The Sunday Currently Vol. 08

For several months I’ve been wanting to write more online, without really knowing what to say or how to say it. Not because I felt pressured to Build My Platform(TM), but because I missed sharing a part of myself, seeking to connect with others, in the way that others have shared part of themselves, seeking to connect with readers like me.

I still don’t know how to get back into it in a way that feels right, but The Sunday Currently, even a selective version of it, is always a good place to start.

feeling

Down. Late last night three terrorists in a white van drove into the crowd at London Bridge, then went on a stabbing spree in Borough Market, killing 7. It’s a place I walk through six times a week, but pointing that association out doesn’t really matter because a) it’s one of the busiest areas in London, millions pass through every week and b) these days it could be any one of us, anywhere, at any time.  Matt & I consumed but didn’t share the details, raw and unverified, pouring into our feeds. We checked in with friends and family and fell asleep to the sound of helicopters–and the loud, slightly slurred chatter right outside the Italian restaurant below us, from people who, if they’d heard the news, carried on, as those who could, did.

This morning, the helicopters are still in the skies. On my way to the library, both buses I was on abruptly diverted from their routes, and traffic halted as several unmarked police cars rushed past, sirens blaring. I checked Twitter, and assumed it was part of the raids and arrests carried out in Barking. I’m trying not to check Twitter too often, because the hateful comments, misinformed hot takes, MUST READ THREADS, and people acting like spokespeople of their country/race are bubbling at the top, like the floating scum that you have to skim off whenever you boil potatoes. And because I have a rough draft of my dissertation due Tuesday. I am alive, unharmed, grateful and mournful, but I am also really, really behind.

writing

The aforementioned dissertation. This probably deserves a post of its own, but let’s just say that this book and I are not friends right now. A good chunk of time and money has gone into this book, and I will finish it. But I also feel that I’m working in a genre that is out of my depth, on a topic which taunts the limits of my understanding, and whose subject matter compels me to look at how the horrifying events of seventy-five years ago parallel our world today.

Which sounds exactly like what a dissertation is supposed to do. But wow do I miss YA fantasy, because I’m realizing belatedly–or this is delirium caused by dissertation stress, by being so deep in a book I can’t see the way out?–that that’s all I ever really wanted to write.

reading 

The best book I’ve read this year is The Bees by Laline Paull, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Bailey’s Prize. It’s about a worker bee named Flora 717, who is born into the lowest caste of a beehive ruled by a Queen with a secret. Abnormally large and armed with gifts that others of her kin don’t have, Flora devotes her life to the good of the hive, until her own secret–and a growing suspicion that the biggest danger to the hive comes from within–forces her to make devastating decisions.

I finished it late into the night and wept, overcome by the book’s portrayal of love and sacrifice. Then spent hours on Youtube looking up bees. Paull’s worldbuilding is fantastic, and meticulously researched.

listening  

Matt is insisting we get into the Glastonbury mood by listening to some of its headliners. Which is fine, but his playlist consists heavily of what I call “bloopy” music, replete with baby-voiced women. After fifteen minutes of this I’ll slip Carly Rae Jepsen’s new song “Cut to the Feeling” into the Sonos queue. I have an even deeper appreciation for it after reading Spin’s review, in which Jordan Sargent compares the transition to chorus to “the newer versions of Mario Kart, in which the rainbow-slicked ramps launch you even more theatrically into the beautiful blue sky.” Um, yes.

loving

My KeepCup, featured at the top of the post, which I bought when I went down a madcap ‘zero waste lifestyle’ k-hole. I became convinced that if I never used a paper cup again, I was basically Jesus. Despite not being Jesus, I love it. I got the 8 oz ultra-hipster model with glass body and cork band, otherwise known as the monochramatic Cafe Series in Filter. Every coffeeshop I’ve been to has been more than happy to accommodate it, it looks elegant, and even drinking out of it feels nice.

The only thing I hate is how difficult it is to pop the lid off. I don’t care if each lid has been hand-fitted to each individual glass body, which according to the website it literally has. If there’s still any liquid inside when you try to remove it, woe betide any surfaces in the immediate vicinity, including yourself.

stay classy never trashy

wearing

My go-to library outfit, which is cropped pants, a T-shirt, a baggy grey cardigan bought on a whim in Baguio, and my orthopedic-style white Skechers. I’m really channeling the 80s grandpa style. Whenever I wear it, I dance around Matt saying, “Oppa grandpa style!” He loves it when I do that, he thinks it’s very charming.

eating

Like trash. Cooking delicious and nutritious meals is at the very bottom of my to-do list these days. Dinner is whatever we can put straight in the oven with minimal mixing or fuss. Besides, Kewpie mayonnaise disguises all culinary sins.

wanting 

A mechanical keyboard. I know the feeling will pass, because it’s my brain’s feeble effort at distraction. If you really want to be a writer, it will say, You need a mechanical keyboard. Fortunately I’m too busy panicking over my dissertation to pay any heed to looking up keyboards (though the Cherry Mx Blue keys do sound nice…).

needing 

*checks time* To get back to writing. Like now.


The Sunday Currently is a series originated by Lauren. To learn more, click here.

Favorites: TinyLetters by Writers

(This may be an awkwardly-written post; it’s been forever since I wrote a sentence that didn’t need an accompanying citation)

I love TinyLetters. I wrote a few a couple of years ago. Every week I tell myself I ought to get back into writing one, but I never know how to start, so I don’t. Until then, I content myself with finding and reading other people’s TinyLetters. Especially ones written by writers (or those to aspire to write).

TinyLetters are stripped-down newsletters, lauded for their simplicity and intimacy. Some people use TinyLetter for traditional newsletters, but others use them in a more freeform way. As the name suggests, TinyLetters try to recreate the feeling of receiving a personal letter in your inbox. All you have to do is subscribe.

