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Poetry Begets More Poetry

Actually, I find any-kind-of-writing begets more any-kind-of-writing. Unless you go and strain a writing-muscle through stress from over-exertion. And yes, that muscle is located in your head not in your hand (trust me, I know what I’m talking about when it comes to this kind of science. I’m an English major.) But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start just over a year ago — we could go back two years, or even ten years, but you aren’t here for my life history, and besides, I’d need more than just one blog post for that*.

So anyways, about a year ago, high school was just winding down and my life was a flurry of essays, exams and endless excuses to avoid writing. Including this disaster. But, amidst this madness, I had to think about an end-of-the-year-teacher’s-gift to end all end-of- the-year-teacher’s-gifts for the English teacher who changed my life. I was maybe going to write her a poem or something, like I used to do for my parents’ and grandparents’ birthdays, but… That would be lame. And what kind of present is that? Gosh, that would make me seem rather full of myself. And she wouldn’t even like it. And. And. And. Excuses, excuses. Anything not to write. You know, despite all my well thought out plans to write so much that summer.

But then I found myself bored one weekend, so I took out a book of poetry, a collection of villanelles, and read way more poems in one sitting than is recommended by most doctors. Because doctors are science people. So they don’t like poetry. William Carlos Williams excepted, of course. Anyways. Poetry. So I had villanelles on my mind. And I had this teacher who I needed a gift for on my mind. And my mind is very good at making connections. So I thought of a villanelle for this teacher. And I wrote it down. And I rewrote it and tested how the words tasted in my mouth and I rewrote some more. Finally I loved it. I showed it to my mom and she loved it. I showed it to my grandfather and he loved it. Okay. Great. I figured it out. I was going to write a little, mini poetry collection for this teacher. I’d write three more poems, which would get me to four — see, this English major can even do math!

So I wrote and revised and wrote and revised, and I loved it and hated it, and it was impossibly easy and impossibly hard. You know, just your standard creative process. And I finally finished this project (or at least got it to a point where it was hand-in-able) around two a.m. the night before I planned on giving it to her. I was really proud of that collection of poems. And it was the greatest teacher’s gift she’s ever received in twelve years of teaching. At least that’s what she told me. Or maybe I just told myself that. Hmm. It was a whole year ago, cut me some slack.

So, okay, reading that collection of poetry that one wild weekend was the joyous conception of the poems I later labouriously birthed. So to speak. And then the cuddly, precious new poems I now had were supposed to convince me that I needed to write even more poems because, aw, just look how soft and pink they were! But that didn’t work out so well. Because I just couldn’t forget the hardship of bringing them into the world like I was supposedly supposed to.

Also, I believe that the ordeal had overworked my already-injured writing-muscle. Which, again, is located in the cranium. (That means head. I think.)

And then, being myself, I jumped head (and writing-muscle) first into a remarkable act of stupidity. Shortly after the above mentioned incidents, it was three days after my last exam, a week or so before prom and graduation. And someone on my twitter feed informed me that Camp NaNoWriMo had started yesterday.

“Hey!” I thought. “How about I write a novel this month!? I could expand that fragmentary story that would work so well as a novel!”

“Hey!” one of the voices in my head should have shouted back. “How about you calm the #*@& down! Write ‘cuz it makes you happy, not cuz some dumb chart on a website tells you that you still have 1008 words left to write today! And calm down!”

Well that voice kept its mouth shut, so instead I dove in, ignoring the sign on the pool deck that clearly stated NO DIVING, and I hit my head on the bottom of the pool. I’m not really sure what the pool (or anything else, for that matter) is supposed to represent in that metaphor. Let me know if you figure it out.

So yeah. I kind of did some serious damage to my writing-muscle. So writing wasn’t really begetting more writing for a while. It was begetting frustration. Not writing was also begetting frustration. Because it’s no fun to be a writer (at an artsy school where my writing was supposed to flourish, no less) who doesn’t write.

And you know what helped? Not writing. Not forcing it. Forced and enforced writing and writing habits made writing a chore, and a painful one at that. So for a while I didn’t write much. And while I wasn’t writing much, I was reading books that I thought would make me smarter, more literary, more inclined to write. Then I came home from being away at school and I stopped that nonsense. I started reading stuff that I wanted to read. Mostly fun, light collections of essays from the humour section by the likes of Nora Ephron and Mindy Kaling.

And then I read a whole collection of poetry by Bronwen Wallace in one sitting, maybe two. She’s a brilliant Canadian poet, and it just occurred to me it was one of her poems which I based my “masterpiece” on a year ago. It’s rather fitting too, because a day or two after reading her poems, a poem of my own flew through my head. And I caught on to it and wrote it down. This was only two or three weeks ago, but since then, lines from poems that want to be written keep coming to me and I keep writing them and more and more poems continue to fill up my notebooks.

And they don’t have to be good and they don’t have to be about important things. They just have to be and just by being, they will even more poems to be. And the more poems filling my notebooks the better, right?

Hey there! You, yeah, you in the corner! What inspires you to write? What kind of writing are you doing these days? Do you see much of a connection between what you read and what you write?

*But if you wanted to know where I’d start that story, it would be here, at the ripe young age of eight.

For Whom Do We Write and Why and How?

