Writing In Good Company

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I’ve been quite cautious about my book project. For the past year, when someone has asked me how I am or what I’ve been up to, I’ve just told them about my thesis or, well, not told them much more than ”I’m fine, how have you been?”

There’s only a handful of people out there who know about Yellow Tails (if you don’t count Instagram and this blog, of course). You might wonder why I’ve kept quiet about it, and the answer is this: I believe in the idea of silent success.

Many people announce their 30-day detox from social media or from candy or from alcohol to their friends and family in order to keep them to their word. The silent success, however, is about starting, executing and finishing a project in silence, and telling about it first when you’re done.

There are at least two good things about keeping your success to yourself: 1) the pressure and expectations comes from you, and you only, and 2) you do not have to deal with the people who have difficulties being happy for other people’s happiness and development (something I have first hand experience on, unfortunately).

But silent success wasn’t precisely what I wanted to talk about today. Rather, I’d like to write about the opposite. Being successful – and telling about it.

(But only to a few)

The Happiness of Telling

Last Tuesday, a friend of mine called me. The last time we talked was a few years ago but in a few weeks we’ll actually be working together which why she called to ask a few questions about the up-coming work week. But those questions took only a few minutes. After that she asked how I was doing, what I had been up to for the past months. I told her about the thesis – and I told her I had written a book I was now editing.

And she was so excited for me!

The best part was that she told me she’s also a writer, that she’s been writing for years, but that it’s been only a thing, not a career or anything. For me, it didn’t matter. I was simply filled with some sort of calm happiness for knowing that I had a writing friend in the same city. We had a fun conversation comparing our writing routines and how we plot or not our stories.

It really is true that writing is a lonely job and that friends who write are golden. But I don’t think one realizes it before finding a true writing friend. For me, it happened last Tuesday, and I noticed how much I’ve desired for one.

Searching for Community

After I decided to take a longer break from Instagram, which was a few months ago, it’s been quiet on the writing community side of my life. On Instagram, there were so many writers, aspiring authors and writing coaches who were there every day to cheer you on and share the happiness and pain of being a writer. But as I’m not there anymore, I haven’t really been cheered on by so many.

However, as I’m not very excited about going back to Instagram and everything it entails, I’ve been thinking about what other options I have. A writing group? A writing forum? A writing course or an entire education?

I write this blog in English and write my Master’s thesis in Swedish. However, Finnish, which is my mother tongue, is the language I write my journal in and also, my fiction. Therefore, as I’m thinking about my options, I’m restricted by my language.

Finland is a small country with only 5.5 million people. This means, at least when compared to many other countries, that there are even less writing people and that the likelihood of me finding them is, well, small. Plus, that I have no idea where to start looking if I wish to hold on to my principle of silent success.

At the moment, attending a writing course or enrolling in University for another degree, this time in creative writing, isn’t an option. I’m busy with finishing my current degree and after that I have other plans.

That leaves me with writing forums. But I’ve been reluctant to return.

Considering a Comeback

There’s nothing wrong with writing forums – it’s just that I haven’t been on one since 2011 and hadn’t thought about going back. At the time, I wrote mostly fan fiction and was all about writing love stories between Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy, Susan Bones and Terry Boot, and Lily and James Potter. Today, however, I’m not returning too eagerly to fan fiction because it feels like I’ve outgrown it. Therefore, I didn’t even think I’d have any business on those forums again.

But the call from my friend had a curious timing. Her excitement, encouragement and support for my book project gave me a boost of energy and motivation, something I didn’t experience getting from Instagram. This made me think that maybe I could return to those good old forums – but publish something original instead.

As I’ve noticed a longing for a Finnish-speaking writing group, this thought seemed to get wings the moment I decided to give it some actual thought. Ten years ago, when I was publishing at least one story per week on these forums, I got a good deal of feedback and cheers from fellow Finnish writers. But today, as I’ve been writing Yellow Tails by myself without publishing it anywhere or having anyone read it (yet), I don’t know how other people see and feel about my writing. It could do me good to write something shorter, try out different styles and in that way, develop my writing skills.

I haven’t done a comeback yet. But I did go and check if my old username still worked – it did. So maybe I’ll start drafting something in the coming weeks. Nothing too big, no full-length novels, but maybe a short one, something like the Still Life Sundays I’ve been publishing here, and see where it takes me.

After all, I’d guess a writer never turns down some feedback and writerly support from other writers?

***

Where do you publish your writing?

