The Literary Lollipop

Guilt-free adventures in reading, writing, and original fiction

Restore your imagination and learn to “walk in this world” — August 23, 2016

Restore your imagination and learn to “walk in this world”

Walking in this world

Julia Cameron has a way about her. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s lovely. An author of countless books on recovering one’s creativity, mental health, dignity, and how to adjust one’s approach to living creatively, Cameron’s bibliography is lengthy. Walking in this World is part of a trilogy that started with The Artist’s Way. For those of you who are unfamiliar with The Artist’s Way, it is a 12-week program meant to help “blocked” creatives excavate their hearts and expectations. Walking in this World and Finding Water is formatted the same way.

The pleasure of reading a Julia Cameron book is two-fold. First, the language is quite beautiful. Perhaps a touch too religious, but I’m willing to overlook words that do not resonate with me. The content alone is immensely valuable, regardless of the packaging. Second, the literal process of moving through the book is meditative. I’d often read an essay, contemplate, and continue two days later. The reader is encouraged to rethink his or her perception of self-care, and slow down.

Every chapter, which usually encompasses an inspiring theme, supportively guides the reader to a place of calm, and explains how to recreate that calm in multiple situations. Whenever I find myself in a tense or unsettling mood, unable to focus on fiction, I will often retreat to Cameron’s work, as it is accessible and satisfying.

Most notably, Walking in this World is meant to build up its readers, to repair and rejuvenate us. When life weighs us down with doubt, this book teaches us how to peel away the doubt and restore our confidence and imagination. And I think we all know what happens when our imaginations have been buried for too long. It hurts, emotionally and physically, and it takes time to bounce back from that grey, zombie-like state. We see the world as an unforgiving place, full of responsibility, with no room for play. However, the moment we begin to revive our creative voice, we begin to see opportunities where there were none.

Everyone, whether or not you call yourself ‘creative,’ will benefit from these exercises. Cameron is always quick to correct someone who says, “Oh, I’m not an artist. I don’t paint.” Her response is: “Our life is our art.” We have the chance to make art with every decision we make, with every idea we pursue, with every book we read, with every hobby we try, and with every pie we bake.

As always, highly recommended.

Girl sees horses. Girl’s mind explodes. When urban and rural life collide. — August 21, 2016

Girl sees horses. Girl’s mind explodes. When urban and rural life collide.

In early July, I was on a hunt for a new pair of Birkenstock sandals. Like many big-footed gals, it’s difficult to find a nice size eleven shoe that doesn’t look like giant flippers. Shoe shopping is like getting dental work. A complete pain.

At the time, my sandals were two seasons old and, quite literally, falling to pieces. The sole was splitting, and the foot bed was disintegrating. Shortly after beginning my search, I discovered that my selection was dwindling with each passing day. The stock of summer sandals only last for so long, especially size eleven!

As was my usual habit, I made a visit to the Apple Saddlery, a local retailer that boasts the largest Birkenstock selection in Canada. The store and converted barn are set up alongside a fairly busy street, and it requires a lengthy, nauseating bus ride, but I was determined. I spent an hour scanning the shelves. I must’ve tried twenty pairs of sandals, anything and everything that looked like it might fit. Alas, I left emptyhanded, wearing my pathetic Birkenstocks and preparing for the gross bus ride home.

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But then something in my peripheral vision caught my eye. Was that a colt in the distance? A beautiful baby horse, all gangly and glossy? Yes! Yes, it was. And look, there’s the mother, an equally gorgeous mare with a wild mane. They were grazing within the confines of a large fenced in yard, literally feet from the bus stop. My shoe shopping expedition was immediately forgotten.

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At first, I was riveted, truly enchanted by the presence of these stunning horses. I couldn’t believe their beauty. It was an otherworldly experience. They snorted into the grass, swished their tails, and followed their curiosity. Soon after I arrived, a woman arrived to feed them carrots, which they happily consumed.

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The longer I stood and stared in awe, the more befuddled I became when I realized that these gorgeous creatures lived across the street from a Costco and Pet Smart, among many other box stores. Like worlds colliding, they didn’t match. I spent a lot of time taking pictures with my phone, yet simultaneously contemplating the loss of nature and green space. I was a walking contradiction. Apparently, everyone has the capacity to be one.

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Soon, my bus approached, and I was forced to leave my new friends for an air conditioned box on wheels. I watched the ethereal beauties disappear in the rear view mirror, and then I spent the next ten minutes looking over the pictures I’d just taken, lamenting the state of urban life, the “concrete jungle.”

