butterfly wings & groovy peacock pants…how will we emerge?

For the first time since March of 2020, I went into a clothing store and geez, was I surprised! The clothes looked like they were meant to cover a newly discovered happy-go-lucky species in yards cheerful fabric! Sure the de rigueur pile of 200+ dollar jeans still existed, but the majority of pants were soft, palazzo style in bright colors with elastic waistbands. Balloon sleeves dominated. Everything was loose and carefree, as I suppose we are now meant to be in a post-pandemic world. And yet, some of us are trying to make up for time lost in a bowl of popcorn and rewatching The Sopranos.
Keep in mind, during the zombie apocalypse, nobody brought a laptop and wrote a novel, no one learned Portuguese, or mastered Jiu Jitsu. So maybe go easy on yourself? You adjusted to the needs of the pandemic and did what you did.
As we leave the land of FOBI (fear of being invited) and re-enter FOMO (fear of missing out)? Maybe we need to dust off our social skills? And really, who would want to miss out if you had fabulous, colorful butterfly wings 🦋 fluttering on your arms, and if your legs were ensconced in pants, wide and soft and beautiful as peacock feathers 🦚?

 

 

 


read

I’m having a love affair with a book! I’m reading SECRETS TO HAPPINESS by Joan Silber and, my oh my, it is satisfying and smart. The book is a ring, which means that the stories are linked, but in surprising ways. As you move from one to the next, you don’t know which character will get the mic. A minor character in one story, is the tent pole character in the next. It’s so pleasing to watch Silber draw a web of connection, to guess who might inhabit the next story, and to piece together what the characters mean to one another, what insights I might gain with a change of perspective. Of course, as a reader I extrapolate these connections into my life and wonder, upon whom do I have more impact than I realize? Or—and this is another true pleasure— the story ring causes me to think about how much I don’t know about the lives of loose connections, those people I see in my daily life, the people who enrich my world, but aren’t really friends. If we lived in a world like a Silber story ring, we would all be well served.

I was lucky to attend a zoom conversation with Silber, on the Next Tribe platform. You can watch it here!  During her talk, she spoke about intimate gaze, and I had the chance about 39 minutes in to ask her what she meant. Here’s what she said:

“I’m very interested in what the character is saying to herself, or himself, about what is going on. I love that in other writers, I love hearing their version of events as they say it to themselves. That is quite fascinating to me.”

Another favorite moment, in responding to a question about the #metoo movement, Silber said, “I feel it’s great that men are afraid they will lose their jobs if they act like jerks.” But then she went on to comment upon her worry that women are “having too much of a sense of their own fragility.” That feels so complicated and interesting to me. How do we move through our lives, aware of the ramifications of toxic masculinity, in the workplace, in the world, even in our homes, and demand respect we deserve, while at the same time not feel swamped by a sense of fragility? Sounds like an amazing conundrum to address in a short story. 😉

Just a quick reminder, I’ve created a read.write.eat. Bookshop Store, where you can find many of the books I’ve recommend in the newsletter.



write

I’ve got brand new classes and opportunities for us to work together.

One Day Craft Talks:

  • A conversation about conversations, how to write DIALOG that truly earns its place on the page, coming July 17, from 10:00a – 1:00p PST.
  • Want to write full and round characters that stay with your reader long after they’ve turn the last page? BUILDING CHARACTERS is coming on July 16, from 7:30 – 10:30a PST.
  • Everything that happens in our lives and in our stories happens somewhere. Let’s talk about writing convincing SETTINGS, making the setting work double time to infuse your writing with tone, metaphorical meaning, and verisimilitude. August 20, from 7:30 – 10:30a PST.

Six Week Class:

  • I am really looking forward to teaching SIX (LOVE) STORIES IN SIX WEEKS beginning July 8, from 6:00 – 8:00p PST. This will be a playful, generative workshop, using stories from the collection, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides, as a launching point into pieces of our own. Want to revisit that crush from high school? Want to write about unrequited love? The frisson of a first kiss? The motorcycle mechanic you dated to get back at your parents? Your mother’s boyfriends? This class, I promise, will be full of joy, and you’ll leave with lots of words down on the page and ideas to keep you writing the rest of the summer. Only 4 spots left! Don’t wait.

Whew! Now, as a thank you for reading through my offerings, here’s a prompt! I often use this as an icebreaker in my classes.

  • What was or would be your most depressing meal?
  • Would it be depressing because of the food, or the company?
  • What happens around the table?
  • How do you feel after?
  • Where do you go?

Please do feel free to share with me! I’d love to hear about your depressing meals. 😉



eat

I made this NYC Street Cart Chicken and Riceand I felt so comforted and loved! I don’t know why, but something about this dish, with its norm-core salad, made me feel as if I was wrapped up in my grannie’s crocheted afghan, sitting beside her on the couch and watching Love Boat. I know! What a sweet memory of a crappy show!

For the white sauce:

  • 1 c plain yogurt
  • 1 T mayo
  • 1 t white wine vinegar
  • 1 T harissa (more if you like a kick!)
  • ½ lemon, juiced
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and set aside in the fridge.

For the chicken:

  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 T dried oregano
  • 1 T paprika (I used sweet, but you can use hot or smoky)
  • 2 t ground coriander
  • 1½ t salt
  • a few grinds of fresh black pepper
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup olive oil

Mix the marinade ingredients in a bowl, add the chicken and stick in the fridge for 30 minutes to 24 hours.

For the rice:

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1½ t ground turmeric
  • 2 t ground cumin
  • 2 c brown basmati rice
  • 2 c chicken stock
  • ½ t salt

Heat the butter in a pan, add the spices and stir for a minute or two, until you smell the delicious warmth. Add the rice, toss to coat then add the stock and salt. Cover pan and cook until all liquid is absorbed.

For the norm-core salad:

  • 1 head of butter lettuce
  • 1 big, beautiful tomato
  • ½ small red onion, cut in slivers

Tear the washed lettuce leaves, chop the tomato into small cubes, toss in the onions.

While the rice is cooking, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a fry pan over med heat. Place 3-4 (no overlapping) chicken thighs in pan and don’t touch for 4-5 minutes. They should easily let go of the pan at that point, so flip them. Cook 3-4 minutes more. Once all chicken is cooked, hold it in a warm oven.

When rice is finished, chop up the chicken and return to the fry pan with half of the rice. Heat well, scraping up the crispy bits of chicken.

On a large platter, pile the rest of the rice. Lay the chicken and rice on top. Circle the whole thing with the salad. Liberally dress with the white sauce. If you have pita, or naan, well made and worthy, serve alongside.  Invite friends! Serve with a fav beer!

Speaking of beer/alcohol. We are drinking less at our house (after pandemic slippage and reliance) which means, I want the alcohol I drink to be very delicious. Enter this NYTs article about the wine of summer. Spoiler alert, it isn’t white or pink!

**********

too long…. who cares? turns out, I do!

too long, who cares… so I said to a pal last week when she pressed a long article about a celebrity bad boy and his bedroom peccadillos into my hands. Too long, who cares…. is also my thought on making these homemade twisty cinnamon rolls (though if someone wants to make them and share–yes please!). Is it blasphemy to say too long, who cares… about the million hour Hemingway documentary series? Honestly, another white guy? Full disclosure, I LOVE the Nick Adams Stories, and Moveable Feast, but do I need to know more? 🤷🏻‍♀️

Too long, who cares… is that what Adam Grant at the NYTs meant when he wrote that we’re all languishing? Another smarty responded that we aren’t languishing, we’re dormant.  I’m just…meh. Like Bob Dylan here, who didn’t manage to learn the words to “We Are the World” and sort of hummed along. (Seriously, that link is worth a peek!)

