cooking and commiserating…what friends do!


read

Have I told you I’m writing a novel-in-stories? My book is about six women who meet monthly to cook together, to commiserate, and to support each other through trials of family: aging parents, ennui, teenaged children, ex-husbands, bad hook-ups, and sudden interest in drum circles. Marriages are tested, careers shift, affairs go wrong, and love happens. My story, “Children are Magic,” (which you can snag from One Story Mag for a mere $2.50!) is from the book. As I’m nearing a finished draft, I’m diving into other story cycles to study organizational logic, and to consider how to tighten the warp and woof. (It just made me so happy to use those terms!) Here are a few I think you might love:
Of course Olive Kitteridge, which commits neither to being stories nor a novel. I adore Elizabeth Strout’s work. She’s so deeply attuned to her characters, the complexity of their interior lives is a joy to read.

I also discovered very loosely linked stories, by Allison Lurie, a favorite writer of mine. She won the Pulitzer in 1985 for her novel, Foreign Affairs, a book I’ve reread multiple times and now, at the mere mention, want to run off and read again. Lurie has a delightful collection, Women and Ghosts, in which the filament connection between the stories is a flirtation with the supernatural.

Others to consider: Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro. The fantastic, beloved, Jesus’ Son, by Dennis Johnson, which if you haven’t read, I am so jealous that you get to read for the first time! Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich. The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler. Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S Connell, which is a novel in snippets. Many short story writers tell multiple stories about the same characters, or link work through geography. Consider the work of Mavis Gallant, Jennifer Egan, J.D. Salinger, Annie Proulx, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Bloom.



write

Are you as fascinated by writers’ habits and process as I am? I’m not going to lie, writing is hard, and when I read about writers’ strategies, I hope/dream/imagine I’m going to stumble across the secret sauce to make writing a breeze for me. Drink a green smoothie before hitting the desk? I’m in. Write longhand with Palomino Blackwing pencils? Sure, why not? Play backgammon on your phone and insist that you win three games in a row before you begin each writing session…maybe not.

Oh joy! An entire website dedicated to writing routines. A couple favorites: here, in which Neil Pasricha talks about sativa, giant font, and writing with his shirt off. And this one, in which Liana Maeby (how I wish that was my last name) reveals her preferred writing tool, an artists’ sketch book! Guess what, I use one too, with colored pens to entertain myself. Anything I can do to keep my butt in the chair is a bonus. The best part about perusing these interviews, and no shock here, there’s no secret sauce. Everyone is flying by the seat of their pants.



eat

Slammed by taxes? Us too. We are undertaking some austerity measures around our house. I really don’t like split pea soup with measly ham morsels. So here’s some cheap eats that aren’t beans, beans, and more beans.

I love this idea from Jacques Pepin. Who would have thought to pan crisp a deviled egg? It may not be enough for dinner, but it looks like a perfect lunch. And what about this, from charming Deb Perlman? I mean, okay, I’m pretty good at accidentally stuck-pot rice, but this, with lentils and spices, looks delicious.

My husband comes from a long line of people who don’t believe a sandwich is dinner. (I personally believe that popcorn is dinner and a sandwich is a feast!) So imagine his dismay when I served this! Along with a salad of shaved zucchini with a little lemon, olive oil and salt. Add a bottle of something that won’t break the bank, binge on Catastrophe, or Queer Eye, or Better Things, or HBOs production of Olive Kitteridge and, hmm…austerity isn’t so bad. But/And, if you’re going to splurge, make these with the addition of toasted and chopped pecans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

eat it straight, it’ll punch you in the face


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I’ve fallen in love with Peter Rock’s new novel, The Night Swimmers. It’s a thoroughly engrossing confluence of novel, memoir, and collage, full of obsessions and notes, curiosity and love. The book is about a young man, who returns to his parent’s home after college. He wants to be a writer and his writing is often performative, he imagines neighbors seeing him, seated beneath a lamp, working, and he loves the idea that people may talk of him as ‘the writer.’ He begins taking epic lake swims at night, and finds a companion in Mrs. Abel, a young widow.

