they weave a sense that there is more to the world than meets the eye. They manage to create this feeling without compromising the feeling that Byatt’s characters are as real as you or me. And, of course, the language is beautiful. I will definitely be seeking out more of this author’s work.


 

book thirteen orphansAfter such a serious and dark read, I switched gears to something lighter. Thirteen Orphans by Jane Lindskold is another book that called to me from the library shelves. I had to stand on tip-toe to reach it, and was immediately intrigued the minute I read Charles deLint’s glowing cover blurb.

From the Goodreads synopsis: “When that world’s Emperor was overthrown, the Thirteen Orphans fled to our earth and hid their magic system in the game of mah-jong. Each Orphan represents an animal from the Chinese Zodiac. Brenda’s father is the Rat. And her polished, former child-star aunt, Pearl—that eminent lady is the Tiger.

Only a handful of Orphans remain to stand against their enemies. The Tiger, the Rooster, the Dog, the Rabbit . . . and Brenda Morris. Not quite the Rat, but not quite human either.”

I was nearly two-thirds of the way through this book before similarities in writing style and plot made me realize that I’d read another book by Lindskold, Changer. I liked Thirteen Orphans better than Changer. I found it easier to identify with the Orphans characters and their plight, and I also found the entire team of “good guys” quite likable. There’s a good chance that I’ll eventually read the other books in this series. I’d like to see Aunt Pearl kick some more ass.


 

book valour vanityMy last holiday read was Valour and Vanity, the fourth novel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series. This was the first time I’ve read one of Kowal’s novels, though I’ve been a huge fan of her for ages because of her work on the best-ever writing podcast, Writing Excuses.

In the promotional blurbs, Valour and Vanity is described as “a magical adventure that might result if Jane Austen wrote Ocean’s Eleven.” The setting is a historically accurate Regency setting except for one, small detail – magic is real, in the form of “glamour.” Valour and Vanity is a heist novel that involves deception on many levels and two teams of conspirators who play out their game in the city of Murano, Italy. This was an entertaining and well-written read that was perfect for a quiet winter afternoon.


 

book magician kingWith the holiday break behind us, I have less time to devote to long reading sessions, so I’m re-reading (via audio book) the second book in Lev Grossman’s magicians trilogy. I had forgotten just how much I love these book. I love the way Grossman combines magic and other worlds with a modern sensibility that’s full of sharp wit, cynicism, and a delightful sense of sarcasm.

I’m re-reading this one in preparation for reading the final installment of the trilogy, The Magician’s Land. I borrowed it from the library earlier this week, and am just itching to crack it open.

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BLOG POSTS WORTH SHARING

While being bumped out of my usual routine temporarily handicapped my blog consumption, I think I’m pretty much all caught up now. Thank goodness many bloggers slowed things down a bit over the holidays, or I’d probably still be digging my way out!

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OTHER SHAREWORTHY ITEMS

NYPL images

Awesome New Image Collection 

A Mother Jones post tipped me off on the fact that the New York Public Library recently made 180,000 digital images available for free. This is great news for bloggers who are always looking for interesting and unique images that don’t smack of stock photography.

You can access the images via the NYPL’s website, and here is a post about their public domain collections. These images are available, “No permission required. No restrictions on use.” Wheeeee!!!


 

Sound Apps to Keep You Focused on Your Writing

A couple years ago I discovered a nifty little app called Coffitivity, an elegantly simple, scientifically inspired, and oh-so-fun online app that streams a soundtrack of ambient coffee shop sounds through your computer speakers. If you like, you can mix the Coffitivity soundtrack with the music stream of your choice. I use the app quite frequently, mostly when my daughter is home and work requires that I  block out distracting noises.

I recently came across a similar app called brain.fm. According to their website, brain.fm “converts auditory neuroscience into personalized brainwave training programs” that help you focus, relax, and sleep. Unlike Coffitivity, there isn’t a long-term free version of the app. You can, however, do a free trial that allows you something like seven listening sessions to try out the different sounds. I have only tried one of the “focus” sounds, but the concept of soundscapes scientifically optimized to induce particular mind states is pretty fascinating. Worth a try.


