on my bookshelf + the cruel novel-writing process that makes you want to gouge your eyes out

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Believe me when I say that at this very moment I want to gouge out my eyes with a spoon. After spending two weeks writing and editing twelve pages from one of the most difficult chapters I’ve ever written, I’ve come to realize that a single line can change everything. I’ve never written from a child’s point-of-view {except for when I was a child writing short, dark stories}, perhaps for the sole reason that your range is limited. You’re in this magnificent box which can be made truly beautiful by the fact that a child still has the capacity for newness and wonder, but at the same time a child’s voice presents a technical nightmare. I can’t move the story swiftly; my perception is limited, my understanding of the world around me has to be crude and unsophisticated, aided only by a child parroting the adult voices around them. Those voices fill in the blanks, and I’ve had to rely on them in order to create scenes that were truly horrifying for more reasons than a ten-year-old could possibly understand.

And then I wrote that one line because it felt right intuitive, and then I felt a sharp pain because I knew I’d have to revisit the 116 pages I just perfected to make sure timelines synch, and more importantly, this revelation isn’t forced onto the story.

This is a long-winded way of saying that this book is hard. Damn hard. What is that someone once said relating novel-writing to having a child? That you forget about the pain long after the magic takes form and reveals itself in its definitive shape.

All the while, it’s imperative that I read. Reading keeps me sharp, gives me ideas, teaches me how other authors navigate structure and the terrain of unreliability. I read poems because they remind me that a thing isn’t simply one thing. A pool can be a structure that is filled with water, or it could be a coffin. A barnacle can be a crustacean that affixes itself on ships and wet rocks, or it can a symbol of unhealthy attachment. Poems remind me that language must be reinvented, that the economy of every line is tantamount. Take Emily Dickinson’s The Gorgeous Nothings. I discovered the coffee table book of Dickinson’s back-of-the-envelope poetry in a bookstore and was fascinated by how she was able to challenge rhyme and meter and our fundamental understanding of ourselves in just a few scribbled lines. I’ve read through this gorgeous collection and found myself excited for wordplay.

Right now, I’m reading Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, a magnificent novel that centers on the lives of three strangers converging. The prose is swift, smart and economic, and it’s teaching how to move fluidly through narrative, as structure is something with which I struggle in writing. Please know the irony of this does not escape me.

While reading for autodidactic means is always helpful, it’s not necessarily fun. So when I crave joy, wry humor and audacious wit, Gary Shteyngart’s novels win me over every time. His recent memoir, Little Failure is a departure from his novels in the sense that the author’s vulnerability is visceral, real, and I can relate to someone who seeks words as a salve for pain and a means to redefine a world in which you don’t seem to fit.

Finally, I’ve ordered Susan Minot’s Thirty Girls because Susan Minot, and on strong recommendation from several friends, I scored Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, because cultivating smart habits this year will keep me grounded.

rye crumble bars, chocolate almond biscotti, and a reminder to only roll with people whom you adore

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Surround yourself with people who inspire you, people who bolt you out of bed and invite you to create, build, awaken, and reimagine. Be with those who nourish rather than those who cling and drain every last vestige of energy out of you. Beware of the barnacles, I tell my friends, for their spindly legs and hour-long coffees will create the most cruel of attachments. My circle is small, and I’ve learned how to draw the right people in, while excising the barnacles with surgical precision.

Rarely do I ever walk into the workplace expecting to find friends, but I leave it hoping to ferret out a few people whom I want to more. After I resigned from my job last year, I’ve maintained strong ties with a handful of people — some who reported to me, others on the periphery — and every day I’m surprised by the turns our respective friendships take. Some of those relationships function as a reciprocal mentorship (as I’ve as to learn from my millennial counterparts as they from me), while a rare few have dovetailed into something more. More than just the quick bite and easy coffee, but to long afternoons spent in a kitchen, making something from nothing.

As I type this, I keep thinking about a book I saw yesterday, The Gorgeous Nothings, and I can’t get that title, nor the contents — a collection of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems — out of my head. Perhaps it’s Dickinson’s definition of the word no: the wildest | word we consign | to Language.

