Should kids only read “high quality” literature? (Um. No. Obviously not).

This month’s “are middle grade and YA books terrible for readers???” article is currently flying around Twitter. This time, it’s not a thinkpiece about the decline of literature, thank god, but a piece in the UK Times about a British headteacher who has banned books like Artemis Fowl, Eragon, Percy Jackson and Alex Rider from the school library, because they are “so simplistic, brutal or banal” that they’re not worth reading.

I hate, hate, hate the idea the idea that kids should only read “quality literature.” I hate the idea that anyone should only read “quality literature,” but it especially annoys me when it comes to kids and teens.

Honestly, I’m not a big fan of forcing younger kids to read “quality literature” at all, and I say that as an English major. I barely enjoyed any of the books I was forced to read for school when I was a teen, no matter what they were. I hated (hatedNorthanger Abbey when I read it for school at 15. I hated Emma even more when I read it aged 17. Now they’re two of my favorite books. Some exposure to classic literature is good, but if classes want to teach skills like literary analysis, it helps to study books that the students actually enjoy and want to analyse. I went to Princeton, potential bastion of academic snobbery, and I have never seen an English class so enthused as when we discussed Harry Potter in one of my classes one week. People who weren’t in the class turned up anyway, just for that one discussion. And those were all academically-minded college students. If you want to teach kids to love and think about literature, you’ve got to give them literature that’s easy for them to love first.

In fact, a lot of the texts we try and force kids to read weren’t ever designed for kids to enjoy. Austen wasn’t writing for kids. Neither was Dickens, or Steinbeck, or Shakespeare. It takes a lot of extra enthusiasm and effort to get younger students to connect with these works, because they weren’t meant for people their age, even when they were originally published. You have to convince readers that reading is worthwhile first, so it seems worth it to make the extra effort with more difficult texts.

It’s also worth pointing out that modern middle grade and YA is far more inclusive than classic literature. Otherwise, students are reading a lot about British white people, or, sometimes, American white people, and almost always men. If you want students to see themselves in what they read, you either have to expand beyond the typical middle school and high school classic texts, or give them something more modern. Percy Jackson may be a fantasy story about Greek gods, but it also has diversity in race, sexual orientation and gender identity. Banning those sorts of books makes reading even more exclusionary to huge parts of the population, who see that they’re not the sort of people that “good” stories are written about.

And you know what I read when I was a teen? Fanfiction. I probably read about 10 books a year, but I devoured fanfic of Harry Potter, LOST, Buffy, Firefly… thousands of words every night, staying up til 4am when a story really gripped me. I could not get enough of it. I never read “quality literature” outside of school assignments at that age. I read Tamora Pierce, Lemony Snicket, Meg Cabot, but otherwise, fanfiction. So, so, so much fanfiction.

I now read about 100 books a year, as well as writing my own (although, of course, my books are not “quality literature” either). I read YA, classics, fantasy, biographies, speculative science fiction, modern journalism. I love Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton with a degree in English Literature, specialising in 19th century novels, and now work as a writer, because I was passionate about stories. And the reason I was that passionate about stories is because I read the books that inspired me when I was younger, and then let myself get lost in those worlds, in all their possibilities, through endless fanfic.

In short: screw you, literary snobs. Let kids read whatever the hell inspires them. It’ll take them much further than forcing them to read things that bore them until they refuse to pick up a book ever again.

Fighting Anxiety, March 2017 Edition

Well, this week has been a bit of a blogging (and writing) bust. My good old friend anxiety has decided to make an appearance, and nothing is getting done.

So, instead of any thoughts on feminism and fiction-writing, here are a few of the things I’ve been using to help soothe my anxiety over the past few days. If you’re feeling anxious right now, maybe one of these will help you too. 🙂

Stardew Valley

I have returned to my lovely farm in Stardew Valley after several months away. This game is the spiritual successor of Harvest Moon, an adorable farming sim with bonus exploring and monster-slaying and artefact collecting, and omg, it is so calming to play. It’s fall of year 3 for me, we just had a new baby goat called Gertrude, and I’m running around forcing my neighbors to accept endless gifts of strawberries so that we can be best friends and I can get an achievement.

A Night in the Woods

I am love love loving watching Jacksepticeye’s Let’s Play of this game. It’s a meandering narrative game about a girl called Mae, who just moved home to small town Possum Springs after dropping out of college, and it’s all about friendship and figuring out who you are and possibly also ghosts. It’s incredibly well-written and beautifully animated, and the voices Jack does while playing it are so good. I’d buy the game to play myself, because I looove it, but I’m so attached to Jack’s voices and commentary that it just wouldn’t be the same.

Seriously, this is turning out to be of my favorite Let’s Play series ever, up there with Undertale, so I really recommend it if you’re looking for something long and engaging and soothing to watch.

The La La Land soundtrack

There’s just something really motivating about listening to Another Day of Sun, even if it is dull and grey in England right now.

Meraki Candles

I’ve been using a lot of candles and fairy lights over the past couple of days, and my favorite right now are the book-themed Meraki Candles that a friend gave me for Christmas. The Etsy shop is closed right now, so I can’t link to the exact scents I’m loving, but my favorite is Starfall, a jasmine-y candle inspired by A Court of Mist and Fury. I highly recommend!

Logging Off

I really need to write a longer blog post about my experiments in reducing my tech use, in an attempt to reduce my anxiety. But I’ve been trying very, very hard to stay mostly offline the past few days, beyond the required email checks and work attempts. My laptop lives in my desk drawer when I’m not working, my Smartphone is turned off, and… I think it’s helping. It’s so much easier to remember how to breathe when you step back from the never-ending onslaught of the digital world for a while. So that, I think, is what I’m going to do right now. All the work and stress can wait until Monday. Or until tomorrow, at the very least.

