What I’m Reading – July

There are few things as important to the writing process as a good reading lineup. I’ve discussed before how I like to build reading lists, and I’ve even shared a few recommendations in the past. I find that I can learn more about a person from what they’re reading or have read recently than a conversation on other topics. But maybe I’m biased.

Anyway, in case you’re curious, here are a few books that I’ve read recently, am reading now, or will read this month. Judge me as you will.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel – Finished
I first thought about reading Station Eleven after it was announced as a National Book Award finalist; however, I didn’t actually pick it up until my book club elected to read it together. I’m glad I did. I did sometimes find the actual writing to be a little lacking (among other things, the author ran into problems with verb tense agreement). However, I will always praise this book for seamlessly melding the perspectives of a host of different characters. Also, it’s a fairly unique take on the dystopian future genre that’s saturating the book market right now.

station eleven

New York City: A Short History, George J. Lankevich – Finished
Upon visiting New York City late last month, I was gripped with a powerful urge to understand this new place; I found what I was looking for in George Lankevich’s book. To be honest, I go through non-fiction phases (I’m in the middle of one now), and rarely seek it out unless I have the urge to learn a significant amount of information on a topic. The short history of New York, while compact, did give me this information. It starts from the city’s founding as an early Dutch settlement and continues on into the present age. While I can tell Mr. Lankevich has a few biases (he leans conservative), I appreciated his dry humor and sincere yet honest appreciation of this infamous city.

Let my People Go Surfing: The Education if a Reluctant Businessman, Yvon Chouinard – Stopped Reading
This book was recommended to me by a friend with an entrepreneurial spirit. While I’m not a burgeoning businessperson, I did appreciate the first section of this book, in which the author, Yvon Chouinard (founder and owner of Patagonia) discusses the birth of his company. It was interesting and made me appreciate the guts it takes to stand out in the world of sporting equipment. That being said, I didn’t see much benefit in reading the later chapters, which focused on Yvon’s business philosophies–I’m really not interested in business. I’m glad I read the parts that I did, though.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway – In Progress
I’ve owned this book for the better part of a decade, and this is first time I’ve actually decided to read it. A part of me is glad; it’s a renowned piece of American Literature. A part of me is also groaning; I have a distinct love-hate relationship with Hemingway going back to the first time I read The Sun Also Rises. I do appreciate the man’s simple prose, but sometimes I think he’s a little too obsessed with ideals of masculinity. In any case, I’m enjoying the few chapters I’ve read so far, and am doing my best to keep an open mind. There’s a reason this is part of literary canon, right?

belltolls

Prophecy, Ellen Oh – Next Up
I’ve been wanting to read this book for at least a year. It showed up on my Tumblr dash and I was intrigued by the cover, featuring a single red jewel over a churning blue background. According to the back summary, Prophecy is about a girl named Kira who serves as the body-guard to a prince. There’s political and demonic intrigue and all sorts of coming-of-age themes. Did I mention that this young adult fantasy book is based on ancient Korean lore and mythology? Yeah, I’m sold. I just have to buy it before I get distracted by my next book.

So, do you think you know more about me after getting a glimpse of my currents reads? What are your current reads? Do you find you reread more books than explore new books?

 

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So You Want a Steady Job in Writing: 4 Industries Seeking Writers that You Might Not Have Considered

I know from personal experience that many people feel writers have fairly limited career paths. After graduating with my English degree, I frequently was asked if I would teach, and after I responded in the negative, they asked what I could possibly do that was stable. The truth is there are many stable writing careers in a variety of fields, some of which require extra schooling, but many that don’t. So, in the interest of broader education and to support all those recent English grads out there, here are a few industries that offer jobs to writers.

People at work

Even in today’s technology-driven work environment, good writers with competent computer skills are desired. (Photo courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.)

Software
From how I understand it, coding well isn’t necessarily the most important skill for getting a job with software. The software industry also requires excellent writers to convey their product to the consumer. Software documentation has grown exponentially with the boom of the industry. Sometimes called technical writers, the people in charge of software documentation produce the writing that the consumer uses to understand the software’s system requirements and its uses. Positions in this field usually require applicants to have some experience working with code, but with free online coding courses available, this requirement is easily achieved.

