My little siblings might be my new muses

Over vacation, I read my kid siblings the beginning of my chapter book for kids.

My 9-year-old sis said to tell her when I was done so she could order it from the library. I told her I’d have her read it before it was published.

A day later, I explained the concept of publishing to my 7-year-old brother.

In the meantime, my 11-year-old sister read me the first chapter of her superhero book and (unquestionably) out-wrote me all week — she was finishing chapter five when I left. I only added a 69-word paragraph to my story.

It was cool. Not just their interest, but seeing my baby sister embrace the writing process. She had two notebooks: one for her book, the other for doodles with a single page where she wrote down “the plot” (her words). It felt familiar — seeing her curled silently over her spiral bound notebook, pencil in hand, scribbling away the blank rows. It was almost like I was watching my younger self at work. And now, I’m home and that’s what I want to do. Put words together. Map out stories and then quit sitting on them, actually write, from beginning to middle to end.

Review of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Add this thriller to the top of your list.

Rachel. Megan. Anna. They’re three women whose lives are woven together in known and unknown ways. Rachel is the divorcee of Tom. Anna is the homewrecker now married to Tom. Megan lives down the street from Rachel’s former and Anna’s current home. The train line cuts behind both houses, and it’s from the train that Rachel watches the life she wished was hers.

Until one day, Rachel sees Megan’s face in the paper. She’s missing.

Paula Hawkins’ debut novel landed #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for good reason. With simple language that firmly grounds you in the modern British setting and carries the story without unnecessary confusion, The Girl on the Train is a story that’s too frighteningly believable — and well worth your time.

Hawkins’ words don’t paint lush portraits or jump to poetic heights. They’re too busy drawing you close to the characters, especially Rachel whose perspective begins and ends the book. As you read, you immerse into the complexity that is a human being whose past she both regrets and can’t leave behind.

Girl on TrainYou won’t want to trust Rachel’s narration — she doesn’t even trust herself — but you will hold your breath and hope for her. You’ll grimace and groan when she messes up again. You’ll yell at her not to go back. You’ll care about her in spite of yourself, in spite of her.

The Girl on the Train is about assumptions. Assumptions and speculations that people make about others, especially when they see them from a distance, literally or figuratively. It’s about how our assumptions, and the hopes behind them, blind us to reality (at best) and put us in dangerous positions (at worst). Maybe we can trust ourselves, maybe we can trust others, but we can’t trust our assumptions or speculations.

The Girl on the Train is driven by the internal monologue of the three characters. Each chapter is from another woman’s perspective, with Megan’s set several months behind (made clear by a dateline at the beginning of the chapter).

The changing perspectives didn’t jar my experience, but it took me forever to keep the men straight: is Scott the one Rachel was married to? Or was that Tom? I have a ridiculously hard time remembering character names and I blame my ongoing confusion on them both having one-syllable names with an “O” in the middle. (It’s a decent excuse.)

That’s my main complaint, though. In the future, I’d hope Hawkins would work toward more depth and complexity in her male characters and more emotional strength in her female characters, but the characters in The Girl on the Train only bothered me at the level they were supposed to. I hated who I was supposed to hate, and I liked who I was supposed to like.

The book isn’t super quotable, but I copied down these lines near the beginning. They’re both from Rachel’s perspective:

“I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts. Who was it [that] said that following your heart is a good thing? It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.” p. 31

“I will never begrudge him happiness — I only wish it could be with me.” p. 43

Who’s this book appropriate for?

I’d set it at 17+. It’s written for adults and has some sexual content that, while not being explicit or gratuitous, I wouldn’t want my 15-year-old self (or my 15-year-old sister, for that matter) reading. I’d recommend it to both men and women, because the story itself could spark a lot of introspection in both parties, but it might be too emotionally driven for the stereotypical man to be interested.

Journal entries of a white girl

Grappling with privilege and the mess made by people who look like me.

JULY 7, 2016. EVENING.

I’m not sure what to make of today. The country is again drawing lines in the sand because two more black men were gunned down this week for no reason. Fathers. Involved in their kids’ lives. Not drug dealers or thugs or rapists. Men. Who loved and cared for their loved ones, complied to the cops’ requests, and lost their lives anyway.

It was the fourth of July on Monday. We, as a nation, celebrated our freedom. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness — rights that no one is to take away from us, unless we infringe on one of someone else’s — we celebrated living in a country that honors all three for all of its people.

But does it really? Because for my African-American brothers and sisters, for my non-white immigrant or first-, second-, third-generation American siblings, for my Native American brothers and sisters, that promise has fallen — repeatedly, often, and too recently — short of reality.