Too Much To Read

Do you guys ever get, like, media anxiety? I was sitting and musing about how I was going to spend my evening, and suddenly, it was like an avalanche of wtf.

I’ve been rewatching Gilmore Girls, and I’m almost done with S6, but I’ve seen Gilmore Girls before, and I’m also halfway through a long Chinese drama, but I also only watched three episodes of Series of Unfortunate Events so far, oh, and that documentary on North Korea is only half-watched, and I’m only 40 minutes into the OJ Simpson documentary, and I’ve got a long list of review copies of books to read, but this other book is due back at the library soon, and I’ve been meaning to read THIS for a while, and have you seen how many unplayed games I have in my Steam library, but I kinda want to replay Skyrim, oh and start a new farm on Stardew Valley, except how can I have time when I haven’t finished Pokemon Sun, and and and and…

Isn’t entertainment supposed to be, you know, fun? I feel like I need an organisational chart to meet all my story-consumption goals. And that’s not very relaxing. Even my Youtube To Watch playlist feels like it’s gotten out of hand. There’s just too much!

Meanwhile, right now kitty!Hermione is under my chair, mauling her toy mouse. I bet she never gets anxiety over which toy to murder next.

I’m always like, “Well, maybe if you didn’t waste so much time, you’d get through all this!”, but I reeeally don’t think entertainment is supposed to be this stressful. And the one thing that was good for destressing with this stuff was donating all of the books in my to-read pile (accumulated over years and years) and not letting myself buy any more books or games unless I planned to read or play them immediately. It’s a hard rule to stick to sometimes, but it’s sooo much less stressful.

So. Destressing steps! First, making Netflix not a place of horror. You can’t remove shows from your “continue watching” list, but you can go into your user settings and delete the series from your viewing history, which takes them off that list too. I’m watching Gilmore Girls and my Chinese drama, depending on my mood. Done. A quick sweep-up of library books into a tote bag to return tomorrow, minus the one I’m actually currently reading (there were 7 extra ones, all on three week loan). I can reborrow them later. A purge of my Youtube To Watch list, accepting that things I added more than a couple of days ago will now never be seen. And a couple of deep breaths while accepting that none of this is required. This is not a race to watch and read and play everything so I have nothing left to do except stare into space, knowing I’ve finally achieved 100% desired media consumption.

And now that I’ve spent my evening overthinking things instead of actually reading, watching or playing any of these things, I think I’m just going to go to sleep. So, all in all, a productive night. 😛

Hate? On the Internet???

Argh, I am so mad right now.

Like, incoherently, making random noises of frustration at my laptop screen, wondering why the world is so stupid angry.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the current situation with Pewdiepie on my other blog. Honestly, I thought I was hovering on the line of being too forgiving of offensiveness in an attempt to understand the mindset of the people supporting him. And even six months ago, I would have told you that I didn’t really like the Pewdiepie persona, but I liked the guy behind the channel, Felix, well enough. He seemed like a decent guy, and I liked seeing him and his girlfriend Marzia in her vlogs. Since he amped up the “shock” humor in his videos, I started to be really uncomfortable with him, because even if it’s just a persona, he’s still choosing to create that character and broadcast that to millions of people. All this backlash over his Nazi jokes seemed inevitable.

What didn’t seem inevitable — although perhaps it should have — was the entire Internet seeming to show up in support of him. I get that this must be a really tough time for him. He’s dealing with a lot of public backlash, a lot of guilt over the cancellation of his show, and a giant spotlight on him while he grapples with all this. But, you know, he also chose to say those things. Actions have consequences. And the number of people I’ve seen twisting this around so that it’s the mainstream media bullying him and taking his statements out of context is mindblowing.

Anyone who talks to me about Youtube for more than a minute will figure out that there are two (well, three) Youtubers that I really love: Jacksepticeye, and Dan & Phil. These are my “watch their stuff as soon as they put up a video, don’t miss their liveshows, genuinely think they’re awesome and would watch them painting a fence for an hour if they filmed it” Youtubers. And they’re all friends with Felix. Dan and Phil haven’t said anything, because they never comment on serious issues, unless it’s in a liveshow. But yesterday, Jack put up a video talking about the Felix drama, and while I didn’t agree with everything he said, I thought his response video was incredibly sensitive and measured, talking about how Felix is a good friend, but that he definitely messed up, and that he can’t blame companies for reacting the way they did. Basically, saying Felix is a decent person, but his jokes failed spectacularly and crossed the line into offensive territory, and now he’s seeing the consequences of that.

So, of course, the internet seems to have imploded with hate for Jack, saying he backstabbed Felix, calling him horrific names, and generally being so intense that he has now said that he regrets the video. It’s a mess on the level that only the Internet can provide, where over-intense strangers pile onto somebody because of some perceived infraction — this time, for being too “SJW-y,” despite the mildness of what Jack even said in his video.

And it’s just exhausting. It’s exhausting and depressing to see someone say something so middle of the road and be lambasted for it. It’s exhausting to see someone you respect then backtrack in response to the pile-on criticism. Gotta be nicer to the person who has been vocally supported by Neo-Nazis because of his “jokes,” after all! It’s exhausting to see how people are the worst, and will go to extreme lengths to insist that that popular white guy who said really offensive things did absolutely nothing wrong and should face no consequences for his actions.

hate internet pile-ons, no matter the cause. Liberal or conservative, 4chan memesters or “SJWs,” I find the entire culture of mass insulting and shaming abhorrent. This is apparently an unpopular view these days, where a lack of willingness to join the pile is taken as a lack of caring about an issue. I also hate how the culture of the internet seems to default to hurting others. It’s shock jokes, jumping to telling people to kill themselves when you disagree with them, enjoying the schadenfreude of someone else’s humiliation, swinging from idolising someone to despising them at the drop of a hat, just… everything is so big and so negative, where being offended is a far bigger crime than being offensive, and sympathy to the nuances of a situation is the ultimate betrayal. And it’s so depressing, and so infuriating, to see all of this falling down on someone for daring to say that hey, maybe a more considered and sensitive approach is in order here.

