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Here is a beautiful thing.

In the midst of stress, there is connection. In the midst of sorrow, there is laughter. In the midst of fatigue, there is anticipation. In the midst of loss, there is appreciation. In the midst of chaos, there is the act of kindness that matters because of its mere existence.

In articles about dealing with stress, the idea of gratitude is repeated over and over again. Whether or not it is an active strategy, I find that gratitude and its cousin appreciation bubble up so easily these days. Perhaps because I need more help I have more to be grateful for. Or perhaps the contrast makes my appreciation keener. Or maybe I’m always this way and I just don’t usually pay as much attention. It is hard to know.

I stood in the grass at Shoreline Amphitheatre this weekend, my vest zipped up against the cool evening air. I watched Passion Pit play their song “Take a Walk,” and I was so happy to be there. I watched a friend of mine win the Andre Norton Award on Saturday night, and in the middle of tearing up, I was so happy to be there. I ate a late evening snack at my favorite local crepe place with a group of friends old and new, and I was so happy to be there.

My Taos buddies and I at the Nebulas this weekend. Photo by Valerie Schoen.

My Taos buddies and I at the Nebulas this weekend. Photo by Valerie Schoen.

A friend told me this weekend about a friend of hers who read my blog post about stress last week. Apparently it had a big impact, being the right post at the right time for this friend, who has been going through a lot herself recently, but she was embarrassed to write and tell me. I laughed and said, “I was embarrassed to write that post too.” I am so happy I decided to write something that mattered to someone.

I am so happy that so many of you have reached out to offer support and tell me it’s totally fine to spend some time staring at trees. And I completely agree. Staring at trees can be pretty great. So can eating pie and reading fluffy novels and petting little dogs and wearing a fantastic dress.

I am so happy to be here right now.

I am always looking for reasons to be happy, and I found so many of them this weekend. And perhaps that’s what I feel the most grateful for: my ability to find those reasons, and your willingness to create those reasons with me.

Thank you.

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I’d been wanting to write that post on forgiveness I published last week for a long time. But I kept punting it for other ideas because I was afraid to write about it. I was convinced the ENTIRE WORLD would disagree with me and be horribly upset that I didn’t think of forgiveness as something that can be forced, and somehow this would be an awful thing for me.

The longer I write for this blog, though, the more I realize that really, the world doesn’t care. Most people will never read my essay on forgiveness. And most of the people who did read my essay recognized something in it that resonated with them. So when I think the entire world will disagree, that is some bizarre thought process I am better off ignoring.

My friend Ferrett wrote some excellent blogging advice, where one of his main points was: “No, Seriously. Haters Are Going to Hate.” As a blogger or someone who is interested in maintaining a public example, this will inevitably be an issue at some point. Ferrett says that once you become sufficiently popular, there will always be people who hate you, and he’s completely right. It is amazingly hard to be sufficiently wishy washy to keep everyone happy. I don’t even know if it’s possible, although I suspect it isn’t. There will always be people out there disagreeing loudly, people looking for an argument, or people wanting to tear other people down.

Photo Credit: HeyThereSpaceman. via Compfight cc

For example, it is always amazing to me how angry people have gotten over my essay about intelligent women. They are upset because they don’t think women can possibly be as intelligent as men (seriously, what century are we living in?) or because they don’t think smart women ever encounter anything I mention so therefore I must be old and bitter (because only old and bitter people can engage with ideas about sexism?) or because of course all intelligent people must make loads of money because that’s the way intelligence should be measured in our society (I guess most artists and academics are just pretty stupid since they don’t prioritize making large amounts of money). But what is more interesting to me than the actual arguments is the amount of anger expressed because there are different opinions in the world. Opinions, it seems, can be very scary things.

But as strange as it seems to me that people can get so worked up over my six hundred word essays, this doesn’t change the fact that the world is largely indifferent. And in fact, as a writer, if my words cause anyone to feel angry or scared or hopeful or inspired or any emotion at all, then that means I’ve done my job. In the grand scheme of things, obscurity is more an artist’s enemy than controversy, however safe the obscurity might feel and however challenging the controversy might be. (And of course, how challenging the controversy feels will vary wildly from person to person.)