I log into Facebook and, while my white friends whine about work or count down to the weekend of “adventure” or post selfies with their “fur babies”, my black and brown friends share things like:

A TEDtalk of an African-American poet reflecting on how he was raised in a world where authority would hold him to an especially lofty standard:

A father sharing a poem-in-progress with his young son:

A friend of mine who has a one-year-old posted this:

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 10.52.46 PM

My breath caught in my chest when I saw that post. I don’t want this horror story to last another twelve years. Or ten. Or five. Or one. I want it to end now.

I am white. Which means I have privilege. It also means I don’t know what it’s like to be black, brown, or any other color. I don’t know what it’s like to be in someone else’s skin, and the only way to get an idea is to go out of my way and ask. Even without knowing, though, there’s no denying that my experience of America — especially with gun-bearing police officers who look like me — is drastically different from the African-American male.

Not all cops are racist. Not all cops are ruled by fear. Not all cops are white. But that’s not the point. The point is:

There is a disparity between what we say America is and what she lives out on a daily basis. And it is not the downtrodden’s job to lift themselves out of the ashes. It’s the responsibility of the privileged to give them a hand, foot, and leg up — to even lift them on our shoulders if we’re able. Not for token diversity, not to fulfill some “white savior” fantasies, but out of a genuine, heartfelt love and, thus, sense of duty for our neighbors.

Sunday, I had to sing “America the Beautiful” in church, because my church is one of those that still does that. It felt weird, because over the past several years, this nation has only grown uglier in my eyes. I know I’m blessed to have been born here and I’m proud of a lot of our heritage, but I don’t think the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth. And in no way do I see its past as something to bring back.

Four days later, at our Thursday evening service, I had to sing the song again — this time, after a full day of trying to grapple with what it means that these boys lost their father and this woman and child had their man shredded by bullets right in front of them.

How can I sing of America’s beauty when this is what’s happening across our country?

It wasn’t until the last two lines of the first verse that I realized I could make it a prayer:

America, America, God shed His grace on thee/And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

July 18, 2016. NOON.

I opened my email this morning to find The Skimm and learned about police lives lost in Dallas to “snipers” looking down on a peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protest.

Last night, journaling about the men killed by policemen, I struggled with what this country purports to offer its citizens and what it actually delivers. Today, I just don’t know what to say anymore.

None of this is right. Police brutality, racial profiling, assassinations of honorable officers. This is all wrong and I feel powerless. What am I supposed to do? Can I impact the world at all?

I sense a responsibility to not give up hope, to grasp it tightly and multiply it, build up my neighbors, pour out to others.

This week has been heavy and I can’t carry it — but look how many people have been upset by these events. For all the trolls and willfully, rabidly ignorant, there are at least two whose hearts ache over this mess. That’s twice as many.

This week has been filled with wrongs, overrun with evil, driven by hatred and fear and other vile spewings of the human heart. But it’s not without hope. Because there’s me and there’s you and there are countless others united in the conviction that this cannot be our future as a nation.

As we rise and move forward, let’s do so with purpose. Let’s reach out to those different from us, whether ethnically, politically, religiously, or otherwise. Let’s seek to understand our shared humanity. And let’s bathe every effort in prayer.

Do not put your trust in princes,
Nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help.
His spirit departs, he returns to his earth;
In that very day his plans perish.

Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help,
Whose hope is in the Lord God,
Who made heaven and earth,
The sea, and all that is in them;
Who keeps truth forever,
Who executes justice for the oppressed,
Who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord gives freedom to the prisoners.

The Lord opens the eyes of the blind;
The Lord raises those who are bowed down;
The Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
He relieves the fatherless and widow;
But the way of the wicked He turned upside down.

Psalm 146:3-9

I’m still processing all of this. My emotions have been a wreck. God help us.

Book Review: To the Letter by Simon Garfield

 

A book recommendation, straight from the non-air conditioned apartment where I carry my fan around like a security blanket:

To the LetterTo the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing by Simon Garfield

“They expose a grand truth, and often the same truth we may feel when we read Shakespeare and Austen: no matter how original we consider ourselves to be, it is evident that our emotions, motives and desires have echoes in the past. We’re not so special; someone else has almost certainly been there first.”

Simon Garfield, To the Letter (p. 200)

To the Letter is a history of letter writing that travels all the way back to the Roman empire — first by telling the story of a batch of letters written on flimsy wooden slices that were uncovered in the mud during an excavation in Vindolanda (the former location of a Roman fort in Britain) in the 1970s.

