Something Wrong

empty parkI stood by a street that was eerily peaceful. Four lanes of asphalt, and not a car in sight. I could jaywalk with impunity, which was good, because no one wanted to push the buttons of the crossing lights nowadays.

In the park, the serene scene continued. Birds chirped loudly. The grass greened up. Everyone and their dog paced the long, multi-use paths. It was an artist’s impression of a perfect spring day, and yet standing in the middle of it, it felt ominous, oppressive, and wrong.

No voices of children called out from the playground. No greetings crossed the wide gaps of space between the people. Dogs were pulled safely to one side by their leashes, away from nonexistent eager petting hands. The basketball court was empty, haunted by the creak of balls swishing through the baskets. And the sounds of nature swirled everywhere—loud rustles, loud bird calls, loud gusts of wind.

This was not the soothing return of nature, the quiet peace one feels on a mountain trail, or in the midst of a majestic forest. It was not the settled comfort of being alone in a place that cares nothing for the tempests of social media, or the rat race of human ambitions, or the bustle of the city. We lamented the disconnection of our culture with our natural world in recent decades, and rejoiced to see small signs of nature returning to our cities during the pandemic—the swans in Venice! the cleaner skies! the returning birds! But standing in the midst of the supposed natural resurgence was not calming, and not peaceful, and did not feel like a return to a lost paradise.

Inside the house, it was the same. The beginning of the pandemic greeted us with nostalgic promises of happy families baking bread together, and learning together, and growing closer together. It promised to reveal the joys of home to a new generation that was too busy to settle down and recognize these joys. It promised long hours of reconnection, and space away from the rat race to learn new skills, and time to remember what makes us human (hint: the answer was not supposed to be our public role in society). But the falsity of that promise for many people unraveled all too soon—no one could stand empty time without work, the home was not enough to fulfill us without a job or a role in society or social connection to those outside the family. The merest hint the lockdown could extend without an end was met with outrage. We could not handle another moment of baking sourdough bread and learning Mandarin on Duolingo and pondering what our lives were truly all about—the answers unnerved us. What made us us seemed to be our ability to go out, to interact with the world and be impacted by it, to share experience with our social networks and contribute to others’ lives. We wanted to try on our different selves in all the different social contexts we had before. And despite the toll of the hustle and bustle and grind of our previous lives, we concluded space to escape that hustle and bustle was not a blessing, but a prison.

What did it mean to be human? The answer did not seem to be found in any experience parallel to being the tiny pioneer family isolated in a log cabin on their own in the midst of the wilderness, doing what circumstances dictated necessary to survive. It turns out only a select few humans can follow along that path. The rest of humanity must swarm, and interconnect, and live in community and society, and never be content to look inward alone and not outward.

And the lack of cars on the road, the lack of voices in the park, the lack of city noises every time we ventured out of our doors did not remind us of a pristine natural state that would be a joy to return to, but it hammered home our losses—it was an eerie reminder of everything that had been interrupted, everything that we did not know would return again. In the mountains, the silence settled us. In the city, it brought unease.

Now much of the world is ready to reopen again, society ready to rush into public spaces and attempt to function with the virus in our midst while controlling its outbreaks, and there’s a sense of relief that is surprising in the face of a situation that has not changed drastically since before the lockdown. The risk is marginally lower than it used to be. But what has also changed is our measurement of the value of public life. It was easy to say before—why is that open? Shut it down! Sidewalk cafes and picnics in the park and kicking around a soccer ball are not worth the risk. But now those simple actions are filled with meaning—the two kids kicking a soccer ball back and forth in the park are two beings forging a connection not mediated by technology, and they fill our environment with the noise of human society. The value of humans acting like humans is more visible to us. It’s hard to say exactly why, to say what intrinsic quality in sitting two meters apart on a sidewalk patio at a local restaurant gives it value, but we know it’s there now.

Humans have built society and community and culture. We’ve often gone overboard, driving people to grind in their careers and miss the natural joys around us. But the other extreme, of retreating into our own little circles and cutting off the public sphere, has been shown to be a false escape as well. We may well have rediscovered some of the joys of the domestic sphere, but the joys of the public have been revealed as well. Perhaps in the end, our awareness of what has value will help us to find a shaky balance as we reopen.

Dear Readers of this blog–I would love for you to join me in my new venture: the {Hmm… Newsletter}. Monthly dives into Christian topics will be sent straight to your inbox! Please enter your email on this page to subscribe. You’ll have to confirm your email, and you’ll be ready to go! The September issue will tackle an exciting topic: Who’s afraid of Proverbs 31?

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Being Alone

bookshop

Bookshop in Paris

In April of 2014, I traveled to Paris, France, alone. I mostly did it because I had not succeeded in several things in my life at that point, and I wanted to prove I was at least capable of taking care of myself on my own. Plus, who doesn’t love Paris? And I did learn I could carry myself on my own for two weeks, but I also learned how much resilience it takes to be alone.

