"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fear, Plans, and Journaling

I am a maker of plans. A list maker, a dreamer, a person who functions best when she has something to look forward to. But what happens when that something (that project, that trip, that social event) evokes a mixture of fear as well as excitement? In a fight between the two, fear usually wins. No, I usually let fear win. And the stupid thing is, that of the two emotions, fear is always the smallest, physically. Fear is the tiny ball in the pit of my stomach, while excitement is the thing that makes me want to get up and actually do something. Excitement is in my blood and fear is a parasite.

When I look back through my old journals, which I've been keeping on and off since the 6th grade, I see a major shift take place between middle and high school. In middle school I wrote mostly about my life. I wrote about things that happened to me, or interesting conversations, or something my teacher said, but in high school a lot of that reflection got replaced by plan-making. I stopped writing about what my life was actzually like and started writing about what I wanted my life to be like. And that doesn't have to be a bad thing, but when I look back at those entries I realize that almost all of them say the same things: Write more. Procrastinate less. Get out of your comfort zone.

Figuring out what caused this shift inevitably lead me to wondering why I keep a journal in the first place. When I was younger, I wanted my older self to be able to look back at my entries and learn something about what it was like to be me at that age. As I got older, my priorities changed. Keeping a journal became less about recording my life and more about the the act of writing. Writing was how I figured stuff out. Writing made me feel empowered, and when I wrote out exactly who I wanted to be, and how I was supposedly going to get there, I felt more in control. The problem was, of course, that I never remembered.

One of the innate things about keeping a journal is that you write something down, get something off your chest, and then you forget about it. It's like putting your emotions or experiences into a jar that you only take down from the shelf once a year. So no matter how many times I wrote out my plans, I was putting them in a place that wasn't going to help me very much.

Realizing this has pushed me forward in a lot of ways. For one, I understand now that I don't want to look back at my journals every few years and read about everything I wanted to do, but never did. That, to me, is a far stronger motivator than a million lists and action plans and ideal life scenarios. That fear, the fear of always planning but never doing, is actually a good thing. It keeps me motivated and on track. And more importantly, I can choose it over the other kind. At the very least I'll end up with the kind of journals my older self will actually enjoy reading.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Letter to October #11

Dear October,
      Here are some of the things I did today:

1. Wrote words.

2. Had pumpkin cake for breakfast at my favorite coffee shop.

3. Listened to several podcast episodes.

4. Finished reading First Light by Rebecca Stead.

5. Wrote more words.

6. Talked about Paris, cats, and music videos over dinner.

7. Watched one of my favorite movies ever, for like the millionth time. (Ever After - Oh, 90s movie trailers how I love you)

Extra Thoughts:
-First Light was really good! It's a middle grade book about two kids from separate worlds: one is a boy visiting Greenland with his scientist parents, the other is a girl who is part of an ancient civilization who have build a home for themselves deep under the ice. I've read one other book by Rebecca Stead, and each time I am blown away by her writing. It is beautiful in its simplicity, and she is one of those rare children's book authors whose prose feels effortless, as though someone is just telling you a good story. I enjoyed this book just as much now as I would have when I was ten, and if you're up for a good adventure story with endearing characters, I highly recommend picking it up.

-I actually didn't write as much as I had hoped for today, but I'm trying to teach myself to be happy with new words, now matter how abundant they are (or aren't). Most of the time I think I have to rush through writing stories or I'll never finish them, but I've been trying to go at a slower pace and let this story unfold at its own pace. I have a sign up in my room that says "Trust the Process." It's so easy to want to jump to the finish line, but I'm re-discovering the joy of simply putting down words.

-Need podcast recommendations? My go-to's are Radiolab and 99% Invisible, but lately I've been listening to the Love Hurts series on a podcast called Strangers. Just, wow. So raw, so real, so fascinating. Also, if you don't listen to podcasts, I suggest you start. Audio is the one of the most incredible storytelling mediums I've come across.

-And finally, Ever After. I did sort of watch it for a reason besides, you know, re-living my childhood. In my Renaissance Art History class we are talking about the "making of an artist," and specifically the stories we tell about artists and why some of them loom so large in our cultural consciousness. One of the ones we've been talking about is, of course, Leonardo da Vinci, and we have to do a project where we write our own narrative about the artist, based on both scholarly and pop culture sources. Since da Vinci makes a pretty prominent cameo in Ever After, I thought I'd give it another viewing. I'm not sure I gained much more insight into da Vinci as an artist besides the fact that his movie self fits very nicely into the "wise old man" trope, but I did discover that I can quote almost every line. I guess that shouldn't come as a surprise, judging by the number of times I've watched it...

Well, I think that's a long enough letter for one evening. Tomorrow will most likely be another day of writing and reading, and maybe some laundry....Exciting, I know.