 

The 10th Annual Short Story Challenge

short story challenge

I’ve thought about participating in the Short Story Challenge before, but have never managed to take the plunge. Maybe, though, 2016 is the year. Per the website, this is how it works:

The 10th Annual Short Story Challenge is a creative writing competition open to writers around the world.  There are 3 rounds of competition.  In the 1st Round (January 22-30, 2016), writers are placed randomly in heats and are assigned a genre, subject, and character assignment.  Writers have 8 days to write an original story no longer than 2,500 words.  The judges choose a top 5 in each heat to advance to the 2nd Round (March 17-20, 2016) where writers receive new assignments, only this time they have just 3 days to write a 2,000 word (maximum) short story.  Judges choose finalists from the 2nd Round to advance to the 3rd and final round of the competition where writers are challenged to write a 1,500 word (maximum) story in just 24 hours (April 29-30, 2016).  A panel of judges review the final round stories and overall winners are selected.  Sound like fun?  Join the competition below and get ready for January 22nd!

Sound like fun? The deadline to register is January 21st, and the entry fee is $45. Even if you don’t enter, you can read winning stories from past competitions on the website.

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Finally, a great quote from Mr. Alan Rickman, another wonderful artist whom we lost this past week. For millions around the world, he will always be Professor Snape, but his body of work and his depth of compassion for humanity extends far beyond that single role. He understood the importance of art and of stories.

pin alan rickman

Thanks for sharing part of your weekend with me. Happy reading, happy writing, happy exploring and creating. 

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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Join me each Saturday for the Weekend Edition (a fun post and great community of commenters on the writing life, random musings, writing tips, and good reads), or introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Friday Fun – Old Books vs. New Books – Classics vs Contemporary

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: Lance Shaubert posted an interesting article on Writer Unboxed earlier this week about “Old Books > New Books.” In it, he asked writers to consider the benefits of derivation vs. so-called originality and encourages writers to read the classics as a source of inspiration. What are your thoughts? How many classics do you read vs. newly published works? Do you judge them differently? 

JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: I definitely lean towards more contemporary fiction. I love to see how stories and writing styles are evolving today. I am also a sucker for “new and exciting,” so I’m easily caught up in the buzz about the latest “amazing” novel from so-and-so.

On the other hand, I also have a thing for old books, as in antique books. I have several shelves lined with tomes I’ve picked up at antique book shops and flea markets. I have a kind of reverence for these survivors from another age when books were bound in linen covers and had deckled pages. I don’t often read them, but every once in a while I will pick one up and slide backwards in time on a slipstream of antiquated words and the concerns and opinions of other eras.

In addition to my chronologically old books, I also have some newer books containing old stories – collections of fairytales and folklore, for instance. I bought these with the intention of learning how old tales can inspire new ones, but I haven’t really had the time to explore them. Yet …

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson: I can lead off Jamie’s comment about fairytales and folklore — I’m really intrigued by anything Grimm or Brothers’ Grimm – old books, old stories, movies and TV shows made about the Brothers’ Grimm, anything in any capacity.

For instance, there’s a TV series called Grimm; a movie called Brothers’ Grimm, and a movie called Hansel and Gretal: Witch Hunters. And books! Oh my goodness – every book store has several variations on the fairytales and it’s so thrilling to find super old copies of the tales when exploring antique shops and stores that carry the old books. I’m going to be enthralled forever.

I also like reading classics – mostly for the flow of language and it’s interesting to see how even ‘old’ books can fit into modern times, depending on how much description and time-specific details the author includes in a book.

And I love reading new books – whatever catches my fancy – a lot of books in the mystery genre and most of its subgenres, but also non-fiction. I really love variety and if I had to pick a type of book to read, or a generation of books to read I don’t think I could – my only wish is that I could devour/read books a lot faster than I do!

