the pile is always bottomless

tbr pile

There will always be books to read. When I was younger there was a thrill in entering Waldenbooks. For hours, I’d get lost in the stacks or find a place in which to hide with my pile of books that I was already in the thick of reading. We didn’t have malls in Brooklyn–King’s Plaza–but nothing significant, and when my family moved to Long Island, malls awed me. They were gleaming and grand, and even though I couldn’t afford anything in the stores I’d still wander through them. They all had that new car smell. Sometimes I’d splurge on an Auntie Anne’s cinnamon sugar pretzel, slathered in hot butter or I’d feast on a Johnny Rockets cheeseburger back when I believed Johnny Rockets made a good burger. This was before the world. This was before context and seemingly endless choices. This was when Waldenbooks had the best books.

Back then I didn’t know what a “literary canon” meant. I didn’t know that there were writers you had to read or know. I read what interested me. I read Dostoyevsky alongside Pat Conroy and Alice Eliott Dark. I picked up Ann Beattie’s Where You’ll Find Me because the cover put me on pause. It was austere, bleached bone, and somber. I liked Flowers in the Attic and found Flowers for Algernon, and realized that maybe they weren’t so dissimilar. I read all of Ayn Rand until I realized that Ayn Rand was a bucket of crazy even if she knew how to tell a story. What I read was pretty much determined by my reaction to the first page of a book. If I didn’t like the first page or even the first sentence, why bother? I asked cashiers to recommend books based on ones I’d read and enjoyed. I read books mostly written by men because that’s what I read throughout high school and college. I was taught that men wrote the “big books”, the “great stories” while women wrote the quiet ones. It wasn’t until I was 24 and in the writing program at Columbia did I encounter bombastic, brilliant women. Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf (and no, I’d never read her work until graduate school), Gertrude Stein, Carole Maso, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Mary Gaitskill, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, and I could go on. Until then I read books written by the dead, mostly, with some genre and sparse contemporary fiction for good measure. It’s hard to explain that there was a bliss in this ignorance, of not being aware of canon and the writers “one should read” (although now I think all of it is pretty much subjective bullshit, anyway).

Until then I read books written by the dead, mostly, with some genre and sparse contemporary fiction for good measure. It’s hard to explain that there was a bliss in this ignorance, of not being aware of canon and the writers “one should read” (although now I think all of it is pretty much subjective bullshit, anyway).  Until then I didn’t know the disdain that “literary fiction” writers had for genre fiction, the tension between the books that sold well and were reviewed well. I didn’t put too much stock in book reviews because I frequently disagreed with them. I liked books people didn’t like and hated ones people revered. I read what pleased me and it would take me well over a decade to undo the snobbery I had taken for truth. Now I read whatever satisfies me in the present moment and know that a book’s value lies in the way that it gives a certain kind of pleasure to the reader or how it transforms them in some unimaginable way. I read mostly to see the world through someone else’s prism, and I write to make sense of the world in which I exist, a world that is often wonderful, frightening and confusing. I read and write to see what could be done with language, how it could be architecture or surgery.

I’ve read 52 books this year, most of them written by women, many of them poetry collections and children’s books. I love the latter because both genres require a velocity and precision that’s demonstrably absent from other genres. A child has a short attention span so the work of a children’s book lies in both the economy and simplicity of language balanced by story movement and images that transport the child into an imaginative place. People who think children’s books are easy to write are fucking bonkers. I wouldn’t dare because I’d complicate the story in some way or use an image that would send a toddler to psychotherapy. I tend to look at safe objects and wonder how I can make them unsafe or unsettling–if that doesn’t happen on the page for me, I’m not interested in the characters or story. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure, and we stare in awe of it as it coolly disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying, Rilke writes in the first of the ten Duino Elegies.

George Saunders says that a real writer makes you feel uncomfortable, he’s kind of a freak. “Uncomfortable moments are not without value…because they make you feel luminous”. And I agree with that. The stories that have remained with me have made me feel unsettled, uncomfortable or uneasy in some way. I cleave to difficult, broken people. I like writing and reading about them.

I’m not blog-famous, and that’s okay. I don’t have a literary community and haven’t found these communities to be particularly inclusive and supportive though I dare say they would say they are all the way to the grave. I find most best-of book lists to be ridiculous because best is merely a subjective reflection of one’s taste and cultural access (or lack thereof). So I think about next year, what I’ll read and write, and I have an urge to re-read the Classics because no one does tragedy and pillaging better than the Ancient Romans and Greeks. I want to read stories that wouldn’t easily slip into my purview (meaning, I have to do the work in finding works in translation, works from POC, those not aligning with a binary gender). I want to read more children’s books and poems because both give me great joy in moments of grave darkness.

