my captain obvious moment as a freelancer: play nice with all aspects of yourself in the sandbox

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Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

When I started my career in finance, I learned about the power and peril of diversification. Creating a diversified portfolio carries with it an element of calculated risk–too much and you lose focus and expertise, too little rendered you a specialist tattooed with an expiration date. Your work lies in cultivating balance in the extreme so that in the event the ground opens up and gives way, your fall won’t be precipitous, bottomless. A strategic, well-rounded portfolio is the hedge you need to weather industry downturns and personal catastrophe. When I started my career in digital marketing in 2001, many of my peers were recalcitrant–they considered online commerce a blip, a fad that would inevitably fade and their marketing prowess, experience, and education would prevail. They resisted social networks and failed to learn the language of a seismic behavioral and cultural shift that would become omnipresent, ubiquitous. A Darwinian marketplace rallied against them, rendering smart, albeit stubborn marketers, obsolete because they didn’t diversify–they failed to keep up. On the flipside, you’ve seen what happens when one company or person tries to be all things to all people: they end up being nothing to no one. They end up broken, a whole that would never equate to the sum of its parts. They’re reduced to a spin-off, a division excised from the whole, auctioned off to the highest bidder.

For much of my career, I drew a fine line between work and art. Never have the two played peacefully in the sandbox because one was always kicking sand in the other’s face. Work colleagues were hardly aware that I wrote lyrical, dark books and writer friends were always shocked when I used words like “brand positioning” and “customer segmentation”. One part of me made money and the other derived purpose from writing the small stories that rarely registered on the cultural radar. One part of me paid for the other; for much of my own career, I served as my own patron. I had become my own benefactor. For a while, this strange symphony worked. I wrote my first book and published a successful literary magazine while working in marketing at Time Warner Cable and HarperCollins. I started (and subsequently sold) my second book while juggling brand strategy and digital marketing projects as a consultant. But money sometimes gets tricky and soon I regarded my “work” with mounting annoyance. I was beholden to marketing in order to create the kind of stories that bolted me out of bed in the morning instead of looking at it for what it was: another vehicle that allowed for storytelling.

To use an anti-feminist, subjugating turn-of-phrase: I had become my own bitch. And I didn’t like it.

This week my therapist and I talked about how I fell so hard, so fast when I moved to Los Angeles. Part of it was prolonged grief from not adequating mourning the death of my mother (sound familiar?), for sure, but, more importantly, I had spent the year prior to my move in a state of persistent acceleration. There was a cross-country move to plan, projects to land and conquer, a book to revise with my agent and sell, and the subways, the frenetic rush of people, the axiom of living in New York: do it faster! and it was only after I unpacked all the boxes did I realize I had been running on empty. I’d been forced to settle in quiet and I didn’t exactly like what I saw. I told my therapist that I wanted physical and geographic space, to which he responded: from what, your friends? I laughed, shook my head no, then shook my head yes and then said I don’t know. Maybe all of it? Maybe I’d built my life defined as one thing, stuck in that thing, and moving offered the promise of not being the thing people knew, or expected you, to be. I arrived and wrote a good book in two months and then fell apart.

During the journey back, I created a portfolio–you know, your resume in narrative form with pretty pictures and colorful slide dividers because everyone craves the elevated, derivative state. We want our stories beautifully told. We want our personal brands to be luminous, yet accessible, yet aspirational, but still inspiring and achievable. Yet in creating the outline which would morph into the final presentation, I found it difficult to tell the story of me without including the whole side of my life devoted to storytelling. Suddenly, it felt strange to not talk about the dual nature of my life and the value that it brings to bear. I took on a small project for a successful blogger (and dear friend) where I helped her tell her story in professional form. Gone are the media kits and capes decks–I wanted to create something that started the conversation but wasn’t the whole of it, and I found tremendous joy in using my two loves: marketing and lyrical storytelling and profiting from those lives lived without needing to take a long shower.

Today I had a wonderful chat with an acquaintance who served as my editor on a short essay I’d written about going to Ireland with my pop. I’d be referred to her by a friend and she was curious about my background. Could I edit books? Could I develop projects with authors? Could I help authors structure their books and tell their stories in a compelling way?

Of course, I can.

I started talking about all the work that wasn’t on my resume. Editing at Scholastic, working closely with editors in book publishing, editing and publishing a literary journal, butchering my friend’s novels and helping them create structure and refine their voice in their work. I even trotted out the Columbia MFA, although I’m fairly ambivalent about the degree now, and regret the debt that accrued as a result of it. I’ll be paying for my writing to the grave and so on.

