Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“All the Light We Cannot See” is a rich, evocative novel set during World War II. The third person narrator primarily follows two characters: a blind French girl whose father is a locksmith at a museum in Paris, and an orphan boy who is part of Hitler Youth and then conscripted into the Nazi military due to his mechanical gifting, particularly with radios. Doerr is a master of showing, rather than telling, and creates a world with as much texture as the real one. His characters are three-dimensional, conflicted, believably inconsistent. And the story that he weaves between them is equally heart-warming and heart-wrenching, stirring contemplation about how we fit into the world we’ve been given and what it means to have a choice regarding how to live our lives.

It’s only August, but this will probably be the best book I read all year.

View all my reviews.

If you’ve read this book, I recommend reading this interview with the author.

Reassessing my goals for 2018

When 2018 kicked off, I set an insane amount of ambitious goals for myself—most insane and ambitious of all being to receive 300 pitch rejections over the course of the year.

What possessed me to choose a number that high after failing to receive 20 pitch rejections in the last quarter of 2017, I have no idea. But I set the goal and I figured, hey, even if I get halfway there that’s good.

Well, it’s the third of August, we’re more than halfway through 2018, and I am nowhere near halfway to 300 pitch rejections. In fact, I haven’t even broken double digits. This hasn’t been for a complete lack of trying—I’ve submitted more pitches than I’ve received rejections for (meaning silence, not acceptance, is a typical response)—but recently, I haven’t even bothered to submit pitches because I know I’m not going to reach 300 in 2018. I probably won’t reach 100.

I’ve been talking to a lot of people about goals lately. In recent interviews with different CrossFit athletes—BackCountry CrossFit’s team that is currently competing at the CrossFit Games and Zack Ruhl, an adaptive athlete and physical trainer based in Texas—a consistent theme has been the importance of setting small, attainable goals. Ruhl told me, when he’s working with wheelchair athletes, he only lets them set small goals.

Small goals enable you to celebrate victories along the road toward the ultimate goal, so even if you don’t achieve the big goal, you can look back and appreciate how far you’ve come.

My huge goals have been paralyzing me lately—particularly the goals related to freelance writing, the very thing I want to be my long-term profession. The unreachable goals have aided my procrastination. I’ve hardly moved at all because “there’s no way I’m going to reach that,” and I now find myself in only a slightly better position freelance-wise than I was eight months ago.

“Lower the unit of what you need to accomplish so much that it’s hard to believe you’d feel much resistance to writing,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, in this piece from The Atlantic.

(Feel free to change “writing” to whatever it is you need to get done.)

Realizing my own problem with procrastination and the discouraging height of my goals, I decided this morning to reassess all 15 goals I set at the beginning of this year. I made some adjustments, scrapped some goals completely, and this is what I ended up with:

Eight new and improved goals for the rest of 2018

  1. Spend 45 minutes each day working on my book (fiction).
  2. Submit a minimum of one researched pitch each week (nonfiction).
    • Be diligent about following up on pitches.
    • Pitch may be chosen from a batch of ideas I’ve been researching.
    • Resubmitted pitches do not count—but be sure to re-pitch rejected ideas.
  3. Go to literary/journalism events, connect with people, and stay connected. Invite potential freelancer/writer friends to lunch or coffee.
  4. Return to 100% physically (long story, but yes, I hurt myself).
  5. Get a physical and go to the dentist (same as original goal 8).
  6. Stay faithful with Scripture reading all year long (same as original 9).
  7. Memorize five new verses (essentially the same as original 10).
  8. Read one biography (done), more narrative nonfiction, and at least five good novels (done), for a total of at least 20 books (same as original 14; I currently have six more books to read in order to reach the goal, which I plan to overshoot).

“Lower the unit of what you need to accomplish so much that it_s hard to believe you_d feel much resistance to writing._

Original goals that I scrapped entirely:

Goal 12: Write three one-act plays. (One can only handle so many writing goals.)
Goal 13: Read plays. (I may end up reading plays as part of my regular reading, but I decided plays aren’t a high priority.)
Goal 15: If financially feasible, go to the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. (This conference already happened and was not financially feasible. Maybe next year.)

