you get to choose

I write to you from my deck on a sunny morning. Despite the breeze and the blue sky, I woke up feeling a little low. Just tired of bad shit (large and small) in our country, in the world, with my people. It doesn’t help that my generally glass-half-full husband is out of town. So, I took my dog around the block, made strong coffee, chatted with a neighbor (thank you, Steve), and listened to this ridiculously silly Tiny Desk Concert. Not every day starts with a parade. And that’s okay, as long as I remember I get to choose where I put my attention..


read

Like everyone else, I’ve got a TBR pile for summer. Here are my top five, in no particular order:

Sweet & Low, by Nick White. I had dinner with Nick and he’s a delightful human being. His story collection is described in this way, “The poignant, dry wit of these stories–imagine if Faulkner wrote an episode of “The Golden Girls”–will have you falling in love and cackling. But it’s the reckoning honesty within each tale that will truly melt your spine.” I’m in!

Nick and I appeared on the Be Reel podcast together, talking favorite movies about writers. The podcast is a real treat, each episode the hosts, Noah Ballard and Chance Solem-Pfeifer, talk and rate movies. Add it to your podcast library.

Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicome, by Evan James, which, from the description in the NYTs book review, sounds like a companion to Jane Austen and Emma Straub–a comedy of manners that’s just my cup of tea. A depressed, newly retired pop-psychology guru, a son home from his year abroad, declaring, “I hate the very idea of fun,” a houseguest who makes up for his “carefree loafing with his charm and wardrobe,” all brought together in a rambling home on Bainbridge Island. Yes, please! I want to spend a couple hundred pages with these peeps.

Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, sounds like another winner. From the booklist review, “…enthralling, affirming debut of midlife, marital, and existential despair. It asks and answers if there’s such a thing as fairness, in marriage or in life, and if the story of a marriage can ever be told from all sides—or the outside.” Really? Answers if there is such a thing as fairness in life? I can’t wait to get my hands on this!

Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead. On the subject of his novel, a reform school for boys, Mr. Whiethead says, “It was a story I hadn’t heard before, and it was emblematic of so many injustices that go on every day that you never hear about. The survivors are never heard from and the guilty are never punished, they live to a ripe old age while their victims are damaged for life. It seemed like a story worth taking up.”

Everything Inside, by Edwidge Danticut, an absolute favorite writer of mine. I have no idea what the stories are about, but in the nimble, smart, insightful hands of Danticut, I’m certain to be amazed by language, and to be brought close up to our human follies and frailties.



write

What is it about a new season that feels like a starting gun? Memorial Day weekend sets the summer clock ticking and suddenly I’ve got a million goals. Re-vamp my deck space to a comfy outdoor living room, plant a garden, walk 10,000 steps a day, finish my manuscript, get out of town, catch up with friends. Lucky for me, my pal and writing support coach, Jennifer Louden, recently brought home for me the idea of “Conditions of Enoughness.” Rather than bury myself beneath lofty goals, why not take a moment for a reality check. What am I capable of completing given the life-containers of available time, available cash, responsibilities to others, and hours in a day? Smarty Jen reminded me to set conditions I can accomplish, and make time to celebrate said accomplishments. Pat myself on the back for writing 750 words, for replanting the pots on my deck, for inviting pals over for an alfresco meal. By creating conditions of enoughness that are attainable, we won’t be burdened by failing to meet our own expectations. We won’t open our writing project already behind and grumpy, but with an “I can do this!” attitude. Writing is hard enough, why make it harder by expecting too much from each session?

Which brings me to pomodoros. Here’s how they work: break your writing time into chunks, twenty-five minutes, forty-five minutes, whatever suits you best. Then give yourself a built in break of five or ten minutes (coffee, pee, snack, social media if you absolutely must, walk around the block). How many pomodoros can you fit into your day? How many do you need to meet your condition of enoughness. I love pomodoros because I get a built in reward every time I sit down to write. And, yes! I am such a dork, I love the timer!



