The joy of letter writing

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JOYFUL GRATITUDE #161

Yesterday evening I sat down to write a letter.  Though I do regularly send postcards, taking the time to write a proper letter made me realise how rarely I do so.  I was writing in response to a letter from a dear friend, written a couple of months ago. Her familiar hand-writing covering several pages of lined paper, bringing me her thoughts and fragments of her life from the other side of the globe. A physical letter that I have pulled out, unfolded and re-read since I received it, thinking of my friend, taking the time to contemplate what I’d like to answer and tell her about, the questions I want to ask her…

So yesterday alone in the quiet of my flat, I finally took out some recycled paper and my favorite pen, and got writing.  About banal things, how the holidays had been, what I’ve been up to recently and what is on my mind of late…  The pages filled up quickly, thoughts flowing and getting more personal as I scribbled them down.  I ended up with a neat pile of numbered pages, slipped tightly into an envelope which will make its way across the world.

I love that letters don’t demand an immediate reading or a fast answer. They can stray in the limbo of the postal system.  By the time my words arrive, a couple of weeks will have passed, new events will have unfolded, thoughts will have evolved. The snippets of my life contained in the letter will be about an earlier-me, and penning the thoughts helped me to figure out what they meant to me at the time.

Reading review for 2019

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A couple of years ago, I realised that tracking and reviewing what I read helps me to be more intentional of my choices and it has made my reading experience more stimulating and rewarding. Here is a summary with some key data, as well as my plans for 2020.

In 2019 I had a surprisingly good year in terms of reading. I read more than I expected reaching 54 books, with on average one book a week, for a total of about 14400 pages.  24% of those books were written by men (13), so I feel like this year I did a great job at exploring more women’s voices. The authors of were from all around the world: UK, USA, India, Italy, Ireland, Hong-Kong, Comoros Islands, Palestine and France.

This year I read a very diverse batch of novels, self-help and non-fiction books, both light and deeper topics. I really enjoyed expanding my horizons on topics such as slavery, the environment and genres like dystopia.

Over the year, I treated myself to a few books to support my local bookstore, but most of the others were from the public library, the little free libraries, gifted to me or borrowed from friends and colleagues.  Eight of these books we read with our book club and had lively discussions about over good coffee. Next to the book club, I have lately been enjoying chats about books with my colleagues as we make our way through the lunch queue at work.

What I haven’t included in my overview are short stories, which I read a lot of this year, in the context of my writing course to get inspiration for my own writing.  Being transported in a few pages to totally different worlds and styles is wonderful and has led me to encounter authors I’d never heard of.

Looking at this summary, I realise that in 2020 I’d like to read more books by authors from a wider range of countries, to support translated works and discover voices that are new to me. I will try to be more conscious of this when I list books on Goodreads. I will also continue to read books on topics such as feminism and social injustice to broaden my understanding of complex issues.

I welcome your reading suggestions, please feel free to write them in the comments! Thanks and happy reading in 2020:)

*****

You can find my overviews of 2018 and 2017, and further book lists.

Three years of JOYFUL GRATITUDE!

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JOYFUL GRATITUDE #156

Three years ago I decided to write weekly about what I was grateful for.  The idea was to  focus more on what I was lucky to have, rather than what I may feel I was missing.  These weekly posts have turned into a journal of sorts, a way to record what I’ve been up to while paying closer attention.

I enjoy regularly taking a moment to stop and reflect on the past week and stood out, be they big or small things, taking walks, people I get to share moments with, travelling, spending time in nature…

To celebrate, I looked back through the list and chose some of my favourites from the last 3 years:)

Writing these posts about what I am grateful for has turned out to be a very grounding and joyful practice for me. They are a way to be both more present as I go through my days and to re-live the sensations as I pen a few short paragraphs about what I experienced.

I’d love to know, what are you are grateful for today?

