Creativity in a Time of Crisis: Swedish Edition

My creative mojo has been tested numerous times during the Covid-19 pandemic and it’s been upended even further by the racial and social awakening gripping the United States in the aftermath of George Floyd’s brutal murder. Both situations–and the general chaos of 2020–are never far from my mind and I’ve fluctuated between spurts of intense productivity and bouts of inactivity. But whenever I’m not writing, I am thinking, reading, discussing, observing, and drawing sustenance from intellectuals and creatives in my orbit. Three, in particular, are a source of inspiration: Andrea Pippins, Gina Vide, and Lola Ákínmádé Åkerström. We share many similarities as ex-pats living in Sweden; we’re married to Swedes, raising biracial and/or multicultural children, and pursuing careers that incorporate our creative passions. In this time of social distancing, I love following their lives and work on Instagram, so I asked this talented, accomplished trio to elaborate on the unprecedented moment we find ourselves in and how it has affected their creativity. I hope you enjoy this window into their minds as much as I did!

Andrea Pippins

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Andrea Pippins is an illustrator and author who has a passion for creating images that reflect what she wants to see in art, media, and design. Her work has been featured in Essence MagazineThe New York Times, and O: The Oprah Magazine. She has worked with brands such as Bloomberg, Broadly, ESPN, The High Line, Lenny Letter, Lincoln Center, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Andrea is the author of I Love My Hair, a coloring book featuring her illustrations celebrating various hairstyles and texture; Becoming Me, an interactive journal for young women to color, doodle, and brainstorm their way to a creative life; and We Inspire Me, a collection of essays, interviews, and advice on cultivating and empowering one’s own creative community. She also illustrated Young Gifted and Black and Step Into Your Power. Most recently, Andrea teamed up with Instagram to create stickers in honor of Juneteenth. 

How did you spend your days in quarantine and/or social distancing? 

We (my husband and toddler son) spent about 2.5 months at home. I already work from home, but my husband worked remotely during our self-quarantine and we kept our son home from preschool. It was quite an adjustment for all of us, but we made the most of our time. When possible, I [pregnant] worked on wrapping up projects before my due date, and my husband and I would take our son on walks or bike rides. I baked a lot with Isa and we read tons of books with him. It was challenging to keep him activated during the day, but I’m so glad we had that time with him before the new baby arrived.

Was it difficult to get inspired/motivated?

It wasn’t difficult to get inspired/motivated, my challenge was being able to act on those motivations. Because we were managing a schedule that involved juggling a toddler and trying to get work done, there wasn’t much downtime for reflection or executing the ideas that were emerging. I did try to do a little personal drawing here and there, which I shared as art prompts on Instagram, but for the most part, I collected my ideas in my sketchbook, idea book, or journal—surrendering to the fact that I would execute them later.

Why do you think innovation and creativity thrive in crisis?

A crisis often leaves us with new restrictions or a new way of being. When we are faced with those circumstances, we are forced to figure out how to do something we want to do in a new way. We use our imaginations, we experiment or improvise. In this unfamiliar state, we tend to feel freer to make mistakes and take chances. When we feel as though we have nothing to lose and don’t know what’s at stake, some of our best ideas emerge.

What is the strongest personal or general insight you’ve gained during this public health emergency (and period of social upheaval if you choose to reflect on that)?

For me, the insight I gain during this public health emergency–or what I was reminded of–has been to surrender. A lot of my frustration, sadness, and stress came from me not being able to do things the way I used to our how I wanted to do them. I was expecting my second child during our self-quarantine, I released a new book, and had to complete work before the arrival of our baby girl. I had to figure out how to manage all of this with very little time to myself. I realized the only thing I could do was just surrender by accepting the present moment and just doing what I could do. With that, the days became a little easier to navigate.

What are your goals within this new reality we will be facing for the foreseeable future? 

This period has turned into a time of rest and reflection, incubating, and downloading. So I’ve been writing in my journal different ideas and projects I’d like to pursue in 2021 and beyond. They all relate to nurturing my full self. A few of them are to teach more (I used to teach graphic design on the college level and miss working with young artists and designers.), focus more on my personal work, and making sure all of this leaves space for things that bring me joy like my spiritual practice and time with my family and friends (whom I’ve missed terribly during the social distancing).

What is your advice to other creatives out there? 

If possible, use this time to heal and rest, and imagine a new world.

Gina Vide

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Gina Vide possesses a lifelong passion for children, creativity and has worked professionally as a creative all of her life, including as a graphic designer, illustrator, artist-writer, photographer, installation consultant, prop stylist, and teacher on both sides of the Atlantic. These interests intersect on her blog, Willowday, and on Instagram, where she features many of her handmade projects. Gina is also the author of ABC Flower Safari. Parents and children alike will be captivated by the whimsical magical spell of Gina Vide’s enchanted flower animal world and its alphabet adventures.

How did you spend your days in quarantine and/or social distancing?

I’m a  mother of three teens and share a house between the city and Stockholm archipelago with them, my husband, and two dogs. We were all home, on-line with work or school, and found the biggest joys in the small: meals, dog walks, and Zoom calls. The gift of more free time at home meant small shared creative moments, like teaching my daughter to sew and enjoying every person in my family cooking with creative abandon. Regarding my work, I left my beautiful studio in Old Town to work from home after the birth of my firstborn. Although it had highs and lows, I work daily. 

Was it difficult to get inspired/motivated?

To begin with, it was a shock. However, I’m a “glass half full” person, am easily distracted by my own imagination, and am motivated to help others.  Within days of the quarantine beginning,  grown from an overwhelming desire to help, I co-produced an ebook with fun craft projects for parents with young kids now quarantining.  I do have a silver lining to this period: Spring and Summer are when flora and foliage and daylight are at the best for my foliage work. Daily walks are truly a part of my process and I’m thrilled to find endless inspiration in the world around me. Since we’re home this summer, I’ve even thrown myself into watching my own flowers grow. 