In terms of writing, I want to create stories that straddle genres. I love the blurred lines between fiction and non-fiction and the fallibility of memory. I’ve become oddly curious about dark matter and neurology and not sure how that will factor in. I still like my broken, flawed women and will continue to champion dark stories and characters even when the world tells me that they won’t sell, no one will read them. Next year I’d like to collaborate with a visual artist in some way, get better at taking pictures, and allow for different, varied voices in my work. Moreso than I’ve been writing as of late.

Sometimes I think back to those days in the mall, on the floor of Waldenbooks. I think about how much I didn’t know, and even though much has filled the space between that girl then and that woman now, there’s still so much to learn. There’s always so much to know in the brief time we’re able to know it. So this is the work. Always be the student and never posture as a pure teacher.

 

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all the books I read this year

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2002, from what I remember, was a rough year. I finally recovered from a two-year off + on cocaine addiction, I was still on leave from Columbia and I was in a particularly fragile place. What I do recall is writing a list of 50 things I wanted to do that would focus on creating something instead of destroying everything. That was the year I launched an online literary journal, Small Spiral Notebook, I got serious about writing my first book, and I absolved to read a book a week. The idea behind this was if I was immersed in great work, I’d create it, and in that first year I read 80 books, and every year since I’ve made a point to document all the books I’ve read in an effort to remember them. The books served as emotional and professional bookmarks, and looking back it was easy to see why I chose the books I did–I was reading stories of people who had journeyed through a similar dark country in which I still waded through.

If I look back on the books I read this year, it becomes clear that I’m desperate for an awakening. All the children’s books represented my relentless pursuit of awe and the non-fiction books were meditations on character, quiet, and solitude–cultivating a fertile ground from which to grow. I have some reading goals for next year (especially after reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s essay on learning Italian): finding more works-in-translation, reading more from the POC, gay and transgender communities. While I naturally cleave to fiction and stories, I’m making a point to read smart reportage and narrative non-fiction.

So here we go. A snapshot of nearly all the books I read in 2015. I know I left some out (I’m scanning my shelves and I’ll add more as I remember them), but you get the gist. Hope this makes for good reading recommendations!

