For any endurance-testing endeavor, you gotta know your why. A few years ago, I wrote a mission statement for my (eventual) first book and posted it on my virtual bulletin board, to keep my purpose in sight. It went like this: “My mission is to write the book I wish I had when I was between 12 and 16 years old. My aim is for the book to be engaging, informative, and most importantly, empowering. I hope it serves as a model for girls to think about the different pieces of their life in new ways.”
Pretty good, right? Really, I think that statement captures the essence of what I’d like my whole career to be about. But in regard to this particular project, I’d change just one word. I don’t want to write the book I wish I had, I’d like to write a book I wish I had. If I got the chance to go back and guardian-angel my younger self, do I really think I would bring her just one book? Heck, no! I’d build her a whole dang library! One filled with books by the vast group of authors I’ve come to love, with a variety of perspectives on the topics I was so hungry to learn more about.
So, I thought, why not build that here?
I’m going to continue to fill this blog with reflections and celebrations on life, pop culture, and fabulous people (female and otherwise). One piece of that will be this new series of book recommendations called, of course, My Dream Library. If I can’t enthusiastically share my faves with my younger self, I’d love to do so with you, dear reader.
I’ve already got my first pick lined up, and I can’t wait to share it. In the meantime, check out some of my previous recommendations below. And let me know in the comments what’s well-worn and well-loved on your shelf!
The other day on my drive to work, I had another time-travel moment. This time, a happy one. I remembered the first time I had a piece of my writing published. It was a guest blog for the website of Jess Weiner, one of my favorite creators and biggest inspirations. I was brace-faced and 17, and the post went up one week before my high school graduation. It’s no longer online anywhere I can find, but thankfully my dad had the foresight to screenshot it years ago:
I love reading things my Younger Self wrote; I always find a gem or two of wisdom from her to me. This time, it was the line “It seems to me that the root of all unkindness is a lack of respect, and the most basic kind is the kind we have for ourselves.”
The reason I was thinking about the blog post, though, is that I was thinking about the concept of deserving. I realized that when my brain is scanning in the background for mistakes I’ve made, what it’s doing is looking for reasons I don’t deserve to feel happy. Since you did X, you should feel Y. Decision Z could have caused A, B, C, D, etc. If so-and-so knew about E, what would they think? And on through the alphabet and back again. Logically, I know that the worst-case interpretations presented by my mind are literally never accurate. But emotionally, sometimes they feel terribly real.
When I was 17, being kind to myself meant believing I deserved everything I dreamed of and acting accordingly. Ultimately, that’s what I would want for anyone I love . . . and everyone I don’t know, too. But I think for me, right now, the idea of “deserving” feels a bit loaded. The math of life rarely adds up in a way that makes sense to me, anyway. I’ve been both blessed beyond measure and experienced pain I didn’t “earn.” I don’t have to look far beyond myself to see plenty of examples of things not working out for people as they “should.” Besides, one of the most important things I’ve learned this year is that mental self-punishment does not make me a better person. It doesn’t solve the past or give anything to those around me. In fact, it often makes me so internally focused that I miss what’s going on for people I care about.
So while I believe that we all deserve the absolute best in every way, heading into this new year, I’ve decided to stop thinking about what I deserve (which lately has devolved into negative, past-focused thoughts) and think more about the life I want to create. I don’t have to understand the past or future or fairness or even the oddities of my own mind to make today a reasonably good day, headed in the direction I’d like to go. I’ve already found, in recent weeks, that being just a smidge more intentional with my days—finding small opportunities to connect with others or make progress on my goals—matters. The flicker of hope is there.
Life has these beautiful moments of synchronicity now and then. Jess Weiner, who so graciously shared my words about creating your dream life many years ago, is starting an endeavor to help others build The Good Life, on their own terms. (You better believe I already signed up for the first workshop!) Heading into the new year, I wish you the space, support, and resources you need to build your own Good Life. One day at a time.
I had a real good cry the other day. I’ve been carrying some self-loaded burden this year—I’m sure I’m not the only one—and I think I’m finally ready to set it down. But to tell the story, we need to wind the clock back to December 31st, 2019.
