I confess to snobbery and laziness!


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Because I feel better about myself when I’m doing two things at once, I listen to a lot of audio books. I listen on long walks or while folding a mountain of laundry, and I choose something plot heavy, something that will keep me walking or folding. Since I can’t take margin notes, or underline favorite sentences, I usually pick books I consider guilty pleasures—something light to divert my anxiety in this time of political unease on our overheating planet. Recently I listened to Good in Bed (in its 57th or some such crazy number print run) which many of you, me included, will consider chick-lit. Yes, I’m a snob. Yet, Jennifer Weiner has a lot to say about ghettoization of women’s stories, and, hello, I write about women’s lives. Plus, I really like her op-ed pieces in the NYTs. I think she’s a smart and funny feminist who calls bullshit on everything—body shaming, anti-choice agendas, misogyny, frat houses, and Justice Kavanaugh. She cares deeply about all our girls. The novel is an absolute fairy tale in which the big girl gets the job, the baby, the friendships, and finally the man, all by virtue of her own pluck and humor. (Yes, the novel is very hetero-normative, and even perplexed by the sole gay couple.) It also includes shopping, shoes, and handbags as signifiers, which aren’t really my jam. But I liked Cannie, the main character, and I laughed out loud. What makes it chick-lit is the adorable bow at the end. I’m not going to lie, I would LOVE an adorable bow in my life about now! But in a novel, I feel cheated when everything works out so well. What’s your guilty pleasure? And if you write to tell me it’s Russian Novels, or Gilgamesh, or some other humble brag….just, please, don’t.



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Like you, I have a stack of resource books on my desk. Books I think will make my work shine with insight, help me master structure, invent interesting situations, create compelling characters my readers will care about, and write snappy dialog. And they might—if only I would read them! Lately, my most pressing need is getting unstuck. The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, is full of terrific prompts to use at your desk, or to share with students. Here’s one from J.D. McClatchy that I go to often:

  •       Find a seed poem in the world that you particularly love. (It’s great when the poem  aligns thematically, or in voice, or setting, with your writing project.)
  •        Type the poem out in triple space.
  •        Write your own lines between the lines.
  •        Erase the seed poem.

I sometimes do exercises like this to loosen up, in the same way an athlete stretches. When I’m stuck in my story, I do this exercise with my own words, cutting and pasting a paragraph or section onto a new page, triple spacing the lines and filling in with details, internalization, action.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fossler, has great short essays. Aimee Bender waxes on the value of memorizing poems. Mary Gaitskill thinks about Anna Karenina and the momentary access we sometimes gain to our hidden, true selves. Yiyun Lee writes about looking at strangers and imagining their lives.
I’d love to know of resource books you love. Drop me a line.



eat

I’m finishing up this newsletter with another guilty pleasure—popcorn for dinner. My husband travels a good bit and when he’s away, I pop a giant bowl, generously butter (seriously, like ½ a stick) and sprinkle on truffle salt. I pour a glass of big red wine, slip into sweatpants (okay, stay in my sweatpants–my writing uniform), my dog curls up at my feet, and I fire up Netflix! Honestly, I’m getting a little misty-eyed and hungry thinking about it now. Just so you know, this is the absolutely best, most amazing popcorn popper. (A perfect gift!) Right about here you might be shrugging your shoulders, lamenting the missing link to a fantastic dish or cookie, but it’s the holidays, Babe. We all need an easy night. What is your go to for a simple evening in?

boosting habits and flavors


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Last month I read Sigrid Nunez’s novel, The Friend, about grief, friendship, the love (and broken heart) of a bed-hogging Great Dane, and so much more. The novel, both funny and mournful, was deeply satisfying. Nunez and her beautiful novel will deservedly be brought to the attention of many by her recent win of the National Book Award, and I too encourage you to snag a copy as this book is definitely in my top ten for 2018. Of particular delight are Nunez’s glib and precise jabs at the death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts nature of writing. The unnamed narrator, who is a writer and a teacher, says, “If reading really does increase empathy, as we are constantly being told that it does, it appears that writing takes some away.”