As a freelancer coming out of a long hiatus and finally back in the proverbial saddle, I realized that I’d been myopic about consulting. I failed to create a portfolio that spanned my strengths: marketing, digital, social, editing, brand architecture, organizational design/process, writing, editing, brand development, project management and development. I hadn’t mined a network that would account for my diverse skill set. I hadn’t positioned myself as someone who could create, distribute, analyze and refine. It was only this morning did I see the need to have all the kids playing nice in the sandbox because right now I need all the kids to rally.

Now I position myself as a creator, someone who builds things and tells stories, and what distinguishes me is my range, breadth, and depth. What sets me apart is the fact that I color outside the lines and I also create new books in which to color.

This is why I want to remain here. I want to feel the new, uninhabited and unconquered. I want the space to be able to see.

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coconut blueberry loaf + some thoughts on writing, publishing, and “playing the game”

coconut blueberry loaf (gluten-free)

Part of the struggle of actually finding happiness as an artist is the daily fight to not define success the way the rest of the world defines success – which is hard, because you have to fight the same battles every day. Success has this very two-faced essence… As an artist playing the game in the industry… you kind of have to play that game a little bit and ride the balance, trying to get your book on the New York Times bestselling list and knowing what to do to do that, but also, simultaneously, not drinking the Kool-aid – swishing it around your mouth and spitting it out.Amanda Palmer (via).

I used to play the game, I used to be good at it. But I wasn’t always this way. I spent much of my childhood alone, and while I received praise and accolades for my writing throughout my life, the sting–of repeatedly pulled into rooms and asked, in hushed tones, if there was a problem at home, or losing prizes because my writing was too dark, too haunting, because you can’t expect parents to give an award to someone who wrote a story about a girl hanging herself–was sometimes too much to bear. It was as if my writing had to bear the constant weight of a coda, a we love this but…

Why can’t you write happy stories? Are you incapable of it? Making me feel I have to apologize for the fact that my repertoire sits perhaps too comfortably in disquiet. Making me feel small and confused when I tell someone this isn’t that dark, to which they respond, with a sigh, oh, but it is. As if darkness can’t have a voice–it must be smothered until the flames flicker and fade out and there are only the peonies to harvest. There can only be the simple and compact, where all worlds are reconciled neatly by the final page.

But that doesn’t interest me.

I’ll tell you how I write. I hear voices–calm down, calm down–I hear a character. This is how a story begins for me. I start with people and see where they go. I’ll be on the subway like many of you, and I’ll even swipe here or turn a page there, but a scene will play itself out in my head. At first I’ll know nothing about these people other than the fact that they’ve seized my attention. And that’s what’s important–someone brings me in. Over time, the scenes start to multiply and I can see faces. They’re fictional, really. Maybe it’s a man I’ve seen in the street and my gaze will linger longer that what’s appropriate. Or maybe it’s an actor–someone not famous, but has been in more bad films than good (I often thought of Kyle Gallner–my god, he’s beautiful and fragile; I can’t stop staring at his face–when I created Jonah)–and then I’ve got people to play with. Suddenly, they’re real enough for me to get them on the page and see where the day takes them. My stories always start with a scene and I build around that. Nothing is ever linear, nothing is ever defined–that’s the after-hours work. I just move as my characters move and I love this; I love looking up and thinking, where the fuck did the day go?

Nothing thrills me more than leaving a still-hot page and listening to the chatter that continues on in my wake, because a scene never ends just because you decided to stop writing. It goes on, and I love when characters are like, you can do your own thing, but we’re going to keep talking over here. As the hours pass, the shouts become murmurs and whispers and soon they fall to quiet, ready for resurrection. For me the writing isn’t hard, rather it’s the architecture of the story that threatens to undo me. I have all these scenes but how do I arrange them? Much of my work is reconstruction, puzzle-work.

The last thing I’m thinking about is whether or not the story will be a happy or a linear one.

Years ago I drank my way through book parties, readings and other literary events that made me want to take acetylene torch to my eyes. I was forever feeling imposter syndrome–I could never keep up with the latest book, lit mag or 30-under-30 on the rise. I never thought my writing serious enough, you know, the worthy of James Wood piece or a Guardian review. But I had an MFA from a fancy school, a lit mag that was going places, and more importantly, I knew my booze and how to share it.

Still, I always felt like an outsider, someone skirting the edges of things. I was forever uncool, and exhausted of wearing the mask of an extrovert. All I wanted to do was go home and read and write, but people kept telling me that the business of publishing, the people who are good to know, was just as important as what I laid down on the page. Amidst the talented writers I’d come to know where people who got deals because they were beautiful, connected, had some sort of credential or “platform” or a combination of all of the above. And while it’s true that this has always been the case, discovering it, for someone who spent the bulk of her writing life without a community, was much like finding out there is no Santa Claus. The quarters under your pillow are not gifts from The Tooth Fairy, rather it’s an act of commerce. Teeth for cash. And through all of it I wrote less because I was distracted. I spent too much time playing a losing hand instead of surrounding myself with all sorts of people who could lift me up. I spent so much time working the room instead of untangling the voices in my head.

