Posted on October 1, 2015
Lately I feel like a child forever pointing at things, asking, what’s that? My agent replies to an email I’d sent him regarding my next project, saying something to the effect of, good to know you’re working on something cheerful! To which I respond, when have you ever known me to be attracted to the sweet story, the happy ending? When will I ever be attracted to something not in a state of disrepair? I tend to fall in love with things (and people) that are a perpetual state of dressing their wounds.
I believe that all ideas are in the ether waiting to be snatched up, obsessed over, developed. And once you arrive at the thing that puts your heart on pause, you start to notice all the nearly phosphorescent signs pointing to it.
Over the past few months, I’ve been reading a series of articles about touched houses. I’ve a predilection for the macabre; I’m the sort who will watch surgeries on television with considerable interest. I spend most of the early hours of the morning reading, and I paused on those two particular articles with more than a passing interest. I even thought–imagine if I wrote a novel about a house. A present day Shining. The Shining is the first movie I remember seeing as a child, and to say that it’s left an indelible mark would be an understatement. I’ve watched the film more times that I’d like to admit, and I’ll see a monsoon of blood spilling out of elevators, painting the walls claret. I’ll incant T.S. Eliot’s The Burial of the Dead from “The Wasteland” like prayer. I’ll see a man pretend to a boy bouncing a ball off the walls, feeling haunted by what’s come before, the massacre of American Indians who once inhabited the land.
A house is a home is a house, and this is a place to which one seeks refuge. But what if your home isn’t safe? What if your home is a man-made prison, a place where madness breeds? I’ve always been curious about that which is contained (or confined) within four walls and a roof.
I read those two articles, paused briefly, and moved on.
You write out your obsession, what takes hold of you, until you’ve exorcised the thing that threatens to put your heart on pause. I’m being dramatic for effect, but writers tend to be obsessed with the stories that find them, and it is through the act of writing, of transcribing experience to type, that one is free to part ways with that which has arrested them.
Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about writing as an act of continual failure. You have this brilliant idea–you can practically hear the music in your head–but when you sit down to translate it, what you have in your head never magically appears on paper. (I mean, unless you’re Nabokov) The work is in that realization and the perseverance that comes to revision, the hope that the idea that seized you will someday makes its way on paper as close to the way you’d seen it.
I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and loved it. I was dazed for days.
Living in Los Angeles forces you to learn an entirely new vocabulary. The tentacle arms of the cactus; mountain dandelions and lemon bottlebrush trees–species of flowers and trees previously unknown now an assault. The shape of houses and land feel unnavigable. I discovered that I’m interested in learning more about my adopted home. I bought a stack of books on Los Angeles architecture and history (including: Southern California: An Island on the Land, California: A History, Houses of Los Angeles, 1920-1935, Los Angeles Residential Architecture: Modernism Meets Eclecticism, Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective’s Scrapbook, among many others), and found myself drawn to novels where California is a character. I met up with an old friend, and he had a book about the making of The Shining on his desk. I gasped, and he was kind enough to lend me the book for as long as I need it. He told me about the You Must Remember This podcast, and then I found the No Sleep podcast.
I recognized this feeling, a seizing, an obsession mounting.
I found a new story. I wrote my first page, and then retreated.
Imagine two stories converging. A gruesome murder from the 1950s juxtaposed with the story of a man who specializes in appraising/selling disaster properties forced to live in one of the homes he tries to sell after having lost his job. He moves into this home and slowly begins to unravel. He becomes paranoid, irrational, convinced that he’s being spoken to. Instructed.
This idea excites me for a number of reasons:
1. A new landscape–I’ve a desire to learn as much as I can about Los Angeles (art, history, architecture) so I can cogently write about it. The feeling that Los Angeles is a terrain I’m obsessed to navigate.
2. Writing from the male point-of-view. Although I’ve a central male character in my second novel, women in my books tend to drive the story. However, writing as two disparate, brilliant mad men, thrills me.
3. Attempting to write a story that is fairly linear. Although I’ve dueling narratives (1959/Present), the novel will follow a linear time arc. And anyone who knows me or at least has had a conversation with me knows that it’s nearly IMPOSSIBLE for me to follow a straight line. It’s as if I’m not able to understand the natural progression of time. The structure will likely pose the greatest challenge–one I’m anxious to meet.
4. Writing a ghost story. What I love about The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, and the like is the fact that the stories are extremely realistic in its rendering and the supernatural events could be construed as real or madness–one can never really tell. I like this ambiguity, a lot, and I love the idea of making people wonder if these events are truly rooted in the supernatural or in a man’s psychological unraveling.
Being here has thrown open all the windows and doors, and I can’t wait for what’s next.
Posted on September 23, 2015
What Rilke said: Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. ― Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation
I didn’t find my voice until I was 37. I’d been writing for as long as I could remember, and in my first poem–a haiku, was published in my elementary school annual–I likened my mother’s voice to thunder. I was in second grade. Throughout my childhood I was routinely called into the guidance counselor’s office, a copy of a story I’d written in her hands–is something wrong at home? Always whispered, always asked in that measured voice people use when speaking to someone for whom English is not their first language. Because who writes stories about sad girls who hang themselves from trees? How is it possible to be a child and filled with rage? Of course something was wrong at home. Something was always wrong at home and out of it.
No, nothing’s wrong, I’d say. And I’d keep writing my stories and continue to lose writing contests because what kind of PTA would award a story to a girl who wrote about death so comfortably? So I lost out to happy endings.
