Tell Me About Your Favourite Bookstore

Last Friday The Guardian published a wonderful list of bookstores worldwide – including one from Canada, woohoo! Any book-lover knows there is no shortage of lovable bookstores out there, so which is your favourite? I’d have to say, from The Guardian‘s list, I want to visit the bookstore-in-a-van that sells Portuguese books translated into English. Leakey’s, in Scotland, looks worth visiting too.

Shakespeare & Company, in Paris, is not included in this list – I have a feeling it might’ve been too cliche to include such a famous landmark. But in case you’ve forgotten, here’s my picture of the place from when I visited it last April!

WIN_20140424_205457

What’s my favourite library? I blogged about it once before. Share yours below!

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Do Spoilers Spoil Stories?

Spoilers, by Paulina Van VlietSpoilers ruin everything. They rip out ask the suspense and enjoyment, they wreck – Wait, you’re saying people actually like a work MORE if it’s been spoiled for them? Are you serious?

This is what Derek Thompson argues in “In Defense of Spoilers.” Apparently, anticipation of a twist can take away our enjoyment of the parts of the movie or book that don’t lead up to the twist. Or maybe we just like predictability. Anyway, research by psychologists has shown people rate stories higher when all the plot twists have been spoiled for them ahead of time.

Okay, okay, there’s truth in this.

For example, I’ll use Emma, by Jane Austen. I’ve already written it was much better the second time I read it, and that was mainly because I knew what was going to happen. The first time I didn’t know, so I didn’t think anything was happening. Anyone who’s read it knows it’s a lot of descriptions of conversations in a quiet English town. But it’s also been described as ‘a mystery without a murder’ – there’s so many clues in all the ‘nothing’ that goes on, and it all adds up to something. But the first time you read it, you don’t realized there’s a mystery at all. And I, at first, was a bit bored and confused.

And shouldn’t this research make sense? Don’t we tell the same stories over and over again? How many times has the Cinderella plot been used? (Including by me, here). And I’ve already admitted I’ll watch almost any version of retelling of Pride and Prejudice, over and over again.

So we love the same old stories, the seven basic plots, the Save the Cat story outline… We might as well stop with the attempts at original stories, right? Might as well quit worrying about spoilers. We’d enjoy everything so much more that way.

No, but wait! There’s something else…

When we worry about spoilers, we worry about losing that sense of surprise and satisfaction when we see the pieces suddenly fit together. Not every work is good at this, but every once in a while we come across a book that manages to turn itself inside-out in the last pages. The turn of events blows your mind.

This elusive feeling is something we chase in every movie and novel we read (or, at least, I do). You can enjoy a movie or a book without it. You can love a book that doesn’t give you this feeling. But this feeling is unique enough and wonderful enough it’s worth looking for.

Spoilers, of course, steal the opportunity fo this feeling away.

Back to Emma – your first initial read where you think nothing is going on is so important to the work! Because it’s that first read where you’re in Emma’s point of view, it’s that first read where you trust her and believe whatever she thinks she sees. There’s no sensations to compare your second read to if you haven’t had the first. You can hunt for clues the whole time on your first read instead, but you ARE missing out on something if you know what you’re looking for.

And that’s the whole point of avoiding spoilers, isn’t it? There’s an experience you’ll miss if someone spoils it for you. You’ll lose something you’ll never get back, and you’ll never know if there’s any amount of enjoyment that will make up for losing that initial experience. You’ll never know what that would’ve felt like.

Plot twists shouldn’t be the end-goal for every book or movie. Clearly, people can enjoy stories that are predictable. But I’d argue we should still try to prevent spoilers as a service to our fellow humans, because some experiences can’t be recreated once spoiled. People can at least try for that mind-turning experience. And if spoilers improve the experience – well, that’s what a second reading is for.

What’s your thoughts on spoilers?

 

Illustration by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

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Useful Words English Doesn’t Have

Anyone who’s ever started learning another language has come across words that just don’t translate into English. My favorites are ‘saudades,’ from Portuguese (meaning a feeling of longing, melancholy or nostalgia), and ‘gezellig,’ from Dutch (meaning a nice atmosphere, but also belonging and time spent with loved ones). Today, Slate published an excerpt from Lost in Translation that lists many more.

