Erasure

FullSizeRender[2]A couple months ago I turned 30. The big 3-0. All year I felt this impending milestone sinking on my shoulders and it made me question what I’d done with my first 30 years. Which led me to ask myself why I hadn’t achieved what I’d set out to do in my 20s, the major goals being to publish a novel and become fluent in a second language. As my 29th year burned to a close, I collected the last of the rejections on my novel and chalked it up as a loss. Which made me start feeling even worse about my other goal of learning a language. I wasted my 20s fueling a failed novel, and had nothing to show for it. All I had was a job I hated (that exacerbated the failure) and a lower than novice level understanding of Spanish, Japanese, Latin, and Portuguese.

Hitting 30 was one of the most depressing times of my life. I hadn’t done anything. And I blamed it all on the novel, on writing and how it had made me lose sight of my career and other ambitions.

It was dark times. Dark, scary times. I hit 30, totally unprepared with no seatbelt or parachute.

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The other side of my 30th birthday was just as dark and scary.

But shortly after, things started to get better. I revisited my second novel and let writing become an activity I enjoyed again instead of a means to an end (an end of failure slathered in sticky peanut butter and dusted in glitter). It’s got a long way to go, but Second Novel is going somewhere. And I’m going with it.

Almost exactly a month after my 30th birthday, I started a new job. This literally changed my life. My last job was emotionally draining and awful and the new one is busy and gets stressful, but it doesn’t make me feel completely awful, which is completely awesome. I have energy at the end of the day. I sleep well. I feel happy sometimes, actually most of the time — which is new.

FullSizeRenderThis newfound calm has led me to the decision to actually study Portuguese instead of just talking about it. I ordered a textbook online and was half excited and half disappointed yesterday when it arrived and I discovered the workbook was already filled in. Excited because it’s fun to see someone else’s mark on an object, and disappointed because how am I going to learn Portuguese if Sarah from Guelph already learned all the Portuguese out of this book?

Luckily, Sarah wrote her answers in pencil, so I went to grab an eraser, only to discover that I do not own a single eraser!!! When I thought about it, I realized I haven’t used a pencil at home or at work, probably since high school. On my desk at home I have a stein my sister brought me from Germany. It is full of blue pens, black pens, pens that FullSizeRenderlook like monsters, sharpies, and highlighters. Not a single pencil. My desk at work is covered in papers with pens sitting on top of them and rolling under them like snakes under leaves. My top drawer is full of a dozen backup pens. No pencils.

Throughout my school years I was something of a pencil fanatic (read into that what you will). I had an impressive collection of Yikes! designer pencils, mechanical pencils of all lead weights and materials, and many, many more pouring out of my backpack and Trapperkeeper.

I also had a collection of erasers. The boring pink trapezoids, a green one shaped like a brain (from Yikes!’ Fall 96 collection), erasers that looked like dinosaurs, and ones that sat atop my equally impressive pencils. I only used the pink utilitarian ones because I didn’t dare turn my favorites into rubber pulp. But I took comfort in the fact that I had an infinite variety of writing tools at my disposal — and also a limitless number of ways to correct any mistakes I happened to make.

In our youth we’re expected to write in pencil, to make mistakes, to have an eraser FullSizeRender[1]handy. But then as we get older there are no erasers. Time is always passing, and you come to learn that you can always make a second attempt but you can never have a complete re-do because what’s done is done and there’s no going back.

I know this now. But that didn’t stop me from buying an eraser today. I’m going to erase Sarah’s attempt to fill in the blanks, and I’m going to learn Portuguese!

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Transformation

I made it all the way to #DareToExcel Challenge 2! I honestly didn’t know if I’d make it this far, but I’m enjoying the prompts as they’re helping me explore something that’s been weighing on me lately.

Challenge 2 is to answer several questions to create a project brief.

Project Title: (a tentative title is fine)

Transformation

Since writing up the question from Challenge 1, I’ve clung to the metaphors of Brahma and Shiva as a way to understand the black_hole_interstellarforces of creation and destruction. What really stands out to me is the idea of the cycle. Destruction is not necessarily negative, it is the spark of Transformation.

The Problem: State the problem you’re wanting to pursue in one sentence.