New Year’s Eve morning, I was on an airplane with my boyfriend. We were heading back from spending Christmas with his family. I don’t think of plane cabins as being particularly aesthetic locales, but sitting next to him, with the white morning light flowing in, I knew I was in a moment I’d never forget. I just knew that this was the year. The year that all the pieces were finally coming together. Not only was I starting the new decade with my lovely, supportive boyfriend, but I was moving into a new role at work, which was going to give me much better work-life balance, and therefore more time + mental energy to write. I was thisclose to having a first draft of my book done. This year, I was going to finish it, edit it, and figure out how to publish it! Was that a lot to expect? Maybe! But at the time, it really seemed possible.
And through January and February, it still did. I was so happy, and for the first time in a long time, the writing was just flowing. I was not only getting the pages down, but I was having fun with it. I’d regained my playfulness with words that had been hard to access for a while. Finally, I thought. All the work I’d done, to get my mind and life in a conducive state for writing, was paying off. I’d made it. Back to my voice, and forward to the writing life I’d been trying to create.
Then March came around. Like many people, I imagine, the first weeks of our community responding to COVID-19—gatherings being cancelled, schools and workplaces going remote—felt surreal to me. I felt shock more than anything. But once the jolt wore off, it all started to wear on me. Not getting to do the little things I’d taken for granted—the mornings I went to Starbucks to write, trivia nights with my brother and sister-in-law. I began to internalize the (very understandable) stress and fear in the air, to the point where I was often anxious about things totally unrelated to the pandemic, like challenges at work or random past mistakes.
Unsurprisingly, my writing started to suffer. Sometimes, I would sit down at my desk and struggle to focus. Other times, I couldn’t get myself to sit down at all. I kept telling myself, next week will be different. Or, tomorrow’s the day I get back on track. Suddenly, those days and weeks had flown by, spring became summer became (almost) fall, and nothing really got easier.
Until, admittedly, I had a bit of a meltdown moment a couple weeks ago. Sometimes, when I’m overwhelmed by my feelings but not yet ready to accept them, I start aggressively cleaning. (Lovely, I know.) I was going in on the kitchen when, thankfully, my aforementioned lovely boyfriend intervened. As soon as we sat down on the couch, I started sobbing. This year has not been what it was supposed to be. I haven’t been who I was supposed to be.
I let out all the disappointment, sadness, and anger—with myself and the situation—that had been building up for quite some time. Throughout the past six months, I’ve often been reminding myself (and saying out loud) how fortunate I’ve been. I’ve stayed healthy, and so has my family. I’ve kept my job and my house. So many people have experienced so much loss and suffering this year. Who am I to complain, about anything? But in my efforts to not appear selfish or ungrateful—even to myself—I failed to acknowledge how I was struggling. Being creative in 2020 is forking hard, man.
If I were to write creativity out as a formula (for myself, anyway), I would say creativity = purpose + time + mental energy. I’ve had a sense of inspiration and purpose for my book for years. On the other hand, the time and mental energy I have at any given point varies. This year, I made the mistake of thinking that since I have plenty of free time on my hands—can’t be distracted by going to movies or hanging out with friends!—I should be plenty productive. But I failed to acknowledge the brain drain this year has been. I’m grateful for my own health and safety, but I’m still sad for our communities. I’m still anxious. I’m still waiting for the day I can hug everyone I miss.
I stuffed down my feelings of frustration about my writing progress this year, because I thought they were selfish or unwarranted. The funny thing is, now that I’ve let them out, I’ve found mental room to reevaluate what I want the rest of this year to be. How I want to spend the creativity I do have. Because I do have it, even it’s a little more strained during this incredibly difficult time.
I’m not going to say I’m feeling the New Year’s Eve buzzy excitement again (who can even imagine?), but I feel a little more clear-headed and confident in my ability to create than I have in months. I’ll take it.
P.S. I am sending you love and light through whatever challenges you’re going through this year.
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching YouTube (as I often do), and I came across a video that really inspired me. It was by Michelle Elman, a body confidence coach who is perhaps best known for her two very popular Instagram accounts (@bodypositivememes & @scarrednotscared). She also has a YouTube channel, where she discusses everything from body positivity to therapy to dating. In this particular video, she talks about how to build up your confidence.
