I just put this book on hold at my library.

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

Why? Well, no, it’s not just the title resonating with huge echoes in my head. Typically, I would probably shy away from this title–it makes me think of people who say all the fault is in our era and that, if we just went back in history to when life was simple and children ran around in the grass for hours, we’d all be happy and at peace. Not that it’s a bad title, and maybe there’s just a bit of defensiveness in  my mind about the time I spend on Facebook, but whatever. :)

So why did I order it? Because I heard Terri Gross interview the author, Brigid Schulte, on Fresh Air earlier this week. You can listen here.

I actually haven’t heard the whole interview yet; I’ve been listening in bits and pieces as I fold laundry and tidy things. But I’ve heard enough to know I want to try the book. Schulte talks about waking up in the middle of the night, basically staring into the darkness at her insurmountable to-do list. She did research with people who study leisure time (yes, they exist) and talks about the man who labeled as “leisure” the time she spent playing tic-tac-toe with her daughter when they had car trouble and were waiting for help to come. Oh, yeah, that’s relaxing. She talks about what she calls her “stupid days,” when she forgets all she’s learned about handling life stress and spins back into frantic worrying. Sound familiar? It does to me. I tend to use the term “Tasmanian-Devil Days,” but “stupid” would also fit.

Note, I’m writing  this from memory and paraphrasing, so don’t quote me on the details.

Still, I doubt I’m the only one that will see themselves in Schulte’s stories.

One of the things she mentions that has helped her is doing tasks in chunks of time. I think what she means by this is giving yourself a single thing to do, perhaps in a set of hours, perhaps in a day.  So instead of coming home from work and spend the whole evening tackling multiple tasks, you chunk that time for one job. At least, again, this is my interpretation of the little bit I heard about this. (Obviously, this is why I need to read the book!) But the thing is, this is what I’ve been doing this week. I’ve been working on a temp project for the past couple of months, and when that finished up, there was this pile of paperwork. You know the kind. Oh, yes, you do! The stuff you push aside because it’s going to take more than five minutes, and you need that five minutes anyway to work on your main job, and when you’re done with that main job for the day, you really have to relax with a book because your brain is too tired to look at that more-than-five minute job. And so on and so on… The pile grows.

This was my week to do the pile.

No, I haven’t spent four days straight doing paperwork. I’ve done yoga all four days as well, and I’ve done plenty of reading (currently on The Merry Misogynist, in my reread of Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series). And obviously the dishes aren’t stacked quite a mile high.  But mostly it’s been about this paperwork.

I also haven’t written.

My first reaction as I typed that line was that I actually felt my eyes tear up a bit. And my stomach wants to tie itself into a knot. It’s not that I write every single day, and I actually do agree with what Nathan Bransford says in his blog post about not having to do that. But here I was, with a free week stretching out in front of me, and I chose to exclude writing. It was a tough choice, but when I looked at the week and visualized both the pile of paperwork and writing time, it was like staring at a fractured mirror, the kind someone has thrown a shoe at and won seven years of bad luck. On the other hand, when I gave myself permission to gently slide the writing out of the picture and revisualize just the pile (and the therapeutic yoga), I saw a clean, doable path for me to walk. Calmly.

My theme for 2014 is Staying Open. And I think a big part of staying open is, sometimes, letting go–if not always of the writing, then at least of going auto-pilot on the way we have to do things. The way we have to do writing. I do honestly believe that if I had tried to tackle the pile and be creative, I would have done neither well. And the yoga would have become at once another demand on my time and the thing that was failing to relieve my stress.

It’s Thursday afternoon, and the pile is pretty much done. It is completely managed. The follow-up tasks are clear.

As is my mind.

I’m pretty sure I have another week of available time for myself starting next Monday. And I’m thinking that I’ll be chunking that week again. But this time it’ll be for writing.

Have you experimented with this method of picking one task for a chunk of time? Do you feel like you’ve reaped benefits? Or do you feel like that to-do list is still looming over you, shouting NOT DONE YET in your face? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about this post for four or five days. Ever since I got a few pages into The Magician’s Elephant. Because I could tell right away that this was going to be one of those books. One of those books that is so brilliant, so lovely, and so…magical, that I can’t figure out what or how the author–in this case, Kate DiCamillo– has done to get all this beauty on the page.

If you’ve read many of my other reviews, where I pretty much talk about the pieces of a story, the elements of writing in which the author just rocks, you might guess that this–this not knowing–can drive me crazy. Just a little bit. You know, at the same time as I’m falling in love with the book.

Which I did with The Magician’s Elephant. On every page. (Or as my Kindle calls them, every “location.” I know. I’m so not used to that yet.)

I’m going to give you the basic premise/intro of the book (without spoilers), but be warned–no plot retelling , or character description, can convey what is so special about this book. A young boy named Peter hears from a fortune teller that his sister, Adele, is alive. He also hears that to find her, he has to follow the elephant. Peter lives in a European city in which–guess. There are no elephants. Until…

That’s it. That’s all the storyline you’re going to get. The arrival of the elephant is just one of those things you need to read in DiCamillo’s writing, not mine.