I think part of becoming an artist is learning to be comfortable with controversy. Not because it is bound to be necessary, but because part of an artist’s job is to express their perception of the truth. And if you are afraid of what the world is going to think about your truth, then maybe you won’t dig as deep as you can and maybe you won’t take the risks you need to take and maybe you’ll choose the easy way instead of the raw way. Creating art is a commitment to your own vision of reality.

So I wrote that essay on forgiveness anyway, even though it scared me. I was scared to write The Academy of Forgetting. I’m about to start a new novel, and even though I’m excited about it, I occasionally feel sudden spasms of anxiety when I think about sitting down and typing “Chapter 1.” I feel a tightness in my stomach and a sudden strong desire to do anything else.

But I’m glad I feel the fear. It’s like a compass, letting me know I’m going the right direction. It means I’m not taking the easy way. It means I’m challenging myself, and my writing is better because of it.

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Blog Retrospective 2012

It’s been another good year here at the Practical Free Spirit. I haven’t run out of things to talk about yet, which is certainly encouraging. The site views have more than doubled from last year, and December of 2012 was the second highest traffic month in the blog’s history. The first was April of 2012, when people got very excited that I was talking about intelligent women (or intelligence at all, for that matter, because as it turns out, intelligence is a complicated and highly nuanced concept to talk about, not least because of the difficulty in defining it).

If you’ve been reading me for any length of time at all, you probably know how much I love writing for this blog. That hasn’t changed. I continue to learn so much from doing this: my writing continues to improve, my understanding grows from having to organize my thoughts into blog post form, and you, my readers, often respond in ways that cause me to think more deeply. Writing a blog is one way to allow my voice to be heard, and it’s certainly a way that works well for me.

Most Popular Posts of 2012:

I’m really pleased to see that the five top posts of 2012 are all posts that are among my personal favorites as well. The topics: feminism, intelligence, being an artist, and personal growth.

A Highly Intelligent Woman Speaks Out

Combine two controversial topics–intelligence and gender perceptions–and watch the fireworks!

Not All Highly Intelligent People are Arrogant Pricks

I love this blog title almost as much as I love exploding some myths about intelligence.

What does it mean to be an artist?

This is a question that is, not surprisingly, of deep and ongoing interest to me. I’m thrilled that other people find it interesting too.

Strong Female Characters Can Still Screw Up, Get Upset, and Cry

I talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, feminism, and ideas about what a strong female character really is.

Nice vs. Kind

In a quest to leave people pleasing behind, I discuss the differences between being nice and being kind.

Other Personal Favorites:

Assertiveness: an Intermediate Guide

I use this post for my own personal reference, that’s how helpful I think it is.

The People Who are No Longer Here

I almost feel like this post is a prose poem.

I Know It When I See It: YA Voice

This is a writing post that I’d been meaning to write for a long time.

How To Be Resilient

Resilience was one of my favorite topics of the year.

Let’s Kick Self Loathing Where It Hurts

I love the comment section of this post, in which I encouraged all of you to brag.

Happy New Year! I’m looking forward to another year of discussing interesting topics with you.

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A month or so ago, Mike Allegra was kind enough to nominate me for a Versatile Blogger Award. Which was like an extra special birthday present for the blog. Thank you, Mike!

Mike blogs himself, of course (hence the award). He is a children’s writer too. And he tells very amusing personal anecdotes in a casual and funny style.

Anyhow, I thought this would be a great time to highlight a few other blogs that are in my own reader that I’ve been enjoying lately.

