Tag: Writing

10Sep

Book Stories: The Meme

No doubt you’ve seen it making the rounds through Facebook:

“List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t think too hard or try to give ‘right’ answers, just write down 10 that have affected you/moved you/caused you to neglect your family, job, and basic hygiene for 36 hours straight/invaded your dreams/ prompted you to abandon dignity in favor of cosplay* or fan fiction/necessitated the author’s taking out a restraining order against you.”

*Not a sex act, sorry. “Cosplay” is short for costume play, which is short for dressing up like something else, which is admittedly delightful and fun but almost certainly not dignified.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve bounced up and down in your computer chair willing someone to tag you so you too can compile your list. Such is the power of the meme that one is not psychologically able to start thinking about her 10 books until she has been granted permission to do so by social media. (Please tell me I’m not the only one with a compulsive respect for pointless or nonexistent boundaries.) To the relief of my list-loving heart, I have now been tagged (thanks, Rachael!), and rather than listing my ten books as a Facebook status, I wanted to introduce them here, Book Stories style.


(Eggplant nails at Erika’s request)

1. Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery

When I first read the Anne of Green Gables series as a girl, I only really liked the first book about Anne’s childhood and then the three final books about her children’s escapades. The middle books about Anne’s career hopes, love interests, and coming-of-age heartaches bored me… until one day, they didn’t. I was in between college semesters and boyfriends of my own when I picked Anne of Avonlea off my dusty bookshelf and cried right through the final page. L.M. Montgomery is magic, folks. (But you already knew that.) 

2. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

I was still a newlywed, pre-babies and only about two inches into my recovery from fundamentalism when a friend recommended Blue Like Jazz. I read it aloud to Dan, a chapter each night before bed, and it was like discovering my right to breathe. It very well may have been the first time that I’d heard God spoken about conversationally, without religious jargon, as if he actually had a place in everyday life. This book is spiritual stress relief.

3. On Writing by Stephen King

I can’t remember exactly when I snagged this off the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but I do know that it’s scarcely left my writing desk since. I only pick it up to read when I’m working on fiction because a page or two is all it takes for story inspiration to rush at me like a telepathic kid out of a haunted hotel. I should point out that my preferred genre is not that of the good Mr. King, but damned if he doesn’t make my mind itch to create something new.

4. The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss

I know, I know, everything about this book screams GIMMICKY! It was a crash course in entrepreneurship for Dan and I though. We got it a couple of years ago during our transition into self-employment, and while it did not catapult us into the ranks of “the new rich” or reduce our workweek to four hours, it did give us the gift of perspective. We now use terms like “batching” and “80/20” in everyday life (most often when trying to get out of housework, but still), and whenever I’m feeling discouraged about our rolling job situation, I let the FHWW remind me that we’re normal… ish. Not alone, at any rate.

5. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

I’m not sure what it says about me that the book I read most frequently for the pure joy if it was a high school reading assignment. To be fair to myself, though, it’s not like I go around toting Oedipus Rex on beach vacations or cracking open The Complete Works of Shakespeare on flights. Have you ever watched the darling film Il Postino where Pablo Neruda teaches an uneducated Italian postman about metaphor? This book is what taught me.

6. Hope Beyond Hell by Gerry Beauchemin

Over the year and a half following our move to Italy and Sophie’s birth, depression effectively broke down all my internal religious etiquette. I called up a friend from the States who I knew wouldn’t disown me when she heard that I could no longer believe in a God who made eternal torture the default destiny for humankind. She knew exactly what I was talking about and suggested that I read Hope Beyond Hell. I don’t think I’m putting it too dramatically when I say that this book saved my faith.

7. Field Guide to Now by Christina Rosalie

Christina’s blog is largely responsible for getting me writing again back in 2007. Her way of noticing the undercurrents of art in daily life and making poetry of their prose stirs up answering instincts in me. Hers is a creativity founded on intention and delight, and this book is one of my favorite things to read in the pre-dawn hours with a notepad and pen in hand. It makes me want to live and create and then live some more.

8. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

1130. That’s how many pages of small text my unabridged copy contains. And I loved every one of them. Often after work, the summer I was 18, I’d drive to an uptown Starbucks where I’d order a venti coconut frappuccino and sit in the sunshine to read… and read… and read. Dantès’s revenge is so complicated and satisfying to read that I didn’t know whether to celebrate or to cry when I reached the end. I’ll be reading this one again… next time I have an entire summer of afternoons at my disposal (ha!).

