January 31, 2013

a submission

One of the important mantras I have embraced over the past year is the quote "begin anywhere." These words helped me to start sharing my writing through my blog last year, and often come to mind as I sit down to write, no matter what I am working on. They seem most effective when I am willing to hear them over and over again. The minute I have practiced beginning one thing and then followed it through to the end, it is time to begin again, somewhere new (anywhere!). I am a self-motivated person, but I also thrive on patterns and rituals. If the patterns are thrown off when my schedule grows busy or unusual, I can become seriously lost. I am so grateful for these words, always there to remind me to start again toward my goals, to begin even when I am not sure where or how. 

Every goal on my list this year will require me to begin somewhere, and I need these words to help me keep moving forward, to help that somewhere become anywhere at all, just to get me going. Over the past three weeks, I have seen this advice take shape more clearly, more succinctly, than ever before. When I look back on the past year, I see rapid growth in my passion for writing and my willingness to take risks in order to pursue this passion. I have grown braver in sharing my writing, and I have become more confident in considering myself to be a writer. I feel proud and motivated by this growth!

But when I look at the path ahead, it is still so long! I have many hurdles ahead of me in order to discover exactly where my writing is meant to go, and what I am meant to accomplish. And the only way I can find these answers will be through a million and one more beginnings to come. I must begin again with each new step. I know I am meant to take these steps because they sit at the top of my heart, clear and strong and so exciting that it almost hurts to think about them. I know they are right because I want so much to reach these goals that have no clear path or guaranteed outcome. And even though I try to shut them down sometimes, these goals remind me of the analogy of beach balls, how the harder you try to push them down under the surface of the water, the harder and faster they come rushing back up the second they escape your control.

Last Fall, I came across an article in a newspaper advertising their annual short story contest, and I knew the second I read the article that I needed to make this contest one of my goals. Now, I realize that for many writers, this would not be a big deal - it is such an important part of the craft to submit your work far and wide and as often as possible. But this is one of those hurdles I mentioned, the ones I saw ahead of me on the path. I have never, ever officially submitted ANY writing to be published anywhere except on this blog! I was soooo scared to take this step. 

Over the past few months, I have tried to talk myself out of submitting for this contest. I have reasoned that I have not learned enough about writing, that I would certainly be submitting less-than-best writing, guaranteeing myself failure and, of course, embarrassment. I reasoned that I needed more training first. I panicked that I did not know enough about short stories to even understand what quality would be. I tried to read more short stories so that I could "learn more" about them, and subsequently freaked myself out even more as I felt the huge chasm of space between the writer's quality of writing and mine. The thing is, I have never even completed a full-length short story on my own, let alone revised or submitted one! Still, I could not shake the sense that I was meant to submit to this contest.
I began the year with this short story contest as my main, immediate goal, since the submission deadline was February 1st. Shortly after the New Year I met for coffee with my friend Chris, who is also a writer. Chris has been a great support to me this past year because we are in such similar places with our passions and ambitions for our writing: we have identified that this is what we want to do but we are both sort of feeling out how to keep reaching toward these goals. There is no one road map for this sort of journey, only the map that each of us feel as the truth inside ourselves. Chris suggested that we should start pushing ourselves to share our stories, and I told her about the short story contest and my goal to submit. Even as we laughed about how we had no idea what we were doing, we set a date to share our stories and then meet to discuss them. 

I found myself faced with a plan that I had no idea how to execute, and this forced me to begin anywhere once again. I had some story ideas started which I thought might work, but I had no idea how to turn them into something I felt good about. Soon after we met for coffee, I sat down to my desk one afternoon and determined that I would spend an hour free-writing with pen and paper. Within two paragraphs, I found myself in a story. I tried not to think too much about it but just to keep going. I worked to keep my hand moving with the current of thoughts flowing rapidly through my brain. As the story unfolded, I had to ignore the impulse to switch to my laptop (faster but more prone to editing as I go) or stop to re-read what I had written. I kept writing through the fear, through the uncertainty, and when I got stuck, I began again wherever I could think of beginning. 

