Five Guys Read Hemingway: My Reading Experiment

I’ve discussed my relationship with reading many times on this blog. It’s the skill I’m most eager to improve day-in, day-out. It’s something that’s absolutely fundamental to the way I live, for the simple reason that healthy reading has a ripple effect that improves every other aspect of my life. My improved mental well-being, productivity, creativity, and my growing appetite for vivid experiences, all started with my renewed commitment to reading. It was the first block, and the foundation upon which all others were built. This blog, my novel, my increased sense of happiness, would not exist without my initial commitment to regular reading. In many ways it’s like exercise- something that I make time for, that changes every aspect of my life for the better. All I can say is how this process has worked for me, and I’m aware that reading means different things to different people.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s post. For the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting a little reading experiment aimed at exploring how other people read and what reading means to different people of the same generation as me. The fact that we were all born into an increasingly digital world is an important point, and is why I decided to focus the attention of my study on young folks. I gathered five willing volunteers, who would each read one of my favorite short stories, and whom I would then interview about the experience. I wasn’t sure if this research would yield anything of any worth, but the results have proved more interesting than I could have ever hoped.

Even though I love books, I’m not necessarily a brilliant reader. People tend to associate books with intelligence, and as someone that enjoys reading, I’ve found that non-readers often think of me as being hardwired differently. But the truth is, as this research shows, that we actually have more in common than we realized. Reading is very much a craft that one can improve through time and dedication. Like anything in life, there are those naturally suited to it, but that doesn’t mean that the joy of reading is or should be exclusive to them. I don’t consider myself such a natural at all; if anything I’m a just a keen reader. I’m a very slow reader, I’m an anxious reader, and haven’t always been this keen. I assured my volunteers that this little experiment was not a measure of their intelligence, but rather a study of the medium of reading. I was quick to point out that each of them consumed various forms of media, and stressed that the only difference between me and the non-reader is a preference of mediums.

My five volunteers are all from the North Somerset area of England, are male, and between the ages of 23-26. They are each talented and quirky in their own way, representing a range of interests and abilities. Some are scientifically inclined, some are more philosophical, and others still are intrigued by everything from fitness to technology. For the purposes of this experiment, their names will remain private. I figured calling them “Test Subject A” or “Test Subject B”, while amusing, would make it hard for you to distinguish a particular candidate. So I’ve gone ahead and given them nicknames. Here are the interviews:



HUNTER: Books? Never. I used to read textbooks…

FROSTY: Never.

COWBOY: I don’t read books, but I consume newspapers often.

SPACEMAN: I listen to audiobooks almost every day, both fiction and non-fiction. As far as printed books go, I’d say I read at least one novel per year.

WISEGUY: I read fiction books daily, perhaps 30 minutes a day.



HUNTER: Not overly. We read Old Man and the Sea…that was alright I suppose.



SPACEMAN: It wasn’t my favorite activity, but I didn’t mind it. It was okay.

WISEGUY: Not at all.



HUNTER: The Railway Cat – Arkle Phyllis

FROSTY: The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

COWBOY: A Series of Unfortunate Events – Lemony Snicket

SPACEMAN: The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

WISEGUY: Supernatural: Meeting with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind – Graham Hancock



HUNTER: About four months ago actually. Remember that collection we had to read in school called Opening Worlds: Short Stories from Different Cultures by OCR? I found it and started reading.

FROSTY: I love reading Creepypastas online actually. A while back I read one about a sleep deprivation experiment.

COWBOY: I’m not sure to be honest.

SPACEMAN: One of yours actually. Remember that story about the automated wind farm on an alien planet that you asked me to proof for you last year?

WISEGUY: You know, this might be the first one.



HUNTER: Yeah it was alright, that. It was uneventful and it wasn’t clear what the meaning was, but that’s not a bad thing.

FROSTY: Nope. I found it a struggle to take in. I think I’m much more visually-oriented. I was reading the words but I couldn’t digest them.

COWBOY: No. There was nothing engaging about it. Maybe if it was longer, and more stuff happened in it, I might have enjoyed it. It was brief and boring.

SPACEMAN: Yes. I liked trying to figure out the meaning, which isn’t really revealed until the end.

WISEGUY: Well, it didn’t blow me away. It was OK, but it felt like a chapter of a longer story.




FROSTY: Probably not. I hated Old Man and the Sea at school.

COWBOY: Not particularly.

SPACEMAN: Yes, absolutely.

WISEGUY: Not especially. I’m into different genres of fiction, mate.




FROSTY: Yes. Even though I find reading a struggle, I have a copy of Stephen King’s It upstairs, and it makes me want to improve my reading ability.

COWBOY: Yes- but not because of this story.


WISEGUY: Yes. A lot more.



HUNTER: Yeah mate, it was alright. However I didn’t get the tone of some sentences- probably because it was written in a strange dialect.

FROSTY: Well, I dunno about the style, but I did like print. The font was pretty friendly. There were a few regional words I didn’t recognize, like “squaw”.

COWBOY: No. Me- I like a definitive beginning, middle, and end. I just wasn’t sure where this story was going. It’s like it wasn’t long enough to hook me.

SPACEMAN: Oh yes. I liked the ending in particular.

WISEGUY: Yeah. His straightforward style made the story accessible and friendly to me as a reader.










HUNTER: 17 minutes.

FROSTY: 10 minutes.

COWBOY: 10 minutes.

