how I start a novel…

Lately, I’ve been feeling allergic to blogging and social media. While it’s a tool I use in my professional (non-writing) life, it’s one I’ve abandoned when it comes to my personal life. I’ve spent years putting a lot of myself out there and over the past year I’ve felt a need to pull everything back. I’ve taken most of my channels private, and as you can see from the lack of updates on this space, my heart isn’t necessarily in it. So, I’ve decided to only publish when it feels right. And this morning, as I’m starting the fourth revision of my third book, I thought it might be helpful to give you a peek into my writing process. I hope you find this helpful! 🙂

And yes, this is me, before coffee. And the writer I blanked on? Denis Johnson.

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if anyone tells you that writing novels gets easier over time, they’re crazy

new novel

The final draft of my second book, and yes, I still print things out. 

 

When you write a book, your first thought is: Can I do this? Can I be obsessed with something to a degree that it’ll sustain me through hundreds of pages of revisions, years of deleting and rewriting drafts? Will I allow characters to inhabit my life for a period that doesn’t have a defined end? Can I write this without considering the business of publishing? Can I write knowing this may not be sold or read?

You ask yourself whether you can see the story and the fate of your characters all the way through. And after you’ve accomplished what you set out to do, now that the book is written and you’ve exorcised your obsession by committing your characters to a page, you then ask yourself: How do I get better? You keep asking yourself that question every time you come to the page.

I’ve written and sold two books and I assure you the process does not get easier, but I often think about the line from the film Heat, when Michael Cheritto’s character says, For me, the action is the juice. For me, the reward is worth the stretch. I could probably offer more of an astute philosophy, quotes from great writers on the process of writing books, but it all boils down to this: the reward is the composition of the work itself, rather than external validation, which may or may not happen (in fact, I’m expecting criticism of my second book due to the nature of the violence), praise or criticism that is fleeting and soon forgettable. You write what consumes you. You write to make sense of the world. You write to explain it. You write to make your voice heard when it feels you’re the smallest person in the room.

Last year when I moved to California, I wrote my third book in a month. The velocity shocked me, honestly, because it took me eight years to start a second book, two years to write and revise it, and nearly a year to sell it. A new book for me is akin to bloodletting–it’s never easy, it’s often confusing and painful, but then there’s that MOMENT. The switch. When the story falls into place and your characters surprise you in the smallest (and arguably most powerful) of ways. My book always starts one way and ends up becoming what I hadn’t planned or intended. I lost count of how many times I gut-renovated my second book–the structure was problematic, the payoff non-existent, and a few of the characters felt one-note.

After three years, I found a structure that actually worked. And this happened AFTER I sold the book.

This is all to say that writing a book doesn’t come easily to me. So when I sent my first crude draft to my agent, he wrote back that it was way too dark–even for me. And more importantly, the story wasn’t as powerful as it could be. So I revised again, and two more times. Cut 100 pages. Added 70, and the like. And even when I sent the latest draft to my agent the book didn’t feel like it was working. The only section I felt drawn to are what I call the “Alice stories” — a series of connected stories documenting the strange relationship between an adult woman in New York and a depressed teenager in Los Angeles. It deals with the voyeuristic nature of social media, what we edit and reveal, and how strangers are sometimes profoundly connected than the people in your “real” life.

My agent came back and confirmed what I already knew. After an hour of brainstorming, we both agreed that I needed to cut nearly the entire book except for 40 pages. He then timidly suggested I do the one thing I loathe doing — a plot outline.

I’m not knocking the plot outline or outlines in general. They’re often necessary. In what felt like the thirtieth revision of my second novel, I had to map out the timeline and character actions so I wasn’t confused. But here’s the thing–I write from the point-of-view of the character. I’m not a plot writer. I obsess over fictitious people to the extent that I know their whole world down to whether they can stomach mushrooms, mittens, or clowns (three things I hate).  I create character maps and sketches. I pin images of people so I can see my character. Then, and only then, do I let them go out into the world (or in the actual case, the page) and see what they do. I write stories scene by scene and the characters advance the plot.

I’ve rarely engineered the reverse. So plot outlines, for me, are the equivalent of taking spin classes when I’ve always done yoga. I’ll invariably fall off the bike, parts of my body will be sore, and I’ll likely make a mess of things. This may sound crazy but drawing out a plot is harder than writing the actual book (at least for me). But I did it because it was necessary and I need to exercise different muscles to get this book where it needs to go.

In four pages over two exhausting days, I mapped out my third book. I only “know” one of the characters, Alice, but I don’t even know her completely. I know these characters in parts, so directing them forward felt Herculean. But I did it, and my agent was kind and gave incredible feedback.

So here I go. I’m starting a new novel next week, tentatively titled, Women in Salt. The book follows the strange obsessive relationship between a thirty-year-old woman and a fifteen-year-old suicidal teenager, who happens to be the daughter of a film star on the decline. The book combines the voices and locations I know (New York, an adult woman) with those I’m slowly discovering (Los Angeles, teenagers). And with everything I write, there’s always something nefarious at work. Characters are flawed. Bad things happen. But unlike anything I’ve written previously, this story will end on a note of hope.

Because sometimes light doesn’t exist, even if it’s not within your reach.