  1. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Reading Big Magic was a wonderful creative awakening. I fawned over the book here and regaled a former life of book snobbery.
  2. Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness: From Slow food and workouts to alternative medicine and guided meditation to meeting people who huddle across the globe as a means of learning how to sit in a place of calm amidst a storm, Honoré doesn’t rally for a device-free era or for us to pick up and create our own version of Walden, rather he espouses ways in which we can manage pieces of our life in a slower way as a means of deeper connection and a more meaningful quality of life. More here.
  3. Adam Phillip’s On Kindness: While Adam Phillip’s philosophical and historical examination of the history of kindness is slim, it took me nearly a month to complete. Phillips analyzes kindness through the lens of faith, folklore, psychology and literature. Why are we kind? Are we kind merely as a means of serving our own self-interests? More here.
  4. Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation: I read Offill’s elegant novel nearly in one sitting. I once had the honor of having my work included in an anthology she edited with Elissa Schappell, and if that’s the height of my glory (occupying the same page space as Offill), I’m okay with that. Her slim novel was, by far, my favorite book of the year. Never have I read of a marriage come undone with such humor and poetry. She’s a hero for people like me who play in experimental fiction. 
  5. Nick Flynn’s My Feelings (Poems): I read everything that Nick Flynn writes. He’s an artisan of the English language.
  6. Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise: A hilarious story about a couple who honeymoons in paradise to soon discover the waters are teeming with mermaids. Millet is a hero of mine because she’s able to draw wry, acerbic women as easily as she is in creating a canvas filled with broken people.
  7. Nell Zink’s The WallcreeperA story of two odd people who trek across Northern Europe examining love, fidelity, friendship, desire–all while transforming into unlikely eco-terrorists. The writing is sharp, crisp and funny. Often times you never get to truly glimpse the innards of a marriage–you believe the life your friends represent–but rarely do we hear about the work.
  8. Nelly Zink’s Mislaid: To be honest, Zink’s second effort fell flat. While the writing was smart, I found the story of a white privileged woman “passing” for black offensive.
  9. Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan DidionI am a Didion fanatic, and while I thought Daugherty’s profile was exhaustively researched, I didn’t come away with feeling as if I learned anything new. Granted, Daughtery was denied access to Didion + her closest friends, so consider this a compilation of everything you wanted to know about Didion in one place.
  10. Cheryl Julia Lee’s We Were Eating Expired Things (Poems): I purchased three poetry collections while I was in Singapore from Books Actually, and they’re all exquisite.
  11. Mayo Martin’s Occupational Hazards (Poems): I purchased three poetry collections while I was in Singapore from Books Actually, and they’re all exquisite.
  12. Krishna Udayasankar’s Objects of Affection (Poems): I purchased three poetry collections while I was in Singapore from Books Actually, and they’re all exquisite, however, I thought Udayasankar’s poems on love and loss to be the finest of the lot.
  13. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge: I stumbled upon this book earlier in the year, and it’s been a while since I’ve read Maugham and I was reminded of his great narrative gifts. Who knew that a story centered around a man in search of life’s meaning in the midst of societal pomp, the aspirational rich, and the culture of conformity would hold such weight in today’s society–one that closely mirrors the one in Maugham’s work.
  14. Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train: I’m going to be honest–I hated Gone Girl, the book (and yes, I realize I’m in the minority). I thought the writing was exhausting and called too much attention to itself. The Girl on the Train, on the other hand, was sharp, smart and engaging–a terrific fast read.
  15. Sarah Hepola’s Blackout: Reading Hepola’s incisive book put my heart on pause because I felt as if she had described my life-long love affair with booze. Like Sarah, I thought it was perfectly normal to pre-game (economics!), drink hard and fast (I can keep up with the boys!), and lose time (because everyone has blackouts when they drink, right?). More here.
  16. Marilynne Robinson’s Lila: Robinson is truly magnificent. I never thought I’d love Gilead as much as I did (I’m usually not a fan of pastoral fiction), and I came to Lila with vigor. You met Lila in Gilead, however, Robinson’s latest novel turns its microscope to Lila, juxtaposing her current life of piety and disquiet with her nomadic, violent childhood.
  17. Darrin Strauss’ Half a Life: The fantastic novelist’s memoir of how a single moment (a car accident) shaped the whole of his life.
  18. David Brooks’ The Road to Character: Too bad the man who wrote this book is the complete + utter opposite of the great characters profiled in this book. If you can ignore the fact that David Brooks wrote this, you will enjoy a fascinating compilation of exemplary humans.
  19. Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love (Stories): This collection is astonishing, and I feel privileged to have discovered Bambara’s work. You can get a taste of her work here, but she reminds me of Junot Diaz with more rhythm.
  20. Katherine Heiney’s Single, Carefree, Mellow (Stories): Razor-sharp collection about young women tangled up in love and betrayal.
  21. Anton Chekhov’s Chekhov (Early Stories): I love reading a writer’s early work, a time when they’re finding their voice and developing their signature. While I didn’t love all the stories in the collection, I found myself laughing out loud at Chekhov’s pomp and wit.
  22. Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness: I’m still in awe over how a tiny book could have so much impact. From war veterans suffering from PTSD to Leonard Cohen and Buddhist monks, Iyer’s book is a meditation, a sermon that preaches mindfulness and quiet. More here.
  23. Carson Ellis’s Home (Children’s book): I loved this remarkable picture book that imagines all the ways in which one can make a home.
  24. Taro Yashima’s Umbrella (Children’s book): A portrait of patience, Umbrella hones in on a girl who finally has her favorite books and umbrella and can’t wait for a rainy day.