Song of the Day: Land of the Living by Roo Panes

Friday, October 10, 2014

Letter to October #10

Dear October,
      I'm sorry I've been so silent lately. I'm sure you don't want to hear excuses, but this was midterms week, and you weren't the only thing I had to neglect in favor of studying. Luckily today I turned in my last assignment, and I'm officially off for the next four days! Fall break is always a little depressing because so many of my friends live near enough to go home, while I'm still stuck a couple thousand miles away. Still, I'm going to have company this time in the form of my roommate, which is certainly a nice change.
I spent most of my evening doing the things I haven't had time to do all week. It was a night partly inspired by an author interview in the back of one of the books on my shelf (why yes, I am one of those people who skips to the back of books I haven't read).* The question she was asked was "What is your idea of fun?" and she answered, remarkably, with a description of what she and her family like to call Abbey Nights. (No, not Downton Abbey. That's where my mind went, too.) Basically they turn off all unessential power in their house - lights, TV, computers, phones - and spend the night doing "nineteenth-century activities": reading, talking, and playing music. "Suddenly," she says, "the night is so long, and we feel so much more connected and grounded, away from all the noisy screens we're so addicted to." And so, I spent my evening reading and writing letters, drinking apple cider, and letting the stress of this week melt away with each scribbled word and each soft rustling of a page. I couldn't do an all out "Abbey Night" namely because we aren't allowed to have candles in our dorm room, and because I am sitting here, typing this letter to you, but it was close enough to remind me just how slowly time passes when you're not mindlessly clicking between tabs. Over the next couple of days I plan to disconnect from the internet as much as possible and return to the thing that has always been a place of refuge for me: words.
So it's been a wonderful day, October. Thanks for being patient with me while I struggled my way through this week, and I think you'll be hearing from me much more frequently in the near future.


* The book, in case you were wondering, is The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Song of the Day (to quiet your mind): The Violet Hour by The Civil Wars

Monday, October 6, 2014

Letter to October #5

Dear October,
      As crazy as this upcoming week is going to be, I don't feel too nervous about it because I spent most of today studying. I still don't feel completely caught up, but I feel a lot more prepared than I did a few days ago. One of the things that has been helping me stay disciplined is writing every day, not just your letters, but also my own stories and poems. I'm discovering that if I'm disciplined in one aspect of my life I become more disciplined in others. That seems like common sense now, but for some reason I hadn't thought of it before. It also just feels really good to be taking time each day to indulge my imagination, and to see my progress spool out in lines of text, a little bit more each day. Maybe at the end of the month I will show you my calendar that I've been using to keep of track of my writing, where I get one star sticker for each day that I write. There's something to be said for personal encouragement through stickers. I highly recommend it.


Song of the Day: One Minute More by Capital Cities

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Letter to October #4

The Haunted Bookstore!

Dear October,
    Here's something I need to remember for future reference: Book-filled days are the best. Today I went to Iowa City for their annual book festival. I don't think it will ever not feel strange to be in Iowa City, because it's a place that feels both intensely familiar and foreign at the same time. The one thing that isn't foreign is books, and, oh man, did I acquire a lot of them. We went to a reading by a Jamaican author at Prairie Lights, and walked around the booths that were set up around downtown. The highlight however, was visiting The Haunted Bookshop. It's a used bookstore nestled just off the beaten path. We spend at least an hour wandering its convoluted shelves and getting lost in it's nooks and crannies. Afterward we got into conversation with the owner, who just happened to be a Coe College Writing Center Alumni. She talked about the bookstore as if it was an extension of herself, and in a way, it was. It was her personally curated anthology, and her life's work was devoted to putting the right book in the right person's hands at exactly the right time. Picture four college students and the owner sitting cross-legged on the floor of the bookstore, listening to stories of her time at Coe and updating her on things that had changed. When we left (and we didn't want to), she gave us a ridiculously generous discount on our books.

That one conversation was enough to remind me why I wanted to go into writing in the first place. The desire hasn't waned, of course, but it's encounters like these that make me realize more and more why I do what I do. I write for people like the woman who owns The Haunted Bookshop, people who love words and learning and believe that real connection is more valuable than money or success or the latest gadget. I want to be the kind of person who builds their life out of things I love, and I think today was a pretty good start.


Song of the Day: Carrying by Jukebox the Ghost

Letters to October #3

 Still life from the front desk of the writing center

Dear October,
       It's almost midnight, so once again my letter will arrive a few minutes late. I've been finding it more difficult to reflect these past couple days. Each day is impossible to categorize, swinging between glorious highs where I'm surrounded by friends, or my writing is going really well, and pockets of boredom or stress about the upcoming week. Overall, I can't shake the feeling that I'm being swept up in some kind of slow-burning change. I can feel something shifting, and I don't know if it's me or my environment. Could it be both? I'm doing my best to steer it in the direction I want it to go, but there are times when it feels like I'm trying to catch up to my own life.

You always hear people talk about living in the moment, but what they don't tell you is that when you let go of the future, you let go of your last road map. That's not to say you've lost the ability to navigate. There are still signs to go by, and you can figure out where you are from the sun and the stars, but suddenly everything is more instinctual, more uncertain. Right now, I'm clinging to a direction and hoping it will take me to where I need to go. Let's hope I end up somewhere new.


