Two Articles About Writing and One Short Story About Taxes

Chicago Review of Books: Richard Powers: Writing ‘The Overstory’ Quite Literally Changed My Life

I began to imagine what they must have looked like, those forests that would not return for centuries, if ever. It seemed to me that we had been at war for a long time, trees and people, and I wondered if it might be possible for things ever to go any other way. Within a few months, I quit my job at Stanford and devoted myself full time to writing The Overstory.

Earlier this week, The Overstory won the Pulitzer Prize—and it is very, very worth reading, so go check it out if you haven’t already.

LitHub: Unsilencing the Writing Workshop

When we unsilence workshop, when we invite students to participate in the discussion of their own work, everything changes: the writer is no longer passively accepting comments. Rather, they become who they should be: the creators and navigators of their own work.

The workshoppers, in turn, are asked to do less prescribing (I want to see more of this; I want this or that to happen; I didn’t want that character to be here) and more questioning. Why did you use first-person? How important is the sister character supposed to be? Instead of a typical old-school workshop comment such as “I want to see more about the mother,” there’s a question: “We don’t see much about the mother—how important of a character is she?” The former is a demand; the latter is an opening.

YES. I AGREE. ONE HUNDRED PERCENT.

The Paris Review: As Certain as Death and Taxes

The job I had before was for an investment advice publisher, where I learned that I liked numbers. I liked that the number four was always four and no one could argue with you about that. Every number had its own narrative power, even if you couldn’t see it right away. When a number changed, or when you expected it to and it didn’t change, that meant someone out there in the world had done something to make that happen. People made big decisions because of a little number. Everyone had a theory and a prediction about it. I had been an English major, but I didn’t feel out of place in the class. The theories we read and studied were really about people, and the tax return was a way of telling their stories.

Remember—this one’s fiction. ❤️

Where I Got Published Today: Lifehacker

‘Earn and Burn’ Your Airline Rewards to Maximize Free Flights

Why is it a mistake to save those miles for the future? As NerdWallet explains—and as I recently learned—credit card issuers frequently update their rewards programs. Points and miles can lose value, which is why sites like The Points Guy track monthly valuations, and point/mile earning options can be adjusted or eliminated completely.

Always Carry Cash So You Can Leave Tips

Take hotel housekeeping, for example. Unless you have cash on hand, how do you tip the people who clean your room and make your bed? USA Today proposes a complicated system in which you first ask the concierge whether any part of your hotel bill, such as the service charge, is distributed to housekeepers, and then “Ask the concierge to increase the amount of the service charge if the hotel automatically includes an amount that you feel is too low.”

Friday Open Thread

Or Good Friday open thread, if you prefer.

Today, I suggest reading Tara K. Shepersky’s thoughts on Good Friday, which are appropriate regardless of your current faith. I spent last weekend performing with Chorale Midwest in an absolutely beautiful Catholic church, surrounded by stained-glass saints and Stations of the Cross, and it made me think about all of the stories we tell and the rituals we perform to acknowledge the changing of the seasons (and the way our own lives change over time).

I’ll be honest: as a person who stopped attending services after spending five years as a church organist, it also made me think “I wish Christianity was mostly about people getting together to discuss how to live and having regular celebrations based on a shared narrative, because I would be down for that.”

The trouble is that so many of those discussions devolve into xenophobia and homophobia and arguments about whether guitars are appropriate in church (which is really just an extension of the old “but what if we didn’t always speak in Latin” argument), and it quickly becomes less about discussing how to live and more about bickering over the details.

Anyway. This is an open thread, which means it’s time for me to stop going on and on and let you share what’s on your mind. ❤️

Where I Got Published Today: Lifehacker

How Much You Should Pay for Legal Weed, According to a Budtender

According to the 2018 Cannabis Price Index, buying legal weed in America will cost you between $7 and $11 per gram, depending on where you live. However, that won’t be much help when you’re trying to figure out whether a certain tincture or pack of gummies is a good deal. Likewise, certain strains of weed are more expensive than others—does that mean the pricier weed will give you a better experience, or does it mean you’re wasting your money?

Consider How a Potential Roommate Might Affect You Financially

When I was in grad school, I came home from class one day to find that one of my three roommates had moved out.

I also learned that I would not be receiving her portion of the unpaid rent—because it was one of those situations where one roommate wrote a check to the landlord (and the utility companies) and the other roommates left money on the kitchen counter to pay their share.

More Thoughts on Character Conflict in Storytelling

I finished my Game of Thrones rewatch on Monday and caught up with the newest episode on Tuesday—and without spoiling anything (well, nearly anything) about the series, I’m struck by how well my recent “discovery” that conflict between characters is an essential part of storytelling holds up.

Here’s the part that might be a teeny-weeny spoiler: this last season of Game of Thrones comes down to:

  1. Fighting the Big Bad.
  2. Deciding who wins the Iron Throne (assuming it is not destroyed in the big fight).

Okay. At this point, I doubt many fans are hugely invested in the boss fight. I mean, sure, people want to see explosions and whatever, I understand that part, but… there are basically two outcomes here.