“When she turned, her foot gently kicked, brushed my ribs, and then we were heading out further, deeper… We found our rhythm again, the slight chill of the water receding with the effort. The blackness below, the darkness above, the way they blended together and time stretched. I could not keep count of my strokes. And then Mrs. Able was no longer there, and I stopped, and spun, trying to find her. The stars, the horizon, lights that could be boats or more stars.”

The novel performs a mesmerizing trick, pulling me into this liminal space between memory and history, between youth and adulthood. Man! Everything I’m writing here sounds so book review-y and doesn’t do Pete’s work justice. Please, just go buy it.



write

Here’s a quote I shared with my students from The Night Swimmers that moved and inspired us all.

“Around that time, that summer, I remember telling someone that I wanted every story I wrote to say this, implicitly, to the reader:

I’m coming to your house. 

I thought that was an impressive thing to say, and I said it to impress this person, this young woman; in truth, I think I also believed it, that this kind of insistence was something to desire, a necessity.

Now over twenty years later, my declaration has changed:

Will you please come along with me? I would like company. I’m uncertain where I’m going and I’m a little frightened.” 

I asked my students to write what they want to say to their readers and it led to a terrific discussion, mostly about connection, about hearing and being heard, about presence and holding space.

I thought about my readers, and what I wanted to say to them. Something like, “I think we need each other.” Or, “Pull up a chair, relax here with me, let’s have some laughs, because life, it turns out, is hard.” How about you?



eat

Made this twice in the last 10 days, both times to feed a crowd at a dinner party, and both times it was a hit! So easy and so delicious! Be certain to cook the onions on their own first, you want them to nearly caramelize and that takes longer than the chicken takes to cook through. Give it about 15 minutes w/just onions, oil, and herbs on the sheet pan. I made it once with boneless skinless breasts, and once with bone in thighs and breasts. It was great all ways, just adjust the cooking time. We served roasted asparagus, a salad of tossed greens, and crusty bread alongside.

I’ve been pretty ecstatic about the blue skies, sunshine, asparagus, and spring onions. I want everything on my plate to be the color of new leaves. This pesto/change-o was fantastic. Who would’ve thought of using broccoli and mint? Genius! I served it with a lovely piece of grilled steelhead and my plate was the exact colors of the tile in our first kitchen. You remember, that slight variation of sage and inside-of-your-cheek pink? All the rage in the 90s.

Read this lovely little essay by Gabrielle Hamilton in the Sunday Magazine. The recipe sounds intense and indispensable! “When you eat it straight it can really punch you in the face.” How, umm… enticing? Will you try it? I certainly will.

grateful and pissed off


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I just began What if This Were Enough. Barely into the essays, but so far I love Heather Havrilesky! She’s smart and funny (two of my favorite qualities, add kind and you’ve got the trifecta!). Consider this from her essay, “Lost Treasures,”
“When I go on walks these days, I listen to podcasts and answer texts and make phone calls. I listen to Kendrick Lamar, who is grateful but also pissed off. That’s my territory: gratitude and anger, anger and gratitude. It’s an impatient place to live. I don’t silently scan the sidewalk for interesting twigs or leaves or bottle caps. I pick up my dog’s shit and wonder what bad news I’m missing.”

She goes on, discussing texts and Mother’s Day hullabaloo, “I read texts that say things like ‘Happy Mother’s Day to a bunch of amazing moms!’ I would not personally classify my mothering as amazing. But I still spend at least a block texting back, ‘Have a great day,’ with multiple heart emojis. It’s odd to send heart emojis when your heart feels not particularly warm, when your distracted brain is too preoccupied with the news and allergies and dog shit to focus on love and motherhood and being amazing.” Oh Man! I really wish I was on that walk with her. Well, I guess I sort of am.