Song of the Day: Everything Moves by Bronze Radio Return

Friday, October 3, 2014

Letters to October #2

Dear October,
      One of the hardest things about writing letters to October is trying to distill an entire day into a few words. Of course some days are easier (aka: more boring) than others, but the truly outstanding days, the ones that sneak up on you without you noticing, the ones where you find yourself a little bit in awe that this is your life, are by far the most difficult to describe. Yesterday was one of those days.

The first highlight of my day came around lunchtime when I discovered that I got into the Paris May Term that I applied for. What does that mean? That means that I will be spending May in Paris,  learning about the city's history, literature, and art, with a bunch of really amazing people! As someone who thrives off of having something to look forward to, this is going to keep me in high spirits all year. If you supposed that I spent the rest of my day daydreaming about Paris, you wouldn't be too far off except that life has a funny way of reminding you of the important things just when you're about to loose sight of them. As excited as I am about Paris, what made yesterday truly extraordinary was the fact that I spent my evening surrounded by friends, telling stories and really listening to each other. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of clarity, calm, and gratitude. I am so incredibly lucky, not just to have the opportunities that I do, but to have the chance to be around incredible people who inspire me every day.  In that moment, Paris was the farthest thing from my mind, and I wouldn't have it any other way.


Song of the Day: Cloud Nine by Ben Howard

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Letters to October #1

Dear October,
       Here we are again. I can hardly believe that you are already here. You, too, seemed a little unsure of yourself, starting out chilly and getting warmer, teasing us with sunshine and clouds. I'm not sure how I feel about today. It was one of those endless days where as hard as you try to get everything done, by the end of it your to-do list is still only half finished. There is so much I need to do before next week (nicknamed Hell Week in my head because I have an important assignment or test literally every day), and no matter how much I do it still feels like I'm behind. Still, it got me thinking about all the times before when I've felt completely overwhelmed by school work, all of which I made it through, all of which were stressful but still pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. So needless to say, if I seem a little distant in the coming week, October, it's because I'm holed up in the library, writing essays and studying for midterms. I'll see you on the other side. In the meantime, hold on to some of that beautiful fall weather for when I actually have time to appreciate it!


Song of the day: Maker of My Time by The Paper Kites

Sunday, September 21, 2014

On Being Lost

I've been thinking recently about the sensation of being lost. To me, it conjures up two very different emotions. The first is the kind of stomach drop feeling you get when your realize that you have no idea where your are. It's that feeling of being completely alone, and the desperation that accompanies the search for a familiar face, a landmark, something to mark your progress. The second association has more to do with voluntarily letting go, seeking the unknown and unfamiliar,  actually choosing to get lost.

More and more I find myself craving the unfamiliar. You could call it wanderlust, I suppose, but it feels deeper than that. As much as new surroundings can shock me out of my comfort zone, I crave change at the molecular level. For me, change has always been slow and almost undetectable. If you spoke to my former self, I think you'd find them remarkably similar to the person I am now. So many people find their past selves unrecognizable, and yet when I look back I feel like fundamentally the same person I was in the 5th grade: still idealistic, still shy in new situations, still inspired by beautiful words on a page. I suppose I should feel lucky. I've always felt grounded, held in place by the support system of my family and friends and my own sense of who I am and where I want to go. Is it wrong to wish for something as messy and difficult as losing yourself only to find it again, transformed?

I stumbled across a quote the other day that has haunted me ever since. It is a question posed by the Greek philosopher Meno, and it reads:

How will you go about finding that thing which is totally unknown to you?

It's a paradox wrapped in a question wrapped in a dare. How do you look for something you don't even have a name for? Looked at in a different way, it reads as a challenge to take that vital first step into the unknown.

This is something that's been going on inside me for a while, this twisting, this craving for uncertainty and transformation, and I think its finally reached its breaking point. How will I go about finding that thing which is unknown to me? I'll willingly choose to get lost. I'll smother my fear and be accepting of new experiences. I'll seek change in the same way I seek knowledge: by exploring. It won't be easy, and I don't want it to be. What I do want is to be surprised by the person I become.


End Note: I feel I should credit my sources of inspiration for this post, not just because they helped shape my point of view, but because they are wonderful in their own right:

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

This interview with Jad Abumrad, creator of Radiolab

This blog post by Rachel Coker, who never fails to be an inspiration

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Book Review: Vicious by V.E. Schwab

It's been quite a while since I've done a book review on this blog, but then again, it's been quite a while since I've read a book as good as Vicious. When I first heard about it, it didn't sound like something I would be into. I've never really been one for the revenge plot, and often I usually shy away from traditional super hero lore. But, I have a lot of respect for the author, and when other people started reading (and loving) it, I decided to give it a try.

First, a basic plot overview: Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end? 

Quite honestly, this book blew me away. It was violent, dark, and twisted, and the moral grey area is deliciously, well, grey. The plot swings back and forth in time, switching between the present moment and the events that took place when Victor and Eli were in college. This allows Schwab to slowly ratchet up the suspense with each successive chapter, while revealing key moments in the characters' pasts. 

“All Eli had to do was smile. All Victor had to do was lie. Both proved frighteningly effective.” 