Before I left, I dreamed of wandering down romantic streets and drinking coffee in cafes, and getting lost in museums. What I did not dream of was the effort it would take each time to leave the door of my AirBnB. My AirBnB was incredibly boring compared to the beautiful streets of Paris–a tiny room crushed under the eaves of a building in Montmartre. But however romantic the streets were, I had not counted on how it would feel to venture out in crowds of faceless strangers who cared nothing for your existence. I had to find the nerve to brave every frowning waiter guarding the entrance to the cafes. I had to find the confidence each metro train would not deposit me in a place I’d be lost in forever. I had to brave the dangers of wending through crowds as a naive tourist, all alone.

To be alone is to be vulnerable. You know that the instant you are alone, completely cut off from your familiarity, even if your new context is as safe as anywhere can be. You quickly tire of braving the irritation and disdain of strangers, of risking a smile and getting blankness in return.You tire of knowing if you do not care about what you do, there’s no one else who cares either. And you realize how vague and unreal what you see becomes when there’s no one by your side to exclaim over them with you–you are excited, but is it truly real if no one sees your excitement?

So I did learn about what it took to be alone, and I was surprised by what I learned. It was more than just learning to be content with your own company–because I have always been content with myself, I didn’t expect that part to be hard. But to be alone, more is needed. You have to also be content with vulnerability. You have to have an enormous reserve of strength to continue risking and risking and risking leaving your own door. You have to face an unfriendly world with very little in the way of defenses.

This weekend, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I lost the bravery to leave my own bedroom. Not because I was afraid of the virus, like it was lurking somewhere in the house. But I had no resilience within myself to face the complexities of living–the multiple steps of making a sandwich and getting myself coffee were just too overwhelming. It was like I was transported to an unfamiliar country where I did not know the language, and I had been tasked to navigate it by myself–transported to a brave new world where nothing familiar could be counted on. And I couldn’t do it. Whatever resilience I had found within myself in Paris to keep going out to see the Louvre, to see the Eiffel tower, to see the Luxembourg Gardens, had dried up.

To cope with my fragility, I made my world smaller.

In some sense, we’re always alone. Even now, when we’re still tenuously connected to each other through the internet, just as I was still connected to those back home while I was in Paris–connected, and yet each step taken is my own responsibility. No one else can share what we experience. No one else can care about what happens to us in the same, intense way that we care. It feels important to be able to hold on in the storm when all we’ve got is ourselves, and yet too often this is the hardest thing to do. We can’t face the storm, we can only retreat into our caves.

Perhaps this is not such a strange reaction for me. After going through a hip surgery last year, I was forced to minimize my world. I couldn’t guarantee I could succeed in making myself a cup of coffee. I couldn’t guarantee walking out the door wouldn’t trigger a wave of pain that would keep me lying on my back for a weekend. This may’ve built this reaction into me–when I cannot manage, I just don’t. I limit my world to what I can cope with. And I do not know how to find a stronger, healthier reaction.

Exposure therapy is one strategy to manage your irrational fears. My irrational fear when I went to Paris was that I was dysfunctional in a way that could not survive in the regular world, and that I would always be dependent on others to carry me. And while I did go to Paris and return, I am not sure that fear has been proven wrong. I am still lacking the resilience needed to keep risking all the steps necessary to survive in life. I keep realizing I am fragile and vulnerable and that the world does crush me.

However, life has a way of moving on, somehow. As messy as it is, I do find myself getting to the next day, and the next day, and the next. I do not know when this pandemic will end. I do not know if I will ever learn to be resilient enough to go out into the world and achieve things I want to achieve. I do not know how much I’ll have to carry by myself, or how often I’ll find others out there to walk through the next steps with. But maybe it’s hopeful enough to see I do get through it.

 

Take it one step at a time.

 

Dear Readers of this blog–I would love for you to join me in my new venture: the {Hmm… Newsletter}. Monthly dives into Christian topics will be sent straight to your inbox! Please enter your email on this page to subscribe. You’ll have to confirm your email, and you’ll be ready to go! The September issue will tackle an exciting topic: Who’s afraid of Proverbs 31?

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Compelled to Speak–My Solution When I Feel the Urge to Talk

woman who screams shouts in fear or angerIt is an interesting experience, walking around in the world with thoughts exploding inside your head. They flit by as flashes of insight into what passes before your eyes, or sudden connections between what you hear and what you know, or knee-jerk opinions to what’s happening. Thoughts can float up unpredictably, and seem profound and awe-inspiring. And when this happens, of course you want to speak them.

There are times in my life where I feel like I’m going through the world while holding back a torrent of opinions springing to mind. But of course I could never speak them all. In the first place, everyone knows the thoughts that look most profound when they pass through your head tend to be the most trite and overworn phrases when brought out into the light of day. (Think, for example, about the “funny jokes” anyone who’s been a cashier has had to hear a thousand times a day.) Things that seem original often are not original after all, or they are inaccurate, or they don’t make sense to anyone else.

