On Writing, Short Stories

Somewhere Among the Mountains

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I. Maria Elena   

Now that they’d finished negotiating the streets of suburban Tucson, the busy, distracting noise they’d made had fallen away. Silence rose up in its place, a third sister, ready to ride with them all the way to California.

Maria Elena adjusted the mounted GPS, and accelerated to pass a groaning pickup truck. Cecilia had been useful in relaying the GPS’s direction when they were making their way from their mother’s former home to the freeway, but now that they were on the road that would take them all the way to San Diego, she’d gone quiet, her eyes unfocused and her fingers plucking absently at the waist of her jeans. At least she was driving, Maria Elena though. Cecilia hadn’t protested when they’d retrieved the keys from their mother’s old neighbor, and she was double glad of that now. It was the natural order, that she should drive and Cecilia should ride, but it also have her hands something to do. Maria Elena checked her rearview mirror again, then her left and her right.

“Have you talked to mom yet?”

Cecilia rolled her head towards Maria Elena. “I texted her when we got to the car.”

“Thanks.”

“She told me to call when we got close.”

“Sure.”

Maria Elena nodded, shifted lanes. It had been five years since she and Cecilia had last seen each other. Christmas, with their mother, at the rented house in Tucson. An unremarkable holiday. Maria Elena brought cookies from the grocery store she managed, and Cecilia’s daughter Jamie, seventeen and weeks away from the inseminating incident that would make Cecilia a grandmother, spent the long weekend flipping through beauty magazines. The four woman got pedicures, exchanged gifts, watched a movie, and after three days, left. Cecilia to Fort Worth, and Maria Elena to Colorado Springs.

They’d spoken with more recently—they were sisters, of course—but their conversations were never more than perfunctory. Maria Elena providing Cecilia with a bulleted version of her separated life, and Cecilia doing the same.

They were only together now out of duty to their mother, because keeping her car was the condition upon which their mother had agreed to move into an assisted living facility with her own sister. If she moved, someone would drive the car from Tucson to San Diego. After the deal had been made, Maria Elena and Cecilia decided to make the drive together. Turn it into a long weekend, and help their mother settle into her new home.

Fighting back a beat of irritation, Maria Elena now wished she’d insisted upon making the trip alone: It didn’t need to be a two man job. Her palms tingled in the silence. As children, Cecilia had been the talker, the storyteller, the show. Maria Elena had always ceded attention to her sister, letting Cecilia take up all the air in the room. Why wasn’t she filling their silence now?

“Does mom like her new place?” Maria Elena asked.

“Seems to. She likes living with Tía Irma.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah, I’m glad.”

Cecilia let the conversation drop, and Maria Elena went back to focusing on the road. Traffic was dissipating the further they drove from the city. Maria Elena knew, from a childhood spent bouncing around the desert southwest, that they were driving into the mountains. By the time darkness fell, they’d been among them, their car one of the only ones crossing the cracked and buckled roads.

“How’s the grocery store?” Cecilia asked, rousing herself for the first time since they’d hit the freeway.

“Fine. It’s a grocery store. Last week, we ran a coupon for avocados, and ran out four hours after opening.”

“That’s crazy.”

“It was.” Maria Elena flashed her brights at a semi angling into their lane. “How’s Jamie?”

“Good. Pregnant again.”

Maria Elena sucked in her breath, making a sharp noise that she regretted as soon as Cecilia whipped her head around. “Wow! Her second?”

“Third.”

“Third?” Maria Elena colored. She’d been in the delivery room when Cecilia had birthed Jamie. She’d shared a bedroom with her bassinet. She’d poured baptismal water over the baby’s downy head. “How far along?”

“Still in the first trimester. She’s sick as a dog, though. Something about her boyfriend. My pregnancy was a breeze, but all three of hers have been bad.”

“They’re still not married?”

“No.” Cecilia’s fingers twisted her waistband. “But you know. It’s different now.”

“Of course.”

II. Cecilia

The sun shifted, and the sky split open, a violent, dusty orange. The sun hung, for a suspended second between the clouds and the mountain. Beneath its nakedness, everything glowed. Orange, red, gold, shot through in the dirt. Each sister exhaled.

“I’d forgotten—”

“How big?”

“How beautiful.”

Cecilia leaned her elbows into the dash, drinking in the light. They were driving into a bowl that would life back up into those mountains.

“Texas does not look like this”

“No?” Maria Elena laughed. Cecilia watched as her sister edged the speedometer a few miles higher. They were going ten over the speed limit now. As the cruise control beeped, Cecilia wondered if Maria Elena was trying to shorten the time they had to spend together, and alone. The engine growled softly underneath her. Cecilia cast around for something else to say.

“Somebody once told me,” she said, leaning back in her seat,” that the sun doesn’t set on the other side of the mountains. Only really good girls get to live on the other side, and they don’t have to go to sleep.”

“Why didn’t they have to sleep?”

“Because the sun doesn’t set.”

“But why doesn’t the sun set?”

Cecilia watched her sister’s eyes cycle from the road to the rearview mirror then back to the road. Maria Elena asked her question like Cecilia was posing a riddle, not telling a story. She kept an irritated sigh deep in her diaphragm.

“Because the girls on the other side of the mountain are good. They get more playtime, because they’re good.”

Maria Elena’s lips split open slowly, a smile finally pulling itself over her teeth. She moved slower than Cecilia remembered. Like she wasn’t used to having someone in front of her to respond to.

“Who told you that?”

“Patricia.”

“Mom’s friend Patricia?”

“Yes.”

“She did not.”

“She did too. Several times. That summer she lived with us in Jerome.”

“When did she tell you that?”

“Oh you know,” Cecilia waved her hand, remembering the season they’d spent with their mother’s friend in Jerome. Loneliest place in the world, and at eight years old, Cecilia had thought that even the wind in that town sounded sad. “Anytime I misbehaved. She didn’t like me very much.”

“You’re kidding me.” A produce truck passed the on the left. “She never told me that.”

“Yeah well, she liked you.”

Maria Elena didn’t say anything else. Cecilia looked over at her, and rolled her eyes. Her sister still had as much grace as a rock. Even as a little girl, Maria Elena had held herself in close. When they were teenaged, Maria Elena told Cecilia that she needed to say no more often, and Cecilia, loose from empties she’d been swiping from the bar that Maria Elena worked at, had laughed and told Maria Elena that she needed to say yes. Cecilia could see that her sister still kept herself rigid, so tight within herself that nothing could get out.

“Why did mom let her live with us? She was so awful to me.”

“We lived with her,” Maria Elena said.

“No, she lived with us.”

“At the house in Jerome?”

“Yes.”

“We lived with Patricia. It was her house, not mom’s.”

Cecilia took her feet off the dashboard. “Why did mom always tell me that was her house?”

“She wanted you to think she owned it.”

“Why?”

“Because she didn’t want you to think we were poor.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Maria Elena was being glib, Cecilia though, her own irritation growing.

Maria Elena laughed, and shook out what was left of her short hair. “You never asked me.”

“Mom’s told me recently that she owned that house.”

Maria Elena laughed again. “She lied to you.”

“I don’t believe it,” Cecilia muttered, “I swear mom owned that house.”

It was a small thing, Cecilia knew that, but she didn’t like not knowing. That had been the first years of her adulthood, after her mother had kicked her out and she and Maria Elena had move away from each other. It had come for her like cold water, everything from which her mother and sister had protected her. Struggle and pain, violence, want. She’d been a young mother by the time she’d had to confront the world, had to learn about it. Even in the darkening car, Cecilia could feel her own foolishness and ignorance. Twenty years old now, but still hot.

“Cecilia,” Maria Elena, said, gentler, “we didn’t have shoes that summer. How could mom have afforded a house?”

Night was coming down like a blanket across the desert, stars beginning to push themselves through the velvet. Cecilia made herself busy watching them out the passenger window. She knew, vaguely, that her irritation towards her sister was not about Maria Elena herself, but the idea of Maria Elena that Cecilia projected, but she didn’t know how to separate the two. It had been too long since she’d truly known her sister. What she assumed Maria Elena thought of her was all that Cecilia knew of Maria Elena. And, Cecilia realized with a sinking in her throat, all that Maria Elena likely knew about her. She watched as Maria Elena adjusted the GPS again, and the embarrassed anxiety of the movement made Cecilia twitch.

“What I remember about Patricia is her giving me Mexican candies,” Maria Elena said, returning to the subject like fingers to a smoothed stone.

“Sticky things, right? With chili powder on them?”

“Yes! You remember them?”

She made a gagging noise. “I remember them making me sick.”

Maria Elena laughed. “They didn’t make you sick; you already were sick. I gave them to you because you wouldn’t stop crying. I pretended they were medicine.”

“Then I threw them back up onto you.”

“Yeah, and I didn’t get a new nightgown until after we moved out of Patricia’s two months later.”

Cecilia smiled. Maria Elena wouldn’t know this, but Cecilia had told her daughter this story when Jamie was sick. When I was a little girl, Cecilia would say, smoothing back Jamie’s hair or rubbing her back, I didn’t have a Mami who took care of me like I take care of you, but do you know who did take care of me, mija, your Tía Maria Elena did…” Cecilia thought about asking Maria Elena if she remember the other stories she’d told Jamie—about the fever that Maria Elena had tried to break by making Cecilia swallow ice cubes, or about the chicken pox that Maria Elena treated by rolling her up in a bedsheet to keep her from scratching the sores—but Maria Elena starting speaking again.

“Mom didn’t actually buy me a new nightgown. One of dad’s sister made me a new one after we moved in with her.”

“We moved from Jerome to Escondido?”

“Yeah, into that little blue house.”

“With all those little kids. That’s right. I’d forgotten about that house. I didn’t think we moved to Escondido until after Abuelita died.”

“No, we moved into her house after she died, but we lived in Escondido for at least two years before that.”

“Yes. With all of the tías.”

“The house of whispers.”

“Who called it that?”

“Mami.”

“Why?”

“Because dad’s sisters were always whispering about us.”

Cecilia leaned her head against the window, looking back through her own memories with as much visibility as she had looking out onto the darkened highway. She had forgotten about the house they’d shared with so many members of their father’s family. She marveled, not for the first time, at the flytrap way Maria Elena had retained the details of life.

“There’s a lot I don’t remember.” Cecilia said quietly.

“That’s ok.”

“I’m serious. There’s so much I’ve forgotten. Like that house. Poof. It just not there.”

“Come on. It’s not like you forgot a trip to Disneyworld.”

Cecilia laughed. “That’s true.”

“You were young, Cecilia.”

“So were you.” Her sister spoke in the way she did when she tried to make something better.

Maria Elena nodded reluctantly. “Yeah. Well.”

“What I do remember about Escondido is lighting our curtains on fire when I was sneaking one of Mami’s cigarettes.”

