The Literary Lollipop

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

Rubbernecker captivated me on a 5 hour flight to Honolulu. — September 23, 2016

Rubbernecker captivated me on a 5 hour flight to Honolulu.

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I have a tendency to arrive for flights really early. I prefer it that way, because I hate to rush. In late August, after attending a conference in Los Angeles, I embarked on my journey to the airport several hours in advance, just in case the legendary traffic wielded its horrible reputation on a random Sunday morning. Thankfully, it didn’t, but that meant arriving at 8:30am for an 11:30am domestic flight.

No problem. Going through security ate up approximately thirty minutes, and a leisurely breakfast at Wolfgang Express another thirty. In my previous search for a restaurant, I passed Book Soup, so I retraced my steps like a woman on a mission. Having burned through the two books I brought to Los Angeles, I needed something to occupy me for the next leg of my adventure: a five hour flight from LAX to HNL. Yes, Hawaii. Ah-loooo-ha!

It took nearly an hour to find something I actually wanted to read. Perhaps I was in a picky mood, I don’t know, but it took me a long time. Eventually I chose Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer, so I whipped out my credit card, tucked the softback under my arm, and made the trek to my assigned gate, which changed as soon as I sat down and got comfortable. Don’t you love it when that happens?

I suppose I should focus more obviously on the book itself. Enough backstory and mood setting. Okay, so once I boarded the plane and buckled my seat belt, a bag of strawberry flavored Welsh’s gummy candies at the ready, I began to read.

Rubbernecker is a fantastic story, with an even better narrator. Patrick Fort has Asperger’s, and engages with the world from a distance. He is by far the best part of the book. I adored following along with his idiosyncratic observations, and his blossoming emotional connections with the people around him. As the novel begins, he is beginning his first term as an anatomy student in Wales, learning the many facets of pathology alongside a class of medical students. Everyone is broken up into several groups and assigned a cadaver. The assignment? Determine the reason of death.

The complexity of Rubbernecker’s narrative structure is another reason for my fascination. The reader has to be careful whenever the speaker shifts from first person to third person. We are not always with Patrick, and we are not always moving in chronological order. After about three chapters, a pattern sets in, and you will soon feel the waves of a captivating mystery rolling over you in a subtle, lovely way.

I should also mention that there are some gruesome points. Of course, the main character is conducting what is essentially an elaborate autopsy for most of the book, so be prepared for some unpleasant olfactory experiences.

Five hours later, we descended into Honolulu. I marked my spot nearly two hundred pages in, looked out the tiny window and stared in awe at the vast turquoise water below us. Needless to say, I didn’t do much reading over the next seven days. Tropical greenery is tough competition. Regardless, Rubbernecker was promptly completed on the long flight home (approximately 14 hours in transit). Highly, highly recommended for anyone who loves unusual stories of any genre.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism (PS. Be prepared for projectile vomiting) — September 12, 2016

My Best Friend’s Exorcism (PS. Be prepared for projectile vomiting)

my best friend exorcism

Although I didn’t come of age in the eighties, I was born in the notorious decade and experienced many of its remnant trends. Namely, a love for New Kids on the Block, scrunchies, and neon leggings. Everything came rushing back when I read My Best Friend’s Exorcism, the most unique horror novel I’ve come across this year.

The story begins in 1982, when Abby and Gretchen meet, bond, and solidify their adorable friendship. They live in Charleston, South Carolina, and attend an upper crust high school. Abby is from the “wrong side of the tracks,” sort of like Molly Ringwald a la Pretty in Pink. Gretchen is from a wealthy, religious, strict family; she is shielded from the unpleasant, violent corners of the universe. Despite their different worlds, both girls are completely devoted to one another. The early years are an unexpected combination of hilarity and emotional development. Throughout the first fifty pages, I was laughing along with Abby’s sassy internal monologue.

Regular teen high jinks turn sour one hot, lazy afternoon in 1988 when a group of girls decide to experiment with drugs. Abby and Gretchen are curious, so they join in on the illegal fun. Except, once they all ingest the drug in question, everyone waits for a high that never arrives. Everyone except one girl, of course. Cue strangeness.

To liven up a flat experience, they decide to go skinny-dipping. Behaving bizarre, Gretchen runs off, jumps into the water, disappears into the bush, and isn’t found until early the next morning. Immediately, Abby can tell that something is wrong. Her good friend is acting strange, growing volatile, and irritable. She’s developed a twitch and can’t sleep.

And this is when you need to take cover. Put on a waterproof slicker or open an umbrella. The choice is yours. Projectile vomiting is just around the corner. You may need to protect yourself from the milky chunks. There are some seriously gross moments and, if you don’t have an iron stomach, a packet of Gravol could come in handy. One part in particular is very difficult to read, and so I skipped two pages of violence I couldn’t bear to experience, even through fiction.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism is an awesome, demented, bloody combination of The Craft and Mean Girls. This book is a wicked tribute to some of horror’s best storytellers. But, over and above the classic scares, the OMG-that’s-disgusting freakouts, I was thoroughly impressed by the realism of Abby’s character, and her unshakable love for Gretchen. The dialogue is tight. Grady Hendrix writes women extremely well. I was blown away by his poignant observations of adolescent girl culture, friendship, the almost pathological need for belonging and beauty.