Weekend Edition – Dear Writer, You are weird. Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Writers are not normal people.

Image from Screencraft

Image from Screencraft

It started when I was a kid. I would often carry a notebook with me, scribbling everything and nothing on its welcoming pages as I sat alone in a quiet corner of the playground, or – later, when I was older – at the end of a long table in study hall. When I entered the working world, my notebook accompanied me on the commuter train and was my lunch date on the Boston Common. Now, in my life as mom and freelance writer, my notebook is an even more constant companion. Tossed in the back seat or tucked into my bag, it is always at the ready. Whether I’m idling in the pick-up line at school, sitting at the edge of the arena watching my daughter ride, or waiting in the doctor’s office, my notebook is never far away.

Just yesterday, I joined a few friends for a late afternoon beach run. While the kids swam, the adults engaged in the kind of ebb and flow conversation that often develops at the edge of the sea. It wasn’t long, however, before I felt an urge to take out my notebook. Even after a lifetime of doing my “writer thing,” I felt a little awkward, but I needed to work out an idea for this week’s newspaper column. Happily, my friends are totally nonjudgemental and, after initial curious inquiries, left me to my own, writerly devices.

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Writers are weird. And, the sooner we acknowledge and embrace that fact, the better off we’ll be and the better our work will be.

I don’t often think about the ways being a writer makes me different from other people; but, when I do stop to think about it, the differences can be pretty striking. For instance, as a writer, I take on a lot of voluntary work that eats up hours and hours of my “free” time. While other people are heading out for a day on the boat or the beach, I’m often sitting (happily, I might add) at my computer, writing. I routinely dedicate substantial chunks of time each week to doing work that is not only unpaid, but often unseen by anyone but me.

Then there’s the fact that, despite being fortunate enough to have wonderful friends, I often choose solitude over time spent with others. It’s not that I don’t enjoy being with other people; it’s just that sometimes I prefer the company of my own thoughts. Without time to myself, I begin to feel restless and edgy and “not me.”

As a writer, I tend to question pretty much everything. I may not always do it out loud, but my writer’s mind is always asking “why” and “how” and “what if” while digging around for new ideas and truths. My mind runs off on all kinds of wild tangents that can leave other people a bit baffled. Like a slightly mad daydreamer, my thoughts can leap from one concept to another, connecting the dots in strange ways. I am sure that sometimes people wonder if I’m seeing the same world they see.

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Writing in my notebook has always been a way of exploring the world while hiding from it. Like the Elven cloaks worn by the Hobbits on their way to Mordor, my notebook has the magical ability to render me almost invisible. In the same way that reading a good story transports me to another time and place, slipping between the pages of my notebook is like stepping into a shadow dimension. Though I remain physically in this world, my mind is traveling elsewhere, and people tend not to notice me. The movement of my pen across the paper is like a spell that allows me to peer unseen into the inner workings of our world. From this vantage point, I can observe life from a slight distance.

This is the strangest dichotomy of being a writer. Though I feel a frequent need to step back and away in order to observe and think in solitude, I also have an equally strong and seemingly opposite desire to connect deeply with the world and people around me. Though on the surface I may be perceived as something of a loner, my solitude is actually a means to creating stronger connections to others.

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Writers, like all other artists, are people with something to say. We may share that something via stories, essays, or comics. We may write letters to the editor, screenplays, or poetry. Our words might be quirky or bold, gentle or inflammatory, academic or fantastic. Our stories may be frightening, inspiring, or heartbreaking. We might hope to make people laugh, or cry, or just see the world from a slightly different perspective. Though motivations, intentions, and styles vary wildly from one writer to the next, each of us goes out into the world wanting to share a piece of ourselves and our experience through our writing.

