Good enough, Day 21: Day 22, or The Beginning


I have never been especially good at math. I am also highly distractible, and find that I can lose time when I'm focused on something. Or not focused on something! Which is to say, pretty much anytime. At some point in this series, I lost a day. No, really—go back and count the days. I started on the 24th of August—a Saturday—specifically so that it would end on a Friday—the 13th of September, my birthday. I used two different online calculators and then counted out the days manually, just to be sure.

Alas, somewhere between Tuesday the 27th (a tiny piece on meditation) and Thursday the 29th (a poem), I had a time bubble in my brain, and lost a day—a Wednesday. I was posting things quite late in the day already at that point, as usually happens with these series, and people were responding to each day's post the following day, as the emails were arriving at rather weird hours in the inboxes of America, and so I somehow convinced myself that not only had I gotten that day's work done, but also the next day's.

I did fret about this a little. I HAD BROKEN THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT. I had made a promise to write every day, 21 days in a row, and now I'd ruined everything. I thought about coming clean right then. I thought about doubling up (or is it down?) the next day. For a brief moment, I even thought about proceeding as if nothing had happened, finishing out the run, and leaving things at that.

And then I came to my senses: this was a series about letting go of perfection to make way for something, anything at all. Was the point—the larger, capital-"P" point—to write perfectly, or to write, period?

* * * * *

One shelf of one cabinet in my apartment is devoted to books written by people I know (and one dead relative I never met, but about whom I figured, "Good enough").

Over the past few years it's gotten fuller and fuller, which is wonderful, but which is also a little sad, because it was never one of my books that got to do any of the filling. Yes, I wrote a couple of chapters in a really terrific book, but that book counts as a collective win, not a personal Everest scaled.

There are many, many reasons why there is no Colleen-Wainwright book on that shelf, but they boil down to the same, sad, scary word: perfectionism. If nothing can ever be good enough, it's hard for anything to be, period, let alone be something as big as a book.

So a few months ago, I took matters in hand and signed up for a class—a writing class focused on process, designed to get new writers who don't think they can write and long-time writers who either need a little reinvigoration or a full-on (gentle) ass-kicking, and, via various tools and exercises and gentle (but ass-kicking) encouragement, gets them writing—a few pages, every day, for six weeks.

What's funny about the class (other than the teacher, and many of the students, which really makes for a delightful way to spend a few hours of your week) is that somehow, just by writing a little bit every day in a very specific way, all of that process ends up in a not-insignificant amount of product. To drive this point home, each student in the beginning level of the class is asked to compile a handful of pieces into a chapbook, and to make enough copies to share with the class.

I called mine GOOD ENOUGH, because it is.

* * * * *

I took the liberty of printing up a few extra copies of this first—and likely, only—run of my first (chap)book. 21 extra copies, which I am making available for (PAUSE FOR COLLECTIVE GASP FROM PEOPLE WHO KNOW ME) sale.

There are short 10 pieces in it, only one of which has seen the light of internet day so far: poems and tiny essays and bits of creative nonfiction. (There are also some pen-and-ink drawings, which you may recognize if you were a reader of my late, lamented newsletter.) One of my longtime readers and dearest critics has pronounced it the best thing I've ever written. She is also a friend, but not of the variety to blow smoke up an ass—mine, or anybody else's. I've seen her not do it.

The price is $5 for the book, tax included, plus $2 to ship it to you anywhere in the U.S. Each one is numbered (x of 52 copies), and I will happily sign it for you, and/or include an inscription of your choice. One per customer, please, in case you were thinking of hoarding chapbooks.

* * * * *

It's been a relief to write again, and a consternation, as well. Any thoughts I had of getting past my perfectionism and writing happily ever after vanished somewhere around Day 5. Or maybe it was Day 2.

Irregardless, as I heard someone say just today and let roll off my back without so much as a shrug, I will write. Certainly here and increasingly, I hope, Out There. I will do it imperfectly, with my full self, or as much of me is available at the time.

Thank you, and excelsior!

xxx c

The skinny on, plus all previous 21-Day Salutes™.


Book review: Clutter Busting Your Life


By the time Brooks Palmer's first book fell in my lap, I didn't need anyone to tell me that my problem with clutter wasn't the stuff itself. I knew full well that the crap I couldn't seem to keep myself from accumulating was connected to circuitry gone awry—that I was collecting things to fill emotional holes or wall off feelings or otherwise protect myself from perceived danger. But I did need someone to say it to me differently, in a way that I could finally begin to hear it. Simply, as it turns out, and with gentleness and compassion. Over and over. And over.

This is how Brooks (once a mysterious angel, now a first-name, real-life friend) works, both on the page and in person. It seems almost too simple at first—that by sitting down and bringing your attention to objects, one item at a time, you could simultaneously reduce the amount of useless stuff in your life and restore a sense of joy and hope. Until, an hour or two later, there is a carful of stuff on its way to Goodwill and the library and various other redistribution centers, and you are left in your little apartment, surrounded by freshly empty spaces and suffused with a surprising mix of energy and calm.

* * * * *

Which brings us to Clutter Busting Your Life and an obvious question: if the first book worked, why another? If the process is so simple to understand, why more pages to explain it? If your spaces remain relatively empty—or if you know what to do when they start becoming less so, and you do it—what could a second book really offer?

The answer, it turns out, is some insight into handling clutter where it intersects—and interferes with—relationships. Because while determining whether an object that is yours alone should stay or go is a straightforward process, dealing with other people's stuff—a partner's, a child's, a parent's, a friend's—is fraught. And unless we wall ourselves off from the world (a sad and horrible prospect), we are always, always dealing with other people's stuff.

Not to mention their "stuff". Because to further complicate matters, it is not just someone's actual, physical stuff that can become clutter to us, but our reactions to the stuff, and their reactions to our reactions, and so on. You cannot do a damned thing about anyone else's crap, but boy, can you ever complicate matters by your response to it: one person's magazine attachment or drawerful of half-empty toothpaste tubes can metastasize into everyone's full-blown marriage crisis if tended (im)properly.

So this book, then, is about arresting the escalation. It's about learning to removing the "clutter" in relationships—the fear and anger and frustration that accompanies all things buried, all decisions forestalled too long—so we can reconnect to each other. Which, yes, begins with reconnecting to ourselves.

Note: in the hands of your average self-helpster, navigation through this territory can get annoying and/or dangerous quickly. Again, Brooks Palmer's strength resides in his ability to keep things simple and focused. He addresses the levels of relationship one at a time, in order and through the lens of clutter, starting with our relationship with ourselves, then moving outward into our various relationships with others—current and workable, past, current and unworkable. There's a special chapter on clutter busting for two, but there are exercises throughout to help you with various aspects of the excavation process, emotional and physical, including a recap of basic clutter-busting technique for newbies or those needing a refresher course.

* * * * *

Full disclosure: if you get Brooks' new book, you will find a blurb from me on the inside front page. While "blurb" is a light, bouncy, almost throwaway word, I take blurbing very seriously. (Except as a verb. Then I laugh like a hyena, because "blurbing" sounds asinine.) Into my very serious blurb I inject one bit of hyperbole, about Brooks possibly being able to help us all clutter-bust our way to world peace. Which is probably an overstatement. There is a whole lot of clutter between us and achieving world peace.

I do believe, though, that on some level, this is holy work. Bringing ourselves back to connection with one another and the present moment is big stuff. That one road back might involve shedding a few things—and ideas, and behaviors—that no longer serve is really not such a far-fetched notion.

If it's your road, this might very well be your road map.

xxx c

Book review: The $100 Startup


For the past year, I've been traveling around the country, telling people about Chris Guillebeau. (Seriously. You can see it here, starting at 2:48 in.) One reason is that his story—of building a platform from zero to massive, of pursuing "impossible" goals like visiting every country in the world by age 35—never fails to inspire audiences. In a time when life can look rather grim around the edges, let alone when we stare into the deep, black heart of it—we need all the light we can get.

But the other reason I talk about Chris all the time is because his methodology for success is rational and replicable.

Yes, he's a quick study, but he is also a perpetual student who reads widely and never stops asking questions of people who know things he doesn't.