SPACEMAN: 7 minutes. After I was done, I went back and re-read some sections near the beginning to gain a better understanding of the story as a whole.

WISEGUY: 25 minutes.



HUNTER: In a computer chair at my desk.

FROSTY: On a couch in a quiet room.

COWBOY: On a couch in a room shared with three guys quietly playing Minecraft.

SPACEMAN: In a leather armchair. The TV was on, but I muted it.

WISEGUY: On a couch in a café with noisy, annoying distractions. Make sure you include that detail.



HUNTER: Mostly I was immersed. My focus shifted a few times and I had to go back and concentrate again.

FROSTY: Oh, it wandered alright. I had to re-read a few lines I wasn’t sure about. Overall it was just very hard to process the events and meaning of the story for me.

COWBOY: Immersed makes it sound like I was enjoying it. I wasn’t. I read it the way I read the news. Not fun, but no real effort either.

SPACEMAN: It took a while to get into at first, probably because I knew I was taking part in an experiment instead of reading normally.

WISEGUY: Remember, I was very distracted by external noises. However I want to say that I liked the subtlety of his story. I think that kind of subtlety suits the concise medium of short fiction.



HUNTER: Heartbreak.

FROSTY: Racism.

COWBOY: A Journey.

SPACEMAN: Love. Specifically “first love”. The line that stood out to me was that he was “hollow but happy”. I quite liked that I did.

WISEGUY: Heartbreak.



HUNTER: Can’t be arsed. It seems like an effort.

FROSTY: Because it’s boring. It seems like a task instead of a pastime. This experiment felt like homework. However I’m hopeful. Perhaps I just haven’t found my genre of fiction yet. I didn’t like this story, but I guess it’s like the movies- there’s so much choice that there has to be one for everyone.

COWBOY: I’d say my answer is probably true for a lot of people of our generation, so think of this as not just my reason, but mine and so many others. Alternative forms of media. Things like video games and TV are so much more accessible. But the biggest one reason, in my opinion, is my phone. I take my phone to bed and the time I spend on it before going to sleep is probably the time I would otherwise be spending reading, if I were into books.

SPACEMAN: I just consume other forms of media so much. The big three for me are video games, Netflix, and Youtube.

WISEGUY: I get put off reading. Because I’m so slow, reading seems like this big task, and I end up procrastinating and not reading as much as I would like.



HUNTER: I haven’t noticed a discernable difference.

FROSTY: O yes.

COWBOY: Absolutely. For me, the dialogue present in fiction breaks up my flow. I definitely read articles and news columns faster.

SPACEMAN: Yeah actually, I do read it faster.

WISEGUY: No. I read works of fiction faster. With non-fiction, I feel the pressure to remember facts.


As you can see from their answers, each of my volunteers has a completely different relationship with books. There are aspects of each person’s experience that hold true for me as well. What COWBOY and SPACEMAN said about the accessibility of digital media was very interesting to me, and I think it’s something that probably holds true for a lot of Millenials, whether they are readers or non-readers. I know the big reading slumps I have had in the past had a lot to do with my pouring hours into addictive games like The Witcher 3 or Bioshock Infinite. Games, movies, and binge-worthy TV shows all tell fascinating stories, only they are passive activities as opposed to sitting down and reading a novel, which is active. We’re all interested in storytelling and we always will be. It’s the medium that is changing- with increasingly sophisticated technology designed to be as comfortable and accessible as possible. You have to remember, just 100 years ago, sitting down to read just one more chapter of Great Expectations was the equivalent of hitting the “Continue watching” button after your third straight episode of Mindhunter. In 1841 American fans of Charles Dickens were so desperate to find out if Nell had survived in The Old Curiosity Shop, that they caused a riot and stormed the harbor in New York where a ship was bringing in the latest chapter of the book.

So are novels disappearing as a storytelling medium? No, I don’t think so. But they might become more of a niche interest. And it must be remembered that the volunteers I selected represented a pretty homogenous demographic. It would be interesting to carry out this experiment with strictly female volunteers, or volunteers from America instead of the U.K. What do you think of my results? Should I carry out more of these experiments? Can you relate to any of the answers my wonderful volunteers gave? Please let me know in the comments!


Notes on Writing a Novel #2

I’ve never been 100% confident in my ability to write dialogue. It’s something I’ve been paying close attention to in my novel. I have to get it right, because dialogue is the roofbeam that keeps this madhouse from collapsing in on itself. The dialogue is what brings the characters of your story to life, and any time there is a disconnect between the reader and your characters, you’ve got a serious problem. It’s an aspect of writing fiction that is easy to learn but so hard to master. It looks simple, but subtlety is required in order to achieve excellence. The writer of great dialogue is perceptive, not just of the conversational habits of real people, but of the craft of storytelling. They have to bridge the gap between the real world and the one on the page, all the while being able to keep each one at an arm’s length away from the manuscript.

What I mean by that is that, to me, the secret to writing effectual dialogue is maintaining balance. You don’t want it to be so realistic that it becomes hard to follow, but you also don’t want it to become so contrived that it feels like you’ve lifted the lines from a bad soap opera. Good dialogue is believable, but also sharp and friendly to readers of the medium of fiction. There’s a reason that news articles and the like will often re-word what an interviewee says, making the subject’s sentences neater and more accessible. They remove repeated words and fill in missing ones to achieve that all-important quality of dialogue: flow. The way we talk in everyday life is often jumbled and rough, and in the medium of drama we are looking to grip people’s attention with speech that is crisp and polished. My favorite example of this kind of excellence is the Ernest Hemingway short story The Killers. Here’s a short extract:


“What’s he going to do?”


