Category Archives: Randoms & My Life

Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 4: Don’t Miss the Eiffel Tower

Paris is so closely associated with the Eiffel Tower that when you see the Eiffel Tower you think of Paris, and when you see the word “Paris” you think of the Eiffel Tower. They’ve almost become synonymous with each other! The Eiffel is so well-known that it would be easy to overlook the experience of visiting it. But visiting the Eiffel Tower is not at all the same as fulfilling your obligation of going up the CN Tower or the Space Needle or some other high point when you visit a city with a tower. Obviously you get a nice view of Paris from the top levels. But if going up a tower can have an atmosphere, then going up the Eiffel Tower has an atmosphere about it. It still holds the flavour of 1889. If you are too sophisticated of a tourist to check it out, you are really missing out.

When I was first trying to convince my dad that we should go to Paris, I kept telling him that he’d love to see the Eiffel Tower. He’d done a lot of work in designing intricate steel connections between joists in his job. And he kept replying, “I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower. I’ve seen it a thousand times.” And it is constantly being shown everywhere, in pictures and on TV. But when we got there, he was impressed. “The pictures don’t really show it!” he said, going on and going about the immense size of the iron beams and the number of rivets  that held the whole thing together. And he was right–you can’t wrap your head around the scale from the little cartoon sketches of it on all the brochures. It’s obviously far from the tallest tower in the world, but it manages to convey the achievement that it was for humanity at the time, to raise so many heavy iron beams to the sky. Prior to its construction, no tower had ever reached 300 metres–or even 200 metres.

And yet–it is all enormous iron beams, and yet it’s elegant. It bears no resemblance to a cellphone tower, or an electrical transmission tower. Those are entirely built for function, and while in a sense the Eiffel Tower was purely built for the purpose of standing tall, its designers clearly paid some attention to its visual impact. Its well-known that Parisians initially thought it was ugly. But little details, like its four enormous arches, and the gentle curve of it flowing up to its point, etch it in your memory. It does not feel modern, despite having its internal structure on display in a way that’s now very common in our modern age. It brings forward a bit of the late 1800s into the present–maybe it’s the wrought iron it’s made of, or the lacy design of the arches. Its critics argued against it because they didn’t want a “gigantic black smokestack” overshadowing all the other landmarks of the Parisian skyline, afraid of historic beauty being crushed by utilitarian industry. But it is a testament to the design of the Eiffel Tower that it is not regarded as an industrial smokestack at all today.

“My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man. Will it not also be grandiose in its way? And why would something admirable in Egypt [in the height of the Pyramids] become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?” said its builder, Gustave Eiffel.

You should go up it if you can, if the line’s not too long. You can even take the stairs (I haven’t tried this). I enjoyed both the highest level, with the farthest view, and the lowest level, from which you can almost converse with the city of Paris from your perch in the clouds. It’s also very fun to catch a view of the Tower at night, because it is always lit up against the sky.

***

  • Original quote from the letter opposing the Eiffel Tower: “Imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”
  • From time to time, parts of the original staircases of the Eiffel Tower pop up at auctions. If you’ve got enough extra cash lying around, maybe you can snag one for you house.

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Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 3: Bateaux Mouches on the River Seine

Most of the major cities in the world have a river or a waterway nearby, and these can be a big part of what shapes and defines the city. Paris has the Seine, of course. Since Paris began on the Île de la Cité, as we talked about last time, the river actually goes straight through the centre of the city and right past many of the major landmarks. This means a great way to take a tour of Paris is to do it by boat!

bateau mouche
Bateau Mouche by the Louvre, Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The boats that run these tours are called bateaus mouches, and they have wide open roofs so tourists can take in the sights on each bank of the river. When I took one of these tours I did it in the evening, and they served us red wine in plastic cups. The landmarks, such as the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower were all lit up against the night sky, and the boat’s loudspeakers announced what each landmark was in several languages as we glided past them. It is thrilling to float under the stone arches of the many, many bridges that arc over the river, each of them with their own history (such as, for example, the Pont Neuf which is not new at all by modern standards–built from 1578-1601). But the booming loudspeaker takes some of the romance out of it, though at least you know what you’re looking at!