HUMANS DEFEAT EVIL

or

EVIL DEFEATS HUMANS.

Of the two, I am pretty sure I know which one is going to happen.

So why keep watching—or, for that matter, why watch any of the series, since we knew from the very first scene that EVIL HAD RETURNED TO THE LAND and SOMEONE WOULD NEED TO DEFEAT IT AT SOME POINT, probably WITH EXPLOSIONS?

Because, eight seasons in, we want to know how the character conflicts will be resolved.

It’s super easy to thwap fireballs at a bad guy until he goes down.

It’s much harder to tell someone, particularly someone you love, that SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. There were plenty of reviewers and bloggers and Redditors arguing that the penultimate season of Game of Thrones felt “contrived” or “boring.”

Not because much of that season was about people preparing to fight a giant evil supermonster, which is literally the most contrived thing ever.

But because the interpersonal conflict didn’t make sense.

Again, teeny-weeny spoiler: the show did the thing where one character finds a letter written by another character, misunderstands the contents of the letter completely, and launches the type of conflict that could have been solved in two seconds if the two people involved had just talked to each other.

The conflict, between two characters who had previously been allies and whom we correctly predicted would be allies again once the misunderstanding got cleared up, felt forced. Unearned. Boring.

This, by the way, was coming from a show that had previously been so nuanced that it made multiple child murderers sympathetic.* No human was fully good or fully evil (with perhaps one exception), and no family was fully on the right side of the argument. People did the best they could with the information and resources they had.

And then the storyline outpaced the books that were its original source material and the characters started acting more like one-note action heroes (and coincidentally uninformed romantic comedy heroes) than people.

Which meant the conflicts became less interesting, since—just like the fight against the Big Bad—we already knew how they were going to end.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about, as we enter our final season of Game of Thrones and I continue drafting NEXT BOOK.❤️

*Yes, that means both “multiple characters that murdered children” and “characters that murdered multiple children.”

Where I Got Published Today: Lifehacker

Get Bigger Social Security Checks by Delaying Your Payout

If you can’t make it a few years without Social Security, even delaying retirement for a short period of time (like, half a year) can increase those Social Security checks. Waiting pays off—literally.

Here’s Everything a Financial Guru Can Tell You

If you’ve read as many financial guides as I have (and at this point, I feel like I’ve read nearly all of them) you quickly realize they’re all saying the same thing. The catchy phrases and psychological techniques might differ—Dave Ramsey has his Debt Snowball, Vicki Robin has her Gazingus Pins—but the advice, at its core, is nearly identical.

Why I Love Les Mills Classes

I didn’t always hate gym class.

During elementary school, I maintained the delusion that if I tried as hard as I could, I’d hit the ball instead of flinching at it. If I ran as fast as I could, I’d win the 100-yard-dash on Track and Field Day.

By middle school, when gym began to include lockers and showers and bullying, I gave up. I still dressed out and hustled and did whatever the gym teacher said I should do, because I was that kind of student—but I did it badly, was made fun of, and (like many seventh-graders before me) decided I wasn’t a Gym Person.

In my junior year of high school, a new gym teacher saved my butt—literally. If we didn’t want to play flag football or basketball or whatever sport he’d set up for the day, we could walk the track. I began taking 90-minute walks twice a week, realized how mentally refreshing a long walk could be, and kept up the habit long after that gym class ended.

This year I picked up a new gym habit: Les Mills classes at the YMCA.

If you aren’t familiar with the Les Mills method, it’s essentially a cross-training system: one day you do weights, one day you do Pilates, one day you do cardio, etc. I started with just the weights class because I read Casey Johnston’s Ask a Swole Woman columns and thought I’d try weightlifting, and now I take all of them.

Here is what I’ve learned:

I love gym.

I did not expect to become a Gym Person. I never imagined myself voluntarily purchasing a YMCA membership. I’d always been “reasonably physically active,” in the sense that I walk and I bike and I do yoga, but I’d strategically avoided the kind of physical activity that makes you sweat.

Now I love it.

What changed? Probably the fact that we’re all adults now, and nobody’s bullying anyone else, and none of these activities involve a ball being thrown at my face. (I still have a chipped front tooth from a sixth grade gym class and a basketball I couldn’t block.)

Here’s what hasn’t changed:

I am still bad at gym.

When our teacher says “run,” I am always at the back of the pack. When she says “sprint,” I can only get halfway across the room. There are some activities I do pretty well (like tuck jumps), and others that I do extremely poorly (like lunge jumps).

I have made some small improvements since I started Les Mills classes, mostly in the amount of weight I can bench and press and squat. I do not see myself ever becoming a better runner, nor do I predict that I’ll be able to increase the speed at which I currently burpee (I can only do one in the time everyone else can complete two).

I do not care—and more importantly, no one else cares either. The Les Mills ethos, as our teacher keeps reminding us, is “keep moving.” The Les Mills system includes a number of options for people at varying levels of fitness and ability; if you aren’t running today, for example, you can always jog or walk. If you can’t do a particular exercise, you can march in place until it’s time for the next one. Just keep moving, and fitness will happen.