It’s not the book that counts but the aura of its author. If the aura is already there, and the media reinforces it, the publishing world is happy to open its doors and the market is happy to welcome you. If it’s not there but the book miraculously sells, the media invents the author, so the writer ends up selling not only his work but also himself, his image. From Elena Ferrante’s Paris Review Interview

Earlier this year, my agent circulated my manuscript to a host of prominent editors. I can prattle on about their praise but it doesn’t interest me. What rattled me was the fact that my book was too hard for American audiences, too dark and alinear. Many couldn’t “relate” to my sociopathic lead character (ah, apparently in order for fiction to be sellable it has to be relatable). I’ve never been more proud of my book and here we go again with the codas.

I have a friend who is a tremendous writer. She is well-connected (not her doing, really, people genuinely want to orbit her), published and praised, and it was hard to see her write that so many dark, experimental books were being published and it took everything in me to tell her that her small circle was being published. That for every Maggie Nelson or Lydia Millet there are thousands of authors who are told they won’t sell because people like their characters flawed but not too flawed, and they prefer their endings like a good gin–neat.

It took me a while to stop judging the value of my work against a decision for someone to publish it. While we try to get this book out into the world I’m working on a new collection (I’m sure my agent would weep if he saw this) of stories about women at various stages of their undoing and unrest, a small taste of what you read this weekend.

We think we know her, but what we know are her sentences, the patterns of her mind, the path of her imagination. –Meghan O’Rourke on Elena Ferrante’s anonymity

I admire Ferrante’s vigilance in protecting her identity, of keeping the author photo in the frame blank. All too often people look at my work, look at me and try to make connections between the two as if I don’t have an imagination, as if everything I write comes from personal experience. And then there are others, for whom what I write rings true and they feel somehow connected to me. And while I want to foster a feeling of community and connectedness, all too often people mistake that for knowing me. For thinking that reading something of mine gives them trespass to the life beyond what I’m comfortable sharing here. Both make me so unbearably uncomfortable because it makes me feel that the work could never stand on its own and that somehow me putting things here makes them less mine, me less mine.

I look at the woman I was ten years ago and she’s a stranger to me. I can’t even imagine moving at the same velocity or bearing the company of unkind people. Ferrante intrigues me because I crave so much solitude and I’ve consciously done things to compromise it. I love writing in this space but I don’t always love what it brings. So I keep strict guardrails in my world to protect my work and the quiet in my life.

At the end of the day what gives me joy are stories and the small, strange group of people around me who make them easier to tell.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from A Modern Way to Eat, with modifications
2 large eggs, at room temperature
7/8 cup of coconut milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup gluten-free flour (I use Cup4Cup and love it more than Bob’s Red Mill)
scant 1 cup of coconut palm sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
2/3 cup dried coconut (coconut flakes)
2/3 cup almond flour
3 1/2 tbsp coconut oil, melted and cooled
1/2 cup fresh blueberries tossed in a scant amount of flour

DIRECTIONS
Pre-heat your oven to 350F. Spray an 8 inch loaf pan with coconut spray, line with parchment paper (bottom and up the sides) and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs, coconut milk and vanilla. Set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix the flours, sugar, baking powder, and coconut. Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the milk mixture, and mix on low until all the ingredients combine. Stream in the cooled coconut oil and mix. Fold in the blueberries.

Pour into the loaf pan and bake for 45-50 minutes. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes before turning out on a rack.

coconut blueberry loaf (gluten-free)

mediocrity is the new black

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When I was small, I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote and rewrote a single word fifteen times. I wrote the word, crossed it out and wrote it again. I was eight, and the assignment was to write a haiku about our family, someone we loved. I had one of those black notebooks where the cover was stiff and the pages inside were lined, thick. I had the word voice, because when I was small my mother’s voice was the loudest sound. It was the only sound. But it wasn’t enough to simply say that it was loud, no, there was something else. Something nefarious, ominous. It took me some time but I ended up writing a haiku–three lines, 5/7/5–that likened my mother’s voice to thunder. That was the word I’d been looking for. Thunder.

I was 8.

My grade school published an annual, which amounted to stapled sheets of colored paper filled with our poems, stories and meager hand-drawings. The cover was pale yellow and the interior blue, and the teachers had published all of my poems. When my mother thumbed through it I remember her saying the word thunder out loud and smiling. I’m not sure if she was proud of the word I’d chosen or if she was happy to have been written about. She was pleased with the attention, and that, for much of my life she would be my singular subject. I suspect, in one way or another, she’ll always find her way into my work.