Engineering/Architecture/Manufacturing
Often overlooked by many writers, the fields of engineering, architecture, and manufacturing are filled with positions. Called technical writers, technical editors, or project assistants, writers in these fields help write, edit, and format the technical documentation. This documentation can be a user manual for a tractor or a complicated report on the production of naphthalene. The subgroups within these industries are also varied. I happen to work in Environmental engineering, but in the past I’ve worked in Oil and Gas. Technical writing/editing for these industries is also a somewhat niche field, usually requiring some extra schooling or on-the-job training. However, it is by no means impossible, and if you find a field you’re interested in, it can be a very rewarding career.

Marketing
Career-wise, one of the marketing industry’s greatest strengths is its flexibility. Both of the previous industries I’ve mentioned rely heavily on marketers to sell their products. Many other industries also require marketing. A bigger plus is that the skills any good writer possesses are a natural fit for marketing: know your audience and know your medium. Marketing also allows for a great deal of creative expression, which many writers enjoy. Extra marketing classes in college can help get a job in this field, but it is by no means exclusive in that regard. Positions in marketing include copywriters, copy editors, bloggers, social-media gurus, and editors.

Non-profits
While not offering the pay benefits of the previous three industries, non-profits often provide very rewarding work for the dedicated. While positions may include marketing duties, often non-profits seek dedicated grant writers, who submit the applications for grants to federal and state agencies and philanthropic organizations. I’ve also seen positions with non-profits dedicated to social media campaigns.

Wherever the cross-section of your writing interest lies, there is almost certainly a career out there for you. The best thing to do is to research what you enjoy, find positions in that field that interest you, and see what qualifications they require. Of course, this requires some forward planning, but that might just pay off in the end.

Are there any writers out there in industries not often associated with writing? Or are there many publishers or journalists out there with an opinion on getting started in those industries?

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Creative Theft: 3 Great Writers Who Stole Their Best Ideas

It’s vital that all authors find their own voice and strive toward a creative approach to their story. However, it’s also a little ridiculous to believe that all works of fiction must be entirely new and original. For instance, I grew a little nervous when a friend compared the magic system in my book to alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist. But then, after considering historical precedent, I relaxed. After all, many of the great storytelling franchises relied heavily on past works. Here are three:

Screencapture - Fullmetal Alchemist (2003, directed by Seiji Mizushima

Screencapture – Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), directed by Seiji Mizushima

 

The Works of William Shakespeare
Assuming you believe Shakespeare existed (If you don’t, keep that opinion to yourself. This is a bard-friendly blog.), you are probably familiar with the fact that he did “borrow” the plots of most of his plays from other writers. One of those writers would be Geoffrey Chaucer. Like Shakespeare, Chaucer also borrowed many of his plots from other writers, including an Italian poet called Giovanni Boccaccio. A good example of this borrowing can be seen in Shakespeare’s play, Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare’s plot was heavily influenced by that of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, which itself was influenced by Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato. So, even the great writers of history have stolen from each other from time to time.

Boccaccio

Engraved portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) by Raffaello Sanzio Morghen (1758-1833) after Vincenzo Gozzini and dated 1822 (Source: Wikipedia)

 

The Lord of the Rings
Sometimes seen as the father of high fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien is much loved and respected by readers the world over. I, too, love Tolkien; The Hobbit was one of the very first chapter books I ever read. It’s also well known that Tolkien based much of his world building on pre-existing cultures on Earth. Mythology too played a huge influence on Tolkien’s writing, a good example of which is displayed in Tolkien’s favorite plot device, The One Ring. Tolkien based his ring heavily off of Plato’s Ring of Gyges, a mythical artifact that turned the wearer invisible. Furthermore, the Ring of Gyges sparks a debate in Plato’s works between Socrates and another; they argue over whether that power would always be taken advantage of by the wearer, or if a just person could withstand it and resist his base desires. It’s pretty easy to see the link between the corruption of the Ring of Gyges and that of The One Ring; the biggest difference is that no one can resist The One Ring forever.

