I'm having the worst reading rut lately. I've been trying to finish this Eudora Welty book for weeks now. It's only a hundred pages long. How am I only on page forty? I just can't get that interested in it even though a book about writing should totally be in my wheelhouse.
Maybe it's because, lately, I've been reading for others and not for myself. The Welty book was given to me by my mother, which was very sweet of her. The problem is, I've never even read any of Welty's fiction, so starting with her memoir is awkward. I guess I'm only reading it out of some sense of obligation to my mother, not because I'm really that taken by it.
Before that I read Escape, which was an interesting (and terrifying) memoir about FLDS culture, though the writing itself was nothing special. That was just research for a story I'm thinking about writing.
And then before that, I read and reviewed Childhood's End, which was good, but I never felt like I completely submerged myself in it. It's a classic sci-fi book I thought I should read, again, out of some interior obligation, but it wasn't very escapist like I think the best science fiction can be.
You can see in the right side-bar that the next book on my to read list is Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, which I know very little about. I haven't read any Twain since high school. I hope it's good. I'm reading it for a book club that my friend invited me to. Again, obligational reading, but I think it will be worth it for the social aspect. (Plus, the book club takes place at my favorite local brewery, Mystery Brewing, in cute Hillsborough NC.)
But I'm dying for a good escapist read. Work has been a slog. I need a good book to forget about it. I've started re-reading one of my favorite manga series, Dragon Ball Z, but I'll finish those soon enough.
I'm open to suggestions. What's your favorite escapist read?
I got my haircut the other day. I've been trying to save money lately, so I just went to the local Great Clips and asked for my usual blunt bob. But then the hairdresser cut off about twice as much off as I had asked. Instead of my usual above the shoulder length, I suddenly had hair that didn't even reach my chin. Don't you hate that?
I didn't say anything. I figured, hell, this is what I get for trying to save money on a haircut.
But then a funny thing happened. I went home, washed my hair (to get that weird post-haircut look out) and discovered that it actually looked kind of cute. I've been getting my hair cut shorter for a few years now, but I'd never got this short before. I kind of liked it.
I went to work the next day, dreading it a little because I hate when co-workers feel bizarrely compelled to point out that I've gotten my hair cut (as if I hadn't noticed). I don't like being the center of attention. I hate it so much that I stopped having birthday parties starting in the third grade.
But instead of the usual awkward commentary, I received more complements about my hair in the course of a week than I think I've received in my entire life. People I've walked by in the halls for years without exchanging a word actually stopped and told me they liked my hair.
"Thanks!" I said each time, because here's a tip: when someone complements you, just say thank you and move on. You'll exude confidence even if you're silently questioning everything.
Anyway, the point of all this is only to say it's funny how good things can happen even when mistakes are made or surprises happen. I'd never have asked to get my hair cut this short, but it turns out it's a great length on me.
I can be rigidly controlling. I hate surprises. And I've designed a lot of my life to avoid any kind of uncertainty. It's low risk, but it's also low reward.
Lately, I've been feeling some anxiety about my upcoming job change, from secure academia to self-employment, but I keep reminding myself that the direction I was going wasn't getting me anywhere that great. If I want good things to happen, I have to take a risk for once. I took a chance on a budget haircut and it payed off. Maybe my new job will be like the haircut, and maybe it won't, but it's worth trying just to see if there's any payoff.
Good morning kids, today's another episode of "Podcasts You Should Be Listening To."
I listen to a lot of podcasts. Love them, especially to get through my 2.5 hour daily commute. Who would of thought that a weird return of radio for the 21st century could be so awesome?
Anyway, I wanted to share a few shows I enjoy that are made by women because a) I am a woman, and it's always nice to hear about the world from non-male POVs, and b) these podcasts are so good I think they stand on their own in the top ten, independent of gender. Guys, take note. You want to understand women better? Maybe give these women a listen.
So here they are. 5 podcasts, by women, for everyone.
