Cover to cover

image: Pamela Fugate Designs

When I was little, I wasn’t really much of a troublemaker. In fact, I was as straitlaced as a kid could be: reading was my addiction, and it was the only thing that regularly got me in trouble. I didn’t backtalk, I didn’t beg for attention — I just stayed up late almost every night, reading into the wee hours of the morning, or as long as I could get away with it before my mom would catch me. And book reports? Girl, I could bust a move on a book report. Believe it.

In college, though, I hit my limit. The summer of my first big breakup, I began the tradition that would carry me through every rough patch thereafter: I threw myself into work to get through each day. I took four accelerated summer courses all at once — those two-and-a-half-hours-a-day, four-days-a-week kinds of classes, and all of them together were supposed to satisfy my major’s literature requirement. I’ll just lose myself in the worlds of all these books, I thought, and then I realized what I’d done: I’d signed up to spend half the summer reading four books at once, one stack after another, week after week.

FOUR BOOKS AT ONCE. Have you ever tried that?

If not, don’t. If so, you’re crazy. CRAZY.

It took a few years after that for me to pick up a book again for the sake of pure pleasure. In fact, it may have taken about ten. Somewhere in my twenties I decided I was just too busy to read (Too busy doing what, exactly? Watching VH-1?), but now that I write for a living, I’ve rediscovered my addiction and fallen completely off the wagon. Stephen King’s been quoted as saying, “I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they ‘don’t have time to read.’ This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.”

So, I’ve been stocking up on rope and pitons lately. It hasn’t been the most well-read year of my life, but I’ve torn through some satisfying stuff. I don’t usually squawk a lot about what book my nose is buried in, but I think I’ll do that today. Here’s a rundown of the pages I let myself get lost in this year, plus a few I’m about to dive into… because isn’t that feeling of connection half the fun of reading, anyway?


Girl Land by Caitlin FlanaganGirl Land by Caitlin Flanagan — It’s been an interesting year in Texas politics, and our national — no, make that global — conversation (or is it more of a screaming match?) about gender equality is far from over. Girl Land, a brief but writerly glimpse into the world of being something/someone between a girl and a woman — you know, that space Judy Blume always captured so well — tackles the topic without making me cringe, which is kind of a tough thing to do. The complexities of being female in what’s long been a man’s world are deeply personal, and it’s easy to get defensive when we’re presented with viewpoints that differ from our own, but look: the author has been on staff at The Atlantic, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, and it shows. It’s worth a quick glimpse to remind ourselves of that part of our lives when we first started figuring out who we were and why. Those things, I think, are worth talking about with intelligence.


Paris by Janelle McCullochParis: An Inspiring Tour of the City’s Creative Heart by Janelle McCulloch — I went to Europe for the first (and absolutely not last) time in my life this year, visiting London, Paris and Barcelona over the span of a week and a half. I could have spent the entire time in just one of those cities and been happy as a lark, but even in the short time I spent in the City of Light, this achingly gorgeous book helped me get a feel for the arrondissements (that’s fancytalk for “districts”) and find some tucked-away places I would never have known about otherwise. Lush and detailed, this whimsically-written guidebook is a love letter to the city itself.



The Great Gatsby by F Scott FitzgeraldThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — F*ck Baz Luhrmann. Seriously, f*ck him and however you spell his stupid name. (Oh, sorry… didn’t realize I had so much rage pent up still). See, I’ve loved The Great Gatsby since I first read it in school, and last spring, I was looking forward to a fresh cinematic take that got it right. So much for those great expectations teetering precariously on the director’s decades-old Romeo + Juliet cred. Regardless, I’ll always love the narrative voice in this Great American Novel, and I’ll always find Daisy detestable, but that last part’s okay — I’m not alone. Such a quick read packed with so much social commentary. It’ll never get old, no matter how many more auteurs try to butcher it.



