Friday, June 22, 2018

Happy Summer!

"Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."

- Henry James


Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Yesterday marked the summer solstice and today as of 2:45 pm Eastern Standard Time marks the beginning of my summer vacation. I've always loved the summer season. Flowers are in bloom, vegetables are growing, the sun is shining, and I am loving life. Every year I look forward to the summer so that I can bask in the beauty of it all and this year is no different.

I've made a resolution to go hiking at least once each week. I also plan to finish writing my novel, read many books, visit more art museums, go to the beach, take a few classes online, and do one or two home improvement projects around the house. I can't wait to get started because I know that summer will fly by. 

What are you doing this summer?

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

On Reacting to Art

Recently, I chaperoned a field trip to an art museum - thirty-five teenagers and three adults surrounded by art for a few hours. The purpose of the trip wasn't to see a specific exhibit, or to learn about a particular artist. The purpose of the trip was to expose the students to art in a relaxed academic setting and allow them to react to it in an organic way.

I wish that we had taken trips like this when I was in high school, but then again my parents often brought me to museums and other cultural experiences when I was young.

While on the trip, I stood in front of a Mark Rothko painting and allowed myself to just be immersed in the moment and feel the colors washing over me. It was beautiful. I felt calm after looking at it for a while. A student remarked that the mood of the painting was overall positive and that she felt happy for looking at it. Even though someone could dismiss it as just colors on a canvas, it elicited emotions from the audience, which is exactly what art is meant to do. 

It got me thinking about how all art (whether we're talking about sculpture, music, Impressionist paintings, or poetry) is meant to cause some kind of reaction in the audience. Often the art that draws the most attention is what's controversial - the pieces that bring out negative emotions in the audience. Still, a piece that makes the audience feel calm and happy can hang in a museum and sell for millions of dollars.

So what does this mean for your writing?

It means you should go for the gut. Write stories that drag out a range of emotions in the audience. Don't hold back. Art is meant to draw a reaction from the crowd, so just go for it and be ready for whatever follows.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Recently Read: May/June 2018

Okay, so I've read a lot of good books in the last month or so (physical books as well as audio books) and I thought I would give a quick update in case anyone is looking for something good to read this summer.

Awesome Audio Books

On an average day, I commute roughly an hour each way to work (it can be as little as 35 minutes if there is no traffic. *sigh*) So I love to have a good audio book stored on my phone to listen to in the car. If you're interested, I use the Libby app from Overdrive to borrow audio books from my library. If your library uses this service, I highly encourage you to take part in it, because it makes borrowing audio books and ebooks a breeze and they always have fresh new titles along side old favorites. Case in point - the two books I've listened to recently are Turtles All the Way Down and Life of Pi.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

This book will haunt you. The main character suffers from somewhat debilitating anxiety which is the main source of tension in the novel. Since it is told as a first person narrative, you get to feel the anxiety right along with the main character which can be really unpleasant to say the least. The story itself centers around a missing billionaire and a pair of friends who set out to find him in order to cash in on the reward, but it becomes about things that are much larger than the sum of money offered: friendship, mental health, love.

I wasn't totally satisfied with the ending, but ultimately this book isn't really about its plot, so I can live with it. I'd recommend it if you know someone (especially a teenager) who suffers from anxiety. I'd also recommend it if you like young adult novels about friendship.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I don't know why exactly, but I was avoiding this book for a long time. Something about the tiger and the boat seemed both dull and impossible. Many people recommended it to me as well, maybe that was a factor. Whatever it was, I regret the decision to wait so long. This is a fantastic book!

 I've read Yann Martel before - The High Mountains of Portugal is one of my favorites. I was inspired to give this book a shot now because I was teaching The Old Man and the Sea in one of my classes and I was craving more of the sea. I wasn't disappointed. The audio book is narrated beautifully and there is so much tension as you wait first for them to get on the boat, then for the boat to sink, and finally for them to get on shore. I try my best to avoid spoilers, so I won't give too much away but there is a part near the end of the book where Pi encounters an island and the way that Martel describes the island and what happens there is, to me, some of the most compelling fiction I've encountered recently.

If you haven't read this book yet, what are you waiting for? This is one of those novels that truly lives up to the hype. Check it out and let me know what you think.


I recently wrote about my feelings on nonfiction books. That post was partially inspired by my experience reading This Changes Everything.