So what am I going to talk about?

The world. The voice. The magic.

The Magician’s Elephant is, I think, maybe an example of what some people call magical realism. The city Peter lives in could be any European city–for all I know, it’s a real one I haven’t heard of. The story could take place any time before cars. At least there are no cars in the book. There are social classes–super rich down to Peter, who lives in a small room at the top of a house with a retired, and slightly not-sane, soldier, who could have fought in any past European war. Before cars.  And then something magical happens.

You probably guessed that, with the title and all. Except the magic I’m talking about is not the magic of the magician. Yes, he does something, and that something is big and has big consequences, but the magic is more. The magic is the feeling DiCamillo conveys that anything–anything–can happen in this world, this little world of Peter and Adele and the policeman Leo Matienne and his wife Gloria. And the elephant. And the feeling that the anything is always going to be something good and something right.

Wait, you’re saying. What about conflict? What about problems? What about the tension created in the reader when they can’t tell if things will turn out all right. Come on, Becky, you’re always arguing in favor of making things worse, amping up that conflict, keeping the reader wondering.

Yeah, well, guess what. In this book, in these pages of DiCamillo’s writing, it doesn’t matter that you aren’t worried about Peter. What matters is that–somehow, magically–she makes you turn every page, wanting more, even as she creates this incredibly strong faith in you, this absolute belief that Peter will find Adele. And that they’ll be happily together again.

DiCamillo does keep you wondering about the how: what exactly will Peter do, who exactly will help him, what actual steps will lead Peter back to his sister and make the elephant happy as well. So, yes, I’m sure that, technically, some of the page-turning need comes from the curiosity she evokes in the reader.

But what really keeps you reading, I believe, is that sense of magic. That sense of absolute possibility and hope.

I am not a sappy person. I don’t like sappy books. I like a happy ending, but I’m very dissatisfied when I hit one of those that feels forced or at odds with where the story needed to go. So it’s not just that everything comes together at the end that made me love this book. That never works for me, by itself.

It’s the language. If I had hours and hours available to me, I could probably take a page of this book and pick it apart for the words and phrasing that DiCamillo crafts that create what is for me, a thing of beauty. Of course, the characters matter–Peter’s longing for his sister, his grief over the promises he made his mother that he hasn’t been able to fulfill; Adele’s dreams about the elephant, Sister Marie’s flying dreams, Madame LaVaughn’s need for understanding and attention. Every character in this story has a problem, a goal, and–most importantly–a connection to the others. Of course, the plot is strong–one thing causes the next, which connects to something earlier, which leads to another action. Perfect. DiCamillo doesn’t miss a story beat. Of course, it’s the surprise events, the twists, even the coincidences, that add to this feeling of wonder–magic does happen here, and magic leads to people coming together, people questioning assumptions, people doing things that count.

But…yeah. The words.

Nathan Bransford put up a post the other day about whether the publishing industry cares too much about good writing. Then, here, he includes a full comment from one of his readers to that post. In terms of the publishing business, no, I’m guessing the industry doesn’t need to stick to publishing books written as beautifully as The Magician’s Elephant. I’m not naming any other titles, but I would take any bet that several we can all think of made gazillions of dollars more for their authors (and publishers) than The Magician’s Elephant did. I agree with Nathan when he says, “I’m unconvinced the majority of the reading public cares about “good” writing. They care about stories and settings and characters. Prose? I’m not sure I buy it.”

But. Yeah, you knew there was a “but.” Or a BUT!

I care. Oh, I so care. Prose like DiCamillo’s makes me feel like I’ve been wrapped in the most beautifully woven piece of tapestry ever created, one that is as soft as flannel and as shimmery as silk and in which gold and silver embroidery traces every detail. It makes me feel like I’m sitting on a sun-warmed rock above treeline, looking into a valley of greens and grays and who-knows-what animal life moving around in it. It makes me feel, at once, as though I never want this book to end and as though I need to put it down right that instant and turn to my own writing, in an impossible but timeless attempt to create something of my own that even comes close. 

Do I read those other books? Of course. Do I enjoy them. Definitely.

Still. There is in me, and I think in many others, a wish for more. For the beauty.

A quick glance around the blogs to see what other people are saying:

  1. Jennifer R. Hubbard with a discussion on Little Women: Jo and Laurie or Jo and Professor Bhaer. Fact: I am now and always have been Team Bhaer.
  2. Because I loved the book but am feeling too lazy to write about it, this excellent review of Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavor, from Thea at The Book Smugglers.
  3. Beth Revis on being afraid. She says it so well.
  4. I don’t know if you remember KidLit4Japan, the children’s and YA auction that raised over $10,000to help Japan after the earthquake and tsunami? Well, the author who organized and ran the WHOLE THING, Greg Fishbone, has a new book out, the first in his Galaxy Games series–Galaxy Games: The Challengers. Check out Debbi Michiko Florence’s interview with Greg.
  5. Go answer Nathan Bransford’s question: When Do You Let Other People See Your Work? Me, I use early critiques as motivation and thinking-fodder, but I know a lot of writers get nervous about sharing those first drafts. You?