We are willing to invest an inordinate amount of time figuring out what we want to say and then crafting the piece of writing to say it. While most non-writers are content to either keep their opinions to themselves or share them on a much more modest scale, writers are compelled to “share big.” We are odd in our need to splay our inner thoughts across the page for others to read. With each word we write we say, “This is me. I am here. This is what I have seen. This is what I imagine.” Because we possess some crazy mixture of unintentional hubris and quiet courage, we are able to offer ourselves to the world – transparent and vulnerable.

This makes us weird.

But, as E.B. White once said, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” And love, as cliché as it is, may be the answer. Though it may seem weird to others, we writers profess our love for the world with every word we write. We try, as best we can, to capture the essence of this life and our hearts, of dreams and the vast landscape of human imagination. Everyone lives his or her own internal life. Writers wear that internal life on the outside for all to see.

Whether we love nature or history, romance or vampires, talking cats, magic rings, or simply the diversity of human nature, we  let that love sweep us off our feet. Even when we write about tragedy or war or cruelty, if you read between the lines you will find love for the underdog, the valiant, and the kind. As writers, we are willing to make fools of ourselves for the things we love. We babble a lot. We do the unexpected and the absurd. Sometimes we fail, but our love is strong enough that we are willing to get up again and again, to keep trying.

If love is what makes us weird, I’m willing to wear that label with pride. They may look at us askew and think us odd or quirky, but that’s ok. The geek shall inherit the Earth, and I’m happy to be a love-crazed wordsmith who wears her heart on her sleeve. I’m good with that.

 

What I’m Reading:

book buried giantThe Buried Giant is the first Kazuo Ishiguro novel I’ve read, but I have a feeling it won’t be my last. Though the story and genre are a marked departure from his other works (you may have heard of a little title called Remains of the Day), it is more than my love for fantasy that made me fall for this novel.

Some books rely on an early burst of attention-grabbing action to hook a reader. Though I like an exciting read as much as the next girl, I sometimes feel like these kinds of stories are trying too hard. They are like the clichéd pick-up artist leaning on the bar who has to weave his salary, the make and model of his car, and some name-dropping into the conversation because he’s afraid that just talking to a girl won’t be enough to keep her interested. He may be a perfectly nice guy, but the approach feels slightly desperate.

Not so with The Buried Giant. This book felt more like a quietly refined guy sitting at the next table over in a little coffee shop, reading. This guy isn’t pushy or flashy. In fact, he’s probably more interested in his book than he is in you, but – happily – he’s still willing to engage in a real conversation. He has a slightly antiquarian air about him, something a bit out of sync with the modern world, but his presence is that of a person who has been places and seen things. As you begin to talk, the coffee shop starts to fade and you find yourself transported to another place and time that feels both completely foreign to you, and also like home.

This is the spell Ishiguro casts so well.

Though this story’s cast of characters includes ogres, a warrior, a dragon, and Sir Gawain, it is never about these things. Like Ishiguro’s other works, this is, as described on the publisher’s web page, a story about “the act of forgetting and the power of memory, a resonant tale of love, vengeance, and war.”

Also from the publisher’s web page:

The Romans have long since departed and Britain is steadily declining into ruin. But, at least, the wars that once ravaged the country have ceased. Axl and Beatrice, a couple of elderly Britons, decide that now is the time, finally, for them to set off across this troubled land of mist and rain to find the son they have not seen for years, the son they can scarcely remember. They know they will face many hazards—some strange and otherworldly—but they cannot foresee how their journey will reveal to them the dark and forgotten corners of their love for each other. Nor can they foresee that they will be joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and a knight—each of them, like Axl and Beatrice, lost in some way to his own past, but drawn inexorably toward the comfort, and the burden, of the fullness of a life’s memories.

Though I have already said that I enjoyed this book for many reasons other than my love of well-written fantasy, it does seem that Ishiguro’s novel may have far-reaching influence on an often-maligned genre. An article for the New York Times quotes David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, as saying, “Fantasy plus literary fiction can achieve things that frank blank realism can’t.” Mitchell apparently went on to say that he hoped The Buried Giant would help “de-stigmatize” fantasy. Three cheers for that.

