bright, spicy, friendly


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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.”



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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!


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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.



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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.



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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.


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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.



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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.



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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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


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

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

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



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

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

I’m coming to your house. 

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

Now over twenty years later, my declaration has changed:

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

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

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



eat

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

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

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

grateful and pissed off


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

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

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



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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?



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

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

are you an expert?


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

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

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



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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


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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.



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

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

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

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



eat

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

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

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

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

 

hope, chocolate chip cookies, and osmosis


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

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



write

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

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



eat

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

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

 

strange connections


read

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



write

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



eat

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

 

cake resolution


read

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

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

What are your three formative books?



write

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

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

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



eat

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