Which brings me to:

I have gotten more physically fit than I previously thought possible.

My fitness metrics, from resting heart rate to body fat percentage to muscle visibility, have improved dramatically since I started taking Les Mills classes. Despite the fact that I can only do 80 percent of the exercises and am the slowest one at many of them.

This is making me rethink the way we teach people how to be fit—or, for that matter, the way we teach people anything.

There are plenty of kids going into middle school who have already decided that they aren’t a Gym Person or a Math Person or a Music Person or a Writing Person. There are plenty of adults who realize they like group fitness classes a lot more than flag football, or that they can play most of the pop songs out there by learning four (okay, six) chords on the guitar. Why can’t we start teaching this kind of stuff—low-stakes, do what you can, just keep moving classes—to young people?

The first obvious reason is that adults who take group fitness classes want to be there, while young people rarely have a choice. This means you need external stakes to keep young students motivated, e.g. grades and peer-to-peer rankings (even though many students ignore that type of motivation and spend their school days checked out).

The second obvious reason is that we want to give at least some students the opportunity to master a subject. Yes, a lot of that mastery happens outside of the classroom, whether in sports practice sessions, private piano lessons, or robotics clubs, but—well, I can play six self-taught chords on the guitar. I had sixteen years of piano lessons. There is a huge difference in mastering vs. dabbling.

The third obvious reason is that I can’t find a good analogue for math. Sure, you can do 80% of the math you need in life once you understand basic arithmetic, the same way you can play 80% of the pop songs out there once you learn four-to-six chords. But you can get physically fit without being able to do a lunge jump. You can’t learn algebra without learning algebra.

I don’t know where to go from here—like, there’s no way I can legitimately make pompous statements about education reform, the only classes I teach are group writing classes for adults who want to be there—but now that I’ve discovered how much fun gym can be, with the team camaraderie and the pumping soundtrack and the teacher who encourages us to keep moving, just keep moving, I feel kind of cheated.

Now that I know that gym class doesn’t have to be terrible, even for the haplessly slow and uncoordinated, it makes me wonder why I wasn’t able to get that experience as a child—and whether other educational experiences can be made less terrible as well. ❤️

Where I Got Published Today: Lifehacker

What I Learned From Learning How to Say No

When I realized that I needed to get better at saying no, I started with extremely low-stakes situations, such as telling an acquaintance that I couldn’t meet up for drinks. When I realized that saying no in a single situation didn’t cause a chain-reaction of unwanted consequences—like, the acquaintance didn’t hate me forever, we saw each other at another social event and it was fine—I practiced saying no to close friends. Still fine. Miraculously, our friendship survived the great “I don’t feel like tacos tonight” incident of 2016, which prepared me for more difficult decisions like “I won’t be able to join the big friend trip this year.”

How to Manage Household Finances After Your Spouse Dies

If you and your spouse also divide financial chores, make sure both of you understand not only the state of the household finances but also how to complete each other’s tasks. Consider creating a hard copy list of financial accounts, with login and password information where appropriate—and keep it updated. If you’re concerned about password security, you can deposit that list with your lawyer or with the executor of your will. (You do have a will, right?)

Why Conflict Between Characters Is an Essential Part of Storytelling

So… there was this one time, when I was playing Dungeons & Dragons, and I killed this monster that loot-dropped a basket.

“The basket contains infinite food,” the DM told me.

“I use it to destroy the global economy,” I replied.

The DM immediately clarified that the basket only provided enough food for one person, for one day. After I started trying to use the food supply as weapons, he told me that the only food in the basket was muffins, which I thought was a little unfair.

But I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to take magical objects to their logical extreme—and part of the fun of writing NEXT BOOK has been creating a character who shares that perspective.

This character is unlike me in a number of ways; she’s a cynic, for starters. She does not approach the possibilities of other worlds with anything like joy and wonder; she understands that once the general population gets wind of a portal to a magical kingdom, for example, it’ll just lead to more wars and resource battles.

There is another character, of course, who provides the opposite perspective. Who believes that a doorway to a new world could lead to something wonderful, instead of something terrible.

Then I introduced a planned obstacle—like, one that had been in the plot from the very beginning—and had these two characters react to it in the exact same way.

Because that’s the only way people could react to this particular plot development, right? No option for optimism here, not as we head into the third act!

And then my draft died.

I’d open it up, write a couple hundred words, erase them, rewrite them, and then close the laptop and tell myself I’d try again tomorrow.

Then I had a shower thought.

What if I had my positive thinker continue to think positively, even in this particular situation? What if this character saw the problem as an opportunity for growth and connection, rather than the destructive force my more cynical protagonist (and myself, as the author) initially assumed it was?

This not only made my narrative immediately more interesting, it also brought conflict back into the story. I mean, obviously the main conflict is characters vs. obstacle, but you know that these characters are going to overcome the obstacle eventually because that’s how stories work.

Which means the conflict that really matters is the conflict between the characters. That’s the part of the story that helps us understand how to be human, after all.

It was a good lesson to learn, even if it took me nearly a week of junky writing to figure it out. ❤️