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Lots of writers I know express frustration around getting writing time in. We have daily goals (1000 words or 2 hours or ???) and, we fall short. (Cue the cycle of disparaging self-talk at which I excel!) So, I’ve been doing some reading about habits, and I’m all in for cleaning up mine. The Power of Habits, by Charles Duhigg, explores keystone habits and rewards. The idea is, change just one habit that will then (fingers crossed) change everything. My target habit: lingering in bed with coffee and the paper every morning, which is pleasant, but what if (hold on…) I went straight to my desk instead? Duhigg suggests creating a reward around the new habit. For example, open my writing project file first thing and then reward myself with the coffee at my desk. Along with the coffee reward comes the satisfaction of getting words on page, and the diminishment of negative self-talk. If I do this enough (some say it takes only two weeks to establish a habit) anticipating the rewards at the click on the file (the coffee, the satisfaction, the new kindness) reinforces the habit. I know this isn’t revolutionary, and I know, sadly, I’m reward dependent. But, maybe you are too? How do you get the work done?



eat

Who goes to New York City and eats at the same restaurant twice? Apparently we do. With the ongoing knee replacement saga, my husband was interested in propping up his leg and feeling comfy. Hearth was just the ticket. Oh, man, dinner was fantastic (polenta, greens, rabbit, autumn squash), but even if you ordered only the chicories salad and garlic bread you would be delighted. Roasted mushrooms and Spatchcock chicken were also terrific and I plan on duplicating them at home with these fine recipes (thing onething two).  Finally, here’s a quick article from Marco Canora, the chef at Hearth, and Tammy Walker, a certified food coach (really? who knew?) listing five flavor boosters to  tastify our meals.

in which I celebrate flouncing


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My classes are all ending, and while I adore my students and love reading their work, I am so excited to dig into these two beauties. First, Your Duck is My Duck, by the funny and amazing, Deborah Eisenberg. I mean, Eisenberg uses flounce to describe a sunrise, as in, “The plane took off in frosty grime and floated down across water, from which the sun was rising in sheer pink and yellow flounces.” And that’s on page four. Imagine the gems and delight that awaits!  The other book I can’t wait to read is Evening in Paradise, the new collection of stories by Lucia Berlin. I loved her collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women(if you haven’t read it, turn immediately to the story, “Toda Luna, Todo Año”). Oh, yes, and then there is this one, which I think I’ll give a listen.



write

Because I recently wrote a story with a couple of rabbits in it, I felt tenderness for Judy, the rabbit in this Modern Love column. Of course I love a good read with my coffee and Modern Love often delivers…and/but am I the only person with a folder full of failed Modern Love essays? I did a little digging and found some places you might want to send your personal essay that didn’t make the cut in the Sunday Times.
Try Dame/First Personfull grown peopleThe Rumpus, and Bustle (where they are currently accepting pitches for first person essays about literature and identity pieces about your relationship to literature). As always, be certain to check out the site, familiarize yourself with tone and content to see if your work is appropriate. Let me know when and where your work appears! You’re welcome.



eat

If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, or regularly read the newsletter, you know my husband has recently had a total knee replacement. Okay, yay for technology, and, wow…it is a big surgery with a long recovery. Housebound as we’ve been, I’m nurse, chef and laundress. Here’s a quick list of some excellent dishes that I’ve delivered to the sick room:  Meatloaf ParmesanMa-Po Tofu (to which I added a sh*t-ton of shiitakes),  Buckwheat Chocolate Chip Cookies (I add dried cranberries and toasted walnuts with terrific results), Baked Cheesy Pasta w/Wild Mushrooms, (I added butternut squash, and, I’m thinking this would be a great dish for cubed leftover turkey), Roy Choi’s Braised Short Ribs (scan the readers’ notes, don’t add sugar, use an Asian pear instead) Brussel Sprouts w/Pomegranate and Walnuts (these definitely deserve a place at your Thanksgiving Table!) And so much soup.  So. Much. Soup.

