Take a 30-Minute Holiday

I’ve noticed that if my writing isn’t going as well as I’d like it to, even though I know that it’s part of the process to have rough patches, I tend to work more rather than less, as if by “worrying” the work I’ll have that breakthrough that I need to move the work along.

And that’s the worst thing I can do. If, instead, I step back from the work, take some time to myself to do something enjoyable, I return to the work refreshed, and I’ve sometimes figured out what needs doing without working at all.

I’ve often had a conference with a student writer lamenting the fact that her/his work had hit a rough patch. I’d always suggest that they leave the college and take a walk in Central Park before their next class, no matter how much work they had to do, no matter how it seemed that they didn’t have enough time for a half hour’s pleasure. (And have we come to this as a society, that a half hour’s pleasure during a day seems an impossible undertaking? If it is, as it seems to be, we are royally screwed. At times, during my teaching, gazing at my students, knowing how hard they were working, I’d give them the homework assignment of “doing something pleasurable that doesn’t cost anything that is enriching.” Some looked at me as if they couldn’t fathom what that would be.)

I’ve been reading Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (NY:
The Penguin Press, 2009), a magnificent and worthwhile book for writers, but important, too, for how we can create a deeply meaningful, satisfying, and enjoyable life. In Rapt, Gallagher cites the work of Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff whose book, Savoring (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006), reported results from the following experiment.

Three groups were instructed to go for a walk a day for a week. The first were told to look for and focus on all the enjoyable things they witnessed: flowers, children playing, clouds in the sky and to savor them–to immerse themselves in how enriching these simple experiences were. The second were told to focus on negative things: graffiti, broken sidewalks. The third were told to simply walk.

After a week, they discovered that the first group reported being happier than they were before the exercise; the second group, less happy; the third, in between the first two. The conclusion: “you can train yourself to attend to the joy out there waiting to be had, instead of passively waiting for it to come to you.”

Bryant suggests this very simple activity to incorporate into our daily lives to enrich them immeasurably: taking a “daily vacation”; “spending twenty to thirty minutes focusing on something you enjoy or suspect you might but have never done.” Then, at the end of the day, you “revisit and relish this pleasurable interlude and plan the next.”

As writers, as people, we immerse ourselves in activity and work so much that we forget that doing creative work of any kind, including constructing a life lived well, necessitates that we nourish and enjoy ourselves.

When I think back on all the holidays I’ve had, and the most enjoyable moments I’ve had on them, I realize that, wherever I was, the pleasures I’d enjoyed most were simple ones that I can recreate right here, right now.

Sitting in a garden and knitting. Sitting in a park and reading. Savoring a pastry and a coffee at a cafe. Sitting in front of a single painting and looking at it for a long time. Listening to a magnificent piece of music. Cooking something with an ingredient I picked up at a local market. Walking and enjoying the local domestic architecture. Looking at a view. Wandering through a food market and buying one ingredient I’d never seen before. Going to a bakery and studying all the breads and pastries and buying a bread to enjoy. Browsing in a bookshop and finding a book to read that I wouldn’t ordinarily choose. Driving down a road that looked inviting. Studying an art book bought at a gallery.

All those hours I’ve spent traipsing through museums, through historic houses, through the “top ten” sights in a given city are not what I now recall as having given me great pleasure. Rather, it was those quiet, solitary moments of savoring small pleasures that I now remember.

I can’t travel afar now. But it doesn’t mean that I can’t have a daily holiday, as Bryant suggests. In fact, I’ve promised myself a daily 30-minute holiday. Bryant says that, at the end of a week, we’ll feel as if our lives are far more pleasurable and meaningful, no matter what the circumstances, than they were before we began this practice.

So today I will take my friend Laurie Lico Albanese’s Stolen Beauty: A Novel, which I am reading pre-publication, out into my garden, and I will spend thirty minutes reading it. It’s a gorgeous book, about Adele Bloch-Bauer’s relationship with the painter Gustav Klimt, and her niece, Maria Altman’s life during the Nazi invasion of Austria. It’s precisely what I’d be doing on holiday, so today that will be my thirty-minute holiday. And tomorrow?

Tomorrow I might go to the Montclair Art Museum to revisit Janet Taylor Pickett, The Matisse Series, an extraordinary exhibit of the artist’s collages inspired by the work of Matisse. I’ve been there once. But I’d like to go again and again and study just one piece for a half hour because they are so complex and evocative. I’ve even considered learning how to do collage because of Pickett’s exhibit.

And the day after that? Well, I’ll have to see what strikes me. So, what will you do when you take your 30-minute holiday? Let me know. Maybe we can encourage each other to enrich our lives by daily pleasurable acts of attention.


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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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