Plato

The School of Athens (detail of Plato). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Source: Wikipedia)

Star Wars
A cultural touchstone in its own right, many modern works owe a great deal to the Star Wars franchise. However, like the previously mentioned franchises, Star Wars owes much to other works. What resonates most with many fans of the original films was the blending of familiar elements (plots structures, character types) with futuristic settings. George Lucas pulled those familiar elements from mythology from around the world. For Luke’s journey in particular, Lucas relied heavily on the works of Joseph Campbell. And, lest I forget, I feel I should also mention the Japanese film The Hidden Fortress, directed by Akira Kurosawa. This film is told primarily from the perspective of two bickering peasants (not so different from C-3P0 and R2-D2), and also features a battle-hardened warrior (like Obi Wan Kenobi) and a rebellion-leading princess (like Princess Leia).

While I want my books to feel fresh and original, I also have to be aware that borrowing from other works is not a sin. I do feel, though, that I should be aware of my influences. One thing I do admire about George Lucas is that he has never shied away from giving credit to his influences. If nothing else, it’s a good way to introduce younger audiences to time-tested works.

How do you guys feel about borrowing from works? Should it be frowned on, or celebrated? Is there a line between the two, and when have you seen it crossed?

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3 Book Adaptations that Actually Rock

I’m sure I’m not the only reader who has felt betrayed by a bad movie or TV adaptation of a favorite book (The SyFy Earthsea miniseries comes to mind). However, there are many adaptations of books that actually do a stand-up job. For me, there are three that come to mind immediately. They work for me because they feel loyal to the spirit of the books they seek to portray, even if they take a few liberties with the text.

Sense and Sensibility (1995), Ang Lee, Columbia Pictures

Elinor. Sense and Sensibility (1995), Columbia Pictures

Elinor. Sense and Sensibility (1995), Columbia Pictures

This adaptation is a winner because of the strong focus on the relationship between sisters Marianne and Elinor (played by Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson, respectively). The love these two have for each other, even in the midst of fairly dire circumstances for their time period, is really moving. One scene in particular, where Marianne lies in an unconscious stupor on her sick-bed and Elinor begs her to live, is particularly moving. It’s not in the book, but I think it’s a natural fit for the story’s tone and these two characters. That’s not to say the adaptation is perfect. Hugh Grant does a pretty poor job as Edward Ferrars. Also, there are a few notable changes from the text (as mentioned above). But, as I said, the filmmakers (particularly Ang Lee and Emma Thompson) seemed to understand the spirit of the text.

Jane Eyre (2006), Susanna White, BBC One

Jane Eyre

Jane, Jane Eyre (2006), BBC One

An adaptation of Jane Eyre has been made at least every decade for the last fifty years. For the most part, I feel most of these adaptations fall short of the story’s complex themes and characters. In truth, it’s not an easy story to adapt for a wide audience: A teenage girl goes to live in the house of a dark broody man, falls in love with said man, and drama ensues. However, for me, the BBC One mini series does a really good job of embracing this complex story. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that this relationship, at least at the story’s start, is problematic. And it does a very good job of conveying the passion and sensuality of this Victorian romance that today’s audience might miss. Overall, when I want to watch one of my favorite stories, I turn to this adaptation.

North and South (2004), Brian Percival, BBC One

North and South_Capture

Margaret, North and South (2004), BBC One

An immense saga of a story, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell is a Victorian novel most students tend to miss. It’s far too long to be covered well in most undergraduate courses, let alone high school. However, it’s a truly lovely book filled with complex, fleshed-out characters and themes. It’s also a great picture of England during the Industrial Revolution. With a book such as this, it would seem hard to create a satisfying adaptation. However, the 2004 BBC One miniseries did a great job. Yes, like the book, it’s long. But the extra time is needed to give credit to this lush story of a woman attaining her adulthood. Also, it superbly casted; Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage steam up the screen with fantastic chemistry. If you watch one of the adaptations I mention in this post, watch this one.

