I closed out 2021 on a challenging note: losing my last living grandparent to COVID. I had wanted, initially, to do a retrospective of the year. I saw a lot of my peers putting out similar content, which inspired and galvanized me and filled me with an odd sort of despair. Anymore it seems that when I think about celebrating accomplishments, I can’t help but think about the expectations (explicit and unspoken) that we do so in a format that makes them accessible and palatable to others.
So here’s my compromise: I am still going to attempt a retrospective, but maybe one that’s less of a highlight reel, and one that may not be so neatly ordered as my peers’ (for better or for worse, as it were) and is absolutely a month late to the year-end wrap up party.
Here you will find a little bit about what I wrote (and didn’t) in 2021, tips I found helpful, and a few of the books from 2021 that I enjoyed the most.
2021 Writing List
When the year began, I set out to write more consistently: finish a novel manuscript, update this blog at least once a month, write some book reviews and share writing tips. I’d say I made it about 50% of the way there.
I didn’t finish the novel manuscript, which is something I’ll reflect on more another time but suffice for now to say that taking a step back from it may not have been the worst choice I could have made. I did update this blog more than I did last year and, somewhat to my surprise, I actually enjoyed it. I do think there’s something valuable in writing nonfiction, whether it’s a review, reflection, or a loosely-structured essay, and that during times this year when I was really struggling to create anything worthwhile in terms of prose fiction, this blog (along with the Notes app on my phone full of fragmented poems and drabbles) is what saved me.
I wrote a hell of a lot of short fiction and sold some this year, which still feels unbelievable to me. Many writers take winding, unpredictable paths to publication, full of switchbacks and pitfalls and incredibly tempting rest stops that often look a lot like Netflix marathons, fathomless puddles of self-doubt, video games or the pile of half-finished cross stitch projects gathering dust in my closet. The good news is, there’s no one way to get it done. The bad news is, you have to sort out for yourself what the best route looks like.
For me, getting some short fiction into sell-able shape and having someone pay actual money for it was like as simultaneous slap in the face and enveloping bear hug. It confirmed what I’d always suspected but never believed: that people want to read my writing. That I can, in fact, receive money in exchange for it. Perhaps if I believed this a little bit sooner, I’d already have a book deal in hand. But I choose to look at it as a milestone I had to reach to clear the next part of the path. It’s not just about the money; it’s about writing things that I’m proud of. And working up to a novel with short stories is, from what I’ve heard, a pretty tried and true technique.
- If you’re stuck, sometimes opening a blank document and typing out the scene or whole story from memory can help propel you forward, or excise the stuff that’s weighing the piece down.
- Setting the mood with music or scent triggers can help build a sustainable writing habit (that is, if you remember to do it).
And lastly, not precisely a writing tip, but something that I meditated on in my November blog:
Cultivate an awareness of how much time you’re spending projecting an air of productivity vs actually making things.
I took a lot of my (writing) life offline this year and it felt good. I also let myself keep the spark of my writing alive, even if I wasn’t pulling off those marathon 5am 2500 word sessions from last year. If I wrote a little here or there, so be it. If I was in the writing mood but couldn’t quite pull a story together, I journaled. Anything to keep the flame from going out completely. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re a writer who struggles to get words on the page every single day.
2021 Reading List
I had set a goal this year to read 100 books (or more) that simply did not crystallize. I found myself reading apathetically; I’ve always been somewhat of a mood reader, vacillating between fiction and non-fiction at break-neck speeds in an attempt to dull the sharp blade of boredom, but this year I was exceptionally all over the place. By the end of December, I realized I wouldn’t meet my initial goal and scaled down to 80 books, finishing with 82.
Most Interesting Read
I read a lot of non-fiction this year that aligned with my multi-faceted interests (read: ADHD), including Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (about the American/Russian/Japanese space race and the space technologies that facilitated the Moon Landing and Mars Mission); Solve for Happy by Mo Gawdat (about the author’s search for a probable equation for achieving happiness); Quackery by Lydia Kang, detailing the tried and true historical practice of swindling the public with ‘medicine’ based on pseudo-science and fallacious medical claims (alarmingly topical); What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape by Sohaila Abdulah (a collection of essays about personal and public engagement with sexual assault); The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel (the strange story of the discovery and eventual arrest of a hermit who lived, unnoticed, in the Maine wilderness for 20-odd years); and Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker (a treatise on sleep and the study of sleep that has been strongly rebuked for fudging representative statistics).
But the most interesting book I read this year might have been Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen. Ace is an exploration and investigation into the sexuality of people who identify as asexual and how that sexual orientation is understood by the public at large and the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. It also pulls apart some of the nuance of what constitutes a sexual relationship or a romantic one, and how tricky it can be to identify (let alone act on) the more nebulous aspects of sexual desire. Chen herself identifies as asexual, and I have friends and family who are ace, and I’ve never really understood the finer details of the orientation. The book is thoughtfully written and really engaging, treating subject matter that could quickly turn salacious into something thoughtful and informative and rooted in the human experience, without overshooting into dry, academic framing. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in understanding more about asexuality and the broad spectrum and presentation of human sexuality.
Most Helpful Read
This last was the year when I came to terms with my own neurodivergence, partly with the help of medical professionals and partly through some recommended reads such as Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey, and Gabor Mate’s Scattered Minds (a mixed-model approach to understanding and addressing adult ADHD). I found both to be informative and help me advocate for my own care with more ease.
For my Trash Romance book club with a friend (more on that later), I read both of sex educator Emily Nagoski’s pseudonymously-published romance novels, and, my curiosity piqued, decided to check out her non-fiction title Come As You Are, which turned out to be a fairly comprehensive guide to achieving pleasure, geared toward vagina owners and operators. Some of the language in it is needlessly gendered, but overall I found it to be fairly inclusive and a valuable exploration of human sexuality, especially having read Ace earlier in the year.