Self-confidence is something I’ve thought a lot about in my own life this year, and I feel like I’ve reached a personal turning point. I have built a foundation of confidence that I didn’t quite have befeore. But there was one concept she explained in the video that put to words something I’d thought about before but never been able to succinctly articulate. The idea is “acting as if,” or acting as if the things you want to be true already are. As Michelle explains, it’s a different take on the commonly-used phrase “fake it till you make it.” Watch the video below to hear her explain it more fully:
I think the reason this idea resonated so strongly with me at this moment in time is that a lot of the pieces of my life feel like they’re in flux right now. I’m not quite where I want to be, nor am I content staying where I’ve been. I’m on the move, so to speak, and that’s a good thing. But of course, uncertainty and putting yourself out there can be a little scary, to say the least.
What I struggle with sometimes is not knowing right away how things are going to turn out. Patience may be a virtue, but it’s never been one of my strengths. Some things I can be more zen about than others. I have wholly accepted that writing a book is a long-distance journey, mostly uphill (but one that I can take in my PJs, so that’s cool). Plus, I keep in mind what Cheryl Strayed, my favorite author, said in a letter to her younger self: “Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.”
The arena where I struggle with this the most is dating (perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s also the topic I’ve written least about). If writing a book is a mostly straight, uphill path, then dating is a multi-level obstacle course, where you learn the rules as you go. One day you’re blushing from a text you’ll read more than once, and another you’re trying to crack the code on what when wrong. It’s a lot. I know it’s worth it, but it’s a lot.
And since dating is an area of my life that feels less in my control—not to say I don’t havea say, but relationships are dependent upon not only the other person, but a lot of things that are hard to articulate—being patient is harder. I’m ready already. It’s not even so much that I need to start the chapter of building a relationship with my life partner right now, I just need to know that it’s coming. I don’t even need to know the birthdate, I just want to know that it exists. So maybe I can chill out a little bit.
That’s where Michelle’s words struck me. I’ve thought a lot before about how I would act if I did know. Would I relax a little more? Embrace this chapter of my life as not limbo or purgatory, but a wholly worthy chapter of its own? Because honestly, it really isn’t a bad one at all. Sure, there are a lot of loose ends in my life that I’m attempting to string up, but all in all, I’m happy. Like today, for example. I am in my oversized Cookie Monster shirt and favorite PJ pants,and I probably won’t change unless I decide to venture out to Whole Foods (one of my favorite treat-yourself places). I am in the pink office I designed exactly for myself, and I’m chipping away at my goals. I’ve reached a point in my life where I recognize how much I enjoy my own company. I may not know exactly where the various paths of my life will lead, but I’m choosing to move boldly forward on them anyway, and that’s what matters.
So I am going to write Michelle’s advice on my heart. I am going to “act as if” the future I imagine already exists, I just haven’t arrived yet. And with that, I’m going to make more of an effort to enjoy the journey. When I was a 17-year-old who was just beginning to write and working her first job at Panera, I remember looking at my little aproned reflection in the bakery window and thinking how very few people knew all that I envisioned doing someday. I felt the excitement of what it would be like, as those dreams began to come true, to look back at that moment when everything was just beginning, and I was simply a bagel-slicing teenager with a lot of hope and confidence. I was happy in the now because I had faith in the future. As we head into 2019, I wish that sense of happiness and faith for me and for you.
I wanted to share my most recent publication with you. I wrote an article for BuzzFeed entitled “5 Books to Guide You on Your Body Image Journey.” It’s mostly exactly what it sounds like! But it’s also about why books are so important to me, and how they helped me find my way in life at a very critical juncture. Writing this article was a test in perseverance. I actually started working on it months ago. Granted, I got a little bit distracted by life for a while. I don’t like that I do that, but sometimes I do. When I came back to working on it, I found myself struggling to move forward. I liked the introduction I had originally written—that stayed mostly intact for the final version—but I got stuck on the descriptions of the books. I found myself delaying writing them, and then when I did write a couple of them, I didn’t feel anymore confident about where the piece was headed.
