on my bookshelf: when books are/fail to be a salve

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For the past few months, I’ve been swimming upstream in a sewer. Books have always been my salve, my reprieve from waking life. It was easy to step into someone else’s life when my own became too much to bear. When Mike B. and his crew made me their object of scorn and ridicule in high school, I packed my bookbag with Cheever, Salinger, Hemingway, and Ann Beattie. When I was laid off from a dot.com that blew through $10MM in VC-funding within its first year, I cocooned in my bedroom with Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, and Judy Budnitz. When I learned a great love was sleeping with half of the women in the tri-state area, I pored over biographies penned by Stacy Schiff, Harold Bloom, and Janet Malcolm. I read every biography on Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and T.S. Eliot I could find.

I write to make sense of the world. I write to create clarity when none exists. I write to get passed, to get through. However, there are times when I can’t find the logic and my life is so dark I can’t see what’s in front of me. Times when grief and sorry become entirely too much to bear. In that disquiet, I turn to my bookshelf and browse. I might re-read a story collection I haven’t read in a decade because I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to remember the plots of the books I read in my 20s–I only recall the generalities of a book, not its innards. I might read poetry because it’s hard (economy of language, the constant reference to other works that make you feel as if you’re falling through a bottomless nesting doll) and a single line could seize me for days.

[As I grow older it occurs to me that I only have vague recollections of all the years that came before, only my romanticized memory of them.]

However, over the past few months, reading has been a challenge. I’ve started nearly a dozen books to only file them back on the shelf. I’ve fallen asleep in the middle of a chapter. And sometimes I’d stand in front of my book thinking that the act of reading is an exercise in futility. A book wasn’t going to change my reality; I didn’t have the time to hide because I had resumes and cover letters to submit, humiliating emails to write.

Perhaps it’s my intensive therapy. Perhaps it’s the meds. Or maybe it’s my desire to climb back from this dark time and fight, but after the hours spent looking for projects and work, reading is a reprieve. Yet, it’s better than staring at a television screen playing out my anxieties to the point where they feel like an inevitable reality. And slowly, I’ve become engaged again–not at the voracious book-a-week clip, but just long enough to read a few chapters and check my email again.

I haven’t read much, but what I’ve read has been exceptional. Let’s hope the oncoming months usher in light and more books worth reading. For now, here are a few book recommendations:

Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot: I’ve been waiting for Samantha Hunt to come out with a new book since I first read The Invention of Everything Else in 2009, and her new novel does not disappoint. The dual-narrative story follows the lives of abandoned orphans Nat and Ruth with Ruth’s pregnant niece, Cora, as they desperately try to piece together some semblance of a family. A modern gothic that plays out varying ways in which one can form a family–cults, religion (replete with faux evangelical Christians), orphanages–when a traditional one fails to materialize. The plot twist at the end is imaginative and unexpected. By far, this is the best book I’ve read this year.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words: I admire Jhumpa Lahiri, an author who takes calculated risks in her work. I’ve read a lot of the criticism of her latest book, which is an odyssey of an infatuation with a language–in Lahiri’s case it’s Italian. Some called it frivolous, an act of privilege played out on the page. Others remarked that In Other Words didn’t have the narrative prowess Lahiri exudes in her prior books, where English was her dominate language. However, I loved it because it was risky not in spite of it. As a writer you can choose to play it safe, to create in your own narrow dominion, or you can fail better. Lahiri’s latest reinforced that sometimes it’s okay to pursue a passion that may not necessarily be pragmatic.

Pamela Moore’s Chocolates for Breakfast: I loved this book SO HARD. I have a predilection for books detailing the exploits of the rich and morose, and this story set in 1950s New York and Los Angeles, about the pains of privilege, was downright delicious. The story centers on ambivalent and bored Courtney Farrel, a fifteen-year-old-going-on-thirty-five, who comes of age in the midst of financial ruin (her mother’s an actress whose star is no longer a firmament in the sky), teenage debauchery (think Gossip Girl before cell phones and Instagram). I felt like I was reading Fitzgerald because everyone’s wasted and no one is happy–lost generation, etc. I read this book nearly in one sitting and I’m glad it’s back in print.

Monica Drake’s The Folly of Loving Life: I happened on this story collection by accident. Scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post from Drake’s publisher promoting the book, and I instantly bought it. I’m half-way through the book and already it’s one of my favorites. The linked stories set in a non-hipster Portland show characters at their most vulnerable. Broken people determined to find ways to make themselves whole. You follow the journey of a family where the mother is plagued by a vague illness (schizophrenia?) and the father who tends to her at the expense of their two daughters who try to find their place in the world when familial love and stability are missing. From Mexico to empty art museums and college dorm rooms, the despair expressed by the characters is palpable, but there’s a feeling of hope, which has been pulling me through.

Lauren Holmes’s Barbara The Slut & Other Stories: I wanted to love this story collection more than I did. The stories navigate the spectrum of intimacy. From the slut-shamed Princeton-bound woman who cares for her autistic brother amidst the cruelty of her peers to a daughter hauling Victoria’s Secret lingerie to Mexico in hopes of reconnecting with her mother–the stories are sharp and poignant, yet I felt as if there was something missing. I know that sounds vague but I finished the collection content, but not wholly satisfied or as connected to the characters as I wanted to be.

