the mortician’s delightful giggle

I’m just back from my hometown and a visit with my 82-year-old mother.

She’s experiencing some slippage and convincing her to accept support around her home creates (ahem) strife and worry. I want her to be more secure, to have a bit of company, but my mother is a hard NO. As a friend told me, my mother knows what she wants, and everyone has the right to folly.The push and pull has got me wondering why we have a hard time accepting help. Perhaps we don’t want to be burdensome. Perhaps we’re embarrassed to admit we can’t do it on our own. We’ve internalized the Horatio Alger myth that we should all bootstrap ourselves into doing just-fine-thank-you. It’s as if pride and shame and capitalism have clogged our capacity to receive. Self-sufficiency bests mutual aid.

But doesn’t needing help make us human? By asking for a hand don’t we set the example that it’s okay to be vulnerable? With every casserole, basket of clean laundry, and watered garden, with every gesture of kindness that we accept, we allow the pleasure of caring for one another to flourish. Don’t we all ultimately wish to be overlong in our gratitude?

 


read

I’ve just finished CJ Hauser’s, THE CRANE WIFE, a memoir in essays. Oh my, what a gorgeous book! Honestly, I felt so bereft after I finished I began to read it again. I want to buy 10 copies to give away to the people I love. I may choose the book as the community read for my writing retreat this autumn. Not only do I love the way she writes—with clarity, compassion, and curiosity—but I adore her voice, her nimble mind. She is frank. She is funny. She is gifted with a capacious heart. I wish I found myself beside her on a long-haul flight and she felt like chatting with her adoring seatmate, me!

In one essay, “Siberian Watermelon,” she talks about why readers don’t find many happy short stories, she notices how boring a happy love story is on the page. “What’s there to tell?” she asks. And then she talks about her father.

Who always loved me in ways I felt and knew and could rely on. And if that doesn’t sound radical to you? Doesn’t seem worth writing about? You’re wrong. To have a person, any person in this life who offers you that kind of love, is a goddamned miracle. It’s more than most of us get. I’ve decided that this is also a kind of love story. Maybe the best that a person can hope for.

Thank you, CJ Hauser!

Please do take a moment to read this beautiful  essay, Cancer and Motherhood, by my friend and student, Elyse Chambers. In it she writes about motherhood, cancer, and abortion access. I wish we’d all tell our abortion stories. Not just the ones that deal with health crises or violence, but the stories about seeking an abortion because we just got accepted to grad school, we don’t want to be a single mom, or we made a mistake, or we want to go to the arctic. Women should have the right choose their own adventure. Why do I even have to type that?

 

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 some prompts for you:

  1. The Mortician’s Delightful Giggle: Write a very short story that is a secret love letter to an old flame or a movie star. To ensure it doesn’t turn overly precious, use one or more of these words: vermin, mortician, cottage cheese, disposal.
  2. Remember a swimsuit that you loved. One in which you felt comfortable, so comfortable that if someone broke up with you while you were wearing said swimsuit, you’d still feel badass! Start a story or a memoir piece with, “I was wearing my bikini the day…” For inspiration check out John Updike’s story, A&P
  3. Write about a time you refused help. Write about a time someone refused your help.

Under the heading of VERY exciting news, I’ll be teaching in Collioure, France in June of 2023! My smart and delightful friend, Karen Karbo, runs retreats in her adopted home in the South of France. COME TO YOUR SENSES promises to be a week of generative writing, new friendships, and rejuvenation. Come to France!

 

For more opportunities to work together, check the updated TEACHING page.

 



eat

It’s so flipping hot in Portland. I’m offering you a simple recipe that requires neither heat nor stirring.

Fresh Fig, Tomato and Blue Cheese Salad

  • 1 T balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ t fine sea salt
  • ¼ c extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 T pine nuts or Marcona almonds, chopped
  • 1 lg or 2 sm ripe tomatoes, about 8 ounces, thinly sliced
  • ½ lb fresh figs, cut into quarters
  • 1 oz crumbled blue cheese, like Rogue River Blue
  •  Black pepper
  • A couple tablespoons of chopped herbs (parsley? thyme? mint? chives? All 4?)
  1. In a small bowl, whisk together vinegar and salt. Whisk in oil.
  2. If you’re using pine nuts place a small skillet over medium-low heat, toast pine nuts, shaking the pan occasionally, until light golden, about 2 minutes. Be keen eyed or they will burn.
  3. Arrange tomato slices on a large plate. Scatter fig quarters and nuts of choice over tomatoes. Sprinkle with cheese and herbs, drizzle with dressing and finish with pepper.
  4. Please feel free to change up the ratio! Use as much damn cheese as you like!

 

**********

 

A little program note: I’ve been writing and sharing what I love for nearly 3 years! I love it and many of you write to let me know how much you enjoy my thoughts and recommendations, and for that I am truly grateful. Honestly, it makes my day to hear from readers. Also, it takes time and consideration to put my thoughts together twice a month. Maybe you’d like to show appreciation buy clicking below:

buy me a cup of coffee!☕️

 

Which brings me to Joni Mitchell. Did you see this clip of her surprise performance at the Newport Folk Festival? Joni in her jaunty beret! Belting out her songs! What slayed me was that everyone on stage—supporting her, reveling in her joy—was seated. I assume because of her age and the aneurysm she suffered in 2015, Joni can’t stand for too long. Every musician sat with Joni, beside Joni. That was beautiful. That was caring. That was love.

Stanley and his pal Millie are a mutual aid society for dropped morsels of food!

 

Please, remember to tell your people you love them,
xN

I feel the pull of the world…🌎💔😥

 

 

 

 

Flying home from Colorado, smudges of snow cling to the mountains. I’ve been teaching at Aspen Summer Words and I’m equal parts energized and exhausted. A week immersed in natural beauty and smart conversations, engaged with inspiring and challenging writing, making new friends, participating in terrific panels—was a gift! Please, put yourself in the path of beauty and creative growth. No matter how you express your creativity seek the company of talented and dedicated people. (Maybe a week at the Oregon Coast could be perfect? Join me! retreat.write.energize)

At 10,000 feet, I feel the pull of the world. My students broke the SCOTUS news to me in workshop, and though I knew the repeal of Roe was coming, I was overwhelmed by an instantaneous flood of sorrow and rage. Politicians and ideologues have taken away freedom to make decisions about our own bodies. We’ve failed to preserve dignity and opportunity for our daughters and their partners. Maybe you feel exhausted, even hopeless. Rest up. Stay hydrated. Nourish yourself (creatively too). We have a lot of work to do. Opportunities for action at the bottom of this note.

 

 


read

I just finished Tom Perrotta’s novel, TRACY FLICK CAN’T WIN. I was all in. The characters were funny. There’s a sweet, lesbian love story, a twelve-step program, and the pacing… fantastic. If you have trouble with the rate-of-revelation in your work, if you worry about page-turnability, reading Perrotta is a master class. Take notes. How does he hook you? Humor, characters misbehaving, stakes, causally related actions, some cringe factor… all of it is tantalizing.

And yet, ultimately I was angry! (Spoiler ahead) First off, Perrotta doesn’t write female friendship. By the time poor Tracy makes a friend, the writing turns to summary. We are never in scene with the women laughing, listening, and supporting one another—you know, the way we all spend time with our female friends! Second, in the world of this novel, the only way Tracy Flick wins is by taking a bullet in a school shooting? Seriously? A woman has to get shot to get the promotion she deserves? Perrotta honestly couldn’t think of any other way for Tracy to get her due? It felt like a cheap (and easy) way out of her predicament.

Here are 11 books that celebrate strong women who struggle, screw up, and thrive on their own terms. These are the books we should be reading now. If you have some favorites of your own, please, I implore you, send me the titles. (And yes, I know I should read CIRCE, Madeline Miller)

I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK, Nora Ephron
THE VANISHING HALF, Brit Bennett
INDIGO, Ellen Bass
BECOMING, Michele Obama
WILD, Cheryl Strayed
STATE OF WONDER, Ann Patchett
I AM MALALA, Malala Yousafzai
IN PRAISE OF DIFFICULT WOMEN, Karen Karbo
HARRIET THE SPY, Louise Fitzhugh
THE LAST BLACK UNICORN, Tiffany Haddish
MANHATTAN BEACH, Jennifer Egan
HAMNET, Maggie O’Farrell

 

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

Two things I gleaned at writing camp:

Stay current! Expand your TBR stack with books entering the zeitgeist now. Look to the finalists (not just the winners) for awards like the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN America Awards, Smart, incisive readers have vetted these books for you. 
  