Writing’s paradoxical. Write for yourself. But have the reader in mind. But write for the sake of writing. But make sure it’s good enough to be read and (hopefully) published. Of course, that’s creative, fictitious writing. What about blogging? Blogging is extra egotistic. You can say whatever you want, about whatever you want and publish it by yourself as easily, and as quickly, as you can click a button. And then you actually expect people to read what you’ve written. People you’ve never met, who know nothing about you and have no reason to care about what you have to say. People who really have no business caring about whatever problems you’re either making light of or melodramatizing for their reading pleasure.

Blogging is probably, for me, the ultimate combination of writing for others and yourself at the same time, from the moment your fingertips touch the keyboard. On the one hand, it’s very much a thing of vanity, in the same way self-publishing is often referred to as  vanity publishing. You do it so you can say (and/or feel), hey look, there are people who read what I write — don’t I feel special for having readers? Aren’t I such a great writer? I’m published, on the internet, for the whole world to read! But, while it is very self-centred in one sense, you also tend to be be very aware of the fact that people will read what you’re writing — and very soon. You’ll “publish” it as soon as it’s “perfect” or sometimes just “good enough” and people will read it (if they do at all) somewhat immediately. It doesn’t have to go through any third parties. No one has to validate what you’ve written. No one censors it. No one even looks it over for spelling errors. This sounds pretty powerful, but in itself, it isn’t. Because you need readers. Readers are what makes it powerful. Without readers, you’re just some loser, sitting at a keyboard. Writing for yourself.

Credit: students.washington.edu

But what about “real” writing? Fiction writing? Fiction that you don’t plan on self-publishing online? Who do you write it for? For yourself? Or for your readers? Who knows if you’ll ever even have readers? Who knows if it will ever even be published? And if it is published, so what? What then? Will it last? If it’s in a magazine, will it ever be read more than once, before the magazine is tossed to the side to make way for the next issue? If it’s a book, will it sell? Will it survive? Or will it shortly (or even not so shortly) go out of print — which to me sounds like the most horrible, tragic thing imaginable.

And what matters, anyways? Success when a book is published, during the author’s lifetime? Or a book that doesn’t go out of print for years and years, even after the author has died, but didn’t have much acclaim while the author was living? Of course, I’m thinking of literary fiction here. In principle, I think that’s all that really counts. That’s all I think is worthy of a writer’s time. I know this probably sounds very snobby, and I’m probably stepping on a few feet (something I tend to accidentally do literally). But I stand by that. Because, while I’m on this whole, existential, why do we write, “to be or not to be” style rant, I may as well throw the literary vs. “mainstream” fiction debate into the mix. I mean, yes, sure, people who write bestsellers must enjoy their vanity-filled, money-making fifteen minutes of fame. But then what? What happens when those fifteen minutes (or in some cases fifteen years) of fame end? Some may argue that those few authors are pretty damn happy, sipping champagne from the top of their piles of money. “Who cares that they’ll be forgotten?” some people say. Well I think, that if they’re real, introspective, insightful writers, then they should care. What about leaving a legacy? Don’t people care to change to world? To leave something behind? To touch other’s lives for longer than the time it takes them to get from the front cover to the back?

I probably sound like a bit of a naïve, idealistic teenager. But I know this, which tends to get in the way of that wonderful, youthful idealism. In fact, this idealism takes a hit from reality quite often. And, perhaps because of the way I cleave to this idealism, reality tends to come at me like a slap in the face and leave me sore for days. I sit up on my (very) high horse, criticizing authors like E. L. James (the woman gave the world the pleasure of Fifty Shades of Grey), whose work I would never condescend to read, and yet I often wonder who am I to criticize? At least this E. L. James woman has taken pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and had enough discipline to sit down and get out enough words to fill three entire “novels” (if they’re even deserving of that title). And yet, here I am, criticizing myself for criticizing her, and I can’t even do that without poking fun at her and her books.

I’ve been focussing my writing energies on blogging lately and with less feeling I should be doing it and more just doing it. But then I feel as though blogging isn’t real writing. I feel as though it “doesn’t count”. Because, after all, who’s going to read my blog a hundred years from now? Is there even anyone who’s still reading my posts from a month ago? The awesome, brilliant posts that I put so much love and effort into and care about with all my heart and soul?

And so, with this slightly pressing upon the back of my mind, and feeling a little unsettled that I haven’t written any fiction in the past few weeks, I opened up a notebook, hoping to try out a writing prompt. When I opened the notebook, I found a little sketch I had been working on recently, but abandoned (or got distracted from) after about a page and a half. It was a great idea. Very meta-fictitious. Very satirical. Very awesome. So I started adding to it. Tried to move it forward. But I couldn’t. Because I started thinking too much. What was I going to do with it? Who was going to read it? Could I really make it good enough for people to actually get it? For people to actually enjoy? Could I really pull it off?

Cartoon credit: offthemark.com

My problem, and I assume it’s a very common problem and why there aren’t even more people who have written books, is that once the initial excitement wears off, after the moment of inspiration passes, I get tired of it. I can’t seem to keep going. I get bored of what I’m working on. No, bored probably isn’t the right word. What I get is stressed. I do this thing where I forget how to breathe. I forget how to keep my butt where it is and keep going. I imagine that I’ve forgotten how to write. Because, instead of focussing on writing, I’m focussing on editing the only three words I have until perfection. I’m focussing on what’s going to become of what I’m writing once it’s written. I’m focussing on how certain people may perceive the sentence I’m about to write, but haven’t even gotten onto the page yet.