9. The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

I almost don’t even want to talk about this book because it’s meant so much to me. Hope Beyond Hell is what saved my faith, but The Shack is what saved my heart. I first read it on a Sunday morning while Dan and the girls were at church. It was a day when all the weight of my fundamentalist upbringing was suffocating me, and I felt so wounded by Christianity that all I could do was lie on the sofa and reach for this book that a friend had lent me. And I met a God of love in it.

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) by J.K. Rowling

Roughly estimating, I’d say… oh, 99.81273% of the 10 Books lists that I’ve seen circulating on Facebook have included the Harry Potter series. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how deeply the story of The Boy Who Lived gets to us? The final book of the series came out right as we were moving to Italy, and I saved it to read in the hospital before and after Sophie’s birth. That was a frightening and larger-than-life time for me—having a baby three months after moving to another country whose language I did not yet speak—and Harry Potter & Gang’s story helped give me both an escape and the courage to stay.

All right, then. I tag YOU to share 10 books that have stayed with you in some way (even just here in the comments if you don’t want to go all Facebook-official on it). No right or wrong answers, remember, and if you have forsaken hygiene or dignity for the sake of those books, then know you’re in good company.

6Aug

Book Stories: The Jumper Cable

Let’s have a moment of undignified honesty here: This week has been hard. In the perspective-maintaining, keeping-emotional-shit-together department, I mean. I have blogger friends who duck away from the internet the moment one of their pieces goes live, and I understand why. There are few things more unnerving than to realize your heart and soul are being taken in by thousands of pairs of eyes, filtered through thousands of sets of experiences, and setting off thousands of personal reactions. Even though that’s exactly what we writers want—for an audience to engage with our words—the reality of it can knock us off balance.

Brené Brown calls it a “vulnerability hangover.” In this foggy and fatigued state, we can’t quite pull anything into clear focus… least of all WHY we’d thought it was a good idea to share our tender-skinned selves with the world. Noise is too noisy, cheer is too cheery, and our own self-protective instincts lock us out of ourselves. I woke up yesterday without two words to rub together, and I concluded in true Bethany fashion that this meant I was done. All of my writer-ness had been used up. I no longer had anything worth saying, and the internet police would be along shortly to repossess my blog under the Imposter Act.

If one could buy tomato juice in this country, I would have been chugging the stuff.

Yesterday afternoon, I finally gave up trying to write anything for the day; I was getting nowhere at the speed of a runaway train. My backup plan, going to the park for a mind-clearing run, was then precluded by the crackle of incoming thunderclouds. Ah, screw productivity, I thought and reached for the brand new book on my nightstand. (Reading in the afternoon is up there on the luxury scale with chocolate in the morning and shaved legs just before bed. Partyin’ hard, mom-style.)

About two chapters in, I had my computer back out. I wanted to keep reading, but the things I was reading were giving me the rare gift of compulsion to write. The next couple of hours yo-yoed happily between book and Word document, other people’s stories charging up the storyteller in me. Turns out, when you crack open a book called Speak, you’d better get ready to do just that.

“When you’re the one on the fringes, one of the most powerful things someone can say to you is, ‘Me too.’ And really, it’s one of the most powerful things someone can say to anyone, regardless of status or social placement. The intrinsic value of mutual understanding and experience is immeasurable and priceless.” – Nish Weiseth

This isn’t a book review. Rather, it’s the story of how engaging with my friend Nish’s words gave me back my own. The more I read yesterday about how storytelling matters, deeply, to the world (and especially for those of us trying to model our ways of life on Jesus), the easier it was for me to remember why I’m here, why I write, why I subject myself to the odd vulnerability hangover. Because stories matter. Mine. Nish’s. Yours. The controversial stories. The painful ones. The ones we think no one will understand (which, in my experience, are the stories that lead to the deepest connections). The ones we are afraid to tell and the ones we can’t help telling. The ones that open us up to potential judgment and criticism… and to the almost-certain bond of “Me too.”

I wouldn’t say that I’m completely recovered from this week’s sense of displacement, but I’m not stuck in the fog anymore either. Besides, if I find myself at a loss for words tomorrow or the day after or the day after that, I have this handy paperback jumper cable right here on my nightstand.

This is the first in a series I’m excited to be starting here. Instead of writing traditional book reviews, I’d like to share why certain books have impacted me, how they’ve entwined themselves through my daily life, and what the long-term effects are. After all, what better way to talk about stories than through the medium of story? I’d like to open Book Stories up for guest posts as well. If you have your own close encounter of the literary kind to share, just send it on over to hello{at}bethanybassett{dot}com. I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes!