Why do you think innovation and creativity thrive in crisis?

I think innovation and creativity coexist in a crisis because our senses and purpose are heightened when constraints or issues materialize. Superfluous is cleared away and the things that matter stand out. 

What are your goals within this new reality we will be facing for the foreseeable future? 

With the pandemic, I’ve started more local work than I’ve done in years. I feel the importance to cultivate creatives and community locally while always remaining a “citizen of the world.” As an ex-pat, I think I can be no other.  Since Instagram is a visual medium, I love it as a place for connection and armchair travel with my art and as a place to richly discover other talents, voices, and positive ideas. During the pandemic, it’s been such a lively community. During the recent social Black Lives Matter crisis, I find it to be an incredibly rich resource to find exciting Black artists, musicians, and voices to learn from and to support BLM and issues I care about.  

What is the strongest personal or general insight you’ve gained during this public health emergency (and period of social upheaval if you choose to reflect on that)?

Use your voice. Be kind. Small things matter, say hello, read, discuss, support others, and push yourself to walk what you talk and to do things you’ve maybe not considered doing before. Voice, literature, art,  music, and facts are important.  When we simply see one another, we can have conversations and connections; conversations lead to truths, solutions of differences, and dismantling our fears whether it’s racism or how the pandemic is being handles and/or solved.

What is your advice to other creatives out there?

Continue to show up for your work and also be forgiving of yourself. Small steps every day are important to long-term growth and serve as a daily commitment to yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others and walk away from the voices that bring you down. I’ve gone so far as to save notes of kind notes of support into a file to read on the days when I need a boost. 

Lola Ákínmádé Åkerström

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Lola Ákínmádé Åkerström was born in Nigeria, educated in the United States, and is now based in Sweden. Her photography and travel writing are often characterized by vibrancy and hope. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, BBC, CNN, The Guardian, Travel + Leisure, Slate, Travel Channel, Lonely Planet, Forbes, Fodor’s, AFAR, National Geographic Channel, Adventure Magazine, several in-flight magazines, and New York Times. Some of her articles and photography have been syndicated on MSNBC, Slate, Yahoo, New York Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times, Huffington Post, and Time Warner. In addition to contributing to several travel books, she’s the author of award-winning DUE NORTH and international bestselling LAGOM, available in 18 languages. Soon she’ll be sharing some exciting news about her debut novel, Afroswede, which follows the lives of three Black women in Sweden tied to the same man.

How did you spend your days in quarantine and/or social distancing? 

I arrived back in Sweden mid-March when borders were beginning to get closed and countries were going into lockdown. So, I was grateful to be back in town to spend quarantine with my family. In terms of social distancing, I’ve been running bi-weekly group check-in calls with friends in Sweden to check in on them and how they’re adjusting to the new normal.

Was it difficult to get inspired/motivated?

The first three weeks were challenging. I had zero creativity and didn’t even touch my camera for weeks. Then I started taking better care of myself, clearing my mind, doing some morning rituals of silence, prayer, meditation, and affirmations. I also started getting a bit of exercise. Then my creativity slowly started seeping back in. While in quarantine, I was able to complete an online course through Harvard Business School online and I’m now about to launch my academy: https://academy.geotravelermedia.com

Why do you think innovation and creativity thrive in crisis?

Beyond thinking of creative ways and solutions to battle a crisis, I think innovation thrives when we’re forced to stand still and distractions are reduced. We begin to focus on the essential and deep work we need to be doing in the first place. We begin to realign and recenter ourselves to our purpose. And we gain more clarity on the most important aspects of our lives.

What is the strongest personal or general insight you’ve gained during this public health emergency (and period of social upheaval if you choose to reflect on that)?

I think the strongest piece of insight, beyond letting go of control, is realizing how much time I wasted on nonsense distractions in the past. And how, with laser focus and routine, I can accomplish so much more than I ever could in the past. The general insight showed me just how deeply interconnected we all are. I work primarily within the travel industry, which was the hardest hit and it was traumatic witnessing the ripple effect of the crisis tear through our community. 

What are your goals within this new reality we will be facing for the foreseeable future? 

A friend of mine told me that as a freelancer, you have to be awake to make money, but as an entrepreneur, you make money while you’re asleep. That is what this crisis has really solidified for me. So, I’ve been investing in more ways where I can provide value digitally. 

What is your advice to other creatives out there?  

Beyond diversifying your income streams, start looking into ways of sharing your knowledge and getting paid for it as passive income.

TACK SÅ MYCKET, ANDREA, GINA & LOLA! Your words of wisdom resonate and it will remain exciting to follow your creative endeavors! 

 

 

 

 

 

Express Yourself 70's Social Post

Like so many others, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be serious, focused, and productive during this period of stay-at-home and social distancing. While I’ve made major strides with my new novel, being hyperfocused also left me feeling drained and depleted. The tipping point came when my nineteen-year-old daughter, Yasmine, remarked I seemed downcast and grumpy. Aside from bouts of pandemic melancholy, I blamed it on my writing woes, but ironically, I was experiencing forward momentum and should have been in a better headspace.

In deference to Yasmine, I analyzed my situation directly after her comment: papers scattered on the kitchen table, hair coiled and uncombed, outfitted in plaid pajama pants from Costco, snacking on bags of plantain chips yet sensing I was getting out of shape–all with the distressing din of news reports in the background. Whatever writing progress I had made was overshadowed by my solemn, desk-bound routine. It’s not like I hadn’t read articles about the importance of self-care during quarantine. Putting on real clothes. Incorporating one hour of physical activity into your day. Maybe even topping it all off with a glass of wine in the evening. But I was writing. Being productive. I didn’t have time to indulge in these simple pleasures and mood boosters.

