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.

book buff

tell them stories

Death the Stock Photo
You can copy me, make a portrait as precise as an artist, but my shit will always remain mine, and yours will be yours. Ah, Lenu, what happens to us all, we’re like pipes when the water freezes, what a terrible thing a dissatisfied mind is. You remember what we did with my wedding picture? I want to continue on that path. The day will come when I reduce myself to a diagram. I’ll become a perforated tape and you won’t find me anymore. –From Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

You’ll hear sort of a strange sound, the dentist tells me. He says not to worry (I worry), this is what you hear when metal breaks metal. We’re here to excavate, to break things in your mouth and put them back to together again. He shines a white light over my molars and this puts me to thinking of fireflies and I imagine a colony of them fluttering out of my mouth and out the window. This is where my mind goes when two faces are an inch from mine, and the only words exchanged are the names of the various tools entering and leaving my gaped mouth. The word suction is used a lot and I think about how much I loathe the mollusk. After, the dentist starts to talk about the strategy for my teeth because there’s so much decay. Part of the strategy centers around containment. We will drill and plunge metal into the open spaces in your mouth until your jaw shakes because once the decay hits the nerve, we’ve got a whole new strategy, a host of new words and technical procedures to deploy. While I work in marketing and often use words like “strategy” and “tactics,” for some reason, hearing them in the dentist’s office disturbs me.

Half of my face is numb, and beyond the costly nature of these procedures, I keep thinking that my mouth is an abattoir, which could either mean that I’m one who harbors the remains of things (there is constant death in this house. Do you smell it? Do you feel it rise up around you?) or one who’s about to face a series of endings (the house where we extinguish all the lights; last call! last call!).

Smoke came out of my mouth. And bits of metal. The numbness recedes and there is only this dull, persistent ache. The drugs don’t work, I don’t know why I keep taking them–habit, I guess. I nap, send emails, and laugh over the fact that nearly 30,000 people read a post that took me thirty minutes to write but I can’t sell a novel that took two years of my life because it’s too dark, too hard, and didn’t you know, kid, we’re in the business of easy. We’re in the business of from manuscript to bookshelf. We like our corners neat, characters that color in and around the lines.

No one likes sociopaths, characters that create new coloring books instead of dancing for show in the old ones. Readers are puppeteers, they need to pull all the strings and they want their redemption stories. They want to close their books or shut their screens knowing that the story they’ve just read came to its natural conclusion; we’re done with that dirty business now. We can set the story aside knowing that the world has been magically set to rights. Even when we know that people are far from neat–they are untidy, sometimes melancholy or shamelessly cruel–and endings are rarely, if ever, clean and natural.

May I point out something? You always use true and truthfully, when you speak and when you write. Or you say: unexpectedly. But when do people ever speak truthfully and when do things ever happen unexpectedly? You know better than I that it’s all a fraud and that one thing follows another and then another. I don’t do anything truthfully anymore, Lenu. And I’ve learned to pay attention to things. Only idiots believe that they happen unexpectedly. –Lila, in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Two years ago I started a novel about broken children, a brother and sister come undone as a result of two generations of parents who weren’t adept at familial love. I wrote about a complicated relationship between a mother and daughter, one more artfully conceived that the one I portrayed in my non-fiction, because while time takes it all away it also gives you depth and perspective. At the opening of the novel, we learn that the mother dies of terminal cancer, and the daughter flees herself and her surroundings. There are many journeys west because everyone knows that the east has fallen to blight, it’s its own self-contained ruin.

How could I know that fiction would breed fact, and I would learn that my mother is indeed dying in the same space in time where I’ve planned a move out west? How could I have known that I’d write my way here? I will never say or write more than the two lines I’ve just written–I’m choosing to deal with this privately, but right now, right this moment I feel empty.

As the dentist is about to drill I say that I’m a compulsive flosser, and he tells me that there is a hole in my tooth and there are some things I can’t get to. Places that are hollow and empty. And now, I feel the weight of that emptiness, wondering if it’s possible to feel so the burden of loss yet feel nothing all at once? I often return to Joan Didion and her line, we tell stories in order to live, and I believe that, wholly, but what if we don’t yet know the shape of our own story. What if we wrote our way to one place and all we want to do is write our way to another? I wrote a novel I loved, completely, and now I can’t even bear to read it. My agent forwards me long emails from editors quoting lines from my book, talking about the “brilliance of the prose” and whatever, and all I could do is stand in the middle of the street, cold, and say that I want to write another book. Maybe I’ll go to Europe instead of out west. How do I tell him that I feel nothing?

