Some Neil Gaiman ‘Neverwhere’ love

So the day became one of waiting, which was, he knew, a sin: moments were to be experienced; waiting was a sin against both the time that was still to come and the moments one was currently disregarding.” ~Neil Gaiman, “Neverwhere

This is my fourth foray into a Gaiman book, and each time, I am amazed at the man’s creativity and storytelling ability. I stayed up way too late last night because of one of those can’t-put-the-book-down-right-now scenes, which, honestly, hasn’t happened to me in ages.

The scene started with the above quote, one I read three or four times because of its perfect sentiment. I try my best to live in the moment, and mostly, I succeed. But it’s so easy to look forward to exciting weekends or fun trips and lose the day-in and day-out’edness. Just because it doesn’t look like a weekday has anything special in it doesn’t mean there is nothing special about it.

I’ll end this short ponderance with a similar reference from one of my favorite movies, “About Time.”

And so he told me his secret formula for happiness: Part one of the two-part plan was that I should just get on with ordinary life, living it day by day, like anyone else. But then came part two of Dad’s plan. He told me to live every day again almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be, but the second time noticing. Okay, Dad. Let’s give it a go.” ~Richard Curtis, “About Time

What’s your recipe for creativity?

Write your recipe for creativity.

I bought myself a five-year journal for my birthday this year, back in April. It gives a question a day with a few lines to jot a brief answer, with enough spaces to cover that question on that particular day for five years.

Wednesday’s question is that above instruction about creativity. I thought for a moment. Considered all the things I needed … the things I thought I needed … the things that were nice and completely unnecessary. And came up with a simple lil equation:

Time + ideas

Do I NEED an ENTIRE free day to indulge myself? Of course not. It’s nice. It’s idyllic. But if all I have is 25 minutes to edit a page in my book or scribble down the first graph in a short story, or even to bullet point some ideas floating about, I’ll take it.

Do I NEED a peaceful spot, free of distractions and full of beautiful scenery? Nope. Do I imagine I’d craft great stories if (no … WHEN) I get to write on a balcony overlooking a European city with cobblestone walkways and the kind of view in the distance I’ve only seen thus far on a computer screen? I do. But I can do it just fine at my kitchen table, staring at the bunnies eating my grass.

My husband shared a story he’d heard from a friend about a woman he knew who finally decided to write her book. So she quit her six-figure job to Just Write! thinking she’d finally have the time and the stamina to succeed. And, a year later, she had nada to show for it.

I’ve never understood why so many seem to have this ideal setup to Get Things Done. As though by freeing oneself of all distractions and surrounding oneself by peace and muse-ful things, then we can unlock our Next Great Idea. But if you can’t get at that idea in your regular life, you can’t very well coax it out by tricking it.

See, I got rid of the boss who stressed me out. The kids who nag are at Grandma’s for the weekend. My honey’s out with friends and won’t be home until tomorrow. It’s a nice, rainy day, so the sunshine can’t tempt me. I minimized Google Chrome and turned off my phone and TV, so I’m distraction-free. Let’s do this, darling!

Sure, it sounds great. But if that’s what it takes to be creative, every single dang time, that’s not allowing much time for anything else, is it? You can’t very well shut yourself off from life every time you want to get down a thought.

But if you have some time, even a little bit, and an idea, even a small one, and you Just Do It, well, isn’t that the whole point?

What’s your recipe for creativity? What works best for you? 

Jim Kay makes Harry Potter even better–and yes, it is possible

I just finished rereading “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” for the … fourth time? Fifth time? But it was by far the very best time I’ve read it.

This version was the coffee table book version, illustrated by Jim Kay. Based on my knowledge of Kay, which begins and ends with this book, he is a watercolor artist who can take one of the world’s most beloved stories and improve upon it.

Consider, if you will, Hagrid carting Harry away from that creepy shack on the tiny island. His bitty umbrella!

Look at the detail in Kay’s imagining of Diagon Ally.

And then, there are my two absolute favorites. No. 2: The unicorn in the Forbidden Forest. I could stare at this for hours.

And No. 1 is reserved for … the house ghosts. It’s not even a full-page image–they float along the bottom of a double-page spread. I don’t understand how he made his paints look positively neon. So perfect. And so hard to reproduce. I can’t get a good photo or scan of it, and even what I find on Google is shoddy.

I finished this reread on Saturday and got out of my chair to grab “Chamber of Secrets” before I thought … wait …

I did a quick search and YES! Jim Kay’s illustrated “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” comes out in less than two months. I should be embarrassed about how much I danced around the house when I found that out. But let’s be real. Of course I’m not.

Oh, happy day: I just finished a journal & get to start a new one

I did something this morning that only happens every few years. It’s been happening in that time span since I was in the second grade, though less often as I get older.