Nevertheless, it was becoming clear amassing words on paper wouldn’t be enough to bolster my morale when the world was turned upside down. I’m grateful beyond measure to be safe, healthy, and surrounded by my family, but even under the best of circumstances, being “productive” does not guarantee peace of mind, sustain that creative spark, or inject a bolt of energy to your day. I was in a rut and needed a pick-me-up.

Along with silver lining, the word “joy” has popped up a lot as a coping mechanism to deal with pandemic anxiety: the Joy of Missing Out, the joy of staying in, the joy of small things, Arianna Huffington’s joy triggers. But I had retreated into survival mode for the first two months of #stayinghome and in the spirit of solidarity, denied myself the possibility of delighting in joyful experiences, no matter how little.

Unfortunately, our status quo is no longer temporary; co-existing with Covid-19 for the foreseeable future is our new reality. With that in mind, I’ve adopted a more proactive, optimistic approach. I’m still very humble and cautious in the face of this insidious virus, but I’ve also been making a conscious effort to steer my daily schedule and create “pockets of joy” in the midst of uncertainty. I define these “pockets of joy” as self-generated activities to nurture my mind, body, and soul. I’ve also included things I may have considered unnecessary and self-indulgent when the coronavirus outbreak began.

My daughter’s observation prompted some self-examination, and since then, I’ve been cognizant of filling every day with “pockets of joy”–even if the writing gets backlogged and I’m not as productive.

Lately, I’ve gotten so much enjoyment from:

Lengthy discussions with my kids about everything from Drake’s spectacular mansion in Architectural Digest to what my daughter might want to major in at university.

Taking short writing breaks and putting the manuscript aside on weekends. Coincidentally, glitches have been easier to spot after I’ve let the words incubate!

Stretching, working out (elliptical machine), or going for a walk in the morning. It’s an empowering start to the day and I feel the endorphin rush for hours afterward. Post-exercise, I also have better writing sessions and a brighter disposition :).

Mindful eating. Spending the extra time to consider what I consume has given me more control over my choices and increased my energy. My latest obsession is flatbread pizza–but in moderation!

Dancing with abandon in my kitchen! Our family is loving the old school 90s soundtrack from “The Last Dance.”

Organizing those messy drawers and cupboards. Going through my closet and donating what I no longer need. Decluttering has been cathartic, like shifting to a new phase with more clearly-defined priorities.

Watching/listening to IGTV videos. I’m hooked on cooking tutorials and author interviews. They make it look so easy!

Forcing myself to stay awake and read before I go to bed. I can’t wait to dive into These Ghosts Are FamilyA Good Marriage,  and Rodham.

Zoom Birthday Celebrations and Happy Hours with friends from around the world. I’ll put a festive top on or don a funny hat and open a bottle of something bold or bubbly. Sometimes we all talk at once, the audio is scratchy and the screen freezes, but seeing their faces and hearing their voices make up for it!

I’m sure my “pockets of joy” will evolve but at their core, they’re about finding balance. Balancing productivity with room to reflect, laugh, and live responsibly. I hope you’re finding your own “pockets of joy” during these challenging times.

 

Coping with Coronavirus: Mental Health Q&A

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After two months of living with the anxiety and confines of the Covid-19 pandemic, I finally broke down last week. Melancholy, which had been steadily creeping over me, enveloped my psyche as the death toll continued to rise (particularly in the places closest to me my heart, New York and Stockholm), unemployment soared, and it became clear that social distancing restrictions would be in place for the foreseeable future. I’m usually pretty good at boosting myself up, but the coronavirus is so insidious, its implications so far-reaching, I turned to one of my oldest and best friends, experienced clinical psychologist and wardrobe strategist Ania Schwartzman, Psy.D., for additional support. Ania is a licensed clinical and school psychologist working for nearly two decades with children and adults. A graduate of Brandeis University, Ania obtained her Master’s Degree and Doctorate in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York. I had many questions about my feelings and fears and hope Ania’s advice can help others grappling with similar emotions.

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Ania on the set of NBC NY Live with journalist Raina Seitel in March 2019.

I’m a news junkie but feel overwhelmed by the data and saddened by stories of human tragedy. How can we balance our need to stay informed without succumbing to the anxiety of information overload?

Living in these uncertain times leaves most of us feeling anxious and worried. Research shows that feeling uncertain about the future is worse for our mental health than knowing what to expect. My advice for avoiding feeling overburdened or overwhelmed by the news is to commit to sticking with only one reliable news source. This helps to minimize the amount you are exposed to in a day. Additionally, avoid checking the news first thing after you wake up or right before you go to bed.

I’m scared that I or my loved ones will get sick. How can I manage that fear?

Instead of focusing on the “what ifs,” focus on the “what is.” In other words, focus on the present, the here and now. For example, right now I am feeling healthy and strong and right now I am doing the best that I can to protect myself.

I worry that when going out in public, people may be sick. I may be sick and spreading and not even know it! How do I deal with this new phobia?

Being afraid that others are sick is a rational fear. You can manage the fear by taking control of the steps you take when out in public. You can follow [CDC] guidelines such as wear a mask and gloves, keep at a safe distance (6ft is the recommended distance), limit your time outdoors, and wash your hands often.

What if the social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine lead to depression? How can one prevent this?

If an individual develops symptoms of depression, seek out a clinical therapist. Talk therapy and medication help to alleviate the symptoms of depression. To avoid feeling lonely and isolated, make efforts to connect with others. It can be done virtually through Zoom or Facetime or outside with appropriate distance. Ask a friend to meet for a virtual coffee, meal, or happy hour.

It feels like no matter what we do, the coronavirus is one step ahead. We still don’t have a treatment, vaccine, or the capacity to reopen society fully.  What can we do to feel more in control of our environment and protect our loved ones near and far?