The book traces the history of letters and postal systems, but not in the tone of a stuffy history professor. Garfield’s words engage you, draw pictures of the characters involved, and provide humorous asides in footnotes as well as the regular text. Each chapter tackles a certain aspect, era, or phenomenon of the letter writing world. You follow him to auctions and university collections, where he pores over forgotten and prized documents, illegible handwriting, and considers the contexts in which these letters were written.

In between the chapters, a special treat: letters from a British soldier to his sweetheart during World War II. By reading along, you get to see his love for her form and grow as he’s away, when he’s anticipating return, and then after their reunion. I definitely let out a few “aww”s when I read these pages (though not all the letters are G-rated).

Throughout the book, Garfield quotes notable letters alongside others that are just interesting, demonstrating a particular benefit of still having these letters around: You can tap the wisdom of centuries ago, learn from people whose lives were different but not really simpler than our own. Some favorite quotations from To the Letter:

“You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate . . . All your bustle is useless. . . . You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.” Seneca the Younger (p. 56)

“You must try now to have the high opinion of yourself which the world will come to share if you do.” Pliny the Elder, writing to Caninius Rufus (p. 59)

“in a letter to the youngest Paston brother in 1477, a cousin advises him not to be discouraged by his prolonged pursuit of a wife, ‘for . . . it is but a simple oak that is cut down at the first stroke‘.” (p. 122)

“To be sincere in all my words and actions was the first precept of my early youth, I have ever since held it sacred.” From a letter writing guide (p. 161)

Lord Chesterfield (p. 168, 169):

“Very few people are good economists of their Fortune, and still fewer of their Time; and yet, of the two, the latter is the most precious.”

“Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”

In addition to learning about the various letter writing manuals that have existed since people started writing letters, how the postal system evolved (in Europe, anyway; there’s little mention of the American system — not a word about the Pony Express), and how letter writing has served historians, you’ll also learn that Jane Austen’s letters were dull while other writers’ letters were better than any of their published work and that, unsurprisingly, some letters are better left unfound.

Every page of To the Letter is packed with details that draw you in as a reader. The book is nonfiction (of course) and not an arcing narrative in the traditional sense, but there’s a flow of thought that Garfield builds and develops by showing us as many facets of “the post” as possible.

At the beginning, Garfield introduces us to Felix Pryor, a former manuscript specialist who moved into collecting letters into anthologies:

“He regrets that is it principally the letters of the famous that survive, and that among history’ greatest casualties are the letters of ordinary people, who survive on paper only in legal documents.” (p. 197)

At the end, Garfield illuminates the challenges archivists are facing with shrinking physical documents and disappearing digital ones.

Then, he entreats the reader to write some letters. Which I am all for.

One more quote:

“Love letters catch us at a time in our lives where our marrow is jelly; but we toughen up, our souls harden, and we reread them years later with a mixture of disbelief and cringing horror, and — worst of all — level judgment.” (p. 336)

5 more reasons to read To the Letter:

  1. It’s written extremely well.
  2. It’s chock-full of interesting things you don’t know.
  3. It has pictures.
  4. It digs into every century since, basically, the dawn of civilization. (There wasn’t civilization before letters? Hmm…)
  5. It exposes humanity on a deeply personal level, confirming that people then weren’t that different from people now.

(You can currently buy the hardback for one cent on Amazon — not my copy. I’m keeping mine.)

Run hard after Him.

Uncovering lies, leaving untrustworthy excuses, and chasing God’s calling.

I was on the mat, 40 pushups behind me and gearing up for the next part of my workout, when I saw an athlete bite it on the treadmill.

He, along with three other incoming freshmen, was trying out for the men’s soccer team. The assistant coach had walked them through the treadmill settings. Time to see how fast they could go and for how long. Probably two miles, maybe 2.5.

He was running hard. That’s what you do when you’re trying to make a college team. And when you’re determined, you will push and push and push. He did well, and then his legs couldn’t keep up anymore. Next thing, he’d fallen and his limbs were flailing, trying to pull himself back up as the belt kept moving.

“You’re done,” the assistant coach said, grabbing him and setting him on the motionless floor. The athlete, out of breath and still shocked, nodded and stepped back.

He ran hard. He didn’t know yet if he’d make the team.

It’s easy to get lazy with your life.

Whether our life circumstances are simple or complicated, we can always find excuses or pseudo-spiritual platitudes to use in answering the question of why we’re living the way we’re living. Easy to spot are the countless variations of God wants me to be happy and it’ll all work out in the end (the first is untrue, the second an enormous oversimplification). Trickier are the ones that dance around fear or pride or selfishness and paint them as logical, acceptable, and rightfully normal.