But then, I went to New York City, fell in love with the hustle and bustle, and changed my opinion again. I think it’s fair to assume that we all go through phases, wishing we had the exact opposite of our current situation (my hair is curly; gee, I wish it were straight). Yet another strange facet of the human condition.

How to establish a sustainable writing schedule — August 19, 2016

How to establish a sustainable writing schedule

Full disclosure time. Although the title of this post sounds easy, it is in fact very hard to establish a sustainable writing schedule. In some cases, it could take several years to find a pattern and working timetable that meshes well with an already busy life. People have families to take care of and jobs to maintain, not to mention all the little things that frequently eat up our day, such as laundry and cooking. Where does one find the time to write? Good question. I struggled with the answer for many years.

The key word here is ‘sustainable.’ A consistent and healthy writing schedule works best when it is repeatable long term, and allows space for uncertainty. As we all know, life isn’t predictable, so it’s important that we forgive ourselves when we can’t make it to the page. Expecting yourself to produce thousands of words per day, especially if you have a day job, is not fair, nor is it reasonable. Give yourself some room to navigate your day until you find a system that works. On the other hand, we also need to acknowledge that we spend our minutes on activities that don’t always serve our creative goals.

Determine the time of day when your brain is fresh and energetic (clue: it might be the opposite of what you think it is)

Although I’m a total night owl and I prefer to stay up late, my mind is actually sharpest in the morning. After much experimentation, I discovered that I enjoyed writing first thing, before work. It was a struggle to wake up early, but once I understood that my productivity diminished as the day continued, I adjusted my daily routine to reflect this realization. At first, I felt as though I was working against my natural inclination, but it soon became apparent that my new approach was the most effective.

Spot the gaps in your week

Sketch out seven full days of your daily obligations, including the weekends, then stand back and look for the free zones. Thirty minutes here, an hour there, whatever you can find. Once you see where the opportunities are hiding, tease out the repeatable configurations. For example, if you are available from 6-7pm on Monday, Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday, start there.

Don’t make adjustments until you’ve maintained test schedule for two full weeks

It’s important to know the difference between resistance (à la Steven Pressfield) and legitimate scheduling conflicts. Once you force yourself to push through the first two weeks, the distinction will rise to the surface and guide you in the appropriate direction. For example, if you decide that 6-7pm doesn’t work because it interferes with your family time, decipher a better system after 14 days of consistent writing. However, if you simply don’t feel inspired between 6 and 7pm, it doesn’t matter. Inspiration is flaky, and has nothing to do with consistency. Keep going. Eventually, you’ll find your groove.

Lather, rinse, repeat. (reference song below for further details)

This may sound simplistic, but it’s like putting one foot in front of the other. Just keep moving. Hack your way through the jungle of procrastination, fear, and uncertainty. Squeeze out ten words if that’s all you’ve got. The more often you face the blank page, the easier it will become to write. Public speakers don’t start their careers with a giant, captivated audience right out of the gate. First, they start small, and build up a talent for speaking, but repeatedly speaking in front of people. Funny how that works, huh? So, the same can be said for writing, and any other skill for that matter. The more you write, the easier it will be to write, like second nature. Eventually, you won’t have to force yourself to show up at your desk, or studio, or wherever. You’ll go simply out of habit.

Steve Martin earned oodles of street cred in the trenches of standup comedy. — August 15, 2016

Steve Martin earned oodles of street cred in the trenches of standup comedy.

Born Standing Up

If you have made the brave and stressful choice to attempt a career in the arts, Born Standing Up by Steve Martin is the answer to your prayers. And, of course, I mean that in the most figurative way possible. No angels will come down from the heavens to solve whatever artistic (or financial) conundrum in which you happen to find yourself. This book will, however, help you navigate the realm of show business with slightly more clarity and reasonable expectations. Born Standing Up is a battle-weary account of what happens when you plod along, one day at a time, slowly cobbling together a successful artistic life. (Also, let’s not forget that “successful” has as many definitions as there are people in the universe.)

Martin’s humorous autobiography begins with the most revealing declaration that, although he had an eighteen year long career in standup comedy, fourteen of those years were spent struggling to establish and refine his act. In the meanwhile, he was rejected at every turn, by anyone and everyone. Casting agents, managers, hecklers, critics, and Hollywood gatekeepers all took their turn swinging bats at the Steve Martin piñata. He was too visual, too weird, too interactive. Or, so he was labelled.