One of the hardest parts about this pandemic time is the feeling of not having control over our lives. The best way to manage your feelings is to focus on what you can control. You can control whether you wear a mask when outside, keep the appropriate social distance from others, store whatever essentials you need at home, limit the amount of time you spend on social media and the news, and how you manage your day. We cannot control how our loved ones from afar live their lives, but we can offer support by keeping in touch with them daily.

How can we tackle job loss and insecurity? What can we do to prepare for a better tomorrow?

Anyone going through job insecurity now is understandably worried and anxious. Best practice during this kind of uncertainty is to make a plan of action and follow through with it. Call/email colleagues and friends and let them know you are looking for work. Revise your resume and send them out. Attend virtual networking events/job fairs. Research what supports are available from your local government and seek out those supports. For some, this is a good time to consider a career pivot. It could be something within their field or something brand new. One silver lining in all this could be that more people start the venture of their dreams.

How should we talk to our children about this crisis? From preschoolers to college students?

There are so many resources available online now to help parents talk to their kids about Covid-19. Most will agree that children should be given information that is developmentally appropriate for their age and maturity level. The conversation you have with your high school son will not be the same as you have with your grade school daughter. Let them lead the discussion. Be honest. Stick with the facts. Validate their feelings. Remind them what your family is doing to keep them safe. Offer ideas for how they can be helpful (ex. Send thank you cards to nurses/doctors). Check-in with them periodically to find out if they have any thoughts or questions. If they don’t, drop it and let them know that you are available when they do.

There’s so much uncertainty about the future. We’ve had to write-off many personal and professional plans. How do we cope with the turbulence and after-effects?

We are suffering a community trauma. That said, we all manage our feelings differently. There will be those that come out of this feeling more powerful having survived and maybe even thrived. And there will be those that have suffered tremendous loss and grief who will need significant time to recuperate. In times of uncertainty, it helps to look for the silver linings. What good has come out of this time already? For me, it’s been being able to wake up later than I usually do, having more time with my children, testing out new recipes. I believe that the long-lasting effects will differ depending on how one has coped during this time.

What are some helpful anxiety-coping strategies?

The best strategies to manage feelings of anger and anxiety include meditation (there are tons of apps and online options); exercise (includes walking, running, dancing, yoga); seek out virtual connections with friends/colleagues (social connection improves mood); journal your thoughts and feelings (research shows that naming feelings increases well-being); laugh (watch comedies, read humorous books); practice positive mindset (I don’t know what will happen but I know I will be okay); look at pleasant or memorable photographs (helps to feel relaxed); practice self-care (take a bath, give yourself a manicure, try a face mask, take a nap). Helping others is also good for our minds and bodies and gives us a sense of purpose. Being connected to a larger community reduces feelings of isolation (which can lead to depression) and helps decrease blood pressure which is good for our overall health. Looking out for neighbors, assisting with errands and shopping, donating to a cause or charity you care about, delivering food, making masks, and sharing information are all ways to help. But stay safe and be sure to follow guidelines when supporting others. 

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Ania recommends this calming exercise: Find a quiet spot to sit. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Keep breathing. Stay like this for a few minutes. When your mind wanders, come back to your breath. Repeat after me: may I be healthy, may I be safe and protected, may I live life with ease, may I be happy. Repeat 5 times. When you are ready, open your eyes. Photo Source: Shutterstock

I practice gratitude and am a firm believer of keeping things in perspective but lately, I’ve found myself missing things like trips, restaurants, dancing, and dressing up. How can I manage these frivolous thoughts?

What you describe as “frivolous” are really the joys of living a good life. I do not believe in feeling guilty for missing the things we miss. I do believe that it is important to consider with whom and how you share these feelings. Be mindful of your audience and what they could be experiencing. If someone is dealing with loss, they may not appreciate hearing that you miss dancing or getting your daily Frappuccino. That said, everyone going through this unprecedented time appreciates distractions. I have been busy with helping others organize their closets and plan outfits. They tell me it helps them feel calm and hopeful about the future.

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A few years ago, Ania Schwartzman, Psy.D, decided to combine her clinical therapy practice with her love for fashion, and The Fashionologist was born. The photo above was taken a while back, but in keeping with the coronavirus social distancing rules, Ania has been seeing clients virtually.

Sometimes I feel like my book writing is futile in the shadow of the pandemic. What should I and other creatives do?

Continue to write your book! This pandemic is truly terrible, but it will end someday. When that day comes, you will know you used your time well.

Thank you so much, Ania, for your valuable insight. For more about Ania’s work, please visit her website, The Fashionologist.

Readers, how are you coping with coronavirus anxiety?

Writing in the Time of Corona

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Social-distancing. Self-isolation. Stay at home. Lockdown. Shelter in place. Working from home. These have been my catchphrases for half a year, albeit unknowingly and under different circumstances. Writing my next novel has taken up all of my waking, non-family hours. I’ve been plugging away towards an April 1st rough draft deadline, striving for a summer release date. I’ve barely had time to socialize with friends–or to be out and about–so the directives from the World Health Organization to flatten the coronavirus curve were easy for me to implement. I prefer to work at home, close to my research material, and don’t want to lose precious time getting properly dressed and leaving the house. I work best when I can totally immerse myself in my fictional universe.

Writing is my creative outlet; it gives me joy, focus, and structure, but what happens when you do it in the shadow of a pandemic? When Shakespeare was in quarantine from the plague in 1606, he wrote King Lear. My concentration, however, has been shattered, torn between wanting to conduct business as usual and keeping abreast of the latest developments. Rather than writing full-time, a big chunk of my day is spent following the latest information on the virus’s trajectory and consuming news reports about patients, government policy, the healthcare challenges, and economic fallout. CNN is usually on in the background; the reporters’ solemn, sincere voices have become my soundtrack throughout this pandemic.