Second, you need someone to say your thoughts to.

The art of conversation can be quite divorced from the way a person’s mind works. Conversation does not necessarily work best if you burst forth with whatever crosses through your head. Whatever crosses through your head tends to be quite self-centered, and not at all calculated to capture the interest of what the other person cares about. And a good conversation includes both parties, so an endless rant on what your brain is involved with never does pass the conversational ball back to your conversation partner.

However, at times, with the right people, you can get into a conversational flow that does parallel the workings of your brain. You find yourself letting out the stream of thoughts, and they interject, and your brain reacts and reformulates and brings out new ideas in response. Nothing seems boring to either one of you, and the conversation winds deeper and deeper into the outworkings of ideas until you end feeling like you’ve gained something valuable and immeasurable from the time spent. These are precious moments, and friends you have these conversations with are precious people. But if these moments are not guaranteed to come up as frequently as your thoughts threaten to spill from your head, what do you do?

This is where writing comes in. I wonder how much of writing is driven by an urge to work out all of one’s thoughts on a subject–an urge to grab the conversational ball and just rant for awhile without caring if anyone else is listening. An article’s worth of words would be quite a lot to say at once, but in written form you have the opportunity to actually say what you think. And if you write well, and edit what you’ve written enough, you may eventually get to the point where your thoughts mean something to other people, and other people will not be bored or confused by reading them.

I sometimes wonder how much of my own writing is driven by this uncontrollable urge.

There’s a couple of advantages to writing instead of talking. In the first place, the biggest thing I’ve noticed after deliberately spending periods of time alone is how much you need to voice your own thoughts to make your thoughts feel real and concrete. You can stand in front of the Mona Lisa by yourself, and if you don’t have someone with you to say even a dull thing like, “Looks small, doesn’t she?” then your brain struggles to process that the experience really happened. Somehow talking about something put that thing in the space between you and another person, and it is no longer an ephemeral experience slipping through your brain without a trace. But, like I said, you can’t always voice your thoughts and share your experience–but the next best thing is writing them down. Writing them down makes them feel more solid and concrete.

The second advantage is similar to another advantage of speaking your thoughts–when you voice your ideas you allow others to work them out and find the flaws in them. A really good discussion will hash out exactly what a person means when he says such-and-such, and can really clarify whether the ideas are worth considering or should be discarded. Writing can have a similar advantage. If your writing can be put out into a space where it can be evaluated, you may get comments and feedback that improve it. This is what most scholarly, academic publishing is about, but it can also be achieved through digital discussions, or through course evaluation if it is submitted through school.

And lastly, if you write and do not publish it too rashly, you can always delete or burn your words if what you said was wrong, or not beneficial to anyone, or something you realize you should not have said.

There’s a couple disadvantages though.

First, if you constantly allow yourself to retreat into written thought, you may never improve your verbal ability. Speaking is not the same as writing, and grabbing attention with your voice is a skill in itself. It can especially be the subtle rules of conversation that allow you to relate to others better than can be difficult to learn without practice.

Second, there is a torrent of written information in the world already, and everyone thinks they can be a writer. If you just add to this torrent, you are not necessarily making the world a better place, and there is also a high likelihood that no one will ever read what you wrote.

These disadvantages are certainly things I should personally keep in mind.

However, when you take into account that you can dive into your interests without boring anyone, while still giving them the option to read your thoughts if they do actually care–and the benefit of having the time to phrase your thoughts correctly–and the permanence that the written word has that a verbal word can never achieve–I believe there’s still a lot to be said for learning to write your opinions instead of merely spewing them. There may yet be many appropriate times and places to spew your opinions, but hopefully you won’t feel compelled to spew them in less ideal circumstances!

So if you find yourself ranting endlessly, and boring your friends, try writing down your thoughts instead!

 

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Did I Achieve Anything in 2018? Top Posts

In 2019 I am starting an author newsletter–sign up here!

It’s that time again—time to look at the most successful posts of this past year! You may have noticed this blog has been a little less active these past few years, but this year there is good reason for it—I’ve had several pieces published in other publications! Some of you fellow writers out there may be able to relate to plateauing as a writer for a period of time, and then suddenly making a breakthrough. Or, in other words, finally gaining a greater understanding of what would improve your craft. This year was a bit like that for me, for two reasons: first, I spent the first part of the year in school, where my brain was stimulated; and second, I had health challenges that restricted my ability to do things other than write (at times it even restricted my ability to write). So perhaps that’s a silver lining?

For that reason I’m going to link to the very best of all the pieces I sent out into the world this year, not just my blog posts. At the end, I’ll give a little summary of my fiction adventures. If you succeeded in an area you hoped to succeed in this year, I’d be super interested in how you achieved that as well. Do comment below!

