Category Archives: Book Review


I’ve been thinking about my values recently.

I followed an exercise from a course called “Live off your Passion”.   The exercise requires that you rank your values, by comparing each one pair-wise.  This is actually a pretty fascinating approach, because certain values that I thought were important to me lost every single match!

I came up with the following top 5 values:

  1. integrity
  2. growth/mastery
  3. passion
  4. tranquility
  5. respect

I don’t think this list would necessarily come as a surprise to people who know me, though some items on the list are certainly more obvious that others.

I want to talk a bit about growth/mastery, because I recently read Mindset by Carol Dweck.  Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford who studies how mental framing changes our experiences.  She talks about two different mindsets- the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.  The fixed mindset believes that our characteristics are immutable.  Fixed mindset people end up being extremely fragile, since validation (or invalidation) comes entirely from external sources.  Failing a test means you are stupid.  Getting dumped means you are unlovable.  Nothing can be done to change things, so why even try?  Growth mindset believes that people can grow and change.  Negative events aren’t a personal judgment, but rather an opportunity to learn how to improve and become better.  This makes growth mindset people extremely resilient.  Dweck points out that we can have both tendencies; we can believe in a fixed mindset in the intellectual realm but a growth mindset in the relationship realm.

I strongly identify with growth/mastery.  I did my values list before I read Dweck’s books, but more tellingly I’ve always acted on growth.  I’m constantly doing (excessive?) projects to improve or learn new things.  Some have stuck, some haven’t, but I’m always planning a new challenge.  If anything, I embrace growth to a point where it is exhausting.  It is difficult to constantly be striving to improve/learn/master.  Yet, I keep doing it.

But what boggled my mind upon reading Dweck’s book is that I have a fixed mindset pretty much across the board, despite by outward “growthy” behavior.  I found it fascinating to read her descriptions of the emotional turmoil that fixed mindset people have in various situations because it correctly described how I felt in various scenarios.  I’m not sure how I can reconcile my actions with my mindset, other than my firm (fixed) belief that I am a good planner, and anything can be accomplished by planning, carried me through.

I especially laugh at my bike repair efforts, since it perfectly illustrates this contradiction.  I am firmly of the belief that I’m not particularly mechanical, yet I’ve made numerous repairs on my bike.  My first flat tire lead to about six weeks of various issues (having to adjust the shifting, having to adjust the brakes, having to tighten and untighten the wheel, putting the tire on backwards (either no big deal or a huge deal depending on which internet guru you listen to), ruining a bike pump with “slime” from my new tube, having to learn how to remove and clean a valve (filled with slime) and various other assorted woes compounded by having 2 more flat tires in the same period) all of which I interpreted as proof of my lack of aptitude for mechanical things. This list seems funny to me now, and I wouldn’t have a problem dealing with any of the previously listed things.  (I’ve moved on to new frustrating challenges with my bike.)  But at the time, it was a horrible experience because I kept failing to fully repair my bike despite my best efforts.

So I’m trying to be better about reframing things as learning opportunities and experiencing the true growth mindset.  It does take some pressure off, because then when things don’t go to plan it is less anxiety provoking.


Book Review of Stephen King’s “On Writing”

I bought this book many years ago, perhaps when writing my novel.  I read it, enjoyed it, and passed it on to a friend with the recommendation to read it.  The book never returned.  When I saw it in the library, I wondered if it was as good as I remembered.

Stephen King is a very good writer.  I know that sounds like an odd thing to say, given his widespread renown as an author, and perhaps it is.  I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his work (outside this) or seen any of the movies based on his work.  But here, he makes the most mundane story extremely compelling.

The subtitle of this book is “A memoir of the craft” and roughly half the book is memoirish.

