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February 2016



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Jan. 11th, 2016


Trial and error

I've been thinking about mistakes and wrong turns, how much they're a part of writing (and life), and how sometimes the wrong turn becomes the right road. So much good work seems to be a product of trial and error. Julia Forster even has a guest post on Nathan Bransford's blog to that effect. She calls it "How Not to Write a Novel" but maybe that is how to write a novel, or anything else: exploring, testing, failing.

When keeping scientific records, you don't erase or delete mistakes. You strike them with a single line and write the correction nearby. Sometimes it becomes important to know what was written originally, so the single line is used to keep the original legible. "We went that way, but turned around," it says.

We're all just finding our way. A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it's not necessarily the most interesting route.

Jan. 6th, 2016


M Train

I'm reading M Train, by Patti Smith. What I like most is the way she treats ordinary days and small events as significant, meaningful. She pays attention; she finds layers and connections in everything. Small objects lead to big ideas. And suddenly walking to a cafe for a cup of coffee and a piece of toast becomes an adventure, the way it is when you're traveling and every detail is new and interesting. Since I've been reading this book, I have also been looking at my own familiar world with the eyes of a traveler, an adventurer.

She's also a good example of following your heart. Many times in the book, she does thinks that make no sense from a practical point of view--buys a ramshackle house, gives all the money in her pocket to a stranger simply because he says so, travels across Mexico in the hope of writing a tribute to coffee--just because they make her happy, or they feel to her like the thing to do at the moment. We give a lot of lip service to following your heart and living in the moment and knowing that money isn't everything, but how often do we actually live that way? It feels like a revelation to be reminded it is possible to live that way, to take risks and seek magic, to answer to the voice inside instead of all the external voices of other people's expectations.

Jan. 3rd, 2016


Fresh starts

The divisions we apply to our days, the separations that we call "months" and "years," are to some extent arbitrary. They are partly based on our relationship to the sun and moon, but the month that we call the "beginning" of the year is arbitrary.

Nevertheless, there are some psychological benefits to our practice of turning a calendar page and starting a shiny new year with a fresh clean page. If there are any patterns we've been stuck in, any useless baggage we've been clinging to, this may be a good time to make a break. It doesn't hurt to reflect on where we are and what we need, what changes we'd like to make, where we'd like to go next.

Here's to a new year, new eyes, new purpose.

Jan. 1st, 2016


Change is in the air

2015 was a year of big change for me.
Most of the changes were not external. I did not move, nor change day jobs. My relationship with my significant other did not change. There were no births or deaths within my immediate inner circle.
Yet internally, there were earthquakes. I'm a planner, goal-oriented, organized. For years, I have given my time and energy to certain goals and activities. Sometimes my progress was fast and usually it was slow, but I kept moving forward and I never doubted what I wanted or where I was going.
In the past year or so, that turned upside down.

One of the amazing things I've found within the writing community is that many of us go through the same things at the same time. I was blessed to experience the excitement of my debut-novel year with other debut novelists. When I was having second-book doubts, I had other sophomore novelists with whom to compare notes. When I suffered a period of burnout, I found I wasn't alone there either.
During the past year, I've been reassessing my goals and commitments, and trying to figure out what's next for me. It's not just a case of trying to figure out a new road to reach longstanding goals. I've reached some of my goals, and others I'm not so sure I want to pursue anymore. It's the goals themselves that I'm questioning.
And then I see this post from Becky Levine in which she says, "I’ve been feeling as though my antennae are out, [scanning] ... for the next big thing on my Life’s To Do list." And I see this post from Natalie Whipple on a much rougher change in direction, a post in which she says, "It's funny, how you can accomplish all your goals ... and yet not have any of the expected results." And this from Jody Casella on letting go and making changes, in which she says, "Shedding stuff from my house had a weird ripple effect. Once you shine a spotlight on things you've had for years and ask yourself: Do I need this? Do I want it? Really? You might find that everything, potentially, is a candidate for the recycle bin."
Change is in the air: good, bad, and in between.

I do want to acknowledge that there were a couple of external changes that also had an impact: some health challenges which are still ongoing, and a change in one of my closest friendships, in which my friend has had to step back to deal with her own health challenges. I've had to face the fact that time and energy are not inexhaustible, and so my incentive to spend them wisely is even greater than before.

I don't know what this new year will bring. I have more unknowns in my future than I've had for a long time. But I'm starting to see this as an opportunity, and I've also been reassured to remember that I'm far from the first to undergo a time of upheaval, reassessment, and exploration.

