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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

shoes book harvard yard

(It’s not quite warm enough to lounge in Harvard Yard with a book. But it will be soon!)

I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back: 30 Games in 30 Days on the Best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever, Ben Blatt and Eric Brewster
The subtitle says it all. Two best friends – one baseball nut and one baseball hater – embark on an epic (some would say completely insane) cross-country baseball road trip. Wryly funny (if repetitive at times). Recommended for baseball fanatics. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 6).

Fingal O’Reilly, Irish Doctor, Patrick Taylor
A fun installment in Taylor’s Irish Country Doctor series, with all the usual colorful characters in the village of Ballybucklebo. I missed Barry, the young doctor who usually works with O’Reilly, but this was good comfort reading.

Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, ed. Jocelyn K. Glei
This short book is packed with productivity tips from 20 authors. Further inspiration to create a schedule for myself and work on blocking out distractions. Recommended by Anne.

Scarlet, Marissa Meyer
This sequel to Cinder follows Cinder’s escape from prison but focuses more on Scarlet, a French farm girl on a search for her missing grandmother (accompanied by Wolf, an enigmatic street fighter). The storylines intertwine in surprising ways. Much darker and more exciting than Cinder. I can’t wait to read Cress (book 3).

Death in a Strange Country, Donna Leon
Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates the death of a young American sergeant stationed near Venice. Brunetti is likable and thoughtful, but the plot of this mystery dragged, and the ending was downright unsatisfying.

Catching Air, Sarah Pekkanen
I devoured this book in a day. Pekkanen tells a warm, relatable (but not predictable) story of two couples who move to Vermont to run a B&B. The men are brothers with a troubled history, but the story belongs to the women, who are each dealing with big questions about children, vocation and love. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 6).

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser
I’ve been meaning to read this book forever. Zinsser’s practical, witty guide is packed with useful advice for journalists, memoirists and business writers – anyone who wants to (or has to) write nonfiction.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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tbr table books march 2014

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey
A fascinating compendium of the daily routines of dozens of writers, artists, composers and other creatives. So many addictions and lots of creative torment, but a surprising number of these folks found that day jobs kept them sane (and enabled them to eat). As a writer with a day job, I get that. Recommended by Anne.

Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers
I’ve seen the movie many times but finally decided to read the book after seeing Saving Mr. Banks. The book contains some familiar incidents (Uncle Albert, the Bird Lady, etc.), but Mary Poppins herself is quite different from Julie Andrews’ character. Fun, but I honestly prefer the film version.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I read Adichie’s debut, Purple Hibiscus, in college and found it moving and troubling. Americanah is more sweeping, more powerful, sometimes wryly funny. It traces the journey of Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerians who fall in love as teenagers, move abroad (Ifemelu to the U.S. and Obinze to England), then are reunited years later. It asks big questions about race, class and love. After Leigh, Heather and Christie mentioned it on Twitter in the same week, I couldn’t resist.

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, Sheila Turnage
Mo LoBeau and her best friend Dale have a few new mysteries to solve: is there really a ghost at the ramshackle inn outside their town? What’s the new kid at school really up to? And can they scrape a passing grade on their history paper? Loved this story – hilarious and tender, just like Three Times Lucky.

My Accidental Jihad, Krista Bremer
A secular surfer girl from SoCal, Krista Bremer never imagined herself married to a devout Muslim. But then she met Ismail, a kind Libyan who captured her heart. Bremer recounts their love story and explores her discomfort with her husband’s culture in this memoir. Her writing is elegant, but I was astounded by her ignorance on certain issues. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 22).

Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland, Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
This slim food memoir combines Indian recipes with flashes of memory from the author’s childhood, spent in Kansas with occasional visits to her Indian relatives. A slow start, but beautiful writing, though I wished some of the reflections had gone further. (I received a copy of this book from the publisher, but was not compensated for this review.)

Stay, Allie Larkin
When Savannah’s best friend marries the man she’s adored for years, she impulsively orders a dog off the Internet. Her new pup is cute, but he’s huge, and Van has to mend her broken heart while training her dog and dealing with grouchy neighbors and her newlywed friends. A fun novel about love, family, friendship and fresh starts. (Language warning.)

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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shoes book harvard yard

(Remembering the days when it was warm enough to sit and read in Harvard Yard.)

The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder
Since moving to Boston, I’ve reached for this book every winter. The Ingalls family’s hard winter gives me perspective – at least I’m not living off seed wheat! – and courage to face the bitter winds and freezing temps. I particularly love the bond between Pa and Laura, and their staunch bravery (and honest frustration) in the face of blizzard after blizzard. A favorite.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon, Sarah Addison Allen
Emily Benedict, orphaned at 17, moves from Boston to her mother’s North Carolina hometown, longing to discover her family history. She gets more than she bargained for and also meets an unusual boy. I like Allen’s gentle magical realism, but I had trouble believing in this book’s central conceit. Garden Spells is still my favorite of hers.