Happy Friday and have a great weekend!

You know how, every now & then, you look around and you have nothing to read. Yes, I know, even in a house with shelves lining all the walls, shelves that are definitely fully stocked.

It happens.

And then there’s the flip side, when there are dozens of books you want to read, and–suddenly–life happens, and they’re all there for you to read. At the same time.

It’s happening now.

For a quick post, thought I’d share just a half-dozen of the books either on my nightstand or about to show up there soon.

  1. Robin Brande’s Doggirl
  2. Kurtis Scaletta’s Mamba Point
  3. Nathan Bransford’s Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow
  4. Anna Perera’s Guantanamo Boy
  5. Kathryn Erskine’s The Absolute Value of Mike
  6. Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray

What’s on your nightstand or getting close?

Today, Nathan Bransford blogs about letting yourself be distracted from your writing, giving yourself recharge/refresh time away from the current WIP.

You can read his excellent, realistic post here.

I’ve been thinking lately about how I’ve been having at once the most relaxing summer I can remember AND managing progress on two WIPs and non-writing work stuff. It’s good, you know. And thinking about the one thing I consciously added more alloted-time to in the past year–reading. I think this has a lot to do with my productivity.  With the recharging that Nathan talks about.

If you follow my blog or my Facebook updates and tweets, you know I read a LOT. I also read fast, so it’s not as many hours as it probably seems, but still…it is the crucial distraction/escape in my life. Yes, I can justify it in other ways, because reading and writing are so interconnected, but to be honest, that’s not why I do it. It’s the one thing (after family & friends) that I do completely by choice and am unwilling/unable to give up. I realized last year that I had cut down on it and that, consequently, I was a lot more stressed. I missed the escape that I get from all the wonderful worlds other writers are creating for me.

So I read.

What’s the distraction that you know, takes you away from extra writing hours, but that there is no way–for good reasons–you’re giving up?

There are times when it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the information on the Internet, especially when we tell ourselves we’re supposed to be keeping track of it all and applying it to our writing lives.

Um…impossible.

I have a long list of blogs in my blog reader, and on any given day, I can look there & find something to update or instruct me about the latest technology or publishing changes, to motivate and inspire me about the writing life, to reassure me that I’m not the only one wondering what it’s all about.

So just to mention a few of my favorites today and to say thanks…

Obviously, these are just a few of the blogs I check in at every week, but they are definitely some of my staples.

Have any thank-yous to bloggers you’d like to share? Feel free to drop them in the comments.

Okay, I know it’s starting to feel like this is a bit of a cheating week for me. First, I the WONDERFUL and BRILLIANT Shrinking Violets guest post for me. (I know how much you all loved that, though, so no guilt here!). Then I resort to a visual image, no words, about my workday, and I didn’t even find that image myself–Nastassja Mills did! And now, I’m sending you over to read Nathan Bransford’s blog.

Still, no guilt. Because Nathan is always worth listening to, and also because I am going to throw my own two cents into the pot here. Nathan’s basically talking about how to make it work that your hero does something horrible or has a pretty nasty flaw. And his basic idea–although he says it much better and in more detail, so you MUST go read the post–is that you do this by redeeming your hero.

What I started thinking about, though, as I read the post is that this implies another need, perhaps. And that would be the need to have our hero do something “bad” to start with. Yes, I’m still buried in Donald Maass’ workbook and theories, but this seems to me to fall under that big umbrella of pushing our heroes past our their limits.

I am having the sense as I think about my fiction WIP and draft out a few early scenes that I’m making my hero pretty darned, well…heroic. That’s okay. In fact, that’s good. Some pretty nasty things happen to her, and she’s going to have to be strong, or to repeat the highest praise I’ve ever heard about any heroine from literaticatkick-ass. But…

She can’t be Wonder Woman. (For one thing, the story is set in Chicago, 1913–in MARCH, and that outfit would be completely inappropriate.)

One of my goal for this character is to find out what she does wrong. It has to, I think, be a necessary wrong and one that is ultimately a critical part of her quest and growth, but it does have to be bad.

What about your heroes? Do they wear cloaks because they’re hiding something? What’s really under that mask? How bad can you make them? And how will you, as Nathan says, redeem them?

I was going to put up this great, maybe-even-profound blog about…blogging first thing this week. Then I read this post by Jane Lindskold at Tor.com and thought it was a good one to share. We can all use more info about What Happens After the Book is Written. Hop over and have a read.

Thanks to Nathan Bransford for the link.

See you in a few days for that brilliantpost on blogs!

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