My favorite is ‘tretar,’ which apparently means a third refill of coffee in Swedish. This sounds like a very useful word! Go check out the original article to find some more useful words we don’t have in English. The accompanying artistic diagrams are very sweet too.

What’s your favorite word that doesn’t translate? Are there any words from English that don’t translate well to other languages?

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Why Own Unread Books?

Unread Books

Unread Books, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

I used to never buy a book I hadn’t read. That was what libraries were for – I didn’t want to buy something that might be garbage. Only after I knew the quality of the book would I buy a copy for myself. However, I have started seeing the error of my ways.

Two recent blog posts brought this to my attention. The first – ‘The Virtue of Unread Books’ – argues that unread books are not merely pages on a shelf, but collectively they express an idea. When you stockpile books you’ve already read, Scott James argues, you’re basically making a monument to your accomplishment. Especially if you never re-read them. Look at what a well-rounded reader I am, you might be saying.

In contrast, he argues, a shelf of unread books hints at more than past triumphs – it symbolizes possibility. A well-selected library opens the mind to what could be read and learned. And so, hopefully, you might actually go on to read and learn.

The second post, ‘Busting a Book-Buying Myth,’ is directed at why you should buy books you may not read, rather than about owning them, but it comes down to the same thing in the end. Here, Ian Carmichael argues that even if you buy books you never finish, but you did get something useful out of them, it might be worth it. If it’s a useful book, at a reasonable price, why not buy it, even if it’s on an impulse? Also, if your owning of the book allows the book to give pleasure or information to someone who is not you – someone who borrows it, or happens to read it at your house – then it is worthwhile to own it as well. I really enjoyed this post, because it gave me a different perspective on my book-buying habits.

Now, for my opinion:

Absolutely, a library should be more than a monument to what you have read in your life. It could be what you should read, or books you know would give pleasure to others (visitors to your home, or people you lend your books to).

However, just because I own a book and intend to read it, doesn’t mean I will. In fact, it makes it a bit more likely I won’t. I’ll procrastinate because I know I’ll always have it, right there on my bookshelf for when I have ‘more time.’ But books I don’t own, well, those I better read quick.

This, however, is not an excuse for me not to buy and own books I should read – their collective spines on my shelf may someday shame me into picking them up. After all, I do get immeasurable joy from sitting in front of shelves of excellent books, even if I haven’t read them yet, because I know there are so many treasures for me yet to discover. This joy alone gives well-selected libraries a reason to exist.

Secondly, I think that using your library as a source of information – well, that works better for some things than others. It works great for classics. If I want to know what Herodotus said about the Persian wars, I can flip through it and look it up. Or if I forget a certain quotation from Jane Austen – same deal. But when it comes down to information more often classified as ‘facts’ or ‘non fiction,’ I’d consult the internet before my library. First, it’s faster. It’s more likely the internet has addressed that topic, rather than the off-chance I bought a book on the topic once. I can get multiple points of view on that ‘fact’ and try to determine if it should be called a fact. And, lastly but not least important, it is far easier to find info that includes the most recent updates online than in the encyclopedia you bought a decade ago.

Of course, for real, in-depth research the internet often falls short of a book, but in the case you need an excellent, well-researched and written source on something, the library is the place to look. After all, if you owned a library of your own on the most recent, up to date info on every topic you cared about, you might just be constructing a monument to your own interests after all.

So, readers, what do you think? Have you read every book that sits on your shelves, or must you admit there are a couple you haven’t cracked open? Is it worth owning them anyway?

 

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Do You Hear Voices In Your Head? (While Reading)

Do you hear voices in your head? When you’re reading, I mean. Of course I mean when you’re reading. I’m not trying to suggest anyone is crazy…

I mean, do you hear voices of narrators and characters speaking out loud in your head when you’re reading?

I’d never thought about this before. I’m struggling to remember what I actually hear when I read, but I think I enter the fictional world so completely that it’s hard for me to pin down individual sensations when I snap out of it. However, many people do hear voices. And accents.