At a pivotal point in his journey, he came to a realization that he would never be able to accomplish anything if he relied on the auditioning process. There were simply too many variables that were not in his favour. He then decided to take his act on the road, and he used that time as an elaborate classroom in which he learned how to read and work with his audience in a more fulfilling way. It was a gradual process, one that required him to do hundreds, if not thousands, of shows. (Two, sometimes three performances per day.) Martin used this time to iron out the kinks, and build on the elements that already worked.

Years later, when Martin returned home after his road tour, he was significantly better at his craft, and had earned a moderately loyal following. The entire experience was a tremendous lesson in patience and persistence. I think sometimes those of us in artistic fields, myself included, get incredibly eager and excited to push through barriers and make progress, and we forget that we never truly wrap our hands around the Holy Grail. We never reach an end point and declare, “I’ve done it! I can rest on my laurels now. Phew!” Any progress, whether in an arts-based field or the more traditional business world, takes time and effort to grow and develop.

But, dammit, patience is hard to cultivate. We feel like our hair will go grey before we ever get where we hope to be by tomorrow. We live in a fast-paced world where even those under twenty-five think they’re behind the eight ball, and not living up to their potential. Bullocks. I’ve also succumbed to this very brand of toxic, doomsday thinking, but it’s much easier to encourage kindness and acceptance with others than ourselves. Naturally. Why do you suppose that is?

In any case, Born Standing Up was incredibly well written and enjoyable. Not only is the book perfectly funny, it’s an honest, unglamorous account of “making it big,” and all the emotional fatigue of pursuing an elusive, artistic goal.

Note: If you prefer fiction, then I would also suggest you try out Martin’s The Pleasure of My Company.

Fifth Helena Drive, now available in a snazzy new PDF! — August 11, 2016

Fifth Helena Drive, now available in a snazzy new PDF!

Way back in 2014, I wrote and published a short story on this blog about Marilyn Monroe, entitled Fifth Helena Drive. (In case ya’ll aren’t aware, Fifth Helena Drive is the name of the street where the Hollywood icon lived.)

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Download Fifth Helena Drive

For fun, I decided to re-publish my story with a cool cover and graphics to match. What you see here is a labour of love and curiosity. It’s incredibly rewarding to see a project, even something small like this 7-page PDF, come into being. I thoroughly enjoyed crafting a concept, and collaborating with a designer to create a vision that was both aesthetically and emotionally pleasing.

After spending the last year and a half in search of a literary agent, to no avail, this endeavor raised my spirits in a variety of unexpected ways. More importantly, this project renewed my sense of autonomy and agency, as it allowed me to take the bull by the horns and make something without asking for permission.

Happy reading! And, if you like the story, feel free to share with your friends!

 

How to Be an Artist — August 10, 2016

How to Be an Artist

How to be an artist_Nagler

As much as I love The Artist’s Way, The Desire Map, and The Fire Starter Sessions, I adored How to Be an Artist for one, very simple reason: it’s packed full of real-world practicality. I’m not entirely sure how I came to read this book. It was sitting on the shelf, quietly minding its own business at the bookstore, when I spotted the fun title and brightly coloured spine.

For the longest time, I struggled to find space in my life to write. I convinced myself that my environment had to be perfect, that I needed long stretches of time to work, and inspiration was required to strike me at just the right angle, with just the right amount of happiness and glitter, to make something worthwhile. The longer I waited, the more depressed I became. I danced around my literary intentions for ages, starting and stopping, lurching pathetically through creative traffic like a defective car.

Then I forced myself to show up. Every day, for approximately an hour, and eventually increased to 90 minutes. I dragged my ass out of bed earlier than usual, brought my computer to the coffee shop before work, and got down to business. At first it was slow going, horribly painful. But then something happened. Once I hit my stride, approximately one week in, it required less effort to get started each time. The story flowed. The characters did their thang, and I had a blast listening in on their conversations.

Sure, there are a few kinks I need to iron out, my morning rarely goes according to plan, and I get a raging case of tunnel vision, but it’s a giant leap forward from where I was. That is, mulling over my frustration; doing nothing and making nothing; complaining and talking about the future, a future that never seemed to materialize.

How to Be an Artist by JoAnneh Nagler built on a philosophy with which I was already partially familiar, and enhanced my creative life by providing even more practical solutions to common time and/or money management problems.  I would recommend this book for anyone who “doesn’t have the time” to tackle his/her creative bucket list. If you have fifteen minutes at lunch, then there’s time. If you have thirty minutes, three times a week, then there’s time. Nagler will help you carve a practical plan out of your busy, seemingly insurmountable schedule.

