Because I feel better about myself when I’m doing two things at once, I listen to a lot of audio books. I listen on long walks or while folding a mountain of laundry, and I choose something plot heavy, something that will keep me walking or folding. Since I can’t take margin notes, or underline favorite sentences, I usually pick books I consider guilty pleasures—something light to divert my anxiety in this time of political unease on our overheating planet. Recently I listened to Good in Bed (in its 57th or some such crazy number print run) which many of you, me included, will consider chick-lit. Yes, I’m a snob. Yet, Jennifer Weiner has a lot to say about ghettoization of women’s stories, and, hello, I write about women’s lives. Plus, I really like her op-ed pieces in the NYTs. I think she’s a smart and funny feminist who calls bullshit on everything—body shaming, anti-choice agendas, misogyny, frat houses, and Justice Kavanaugh. She cares deeply about all our girls. The novel is an absolute fairy tale in which the big girl gets the job, the baby, the friendships, and finally the man, all by virtue of her own pluck and humor. (Yes, the novel is very hetero-normative, and even perplexed by the sole gay couple.) It also includes shopping, shoes, and handbags as signifiers, which aren’t really my jam. But I liked Cannie, the main character, and I laughed out loud. What makes it chick-lit is the adorable bow at the end. I’m not going to lie, I would LOVE an adorable bow in my life about now! But in a novel, I feel cheated when everything works out so well. What’s your guilty pleasure? And if you write to tell me it’s Russian Novels, or Gilgamesh, or some other humble brag….just, please, don’t.
Like you, I have a stack of resource books on my desk. Books I think will make my work shine with insight, help me master structure, invent interesting situations, create compelling characters my readers will care about, and write snappy dialog. And they might—if only I would read them! Lately, my most pressing need is getting unstuck. The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, is full of terrific prompts to use at your desk, or to share with students. Here’s one from J.D. McClatchy that I go to often:
- Find a seed poem in the world that you particularly love. (It’s great when the poem aligns thematically, or in voice, or setting, with your writing project.)
- Type the poem out in triple space.
- Write your own lines between the lines.
- Erase the seed poem.
I sometimes do exercises like this to loosen up, in the same way an athlete stretches. When I’m stuck in my story, I do this exercise with my own words, cutting and pasting a paragraph or section onto a new page, triple spacing the lines and filling in with details, internalization, action.
Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fossler, has great short essays. Aimee Bender waxes on the value of memorizing poems. Mary Gaitskill thinks about Anna Karenina and the momentary access we sometimes gain to our hidden, true selves. Yiyun Lee writes about looking at strangers and imagining their lives.
I’d love to know of resource books you love. Drop me a line.
I’m finishing up this newsletter with another guilty pleasure—popcorn for dinner. My husband travels a good bit and when he’s away, I pop a giant bowl, generously butter (seriously, like ½ a stick) and sprinkle on truffle salt. I pour a glass of big red wine, slip into sweatpants (okay, stay in my sweatpants–my writing uniform), my dog curls up at my feet, and I fire up Netflix! Honestly, I’m getting a little misty-eyed and hungry thinking about it now. Just so you know, this is the absolutely best, most amazing popcorn popper. (A perfect gift!) Right about here you might be shrugging your shoulders, lamenting the missing link to a fantastic dish or cookie, but it’s the holidays, Babe. We all need an easy night. What is your go to for a simple evening in?