What I Wrote for Summer Vacation

When it comes to writing, word count isn’t everything.

Some weeks ago, I felt a sense of dismay growing as I finalized my family’s remaining summer plans and back-to-school preparations.[*] Amid juggling tasks, I began worrying about whether I had written enough this summer—and I was certain I “ought” to have written more. Fortunately for my peace of mind, I made a few realizations that made me more comfortable with my summer word count.

“Not Writing” Time

The first discovery that helped me worry less about word count stemmed from learning that some writers set time aside when they will not be writing. Admittedly, this information seems to be more aligned with common sense than profundity. After all, we can’t always write. But the critical distinction here is one of choice, the significant difference between “can’t” and “won’t”. I can’t write while I drive, because it’s dangerous (and probably illegal),[†] but I “won’t” write while on vacations when I need to relax. If I’m being honest, I don’t accomplish much writing when I’m mentally drained. It’s better to give myself permission to “not write” and allow myself the space to recharge my creativity than to spend that time feeling like I failed to write.

From Slump to Inspiration

The second realization occurred when I re-read my post about summer writing from last year. At the time, I thought that my writing schedule needed a tune up. But while that may (still) be the case, I needed to reconsider whether it was just a summertime slump in my motivation or if there were more factors involved. While my word counts tend to stagnate while I’m at the shore, it’s also important to consider how such distractions benefit my writing. Our experiences inform our writing. It’s difficult to dredge up inspiration from places we haven’t seen or things we’ve not done. And my imagination needs the occasional bit of kindling. This summer, I spent some time reading while poolside, a necessary fuel for writing. I also went to new places, some which already wish to be painted into the background of my next story.

Plans in Motion

Finally, though, there was one last observation that reassured me that my summer writing was successful and that came when I checked my writing goals. As part of my ongoing project to build better writing habits, I committed to writing for July’s Camp NaNoWriMo. And although I wrote fewer words than I thought I would, I’m now several hundred words into my short story and I know how it begins and end. But, most importantly, I made a plan to write and did so—and that’s progress by any measure.


NOTES:

[*]This year, all our family travel overlapped some other event, the most stressful being the first week of school. I doubt my child missed much, but I spent several hours confirming that would be the case.

[†]Technically, I suppose driving and writing could be done at the same time, but in the interest of public safety (and less time spent revising), I don’t recommend it.

The Other Side of the Circulation Desk

For me, volunteering at my child’s school library felt like coming full circle.

When my child returned to elementary school this past year, so did I.

Quite literally.

However, I stopped just short of joining the third grade with him and instead popped into the library, ready to begin my stint as a volunteer there.

Full Circle

For me, volunteering at my child’s school library felt like coming full circle. My mother brought me along when she volunteered at the parochial school where my older siblings attended.[*] Already a reader, I loved the library, its scent of books, the vast shelves of stories.[†] I remember the school librarian being a kind woman who drew the difficult number eights my hands couldn’t yet manage. Becoming a librarian’s assistant in turn seemed like an ideal way to pay forward the generosity I received at the many libraries I visited in my youth.

Tricky Customers

It also proved to be an eye-opening experience. I knew beforehand that my duties would include shelving, locating, and checking out books, not to mention helping the younger students select what they wanted to read. But I forgot about the crushing indecision children suffer when given so many choices, regardless of whether they wanted to read more books than allotted[‡] or whether they didn’t know what they wanted to read at all. Keeping in mind popular choices for their age levels, their specific reading levels, and age-appropriate material while trying to guess their interests made me long for telepathy. But every child we helped left with a book.

There’s More to Libraries than Books

Makerspace also surprised me. Alternating with “book week”, makerspace ranges from puzzle solving with plastic cups to stop-motion animation with leaves. My son previously mentioned some projects he worked on, but his limited explanation failed to convey their interdisciplinary nature or the labor behind their success. Even at the elementary school level, librarians’ responsibilities extend far beyond their being benevolent bestowers of books (see “Read More”).[§] But, it paid off. While I handed out supplies in the background so that the librarian could instruct the students, the kids learned how to do an impressive array of activities, like program robots wearing costumes the kids created. I often left amazed (if tired) at what the kids could do with some direction and patience. Well, a lot of patience and glue. And wouldn’t you know, some kids were inspired to read more about the projects they worked on the previous week.