Instead of calling fear, fear, and declaring the truth that it is not, nor ever will be, from God (2 Tim. 1:7), we pretend it’s not at the root of our constant hesitation and insecurity.

I’m not comfortable with going there [to that place I’ve never been, so I’m afraid of it].

I’m just not outgoing [because I’m afraid I’ll have nothing to say and people will think I’m dumb/boring/a waste of life].

Or in the case of pride, we relabel arrogance and self-infatuation as self-confidence and self-branding.

They don’t have to follow me if they don’t want. [But if they don’t, they’re missing out.]

Then there’s selfishness, which comes in so many shapes and forms — and arguably, is the root of both fear and pride.

We allow fear to rule us because, in our selfishness, we don’t want to ever be caught failing. Why risk failure when you can live up to someone else’s standards of success right where you are, never mind the fact that you are capable of improving, of pushing harder? We allow pride to take over, because when we elevate ourselves above others, we fulfill our selfish wishes to be number one at all costs.

One of my pet peeves on Pinterest are the quotes that roll around about cutting people out of your life who don’t, basically, feed your narcissism. I understand the need to create distance from people who purposefully tear you down, but the reality is that the people who are the hardest to be friends with — because their glaring insecurity makes them unpleasant and exhausting to spend time around — they actually need friendship the most. And if you embrace challenging friendships, they can grow you in ways you didn’t know you needed to grow.

To cut people out of your life because you just can’t handle them or don’t click or have nothing in common is not only self-serving — it’s wrong. Especially if you claim to be a Christian, because loving the “unlovable” is what the Creator did in sending His Son for the creations that screwed themselves up.

I’m almost halfway through reading the Bible in a year, and I just started Jeremiah, which is one of my favorite prophetical books.

Jeremiah is all about God calling His people to repent and turn back to Him with their whole hearts — not with empty words, but with the core of who they are.

“O Jerusalem,” He says in chapter 4, verse 14,

“wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved. How long shall your vain thoughts lodge within you?”

That question struck me.

I know that I harbor thoughts that grieve the Spirit. Fearful thoughts, prideful thoughts, selfish thoughts, impure thoughts, mocking thoughts, judgmental thoughts. My mind is always whirling with ideas and images and what I just read, and there’s always something in me that isn’t fully aligned with His purpose for His daughter.

And it’s not just my thoughts. It’s also my actions — or many times, my inactions.

“To him who knows to do good and does it not, to him it is sin,” reads James 4:17, and while this verse has convicted me into taking the extra step to do small bits of good — corralling those stray grocery carts in the parking lot so they won’t hit someone’s car, holding the door open extra long to help the straggler in — there are still so many times when I shy away from doing good because it’s outside of my comfort zone or I’m just not outgoing. Never mind that I’ve been outside of my comfort zone for an entire six months and I can be outgoing if I have to (thank you, six years of working food service).

I make those excuses and I live by them, allowing false ideas of myself and my capabilities to build walls around the person Jesus died to set free.

What would the church look like if we stopped letting lies define our boundaries? How would our lives look different if we didn’t measure them with the same stick — of money, fame, comfort — that the world does?

I’m not saying we should be irresponsible, but I can honestly say that my own strong sense of responsibility in terms of my career and life trajectory often feels like chains around my neck. And not the kind you buy at a jewelry store.

What does it look like to “lay aside every weight” in an age that idolizes, in some settings, workaholism and, in other settings, pleasure? What does it look like to embrace God’s calling on our lives and “run with patience the race that is set before us“?

My current journal has a Jane Austen quote on the front:

“Know your own happiness.”

Quick interpretations outside of the quote’s context would consider this a very selfish statement to put on the cover of a book for one’s thoughts. My idea of it goes deeper:

I’m a young woman finding my way in a world that is broken but full of possibilities. I can’t measure my life by the lives of my peers or my older brothers or other people I admire. God’s call on my life is singular. His calling for me is not the same as His calling for Jeremiah or Paul or Mother Teresa or Tim Keller. His calling for me is not the same as His calling for my parents or any one of my siblings. His calling for me is not the same as His calling for each of His other writers. His calling for me is just that — His calling for me.

And that’s scary, because that means there are a lot of unknowns. There’s the freedom I have right now in singleness, which I can easily see lasting for years to come. There’s the freedom in being college-educated and debt-free and young and healthy and childless.

But see how fear paints freedom?

With fear as my contacts, I see freedom as unknown, something to tremble at and worry about. With restored vision, freedom isn’t scary. It’s exciting. It’s not something to worry about, it’s something to start marking up notebooks with all the good things that could happen by embracing freedom.