The first half of the book is a collection of anecdotes about King’s life.   Most of them are just everyday life/ growing up stories, yet you are left with an impression that King lead a wild and exciting life.  King entitles this first section “CV” and suggests that these events are key to understanding him as a writer.  I’m not sure this is true, plenty of people have had similar life stories and not become a writer.  There are two things that stand out to me though.  One is that King consumed wildly in the sci-fi/thriller/horror genre as a child.  This is key to learning what works and what doesn’t.   It also shows that he has a true passion for the genre in which he writes.  But what is even more illustrative is that King started writing and submitting his stories at a very early age.  He racked up a stack of rejection slips before he left high school.  He, like many others, put his 10,000 hours of mastery in before he hit it big.

King briefly discusses grammar & the mechanics of writing (“The toolbox”).   He illustrates his thoughts with snippets from other sources.  He does this deftly.  I’m reading another book about writing that employs the same tactic and it is driving me up the wall.  The clips are either extremely boring, or perhaps worse, vastly more interesting that the actual text.  Here, King’s examples are interesting enough that you don’t lose interest in continuing to read, and his writing is lively enough that you are eager to get back to his thoughts.

King has a unique perspective on writing ; he believes stories are like fossils.  The writer merely excavates them.  He hates “plot”; in his mind plot is artificial and a tool used by a bad writer.  Things like themes and symbolism likewise shouldn’t be deliberately planned in the first draft.  A good writer just, I don’t know, channels the story from somewhere.  As a consequence, he argues that the first draft should be written very quickly, so the author doesn’t have a chance to overthink it.  The draft should then be put away for several months, until it is completely forgotten.  (I guess I’m taking this to the extreme then; my draft has been aging for a decade!)  Then, editing can happen.  At this point, the theme or symbolism that was inherent will be detected by the author.  Now, it is perfectly fine to polish, edit, rewrite, and retune the work to emphasize the themes or symbolism.

I think King can write this way because he spent decades honing his craft and internalized the necessary components of a good story.  He doesn’t need to sit down and plot out the story; his subconscious knows how to construct a compelling plot.   I think this is common with experts; they just do it, and half the time they don’t even know how/why they did.  This does lead to problems when they try to teach, since they don’t exactly know their own process.  Magic just happens.


I don’t know that I agree with King’s rules on writing.  But I think his book is a beautiful illustration of mastery.

Book Review of Pete Seeger’s “Story Telling Book”

One of the first things I did when I decided to publish my book was acquire a bunch of books about writing and publishing.  In this frenzy, I picked up Pete Seeger’s “Story Telling Book” composed by Pete Seeger & Paul Dubois Jacobs.  It is a strange book.  I thought it would be about the craft of story telling.  Instead, it is  a book of stories to tell to children.  The bulk of the book is short stories, mostly already known, suitable for children with endnotes about how to make the story more compelling or creative (use scary voices, swap “boy” for “girl”).  Fairly frequently the story is modified from the original to emphasize values such as working together.

The book is divided in 6 sections.

Stories from my father- Family history type stories with tips on how to exaggerate the details to make them more compelling and stories that Pete Seeger’s father told him when he was a child.

New versions of old stories- retellings and modifications of old stories such as stories from the bible or fairy tales like “stone soup”

Stories from Sounds, Rounds, and lullabyes-  Stories that fill in the details about events described in songs.

Stories from American History-  This has both more family history stories and stories about legendary people’s lives

A few of my own stories- The only fully original stories in the book.  There is a lot of magical elements in both stories from my father and this section- talking lightbulbs and telephone lines for example.  They struck me as fairly formulaic, but I  guess that is the point of the book- formulas so you can be a storyteller?  To be fair, I did find the stories compelling enough that I read the book in a single sitting.  This may have made the formulas more obvious…

Story Beginnings- The first bit of a story- the rest of the story is left up to the reader.  Some are original (to Seeger or his father) while some are well-known (Goldilocks).

Okay, first, clearly this book is of no use to me and my quest to publish my book.  It has 8 fairly glowing reviews on Amazon from parents who have retold the stories to their children to much acclaim.  If you are looking to freshen up story hour, this might be the book for you.  If you already have stories bursting out of your head, and regularly use your “monster voice”  or “princess voice” as the story requires, you can probably safely pass on this one.