Authority. We can talk about this from two angles. Narrative authority refers to readers’ confidence and belief in the narrator. We want our readers to trust they’re in good hands, and we make that happen with a true and consistent voice, with vivid and believable settings (even if it’s a made-up world).
 
We must also have authority to tell our stories. When we don’t believe we have any business putting words to page, when we worry about our right to speak, the work is of course wobbly. We have to learn to value and recognize what interests us. We have to pay attention. (And, maybe don’t internalize our self-deprecating jokes?)
 
“Who’s going to give you the authority to feel that what you notice is important? It will have to be you. The authority you feel has a great deal to do with how you write, and what you write, with your ability to pay attention to the shape and meaning of your own thoughts and the value of your own perceptions. Being a writer is an act of perpetual self-authorization.”
from SEVERAL SHORT SENTENCES ABOUT WRITING, Verlyn Klinkenborg

A prompt: On your way to coffee, to work, to the market, to meet friends for dinner, pay attention to the world around you. When you reach your destination, make note of seven things you noticed. Use all your senses. Just seven things. You can make a voice memo, send yourself a text, or jot them down. Make a habit of noticing. And then, make a habit of noticing what you notice.

Another way to give yourself authority is to invest in yourself:

RETREAT.WRITE.ENERGIZE!

an opportunity to focus, to validate, and to get some serious work done. A week on the beautiful Oregon Coast, October 9-15.

  • workshops each day
  • craft talks
  • writing timeAll the info is here!

For more opportunities to work together, check the updated TEACHING page.

 



eat

I sat on a panel in Aspen in which we discussed maintaining our writing momentum at home. One question from the excellent moderator: where do we turn in low moments, when we may be despairing. A colleague suggested The Marginaliananother colleague suggested reading poetry, and I, forever the outlier, suggested baking. When I feel low, I like something with a satisfying and easily achievable beginning, middle, and end. I like to stir, and dice, and move my body around the kitchen.

Brown Butter Nectarine Cobbler/Cake ala NYTs

  • 3 c fresh nectarines in 1/2-inch slices, or a combination (about 1 pound)
  • ½ c sugar
  • 1 t lemon juice
  • 4 T unsalted butter
  • ¾ c whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 ½ t baking powder
  • ⅛ t salt
  • ¾ c buttermilk
  • ¼ c sliced almonds
  • 2 T Demerara sugar

 

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the fruit slices, ¼ c sugar and lemon juice. Stirring constantly, bring the mixture to a simmer, then take the pan off the heat.
  3. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and cook, swirling the pan occasionally, until it smells very nutty, turns golden, and flecks of dark brown appear, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour the brown butter into an 8-inch-by-8-inch baking dish.
  4. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, remaining ¼ c sugar, baking powder and salt. Pour the buttermilk into the dry ingredients and mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened.
  5. Scrape the batter on top of the brown butter, use a spatula to even out the batter but be careful not to mix it into the butter. Scatter the nectarine slices and juice on top of the batter without stirring. Sprinkle with the almonds, and Demerara sugar.
  6. Bake until golden brown, 50 to 55 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm.

**********

 

A little program note: I’ve been writing and sharing what I love for nearly 3 years! I love it and many of you write to let me know how much you enjoy my thoughts and recommendations, and for that I am truly grateful. Honestly, it makes my day to hear from readers. Also, it takes time and consideration to put my thoughts together twice a month. Maybe you’d like to show appreciation buy clicking below:

buy me a cup of coffee!☕️

 

To help women with no access to abortion, consider donating to:
National Network of Abortion FundsTo help normalize abortion please consider sharing to:
Jessica Yellin at News Not Noise. She asks, “Have you had an abortion? Has someone you love had an abortion? Please share your story and we will share here. Call our voicemail at 805.222.6462.”

If you need help obtaining an abortion pill, please check here:
Plan C

This will be a long battle. Make noise. Vote. Do what you can.

Stanley sends his love.

Please, remember to tell your people you love them,
xN

we are made of get up again muscles 💔😔😑…🥲😘❤️‍🩹

I recently read somewhere that we are made of get-up-again muscles. I love that! Since we’re all destined to be slammed by heartbreak and disappointment at some point in our lives, toning our get-up-again muscles seems wise. According to resiliency theory, our bounce-back ability flourishes when we have feelings of control and competency, as in “I got this…”, when we nurture our coping skills (pause, breathe, rest), by feeling connected to others and believing in our character, and finally by having an opportunity to contribute to the general well-being. This all sounded well and good to me, and then the shooting happened at Robb Elementary School.

How in the world do those families, children, and teachers, crushed so hard by violence and loss, locate their get-up-again muscles? Resilience seems pie-in-the-sky when the landscape feels barren of hope for change.

I know we are all thinking of them, and we may feel hopeless. I do. Maybe we can look at some of those words, connect, contribute, control, cope. I’ve got some solid opportunities at the end of this letter. Meanwhile, here’s a quote from Pema Chödrön, the American Buddhist nun that may help.

 

          Compassion is not a relationship between the wounded and the healed.

          It’s a relationship between equals. It’s knowing your darkness well enough

          that you can sit in the dark with others.

 

I am right here, beside you.

 


read

Mary Laura Philpott’s essay collection, BOMB SHELTER, Love, Time, and Other Explosives, starts with a health crisis. Her son suffers a seizure in the middle of the night, she and her husband wait for an ambulance, then navigate the mysteries of brains, electricity, and our limited capacity to make everything okay. What I love about this book is Philpott’s generosity. She’s kind to the turtles who live in her yard, to college kids that can’t get home due to bad weather, to exhausted mothers behaving badly in public, even to SUV drivers who won’t get out of the way for an ambulance. Lucky them, she muses, they’ve never white knuckled the phone, counting the minutes for the ambulance to arrive.
She’s also kind to herself, which is often the most jagged pill. “I don’t mean to muck up the beauty about now with my tears about later. I’m sad because I’m so happy, see?…What I do know is that the stability of right now will not hold.” I feel seen! Philpott is funny, smart, insightful, someone I’d love to invite to dinner, but not too often because I fear her anxiety would feed mine. Ultimately she leaves us feeling hopeful:

 

I am always looking for some gratitude, warmth, or hope…

when I see something that makes me feel joy,

you’re damn right I applaud. Way to go adorable cat on a leash!

Thank you server who brought my pizza hot!…

I say yes for things that offer some pleasure. 

Yes for people who choose to be friendly. 

Yes for any glimmer of light through all the darkness.

I mean that yes. I need it. Seriously. 

 

What did you say yes to today?

THIS TIME TOMORROW, by Emma Straub, is fluffy, and has teeth. Just what I want in a summertime read. Stuff happens, it’s fun to read, there’s female friendship, time travel, delicious class satire, a loving relationship between father and daughter, a cat named Urusla. And in the midst of all the fun there are lovely truths about human nature that stick the landing. I listened to the audio book and honestly, it was a joy.

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

Play is a crucial part of healing. I want to create an opportunity. Consider this write section like a game of pickle ball, but better! It’s a fun time spent w/o purpose and no threat of pulling your Achilles tendon. Get some words on the page. Be free. Be without judgment.

Your prompts:

  • Write about being frightened at an amusement park
  • Write about breaking the law as a kid
  • Write about excessive heat
  • Write about a your anti-dream house
  • Write about a cup you broke
  • Write about a lost toy or a found toy
  • Write about the grocery store your family shopped at when you were a kid
  • Write about waiting for someone who never arrived (see Exquisite Pain, by Sophie Calle)

If these prompts seem like fun, are fun, if time whizzed by and you stood up from your desk feeling refreshed, consider joining me for 6 WEEKS, 6 STORIES. We’ll meet over zoom on Saturday afternoons, we’ll do some writing together, read some short stories, chew the fat on craft topics, and we will listen to one another’s work! It’ll be great. There are a few seats left. I’d love to work with you!

For more opportunities to work together, check the updated TEACHING page.

 



eat

I think we all need dessert right now.

