Writing Exercise: A Book that Changed My Life

My 2010 Copy of Sophies WOrld
My tattered copy of Sophie’s World

Some books will make you smile for a moment, others will make you weep and ache for days—I’m looking at you, Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel. But my favorites are the ones that stick with you forever, the ones that change the course of your life in one sitting. Now I’ve been fortunate enough to have read a number of life-changing books, and today, I’ll be featuring one of my earliest favorites—Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

It was one of my payday gifts to myself. The book had sat, fat, shiny, and bright blue on the cramped shelf, occupying more space than the other novels beside it. Price-wise, it was a bit more than what I’d pay for if I got another Penguin Classic. But I’m a sucker for hefty books in pretty packaging—one of my reading mottos being, “More pages = more bang for my buck.” So, with just a glance at the title and the author, Sophie’s World made its way home with me that night.

In case you haven’t read Sophie’s World, (a book I highly recommend but understand isn’t for everyone), here’s a bit of a warning: it reads more like a crash course on the history of philosophy than an actual work of fiction. Sure, the part that is fiction is very compelling and well-written, but the bulk of the book consists of philosophy lessons being fed via mail to the novel’s protagonist, 13-year-old Sophie Amundsen.

Now, this structure may be off-putting to other readers. And that’s fair. Most of the time, we pick up novels as a means to escape real life, not to be inundated by lengthy history and philosophy lessons. However, to me, Sophie’s World was the spark that started my lifelong love for Philosophy and Philosophy Books. Now, prior to this book, I have read and loved other think-reads from great authors like George Orwell, Milan Kundera, Alan Lightman, and Kurt Vonnegut. But Sophie’s World was the book that inspired me to really study philosophy. To read Plato, Sartre, and Kierkegaard (to name a few), to watch lectures, to take certificate courses in Coursera, and to listen to podcasts like The Partially Examined Life and Philosophy Bites.

By introducing me to philosophy, Sophie’s World has helped give direction to my life. It helped shape my life’s purpose, which is to keep learning, to constantly seek truth, and to always strive to do good. And for that, I am very grateful.

What about you? What’s one of your biggest literary game-changers?

Creating a Morning Routine for Night Owls

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from Pixabay. Image by Comfreak/Jonny Lindner

Hate getting up every morning? Me too.

For us night owls and slow starters, mornings bring a special kind of torture. As someone who has trouble falling asleep before 6 a.m., I know all about the struggle of pulling yourself out of bed right in the thick of sleep and dreaming. In fact, for a long time, I’ve found it difficult to get myself together and ready to start working until late in the afternoon.

Like other night owls, I hit the peak of my productivity, energy, and creativity around midnight. But the truth is that unless you’ve got full command of your schedule, are self-employed, or work the night shift, there’s just no workaround when it comes to daytime living. The fact is that we live in a world where banks, government agencies, and a large number of businesses still operate within the standard 8-5 or 9-6 schedule.

So, how exactly can a night owl adapt and thrive in a world that caters to morning people? Well, it all starts with establishing an effective morning routine. The following are the tips I’ve found most helpful in chipping away at my wake-up time. Now, you don’t have to do all the things in this list, but hopefully, you’ll find some of the items helpful on your journey to becoming an earlier, if not early, riser.

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep.

According to an article by the National Sleep Foundation, experts recommend that adults get roughly 7-9 hours of sleep each day. Now, 7-9 hours of sleep every day can seem like a pretty tall order, especially if you’re juggling two jobs, have kids to take care of, or have an ever-expanding to-do list that you need to sift through. But the fact remains that prolonged sleep deprivation can have adverse effects on your mental and physical health. (You can read more about the effects of sleep deprivation on Science Daily.) So as much as possible, do try to go for at least seven hours of sleep each night.

Now, on the days where getting seven hours of sleep just isn’t possible—and there will be days like that—I recommend finding your personal sweet spot when it comes to minimum hours of sleep. You know, that number of hours wherein you may still feel a bit tired but can otherwise power through the day with little trouble.  The number varies from one person to another. I have friends who swear by sleeping 3-4 hours most days, my husband feels at his best with 6 hours of sleep, and as for me, it’s 5.5 hours or 8.

Finding that sweet spot will take some time, but you’ll know it when you hit it. I just don’t recommend relying on this trick too often.

Get ready to get up at the same time every day. And I mean every day.

This might just be the most crucial part of your morning routine. Now, we all know that the key to developing any habit is consistency. And since the goal here is to get up earlier, it’s important to note that the only way to successfully modify your sleep-wake cycle is through creating lasting change in your body’s circadian rhythm and, consequently, its biological clock.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences has this really informative fact sheet on circadian rhythms that’s definitely worth a read. But in case you don’t have time to read the article, here are some key takeaways that you might find interesting. First, your circadian rhythm is what determines a lot of your body’s biological functions. We’re talking sleep-wake cycles, eating habits, hormone release, and even your moods. Disruptions to its natural rhythm have been linked to various health conditions like diabetes, obesity, insomnia, and even depression and bipolar disorder.