I finished a journal.

journal1

The way I use a journal has changed since I was a child. When I started, in second grade, it was a chronicle of my day: what did I do, who did I talk to, what was going on with my family, with my friends. It’d be boring if it wasn’t so adorable.

In about sixth grade, it shifted focus primarily to friends and boys–and not necessarily in that order. That sort of angst continued until high school. The college years meant I had less time to jot my thoughts, but it was still an important part of my life.

After graduation, the entries trickled, sadly. But my topics became more important than those that preceded them.

Today, what I write about is all over the board. This latest installation, 793 days covered in 192 pages, is full of poems and lists. Thoughts about friendships and my marriage. Things that made me excited and sad. Favorite quotes I found, and the first pages of the book I’m writing. Detailed memories from visiting my grandmother in Las Vegas after my grandfather died and a few recipes she gave me there. In the front, I tried to list all the places I used the journal. In addition to my home, we have

  1. My friend’s parents’ lakehouse in Sardenia, Ohio, and
  2. Her childhood bedroom in Liberty Township, Ohio
  3. A local cafe
  4. The Cleveland Museum of Art
  5. On airplanes, from Fort Wayne to Vegas and back; and from Orlando to home
  6. And my favorite, the balcony of our hotel at the Marriot Grande Vista on the Orlando trip in April

I am notorious among my friends and family for my shoddy memory, and I love that I can open up a journal at random and find a memory that I’d likely forgotten. I open this journal at random, right now, and find myself on Feb. 22, 2014. It turns out, I hadn’t forgotten this particular memory, but I didn’t recall this particular thought:

“This is a trip that should be chronicled. I feel it will be a big one for me. Even if nothing life-changing or earth-shattering occurs, it will be the first time I see Nani without Papa …”

Now comes another exciting part, nearly as exciting as scribbling thoughts in the final pages of a journal: starting a new one. This book is kind of small, and the lines are far apart, so I suspect it won’t take me 2 1/2 years to get through, like the one I just finished. But the sentiment on the cover was perfection.

journal2

Three reasons ‘Gatsby’ is better than I thought it was in hs–and one reason it’s not

In high school, I was one of those students who thrilled in her honors and AP English classes. A reader at heart, I loved–and love, even more so now–to discuss a good (or terrible) book. As a student, I had a few favorites–“Inherit the Wind,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Grapes of Wrath”–and a few I loathed with my guts–“The Scarlet Letter,” “Rebecca.”

But perhaps my most hated English lit book was the one that is the most universally loved: “The Great Gatsby.” Ugh.

Now, it is not uncommon for me to watch a movie, hate it with every fiber of my being, swear it’s the worst shit that ever shat, give it another look in a year or two, and say, “Huh, that wasn’t so bad.” Perhaps in the intervening year, I’ve talked said movies so very down to myself that it is never as bad as I remember. Or perhaps I go into these movies with no or negative expectations so, no matter what, I’m pleased.

Or maybe I’m just a crazy person. Movies that are nowhere near as terrible as I thought on first viewing, movies that are actually good, include “Phenomenon,” “The Wedding Crashers,” and “The Break-Up.”

So I figured the same might be true for books. As a rule, I don’t reread books but for a select (and short) few–there is so much good stuff to read, why waste time rereading something? But I thought it might be an interesting exercise to revisit some books universally accepted as “good” as see if I can’t change my opinion of them.

And I started with “The Great Gatsby.” And no, it is not nearly as bad as I thought it was in 11th grade. In fact, it might even be good. Here’s why.

GatsbyThe characterization

Perhaps Gatsby is meant to be a tragic hero. I don’t feel his ending is terribly tragic because I don’t like him in the least. But in less than 200 pages, Fitzgerald convinces us that this man is not just pretentious, but he is the thermometer against which all pretension in the world should be measured.

A lone detail that I remembered from reading “Gatsby” as a teen illustrates this beautifully: This man is so intent upon boasting up his wealth that he stocks his library full of real books instead of fake books–but he doesn’t read them. They’re uncut, which tells us Gatsby never actually picked up any of these books. He’s spending money just to put on a facade–and it’s not even a very good one, at that.

The writing

I feel silly saying that Fitzgerald is a beautiful writer. It’s like saying Monet paints pretty pictures or Adele can carry a tune. But as a teenager, that beauty was lost on me. I knew I liked to write, but the sophistication I needed to understand and appreciate his skill was simply not there. (Maybe I shouldn’t have been in all those honors English classes after all … Shhh, no one tell Mrs. Horncastle.)

Now, I see that these pages are full of found poetry. Take the description of Daisy the first time we meet her:

“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.”