“I remember having to wait outside for the fire department to come and turn off the fire alarm.”

“Mami was so mad.”

They began to climb, a slow ascent that brought the mountains close to them on either side. The sky opened up, a whole galaxy expanding above them. Cecilia felt her sister’s tension ease, and she too let herself mellow.

“Do you remember the car that Mami had with the front doors that wouldn’t open?”

“The one that she got pulled over in because the police thought she stole it?”

“That piece of shit. We always looked like fools climbing in through the backend.”

“What about Tío Ruddy’s funeral? Do you remember how that priest that ran up and down the aisles touching everyone?”

When you feel the wind,” Cecilia mimed, “Or walk through a pocket of warmth on a cold day, that’s your friend, your brother, your son…

“He touched me,” Maria Elena said, “Do you remember that? He skimmed my shoulder with his hand, and Mami yanked me away, and then burst in to tears.”

Nobody had given the priest the same warning that all the young girls received about Tío Ruddy.

“I think that night is the only night I ever remember seeing Mami really, really drunk.”

“That was the night she chipped her tooth, right?”

“Yeah. Falling down the steps outside the bar.”

That fall had changed their mother’s face, taught her how to talk and smile with her lips held tight.

Cecilia and Maria Elena ping-ponged their way through their shared childhood and adolescence, playing their memories like cards laid down in the quiet gulf between them. By the time the GPS chirped that they were halfway to their destination, the darkness had grown so thick that it seemed to expand around them each mile they drove.

“What was the name of that hotel you worked at? After we moved out?”

“Hotel Lotus or Crocus? Hotel Flower Something. Why?”

“Just curious.” Cecilia stifled a yawn as the clock rolled over into the new day. “I was thinking about it the other day. How young we were when we moved out.”

“We were young, but we kind of had to.”

She’d been pregnant. That had been the reason why they had. Jamie was still a secret she’d told only to Maria Elena when they’d packed up their shared bedroom and left.

“Still. I can’t believe that Mami didn’t fight us on it at least a little bit. If Jamie had tried to pull that shit when she was pregnant with the first one.”

“Mami didn’t have it in her to fight us anymore.”

“Fight me. I don’t think you ever gave her any problems.” The heads flashed on an exit sigh, and Cecilia pointed, “Gas station. I need to stop.”

“But at that point, it was both us. She couldn’t have kept me without keeping you. Mami knew that,” Maria Elena said, turning on her blinker.

Cecilia exhaled, almost laughed. She needed a cigarette if she were going to stay awake. As she pulled off the freeway, the lights of the gas station marquee reflected on Maria Elena’s face. Cecilia watched it shift, purple, then red, then hollow white. For a brief moment, the lights erased her wrinkles, and Maria Elena looked like a girl again.

But then she turned off the car, and the dome lights came on. Cecilia looked away quickly, but not before seeing her sister, middle aged and gaunt, in the thin, blinking light.

III. Maria Elena, again

After the gas station pit stop, quiet grew back up between them, sleepy and soft. Cecilia had tried to keep up the thread of reminiscence, but her voice had grown heavy, syllables slowed down. She’d finally nodded off, and Maria Elena had pushed on, reminding herself of all the childhood nights she’d lain awake, worried or hungry or simply sleepless, next to Cecilia.

To her left, a flotilla of lights rose up out of the darkness, then sailed away. Her headlights caught on the glare of a sign: “State Penitentiary,” and underneath it, “Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.” Maria Elena shivered, and the mountains pushed in closer, immense, and razored, and indifferent. If she veered off the road right now, they wouldn’t crash, but would be subsumed into the chasm of limitless black opening up in front of her.

Maria Elena turned on her brights, and rolled her shoulders up towards her ears, trying to bring energy back to her sleep soaked body. Next to her, Cecilia stirred.

“You still okay driving?” She’d asked the same thing when they’d stopped at the gas station, but Maria Elena had shot down her sister’s offer then too.

“Yep. Still good.”

“Are you?” Cecilia’s voice was barely louder than the hum of the car engine.

“Good to drive?”

“Or in general.” She uncoiled herself from her seat, blinking heavily. Maria Elena stayed silent, forcing her sister into an extended pause. “It has been five years.”

Maria Elena took her eyes off the road, and sought the mountains. She found them in the pitch, a deep, jagged sheath of black cut away from the charcoal sky. Orion the Hunter hung above them, his bow reaching towards the horizon line. She repeated Cecilia’s question to herself, and focused on what she could barely see. There were no lights out here. Just what came from the car, and what came from the stars. So black that the whole earth could have emptied of all its contents except for she and Cecilia. Maria Elena exhaled.

“I’m lonely, Cecilia. Most days, I feel very, very alone.”

The quiet expanded around them. Maria Elena felt the sadness she kept inside start to seep from her, the way that cold seeps from bones. Cecilia’s hand brushed against her leg, the quiet pronounced.

“I’m sorry.”

Maria Elena blinked back the hint of tears. “It’s okay. It’s life.”

“It is.”

She waited Cecilia’s breath to fall back into its metered pattern. Her sister had barely roused herself from sleep—she’d be asleep again soon. It was like when they were children, and Cecilia woke with a bad dream. Maria Elena would like awake and pray that Cecilia would sink back into sleep quickly, that when she woke, she’d have forgotten the night.

“After Jamie told me she was pregnant again, I stayed in bed for a week.” Cecilia said. “I couldn’t fucking believe it. I felt like I’d rewound the tape twenty years, except that Jamie was me, and I was mom.”

Maria Elena sucked air slowly through her teeth before speaking. “Did you tell Jamie?”

“That the news of my third grandbaby made me so depressed I couldn’t bring myself to eat for two days?” Cecilia shifted towards the stars, her voice its own quiet fire. “No. What could I have said? ‘In twenty years, you’ll be a grandmother, and your own daughter will be pregnant, and unmarried, and surviving on scraps. You’ll regret every decision you’ve ever made, and you won’t be able to change a single goddamn thing?’ No. You can’t say that stuff. Not out loud.”

Cecilia’s words burned in the small car. The darkness made a wall around them, and the car became like a cloister, a confessional. Like, to Maria Elena, their bedroom back home.

“Do you regret Jamie?”

“Yes. Every day. I regret who I had her with, when I had her. How I raised, what I gave her, what I didn’t. I love her, but yeah. I regret her too.”

A black grief filled the car, crushed the sisters on each side. They both felt its squeeze.

“Don’t you think that everyone feels that way though?”

Cecilia laughed, a hollow, guttural sound.

“God I hope not. That’s miserable.” She paused. “Do you think mom felt this way about us?”

Maria Elena watched the road bend away from the face of a mountain, and followed its curve.

“I’m sure she did.”

Cecilia sunk into her chair like a popped balloon, and Maria Elena trained her eyes on the highway’s dividing strips, counting them as they rushed beneath her. This was it. Each sister retreated into her own castle of quiet. This was what they had to say to each other. Outside their car, the darkness was shifting, monstrous nighttime creatures pulling their matter up from the unformed black. Maria Elena looked out on them. The mountains, unending. They reminded her of Mission, Texas. Another great, unending landscape.

That’s where she and Cecilia had come undone. Nineteen years earlier. Maria Elena had driven through the night for Cecilia them too.

Jamie father, a boyfriend who’d disappeared before Cecilia’s stomach began to swell, had resurfaced, the baby, by this time, was nearly walking. He wanted them both—Cecilia and Jamie. He had a job on the oil line, a trailer in Mission, Texas, he was ready for them now. That’s what he’d told Cecilia over the phone. That’s what Maria Elena had mocked. That’s what they’d split apart over

The night Cecilia told Maria Elena her decision, they had raged. They did battle, first in whispers, so as not to wake the baby, then in shrieks that Jamie had added her own voice to. They’d split the night open with their fury. Maria Elena refusing her sister her decision, accusing Cecilia of helplessness, spinelessness, foolishness, forbidding her to leave, and Cecilia defending her independence, her competence, enraged at Maria Elena’s dominance.

You tell me no like you think it means something, Cecilia had yelled, Like that word is fucking magic. You’ve been making my decisions for me and my baby. No, no, no. No to everything, but this isn’t about you, Maria Elena. It’s about me and Jamie, and my family.

I’m your family, Maria Elena had screamed back. I’m the reason life hasn’t been hard for you. I’m taking care of you and Jamie. I’m the husband and the father and the provider. I’m your family.

Cecilia, smoldering, hadn’t responded, and after a minute that scraped each of them like a bed of razors, Maria Elena had screamed, then collapsed into great, weeping gasps. The next morning, she helped Cecilia pack, and then she took the driver’s seat, and drove Cecilia and Jamie 1300 miles to Mission, Texas.

Before hugging goodbye in front of the dusty trailer Jamie’s father had presented as Cecilia’s new home, Maria Elena had whispered, He’ll never be your family. Cecilia shoved Maria Elena away, and took Jamie into the dark home. When Maria Elena drove away, she felt a great fissure split wide the earth, and separate her, for the first time, from her sister.

In the pressing blackness of night, Maria Elena remembered how her sister had felt to her in the days and weeks after their separation. Like Cecilia had been sucked away into some unreachable land. The world had never felt so big, nor she so small. Cecilia had become an absence only, a crater removed from her own body.

Maria Elena looked across the car at her sister, asleep again, and instead of the warm swell of intimacy, a gutted emptiness slashed through her belly.

The GPS lit up the car, spitting out a new set of directions. Maria Elena realized that the darkness, so unrelenting only a few minutes before, had broken in front of her. A sheet of gridded lights, dense as fog, shimmied and danced in interlocking ribbons. They’d reached San Diego. They were twenty minutes from their mother’s home.

Cecilia stirred, unfurling her body into stiff angles. “We there?”

“Almost.” Maria Elena said. She heard a sharpness in her voice. “Call Mami. Tell her we’re close.”

Cecilia nodded, and pulled herself back to wakefulness, and the stiff quiet of the previous evening stole back into the car. Their midnight intimacy had vanished.

Cecilia fumbled with her cell phone. Maria Elena listened to the faint ring on the other end of the line, then the sleepy sound of their mother’s voice. Her sister spoke for less than a minute, then hung up. “Mom says that the night staff knows we’re coming. They’ll bring us to her apartment when we get there.”

“Okay.”

Cecilia yawned, and plucked at her waistband one more time. Maria Elena asked her to watch for their exit, and together they murmured street names out loud as they passed them.

Tomorrow, Maria Elena though, her brain suddenly seized with exhaustion, they’ll take their mother to lunch, and then to the supermarket, and the next day, to lunch again, and to the zoo, or maybe the wharf. She and Cecilia would operate in tandem in order to serve their mother, their sisterhood a muscle flexed only for her benefit. That would be all they’d muster. Despite the flare up of their childhood intimacy somewhere in the mountains behind them, too much time had passed for anything else. Too much time and too much sorrow. Too much separation. When she and Cecilia split their shared life, twenty years earlier, they’d broken it.