3 Sacrifices I made to finish my second novel — August 8, 2016

3 Sacrifices I made to finish my second novel

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There are some people out there who are extremely organized. They’ve got their shit together. When they tackle a major life project, they simply find a way to squeeze it into an already accomplished daily routine. For me, however, I need focus, which means abandoning various elements of my life in order to complete the thing that matters most: writing and finishing my second novel. This is what I gave up to make it work.

1.Gym time

My workout schedule dropped from extremely active (5-6 days per week) to pathetically slow (1-2 days per week). Every morning, I woke up at 6, so that I could be at Starbucks for 7:30, and that is where I remained, pecking away at my manuscript, until 9:00. By the time I finished work eight hours later, there was very little energy to go for a jog. Judging by how my pants currently fit, I would not be surprised if I gained a few pounds as a result. Time that was, in the past, spent at the gym, was now purely focused on creative output. As we all know, writing is not a cardiovascular sport.

2.Healthy eating habits

With most of my brain energy occupied by writing, I did not have any patience to prepare healthy lunches or dinners. I consumed way more pizza and pasta than I might usually. There were days when I managed to cobble together a kale, tomato, and tuna salad, but most dinners involved slapping a couple pieces of bread together.

3.Wise spending habits

Almost every morning, I dropped between $5 and $8 dollars on various lattes, designer teas, breakfast sandwiches, and muffins – yikes, the calories! Even though I budgeted for the expense, it was way more than I generally like to spend on eating out. But, the routine was working, so I didn’t want to disrupt the pattern.

Lessons learned

In mid-July, to re-calibrate my fitness mojo, I attended a two-day Strong Camp in Toronto. We went through conditioning drills, boxing workouts, Pilates, kettle bell training, and a few Crossfit-style WODs. By the end of the weekend, my thighs were aflame, and most of us were walking as if we’d just gone horseback riding. In other words, tenderly.

If this process has taught me anything, it’s that I need to integrate creativity and healthful living together, not separately, like two train tracks that never intersect. As it turns out, there are two halves to my happy self. Part of me very much needs physical activity, and loathes sitting at a computer for long stretches of time, but I eventually get uptight and cranky when I don’t have the opportunity to express myself creatively. Now, after completing my novel, I have realized that the opposite is also true. When all I do is hammer away at my creative side, my physicality dies a very slow, irritating death.

Yet another argument for balance. Many may argue that balance is a myth, boring, or overrated, but I feel that it is a necessary thing; otherwise we end up absorbing one extreme habit or another. Anything in excess is bound to become a problem. “Everything in moderation,” may be a frequently used cliché, but it’s a frequently used accurate cliché.

Impactful listening – add these interviews to your playlist — August 7, 2016

Impactful listening – add these interviews to your playlist

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The School of Greatness Podcast: Chris Guillebeau on How to Move Forward Without a Plan with Lewis Howes

A regular interview between two entrepreneurs transforms into something more meaningful. Chris Guillebeau is the creator of the World Domination Summit, the Art of Non-Conformity, and the author of many books. He likes to keep busy; he likes to be productive, to have purpose, to have a mission to complete. But this interview shows a different side to Chris. This time, he’s just a guy who is dealing with the death of his brother, and unsure what to do with himself. He conveys just how difficult it is to be a results oriented person in the midst of a personal crisis (or, some may argue, a spiritual one). A truly heartwarming (and heartbreaking) hour of interesting conversation.

Pivot Podcast Episode 37: The Progress Paradox with Gregg Easterbrook

I’ve been a fan of Jenny Blake for a few years, and I like to poke through her blog and podcast every now and then. In preparation for the release of her new book, Pivot, she’s been interviewing various thought leaders in the professional development and personal improvement sphere. They are always interesting and thought provoking, but Gregg Easterbrook went above and beyond on the topic of economic equity/inequity. Ms. Blake’s questions are delightfully probing, and Easterbrook’s responses are incredibly enlightening. The perfect podcast for a long commute.

CBC’s The Current: Dr. Nadine Caron on her trailblazing path as a First Nations surgeon

At approximately the 15-minute mark, this interview on The Current turns from just thoughtful and educational to outright beautiful. It will make you cry. It will help people see that it is possible to transform one’s personal prejudices. If there has ever been proof that we (human beings of all kinds) have the capacity to make peace with ourselves, and the world, no matter what, this is it. And, at the risk of sounding like a softie, this interview is an incredible lesson in forgiveness.