Yes, he has what is probably a natural facility with words, but he still parks his ass in a chair (or the floor of some foreign airport) and plunks out 1,500 of them per day. Every single day.

Or, as he summed it up himself in his first book, remarkable achievements are a result of these four prerequisites:

  1. You Must Be Open to New Ideas
  2. You Must Be Dissatisfied with the Status Quo
  3. You Must Be Willing to Take Personal Responsibility
  4. You Must Be Willing to Work Hard

So while Chris has built a fairly unconventional life for himself, filled with international travel, digital entrepreneurship, and rapid iteration, he has done so as much though old standbys like integrity and effort as he has entrepreneurial risk-taking and a 21st-Century attitude toward change.

His new book, The $100 Startup, takes a similarly old-plus-new approach to building a business. It's Chris's philosophy that the most rewarding work takes work, and that it should be done for personal fulfillment as much as for financial freedom. The 100 or so businesses used as case studies in the book reinforce this philosophy—each of these microbusinesses employs five or fewer employees (many are solopreneurs), and most are designed to stay that way.*

This is not, in other words, a book about building a massive, franchised empire from a single taco stand, nor designing killer iOS apps that get bought by Facebook for a billion dollars: it's about helping you to come up with a solid idea at the intersection of your passion and a customer's need; each of the tools within helps you tease out the one in relation to the other. There are checklists for evaluating the business-worthiness of your ideas and for prepping a product launch. There are formulas for constructing a marketing offer or creating a self-published work. There are charts that explain the different types of sales methods and that map the difference between passions that are fun for you and passions that will work in the marketplace.

It's a book filled with incredibly detailed and specific information—nutrient-dense, especially at just over 300 pages—but because it's so well-written and so liberally studded with inspiring, real-life stories, it's a truly absorbing read: business book as page-turner.

In fact, if there's a flaw to The $100 Startup, it's that the stories, lessons, and tools are woven together so artfully, it's difficult to treat casually. This is not a self-help book to be consumed in lieu of action, nor is it a reference book to be shelved and consulted via index. It's meant to be read through from start to finish, preferably while taking copious notes as you go—although as much because the examples and concepts are likely to spark ideas for your own business as to find your way back to useful ideas later.

It is, in Chris's own words, "a blueprint for change and action". He's thinking nothing less than a complete revolution, of people one by one leaving behind what they no longer need to serve themselves and the world and have a great time doing it. If you think that sounds crazy or impossible—especially with seed funds of $100—well, you don't know Chris Guillebeau: a young man who simply doesn't accept that things are impossible.

xxx c

*Size-wise, anyway. There was a minimum condition of $50,000 in net income generated per year, but no cap on the top side, and many of these very small businesses have gone on to become far more profitable. Other conditions required for inclusion in the book were: employee size (1-5, max); a passion-based model; low startup cost; no "special skills" (e.g. dentistry, law, tightrope-walking); and full financial disclosure.

Photos by Tara Wages.

Book review: The Fire Starter Sessions

It seems like every 10 or 20 years, there's one breakthrough book in the personal development category.

The chronological first of the How-Do-I-Get-There-From-Here? books to help me find my way was Barbara Sher's Wishcraft. It's gentle and playful in tone, yet still filled with the kind of useful tools and practical exercises that make a Virgo's heart go pitter-pat.*

Next in the all-star lineup was the first I came to, Julia Cameron's legendary Artist's Way. Its language is a bit soft and dreamy around the edges, but structurally, the book is rock-solid. After finishing The Artist's Way, one friend of mine followed a long-dormant dream of becoming a singer-songwriter; I finally left copywriting behind and embraced the terrifying-to-me path of acting.

Which brings us to today, and to Danielle LaPorte's sweeping, energizing entry in the canon, The Fire Starter Sessions.

Like her predecessors, Danielle's exercises for excavating your true self are rooted in real-life experience, emerging over time from hundreds of sessions with actual clients. Full disclosure: I attended an early Fire Starter workshop in Los Angeles, and have been a friend and admirer of the Fiery One and her spark ever since.  Further, fuller-than-full disclosure: I am reasonably sure that Danielle may count "witch" alongside other credentials on her impressive resume. She has an uncanny knack for sussing out fuzzy and/or difficult truths that training alone can't account for.

That said, the worksheets and exercises in TFSS should prove enormously valuable in uncovering your own true self. Her core discovery tool alone ("The Burning Questions", of course!) will shine considerable light on your key truths, but please don't skip ahead: the book is designed to lead you through a process, and step-skippers will miss out on valuable anchoring ideas and frameworks.

While the central focus of the book is pretty clearly self-discovery, Danielle also has an excellent grasp of marketing and promotion, especially where they intersect with personal branding, and a keen sense of what stops many of us from making money (hint: usually, prior issues around money). The Fire Starter Sessions is definitely not a business book, but as with Wishcraft, the lessons you learn about how you engage with people, places, and money will impact your work life as well as your personal and spiritual lives.

Finally, if it's not already obvious, like Sher and Cameron before her, Danielle LaPorte writes for a specific type of creative mind: searching and open, especially to the connection between mind, body, and spirit. While she is absolutely down-to-earth—her language is lively and colloquial and her practical, real-world experience abounds—as the subtitle suggests, her attitude towards change is at least as soulful as it is practical. If pressed, I'd probably describe it as woowoo-friendly, with an edge. Which is far from a bad thing, but is a very particular thing. A quick read of her enormously popular blog or a sample chapter should immediately determine if this book speaks to you.

If it does, you're in for a real treat: The Fire Starter Sessions contains Danielle's best wisdom on creating the life you truly desire. It's comprehensive, wide-ranging, and packed with valuable stuff for the journey.

xxx c

UPDATE 4/25/12, 10:50am: There's going to be some kind of a Twitter party going on tonight at 6pm PT. 10 cents for every tweet marked with the hashtag #FireSS goes to WriteGirl, nonprofit beneficiary of The 50-for-50 Project. Go! Tweet!

Book design by Maria Elias. Author photo by Sherri Koop.

*One stellar example? The woowoo-friendly version of that time-tested accountability wonder from the business world, the master mind group. Scher calls hers "Success Team", and if you've been put off by Napoleon Hill's early-20th-Century, male-centric prose, it might be the thing that finally saves you.

Book review: Design Is a Job

design is a job and mike monteiro is GREAT at his job There are all kinds of myths surrounding the arts, especially where they intersect with commerce. Myths about working when the muse strikes, as opposed to working to increase the odds that she will. Myths about success ("It's a mysterious mystery come by Twitter!"). Enough myths about money to keep the stick-shaking brigade busy for a thousand billing cycles.

But after almost 30 years of circulation in the worlds of copywriting, performance, and design, I believe the most pernicious myth of all is that artists cannot learn to be good business people. Because we absolutely can if: (a) we're willing to make what may be some uncomfortable changes to our outlook and operating style; and (b) we find the right conduit for the information on how to do it.

When you're ready to embrace that first condition, Design Is a Job brilliantly provides the how-to. Written by Mule Design principal and co-founder Mike Monteiro, it contains a no-bullsh*t framework for building a successful creative business, covering everything from what design is (hint: not decoration) to how to keep your pipeline full of the kind of jobs you actually look forward to working on (hint: it does not involve cold calling, begging, or excessive retweeting). Networking, contracts, presenting, and management—it's all in here, in a compulsively readable 130 pages. Because no one knows better than Mike Monteiro that the real secret to getting the job done is doing the job, not reading about it.

While it is specifically written for designers, like The Elements of Content Strategy, a similarly outstanding entry in A Book Apart's series of "brief books for people who design websites," it is absolutely civilian-friendly.* If you're a creative artist who needs to get paid for your creative artistry, there's something here for you—writers, illustrators, and yes, even you, my lovely actors. You may have to put on your translator headphones here and there, but I guarantee that if you do, you will come away with invaluable insight in how to be less of a goofy creative and more of a goofy creative who gets paid.