In the movie Wall Street, financier Gordon Gekko tells a young Bud Fox, The most valuable commodity I know of is information. While Gekko was referring to insider information, the innards of a company not published in an annual report but rather strung up in the insides of gleaming offices, that quote, among others, remained with me. I always believed the most valuable asset one could have was knowledge. The journey was in its acquisition, so I spent much of my childhood and life in constant study. I read voraciously, I listened assiduously, and I saw worlds unfamiliar to me–India, the assault of color and shape–all in an effort to see, to know. I translate that world, or at the very least, make sense of it, through prose. I work it out on paper, on screen, and in the end what I’ve learned changes shape and form and becomes something new altogether. This is high art to me, and I hadn’t known of any other world where knowledge, information, was then used and transformed into art. The beauty of it was individuality. The way a child hears the timbre of her mother’s voice and how she may think of wind chimes (you can practically feel the softness, the lyrical quality of it, right?), while another writes, emphatically, thunder (the dark, the sharp, the edge of night like knives cutting into things).

When I was in graduate school, I wrote a lot of pretty stories about angry people. The stories were long, filled with what word technicians would call exposition: a pile of pretty sentences that don’t amount to much. All of my life I hunted and gathered for words, but the problem now was I had too many of them. And I remember sitting in Nathan Englander’s office (he was my teacher for a time), and he printed out two copies of a short story I’d written and one page was filled, FILLED, with red (a bloodletting!) and the other was a clean copy where he’d written some notes on the margins. It took everything in me to not burst into the tears when I saw the butchery, but he taught me about the value of economy. That the most powerful way to show people the world was through the simplest of words. But those words had to work. They had to be a nesting doll, a possessor and deliverer of multiple meanings, and after, I spent years performing surgery on my work. I asked myself, how can I understand and then, how can I show? So that you can see. So that you can learn. So that you can create. And so that others can create. This mutation, it’s a site to see. And so on.

But now something’s changed. The most value commodity I know of is attention. I think about the movie Boogie Nights, where a young Mark Wahlberg loosely portrays the 70s porn king, John Holmes (Johnny Wad, if you must). In one scene, Wahlberg bounces up and down on the bed in his childhood room in his parent’s house. He’d just made love to a woman and he says, Everyone has one thing, you think? I mean, everyone’s given one special thing, right? That’s right. Everyone’s blessed with one special thing. I want you to know I plan on being a star. A big, bright shining star. That’s what I want.

It’s 2014 and everyone wants to be a big, bright shining star.

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I think about this in the car when I’m with two friends and we’re driving from the airport in Bangkok to the hotel from which I’m writing this now. I think about this when I’m in this car and I see a sign that reads, Service staff are not polite. My friend next to me points at the sign, we read it aloud and laugh, and then I pause because there’s something that threads between our hunger for attention, see me, see me, and the very cold honest nature of the words printed and displayed when one is welcomed into a new city. It’s there, I just can’t see it yet.

Later on that day we visit a mall where each floor is designed to represent a famous city: Rome, San Francisco, Paris, etc. We eat Thai food in a restaurant and nearly everyone is photographing something. Two girls fastidiously arrange their hair, their face, for a series of photos, selfies, they take in front of their food which has gone cold. There’s me taking a picture of the food on my plate. There’s a couple buried in the bowels of their phone. Everyone is participating in the world through a filter, a lens, and I set down my camera and realize how this bothers me. There’s art in that for sure, but if there is this omnipresent interruption, are we then not able to see? Not able to get this information, create this art? I’m not sure.

I go to bed early and wake at 4:30am to read this interview:

Into this culture of resistance that New York has always personified has come this incredible middle class thinking. Which is all about consensus. It isn’t diversity. The individual is not empowered anymore in our culture. The overriding value is to fit in—not make waves. You can’t network if you’re too individual, and there is an incredible taste for mediocrity in the world.

We all feel superior to bad work. Makes us feel good. But the truth is, that doesn’t give you anything. When you see really good work, when you experience excellence, it makes you question yourself in very harsh ways. But you’re uplifted by the excellence of good work. But we’re living in a time where mediocrity is the new black.

I close my laptop and try to sleep but I can’t. The interview puts me to thinking about a conversation I’d just had where I talked about being frightened of the whitewashing, the homogeneity of the work online and the composition of a superstar blogger. The Photocopy Culture. Certainly, there is individuality, democratized art, and those who break ranks. I read Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Essays and it makes me question my work. It makes me want to take a scalpel in order to get deeper, to see if there’s something else I could say. Excellence pushes me, challenges me, makes me work harder to learn, see, create and share, but the thing is I’m seeing a lot less excellence and a lot more mediocrity.