In order to ease my anxiety and get into work mode, I take occasional news breaks. Even so, reality doesn’t disappear. I may write a paragraph or two and then forget, for a split second, that we’re in dire straits, but then I come out of my writing bubble and it hits me again. I’ve asked myself repeatedly: What’s the point of what I’m writing? Does it matter in these apocalyptic times? When life and death hang in the balance? With economies and livelihoods on the brink of collapse? Sticking to a schedule, planning for a summer release–is that realistic or feasible?

Like everything else, the book world has been turned upside down. A number of writers have had their publication dates delayed or book tours canceled. Writing a book can be a lonely undertaking; doing events and meeting readers are among the most rewarding parts of the job. Luckily, the literary community has found alternative approaches to promote their work and connect with the public. Books have remained an essential part of my life during this crisis. I take reading breaks to escape, to be inspired by another writer’s inventiveness, and to marvel at their flair for words. I also support new releases by downloading them on my Kindle. Although I’ve avoided pandemic fiction–too close to home–I admire the research and imagination that went into conceiving them. These are the books currently in my Kindle library: The Glass Hotel; In Five Years; The Herd; My Dark Vanessa; Followers; Smacked; Oona Out of Order; and These Ghosts Are Family. My husband and I binge-watched Netflix’s adaptation of Harlen Coben’s The Stranger and it was a thrilling diversion. Listening to literary podcasts like Zibby Owen’s Mom’s Don’t Have Time to Read Books and buying online from independent bookstores are additional ways to support writers and the industry.

I’m acutely aware that I’m in a fortunate position where I can stay home and still manage my life under stricter guidelines. Many do not have that possibility. Coronavirus victims and caregivers are constantly on my mind. I don’t bemoan changed plans or canceled trips. These are small “sacrifices” for the greater good of public health and safety. My gratitude to the frontline professionals and first responders in healthcare, food retail, pharmacies, and other essential services is immense. I feel healthy right now but COVID-19 is a silent predator. If afflicted, I don’t want to inadvertently infect others or become a burden on hospitals at the expense of other vulnerable individuals. Out of social responsibility and solidarity, I stay home and write.

The coronavirus forced me to change a crucial element in my new book. The story was supposed to take place during the summer of 2020, the first one of the new decade. I loved the sound and symmetry of it and imagined warm, sunlit days to contrast with my characters’ inner turmoil. Yet as this pandemic progressed, I realized it would be unrealistic to ignore its presence given that every aspect of our lives has been affected thus far. But it also felt opportunistic to insert an unfolding, unresolved crisis for the sake of historical accuracy. For this reason, I restructured the narrative timeframe to 2019.

Who knows where we’ll be this summer? But I’ll keep writing and, hopefully, I’ll finish and release my new novel, humbly offering to others the distraction that has sustained me these last few months.

 

On My Mind…

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Greetings from the Swiss Alps! I’ve spent the last week skiing with family and friends for the annual Swedish Winter Sports Break. Snow has been falling heavily for the past few days and visibility is poor. My husband and son can handle those challenging conditions, but I prefer to stay inside by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate and a book. I’m currently engrossed in Real Life by Brandon Taylor, a debut novel that has received much praise.

Regarding my own book project, I’m halfway-done to a finished first draft. Although I felt guilty putting the manuscript aside this week, the invigorating mountain air and expansive views have stimulated many ideas and I can’t wait to pick up where I left off when I get back to Stockholm. March will be an intensive writing month since I have an April 1st deadline for submission to a developmental editor. As an indie author, it’s particularly important to ensure that the plot makes sense, the characters are well-developed, and the grammar and spelling are correct.

However, as much as I’ve been trying to stay laser-focused on my writing, it’s been impossible to ignore the recent controversy embroiling the literary world. It centers around a novel released last month, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, the story of a Mexican mother and her son whose family has been massacred by a drug cartel. They are forced to flee, instantly becoming migrants, and embark on a precarious journey north to the American border. It was chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club pick, sparking controversy over the exploitation of migrant stories by non-Mexican and non-migrant writers. In addition, American Dirt has drawn attention to the lack of racial diversity in the publishing industry, along with issues of representation surrounding the books that get published and marketed.

I have not read American Dirt and will not delve into that specific debate, but it did make me think about my own publishing journey and the difficulty I had attracting agents and publishers for my first novel, Uptown & Down.  One the one hand, some said they couldn’t envision a broad audience for the story while others told me it wasn’t “black enough.” You can only imagine my confusion! Thankfully, I found one agent willing to take a chance on the story and she, in turn, found an editor at Penguin/NAL who “got it.” I will always be grateful to both of them. Ten years later, I experienced many of the same issues with Lagging Indicators and that frustration led me to publish independently.

Cummins’s novel has also renewed the discussion about cultural appropriation and writing outside of your race, culture or experiences. I passionately oppose limiting the world or characters a writer can imagine. Of course, if we go outside of ourselves, we should do our homework and approach it with sensitivity, but self-censoring our imagination is a dangerous proposition creatively. My novels have always contained a diverse cast of characters, both for depth and to reflect the multicultural world we live in.

Which brings me to my new book, a mother/daughter story set in the Swedish archipelago. The narrative is told from two points of view and my main characters are a white Swedish mother and her bi-racial daughter. I am neither–does that mean I don’t have the right to write from their perspectives? Should I scrap this story because I might open myself up to criticism? Although I feel I can justify my creative choices based on my years living among Swedes, I’m still very much aware that I’m writing outside my cultural and racial identity. But when crafting the characters of Linn and her daughter Zoë, I’ve tried to inhabit their emotions, inner conflicts, and motivations, hoping our outward differences will transform into something more universal. To be continued…

REFLECTING ON THE 2000s

I remember ringing in the new millennium at a private, black-tie party in Gamla Stan, the old town section of Stockholm. Our friend had booked a space with a prime view of Skeppsbron, the waterfront boulevard, and we feasted on caviar, lobster and filet mignon, tallying the minutes until 2000, and watching the Swedish rock band, Europe, sing their signature hit, “The Final Countdown,” across the water. I had gotten married six weeks earlier, so the 21st Century—a mythical denomination that had long captured the popular imagination—felt like a new beginning for me too. The conversation that New Year’s Eve centered on the Y2K bug projected to wreak havoc on global computers. Would the apocalypse come when the clock struck midnight? Luckily, we were spared, but the world awaiting us would scarcely resemble the one we had grown up in.

