knowledge talks, wisdom listens

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Perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. – Samuel Beckett

Yesterday, I fell. On the way to the train station I was fixated on reading an article on my phone and then suddenly I could see it–the trip, tumble and collapse–but I could do nothing to stop it. I tumbled a few feet and landed on the ground in the rain. I skinned my palms, my knee ached from the impact and a man helped me up and asked me if I was okay. I laughed and said, that hurt more than I thought it would.

Later on that day I read an article calling food sensitivities a myth, a product of our own psychosomatic invention, and I was angry not because the opinion was blatantly wrong, it was the fact that pretty, popular girls can publish un-researched, un-informed fiction under the guise of journalism and the masses will swarm at their manicured feet. I was angry, still, when a comment I’d posted–something I rarely do, comment on websites–calling into question the lack of research from both sides of the argument, the lack of interviews with trained medical professionals and those who actually struggle with food issues (because should we assume that since our food has been chemically and genetically modified more so in the past 40 years than the past 400 that our bodies would have a reaction of which science has yet to understand, much less concretely diagnose?), was deleted. I was angered over the ignorance and then the silencing. But the world presses on and they sell more branded gloss.

That night during my yoga class, in the dark, I kept thinking about night driving in California. How I hated being in cars at night because you couldn’t see the road ahead of you. But in California I didn’t mind not knowing, instead allowing the road to unravel ahead of me in degrees. I thought about a trip I took to Tacoma, Washington and being in car with a man who’d been drinking, and then drinking wine coolers in Manhasset, and I’m mixing it all up. All the memories are shards I can’t piece together and I’m angry that I can’t remember everything. That part of my life is gone and I won’t again feel what it’s like to be 24 in a car, sleeping while someone drives.

We tell stories in order to live, Joan Didion writes. What if the stories are all mixed up, silenced, deleted, not read, not told?

I met with my nutritionist yesterday and the weight loss slowed because I’d been, knowingly, adding more fat back into my diet. Bacon and candied pecans on salads, extra slices of sausage. I was worried, I said. About time. And I knew Dana wouldn’t understand what I was talking about, I didn’t, because I was acting like every meal was my last when another was three hours away. We tell stories in order to live, but what if time runs out? How could I explain that I worried about the time between now and then? How do I tell that story?

I met with an old friend and we talk about the business of books and I tell him I’m done with all of those people, all of that, and he shakes his head. Those people don’t matter. That history doesn’t matter. This thing about your introversion, he starts, and I talk over him, a thing I now rarely do, about how I was telling real stories on this space, on all the spaces I occupy, and he alluded to the fact that my letting people in isn’t a singular event. I have to to continue to leave the door open, even if it’s a crack. I have to keep telling stories, honest ones. I added my email to my About page, and you may think it’s not much but it’s huge, HUGE, for me. That’s the door opening, a little.

There are a lot of stories and I want to tell them but I don’t know. About how I don’t know what’s next and that’s okay but not okay. About how I have this book that I love this much but what if no one buys it, and I know I’m not supposed to wrap up my worth in the business of books but knowing something and feeling something are two different things. About how hard it is to be present because when you’re not present you fall on the ground. About letting my anger go when I see silly articles written or just how many men hate women in this world for no reason. About being young and not loving it then when I was in it and making it all pretty and romantic now when I’ve traveled oceans away from it. About hearing people who are 30 complain about being old when all I want to do is stop the clocks and go back and get a do-over because maybe I would have done things differently.

We tell stories in order to live, and I realize I write and eat and sometimes live like time is running out.

I take this picture of me in yoga class and I immediately dissect everything that is wrong anatomically with the pose. I think about the ten pounds I’ve left to lose. I show this photograph to my yoga teacher and he smiles and doesn’t see everything I do. He says, you look strong.

I think about being awake in the car. I think about driving it.

the avalanche of books (this month’s recommended reads)

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Over the past two years I’ve managed to whittle down my life to that which is essential. I have what I need and nothing more. I no longer care about investing in exceedingly overpriced designer clothing, rather I buy sensible clothes for work, home and working out. It took some time, and frequent trips to other countries, particularly Southeast Asia, to make me aware of my excessive materialism. Now, my home is relatively sparse with the exception of books.

I have a problem with books. I like them. A LOT. So much so that I bring home books I’ve found on the street. Every week I’m greeted by a cardboard box from Amazon. When friends move, I stand aside patiently waiting for the moment when I’m allowed trespass to their leftover book collection. At my height, I stored over 3,000 books in my apartment–now I think I have 1,000. No matter how hard I try to refine my collection, there’s always a new book, always something to learn, always a need to discover what I don’t know.

