My New Year’s Revolution

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With Christmas (barely) in our rearview mirror and 2016 looming ahead, the New Year’s resolution ideas are starting to zip around. Blog titles like “The 10 New Year’s Resolutions You Absolutely Won’t Regret This Year” show up on all my social media. I’m seeing everything from “get up five minutes earlier every morning” and “read through these 100 classics” to the timeworn “go to the gym” and “stop drinking soda-pop.”

And my anxiety level is climbing.

I really don’t need any more anxiety. It’s bad enough that I have a to-do list the size of my school debts. The internet is eager to suggest a hundred other things I should do, other books I should read, other commitments I should make. I’ll never reach the end of it.

Somehow everyone else on the planet manages to read all the right books and go to all the right places, pass all the right classes and follow all the right headlines—and here I am, proud of myself if I do my laundry over the weekend or blog on time.

Every book recommendation is one more thing I can’t measure up to (because my to-be-read list is already longer than my lifespan). Every “get healthy using these 3 tips!” article covers three more habits I’ll never build (because my “get healthy” list would already fill a 24 hour day if I followed it).

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So a New Year’s resolution is not encouragement to improve; it’s one more thing to feel guilty about not doing.

And this year, I refuse to live the way I have for the past twelve months—desperately trying to catch up with a million other people who are also desperately trying to catch up. I refuse to feel guilty for my humanity. I refuse to compromise my health for the sake of some impossible standard I’ll never reach.

This year, my only resolution is to breathe. This year, I resolve to forgive myself. To allow myself the space to appreciate the moments as they pass, to see the place I’m living in rather than looking forward to some hazy future. I resolve to sleep. To recognise that nobody else has it all together, either, and that my flaws, like everyone else’s, make me unique.

Rushing from one thing to another, obsessing over to-do lists, committing to yet another habit I know I’ll break—that’s hardly surviving, much less living. Each year passes quicker than the one before it, and I don’t want to reach the end of 2016 and wonder what I’ve done with my life. I want to live it. I want to reach the end knowing I’ve immersed myself in every experience, knowing that maybe I haven’t completed everything or followed every handy tip, but that I have lived and fully enjoyed it.

No guilt. No pressure. No regrets.

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#Readwomen: This Is How You Say Goodbye

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I’m writing a day late, not because I finished the book a day late, but because it’s been two days and I’m still not sure what to say. If Wild felt like going along on a journey, This Is How You Say Goodbye felt like peeking in someone else’s window.

Victoria Loustalot writes of her father, of searching for a deeper understanding of him through a trip around the world—one he talked about during her childhood but never made. I read in a haze of bewilderment, caught up by the evocative phrases and relentless emotions but constantly amazed that what seemed outrageous to me could be commonplace in someone else’s life.

Emotions are universal; I’ve felt insufficient and confused and lost. I understand those. But causes are not. I will never understand the type of family Loustalot describes. The feelings that drove her across the world—I can believe her descriptions, but I can’t feel them myself.

And, I suppose, in some ways that’s the point of the book—a daughter searching around the globe for clues to help her understand how her father felt. People are complex; relationships are more so. Somehow, we find ways to understand each other even though we can never really feel what another person feels. And even though we’ll never completely understand, there’s something beautiful about trying.

This book captivated me like a beautiful song in a different language, or an abstract painting I can’t quite wrap my mind around. And perhaps that’s how people are, too—not exactly understandable, but all the more worthwhile for being complicated and contradictory. And maybe that’s all I needed to learn from this book, after all.

#Readwomen: Wild

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If you’ve been following me, you know I’m only reading women authors during December.

And last week, I spent a whole day trying to get over Wild

This is not normal for me. I mean, a book’s ending is always a goodbye. There’s that tumult of excitement at seeing the last few pages slip by; that rush of sorrow at the journey ending; the bewilderment at the prospect of closing the book and moving on with impossibly mundane things like taking out the rubbish or washing the past few days’ worth of coffee mugs.

But then I move on.

