A ragbag of random R-ness

This month I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, drawing from my “Grab Bag of Delectable and Occasionally Edifying Interwebby Wonderments.”

Here we are at “R” already. Almost sounds like pirate talk, doesn’t it? Argh! Argh! But “P” was two days ago, so you’ll get no piratical bletherings from me. Just blethering of another stripe entirely, it would seem.

Today I offer you a ragbag of Random R-ness, a collection of R-ish amusements short-listed from a vast array of hopeful contenders for your clicking pleasure.

  • The Revolving Internet: Okay, I admit it’s silly (it’s very, very silly), but it’s also oddly pleasing, and it will only take 30-seconds of your time.
  • Redesign a room: This site lists six free online room design tools. You can rearrange your furniture without spending a penny or putting out your back. How awesome is that?
  • Reset your brain: Quartz has compiled a selection of what they describe as the “interstitial” videos from the 2015 TED conference. These are just a few of the inspiring, silly, and adorable videos TED shows in between speakers to make sure the audience’s heads don’t explode from information overload.
  • Rain simulator : This is so cool. myNoise has a number of sound generators on their site, and this is one of my favourites. You fire it up (or click the link) and then you can calibrate the sound of rainfall to your own specifications–and you can even save your settings. They also have a smartphone app in case you find yourself urgently needing to hear  the sound of falling water while you’re on the bus.
  • Reading: I’m pretty sure everyone and her blogging brother will be posting about the yummy goodness of reading, so I’ll restrict my reading content to this all-kinds-of-happy-making video by Julian Smith. (Unless of course you’d like to recommend a book you’ve recently read–I’m always looking for titles to add to my ever-growing reading list.)

Knowledge gaps and how to fill them

This month I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, drawing from my “Grab Bag of Delectable and Occasionally Edifying Interwebby Wonderments.”

I know we’re all brilliant and fabulous erudite, but even the smartest among us have gaps in our knowledge base. Sometimes those gaps are easy to fill. Need to know how to darn a sock? Ignore, for the sake of argument, that virtually nobody darns their socks anymore, and just pop over to YouTube and do a quick search. Voila. Your socks can thank me later.

Sometimes, though, it’s a wee bit harder. I don’t have any easy answers for you, but Pick the Brain’s website suggests 5 Simple Ways to Increase Your Knowledge. They recommend you cut down on your TV viewing, exercise, read more challenging books, get enough sleep, and take time to reflect.

Easier said than done, right? Almost everything is, sadly enough, but I’ve decided to make it easier for you, because I’m just that thoughtful. Allow me to break down their suggestions point by point, each with a handy dandy visual, because pictures make everything more digestible. Or is that ginger ale?

1. Cut down on TV

Having a hard time cutting the cord? You might give this a shot:

2. Exercise

We all know we should be exercising more, We’ve always known it. I’m sure if you dig around the interwebs you’ll probably be able to ferret out this classic exercise album, and maybe even a turntable to play it on–since you’ve just smashed your TV. Now all you’ll need is six daughters. Get cracking.


3. Read Challenging Books

If you’re not sure where to start, Flavorwire has a list of 50 Incredibly Tough Books for Extreme Readers. Don’t ask me how Pet Sematary made the list, and don’t ask me how it’s likely to boost your knowledge. I didn’t make the list, I’m just foisting it off on you. (To be fair, I guess an argument could be made that reading Pet Sematary would increase your knowledge of dead fictional pets coming back to terrify the bejesus out of their fictional owners. There. You feel more informed already, I’m sure.)

4. Get Enough Sleep

Having a hard time drifting off? Try Yumi Sakugawa’s 8 Weird Tips to Help You Fall Asleep. Or drink copious judicious amounts of wine. I know, I know. Yumi says not to partake just before bed. Solution: drink earlier. Or you could try reading one of the particularly challenging books from the list mentioned in #3. You can’t watch stultifying TV, though, because your TV is still smashed. And not in the copious amounts of wine way, which is a good thing, because it would be pretty hard to get to sleep if your TV were drunk. What if it barfed up an episode of Charlies Angels or Saved by the Bell? Almost as horrific as being terrorized by dead fictional pets.

Sleeping cat

Sleeping cat

5. Reflect

Don’t you love how this image conveys both meanings of the word? The point here is that it will profit you to spend some time thinking about how fantastic you feel after a workout and pondering the things you read, the dreams you dream, but not the things you’ve watched, because, hello, still broken.

Reading for inspiration, Part 2 – This writing life

Image.ashxIn a reply to one of the comments on my last post, I tossed in the late Gene Fowler’s bleak observation that “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” On the face of it, that’s not exactly a compelling incentive to race for the keyboard and start bashing away at your magnum opus, is it?

And yet, strangely enough, this quotation continues to be one of my favourites in spite of its gloomy summation of the writing experience, because it tells me that those lonely moments of doubt and dread and blind panic when the words refuse to be summoned aren’t unusual. That they are, in fact, normal. Joseph Heller’s insistence that “every writer I know has trouble writing” shores up that normalcy, and George Orwell cements it with his “writing a book is “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

There is something curiously satisfying in taking a brief detour from one’s one writing journey to sneak a peek at how other writers cope with the challenges of blank pages, balancing literary endeavours with work and family obligations, and feelings of inadequacy.

