If you are looking for something to read or listen to during COVID sheltering, here are ten books of the most interesting books I have read this year.
1.Themes & Variations — David Sedaris — This has to be the 1. funniest book I read so far this year. Sedaris’ humor about the most mundane things are a gift
2. Other People’s Trades — Primo Levi — Essays that are mentally challenging and humorous. Levi is a magician of language.
3. No More Mr. Nice Guy — Dr. Robert Glover — As a reforming nice guy, this book helped me figure out what is so frustrating about being a “nice guy”.
4. The Nickel Boys — Colson Whitehead- I may be biased because I am a serious fan of Colson Whitehead, but The Nickel Boys is classic material. The research combined with brilliant writing tells a compelling story. The timing of the publication of this book couldn’t better with all the civil unrest in our nation.
5. African Folktales— A. Kwada- A great collection of short tales from all over Africa. The origin stories are my favorite
6. The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories — Leo Tolstoy — Tolstoy is a master storyteller. His descriptions of the human condition are on point. It is difficult to believe it was written more than 100 years ago
When I was a fourteen, my dad bought me a journal from Z-Gallerie. I liked any little chotsky from the little store on Melrose. I once bought a toothbrush from there that I used far longer than any toothbrush should be used.A year or two later, my dad gave me a Moleskin journal, from that very same Z-Gallerie. He told me the lore of the Moleskin and mentioned something about Hemingway. I didn’t think much about journals or writing. I liked the idea the journal came from the Z-Gallerie. He finished by saying I should write down my thoughts.
About a decade later, I finally took my dad’s advice and started writing my thoughts down. I discovered as Joseph Joubert says “writing is closer to thinking than speaking.” I explored and got in touch with things I had no language to talk about. Since that time, writing in a journal has evolved for me. I wrote opinions, story ideas and a lot of hurt feelings.
Around the same time, I read “Wild Mind1” by Natalie Goldberg and committed to writing every day. I have also read by “The Notebook of Anton Chekhov2” and Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook3”. The biggest influences on my journal at the time were Langston Hughes’ “The Big Sea4” and Spike Lee’s book on “Do The Right Thing5”.
Since that time, I have also borrowed certain elements from the latest journal keeping craze and writing exercises that worked for me.
What I am listing here are the 10 ingredients that make a journal entry for me. My journal entries are like omelets; there are very few rules and they are easy to make. I grab whatever in the fridge that is my brain and throw it in the pan. I have been making omelets for the last twenty years and it continues to evolve.
Let’s start with the main ingredient. Everything in our world has a purpose. Even when I sit in front of a television and do nothing for a couple of hours, I have a purpose. If afterwards I classified my TV time as a waste of time, I confirm there was a purpose to the time. When a person sits down and writes in a journal, they have a purpose. My purpose is to scour my innerspace in order to move forward as a person and write about my journey.
Just as one figures out what makes a good omelette even better, there will be some tinkering with the ingredients. Your purpose dictates the direction of your tinkering. When I first decided to do more with my writing, my journal became more than a place where I wrote down my thoughts. Writing down my thoughts was an omelette that has eggs, cheese and some bell peppers. I wanted to add more ingredients to my recipe.
All of my writing starts with gratitude. It is easy to focus on the negative. In the past, I unconsciously used my journal as a complaint log. It was a launching pad for negativity and bitterness. When I read some past journal entries from this time, I feel sad and depressed. There were a lot of pages wasted on hurt feelings.I started to turn things around after I read The 4:8 Principle6. Tommy Newberry has great insights and advice to keep a person focused on gratitude. Part of the process are five questions the reader is supposed to ask themselves every day. The questions are good for putting a person’s life in perspective, but they were too limited for journaling. Lately I have been using the Five Minute Journal. I find it to be cleaner and less redundant.
Linda Sue Park says reading for writers is like training for athletes7. I grew up playing competitive sports so this quote rings like an absolute truth. My journal entries always have mentions of the book I am reading or an article I read. Writing about what I am reading is the best way for me to explore and understand what I am reading. I have used a Zora Neale Hurston essay8 that turned into a blog post.
Sometimes I want to make notes about the author’s style or themes they are addressing in a piece of writing. Have you ever been enjoying an omelet and, at the same time, trying to figure out what the ingredients are so you can try it at home? There are components in the writings of others. I would like to add to my own recipe.
I recently read Primo Levi’s Other Peoples’ Trades9 where he brilliantly explores insects, books, computers or works of art with some of the most beautiful writing I have read. I have learned so much about writing in just 220 pages.
4. Past Journal Entries
In addition to reading books, I read my past journal entries. 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts run through a person’s head each day. With so much traffic running through my head. I have found it is good to remind myself what was important at a particular time. I read the entries from the past week to see if there are topics or themes I need to explore and write more about. I also look back three months, six months and annually for the current day. I try to pick up on serial themes and ideas in my own life. I am sometimes amazed to see I was wrestling with the same question I contended with six months ago. Sometimes I see little things from six months ago and realize there is more to write about, a particular topic or idea.
I also like to read my past journal entries to fight the 24-Hour news cycle. Our society has a collective forgetfulness caused by the speed of the deluge of information we are being bombarded with.