After my year at the library, I realized I had even more reasons to appreciate my son’s librarians as well as the ones who shaped my own childhood. And I’m looking forward to discovering more next year.

READ MORE

Curious about what librarians do besides hoarding books? Check out these articles to learn more:

What Librarians Really Do All Day at Work by Romeo Rosales

What Exactly Does a Librarian Do? Everything by Kristin Arnett

5 Things That People Don’t Realize their Librarians Do by Rebecca Tischler

NOTES:


[*]And where I went to school…a few years later.

[†]From my then tiny perspective. Like most things that loomed larger than life in my memory, they seem shrunk now that I’m grown.

[‡]These kids are my people. When I take my child to the public library, he’s allowed to take out as many books as he can carry.

[§]For example, I learned about the schwa when school librarian discussed how to use the dictionary, instead of in a Reading or English class.

Black Faces, White Faces: Structural Racism


Science Asides: Black Faces, White Spaces—Structural Racism & Environmental Inequity. Review text by Rita E. Gould.

In Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, cultural geographer Dr. Carolyn Finney painstakingly investigates why African Americans are underrepresented when it comes to enjoying “the Great Outdoors” and environmentalism. Finney draws on a blend of scholarly works, close study of popular media,[*] field research, and personal experiences[†] to provide a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of how the natural world has different, racialized contexts for black people and white people. Aimed at both experts and “just folks”, this scholarly book dispels the assumption of African Americans disinterest and reveals how underlying structural racism bears the responsibility for this disparity.

Dr. Finney, conscious to emphasize the diversity of African American culture, background, and experiences,[‡] nonetheless discusses several pervasive barriers to black people’s meaningful engagement with nature, among them (I’ll discuss three briefly) the painful legacies of slavery and segregation that continue to negatively shape attitudes toward natures. Far from seeing forests as a source of spiritual connection as white people might, African Americans may instead view such places as sites of violence (eg, lynching). When early white conservationists (several of whom promoted eugenics ideology) campaigned to protect natural places, they also deliberately barred non-white persons from these places. Unsurprisingly, this exclusion creates the impression that nature is for white people, causing many African Americans to avoid unwelcoming areas that may prove dangerous for them. Representation, too, plays an important role. Finney demonstrates that there is a dearth of black faces in media representation, whether it is an advertisement featuring only white people performing outdoor activities or a magazine that fails to include African American activists and leaders in a green issue. These instances are examples of missed opportunities to inspire black people to use the National Parks or join green organizations—something which also preserves the status quo. And it cannot be emphasized enough that the lack of diversity in these organizations contributes to instances where black individuals and communities are forgotten or ignored on environmental issues.

While much of Black Faces, White Spaces examines these barriers and many others, it is not a grim treatise but a hopeful one. Finney’s work looks to understand such barriers so that they can be effectively dismantled. In addition, she often highlights African Americans who are currently working on creating a more inclusive experience in natural areas (eg, when the National Park Systems included slave narratives in plantation tours) or forming their own environmental action groups to ensure issues important to black communities get the representation they deserve. Black Spaces, White Faces significantly contributes to the ongoing conversation about making the Great Outdoors and the environmental movement more equitable.

Further Reading

Part of what we can do to change our perception about the issues that Dr. Finney outlines is to educate ourselves. In this spirit, I am providing a short list of articles (by no means complete or exhaustive) that highlight the black (mostly, African American) environmentalists making a difference.

8 Black Environmentalists You Need To Know by Alice Kurima Newberry

6 Black Environmental Activists Who Changed History by Lara Brenner

5 Black Environmentalists Worth Celebrating On Earth Day by Jessica Dickerson


NOTES:

[*]In the New Book Networks: African American studies podcast, Finney explains that she chose to include these non-academic sources, because African Americans often are excluded and underrepresented in scholarly works. Popular media, however, often conveys messages about dominant cultural narratives as well as their underlying intentions. Since popular media can be accessed by all people, Finney also could address a wider audience than just her fellow academics.