eat

In my last two newsletters I spoke about the pleasure of rereading beloved books, which inspired me to crack open cookbooks from my past. I’m particularly re-upping my love affair with Deborah Madison and two of her books,The Greens Cookbook, and The Savory Way. Back in the 80s and 90s, when I was a vegetarian for 10 years (I broke my resolve on a trip to France, faced with so much saucisson!) these two books were always on my counter. My husband, a consummate meat eater, is a little disgruntled by their reappearance, but I’ve been all in lately. Here’s a sample of my stand by recipes, noted by the food stains on the pages: Spinach Pasta w/Ricotta and Walnuts, Cold Noodles w/Peanut Sauce, Cilantro Salsa (on everything!), Filo w/Goat Cheese and Spinach (a great reboot of Spanakopita), Provençal Potato Gratin w/Olives and Lemon Thyme, Basil Fettucine w/Green Beans, Walnuts and Crème Fraîche. (I know, I know, it’s frustrating that I don’t have links to the recipes…but they aren’t online. You just have to take my word for it and avail yourself of one or both of these lovely books. You can find used copies really cheap online.)

Hmmm… in looking over this recipe list I notice every one, but for the potato gratin, is green! Could it be that the early summer world is so burstingly beautiful I just want to eat it?

 

 

 

 

 

life is not short

Days are long. Afternoon light is at the perfect slant, casting the neighbors yards in lovely, clear yellow light. Soon we’ll have stone fruit, watermelon, chilled pink wine, and grilled…everything. Here’s what I’ve been up to in this shoulder season between spring and summer.


read

Life is not too short to reread books. I’ve again picked up Louise Erdrich’s LaRose, and I’m so moved, amazed, enthralled with this beautiful, generous and heartbreaking story. At the center of this novel lies the question: can a person do the worst thing possible and still be loved? The novel begins with a terrible accident. Erdrich tells the story in such calm and lucid language, I’m mesmerized. The first time around, I listened to the book. This time I’m reading, and I mean it, every chance I get I pick it up to read a few more pages, then I lose track of time. It’s one of those delicious paradox books–you want to devour it and you want it to never end.

I’m also listening to the audiobook of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb. It’s a different kind of delicious. Written by a therapist, the book examines her work with her patients, her own experience in therapy, and explores behavior patterns, personality disorders, and just plain old human troubles. I feel a bit like a voyeur. It’s salacious at times and charming throughout. I’m learning about my own behavior. Plus I get the added joy of analyzing everyone I know!  If you liked In Treatment, an HBO show from 2008-2010 with Gabriel Byrne, which I loved, I think you’ll like the book



write

Do you fall off on your writing game when the weather changes? What are you going to do to stay committed this summer? Here’s some ideas:

  • Take your work outside. Whether that means you switch to writing long hand and take a legal pad to the beach, or if you simply cannot deal, take your laptop to the park. Writing outside in beautiful weather may diminish feeling deprived when you’re ‘stuck’ indoors at your desk.
  • Get up earlier! I mean it. Just 30 minutes can make a difference.
  • Set goals, but be flexible. Rather than time in the chair, maybe switch to word count. You may work smarter, quicker, in order to go for your swim/hike/bike ride. (And, really, really unplug. Put your phone in airplane mode. Install Freedom and use it. I’m chastising myself here…)
  • Have an accountability partner! Someone you check in with daily/weekly, whatever you need, to give a progress report.
  • When you’ve reached your goal, reward yourself. Run after the ice cream truck! Snooze in a hammock.
  • Get it down. Get outside. Worry about editing later.

Another possibility to keep you going, sign up for a class or workshop, or start your own workshop. Having peers and deadlines is a boon and boost to most writers.

If you’re looking for a class, I’ve got an online class up at Hedgebrook. I had so much fun teaching Becoming Unstuck, Finding Flow and Freeing Your Voice.  You can check out a snippet here. If you wonder why my voice sounds so mellow and chill it’s because…Hedgebrook! They take such good care of you, all tension and even your bones sort of melt away. Here’s another snippet in case you’re interested. And, register here!



eat

In the past two weeks I’ve made this salad four times. Unbelievably delicious. It’s a take on a salad from the now defunct Tasty and Sons restaurant here in Portland. Make it. You’re welcome!