So, where does waking up early fit in this scenario? Well, here’s your second takeaway. As the article puts it, “Circadian rhythms help determine our sleep patterns.” It signals your body’s SCN or master clock to produce melatonin, a.k.a. the sleep hormone. This is a process that peaks at night. Hence most people feel wide awake during the daytime and then become increasingly groggy as the night progresses.

Because our bodies are predisposed to slip into sleep mode at night, theoretically, it should be easier to transition into nighttime sleeping rather than dozing off once the day breaks. Now, I recognize that this isn’t always the case. I, myself, have gone through periods wherein the only way to sleep through the night was with copious amounts of wine, a few sips of antihistamine, or a p.m. pill or two. But I’ve also found through experience that in the long run, nighttime sleeping is more restful than the lengthiest daytime snooze. Plus, long-term night shift work has been associated with a lot of health risks, including heart disease, ulcer, and even some types of cancer. This is why, unless you absolutely have to work at night, it pays to shift into daytime living.

Since changing your sleep pattern now will cause some ripples in your circadian rhythm, it’s important that you try to stabilize your body’s biological clock as soon as possible. This is where waking up at the same time every day comes in. By getting up at the same time every day for a few weeks, you’re employing the necessary change to your schedule while also giving your body the period it needs to settle into its new rhythm.

But what about the weekends? Well, this is the tricky part. See, getting up late should be fine once in a while, but sleeping in too often will definitely make it harder to turn this practice into habit. So, if you’re serious about making a change to your timetable, make it a point to get up at roughly the same time every day—whether we’re talking Manic Mondays or Slowdown Sundays.

Invest in the right alarm clock.

One of these days, you’re not going to need an alarm clock to get up in the morning. However, let’s be honest. If you’re reading this article, today is not going to be that day. Neither is tomorrow. So, go ahead and use your phone’s built-in alarm clock as your personal rooster for as long as you need to.

But if you’re a sleepyhead like me, chances are, you’ve found yourself immune to your phone’s alarm. That thing could ring, buzz, and ping for hours and you’d still be out cold ‘til noon. It’s a good thing that there are a lot of alarm clocks out there that are designed specifically for heavy sleepers. In this list from Health.com, there’s even one that will legit shred your money if you don’t get up on time. Now, that’s too hardcore for me and I’m too lazy to maintain another gizmo (other than my laptop and phone), so I prefer downloading apps. If you’re more of an app person like me, here’s a list of android and iPhone alarm clock apps from TechUntold.

I’ve tried about half of the apps on the list, but the one that has worked best for me is Alarmy—specifically the barcode option. I use the barcode of a book that I keep in another room, and the alarm just keeps going until I get up and scan that barcode. It’s equal parts maddening and effective.

To snooze or not to snooze?

It’s unanimous. All productivity experts agree that the key to getting up early is killing one’s snooze-hitting habits. But, honestly, I still haven’t gotten to that point where the first alarm is good enough. In case you’re in the same boat, one thing I recommend is to set alarms in three-minute intervals—and to also use your phone’s alarm. That way, it’s impossible to get back to sleep for the next 30 minutes or so.

Make your bed first thing in the morning.

According to this article from CNBC’s website, people who make their beds first thing in the morning tend to feel more productive and driven compared to their non-bedmaking counterparts. They also tend to be confident, adventurous, and sociable early risers. So, how can one simple habit boost a person’s sociability and productivity?

Well, productivity experts including retired U.S. Navy Admiral SEAL William H. McCraven, author of the bestselling book “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life… And Maybe the World,” believe that this is down to that sense of accomplishment that comes with ticking off the “first task of the day.” This simple chore takes but a few minutes of your time, keeps you from crawling back into bed, and helps fuel your productivity throughout the day. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

Find 20 minutes of ME time or Meditate.

Now, I don’t know about you, but one of the things that make mornings so distasteful to me is the harried feeling that comes with rushing from one task to the other. By the time I get dressed, I’m exhausted and up to my neck in stress that the only thing I want to do is crawl back into bed. But here’s the beauty of getting up earlier than you have to. You can make time to slow your morning down into something enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be a complete hour—though if you can squeeze that hour in without being late, then go for it!

At the risk of sounding hokey, sometimes all you need is a few minutes to sit down and take in the opportunities that come with the new day. Take a bit of time for yourself. Meditate if you can or just sit down with a notebook and map out how you want the rest of the day to look. Get your to-do list together. You may not tick off all the boxes on your list, but at the very least, your day will have purpose and direction.