No doubt you’ve noticed that all of the adaptations on this list are period dramas. Well, I happen to think the makers of period dramas do a superior job in the adaptations category. However, I might come back to this topic and do a second post, possibly focusing on another genre.

So, what do you guys think? Do you have any favored adaptations? Or do you shy away from them altogether?

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3 Tips for Building Your Reading List

Hi everyone! I’m back. At last we’re moved in and I’ve made it through my first week at my new job. It’s a very exciting time for me and my husband. It’s also a very busy time; with all the new happenings, I’ve barely had any time to read! I’ve decided that this cannot stand, so I’m starting a new reading list to help me stay organized. Reading lists aren’t inherently difficult or complicated. But, thanks to trial and error and the suggestions of a few friends, I’ve come up with a few tips that make my list so much more useful.

Reading List

My current work-in-progress reading list

 

List Title and Author
One of the many reasons I keep a reading list is to help me find the books I want in stores, particularly used book stores. Many times I’ve walked in with a book title in my head only to find myself lost because I can’t remember the author’s name. Occasionally, I’ve been recommended an author by a friend, don’t have the book title on hand, and have to guess on a whim what title I will read. Of course, sometimes solving these conundrums is as easy as finding a knowledgeable store clerk with a computer. However, book stores can be busy (I’m looking at you, Powell’s), and sometimes a knowledgeable clerk is hard to find. For me, it’s best to save myself trouble later on and make sure I keep both author name and book title on my list.

Organize by Category
I owe this tip to my friend Anne. There are many ways to organize a reading list, some more helpful than others. I’m organizing mine by genres and subgenres, starting off with a split between fiction, non-fiction, and YA, and working down from there. But, as long as your categories work for you, organize in whatever way that you please. Organizing by category is helpful for a few reasons: 1) it helps you decide what to read next (e.g., your last book was a fantasy novel, so maybe you want a non-fiction memoir), 2) it helps you locate the book in a bookstore, 3) you get to impress all your friends with how organized your reading list is.

Keep a Copy with You
If you’re going to go to all this trouble to make a nice reading list, it makes sense to use it to help you locate your next reading adventure. In this age of smart phones and tablets, it’s not even that difficult. Just make sure you keep a copy in your email, cloud drive, or on whatever notes feature your phone/tablet uses. If you’re old school and prefer using a hard copy list, I suggest typing your list in columns in a Word document or spreadsheet. That way, after you print it, you can fold it in such a way to fit in your wallet while still allowing you read the book title and author. Also, you’ll want to keep a pen or pencil handy so you can put a check mark next to books you find or are finished reading. Then, periodically update your electronic list and print off a fresh page.

Do you guys make reading lists? If so, do you have any useful tips to share?

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Brief Hiatus

Hi all! It’s been super busy lately. My husband and I are moving and I’m starting a new job in two weeks. That being said, I wanted to let you guys know I’ll be taking a brief hiatus from the blog for a couple of weeks. My goal is to start back up May 18, after moving and I’ve had sometime at my new job.

I hope you’re all well. See you in a few weeks!

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My Favorite Poems

I love poetry, in all its forms. And guess what? April is National Poetry month. So, in celebration of this great art form, here are my favorite poems. My normal gig for listing my favorite things often includes my reasoning for each. However, I think I’ll withhold my analysis this week and just provide a simple list. For me, my experience of poetry is intimate and personal and sometimes it’s impossible to explain why I connect with a particular piece.

“And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” – Walt Whitman, “The Song of Myself”

 

Dulce et Decorum Est“, Wilfred Owen

Song of Myself“, Walt Whitman (read aloud here)

Ornithography“, Billy Collins

The Weary Blues“, Langston Hughes

Daddy“, Sylvia Plath

Early in the Morning“, Li-Young Lee

DSCN1023

A pretty flower in Germany.


As an extra present, here’s a link to 10 British poems being read aloud. They aren’t my favorite poems, but, for me, hearing poetry aloud is a true delight.