I realize this is a lot to unpack, and I don’t even know if I can do it justice in a single blog post, but there’s something that’s slowly burrowing under my skin and pricking it. A murmur, something just about to break the surface (the ticking is the bomb), and I found myself enraged when I see that the desire to be liked, favorited, shared, noticed, trafficked, coveted–those base emotions now override the desire for knowledge. Look at me versus let me look inside. Get under the hood, fiddle around, as it were. And that quest to be noticed, to have your voice rise above the din (as referenced by the hundreds of articles that give you tips on getting noticed!) somehow, for me, removes the beauty that once proliferated the online space. A time when people weren’t preened to dishabille perfection, didn’t arrange their totems of worship to then filter and photograph them, waiting for the inevitable “likes.” Perhaps this is why I challenge and question my own work and how I represent it on this space. Perhaps I started to feel this rage a year ago when I wrote a review of the Kinfolk cookbook, which was more of a lashing out on this kind of imperfect perfection culture and its inherent deceptiveness and danger to those who seek to emulate it. I wrote,

There is no real visceral connection between image and type. Rather, the cookbook tells us the story of people who project the lives you wish you could live, and the recipes are merely an antecedent to that lovely fiction.

Point blank, the book was a pile of fuck. Mediocrity at its finest. Sure, the artwork was beautiful, the images bucolic and austere, but there was something wrong with the book. Aside from fact that the writing was an assault to the English language and the recipes went untested, I was sickened to the core about the physicality of the book and its perceived meaning. This book was meant to suggest excellence in its marriage between design, type and image, but it was instead the Trojan horse of art. It was pretty but devoid of actual meaning. Simply put, it was mediocrity dressed up in Sunday-best finery.

That’s what I’m seeing these days and I think that’s what drove my rage when I was having lunch with friends yesterday. A lot of what I’ve been seeing online is really pretty but it’s soulless, lifeless–it’s a replica of a bland original. It makes you desire to covet and acquire rather than hunger to learn and create. And The Photocopy Culture, the peanut-crunching lot, are being rewarded handsomely for their terrific fiction. And so more people see this and say, I want that shiny thing too, and on it goes.

It used to be that the most valuable commodity was information, now it’s adulation, attention. Please, please let me get what I want, Morrissey pleads.

An artist friend tells me that this, what’s been happening, all of it, doesn’t relate to my art. She says, you do you. She says, you keep creating great work amidst the ruin. She says, you ignore and slog through. She says, it’s not about you. She says, keep sifting through the rubble. And I do just that for a time. I get my equipment. I excavate. I ferret out work that challenges and inspires me. I try to ignore the growing fervor (fever, really?). I try to say that the blogger who can barely string a sentence together has a two-book contract is not about me. I try to keep creating, but I wonder this: will I drown from the clamor above me? From the voices, the thunder, of those who want to be seen versus those who love and produce! cackles the upper consciousness, as D.H. Lawrence would have it.

Do I just love and produce when I see so many destroy! destroy!?

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massive moment of pride: my new novel (we’re getting ready for submission!)

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This is how I write. I write in my home on my couch with feet up on this table, with the doors locked and a single song on repeat. The song is deliberately chosen–it gets me in a headspace to move (right now, I’m listening to this as I type this post). I read dialogue out loud as I write because I need to hear the words to see if they’re right. The cadence of the prose needs to follow the rhythm and logic I’ve defined for it. I need to know my characters, bury myself all the way in. If I’m skipping paragraphs that means I need to delete them. Every line has to work on multiple levels.

Someone asked me the other day about the kind of man I’m looking for, to which I responded, I want someone who’s been through war, still has some of the bruises, but isn’t still changing the bandages. Dressing the wound. And then I thought about my work, and this logic fits there, too. I write about broken people dressing their own wounds and people who pretend the wounds that are blistering and raw, pain the rest of us can so easily see, don’t exist. I’m best in the dark.

After I published my first book, I was exhausted. Writers tend to write out their obsessions, the things that seize them when they wake, and for years my mother was my singular subject. So after the book was published I knew I couldn’t go back to that dark country. I’d made sense of our history (or so I thought), and I needed something new in which to fixate.

I started stories that I deleted. I read 23 books about Jim Jones and typed one chapter I hated. I took a job that would occupy me for nearly four years. And soon I stopped writing. However, my friend Sarah will tell me that just because you’re not typing doesn’t mean you’re not writing. Who knew that after those four years I will sit in a hotel room in Biarritz and write. The story felt like it had come from nowhere, but it came like a torrent. The story swiftly took shape with a command of language and structure that frankly surprised me. I’d always had the problem of filling a white page with type, now the issue was: what do I do with 80 pages of insanity? It was good madness, the stuff one keeps, but it was madness nonetheless.