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

I had a difficult time with this book. I like to think of myself as environmentally conscious (despite my stupid long commute mentioned above, my carbon footprint is actually very small), but this book made me feel as if all of the things I'm doing are quite useless. Of course they're not, things like composting and using reusable water bottles keep trash out of landfills etc, but the problem that Klein outlines in this book is just so much bigger than one individual. Basically, our entire economy prioritizes trade and business over the climate, and globalization has made it very difficult to protect the planet. I had to return this book to the library unfinished because it was a serious downer. We need to change the way we do business in order to save our planet, but it's unlikely that these kinds of changes will happen anytime soon.

An Old Favorite

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

When I was in high school, I hated this book. I didn't get it and my English teacher that year was boring. Now, I've taught it two years in a row with mixed results. I like to teach it at the end of the school year when everyone is thinking about the ocean and their next great adventure anyway. I've had mixed results both years, but ultimately it comes down to this: the kids that take the time to read it get a meaningful lesson about perseverance and determination. We can all use a reminder about how important these things are once in a while. 

I love how Santiago has such a fierce respect for the ocean and even the fish he is attempting to kill. There are some beautiful parts of this book that remind us how powerful and vast the ocean is. There are also some dull parts of this book, which I think my students need. We need to know how to be bored, and how to persevere through it. I love this book, and even though it takes place in September, May is a great time to read it because as Hemingway tells us, "Anyone can be a fisherman in May."

Friday, June 15, 2018

On Reading Nonfiction

Recently, while out on a hike with a few members of my family, I spotted some poison ivy near the trail and warned everyone not to brush up against it. Since I get a bit paranoid about poison ivy (I'm particularly sensitive to the rash-inducing urushiol) I went on to share a few interesting facts that I had recently learned about the plant and avoiding a rash.

My eight-year-old niece, who I am certain was bored out of her mind by my mini-lecture, soon asked "How do you know so much?" Her tone was both exasperated and fascinated.

"I like to read," I told her. "When I want to know something, I just do some research and read about that topic until I'm satisfied."

"I prefer fiction," she said. We went on to discuss the benefits of reading different kinds of books - I tried my best to avoid giving a mini-lecture about the merits of nonfiction - and it was interesting to see how she thinks about and reacts to ideas at such a young age.

I remember that when I was her age I was quite bored by the idea of reading nonfiction books. I loved the adventure and the fantasy that often presented itself in fiction; that was part of the fun of reading. Nonfiction was too dry, too based in reality. I didn't necessarily want to understand the world as it was, I wanted to understand it as it could be.

Even now, I often have to force myself to finish nonfiction books. Memoirs and biographies go down easy for me - they're human stories and I can learn and grow through someone else's experience. But books about climate change, physics, politics, religion, social science, history? I have varying degrees of success. I take notes on the parts that I want to remember and slog through the rest as best I can. If the book is too much of a haul, I have been known to return it to the library unfinished.

Why bother at all? Why not ignore the nonfiction section and only read fiction? I still love the fantastic aspects of a story, but now that I'm an adult I find that I also crave knowledge. I want to know more than I know and I want to understand how our world works.

I still much prefer fiction, but I am coming around to nonfiction as a genre and learning to appreciate the knowledge I've gained from the books that I've read. I hope that my niece (and others in her generation) can hold onto that love of reading fiction even as she learns to appreciate nonfiction as well. Let her understand the world as it is and as it could be.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Idea Incubation and Creative Pursuits

 Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash
I have been watching a lot of movies lately, mostly because for the last week of the school year I'll be teaching a film class and I need to preview the movies ahead of time. This is one excuse I give myself when I wonder why my progress on my novel has slowed, but the other reason is that recently I'd been feeling like there was something missing from the story I was telling. I needed to add something more, I just didn't know what it was.

Until, of course, an idea hit me at the most unlikely of times - in the middle of a movie I was thoroughly enjoying.

I suppose if the movie was boring it would have made a bit more sense for my mind to be wandering, but part of the chore of previewing these films is thinking about how stories are told and what makes a story engaging. In the midst of all the action and excitement of the film I was watching, I realized that there needed to be more tension in the middle of my novel. Sure I had a driving force to get my characters from the beginning to the end, but in the middle it felt like it was lagging and I couldn't figure out why. I needed to add a subplot.