Call Your Girlfriend - Where you go when you want to listen to two super-cool feminists talk about the patriarchy, shine theory, periods, and spot on career and friendship advice. Staged as a phone-call between two long distance best friends, I'm obsessed with what the lovely Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman have to say about the news and culture.
The History Chicks is hands-down one of the best history podcasts out there. Beckett and Susan research and discuss different women in history, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Josephine Baker, Catherine the Great, and so many more. I inhaled their back-catalog. There are so many interesting women who've lived in the world and the History Chicks make sure we know who they are.
You Must Remember This - Tales of old Hollywood and other strange events surrounding the movie-making business. I binge-listened to the Charles Manson series. I had no idea that so much violence stemmed from one fucked up guy's desire for rock-and-roll fame. Longworth has a knack for telling great stories about stories and the people behind them.
Sampler - Brittany Luse knows where to find the best podcasts and isn't afraid to tell you where to go to get them. I rely on Sampler to introduce me to new shows I'd never have thought to try out on my own. Totally essential. She gets me out of my internet echo chamber.
Death, Sex, & Money - Conversations about the tricky stuff we don't normally like to talk about. One of these days, the great Terry Gross (of one of my other favorite shows, Fresh Air) is going to retire, and Anna Sale is going to be her natural successor as the great interviewer on public radio. Death, Sex, & Money is sort of like This American Life, less twee, but just as awesome.
Yesterday was the kind of day that makes you wonder whether the world really has gone crazy. Now we can add the Belgian terrorist attacks to a long list of awful things that seem to happen on a weekly basis. When you look at the big picture, it really can seem hopeless.
I had to escape the news cycle. You can only hear so many sad and depressing stories before you reach your limit, knowing you're powerless to help anyone. So I put This American Life's most recent episode on my podcast app and listened while I worked on my reactor.
If you're a writer, or you just need to hear a story about how humans can be amazingly kind, you should listen to this week's episode. It's about a young boy who back in the 80's ran away from home in order to find the fantasy author Piers Anthony, and ask if he might live with him on his small farm in rural Florida. Anthony's response was maybe not what the boy was hoping, but it was exactly what he needed, and it was by far the kindest thing he could have done for this poor stray kid.
I used to read a lot of Piers Anthony when I was in middle school, and it was an escape for me too; escape from all the mean girl bull shit and isolation that I think a lot of us experienced during those early teenage years. The author notes at the end of many of Anthony's novels were a fascinating glimpse into what life might be like to be a professional writer. I knew that I'd like nothing better than to write all day, comfortable in in my quiet country life as Anthony seemed to be. That's still my wish today.
Anyway, like I said, if you're in need of a happier story to remind you that people really aren't so bad, or if you're a Piers Anthony fan, take a listen to This American Life episode #470, "Show Me the Way." It's really good.
Every morning, at 4:40 am, I wake up, get my coffee and sit down at my desk to write. Except my brain is still not quite awake yet, so I scroll through my twitter feed, read some blogs, or the Washington Post as I sip my coffee to ease myself into the day.
At 5:30 am, I force myself to put the phone away on the opposite side of the room, and that's when the writing really happens. I'm a morning person. This is the hour is when my mind feels the sharpest. I'll get steadily stupider as the day goes on, but right then, I feel like I know exactly what I want to say and how to say it.
At 6:40 am, I close my laptop and race around the house to get ready for work, because I really should have stopped at ten minutes earlier if I wanted to avoid getting stuck behind the school bus on my way to work.
It's my routine and it works. I average about 900-1000 words a day, which I'm very happy with, BUT, because I'm descended from puritans, I always feel some lingering guilt because I know I could have been writing since 4:40 and doubled my word count as a result.
It doesn't matter that I really enjoy my coffee/reading time. It doesn't matter that I still get results I'm pleased with. 4:40-5:30 am is still a non-productive segment of my day and I always feel like it's something I need to fix.
So I tried something new this week. Instead of reading my twitter feed and descending into the rabbit hole of longform article links, I left my phone in the bedroom, pounded my coffee, and sat down to meditate. If I needed the time to wake up, then I figured the least I could do was attain inner peace.