  1. The Book Smugglers: I’ve been enjoying the Book Smugglers for a long time now. They are my favorite book review blog, and their general tastes fit so well with mine it’s almost spooky. They tend to review YA (and some MG as well) and adult SF/F, as well as a little historical and romance on the side. I don’t agree with every single one of their reviews, but they are always thought-provoking and well-reasoned. I learn both about books I’d like to read and more about writing at the same time. I especially love their “On The Smugglers’ Radar” feature every Saturday about upcoming titles.
  1. Blotter Paper: This is the blog of my writer friend Rahul Kanakia. He writes speculative fiction (and has been published in places of note like Clarkesworld, IGMS, and Redstone) and is about to move across the country to begin an MFA program. He writes a lot about the books he reads, which is interesting because he has very eclectic tastes, so I feel like reading about his reading broadens my own horizons. And he is an astute observer of society as well.
  1. Altucher Confidential: This is a bigger blog about personal development, and it amuses me because James’ personality comes out full force in everything he writes. I don’t always agree with him…in fact, I often don’t agree with him. But his world view is interesting and occasionally he says something that really resonates with me.
  1. Letters From Titan: Racheline Martese writes interesting analysis of pop culture and symbolism in pop culture. Her essays about the TV show Glee have possibly prolonged my viewership of said show, that’s how interesting I think they are. Really, my only wish is that she’d write more.
  1. Captain Awkward: This is my absolute favorite new discovery; even its name snaps with awesome. This blog is an advice column that actually dispenses advice I can usually get behind. (I know, right? Who would have thought that was even possible?) Captain Awkward encourages people to get a backbone, say no when appropriate, get their needs met, and improve their communication skills. I love this blog with all the blog love in my heart.

How about you? Got any favorite blogs you’d like to recommend? I’m always looking for new ones to check out.

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My blog, the Practical Free Spirit, turns two this week. On Saturday, June 30th, to be exact. This is my 223rd post. I just read my first post, Originality: Having Something to Say. I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s not so bad. It sounds like me two years ago, which isn’t, after all, so much different from me now.

Would you like some more data? I’ve taken time off for vacation a few times, but other than that, I reliably post twice a week. I’ve never failed to post when I was planning to do so, although I’ve come close once or twice. The blog gets an average of 105 comments per month (thank you for joining the conversation!). Probably about half of those comments are from me, although I’ve been falling a bit behind in the past few months.

The highest traffic month in the blog’s life was April 2012. The most popular post is What is a Free Spirit?, which is apparently more of a pressing question than I would think. (Thank you, Google Search.) Other popular subjects include those I was afraid to write about, introversion, and cool Star Wars pictures. I am still on a quest to bring some much-deserved cuteness fame to Nala because what good is having a blog if you can’t occasionally cute-bomb your long-suffering readership?

Storm troopers create new lives for themselves fighting crime.

I don’t know much about my readers, actually, except the ones who comment. I wish I knew more. I wonder about you sometimes. It’s a strange sort of intimacy we have because I suspect there’s a significant part of me that you can get to know pretty well if you read regularly. Not the entire me, of course, but an important part. I talk about what I care about here (really, there’s no point in me writing a 500-word essay about something I don’t care about). I talk about what I’ve been thinking about. I link to the most interesting articles I’ve read. Once in a while I get teary-eyed while I’m writing one of these posts because it matters so much to me.

I read articles about what I “should” be doing with the blog, and then I ignore a lot of what I read, because we are friends, you and I. And a lot of those shoulds sound sleazy or cheap or fake to me, and I can’t bear to do them. Not to the blog, which has taken on a life of its own. It depends on me, after all; I breathe life into it. I am responsible for it. Before I started, it didn’t ever occur to me to think of a blog as a living entity, and perhaps many blogs aren’t. But this one–well, it just might be.

I am going to ask for a birthday present now, for me or for the blog, or for both of us. Satisfy my curiosity, leave a comment, and tell me about yourself. Who are you? What do you like about this blog? What do you wish I’d do more or less of? What are you glad that I don’t do (and you hope I never start)? What subjects do I talk about that give you a burst of satisfaction?

I would really like to know whatever you’d like to tell me.

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Conventional blogging wisdom for fiction writers is that we should avoid talking about politics and religion. (Science fiction writers are perhaps the exception to this rule; see John Scalzi, one of the most prominent examples, and on the other side of the American left-right fence, Orson Scott Card.) The idea is that such views can be unnecessarily divisive and that by talking about them openly, we can alienate potential readers.