Writing is a paradox. You need the idealism. You need the inspiration. But you need to be realistic. You need to be persistent. You need to sit down and (very unromantically) get some words onto the page. You have to sit for hours. Sometimes you have to avoid people. And stay away from the internet. But, funnily enough, I think the idealism, the naiveté, the total abandon is most important while you’re unromantically plowing through pages, cranking out some words, trudging through the first draft. It isn’t how you’d idealize the writer’s life, but it’s what needs the most idealism. That’s when you have to stop caring what will happen to it and just write. Write for yourself, write thinking of the best possible fate for your darling brainchild or write thinking nothing at all.

Then rationality and reality can probably return when you edit. Then you can set the inner critic loose and think about what’s going to become of it. All the hoops you’ll have to jump through. All the revisions you’ll have to make to your precious baby. But by then, you’ll have something. And you’ll be proud of it. And (after some time has elapsed and you can look at it realistically again and not as a peace of perfection that’s just emerged from your brilliant brain) you’ll be able to make changes. I’ve seen copies of (and original) manuscripts from classic, brilliant authors and they’re all the same. The rough drafts all crossed out and rewritten and scribbled over so much, you can scarcely see the original text. I imagine very little of what we read was written the same (or even included at all) in the first draft. And yet, there was once a first draft. Even writers whose work is being read years after they died started as a terrible, awful rough draft. And those masterpieces couldn’t have been edited and become what they are now without those original drafts, because without those drafts, there would have been nothing to edit.

Of course, realizing and writing all that was the easy part — now all I have to do is internalize it and try to take some of my own advice. What about you? Do you have any sage wisdom to share? Why do you write? Who do you write for? How do you get through those first drafts? And, most importantly, do you think blogging counts?

Books, Books, and More Books (But Not eBooks)

I like books. Obviously. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t talk (write) about them so much. But I’m also really picky about my books. I REFUSE to read eBooks. I hate them. They’re awful. End of discussion. The other day took this online survey about teenagers’ reading habits. It wanted to know if I read eBooks. Then it wanted to know why not. I was allowed to click as many options as I wanted. In addition to “I don’t think I would like it” and “I prefer physical books”, I selected “other” and wrote “I don’t read eBooks because doing so is heresy”. This is something I stand by. I love technology (when I know how to use it) and I, like most teenagers, spend way too much time on my iPhone and Laptop. But when it  comes to reading, I like books. Real, live, honest to goodness books.

Cartoon Credit: cartoonstock.com

If I’m not reading a book in actual book format, it just doesn’t feel like reading. I love the feeling of accomplishment every time I turn a physical page. I love being able to see how close or far I am from the end. I love being able to highlight a good line and write all over the margins. I like the way books feel. I like the way books smell. I like the way books look.

But that brings me to another point. Not only am I picky in that I won’t read a book that isn’t in book format, but I kind of judge books by their covers. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’d rather read Pride and Prejudice with an ugly cover than Wuthering Heights with a beautiful cover, any hour of the day. Heck, I’d even read P&P on my iPhone, if Wuthering Heights was my only other option. But I’d really rather a physical book, with a pretty cover. 

And obviously what I’m reading matters. A lot. Because I’m also very picky (and probably a little snobby) about what I read. Which leads me to a confession. I, lover of books, a self-professed book nerd (or so my tagline says), do not own very many books. Oh, sure, I have plenty of books. Probably more than some people. And my relatively small collection is probably made up of “more quality than quantity”. But, still. At least a have a good excuse for it. Or at least a couple of not so great excuses.

Excuse Number One: The Literarily Deprived Childhood

Cartoon Credit: The New Yorker

Whenever I complain about anything, especially about to my perfect, easy childhood, my mother always apologizes with oodles of sarcasm. “I’m an awful mother,” she’ll say. “You are/were such a deprived child.” I really did read a lot when I was a kid. I loved going to the library. In fact, one of my favourite early childhood memories involves reading picture books at the library with my daddy, surrounded by piles and piles of books. It was awesome. And my parents totally encouraged me in reading. They loved reading. Reading was a very noble and smart activity. But while I read a lot, it was quantity over quality. I read loads of very forgettable books. And I read them somewhat quickly. So my Mom didn’t want to “waste money” on “mere books” that I breezed through and would likely never read again. And, I mean, she was probably right. Most of those books probably weren’t really worth buying. (Because my mother, awfully negligent as she was, never introduced me to incredibly, awesome classics or anything such. I didn’t even read Anne of Green Gables until I was 16. It had to be recommended by a teacher — although, at least it was a teacher who’s attained like-a-mother status. That recommendation is probably why.) So then I got into this habit of not buying books. Books were to be taken out of the library — why on earth would anyone do otherwise?