Recently I have seen how COVID-19 has changed our world. I have been amazed at how things have changed so quickly in the matter of a month. I barely remember the fires in Australia, the Trump impeachment trial, Kobe Bryant’s tragic passing and many other smaller events. Overnight, my life became about toilet paper, social distancing and crisis teaching my seven year old.
5. Google Keep
At some point I decided I wanted my journal to be a place for a different kind of writing. I wanted a test kitchen for my omelets. At the time, my journal was part writing and part junkyard with scraps of quotes, ideas and random dialogue. What I needed was another place to store the smaller scraps that created triggers or may turn into writing later. I needed a storage freezer for special ingredients to try in my test kitchen later. After trying numerous approaches from a file folder to mind-maps; from Instapaper to One Note, I settled on Google Keep. It is simple and has limited features, but they are the exact features I need. Bells and whistles can be a rabbit hole of distraction to me. My mind has a bend toward organization and playing with bells and whistles instead of writing. With Google Keep, I can make notes, save websites and attach pictures, video and voice notes.
My daily Google Keep note contains a Mind Dump, a Love/Hate list and all the ideas, websites and pics that I stumble upon throughout the day. I try to start the day with a Mind Dump where I make a list of whatever comes off the top of my head. I sort out my morning fog and see how all these different items play out throughout my day. I also use a Love/Hate list on my Google Keep Note. I find myself loving and hating things throughout the day and I need some time in my journal to figure out why.
6. Writing Prompts
Writing prompts are great for exercising the old writing muscles or coming up with new story ideas. If I get stuck while writing a story, I will plug my characters into a writing prompt to unlock something new about them.
At the beginning of each month, Writers Write put out a list of short one or two word prompts for each day of the month. They also send daily writing prompts.
Another idea I use which goes back to what I am reading is a Six Word Writing Prompt. Something else influenced by Hemingway. How this works, is when I find a six word phrase (Don’t get legalistic about the number of words.) from my reading that moves me and I use it to start a writing piece.
My journal is a place to explore my premises. A premise is three sentences to a paragraph that serves as a compass for the direction of the writing. August Birch has a great template for a premise. Under the theory of opportunity cost, doing one activity costs a person the opportunity to do something else. I apply a series of questions to see if it is with intense some serious time into it, cut bait, or does it need to marinate longer.
8. 5 Whys
A practice that has been very helpful in exploring topics and questions
is the 5 Whys. Sakichi Toyoda, the Japanese industrialist, inventor, and founder of Toyota Industries, developed the 5 Whys technique in the 1930s. It became popular in the 1970s, and Toyota still uses it to solve problems today. The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a or problem by repeating the question “Why?” Each answer forms the basis of the next question.
I am a slow processor. I feel the tip of the iceberg and I need to ask myself “why” five times to figure out what is under the water. The method has helped me address some of my fears and dig into some of things that anger me.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, I can’t write them all down
in one sitting. I need to revisit those thoughts and feelings by just turning to a particular page and looking at this picture glued in my journal. I paste images into my daily Google Keep Note. I also get out my scissors and glue stick to paste pics from magazines, pics from my travels, postcards and newspapers into my journal. I find this works better than writing about what I felt or thought because of the picture.
10. No Drafts
In the event I decide to write a story or an essay, it does not go in my journal. I have a separate Moleskin journal where I write my first drafts. This goes back to purpose. My journal is a place for my mind to explore ideas and wander. It’s a sketch pad for my words. It’s my test kitchen where I tinker with recipes and use myself as the guinea pig. Writing a draft is like chiseling on a piece of marble in an effort to make a sculpture.
Now it’s time for you to tinker in your test kitchen. Go into your fridge and pull out the things that would make a good omelet. Crack some eggs and test it out.
Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich. Notebook of Anton Chekhov. Echo Library, 2006.
Didion, Joan. The White Album. HarperCollins Publishers Australia., 2017.
Goldberg, Natalie. Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life. Rider & Co, 2009.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: an Autobiogr. Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1988.
Lee, Spike, et al. Do the Right Thing: a Spike Lee Joint. Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Levi, Primo, et al. Other People’s Trades. Royal National Institute of the Blind, 2005.
Newberry, Tommy. The 4:8 Principle: Christian Art Publishers, 2009.
Park, Linda Sue. A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story. Oneworld Publications, 2018.
1. Goldberg, Natalie. Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life. Rider & Co, 2009.
2. Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich. Notebook of Anton Chekhov. Echo Library, 2006.
3. Didion, Joan. The White Album. HarperCollins Publishers Australia., 2017.
4. Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: an Autobiogr. Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1988.
5. Lee, Spike, et al. Do the Right Thing: a Spike Lee Joint. Simon and Schuster, 1989.
6. Newberry, Tommy. The 4:8 Principle: Christian Art Publishers, 2009.
7. Park, Linda Sue. A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story. Oneworld Publications, 2018.
8. Cohen, Samuel S. 50 Essays: a Portable Anthology. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020.9. Levi, Primo, et al. Other People’s Trades. Royal National Institute of the Blind, 2005.