  1. Tear 1 head of radicchio into 2″ pieces and soak in ice water while you prepare the salad.
  2. Turn oven to 400 degrees. Tear the best quality whole grain bread you can get your hands on into roughly cork sized pieces until you have a very generous cup full. Toss with a couple tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and roast about 10 -12 minutes. Keep checking so you don’t burn the croutons. Set aside.
  3. Coarsely chop pitted, herbed green olives to make about ½ cup.
  4. Coarsely chop about 5-6 French breakfast radishes, or regular radishes if you cannot find French breakfast. (They’re thumb shaped, a bit milder than regular radishes, and white on top.)
  5. Wash one lemon, then zest. Place zest in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice.
  6. Mince 2-3 cloves garlic. Sprinkle with sea salt and use flat surface of a chef’s knife to scrape back and forth to make a paste. Add to bowl with lemon.
  7. Add coarsely ground black pepper.
  8. Slowly whisk in ½ cup extra virgin olive oil.
  9. Drain and spin the radicchio. Transfer to large bowl. Add olives, croutons, radishes and a sprinkling of roasted, salted pumpkin seeds to taste. Toss well with the dressing. Enjoy!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bright, spicy, friendly


read

I reread three books by Elizabeth Strout on a recent trip. I know I’m singing the same song about linked story collections, but man, what a treat to read these three. Olive Kitteridge (novel-in- stories) I mentioned a couple weeks ago, but I also reread Anything is Possible (I don’t know how the publisher calls this a novel), and My Name is Lucy Barton (a novel).  I read them in the reverse order in which they were published because I wanted to know more about the characters mentioned in Lucy Barton, all of whom populate Anything is Possible. I also wanted to know what the community of Amgash (the town in which Lucy grew up) thought of her as I read her story. Such a joy! The writing is precise and human. Strout’s character Lucy Barton is a writer and she talks a lot about her desire to write ‘one truthful sentence.’ I found this so compelling. As I revise my own novel-in-stories, I’m going through and looking at what my characters know and don’t know about themselves, making sure that I’ve got truthful sentences throughout. Letting my characters hide behind half-truths is letting me hide behind half-truths, and what’s interesting about that? Nothing.

I also want to recommend a newsletter I get from the NYTs, Smarter Living. Okay, I am so not the target audience, but I guess it speaks to my inner-millennial. Two recent articles seem important about our ever-increasing social isolation. This about casual friendships, and this about investing in relationships. Here’s a little quote to pique your interest: “Take a ton of pictures, text your friends stupid things, check in with old friends as often as possible, express admiration to co-workers, and every day, tell as many people as you can that you love them,” he writes. “A couple of minutes every day — the payoff is small at first, and then it’s immense.”



write

I am a petty and jealous person. It’s not that I don’t applaud, admire and encourage my writer friends to submit, revise, publish etc.… and honestly, I am delighted for all their successes, but it also stings. The inner dialog goes something like this: “Oh, look what so-and-so accomplished! What’s wrong with you? Why are you so easily diverted? Who do you think you are? You can’t finish anything! Look at your rejections! You’re not a good writer. You’re lazy.” And on it goes. Which begs the question, how does one presto-chango jealousy and self-recrimination into motivation? I’ve got a few ideas:

  • Celebrate your friends’ victories
  • Celebrate your own victories (Whether that means words on the page, a personalized rejection letter, great advice from your writers’ group to help push the work forward, or a publication.)
  • Share opportunities and connections. There is plenty of room at the table! I repeat…there is plenty of room at the table. Now you repeat.
  • Feel the disappointment of a rejection or contest loss, and move on
  • Don’t self-sabotage into immobility
  • Be persistent
  • Send a love note to a writer/aritist/creative you admire! Seriously, you have no idea what rejections they may face/have faced. You’ll feel good and so will they.
  • Finally, and this terrific advice comes from the writer Elizabeth McCracken, befriend the hardest working writers you know, let their work ethic inspire you! (Looking at you with admiration and love R.L. Maizes!)


eat

Apparently people have really strong opinions about guacamole. You may be a purest, or an everything goes consumer. (Fresh cranberries added to guac at a Christmas party…crazy? What about grasshoppers? No joke, we had these recently in Mexico. Follow me on instagram @natalieserber to see the documentation.) My husband likes to put garlic and raw mushrooms in his…I know, why would anyone do that? As I write this, I am discovering that I have strong opinions. I’m all in for chunky, not a fan of the smooth. Absolute musts: Hass avocado, jalapeno, onion (white or red, minced), cilantro, lime (both juice and a little zest), and salt. Acceptable additions: diced mango, and maybe a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds for color. Here’s a few recipes: this one is about technique and pretty interesting, here’s one with the addition of jicama, finally this radical one.