I mean, my first chapter is about a woman who sets her father’s mistress’s hair on fire. That should tell you everything.

A year and a half later, multiple drafts, early and late readers, and my novel, FOLLOW ME INTO THE DARK, is finally ready for submission to publishers. In retrospect, I didn’t love my memoir. I wish I would have waited until I was older. While some of the chapters are quite good, I cringe at others. It’s weird being in the present tense and reading what you’ve written when you were another version of yourself. I guess it’s like re-reading your childhood diaries as an adult. CRINGE! MAKE IT STOP!

But I love this book. Every page of it. And I’ve also learned to love the version of myself (an extremely flawed woman waging her own private war against addiction) who wrote that first book.

My agent asked me to write a paragraph on what my book is about, and naturally, I’m struggling. I could say that the story is about two adults, step-siblings, who are bearing the weight of their families’ mental illness and cruelty, and how broken children keep breaking even when they desperately try to dress their wounds and stitch themselves up again. It’s about trying to understand the pathology of sociopaths, and finding the humanness in a person even after they’ve committed inhuman acts. I’ve three main characters: Kate, an obsessive-compulsive baker, who we think has a psychotic break after her mother dies and she seeks revenge against her step-father’s mistress by setting her hair on fire, although we’ll learn that her pathology is infinitely more savage. There’s Gillian, the oversexed, hyperintellectual woman who’s engaging in an affair with Kate’s father. Finally, there’s Jonah, Gillian’s sociopathic, yet loving, brother who is actually ‘The Doll Collector’, a hunted serial killer who’s committed gruesome acts against women across the country. Jonah is the key link between the two characters and how the story unfolds. We learn about these three characters by understanding their familial history–2 generations of emotional and sexual abuse–and how the weight of their history bears on the choices they make now.

In all candor, it was initially challenging to show that one’s actions don’t define one’s character. We have a tendency to ascribe mistakes people make, or, in this case, the horrific acts that one does, to one’s person. We’re binary in our reactions: The person who commits murder is pure evil! The person who attacks someone else is crazy! And I’m trying to detangle act from person, and somehow show the complexity of mental illness. There’s this wall we put up when we hear that someone is ill, an “otherness” is created, and do we ever make a true attempt to understand those who are ill. Do we see the complexity in them, their ability to love amidst their propensity to hate?

So, we’re ready for prime-time, I guess. And I’m glad that this time around I don’t have the same ego and ambition as I did with my first book. My novel need not be hardcover. I don’t need the fanfare and confetti and bananas advance, I just want to be able to share this story with people–regardless of form.

If you’re interested in checking out my first chapter, click here.

Wish us luck!

the perfect chocolate chip cookie + a novel update

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Writing a novel is torture. If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re pathologically insane or basking in the afterglow of having written a novel instead of being in the throes of it. It’s a feeling I imagine women who have children feel–they tend to forget the cruel pain of labor because the result, a small life held in one’s hands, erases everything that came before. You say to yourself, This is worth the stretch. This thing I hold in my hands is all that matters.

Yesterday, an old friend came by and lured me out of sleep with a baguette, cheese and chocolates. I’d just woke from a long nap and I was disoriented, eyes filled with sleep, and he asked me, several times, if I was okay. Give me a moment, I thought, to get accustomed to the light around me. Give me a second to let the world come into focus. We found a bench near my home and sliced cheese with plastic knives, discussing our mutual projects, both four-year-long Odysseys. I told him about a private Facebook group I’d just joined, and how talking to strangers was oddly comforting. A few nights ago I had a terrifying thought. What if this novel isn’t good? What if it’s meaningless, ridiculous, pomp, and overwrought? Have I been entertaining a four-year flight of fancy? You can’t understand the terror I experienced as I regarded my 218 pages with dread. Had my child, along the way, developed some sort of incurable illness, a deformity, that I only just noticed? Had I woke to lift the blanket and discover something gruesome? I posted something along these lines on Facebook and Twitter, and while scores of friends wrote notes and comments–all coming from a place of kindness–they were the exact opposite of what I needed to hear.

I didn’t need validation. I didn’t need to hear the words, you’re such a good writer, because it’s something I already know. Good writers, even great writers, write bad books. What I needed to hear was that my feelings were normal. Doubting one’s work is normal. I love this world and these characters I’ve created, so much so that the risk of my novel being permanently flawed is entirely too difficult to bear. Never in my life have I been committed to a cast of characters for so long, never have I enjoyed a sort of demi-permanent solitude without the ache of wanting to move to something shiny and new–my god, I even grew tired while writing my memoir–and the thought of this book not seeing the light of day was unbearable. I’ve experimented with form; I’ve meditated on mental illness and how we vilify people who do monstrous things; I’ve attempted to write about hurt, in all of its forms, as quietly as I possibly could. But what if it wasn’t good enough? What if I’m failing?