My snow globe brain

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It’s been a busy weekend here getting lots of writing done. So much so that even cleaning the bathroom felt like a welcome break from searching for the right word or coming up with logical plot evolutions. Scrubbing the shower walls and mopping the tiles felt wonderfully simple and grounding.

Though having deadlines and self-chosen submission goals helps to encourage me, I realise I have to be careful no to overdo it. I imagine my brain to be like snow globe that’s been shaken and that calm time is needed for all the small particles to settle back down in their new place.

Like with everything, I feel that I really need time recharge after pushing myself and stretching my comfort zone, especially with the vulnerable act of submitting a piece of writing.  I need to remember to schedule in a buffer of down-time where my brain feels like it does not ‘have to’ do anything for a while, to give it time to process what it’s experienced.

Serendipity and writing opportunities

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JOYFUL GRATITUDE #155

Recently during a meeting at work I mentioned to a colleague of mine that I do creative writing in my free time and it just so happened that she was looking for submissions for a project about Amsterdam.  As I’ve actively decided to seize the opportunities that come across my path and aim to do at least two submissions per month, I asked her for the guidelines and promised I’d send her a piece.

Even though working on this creative non-fiction piece really stretched me, I thoroughly enjoyed the process. I am very grateful for this chance, as each concrete assignment helps me to practise working within certain guidelines and to improve my skills.

I also really appreciate the serendipity of hearing about this project just now that dare to call myself a writer in the presence of other people:-)  Here’s hoping that there will be lots of interesting coincidences and writing opportunities in the near future!

Outsmarting the inner critic

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In order to progress on my different writing projects this weekend, I spent a lot of time attempting to outsmart the shitbird (as my writing teacher so poetically calls it). For those unfamiliar with the term shitbird, you may know it under another name such as inner critic or personal sabotager.  It’s that voice inside your head that says writing (or any creative activity) is not worth the effort, that it’s very tiring, that what you’ll write will be mediocre anyway, that no one will ever want to read it and so on.  The shitbird also kindly recommends less threatening activities to distract yourself, such as reading other people’s writing online or watching another couple of episodes of Casa de Papel.

Despite the fact that the shitbird makes a systematic appearance, I know that once I sit down and write, I will get into the flow. When I am actually typing the details of a scene, thinking of what happens next in my story or figuring out how to make my dialogue work, the fear melts away and the shitbird goes quiet.

Some of the tricks that work for me are the following:

  • Setting a timer for 25 minutes and telling myself all I have to do is focus uninterrupted or that amount of time. Usually when the timer rings, I feel entitled  to stop, however more often than not, I’m immersed and happy to continue for a while longer.
  • Working on different types of pieces in parallel, like fiction and non-fiction. The positive thing being that I can procrastinate on one with the other depending on where the shitbird is being more vocal.
  • Planning a fun activity/treat I can enjoy only once I’ve spent a certain time focussed on writing.  This works really well for me.  Most of us do this intuitively to some extent and I learnt recently that this strategy carries the beautiful name of ‘temptation bundling‘ (term coined by Katy Milkman from the University of Pennsylvania). Basically it means linking an activity with short-term benefits you like to do, with an activity with long-term benefits you should do, in order to feel motivated to do the latter.

Please let me know your techniques for dealing with the shitbird in the comments. I’d love to try them!!

Positive procrastination

With Paolo we’ve been joking recently about how many random things I can get done when I am procrastinating from doing my writing assignments.  I’ve been found baking spontaneous apple pies for instance, cleaning the bathroom or sorting out and tidying the attic (something that was on my to-do list for at least 6 months).

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When I’m feeling blocked and just can’t seem to find the way to start writing, I try and remember that taking a walk, while it does not contribute to getting words on the page, is generally a good cure for break my mental resistance. In the worst of cases, I tell myself that even if I still don’t write afterwards, I’ll have at least stretched my legs and gotten some fresh air.  In the best cases, I come back with a sliver of a new idea to work on.