This phenomenon was brought by to me by a lovely lady I was having lunch with this week. She insisted she heard books by Welsh authors read out in her head in a Welsh accent, and British authors in a British one. Until this point, I’d never considered this. I guess I always imagined everyone experienced books in exactly the same way as me.

But that would be a terribly ridiculous assumption, wouldn’t it? No one experiences the same book in exactly the same way. That’s part of the fun!

(I do find author’s accent sort of affect the overall tone of a work while I’m reading – C.S. Lewis, being British, has a different atmosphere in his books than others, but I feel that might be more due to word choices. Like when he described a hypothetical man as a lunatic – “on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg.” Why a poached egg, precisely?)

Just to prove this is not in the head of only one person in this world, I will point you to an article in The Guardian where readers describe all sorts of audible and visual experiences while reading, including – you guessed it, people who are not sure they hear anything at all. Very interesting read! There are all kinds of people in the world, after all.

Okay, now I am off to power-read three chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which the informal book club I belong to has decided to read next.

Leave your experiences with disembodied voices in the comments! Do you hear voices when you read?

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Independent Bookstores Have NOT Disappeared – They’re Doing Fine, Actually

National Bookstore, by Ramon FVelasquez. Licensed under Creative Commons.

National Bookstore, by Ramon FVelasquez. Licensed under Creative Commons.

So it was bad news for a while for independent bookstores – you know, those tiny neighbourhood shops crowded with books and run by a dedicated owner or two. Chain bookstores were swallowing up their business left and right. Thousands closed as big-box retailers like Barnes & Noble and Borders took over (or Chapters and Indigo bookstores, if you’re from Canada, like me). But, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s these very chains that are now in danger from online retailers like Amazon. While your local independent bookstore (the ones that survived, at least) has managed to hang onto loyal customers and stay afloat.

In fact, Slate magazine recently reported sales at independent bookstores have grown 8 percent a year over the past three years.* Indie bookstores have done particularly well in categories that Amazon has not managed to take over with ebooks, such as hardcover nonfiction. Also, they’re under less pressure to have a high turnover of merchandise, so they have can a bigger selection of old, well-loved classics.

As for me, I publish ebooks on Amazon (and other platforms), but I would never want Amazon to rule the whole book market. I am a reader as well as a writer. I applaud indie bookstores’ tenacity at staying in the game, and catering to specific customers’ needs. Is there anything more comforting than browse rows of dusty classics, after all? And perhaps picking up a book to read you never knew you wanted to read?

In addition, it just makes sense these bookstores would thrive on hardcover books, nonfiction especially. As I’ve argued before, ebooks will never completely replace print. There will always be some works you want to have a hard copy of, and likely a good quality hardcover copy of, as the work has value to you. And illustrated books such as children’s books and cookbooks do not translate as nicely to an ebook format, at least at the moment.

Lastly, I also have this ingrained impression that big-box bookstores are evil – my youth was filled with frantic media stories about how chain bookstores would take over the world. (The movie You’ve Got Mail can’t have helped – the plot concerns a small bookstore owner put out of business by a dastardly big-box store owner… whom she falls in love with, of course). So my inner instinct is to cheer when I hear they’re in trouble. Size is great – until it makes you so inflexible that more nimble competitors can take you down before you realize it! However, to gloat over the currently downtrodden seems a little mean.

What do you think? Do you think indie bookstores are doing better than ever? Where do you shop?

As a final note in support of certain printed books, here is a humorous take by IKEA on the superiority of their print catalogue to the electronic version:

* The stats from the Slate article refer to American bookstore – I’m not sure what the comparable stats for Canada, or elsewhere in the world, would be. Let’s hope they’re

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Do You Use ‘Alot’ A Lot?

Hopefully you realized there were two spelling of ‘a lot’ up there in my title, and hopefully you also realized one of them was not grammatically correct. Why not grammatically correct, you ask? I don’t know – the spaces lobby argued we should all use the space bar on our keyboards more often?