On the Road by Jack KerouacOn the Road by Jack Kerouac — I have an admission. Try as I might, I never finished this book. I know it’s a (mid-century) modern classic. I know it’s got that beautiful line about the mad ones and the yellow roman candles, and I know it’s got a lot of other beautiful lines, too, but there’s just so much mania between them all. That’s not to say I’m not up to the challenge, or that I have to be spoon-fed, but let’s be real: reading this guy’s prose is like riding in a car with no brakes. He typed it up on a scroll — a scroll, mind you — because changing the pages in his typewriter supposedly damaged his flow, for god’s sake. Still, I won’t be bested by this beatnik. I’ve picked the damn thing up twice and given it the old college try. I’m hoping the third time’s exactly as charmed as all those rumors swirling around it suggest.


Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me by Mindy KalingIs Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling — With chapter titles like “I Forget Nothing: A Sensitive Kid Looks Back,” The Office (which I love) writer-plus-cast-member and Mindy Project (which I can’t get into) star nails countless perfect witticisms of a hard-working girl who’s sometimes prone to abject laziness, narcissism and materialism but who always comes through in the end. Her rant about the fact that John Cougar (Mellencamp?)’s ode to the unburdened liberty of youth, “Jack and Diane,” is patently awful and ought to be changed to “Nguyen and Ari, a little ditty about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run, and does homework in the lobby, and Ari, a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandmother’s old-age home, and they meet after school at Princeton Review” is… well, c’mon. You laughed, right? Me, too.


The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan EvisonThe Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison — Whoa dang. I made the mistake of reading the first half of this novel on a plane. Oh, the crying. Actually, to be honest, some of the crying came from the author’s note at the end of the book, which I skipped to during a key scene because something struck me as familiar. Turns out, Evison wrote the tragicomic book in an almost involuntary attempt to deal with the loss of his sister, which makes complete sense given his adeptness at toeing the weird tightrope grief puts us on, balancing gallows humor in one hand and real, profound sadness and rage in the other. I found myself letting go of some of my own baggage while reading this work, and I’m sure lots of other readers did as well, so here’s hoping the crass but elegant writer behind this book was able to move forward a little bit, too, while he was putting its pages together.


Farther Away by Jonathan FranzenFarther Away by Jonathan Franzen — So, apparently I had a July full of Jonathans. Two of them, anyway… one full of heart, and the other, not so much. I chose this book by chance from a shelf at Powell’s Books in Portland last summer after perusing the Essays section and haphazardly landing on a page dealing with the ethics of writing about family members, loved ones and other people who are in a position to get super pissed off about what’s been committed in ink about them. It sat on my nightstand and in a carry-on bag or two for the better part of a year, and then I finally dove in. Increasingly agitated as I trudged through his collection of essays, eulogies and commencement addresses, I finally declared, “I hate this guy.” and abandoned the book about two-thirds of the way through. A few weeks later, a link to the article “A Handy Guide to Why Jonathan Franzen Pisses You Off” popped up in my twitter feed, and I felt vindicated. I didn’t even know being pissed off by Jonathan Franzen was a thing until I’d been there myself and then realized it’s a universal thing, like loving bacon or cheese or Bill Murray.


Wild by Cheryl StrayedWild by Cheryl Strayed — Oh man. This one. This one stabbed me on page 38. Stabbed me in the ribs and kept me bleeding until the end. It’s easy to get lost in Wild and think you’re reading a work of fiction because the willpower, discipline and grit displayed by the protagonist is practically otherworldly, and yet at the same time, it’s impossible not to empathize with her. I’ve read quite a bit about how the boys’ club that is the literary establishment didn’t seem to want to let Cheryl Strayed in when this book sold like hotcakes last year. Personally, I think they’re intimidated… that’s why they tried to relegate her to the ill-fitting (for her) and utterly irrelevant chick lit section, even though she was caked in mud after hiking 1,000+ miles of the Pacific Coast Trail alone. Chick lit, my ass. This woman’s the truth. If I meet her someday, the Snapple’s on me.