If you don’t want to pay for a tour, another way to get a similar view is to walk along the stone quays which line each side of the Seine. Each bank of the Seine is basically lined in a stone wall, with a kind of shoulder right along the water’s edge that you can walk along. These shoulders were very helpful for boats to unload their cargo in the past, which is why they are there. The city of Paris has turned these into beaches in the summer in the past, for its citizens to enjoy, and there’s also been zumba classes and gardens and other things for Parisians to do at different times of the year along the river.

Another thing about Paris is that whether you’re on the “Left Bank” or the “Right Bank” is very important. Each has its own characteristics. The Left Bank (Rive Gauche) is supposedly the Paris of artists, writer and philosophers, while the Right Bank (Rive Droite) is described as more elegant and sophisticated. However, these are just broad generalizations, and both sides of the river have enough to explore!

All in all, the river of Paris is well worth explaining, whether by foot or by boat. You will get a good dose of history and Parisian atmosphere just by meandering along this stretch.

***

When I was a child, I read a book named The Houseboat on the Seine. This was one of the works that fired my imagination about visiting Paris one day. The book is more about fixing up the houseboat itself, and about describing the Seine river, rather than about the rest of Paris–but it was definitely one of my influences for why I wanted to see the city. And when I was in Paris I did visit a houseboat that you can rent on AirBNB, so if this is your dream it is possible to try it out!

You can read more about the quays of Paris here: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24520146

Here is the book, The Houseboat on the Seine.

My novella set in Paris, Paris in Clichés, can be found here.

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Quay by the river seine with Notre Dame
From my own walk along the quay
River Seine, locks of love
View of the Seine from the bridge that tourists like to attach “locks of love” to

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Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 2: Berthillon, an Astonishing Ice Cream Shop on the Île Saint-Louis

One fun way to start deciding what you’d like to see in a new place is to look at a map. You start to realize the layout of a city you had in your head doesn’t always line up with the layout in reality–Oh, the Notre Dame is actually on an island? Oh, the Eiffel Tower is south of the river Seine, and the Arc de Triomphe is north of it? And so on. As I was zooming in on various streets of Paris, I noticed there was not just one island in the Seine, an island which held the Notre Dame, but rather that there were two islands side-by-side in the river. And immediately I was curious about what was on the second island.

The island upon which stands the Notre Dame is called Île de la Cité, and it is actually the place Paris started. Once the city got too crowded for the island, it eventually spread over both banks of the river. And, of course, it also spread onto the island behind it, which is named Île Saint-Louis. What I find fascinating about these Parisian islands is that they’ve been so built up over the years that if they were not natural it would be hard to tell: their banks have been lined in stone, and multiple bridges arc from them to the mainland. Actually, Île Saint-Louis was originally two islands which were made into one new island for more residences in 1614. This island has no major, known-by-everyone landmarks, but it does has one relatively well-known attraction. That is the ice cream shop known as Berthillon.

According to Wikipedia, Berthillon became famous in 1961 when a French restaurant guide wrote about “this astonishing ice cream shop hidden in a bistro on the Ile Saint-Louis.” It is known as the best ice cream in Paris. Well, it is always difficult to pinpoint exactly which kind of anything is “the best” since tastes vary–and I’ve heard other shops recommended as well–but it certainly serves good ice cream made from all natural ingredients. And any ice cream shop that manages to stay in business that long and maintain its reputation for quality is doing something right.

I did try Berthillon ice cream while I was in Paris, but I did not take any pictures! It actually is sold all over the island, and not just in the original bistro, and I’m pretty sure the stand I bought it from was not the original shop. But it was an equally nice spot to buy ice cream and eat it–after crossing the bridge from behind the Notre Dame to the Île Saint-Louis, I stood on the stone pavement, listening to busking musicians, and eating peach sorbet. Would recommend 😀

If you want to know more about the people who run Berthillon, here is a great write-up of the owners:

“We pay 16 to 18 euros for a kilo of strawberries. They’re so rare and expensive that it’s not profitable, but it’s become our specialty, our most popular ice cream. If we stop now, there’ll be riots,” laughs Muriel.

The previous Parisian landmark I wrote about in this series of attractions was Shakespeare and Company.

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And if you want to know what my characters do after eating ice cream from Berthillon, you will have to read my novella, Paris in Clichés.