Because everything’s delivered through email, the letters aren’t that easy to find. Many of the letters I ended up subscribing to come from TinyLetter Forwards, a newsletter that forwards “one great TinyLetter, picked by the folks at TinyLetter,” twice a month. The writing community Catapult also started a Tiny Letter of the Month series. Often what I end up doing is punching in “TinyLetter” and “writing” into a Twitter search–sometimes I get lucky.

That said, I thought I’d share some of the letters I’m currently subscribed to. There are a few other TinyLetters I follow, but this list focuses on writers. They don’t always talk about writing, but sometimes discuss it indirectly, in an essay about travel or tarot or research. These also aren’t of the traditional newsletter variety, though there are many book/publishing-themed ones out there. I also only included those who make their previous letters accessible.

In no particular order:

Field Guide (Colleen Mondor)

 This monthly-ish newsletter contains links to articles on history, science, culture and biography that are of interest to me and many other people (I hope). Also updates on my work-in-progress about the 1932 Cosmic Ray Expedition to Alaska.

Colleen Mondor is the author of a nonfiction book about the beauty and danger of flying in Alaska. She’s currently researching a new book, the process of which she describes in this newsletter.

Her newsletter is a godsend to people like me, who tell people they’re writing a biography but actually have no idea what they’re doing. Mondor’s research notes makes me feel less alone. When she describes the frustration of an inaccessible archive, or laments a source that may forever be lost to history, it’s like she’s pulling the thoughts straight out of my head. I am desperate to find more ‘research diaries’ like this one!

Shaken and Stirred (Gwenda Bond)

Ramblings about adventures in writing, and what I’m reading and watching and thinking that month. You know, like a cross between an old school nattering blog entry and a letter to you. There will be news sprinkled in, but only at the end. Swear.

Gwenda Bond is a YA author who writes books about Lois Lane. (Can we take a moment to admire/slightly envy someone who has found so specific a calling?) Part personal blog, part writing progress, part book news, Bond’s newsletter is everything an author newsletter should be. Her most recent letter is about the distractions she faces now that she is a full-time work-from-home-writer, and how to resolve them. (She also wrote one about how to write when the world is burning).

Each update feels personable and candid, and at the risk of sounding extremely lame, it really does feel like receiving a letter from a friend.

Nitid Nneka (Nneka M. Okona)

Heart stirrings and emo musings from yours truly on everything under the sun.

Nneka M. Okona is a nonfiction writer who’s written several articles for magazines. She has a blog, which is also wonderful. That’s one thing I can’t figure out: how do people know what to post on a blog vs. a TinyLetter? But Okona does both, and very well.

Okona’s newsletter is personal, reflective, and intimate. She has this beautiful way of writing about travel and family in a way that is sincere yet measured. There is pain in her essays, like in this extended reflection on grief, but it is pain made articulate by her skill as a writer. And of course, even in that pain, she never stops writing.

Reading the Tarot (Jessa Crispin)

A newsletter devoted to the tarot, by the author of The Creative Tarot. I’ll dispense advice, offer recommended reading, notes on individual cards, that sort of thing.

Jessa Crispin is an author and editor who founded Bookslut, a respected literary website that sadly stopped updating last year. She has since been, seemingly, traveling the world and writing books. I don’t always agree with her views, but I’ve always admired her. It’s hard not to feel intimidated by the ferocity of her intelligence and breadth of knowledge.

Her newsletter revolves around tarot, but tarot and her creative life are inextricably linked (a theme she explores in her book The Creative Tarot). One letter that exemplifies this is this one about The Devil card, which springboards into a larger discourse on evil. A book recommendation, or three, are always at hand.

…the fuck is this? (Bim Adewunmi)

things that have no real meaning, sent out sporadically

I follow Buzzfeed journalist Bim Adewunmi on Twitter, and only recently learned of her TinyLetter. The title brings to mind the line from Book of Mormon, said by General Buttfucking Naked. Though the description makes no apologies for what to expect, Adewunmi sends letters once or twice or month.

These are typically vignettes about her life, that recently have focused on travel, homesickness, and Blackness. Her update from Charleston, South Carolina, sheds light onto the difficult aspects of being black journalist tasked to cover the trial of Dylann Roof. She does not romanticize her anger, and knows how to add nuance to her indignation. Also, she’s damn funny.

Maven Game (David Moldawer)

[a] weekly newsletter on writing, speaking, and sharing without hating yourself in the morning.

This is a bit of a cheat because–as I just discovered while compiling this list–Maven Game isn’t actually a TinyLetter. But since David Moldawer’s most recent letter inspired this post, it felt wrong not to include it.

This newsletter contains a hodgepodge of information about writing and publishing. Some are motivational: the most recent, for example, asks writers to evaluate their routine to make writing more enjoyable. Another gives advice on how to “write damp”–when the initial fire of creativity has fizzled out. Moldawer has a clear and slightly self-deprecating writing voice, which makes his advice a fairly enjoyable read.

If you subscribe to any other TinyLetters, I’d love your recommendations!

*Featured image attribution: “Messages” by Naomi / CC BY

Eating My Words: The Solitaire Mystery Sticky Bun

Earlier this week I read The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder (also the author of Sophie’s World). In the book, a young Norwegian boy named Hans Thomas travels across Europe with his alcoholic father to find his mother, who left for Greece several years before. Somewhere in the Swiss Alps, he meets a dwarf who gives him a magnifying glass and an old baker who gives him a bag full of sticky buns. The baker warns him to save the largest for when he is alone. The boy discovers that largest sticky bun contains a tiny book, which can only be read with the magnifying glass. From there, the book weaves between Hans’ story and the story in the “sticky bun book”, though of course the worlds begin to intersect in ways that the boy never expected.