 

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my favorite posts of 2015

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Photo Credit: Annie Spratt

 My favorite writing comes from a place of compulsion. Writers tend to exorcise their obsessions through prose, and every time I’m finished with a project I feel done. I’m in-between writing projects at the moment, awaiting notes from my editor on my second book, and I’m finding it hard to start my new project even though I know what it’ll be (a fictional retelling of Genie: The Feral Child) because I don’t feel what my friend Kira calls “the hot poker pressed up against your back”. Right now I don’t feel much, honestly, so I’m hoping to revisit the words I wrote here that came from a place of verve in order to get some of that verve back.

 1. Some Thoughts on Professional Etiquette Because Some Of You Need It: This morning, I came across an article about how coffee dates kill productivity. Recently, I was duped into a “pick your brain” meeting in the guise of a new business opportunity, and I left the hour drained having given a stranger several ideas and strategies for how they could start their new business venture. As an introvert I rarely get energy from spending time from people, rather the opposite. Often, I leave these coffee dates depleted, energy resources spilled into the person who conveniently forgot to pay for the cappuccino. I remember writing the above post after spending the bulk of my time giving free advice to others. Granted, I think it’s important to be an advisor or mentor to others, however, I also believe in reciprocity and paying my rent and $1,000 monthly student loan bills. In an age when people think it perfectly normal to cancel plans via text message at the last minute, I still believe in etiquette.

2. On Perception and the Delicate Dance of Masks: Scrolling through Instagram last night I paused in front of an image of fingers making air quotes with the words “I’m Fine” in between. I had a conversation with someone recently where I said that how I represent myself is markedly different from my actual self. Curious, he asked how I was different, and I said that I appear mostly put together even when it’s clear I’m falling apart. I say I’m fine so much it’s become a comical refrain, a prayer, and mantra, and this post was one of a few I wrote that attempted to navigate the many masks we sometimes have to bear.

3. Can We Just Be Still for a Moment?: I wrote this post in Nicaragua as I was bearing the weight of a significant loss while deciding whether or not I wanted to leave New York. Often we’re painfully reminded of our need to move, catch up, don’t pause because we need to be at a certain place. Personal velocity is a lauded virtue in an age where idleness is synonymous with laziness, and I wondered aloud about the benefits of simply standing still.

4. New Fiction: Women in Salt: It takes me a long time to write anything that pleases me. And I spent years not writing anything at all. However, in the past three years (specifically, the past three months), I’ve written more than I have in decades. I finished a story collection about various women in and out of peril, and while it sits with my agent I keep returning to this particular story, which is my favorite. When I write I don’t care about plot, rather, I get off on interesting people and seeing where they go. I loved writing in Ava’s voice (I also adored Alice), and I was humbled that so many of you liked this piece too.

5. There’s a Difference Between Feedback + Vitriol: I wrote this piece (and this one in 2014) because I think the word hate is being abused so much it’s starting to lose its meaning. This is hate. Women who face abuse and threats to their person and their family deal with hate. People who are bullied because of their race, sexual orientation, appearance, weight, age deal with hate. However, readers who offer constructive criticism about the way one runs a blog or a business is not a hater. I’m honestly baffled by people who only want to surround themselves with people who hurl praise at them to an unhealthy degree. From teachers, I would hear how I was this gifted writer. From bosses, I would hear about my talents as a leader. I would nod and thank them but then immediately counter with, how could I do better? How could I grow? How could I improve? Feedback is hard to hear, at first, it stings, but it’s knowledge that you could choose or choose not to use. Constructive criticism is different than hate, and I’ve grown increasingly annoyed at how the terms have been conflated, and how bloggers wither and recoil if they’re not told they’re special, perfect snowflakes.

23560415289_b8b86ca48f_z6. The Obligatory Mid-Life Posts: I turned 40 last week and I’ve had a lot of feelings over the year about it. I feel and don’t feel my years if that makes any sense. I am riding the fresh-out-of-fucks tourI made some crazy decisions regarding my career and the importance of a side-hustle learned some stuff, meditated on regret, felt (and still feel) afraid, and realized I’m still learning.

7. Women Who Inspire Me: My friend Arlene awes me with her second and third acts. And meet two women who are really changing the world and breaking ranks.

8. Some Thoughts on Losing Your Best Friend: As you get older, you lose people. Over the past ten years, I’ve lost two very close friends and those losses were devastating. I wrote a bit about losing a best friend.

9. On Publishing + Writing an Experimental Novel: By the time my second book will be published, it’ll be nearly a decade since my first, and my god, so much has changed. I wrote about taking big breaks, finding your voice, and the process of selling a dark novel about a difficult woman.

10. On Marriage, Children + Wearing a Blue Dress: When I graduated college, I thought I would work in investment banking, retire at 30, get married, have children and have a little house in Westchester. Um…things didn’t turn out as planned.

the pile is always bottomless

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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.