Personally speaking, the 2000s brought infinite blessings and great joy: the birth of my daughter (2001), the arrival of my son (2004), and the publication of my first novel, Uptown & Down (2005). However, it also carried immense tragedy and sorrow: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the death of my beloved mother in 2004. When I look back at that first decade, it passed by in a bit of a blur as I juggled family life with my writing aspirations. However, the candidacy of Barack Obama energized me, rekindling my own political engagement, and I will always remember the night of November 4, 2008, when he was elected the 44th President of the United States.

After that historic event, defining moments seemed to happen at breakneck speed and reality became stranger than fiction, providing ripe material for storytelling. For example, the 2008 financial crisis inspired my second novel, Lagging Indicators. I spent a lot of free time in the 2010s wired to my phone or computer, checking in on news sites, social media, blogs and anything else that could inform and inspire. I think that’s been the biggest revelation for me these past twenty years: how technology has infiltrated our everyday lives and enabled us to stay connected in real-time. I love the convenience of smartphones, Google and Uber but there are pitfalls to always being “logged on.” The constant distractions, increased anxiety, and rise of a toxic internet culture have overshadowed many of the benefits technology promised. The 2020s may finally be the time for us to get off the grid and fully experience being “in the moment.”

I feel as though I’m at another crossroad–not unlike the one at the turn of the century. Our growing children will eventually flee the nest, prompting me and my husband to contemplate the next phase of our lives. It will be a bittersweet transition, but rather than dwelling on how quickly the years have passed, I’m excited to see where the new road will take us.

My main emotion entering this new decade is one of gratitude—for family, friends, good health, readers, and the sense of perspective I have gained. I’m more grounded and “don’t sweat the small stuff” as much. I also have more clarity about what makes me happy and what I would like to achieve in life. The decision to become an indie author was an important step in my mid-life journey towards personal, creative and professional growth.

My goals for the 2020s are not as lofty as they might have been twenty years ago. I’ve witnessed how fragile life is, how quickly one’s situation can change, and how certain factors are simply beyond our control. I think this is a humbling and healthy realization. There’s no doubt we live in an uncertain, unpredictable age, yet I was encouraged by a recent Op-Ed piece Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times. Kristof points out that while there are significant causes for alarm—and still much work to be done—humanity is at a better place now than ever before. With that in mind, I enter this new decade with hope; saying thank you for the years gone by and wishing you all a healthy, happy and peaceful New Year!

BOOK LOVERS & BEYOND HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE: 2019

 

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Although there are only six hours of daylight this time of year and darkness blankets Stockholm around 3:00 pm, I’m so excited for the holidays. Glimmering lights and sparkly decorations cast a festive glow around the city, rousing everyone in the Yuletide spirit. My daughter will be home from college in a few weeks and we are counting the days until the four of us can gather in the countryside for a very Swedish Christmas. Per custom, the celebration begins on December 24th and we will eat a smorgasbord of traditional delicacies, watch classic television shows, and then open presents. I’m in the midst of choosing gifts for family and friends but have been keeping an eye out for things that would interest book lovers–writers, readers, and enthusiasts alike. However, I do think these goodies could appeal to anyone, so please check them out and tell me what you think!

Tech items consistently top wish lists and the new iPhone is on mine. It’s pricey but I’ve begrudgingly accepted these devices also function as cameras, computers, e-book readers, and video screens, so maybe, in the end, I’m getting more bang for the buck? If an iPhone is not in the cards, how about a monogrammed AirPods case? I think it would make a great stocking stuffer. There are so many cool gadgets available and my favorites are high-tech with a retro look. Click on pictures for more details.

I love coffee table books and these colorful tomes from Assouline, featuring some of the most glamorous vacation spots in the world, would definitely cure the winter blues!

Comfort is key when writing or reading. Cozy slippers keep your toes warm and Ugg has some of the best on the market. With soft cashmere socks and a snuggly throw, no one will want to leave the house. And why not spoil somebody with silk feathery pajamas? They’re just as elegant in bed or at a party.

 

Tequila Mockingbird is one of the cleverest books out there; the names of the drinks alone are enough to make a writer drunk with envy.  It’s a good thing The Writer’s Toolbox will get them back on track.

 

I disagree with the notion that giving candles for the holidays is overdone. Who wouldn’t love a scented jewel like this one from Diptyque? Mood enhancing and decadent when lit by these book-themed matches. Candles are always perfect to give and get!

 

Warm drinks in the wintertime are a balm for the soul. Keep coffee warm with this temperature-controlled mug from Ember and boil water for tea in a stylish Smeg kettle. A true bibliophile would appreciate the old-school library card mug and coasters from Out of Print.

The New York Public Library Shop is a treasure trove of items and gift ideas, especially for children. The library card socks and Little Golden Books tote would be ideal for a baby and the pop-up edition of The Nutcracker is a work of art. I’d give my daughter the Knowledge is Power desk plate and my son the library stamp tee-shirt. This NYPL thousand-piece puzzle is also a fun present, especially as a challenging project to do between Christmas and New Year’s.

Gifts for the home are always a good idea for a host/hostess, colleague or friend. The Skultuna mini brass vase would sit prettily atop A Book Lover’s Guide to New York for a chic shelfie. Anything from the Museum of Modern Art Design Store makes a statement and these bookends boast a timeless modern touch.

