Monthly Archives: July 2018

Personal Essays, The Ability

Today, I was looking for writing prompts to practice my pen. I opened a list of prompts from the New York Times, and read through some of their reference articles. And it’s here I saw that even the top calibre writers are sometimes not all that good… Every story, even a personal essay (as these were), needs a reason, so there’s some inciting event, drama, issue, problem in the very beginning. But so often that thing is actually trivial and not worth the time it takes to read the words that follow.

In an attempt to engage readers who couldn’t care less, writers begin to do something akin to gesticulating on the page, dramatizing and sensationalizing the same boring thing. But like one of my writing teachers used to say, reality is more interesting than fiction. If something, a story, is not interesting, you just don’t know enough about it or you’re considering the wrong angle.

At some point, we have to put our fingertips to the keyboard or we’d never write, but it’s so important to take the time to discover and think before just typing something. Typing is not writing and grammatically functional sentences are not enough when it comes to creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction is a slow Sunday morning’s afterthought while sitting on the front porch with nothing to do but savour the moment, not Monday morning’s coffee-running-up-your-nose necessity reading. In full view, with nothing to impede its birth in the reader’s mind, it simply needs to rise to the occasion. It needs to be better, to be something more.

Reading it should feel like the outer shell of a candy giving way to the syrup-filled centre, an irresistible explosion of sweetness. Irresistible. That’s a good word for the sort of elective reading material that personal essays are always comprised of. It should always be at least that.

Beyond the prospect of a sweet explosion or the fear of a pinch of pain, does anything matter? Without the threat of embarrassment for not knowing, or that of a stock portfolio crash, what prompts reading? Do essays myopic in scope, not because the dancing electrons of stories within are worthless but because the authors have missed the bigger picture (the connection of those particles to life), matter?

My answer is that they don’t. But they should… That is the actual skill; that is the ability. Not the use of literary devices, knowledge of commas or periods. It’s to make a personal essay important to a stranger on a day without prospects or threats.

 

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My Problem With Big Little Lies

Have you read a book and then debated with yourself for months about whether you liked it or not? That’s been me with Big Little Lies. I’ve been such a mess over Australian author Liane Moriarty’s bestselling women’s fiction title that I haven’t been able to even properly articulate what was getting on my nerves for so long.

In fact, I still don’t know if I can. But let’s try, shall we?

First of all, I’ll start by admitting that I’m pretty stingy with both my monthly Audible credit (even with their guaranteed return policy, which I’ve used often) and with my time. And women’s fiction hasn’t generally been a genre that has treated me well in the past. There, I said it.

While there have been a few books here and there that were really refreshing and fun (I’m thinking What Would Mary Berry Do? ), my expectations have much more often been crushed, leaving me feeling as though I’d wasted precious time.

So when I settled on reading/listening to Big Little Lies, it wasn’t just out of a desire for a good story, but from knowing that I’d be able to partake in so many conversations exploding around what was then about to be made into an HBO mini-series starring blockbuster Hollywood names like Reese Witherspoon (who actually acted in and also produced the series) and Julia Roberts.

And for much of the story, fourteen hours narrated by a pleasant-voiced woman with a mild Australian accent, I wasn’t unimpressed. I found the portrayal of a domestic abuser to be eerily accurate, and this was to my eyes (ears?) a big artistic/literary accomplishment. I mean, even after what I say next, by all means, read this novel just to get a great bird’s-eye view of the cycle of domestic violence, to get one too-common perspective on the question of why women don’t leave, and to see how horrid and even more disgusting it is than you may have previously imagined.

But then the story progressed and something happened to ruin it all… This book that I’d felt had really done a great deal to recover the broken image of chick-lit (okay, we call it women’s fiction now) as a bunch of sexist drivel was portraying women as spectacularly irrational, comically irrational.

Upon the death of one of the characters, an accidental murder of sorts as it were, rather than honestly fess up to authorities, the women chose to huddle together in what can only be described as a show of primitive tribal loyalty (to the woman tribe!) and to lie to investigators and police in order to protect one of their own. How heartwarming.