 

Strawberries Romanoff

  • 2 pints strawberries, washed and stemmed
  • ¼ c sugar
  • ¼ c orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau
  • 1-pint good quality vanilla gelato
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  1. Slice the strawberries. In a large bowl, toss three-quarters of them with the sugar and orange liqueur. Refrigerate at least 1 hour to macerate.
  2. Put the gelato in the refrigerator to soften.
  3. Place the heavy cream and half the macerated strawberries in a chilled mixing bowl (or in your stand mixer with the whisk attachment) use an electric mixer, whip to soft peaks, about 12 minutes. Carefully fold in the gelato.
  4. Spoon the strawberry cream into six bowls, or four bowls, or just two bowls if you’re having this for dinner. No harm, no foul! Mix the plain sliced berries with the saved macerated berries. and place on top of the strawberry cream.

**********

 

A little program note: I’ve been writing and sharing what I love for nearly 3 years! I love it and many of you write to let me know how much you enjoy my thoughts and recommendations, and for that I am truly grateful. Honestly, it makes my day to hear from readers. Also, it takes time and consideration to put my thoughts together twice a month. Maybe you’d like to show appreciation buy clicking below:

buy me a cup of coffee!☕️

 

Here are a few ways to exercise your get-up-again muscles (remember from way back up at the top of this note: cope, control, connect, and contribute). Help families in Uvalde, Texas.

Donate:

VictimsFirst (a network of families of the deceased and survivors from over two decades of previous mass shootings) have started this fund to make sure that 100% of what is collected goes DIRECTLY to victims and families.

Community Foundation of Texas Hill Country

Write a letter of condolence and mail to:

Sacred Heart Catholic Church
408 Fort Clark Road
Uvalde, TX 78801

Robb Elementary School
715 Old Carrizo Rd.
Uvalde, TX 78801

Here’s some help with how to write a condolence letter, how to speak to the unspeakable and offer comfort. It is important for the people suffering from this tragedy to be reminded that they are not alone, give them the support and show them love.

If you live in the area and are in need of counseling, here is a resource.

Act:

Mom’s Demand Action
Text “act” to 64433, they will get back to you, plug you in where you live

Call the US Senate Switchboard: 202.224.3121
Here’s a list of Republican Senators who may vote in favor of a compromise gun safety bill:

Cornyn (TX)
Toomey (PA)
Collins (ME)
Portman (OH)
Murkowski (AK)
Romney (UT)
Capito (WV)
Burr (NC)
Tillis (NC)
Rubio (FL)
Graham (SC)
Cassidy (LA)
Blunt (MO)

Please, only call if you vote in that district/state. If live in another state and you’d like to help out, post the information on your social media. Here’s a link.

Learn more:

97Percent, whose mission is to reduce gun deaths in America by changing the conversation around gun safety to include gun owners, conducting original research to identify common ground, and leveraging technology to make our communities safer.

 

Grief takes as long as it takes. There is no rushing. Be like Stanley. Rest.
Please, remember to tell your people you love them,
xN

shalom. aloha. namaste. pura vida.

Pura Vida. Shalom. Aloha. Namaste.

Each of these beautiful words has multiple meanings.
  • Hello.
  • Goodbye.
  • Peace.
  • Go with Grace.
  • I bow to you.

And they’re all said with friendly intentions. I wonder, what words in what languages serve the same kind and generous purpose…do you know of any? If you’ve got one, please do send it to me.

 

 

 

Of course this puts me in mind of the joke, what’s the difference between NY and LA?

In NY when someone says, “Fuck you!” they are really saying hello.
In LA when someone says, “Hello!” they are really saying fuck you.

Wherever you are, I am saying hello!

 

 


read

 

I got my MFA from Warren Wilson College, where I met Lan Samantha Chang. She was never my supervisor, but I did benefit from her lectures. I loved her collection of stories plus a novella, HUNGER

Over the years I ran into Sam at various conferences where we’ve had warm exchanges. She now directs the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I’ll be on faculty with her at Aspen Summer Words.  How wonderful for us all that she has a new novel out, THE FAMILY CHAO. Sam has called the novel an homage to THE BROTHERS KARAMOZOV, with thematic similarities, family saga + trial. The novel is about three adult brothers, each of whom is complex and worthy of our care and attention. The setting is largely the family restaurant, the Fine Chao, which is a boon for the reader as the food writing spurs hunger pangs and mouthwatering! Ultimately the novel explores and exploits the gap between how we wish to be seen in the world and the chaotic insider-truth of who we are. Don’t we all live with that gap? Sometimes we hide in the gap and sometimes we want to be authentic and diminish the gap. It is similar to the painful gap writers experience—how their work appears in their mind and how the work appears on the page. I have a feeling that for Chang, the gap is far smaller than it is for many of us.

***

 

AIN’T BURNED ALL THE BRIGHT,  by Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin. The book is hard to categorize. On my bookshop page I’ve called it a memoir and non-fiction, but I also think it could be self-help and poetry. It’s really so much about struggle and healing and what we’ve all been living through. The prose is deceptively simple, the art freeform and inviting a viewer to free associate. It’s a poem, it’s a story, it’s a call to action. If you’d like to hear the writer in conversation with our girl, Brene Brown, check this episode of her podcast, UNLOCKING US. Meanwhile, check this:

 

 

 

and my brother won’t look up from his video game, even whenI put my hand on his, turn my elbow into a fist and punch the bendy big-knuckle into his ribs to try to knock his heart awake

Reynolds is striving to knock all our hearts awake. It’s a beautiful book.

 

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 recently started a practice, I try to do it every day as part of a morning pages ritual you know how those things go, right? On again/Off again. But I love this one right now. Write in response to each of these five things:

 

a memory, an image, a topic, an observation, a thought

 

Do this in any order that inspires you. I usually start with a memory, whatever rises up without being forced. Because I am very human, I sometimes/often (sheesh!) have a negativity bias, meaning the memory that rises comes preloaded with tension, misplaced yearning, miscommunication, loss. It’s a great place to start, because the complex memory gives rise to a thought, and then maybe an observation, etc… I have found the prompt to be both fun and illuminating. If you choose to give this a try, I’d love to hear from you. How did it go? I’m messing around with some ideas for how we could make this a community (online) practice.

***

Here’s a great essay on the hard work of the first sentence: HOW TO BE AN INCIPIT, by Paul Vacca. He begins,

For a long time, the first sentence went to bed early, waiting discreetly under the cover of the book for someone to come and wake it up. Novel opened, first sentence awakened, it stood firmly in the front row to welcome readers with the heavy responsibility of taking them into a new world.
 

  • tips us into the world of fiction by suspending our disbelief
  • tells us – sometimes in the background – that something will happen, a story is coming
  • gives us the foreknowledge of a conflict, a subtle source of intranquillity
  • does not wear too much make-up, isn’t noticed for itself, but for the charm it exudes and passes to the next sentence

A first sentence participates in SHINE THEORY, right? It helps the rest of the work, the story/novel/memoir, whatever it is that you are writing, be its best self.

Here’s a random first sentence that pulls me in and stirs me up, from Deborah Levy’s memoir, THINGS I DON’T WANT TO KNOW. 

That spring when life was very hard and I was at war with my lot and simply couldn’t see where there was to get to, I seemed to cry most on escalators at train stations.

Please, do shoot me a first sentence you are in love with!

 



eat

In my last newsletter I threatened to make Alison Roman’s cheesecake and I followed through on my threat. The first time it came off without a hitch. The second time… well she asks you to weigh rather than measure the graham crackers for the crust and I think I eyeballed it completely wrong. I don’t have a scale, do you?

So, the crust was a bit too crumbly in cheesecake 2.0h well. The filling was delicious both times, and, if you are a regular follower of this newsletter, you know me, I reduced the sugar.

Here’s a link to the recipe. Here’s a link to a video of charming and chill, funny and fun (maybe the Lucy Ricardo of cooking video, but she always nails it!) Alison Roman making the cheesecake. And, here is what happened to mine:

 

I made it. I stuck my hand in it. Don’t ask.

 

**********

 

A little program note: I’ve been writing and sharing what I love for nearly 3 years! I love it and many of you write to let me know how much you enjoy my thoughts and recommendations, and for that I am truly grateful. Honestly, it makes my day to hear from readers. Also, it takes time and consideration to put my thoughts together twice a month. Maybe you’d like to show appreciation buy clicking below:

buy me a cup of coffee!☕️

 

Stanley set a high bar! He bought me a mocha!!
Remember to tell your people you love them.
Happy Living!xN

 

 

yes, those are my feet and I have news about crocodiles 🦶🏼🐊

 

 

 

Yes, those are my feet! We’re in Costa Rica on a sweet little vacation. To the right of me, just out of the frame is the Nosara Biological Reserve…howler monkeys, birds, bats, anteaters, fire ants, termites, and crocodiles in abundance.