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Why Tour Paris? Reason No. 1: Shakespeare and Company, A Bookstore as Cozy as You Imagine a Bookstore Would Be

There are two kinds of tourist attractions in Paris: first, the sights everyone knows about, even those who have no interest in Paris (the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower are examples); and second, the sights that everyone who’s looked into what to see in Paris knows about, but outside of that are not necessarily household names. I would place the bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, in the second category. It is internationally famous. But while the name might have a familiar ring to many, I wouldn’t expect absolutely everyone to know what is it without explanation. 

shakespeare-and-company-1701307_1920
Image by Sierra Maciorowski from Pixabay

Shakespeare and Company is an English-language bookstore in Paris. It’s a bit amusing that an English bookstore would be a tourist attraction in French-speaking Paris, but it is—and after all, many English-speaking writers lived in Paris in the interwar years. The original Shakespeare and Company was a gathering place for well-known English-speaking writers in the 1920s, and while that original store closed in 1941, the current version of Shakespeare and Company is an homage to that original store.  

And there’s good reason it is a tourist attraction. It’s not just rows and rows of stark shelves, like your average Chapters chain store—it is the cozy bookstore of novels and movies and your dreams. It has two storeys full of books, with shelves stretching to the ceiling, and ladders to reach all the shelves. It has cozy reading rooms to sit and leaf through the books in, with pianos you can play to switch up the mood. And it has more than just those standard bookstore features: it has a wishing well in the floor where you can insert coins, with a sign that says, “Feed the starving writers.” It has a nook where tourists write little notes on scraps of paper and leave them behind for others to read. It has the words “Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise,” painted on the wall. And the bookshop lives up to this inscription by allowing writers to bunk among the bookshelves in exchange for helping out around the shop. More than 30 000 “tumbleweed” writers have actually done this over the years. 

This is such a unique and interesting landmark that I had to incorporate it into a story, which is why it features in Paris in Clichés. But of course I also had to see it for myself when I was in Paris. I actually found myself going back to it more than once—not only because the smell of books and the feel of a bookstore is incredibly enticing. I found that I needed to hear English once in a while after struggling on my own with mangled French for several days in a row. I stayed in Paris for two weeks, and I think I went back at least three times. It was in this bookstore that I read the first several chapters of World War Z—not the first novel you’d associate with Paris, but for me it is intertwined with my memories of the place!  

Here are a few photos which I took (explaining the poor photo quality!), to give you a feel for the place. Enjoy!

See? I did read World War Z there
Nook for leaving notes

And if you want to explore more, do not miss this great illustrated guide of the store, complete with maps! An Illustrated Map Inside Shakespeare and Company:

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Why is Reading a Good Story Set in Paris Still a Good Idea in 2020?

“Paris is always a good idea.” This was the title of one of my previous blog posts, a post written after I returned from a trip to Paris. It’s also supposedly a quote from Audrey Hepburn, though no one online seems to be able to trace when she might possibly have said it. Either way, it sums up how a lot of us think about Paris–if asked if we’d like to go, we’d say, yes please! However, this year is 2020, and the question remains–in 2020, is Paris a good idea? In a year of hardship and upheaval, is thinking about a more frivolous subject like Paris worth doing?  

Actually visiting Paris is out of the question for most of us, of course–travel restrictions, and reduced flights, and closed tourist attractions make it unlikely. But the Paris of dreams–the Paris of busy cafes and romantic cobblestone streets and boulevards of glittering, luxurious stores–is this idea of Paris worth thinking about and talking about in a year of upheaval and struggle, where everyone is having a tough go of it? It might feel like affrontive to remind people of a world that seems to have moved out of reach.  

I ask because this year I finally finished my short novella exploring Paris, and released it in print in my online store. It was lovely to retreat from the present moment into a world of memories, into the heads of characters who had different problems than lockdowns and viruses. All the same, maybe it’s a bit silly to talk about Paris right now. Maybe it’s time to be serious. 

But I think there’s different responses to hard times. One is to confront the situation head on and try to make sense of it. Another is to remind us of the warmth and goodness that we do cross come across in this world, the things that give us hope that there could be healing. The second method is sometimes called escapist-rather than facing reality, it’s accused of retreating into rose-tinted times and places. I don’t think it’s always escapist–it can take a lot of courage to hang onto hope. But in case it truly is pure escapism to read only, I will point to another quote I blogged about here long ago:  

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds… Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? 

JRR Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories 

I read that and begin to think it’s important to open the doors of escape, especially if we’re restricted to our homes in this season. And not everyone has the energy to attempt to beckon our fellow men through these doors—I certainly did not during the most unsettled parts of this year—but when we do find the energy, when some of us have it in us to think about something other than our prison walls, then it is worthwhile to bring that to others around us.  