The best part of the whole revelation was later as I was lying in bed, about to fall asleep, and I realized that the pieces of the subplot had been there all along, I only needed to rewrite them and connect them in a different way to ramp up the tension and keep the story moving. Suddenly I was wide awake and scribbling furiously, trying to get my thoughts on paper before they disappeared.

I believe all of this was a result of what you might call idea incubation. I had slowed progress on my novel, and given my brain some time to process and suddenly the idea was ready to be written. This is in part why some of the best ideas come to us in the shower - because you're doing such a low-thought task, your brain has time to catch up and process the things it couldn't before.

When you get stuck on a story or can't figure out what's going on with a certain character, try stepping away from your work for a day or two. Try working on a different project, or draw instead of write and when you eventually come back to the story, you just might find that missing puzzle piece.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Messiness and Art

For as long as I can remember, I've been what I would call an "organized messy person." By that I mean that I tend to make piles of things to put away rather than actually putting them away. I tend to have so many items and papers etc that there's hardly any place to put things away in the first place. Still, I always know where to find what I need, and I can usually find it quickly if I need it - because there's a system inside the mess.

The thing is, even though I usually know where things are and can find them when I need to, I still get overwhelmed by the piles sometimes. Often this leads to an intense weekend of cleaning and reorganizing where I put things away where they belong and get rid of other things I no longer need. Then my space is clutter free for about a day before the piles come back, not unlike the garden reclamation project I've been working on.

For any of you that are reading this and know exactly what I'm talking about, I have good news: messiness is often linked to creativity. In fact having a messy work space can more often lead to artistic risk taking and innovation, whereas a space with less clutter can lead to more conventional work.

In fact, researchers have found that when adults are in a messy room, they are more likely to be drawn toward novelty and innovation, and come up with more creative ideas than when they are in a tidy room. So if you're trying to pursue creativity and create art in some fashion, you may want to hold off on tidying up your work space before you begin.

Many famous innovators from Albert Einstein to Mark Twain have been notorious for their messy work spaces. Einstein's response to his critics? "If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?" So, if you have a messy desk, no need to worry - you're in good company.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Mindful Gardening

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

After a long day sitting in front of the computer, staring at a screen and using my brain to grade papers, make decisions, and plan for the last few weeks of school, there is nothing I want more than to get outside and get some exercise.

There's something about being outside that can help clear the mind and help a person relax. Personally, I love to go hiking but in the spring and summer one of my favorite things to do is work in my garden. I have quite an expansive vegetable garden and I've been working this year on setting it up so that I will have tasty fresh vegetables throughout the growing season.

My other gardening project is a bit more ambitious. In the front yard of our house, there is an extremely overgrown flower garden which has been neglected for most of the last twenty years. Although the perennials that were originally planted there still grow and there are some gorgeous flowers amidst the chaos, most of the garden is trees that weren't planted there and wild roses and other vines (not to mention poison ivy) that have completely overtaken the landscape.

This is what I set my sights on when I need a bit of rest from the hectic world. It seems a bit odd - trading one kind of chaos for another - but it works for me. There's something about culling weeds that have grown taller than me that is totally freeing - I can visibly see my to-do list shrinking as I pile the branches and leaves into the wheelbarrow.

Aside from watching out for poison ivy and the perennials I want to keep, there's not a lot of thinking that needs to go into this kind of work, so when I'm doing it, I'm able to relax. I like to think of it as a way for my brain to recover from all the heavy lifting it had to do earlier in the day at work. As I went through the garden today, I picked out one type of tree that had planted many seedlings in among my plants and focused only on removing those particular trees. This made it much easier to work on autopilot and by the time I was finished, I had nearly four wheelbarrow loads of brush to bring to the wood pile in the backyard.

The garden is nowhere near recovered. There are still many more kinds of weeds growing in there that need to be removed, along with fallen leaves and stumps. However, when I looked out at the flowers I had uncovered and the progress I had made, I felt accomplished. Not only that, I felt happy at the sight of the flowers, and calm and sleepy after working outside for a few hours. It felt as though my hard work had paid off.

Next time you need a quick break from your hectic work schedule, go outside and try working in the garden or taking a walk. Either way, try to forget about everything else for a while and immerse yourself in the beauty of nature.