Book Review: A Fifty-Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in FranceA Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Miranda Richmond Mouillot was young, romantic, and naive when she set out to retrace her grandparents’ story, one she imagined to be like a fairy tale, full of love but with stars crossed that tore the two apart. What she found was much more complicated.

Mouillot’s grandparents were Jews in France during Nazi occupation in World War II. They successfully escaped to Switzerland where they stayed in refugee camps. Her grandmother was a doctor; after the war, her grandfather worked as an interpreter in the Nuremberg Trials.

Mouillot grew up in the United States, and as a child did not associate her grandparents with each other. They were never in the same place at the same time, and whenever her grandmother was spoken of around her grandfather, he scoffed and said something hurtful. When her grandfather decided to sell a ruined house in France — bought by her grandmother; the deed was in her name — a spark ignited in Mouillot to find out exactly what had happened between her grandparents. That’s what this book is about.

Written in smooth, vivid prose, A Fifty-Year Silence, tells the story of Mouillot’s efforts to solve her grandparents’ mystery while also finding and living a life of her own. It’s a beautiful book that makes the time period real to the reader. This isn’t just another book about World War II. It’s the story of real people with real lives who lived through a real, horrifying time in France and Switzerland.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond FearBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A refreshing read for the discouraged creative soul, Big Magic is essentially a long, written pep talk encouraging you to stop quivering in fear about your creative projects and go out and make stuff already, for no reason other than:

a. It’s fun.
b. That’s what humans have always done.

I copied down quote after quote from Big Magic’s pages, on everything from trusting and surrendering to the process, to pushing past fear and perfectionism and refusing to accept that creative living is an inherently miserable way of life.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan BeachManhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

New York City during World War II. A father who disappeared after getting tangled up with the mob. A daughter with secrets of her own trying to become a diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Manhattan Beach is about a father and daughter and the secrets that divide them — from each other and from everyone else around them. Richly textured with details that make you feel as if Jennifer Egan lived the story herself, this piece of historical fiction is expertly woven with complexity, strands from three core characters coming together to form a single narrative. No one is all good or all bad. Each character is given a depth that enables you to see them as three-dimensional human beings.

“It’s a pity we’re forced to make the choices that govern the whole of our lives when we’re so goddamn young,” a supporting character says late in the narrative, and that quote is essentially the theme of the book. However, even with the characters’ mistakes that can’t be undone, there is a presence of hope and redemption.

Manhattan Beach is not a quick read by any means, but it is a smooth read, one that keeps you engaged as soon as you crack it open. It’s one of those novels that makes you feel smarter after reading it, and not just because it’s so well-researched — Egan’s observations of humanity are worth paying attention to.

I recommend Manhattan Beach to the mature reader who is not bewildered by sexual content (the sexual content pertains to the story, but it is more detailed than some might be comfortable with).

View all my reviews

Book Review: Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

Draft No. 4: On the Writing ProcessDraft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A must-read for anyone who wants to write nonfiction, Draft No. 5 is a collection of essays about the writing process by John McPhee, long-time staff writer for The New Yorker. With smooth writing that makes reading effortless and vivid anecdotes from his writing life, McPhee covers different aspects of the writing process, with repeated themes of clarity, precision, and omission. I found myself copying down paragraphs into my journal, including particularly resonant passages on writer’s block and self-doubt. Here are a few favorites:

  • “Young writers find out what kind of writers they are by experiment. If they choose from the outset to practice exclusively a form of writing because it is praised in the classroom or otherwise carries appealing prestige, they are vastly increasing the risk inherent in taking up writing in the first place. It is so easy to misjudge yourself and get stuck in the wrong genre.”
  • “If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.”
  • “The adulating portrait of the perfect writer who never blots a line comes Express Mail from fairyland.”