Here’s the list:

Top Blog Post:

Top Ten Works of Christian Fiction—What Are They?

This is basically my realization of how difficult it is to classify Christian fiction, before one even attempts to rank them. I’m glad it was viewed so often—I do think Christian nonfiction gets more attention than Christian fiction, and this should be rectified.

Another blog post that did well was Reasons for Declining Ebook Sales. This industry trend surprised me!

Piece I’m most proud of:

Contemplating My Uncertain Future, One Potato at a Time (The Globe and Mail, April 2018)

I used to read the First Person essays in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and think, I could write one of those. Except I clearly didn’t believe it, because I never submitted an essay. This year I did submit a personal essay about my experience seeking ‘useful’ work after graduating university—comparing my achievements to the useful potato-farming work my grandparents used to do. This is the first time I’ve been published in a national newspaper, so of course it’s the piece I’m most proud of this year.

Piece I put the most thought into:

Should a Christian Ever be Discontent? (Reformed Perspective, July 2018)

This piece was intense for me to write, because I felt like I was giving advice in an area of faith I hadn’t fully figured out myself! In addition, I didn’t want to write this one in a blog-post type of style, but I wanted to rather dig deeper and find more solid conclusions. As so often happens, the issue clarified itself for me as I worked my way through writing about it. I was glad to hear from readers that I managed to write about it from a slightly different angle than the topic is usually discussed from. I do want to take questions of human emotions seriously, especially emotions I experience myself.

The other pieces I published this year are: On Not Hurting Anyone While Dating (Christian Connection blog), Shocked by Augustine’s Confessions , (Reformed Perspective magazine), and Tips for Christian Women—How to be a Godly Leader in the Workplace (Christian Media Magazine). One great benefit of writing these type of retrospectives is that it forces you as a writer to look back on your progress—I think I might not have realized I did achieve more this year than last year if I hadn’t set out to write this post! So this is an exercise I do recommend you creatives to do.

On the fiction front, I just released a new short story for Christmas, I Believe in Santa. I also released Prince Charming in paperback! I had a lot of fun selling tangible copies that people could hold in their hands. Another ‘tangible’ work that I sold copies of this year is Six Decades, Three Generations—One House, a short personal story about the city I grew up in. This booklet gave me the wonderful experience of working with local retailers (Tix on the Square and Mandolin), which was quite exciting. So all in all, it was a year of new experiences! These inspire me to start the new year with new energy and new goals.

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Reasons for Declining Ebook Sales: My Update on the Ebook Industry, and Musings on My Participation in it

In 2011, I wrote a blog post titled, “The E-publishing Experiment.” This was at the very beginning of my ebook publishing journey, and at the time the hype over the future of ebooks was high. Several ebook authors had begun to make enough money to be noticed by the publishing industry. Bloggers all over the internet were encouraging new authors to jump on this ebook publishing bandwagon. While everyone held some nostalgia for the printed book, the idea was that the ebook tide, spurred by the Amazon Kindle, would just rise and rise and rise—until almost all versions of the printed book had been swept away.

This week, the Observer published an article entitled, “Are E-Books Finally Over? The Publishing Industry Unexpectedly Tilts Back to Print.

I’m actually not surprised at a decline in ebooks sales, for several reasons:

The first is that the online hype over ebooks seemed to have died down.

The second is that my personal peak in sales was several years ago (though this is due to a variety of reasons), which supports the reports of a decline in sales.

The third is that every reader with a deep love of books that I talk to expresses their love of the printed version over ebooks. Ebooks are vaulted for their convenience while travelling, but not for the experience the reader has while using them. There are a few exceptions—I’ve heard of at least one pastor who actively promotes the advantages of ebooks. But I don’t know him personally.

The fourth is that I work in a library, and many readers express their frustration with incompatible ebook technologies. For example, in Canada you cannot check out library books on your Kindle. This is besides the technological complications that often come along with reading ebooks. Many, many ebook readers have no tech issues with their ebook reading—but many do, and troubleshooting their ebooks becomes a barrier to their use of their service.

  • Further evidence of ebook decline is that the library used to lend out ereaders as well as ebooks, and this was initially so popular that the waiting list for these devices stretched out for months. Now the library has discontinued this service. This was partially due to the incompatible technologies most ereaders have—making it hard for multiple library patrons to use the same device—but it was also due to a reduced level of interest. A reduced level of interest could indicate that all the patrons bought their own device instead of getting it from the library, but I have not observed this to be the case.

The fifth is that ebook prices are usually not much cheaper than printed books. On one hand, this seems fair, since the author’s words have just as much value whether they are printed or displayed on a screen. But on the other hand, from a customer’s perspective—if the experience of reading an ebook is so greatly inferior to the reading the printed version, a customer can’t help but wish the price would reflect this fact. Unfortunately, there’s also a whole thriving network of websites ripping off ebook authors by publishing their work for free—and I assume a good number of readers flock to sites like these instead of paying $20 for words on the screen. Just a reality of life.