Five Ways to Conquer Crippling Self-Doubt and Get Writing

5 Ways to Conquer Self-Doubt

Sylvia Plath once wrote, “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” It’s a lesson all aspiring writers know to be true, and yet so many of us still struggle to apply that universal truth in our writing. For a long time, I’ve tried to figure out what it is about writing that feels so distinctly torturous. Even when the ideas are there, when a rough outline has been sketched, each word carefully typed on page feels like it’s being wrung out of you. Paralyzing self-doubt crawls out of whatever hellhole it’s been hiding in to sit firmly on your shoulders, whispering again and again, “not good enough.”

But here’s the thing about self-doubt—it’s not all bad. In fact, there’s a perfectly good reason why we’re all hardwired to doubt our decisions and actions once in a while. The truth is self-doubt is an integral part of self-preservation. Think about it. Our ancestors needed that nagging voice to remind them to be cautious when approaching large prey or sampling the surrounding foliage. Their very survival was hinged on equal parts of bravery and self-doubt. Today, in its simplest form, self-preservation may take the shape of something as rote and innocuous as making sure your car’s in tiptop shape before embarking on a long drive or doing a sniff test before consuming last week’s leftovers.

Self-doubt also pushes us to do better. It teaches us humility, and consequently, open-mindedness. Imagine if we were all gifted with supreme and unshakeable confidence that bumbled into arrogance. We’d all be convinced that we’re always right and experts at everything. It would be disastrous. We’d either be foolhardy daredevils putting ourselves and other people in constant danger with our reckless behavior, or we’d be argumentative fools furthering mediocrity with the belief that everything we do is nothing short of absolute perfection.

The truth is, people who think they’re the best hardly ever want to get better—and that’s a tragedy in itself. You may be the best at something now, but if you let your skills stagnate, someone willing to work harder or do better will eventually surpass you. This is why it’s important to maintain a modicum of self-doubt. It keeps us in check.

So, if a little self-doubt is good, why am I writing an entire post on how to vanquish it? Well, see, healthy self-doubt has an ugly, hyper-inbred cousin, that’s just as bad as supreme arrogance—Crippling Self-Doubt.  Self-doubt ceases to be healthy the minute it stops you from trying to achieve your dreams.

As Shakespeare puts it,

“Our doubts are traitorous and make us lose the good we might oft win by fearing to attempt.”

Crippling self-doubt is the windmill masquerading as a giant. Now is the time to unleash your inner Quixote and drive that lance into that monster’s heart. After all, some monsters may be invisible or even imaginary, but if they cause you visceral terror, then these monsters are worthy foes that must be crushed. That being said, here are five ways to finally conquer crippling self-doubt so you can get started on your writing.

1. Get in with the right crowd.

We all know that saying from Jim Rohn that “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Now, there’s a lot of debate online when it comes to the truthfulness of that statement. But I do think that at the core of things, Rohn did get it right. It is important that you surround yourself with people who can help make you better. People who you admire, people you can learn from, people you believe in and who believe in you in return—or, as Aristotle puts it, Friends of Virtue.

As a writer, it pays to have friends who are writers or creatives too. Since you’re embarking on the same journey, it makes it easier to learn from each other and help each other become better at your chosen craft. But beyond having friends with the same interests and goals, I can’t stress enough the importance of surrounding yourself with positive people who will inspire you to keep reaching for your dreams. You need to be around people who will uplift you during moments of debilitating self-doubt, but will also be honest enough to provide real and helpful feedback when it comes to your work.

2. See failure for what it is: an opportunity for growth and learning.

“The test of whether or not a writer has defined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.” – Truman Capote

There’s a gorgeous article from Buzzfeed called 20 Brilliant Authors Whose Work Was Initially Rejected. It’s a great read if you’re an aspiring writer struggling with fears of rejection. Without giving everything away, the list includes J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, rejected 12 times, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, shelved 26 times, Stephen King’s Carrie, turned down 30 times, and Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, given the ‘no thanks’ a whopping 121 times! Ouch!

Now, I recognize that there are two ways to take this information. If you’re prone to negative self-talk and catastrophizing (like me), then you can slide into a snowball of panic and say, “Shoot. If these literary giants couldn’t cut it, I have no chance in hell!” Cue the self-pity party for one.

But there’s another way to interpret that data, and that’s to see the one quality that binds these authors together. (I mean, aside from the fact that they’re all bona fide geniuses of the craft, of course.) Some call this quality, persistence. Others may call it grit. But I prefer the word faith. You need to have faith in your work and your ability, not just to write well but to adjust to rejection and see it as an opportunity to do better, try harder, or try elsewhere.