But I kept showing up, and I finally realized what wasn’t working for me: the book blurbs I had written were kind of boring. I felt so passionate about the books I chose and the authors who wrote them, but that was not coming across on the page. I had written the book descriptions the way I thought I “should”—in second person, focusing solely on the subject matter of the book. Basically, my own miniaturized version of Amazon summaries. It hadn’t occured to me to do them differently. In part, I was just going off the many other book lists I’ve read. I also wanted to let the books stand on their own, and for readers to get a clear sense of what they’re about, so they could decide if they wanted to read them.
But realizing what wasn’t working for me opened up room for new idea. Since my introduction was so personal, more than usual when I write an article like this—it actually made all the sense in the world to be more personal in the descriptions as well, and share how each book impacted me in the moment they came into my life. Once I figured that out, I suddenly had all this momentum. I was able to finish up the article pretty quickly, and I was proud of how it turned out.
Which is all to say that this experience is a good reminder of what I have learned to be true over the course of my writing career: you just have to keep showing up. When you’re working towards a goal, sometimes progress feels slow, or the solution to a problem might not be immediately apparent. But if you meet that resistance with persistence, you will get where you’re trying to go. I wholeheartedly believe that.
If you’re looking for a new read or interested in becoming more educated on body image and related issues, check out the article. And if you’re moving, climbing, (sometimes) trudging towards a goal, just know that I’m right there with you.
My ten-year high school reunion is happening this month. In one sense, it’s kind of crazy to think about that amount of time passing. Ten years ago, the Obamas had yet to move into the White House, Taylor Swift had only released one album and was still considered a country artist (“Teardrops on My Guitar” forever!), and neither Instagram nor Snapchat existed.
In the scheme of my own life, though, it’s easy for me to accept that a decade has passed. I used to think it felt like I’ve gotten to live multiple lives in this one, but I think it’s more accurate to say that the different phases of my life have felt like distinct chapters, boookmarked by heartache and friendships, unbelievable opporutnities and challenges that at times felt impossible to overcome (they weren’t). Not to mention all the haircuts and dye jobs. So yeah, ten years sounds about right.
But to be honest, this summer marks another ten-year anniversary that for me feels more significant. On June 4, 2008, I started my first blog and began my journey as a writer. It was one of those experiences that may have held little significance to an outsider (my blog was by no means super popular, and that’s okay!), but on the inside, it felt revolutionary. After spending so much of my tween and teen years feeling unsure or unfond of myself, I’d found my voice and a way to share it. I was ecstatic in the knowledge that I knew what I wanted my life to be for. What I felt that summer seemed to be made of the same magic of falling in love.
And man, what a wild ride it’s been. I’ve gotten to do so many cool things! I’ve interviewed amazing girls and shared their stories. I’ve provided advice in real time to tween magazine readers. I’ve published articles on subjects I’m passionate about for websites I love, and connected with some of my favorite authors along the way. In addition to all that, I’ve realized how happy writing makes me. And happiness is something I don’t take for granted anymore.
I’m so excited to be starting this next decade and chapter. My dream of publishing a book—the one I wish I had on my shelf ten or so years ago—is approaching reality. I can’t wait to share the journey with you, too. I have a feeling this next adventure is going to be one for the books.
Something I am grateful for this year is that I had the opportunity to create a series of articles for the “Get Inspired” section of Girls’ Life‘s website. I interviewed three girls who were State or National Honorees at the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a program that recognizes kids and teens for their outstanding community service. Riley Callen is a high school freshman who holds hike-a-thons to raise money and awareness for benign tumor research. Lorelei McIntyre-Brewer is a seventh grader who developed a kid-sized compression heart pillow that she sends to kids all over the world. Gable Sloan, who is pictured below, is a seventh grader whose bakery has generated thousands of dollars for charity, in addition to funding an annual scholarship. I have worked with and written for Girls’ Life over the past seven years, and I’ve had some really awesome experiences along the way. In 2010, I began as a Blog Moderator for their website, where I not only approved comments but answered advice questions from readers in real-time. As you may imagine, it was really challenging at times—some of their questions warranted a more thorough conversation than we could have in the comments section!—but I was so grateful to get to listen to them, learn from them, and help out where I could. When I became an Online Contributing Writer the following year, I got to write about everything from how to host a “cupcake war” to bringing up tough topics with your parents. One of my favorite tasks though was interviewing awesome girls, including many who had given back in big ways like Riley, Lorelei, and Gable. (All of my Girls’ Life links are available here!)