Ishiguro is very aware of the fact that his latest novel treads in new territory. The NYT article provides some back story about how be worried about whether or not his readers would follow him into these strange new lands (a topic I touched on in last week’s post, Just Be Yourself. Yeah, Right.) I am no expert on Ishiguro’s audience, but I cannot believe that many will abandon his beautiful prose based simply on a setting. More to the point, I’d be willing to bet that Ishiguro will gain a new audience with this book – people like me who might not have picked up Remains of the Day or Never Leave Me without having read The Buried Giant.

The fact that he was recently featured in an interview with fantasy rock star Neil Gaiman certainly won’t hurt Ishiguro’s reputation with this new audience. In Let’s Talk About Genre for the NewStatesman, these two heavyweights explore the idea of genre and make some pretty interesting observations that make a strong case for genre being nothing more than an industry-manufactured filing system.

But, I digress.

I highly recommend The Buried Giant for readers of all types. Whether you are a lover of fantasy or a disciple of the literary form, Ishiguro’s novel holds something for everyone.  It is a beautifully crafted story that manages to successfully balance the magical and mythical with the very essence of our mundane world. I have a feeling I’ll be returning to its pages before too long.

 

What I’m {Learning About} Writing:

imitation bunniesI have been meaning, for a while, to write a post about the art of imitation in writing. I have read many times about writers who “grease the wheels,” so to speak, by writing in a way that channels a favorite author. Some writers will even copy passages verbatim from some favorite text as part of their writing warm-up.

Though novice writers may fear imitation (assuming that everything they write must be entirely unique), seasoned writers seem to accept imitation as part of the creative process. In a piece for The Write Practice, Joe Bunting cites several examples of “copier” writers including Steven Pressfield, Cormac McCarthy, and even Shakespeare.

While you ultimately want to discover your own voice, allowing your writing to be influenced by writers you admire is a good way to get a feel for patterns, cadence, and overall style. Often, you’ll find you’re influenced whether you want to be or not. For instance, looking back over a few recent entries in my morning pages journal, I noticed that even my “brain dump” writing took on a very different tone while I was reading The Buried Giant. To get myself rolling on these entries, I usually start with a very basic listing of where I am, what I’ve done so far that morning, the weather, etc. It’s painfully mundane, but it gets my hand moving across the page, and then I can go on from there.

Written before I’d read The Buried Giant:

Meghan is just up. Bella is sleeping in the bay window and Cinder is running amok, all jazzed up from a play session with her fleece-y whip toy. Funny girl. The crows haven’t been by yet, and even the sparrows are scarce. It’s just too hot and humid. And I’ll be riding in about an hour. Yikes!

Written while I was reading The Buried Giant:

All the animals are fed and the composting is out at the curb. A scourge of sparrows feasts greedily at the feeder, which is more than half pillaged even this early in the morning. The crows have been, but many peanuts still lie on the deck. A strange cry from distant trees sent them wheeling away across the road, and they have not yet returned. It is a cry I have not heard before, but – though it made me catch my breath – I would hear it again to try and name its source.

Is the second entry any less “my” writing because my choice of words was influenced by the book I was reading? I tend to think not, but this is a topic I’ll need to explore further in another post.

 

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

Melissa Frances - Blackboard Canvas Print - Blessed are the Weird

Melissa Frances – Blackboard Canvas Print – Blessed are the Weird

Here’s to embracing your own brand of weirdness, not being afraid to be influenced by other people’s weirdness, and finding a little magic in even the most mundane of days. 
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Imitation Bunnies Photo Credit: adametrnal via Compfight cc

The Importance of Reading Carefully

all the lightI goofed on Friday Fun when I didn’t read the question carefully, seeing only the headline, What One Book Would You Recommend? I didn’t see the fine print: it was supposed to be one book about writing.

