The hypocritcal writer explains

Screen shot 2014-06-03 at 10.49.46 AMA gorgeous friend of mine, an incredibly talented writer, just texted me to ask for advice on how to write what she really wants to write. “Should I pretend I’m writing a letter to my niece?” she asked, “What should be my homework? Can you direct me?” This time it’s a book about living life while in tremendous pain. I have no doubts that whatever she writes will be lyrical, intense, soul-searching, important.

But this is a common occurrence: people ask me for advice on writing. They want to know the tricks, the secret formula. I wish I knew it, if one exists. Perhaps it’s something like one part grit, two parts free time (ha), one part outline, 17 parts passion.

I texted her back: “Remember there is no secret formula. Put your ass in a chair and write.”

The thing is, I am such a hypocrite.

These past few weeks and months have been hectic; we just moved into a new place, and with it came the requisite stressors, compounded by my being in my fifth month of pregnancy, finishing up two semesters of adjuncting while also working my full-time day job…the list goes on. (Yes, we all suffer from busy syndrome. Sorry.)

I was in Florida in March to visit family, a lovely uncle who is now paralyzed after a stroke and massive heart attack, and while there had my first real writing inspiration in months. I started something new on my Notes app in my hotel room at 5am; I thought I’d come home, invigorated, and burst out a chapter book in a month. Ha, I say again. Instead I scribbled some notes in a blank Scrivener page a couple of times, and then took to the couch, napping before and after work and twice on weekends, bone-tired in a way I didn’t realize pregnancy could cause. Grading papers for class took all my strength. Answering simple emails became my Everest. With pregnancy, everything takes twice as much energy, which would be okay if not for the feeling that I had only about half the energy per day that I used to. (I’m no mathematician, but that means I was doing a lot less than I used to.)

So now it’s June, and I haven’t looked at my work-in-progress in literally nearly two months. And my dear friend is asking me for writing advice, and I’m giving it, like I am some kind of expert.

My lesson here, a tough one, is that taking a break is okay. I am allowed to form a fortress of pillows around my body and lay down for hours at a time when I come home from work; it’s okay for me to turn down invitations for Saturday nights because I can’t imagine putting on clothes that aren’t yoga pants. It’s okay, even, to stop writing for a while, to be worried that all my creative energy is now circulating elsewhere and then to let go of that worry, because there is literally nothing I can do about it. This is who I am right now: someone who is tired, who is just trying to get through my days, who is excited and terrified and emotional and snappy and only occasionally able to see through the fog that has fallen over me like a dark curtain.

I’ve only just now forgiven myself for that.

Someone else I know just wrote about paring back her commitments for the summer to give herself a break; I was doing the same, subconsciously, but now I’m embracing it. Like Ross said: writing and I, WE WERE ON A BREAK. This is a time of transition, of self-care. I’m going to embrace it–or at least, not be angry at myself for it.

And I’m going to get back to writing. I will. It just might not happen this month.

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The house of…something

morgan_wharton_coverLast spring an unexpected offer had me teaching two classes this past semester, both for graduate students at NYU. It’s something I never thought I’d do — teach — especially when I work full-time, sometimes more than full-time, at a job that keeps me engaged and checking my social platforms at midnight. (And especially considering I don’t have, and don’t want, a graduate degree.) I may have danced around with glee after I turned in my grades this week, but there’s lots I’ll miss about teaching.

But oh, how nice it feels to have free weekends and Wednesday nights again. Just in time, too; next week we move into our new place, which means right now our apartment is part mess, part chaos, with boxes blocking the TV and random scraps of paper littering our floors. No one likes moving, of course, but we Cancers despise it most; my home is important to me, and a sense of unease has overtaken me when I walk in. It’s temporary, but it’s there.

All my books are packed (thanks, mom) and I have put myself on an ebook-buying hold, which means I’m currently reading a tattered old copy of The House of Mirth, a favorite. Or at least, I thought it was a favorite; I’m finding it tough to get through, but that’s partly because the state of my mind these days is less than focused. It feels like a harkening back, though, like a visit to a memory; a piece of the familiar when everything else is changing. I’ll take it.

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Dancing shoes

astonish-me-by-maggie-shipsteadI’m reading a book set partly in the ballet world (Astonish Me, Maggie Shipshead) and eavesdropping on three young men, dancers too, on the A train tonight, talking about how their new choreographer actually respects them, how this dance is different from the others before it. How this choreographer saved them from walking out that day, from quitting dance altogether.

Dancing is a commitment. If you ask me I’ll tell you I was a dancer as a kid, but as an adult it’s pretty clear that what I did back then wasn’t dance, it was mime. Routines, memorized. Sometimes when the lights were just right, bouncing off the sequins dangling from our headbands, it was more than that, maybe, but only sometimes. At my tiny dancing school in New Jersey in the 1980s, dance was a jazz warm-up set to Janet Jackson; a series of back walkovers set to (still inexplicably) an old, slow, sad song called “Send in the Clowns.” Dance was French braids backstage, blue eyeshadow, long rides in our minivan, clouds of hairspray. Dance was missing out on school field trips to Ellis Island because there was an important dance competition in rural Pennsylvania, and we needed the day for travel.