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, Austin Kleon
A fun, fast, quirky list of creativity tips (per the subtitle). Good reminders about the importance of side projects, the potential to get ideas anywhere, and other aspects of the creative life. A quick hit of inspiration.

Meant to Be, Lauren Morrill
Type-A, straight-A Julia believes in being prepared for all scenarios. But on a class trip to London, she gets paired with Jason, a goofy, spontaneous rule-breaker who drives her completely crazy. Can Julia – and Jason – let go of the notion that “meant to be” is always what you’ve planned? A fun YA love story in a fabulous setting.

The Supreme Macaroni Company, Adriana Trigiani
Shoemaker Valentine Roncalli is finally marrying the man she loves, but juggling a new marriage and an established business proves challenging. I usually love Trigiani’s stories of women from big Italian families chasing their dreams, but this third novel about Valentine felt rushed and unsatisfying.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

I’m joining Leigh’s February Reading Challenge, so I won’t be buying any books in February (though I will be using the library). Wish me luck!

What are you reading?

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“I just make up crap.”

So said my friend Karen, when my sister Betsy asked her to provide some background prelude music for Betsy’s wedding.

I’ve known Karen since I was a child (she and her husband, then newlyweds, took care of Betsy and me occasionally), and I’ve always been wowed by her musical ability. She would sit down at her keyboard or the piano at our house, and play a hymn or a Christmas carol or another song by request. Or she’d improvise a progression of chords, which rolled and tumbled and spilled over into one another without (as far as I could tell) any effort, or any discord. Karen later learned to read music so she could write down the songs she was composing, but at that time, it was all by ear – or, I thought, by magic.

But when Betsy asked her to play before the wedding – a bit of piano improv while the guests filed in and found their seats – Karen protested. “I don’t really play!” she insisted. “I just make up crap!”

We laughed about her answer then – such a typically blunt, self-deprecating Karen remark – and we continue to laugh about it now. But it makes me wonder: how much of what we do and create, what we work hard to bring into being, do we discount as “just making up crap”?

laptop chai thinking cup

I saw this over and over at the Glen Workshop: nearly every writer or artist, whether a published, distinguished faculty member or a brand-new memoirist or poet, felt the need to apologize for his or her work. Lauren Winner tried her best to ban apologies in our workshop, but it was tough: to a person, we demurred or discounted or shrugged off our hard work. This is a first draft. This is just a collection of vignettes. I don’t know where this is going yet. It needs some polish.

All those statements might have been true. But at the same time, as Lauren pointed out, this was hard and holy work, this process of reflecting and mining and writing about our own lives. We had all sweated over these manuscripts, even if they were first drafts. It takes focus and craft and dedication to build a worthwhile structure out of words (or anything else). Our pieces might still be rough, but they were valuable.

It can be scary to shrug off the cloak of false modesty, to stand up straight and admit that you are not just making up crap (or, as my English friends call it, “faffing around”). We are more vulnerable when we are sincere, and we leave ourselves open to criticism when we claim, however timidly, that our work has value.

But this is the truth: it does.

Karen, for example, doesn’t simply improvise piano chords (though that has value in itself). She’s a singer-songwriter with three albums (not to mention a husband and three children), and she has a powerful voice and some mad keyboard skills. By the same token, I don’t simply type out a torrent of words here and hit “publish”: I ruminate, I trim and edit, I polish and tighten and proofread. I do all those things any time I write a piece, and while I am always working to improve my craft, I do not just make up crap.

Let’s stop discounting our own effort, our own gifts, our own valuable work. Let’s stop hiding behind the false modesty that is really a shield against criticism, and let’s take up our pens and brushes and instruments and keep on creating. And then let’s share that work (when it’s ready to share), and let’s be brave enough to say: I made this. It may not be perfect, but it is valuable.

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After my rich, nourishing, thoroughly enjoyable week at Glen East, it’s been a difficult re-entry. Boston feels grey and gritty and overstimulating after the lush green cocoon of South Hadley. After a week of leisurely meals, late-night talks, blossoming friendships and so many good words, it feels a little cruel to be thrust back into commuting and email and the thrumming bass note of traffic downtown. (Though I am grateful to see my husband and catch up with friends.)

mount holyoke college gazebo

Gazebo by the lake at Mt. Holyoke

Re-entry after a powerful experience has always been a struggle for me. This was the missing piece at every church camp I attended as a teenager. After a week of fast-paced fun and emotionally charged spiritual highs, what next? Our youth ministers meant well, but I always felt poorly equipped to make the experience (or what I’d learned from it) last.