 

 

 


read

Too long? Not short stories. I’m very excited to dive into Elizabeth McCracken’s newest collection, THE SOUVENIR MUSEUM. Here’s a little descriptive teaser:

In these stories, the mysterious bonds of family are tested, transformed, fractured, and fortified. A recent widower and his adult son ferry to a craggy Scottish island in search of puffins. An actress who plays a children’s game-show villainess ushers in the New Year with her deadbeat half-brother. A mother, pining for her children, feasts on loaves of challah to fill the void. A new couple navigates a tightrope walk toward love. And on a trip to a Texas water park with their son, two fathers each confront a personal fear. 

I love McCracken’s sharp wit and squishy heart. And, even better news, McCracken’s collection is the May pick for the Merriam-Webster Book Club. If you can stand another zoom, there will be a conversation w/McCracken in late May. You can sign up here. If you’ve not read her work before (oh boy, are you in for a treat!) I highly recommend, AN EXACT REPLICA OF A FIGMENT OF MY IMAGINATION, and THUNDERSTRUCK.

Too long? Not poems. My friend, Kelli Russell Agodon, has a beautiful new collection, DIALOGUES WITH RISING TIDES, from Copper Canyon Press.  Equal parts funny and true and heartbreaking. Go ahead, buy the book, put it by your bedside to indulge in one poem each night before sleep.

Here is a small taste:

To Help with Climate Change, We Buy Rechargeable Sex Toys

When the saleslady says, this one gets about forty-five minutes 
before needing to be recharged, I joke, Forty-five minutes? 
What is this, amateur hour? Somewhere in another city
a woman is making a sign for a protest that reads,
The earth is hotter than my imaginary girlfriend.
We’re doing our part in different ways like the people
who arrived in a Prius holding a pamphlet, The Eco-Friendly
Guide to Sex Toys—they bought the handblown dildo
created by a local artist. As I pick up
the feather tickler from the bargain bin, I think
of the decline of North American birds, three billion birds
missing and how each year fewer cliff swallows return
to our neighborhood. And as I hold the blue vibrator
I was told Oprah recommended (a detail I kind of doubt),
I’m reminded of a sky I saw when I was eight,
before the brown haze of smog turned the city
into a health concern, the wife of a superhero dying
of lung cancer at forty-four even though she never smoked,
the thin layer of ash we wonder about and then wipe off
our car windows before we drive home.

If Kelli’s work appeals to you, and I hope it does, please save the date, June 2nd, at 6:30 PDT, for One Page Wednesday. Kelli will read, and so can you! Check it out here.

Just a quick reminder, I’ve created a read.write.eat. Bookshop Store, where you can find many of the books I’ve recommend in the newsletter.

 

 

 



write

Who Cares? Me! I care. I recently read a quote which was a jab to my heart…

“It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy. Nobody wants to read your shit.”
-Steven Pressfield

And I fear it’s true. But, here’s the thing, we can’t let that stop us from telling our stories. In a recent NYer interview John Swartzwelder (a writer for The Simpsons) says:

Nobody wants to read a book. You’ve got to catch their eye with something exciting in the first paragraph, while they’re in the process of throwing the book away. If it’s exciting enough, they’ll stop and read it. Then you’ve got to put something even more exciting in the second paragraph, to suck them in further. And so on. It’s exhausting for everybody, but it’s got to be done. 

We just have to make the work so engaging that people keep reading. How? Well that’s the sixty-eight dollar question. Here’s some ideas:

  • Characters readers care about
  • Characters who yearn (we all understand yearning, yes?)
  • Humor
  • Good, clear writing that keeps a reader on solid ground + curious
  • Something meaningful happens
  • Snappy dialog
  • Solid settings
  • SCENE (put the reader in the action)

I guarantee that you are good at some of the things on this list and others, well, maybe not. But we’ve got to keep going. Get the words on the page, let them sit, then come back the next day to alter, tighten, make it all more specific and vivid and true.

Here’s Swartzwelder again, speaking about the next move once the first draft is down:

It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. 

And, to get that draft down, here’s a prompt I hope inspires you:

  1. On 5 strips of paper jot down five specific locations.
  2. On 5 more strips of paper write emotions and antecedents (what caused the emotion).
  3. Finally, write on 5 more strips of paper an embellishment. Could be a sound, a texture the weather, some surprising detail.
  4. Pick one strip of paper from each pile and write for 10 minutes.
  5. An example:
    1. the dishwashing pit at a House of Pancakes
    2. angry character because the boss said she has to work on her birthday
    3. a wet kitten outside the window.

If you’re interested in working with me, I’ve got a number of one day craft workshops coming up. Topics will include how to write FULL AND FASCINATING CHARACTERS (June 5, 10:00 – 1:00), and, a conversation about conversations, writing DIALOG that truly earns its place on the page, coming July 17. Finally, I am really looking forward to teaching  SIX (LOVE) STORIES IN SIX WEEKS (Thursday evenings, beginning July 8), that will be a playful, generative workshop, using stories from the collection, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides, as a launching point into pieces of our own.

 

 

 



eat

Who cares… even if it isn’t the best for you, we all need a little sugar in our lives now and then, right? I do. I’m totally going to make this Strawberry Snack Cake. I love the way the recipe says to place the strawberries “shoulder to shoulder” as if they are a marching band!

I’ve also dug out this family fav meal:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I want to think about how fine everything is

No thing comes even close
To what we treasure most
than to be with friends
                             Bobby McFerrin

 

 

We can be with friends! (McFerrin’s song, Friends, has been on repeat over here!)

Our neighbors invited us over to celebrate a birthday in their backyard. It was clear, it was warm, and in the newly free-from-lockdown world, it was even more delightful than usual. We paraded into their back garden bearing hot dishes, met by freshly mown grass, so vivid and fragrant, a set table, sparkling pink wine in glasses, and smiling faces. Since it was our friend’s birthday, I cooked, and when I’d asked earlier in the week what he’d like for his meal, he gave me a list of hearty, mom-style meals—fried chicken, meatloaf, mac & cheese, a broccoli quiche. Now, this pal is a gourmet with no qualms about whipping up a home sushi feast, popcorn flavored ice cream, olive oil cakes, you know, stylish and inventive food. This list he gave me? It warmed my heart. Honestly. No matter how old we get to be, childhood delights bring us comfort.

What would you want at your birthday meal, if, oh, I don’t know, you’d been deprived of friends and family because of a global pandemic for more than a year?  Honestly, I’d be happy with my favorite, red wine and buttered popcorn, if I could sit around and laugh with friends.

PS. I made our friend this meatloaf, and this mac & cheese (paywall, sorry), both of which I have shared with you in the past.

 

 

 


read

As we all begin to wean off the zoom cocktail hour portal and have more IRL friend visits, I thought it appropriate to read about friendships as well. Here are just a few books I’ve loved that celebrate pals– laughter, misunderstandings, compassion and competition, love, generosity, betrayals and abandonments– all of which are a part of our human friendships.

RAMONA THE PEST, by Beverly Cleary. RIP Ms. Cleary, and long live Ramona! Ramona, forever preserved as the subject of her own life, lives freely, with a joie de vivre of girlhood adventure, friendships, and a say yes attitude. My children and I spent many bedtimes reading about Ramona, laughing together and loving her world.

FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS, by Arnold Lobel. Not only are Frog and Toad friends, they’re practically Buddhists in their attitudes, kindnesses, and ability to live in the moment. Consider this from the story, “Alone,” when Toad goes to Frog’s home to find a note telling him that Frog isn’t home and that he’s gone off to be alone. The note sets Toad into crisis mode, worrying that Frog is sad. But, when he finds his friend, sitting on an island, staring over the pond, this is what Frog tells him:

“I am happy. I am very happy. This morning when I woke up I felt good because the sun was shining. I felt good because I was a frog. And I felt good because I have you for a friend. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to think about how fine everything is.”

I wish I’d had a bit of that attitude during the past thirteen months, bouncing off my four walls.