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odds & ends

I’ve taken a hiatus from political news and election coverage, because even though I voted early I’m experiencing fatigue. Apparently, we’re all stressed and our connection to the truth is precarious, at best. We’re overwhelmed by the rage, anger and blind hate in this country. We’re tired of turning on our televisions to wonder what will shock us today. What new horror does the day bring? I’m also admittedly tired of being called a cunt on Twitter because I’m a feminist, because I’ve exercised my right to vote, and my choice (Clinton) makes strangers upset enough to spew vitriol in my mentions. As someone who rabidly consumes both liberal and conservative media (one of my oldest friends is a Republican, will likely vote for Trump much to my chagrin, but she did impress upon me the importance of understanding the other side because one can’t make an argument for one’s beliefs in their own bias vacuum), it’s been hard not to react to the headlines on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. It’s been hard to switch away from MSNBC, BBC America, Al Jazeera, and all the other news outlets I consume on a daily basis. But I’m doing it because I want to preserve my sanity as much as possible. We’ll see what happens when we wake the morning of the 9th. I only hope, regardless of the outcome, that our country will move in a direction of healing. I try to have hope.

So, instead, I’m:

Watching: If you loved Stranger Things and Black Mirror, you will love Glitch. Filmed in Australia, the first season centers on six people who have miraculously risen from the dead and the practical and philosophical consequences that ensue. No, this isn’t zombie fare and it’s free of horror, which makes the show that much more powerful. What happens when your wife’s body, ravaged with cancer, gives up to then return two years later to find your husband married to your pregnant best friend? What happens when you were murdered at 19, and the man who everyone thought killed you, didn’t? What happens when someone has to explain television because you never made it to the 20th century. After the disappointing third season of The Fall (Jamie Dornan makes for an excellent serial killer), The Glitch satisfied my escapist craving.

I’m endlessly fascinated by cults. I once read over 30 books on them (and mind control), and it’s hard to find a nuanced cult film without it being camp. The Invitation is that film. It’s so quiet and deeply sinister that I was gripped the entire time–rare these days.

Reading: A few years ago, I asked friends if they knew of great stories told solely from a child’s point-of-view (one of the most difficult things a writer can do, really), and many pointed me to Emma Donoghue’s Room, which I finished in one day.  Her most recent novel, The Wonder, transports us to a different time (19th century, rural Ireland), but the slow-burn horror, as experienced by an eleven-year-old girl, is equally as remarkable. A practical English nurse, trained by the famed Florence Nightengale, travels to a small village to bear witness to a girl who hasn’t eaten in four months yet remains alive. Is the child a miracle? Or is there something more nefarious at play? I can usually spot a plot twist early on, but this ending I didn’t anticipate and it truly satisfies. I also devoured my friend Liza Monroy’s hilarious, sardonic essay collection, Seeing As Your Shoes Are Soon to Be on Fire. Liza has such a gift for storytelling and while I normally shy away from essays that take readers on a relationship-related journey, Liza writes with such honesty and humility, that the essays always rise above the din. If you want a little levity in the darkness, I recommend Liza’s book, wholly.

Speaking of writing, a practical and excellent guide by Benjamin Franklin. And while I normally eschew the ubiquitous “what I’ve learned” lists, Brain Picking’s 10 learnings from 10 years is so on point and remarkable. If you read anything this week, let it be that. This was an elegant, potent read on body, size, and mind. And when a man writes a book with the word girl in the title, you can probably assume she’s dead or close to it. Grace Paley’s “Wants” is one of my all-time favorite stories, and I stumbled upon it again last week while I was packing boxes and it chills me twenty years after I first read it. It also occurred to me that my favorite song is “Gimme Shelter” for reasons I won’t describe.

Finally, Mila Kunis: bad-ass. And speaking of awesome women, my friend Hitha is doing great things. Support.

And yes, this is currently my life. Exhibit A:

moving

 

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odds & ends

Untitled

“Can’t you just be like the rest of us, normal and sad and fucked up and alive and remorseful?” ― Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows

I haven’t loved a book so hard since Lauren Groff’s Fates & Furies. I never thought a relentlessly dark tale of a prodigy pianist, who so desperately wants to end her life, could be funny. It’s easier to write binary and it’s downright difficult to create balance, and Toews manages to achieve this on a level that is awe-inspiring. The novel centers around sisters, one of whom is a gifted, yet tortured, musician (think: the poet in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Percival in The Waves), and the other the prodigal fuck-up, and how their private, unbinding love is challenged by suicide. In one scene you’re reading about Elf and her latest attempt to take her own life by slashing her wrists and downing bleach, and then you’re somehow laughing at the dark comedy that is this large, disruptive family plagued by a history of depression. As a writer, I often read books on two levels–one for pure enjoyment, entertainment or education and another as a devoted student. I deconstruct structure; I diagram character and tone. I’ll ask, how does he/she achieve what I’m trying to do, and how could I learn from them? While I’m tethered to the darker side of things, I’m feeling the need, especially now, to imbue my work with needed light.

If you don’t mind a book that’s a little heavy (balanced by light), I can’t recommend Toews’s novel enough. Buy it. Now.

I love science fiction. My favorite show of all time is The Twilight Zone, and I think Rod Serling a genius for the stories he imagined and brought to the small screen–most of which were provocative in the late 1950s conservative culture. I loved Stranger Things for the imaginative plot, as well as a feeling of nostalgia for the 1980s, and after I visited Guillermo Del Toro’s very magical and horrifying LACMA exhibit, I found The Strain and I’m addicted. The story is less sci-fi than apocalyptical and biblical — the world we know plagued by a virus, which we soon learn to be a sophisticated strain of vampirism. This isn’t your staid fangs and capes, rather, Del Toro’s modern day monsters are painstakingly conceived from an evolutionary and biological perspective. And while the story is smart and forward (the catastrophic battle between humans and monsters), the characters grapple with real issues of love and loss.