Few things are more wonderful than being paid to do work you'd do for free—and few things will grind you down to a grim nub of misery faster than failing to treat that work as a job. Design Is a Job clearly, simply, and often hilariously outlines the steps for actually making a profit doing the work you love.

xxx c

*UPDATE: And lo, A Book Apart feels similarly about the synergy between these two books: you can buy them in a bundle!

Book design by Jason Santa Maria.  Author photo by Ryan Carver.

[video] Hair today, books tomorrow

[youtube] [Long-ass video clocking in at a whoppin' 5:05]

Salutations, and apologies for the distinctly lengthy, somewhat self-indulgent, purportedly "useful" video above. In my defense (and I'm nothing if not defensive), I'm both: (a) woefully (or not) out of practice; and (b) pressed for the kind of time needed to write a shorter letter. We're looking at a rather tense couple of months here at communicatrix HQ, deliverables-wise (after which time I'm sure my essays will return to their previously scheduled interminability; my videos will return to a brisk conciseness; and my newsletters will return, period.) (Kidding. I think. I mean, I should be putting out a newsletter next Wednesday, but don't quote me on that. But you can sign up here, if you want to roll the dice.)

This video—which you may have to click through to watch if you're reading this somewhere other than on the web and an actual computer—contains two main sections.

Section the First is just a hair update. While very little has changed, hair-wise, since September, amazingly (as is abundantly evident via this video), it takes me A MINUTE and THIRTY-NINE SECONDS to state this very obvious fact. I suppose part of the issue is that I'm taking a little time to say howdy and to provide context, and another bit is that I had to shill show off my fancy new Wahl cordless electric all-in-one hair-clipper thingy. Lots lots lots more to say on this whole being-bald(ish) thing, but those are stories for another day—a day which has not quite made it on the publishing calendar yet, but which certainly will at some point.

The second section concerns books. Not just any books, but a particular ritual of reading certain books—one I've been engaged in for some time, and which I've found to be extremely helpful in keeping me focused/on-track (a perennial challenge) and non-depressed (ditto, and how).

I've actually written at some length about daily reads in my marketing column for actors, so I won't belabor it here except to say this: the daily devotional has its place in the secular world, too. Some kinds of change are particularly slippery and elusive, and the right words (i.e., from people who've been working on this stuff longer than you, and are further down the road, and are maybe not too preachy) in a manageable, portion-controlled size (for me, extremely small), repeated at the right intervals (in my case, daily) can be great helpmates. Two of the books are listed in the column I link to, above, but for your convenience, they are:

Think and Grow Rich Every Day, a carving-up of the Napoleon Hill self-help classic by two enterprising fellows, and more power to 'em. Each month focuses on a particular aspect of Hill's teachings, with one month lumping together two of the shorter chapters ("The Subconscious Mind" and "The Brain"). The authors claim to have updated the language a bit from the fusty original text, but damned if I can tell much difference. And that chapter about the sex urge is just nutso; you'll want to take October with a grain of salt, or a pinch of saltpeter, or something. But it's eminently more readable in these bite-sized morsels, and has helped me to keep my eyes on the prize. And as I mention in the video, this book was, in a weird and witchy way, partly responsible for the success of 50-for-50.

One Day at a Time in Al-Anon, a compendium of teachings from the 12-step recovery programs for the friends and families of alcoholics, who (boy, howdy) generally suffer from their own addictive, self-destructive tendencies. I hope you don't need this one. I hope that you have no boundary issues or co-dependent b.s. or any other of the narsty, sticky residue of self-loathing that growing up in an alcoholic (or xholic) home can leave. But if you do, and you can put up with a little Higher Power here and there, you may find it not only steadying in stretches, but shockingly illuminating. I have taken in a few days' entries with the wonder I can only imagine Helen Keller must have felt by the family pump.

The third book I cannot conscientiously recommend yet, as I've only been playing with it since the start of this new year. (Which somehow already seems old at four days in—how weird is that?) But in the month or so since I finally got over my squeeginess over the covers, I have become quite taken with the output of Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy, aka SARK, reading a full two books' worth and well into a third. (I put down another one a third of the way through because the erratic typesetting was making me seasick.) But in case you want to check it out—which I did, literally, from the library—here it is.

But really, with all of these books, I'd suggest test-driving them via your amazing public library before committing your hard-earned dollars and even more precious attention. Unless you are filthy rich, in which case please buy them and anything else your heart desires via my Amazon affiliate link.

Okay! This post is already too long and my to-do list isn't getting any shorter. One short request before I go: if you have any daily-devotional-type books you LOVE, feel free to leave them in the comments. Right? Right!

And happy new year, while I can still say it.

xxx c

While this is probably obvious, for the purposes of 100% transparency, this post contains a shitload of Amazon affiliate links. Feel free to buy ANYTHING through your local bookseller, or to test-drive via your local library. Except for maybe that hair trimmer. Because (a) doubtful that anything but a chain store will stock electric clippers or that libraries carry them at all and (b) ew, gross.

Book review: The War of Art

The War of Art & author Steven Pressfield The books I re-read tend to fall into one of two categories: treasured fiction from various stages of my life which I settle into again for comfort and entertainment; and clear-headed non-fiction that serves as guidance and/or a kick in the pants during the dark times.

Steven Pressfield's The War of Art is the rare book that straddles those categories. Because while it's not a piece of fiction, to the contrary, it's pretty much the bitter and often embarrassing truth, it's a story of battling demons and conquering evil that's got more than a whiff of epic myth to it. And it's written in such an entertaining, story-like way, you hardly mind that it's 165pp of someone else's far-better-traveled boot in your very stuck ass.

Pressfield's basic thesis is this: there's a force out there called "Resistance" whose job it is push back against any kind of creative force, and especially when you try to sustain it. In Newtonian terms, it is the equal and opposite reaction to you working on any sort of meaningful generative endeavor. It's what keeps you from sticking to that diet and exercise plan you know will change your life; it's what has you turning on the TV or cracking open another beer or doing any one of a million perfectly reasonable things that push you further and further away from making meaning. (In Lucasian terms, it looks a lot like that scary dude from Episode IV.)

What I love most about Pressfield's characterization of Resistance (0ther than that it is literally laugh-out-loud funny in parts) is that it manages to convey both how fully evil and utterly impartial Resistance is. Is it terrifying and demoralizing to be so gripped with fear or plagued by jealousy you procrastinate yourself into a black hole of nothingness? It is! Don't take it personally, though, Resistance is merely a force, like gravity, to be faced up to and pushed back against. It is what dark is to light, what dry is to wet, what hot is to cold.

And while Resistance cannot exactly be considered benign by anyone serious about art or change, and while it will crush you slowly and without consideration or mercy, Resistance is also, as Pressfield points out, a very useful indicator. Are you scared? Tired? Hungry? Jealous? Bored? Horny? If any of those conditions arises while you're of a mind to really do something, there's an excellent chance that you're headed in the right direction. As the carefully selected quote from the Dalai Lama that opens the first part of the book says, "The enemy is a very good teacher."

That first section of The War of Art introduces Resistance in all its shapes and guises: rationalization; procrastination; addiction; obsession (with sex, with fame, with whatever-your-poison); and so on. Part two is about the necessity of "going pro" in winning the never-ending war with Resistance, about putting your head down and doing the work, both the why and the how. (Okay, mostly the "why", the how hasn't ever really changed much, has it?) Part three ventures slightly into woowoo territory, with its talk of the holy work of creation and invocation of the gods (or whatever you call them) to help you do it, but there's valuable stuff in there about the necessity of humility (plus some really bitchin' stories), so no skipping, skeptics.

I've bought and given away my past copies of the book to various stuck and foundering friends. This one is marked up to the gills, and I'm planning on keeping it. However, Mr. Pressfield has generously sent on some fresh, unmarked copies for me to pass along to needful souls. If that's you, explain what you're working on (or not working on) in the comments, or how otherwise you're stuck and could use a little push, and we'll see what we can do about getting one of them in your hands.

xxx c

Of possible interest: Via a sponsorship by GE, Pressfield's upcoming (April 20) book, Do the Work, the next imprint from Seth Godin's joint publishing venture with Amazon, is available for free in the Kindle format right now. It's a sort of sequel to The War of Art, and delves more into the art/shipping/fear interrelationship. So if you have a Kindle, or don't mind using the Kindle reader on your computer or smartphone, I'd jump on that, stat!