I was a dancer until one day I decided I wasn’t, and that was that. Preteen me realized I was never going to be a professional dancer, so why continue? High school me realized I was never going to cheer in college,  so why continue? I suppose that’s just who I am; I wake up sometimes and realize something that had been a part of me has broken away in the night. What did dance bring me, I wonder. Besides great memories and a flair for being onstage, what did all those years do for me? So what that I still perform tap routines when no one’s looking? Was it worth it?

I’ve still never been to Ellis Island, even though I’ve lived in New York for years, and the answer is still yes, will always be yes.

 

 

 

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A Willa Cather winter

9780307959300_custom-b74b240940d1f5c0fca7134c17ea2e56d0164a7e-s6-c30It’s been a long winter, says everyone in the US. Me too. Despite my insisting for years that winter is my favorite season, that I crave the cold and dark, I’m leaving it behind this time. No more winter love from me.

This winter has been a season of mismanaged expectations. Things I thought would happen never did; things I thought would take longer happened right away. A few times I gave up on things I’d long counted on, only to have them snap open by themselves in the middle of the night like haunted books.

It feels like a Willa Cather winter. If you read My Antonia, you know what I’m talking about: a season you might not survive. Some nights I pick up her Selected Letters, heaving that brick of a book onto my stomach; it’s so uncomfortable to hold when you’re used to a tiny Kindle. (How did I manage textbooks back in the day? Are my wrists out of shape?)  Still, I read on, enthralled. I’m struck by her challenges, her gifts; Willa the person, not the author. How her dimples shine through her old photos, how through her old letters I start to think of her as a friend.

I didn’t keep any letters from my childhood. These days I don’t even save emails; I’m purging things wherever I go, trying to make space for something new. I wonder, what kinds of nonfiction collections will be published in the next hundred years, since no one writes letters anymore? How will our future descendants get to know us? How will they know what our winters were like?

 

 

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Teenage fandom

137964I just saw a selfie some fans took at the “Divergent” premiere and got a serious pang of jealousy.

I have never read Divergent and don’t plan on seeing the film, so this is not about Divergent, but it’s about fandom, and more specifically, teenage fandom. Here’s where I’m going with this: a lot of people read and loved Divergent. And just like with Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and Twilight, they get to see every part of its journey, from being something a friend told them about in geometry to being a household name that people get tattooed on themselves. From being a cool book you and your friends read to being a real brand, with actual merchandise.

I wish I had had that as a kid. I’m trying to imagine what it must be like, at that formative age, to have something you love become so…big. When it’s already all-consuming in your head and then it turns an all-consuming love of the larger world around you, I just can’t even picture it. It must be like what my first Tori Amos concerts felt like, magnified by a billion.I would have passed out if something I love(d) as much as Tori was mainstream the way young adult literature is these days. Do you all even know how cool that is? How new? How lucky you are? *now get off my lawn*

Sometimes I worry I picked the wrong time to be a teenager. Teens in the eighties had malls (and I am sorry/not sorry to see their mall culture eroding), and teens in the aughts had/have the Internet, but what did we nineties teens have, apart from some flannel and Spice Girls? Was there even a defining book of my teenage generation?

Since there’s not, I’m thinking of the ones I wish could be it. Like the Sunset Island series. No, wait! It would be the entire Christopher Pike oeuvre. In fact, here it is; I’m declaring it now. Dear fellow peers who are couched on the border between Generations X and Y, Christopher Pike was our Divergent, our Hunger Games. (It wasn’t our Harry, because let’s be real, nothing can compare to the Harry phenomenon.)

Now. Where’s my movie premiere? (I’ll settle for a tee shirt.)

(Also, I had no idea Christopher Pike was a pseudonym!)

 

 

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Mirror

220px-Sylvia_plathThe first Sylvia Plath poem I ever read was Mirror, and I read it out loud in English class my senior year of high school, sometime during those long days between winter and spring. I don’t think I ever stopped reading it.

I was dying to get out of high school then. I’d long since quit being captain of the cheerleading team; the vice principal had called me and my sister into his office to make sure we weren’t heading down a wrong path — since obviously quitting something as important as cheerleading is a blazing red flag, a sign that we were about to go out big, burning everything in our path — and everyone was annoying me, with their fake nostalgia for childhood. Like they weren’t desperate to escape our tiny town, too; like they weren’t equally terrified the way I was.

So I found Plath, thanks to a teacher who passed away last year. She’s the same teacher who introduced me to the New Yorker. She was a gem, that lady.