Don’t you dare talk to me about e-readers or books that don’t have paper (Pft!). You are likely speaking a language I do not understand. I spend most of my days in front of a computer screen. I equate computers with work or getting things done, and no, no, I don’t want to relegate books to that lot. Books are pleasure. Books must be accompanied by popcorn and feet tucked under blankets. Books are better than work.

But truth be told, I’m getting a little anxious when I see the towers looming, and I’ve decided to do a mini clean-out this weekend of books I haven’t read in over a year. Pray for my strength amidst all the hardcovers.

This month’s lot is an exciting one, a combination of street finds, recommendations from friends, and books I’ve discovered through my Twitter feed. Right now I’m thick in Marilynne Robinson’s prequel to Gilead, Lila, and it’s nothing short of remarkable. I only dream that my writing will one day have Robinson’s quiet strength, that steadfast precision.

Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me might be the first true crime book I’ve owned and I’m SO EXCITED to read it. My hairstylist, Sarah, and I always talk about books; we’re always trading recommendations. Sarah’s one of the few who agree with my belief that Zadie Smith is a far better essayist than novelist (I did order NW, as that’s the only Smith novel I haven’t read), so there’s trust there. Last week I was telling her about my novel, how I’ve become fixated with the dual nature of sociopaths, and she immediately recommended Rule’s book. Rule spent two years working with Ted Bundy at a suicide crisis hotline, and she would correspond with him until his execution for having murdered 40 women. I’d no idea that Bundy, a man who was described by Rule as “sensitive,” counseled people into not taking their own life (the irony!). This striking dichotomy of self got me excited so I ordered the book immediately. I’m actually making myself move through Lila so I can get to this.

The Rule book promises to be a swift read, so I’ll tackle NW next. The same day I got the Rule recommendation, I scanned Twitter to discover that Sheila Heti (!!!) and Heidi Julavits collaborated on an edited collection of essays, Women in Clothes. Candidly, I was trepidatious, especially after having read Worn Stories, short essays that stood beautifully on their own but grew tiresome in a collection that could have used a heavier editorial hand (as well as a narrative arc). However, I have much admiration for Heti (an extraordinary writer) and Julavits (author + Believer editor), so I’m excited to dive in.

Finally, I found two books on the street and immediately I scooped them up: Sherman Alexi’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (so hilarious, witty and well-written) and Teresa Carpenter’s New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009. Part of me wishes I could keep a diary (I guess this blog is one of sorts, albeit edited for television), so I was intrigued by this exhaustively-researched tome filled with diary entries from Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, and other literary heavyweights on being in, or traveling through, New York.

Suffice it to say, I’ve got a BUSY month ahead of me. What are you reading?

glowing strawberry-mango guacamole

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This weekend was exhausting. Although I love consulting, and enjoy the fact that I live a creative life without being chained to a desk five days a week, sometimes my flexible schedule means I have to work nights and long weekends. I wrote a lot this weekend, so much so that all I want to do is lie supine and not write. From finalizing the final draft of my novel for submission to creating recipes for a fun work project to writing positioning and marketing copy for an appliance and a new type of agency, I’m a little spent. Exhilarated for what’s to come, but spent. So apologies for the super short post. I did want to pop in and humbling thank everyone who sent me kind notes regarding the first chapter of my new book. I’ve been tethered to these characters for so long it feels as if I’ve been writing in a black box, a box so dark no light gets in. Imagine me putting on blinders after sharing 14 pages and getting such a warm reception, suggestions from friends on editors to whom my agent should submit my manuscript, and virtual fist pumps.

Thank you! Your fist pumps mean the world and back, and then some.

So don’t mind me as I lie on the floor, spooning this guacamole into my mouth.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from The Oh She Glows Cookbook
2 medium avocados, pitted and roughly chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion (I nixed this as I don’t dig onions in my guacamole)
1 fresh mango, pitted, peeled, and finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 1/2 cups finely chopped hulled strawberries
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped (optional)
1 to 2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice, to taste
Fine-grain sea salt
Corn/gluten-free chips, for serving

DIRECTIONS
In a medium bowl, gently mash the avocado, leaving some chunks for texture. Rinse and drain the chopped onion (if using) in a strainer to wash off the sulfurous compounds. This makes the taste of the raw onion more pleasant. Fold the mango, strawberries, onion and cilantro (if using) into the avocado. Season with the lime juice and salt to taste.