Her sister pointed out their exit, and Maria Elena turned on her blinker. She thought about crying, but then—decided not to. It had been twenty years since she’d felt the earth crack. If she didn’t focus on it, she didn’t feel what was on the other side anymore.

Bookshelf, Bruised Land, On Writing

What stories do I want to tell?

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Death to the Stock Photo

“The commitments of home, blood and marriage ran through the album as I tried to understand where these things might fit into my own life. My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It’s one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day.” Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run

The first novel I read in the new year was Julia Glass’ Three Junes, a
National Book Award winner from 2002, and a big, abundant, full novel. It was a book that gathered together life and death, and held each of them without letting one or the other grow too heavy. I read it in sadness, and it did what good literature is supposed to do – it helped heal me.

As 2016 wound to a close, I was at existential odds with my writing. In the summer, I abandoned the third draft of my first novel again, and in the fall, I began handwriting a dark, sad story that I knew would end with a little boy’s body found at the bottom of a frozen pond. (Should I mention here that I spent the fall depressed and deeply sad?) As the new year began, bringing with it what it always does, a few weeks of ringing clarity, I was, yet again, ravenous to return to my first novel.

I finished the last pages of Three Junes, and it was like someone took the book right out of my hands and hurled it at me. My very first thought was “this is the kind of book I want to write.”

It rang like a bell, this answer to this question that I didn’t know I needed to answer.

What kind of book do I want to write?

I once listened to an interview with George Saunders (that I cannot for the life of me track down now) where he said that an early review of one of first books said that he writes love much better than he writes anger. Ever since hearing that, I’ve been asking myself that same question. What do I write better? Love? Pain? Anger? Hope? Hopelessness?

My interests trend towards the dark and macabre (blame it on my father letting me watch Helter Skelter while I did my math homework in second grade), but do I want also want to write the deeply dark? Last weekend, I read for review a brilliant, dark, experimental novel about violent women, generational pain and serial killers. The language was fierce, the story a cave. I loved this novel, and nearly wept at its excellence, but when I asked myself, is this the kind of book I want to write, I was surprised to answer myself: no.

As much as I love diving deep into someone else’s dark world, that’s not the world I want to belong solely to. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to write a novel, time beyond the actual writing. I can’t write entirely about the darkness, but I cannot spend that much time inside of it. Life has dark and light – I want to include both in my writing.

I loved Three Junes so much, because it dealt in abundance – the baggy, complex, dichotomous wideness of life. When I think of other books I’ve loved, The Golden Age, Merit Badges, even Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, they each tap into the scope and depth of what it means to be human without shying away from the desperate pain and wild exuberance of life. These novels occupy a space of brave fullness, gathering up the range of human experiences between their pages. That’s the kind of novel I want to try to write, that’s the kind of story that burns inside of me.

I think every writer of literary fiction has to, at some point or another, grapple with their personal ideas about “serious” versus “not serious” writing. In many ways, that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. What is the story I think I should be telling to be taken seriously or looked at with regard, and what is the story that I want to tell. I’ve been struggling with my own definitions of seriousness and worthiness. Is my writing only worthy if it’s tortured, or can it also have hope?

Creativity needs limits, and after all the wrestling I’ve been doing, it’s really exciting to give myself this limit, to say “this is what to do, this is the story I have to tell.” I want to tell stories that contemplate complexities, that zero in on lives lived tethered to other people, that give voice to the ordinary, and provide context for our most inexplicable and un-navigable experiences. Not Pollyanna stories that end with bows, but brave, big-hearted, and deeply felt stories. Stories are fierce enough to embrace the two dichotomous truths, that life is fucking hard and fucking beautiful, often both at once.

As I continue to grow as a writer, I hope that my interests and my limits will shift (how boring and uninspired if they don’t), but for right now, the clarity is incredible. As is the freedom.

Journey to Health, Lovely Living, On Writing, The Work of Becoming

PHow to Start 2017: Intentions for a New Season

kcuflktxyy4-sarah-dorweilerI love the first few weeks of January. After the holidaying is finished, and the accumulated days of the past year are behind us, there’s comes a cleanness, a sharpness and a specificity to life for which I usually have to fight. For the first few weeks of each new year, I know, more clearly than usual, what it is that I am here for.

I attribute this simplicity to the winter light. My writing desk faces a sloping lawn, and in January, it looks out onto snow, sculpted into elegance by the wind and by the cold.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve made resolutions, formally and informally, for the new year. It’s the idea of the clean sheet, the romance of possibility, of something new. At last new year, I wrote not about resolutions about what I would not quit in 2016, the anchors and tethers to which my life is, for better always and never for worse, bound to. Last year, I didn’t set anything formal for myself (although I did write about the anchors and tethers to which I am, for the better, bound), and the year that came was strange, disorganized and without cohesion. I ended 2016 feeling emptied, my emotional landscape jagged and depressed, my relationships lackluster, my creative output (writing) and creative input (reading) both stagnated. And, two days before, my beloved grandfather died. Grief broke my mild depression, and left me aching, a a blanket of sadness that I did not expect and didn’t (don’t) how to wear.

In the week between Christmas and New Year, I said, again and again, that I wanted to move into the new year, like it was a house I could occupy.

Now that the new year is here, and I’ve returned to a routine, I’ve given thought to what resolutions, if any, I want to make. When I think about 2017, I’ve thought mainly in terms of end results. I want another (and another and another) of my short stories to be published.  I want to return to mental health.

I want, I want, but I can’t guarantee that I’ve actually get any of these things. I can write, but it’s not up to me what gets published. I can save, but I can’t expect the unexpected — an ill-timed car repair could defer home ownership an entire year. I can work towards mental health, but whatever predispositions and chemicals that make me melancholy, and anxious can’t always be wrangled into submission. Desires aren’t goals. They can’t be. You can’t hold onto what burns.

Instead of thinking in terms of “goals” that I can “crush” (language that makes me itch), I’m thinking about intentions fit for my next season. What habits do I have the capacity to build in the coming months that will enrich and enliven my life.

Right now, 2017 is a country of desire. I don’t know (and I mean nothing profound by this) what it will bring. I want it to be a good year — it would be naive of me to say otherwise. I want the new year to bring all its fruits, and let me taste them, but I can’t make that happen. I have only so much power. Instead of naming my desires (I have no patience for vision board thinking) or setting quantifiable goals, I’m setting intentions for myself that I plan to commit to for the foreseeable season. When this season eventually changes, I’ll re-evaluate and re-adjust, but for now, I have four habits I’m committing to to help me build a life of my own doing.

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– Exercise my body –

This, I realize, is the oldest and most artificial of all New Year’s resolutions —  so much so that I almost didn’t include it for fear of being trite. I have a better reason than I ever have before to commit to this habit: As 2016 pulled to a close, my mental health became more precarious than it has in a few years. I met with my doctor to talk about re-medicating a rising anxiety and mild, but stubborn depression. The side effects the last time I was on an SSRI were unpleasant enough to make me hesitant to start a new prescription, and neither I nor my doctor were sure that my symptoms were strong enough to necessitate chemical intervention. As an alternative, she put me on an exercise regiment. As frequently as I could (aim for five days per week), with the purpose of raising the heart rate. Did you know that regular, cardiovascular exercise can have the same effects on stabilizing brain chemical as a low dose SSRI? It was helping in December, and to ease back into the routine after a two week break, I’m starting with a “30 day fitness challenge.”
Habit: four times per week.
Hope: to feel strong and at home in my own body.

– Read daily –

Books are my oldest, and sometimes, dearest friends, but just as I am an inconsistent friend, I am an inconsistent reader. I read an article about committing to read 25 pages per day, and while I usually resist quantity driven habits (see above: allergic to goal crushing), I was drawn to the simplicity. A set of pages every day — so simple it’s almost silly. I love this passage from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: “I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.” Books have saved me again, and again, and though I already ready a lot, 2016 was an uneven year of reading, and I want — I need — 2017 to be better. I want to read like that swimmer, and then I want to write.
Habit: Read daily.
Hope: Revival.

– Write (almost) daily –

Again, I do this, but I don’t do it well. I write daily and fervently — burn pages — and then, if I don’t want to, or if I’m feeling lazy, or if I’m feeling lost from my story, or if TV or social media or other pedantic pleasures get in my way, I don’t. I don’t care for him, but I resonated so much with a Jonathan Franzen interview I listened to last year in which he talked about how his greatest weakness as a writer is fun — television, and movies, and games, and friends, and entertainment. I feel this sharply, and most days, I have to turn off everything to write anything. There are deeper wells to be tapped, this is what I’m always reminding myself. Writing can be pure pleasure, but even when it’s not, it’s still worth showing up for.
Habit: Write (almost) every day.
Hope: That someday, whether I’ve published or not, I’ll know that I have written ferociously.

– Reflect, purposefully and consistently –

It’s no secret that we, as a generation, as a society, as a people cleaved to device, have all but given up on reflection. As a writer and as a little “h” historian, I think often about preservation and memory. In recent years, I’ve shied away from journaling as a way to preserve, because life is ongoing, and as better writers than me have written, creating a record of days doesn’t create a life, nor can it write an ill-lived life into existence. I didn’t journal out of the fear that it would devolve into little more than a logbook. But then, I think about a friend who journals about each book she reads. She told me once that she’s been using the same journal for several years, and when she flips through its pages, she can chart not just what book she was read, but what her life looked like during each book’s reading. I love the idea of a journal as a space to breed thought and as well as to capture memory. In the coming year, I want to make more time for unstructured and reflective, in a space more private and less curated than this one.
Habit: Regular, written reflection
Hope: Create a space to think + to hold all my evolving selves.

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In addition to these four, I have a handful of smaller, more quantifiable “goals” for the new year. I’m trying to be more diligent about cooking at home instead of relying on takeout for dinner. And as a perpetual project-er, I’m determined that 2017 be the year that I finish all my half-done projects.

It’s a new year, and I think about what Rebecca Solnit wrote about hope: “The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

Though I’m approaching it with reserved and (some) melancholy, I have a quiet and gentle hope that what comes next will be, not by circumstance or situation, but by a bettering, mellowing me, better than what came before.

Bookshelf, On Writing, Storyteller

Books of 2016: A Year in Review

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Jane Austen reading room at Mia, August 2016

I had a disorganized year of reading – and writing, but that’s for a different day. I read more books that I have in previous years, but the quality was lacking. I want to read books that shake me, makes my bones rattle, and while I absolutely did read a few of these (The Neapolitan Series left me strung out and raw), I also read a lot of filler. This was due in part to the fact that I was reading to clear my shelves – trim away that books that didn’t rock me to make way for more that to -, but it was also partly due to the reality of my year.