SWING TIME, by Zadie Smith. Not only is this a novel about a girlhood friendship that comes to an end when the characters hit their twenties. Not only is it about the complications that arise when friends share a dream of the future but only one achieves it, it’s got TAP DANCING!!

WHO WILL RUN THE FROG HOSPITAL, by Lorrie Moore. A gorgeous novella about a friendship, about the liminal time in girls’ lives when they go from girlhood to womanhood, when they shift from being the subjects of their own lives, to objects in the world. The time is fraught and powerful. How do we help a friend when we realize they need help before they are willing to accept it?

TRUTH AND BEAUTY, by Ann Patchett, is the story of her friendship with the writer, Lucy Greely. It was a complicated friendship, both blessing and burden, complicated but neither woman wavered in commitment. None of us escape the sticky moments, the times we feel that it is almost too much, but when loyalty and love prevail we feel lifted up, having built an even more solid intertwined history to see us through.
Just a quick reminder, I’ve created a read.write.eat. Bookshop Store, where you can find many of the books I’ve recommended in the newsletter.

 

 

 



write

A number of years ago at SFMOMA I stumbled into an exhibit called, Side by Side. Included were paintings by David Hockney, Frieda Kahlo, Alice Neel, Travis Collinson and Njideka Akunyili Crosby. I remember spending much time in the gallery, particularly in front of the Neel painting, “Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian.”

 

 

I love her work. The colors, the insouciance of the gaze, the casual, claiming arm slung over the back of the chair, it all appealed to me.

So I offer you a prompt: How did these two meet? Who are they looking at? What will happen once we turn away?

And, as an additional prompt, museums are opening up! Take yourself on an Artist Date. Bring a notebook. Scribble. Be curious. Fill your well.

If you’re interested in working with me, I’ve got a number of one day craft workshops coming up. Topics will include how to write VIVID SETTINGS (May 15, 10:00 – 1:00PT), creating FULL AND FASCINATING CHARACTERS (June 5, 10:00 – 1:00PT), and, stay tuned for a conversation about conversations, writing DIALOG that truly earns its place on the page, coming July 17. Finally, I am really looking forward to teaching a SIX (LOVE) STORIES IN SIX WEEKS (Thursday evenings, beginning July 8), that will be a totally playful, generative workshop, using stories from the collection, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides, as a launching point into pieces of our own. As always please feel free to email me with questions or to get on my list regarding upcoming spots in my private (via zoom) workshops.

 

 



eat

Friendship. Springtime. This girl’s fancy turns to asparagus and strawberries. I’m all for eating what’s in season, hence my grocery cart currently can’t make it through the store without these two plopped in. Here are three recipes I’ve been making over and over, a simple salad, a delectable side dish, and simple dessert.

This salad is vegan, but if you like, a little goat cheese would be a nice addition.

Strawberry Asparagus Salad

  • 1 pound asparagus, ends trimmed
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 20 medium strawberries, sliced
  • About 10 leaves basil, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Place asparagus on a parchment lined baking sheet and drizzle with the olive oil and flakes of salt.
  3. Roast asparagus for 8-10 minutes, until just tender (do not overcook!)
  4. While asparagus is roasting, boil the balsamic vinegar until reduced to about 1/4 cup
  5. Divide asparagus among the plates and top with sliced berries, basil, and salt and pepper.
  6. Use a spoon to drizzle each serving of asparagus with the balsamic syrup.

Roasted Asparagus with Buttered Almonds, Capers and Dill (Yotam Ottolenghi)

  • 1 ⅓ pounds asparagus, woody ends trimmed
  • 3T olive oil
  •  Salt and black pepper
  • 2T unsalted butter
  •  1/4c sliced (flaked) almonds
  • 3T baby capers, patted dry on paper towels
  • ½ c roughly chopped fresh dill
  1. Heat oven to 425 degrees Line a baking sheet w/parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl or on a work surface, toss the asparagus with 1T oil, a generous pinch of salt and a good grind of pepper. Arrange asparagus on the paper-lined pan, spaced well apart. Roast, shaking the pan occasionally, until asparagus is soft and starting to brown in places, 8 to 10 minutes, depending on thickness. Remove from oven and set aside.
  3. In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat until foamy. Add almonds and fry, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes (reduce heat to prevent scorching). Pour almonds and butter evenly over asparagus.
  4. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the pan and heat over high heat. Once hot, add the capers and fry, stirring continuously, until they have opened up and become crisp, 1 to 2 minutes.
  5. Using a slotted spoon, remove capers from the oil and sprinkle over the asparagus. Add dill. Using tongs, mix gently, transfer to a large plate and serve warm.

And, my personal favorite of the bunch. When I was a young woman, starting out with my own dinner parties, my friend/roommate/sister-from-another-mother, and I served this often.

Stawberries Romanoff

  • 2 pints strawberries, washed and stemmed
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  1. Slice the strawberries. In a large bowl, toss three-quarters of them with the sugar and orange liqueur. Using a fork, mash up a few, breaking them to thicken the liquied and infuse w/flavor even more. Refrigerate at least 1 hour to macerate.
  2. Put the cream in a cold mixing bowl and, using the whisk attachment, or a handheld electric mixer, whip to soft peaks, about 12 minutes.
  3. Distribute the cream among 6 chilled bowls. Mix the plain sliced berries with the remaining macerated berries and place on top of the cream.

Serve to your gathered friends and feel très sophistiqué.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

micro happiness triggers

I’ve been thinking about triggers. Words, events, personal history, people, a slant of light that gives rise to a memory, any and all of these can trigger a trauma response in our bodies, igniting unhappy somatic experiences, shadows pass over our faces, our hearts. I’ve also been thinking a lot about agency and focus and choice.
Nearly every morning, while I (ma)linger in bed, my husband goes downstairs to let the dog out and to get us coffee. Soon I hear the patter of Stanley’s paws running back up the stairs, and then he pogoes into bed beside me. That galloping sound? That’s a happiness trigger. Same as it was when the patter was my children, running into our room in the morning. My husband, holding two mugs is also a happiness trigger. I started making a joke when the coffee, Stanley, and my husband arrived, “Well, best part of the day is over!”
But why? A happiness trigger is the expectancy of good to come. It’s anticipatory pleasure. Surely those can happen all day long. I want to pay more attention. Here’s a few of mine:

  • waking to birdsong
  • smell of popcorn
  • self-help section of the bookstore (hope springs eternal!)
  • ping of a text from a pal
  • opening notes of a fav song (“Sweet Baby,” by Macy Gray. “All I Want,” by Joni Mitchell. “April in Paris,” by Ella.)
  • freeway exit for my hometown
  • new Lorrie Moore, Tana French, James McBride book
  • onions and butter on the stove
  • tight fist of a peony
  • smart women talking and people listening

As we move toward a covid-thaw, after the last year of struggling, worrying, managing (perhaps barely), maybe we can look for micro-happiness triggers (henceforth to be known as MHTs) to see us through while we wait for everyone to be vaccinated.  I am truly curious, what are your MHTs? Maybe your joy will become mine as well.

 


read

In addition to my regular workshops, which I ADORE, I’ve been teaching a series called Let’s Talk Craft! I mention this here because I’ve been reading, re-reading, and enjoying all over again a lot of individual stories for our discussions. Here’s just a few great story collections:

NATASHA, by David Bezmozgis is so good. This collection came out in 2005 and I am delighted that I had the opportunity to reread the eponymous story. The collection is linked stories about Russian Jews who emigrate to Toronto and the difficulties of navigating two cultures. Funny, smart and wrenching.

ANTON CHEKOV STORIES, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is something any writer should own, but if you don’t have it in you to read a collection, you can find “The Lady with the Little Dog,” here. It is a gorgeous story about how even a cad can surprise himself by his capacity to love. Plus, the way in which Chekov conveys boredom with a watermelon is amazing! You’ll just have to read it.