Gah. It’s the kind of description that makes a writer go, “Whelp, I may has well never write anything again. What’s the point?”

I’m not familiar with other Fitzgerald books, but I’m convinced based on this slim little novel that Fitzgerald is the king of “show, don’t tell.” It’s pure storytelling, and he clobbers his reader over the head with nothing. Consider: We don’t have to be told that Gatsby is nervous and uncomfortable the first time he sees Daisy after five years. Instead,

“Gatsby, his hands still in his pockets, was reclining against the mantlepiece in a strained counterfeit of perfect ease, even of boredom. His head leaned back so far that it rested against the face of a defunct mantlepiece clock …”

The last thing I would call “Gatsby” is a comedy, but that’s damn funny–and relatable. Who hasn’t felt so nervous that she goes all, “Um, where do I put my hands? Where does my head go? How do I say the words? WHAT DO I DO NOW?”

An untrustworthy narrator

This detail might just be a me-thing, but I love a narrator that the reader must question. We don’t get a ton of Nick’s background to know if he’s reliable, but we know he’s utterly taken with Gatsby. He recognizes that the man is a showman, but he is completely pulled in with his charm. He wants to be Gatsby’s friend, he wants to be taken into his world. I think Nick even likes that his tiny house is so overshadowed by Gatsby’s monster house–it makes Nick feel more important by proximity.

Because the narrator is so taken with Gatsby, he can’t give a dependable portrayal of the man. Nick is a little pup who’s waiting for his master to scratch behind his ear and tell him he’s a good boy–and even if the master kicks him a little, or uses him to get a meeting with an old flame, all is forgiven when master turns a kind face in his direction.

Re-evaluating “Gatsby,” yes, I do like it this time around. But there’s just one little detail about it that makes me say high school me wasn’t completely wrong:

God, this book is boring

The problem with an untrustworthy narrator and an unlovable scoundrel of a title character is that, as a reader, I don’t really care that much about what happens. I expect I should have felt terribly sorry that Daisy and Gatsby didn’t work out romantically after their first meeting.

Meh.

I guess I should have been horrified when Daisy and Gatsby run down Mrs. Wilson.

Meh.

Maybe I should have been saddened by Gatsby’s death.

Nope.

The only time I felt anything another than mild annoyance at this character was at his funeral. Hundreds of people were willing to use him for a good time at his wild rumpuses, but when it came time to pay respects, there wasn’t a soul who respected him.

Granted,  who can blame them? Gatsby didn’t exactly open himself up to the masses or bother to make himself any close friends. The one friendship we know of, with Nick, didn’t even have pure motives–Gatsby used Nick to get to Daisy.

I’m glad I gave “Gatsby” another go. I think I may do the same with “Rebecca” at some point. But not “Scarlet Letter.” Good God, never “Scarlet Letter.”

Obviously, I want to know what you think about “Gatsby.”

30 things to do before my next birthday. Which is in two months.

I’m taking another prompt from Journaling Sage over on Instagram:

List 30 things you want to do before your next birthday.

My next birthday is less than two months away. It definitely puts some parameters on my list of 30 things to do, making them perhaps a little more fun, a little less serious, than they might be if I had a year to cover everything.

Without further ado:

    1. Finish the book I’m reading. I started “A Storm of Swords” Saturday, and it’s 1,177 pages.
    2. Get another 10,000 words finished in my manuscript.
    3. Go to yoga at least three times a week, each week.
    4. My awesome friends like to send me photos of Donald when they see him (thanks, Christy!) Look at him, arms wide open, calling to me!

      My awesome friends like to send me photos of Donald when they see him (thanks, Christy!) Look at him, arms wide open, calling to me!

    5. GO TO THE WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER. (I’ll be in Orlando for my bday. All together now: AHHH!)
    6. Meet Donald Duck.
    7. Pick a weekend day and spend 24 hours in my pajamas.
    8. Watch both Kill Bill movies, back to back.
    9. Make something for dinner that I’ve never made before.
    10. Make something ELSE for dinner that I’ve never made before. (That’s two new dinners.)
    11. Dye my hair black.
    12. Take my laptop to Florida and spend a day writing on the balcony of our hotel. (OK, this might happen a few days after my birthday, but whatever–close enough.)
    13. Jump in the Atlantic. (See parenthetical above.)
    14. Subscribe to “The New Yorker.”
    15. Mail the few Christmas gifts I still haven’t yet sent to my friends. (Whoops.)
    16. Purchase nothing for myself online. Nothing. (Unless they’re tickets to things in Orlando.)
    17. Post at least six new listings in Jac & Elsie.
    18. Rearrange my living room to fit the new TV.
    19. Print out eight favorite photos for wall collage behind the new TV.
    20. Throw out half of my makeup. Offer the makeup I no longer want to friends, and then throw out the rest. (I have A LOT of crap I never use.)
    21. Clean up the spare room so it’s a spare room again and not my giant closet.
    22. Spend a week without my phone. (This may be tough, but I really want to leave my phone at home when I go to Orlando.)
    23. Find a new favorite blog or two to add to my roster. (Taking suggestions! I like slice-of-life blogs best.)
    24. Get my tax stuff together. (This isn’t so much a “want” to do as a “must” do.)
    25. Go to a solo matinee.
    26. See some form of live entertainment.
    27. Send a donation to Easter Seals Arc. (You should, too.)
    28. Have a writers’ retreat.
    29. Finish two personal essays currently in the first draft stage.
    30. Properly sift through Netflix, which we just started subscribing to.
    31. Start a travel journal. (I really like Journaling Sage’s idea of using it more of a spot for ticket collection, though I would like to go backward and at least list the dates and locations of previous travels.)