Rejection is a big part of the writer’s life. I honestly can’t think of a single famous writer who hasn’t struggled at least once in his/her career. Whether it’s agonizing over writing something of value or having trouble finding a publisher, it’s always going to be a harrowing and painful uphill climb. But you don’t become a writer just because you want the spoils that success will bring. I mean that’s a pretty hefty bonus, but that’s probably not the reason why you’re torturing yourself day-in and day-out trying to squeeze out one good page or a single great line.

You write because you have a story to tell. You write because there’s a voice inside you that won’t shut up until you put pen to paper and try to capture even the slightest glimmer in the treasure trove of ideas locked up in your head. You write because writing may feel like torture but it’s the one thing that you’d rather be doing for the rest of your life.

So have faith. Don’t let something as natural and paltry as rejection derail you from your life’s purpose. See rejection for what it is. A roadblock. A chance to recalibrate, to review, to revise, or to stand your ground and say, “My work is an orange, and if you don’t like it, I know somebody else will.”

3. Write in Solitude.

“Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” – Jessamyn West

In an interview published in The Paris Review, Maya Angelou described her writing process, which was essentially checking into a hotel by herself and working for about six hours every day. J.K. Rowling is said to have written Harry Potter in various cafes in Edinburgh, with her baby sleeping beside her. Haruki Murakami, Stephen King, and Henry Miller meticulously set aside a chunk of their day for writing. Ernest Hemingway wrote early in the morning to avoid any and all distractions. He also wrote standing up, because, well, he’s Ernest Hemingway. And then there’s Jack Kerouac, who liked writing from midnight until dawn… by candlelight. Again, because Kerouac.

For the most part, it seems like all writers have their rituals. Some had very specific rituals like Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack Kerouac. Others, like J.K. Rowling were content with carving out some semi-quiet space in a coffeeshop.

As I’m writing this, my husband sits across from me, pen in hand with a notebook open. He’s coming up with ideas for his next social media campaign. And apart from the occasional smile from over my laptop, we’ve pretty much left each other to our own devices. See, writing is mostly a solitary craft. You need time alone and aplenty to get in the zone of writing. You need ample stillness to listen to your thoughts and to have that inner dialogue with yourself that will help you build your work, word per word.

But what about collaborations, you might ask. Well, even when collaborating with other writers, there’s always a period wherein you need to stay quiet and focus on your side of the work. I remember watching a video of Neil Gaiman talking about writing Good Omens with Sir Terry Pratchett. He talked about how they divvied up parts of the book based on the characters and how most of their planning was done via phone. And look how well that book had turned out. It probably would’ve been very difficult for them to create Good Omens if they were peering over each other’s shoulders the entire time.

4. Resist the urge to compare yourself to other writers.  

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” – either Dorothy Parker or Sid Ziff

Let me start this section off by saying there is absolutely nothing wrong with reading other writers’ works, especially if the end goal is enjoyment or to learn from their writings. Humility is an important part of the writing process—especially if you’re just starting out. Plus, there’s always something inspiring about really good prose. I’m sure you know what I mean—that energized feeling you get when you encounter a particularly great idea. You know, when you read something that is so moving that it becomes a fulcrum for your own writing. When you feel that way about other writers’ works, then it’s a win-win situation. The writer earns a fan and you get motivated enough to do something great too.

I suppose the problem starts when you read something and end up with a completely different takeaway. If the piece is so good it’s just too good, feelings of inadequacy may bubble up, tipping you over into the state of insecurity and self-pity. This happens to me quite a lot. In fact, one of my unhealthiest habits as an aspiring writer is to look up every author of every single book I love. That alone isn’t too bad, except I zero in on the writer’s age upon the book’s publication and if the writer happens to be younger than me, I agonize over this detail for a while. Oftentimes I end up on Google with the following search terms: “Is 33 too old to become a writer,” “writers who started in their 30s,” and “Is it too late to start over in your 30s.” I used to do this every single time and honestly, that little routine has done me no good whatsoever. It doesn’t inspire me to write. In fact, it does the complete opposite. I end up plagued by crippling self-doubt. Totally unproductive.

Another unhealthy takeaway you might have is jealousy. It’s when you read a bestseller that you think is so mediocre or so bad that you start thinking you can do better. Again, let me come clean. I get that sometimes especially when perusing the contemporary poetry section of the bookstore. But as soon as feelings of jealousy and resentment come bubbling up, so does a little bit of shame. Just because the book is not to my liking doesn’t mean it isn’t good or that I can’t learn from it. Here’s one way to reframe the entire experience: books we don’t like become bestsellers because the writers must’ve done something right. Whether the writers are excellent at marketing their work or they speak the voice of the current generation, there’s a lesson to be learned from these writers. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to improve your writing, or at the very least, your attitude.

