Ways I’m Keeping Myself Sane(ish) in 2017

These aren’t New Year’s resolutions because January first is an arbitrary date and YOU CAN’T CONTROL ME, GREGORIAN CALENDAR!

But these are little things I’m doing to make me feel better about how I interact with the world. Take a look, one might be helpful to you.

Delete Twitter from my phone.
The problem is that I like Twitter. I spent a lot of time finding interesting articles, keeping up with interesting people, laughing at funny threads, and chit-chatting with friendly writers and writer friends who are far away. I like that. A lot.

What I don’t like is how much of my time was spent there. Time I could be doing the things I claim I want to do and don’t have time for. And I didn’t like how much of what I saw in my feed was inflammatory nonsense, or how people I like and respect were trolled.

I’ll still use Twitter. Just not on my phone. And that, I hope, makes me a little more purposeful about what I use my time for. Like …

Write every day.
This is one I’ve tried before, but it didn’t stick well. I still wrote, and a fair amount (see launched book here), but it was often in fits and spurts.

I find when I write every day for any significant stretch, I feel good. I’m a happier person when I write frequently. And when I write frequently, the writing comes easier. And consequently, I’m even happier.

Being happier and more productive is nice. So I’m going to do it more.

Read more.
I used to eat books like they were Girl Scout Thin Mints. (No, not straight out of the freezer; this is a metaphor, people.) But in the past few years it was life and work and blah, blah blah … we all know the things that go here because we all have those things.

And of course I’ve been reading, but not as much as I once did. And I probably won’t read as much as I once did until I retire, but I’d still like to read more than I did in 2016. So I set up a Goodreads challenge to read 40 books in 2017, but that might only happen if reading The Gruffalo over and over counts toward the total. (If it does, I definitely hit at least 100 in 2016.)

Pay for high-quality news.
I want analytical, insightful, well written information from someone who’s studied journalism. I want news that informs first, rather than entertains or placates or agitates. And I understand that to get that kind of quality, I have to pay for it. My particular choice is The Economist – it’s exceedingly well written, it’s analytical, they pay their writers as far as I can tell, and they make their slight bias clear. (All journalists and news outlets have a bias. If they tell you they don’t, they’re either lying or ignorant.)

Plus, supporting good, analytical news is important for at least two reasons:

  1. I get clear, sometimes challenging knowledge about what’s important in the world because a for-pay news service is necessarily focused on the quality of their reporting and information. (I’m trying to avoid GIGO for my brain.)
  2. Paying for news out of my pocket helps journalists focus on news. In order to keep turning a profit, “free” news services often need to focus more on keeping advertisers happy and appealing to the most people possible for good click rates and stickiness of their sites and apps. This is not conducive to thoughtful, challenging reporting.

Support causes I believe in.
I don’t have specifics here. More research is required in this, an ongoing effort to be engaged in what happens to our world and the people I care about. But a few of the many things that are important to me include supporting libraries and spreading the availability and quality of education. Certainly, there are many just and wonderful causes. But it seems to me that all those just causes will do much better when lots of people are informed, thoughtful, participants.

 

And you? What are your secrets for clinging to your sanity in 2017?

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Thanks for the Books, Mom and Dad

I don’t remember the specifics of the summer (summers?) when my mom took me to the library for the reading program. It was for one of those things where a kid reads some books and earns points or toys or something to encourage reading. I didn’t need the encouragement, but I enjoyed it regardless.

Our visits could have been weekly or daily. And it could have been just a month one summer, or the whole summer break for a few years when I was in grade school. I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter.

Because what I remember is my mom taking me and my sister to the library many, many times (and on-demand if my memory’s to be believed). School was closed, so I couldn’t get books out of the library there. And as much as I loved being outside, I could only handle so much sunburn and fingers pruned from pools and bleeding from fishhooks. Besides, I also loved books, and I needed a lot of them.

So my mom would take me to the library where I’d jam my backpack to where it weighed as much as I did, and I was a big kid.

Then, on my return trip the next week/day/whatever, I’d sit at a table with a librarian. She’d ask questions about the book. I’d tell her what happened and what I liked and what I didn’t. She’d recommend other books I might like. Then, to my surprise, she would offer me some special little tchotchke—I seem to remember a red flute-like whistle that I was fond of—as if just getting to learn about Greek mythology and volcanoes and reptiles weren’t enough by itself!

My mom would again help me pick out all the exciting tales and tomes of knowledge that I’d take home to hunch over. And then we’d do it all again.

I don’t remember my dad ever taking me to the library. That’s not to say he didn’t; I just don’t remember it.