Choosing What’s Important

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I had been hoping I would be able to write a nice update on how my editing process is going. A month ago, I had just read my manuscript of Yellow Tails from beginning to end and was excited to share some facts about the plot and the main character, Jello.

I thought that the notes I took while reading the manuscript for the first time would be enough to start editing the story, but I decided to go a different way. Instead, I chose to focus on planning a more detailed storyline before diving into the editing process of the actual manuscript.

And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past month: working through every scene, creating an external, plot-focused arc and combined it with an internal, emotion-focused one – trying to create a well-flowing, interesting story.

However, I haven’t come very far. This past month hasn’t been a glorious month of progress when it comes to editing Yellow Tails. Why? Because I’ve been focusing on my Master’s thesis. And that hasn’t been a completely conflict-free decision.

Work Before Passion

I’ve been beating myself up many times for not focusing more on my book project. For many weeks now, on my list of to-dos for the week, I’ve had a box waiting to be ticked off, saying Plan Act 2, Part 2 and the next day, Plan Act 3, Part 1 and so on – but none of those boxes have been ticked off. There hasn’t been any progress, which makes me incredibly disappointed, even a bit sad.

Instead of editing, I’ve been focusing on my thesis (and this blog, in order to allow myself to think about something else than qualitative research methods). One could say that I’ve been prioritizing work over my passion for fiction-writing for the past month – and that does not sound nice to my ears.

I don’t want to be the kind of person who puts obligatory to-dos first instead of things I’m passionate about. But as the deadline for my thesis is closing in on me… so are the thesis-related thoughts. I just have to make a choice and that choice is, this time, to work.

So, instead of an update on Yellow Tails, how about some facts about my thesis?

I’m doing qualitative research about a relatively unknown phenomena called digital volunteers. To find out what is known about the phenomena in my country, I will be doing semi-structured interviews with local authorities and then try to find some patterns in their thinking that describes their awareness.

The deadline for my thesis is in the end of April (or, if I don’t make it then, a month later), after which I will graduate.

(At the moment, I’m in the part of the process that is, for me, the most daunting one: I have to call people and try to find authorities who would like to participate in my study and give an interview. For some people, calling up unknown folks isn’t a problem but for me it’s something I always try to postpone as long as possible.)

After I’ve found enough participants, what’s left for me to do is to interview them (which I’m not that nervous about because of my background in journalism), transcribe and analyze their answers and write write write until my thesis is done.

So… Any wonder the thesis has taken over almost everything else?

Reminder of Balance

As I wrote earlier, I’ve been frustrated and disappointed with myself because the editing process of Yellow Tails has been standing still. Last week, I even noticed some thoughts on giving up on the whole thing. The questions of Is this still worth it? Many first books don’t get published (although this isn’t my first book but third), should I just move on to the next and forget about editing this one? where actively bouncing around in my mind.

I couldn’t believe myself.

I’ve been working on this manuscript for a year now – and so quickly, so easily, I was thinking of giving up? That’s so not me! I’m no quitter and most of all, I have belief in my own story! I think Yellow Tails has something great in it and I can’t simply give up on the story because of an academic, obligatory paper. Giving up would be an incredibly shortsighted thing to do. But still, I was having these thoughts. It made me realize that somehow, my balance was off.

And that forced me to reason with myself.

In the beginning of the year, I wrote about finding balance during the year of 2019 (and onward). It’s a journey of finding the right ratio of everything, between accomplishing things and taking it easy, in understanding when you need to give your best and when it’s enough with the nearly best. But I’d like to say that finding balance is also about prioritizing.

Until now, I’ve been pushing myself to work on three projects at the same time: writing this blog, writing and editing Yellow Tails and working on my thesis. The blog-writing process has been an uncomplicated one, something I have in the system, but balancing between the other two has been tough. When I am working on Yellow Tails, my mind is constantly reminding me of the to-dos with my thesis and I feel bad. And when I am working on my thesis, my mind keeps going back to Yellow Tails and wondering how much I am dragging behind those self-imposed deadlines I have decided upon earlier this year.

I am constantly feeling bad about not working on the one while working on the other.

Therefore, I have decided to prioritize. From now on, as my thesis has an actual deadline created by other people than myself, I will give more attention to writing (and finishing) the thesis. I will continue prioritizing it as long as needed, probably for the following two months. Hopefully, this will help me lower my stress-levels, keep me from beating myself up for not doing everything I’d like to do and also, focus my energy on one thing at a time because multitasking never did any good.