As I boarded the bus to leave Oxford in 2004 and then in 2008, the same questions pounded in my head: What now? How do I re-enter my regular life without feeling jarred, and how do I take what I’ve learned and transmute it into that life, so the changes I’ve experienced here don’t fade away?

“How will you go back and live differently?” my friend Janine asked me in 2004, as we walked in University Parks Oxford (and as I wept at the thought of leaving). I didn’t have an answer, but that is still my question after every life-changing experience, whether joyous or tragic.

This time, the question (or its permutations) has to do with both my writing and my life. How will I look at the world differently, based on what I’ve learned and thought and felt and seen? How will I keep asking thoughtful questions about my writing, particularly in the absence (or shifting) of the Glen community? What do I need to jettison or limit in my daily life, to make space and set aside energy to do the work I love? How do I let the good words of the Glen permeate my daily life, make it fuller and deeper and richer and more true?

be here now smith college

Wise advice at Smith College last week

I’m feeling the need for a few practices (writing and non-writing) to ground me, to “grid my growth,” as Julia Cameron says, and to spur me to keep a gentle discipline rather than falling back into writer’s block and laziness. Some of these non-writing practices (cooking dinner, washing dishes) can’t take shape until we return from yet more travel. But some – writing every day, underlining beautiful sentences in new books, paying attention – can start now. In the middle (this is key) of the questions and tiredness and frustration.

How do you re-enter after a life-changing experience? What practices do you use to nudge you a wee bit closer to the ideal life, to the big questions, in the everyday?

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Missing my mojo

My writing mojo seems to be on vacation lately.

Usually I don’t get too worked up if this happens for a day, a few days, a week or two. Sometimes after pouring out lots and lots of words, it’s best to stop and relax a while. To bake, spend time with friends, knit, watch a little fun TV, do something with my hands rather than always working with my brain. And, eventually, the sly muse comes slinking back, tiptoeing around the corner in her red shoes, offering a handful of ideas like bright pebbles she’s picked up in her ramblings elsewhere.

But lately she seems to be on a longer break, perhaps holed up in an Oxford bookshop or strolling along the Seine in a coat the color of smoke. (Of course – it figures – she usually runs off to the places I dream of running off to. And she’s invisible, you see, so she has the freedom to go wherever she likes, at will.)

Meanwhile, I’m stuck back here in the sometimes-dull routine of the daily 9-to-5, struggling to pick up the pen or bring myself back to the keyboard in a non-work context. I took a step back from daily blogging in January to free up some creative space, and while the muse and I spent a lot of time together those first weeks, I’m now scrambling for enough ideas to post three times a week. I’m reading lots of great books – fiction and memoir, young adult lit and nonfiction – and I’m still managing to turn out regular book reviews. But my mojo seems to have fled, taking most of my ideas with her. I can’t seem to start a longer project to save my life, and that nagging fear about not being a real writer is back with a vengeance.

Does this ever happen to you? And how do you coax your mojo back when it seems to disappear?

(Partly inspired by Sonia’s post about her knitting mojo, last month.)

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I’ve been spending a little time in Deep Valley, Minnesota. Feeling a little harried and craving some comfort (and a fun summer story), I picked up Carney’s House Party to read on the T one morning, and of course it wasn’t long before I was immersed in the high school adventures of my beloved Betsy Ray and her merry Crowd. I’ve been carrying the books around with me, spending my lunch breaks reading about school dances and the Essay Contest, Merry Widow hats and summers on Murmuring Lake, and the group of boys and girls who are so jolly and fun that I want them for my own friends.

(Image via New York Magazine)

These books never fail to delight me with their descriptions of gorgeous party dresses, delicious Sunday night lunches at the Ray house, vivid details of the seasons changing in Deep Valley, and the highly entertaining adventures of Betsy, Tacy, Tib and their posse of friends. Singing around the piano, ice skating on the pond, shopping for Christmas ornaments and drinking coffee at Heinz’s – what fun! But I also love the books for Betsy’s occasional moments of quiet reflection – particularly the ones when she realizes she’s neglected her writing and determines to rededicate herself to it.

I’ve struggled lately to find both inspiration and discipline for my writing, and it’s always heartening to read that Betsy struggled with the same problems, and always overcame them in the end. I love picturing her curled up next to Uncle Keith’s trunk, the print of a long-legged bird on the wall beside her, or floating on a rowboat at Murmuring Lake, scribbling away at a poem or a story with her freshly sharpened pencils.

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The other night, in serious need of some writing inspiration, I picked up Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. This book was J’s gift to me when I graduated from college, and it’s not an overstatement to say that it has changed my life. Julia, with her thoughtful, wise words on writing and the gently prodding exercises which accompany each essay, became a friend and creative companion, and I read and wrote my way through most of the exercises in this book as I sent out resumes and tried to figure out my life after college. (One of those exercises led to my first published article, and the beginning of my freelance career.)