Either of these Christmas-themed novels by Sophie Kinsella and Jasmine Guillory would be a lovely Secret Santa gift at a girls’ luncheon. Add this leather bookmark for extra flair.

Prince was a musical genius and icon. My husband is a huge fan, so he’ll be getting this memoir Prince began writing before his tragic death. Debbie Harry aka Blondie is a living legend and I’m intrigued by her recollections on the New York music, cultural and social scene in the 70s and 80s. Both would be appreciated by music aficionados.

Goodbye, 2019! We’re headed into a new decade and what better way to celebrate than with a trivia game testing one’s knowledge of the 2000s and 2010s? This is an excellent gift for a couple or family and I promise you things will get heated! You can also download a free quiz by Trivia Champ and get into the competitive spirit yourself over a glass of champagne or mug of hot chocolate.

In essence, the holidays are really about slowing down and spending time with loved ones. Gifts don’t matter–but it is fun to go virtual shopping :). Wishing everyone a healthy, happy and peaceful festive season!

Confessions of a NaNoWriMo Novice

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Photo Source: Shutterstock

I spent November participating in National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, an annual writing marathon of banging out 50,000 words in thirty days, which breaks down to roughly 1,667 words per day. The primary goal of NaNoWriMo is to generate a messy first draft, but the deeper purpose is to develop a writing habit and unleash your creativity. Discipline and silencing your inner critic are crucial to getting the most out of this challenge. Since it took me ten years to write my second book, I needed this boot camp like nobody’s business. Completing half a novel in a month? Sign me up!

But as a NaNoWriMo novice, I can humbly confess–drumroll, please–that I was among the 85% who did not reach 50,000 words. I wrote nearly every day for hours on end but discovered I’m one of those people who can’t write with abandon and put thoughts and words on a page without editing as I go along. Working towards a daily word count was nerve-racking and there were many times I—and my manuscript—felt like a hot mess. In my defense, I had to rethink main character names (a seemingly simple yet complicated task!) and reconstruct a critical detail in the fictionalized world I’m building. I was stuck; mentally incapable of moving forward until I had sorted out those two problems.

Despite a less than stellar outcome, I don’t regret the time and effort I spent on NaNoWriMo. It’s a fantastic initiative and enabled me to connect with a virtual community of writers. After months of running around and feeling scattered, I established a daily writing routine and am much farther along than I would have been without NaNoWriMo. Most importantly, I never wanted to give up. Even though I fell behind–and it would be cosmically impossible for me to get back on track–I never considered throwing in the towel.

But to maintain this momentum, I have to put my writing at the top of my to-do list. Participating in this 30-day challenge required prioritizing it over everything that wasn’t essential. I define “essential” as my family and author-related work, so trying a new exercise class, coffee mornings, and other interesting activities that fuel my imagination had to take a back seat to even contemplate reaching that 1,667 daily word count. My biennial mammogram? Essential. Checking out a new restaurant? Not so much. Once-in-a-lifetime events like my 20th Wedding Anniversary and birthdays were celebrated, but there was no room for extraneous pursuits. NaNoWriMo provides a checklist on how to prep and suggests ways your family and friends can help you reach the 50,000 words goal. My husband and kids were super-supportive and pepped me up when I was losing steam.

Even with an outline and strict time management, I still fell short of 50K and didn’t win my NaNoWriMo badge. My husband joked that whatever the deadline is, just double it! The most frustrating part of this challenge was sitting for eight hours to only write 500 words. NaNoWriMo has motivated me to find strategies to accelerate my thought process and improve my writing flow. Moving forward, I need to focus on a rough first draft and throw perfection to the wind.

I would definitely take part in NaNoWriMo again and thank the organization for creating such an inspiring writing platform and laying out a program for success. It was liberating to hunker down and concentrate exclusively on my new book. It rejiggered my mindset and expanded my creative bandwidth. It also confirmed that I need structure and space to gather my thoughts. In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, my current goal is one chapter a week. It’s a good number for my approach to writing and I’ll apply the NaNoWriMo mentality to stay the course. In the mean time, maybe NaNoWriMo would consider giving me an honorable mention…

READER’S BLOCK RESCUE

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As a child, I was a voracious reader. I made weekly trips to the library, checked out as many books I could, and consumed them like a junkie. My fifth-grade teacher worried whenever I stayed indoors for recess, nose buried in one of Judy Blume’s masterpieces, and didn’t join the other kids out on the playground. I was confused: how could being a bookworm be a negative? I ignored her concerns and kept reading. My habit continued through adulthood. I read on subways and airplanes and always packed a half-dozen novels whenever I went on vacation. I even perfected balancing a book while nursing my children.

The intensity of my reading varied over the years, depending on whether I was working on my own manuscripts. I never wanted to be unintentionally influenced by someone else’s work—particularly if it was in a similar genre—and would take self-imposed reading breaks. These breaks stretched on and on and when I finally had the time and space to pick up a book again, I had difficulty getting into it. Coupled with the prevalence of smartphones, with their easy access to articles, blogs, and social media, and the allure of high-quality TV-series, my reading stalled. Quite simply, my attention span couldn’t handle a full-length novel. Scrolling rather than deep reading had become my default form of consumption. I’d start something and then give up if it didn’t catch my interest in the first twenty or thirty pages. This was highly unusual for me. As a writer and avid reader, I know all too well styles differ. Many novels are a slow burn and it can take several chapters for a story to reveal itself.

I still purchased books but my lack of commitment to actually read them symbolized my descent into literary No Man’s Land. How could I call myself a writer, if I had developed such a complicated relationship with reading? It’s been well-documented that reading is good for our intellect and mental well-being. It’s an active process, requiring us to employ several different parts of the brain at the same time, unlike television which is typically consumed in a passive manner. Developing a reading habit increases our vocabulary, improves our spelling, expands our knowledge, and reduces the risk of memory loss. We become smarter, more engaged individuals by reading. Reading is a proven stress reducer. It demands we slow down and escape into a quiet space internally, blocking the influence of fast-paced stimuli like the noise and images from buzzing screens. Reading also exposes us to a variety of experiences and broadens our perspectives. It nurtures our imagination, creativity, and sense of empathy.