It’s also occurred to me that I’ve become enamored by artists who straddle and redefine form. The Leftovers isn’t just a cable drama about a day when millions of people suddenly disappeared–it’s drama, sci-fi, poetry, all meditating on all the ways in which we define and experience loss. This is why I admire writers like Maggie Nelson, Kelly Link, Lydia Millet and others of their ilk who refused to be confined in a box. A few weeks ago, I shared my new novel’s jacket copy with someone whom I was potentially interested in hiring as a freelance publicist but was disappointed when this person wrote back, oh, this is genre fiction. Let me pause and I say that this argument isn’t about whether I like or don’t like genre fiction (I do, and think genre fiction is hard to pull off, thus warranting so much respect–I wish I had the commitment to pacing and patience that a brilliant mystery novel requires), it’s about having myopic vision. I set out to toy with form–I wanted to write a story rooted in literary fiction (my comfort zone) but have elements of psychological thriller and suspense. I look to Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder as a perfect example of collapsing form. If you read her book jacket, you would say, oh, this is just true crime. While there’s nothing wrong with true crime (Ann Rule’s memoir of her working with Ted Bundy is one of my all-time favorites), that reductionist thinking would’ve ignored what Nelson set out achieve. Her slim book is parts true crime, memoir, poetry, and a private letter between her and her aunt, who died in the hands of a serial killer.

I get that we want to give everything an elevator, fit everything into a neat and tidy box because it’s quick, efficient and easy. However, I admire artists who break tradition, who say, this book, show, or song need not be only this. It could be this and that.

A brief aside: have you noticed that shows have literally gone dark? I already wear glasses. Please don’t make me reach for the flashlight.

In the vein of nodding to people who inspire you, I loved this take on success being defined as how you elevate others. Years ago, I read The Art of War, and now I find it a pile of shit. I’m not interested in Darwinian workplace warfare, rather, I know I win by how I treat others and how I help them rock out in whatever they’re doing. Another way in which you can view success is by how you redefine size. We naturally think that bigger and more is better, a sign of achievement. I have X amount of followers, thus I’m an “influencer”. My home is Y square footage, so that means I’ve “made it”. I don’t subscribe to a McMansion view of life, rather, I’m in step with Mike Birbiglia’s call to play small.

And if you’re not reading Bianca Bass’s wonderful blog, you’re not living your best life. She writes about success and creative work from the millennial perspective–namely, you don’t have to hustle 24/7, rest is a virtue, and her musings call for more meaningful connection beyond fan counts. I’ve grown really tired of being sold to ALL. THE. TIME., so it’s a respite to discover someone’s blog and their writing and not feel trapped by an affiliate link. There are people who still tell stories just to tell them.

Finally, one of the things I’ve learned this year is the need to nurture relationships and be patient. I admired this mother’s lament on how the challenges in her life prevent her from being the kind of friend she knows she can be. I’ve been there (with an unhealthy relationship to my work replacing children), and if there’s anything that I’ve learned over the past year, it’s this: Be kind. Be patient. Be thoughtful. Lean on your friends and help when you can.

 

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odds & ends

This Saturday it’ll be a year since I moved to California. I’ve lived in New York my whole life, never needed a car, failed the road test three times because I couldn’t parallel park and then my license expired because why bother? Now I think about all the places I can go if I got a car. I think about geography, a terrain not yet navigated and a year is nothing, a blip because there’s so much about being here left to explore.

I first thought of California when I considered transferring to USC for film/writing during my sophomore year, and for the next fifteen years, I flirted with the idea of moving here. I never did it until I did and my only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.

I don’t think I could’ve gone through the necessary introspection and work had I still lived in Brooklyn because I grew uncomfortably comfortable. I don’t know if I would’ve written a book that finally ends with hope if I still lived in NY. I don’t know if I would’ve been a calmer, quieter, chill person if I still lived in NY. Who knows, right? This journey is far from over and it’s private, strange, wonderful and it requires constant work. There is no taking a day off or sleeping in because nothing frightens me more than going back to that dark country that occupied me in February.

It’s been a relief not documenting as much online as I used to, and although I know I have a book coming out and I have to market it, blah, blah, blah, I don’t believe in doing something unless it makes you bolt out of bed. The strained effort shows and people are smart and they know when you’re phoning it in. I used to be excited about sharing everything, but that edited version of your life comes with costs you hadn’t quite calculated.

What I will say is this. Things are good. Really good. I finally feel settled, at home in all the ways you can think of the word.

I’m on a tear lately when it comes to books, films, art and I’ve been voracious with media. I finally got a LACMA membership because I can’t wait to check out the Guillermo del Toro exhibit, which is so up my alley. After seeing a slew of terrible Netflix movies, I stumbled on a Norwegian tsunami film, The Wave, and it made me wonder why we can’t make films as equally smart and gripping. Why must everything be a remake? Formulaic? The story of a geologist, who aims to save his family from a 300-foot high tsunami that’s been triggered by a rockslide in the quiet village of Geiranger, is tender, smart, thrilling and I’m shocked that I felt transfixed for over 90 minutes without glancing at my phone. The film is that good. Watch it. In striking contrast, I watched the acclaimed documentary, We Come As Friends. Remember Darwin’s Nightmare? This is darker, a deft exploration of how colonialism, war, and business contribute to the exploitation of South Sudan. I also re-watched A Woman Under the Influence after catching a random interview with Gena Rowlands and remembering how much I love watching films about women coming undone.

