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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

NaNoWriMo 2014

 

books about words photo

I’ve said for a long time that I’m not a fiction writer.

I’m a voracious fiction reader – you only have to look at my book list to see that. I love a good novel, and I appreciate the skill and hard work that go into crafting a compelling story. But when I write, it tends to be essays or book reviews (and maybe one of these days, a memoir). I often find myself intimidated by the idea of creating an entire fictional world from scratch.

Enter NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo is a wild, gleeful, no-holds-barred burst of creativity – an annual challenge to write a novel, or at least a 50,000-word draft, in a month. It happens every November, with people around the world participating, and it can be tremendous fun. I did it in 2008, when I wrote a novel about an American girl who goes to Oxford. (Art imitating life, anyone?)

I hadn’t planned to do NaNo this year, but seeing the buzz about it online made me decide to jump in, fittingly, at the last minute. And I’m loving it – such a fun chance to break out of my usual writing box and do something totally different.

I’m drafting a murder mystery set in Oxford – both a fun new challenge, an homage to the detective novelists I adore (especially Dorothy Sayers), and a chance to spend (more) time daydreaming about my favorite city.

radcliffe square dusk oxford

So far I’m at 13,000-plus words and going strong. I’ll keep you posted.

Happy Friday. And, if you’re noveling, happy NaNo!

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bookpeople austin tx interior

(The first floor of BookPeople in Austin, where I spent several blissful hours last month.)

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, Dorothy Gilman
My friend Jacque has been urging me to pick up the Mrs. Pollifax series for years. I loved this first installment, in which Mrs. Pollifax, bored with her quiet widowhood, volunteers for the CIA! So much fun and packed with fascinating Cold War-era detail.

The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life, Alex Bellos
Parabolas, circles, negative numbers and pi aren’t just for math class – they show up again and again in the real world. Bellos delights in exploring the quirks of mathematics. Technical at times, but mostly entertaining. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 10).

Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942, Joyce Dennys
I picked this one up on Jaclyn’s rec and loved it. Henrietta (the author’s alter ego) writes letters to a childhood friend about life in her Devon village during WWII. I giggled over her descriptions of the villagers’ antics, reading the best bits aloud to my husband. Such fun.

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
I’d never read this classic gothic tale, but tackled it for book club. Reminded me strongly of Jane Eyre – grand house, dark brooding leading man haunted by his first wife, etc. Suspenseful, but deeply sad, and I wanted more spirit from the narrator.

The Stories We Tell, Patti Callahan Henry
Eve Morrison has the perfect life: a successful husband, a daughter, a thriving letterpress business. But when her husband and sister are injured in a car accident, she must decide whose story she believes, and whether the glossy image of her life matches the reality. A moving story of love, family and gaining the courage to move on. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 24).

The Amazing Mrs. Pollifax, Dorothy Gilman
Mrs. Pollifax’s second adventure finds her flying to Istanbul to make contact with a Communist agent. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and she ends up on a wild ride across Turkey with a band of gypsies and a mismatched group of outlaws. Slightly outlandish, but so much fun.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Steven Pressfield
An exploration of Resistance (to creativity) and pithy advice, which can be summed up as: Do the Work. (The first 100 pages were great; the last 60 pages, musings on the Muse, totally lost me.)

The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink, ed. Kevin Young
A savory, sweet, surprising collection of poems about eating, cooking, foraging and memories of food. (Includes an astonishing number of poems about blackberries – not that I’m complaining – and a whole section on barbecue.)

Henrietta Sees It Through: More News from the Home Front 1942-1945, Joyce Dennys
This sequel to Henrietta’s War (see above) is a little grimmer than its predecessor: tempers are fraying as the war drags on. But Henrietta still reports on village life with wit and humor. She reminds me of Miss Read (though she’s a doctor’s wife instead of a schoolteacher).

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

What are you reading?

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Via Karen, this recent TED Talk from Elizabeth Gilbert is the best thing I’ve seen in a long time. (I loved her first TED Talk too, on genius and the creative spirit.)

Gilbert explores the emotional effects of success and failure, and the value of coming back home: “Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself.” Wise and powerful words – definitely worth a watch.

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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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