Amidst this, the only voices of doubt or reason were men’s—who it turns out stood no chance against the potential wrath of their wives, whose allegiance didn’t lie with democratic and civilized values but with their vagina tribe. (So those men were easily shushed.)

You should seriously read this book and tell me what you think. I want to know! I can’t be the only person who noticed this glaring issue.

Fourteen hours of listening is, what, two weeks worth of cardio time? Do it!

Pick up the Audible audiobook here (you get a free trial membership that you can cancel immediately after picking up the book…)

Or pick up the actual book here.

 

The Most Important Quality of a Successful Memoir

Today, I want to consider the best quality that a narrator can exhibit while writing a memoir. It’s not a nuanced understanding of words or a crafty way with sentences. It’s not a great memory for outside events and circumstances or the ability to patiently pore over descriptions of minute details. These things are certainly important, and without them an otherwise good memoir might fail, but there’s another quality that is necessary in order for a memoir with all of these virtues to succeed yet.

What is that quality? It’s the author’s level of self awareness! Self awareness is the key to framing unique personal experiences in a way that they can enrich and interest the minds and lives of strangers with whom we might have precious little in common.

I was recently reading the first chapters of a memoir. The writing wasn’t bad–it could have improved with some structural edits, but nothing major. But the pages almost reeked of self-delusion. Small inconveniences were stretched for paragraphs against the background of a life of immense privilege and unusual luck. And yet these foundational building blocks of the very inconveniences that were bemoaned were not even acknowledged.

I personally believe there is no life not worth writing about and no human whose story, given a good storyteller, isn’t good. And yet it takes great awareness to connect the dots and figure out what the story is. In this case, the aforementioned author’s despair had nothing to do with the trivialities of life, but with the immensity of the prospect of having peaked before middle age, being stuck, etc.

It’s important to not only find the maturity to meet and acknowledge such despair but to share it with readers who might then root for the arc to follow, one of rising to the occasion and finding the courage to sail against winds, come what may.

That’s an arc that can inspire anybody. And yet this person entirely missed their own heroic journey.

On that note, my favourite memoir of all time is Broken Music by Sting. You can check it out by clicking the link (Amazon) and you can read an excerpt from it.

Comment your thoughts. Writing to you from my mobile device.

The Thing That Refreshes My Soul

Tonight, I felt a calling to write here, and though I didn’t have any topics in mind, I knew I’d find some by turning to my trusty friend—Google. That’s where I found the title of this post on a list of blog post idea (thank you, Do a New Thing!). I realized immediately this would be my post’s title because it’s so timely and relevant.

Stress and the need to refresh our soul

I think we are all chasing the idea of refreshing our soul. Many of us are caught in cycles of chasing our own dreams and goals, and sometimes we can even experience severe stress that can leave us unmotivated and “burned out.”

I know because I was there just weeks ago, and I am still dealing with the symptoms of severe stress, of the disappointment of trying for objectives that haven’t yet come to pass. Amid all this, I spent a great deal of time and money trying to release my soul, to refresh myself.

I went on weeklong resort vacation, spent countless hours watching funny videos and movies, took too many naps, bought fancy wine and cooked nice meals or went out to dinner with friends, etc. I did all of these things out of a need to refresh my soul, and I think that’s exactly the reason many others do these things.

Vacations are taken nearly compulsively by some, not because they are truly curious to see and explore a new place, but because they feel they need to get away from where they are.

And yes, does it work for them? For me it didn’t!

Entertainment And Escape Bring Temporary Relief

I found that escaping the issues that were making me feel worn down, that were testing my faith to exhaustion and that made me feel as though I couldn’t think one more thought or take one more step towards what I knew was right and knew I needed to keep working for, just wasn’t working.

I could refresh my soul for that hour while watching an episode of Grace and Frankie, or for  that eight-minute video of the Colbert Report, or the two-hour brunch with a friend, or even a week spent on the most mesmerizing Caribbean white sand beach. But it was just a distraction… I had to pick everything back up immediately following all of those activities; the crushing weight of my stresses would come back to me.