Serve immediately with your favorite corn or pita chips. Avocado tends to spoil quickly, so leftovers won’t keep for longer than 12 hours or so. Makes 3 cups.

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massive moment of pride: my new novel (we’re getting ready for submission!)

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This is how I write. I write in my home on my couch with feet up on this table, with the doors locked and a single song on repeat. The song is deliberately chosen–it gets me in a headspace to move (right now, I’m listening to this as I type this post). I read dialogue out loud as I write because I need to hear the words to see if they’re right. The cadence of the prose needs to follow the rhythm and logic I’ve defined for it. I need to know my characters, bury myself all the way in. If I’m skipping paragraphs that means I need to delete them. Every line has to work on multiple levels.

Someone asked me the other day about the kind of man I’m looking for, to which I responded, I want someone who’s been through war, still has some of the bruises, but isn’t still changing the bandages. Dressing the wound. And then I thought about my work, and this logic fits there, too. I write about broken people dressing their own wounds and people who pretend the wounds that are blistering and raw, pain the rest of us can so easily see, don’t exist. I’m best in the dark.

After I published my first book, I was exhausted. Writers tend to write out their obsessions, the things that seize them when they wake, and for years my mother was my singular subject. So after the book was published I knew I couldn’t go back to that dark country. I’d made sense of our history (or so I thought), and I needed something new in which to fixate.

I started stories that I deleted. I read 23 books about Jim Jones and typed one chapter I hated. I took a job that would occupy me for nearly four years. And soon I stopped writing. However, my friend Sarah will tell me that just because you’re not typing doesn’t mean you’re not writing. Who knew that after those four years I will sit in a hotel room in Biarritz and write. The story felt like it had come from nowhere, but it came like a torrent. The story swiftly took shape with a command of language and structure that frankly surprised me. I’d always had the problem of filling a white page with type, now the issue was: what do I do with 80 pages of insanity? It was good madness, the stuff one keeps, but it was madness nonetheless.

I mean, my first chapter is about a woman who sets her father’s mistress’s hair on fire. That should tell you everything.

A year and a half later, multiple drafts, early and late readers, and my novel, FOLLOW ME INTO THE DARK, is finally ready for submission to publishers. In retrospect, I didn’t love my memoir. I wish I would have waited until I was older. While some of the chapters are quite good, I cringe at others. It’s weird being in the present tense and reading what you’ve written when you were another version of yourself. I guess it’s like re-reading your childhood diaries as an adult. CRINGE! MAKE IT STOP!

But I love this book. Every page of it. And I’ve also learned to love the version of myself (an extremely flawed woman waging her own private war against addiction) who wrote that first book.

My agent asked me to write a paragraph on what my book is about, and naturally, I’m struggling. I could say that the story is about two adults, step-siblings, who are bearing the weight of their families’ mental illness and cruelty, and how broken children keep breaking even when they desperately try to dress their wounds and stitch themselves up again. It’s about trying to understand the pathology of sociopaths, and finding the humanness in a person even after they’ve committed inhuman acts. I’ve three main characters: Kate, an obsessive-compulsive baker, who we think has a psychotic break after her mother dies and she seeks revenge against her step-father’s mistress by setting her hair on fire, although we’ll learn that her pathology is infinitely more savage. There’s Gillian, the oversexed, hyperintellectual woman who’s engaging in an affair with Kate’s father. Finally, there’s Jonah, Gillian’s sociopathic, yet loving, brother who is actually ‘The Doll Collector’, a hunted serial killer who’s committed gruesome acts against women across the country. Jonah is the key link between the two characters and how the story unfolds. We learn about these three characters by understanding their familial history–2 generations of emotional and sexual abuse–and how the weight of their history bears on the choices they make now.

In all candor, it was initially challenging to show that one’s actions don’t define one’s character. We have a tendency to ascribe mistakes people make, or, in this case, the horrific acts that one does, to one’s person. We’re binary in our reactions: The person who commits murder is pure evil! The person who attacks someone else is crazy! And I’m trying to detangle act from person, and somehow show the complexity of mental illness. There’s this wall we put up when we hear that someone is ill, an “otherness” is created, and do we ever make a true attempt to understand those who are ill. Do we see the complexity in them, their ability to love amidst their propensity to hate?

