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Happy Fourth of July!

United States Declaration of Independence.

Photo from Flickr user Lou Gold

Happy Fourth of July! I hope all of my American readers enjoy a safe and happy holiday! (And those who don’t get the day off and/or aren’t celebrating, have a wonderful Tuesday!)

As we celebrate United States independence, I want to acknowledge the large number of people living in the United States who did not win freedom following the American Revolution, and who are still today being oppressed by mass incarceration, voter suppression, human trafficking, and other forms of slavery. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

I’ve thought a lot about what being an American citizen means to me, especially in light of the last several months. I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood — I played basketball and tag with Indian-American kids, Chinese-American kids, Japanese-American kids, kids whose parents had moved north from Puerto Rico. My dogs used to get in barking contests with the dogs owned by the African-American family whose backyard connected with ours. I babysat kids whose two moms had immigrated from the Czech Republic. But I never once considered any of these people “not American,” even when some of the families’ grandparents struggled to speak English. They were my neighbors, and my friends. To see my friends and neighbors who are Muslims, or who came (or want to come) from Middle Eastern countries — particularly Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan — discriminated against reminds me daily how far we have to go still. I want to live in a neighborhood — in a country — where everyone who wants to live there and isn’t harming anyone else is free to do so. The America of my dreams welcomes and respects new people, new cultures, and new ideas — and is stronger because of it.

The America of my dreams is also one where a free press is not only welcomed but celebrated.​ In a world where facts that people don’t agree with are decried as “fake news” (I’ll save my distaste for that phrase for another time), and differences of opinion are quickly reduced to character attacks by online trolls, I think free speech and a free press are more important now than ever. Our Constitution came with these freedoms built in, because its authors remembered firsthand how forced silence and tyranny go hand in hand.

I don’t often get political here, but what better time to reflect on politics than on the anniversary of our country’s founding? I’ll leave you all with a quote from the Declaration of Independence, signed 241 years ago today:

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

If the federal government continues to rule using ignorance and fear to deny rights and oppress society’s most vulnerable, our country’s founders not only grant us permission but encourage us to find a better way forward. I want to live in a country governed by hope rather than fear, knowledge rather than ignorance, freedom of speech and thought and press rather than an oppressive state media. As a Jewish woman who has studied the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party, I am deeply troubled by today’s political climate, but also profoundly encouraged by the voices of the resistance.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! As always, I welcome civil discussion in the comments.

How to be a Camp NaNoWriMo Cheerleader

Camp NaNoWriMo.Happy April! This month, writers all across the globe are challenging themselves to write a book in thirty days. I think of Camp NaNoWriMo (which takes place in April and July each year) as the underappreciated sibling of November’s NaNoWriMo. Writers work just as hard in Camp NaNo, but it’s far less recognized than the big event in November.

I think the lack of recognition for Camp NaNoWriMo means campers need even more cheerleading from friends and family. I’m not doing Camp NaNo (I thought about it, but I’m revising at the moment), but I know several writers who are. If a writer in your life is sweating through Camp NaNo this month, here are some things you can do to help them reach their goals.

  1. Cheer them on! Check in with an email or text every so often. When they reach daily/weekly goals, celebrate with them! (This can be as simple as tweeting “Great job” or sharing a funny video as a reward for reaching a goal.)
  2. If the writer has kids/siblings/elderly parents they take care of, offer to help with caretaker duties for a few hours.
  3. Make or bring them dinner. Fast drafting takes a lot of energy, and it’s really easy to lose track of time when you’re trying to write thousands of words a day. Having a night where you don’t have to think about dinner would be a huge help.
  4. Ask them how they’re doing. Some writers like to talk about their works in progress; others hate it. By asking an open question like, “How’s everything going?” you can invite them to discuss their work without making them feel forced to come up with a pitch on the spot.
  5. If they want to talk about their book, listen! If they’re stuck on something and want to talk through it, offer to be a sounding board.

There are plenty of other ways to cheer on your writing buddies, but these are the top five things my writing friends and I like to do for each other when one of us is fast-drafting.

Are you doing Camp NaNoWriMo? If so, how is everything going?

Writing advice from Albert Einstein

Happy Pi Day! In honor of Einstein’s birthday (3.14), I’d like to share some of my favorite advice from the physicist and how it applies to writing.

"Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Or, put another way, give yourself permission to fail. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a new genre, a new format, a new type of character or viewpoint. There’s a good chance your first attempts will be messy. Aren’t all first tries messy, though? Van Gogh wasn’t born a master painter. NBA stars weren’t always the best player on the court. And most bestselling authors have been rejected by agents and publishers many times. Let yourself make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes.