Like the tiny book tucked inside a sticky bun, The Solitaire Mystery is a philosophical exercise tucked inside a modern fairy tale. I first read the book sometime in middle or early high school. I remember loving the story and feeling rattled at its philosophical themes, which totally blew my young and untested mind. Twelve or thirteen years on, though, I couldn’t remember anything except for a vague memory of playing cards. I had no recollection of Dad’s drinking, which is glaringly obvious in the book, or even that the mother was part of the plot at all (but I’m pinning that one on Gaarder).

And I certainly didn’t remember the sticky buns. Had I cared about the sticky buns as much as I did now? Had I known back then that the sticky buns sounded so…delicious? So appetizing? So frequently mentioned?

If in my teens I walked away from the book with a deep, yearning desire to question my world, in my late twenties I walked away with a deep, yearning desire to eat sticky buns. To have them. To hold then. To mash them in my craw.

I have no idea why. The sticky buns are in themselves bit players. Hans Thomas devours them in about two paragraphs. The sticky bun book, however, tells a different story. It’s Hans Thomas’ constant companion. It’s a marquee role. The words “sticky bun” recur, big and bold on the page, as the rest of story whizzes by in the background. Since I read TSM over the course of two days, the words dinned into my brain more insistently with every hour. Sticky bun. Stick-y bun. Sti-cky bu-n. Two sharp syllables followed by a deep reverberation from the back of the throat. Bunnnnn. The adjective, sticky: not quite onomatopoeic, but evocative of the bun’s texture, the elastic snap of dough in your mouth. Briefly putting aside the question of taste, “sticky bun” is also a really a fun thing to say. Angry and resentful people cannot say “sticky bun” without immediately becoming happy and gracious people. It’s a fact.

Say it with me: sticky bun.

"Punch a-your buns, I will punch a-your buns!"

“Punch a-your buns, I will punch a-your buns!”

But what is a sticky bun?

My desire to eat a sticky bun became all-consuming. First, I had to find out what a sticky bun was. The book doesn’t mention anything about its appearance, taste, or flavor, which is actually kind of incredible given the severity of my craving. I was running on pure imagination. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I wanted it bad.

A Google search for “sticky bun” produced image upon image of cinnamon rolls, drenched in shiny golden syrup and piled high with pecans. Some rolls were studded with raisins and currants—others smothered in pale cream or a frosted glaze. They definitely looked sticky, if not quite so bun-ey. They also seemed like a terrible hiding place for a tiny book.

Photo by Stacy Spensley / CC BY

Photo by Stacy Spensley / CC BY

Slipping deeper into the cinnamon roll k-hole, I discovered that there were differences between American-style cinnamon rolls  and Nordic* cinnamon rolls. The glossy, drenched rolls shown by Google, suggestive of a potent, near-weaponized sweetness, seemed more suggestive of the American variety. Nordic rolls are less sweet, the bread not as dense, the filling often additionally spiced with warming cardamom. Instead of a rich syrup or creamy frosting a la Cinnabon, Nordic rolls are lightly glazed, if at all, showered with great big rocks of pearl sugar. Sometimes they are topped with cardamom as well (raisins are hotly debated, as with any bread in which they are not absolutely vital).

Cinnamon rolls are very, very popular; in fact, they are considered “a Scandinavian obsession.” Of course, within the world of Nordic rolls exist regional variations, from the Finnish korvapuusti to the Swedish kanelbullar and the Norwegian skillingsboller—or is it the Kanelboller? Norwegians claim they are the same thing perhaps the way that a roll, a bun, and a bap are more or less the same in the UK. I claim no further insight into the regional differences, but I’m sure each country would defend the superiority of its cinnamon roll to the death.

And yet my dilemma remained. I wanted so badly to eat a sticky bun—not just any sticky bun, goddammit, but the sticky bun of the book. Yet, I still wasn’t sure what it was. The Solitaire Mystery was originally published in Norwegian, so I decided to browse for clues in case something had been lost in translation. A scan of the plot synopsis of Kabalmysteriet reveals that, in Norwegian, the sticky buns are called “boller” and the sticky bun book is the “Bolleboka.” Which roughly translate to…wait for it…”buns” and “bun book.”

Where did the sticky buns go? Or, more specifically, where did they come from? How did we get from the generic-sounding “boller” to the more specific-but-still-frustratingly-vague “sticky bun”?

Boller look and taste like normal round buns, perhaps a touch sweeter than the average dinner roll. They are purportedly treasured in Norway. “To a Norwegian the bolle is a way of life,” this blog declares, explaining that boller are readily available; in fact, they’re among the cheapest item to be found at grocery stores. I suppose it’s like the Filipino pandesal, a soft and pillowy roll and the closest thing we have to daily bread. Pandesal is inexpensive and widely available, but fucking transcendent in every possible way.

Norwegian boller. Photo by cyclonebill / CC BY

Norwegian boller. Photo by cyclonebill / CC BY

Though not as sexy as cinnamon rolls, the bolle seems a more fitting hiding place for a tiny book than a rolled-up cinnamon bun. (I can’t explain why the plausability of a tiny book fitting into any pastry whatsoever matters to me so much, except that even fantasy novels can only suspend belief so far. For example, would you hide a book in a Bavarian doughnut?). The bolle’s lack of sweetness also explains why Hans Thomas was able to eat three of them and calmly go to bed without losing it on a sugar high.  While there are bolle variations, such as boller stuffed with custard or raisins or whipped cream, I couldn’t find any variations that seemed easily translatable to “sticky bun.”

So what happened?

Perhaps the original Norwegian text, which I haven’t read for obvious reasons, mentions a specific type of bun, like the skillingsboler. Or perhaps Norwegian readers inherently understand the type of sweet bun Gaarder is referring to when he uses “bolle,” in the same way that an American audience knows that “ribs” almost always refers to barbecue pork ribs. The translator would have known this cultural reference and used “sticky bun” for the benefit of the English readers.