I am genuinely grateful to get to help share these girls’ stories, because I think it’s incredibly valuable for them to be heard. Whether you’re a kid or an adult, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world and wonder what your place in it is. We all have so much power—power to create, power to help others, power to change the world—and sometimes, hearing someone else’s story can inspire us to begin writing our own. In my recent article on BuzzFeed, I mentioned that Deborah Reber’s book In Their Shoes changed my life for the better, and I really meant that. I read that book when I was 16 years old and starting to think about life after high school. After reading the profile on Jess Weiner, who described herself as an “Actionist,” or someone who uses their voice, their career, and their actions to make the world better, it was like everything clicked into place. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to write and create things for girls that would help them navigate the wild ride that is growing up and becoming who you want to be. Granted, the road hasn’t always been smooth, but having that guiding goal has helped me make decisions along the way that could have been a lot more difficult. I am so grateful for Jess, and for Deborah, and for the girls who have let me share their stories in hopes that we can send light and inspiration to someone who needs it.
If you haven’t yet checked out the articles about Riley, Lorelei, and Gable, please do so! Also, if there is someone whose story inspired you in some way, please feel free to tell us about it in the comments below. You never know who you could help inspire.
I’m excited to share that an essay I wrote was published on Literally, Darling, an awesome website designed with millennial women in mind, this week. The essay is titled “Cheryl Strayed’s Truth Bombs Inspired Me to ‘Write the Thing I Needed to Read.’” It’s about the lines in books that resonate like nothing else can, which I like to call “truth bombs,” and the impact my favorite author has had on me. The inspiration for this piece sprouted from seeing Strayed speak last year at the writing conference AWP (on my half-birthday, no less). But the seed was planted, so to speak, two years ago, when I included Tiny Beautiful Things on this book list for The Huffington Post and first used the term “truth bombs” to describe my experience reading her work.
My essay—which was originally titled “‘Truth Bombs’ an
d the Subjective Magic of Reading,” and then “On Cheryl Strayed, ‘Truth Bombs,’ and the Magic of Reading”—went through a lot of changes to get ready for the web. I ended up cutting what I thought was the final draft almost in half. Doing so was not only helpful in making the piece more succinct, focused, and easy to read, but also a good exercise as a writer. However, there was one part of the original essay that got left on the cutting room floor that I still really wanted to share with you, because I think it shows how powerful books really are—and the whole experience was also just a bit wild.
Sometime during the fall where I was going through a tough time (that I mention in the essay), I had this line pop into my head: “Allow yourself to be gutted.” I didn’t know that I would ever find a place to use it in my writing, but I thought it was good, so I saved it in a note on my phone, just in case. A few months later, I pulled out my copy of Tiny Beautiful Things, and realized that along the right side of the front cover was a line from the book: “Let yourself be gutted.” Oops.
Then something else happened. I started writing my essay last spring, and I realized I hadn’t read Tiny Beautiful Things since the spring semester of 2013, so I decided to reread it in between working on my draft. One day, I wrote a section where I compared reading a truth bomb to falling in love:
That’s why—and I’m going out on a limb here—I think finding a truth bomb through reading is an experience made out of some of the same stuff as falling in love. Because, just as a person in love can detail all the things they love about their loved one, without the magic glue that holds their reasons together, there’s no way others will be able to observe the same picture.
Later that day, I was reading Tiny Beautiful Things, and in one letter from Sugar/Strayed to three women who are considering leaving their current partners, she compares her second marriage to her first: “My two marriages aren’t so different from each other, though there’s some sort of magic sparkle glue in the second that was missing in the first.” What?! I had written my own “magic glue” reference mere hours before, years after reading that passage for the first time. I was legitimately flabbergasted. I take those two freaky/cool experiences together as proof that the books we care about weave themselves into our minds, perhaps even in ways of which we aren’t aware. Books have changed my life for the better, and for that I am incredibly grateful.