UPDATE 4/13/11: And the winners are...Hillary, Rachel, and Indre! Thank you, everyone, for your wonderful comments. I hope you will find your way to the book on your own.

Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. This particular book was furnished as a review copy. Read my full book review policy here. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Book review: The Career Clinic: 8 Simple Rules for Finding Work You Love

cover of "The Career Clinic" and author Maureen Anderson I am a fan of all things that help us find, and keep, and get back on, our ways.

Mantras are good for this, as are those perfect teachers students occasionally do will into appearing at just the right time. Ditto (if less obviously) music, art, poetry, fiction and drama. And for this frequently befuddled traveler, triple-ditto for the Holy Trinity of Maps to the Self: biography, memoir and other forms of well-conceived, well-written nonfiction of a personal nature.

The solutions for everything that befuddles, the inspiration to keep slogging through the dark toward the light, these things are embedded everywhere, but never so clearly and handily as in excellent, truthfully told stories of the self.

"Hey," we say, "this person's self struggled with that same envy thing that has me in a headlock!"

Or "Wow, I'm not the first person to be broke/sick/lonely/scared/overwhelmed/blue/green/blah!"

The trick of it is, of course, to read the right thing at the right time, no small feat in this modern world with enough choices to choke an underfed herd of horses. But there are some good places to start the search: commonalities of situation, for starters; it would be madness to look to Ben Franklin, however wise he was, for particulars on dealing with the particular woes of a 21st-Century woman in the throes of perimenopause. (Although the founding father was mighty smart about things like thrift and focus and getting enough sleep, all of which apply in spades to our particular condition.)

One of the greatest common-denominator places to start is with work, mostly because each of us is somehow called to do it. There is rent to be paid, for one. But also, if one has more than a few brain cells to rub together after watching all that reality TV, one realizes that life is just way more interesting when one is engaged in some kind of meaningful activity (and if one doubts this, one can click to any number of examples still housed in the DVR denoting the deleterious effect of endless consumption. Cf. Real Housewives Whose Cribs Have Been Intervened On or Battle of the America's Hoarders without Talent.)

Which brings us to a book I finished long ago and have longed to share since, but have been struggling to adequately define.

The Career Clinic: 8 Simple Rules for Finding Work You Love is a great book in search of a better title. (And possibly a more enticing cover, but I'm kind of a snob about these things.) The stories, dozens of them!, are indeed about work, and are clustered around eight different topic-categories. They are not as simple as the title might indicate, though, nor so precisely and neatly prescriptive.

What they are, the stories, and the writing around them, is wonderful. Gripping. Fascinating. Delightful. And concise, distilled down to delicious, pithy essence from what must by now be hundreds of interviews with all kinds of wonderful people on Maureen Anderson's long-running, weekly show on terrestrial radio, "The Career Clinic." (I've been a guest on the show twice as of this writing, and can attest to Maureen's amazing interview prowess; some people are just really good at interviewing, and Maureen Anderson is one of them.)

These people run the gamut, endeavor-wise. Writers are well represented, maybe because Maureen is a writer, and writers like reading, which inevitably leads them to more writers. For starters, there's Dave Barry, the syndicated humorist; Marshall Goldsmith, who has written extensively on leadership; and Dick Bolles, Anderson's own guru of sorts, of What Color Is My Parachute? fame. There are interviews with Helen Gurley Brown, creatrix of the Cosmo empire; with casting director Jane Brody; with Sally Hogshead, marketing personality and best-selling author.

But the stories of the most famous personalities aren't necessarily where the gold lies, even when they do illuminate their path to "making it" (hint: paths are almost universally easier to make out in hindsight). What is most interesting about all of these stories, from potters and cowboys, peddlers and preachers, musicians and woodworkers and triathletes and hog callers, is how work done led to the work done next, and how the sum total of it all was to lead them back to themselves somehow. I know, I know, woowoo in the extreme, but there you have it.

As I mentioned, the book is divvied up into sections with purported themes, but really, it's this overall theme that is the main thing: we work to find ourselves, we work to make meaning of our lives. Work is the vehicle and work is the product but mostly, work is the process. Maureen's own journey, from unhappiness and confusion to a life and work she loves (and slightly less confusion), is as illustrative as any story in the book. She steps out of the way, mostly, to let her guests tell their stories, but her guiding hand is always there, shaping and leading us back to the main point: to make the most of a life, start where you are and adjust, adjust, adjust.

I do not know if you will find the work you love by reading this book, but I know it will inspire you, reassure you, comfort you to continue on the often-hard work of the journey. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

xxx c

Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Book review: Stuff

authors Gail Steketee, Randy Frost and "Stuff", plus a level-4 cluttered space I have a long and complex history of interactions with stuff.

Long enough that it's hard to pinpoint where the more fraught interactions started, although there are artifacts that suggest certain "hot" times: a bright yellow filing cabinet I requested (and received) for my thirteenth birthday; a dedicated "quotes and lists" journal I created during my junior year of college, after a particularly difficult summer.

Complex enough that just thinking about it brings up a variety of disturbing feelings: shame, guilt, confusion, anxiety. My anxiety is bubbling to the surface right now, as I type this, even after a full year of actively sorting through, thinking about, and releasing stuff. My heart is beating faster. I'm warm, a little dizzy, and feel as though it's harder to breathe. I feel "fuzzed out", dissociated, instead of present and fully integrated, like a part of me that didn't want to deal just ran off somewhere else, and now I have to coax it back.

According to Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, co-authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, and preeminent scholars of hoarding as a behavioral disorder, my symptoms are fairly common. While I'm not a hoarder, or at least, compared to the hoarders I've known and the ones I've been (obsessively) watching on A&E's gripping show, Hoarders, I have significant attachment issues around stuff, and exhibit many of the behaviors and much of the wiring present among compulsive hoarders: perfectionism, distractibility, depression, difficulty making decisions, and, hallelujah for at least one happy trait, a highly creative personality.

Stuff does a superb job of explaining why it is we get attached to things, and why some of us become pathologically attached to things. The authors use a series of case studies to illustrate the various ways the disorder manifests: there are the "opportunity addicts," who see potential in everything; there are people who use their stuff as visual reminders, who use it to make them feel safe, or valued, or in control. The stories are fascinating and often heartbreaking. But while they describe life at the extreme end of the acquiring spectrum, they're also fairly illuminating about the general valuation of objects over experiences, even relationships, that are part of a consumer-driven economy and the culture of materialism it fosters.

In other words, while Stuff is of particular interest to someone who is a hoarder, loves a hoarder or is just interested in learning all about hoarding, it's also a mandatory read for anyone interested understanding more about the fallout from living in this age of unprecedented access to both goods and information. It's gripping from beginning to end, and haunting thereafter.

xxx c

You might also like:

Photos, clockwise from top left: Steketee; Frost; book cover; a level-4 (out of a possible 9) cluttered space.

Book review: The Art of Non-Conformity

author chris guillebeau & his bulky passport & an image of his book cover Most of us who end up doing things on the Internet sludge around for a while, a good, long while, before we find our purpose and the means to voice it, much less an audience who is drawn to hear it.

In stark contrast to this, Chris Guillebeau's ascent, like everything else about him, is truly remarkable. He went from zero-to-fixture in roughly 279 days, a trajectory he outlined with generosity, humor and transparency, all in startling quantities, in his aptly-titled (and free!) PDF, 279 Days to Overnight Success. Several obvious reasons for this success lie within Chris himself (although he's far too modest to talk about them that way): a ferocious determination to focus; utter lack of patience with "normal" routes to "success"; off-the-charts smarts fused with equally prodigious curiosity; youthful vigor fueled by plenty of caffeine and clean livin'.

A few equally-understandable reasons are external, his interest and proven facility with travel hacking and entrepreneurship dovetail neatly with many people's urges to see and move through the world on their own terms. (An economy in freefall hasn't hurt interest, either). And several more are undoubtedly due to small but strategic outlays of time, attention and money in areas like networking, graphic design, and infrastructure.