I can heartily endorse Bird By Bird and If You Want To Write, recommended by my colleagues Diana and Jamie. I’m not familiar with Outwitting Writer’s Block and Other Problems of the Pen, Lisa’s recommendation, which I’ve added to my Must Read list.

birdbybird2

Diana’s recommendation

But I’m also going to stand by my recommendation, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s important for writers to read widely, and it’s especially important to read in the genre in which you write.

Reading others’ work helps you recognize what you like and don’t like, what you think works and what doesn’t.

outwitting

Lisa’s recommendation

Long ago, I heard a radio commentary I didn’t like. I thought, I can do better than that! So I tried. I’ve been a commentator for Vermont Public Radio ever since.

I’d like to think that people listen to what I have to say on the radio. While I hope that my commentaries initiate thoughtfulness about the issues I raise, I know that some listeners will not only disagree, but be inspired to write an even better commentary. Power to them!

Positive motivation is even better, which is why I’m inspired when I read a brilliant book.

Ueland cover

Jamie’s Recommendation

All The Light We Cannot See is such a book. I read it with awe and uninterrupted concentration in a single day. I remember being swept into the story by a riptide of language. (I’d give you an example if I had the book in front of me, but I returned it to the library.)

The story is set during the bombing of St. Malo in August of 1944. The details of the events are all so particular and so credible, I googled the event to see if it really happened. It did.

But the story also goes backward in time to the childhoods of the two main characters, one a German orphan destined to be a miner, and the other a blind French girl cared for by her loving father, a master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. The chapters alternate between the boy and the girl, and between the past and the days of the bombing.

There are two through lines as well: one is how the characters are connected by radio, and the other is how they are caught by a curse of a prized jewel.

Believe me, it all works.

As a writer of literary fiction, I found myself reading the book both for its story and to see exactly how Doerr ties these disparate lines together with such deft. It’s a book I’ll read again, just to study craft.

So in the end, I think my answer to Friday’s question is a good one: Any piece of writing that you loathe or love is worth inspecting and tearing apart to discover exactly what makes for exasperation or excellence.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning love story, Into the Wilderness.

Weekend Edition – Just Be Yourself. Yeah, Right. Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

The not-so-easy art of being yourself

pin who you wereBeing yourself is hard. Maybe you’re more evolved than I am, but I’m pretty sure that when it comes to who I am, I’m still figuring it out. I know I’m supposed to be a grown-up, but I still feel like an awkward kid half the time. I still have so many questions and doubts. I still feel like an unfinished story.

People say “just be yourself” as if it’s a simple matter. They mean well. They intend their words as reassurance or encouragement, but whenever I hear that bit of advice, it’s as if someone opened a trap door beneath my feet.  As I hurtle down into who-knows-what, my head echoes with the question, “But … who am I?”

··• )o( •··

When I was in high school, I was what you might call a “floater.” I did not belong to any of the usual cliques. I wasn’t a jock or a brainiac, a drama geek or a teacher’s pet. I wasn’t a cheerleader or a goth chick, a troublemaker or a goody-goody. While part of me is grateful that I was able to avoid the noose of any particular label, another part of me recognizes the possibility that I just wasn’t willing to commit too heavily to being any one version of myself.

Even now, almost three decades later, I still feel a sense of fracture in my identity. This isn’t unusual. Most of us live multiple lives that are defined by the many different roles we play – child, parent, spouse, friend, lover, worker, boss, artist. The situation becomes exponentially more complex as we layer on other aspects of the self – nationality and ethnicity, political and religious leanings, financial and social standing, etc.

And then there’s the fact that we are always changing. New experiences and perspectives change how we perceive and feel about the world and ourselves. We learn and adapt and evolve. We try new things. We change our minds. We change our style. We change our lives. We change who we are.

I just listened to a passage in Buddhism for Busy People that explained how our bodies are constantly regenerating so that every seven years or so, we are – in essence – an entirely new person. Perhaps that idea is what inspired the concept of the “seven year itch.” It certainly inspired one inmate to petition the courts for release after serving only seven years of a much longer sentence on the grounds that he was, literally, no longer the person he was when he was incarcerated.