I can see in retrospect that I spent a lot of 2016 working hard to just get by. A few high-intensity, low-happiness spring months kicked off a very slow slide into the deep anxiety and mild, but tenacious depression with which I am closing out the year. Rounding up all of my 2016 titles made it clear that many of my choices were attempts to read for comfort. The problem was that I reached for a lot of shaky rafts, a lot of escapist reading when I needed to transcend.

While much of what I read this year didn’t have the teeth I want from my fiction, I hope to change that in 2017. I’ll still be reading to trim (for the first time in my life, I became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of unread pages on my shelves), but I want my literary life to feel more like a revival than it did this year. I have a few books on my nightstand that I’m excited about, but I’m also looking for suggestions. (I’m always looking for suggestions.)

So, in alphabetical order, all the books I read in 2016.

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  1. Edith Wharton’s The Age of InnocenceI’ve read this book many times, and each time I pick it up, I am amazed by the grace of the language, and the precision of its observations. This was a comfort read that did not let me down. I read this in the wake of the election. For the first time, I had no sympathy for Newland, and all the praise and power for May and Ellen, each powerful women in their own right.
  2. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: For all my love of the detective novel (give me an opening and I will diagram for you the social and historical importance of detective fiction), I’ve never read Agatha Christie. I picked this novel up on a rainy spring afternoon when I went in search of cheer-me-up books. Classic whodunit, and despite all the death, this mystery was a delight.
  3. Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s WifeThis is one of the few books I’d recommend not reading. Historical fiction imagining the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife to Charles, the narrative spans her entire adulthood, and attempts to position Anne’s story as one of power lost, sought, and reclaimed. The writing was iffy, the narrative structure all over the place, and character development jagged, but the hardest pill to swallow was Benjamin’s attempt to excuse and apologize for the couple’s attitudes and opinions about Nazi Germany. History has no heroes, and I get the need to reconcile the good with the bad, but reading this attempt to smooth over the Lindbergh’s blatantly anti-Semetic, pro-Nazi opinions in post-election 2016 was not worth it.
  4. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist: My yearly lesson to not read hyped books (or give the hype a few years to die down). After hearing must-read-able this book was, I expected an earth-shaking, ground-breaking treatise on political and cultural feminism. This book is not that. What it is is a series of thoughtful, thought-provoking essays on gender, race, sex, and popular culture (heavy on the latter). My roof blown off, but I benefited from this book, particularly from the critique of popular culture depictions of the Black American experience.
  5. Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Transcendent. I’ve been intimidated of Morrison’s writing ever since reading her for the first time when I was eleven (Love, and I was too young), so though I own most of her books, I’ve only read a few. Beloved was a glorious, harrowing, exquisite experience. There’s nothing I can say about Toni Morrison that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll join the choir and preach. Read this!
  6. Julia Keller’s Bitter River: Don’t read this. It’s a small town cop mystery, but somehow, we go from pregnant teenager dead in a river to terrorist attack in Appalachia. Confused? Me too, and not just because this writer traffics solely in compound sentences and wildly irrelevant tangents.
  7. Tina Fey’s Bossypants: I love when smart, funny women write about themselves. Tina Fey is a decent essayist, and is at her best when she’s talking about the work or talking about being a woman. I got tired of her constantly making herself the butt of her own joke, but as another girl whose never known what cool is, I appreciated the honesty and humility.
  8. Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps: Mary McCarthy is a master class in observational writing. This is a novel of connected short stories about a young woman in 1930’s New York City. It’s very much of its time in tone and style, but it’s a smart, carefully crafted examination of politics, gender, and social expectation. I read “Portrait of an Intellectual as a Yale Man” immediately following the election, and at a moment when gender, politics and power were all thrown into harsh focus, this story was a particularly haunting and insightful look at petty, privileged men and the radical woman who challenge them.
  9. Rosa Liksom’s Compartment No. 6: This was a short, dark, beautiful novel. Translated from its original Finnish, the narrative follows a girl traveling across a late 80’s Soviet Union to see hieroglyphs in Mongolia. I wrote a much longer review for Grist that you can read here, but the short of it is read this book.
  10. Ha Jin’s A Free LifeThe marketing calls this an immigrant’s story, but after reading, I think that’s too simplistic. Ha Jin uses the immigrant narrative as base camp for the Wu family, but then wraps them in layers of human complexity. As much as Nan, father and narrator, is an immigrant, he’s also an aspiring poet, a frustrated father, a husband who pines for a former lover – a fully formed man struggling for identity and abundance in their many forms. This novel is dense, and Jin’s writing style jars me, but I am so glad this novel.9-16-books-3
  11. Joan London’s The Golden Age: This was the best book I read all year. Published in Australia two years ago and released in the U.S. this summer, this novel is about a children’s polio recovery home in post-war Australia. It is a stunningly graceful and impossibly hopeful novel about pain, loss, and resilience. It’s a short, lyrical, abundant novel that takes life as it is, and sees, without sop or sentimentality, the beauty. Read my longer review for fields here.
  12. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind: Another re-read. President’s Day weekend, Valentine’s Day, frigid temperatures and a head cold lined themselves up, and I spent a long weekend reading this. I read this novel for the first time when I was 10, and I was far too young to understand the Confederate nostalgia or the references to the KKK. I thought I was reading a big, epic story with a fierce, mean, tougher-then-hell woman at its center. This was the first time I’ve read GWTW that I’ve been critical enough to see both, I’m not sure there’s a way to reconcile the blatant racism and historical inaccuracies with this story of powerful women and their survival.
  13. Ali Wentworth’s Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales:  Audiobook is the way to “read” a celebrity memoir. I listened to both of Ali Wentworth’s memoirs on two back-to-back work trips, and each was delightful. This one, the first, covers her adolescence and adulthood up to the point of her marriage. It’s fantastically funny, and at more than few points, surprisingly tender.
  14. Ali Wentworth’s Happily Ali After: And Other Fairly True Tales: Wentworth’s second memoir, and I liked it even better than the first. Each chapter is framed by an inspirational quote, and the wisdom that she gained (or didn’t) from it. Wentworth deals funny and real in the same hand, and these books of hers are delightful.
  15. Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany’s Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildI wasn’t going to read this. I have strong opinions about why, out of respect for the reader, J.K. Rowling needs to stop writing about Harry Potter, and I was not going to read this post-canon screenplay. Then, at 11 a.m. the morning the book was released, a copy wound up in my cart at Costco. I read it. I kind of wish I hadn’t. One of the most beautiful gifts that a good writer can give to their reader is the chance to let the characters live on in each of our imaginations. Cursed Child didn’t dim my love of the original books, but it confirmed all my purist, Harry Pottery snobbery.
  16. Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton: It’s become a habit to read Morton during the holidays, not because there’s anything particularly festive about her work, but because she writes easy page-turners with pretty (if sloppy) prose. This was the 2016 read, and I read this while recovering from illness, and mourning the loss of my grandfather. Easily my least favorite Kate Morton book thus far, but it distracted + entertained when I most needed it.
  17. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger GamesI hadn’t read these books or seen these movies until this year. I read the first two of the series (couldn’t get into the third) in early spring, during the season when my work is at its most intense. I enjoyed them so much more than I expected. Pure escapist reading, but it was great.
  18. Suzanne Collins’ Catching FireSee above.
  19. Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A coworker nailed it when she said this was the least intimate memoir she’d ever read. It would probably be more accurate to call this book a music biography, and not a personal memoir. That (and the fact that being neither a fan of Sleater Kinney or punk music) aside, I really enjoyed this book. Brownstein writes crisp, muscular prose, and balances narrative with reflection well. The final three chapters, Be Still This Sad Year / Shelter / Home, are are beautiful and piercingly honest. They alone made the whole book worth it.10-16-books-new-writing-project
  20. Tana French’s In the WoodsIf you bill a book as a police procedural, you damn well better solve the mystery. The main character, male with tortured history, got a little whiny, a little too maudlin, but these small bits aside, I really enjoyed this novel. Right up to the point where they left one mystery unsolved. Mystery, I’m realizing, is a hard genre. Too much hype and nothing by the devil himself will made a decent reveal; not enough, and there goes the story. This story was all build, very little reveal. I’ve heard her later novels are more conclusive?
  21. Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of FlowersOn the few occasions that I’ve shared the premise of my first novel with people, this is the novel that they’ve said my story is “just like.” (People, for the love of God, don’t do this to writers. Sharing our ideas is hard enough, but to hear “oh, I’ve already read that” is devastating). When I finally read this novel, it threw me into a funk. I didn’t love the novel – writing was a little flowery for me (no pun intended) and found the character’s motivations unclear – but it did force me to grapple with the parallels to my story (some, but fewer than people assume), and the value of the story I’m trying to tell.6-16-pool-day-2
  22. Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend: I read this book in a day and a half (partly because some plane ticket fun kept me in the Memphis airport for about 7 hours). Reading Ferrante is like holding on to a live wire, and trying not to let go. I burned through the entire Neapolitan series, and when I finally came up for air, everything I’d ever read (and written) was ash in comparison. These are, far and way, the most extraordinary I have ever read.
  23. Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New NameSee above. Holding on to a live wire.
  24. Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: See above. Read anything with her name on it.
  25. Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child: See above. The finest ending. What do you read after Ferrante?
  26. Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are: I read this book slowly over of several months. An exploration into the habit of gratitude, its thesis is that joy does not produce gratitude, but gratitude produces joy. The call is to cultivate a daily habit of delight, and I found that when I practice thanksgiving, I’m a softer, slower, better aware human.
  27. Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian: This is a strange, dark, delightful mid-century novel from the other Elizabeth Taylor. It’s a loose re-telling of Jane Eyre, and a critique on the genre of Gothic literature. The cast of characters is off-kilter, the familiar – reclusive widower, precocious, motherless child, young governess – planted alongside the odd and out of place – a pregnant female doctor, the mother she has no patience for, very cranky service women, and an alcoholic brother, long in love with the dead mistress of the house. It’s jarring to read such a familiar narrative populated by such unfamiliar characters + motivations, but really, really enjoyable. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I liked finally getting to root for the drunk.
  28. Kathleen Tessaro’s The Perfume Collector: A forgettable novel. I read it at the beginning of the year and had to look up a synopsis to even remember its plot (I immediately got rid of my copy). It premise is intriguing – mysterious, female perfumer leaves her fortune to a stranger in a different country, narrative unravels who these women are and how they’re connected. For me, the novel crumbled when romance and motherhood were reduced to plot devices. By diminishing each of these radical, transformation human experiences, the characters themselves were diminished.
  29. Rosamund Lupton’s The Quality of Silence: Another that quickly wound up on the give-away pile. After hearing that her photographer husband died while on assignment in Alaska’s Arctic Circle, mother Yasmin and deaf daughter Ruby steal a semi-truck and drive it across the tundra in the middle of a raging winter storm. And they’re tailed by a stranger in a pick-up. And someone is sending them photos of dead animals. And there’s an environmental terrorist on the loose. The plot give me whiplash, but I held on because I loved Lupton’s prose so much. It howled with a lyrical force I can only dream of in my own writing.
  30. Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility: I loved this novel. I loved it so much. It’s a story of a woman in transition, making the choices that will pave the future that we, the reader, will not see. It’s a beautiful meditation on time, choice, and playing life as it is laid.
  31. Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements: A book dripping with critical praise. I liked this novel a lot, the story of a family, with a wide cast of characters (many of whom are given voice in the narrative) in the week leading up to one daughter’s wedding. Shipstead’s observations are critical and sharp, but her prose is soft and lyrical. I like the balance – it gave the novel a human quality, multitudes contained in one.
  32. Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper: See above about Kate Morton. This was my 2015 holiday read, but I didn’t finish it until after the new year. Very enjoyable. Very forgettable.
  33. Garth Stein’s A Sudden Light: I wanted to like this novel so badly. I loved Raven Stole the Moon, and picked up this book, Stein’s latest, after a string of aborted attempts on other so-so books. A teenage boy returns, with his father, to the haunted family manor to cash out an inheritance and settle emotional debts, except friendly ghosts with ancestral secrets, and sexy, devious aunts cause problems. The novel read like a second draft that needed a third pass – writing not tight enough, plot holes too big, characters deflated.
  34. Truman Capote’s Summer Crossing: This is Capote’s first novel, written in the 40’s, but unpublished until 2005. I read this in a blink. It’s a story of the times – wealthy New York girl having an affair with a working class Jewish boy – and it’s written with all the jittery drama of golden age Hollywood. Capote is young here, flexing his voice and reveling in his language. As a young writer, I love reading the early works of literary titans.
  35. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: The first Hemingway I read was A Farewell to Arms, and it was an electric experience. I didn’t know language could do what that novel did. Reading this novel, though, made me understand why people complain Hemingway – he writes whiny indulgences of the wealthy and vain. Not my favorite from the Western canon.
  36. J.R. Moehringer’s Sutton: I’ve had this book on my shelf for several years, and when I finally started reading it, I wished I hadn’t waited so long. Willie Sutton, first FBI Most Wanted, was released from prison on Christmas Eve, 1969, after having his sentence commuted, and he gave one newspaper interview the following day. Told in a series of flashback, Moehringer reimagines that interview and Sutton’s early life as a love story. It’s not a great novel in a critical sense – it relies on sympathy, sentimentality, and stock myths about pre-war gangsters – but I was swept up by the story, and by Moehringer’s clipped, swift prose.
  37. Sarah Pekkanen’s These Girls: As a teenager, I really liked the idea of beach read books about girls and their girlfriends and the boyfriends who never quite measure up. Every few months, I’d borrow a stack from the library, and never once was I able to read more than one of these books. This novel was written in that same vein. Three girls, connected through the New York City magazine work (and one hunky writer) deal with heartbreak, insecurities, secrets etc., etc., etc. I found the story vapid, and even its girls looking out for girls message did little for me. I grabbed this book on the way out the door as I were rushed to catch a flight to make it to a funeral. It was a comfort read that gave little comfort.
  38. Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar: The cult of Cheryl Strayed is real, and I live on the fringes of it. I think she is a beautiful writer, and can often cut to the heart of human experience. As an advice giver, truth teller, wisdom mama for the millennial generation, I have less patience for her. I read this book slowly over about a month, because taking in all of it without a break would have been too much for me, but on a whole, I loved the book. For all my big-hearted optimism, I can be very cynical, and every now and again, it’s good to rein in the princess of darkness and let the sun shine.
  39. Patricia Engel’s The Veins of the Ocean: This was the first book I ever read for review (you can read it here), and a very good one to start with. A novel about a Colombian-American woman seeking freedom and redemption from the sins of her family and her former life. The plot is wide ranging, pulling narratives of immigration and dislocation, romance and wilderness, prison and passion, but at the heart is this question about what it mean for a person to be free. A very contemplative and, ultimately, hopeful novel, with a fluid, graceful voice.
  40. Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me?: Remember what I said about liking to read funny women write about themselves? Mindy Kaling’s second memoir is a little more traditional than her first (and I liked that), but just as smart and funny. She focuses on her adulthood and post-success career, and hits all the big subjects – body image, dating, celebrity-hood. The reason I love reading funny women write about themselves is the heart of this book: Because it’s a good goddamn thing to hear women recognize and applaud their own successes.
  41. Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People: My Halloween ghost story mystery, this novel was not spooky enough or mysterious enough for me. I did, however, love the inspiration for the book. From the dedication that McMahon wrote to her daughter: “Because one day, you wanted to play a really creepy game about two sisters whose parents had disappeared in the woods…’Sometimes it just happens.'”img_7760
  42. Emma Donoghue’s The WonderThis was the first novel I’ve read by Donoghue – people have been recommending Room to be for years, but I’ve never actually read it – and I think that tempered my reaction to this novel. It was good, and I really enjoyed it, but it was not the extraordinary work of genius that it’s been lauded. It’s a story about an Irish-Catholic girl who has been fasting for four months, and one nurse’s attempt to discover the trick behind the fast, and save the girl’s life. This was a very good story told very well, but for a novel that deals with themes as complex as faith, devotion, and duty, I was disappointed that Donoghue didn’t leave the reader more room to mediate on them. Read my longer review here.
  43. Amy Poehler’s Yes PleaseMy adoration of Amy Poehler is, I’m sure, one of the reasons I adored this book so much. It was the very first book I read in 2016, and all year long, I found myself returning to pieces of this memoir. She is as fresh and funny and frank as you could hope a celebrity to be, but she’s also wise about being an artist, and being a woman, and being a human. This book was enjoyable, but more than that, it was valuable.