Admittedly, that one’s kind of a reach.

Or perhaps the use of sticky bun is an invention just for us non-Norwegians, for whom the bun is simply a bun. Our minds cannot possibly comprehend such an important plot device being hidden in such a bland thing as a BUN. I can almost imagine the heated debates that Bungate might have produced; the tense exchanges between translator, editor, and publisher; the disemboweled remains of rejected alternative pastries strewn across the boardroom table. Perhaps the stressed-out marketing director had a go at the editor while ripping out tufts of his hair: “We can’t have our children thinking there are tiny books in dinner rolls! It doesn’t make any SENSE!”

And yet, plot events like an island that keeps growing as one walks into it, or a magical soda that one can taste in their toes make perfect sense. Maybe it is precisely because a magical soda one can taste in their toes exists in the book that the simple, unadorned bolle proved insufficient.

I haven’t even touched on the fact that the bakery where Hans Thomas finds the sticky buns is in a Swiss village. Swiss cross buns, anyone? To further complicate things: the baker Hans Thomas meets is neither Swiss nor Norwegian.

Shit’s getting crazy, yo.

To summarize where we’re at so far, ‘sticky bun’ could possibly equal:

  1. American-style cinnamon roll
  2. Nordic cinnamon roll
  3. Norwegian cinnamon roll
  4. Norwegian bun
  5. Imaginary concoction because we English readers can’t handle the truth

In any case, I can’t find any references to link The Solitaire Mystery’s sticky bun to a cinnamon roll, Nordic or otherwise, though a Guardian article establishes a clear link between sticky buns and Nordic rolls in general. However, in the Amazon UK blurb for the English edition of TSM, the bun is referred to simply as a “bread roll.” This makes a case that for Norwegian readers, boller is as boller does. But before it could meet its English audience, the plain bun had to undergo a makeover. It swelled and flaked and grew a deeper, crisper crust. Its flesh plumped up with butter and cinnamon; its swirls glistened with sugar, gleaming like glass.

Photo by Roberto Verzo / CC BY

Photo by Roberto Verzo / CC BY

We know that in fairy tales, children and sugar have a sacred and often dangerous connection. Hansel and Gretel don’t eat the bread they’re given—they drop crumbs of it on the ground until they find something better: a house made of sugar. Bread is the food of everyday; sugar is the unexpected treat, the gateway into fantasy. We might suspect malnourishment if Hans Thomas scarfs down three rolls, but we find it perfectly logical that Hans Thomas would eat three sticky buns, one after the other, and find something magical in the last. Of course; for children in books, it’s only natural.

Just like Edmund Pevensie and his Turkish Delight in The Chronicles of Narnia, Hans Thomas loses himself in the world within the sticky bun. His understanding of what is real and what is fantasy blurs. However, Edmund completely loses himself and his values in the confection; he regains himself only by severing the connection. Hans Thomas undergoes a similar test with the sticky bun book, but by the end of its tale discovers something that makes him stronger.

The search for a perfect sticky bun

Despite what the Norwegians say about boller=life, I realized that the sticky bun had already shaped itself in my mind into a cinnamon roll, and wasn’t about to budge. While the American-style cinnamon roll seemed to be the most faithful interpretation of ‘sticky bun,’ the Nordic-style rolls, with their slightly more unusual spice and crunch of pearl sugar, seemed to better capture the distinctly European spirit of The Solitaire Mystery. Besides, I had never tried a Nordic-style cinnamon roll, but now I felt certain that it was the only thing that could stop my craving.

I realized that London has quite a few Nordic bakeries; one being, in fact, Nordic Bakery, which actually calls itself a Scandinavian cafe, despite the founders being Finnish, but who am I to split hairs. Nordic Bakery is purportedly famous for its cinnamon rolls, which receive second billing on the cafe’s glass windows (after DARK RYE BREAD and before COFFEE). The swirls of their rolls stick out on the sides rather than the top and bottoms, giving them the appearance of snug little snails. Nordic Bakery’s Soho branch isn’t far, but for the purposes of satisfying a craving it was just enough out of the way to rule it out.

The boundaries of my laziness were so restrictive that tantalizing options such as Monocle Cafe in Marylebone, Brick House in East Dulwich, HEJ in Bermondsey, and Violet Bakery in Hackney were automatically disqualified for the sheer effort to get there. Well, disqualified is a harsh word—saved for later, when I had more time and even more comfortable shoes.

Finnish-style cinnamon rolls from Nordic Bakery. Photo from nordicbakery.com

Finnish-style cinnamon rolls from Nordic Bakery. Photo from nordicbakery.com

I settled on Fabrique Bakery, with branches in both Hoxton and Covent Garden (and Notting Hill, but West London may as well be Wales to me). Fabrique is Swedish, and their cinnamon rolls have that knotted twisty shape that makes them utterly mesmerizing. Each roll contains a generous scattering of pearl sugar. Some rolls are crusted at their bottoms with sugar glaze that has dripped down from the top. I picked one that had visible bits of crusty glaze and paid £2.50. Even before I’d gotten my receipt, butter from the roll began to seep through the paper bag.

Once I found a place to sit, I pulled the cinnamon roll from the bag. My fingers pressed into the dough, melting into the glaze as though it were only natural they should be there, a natural extension of dough. It took more effort to peel them away again—sticky bun indeed. I licked cinnamon and cardamom off my fingertips. I tore off a chunk and chewed. The knotted edges were crisp and sugary, but the inside of the roll was soft with a slight springiness. Butter,  cinnamon and a spicy, earthy sweetness filled my mouth. Now both of my hands were sticky. Everything I touched became sticky. I told myself to stop touching things, especially myself, then promptly brushed the hair out of my mouth, smearing sugar glaze across my cheek. I licked sugar from the corner of my mouth, wiped what I couldn’t reach on the back of my hand. I searched the world for a sticky bun and discovered the sticky bun was me.