Do you guys have any favorite poems?

 

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What My English Degree Taught Me About Writing

You certainly don’t have to an English major to be a writer, or go to college for that matter. Furthermore, with the rising cost of a college education and the lack of jobs offered for humanities degrees I can certainly understand if many people question the need for an English degree unless they plan to teach. However, I am the writer I am because of my path in education. The classes I took as an English major, my interaction with professors, even the papers I wrote, all made me the writer I am today. So, in humble defense of the English degree and also as a demonstration of the necessary skills a good writer should have, here are a few things I learned as an English major that made me a better writer.

English Essay

Oh boy, psychoanalysis and racial othering in the 19th century American novel. That’s what I call steamy reading. Source: Hannah Garrison

 

Learning From Reading Other Writers’ Works
I’ve mentioned this idea before on my blog: to become a better writer we should read the works of others. I do think it’s worth saying again. When we read the work of others, many good things happen. We naturally pick up on sentence and story structure. We can see how others have experimented with different forms of narrative, and decide if that’s interesting. Also, another author’s book is a great place to turn to if you need fresh ideas for accomplishing certain things in your book. Maybe you want to write about characters of a different race than yourself. A good place to start doing research would be to read the works of writers of different races than yourself. Perhaps you want to write a story in first person perspective, but have no idea how to go about this. You can turn to a book that offers that perspective, and ferret out what you like and dislike about that point of view. The great thing about books is there are so many, and chances are good someone has done before what you are attempting.

Thinking Critically About What You and Others Write
Critical thinking skills are necessities for any college student. Without them, all those essays would be regurgitation of fact instead of an original display of knowledge. A common task in literature class is to identify and discuss prevalent themes in works of fiction (and sometimes non-fiction). When writing essays, English majors must also be aware of what they’re writing, making sure they follow through with their thesis and address any holes in their own logic (i.e., think critically about what you’re saying). The same is true for writing books; authors must think critically about what they put down on the page. For instance, a prominent theme in The Great Gatsby is greed. Obviously F. Scott Fitzgerald put a lot of thought into his book and how he wanted to discuss this theme. Similarly, any writer, whether she be an English major pulling together a paper on The Great Gatsby or a writer working on a novel, needs to think carefully about the themes in her writing.

Crafting an Argument
While many authors might say they don’t want to craft an argument in their work, all good writing comes down to the author putting out a point of view. Often, this point of view can be taken from how they address a major theme in their book. Obviously, the same is true for any writing. If I fill my book with natural imagery, obviously nature is a key theme in my book. How I treat nature, whether I show it as dangerous and unpredictable or a victim of humanity’s machinations, demonstrates an argument, intentional or not. A writer can get into trouble if they aren’t fully aware of how they treat themes in their book. For instance, in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the antagonist Fagin is described as a Jew in very stereotypical and antisemitic terms.

Fagins

Fagin played by Alec Guinness and Timothy Spall

 

Dickens’ first defended this characterization, feeling that it seemed to reflect what he saw as the truth. However, after hearing from others that the characterization of Fagin offended many Jewish people, Dickens began removing stereotypical caricatures of the character in public readings and later editions. So, as studying literature shows, it’s important for writers to carefully consider the arguments they’re making in their text, even if they’re unintentional.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on writing and whether a degree is useful or not. Do any of you writers have a BS degree, and if so, what do you think that brings to your writing?

 

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Writing Buddies

A common stereotype for writers is that we’re quiet, solitary things with a propensity for addictive substances and hermit huts. There’s some truth to this stereotype, but I intentionally fight against it. For one, it fails to take into consideration the powerful work that can be done in collaboration. As I work on growing in my own writing craft, I learn more and more each day that I cannot grow alone. Having fellow writer friends to bounce ideas off, and even start joint projects is a great thing. If you’re not sure how to go about this, here are two options that have worked for me.

writers

Writers Ford Maddox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and John Quinn. Picture Credit: Tophams/Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images.