[†]Finney includes her own family’s experiences, as they served as the caretakers of an estate in upstate New York for 50 years. When this estate (where they no longer lived) was donated for preservation, the white owners—not the Finney family—were praised for their stewardship.

[‡]Finney takes great care in being clear that she does not speak for all African Americans or for other non-white groups who may share similar experiences of exclusion from natural areas and the environmental discourse.

Greetings from Camp NaNoWriMo

Meet NaNoWriMo’s low-key Spring and Summer virtual writing retreats.

Last year (as you may already know), I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. Of course, I knew a fair bit about the month-long event in which one attempts to write a novel (or, at least 50,000 words towards one) in November. But there were several things I didn’t know beforehand,[*] among them that the NaNoWriMo team also hosted additional events in April and July[†] called Camp NaNoWriMo. Since my November was packed long before I agreed this ambitious writing goal, I skipped clicking onto that link. And by the time NaNoWriMo finished, I exhaustedly signed off my account and decided I’d investigate it later.

Much later, as it happened.

Somewhere around early to mid-March, I started receiving a few gentle emails about upcoming April session. Soon after, my spouse mentioned it. Taking the hint at last, I decided to look into Camp NaNoWriMo. Similar to NaNoWriMo, it features word sprints, write-ins, daily inspirations, word prompts, and more. Unlike its well-known counterpart, participants have the option to be sorted into cabins (thus creating a small writing community) and, more importantly, set their own writing goals. And that can be word counts, chapters, consecutive writing days, or revision/editing. Or, in my case, 3500 new words for my novel. Billed as “an idyllic writers retreat smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life”, Camp NaNoWriMo aims to help writers complete smaller, focused writing tasks.

While NaNoWriMo excels at getting writers working on their novels, the quick pace leaves little room for refinement. During Camp NaNoWriMo thus far, I’ve had time to tweak what I’ve already written, and a stronger narrative is slowly emerging as I add new material. While my progress is slower, my novel reads better—making Camp NaNoWriMo an ideal follow-up to its November predecessor. For those who declined writing for NaNoWriMo because of its intense deadline but wished they could participate in its associated activities, Camp NaNoWriMo provides a good blend of self-determined writing, support, and challenges to motivate writers through small projects that just might inspire them to give the main event a whirl. Or to keep on camping!

TLDR:[‡] Camp NaNoWriMo provides the best of NaNoWriMo’s events (writing sprints/marathons, prompts, and daily inspirations) with the added bonuses of allowing participants to set their own writing goals and, should they so desire, connect with fellow writers.

NOTES:


[*]Namely, how I would manage writing roughly 1666 words. (Hint, it’s sleep deprivation at the month’s end!)

[†]Which means if you’re running too late for April, you can instead plan for July. And I’m seriously thinking about signing up then, too.

[‡]I rolled out a new feature in my last post, which appears here again. TL;DR (better known as “too long; didn’t read) is a quick summary guide that will feature in most-to-all of my upcoming posts for people who want to get right to point.)

Review of The Backstreets of Purgatory: Delusion and Dark Humor in Glasgow

…the only way to honour her [Finn’s Italian paternal grandmother] as she deserved to be honoured, was to completely piss off his social-climbing mother, subvert his turgid middle-class upbringing — and commit entirely to the role of misunderstood artist. Which he’d done with fervor until the pretence and reality had become inseparable.