Before I finish, I must also spend a few words on the ending, which actually caused my chin to quiver for a moment, maybe two. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of reading this creative blast from the past. However, I will say that it will make you acknowledge your deepest, lifelong, and most meaningful relationships with brand new eyes. Would you battle the devil himself to save your best friend? Would you face prison and social abandonment and psychosis? Would you risk hospitalization and broken bones and a river of blood and failure and post traumatic disorder, maybe death? Abby answered yes to all these questions. Now that’s devotion of the highest order.

Let the Elephants Run — September 5, 2016

Let the Elephants Run

Let the elephants run

Although I wasn’t totally enthralled by musician David Usher’s first foray into the business of creative inspiration, there is one very important lesson I learned from his book. Namely, the imperative of shipping whatever it is we’ve made. Rather than have a box full of half-finished projects, we should develop one to completion and take it to the finish line, then share it with the world. The more often you complete this pattern (make it, ship it, share it, make it, ship it, share it, etc.) the easier it will become to complete a project, from tiny seedling to fully-grown tree.

When I finished reading Let the Elephants Run, I searched through my memory bank, trying to recall the last time I officially shipped a fully-grown tree. Nothing significant came to mind. The problem wasn’t my productivity; it was follow-through, which is exceptionally more difficult than it sounds. The minute we release our work to the world, we open ourselves up to criticism, naysayers, and self-doubt. It is so easy to edit our ideas until we’ve corrected them into non-existence. Perfectionism is a lethal but silent killer of all dreams everywhere.

At the time, I had finished a few drafts of a manuscript, but most of my output was stuck in a state of query limbo. That’s when I decided to experiment with self-publishing, on a very small scale. For fun. For no other reason than to create a pretty, completed, tangible project of which I could be proud and hold in my hand. I collaborated with a designer to create a mock book cover for a short story, and published the revamped version on this blog. It was incredibly satisfying to ship Fifth Helena Drive.

The underlying message of David Usher’s book can get lost in the grandiosity of its graphics, but his intentions are certainly honorable. He encourages all artists, careerists and hobbyists alike, to stretch their imaginations. Like our muscles when they’re stiff and sore, our imaginations can atrophy when they go untapped for too long. We lose confidence in our creative ability. Even more so, we rarely have the time to putter. The responsibilities of everyday life can easily snowball into a giant creative block. In order to rejuvenate the childlike part of our brain that responds to play, we need to give ourselves the mental and physical space, as well as the emotional permission, to do so.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend purchasing this book, but perhaps borrowing Let the Elephants Run from the library might be a less expensive way to engage with the material. That way, you’ll be able to confirm whether or not the content resonates with you before making the investment, as it’s currently only available in hardcover.

Another note to keep in mind: books of this sort are really subjective. Creativity prompts that work for me may not work for others, and vice versa. This review reflects my experience, which was mostly hit and miss, but the concept of the overall book is quite refreshing. I think David Usher’s contribution to the creativity conversation is incredibly valuable. The delivery and approach, unfortunately, left a lot unsaid.

How I self-published a short story as an alternative to making business cards. — August 24, 2016

How I self-published a short story as an alternative to making business cards.

I recently attended the 2016 Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. Creative hopefuls from around the globe gathered and listened to the wisdom of those who came before us. It’s a wonderful opportunity to make new friends and learn about the forever fluctuating face of publishing.

In order to keep in touch, many delegates bring business cards. However, because I’ve ordered business cards before and I barely use them – the box of 250 is still on a shelf in my closet collecting an obscene amount of dust – I decided to try something different this year. With an additional Los Angeles conference coming up in late August, I figured now was the time to get creative.

As an experiment, I revamped and repackaged a short story I previously published on this blog in 2014. I commissioned a graphic designer to create a “book cover” for the story in question, Fifth Helena Drive, which I later had printed as postcards with my blog URL listed on the reverse. The same designer incorporated the full text and the new cover into a downloadable file that I eventually posted on a standalone page of The Literary Lollipop. The idea was to make it easy for people to connect, stay in touch, and (hopefully) read my story.

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I ordered the postcards through Vistaprint, and the software walked me through each step so that I could customize the look and size accordingly. I paid the extra fees for a matte finish and a larger-than-standard size: five by seven inches. All you have to do is upload the art work, drag and drop, choose your shipping preferences, and process the order. Super simple.

What also appealed to me about this idea was that I was making something tangible and, in a more professional and authoritative capacity, sharing it with the world. Well, a small corner of the world, but you know what I mean. I gave away only ten postcards at the Writer’s Digest Conference and the response, I’m happy to report, was positive.

The most pleasant surprise has been the reaction and support of family and friends. When they saw the cover, a visual element enhanced what had been nothing but words; Fifth Helena Drive was brought to life in a new and unique way.

Collaborating with a graphic designer was incredibly satisfying. We went through approximately three versions until we landed on a look we were both happy with. Originally, the photograph of palm trees featured a darker hue of turquoise, but we decided to apply a summery fade in order to convey the retro, California-esque components of the story.

This project inspired a few side effects, most notably a newfound curiosity for the design of book jackets. My usual habit of browsing the local bookstore became a fun exercise in research as each visit resulted in a careful inspection of unusual fonts, images, cool graphics, themes, and ideas. The whole experience was beyond anything I could’ve hoped for, and I have already considered repeating this process with Symmetry.

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

perfect

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.