When it comes to books & articles, I’m reading everything. This piece was an incisive take on the tie between vlogs & anxiety disorder. Speaking of bloggers, this might be the most egregious shill yet–vloggers roll up to a country with the most horrifying human rights violations and document their holiday in… North Korea. What’s next? A guided tour through Syrian refugee camps? It’s true that introverts get hangovers from too much socializing. There have been times when I’ve needed a whole day of solitude to recharge.

My third book features characters across age, race, gender identity and social class, and I’d be lying if I said it was easy to write. This terrific piece outlines the fundamentals of writing “the other”. The best quote was from Junot Diaz, whom I admire:

To write, we must listen. To listen, we must shut up. And this isn’t the simple kind of listening, where you’re waiting for them to finish what they can say so you can jump in real quick with your point. Really, have a seat, take a deep breath, and listen to what people around you are saying. Listen to yourself, your quiet self. To your doubts and fears, the things you don’t want to admit. Listen to the things folks say that make you uncomfortable. Sit with that discomfort.

Understand you suck. Then try to suck less and move forward.

And if we’re getting bookish, this author was a thrilling new find and T.S. Eliot was a total asshole. I read three great books in a row and you need to order them ASAP. Lara Vapnyar’s Still Here, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (not everyone will love this because it’s obtuse, but her writing is ferocious), and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. This, from Jansson’s book, remains with me:   

The worm probably knows that if it comes apart, both halves will start growing separately. Space. But we don’t know how much it hurts. And we don’t know, either, if the worm is afraid it’s going to hurt. But anyway, it does have a feeling that something sharp is getting closer and closer all the time. This is instinct. And I can tell you this much, it’s no fair to say it’s too little, or it only has a digestive canal, and so that’s why it doesn’t hurt. I am sure it does hurt, but maybe only for a second. Now take the smart worm that made itself long and came apart in the middle, that may have been like pulling a tooth, for example, except it didn’t hurt. When it had calmed its nerves, it could tell right away it was shorter, and then it saw the other half right beside it. Let me make this a little easier to understand by putting it this way: Both halves fell down to the ground, and the person with the hook went away. They couldn’t grow back together, because they were terribly upset, and then, of course, they didn’t stop to think, either. And they knew that by and by they’d grow out again, both of them. I think they looked at each other, and thought they looked awful, and then crawled away from each other as fast as they could. They they started to think. They realized that from now on life would be quite different, but they didn’t know how, that is, in what way.

Finally, I won’t get into politics here because I rant on Twitter enough, but this week’s New Yorker profile on Jared & Ivanka Kushner was fascinating.
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odds & ends

los angeles

 

I’ve spent the past few weeks absorbed in domestic and international politics and it is exhausting. I’m genuinely frightened about the direction our country is headed, and I only hope that people vote en masse come November. I’ve made a point to try not to get too deep into politics over the weekend (I read/watch conservative & liberal publications/media, even though I am a staunch Democrat who will be voting for Hillary Clinton come November), because it only gives me anxiety. Let’s save that for the work week.

I’ve had a hard time coming to this space because I’m not sure what to make of it anymore. Everyone tells me that I have to be everywhere when my book comes out, and although I know this to be true logically, I really love living most of my private life offline. So we’ll see where this goes. I’m having some new friends over for dinner tonight so I’ll definitely share the healthy eats I’m making. Until then, this is what’s going on in my neck of the woods:

READING: For a while, I couldn’t read. I had trouble revising and finishing my third book–a link of connected short stories centered on women in various stages of unrest. The book is meant to be a very loose retelling of The Waves. I finished a draft of the book in two months, which is shocking because I usually have to fork over a pint of blood for every chapter I write. However, when I re-read it after a few months of being on anti-depressants and therapy, for the first time in my life I had to put what I wrote down because it was too dark. When editors told my agent that they love my work but it’s “relentlessly dark”, I laughed it off because I couldn’t see it for what it was without perspective. Dani Shapiro wisely wrote that the “self who finishes a book is not the same self who started it”, and this is true because the now self looks back at the former self and weeps for that version. Wants this version, this book, to be hopeful. I couldn’t read until I finished a new draft of the manuscript, and now that it’s sitting with my agent (fingers crossed), I’m on a tear. I loved, loved, loved, Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands, a story collection steeped in female friendships, self-discovery, infatuation, loss, and disillusionment. I also tore through Heather Havrilesky’s How to Be a Person in the World–a selection of unpublished Ask Polly columns. Heather’s writing is so whip-sharp, self-effacing, empathetic and downright funny. Although I couldn’t relate to some of the columns on mothering (a few I skipped over), I enjoyed how Heather invites us to self-reflect and take stock and accountability in the journey to being our better selves.

These two books were a lovely palate cleanser after I finished Emma Cline’s The Girls, which was good, but not great, and a book from I expected so much more. I was SO EXCITED for this book because I’ve studied cults extensively, read nearly everything on the Manson family (from which the story is very loosely based), and while the writing was stunning, the story fell flat. I’m in the minority on this one and I’m sure there are a million people who would disagree.

I just started Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, and I can’t wait to finish it.