Big Magic — August 3, 2016

Big Magic

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I don’t know why I read this book, but I did, and I loved it. I have a lot of opinions about the Eat Pray Love phenomenon, Elizabeth Gilbert, and the quit-your-job-and-move-to-Italy genre of middle-class memoir. Most of them (but not all) flew out the window when I chose to read Big Magic with an open mind. My entire perspective shifted from one end of the spectrum to the other. I went from being extremely suspicious to completely convinced.

Big Magic, it is important to remember, is not Eat Pray Love. They are separate, and so I will keep them separate. I may have some misgivings about the [cult]ure spawned by Gilbert’s runaway bestseller, but I have nothing but respect for her creative intentions, beautifully and humorously written in Big Magic. It is a lovely addition to the creativity canon, in good company with Julia Cameron and Danielle LaPorte.

To start, I agree very much with Gilbert’s vision of creative living, and creativity in general. Almost everything she outlines in Big Magic has the ring of truth and experience for me. From the rampant perfectionism, to the need to produce art, of any quality, no matter what may come of it, this book captures and pokes fun at all facets of the internal creativity battle. I was mumbling, “uh huh, damn right,” with each turn of the page.

A few years ago, I was that person, lamenting my lack of “real” creative space, insisting that a perfect desk, a quiet room, and ten uninterrupted hours in which to write, was an imperative for any “serious” writer to compose a “serious” novel. Eventually, I discovered that an hour or two before work, in a relatively calm corner of Starbucks, was enough to produce two manuscripts. Instead of setting word quotas in the realm of 1000-1500 words, thus setting myself up for potential failure and disappointment, I learned that I could slowly chip away at my project, 500 words at a time over several months. The simple act of establishing a daily, creative routine was enough to pull me out of my unproductive, blocked state of frustration.

Most impressively, Big Magic advocates art of all kind. Gilbert is not pretentious, nor is she judgmental in this regard. She argues for participation as art, physical movement as art, curiosity as art. Gilbert asks us to let go of our expectations and just make stuff that feels right to make, and to live our lives with similar intentions. Oh, and she also wants us to chill the heck out. I’m up for that!

The best part? There is no such thing as bad art, just fearful artists. Paint for the love and fun of it, regardless of its commercial viability. Write because it tickles your fancy, not because you hope it will generate an income large enough to pay your bills. Practice figure skating at any age, because it lights you up, not because you want a gold medal. Follow the trail of an idea because it sounds interesting, not because you think it might become a bestseller. The minute you assign an end to your means, creativity dies a horrible death.

In the words of Clark W. Griswold, the patriarch of every National Lampoon’s disaster, “Amen! Hallelujah! Holy shit!”

Host by Robin Cook — July 29, 2016

Host by Robin Cook

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Of all the books in the world to pull me out of my slump, Robin Cook’s Host was an unlikely contender. I don’t usually read medical thrillers, nor have I ever read a Cook novel, but it’s the first time I’ve finished a book of fiction since April, so I’m not picky. Even more shocking, I was thoroughly educated on the intricacies of anesthesiology procedures, blood protein disorders, and delayed return to consciousness. Despite the flat character development and dialogue, not to mention several silly Russian-as-villain stereotypes, I continued to turn the pages because I wanted to know what the hell happened to anesthesia machine 37. And, of course, I wanted to know what was going on behind the secretive walls of The Shapiro Institute.

The basic premise is this: Lynn is a fourth-year medical student in Charleston, South Carolina, preparing for graduation and her future residency. Her boyfriend, Carl, is going in for routine surgery to fix a sports injury. When he experiences delayed return to consciousness, and eventually falls into a coma, Lynn is determined to assign someone blame. What she doesn’t realize, however, is that this is no ordinary medical error. With the help of her best friend and fellow medical student, Michael Pender, she eventually uncovers a multilayered conspiracy of unethical and illegal proportions.

I’m not going to deny that there are several problems with Host. The female lead character does not react to anything like a woman would, especially the threat and experience of sexual assault. It sort of rolls off her shoulder, as if she has rape-proof skin. It barely registers on her psyche. The secondary male, African American character has weird, stunted, unrealistic dialogue. Michael throws around patchy, repetitive slang that never truly resonates. Finally, the Russian bad guys are cartoonish, more amusing than frightening.

This is a long laundry list of complaints, I know. But, you know what? I had a lot of fun reading this novel. It was campy, a little silly, and surprisingly educational. The perfect summer medicine for a blocked and frustrated reader.

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