So, we’re ready for prime-time, I guess. And I’m glad that this time around I don’t have the same ego and ambition as I did with my first book. My novel need not be hardcover. I don’t need the fanfare and confetti and bananas advance, I just want to be able to share this story with people–regardless of form.

If you’re interested in checking out my first chapter, click here.

Wish us luck!

on reading as a writer + my towering babel stack of new books

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Since I was a child, I believed in the power of books; they had the propensity to save, to whisk me away from the world in which I lived and plant me temporarily somewhere else. Immersed in a stack of books, I could fall deliriously in, imagine myself in different lives, countries, and taking on the shape and voices of different people. While that sounds slightly schizophrenic, it was magical for a child who also found that she understood the world through writing about it. Through reading and living there was the writing. Always the writing. I grew up reading poems, Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew when I was a small, and then when I was 11/12, I started mixing those books with Salinger and Cheever, more sophisticated poems (Frost, Browning–even though I didn’t know what they meant, I loved the melodic rhythm of the words). When I was a teenager, I carried a bookbag of extra books to school–I wasn’t popular, at all–and I spent the days between classes and lonely lunches, reading. Often I was bored by my AP English reading lists because I’d read those books already, and sometimes didn’t agree with my teacher’s interpretation. I liked Cheever’s Bullet Park when everyone else called it a failure, and ever since then, I read only literary fiction.

All other books were like gnats, annoying distractions. I mean, I ran a very prestigious non-fiction series at KGB Bar years ago, and I struggled, even then, finding the books, save the memoirs, interesting.

Until a few years ago when I realized I’d been missing out on SO MUCH. My myopic view toward books started to work against me as a writer. I only exposed myself to the books I wanted to write, rather than challenging myself by reading authors who had stories to tell but didn’t always rely on language as a device to tell them. I started reading more non-fiction (I tend to like biographies, industry exposes, and anything with a story as opposed to books that center around the theoretical), YA fiction (OMG, YA HAS BEEN SO AMAZING OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS!), graphic novels (I tended to drift to ones relating to food), and food/travel essays. All of these books, styles and approaches started to infuse my fiction with a lot more light. The challenge with writers (as opposed to general readers) is that we’re covert sleuths. We look at books from two perspectives: the enjoyment we get from reading a good story, and then the vivisection, the how did he/she do this? We break apart, we dissect, we analyze. I actually ripped apart a book and started moving the pages around to understand how a non-fiction author structured her book in hopes that it could help my own experimental fiction novel. Crazy, right?

When I went to Spain I carted four books with me, two of which I left behind because I didn’t enjoy them at all. Ironically, I left the literary/experimental fiction behind, and found myself comforted by reading Peter Chapman’s Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World. The book isn’t new, and I found it on someone’s stoop, but while I found the history of United Fruit, and its social, political and economic effects on Central America, and America, powerful. The company was often called “the octopus,” and that image was palpable as a writer. Thinking about how one entity can find its way into so many lives and change them, damage them. Oddly, reading this and going back to editing my novel felt natural, whereas picking up two of the lit books I brought felt distracting, annoying, filled with language tricks. If anything, it made me go back and see if I was annoying readers with too many tricks.

Other books I’m LOVING right now:

Darcey Steinke’s Sister Golden Hair (OMG. I have been waiting for a new novel from Steinke, author of Jesus Saves, for ages) | Eliza Robertson’s Wallflowers (Stories) | Janie Hoffman’s The Chia Cookbook (who knew?) | Hemsley + Hemsley’s The Art of Eating Well

Any great recos? Books you’ve loved? Let me know!

a novel update

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Amidst all the gluten, there was light. I spent the past two days with my book agent, Matthew Carnicelli, editing my novel in his idyllic Rhinebeck home. I’d been sending him bits and pieces of my new book, which has been occupying space in my head for four years and took nearly a year and a half to write, and when I emailed him the completed manuscript, he suggested I take the train up and spend time editing the book page by page. He loved it, madly. Thought it remarkable, tricky and satisfying on a line level, but he wanted to work through some issues he saw with structure (surprise, surprise) and point-of-view–technical issues that made a complicated book confusing.

You should know that this isn’t how I work. I tend to write and edit in seclusion, and the idea of a page-by-page vivisection gave me anxiety. However, as we settled into the work and talked through the characters, elements of story and narrative development, I was surprised by how many breakthroughs happened in a span of eight hours. Matthew is a brilliant editor and story developer, and often he challenges me to go to places I never consider going. Nothing escapes him, and sometimes in the midst of a discussion about a character’s POV, he’d ask me, offhand, so what does this line mean? It’s pretty, but what does it do for the story And after careful thought, I’d shake my head and say, nothing. And there goes the pen, striking lines.