“They’ll kill him.”

“I guess they will.”

“He must have got mixed up in something in Chicago.”

“I guess so,” said Nick.

“It’s a hell of a thing.”

“It’s an awful thing,” Nick said.


As you can see, the dialogue is snappy- each sentence has a way of flowing into the next. There is a rhythm that exists throughout the scene. And, Hemingway has achieved the kind of balance I mentioned earlier. He has captured the essence of how real people speak, rather than replicating it verbatim.

When I took classes in screenwriting at university, my professor reiterated that dialogue should be used only when absolutely necessary. If you can show what’s happening without speech, then do that. Our professors would go through our screenplays and pick out certain lines of dialogue.

“Is this really necessary?” they would say. We were shown the beginning of There Will Be Blood as an example of the power of omitting speech. It would have only diminished the effect of the scene if they had Daniel Day-Lewis exclaim “I fell down a pit mine and done me leg in!”

The same lessons hold true for writing fiction. A sense of balance is yet again required. You don’t want too much of your narrative exposition to come in the form of spoken dialogue, because then the characters will seem less believable. They will seem like mouthpieces for the events of the story, which will then indicate to the reader that you don’t think much of their intelligence. Nothing breaks immersion more than when information is forced into a character’s dialogue. For example, if a character is being cornered by a creepy janitor carrying an Arkansas Toothpick, said victim isn’t going to waste their breath going “Ah, so it was you all along. You must have seen Little Curtis walking home from school and snatched him while no one was looking!” when really they would be using their lungs to call for help.

But of course, you don’t want to have too little dialogue that your story becomes vague and boring. What dialogue you include should not be inconsequential. It should be striking and colorful. So once again, a sense of balance is needed- don’t be too vague, and don’t include too much. And if you get it just right, you’ll hopefully have written a scene that readers find compelling.

My Thoughts on Phantom Thread

I can’t remember the last time there were so many movies out at once that I’ve really wanted to see. I still need to see Loveless, Hostiles and I, Tonya. I’m also looking forward to seeing Annihilation, You Were Never Really Here, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, which come out very soon. I’m confident I’ll enjoy them all. So far the only movies I’ve had the time to see are Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and Phantom Thread. The former was good, the latter was better. And it’s the latter of those two films that’s inspired me to blog today.

At first glance, Phantom Thread didn’t look to be my kind of film. It’s set in the couture business of 1950s London. It’s a romantic period drama about a fancy dressmaker who makes fancy dresses for the fancypants people of high society. The kind of movies I usually watch tend to have a higher density of people face down in a gutter drowning on their own blood. But then I noticed something: this film starred Daniel Day-Lewis and was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. The last time these two hooked up we were given a brutal drama set against the harsh backdrop of the Southern California Oil Boom, ending with the unforgettable image of a preacher getting his head caved in with a bowling pin. There Will Be Blood is a contender for my favorite film of all time, so I knew I had to give this a go.

And Phantom Thread did not disappoint.


It’s a slow, meditative drama that’s admittedly not for everyone. But what really makes this film is the intensity of the performances from its two leading actors. Daniel Day-Lewis demonstrates yet again that he is the most talented and versatile actor of his generation, and he brings this absolutely dominating screen presence that turns even the most subtle scene into a hair-raising, edge-of-your-seat affair. You can feel the goosepimples crawling up your arms every time he does something as seemingly mundane as giving his opposite number a closed-mouth glare. And as good as Day-Lewis is, I thought that his co-star Vicky Krieps was right there with him. She matched his raw intensity and produced one of the most powerful performances I’ve seen in years.

Day-Lewis plays a famed dressmaker, and Krieps a waitress who sort of becomes his mistress and his muse. He’s wholly dedicated to his art, but Krieps is determined to have a piece of him for herself. The movie essentially follows her attempts to have a relationship with him- one that she gets something out of. She doesn’t want to ruin his art, or stop him from making dresses, but she just wants a little piece of him that is hers and hers alone. The film is a fascinating portrayal of the struggles of having a relationship with an artist. Day-Lewis is kind of a narcissistic- yet brilliant- genius, but Krieps has a profound effect on him, and ultimately he is shocked at how she changes his life and completely disrupts his routine.

Phantom Thread reminded me a lot of another film I watched recently. The other week I finally got around to watching the 2013 documentary Salinger. Funnily enough, Salinger was originally meant to be a feature film with Daniel Day-Lewis in the starring role. In Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis’ character is very particular, adhering to a strict and exact sense of routine. His every waking day, his every living breath, is dedicated to the art of dressmaking. And it pushes anyone away from getting too close. There’s no room in his life for intimacy; everyone comes second to his art. And it’s this aspect of the film that reminded me of Salerno’s documentary of one of my favorite writers- JD Salinger. The film portrays the novelist as being so obsessed with his art that it pushes away his wife; he would supposedly spend weeks at a time writing inside a windowless bunker, which neither she or anyone else was allowed in. Both movies seem to raise the question: is that lack of intimacy the price one pays for achieving true, lasting greatness? Can you live a normal life and be dedicated to your art? What are you willing to sacrifice for immortality? The most touching part of the documentary, for me, was a reported quote from Salinger to the effect that he wished he had never written The Catcher in the Rye. It made me sad, because it suggested to me that perhaps he wished he had lived a more normal life, without all the media scrutiny and the burden of being America’s greatest novelist.