I use the Take10 method described in the book, Get Some Headspace, which I reviewed here. You spend 5 minutes doing a mindful check on your body, how you feel, from head to toe. Then you spend the next ~5 minutes clearing your mind by focusing on your breathing.
I really enjoy doing this. It does make me feel more relaxed and chill afterwards. But a funny thing happened after I finished meditating and opened my laptop.
I stared at the screen and not a single word came to mind. I'd left my story in mid-scene from the day before so I knew exactly what should happen next, but for the life of me I could not puts words on the page to make that happen.
And that kind of makes sense, right? I'd just spent the previous 10 minutes pushing thoughts and memories out of my head so I could focus on my present state. I'd made myself go very quiet, and then out of this vacuum I asked myself to verbalize a story. What was I expecting to happen? By 6:40 that day, I'd only eked out a hundred words and that was painful going. Post-meditation, I felt physically and emotionally well, but I also seemed to have forgotten half my vocabulary and how to write a coherent sentence.
So although I recommend meditation if you suffer from busy-brain and constant, low-level anxiety like I do, I cannot recommend you do it just before you write. There might be something to those theories; that an element of self-loathing and craziness may be necessary if you want to write fiction. Maybe the tortured artist cliche is true. Maybe you need strife in order to create fictional conflict.
The next day I went back to my coffee and reading routine, and despite those "wasted" 50 minutes, my word count shot back up to ~1000 when I started writing again.
My need to optimize every minute of the day is partially just who I am, but it's also because there are so many things I want to do and there's never enough time. Even so, I clearly need those mental breaks, and I need to stop feeling guilty for taking them. They're important. It goes against my nature to admit that, but it's true. You have to let your brain wander sometimes. Meditation is good, but I'm not sure clearing my mind of every worry and memory is conducive to writing good fiction.
Do you meditate? Have you noticed any effect, good or bad, on your writing?
The anticipation is killing me. April 15 is our average last date of frost. I can't wait.
If all goes according to plan, we will be swimming in bushels of tomatoes by this July. I've already started the seedlings inside, beneath a grow lamp. We've planted Better Boys (my standby hybrid), and a few heirlooms, including Black Krims, Aunt Ruby's German Greens, Gold Medals, Brandywines, and a whole slew of dwarf tomatoes, including the Sweet Scarlet Dwarfs, which are supposed to taste even better than Black Krims, except they can be grown in a container.
We've also started about a dozen Swiss Chard plants (Fordhook Giant). Have you ever eaten Swiss Chard? It's the sweetest, most tender green; so much better tasting than kale and a lot easier to cook than collards. Unfortunately, I've always found Swiss Chard to be prohibitively expensive at the grocery store, but that's no problem because it grows beautifully in the garden as long as you put up a fence to keep the rabbits and turtles out. They're crazy for the baby greens.
Once we're past risk of frost, we'll transplant all the seedlings outside. Then we'll plant a few other things directly into the ground, like cowpeas (black eyed peas), herbs, leeks, potatoes, a few lettuces, and cucumbers.
Our peas are already in the ground and sprouted (they're cold tolerant so you can plant them before the last frost warning). They'll probably be climbing the trellis by this weekend. We've had the most amazing 70+ degree weather in North Carolina lately and it's really been helping those peas along. Not sure how the heat will affect their taste, but what are you going do.
Pictured above is an artichoke seedling of the Imperial Star variety. Fingers crossed. If I get one artichoke from my garden this year, I'm going to call it a raging success.
Do you garden?
I started Childhood's End with low expectations. Based on a short story that Arthur C. Clarke wrote in the 1940's, the novel begins when alien "Overlords" arrive on planet Earth and enforce policies that abolish war, hunger, and other human maladies. However, without these conflicts, mankind stagnates. Innovations in art and science end. Earth's citizens become a globalized race of dilettantes.
And yet, everyone's life undeniably improves under the Overlords' guidance. At one point, the head Overlord tells the people of earth, "Without our intervention, the Earth today would be a radioactive wilderness." They've saved man, but man is conflicted about why and whether they really should really be grateful.