Sister Mother Husband Dog by Delia EphronSister Mother Husband Dog (etc.) by Delia Ephron — Full disclosure: I read this book as research for a Q&A I got to do with the author for a Citygram feature. Good thing I fancy myself a writer but not a journalist, since the tiniest anecdote about taking BBQ onto a plane can apparently win my affection in less than a third of a second. Anyway, this memoir by an acclaimed screenwriter, playwright and essayist (and incidentally, Nora Ephron’s sister) hit home for me in a number of ways: it deals with the subject of profound loss, it finds beauty in the tiniest of things, and it exposes the inner workings of a worrier who writes for a living. Check, check and check. Delia: you had me at “Sister.”



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What have you been reading? What’s up next on your nightstand? On deck for the holidays, I’ve got The Fault in Our Stars, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and Brave New World (nope, I’ve never read it, nor its 1958 follow-up, but that’s about to change) and a whole bunch of essays. It’s so nice to delve into parallel worlds for a while to help us learn a little something about our own. Here’s hoping next year I’ll have a whole new mess of worlds to talk about with you. Maybe even one of mine.


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Go take a leap

IT'S PEANUT BUTTER JELLY TIME, B*TCHES

image: Junebug Photography

This Wednesday was my one-year anniversary of being a full-time freelance writer.

I’m still not entirely sure what that means. I’d love to craft a beautifully worded treatise on the joys and foibles of the past twelve months, but there’s no way to encapsulate it in a blog post. This little girl with misaligned socks is a pretty solid representation of what it feels like most of the time, which is why I chose her to accompany this week’s installment… but to write some sort of summary would be damn near impossible.  I really wish I’d written something that first day about taking the leap so I could look back on it now and laugh at what a dolt I was.  I think I was too busy to jot down any thoughts, though. Not too busy with clients (yet), mind you… just too busy freaking out, looking in nooks and crannies for rent money.  Too busy trying to find my footing.  Too busy wondering if I’d ever drink fancy coffee again.

Instead of blathering, I’d rather share a few of the notions, words and people that have inspired me from the start.  If I’ve done the math right (and I’m not proud of this, but that’s a big ‘if’), I’ve written more than 1,300 blog posts and articles totaling something like 396,000 words this past year, and that was just the dry run.  So today, I’m taking the day off to celebrate the fact that I’m able to pay the bills and feed the dog (at least this month, if not next) by doing what I love. I’ll let these pictures do the talking while I take a tiny break and figure out what’s next.  After I finish this here fancy coffee in my hand.

image sources: author's archive and Pinterest (click for origins)

image sources: author’s archive and Pinterest (click for origins)

For those of you who’ve made the leap yourselves, I salute you.  For those thinking about doing something scary that’s been tugging at you from the inside, I say, “Do it.”  If it’s how you truly want to spend your life, and if you’re willing to pay your dues, it will be worth the wait, the fear and the struggle.  The coolest part: when you get to your first benchmark, you’ll realize you never once looked back.  Because why would you?  That shit back there was awful.  This stuff right here is great, even when it isn’t.

Happy Friday, folks, and happy 2012. Thank you for coming here.  Thank you for believing in my work, whether you’ve checked out my portfolio or just enjoy reading these public diary entries.  I hope they make you smile, give you an idea every once in a while, or at least provide the distraction you’re looking for.

Most of all, thank you for your kindness, encouragement and time.  I appreciate it more than you know.

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Choose your own adventure

Damn straight, Hells.

Image: Coco+Kelley

When I was a little kid, my parents and I would drive to St. Petersburg, Florida, a couple of times a year to see my grandpa, who lived in an apartment on the 11th floor of an independent living facility.  The six-hour drive from my hometown of Jacksonville was largely unbearable except for several elements: my Madonna-stocked Walkman, the grandeur of the neverending bridge we always crossed toward the end of our trip, whatever book I happened to be reading, and the immediate promise of its successor, which I knew I’d be bringing home from our trip to Haslam’s Book Store.