You are dark, was everyone’s refrain, always. A few words mumbled like a record skipping. People seemed to be afraid of the words I’d arranged on paper, and in turn, they seemed anxious around me, the small child who’d created them. A child who seemed unnaturally comfortable with sitting in the dark. A child who didn’t speak much and read a lot, who didn’t understand the petty politics of living in Long Island–a seemingly foreign country to which I’d emigrated. And trust me, if you’ve been to Long Island and Brooklyn in the late 80s, you’ll understand the two might as well have been continents.
In college I set aside my stories and studied accounting, futures and options, mergers and acquisitions, and corporate finance. I memorized ratios (quick: current assets/current liabilities), navigated the fine art of the abbreviation (EBITDA, FIFO, LIFO), and considered Wall Street and American Psycho with interest. I was so finance that when I submitted a story I’d written for the college literary magazine, the editor came up to me with my story in his hands and asked if I’d really written it. Because a woman who calculates debt and drinks an unusual amount of alcohol could never write about growing up in a home that felt like a prison.
When I received a call from Judy Budnitz that I’d been admitted into the Columbia writing program, I kept her on the phone for an hour trying to convince me that this wasn’t some sort of prank. I’d written a very early (and very messy) draft of my first book and what fancy school would accept that? When I left a job at Morgan Stanley to pursue my MFA at Columbia, everyone thought I was getting a masters in financial accounting (this doesn’t exist). When I said I wanted to write, my boss said, genuinely confused: why would you want to do that?
Columbia was a wonderful, terrible nightmare. Everyone seemed to have majored in creative writing and English in college while I didn’t even understand the rudimentary elements of formatting a short story. (What is 3rd person? What is omniscient?) I was 24 and I routinely left workshops sobbing. Imagine being on an operating table, wide awake, enduring a dissection without anesthesia–that’s workshop. I left after a semester because I had a drug problem and when I returned in 2002 I was further tormented because everyone went “experimental.” The line was tantamount, and if you didn’t write like Joy Williams, Ben Marcus, Christine Schutt (I took a workshop with her and she was lovely), or Lydia Davis, you might as well not.
Family stories are done, a girl with blank eyes said to me as we were discussing a short story I’d written–characters who would find their way into my second novel, albeit in a different form, nearly a decade later. After workshop? You guessed it. Sobbing.
I finally got a backbone but still didn’t have a voice. I read voraciously. I experimented. I copied and embarrassed myself. I knew what I was writing–the style, the content–bored me, but I didn’t know anything else. Until I started editing my first book when I told my editor that presenting the story in a linear way wouldn’t work. When I said that parts of the book had to be deliberately vague, out-of-focus, because that’s what writing about my life felt like. I started to play with short chapters, strange imagery and narrative devices–much of which my editor encouraged me to tone down because writing should never call attention to itself. And while I believe that to an extent, and while I revere my first editor, I felt a belt tightening around my neck.
I talk a lot about a job I took, hated, and left in 2013. For four years I didn’t write. And what I did write should probably be torched.
In 2013 I found myself in Biarritz during off-season. It was chilly, rainy, and I spent much of my time in this tiny town staring out at the ocean. I spent most of my days inspecting rocks. I came back to my hotel one night and the first chapter of what would be my second book came like a torrent. I’d written a story about a woman’s hair catching fire in a hotel room–revenge enacted by the daughter of a father having an affair while his wife lay dying. I wrote 18 pages in one sitting and referenced Ishiguro, The Shining, barnacles and Goya’s black paintings. After, I felt like the days when I’d wake from a hangover, inspecting my receipts to see where I’d been, what I’d done.
This story, in form and content, felt like nothing I’d ever written and I liked it. That summer was one of the worst I’ve known, and there was no other way to make sense of it other than writing in a fragmented stutter.
It’s taken me nearly three years to write, edit and have my novel acquired. And the process felt like prolonged surgery, a bandaid slowly sawed off. The story didn’t reveal itself in the first draft, but rather the FOURTH. I restructured the book three times, deleted over 150 pages and wrote 170 new ones. I was attempting a project that had multiple points-of-view, moved between past/present tense, and battled with a narrative that was the antithesis of linear, and an unreliable, unlikeable main character. Over the past three weeks I’ve restructured the book, again, and added three new chapters–and I’m finally excited by the pacing (the story FINALLY moves) and how I’ve tidied up some of the plot elements I’d left dangling.
I started to read books and think, you’re like me. It’s less about stroking my ego but more the comfort of finding other strange people like me who can do what I do, only better (Jenny Offill, Leslie Jamison, Claire Vaye Watkins, Lydia Millet, Susan Minot’s latest novel). Even though writing and editing my novel was a painful, exhausting process, I’ve finally found my voice and style–elliptical, a hybrid of traditional/experimental fiction, dark, acerbic, comic, drawing on outside cultural references to complement/augment my story. In my novel, I’ve incorporated a barrage of cultural references, including: film (Psycho, Carnival of Souls), art (Goya, Marlene Dumas), writing/documentaries/cult figures (Don Delillo, Bret Easton Ellis, Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kira Henehan, friend + primary reader, Dante, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Jim Baker–just to name a few). By the by, listening to Ted Bundy for seven hours straight does things to you.
And all of this feels right.
My agent will likely shoot me for writing this but my road to publication was…challenging. While I received some critical, constructive feedback, most of the responses fell into two camps: editors who didn’t get the story and editors who got it but were afraid of it. The former is bound to happen because finding an editor is like getting married–two perfectly wonderful people who simply don’t connect for one reason or another. The second camp was a bit more frustrating. Editors found it too dark, the character of Kate unlikable, unrelatable (I wanted to gouge out my eyes when I heard either statement because is PAT BATEMAN likeable/relatable?). Many of the editors loved it (can we see more, does she have something else?) but felt it was too experimental to find a large audience (i.e. we won’t sell enough to warrant acquisition). And although I worked with my agent (he was an editor in a previous life) to make the narrative smoother and apply the feedback we thought would make for a stronger draft, I’m grateful that I have someone in my corner who didn’t ask me to compromise my style. Every revision focused on making the book better, clearer for what I was trying to do–rather than shaping it to a traditional, linear narrative, a place to which I refused to go.