 

the whole stretch ahead of you (deliberate randomness)

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Who shows a child just as it stands? Who places him within his constellation, with the measuring-rod of distance in his hand. Who makes his death from gray bread that grows hard, -or leaves it there inside his rounded mouth, jagged as the core of a sweet apple? The minds of murderers are easily comprehended. But this: to contain death, the whole of death, even before life has begun, to hold it all so gently within oneself, and not be angry: that is indescribable. –From Rilke’s Duino Elegies, 4th

I read a moving piece that intertwines fiction and life, a move to another state and the stories we carry to get us through the shifts we feel between A and B. Part of me lies a cheek against her cool words and then I remember she’s still young, still starting out, and this loneliness, this wide-eyed affection for New York will be replaced by other affections, other loneliness, possible company. When I read her piece I still see the possibility, hope and desire, but if I were to write something similar you would feel the amphibian chill of a loneliness that sustains. The days repeat themselves with minor variations. My words might feel like flesh wounds. So I don’t write them. I just draft a list of books I’ve read and a few words that remind me why I read them. I finished Fates & Furies yesterday, and I wish it was the sort of book I could write had I had the knowledge of a marriage–the in of it. They smell that blood in the water, they’re going to hunt the bleeder down. Not their fault. They can’t help it. What kind of shark is a shark that doesn’t attack?

I read this and think that I need to learn to be a shark, but I tried that once and the graft didn’t stick. Instead, I became the thing that was circled, consumed. George Saunders says that a “real writer makes you feel uncomfortable.” Maybe I’m doing something right?

Today I arrive a half-hour early for my follow-up, post-surgery appointment. I’m forever early because I fear being late, so I stop at a Le Pain Quotidian and decide on a jam scone because I haven’t had a scone in over a year and why not a scone? Behind me, a woman taps her feet, impatient, because the line is moving slower than she’d like it to, and she looks at my scone with such disgust and inquiries in a loud voice if there’s anything in the store that’s low-fat. The man behind the counter shakes his head and says these are organic pastries. There’s not much by way of low-fat. Ten minutes later I sit in a dermatologist office, eating my pastry while a woman who is perhaps too thin for her frame is prepping for her latest procedure. And I wonder what’s left after fat? Marrow burrowed within bone? Why does this fucking scone bear more weight than it should? I think about this as I walk the seven miles home to Santa Monica.

On the way, I read an essay on my phone. Who we become physically moves faster than how our minds perceive us. We play a game of catch up between the world in front of us and the story of ourselves that plays out in our head. Manson writes:

People who were bullied growing up and go on to become the smartest, nicest, and most interesting dude at the company Christmas party, yet they still harbor this overwhelming sense that nobody really likes them, that it’s all fake and unreal and unearned and undeserved, and that in the end, everybody’s going to wind up hurting them. So they don’t let anyone get close to them. No matter how loved they are, they can’t ever let anybody get too close.

I think about that a lot, and what Manson writes rings true. I harbor massive steamships and I move like glaciers. This week I told someone that one of my greatest fears is being average, mediocre, second-rate. That all this work has been for naught. That I’ll write books that mean nothing, posts that don’t translate, take on jobs that do nothing but encourage people to consume. That I’ll let the noise drown out my need to find wonder and purpose. So I write down all the things I’ve done, everything I’ve created and I try not to judge it. I try not to say oh, that book wasn’t that good. I try not to say, oh, that person who used to work for me is more successful professionally–even though she’s earned it, deserves it. I try not to give what I’ve created context because I start thinking about competition. I start reducing what I’ve done to its parts–phantom limbs–and I tell myself to keep writing down what I’ve accomplished. Read this list out loud whenever you’re blue–regardless of how fatuous you feel in doing so.

After viewing Sylvia Plath’s childhood manuscripts, I’m sad that so much of what I created in childhood is gone or scattered in Long Island or hidden in stacks of paper in my closet. And if I drew a line through my work, chartered that life, I would see a girl in various stages of undress.

If I want to create maybe I should get off the internet? I’ve already made a conscious choice to dial down my rage blackouts on twitter because I’m learning that it’s getting me nowhere. Even when I read stories like these and brilliant articles like this, I collect and learn instead of spew. I’m thinking my energies could best be channeled into creating things that matter.

Years ago my friend Nicolette gave me a copy of Rilke’s Elegies for my birthday. The inscription was from 2001, I had just turned 25. Perhaps she sensed my despair and how I started to drift away from God–returning to a belief that this life is all that we really have. And therein lies the tension of living a life, filling your days with words, knowledge, and beauty instead of simply allowing them to pass. I’m in this space that feels paused (but not really, because time inexorably passes) and I know I could be doing more. I could be moving to B. I could be creating.

Tomorrow I’m turning 40 and I’ll be offline for most of the day. This is all strange and weird, and it’s okay to feel this while listening to this.

 


Image Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.

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.

writing the quiet: a taste of my weekly dispatches

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“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.” –Anne Dillard on Writing.

Eleven years ago I sat in a small office facing Nathan Englander. He held two copies of a short story I’d written: one was unblemished and the other was a massacre of red ink. I remembered staring out the window, staring through it, as Nathan spent the next two hours recounting the bloodletting.

This was at Columbia—I had returned to the writing program from a two-year leave (parenthetical: don’t do drugs.Don’t) and found it changed. Line writing had come back into fashion and everyone was obsessed with the architecture of the sentence. Stories became less about people and the things that happened to them, instead they morphed into complicated maps, the kind you fold in sixteen, the kind that took you more time than you were willing to spend to find where you were. In the time it took to find yourself, you’d become exhausted from the journey, because who wanted a map, a compass, and a CIA operative just to find your way around the block? That’s what line writing felt like, and I found myself editing stories that read beautifully but meant nothing.