5. Set aside your editing cap and write your sh*tty first draft. (SFD)

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.” – Anne Lamott

Two months ago, I was having lunch with one of my closest friends who also happens to be a really good writer. I was bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t get started on my writing because I couldn’t get past editing and revising the first line. I asked her what her secret was. How was she able to churn out so many articles so quickly? She laughed and told me, “The first five drafts are terrible. The sixth draft is okay, but I do most of my editing on the seventh draft.”

That was really reassuring to hear. It also presented a bit of a challenge. See, ever since I started writing, I’ve always been the type to edit as I go. That’s why I’ve always been a bit of a slow writer. I believe the record was 13 hours to write a 400-word press release. I would go back and forth, changing this, erasing that, hitting delete on an entire document, all the while thinking “This is crap.” And I don’t have to tell you how quickly “this is crap” can turn into “I am crap.” By the time I reach the final line, I’d be so sick of my writing and hating myself so much that I would give the article a once over, send it out, and never read it again.

But this is one lesson that I’m determined to learn, and hopefully it’s one that will help you out as well. Don’t be afraid to write a sh*tty first draft (SFD) or a couple or even seven bad drafts. As Anne Lamott said, almost all first drafts are terrible. Just for today, embrace the terrible and just get that page done. Have faith in your idea and trust your own skill to create something that can be made better later on.

Keep the writer and the editor in you separate. If you write in the morning, set aside an hour to go over your work in the afternoon or the evening, à la Maya Angelou and Joan Didion. Sure, you might have to scrap a sentence or even a page, but hey, you’ll be writing! And that’s a terrific start to getting things done.

Book Review: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Stephen King_MrMercedes
A quick snap of the book on my way out. Pardon the lack of artistry in the image. I promise the book is better than the photo.

When it comes to the horror genre, few writers can hold a candle to Stephen King. There’s a reason why both fans and critics alike refer to King as the undisputed King of Horror or the Grand Master of Horror Fiction. He’s just that good. For many of us horror fans who grew up in the 90s, Stephen King has managed to instill in us both a fear of clowns and a love for terrifying reads that will have us begging our parents for a night light or to check under our beds for imaginary monsters that reside solely and spectacularly in our heads.

There’s something to be said about how well Stephen King manages to turn the creature comforts and the reality of small-town living into something sinister and nightmarish. Birthday clowns and balloons? Here’s a creepy killer clown with a red balloon. Family vacation in a hotel? Madness, mayhem, and murder, or rather bloody Redrum. Man’s best friend? How about a friendly nip from Cujo? And as if high school bullying and getting your period for the first time weren’t horrible enough, King had to up the ante with Carrie’s murderous rampage. I still can’t look at tampons in the grocery store without imagining a gaggle of teenage girls screaming, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”

In Mr. Mercedes, King does it again. This time with a psychopathic killer computer repairman/ice cream truck driver. Except, there’s a twist. There’s nothing paranormal about Mr. Mercedes. No, this isn’t another one of King’s horror bestsellers, though I assure you that it’s just as terrifying as his scariest books. In this 2014 starter of the Bill Hodges trilogy, King ventures into the territory of mystery and hard-boiled detective fiction. And man, it’s definitely a nail-biter.

***Possible spoilers ahead***

The book starts out in the parking lot of a sports stadium in the Midwest, where thousands of desperate jobseekers are expected to line up for a chance at a job—any job will do. It’s 2009 and the recession has hit the United States really hard. The early birds camp out before dawn, squeezing themselves into the spiraling queue, trying desperately to keep warm on that chilly spring day. As cars begin to fill up the stadium’s massive parking lot, one vehicle stands out. It emerges from the mist in all its shining grey glory—a Mercedes SL 500. The lights of its headlamps cut through the morning fog before the car revs up and goes straight for the crowd, killing eight people and injuring over a dozen more. It’s a terrible image but an effective one. It’s one heck of a potent symbol for the inequality experienced by the working class, often under the hands of their rich employers.

In the next chapter, King fast-forwards to months after the crime. Here, we meet Bill Hodges, the book’s protagonist. As far as crime fiction clichés go, this book carries some big ones. Hodges is a retired and divorced lead detective who is profoundly unhappy with his newfound ‘freedom.’ He sits in front of the telly, day-in and day-out, occasionally contemplating suicide. One fateful afternoon, Hodges gets a letter from the stadium killer who calls himself, Mr. Mercedes. The letter is heavy-handed and an obvious taunt for Hodges to kill himself—after all, the Det. Ret. did fail to solve the biggest case of his career. Of course, it does just the opposite for Hodges. It fires him up, and we all know that a desperate man is always a dangerous one.