Shapiro’s ‘Still Writing’ a fantastic tool for writers

The first thing to strike me about the book is the feel of it. The thick, smooth cover makes a pleasing scratch as I run my nails against it, and it feels good against my finger tips. The pages are thick, and as I thumb through them, nose close, they smell fantastic.

Click image for more

Click image for more

A bizarre way to begin a book review, I suppose, but since before I could read, my sense of books is nearly as important as the words and message themselves. Indeed, if a font is too tiny or the pages displeasing against my fingers, I won’t make it past the first page. Reading, for me, engages more than the cerebrum (the part of the brain that lets us read books–and recognize friends, and play games); it engages the parietal lobe (the part that makes order of what the five senses pick up).

“Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life,” by Dani Shapiro, is a slim 230 pages, but it seems shorter. There is a good bit of space between the lines of text, and instead of chapters, Shapiro relies on small 1- to 4-page chunks of text subheaded out–“Tribe,” “Ordinary Life,” “What You Know?”

Because it is such a short text, I mistakenly thought it would be a quick read. Instead, I find myself unable to read more than 10 or 20 pages in a sitting. This is for a number of reasons:

  1. Without pulling sections of her text out and highlighting them, “HEY! This is a prompt! Take note!” Shapiro packs “Still Writing” full of prompts. In telling the memoir of her writing life, she sneaks in ideas for the reader to take and flea. One in particular has woven itself among the folds of my brain and won’t rest until I tackle it: Shapiro writes that there are events in our lives that change us. They move the earth for us, and we are not the same. Write about that terrible shock. I’ve never written about mine. I feel almost silly admitting what it is; I was so young and bright-eyed and naive. I didn’t know any better. But I’m excited to get myself back inside my 18-year-old head and get it down. Another, perhaps less traumatic prompt I’ve pulled from “Still Writing”: Who do you write for? I didn’t realize it until Shapiro asked, but I do have a very specific audience member in mind when I write. He’s an acquaintance from college. I can’t even say “friend,” we were never that close. But he is smart, intimidatingly so, and he is talented. And in my head when I write, without realizing it, I ask myself, “What would he think?”
  2. I started keeping a journal in second grade, and it wasn’t long after that when I realized how much I love to copy down good words and bits of advice–as though, by writing in longhand something brilliant that someone else wrote, I can absorb some of that brilliance. With Shapiro, that includes entire lines and poetic phrases:
    • “the fickleness of good fortune”
    • “pain engraves deeper memory”
    • “Like falling in love, moments that announce themselves as your subject are rare, and there’s a magic to them. Ignore them at your own peril.”
    • “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” (quoting Martha Graham)
    • A writer is one who is “immersed in the work of finding expression for their life.”
  3. “Still Writing” is full of fantastic reading suggestions. At least once, I put Shapiro’s book down to track down a short story she described, “Getting Closer,” by Steven Millhauser. A quick Google search and I found that the story was a New Yorker story from 2011. Read it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
  4. Finally, and perhaps most distracting to the reading process, is how much Shapiro makes me excited to write. After flying through three or four small chunks, I can’t keep going, much as I want to; instead, I have to stop, to turn to my lap top, to work on the manuscript I’ve had going for nearly a year. I hadn’t touched it for months, but a new year’s resolution to “write more” assured I would. Shapiro, too, assures I do.

Many how-to books on writing or a creative life are much too flaky for my taste. Shapiro is grounded in tangible things. She doesn’t instruct me to pray or meditate or empty my mind. If those things work for you, wonderful. They don’t for me. Doing it, writing, being creative, works for me.

And so, apparently, does reading Shapiro. The only other book that has ever made me so excited to write is Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

A question to fellow writer’s out there: What writing books are on your must-read list?