After three hours of writing, I had written a very rough draft of a complete short story for the first time in my life. I started revising as I typed the story into my laptop, and then completed two more drafts of the story before I was ready to share it. When I sent the story to Chris, I felt terrified that it was going to be a failure. But when we met to discuss our stories, I found that I gained so much encouragement from sharing my experience with a friend who was cheering me on and helping me be the best I could be. After a couple more drafts based on helpful feedback, I sent my story in to the contest yesterday. And it feels SO good to have reached this goal!!
Whether or not the story is even very good, I needed to prove to myself that I could begin with this one step. I had to give myself permission that you don't have to be perfect in order to take the next step. Maybe the next step is what will teach you what you need to know in order to be the best you can be next time! This goes against everything in my nature, but deep down inside, I know it is right. This goal of submitting to the contest was necessary in order for me to believe that I can keep going and reach for my next goal, and the one after that. And someday, when I have finally published my work, I believe I will still be saying the same thing. It will always be critical to keep reaching for what I know I am meant to do next.

I still don't know how I even actually wrote this story in three hours, or how I finished drafting it in time to submit it. It may or may not ever happen again like that. But I am trying not to think too hard about it, because that is not the point, or the lesson to be learned. The lesson is to keep on beginning, again and again, with each new goal set before you. 

Be sure to check out Chris' blog WildMoo Books!! Great source for book reviews and book-inspiration of all sorts! 

January 21, 2013

book one: dreaming in french

My "Year of Reading" challenge is off to a great start so far! I have made time for reading most days and I have finished a few books so far. It feels really, really good to be making reading an important part of my days again. I can already sense the difference it is making in my life to spend that extra time with words each day. Reading fuels my imagination, my vocabulary, my passion for writing, and more. 

My first book of the year was Dreaming in French by Megan McAndrew. I tried not to put pressure on the choice of which would be my first book of the New Year. I tried not to deliberate too long or let my decision-making derail actual forward motion towards my goal. This book had come onto my radar many times since it came out in 2009, and the title and cover always caught my eye. When I found it on sale as a bargain book at an independent bookstore this past year, that was the last sign I needed that the book should be mine. And part of what I love about the whole pursuit of reading is that you often come across something very different from what you were expecting as you make your way through the pages. Whatever deliberation I had allowed myself in the end took a lovely turn towards many opposite qualities than I had expected.
I have long-fostered a guilty-pleasure appreciation for certain "chick lit" books. I think this stems from my days working in bookstores, admiring all the adorable fashion-conscious covers that would make their way from box to cart to shelf. When I have felt bogged down by my other reading sometimes-tedious classical works or super-hipster avant-garde literary works, I will often grant myself a "break" from all that work and indulge in something lighter. I have found that I cannot turn off my discernment altogether - I have attempted several books in the "chick lit" category that do not motivate me to continue past a couple of pages, whether due to writing quality or subject. But I have found a vein that I tend to love, perhaps defined as literary equivalents of one of my favorite TV guilty pleasures, "Gossip Girl." I like a novel that is witty and worldly but still romantic and feminine, peppered with fashion or other brilliant worlds to nurture all of the aesthetics I love. (Some examples: The Little Lady Agency, Bergdorf Blondes, The Nanny Diaries... forgive me if these are all outdated, I have not been keeping up with this category so well in recent years!) 

All this to say merely that I thought that Dreaming in French might fit this category, only to discover upon reading that this could NOT be further from the truth! The cover of the book is actually one of my few critiques. While it is a cute, charming cover that makes me want to hop immediately on a plane to Paris to join those fabulous girls for a cup of tea, it could not possibly represent the contents of the books any less. This is a sophisticated and very literary novel, a coming of age story beautifully written in first person, like an eloquent memoir. And while much of Charlotte's (the narrator's) story does take place against the backdrop of 1970's/1980's Paris, her story explores so many more complex themes and experiences. Paris is a character in her story, similar to her father or mother or sister or best friend. But New York City is also a character in her story, as well as Poland and the Southern US. The title, however, fits the book even more perfectly than I'd expected.
What I loved about this book was McAndrews' writing. The prose is sincere without indulging in overwrought sentimentality, and Charlotte's voice as narrator is wry and wise and really honest, even when it can be uncomfortable. I learned some things about Paris and the other fascinating places Charlotte travels, and I cared deeply about Charlotte as a character, as well as her family, which as a writer is one of the most inspiring achievements ever. But what surprised me from page to page was the eloquence of the writing. Sometimes I could acknowledge that I was less engaged with a specific portion of the story, but McAndrews' words kept me no less riveted - no skimming this one. She articulates beautifully the journey of growing older, discovering who you are, making mistakes at times and also honoring the thread of yourself that runs throughout. 