I should have had an epiphany or something, having thought so damn hard about these sticky buns for three days. I should have connected it to the meaning of life the way Hans Thomas had done. Instead, I savored the experience as best as I could while trying not to become a sticky bun myself. I tried to wash it down with coffee, as they say you should do, but the coffee seemed bitter and slimy in comparison. I set it aside for later. I ate around the cluster of pearl sugars, piled up on the top like treasure, saving that plump middle bit for last, then downed it in three satisfying crunches.

Once more, with feeling.

Once more, with feeling.

With that, the roar of my belly subsided, finally appeased by 900 calories of butter, sugar, and flour. I still wasn’t certain whether the cinnamon roll I’d just eaten was the same sticky bun of the book, but I was certain that it was what I’d imagined all along. And isn’t that what good stories do best: act as fuel for our imagination? I couldn’t taste Rainbow Fizz or cross the Adriatic Sea by ship as Hans Thomas had, but I could eat a sticky bun and contemplate the universe (even if I only did one of those things, heh).

I wish I could wrap this up with one big, profound revelation, but the most profound discovery so far has been that I’ve managed to write 2500 words about eating a sticky bun. Sometimes good books make demands of you, from the great to the insignificant. They may challenge your worldview or reinforce a shaky belief. They may summon emotions or leave you bereft of them. And sometimes they may appeal to your most basic urges: to eat, to drink, to have sex.

And sometimes, perhaps without even intending it, they make you want to try something new. Even if that something new is just a goddamn sticky bun.

Which was delicious, by the way.

/

*The distinction between “Nordic” and “Scandanavian” confuses me, but my understanding is that Nordic encompasses Finland along with Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, while Scandanavian does not. 

World Stationery Day: Current Favorite Notebooks

Today is World Stationery Day, which falls in the middle of National Stationery Week, which encompasses the slightly-better-known Fountain Pen Friday. If that’s not the nerdiest sentence I’ve ever written, it’s certainly in the top 5.

This post is a bit slapdash as I’m trying to finish a major writing assignment before Friday. I thought I would quickly write about my favorite notebooks and what I use them for. When I first bought the Traveler’s Notebook in 2013, I truly believed that it would be the One Notebook to Rule Them All. Three years on, I’ve clearly reconsidered that stance–but, as you’ll see, I haven’t ventured far at all.

So, starting from the bottom up:

Hobonichi Techo – A6

I discovered the Hobonichi last year when I was getting into art journaling. It is designed to be a daily planner, but people use it to journal, track habits and quotes, and scrapbook; in fact, the Hobonichi creators encourage people to use it creatively, however it may suit their needs. It has a bit of a cult following around the world–simply search the #hobonichitecho or #ほぼ日手帳 tag on Instagram to see just how widely it’s used.

The minimalist, page-a-day layout drew me in, as did the fact that the Hobonichi uses Tomoe River Paper–a lightweight paper akin to onion paper, but one that holds fountain pen ink beautifully. I mostly use mine for art journaling and random reflections, or to hash out what’s on my mind at the time. Journaling in the Hobonichi, unlike my written diary, is an aesthetic exercise as well–it is the main outlet for my washi tape obsession!

Five months in and the Hobonichi is starting to swell up from washi tape, photographs, and stickers thickening each page. By November I predict it will be very difficult to write in, but I hope the lay-flat binding holds out for as long as it can.

Traveler’s Notebook in Black – Regular Size

While no longer the Notebook to End All Notebooks, the Traveler’s Notebook has a vaulted place in my heart–and in my bag. I carry “my Midori” around 95% of the time. It used to be produced by Midori, but the Traveler’s brand has slowly spun away from Midori and is now known as Traveler’s Company. If the Hobonichi has a cult following, the Traveler’s Notebook is a religion unto itself.

I’ve written a long post about the Traveler’s Notebook on my previous blog. Some things have changed since that post, the main one being that I use this notebook almost exclusively for journaling. It includes a written diary, a weekly creative journal, and a fabric wallet to hold washi tape, stickers, and ephemera.

Midori MD Notebook (Grid) – Medium

This is a relatively new addition to my notebook collection. I was advised by a lecturer to start a research diary for my nonfiction book–naturally, I interpreted her suggestion as a mandate to find the perfect research notebook. I attempted to use my Traveler’s Notebook at first, but something seemed off: the proportion of it, the paper in the inserts, I wasn’t quite sure. It just didn’t feel right.

I took a chance on the MD Grid Notebook in Medium, which is actually a slim and compact size. As soon as I started using it I knew it was the perfect choice. The pages lay flat, the grid pattern made for neat notes, and the notebook’s small size made it incredibly easy to carry around without taking up too much space. True to the Midori brand, the notebook is a minimalist, aesthetically-pleasing beauty. I use it for everything related to my book, including research notes, reflections on progress, revision brainstorming, and tasks to chase certain people or topics.

Traveler’s Notebook in Camel – Passport Size

There isn’t much to say about this notebook, as I just bought it yesterday. The camel-colored notebooks were initially a limited edition series, released for Traveler’s 5th Anniversary. This year marks their 10th Anniversary, and to celebrate, Traveler’s Company made the Camel notebooks part of the regular lineup. I had considered getting the regular size, but at the last minute swapped it for the Passport size. The Camel version is gorgeous, with a rich bright caramel leather cover that scuffs easily. As its new, it still has that strong heady leather scent.

I plan to use this notebook for planning/non-journaling purposes–it’s more practical to whip out than the regular size Traveler’s Notebook. I’ve written a page so far, and it will take me awhile to get used to the sizing. It feels really small! I’m excited to play around with it more and fit it out with beautiful accessories. For when one has no pets, no kids, and no life, what else is one to do….?