I have, for the most part, followed this advice. I don’t talk about religion on this blog or anywhere else, really. I rarely talk straight politics, although I couldn’t quite suppress my concerns about habeas corpus. But feminism keeps creeping in through the cracks of this blog and in the material I choose to share on the internet, and isn’t feminism at least partially a political issue? It certainly is a touchy one.

One result is that I’m been forced to rethink the conventional wisdom. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it is easier not to blog about religion or politics or social justice. And I can understand the choice not to do so when it feels like a livelihood hangs in the balance of what we allow ourselves to discuss. Plus some of us find conflict to be very unpleasant. But at what point does talking about matters of importance become more of a question of conscience?

Does blogging give you a voice?

I’m not talking about being safe here. There’s this trend that happens in the science fiction blogosphere, wherein a few of the really big bloggers share their opinions of a current issue, followed by a quiet ripple of smaller bloggers chiming in with “Me too”s and “basically exactly what has already been said about this issue in almost the same words.” Because when we follow in the footsteps of the big guns, then we’re relatively secure. I’m not saying it’s bad to offer a show of support, but it’s not the same as pushing the discussion forward. The conventional wisdom is consunmately safe.

Let’s talk about danger instead. If, as a writer, we develop a greater reach, then we have to decide how to use that reach. We have a greater ability to help, and an equally heightened ability to harm. We can set the topic of conversation instead of merely echoing and reacting. We can affect the way people view the world, often subconsciously, through our stories and our words. We can decide whether to point something out as problematic or whether to be silent and let it float on in obscurity. And whether we like it or not, these abilities come with certain responsibilities.

We don’t have to blog about politics or religion, not if we don’t want to. We can choose to communicate exclusively through our fiction. But at some point, I think every artist has to ask, “What am I really trying to say here? What do I really need to say about human experience and about the world? What might I be saying by accident that I don’t actually want to be saying?”

But sometimes, we might be compelled to blog about something risky, about something uncomfortable. And sometimes we are willing to pay the price for having a voice. In which case, that conventional wisdom can go right out the window. There are times when safety is not the most important goal.

What do you think? Do you ever talk about politics or religion on your blog or over social media? Are there issues that you feel compelled to talk about, even though they lack an approved-for-fiction-writers (or approved-for-polite-conversation) stamp?

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It’s been a good year here at the Practical Free Spirit. I’ve garnered much enjoyment from writing for this blog, and as I gain more experience, the essays often come easier. I’m becoming clearer about what I care about writing about, and I’ve had some great conversations with many of you.

In terms of traffic, the blog is growing slowly but steadily. I’m happy to say that December 2011 has recently become the highest-traffic month in the blog’s history. It’s a satisfying way to close out the year.

Photo by Ray Wewerka

The Backbone Project:

This summer I ran the very successful backbone project, in which I committed to writing three essays on subjects about which I was nervous to write. Not only did I get some much needed practice in being assertive and brave, but I got to hear about so many people’s experiences and opinions, all of which enriched my own. All of the backbone project posts landed in the list of top 10 read posts this year.

The Backbone Project: Help Me Become Less Wishy-Washy
You are not a Weenie if a Critique Makes You Cry
Where is my Geek Cred?
The Teetotaler Manifesto, or Why I Don’t Drink

Most Popular Posts:

Being an Introvert is Awesome!

Like it or not, people in our society are very worried about being introverts, due to the false association between introversion and lack of social skills.

Loneliness and Social Media

The popularity of this article makes me realize that this is another issue that many people are concerned about. Does social media connect us more or make us feel more isolated?

Living Free From Regret

This one is mostly popular because of the awesome photo, but the message is inspiring too.

10 Things I Wish I’d Known 10 Years Ago

This recent post has the distinction of being the second most read post ever on the site on the day of its publication.

My Personal Favorites:

Writers are Super Heroes

This essay gives me an extra dose of “go get them” energy when I need it.

