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.
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.
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 Cooking, which 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.