When I was small I had a teacher, Dr. Wasserman, who read all the stories I wrote on sheets of loose-leaf paper and urged me to read them aloud. Tell them stories. Make them listen. Everything they want to hear. Give them animal, mineral, wood, brick and lye. Here is my life. You own it all, it’s yours. And the days climb over one another, clobbering and competing, and memory is ephemeral, fleeting. You remember how a certain wine tasted or how it felt when he laid his chin on your shoulder and left it there. You remember a day spent with a dear friend and two forks diving into a single plate. And you fight hard to keep these images in the frame because soon they’ll be eclipsed by things you don’t want to see, voices you don’t want to hear, words you don’t want to read. How did you keep the light in the picture?

All my friends want to meet for coffee or dinner and want me to tell them my story of moving out west or whatever it is I plan to do. All these editors, who won’t bid on the dark, write they can’t wait for new stories from me, all! that! light!

I don’t know where I’ll go. I’m writing my way around myself, talking in circles, about what will instead of what is. Because right now things are messy, untidy, and dark and people squirm around in that. There is an expiration date for how much disquiet one could write, or this is this expectation that we can exchange grief: here is my sad story and now I’ll hear yours because it’s fair that way. So I give them and everyone what they want to hear, speaking in exclamation points, and use this space, and private spaces, for myself. To tell the stories that are really happening. Stories that are incomplete, of a life not foretold.

I do know this. I’m in the business of leaving, and although I have no idea how I will sort out all the logistics, part of me can’t wait to board a plane to who knows where to do who knows what. I’ll tell those stories then, when they happen. When I’m ready.

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.

the gathering kind

one night in bangkok + the business of leaving

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I’m rotten at goodbyes. Years ago an old friend from the party days and I sat on a cold Miami beach, watching the sun settle into the waves that had turned black. I told her about a storm that promised to advance and she shook her head and said that the clouds were temporary, the darkness would inevitably pass. We took this trip–a weekend in a cheap motel and dinner in a fancier one–because the following week she would pack all her belongings and travel cross-country to California. While she loved New York, she ached for home–the cresting waves and fresh fish you could tear apart with your fingers. She missed being in a car, driving it, and while I tried to convince her that she was mad for leaving–who would volunteer to spend an hour in a car to inch forward half a mile?–she wouldn’t hear any of it. What I didn’t tell her was that I liked being in a car with her. You sleep while I drive. What I didn’t tell her was the thing I’d miss most about her was the drive between West Hollywood and Newport Beach. How the darkness fell and I allowed myself to settle, to sleep. But how could I explain that? How could I tell her that I allowed myself to be vulnerable with her? Always I’d hear my mother’s voice whispering in my hair, never be vulnerable, never cry, never hold a love so deep it threatens to complete.

I don’t think she knows it, how I loved her beyond the mansion parties and bathroom stall parties. Still. To this day. But that’s the thing about goodbyes–they never are what you want them to be.

In Bangkok, another friend and I sit poolside in a posh hotel and I tell her stories. We drink watermelon drinks and watch the lights paint the sky, and I tell her about the kind of woman I used to be. We laugh like children and I try to remain in that moment for as long as I possibly can. But there are always buts, interruptions, the things that lie ahead-the storm on the horizon–that threaten the space you now occupy. I keep telling myself to come back, to sit in this moment because it’s one of the good ones. It’s one I’ll remember–an image of two friends laughing, happy.

Truth be told, this trip wasn’t what I intended. The point was to rest, get focused, and come home prepared for another storm: the projects for which I’d have to pitch, the business of book publishing, the what’s next, what do I do, and all that, and I didn’t quite get there. Along the way I encountered a stress I hadn’t quite anticipated, another friend who decided to lay down her mask and reveal the darkness underneath, and everything within me seized. There were downpours. There were Skype calls and alterations to a journey en media res, and my other friend and I found ourselves back in Bangkok. We spent the night feasting and slipping back into our respective silences; we are women who crave solitude. During the day we visited coconut sugar and orchid gardens and floating markets outside of Bangkok, and burned our mouths eating coconut pancakes served from river boats and juicy mangos cut with the sharpest of knives. This was our final day and we would toast our return to New York and close our eyes to the storm that had departed as swiftly as it had advanced.