Chris touches briefly on all these things in his book, The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want and Change the World, fleshing out details where useful. If you're already familiar with Chris's deservedly lauded blog, you'll have heard many of the stories he shares in the book already, in slightly different form.

But the gift of an all-at-once, immersion read is that it goes beyond stories, tips, tricks, "how-to"s and hacks to let you soak in a philosophy, and I mean that both in the sense of luxuriating and absorbing. From the beginning, where he establishes the likely mindset that indicates readiness to explore an unconventional life/style through the end, where he wraps up with a sensible warning that everything he's gotten you fired up about is always fiery at a cost (and, like its rewards, an unending one), Chris slowly conditions your brain for the thrilling, difficult work ahead. The book is generous, it's unrelenting, it's highly specific in its instructions and it's thoroughly, impeccably earnest.

If I'm making AONC sound just a bit overwhelming, that's because it's very possible that it is, at least, to someone who's not in the place to hear or use it. That's fine. As Chris himself says at the outset, this book assumes four critical prerequisites (numerals mine):

  1. You Must Be Open to New Ideas
  2. You Must Be Dissatisfied with the Status Quo
  3. You Must Be Willing to Take Personal Responsibility
  4. You Must Be Willing to Work Hard

As someone who's been casting off bits and pieces of convention with painstaking stubbornness since roughly 1990, my own take on this is that if you're at all interested in the message (points #1 and #2), you're already in a place to activate it, whether you do is a matter of a whole lot of points #3 and #4. If nothing else, this book has helped illuminate my ongoing issues with #3 as a serious sticking point. (Thanks, Chris. Thanks A LOT.)

Full disclosure: I'm a stalwart friend and fan of young Mr. Guillebeau, and, lucky, lucky me, the feeling appears to be mutual. I anticipated the book with a mixture of excitement and nerves; while had every reason to assume that it would be as good as the rest of his output consistently is, we all know what happens when one assumes. And, friend or not, there was no way I was going to heap false praise on anything. So it was with no small relief that I realized, roughly 1/4 of the way in, that Chris had hit a home run.

Thank you, Chris. Thanks a lot...

xxx c

Photo of Chris Guillebeau and his big, fat passport by Gwen Bell; book cover designed by Reese Spykerman.

Book review: Influence

author Robert Cialdini and his book, INFLUENCE

How out-of-date is the library-sale copy of Influence: The Power of Persuasion I finished recently? When my 1984-minted paperback was printed, its subtitle was "The New Psychology of Modern Persuasion." (Italics mine, of course.)

Today, the psychology Robert Cialdini outlines in his now-classic book is so not-new, it's almost shocking to think that anyone could ever have been sucked in by any of examples of Cialdini uses to illustrate the six "Weapons of Influence" he describes. If you're not a small-business owner or one of the bajillions of marketing freaks the social web has spawned, you may not be able to list all of the terms by name, but you sure as hell can recognize them when they're coming at you.

That friendly car salesman who gets you to take a test drive, who goes to the mat with his boss in the back room to get a better deal for you, who confides that the exact model you want is due to come in tomorrow, but only one of them, and only if you sign on the dotted line today? You might not know that he's employing Weapons #1, 5 and 7, a.k.a. "Reciprocation," "Liking," and "Scarcity", but you know he's hustling you.1 His going-to-the-mat b.s. has already been debunked for you in several mainstream Hollywood films. Hell, chances are you've already used the Google to find out exactly how many cars were made with those options, when they shipped, and what the dealer price is.

So why read a 25-year-old book about "modern" persuasion in a postmodern world like ours, populated by savvy, heck, jaded consumers like us?

Because while the book is 25 years old, the techniques themselves are thousands of years older, as old as the first person trying to get the first other person to do something. And whether you are an honest person trying to get your message across or an honest person trying to keep from getting shafted, it behooves you to gain a real understanding of what motivates your fellow human beings, and what's fueling the transactions between us every single day.

And I'm not just talking about learning how to sell sell sell, or, on the other hand, to avoid being sold sold sold. The way we are moved has ramifications in all sorts of interpersonal situations, and there's terrific advice in Influence that will help you do better at everything from buying soap to choosing lovers to raising children. The chapter on Commitment & Consistency alone has more useful information about smart relationships than 99% of the crap targeted to women in the self-help section.

Which brings me to another huge plus for Cialdini's book over most of what's out there purporting to illuminate the darker corners of our souls: it's well-written, and downright enjoyable to read. Somewhere during the chapter on Social Proof, it hit me, with its mix of footnoted and well-researched information, great illustrative stories and (thank you!) wry humor, Cialdini reminded me of not a little of Malcolm Gladwell. Cialdini is far more earnest and not nearly as sophisticated, but then, he was at it a full 10 years before Gladwell. (And, yeah, okay, Gladwell is just a singularly silky and sexy and fabulous wizard with words. You bewitch me, Malcolm!)

I will likely release my ancient copy of Influence back into the wild and pick up a revised version, if only to see how the text has been updated. I'd love to hear Cialdini's take on Bernie Madoff's use of the Weapons of Influence, for instance (although you can read one take on it here.)

But if you are a marketer, or a buyer, or a person who wants to be in a good relationship, or to NOT end up in that oh-so-bewildering place of "how the hell did I get here?", I'd pick up a copy, any copy, old or new, of this fantastic book.


1The six "Weapons of Influence," in the order Cialdini describes them in the book, are: Reciprocation, Commitment & Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority, and Scarcity.

Photo of Robert Cialdini © Jason Petze, used with permission.

Disclosure! Links to the book(s) in the above post are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: while small, it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Book review: My Misspent Youth

author Meghan Daum & her book, My Misspent Youth

I came to Meghan Daum's writing backwards, or sideways, or at least, highly out of order, my fault, entirely.

While she was living in Manhattan, getting published in The New Yorker, I was going off the deep end in Los Angeles, and had let my subscription lapse. By the time she'd moved to Los Angeles and landed her gig as a columnist for the L.A. Times, I was obsessed with moving to hicksville, and (again), had let my subscription lapse. (Well, the weekday one, anyway.)

Finally, this spring, I spied an interview with Daum and another writer in a publication I still subscribe to, the excellent and ever-lively New York magazine. Said piece was clearly part of a P.R. push to accompany the birthing of her latest book; in a stroke of something-or-other, someone had gotten the idea to have Daum and another lady author interviewed together by a third lady author. Oh, the lady authors!

I am leery of stunts in general, as they bring up the phantom stench of all the sleazy things I've done in the name of advertising, and this particular stunt was, well, stunty. But the oddest thing happened. Quietly, gracefully, in the midst of this flack-driven circus act, Daum somehow managed to rise above it all and assert her brilliance, using nothing more than her extraordinary gift with words and her non-crazy perspective.

This piqued my interest, onto the to-read list she went.

Her second book, a novel, turned up first. It is smart and funny, with some sharp characterizations and surprising plot twists. Then her most recent book popped into view, literally, on the same shelf my now-friend Brooks' did. It's a quite-nice memoir on the longing for roots and the inevitable discovery that there's no goddamn "there" there, something I not only relate to, but could write a book on myself.

Finally, on a recent Bart's run, My Misspent Youth appeared before me. It is Daum's first book, a collection of essays from her salad days as a young writer and editor living in New York, and it blew my doors off. All of a sudden, or rather, bit by bit, with strings of long-dormant nerve cells lighting up like Christmas lights, the references to Joan Didion made sense. The superficial similarity, yes, the stories are New York-centric, involving dreams of living the life of a Manhattanite as much as her subsequent (and slightly more grim) reality.

The real Didion-like comparison goes much, much deeper, though. Because, like Didion's for a certain kind of (crazy) person, Daum's is the kind of writing you find by accident that makes you believe in Divine intervention. There you are, living your stupid life, a little despondent and starting to lose it because really, really there is no one out there but you thinking these crazy thoughts, who is disturbed by things other people seem to find completely normal, when suddenly, there is this gift from an angel, these batches of words that whisper, "No, no, you're fine, and see? Here's the curtain, and there's the funny little man madly pulling levers behind it." This is writing that's startling and clear and still deeply, deeply human. There is horror nestled in there, but it's always flanked by humor, as it's supposed to be. There is no coyness, no winking, no pandering; there is no muddiness, no equivocating, no pedantry. There is just sharp, clear insight and humanity channeled onto every page. AND HUMOR. Did I mention humor?