Haslam’s was (and hopefully still is) one of those magical old bookstores that just sort of wind and twist around themselves, with janky ramps between the rooms and tattered old books mingling on the shelves with their freshly-minted cousins.  I’m almost positive that old shop on Central Avenue was the spot where I discovered the Sweet Valley High series (it’s seriously no mistake that I now drive a Fiat, have a close friend named Elizabeth and distrust all orderlies named Carl — remember that crazy-ass pancake-making kidnapper?) and it was most definitely the place where I bought my first Anti-Coloring Book.  Now, let me explain the latter half of that sentence: I had nothing against coloring books by any means, and neither did my parents — in fact, the title’s completely misleading.  To this very day, you can hand me a simple sketch pad and Sharpie and I’m a very happy girl.  The thing about this series in particular, and the reason for its provocative name, is that it gave the most fantastic prompts and then just kind of let you fill in the rest using your totally insane and therefore absolutely wonderful 7-year-old imagination.  Aside from the fact that I got to stare out over the 11th floor balcony of my grandpa’s digs during each visit — and believe you me, the 11th floor of anything was a super big deal at the time* — the family tradition of letting me romp around this crunchy old bookshop every time we were in St. Pete was a highlight of my childhood.

So, about these beloved activity books: one page might have 20 or so circles of varying sizes strewn about it with the prompt, “How many different things can circles be?” spelled out underneath.  Another would feature a Jack Sparrow-eque character in the bottom left corner with a thought bubble taking up the rest of the page, prompted by the question, “What kind of adventures do you remember from your past life as a pirate?” Others delved into emotional topics — say, an angry-looking girl sitting at the bottom of the page alongside the question, “What is it that makes you angriest at your parents?”  And the list went on and on: “Make a wish on this wishing well.” “You’ve been hired to design a new subway token.” “Make up your own big lie.” “What does a skunk smell like?”

These books were safe spaces where you could create, create, create as far as your colored pencils could take you.  I was addicted.  So last week, when I found myself inside one of the coolest new/used bookstores in the nation — Powell’s Books, in Portland, Oregon — I was on a mission from the kindergarten gods.  Something had pushed these awesome creativity boosters to the top of my memory, and I wasn’t stopping until I found one this past Sunday.  Luckily, I did, and now it’s sitting here with me on the couch.  I’m almost afraid to touch it, it’s so freaking precious.  In part, these books made me who I am.  They cracked open the hinge in the center of my imagination and encouraged me to put dreams to paper — ideas into tangible forms.  They gave me an outlet with guidance that was way less strict than a typical coloring book but far less intimidating than a blank white page.  They made it okay to make something crazy.

On the plane ride back home, I tucked my new/old Anti-Coloring Book into my bag and chose to hold my inner elementary school student at bay in favor of the book I’d taken on the trip with me to begin with: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.  It’s about a guy who, sort of on a whim, decides to train for the USA Memory Championships — an event where people do things like memorize thousands of digits in a particular order and recite them back exactly, or memorize a 100-line poem in 15 minutes or less and transcribe it from memory with perfect precision, including punctuation.

The author really did this in real life; the book is straight nonfiction.  As a journalist researching an article he was planning to write about the annual event, he was intrigued by a comment one of the competitors made about the fact that anyone could become a memory champion with proper training — that it was mainly about using tricks, mnemonic devices and good old-fashioned discipline.  So, he decided to give it a go and see if these champions were, indeed, complete freaks of nature or just highly-practiced memorizers.  In doing so, he wound up diving into all sorts of questions about what paths we choose for our lives and why, as well as what our memories are really made of and how they work.  Questions like, are we really recording every little thing we experience and then just repressing the stuff that doesn’t seem useful?  Or are we constantly filtering and forgetting things that can’t ever be retrieved, even with cues and prompts that would pull them out of our subconscious if they were still truly filed away somewhere?