Phantom Thread, however, ends on a much more optimistic note. In the end, Day-Lewis and Krieps have found a way to make it work. Theirs is a dark love in which he willingly allows her to feed him poisonous mushrooms so that he becomes so ill that he is completely dependent on her. It’s a crazy kind of passion, but then genius often comes hand in hand with madness. Despite all the difficulties of living in his world, she is determined to make a place for herself- and that’s what makes Krieps’ character so compelling.

Notes on Writing a Novel #1

As many of you know, I’m writing a novel. I’m about halfway through the first draft and I figured it might be a neat idea to blog about the writing process as it is happening. It’s the first long-term project I’ve worked on in years. When I first started writing stories as a kid, I wrote extended pieces of fiction. I’m not sure if I would call them novels though. I wrote them longhand in notebooks. I had heard at school that writers like to use notebooks with spiral binding, because they can rip the pages out if they want. So I got one, and started writing my very first story. It was a space adventure, in which me and my best friend Artie from school were the main characters. We were abandoned as kids on Saturn, and sort of grew up as feral children, before being adopted by aliens and given the gift of speech and intelligence. The two of us then set out on a voyage across the solar system, eventually reconnecting with our families, who had grown up on a human colony on Europa. The story featured pretty much all my friends from school at the time. Several wormholes, magical artifacts, and one cosmic baryonyx later, we find ourselves embroiled in a conflict with a witch on a planet where the trees are so tall you can’t see the bottom, and the natives live in the clouds in hollowed-out apartments connected by bridges. This story ended up stretching across several notepads, most of which are now lost, and ended abruptly when my character gets a pet centipede (a centipede the size of a dozen Ford Fiestas parked in a row, of course) and I couldn’t think of a name for the damn thing. The last sentence was literally “I think I’ll name you-” and then it ends. Somehow I had enough imagination to write about ancient temples on the surface of Pluto, but not enough to come up with an appropriate name for a venomous, oversized arthropod with a taste for human flesh.

I wrote another story about a teenage girl who gets stranded on Neptune, and another one about a band of warriors hunting a powerful demon through an enchanted forest. I got a PC at the age of thirteen and I started typing my stories, leaving the notepads behind. When I was 14, I wrote a science fantasy novel influenced in no small part by Dune, Star Wars, and a game I was playing at the time called Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends. The story ran 250 pages in length, and to date it’s the only true novel I have completed. As I got more serious about writing, I developed a more critical eye with which I regarded my work. I wrote short stories and poems for years, often planning and starting novels but never getting past about 5000 words or so. I told myself that eventually I’d get my act together, that it was destined to happen, that I just hadn’t found the right idea. Maybe I hadn’t found the right idea, but that was not all I was lacking. Until 2017 I wasn’t mentally fit enough for writing a novel. But then 2017 happened. The pills started working. My brain chemistry was reaching the right balance. I started reading again. I started blogging, and during 2017 I averaged 1348.9 words across 104 posts. My 25th birthday happened, and all of a sudden everything in my life felt urgent. I had to make up for all the time I had wasted over the years. I knew that the odd short story or poem was getting me nowhere. If I really wanted to make a go of this writing business, I had to prove to myself I could write a novel.

So far the process has gone better than I ever could have hoped. With each chapter I finish, I grow stronger. It’s the best thing I have in my life right now, and when I write it I feel so happy. And happiness is the most precious thing in the world to me. When I have it, it’s like gold dust slipping through my fingers, and I’m trying to hold onto it as long as I can. The idea that I can create my own happiness simply by writing words on a page is precious to me. It’s exciting. And for me, my writing will always be inextricably linked to my mental health. I’m going to blog about what I’ve learned during the writing process in a series of short posts. Today’s tip is all about happiness when writing. I’ve learned that writing a novel should always be separate to publishing a novel. They are two different tasks and ought to be treated as such. I think the best advice for a young writer is to focus simply on writing the novel. People often ask me when I’m going to start looking into publishers and literary agents, and my answer is always the same: I got no idea. I don’t care. None of that is relevant to my current goal, and sometimes I think writers worry too much about publishing a novel as opposed to simply writing it, and writing it the best way they can. You can’t publish a manuscript that is unfinished. My attempts to write novels since studying creative writing at university were mired by thoughts of publication. My mind was never where it needed to be. While my fingers were on the first draft, my mind was in the editing room, or worse it was in the publishing house. I would criticize my work harshly and give up, instead of just writing it and editing later.

It’s a common trap for budding novelists, and nothing hurts one’s confidence more than retiring a manuscript after the first chapter. The way to avoid this trap has everything to do with happiness. And that’s why it’s so important to focus completely on the novel and not anything that ought to come later. The best way to finish a manuscript is to enjoy it. Make sure that the story you are writing is one you would want to read. Unless you truly love the work, it won’t get completed. You’ll know you have the right idea when you can’t stop thinking about it, when you wake up thinking about the characters and their predicaments. I think if you are truly passionate about your subject, then that will naturally come across in your writing. Forget publishers and book signings and prizes. I strongly believe that a writer’s focus and energy should be 100% on his or her work; it’s the difference between someone who has something to say, and someone who has to say something. Think to yourself: do I want to write a novel, or do I want to write this novel? Be confident, follow your gut instincts, and blaze a trail that is entirely your own.