Books I’m Still Reading: Born to Run. Reading Bruce Springsteen’s prose is beautiful, and moving, and a little bit like sitting in church…but it’s taking me forever and a month to get through. This book will be on the 2017 round-up.

What did you read this year? What should I read next?

On Writing

We the People: Election 2016 + the Hard Scrabble for Hope

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And — and to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams…

Because, you know — you know, I believe we are stronger together and we will go forward together. And you should never, ever regret fighting for that. You know, scripture tells us, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”

So my friends, let us have faith in each other, let us not grow weary, let us not lose heart, for there are more seasons to come. And there is more work to do.” Hillary Clinton

On Tuesday, I cast a vote for Hillary Clinton.

I spent the day in classrooms talking with students about people in history who stood up against oppression, and then with determined optimism, I went to the voting booth. I cast a vote for the only person on the field qualified for the position and the only person who conducted themselves with the dignity required of a president. I had my reservations about her as a candidate, but on election day, I cast an excited, enthusiastic vote for hope, for decency, and for democracy.

And I woke up on Wednesday morning to the news that hate won.

I am sad, angry, a fire of fury at the 60,000,000 men and woman who voted for the lowest of our country, who casts vote for hatred, exclusion, violence, and blatant inexperience.

I am angry at the electorate. I am angry with the electoral college, which allowed one candidate to win even though more people voted for the other. I am saddened by each person who cast a vote for Donald Trump. If you’re my friend, and voted for him, I am angry at you. I won’t be forever but right now, I am mad. I am angry at the 49% of eligible voters who, for reasons of complacency or confusion or sheet stubbornness, chose not to vote. You, too, by your omission, help elect Donald Trump. I am furious with the 80% of evangelical voters who voted for him. How are is anyone to call themselves the hands and feet of God if we elect a man who threatens, belittles, excludes and divides? I’m also mad at the DNC; they are not without blame. They threw their weight behind a candidate who, though I supported her, was not the best candidate for this race. I’m mad that they overestimated their sway with college-educated people, and underestimated the anguish of the working class.

But most of all, I’m mad at Donald Trump. He ran for the highest office in the land, and he required nothing of his voters. A leader asks people to rise, and he allowed them to stoop.

But I’m not going to stay here.

I need time to grieve. As a woman, I hurt. I hurt for my friends who say “I fear” our president elect; I hurt for the students who are asking if they’ll be hurt, if they’ll be sent away, if their parents will be. I hurt for our country, because we should have done better. We can do better.

Once I’m done grieving, I’m going to work. Staying angry with those I disagree (some of whom are in my social circles, intimate and precious to me) will do nothing to heal. I’m going to fight for grace in understanding; I’m going to do deep work in myself to push back the liberal intelligentsia snobbery that I have taken part in. I’m going to really learn from those whom I disagree with. If this election gave me anything, it gave me a deep respect for the principled, honorable smart Republicans who govern along side.  I’m strengthen my spine, and intervene in any bigotry, ignorance or hatred that I see. I’m going to figure out what needs to happen–get educated, get involved, get organized.

Hope 2016

One of the most incredible things I saw on this dark Wednesday morning was an outpouring of love. I listened to teachers tell students that they are safe, accepted, wanted. I watched women hug each other, talk with another, cry together. I talked with friends, coworkers, family, about our disbelief and our dogged hope.

Because we do not have to be a people without hope. To become hopeless, to become scared and resigned to the GOP control of Congress and the White House is to allow Trump to win in a more powerful way than he already has.

We have two years of education and organization before the midterm elections. To quote Sorkin, every two years we get to overthrow our government. Right now, we have representatives in our state governments and in Congress who are also scared, also confused, also dedicated as hell. We have the power of speech, of organization, of democracy on our side. We have the chance to reach out to those we disagree with. We have the chance to reconcile differences, to celebrate them, to model a better way of being that our President-elect has.

We have power.

I know that I have privilege that allows me to come to hope faster than others. If you’re not there, I get it; I’m not asking you to get there. I hear your fear, I see it, I stand alongside you in it. By no means do I discount you or what you’re feeling right now.

A coworker said to me today “I have faith in the American experiment.” A friend wrote “I don’t have time to despair or to complain about moving to Canada. (Of course, for those of you mourning today, take your time). But when you’re ready, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”  Another reached out to me, and said “I know you guys are feeling scared and fearful right now and I get every reason why…As a republican and white Christian male, I will do my best to protect and hope to find a meaningful conversation in the future to better ourselves from this years results. We will disagree deeply on how to get here, but we know that we need to start moving.” Aaron Sorkin said to his daughter “America didn’t stop being America last night, and we didn’t stop being Americans and here’s the thing about Americans: Our darkest days have always–always–been followed by our finest hours.”

We the people have the opportunity today: we have the privileged duty to get involved. I wept on Wednesday for the candidate who was not elected to office. I mourned the fact they my grandmother, who organized for voting rights in the ’60s, did not see a woman elected to office on Tuesday. I had hoped that this would be a tribute to her, to all the men and women who fought for their vote, and their voice. I grieve the hatred, and I grieve the fear.