Except I didn’t with Wild. After a few days, I had to force myself to begin the next book on my list, but my heart remained caught up in a tangle of words strung along a mountain trail on the West Coast.

It moved me deeply. I felt a strange closeness while reading it–an illogical closeness, because the author and I have almost nothing in common–and yet I, too, have said goodbye, overcome fear, and learned to forgive, so really, I suppose, we have everything in common. None of the experiences, but all of the emotions.

Wild touched my soul because I let it. I’ve always analysed everything, perhaps afraid that if I don’t filter to catch perspectives I disagree with, I might change without knowing it–that I might become someone I don’t want to be, unconsciously. So when I take in someone else’s words, I weigh and judge them.

But this time, I didn’t weigh. I didn’t judge. I let the words flow through me; I let them be. Instead agreeing or disagreeing, I listened. I let her tell her story. I let it all be true.

I will never be the same at the end of a book; this is the nature of stories and the nature of life. To remain unchanged is to stagnate. I lose nothing and gain everything by allowing another writer to tell a story as honestly as she can. I lose nothing by reading vulnerably, and I gain everything by letting her discoveries be true. It’s not my place to agree or disagree. It’s not my story.

And somehow, by letting it be her story, not mine, by letting her experiences and insights be valid, I let it became my story, too. Somehow, I found my own peace at the end of her trail. And that, after all, is what stories are for.

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Why Writing Is Like Yoga

“Remind me why we’re doing this?” I grunted. I was upside-down, one leg flung high enough in the air to hurt muscles I didn’t know I had, most of my weight pressing against my shaky arms.

“It’s good for us,” my friend gasped beside me.

And then, as I tried to count my breaths and come out of the position without collapsing onto my face, I thought, It’s just like writing.

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I imagine flattering activewear and graceful poses—as if, after one session of yoga, I’ll suddenly find myself hiking mountains, drinking lattes on beaches, and playing acoustic guitar. Like yoga, writing seems fun—exciting, even. I dream of cozy blankets and poetic lines—as if, after one rough draft, I’ll suddenly find myself autographing novels, reading in an idyllic personal library, and giving TV interviews.

But my muscles ache, my joints pop, my body stinks; after the third chaturanga, I consider quitting. Like yoga, writing is not romantic. My imagination falters, my motivation wanes, my vocabulary disappears; after the third paragraph, I consider quitting.

Both seem simple. How hard can it be to balance on one foot? How hard can it be to string one word after another? And yet it is hard—nearly impossible, sometimes. Every inch is agony; every verb is torture. Breath after breath drags by, the beating of my heart counting the time from eager beginning to final resignation.

Pain, exhaustion, disillusionment… but I wouldn’t trade a moment of it.

Because, like yoga, writing is worth it. It forces you into uncomfortable positions, shows you irrefutably your own limits, demands dedication and strength you didn’t know you had. It slows you down, teaches you the infinitesimal eternity of every breath, the impossible vitality of every comma. Up close, you see that every moment of life is movement—always rising or falling, straining or relaxing. Nothing is stationary; even the most perfect point of balance is motion, a hundred tiny muscles pulling furiously to maintain the position.

Every ending is a beginning, a cycle of constant change: A handful of letters repeated in endlessly shifting patterns to form meaning. A handful of motions repeated in endlessly shifting positions to form yoga.

Like yoga, writing will never be easy. Each time, I conquer one difficulty and discover another. The difficulty is what makes it worth pursuing over and over again. Each time, I come with a different motivation—a pain I’m desperate to ease, a challenge I’m eager to overcome. Each time, I wonder whether I really can do this—and each time, I finish spent, amazed to discover that yes, I can.

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Lessons From Failing NaNoWriMo

November ended last week, and my word count is 23,421.

See anything off about that number? Like, maybe, that the goal was 50k and I’m under half that?

Also, are you remembering that I’ve written twice about doing NaNo and how to write a novel in a month?

It’s time to follow up on those—because 23,421 words is the closest I’ve ever gotten to “winning” at NaNo, and I don’t regret that. I think I learn more from “losing” every year than I would from winning.