When sentences I’ve tried so painstakingly to shape into loveliness glare back at me from the page like warted, misshapen gnomes, and I start to think that there never has been or will be as hack-handed a stylist as I seem doomed to remain, how restorative it is to read William Styron say to an interviewer:

I never knew anyone who had a passion for words who had so much difficulty in saying things as I do and I very seldom say them in a manner I like.

And when I’m boggling at myself for having taken half an hour to decide on the exact, the perfect word or phrase to convey a particular sensation or image, I find vindication for my exactitude in John Steinbeck’s reflection that:

A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator.

It’s also interesting–and frequently instructive–to hear successful authors weigh in on some the issues we wrangle over regularly in the blogosphere. Take the plotting versus panting debate, for example. On the one hand, I’d say the preponderance of writing advice floating around on the interwebs lands on the side of plotting, and many of the plotting proponents would probably concur with John Irving’s suggestion that writers should “know the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph….If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you?”

But, hey, pantsers, don’t be daunted by Irving’s dictum (or by his somewhat insufferable tone). There are many, many critically acclaimed authors who don’t share his opinion:

Simone de Beauvoir: “In general I start writing a novel long before working out the plot.”

Marilynne Robinson: “I really don’t [plot my novels]…I feel strongly that action is generated out of character. And I don’t give anything a higher priority than character.”

Paul Auster: “You find the book in the process of doing it. That’s the adventure of the job. If it were all mapped out in advance, it wouldn’t be very interesting.”

Chuck Palahniuk: ‘Let yourself be with Not Knowing…You don’t have to know every moment up to the end, in fact, if you do it’ll be boring as hell to execute.

Right now I’m reading The Paris Review Interviews, vol iv. Not cover to cover, and not every day, but here and there throughout the week, whenever I need a little pick-me-up, a little encouragement, a dash of insight into my own writing challenges. The conversations contained within its (virtual) covers are long and rich and focused squarely on writing and the writing life. If you don’t have the cash to fork over for the Review, you can find the interviews online, and The New York Times also has an online archive of their Writers on Writing series that makes for fascinating, addictive and and inspiring reading.

How about you? Do you find it helpful/interesting to take a little stroll through your favourite authors’ brains as they reflect on the writing experience?

Reading for inspiration, part 1

Like many of us who are groping (come on, get your mind out of the gutter) our way into the writing world, I have my share of brain-stuttery days when the whole creative process grinds to a painful, definitive halt.

You know those days. There’s a tumble of words slopping around the old cranium, but the few that want to be written only allow themselves be slung together in strands of relentless triteness. All the ideas and imaginings that felt so fresh and vital yesterday have turned to mold overnight. The characters who bounced off your fingers and onto your keyboard are now so stultifyingly tedious that you’d strangle them yourself if they had any actual substance.

Yeah. Those days. Whether you write, or paint, or take photographs, or throw pots on a wheel, if you create, you’re probably bitterly familiar with those days, in all their grim, uncompromising absence of spark and inspiration.

We all have our own little tricks for reinvigorating our saggy, baggy, flagging inspiration. Many, many tricks, if the truth be told. Some tricks work well when our plot has taken a detour into the realm of convolution and improbability. Some tricks are just the ticket when we realize that our main character has the personality of a desiccated booger. It’s all about knowing which trick is going to wreak its tricksy magic on a specific creative crisis. Is this a “just keep your butt in that chair” problem, or is it a “take the dog for a stroll and blow the stink off” problem?

One of the most effective strategies I’ve found for rekindling the writing magic is reading.  It’s a piece of advice we hear all the time, isn’t it? If you want to be a better writer, read! But reading doesn’t just fuel our writing talents; in my experience it can also fire up the creative barbecue with startling efficiency, even when the ashes appear to be stone cold. I’m not talking about just picking up whatever novel you’re currently reading and diving in–although that, too, can be just the poke you need. No, again, I’m talking about figuring out the specific piece of reading that will wreak its tricksy magic on the specific writing damn-jammer that is currently causing you woe and despair.

Over the next few blog posts I’m going to share a few of the writing quagmires that tend to suck at my boots and the reading inspirations I’ve found most helpful for slogging  my way clear. I’ll be talking about the reading remedies I use when I’m laid low by plotting woes, by insecurities around structure, by character implosions, by stagnant prose and flat dialogue, and by the general malaise of indolence that has me convincing myself that just one more episode of Dexter or the IT Crowd could be construed as research if I only squint hard enough.

And I’ll try not to mix my metaphors as egregiously as I did in that last paragraph, but no promises. If you have your own reading inspirations that you’d like to share, have at it in the comments, or tune in again on Wednesday when I’ll be looking at the therapeutic benefits of taking a voyeuristic peek into the writing practices and processes of other authors.