Most helpful of all, though, was Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen (illustratively subtitled ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation’). Petersen is a seasoned essayist and author whose entertaining and thought-provoking monthly newsletter I’ve mentioned before. Can’t Even shone a bright light on a dark truth I’ve known but never fully investigated. It touches on the economic instability inherited by the Millennial generation and how that has informed everything from our hopes of owning property and our experience of ‘leisure’, to our career failures and successes and the overwhelming sense of despair that seems to characterize so many 30-somethings’ outlooks. There was something so cathartic about reading Petersen’s analysis, even as it was painful to take in the hopeless conclusions of some of her threads of inquiry; mostly I just felt relieved that this dread I’ve been feeling since I graduated from high school into an historic economic recession wasn’t “just me”.
Scary as Fuck-est Read
I read so much speculative sci-fi, horror, and a mixture of the two that I couldn’t omit this category. After reading two of his latest releases, I can say Stephen Graham Jones is doing something incredibly familiar but innovative with the genre: he’s writing scary shit through the lens of a lifelong horror fan, grounded in First Nations’ experience and stories. Whether you’re a casual or die-hard horror reader, The Only Good Indians and My Heart Is a Chainsaw are both well worth your time.
Thanks to book club, I read My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix and Perfume by Patrick Süskind, neither of which I found particularly gratifying; and I finally got around to Lovecraft Country (after I watched the HBO adaptation), and it held up pretty well, though I have to say that Misha Green’s contributions to the show really highlights, when it comes to the complexity and interest of the two main female characters, Lettie and Ruby, where Matt Ruff’s version leaves us wanting. The Broken Hours by Jacqueline Baker is another quasi-Lovecraftian novel I read this year that takes the meta approach: the main character arrives at the home of H.P. himself, to act as his assistant, and is quickly embroiled in a ghastly, ghostly tale that somehow fails to make much mention of Lovecraft’s virulent racism.
It’s somewhat with this in mind that The New Jim Crow (10th Anniversary Edition) by Michelle Alexander suggests itself as the scariest book I read this year. If the imagined monsters and atrocities of the fictional genre aren’t enough to provoke you anymore, try reading this book without a growing sense of horror as you take in the full scope of what privatized correctional institutions and the carceral system in the United States have done to subjugate people of color since its inception. We’re not immune to this in Canada, either, but Alexander’s focus is on America’s legacy of racial discrimination and legalized enslavement by means of the ‘justice’ system and mass incarceration. This book is required reading if you want to better understand the roots of the Black Lives Matter movement or calls to abolish police forces across the continent.
Most Enjoyable Read
I won’t lie: I read a lot of trash (affectionate) this year. Some of it was fun, some of it less so, as my friend and I embarked on a two-person book club, reading some ‘classics’ of the romance genre and some not-so classics. Part of the appeal of reading these uncomplicated books was an escape from a world that seems to be more overloaded with information and complication every day.
While I can’t say our two-person book club survived 2021 (though our friendship did), nor that it made a romance reader out of me, it did make me appreciate some of the more enjoyable reads I had in 2021, many of which seem to be by authors I know or have had the great pleasure of meeting.
These include Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson (a two-time Giller Prize finalist, incredibly talented writer, hilarious story-teller and absolute treasure of a woman I was fortunate enough to meet virtually this year); Under Shifting Stars by the lovely Alexandra Latos; 7 Ways to Sunday, the collection fromLee Kvern (formidable short story machine, painting marvel and one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met); Rough by the incredibly welcoming and sharp Robin van Eck; Jesus on the Dashboard by the generous and driven Lisa Murphy-Lamb and Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury, whose work ethic and talent are basically indescribable (but if I had to try, I’d start with ‘inspiring’ and ‘aspirational’).
Most ‘More of This, Please’ Read
It’s been a while since I’ve read a fiction novel and thought to myself ‘if I had the option, I would abdicate my current life and go live in this book’. Probably decades, if I’m being honest. Like many young readers, books were my escape and there were a few worlds—Tamora Pierce’s quasi-medieval European land of Tortall; Middle Earth; a certain magical school in the Scottish countryside; Lyra’s Oxford—that I dreamed of leaving my mundane life behind for. No book captured that spirit more perfectly for me this year than Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands, which encapsulated the experience of an alienated, too-smart, mouthy kid coming to terms with the reality of leaving the ordinary world behind to navigate a more magical one—embracing its wonders and exposing its shortcomings.
In Other Lands may be a bit long and ponderous for some, with all of its world-building and the way that it follows the main character from childhood through adolescence to young adult. I’ll admit it took me a while to get into it myself, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend C.L. Polk’s blisteringly exciting and mesmerizing The Midnight Bargain, or L. L. MicKinney’s Nightmare-Verse series, which transfixed me from the moment I picked up A Blade So Black (Book 1). Both are funny and cheeky and full of fantasy and romance (and canonically! queer! characters!); the latter with repurposed and reimagined characters and creatures from Alice in Wonderland,restitched into a fascinating new lore. If you care about me as a person, you won’t mention how Book 3 (A Crown So Cursed) doesn’t come out until 2023.
[ID (below): the cover of The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk and A Blade So Black and A Dream So Dark by L. L. McKinney.]
If you enjoyed my magic mystery library tour here, follow me on The StoryGraph (which is like GoodReads but better, and you can import all of your GR reading history with three clicks). If you have any book recommendations based on the ones I listed here, I’ll take them.
I pledge to be back next month with some writing updates (hopefully), writing tips (at least one!) and more of the usual on-brand nonsense. Thanks for reading and happy (so far, no pressure) new year!