  25. Maeve Brennan’s The Rose Garden (Stories): This deft collection reminds me of Cheever, but better, and does not disappoint.
  26. Elle Luna’s The Crossroads of Should & Must: Buy this book. The end. How it helped me.
  27. Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: I’ve been a long-time fan of Manguso’s poems + memoirs. If you put her in a room with Lydia Millet and Maggie Nelson I might just combust. Her latest is an introspective look at the art of keeping a diary.
  28. Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment: In a really odd way, I sometimes feel this book has the weight equal to the Neopolitan books, and when Ferrante was interviewed she declared Days as one of her best books. The story takes place during a sweltering summer where a woman unravels after her husband leaves her and their children. While the Neopolitan books feel expansive, this one feels claustrophobic–perhaps that’s why I liked it so much?
  29. Bardur Oskarsson’s The Flat Rabbit (Children’s book): If you’re looking for a way to explain the complexities of death to a child, I think this book is one of the best ones. A dog and a rat happen upon a “flat rabbit” (dead rabbit) and they try to resolve their loss.
  30. Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time: Although it’s primarily targeted to parents, specifically mothers, on how they can find time and balance, much of the book is applicable to everyone that feels the weight of their calendar and to-do list on their shoulders. Schulte’s shares the effects of stress on our brain and bodies. More here.
  31. Kate Bolick’s Spinster: One of my favorite books of the year. It struck a proverbial chord because I’m tired of women nearing 40 who have to apologize for their independence. More here.
  32. Sonya Hartnett’s What the Birds See: My god, this book stayed with me months after I read it. I had the same feeling reading this as when I read Kirsty Gunn’s Rain. Told from the perspective of a nine-year-old child, you see how an unloved child bears witness to a crumbling, fragile world around him. Buy this book. Preferably now.
  33. Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women: An astonishing assembly of women who were on the verge. Interestingly enough, I saw a lot of parallels between this collection and Kate Bolick’s Spinster.
  34. Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend: Read everything + anything written by this woman. End of story.
  35. Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Read everything + anything written by this woman. End of story.
  36. Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name: Read everything + anything written by this woman. End of story.
  37. Laura Kasischke’s Mind of Winter: I don’t think I’ll ever tire of disquieting stories centered around familial discord. Mind of Winter is part horror story, all anxiety–a day in the life of a woman come undone.
  38. Cary McWilliams’s Southern California: When I first arrived in Los Angeles, I was eager to learn everything I could about California’s history. I bought tons of books and this one, by far, was my favorite.
  39. Sonya Lea’s Wondering Who You Are: The ultimate story of love and devotion, Lea writes honestly (and beautifully) about coping with her husband’s traumatic brain injury and the aftershocks.
  40. Heather O’Neill’s Daydreams of Angels (Stories): I learned of O’Neill’s collection via a short story I read online. The stories are fantastical, smart, and imaginative. I’d say 70% of the collection was terrific with a few bumps along the way. Definitely worth reading if you want stories that transport you.
  41. Mandy Kahn’s Math, Heaven, Time (Poems): I had the great privilege of sharing a stage with Mandy last month. She’s a wonderful lyric poet, and I devoured her collection in one sitting.
  42. Sara Jaffe’s Dryland: For the past month I couldn’t read anything longer than a poem, so I was thrilled that Sara Jaffe’s wonderful novel was a glass of water in the Sahara. This story centers around a teenager coping with the loss of her brother.
  43. Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage (Stories): These are characters who “love and hate extravagantly”. I loved this beautifully written collection of real people in peril.
  44. Mac Barnett’s Sam & Dave Dig a Hole (Children’s book): My friend Jason showed me this book when I visited his office and Jason, his coworker and I crowded around a table and read it, aloud. This story–of what is seen and unseen–is perhaps my favorite children’s book of the year.
  45. Ali Wentworth’s Happily Ali After: I’ve had a brutal few months and I want to thank Ali Wentworth for making me laugh out loud. Each chapter is a hilarious meditation on one of those inspirational self-help quotes, and how she brought it (or didn’t) to life. SO worth your purchase.  
  46. Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child: Read everything + anything written by this woman. End of story.
  47. Stacey Levine’s The Girl With Brown Fur (Stories): While I was in Seattle in September, I picked up half a dozen wonderful books and Levine’s feral stories were such a rare find. Levine has often been compared to Kafka in the surreal landscapes she paints and the comparison is an apt + warranted one. I haven’t been this excited since reading Aimee Bender.
  48. Maile Meloy’s Devotion: I just finished this miniature story today and I loved it. Maile is such an incredible storyteller, and she manages to encapsulate hurt, loss and devotion into so few pages.
  49. Laura Kasischke’s In a Perfect World: If you want to feel the end of the world read this magnificent novel alongside Gold Fame Citrus. After a whirlwind three-month courtship, Jiselle (who’s name in Danish means “to pledge”) marries a pilot who is rarely home and becomes step-mother to his three children. Their idyllic life is anything but, especially with the hovering Phoenix flu (think Contagion).
  50. Claire Vaye Watkin’s Gold Fame Citrus: After reviewing this list it occurs to me that I didn’t include Claire’s terrific first novel. I bought it when I first moved to California and the apocalypse that ensues as a result of the drought is so beautifully rendered, and if The Road and White Noise birthed a miracle baby, this would be it.
  51. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies: Easily one of my favorite books of the year. The hype is well deserved and this book is pure magic from plot to character to vision. Read it. You won’t be disappointed.