What I do remember is my dad taking me to the bookstore. Back then it was Walden’s in the mall. And whenever we went, the only limit to how many books he’d buy for his kids was based on how much cash he had in his wallet that day.

If I wanted toys? Nope. (Well, probably nope. But sometimes yes.)

If I wanted books? Always yes. No questions asked—my pop had his wallet ready.

Up until I earned my own money, my father would buy me as many books as I asked for. And he probably would have still if I hadn’t been too proud to let somebody else pay for my addiction.

And I don’t remember them once questioning my choice in titles. If it was available and had pages with words and no dirty pictures, it was mine. (Maybe that one limitation was another reason I started buying my own.)

Not only did they not censor or question what might be appropriate for me, they also engaged. They made sure they knew what I was reading and what it was about. My mom would ask in-depth questions on car rides much like that librarian.

I even used to read aloud to them as part of another school-sponsored reading program. I think it was Book-It, where I’d earn personal pizzas from Pizza Hut for every so many books I read. This was heaven for me—I got to read about swords and dragons AND get pizza!

But my poor parents bought me those books, then endured a 10-year-old reading Dragonlance aloud for probably more than a year.

Bless their souls.

 

Tasting Outside Your Genre—of Books and Burgers

Every writer knows they’re supposed to read books from different areas of the bookstore.

Wait, no. Every reader knows that, too, or at least has heard the recommendation to read widely.

The advice goes something like this:

“You write sci-fi/mystery/romance/YA/whatever? Read everything, old and new, in your genre. Then read lots of stuff in other genres.”

Or, alternately for readers who have less interest in writing:

“You like westerns/fantasy/literary fiction/whatever? Try something different to expand your horizons.” 

Basically, that thing you like? Read lots of it. Then also read EVERYTHING ELSE!

But, wait … that’s a lot of stuff. One estimate is that there were more than a million print books published in 2013. That’s in the US, in one year, and only print books. How can you possibly keep up?

Well, you can’t.

And there’s the problem with the suggestion of reading outside your genre. If you love reading fantasy (like me), you want lots of it. So you go and you gorge on George RR Martin, JRR Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Robert Jordan, and the like. Then you might dig into older stuff like Robert E Howard and Fritz Lieber. And once you hit some of the big names, you move on to the deep tracks of lesser-known authors who still offer incredible stories and great writing. Because there are thousands of people telling different, amazing stories in every genre, you always have something new to read.

It’s like cheeseburgers. Yes, burgers. They’re delicious and fill you with happiness. There’s an incredible variety of of how they’re made, what is in them, and how much you’ll enjoy them, and you want to taste them all! (I once had one—a burger, not a book—topped with a marrow ragout that was unbelievable!)

And if your love as a diner prompts you to become a chef (please follow my extended metaphor here), you want to taste as many burgers as you can. If you’re creating burgers, you need to experience the options and see what other people have done to help you perfect your own patties. So it’s easy to limit your consumption to what you want to create, especially because there are so many choices in your niche that you can never complete an exhaustive survey.

But.

Yes, there’s a but. For readers and writers alike, it’s important to taste new things. It’s challenging to pick up a new book with a cover that doesn’t look like the rest of those on your shelf. It’s not comfortable. What if you waste your time on this weird literary fiction thing? What if the mystery you pick up is dull and formulaic? What if this fantasy book is filled with saccharine and stilted dialog?

Well, then you’ve tried something different and learned about your own tastes. The more important question is: what if this literary fiction is filled with amazing insight? What if the mystery keeps you huddled under your bed lamp while your spouse snoozes? What if this fantasy book reveals more about our real world than “realist” novels?

And for writers, the temptation to stay with your type of book is even greater. There are so many giants in your genre that you  haven’t read yet!

Here’s how I wrangle that. As a kid, I found The Hobbit, and then the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms books, and fell in love with fantasy and have had a steady diet of it since. But thankfully, some people pushed me to read other things. And without that push, I’d have missed out on pure enjoyment and writing lessons offered by writers like Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and Virginia Woolf.

I haven’t read everything that’s categorized in my favorite genres. It’s almost (if not entirely) impossible to. But I’ve read a lot, and continue to, while also taking time away from the type of stuff I write to read something very different. Because as much as I love cheeseburgers, sometimes a good piece of salmon is just as delicious.

Raymond Chandler - The Big Sleep

With that in mind, and with thanks to Evan Ronan for his suggestion and my sister for her gift card with which I purchased some books, I’m trying some things that I wouldn’t ordinarily pick up.

Let’s start with The Big Sleep.