The sixth is that, sadly, interest in reading overall seems to be declining (see this New Yorker article for more information). This is backed up by what I know of library stats. While libraries remain immensely popular for other reasons, their rates of actual books or ebook checkouts as a whole are declining slightly every year.

I always maintained that the printed book would never die. I wanted the ebook to succeed to a certain extent, since I’d published several short stories in the ebook market, but even in 2012 I asserted that the worst case scenario was that printed books would be reduced to limited runs of high quality volumes. Physical book enthusiasts will always exist. I’m very glad that the market for printed books is still so healthy, and even gladder that independent bookstores appear to be doing well.

As for my prediction for the future—I believe the ebook industry will survive. In nonfiction, especially in academic areas, ebooks are incredibly useful since they are searchable. In fiction, ebooks are portable—many young people read ebooks on their phone. However, the fact that a reading culture is more easily constructed around physical books, especially when nurtured in the environment of an independent bookstore, leads me to put more emphasis on the physical book once again.

As I mentioned before, my sister and I collaborated on a physical, printed booklet this year, and I was incredibly pleased with how this was received. I hope, in the future, to do more with beautiful, physical, printed items. My work in electronic format will remain available, but stay tuned for more information on physical forms to come! And thank you to everyone for all your support during my many years of my publishing journey. I think we’ve all learned a lot!

Here’s a few posts I’ve published on ebooks, if you’re curious—I find it kind of fascinating to see my reflections on the ebook industry as it developed:

The E-Publishing Experiement (2011)

Will Ebooks Kill the Printed Book? (2012)

Let’s Call the Ebook Something Else—It’s not Really a Book, Anyway (2013)

Ebooks Have Not Killed the Printed Book (Yet) (2014)

Independent Bookstores Have NOT Disappeared—They’re Doing Fine, Actually (2014)

To end off with, I’m going to post an old infographic that a commenter posted on my blog in 2012—it’s fascinating to see the similarities and differences between the ebook industry then and now.

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What I Learned at my First Local Author Book Festival

When I was a teenager, I ran into a relatively well-known Edmonton author at the Fringe Festival. I recognized him immediately, because his picture was always in the Edmonton Journal newspaper. I was completely unknown to him, but for whatever reason I was compelled to duck and hide, my face burning with embarrassment. It was like I thought he could see right through me, see I wanted to be a writer too, and would laugh at me.

Teenage emotions aren’t always rational, are they? I don’t know why I was afraid a “real” writer wouldn’t take an aspiring writer seriously. But at the time, I was.

Have I grown out of this? Well, as I’ve gotten older I’ve also gotten much braver about going to writing events, and actually talking to the other writers that attend. I’ve gotten braver about asking questions when events are open to audience questions. And to be sure, some of my questions have been shot down by writers as “dumb” questions. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt less and less bad that I’m eager to learn. I’m more excited to share writing experiences with fellow writers. And I’m no longer so afraid other will judge me about my goal of becoming a highly competent and engaging writer.

Anyway, all of this is just to say that I displayed my work at the Capital City Press Book Festival this past weekend, and it was an amazing experience. Facing other local writers was not as terrifying as I’d imagined long, long ago. This was the first time ever I’ve presented myself as a writer to the public in person (ie: not online, or by submitting to events that I wasn’t able to attend in person). It was eye-opening to study what kinds of pitches or descriptions of my work worked on the public that browsed my table, and which were less effective. It was eye-opening to see the tactics of my fellow local authors who were also at the festival. And it was incredibly helpful to meet these other authors and publishers and commiserate about the difficulty of getting noticed in a crowded marketplace.

I’d say first of all I was grateful the product I was displaying was highly visual, with my printed words capably illustrated by Paulina Van Vliet. In a crowded space, it’s hard to demonstrate your work with printed words alone. Now, there’s other ways of capturing the public’s interest with visuals – having a captivating cover on your book, for example. Or lining up multiple copies of your book so the repeated visual of your cover is hard to miss. Or, as my neighbouring author did, bring additional visuals that illustrate your printed work (his work was based on a real-life event, so it was easier to illustrate with photographs in this way). But overall, this event increased my appreciation of the power of visuals for drawing interest.

Still, it was a challenge for all of the local authors there to stir up interest in a public that was mainly interested in browsing our work. For me, I found the most success with customers who had a personal connection either to the subject of my work (Edmonton), or to supporting me as a writer in general. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to appeal to others based on their personal connection, especially at first. Authors tend to be successful in general because their work connects with others’ experience. And if you correctly define the communities your work appeals most to, you can focus your efforts on displaying your work to those people. However, it is tricky if you hope your work will have broad appeal. If you find yourself selling exclusively to friends and family, it can be tricky to figure out how to expand beyond that. Events like book festivals might be a useful way to gauge the appeal of your work to the general public, and it did teach me a lot about what piqued interest in people.