Now, because this isn’t a whodunnit ala Agatha Christie, King discloses the identity of the killer early on. It’s 28-year old Brady Hartsfield—the bland and forgettable computer repairman and ice cream truck driver with mommy issues and a dark, dark past. Months after successfully evading the cops, Hartfield is feeling restless for his next kill. He could have gotten off scot-free, but instead, he makes the mistake of targeting Bill Hodges. It’s game on between the detective and Mr. Mercedes.

Throw in a few more clichés—a beautiful love interest, (Janey Patterson), who inspires Hodges to fight harder, an unlikely duo as his crime-fighting partners, (teenage tech master Jeremy Robinson and anxiety-riddled genius Holly Gibney)—and you might think it’s going to be a predictable story. Except you’d be forgetting one thing: It’s Stephen King. Fresh and terrible twists are his forte. Just when you think you know where Mr. Mercedes is headed, the book careens off the usual path, starting you down on the fast lane and keeping you on the edge of your seat the entire ride.

Mr. Mercedes is a fast-paced cat-and-mouse chase that has a plethora of strong and well-written characters. While the book may not delve too deep into their backgrounds—barring Brady Hartsfield, of course, who might be evil to the core but knowable through his trauma and childhood experiences—we still get a good feel of why each character is the way he/she is. Personally, I really like the character development of Holly Gibney. We see a lot of growth in her character without compromising too much of her personality. As for the inevitable and trademark Stephen King scares, well, let’s just say that there’s enough unsettling and stomach-turning imagery to satisfy the most gore-loving of readers—this one included.

All in all, Mr. Mercedes is one heck of a page-turner and one that I’d recommend to all fellow Stephen King, horror, and crime fiction fans.

Rating: A

Featured Poem: Love after Love by Derek Walcott

Love After Love

Love After Love by Derek Walcott

The time will come

When, with elation

You will greet yourself arriving

At your own door, in your own mirror

And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

And say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored

For another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

The photographs, the desperate notes,

Peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

 

Diane Von Furstenberg once said, “You’re always with yourself, so you might as well enjoy the company.” The advice seems simple and logical enough. But how many of us actually find comfort in being alone? How many of us can safely say that we are whole and happy, just as we are, outside of a relationship?

Self-love, for so long, has been regarded as a negative trait associated with self-absorption and selfishness. For centuries, the idea of loving someone has meant an emptying of one’s self, a relinquishment of the ego. Society has drilled in us the idea that the highest form of love is one that is rooted in self-denial and sacrifice.

But the conversation is changing. Nowadays, mental health and productivity experts are extolling self-care and self-acceptance, both of which are necessary aspects of loving oneself, as being integral to a person’s growth and well-being. While compromise, compassion, and respect are still considered as cornerstones to a successful relationship, it is just as important for a person to retain a healthy sense of self.

Loving someone should never mean losing one’s entire self in the process. For when that love is gone and past, as most loves tend to go, if one has given up everything in pursuit of that fleeting romance—however sweet or long or passion-filled it may have been—what then is left for the brokenhearted?

Today’s featured poem, Love After Love by Derek Walcott, aims to answer that question. Now, I first stumbled upon this gem while doing research for a 2017 post on The Most Romantic Poems of All Time. Suffice to say, it’s been one of my favorite poems ever since.

First seen in Walcott’s 1976 poetry collection, Sea Grapes, Love After Love is a poem that stays true to its title. It talks about the love that you find at the end of a relationship. It reminds you of the importance of loving and accepting your self—the person so worthy of your love, which you have forgotten while in pursuit of the love of another. Through gentle instruction, it reassures the reader that however bad things may get, however broken your heart may be, things will be okay. You will be whole again.

Written in free verse and following the natural cadence of speech, the poem eschews traditional structure and rhyme. It opts, instead, to present its message of self-acceptance and recognition through the simple but effective imagery of coming home and ‘feasting on one’s life.’

Love After Love also puts emphasis on certain areas of the work through clever line breaks, which force the reader to stop and ruminate on the layers of meaning found in the text. By using a gentle and advising tone, Walcott walks the reader through the process of finding one’s ‘forgotten self.’

First Stanza

The poem begins with the image of a homecoming. Now, we’re all familiar with the saying, ‘Home is where the heart is.’ This idea of a return to one’s roots and an acceptance and appreciation of one’s past is a concept frequently used in literature, music, and film. But in Derek Walcott’s Love After Love, this homecoming is a metaphor used to represent rediscovering one’s self.

Walcott begins the poem with the line, ‘The time will come,’ as if to acknowledge that this self-rediscovery isn’t going to be a quick process. But the use of the word elation, coupled with the final line where ‘each will smile at the other’s welcome,’ reassures the reader that however long this process may take, ultimately, it’s one that will yield a positive and a necessary reunion.