The problem is that creativity has taken my time, energy and money, and left me with less than I started with.

The Feeling: Articulate the feeling that you’re driven to give shape to through this project. 

The feeling is a bitterness toward creativity, like it owes me something for all I’ve sacrificed to it. The sacrifice of time and money — three years and thousands of dollars for an MFA which has resulted in a debt larger than my annual income (by the time I pay it off, it will be more than double my annual income.) This is just one example, but prioritizing creativity has left me feeling sour in a lot of ways. It’s not only money. It’s the time I’ve spent writing (time that I could have invested in friends and family, building my resume, or learning other skills.) I’ve been in a creative rut lately, where the very idea of creation makes me feel exhausted and defeated. I’m hoping the Dare To Excel challenge can help me figure out a positive way to balance my life.

Wonder & Curiosity: What are you curious about in relation to this project?

I’m curious to explore what I have gained from creativity, why I can’t give it up, and how I can learn to value it again. To realize how it has transformed me. As far as wonder goes, I guess I am in awe of the strength of the force of creativity, how I am compelled to answer to it no matter how many times I try to push it away. I have given writing up for good 3 times in the past year. Each time I began a new short story a few hours later.

Writing Process Blog Hop

The wonderful and wonderfully talented Brenda Hasiuk invited me to join in this writing process blog hop. You can find out more about Brenda and her awesome new book Your Constant Star here. I also reviewed it here.

So here’s how this works. I will answer four questions about my writing process and then pass the virtual torch to three other writers who will do the same. Here it goes…

Me drawing inspiration from one of the greats

Me drawing inspiration from one of the greats

What am I working on?
After several years, I finally completed my first novel (woohoo!) and am now diving into a first draft of a new novel about identity, and the selves we create and become and leave behind. My first novel was somewhere between fantasy and magical realism, and this new project was supposed to be completely realistic. But then I added a ghost. Apparently I can’t do realism. This project is deeply personal and raw and I’m kind of terriffied to say anything more about it right now.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Well, I think I typically write literary fiction with a surreal, fantasy twist, or whatever you want to call it: Slipstream, Magical Realism, Upmarket. I’ve heard all of these terms thrown around and I’m not sure I or anyone else really knows what they mean. I love thinking about the intersection of realities, objective and subjective. The significance of myth and religion and our need for fantastic creatures and miracles. I like to imagine a world where everything exists at once, our observable reality, and another reality within it or behind it or parallel to it, one that is alive with stories and magic and things we’ll never understand. I guess that’s my real interest, the mysterious and unexplained, and how we deal with what we don’t understand.

Why do I write what I do?
I guess I like to think that, on one hand, I need to get these ideas out of my head. But I also write what I do because I want to engage other people in this wild spin that is reality, to hopefully show them another side of the world they know and allow them to see it in a slightly different way. Those are the books I love the most, the ones that make me look at the world differently.

How does my writing process work?
Wow, um…I guess it doesn’t always work. But I’ve discovered that outlining is incredibly helpful for both drafting and revising. I like to make detailed outlines and experiment with moving the pieces around before I dive in. I need to have a direction laid out and then set myself to writing toward that goal. Sometimes I reach it and sometimes it takes me somewhere else entirely. That’s for longer fiction. For shorter fiction I often sit down with a blank page and let a story come out of the moment because I find it has the most energy that way. And in my opinion that energy is what really drives shorter fiction.

I’ve invited the lovely writers listed below to join me in this blog hop. Follow their blogs to see their answers to the writing process questions in the coming weeks.

Brenna Layne

bWhen I was a little girl, I knew that when I grew up, I would be Princess Leia. When I discovered that the one opening had already been filled, I decided to become a jockey and win the Triple Crown. My dreams were crushed when one day, I realized I did not weigh between 0 and 110 pounds. After careful consideration of the Indiana Jones films, I determined that I’d be an Egyptologist instead. I mapped out my future: I would move from the rural South to a huge city, devote my life to running from boulders and discovering pharaohs’ tombs, turn thirty, marry a cute fellow archaeologist, and never have kids–in that order.