So those were two observations I gained from doing a public event: how to use visuals to help sell, and how to use these events to test the broader appeal of your work. It also really brought home the benefit of having some of my work in print—the work I displayed was the first actual physical printing of my writing I’ve made.

And lastly, a benefit of these events is just the people in the writing community you meet. I was so excited to see and meet so many local authors and publishers. I’ll mention a few that stick out in my memory, even though I am afraid there may be some great local authors that I fail to mention.

 

Michael Hingston of Hingston & Olsen Publishing, who was displaying the new “Ghost Box” short story collection. Now, I must admit I can’t handle reading scary stories (even though I don’t believe in ghosts!), so I can’t vouch for the stories—but the quality of the design impressed me. After printing my work with my sister, who is a designer, I learned a lot about the challenges in production of physical items. This short story collection came in a beautifully proportioned box that clicked shut with a magnetic closing, and the individual stories were stapled with brass staples that coordinated with the design of the booklet covers. The attention to detail in the design impressed me. Personally, I still love print very, very much, and I’m excited to see new ways of presenting print items.

Katherine Koller, who was displaying Art Lessons— a book I recognized as a result of my job working in the library (there were several books there I recognized from my work, and it’s a bit of a thrill to see the “real” people behind the familiar covers). This is a book about growing up as a creative child—something I agree is a useful topic to explore, because I’m sure my parents could’ve used a bit of advice! They were probably surprised to discover they had a writer and an artist on their hands.

Matt Bowes, general manager of NeWest Press, who talked up one of the press’s upcoming fantasy novels to me—a novel set in Edmonton, where all of the crazy development ideas people have dreamed up over the years were actually built. You know, like a gondola over the river valley, or the freezeway ice-skating lane going right through downtown. This sounds like an exciting premise for a novel, especially a fantasy novel. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for when this is released.

My neighbouring author, Don Levers, who wrote a fictional novel based on a real heist. I love quirky stories from history, so this was a great author to have on one side of me.

And on my other side was my fellow author that I shared my table with, Gerda Vandenhaak, who was displaying her personal memoir growing up in Word War 2, immigrating to Canada, and other struggles in her life and with her Christian faith. We share similar Dutch backgrounds, and both think deeply about the impact of our faith in our lives, so this was an inspiring author to sit beside for the day.

Like I said, there were many more intriguing local authors present – check out #CCPFest on Twitter to see more of them.

 

All in all, I had a great time. I guess I’m growing up, because I never once had the urge to duck, hide my face, and run!

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Guilt When Reading Books

“Make sure you schedule a few hours a week to devote to reading.” What heavenly advice! Yet somehow the fact this was given as advice shocked me. I suddenly realized I am more used to hearing, “Stop reading and start doing something useful.” But the idea reading should be scheduled into your life feels strange and foreign to me. Reading is “fun”–this is what they repeatedly taught us in school. You’re supposed to do it because it’s fun, not because it helps you live.

Maybe this contributes to us reading books less often.

It was fair for teachers in my schooldays to try to stop me reading books, because I did read them in class, and I did neglect more productive work (like my math homework) to read. It also makes sense that teachers insist “reading is fun!” in order to get more students to read. However, somehow I internalized these messages as: reading is good but should only be done when you have nothing better to do. Which is not a problem as a kid, since you have quite a bit of free time. But as an adult, reading suddenly becomes a less justifiable activity–when in reality this is a problematic way to view reading!

I certainly still read a lot, but I mainly read a lot of articles online, and the shortness of these articles probably deceives me into thinking I’m not actually wasting much time on them. I imagine I’m briefly and efficiently informing myself. But, of course, what I’m actually doing is feeding and fueling my addiction to information. You can never read enough interesting facts on the internet. But in order to gain a deeper understanding of reality you need more than interesting facts on the internet. You need books.

In other words, I need to get past the idea that reading is not meant to be scheduled into your productive time, but only into your leisure time.

If reading is only ever done for pure leisure, the result is you never pick up a challenging read. Reading that takes work is too much to do when your brain is already over-strained and tired. You end up reading only really light novels, or popularizations of fun topics (such as hygge or Nikola Tesla). Do you want to read about the categorical imperative after a hard day’s work?

In other words, the important works–the works that have changed our civilization–never get read. We never apply ourselves to answering the questions they raise, because we don’t know what questions they raise. We never seek to face the challenges of humanity because we never justify applying ourselves to learning about them.

It is, in fact, a nice solution to consider certain types of reading work. To consider this reading as necessary, and not just for building the practical skills that may in some way help you in your job. To consider reading as a thing that can form and shape character, and as a thing we actually should invest in in order to form and shape our own character. That this is not merely a leisure activity that is optional, but that we are justified in carving out space for this pursuit in our lives.