After, he told me that he liked watching me talk about these characters as if they were real, flesh and bone, and he marveled on how quickly I was able to re-imagine and re-structure chapters. He asked me about my process–whether I have a whole story in mind or do I just start with an image, and I told him that everything I write starts with an image, a scene. Nothing ever starts in its completion, because a story always becomes, at least for me, something else than I’d intended it to be. I started my new novel with an image of a woman setting another woman’s hair on fire and built the book, image by image, scene by scene, from there. Last year I had no idea where the plot was going to go, and I felt smothered by having to take a step back and architect this grandiose plot. Instead, I stayed with the characters, all of whom I knew well, and knew they’d take me where I needed to go. I know it sounds strange, but my characters took me to the plot rather than the other way around.

The result? A book I never dreamed I could write. I wince when my agent called it experimental literary fiction because it already makes me think it’ll be impossible to sell, and we spoke at length about this, the business of publishing, and I settled on this: I no longer have the ego and ambition I had when I sold my first book. Rather, I want to write the best novel I’m able to write and if it has a traditional home, awesome, if not, we’ll figure it out. I don’t need the validation of Knopf and blurbs; I know I wrote something great. The need and want, now, is sharing this book with others.

When asked for an elevator, I struggle. At its core, the book is about two broken children (both of whom have different elements of mental illness, although both are artistic and brilliant) who endure generations of illness and abuse, and who they are and what the become as a result, juxtaposed for their base need for normalcy. Themes? Oy. Feminism and our notions that women are “safe” (intentionally vague), women as property, society’s very binary view on serial killers and those who have mental illness, love–familial and other–and the relentless desire and pursuit of it, what it means to be a mother, and the desire to revise our own story. There’s a huge plot twist that kind of reminds me of Fight Club, and I weave in poetry, speeches, and literature repurposed as dialogue.

As you can imagine, I’ve got a lot going on, and I’ve a few chapters to gut renovate and edit. After, it was wonderful to spend yesterday eating farm fresh eggs, picking vegetables out of Matthew’s garden, kayaking along the Hudson, and getting to know my agent of 6+ years beyond the business of what we do.

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love.life.eat. of the week

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Last night I dreamed that seven editors vyed for my manuscript, and I was so excited I rolled over and fell off my bed. I fell OFF MY BED while I was sleeping, people. This is where I’m at this week in case you’re wondering. My manuscript is out with four discerning readers, and so far the feedback has been strong and overwhelmingly positive, although I’m white-knuckling, waiting for my agent’s read with bated breath. That, coupled with a busy week at work and preparations for my upcoming nutritionist appointment (and life change!!!), have me spent. I plan to keep things chill today before I toast my friend Hitha’s 30th birthday this evening.

This week I read this article on the psychology of clutter. An ardent minimalist, I don’t own anything that isn’t functional, useful, or devastatingly beautiful. However, parting with a few pieces in my closet has been difficult because they remind me of a smaller size and a markedly different version of myself. Admittedly, it’s easy to cleave to the image of who we used to be–we romanticize it and focus on the broad strokes (the drape of clothes and the exhilaration we felt in buying them) rather than the particulars (the unhealthy lifestyle, the absence of mindfulness). Over the past few weeks I’ve donated and given away 40% of my wardrobe, and have started the task of rebuilding. Purchasing key pieces for the life I lead now and for the body I have now. Granted, who knows what will happen after my three-month program with the nutritionist, but I’ve got to show up for myself and honor myself the best way I know how–not obsessing over a 25-year-old Felicia. To that end, I’ve made a few, deliberate purchases (slacks, dresses, layering tees and cardigans), and I’m really loving everything at LOFT’s Lou + Grey.

I’ll be candid: I don’t like LOFT. At all. The pieces remind me of a “full on Monet,” where the clothes are wonderful at first glance, but up-close, not so great. I’ve had many LOFT pieces which have not survived a year of wear, and I initially regarded the new collection with trepidation. However, after carefully inspecting the goods (seriously, I’m like a surgeon in the dressing room, turning sweaters inside out), I’ve picked up some of the lightweight cardigans and layering tees (on sale!), as well as this linen dress (it’s slightly sheer, so you’ll need a slip). The pieces are lightweight, perfect for the office, and super supple and soft.

