My Favorite Books of 2017

My goal was to read 25 books this year, all by female authors. I was close.

I read 24 books total. 21 were written by women, 1 was written by a man, and 2 were essay collections. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

While I haven't been blogging or sharing much of my writing lately, it was really important to me to put together this list to close out 2017 in reading and recommend some of the beautiful books I spent this past year discovering. The titles below are ones that will stick with me for years to come.

"It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it."  -- Oscar Wilde

 Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids by Patti Smith

I borrowed Just Kids from my roommate immediately upon moving to New York. It was perfect timing. In a lot of ways, the memoir is a love letter to the city (especially the East Village, where both Smith and myself were living), capturing New York at arguably its best moment, when it was a haven for artists and misfits of all kinds.

The story focuses on Smith's complicated relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, but it also takes us through Smith's evolution independently, as an artist and a person growing up in the world. The constant, for both Smith and Mapplethorpe, was unwavering commitment to their art. For me, the way this steadfast dedication manifested itself throughout their ups, downs, struggles, and triumphs was the most interesting aspect of the story.

Buy on Amazon

 There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker

This poetry collection gets a mention here not because it contained any particularly life-changing poems, but because it got me reading poetry again. I forgot how much I love poetry and how therapeutic it can be (more poetry in 2018!). Also, I'm convinced that reading poetry regularly improves my writing, not to mention my vocabulary.

If you've been away from poetry for awhile, don't know where to begin with contemporary poetry, or are a bit afraid of poetry in general (which you shouldn't feel bad about -- it can be intimidating) this is a fun, fast-paced, yet thought-provoking collection to work through one poem at a time.

Buy on Amazon

 My Name is Lucy Barton

My Name is Lucy Barton

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

It's hard to know what to say about this book. It's one I think I'll read again and again, when I gather back the emotional strength. My Name Is Lucy Barton explores a difficult relationship between a mother and daughter, Lucy, while Lucy is sick, on bedrest, in a New York hospital. The real story, however, happens when Lucy's mom tells her stories about people and places from the small Illinois town where Lucy grew up, and when something in her mother's mannerisms or responses or silences causes Lucy to recall a vivid memory or anecdote of her own.

The way Strout writes in this book is just gut-wrenchingly beautiful, made even more elegant by short chapters and white space that gives the words room to settle. The words feel effortless, but their message will pull at your heart.

Buy on Amazon

 Swing Time

Swing Time

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Swing Time was the first Zadie Smith novel I've ever read, despite having her other books on my list for years. It's an expansive novel that closely follows a no-name narrator from different pockets of London to New York to Africa and back around again. I loved the way Smith writes about dance in this book. It felt enchanting, yet so relatable -- similar to the way she writes about our narrator and her best friend Tracy, who go through ups and downs (but mostly downs) that feel in some way familiar, even though their circumstances are, of course, specific and unique to their time and place.

To me, Swing Time is literary fiction at it’s finest because of the way it reveals the many sides of each character -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. After reading, one is left with the sense that the lines between right and wrong, good and bad, happy and sad are even more blurred than before. All we know for sure is that everyone is just trying to do their best.

Buy on Amazon

 Play It As It Lays

Play It As It Lays

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

After finishing Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I wanted to read one of Joan Didion's novels and all signs pointed to Play It As It Lays. It is a bleak, bleak novel, unapologetically so. But it is also a piercing novel, one to be read not for entertainment but for examination. If you're up for it, it's worth it.

The story is told in shifting perspective, which adds to the dream-like quality of the book. Maria, our narrator and protagonist, is a modern-day hot mess, and not a particularly likable character in the traditional sense, yet we feel for her. We are her. Didion's prose brings you closer to Maria than maybe any other character in American literature. It's an uncomfortable ride but an important one, nonetheless.