And the moment I realized this (it took a long time) was when, in my cab ride home from a stunning week in the Caribbean/Cuba, I felt the heaviness I’d abandoned just before leaving come back to find me. I found that all of my worries and bad thoughts had been just waiting for me to get back.

My initial thought was that I needed to book another vacation because at least those six days of not worrying, of not having to deal with the trouble, or being able to feel fresh within my soul, had been amazing—and worth it.

But then I realized that these activities, including vacations, were not truly decompressing activities. They were just sold as such! They were marketed with false promises.

Finding True Decompression To Refresh The Soul

I think the secret to feeling fresh is feeding our soul, resting, etc. So there is no one size fits all. For me, I wasn’t under any great amount of physical stress, so while being at the beach was nice for the physical restfulness, what I was really getting out of it was the promise of inner refreshment.

And yet, I only got that as a result of distraction from the things my soul was truly starving for. I had wound up so tightly because I truly just wasn’t feeding my soul the correct things…the things it needed and required in order to flourish and love and feel enthusiasm. I’d almost stopped feeling alive.

I had to “dig deep” and think about the things that had truly allowed me to feel alive rather than those purported or “sold” as being connecting activities. I found that volunteerism and positive/good times around relatives/extended family are the two things that had recharged me in the past.

For me, fundraising for a cause I believe in or volunteering to make runs or helping to prepare food for a food rescue organization are the activities that in the end had made me feel connected and full. Full of something that extended beyond the few hours I actually spent on the activity.

I think as soon as we decompress, we can let the light inside. So I believe that helping to provide for another person, helping to create something so, so intimate (food is! we all need it…) made me feel so useful. It helped to feel like I was a part of a community and a part that mattered.

Until I can align all of the rest of my life with objectives and activities that give me this true sense of fulfillment everyday, I need to incorporate activities that decompress and fill me genuinely rather than trying to get away.

So that is my answer! Volunteering in a way that makes me feel directly and immediately useful to others is what refreshes my soul.

Pompous Words—Oh, How I’m Learning

There was a time when I was so proud of my “hold” over the English language that I would throw in big words to conversations or choose unusual sentence constructions with simple ones while sipping coffee with friends at Starbucks or walking down the halls to a meeting with coworkers.

I thought that if I didn’t, it would slip my friends’ and coworkers’ minds that I was smart. I felt there was truly no other way for them to know, and maybe that fear was well-founded. I didn’t have any educational or extracurricular achievements to recommend me as an erudite thinker (or someone to listen to), after all.

But those days are past, and it’s only now I come face-to-face with what is truly having the tactfulness of using the right words in the right ways.

I started noticing because I’ve been reading critically lately because I’m writing a novel-length story. No, it’s not my first try, but the first one in a while, and the longest I’ve persisted (in terms of word count). Along with my increasing word count has come a maybe as of yet inexplicable and slightly useless anxiety about doing well. All sorts of questions pop into my mind as I write: can I make this scene more descriptive and sensuous to attract the reader’s attention? Does this action defy my character’s motivations? Is this flow of words boring?

And all this writing and wondering has naturally led me to find out just what is all this rightness that famous/top-selling authors find themselves with all the time! Of course, I don’t have time to read every best-seller or good story, so I’ve also scoured quite a number of reviews on Goodreads, and what am I noticing?

The pompous reviewer that thinks big words, overuse of literary devices, formal constructions, etc. validate their opinions, somehow elevating them above those of the other reviewers (who are normally writing like regular human beings in an informal forum) or even that of the work they are reviewing. I mean, give me a break.

Here’s an excerpt from one I just came across for a James Patterson book (but it’s NOT the only one of its kind, believe me):

“It’s the worst thing I imagine a book can be. It’s the bane of my existence. Its prose, bone dry and then suddenly flashing purple, dogs my literary footsteps. Generic characterization, stilted dialogue, predictable plot, cheap shock fodder …”

COME ON. This is James Patterson you’re talking about, and while it might not be down your alley, I’m damn sure it’s not the “bane” of your existence, nor is it the worst thing a book can be—unless you don’t read very much.

Anyway, I’m back to working on my story.