But then I read Pride and Prejudice (recommended by the same teacher — obviously). And that changed everything. Other than a handful of totally random books, it was the first book I ever actually owned.  I didn’t even buy it at first and when I did, I wasn’t even the one who purchased it. I took it out of the library, as I always did. What else would I have done? But, as I talk about in this post, I didn’t really understand it. I complained about this to my father, and he did something absurd. He went to the bookstore. And he bought me– Oh God. I can’t even say this. It feels so dirty. He bought me… SparkNotes. SparkNotes, for those of you who are lucky (or smart) enough to have never heard of such an atrocity, are study guides that summarize and analyze books so that (idiotic) students don’t have to bother reading the books they’re supposed to read for school. All I said to my dad was that I wished I could be learning the book in school, so I could understand it. I’ve never condescended to use a study guide for a book we’re learning in school (even before I decided that I was “passionate” about English) and I wasn’t about to start then — especially with a book that I was reading for pleasure. Then my dad did something smart. He bought me The Annotated P&P which I’ve mentioned a few times before. I really owe a lot of my understanding of Jane’s works to that book. But I was a little bit concerned. It wasn’t like I adored the book, based on the few chapters I’d already read — far from it. How did I know I’d even like it by the end? It’s not as though I’d ever reread it or anything. It would just sit around taking up space for all eternity. Or so I thought… (By now I’ve read it at least five times. In the past two years.)

Excuse Number Two: I Screen Books Before Buying Them

So Pride and Prejudice turned out to be a good buy. And, like I said, aside from books for English class, it was one of the first books I actually owned. (Also aside from picture books when I was little, I guess.) After that, I loved owning books. I also fell in love with rereading books. But, the problem remains that I’m very picky. And very skeptical of what I will or won’t like. So, a lot of the time, I still get a new book from the library, and then only after I’ve finished reading it will I actually purchase it, to showcase on my bookshelf (which is pretty much a shrine to awesome books). Because I don’t like having books I haven’t read sitting around. It makes me nervous.  And buying a book I’ve yet to read and don’t yet know I’ll like makes me nervous too. Because books take up valuable space and it’s not as though you can just  get rid of a book you don’t like. If you bought it, it’s yours forever.

Also, books are seductive. If I don’t exercise some form of self-control, I could seriously find five books to buy every time I step into a book store. And then I’d just have a panic attack from all the unread books. I wouldn’t know where to start, so I’d start them all. All at the same time. And then my brain would explode and I’d never make any progress through any of them. And then I’d probably deal with this situation by buying even more books.

So I try to test drive books from the library and I try to only buy a books when I’ve declared it to be my new favouritest book in the whole wide world.

Excuse Number 3: Back to Judging Books by Their Covers

I don’t like having ugly books on my shelf. And even more than that, I do like having pretty books on my shelves. Returning to my first encounter with (and purchasing of) Jane Austen, I made a mistake when I bought all of Jane’s works. I was still a very amateur book buyer. I had no clue what I was doing. I had my Annotated P&P, which had a lovely cover, but the next two books I read came from the library. I already knew that Jane was the most brilliant writer of all time, so I decided I needed to buy all six of her books. This wasn’t my mistake. My mistake was going to the bookstore with Daddy, deciding I needed to buy all her books at once, and letting him help me pick. I had NO clue what I was doing. The editions we got were hideous. Some of them were paperback Modern Library editions and the rest were paperback Penguin Classics. And not nice Penguin Classics, we’re talking about the ugliest, cheapest Penguin Classics you’ve ever seen. 

My bookshelf.

And then, later in life (about a year later) I discovered pretty books. Then I discovered hardcover books. Then I discovered Clothbound Penguin Classics. Books that I would be proud to house on my sacred bookshelf. Since then my collection has been growing considerably. And then when I was in England I went kind of crazy and bought a whole ton of books — most of which I had never read before. Of course, they were mostly poetry collections, which is my exception to the screening rule. Here’s a snapshot of my bookshelf on the left. I use the word snapshot because it is a picture of a fleeting moment in time — my bookshelf is constantly being added to and reorganized. I’m very proud of it. I recently reorganized it, which was the inspiration for this post. The top shelf is mostly poetry and/or new stuff from England. The second from the top is my shrine to Jane Austen — it’s overflowing, which is pretty strange as the woman only wrote six novels… It may have something to do with my three copies of Pride and Prejudice… The third from the top is mostly classics. The bottom shelf is mostly stuff I’ve read for school.

So, what’s on your bookshelf? A lot of so-so books? A few really great books? A lot of really great books? And where do you stand on eBooks? Am I the only one who refuses to move into the 21st century?

Running Around in the Rain

I should really be doing something else. That seems to be the most prevalent theme in my life. The constant internal conflict. I want to do this but I should be doing that. And then, as soon as I can do the thing I wanted to do, I don’t want to do it anymore. I want to do something else, and the previous want becomes the current should. During the school year, I want to be blogging or writing creatively or sitting around all day reading or even just finding some time to clean my room. What I should doing is homework. Of course, I procrastinate the homework, but feel that if I’m not doing homework, how dare I do anything else, so the things I want to do get procrastinated as well. I certainly have time to do both, but the things I enjoy always seem to take back seat.

So, I make all this wonderful resolutions. I decide that when the summer comes, I’ll do all those things I would love to be doing during the school year, but just can’t. I never plan to do very much in the summer, like get a job or go to camp, and I tell people that I don’t have plans aside from a week or so at the cottage and a week or so on vacation. But I do have plans. I plan to read — smart books, enjoyable books, any and all books — I plan to write — blog posts, short stories, a flipping novel — I plan to organize — my closet, my room, my life. In short, I plan to do everything that will make me happy, I plan to conquer the freaking world. But then, because I plan to do all these things and have the best summer I’ve ever had (and do all this because it’s what I want to do), all these wants become shoulds.