HEART SONGS, by E. Annie Proulx. This is a beautiful collection full of weather and landscape, surprising tenderness and perseverance. The story, “A Run of Bad Luck,” is a favorite of mine. I will never unsee the  “high hat” of snow on a pick-up truck, an overnight accumulation that indicates infidelity, a man staying too long in the house. (Talk about the perfect detail!)

BARK, by Lorrie Moore. What can I say. I adore her. I wish I could have dinner with any one of her women. I particularly love the story, “Thank You for Coming.” Check this out:

 “Mom, What are you doing?” asked my fifteen-year-old daughter, Nickie. “You look like a crazy lady sitting in the kitchen like this.”
“I’m just listing to some music.”
“But like this?”
“I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“You are so totally disturbing me.”
Nickie had lately announced a desire to have her own reality show so that the world could see what she had to put up with. 

Just a quick reminder, I’ve created a read.write.eat. Bookshop Store, where you can find many of the books I’ve recommended in the newsletter.

 

 

 



write

At the start of this note I mentioned triggers and somatic responses to triggers. Paying attention to those responses, the elevated heart rate, the exhaustion, the sinking feeling in your stomach, the agita, is not only good self-care (naming and pausing, baby!), it’s also good to notice for your writing.

Here’s a prompt, not only to consider how to convey emotions in your characters, but also to keep your writing butt in your chair.

  1. Think of an event that happened today, or yesterday, something which evoked an emotion in you. Record the event, but only moment to moment, through your senses. Never name the emotion. Never explain, analyze or interpret the emotion, just write the responses. After you’ve practiced this on yourself, try it for characters in your stories. Here are some cues to help get words down.
  2. Write about:
    1. Signals inside the body—temperature change, heartbeat, muscle reactions, neural change
    2. Signals outside the body—posture, gesture, facial expression, tone of voice, etc…
    3. Flashes of past/experiences of the emotion—little bursts that reference what we experienced in the moment of the event. (oh, I’ve felt this before when I was six and my mom was late to pick me up from school…) These come not as analysis, but as sense impressions.
    4. Flashes of the future—something we desire or anticipate or dread that comes to us through images, bursts of a waking dream.
    5. Sensual selectivity—our emotional culling of the environment to only let in certain clues.  For example the experience may put us into a space where we can only see positive things: the blue sky between the clouds, the tiny blooms on the azalea, etc… Or, of course, only the negative things: the ribs of the stray cat, the painfully scabby nose of the man living outside, the car driving slowly down the street with smoky windows.
  3. I encourage you to try this prompt when you feel stuck in your work, or when you feel a character isn’t coming to life on the page.

If you’re interested in working with me, check out these two upcoming classes. Let’s Talk: Scene online through Grub Street on April 3rd, find it here. My Craft Talk: Setting class is online through Literary Arts on May 15th, find it here. If a class/discussion on Dialog, Writing Beautiful Sentences, Plot (Meaningful Action), Endings, or Revision sparks your interest, shoot me an email and I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

 



eat

I’ve been seeing articles and listicles about what we will abandon from the before-time, and what new habits and behaviors we’ll all maintain after the covid-thaw. One thing I know, I’ve permanently given up underwire. A thing I won’t give up? You’ll have to wrestle me to the ground to keep me from making the sauce that got us through the pandy.

Not. Joking.

I think I made it eight times. I kept frozen quarts at the ready. We had it on scrambled eggs with sauteed chard. On mushroom ravioli. With meatballs of every variety. We added more red pepper flakes and put it on shrimp and linguini. I ate spoonfuls while staring out the window, mystified and depressed at the rain and the empty streets. When our power was on-again-off-again during the ice storm, we simmered it and had it on cheesy polenta. I’m telling you, with this sauce, you can’t go wrong! Thank you, Ina Garten.

Arrabiata Sauce

2/3 cup good olive oil
1 c whole peeled garlic cloves (24 cloves…not joking!)
2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
2 t whole fennel seeds, crushed
1 t crushed red pepper flakes (+ or – to taste)
1/3 c dry red wine, such as Chianti
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. In a medium pot or Dutch oven, warm the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, tossing occasionally, until the garlic has softened and is lightly browned. (Watch carefully. Don’t get cocky and look away or it will burn and you’ll have to peel all that garlic again. You don’t want to do that!)
  2. Meanwhile, drain the tomatoes, place them in a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and pulse until they’re roughly chopped. With a slotted spoon, transfer the garlic to the food processor and pulse again to chop the garlic. Pour the tomato mixture into the pot with the olive oil, add the fennel, red pepper flakes, red wine, salt, and black pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.

Pretty much I’ve just given you the keys to the kingdom! Put this on anything and you will be happy.

 

 

 

dinner party? my version of heaven!

Blah, blah, yeah, yeah—it’s been a year since we all locked down. I had planned on a big ol’ note about all the things that saw me through, 49 things, or 72 things, or a nice round 100 things. But then I saw so many articles, lists, and posts, I got bored. Yes it’s been a year. And, yes, I watched a lot of tv. I baked cakes. I read a few books. I knit a poncho!! I learned to mix up a damn good Boulvardier. But I’m ready to look ahead. Vaccines are rolling out. We’re seeing movement toward opening up—schools, restaurants, our homes, spring buds, the fragile green of newborn leaves.
We hosted our first dinner party (see menu below), indoors and mask free. Since all four of us had been vaccinated, we actually hugged! It was amazing. Hang tight. Change is coming.

 

 

 


read

My poor students must be so sick of hearing me wax poetic/drone on (depending on your point of view) about George Saunders’s newest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.  In it, Saunders shares a story from a Russian Master, and then unpacks all the things we have to learn from the work. Not only do we get to read Chekov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, but we get to learn from Saunders, enjoy his wit, and his deep humanity. Really, just get the book.
To entice you, here’s a quote in which he discusses Chekov’s story, “The Darling.”

At the beginning of the story, we love Olenka because we perceive her to be good; in the middle sections we feel distant from her. In the end, we love her again, but in a deeper way: we love her even though we have, by way of Chekhov’s guidance, been urged to take her fully into account. We love her even though we see all of her. Maybe we didn’t know we could do that, love a person this deeply flawed, someone who is, arguably, doing harm (to a kid no less), but now we know that we can, at least for a little while.  

For me, love may be the wrong word. What feels more true is that I understand her yearnings, I know her, and therefore her humanity, and therefore my own. I stand beside her in acceptance and solidarity. Being a human is sloppy and hard. Wow. Literature does make us better people. Thanks, George!

I also read a gorgeous story in the New Yorker. “The Winged Thing,” by Patricia Lockwood. She is a contortionist! Writing about such a painful situation and filling me with wonder, a few grateful laughs, and a new understanding of how people make it through. You can listen to her read her story on The NYer: The Writers Voice podcast. The story comes from her new novel, No One is Talking About This, which is now on my TBR list, as well as her memoir, Priestdaddy. Plus, I’ve heard her twitter feed slays, mine does not, though I have a running twitter feed in my head all the time and it is really funny. Just sayin’.

And a quick reminder, I’ve created a read.write.eat. Bookshop Store, where you can find many of the books I’ve recommend in the newsletter.

 

 

 



write

In previous newsletters I’ve mentioned the craft talks I’ve been offering. I am having so much fun, zooming with writers, taking a deep dive into aspects of craft. So far we’ve discussed SCENE and PLACE, next up on the schedule: CHARACTER. In the late spring and summer I’ll be offering talks on DIALOG, THE CLEAR AND BEAUTIFUL SENTENCE, and MEANINGFUL ACTION.

In our time together we examine specific texts I’ve sent off in advance. I offer handouts, prompts, and lots of discussion. My class on SCENE is at Grub Street on April 3rd, find it here. My class on PLACE is coming up at Literary Arts on May 8th, find it here. And, if you’re interested in my CHARACTER discussion, or any of the others I’ve listed above, shoot me an email and I’ll keep you posted.

No matter where you are in your writing life, you will appreciate this little gem from McSweeney’s, The Literary Agent’s Manifesto.”