I mentioned a few weeks back that I had a story accepted by One Story. Well, it’s out! I am so in love with my characters in “Children are Magic.” I feel so damn proud of them! It’s like watching my kid’s recital or attending their art opening. You can read an excerpt and an interview here, and if you like, do buy a copy. It’s only $2.50, less than a latte (isn’t that the ultimate measure of value!) Or if you feel like supporting a great journal, subscribe. Do it! You’ll get a new story in your mailbox every month.



write

We were in Hawaii a couple weeks ago (for your hit of schadenfreude: windy, rainy, loud Airbnb, no turtles, my husband’s knee blew up, and we got on each other’s nerves. You’re welcome!). Okay, we were in Hawaii, eating at a little farm to barn café, where I came across this book on the table, 642 Tiny Things to Write About, put together by the cool kids who populate the Writer’s Grotto in San Francisco. It measures roughly 4″x5″ which is a very pleasing size. Here’s some sample prompts:

  • It’s January and you’ve given away the puppy your son got for Christmas.
    1. Why?
    2. What do you tell everyone?
    3. What’s the strangest thing that happens next?
    4. What’s the funniest thing that happens next?
  • Describe the brutal gang initiation rites for:
    1. A new mother’s group
    2. A book club
    3. A cooking club
    4. A glee club

If you’re like me, and sometimes need a jumpstart at your desk, or, if like me you’re so damn serious you need permission to play, check out this little gem. It’s cheap, tiny, and has tons of ideas. If you’re resistant to prompts, I say push through the resisitence. Give it a go! What do you have to lose?



eat

At my house we’ve been obsessing about single use plastic containers and bags. It’s our goal to eliminate them from our kitchen/life. But then I read this Atlantic article, “Recycling Isn’t the Answer, to Save the Planet, Eat Plants.” The article doesn’t holler about going vegan, it hollers about a low-carbon diet, which means we may want to consider meat as a topping for our sandwiches, not the, umm… meat of the sandwich. Think veggie heavy. Think smaller cheese portions, think flavor bombs. Even Rachel Ray is in on it. Here’s a video of one of my favorite vegie sandwiches from Food 52. (Isn’t the intense “mom’s-on-a-bank-robbing-spree” music hilarious?) And, here’s a couple staple cookbooks I’ve had for twenty years, Almost Vegetarian, and Almost Vegetarian Entertaining.

Finally, this sando is a must. If you sneak in one slice of bacon, crumbled over the top, no one will know. Wrap it up in some wax paper, grab a blanket and head out to the nearest park.

are you an expert?


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I’m in the middle of two books, The Street, by Ann Petry, and  Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan. Not by design but by happy accident, both novels are set in World War II era New York City and both have female protagonists struggling to live their best lives.

In The Street, Lutie Johnson, is a single black woman, raising her son in Harlem. Lutie’s world is rife with the unrelenting problems of racism, sexism, and classism. Striving to make a better life for herself and her boy, she’s confronted by predatory men, white female employers who refuse to see her as anything but a sexual threat, and few opportunities to move up from the tenement. Scratch the surface and Lutie is full of rage with no #metoo social movement to support her. I fear for her.

Manhattan Beach is also about a woman, Anna, who becomes a diver working on battleship repairs in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During the war women were able to work in the shipyards, but they were never allowed on ships as it would be “too much” for the men to be in such close quarters, and women were certainly not allowed to dive. And yet Anna–who is white–through pluck, perseverance, and the good luck of being born at a time when women’s roles were rapidly evolving by necessity as men were scarce on the homefront, manages to define her own destiny. I’m only halfway through the novels, but I’m reading back and forth with great interest, seeing how the world unfolds for these two smart and driven women, each confronting obstacles. Lutie’s far more insurmountable.



write

I brought along a stack of Writer’s Chronicle’s to read on the beach. Combing through articles, I found these two particularly smart. In the December 2018 issue, Tony Hoagland (a favorite poet of mine) writes about,The Poet as Wounded Citizen.” (You must have a subscription to read, sorry.) Which of course we can extrapolate to the wounded writer, yes? We’re miners’ canaries, revealing when the air is sick. Hoagland posits, “Poets are wounded in the same way as everyone else, but with one particular distinction—they are not wounded to the point of speechlessness. Instead, they are wounded into speech.” And, a little further in, “What empowers poetry is the need of the wounded to talk about his or her inconvenient and irritating wound, which is by proxy everyone’s.” Check out Hoagland’s poem, “America.”