what I’m reading: on character multiplicity, altered states, and writing the dark

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In the 90s, I was obsessed with Gregg Araki’s teen apocalypse trilogy. Back then there was no internet or reality television shows, and the biggest scandal was Brenda Walsh having to deal with a teenage pregnancy on national television. This was an age where teens were fresh-faced, feckless, and optimistic. But here was Araki and his dark ingénue, Rose McGowan, ushering out a bleak reality that made Bret Easton Ellis’ nihilistic vision of California downright precious. In Araki’s eyes, the world was falling to its knees and the goth in me was having all of it.

Fast forward nearly twenty years and I happened upon his atmospheric and magical, White Bird in a Blizzard, adapted from Laura Kasischke’s novel. Araki treads familiar ground–familial discord, sexual awakening and internal disquiet–but his work is quiet and all the rage simmers just below the surface. It’s sort of the difference between witnessing an outright war versus the one that plays out inside of us every day. I loved the movie so much that I ordered all of Laura Kasischke’s books, and I promise you that she does not disappoint.

Writers are always looking for others who share their strange view of the world. Most of us make sense of the world by writing about it. Writing, for us, is discovery, meditation and mystery, and we’re content to spend our lives playing detective and surgeon–all in an effort to ferret out life’s meaning. When I was small I would purchase maps and I started to write stories about the places I’d never been. Back then I’d never traveled beyond the gilded cage that was New York, and I imagined landscapes that I’d found in books, people who revealed themselves to me. The maps were initially about places and how I’d imagine them to be because I was a child who was often alone, lonely. But then the maps morphed into something different, they became a journey. Would it be possible from me to travel from A (alcoholic) to B (recovering), and how long would that trip take? What would I need to pack? Who would I meet along the week? And soon the maps became something that was interior.

Writers are always looking for beacons to shine light in the dark. I’ve private relationships with the writers whom I admire, living and dead, and I honestly fear meeting them because I don’t want the person who created the work to somehow cloud my relationship to their work. My affection is private, sacrosanct–this is mostly why I don’t attend many readings but I will purchase books and shout about them from the rafters.

513f03ntAZL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Laura Kasischke is one of those lights, and I consumed Mind of Winter in one sitting. Her work is incredibly quiet, wholly terrifying, and her meditations on mother/daughter relationships mirror themes to which I find myself constantly revisiting. The novel spans fifteen years, but much like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Cunningham’s The Hours, we observe the life of a woman, Holly, over the course of a single day, Christmas, as she prepares a feast. She wakes with the fear that something has followed them from Siberia–the place where she and her husband adopted their daughter thirteen years ago. Holly is a woman who can no longer write but wants to. Holly is a woman who comes from a lineage of women who are genetically disposed to an incurable cancer. Holly is a woman who is unusually fixated on her beautiful daughter, whose skin is so fair it’s nearly blue. We follow them over the course of a day that has everyone stranded by a blizzard, and as mother and daughter are trapped in a house, we begin to see Holly unravel.

I’ve been long fascinated by the line between the supernatural and one’s altered psychological state, and how confinement only serves to augment or amplify the tension skirting just beneath the surface. That, under the right circumstances, we can all go a little mad sometimes. I’ve been reading Daniel Olsen’s fascinating and microscopic examination of The Shining (Kubrick’s film adaption). A definitive tome filled with cast and crew interviews and fastidious research, the book makes Room 237 look like a compilation of crackpots who see Jesus in microwaved pot pies.

51XH6S75gsL._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_I fucking hated that poor excuse for a documentary. The only thing that prevented me from walking out of The Anjelika was the fact that I’d spent $ for this movie and I was seeing this shitshow through. Call me when the shuttle lands.

But I digress. Kubrick was notoriously known for deliberately excising parts of his script that would’ve given enormous clarity to his pictures (2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining are prime examples), and he often asked larger questions about the relationship between society and social structures and the recesses of one’s mind and personhood. People often wonder, was Jack Torrence crazy before he camped out at The Overlook, or did the shining bring out a side of him, which he fought so desperately to control. White-knuckle sobriety, teaching.

We all like to think we’re good, honest people, but what if? Do circumstance and society and history shine a light on who we are at the core. In On Kindness, Freud posits that we are kind to others out of selfishness rather than true altruism. Our kindness is a means of satisfying our desire to not deal with discomfort. In short, we are kind because we don’t want to deal with unkindness. While I’m not certain I agree with an argument so binary, I think people aren’t completely aware of certain aspects of their character until they’re placed in extreme or distant circumstances. We all have varying faces we present to the world, and my writing seeks to unpack that multiplicity. Recently, I came upon this excellent piece on authenticity, and it challenged a lot of what I’d previously believed about online perception vs. reality. And, ultimately, checked me on my perceptions of what should be considered authentic and my own bias. Deb Schulz writes:

But the real problem with valorizing authenticity is that, in the absence of actual information about the person in question, the perception of who they are is filled in by societal norms and biases. We see this is the gendered nature of authenticity described above—men are automatically more authentic than women…The failure mode is not just that we perceive a disconnect between the public persona and the individual; it’s that our perception of who they are is wrong. And it’s easy to see why this would disproportionately affect groups (women, visible minorities, LGBTQ people) that are less well-represented in the media, because our mental models of them are far more likely to be shaped by stereotypes than for cis straight white men.