2May

On Self-Promotion and Measured Decisions

I have been on the fence about social media for a long time… and by on the fence, I mean impaled by uncertainty, stuck beyond all powers of unsticking between the forward-moving concourse of platform promotion and the chambers of my own backwards heart.

If you would, please read this post in a whisper because that is all I can bring to the discussion. I have already done my share of ranting, judged and envied until the two became indistinguishable, and questioned myself hoarse. This feels ridiculous to admit because we’re talking about Facebook here. But it’s not just Facebook, is it? For me, the question of how to promote myself online is ultimately a question of how I define validation, and un-impaling myself from that particular fence is not easily done.

Like a first-timer at IKEA, I wander the aisles of the Internet accumulating fistfuls of free measuring tape—one strip to measure Twitter followers, another to tally Facebook fans, one for comments and another for acceptance into certain circles, and every one of them labeled How Legitimate Are You Today? The thing about free measuring tape, however, is that it’s always too short. You can’t measure the stature of a human being any more than you can a Svärta bedroom set with that strip of pre-printed paper. I know this.

The temptation to measure is always there though, close on the heels of the good and life-giving impulse to share my words with you. It’s a scarily small step between loving feedback and needing it, and that’s where my dilemma lies. The question I’ve found myself circling back to time and time again is this: Can I actively promote myself online without losing myself in the process? And the answer is… no. Deeply, and with a certainty born of many restless nights, no.

I’m not saying that the social media experience is like this for everyone, but trying to clamor for the world’s already-fragmented attention feels about as natural to me as taking a job in the stock exchange would. I was not made to wave my hands and shout. Nor—and I say this with great affection toward those of you who have this gifting—was I made to narrate my day in 140-character zingers. Instead, I was made to sit down and chat over beverages some place where we can hear each other think and forget about the passing hours. I was made to write slowly and to do it as an extension of holistic living, not as a response to (or worse, a bid for) other’s opinions.

I’ve discovered that my soul has nothing of the marketer about her. This can make me crazy, especially knowing that marketing savvy can be the sole difference between a writing career and a writing hobby. This is also why I’ve dangled on the social media fence for so long. Do I try to jump into the game even though the pace overwhelms me and I can’t keep the rules straight and I am sure to be wheezing and disoriented within minutes? Or do I walk out of the stadium into the quiet evening air I so love, knowing that I may have just turned my back on the opportunity of my life?

I hope you’re still reading this in a whisper because all I have left of this debate is its still, small core: How do I define validation for myself? And friends, as much as I love you and welcome your company here, the answer to that is located behind the secret panel of identity, the place God and I go alone to sort out the whos and whys of me. No other person or group has a say in it. They shouldn’t have a say in it, at any rate, which is why I’m making a pledge to myself, a decision at last: to enjoy social media as an outlet and a meeting point… and to close my browser the second it begins to mean more.

In other words, I’m keeping Facebook but dropping the measuring tape.

18Apr

Welcome to the Future of 2009!

I have a confession to make that will no doubt secure my spot in history as the coolest and most technologically savvy blogger of all time: I’m scared of site makeovers. Other people’s, that is. I first discovered this attractive characteristic in 2002 when a member of my small blogging community (hi, Eliot!) updated to a minimalist theme. His site suddenly looked so polished, almost corporate to my eyes. He even had his own domain, which was a great mystery of the universe to me at the time. (My tech-savvy status is increasing by leaps and bounds right now, I know.) I was mega-impressed but just as intimidated too. Why couldn’t we all just post away cheerfully on our colorful Blogspot and Xanga journals for the rest of eternity?

For the record, I’m glad that progress didn’t stop to consult me on its way out the door. I even joined the ranks of domain-owners in 2009, learning enough PHP to build my very own minimalist website. (Okay, the minimalist part is a lie, but I did have a white background.) Still though, trends continued to shift, and I felt lost every time another blogger friend modernized their online presence. Actually, online presence is what it all boiled down to for me. Writers who had formerly struck me as down-to-earth now seemed inaccessible, their beautiful new sites every bit as formidable to me as power suits and Botox. Why couldn’t we all just keep our quippy titles and cluttered sidebars and webcam profile pictures for the rest of eternity?

Once again, I am glad that the forward trajectory of the world does not depend on me. You may have noticed that I’m posting this from a shiny new website of my own, and that is because the online presence reflected in my dear old hand-coded site no longer resembles me. I see the world differently than I did five years ago. I blog differently and interact with readers differently and think about the future of my writing differently, and it’s [past] time that I welcome you into an online home that has room for it all.