 

 

 



eat

As I said, we had a dinner party and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, or at least my version of heaven—friends around the table, feeling the love by being well fed, well cared for, laughing and listening. Wow.

I made this gorgeous Spanakopita from The Greens Cook Book, by Deborah Madison (which I’m afraid you can only find used).

 

 

Alongside I served what has become the go to chicken at our house, One-Pot Chicken with Dates and Caramelized Lemon. Plus, a butter lettuce salad with roasted asparagus tossed in a simple lemon/olive oil dressing, with flaky salt and ground pepper. We had these ice cream bars for dessert, because, come on, I can only do so much in a day!

 

 

 

 

valentines for the whole class

Remember when we used to make Valentine’s Day cards for everyone in our class? Well, currently everyone in our class is in need of some Valentine love. Romantic love, of course, but let’s also celebrate friend, family, good neighbor, grocer, wine-merchant, vaccine-giver, postal-worker love. Where can we share love? Where can we show up to undo some of the loneliness and heartbreak we’re all feeling in various degrees? Pop a Valentine under a neighbor’s door. Stick a stamp on an envelope and send one to your mom.

We had a Valentine factory at our home. Here’s the pile, ready for the post office!

 

 

 

 


read

I read Peter Ho Davies new novel, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself. Man, he is the KING of the witty repartee! The DUKE of the bon mot! The KNIGHT of word play! All of that coupled with a tender, sincere examination of what it is to be a father, to worry and love, to fail and to thrive. I read so many books with families at the heart and rarely do I read a novel or a story from a father’s point of view. (For a good story from a dad’s POV, read, “Cold Little Bird,” by Ben Marcus in the New Yorker. A delightful and clear examination of bad behavior, with the acknowledgement–for the reader, not the character–that what we may think is our best is actually pretty shitty.)

In the midst of all the world trauma, I resisted picking up Natasha Trethewey’s, Memorial Drive. A memoir in which she revisits the loss of her mother, who was murdered by Trethewey’s step-father. Of course the language is gorgeous, as Trethewey is a poet, and the meticulous examination of her life, her decisions to be silent, her anxieties as a child, are so compelling, so vivid. Honestly, I’ve gone back to reread chapters as I’m making my way through. She also is fearless about playing with form, switching to second person point-of-view, and writing a meta-narrative in which she speaks directly to the act of remembering and the act of writing this book.

I’ve also started reading, Transcendent Kingdomby Yaa Gyasi. I loved her debut novel, Homegoingand Transcendent Kingdom promises to be wonderful as well. Gyasi has a confident storytelling voice, a character with whom I want to spend hundreds of pages, and big stakes. It’s the story of an immigrant family, a young woman scientist, addiction, and this far in, it seems to be about how we often make choices in our lives—career, partner, home—that try to undo the mistakes and losses of those we love.

Just a quick reminder, I’ve created a read.write.eat. Bookshop Store, where you can find many of the books I’ve recommend in the newsletter.

 

 

 



write

Here’s an easy prompt that may fix a stuck moment in your work in the same way duct tape fixes, well everything. Take a phrase from your current project, a clause, half a sentence from the start of a scene that has been dogging you, and write it at the top of a clean sheet of paper. Examples:

  • When she opened the door,
  • Across the bridge,
  • That wasn’t the point,
  • Marci had the blow dryer on,

Set the timer for 10 minutes and write ONE LONG SENTENCE. Just keep going. Let your mind wander like a free range chicken. Trick yourself into liberation by saying, this isn’t even in my document, this isn’t even in my story, this is a quick walk around the block to see if I find anything new.
I have been very surprised by what I discover. And, I’m here to say, one of the things you may discover is how to vary your sentence length!

This covid pandy will soon be over. It will. Enough of us will be vaccinated. Numbers will drop and we will emerge from our homes, warily gathering to hear music, have a drink, go to a reading, and take an in-person class. We will cancel our zoom accounts. We will be set free. Seize this moment, I encourage you to find an online writing class. Meet writers from all over the place, study with authors you may not have had access to otherwise. Zoom and the pandy have exploded learning opportunities.
So far I’ve taken a memoir writing class, a generative story writing class, and an intensive weekend class on the sentence. I’m about to take a class about writing through our resistance. My go to spots are: Hedgebrook, Grub Street, Literary Arts, and Community of Writers. But, there are many others. Do yourself a favor, dig around, invest in yourself, invest in your work.

If you’re interested in taking a class with me, I am offering a monthly series, Let’s Talk, CraftIn January I held a class on Scene Writing. Ten participants read examples, shared ample handouts, discussed what makes a scene vivid and compelling, wrote and shared from prompts. It was a great Saturday morning. In February, Let’s Talk, Craft will focus on Setting/Place.
I’m really excited about these conversations! If you’d like to find out more, do drop me a line. If you’re kicking yourself for missing the scene class, don’t fear as I am offering it through Literary Arts on March 6, find out more here.

I am also offering another round of my ten week Memoir Infusion workshop through Literary Arts. I adore this class! If you’ve got some words down and are looking for a shot in the arm (oh, see what I did there! vaccine on the brain) as well as new skills to strengthen your work, plus a community, this is the workshop for you.

 



eat

As you know, this year, I am taking a deep dive into one cookbook each month, preparing as many recipes as possible. For January, I ransacked the pages of Nothing Fancy by Alison Roman. And, believe me when I say, I’ll be revisiting her salads especially. February has me staring down the gorgeous Simple, by Yotam Ottolongi.

Like President Biden with his plethora of Executive Actions, I’ve hit the ground running!  So far I’ve made:

  • Fried Broccoli w/Kale, Garlic, Cumin & Lime (meh…)
  • Roasted Asparagus w/Almonds, Capers & Dill (so so good!)
  • Roasted Carrots w/Harissa & Pomegranate (delicious)
  • Chicken Marbella (Silver Palette fans, this recipe uses molasses instead of sugar, a bonus)
  • Chicken w/Miso, Ginger & Lime (made this twice! once with tofu, see below)
  • Bridget Jones’s Pan-Fried Salmon w/Pine Nut Salsa (fantastic!)

So, here’s my version of the Miso, Ginger & Lime Tofu. Be certain to cook up your favorite rice to serve with.

Ingredients

  • 1 package (14oz) tofu, sliced into 8 slabs
  • 2 tbsp sunflower oil
  • salt
  • 2 1/2T mirin
  • 2 1/2T maple syrup
  • 2 1/2T soy sauce
  • 1/4c white miso
  • 3T peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
  • 3 garlic cloves crushed
  • 1 lime, zested & juiced
  • Handful cilantro stems cut into 2 1/2-inch lengths
  • 2 red chiles sliced in half lengthwise
  • 10 green onions, sliced in half lengthwise

Step 1
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Place the tofu on a plate, drizzle w/1T oil and 3/4 tsp salt.

Step 2
Place a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add final T of oil, once hot, add tofu, cook for 3-4 minutes, turn over, cook for another 2-3 minutes, then remove from the pan. Set aside on a plate.

Step 3
Place the mirin, maple syrup, soy sauce, miso, ginger, garlic, lime zest, and lime juice in a large bowl. Whisk to combine. Spread half miso mixture over tofu, flip and spread the remainder on the tofu so that everything is coated. Put the cilantro, chiles, and the 10 halved green onions into a high-sided baking dish. Place the tofu on top. Scrape the rest of the mirin-miso sauce over top.

Step 4
Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil, and return the dish to the oven for 15 minutes uncovered. The tofu will be golden brown, sticky, and tender and the chiles and green onions will be soft.

Step 5
To serve, mound rice on a plate and place tofu on top. Surround it with the cilantro, chile, and halved green onions. Finally, drizzle with any sauce you can scrape from the pan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

part 3 is going to be so much better

I know last week was a sh*tshow, and this week, all bets are off. I’ve rewritten the paragraph below again and again. Whatever’s going on in Congress when this lands in your inbox, well… what I say below is still the truth. I hope what I offer is a tiny respite. 20 January, I see you.