Throughout the process I felt all the emotions–sad, bitter, angry, heartbroken. More so when author friends of mine chided me, assured me that SO MANY EXPERIMENTAL BOOKS ARE BEING PUBLISHED. See those ten titles over there by our friends? See the small circle of people continually ushering their strange work out into the world? I was angry not because the strange work was getting published (THANK GOD IT WAS/IS), but that some of my friends live under the illusion that publishing tough books amidst the sea of same is easy.
It’s not easy. I’ve worked in book publishing (marketing), published a successful online/print journal, wrote two books and lots of short stories, and it is never easy. What keeps me motivated is the fact that this is the only thing I love doing. And while I sometimes shy away from creative writing books and anything bordering on self-help, I felt much of what Elizabeth Gilbert says is spot-on. It’s fear that keeps us alive. It’s our love for the work that makes everything else, even the business of the work, easier to bear.
And then we found Jennifer Baumgardner + Clarissa Wong at The Feminist Press. The entire team got the book, and didn’t want me to “soften” Kate or change her in any way. (Kate is essentially the female Pat Bateman without the Cerruti suits and taste for carnage, with a little plot twist thrown in for good measure). The point was more about writing complicated characters instead of likeable ones. As I finalize my manuscript, I’m excited for the editorial feedback. More importantly, I’m glad my strange little book found a home with people who believe in me and Kate.
I’m actually sad that after after fifteen years of being with some of these characters (Columbia classmates might recognize Gillian, James and Emma–now Ellie–in a different form in my novel), I’m letting them go.
Now to find more strange people to fall in love with longer enough to stay interested in writing about them.
This post ended up being a little longer than I imagined! Haha! And while I’m by no means an expert, if you have any questions about writing, publishing, book recommendations for people who write strange fiction, leave a comment! I’m toying with the idea of video responses :)
Posted on August 23, 2015
Cannot the labourers understand that by over-working themselves they exhaust their own strength and that of their progeny, that they are used up and long before their time come to be incapable of any work at all, that absorbed and brutalized by this single vice they are no longer men but pieces of men, that they kill within themselves all beautiful faculties, to leave nothing alive and flourishing except the furious madness for work. –Paul Lafargue, The Right to Be Lazy (1883)
We live in an age where being busy is lauded. Popular thinkers craft lists on how you can cram more into a single day. Others publish books on how to get shit done–how to use technology as a means of saving time because the cruelest crime we could commit would be to squander it. A New Yorker cartoon shows two children negotiating thirty minutes of playtime. Consulting their crammed calendars, they resolve to reshuffle, re-jigger until they can secure a slot two weeks from that day when they can actually breathe. This puts me to thinking of my friends, how we always bemoan that we’re overbooked, double-booked, and maybe I can see you next month for a coffee?
There was a time when I worked sixteen-hour days. When weeks would pass and my only glimpse of the light was during a midday coffee break, when I’d race down the street to refuel to only sit at my desk and stare at a computer screen. I worked to have my food delivered, my groceries that invariably spoiled, delivered, to have books that went unread, delivered. Over the course of four years I gained 40 pounds and became a lesser version of myself. I was always tired, forever tethered to my phone–I was the one who missed the great moments in my friend’s lives–but you can understand, right? It’s work. I’ve so much to do. Over the past few years I’ve been trying to regard time differently–to balance fast and slow. That spending hours making a meal instead of having it delivered, or going for a walk when I could easily take the subway, meant something. So when a friend recommended Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness–a book published in 2004 but is completely valid now, I set aside the stack and devoted time to understand the danger of mindless speed.
From Slow food and workouts to alternative medicine and guided meditation, to meeting people who huddle across the globe as a means of learning how to sit in a place of calm amidst a storm, Honoré doesn’t rally for a device-free era or for us to pick up and create our own version of Walden, rather he espouses ways in which we can manage pieces of our life in a slower way as a means of deeper connection and a more meaningful quality of life. He was inspired to research the art of Slow when he read an article about one-minute bedtime stories. For a moment he was excited because he could read his son stories and get back to work fairly quickly, and then he paused and realized he was completely insane for valuing saving time to get away from his child. The book is not an exploration of time but a personal journey for the author to chill out. I think all of us could relate, because who isn’t shocked/not-shocked by Amazon’s Darwinian work culture? Who hasn’t realized that cramming more in has the opposite effect, that at one point we suffer the law of diminishing returns? We’re spent, feeling as if our breath, and everything along with it, has been stolen from our body.
Sometimes I feel weird for living a slower-paced life because everyone around me is about now. Respond to that email now. Put out that client fire now. But it was only when I took a trip with the objective of doing absolutely nothing did I start a novel that two years later would find a publisher. It was only when I put my phone away during time spent with dear friends did I mend broken friendships. And it was only when I sat in a new home, thousands of miles from the place I’ve always called home, did I have the idea of a new story–something strange and dystopian, kind of like “Black Mirror”.
Because I don’t believe anything exists after we pass on. So why not live the best way we know how? I’m done with putting off my happiness for a later date as a means of sacrificing it now because what if there is no later date? A week ago I found out through Facebook that someone I know slightly died. Suddenly, at 35. It’s not fair, I thought. Wrong, I felt. A few days ago I met up with a close friend who shows me a tattoo she had done in remembrance of a friend who died suddenly this summer of a brain aneurysm. A man who was taken too soon from his wife and two children.