The fact was his tutor didn’t know one end of the paintbrush from another. He didn’t need permission from an uptight spinster to paint what he wanted to paint….The picture was clear….He should be out there with the people…not hanging around here, being misunderstood and dragged down by these pretentious losers.

from The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor

From the outset, The Backstreets of Purgatory promises its readers “art, insanity, and Irn-Bru”. The Glasgow-based novel, which follows the tribulations of its protagonist (Finn Garvie) and those of his overlapping social circles, initially might come across as the latest entry in the familiar tale of the tortured artist. However, it’s soon apparent that author Helen Taylor intends to take this story in a rather (darkly humorous) different direction. Early on, Taylor presents the ironic situation in which Finn, having devoted a considerable portion of his life to playing the “misunderstood artist”, decides to decamp from his art school before earning his coveted Master’s degree on grounds that he was “being misunderstood”.* And given that Finn is funded (perhaps reluctantly) by his middle-class parents, he isn’t exactly the sort one pictures when imagining an impoverished but gifted artist descending into madness. But that’s rather the point here. The relationship between suffering and great art is at best a murky one, and it’s clear that The Backstreets of Purgatory intends to challenge what readers “know” about art and mental health.

As a character-driven novel, The Backstreets of Purgtory delivers with its lovingly drawn if all-too human ensemble. Taylor’s empathetic narration (split among four narrators) provides a multifaceted portraiture of the core characters that is nonetheless a very much warts-and-all approach (not unlike Carvaggio’s style of realistic painting). As a result, we might see a character valorized in one chapter (eg, Finn rescues an inebriated Maurice from sleeping rough) but later witness their more ignominious side (in Lizzi’s case, when she forgets her professional ethics in a misguided effort to protect Finn). The three other narrators (intriguingly, all female) also provide alternative (and arguably, corrective) perspectives to Finn’s narrative—and sometimes, to each other’s viewpoints. Since their relationships with Finn range from intimate to indirect connection, we get a sense of how Finn affects not only him, but people close to him but also their larger community, a refreshing change from the tendency to observe mental illness as though it occurs within a vacuum.

For Finn, the appearance of Purgatory parolee, Carvaggio (his artistic hero and alleged ancestor) seems to be an answer to his artistic conundrum. Coupled with the inspiration provided by Kassia (an au pair from Poland), Finn is hopeful that he’ll finally paint something meaningful. However, Carvaggio’s arrival instead marks a period of crisis for Finn and company, attributable to misleading appearances, hasty assumptions, miscommunication, and, often, Finn himself. As Finn and his friendships deteriorate, Finn also finds that both muse and mentor are less helpful than hoped, with Carvaggio living up to his hellraiser reputation. Nonetheless, the shocking conclusion, complete with its untidy (though very realistic) resolution, will leave readers unsettled as they ponder the underlying issues that contribute to troubled persons’ faltering sanity or sobriety long after they finish reading this novel.

Summary (TL;DR): The Backstreets of Purgatory is both a profane and darkly humorous novel that examines several weighty issues, ranging from mental illness, substance abuse, and gender inequality.§ An immersive read with well-drawn characters that builds to a devastating finale, the reader will feel this book’s impact long after they finish it.

NOTES:


*Arguably, Finn hasn’t been misunderstood but understood all too well. Finn’s reaction—one of outright rejection of criticism from a more learned woman coupled with expecting to be top of his class—is a neat mixture of fragile ego, entitlement, and underlying misogyny suggestive of toxic masculinity.

While this novel includes discussion of a famous artist and his body of work, it’s not necessary to be well versed in Carvaggio’s oeuvre, as the novel provides sufficient background information. For those interested in his biography or the artworks whose names are used as chapter titles in The Backstreets of Purgatory, I recommended checking here.

Described in visceral detail that brings the city to life, Glasgow (particularly its West End) seems to function much like a village in that everyone either knows each other or knows a friend of a friend, giving it an atmosphere that ranges from close-knit to claustrophobic. It’s partly due to this cozy sense of community that Taylor succeeds in making it plausible that many of the major characters, regardless of their divergent backgrounds, meet and interact.

§Throughout the novel, several incidents demonstrate how women (regardless of class, race, or finances) receive unequal treatment ranging catcalling (street harassment) to increased domestic workload. For example, Dr. Esme Blythe’s relative security (in terms of finance and family) does not prevent her from being among the many working women who complete the majority of household and child-rearing tasks while her spouse idles on his phone (a fact made more heinous since he’s content to let her do the washing up despite her severe eczema).