Then I went to college. I met a cute local boy who’d realized that the position of Han Solo had already been filled. I realized halfway through my senior year that I’d racked up enough credits for an English major, and listened to the people who tell you that what you do with an English major is teach other English majors. So I did the grad school thing. I quickly realized that if I became a medievalist, I could still wear one of those awesomely nerdy coats with the elbow patches that Harrison Ford wears at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I got into a PhD program, where I studied dead languages so that I could curse like a Viking when I got lost in the library stacks. I got married seven years ahead of schedule. I taught English, gave birth to an insomniac, moved into the rural Southern house I grew up in, and had another baby because at that point my husband and I were too sleep-deprived to make informed decisions and figured that maybe the second one would entertain the first one while we crashed on the living room floor.

At some point, I remembered that I’d started writing a novel in eighth grade. I kind of wanted to finish it. Somewhere in between changing diapers and teaching eighth graders about onomatopoeia, I did. And then, at the ripe old age of not-in-my-twenties-anymore, I realized that I still had not decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. But there were stories in my head–stories about other people who didn’t yet know where their lives were headed, but hadn’t yet forgotten how to dream insanely huge dreams. Young adults.

You’re supposed to write what you know. I write fantasy because I have fought dragons and meddled in the affairs of wizards. I don’t write for adults because I’m not sure how to be one yet. Learn more about Brenna and her writing on her website.

Kate Grisim

kKate Grisim is currently a second-year Masters student in the interdisciplinary field of disability studies at the University of Manitoba. Her fiction and poetry have appeared over the years in Juice, the University of Winnipeg’s creative writing magazine, and she was recently a guest editor for an internationally published social justice magazine issue on disability and ableism. Kate was a mentee in Arts and Culture Industries’ mentorship program in 2011-12, and many of the ideas that appear in her blog mylittlecrippledheart started formulating in her mind during that time. She is currently halfway through a writer-in-residency position at the Manitoba Writers Guild called The Disability Project where she works with writers who might not share the majority of their experiences with those in mainstream culture.

Traci Cox

tTraci Cox recently earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from George Mason University, where she also taught Composition, Literature and Creative Writing courses. She received her BA in English and Anthropology from James Madison University in 2008. Shortly after graduating, she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English and American Literature to high school students in Žilina, Slovakia. Her essays have appeared in The Breeze, Fugue, e-Vision, Write On, Phoebe, Madison Magazine, and The Masters Review. You can follow Traci at marginalia.

 

 

 

Book Reaction: Above by Isla Morley

I was planning to review this book, but I decided to only post a quick reaction instead because everything I want to say about it would give away one of the things I loved most about it. All I will say about that is: in a way, this book is a retelling of Plato’s Cave. It’s bizarre that I came across this book when I did because I was just trying to think of a way to write a novel based on the allegory of Plato’s Cave, but figured the idea was too vast. I couldn’t figure out how to contain all the implications in the lives of characters and in the pages of a book, but Morley nails it.

The reason I’m talking around this book rather than about it is because I felt like I was at first being carried along the currents of a predictable story about a girl named Blythe who is kidnapped and forced to live in an abandoned bunker. In her captivity her present is interwoven with memories of the real world she is cut off from.

Maybe I was oblivious, or maybe I was just too close to Blythe’s experience, feeling the lack of wind and the soil all around instead of below, but I was shocked and fascinated by what happened in the middle of the book. It swept me along and made me look at the world in a different way.

This book was an exciting and surprising experience for me, and one that I won’t soon forget. It is crafted from madness and terror and all the ugliness of the world, but it is also a beautiful thing, held together by Morley’s poetic voice.

Isla Morley’s debut novel, COME SUNDAY, was awarded the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award for Fiction in 2009, and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Prize.  It has been translated into seven languages. She has lived in some of the most culturally diverse places of the world, including Johannesburg, London and Honolulu.  Now in the Los Angeles area, she shares a home with her husband, daughter, two cats, a dog and a tortoise.

 

 

 

The Future of Books is in Your Hands! (Hachette v. Amazon)

If you’re a book lover, or just interested in business, chances are you’ve heard about the recent Hachette v. Amazon “war“. If you haven’t, basically Amazon is upset with a major publishing company about a deal that didn’t go their way. So now they’re restricting sales of books from Hachette Book Group authors.