The Storytelling of the Everyday

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, I like having a date in the future that I can both look forward to and work towards. I try to avoid having a blank calendar. I’m not a planner, but I find that having a proverbial jackrabbit to chase after gives me a sense of forward momentum in life. Anyone who knows me knows that I tend to attach narratives to life, to think of its events as forming a greater story. I don’t want to give you the impression I’m religious or anything like that- I don’t believe in things like destiny, or that life has any grandiose meaning for all of us. I’m a believer in individuals creating their own meanings. I’m aware that my tendency to perceive events as stories is an act of creation on my part, and I’m aware of why I do it. I’ll target one or two events on my calendar and think of the time between them as being a distinct “chapter of my life”. That’s why I like having something in the near future- whatever it may be, a trip, a wedding, anything– that signifies the end of one chapter and the start of a new one.

For example, last year I had three such events that ended up dividing my 2017 into quarters. I had my best friend’s wedding in March, my departure for Texas in May, and my return to the U.K in August. I compartmentalized the time before and after each one into four distinct chapters that formed the narrative of 2017, because I knew that each event was going to be an emotional experience. At the end of each chapter, I would have learned something. One way or another, I’d have something to look back on. I’d carry something with me from the previous chapter into the next.

I don’t think I’m alone in doing this. Maybe you’re reading this and thinking “Wow, these must be the ramblings of a serial killer” and if that’s the case I wholeheartedly apologize for not getting through to you. But I’m thinking that many of you have similar thoughts. You might look upon an internship, a gap year, a semester abroad, a maternity leave, as having its own story, as affecting you in some way so that when it ends, you are a different person. I’m sure a lot of people don’t necessarily think of a certain period of time as a distinct narrative until it has long since passed, until they find themselves reminiscing about it. I have difficulty just living in the present, so I’m not really such a person. But life throws all kinds of surprises at you, and if you’ve watched as many movies or read as many books as I have, you’ll find you can’t resist isolating emotional memories as the bookends to a particular segment of your life.

Maybe it’s something as small as you saying “Hey, remember when, for a week, the three of us sat together in math and every day we made power rankings of our celebrity crushes? We were like the Three Musketeers that week”. Or perhaps it’s something as big as losing a loved one, and you find yourself during the months after taking long walks in the evenings. It’s an event that bleeds into the rest of your life until the next thing happens. A new job, a new partner, the discovery of something new, or the recovery of something lost.

We can’t help but look for stories in our lives. But sometimes it’s not such a good thing. I’ve mentioned how I tend to do it because I have a romantic outlook on things, and sometimes it helps to motivate me to enrich the time I have, to work harder with the hope that I can attain something lasting and important from a particular phase of life. However, too much creation on my part can sometimes result in a nasty bout of anxiety. What we take with us isn’t necessarily good. We have bad experiences. We’re all troubled by the human condition like Holden Caulfield. We all suffer. And I have found that creating a narrative out of everything gets me in trouble sometimes. Perhaps you wake up with a headache, and as you’re getting ready you accidentally step on your 8-year old’s art project. Just as you’re rushing to glue it back together, you get a letter in the mail telling you that your bank account is overdrawn. A lot of people- myself included- would then say “It’s just not my day” and subconsciously create this narrative of a bad day. But really, it’s just a coincidence that these things all happened on the same morning. There’s no conspiracy against you, but you’re drawn into believing that everything’s just going wrong. It colors the rest of your day, and things like taking the little brats to school, going to work, making them supper, doing the laundry, seem all the more daunting. You’re crushed by the immensity of it and it all ends in tears and a cheap bottle of wine.

It can be hard to take yourself out of time, to remove yourself at that point from the narrative you have created and realize “Hey, this day can still be good if I want it to be”. As you know, I’m not at all an expert on being happy. Happiness is a tricky business. But if I am feeling swamped or anxious, I find that the best way of ending the “It’s all going to shit” narrative is to go on a walk (preferably at night or when it’s cool) and follow it up with some Yoga Nidra meditation.

So I’m careful when I feel myself making a story out of everything. I have to remind myself to be aware I’m doing it. 2018 is still in its infancy. In April I’m heading off to Eastern Europe for a short solo adventure. I’m pretty excited for it, and I’m looking forward to seeing how I traveling alone affects me. But, as my wise roommate cautioned me, expectations often live in the extremes. There’s the best case scenario where I come back a champion of self-confidence and knowledge, stepping off the plane with a finished novel in one hand and a shapely Carpathian bride on the other. And there’s the worst case scenario where I get lost at night and in my desperation accept the directions of a Transylvanian serial killer intent on leading me back to his windowless rape dungeon. Most of the time, neither scenario comes true, and your experience lands somewhere in the middle.

I’ll provide more updates on my trip pretty soon, but for now I just wanted to share with you some of my thoughts about the way I perceive things. Let me know in the comments if you can relate!

My Ultimate American Bucket List

We’re living in the age of itchy feet and bucket lists. My dream has always been to travel to each of the 50 states that comprise the USA. I’m not sure if I’ll be fortunate enough to achieve it, but I’m going to spend my life trying. The thing is though, you can drive through all of the states and say you’ve ticked off that list without ever leaving your car. I want to have a unique, distinct memory to take with me from each one. So far I’ve been to 17 states, but not necessarily on my own terms. In Arkansas I didn’t leave the car. In Georgia, I never ate peaches- and that just doesn’t seem right. I’ve lived on-and-off in the USA since 2012 but only about 4 weeks of my time altogether was spent as a tourist.