With true freedom, the only direction you won’t run is toward destruction. Which isn’t to say, I’m free so now I’m flawless, but we only take the path toward destruction when fear, pride, or selfishness is ruling our hearts. When those things are cast out, the roads we run don’t even have potholes.

Running is our calling.

What that looks like for me, what that looks like for you — it may be different, when we talk specifics, but overall it will involve love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (here’s what it won’t involve).

Those are results — the fruit — of a life spent running hard after God’s call.

I want to be that athlete on the treadmill, giving it all I’ve got until I can’t give anymore and the next thing I know, He’s telling me, “Well done.

8 writing lessons I (re)learned through revision

I spent the majority of this week and last wrangling a story. The first 1,600-word draft — written to follow an outline I thought was solid and completed at approximately 6:30 p.m. last Friday (that’s 1.5 hours late to the weekend) — read like a list of events. No emotion, no thought progression. Just, this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this, and then they got a cool letter. The end.

I’m not sure if the three-day weekend (Happy belated Memorial Day!) helped or hindered the revision process. I returned to the office on Tuesday, looked over Friday’s draft, heard Peter Parker’s editor in my head:

Megacrap
Spider-Man (2002)

And decided to trash it. Back to the drawing boards.

(Almost literally, actually, since my first outline evolved out of a color-coded mess of whiteboard notes.)

Here’s what I (re)learned through this particularly frustrating revision process:

1. If you begin in the wrong place, nothing about the draft will seem right.

When I sat down to write from my new outline, I realized my planned beginning was still wrong (cue fists slamming on the desk) and I couldn’t write anything else until I got that right.

Writing tips for when you're stuck on a story

One of my most-used pieces of writing advice (courtesy of Sarah Dessen) is:

When you’re stuck on a story, go back to the last place things were going well and take a different course.

I apply this to nonfiction on a regular basis and, when I can identify the stuck spot and devise an alternate route, it works like a charm. With this piece, devising an alternate route took more effort than usual, but once I figured it out, the wheels on the bus went round and round and the story got moving.

2. Be willing to go back to square one. 

I was annoyed that I’d written nearly 2,000 words of what I thought was unusable draft, and I was immensely frustrated that I had to outline all over again.

Once I have an outline, I’m usually convinced I have the story figured out. In this case, I was wrong and I was convinced I’d have to trash the entire draft.

But when I re-outlined and started writing, I found that I was wrong again: a lot of what I’d already written was usable — it just needed more narrative around it, more actual storytelling instead of just rehashing events.

Embrace the process. Go back to square one.

3. Get up close with your notes.

If you don’t know which page to flip to for that one quote or anecdote, you haven’t studied your notes enough.

I have this tendency — when a story involves talking to a lot of people at different times about the same thing — to think I know the material inside-out after I transcribe the interviews and read through, highlight, color-code my notes once. This tendency, I’m learning, is actually laziness I have to fight for the quality and integrity of my work.

I need to be as familiar with those notes as I am with my Bible.

When a quote comes to mind that could fit in this section about people’s perceptions of prison inmates, I need to know exactly where in my notes I can find it. If no quotes are coming to mind, I have a lot more studying to do.

4. Take the time to narrow your notes down, so you have a more concise reference that is tightly focused around the same things your story is focused on.

When you’re working with pages and pages of notes, it’s easy to get so overwhelmed by the information, you lose sight of the story.

When I sat down on Tuesday, I opened my notes — on paper and the same document on my computer — and, as I read through them, I copied and pasted what related to my story into a new document. This cut my active notes in half.

Doing this for investigative journalism will be more complicated, of course, but the principle holds regardless of what type of story you’re writing:

Cut your notes down to what is related to the story.

Remove anything you know you won’t use. If you’re so overwhelmed that you have no idea what you will or will not use, keep studying your notes and question whether or not you’ve done enough research.

5. Be patient, but keep pushing.

It’s okay to show signs of exasperation.

Examples:

  • Slamming your hands on your desk
  • Muttering, You have got to be kidding me!
  • Crumbling every sheet of paper you’ve written on in pursuit of this story. Okay. Maybe don’t do that.

But whatever you do — unless you happen to be a verbal processor, which is rare for writers — don’t vent to people.

Venting turns into talking as if you hate the work. You don’t hate the work. You’re just frustrated that it’s not going smoothly. Channel your frustration into the work, and eventually things will move the way they should, even if the movement is slow and clumsy.

6. Kill your darlings. Or at least be willing to.

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard this advice countless times. Like most cliches, it’s been repeated over and over because it’s right.