The characters themselves are enigmas, and set against the comic-book-esque, black-and-white world of the book, they seem like utterly fascinating alien beings. I loved Victor's cold, calculating demeanor, and I loved trying and failing to figure out what he was going to do next. Eli is a golden boy with a cracked facade. He feels less developed than some of the other characters, his motivations clear but not as nuanced. Still, he is a good counterpoint to Victor, and just as frightening. My favorite character is Mitch, a hulk of a man who becomes Victor's ally in jail. Schwab plays with appearance vs reality, and many of her characters' true natures are not what you would perceive from a first impression.

The description of this book is a bit misleading in that it makes it seem as though the moral ambiguity is enough to make the reader unsure of whose side they should choose: Victor or Eli's. While the lines between right and wrong are blurred significantly, it is clear who we are meant to sympathize with. The real questions in this book arise from the fact that both characters have deep, irreparable flaws, and they are capable of both benevolence and evil.

“Because you don't think I'm a bad person," he said. "And I don't want to prove you wrong.” 

Despite a couple of places where I had to suspend my disbelief farther than I would have liked, Vicious quickly grew into its place as one of the best books I've read this year. Victoria Schwab's writing is addictive. It has the kind of mesmerizing quality that all the best books have, where you forget you are even reading words on a page. I went into this book with few, if any, expectations, and she surprised me with a tale of suspense, action, and crazy, messed up characters. Super hero fan or not, I highly recommend.

Oh! And look at the GORGEOUS cover for her next book, A Darker Shade of Magic! I could not be more excited!
For a synopsis, click here.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Quote of the Day: Departure

Today was my last day of classes as a college freshman. No matter how many times I say that to myself it still doesn't seem real. So much of my week has been taken up by the weight of everything I have to do before I leave (turn in my last few assignments, study for finals, do laundry, pack), that I haven't had time to think about what it means. Leaving for the summer. Moving out of my dorm room. And then I discovered this quote:

"Packing up. The nagging worry of departure. Lost keys, unwritten labels, tissue paper lying on the floor. I hate it all. Even now, when I have done so much of it, when I live, as the saying goes, in my boxes. Even today, when shutting drawers and flinging wide a hotel wardrobe or the impersonal shelves of a furnished villa is a methodical matter of routine, I am aware of sadness, of a sense of loss. Here, I say, we have lived. We have been happy. This has been ours, however brief the time. Two nights only have been spent beneath a roof, yet we leave something of ourselves behind. Nothing material, not a hair pin on a dressing table, not an empty bottle of aspirin tablets, not a handkerchief beneath a pillow, but something indefinable, a moment of our lives, a thought, a mood. This house sheltered us. We spoke, we loved within these walls. That was yesterday. Today we pass on, we see it no more, and we are different, changed in some infinitesimal way. We can never be quite the same again." - Dauphne du Maurier, Rebecca

To me, this quote captures everything I've been feeling and then some. You might think it silly to mourn leaving a place that I know I'll be returning to in three months, but live for two semesters in the confines of a dorm room, and it becomes a home. Of course that's not to say I'm not excited about my living arrangements for next year, but I've grown accustomed to the slamming of the front door to my residence hall (my room is the first door when you enter), and the view outside my window, and the random bits of paraphernalia I have pinned to my cork board. So there is a sadness in the fact that a few days from now, among the chaos that is finals week, I will also be slowly disassembling my room: getting rid of papers, cleaning out drawers, rolling up the rug that I so clearly remember picking out at Ikea last August.
There is something mutable, too, about a dorm room. There will always be the knowledge that it has been inhabited by so many college students before you, and so many more to come. Somewhere out there there are people, probably even a few on this campus, who have their own memories of my dorm room. I think that's why I love the idea of a place's ability to capture "a moment of our lives, a thought, a mood." When I leave this room, I will be leaving behind pieces of freshman year. A year of firsts, and friend-making, and movie-watching. And next year, this room will be a clean slate, its walls bare for someone else to pin their memories to.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Perfect Summer

I’ve always idealized summer. It exists in my mind as a pocket of time untouched by the laws of every-day life: there are no obligations, and endless possibilities. Instead of being paralyzed by boredom, in my summer, you embrace freedom, harness it. You perfect the act of doing nothing. And of course, the absence of school means that your creativity thrives, and somehow you get more done than you thought possible. I’m aware that this is a paradox, but it is an image I cling to, and it’s been grounded so deeply into my childhood that I can’t seem to separate myself from it. And honestly, I don’t want to. Because when I think about summer, I don’t just think about my perfect summer. There is magic in real summers, too. I’ve seen it first hand. I’ve seen it in the in the stretching of the days, the luxuriously long sunsets, where that impossible green foliage that blankets every tree is momentarily dipped in gold. Later it subsides to a deep blue, and the air is a color like something out of a Monet painting.  I find it in the tiny sandstorm created by the cream as I pour it into a tall glass of iced coffee. It is the morning walks I take with mother and my dog, down a curbless street, filled with birdsong. Occasionally, there are swimming pools. Sometimes, there are long drives in cars under an endless sky. There is rain, too. The kind of summer thunderstorm I haven’t experienced in years. It is a wild rain, punctuated by rumbles that shake the windows of our house, and my mother stands on the front porch, transfixed. 