When it comes to books, however, I’m a bit of a collector (read: polar opposite of minimalist). I love the feel of books, the crack of spines and the smell of paper. I WILL NEVER GET AN E-READER, EVER. I purchased two books this week: a delightful illustrated wide-range tale of Julia Child’s life–from her childhood upbringing to her being a WWII spy to her ascension as a cookbook and TV star. My friend + brilliant illustrator, Summer tweeted about this book, and when Summer speaks, I listen.

I’ve also scored Alessandro Baricco’s latest. It’s hard to describe his work, other than to say it reminds me of Borges with his dream-like prose, but Baricco always delivers a potent political or societal message. I’ve read all his books and have been mesmerized by the beauty in them, and I’m excited to dive into Mr. Gwyn.

Finally, after long days at work and brutal workouts, it’s nice to come home to a cool apartment, a sweet kitty, and a hot shower, where I can slather 80 Acres’ soothing lavender scrub–the perfect way to ease myself into slumber.

cue the chariots of fire theme song: a woman has written a novel!

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I can’t write or think about anything else except for the fact that I’ve finished a draft of my novel, Follow Me Into the Dark. Words cannot express how proud I am of this book, which took four years to develop and over a year to write. What started out as a strange story about a woman setting another woman’s hair on fire morphed into a book about familial love, physical and emotional hurt, mental illness, feminism, identity and loss. The story centers around two broken children, Kate and Jonah, and how they bear the weight of two generations of mental illness and abuse (and I’d say collapse as a result of it). While the story and characters are important, I’m excited about the novel’s form. I’ve created a nesting doll, triptych structure, where I’ve employed alternating voices and allusions to speeches (think: Jim Jones, the cult leader, not the rapper; Ophelia’s final soliloquy to Hamlet, among others), poetry (think: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nick Flynn, T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, etc) and lines from novels that serve to provide a deeper cultural, moralistic and sociological context for the reader.

I sent the draft to my agent, so here’s hoping for good news. However, I have to keep reminding myself that the achievement is in finishing a book of which I’m proud, not the industry that happens as a result of it.

on my bookshelf

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When someone claims an author is the next James Agee or Joan Didion, I listen. So far, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, is elegant, taut and masterful | My friend Alex {and his wife, who is one of my best friends}, keep raving about M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, a disturbing YA thriller, so consider my interest piqued. And for those snobs who eschew adults who enjoy YA lit, I say, check yourself before you wreck yourself. We all need a literary balanced diet. | I took workshop with fellow Columbia alum Katie Crouch, and loved her gorgeous stories. I’m excited to dive into her new novel, Abroad | I wince whenever I hear a memoir compared to The Glass Castle, as I wasn’t a fan of the book or the writing, however, many writers whom I respect have been Facebook messaging me to check out Brando Skyhorse’s Take This Man. You better believe I can relate to a story about a mother who is a truth-concealer | And finally, I’ve been battling the comma since in utero, so I thought I’d get humble and order Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

the perfect chocolate chip cookie + a novel update

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Writing a novel is torture. If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re pathologically insane or basking in the afterglow of having written a novel instead of being in the throes of it. It’s a feeling I imagine women who have children feel–they tend to forget the cruel pain of labor because the result, a small life held in one’s hands, erases everything that came before. You say to yourself, This is worth the stretch. This thing I hold in my hands is all that matters.

Yesterday, an old friend came by and lured me out of sleep with a baguette, cheese and chocolates. I’d just woke from a long nap and I was disoriented, eyes filled with sleep, and he asked me, several times, if I was okay. Give me a moment, I thought, to get accustomed to the light around me. Give me a second to let the world come into focus. We found a bench near my home and sliced cheese with plastic knives, discussing our mutual projects, both four-year-long Odysseys. I told him about a private Facebook group I’d just joined, and how talking to strangers was oddly comforting. A few nights ago I had a terrifying thought. What if this novel isn’t good? What if it’s meaningless, ridiculous, pomp, and overwrought? Have I been entertaining a four-year flight of fancy? You can’t understand the terror I experienced as I regarded my 218 pages with dread. Had my child, along the way, developed some sort of incurable illness, a deformity, that I only just noticed? Had I woke to lift the blanket and discover something gruesome? I posted something along these lines on Facebook and Twitter, and while scores of friends wrote notes and comments–all coming from a place of kindness–they were the exact opposite of what I needed to hear.