We took a walk with a naturalist, Santos, and learned a ton. For one thing, did you know that once crocodiles lay their eggs, the gender is decided by the weather! The hot eggs will hatch into males. Cooler eggs will hatch into females. You know where this is going, right? Global warming is causing an abundance of males and since male crocs are territorial, this is causing an abundance of trouble. There simply isn’t enough territory for all these males. Santos told us that for the first time in his lifetime male crocs are eating one another. Add to this problem fewer females and, well you can connect the dots. Yes, this is terrible news. Though I’m happy to tell you that the monkeys are thriving.

 

 


read

 

 

One of my children’s favorite books was LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE by Bernard Waber. Lyle, a mute and charming crocodile lived in brownstone on East 88th in New York City and had amazing adventures. There’s a sweet little animated film you can watch here preferably with a child beside you, if you have no child in your home, perhaps you can borrow one! Also, who knew… but Uncle Google tells me there will be a new Lyle film coming out in November with Javier Bardem.

 

 

 

Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers who leave books behind in the Airbnb. I ran out of books on this trip and was lucky to find THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2020, ed. CURTIS SITTENFELD stashed away in a cupboard. I’d forgotten the pleasures reading stories from writers I love and also being introduced to new voices, all in one volume. A bonus of course is the essay in the front of the collection by the editor. In her essay, Sittenfeld says, “What makes a short story succeed? Whatever the writer can get away with.” She also says:

These stories are…windows into emotions I have and haven’t had, into other settings and circumstances and observations and relationships. 

And she is right, these stories are invitations to new worlds, in the same way travel invites us to see things through fresh eyes. So far, they’re terrific and a window into the last batch of stories that came before the pandemic. I can’t help but wonder what the zeitgeist will be for the 2021 edition.

 

To prepare for a class I’m teaching in May I spent an afternoon on the beach reading, THE ART OF TIME IN FICTION, by Joan Silber. It’s wonderful to be engaged with the mind of a smart writer/teacher. Silber breaks up time into categories for the book:

 

  • Classic Time: a season or a year
  • Long Time: decades, or a life, or multi-generational
  • Switchback Time: the narrative moves around between then, now, farther back, and future
  • Slowed Time: the focus comes down to a small event w/large impact for the character
  • Fabulous Time: time is magical, fluid, cyclical

As a writer and reader, I am most interested in switchback time. It’s the way I tell stories to friends, interrupting myself to add a detail from the past which enhances the present. As a writer it enables me to see the story from a less limited point-of-view, complicating and deepening my stories in a way that mimics the way I think, associatively. As a reader I love to learn what characters can’t let go of from the past and how it colors their present.

The book, like all the books in The Art of… series from Greywolf Press that I’ve read thus far, is helpful, with solid samples and clear descriptions.

 

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 some short classes coming up! I’d love to meet you (over zoom).

LEAPING FORWARD, SLOWING DOWN: TIME IN PROSE, on May 6, 10:30 – 1:30 EST.
Time can be a challenging aspect to master when writing in any genre. When should we slow down and dwell in a scene? When should we summarize and move rapidly through weeks, years, or decades? When should we go back in time to reveal and understand a character’s motivation? How does the experience of time differ in a short story vs. a novel, or in memoir?
This workshop will explore how writers bend time to create different narrative effects. We will read work by Tessa Hadley, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, John Cheever and others, as well as look at examples from TV shows and films such as Ted Lasso, and The Lost Daughter. After the discussion, we’ll work together with some prompts, expanding and contracting time to see how we can effectively utilize it when telling our own stories.

CONVERSATIONS WITH THE WORK: READING AS A WRITER, on May 28, 10:30 – 1:30 EST.
Many writers come to writing from a love of reading—the pleasure of being pulled out of the real world and plunged into the world of a story—only to discover how difficult it is to replicate that magic feeling. In this workshop, we’ll explore the tricks our favorite writers employ to create immersive fiction and nonfiction, and how we can borrow from them to enhance our own work.
We will close-read excerpts from authors like Michelle Zauner, Saaed Jones, Deborah Levy, Louise Erdrich, and Samantha Hunt to study their use of movement, scene, and summary, dialogue, conflict, imagery, and character revelations. We’ll then launch into a few prompts and share what we come up with. Students will come away from the seminar with a new set of tools to read with an eye for craft, and encouragement to mark up the margins of their favorite books as they converse with the work inside.

 

 

retreat.write.energize.

 

 

In my last newsletter I mentioned my upcoming retreat.write.energize on the Oregon coast. Well, details are falling into place and I want to keep you up to speed. We will gather at the Sylvia Beach Hotel from October 9 – 15 for a week of workshops, time to write, community, inspiration and the solace of the coast. All you have to do is arrive, ready to write, ready to make writer friends IRL, and share your beautiful work.  I don’t know about you, but I’m so delighted to shake off my covid cobwebs and be in community. If sharing your work with smart, engaged writers, learning, improving, and focusing is just what you’ve been craving… Drop me a note so I can get your name on the list! For this inaugural gathering we will be a small group.

SAVE THE DATE! October 9-15, 2022,

and do direct message me shoot me an email: natalie@natalieserber.com to get your name on the list. Our group will be very intimate and supportive. Cannot wait to share this beautiful gathering!

 

 



eat

The food has been delicious and fresh everywhere we go in Costa Rica. The fruit, out of this world! But I want to tell you about the regional dish, Casado which is easy to make and satisfying. Consisting of rice, black beans, and a protein such as chicken, beef, tofu, or fish, and a salad or coleslaw. Sides may include avocado slices, tortillas, or fried plantains. The name casado translates to married, and everything on the plate goes perfectly together.

I’ve looked around on the internet and can’t really find a recipe worth sharing, and the thing is, you don’t need one. Just make up a pot of black beans, perhaps flavor them with red bell peppers and onions, some garlic and cilantro. Cook some brown rice. Make a coleslaw or a salad of your liking with a simple vinaigrette. Here’s a great one from the NYTs (pay wall). Grill a piece of fresh fish and season with salt and pepper, a bit of oregano and lots of citrus, lemon or lime. If you have them, some fried plantains would be a great addition. Arrange all the ingredients on your plate and garnish with avocado slices, perhaps some pico de gallo, and pass the hot sauce.

I also plan on making this delicious thing when I get home!

 

 

**********

 

I hope you are all enjoying little glimpses of spring wherever you happen to be. It’s simply amazing here in Costa Rica. Meanwhile, Stanley’s been with his best friend Milo back in Portland. He was having a fine time and then it snowed (in April!?!).

 

 

Since then he’s been calling us to come get him!

 

Please, remember to tell your people you love them.
Happy Living!xN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am very pleasantly moved to tears.

Spring is rushing in. The sight of tender petals brightens my mornings. In Portland spring is quixotic, one minute offering enough warmth for the crocus and tulips and the stalwart daffodils to bloom, only to harass them with hailstones or heavy rain.

 

Maybe you’ve been feeling interior hailstones and heavy rain. News of war is hard. I encourage you to do some small act, besides consuming news, to give you a tiny sense of agency in a nonsensical situation. Give where you can (I have ideas at the close of this email), maybe find a Ukrainian church in your town and participate in the social hour after services, they often are selling pierogi and collecting money for their families abroad, attend a peace vigil in your community. Meanwhile, here’s a poem by Mari Andrew that may help you sit in the paradox of suffering/getting on with it.

I am washing my face before bed
while a country is on fire.

It feels dumb to wash my face and
dumb not to.

It has never been this way and it has
always been this way.

Someone has always clinked a
cocktail glass in one hemisphere as
someone loses a home in another,
while someone falls in love in the
same apartment building where
someone grieves. The fact that
suffering, mundanity and beauty
coincide is unbearable and
remarkable.