View all my reviews

Book Review: 1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Asbrink

1947: Where Now Begins1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrink

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is exactly what its title describes: a look at the year 1947, where the world as we know it begins. From the establishment of Israel to the smuggling of Nazis to South America, this book communicates both the history and humanity of the immediate aftermath of World War Two. Asbrink also doesn’t pull any punches. Without telling the reader what to think, she puts forth example after example of (I think) every nation mentioned practicing something that could be seen as a precursor to genocide or, to put it more gently, failing to care for the vulnerable and in many cases increasing their vulnerability. One of the most fascinating parts for me was learning about Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide” and fought for the UN to recognize this crime, hoping that at some point the death of thousands would mean as much to humanity as the death of one innocent person (I’m planning to read more about him).

Each chapter of the book covers one month of the year, with the exception of “Days and Death” which is the middle chapter and hones in on the author’s father, who was a young child at the time. The chapters are broken up into sections titled by location, giving an around-the-world view of that point in time. What was happening in Sweden? Argentina? Egypt? India? The United States? Russia? Thoughtfully written and immensely thought-provoking, this book is a sobering account of humanity’s failures to clean up the messes we continue to make. Highly recommend.

View all my reviews

A word for 2018: Diligence

Diligence. Careful and persistent work. Slow, plodding, steady effort that isn’t crushed by setbacks. Keep moving forward.

giphy.gif
Rocky’s got it.

As soon as I finished college, I started learning the disappointing lesson that big achievements don’t just happen. Maybe if you went to an Ivy League school and had the right connections, you got your dream job right after graduating, but for most of us, job #1 isn’t the one we always wanted. And neither is job #2, #3, #4. (Or maybe we get the dream job, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and we’re left scrambling for purpose, because what we idolized for so long didn’t follow through.)

Right now, I’m actually okay with that. I’m okay with having limited reach and responsibility so I can continue to practice and learn and improve, especially in writing.

Ideas often come to me in the shower, and that’s how diligence ended up being my word for 2018. I was thinking about the coming year as I rinsed shampoo out of my hair, and diligence literally just popped into my head. I’ve never had a word for the year before, but as soon as it came to me, I knew it was right.

2018 will be about diligence. Setting myself to work steadily each day, taking small, seemingly insignificant steps toward long-term goals.

My goals this year will require that I work diligently, rather than swinging back and forth from all-hands-on-deck productivity to lethargic stagnation.

Here’s what I’m aiming to accomplish by the time 2019 rolls around:

  1. Write 300 words of unnamed work of fiction every day for total of 109,500 words.
  2. Get 10 articles published in actual publications.
  3. Make a sustainable living doing just freelance writing and editing.
  4. Receive 300 pitch rejections.
  5. Get more efficient at researching, writing, and submitting story pitches.
  6. Start building a freelance network/support/friend group.
  7. Get back into CrossFit and compete at least once.
  8. Be a responsible adult: Get a physical and go to the dentist—use my insurance.
  9. Stay faithful with Scripture reading all year long.
  10. Intentionally memorize a verse or passage each month.
  11. Hike regularly (maybe do a 14er).
  12. Write three one-act plays.
  13. Read plays (see above). Suggestions welcome.
  14. Read one biography, more narrative nonfiction (books and magazine stories), and at least five good novels, for a total of at least 20 books. Suggestions welcome.
  15. If financially feasible, go to the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

Bonus: Get a short story published.

Take the first step: A look back on 2017 and my crazy list of goals

Red snow-dusted tent in front of a stand of evergreen trees.

I know it’s early to be talking about the end of the year—we have eleven more days! But with travel plans and being home with my family for the first time since last Christmas, my status on these goals will be overwhelmingly the same when New Year’s rolls around (except I might read another book).

When I wrote out my goals for 2017, I had no idea where I would be today. I was looking back on a year that had gone decently and looking ahead with a longing to take bigger steps toward my professional and creative goals.

In the resulting post, I wrote that in 2016 I’d learned to be kinder to myself. This year, the overarching theme has been:

Take the first step.