I wasn’t that kind of writer. I’d been writing since I was a child, only I didn’t have a voice because I’d spent my life swallowing it. I wrote sad stories where everyone had complicated feelings and died. I lived in a dark country where lights would flicker and inevitably flare out. This was a place I knew; I’d spent the greater part of my life navigating the terrain, and the only challenge was how much further I’d be willing to go.

I think about the controversy that surrounded the movie, Kill List. Viewers were furious because Ben Wheatley didn’t turn the camera away from extreme violence. He boxed you in, forced you into a place of anguish and discomfort. He made you see. I remember watching the film and feeling sick, but then I understood what Wheatley was going after. We spend so much time as protecting ourselves from the dark—whereas art doesn’t have constraints. Its meant to take you to places you sometimes don’t want to go.

I think about Kill List and Nathan because both put a scalpel in my hand. Both made me butcher and maim until I got to what was honest. Both made me see the complexity in the simplest of sentences. Lately I feel subsumed by the extreme nature of the culture around me. Stories are over-written for effect. The only risk is how one could shock, bait, and attract (I slept with my father! I dated a racist!). What I see today is what I saw all those years ago at Columbia—the noise of style trumping substance.

Quiet in prose rarely exists. Listening, instead of waiting for your turn to speak (or type, as it were), has become obsolete. In one of the most remarkable essays I’ve read on writing and ideas, Ursula K. Le Guin talks about the notion of patience, of allowing a story, a world to whisper to you before it makes its complete presence known. Ultimately, Le Guin returns to Virginia Woolf, arguably one of the masters of modernist fiction (DYK that her work influenced G.G. Marquez?), and surmises that ideas have a rhythm to them, much like a wave:

Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention—beneath words, as she says—there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer’s job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move to it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find words.

In that, I imagine this work requires a certain kind of quiet, a deliberate surrender. Maggie Nelson (my fucking hero) likens it to creating space in an effort to get specific and real. She says,

I love John Cage’s line where he says something like “love is making space around the beloved.” I think that this idea of giving people some space, which I think is something that is, hopefully, a kind of poetic or elliptical writing style can do. It’s kind of an illusion. You’re using other people’s stories for your own ends, but at the same time, as much as some might call that “exposing” myself or others, I don’t experience my writing as exposure. I experience it as a kind of articulation of specificity as well as trying to make space for other people’s mysteries, as well as my own.

And I can’t imagine that kind of work jutting up against our demands for velocity, one’s ferocious need to produce and accumulate affection and validation based on likes, fans, and followers.

I’ve finally found my voice, but it exists amidst so much noise. I read this piece on the clickbait nature of Medium, and I’m inclined to agree. Apart from literary journals and a handful of good publications, it’s been challenging to sift through the bad writing, bullshit and noise to find good work. I had a long conversation with a new friend today about growing audience and how far I’d be willing to go to do this without changing or sacrificing who I am and how much I’m willing to give to strangers, and I find myself resolute in the sense that I know I’ll never be mass market or largely popular, but that’s okay because I live and create on my own terms. So instead of sharing stories on Medium (I tried this experiment and didn’t feel I got the interaction I craved), I’m going to share them privately, with you.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been feeling blue. I’m slowly (and privately) getting out of this slump, but I managed to write this story (newsletters subscribers only, however, I just wrote this piece I posted on Medium), which is part essay, mostly fiction, and one of the most honest things I’ve written in a while. I was put on pause by this podcast relating to Instagram and depression, and I thought about our demands for happy! positive! pretty! and how life doesn’t neatly fit in those boxes, ascribe to those terms. My story is about what we’re willing to share, what we want to see and how that collides with the pain we sometimes feel.

For those of you who are curious, I’m aiming to finish a story collection, Women in Salt, by the end of the month.

Finally, I know I’m forever coming to the party in last decade’s clothes, but I’m infatuated with The Leftovers. Setting aside my taste for stories that emerge from an apocalyptic event (brief aside: please buy Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold, Fame, Citrus), the show is one of the finest meditations on loss, depression, and emptiness I’ve seen in some time.

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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.

new book, new life

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Lately I feel like a child forever pointing at things, asking, what’s that? My agent replies to an email I’d sent him regarding my next project, saying something to the effect of, good to know you’re working on something cheerful! To which I respond, when have you ever known me to be attracted to the sweet story, the happy ending? When will I ever be attracted to something not in a state of disrepair? I tend to fall in love with things (and people) that are a perpetual state of dressing their wounds.

I believe that all ideas are in the ether waiting to be snatched up, obsessed over, developed. And once you arrive at the thing that puts your heart on pause, you start to notice all the nearly phosphorescent signs pointing to it.

Over the past few months, I’ve been reading a series of articles about touched houses. I’ve a predilection for the macabre; I’m the sort who will watch surgeries on television with considerable interest. I spend most of the early hours of the morning reading, and I paused on those two particular articles with more than a passing interest. I even thought–imagine if I wrote a novel about a house. A present day Shining. The Shining is the first movie I remember seeing as a child, and to say that it’s left an indelible mark would be an understatement. I’ve watched the film more times that I’d like to admit, and I’ll see a monsoon of blood spilling out of elevators, painting the walls claret. I’ll incant T.S. Eliot’s The Burial of the Dead from “The Wasteland” like prayer. I’ll see a man pretend to a boy bouncing a ball off the walls, feeling haunted by what’s come before, the massacre of American Indians who once inhabited the land.

A house is a home is a house, and this is a place to which one seeks refuge. But what if your home isn’t safe? What if your home is a man-made prison, a place where madness breeds? I’ve always been curious about that which is contained (or confined) within four walls and a roof.