Mari Andrew

 

 


read

I’m listening to Frank Bruni read his memoir, THE BEAUTY OF DUSK. It’s a beautiful book which dwells in loss and resilience. Bruni suffered a stroke that affected the vision in his right eye. The memoir illuminates the possibility of loss as a growth point. I’ve been moved by many passages, enough that I’ve gone back to listen to some chapters a second and third time. His love of his dog certainly warms my heart! And his capacity for compassion is inspiring. I feel that Bruni is my partner in shine! Here’s a passage that moved me:

 

With my one good eye, I looked harder and longer, and I hope, more soulfully at everything around me, starting with my acquaintances and friends. I realized that we know too little about the people in our lives because we inspect them only superficially, ask the easy and polite questions, edit them down to the parts that give us the least complicated and most immediate pleasure. There is heartache in them that we don’t adequately recognize, triumph in them that we don’t sufficiently venerate.

 

Of course this is no lightning bolt revelation, but it is something to tuck in our pocket and remember. Perhaps make a pact with yourself to recognize heartache and celebrate triumph.

 

My mom and I went to lunch the other day and our paths crossed with an amazing woman! Danusha Lameris, sitting at the table next to ours, reading Louise Glück. My chatty mother struck up a conversation with Danusha and we were charmed by her warmth and her smile. Turns out we all had friends in common, we shared some laughs, and enjoyed sitting outside in the sunshine. When we said our goodbyes, it seemed we had a new friend.

 

When I got home and looked her up, as one does these days, I was further charmed by her poetry. BONFIRE OPERA looks to be a wonderful collection and I cannot wait to get my hands on it. Meanwhile, you can find one poem of hers here in the NYTs, and this one from her website:

 

Small Kindnesses   

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

I like your hat.

 

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

One of my many amazing students, Meriwynn, is working on a novel with a powerful character. Irina (the character) is an emigré, and an artist, who is a “Captain Happen” (that is, she gets things moving) for the protagonist of Meriwynn’s novel.  Because Meriwynn is wonderful and curious and deeply engaged with her book, she found a Ukrainian Etsy shop to buy herself a blouse, a vyshyvanka similar to one her character would wear. And then, well, war broke out.

 

Meriwynn wrote to The Fair Anna, to say, don’t worry about my blouse! Please, take care of yourself! What can I do to help? She also told Anna that she shared the shop with her writing group. Amazingly, Meriwynn got a notice that her vyshyvanka had shipped.

 

And she got this message from Anna:

I am very pleasantly moved to tears. I feel the support as well as the whole Ukrainian people from the countries of Ukraine’s friends. I am very grateful to you for distributing my small shop among your friends. These are very difficult times in Ukraine. The enemy destroys cities and razes them to the ground. These barbarians do not leave a single house, they destroy all living people in Ukraine. It hurts a lot I am very grateful for your prayers.

 

I share this with you for three reasons:

1. To remind us all that the war is real, not just television images.

2. To put us in touch with Anna’s Etsy shop where we can donate five or ten dollars straight into her bank account. I’m certain every little bit helps. Perhaps in sunnier times we can order a beautiful piece of clothing from her.

3. Look at where our writing can take us!  Meriwynn’s deep engagement with her creative work shrunk the world! Her novel-in-progress has brought all of us in touch with someone on the other side of the planet, and Anna knows.

Art is amazing.

 

 

retreat.write.energize.

 

 

n my last newsletter I mentioned my upcoming retreat.write.energize on the Oregon coast. Well, details are falling into place and I want to keep you up to speed. We will gather at the Sylvia Beach Hotel from October 9 – 15 for a week of workshops, time to write, community, inspiration and the solace of the coast. All you have to do is arrive, ready to write, ready to make writer friends IRL, and share your beautiful work.  I don’t know about you, but I’m so delighted to shake off my covid cobwebs and be in community. If sharing your work with smart, engaged writers, learning, improving, and focusing is just what you’ve been craving… Drop me a note so I can get your name on the list! For this inaugural gathering we will be a small group.

SAVE THE DATE! October 9-15, 2022,

and do direct message me shoot me an email: natalie@natalieserber.com to get your name on the list. Our group will be very intimate and supportive. Cannot wait to share this beautiful gathering!

 

 



eat

Ever have a cookbook that manages to be comforting and expansive? A MODERN WAY TO COOK: 150+ VEGETARIAN RECIPES FOR QUICK, FLAVOR-PACKED MEALS, by Anna Jones, is just such a book. Not only are the recipes truly quick, but she has delightful flavor bombs to add just before the food hits the plate and your palate. Minced herbs and nuts to sprinkle over pasta. Lemon zest with za’atar and a bit of walnut oil to adorn asparagus. The idea is to use fresh herbs, nuts, citrus and oils to offer a flavor wallop after you’ve done the cooking. It works beautifully. In this delicious salad (which I’ve changed up a bit to welcome spring vegetables) Jones makes a pecan and pumpkin seed brittle to toss on at the last minute, adding texture, a bit of protein, and sweetness.

 

Winter Vegetable Salad
Serves 4 as a main dish

For the salad:

  • 3 carrots (multicolor add beauty)
  • 3 beets (also a mix of color is a visual treat)
  • 1 radicchio head, julienned
  • 1 bunch of radishes, if you can find French Breakfast radishes, do use them
  • 1 fennel bulb
  • 1 pear (I used bosc for the firm texture)
  • a large handful of pecans
  • a large handful of pumpkin seeds (I used tamari toasted, which added a nice salty finish)
  • a glug of maple syrup
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • feta cheese to taste
  1. Peel, chop, and slice all the vegetables and the pear as thinly as you can, making sure to shred the radicchio especially thinly; a mandoline may be useful here, but a sharp knife will do just as well.
  2. Put a sheet of parchment paper on a small tray or a plate, then put the nuts into a frying pan. Toast briefly, then add the seeds and toast until the seeds smell toasted and are starting to brown. Add the maple syrup and a pinch of salt and stir, then take off the heat, tip onto the parchment and leave to cool.

For the dressing:

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • zest and juice of 1 unwaxed lemon
  • 1 tablespoon tahini
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  1. Mix the dressing ingredients in a little jar.
  2. Put all the chopped veggies into a bowl, season with salt and pepper, pour in the dressing, and mix well. This would be a nice moment to add the crumbled feta cheese if you like. Scatter with the nuts and seeds, serve!

 

 

 

**********

 

As promised, here is a list of places to reach out and help Ukrainian people.

It’s beautiful here in Santa Cruz, where I’ve been the last week, visiting my mother, laughing with friends, riding my electric bike around with Stanley. I hope you are all enjoying little glimpses of spring wherever you happen to be.

 

via GIPHY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

yes, and…yes, and…yes, and…

You probably know the ‘yes, and…’ improv principle/infinity loop.

 

 But just in case:

In improv, when Person A offers something, “Wow, this line is so long.” Person B responds by accepting Person A’s statement (the “yes” part) and then building on it (the “and” part). “I know! But what do you expect, they’re giving away baby crocodiles!” Person A replies, “Perfect! Finally a way to get rid of the rats in my bedroom.”

The idea being you must be open to whatever is thrown your way (sorry, you’ll have to sit through a 4 second ad).

Why am I telling you this? Because I am trying to lean into flexibility and resilience in my life, in my writing, inside my head!

We’re faced with cruddy situations and events all the time—long lines, new variants, supply chain issues, trouble sleeping, cancelled plans—it’s what we do with those things that makes the difference. Starting with YES acknowledges the difficulty or disappointment. Ending with AND gives us the opportunity to build resilience. How are we going to cope?

Why have I been thinking about this? Because I read in the NYTs Well Newsletter about the notion of choosing one word for the entire year rather than making a resolution. The idea is the word will sit on your shoulder and gently guide you toward a new focus or a change, rather than trying to adhere to a resolution which may set you up for failure. In case this strikes your fancy, here’s a few words to peruse:

 

 

 


read

I recently read or heard:

 

“Writers must express things that normal people (meaning non-writers) cannot, but which normal people recognize as the Truth (my capitalization). Writers, like mothers, do the heavy lifting of emotional life for everyone else.”

 

That really resonates with me. When I recognize those emotional truths in a book I’m reading, I’m so damn grateful.

 

Currently I’m reading THE GREAT CIRCLE, by Maggie Shipstead, which is incredible. The characters are wonderful and maddening. I’m finding many moments of emotional truth.

A character says of the boyfriend she has jilted:

I guess I’m surprised he could walk away without needing to yell at me. Most people want you to witness how much you’ve hurt them. But not him apparently. I don’t know if that means I didn’t really hurt him or if he has more dignity than I thought.