to burn or not to burn


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I decided to burn my journals. I know, it was kind of a big deal. They were tucked away in a grocery bag on the top of my closet and every time I glimpsed them I felt burdened. If I were to suddenly die, would I want anyone reading my private, messy thoughts? Absolutely not! It was like I had a bomb on my top shelf. Before I struck the match, I read through them, sometimes skimming and other times absorbed by my ideas, my worries, things I found funny in the world. And then I started asking around, what were my friends doing with their journals? Had they read their mother’s diaries? I wrote about the burn here. I’d love to know what you plan on doing with your journals, or, if you’ve read a loved one’s private pages. Shoot me a note.



write

Here’s a confession. I’m ridiculously weak when it comes to the crack pipe of likes on my Instagram feed, on FB, and to the sweet ding of an incoming text or email. I’ve definitely noticed a shift in my attention span. And the pathetic thing is, I’m the person in control of where I put my attention. Aren’t I?
Here comes the irony, my device is saving me from my device. I’m certain most of you know about Freedom, an app that allows you schedule lock downs, denying your computer internet access. But you might not know about Forest. It’s an app that rewards you with the growth of virtual trees when you commit to NOT looking at your phone. (I see you shaking your head at me!) Say you commit to 90 minutes of no phone, you’ll grow a tree! Build your forest! Earn points to get new varieties of trees! And, if you fail…your tree dies. That stricken tree skeleton will populate your forest to remind you to be stronger. Go ahead, judge. But you might find that while you work on your novel, your stories or essays, you grow a forest as beautiful as mine

I also kept Grace Paley by my side. Something about her gossipy, smart voice makes me feel I’m at a beloved auntie’s kitchen table. Paley says, “The outside world will trivialize you for almost anything if it wants to. You may as well be who you are.” I brought along, Grace Paley, The Collected Stories to read before sleep each night. Paley also says, “But what’s a writer for? The whole point is to put yourself into other lives, other heads—writers have always done that. If you screw up, so someone will tell you, that’s all.” Unshackling screwing up from shame and failure is a great gift.



eat

I was in DC last week and had a chance to eat at the fantastic Tail Up Goat. Not only was the food amazing, the wine delicious, but the staff was so much fun to be around. My husband and I sat at the bar and chatted with Jo Beth, who didn’t even realize her name came straight out of Little Women. One of the many delights was a vegetarian cabbage, apple butter and sweet potato dish. The best thing about it? Delicata squash chips which I am going to try to duplicate at home. Sprinkle them on soup? MmmHmm. Substitute them for croutons in a salad? You bet. Eat them to revive from an afternoon slump? Yes, please. I found a couple recipes online, here and here, depending upon whether sweet or spicy is your jam.

fix a broken heart


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Calypso: I’m a longtime fan of David Sedaris. This collection is so tender, it made me wonder, do we all get more tender as we move through middle age and life beats us up? Have no fears about Sedaris losing his edge and slipping into sentimentality, Calypso is scalpel sharp, funny, and a beautiful love letter to Sedaris’ dad.



write

A question that rises up for me when times are hard, “How can I stay engaged with creative work? How can I write fiction when I am suffering?” When we’re in pain, life seems oh so long! When considering all that we’d like to accomplish, man, life is short! So, I took a look at ways to write through suffering and here’s a couple things I found.

Feeling better can begin with art. Check out this article, “Writing Therapy: Using a Pen and Paper to Enhance Personal Growth.”I especially like this little nugget, “Write down what makes you want to write in the first place.” And this, “End smart, re-read what you’ve written and reflect with a sentence or two.” Both of these are excellent tidbits for the memoirist to keep in mind.

If it hurts, put it in a story. Turns out narrative expressive writing does wonders for your health. Loved this piece over at the Big Think, “Can You Fix a Broken Heart by Writing About It?