The 2018 Reading Review

This year’s review features books I didn’t choose but read anyway, procrastination, and, as always, the new year’s reading list.

At this time of year, I normally like to compile a list of notable books that I’ve read over the past year as well as create a reading list for the year ahead. However, there’s been a change in plans this year, because I have already shared my shortlist of notable books from 2018 elsewhere. As you may know, I belong to the Women Writers Network, which is a volunteer group running a Twitter account that focuses on supporting and promoting women writers. Helen Taylor (one of the founder members and author of The Backstreets of Purgatory[1]) compiled our favorite reads of 2018. Since my top six books of 2018 appear on this list (you can find the list at Helen’s web site), I thought I’d focus on some very different reading highlights from the past year before presenting my to-be-read list, which I eternally hope to complete by the year’s end regardless of how faithless I was to the previous year’s list.[2] But I digress. Let’s get back to last year’s reading adventures.

The Alternative Reading Highlights of 2018

Procrastination Stopper

The 2018 Reading Review by Rita E. Gould. Photos taken of book covers by Rita E. Gould

Over the past few years, I’ve participated in both reading and book photo challenges (you can view my entries to the Reading Women Month book photo challenge and Bookriot’s #Riotgrams here). Although I’ve never per se “won” a challenge by completing all the categories, it’s fun to see what fellow book lovers share.[3] Generally, the highlight of my reading challenges is that they inspire me to stretch outside my reading comfort zone or discover more diverse perspectives.[4] However, this year’s Reading Women Challenge inspired me to stop procrastinating and finish the book that’s lingered the longest on my reading list. I’m pleased to announce I finally read Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller. Despite it being a more challenging read, this fascinating early feminist tract makes a strong religious argument for woman’s self-sufficiency and expanded rights. Partly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Fuller’s work in turn spurred suffragists in the United States to demand the vote.

Most Unlikely to Be Read

The 2018 Reading Review. Text by Rita E. Gould. Photos taken of book covers by Rita E. Gould.

Book challenges influence my reading greatly, as do Twitter chat suggestions and personal recommendation. One of the more whimsical books I read this year is one I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, even had any of these sources suggested it.[5] Though a difficult to categorize book, Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen: a Guide to Eating, Drinking and Going with Your Gut proved to an enjoyable read. Part sentimental, part hilarious, part memoir, and part cookbook, it left me bemused but feeling upbeat. While I’m not sure I’d attempt some of the recipes, I’d definitely read it again.

Most Unexpected Source of Reading Recommendations

The 2018 Book Review. Text by Rita E. Gould. Photos of book covers taken by Rita E. Gould.

Speaking of books I wouldn’t have selected without an outside influence, I curiously have Netflix to thank for my discovering the Phryne Fisher mystery novels by Kerry Greenwood. Halfway through the first episode, I already suspected it was based on a book (Cocaine Blues), and the credits proved me right. My thoughtful spouse picked up the first three books for me, which I then read in short order. Reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s work (roughly the same period, different country, very different detective), these flapper detective novels were a great change from stuffy male detectives. Since the television series diverged a fair bit in places from their source material, I’m glad I saw it before I read it—I happen to be one of those people who usually takes a strong dislike to films/television shows when I read the book first. Either way, I intend to check out the credits in the future, in case they point me to a good book or two.

Hopefully, you’ve found some reading inspiration here, regardless of the source. Here’s to the new year and happy reading!


2019’s Reading List
That Summer in Puglia by Valeria Vescina
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney
Barracoon: the Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecroft
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
Claudine at School In: Colette: The Complete Claudine by Colette (Translated by Antonia White)
Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht
Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett
Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie
Hawkes
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw)
Waymaking: an Anthology of Women’s Adventure Writing, Poetry and Art
(Edited by Helen Mort, Claire Carter, Heather Dawe, and Camilla Barnard)

NOTES


  1. [1] My review of The Backstreets of Purgatory is here now available here! (Updated: 10 March 2019.)