For a closer look at the notebooks, particularly the Traveler’s Notebook and Hobonichi Techo, I post quite a few pages on Instagram: @tdpjournals.

I may go into more detail about my work tools in future posts–especially what I use to write nonfiction, which is my biggest project at the moment. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about what tools you use–analog or otherwise–to write!

What I’ve Learned Writing Flash Fiction Every Day

Over the years I’ve had an on-and-off writing project called Flash Fictionary. The project calls for a daily short story inspired by Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day. The stories are roughly 200 words long. At the moment I type each one on a 4×6 index card, so the story ends when the card does.

Flash Fictionary had its longest run of 26 stories in 2015, then became dormant. In November, I made one ill-fated attempt to bring it back, then stripped it down to the essentials and made a new home for it. In resuming the project, I’ve confronted familiar fears about writing–but also realized that, over this rather long hiatus, other fears have receded in significance.

The bad news is, there will always be a strong inner editor telling me that my writing is crap. The good news is, writing crap matters less than the act of writing itself. A week and a half ago I had 0 new stories; now I have 11. This time, quantity trumps quality. What more can a struggling perfectionist ask for?

Here are other small lessons I’ve picked up so far from writing flash fiction every day:

The stories will be rough.

They aren’t just first drafts: they’re baby drafts, shaking and ugly and out of control. Like babies, they don’t communicate their needs and wants all that well. But they exist.

“You can’t edit a blank page,” is a quote attributed to everyone from Nora Roberts to Meg Cabot to Shakespeare. Regardless of who said it, it’s true. Flash Fictionary forces me to confront the rawness of my own writing, even on days when it feels like sewage is leaking out of my fingers. Because a small percentage of the time, the words don’t feel like sewage: they feel like rainbows and Nutella and freshly-baked bread slathered in salted butter.

To write more, reduce the barriers to entry (AKA don’t make it so hard for yourself to write!)

Barriers to entry is an economic term describing the different obstacles a business encounters before it can enter the market. For example, starting a telecommunications company has high barriers to entry, while selling candy has low barriers to entry.

The more steps it takes for me to write and upload a story, the more likely I am to quit. The very first time I attempted Flash Fictionary (2004? 2005?), I set no limits on story length. This also happened during NaNoWriMo 2015. As a result, I found it hard to finish the stories in a day, and lost steam early on.

When I did Flash Fictionary in 2015, I limited the stories to 1 or 2 handwritten cards, because that removed the temptation to delete and edit as I went. However, because the stories were going on Instagram I tried to make them look visually appealing. Cue spending hours on: sourcing colorful background patterns, waiting to photograph in natural light, and illustrating all the title cards.

For this iteration, I use 1) a typewriter 2) a single 4×6 card and 3) a scanner. Everything is typed: no hand-lettering, no watercolor illustrations, no endless searching for the right VSCO filter. I can post each story any time of the day. I do miss the bright colors of the Instagram versions, but not as much as I love faff-free writing.

You have a daily opportunity to work on different writing techniques.

I know what my biggest writing weaknesses are. My writing style is rather languid. I get lost in long sentences. In drafts, I chase tangents with abandon, often abandoning my original idea entirely. I struggle with clarity.

Flash Fictionary allows me write through my weaknesses. For example, ‘Fossick‘ was an attempt to incorporate more suspense, urgency, and dialogue. ‘Exodus‘ resulted out of a personal challenge to write within a specific, real setting. For future stories, I can mimic the styles of authors I admire, or attempt specific challenges like “Use more sensory detail.”

It’s fun and experimental, but more importantly, it’s good practice.

Finally, endings are really hard.

I often forget about ending the story. (It happens when you start hundreds more stories than you finish.) By the time I realize it’s time to wrap it up, I’ve run out of card. Endings are my biggest weakness, and it will take more than two weeks of writing short stories to be comfortable enough (and ready) to write them! But at least I’m beholden to finishing at least one story a day.

It’s a start.


For the rest of the stories, please check out FlashFictionary.com. Feel free to write some flash fictionaries of your own!

 

 

Impressions: Under the Sugar Sun by Jennifer Hallock

I was made aware of this book’s existence by Mina V. Esguerra, who featured the book in her blog post about books that she wished existed. I hadn’t even finished her blog post before racing to Amazon to buy Under the Sugar Sun by Jennifer Hallock. Historical romance set in the early 20th century…in the Philippines? A handsome sugar baron as leading man? Oh God, yes. Two pages in and I was utterly hooked. I sensed the voice of a confident writer and spied the shorelines of a diligently-researched world. I finished it this weekend, hungry for more.

The book is a historical romance set in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. Georgina Potter, a young woman from Boston, is summoned by her American fiance to the small town of Bais in Visayas to work as a teacher. Secretly, she has another mission: to find her brother, last seen fighting in troubled Samar. Both of these pursuits are promptly derailed by her encounter(s) with Javier Altarejos, a handsome and opinionated sugar baron with secrets of his own. Javier, in turn, is trying to keep his struggling hacienda and sugar plantation afloat. The last thing he needs is a distraction–especially one in the form of a headstrong American woman. Their secrets eventually collide, as they must, with devastating consequences.

Under the Sugar Sun Impressions

This isn’t a book review so much as it is a summary of my general thoughts and opinions–a stance I’ve adopted from Mina, and which she shares in her own post. I want to do my part in helping to share books I’ve enjoyed, rather than analyze the book’s merits as a literary work. However, my feelings meter has been glitchy for years, so this might be less about the squee-factor and more about how it just works for me. (Super technical, I know).

I really enjoyed the book primarily because of its setting. I know very little about this time and place in Philippine history. With a steady hand, Hallock successfully immerses the reader into this busy, fractured, cultural melting pot of a world. The measured pace of the book might read as sluggish to some, but to me it felt like the perfect speed with which to establish all the characters and how they fit into this world. Every detail served a narrative purpose–at no point did the explanations feel like showmanship.