On the slight chance that one of you experiences the same site-makeover anxiety that I do when a friend upgrades his or her space, let me assure you that you’ll find no power suits or Botox here. I’m writing this in my around-the-house jeans, which are ripped beyond even Abercrombie’s sense of propriety, and yesterday’s crumbling mascara. I’m still me. And now my website is too.

So, welcome! Take a look around, and if you haven’t yet, would you mind heading over to “like” my Facebook page? I’ve been letting it languish for a while, unsure whether it was worth putting energy into or not. This seems like the perfect opportunity to resurrect it though, and I’d love to have you along while I figure out how Facebook works in 2014. (Why couldn’t we all just keep writing “is” statuses and super-poking each other for the rest of eternity?)

Love,
The coolest and most technologically savvy blogger of all time

26Mar

My Muse, the Diva

Hi, my name is Bethany, and I’m a high-maintenance writer.

In Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, a charming peek into the habits of creative geniuses over the centuries, I read about Frances Trollope, an English novelist who started writing in her fifties to provide for her family. She would get up in the middle of the night so she could finish the day’s writing in time to make breakfast for her six kids and infirm husband, and in this way, she produced over 100 books. Forget the ability to deflect bullets or to use one’s tiara as a boomerang of destruction; this lady was Wonder Woman.

I, however, identify much more closely with Frances’s son, also a novelist, who paid an old servant to wake him up early each morning with hot coffee and “no mercy.” In his autobiography, Anthony Trollope attributed his success to that arrangement. Now, I don’t have a servant, but I do have a husband with mad cappuccino skills and a kind heart whom I can directly credit for my state of not-in-bedness this morning (…aaaand just about every other morning of the past year). This isn’t really a matter of my being lazy; in fact, I spend my weekends looking forward to Monday’s arrival and that first blank document of the day. I love writing. It keeps me whole and sane and humanoid. However, my ability to write comes with an impressive list of conditions.

When I write, I venture into a different realm of consciousness. My focus intensifies on the elements of story behind the patterns of daily life, coaxing them forward like holograms in a Magic Eye image. Just as with those Magic Eye images, writing requires a delicate balance between concentration and relaxation; some muscles need to go slack in order to see the picture while others must tremble taut to hold it in place.

This is why I have trouble writing when someone else is in the room… or when I’m up against time constraints, or when some other matter has just been brought to my attention, or when I’m tired, or when our family routine is off, or when I’m frustrated about something, or when a head cold’s coming on, or when a favorite TV character has died, or when I haven’t started my day with that sandy-eyed sip of caffeine, or, or, or. I know. My muse wins for most ridiculous diva of the creative universe.

In her defense, however, she doesn’t require me to chain smoke or slip Jack Daniels into my tea or sell my soul to Chernabog in order to write. She lets me broadcast on my own brainwaves and heartbeats, and for that, I am grateful. Not all artists are granted that luxury. In context of all the mental illnesses and addictions that have traditionally plagued creative types, my reliance on quiet, unhurried hours hardly counts as a quirk, much less a neurosis. Still, though, I dream of one day being able to plop down on the bed where my chickenpoxy six-year-old is practicing her reading (to use a totally hypothetical example that has no grounding whatsoever in the realities of our home right now*) and crank out a work of art in between phonics tutorials and applications of calamine. If Mrs. Trollope could write novels before breakfast, surely I can learn to be a little more flexible in my writing habits. Not needing all nearby life forms to cease and desist while I’m working, for instance.

* on Opposite Day

I just have to get my muse on board first. She’s currently locked in her dressing room pouting about the fact that she and I can’t run off together to 1920s Paris and wear feathers in our hair and never have to think about anything other than being fabulous. The coffee is clearly wearing off. I don’t know; maybe it’s my lot in life to be a high-maintenance writer, ever at the mercy of loud footsteps and motherly concerns. I can’t tell you how much I’d like to move past that though—to be able to tap into my creative center no matter my circumstances. Even convincing my muse to pause her pity party for the next hour would be a step in the right direction. Maybe threatening to have four more children would do the trick…?

11Mar

Newton’s First Law Of Writing

I never know what to do with the wordless days—the days that dawn far off the map I’d charted for them the night before, the days that start with too-heavy eyelids and swampwater focus and maybe a child throwing up in the other room. Just show up is the right answer to every artistic indecision; I know this. But on the wordless days, showing up feels like wishful thinking and irresponsibility rolled into one—me, sitting blank-eyed in front of my computer while the minutes slip by unharnessed. I could be putting lunch together, paying the bills, writing emails, scrubbing winter grime off the windows. Wouldn’t it be better to spend this time attending to other responsibilities so that I’ll be unencumbered whenever inspiration does decide to hit?