Throughout the work, Walcott also uses the future tense will, expressing a solid certainty in his words. ‘The time will come,’ ‘You will greet yourself arriving/ at your own door,’ and most tellingly, ‘You will love again the stranger who was your self.’ (Notice the break between your and self—once again an emphasis of how we tend to forget ourselves when in a relationship with another.)

Second Stanza

In the second stanza, the persona instructs the reader to ‘sit and eat.’ He urges the reader to ‘Give wine,’ and ‘Give bread,’ as if to partake in some eucharistic meal with and of one’s self. Now, the Eucharist or the Holy Communion is a Christian sacrament that hearkens back to the Last Supper where Jesus had instructed his apostles to eat bread and drink wine, symbols of the body and blood that He would give up for mankind.

Now, while Walcott may not have been referring to Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice in these lines, what he is asking the reader to do is to partake in himself/herself. To take in one’s self and be whole again. To solidify this point, he follows this verse with, ‘Give back your heart/ to itself, to the stranger who has loved you.”

Third Stanza

By the third stanza, Walcott drives the point home of how this stranger, one’s forgotten self, is also deserving of the reader’s love and care. For the stranger is one ‘who has loved you/ all your life, whom you ignored for another.’ This stranger is the one that knows the reader ‘by heart.’

These simple but comforting words are there to remind its readers that no matter how alone, unloved, or broken we may feel, we are whole and loved. We must only remember to accept and love ourselves too. And while this poem may have been written for people still recovering from a bad break up, I find that it’s one that applies to those of us who are in loving relationships too. It’s a reminder to love and love freely, and yes, love completely, but not to the degree that you lose all sense of self in the process.

Final Stanza

 

And lastly, as if the previous lines weren’t enough to act as the light at the end of a long tunnel, Walcott continues to bring a dose of positivity to one’s experiences—no matter how harrowing they may have seemed at their onset and immediate aftermath. The persona tells the reader to ‘Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,/ the photographs, the desperate notes.’ This is an invitation to remember, to accept, and to appreciate all the moments of one’s life. For as heartbreaking as some of these memories may be, these moments are what makes us who we are. These are what will allow us to finally, peel our own images from the mirror, to accept ourselves as we are and become whole again.

As a parting message, Love After Love leaves us with the immortal line—“Sit. Feast on your life.” An unspoken reassurance that yours is a life worth loving and celebrating.

 

Featured Poem: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

Are moving across the landscapes,

Over the prairies and the deep trees,

The mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

Are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

Over and over announcing your place

In the family of things.

(1986, Dream Work)

Last January 17, the world lost one of its brightest and finest literary luminaries. At 83, the National Book Award- and Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver passed away at her home in Florida. Oliver was undeniably one of the most well-loved and influential poets of the last century. She was also an incredible rarity; a titan of literature who enjoyed both commercial and critical success throughout her lifetime.

Oliver was an exceedingly skilled and introspective poet. Her poems often garnered favorable comparisons with the works of the legendary Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson, Oliver had no qualms delving deep into the human psyche. She would use sharp and beautiful imagery that often featured the elements of nature to help illustrate mankind’s unbreakable connection to his environment.

Now, Mary Oliver’s extensive literary repertoire is stock-full of stellar poems. But for this post, I’d like to feature a piece that’s very close to my heart. It was a gift from a treasured friend, (hi, Lauren!), and is one that I keep coming back to. Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese is one of those poems that hold in their words a wellspring of wisdom and meaning. It’s one that gives me immeasurable comfort when I’m feeling down and inspires introspection when I’m stuck in a rut. At the risk of sounding cheesy, to me, Wild Geese is an effective balm for the overthinking mind. A much-needed breather we all can use once in a while.

An Analysis of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”

In Wild Geese, Oliver demonstrates her keen understanding of man’s restless pursuit of purpose and innate sense of displacement. She urges the reader to look to nature for the answers to his/her unspoken questions. Written in simple verse, the poem is both an easy and comforting read.

Now, in terms of structure, there’s really not much to dissect here. Wild Geese is written in freestyle with eighteen lines and a single stanza. It’s devoid of rhymes and reads more like advice from a wise friend rather than a traditional poem that begs for translation or analysis. But don’t let its simplicity and straightforwardness fool you. For what Wild Geese may lack in grammatical or structural complexity, it certainly makes up for in depth and impact.

Now, one of the things I love most about Wild Geese is its incredibly strong and unforgettable first line—You do not have to be good. As far as first lines go, that one is pretty golden. In my opinion, it ticks a lot of boxes. What do I mean by this? Well, by using the word You, Oliver is both able to command the reader’s attention while establishing both an atmosphere of intimacy and urgency in the work. It’s almost as if the line tells you, “hey, listen for a moment. This is important and this is for you.”