My friend’s tattoo reads: There is no time. So I try to follow Paul Jarvis’s advice and stop doing shit I don’t like. Operative word being try.
This summer I discovered so many wonderful books. Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise is a hilarious story about a couple who honeymoons in paradise to soon discover the waters are teeming with mermaids. Millet is a hero of mine because she’s able to draw wry, acerbic women as easily as she is in creating a canvas filled with broken people. From the moment I read My Happy Life, I was hooked, and what makes her latest book remarkable is the fact that it’s so absurd it’s almost real. Imagine what would happen if you were celebrating the start of a new life with someone amidst greed, television crew, marine biologists, and Japanese web celebrities–all over a few measly mermaids?
I picked up Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper while waiting for my friend Summer. Another marriage, another trip–a story of two odd people who trek across Northern Europe examining love, fidelity, friendship, desire–all while transforming into unlikely eco-terrorists. The writing is sharp, crisp and funny. Often times you never get to truly glimpse the innards of a marriage–you believe the life your friends represent–but rarely do we hear about the work. Rarely do you hear the whisper of: maybe you’re not enough. Maybe we’re together because we’re terrified of being alone.
“We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.” — Adam Phillip’s On Kindness
While Adam Phillip’s philosophical and historical examination of the history of kindness is slim, it took me nearly a month to complete. Phillips analyzes kindness through the lens of faith, folklore, psychology and literature. Why are we kind? Are we kind merely as a means of serving our own self interests? What is true selflessness and altruism? And what happens to a child when they experience their first hurt, what if our parents aren’t as kind as we think they should be, what then? It hurts when someone is unkind to you but in the same measure we’re able to rationalize our unkindness. On Kindness serves up more questions than it delivers answers, and I walked away from it wondering how I could be kinder in my everyday life. Can I stop myself from making snap judgments of people? Am I able to pause and meet someone’s anger with calm and kindness as a means of quelling someone else’s rage.
It occurs to me that this summer I spent a lot of time dissecting marriage of all kinds–from the familial to the friendship (as I believe we are, in a way, bound to those whom we care about even if not in the legal sense). I think about kindness, honesty and kin, and when my friend Molly sent me this article about a woman who discovered, as an adult, that she was half-black, it put me to thinking about how I’m able to reconcile discovering, last year, that I’m part black. While watching “Little White Lie,” I empathized with Lacey’s story, and admired her bravery in bringing out the truth. That’s my hair, I thought. And like Lacey, I often wonder where I fit. How I identify myself. How I define blackness for myself when I’ve always self-identified as white and possibly something other? I’m privileged in the sense that I have so many wonderful friends who have embraced me and offered up advice on how they define blackness for themselves, and how I can find my own way to it. I’m also acutely aware of my white privilege and how that affords me trespass to places where others can’t go. How I can use that to be an ally. More on this soon.
Now that I’m in my new home, I can finally wade my way through the stack. Up next is Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, Nick Flynn’s My Feelings (Poems) because he’s a surgeon with the English language, Lauren Holmes’s Barbara The Slut and Other People (Stories) because her first lines slay, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me because it should be required reading, Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion because Joan Didion, and the final book in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series.
What are you reading? Do you have any recommendations for what I can add to the stack?
Posted on July 16, 2015
I’ve never been the sort of person who drops their bags and collapses into bed. I’ve never left dirty dishes in the sink and it normally takes me at most three hours to unpack from a move. So when I came home late last night, depleted from 20 hours of travel across multiple time zones, the first thing I did was unpack. And clean. And play with my cat into the wee hours of the morning. Because I can’t bear the smell of suitcase clothes and books slightly marred from a journey–I need to go to bed knowing everything has been set to rights. I acknowledge my Type A-tendencies and I’ve accepted that I’ll likely always be this way.
This morning I woke at dawn, disoriented, forgetting that I was in New York and it was only my cat sleeping soundly beside me that made me realize that I am here. I am in this temporary home. My head’s not quite right yet, and I’ve accepted that over the next week I’ll endure the special kind of torture that only jetlag from Asia can bring.
What gave me joy this morning was poring over my newly-acquired books. There was a time when I used to hoard up on souvenirs–knick knacks and the like from my travels. However, over the past five years I’ve stopped buying, started experiencing, and now the only treasures I bring home are of the book variety. I tend to pick up books from local authors or titles that remind me of my journey.
While in Singapore, my friend Denise pointed me to Books Actually, now my favorite independent bookstore in the WORLD. Although I missed the resident felines (insert emphatic wail), I spent a few hours in this small shop marveling over the titles. Denise shared that Asian publishers place a premium on a book’s presentation and design–even for the most literary of titles. As I thumbed through photography books on loneliness and poetry anthologies, I stumbled on a host of titles from the bookstore’s resident imprint, Math Paper Press.
Believe me when I say the poems are GOOD.
Whenever I’m in-between projects or in need of inspiration, I turn to music and good poetry–both of which place weight on the economy of words. Words are workhorses in both disciplines, and I’ll often get story ideas, titles or images from a single line of poetry. My purchases did not disappoint. I purchased Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light (my favorite, by far), Occupational Hazards, We Were Always Eating Expired Things (the title, alone. I MEAN), and Objects of Affection.
You should know I considered buying this book. I’ll likely pull the trigger now that I don’t have to worry about baggage weight.
While in Singapore, I watched a lot of NatGeo Asia, and I fell in love with this quirky couple. When they weren’t bickering, they were making sumptuous food and I’ve since ordered their cookbook. I also secured my friend Denise’s extraordinary cookbook cum food narratives, Kitchen Stories, and scored the latest Rachel Khoo. Know that I’ll be making great food from these books in the coming weeks!