That is why I was SO HAPPY to see someone finally speak up in defense of ‘alot’. James Harbeck argued today in Slate that just like ‘ahold’ and ‘awhile’ were finally somewhat accepted in English, ‘alot’ is likely here to stay. Whether it’s official or not, whether grammarians screech or not, likely enough people will keep using it until it’s finally accepted.

Wait, I’m not saying I use it – not in my public writing at least. I know pulling it out would brand me as a know-nothing hack. People on the internet would pretend I was talking about a furry animal, rather than an understandable word ( The link in the last sentence goes to a rather amusing piece by Hyperbole and a Half which rails against ‘alot’ – the Slate piece linked to it too, but I remember reading it back when it was first published and wishing I could come up with a good enough retort. But really, it’s cute enough that I can let it slide…)…

But oh, wouldn’t it be nice to skip typing that space. Why, oh why, should ‘a lot’ be two words? Using ‘alot’ doesn’t wreck anything about the English language. It’s simple and understandable, and the only thing holding it back is that it’s nonstandard.

 

So here’s to hoping in fifty years or so my arthritic hands will be typing ‘alot’, a lot.

 

See also: Rant on “Ruining the English Language” and What, the English Language Changes? Literally?

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J.K. Rowling is Not Dead – But Why Does She Want You To Know What Harry’s Up To?

Hogwarts Coat of Arms, by Jmh2o. CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1

Hogwarts Coat of Arms, by Jmh2o. CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1

J.K. Rowling, as the infamous Rita Skeeter, wrote a follow-up to Harry Potter. Harry has a new scar. He and Ginny might be having problems. Ron’s hair is thinning, while Hermione’s hair is – still not behaving. And so on.

Heresy, you might cry. The Harry Potter series is finished. Who does this J.K. Rowling person think she is, going back and adding stuff? This is just as bad as the time she declared Ron and Hermione should’ve never gotten married, and that Harry was Hermione’s One True Pairing after all. She went and wrote a whole sappy epilogue, naming each and every one of their children, and why did she do that if it was all a mistake?

Does an author have a right to do this – this is the question.

The Stakes:

This is a legitimate argument. This is legitimate because it’s a question that faces all authors and readers – is the printed word the final word? Or can the author go back later and say she or he did it wrong, and really it all should’ve turned out completely differently? Or, most shockingly of all, should we bow to the readers, and agree that whatever the readers feel happened is what really happened, even if it’s completely delusional?

This is essential because on one hand we’ve got English teachers refusing to explain literature, and asking us what we think happened, because it’s our feelings and our mistaken understanding of whatever it was Shakespeare was really getting at that really matters… and then on the other hand we have fans endlessly hounding authors for every little detail of their fictional world. What is truth? Who gets to decide? (And doesn’t this line up with some other of our culture’s debates over truth or the lack of it?)

The Harry Potter series illuminates this dilemma perfectly, in a way perhaps no other series ever has.

My Too-Simple Solution

Take the Ron/Hermione/Harry debate. If you want to get Harry Potter fan riled up, do bring this up. I met a couple random strangers on a sunny evening in Paris, and this was a topic we debated, because we all knew about Harry Potter. And most people will take sides, as to whether the books support either pairing. But that’s not the fundamental question. The fundamental question is – can an author go back and change something she wrote down as actually having happened? In this case, say Ron and Hermione’s relationship was a mistake?

Here’s what my position was that sunny evening in Paris. Basically – what the author wrote should be it. The printed word is what the reader experiences, so a couple verbal sentences tossed off in an interview shouldn’t be able to contradict anything. Now, if the author wants to go and write another sequel, and explain how things didn’t quite turn out as well as the previous book presented them, well then, go ahead. But respect your work and stand by it otherwise.

This seemed entirely reasonable to me at the time, but now I realize it’s not quite that simple.

Modern Fiction is More Than the Printed Word

Because we don’t live in a world where our experiences are limited to the printed page anymore. It’s not a singular experience between the covers of a book, or an episode of TV viewed once, or a movie you only caught in theatres. No, nowadays our stories can be watched and re-watched, and we can compile characters lists, and lists of tropes, and make vast encyclopedias of every little detail of a work we love. And we create, most importantly, fan communities. And somehow author’s works are not mere stories, but worlds, and these world spill beyond whatever medium the story was originally told in.