However, I’m also aiming to maintain my balance. Working on Yellow Tails makes me happy and calm, and that’s why I’ve decided to dedicate one hour every day to edit the manuscript. But instead of having amount-of-work goals, I am opting for amount-of-time goals. Hopefully, this will give me the best of both projects during these up-coming months.

Keeping it Positive

Although I don’t have a passion for doing academic research or writing only things that are based on something someone else has written before and not what I think about things, I’m trying to keep a positive attitude to the whole thesis writing project.

For instance, the thing I mentioned earlier about calling: I was extremely stressed out, nervous, even horrified about calling up those authorities and talking to them about a topic they probably didn’t know about. Trying to get them say yes to an interview about something even I don’t know if it exists in Finland, was like trying to sell a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t exist yet. Talk about taking a walk outside one’s comfort zone… However, everything went fine! I begun making those calls last Friday and although I’m definitely no sales woman, I managed to find four (4) authorities that were interested to participate! That sudden gush of hope and motivation was really rewarding.

And, if nothing else, writing my thesis and being forced to stay away from my true passion for fiction writing, has helped me see what I really love to do and what I’m passionate about. We get blind so quickly, we humans. We seem to need a reminder of things we love and respect, as often as possible.

I wish you an energetic Thursday!

Lessons With Murakami

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Some nine years ago I walked into a book store that had a sale on all sorts of books. That was still a time when I purchased books in the spur of the moment: if the title, synopsis and the writing style agreed with me (checked by reading a paragraph or two), I’d buy the book. That day I left the store with two books: one was a classic and the other one was a memoir – a genre I’m not very familiar with.

The memoir was Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. A thin book, 180 pages, published in 2008. The back cover promised personal essays on running, a sort of memoir written by the famous Japanese author.

At the time, I was desperately trying to find ways to integrate sports into my life and thought that maybe this book could inspire me to make running into a habit. So, I bought it. I hadn’t read Murakami before, but this felt like a simple, nice way to get to know him and his style of writing.

However, it wasn’t until this year, 2019, that I actually managed to read and finish that book. Funny enough, soon after purchasing the book a friend of mine asked if her friend could borrow it because he was writing a book essay about Murakami. I borrowed it as I hadn’t started reading it yet, with a promise to get it back in a few months.

I did get it back in a few months – nine years later. Because two months ago, I saw my friend again and got the book back.

I did get it back – and the timing was perfect.

The Ideal Timing

I don’t know if you know this – but you know how sometimes you read a book and think this was the perfect time to read this book? It could be the theme of the book that feels relevant to you at the moment, or maybe the hero of the story is pondering the same things that you are.

The book might have been waiting in your pile of books to be read but you just never got into reading it. But then something happens, you pick up that book again and boom – it’s a match, the mind is ready for the content because the timing is perfect.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was that kind of match.

It’s a short book with nine journal-like entries that Murakami wrote under the course of one year when he trains for one of his many marathons. In these essays, the author reflects on his journey as a runner – but also as a writer. Originally, I purchased the book because I wanted to find the motivation to run. However, as I read it now, nine years later, the book gave me new thoughts and perspectives on writing, not running.

Metaphors and Thoughts

Although the book is short, it’s nothing to binge on. The essays are not fictitious but based on Murakami’s life experiences and thoughts on these experiences, that fill the chapters with some sort of lessons on life. Taking these life lessons in and thinking about them takes time, and therefore I read one chapter here and one chapter there – twenty pages or so at a time.

The book is for the most part about running although Murakami does share some of his thoughts on writing as well. For instance, he describes the moment when he decided to write his first book (he was in the bleachers of Jingu Stadium watching a baseball game when the thought came to him) and the process of becoming a full-time writer.

But although most of the essays focus on him training for a marathon or a triathlon, many of his thoughts on running can be turned into metaphors about writing. One of these thoughts / metaphors is about consistency when it comes to training. Murakami writes:

”The total amount of running I’m doing might be going down, but at least I’m following one of my basic rules for training: I never take two days off in a row. Muscles are like work animals that are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase the load, step by step, they learn to take it.

– –

If, however, the load halts for a few days, the muscles automatically assume they don’t have to work that hard anymore, and they lower their limits. Muscles really are like animals, and they want to take it as easy as possible: if pressure isn’t applied to them, they relax and cancel out the memory of all that work.” (p. 71)

When it comes to training and running, this excerpt presents a cold, hard and true fact. But it applies to writing as well: creativity is a muscle that needs constant training to produce desirable results. And when improving one’s craft, consistency is a key. During a typical week, I don’t take more than a day off from writing – and that is why it never gets too hard to sit down and get my writing done. It’s a process similar to Murakami’s marathon training, only for me, it’s about sitting on my butt in front of my computer.