Welcome to Part 2! This is my salutation in lieu of Happy New Year. Of course I wish you all happiness in the new year, but I’m also managing expectations. We’re still in it. Part 2 promises to be better than Part 1, no doubt. We’re on the cusp of a new and healthy government 🤞🏼, we have multiple vaccines coming at us, but there’s going to be some continued suffering. Please, mask up, wash your hands, stay safe. The more we do all of that, the sooner we get to Part 3, which is going to be so much damn fun. Can you imagine? Invite friends to dinner! Hug your mother! Send your kids to actual school! See live music, order a cocktail at a bar, dine out! Hang on, it’s coming!

 

 

 


read

Somehow I’ve re-upped my reading mojo. It happened suddenly and thoroughly and I’m so glad. I worried my attention span had been forever atrophied.  Along with my renewed hunger for reading, I’ve built a read.write.eat bookshop. You can find many of the books I suggest all in one place. In the coming weeks I’ll be loading the shelves with books from two years of newsletters.

First, I read Monogamy, by Sue Miller. I’ve been a Miller fan since young motherhood. I loved her novels about contemporary families that were all taking place about a decade ahead of my own family. I read about school-aged kids when mine were babies, I read about teenagers and empty nesters when I was a few years behind. I read with an eye toward the nuances of family life, all her BIG plot dramas (molestation, car accidents, arsonists) were propulsive, but I was interested, as an only child of a single mom, in the shades of family life. Monogamy is also decades (please dear god) ahead of my life. The novel is about Annie, who loses her husband early on in the novel, the story then weaves slowly and beautifully through time, grief, and a posthumous discovery of betrayal. The POV shifts often, as if to say, all of us in this soupy human experience are worthy of our own novels.

I also read (well, listened to the audiobook), Long Bright River, by Liz Moore. I snagged the book off President Obama’s fav list, and man-0-man, am I glad I did. What a gorgeous novel. I rooted for almost all the characters. A crime drama about serial murders, bad cops, marginalized women, drug addiction, a single mom, and family—those we are born into and those we build on our own. It was a beautiful and important book. As a side note, the last novel I read by Liz Moore was Heft. Another book I loved, about an oversized man and second chances.

Finally, I’ve just read How To Write One Song, by Jeff Tweedy. WHAT A GREAT BOOK. I have never listened to Wilco, so his music didn’t draw me to the book. If you are a creative, whether you want to write a song, a poem, a story, Tweedy is so smart. I suggest you listen, as he narrates and is unassuming, charming. Plus, if you do like his music, he strums and sings. At the end, any reader will be on team Tweedy.

 

 

 



write

I’m in the midst of revising my story collection… yes, again. I’ve amassed some interesting notes, some helpful notes, as well as some glib toss-offs: kill a character, create more plot drama (see Sue Miller above), make me care…(ouch!). I’ve been thinking about the sting of that last one. I’m reading a book right now, actually I’ve been reading it for about a month. I just cannot get through it. This is a book by an author I usually love.

The novel is modern day Jane Austin, rife with family troubles, bad marriages, single women trying to fit into narrow confines of acceptability, aging, grief. The writer then layers on a transgender teen, a grandma who comes out to her family, a bullied child… I know! What’s not to love? But I cannot get through it. I reach for my phone and scroll, scroll, scroll rather than read. Which led me to wonder, is the real world so fraught that the woes in the novel are just too pedestrian right now? How can a gay grandma compete with a pandemic and sedition and economic collapse and rampant racism? Plus, everything is so easy for these characters, all white, all economically comfy, and everything is resolved so swiftly.

What I ultimately realized is that I just don’t care enough about them. I need them to have more to struggle against, more ways in which they don’t feel seen, known, safe, more things to overcome, even if the obstacle is internal. Tensions and obstacles don’t have to be Sue Miller-esque (molestation, arson, car accidents), but there must be some greater tests, some deeper losses, through which the characters reveal their mettle. We’re all alive. We all know loss, struggle, pain… I want characters to know it too. Then I don’t feel so sorry for myself, so alone! Right?

I don’t know who needs to hear this: make your characters suffer so your readers can be invested and care. There. Oh, I guess the audience was ME. Thank you, for letting me beat myself up a little bit, give myself a pep talk! Hope it helped you as well.

In 2021 I will be offering a monthly zoom workshop series, Let’s Talk: Craft Talks for Writers. One Saturday each month we’ll meet and discuss craft: scene writing, characterization, setting, plot, dialog, etc… There will be readings, handouts, exercises and opportunities to share some work. If you’re interested in learning more about these monthly 2.5 hour conversations, dm me and I’ll send you information.

 



eat

Each year I set myself up with a goal, not a resolution. They’ve been things like, bake a cake a month, write a fan letter once a month, banish random and unsightly chin hair (my poor grandma was forever with a tweezer in her hand).

This year, I’ve decided to take a deep dive into one cookbook each month, preparing as many recipes as possible. For January, I’m staining the pages of Nothing Fancy by Alison Roman, given to me by my cousin. The title warms my heart because my grandma used to say that all the time. When asked about what she was cooking, wearing, reading, watching on tv, she’d reply, “Nothing fancy!” (A sort of lie, since she was the queen of matching shoes, belts and handbags and I was in awe as a child.)

So, I’m in love with this book! I’ve made:

  • Escarole w/Mustard & Spicy Guanciale Bread Crumbs
  • Perfect Herby Salad
  • Little Gems with Garlicky Lemon & Pistachio
  • Celery & Fennel w/Walnuts & Blue Cheese***
  • Sticky Roasted Carrots w/Citrus & Tahini (I actually made this twice, once as a salad, and I also deconstructed the recipe, using all the ingredients to make a soup, which I liked better than the salad. I added chicken stock and made it creamy with an immersion blender. I was pretty proud of myself.)
  • Spicy Meatballs in Brothy Tomatoes w/Toasted Fennel**
  • One Pot Chicken w/Dates & Caramelized
    Lemon ****
  • Grilled Trout w/Green Goddess Butter**
  • Lemony Turmeric Tea Cake***

I also would like to direct you to Alison Roman’s newsletter, which is terrific. I know, I’m tempting fate to get you to read another newsletter, but it is GREAT! Loads of fun and, as I said at the top of this newsletter, I want you to be happy. Here’s another food and life newsletter you may enjoy: A Wonderland of Words, which is smart and quick, insightful and delicious!

Finally, an Alison Roman recipe that I cannot wait to make:

Linguine w/Clams, Almonds & Herbs

½ cup unsalted, roasted almonds, coarsely chopped
2 T finely chopped fresh chives
2 T finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 T plus ¼ cup olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¾ t crushed red pepper flakes
¼ cup dry white wine
2 lbs littleneck clams, scrubbed
12 oz. linguine

Step 1
Mix almonds, chives, parsley, and 1 Tbsp. oil in a small bowl; season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Step 2
Heat remaining ¼ cup oil in a large pot over medium heat. Cook garlic and red pepper flakes, stirring occasionally, until garlic is softened, about 2 minutes. Add wine, bring to a boil, and cook until reduced by half, about 2 minutes.
Step 3
Add clams and increase heat to medium-high; cover pot. Cook, shaking pot occasionally, until clams have opened, 5–8 minutes (discard any that do not open).
Step 4
Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain, reserving 1 cup pasta cooking liquid.
Step 5
Add pasta and ½ cup pasta cooking liquid to clams and toss to coat. Cook, tossing and adding more cooking liquid as needed, until sauce coats pasta, about 2 minutes; season with salt and pepper.
Step 6
Serve linguine and clams topped with reserved almond-herb mixture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

escape from the current situation

How are you? No, I mean it. Covid infection rates are high, family—far flung or nearby—is best kept at arms-length (that is if you have an NBA players wingspan), it’s cold and dinner on the deck with friends requires a sleeping bag! I’m cooking gifts from my kitchen, listening to audio books, bundling up for long walks and ordering more outdoor heaters.


read

I just finished listening to Tana French’s newest novel, The Searcher. She does SO many things well. French tells suspenseful, meaningful stories with many moments of connection between reader and character, even if the character is a divorced, middle-aged man, a retired Chicago cop who has moved to Ireland to refurbish a farm and live a quiet life. I recognize his genuine human needs and feel comfortable in my own yearnings…to be close with my kids, to have friends nearby, to be in a community and do good work with my hands.
One of French’s superpowers is her gorgeous descriptions of the natural world. A friend mentioned to me that some readers feel the descriptions slow the narrative down. How can that be? Check this below! Not only is it vivid, but it reveals the interiority of the character who is looking out the window, and it speaks too of the nature of people in general, as illustrated by bird behavior.