The other article that sparked thought for me is from Brenda Miller, a playful writer and teacher. “The Fine Art of Containment in Creative Nonfiction,” in the March/April 2019 issue (again, you need a subscription to read, I’m guessing some of you have one) discusses suspension in crucial moments in CNF, and the use of ‘container scenes.’ That is, the constriction of time, space, and action to create a through line in an essay, to hold together the sections of a braided essay, and to apply temporal pressure, the drive in the reader to keep turning pages. Miller references some beautiful essays to illustrate her point, here and here. Also, read her wonderful personal essay in the form of rejection letters, “We Regret to Inform You.



eat

I’ve rekindled my pancake love. When my children were small I flipped pancakes several times a week—buttermilk, blueberry, lemon ricotta, chocolate chip, buckwheat—we ate them all the time. By the Gladwellian measure of 10,000 hours, I am a pancake expert. So much so that I don’t even have to toss out the first one (just had to toss out my first novel, wah-wah). I can tell by the smell of the hot butter when to pour a scant ¼ cup of batter into the pan, how long to watch the bubbles rise and pop, then flip with my favorite spatula to reveal a perfect toasty brown underside. The pancake makes a little protest hiss, sinks a smidge with shock, and then pillows up.

When my children went off to college, I begged a friend to lend me his girls so I could make pancakes for them. I mean, come on, pancakes for two? That just seems sad. And then we had multiple snowy mornings this month and I pulled out my spatula to make both sweet and savory pancakes. I’ve made thesethese, and these in the past 3 weeks. And, it seems I’ve plugged into the current pancake zeitgeist, because check this out.

watch pleasure bloom


read

I’ve been such a scattered reader lately. Does that ever happen to you? Truth be told, I’ve just been a scattered person. Dealing with above mentioned life bumps, I find my concentration evaporates. So, I’m reading, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro Memoirs, by Beth Ann Fennelly, and it’s just the thing. Some of the pieces a mere sentence long, others run to five pages. She’s funny, insightful and real. Consider this one: “Married Love, IV. Morning: bought a bag of frozen peas to numb my husband’s sore testicles after his vasectomy. Evening: added thawed peas to our carbonara.”

I’ve also been reading The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uck, by Mark Manson. Some of it is a bit too bro-y for me, but there’s solid advice about fear, failure and art making (or rather, NOT art making) that hit home for me. Manson says, “We can be truly successful only at something we’re willing to fail at. If we’re unwilling to fail, then we’re unwilling to succeed.” Or, how about this gem, “…if it’s down to me being screwed up, or everyone else being screwed up, it’s far more likely that I’m the one who’s screwed up.”

Finally, I did read straight through Tessa Hadley’s gorgeous new novel, Late in the Day. Hadley is one of my favorite authors and this book soars. It’s a novel full of the aches that attend long marriages, long friendships, children, art, aging. People pay attention in this book, which, as I mentioned above, has lately been a struggle for me.



write

With whom do you share your drafts? Of course you know it’s terribly important to have a crew. I’m super lucky to have peeps to send work to, and a writing group to sit around with once a month, drinking wine and workshopping pages. But sometimes that isn’t enough. Perhaps an outside editor is the ticket.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have a stalled (I’ve changed the language from failed to stalled…and who knows, it might be failed) novel hunkered like a troll under my desk. Getting pals to read your novel is a big ask. When (if?) I’m ready to face it again, I may enlist a hired gun. In planning for that moment, I recently sent a story to Will Allison at the gushing endorsement of a friend. He was terrific! He’s got chops (check his bio). He’s smart, clear, funny, and helpful. The best editor works to support your vision of your work. Will does just that. I won’t lie, it isn’t cheap to hire an editor. But, if you can no longer see your own work and want a path through, I vote for Will! Plus, he’s a great writer. I’m currently enjoying his novel, What You Have Left.