For whatever reason, that premise never resonated for me and I hesitated to read this novel for a long time. It sounded like a dead-end idea. What could possibly happen under those conditions? Would the humans rebel? How would they succeed against the technologically superior Overlords? I'd thought Clarke was above that alien invasion/rebellion cliche, especially since his books tend to be very idea driven. For sure, Childhood's End is not a character driven story. It's not even clear who the main character is, because in Clarke's stories, characters are just perspectives on events, like different camera views that just happen to be convenient for the reader. And so for roughly the first half of the novel, we see from different points of view what it means to stagnate as a culture.
This idea wasn't terribly interesting, even if it rings true. I wondered if Childhood's End wasn't a little overrated. That's probably akin to blasphemy in the science fiction community, where the book sits comfortably in the pantheon, but it was hard to get excited about such a dragging conflict, if it could even be called conflict at all, as most of the novel takes place in the status quo.
Nor did I find the mystery of the Overlords' identity compelling, especially not when they eventually revealed themselves. I was expecting aliens in the style of Clarke's other novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey; beings that had progressed beyond material form to become something like gods. So it was a bit of an anticlimax when the Overlords eventually revealed their very corporeal bodies.
But despite all of these issues, Childhood's End slowly won me over, especially as the first half of the book turned out to be something of a red herring. It was never about the human race stagnating. It wasn't about the end of art and science. It was about evolution and layers of authority in the universe. It was about how tiny and individually meaningless we are on a galactic scale, but as a whole race, how we could be a part of something even bigger that is almost impossible for us to understand, because we have no context or comparison for it. Childhood's End not about how the Overlords were in charge of Earth. It was about who was in charge of the Overlords.
If Clarke had known how to write a family scene with the faintest interest, it might have been easier to get through the first half of the story, but I'm glad I pushed through those tedious descriptions of mid-century parties and home life to get to the bigger idea that takes place in the last hundred pages of the book. When you read Clarke, you read to understand the extremes of how life might exist elsewhere in the Universe, in ways your small life wouldn't otherwise allow you to conceive. That's where Childhood's End really succeeds.
Does it ever scare you to think about how we should probably listen to Clarke when it comes to these kinds of life-altering ideas? He's been right about so much else in his fiction, like geosynchronous satellites for global communication. In Childhood's End, he wrote this quote, which I find applies perfectly today:
"The world's now placid, featureless, and culturally dead: nothing really new has been created since the Overlords came. The reason's obvious. There's nothing left to struggle for, and there are too may distractions and entertainments. Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went without sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that 's available at the turn of the switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges - absorbing but never creating."
Just replace the word, Overlords, with "Internet." We're at the same point, mindless consumption of entertainment and information; it's undeniably displacing our own creativity. The Overlords are already here.
So if Clarke was right about that, then what happens to us next?
I did a little painting this weekend and I thought it would be fun to show you the process. I used to paint a lot in high school. It was probably my favorite thing to do. Haven't been doing it so much lately, because life, but it's something I'm trying to do more regularly.
First, because I was just playing around, I didn't get hung up on the materials. I only had some watercolor paper lying around, so I used that even though I was painting with acrylics. Side note: When people say they want to get into painting, I don't understand why they start with watercolors. Watercolors are one of the hardest paints to use well. Try acrylics, or hell, even oils can be really effective since you can layer colors much more easily. Also, a little tip, when I paint on paper I like to use cheap painters tape to create a white border. You'll see the effect when I take it off at the end.
I wasn't going for anything realistic here. And I've never had a very good sense of color, so I didn't bother to do any mixing; just used the paint straight out of the tube since what I was really interested in was using blocks of color to emphasize the composition (the balance of the spatial layout). The picture is loosely based on a section of the property we rent. Our landlords have put up a lot of statuary throughout the grounds and along the paths, so that's kind of what I was trying to show here.