On our recent trip to Mexico we had mushroom ceviche as an appetizer at La Parada and I’m here to report that I went back the very next day to have it again. So damn good! I looked up some recipes to try out at home, and boy, will I. Here, here, and here.

Seems like you’ve got some work ahead of you. Make some guac, some mushroom ceviche, this pretty margarita, fill a bowl with your favorite chips, then sit down on a sunny deck and write a fan note. I promise you, you’ll feel great!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bring the biscuits and the joy!


read

I’m still deep into the novel-in-stories/linked stories mode. I’ve just finished Karen Bender’s, Refund. Which I listened to and loved so much that I bought the actual book as well. Calling the stories linked is a stretch, but they are all about money–lots of it, not enough of it, what we’ll do for it. The title story is a beautiful and complicated 9/11 story that surprises and is perfectly tuned. Bender is funny and wry, appropriately sad, because, well…life. Consider this line,  “Her husband could not find anything to put on his lunch sandwich and, with a sort of martyred defiance, slapped margarine on bread. ‘What a man does to save money,’ he murmured.”
I know I’ve told you about my love of the self-help section. I came across a little phrase that is helping me in my life right now, “Care less to Love more.” It’s really helpful when you’re dealing with people you love who’re making you feel a little crazy. Unhook! Care less/Love more. The phrase came from Martha Beck, who I know zero about, so I picked up her book, The Joy Diet, 10 Daily Practices for a Happier Life. Some of you are rolling your eyes, some of you are sending me a virtual high five! I accept it all. So far, I’m into the book. I mean, I’m only on step four, but who can argue with these directions:

  • do nothing
  • tell the truth
  • explore your desires
  • be creative

Six more to go so I’ll let you know. Honestly, just taking the time to be with myself, to think about the last third of my life and what I want it to look like, that’s a huge gift. And, yes, kinda woo-woo nerdy.



write

I’m curious, when you’re starting a new project do you ever use constraints, rules you make up for yourself, to create a little puzzle, a little problem that gets you going? I was thinking about this because a friend is writing stories and considering the idea that each story will be about a medical professional and include an element of the supernatural. Then a story contest popped into my inbox and these were the requirements: “Write a story that starts with an ending. Give your character an unusual watch, use the words ‘striped’ and ‘innovative’ somewhere, and end your story with fruit.” Huh. Not really my thing, but it certainly starts you trying to figure out how to ‘solve,’ right?
I’m working on a story now that uses a ‘happy life’ list item as a title for each section. (Where did I get that idea?) My rule is that each title only obliquely relates to the events, the desires, etc… in each section. So far so good. I may lose the titles once the story is completed, but for now, they’re helping to guide me. Which is the point, right?
The French group of Oulipo writers explored constrained writing in the 60’s by creating rigid rules and formulas. Consider ‘N+7’ in which the writer takes a poem already in existence and substitutes each noun with a noun that appears 7 nouns away. Or, write a poem omitting one vowel. No e’s! Yes, these are a bit drastic for a story, but you get the idea. Freedom can be found in rigidity. Consider this essay and the release we may feel by writing under a condition. What will you try? Let me know.



eat

It is finally spring here in Portland. And what am I doing? Firing up the BBQ? Heading to the farmers market for tender spring turnips, asparagus? Nope. I’ve become obsessed with learning to make delicious biscuits. It’s all the fault of this story about a chef/Zen teacher who could never get his biscuits to mimic the Pillsbury Doughboy biscuits he loved as a child. I’ve read the story a couple times, and each time my mouth starts watering. Here is the best recipe I found, including great directions for folding the dough to create flaky layers. I substituted half of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat pastry flour to great success. If those aren’t your jam, check this out.
If you want to split the biscuit open, slather with butter, layer on some roasted asparagus spears and a fried egg, a bit of shaved parmesan…that sounds pretty perfect. It is spring after all, and this tasty dish won’t require waiting an hour in a brunch line.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

cooking and commiserating…what friends do!

Dear Ones!

I’m squirrelled away in Bend, Oregon, at a self-made writing residency with my pal, the wonderful writer and fabulous retreat companion, Jennie Shortridge. When I collected her from the airport we went straight to the market to stock up on nourishment + wine. We’ve been writing for four days straight, making dinner together, reading our work aloud, helping each other out, and, this last goes way above and beyond, Jennie has even endured my faltering guitar playing. That, my dears, is a true friend.


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


read

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


read

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?


read

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


read

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.