Three Lessons I Took With Me

There are three things in What I Talk About What I Talk About Running that resonated with me particularly well:

1. ”Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”

In the foreword, Murakami tells about an article he read where famous marathon runners revealed what special mantra goes through their heads while they run. One of them was ”Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” which means you have very little control over the hurt part of running, but it’s up to you to choose how much you wallow in it, how much pain you can take.

Writing can be seen as a marathon race, as well. It’s a process with as many feelings, emotional ups and downs, as during a 26.2 mile / 42,195 km run. Creating a novel from the first draft to being published contains inevitably some pain but how much you decide to invest thoughts and feelings in that pain is up to you.

2. Three most important qualities of a novelist: talent, focus and endurance.

This is something I hope to get back to later on this blog. Although I don’t fully agree with Murakami here, he does have a point. Talent is needed, some sort of knack or gift for the craft (although – what is talent, really?), to get good at producing quality.But talent is a fickle thing and isn’t really under our control – and this is where focus and endurance come into play. The ability to concentrate helps you to utilize that limited talent of yours, and endurance is what keeps you going and helps you finish those projects.

3. Sometimes taking time is actually a shortcut.

 

Taking time to ”stubbornly, rigorously, and very patiently tighten all the screws of each individual part” (p. 161), that is, to practice and improve ones craft day after day, piece by piece, can pay off big time.

Say that you’re editing a novel and want to make it better but don’t know how. You start a time-consuming project: you start by reading about plotting and structuring a story, then you move on to storytelling and how to write fluent dialogue. After that comes creating authentic characters and tweaking the details, creating an as-perfect-as-possible manuscript.

Reading all these things and applying them to your writing can take a huge chunk of your time and feel ridiculous, time-consuming, like nitpicking. Why do this, why invest all this time in learning details – why not just try rewriting the whole story instead? At least you would be writing.

But suddenly, the parts fall into place and you understand how all the small details create a bigger, well-functioning picture. You end up improving your craft by taking all that time to learn.

***

Have you read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running? What in it resonated with you?

The Cat Who Ate Too Much

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After a month-long break from my first draft of Yellow Tails, I took it out from the closet where I had hidden it and started reading the whole thing.

Now, I would like to share with you a few notions about reading a fictitious draft that was born under a longer-than-usual time period:

  1. When I began writing Yellow Tails, I hadn’t written any fiction in many years, except for the drafts I wrote during NaNoWriMo (successfully in 2016 and not so successfully during 2015 and 2014). I had only written essays and my Bachelor’s thesis, some random journal entries and that was all. And you know what? When a person then suddenly decides to start writing her first draft… well, the lack of practice in creative writing shows. The first 30–40 pages were awful. I literally had to take a break from the whole thing and do something else for a few hours to be able to continue reading it. I don’t know what I was expecting but certainly not that kind of reaction… However, as I kept reading I did realize something positive which leads me to point number 2.
  2. Write daily is a common advice given to many writers. For some it works, for some it doesn’t, but for me it definitely works. The effects of writing almost daily for ten months are only positive: not only has it improved my writing skills, but my endurance and ability to focus as well. So, after the first shock, I actually enjoyed many aspects of the story. I even had fun reading it (which is a positive sign, telling that I still like what I’ve written)!

However, what I’ve written requires a great deal of revising as I didn’t plan all that much during the writing process. But the good news is that despite the pantsing, my story seems to follow a story line and has a structure. To me it means Yellow Tails isn’t hopeless at all! Quite the contrary, it even seems to have potential!

At the moment, I’m reading a book about writing (general advice when it comes to structuring and what to think of when executing the different story arcs) and after I’m done with the book, I’ll start making the required changes to the structure and focus on the things that need improvement. We will see where the editing process takes me.

But what I know is that I’m really looking forward to getting started and make the story better than good.

Tell The Tail

I thought I could share a few things about the story itself. I believe it might help you, the reader, understand better what I’ll be talking about here from time to time, if you know what the story is about. I also think sharing something about the story helps me think of Yellow Tails as an actual book, something that’s becoming a real thing.

So, what is Yellow Tails about?

In short, it’s the personal development story of an overweight cat called Jello.