But I will not stay here. I will recover from this anger. I will talk and talk and talk, and then I will do. Together–and I mean together, not Democrats together, not Republicans together, I mean Americans-who-want-better together–we will be a force of radical change.

We the people are not without hope.

We the people are not without power.

Lovely Living, On Writing, Out of Doors, This Quiet Place

Going Dark: Autumn Update + Thoughts on Writing and Horror

autumn-walk-10-21-16-34Autumn is a country of its own. I love the dark, and the cold, and throughout the summer months, I look forward to the retreat.

Last week, I set aside a day for real, intentional rest for myself. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I’m not sleeping well—struggling to fall asleep or waking in the middle of the night with my mind burning something. I caught up on a few TV shows I watch. (Divorce is surprisingly spectacular. Sarah Jessica Parker is not Carrie Bradshaw—thank God—and so far the show pairs levity with gravity in a way that’s so damn tender it aches.)

I walked through the small woods in my backyard. A band of kids ran wild through the drifts of leaves. Each had a balloon tied to their backpacks, and they looked like lost explorers. I sat by a small stream, listening to first their joy-shrieks, then the sound of the water running.

I’ve written before about my tendency to inundate myself with noise. While I’m getting marginally better at existing in quiet, it was an extraordinary gift to sit still with no other goal than to see. Squirrels—they’re brazen out here—and birds hoped along the trees. Turkeys rustled their way over to mowed grass, and as I bushwhacked my way back up to the sidewalk, I scared a buck from his hiding spot. My mind is so often trained on something in particular that even exterior quiet can be loud if I don’t quiet myself.

In early October, I went for a walk, and came back burning with an idea. I’ve been in a creative drought, slogging through a draft that I’m committed to finishing, but about which I have overwhelming doubts. As an exercise in creativity, I let myself scribble through the images in my head. Very, very quickly, something substantial began to take shape.

For me, it’s not characters that anchor me to a story, but setting. People populate my creative landscape, but they only become tethered to me, tethered to a story, when I begin to understand where in the world those people are. These two elements came together fast and full and formed, and what started as an image of a mother in the woods quickly became a story. I wrote tentatively for three days, wondering when the well would run dry and force me back to my “real” project, but when I didn’t, I gave myself October. One month to write, by hand, this story, to pause everything else. I told myself this could be only focus if I wanted it to be, and at the end of the month, I could evaluate what I was writing, and what I wanted to do with it.

That small granting of permission was a gift. I approached this story with a force that was unsettling. I wrote at night until my hand cramped, and in the morning, the pad of my right hand throbbed. I think that’s where the sleeplessness initially began—at 3 a.m., I’d wake up electric. (Particularly unsettling, considering I’m writing about a mother becoming unmoored, and a little boy found at the bottom of a lake). The page burned hot for about two weeks, and right around the 50 page mark, I began to slow down.

The amnesia I have about writing is almost funny. I romanticizing writing, and forget that it’s actually really hard. Writing is an exorcising. It’s taking what thrives inside, and prodding it to life outside. That’s hard. Full stop. I spent much of this week and last reminding myself that this is crisis, but it is what writing feels like. It will feel brutal; it will feel fruitless; it will feel like TV is always a better option.

But it will also feel exultant. Transcendent. The magic that I find when I write for no other than I have a story to tell is almost indescribable. There’s nobody waiting on my pages, nobody clambering for my beloved little novels. Because my name in print has been my very literally lifelong dream, most days I want so.much.more from my writing. I want someone to clamber for my stories—I do—but right now, nobody is. And that’s not just okay, that’s actually pretty incredible, but what that means is I get to write because I fucking love it. Because the story I have to tell is so exciting to me, it’s like fireworks and Christmas and a really good piece of cake all at once.

My writing-prayer has been “let me write this story, because it was the story given to me.”

I’ve been delving deep into the dark lately. For much of my life, I’ve had a strange, hidden fascination with violent crime. Chalk it up to early exposure to a made-for-TV documentary about Charles Manson.

I don’t like horror movies—the theatrics of ghosts and demons and things half-seen will keep me up at night—but knowing that the worst of the worst only comes from the hands of other humans is a different horror all together. As much as the human cost of violence and crime repulses me, it also compels me. I want to see where the fabric between normalcy and monstrosity wears thin.

I wrote my senior thesis on the symbolic role that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson played in the psyche of Victorian London. The global tilting towards the urban disturbed and disordered any understanding of comfort and security for the men and women flocking to the city. Modernity was murky, but what it did make clear was that evil has its home in humans. Detective fiction rose at the fin de siècle out of the desire to make order out of chaos.
I don’t want the comfort of order (as much as I adore the original Sherlock and Watson), but the madness of disorder. Horror comes where the world wears thin, and these worn spots are inspiring this dark story I’m writing. As I gobble greedy on true crime, I find myself caring less about the answers, and more about the questions. They are what scare.

autumn-walk-10-21-16-22

It’s been a beautiful, beautiful autumn, and I find so much joy in watching this region prepare for its dormancy. For as much horror I’m actively consuming, I myself haven’t gone dark, the way I sometimes can. Monstrosity is a specter I’ve been hunting, but I see a world filled with light. I’m practicing gratitude daily, praying and meditating, and watching the squirrels who hide acorns in my rain boots. The darkness is a stone I can turn up.
I’m looking forward to the winter, for the comfort that comes sweet in this dark and cold season.

CURRENTLY
Reading: A Sudden Light, Garth Stein // Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen // Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott (again)
Listening: In The Dark // My Favorite Murder // Magic Lesson, season 2
Watching: Penny Dreadful (I have a mess of thoughts and feelings about this show I want to share later)
Writing: To live your best life, read The Golden Age and Compartment No. 6—but first, read my reviews.

Bookshelf, On Writing, Storyteller

All the Books: What I Read in 2015

BooksBooks2015 was a strange and interesting year of reading for me. I’ve always, always been an avid reader–even in college, when my peers were loath to even look at another page of writing, I continued to seek out books as both an escape and a lifeline. Except for one lonely, bored summer, reading, and reading a fair amount, has always been a given for me, but this year, I started to feel something new happening in my literary diet.

I still can’t quite put my finger on what was happening–or why–but here’s what I did that felt so different: I finished books I didn’t particularly like. I re-read to understand either myself or the text in a deeper way, not simply to burrow into comfort. I read in a wider variety of formats–essays, short stories, memoir, non-fiction. I pushed passed my own literary snobbery, and let myself read what was interesting + what was on my shelf. I finally read a few of those must-read books that I buy and keep unopened on myself because they intimidate me. I also bought books–largely from second-hand stores–at a vicious and unreserved clip, always reasoning that, for a dollar, it can’t hurt to try.

 

As I look back on all the books that I read, it’s clear that I was seeking to re-define how + why I read. I read to remain alive and to remain awake, to find clarity, to soften my heart to in-real-life people I meet, to make me a better writer. I read (and write) because telling stories is both the solution and the mystery, the lock and the key.

So here’s a snapshot of all that I read in the past year.