I asked around and here are a two other outside editors friends have used and been happy with the comments and support they received: 5E: Creativity, Editing and the Business of Publishing, and Michelle Wildgen Editorial Services.

Quick update: Remember in a previous r.w.e. newsletter I told you I was aiming for 100 rejections in 2019? Well, 5 so far. Ouch and keep going, right?



eat

Okay, that thing about a poor attention span? Well, I’ve been watching a bit of TV. I am in love with two cooking shows, both on Netflix.

First off, this show is more an eating and traveling show. Somebody Feed Phil is about this nebbishy guy who travels the world and enjoys food. He has no deep insights, no experience in the kitchen, but man, it’s fun to watch pleasure bloom on his face when he takes a bite. Eater wrote an article, 5 Problems with ‘Somebody Feed Phil,’ and the thing is, these 5 problems are exactly why we like it. Phil’s like a dorky friend telling us about a great trip. Plus, it’s priceless when he Skypes with his aged parents at the end of each show.

Another person who is exquisite at showing pleasure? Samin Nosrat. Her show Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is fantastic. Unlike Phil, Samin knows her way around a kitchen and is rigorous in her selection of ingredients—fresh, unique, beautiful. I’ve cooked her Buttermilk Marinated Roast Chicken, which could not be easier or more comforting. I also made the Bean and Roasted Veg Salad, which I got the gist of from watching the show. Check out the Heat episode for some sweet mother/daughter exchanges.

Quick Update: Remember my New Year’s Resolution to bake a cake a month? January was Banana Cake. February I’ve made a Carrot Cake. (I know, enough with the fruit and vegetables! Chocolate coming soon. In fact, do you have a favorite chocolate cake recipe I should try?)

 

hope, chocolate chip cookies, and osmosis


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Some writers avoid reading fiction if they’re writing fiction. They swear off memoirs as they work on their own. I am not one of those writers. As I finish up my linked short story collection, I’m taking a deep dive into short fiction (also some self-help, my not so secret side squeeze). I like being intimate with the form in which I’m working. If I steep myself in amazing work—structure, characterization, language, tension, endings—all of it will enhance my work, sort of like putting the book beneath my pillow at night, hoping for osmosis to do its magic.

Imagine my delight when I stumbled upon, The Dream Life of Astronauts, by Patrick Ryan. A story of mine was accepted at One Story (I know! I’m so excited and pleased) and Patrick Ryan was one of the editors who selected it. His stories are vivid and varied, funny and sad in equal measure, just like life. His work reminds me of another terrific short story writer, Stephanie Vaughn. I’ve pressed her collection, Sweet Talk, into the hands of friends and family. Rife with conflict and irony, full of insights and humor and deeply moving characters, I wish I could read it again for the first time. You can hear Tobias Wolff read, “Dog Heaven,” and Tea Obreht read, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” over on the NYer story podcast. Both stories are fantastic and definitely worth a listen. I know people resist short stories, and for the life of me, I can’t imagine why. The way I see it, short story : novel :: port : pinot noir, both are meant to be savored, just from different sized glasses.



write

I was reading a profile of Grace Paley in The Guardian and she had this to say about the stories of Raymond Carver: “I sometimes think he doesn’t give his characters a chance. The stories cut off too soon and you feel that if he had given them one more day things might have turned out alright.” I love this so much. One more day! Sure for our characters, for our stories, but also for our lives, right?

I recently gave a class on finding flow in our work. It was no problem for me to understand that fear is at the core of all our creative blocks. Fear of failing. Fear of discovering something about ourselves we may not wish to know. Fear of harming someone we love with our version of the truth. Fear of the inner critic that tells us we are losers. (Check out this NYTs article about Julia Cameron who imagines her inner critic is “a gay British interior designer she calls Nigel.” Nothing is ever good enough for Nigel, she says.)  In preparing for the workshop, I came upon a startling truth for me. The opposite of fear is faith. This nugget may not astonish you, but it did me. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Well, the other shoe has already dropped and I’m still here. Faith. You can get your story on the page. Faith. It’s hard, I get it, yet the best way to build faith in our work is by doing it. Just keep doing it. Faith. Get words on the page. Give yourself, your characters, your work, one more day.



eat

A picture of chocolate chip cookies on Instagram lead me to buy a new cookbook. Dining In, by Alison Roman, is an absolute dream. First of all, I LOVE how she opines. Consider, “I’ve always found chocolate chip cookies to be deeply flawed.” Or, regarding lasagna, “…I’m not really into béchamel. Cooked flour and milk is not my thing.” Avocados are not so much an ingredient as “a lifestyle choice.”