51NmXa7mQML._SX371_BO1,204,203,200_ A few weeks ago I saw an old friend I hadn’t seen in awhile. Jason knew me as a heavy drinker, a woman who published a literary journal and cruised the book party circuit (I’m wincing as I type this), but time has passed and we spent a couple of hours together talking about our new lives here. Who we were, what we used to value, and who we are now. I visited his office and after I told him that when I’m blocked I often read poetry or children’s stories for two reasons: 1. economy of language 2. story pacing. I find both the hardest kinds of books to write because you have to sustain interest while being downright surgical with the words you use. Jason shared with me this wonderful book, which I’ve purchased and have read daily since it arrived. Buy this book, even if you don’t have children, because it’ll make you see all the small things in the world you’re missing but need to pay attention to. This book challenges what we think we know, see and believe, and I got excited because I’d never read anything this sophisticated as a child. The book reminded me of one of the first scenes in The Shining when Jack is lying in bed and Wendy comes in with breakfast. We think we’re seeing a wife bring her husband breakfast, but really we’re encountering an inverted Jack, a man observed through a looking glass. All is not what it seems.

I’ve also been reading a lot of traditional genre fiction lately, and I’m floored by how other writers are so deft at story pacing. Ever since I arrived in California, I feel open, awake. I used to want to write the BIG BOOKS, tell the BIG STORIES, but what’s a big book anyway when our perception of size and worth is wholly subjective and often biased. What I’ve been ignoring is this specter, this voice inviting me to merge forms and create something new and different. I’ve come to the reality that I really love writing dark, introspective, strange stories. Stories that are the equivalent of Kill List, a film that refuses to turn the camera away from scenes which would normally be cut from all other films. You see everything because this is what is.

I want you uncomfortable.

Last week I wrote the strangest story and I want to keep writing them, and keep reading beacons who shine lights along my yellow brick road.

currently reading: new books on the shelf

new books on my bookshelf

Sometimes I read the books I’m unable to write because they inspire the kind of stories and books I can. The other night my friend tells me that she wants to write a book. She looks at me, pauses, and says, Well, not like you. Not the kind of book you’re able to write. We tell stories in order to live, Didion once said, and I remind my friend that this would be a dull world if we all had the capacity to tell our stories in the same way. Years ago I sat in a Columbia writing workshop and someone regarded one of my short stories with disdain, spat out, Family stories are over, Felicia. After I cried into my sleeve in the hallway, I realized her comment was ridiculous.

Every story has been told. The beauty is in its retelling. The magic lies in all the ways in which artists can interpret love, loss, heartbreak, joy, anger, rage, despair. Therein lies the art.

I don’t know how a lot of writers do it. I don’t know how they have the ability to consistently conjure new characters, architect new worlds, so swiftly. Before I sat down to write my latest novel (you know, the brilliant, dark thing that publishers love but are frightened of publishing), I’d already been thinking about these characters for years. While they didn’t have the same names, shapes or features, I was slowly coming to know them much like how I’d know real people, so when the time came to write about them (Kate, Jonah, Gillian, etc), their world came at me like a torrent, fully-realized. I love these characters because they feel like old friends, and I’m struggling to fashion a new world so quickly as all these articles on writing would have me do.

While we try to sell that dark thing over there, my agent tells me to write something new. I thought I had something but it’s nothing substantial, nothing worth occupying my time, so I read and write these small things here wondering if and when something will spark.

I read the spectrum. From Sarah Manguso’s thin but potent meditation on the art of journaling to Katherine Heiney’s razor-sharp and fully-drawn stories about young women tangeled up in love and betrayal, I oscillate between extremes in form and style. I read Bardur Oskarsson’s The Flat Rabbit (a children’s book that tackles death so beautifully) because I want to remember that the power of a good story lies in the and then what. It also reminds of economy, how writers need to be deliberate, downright surgical with the words they choose. When I was working on my novel I would spend DAYS on a single page, reworking sentences, because every scene, every line, had to be like a koan; everything I write has to be a container filled with multiple meanings.

“I don’t know anything.” It might seem counterintuitive but I try to tell myself this every day when I wake up. It’s quickly becoming my daily mantra. Now, this isn’t some exercise in self deprecation. I simply want to remind myself as soon as I wake up to see the world with clear eyes. —Jory MacKay

And I read Elle Luna’s magical book because I have to remember that I must write, always. I must gather experiences up in my hands so I’m able to write about them because I’m only able to make sense of this life through writing about it. There’s no other way.

And the rest? They’re meant to awaken, inspire me to what’s next. What’s down the road, just beyond my reach.

banana cocoa muffins

Banana cocoa muffins.