  1. Accordion Crimes, E. Annie Proulx: This book thought too much of itself. Proulx radicalized me to the power of the novel when I read The Shipping News at fifteen–I didn’t know that you could do what she did to language, didn’t know you could tell the story that she told. Maybe it’s because I expected the universe of this book, or maybe because that’s what she tried to deliver, but by the time I finished this book, it had demanded all my respect and none of my affection. She charts the story of one accordion, and that, at least, is a fascinating and complex narrative to tell.
  2. The Awakening, Kate Chopin: I seem to return to this book ever three or four years. Each reading and a new layer of mastery and beauty unveils itself. It’s a slim, masterful hurricane, and for everyone who read it in high school and forgot about it, do yourself a favor and READ IT AGAIN.
  3. The Best Yes, Lysa TerKeurst: This book had a few good practical tips on how to prioritize–how to say “no” so that you can say “yes” to your “best yes.” It’s also a fog of privilege, simplicity, and yay-rah-rah. A blog post would have sufficed.
  4. California: A History, Kevin Starr: California is fascinating, and if you need to learn about the state (as I wanted to for my second-novel-project), read Kevin Starr.
  5. The Color Purple, Alice Walker: Every summer, I read “must-read” book, and this year it was the The Color Purple. I won’t say too much, because me telling you that this book is good, fantastic, beautiful and human and devastating and hopeful, is to say what everyone else has already been saying for the past 30 years.
  6. Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan: Another fog of privilege which, I realize, is the point of the plot, but I was disappointed. I picked it on the review that Kwan was the Edith Wharton of twenty first century China. To me, it read like a beach book. A good one, but no Age of Innocence.
  7. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson: I went to Chicago for our two year anniversary, and I read this while were there. With Martin Scorsese + Leonardo DiCaprio turning this story into a movie, there is and will continue to be hype upon hype, but what fascinated me the most was how true Larson’s assertion that the 1893 World’s Fair changed the world. If nothing else, this was the fair that introduced America to PBR. (And all the hipsters when ahh).
  8. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert: Another audiobook. The perfect companion for 600+ miles of driving, and so engaging. I did find some of the things that were said about this book (fog of privilege, self-indulgent) to be true, but she woke up, changed her life, then wrote about it with a praiseworthy degree of vulnerability–and that is brave.
  9. The Forgotten GardenKate Morton: I read a different Kate Morton book, The Distant Hours, a few years back, and loved it. Female protagonists, Gothic houses + and their secrets, WWII, and quick story. Then I read this, and realized that it was the same book (with a less interesting backdrop) than the earlier one. A bit canned, but Morton knows how to move a story, and that is something I need to know more about.
  10. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin: This was a reread, and it was the book that taught me that not all books are meant to be re-read. My entire life, I’ve been happy to return the same stories again and again, for both comfort and learning reasons, but this was the first book that I returned to fully expecting something big and was let down. I read the whole series a few years back–burned through them–and I picked up book 1 expecting to get thrown back into the drama and thrall. I wasn’t. For me, this kind of heavily plot-driven, heavily-fantastical book is only good one time. (The show however, I’ll watch again and again and again).
  11. The Green Mile, Stephen King: My first Stephen King, and I wasn’t impressed. I didn’t love reading a serialized novel in the format of a traditional novel–the necessary repetitions irritated me to no end. Plus, I have a feeling that Stephen King is supposed to be some kind of scary/creep you, so in 2016, I’m going to give Dolores Claiborne a go.
  12. Harry Potter, 1-7, J.K. Rowling: These were also rereads, but never have have they disappointed. I very much grew up with Harry Potter, my mother reading them to be before Prisoner of Azkaban was released. When cancer consumed my grandmother, and her care consumed my mother, I reread Harry Potter on a loop. I was eight, and these books were both comfort and explanation for the pain and mystery of death. When anxiety wrenched me from myself, I clung to these books as a raft. This summer, I reread for pleasure, not for catharsis, and I learned. Because the stories are tattooed onto me, I was able to pay attention, instead, to how Rowling wrote them, how she moved the plot, how she wrote her dialogue, how she build her characters. Then when I finished them, I wept, and said that no other books are worth reading. Par for the course.
  13. The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova: This book soured pretty quickly after I finished it. I loved Dracula, and wrote several lengthy term papers on it in college, and my love of Stoker’s novel propelled me through this one. While I loved reading a massive novel dedicated to the detailed analysis of primary sources, in the end, Kostova pulled out far too many threads and didn’t tie them up neatly enough, which is especially disappointing in a novel as long as this one was).
  14. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson: This was, without competition, the best book I read all year, and easily one of the best I’ve ever read in my lifetime. It was nominated for the Pulitzer for a reason. Go read it.
  15. Loving Day, Mat Johnson: This was another book that I read based upon a review, and was disappointed in. After 300 pages in Warren Duffy’s head, I just wanted out. That being said, it was a phenomenal and fascinating look into the experience of being bi-racial. Johnson has been vocal about bi-racial identity being both marginalized and misunderstood, and this novel felt like it was doing important work of excavating and illuminating what it mean to be bi-racial in a highly-radicalized America.
  16. Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True Life Novel, Fred Setterberg: Meh. I read it for research, because it is set in the type of suburb I’m writing about. Beyond that…
  17. The Midwife of Venice, Roberta Rich: Again, meh. It was quick and enjoyable, but nothing to write home about. (Except that it was my mother’s book, so I had to discuss if she also felt iffy about it).
  18. Night Over Water, Ken Follett: Chauvinist. Every woman in this book was clearly in idealized version of what Follett wants women to be (read: charmingly sparky, but ultimately submission, with giant breasts). I read to the end to find out what happens, then immediately stuck it in the give-away pile.
  19. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen: Although a few books on my summer reading list went unread, I am so glad I made it a priority to return to this book. I get it now: the appeal, the human, the romance. Jane Austen is a master, and I should have never doubted her most beloved work.
  20. The Queen’s Fool, Philippa Gregory: I read She’s Come Undone and Wild within a two week window, and I was so electrified by the stories + writing in both that I found myself needing a break from all the greatness. This book happily coincides with a weekend getaway, and there’s something really indulgent about a reading something not-too-deep on vacation.
  21. She’s Come Undone, Wally Lamb: See both note above and previous post on this book. I loved it.
  22. Something Happened, Joseph Heller: Second best book I read all year. I was assigned this text in my last semester of college, and although I wrote two essays (for two separate classes) on it, I never actually finished it. Reading this book is what I imagine riding a bull is like–you grab on, and hold on as tight as you can for as long as you can, except in this case, you absolutely should get to the very end. It works as both a historical snapshot of a particular moment in America’s history (post-war, post-baby-boom, pre-summer of love, pre-hippie burnout), and an incredibly comprehensive character study. I would not recommend this to many people, because it is so hard to read (700 pages inside one man’s head + paragraphs that can go on for pages), but it is so worth it if you get to the end.
  23. Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob Lowe: The last audiobook I listened to this year, and again, it was a companion for a very long drive. I put this on my summer reading list, expecting a good celebrity memoir–some inner-circle gossip, the hard work and good luck it (often) takes to get famous, rounded off with some on-set stories about the West Wing. I got all that, and so much more. Rob Lowe has the gift of being both emotionally vulnerable and deeply straightforward. If you’re a Rob Lowe fan, read this. If you’re a memoir fan, read this. If you’re interested in a good story, read this.
  24. Volt, Alan Heathcock: The only full short story collection I read. It was electrifying (no pun intended). I read this as I was editing my own short story for publication, and it helped get the job done. It was also an intense, interesting, deeply compelling series of interconnected stories. It took me four years to read this book, and I am so.glad that I finally did.
  25. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen: Another in a series of disappointing books. I had this on my shelf for years–such a good book, everyone said–and I just couldn’t get it up. It felt flat and stale, and for the last third of the book, I was only reading to finish.
  26. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed: There’s a reason why this book jumped onto the NYT Bestseller book in its first week and why Reese Witherspoon bought the movie rights before it was published. Strayed is such the darling and titan of the literary world that there’s not much I can add, except that this book was so powerful. (Plus, my father-in-law knew her and her family well when she was a little girl, which is easily my coolest seven-degrees-of separation story).

I also read a whole landslide of short stories (and had one of my own published!), too many too track down and name individually.

All new year, all new books! What about you, what did you read in 2015? What are you planning to read in 2016?

California Novel, On Writing

On Writing Into the Unknown

DeathtoStock_NotStock2Last time I posted, I wrote about hitting “pause” on my first novel to pursue a new one. In the intervening time, I’ve written roughly 15,000 words (reason one why there has been quiet on this blog).

15,000 words feels immense, a whole ocean of language where I thought I only had raindrops. And I’m grateful for that, immensely glad that images have come to me and that scenes have bloomed up in my creative darkness.

But what I’m writing is hard. It’s stretching me.

I tried explaining this the other day: After nearly 10 years with the same characters growing up and revealing their voice, character, appearance, habits and mannerisms, it’s strange and stunted work to try to get to know new characters. The entire setting of my first novel was a fictionalization version of a real life town, real life house, real life land. One that I’d grown up with, and one that was tattooed onto my heart.

Now, I’m writing in California, in 1962. I have nothing about a few memories from childhood trips to San Diego and Los Angeles, and research. (I’m researching voraciously. Studying images and photographs, reading novels written during or set in my new space and time. Checking out dozens of books from the library at a time).

I once heard a pastor I like talk about progressive growth. He talked about being single, and feeling like he was great at being in that stage of life. Then he got married, and all that expertise he thought he had on life was out the window. And just when he started to feel like a pro at being married, he had kids. Unknowns and uncertainties and inexperiences compounding upon one another with each new step away from comfortable.

That’s how writing this novel feels. I figured out what it meant to write the story that makes up my first novel. Yes, there were (and still are) aspects of that work that would be difficult and daunting were I to pick it back up, but I knew where I was, what I was doing. It didn’t start comfortable, but by the end of September, when I officially packed it up, it had become a writerly second skin, something I slid into so easily.

And now! I have all new characters, a whole new setting, and one that I’m not naturally familiar with. I’m also experimenting with a child’s voice, using the eyes and experience of a young girl to explore confusion and fear and non-understanding. The smallness of a child’s world is an exercise in restraint. What do children see? How do they see it? What do they know and how do they know what they don’t know? It’s a good reason to pay attention to children, and to remember my own childhood. But because I’ve refrained from reading what I’ve written so far, I don’t know how well it’s working in my writing.

I’ve mentioned this before, but writing something new, something so unknown and in need of so much research, is a flood of fears. That I’m really too young to be attempting this level of emotional and narrative complexity. That it’s junk, that it’ll require slash-and-burn editing. That I will eventually have to hit “pause” on this too, and my computer will become a graveyard of failures. That I’m wasting precious time writing distinctly non-precious words.

I am fighting to counter these fears. These first 15,000 words probably are junk, and will absolutely need slash-and-burn editing, but what first draft doesn’t? I probably am too young and inexperienced for this level of complexity, but how else will I grow up? And why should ease ever be my goal? I may have to hit pause. It may take me two, three, four, fives tries to write something beautiful and shareable. It may take me double that number of drafts to get this novel into something beautiful.

And as far as time goes, whose time am I wasting? Whose timetables am I following or failing? If I’m writing to write, and I’m doing the writing, what is there to be anxious about?

If the first novel taught me anything, it was to just show up. To set a goal and to meet it. To care about production over perfection. (Perfect is the enemy of done). To find the joy in the words and in the characters and not in my own (and this world’s) ever shifting versions of success.

I feel a little all over the place here, but I write to understand, to process. I  hit my first blank-page fears this week. That choking tension of having something to say, and feeling so overwhelmed by the idea of saying it.

I’m naming all these fears and countering them, because I need to hold onto them as I write into the unknown. That writing is my passion project, and it’s a part of my heart, but it’s not the whole thing. That challenges are necessary to grow, and I could what-if myself into faux-panic if I tried hard enough. And that on most days, it’s the writing (along with a healthy combination of other factors) that keeps the real life panic at bay.

At the end of the day, I’m writing novels under an all but unpublished name. Nobody but me (and maybe my father) is waiting for my writing. My writing is a joy, and it should never be so damn serious.

Bruised Land, California Novel, On Writing, Storyteller

When The Magic Moves: Putting Away My First Novel for A Second

FullSizeRenderYesterday I put away my first novel.

Packed up the printed drafts that I work off. Collected all the scraps, post-its, note cards, ideas scribbled on the back of receipts. I folded up the timeline and scene lists. I emptied the table I work on, and I arranged the entire life of my novel in a folder, and before I closed it, I cried for a few minutes. Said goodbye to my characters, to the world they’d been living in (the world I’d been living in). And I closed the folder. Put it on a shelf.

Literally, physically, viscerally put away my first novel.

I wrote the first lines—the first of only two things that have remained constant through this story’s different incarnations—nine years ago, in the back of my parents Volkswagen bus. I was fourteen. It would take me five more years of writing in fits and starts about this girl, Ana, before I started the Word document that would, eventually, become the first manuscript of my first novel.

This story followed me through high school, through college, through the first years of my adulthood. This novel was my writer’s rebirth. It was the rediscovery of my first love after I began to think I wouldn’t be a writer in my adulthood. It taught me small things, like how to use the Oxford comma correctly and what keystrokes turn formatting into automatic habit, and it laid the foundation for my written life.

This novel taught me about writing and rewriting, and about shitty first drafts and how all “all writing is rewriting.” It taught me to show up on the page, to force difficult characters forward, to write above all else. To not shy away from death or unlikable women. To be okay with the mess of creation.

This novel, which was never truly given a name, though it was called everything from “She Breathed Deeply” to “Overland” to “The Thing I’m Writing (?),” gave more to me than I gave to it, and I never expected thought I would put it away. Especially not when it was still unfinished.

I’m calling this “pausing,” not “quitting” my novel. Not because quitting sounds ugly, but because I don’t know if I’m done with this story or these characters. All I know is that I need time. I need a break. I need a new start. I’ve become the girlfriend who speaks in cliques, who needs to start seeing new people. My first novel has become the first love who gave me the courage to go out into the world.

When It's Time to Quit

The decision to pause my first novel has been months in the making. At the start of the third draft (i.e. third full rewrite) this spring, I found myself paralyzed, unsure whose story I was telling. In any given scene, the perspective shifts between characters—I try to tell everyone’s story and can’t commit to anyone’s. I re-read the whole manuscript again, wrote narrative synopsis and character sketches, but still couldn’t figure out my story.