The year of Plath is also the year I became close with a friend who, despite our drifts, despite the bad turns our friendship occasionally took, is still someone I think of often. She, like Plath, marked me in concrete ways. The two are oddly intertwined in my mind; today, the day of Plath’s suicide, is my old friend’s birthday. It’s like some kind of fate.

I think of Plath as a rite of passage; a book of collected poems, a bell jar, handed down between generations of college women. Maybe my friend is, too — someone you love even though you’ve both done wrong, even though you communicate by text only once a year or so. They’re both treasures in their own way.

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Maiden, mother, crone

410px-Poisonwood_Bible“But look at old women and bear in mind we are another country.”  (The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver)

This morning I finished reading The Poisonwood Bible (here’s the story behind that). It is stunning; the kind of book that changes you. The kind of book that makes you roar with injustice, with hope. It murmurs sentences like the one above, lines that made me cry, on nearly every page.

It should be required reading. Forget Catcher in the Rye; forget my love for The Great Gatsby, for the Whartons of the world. (Sorry, Edith. Love you always.) Make this the title all seniors in high school have to read before graduating.

It’s also the kind of book that makes a writer go, well, fudge. I didn’t write that. And how can we all go on breathing when there are people writing things like this among us, and we are not revering them as gods?

I’ve been on a writing break since I finished revisions to a manuscript and sent them off in December. Now I am waiting. The trick to this long, neverending game is knowing that the waiting will creep in and settle down into your pores if you’re not careful, turning you into a bottle of impatience, ready to pop.

The trick, also, is wondering if maybe I will be an old woman, my own country, too, before this, this big goal, happens for me. And maybe that’s just the train I’m on, carrying a ticket I can’t remember buying, but resigning myself to the ride. And maybe I just have to be okay with that, and keep taking day trips to other cities in the meantime.

 

 

 

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Mornings

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When I wake up in the dark an innate, ancestral rage roars from my bones. It disappears, yes, eventually, and I feel guilty after the roar. I am an adult and should be able to wake up on demand.

This first reaction, a gut one, means that when my alarm went off at 5 this morning I got angry. It’s so stupid — I was angry at the alarm, which is my phone, which despite Siri’s responses to my questions doesn’t actually have feelings or agency. It must be an evolutionary holdover. Our cave ancestors feared the dark and when they woke up without the sun it was theoretically because of an approaching bear or enemy, maybe an antelope. And so they got angry. And so here we are.

Anyway, at 34 I’ve learned the trick: hang on until the first light. Fight off the nausea until a hint of dawn breaks through and you’re rendered speechless by the possibility of mornings. A whole day lies ahead; a whole life.


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Slow Sundays

Screen shot 2014-01-16 at 3.14.34 PMMy problem with baking is that baking is a science, requiring precision I’ve always lacked. (I was the girl in advanced Chem who had to ask for extra credit assignments because my labs always exploded.)

I’ve tried baking on — like sweaters, like formal dresses — and just as quickly I’ve flung it over the dressing room door, screaming about it being too tight, too scratchy. I never had any shoes to go with it. And then there is this: I have always been doubtful of anything that turns its nose at my adding an extra pinch of salt.

Slow cookers, though – they let me add anything.

My Sundays lately have been reserved just for this: shopping for carrots, chopping onions as that space behind my eyeballs screams at me (I inevitably end up the opposite of Sylvia Plath, sticking my head in the freezer to clear the tears), tossing raw chicken into slow cookers and topping all of it with spices. So many ingredients that used to be foreign to me, cumin and nutmeg, fresh parsley and cilantro; there’s one soup I make that calls for salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder, oregano, and bay leaf, and together they make a gorgeous, muted rainbow that makes me feel like a real chef.

You can make fun of food pics on Instagram, but I like them. I see the pride in between the leaves of lettuce. I’m not a builder of anything physical; my hands are soft and well-lotioned. So I like to look at something I’ve cooked, something I’ve created, even if it’s only a stew and a crock pot did most of the work, and see a success. Something accomplished on a Sunday.

 

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My year in books

Screen shot 2013-12-26 at 1.18.02 PMI once met a girl in high school who kept track of all the books she’d read in a tiny, fat spiral-bound notebook, and I’ve never forgotten her. (That’s a lie, of course; I have no idea her name or how I met her.)

Since then, each December I’ve caught myself remembering some vague promise to keep track of the books I’d read that year. “Oh, that?” I’d think. “Yeah, I was supposed to do that. Oh well.”

Oh well indeed. Because guess what, folks? I finally did it. Take that, past self! In January I started a spreadsheet and dutifully tracked every book I read, with two exceptions.*

Pre-2013, I made an effort to read more adult novels this year (for many reasons, none of which anyone else cares about); and I think it shows, especially compared to last year. In total, I read 20 children’s books (Young Adult and Middle Grade) and 14 adult, for a grand total of 34 books (again, see exceptions below). I’m pretty proud of that number.

I always like to know what other people read, so if you’re interested, here’s my list (it’s even in order!).

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