However, with two children and a laundry list of responsibilities, my patience to pick up a book and stick with it was tested. Things culminated a couple of years ago when I realized I had only read a handful of books over a twelve-month period. What had happened to Book Junkie Jenn? The young girl whose idea of bliss was escaping into imaginary worlds and reading 2-4 books a week? As a writer, I’d certainly experienced writer’s block. But reader’s block? That was sacrilege! Plus, my vocation would surely go out of business if more people developed this condition. Turns out I wasn’t alone. Other writers have also revealed they’ve experienced this phenomenon. British author Lisa Jewell (whose thrillers I’ve been devouring of late) confessed to a reading block in an Instagram post. I felt her pain! But all is not lost. Here are five of my tips to rescue you from this ailment:

  1. Start with less challenging books. We all have fantasies of finishing War and Peace, but unless you’re a student or stranded on a deserted island with no interruptions, it may be difficult to get through 1,225 pages in the real world of jobs, kids, and mental fatigue. Sometimes in order to reconnect with reading, one has to choose something on the menu that’s more easily digested. Read whatever interests you. I’m not a book snob. Pay no attention to whether it’s considered high or low brow. As long as you’re reading and want to keep turning the pages, you’ve already scored a victory.
  2. Read a book in a different format. The growing popularity of audiobooks is proof that the reading audience is hungry for a good story but in a different medium. In our busy world, we don’t always have the luxury to hunker down with a physical book. Audiobooks allow us to listen to novels–often narrated by the authors themselves or by award-winning voices–while we exercise, commute, or do chores. I don’t think it diminishes the experience since one must still concentrate on the words and mood being conveyed. Our imagination must still paint a picture of the story. I’ve also become a big fan of e-books for their user-friendliness and lower price point. I downloaded the Kindle app on my smartphone last year and wonder why it had taken me so long. Instead of reading blogs or articles, I can now swipe through an e-book as I stand in line or sit in my car waiting for my son at soccer practice. Downloading e-books assures that I will always have reading material close at hand.
  3. Mix it up. If you’re experiencing reading fatigue, it may be because you’re reading books that are too similar to each other, which may also explain why you no longer feel that sense of wonder and satisfaction. Instead of taking a reading break, try something in a different genre. For example, I used to only read fiction, but in recent years, I’ve added more non-fiction and memoirs to my repertoire and many of those narratives have left a more powerful impression on me.
  4. Schedule time for reading just as you would pencil in time for working out or coffee with a friend. Better yet, have a weekly date with a book, preferably outside of your house. It goes without saying that a reading ritual necessitates a tech-timeout. Immerse yourself in the simple pleasure of reading; just you and the book.
  5. Binge read a book like you would a Netflix series says novelist Ben Dolnick. Get into the zone, the same way you did for The Crown, Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards. Clear your calendar, settle in on your couch, and dig in. If you approach reading as entertainment rather than a high-brow burden, I promise you will enjoy it as much as the latest program on Netflix!

What are some of your tips for beating the reader’s block blues?

 

 

 

CHANGING COURSE

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Something strange happened over the summer: I got a new story idea. As a novelist who had experienced “writer’s block” for many years, the prospect of two narratives spinning in my head was nothing short of miraculous. Rather than jump for joy, I stiffened in hesitation. I had already done considerable research and interviews for Story Idea #1, sketched out characters, and created a plot outline. I had even written three chapters! However, a force beyond my control took over when we moved to our summer cottage by the sea. Other voices and visions began taking hold, urging me forward.

Nevertheless, I proceeded with caution and made a list of why I was drawn to Story Idea #2.  Did I feel overwhelmed by #1? Was it those sticky plot points I hadn’t completely figured out yet? Was I struggling to depict the conflicts? The answer to all three questions was YES, but they weren’t sufficient reasons to discard the original idea. I had covered unfamiliar terrain in Lagging Indicators and believed I could do it again. What I couldn’t ignore was the emotional attachment I had begun to develop with Idea #2, its cast of characters, and themes. I was undoubtedly influenced by personal events (daughter going off to college) and wanted to use that backdrop to explore questions of family and identity.

While inspiration can be magically inexplicable, I recognized that without a clear plan, I would be abandoning an existing, developing story for a simmering, underdeveloped one. As an exercise, I gathered research material for #2; created thumbnail descriptions of the main characters, including names; imagined a setting with a distinctive feature; and crafted a working title. My final criterion was whether I could write the back cover copy. If I can summarize the essence of the story in a catchy way, I feel much more confident about its potential. Once I had accomplished this, Story Idea #2 began to unfold in a tangible form.

However, I haven’t abandoned my first story idea. I’m still conducting informal interviews and taking notes, but I feel a stronger visceral connection to #2 at the moment. What have I learned from this unforeseen turn of events? Although it may sound counterintuitive, spending time and effort on a project may actually lead you to THE project, the one that flows organically from your creative center and brings you closer to your truth. It’s imperative to listen to your inner voice! I’m prone to feeling guilty for not completing a task and had to grant myself “permission” to put that first story on hold. Even though I’m the driver of this writing enterprise, I still had to rationalize changing course, as though I had broken some cardinal rule on writing a novel! While I don’t recommend flitting from one idea to the next without a roadmap, I do think it’s worthwhile to seize those impulses flooding your mind with scenes, characters, and dialogue.

Many writers work on multiple books at the same time and have developed strategies for keeping their stories distinct. I will take them to heart and look forward to developing both of my ideas further—one novel at a time!