It's always hard to know when to stop, so I added the trees very slowly, physically taking a step back to look at the picture overall. When I decided that one more tree would clutter the composition, I took the painters tape off and then I really got a better sense of the final image framed in the non-painted regions of the paper. Not bad for a little study. In retrospect, I might have done the trees in white or grey to lighten up the "tone" of the picture. It looks darker and more foreboding than I'd originally wanted. I'll probably paint this picture a few more times, trying out different colors and techniques, before I settle on the idea, and then I'll give it a go in oil paints on canvas. That's another trick, don't immediately jump into using the most expensive art supplies. If I had had computer paper available, I would have used that to do this quick study.
But the advantage of painting on sturdier stock like watercolor paper is then it's easy to hang on the wall. I used painters tape to stick it, nothing fancy, and super-easy. When it comes to art, I say let your inner five-year-old be your guide.
I put it up in our stairwell since it was looking a little bare there, but it looked off-balance, so I addded another study I had laying around.
I was never that happy with the figures I painted in the red study, but I liked the blocks of red, black and especially the unpainted white of the windows. It's not perfect, but again, it's just a study. It's all an experiment. Ultimately, I decided it wasn't something I wanted to paint again, but regardless, it's color that looks nice on the wall. I'll probably add a third picture, vertically oriented, to nestle above the woods study. Pictures look nice hung in odd numbers. We'll see.
In addition to your reading and writing, do you have another hobby? I really enjoy focusing on each brushstroke. It's one of the few things that makes my mind go quiet.
But a thought occurs to me. Why don't we use studies when we write? It's a common technique in art. You sketch and paint a few practice pictures to test out your idea, the color, the composition. Why don't we write quick novel sketches? Seems like it would save a lot of wasted writing. Too many of my attempts to write a novel a few years ago resulted in pages and pages of writing that I edited and honed, only to find the overall story and structure disappointing and filled with holes. A writing study could have helped me avoid that.
I suppose that's why people outline their stories, but when I say "study," I mean a step beyond an outline. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether a story is working until you're actually writing it. Maybe the closest analogy we have to studies in writing is a "fast draft." That's what I'm doing right now for my work-in-progress and already I have 30,000 words with the end in sight. I've never gotten along so far in a novel before and frankly, I think it's because I've been consciously fast-drafting it. It's my WIP study.
I miss life without cellphones.
I used to read a lot more before I could fit the Internet in my pocket. Hell, I planned to finish Childhood’s End yesterday and write a review today, but here I am, not even halfway through the book because every time I’d sit down to read, my phone would appear in my hand, tempting me to read something else.
I don’t play games. I think Facebook is boring. But a link on twitter is like a baited hook.
It’s so mindless, this consumption of information. Whether it’s an Atlantic piece about education trends, or a New Yorker profile, or the Washington Post on yet another article citing Donald Trump’s lunacy; it doesn’t matter that it’s ostensibly well written news, it’s the fact that it competes for every free moment of my life that bothers me. Longform articles are like crack. I could spend hours reading on the Internet.
And you know what goes hand in hand with this mindless reading? Mindless eating. One of my favorite things to do is pop some popcorn or make myself some toast, and then sit, eating without tasting anything, while I read and read and read on the internet. It’s not healthy to eat that way. It soothes the mind, but then my jeans don’t fit so well.
The phone has been affecting my writing too. Each morning, I get up at 4:30, pour myself a cup of coffee, and sit down to write, but again, the damn phone appears. I tell myself I need the time to wake up, and it seems so innocent, after all I’m only reading the news. But before I know it, it’s 5:30 and I’ve lost a precious hour I could have spent writing, or even sleeping.
I want the constant distraction to go away. You know how everyone’s canceling their cable? When we moved out to the country, my husband and I went a step further by canceling our Internet too (or my accurately, we just never bothered to turn it on). We both felt happier without it. All the mindless web surfing on our laptops ended. There was no more Netflix to binge watch. We read more and got further along in our projects.
But we can’t cancel our cellphones. We don’t want to be that isolated. And now it’s not even necessary to have a landline connection to the Internet. A smartphone is perfectly capable of doing just about everything you would otherwise do on a computer. So the distraction has crept right back into our lives.