Obviously, this is all thanks to the internet. And Harry Potter’s popularity has been fueled by the internet in a way few books before it ever were. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published in 1997. And during the late 1990s, traffic on the internet was growing by about a hundred percent a year. How much of that traffic was on Harry Potter fan websites and communities I’m not sure, but there was a good chunk of it that drove the fan experience.

So the readers’ experience with Harry Potter likely goes beyond the printed page. We’d debate and predict endless theories of what would happen, and view each others’ fanart, and look at fanfiction. And this runs right up against another darling literary concept, and drives this whole debate.

Killing ‘Death of the Author’

There’s a lovely little concept known as ‘death of author’ – in other words, it’s the idea that an author’s own interpretation of their work is no more valid than anyone else’s. Whatever their intentions are, it’s not important, so endless debates over the author’s intentions are meaningless. What matters is what the reader gets when reading it. Authors tend to not love this idea, of course, not in the least because in theory someone could declare what you wrote means the opposite of what you meant.

This is a concept J.K. Rowling seems to have devoted her Harry Potter series to fighting. Whether this was intentional, I’m not sure. But it’s plain as the nose on your face that she doesn’t believe in it.

Obviously, she does think she has the creative ability to add details to the story after the fact, whether it’s by announcing Dumbledore is gay, or Ron and Hermione’s relationship was a mistake, or hinting Harry and Ginny may not be completely happy. She happily feeds her fan communities the details they clamour for. And you know what? She’s always done that – she’s always extended the world of Harry Potter beyond the printed page.

Between the releases of her books, she used to post elaborate puzzles that led to clues for the new book’s title, or hold polls as to which question about the book she should answer. And then, when the series was done, she granted interviews to a couple of webmasters of incredibly popular Harry Potter websites, to fill in all the details that the series hadn’t addressed. Including, incidentally, her opinion at the time on Harry-and-Hermione (that believers in that ship were ‘delusional.’ How times change!) Lastly, she’s created Pottermore. That’s like spitting in the face of ‘death of the author.’ This author is definitely alive!

Does this give me hope? Does it give me the authority to tell readers what I really meant when I wrote those ebooks you see over to the right of my blog? You know, I suddenly find leaning towards the readers’ side. Because, come to think of it, I don’t always want to know every single details about these fictional world. And some of these details I would like to know – I’d like to experience them on the printed page, finding them out through the eyes of another character, rather than from the mouth of the author herself. That almost collapses the suspension of disbelief, injecting the reality of the author too firmly onto a fantasy. That’s not what I’m advocating for.

Oh dear, I’m going to argue for, of all things – balance. Once again. You need to leave the reader with some freedom to own their own experience in a book. But you don’t have to hand over the reins.

 

What do you think? Who should get the final say? And do agree J.K. Rowling is dealing a blow to death of the author?

 

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In Defense of Typing

Blogging

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Was not my last post about handwriting? How handwriting stimulates creativity and word productivity? Very true, but since then I’ve run across the article, ‘The Joy of Typing,’ which strikes back at the idea that typing reduces the quality of your thought.

Typing, the author Clive Thompson argues, does not make us stupider. Handwriting is great for note-taking, he goes on to say, because it prevents us from robotically recording every word we hear, and instead makes us think about how to shorten what we’re hearing into something we can write down. But typing is better for creating original works, because the speed of typing enables us to get all of our ideas down.

This is due, he argues, to something called ‘transcription fluency’ – getting down on paper the ideas you have in your head. Transcription fluency is improved in handwriting by teaching kids to practice making their letters until they don’t have to think heavily about each word they want to express, they can just write it. When it comes to typing, this involves teaching kids to type properly instead of with that two-fingered typing method. The more fluid you get, the more likely you are to get your ideas down before they slip away – and obviously the speed of typing makes it superior to writing in this respect.