Buy on Amazon

 The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

Confession: I saw that The Glass Castle was coming out as a movie this year and knew that I had to read the book before I could let myself see the movie. The memoir had been on my list for years, so when I saw a copy of the old paperback design (I have a thing against movie poster book jackets) at a local bookstore in Virginia, I bought it and read it while visiting my family over Thanksgiving.

The book is a gripping, heart-wrenching story about the author's childhood growing up all over the Southwest and then in rural West Virginia. Eventually, she and her siblings escape their lives of squalor with their parents to go live in New York on their own, but unfortunately the parental drama doesn't stop there. The book is incredibly well-written and the story is truly unbelievable, so much so that you often have to remind yourself it's non-fiction and not a novel.

A few weeks later, I watched the movie. Spoiler alert: the book (as usual) is way, way better.

Buy on Amazon

 Goodbye Vitamin

Goodbye Vitamin

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

My number one favorite book of 2017 was Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. It's hard to believe this gem of a book was her debut novel because holy moly, this woman can write. The story follows a young woman, Ruth, who after a brutal breakup, decides to move back in with her parents for a year to help care for her father, who is entering the more treacherous stages of Alzheimer's. But the book is so much more than that. I read most of it in a single afternoon and never wanted it to end. If you read it, you will laugh, cry, smile, scream, and be reminded of all the beautiful, subtle, sentimental details that make life wonderful. At best, it will help you notice them again. Read this book.

Buy on Amazon

While the above were my favorites, I read some other really great stuff in 2017:

  • This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

  • Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  • Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

  • Never Can Say Goodbye (Essay Collection)

  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

  • Marlena by Julie Buntin

  • Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

  • Bluets by Maggie Nelson

  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

  • My First New York (Essay Collection)

  • Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

  • The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

  • Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

And the only book on my list by a male author, which I finished on January 1, 2017:

  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

What are you reading in 2018? I'm getting started with Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. Let me know what's on your list and what I should add to mine. 

Happy Reading!

Ally

The above are Amazon Affiliate links, which means if you purchase one of these books via Amazon, you support my business along the way. 

Thoughts on Moving to New York City

Tomorrow, I'm moving to New York City... I know. It doesn't feel real.

I've been trying really hard to take it all in, enjoy the experience, slow down and process the change -- perhaps the biggest change in my life, thus far. But it's been hard to do. I've been busy and stressed and nervous and feel as if I've been moving through life at 100mph for weeks, months even. Figuring out how to get to New York has been a long, winding process. And now that I'm actually taking the jump, it's still seems so very surreal.

There have been moments though, over the past few days of packing and finishing up work and running errands, in which something coalesces and I think, "Yeah, of course ... This is 100% the exact, right decision." I'm doing exactly what I need to be doing at the exact right time, in the exact right place. And time slows down a little bit and I'm able to breathe deep and recognize that I've sparked a big change and I'm going to be better for it in the long run.

When I imagine what my life might look like a month from now, six months from now, a year, three years, ten years from now (who knows?) ... that's when I get really excited, and feel really full. Full of gratitude, full of possibility, full of courage and love and serendipity and confidence. All of which, I'm starting to think, is really just happiness spread out across thousands of different thoughts and feelings.

Because I am happy. I'm happy to be moving. But moving is confusing -- talk about conflicting emotions. I'm thrilled yet terrified. Happy yet sad. Confident yet self-conscious at the same time. For me, it's been hard to vocalize the decision that I'm moving without worrying how other people feel about that choice. Are they excited I'm following my dreams? Or do they feel snubbed? Abandoned? Do they think I'm selfish? Reckless?

But that, of course, is my own shit. Most people don't care at all. In fact, it's probably self-indulgent of me to think they do. And the few who might, well ... does it matter? No. Absolutely not.

This is a decision only I could make for myself. And once I realized I wasn't even allowing myself an alternative, it became so clear -- New York or bust.