I’m stretching for a wise-sounding way to conclude this, but I got nothing. This is basically just a rant. I almost want to ask why any of us bother existing online at all. It’s just all so much, so stressful, so dark. And then, of course, I come back to the fact that one of the reasons I’m upset is because I must have spent hundreds of hours at this point watching Jack’s videos, having them cheer me up when I feel low. Without the internet, without the structures and content at the heart of this culture, that wouldn’t exist, and that would suck. But I don’t know, guys. Maybe we could try and take the good parts without all the violent words and hate as well? Maybe?

A Few Thoughts on Nerdiness and Minimalism

My wonderful college roommate Meg runs a blog about minimalism, and her recent post about passions really hit home for me. She talks about our need to display our passion for others, with things like graphic tees, nerdy accessories, mountains of stuffed animals, and piles of unnecessary equipment for activities we want to do but don’t actually do.

I’ll probably talk about this in more depth another time, but I started something of a light minimalist journey last year when I implemented the oh-so-trendy Marie Kondo method. I’m not joking when I say that it really has changed my life. I wasn’t a hoarder, exactly, but I liked having things. I liked collections. I had a guilt-inducing pile of Tsum Tsums and more stuffed animals than I had space for, among lots of other things, and having a hardcore clearout really helped me feel more focussed and relaxed, more appreciative of what I have, and even less anxious. But there’s one impulse that still gets to me a lot, and that’s to buy things that are branded with characters and stories that I love.

It’s Harry Potter tees that don’t fit well, but I buy because I love Harry Potter. It’s a Pusheen weekly desk planner that I don’t need, because I have a bullet journal. It’s my BB-8 bag that is completely impractical, and I never use, but that I can’t get rid of, because it’s BB-8, and BB-8 is adorable.

And then there are my bookshelves. I used to keep every book I bought, even if I ended up hating it. Now I have more of a conveyer belt of “buy, read, donate.” But every now and again, I still feel that pull. That need to be the sort of person who has A Library. That can go, “Here are my bookshelves. Look what a big reader I am.”

And reading Meg’s post really helped me figure out that impulse. It’s the idea of wanting physical proof of our passions. We’re displaying them for other people, to some extent, but we’re also, I think, displaying them to ourselves. Helping define ourselves with things that we can look at and go, “Yes. I am this person.”

The trick, of course, is finding comfort and confidence in ourselves without these things. Not erasing them from our lives completely, but only buying them when they serve us. Perhaps it’s the difference between the Hogwarts scarf I’ve worn every winter day for over two years, and that BB-8 bag that I never use, but keep because I’m a Star Wars person, and a Star Wars person needs their BB-8 bag!

I’m definitely still figuring all of this stuff out. But if nothing else, reading Meg’s post helped me resist buying a sparkly Jigglypuff tee from Primark the other day that was totally “things Rhiannon loves” and not at all “things Rhiannon will actually wear.” So, you know. Baby steps.

Why I Blog

When I think about why I started Feminist Fiction over five years ago (whaaaat?), I always think back to one specific moment in Doctor Who. I started working on the blog in earnest because I was infuriated by the way the media was talking about the new Hunger Games movie, but when I think of why I kept writing, I remember the end of Season 2 of Doctor Who, when Rose left. I was 17 when that aired, and something about that episode crushed me. I didn’t have the words to explain why I was so upset, but it left something painful inside me, something beyond this idea of “oh this ending is sad.” I didn’t really know what it was, and I grappled, in fandom spaces, to figure out why I felt that way. Now I know that this was one of my first instances of feeling that a show I loved had betrayed me, making the female protagonist agentless, powerless, left sobbing on a beach with no control over the situation or say in what happened. But at the time, I couldn’t figure out why that upset me so much. I just knew that it did.

So now I write about those things. I write to figure out my own feelings about complicated issues regarding narrative and representation, and I write because there might be someone else out there grappling with the same sorts of problems, feeling that something is wrong, but unable to express exactly why. Other people’s critiques of feminism and fandom shaped me in a lot of ways, back in the days when social justice and fandom weren’t automatically intertwined, and although I’d never assume I was that influential on anybody, I hope that occasionally some people find my thoughts helpful, whether it’s expressing something they agree with, or saying something they disagree with so vehemently that my totally objectionable words help bring their thoughts into focus.

Which brings me to blogging here, and a helpful conversation I recently had with a friend. I really enjoying doing “blogmas,” writing a blog post every day in December running up to Christmas on whatever happened to be on my mind that day. Casual thoughts about movies or books, some Youtube recs, some life stuff. Anxiety and writing and perfectionism and Disney. One thing that was great about it was how freeing it was. I’m fine writing on Feminist Fiction, but I second guess myself a lot when it comes to this blog. I have 50 drafts of posts that never went up. 50. That’s almost as many as I actually have posted.

Because, beyond thinking about writing quality, I’m always wondering… what is the point of this post? What benefit does posting it bring? What is it really even about? Factual topics don’t suit my writing style as much as more musing or analytical things, but surely factual posts, or even the ever-present internet “listicle,” are more useful to readers. They have more utility, and that’s what this is about, right? Utility. Purpose.

But it took thinking about the real purpose behind Feminist Fiction to understand what I really want to do with blogging, the thing that I always end up second guessing, because it doesn’t have enough purpose, because it’s too navel-gaze-y. I want to be navel gaze-y. I want to write blog posts that are open and musing about, well, life. About things that happen in the news and about books and games I come across, but also about those tricky other things, like dealing with anxiety and figuring out who you are and who you want to be.