This is the summer I grew up with. Over the years, it’s changed slightly. It’s been invaded by summer reading books for school, not all of which were bad, and summer assignments which always were. When I learned to drive there was always a nagging sense that I had to go somewhere. Why stay at home when you have a whole city to explore? Still, I often guiltily chose to sit in the backyard and read a book instead. Maybe I idealize summer too much, but when I hear people say that summer is “boring,” I feel indignant. You say the first few weeks weeks are fun. There’s the novelty of it, I guess. But after that, as June yawns into July it’s just another summer, and you don’t know what to do with yourself. I have no patience for this attitude. If you are scared of boredom, your summer will be over before it began. It’s how you use boredom, how you acknowledge it but don’t let it defeat you. Summers are a gift. They are something to be cherished, held in your hands like the blueberries you picked by the bucket-full. Summers are a time capsule to a time when you didn’t need the internet to distract you, when the outdoors was a place you still frequented. And yes, I know it’s hot. I live in a place where humidity makes you feel like you are swimming rather than walking, and mosquitoes gather in prehistoric swarms. In the afternoon the heat presses against windows, and the world is a bug trapped in amber.  

If there is a message here, it is this: Find your perfect summer. Take time to marvel at a rainbow in the arc of a sprinkler, and spend an afternoon in shade that is just cool enough to be bearable. Jump into lakes. Swing from tire swings. If anything, summer reminds us that one moment can feel like an eternity. Inhabit that eternity. Make a home there, and the summer is yours.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Great Outdoors

 I find myself missing nature lately. I miss the intense quiet that comes along with walking through the woods, the way some sounds are muffled and some, especially human ones, are amplified. It reminds me of how clumsy we really are compared to most animal species, like we can't go anywhere without causing a ruckus. As cliche as it sounds, I miss the sound of birdsong and the roar of rushing water and the rustle of wind through thousands of leaves high above my head. It's not just that, though. It's the way the rest of the world falls away so easily, so quickly, as if cars and fast food chains and skyscrapers never even existed. Nature gives us the power to step away from the complexity of everyday life and simply be alone with ourselves.

From a walk I took while visiting Minnesota over Spring Break

For a few days, it seemed like spring had come to Iowa. Temperatures crept up to the mid 40s. The sun graced us with its presence. I felt the same rush of giddy excitement that always accompanies the approaching of summer. But something was missing. I didn't realize until I moved to Cedar Rapids how much nature a city like my hometown of Houston contains. There are countless nature centers, parks, and even the occasional wild space that remains untouched by development. Plus, I'm pretty sure there are simply more trees in Houston, those incredibly beautiful oaks suspended in frozen reverie, limbs bowing until they almost touch the ground. I'm not saying that Cedar Rapids is lacking in natural beauty. There's the lake where we raced dragon boats during freshman orientation, and the tree outside my dorm room window that I watched change through the seasons. There's even a grassy park by New Bo Market complete with a meditation circle and a rock sculpture. But I'm beginning to realize that spending too much time away from even the tamest of forests is starting to wear on me. I can only take so much of the manicured lawn (or in the winter, barren tundra) that is the quad. Instead, I find myself daydreaming about camping with my dad, how everything tasted better when it was cooked outdoors.

And yet, while reminiscing about my favorite spots, I ran into several things that bothered me. I find it sad that most wild places, even those in the midst of cities, are inaccessible without a car. I find it strange that in Memorial Park, the majority of the patrons use the running paths along the perimeter. On one side of the path is a tangled mass of branches, on the other a busy thoroughfare. Why drive somewhere to be close to nature, but not to immerse yourself in it?

Living in the city, it can be so easy to forget that there are any wild spaces left. We go about our daily lives, in tune with the rhythms of ticking clocks and rush hour traffic, and we don't realize that anything's missing. I didn't even realize how far I'd fallen into this trap until I listened to the following radio programs in short succession. They are informative, imaginative, and inspirational, and they made me re-imagine the way we interact with the natural world:

1. "Wild Ones Live" - 99% Invisible: This episode of one of my favorite podcasts is actually a live recording of a band/author duo that explores the complex intersections between animals and humans.

2. "The Last Quiet Places: Silence and the Presence of Everything"- On Being: Mind-altering interview with Gordon Hempton, "who defines silence not as an absence of sound but an absence of noise."