It’s been a while since I’ve revisited The Sound of Paper (though Julia’s words, particularly about buds, continue to remind me, gently, that I’m not alone on this writer’s path). I decided to start going through the exercises again, and one of the first has (ostensibly) nothing to do with writing. Rather, the instructions are to gather a big pile of magazines, pull out any images that appeal to you, and make a collage with them.

I gathered my pile of Real Simple, Whole Living, Anthology and National Geographic (the standard and Traveler editions), spread out on the living-room rug, and began ripping, cutting, sorting and discarding, then arranging my finds and securing them with Scotch tape. I ended up with so many images I had to make the collage double-sided. Here’s the final product:

As I sat and looked at the collage, several things struck me:

First of all, this was fun. It’s been ages since I did anything with my hands that didn’t involve writing, cooking or knitting. How fun to play with pictures again like a kid, not to worry about white space or overlapping edges or whether anything “matched.” I chose an arrangement that pleased me, of course, but I wasn’t overly worried about how it would look.

This melange is part reality, part ideal – much like the Polyvore collages I see on others’ blogs, or the groupings of items on Pinterest, or the treasuries people make on Etsy. They’re partly things we have, and partly things we want. I own a couple of cute dresses and a few pieces of candy-colored cookware; I’ve certainly eaten my share of ice cream, gelato and sorbet this summer. But I’m longing for trips to exotic, peaceful locations, a neatly color-coded closet, a vintage typewriter, an adorable dog (maybe in our next house, when we have a backyard). Some of those things are out of reach right now, but some of them are probably closer than I think.

As a writer I’m always looking for themes, and there are several in this grouping: abundance (heirloom tomatoes and bright flowers, shelves of books and stacks of dishes); simplicity (clean lines, quiet black-and-white photos, wide blue skies with room to breathe); a bit of play (those puppies, enjoying the breeze, charm me utterly); and elegance (those dresses! Those red lips with chic sunglasses! That carafe of lemonade!). Again, it strikes me: these themes speak partly to the life I have, partly to the life I want.

The trick, as always, is how to get from here to there: how to transform the everyday grind into something charming and joyful, thoughtful and fun? How to take these images from the page and translate them into reality? Or how, more importantly, to learn to find the beauty in what I already have, the moments of abundance and simple joy and peace in my everyday?

It’s a question I’m always asking, and this collage only served to emphasize that. These photos don’t have any answers for me, of course, but it’ll be good to keep them around while I keep pondering – and writing.

What would be on your collage of wishes?

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1. A batch of Ron’s oaty scones.
2. A wee baby hat for a friend, out of leftover sock yarn.
3. A patch for some jeans, rendering them wearable again.
4. A few new outfits with items I already own.
5. Quite a few blog posts.
6. A patio container garden. (So far: mint, basil and a geranium.)
7. Packing lists.
8. Order out of chaos in our apartment.
9. Lots and lots of wedding decor.
10. A couple of summery salads.
11. Cream of jalapeno soup on a chilly night.
12. Pages of scribbled ideas in my journal.
13. A strawberry-rhubarb crisp.
14. A few simple, healthy dinners.
15. Packages to send to friends.

What are you making these days? (Check out the wonderful stuff happening at 30 Days of Creativity. Inspiring!)

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I’m taking a writing class at Grub Street right now – each Monday night, a group of us gather around a table, to talk shop about writing and share bits of our projects in progress with each other. During this week’s pre-class chitchat, I happened to mention this blog, and one of my classmates asked, “How do you find the time to blog?”

I get this a lot, actually. “How do you find the time to knit?” “How do you find the time to journal?” “How do you find the time to do freelance work, in addition to a full-time job?” “How do you find the time to cook?” And most frequently, “How do you find the time to read so many books?”

I think the answer is simpler than it first appears. Yes, we all have constraints on our time: we need sleep and food; we have day jobs and commutes and spouses/children/friends; other commitments request or demand our attention. But we all find the time to do what we love.

My dad finds the time to play golf at least twice a week, though no one could accuse him of neglecting his family or his work. My husband finds the time to play guitar, and has even begun bringing it along to some of his therapy sessions with musically inclined teenagers. Val finds the time to run a movie club. Annie finds the time to write songs. Amanda finds the time to run an orphanage. Julie finds the time to take photos and sketch. Melynda finds the time to knit and design new patterns.

Being busy is a common excuse in our overscheduled world – and I know a lot of people have more on their plates than I do. But often “I don’t have time” is a false way of saying “I don’t want to make the time.” Because if it’s vital to the well-being of your body or your soul, chances are you’ll find the time. Or make the time.

So there’s my answer: I make the time to blog. I do it because it provides discipline, a kick-in-the-pants deadline, a community of wonderful readers, a place for me to try out new ideas. And as for finding/making the time? I do it whenever, and however, I can.

What do you find the time to do?

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