I almost don’t dare to schedule in directed reading in my schedule. First of all, I hardly know where I’d fit it in. Second, many great works of great writers intimidate me. However, I should be more aware of the consequences of not doing this. Of reading lightly, and assuming I am well-read.

Recently I was reading Augustine’s Confessions–a very classic work that has impacted Western civilization–and I was lying on the couch and feeling like very strange about being on that couch reading. In fact, I was even reading it in order to review it, but I still felt self-conscious. Then I realized that while I used to devour books when I was younger, I now intentionally push myself to read a physical book, and when I do sit down to read I feel like I really should be writing or cleaning my house or studying my schoolwork. Reading, as a mere input of information, feels like a sacrifice of the time you should be devoting to output. And the genius of the online world, and online reading, is that it creates the illusion you are both inputting and outputting information. You read articles in order to share them. You take in information in order to comment on it publicly. You create artistic representations of what you are doing by posting on Instagram, etc. While none of this online chatter really impacts the world greatly, your conscience doesn’t tug as much because you feel you’re using the information presented. You’re not just taking something in, but you’re offering something up to the world in return. It doesn’t matter how trivial what you offer is, you still gain the sense of accomplishment that comes by just offering it.

But this overemphasis on output–on our individual response to the information that seems to be demanded by the internet, and our culture in general–glosses over the necessity of taking the time to input good information. Our responses are expected to be instant. If something takes a long time for us to process, it has to be really, really worth it before we decide it is justifiable to set that time aside.

This year I actually took a year off to go back to school and study, and what I am learning is that to truly understand you actually need to do more than read the quick summaries of topics that float around on the internet. I thought I knew a lot about theology (my topic of study), and that some of the questions I’d fruitlessly searched for answers to probably did not have good answers, since I could not find any. However, the reality is that some of these answers were book-length, not internet-friendly listicles, and therefore I actually was justified in taking a year to study such things. In fact, I should really take a lifetime.

The job of professional scholar is not an incredibly realistic role in our current society, but we do have unimaginable access to information in our modern world. Therefore I do have the opportunity to devote a lifetime to learning, even outside of school. The hurdle that I have to get over–and perhaps you do too–is the tendency to devalue the time we spend on the couch with a book. To devalue the patience that lets the classic authors of the past speak for themselves, instead of watching YouTube summaries.

I must reorient the value I place on reading, so that the time it takes to read is not slotted into that category of “wasted time.”

 

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Ready to dive into reading again? Try my short retelling of Cinderella–is prince really such a catch for Cinderella? Prince Charming is available at Smashwords and Amazon.

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Finding a Home for Your Writing–The Struggle for Publication, and My Latest Projects!

The way you’re supposed to know you’re a writer–or any type of artist, really–is if you just can’t stop creating. Even if you receive no recognition or payment or readers, you can’t help but write. In fact, the world is so overwhelmed by writers that you’re really advised not to dive into the world of writing unless you truly do feel this drive. Unfortunately, I am one of those people who writes incessantly, whether or not anyone cares. And I understand the struggle to launch bits of your work out into the world where other people can see and enjoy them. Finding a home for your is work can be more of a struggle than the actual work of writing.

The only advice I can give to aspiring writers is just to keep trying. Successful writers have proven themselves, and they may have people falling all over themselves to invite them to write something, but until you reach that point you have to keep proving yourself. And to prove yourself you have to keep searching out opportunities, which can be hair-pulling-ly frustrating. But the benefit of this is that you can be involved in all sorts of unexpected projects!

One of the most fun projects I involved myself in this year was a collaboration with my sister, who is a graphic artist. We created a small illustrated booklet of a memoir piece I wrote, and printed a limited run in hard copy. We had a great opportunity to display it at the Edmonton Design Week! And though I was not sure how sales of a hard copy of my work would go, since my experience has all been in electronic markets, I was pleasantly surprised to see there was a small market for the kind of stories we created after all! It’s funny how just the smallest bit of support can give a writer encouragement to keep going.

Here’s a great quote from Neil Gaiman about the writing life that really connects with this idea: “A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.”

So all in all, my experiments with launching my work into the world has provided me with amazing learning opportunities, as well as great experiences. Maybe this is why creators have to go through the struggle of finding openings for their work, as it forces them to be creative and try things they might never have tried otherwise. In my journey, I’ve gotten to observe enthusiasm from my readers, and received reassurance that what I do can benefit at least a few individuals. I’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t in marketing (though I’m far from an expert). I’ve learned about various ways you can get your work out there. And most importantly, I’ve learned that by trying I can not only learn, but that trying feeds back into my writing, and my writing gets better.

If you’re interested, my recent work includes not only the story booklet collaboration, but also two articles where I explored the impact of my faith in my life: “You Too? What Friendship Is and Why It’s So Hard to Find” (for the Reformed Perspective), and “On Not Hurting Anyone While Dating” (for Christian Connection). I’m excited for a few other nonfiction projects I’ve got in the works–we’ll see what happens in 2018! Previously I also explored the world of ebook publishing, which you can explore here. And of course this blog is my primary platform for putting my thoughts out into the world! Blogging itself is an experience that provides growth in writing, and this I really value.