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We just want to read Harry Potter! 😥

There have been instances of Amazon not allowing preorders of books by Hachette authors, (Including lots, and I mean lots, of big name authors such as J. K. Rowling!),  ridiculously delayed shipping times for those books, and even raised prices and suggestions of (non-Hachette) books they might prefer to the one they specifically clicked on because they were interested in buying it.

Why is this a big deal? Well, ordinarily it wouldn’t be. Companies have disagreements all the time and create alliances and enemies. What makes this case different is that Amazon pretty much has a monopoly on book sales these days, so their tactics have a great impact on Hachette, its authors, and potentially all writers and readers (as well as the publishing industry as a whole).

When I hear the term “monopoly” used to describe Amazon’s book sales, I immediately think of dystopian societies like in Farenheit 451 in which books are perhaps not yet banned, but are a regulated commodity. If Amazon does one day hold a monopoly on books, it will have a monopoly on what is published, and will be able to censor books to its liking or to act as advertising tools rather than function in the many ways we have come to know literature: as art, companionship, beauty, escapism, etc. This is the extreme, but it’s scary that it is a foreseeable future.

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Trinity Library, Trinity College, Dublin

So what can we do?

I feel like the eventual answer is for the publishing industry to gang up on Amazon and create a competing virtual book store, but right now all we can do is support our local book stores. Support libraries and attend readings. And if you want to buy books online, buy them from a book store or publisher website. We need to show Amazon that whatever disagreements they may have with publishers, we as consumers, as writers, as readers, — we have a voice — and books are written for us and by us. And they are purchased by us.

If Amazon wants a piece in that, fine, they can treat readers and writers and publishers with respect. And just maybe, one day we’ll learn to trust them again. But until then, read, write, and realize how precious and fragile this freedom is.

Book Review: Swamplandia!

I reviewed St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves a few years ago, and read Vampires in the Lemon Grove a while back, though never wrote up my reactions. After finally diving into Swamplandia!, I want to take some time to reflect on it. Overall, Russell’s first novel feels very different from her stories, but still has that Karen Russell quality which has won her a Pulitzer nomination and a Genius Grant.

Swamplandia! Is a beautiful, bold, ambitious novel set in the otherworldly Florida swampland. It is narrated by Ava Bigtree, a young girl who grows up in an alligator park in the depths of the swamp. After the death of her mother, the famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree, Ava’s family is fragmented, sent in separate directions searching for pieces of the world to rebuild their lives with in the wake of their loss. Her father and brother Kiwi leave for the mainland to make money to save the failing park. Her sister Ossie disappears into the swamp intending to marry her ghost fiancée, and Ava herself embarks on a journey to find her sister.

My main complaint about St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves was that Russell’s word choice often seemed whimsical and out of place in her stories of mythic proportion. She has since refined her style and gone for atmosphere over whimsy in Swamplandia!, which is a welcome change of tone. Now, however, sometimes her word choice seems to err in the other direction, too big and obscure for the young narrator. This gargantuan vocabulary works when Ava’s studious brother Kiwi is in the limelight, but it feels out of place when we’re seeing the swamp from Ava’s perspective.

The rest of my review is going to sound harsh, so I want to make it clear that there is a lot that I love about this book. Karen Russell is a wonderful genius, so I’m going to be hard on the novel, because it deserves to be held against the greats. Speaking of which, she reminds me a lot of a modern day Italo Calvino, which I love.

As is often the case, what I liked and disliked most about this book were one and the same, namely the ambiguousness with which Ossie’s ghost boyfriends are presented. Are they real, or not? The possibility is intriguing, but the spirits appear to be real one minute and a fabrication the next. Maybe the point is that their existence is not so simple.

The mysterious aspects of the novel were handled well overall, but I was disappointed by the ambiguity of the supernatural elements of the story, because that ambiguity made the novel decidedly realistic, and the surreal quality of Russell’s stories is what I love most about them, the bizarre contrast of a minotaur with a human family or a vampire in a lemon grove.swamp

My second gripe is the ending. I won’t say too much because I don’t want to give it away, but there were several vastly different stories blazing trails through this book: the girl who grows up on an alligator farm, the girl who falls in love with ghosts, the boy who flees home to work in an underworld-themed amusement park, and the girl who embarks on a quest to the underworld with a mysterious stranger.