The enforced idleness and the misty rain give that week a dreamy suspended feel. At first Cal finds it strangely easeful. For the first time he can remember he doesn’t have the option of doing anything, whether he wants to or not. All he can do is sit by his windows and look out. He gets accustomed to seeing the mountains soft and blurry with rain, like he could keep walking towards them forever and they would just keep shifting farther away. Tractors trudge back and forth across the fields and the cows and sheep graze steadily. There is no way to tell whether the rain doesn’t bother them, or whether they just endure. The wind has taken the last of the leaves. The rooks’ oak tree is bare, exposing the big, straggly twig balls of their nests in the crook of every branch. In the next tree over there’s a lone nest to mark where, sometime along the way, some bird infringed on their mysterious laws and got taught a lesson.
(Please forgive any punctuation errors, I took this from dictation. Remember when we had to do that in school?)

There is much to be lauded about French’s writing and this book in particular. There are surprises and suspense, stakes and, perhaps most important, an escape from the current situation.

 

 



write

It’s that time of year, when lists drop all over the place, (gifts, best & worse, movies, books, songs, dinners, cocktails…). I’ve read through a bunch of writers’ lists on the most important rules of writing and I’ve winnowed them down to what I think is crucial.

  1. (Jeanette Winterson) Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.
  2. Don’t hold on to poor work. If it was bad when it went in the drawer it will be just as bad when it comes out.
  3. Enjoy this work!
  4. (Zadie Smith) Read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  5. Read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  6. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  7. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  8. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied
  9. (Kurt Vonnegut) Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  10. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  11. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  12. Start as close to the end as possible.
  13. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
  14. (Anton Chekov) Extreme brevity
  15. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  16. Compassion
  17. (Elmore Leonard) If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.
  18. (Neil Gaiman) Write. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  19. When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  20. Laugh at your own jokes.

Do you have any rules you find useful? I’d love to know!

 

 



eat

I’ve been baking pies, and stuffing squash. Also, I’ve made a fabulous new cocktail from Smitten Kitchen. You’re welcome!

Stuffed Acorn Squash (variation from this recipe)

  • 2 average size acorn squash
  • 4T olive oil
  • 2t kosher salt
  • 2t black pepper
  • 4 cloves garlic (minced)
  • 1 shallot (minced)
  • 1.5 cups sliced mushrooms of choice, I used crimini
  • 4 cups fresh spinach
  • 2 cups COOKED French lentils
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 2t cumin
  • Chili flakes to taste
  • 3 cups COOKED brown rice
  • Juice and zest of 1 large orange
  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries

Prepare squash. (Preheat oven to 425°)

  1. Use a sharp knife to slice both ends off of the squash about 3/4 inch below the stem. This will prevent the squash from wobbling on the baking sheet pan.
  2. Scoop out the seeds and excess pulp from inside the squash.
  3. Brush w/olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 25-30 minutes. Be certain to test with a fork and make sure the squash is tender.

Make Filling:

  1. Sauté mushrooms, garlic, and shallots in a little olive oil until the mushrooms start to brown.
  2. Add spinach plus salt and pepper to taste. Cook until the spinach is slightly wilted.
  3. Add lentils and walnuts, plus spices. Let cook for 2-3 minutes.
  4. Add the rice, toss, cook for 1-2 minutes more.
  5. Sprinkle in the grated parmesan cheese and toss to allow it to melt a little. Add in the juice and zest of an orange and the dried cranberries. Toss everything together.
  6. Fill each squash half with the rice and lentil mixture to nearly overflowing.  Bake at 425° for about 7-10 minutes, until the tops golden brown. Top with more cheese if desired.

My variation on Smitten Kitchen’s Winter Warmth Cocktail:

Winter Warmth Syrup

1½ cups water
¾ cup demerara or turbinado sugar (granulated will do just fine if you do not have them)
1/2 apple, cored, and diced
1/2 pear, cored, and diced
12 walnut halves
3 cinnamon sticks, broken up
6 whole cloves
1 whole nutmeg

Make the syrup: Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring until the sugar dissolves, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool. Strain into a clean glass bottle, cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. Makes about 2 cups.

For Each Cocktail
1 piece of orange peel (about 1 by 2 inches)
3/4 ounce Winter Warmth Syrup
3 dashes of bitters (I used orange bitters)
2 ounces bourbon, rye or Canadian whisky
Juice from ½ lemon or orange (I found the drink too sweet w/out the citrus)

Make a drink: Place the orange peel, syrup and bitters in a low glass and muddle. Pour in whiskey, add a large ice cube and don’t forget to share.

 

 

 

tell the truth harder

Every morning, my dog, Stanley, gets up from our bed and heads downstairs to his other bed, which is actually this fabulous blanket I bought because Oprah told me to! Stanley’s migration is sort of an apt representation of 2020. In a miasma of malaise, I shuffle from one room to the next, confined to the walls of here. Not to say there hasn’t been joy, laughter and good food, but, man, anxiety has long arms!

Here are a few things to help push back!

 

 

 


read

Tell you what, I sure miss going to see live theater. I miss being a member of an audience and feeling all the feels in community. I miss watching actors on the stage, doing so much for me. And so, I’m going to read a bunch of plays this December. Who knows, it may strengthen my dialog game. If you’ve got some favorite plays, please do share with me.  Here’s my list so far:

How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel
The story of a woman who learns the rules of the road and life from behind the wheel. Wildly funny, surprising and a devastating tale of survival, a sexual coming of age through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s as seen through the provocative lens of a troubling relationship between a young girl and an older man.

Red, John Logan.
Red tells the story of Mark Rothko and his assistant, as he tries to create a definitive work for the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar
The story of a Pakistani-American lawyer rapidly moving up the corporate ladder while distancing himself from his cultural roots. When Amir and his wife Emily, a white artist influenced by Islamic imagery, host a dinner party, what starts out as a friendly conversation escalates into something far more damaging.

I also want to read something by Sarah Ruhl. The plays I mention are pretty heavy, got a comedy for me? Please?

I am on the edge of my seat, waiting to pick up my copy of Charles Baxter’s new novel, The Sun Collective. The NYTs review says this: “Baxter’s true gift is in describing the tender complexities of a relationship.” It seems relationship is what I am most interested in right now, and, well, always!

 

 



write

I go out on stage and say what everyone is thinking.  -Carl Reiner

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. -James Baldwin

And there you go, Baldwin and Reiner elucidate why it is I write, why it is I read, and why I hold literature in the highest regard. Writing is a sacred act. In being as honest as I can on the page, and then pushing harder, peeling back self-protective layers, stripping away my ego (oh dear, I’m not as smart as I think I am, I can be that cruddy, that petty, that careless) I have the potential to make another human feel less alone when faced with their failings and foibles. If I go out on the page and admit the truth of human experience as I know it, as I’ve witnessed and lived it, I am saying what everyone is thinking. By saying it first, I’m giving readers permission to feel it and think it too! In community we can survive the hard stuff we’d rather not know about ourselves. In community there is safety.