Also, reading Bianca Bass’s interview with me (subscribe to her newsletter!), what burnout really means, when anxiety hovers over success, darkening it, taking on social platforms that harbor trolls, and how a self-taught hacker escaped a cult (riveting).  

WATCHING: If you asked me about my favorite movie genre, I will immediately counter with horror and suspense. And I’m not talking about the digital special effects from slasher movies or the ubiquitous, over-the-top gore that’s replaced suspense and nuance, I’m talking about what Hitchcock referred to be as being afraid of the jump. My favorite era was the 1960s-70s where films were created as an antecedent to McCarthyism–a masked being crippling small town America, endangering its citizens and usurping its values (think: Michael Meyers). In recent years, I’ve loved Asian horror because it’s rooted in traditional, mythology and quiet nuance, unlike the slasher bloody gore that’s replaced individuality and intellectualism. Now, all we have is what’s after the jump because we’ve come to know what to expect.

However, I’ve discovered a few films and series that are smart, suspenseful and unsettling. Southbound is what Rod Serling would have conceived had he been alive. It’s a string of five connected vignettes depicting what happens when our most extreme fears play out on a long stretch of endless highway. It also reminds me of the very brilliant House of the Devil.

winona ryder stranger things

If you haven’t watched the Netflix hit, Stranger Things, you need to think about your life choices. Yes, it brings me great joy to see Winona Ryder reinvented (she plays an excellent hysterical mom in a tightly-wound and deftly conceived 8-part miniseries that takes place in the 1980s. Again, we’re transported back to small town America, but, in this case, the plot centers on Ryder’s missing son, who was abducted, we think, by forces from the other side. Is the government harboring secrets (shocker) and conducting experiments that will alter mankind? Who is Eleven, the strange girl who manages to move things with her mind? I love how the thrilling sci-fi aspect of this is balanced by the relationship between three pre-teen boys that reminded me of Stand By Me. The stakes are always raised and the writing is so first-rate that I’m HOPING this gets renewed. An old favorite, Wayward Pines, had a disappointing second season so I pray this doesn’t follow suit.

Not a horror film, but completely worth watching, is Girlfriends, made in 1978. It was one of the rare and bold films at the time that meditated on female friendships and the strain that marriage (and wants) can inflict. I caught this randomly on TCM last night and I stayed up late to watch it. I was born in New York, and I felt nostalgic for a version of the city that wasn’t whitewashed. It was the New York I remember as a child in the 80s–gritty, exciting, and slightly dangerous.

Btw, Black Mirror is coming back in October. Brace yourselves.

DOWNLOADING: If you’re Type A like me and love Instagram (or use it for work), Planoly is an excellent app (there’s a desktop version), which allows you to plan out your feed, schedule posts and analyze the success of them. I’m pretty fixated on photo-editing apps, and I have about 10 on my phone including Color Story, Afterlight, Snapseed, and VSCO.

BUYING: I’m SO over spending a $ on labels. I want quality items that will last forever, and I want them at an affordable cost. This is why I’m shopping at Cuyana, M.Gemi & Armadio.

PLANNING: I am SO excited for my debut novel, Follow Me Into the Dark, which is coming out next year. I CANNOT WAIT. If you want to interview me for your blog, drop me a line. I’m going to New Zealand come November. Where should I go? I’m primarily hitting the North Island, but I want to check out Queenstown.

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the gift that distance (and life) brings

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When I first moved to Los Angeles, I sat in a coffee shop and wrote a story collection in two months. I remember arranging printed pages on my floor, growing increasingly disturbed by how swiftly the stories came. Writing for me always felt a bit like surgery–although ultimately rewarding, the creation process existed as a series of stops and starts, and the editing process always proved far more unrelenting. There were days when I’d read through a manuscript and press delete on whole chunks of it. First readers of my new novel were shocked to see hundreds of pages excised in subsequent drafts. I was merciless on what needed to be cut for the sake of telling a good story.

But these new stories were different–they were dark, acerbic, and they excited me in ways I couldn’t understand at first.The voices were clear and puncturing, bordering on a violent tone I hadn’t explored previously or perhaps felt too frightened to. The story collection, Women in Salt, was a loose re-telling of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a group of friends meditating on their friend’s suicide. I felt Salt was better than my second book, a novel that took me years to write and re-write. A novel that will be published nearly a decade after my first book–that’s how long it took me to find new characters on which to fixate.

When I write, I think about the characters for a long time before I even sit down in front of a computer. I originally conceived of the principle characters in my new novel, James and Gillian, when I attended Columbia’s graduate writing program. Fifteen years ago. I’m methodic when it comes to my characters and they’re nearly realized when I set out to write a story.

Not this time. Half the time I wrote these stories without thinking. The characters arrived, fully-formed, and they were filled with rage. And when I first sent this book to my agent his response was measured–I think perhaps he was surprised that I managed to write a story darker than what I had just written.

I set the book aside for months and yesterday I spent the day re-reading the stories. To say I was disturbed would be an understatement. Although I loved what I composed on the page, I had to put the book down at times because it was just so fucking bleak. And it occurred to me that what I had written was a mirror of my depression, a lifetime coping with a condition that had only recently been diagnosed and treated. For years, I never understood when people told me what I write is sometimes difficult to read. My characters, while interesting to read, were helpless, hopeless. I’d laugh, confused, because it wasn’t as dark as it could be. Actually, the fact that my main character in my novel could be described as Ted Bundy with a whisk was kind of funny.

