Posted on January 27, 2015
Of course Willie noticed it first, I now think: children major in the study of their mothers, and Willie has the elder child’s umbilical awareness of me. But how is it that I didn’t even question a weight loss striking enough for a child to speak up about? I was too happy enjoying this unexpected gift to question it even briefly: the American woman’s yearning for thinness is so deeply a part of me that it never crossed my mind that a weight loss could herald something other than good fortune. –from Marjorie Williams’s “A Matter of Life and Death”
To be honest, it’s been hard coming to this space over the past few days. Every post has been a series of stops and starts because I feel like the person who invited a few friends over for dinner and then opened her door to witness an entire village whispering at her feet. I don’t host parties; crowds give me vertigo, and I usually recede from waves of intensity. There’s the noise and chatter in my offline life–most of which I keep private and sacred–so this space has always served as my refuge. My source of calm and quiet amidst the noise that’s life. Is it strange to say that I write and think better when I think no one is reading or listening? When it’s just me in my home on these keys typing my way out of the dark?
I’ve been thinking about fear a lot. How it can be all-consuming, how it cradles you. How it tells you it’s the one lover who will never leave. At work yesterday, I talk to a colleague who views me as her mentor, and she confides to me about a series of fears that have to do with control. She can’t board a plane; she worries when people don’t immediately text her back–and as she makes her list I see in her face that these fears are real, crippling. Her shoulders cave inward, she becomes slightly undone. I spend an hour with her telling her that it never is as bad as we think it’ll be. Fear is a wall we’ve built to protect us from what’s unseen, from what our imagination conjures, from the unimaginable. But imagine the unimaginable. Play out the scene, and you’ll see that you can weather almost anything. The fear is always worse than what’s just beyond it, the elusive tragedy just beyond our reach. I spent the great deal of my life in fear of bandaids, of ripping the off, so I erected a wall and kept it standing through my excessive drinking.
The two times I quit the drink I ripped off the bandaids and while there was pain (there will always be immediate pain), the intensity of which began to fade over time and I took the days as they lay. I breathed through difficult spots because the ebb and flow of life, that paid which I’d conquered to bear witness to the light on the other side — all of this was greater than having not felt any of it at all. I’d rather endure sorrow and heartbreak rather than elude it, because we tend to forget that what we fear is temporary, and that states alter and transform. How we tether to fear is really a manipulation of time because we don’t want change. We don’t want the things we can’t control or see, so we tend to fear like it’s our private garden because it’s the one emotion whose state we think we can control.
Over the weekend, I read a remarkable essay that put my heart on pause. It was funny, acerbic, valiant, heartbreakingly honest, and downright beautiful. A writer is diagnosed with Stage IV liver cancer and delivered a death sentence of 3-6 months and manages to live out four years. Within that space of borrowed time, she doesn’t have time for fear because she knows what’s on the other side of it, so instead she uses what little time she has to live, love and laugh. She tries to live her best life. She calls out people and their pithy platitudes and breathes through each treatment, doctor visit and precious moments with her family. I read the essay twice and wept both times. It was a deep cry because I was overwhelmed by her strength, vulnerability and beauty. How she starts the story one way and ends in another place. How fear exists (how could it not?) but it’s a door she kicks down, a wall she breaks through, because why should she allow it to take her away from that which she loves?
Immediately after, I read another essay about a young man who traveled to Africa in the 1960s and began his odyssey on collecting oral history. He was told that oral storytelling was a dead art; he was told that traveling through Africa, post-apartheid, wasn’t the wisest idea. He knew that he couldn’t understand and translate the nuances of dialect and how one tells a story, but he did it anyway. He walked thousands of miles, knocked on doors, begged friends for fresh batteries, and came back to the U.S. changed.
I never had a car, I never had an interpreter or a translator, I simply started walking. –Harold Scheub
On the surface the two essays couldn’t be more different. Yet, both remained with me over the weekend and even through the first long day back at work (is it just me or did Monday feel like a month?). Both made me think about fear and the possibilities beyond it. The things I can’t see. It made me think of risk versus reward. It made me quietly reflect on my own fears.
As many of you know, I’m embarking on a trip out west this year. A year-long journey where I plan to live in four different cities, places antithetical to New York–all in pursuit of my return to wonder. I’m starting my journey in New Mexico and ending it in Seattle, and who knows what will happen during the year or the hours after. And while this is SO EXCITING, and all of my friends want to hear every detail and plan, I’m terrified. I’m afraid that I won’t secure enough freelance work to keep me afloat because so much of my life is bound to New York. I’m afraid of losing my apartment even though I realize how innane that sounds. I’m afraid of feeling lonely even though I mostly like to spend my time with very few people or alone. I’m afraid that I’ll fail in a way I can’t quite identify. I’m afraid that I won’t have enough money to keep paying off my mountain of debt. I’m afraid of the people I might lose even though I know in my heart that people can’t be lost. I’m afraid of getting into a car and driving it. I’m afraid of being in places unknown to me even though I travel extensively and, at turns, thrilled with the idea of living in the unfamiliar. I’m afraid of getting on a plane (always). I’m afraid of lots of things I’d rather not share on this space.