And it isn’t just that I should read, because I like reading, but then it’s about what I should read. I should read smart novels and stories and poems, that will expand my mind and make me seem smart, but then, I should also be enjoying what I’m reading. And so, if I decide that I’m going to spend this moment reading, and even if I’m not thinking of all the other things I should be enjoying, I worry that maybe I should be reading a different book. It’s the same with writing. Should I write on my blog now? In a journal? Should I instead be writing ficticiously? Should I be trying out a writing prompt? Maybe I should give my “novel” a go?

This moment, I’ve chosen writing on my blog. But now I feel that maybe I should abandon this post, because who wants to hear me complain about my pathetic problems? I should really be writing about the trip to England I just got back from. I should tell you about my visits to Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born or to Bath, where Jane Austen once lived. I should review one of the three Shakespeare plays I saw. I should be writing about those experiences or any of the other very cool, very literary things I saw and did. But I just don’t feel like it. Probably only because that’s what I think I should be writing about.

One of the pictures I took in England that I feel like I SHOULD post. Taken at 4 Sydney Place in Bath — where Jane Austen once lived.

That’s really the problem with me. I never want to do anything if I actually can. If I should. Only if I can’t. I never feel as compelled to write as when I don’t have a pen and paper with me or as when I have stuff to do that I don’t feel like doing. I never feel as compelled to blog as when I don’t have internet access or my laptop handy. I was itching to post on my blog for the two first days of my trip when I still hadn’t gotten internet set up. Then, as soon as I did, I wrote this post, which didn’t have that much to do with the awesome things I was actually doing in England. The next day I wrote another post, also not really about what I had been doing and seeing. Neither were what I felt that I should be writing. After that, I had internet access the entire rest of the trip and we were back at the hotel fairly early a few nights. But because I knew I could blog, I didn’t really feel compelled to. I’m on vacation, I reasoned. I’ll post when I get home. Because that’s always how it is with me. I’ll do it later. I’ll do it at this or that future date. Then I’ll have the time. I’ll have the motivation. It’ll happen. Later. I hadn’t posted what (or as much as) I had wanted. I felt okay with my justifications and I had a marvellous trip, but I still l felt a little uneasy. I had all these nagging shoulds. I enjoyed everything I did, and everything I did was something I wanted to be doing, but I was in England, so they felt very much like wants I should have. And I still felt the compulsion to blog and write about it, but without the desire and drive to do so.

But then today I tried something different. My room is still in a messy state, as I started cleaning it a couple of weeks ago and decided to finish it later. Add all the stuff I brought back from England to that mess and it’s really not looking so good. So I have to deal with that. Then there’s the stuff I should be doing because I want to. The reading, the blogging, the writing. I was going to do all of this today. I was also going to go run some errands and then come home and sit out in the sun because it was beautiful outside today. The latter two items involve getting dressed (something I tend to avoid until I actually leave the house). So I woke up and spent a few hours taking a shower and eating breakfast and figuring out what to wear — because these are totally things that should take a person a few hours. I was all dressed and ready to leave the house and about to go out, when the clear, blue sky clouded over and began spewing drops of rain.

I was stuck. It was another should versus want to situation. You see, I love the rain. I love the sun even more, but when I have no need to remain dry and a warm towel is at the ready, nothing gives me more joy, nothing is more exhilarating, than running around in the rain. Not only was it something I desperately wanted to do, but it was the epitome of a should not. Who would go out and run around in the rain? What was I thinking? Surely I’d catch my death. Besides, I had just, finally figured out what to wear and gotten dressed. I had things to do, things that I should do.

So I did what any reasonable person would have done. I changed into something I didn’t mind getting wet and I went outside to run around in the rain. My sister refused to join me. Someone who was at my house laughed at me when I came inside with water streaming from my hair and clothes. My mother shook her head — I think ‘crazy’ was the word she used to describe me. But you know what? I didn’t catch my death. I felt as though I had caught my life. Sure, when I came inside I was dripping and shivering. But outside, despite the rain, it was warm, peaceful. I love the steady sound of rain, hitting the wooden deck. I love walking barefoot through warm puddles. I love the warm wind whipping around, throwing raindrops in my face. It feels so good to just let go sometimes. To forget what you should do, forget what other people think, forget how cold you’ll be the moment you come inside and get hit with the freezing air-conditioning.

And because let myself do that, I felt like I had accomplished something. I felt really good about myself, about my decisions, about my life. And now I’ve finally been able to just sit down to blog — something I should do — without feeling like I should be doing this or should be doing something else.

Of course there will always be things that should be done and have to done. Things I don’t want to do, but have to do anyways. But maybe sometimes it’s easier (and more enjoyable) to do those things, if I give myself permission to do something I want once in a while. To do something unreasonable and unnecessary and perhaps a little crazy. Just as long as there’s a dry towel waiting for me when I come inside.

What about you? Do you have a constant should versus want to debate inside your head? How do you reconcile with doing things you’d rather not? Do want to’s ever become shoulds for you?

People Watching

Coming to you live from the top of a double decker in London. I love riding up here. It reminds me of Dead Poet’s Society — the scene where Mr. Keating has his students get up on his desk, explaining that they should constantly look at the world from a different perspective.