Now I sit in a hotel lobby caught in the-betweens. Anxious. Tense. I’m not quite where I was at the start of this journey, but I’m not really where I want to be. I fly back to so much uncertainty. Will I secure another project? Will my father get his surgery? Will I sell my novel? Will I figure out what it is that I’m meant to do? Will I? Will I?

I guess the only thing I know is this: I’m finally happy. And perhaps I should hold on to that? Hold it close to my chest like a suit of armor that could battle any storm that threatens to ruin.

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thailand + cambodia traveling girl

glowing strawberry-mango guacamole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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dairy-free recipes gluten-free vegetable recipes

hot cross buns {without the cross}

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It feels nice to be a human again. After a week of disturbed sleep, a case of the blues and a hacking cough, I feel as if I’ve finally turned a corner, nipped this flu in the proverbial bud as it were. I’ve still got the terrible cough, but at least I can move without wincing and my mind is finally focused and clear. So much so that I printed out a few chapters from my novel last night and spent some quiet time editing.

Looking back, it’s incredible how a bout of illness can cast a dark film over the whole of one’s world. This makes me even more grateful for the calls and notes from friends and loved ones, which served as little shards of light intent on nicking away at the dark.

I’m saying dark a lot, I realize, perhaps one of the reasons being is that I changed the title of my novel from Mammoth to Follow Me Into the Dark. I always tell writers that a book is never what you set out for it to be. Once you think you’ve identified what it is, it changes its form. Novel writing is tricky this way, and while working pretty deep in the second, meatier part of my novel, I started to think about light and dark as easy and much more subtle metaphors, as opposites and partners. I played with inverting our meaning of light and dark, and all of this felt right for the story I’m trying to tell. Vague, yes, but this was a pretty big breakthrough for me as I hit 170 solid pages.

Then there’s PART THREE. GULP.

Anyway, in lieu of not working out for four days {I decided to stop being a hero and rest and recover}, I baked like a fiend, and thank god I made these hot cross buns without the cross because right now I’m hankering for one of these bad boys slathered in almond butter.

Enjoy your week!

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Donna Hay, with modifications
For the buns
1 tbsp active dry yeast
½ cup (110g) cane sugar
1½ cups (375ml) lukewarm milk {temperature barely hits 100F}
4¼ cups (635g) unbleached, all-purpose flour, sifted
2 tsp mixed spice
2 tsp ground cinnamon
50g (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg
1½ cups (240g) dried cherries + cranberries
unsalted butter, to serve

For the glaze
1 tbsp water
2 tsp gelatine powder
½ cup (110g) cane sugar
¼ cup (60ml) water, extra

DIRECTIONS
Place the yeast, 2 teaspoons sugar and the milk in a large bowl and set aside for 5 minutes. The mixture will start to foam, indicating that the yeast is active. Add the flour, mixed spice, cinnamon, butter, egg, sultanas, mixed peel and remaining sugar to the yeast mixture and mix until a sticky dough forms. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for 8 minutes or until elastic. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean, damp cloth and set aside in a warm place for 1 hour or until doubled in size.

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Divide the dough into 12 pieces and roll into balls. Arrange the dough balls in a lightly greased 22cm square cake tin lined with non-stick baking paper. Cover with a damp cloth and set aside in a warm place for 30 minutes or until risen.

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Preheat oven to 200°C (400°F). Place the extra flour and the water in a bowl and stir to combine. Place in a piping bag or a plastic bag with one corner snipped off, and pipe crosses on the buns. Bake for 30–35 minutes or until golden and springy to touch.

While the hot cross buns are baking, make the glaze. Place the water in a small bowl and sprinkle over the gelatine. Set aside for 1–2 minutes or until the gelatine is dissolved. Set aside. Place the sugar and extra water in a small saucepan over low heat and cook, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Use a wet pastry brush to remove any sugar crystals on the side of the pan. Add the gelatin mixture and cook for 1–2 minutes or until the gelatin is dissolved. Brush with the warm glaze while the buns are still hot.

Serve warm with butter. Makes 12.

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bread recipes pastry + bun recipes sweet recipes

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.

book buff