Today, I’m excited to share with you my dream for every state. I’m a big fan of the phrase “When in Rome, yada yada” and so I’ve decided to pick experiences that capture the essence of each particular state, but which also tell you something about myself. Feel free to use this bucket list to inform your own travel plans! And, be sure to let me know in the comments what you think of my choices. If you could spend only one day in a particular US state, what would YOU do?



Heart of Dixie


This one’s tough. I’ve always wanted to see Mobile. I think it’d be an atmospheric, writerly kind of hangout where I could compose poems by the sea during the day and party it up with a cheeky bit of Mardi Gras at night. HOWEVER, if I only had one day to see Alabama, and I could never come back, I think I’d take in the Iron Bowl. I love the romance of college football, and the Crimson Tide-Tigers rivalry is something I just wouldn’t be able to pass up.



Land of the Midnight Sun


This one’s easy. I’d go on a cruise through the Alaska panhandle. I want to see glaciers, bowhead whales, totem poles, and miles upon miles of untouched, pristine pine forests.



Grand Canyon State


When I went to Arizona in 2014 I took in the Grand Canyon and it was beautiful. But there’s one part of it I didn’t get to see that I really, really want to. Havasupai Falls. I’ve been obsessed with this place for nearly 10 years now. It’s a remote area characterized by these distinctive blue-green waters and dramatic rock formations. I’m pretty sure that the original Planet of the Apes was filmed there. So it’s always looked like an alien planet to me, and I think that’s why I’m so crazy about going there. It would be the closest feeling I could get to traveling to another world. It’s a 10 mile hike through dusty, arid terrain to get there, but when I’m there, I plan to take some photos, do some painting, and frolic in the water.



Natural State


When I think of what makes Arkansas beautiful I think of snaking rivers at the foot of the Ozarks. I’d love to go canoeing in Arkansas.



Land of Milk & Honey


Well I’ve already traveled through Yosemite on horseback. Sometimes a bucket list item is something simple, brief and low-key. One thing I’ve always wanted to check off my list is to one day go through a redwood drive-thru (basically a hollowed out tree).



Switzerland of America


Garden of the Gods, hands down. For the same reason I want to see Havasupai. It’s beautiful and other-worldly.



Nutmeg State


Olde Mistick Village. It’s a quaint, rural town designed to look like an idyllic New England village of the 1720s. I’d stroll past cutesy mom n’ pop stores, take in the duck ponds, admire the watermills and breathe that clean, country air.



Land of Tax-Free Shopping


When I imagine my ideal afternoon in Delaware, I see myself antiquing; stopping off at quirky stores in the salty, beachgrass breeze.



Sunshine State


My dream day in Florida involves touring through the Everglades and seeing the crockergators!



Peach State


Georgia was my first state and it will always be special to me. Savannah was beautiful. When I go back, I want to eat peach cobbler at a roadside diner, surrounded by tall trees.



Aloha State


I want to see lava flowing into the ocean and sing “Burning Love”.



Gem State

Idaho State v Boise State

I consider myself quite the fan of the Boise State Broncos! Their trick play to win the 2007 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl got me into college football. I’d love to see them play on the blue surface of the Albertsons Stadium one day.



Land of Lincoln


Starved Rock State Park looks quite lovely, full of clandestine waterfalls and steep sandstone canyons.



Crossroads of America


I’d love to one day see a high school basketball game, and where better to take it in than the Hoosier State?



Hawkeye State


I’d pack my dSLR and some pastels and start trying to capture the lonesome beauty of the state’s barns, grain elevators, and gas stations.



Sunflower State


As much as I’d love to see greyhounds running at full speed, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it unless the animals were treated humanely. The ethics are iffy, so instead I’d choose to spend my day in Kansas at the Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita. Yeeh-haw!



Bluegrass State


I’d go to the batting cages at the Louisville Slugger factory. Duh.



Pelican State


I’ve always been fascinated with New Orleans. I’d love to live there, in a swanky apartment in the French Quarter, with a balcony in which I could sit in the warm breeze, listening to the sound of saxophones and women singing about crawfish. I’d get a beignet at the Café du Monde and love it.





There are so many gorgeous places in Maine that it’s almost impossible to pick just one. I’d go to Bar Harbor and photograph/paint the fog. Fans of Fallout 4 will recognize it as the basis for Far Harbor, and Bethesda did a great job of rendering the island with a haunted, post-apocalyptic aesthetic and populating it with giant, horrifically-mutated mantis shrimp here and there.



Old Line State


I wanna find the best darn crab cakes on the Chesapeake!



Old Colony


I’d love to spend the day in Nantucket, stopping at the whaling museum and the island’s various lighthouses.



Winter Water Wonderland


My perfect Michigan experience involves me eating fudge while riding in a buggy on Mackinac Island.



Land of 10,000 Lakes


I’ve been lucky enough to witness some of Minnesota’s beautiful wilderness on a couple of occasions. But that doesn’t mean I’m done yet. I would love to make a spiritual journey to Lake Itasca- a small, glacial lake in northern Minnesota that serves as the headwaters for the Mississippi River.



Magnolia State


My pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s birthplace has been long overdue. Elvis was born in a shotgun house in a little town called Tupelo, that now acts as a shrine for traveling fans.



Gateway State


Missouri is an interesting land, and one that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit on several occasions. But I’ve got unfinished business in this pretty place. One thing I have really wanted to see for a while is the river-town of Hannibal; the boyhood home of Mark Twain and the basis for the setting of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn.