What started as a 230-page manuscript is now down to 120 pages. And I sat on my couch, I sit in this cafe, wondering where to take this. I have a 120 good pages but what do I do with this? How do I dig them out from the graves I’d dug with corners pristine and neat?

When I started taking anti-depressents I had the worry that most people have–would I change? When people ask me how now is different than before, the only way I can explain it is that there’s this door that never opens. I can feel sad, I can cry, I can hurt, but I don’t spiral. I’m not able to return to that dark country I’d once considered home. It’s like standing in front of a door while you’re crying, knocking, and someone on the other side telling you there’s no vacancy. There’s no room for you here. Go back to where you’ve come. And without drink, with therapy, I’m able to deal with all the things that I’d spent a lifetime avoiding. I uncovered aspects of my character that made me wince. There’s a reason for me being difficult but I can’t go on using it as an excuse. That’s the work I do, every day, and it’s hard.

And it’s hard to explain that while I’m in a much better place that I sometimes miss access to that place. I can write those 120 pages over but it would be different. I would be writing from beyond the place not in it. It would be seeing the dark from a distance rather than having it rise up all around you.

I don’t know how to write about the space I occupy–a place that temporarily exists between before and later on. It’s unfamiliar and requires a whole new vocabulary. Being here feels like a new language I have to learn and here’s me stuttering, messing up the verb tenses and conjunctions. Here’s me feeling my way around new words and being surrounded by kind people who help me with its pronounciation. That’s what three months back on track feels like.

So I wait, I guess. I wait until I can stop staring at a blank page, not knowing what to say and how to say it. I focus on getting better.

book buff depression

life lately

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You could say that the photograph above is an accurate representation of my life lately: frenetic, productive, and often chaotic. When I came home from a work trip a week ago, I felt out of sorts because the home I’d known for the whole of my life suddenly felt like a stranger. Everything in New York had become too loud, too fast, and the glare of cars streaking down Park and the sun rising up from behind tall buildings was entirely too blinding. I made a deliberate choice not to travel this year because, by definition, Los Angeles is new and I’m its tourist and there’s much to see. I promised myself I’d commit to this place, get to know it, and, more importantly, try to make a home and life for myself in a place thousands of miles away from the world, family, and friends I’d built in my prior life. So to say that my quick trip to New York was jarring would be an understatement, and when I boarded my flight back to L.A., I felt relieved in the same way I used to feel about flying into JFK.

I’ll be honest, it’s been hard to come to this space. Even now, even as I type this, I keep looking around my apartment for things to distract me because I don’t know how to explain exactly how I feel. Maybe the word pulled seems appropriate? Pulled away, pulled toward, pulled from? I’m working 70+ hour weeks to save enough money so I won’t be in the position I found myself for the past five months. I’m working to pay down the sizeable debt I’d accumulated during that time, and I’m logging these hours to save enough money to break my lease, move out of my apartment into a little house with a yard so Felix could play. Last week a friend comes over and we’re taking photographs for a client and my friend wonders aloud if I still have my designer shoes and handbags, and she stops herself and asks whether I’ve sold them all. I nod. I have, with no regrets. This week she brings over expensive leather that we don’t end up photographing. Instead, we play with avocados, eggs and rose petals. Instead, we do the thing we never did in New York–stop and see everything. Can I tell you that the best part of my day yesterday was when my friend kept pointing out places in Santa Monica that could serve as a backdrop for our client’s product? Can I tell you that the constant pause gave me joy? Because when you live in a city for a while, you tend to take it for granted. You tend to see less because you’ve already seen it, shapes and colors have already been committed to memory. You find that process to be efficient: see once, log, move on. Rarely do we return to that which we know to see it anew, to rediscover it, to take it less for granted.

Years ago, my yoga teacher told me that the mark of an advanced practitioner was not someone who could kick up into a handstand, rather it was someone who could return to a basics class and re-learn downward facing dog as if it was the first time she encountered the pose.

I haven’t read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in over a decade–it sat on my bookshelf collecting dust. I remembered the story only vaguely, on in parts, and when I read it for the first time I didn’t love it as much as I do now.

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I’ve been reading a slew of good, fast books (see above) that were endearing and honest. From a journalist with two decades of experience at Newsweek who’s forced to reinvent his career and work at a cultish start-up to a cookbook author who discovers her husband is having an affair while she’s seven months pregnant to a blogger turned essayist who’s just trying to get through her days without screaming–I felt acutely connected to each narrator in markedly different ways. When I finally came to re-read Murakami’s book, it felt like a clarion call. The dreamlike novel invites you to question your surroundings, it commands you to not get accustomed to the light and it compels you to ferret out the extraordinary from the ordinary.

“But finally, Mr. Wind Up Bird, isn’t that what life is? Aren’t we all trapped in the dark somewhere, and they’ve taken away our food and our water, and we’re slowly dying, little by little.” I laughed. “You’re too young to be so…pessimistic.” I said using the English word. “Pessimistic, pessimistic.” She repeated the English word to herself over and over, and then she looked up at me with a fierce glare. “I’m only sixteen,” she said, “and I don’t know much about the world, but I do know one thing for sure. If I’m pessimistic, then the adults in this world who are not pessimistic are a bunch of idiots.”

When I first read Wind-Up, I liked it but didn’t love it, and it took me a decade to understand the story’s quiet nobility. Much like my life right now the story is fantastic and dull, magical and ordinary. Much like the story’s main character, I’m trying to wade through the confusion and noise to get to the other side.