When a draft is under revision, everything’s on the chopping block. In order to stay, it has to prove it belongs. If a beautiful line, scene, description, word, gets in the way of the story, the only choice is to cut it.

If it’s any comfort, remember this: being willing to cut something — laying that beautiful line on the chopping block — doesn’t mean it will actually be cut in the end. When my new draft started flowing, I was thrilled to discover that a scene I thought I’d lose actually got to stay (points if you can correctly identify it).

7. Keep pushing.

I repeat myself, because the push is a necessary part of the struggle. Without it, you’re not struggling, you’re accepting defeat.

If writing is your job (like it is for me — one post-college life win!), accepting defeat makes you a bad employee. If writing’s not your job, it just makes you a bad writer. Which if you’re actually a writer, you are not okay with. So push on.

8. When you finish the piece to satisfaction (which you will), celebrate the way writers do.

Read. Subscribe to another magazine. Buy a load of books off Amazon. Search for your next story.

And if you need some weekend reading, check out the piece that in some backhanded way inspired this blog post:

Five Thursdays in Prison

This spring, six exercise science students and their professor traveled to New Castle Correctional Facility to gather data for a research project. They left with more than numbers.

Comment if you find the scene I was afraid I’d lose — or if you have writing lessons of your own to share.

Photo credit: Notebook via photopin

Five ways journaling has improved my life

When I’m writing, I’m actively engaged with life. When I’m not writing, I’m just going through the motions.

Since the 29-day writing challenge I did in February (successfully writing from every daily prompt), I’ve felt

  1. more myself
  2. more at peace with life
  3. more excited about life, and
  4. more interested in the world around me.

Those daily prompts dipped me into words in a way that reminded me why I decided to be a writer in the first place. That led me back to journaling, and journaling has been huge in rehumanizing the Internet-addicted person I had become since moving back to Indiana.

First, journaling showed me how boring constantly scrolling through Facebook and Twitter makes me. Constantly ingesting other people’s thoughts, ideas, or stupid videos bereaves me of original thought. Those things in moderation, okay. But when I’m scrolling and I feel my brain go numb, I’ve been there too long. Get off and actually do something.

Second, journaling awakened me to how isolated I’d allowed myself to become. Journaling about me, me, me all the time is utterly insufferable — and not just for whoever might peek into my journals (don’t do that). It’s insufferable for me. No wonder I’d stopped doing it, outside of devotional notes, since returning to the place where I once had friends galore (thanks to college) and now have basically none (thanks to adulthood/graduations).

This spring, through journaling, I’ve admitted to myself that I am isolated, I have no solid friendships where I am, and that’s not okay. I need friends, so I need to do something about that.

Third, journaling got me thinking about more than my job and my career. It brought me back to thinking about my craft as a writer and different projects I want to work on.

Fourth, journaling has tuned me back into what I like, what I’m interested in, and reminded me that there is no life script I must live by (outside, of course, loving God and loving people). Since my senior year of college, I’ve felt this pressure to either get it together as a career woman (i.e. get your dream job, already!) or scrap the dreams and find a husband — something I’ve never considered a priority. Why either of those attitudes are wrong is another post entirely, but the point is, under that pressure, I lost sight of what excites me about living and learning and creating.

My interests are all over the place and though brand experts say choose a specialty, that just doesn’t fit who I am. That’s not a mold I was made for, and I’m not going to contort myself to fit into it (the same way I will not wear heels or makeup to live up to some arbitrary standard of female professional appearance — again, another blog post).

Journaling has tuned me back into my own interests and passions, and it’s helped me process (or start to process) a lot of thoughts about life, dreams, and the patience that both require. Which leads me to the fifth and final piece (for now):

Journaling has reminded me that I need room to breathe, not just physically, but creatively. If I pile all this pressure on myself to write like crazy, hustle, hustle, hustle, when I’m not taking time to recharge my batteries and reboot my mental hard drive, I’m going to hurt myself in my attempts to reach “success”.

A dream, an ambition, should not be a burden. It should be a motivator, something — like a good song — that excites you to get out of bed in the morning. If they’re burdens, they’re probably idols, because you think you can’t live without them.

So journal. Because it’s good. Because it’s healthy. Because it helps you examine and ponder pieces of life that would otherwise go unchecked. And because journaling is a way of showing yourself, I’m here and I’m good.

Good Reads: Dancing through a clouded life

This post is part of a series recommending longform, narrative nonfiction (as well as other worthwhile writings).