Okay, so far I’ve mostly been reading the recipes. (I did make the cookies, and I added hazelnuts. Next time I plan to sub out a little flour for buckwheat flour. I cannot wait to make the Sour Cream Flatbread, and Clam Pasta w/Chorizo & Walnuts. Plus there’s an entire chapter on Knife and Fork Salads!) But you know what? Even if I delay, I consider buying a cookbook an act of hope. It suggests a belief in the dinner party, in the beauty of gathering friends and family around the table to share a story and a delicious meal. I sort of lament NYTs Cookingwhich don’t get me wrong, I love, use it all the time. But a cookbook, an actual book to thumb through and plan, it feels different. It feels sturdy and real and more of an investment in community and well-being. I’ll let you know what I make next. I’m certain it will be delicious, and I’ll invite a passel of friends to dine in.

 

strange connections


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Just finished listening to a great novel, Come With Me, by Helen Schulman. The characters are fantastic, the story deeply moving, complex, funny, and sad—the very best combination. I also enjoyed her last novel, This Beautiful Life. She writes about people in midlife, dealing with children, family, loss, identity, and alternate realities…it’s all my jam.
I’ve also been reading Samantha Hunt’s weird, and haunting book, Dark Dark Stories. Her work speaks truth about fear, love, partners, children, our animal bodies and ticks! At times funny, often strange in the very best sense of the word. I’m reading the book slowly, wanting to relish each story. Also, they’re so dense it seems like my teeth might hurt if I read them too fast! If you’d like a sample, check out the New Yorker Magazine’s, The Writer’s Voice, podcast to hear her read, “A Love Story.” So fantastic!



write

Last week I was at a terrific writing conference with a lot of smarties. I spent four days on the Oregon Coast at the Tin House Winter Workshop. The weather was fantastic, the workshops leaders inspiring (Nafissa Thompson-SpiresElizabeth McCracken, and Samantha Hunt), and my cohort offered smart and careful reads of all the manuscripts. If you can ever put yourself in the way of smart people, do.
Samantha Hunt gave a talk on apophenia—the tendency to mistakenly perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things. She discussed exploiting this tendency to great advantage in your writing. The idea being, give yourself a list of completely unrelated, disparate things: bridal shower, training wheels, thunder storm, flight delay, and give yourself 10 minutes plus/minus to write about each one separately. You may be surprised to discover connective tissue—themes, images that lead to a story, a pattern of behavior worth exploring in your memoir, or foisting upon the main character of your novel. Make your list weird and unique. I think you’ll be happily surprised!



eat

It’s cold here in Portland, which is happy news at our house. Tis the season for binge watching and eating dinner from a bowl. I’m not talking soup. Usually our bowls are vegie heavy, include a grain and some salty, spicy crunch. Here are three bowls we have loved, still love. When you make this Miso, Sweet Potato and Broccoli Bowl, be sure to triple the sauce, no joke, it’s so delicious you’ll want to have tons on hand. Okay, yes, technically this Forbidden Rice Salad w/Thai Coconut-Lime Dressing is a salad, but don’t let that stop you. Serve the rice and chicken hot, sauté the cabbage in a little oil, then dress with a splash of toasted sesame oil and rice vinegar. Replace the snap peas with some steamed green beans and you’re good to go. Finally, there’s this bit of deliciousness, which I had for dinner last week, Crispy Rice and Egg Bowl w/Ginger Scallion Vinaigrette. Here’s what I suggest to make it even more wonderful. Wash and julienne about two hefty handfuls of spinach and throw them in with the rice as it cooks. (This is only if you are NOT using left over rice.) Next, slice up a bunch of shitakes (I love mushrooms so I used a giant pile) toss them w/salt and olive oil, roast on a sheet pan at 450 degrees for about fifteen minutes. Keep checking, you want them to be nearly crispy. When you assemble the bowl, layer in the mushroom heaven with the cucumbers and carrots. Oh man, we’re all in for some fine times. Please, send me a note and tell me what to watch!