Foer met with researchers, scholars, cognitive disorder patients, and fellow memory champs-in-training while undergoing this process, and chronicled his own doubts and frustrations along the way.  At the book’s onset, he admits his distaste for soupy self-help types and voices his wonderment at so much of the irony that exists in the competitors’ lives; some of them have what we would consider to be photographic memories (a concept that’s largely discounted throughout the book, oddly enough) and yet can’t hold down jobs or meaningful relationships as a result of some of the obsessive — not to mention competitive — behaviors that creep into their lives.  You’d think a guy who never forgets a birthday, an anniversary or the way a girl takes her coffee could charm his way into any given skirt or corner office, but apparently that’s not the case.  So, the good news is, there’s hope for us Forgetful Joneses out here.  Crazy as it sounds, we might be better off in some manner of speaking than the Doogie Howsers and chess champions of the world.  It’s strangely comforting, in a way.

I do wish I could improve my memory, though.  So many things fly in one ear and out the other; others take up residence deep in my core for a while and then, oddly, fly away into space, never to return, even though they once seemed indelible and oh-so-important.  I’ve never been able to extract rhyme or reason from the way I remember some things and forget others — that’s what the author of this book is on a bit of a quest to figure out from the sum of his sources.  It’s also something my boyfriend’s sister is on a quest to figure out, from an entirely different angle, through her work each day in a proper science lab in Manhattan.  On some level, I think we’d all like to understand how we remember things so we can start remembering more (and, of course, forget the things we wish we could but can’t.)

I’ll never not be fascinated by these sorts of things.  One point that’s agreed upon by practically everyone Foer encounters is this: even though we forget a ridiculous amount of our life’s experiences, the more enriching moments we take part in — the more adventures we have, risks we take, places we go and thresholds we cross — the longer our lives seem to have been when we get to the end of them.  Days in a cubicle can blend into one another month after month, year after year, until they feel like one lifelong eight hour block, while one simple, lazy morning in a French bakery might make us smile for decades after.  That’s a perfect reason for us to wheel our chairs back from our desks every once in a while and get on a plane, play a little hooky, jump around in the ocean, and laugh until it hurts.  Setting expectations aside and letting our imaginations lead us to new places is, in my not-so-humble opinion (when it comes to this topic, anyway), one of the best forms of therapy in the world.

There’s already plenty of crap to cry about — plenty to bemuse us and punch us in the gut.  Those things, I think, are easier to forget… or at least set aside… when we balance them with the pursuit of extraordinary things.  Even if we barely remember any of it once we’re through, at least we did it anyway and loved the hell out of it while it was happening.  So it makes sense to me that the best way to live is to choose our own adventures and not worry so much about coloring inside the lines.  As far as we all know, we only get one shot at all of this.  I, for one, intend to make the most of it.  That’s a plan I hope I won’t ever forget.

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*and kind of still is

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Brains for free

A photo signed by Einstein to the attention of news reporter Howard K. Smith. It reads, "This gesture you will like, Because it is aimed at all of humanity. A civilian can afford to do what no diplomat would dare."

image: public domain

I stumbled across something this week that made me smile at the mere idea of it.  It’s called Skillshare, and in case you aren’t already savvy to its charms, it’s a community marketplace in which you can “learn anything from anyone.” In short, much like TED, it connects inquisitive people to their subject matter of choice, but it does it through folks in their local communities, opening up an in-person exchange of knowledge.  It basically seeks to make education — in its broadest sense — more democratic and accessible, and by accessible, I mean right around the corner from your house.

Call me easily-led if you want, but it had me at its tag line: “The future belongs to the curious.”  Can I get an amen? 