May we all have a good year, wherever it takes us.

Dec. 30th, 2015


The Big Short

I rarely get out to the movie theater, but managed it this week. This particular theater was newly renovated to feature big clean aisles and large comfy recliners. Having grown up in the era when beautiful old theaters were getting chopped up into cold, sticky-floored multiplexes with a distinctly garage-like vibe, I have to say I like the new decor.

I did not like the previews. And there were tons of them. Preview after preview after preview. I used to love movie trailers, but every single preview we saw was exceedingly loud and exceedingly violent, with someone getting brutally attacked in every one. Sitting there began to feel like being assaulted. "This is why I don't go to the movies anymore," I thought. I don't know why we had such violent previews, since the movie we had come to see (The Big Short) was not violent. Maybe most movies are just like that now.

Anyway, once the beatings and shootings (and a bear attack) were over, we got to watch mayhem of a different sort: bloodless, cerebral, global. The Big Short follows the adventures of the money men who foresaw, and cashed in on, the 2008 housing-market debacle.

As a writer, I was fascinated by the line the filmmakers had to walk. Normally, in a movie like this where the main characters are taking huge risks in the face of a lot of naysaying, you root for the main characters. But in this case, rooting for the main characters meant rooting for the collapse of the housing market and the economy. It meant hoping for a disaster that caused much suffering in real life, suffering that many in the audience have endured. At least the movie acknowledges this: even the characters who profited were squeamish about it. What keeps us from hating them is that the people they were betting against were so much worse: creating and propping up a set of appalling deceptions, careless and heedless of where it was all leading, and smug in their belief that the glory days could last forever.

Another challenge the filmmakers had was creating suspense in a situation where we all know how it turned out; we all know what happened. In this case, the suspense was in not being entirely sure which of the characters would come out all right, or when, or how. It was in trying to understand how this fiasco could happen in the first place. And that leads to another difficulty: explaining complicated financial deals to a general audience.

Here, the movie uses an interesting device that could have backfired (it could've turned out condescending, or boring), but really seemed to work: having celebrities explain complicated financial concepts with simple, concrete analogies. Anthony Bourdain, for example, compared the repackaging of bad debts to a chef tossing leftover halibut into a fish stew: take your less-than-attractive product and put it in a pretty new vehicle. These explanations were also used very sparingly, just a few times, and exactly at the right places. So, IMHO, it mostly worked (although having Margot Robbie in a bubble bath while she explained her bit was a little too gratuitously cheesecakey for my tastes).

I have always been partial to anatomy-of-a-meltdown movies (quite literally, in the case of The China Syndrome), so maybe this was just my kind of movie. But with its dark humor and extreme relevance--economic bubbles seeming destined to recur--it may be many people's kind of movie. I hope so. Aside from the subject of the movie itself, I also liked watching it as a writer, and seeing how the filmmakers turned this unlikely subject and unlikely group of characters into something eminently watchable.

Dec. 28th, 2015


Taking time

Over at YA Outside the Lines, I posted about the time, and patience, it takes to get a novel right. A sample: "It takes a long time to write a novel, time during which my daily progress is barely measurable. Some days, all I do is delete. Some days, all I do is think."

Dec. 26th, 2015


The in-between days

"I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything .... I am still pursued by a neurosis about work .... A day where one has not pushed oneself to the limit seems a damaged damaging day, a sinful day. Not so! The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever."
--May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

Dec. 22nd, 2015


Spreading some cheer

Nathan Bransford is doing his annual fundraising blog challenge for Heifer International.

If you leave a comment at his blog, he'll donate $2. If you tweet about the donation challenge including the hashtag #NBHeifer and the link  http://bit.ly/1MpYxaJ that's also $2.

If you're moved to donate (as I will be doing) or start a blog challenge yourself, so much the better! But even if you can't afford a donation, you can help just with a few clicks, as described above. Please spread the word, and happy holidays!

Dec. 19th, 2015


Memorable books

I said I couldn't do a "best books of 2015" post, but I thought I'd share a few of my memorable reads from this year. Note that these are books I read in 2015; most of them were not published in 2015. I'm lucky if I can get to a book within a decade of its publication.

The Unspeakable, by Meghan Daum.
The Folded Clock, by Heidi Julavits.
Kensington Homestead, by Nic Esposito.