I like to blog because it helps me figure out what I think about these things. And I like that there’s always a chance, even if it’s a slim one, that someone will come across the post and have it help them figure out their own feelings. Help them see a way forward or feel less alone with their problems. I’m a huge fan of chatty Youtube, the kind of video blogging that doesn’t have much purpose beyond someone reflecting on things. It makes me feel calm and connected, and often leads me to think about things in unexpected ways. And that is the purpose of this blog too. To muse, to think, to clarify, and hopefully to connect.

So, this is all a very, very long way of saying that I’m reinstating Blogmas. Not exactly Blogmas, because I’m not going to be blogging every single day until Christmas. But semi-blogmas. Blogging every day that I don’t have a particularly good reason not to blog. In fact, my goal is to blog 300 days in the rest of 2017, which leaves 21 days off, assuming I don’t get weak and invoke the blog posts I wrote before this point. Is it ambitious? Yup. Will I last a week and then fail? Possibly. But that’s my goal.

Keep your fingers crossed for me, and come back tomorrow for some more nerdy, navel-gaze-y fun. Confessions of an anxious author. Or something like that. 😛

Coping with Anxiety Today

Well. Today is… it’s not good, is it?

I don’t know how to make the world less horrifying right now, but I do know a thing or three about anxiety. And if this isn’t an anxiety-provoking situation, I don’t know what is.

So here’s what I can offer. Some tried-and-tested anxiety-fighting techniques to keep us going in the face of whatever’s to come.

  1. Take What Action You Can

First, tackle this on a personal level. Is there anything specific you’re worried about facing, and if so, is there anything you can do about it? Honestly, the answer may well be “not much.” But there may be small things. Perhaps you can think up a “worst case scenario” plan. Perhaps you can practice a script for if a dreaded encounter happens. Perhaps you can reach out to someone you know you can rely on, or put a list of important phone numbers in your pocket in case you need them. Just doing something will put a sense of control back in your hands, and if you genuinely can’t do anything, then knowing that is, in itself, a way to help handle anxiety about it. “I’ve done all I can. I can’t do any more until the thing actually happens.” You can acknowledge that you’re anxious, and then move on to other things you can do things about.

Then there’s the issue of what we can do in a general sense. How do we stop the world going to hell? How do we protect society as a whole, and help people who aren’t us? A lot of anxiety comes from the idea that we should be doing things, combined with the belief that we can’t do anything. Bad things are going to happen, and we don’t know exactly what they are, and we can’t stop them, but we should stop them, and… *brain explosion*.

So, listen to Lin-Manuel Miranda. He’s a smart guy, right? And he’s said this:

Decide how you are going to help. Decide how you are able to help, something you can maintain. Maybe it’s being an online crusader, highlighting issues on Twitter or on a blog or on Youtube. Maybe you have professional skills you can lend to a cause. Maybe you’re going to get involved in protesting. But it can be smaller. Find somewhere to volunteer and do some good on a regular basis. Commit to donating to your local food bank once a week. Find something concrete that you can do, and do that thing.

This doesn’t mean you’re washing your hands of every other problem in the world. But one person cannot possibly do everything. We have to keep going, keep living our lives, and we need the energy and mental health to do that as well. But the enemy of anxiety is action, so pick a thing to do, and then whenever your anxiety starts eating at you, tell it no. You’ve decided what you’re doing. You’re doing it. End of discussion.

2. Filter the world

This feels like the opposite of the usual mantra of “stay woke,” but remember Lin-Manuel Miranda. If you let everything in, you’ll drown. Stay up-to-date on the world, but decide how and when you’re going to do that, and stick to it. Maybe there are a few really smart activists on social media that you want to follow. Or maybe you’re like me, and the constant flow of social media makes you more anxious. In which case, pick a time of day to read the news, from a couple of sources that you’ve decided you trust. Get the information. Take whatever action you’ve decided you’re going to take. And then step the hell away from the flood. You’ve figured out how and when you’re going to learn things. Letting yourself get overwhelmed with constant updates helps no-one, least of all you.

3. Distract yourself by living your life

You’ve got to be able to keep living. You’ve got to take care of yourself. So don’t sit with your anxieties. Don’t let them be your constant companions. Find distractions.

First, there’s the obvious self-care stuff, the kind of things that anxiety might say we shouldn’t do when we’re so worried about big-picture things. Watching a favourite Youtuber who makes you smile. Checking out a new Netflix series. Playing a video game. Things that make you feel calmer. Embrace those things. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself right now. It’s more important than ever. You need downtime, and it will help so much, I promise.

Then there’s the other distraction stuff. Hobbies. Passions. Maybe you write stories, or review books. Maybe you’re a fledgling Youtuber yourself. Maybe you dance, or you love studying languages, or you paint, or play the guitar. And maybe you don’t do those things, but you want to. Maybe you think you don’t have time for them, maybe you think you won’t be any good at them, but you want to do them.

Now is the time. It’s time to give yourself a sense of control over something in your life, and a sense that you’re growing, no matter how dark the world gets. It’s time to take care of yourself, and make sure you’re paying attention to what you want.

And those things, those ‘distractions’? They help the world too. Writing things that may one day enlighten or comfort or entertain others. Making people smile with music. Learning new ways to communicate with people and make friends where you otherwise would not. Reading books that broaden your view and understanding of the world and the people in it. Making yourself healthy and strong, so you can keep going, and do more in the future.

Blogmas #23: The One Where I Forgot

Let’s ignore the fact that I’m writing this after 1am on Christmas Eve. I remembered that I hadn’t written a blog post before I went to sleep, so it counts as maintaining the streak, right? Right.

And since it’s 1am and my brain is mostly mush, here are just a few THINGS, in no particular order.