You could say that the internet, on its own, opens up a wealth of information and places it at our fingertips, and you’d be right.  You could counter that a lot of information on the internet is complete crap, and you’d also be right.  Try looking up any medical symptom under the sun and give me a rough estimate of the accuracy rate of your first 10 search results.  Abysmal, right?  But that’s okay.  Because as with anything, I think there’s been a bit of a pendulum effect in terms of the quality of content on the web.  We started at the far end of one extreme where there was nothing but esoteric data understood only by programmers, then swung wildly across a vast expanse to the other side, filled with a ton of SEO-loaded, nonsensical muck peppered with funny memes and, thankfully, The Oatmeal.  We’ve spent a little while capitulating in a ping pong match of sorts and are finally, many years since the advent of dancing babies, evites and Blue Mountain Arts birthday cards, finding ourselves somewhere in the middle.  I’m excited to dive into the big glass bowl of brain candy that’s emerging in the center and gobble it all up.

Like I’ve said in previous posts, I’ve been trying to dial down my incessant need for crap trivia — like what lipstick Zooey Deschanel is wearing this week, for instance; at the moment, I’m proud to report I have no earthly clue — and make way for something more satisfying.  Sure, there’s always NPR, god love it, and it’s amazing how much more easily one can get pulled into PBS programming once one eliminates a few hundred other channels from her cable lineup (imagine that!) but it’s cool to know there are people out there who want to — and apparently will — offer an unlimited amount of free education to whomever wants it.

In the spirit of sharing cool stuff, here are two websites I can’t get enough of, and if you’re an even remotely curious person at all, you’re bound to find something worth falling headfirst into on one or both of them:

Open Culture is essentially a tremendous brainpower hub linking out to every kind of free online class imaginable — no, no, I’m not talking about schmaltzy “how to make a zillion dollars overnight”-level nonsense; I’m talking about a downloadable “The American Novel Since 1945″ course from Yale, video lectures from a human behavioral biology course at Stanford, and more than 400 others of that ilk.  Apparently, such things are called “MOOC”s — massive open online courses, and multiple startups are emerging from the likes of the guy who invented the Google self-driving car and other brainiacs and mathletes — see edX, Udacity, et al.  Anyway, Open Culture also employs a staff of freelancers who post multiple times a day with cultural gems like rare recordings from legendary musicians, lost interviews with cultural luminaries and random trinkets of geekery you’d have to see for yourself to fully grasp the magic of.

Then there’s Brain Pickings, the personal blog of Maria Popova, an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow and contributor to both Wired UK and The Atlantic.  She calls herself “an interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large.”  She posts ridiculously fascinating things every day, and of course, her writing is impeccable, unfettered and smart.  I adore everything about her work so much, it’s not even worth wasting energy being envious; I just eat what she dishes out each day and enjoy every speck of it.  The best way I can describe her site is to say it’s like a big plate of bacon-wrapped smartness served with a cocktail of sugar-rimmed creativity.  On second thought, that was terrifically dumb.  Let’s use her words instead:

“It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources — ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas — like LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our creations will become.”

Yeah.  What she said.  Basically, if I ever meet this woman, I might kiss her square on the mouth.

There’s this great quote from someone named Roger Lincoln:  “There are two rules for success: 1. Never tell everything you know.”  …and it’s brilliant.  In the competitive society in which we live, both professionally and personally, it’s spot-on, and I laughed out loud the first time I saw it.  But wouldn’t it be cool if it didn’t make us laugh?  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we looked at each other after reading it, completely puzzled as to what it meant?  I realize such a reality may never arrive, but the curious little kid in me who’s been taught to share her carrot sticks still likes the notion of it.  And I think it’s doable on a smaller scale: it starts with each of us stepping outside of our silos and sharing our brains with our friends.

The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know.  And while each new revelation of my own lack of knowledge is pretty terrifying, at the same time, it’s kind of not so bad.  When you get down to it, nobody knows everything, but everyone knows something.  So why don’t we share more often?

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Copycat, copycat

Oh, hello there, darling.

image: Takkoda.com

I’m a little hot under the collar at the moment, so forgive the absence of my usual fluttery whimsicality.  Today, I’ve got beef, and I’m laying it out on the table.