Another character, a young teenaged girl has an interaction with a much older man and her understanding of the sexual power structure is described this way:

Her nervousness had given way to a gathered deliberate feeling. She knew, without knowing how she knew, how he wanted her to be. Amused, aloof, a little tough. She was aware of the sharp edge of the porch against her fingers. The way he watched when she stretched out her legs.”

 

 

I’m also reading (and sobbing through), CRYING IN H MART, by Michelle Zauner. This beautiful memoir about the death of Zauner’s mother disabuses us of the notion that talking about things can hurt us. Talking about things can heal us. Zauner talks about all the things, revealing much about expectations and pain in her relationship with her mother, followed by the tsunami of understanding, acceptance, forgiveness and love that floods her when faced with loss. Zauner gets messy on the page, letting us see her try to figure things out. She shows the machinery of writing, lets the reader watch her discover her book, and her return to her mother in the midst of suffering. Don’t shy away from CRYING IN H MART because it’s sad. It is resilient. Full of “Yes. And…” moments that will leave you enlarged.

 

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 some exciting news brewing. Maybe a week at the beautiful Oregon Coast, sharing your work with smart, engaged writers, learning, improving, and finding deep focus is just what you’ve been craving…

 

retreat.write.energize.

 

 

Perhaps you didn’t even realize you need:

5 days of writing workshops
uninterrupted time to write
prompts to get you going
walks on the beach
gorgeous and expansive views to sweep away brain fog!
new writer friends
engagement with your writing through visual pathways
one-on-one conferencing with me
craft talks
morning yoga
healthy food you neither shopped for nor prepared
lots of laughter

If any/all of this sounds enticing,

SAVE THE DATE! October 9-15, 2022,

and do direct message me shoot me an email: natalie@natalieserber.com to get your name on the list. Our group will be very intimate and supportive. Cannot wait to share this beautiful gathering!

 

 



eat

The other day I just wanted some toddler style pasta with tomato sauce. I think I was spurred toward the craving by this Smitten Kitchen Instagram post. The sauce, I knew, was based on Marcella Hazan’s crazy-easy/crazy-satisfying recipe so I looked it up. (Side note: use only the BEST tomatoes.) Quick-fast I made it, and then I committed the colossal error of listening to my husband. “Don’t we have some frozen ravioli?” Shoot! Indeed we did, and let me tell you, nothing like soggy-ass ravioli to ruin my toddler dream of pasta with a simple sauce and some parmesan scraped over the grater. But that isn’t what I want to share with you.

In the past week I made this Smoky Sweet Potato dish twice. The first time I followed the NYTs recipe to the letter, and the second time I improvised and, dare I say, improved?  Here is my version.

Smoky Sweet Potatoes with Eggs and Almonds, à la Natalie Serber

  • 5T olive oil
  • 2lbs (okay, I didn’t weigh mine. I just used 3 good sized-about two fists pressed together- sweet potatoes), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
  • ¾ t kosher salt, plus more as needed
  • 1T ground cumin
  • 1T smoked paprika + more, I used dulce
  • 1t freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
  • 3 to 5 thyme sprigs
  • 2T maple syrup
  • ½ t chili flakes, or more to taste
  • ¾ c plain Greek yogurt
  • 2 small garlic cloves, finely grated or minced
  • 1 lemon, both zest and juice
  •  Eggs, for frying, as many as you like
  • ½ c chopped Marcona or salted, roasted almonds
  • 1 generous bunch of kale, washed and julienned
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  •  Soft herbs, such as parsley, mint or cilantro, chopped, for serving. I used a lot! Go Big.

 

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, toss together sweet potatoes, 3T olive oil, salt, smoked paprika, cumin, black pepper, chili flakes, thyme, and maple syrup.
  2. Spread the potatoes in an even layer on a large, rimmed baking sheet.
  3. Roast, stirring and flipping the potatoes occasionally, until soft and caramelized, about 1 hour.
  4. As the potatoes roast, sauté the onion over medium heat in about 1T of olive oil. Once translucent, add the kale and cook until wilted. If the kale seems too tough, try adding ¼ cup of water and letting it evaporate as it cooks the kale further. Off heat.
  5. Place yogurt in a small bowl. Stir in garlic, lemon juice and zest, a large pinch or two of smoked paprika, and salt and black pepper to taste.
  6. In a large skillet, add remaining 1T of olive oil over medium-high heat and let it heat up for 20 to 30 seconds. Crack eggs into skillet and season with salt. Cook until the whites have set with crispy edges and the yolks are still runny, about 3 minutes, for a firmer yolk, flip the egg and cook for one minute more.
  7. To serve, spoon sweet potatoes into one half of an individual bowl, kale in the other side (picture a yin/yang symbol). Top with yogurt sauce and almonds. Place eggs on top, and sprinkle with paprika and a lot of the fresh herbs. Serve immediately.

I served this for a birthday brunch, along with bacon for the carnivores, and it was a huge hit!

Meanwhile, I’m still baking my way through SNACKING CAKES. I made this Chocolate-Almond-Olive Oil-Raspberry (page 139) joy bomb!

 

 

 

 

**********

 

Your dose of Stanley. Poor kid! Wherever he goes, he tries to make friends.

 

 

 

 

 

can the world be precipitous and wonderful at the same time? absolutely!

I last wrote to you in 2021 and I apologize for my silence, but I needed a minute. With all the omicron, congressional, and brink of war news, it feels as if I’ve had my finger in the dike of despair. I am holding it back so hard!

 

 

And, I had a BIG birthday (6-0), the start of a new decade that feels precipitous and wonderful. Yes, a contradiction, but I’m claiming this decade as mine to be creative, to feel joy, to draw that big-ass smiley faced sun in the corner of my paper, and to do the work to let my people know I love and appreciate them. That means you!

Luckily I have people who love me who bring me good news of the world, like this:

 

 

People who send me sweet little books like, DO ONE THING EVERY DAY THAT MAKES YOU HAPPY, full of wisdom such as:

  • You have to be willing to get happy about nothing. – Andy Warhol

In case you want to be happy (or mildly entertained) about nothing, here’s Andy Warhol on… wait for it… The Love Boat?!? WTF?

 

 


read

I am committed to upping my reading game this year. In the recent (pandemic) past, I’ve been swamped with news-consumption and escapist television viewing. I know a novel, story collection, or memoir can also offer beautiful escapism, but I’ve wanted to be spoon fed. This year, I’m feeling nimble and ready, like a fighter shadowboxing in the corner of the ring!

Two standouts thus far:

FIONA AND JANE, by Jean Chen Ho. A debut linked story collection which follows two friends from grade school to their early 40s. I was moved by their attempts at ‘adulting.’ Their lives felt real and compelling with serious loss, love, and humor–the way we all live. Jane’s story drew me in more deeply than Fiona’s as we spend more time with her and her family. One of the sorrows for me was the loss of a terrific character, Won, who appears early on. He sort of petered out and I missed him. But isn’t that the way of it? Sometimes friends do evaporate from our lives. It is worthy work to let people know how much we love them.

Jean Chen Ho does an excellent job of bringing her people to life. I believe in her characters, and I felt somehow known watching their dreams expand and contract and morph into real life. Let’s be honest, we all have to compromise and adjust to the amalgamation of our hopes and what the world offers. It feels good to have a book look back at you and say, “I know. I feel you.”

 

THESE PRECIOUS DAYS, by Ann Patchett. If Fiona and Jane showed people who struggle and strive and screw-up, Patchett seems to be the arrow who is released from the bowstring in a straight arc toward her goals. Man-oh-man, do I wish I lived next door to her! I know we would say hello over the fence! Who wouldn’t want to talk to someone who says things like:

Human beings hobble together their own mythologies over time: I was unloved, I was too loved, I was popular, a loner, misunderstood, persecuted, stupid, a winner. We use the past to explain ourselves.

I know that isn’t a huge lightbulb going off, but what if we used the now to explain ourselves to ourselves? What if we unshackled ourselves from the past? Can we hold ourselves responsible and let ourselves off the hook in one fell swoop? What freedom and possibility would we gain? I’m not suggesting we gloss over what happened to us, but must we use it as an explainer? How else can we talk about our way of being in the world that has more agency à la mode? For more on this idea, check out this article from the NYer contributer Parul Sehgal: “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” in which she argues that defining our characters (and by extension, ourselves) by their traumatic history flattens them (and us), robs them/us of nuance and potentiality. Consider: …post-traumatic growth is far more common than post-traumatic stress. It’s a thought provoking read and I’d be curious to hear what you think.