1. I’m home! Back to my parents’ house for Christmas. If the place where I live now is postcard-perfect Hogsmeade-esque England, the place around my parents’ house is very Wuthering Heights. Which make sense, because the Brontes were from around here. We have more horses for neighbors than people. “Oh, there’s a pony in the front garden” is a thing that happens.

2. But there are no pokemon here. I mean, in the Pokemon Go sense. I wasn’t expecting to encounter an actual Jigglypuff while wandering the fields. But I’ve gotten reobsessed with the game over the past couple of days, and now there isn’t even a pidgey in sight. On the bright side, I finally evolved my Gyrados! I feel like that’s my achievement for 2016.

3. Never travel with a cat. I think Hermione has forgiven me for the car journey to my parents’ house. I’m not sure if I’ve forgiven her for the chaos. It’s a good thing she’s so cute.

4. My Gilmore Girls rewatch has got me to the start of Season Three. And even though the sensible, grown up part of my brain knows I shouldn’t like Jess, there’s still a big part of me that squees over that moment at the end of S2. And so many other Jess moments too. “You know, Ernest only has lovely things to say about you.”

5. I’m so glad that I was deeply absorbed in watching Youtube for the past couple of hours (thanks, Dan and Phil and Undertale), and so didn’t learn about Carrie Fisher’s heart attack until it was announced she was in stable condition. I really hope she’s okay. I still keep checking the news, like it might say, ‘Carrie Fisher confirmed to make full recovery and live until she’s 143.’

6. I am so ready to abandon all work and have a festive readathon. I’m still reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which I’m loving, and then I have a whole host of 2017 releases to dive into. No better way to end a year than getting started on all the amazing books that the next year has to offer!

7. Brainmush turning into official zombie status, so now I’m going to go pass out and hope things are good tomorrow.

Blogmas #22: Changing Mindsets

Recently, I’ve been reading a book called Mindset. It was given to me, along with a few other similar books, by one of my closest friends when I was having a bit of a rough week, and although the basic premise of the book is nothing new to me, oh my god is it a revelation.

According to Carol Dweck’s research, people fit into two groups — those with the “fixed mindset,” who believe that ability is innate, and those with the “growth mindset,” who believe that ability can be gained and improved through hard work and practice. And the most interesting element, to me, is this idea that people in the fixed mindset group view hard work, in itself, as a failure. Talented people can do things easily. The harder you work, the less good you are, so if you have to work at something, you’re already a failure and you should feel bad about yourself, even if, through hard work, you ultimately succeed. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t a mindset that leads to you striving extra hard to achieve your goals when you find obstacles in your way.

For about a year now, I’ve been reminding myself, “Be more Hufflepuff.” Focus on the hard work, on the learning, rather than obsessing over where it’s going and why you’re not there yet. And although I’d heard of Dweck’s mindsets before, and even learned about them in my college psych classes, this book is giving me a whole new insight into this impulse I’ve been having, that I need to shift how I think about the work along the way.

Because Dweck’s fixed mindset is me to a tee. To this day, I think about how awful I was at GCSE music. It was my worst class. I had to work really hard, and really stretch myself, and I couldn’t be sure that I was going to do well. I got an A in that subject, by the way. You don’t get an A at GCSE from being completely hopeless at the subject. But because it was really hard, I’ve always subconsciously felt like it didn’t really count. What mattered was where I was when I began working, not when I finished.

And although I’m more than willing to work hard at things that I already think I could be good at, I’m still finding it hard to convince myself of the book’s premise that this doesn’t just count for academics. That it counts for pretty much everything. Sport. Art. Performing. All the things that are firmly in the box of “things I’m not good at, was born terrible at, and could never get good at, ever.”

But reading this book almost makes me want to try out the theory. An experiment of sorts. Take something I think of as ‘wow, it’d be nice if I was good at that,’ while 100% believing that I’m terrible at it and will never improve, and see if I can approach it with an open mind and maybe get better along the way. There’s a big barrel of stuff it could be. Drawing (seriously, five year olds are better than me). Painting (how do people not just end up with a splodgey mess??). Graphic design (every time I try to add text to an image, it looks like a comic sans meme). Singing (just… oh dear). Photography (how does light work? How does any of it work?).

I would so love to be good, or even passable, at all those things. I’d love to sing along confidently while playing my ukulele, or be able to sketch a picture from nothing (how do people do that??). And it might be handy to be able to make graphics considering the internet-based nature of my job. But whenever I do think I’ll give those things a shot, I see how bad I am when I start, and I get disheartened. Maybe this book can show me how to push past that?

So, yes. Something I’m considering. Haven’t got to the part of the book where Dweck hopefully talks about transforming your mindset, so fingers crossed that actually comes up. And in the meantime, I really recommend people check out her work. If nothing else, it’s definitely making me think! 🙂

Blogmas #19: Ambition

And power-hungry Slytherin
Loved those of great ambition.

I’m not a Slytherin, but sometimes, I get the feeling that I might be a teeny bit overambitious.

Ambition can be a great thing. It’s hard to get anywhere without being motivated and aiming high. Buuuuuut sometimes I wonder if there are times when maybe I shouldn’t be so ambitious. That maybe I should just chill out. Maybe even have fun instead???

Like when I started ballet classes in September. I immediately thought about how I was going to Practice Every Day so I could Improve Quickly and become Good At Ballet, and eventually progress towards a goal of dancing in pointe shoes. I hadn’t even been to a single lesson yet, but I was already envisioning how I would push myself extra hard to go as far as possible, and then go even further than that.

And when I inevitably failed at practicing Every Single Day on a brand new hobby that was unlike anything I’d ever done before, I was tempted to brand myself a failure and give up. Because if you can’t offer a ridiculous amount of dedication and become really, really good at a new hobby you’re taking up for fun, what’s even the point, right?