On Facebook, Hallock describes the process of (loosely) modeling Javier after a Regency romance hero. Her post made me realize how appropriate the Regency model seemed when applied to turn-of-the-century Philippines (quite a grand statement, considering I know little about either subject!). Georgina, Javier, and the other characters fit within an ordered hierarchy, one defined by race and class and wealth and family. Interactions between characters are established not by forthright dialogue, but by a skillful dance around the topic at hand (sound familiar, fellow Pinoys?). Some of these dances are more delicate and graceful than others: witness the many scenes of careful bartering (of small and not-small things) versus Georgie’s and Javier’s verbal sparring. Misunderstandings are rife; wit is generously deployed.

Georgina and Javier read like characters of their time who are simultaneously ahead of their time. The book is told through their alternating POVs. I was slightly more entertained by Javier’s story, only because barely holding on to this side of propriety = sexy. I love that he served a purpose that was bigger than the romance, and that we were able to see his struggles in a way the other characters couldn’t. However, I really enjoyed following Georgie’s growth through the book, and to see her stubbornness either rewarded or reproached. She’s a plucky young heroine whose pluckiness is not always a good thing–while some might say this makes her unlikable at times, I think this makes her nuanced and complex.

Anyway! Every scene in which they interact is a delight to read, which is a really prude way of saying: holy hell, the sexual tension between them. No doubt the release–once it comes, pardon the pun–is worth the wait *fans self*. I also loved the nod to Catholic guilt after one memorable scene, perhaps because I can relate too well.

Things do get a tiny bit frustrating around two-thirds of the way into the book, when one of the character’s missions takes over and sends Georgie and Javier into chaos. It’s there that the story loses some of its levity, and I start yelling at characters–one in particular–who make really crappy choices. Which is fine, though I tend to like it more when characters who do crappy things go through a redemption phase of similar value. The book ends on a happy note, of course, but to me there wasn’t enough of a “redemption arc” for this character for me to be 100% pleased with the outcome.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m still like 95% pleased. I so love the world and characters Hallock created–especially Padre Andres, Allegra and the schoolgirls. She just got it so right — the tone, the style, the attention to detail, the culturally-specific undercurrents, the wit. Oh yeah, and the romance (I’m just so enamored by everything else, really, but yes the romance was good). I trusted her completely with the story from the very first page, and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

Amazon.Com

Amazon.co.uk

Book Cover Source

The Sunday Currently Vol. 07

I’m counting this Sunday Currently as #7 because the six previous entries can be found in my other blog. I’ve decided against updating two blogs for now.

Reading

I’m in between books. Every other week we’re assigned two nonfiction books to analyze, and this week we just wrapped up Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Philip Hoare’s Leviathan. I had to deliver a presentation on Leviathan, which took up considerably more of my time than it should have. Leviathan is essentially Hoare’s 450-page love letter to whales, but it also manages to touch upon every other subject under the sun. You have to be utterly obsessed with a subject to write about it the way Hoare writes about whales.

My report kicked up a bit of a debate as to whether Leviathan actually counts as a convincing narrative work, or if it’s just some guy writing down everything he knows about whales and then whipping up an arbitrary structure around those facts. I’ll spare you the details of that discussion (not that it was anything riveting). After those books, I am in need of some good plain fiction that can be enjoyed without any overthinking.

Writing

It’s Day 1 of NaNoWriMo! I’ve written 1305 words today, which means I’ll have to play catch up tomorrow, but not as much as if I hadn’t written anything at all. More on my NaNo project here.

Eating

I haven’t cooked anything of note in the last few days, but last week I made a conscious effort to start eating healthier. I make green juice with green apples, celery, kale, carrots, cucumber and a bit of ginger. I stocked my fridge with plenty of vegetables and throw them into whatever meal I’m preparing. I also eat smaller meals more frequently, and opt for quinoa instead of rice and pasta. Still waiting for all that extra energy to kick in, but I feel a lot less bloated from just a few weeks ago which makes it all worth it.

Wanting

A productivity system that works. I think I’m doomed to be one of those people who is just constantly searching for the one system to rule them all. A cure for being a waste of space. For awhile I was doing OK with bullet journaling, but it became overwhelming once the tasks began to build up. Maybe this week I will try a timeboxing method–either the Pomodoro Technique or the 20/10 Timer from Unfuck Your Habitat. 

I also read somewhere that some people write the 3 most important things they have to do in a day on an index card, and focus solely on those tasks. I might combine this technique with one of the timeboxing methods above.

Needing

To stop looking at stationery, washi tape, stickers, stamps and Hobonichi/Traveler’s Notebook layouts. It’s becoming a problem.

Also, a job.

Feeling

Like another bout of the funk is on its way.

Hoping

I can begin a workout program in earnest this week. I started a circuit training program on Tuesday and broke myself after one workout. I could barely walk during the week, let alone manage the stairs. It’s only today that I’ve been able to bend my knees enough to see inside the fridge, and lower myself onto the toilet without mewling pitifully.

But I’ve learned my lesson, and will start with the gentler pre-training guides before trying the main program again!

The Sunday Currently comes from here.

My Approach to NaNoWriMo 2015 (TLDR: I’m a Rebel)

Ah, NaNoWriMo. You have bested me every year since my first attempt–what, 11 years ago? (On a side note: 11 years?! Christ).

I’ve tried to circumvent the rules of NaNoWriMo for awhile now, in a desperate attempt to recover from the spectacular failures of yore. One year I partnered with a good friend to write some wonderfully twisted short stories. Another year I resolved to write a blog post every day and founded “NaBloPoMo.” Total number of participants: 1. At least for the first 8 days, then that number became 0. Those efforts quickly tumbled into the same deep pit where other NaNoWriMo projects have gone to die.