Finding a home for your work can be the most frustrating part of being creative, especially if you prefer to give yourself to the world in a way that benefits the world, rather than create for your own sake alone. I’ve spent days searching for places to submit my writing, and come up with empty hands. However, when I’ve imagined there was nowhere for me to go, and all opportunities were blocked, it was never the end of the story. I hope you can relate, or will be able to as your journey goes on.

 

Are you working on any unique writing or creative projects? Can you relate to the struggle of finding a home for your work?

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Three Posts (and Books) Worth Reading

Blogs are supposed to end the year with a top-ten list. Looking back over my year, I realized there are a few posts whose messages really are worthwhile, but I don’t feel the necessity to list ten of them. Here are three, in the order of popularity:

You Might Relate to Mary Bennett, but You’re Not Supposed to Imitate Her
This is a post about a one-trait character showing all the reasons you shouldn’t be a one-trait character. As I said in this post, I myself have a tendency to view intelligence as my defining characteristic, but I found a remedy for that this year. Find people more intelligent than you! Let this post convince you of the necessity of being a well-rounded person.

Let the Children Grow Up–They Do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
This post resulted from one critic complaining the professor did not hover over the children enough in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, while another critic complained the children did not grow up. First, helicopter parenting is not a good strategy to encourage children to grow up, and second, anyone who’s read the ending of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe know the children do in fact grow up.

Out of the Silent Planet Awoke My Imagination – Let It Awake Yours Too
This is a post about how I should not have enjoyed Out of the Silent Planet, but I did. It breaks some of the cardinal rules of fiction, and still manages to blow your mind.
If you’re on the fence about reading C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, let this review convince you. And if you’ve read it, let me know whether you agree!

Have a wonderful New Year!

 

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The Books You Fight With

Jane Austen’s been in the news a lot lately, due to her death happening two hundred years ago. As with most occasions Austen is mentioned, discussion turns to ranking her books. Pride and Prejudice is apparently preferred by the popular vote, while Emma is lauded by the critical vote. And I have no argument with this—I’d put one or the other of those at the top myself, except—what book do I find myself meditating on the most? Which one do I wrestle with, and spend hours studying thematically and artistically? It’s not my favourite book, but it has the power to haunt my thoughts more than all the others combined. It’s Mansfield Park.

Does this mean it’s the best one?

Some books you’d never choose as your favourite, but they’re the ones with the power to haunt your thoughts. And a book with that kind of power is perhaps more genius than we want to give it credit for. So maybe we should recognize some of the books we fight with more than we do.

This is not to say these books are perfect. Often it’s some of their very flaws that cause us to wrestle with them so deeply. I, for one, will never forgive Mansfield Park for ending with the very same scandal as Pride and Prejudice (though Jane Austen is really not to be blamed—how many exciting societal events did she really have to work with for the climaxes of her novels?) Flaws are part of the reason, but not the whole reason. For instance, I fight with the protagonist’s (Fanny’s) passivity every time I read it. But I can’t shake the feeling her passiveness means something. I can’t shake the feeling this novel displays something more fundamental about Austen’s worldview than all the others. In which case, it might be some of her most important work.

And I get this feeling when I read That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis as well.

Just like with Mansfield Park, among the people that know such a book exists, opinions are divided between those who highly dislike the novel, and those who love it. It was while discovering my brain was stuck in a loop pondering the message of this book, actually, that I realized the books we fight with might have more power over our thoughts than the ones we love.

Because we love easy-to-understand. We love comforting concepts. But the ideas we may need to grapple with are not always easy or comforting.

For example, I need to consider whether passivity and helplessness, as Fanny shows in Mansfield Park, does have value. Despite my modern context screaming at me about the value of assertiveness and standing up for yourself, I need to not despise Fanny for not being ‘modern’ in this way.

When it comes to That Hideous Strength, I need to accept it’s not going to feed me comforting ideas that I really like, as the first book in the trilogy did (Out of the Silent Planet). Sure, I may have issues with some of the plot, and the time spent with unlikable characters, and the possibly ludicrous events that happen. But what I may be avoiding thinking about by doing this is how much some of these unlikable characters resemble me. Or worse—how I’d like some of the unlikable protagonists to be squashed like a bug because they remind me of unlikable people I personally know—but the novel shows them grace. So I should maybe do so too.

I’d go into the plot more but this book is so obscure for a C.S. Lewis book that I don’t know how many of you will have heard of it. I’ll just say check it out if you like his work. My brain thinks about it more than all my other favourite parts of the Space Trilogy.

So start appreciating those books you fight with. They’re at least as powerful as your favourites.

Drop me a line below about which books these are for you!

 

 

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