A bit longer version would be something like this:

Jello is a big, yellow, overweight cat who loves to spend his days organizing fondue parties to his little friends. However, when his longtime but long gone childhood friend suddenly returns to his life, Jello needs to figure out who he’s turned into and what he really wants with his life.

It is said that a novelist’s first book tends to be personal. Well, Yellow Tails certainly is that. The idea was born during a cycling session at the gym as I pictured in my mind Fit Diva stealing the cheese meant for Jello’s fondue parties and Jello getting all upset about it.

After that, I was unable to let go of the story setting and the characters. I had to write about them – and that is how Yellow Tails was born.

What The Story Is And Isn’t About

Yellow Tails is not a romantic story (but it does talk about love for food).

Although Jello is an overweight cat, the story doesn’t include dieting tips or exercise programs.

Neither does it contain any large-scale car-chase kind of action scenes. However, I can promise some wild fondue-partying. I find the mood of the story to be quite peaceful although there’s something happening all the time.

Yellow Tails has only three characters and takes place in one house, mainly inside the four walls and the round entrance hall. Some visits are made into the outside world.

Ultimately, it’s a story about change and what making a change entails for the mind, the body and the willpower. It’s also about how a change affects many more things than we primarily think it does.

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So long, my friends and readers! Have an energetic Thursday!

What Comes After ’The End’?

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Here you have the face of a very happy person – me. You see, I wrote a book. Or, rather, I finished writing the first draft of my first book and that, my friends, leads to a smile like the one on the photo.

On Monday 17th of December, 247 pages and 90,742 words later, I finished the epilogue of Yellow Tails. I wrote the words ’The End’ on the document, looked at them for a while and then erased them as they feel somewhat cheesy to me. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t finished the manuscript – because I have. In this photo, I have in front of me the finished first draft of my first book and I feel serene.

The First Feelings

On Monday, I knew I would finish the story that day so when it actually happened I wasn’t surprised, not in any way confused that I actually managed to come to the end of the story. Finishing felt like something very natural, like this was the way it’s supposed to feel. I walked to the bedroom to whisper to my partner (who was still quite asleep) ’I finished the story’ and felt the calmness wash over me.

But after those first feelings of calm, the emotion rollercoaster started moving. Encouraged by my partner, I decided to print out the book that same day so we walked to the university to print out all the 247 pages (I even made a time-lapse out of it). However, I didn’t only get my words printed out on paper: what I didn’t know was that my partner had actually made a cover for Yellow Tails! He creates digital art and had used his skills to make a book cover with the three main characters of Yellow Tails, balancing on a scale.

So, after printing out all the pages, he presented the cover to me and placed it on top the pile of papers that now was my book. Seeing that book cover on my first draft, my first book, made me burst into tears. The calmness I had felt up until that moment disappeared and instead I felt elated but also somehow relieved. I realized that I had actually come to an end of this phase of the project. Perhaps it was that book cover that actually made me realise what I’ve created and accomplished during the past ten months. Suddenly, Yellow Tails became real to me. Because it is one thing to have the title page written in Times New Roman – but to have a proper book cover to one’s draft makes it feel like an actual book.

How do I feel now, a few days later? Three things: 1) I’m happy for finishing the story without trying to rush to get to the end, 2) I’m proud for my perseverance, of what I’ve accomplished, and 3) most of all, I’m so glad for taking the time during these ten months to write my novel, pushing it forward 1,000 to 2,000 words at a time, and ending up with a first draft with a proper beginning and an ending.

So! I reached the end of my novel – what happens next?

The First Four Weeks

The book has been printed and it even has a cover. But for the next four weeks, I won’t be touching it. Or I will try not to touch it, at least. I haven’t really been able to keep myself from turning a random page and read a few sentences, enjoying my own writing and feeling amazed by what I’ve accomplished.

(However, as the story has been written over a period of ten months, I also notice some changes in my writing style when I compare the first fifty pages with the last fifty. But that isn’t anything to think of at the moment, that I will leave to the part about editing.)

I’ll pick up Yellow Tails in four weeks or so when I start editing it. But until then, I will let it rest, get some air, take it easy for a moment. And that is precisely what I’ve been planning to do myself as well.

These past four months have been tough on me as I’ve been juggling with several different projects at the same time. As my the first part of my thesis is finished and even Yellow Tails has reached its end, I finally feel like I can take a break from more or less everything that entails a deadline. Except Christmas, of course, which has a deadline of its own.