This year will be exactly the same different. I considered attempting one of the many ideas that were clogging my brain and causing much angst, but decided against it. I don’t think I’ll get very far just winging an entire novel. Besides, I can’t afford to start an entirely new big project at this time–I already have a short story collection and a nonfiction book to worry about!

Call it Progress, Not Failure

My NaNoWriMo approach this year is to continue where another creative project stalled. Over the summer I attempted Great Discontent’s #100DayProject with #100DaysofFlashFictionary: bite-sized fiction inspired by Merriam Webster’s Word of the Day. I posted each story on Instagram, and ended up with 25 entries all in all.

Though I only made it a quarter of the way through the 100 Day Project and technically failed the challenge, without the challenge those stories would have never been written at all. A few of those stories had enough material in them to become bigger stories, and one eventually went into my dissertation for my first MA.

Some might choose to see it as failure. I see it as progress.

So for 2015, I’ll attempt an additional 50k worth of short stories inspired by MW’s Word of the Day. I’m aiming for a fairy-tale theme to link them together, in the hopes of adding to my current short story collection, but I won’t stress if they aren’t fairy-tale related. I guess this makes me a NaNo Rebel, though the “rules” say if the short stories are related thematically then the work counts as regular NaNo.

Anyway, the NaNo admin don’t care about splitting hairs so neither will I. They’ve even created a board for NaNo Rebels, a motley crew featuring script writers, short story writers, academic writers, bloggers and memoirists. My kind of people.

you-are-my-person

I’m wrapping up this post just 30 minutes shy of midnight, November 01. If failure is inevitable, then at least I resolve to fail as far away from Day One as I can.

(As a pep talk that could have gone better, but based on previous attempts, it works to be cautious. Maybe I’ll end up surprising myself!)

If you’re doing NaNo as well, you can find me on the boards as embeepee. Feel free to add me as a buddy–the more the merrier!

Americanah

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Highly recommended. (Thanks again Gabe!)

Oh to be driven by demons

I just came across a Tweet that quoted William Faulkner and his dismissal of writers who don’t write:

I have no patience, I don’t hold with the mute inglorious Miltons. I think if he’s demon-driven with something to be said, then he’s going to write it. He can blame the fact that he’s not turning out work on lots of things. I’ve heard people say, “Well if I were not married and had kids, I would be a writer.” I’ve heard people say, “If I could just stop doing this, I would be a writer.” I don’t believe that. I think if you’re going to write you’re going to write, and nothing will stop you.

Perhaps another time, this quote would have spoken to me in the way intended by the person who posted that Tweet. I would have felt the dustings of self-reproach tickle my skin and feel the heat of an imaginary disappointed glare and think, “My god he’s right! No more excuses! Off I go to go to finish my story!”

The secret to writing is no secret, and manifests itself in various words, but the essential message is this: If you want to write, you will write. You will make it a priority. You will make sacrifices in your life in order to write.

And yet.

As a financially-dependent creative writing student, I have arranged my life in such a way where writing is the priority. Most days I am free to write, at least until my job prospects improve. Every week I am beholden to submitting a piece of writing, and critiquing other people’s writing, and reading books that teach me how to be a better writer. I work at a desk by the window that gets a generous hit of light, and when I’m bored or restless I can spy on people in the office building across the street or study the ads of the double-decker buses caught at the red light. I wish I had a more comfortable chair and higher standards for coffee, but otherwise I have very few reasons to complain.

Yet the words don’t come. Instead, I will do anything but write. Cleaning is a popular option. Another current favorite is art journaling. Sometimes I will find a reason not to go on with a story. More often, the trouble hits before I even turn to the page.

I have too many ideas. They crowd around the tunnel in my mind through which ideas are made real, a tunnel no wider than a speck of dust. All ideas clamor to be first. That’s not the worst of it–they are also ideas in different forms and genres. Young adult. Narrative nonfiction. Personal essays. Short stories. Romance. The breadth of all the things I’d like to tackle could not be any wider

Depending on the day or the news or my mood, one idea might edge in the lead, and I try to coax it out as far as I can. But then–snip!–suddenly our connection is severed. Back it goes to fight amongst the other ideas.

Times like this, I wish that I were driven by a demon inside me. I’m not the type of person who must write a story, at the expense of my physical health and quality of life–but is it wrong to wish that I was sometimes? To feel an almost compulsory urge to write not just something, but a very specific thing, against all odds? To unload some of the burden of writing to an incessant and powerful force?

To be fair, most people tend to not be fueled by demonic possession. It is pointless to compare oneself to someone like Nawal El Saadawi, who in prison wrote parts of her manuscript with black eyeliner and a roll of toilet paper. Also pointless to compare oneself to Herman Melville, who completed Moby Dick in an obsessive haze, vanquishing everything non-whale related (wife and family included) from his mind.

But demon-driven people exist to a degree, don’t they? There are people who cannot stand to watch TV or movies because they’d rather work on their own art, and writers who forgo social gatherings to spend time alone with their words (and probably a glass of something strong). Others write in whatever minute they can grab–standing up, upside down, in bed and between their children’s waking moments.

Ah, but maybe it isn’t a demon that eludes me, but another D-word. One infinitely more frightening, because it requires a mastery of oneself over one’s surrender to the aforementioned demon.

Frankly, I’d rather throw myself at the mercy of a higher creative power*.

I know that’s not the answer. It’s more like wishful thinking. It also serves as a balm for my continuous fear that there is an essential ingredient of writing that is absent in me.

*As I realize that it’s October 31, I’d like to remind the spirit world that this post should not be considered an invitation for bodily possession. Thanks and be good tonight. 


Image attribution: “05.08.14 (CREATIVE 365 PROJECT)” by MICHELLE ROBINSON is licensed under creative commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).