What I needed, I told my friend, was the comfort of strangers. I needed objectivity. I needed validation of the process, and this anonymous group gave it to me.

My friend talked to me about his project, and I admired him for his ability to be so wholly present in the process. Regardless of what happens to his book, setting aside the circus that is the business of publishing, he’s celebrating the fact that he spent years writing and editing what is now this great work. I watched pride wash across his face, and I realized I needed to swallow some of the sermon I’d be preaching. What I’m enduring is the fall to the ground and the taste of my own blood, and what I’m feeling is the space between the pain of my fall and the rise to my feet. I’ve got to feel this, every moment of it, in order to get up and keep going.

Last night I stayed up late, a rare thing for me to do, and baked these cookies and read through my manuscript as calmly as I could. I read it without pen in hand, poised to edit. I read it without judgment. I read it without comparing myself to what other great writers are doing. I read it for me and I ended up loving it more. So I tell myself that regardless of what happens to this book, at least I wrote it for me. At least I created these people for the express purpose of formalizing so much of what I want to say but can’t articulate without prose.

So here’s me, being present, moving toward the final chapters of the novel. Breathing it out.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Cooks Illustrated
1¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (8¾ ounces)
½ teaspoon baking soda
14 tablespoons (7 ounces) unsalted butter, divided
¾ cup (5¼ ounces) dark brown sugar
½ cup (3½ ounces) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1¼ cups semisweet chocolate chips

DIRECTIONS:
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

Heat 10 tablespoons butter in 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat until melted, about 2 minutes. Continue cooking, swirling pan constantly until butter is dark golden brown and has nutty aroma, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and, using heatproof spatula, transfer browned butter to large heatproof bowl. Stir remaining 4 tablespoons butter into hot butter until completely melted.

Add both sugars, salt and vanilla to bowl with butter and whisk until fully incorporated. Add egg and yolk and whisk until mixture is smooth with no sugar lumps remaining, about 30 seconds. Let mixture stand for 3 minutes, then whisk for 30 seconds. Repeat process of resting and whisking 2 more times until mixture is thick, smooth and shiny. Using rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture until just combined, about 1 minute. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts (if using), giving dough final stir to ensure no flour pockets remain. Chill in the fridge for 15 minutes before rolling into balls.

Divide dough into 16 portions, each about 3 tablespoons (or use a #24 cookie scoop). Arrange 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets, 8 dough balls per sheet.

Bake cookies 1 tray at a time until cookies are golden brown and still puffy, and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft, 10-14 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack; cool cookies completely before serving.

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pick my brain {weekly advice + useful links that inspire the extraordinary}

Thanks to all of you for sending such extraordinary questions! As you can see, I’m getting used to video blog posts, so I know it’ll take a few weeks before I find my stride, get comfortable, focused and efficient. However, I hope this weekly bit of advice is helpful for you and the links inspire you to ferret out your own greatness. Also, lots of folks emailed me with anonymous questions about career changes and issues in the office. Please know that I can keep my responses completely anonymous, just let me know when you’re writing the note. If you’ve got queries, thoughts, feedback, etc, please leave them in the comments section, and I can’t wait to answer more of your questions next week!

Question 1 {.42 mark}: A reader who works in publishing wants to transition out of the book business. Knowing that time is such a precious commodity, how does she find mentorship and career counsel, and how does she manage communicating to her career in-house mentors, without appearing as if she’s disrespected their years invested in the publishing business.

Reader, I would also posit that you probably don’t have the explicit experience for a lateral career move, and WAIT, that’s not a bad thing. What I neglected to mention in the video is that I’ve built a career that has always been a response to people who have told me I didn’t have enough experience, I wasn’t the right fit, etc. When I worked in finance, recruiters told me to forget about any moves beyond the industry. In response, I created, managed and operated a successful .dot business. I created the experience when there was none. I would offer that your career moves are about consistently being a chameleon, repositioning your skills for the next job, and focusing on your side + passion projects that can fill in the gaps. You work in book publishing? That means you understand content and its distribution, which can be useful in many industries!