··• )o( •··

I have always thought of myself as a kind of chameleon, subtly changing myself to match my environment. I admit, with some amount of self-reproach, that I am generally a people pleaser. It’s not that I present myself falsely. It’s more that I present myself in pieces, only showing the parts that are relevant and acceptable while keeping other bits to myself. While this approach to dealing with people is an excellent one for minimizing conflict, it’s not necessarily a great personality trait for a writer.

As writers, we depend on the courage of our convictions. Our beliefs and the identity they create are not only fuel for our work, they are also the source of our writer’s “voice.” As E.B. White said, “Writing is both mask and unveiling.” Even if we craft fictional stories, they still – if they are good stories – contain elements of truth, and those truths spring from our identity – from who we are.

This is why learning to “be yourself” is so important to a writer, to any artist. Knowing who you (really) are is the mandatory first step to developing your writer’s voice.

··• )o( •··

Because we work so hard to develop our characters and are also trying to hone our writer’s voice, we writers usually have more angst than the average bear about personal and artistic identity. For many of us, writing is more than a profession or even a vocation. It is part of who we are and a large part of how we interface with the world. Having our work rejected cuts us as deeply as it does because, on some level, the work is an extension of who we are.

This connection between self and art creates a challenge in a marketplace that expects consistency and continuity. The public does not always want artists to “be themselves.” In fact, the public is often outraged if a writer who is known for one thing tries to be something else. Take the case of J.K. Rowling, for instance. Loved around the world for her Harry Potter series, she was initially widely ridiculed for her work under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. But, whether the books she’s written under that moniker are good or bad interests me less than the fact that she felt the need to publish any non-Potter writing under a pen name.

Why isn’t Rowling allowed to be a whole person, instead of *just* the author of the Harry Potter series?

··• )o( •··

I think that many writers hold back for fear of being pigeon-holed. We sense the threat of permanence that hovers menacingly at the edges of success. Once we have become known for any one piece of work, we realize we will be expected to deliver more of the same. It comes back to that question of commitment – are you willing to commit wholly to any one kind of story, or even – as in Rowling’s case – one particular story?

The rub, of course, is that in saying “yes” to one thing – one self, one voice – you risk saying “no” to something else.

Most artists, writers included, are – once they have achieved some level of success – almost forced to work within constraints defined by their “public.” Though paparazzi and fans might fawn all over a celebrity, they do not really love her as a person. They love the idea of her and what she represents. If she steps outside the boundaries of their expectations, the fans can turn on her and feel justified in doing so because, to them, she has violated a trust … just by being herself.

··• )o( •··

My personal concerns about how I define myself and develop my writer’s voice exist on a much smaller scale than those of a global celebrity, but they still exist. The conflicts in my world are not dramatic, but they still pose a challenge in terms of how I see myself and how I present myself and my work to the world. For instance, I make my living as a content marketer for business-to-business companies, but I am also an essayist here on the blog, a columnist for my local paper, and an aspiring fiction writer. Just the simple act of choosing which articles to post on Twitter (business & marketing vs. writing and art) can start my head spinning.

Sure, I could split my identity into its component parts and create separate personas to address each audience, but I don’t like the idea of perpetuating this division of self. Even when I am “being” a content marketer, I am still a lover of fantasy fiction. And when I am “being” a columnist or a blogger, I might be thoughtful one day and funny the next, gently exploring a topic in one piece and taking an adamant stand against some injustice in another. There are many facets to who I am as a person, and also to who I am as a writer. Though I understand that some facets will shine brighter than others in certain situations, I do not want to have to shroud the others.

··• )o( •··

People often talk about “sacrificing for your art.” Usually, they are referring to an artist who gives up wealth, ease, peer acceptance, or a relationship. But, there is also a less recognized risk of inadvertently carving away pieces of yourself so that you can, ironically, live up to other people’s expectations about who you are – as an artist/writer and also as a human being.