Instead of focusing on things that need to be done, I’ll focus on things I want to do. I’ll be ’sharpening the saw’, so to speak. Those things include dedicating time for some self-care: doing yoga, reading, writing my journal, listening to podcasts I’ve been postponing all Fall, even listen to music (I prefer to write, walk and work out in silence so I don’t listen to that much music). And of course, spend time with my partner and friends.

A Writer’s Buzz

But as a writer, I’m pretty sure I can’t keep my hands off writing or at least planning  something. Therefore, during these upcoming weeks I’ll probably spend a good deal of time preparing for what’s next on the Yellow Tails agenda: learning new things about writing and especially self-editing. What to focus on, how to get the most out of the first round of edits (do share your tips in the comments if you have some)? I’m already making a mental list of how to improve the characters of my story and try to figure out what a good editing pace is. I even wrote down a few thoughts on beta-reading and to whom I could give my story to read, although it will take a couple of months before entering that phase.

(So… I’m already planning and the four-week break has only begun.)

In addition to this, I’ll probably even start planning some new stories I wish to write and tell. During these past ten months, and especially this Fall, as I’ve been working on Yellow Tails, new ideas have come to my mind. Altogether four different stories, three of them traditional novels and the fourth a collection of short-stories with a specific theme. But which one will I choose? I guess I’ll find out sooner or later.

However, for now, I’ll be taking a Christmas break. Let the mind rest for a few days, focus on taking care of my body and mind, enjoy the fresh snow on the ground and make Christmas cards and presents instead of pushing myself to produce a good amount of daily words. Sharpening the saw can take one far – and we will see how far it’ll take me.

On the Importance of Reading

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When I was little, books were my go-to whenever I had time. It was the life before smartphones, before screens were used to communicate, see, read and like. Instead, the minutes and hours were used to doing other things, and I loved to spend my time in the world of fiction.

To demonstrate this, I have an excellent example from my childhood that describes my love for reading:

In the end of third grade, everyone in our class were instructed to guess how many books they would read during the Summer. Our teacher wrote everyone’s guess down, saying that she would check with us in the Fall how many books we actually had read and compare it to our guess.

While others guessed something between two and ten books (no one was allowed to say ’none’ or ’one’), I estimated in a clear voice that I would probably read thirty books that Summer. It was an honest guess, I was dead serious about the number. I remember the look on my teacher’s face: the kind but doubtful smile and how she said, in a friendly voice, that maybe ”we won’t write down thirty books, but maybe ten or twelve?”

I guess you can guess the end to this story. In Fall, when we returned to school after Summer, I declared with a proud voice that I had read 35 books that Summer.

(It felt like a victory. And although this was supposed to tell about my love for books, I guess this example also tells you about my determination and perseverance.)

Fast forward to this day, my love for books continues to thrive and even though I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like to (will I ever?), I’ve still had a book in the process most of the time. Reading is also something I’m hoping to be able to hold on to for as long as I live – and if my eyes get bad, I hope I will have someone who reads to me or then I’ll opt for audiobooks.

For me, books have helped me escape this world and enter another. They have given me the possibility to see a life different from mine and learn to know new people. Today, reading books helps me become a better writer.

But this weekend I found out what kind of effect reading books as a child and a teenagers has had. In addition to offering an escape route, reading books (especially fiction) has had a huge impact on my personality and on how I see the world around me.

Let me tell you more about this.

Alluring, Delightful, Gorgeous

My secondary school Finnish teacher, author of three novels, wrote an article about teenagers’ reading capabilities. He talked a great deal about the problems: the short attention span that hinders them from reading longer texts about unfamiliar topics; problems with analytical reading skills; difficulties understanding words they come across less frequently and so on.

But my Finnish teacher also talked about the good things, telling about the many benefits of reading, which I’ll now share with you.

Did you know, that the amount of fiction we read as children and teenagers has a huge impact on our vocabulary, our fantasy and the ability to feel empathy? Reading helps improve ones perseverance: the long-term attention span, a skill many let rust in the winter rain. Reading increases the reader’s understanding that one cannot get everything at once: reading a book takes time, it requires effort if one wishes to know how the book ends.

A fiction-reading teenager can have a vocabulary of over 70,000 words while a teenager that doesn’t enjoy the world of books manages only about 15,000 (my mind gasped for air when I read this). This means that for someone there is only one word for beautiful while the other sees dozens of alternatives to it, from alluring to delightful, dazzling and pleasing. The world presents itself in a whole other way to the person who reads: it’s full of colors, different nuances, and the book worlds tickle the reader’s senses in different ways. For the non-reader the world is more black and white, simpler.

