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.

Join me at my new spot!

My dear friend Dana, who is one of my favorite writers and one of my favorite people, and I have discussed writing a joint blog for years.

Well, my friends, it has finally happened!

Follow us over at Curious Daily, where you’ll get moi and the delightful Dana. Hopefully, with both of us over there, we can be sources of encouragement to each other to Just. Keep. Writing. Topics currently over there to entice you:

See you there!

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

A theory about the Game of Thrones end game

I’m going to talk about the season 5 finale of “Game of Thrones.” If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know what happened, might I suggest you look at puppies instead? If you have seen it, and have read ahead in the books, please don’t be a weenie–let’s just stick with info that has happened in the first five seasons of the HBO show, please and thank you.

After it happened, we all saw it coming, right? The signs were all there: Allister’s “You have a kind heart, Snow, that’ll get you killed” warning; the absolute daggers coming out of Ollie, a kid we knew to be lethal (still missing you, Ygrette); the fact that, despite doing what he truly believed to be best, Jon Snow pissed off pretty much every last night’s watchman by marching the sworn enemy through camp and opening the door to Westeros.

Let’s remember him during younger, happier times, shall we? Meeting Ghost for the first time.

Season 5 of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” ended with a trio of hectic badassery (honestly, those back-to-back-to-back episodes might be the most exciting three hours in HBO history). Some plot points made us cheer (Jorah is still alive! Tyrion and Dany meet!), some made us feel uncomfortable (Cersei, we hate you, but … I’m so sorry you had to do that), and some made us rage against the Westerosi machine (I think Jon’s death was met with the biggest “I’M NEVER WATCHING AGAIN” empty promises of the series, perhaps more so than the Mountain opening up the Viper’s head like a ripe watermelon).

But with every new twist and turn and revelation, I want to throw out a theory as to Martin’s end game. Please note: This theory is based on the first five seasons of the TV series Game of Thrones. I read the respective books after the seasons, and “A Feast for Crows” will get read within the next year, before season 6 begins. To reiterate the note above: If you read the books, please don’t comment with any spoilers. Let’s make this a spoiler-free zone pretty please!!

When all is said and done, when the final page turns and the final credits roll, the white walkers will have won.

That’s it. At the end of the series, we will get a bird’s eye view a swarm of walkers overtaking all of the earth (or whatever the Game of Thrones planet is called), a la Stannis getting slaughtered at Winterfell. Or maybe we’ll get a series of dead characters opening their icy blue eyes instead: Cersei, Tyrion, Davos, Olenna, Hodor, Arya (well, her eyes are already kind of icy now, aren’t they?)

I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer (Danaerys Downer?) here–I think we’ve had plenty of clues that this is where Martin is taking his story.

  • The cold opening of season 1, episode 1. Three nights watchmen are riding in the snow. Walkers get two, and one escapes. This happens even before we heard that now classic GoT theme song that has spawned ring tones and spoofs a plenty. When the fellow who escapes runs into Ned Stark and co., the poor fellow is promptly beheaded. Sorry, terrified guy who just got away with his life–we don’t believe you. Our problems are much more important, so I’m going to use you as a lesson to my children, all of whom will be dead or crippled or Rickon in the next three years, because it’s important that I chop off your head myself. Thanks for your sacrifice. Valar morghulis.
  • The title of the show. GAME of Thrones. To Martin, it’s all just a game. We may be competitive players, but that doesn’t mean our actions are any more important than Rummy or Monopoloy because, soon, ice zombies will take over the world.
  • Martin’s insistence that he does not need to follow storytelling’s tried and true mores: Specifically, The gun from episode two will have to go off by the end. Remember when Arya stashed Needle after agreeing to shed her essential Arya-ness in a quest to become no one? As she covered the sword with rocks, we thought, “Excellent. She’s staying prepared for when she blows this joint.” Welllll, she’s blind now. So long, Needle.
  • Information we’re dying to know dies with our characters. Think of all Maester Aemon took with him to the grave about the Mad King. Dany was just learning about Rhagar for the first time when Sir Barristan bit it. The last time Ned and Jon spoke, Ned promised to tell his son who his mother was. All key points to a complicated story, and Martin’s insistence that “Hey, this doesn’t matter” tells me there there is a bad reason why that doesn’t matter.
  • We assume Dany is the end game, but consider what we know about her. She has very little control over her dragons (Drogon is nothing but a sullen teenager; Rhaegal and Viserion are still chained up in a crypt, and they look like they’re more likely to eat Dany than ever let her ride them), and she can’t have future kings or queens. In her “I’m going to break the wheel” speech, we see hints that she’s going to turn Westeros into a democracy, which would make it OK that she can’t provide an heir. But in this land full of whiny children, what’s to stop the masses from pulling a Nights Watch coup and stabbing her? Unless she can unite everyone by saving them in the face of the White Walkers. (For a second, I thought Tyrion and Jon might be her fellow dragon riders. Damn.)

    Viserion and Rhaegal are NOT happy with Mama.

  • Martin has said that his sprawling tale is, at its core, a story about consequences. Jon has to face the consequences for refusing to listen to his men. Stannis has to face the consequences of becoming a murdering despot. Arya has to face the consequences of lying to not-Jaquen. Cersei has to face the consequences of giving power to psychotic religious nutjobs. With enough bad decisions piling up, we’re left wondering if any of our heroes or antiheroes stand a chance in winter against what’s coming.

Because in the face of the White Walkers, every single story line is moot. Who cares if Brienne kills Stannis or if she’d have stayed a moment longer to spy Sansa’s candle. Who cares whether the Lord of Light lied to Melisandre or she misread the flames. In this world, anger means little, vengeance means little, gods mean little, even magic doesn’t mean all that much. These characters get wrapped up in their own stories and fates, and I think Martin will make the overarching point that those stories and fates are even littler than all that.

Depressing? Yes. Got anything better? What are your end-game thoughts?

A traveling we will go

List 10 places, near and far, you’d like to go before the end of the year. (Prompt by Journaling Sage.)

1) Winona Lake, Ind. It’s a tiny spot about an hour away with a fantastic restaurant and really fun shopping–a bead shop, a spice/tea/dry pasta shop, one of those spots with fun and quirky gifts, ice cream, and the like. We’re actually going tomorrow, and I have a friend date scheduled for later in the summer. But it’s always on the summer to-go list. (Admission: I forgot this post was in my drafts, and I maybe have already done this … Whoops!)

2) NYC. I want to see Misery on Broadway.

3) Printers Row Lit Fest. I go yearly. It’s my church. (Admission: Ditto. It was last weekend. Totally amazing.)

4) East Peoria, Ill., to see my bestie.

5) Ohio. Anywhere in Ohio would be fine. There’s always lots of people to see, regardless of which corner I pick.

6) Fremont, Ind. Two wineries and a restaurant with copious amounts of bourbon. I see an over-nighter trip at some point.

7) New Lenox, Ill. I suppose it’s cheating since my parents live there, but I’ll get more than a few visits in before Dec. 31. (Admission: See No. 3.)

8) Michigan. Traverse City is one of our favorite summer stops, but even a closer spot would be nice.

9) Somewhere, anywhere, that requires a drive with some kind of peaceful stop at the end. I’d love to go somewhere alone to get that first draft of the manuscript finished. Maybe it’s an excuse to say I need to get away to finish it, but man, I have a heck of a time working on it during my day-to-day routine. I can’t seem to figure out how to make it part of the routine.

10) Some place I’ve never been. I make it a bit of a travel goal to go somewhere new each year. I like it to be an entirely new state, but even if it’s a new city, I think that should count.

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.”