I learn that writing is not one word after another, but a hundred words after a hundred others, doubting each one but forcing it out anyway.

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I learn that writing takes time, which I scratch out of the walls of my schedule, stretching seconds like stiff muscles and borrowing minutes from tomorrow, next week, next month. It’s a sacrifice—to appease the writing gods, like some pagan ritual, I sacrifice my sleep, my energy, sometimes my sanity.

I learn that 50k is not a number, but a place. Not, as I thought, a palace for worthy writers place at the end of a torturous pathway, but instead a hut partway up the mountain, treacherous in itself because it tempts weary writers to sleep instead of finishing the journey.

I learn that each writer is different. Like runners who excel at different events, writers are unique, each most productive in a different setting—and “productive” is itself an arbitrary word whose meaning changes for each writer in each season. There are the sprinters, fuelled by enthusiasm, who write the first half of the novel before week one ends. There are the marathoners who put one word after the other, consistent, steady, who don’t look flashy but will reach the finish line as others drop out. And there are those who will never cross a finish line to cheers but will keep moving, not for the win or the applause, but for the love of the process.

I learn that something effective for someone else may be ineffective for me. Despite all the advice in the world, only your words can carry you from prologue to epilogue—one letter after anther, a cluster of curves and lines and then a space, and then another cluster of curves and lines.

And I learn that my purpose is not to follow great writers’ footprints and hope I end up in the same place, but to make my own footprints; not to reach some glorious peak, but to see the tiny glories around me with each step. My purpose is not to be one of the great authors—my purpose is to be me. A different me with every step, but still, in the end, me.

As long as I’m still me, one word after another, whether I write 10k or 50k, I win.

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#Readwomen: Why December Is Women Writers Only

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A tumblr post started it. One unassuming sentence: “Would anyone be willing to join me in my journey to read only female authors during the month of December?”

It seemed like a good thing, something to make me a more intelligent reader, an aware being in an oblivious crowd. I browsed my unread books, picking out female names on spines and covers. I made a list of five books to begin with.

And, on 30 November, I read the entirety of Neverwhere.

When people asked about the rush, I said, “Because Neil Gaiman is not a woman, and tomorrow is December.” I explained about reading only women authors—eagerly, then uncomfortably, because when people asked why, I had no answer.

There were feminist answers—Gender equality! 

There were selfish answers—People like socially aware people!

There were buzzword answers—Intentionality!

…but they all felt wrong. As I perused my bookshelves, I found myself thinking, “Oh, that’s by a man? I never noticed,” or, “I don’t know if that’s a guy name or a girl name.” And then, finally, “…does it even matter?”

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And then I decided that it does.

Not because I’m outraged over discrimination; not because I want to even out the field by throwing fangirl points toward women; not because I own a lot of male authors—but because I had no idea which authors I own.

Each book is a manifestation of its writer. The wise things Gandalf said are really wise things Tolkien said. Anne’s imagination was Montgomery’s. Books are the expression of a writer’s identity—their memories, their desires, their philosophies. Knowing who wrote a book is integral to a deeper understanding.

Of course, you can love a book without knowing the author, but you miss a whole world of meaning.You miss that Jane Austen wrote as a woman in a time when women weren’t supposed to write, or that Patricia Park wrote Re Jane from her own multicultural experience, or that Stephen King wrote his most successful novels from within the grip of depression and addiction.

This isn’t to say that every writer’s demographic is central to the meaning of every book. There are a hundred differences between us, and a hundred unifying details, and each of use is more than a single descriptor. More than a gender or a nationality or a skin colour. We’re individuals, and every tiny difference that makes a person unique—all of those form a writer.

So today I started in on Cheryl Strayed’s Wilda memoir, a personal journey, an introspection of exquisite, poetic rawness—a perfect beginning to my quest to understand the authors I read. And for the rest of the month, I’ll be reading only women authors, with the knowledge that they are women, and that in some way, to a greater or lesser degree, in a way I can and yet cannot understand, that identity undergirds every word on every page.

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