And that’s me pretty much in all things. I love taking beginner language classes, because everything you’re supposed to know is really well defined and you get the feeling that you’re progressing incredibly quickly. Meanwhile, I’ve been struggling for years with Japanese, because my benchmark isn’t “Japanese 101 level” but “native speaker fluency,” and when I realize how far away I am from that, I decide I must do hardcore study to catch up. And when I can’t do that hardcore study every day? Well, then I lapse on doing any study, because the little I can do doesn’t feel like enough.

And yes, I am noticing the irony of writing about this in a “blog every day for a month” challenge.

The thing is, I like aiming high. I like pushing myself. I like having goals in mind. I love the feeling of accumulating skills and really feeling like I’m going somewhere with the stuff I’m doing. But, like, maybe a hobby could sometimes just be a hobby? Maybe sometimes “just do it when you feel like it” is enough?

I’ll be honest. I’m not sure I even know how to do that. Just enjoy something, without making big improvement plans and setting standards that I can’t possibly meet. But there’s got to be a balance, right? Between pushing yourself and being too hard on yourself? A way to be motivated while remembering that it’s supposed to be fun? A way to be a Ravenpuff, half hard work, half excited over learning new things. Because once you forget the “fun” part behind all your ambition, you lose the whole reason you were motivated to try that thing in the first place, and then no amount of determination will drag you along.

Blogmas #18: One Week Til Christmas

When I was a teenager, I was always the person who got ridiculously excited about Christmas. The whole of December just felt magical to me. The world felt better, somehow, at this time of year, like some genuine magic had come out with all those fairy lights.

That magic faded as I got a bit older, and I spent years wanting so, so desperately to get it back. I still liked lots of things about Christmas, but it didn’t feel special any more, and I was so concerned with this idea that it should feel different from the rest of the year that I was just miserable as a result. I liked the things that Christmas brought, like time with friends and a chance to choose gifts for people, but it just, you know, felt like a time of year when I spent time with people and bought gifts, not any kind of special “Festive Season.”

I feel like, this year, I’ve finally got the balance in just… not caring so much. Christmas is in a week, and my reaction is mostly, “Really? Already? Oh, so it is.” And that feels so much better than “Why aren’t I happy yet? Why aren’t I happy yet?” It’s awesome to get into the festive spirit, but it’s better to enjoy things for what they are, rather than think that it’s magic or bust.

I love how everywhere is all dressed up, with lights on the streets and displays in all the shop windows. I love Christmas decorations, and I’m already a fairy lights addict, so that’s always fun. I love that moment where you see something in a shop and think, “Oh, so-and-so would like that.” I love the idea of the year winding down, of putting an end to all that’s happened over the past twelve months and taking a time to breathe and prepare before diving into the next. And I love the special moments with people I care about, whether it’s just watching a movie or playing a board game, writing them a sincere note in a card or getting a sincere note in return… small things that are more likely to happen when the holiday brings people together.

It doesn’t have to be magic for all those things to be good. But if we insist on it being magic, it gets really hard to appreciate how good those things are, because in the end, they’re just moments, like you might get at any other time of year.

Of course, now I’m musing on how I should feel about worrying about how I should feel about stuff, so it’s on the verge of getting very circular and meta. But the minute you start worrying about how you “should” feel, you miss out on what you actually are feeling, and the good you can find in that.

Blogmas #14: Thoughts on Twitter

I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about Twitter. I’ve spent way more time navel-gazing and analysing and second-guessing myself about it in the past few months than could ever be sensible.

Twitter and I are not good friends. This is probably obvious to anyone who’s been to my Twitter page and seen a “on a Twitter break!” pinned post there since about August.

I think, to some people, Twitter is an exciting social world. So many people, so many conversations, so much going on! A chance to connect with people and make new friends! And that’s awesome. But to me, Twitter is hundreds of voices, having hundreds of conversations, all at once, and you can never, never keep up with it all. You can’t hear everything, but you should hear everything. Don’t miss the important information. Don’t miss the conversations you want to have. Don’t miss the chance to connect, the chance to have your say, but make sure you’re witty while you do it, and make sure it’s 140 characters or less!

I love when I get messages from people on Twitter, no doubt about that. It’s the wider crowd interactions that I struggle with. I’m really not a crowd person.

I’m also not an “140 characters or less” person. I’m an “I know you asked for 3-5 pages for this essay, but is it OK if I hand in 30 pages instead?” person. I don’t think 140 characters can cover issues more complicated than “Andrew to win Bake Off!!” Some people manage it, and those people are awesome, but I’m a long-form person. I like sitting down to watch 20 minute chatty vlogs. My favorite Tumblr posts are essays. I want things to go in depth. I want them to take their time.

Meanwhile, reading Tweets? Wow, that can get addictive fast, and get overwhelming even faster. Twitter is very much a now medium, and I really appreciate it when there is a big now thing happening. Eurovision. Bake Off. The election results. It’s about shared experience, and when everyone is focussed on that, and I’m focussing on it too, it’s awesome. But most of the time, everyone is focussing on different things, and it feels like an endless crowd swelling all around you, all moving in different directions. Or everyone is briefly talking about the same thing, but no-one in your feed is providing any context for what that thing actually is. Way too often, I’ve logged onto Twitter, gone, “Wow, people are angry, what happened?” and not been able to find out without a good half an hour of clicking around and research.

But sometimes Twitter feels like it is the Internet. That the Internet is about everyone gathered at once, and it is about now. Twitter can be a great tool, so I should be there, engaging. And if you’re reading this and thinking, “You’re overthinking this,” I know. Believe me, I know. That’s kind of the whole problem. But I don’t know, maybe there are other people who overthink like this too. Who worry that they have to use a website that just gives them more anxiety the more they try, or just that they have to be there, available to everyone’s thoughts at all times, because that’s what people do now.