This is just like, that but on a greater scale. I think this view is far better and more interesting than looking down from a window in a tall building. From there, you can see the big picture, the context, the other buildings. From here you see the small, but to me more import, picture: people. It’s almost like watching a play: you’re removed enough from the action to observe the scenes unfolding, but close enough to still feel like you’re part of the action.

Of course, you only get a cursory view and judgement is completely superficial and based solely on a brief view of people’s appearances. But still, you see how people dress, how they walk, how they interact with each other. You get to be super creepy and blatantly stare at all the pedestrians, under the guise of politely looking out the window.

And because you’re surrounded by people, sitting very close to you in a contained place, you’re afforded another, equally intriguing, opportunity to observe people. You have to be more careful not to stare too blatantly at your fellow passengers — it gets super awkward if they look your way — but because you’re so close, you get to overhear lots of interesting conversations. Did you know British people actually say “bloody hell” and “cheers”, just like in movies? They do. They say both of these things in the same 3 minute phone call.

Whenever I have to chance to creepily watch people, I love entertaining myself by imagining their back stories. Are the married? Do they have kids? Are they school? What do they study? What kind of job do they have? Where are they on their way to? What’s their relationship with the person they’re with? Are they happy?

This probably makes me sound like Briony in Atonement by Ian McEwan — not believing that everyone else is as alive as me and making up my own stories about other people and such. But, it’s not like that. Really. I know I’m only getting half and quarter stories. I know that whatever I think of these people is biased and may be wrong. I have no faith that the stories I tell myself about them are real.

But, regardless of the flaws in the ideas I form, I cannot deny myself this pleasure. I’ve always loved looking around at the people around me. Perhaps it’s because I’m “a writer”. I guess that’s a pretty writer-ish thing to do. Observe the human condition, report it back through your own lens.

But that’s not why I do it. I do it because I just can’t resist. People are interesting. We watch plays and TV and read books to be entertained, but just sitting around listening to and watching real people can be even more entertaining.

Also, as opposed to Briony, who knows that everyone isn’t just as alive as she is, but just doesn’t feel it — and determines not to — I find this very obvious fact to be incredibly intriguing. Imagine, a whole world full of people who all see the differently from their own perspectives. Imagine getting a bunch of those people all on a bus together, all going their own way, subjectively stuck in their own heads, but doing so together? It’s invigorating. Everyone has their own story and to them, their’s is realest.

That’s my side of my story, anyway. What’s your side? Am I the only one who does this? Or are there other people who do this too? Come on other people like me, tell me I’m not alone.

For the Love of Jane

I first got acquainted with Jane Austen when I was in grade ten. It changed my life. Obviously. It was also the start of a delightful little obsession. An addiction you might even say. And then I kind of got over that. I really thought I was cured. Turns out I was just in remission, ’cause the sickness is back. Will it ever be gone for good? I sure hope not.

A modern imagination of Jane. Probably more accurate (and pretty) than the other “fake” pics floating around. If you’re as ardent (crazy) a fan as me, you know what I mean. If not, google it. There is more out in Jane’s corner of the web than you would ever care to know. Photo credit: pemberley.com

With the start of the summer (during which I planned on reading lots of new books) I find myself going back to Jane. Maybe it’s because with high school ending and The Rest of My Life starting (as if), it’s nice to have something consistent and familiar to go back to. To borrow a metaphor (actually a simile, but whatever) used a lot with regards to rereading, going back to Jane is like being re-acquainted with a dear old friend. Except, while the old familiarity, shared memories and old jokes are still around, when you meet up with someone from your past, you can’t expect that they’ll be exactly the same as they were when you were close. Which is okay, because you’ve also changed. While Jane’s words have remained the same since the last time I read them (and for the past two hundred years) I’ve certainly changed, so my reading and understanding of those words has too. We (the book and I — just in case I lost anyone there) have a different relationship now. It can’t be the same as it was before, but you know what? That’s okay.

Photo credit: goodreads.com

My very first impression of Jane Austen was (appropriately) based on Pride and Prejudice. For the first several pages, that impression was not a wholly positive one. A teacher (The English Teacher) recommended I read it and I was really excited to do so. Then I did and I thought that teacher was insane for suggesting it. It was just so prim and proper and old-fashioned-y. Although, I do have to admit that I didn’t really understand it at first. That’s probably an understatement. I thought Lady Catherine De Bourgh was Mr. Collins’ wife. That was not fabricated for your amusement, I could not make such ignorance up. And in my defence, how was I supposed to know WTF a “patroness” was? Why else he would need some woman’s permission to come visit his relatives, unless they were married? It’s a good thing I switched to The Annotated Pride and Prejudice before he started courting and proposing to half the girls in Hertfordshire, all because Lady C wants him ‘settled’. Then it would have gotten really confusing. And weird. And Mr. Collins is weird enough without my misunderstanding his relationship status with Lady C.