Kids, Thompson argues, often DON’T learn proper typing, while most schools still do focus on printing with a pencil and paper. And you know what? I am utterly grateful my dad sat me down one summer and forced me to learn to type – This is will help you in highschool and university, he said, and he was absolutely right. I never typed notes in class, but I did type out dozens and dozens of essays, book reviews and assignments. And if I’d continued to hunt-and-peck at the keyboard like I remember doing in elementary school, I probably still wouldn’t be graduated now.

Did knowing how to type help me with my ‘transcription fluency’? After thinking about it, I think it probably did. I remember working in group projects where I’d try writing up the project with a several other people, and these people would just struggle with their section of the report while I pounded out my ideas in no time at all. I always figured it was their problem of overthinking every little word that they typed – that it would be better for them to just type something, and go back and fix it later. However, maybe it was directly related to their typing ability. Maybe they overthought every single word of their sentence because their typing ability was so slow that the sentence had to be good enough to actually be worth the effort of typing.

Where my experience doesn’t line up with Thompson’s arguments is where he states the ‘transcription fluency’ that comes with typing leads to higher quality writing – that once people could express their ideas at a pace of at least 32.4 words a minute they produced more coherent and readable writing. Like I said, my quality of fiction decreases drastically when I type (though I suppose the possibility is that I haven’t reached a high enough word count to get into a proper writing ‘trance’?) I feel like I miss my brain’s filter when I stare at a computer screen with the ability to pound out words as fast as I think them. I miss my ability to compose and recompose while my hand struggles to put those sentences on paper. But that is possibly just my own idiosyncrasy. After all, I don’t notice this when typing nonfiction.

In the end, I’d argue that knowing BOTH how to write and how to type are important. I never thought about how much I relied on typing until I read Thompson’s article, but I really, really do. Not for creating fiction – I seem to have some sort of technology block in my head when it comes to that – but certainly with creating nonfiction (like this very blog). With nonfiction, you need to be able to constantly rearrange sentences, and create and delete them. But handwriting stimulates different sections of your brain, and sometimes you need that too. This is pretty much the conclusion Thompson comes to too. Ideally, teach yourself to be fluid at both. Your writing might thank you for it.

Any further comments in defense of typing?

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I Handwrite My Fiction, But I’m Not Stuck in the Dark Ages – I’ll Prove It

writingRemember back in November I said I managed to spew out 50,000 words in a month in order to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)? Well, I may not have mentioned those were handwritten words, so really my total of 50,000 was a guesstimate. I have recently been occupied in typing these words up. And the result… well, do you think I over- or under-estimated?

Over. Definitely over. I’ve hit 46,000 words and I still have a third of the manuscript to go. Which leads to the question – why on earth would I use such an inefficient method of writing? I mean, handwriting? Hasn’t that gone out with the dark ages? They don’t even teach that to some school kids anymore!

Well, let’s bring in the authority of the New York Times on this issue, through their article “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades.” I’ve written before about how I feel less creative typing, and how handwriting helps me to actually connect to my subject. Turns out there’s actually some scientific indications that this is not just a weird anomaly that occurs only in me.

According to the study quoted in the article, children who wrote text by hand not only produced more words (hello to me overachieving on my NaNoWriMo word count!), but also expressed more ideas (hello to the fact I feel more creative handwriting!). The article ends by quoting psychologist Paul Bloom as saying, “With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important. Maybe it helps you think better.”

As I said in my previous post, “My theory is that typing and handwriting use different parts of the brain, and in me only one of them is linked to creativity.” Wouldn’t it be neat if I wasn’t completely off-base? But then – what does this mean for technology? Are our computers soul-sucking beasts that are slowly draining away all of our society’s creativity?

I think not – to some extent the dulling effects of technology can be overcome. I can write far better by typing than I used to, though my fiction still comes out sounding wooden. More practiced authors, especially those raised on computers, will strengthen the brain’s creativity-into-typed-words pathway even more than I have. But hey, maybe someday someone will do a survey of all this century’s ‘greatest’ literature and find none of them have been typed – who knows? Get a scientist to research that.

So if you ever find yourself faced with a blinking screen and a bad case of writer’s block, why not try writing something the old-fashioned way? You might surprise yourself.

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