Which, to be honest, is all BS.

I’m not about to run and delete my Twitter account, because there are times when I’m glad it’s there, and I know it’s a lot of people’s contact method of choice . But I’ll be honest. I haven’t opened my Twitter feed in a month now, and I feel so much better. I (hopefully) get any messages sent to my email, so I know when to pop back if I need to. But it’s so good to get some headspace from it. Even if I’m probably missing out on certain news and discussions. Even if I know there’s a community there. I guess I’m just more of an Instagram person. And, clearly, more of a blog person, even if that means I’m stuck in 2010.

Blogmas #1: It’s December!

Blogmas! It’s like vlogmas, only not.

A super catchy tag-line there, huh? But you get the idea. A blog post every day of December, leading up to Christmas. Like vlogmas, but without all that filming and editing and uploading and having to have a presentable face and stuff.

Both my blogs have been super quiet this year. Thanks to a whole mix of things, I’ve been unable to write full stop, or unable to write and find the energy blog, for most of 2016, and opening a blank blog page is like, “Holy crap, what is this?? What do I do??” And that needs to stop being a thing.

So. December. A post a day. Not much time to worry or self-censor, cos it’s gotta go up! This definitely wouldn’t work for Feminist Fiction, cos those blog posts take a lot more time, but it’ll work here!

And I thought, for the first one, we’d do something a little bit simple. What are your guys’ goals for December? Mine, on top of this blogging one, are:

1. Finish the third draft of my current WIP

My untitled project for 2016! I’ll be honest, I’m not where I would have wanted to be with it, thanks to the same problems that caused the blogging freeze. But I have two drafts done, and am doing a final big December push to finish off the third! And even though I’m not sure the words themselves are right yet, I’m still in love with the heart of it. And the more I work at it, the more good things are starting to peek out from under the surface. Fingers crossed, it’ll be a project I can share with you all one day.

What can I tell you guys now? Not much, except it currently has multiple first-person POVs, which is definitely a new thing for me. And that it doesn’t have a title yet.

Speaking of…

2. Come up with a decent working title for this book

I can’t keep calling it “that book thing.”  I thought I had a few ideas, but I just looked at that list, and I hate them all, so back to the drawing board, I guess! I miss Long May She Reign, when I came up with the title while the story was nothing more than a three sentence pitch on a page of possible ideas I scribbled down one day.

3. Stay offline

Well not, you know, 100% offline, since I need to get work email and blog and watch Youtube (the most important thing on the list). But no social media. No random internet browsing. Just, gasp, some actual peace! I might write about this later on, cos I have a loooot of complicated feelings about it, but the Internet and I have been on the outs for months now, and I’m never happier than when I convince myself to turn it off.

4. Watch at least four Disney movies

Because that’s what Christmas is all about! I can’t wait to see Moana, and obviously Frozen is a must. And then I haven’t seen Tangled and the live-action Cinderella in ages, so those might be on the cards too.

5. Learn to play Winter Song by Sara Bareilles on the ukulele

Because I love it, and the song isn’t very hard. I just need to practice, instead of playing Taylor Swift songs all the time because I already know how to play them.

6. Do a pirouette without wobbling

Look, I’m still a total beginner at ballet, okay? And this is the level I’m at. Almost, but not quite, able to pirouette. I get most of the way around, but then I wobble and end up putting my foot down in the wrong place. But one day. One day.

7. Take a break!

Run away with us for the summer, let’s go upstate. But no, actually. I’m planning to stop writing on by the 18th, and not do any blogging or checking email or anything on the week between Christmas and New Year. I will just listen to Hamilton on repeat and play video games and maybe, like, sleep and stuff. Yay! I predict I will last two days before I start insisting that I just need to go and write for a little bit, just to get down one little thing. We’ll see.

What Happens Next?

Well, guys. This past week has been– well, it’s been a week, hasn’t it? I know a lot of people are struggling right now. People are scared. So many people, including me, are heartbroken by what the reality of the world seems to be, and maybe even feeling foolish for ever imagining things could turn out otherwise. At least, that’s how I feel. A longtime feminist blogger shouldn’t suddenly wake up and go, “Oh my god, misogyny exists, guys!”, but it feels like I realized that in a very different way last week.

One of the worst parts of this is how powerless it makes us feel. Powerless against hate, and powerless against the direction of the world. It’s hard to know what to do. And my default state this past week has been “doing nothing.” I haven’t been able to write, or blog, or reply to emails, or read books, or do anything that requires a little bit of self-motivation or sitting with my own thoughts for a moment.

But we can’t shut down for the next four years. We need to find our strength, and we need to fight back. So here are some of suggestions that I’ll be trying to follow over the next few days.

1. Self Care

I mean it, guys. Stop constantly scrolling through Twitter. Don’t you dare read any news comment sections. There’s staying informed to take action and then there’s punishing yourself into paralysis, and I feel like a lot of us are in the second camp. Take time for yourself. Turn off your devices. Turn off your internet at the wall if you have to. Take a walk outside. Listen to an audio book. Frantically reorganise and embrace your Marie Kondo. Spend time with friends. Spend time sleeping. Whatever. But give yourself space to process and space to breathe, without the constant barrage of information and voices that the Internet provides.

And when you’re ready to come back:

2. Tune into a few smart voices

Stop the barrage of constant information. Find a few people (and I’m always eager for suggestions) who are informative and intelligent, whose information you trust and whose opinion you respect, and set aside specific time to just check in with them. Right now I like checking into Heidi Heilig’s twitter to see what’s been going on. She’s smart, brave, witty, and I at least find her commentary and calls to action inspiring amongst all the anxiety.