It's extraordinary. And for those of us who feel a little crazy most of the time, it might be very comforting, as well.

If you are not a little crazy, you might not get the big deal. You might be shocked, even offended, by a few of the pieces. Trust me, if you want to be a writer, those are the ones you should read twice. (Ira Glass very rightly kept a copy of Daum's essay "Variations on Grief" handy for years, to hand out to people inquiring as to who the strong, new voices were these days.) The truth is not comfortable, but it is the truth, and if you can open your heart to it, amazing things start to happen.

So, yes, enjoy the memoir. Read the novel on the beach during what's left of this summer. But me, I'd start with My Misspent Youth, and carve out the time to read it properly, slowly. It is a wonder of a book.


Photo of Meghan Daum by Laura Kleinhenz.

Disclosure! Links to the book(s) in the above post are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: while small, it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Book review: Walking on Water

author derrick jensen and cover of his book "walking on water"

Because, like you, I'm trapped in my own body with its own quirky patterns and assimilated buffet of experiences, I forget, perhaps like you, perhaps not, that not everyone is like me. That, for instance, there are people who dislike school and reading and even learning.

What is useful, then, is to have someone with better understanding, perspective and experience to unpack the whole "I Hate Learning" thing. What is unbelievably useful is when said person can, in the parlance of George Clinton, tear the roof off the motherfucker in the process, which is just what Derrick Jensen does in his compulsively readable, unapologetically critical book on learning as a radical act, Walking On Water: Reading, Writing and Revolution.

Jensen is a longtime writer and avid, almost zealous learner, both in the traditional sense (he's got two "legit" degrees) and the Emersonian one (he's done stretches as a beekeeper and a writing instructor of men pulling stretches). His belief is that no one hates learning, but almost everyone hates school, and that one follows the other because schools are set up not to help us learn, but to do the opposite: to turn off our brains, the better to turn us into docile implements of the industrial machine. He argues his case well, which is to say, both thoroughly and entertainingly, but the book is about much, much more. It's designed to wake you up from your slumber and reacquaint you with your birthright, that love of learning the teachers tried to bore out of you, as well as to give you the tools to write, write, write what has been locked up in your heart.

If the book soars in one particular place, it is here. Like many books on writing, it presents plenty of what I've come to learn are called "writing prompts," exercises that purport to unstick you long enough to get out of your head and onto the page. (They're not bulleted, so you have to look for them, but they're there.) Mostly what it has, though, are examples of people reclaiming their love of learning by getting in touch with their stories, and of changing their lives in the process. It is writing, and reading, and learning, which are inextricably intertwined with real writing, as revolution, and it is awesome and inspiring to behold.

I should mention that Walking On Water was recommended to me by Michelle Jones, the bundle of energy, heart and inspiration behind TEDxTacoma, who is easily one of my favorite ten people I've met over the past five years (and brother, I've met a LOT of people in these five years). Michelle's signature course at her former place of employment, University of Puget Sound, was called "Passion-Based Leadership;" among other things, she stressed the importance of modeling right behavior and using one's gifts to unbuckle the world from the leech-machine we've attached to it. Which is to say, this is a radical book; it is an Eat the Red Pill kind of book, and there is no going back once you've read it.

I think that's a good thing, and I can't imagine the kind of person who wouldn't love this book to pieces. Or rather, I can, but that's not a person I want to spend any time thinking about. Not right now. Not while there's a revolution to prepare for.

This, then, is my pitch: reading Walking On Water will not make you a better writer. No book will, and that's a big part of Jensen's point. To do it, you've got to do it, as all the great how-to books say, but to do it UP you've got to upend things. You need radical change.

So what this book will do is bring your attention to where you are currently surrendering your attention, and then ask you: Hey! Is this really where you want to be? It will inspire and yes, instruct you with some truly fundamental rules of the road. (Come on: the first five rules of writing are "Don't bore the reader"? That's radical shit, baby.) It will challenge you to examine yourself, and to begin the process of excavating that self, if you haven't already. Hell, it will challenge you to look at just about everything, and while that may initially upset you about a lot of things, it will ultimately help you find the joy in many more.

UPDATE: Just viewed this fantastic 3-minute clip of George Carlin doing a bad-ass, stand-up version of this same message. If you can't deal with a whole book just yet, start here. It's on Facebook, for now (which means you'll need to be logged in to view it.) As the original poster noted, it's a big rip on the Powers That Be, so who knows how long before someone finds some (bullsh*t) reason for taking it down. (Here it is on YouTube, too, again, for now.)


Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Book review: On Writing Well

cover of "on writing well" and author William Zinsser

If I were a better writer, I'd be able to do justice to On Writing Well, William Zinsser's own brilliant writing on writing.

Or maybe I should say, if I were the writer I dreamed of being back when I first dreamed of being a writer, I could write the review I had somewhere in the back of my head: that perfect review that made the book come alive, that explained it perfectly, in words that danced around on the page in fancy clothes, as I'd always imagined my words doing when I finally got my word-choreographer chops.

Here's what Zinsser might say to that: Why don't you just tell them what the book is about, and what you got out of it? (Only, you know, he'd do it better. Because he's WILLIAM ZINSSER.)

Fine. Here's what I got out of it:

1. Writing is rewriting. You knew that, right? Even though most of us who write mostly on our blogs mostly don't. Like me, if you couldn't tell. Well, it is. Writing is rewriting. And some of what may be most useful to you about this book are the before/after examples. This man is ruthless with his darlings. Slaughtered, incinerated bodies everywhere.

2. Most good writing is good, simple writing. Very easy to get tangled up in your fancy pants, fancypants. Again, the book is rife with examples of good, simple writing. Which, to bring us neatly back to Point the First, is the result of plenty o' rewriting.

3. The writing that looks the easiest is often the hardest to pull off. Dialogue that sounds realistic. Humor that's actually humorous. Anything short.

4. Any subject can be interesting if it's written about well. Unfortunately, most people who know a lot about a thing don't know much about writing. If this is you, this is your book!

5. Anyone can learn to write well (enough). Mostly, writing is about listening and cutting and getting the hell out of the way of your story. The essays in this book will teach you how to do this.

There's a reason this book warranted a 25th anniversary edition. It's one of the best how-to manuals on writing out I can imagine, and I dream big. If you're a writer, or want to be, you should read this book; if you're serious about it, you should read it once a year.


Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Book review: Holy Land

cover of "holy land" and photo of author dj waldie

We are studying style in our weekly writing workshop, how we use everything from humor to commas to sentence construction (or lack thereof) to express things, and how those things add up to what we might call a "voice."

Brenda, our fearless-leader/teacher/tour-guide also has us doing exercises that bring our attention to the style of other writers, literally deconstructing their work line by line, paragraph by paragraph, to see how they craft worlds, lure us into stories, and guide our focus.

Like most new things, it's a maddening exercise at first. I stumble through essays so clean and deftly executed they seem born that way, like little literary Venuses on the half-shell. I know it's a lie, of course; no one escapes the painful and humiliating tedium of Anne Lamott's famed Shitty First Draft. Still, despite my best efforts at keeping this (and that wonderful Beverly Sills quote about there being no shortcuts to any place worth going) at the forefront of my thinking, I am always quite sure that when I sit down, it should be different. And immediately, if not sooner.

Here's who might cure you and me and anyone else within earshot of that notion: D.J. Waldie, thoughtful chronicler of Things Southern-Californian, with emphasis on that which was created out of something only to erase the thing from which it sprung. In Holy Land, his memoir of a suburban boyhood in Lakewood, California, he alternately describes what it was like growing up in one of the many manufactured towns that began popping up outside of slightly older outposts like Los Angeles and, in his case, Long Beach after the Second World War, and chronicles the inception and building of the town itself.