 

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

In preparation for an editing workshop I am currently teaching, and to teach the book editing workshop this summer at the ASPEN SUMMER WORDS CONFERENCE (pinch me!), I’ve been upping my game. I just finished reading Peter Ho Davis craft book, THE ART OF REVISION. I found it to be illuminating in large and small ways. Davies solidified ideas I’d been stewing over for some time. Basically, before you believe in the scissor over the pencil (as Truman Capote glibly said of revision) you must believe in the pencil! Revision is a creative act in which there is more discovery to be made before you snip away. Here’s a description of my workshop:

A first draft (novel or memoir) involves discovering the story the writer has come to tell. We strive to write with speed and creative play, hopefully complicating and uncovering new ideas from those that compelled us to the page in the first place. The revision and editing that occurs in later drafts (often cast as drudgery or tidying up) is an opportunity for patience, for the writer to understand what they’re saying and to say it better. In this workshop we will emphasis the continued inspiration, creativity and discovery that comes with saying it better. We will look at craft choices (structure, language, setting, POV, tension, characterization, and dialogue) specifically for how they enrich and clarify the meaning of your book.

A goal of the workshop will be to highlight the qualities of your voice, your book, the exciting anomalies that make the work compelling and unique. We’ll discuss tricks to defamiliarize yourself with your work so that when you come to edit and revise, you’ll see it with fresh eyes. Discussions will illuminate strengths and weaknesses, leaving a writer with ideas and inspiration to get back to the project.

Did I mention I’m excited? Both to teach this workshop, and to be in the company of the great writers also offering workshops: Mary Beth Keane, Ayana Mathis, Mark Doty, Robert Kolker, Terrance Hayes, and Fonda Lee. If only I could be a student and a workshop leader at the same time!

Deadline to apply is 28 February! APPLY HERE

I will leave you with a writing prompt. If you are looking for new discoveries in your work, here’s an idea:

  1. Find a heated dialogue exchange between characters in a piece you are working on, whether it be fiction or memoir.
  2. Rewrite it from the POV of a non-verbal object, be it a pet, a housefly, a lamp. (This will help you to notice details of setting and gesture which the characters may be too absorbed to take in.)
  3. Write another draft of the scene, this time with only non-verbal action.
  4. Write another draft in which the characters have no filter and say everything they are thinking. (This one is a lot of fun!)
  5. Finally, compost all the drafts you’ve written into one final scene, incorporating some of the discoveries you made.

 

 

 



eat

My husband and I have been cooking together. It is cold and dark and January is 100 days long so this is a nice thing to do in lieu of an evening walk. The last great dish we made was this pasta from NYTs cooking.

Pasta Alla Norma Sorta 

  • Kosher salt
  • 10 ounces rigatoni
  • 1 ½ pounds eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • ¼ c plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  •  Black pepper
  • 3 oz prosciutto, roughly chopped into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces (optional)
  • 1 medium shallot, thinly sliced into rings
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 fresno or serrano chile, seeded, if you like, and thinly sliced into rings
  • 1 basket Sun Gold, cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes and their juices
  • 4 oz fresh mozzarella, finely chopped
  • 1 c roughly chopped fresh herbs, such as basil and mint (I used parsley and mint)
  1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. On a large rimmed sheet pan, toss eggplant with 1/4 c olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. Spread evenly in one layer and roast until golden, 25 to 30 minutes. (At this point, I made myself an old fashioned!)
  2. Make your sauce: In a deep, 12-inch skillet, heat the remaining olive oil over medium. Add the prosciutto and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to crisp and brown in spots, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from skillet and place on a paper towel-lined plate.
  3. Add the shallot, garlic and chile to the pan and cook, stirring frequently, until the shallot softens and garlic is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the cherry tomatoes and cook until they start to burst, pressing the tomatoes gently down with the back of a spatula or wooden spoon (I used a potato masher!) 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the diced tomatoes with their juices and season with salt and pepper. Simmer while the eggplant finishes roasting, about 15 minutes more.
  4. While you’re making the sauce, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package instructions until al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta cooking water, then drain pasta. If the sauce appears dry, you can use a bit of this water to moisten. (Okay, on my list of hated words… you will find moisten!)
  5. When the eggplant is done, add it to the tomato sauce and stir to combine. Add the pasta and toss until everything is well coated. Stir in the mozzarella and toss until it begins to melt.
  6. Serve in bowls and top each portion with crispy prosciutto and fresh herbs.

 

 

 

 

 

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Thanks for reading. And now for your dose of Stanley, who cannot wait for daylight savings time!

 

 

 

 

 

think and feel and love more freely? …yes please!

Hey-Ho! I hope this note finds you well and happy enough. I’ve been having a hard time mustering up holiday vibes what with it being pandemic Christmas 2.0. Plus, the sky has been perniciously grey and low, like feral, out-of-control eyebrows that block my vision and set my mood. Turns out I don’t love cloud cover. Who knew?!?

Today the sky was bright, the air chilly, and I’ve strung up some lights, hung stockings and I feel a bit of joyful stirring in my heart. I found cake I want to bake,a cocktail I want to try. We are planning an open house for friends to stop by and share something sweet. I hope you too are welcoming in a celebratory spirit.

 

 

 


read

Finally! I cracked open REAL ESTATE, by Deborah Levy, the third in her Living Autobiography Trilogy. (The first is THINGS I DON’T WANT TO KNOW, the second is THE COST OF LIVING, and I loved both so much I am leading a discussion group on all three in the spring. More news on that to come.) REAL ESTATE has been languishing on my nightstand for weeks. I don’t know why I haven’t leapt in—part wanting to have something to look forward to? Part diminished attention span? Part my pandy related bad habits? News scrolling at the end of day which depresses me and interrupts sleep, then I do puzzles on my phone which diverts me. (Have you tried WORDLE? Or SPELLING BEE?)

I started reading the book the other night and already I’m writing in the margins.

Consider this: The narrator has pulled a book off her shelf, a gift from her now ex-husband, and the inscription reads to “my darling love.”  She ponders this:

“The odd thing was that the book itself (by a famous male author) was about a man who has left his family and sets out about making a new life with various women. One of the young women adores him so much that she reaches over to take the snot out of his nostrils. She has made him her purpose in life and we are clueless about her own sense of purpose. They have lots of sex but we have no idea if she enjoys it as much as he does. If this author’s female character feels or thinks about anything at all, her feelings and thoughts are about him.”

Levy says that she thinks she may have asked for the book. Now she is interested in it because she is still trying to learn how to write characters:

particularly female character. After all, to think and feel and live and love more freely is the point of life, so it is an interesting project to construct a female character who has no life. The story in this book was about a woman who has gifted her life to a man. This is not something to be tried at home…” 

Hmmm…perhaps you wonder what I wrote in the margins?

  • Has everyone gifted their life at times?
  • Is there a way to “gift” that doesn’t result in erasure of the self?
  • Erasure vs. Altruism a knife edge! Dangerous for women!

Which made me think of that tree in Shel Silverstein’s, THE GIVING TREE. That damn tree gifts so much of herself (yes the tree is gendered!) that she ends up a mere stump for the greedy little boy to sit upon in his dotage. And the tree is supposed to be happy! Altruism? I think not!

As you see, I’m engaged in a conversation with the book. Already I am thinking and feeling more freely, just as Levy wishes. I hope you all read with a pencil in hand. Conversations with a book enrich the experience tremendously for me. And I don’t mean that because I fawn over the author, sometimes I aggressively disagree. It feels like a conversation, or as Patricia Lockwood puts it: “There’s a way of reading that is like writing. You feel in collaboration… You have a pen in your hand, you’re going along in a way that’s, like, half creating it as you go.” 

 

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 got a big boost of creative energy from a recent workshop I took with the writer, Janet Fitch. It was focused on dialogue, which is my favorite thing to write and my favorite to read. I love the way dialogue looks on the page. I love the white space and the dynamic speed with which I move down the page. I love the mix of spoken words, gestures, interior thoughts, embodied sensations and the way landscape enhances meaning. I love the tension and desire in good dialogue. Characters want something and someone always wins in a dialogue scene.