There are so many lines and passages I adored, but I was especially charmed by the book's ending (another feat I so admire in good writing!). I don't think that anything I am sharing here is a spoiler, but if you are interested in reading the book, you might want to skip this next quote!
"I had just turned thirty... It felt like a fine age for a woman, an age of dignity and possibility. It had happened almost by stealth, this assumption of womanhood, like a mantle falling gently but firmly about my shoulders. And so I wore it, even as I knew every woman's secret, that the girl still lives inside you, surprising you at odd moments; in the middle of the night, when you wake up and wonder if your mother has come home yet, or at a party, as you stand, a little self-conscious at the edge of the floor, your foot tapping to the music, hoping that you look all right, that no one can tell you're nervous, that someone  will notice you and ask you to dance." -Megan McAndrews, Dreaming in French 
Has it been a "Year of Reading" for you so far?? I hope it has. I have loved hearing from a few of you on what books you have read or will read next - please keep sharing! We all have to meet our next favorite books somehow, and often they come to us through recommendations, whether in person or through merchandising, reviews, etc.  I hope that you will share your favorites with me, and perhaps they might, in turn, become my favorites, too!?

January 9, 2013

my "year of reading" challenge!

I have always loved to read, but the older I get, the less I seem to be reading. Since I am a goal-maker, reading always factors in as one of my New Year's goals, in hopes that I will turn the tide and become a more avid reader again. Last year, I set a very ambitious reading goal since I knew I might have a little more time on my hands. Once again, I proved that I am quite the overreacher (see "Idealist" or "ENFJ"... sorry, the New Year brings this up even more than usual!). Last year's goal? Oh, just a mere fifty books. "One per week, with a couple of weeks to spare," I reasoned logically. And my actual year-end count? To be honest, I have not been willing to calculate. I even avoided keeping track on Goodreads, which I typically love to do, because I knew I was horribly short of my goal. Without being willing to calculate specifics and rub my nose further in my failure, I would estimate that I read less than ten books last year.
As I made my New Year's goals this year, I tried to think this matter through so as not to repeat again next year. After all, I absolutely LOVE to read. I had a more flexible schedule last year than ever before. How did I not read more books?? And here is my realization: 

I have considered reading to be a "privilege" rather than a "priority."

I know, logically, that the best writers are also likely to be the best readers. I firmly believe this, and have always considered reading to be important in my writing practice. But since I truly love to read, I have thought of it as a reward that takes its place in line after all of the things that "need" to be done. I need to do housework, and keep up with my never-ending to-do list of errands and tasks, and even to work at my writing! Taking time out to indulge in habits that feel like "privileges" usually makes me feel guilty in the face of all those things that need doing. Reading has been something I will get to later, as a reward, when the rest of my tasks are completed. But we all know that the rest of those things never get done, especially for a person like me, whose list grows faster than its items are checked off. 