Over the past few years I’ve practiced the art of the graceful refusal, saying no without actually saying the word, because I prefer my world minimal so I can explore the maximum. I’ve a handful of people in my life to whom I devote an extraordinary amount of effort, and lately I’ve seen these relationships — this investment — bloom in ways that continue to astound me.

Today I spent the day with my friend Courtney, who is this stylish, witty prolific writer, who loves baking as much as I do, and is arguably more brilliant than she gives herself credit for. We spent the afternoon baking two recipes she selected, and I’m glad she pushed me out of my repertoire. Because, RYE FLOUR. What started as a few emails traded became a topic of an hour-long discussion.

We agreed that RYE FLOUR is on the verge, on the precipice of something significant. We’re talking boy-band status. Rye isn’t polarizing like buckwheat, nor is it as dense and tasteless as whole wheat, rather it imbues a depth of flavor and an earthiness that can’t be replicated. We couldn’t imagine anyone hating on rye. As such, we’ve deemed it the Switzerland of flours. I see rye in scones, oatmeal cookies and hearty breads and savory loaves. As I type, I’m imagining the cheese pairing possibilities.

We tried a biscotti recipe as biscotti tends to be a bastard cookie. Twice-baked, it’s often considered too dry, the stuff of sawdust and rubble, but we were determined to make this rich chocolate version and do some coffee dunking. We were determined to eat sweets until we went into cardiac shock.

Through all the sifting, melting, mixing, and respective cell phone timers, we spoke a great deal about the future, where we were headed, and how we thought about how we’d get there. I’m grateful for the fact that our conversations no longer surrounded the place of work from which we’ve come, but have evolved instead to the exciting women we are becoming.

Although we found the biscotti lacking that sharp juxtaposition of flavor (it needed a citrus, a cherry, or a more pungent nut), we fell madly in love with the rye bars. And when Courtney left, I hugged her, humbled to have found another bright light in a sometimes dark, frenetic city.

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INGREDIENTS: Chocolate Almond Biscotti: Recipe courtesy of David Lebovitz
For the biscotti
2 cups (280g) flour
3/4 cups (75g) top-quality cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup (200g) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup (125g) almonds, toasted and very coarsely-chopped
3/4 cups (120g) chocolate chips
For the glaze

1 large egg
2 tablespoons coarse or crystal sugar

DIRECTIONS
Preheat the oven to 350F (180C) degrees. In a small bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.

In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat together the 3 eggs, sugar, and vanilla + almond extracts. Gradually add the dry ingredients, then mix in the nuts and the chocolate chips until the dough holds together.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Divide the dough in half. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into two logs the length of the baking sheet. Transfer the logs onto the baking sheet, evenly spaced apart.

Gently flatten the tops of the logs. Beat the remaining egg and brush the tops of the logs liberally with the egg. (You won’t use it all). Sprinkle the tops with the coarse or crystal sugar and bake for 25 minutes, until the dough feels firm to the touch.

Remove the cookie dough from the oven and cool 15 minutes. On a cutting board, use a serrated bread knife to diagonally cut the cookies into 1/2-inches slices. Lay the cookies cut side down on baking sheets and return to the oven for 20 to 30 minutes, turning the baking sheet midway during baking, until the cookies feel mostly firm.

Once baked, cool the cookies completely then store in an airtight container for up to two weeks. If you wish, the cookies can be half-dipped in melted chocolate, then cooled until the chocolate hardens.

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INGREDIENTS: Rye Crumble Bars with Jam: Recipe courtesy of Orangette, with slight modifications
For the shortbread crust:
65 grams (½ cup) dark rye flour
120 grams (1 cup) all-purpose flour
50 grams (1/3 cup) dark brown sugar
½ tsp. kosher salt
113 grams (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 tsp. vanilla extract

For the crumble:
100 grams (1 cup) rolled oats
32 grams (3 Tbsp.) dark brown sugar
52 grams (¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp.) dark rye flour
30 grams (¼ cup) all-purpose flour
38 grams (3 tbsp) cane sugar
1 tsp. kosher salt
85 grams (6 tbsp) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly

To assemble:
350 ml (1 ½ cups) mixed berry or cherry jam/preserves

DIRECTIONS
Set a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat to 350°F. Rub a 9-inch springform pan with butter, or grease with cooking spray.