And then there’s the actual message—You do not have to be good. It’s a bit unsettling, isn’t it? A little left-field and off-kilter. First off, the line carries a certain level of gravitas that you usually find in the middle or at the end of a, particularly poignant piece. It’s almost in media res, as if you blinked and suddenly found yourself already in the middle of an existing and serious existential conversation. And then the line sinks in and it’s strange advice. Almost as if the poem is urging you to unlearn one of the first lessons you’re taught in school and at home—be good/do good.

The rest of the stanza continues in this vein, before culminating into solid advice:

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves.

I could be over-reading, but in this humble reader’s opinion, the words good and repent, and the image of walking on one’s knees through the desert, seem suffused with religious subtext. It might be the Catholic in me, but to be good and to repent for one’s sins are basic moral requirements of the faith. As for the kneeling, it seems to suggest both worship—an acquiescence and prostration to some societal/moral/religious higher power—and penance for sinning, which if you think about it, aren’t most of the seven deadly sins essentially products of giving in to our baser “animal instincts?” And then you have the final two lines of that stanza—“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

I’m 150% sure that Mary Oliver isn’t encouraging us to throw all mores and scruples to the wind and to lead sinful and meaningless lives. But I do believe that she’s telling us that if we want to be happy, we need to shrug off any and all unrealistic and irrational expectations and demands that society may have of us. We need to trust our own judgment and instincts to define and direct our lives.

To illustrate, I sincerely believe that there is “being a good person” and then there’s society’s idea of what being a good person (woman, wife, mother, daughter, son, husband, father, etc.) would entail. And the very notion of ‘good’ being somewhat subjective allows for its multitude of definitions and descriptions. As the definition of good expands, so too does its conditions and caveats—and sometimes, these caveats are antiquated or have very little to do with the notion of good itself. So, why then, do we have to be burdened by outdated, irrelevant, and unhelpful societal expectations? Through Wild Geese, Mary Oliver tells us, “It’s okay. Go ahead and drop that ball.” Pretty darn good advice, if you ask me.

Now, apart from urging us to unburden ourselves of society’s demands, Mary Oliver also encourages us to look to Nature for comfort and guidance. As we fret and fuss over the direction of our lives, as we lie awake at night feeling anxious about the future and feeling so very alone, as we go through the numerous human crises that will plague us in one lifetime—identity, quarter life, midlife, late life, etc.—

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

Are moving across the landscapes,

Over the prairies and the deep trees,

The mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

Are heading home again.

Through this beautifully written passage, Oliver encourages us to find comfort in nature. See how its many elements and creatures remain unperturbed—absolutely sure of their place in this earth. Like the wild geese, we are called to “head home” back into nature. To regain our appreciation and sense of awe when faced with its wild beauty and undeniable order. There is no need to be lonely, because as Oliver reassures us, we are not alone. We are a part of something bigger.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

Over and over announcing your place

In the family of things.

 

Unfocused Reading: The Book Review List

During my year off from writing, I did try to keep up with my reading. One chapter or 25 pages a day, whichever felt easier at that particular moment. If writing is my passion, reading is the fuel that keeps that flame alive. I remember reading somewhere about the strong correlation between reading and one’s writing ability. And while I do strongly believe in that connection, I also believe that reading is the gateway to one’s emotional and mental expansion.

Reading, and specifically reading multiple forms and genres of literature, allows you to move between cultures, exercise your imagination, and cultivates empathy. It forces you into seeing things from another person’s, the author’s or the protagonist’s, perspective.

Now, I wasn’t always successful when it came to reading every day. I am, unfortunately, a creature of comfort—and comfortable reading means uninterrupted reading. Also, I have a tendency to read multiple books at the same time. I suppose it’s the very same lack of focus that’s hounded me from childhood and continues to affect me today. At the moment, I’m currently reading Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, Maria Arana’s and The Washington Post’s The Writing Life, Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. As for my active rereads, that would be Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes and Chris Bailey’s The Productivity Project.

Suffice to say, my unfinished stack of books is prominently bigger than the ‘done’ pile. Besides, a book review requires a thorough rereading. The first time I read a book, I read for pleasure. The second time, for insight. Now, I’ve met many people, very intelligent and voracious readers, who never reread their books. But for me, rereading is an oddly and immensely comforting activity. It’s like spending time with an old and trusty friend who rarely ever disappoints.

Obviously, I’ve gone way off track here. Let me rein this post back in. The following, in no particular order, is my current Book Review and To-Reread List.

  1. Mercedes by Stephen King
  2. The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey
  3. Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley
  4. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
  5. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
  6. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  8. The Devil Earl by Deborah Simmons
  9. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  10. A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare

I did enjoy those books a lot, so here’s to hoping the rereads will help yield decent reviews.

Cheers!