Hanging on to your true identity is hard. First you have to discover who you are, and then you have to learn to inhabit that identity fully, wholly, and without inhibitions. Starting with first things first, look for clues about who you are by noticing what makes you laugh, what makes you cry, and what makes you furious.  Pay attention to who and what you make time for in your life – these are the people and things that matter to you most. Notice what spurs you to action, what compels you to get involved.

Be careful of labels. Try to rid your mind of all preconceived notions. Don’t get fooled into thinking that if you are one thing, you can’t be another. Go ahead and create your own crazy combinations. This is the art of being you. The rules were made to be broken. Know that the person you are today is different from the person were ten years ago, five years ago, yesterday. Don’t let that worry you. Change and growth are natural. Nothing stays the same for long, and you are no exception to that rule.

Maybe that’s the trick to “being yourself” with ease – simply letting go of any expectations and acknowledging that this question of identity is one that can never be definitively answered because the question is a moving target with an ever-changing set of variables. “Being yourself” becomes, then, not a destination, but a journey – an adventure with an unknown ending. I guess we are each of us, after all, an unfinished story. And that’s just as it should be.

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What I’m {Learning About} Writing:

risk graffitiAlthough I have been a busy, little B2B content marketer lately, and my personal writing time down to a nub (I seriously need to take some of my own advice about how to make time for writing) I still have my bi-weekly column deadline to keep my creative writing muscles flexing. This past week, I published a fun piece about the evils of clutter. Like many of my columns, I tried to fuse a little storytelling with a little humor and a dash of introspection. I was pretty happy with it, until I read my fellow columnist’s piece.

My fellow columnist is more of a traditional, op-ed style columnist. He’s also a bold humorist. The piece he wrote this week was a brazen condemnation of a local developer and the planning board that allows his irresponsible building projects. It was funny. It was entertaining. And it also very effectively addressed a real problem. It reminded me of the work that Jon Stewart did on The Daily Show (an compliment I don’t toss around lightly … I adore Steward).

While my column was “nice,” it lacked the “punch” of the piece on the ill-reputed developer, and the contrast between the two got me thinking about whether and how I should take more risks in my writing. Risks require commitment. They demand that we are audacious – speaking our minds, being unapologetically ourselves.

I do not yet know how this line of thinking will develop, but I’m interested to find out.

Have you ever taken a risk in your writing? What made you do it? How did it turn out?

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What I’m Reading:

bk one only ivanLife has been a little extra hectic lately, and when life gets too crazy I tend to seek out a good children’s book for comfort. After finishing Alice Hoffman’s magical and romantic The Nightbird last week, I turned to Katherine Applegate’s story of friendship, art, and hope – The One and Only Ivan. As it turned out, this was one of those “children’s” books that holds a great deal for readers of any age.

Here’s the description from Applegate’s website:

Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.

The story is told in the first person from Ivan’s point of view. The chapters are short and the style of Ivan’s delivery is very straightforward. As he explains early on, gorillas are all about brevity when it comes to how they use words.

On the surface, the story is about the plight of the animals at a roadside attraction, but just below that narrative there are deeper veins of meaning. Applegate deftly addresses the horrors of poaching (a topic that has been in the news a lot lately after the tragic murder of Cecil the lion), the mysteries of the creative process, the idea of freedom, the value of family, the weight of a promise, and so much more. Through the experience of her ape protagonist, she makes many astute observations about human nature.

This is a book that manages to expose some of life’s deepest tragedies and some of humanity’s ugliest tendencies, but still gives you a tangible sense of hope and joy. As a writer, it inspired me because of Applegate’s artistry, and also because of the messages in the story about the importance of art in our lives.

You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy this book, and I highly recommend it for an afternoon’s read.

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from the past couple of weeks:

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Finally, a quote for the week:

… because we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously …

pin be a unicorn

Here’s to knowing who you are and holding onto that even while you enjoy the journey to the next iteration of yourself. 
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Risk Graffiti Photo Credit: greenhem via Compfight cc