Now excuse me while I pass out in front of my computer.
Posted on June 10, 2015
I’ll let you in on a secret: when I first started the master’s program at Columbia, I felt small. I felt stupid. Here I was surrounded by people who’d attended the finest private schools and the most prestigious of Ivy’s, who were as well-versed in contemporary fiction as in obscure 14th Century poets, and I was a reformed banker who read Bret Easton Ellis and the dead. I felt like an imposter in workshop–how did I get in here?–for the form and structure, the basic architecture of writing, was lost on me. My approach to books and story writing was raw, unfinished, and I was overwhelmed by the gleaming, the seemingly poised and polished.
At 24, I felt behind. I was desperate to catch up.
Over a period of a few years (punctuated by a time when I took leave from the program because my life had spiraled beyond my control), I devoured books at a rate that would only be described as astonishing. W.G. Sebald, Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, Oliver Sacks, Borges, Rick Moody, Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, Ian McEwan, Marquez, Nathan Englander, Lorrie Moore, Michael Cunningham–the confluence of the living, and the long and respected dead, overwhelmed me, and for the decade of my 20s I read not because I enjoyed books but because I wanted to appear as learned as my peers. I wanted to fit, blend in. And while I discovered authors who would forever alter the way I view fiction and my approach to writing it (hello, Joan Didion, Kazuo Ishiguro, Gary Lutz), my desires were more from a state of urgency than self-investment.
Giving zero fucks is liberating.
I don’t roll with the “smart set”. I’ve few friends from my time at Columbia and even fewer from my stint in publishing. Now I surround myself with wonderful, strange people who challenge and support me. I no longer want the Knopf deal and the requisite story in The New Yorker (although I wouldn’t kick either out of bed); I’m okay with publishing only a second book in my lifetime while writing on this space. After years of hungering for the world and everything in it, I’m finally content with playing small, yet significant.
I’ve finally returned to the voracious joy of reading books like I’d had when I was younger. I read what pleases me rather than follow the trend of reading the right books, which speaks more to privilege than anything else. Lately, I’ve had to balance planning a major move and life change with a great deal of client work and scheduling all the doctor appointments I’d been ignoring for the past two years, all of which leaves little time for rest. When stress mounts and I have to schedule “me” time, I’m finding that spending time with the dead is comforting.
Over the past few weeks I’ve read Maeve Brennan’s The Rose Garden (I discovered Maeve’s work after reading Spinster, and this remarkable collection reminds me of Cheever and does not disappoint), Beryl Markham’s memoir West with the Night (I hope to live 10% of her magnificent life), and I’m knee-deep into Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (I found this novel on the street and I love, love, LOVE it). I’m bringing George Eliot with me when I travel to Asia next month, and if I need a break I’ll read a contemporary story that touches on the dead.
Posted on May 5, 2015
Beauty: You guys. I don’t purchase many beauty products because I can’t be bothered with the upkeep. Save for red lipstick, I don’t wear makeup because I can’t cope with a multi-step process. I’m serious about this. My beauty routine has to be simple, fast, and efficacious. I’ve always been into skin + body care. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with good genes and my skin is fairly unblemished and I’m only just starting to see small lines around my eyes. Unlike the rest of the free world, I’m not all that concerned about the aging process (if you set aside my crippling fear of death), however, I do want to look like I’m not digging my own grave. Nutrition, water, proper sleep and exercise play huge roles in my life as does my skin care regimen.
I haven’t been into serums until this year (because process), but I’ve been using Origins’ Original Skin serum for nearly two months and it is my JAM. I have noticed a demonstrable difference in the appearance of my pores (smaller) and people have remarked on my glowing skin (this could also be attributed to the fact that I’ve been eating greens like a fiend). I use the serum before my moisturizer, and these days I’m rocking either Jurlique’s Skin Balancing Face Oil (I have combination skin and I’m still shocked that my face doesn’t resemble an oil refinery) or Caudalie’s Premier Cru The Cream (it costs a MILLION DOLLARS but it’s worth it).
It should be said, out loud, that my friend Grace has all the knowledge. While many bloggers have devolved into the equivalent of the women who spray perfume in your face in department stores, Grace is one of the good ones. She tests all the products she uses and she’s genuinely excited by the hunt and discovery. I trust her implicitly, and she’s never steered me in the wrong direction. Last week, I found myself pawing her beauty products and she preached the gospel that is One Love Organics. When I wasn’t huffing her coconut scrub, she told about Skin Savior, a miraculous cleanser + moisturizer (dual purpose!) that doesn’t require you to wash your face! Apparently, the oils in the balm attach to the oils in your skin, making for a deeper, nourishing wash. I’ve only used this for a few days and I’m already in love. I’m still not used to washing my face without water, but I’m giving this a go.
After I finished pawing her beauty products, I sprayed Grace’s Coqui Coqui Coco Coco on my wrists, and I black-out shopped this perfume using her computer. The fragrance is fresh, not cloying and smells of Indonesia (coconut, sand and ocean). I plan on wearing this perfume to the grave.
Finally, the gross bit of the lot. If you suffer from allergies as much as I do (I’m on prescription meds, people), you will love this souped-up neti pot. I’ve been using this simple solution for a week, and while it sometimes feels like I’m drowning, I’ve noticed that my nasal passages are clearer, and I’m wheezing less. You won’t be too thrilled with what exits your nasal passages (I’m fascinated), but you will feel clean.