Once I actually understood P&P (or at the very least understood what was going on in it) I fell ardently in love with it for the same reasons I had initially disliked and misunderstood it. The primness. The propriety. The old-fashioned-y-ness. It also may have had something to do with Colin Firth in a wet shirt, but you know, whatever. Anyway, as the cliche goes, high school kind of sucks, and Jane was my escape. I could float away into the world she created with her well-chosen, beautiful worlds and forget about everything else. I’d live in ravishing country estates with my new best friends Lizzy, Emma, Catherine and Marianne; I would swoon over Mr. Darcy, Mr. Knightley and Henry Tilney, doodling their names all over my Science notebook, in my best, most Jane Austen-y cursive. I was more “well-adjusted” by the time I got to grade eleven and twelve, finally finding my place with a steady group of friends, but until then, I had Jane. She helped me so much during that awkward year and to her and her heroines (and we can’t forget those heros) I will always be grateful.

There is NO screenshot that can possibly do justice to this moment. Also, posting pictures such as this one is half the reason I started this blog. I’m being serious.

I read P&P literally about three or four consecutive times upon first meeting it (in addition to at least as many viewings of the five and half hour movie), so since then I’ve tried (at times in vain) to stay away from it. That’s because Jane’s words have become so engrained in my mind that they’ve begun to (dare I say) lose their power to excite and instil new ideas. I thought it would be best to wait for a little to reread it, so I can take new and more profound meaning from those beautiful words and see them with fresh eyes rather than just looking at them on a page and doing little more than skimming due to my over-familiarity. Actually, keeping with the friend metaphor, it’s much like the way we can’t (and often just don’t) always judge and assess our close friends  objectively (or always notice all their merits) because we’re so used to them and all their idiosyncrasies. I’ve also been keeping carefully away from Emma because I really adore that one and wouldn’t want this to happen with that.

Now I’m re-assessing Jane with my reread of Northanger Abbey and it’s a very interesting experience. For some reason, I thought that despite my love for Catherine and Henry Tilney, I never really read this book that much, so it was immune to this phenomenon. It became my go-to for when I needed a jolt of Jane’s humour. Or was just between books and needed something to fall back on. But it now occurs to me that I’ve read the book at least three, (but potentially closer to five) times, in addition to watching the movie just as much, in the past two years since I first read it. So it’s more familiar than I thought. Kind of like a friend you like, but only hang out with a lot because you have a bunch of mutual friends, and then you’re suddenly struck by how close the two of you have gotten. It’s sort of like that. Let’s say. (It’s really not like that. I love Northanger Abbey and always have. It would have been a more appropriate simile if I had been talking about Mansfield Park — we’re only friends because it happens to be written by Jane — but that would never happen. Neither Fanny or Edmund are people who I can relate to, be entertained by, aspire to be like or swoon over.)

But despite my newfound familiarity with Northanger Abbey, and every single exchange between Catherine and Henry, I’ve changed and learned and grown since last reading it (or any novel by Jane). So there’s this weird disparity. On the one side, I feel overly familiar with the plot and dialogues and phrasing but at the same time I am continually shocked by how much I seem to have missed or misinterpreted the first few times I read it. Despite all my ardent love and admiration (as well as how many times I have read and reread each of Jane’s novels) I’m beginning to realize that I didn’t understand her works as thoroughly as I thought I originally did. Yes, Jane’s novels are set in fancy country estates, where her characters’ interactions are ruled by a very official laws of etiquette, but it turns out that this by no means implies that her novels are prim, proper or flowery. It turns out (and I say this as the biggest complement I can think to bestow) that Jane Austen was an ironic, sarcastic, satirical bitch. There are lines in Northanger that I cannot believe are written before my eyes and I wonder how they could possibly escaped me the first several times I read the book.

A lot of the new insight I’m seeing comes from my deeper understanding of and appreciation for satire and irony. I’ve (almost) always understood that you can’t take everything Jane says or all of her character’s words and actions at face value. I seem to be one of the few people who truly understands that when Jane coined the phrase “a truth universally acknowledged”, she intended for the phrase to imply that the clause following it isn’t really a cold, hard fact, people just think it’s the truth. For example, it is a truth universally acknowledged that universally acknowledged truths are true — i.e., a lot of people think that universally acknowledged truths are true, but they’re not. But, I don’t think I really understood the extent to which you really can’t trust a single word that flowed from Jane’s pen. I have made some pretty major life decisions based on lines in Northanger Abbey only to realize later that the line I was basing my life around was meant ironically. (I can’t share what those “major life decisions” are or what lines they are based on, because these decisions will seem fairly minor to you. Also, my misinterpretations and consequent decisions make me feel — and would make me look — like quite a silly, ignorant, little teenager.)

But the really interesting thing that I’ve been wondering lately is about the nature of this growth and deeper understanding. I can obviously understand Jane’s works differently now that I’ve grown and internalized the idea of irony a little more. The question is, was that learning and growth independent of Jane and her works, or was it Jane who taught me about irony and satire, and now I’m finally able to (consciously) apply it back to the works that taught it to me in the first place? It’s kind of a circular argument and it’s probably a bit of both.

Have you been rereading much lately? Are you gaining new insight or is it more of just a trip down memory lane? What’s on your summer reading list?

Just to be Understood

I get easily distracted. Very easily. I resolved to read more this summer. And write more. But in addition to being distracted by silly websites and watching TV, lately I’ve also been struggling to stay focused on a writing a blog post or reading a book for long enough to get through it, before moving on to another post or another book. I stay at home most of the summer and don’t go to camp or get a summer job. My friends don’t know why I do it, they get bored during the two weeks between the end of school and the beginning of whatever arrangements they have for the summer. Whereas, in my ‘doing nothing’, I feel that I have too much going on. I find myself with at least five unpublished drafts sitting in my “All Posts” page, and I’m in the middle of at least two books, with what feels like a million others begging me to read them.