I know the answer to this one too. It’s the law of inertia: an object at rest staying at rest and an object in motion staying in motion. In the long run, it is far easier to continue the forward motion of writing (or working out, or communicating with my spouse, or keeping an open house) than to have to restart it once the friction of daily life has been allowed to grind it to a halt. If I don’t show up today because I feel disconnected from my work, I will only be perpetuating that disconnect. Tomorrow will be harder, and the day after that even more so, and eventually I will need to exert tremendous effort to jumpstart what was once a flawed but fulfilling rhythm. (I should know this well by now; I’ve repeated the cycle no less than several hundred frustrating times over the years.)

Objects in motion stay in motion, and so I’m doing my best to show up even on these uncharted days when staring down a blank page seems like the least logical use of my time. Just half an hour. Just two or three unremarkable paragraphs. Just enough for forward momentum to win out over the slow drag of gravity and its pull toward the equal and devastatingly opposite inertia of wordlessness.

5Mar

Open-Source Parenting: Write Through It

Reentering the atmosphere after a weekend away can feel like an exercise in crash-and-burn. Everyone is a little off his or her axis. The only thing in the fridge is a jar of pickles, that one duffel bag never manages to get all the way unpacked, and uncertain amounts of homework are due. We all start to run a little hotter than usual, but our unceremonious landing back into the daily grind is especially hard on the girls. Without giving away too many incriminating details, I will say that we had an epic meltdown of the daughter variety today, triggered by the fact that homework exists in this fallen world and will continue to be inflicted on humanity for the foreseeable future.

The sound level in our house during the meltdown was something like you’d expect at a hog stampede. After making sure that the melting child was at least safe in her room, Dan and I slumped against the doorframe and looked at each other with “OMG” eyes. You know the ones. We figured we had about three minutes before our neighbors called the cops on suspicion of manslaughter, and we were really really hoping that the other would telepathically convey the magic parenting solution that would get us out of the mess.

This did not happen. (Though neither, thankfully, did the police intervention.) What did happen is that our worked-up girl raged herself to sleep, and while she napped away the drama, I turned to my Hail Mary: a simple lined notebook in which she and I exchange letters when other forms of communication fail.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to write—how do you reason with a child on fire?—but I wanted first to help her define what was happening in her emotional core (tiredness from our trip, frustration over a difficult homework assignment) and second to encourage her to write back and help me understand her experience. I ended by making sure she knew I loved her, no matter what.

I have no prototype for this parenting strategy, just inspiration gleaned from mamas like Erika Morrison and Meredith Jacobs and the simple fact that I work through emotional turmoil more easily through writing. I realized this about myself in my teenage years when I filled journals to their paper-blade edges with hot black ink. I wish I had started the habit sooner though. I think a lot of my childhood would have been easier to understand and process had I known to write through it, to identify my emotions and their causes, to root myself in perspective.

This is what I’m trying to teach my daughters now. In my letters, I do my best to ask good questions that can act as bridges between our separate viewpoints. I prompt them to venture into the messy territory of their emotions, and I try to keep our notebooks a safe place to be honest with each other in the mad hope that we can continue through their teenage years. Sometimes, the lines on those pages are the only open lines of communication we have, but they never fail to help my girls and I understand each other better.

I know I can’t speak for all children here, and maybe not even most children, but my daughters really love this method of working through issues. We don’t always limit it to writing; sometimes we draw pictures of how we feel, and we often incorporate some silliness into our letters because that’s how we roll. Few parenting experiences are sweeter to me than hearing a notebook slipped under my door and opening it to find my daughter’s heart scrawled (or scribbled, or illustrated) on the page. Especially when we’re in a rough patch, this practice helps me feel that we’re doing okay after all—that I’m not a hopeless failure and the girls aren’t wild hogs and we haven’t completely botched our chance to build strong communication with each other in the few remaining days before teenage hormones start waging guerilla warfare on our household. (Yes, the girls come by their dramatic flair honestly.)

I’m sure that my daughters won’t always confide in me to the extent they do now. I hope, however, that this word-processing skill will stay with them for life and that these early letter exchanges of ours will help them to center themselves when the stakes get higher. I also hope that the better we get at this, the fewer OMG-eyed meltdowns we’ll have to weather. A mama can dream, right? (Write?)

Mama letters

Your turn! What parenting strategies have you found effective when life gets too overwhelming for your little ones? For kids with whom writing doesn’t jibe (or those who are still too young to write), what are some other ways they can learn to process their hard feelings? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!

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