I didn’t need validation. I didn’t need to hear the words, you’re such a good writer, because it’s something I already know. Good writers, even great writers, write bad books. What I needed to hear was that my feelings were normal. Doubting one’s work is normal. I love this world and these characters I’ve created, so much so that the risk of my novel being permanently flawed is entirely too difficult to bear. Never in my life have I been committed to a cast of characters for so long, never have I enjoyed a sort of demi-permanent solitude without the ache of wanting to move to something shiny and new–my god, I even grew tired while writing my memoir–and the thought of this book not seeing the light of day was unbearable. I’ve experimented with form; I’ve meditated on mental illness and how we vilify people who do monstrous things; I’ve attempted to write about hurt, in all of its forms, as quietly as I possibly could. But what if it wasn’t good enough? What if I’m failing?

What I needed, I told my friend, was the comfort of strangers. I needed objectivity. I needed validation of the process, and this anonymous group gave it to me.

My friend talked to me about his project, and I admired him for his ability to be so wholly present in the process. Regardless of what happens to his book, setting aside the circus that is the business of publishing, he’s celebrating the fact that he spent years writing and editing what is now this great work. I watched pride wash across his face, and I realized I needed to swallow some of the sermon I’d be preaching. What I’m enduring is the fall to the ground and the taste of my own blood, and what I’m feeling is the space between the pain of my fall and the rise to my feet. I’ve got to feel this, every moment of it, in order to get up and keep going.

Last night I stayed up late, a rare thing for me to do, and baked these cookies and read through my manuscript as calmly as I could. I read it without pen in hand, poised to edit. I read it without judgment. I read it without comparing myself to what other great writers are doing. I read it for me and I ended up loving it more. So I tell myself that regardless of what happens to this book, at least I wrote it for me. At least I created these people for the express purpose of formalizing so much of what I want to say but can’t articulate without prose.

So here’s me, being present, moving toward the final chapters of the novel. Breathing it out.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Cooks Illustrated
1¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (8¾ ounces)
½ teaspoon baking soda
14 tablespoons (7 ounces) unsalted butter, divided
¾ cup (5¼ ounces) dark brown sugar
½ cup (3½ ounces) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1¼ cups semisweet chocolate chips

DIRECTIONS:
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

Heat 10 tablespoons butter in 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat until melted, about 2 minutes. Continue cooking, swirling pan constantly until butter is dark golden brown and has nutty aroma, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and, using heatproof spatula, transfer browned butter to large heatproof bowl. Stir remaining 4 tablespoons butter into hot butter until completely melted.

Add both sugars, salt and vanilla to bowl with butter and whisk until fully incorporated. Add egg and yolk and whisk until mixture is smooth with no sugar lumps remaining, about 30 seconds. Let mixture stand for 3 minutes, then whisk for 30 seconds. Repeat process of resting and whisking 2 more times until mixture is thick, smooth and shiny. Using rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture until just combined, about 1 minute. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts (if using), giving dough final stir to ensure no flour pockets remain. Chill in the fridge for 15 minutes before rolling into balls.

Divide dough into 16 portions, each about 3 tablespoons (or use a #24 cookie scoop). Arrange 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets, 8 dough balls per sheet.

Bake cookies 1 tray at a time until cookies are golden brown and still puffy, and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft, 10-14 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack; cool cookies completely before serving.

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on my bookshelf

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I’ve a confession to make: for most of my twenties I was a book snob. If a book wasn’t “highbrow” literary fiction, it wasn’t worth reading. I mocked beach reads and turned up my nose at commercial fiction. Part of my snobbery can be attributed to attending an MFA program where highly-educated students read obscure 14th Century poets on the regular, and a great deal of it can be attributed to the fact that I was kind of an asshole.

Instead of battling the genres, I now look at writing very plainly: books that inspire me and books that don’t.

My first love is fiction; I’ll always have a taste for it, an abiding affection for it, but now in my late 30s I’ve suddenly fallen in love with so many genres and forms. I read that which inspires me to create, whether it be a food memoir, an exquisitely-wrought YA novel, or a novel that breaks ranks with content and form {Karen Russell comes to mind, who is a writer I deeply respect and admire}. Working on my novel has me reading a great deal of poetry, and I never thought I’d fall in love with verse, a form based on the economy of language, something to which I strive for in my own writing. How can a line be spliced such that it operates on several levels in conveying mood, character, scene? How can a single word be revelatory? Is there a plainer, more powerful way of saying something? How much can I create whitespace?