What I’ve been reading:
What if your mind’s eye was blind?
Amanda Peet on not crossing the Botox line.
What’s really wrong with the “do what you love” narrative.
The new mantra for Indian gurus is social media.
Why not post your failures for the world to see?
Today’s coffee shops are not far off from fraternization 350 years ago.
The uncanny value. Get depressed.

book buff

cookbooks worth coveting: a roundup

cookbooks

I own a lot of cookbooks–so much so that before I moved to Los Angeles I had a massive purge because books are HEAVY and expensive to cart across the country. Many of my books were acquired in 2002 when I started making things as a means to occupy my hands. At the time, I was recovering from one of many addictions and I needed to create something from nothing instead of pillaging everything in my wake. My first cookbook was Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess, where I learned how to make simple cakes and loaves. My experiences boiled down to a lot of trials, but mostly error, and let’s not talk about the time I used confectioner’s sugar instead of granulated in a cheesecake and say we did. Ina, Martha, Tyler, Giada–as my prowess grew so did my library. For nearly a decade, I identified myself as a baker of towering cakes and flaky pastries until a few years ago when a sickness ravaged my body and I had to gut renovate my diet.

That’s when the exploration really began.

My diet was paleo with grains, gluten-free vegan with meat–essentially, there was a hodgepodge of foods I could eat and a lot I couldn’t. My mainstays–pasta, paninis, muffins, and croissants had to be replaced with almond milk, nut creams, cauliflower and copious amounts of legumes and vegetables. The adjustment was a difficult one, and I purchased many cookbooks that inevitably gathered dust. I had to replace sugar and carbs with good fats and flavor, and it took me a while to regard my new batch of books without skepticism.

After last week’s burning hive assault (and my closing on a new project), I found myself returning to the cookbooks I’d briefly abandoned because over the past six months I’d slowly become addicted to cheese and yogurt and now those foods are verboten. Back to the drawing board, as it were.

Cookbooks these days are REALLY hit or miss. Many are published without the rigor of recipe testing or basic copyediting. Faulty measurements, obscure ingredients, and a bland finale often had me wanting to hurl my books out of the closest open window. Believe me when I say that these books are the BUSINESS.

The Paleo Kitchen: The only reason this fine book wasn’t included in the photo above is because I took the picture at 6:30am and I didn’t realize it wasn’t included until I started writing this post. Let me tell you, Juli Bauer’s book had me changed on the uber-trendy paleo lifestyle simply because the recipes are GOOD. The recipes are pretty easy to make (except for a cinnamon bun recipe that was lackluster), and most of the ingredients are probably in your pantry or easily accessible at your local market. Some of my favorites are the: sundried tomato sweet potato hash, sweet plantain guacamole, sage & shallot soup, pumpkin tomato soup, rosemary sundried tomato meatballs (WHOA), spaghetti squash chicken fritters (my top pick of the lot). I’ve made 70% of the recipes in The Paleo Kitchen and I was so pleased I purchased Bauer’s follow-up book, Paleo Cookbook.

The Oh She Glows Cookbook: After the purge of 2015, I now have about 50 cookbooks, and this one is in the top five. I LOVE THIS BOOK. As a proud carnivore, I’ve given a lot of vegan books the side-eye because I’m not a fan of faux meats or the idea that meat can be recreated, however, Liddon developed the most imaginative, tasty recipes. From her, I learned about using tofu and avocado in smoothies, desserts, and as a substitute for cream. I still think about my creamy avocado basil pesto pasta and faux vodka sauce made with cashew cream (so surprisingly good!). I made crave-worthy veggie burgers and a slew of soups, salads and main courses that won over the most discerning palates.

A Modern Way to Eat // At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen: Perhaps it’s the design of the books or the photography, but I use these two clean-eating tomes interchangeably and often. A Modern Way delivers wholesome, flavorful vegetarian recipes including green fritters (LOVED these), the perfect chili, squash tarts, pizza, hummus a million ways, chickpea and veg stews and some of the tastier desserts I’ve encountered. Judging by the markings in At Home in the Whole Food, I use this book a bit more. This is the book on which I relied to build and outfit a whole food pantry. Grains and legumes are discussed in excruciating detail, and I came away with a great deal of knowledge about the food I was about to consume (as well as the corresponding health benefits). From the simple red lentil soup and blackberry cornmeal muffins to the best cherry coconut granola you’ll ever make–the recipes are filling, complex and delightful. I’m loath to use the word marvelous, but you’ll feel a sense of wonder paging through the book. I’ve made over 50% of the recipes in this book and I’ve yet to encounter a flop.

Cravings: FML with this book. Of course, this book came into my life the very week I had to stop consuming dairy. Many of the recipes contain cheese and you will weep salty dairy tears. I wouldn’t dare say that this book is healthy by any stretch of the imagination, but the recipes are drool-worthy. You will want to make all the food and lick all the plates. I’ve made four dishes out of the book pretty successfully, and I’m trying to devise ways to manipulate the recipes for my palate. I’ve found that nuts + nutritional yeast + seasonings evoke the flavor of spicier cheeses even if I know in my heart that the alternative pales in comparison to the original. I’m having a dinner party this week and I’m making the brussels sprout + kale salads as well as the eggplant baked ziti with mozzarella bombs. I plan on staring at my friends while they feast on fried eggplant and cheese while I toss around dairy-free pesto pasta on my plate. SOB.