As far as I know, we only have one life. And living in New York is an experience I want for my life -- always have, always will. So even when I'm feeling unsure about the hundreds of other "good reasons" I have for moving to the city, that's the one that keeps me grounded. It doesn't matter if other people don't "get" that. It's good enough for me, and that's all that matters.

Tomorrow will be a whirlwind, I'm sure, but I'm excited for more of those moments in which I get to pause and take it all in. This is an experience I'll carry with me for the rest of my life and I'm doing my best to honor that -- acknowledge major, life-changing moments for what they are. But I'm also doing my best to lighten up and have some fun along the way. After all, I'm following my dreams. And that's something to feel really, really good about.

 

How a Personal Stylist Helped Me Get Out of a Style Rut

I've always loved clothes. And shoes. And bags. And jewelry ... Especially, jewelry. I blame my grandma for not only encouraging me to dress up in head-to-toe silk scarves and costume jewelry as a child, but taking me shopping every Sunday simply for the sake of going shopping. It was fun and indulgent and I don't regret a minute of it. But anyway, that's besides the point. The point is, even though I have a deep love for style and enjoy bringing some creativity to what I wear, lately, I've found myself in a style rut.

My closet was feeling boring and dull and full of way too many solid J. Crew basics that I no longer knew how to make interesting. Getting dressed in the morning no longer felt like a confidence boost, it felt tiring. And the most tortuous part of all was that I actually had a lot of clothes in my wardrobe -- plenty! And so many shoes. Too many shoes, perhaps. So I knew I had more than enough creative material to work with, so to speak, I just needed some help finding new ways to wear it all. Enter, The Style Riot.

I met Laura Walters of The Style Riot about a year ago. It was in passing as she was styling on set at a PATTERN photo shoot in Fountain Square. Since then, we've become friends and I've been quietly obsessing over her work as a stylist since the day we met (mostly via Instagram ... if you like leather and/or glitter you really have to check this thing out).

In February 2017, after seeing so many success stories around her Closet Revamp services, I finally reached out to her about helping me overhaul my own wardrobe in preparation for a trip to New York. I had tons of important meetings and events on the calendar and I wanted to not only look great, but feel like a badass on the inside, too.

We set aside three hours for our appointment on a Friday afternoon (the perfect way to kick off the weekend, in my opinion) and I spent the rest of the week until then pinning like a madwoman to try and spark some inspiration.

When Friday finally arrived I was a little nervous. She's gonna hate all my clothes! I have nothing to wear! Why is that stupid sweater from 2007 still in my closet?! 

I quickly realized those emotions were entirely ridiculous and I needed to simmer down. Laura was super approachable, nonjudgemental, and overall just really excited to help me out. It was kind of too good to be true.

The Style Riot

Here's how it all went down...

A few days before the appointment, Laura sent me a questionnaire that would help guide her expertise. 

She asked me questions about my favorite brands, how I would describe my style, and what my goals were for the appointment.

When she arrived at my house, we spent the first few minutes talking and getting to know each other better. 

It was kind of like a style therapy session. Our talk eased any anxiousness I was still feeling and helped us both relax into the environment. We chatted a lot about what I felt was getting in the way of me being able to make the most of my style. She asked specific questions about what I had planned for New York and clearly wanted to make sure I walked away from the appointment feeling confident and powerful.

And then, the fun began. 

Laura dove into my closet and began putting together refreshed ensembles that totally blew me away. I couldn't believe I had all this stuff in my closet. Below are a few of my favorite combinations...

Closet Revamp

Closet Revamp

Closet Revamp

Closet Revamp

Closet Revamp

After our appointment, I felt energized and refreshed -- like I could go into my closet and actually have fun.

I was excited to pack for New York and was looking forward to playing with some combinations of my own after getting some guidance from Laura. Everything Laura did not only helped me see my clothes in a new way, but affirmed everything I believe in when it comes to personal style. It strengthened my confidence that when it comes to getting dressed, I should trust my instincts and most of all, just have fun.