I read those two articles, paused briefly, and moved on.

You write out your obsession, what takes hold of you, until you’ve exorcised the thing that threatens to put your heart on pause. I’m being dramatic for effect, but writers tend to be obsessed with the stories that find them, and it is through the act of writing, of transcribing experience to type, that one is free to part ways with that which has arrested them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about writing as an act of continual failure. You have this brilliant idea–you can practically hear the music in your head–but when you sit down to translate it, what you have in your head never magically appears on paper. (I mean, unless you’re Nabokov) The work is in that realization and the perseverance that comes to revision, the hope that the idea that seized you will someday makes its way on paper as close to the way you’d seen it.

I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and loved it. I was dazed for days.

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Living in Los Angeles forces you to learn an entirely new vocabulary. The tentacle arms of the cactus; mountain dandelions and lemon bottlebrush trees–species of flowers and trees previously unknown now an assault. The shape of houses and land feel unnavigable. I discovered that I’m interested in learning more about my adopted home. I bought a stack of books on Los Angeles architecture and history (including: Southern California: An Island on the Land, California: A History, Houses of Los Angeles, 1920-1935, Los Angeles Residential Architecture: Modernism Meets Eclecticism, Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective’s Scrapbook, among many others), and found myself drawn to novels where California is a character. I met up with an old friend, and he had a book about the making of The Shining on his desk. I gasped, and he was kind enough to lend me the book for as long as I need it. He told me about the You Must Remember This podcast, and then I found the No Sleep podcast.

I recognized this feeling, a seizing, an obsession mounting.

I found a new story. I wrote my first page, and then retreated.

Imagine two stories converging. A gruesome murder from the 1950s juxtaposed with the story of a man who specializes in appraising/selling disaster properties forced to live in one of the homes he tries to sell after having lost his job. He moves into this home and slowly begins to unravel. He becomes paranoid, irrational, convinced that he’s being spoken to. Instructed.

This idea excites me for a number of reasons:

1. A new landscape–I’ve a desire to learn as much as I can about Los Angeles (art, history, architecture) so I can cogently write about it. The feeling that Los Angeles is a terrain I’m obsessed to navigate.

2. Writing from the male point-of-view. Although I’ve a central male character in my second novel, women in my books tend to drive the story. However, writing as two disparate, brilliant mad men, thrills me.

3. Attempting to write a story that is fairly linear. Although I’ve dueling narratives (1959/Present), the novel will follow a linear time arc. And anyone who knows me or at least has had a conversation with me knows that it’s nearly IMPOSSIBLE for me to follow a straight line. It’s as if I’m not able to understand the natural progression of time. The structure will likely pose the greatest challenge–one I’m anxious to meet.

4. Writing a ghost story. What I love about The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, and the like is the fact that the stories are extremely realistic in its rendering and the supernatural events could be construed as real or madness–one can never really tell. I like this ambiguity, a lot, and I love the idea of making people wonder if these events are truly rooted in the supernatural or in a man’s psychological unraveling.

Being here has thrown open all the windows and doors, and I can’t wait for what’s next.

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you might not fall in love with me, but you might think me less strange (or maybe not?)

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Last weekend, like Hallie, I read a piece in the Times about falling in love. I found the article fascinating and strange, simply for the fact that love is elusive. While I love my friends and my father (and cat!) deeply, I’ve only fallen in love once, and, in retrospect, I didn’t love him in the way I see how others love. I let him in, but not all the way, and I wonder about my ability to take a hammer and chisel and break all that I’ve built. If anything, I’m in the best place for it, so we’ll see what happens.

I know this may sound strange, but I never participate in online group activities, memes, etc, not because I have any aversion toward it, I just find it hard to be part of a group activity with strangers/online acquaintances. I get vertigo leaving blog comments; I read online spaces I like to visit privately, because there’s something about this anonymity that comforts me, however, I was so intrigued by Hallie’s ingenious take on the Times article (turning it into a dialogue between people who set up shop with their online spaces and those who read them) I decided to take inspiration from her post and post answers to some of the questions here.

Hope you enjoy, and feel free to ask me any of the other questions from the article, which I haven’t answered. 🙂

Also, I’m recovering from food poisoning (don’t even ask), so I’m a little ravaged and delirious.

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Would you like to be famous? In what way? Absolutely not. Fame doesn’t interest me because fame is really about tending to an inflamed ego. While I do want people to read and care about what I create, I take pleasure in the fact that I will never be mass market; I will never have to wade through thousands of comments on this space. I get anxiety if I’ve more than 10 emails in my inbox, so I’d rather skirt the edges of things and find my tribe as it happens.

Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why? No. I just play it as it lays.

When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else? I sang R.E.M.’s “King of Birds” while I was writing a blog post this week (I had the video playing on loop as I type–I tend to write to music). I don’t sing in front of other people, and I think this might be the greatest gift I could give any of my friends.

If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want? My body because I didn’t know, at 30, nearly as much as I do now. I’d rather have the perspective of age. However, the notion of running up a flight of stairs at 90 is thrilling. I want my body as a means to move, rather as a figment of vanity.

Name three things you and your readers appear to have in common. It’s hard because I know many folks don’t comment on some of the more personal aspects of my work, however, I will say that those who do also are on a journey of self-exploration. We’re all at different stages of it, but we’re all examining our lives and asking ourselves if we’re really living it. Which is awesome. In that way, writing these posts makes me feel less alone.