Is it the story of the family—everyone gets their share of the narrator pie—or is it the story of one girl? Do I have to make my other, equally beloved characters shut-up so Ana can take center-stage? If they are quiet, will she talk?

As I struggled with these questions, the work involved with reorganized the complicated, epically messy timeline became overwhelming. In the face of it, I turned away from the still not-started rewrite to write a short story. Then a second one, then a third. When I started writing a fourth short story in as many months, I realized I was practicing a highly productive form of procrastinating on my novel. I soldiered up and went back to it. More duty than love.

Still not started on the act of re-writing, I began reading articles about when it’s time to quit, give up, move on. Lots of “quitters are lazy,” “quitters aren’t writers,” “you never quit, you only finish.” Then I read this, about a novelist’s first novel, scrapped for something worth writing. Then a writer friend talked (emailed) to me about her decision NOT to quit her novel. I began to realize that this could be an option.

I could move on. If it was really time.DeathtoStock_Clementine6

I think most writers have that vague “next novel” lingering somewhere behind all the detritus of their current novel. For a while I’ve had two ideas. Each unformed, unstructured. Interesting, but not important. Diversions that I jot down a new note about every few months. They each had a Word document on my laptop, but they never held more than unfinished sentences and question marks.

Vietnam War? Brother in Vietnam? Male (maybe female? Not sure?). Girlfriend writes letters. Girlfriend breaks up with him. No girlfriend? Sister named Alice. Check out [book, documentary, historical document, newspaper article, etc.].

As I grappled with my First Novel (it became a capitalized thing), I had a scene idea for one of the two “next-novel-ideas” that I wrote down and expected to file it away. Then I had another idea. I bought a notebook to capture these details. Kept telling myself that I was working on the third draft of my First Novel. That I could turn to this Next Novel only when I finished my First Novel.

I read about a gruesome, 1959 murder, and during my long commutes, I started to think about domestic violence and California. I found this podcast, and listened to twelve episodes on Charles Manson. I thought about the West Coast and how houses hold onto their memories. How people can be shaped by what they don’t understand.

I began to think about characters, and one afternoon, three of them came to me. Each with a name.

It’s hard to ignore a person with a full name.

Yesterday, I put away my First Novel and this morning, I typed out the first eight pages of my next.

Part of me does feel like I quit my First Novel too soon, for all my calling it a “pause.” Another part of me feels like a sham for calling my stories novels at all, because in my head, a novel is only validated when it is purchased by someone else. (Cousin to the popular lie that a writer is only a writer after they’ve been published).

The louder part of me is excited. Electrified. I’ve found a new story, and it’s on me. I haven’t been sleeping well, and I wonder if this is why. I’ve shut off the television to research a state I am not familiar with and an era I don’t live in.

I am barely comfortable admitting that I’m “on a break” with my first novel, and I am intimidated as hell by what I’m taking on with the next. All the fears I’ve ever had about writing are converging—what will I do if it’s another disaster, if it’s hard, if it loses its magic, if it’s never finished, if it’s never published, if I’m never published—but there is that thrill. It’s going to take me a while—maybe months—to get the feel for the place, to really hear my character, to find writerly momentum, but right now, it’s all magic.   Dark butterflies and fireworks.

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It’s this kind of coast that’s taking hold of my imagination.
Bookshelf, On Writing

Summer is for Books: A Reading List for Summer 2015

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Since bibliophiles are happy to acknowledge the absurdity, the obese impracticality of gathering more books than there are days to read them, one’s collection must be about more than remember—it must be about expectation also. Your personal library, swollen and hulking about you, is the promise of betterment and pleasure to come, a giddy anticipation, a reminder of the joyous work left to do, a prompt for those places to which your intellect and imagination want to roam. This is how the nonreader’s question have you read all these books? Manages to miss this point. The tense is all wrong: No have you read all, but will you read all.” – William Giraldi

I love books. That’s vague and general and obvious to anyone who has been to my house, but it’s true. My books are friends to me. They’re bodies that occupy physical space within me and within my home. They are my comfort, and my solace. They’re chroniclers of my life and my interests, and they’re my oldest, deepest hope.

They also fuel my writing more than anything else. It took me three weeks to read Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons,  not because it’s a long book—my hardcover copy clocks in at 326 pages—but because the writing was so vividly, deliberately compelling that I could only read a few pages at a time before I was stumbling back to whatever it was I was writing.

As this new summer starts, or thinks about starting—it’s 50 degrees when I’m writing this—I’ve been trying to compile a “to-read” list for the summer. (What’s more conducive to summer fun than structure?) I want more to be intentional with my reading diet. I tend towards homogeneity—specifically, literary fiction novels written by white women, usually published between 1980 and 2010. If I’m not careful, and I only draw from this well, I miss out on the bigger world of diverse writers, forms, genres and stories. Therefore, I’ve tried to mix authors and levels of fame and genres and subjects. I’ve tried to draw heaviest from what’s already un-read on my bookshelves (because as much as I love the institutions of libraries, I love owning books that I read more), but there are a handful of books on here that I’ll need to go seek out.

To create this list, I also had to lay aside my stress over the number of books that have been written, and the number of books that I want to read, and the preciously finite time that life has given me. At times, when I was scanning my titles and scanning my lists and scanning other people’s books lists, I felt at turns hopeless, at turns maddened knowing that I will never get around to reading it all. I will finish this summer with unread books, and someday, I’ll finish my life with the same. It’s an impossible task set before bibliophiles. We will never read everything we want to read, and for those who collect books too, we’ll never read everything we own.

But that’s part of the beauty of books. Reading it all has never been the point.

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Summer 2015 Reading List:

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

Every summer, I try to read a classic, one of those 100-books-to-read-before-you-die books. Last summer, my mom and I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, and this summer, The Color Purple feels like an extension of that. Alice Walker’s love of Zora Neale Hurston led to her to reclaim Hurston’s nearly lost work in the 1970s.

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

I’ve finally gotten the message: Marilynne Robinson needs to be read. I’ll start here.

Life Work, Donald Hall

This is a book that I know almost nothing about, but when I saw it on a book list, recommended by Rebecca Stead, I was so intrigued. Work is such a complex thing in our society—as we come out of the recession, it’s a miracle every time a young graduate gets a job. At the same time, it’s the thing that we’re always complaining about, or trying to get away from, or reading endless articles about how to balance it, manage it, enjoy it, maximize it, leave it, love it, and on and on. A book about the need to work, about industry being happiness, and vocation being joy? That’s something I want to know more about. 

Ordinary Sins, Jim Heynen

Not only was this book written by a man who I’ve known my whole life, and who is very dear to my family and I, it’s also a genre I rarely read, and one that I don’t think I could ever write. Flash fiction. Ordinary Sins is this impossibly slim, impossibly elegantly slim book that gets overwhelmed by the bulkier tomes on my shelf. It’s indicative of the stories themselves: Jim packs the full force of human life into these miniature packages. In a few hundred words, he brings alive full people, with fully formed lives. It’s a skill and a talent that I want to learn.

This summer, I’ll be reading this—probably in one sitting.

The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton

I’ve held off reading this book until summer, because even though I’ve never read it, there’s something about The Outsiders that seems quintessentially summer to me. It has always seemed like a book written for that singular lonesomeness of warm nights and empty time and the confused, on-rushing adulthood on which adolescent summers are founded. Maybe I’m wrong. Either way, I’ll finally understand the full force of Stay gold, Ponyboy. 

Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

This will actually my third time through this most-beloved book. I want to re-read it to answer this essential question: Do I really like this book? Because after two readings, I’ve never been convinced that I do.

Before Janeites come to club me to death with Austen’s own books, let me explain. The first time I Pride & Prejudice, I read it immediately after reading Sense & Sensibility. I loved Sense & Sensibility, and when Pride & Prejudice wasn’t a replica of Sense & Sensibility, I didn’t like it. The second time I read it, I was a bratty fourteen year old, and really liked being able to say I didn’t like this book that every other well-read girl my age seemed to love. (I told you I was a brat).

Because neither reading was a fair reading (and because I want to stop getting the death glares from people when I say I wasn’t a fan of Pride & Prejudice), I’m re-reading it this year, giving myself a third chance to appreciate a classic.

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Samaritan, Richard Price

This book is tied with Tiny, Beautiful Things as what I’m most excited to read. I watched The Wire this winter, and have never seen anything like it before. I was captured, and compelled, and broken by the television show, and when I learned that the writer who wrote some of the most brutal and powerful episodes wrote novels too, I almost ordered his entire bibliography on the spot. In the interest of fiscal responsibility, adulthood, etc., etc., I did not do that. I only bought this book. I’m reading it to get a fix of whatever it was that gripped me about The Wire. 

Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography, Rob Lowe

Celebrity/cultural figure memoirs are my brain candy. They’re my beach-read, my chick-lit, my romance novel, my hide-under-the-cushions guilty pleasure read. About once a year, I let myself read one of them, because, like real candy, these books are perfect when they’re an indulgence, and they’re very bad for me when it’s all I read. Also, I love Rob Lowe. (Sam Seaborn! Chris Traeger!)

Tiny, Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed

I, and every other woman mature enough to read Strayed, love her. I read Dear Sugar (inconsistently) when it was still an anonymous, internet column. I, of course, read Wild (and saw the movie, and saw her speak, and got my books signed, and hunted down every podcast on iTunes featuring her).

I’ve read a handful of these letters before, and I even carry a copy of “Write Like a Motherfucker,” but this is probably the book I am most excited to read. I control my consumption of Cheryl Strayed like a mother controls a child’s consumption of candy, because I want to savor her words. She writes with this hard, heavy beauty that does my writing good, and does my soul better. 

Volt, Alan Heathcock

There are two reasons I want to read this collection. One, is because even though I write short stories, I rarely read them. Two, because when I listened to Heathcock read from his collection four years ago, I was blown away. The passage he read (something about a fire, I think?) was elegant and violent and haunting, and I bought the book immediately. I don’t know why in the world it has taken me so long to come back to it.

The War of Art: Break Through Your Blocks and Win Your Creative Battles, Steven Pressfield

I’ve started this book a handful of times, and each time, I’ve felt so helped by the compact wisdom that Pressfield doles out, I’ve stop reading it in all my newfound, enlightened empowerment. I have a feeling that if I read past page twenty, I’d get a whole lot more out of it.

This list feels both too short, and too ambitious, and I’m walking into June 1st, Torrie Jay’s decided start date of summer, knowing that I probably won’t finish all these books, that I’ll probably go off my list and read something else, that I’ll probably buy more books that I end up reading. Whatever else is true, this will remain: “Books, like life, make life worth living.

What about you, what are you reading this summer?