I encourage you to put a little post-it in your writing space. You can quote Reiner or Baldwin. Or, you can simply write: TELL THE TRUTH HARDER.

 

 



eat

Turns out I’ve been making flaccid chicken stock all these years. Leave it to Bill Buford (do yourself a favor and click the link, a charming video of him cooking w/his twin teenaged boys) and New Yorker magazine to set me straight.

I have stacks of NYer magazines teetering around my home. Yes, I’ve read nearly all the cartoons (though I never come up with a clever caption for the cartoon contest), 40% of the short stories, 35% of the poems, 90% of the film and tv reviews, an occasional article (Jelani Cobb!! Ariel Levy!! Adam Gopnik!!). But, my relationship with the NYer is troubled. I’m a person who likes the idea of me reading the NYer, hence, when I don’t, I feel bad about myself. So, I only renewed for the digital version. Then covid hit and somehow I signed up for newsletters, and who knew, the NYer taught me to make a robust chicken stock!

I offer this to you today, because tomorrow, many of us will have a turkey carcass lying around.

Brown Chicken Stock

  • 2 onions
  • A handful each of rosemary, thyme, sage and parsley
  • 6 stalks celery
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 6 carrots
  • 7 pounds chicken bones and carcass, plus (optional) neck and back of turkey
  • A spoonful (or two) of honey
  • A few splashes white wine (I had none open, so I skipped the honey and used madeira wine instead)1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and place a large roasting pan on the middle rack2. Set a sauté pan over low heat, without fat or oil. Peel and halve onions. Place each half, cut-side down, in pan and leave to brown slowly. After 5 minutes, peek underneath one; if there is no color, increase heat. Once onions are thoroughly browned (10 to 20 minutes), carefully remove and set aside. Browned, the onions have a deeper flavor and will strengthen the color of the sauce.

    3. Make a bouquet garni of the herbs and 2 of the celery stalks and bind with twine. Roughly chop the remaining celery and place in a large stock pot w/ bouquet garni, onion, garlic, and carrots.

    4. Add bones to heated roasting pan. (If it’s hot enough, you won’t need fat or oil.) Roast until bones are browned on the bottom, 15 to 30 minutes, and then flip, using a flexible spatula to lift the pieces off the pan without losing the browned skin. Repeat regularly until bones are almost thoroughly cooked, but be careful—if the bones burn, they are useless. Add the bones to the pot with the vegetables.

    5. Deglaze the roasting pan by placing it over high heat, pouring in white wine to cover, bringing to a boil, and scraping up browned bits from the bottom.

    6. Fill pot with enough water to cover bones. Set over high heat and bring almost to a boil, then turn heat to the lowest setting and skim. The broth should be less than simmering. Continue to cook gently over low heat for 10 hours, or so, skimming occasionally, topping up as needed.

    7. Pour the stock through a sieve into a new pot, set over medium heat, and, if you choose to further intensify flavor, you can reduce slowly, by at least half. Once completely cool, refrigerate, then freeze to have on hand for soups this winter.

 

 

 

a note from the before time

Holy Crap!! It is Saturday afternoon as I write and who knows what will happen in the next three days before this note lands in your inbox.  Chances are, whatever happens will be big, and this note will be coming to you from “the-before-time.” Every day it seems our country passes through another one-way-gate, from which there is no turning back.
I hope you are all well. I hope you are having adequate days. Drink water. Get outside if the air is decent. Put your feet up. Close your eyes. Repeat. We are going to need one another.
Meanwhile, I offer these suggestions to bring you solace and flashes of delight.

 

 

 


read

A few weeks ago, I invited you to join me in a virtual book group, you know, to hang out and discuss!  A handful of you joined and I want to thank you for making me accountable to my own reading life. Not only am I getting through the book (which has been a little hard for me during the time-of-covid), but I’m marking up the pages and thinking hard about the newest Ferrante novel, The Lying Life of Adults.  I’ve been putting up weekly posts on my Instagram page, and we have a zoom meeting planned to discuss in mid-October. Send me a note if you’d like to join in.

Meanwhile, I want to sing the praises of a new Lorrie Moore story, Face Time, from the 28 September issue of The New Yorker.  The story is wry, funny and sad. Here’s how it begins:

I asked my father if he knew where he was and he said, “Kind of.”
       “You are in the hospital. Your hip surgery went well. But there is a virus and you have been found to have it. You are contagious. No one can get near. It’s happening all over the world. You caught it in your assisted-living facility. The chef had it.”

Moore is one of my favorite writers. If you aren’t familiar, you’ve got a joy-filled winter of reading ahead of you. Here’s a page with all of her books. Birds of America and Bark are wonderful.

 

 



write

I’ve begun doing some blind contour drawing with one of my workshops. It’s great! We find a few minutes in each session to stare at an image and draw what we see, without looking at our hands or the page. The goal is freedom, to feel unattached to the outcome, to develop confidence in not knowing how things will turn out, to trust that you can make a beautiful line (or write a beautiful sentence), to relearn how to see, to unlearn ‘polite’ and ‘boring’ sentences, to defamiliarize the product.

Don’t take my word, here’s a great Letter of Recommendation about Blind Contour Drawing. Maybe it is something you’d like to incorporate into your writing practice?

 

 



eat

How could I have forgotten how much I love the blank canvas of Minestrone?!?

Several friends have recently been in need of dinner drop-offs. With wet and chilly weather, soup seemed the perfect choice. Enter: Minestrone. Adaptable to whatever is growing, vegetarian or laden with meat, it’s perfect.  Here’s what I offer as a starting place:

Minestrone w/white beans and winter squash

  • 1 cup dried white beans
    • soak overnight
    • drain and cover with abundant water
    • cook at a med. simmer along with generous shakes salt and 4 whole cloves of garlic
    • when beans are nearly tender, 75 minutes or so, remove garlic cloves
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3-4 medium carrots, peeled and diced (1/2 inch dice or smaller if desired)
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 or 2 leeks, white and light green parts only, halved, cleaned well and sliced thin
  • 3 or 4 garlic cloves (to taste), minced
  • 1 14-ounce can chopped tomatoes, with juice
  • 2 cups chicken stock OR water
  •  A bouquet garni made with a bay leaf and a couple of sprigs each parsley and thyme, tied into one of the leek leaves if desired
  •  Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 pound winter squash, (I love Butternut) peeled and diced
  •  Lots of chopped flat leaf parsley or basil (or both)
  • Parmesan rind
  •  Freshly grated Parmesan for serving

 

  1. While beans are simmering prepare tomato base. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a heavy soup pot or Dutch oven, and add onion, carrot and celery. Add a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until vegetables are just about tender, about 5 minutes, and add parsley and leeks. Cook, stirring, until leeks are slightly wilted, about 3 minutes, and stir in garlic along with another generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, just until the garlic smells fragrant, 30 seconds to a minute, and stir in tomatoes with their juice and salt to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring often, for about 10 minutes, until tomatoes have cooked down somewhat and smell fragrant. Toss in Parm rind for flavor. Remove from heat until beans are ready.
  2. Add beans and their broth, plus either 2c chicken stock or water, to tomato base, stir together, add bouquet garni and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes. Add winter squash and continue to simmer for another 30 to 45 minutes, until squash and beans are very tender. Taste, adjust salt, and add freshly ground pepper to taste.
  3. Just before serving heat through and stir in a generous handful of chopped fresh parsley or basil, or a mix of the two. Serve, topping each bowl with freshly grated Parmesan.
  4. Additions:
    Italian sausage, seared and cooked through, sliced into rounds
    Cooked chicken, cut to bite size pieces
    Tortellini, cooked until just al dente
    Kale or Chard, rinsed and julienned
    Whatever you LOVE

Serve with a simple mixed green salad, a sliced up tart and crispy apple, some soft and delicious cheese, and hearty bread.