In this spirit, over the next few weeks and months I plan to make a few posts about Paris, and the treasures you can see there. In a sense, I hope these posts will make you feel what it might be like to be there, or remember what it was like to be there–in a similar way to how my novella would make you feel. Even if you do not purchase my novella this season, come along and explore these sights with me here! Of course, if you wish to purchase my novella as well as accompany me on these posts, just shoot me an email at info@amrahpublishinghouse.com or check out my store here

So come along and we’ll peek into Shakespeare and Company, explore the islands in the Seine, and taste the yummy ice cream of Berthillon and the fluffy macarons of Laduree! There’s so many interesting places in the world to see and learn about.

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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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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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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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How to Find Your Life’s Passion

pathJust do things. That’s my answer to that question.

Just do things. That’s my answer to that question. Most advice about finding your passion tends to be either ‘follow your heart,’ or, ‘don’t follow your heart, they’re lying to you.’ What neither of these pieces of advice take into account is—how does your heart know what it loves? How do you know you’ll love being an astronaut if you’ve never done it? And how do you know a career as an archaeologist won’t surprise you?

We all know people who from birth knew what their passion was, achieved it, and love what they do. But we may also know people who achieved their dream and hate it. Lawyering bores them to tears. Charity work stresses them out more than they realized it would. Etc. And both of these types of people had to experience their passion in order to find this out. Your heart’s inclinations in and of themselves do not guarantee joy in what you do.

So if life is in fact rather capricious, leading you on to think your love of numbers would make you a great accountant when it really doesn’t, how do you find a passion at all?

First, let’s clear away the issue of whether we should have passions. We can argue all day about whether we should be searching for a passion in life. It is fair to say you should be practical and support yourself. It is fair to say you shouldn’t think of yourself only, but also of other people (as someone has to do the dirty work). It’s fair to tear down the myth of ‘following your heart.’ However, it is also undeniable that passion motivates us in a way nothing else does. We can’t ignore it completely, and force people to slot themselves into open careers like some kind of dictatorial sci-fi society.

But keep in mind that you can be passionate about more than what rises up in your dreams. You can be surprised about what enjoy (and what you don’t enjoy). And by having an open mind and trying all sorts of things you can feel out your way.

I thought I’d hate being a salesperson because I thought I’d hate being measured by sales targets. Then I discovered I really loved knowing exactly how well I was performing at any given moment, just by looking at my sales numbers. I also far exceeded my wildest sales expectations (which, admittedly, weren’t very high at first).

I thought I’d enjoy learning about computers, but I didn’t want to spend the thousands on education needed to work in the field. But an agency recruited me to work in a computer store, an opportunity that I definitely wasn’t sure about. After all, agency work can be unreliable, and my education had nothing to do with retail. But doing something is better than nothing, and it was something I’d always wanted to learn about. Several positions later I am still constantly using tech troubleshooting skills that I picked up, because I confirmed I really do have a passion for that kind of thing.

I thought I’d love having a worthwhile career that contributed to society and was indispensable, so I went to nursing school. I learned all of the abstract reasoning of selflessness did not translate into me being a good nurse.

And presently I have made another major life decision—to go back to school to study theology. I know I have a passion for the subject, but I don’t know that that passion will translate into academic study on a daily basis. It may not. I’ll find out.

If you already have a passion and a reasonable opportunity to pursue, go for it. If you have a passion and there’s no open opportunities at the moment, you have an opportunity to try something else. Experience something new. Don’t go and try something you know you’ll hate, but if you can’t do something you know you’ll love, do something you don’t know if you’ll love or hate. Experience allows you to find out.

And if you’re really groping in the dark, as I’ve been for periods of my life, you can’t sit back and wait till you’re one-hundred-percent sure you’ve found your passion before you do anything. Granted, life usually doesn’t let you sit back and do nothing (bills to pay and all that), but ESPECIALLY if nothing sounds appealing you’ve just got to try things. Try to pick things that might lead to other things to try.

Because after all you don’t find your passion by looking deep inside and thinking as hard as you can about what your heart is telling you. Your heart doesn’t know what’s out there in the world. Your heart is ruling out a thousand careers you didn’t even know existed, simply because you haven’t heart of them. Go out and discover what you didn’t know before.

Passion springs from being busy, not from sitting still.

 

What do you think?

 

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