 I suppose I'll leave you with a quote from an One Square Inch of Silence by Gordon Hempton:

"Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything. It lives here, profoundly, at One Square Inch in the Hoh Rain Forest. It is the presence of time, undisturbed. It can be felt within the chest. Silence nurtures our nature, our human nature, and lets us know who we are. Left with a more receptive mind and a more attuned ear, we become better listeners not only to nature but to each other. Silence can be carried like embers from a fire. Silence can be found, and silence can find you. Silence can be lost and also recovered. But silence cannot be imagined, although most people think so. To experience the soul-swelling wonder of silence, you must hear it." [Source]

I hope this long winded assessment of my relationship with nature makes you think a little more deeply about your own. It could be time to consider how long it's been since you took a walk in the woods.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Go-To Inspiration

This blog post is coming to you from my messy brain in my messy dorm room in the midst of my messy life. I've been feeling a little overwhelmed lately. I have so many projects I want to work on. There's school of course, but I'm also trying to step up the discipline in my writing routine. I'm working several work-study jobs, writing for two different blogs (this one and my college's English department), and beginning the search for a summer job in my hometown. Plus, there's a super secret project I can't stop thinking about, and I don't know if it's really worth the time to undertake it or if this is just the honeymoon period. Maybe the excitement will wear off and I'll start hating it, and hating myself for not committing to it, and end up more stressed than when I started.

All of this was causing some creative burn-out, until I stumbled upon this blog post from The Secret Life of Writers. The question it asks is simple: What images will always make you want to write? I've always loved the idea that inspiration is everywhere, but I assumed it was something you had to wait for, that you'd never see it coming. I guess I'd picked up on patterns in the past, but I never saw them as something reliable to turn to when I was at a loss for ideas. Following in the same vein of Heather's post, I thought I'd share a few images that continually make me want to open up a word document and pour my heart out:

1) These paintings by Cy Twombly that hang in The Menil Collection in my hometown:

2) Medieval Tapestries

3) Open windows with white curtains
Photo by Sarah Jane on Flickr

4) Lone canoers on a lake 

5) Road Trips

6) Obscure vintage photography

7) Abandoned houses

I really enjoyed compiling this list, and I hope you find some of these things inspiring as well! Lightning strikes of inspiration are great, but remember, there are always things in your life that inspire you simply because you are drawn to them over and over again. Use these things to your advantage!

Lastly, I would just like say thanks to Heather Marie for her original post. While I too am inspired by things like castles and statues in cemeteries, I had never really dwelled on the mystical qualities of the lighthouse.

Let me know what things inspire you in the comments, and as always, thanks for reading!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Reading Q&A

You probably already knew this about me, but I'm an avid reader. I've been watching a lot of book-tubers recently (People on Youtube who talk exclusively about books and reading. Yes, they're out there!) and many of them have made videos talking about their reading habits, pet peeves, memories, etc. For this post, I compiled a list of twenty questions about books and reading. Most of this stuff isn't new, but I wanted to answer it anyway. I will probably be doing another one of these devoted to writing in the future.


How many books do you read each month?
This varies a great deal depending on the month. During school, I would say my average is about two, and during the holidays it's probably closer to three or four. Last month I read 5(!) books, which is pretty impressive for me.

What are your reading goals for 2014?
On my Goodreads account my goal is 40 books in 2014. I chose it because it seemed more doable than 50 and more challenging than 30. Really, if I make it to 20 books there year I'll be happy, since last year I only read 16.

Of the books that are on your shelves right now, how many of them are YA? Adult? Non-fiction? Fantasy? Sci-Fi? Classics? Basically what's the genre breakdown like?
Total Number of Books: 45 (Note: These are my dorm room bookshelves, so they're only a small portion of my home library.)
Textbooks/Required Reading: 7
On loan from the library: 5
Classics: 8
Non-Fiction: 2
Contemporary: 9
Fantasy: 6
Poetry: 1
Short Stories: 2
Writing Books: 3
Letter Collections: 1
Historical Fiction: 1

Reading Habits/Preferences

What kind of books do you like to read?
I will read just about anything. My christmas wish list consisted of two non-fiction books, three fantasy (including one about superheroes), one historical fiction, one adult contemporary, and three YA novels.

As for what I look for in a book, I love lyrical prose, compelling, flawed characters, and plots that keep me guessing. A little bit of adventure is always a nice touch.

Do you write in your books? Dog-ear pages? Crack spines? 
To be honest I've always loved the idea of writing all over my books. My english teachers would always expound on the importance of annotating, but I could never do it. Not because I disliked marking in my books (although I think I feel somewhat differently now), but because I would get so caught up in the story that stopping to write down my thoughts felt like I was interrupting something. Plus, if I'd done that then my little freshman year thoughts would be written all over my copy of Slaughter-House Five, and I'm not sure I ever want to revisit them. I like the idea of marking lines that I like, though, and collecting my favorite quotes, so maybe I'll give it a try with some post-it notes.

I am still guilty of dog-earing pages occasionally, but I'm much more partial to book marks now, especially the magnetic ones that clip around the page. And as for cracking spines, this really doesn't bother me, but I'm not one of those people who does it deliberately, like "breaking in" a book.

How do you feel about lending out your books?
If we have talked about books before and I know you will take care of them, I have no problem lending books to people. I'm even not that picky about when I get them back, just so long as I do get them back.

How do you feel about books with illustrations, photographs, or other visual aids?
If they are done well, and really enhance the story, I love them!

What are your thoughts on book to movie adaptations?
I don't get too hung up on the accuracy of the plot in book-to-movie adaptations, as long as the film captures the feel of the book. The movie version of Chocolat is a perfect example. They change a few plot points but the atmosphere is similar, and there are the same magical undertones running throughout. If they start adding characters, though, I get annoyed.