We came from zero, and on a long enough timeline we’ll return to that from which we’ve come. Zero. I think about this a lot–life, death–perhaps maybe more than I should, more than what’s deemed healthy, but I can’t help it. I think about planes sometimes, how my greatest fear is being on a plane that dives into an ocean. Sometimes I imagine closing my eyes and humbly crawling back to the cool dark, because although this is the one thing I don’t remember (that one head pushing out, those eyes that opened wide to the first light, and the mouth that screamed so valiantly, even through the terror of being born), it brings me an unexplainable comfort. It’s as if by living through the cycle of life and death I’ve conquered it, and for a time I’m okay until the moment I think about it all over again.

I also think about time. How I’ll never have enough of it, how it’s always running out. I used to wear a watch and have a clock in every room–the old fashioned kind, the sort that ticked. And then time passed as it’s wont to do, and I move through rooms with my phone, checking it every now and again, just to see how much time has passed. How much I’ve spent (or squandered, depending upon the day) from the last moment I checked to the next.

Aren’t you afraid of it? I asked my pop last week. Of what, he said? Death. Dying. Not really, he said and paused. Maybe a little but not a lot. I don’t think about it as much as you do. How is it possible that he’s not frightened? Like me, he’s not swathed in faith–he doesn’t believe in a white kingdom and a god who will carry you all the way home. Like me, he’s spiritual, sees the world as this magical, miraculous place, but we’re not tethered to a faith. Nor do I suspect we ever will be. We don’t have that warm comfort, and while I sometimes agonize over the certainty that these two feet on this floor will no longer be, my father goes about his days undisturbed. He tells me that death is inevitable so why get worked up over something that you can’t control?

The thing is, I like control. A lot. But I’m learning to let go of it, piece by piece.

Illustration Credit: Taro Yashima

Illustration Credit: Taro Yashima

Time is slippery, and since I’ve made the decision to forgo having children, of not establishing a legacy, I look at my work as one of the tangible things I’ll leave behind. I ache to produce and find that this space brings me so much joy because I can write the smaller things here while I consider the bigger things on a blank canvas. I use books (and life) as a bridge between the minute and known (blog) and the great unknown (novel). Lately, I’ve been ordering children’s books at a ferocious clip. Maybe it’s the fact that as a child I never appreciated the complex simplicity in books where a few words and illustrations are forced to convey SO MUCH, or perhaps I see the extraordinary juxtaposition between the size of a book and the length of its words versus the magnitude of its meaning. Children’s books are magnanimous in the sense that they don’t patronize or take a pedagogical approach, rather they allow you to dive in and find your own beauty, at your own time, on your own terms.

After poring over these illustrations (don’t the colors just DO YOU IN?!), I decided to order Umbrella because it’s such an magnificent expression of the tension of time. Of feeling anxious to move from one space to the next. But it’s also a meditation on time and being present, of savoring these moment of being alive. I need a little more of that in my life.

Today, I turned off the television, silenced my phone and kneeled down to play with Felix. For fifteen minutes, I heard the sounds of his purr and breath and all the noise in my head fell to quiet. All that existed was a woman and her cat. I don’t know what that means in terms of legacy, of pragmatism, of leaving something you can hold in your two hands, behind. But what I do know is that holding his small neck in my hands felt wonderful.

Drawing lines, drawing outlines. Unfurling maps.

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INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Flourless: Recipes for Naturally Gluten-Free Desserts
2 large eggs
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 very ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup ground almonds (almond flour)
1/2 cup ground gluten-free rolled oats
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

DIRECTIONS
Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Line a cupcake tin with cupcake liners.

In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, whisk the eggs, maple syrup, and olive oil until completely combined. Add the bananas and beat until combined. In a large bowl, whisk together the ground nuts, oats, cocoa powder, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Make sure you have all lumps pressed out (almond flour tends to clump up) before you add to the wet ingredients. The last thing you want is a bit chunk of nut flour in your mouth. I’m saving you, people.

On low speed, add the dry ingredients to the wet and fold until combined. Using an ice-cream scoop, add the batter to the tins and bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool for ten minutes on rack before turning out to cool completely.

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because sometimes you need a dose of daily sweetness to keep you going {not a food post, shockingly}

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Sometimes a woman needs a dose of sweetness to keep her going. From being blocked creatively to dealing with taxes and finalizing a new freelance project to the evils of jetlag and a 3AM rise, my first week back from Ireland has been a trying one. Instead of moping about the house, I paid a visit to my local stationery shop {cue the: PAPER?!} to purchase invites for a small housewarming party I’m giving this month, felt-tip pens and a few motivational journals. People who know me well know that I do not have a taste for DIY. I’m not a glitter girl; I abhor pink, and anything overtly fanciful. As a child I wore blue, scowled, and wrote in spiral notebooks. I didn’t throw parties and I certainly didn’t devote few hours of my day to handwrite notes to my guests and seal invites with an ink stamp of my initials.