Later that weekend, Laura sent me a list of pieces that would be good, practical additions to my closet. 

This was an incredibly helpful part of the whole process. After our appointment, Laura sent me photos of all the combinations she put together and on top of it, a list of items (and links!) that I should consider adding to my wardrobe. Some were based on practicality, others were more stylistic, based on the ways in which I'm trying to elevate my look.

Laura's shopping recommendations came in really handy the next week, when my luggage failed to arrive in New York the same day I did. 

Uh, yeah. After spending a long time packing based on my work with Laura, Southwest lost my bag and I arrived in New York with only the clothes on my back and luckily, a makeup bag and a hairbrush in my carry-on. It was super stressful but soon enough, I looked on the bright side -- obviously this was an excuse to go shopping. Plus, I had a customized shopping list courtesy of Laura that I could use as my guide. There's nothing worse than shopping from scratch when you're on a time crunch!

I hit up Zara and Madewell in SoHo and put together this very New York ensemble (if I do say so myself) full of pieces Laura recommended I add to my collection:

  • A sleek black blazer (the one in my current wardrobe worked for the photos, but when I tried it on again it was too boxy and not the right length)
  • Faux leather leggings (yas!)
  • White high-top sneakers (these ones are Vans)
  • More gold jewelry (I scored a $2 bracelet from Madewell, thank you very much)
  • And a simple, black muscle tank (can never have too many)

Closet Revamp

Overall, Laura really helped me break out of a style rut. Today I'm feeling inspired, confident, and most importantly, more comfortable in my own skin (and clothing).

Even if you don't see yourself as someone "who would ever work with a personal stylist" I would encourage you to look into all The Style Riot has to offer. Seeking the assistance of a professional to revamp your closet doesn't have to be frivolous, nor does it have to be something you feel embarrassed or shy about (I'm talking to you, Midwesterners).

For me, it was crucial in mentally and emotionally preparing me to walk into a room and feel like I can own it. I'm moving to New York next month and will be preparing for an onslaught of networking events and job interviews. Because of working with The Style Riot, I know I'll feel incredible -- like anything is possible.

To revamp your own closet or work with The Style Riot in another capacity -- personal shopping, event styling, and so much more -- get in touch with Laura here. Or, if you want a personal introduction, I'm more than happy to connect you. Drop me a line and get ready to start a riot.

The 3 Commandments of Good Writing

Writing isn’t easy. If it were, we’d all have bestselling novels by now, or at the very least, would be able to get through our days without second-guessing every email we send, essay we hand in, or blog post we publish.

Everyday, I get paid to write, and I feel pretty fortunate about that. When I’m not writing, I'm reading as much as I can and spending a lot of time thinking about and analyzing the craft of writing. In short, I'm passionate about writing, therefore, I'm always trying to find ways I can get better at it.

I realize, however, that there are lots of people out there who, like me, are required to write for their jobs, yet who don't necessarily have an interest in studying writing in the same way that I do. There are also lots of folks out there who are eager to start their own blog, try their hand at a short story, or put together an article, and might be dealing with some deep-seated anxiety and fear around putting their work out into the world.

Well, my friends, I wrote and compiled this article for you.

By honing in on a few quick and dirty ways we can make our writing better, the writing process itself becomes less of an overwhelming task and something that’s a little more manageable -- no matter what you're trying to accomplish.

There are a lot of great books out there on how to write well. If you have an interest in reading them, please do. Many of them (like Stephen King’s, On Writing and Anne Lamott’s, Bird By Bird) changed my life. But for the purpose of this article, we're going to keep things simple and straightforward. If you asked me to boil down most of the books I've read on writing, I would distill everything into these three, basic commandments ... So, you're welcome.

The following are the rules I stick to when I’m on a deadline, when I’m drafting a blog post for my own website, or when I’m working on a creative side project (that novel I mentioned earlier). Follow them closely, be honest about your work, and with time, these rules for good writing will be second nature.