 

Join a Fandom
Fandom, the term for the group of fans of a particular work, tends to be stigmatized. I see this as unfair. My experience shows me that fandom is a place of community and is great for starting collaboration projects, especially if you’re having trouble meeting other writers. Many large fandoms are actually well organized, and it’s easy to find specific resources, such as forums to connect with beta readers or other writers. Also, the very nature of fandom is to engage with a group of people who feel just as passionately about a work as you. To start meeting people in fandoms, poke around on Tumblr, or look into fanfiction posting sites like archiveofourown.org.

Join or Form Writing Groups
Another good way to meet writers is by joining or forming a writing group. Sometimes, writing groups already exist in communities, and you can find them by going through your public library or a local book store. These spaces are good for bouncing your ideas off an impartial audience, but in general I find their less good for forming lasting relationships that can lead to good works of collaboration. For that, it’s best to start your own group. A fellow writer friend and I send each other little writing prompts and responses now and then. The exercise is simple, but keeps us both accountable to write regularly. Don’t be afraid to approach friends or acquaintances and ask to start writing with them. Chances are, they need a writing buddy too!

 

 

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Tips and Tricks for Balancing Life and Writing

Writing is hard enough without having a life to live on top of it. Right now I’m back to working full-time while my co-worker is on vacation. It’s a temporary arrangement, but it has reminded me how hard it is to find time to write, especially when you have a full-time job, are a student, or have children.

While I can’t claim to have the perfect solution, I have been at this long enough to have some advice for you writers out there struggling to find time for your craft.

Prioritize
As with any long-term goal you set out to accomplish, if you want to write a book you need to make it a priority in your life. However, you have other priorities, too. Obviously you need to make sure you eat and sleep. Having income (and therefore, a job) is important to provide that food and the roof you sleep under. Then, we all depend on our relationships with others and entertainment. This list is kind of rough, but you get the picture. Our lives are busy. If you find you don’t have time to write but you want that time, you have to do without something else. I am lucky enough to have a flexible employer, so I made the switch to part-time at work. It meant less money in our bank account, but it was a sacrifice I and my husband were willing to make. If cutting hours at work isn’t an option for you, perhaps consider cutting out some pleasure time in your evening. Instead of watching a TV show, spend half an hour working on your book.  Both Samantha Shannon and Veronica Roth wrote their debut novels while still in university. Both said they had to give up things to do it.

Schedule
Scheduling your time more deliberately goes hand-in-hand with prioritizing. One problem I often have is letting other activities, like errands, get in the way of my writing time. Not everyone does well with a schedule, but I recommend trying it all the same. Perhaps, one day a week, make a spreadsheet of the rest of your week. Work out what you have to do and how much time it takes. Schedule whatever time you can to write, whether it’s fifteen minutes or two hours. The next part is the trickiest: stick to your schedule! It’s hard at first, but once it becomes a routine, it’ll make things a little easier on you, and your craft will benefit from the regular work.

Get Help
Maybe you have already tried prioritizing your life and working out a schedule and you still can’t find the time. In this case, it’s time to reach out to those in your life who care about you. Going back to my job situation, it would have never worked if my husband was not fully on board with me contributing less income. Perhaps you could ask a friend to watch your kids one day a week so you can have some alone time to write. Maybe a friend at work could trade shifts with you. We all need people to help us get through life. Just don’t be afraid to ask.

Plan For the Future
The sad truth is sometimes we go through periods in our life where it is impossible to find the time. Perhaps you’re a stay-at-home parent in the Yukon with no nearby friends and no time to yourself. Maybe it’s the busy season at work and you’ve been asked to work overtime. Maybe you’re a student. When I was a Sophomore in university I had to choose between writing a book and attaining the goals I set for myself in school. It was a tough decision, but I realized that I couldn’t do both and decided to postpone working on a book until I graduated. Making the decision to put off my big project helped me to focus back on my studies. These sort of life situations are often temporary. We will graduate. Our kids will start to go to school. Our jobs can change. If you can’t find the time to write now, work on a plan for the future when you can write.

So, does anyone else have any life balancing tricks you can pass on?

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