Big Sky Country


On every visit I’ve made to the USA I’ve professed a desire to see an authentic rodeo. My wish could never be fulfilled however, because I was never quite in the right place. Well, Montana is the right place. Going to Montana and not taking in a rodeo would be like going to Rome and not seeing the Colosseum.



Cornhusker State


The panhandle is supposed to be beautiful; full of epic landscapes characterized by green valleys and rocky bluffs. I’d go there.



Silver State


My next visit to Nevada will most definitely see me kayaking in Lake Tahoe, whose wondrous vistas you might recognize from The Godfather Part II.



Mother of Rivers


When I think of New Hampshire I think of the White Mountains, one of the quietest and most serene regions of the USA, and one of the most densely forested. My choice way of experiencing it would be to take the Cog Railway up Mount Washington.



Garden State


Atlantic City is kinda like the Vegas of the East Coast. I’m not much of a gambler, but I’d love to take a stroll along the city’s famous boardwalk and imagine myself walking in the footsteps of many a pinstriped gangster.



The Land of Enchantment


To my mind, there’s no better cultural experience waiting for me in New Mexico than going to Taos Pueblo and observing a traditional corn dance.



Empire State


Believe it or not, if I could pick one thing to do in the state of New York, it would be to stay at the Mohonk Mountain House. It’s a historic lakeside hotel where you can go hiking and get a nice spa treatment.



Tar Heel State


Without a shadow of a doubt, my next visit to North Carolina will be based around going to see a Duke-UNC basketball game. Do sporting rivalries get any better?



Flickertail State


I’d love to attend a cowboy poetry festival!



Buckeye State


For some reason I’ve always had a longing to see Cincinnati. Something about its riverfront atmosphere gives it a Southern charm. I’d like to see it for myself one day, taking in the bridges and the parks and the historic areas.



Sooner State


The Red Earth Festival would be an unforgettable and unmissable experience.



Beaver State


When I think of Oregon I think of white water rapids meandering through enormous, dense forests of redwoods and sequoias. The way I want to experience this state is rafting down one of these rivers!



Keystone State


Pennsylvania is one of the most beautiful and interesting states I have yet to visit. It looks to me like a painter’s dream. But if I had to pick one thing, I think I’d go spend the day in Pittsburgh and ascend the funicular on the Duquesne Incline.



Ocean State


I’d take a ferry from Providence and spend the day on Block Island. I love harbors and lighthouses. I think it would be a great place to have a quiet weekend of writing and painting.



Palmetto State


South Carolina remains a favorite of my family when we look back at the states we have been to, and it’s a contender for number one in our power rankings. It’s an amazing place. If I were to go back, I’d make it my mission to see the fireflies at Congaree National Park.



Coyote State

Aerial view of Badlands National Park, South Dakota

As awesome as Mount Rushmore would be, I’m gonna have to pick Badlands National Park. Even the greatest man-made monuments fall short of the bizarre splendor of nature.



Butternut state


When I stayed in Memphis in 2012, I saw Graceland, but I never got to tour Sun Studio! But that’s okay, because it gives me another reason to comb back my pompadour and return.



Lone Star State


Texas has been my home for the past two summers, and at this point it’s probably about as familiar to me as anywhere else in the USA. There is a lot to choose from, but my biggest unfulfilled wish is to photograph or paint a field of bluebonnets.



Beehive State


Bryce Canyon National Park. I’ve never seen anything so epic as the photographs of those rock formations.



Green Mountain State


I’d die a happy man if I got the chance to photograph or paint the covered bridges of Vermont in the fall.



Old Dominion

Mabry Mill

There’s so much history and so much beauty packed into this great state. It’s a place I desperately want to see for myself. In many ways I think of it as the birthplace of the USA. I’d spend my time here hunting down historic watermills reminiscent of the colonial days, and I’d photograph the heck out of them.



Evergreen State


In general, the Pacific Northwest contains some of the most breathtaking scenery in the USA. But since I’m a Twin Peaks fan, I’d choose Snoqualmie Falls as the place I’d visit for a day.



Mountain State


I’ve long been intrigued by Harpers Ferry. I think if I was going to go anywhere in West Virginia, it would be the place where the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers meet.



America’s Dairyland

MJS 100_0292.jpg

Wisconsin will always be my home state. It’s the place I’ve traveled the most extensively. I’ve seen Lambeau Field, Madison, the Dells, Door County. I’ve made s’mores in the Northwoods, I’ve gone deer hunting, I’ve toured wineries and logging museums, and I’ve seen Aaron Rodgers at the Packers pre-season practice field. There are a couple items still left on my to-do list such as The House on the Rock and Washington Island, but one thing that has remained at the top of my bucket list for a long, long time is to visit the Apostle Islands. That would be a real treat.