This so-much-ness leaves me overwhelmed and paralyzed. Earlier this month I was participating in Camp NaNoWriMo, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned a million times, but I’m not even sure, because I can’t even remember which posts I’ve published and which are still just drafts and what I’ve even expressed in which post. I quit that, because it was stressing me out and I felt I would spend my time better focussing on things I enjoy — namely reading and writing. But then, with so many options for optimum enjoyment, my brain just explodes and I end up doing nothing. I resolve to write first thing when I wake up — before I do anything else. I did this with my NaNo novel and I’ve been doing this all week with a still unpublished blog post I’ve been struggling to write. Rather than help, this resolution generally tends to lead to wasted days, trying to psyche myself up to write, not letting myself enjoy any other activities before I do and eventually finding that it’s four in the afternoon, and I’m still in my pyjamas.

And, of course, by the time I do sit down at the computer, my family is all home from whatever awesome things they do with their lives and they start distracting me. My sister comes in and tries to steal my attention, just as I’ve finally given it to what I’m working on or my brother will ask me for a ride somewhere — I, as the oldest and the only sibling with a license, being the family chauffeur.

The worst is when my mom asks me to do things for her and I constantly disappoint her by being a scatterbrained idiot, who forgets to do those things. She’ll call when she’s out asking me to do something minor that should take about thirty seconds. I’ll get her call while I’m at home, agonizing about the fact that I should really be writing, and then I’ll forget about what she wanted as soon as I hang up the phone, due to the fact that I’m preoccupied with the battle going on in my brain. She’ll then arrive home — always just when I’ve started writing and am finally getting really ‘in the zone’ — and she’ll get upset that I haven’t done what she asked. And then she’ll call me downstairs and (after she’s expressed her intense disappointment) she’ll ask me to go run some errands and will think it’s just too likely a story that I’m in the middle of writing, just that second. What were you doing earlier? she’ll ask. Why are you always on that blog whenever I need something? I wonder the same thing. And when I tell her I’m working on a blog post that I’ve been struggling to write all week, she’ll discount my blog — because it isn’t as if I’m doing work for school or anything important — and she’ll tell me that it’s no excuse.

I’m painting a very harsh picture of my mother. Probably even a biased, angst-y, immature picture and that isn’t very fair of me, as she has got to be the best mother in the entire universe and I don’t deserve half of the wonderful things she does for me on a daily basis. She’s an incredibly supportive mother and believes in me and my writing abilities far more than I do. She’s the kind of mother who suggested that rather than take the practical approach and be an English teacher when I grow up — because what else am I supposed to do with the English degree I plan on getting? — I should “just be an author”. On the bestsellers list. Because that’s what happens to every person who takes it into their head to pick up a pen (or keyboard) and write. I’m not even exaggerating — she believes in my talents to a fault.

This is pretty much the antithesis of MY parents.
Still not sure if that’s a good thing.
Photo credit: glasbergen.com

But still, for all her perfection as a mother and cheerleader in one respect, we are very different people and a lot of the time, she just doesn’t get it. I know, I know. That has got to be the biggest cliché in the history of the world. A teenager who feels misunderstood. By her mother. Where (and how many times) have you heard that before? In the past week?

But, perhaps somewhat uniquely, I feel that her belief in me is part of the misunderstanding. I hate when people (especially my close relatives, who are obviously extremely biased) tell me that my writing is going to make me famous one day. It’s an absurd notion, completely misses the entire point and if I do end up publishing fiction as a career, I wouldn’t want to write the nonsense that tends to comprise the bestsellers list. My mom thinks that’s absurd and even snobbish of me, but I really wouldn’t want my writing filling the bestseller slot that’s been filled by the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey and other such silliness that’s sensational today but will be forgotten and covered in dust by tomorrow.

My other problem with such high and unrealistic praise (I’m not talking solely about my mother anymore, just generally my relatives who love me very much and misunderstand me in an equal proportion ) is that I feel the need to refute it. Both out of modesty (whether that humility it is sincere or affected) and because I like to think realistically about my talents to avoid inevitable disappointment. The problem with this, is that I feel like I regularly put myself down, to balance how much other people sometimes ‘put me up’. And that isn’t so good either.

I’m not saying that praise is a bad thing. In fact, I love showing my work to my family so I can hear them say nice things about it. And furthermore, I think that where constructive critique is involved, positive comments are just as beneficial as needs-improvement comments. However, fluffy, insubstantial, you’re-absolutely-brilliant-and-going-to-be-famous-one-day style praise helps no one. The helpful comments are the ones that highlight specific aspects that are done well. Like techniques that are used effectively or content that’s relatable.

This post has gone on longer than I expected it to, and has gone far more deeply into my deep-seated issues than I had intended, but I hope it was still somewhat relevant to you and you enjoyed it in some way. If not, at least I’m glad I was able to sit down and focus on it for long enough to get it out. Perhaps it was a little self gratifying, as a fellow blogger talks about in her thought-provoking post here. But even so, maybe the family members who shower on the praise will read this piece of writing (in raptures, I’m sure) and at least it may succeed in helping us all understand each other a little better. Because isn’t that all everyone really wants? Just to be understood?

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