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Okay, this new project…this newsletter is letting me do some fun food exploration.  I thought for this first one I’d share a food blog I’m loving.

Everyday Dorie from Dorie Greenspan, who “gave up working on her doctorate in gerontology to bake cookies.” These savory treats look delicious to nibble with a glass of pink wine!

And, finally, here’s a recipe I cannot wait to make. Watermelon Poke I know…it sounds whack, but in these dog days of summer, it checks all the boxes–salty, sweet, crunchy and cold.

public shame?


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I just read Jon Ronson’s, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamedand I found it fascinating. Ronson looks at the way social media, particularly the phenomenon of the Twitter pile on, impacts people on both sides of the shaming equation. Targets of shaming struggle with PTSD, job loss, relationship troubles, and depression. Those of us who pile on get the buzz of righteous indignation, of having our feelings validated by the crowd at little personal cost, for we are a huge distance from those we attack. We don’t see the results. We also become more homogenized out of fear that our turn to be shamed may be just around the corner. We hold back on dumb jokes, questionable opinions, and off the cuff comments as they could result in our own lambasting. Ronson addresses both warranted and unwarranted actions that have spurred shaming. He describes where we are all vulnerable—in the gap between who we present to the world and our true selves. The gap between the truth and the façade is rife with possibility for unveiling and shaming. Ronson doesn’t leave us there, he also discusses how we recover from shaming. Really, such a thoughtful book.



write

I teach memoir, fiction and generative writing workshops, and I’m part of a writing group, but the truth is, I always enjoy being a student. It’s illuminating and valuable for me as a teacher to be on the other side of the table, to feel the creep of insecurity when one’s own work is about to be discussed, and the slight worry when you float ideas and opinions to the group. Being a student keeps me humble and open, qualities I want to cultivate for the rest of my life. When I can afford it, I really love going to summer writing conferences. I have been a fellow at Sewanee and Writers in Paradise, a participant at Tin House, a teacher at Community of Writers, a presenter and participant at The Muse and the Marketplace. I recommend all of these opportunities to you. And, I recognize that sometimes we just can’t get away from our responsibilities. In the past year or so I’ve enrolled in online writing classes from One Story. You probably know them for their lovely magazine. They also periodically offer short writing classes on topics such as editing, prompts, story shape and plot. In fact, I’ve just enrolled in the plot class. I’ve been happy with the quality of the discussions and assignments. So, if you’re feeling a little lackluster sitting alone at your desk, give it a try.



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Okay, this is a sort of eat/read amalgamation. I just finished, Killing It, by Camas Davis, a memoir about her pursuit of food from pasture to table. It was a fascinating education in artisanal butchering, and I’ve never craved meat so much as I did while reading her book. In fact, one day I drove across town to buy jamon iberico as I was so moved and tempted by her salty descriptions. I simply wrapped the slices around plump black mission figs because I had no patience for a more careful preparation. But, look at this option here for a terrific toast and this one for a vegetable side dish. Don’t cast aside the simplicity of wrapping a slice around a chunk of nutty, buttery Manchego, or setting a salty bit on top of deviled eggs.

meatloaf made me cry…


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With a long drive ahead of me to writing retreat at Hedgebrook, I sought a good listen. I chose Tommy Orange’s new novel, There There. What a mistake. No wait!!!  It was so gorgeous, I needed to hold the book in my hands. I wanted to go back and fully absorb the voices of the characters, (Jacquie Red Feather particularly broke my heart), underline passages, write in the margins, use sections as samples for my writing students. Samples that reveal truth, tension, vivid settings. Samples that explore what it means to belong, how we suffer, how we pull through, what it means to be an outsider, what it means to have your land stolen from you. FYI, I plan on listening to the novel again as I drive home to Portland. And, as soon as I get there, I’ll run out to buy a copy. I heard today that Orange is longlisted for the National Book Award, and that does not surprise me at all.