For what in your life do you feel most grateful? My friends who are my family. I don’t have any lineage to speak of–I am the last of my kind, so it feels good to be surrounded by people who truly feel that I’m their kin.

If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be? To always see life through the eyes of a child, to never lose the sense of wonder, even as adults we’re busy chipping it away. I want to feel firsts; I want surprise; I want wide-eyes and cackling laughter.

If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know? When will I die, and how.

Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it? I’ve always wanted to pick up and travel the world for a year. Truthfully, I make excuses for why I can’t do this (finances and debt burdens) and I also have a cat, and I’d be sad to leave him behind.

What is the greatest accomplishment of your life? Giving the greatest gift I could give to myself: my life back to myself, i.e., my sobriety.

What do you value most in a friendship? Loyalty, integrity, kindness, compassion.

What is your most treasured memory? Let me get back to you on this. This question actually stumped me because I don’t have one that stands apart from the rest. Oh wait, I’m answering these questions from the bottom up and it occurs to me that my sobriety stands out as a moment worth treasuring.

If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why? I’d probably leave New York the next day (sooner than my intended departure) because I want to feel what it’s like to uproot and planet anew.

What roles do love and affection play in your life? I often talk about one’s body as their home, house and refuge. I’m finally at place where I want to build and preserve this home rather than burn it to the ground. And I think, in that self-love, I’m at a place to love someone else. Candidly, my love life is one aspect of my life I’ll never share online. Maybe to let you know if I got married, but that’s pretty much it. Even my close friends consider me CIA when it comes to my love life, so there’s that.

Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your readers. Share a total of five items. You are so fucking smart, it blows my mind.

motherHow do you feel about your relationship with your mother? She was my first and only hurt. I don’t love her. I wrote about our life in my first book, and I have no interest in returning to that dark country.

If you were going to become a close friend with your readers, please share what would be important for him or her to know. I need my space and quiet. Sometimes I prefer that we not occupy every moment with chatter.

Tell your readers what you like about them; be very honest, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met. I love how many of you have brought your personal souls to bear on this space. You’ve shared intimate parts of yourself, and I know that isn’t easy and I truly am humbled by it. And while some just come here for the pictures and the recipes (and that’s fine), I love how others truly read and connect with some of the longer pieces I’ve written.

Share with your readers an embarrassing moment in your life. I was an alcoholic for the bulk of my 20s and early 30s so every weekend was pretty much an embarrassment.

When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself? I cried after I first saw my father struggling to shift in his bed after his double hip replacement surgery. I stood outside North Shore Hospital, waiting for my taxi, weeping. I don’t really cry in front of people that often, but I remember breaking down in front of my best friend when I relapsed after being sober for nearly seven years. That was a 18 months ago.

If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet? I wish I would’ve told my mother that I loved her once, but it breaks my heart that she’ll never be the mother or woman I want her to be. I’ve no interest in re-opening that door, so I’ll live with that regret and I’m fine with it.

Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? My computer. It holds all of my writing. I was initially going to say my passport, but all papers can be created anew.

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some thoughts on the art of writing, because there’s a lot of garbage out there

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Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer…Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation.’ You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page. –Zadie Smith

I’m going to say something that’s a bit controversial: there’s a deluge of terrible writing on the internet. What I love about the online space and the advent of digital technology–the democratization of voices and the ease in which unknown greats can rise above the din and find shelter with a receptive audience–has also given way to the sense that everyone who has a piece of virtual real estate can call themselves a writer and live this carefully curated “writer’s life,” replete with a gleaming laptop, unsullied notebooks, and a weathered coffee mug. I never quite understood this notion of a romanticized writer’s life because when I attempted such a life it was rife with financial anxiety and the paralyzing fear that I wasn’t any good–I always thought I was second-rate. While there are so many resources devoted to the art of making one a better writer by refining some of the technical aspects of the craft, for me the art of writing is simple: you’re either an artisan of language or you’re not.

There’s a scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s character tries to explain his enormous gift:

Will: Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play.
Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano?
Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano.
Skylar: But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.
Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that… I could always just play.

Writers can dissect the process of how they architect and develop characters, scene and story, but ask them how they’re able to create music with a strange combination of words and they go mute. How do you explain that you’re able to see the world and translate it in a way that moves people? That there’s beauty in the arrangement of words, how a writer’s able to describe an object or emotion that puts someone else’s heart on pause. Writers are downright surgical about how and what they write, and every one of them will tell you that they write from a compulsive place, from a desire to tell a particular story. They don’t write because they want to, it’s because they have to. And while a writer can study craft and technique, at the end of the day you either can play or you can’t.

Last year I was in a slump. I witnessed mediocrity get rewarded with microfame and book deals. I watched brilliantly-crafted novels go unnoticed in favor of poor fiction with its grating, overwritten prose and characters void of complexity. I read a lot of lists and scrolled through what seemed like a labyrinth of quizzes, wondering, does anyone feel anything? Are we simply a character in a sitcom? Are we reduced to a top-ten list that’s meant to define the whole of us? Are we happy with this? Are we content with art that is compressed, regurgitated and made to go “viral” with a string of keywords and a nonsensical image? (I harbor a desire to torch anyone who doesn’t use this word sardonically). I read scores of blogs written by people who care only to publish a book because it would bolster their “brand,” as opposed to having a fervent desire to create art, to tell a story that will leave its indelible mark.