Here we go!

#1: Show, Don’t Tell

 Show, Don't Tell

Show, Don't Tell

This is one you’ve likely heard before – maybe in your eighth grade English class, maybe in your creative writing elective in college, or maybe in this pessimistic article about adverbs. As cliché as the phrase might be in today's literary world, it doesn't make it any less true.

Words alone are usually not enough to convey a point, cause a stir, or set the scene. You have to make your reader feel something in order to captivate their attention, keep them interested, and ultimately, give a damn about what you're saying. So how do we do that? A few different ways ... follow the subheads!

Sensory Imagery

Tapping into the senses – sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes (just in case you forgot) -- is a foolproof way to set the scene and drop your reader smack dab in the middle of the action.

Here’s an example of sensory imagery put to work, borrowed from the latest story in the Fiction section of The New Yorker:

The morning was bright, with a breeze that moved the light’s sharp points on the lanes, and the hedges were opulent with berries and the high grasses raced in the late-summer fields. She set out for the banks of the river along the lit points of the lanes. She had taken a book for cover, after a long think about which book exactly to take. She pulled her cardigan tight against the morning chill that marked the season’s changing. Even before the river’s sour waft was in her nose, she had decided on the tree that she would sit beneath.

-- Deer Season by Kevin Barry

Look at all that sensory description!

  • The morning was bright, with a breeze that moved the light's sharp points...

  • The hedges were opulent with berries.

  • ... along the lit points of the lanes.

  • She pulled her cardigan tight against the morning chill that marked...

  • The river's sour waft...

In just a few lines, we can see the light moving through the grasses, feel the chilly morning air against our skin, and smell the river before the character even approaches it.

Another good thing about sensory imagery is that it often forces us to use verbs. Verbs are a writer's best friend – they bring images to life, keep things active, and move the story forward. The excerpt above does this well:

  • The breeze moved.

  • The high grasses raced.

  • She pulled her cardigan tight...

  • The morning chill marked the season's changing.

So, in a nutshell -- when you really want to set the scene for your reader, focus on using sensory description and active verbs to paint a picture that evokes a feeling, rather than simply stating the obvious.

Specific Details

Another important piece of Commandment #1 is specificity. This is my number one piece of feedback when I edit essays and articles for other writers. Lack of specific detail causes the reader to ask questions they can’t answer.

When the reader gets distracted and has to stop and ask a question they can’t find the answer to, they lose interest. When they lost interest, they stop reading, which is really bad news for you – the writer.

Using specific details isn't hard, it just requires you to really flesh out and know the details of your writing. Your character could be sipping on a soda can, or she could be taking long gulps of a Diet Coke ... See the difference?

Incomplete vs. Specific Details

  • Flower vs. Red Rose

  • School vs. Lawrence Central High School

  • City vs. Indianapolis

  • Park vs. Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, New York City

  • Blue Car vs. Blue 1969 Mustang Convertible

You get the point.

Without specific details, you withhold the parts of your story that your readers can relate to, ultimately making it more believable, more realistic, and more interesting.

For good measure, here's another example -- non-fiction this time -- of specific detail in action. This one comes from the latest issue of Indianapolis Monthly. Specific details are bolded:

At the Indianapolis Museum of Art's 133rd annual meeting this past May, CEO Charles Venable and his team had a lot to celebrate. The executives took turns at a podium in the Toby theater touting the institution's recent accomplishments. Since 2014, museum memberships had doubled from 8,000 to 16,000. Curator Scott Stulen continued to delight visitors with quirky installations like artist-designed mini golf. A pair of 17th-century Japanese silk screens on the stage represented the museum's many acquisitions from the past year. And a $17.7 million payment had been made on the principal of the IMA's unusually large $118 million debt.