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For nearly three weeks I’ve been nestled in the woods on Whidbey Island, near Useless Bay. I’ve been in residency at Hedgebrook with a small group of women, all of us working away in our lovely, perfect cottages and coming together for dinner each night to discuss our work, pedagogy, the news, our lives, books we love, and the llamas across the street! (Check out my instagram @natalieserber, for some great llama footage.) The time and space unburdened from responsibility and social strain allowed me to fully inhabit my interior life—which, of course, is the raw material for art, and, let’s be real, super scary! I fretted about coming up dry, about being consumed by my own insecurities, and hating my work. Here are a couple books that saw me through the stuck moments. I highly recommend, Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit, by Corita Kent and Jan Steward.  Those of you that don’t know Kent’s work are in for a treat. The book is full of exercises that encourage you to let go of outcome and embrace process. Kent says, “There is an energy in the creative process that belongs in the league of those energies which can uplift, unify and harmonize all of us.”

I also kept Grace Paley by my side. Something about her gossipy, smart voice makes me feel I’m at a beloved auntie’s kitchen table. Paley says, “The outside world will trivialize you for almost anything if it wants to. You may as well be who you are.” I brought along, Grace Paley, The Collected Stories to read before sleep each night. Paley also says, “But what’s a writer for? The whole point is to put yourself into other lives, other heads—writers have always done that. If you screw up, so someone will tell you, that’s all.” Unshackling screwing up from shame and failure is a great gift.



eat

You would not believe how well they fed us at Hedgebrook. The meals were gorgeous, comforting, full of vegetables raised in their garden, eggs from the ducks, dairy from down the road. I wholeheartedly recommend their cookbook, a fund raiser full of amazing recipes, plus writing from Hedgebrook alumnae like Ruth Ozeki, Dorothy Allison, Karen Joy Fowler and others.

One night we were served meatloaf, mashed potatoes and roasted carrots. I know that doesn’t sound earth shattering, but after a day churning out a story, stick to my ribs nourishment was sublime. Who knew, meatloaf could practically bring tears to my eyes. I’d forgotten its humble delights. I don’t have Hedgebrook’s meatloaf recipe, but here’s a recipe for a meatloaf from Ruth Reichl that I used to regularly make for my family. Oh, man, reminiscing about my family around the table also bring tears to my eyes! (Autumn always makes me a little tender.) I hope you love it too.  Bacon Prune Meatloaf.

a great meal, a great listen and a lobster phone!


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I have two books for you this round.  I recently finished, Arbitrary Stupid Goal, by Tamara Shopsin, which is a meandering love story to New York, to her family, and to the waning idea of neighborhood and community. I also really enjoyed, Okay Fine Whatever, by Courtenay Hameister, in which she embarks upon a self-designed course of immersion therapy to overcome her anxieties. Session w/a professional cuddler? Sensory deprivation tank? 28 first dates? Okay, fine, whatever. This book made me guffaw! (yes, I meant to say guffaw!!)



write

As I mentioned, it’s autumn and I’m totally susceptible to the back-to-school mode–new shoes, new notebooks, super nerdy planning of projects, making lists…I do it all. Thus I was delighted to see this article about paper plannersover on Wirecutter. If you have any desire to go analog, they’ve got your back.

At the New Yorker Story podcast, there’s a great reading and discussion of the Stuart Dybeck short story, Pet Milk, with Kate Walbert. What I loved learning…Dybeck started the story as a poem, it wasn’t working. He had the still life in his head; the table, oil cloth, radio and can of pet milk, but he was stuck. As soon as he imagined the grandmother, the story came alive. So, I took a fieldtrip to Portland Art Museum and sought a still life painting that might trigger a story for me. Here’s a link to the still life collection at the Tate Modern which you can explore for triggers of your own. How about this, or this, or, my favorite, this.



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The newsletter is running long, so just a couple of quick notes here. First, I made this corn and seafood stew for dinner guests and it was so fricking delicious! Make it quick before the corn is gone. And, my neighbor is raving about this cookbook from Joshua McFadden, chef at Ava Gene’s in Portland. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.