What is one genre you wish you read more of?
Middle-grade. I feel like there are so many great books for kids out there, and I'm missing out because I've "grown out" of them.

Biggest bookish pet peeve?
This new trend in paperbacks where they make the cover shorter than the rest of the book. It just makes it look cheap and gimmicky and it really gets on my nerves! GAH!

Relationship to Reading

What is the first book you remember reading by yourself?
The first book I remember reading by myself was a beautiful picture book version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. My mom told me she would only buy it for me if I promised to read it by myself. That night I sat at the dining room table and read the whole thing aloud. It was slow-going, but I did it!

Describe your fondest memory of reading:
I have so many! Here are a few:
- In the 5th grade, my friend and I stumbled across The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale in our elementary school's library. We were enamored with the cover and the synopsis, and we discussed which of us would read it first (she won). The Goose Girl would become our favorite book, and it would be one of the building blocks of our friendship. We're both in college now and I still count her as one of my best friends in the whole world. Sometimes I wonder if things would be the same if we hadn't picked up that book.
-On sleepovers, another friend and I would take turns reading pages to each other from our respective books. I kind of wish we still did that.
-My parents read to me almost every night when I was younger, but one of my fondest memories is of my father reading To Kill a Mockingbird aloud. I was too young to fully understand it at the time, but when I finally read it for school I was glad I'd been introduced to it so early. It will always have a special place in my heart for that reason.


What is one book you wish everyone knew about?

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen. This book is about gangsters in the 1930's who find out they can't die. The supernatural element is countered by an incredibly detailed setting, and I feel like this book really captures the essence of the Great Depression. It's a richly told story with really fantastic characters, and it's one of my go-to recommendations. Read it. You won't be sorry.

What is your favorite Harry Potter book?

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It's been a very long time since I read this series, but I think I can safely say this one's my favorite. A lot of people dislike it because of how angsty Harry is, and I see where they're coming from, but I just can't get over all the great characters in this book! Umbridge is positively loathsome, and then there's the members of the Order and of Dumbledore's Army, and it all culminates in the awesome conclusion in the Ministry of Magic. Yep, definitely my favorite.

What is your favorite book you had to read for school?

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector. I read this last semester for my Literature: The City class, and fell in love with it. It is told from the POV of a writer who is telling the story of a girl living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and it becomes not only a portrait of the slums but an examination of writing itself. This book was unlike anything I've ever read before, and it really made me think differently about what fiction can do.

If you had to recommend a book to a self-proclaimed "non-reader," what would it be?

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. This books has everything. Antique books. Technology. Young geniuses and ancient librarians. Secret societies. It spans from San Francisco to New York City to Google Headquarters. It's funny and profound and it has some really interesting things to say about the value of old things and the possibilities of new technology. Overall a thoroughly enjoyable read that I would recommend to anyone who is on the fence about reading.

Out in the World

How do you mingle w/ other book lovers, both online and off?
I love attending any kind of book event, large or small. My favorite would probably have to be the Texas Book Festival, which takes place in Austin, Tx each fall. The authors this event attracts, plus the endless book tents (Be still my heart!) make me wish this event lasted for a week and not just a weekend.
Online, I read blogs (Like this one) and watch book channels on Youtube (Like this one).

What is the name of your favorite book store?
This question is a lot harder for me than I originally thought. I love all bookstores. I love Barnes & Noble, where I know I can always find the newest releases. I love Faulkner House Books in New Orleans, which is tiny but steeped in history. I love Book People in Austin, which is big enough to get lost in, and Prairie Lights in Iowa City which feels like a second home. If I had to pick a favorite, though, it would be Brazos Bookstore in my hometown of Houston, Tx. It's small, but has a great selection (including a budding YA section, which makes me happy). It's sophisticated, but not stuffy, and the staff is always friendly. Maybe it's because it's located in my hometown, but this bookstore will always feel like home to me.

What bookstore or library would you most like to visit?
Shakespeare and Company.  It is located in the heart of Paris, steeped in literary history, and actively promotes writers and writing. Who could ask for more?

Describe your ideal home library:
My ideal home library would also be my writing study. Three of the walls are floor to ceiling bookshelves, with rolling ladders, of course. The fourth wall is taken up by a large window, preferably overlooking the Irish countryside. Facing the window is a large wooden desk, upon which sits my computer and other writing supplies. In the back corner is a comfy second-hand arm chair and a floor lamp, where I can read late into the night. A telescope sits by the window, and because I live in the Irish countryside, I can actually use it to look at stars and planets without the glare of light pollution.

Well, there you have it. If you've gotten this far, I applaud you. If you'd like to answer these questions as well, feel free to steal and modify them as you wish. Happy reading!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Creative Life

What does it mean to live a creative life? Google images would have you believe it looks something like this:
Dalton Trumbo (Source)
Photo by Lynn Bauer (Source)
Wether you see yourself in a bathtub with a typewriter or painting in a field full of flowers, when picturing the creative life there's always a sense of creating something out of nothing, of a life that borders on chaos but never leaves the realm of possibility. Maybe this is why we love hearing about "process" and "routine." We're trying to explain the unexplainable.