I may have said this previously, but I’m often inspired by children’s books and shows. While in Dublin I watched The Babysitter’s Club on television {initially as a result of an abysmal selection of television options}, and I came home to re-read some of the books I procured during my brief stint as a copywriter at Scholastic. Real writers know that writing children’s books are incredibly difficult because of the intended audience. You have to craft a story that will keep a child’s attention while awakening their sense of wonder and imagination. The and then this happens! effect. Years ago, I used to do writing exercises that mimicked this format just to stir the subconscious, just to get something down on paper.

I also return to children’s books, not as a means to revert back to childhood, but as a means to keep the world simple and beautiful before we adults find ways to ruin it. Before we find excuses to winnow our affection for the magical away {taxes! credit card debt! rent! pragmatic pursuits!}. My fiction is relentlessly dark — I’ve a predilection for broken people — so I welcome anything that has the capacity to momentarily bring me back into the light.

I acquired two books that have stirred: Celebrating You (and the beautiful person you are) + It’s Gonna Be Okay. While both are not your garden variety children’s books, and while both don’t give you the stench of self-help, they straddle the two very delicately. Truth be told, I don’t know why I picked these books off up the table, let alone purchased them, as I’m by nature a skeptic.

I mean, seriously. I’m writing a book about sociopaths and barnacles.

But it’s okay to open the window a crack, I guess. It’s okay to feel lost and speak those words out loud. And it’s okay to pick up a beautifully-illustrated book that celebrates the good in you, and to thumb through a journal that invites you to document one reason why you’re hanging on today, even in the midst of all-encompassing fear and anticipated doom. I laughed at some of the quotes in It’s Gonna Be Okay because they’re honest:

I’m not okay. You’re not okay. And that’s okay. –Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort. –Herm Albright

While I haven’t written anything in the journal as of yet {the book is structured like a call/response to a quote and the reason you haven’t punched anyone today, etc}, I have written. Eight pages into a new chapter and it’s good, really good. So much so I keep re-reading it in apoplectic shock. So maybe there is something to be said about contrast. About seeing light to burrow back and document the dark.

Who knows?

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when the heart suddenly stops

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Would your fear be any less and would you see that you had been chosen to help the sun rise? ― Nick Bantock, Alexandria: In Which the Extraordinary Correspondence of Griffin & Sabine Unfolds

It occurs to me that every time I feel as if I’ve lost my way, I return to children’s books. I like to finger the thick, glossy paper stock, pour over the illustrations, and tumble, head-first, into a world, a life, that is simple and complete. As someone who fancies herself a writer, I remind myself that children’s books are perhaps the most difficult genre one could write for its success is predicated on the quickening of a child’s heart. As the three acts swiftly unfold, the child becomes petulant, impatient, grabbing at pages two, three at a time, because they want to know what’s next.

How does the story end?

Possibly I return to children’s books again and again to remind myself that there’s still magic in the world. That in every end there is a beginning. Our lives are something of a metronome, a mimicked heartbeat, a series of stops and starts, and in between the acts, between the breaths, there blooms something magical and new. As the years press on, our once wide eyes press shut and it’s easy to ignore the magic. We accept blindness as a current state, we slouch our way through our days, and the world morphs into a bleached-white version of what it once was.

Hold on, hold on tightly
Hold on, hold on tightly
Rise up, rise up
With wings like eagles
You run, you run
You run and not grow weary
-U2’s “Drowning Man”

Every day I wake and tell myself that there is color. That the world is worth seeing. That life is worth fighting for, even when your heart suddenly stops and shatters from the inside. Cutting everything in its wake. Because don’t we deserve to leap, lurch, race, fly? Don’t we deserve to preserve something in those books we once read? Replace the heartbreak with that quickening we use to love?

What’s next? What’s next? For the past three months this question is a spectre at every shared meal, email, text message. Recently, I spent two hours at Delicatessen (home of my beloved cheeseburger spring rolls, truffle fries and kale salad) pontificating on this very question with an old friend, but finding no real answers. After a heartbreaking, tumultuous exit from a job I once believed I loved, I’m too busy surveying the wreckage and assessing the damage to figure out what’s next.

Instead, I plan to spend this month knee-deep in introspection. I’m off to Europe next week and I’m taking my books, camera and heart, and I hope to return stronger. I hope to return seeing the magic once again.

I hope to return to a fast-beating heart.

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Delicatessen
Delicatessen

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