Did everybody see The Avengers last weekend?  Yes?  OK, good.  Let’s start with a specific example of what’s making me want to go Hulk on somebody.  My friend Liz, a professional photographer, posted something online this week that blew my mind.  Completely frustrated after an experience she’d had while shooting a wedding, she shared the following gem:

How to drive a wedding photographer’s blood pressure into coma range:

1) Take your brand new, hulking digital camera and lens kit to the next wedding you’re invited to.

2) Spend the day shooting under the photographer’s feet or over their shoulder.

3) Keep the camera in front of your face all day so that every image the photographer takes includes your awesome new camera.

4) Try to spark up conversation with photographer about camera gear.

5) Post all your pictures from the wedding with your logo on your facebook “business page.” 

After I stopped laughing, I started getting mad, even though I’m sure the dude’s “photographs” weren’t one-tenth as amazing as those of the actual professional he was mimicking, and even though this arguably funny story had nothing to do with me.  But my protective instinct kicked in and my own anger started to build as I saw parallels forming between us.  Her irritation had kind of hit a nerve.

Even though I’m new to freelancing, I’ve been writing in some way, shape or form for years, and my work’s been plagiarized beyond belief in ways that will spin me into an irrational rage if I spend too much time on the particulars.  Yeah, yeah, “imitation is the purest form of flattery” and all that, but there’s imitation and there’s robbery, and the line between the two might be blurry, but not THAT blurry.  I suppose it should be flattering on some level, but — actually, no.   When you’ve shed a certain amount of sweat over a piece of work and someone else walks by, lifts their leg on it, then takes what you’ve done and passes it off as their own, trying to gain something from talent that isn’t theirs to sell… well, that’s just bullshit.

Here’s the thing.  We’re all intelligent individuals in some way or another.  We all have the potential to do great things.  And like we were taught in elementary school, stealing and/or screwing with our neighbor’s work isn’t okay.  Regardless of how crafty someone might be in their execution — regardless of what loopholes they crawl through like Catherine Zeta Jones in her catsuit with the little red lasers in that thing she was in with Sean Connery — thievery is still thievery, and there’s nothing cool about it unless maybe it’s being committed in the name of freeing innocent prisoners in a war-torn nation or something, but that’s an act of bravery I’m pretty sure my copy-and-pasters and Liz’s dude at the wedding were not, in fact, up to.

Yes, we’re all influenced by one another.  Yes, we can be derivative without even realizing it; I fully admit I’m a perpetrator of that myself… but for god’s sake, man, don’t plagiarize.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking your victim dead in the eye and smiling while you make a copy of their car key or if you’re smashing and grabbing while they’re out of town.  I don’t care if you’re backed against a wall at the eleventh hour and think you have no choice.  Hey, I’ve stood against that wall and cursed the clock myself, but I can say with certainty that I’ve never stolen someone else’s stuff and passed it off as mine.  I’d rather take the heat for being late, being slipshod… anything, really, other than pick-pocketing.  And if the reason behind it is as simple as someone being worried that their own capabilities don’t measure up, they have two choices: either prove themselves wrong or suck it up and change course. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”  He was right.  When paired with too much ego, it steals joy from all involved.

Nobody likes a jackass.  If you ever happen to catch one red-handed, please call them out and tell them they’re better than that. Because somewhere deep down, maybe they are.  And if they’re not, I know a big green gamma man perhaps they’d like to meet.

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But enough about me

this kickass photo was taken by Elizabeth Davis

Photo by Elizabeth Davis Photography

Albert Einstein once said, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

Really, Al?  