Unlike the by-now convention of switching back and forth between stories, chapter by chapter, something James McBride did beautifully to create context and build suspense in his memoir, The Color of Water, and that James Michener did thoughtfully in The Source, so you could skip over the tedious modern-day love story, Waldie writes in what I can only call fragments, because my literary vocabulary is so limited. (I'm working on it, I'm working on it.) He loops from personal recounting of the modern-day life in this same town he grew up in, Waldie lives in the same house his parents bought freshly built, and works for the city government, to historical documentation to childhood impressions and so forth, delicately switching from lens to lens until magically, this strange and complex something that sprang from "nothing" starts coming into focus.

You can get all kinds of glimpses into what this crazy place is like, of course, and from all kinds of angles: Chandler and Cain, Bukowski and Fante, and poor old Nathaniel West, to name a few of the few I've read. Of them all, Joan Didion's writing comes the closest to this kind of oblique, restrained, meticulously constructed narrative (she's a big fan, by the way, if her glowing blurb is to be believed). It's work that clearly required a lot of work to make it look like it didn't; it's un-showy yet elegant, and always evocative.

Holy Land restores your faith in the value of rewriting, and the precision it brings. Not to mention it's a helluva good read...


Legalese, etc! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links: if you click on them and buy something, I get Amazon dollars. Which is great, as it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Book review: Olive Kitteridge

cover of "Olive Kitteridge" with photo of author Elizabeth Strout

There is a phrase my friend and writing mentor Brenda often uses to describe the totality of what we are, and why we repel each other, and of course why we find each other so compelling: "messy humans."

It is a phrase I like because the words themselves taste like the phenomenon they describe: a scrambly tumble of emotions, quirks, fine and dreadful impulses, noble and heinous actions all swooped up and barely contained in these bags of bone and flesh and nerves we call bodies. Messy humans we are, even if we look orderly on the outside.

The humans who populate Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout's novel-as-collection-of-stories set in small-town Maine, are as messy as anyone, though like most everyone, they do their best to hide it. For the most part, they live quietly and drink privately, literally in some cases, figuratively in others. The drug of choice varies, but there is always something people reach for to quiet the rages, fill the emptiness, plug up the holes that would otherwise let out the crazy. They turn to gossip or silence, food or self-denial, dreams or ritual, usually, some cobbled-together collection of these.

Still, the mess will out; it always does. Everyone has hunger, as Olive points out to a girl who starves herself to stave off her own. Everyone is crazy and messy and, most of the time, barely holding it together while simultaneously doing their best. And in the end (and the end of Olive Kitteridge is both shocking and comforting at once), that is the truth: that we are more alike than different, that each of us is doing our best to reconcile our personal mess with the chaos we are confronted with daily.

If you like your narratives with a strong sense of place, revealing character without underlining it, quietly letting the whole shape of the protagonist reveal itself through actions both direct and reflected, you will love Olive Kitteridge.

You may even find yourself loving Olive Kitteridge herself, difficult, obstinate, outspoken, complicated, simple, gracefully ungainly, wise, short-sighted, hungry Olive Kitteridge, who makes us wince alternately with loving tenderness and a kind of dread at her clumsy, overt humanity. And if we can love Olive, who is so grossly and messily human, maybe we can begin to love ourselves a little bit, too.

Cover design: Robbin Schiff; Cover photo © Laura Hanifin; Photo of Elizabeth Strout © Jerry Bauer.

Legalese, etc! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links: if you click on them and buy something, I get Amazon dollars. Which is great, as it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Book review: The Shadow Effect

cover of "the shadow effect" + pix of authors + pic of human shadow

There is a truism in acting that you cannot play a villain if you view him as such, because every character is central to his own life story and never, ever sees himself as a villain. The first thing you are supposed to do as a good actor doing responsible script analysis is to comb through the text looking for ways in which you and your character, villain or hero, are the same. Only once you've grounded yourself in those do you go back through and seek out the differences, to add color.

And if you're honest, whether you're playing a villain or a hero or, most often, for most actors, something in between, you will share most if not all of the qualities of that person, although they may manifest themselves in different ways. The most common example, thrown up the first time you have to play a killer and wonder how you can do it if you've never killed, is to take yourself back to some moment of murderous rage: in the car, at being cut off; at a mosquito who will not leave you alone; at a bully who humiliated you one too many times. (Once was usually sufficient for me.) With the possible exception of sociopaths, we are all made up of all qualities and all possibilities; we just act on them, or not, differently.

The Shadow Effect: Illuminating the Power of Your Hidden Self is a collaborative effort on the part of three modern self-help authors to address the parts of us we don't or can't look at. From their individual perspectives, M.D. with a spiritual bent, recovering addict and teacher, spiritual seeker and teacher, respectively, the authors discuss the common threads in what holds us back from finding peace and joy, both as individual entities and humankind. If it can be boiled down to one thing, and maybe it can't, since the book is a little disjointed, it is that we suffer because of the way we divide and separate: ourselves, by not embracing the truth that we contain all kinds of impulses within us; and ourselves from others, mainly by denying our common humanity, looking for the differences between us, projecting and even magnifying them unduly rather than starting from the rather terrifying premise that (sociopaths excluded), we are mainly the same.

The process of re-integrating begins, as I'm finally realizing most things do, with noticing. (Damned meditators: they had it right all along.) You can start anywhere, but the authors seem to agree that a very useful place is to begin by observing how you project your own behavior onto others: he's a selfish ass; she's stuck up; they are imbeciles who refuse to listen to anyone. Very, very easy to demonize someone else. Much harder to use them as a mirror in which you view your own, horrifyingly unsaintly behavior. But really, any sort of embracing of truth will work, and there are multiple suggestions for getting started, as well as for understanding why we bury and cover and isolate in the first place.

As far as accessing the central theme of the book, that we contain multitudes, and that acknowledging the suppressed voices among them, however terrifying at the outset, is critical to becoming whole, which is critical to self-actualization, I found the first two sections, by Deepak Chopra and Debbie Ford, to be the most useful. Portions of Chopra's were actually thrilling/chilling to read, and Debbie Ford is an easygoing, super-accessible writer. Try as I might (and I did!), I can't fathom the appeal of Marianne Williamson, on the page, anyway. She seems like a lovely and compassionate human, and she certainly has a large and loyal following of people for whom her words resonate, so it's probably just me. (I feel like the same obtuse maroon reading those other giants of self-help, Wayne Dyer and Eckert Tolle, too. If someone can 'splain it to me, please do.)

If The Shadow Effect as a book is a bit fractured, the messages relayed in it are of a piece, and the range of techniques and tools fairly ensure you'll find a way in that works for you. I'd suggest letting significant time lapse between reading the three segments, and picking the one to read first that resonates with you. The very practical, carefully laid out "diagnosis/cure/prognosis" method that Chopra takes works best for me. If stories are your way in, I'd maybe start with Debbie Ford, and if inspirational writing is your thing, by all means, start with Williamson.

It's valuable work, worth doing. Hopefully, one of the ways of doing will work for you...


Image by Horia Varlan via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. Cover © HarperCollins, designed by LeVan Fisher. Photos of Deepak Chopra and Debbie Ford by Jeremiah Sullivan; photo of Marianne Williamson by Lisa Spindler.

Legalese, etc! Book furnished as a review copy, and links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links: if you click on them and buy something, I get Amazon dollars. Which is great, as it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Book review: Mildred Pierce

photos of author James M Cain and 1st ed. of Mildred Pierce Aside from a very youthful devotion to Agatha Christie and a semi-youthful one to Fleming's 007 series, I've never been drawn to genre fiction.1 Even in these two cases, you could say my real affinity was for Christie and Fleming (or Poirot/Miss Marple and Bond, James Bond), not mysteries or spy stories, something the occasional dip into a genre would just reinforce.

Honestly, I'll happily consume the best of any genre, where "best" equals "what moves me." I get that some people reject slapstick or horror or melodrama out of hand; I especially get it as a non-fan of The 3 Stooges, the Saw franchise (one of which I saw accidentally, no pun intended) and, with the exception of a freakish Luke-'n'-Laura fixation in high school, daytime soaps.