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Saturday afternoon was one of those days, so after sitting frustrated for a while and uselessly distracting myself by reading other people’s writing, I decided to go out and catch the last of the afternoon light.  I set myself the challenge to attempt to capture the colour contrasts in that lovely low autumn light. So with my ISO set high, I looked around for bursts of colour to photograph while trying to hold my camera as still as I could.

 

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When the light faded and the cold got to me, I headed home, clear-headed. I even saw a beautiful pink sunset that I would most likely have missed were I staring at my computer screen.  My inner-critic probably also got a bit frozen, because it left me enough space to sit down and start typing when I got back.

Flash fiction workshop

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This weekend I had the pleasure of attending a one-day flash fiction writing workshop, a wonderful experience gift from Paolo for my birthday.  It was the perfect way to spend a dark, rainy Saturday, very challenging but also fun and interactive. The great thing about flash fiction is the pieces are so short, so we could read several examples in the class and discuss them. I enjoyed noticing what speaks to me and what doesn’t touch me at all. We also worked with prompts and writing with paper and pencil on very short deadlines that left no space to the inner-critic.

For the final assignment, we had just 30 minutes to write a 325 words piece (in the end we did get an extra 15 minutes;). It was incredibly encouraging to see what you can come up with in such a short time: a raw first draft.  I learned a lot from reading the other people’s pieces and from the feedback I received on my piece (my favorite was from a participant who said he creates trailers for video games and my story would have made a great video game trailer! I love how random ideas and sectors can be associated:) Now I want to take that raw draft and move it forward! I’m curious to see what will come of it.

Prioritising down time

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JOYFUL GRATITUDE #147

After participating in the climate strike last week, I felt a deep need to rest.  Luckily I had guarded my free time in the weekend like a watchdog and had scheduled a full day and a half with no absolutely zero plans, no where to go and no one to meet.  I realise how privileged I am to have so much free time, and I am very grateful for that.

I know I write a lot about how much I like quiet time, so if it sounds repetitive feel free to skip this post.  However I will continue to write about it because sometimes it’s important to stop and observe.  We live in this flurry of a world where everything is a click away and instant notifications increasingly pull at our attention, where we feel we should satisfy everyone who wants a piece of our time and FOMO is just around the corner making it extremely hard to say NO to things.  In this context, I want to normalise carving out down time for ourselves. I want to be able to say “I am available that day, but actually I prefer to rest” without feeling like I’m letting people down. Because really, even if I were say YES to everything, there would still be people I let down, and more importantly I would be letting myself down by not getting the down time I need to recharge my batteries.

In that day and a half, I did things that were important to me, like writing, and I did them without being in a rush, with enough time to procrastinate by baking a delicious apple cake, stare mindlessly out the window and write three different drafts of my assignment before choosing the first one after all…  On Sunday evening, I realised I was still in my pyjamas and went straight back to bed in them. It was perfect.  On Monday morning, I felt completely renewed. Those sleep-ins and taking time to reflect while pyjama-lounging on the sofa set me off to a positive start of the next week and I had more energy to give to those around me.

Reading short stories

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I’ve been appreciating reading short stories lately.  Some I found in a pile of decade-old New Yorkers that I came across at the little free library, some in the anthology of short stories that is our syllabus for my next writing class, some online in literary magazines I’m thinking off submitting to or other links unearthed in some internet rabbit-hole…  I usually read novels or non-fiction books, but I’m having a great time picking up the huge doorstop of an anthology, and browsing for a familiar name or a story with an intriguing title and dive into a new world for a few pages.

It’s fascinating to see that some stories don’t resonate with me at all, while others I am drawn into after just a few words and held breathless to the end. Also, it’s reassuring because it reminds me how subjective taste is, and how much is personal, projected onto the story by the reader. It’s a nice format in these days where attention spans are ever-shortening, and it’s encouraging to see how short pieces can pack a punch and feel how they stay with me long after I’ve finished reading them.