-- "Drawing Conclusions" by Daniel S. Comiskey

This excerpt is full of specific numbers and details like the name of the theater and examples of curatorial objects that help bring the setting to life. It's a must when you're writing fiction, but this example proves it has the power to punch up your editorial writing, as well.

A good rule of thumb: when you think you’re being specific, kick it up one more notch. Kind of like reps at the gym when your trainer is yelling at you to do just one more and you really want to punch him in the face. It's like that, only with words.

Other Ways to Show, Not Tell…

  • Examples

  • Statistics

  • Personal Anecdotes

  • Dialogue

  • Comparisons

Something we haven’t yet discussed is that showing, rather than telling, is how you convince or persuade your audience. It's how you build credibility, whether you're trying to convince your readers that the fantastical world you’re creating in your novel is believable, or you're trying to pull together a financial report that will win your business more funding. In order to persuade your audience to keep reading and trust your voice, you have to show them you know what’s up.

You can do this, especially in more business-driven writing, by using specific examples, statistics, case studies, and anecdotes to back up – and prove – your argument. On the other hand, dialogue and comparisons are more creative ways you can add color to your writing and make it more engaging for your readers.

#2: Eliminate Wordiness

 Eliminate Wordiness

Eliminate Wordiness

You know those people who talk to much at parties? Those people exist in written form, too. Don't be one of those people. Allow our friends Strunk & White to tell it how it is:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.... This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

-- Elements of Style by Strunk & White

In high school and college, you probably had to write papers with a required word count. This is a foolish practice that does more harm than good, and I struggled with it when I was a teacher.

“How long does it have to be!?” the students would ask about their memoir assignment, in frenzied, panic-stricken voices.

“As long as it needs to be,” I'd say back, with raised eyebrows and a smile.

I didn’t want my students to pack their pages with excess words – unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and punctuation marks – just to fulfill an arbitrary word count.

Sure, there is always somewhat of a “common sense” threshold you can use for what constitutes the "proper" length of an article, an essay, a book report, whatever. But that’s really besides the point. The point here, is that I didn’t allow my students to fluff up their work with wordiness, and I won’t let you do it either.

How can you be sure you’re not adding unnecessary words to your writing?

1. Use the active voice.

Remember what I said about verbs? They're your friends! Use them often and the active voice will start to become your natural mode.

  • Passive: The entrance exam was failed by over one-third of the applicants to the school.

  • Active: Over one-third of all applicants to the school failed the entrance exam.

2. Get rid of redundancies.

Sometimes we think we're being descriptive when really, we're being redundant. Prune your work for redundancies to reveal stronger, punchier prose.

Here are a few common redundancies to avoid:

  • close proximity

  • browse through

  • final outcome

  • blatantly obvious

  • at the present time

  • my personal opinion

  • by means of

3. Get rid of wimpy words and phrases.

The wimpiest word in the English language is that. It's rarely necessary and it's wildly overused.

  • Wimpy: I think that I'll go home early today.

  • Strong: I think I'll go home early today.

4. Edit, edit, and then edit some more.

Don’t be afraid to slash words, phrases, paragraphs, and even whole pages that aren't relevant to your point and don't have a specific function within your piece. This is difficult, especially for beginning writers, but it's important to not get so attached to your words that you can't get rid of them when necessary. In first drafts, especially, you should be willing to edit and whittle away your piece to a point where you might no longer recognize your original words ... but more on that later.

There’s a certainly a time for colorful language and detailed explanation, but as a general rule -- be concise and to the point with your language. Don’t water down your main idea with wordiness and your readers will thank you.

#3: Be Natural, Be You

 Be Natural, Be You

Be Natural, Be You

The beautiful people reading your work aren't looking for impressive words, fancy language or unique sentence structure. They just want it, whatever it is, to be good...

"Hey, how was that novel you just read? What was it called? The Girl on the Train?”

“Oh my goodness, yes. It was good! Really good, actually. I couldn’t put it down.”