On the surface level, the life of an intellectual like Darwin looks pretty darn perfect. His routine included working through the morning, long walks in the afternoon, and reading in the evening, all in a secluded, stately home in English countryside. What this routine doesn't show is the crippling doubt and stress induced by his work, and the inner turmoil that ruled his life, from his compulsive letter writing habits ("Darwin made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious fools or cranks. If he failed to reply to a single letter, it weighed on his conscience and could even keep him up at night." Sourceto the rift his scientific discoveries created between him and his wife. What I'm getting at here is that the creative life isn't all painting in fields of wild flowers.

This is not meant to discourage those looking to go into a career in the arts. It is however meant to dispel the idea we have of creative individuals as enlightened beings who have somehow transcended the plight of every day living. Even its opposite, the "tortured artist" trope, is an idealization in its own right. We are just like you. We have bad days, and we have good ones. They can be exciting and productive, but they can just as easily be mind-numbingly boring.

I really dislike the way we split ourselves into categories: left-brainded vs right-brained. Analytical vs. Creative. Conventional vs. Unconventional. As if accountants can't think creatively and artists can't be analytical. And worse, that the route we choose in life can be labeled as "lucrative" or not, that we are suddenly seen as outsiders if the path we choose doesn't point towards clear-cut success.

While writing this article I stumbled across a quote by John O'Donohue that reads:

"The call to the creative life is a call to dignity, to a life of vulnerability and adventure..."

While I appreciate the sentiment, I would argue that it's not the just the creative life that should contain these things, but life in general. Here's to living a life of vulnerability and adventure, whether you are working a 9-5 job or making things up in a cabin in the woods.


Check out this fantastic info-graphic on the creative life. If you're lucky, I would hope your life includes lots of these things, even if you're not living the creative ideal.

I've been really interested in Darwin lately, can you tell? Read more about his daily routine here, and don't miss out on this awesome graphic novel biography.

If you haven't noticed, I link to Brain Pickings a lot. It is a compendium of knowledge I never would have discovered otherwise, and I highly recommend you go subscribe to their newsletter. Like, right now.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Quote of the Day: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Over winter break I got a chance to see the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Besides confirming my dream of one day traveling to Iceland, it was also a beautiful movie to watch, and it was superbly acted by all those involved. This film is full of memorable quotes, from the funny ("You know who looks good in a beard? Dumbledore. Not you.") to the profound ("Beautiful things don't ask for attention."), and of course it's hard to overlook the "motto" of the film (And of Life Magazine): "To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the meaning of life."But the quote that struck me the most was something said in a conversation between Walter Mitty and the photographer Sean O'Connell.

They are on a mountaintop, watching a snow leopard that Sean is trying to photograph.

Walter Mitty: Are you going to take it?
Sean O'Connell: Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O'Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here.

Those few lines of dialogue hit me right in the stomach. There, sitting in the dark movie theatre, I thought of my phone nestled in my purse. I hadn't turned it off; it was still on vibrate. I could feel every e-mail, every text message I received. The same was probably true for everyone in the theatre.

I come from a family of photographers. We record everything, from Christmas and birthdays to visits to our favorite coffee shop. We once spent a good chunk of a family dinner showing my Uncle how to use Instagram. Don't get me wrong. I love taking pictures. I love documenting little moments, enhancing them with filters, and the thrill of sending them out into the world. I love film photography, too. The smell of chemicals, the feel of developer on your fingers. I love that the stakes are higher, and that it forces you to be thoughtful at every stage in the process. As a writer, I am a recordist by nature. Every moment is trapped, filtered, and congealed on the page, but words still pale in comparison to the actual experience.

That little moment in Walter Mitty made me reevaluate the way I was living my life. It reminded me that not all moments have to be recorded in order for them to be meaningful. The most powerful memories can only happen when you are fully present. Sure, I'm glad I have so many instagram photos, but there's a certain kind of comfort that comes with knowing I wasn't distracted during the experiences that meant the most to me. Things like standing on the stage at Carnegie hall, or having Thanksgiving dinner in Ireland with my family in the 7th grade. Things like that don't need to be validated by a photograph or even a poem or a short story. They just are.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is full of messages like this one. It's a movie about going into the unknown and facing your fears. It's about living life to the fullest and not letting yourself fall into the trap of dreaming but never doing. In a world where everything is vying for our attention, I think we could all learn to be a little bit more choosy about what we let ourselves get distracted by, and inevitably, what we're missing.

Afterthoughts: I don't want anyone to think that after seeing this film I suddenly gave up instagram (or facebook or youtube or one of myriad other distractions). Sean O'Connell's words (or, really, his character's words) simply inspired me to think (and write) about this subject. My goal is to find a balance between capturing moments and experiencing them.

I hope you found this post interesting, and if you have thoughts on Walter Mitty, photography, or anything discussed above, I'd love to hear about it in the comments. This post is part of a sporadic series that I started a while back, where I take a closer look at the quotes that resonate with me. You can read the first of this series, here. As always, thanks for reading!