Basically, I read a lot of shit on the internet. A towering inferno of it.

And yes, mediocrity has always existed and has always been rewarded (I would argue not as handsomely). And yes, life is cruel and unfair. And yes, great writing will always, inevitably, find its place in the world. But it’s hard, as someone who writes tough, dark books and reads them as passionately as I write them, to know that this democratization has also opened the floodgates of shit, and it’s upon the reader to sift through the rubble to find what’s meaningful. To see that which is good. Also, I wonder whether we’ve been exposed to so much shit that what we think is good is no longer? I don’t know how to answer any of this–I just wonder.

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Illustration Credit: John Alcorn, via

Last year I purchased and read a lot of books. Many of which were remarkable. Many of which were shit. I’d nearly given up hope (call it end-of-year dramatics, and I acknowledge my proclivity toward it) and then I started the year off reading a succession of good fucking books that made me feel the way books should–they gave me hope.

Likeable characters bore the fuck out of me. If I want a shiny, happy life I only need to scroll through popular Instagram feeds rather than spend 300 pages cuddled up next to it. I read to get uncomfortable, to learn, to gain perspective and be transformed in some way. And reading has made me a better writer, not simply for the techniques learned from authors I admire, but for how good books drive me to go deeper with my scalpel until there’s nowhere else to go. If given the chance to write from the perspective of a nice girl who gets her heart broken and perseveres or from one of a sociopath, know that I would choose the latter. I’m fascinated by people who harbor a degree of darkness, characters who are flawed and complex. These are people who have been through war and are still dressing their wounds. I sometimes like novels that are unresolved or bleak because sometimes this is life, and the reading of this gives one wisdom, makes them see the world differently.

After I read Sonya Hartnett’s What the Birds See, I joked to a friend that I should move to Australia because they would be receptive to the kinds of books I want to write. I’m fascinated by children, how they’re untouched and innocent, and I’m even more fascinated when I see them interact with adults, because adults always find ways to ruin the worlds children have built, brick by brick, intentional or unintentional. There is no Santa Claus, that overheard argument, the parents who fall out of love as quickly as they took up lovemaking like cross stitch–Hartnett writes about the vulnerability and breakability of children. I set down her book and nodded my head and said, these are the kind of books I always seek to write: dark, elegant, fragile and visceral.

I followed Harnett’s novel with My Brilliant Friend–the first in a tetralogy of Neopolitan novels about a lifelong friendship–and consumed it so voraciously that I immediately ordered the second two books. Next up is Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women–more tales about eccentric, beguiling and flawed, yet beautiful, women (notice a pattern?).

Terrible writing will always frustrate me, but I’m trying to train myself to sift through and discover the voices that seek to shout above the din of listicles and storytelling that solely serves as a traffic-driving authenticity device. But this is often my flaw–I’ll fixate on the shit at the expense of what’s really good and pure.

Work in progress, people. Work in progress.

on this imminent nomad life: you can roam if you want to

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If it’s darkness we’re having, let it be extravagant. –from Jane Kenyon’s “Taking Down the Tree”

Remember “Roam”? If I go back to 1989, I’ll find a girl obsessed with Otis Spunkmeyer cookies, Winona Ryder and Nine Stories. I prefered books written by alcoholics (Hemingway, Cheever), social deviants (Dostoevsky) and the compulsively mad (Sexton, Plath). Routinely, I was summoned to the guidance counselor’s office because I penned stories about small girls hanging from ropes tied to trees–is there something wrong at home? the counselor timidly inquired, to which I’d respond, no, there’s nothing wrong and think, of course there’s something wrong. Why else would I spend a childhood, a life, living in my own head? A girl called Jody use to steal lines from poems I’d written and claimed them as her own, even though she didn’t understand what she’d copied. Back then nobody wanted to know. We lived for the pinprick of anesthesia. Blindness was a constant state.

My worldview was pessimistic, bleak–why else would R.E.M. foretell our doom? It’s the end of the world as we know of it, and the like. I remember assembling a presentation (it was probably for English class, where I practiced most of my teenage dramatics) and blasting the close to “King of Birds”: Everybody hit the ground, everybody hit the ground, because everything around me teetered on ruin.

Naturally, I was sent to the guidance counselor’s office. Again.

I was forever in the guidance counselor’s office. The same woman who cajoled me would later encourage me to only apply to local colleges and state schools, and was visibly shocked when I received scholarships from U Penn, NYU, and Boston University. I hated my high school so much that when I received my ten year reunion notice (a meetup at a fucking pancake house?!), I wanted to torch the computer where the email resided.

In 1989, I cowered in corners, mute, scribbling into notebooks or in the margins of the novels I read. While girls rode in cars with their glossed lips and Liz Claiborne bags during the day, and snuck beers and drove drunk around Grant Park in the evening, I consulted maps and real estate listings. I was in the business of migration. For as long as I could remember, our family was itinerant. Home was a place where mail was simply forwarded. Whether we were dodging loan sharks, eviction notices or months of unpaid rent, we’d pack the whole of our lives in cardboard boxes and had hope that this new town, this new home, would deliver us a better life. We staked our hearts on that deliverance. Sometimes, hope can be a fever, a sickness, because we’d invariably unpack the same old darkness. Hang the same sadness in our freshly-painted closets. After school, my pop and I would drive all over Long Island just to pass the time, just to drive. And if there is one memory from my teenage years worth preserving, worth pulling out of a fire, it’s me and my pop in a car, driving.