This year, I will make reading a "priority," and allow the "privilege" of it to be a bonus perk. I have amended my goal from last year, from fifty books down to just twenty-five, which is an average of one book every two weeks. I want to be certain I can achieve my goal this year! And I am setting very loose parameters, because I want to do everything possible to nurture this passion and see what will come of granting it "priority" status in my life. I have come across SO many different reading challenges online, from reading books you already own, to reading the classics, to reading particular authors. And there are so many ambitious and themed challenges to which I aspire to one day participate myself! But my reading goal for this year is another chance to start small. I would rather hit my goal and then go on to blow that goal away than set the goal so high that I give up before I have even tried. So I am committing here, to myself and to you, that in this "Year of Reading," I will read at least twenty-five books. I am not going to plan which books ahead of time, or limit myself to any genre or guidelines - I am going to read for the love of reading alone.
I would love it if any of you would like to join me in my "Year of Reading" Challenge! There is no particular reading list (although of course I will share what I'm reading in case you want recommendations) nor any more specific parameters than this: Read twenty-five books in 2013. Any genre, any length, any books your heart desires! Audiobooks, E-books, picture books, or re-reads: nothing is off-limits! And you don't even have to tell anyone what you have read, or review it, or do anything more than keep count on a list for yourself. If you are already participating in another type of reading challenge or book club, great! That will make it simpler for you to choose which twenty-five books will define your "Year of Reading!" And if twenty-five sounds like a higher number than is realistic for you, then I encourage you to create your own challenge of a reachable number that would make you feel proud at the end of this year. Let me know if it sounds like fun or if you could use a cheerleader along the way, and definitely look me up on Goodreads for lots of my reading recommendations!!

Here's to a wonderful "Year of Reading"!!!

(The books in the the pictures are some of my potential reads for this year to come! No promises though... hehe)

January 7, 2013

artist date: the met at the movies

For a long time now, I have fancied myself an "opera-lover," without ever actually having been to the opera. Opera is one of the many passions I imagine myself pursuing one day, the kind of thing that I adore aesthetically, from a complete outsider's perspective, with no actual personal experience to back this up. The only opera I had experienced up until now was a performance of "The Marriage of Figaro" at my small Midwestern liberal arts university many, many years ago, and I hardly remember that performance. But each time I walk past Chicago's Civic Opera House on my commutes into the city, I remind myself of my goal to someday experience an opera there. 

My curiosity is often restricted by my lack of knowledge. The deep-seated desire to know ALL about a certain topic or experience holds me back from actually realizing the dreams themselves. And so my curiosity becomes enslaved to the particular order of discovery which I connect to a given dream. I have long imagined that someday, I would finally read a book about the history of opera, and acquire at least a novice-level of knowledge before daring to experience the opera itself. Someday, I would look up the schedule for a season of Lyric Opera of Chicago performances. Someday, I would research the entire season of operas and pick the one that seemed my favorite. I would listen to the opera highlights and read the libretto thoroughly in preparation for the experience. And finally, one majestic day, I would dress up in my finest and walk through the doors of the Civic Opera House for my very first night at the Opera. It was always going to be glorious. 
This dream has existed for at least twelve years now, since I moved back to Chicago and noticed the grandeur of the historic Opera House, since I heard tourists and society folks discussing this or that performance when I worked downtown. Sometime in the past couple of years, I heard about The Met Opera Live in HD, a program which broadcasts performances from New York's Metropolitan Opera onto movie theater screens across the world. A couple of local theaters are part of this screening experience, and I have noticed little schedule cards at the ticket windows advertising which operas will be playing each season. While this program piqued my interest, I pushed it down as secondary to my Grand Opera Plan, and filed it away as part of the would-be follow-up plan, when I would discover that I loved the Opera as much as I had hoped and develop an insatiable desire for as much opera as possible. 

But this year, I want to work on starting small. My grand-scale dreams are a regular issue for me, as I tend to build ideals up to be so big, so specific, so ordered that I am exhausted before I can even begin to realize them. (If there are any other ENFJ's out there, I know you know exactly what I'm talking about!! And perhaps there are other personality types who struggle with this too?) This is a pitfall that carries over into my writing, too, and one of the most paralyzing behaviors that often blocks me creatively. As I am getting back into my daily routines, and starting this brand-new year, I am trying to keep those words, "start small," at top of mind. Maybe, just maybe, I will actually follow through on some of these dreams this year. 