Someone once asked me what I do to get into the headspace of writing, how I get my “in” as it were. It’s a difficult question to answer since the impetus depends on the scene or character I’m trying to create. However, inspiration doesn’t come in one form or style or genre — in fact, I often find it hard to read contemporary literary fiction while I’m writing as I don’t want to get too influenced by a style I admire.

Right now, my bookshelf is stacked with some really great reads. Naturally, I’m starting with Michael Cunningham. Well, okay, I’m breaking my reading fiction while writing fiction rule. I’m blaming jet lag for everything.

Currently on my bookshelf: Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger {fiction} | Molly Wizenberg’s Delancey {memoir} | Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen {fiction} | Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park {YA. Of note, I purchased this book after reading a single line posted on Twitter} | Summer Pierre’s Great Gals: Inspired Ideas for Living a Kick-Ass Life {illustration, creative}

love.life.eat: packing for india edition

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Tomorrow I board a plane for India, and I’ve only packed one small rolling bag and two carry-ons for a two-week holiday. You might balk at this; you might talk about all the things I need to bring, but I’ve learned from countless holidays where I’ve had to lug around bags the size of boulders, there is very little I need. Luckily, the fact that the average temperature in Delhi at this time of year is 110F, my choices have pretty much been made for me.

For the next 10 days, I’ll be traveling to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Ranthambore. I’ll wake most mornings before dawn and I’ll trek to heritage sites and bengal tiger reserves, so there is little need for me to be fashionable. Yet there is a great need to travel simply and comfortably. To this end, I’ll give you a peek at what I’m packing for my trip.

Clothing + Footwear: I’ve packed seven very thin, breathable shirts, tees and draped open cardis {most of which are from Old Navy + Gap Fit}, 2 pairs of cotton and linen pants {they may look ridiculous, but they sure as hell will be comfortable} and two thin dresses {one linen, one cotton}.

Since most of my days will be spent walking, I’ve packed my sneakers + Supergas {this season I’m rocking a grey pair}.

You might ask what other accessories I’ll be bringing and the answer is: I’m not. I don’t really care how I look when I’m on holiday, rather, I care about what I’m experiencing. And it’ll also be 110F in India.

Entertainment + Brain-Food: Since I spend most of my days on the road and my evenings relaxing, editing photos, blogging and reading, I’ve carted along two books as well as a pile of magazines. Probably the most exciting news {at least for me} before I board that plane is the fact that I’ve broken the 200 page mark on my novel, Follow Me into the Dark. This book feels real and I can’t wait to work on the final section, Part III, when I’m in India.

Tech Gear: Everyone who has ever been to India grabs my arm and talk to me about color, the potency of it, the beauty of it, so I’ve rented the Canon 50mm 1.2F lens for my trip, using it with my 5D Mark II body.

Naturally, I’ve my iPhone {which I’ll only be using when I have access to free Wifi} and my MacBook Air laptop. To make life easier and ensure I don’t blow out my hotel’s power supply, I’ve purchased an adapter. Expect All. The. Pictures.

Skin Survival + Other Toiletries: Since it takes under a minute for me to burn, I’ve packed two bottles of sunscreen, which I will re-applying with every other exhale. I’ve packed my beloved Nyl Serum, which is perfect for when my skin gets slick yet is in need of moisture. All my other beauty products are sample sizes that I’ve procured from my travels. I’ve also packed wet wipes and packets of tissues.

Drugs: After four vaccine shots {tetanus, Hep A were among the four} and a regime of typhoid pills, my doctor prescribe malaria pills, as well as a battery of drugs should I get food poisoning or any other unsightly stomach situation. I’ve also packed TUMS, bandaids, Cortizone, and rubbing alcohol. And you better believe that for a seventeen hour flight, I’ve got Xanax in my carryon. No one wants to hear me scream: WE’RE GOING DOWN!

Food: A lot of my friends poke fun at me for bringing a food bag on the plane, but I don’t care. Using Ziploc bags + tupperware, I’m packing lemon roasted almonds, chocolate covered almonds, dried fruit, edamame, fresh cut veggies, oranges, and one meal, which I’ll be making in the morning. I also have loads of Kind bars and other yummy snacks, which keep me sustained in the event that the airline food is abysmal (which it usually is).

So there you have it! I’m leaving tomorrow, and I’ll be in transit the next two days so expect a batch of posts later on in the week! Wish me safe travels.