"The only source of knowledge is experience."“The only source of knowledge is experience.” In other words, learn by doing. The best way to improve your writing is to write a lot. The second-best way is to read a lot — to experience and study others’ storytelling techniques.

What’s your favorite writing advice?

Podcast Recommendation: Pod Save America

Headphones.Full disclosure: my recommendation this week is biased. The hosts of Pod Save America are former White House staffers who served under the Obama administration. So they are pretty liberal.

However, they also offer a unique perspective on political procedures and what’s happening in the country today. While other political podcasts I listen have more of a news/media approach, this one gives a former insider’s look, scrutinizing policies and procedures and comparing them to those of the previous administration. They also have a related podcast, Pod Save the World, that discusses international affairs.

What have you been listening to, reading, or watching these days?

Great escapist books

I read for a lot of reasons. To put myself in others’ shoes, to travel to different places (real and fictional), to learn about the world. I’m always on the lookout for a good story well told. But sometimes, I read to escape the stress and pressure of whatever else is going on in my life. Lately, these books have provided wonderful escapes.

Empire of Storms.Empire of Storms by Sarah J. Maas

This is the fifth book in the Throne of Glass series, so if you haven’t read the others, I highly recommend starting at the beginning. Some series you can pick up in the middle and be fine, but this one builds on everything that comes before it. This is a great fantasy series with lots of plot twists and characters you want to root for — even when rooting for one means rooting against another character you love.

Crooked Kingdom.Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

This is the second book in the Six of Crows duology, and I cannot recommend this series enough if you like richly-developed fantasy worlds, heists, and characters you can’t forget. I love how much thought is put into the social, political, and economic climates of this world — everything from how different kingdoms view magic differently to how different cultures have shaped their languages. Rarely do I come across a series with an ensemble cast where I don’t have a favorite character, but I love all six members of Kaz Brekker’s gang equally.

The Sun is Also a Star.The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Like Yoon’s first book, Everything, Everything, I read this book in twenty-four hours. Her writing is full of humor and hope, and even though romance isn’t usually my go-to genre, this book was exactly what I needed when I read it.

Do you ever read to escape? What books would you recommend?

Apps to aid with self-care

Sunset.One of my goals for 2017 was to concentrate more on self-care. Here are some apps I’ve used or had recommended to me to help with both physical and mental health. If you have any apps you’d recommend, please share in the comments!

Calm — I recently started trying to meditate with this free app. I can’t say too much about it yet, but so far it has helped with my anxiety. The backgrounds, complete with sound effects like a crackling fireplace, rain on leaves, waterfalls, and more, are hypnotic to watch. And the free “sleep story” I listened to yesterday, while far from the next Great American Novel, did help me relax and fall asleep faster than I usually do.

Headspace — I haven’t tried this mediation app yet, but I’ve heard good things about it. If Calm doesn’t work out for me, I plan to give Headspace a try.

Couch to 5K — Everyone I know who’s used this app has loved it. It builds up your endurance slowly, so even if you haven’t run before, by the end of the program you should be able to run a 5K.

MyFitnessPal — If you’re trying to lose or manage your weight, the free calorie counter that comes with this app is a great help. While I haven’t tried this app myself, it comes highly recommended by a few friends.

OverDrive, Hoopla, and Podbean — I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the apps I use to listen to audiobooks and podcasts, which have gotten me through so many anxiety days. When I’m so stuck in my own head even reading print books or articles is a struggle, audio can get me through.

What apps would you recommend for physical and/or mental self-care?

Podcast recommendation: 1A

1A.One thing 2016 made abundantly clear is how polarized U.S. politics has become. Social media has made it easier to mute the voices we disagree with and boost those who share our opinions. For a fascinating look at this, check out the Wall Street Journal‘s “Blue Feed, Red Feed,” which shows the stories that are most liked and shared by those who self-identify as “very liberal” and “very conservative” side by side. And when one person engages someone with a different opinion on social media, so often it devolves to trolling or personal attacks. It’s easy to look at your news feed and think everyone who disagrees with you is wrong, dangerous, uninformed (or, worse, misinformed), etc.

Enter NPR’s new podcast, 1A. This show draws its name from the first amendment, and discusses timely issues from policy to politics to pop culture. What I like most about this show is that host Joshua Johnson invites people with differing opinions on the day’s topic, and asks questions from listeners in addition to his own questions. Already this show has helped me to understand the arguments made by those whose politics I disagree with. While they’ve yet to change my mind, they’ve helped me see important issues from new angles, and provided insights that simply listening to others who share my views would not have given me. If, like me, you’re craving intelligent, civil discourse that respects differing opinions, I highly recommend this podcast.