Books: Believe me when I say that a tower of unread books rests at my feet. From David Brooks’ The Road to Character to Maeve Brennan’s biography, and scores of unread fiction, it’s been hard to play favorites amongst the lot vying for attention. However, this past weekend I found myself cleaning out my bookcases and I’m stumbled upon a book a friend had given me as a gift–and would you believe it was Elena Ferrante? A full two years before I discovered her remarkable Neapolitan tetralogy, a friend inscribed The Days of Abandonment with: you must read this. Ironic that I wrote about being comfortable with not being married and then I go find a book about a woman coping with her husband’s untimely abandonment.
Another book that eclipsed the rest is one that arrived in the mail yesterday. You should know that I stood outside of my apartment building, ripped open the Amazon box and nearly squealed as I unwrapped Chloe Sevigny. I’ve been infatuated with Sevigny since her Sassy days and I obviously purchased the blue tee she wore in KIDS after I saw the movie in the theater. Although our styles couldn’t be more divergent, Chloe is just so cool. She gives zero fucks and this is precisely why she continues to inspire me even after all this time. The book is a compilation of private and public photos snapped over the course of two decades (snaps of scripts, Chloe’s room, traveling with friends), and it’s satisfying, inspiring, and captures everything I love (and didn’t) about the 90s. Within 24 hours I’ve shown this book to four people and we pored through the photographs like they were gold.
Naturally, the time I would meet Chloe would be the day I’m barrelling down the block with a huge bag of laundry. Yep, I ran smack into CHLOE SEVIGNY while carrying my laundry bag and wearing sweatpants.
And of course she looked the epitome of cool.
Travel: I went from being a woman who only carted around designer gear to a woman who reused Whole Foods and Sakara Life delivery bags for gym and travel. Until this year I haven’t owned a proper carry-on and I finally broke down and purchased Lo & Son’s Catalina bag. You can fit a small CHILD in this bag it’s so roomy. I love that I can toss the cotton canvas in the wash and it’s sturdy enough to fit a pile of clothes, shoes and accessories. I can’t wait to test-drive it when I head to Singapore + Bali in July, and it will obviously come in handy when I move to California come September!
Posted on April 29, 2015
A few weeks ago my best friend’s nine-year-old daughter and I were playing. Our play consists of her sometimes weaving pink ribbons through my hair or me helping her assemble an imaginary set for a show she’s intent on producing (she’s creative, this one). That day, after I affixed one of the many glittery crowns she owned on her head, she asked, Are you ever going to have children, Felicia? I admired her moxie, the way in which she’s able to navigate terrain that one could consider a minefield. Adults exercise politeness and discretion in a way that can sometimes be numbing, and it was such an odd relief to hear a child ask something so plainly–just because I’m the only woman she knows who doesn’t have a child of her own. My best friend and I exchanged a look, and I replied, No, C. I don’t plan on having children. She appeared pensive, and after a few moments she nodded her head, said, okay, and we continued on with our play.
I did love, once. Yet it was love that was easily altered, one that had slowly come apart at the seams. But for a time we lived a terrific photograph, and spoke of glinting diamonds, me swanning about in a white dress and children winding around my calves. This life, while part of a defined plan I had for myself, felt distant, foreign–an uninhabited country for which I needed a visa and complicated paperwork for entry. I never took to the idea of being owned by someone else; I never considered changing my name. I never imagined myself in a white dress (I prefer blue), and I’ve never truly felt the maternal ache and tug as many of my dear friends who are mothers, describe. Back then I viewed marriage as less of a partnership and more of a prison, but I imagine that had much to do with the man in my life. Back then I slept on top sheets rather than between them, and I was forever poised for flight. Back then I didn’t want children because I was certain I wouldn’t be any good at it considering my history.
After a couple of years of playing house, this great love and I experienced a drift and while he went on to marry and have a family of his own, I never once thought I’d missed out on my chance, rather, I was relieved. I treasure my solitude, my freedom. I didn’t want to be harvested. Back then I had so much work ahead of me, work on my self, my character, that I knew I wouldn’t be much good to anyone else. I knew I had to make myself whole and complete before I gave even a sliver of myself to someone else.
“I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self.” —Edith Wharton
I came across Kate Bolick’s Spinster not from her widely-read Atlantic essay (I miss out on everything), but serendipitously through a Times book review. I nodded along with Bolick, and found her to be an “awakener” (a riff off Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), much like the ones she describes in her book. Over the past few years I’ve been so consumed with cultivating a good life, in living through the questions, in being a sponge when it comes to knowledge and culture, that I hadn’t stopped, not even for a moment, to consider the fact that I’m in my late 30s and am still not married. I’ve witnessed scores of my friends fall in love, marry, bear children, and I feel joy for them, rather than envy. And I’m also privy to the unseemly side of coupling–of people who talk about being incomplete without having a partner, people who feel like a failure because they haven’t fulfilled a role ascribed to them, and my heart breaks because no one person will ever complete you. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to come into the game, whole; you’ve got to hold your own cards, be willing to play your own hand.
It doesn’t make sense to come to the table with a few cards rather than a deck.
Nearly all my friends my age are married–most, happily so. Acquaintances congratulate engagements and pregnancy announcements with a welcome to the club message, as if these points in time gain you access to some sort of privileged society, which rings odd and exclusionary, at best. I don’t view marriage, or the decision to have children, as checks in a box or private clubs where one is finally granted trespass, rather I think of them as individual choices we make. We meet a great love and decide to marry, or not. We meet a great love and decide to have children, or not. We never meet a great love and the world as we know has yet to collapse. Or, perhaps, we don’t make love a vocation. Maybe we just live our best lives and play out the hand.