Usually we stop before we begin. Whether in friendship or creative pursuits or on our way into something we’ve never done, some place we’ve never been, we stop before we start. We reject ourselves before anyone else has the chance to.

My list of goals for 2017 was long. I shared eleven of them on this blog and kept a couple others under wraps.

I accomplished less than half of my goals, but in no way was that a failure. A glance over the last twelve months makes clear why.

2017 goals:

  1. Go to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for this writing conference and stay a whole week to see the Tetons. I didn’t go to this conference, because I moved to Colorado at the beginning of June, two weeks before the conference would have taken place.
  2. Successfully complete Creative Nonfiction’s Science Writing course. Almost as soon as this course started, I realized I wasn’t interested in it, so I switched to a different course on beating writer’s block. The course did not dramatically impact my life.
  3. Diligently work on unnamed book-length work of fiction so I can spend November 2017 reading and self-critiquing. I did not do this, but I worked on some of my own nonfiction work which you can read here and here.
  4. Read 30 books (minimum). I did not successfully read 30 books, but according to my GoodReads log, I read 20 which is significantly more than I read in 2016. Most impactful was Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women. Nonfiction favorites: The Woman Who Smashed Codes and Love and Ruin. Fiction favorite: Before the Fall.
  5. Get personal training certified with ACSM. I did not do this, but I started working toward it by taking a CPR certification course after I moved to Colorado. I don’t know if I still want to pursue this certification. If I ever end up doing it, it will most likely be for my own self-education, not so I can work as a personal trainer.
  6. Do some freelance writing and editing. YES. Shortly after I moved to Colorado, I veered away from applying to full-time jobs and set my sights on being able to freelance full-time. I am now doing ongoing editing work for a couple different companies, and I recently was brought on to do some writing for a CrossFit blog that I’ll mention by name after my first pieces go up.
  7. Get a pull up by March, five by May, ten by August. I was super close to one strict pull up when I moved. Then I didn’t do CrossFit consistently for … the rest of the year. My muscles noticeably shrunk. However, just today, I did two single reps of 110 pounds on the lat pulldown machine in my apartment’s microgym, so I could be to a strict pull up soon!
  8. Do topical Bible studies on justice, light and darkness, living water, and the heart. I did just one of these studies, going through Scripture and studying all passages containing a form of the word “justice”.
  9. Do in-depth Bible studies of Joshua, Ruth, Nehemiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Hosea, Nahum, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 & 2 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John. According to records in my planner, I successfully studied the books of Joshua and Ruth. Soon after I moved, I started working through Acts, which I did not finish. More recently, I read through all of Isaiah following a reading plan from She Reads Truth. Next year, I want to be better about staying in Scripture all year long without it feeling like a chore.
  10. Play more classical compositions on piano. Progress in the more difficult keys. I started the year strong in this arena, but when spring rolled around and I decided to leave Taylor University (and its music building where I often played piano over my lunch break), I started playing less. I haven’t played piano since being in Colorado, and listening to instrumentals is a unique form of torture: Every recording makes me want to play piano which I can’t do right now because I don’t have access to a real piano and I’m too much of a snob to make do with a keyboard.
  11. Go real camping (in a tent not surrounded by RVs and campers). Yes. I camped in the snow back in September. I love the smell of campfire.

Red snow-dusted tent in front of a stand of evergreen trees.

Secret goal: Switch jobs and do serious graduate school research.

This is the one I’m proudest of. I decided this spring to leave my job and move to a place I’d never visited. In the process of making that decision, I decided that graduate school is not for me—at least, not yet.

Something I’ve struggled with since finishing college is wanted to write long, complicated stories, both fiction and nonfiction, but feeling that I don’t have anything to say. I’ve felt that my lack of life experience limits my ability to write anything worth reading, and I have no interest in being a hack.

Where do you get life experience?

Some might be able to find it in a classroom, but as much as I love learning, the life experience I crave is out in the world, where everyday people are living incredible lives.

Colloquial writing advice is “write what you know.” I’m more interested in writing about what I don’t know.

Step one to being able to write about what you don’t know:

Leave what you know.