Cowboy State

Yellowstone Falls: River, Grand Canyon, National Park, Montana MT


“Just Another Mental Health Post”

I never planned to blog about my mental health issues as much as I have. It was only when I started writing my series of memoir-posts about my 2012 student exchange that I realized there was no way around it. To leave out my struggles with anxiety and depression would have been to tell a hollow narrative. It would have been a sequence of pointless events not really worth writing about. It wasn’t until that first post that I realized that to tell the story of my study abroad would mean telling the story of my mental health. I realized through writing about the events of that semester that every moment seemed to be tied in some way to the imbalance in my brain chemistry. Every social situation, from intramural soccer to my first day at class had to be told through the lens of my anxiety, because that’s how I experienced it. Sometimes I felt a little nervous about discussing these issues, because I’ve always been emotionally fragile and hyper-sensitive about what others think of me, but I decided to write them anyway. Part of me felt guilty about blogging about it, and worried at the kind of reaction I’d get. Ultimately I knew I would, because I knew the writing demanded it, and the quality of my writing is more important to me than pretty much anything else- certainly more than fear of embarrassment. But up until now I’ve only ever blogged about mental health insofar as it relates to my experiences and memories. I haven’t done a piece specifically addressing my issues, because I feared that doing so would be stepping into a realm beyond my expertise. I might suffer from these issues, but I’m no medical professional, and that’s my reason for not wanting to discuss mental health in a general sense. I’m uncomfortable offering advice or discussing the experiences of others. I’m nervous about trying to contribute something useful to an issue so destructive for so many people.

However, I’m in an angry mood this afternoon. And it’s this anger that’s prompted this blog post. It’s not a post I have scheduled and it’s not one I’ve planned. I was actually scheduled to release an entirely different post today, but that can wait. I need to get this off my chest while I’m still fired up about it. So think of this as a kind of spontaneous rant. I’m not sure where it’s going, or whether it will amount to anything worthwhile, but here goes.

A little while ago I saw a post on Facebook that caught my eye. For the past two years I’ve been taking an antidepressant called Citalopram. I was in a phase in 2015 where I didn’t want to get out of bed in the mornings. I didn’t want to try anything. I loathed myself and I consciously wished that I would fall asleep and never wake up. The pills have helped eschew those dark thoughts and now I’m in a phase where I find myself very unwilling to part with the medication. Anyway, the post on Facebook that I saw contained a picture of these pills, and I was naturally drawn to it. It was a long Facebook post in which the user was discussing the side effects of the medication on her health. It was very interesting to read about someone else’s experience with the same drug I was using. However, the first paragraph of the post was filled with defensive and self-conscious statements such as “I don’t want this to be just another mental health post but…” and that got me thinking. At first I was annoyed because she seemed to be disparaging other mental health related posts even though she herself was clearly trying to write the same thing. But then, I started wondering why she was so self-conscious about writing about mental health. She was obviously worried about the kind of reaction her post would get. She seemed to be echoing a fear that social media is oversaturated with mental health posts, that because more and more people are sharing their stories, the supposed “real issues” were becoming clouded. It hinted at widespread suspicions of anxiety not being a real medical problem, or the sentiment that “everyone’s diagnosed with something now”, a sentiment which (to me) suggests that because so many people are opening up about their suffering, that the issue’s seriousness is therefore diminished.


I’m not an expert, so I don’t know, nor do I pretend to know, how widespread the issue of anxiety is. But even if it is so common, that doesn’t make it any less toxic. I’m angry today because it’s apparent that we’ve got a long way to go toward making our society more sensitive to these issues. What really set me off today was reading through the comment section of an article on Bleacher Report about Johnny Manziel’s Bipolar diagnosis. I loved watching Johnny Football when he was in college. I wouldn’t say he’s a hero of mine or anything, but he was an exciting athlete doing some pretty flashy things. Reading through the comments beneath the article, I was appalled at the idea that because this guy has made some mistakes in his life, that he is somehow not entitled to our sympathy. In a recent interview with Good Morning America, Manziel was forthcoming about his Bipolar diagnosis, depression, and his commitment to sobriety and therapy. If there’s one thing I admire it’s an individual that tries to better him or herself. We don’t have to like Johnny Manziel, and that’s not my point here. My point is that the reaction I observed to the news of his mental health issues was symptomatic of a wider societal problem regarding the perception of depression and anxiety. Sympathy is never a finite resource; we don’t have to choose between feeling concerned about Syrian refugees and a college football star’s search for a healthy state of mind. Every form of suffering is worth our attention, and in order to create a more sympathetic world, we have to stop categorizing suffering.

I know that sounds preachy, but fuck it. My blood’s up now. I have to express my rage and do what rage demands, what it’s good for; to turn it into a written statement. I was chatting with a friend recently who was describing a “rut” he’s been in. During our chat, he said something that really stuck with me. “I don’t want to use the word depression” he said. It made me think he felt guilty about adopting that word, that his issues weren’t as important as mine. The fact that I take pills doesn’t make my anxiety any more real, or any more important than his or anyone else’s. We should be encouraging people to share, and getting to the root of our problems, so I told my pal to use whatever word he felt best described his experience. It comes back to the idea that because mental health issues are suddenly more widespread, that not every claim is as valid as the next. Are people tired of anxiety related posts? Are they annoyed by them? I’m not. Nothing pleases me more than seeing people share their experiences, be it orally or in a written piece. I love reading the blogs of some of my fellow Creative Writing graduates that touch on issues such as depression or social anxiety. Nothing makes a person so interesting to me as their openness, their self-awareness and self-reflection. I don’t enjoy hearing that other people suffer, but it is comforting to know that my issues are shared by so many, and I seek out these brave accounts of suffering. But you don’t need a degree in Creative Writing or a Citalopram prescription to share your story. Don’t ever be afraid to express your own experiences, and don’t be made to feel that what you are going through does not warrant our attention, because to share is to contribute the continuum of human experience and our understanding of these issues.

I’mma get me some ice cream. Nothing cools me off like a bowl of Neapolitan. Vowles out.