Problem Competition: Who is Worse Off?

How comparing our problems pushes us farther apart instead of bringing us together.

Will You Change the World?

I hope the answer is yes!

The Stories of Our Lives

“We are all leading ladies and men. And we each get the privilege of creating the stories of our lives.”

All together, it’s been a great year. Here’s to another year of interesting thoughts and engaging conversations!

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‘Tis the season to notice gratitude, and several of the blogs I read have been recently doing just that. John Scalzi started it off with his Thanksgiving Advent Calendar (the first post of which, incidentally, makes a nice companion piece to my own post on not drinking). My friend Marie Brennan decided to follow his lead and do a month-long thankfulness project as well (and by the by, also wrote this very Amy-approved post, if you’re looking for more reading). James Van Pelt chimed in with some gratitude of his ownjust yesterday.I’ve been really enjoying reading these posts. It’s so refreshing to get a little dose of positivity every day as these writers think about the various aspects of their lives that increase their quality of existence. After all, I’m never one to shy away from optimism, and one component of that is to appreciate what you already have. So here’s my list of random happy things in honor of Thanksgiving:1. A variety of fresh fruit and vegetables: Because in the past, you could usually only eat what was locally grown. Granted, I live in California, where many fruits and vegetables can be locally grown, but I’m still grateful for this.

2. Living in the United States: Okay, it’s true that the right of habeas corpus referenced in the Constitution seems to be on a permanent holiday, and apparently we’re not allowed to protest peacefully anymore either. But even though there are a lot of things I think need to be fixed, that doesn’t change the fact that I enjoy many benefits from living in the United States. My standard of living is higher than it would be in many, many other countries; I have access to useful infrastructure; and I don’t generally have to worry about my country being obliterated in the near future. These are benefits that I very much appreciate.

3. Corrective Vision Technology: Without any technological assistance, I am very, very nearsighted and couldn’t function normally in the world. Not only do I have access to glasses with light-weight lenses that don’t make me look at the world through Coke bottle glass, but if they break I can get them fixed locally and promptly. Plus, if I get sick of them, I can opt for contact lenses that aren’t painful like the old ones used to be or get corrective eye surgery. Yay for being able to see!

4. The Internet: My life would not be nearly as rich without the increased access the internet has given me, both to a wide variety of people and to a huge collection of data. When I was a kid, if I wanted to know something I’d look it up in our set of World Book encyclopedias and hope there was a relevant entry; if there wasn’t, I’d have to make a trip to the library or just settle for not knowing. Can you imagine settling for not knowing anymore? I can’t. And if you wanted to stay in touch with someone who didn’t live in your town, you wrote letters…which meant you couldn’t stay in touch with a very large number of people. Nowadays that’s gotten a lot easier.

5. My blog: For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a lot to say. However, if you meet me in person, you might not realize this is true, because I have this ingrained habit of asking questions and listening…which means I don’t always get around to the saying what’s on my mind part. Getting to share what’s going on up there in my head with you all is a great privilege…and a significant pleasure.

6. My car: This one is a little embarrassing. I had to replace my car early this year, and I’ve been surprised at how much I appreciate the new one. Sometimes it’s the little things: I push the ignition button and it ACTUALLY STARTS. Every single time, even. Wow, do I feel grateful to not have to worry about getting from point A to point B anymore. (P.S. The seat warmers don’t hurt either.)

7. Libraries: Until the last few years, buying a book (and probably a Mass Market paperback, at that) was an extremely big deal for me. The rest of the time, I supported my reading habit by frequenting my local library. I can’t imagine what I would have done my whole life without libraries, and I’m incredibly grateful that I was given the means to live the kind of literary life that would have otherwise been outside of my grasp.

8. My family: I know I sound like a broken record, but my husband and my dog probably make the biggest difference in my life on a day-to-day level. They make the good days better and the bad days not quite as grim. Any list of happy things doesn’t feel quite complete without mentioning them.

Please tell me a few of your own happy appreciative things, or write your own post and make sure to tell me about it!