The Amateur Cloud Society That (Sort Of) Rattled the Scientific Community by Jon Mooallem, The New York Times Magazine

The most quotable piece I’ve read recently, this story examines the culture of cloud-loving in a way that observes science, philosophy, and love of life. There’s reflection (from the people involved, as well as the author), education (a healthy serving of cloud facts), history, and the impact of the Internet. Great piece.

Gotta Dance! by Elizabeth Gilbert, originally published in GQ, republished on Longform.

Elizabeth Gilbert is best known for her bestselling memoir, Eat Pray Love. This piece is from her previous work as a magazine writer. It’s a profile of a former swing dance icon who, when war service removed him from the limelight, became just a postman until he was “rediscovered” in the 90s’ swing dance revival. Cultural commentary and a fun personality, with Gilbert’s satisfying sentences, make this piece well worth your time.

How a Son Survived Being Injected with HIV by His Father by Justin Heckert, GQ

Twenty-four years ago, a little boy was betrayed by his father in a despicable act of malice. The title says it. But what it doesn’t say is what surrounded the betrayal and what followed the injection. Twenty-four years later, the boy has grown up and, against all odds, survived. Read it.

In a Perpetual Present by Erika Hayasaki, Wired

Imagine living today and forgetting it tomorrow. This woman’s life is basically Adam Sandler’s 50 First Dates and this story considers whether or not memory-less life could be a good thing, a counter-intuitive step forward, rather than the backward declension it at first seems. Bizarre.

Inside the Shadow City with Kirsten Miller, an interview

In 2008, I interviewed Kirsten Miller, author of the Kiki Strike series (among other books), for my then-magazine Messenger Girl. All questions and answers were made via email. I was 16. At the end is my original review of Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City.

Me: Where did you get the idea for the Shadow City?
Kirsten: Believe it or not, there really are tunnels (built by real criminals) underneath parts of New York! The whole city is hollow, and they’re constantly digging up something new. In fact, the first scene in Kiki Strike is based on a real incident. A hole opened up one night in downtown Manhattan, and at the bottom police discovered a 150-year-old, perfectly preserved room — with no door. So while the Shadow City is mostly fiction, it was also inspired by fact.

Me: Why didn’t you decide to tell the story from Kiki’s point of view?
Kirsten: Kiki’s true identity is the book’s biggest mystery, and it would have been hard to tell the story in her words without giving everything away. That’s why I made Ananke the narrator. She may not be as cool or dangerous as Kiki Strike, but she ends up being the real hero of Kiki Strike.

Me: Did you do “profiles” of your characters before writing or did you let them develop themselves?
Kirsten: I did write profiles for each of the characters. In fact, there’s a lot of juicy information that I know about them that hasn’t made it into any of the books (yet). But when you’re writing a book, your characters don’t really come to life until they start interacting (and fighting) with each other. So I learned a great deal about them as I was writing. By the time I was done, I almost felt like they were friends of mine.

Me: How did you come up with Kiki’s haunting appearance? Did you plan it ahead of time or did it just sort of come to you?
Kirsten: I knew what Kiki looked like long before I ever started writing the book. I wanted her to be the sort of person who wouldn’t usually be taken very seriously. She’s extremely small, rather sickly looking, and of course she’s a girl. She’s proof you can’t judge a person by her appearance. (And if you do, Kiki’s happy to kick your butt when you least expect it.)

Me: How long did it take you to write Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City?
Kirsten: About two years, but I had another job at the time, so it was harder than it might have been otherwise. The second book, The Empress’s Tomb, took about nine months to write.

Me: What’s your favorite part of this book?
Kirsten: I love it when Kiki takes Ananka to all the Girl Scout meetings, and Ananka encounters the other Irregulars for the first time. But I also love the scene when Ananka follows Kiki into Central Park during a blizzard and watches as Kiki mysteriously vanishes. That was one of the first scenes that I wrote, and it still captures my imagination.

Me: The dedication reads, “For the wonderfully irregular Caroline McDonalds, who first discovered the secret of Kiki Strike but didn’t live to share it.” What’s behind this dedication?
Kirsten: Caroline was a good friend of mine — and the first person to read Kiki Strike. She encouraged me to let other people read it, and without her I’m not sure if it would have been published. Tragically, Caroline died a few years ago. I dedicated the book to her as a way of saying thanks and letting her family know how important she had been to me.

Me: What’s your opinion of rats?
Kirsten: Ha! Great question. I lived in New York for years and never saw any rats. Then one day, my eyes were opened and I began to see them everywhere. I find them very interesting, and I love watching them in the subway. But I’d rather not get too close. All of the rat facts in Kiki Strike are true, so they’re definitely not a species I’d care to mess around with!