A person who reads has also better skills to empathize with other people. Because books let us in on other people’s minds, worlds, feelings and thoughts, readers are also more likely to understand other people better. Understanding helps us feel empathy and brings us humans closer to each other – something that social media doesn’t always manage to do.

Reading is so  i m p o r t a n t . It’s not just something a nagging teacher tells us to do just because. It really has an impact, and I am beyond happy today that I had the opportunity to read as much as I wanted when I was a kid.

However, lately I’ve been thinking more about what kind of books I read.

Finding Good Books as a Writer

For a writer, reading isn’t only about learning about other people, about seeing the world in colors, or only about improving one’s vocabulary. It’s also about finding my own voice, the style of writing, and helping to realize what kind of characters I like, what kind of plot twists intrigue me the most. Reading books will help me write better books.

As a child and a teenager, I just wanted to find books I liked: books with exciting characters, desperately romantic eternal triangles, books with adventure and dangers. I loved Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Alex Rider series, and the books of Enid Blyton, Astrid Lindgren and Marianne Curley. I could read them over and over again (and I did).

But today, I’ve become more selective. I’ve paid more attention to what I read. I try to find books by authors with a similar style to mine, books that swallow me into the story, and tried to learn from these books. But what I’ve found is that there isn’t actually that many books like that out there. Or, actually, there probably is – I just have trouble finding them.

I actually have trouble finding books that I like enough to read them from beginning to the end. Usually, I give them a few pages, most often 50 pages or so before deciding if the plot, the style of writing and the characters are interesting enough. I want to read good books, books that give me a feeling of satisfaction – or even better, make me feel energized and happy.

This year, I’ve opened probably more than twenty books only to return them to the library after reading a few pages. I’ve picked up both classics and modern literature, female and male authors and different genres, only to realize that I would simply suffer if I forced myself to read these books. I can’t help but wonder: am I being too picky? Too selective? Should a writer read any books as long as she’s reading or is there actually a guideline to what kind of books a writer should read?

And at the same time, I’m convinced that I don’t want to waste my time reading a book with only an okay plot or a boring style.  I want those well-written, capturing stories!

But how to find them? How to find good books to read?

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So please, readers: how do you choose what books to read? Any recommendations, book tips? And writers: do you think all books are worth reading, or only the ones that help you become a better writer?

 

The Benefits of Writing a Journal

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I’ve adopted a new habit: writing an almost daily journal. Almost, because I try to write it every day but Sundays tend to become the exception to the rule. However, I still call it a habit because it’s ingrained in my system: from Monday to Friday I wake up at 6 AM and after showering but before breakfast, I write my journal.

I keep my thoughts to two pages per day – I’m afraid that in the modern world the hand muscles aren’t what they used to be. But it’s a 30-minute exercise in concentration and a great way to start one’s day. Let me tell you why.

(But first, I’ll shed some light on my history as a journal writer)

An On/Off Habit

Ever since I was little, writing a journal has been some kind of on/off habit for me. I can’t remember why I began writing in the first place – I was probably inspired by some character in a book that kept a diary and I wanted to be like him/her. The first journals I’ve kept are from elementary school when I was in second grade. The cute, pastel yellow Winnie the Pooh notebook has lost many of its pages and is barely holding together. But the important things, the diary entries about my dance practices and who of my class mates I liked the most, are still there.

After that, I’ve written a journal of some sort through the years up until this day. I’d like to declare I have something from every year from my life written down, with a date and a few thoughts about life, but I’m not quite sure. Some years might be missing. But in that case, it’ll only be a few.

For this post, I perused my old journals. There are three different time periods when I’ve written actively, i.e. on a daily basis:

  • In 2010: I wrote three pages every day for six months or so. I have no idea where the idea came from – maybe I wanted to prove something to myself or be able to tell everyone I wrote every day. But I did, and held on to the habit for an impressive amount of time, considering I was a teenager filled with angst and confusion.
  • In the Fall of 2016: one to eight pages daily. This was the time I spent in Ireland. Writing about my exchange period kept me sane and also had the function of making the time there more memorable.
  • Now, in Fall 2018 (which I guess we can start calling Winter as we just got our first snow in Southern Finland and it’s less than four weeks until Christmas): two pages on a daily basis. It is an effort to try to document my thoughts and feelings, trying to dig deeper into what I know and feel, what I want and how I want it.