To make the shortbread crust, combine the flours, sugar, and salt in a large bowl, and whisk to mix well. Add the melted butter and vanilla extract, and stir until thoroughly combined. Using your hands, press the dough evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes, while you make the crumble.

To make the crumble, combine all of the ingredients + melted butter into the bowl and stir with your hands to create small crumbly bits. Set aside. After 30 minutes remove the shortbread crust from the freezer.

To assemble the bars, spread the preserves over the shortbread crust, and then top with the crumble, evenly sprinkling it over the surface and squeezing bits of it together to create irregular nubs. Bake for 50 to 55 minutes, or until golden brown on top, rotating the pan halfway through for even baking.

When the pan is cool enough to handle but still warm, run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan to loosen any jam that may have stuck. Remove the ring. Completely (or mostly, anyway) cool the bars on the pan base before cutting into wedges.

Cook’s Notes: The original directions had us baking these bars for nearly two hours. Courtney and I shook our heads, pontificating on the insanity of baking any sort of bar for two hours, so we settled on an assembly and baking these for 55 minutes, and the bars turned out magical.

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baked squash with millet and caponata

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Why not have a big life? — Emily Dickinson

Why not have a big life? Have the most extraordinary life there is? Why settle for anything less than extraordinary? Why not live every day jumping out of bed and hurtling yourself into the trees? Why not fall in love with yourself all over again? Why not sleep the sleep of children? Why not take the sun like sacrament? Why not read a book and then read it again? Why not ride the subway to the end of the line? Why not eat a slice of cake in the morning? Why not forget the calories? Why not watch cartoons like you used to? Why not email everyone you know and tell them you love them, love them, love them, just because.

Why not break ranks? Why not tumble out to the unknown?

Today I woke and fell in love with my life. And I finally could see myself here, and then myself, there. And I could finally draw a line between the two.

Did I mention I took my first French class today and that I. LOVED. IT.? And did I mention I got over my fear of eggplant and dove right into this delicious bit of healthy heaven? Did I…Did I?!

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Blue Apron Meals (serves 2; 525 calories/serving)
2 medium acorn squash
1/2 cup millet*
1 small zucchini
1 small eggplant
1 red pepper
3 cloves garlic
1 bunch parsley (2-3 tbsp chopped)
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp raw (cane) sugar
2 oz goat cheese
2 tbsp of olive oil

*If you can’t access millet, I think quinoa or bulgur wheat would do quite nicely.

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DIRECTIONS
First, pre-heat your oven to 425F and put a medium pot of water to a boil. Cut the tops off the squash, then scoop out the seeds. Although this recipe doesn’t use the seeds, I love them roasted and tossed with some chili (yum!). But I digress. Drizzle the squash with a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper, then place them in the oven on a baking sheet. Since the oil drizzled on my pan I managed to set off the fire alarm in my apartment every thirty seconds. Note to self: line the pan with parchment paper to prevent smoking.

Dice the zucchini, eggplant and red pepper (making sure you de-seed the pepper). Then chop the garlic and roughly chop the parsley. Once the water is boiling, add the millet and boil for 10 minutes, or until the it is tender.

Drizzle 1 tbsp of olive oil into a medium pan, then turn the heat to high. Sauté the eggplant, zucchini and red pepper for 3-4 minutes until the vegetables are soft. It’s important that you cut your vegetables around the same size so that they’ll cook evenly. You may need to add another tbsp of olive oil while your cooking the veggies. After 4 minutes, add the garlic and sugar, and sauté for 30 seconds. Then add the vinegar and most of the parsley. This is your caponata.

Once the millet is done, drain and add to the pan with the caponata. Stir until well combined, then remove from the heat.

Next, remove the squash from the oven and fill with your caponata mixture. Sprinkle the goat cheese over the top, then bake for 15 more minutes, or until the squash is completely tender. If you have extra filling, save it to serve alongside the squash.

Once the squash is tender, remove from the oven and garnish with the remaining parsley and DIG IN!

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