“You really need to check out this article I just read. It’s really good.”

“Thanks, I’ll do that.”

“What have you been reading, lately? Anything good?”

“Yeah, I actually just finished a really good collection of essays by Joan Didion.”

… see what I mean? 

The average human isn't analyzing the symbolism, character development or syntax of your writing, (although that could definitely be the case someday). Instead, most readers are just looking for good writing that they 1) can actually finish reading, 2) enjoy the process of reading, 3) find valuable, and 4) share with their friends.

So what does it mean for a piece of writing to be good?

Most likely, it means the writing feels natural. It doesn't feel forced. It doesn't seem fake. It doesn't try too hard or use language that feels overly fancy or academic or slang. Or, if it does, the language doesn't feel out of place.

Writing that feels natural has a nice flow, a steady pace, and typically, a conversational tone. It reads easily and captivates the reader by using all the elements we discussed in Commandment #1 and #2, and then some.

David Sedaris is a master of this practice. Here's an excerpt from Me Talk Pretty One Day to prove it:

As a rule, I'm no great fan of eating out in New York restaurants. It's hard to love a place that's outlawed smoking but finds it perfectly acceptable to serve raw fish in a bath of chocolate. There are no normal restaurants left, at least in our neighborhood. The diners have all been taken over by precious little bistros boasting a menu of indigenous American cuisine. They call these meals "traditional," yet they're rarely the American dishes I remember. The patty melt has been pushed aside in favor of herb-crusted medallions of baby artichoke hearts, which never leave me thinking, Oh, right, those! I wonder if they're as good as the ones my mom used to make

-- Today's Special by David Sedaris

I could read David Sedaris all day, but that's besides the point.

Now if you’re sitting here thinking Okay, that's great, Ally. But I can barely write an email without having a nervous breakdown, let alone write a David Sedaris-inspired paragraph.

How am I supposed to write naturally when I have to think about all these writing rules at once? 

The secret is, of course, that there is no secret. Finding your voice and feeling more comfortable with your writing is a slow game, and it requires a lot of practice. But the one thing you can try, and that you should try often, is to write a shitty first draft.

Here’s what Anne Lamott (mentioned at the beginning of this article) has to say about shitty first drafts:

“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get any writing done at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

-- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Bottom line: you can’t be an editor and a writer at the same time. It just doesn’t work. You’ll end up sounding stifled, stuffy, and probably won’t be happy with the end result anyway. Allow yourself the time and freedom to write a shitty first draft, to get down all your thoughts on paper no matter how erratic or crazy they might be. Don't overthink it, just write.

Once you have a first draft, then it's time to start editing and playing detective. You might start to notice certain themes or threads that pop up within your writing, and it's up to you to figure out if they should be slashed or if they serve a different meaning.

Maybe you're working on an essay about growing up in Los Angeles, but when you look back through your piece to edit it, you realize the piece isn't really about that at all. And even though you intended to write about your childhood spent skateboarding in Venice Beach, the real story is about you and your brother and how you helped each other get through your parent's divorce.

Take your time, give yourself room to play, and allow yourself the freedom to write a really, really shitty first draft. If you do that, you'll end up with more authentic, more intentional piece of writing after editing, shaping, and shining it into a final product.

 female-writer

female-writer

Boom! There you have it – the three commandments of good writing. Please leave your thoughts and comments below (I would love to nerd out on a discussion about all of this) and if you found this article helpful, please spread the love by sharing it with your friends on your social networks of choice!

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My 26th Birthday: December 1, 2015

Birthday Cake Tomorrow is my 26th birthday.

I love birthdays. I can't help it. To me, a birthday signifies the fact that you've been granted another year to fill up with your own experiences and memories ... And how could anybody complain about that?

To reflect on my own birthday, here are 26 things that I've really loved to do this year. Plus, the links to some of my favorite things might help you find some good holiday gift ideas for all the awesome people in your life. Enjoy!