So I picked up the latest schedule for The Met Opera Live in HD, and thought this would be a really great way for me to start small! I decided to make an artist date of it, which I knew would help me keep my priorities and goals in mind for the experience: inspiration and openness to see where curiosity might lead my inner artist. The next opera scheduled was "Les Troyens" by Hector Berlioz. I was happy to see it was a French opera, since I am a little bit familiar with French language, but I did not allow myself any more "research" than to check my calendar and buy the ticket. The morning of the performance, I double-checked the time and noticed that the opera I had chosen happened to be over FIVE hours long. "Oh well," I thought, "Go big or go home!" 
When I arrived at the theater, the gentleman taking tickets handed me a synopsis page and I joined the small group that had gathered in the theater to await the performance. I settled in my seat, where I enjoyed a perfect view, since the theater wasn't very crowded. And I felt a stirring excitement at the fact that I was finally going to experience something I had anticipated for so long, even as I gave myself permission to be honest if it was something I did not end up loving. As the orchestra began tuning, and the broadcast's host explained the history of the opera we were about to experience, I became giddy and more eager than I had imagined! The broadcast was incredibly well-executed, with added perks of close-up camera angles and behind-the-scenes interviews with the opera's primary performers during each intermission (there were two, as was obviously necessitated by a five-hour performance, hehe). The synopsis, narration during intermissions, and subtitles made it simple to follow. The theater environment combined with excellent broadcast direction and high-quality HD filming truly felt like the next-best-thing to being there in person. My heart soared with the lovely score and breathtaking vocal performances, and I giggled as my fellow audience clapped for the performers who would never hear them. But I understood, because I felt like clapping, too. So much joy, so much pain, such an interesting intersection of music, theater, language, and design: I am truly an opera-lover, at least this particular opera.

I believe that curiosity sparks more curiosity, and that this is a principle gift of creative practice. And while I am still well-below even novice-level in my knowledge of opera, I learned a lot from "Les Troyens." The opera was based on Virgil's Aeneid, and is considered Berlioz's most ambitious work. The composer himself never witnessed a full performance of his work, since the first occasion of its entire performance in one evening, as he had intended, did not occur until 50 years after his death. Due to its length and scale, "Les Troyens" is rarely performed, and can only be performed as intended by certain opera houses. And we were privileged to witness performer Bryan Hymel making his Met debut in the role of Aeneas, which he executed beautifully despite his last-minute substitution into the role in the place of the performer originally cast. 

I am eager to learn more about Berlioz, to hear more of his work, to read the libretto of this opera, to listen to recordings of this amazing work, and to revisit Virgil's Aeneid, which I only read in school in excerpts. More than anything, I am excited to continue my Adventures in Opera, one small step at a time. 

January 2, 2013


Today feels like a Monday for me, since it is the first "normal" day of this brand new year, and I am basking in the glow of fresh starts! But as always, there are waves of fear that wash over in between the joys of motivation and passion. As I consider my goals and spend this lovely, sunny day officially beginning my new year, I am taking comfort in this quote: 
"Creativity takes courage." -Henri Matisse

I first read the quote on Pinterest and of course repinned it immediately! Just three simple words to remind me that although creative work will sometimes be really hard, it will always be noble and always completely worth it to pull through the fear and keep on pressing toward my goals.  
For my birthday a couple months back, my amazing friend Mandy (who is an incredible artist and painted the artwork featured in my blog header, too!) made me this beautiful custom piece of art. She found the quote on my Pinterest board of inspiring words and chose these words to grace her lovely artwork gift! I love the way that the words are "uncovered" beneath the dreamy whitewash layer to reveal some of my favorite colors all swirled together! Mandy knows me really, really well. Along with the quote, the painting's layers remind me how so many passions and various but particular inspirations mix together to represent my creative self! 
As I begin this new year and reach toward my goals in writing, creating and growing as a person in every way I can, I am grateful to have these words by my side! One of my projects on my list of goals is to put up artwork in my writing space to create a more inspiring environment for myself. I know that this artwork with its important quote will be a centerpiece of my inspiration wall. And these words are my wish for YOU, too, as you begin your own year of adventure! May you feel the gift of courage wash over you and keep you happy company on your own creative journey... xo