Inspiring Links: Experience Slows You Down | Why you should quit your job and travel now | Changing Jobs Every Year? No Problem. Leaving Coworkers Behind? No Way | 3 ways to say no to people who want to pick your brain (sage advice here)

Question 2 {4:04 mark}: Kel asks: How much does one need in savings as an “eff it” fund, to be able to walk away from a steady income and face potential starvation? Also, my dream is to open a bakery. Everyone tells me my baked goods are delightful, but how do I KNOW that people would actually pay money for them? Of course they scoff them down when offered free at a meeting, but how do I know who is telling me the truth?

Inspiring Links: On the Tenth Anniversary of Quitting | What would you do if you weren’t afraid? | The beauty of the deliberate mistake | Work, Breadwinning + Balance (great blog post by a woman who’s embarked on her second act)

Question 3 {5:39 mark}: Cheryl wonders: So, I’ve been trying to work on my novel. My question is about having a long-term plan/strategy. I’ve really avoided thinking about the next steps (finding an agent and publisher, respectively). Do you think that’s okay? I feel like it’s pointless to even consider those tasks until I have a finished book, something that’s complete and polished.

Inspiring Links: Create something every day | Agents and Editors: Q+A With Four Literary Agents | Poets + Writers Agent Dbase (for when you’re ready) | Great list of articles from agents giving smart advice | Current writing culture + there’s a sizable shift

hide the matches {new story, second dramatic revision}

Sunset / Woman

If you’ve ever read anything I’ve ever written, you may have noticed that I’m obsessed with time — keeping it, losing it — for its the one thing for which we truly have no dominion. I could say that my fixation of time is directly correlated to my fear of death (so traumatic that thinking about my final moments can easily send me into a real panic attack). Lately, I’ve been meditating on my obsession from a different perspective: the clarity and space that only time has the ability to afford you. And after a considerable amount of thought, I came to this: I’m writing some of the best work I’ve written in my life, but it’s difficult in form and structure, slippery (you can’t catch it, nor do I want you to), odd in my use of language, and dark. It’s not for a wide audience, and while this sort of notion — the sell-ability of a piece of writing — was once so important to me, I’ve come to realize this.

I could give two fucks if this collection doesn’t find a traditional publisher. I could care less if no more than 1,000 people read it. I have no more fucks to give for dumbing down prose and making life easier for the reader. I’m creating what excites me, what I think will excite you, and if you love it, AMAZING. If you hate it and give up, it’s been nice knowing you.

Bravery. Feeling assured. Scary, monstrous things, but I’m all in.

I originally wrote this story and published it on Medium, but after a few reads I found that there was a lot missing. So here, dear readers, is my latest.

Photo credit.

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love.life.eat. of the week: on my bookshelf

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Years ago, for a time, I worked in book publishing. I got the job because I’d edited and published a mildly-successful literary journal, was relatively well-read, and had a way of marketing my non-traditional experience to make my fit into the large house, to which I was applying, a seamless fit. It was 2006, and many in the industry were reticent to approach social, or even understood the seismic shift in how consumers wanted to connect with content. The definition of influence was securing a Times book review, and much of my work was misunderstood or marginalized. But I’d started to notice people on the subway reading books on mechanical devices; I saw how meaningful conversations between passionate readers online not only sparked interest for a book, but cultivated a community we’d only known in book clubs. Towards the end of my tenure, the tide had shifted and publishers sought out my counsel on how to place books in a reader’s virtual lap, but by then I’d changed. As someone who was part of a committee that decided which books to acquire, I was exposed to the more unseemly bits of the business. Books were bought not because of the beauty of the work, but for the means the author had in promoting it. Words like platform and newsletter subscribers were bandied about, and all this time my friends, brilliant writers, struggled to get their manuscripts sold. Tension mounted to the point where the idea of reading a book for pleasure made me violently ill.

Revered since my childhood, books had morphed into a grotesque creature, a changeling, and I abandoned my shelves for months. It would take me two years to wash off the sludge, two years until I could take pleasure in holding a book in my hand.

I say this because for the past three years I haven’t read as much as I wanted to and it was killing me. After twelve hours in the office, if it was a choice between sleep and thumbing through a hardcover, sleep was always the victor. And my poor beloveds gathered dust on the shelves and I frequently skirted conversations with my writerly friends because I was so far removed from the gems that made their way online and in-store.

Until now. Once an ardent devotee of American literary fiction, I’ve noticed that my affection for genre has changed. From reading Going Clear to Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In to the scores of cookbooks and food memoirs clamoring for coveted space on my bookshelves, my book collection has evolved in step with the woman I’m becoming, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

So this week’s love.life.eat. will focus on books. Books I’m taking with me to Europe come April. Books I love. Your book recommendations… so, spill it!

Collages

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life | Caitlin Moran’s How to be Woman | Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts: Stories | Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove | Manuel Gonzales’ The Miniature Wife: Stories | George Bellows | Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake | Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go

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