1. Practice Yoga -- A few of my favorite Indy studios: invoke, Practice Indie, Tree House Yoga, and The Yoga Studio

2. Read -- A few of my favorite books lately: Bad Feminist, All The Light We Cannot See, Everything I Never Told You

3. Travel -- Opportunities to travel this year were frequent and fast. I took fool advantage of it and I'm so glad I did. Travel is the one expense I never ever regret.

4. Write -- Writing is my job, but it also brings me great joy. I'm grateful for that everyday.

5. Journal - It's different than writing, trust me :) and it's saved my sanity more than a few times. I'm loving this green Kate Spade journal right now.

6. Pin home decor ideas -- 2015 will go down as the year I was finally sucked into Pinterest. Not mad about it. Check out my Home Sweet Home board to find all my latest mid-century modern inspiration.

7. Go on walks -- It's harder as the weather turns colder, but I love closing out an evening with a long walk through the neighborhood.

8. Wear warm socks -- I think my toes are numb the majority of the year. These J.Crew socks save my life (okay, maybe just my feet) everyday.

9. Cook vegetarian dinners -- Again, see Pinterest board. I'm going over a year strong on vegetarianism with no signs of turning back.

10. Drink wine (see above) -- I can't cook without drinking wine. Most evenings I think I belong in Italy.

11. Watch Netflix -- We don't have a TV at home but we do watch Netflix almost every night before bed (on a laptop). I love watching standup comedy (mostly Aziz Ansari) and right now, Jessica Jones.

12. Go to concerts -- I didn't get to nearly enough concerts this year, but I caught a few at the Vogue that will stick with me for awhile ... Delta Spirit and Pokey LaFarge to name a few.

12. Try new restaurants -- I love to cook, but I love to eat out even more.

13. Plan parties and get-togethers -- I'm all about bringing everyone together.

14. Make playlists -- This goes hand in hand with #13, but I also love to create playlists for specific seasons, moods, and activities. Check out my Spotify here, but don't say you weren't warned. You're going to find a lot of dirty hip-hop and more Justin Bieber than I care to admit.

15. Hang with my brothers -- My brothers live in other states, so seeing them is a rare occasion. But when we do get together, we love to watch SNL and eat mediocre Mexican food in our pajamas. A lovely image.

16. Go to the movies -- This one would surprise my boyfriend since I haven't seen "any of the movies that matter," but it's true, I love going on dates to the theater. Especially Keystone Arts Cinema ... See #10.

17. Visit my parents -- Same as my brothers, my parents moved out of town not too long ago. I've loved traveling to see them this year and think that planning a trip around it makes the visit all the more significant.

18. Surf -- If I could do it over, I would totally become a pro surfer. In the meantime, I'll just be the only 26-year-old riding a longboard down the Monon and plan frequent trips to California.

19. Wear sparkly things -- More sequins, please.

20. Drink coffee -- Coffee is often the first word that comes out of my mouth in the morning. It's not an addiction it's just a way of life.

21. Work at coffee shops -- After I drink coffee at home in the morning, I love going to coffee shops to write and yes, drink more coffee. My favorites: Hubbard & Cravens and Rabble.

22. Meet new people -- To fuel my extroverted personality, I love scheduling meetings to network and get to know new people. This usually involves coffee or wine which, as you know, are also some of my favorite things.

23. Eat popsicles -- I've rediscovered fruit popsicles as an adult and it's the best thing ever.

24. Give people cards -- Handwritten letters and cards are a lost art. I like to write handwritten notes to just about everyone, but I especially love to surprise the people I love the most with an unexpected card when they need a pick-me-up.

25. Be outside -- Summer is my favorite month.

26. Celebrate -- I celebrate life every chance I get, but especially today! Thanks for celebrating with me.

Tell me something you love doing or something you're grateful for in the comments! I want to know more about how you celebrate life.

Cheers,

Ally

 

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