 

cake resolution


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I discovered a great podcast, 3 Books with Neil Pasrichain which he asks inspiring people to name 3 formative books. I’m loving it! I’ve listened to the illustrator Emily McDowell (who makes fantastic cards), and I felt like such a smarty when I discovered the same weird book that gave her permission to create had also inspired me. David Sedaris had 3 books I love, plus an interesting conversation about aging and money. The pod got me thinking about my three (at least today, so far):

  • Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne. Man-0-man! My mom read this book to me, and I adored it. I see us now, cuddled on my twin bed, my pink hula hoop slipped between the bed and wall as a makeshift headboard. The intense kindness and closeness of Christopher Robin and the animals in the 100 acre wood made me feel safe. Yes, they had adventures, yes they were scared, stung by bees, caught in a river, lost tails, grumpy and silly, but the animals always had each other. Things pretty much worked out for Pooh, Piglet and their pals, even miserable Eeyore. My family was tiny, just me and my mom, Winnie the Pooh taught me that even if you aren’t lucky to be born into a huge clan, you can build a family of caring friends.
  • Victory Over Japan, Ellen Gilchrist. In college I’d been reading lots of Cheever and Carver and Flannery O’Connor, and was beginning to write short stories when someone handed me this book. Instantly I loved her voice, her frivolity and depth, and her characters who felt more like me (though I am neither rich, nor from the south, nor did I have a doting daddy) than other characters I’d encountered. Her work was closer to what I wanted get on the page.
  • Home Cooking, A Writer in the KitchenLaurie Colwin. I found this book when I was a young mother. I fell in love with Colwin’s warm and breezy essays about family and young adult life, complete with recipe! After discovering Home Cooking, I devoured everything Laurie Colwin, her novels and stories, and, oh joy! More Home Cooking.

What are your three formative books?



write

In preparation for a class I’ll be teaching, Becoming Unstuck, I read Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk, by Danielle Krysa. It’s a cheeky and pragmatic look at overcoming the fear of the blank page, at the excuses we use to put off creative work, and at how our inner bully shuts us down (Who am I kidding? I can’t write! I’m a fraud. I have no original thoughts. Who’s going to want to read anything I write? Loser).  Krysa, a visual artist, has some great ideas. A few quick ones I love:

  • Rebrand your inner critic. Give it a name–like Wilbur. How can you take Wilbur seriously when he tells you you suck?
  • Go out of your way to do some seriously bad writing. “Throw one project under the bus right from the start.” Krysa goes further, suggesting the ugly writing exercise could be “a ridiculous amount of fun—especially when done with a group of friends on a Friday night with some delicious food, and maybe a glass of wine or two.” (I feel a tradition brewing!)
  • Finally, you know the list of crappy things your inner critic, I mean Wilbur, says? Krysa suggests writing them down and then writing the exact opposite statement. As in, I can write. I have lots of experience getting words on the page, telling stories. My story is mine and no one else’s, it is unique. People will want to read my work. Winner. (Okay, that was torture! Writing out the anti-Wilbur language is really hard.) Krysa suggests not only writing it out, but taping it up on the wall.

What do you do to quiet your Wilbur? To prioritize your creative work?