Read More

Being nosy in a charity bookshop

belle-books-gif

Book collections tell you a lot about a person.

I volunteer at a charity bookshop in my spare time, and one of my favorite things to do there is sort through the big donations. I’d like to say it’s the writer in me, enjoying constructing stories about the people who’ve donated these books. In reality, I’m just super nosy, and even a person’s unwanted books reveal a lot about who they are.

Like the female minister who liked visiting museums and had recently got into decluttering. Or the crime novel reader who owned a camper van and liked hiking around the UK. You can see people’s hobbies and interests, their careers, their aspirations, major events in their lives… these donations are the detritus of their lives, parts of collections being decluttered or entire libraries being passed on after a person’s death.

We get novels from the 1940s and 1950s that were clearly bought brand new and kept for all these years. Gorgeous original Penguin classics. Children’s novels from literally a lifetime ago. Collections of people’s interests over decades. Some have related newspaper clippings from the 1960s held between the pages, or postcards from friends in the 1970s that were used as bookmarks. Sometimes they have people’s thoughts scrawled in the margins — we can’t sell them if there are too many notes, but they’re still fascinating to see. And of course, there’s the modern stuff. The speed with which people go through books. The number of crime novels that people buy from us, read in a few days, and then re-denote, over and over again.

But my favorite donation, so far, came in last week. They were sheet music collections, for piano, available for a few pence every month. Only a newspaper-y pages, kind of like monthly magazines, the sort where you need to buy them all to have a complete collection. This set spanned from April 1896 to June 1897. I don’t know whether then decided they had enough music or just lost interest in buying them. But they were beautiful. Really old and worn now, stained by age, but still intact. Honestly, I don’t know if they were in good enough condition for us to sell them. I’m always surprised by how many really old books aren’t really worth anything, at least monetarily. But it was amazing to sort through these and know that 120 years ago, someone was going out every month and buying them new, then taking them home and practicing them on their own piano. These weren’t just antiques. They were magazines, something someone specifically bought every single month for at least a year. Part of someone’s long-gone life in 1896.

I’d like to think they made that person happy. Or the person just kept buying them out of the hope that they’d motivate them to learn piano, and never actually did. If it was me, it’d probably be that second one. And I hope that, wherever they end up, they bring someone as much joy as they brought me in that back room when I discovered them, lurking in a Sainsbury’s plastic bag underneath a pile of other books.

The Olympics

While getting completely obsessed with the Olympics over the past couple of weeks, I noticed something really perplexing:

Wow, do people like to dismiss and complain about Olympians. People sitting on their couches complaining about how someone didn’t try hard enough, because they only got a silver. Saying athletes should be ashamed for qualifying for the finals but not receiving medals. Saying athletes aren’t gracious enough, or humble enough, or ambitious enough. For being the wrong shape or size (despite, you know, being more in shape than most people could ever dream of being), for not being pretty enough, for caring too much about appearance.

Olympians have more ambition, self-discipline, and proof of success than almost anyone else on the planet. They’re the elite in whatever sport they pursue, and they have worked tirelessly for years to get there. Even qualifying for the Olympics is something amazing that almost none of us will experience. And yet that doesn’t save them from people sitting at home, dismissing them, belittling them, and making fun of them. In fact, it seems to make them more susceptible.

That should probably be depressing. If Olympians aren’t good enough for the world, what hope do we mortals have? But I actually think it’s really freeing. It’s so easy to try and restrict ourselves because of fear of what other people will think. We don’t think we’ll ever be good enough, so we make ourselves smaller to avoid people’s disdain. And it’s pointless. There will always be bitter complainers who devote their energy to tearing other people down, but their words have nothing to do with the person they’re criticizing, and everything to do with their own bitterness. No one is good enough for the internet. So no one even needs to try. If you’re doing your best to do the things that are important to you, that’s what matters. And you’ll come out of it with whatever your version of an Olympic experience is, while those detractors… well. They’ll just have their own loathing to show for it.

#trynewthings!

Last week, I went to my first ever ballet class.

Well, not first ever. I took classes when I was five, and I was absolutely terrible in the way you’d expect a fidgety, clumsy, overexcitable five-year-old to be. But this was my first class since, you know, I learned how to actually spell the word “ballet,” and the fact that I went seems about as unlikely to me as saying I took my first trip to the moon.

I’m totally non-sporty, despite what my Twitter might have suggested during the height of the Olympics. I’m still super clumsy, and more shy and self-conscious than I ever was back then. But I just had a sudden feeling about it. I’ve had a rubbish year so far, and I suddenly felt that I wanted to shake things up by taking a ballet class.

Now I’ve taken a class and loved it, I could come up with more reasonable sounding reasons for going. I like that it’s hard work in a totally new way for me. I like that it’s a workout that doesn’t leave you breathless (as an anxiety sufferer, that’s never a good feeling for me). I like how it makes you feel powerful, in a quiet sort of way.

But before I went, I just had a feeling. And I’ve learned to trust my feelings, however random they might seem. I became a vegetarian at 10 on a feeling. I took a Japanese class on a feeling. I moved to the US for university on the feeling that it was the right thing to do. It might seem dumb, but it’s like part of me knows it’s right for me, and I just need to plough ahead and wait for my logical brain to catch up and figure out why.

Speaking of new things, I made  a Youtube video before the class, talking about some of this stuff. I don’t have a DSLR, I’m using light from the window, and god I need to get a good external mic to fix that sound, but … it was also kind of fun. Terrifying and new, but fun. I don’t really expect anyone to watch them, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s to just do what you want to do, create what you want to create, and not get distracted by the thoughts of others.

So I’m probably going to be adding more videos here. Recording videos, practicing ballet, and embracing that excitement and suckiness that comes with diving into something new, just because you have a feeling that it might turn out to be the perfect thing in the end.