Okay, fine… I suppose he was a tiny bit right, at least to an extent, and I’m sure he said it with a chuckle or at least a wry smile.   We’re a derivative species, finding ourselves inspired by things and then putting our own spin on them to make them feel more customized, and before we know it we’re taking credit for ideas that were never really ours to begin with.  Even the most creative among us found the seeds for our stuff somewhere.  Hell, if we’re being honest, I’m pretty sure I owe every word I type to Judy Blume.*

And look at this!  Here I am, leading off my own writing with somebody else’s words in quotations.  Whenever I think about all the stories in my brain that I want to get down on paper, it occurs to me that every plot has already been written.  Person faces hardship and triumphs/fails/perseveres.  Person meets person, person breaks person’s heart.  Person goes on adventure.  Person lives/dies.  Hilarity/tragedy ensues.  It’s all been told, really… so I suppose what it comes down to is the ability to recount an already-told tale in a fresh and interesting way.  That’s my big challenge in the enormous sea of words out there to which I’m trying to contribute.

I’m scared to death that the things I offer will not only already have been created a thousand times, but that they’ll also have been executed about 10,000 times better than anything I ever could have done.  That’s a paralyzing thought.  Nobody wants to get up on a tightrope in front of the whole wide world with no net underneath them, claiming to be a highwire veteran, do a bunch of fancy flips and then splat.  Splat is only sexy if you’re a celebrity and you show up on a red carpet the next day looking wounded but glamorous.  Splat is only cute if you’re a kid.  I’m neither celebrity nor child, so where my splat is concerned… well, I’d prefer for it not to happen at all.  But even if it does, I have a few places I can look for answers.  Thankfully for me, I’m fortunate enough to know some phenomenal folks with serious talent, to whom and to which I’ve been paying lots of attention.

And here, today, I’m giving away my sources.

First up, there’s Liz Sprayberry.  Oh, she’s married now and has a completely different name… her business is Elizabeth Davis Photography, for goodness’ sake… but when I met her years ago, she was just Liz Sprayberry, who wore flip flops in the dead of winter and had coffee and optimism running through her veins.  She still does.  Even though we don’t catch up as often as we’d like, she’s one of my favorite people in the world.  We used to work together in a grey and oppressive state government office, and in the evenings we’d sometimes go to the only genuinely crunchy coffeehouse in the tiny town in which we lived.  It bumped up against the railroad tracks and played horrible music and always smelled like feet.**  I loved that place, and I loved hanging out there with her and journaling and talking about boys and life and complaining about work.  These days, before I take a photo of anything — my dog, a skyline, a meal I’m about to eat and want to broadcast to a foodie friend — I think, “How would Liz shoot this?”  She’s a tremendous spirit and beautiful person who sees everything in a fascinating and unique way… and if you want to look through her lens, you can.

Then there’s Jessie Preza.  This little phenom was by all accounts my first friend, ever.  We went to preschool together, and my mom was later her kindergarten teacher; we ran in similar circles throughout high school and college and have kept occasional tabs on each other ever since.  I haven’t seen her face in person in probably 15 years, but every once in a while we’ll reconnect with a quick message and marvel at how similar we turned out to be in terms of tastes and pop culture leanings.  She runs a host of wildly successful companies offering her creative services — Poppy Blossom (photography), Nesting Shoppe (custom paper goods) and Nest Design Group (design, of course, and marketing).  The girl apparently doesn’t sleep… which is amazing, since she has two kids, runs three businesses and looks like a million bucks.  Garçon? I’ll have what she’s having.

I could go on for days about the people who inspire me and inform the way I work, and in future posts I probably will, but for now I’ll leave it at these two.  To use one of Jessie’s favorite words, they both left the nest of traditional work life and made it on their own doing gorgeous and creative things without stepping on anyone’s toes, and I’m keeping an eye on how they do it.  Maybe we all should, because damn do they ever glow.

Speaking of leaving the nest, here’s another quote that kind of hits home: “Nothing encourages creativity like the chance to fall flat on one’s face.”  James D. Finlay said that.  In truth, I have no clue who James D. Finlay is or was (sorry, sir… I’m sure you are/were a nice person and all, and I hope you’re living/lived a good long life), but I’m fairly certain he must have been a freelancer.  And I sure as hell hope he had amazing and talented friends.

*and Chuck Klosterman, if footnotes or curse words are involved.

**the coffeehouse, not the town.

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