Even now, he’ll pick me up from the train station and ask if I want to go for a drive.

In 1989 I was 14, and I regarded the B-52s with their hallucinogenic outfits and towering bouffants with a mixture of curiosity and disdain. Who had money to roam around the world when Con Edison routinely pinched the gas and shuttered all the lights? How does one roam the world without wings (planes?) without wheels (cars)? Were we supposed to pull on our Reeboks and hoof it? And why was everyone in the video happy and clapping? How could anyone be happy in 1989, I thought.

Last weekend, I take slow steps with my pop. I visit him a few times a week at his rehab center in Long Island, and I bring him food, make him laugh and applaud his progress in physical therapy. I tell him that every step forward without pain is a victory. He holds my hand, squeezes it, and tells me that he loves me so much. Sometimes it scares me how much I love him. I tell him about Montana, New Mexico, California and Washington. I tell him about my plan to move four points west, and he laughs at the idea of me surrounded by ranchers. He can picture it but he can’t. He tells me I need to do this, I need to go.

I make him promise me that we’ll run as fast as our legs can carry us before I leave. I want to see you run, I say. He laughs and tells me that he wants to see me run too.

I’ve decided that my first stop will be Montana, late summer. Part of me is thrilled, part of me is frightened, and I know whenever I’m scared I take comfort in reading. Over the past few weeks, I’ve read dozens of articles, essays and short stories about the business of leaving. About roaming. About yanking up roots and re-planting. About the beauty in the harvest. A few of my favorites are below–I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

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  • Chelsea of Frolic! on her year-long European odyssey: “Seeing the world enlightens me. This trip was about facing the nagging wanderlust that had been bugging me for years and getting back to gardening, hence the farm stays. I have a blurry picture of what it is I want to do at the end of this and am figuring it out along the way. I’ve told myself it’s ok not to be overly ambitious right now. I keep busy with work, creative projects, and soaking up my environment but it’s definitely a slower pace than I lived at home and I think that’s ok for me right now.”
  • Laura Jane of Superlatively Rude on picking up and moving to Bali: “The best thing that happened to me in 2014 was being let go from my job. That job held so many excuses for me. I couldn’t work on my book, because where was the time? I couldn’t travel, because I only got three weeks a year. Hell! I couldn’t even take a sick day without my pay being docked. I spent ten hours a week commuting on the central line – FORTY HOURS A MONTH! A WHOLE WEEK’S WORTH OF WORK! – spending my cash on £8.95 salads at lunch because “I deserved it”. It was inferred daily that my work had limited value. To not have an opinion. To not make a fuss.”
  • The esteemed Pico Iyer (I just love his essays) on foreignness: “This is the point of the foreign. We don’t travel halfway across the world to find the same things we could have seen at home. Those who undertake long and dangerous journeys have every incentive in stressing their discovery of a world far better than the one they left behind.”
  • Russell V. J. Ward on how living abroad changes everything: “Things that were once important no longer matter. Things that didn’t seem important before now matter more. The value of friendship is paramount. Familiarity is a forgotten concept and you don’t take anything for granted. The act of moving abroad made you realize that “things” don’t equal happiness. In fact, you start to redefine your original idea of success.”
  • Clemantine Wamariya on traveling to 10 countries in 1 year: “I began this nine-month journey with an open mind and a grand hunger to learn. What I came to realize is that the world is a very small town. We are all neighbors. Be kind. Be gentle. And — always — eat.”
  • Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo, text graphic my own.

    books worth reading: a year-end compilation

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    Years ago, I used to keep a running list of books I’d read over the course of a year. The habit started in 2002 when I resolved to read 52 books in one year (I ended up reading 60), and it continued through the greater part of this decade, except the past few years when I was too busy trying to fix my life instead of tracking it. And while I loathe year-end round-ups of any variety, I do see the value in keeping a list of books I’ve read. In the same breath I can provide a smart book recommendation while seeing where my head was at over the course of the year. Looking back at all of these stories, it occurs to me that I was drawn to people who were lost and broken but set out on the road to self-repair.

    Candidly, I purchased many more books than the 25 I read this year. Some were epic disappointments (I might be the only person on this planet who couldn’t get into Ben Lerner’s latest), some still remain on my to-read stack (Lydia Millet, Darcey Steinke–I’m coming for you come January), and others I couldn’t read because the prose style or story was too close to that of my own novel.

    Paul H. Connolly’s On Essays: A Reader for Writers | Marilynne Robinson’s Lila | Peter Chapman’s Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World
    Jessie Hartland’s Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child | Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn | Katie Crouch’s Abroad | Brando Skyhorse’s Take This Man | Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park | Molly Wizenberg’s Delancey | Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen | Celebrating You (and the beautiful person you are) | It’s Gonna Be Okay | Lydia Millet’s Magnificence | Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure | Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch | Yiyun Li’s Kinder Than Solitude | Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable | Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply | Susan Minot’s Thirty Girls | Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business | Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal | Alejandro Junger’s Clean Gut: The Breakthrough Plan for Eliminating the Root Cause of Disease and Revolutionizing Your Health | April Peveteaux’s Gluten is My Bitch | Nadya Andreeva’s Happy Belly

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