She was the only one of the lot of them who hadn’t gone off and got married. She had never wanted to assert herself like that, never needed to. —Maeve Brennan
It occurs to me that I’m not certain I’ll ever get married, and I’m okay with that. While I like the idea of a partner, a companion, someone with whom I’m besotted, somehow the vision of me in a dress surrounded by people applauding me down an aisle makes me cringe. The idea of me trading one man’s name for another feels false (I’ll keep Sullivan, thank you). And I’ve come to realize that I’m a better friend, sister, and lover because I choose not to have children.
All I want to do right now is create, to see everything that hasn’t been seen. To know what I don’t know. And if in that journey I meet someone, cool. However, if I don’t, that’s cool too.
Posted on April 21, 2015
When I was small I used to watch my mother knit; her thin fingers mastered the tango between two needles as they warred to create a scarf, shawl or blanket. For years I took up mimicry like a kind of cross-stitch, but I failed because the complexity of patterns and needlework subsumed me; the chink of cool metal forever eluded me. Here I was, a child composing haikus likening my mother’s voice to thunder, yet I couldn’t thread a needle. My thread always grazed the eye but never dared plunge through it. And I worried about this. A lot. If I couldn’t conjoin cheap yarn how could I possibly tell stories? How could I step into a world and inhabit it so completely? Words belong to one another, and a writer’s job is to sit amongst spools of thread and weave. Their work lies in creating tapestry, silent symphonies.
I think about the movie, Heat, specifically the “face-to-face” scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
These are two men who are what they go after. Two men who don’t know any other work than the work in which they do; their life is their work, no going back. And although the work is risky–it’s like risk versus reward, baby–the action is the juice. The work, the life, is the reward. Even in moments that feel like plague, when the ground gives way and the fall seems infinite, bottomless, we press on. We carry the weight of the dark on our backs in the journey into the light because all of it, the depth of it, the darkness of it, is worth the stretch.
We try to see in the dark; we toss up our questions and they catch in the trees. —Anne Dillard
A WRITER? Why do you want to be a writer? Writers don’t make any money, said a woman to me once. I remember the way she said writer, as if it were tinged, sullied, a word not worthy of the letters that comprise it. Maybe she thought herself as someone who could wash the stink off me, scrape away at the plaque that had begun to harvest its way into my heart. Because finance will make you clean again. This woman was a managing director at Morgan Stanley and I sat in her office discussing my resignation. I’d just been awarded admission to a fancy writing program and I was jubilant. My work until then had become a blanket intent on smothering me, and all I wanted to do was fucking breathe. For a time I relegated writing to a hobby state while I managed the serious work, my vocation, off to the side. Because I was an adult now. I had student loans now. I had an apartment now. I had a bone-crushing subway commute now. I had my mid-day Starbucks run now. I had happy hour now where everyone was on the road to ruin, night drinking until they saw black, now. I had to wake up now. I had to Monday moan now. I had to do this all over again now. I had to measure my own grave now.
The days had become repeats of themselves with minor variations.
I go through this a lot–trying to deny writing as something serious and true in favor of the work over there. And I always, invariably, come up short. I always end up working myself into a place of despair because while I’m good at what I do–marketing, projections, budgets, brand positioning and planning–it’s not the only thing I’m meant to do.
What I’m meant to do is write. Plain and simple. Although, in reality, not so plain and definitely not so simple, but give me a minute with this.
Over the weekend I read a book in one sitting, an exposition off of a widely-read essay, “The Crossroads of Should and Must”. I remember reading the essay with a considerable amount of interest and passing it along to my friends. I remember being inspired by Elle Luna’s words but untouched. Perhaps I wasn’t primed for confrontation because I was still sorting out the nuances of this freelance life, but now, right now, I’m ready to drive my car off the road.
I’m good at compartmentalizing things, brilliant even. When I resigned from my last job I talked a lot about having room for all my children to play in the proverbial sandbox, that none of them would be considered changelings. That I could practice my writing in one space, my affection for food in another, and finally, the marketing–the bill-paying stuff–in another silo, far over there. Never once did I consider how I could merge the three. How I could seamlessly move from one state of play to another and even imbue my life with play! IMAGINE THAT! Never did I think that three simple children could morph into one complex child.
Never did I realize that I’m now in the midst of my own needlework.
Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about my life. That might sound dramatic and it probably is, but when you’re inching your way toward 40 and you’re still in student loan and credit card debt maybe it’s a good idea to take a step back and take stock. I did the 8,760 hour mind map. I read a slew of books. I got angry all over again about shit blogger books getting published while I’m told my strange, beautiful writing will never find a large home (fuck this and the horse you rode in on). I thought about my move to California and the role a foreign place would have in the grand scheme of things (more alone time, more space and less distractions). And after all this noise and mess and thinking (all that yarn!) I asked myself a really simple question:
What brings me joy?
I started to look at everything I did over the course of the day and I realized that my joy lies in writing. Whether I’m working on a brand voice guide or a blog post or a short story, the art of weaving words together challenges and excites me. The art of reading and constantly absorbing information so that I can keep the knife sharp as it were, feels like home.
Writing is home to me.
It’s taken me 39 years of denial to admit that I have to put writing front and center. I have to design a career, a life, around my ability to take up wordsmithing like cross stitch. And I’ve finally landed on an idea that I’ve been sharing with friends over the past few weeks–a consultancy focused on storytelling.
Now, this isn’t about creating content or some other bullshit reductive term that looks fancy on LinkedIN or gets you penning articles for trade publications–as you know I don’t care about exposure or popularity. By default, I’m unpopular and far from mass market. What I’m talking about is the ability to hire me (and down the road, others) to help you create a world or tell stories. From product naming to brand architecture to helping you write your book, I want to be able to practice what I love, what I must do, EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Will I fail? Probably. Will I get to connect with talented artists? Absolutely. Will I get better at what I do? You better believe it. Will it take the sting and weight off of having difficulty publishing my own experimental fiction? For the love of god, yes. Will I freak out? Probably once a day, on a good day.