I hope you all have a very happy Thanksgiving! I’m taking next week off from blogging for the holiday, so I’ll see you again the week after next.

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It’s time, my friends, for some housekeeping.

– I have a guest post up over at the Parking Lot Confessional entitled Own Your Creative Process. It’s about the dangers of overcomparing yourself to others and following advice that doesn’t work for you personally, two subjects that you probably know are close to my heart. Check it out!

– I realized that I forgot to mention on the blog when my story Breadcrumbs and Thighbones came out last month over at NewMyths.com. Anyway, it’s out! It’s a fairy tale mash-up of sorts and was very amusing to write. You can also read a fun interview with me if you click on my name on the story page.

– I have a new About page for the blog, now that I (possibly) have a better handle on what exactly it is that I’m doing here.

– By the way, it was brought to my attention last week that not everyone is aware they can subscribe to this blog via email. You can! See that email subscription box at the top of the right sidebar, right under my photo? If you click the Sign Me Up! button and input your email address, you will magically receive everything I do on this blog in your inbox. Mind you, I’m perfectly fine with you using an RSS feed, or clicking over occasionally from Google+ or Twitter or Facebook, or however it is that you got here. But if email happens to be convenient for you, just know that it is possible.

– Now that I have finished those massive posts on social media, I can turn my attention to something else for a while. What, I haven’t quite decided yet, so now’s your chance. If there’s something you’ve been dying to hear me talk about, please tell me about it. I can’t promise to take all suggestions, but I certainly will think about them.

And that’s all the housekeeping I have for now. I hope everyone has a great weekend. My husband and I are going to be celebrating our six-year meeting anniversary, so I’m already looking forward to it.

And now, for the obligatory Nala photo:

Nala feeling shy. Or maybe just sleepy. It's hard to tell.

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Last week when I was schmoozing away at the SCBWI conference, I told my friend how much I love my blog. “I don’t know if it builds my audience or will help my career in any tangible way,” I said (paraphrasing alert!), “but I don’t really care. I love writing for my blog. It’s an important part of my life as a writer.”

My friend responded that she hardly ever heard those sentiments. The conversation moved on, but what I think she meant was that so many people don’t like to blog. They complain about blogging. They wonder if they can get away without blogging. Blogging is a duty, another item on the to-do list.

I don’t think it’s worth it. I read a lot of blogs, and I can tell which bloggers love it. It shines through in their posts. I begin to feel like I know them, even though I’ve never met most of them. They are often so passionate about blogging that they can’t help talking about it every so often, just like I’m doing right now. Their blogs ring with passion, with thought, and with genuine interest in their readers. These are the blogs I miss when I’m away from the internet.

I question whether that sort of commitment can be faked. I’ve been hearing a lot in the past year about the craving we as a society have right now for authenticity, to the point that it has become something of a buzz word among certain circles. But jargon or no, I think it’s relevant to the conversation. We can tell when someone cares deeply about what they’re saying or doing, and their authenticity draws us in.

We can talk about how much we love blogging all we want, but it is our actions that show  whether we’re being genuine. Do we post regularly or do we tend to find excuses to avoid it? Do we write about subjects that we obviously care deeply about? Do we engage in the comment section with thoughtful discussion? Do we approach the writing of a blog post as though it is one of the most important things we could be doing right now?

For those who don’t enjoy blogging, there are plenty of other ways to engage with others. Happily we live in a time rife with choices: Twitter, Facebook (and Facebook pages), Google+, podcasts, Goodreads, etc. If there’s one of these platforms that we connect with better than the others, that ease will reflect itself in our interactions.

I hate the thought of the dutiful yet miserable blogger. Of course, even the most passionate blogger will have his off days or her moments when the words just don’t flow. Sometimes I’d prefer to mess around on the internet instead of writing the next essay, or ideas fail me and I don’t know what to write about. But ultimately I’m working out of a sense of love, not duty. I remember how much blogging gives to me and I push through the laziness and the lack of inspiration.

I think we find authenticity when we do what we love.

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