Each story is interesting in its own right, but they never quite seem to come together until the very end, at which point everything is suddenly resolved. The pacing of the last 100 pages feels off altogether, partly due to a major trauma Ava suffers toward the end of her journey. I won’t say what it is because it’s shocking, but it’s the kind of thing that sparks a novel of its own, not the kind of thing that should happen at the end of a sweeping, ambitious novel when many, many other things need to be resolved.

This book feels cluttered in some ways because there are so many different stories being told, but at its heart it is a novel about the swamp. Russell herself is a Florida native and often tells interviewers about how the swamp inspires her, how bizarre and beautiful it is. And that really comes through in Swamplandia! The swamp is a living (or maybe ghostly) presence in the novel that shapes the lives and deaths of its characters.

For now I think Russell’s ideas are better suited to stories, where she can let them loose to crash and clash, myth and man, and let their wildness take over. All this said, Russell is still one of my favourite contemporary writers, and I am excited to see what she comes up with next, be it short story or novel.

4/5 stars

karen-russell_custom-682cffba96008b453df4ba632725f10d9ffb640c-s6-c30Karen Russell, a native of Miami, has been featured in both The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and New York magazine’s list of twenty-five people to watch under the age of twenty-six. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program and is the 2005 recipient of the Transatlantic Review/Henfield Foundation Award; her fiction has recently appeared in Conjunctions, Granta, Zoetrope, Oxford American, and The New Yorker.

She has written two collections of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Swamplandia (Feb 2011) is her first novel.

The Fantastical

cosmicomicsI’ve always been fascinated by the fantastic-mythology, folklore, everything from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Poe to Tolkien and Marquez. Anything that makes me look at the world differently, any story about a human or animal who changes form, I love it all.

So of course, these themes bleed into my own writing. But as a writer, my writing is a giant splatter of what I’ve read and experienced, so it’s a mix of all these conflicting and complementing elements. And I struggle to define it, to pin a term to it. Is it fantasy, or magical realism? Literary or YA? What is the difference, and what does it matter if the story is told? Isn’t this a publisher’s job? But how will I get a publisher to read my manuscript if I can’t even explain what it is?

After chatting with friends and family and doing some googling, I’ve realized it’s never simple, and maybe that’s a good thing. Stories shouldn’t be confined by definition. But still, genre helps us think about a story and figure out if it’s something we want to read.

This is one of the clearest definitions I’ve found of the differences between Magical Realism and Fantasy: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2008/10/magicrealism

Of Mirrors and Rainbows: thoughts on being yourself

So I came across this really excellent article on IGN yesterday about how gay characters do exist in video games, but are always minor characters, just like in most other forms of media.

It got me thinking about a couple things:

1- There is this idea that well meaning, generally accepting straight people toss around that seems to be prevalent today, this idea that sexuality doesn’t matter. The heart of this statement is in the right place, but it feels like a punch in the gut to a gay person. Here’s why:

Saying sexuality doesn’t matter is saying it doesn’t affect us, the way we live our lives and who we have struggled to become. It says our struggle to fight to love ourselves enough to be ourselves despite a culture that says we are freaks at worst and comedic sidekicks at best doesn’t matter. And most of all what hurts is that it says that our pain, our torment, and suffering at being judged, hated and threatened doesn’t matter. Even though, thankfully, it isn’t as common today, you don’t think you’d live your life differently if you knew there was some chance you may be attacked physically or verbally for holding your spouse’s hand in public, or even casually bringing them up in conversation? It matters.

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2-I’ve heard so many people say, I’m a writer (insert any profession) and I’m gay (insert any minority status), but I don’t want to be a gay writer. Really? If you are not yourself then you are no one. If you don’t embrace and love yourself, no one will love you. Sure, some people will judge you for being true to yourself, but others will love you. The real you, and you can’t be true to yourself, find your story, tell your story if you reject a part of yourself. So be a gay writer, or a Christian writer, or a black lawyer, or a Muslim model, or whatever the hell you are. Be yourself. Love yourself. Tell your story.