Me: Is there really a NYCmap, like the one in the book?
Kirsten: Yes, there is a real NYCmap, and it’s almost exactly as it’s described in the book! (All of the strangest things in the book are real — including Bannerman’s Castle.)

Me: Were the how-to blurbs at the end of the chapters an idea you had when you wrote the first draft?
Kirsten: The “How-To” tips were always part of the book. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to give readers information they could take away with them and use in their everyday lives. In my opinion, everyone should know how to foil a kidnapping or disguise her appearance! And believe me, researching the “How-To” tips was quite educational. I’m far more dangerous than I ever was before.

Me: Do you own a Swiss Army Knife?
Kirsten: Of course! I’m quite handy with it, too. Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of forgetting to take my SAKs out of my handbag before getting on airplanes. I’ve had two or three confiscated.

Me: Did you have fun writing Kiki Strike? What was the best part of writing this book?
Kirsten: I had an absolute blast writing Kiki Strike, but I gotta admit it was hard work, too. The best part has been hearing from people who loved the book. There’s nothing better than knowing that I’ve inspired young people to learn how to pick locks or lift fingerprints. Soon, we’ll all take over the world! (Evil laughter.)

Me: How many books do you intend to have in the Kiki Strike series?
Kirsten: I would love to write a book for each of the Irregulars. Right now, I’m working on #3, which focuses a bit more on Betty Bent. It’s going to be AMAZING! It’s filled with danger, intrigue, secret societies, and escargot.

Review: Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City
Life starts getting exciting for Ananka when she meets Kiki, a girl who’s as strong as she is secretive. After stumbling upon an underground room, Ananka becomes more curious about the city she’s lived in her entire life. Soon, she’s on an adventure with Kiki and four ex-Girl Scouts. An adventure to save New York and accomplish something else at the same time — something only Kiki knows about. Is Kiki really the “good guy” in this story? Or has Ananka fallen in with the wrong crowd? Find out by reading this fast-paced, original adventure story by Kirsten Miller.

Read my recent review of Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers.

Book Review – Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers

In eighth grade, my best friend told me I should read Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City, a book that sat on her bedroom bookshelf under the typical scattered pile of young teenager stuff. “You’d like it,” she said.

I don’t remember if I borrowed her copy or ordered one from the library, but I read it and she was right. I liked it. A lot. More than A Series of Unfortunate Events. More than Artemis Fowl. More than Kate Klise’s Trial by Journal and Regarding the. . . series. More than Ella Enchanted and Donna Jo Napoli’s Bound.

At that point, Inside the Shadow City was the only published Kiki Strike book. Thank goodness the author, Kirsten Miller, blogged. I started visiting kikistrike.com every time I had Internet access and devouring Kirsten Miller’s endless posts about bizarre reality. When book two, The Empress’s Tomb, came out, I immediately ordered it via interlibrary loan and devoured it.

But book three . . . The Darkness Dwellers came out when I was a junior in college. I wasn’t keeping close track of Kiki Strike anymore. I was focused on my own writing and, you know, class. So it wasn’t until just recently that I got my hands on the third book in the series.

I have to admit — I was nervous I wouldn’t like Kiki Strike anymore. College has the dangerous ability to make “literary types” (which I sort of am, but not in the over-analytical English major sense) pretentiously picky about books. And, in my attempts early this year to read and review fiction, I’d failed to find a book I actually liked.

Would Kirsten Miller’s Kiki Strike be as good as I remembered? Would I still like to read the bizarre adventures of young teenage girls running around New York City?

The answer:

YES.

Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers is as good as the previous two books and, I would say, actually takes it up a notch. Kirsten Miller does a great job of weaving multiple characters and storylines together in a way that keeps you on your toes, guessing, and pulls you along into the action — and this is Kiki Strike, so action means more than “stuff happens”. These girls kick butt. They’re also not airheads in any way, shape, or form, which too often happens in so-called “children’s” literature, when authors don’t respect their audience. These girls are smart, resourceful, and remarkably self-aware — all traits that most “kids” possess, but grownups overlook.

I read this book faster than anything else I’ve read recently. I repeatedly found myself staying up later than advisable on work nights to get another chapter in. And Kirsten Miller’s witty sarcasm had me literally laughing out loud. So if you like fun books that incorporate random trivia with adventures that could happen (if adults ignored/paid no attention/didn’t believe what their kids were up to), read The Darkness Dwellers. And if you know an 11-, 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-year-old girl who’s interested in more than lip gloss and boys, buy her a copy (start with the first one). Heck, boys those ages might be interested, too.

In 2008, I interviewed Kirsten Miller, author of Kiki Strike, via email for my then-magazine Messenger Girl.