    [2] Remarkably, I only missed four, one of which was a planned re-read. For the curious, these books are Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw), Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock, and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Little Women was my re-read, because I wanted to see if I still enjoyed it as an adult.

    [3] In itself, a great way to get reading recommendations.

    [4] These reading challenges include the Black History Month Reading Challenge (two books), Women in Translation Month (2 books during that month, 3 more later), and roughly half (around 13) of the Reading Women Challenge. I’m still working on making my reading more diverse.

    [5] This book was a gift from my oldest brother who chose it because it reminded him of my food-based coffee table books (ie, The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from the 1970s by Wendy McClure and The Gallery of Regrettable Food by James Lileks). Thanks, Jon!

Halfway There: Midway and Beyond of NaNoWriMo

Messy Middle? The Mid-Month Slump? The Ides of November? Whatever you called it, the halfway point for NaNoWriMo going into week 3 is where it gets challenging to stay the course.

When I last posted, I promised to dish on what it was like to encounter the midway point of NaNoWriMo. At the time of the post, I was nearly on target with the expected word quota, and I felt like all was going well despite the difficulties in carving out writing time every day. However, I’d been warned by my spouse about the “messy middle” or the mid-month slump, that, when it arrived, would mark the slowing of said progress—quite rightly, as it happens. Once we hit the Ides of November, the effort to stay on track or even get a bit ahead shifted into a race to catch up.

Between writing my last blog post and the onslaught of more activities, my daily word count dropped significantly, though I wrote each day. Perhaps I should have expected that several days would end up being rather unproductive when I had so little downtime. Even when the words seem to flow effortlessly, writing is mentally demanding. I felt exhausted when I contemplated what I would next write while my to-do list was competing for mental space. Since we also were traveling most weekends, I soon discovered that I’d much rather chat with my spouse than wrestle an unfriendly, new-to-me laptop. Particularly when it decided to have technical issues while said tech support was negotiating the NJ State Turnpike. Even on a train, the urge to nap instead of write was sorely tempting when I already was overtired.

There is a reason why some writers attempt to write as much as they can during their first several days of NaNoWriMo. In a sense, it acts as a form of insurance against losing their momentum at a later point, whether it’s fatigue or other unforeseen difficulties that interfere. For most people I met,1 participating in NaNoWriMo became increasingly difficult past the halfway point for various reasons that could be summarized as “life”. So, days with low word counts went from manageable to daunting for me, neatly accompanied with the worrying sensation that I was not writing my best. And the sure knowledge that 50,000 words was merely a good start for a novel.

Despite reminding myself regularly that the goal was to get a novel started at all, I knew my tendency towards completionism would rear its ugly head: I was going to make my life difficult to finish those 50,000 words by 30 November. And so I did. For the remainder of November, I wrote more than 1667 words on most days, often late at night. And, at the end of November, a full day behind my spouse, I finished.

Halfway There: Midway and Beyond of NaNoWriMo. Text by R. E. Gould
Not to brag (okay, a little), but I did successfully complete my first NaNoWriMo!

Well, I finished 50,000 words in a month, the novel writer’s equivalent of a marathon. The draft itself still needs to be completed. And I’ll probably need to write several better drafts, for that matter. That aside, the idea that seemed like it would make a fun short story somehow stretched itself into a grander writing endeavor, and I’m looking forward to writing the rest of it (at a more reasonable pace). I don’t know if I’d attempt NaNoWriMo again or if it’s given me any great insights into writing more habitually,2 but I’m grateful that I undertook this challenge to transform this kernel of a story into an actual work in progress. It rather makes me wonder whether I should attempt a less rigorous challenge come the New Year in lieu of a resolution. Until then, I’m going to enjoy the break from my novel and the holidays!

Happy Holidays!

NOTES:


  1. I attended my local region’s after party, which proved to be quite enjoyable. And despite writing drastically different novels, we all seemed to have the same sort of repetitive stress injury from striking the space key. What a coincidence. 
  2. Save that deadlines are great motivators.