These three memoirs/essay collections cover a variety of topics. Daum and Julavits cast wide nets, discussing various aspects of their lives. Esposito focuses on the challenges and rewards of running a farm in the middle of a city. I particularly like the way Julavits handled time in her book: the pieces are not arranged chronologically (they jump back and forth in time), but they are meant to be read in the order in which they are presented.

Love: A Philadelphia Affair, by Beth Kephart.
Let's Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell.
Devotion, by Dani Shapiro.

Kephart presents short pieces on Philadelphia; even if you don't know Philadelphia, you can appreciate these slices of urban life. Caldwell's account of her friendship with writer Caroline Knapp covers so much territory: friendship; solitude and introversion; rowing; the bonds people make with pets; alcoholism; loss. (Be warned: Caldwell's book was also one of the few books that has ever made me cry.) Shapiro pursues the spiritual while touching also on family ties, on what it means to be a parent and a daughter.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast.
Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn, by Amanda Gefter.

Speaking of parents: they figure prominently in Chast's graphic (i.e., illustrated) memoir on dealing with her parents' end-of-life issues, and Gefter's search for, oh, nothing more than the key to the Universe (a search sparked by, and shared with, her father). Both books are funny while dealing with extremely serious issues. Gefter's book came closer than any other book ever has to explaining physics and cosmology at a level I could (mostly) grasp.

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay.
Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit.

These books deserve to be in the canon of feminist literature, and I suspect they are or soon will be. Gay's book covers a wider range of topics. Recommended for anyone who wonders why feminism, or why we needed a Third Wave, or for anyone who already knows but wants like-minded company and a view of what's next.

This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.
Backlash, by Sarah Darer Littman.
Prisoner B-3087, by Alan Gratz, based on the story by Ruth and Jack Gruener.

Backlash is a YA novel, a fast and compelling read, about bullying in the online era. The inciting event--a miscommunication--was so realistic, as was the non-sugary but satisfying ending. Littman explores some very nasty goings-on from multiple points of view, making it easier to understand the characters' motives even when we find them appalling. The other two are more "tween" books, This One Summer a stunning graphic novel about family, loss, and growing up; Prisoner B-3087 based on the true story of a teen who survived ten concentration camps in World War II.

Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink.
The Crazy Iris, ed. by Kenzaburo Oe.
The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose.

Fink's account of a New Orleans hospital during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has stayed with me, as have the stories in The Crazy Iris (about the aftermath of nuclear bombings). Both are emotionally tough but rewarding and thought-provoking. And on the lighter side, Rose's account of reading through a shelf of library books is likely to delight any big reader or book lover.

Disclosure: Beth Kephart is a friend, and I've had friendly conversations with Sarah Darer Littman. Nic Esposito's press published one of my short stories. Nevertheless, my recommendations here are based purely on my views as a reader. All books listed here, I either bought or checked out of the library.

Dec. 17th, 2015


Some thoughts on memoir and the elephant in the room

I once read an essay that was ostensibly about grief, but as I read it I suspected that what the author had really done, via several kinds of self-destructive behavior, was to avoid grieving. For me, this essay--which came highly recommended--missed the mark, because ultimately I didn't think it was about what the author thought it was about. We didn't have that meeting of the minds that is usually such a satisfying part of reading, especially reading memoirs and personal essays. (And I want to be clear that my issue here is not how the author chose to respond to the grief-inducing incident: her life is her life, and I'm not particularly interested in approving or disapproving of her actions. My problem was that the writing didn't lead me to the insights that she meant to spark, but took me in a different direction, which was suggested by the evidence but unexplored on the page.)

Similarly, I'm almost finished reading a memoir in which alcohol hijacks the main thread of the story. The author is trying to tell me one story, to share one set of insights about his life, and yet I'm being distracted by the huge role that drunkenness plays in the events. And it's frustrating that, for all the soul-searching and life-interpreting the author does, he only grazes the surface of the alcohol topic. In this book, drinking is like a Chekhovian gun that is never fired: present throughout, but never examined.

I don't mean that, in this case, the author must run to an AA meeting and tell us all about it. I mean that since drinking plays such a huge part in his story, it should be dissected with the same care as the memoir's other main threads--no matter what he concludes about it, or even if he concludes he's not ready to conclude anything yet. That territory should be explored.

One of the difficulties of the memoir and the personal essay is that we don't always see ourselves the way others see us; we're not always ready to face or acknowledge the elephant in the room. I can empathize with these writers as people, but as a reader engaging with their work, I want more.

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