Here’s a delicious tool for you!

Janet talked about making a Rosetta Stone Notebook in which you write on the page a feeling, such as confident, anxious, afraid, excited. Directly below, list sensations one might experience in the body which are associated with the feeling .

Confident:
Solid, limber, warm, even keeled,
aligned in the body, buoyant
chest feels light, hands open,
muscles relaxed, legs able, knees
soft

Anxious:
Prickly, sunken or hollow in the chest,
Sweaty, heart rapidly beating, eyes
wide and darting/scanning the room,
clenched, clammy.

Creating this resource for myself is busy work, which I love! It’s like folding laundry, easy and pleasant. It’s low-risk creative work that may help when I am deep in the writing. Doing this work, this observing and considering will make me more aware of my own body responses, as well as what I see in the world, in a film or tv show. Plus, this kind of awareness can only help to make me a better human, no? Why not strive toward a bit more empathy and understanding of how others embody their emotions? Remember our theme from Deborah Levy? Say it with me: we want to think, feel and love more freely.

 

 



eat

Okay. This is the first time I am sharing an entirely original recipe. Go me! We went to lunch the other day at Coquinea restaurant the NYTs loves. They served a Pear & Celery Root soup that was garnished with chopped hazelnuts and maybe parsley? Anyway it was delicious, and I’ve been perfecting my version over the past couple of weeks. So here you go:

Pear & Celery Root Soup

  • 3T butter, unsalted
  • 1 celery root (about the size of a newborn baby’s head), peeled and diced
  • 1 sweet onion, diced
  • 2 Comice pears, very ripe, peeled and chopped
  • 4c homemade chicken stock
  • Water
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • ½ lb spinach, washed and stems removed
  • 2T olive oil
  • ½ – 1 cup cream OR half & half
  • ½ lemon
  • Salt and pepper
  1. Melt butter in a 5 qt Dutch oven over medium heat.
  2. Add onion and sauté until translucent. Add celery root and continue to sauté for four to five minutes, then add pear and a teaspoon of salt. Continue to cook for another 7 or 8 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a cast iron skillet and add the garlic. Watch carefully and when the garlic softens, add the spinach in handfuls until it’s thoroughly wilted. Off heat.
  4. Add chicken stock and about 2 cups of water to the pear and celery root. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes or so.
  5. Add the spinach and simmer for another 5 minutes.
  6. Using a hand blender, puree the soup. Alternately you can puree in a blender in batches and return to pan.
  7. Add the cream to desired thickness. Add salt and pepper to taste. Squeeze in the lemon.

I think the soup would be terrific with crumbled croutons on top for texture. Some crushed hazelnuts if you want to go for the whole Pacific Northwest thing, prosciutto crisped up in that already-dirty-from-cooking-spinach pan would be delicious as well.

 

 

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Here’s a little whipped cream love from Stanley (no, I did not let him eat the whole thing):

 

 

 

 

via GIPHY

you think you are alone, and then you read

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

At nineteen my grandma lost her baby daughter to spinal meningitis. It was 1940. Baby Joyce was struck with fever on Friday and died on Sunday. I was a small child when I learned about her. I had no place to put the weight of it. I remember feeling a kind of reverence for my grandma, who had two more children, my mother and my uncle. Despite what she’d endured, she was kind, generous and loving, quick to laugh, quick to hug, joyful. She also kept a terrifying-to-me painting in a place of prominence in her house.

The story I told myself about this painting was that the family had lost a baby girl, drowned in the sea. The adults had nothing left to offer the small child in their midst, each so wrapped in private grief, the child was left alone.
Did this painting offer my grandma solace? I imagine her, sitting beneath it at her desk, paying her bills, and glancing up, knowing that her long ago pain was not solely her own.
I have certainly felt alone in my suffering du jour, have you? When I do, I turn to music, more music, poetry, and fiction to see me through, to lift me up, to help me accept, experience and bear the realities of life. Plus, there is always Ted Lasso, and his particular brand of joy. This beautiful short-short film is also a boost.

 


read

I recently had a long, solo drive.You know what makes time fly in a car? Celebrity memoirs! Who knew? I listened to THE LAST BLACK UNICORN, narrated by the author, Tiffany Haddish. Irreverent, crass, hilarious, and hard scrabble—I was laughing so hard at one point I thought about pulling over to be safe. I do want to emphasize that she’s irreverent, so if you’re sensitive, or if you have kids in the car, it isn’t the book for you.

OH, WILLIAM, by Elizabeth Strout, is one of the best books I’ve read all year. I am a huge fan of Strout, having read nearly all her books, and this one further cemented my love for her work. The New York Review says of Strout, “Her main subject is the drama of the uncertain self in relation to the world…” Oh my, the uncertain self? That’s my jam!

If art has the capacity to make us feel less alone in our confusion, suffering, living and loving, Strout certainly proves that for me. Late in the novel, Lucy Barton is driving through Maine with her ex-husband William, helping him find a half-sister whom he has never met. She’s reminded of past drives, of coziness in the car with William and their baby daughters, how her husband was once home for her. I too remember road trips through a dark and rainy landscape with my husband, our babies strapped in their car seats, and feeling that everything in that moment was okay, I was safe, cozy. Like Lucy Barton, that is not a feeling I often had in my childhood. Reading Lucy’s memories I experienced my own I felt known as an uncertain self doing her best.

 

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 participated in a podcast!! Oh my, it was so much fun. The lovely Kelly Fordon interviewed me about my story, CHILDREN ARE MAGIC on her smart podcast, LET’S DECONSTRUCT A STORY. We laughed, commiserated, talked about writers we love. Check it out here.

My students have been sharing with me a sense of malaise regarding their projects and I totally get it. We get sick of our stories, we get tired of our voices, and then doubt creeps in. I offer you this inspiration and prompt:

Read and/or listen to PET MILK, by Stuart Dybek on the New Yorker Fiction podcast.

  1. Dybek says the story began as a poem. He had a still life in mind, of an oil cloth covered table, a radio, a can of Pet Milk, and a coffee mug. He says he loves still life paintings… the way the light off the objects can give rise to emotions. The story was going nowhere and so, one morning he asked himself, “Why these objects?” That’s when the grandmother entered the story, and the railroad yard across the street. “Suddenly the story was heading toward a plate of oysters and I let it go.”
  2. Look at still life paintings, simply go on a virtual visit to any museum you choose, or better yet, go to your local museum! Here’s a place to start. Use the work as a way to launch into our own stories or poems. Begin by describing what you see. What emotions does it evoke? Why these objects?
  3. Consider the rhyming action in PET MILK. So many images bloom from the first image of the Pet Milk swirling in the coffee, the sky does the same thing above the railyard, the King Alphonse drinks repeat the image, the smoke of the boy on the L platform with the glowing late sky above him, the lyric repetition knits the story together. Spend some time outside, closely observe and then describe what you see in nature as precisely and vividly as you can. What does it remind you of?

Finally, if the writerly malaise is too much, try this!

 



eat

Pomegranates are almost five dollars each at our local hoity-toity market. This is surely a sign of impending winter. Before they’re gone completely, make this (which I’ve made 3 times in the last month):

Brussels Sprouts w/Walnuts and Pomegranate (NYTs)

  • 1½ pounds brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
  • 3T olive oil
  •  Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped walnuts
  • 4T pomegranate seeds, plus more to taste
  •  Pomegranate molasses, for generous drizzling
  •  Flaky salt, to serve

 

  1. Heat the oven to 425°. Place your sheet pan in the oven while preheating.
  2. In a large bowl, toss brussels sprouts with the olive oil. Season w/ salt and black pepper and toss again.
  3. Spread everything evenly on a sheet pan cut-side-down (enjoy the sizzle sound!) and roast until crisp and deeply golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes, flipping the sprouts halfway through to ensure even browning.
  4. Meanwhile, toast the walnuts in a skillet over medium-low heat, stirring frequently to ensure they don’t burn, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
  5. When the brussels sprouts are done roasting, toss them with the toasted walnuts and the pomegranate seeds. Drizzle with the pomegranate molasses. Season with flaky salt.

Also, I’m going to make this Olive Oil Walnut Cake w/Pomegranate.

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I wanted to share a picture of my sweet and loving grandma. As she used to say of me, “She’s a keeper!”