Kitchen Stories: My friend Denise Hung, culinary pro and astute coffee connoisseur, is one-half of the genius duo who authored this great book. I met Denise while I was in Singapore last year and it was heart-at-first-sight. The book centers recipes around certain moods and emotional states, and although you’ll have to master the metric system (there exists no U.S. version of this book), the simple and delectable recipes are worth the stretch.

cookbooks

the bullshit "be positive" vs. the realistic "be hopeful" narrative

Santa Monica, Los Angeles

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. –from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable

 

Every morning I wake and clean my home. I spray and wipe down the counters and the stove burners. I sweep and vacuum the floors, load the dishwasher, and make my bed, freshen the sheets. Twice a day I shower and wear clothes that are clean and pressed. I spray perfume on my neck and rub moisturizer on my face. On good days, I wear red lipstick. On bad days, I carry Chapstick and apply and reapply until the possibility of gliding over my face becomes a reality. Admittedly, part of this desire to clean and be clean stems from growing up in a home that was unkempt, unclean. It comes from a compulsion based on control, the need to create order where none exists. Then I walk as far as I can go, to the point where a ticker-tape of cars separates me from the ocean, and I’m comforted by limits, a self-imposed pause, and confinement–there are still places I can’t reach yet the cars keep moving. Life goes on.

my fortune foretoldI walk the length of the boardwalk and spend a little money for a machine, featuring a fortune teller named Zoltar, to tell me my fortune. Despair not I say for your days of despair will soon be over. And then this: You have many friends, particularly in the armed forces. I carry this ticket, my fortune foretold, everywhere I go, as if it’s a fakir ready to ferret out the light in what feels like a constant darkness. As if I have a platoon at my disposal, ready to wage war against the past seven months I’ve lived in disquiet. Already, the stub is worn from my hope and handling.

Ours was a generation that was instructed to Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Amidst pestilence, war, economic uncertainty, cultural apathy, and a generation who wanted to pull the covers over our collective heads to escape all the bullshit we were burdened to bear, we were taught to “reframe the narrative”, to turn the beat around, to think happy thoughts and remain on an even keel. Sadness was greeted with the refrain: Be positive! So we wore our masks and whitewashed the story of ourselves that we presented to others. We refused to be a drag, to invite others to stand in our darkness. Being positive doesn’t allow for unsettling thoughts to creep and burrow in. Being positive excises anything that’s malignant in nature, but stand in the light long enough and you’ll end up burned by it. The benign becomes malignant by the sheer act of living a life in a single extreme; our happiness brings forth a kind of inoperable cancer. Breed happiness long enough and you’ll find yourself smothered by the mask you so readily affixed and tightened over your face. Be positive, you’re instructed, even if you can’t breathe. Even if you end up choking on your self-imposed glee and your face remains paralyzed in the shape of a teeth-baring smile.

I think about my simple routines: cleaning house and taking care, and wonder why I bother maintaining something I’ll likely lose. Why do I cart around a stub from a machine that spits out fortune-cookie predictions like it’s some sort of talisman?

Hope.

The very brilliant Rebecca Solnit views hope as a kind of opening in the context of uncertainty. It neither predicates a fairytale ending or doom, rather it allows for space to navigate between the two and move toward something other. Hope accounts for the totality of experience to arrive at a new reality. She writes,

It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.

I carry my fortune as I stare at an inbox willing projects to come in. I sweep and scrub the floors because hope isn’t about giving up, it’s a pressing on. It’s the will to get through something by going through it, acknowledging and settling into the fear, anger, sorrow, regret and despair that accompanies that journey through, out, and beyond.

For me, drinking has served as an anaesthetic, a way in which I can prolong the inevitable. My reality still exists it’s only my dealing with it that’s put on pause. So when I hear the words “be positive”, it feels like anaesthesia, albeit in a different form. “Be positive” invites you to be myopic, to set aside real emotion for an architected one. “Be positive” is an Icarus jetting up to the sun in wings fashioned from feather and wax. Daedalus, his father, warned him to fly neither too low or too high, so the sea’s dampness would not clog his wings or the sun’s heat melt them, but the pleas went ignored, and Icarus plummeted as precipitously as he ascended. There’s no nobility is oscillating between the extremes, but there is value in existing between them. And that value is hope.

I think about Beckett’s line, I can’t go, I’ll go on, and I see it as a carrion call for hope. When your current existence feels unmanageable, when you think that the possibility of going on is fatuous and futile, there exists a part of you (and its size may vary depending on the context of your darkness, among other things, but it does exist) that whispers: Keep moving. One day, that voice shouts: Go on. If I don’t close on a project in the next few weeks, I’ll lose my apartment. Keep cleaning. I’ll lose everything I’ve spent decades building. Get out of bed, take your pills, move through your day because even the possibility of getting better far exceeds the bottomless fall if you don’t try. If you don’t go on. Hope is straddling a dual interior narrative, a war between why bother and yes, you need to bother. Hope carries the burden of the two and it’s what moves you slowly out of the dark into the grey and cloudy and hopefully, into the light. The journey is long, hard, gradual and hardly linear, but it’s a trip worth taking. Hope promises you this. It promises that you’ll learn something from the journey that aids you, even if the destination is not one of myth and fairytales.


 

On a related note, I’ve been humbled and grateful for your support these past few weeks. I don’t write long emails and I’m not one for long comments, but please know that I’m finding your kindness to be a great salve. And to the few amazingly generous people who’ve contacted me to send me funds–it made me hope to be at a place where I can extend the same kindness to someone else. Thank you. xo

depression