But it’s like risk versus reward, baby.
Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigues, I have had my vision. ― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
I’ll unveil the official name + all the fireworks in the coming weeks, but for now know that I’ve set down my brush, as Lily Briscoe once did.
Know that I’ve found my vision.
Posted on April 19, 2015
Sometimes I read the books I’m unable to write because they inspire the kind of stories and books I can. The other night my friend tells me that she wants to write a book. She looks at me, pauses, and says, Well, not like you. Not the kind of book you’re able to write. We tell stories in order to live, Didion once said, and I remind my friend that this would be a dull world if we all had the capacity to tell our stories in the same way. Years ago I sat in a Columbia writing workshop and someone regarded one of my short stories with disdain, spat out, Family stories are over, Felicia. After I cried into my sleeve in the hallway, I realized her comment was ridiculous.
Every story has been told. The beauty is in its retelling. The magic lies in all the ways in which artists can interpret love, loss, heartbreak, joy, anger, rage, despair. Therein lies the art.
I don’t know how a lot of writers do it. I don’t know how they have the ability to consistently conjure new characters, architect new worlds, so swiftly. Before I sat down to write my latest novel (you know, the brilliant, dark thing that publishers love but are frightened of publishing), I’d already been thinking about these characters for years. While they didn’t have the same names, shapes or features, I was slowly coming to know them much like how I’d know real people, so when the time came to write about them (Kate, Jonah, Gillian, etc), their world came at me like a torrent, fully-realized. I love these characters because they feel like old friends, and I’m struggling to fashion a new world so quickly as all these articles on writing would have me do.
While we try to sell that dark thing over there, my agent tells me to write something new. I thought I had something but it’s nothing substantial, nothing worth occupying my time, so I read and write these small things here wondering if and when something will spark.
I read the spectrum. From Sarah Manguso’s thin but potent meditation on the art of journaling to Katherine Heiney’s razor-sharp and fully-drawn stories about young women tangeled up in love and betrayal, I oscillate between extremes in form and style. I read Bardur Oskarsson’s The Flat Rabbit (a children’s book that tackles death so beautifully) because I want to remember that the power of a good story lies in the and then what. It also reminds of economy, how writers need to be deliberate, downright surgical with the words they choose. When I was working on my novel I would spend DAYS on a single page, reworking sentences, because every scene, every line, had to be like a koan; everything I write has to be a container filled with multiple meanings.
“I don’t know anything.” It might seem counterintuitive but I try to tell myself this every day when I wake up. It’s quickly becoming my daily mantra. Now, this isn’t some exercise in self deprecation. I simply want to remind myself as soon as I wake up to see the world with clear eyes. —Jory MacKay
And I read Elle Luna’s magical book because I have to remember that I must write, always. I must gather experiences up in my hands so I’m able to write about them because I’m only able to make sense of this life through writing about it. There’s no other way.
And the rest? They’re meant to awaken, inspire me to what’s next. What’s down the road, just beyond my reach.
Posted on March 20, 2015
Yesterday I had lunch with my marvelous agent, Matthew Carnicelli, and I left inspired, invigorated and ready to start another novel. We spoke at lengths about my first book (he’s still making the rounds) and the tremendous feedback it’s received balanced with the fear of publishing my book because it wouldn’t break through, it wouldn’t be big because it’s largely so dark. My book is this beautiful, risky thing, was the constant refrain from book editors, and Matthew and I brainstormed possibilities while he tries to sell this dark little thing I’ve created.
We spent two hours talking about what I write on this space and we decided that what I write here (personal stories connected to food, career advice, issues of race and identity, how I’m redefining success for myself on my own terms) should be kept here. The writing on this space is honest, good, and brings me joy in writing it and sharing it with you. So it’ll stay here and I’m privileged that you’ll bear witness to its inevitable bloom.
I talk about a new project that’s been stirring. The problem with how I write is that I never, ever think of plot, a story fully realized. I start with characters and a few scenes. I figure that if I know the people they’ll do some interesting things and the plot will follow. So I’ve a rather ambitious idea, one that will yank me out of my comfort zone, and it centers around a neighborhood in Brooklyn and a prominent (and potent) Puerto Rican crime family. Naturally, me being me, I have a few fully-realized scenes toward the end of the book, when I laugh and tell my agent this, he rolls his eyes because he’s been down this road with the last book. I always start in the middle of things and give him a 100 pages and inquire whether what I’ve written is any good. It’s always good, he assures me, and I can tell he’s relieved that this story is manageably dark, rather than relentlessly so.
I pause in the middle of our lunch, stir food around on my plate, and ask, timidly, the novel isn’t that dark, is it? He laughs because what I’ve asked states the obvious, because the title of my book is Follow Me Into the Dark, and he says, Felicia, it’s dark. But it’s also beautiful and good and we’ll find it a home.
I left reminded of the singular rule I was always taught in graduate school. Don’t just lean your hopes on this one great thing. Write new books, tell new stories, scatter them like confetti all over the place. So this is me, investing more time here, more time away from here. Writing. Creating something new. Every day.
2 medium ripe bananas
½ ripe avocado (3/4 cup)
¼ cup cacao powder
½ tsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp maple syrup (or honey)
½ tbsp water
Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor and blend for 30 seconds or until smooth and well combined. I added cacao nibs and pistachios to my mousse, however, I can imagine this would be AMAZING with some whipped coconut cream. I let this chill in the fridge for an hour before serving.