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I’ve made a New Year’s resolution. I wasn’t going to do it. I was just going to stick to the promises I made to myself to lower expectations and embrace mistakes. But, I decided to bake a cake once a month. Cakes are celebratory, delicious and frivolous—all things I want in my life. This week I baked a Banana Cake. I used this recipe, subbing whole wheat pastry flour for the white flour, and, this stroke of genius: I slow roasted the bananas, in their peels, in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. They turned black and gooey and slid from their peels in a disgusting way, but the resulting cake was powerfully banana-fied! Since I try not to eat much sugar, I sought a frosting that didn’t use powdered sugar, hence this! I subbed crème fraiche for the sour cream, just because I had it on hand. It was all delightful. And, the banana cake got me to thinking about my grandma’s love of Sara Lee Banana Cake. (Okay, did you click on that link? What a creepy commercial! It’s like a cake #metoo moment.) I also wrote an essay here! (Thank you, Laurie Colwin for combining recipes and writing.) My entire rainy Sunday was consumed by banana cake, and let me tell you, that was terrific.

 

self-renovation


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Ever scan the important and serious calendars meant for men and then glance over to the flowery, aspirational, aphorism filled calendars marketed to women? What’s that about? Are women being told we aren’t good enough, or, are women strivers? Are these calendars a nefarious marketing tool preying on women, or, are they a response to women’s desires to become the best humans we can be? Do men just prefer not to be lectured at in their day books? My fabulous friend, Karen Karbo, is working on a book about exactly these questions. Yeah. No. Not Happening, will be a “funny, philosophical, feminist rant against the tyranny of self-improvement” in Spring 2020.
Me? I am a feminist, and I’m always up for self-renovation. As Viktor Frankl says in Man’s Search for Meaning, there is tension between what one has achieved and what one wants to accomplish. “Such a tension is inherent in the human begin and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.” So, I’ve amassed a stack of books to read this January. Here are just a few:

Do you visit the Self-Help section of your bookstore the same way you visit the snack aisle at the grocery store? Your mouth watering for umami and a better you? Any gems you’d like to share? If you’re of the Yeah. No. Not Happening, ilk, good on you! How do you do it? Seriously.



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Hey, I want to challenge you. Can you get 100 rejections in 2019? Seriously, I think it’ll be really good for you, and me! Lit Hub has a great article here, espousing the virtues of rejection collection. In 2018 I received nineteen rejections (three included invitations to submit more work) and zero acceptances. I don’t think that means my work isn’t strong, I think it means I didn’t send enough into the world. If we strive to amass the rejections, there’s bound to be acceptances sprinkled in, right? 2019 will be my year to slingshot stories, applications for residencies and grants into the world.
To be certain we’re offering our best work and targeting the most likely Yes!, check out this editors roundtable discussion from The Southeast Review. What do editors want in the submissions they read? 1. To be surprised. 2. A strong voice. 3. Well-wrought characters. What are the biggest mistake they see in submissions? Writers who don’t read the guidelines or know the zeitgeist of the journal to which they’re submitting. And, go figure, dick poems! One editor says, “For the love of all that’s holy, please stop sending.”
Where will you send your fine work? Here are some resources:

I’m all in on this. How about you? “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Thanks, Samuel Beckett)



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I’m writing this note on the Solstice, which to me is more important than New Year’s Eve. After tonight (finally!) we circle back toward the light. I’ve been struggling to tamp down my list making, time managing, goal oriented behavior, and allow for lounging, reading, soaking in a tub, and napping during these very short days. I am trying to embrace stillness and enjoy the yen toward cuddling-up in the dark afternoons. What am I cooking during these swell and long evenings? Soup of course. Last week I served this vegetable forward, light yet hearty Beef Barley Soup w/Lemon to my writing friends. Tonight I’m serving this gorgeous and rich French Onion Soup. I love the way the Dutch oven looks when you pull it from beneath the broiler, the cheese bubbling with crisp borders. I’m serving a Roasted Garlic Caesar which subs candied walnuts for croutons and has a healthy dose of roasted garlic in the dressing. I plan on sprinkling some pomegranate seeds over the top, because: 1. I have them.  2. They’re beautiful. 3. I think they’ll add to the zing of the dressing. Do you know the trick of extricating seeds from the pomegranate?
Soup, salad, a nice glass of this terrific red wine, then we’ll settle in with a pal to watch Roma. Doesn’t that sound like a perfect longest night of the year?

 

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.



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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?