On the other hand, if you go in for wholesale rejection of a genre, you stand to miss out on all sorts of good stuff, in film as well as in books: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, not to mention the entire Bugs Bunny oeuvre; Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist (as well as Candyman and The Ring and Night of the Living Dead); and everything Douglas Sirk ever made.

It was my strange love of 1940s melodrama which, in a very roundabout way, led me to Mildred Pierce, the James M. Cain novel that served as source material for the 1945 noir-ish vehicle of the same name, the one that resuscitated Joan "Box-Office Poison"'s career. As with Play Misty for Me (a seminal example of the woman-wronged thriller genre set in 1970s Central California) and Jackie Brown (a brilliant caper picture set in the Los Angeles South Bay of the 1990s, but equally an homage to the 1970s blaxploitation genre), I became obsessed with Milded Pierce, the film, for several years, watching it over and over again to soak up period detail and Faulkner-tinged darkness. I'm drawn to art with a strong sense of time and place, with a particular fondness for the California of a different time; I'm also partial to (surprise, surprise) fiction that features a strong female character at its center, even if she's a little off-whack.

This, Mildred Pierce-the-book has in spades, even more so than the film version. Cain's Mildred, like  Hollywood's, is cunning at business, not to mention tenacious. Fed up with the philandering antics of her unemployed husband, she tosses him out on his ear, this, at the height of the Depression, with no means of supporting herself and her two girls, much less paying the mortgages on the outsized house Bert built for them in grander days. Yet bit by bit, through sheer force of will, she not only pulls them up and out, but way out, building a restaurant empire out of homemade pies and latent street smarts her mousy-housewifely life didn't begin to hint at.

It's here that the book and film truly diverge. I was shocked to read Cain's description of Mildred: blond, small and weak-chinned, a perfectly nice-looking, ordinary woman who, over the course of the book, sees her looks start to slip and her slim figure run to fat. Compare that to Mildred as depicted by the icy Crawford, who, though she was tiny herself, was formidable and mannish; in every picture Crawford did, she looked pulled together; she also frequently looked like she was a hair's breadth from picking up whomever she didn't like and heaving them from her path, if not just eating them outright. Maybe it was the shoulder pads.

Cain's Mildred is also an extraordinary woman, but partly because in some ways she is so ordinary: a tiny, emotionally needy (and, uh, sexually rapacious!) wisp of a nothing, who has freakish secret reserves of strength and savvy (and, uh, sexually rapaciousness!).

Equally powerful in the book, if not more so, is Mildred's wildly narcissistic elder daughter, Veda, a vain, conniving, beautiful girl who has no use for anyone or anything she cannot manipulate. My favorite passage in a book of many, many favorite passages is one where her singing teacher reveals the truth of this serpent-child to Mildred, who is so blinded by love of her daughter, and some textbook-crazy love, at that, she stands to be destroyed by her. It is ingenious and shocking and hilarious, all at once: a brilliant, out-of-nowhere character analysis that is so on the money, your breath is taken away.

The book is fat and juicy, full of good stuff like this, as opposed to the movie, which is a lean, slick creature of another sort almost entirely. Which is not to say either is better than the other, but that each is brilliant in its way. The movie plucks here and there from the book, a character, a storyline, a setting, but casts aside much of the delicious psychological character study for its noir through-line. Reading Mildred Pierce is like that recurring dream of New Yorkers: the one where they open a hitherto secret door somewhere in their tiny apartments and find a huge, sprawling, extra-apartment's-worth of rooms, complete with all the high ceilings and skylights and million other details your perfectly-nice but oh-so-cramped place was missing without your even knowing it.

It is, in short, 300 pages of sheer pleasure. And that is worth dipping into any genre for...

xxx c

1 I also went through a Stephen King phase in high school, starting with the short stories that showed up in women's magazines, continuing to The Stand, which was maddeningly bloated compared to the house-afire reads of Carrie, 'Salem's Lot and The Shining. My theory was that he got too big to edit, there's some irony for you, although I did enjoy bits and pieces of subsequent books, and always admired his way with a story. My god, to be able to come up with plots like that!

Photos: (l) photo of author James M. Cain (lifted from NNDB, which has a crackin'-good quote about Cain from fellow genre author, Raymond Chandler); (r) cover of first edition of Mildred Pierce ©1941 Alfred A. Knopf, via wikipedia.

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.

Book review: Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex

cover of ill-equipped for a life of sex & author jennifer lehr

For all of my public candor and truth-excavatin', there are areas I will not touch.

One of them, no pun intended, is sex.

Another, believe it or not, is relationships. I am a champion of privacy, wherever possible, and also a big, fat coward: I'm loathe to pull a Truman Capote and end up like Truman Capote (although the middle of his life, in between the gothic horror and lonely, alcoholic demise, does sound interesting.)

These are just two of the reasons I was floored by Jennifer Lehr's 2004 memoir, Ill-Equipped for a Life of Sex. In it, as you might expect from the title, she exposes her many and colorful sexual encounters (in vivid and fascinating detail), from her first kiss (or desire for one) through her mostly sexually-dysfunctional relationship with her eventual husband to her post-marital flirtations and fantasies. If Lehr left anything out, it was neglible: parts of the book read like letters to Penthouse Forum, only realistic. I was shocked not so much by what she did, but that she was writing about it so openly in the same book where she cheerfully and un-self-consciously outlines her relationships with many members of her family, with whom, it would appear, she is still close (and who definitely win the prize for most tolerant family around.)

This, though, is the trick of the book, and the second meaning of the title: it's as much a story of how she got here from there as it is a salacious recounting. What Lehr has done is to write a book, a shockingly intimate book, about intimacy itself, and the role it plays in keeping all kinds of relationships alive. To bare ourselves metaphorically  requires high levels of trust and commitment, often far higher than those required to strip down and get busy, not to mention a slavish devotion to truth.

And over and over, after each screw-up (so to speak), she throws herself once again headlong into the truth. There is her shink, and her next shrink, and her shrink after that. (Geographical and other factors outside of her control necessitate the moves.) There is his shrink, and AA, and their shrink. Shrinks. There is an art project in grad school that leaves her open and vulnerable and ultimately spurned for attempting to get at a truth, which (surprise, surprise) freaks everyone's shit right out. It is so painful at times, watching this earnest struggle to get at the truth, to learn what it is and then learn how to live in it, to communicate with it, one aches for this young woman and her crazy quest.

But this is the same thing that makes it compulsively readable. Well, besides the sex, which is pretty salacious, and the unselfconscious exposure of her very privileged life. (Lehr was financially supported by her family, and in fairly grand style, pretty much until her husband's ship came in.) Again and again, despite the crazy pain involved, she dives into the hard work of scrutinizing her screw-ups for clues as to their genesis, until finally, she comes up with the answers. They are both complex and simple, always boiling down to truth and communication, communication and truth. Many of the reviewers on Amazon say they saw their own life in Lehr's; the rest (and we're talking half and half), dismiss the book as an overly-long, poorly-written exercise in narcissism by a spoiled princess.

Could it be shorter? Yes, by about 100 pages, I reckon. Better-written? In parts, certainly. Hell, there are parts of every post I've ever written that I know could be better-written, usually as I'm writing them.

It's fearless, though, and earnest and heartfelt. And it's a startling expose of the real reasons we both turn away and towards sex in (and out of) relationship. It's about addiction of all kinds, and how it keeps us from true love and connection. It's about how unbe-fucking-lievably hard it is to communicate when the stakes are high. (The story of how John and Jennifer Lehr turn around their relationship is instructive and inspiring.)

So while I wish that maybe she'd had a little more experience with writing before she sat down to tell her story, or an editor who had leaned a little harder on her, I'm grateful to Lehr for sharing it. And very much looking forward to deepening my own commitment to rooting out fraud in my own life...


1She explicitly the details of life with her husband, comic actor John Lehr, or the lack thereof, when it comes to.

Photos: (l) ©ReganBooks, Cover design by Richard Ljoenes; (r) photo of author Jennifer Lehr ©Stephanie Howard

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.