One thing I would love to do in my lifetime is write (and then publish) a book. This certainly isn’t a new dream for me; in fact, I spent a good chunk of the summer before I turned 19 putting together a book proposal. That particular project was never fully realized, but I still consider the time well-spent.
Fast-forward to today. I’m at a place now where I’m taking steps to make that dream a reality. Or perhaps I’m taking steps in preparation for taking steps to make that dream a reality. Either way, I decided a comfortable starting place would be to see what related YA/teen nonfiction books had come out since I last looked, as that’s the genre I imagine my future book project would fall under. After I gathered a list, I decided to start working my way through the titles. And then I realized I’d like to share my finds with you, in case you’d find them of interest. So today, I’m sharing with you my first pick, Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen.
Popular is the true story of Maya’s eighth grade year, but the inspiration behind it came from a book written—and purchased—long before Maya was even born. That book is Betty Cornell’s Teen-Age Popularity Guide, written by former teen model Betty Cornell and published in 1951. Years later, Maya’s dad purchased the interesting, now-vintage book at a thrift store. Years after that, the book made its way out of storage and into the hands of Maya—and so this journey begins.
At first, Maya simply finds the book “quirky,” but then her mom gives a suggestion: Maya could follow the book’s advice on how to become popular throughout her eighth grade year and write about what happens. Like many a middle schooler given advice by their mother, Maya initially rejects this idea. But Maya, by her account, has never had the experience of being popular; in her ranking of her school’s “popularity scale,” she places herself at “the lowest level of people at school who weren’t paid to be here.” She decides to give the experiment ago.
And go all in she does. Each month, Maya tests out a different category of Betty’s advice. She tries everything from wearing Vaseline on her eyelids to sitting at each table in the cafeteria. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Maya gets mixed results and reactions along the way, but by the end, Maya is transformed—and I’d definitely say that the ending is a happy one.
Maya’s story was very relatable to me. In middle school (and high school), I did have good friends, but I definitely didn’t consider myself popular. And for much of that time, I really, really wanted to be. I thought, misguidedly, that being popular was the key to ultimate happiness.
Looking back on that time in my life gives me a kind of achy feeling. I can’t help but think, Man, with everything I know now, I could do that time so much better. Although I never experienced life on the “popular” side, I can say that over time, that label ceases to matter, but good friendships don’t. Also, the things that help me establish real connections with others—being in the moment, listening, sharing my joy—also make me feel happier, and again, have nothing to do with labels. That all may sound kind of cheesy, but it’s so true, it hurts.
This book definitely ignited that ache, but in a good way. Because—without giving too much away—Maya proves my line of thinking right. She puts the conventional notion of popularity to the test, and in the process, learns what that word really means to her, as well as how she wants to live her life going forward. Which is a lot for any one person to do in a year, let alone someone also navigating the halls of middle school. But Maya does it—and, thankfully, she brings us along on the journey.
So, whether you are a preteen or teen, or you know one, or you just want to vicariously ease your own ache about what might have been, I recommend this book. It’s a pretty quick read—and a powerful one.
P.S. If you have any recommendations for my teen nonfiction reading list, let me know in the comments! Or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
An essay that I have been working on for a very long time (like, since before Halloween) was published on HelloGiggles today. The article, titled “I spent a week giving myself the advice I’d give a friend—here’s what I learned” (originally “My week giving myself the advice I’d give a friend”), was based on some very good advice from my dad that popped into my head at just the moment I needed it.
The actual “experiment” may have only taken a week, but the process of turning the idea into a finished, shareable article took much longer—and seemingly, longer than it usually does for me to finish an essay for the web. There were days when I would sit down, write for an hour, and realize I had only finished about a sentence. Not that I wasn’t working, or was “working” but also crafting a playlist and updating my Snapchat story and staring off into space. Rather, I would write a sentence, cross it out, and write it again—potentially, slightly better. That process was more time-consuming and perfectionistic than I was used to, but, for the most part, I didn’t mind it. Because I realized that the same qualities that at times contribute to me feeling bad—e.g., my ability to think too much—were helping me create something potentially great.
So, check out the article, and please, let me know what you think! If you have other strategies for working through bad days, I would love to hear them as well.