Analyzing my more sporadic journal entries from previous years, I seem to have picked up my pen and put black on white when I’ve been 1) overwhelmed by feelings, may that be love, hate, sadness or confusion; 2) feeling guilty about not exercising enough and only eating candy and chocolate, or 3) when I felt like I needed to get out all those thoughts about people, school work and life in general, and didn’t feel like telling about them to anyone else (or writing about them on my LiveJournal blog that has been gone for a long time).

Focus on Depth

Today, however, I have a different approach on writing a journal. Actually, I only recently realized that I haven’t actually been writing a journal all these years. I’ve been writing a diary – a book where I’ve recorded events as they happen and that have included feelings and moods. That I have done, for sure – all that foul language, teenage hate towards others and myself, crushes on cute guys… And a play-by-play descriptions about my plans and what I intend to do later that day or the next.

But now it feels like I have become a grown up – I’m writing a journal. A book where I record, not events or what other people say and do, but ideas and thoughts. I try to focus on depth instead of just telling what I did that day or how I felt. I’m actually digging deeper into those emotions, trying to concentrate on what’s on my mind and find out why it’s on my mind.

Writing for me has always been something I’ve had to force myself to do. It’s not a natural daily yearning for me to write down my thoughts and pick on them with a stick to find out what these thoughts really are about. Sometimes, I also find the process somewhat frustrating: it takes time to write by hand compared with writing on a computer which means the process is slow, while at the same time my thoughts are running around like the crazy dodos in Ice Age. It feels like I lose the track of thought before I’ve managed to write everything down.

(And let’s not forget about the hand – it does get tired which means the writing won’t be as pretty. A thing that tends to matter to me.)

But never have I regretted sitting down to write my daily two pages. Some days, I know exactly what I want to write about. Last week such clear thoughts were about self-care, thoughts on why I’m writing my thesis, and how I deal with anxiety that comes from school work. And on those days when I have no clue what I’m thinking about – I write about that and try to figure out why I don’t have anything to say.

During this new in-depth writing habit of mine, I’ve experienced some of the benefits of daily journal writing:

  • I realize new things about myself and my though processes that I might not have realized if I hadn’t written them down.
  • I take a moment to focus on what feels important in my mind at the moment: what thoughts are constantly there?
  • I listen to myself: how do I feel today? Am I anxious, motivated, tired, stressed or energized?
  • I improve my concentration by focusing on a single, manual task for thirty minutes or so. It helps me focus on projects at hand during the rest on the day.

Retrospective Reading

And one of the huge benefits of writing a diary or a journal, when regarded in the long run, is the retrospect one gets when reading old diaries and journals. As I’ve been reading those old entries, especially from 2009 onward, I’ve understood myself in a different way than I did before.

Of course, I remember many of the big things I wrote about (and forgotten many of those that felt so big at the time but that lost their meaning in a few weeks or months). But the events and the people aren’t that important – it’s more about how I wrote about them. I’ve realized how much built-in anger I had when I was a teenager, and how I had no way of letting it out. So I wrote these awful things in my diary, and yelled at everything and everyone on paper – instead of confronting them in person.

Reading old entries gave me a refreshed view of my younger self – what was I insecure about, what events and happenings did I consider being important enough to write about, and what did that mean, on a deeper level? My findings have been thought-provoking.

What I’ve thought about is this: what if I had never written a diary? What would I know about myself today, what kind of image would I have about my childhood and being a teenager? In his book Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari speaks about the experiencing self and the narrating self.

The experiencing self is the person experiencing the emotions, thoughts and feelings in the moment. The experiencing self is able to tell exactly how one feels, giving a realistic, although subjective, description of the current state of life.

The narrating self takes over when the experiencing self is taking a break – and builds up a narrative, a story, that tells how the situation was. The narrative self tends to bend the curves, put a filter on what the experiencing self just told and transform the memories into something else, something nice and less complex.

In one way or the other, the narrative self distorts the real experience and creates, in the long run, a not-so-truthful perception of oneself and the happenings that occurred.

This doesn’t help us understand why we have become the people we are today. What events formed us, who had a great effect on our thoughts and opinions? Here, the diaries and journals come to our help. They are the reality check we need every once in a while – how was the experience really, was it as good or as bad as I remembered? What did I think of this thing previously, has my thinking shifted?

Writing a daily journal helps to understand our own progress and who we are. This, however, requires patience and self-discipline: in order to have something to analyze, you need to take the time to write down those entries. But it pays off in the end, I’d say. What do you think? Is it worth your time?

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Why do you write a journal, if you do? Or what is keeping you from it? Can you relate to any of the benefits I mentioned in this blog post?