Pie,

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. That’s how 99% of blog posts begin, eh? Well, there was school and the mentorship and life and a whole lot of me not blogging. But I’ve had a lot more free time this summer to think and breathe and live and write.Photo: My new ride, Pandora's Shadow. #walkingisforchumps

I got a bike about a month ago and have been having a lot of fun riding it along the river trails through the mud and forest. Today as I was riding, a poem started forming in my head. I haven’t written a poem in years, I think partly because I was surrounded by so many amazing poets at George Mason. They were writing brilliant poems and I was just a novice novelist.

But because so much of the world IS poetry, I had to stop along the river and capture something of the moment. So I tapped the screen of my phone, creating virtual words-magical! It felt so good to let the poem out! Writing a novel is so tedious and I’m sure revising and editing good poetry is tedious too, but letting a single train of thought out of my head as a thing in itself is such a breath of fresh air!

I tried to give it the very clever title, “Poem,” but my phone autocorrected it to “Pie,” so here is Pie,:

Pie,

 

(dis)connected

I’m a bit of a coffee snob, I’ll admit it. I’ll drink most any coffee, but after working as a barista a couple years ago, I learned what fresh coffee tastes like and that most coffee you buy in a coffee shop is not so fresh. So when I moved to Winnipeg, the first thing I did was look for coffee shops to write in. I was a little wary because there are a lot of nasty coffee shops in the DC area, my least favorite being Caribou Coffee. Their coffee is like dirt with water on it. Not even smooth like mud. Just dirt with water. And sometimes the dirt-like coffee grounds float up to the surface…I can’t talk about it anymore.

I was wary of finding another Caribou, and finding really quality coffee up north, but I’ve been really impressed. Canadians like good coffee it seems, and I haven’t had anything nearly as bad as Caribou. In fact, the worst I’ve had is Starbucks, which is at least consistent. My favorite shops so far are Urban Forest in the historic Exchange District, and The Fyxx in the newer downtown area. Both have good coffee, free wifi, and a good atmosphere for writing (tables, coffee, chairs).

When I started researching coffee shops in Winnipeg (that’s right researching – I told you I’m serious about coffee) I kept hearing about a place called The Parlour. Every website, magazine and person said it was the best coffee in Winnipeg. I knew I had to go there on my search for the perfect coffee hangout in Winnipeg, but for some reason I didn’t go until today.

When I got to The Parlour I couldn’t really see what was awaiting me because there was a glare on the window. I didn’t really have expectations other than good coffee, but I was surprised to see how small the space was once I got inside. There was a coffee bar just big enough for three baristas to stand behind, and then a bar area by the window and another along the wall. But what really struck me was that the menu painted on the wall only contained 7 items. Just your basic coffee drinks and tea. I respect places with small menus, it means they are focused on what they do and want to do it well. It was what was written under the menu that surprised me:

No wifi. Talk to you neighbor. (or something like that)

I shrugged and ordered an espresso, which I was told could not be served “to go”. I didn’t ask for it to go, but ok, I understand it’s meant to be sipped quickly. No wifi seemed a bit odd in the modern day, but I can work without wifi, as long as I have my laptop, or even a notebook. But as I looked around I realized that even if a seat was available (which it wasn’t. The place was packed with people “talking to their neighbors”) There wasn’t much space for a laptop and the setting was much too fast paced to write in anyway. It has the feeling of one of those New York style hot dog joints where you grab your food and go.

So I ruled out The Parlour as a writing location as I waited for my espresso. As I watched the baristas pulling shots of espresso, I thought about the no wifi thing. Internet is a distraction from writing anyway what with facebook updates, email, and the temptation to fact check every little detail. I sipped the espresso (a bit bright for my taste, but still very good, and above all, fresh) and walked to Urban Forest, pulled out my laptop (after ordering a drink of course), turned off my wifi, and started revising that pesky story-within-a-story.

I know that turning off my wifi isn’t some big revelation in discipline and fighting off the inevitable robot army of the future that is modern technology, but it was a nice little reminder for me today to stay focused on my work and to stop and take time to smell the coffee beans.