I’ve started leaving my phone in random places around the house, just to make sure I can’t whip it out of my pocket at moment’s notice to distract me from whenever my brain has to really focus and think about my present task. I’d say I only have a fifty percent success rate though, as half the time, I wind up stopping whatever I’m doing just to find that stupid phone.
I’m about ready to throw it at the wall. Whatever minor convenience it is to look up a faster route home or find a decent restaurant in a new neighborhood could not possibly be worth the Soma-like effects of the Internet.
It makes me wonder what’s really bothering me? What part of my life is so upsetting that it’s preferable to blank out on the addictive combination of food and the Internet?
If I’m being honest, it’s two things: my project at work and my long commute. I’m taking steps to fix those problems, so it’ll be interesting to see how my Internet habits change after I switch jobs this summer. However, I suspect that although those problems will be fixed, there will just be another issue that makes me want to escape inside me phone. We’ll see.
Do you struggle with the Internet? It’s such double-edged sword. On the one hand, I couldn’t expand my editing business without it. On the other, it’s ruining my creativity. Very tricky.
Ok, big question today. Han vs. Luke, who do you got?
I ask because recently I read this article by Tiffany Reizs who asked the same question in terms of who is the better hero. She reported being team-Luke as a kid, but switched over to team-Han as an adult. I thought that was so interesting because I had the exact opposite response.
As a kid, I was all about Han. He was the classic anti-hero. The scoundrel. The character who improves as he takes on more burdens. He also had the girl, the sweet space-ship, and the furry friend. He was handsome, capable, and smart; a pilot, mechanic, smuggler, soldier, and generally someone who knew how to get stuff done.
In contrast, Luke seemed like such a strange choice for the hero of Star Wars. He was whinny. He was a little too perfect. And in the end, what was his reward for all that good behavior? A dead mentor, a dead father, and a hands-off sister. Just as his world opens up as he studies to become a Jedi, it collapses again when he loses everything and is left with few options besides the life of a monk in the manner of Obi-Wan. Han arguably got the better deal.
But I re-watched Star Wars recently, as I do every few years, and I was surprised by how differently I responded to the two male leads.
Everything Han did seemed a lot less cute and lot more obnoxious. For the first time ever, I wondered what Leia saw in him. I don't know if it's just because I've gotten older and the bad-boy persona is a lot less attractive to me now, but when you have to deal with all the responsibilities and compromises that come with being an independent adult, it's a lot more obvious that Han is an undesirable mate.
Meanwhile, Luke was someone I felt like I was getting to know for the first time. Without the distraction of Han, the story felt new again. Now it was all about Luke's struggle with the light and dark sides of the force, as I think George Lucas originally intended.
Starting with Luke's training with Yoda, we learn that there's something really dark and horrible inside of him that has the potential to take over. That cave scene? As a kid, I never completely understood that it was Luke's face inside Darth Vader's mask and what that meant.
Then, in Return of the Jedi, when Luke force-chokes the guards at Jabba's palace, it shows again that he's not completely good, nor is he all that different from his father. He straddles an edge. Even as he purports to be on the side of good, I think Luke confuses being on the side of the Rebels with being a force of good. In fact, those are two entirely separate things. It's just as possible he could do terrible things in the name of good. Isn't that exactly what his father thought he was doing when he was Luke's age?
Light and darkness, how much more interesting is that struggle than Han choosing to support the rebels and settle down with a princess? Han never has to fight between whether he wants to be good or evil. He hangs out in that grey area, which is interesting, but lower stakes. For Luke, it's winner take all for his soul. That darkness, when you bother to notice it's always been there, helps balance out a lot of what on the surface comes across as too goody-goody.
Anyway, disagree with me all you want, it's purely an opinion. But I wonder how much growing up effects our understanding of stories we thought we knew so well. I mean, word for word well, and yet, here I am, completely changing my appreciation for Luke Skywalker.
Did your opinions of Star Wars change over time? Did you switch teams?
Writer, editor, scientist.