But then I re-read these essays, get inspired by people who lived bravely and valiantly. People who broke ranks by moving past fear. I think about that. A lot. And then I think about my trip and all that’s waiting for me on the other side.
Posted on January 15, 2015
Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer…Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation.’ You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page. –Zadie Smith
I’m going to say something that’s a bit controversial: there’s a deluge of terrible writing on the internet. What I love about the online space and the advent of digital technology–the democratization of voices and the ease in which unknown greats can rise above the din and find shelter with a receptive audience–has also given way to the sense that everyone who has a piece of virtual real estate can call themselves a writer and live this carefully curated “writer’s life,” replete with a gleaming laptop, unsullied notebooks, and a weathered coffee mug. I never quite understood this notion of a romanticized writer’s life because when I attempted such a life it was rife with financial anxiety and the paralyzing fear that I wasn’t any good–I always thought I was second-rate. While there are so many resources devoted to the art of making one a better writer by refining some of the technical aspects of the craft, for me the art of writing is simple: you’re either an artisan of language or you’re not.
There’s a scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s character tries to explain his enormous gift:
Will: Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play.
Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano?
Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano.
Skylar: But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.
Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that… I could always just play.
Writers can dissect the process of how they architect and develop characters, scene and story, but ask them how they’re able to create music with a strange combination of words and they go mute. How do you explain that you’re able to see the world and translate it in a way that moves people? That there’s beauty in the arrangement of words, how a writer’s able to describe an object or emotion that puts someone else’s heart on pause. Writers are downright surgical about how and what they write, and every one of them will tell you that they write from a compulsive place, from a desire to tell a particular story. They don’t write because they want to, it’s because they have to. And while a writer can study craft and technique, at the end of the day you either can play or you can’t.
Last year I was in a slump. I witnessed mediocrity get rewarded with microfame and book deals. I watched brilliantly-crafted novels go unnoticed in favor of poor fiction with its grating, overwritten prose and characters void of complexity. I read a lot of lists and scrolled through what seemed like a labyrinth of quizzes, wondering, does anyone feel anything? Are we simply a character in a sitcom? Are we reduced to a top-ten list that’s meant to define the whole of us? Are we happy with this? Are we content with art that is compressed, regurgitated and made to go “viral” with a string of keywords and a nonsensical image? (I harbor a desire to torch anyone who doesn’t use this word sardonically). I read scores of blogs written by people who care only to publish a book because it would bolster their “brand,” as opposed to having a fervent desire to create art, to tell a story that will leave its indelible mark.
Basically, I read a lot of shit on the internet. A towering inferno of it.
And yes, mediocrity has always existed and has always been rewarded (I would argue not as handsomely). And yes, life is cruel and unfair. And yes, great writing will always, inevitably, find its place in the world. But it’s hard, as someone who writes tough, dark books and reads them as passionately as I write them, to know that this democratization has also opened the floodgates of shit, and it’s upon the reader to sift through the rubble to find what’s meaningful. To see that which is good. Also, I wonder whether we’ve been exposed to so much shit that what we think is good is no longer? I don’t know how to answer any of this–I just wonder.
Illustration Credit: John Alcorn, via
Last year I purchased and read a lot of books. Many of which were remarkable. Many of which were shit. I’d nearly given up hope (call it end-of-year dramatics, and I acknowledge my proclivity toward it) and then I started the year off reading a succession of good fucking books that made me feel the way books should–they gave me hope.
Likeable characters bore the fuck out of me. If I want a shiny, happy life I only need to scroll through popular Instagram feeds rather than spend 300 pages cuddled up next to it. I read to get uncomfortable, to learn, to gain perspective and be transformed in some way. And reading has made me a better writer, not simply for the techniques learned from authors I admire, but for how good books drive me to go deeper with my scalpel until there’s nowhere else to go. If given the chance to write from the perspective of a nice girl who gets her heart broken and perseveres or from one of a sociopath, know that I would choose the latter. I’m fascinated by people who harbor a degree of darkness, characters who are flawed and complex. These are people who have been through war and are still dressing their wounds. I sometimes like novels that are unresolved or bleak because sometimes this is life, and the reading of this gives one wisdom, makes them see the world differently.
After I read Sonya Hartnett’s What the Birds See, I joked to a friend that I should move to Australia because they would be receptive to the kinds of books I want to write. I’m fascinated by children, how they’re untouched and innocent, and I’m even more fascinated when I see them interact with adults, because adults always find ways to ruin the worlds children have built, brick by brick, intentional or unintentional. There is no Santa Claus, that overheard argument, the parents who fall out of love as quickly as they took up lovemaking like cross stitch–Hartnett writes about the vulnerability and breakability of children. I set down her book and nodded my head and said, these are the kind of books I always seek to write: dark, elegant, fragile and visceral.
I followed Harnett’s novel with My Brilliant Friend–the first in a tetralogy of Neopolitan novels about a lifelong friendship–and consumed it so voraciously that I immediately ordered the second two books. Next up is Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women–more tales about eccentric, beguiling and flawed, yet beautiful, women (notice a pattern?).
Terrible writing will always frustrate me, but I’m trying to train myself to sift through and discover the voices that seek to shout above the din of listicles and storytelling that solely serves as a traffic-driving authenticity device. But this is often my flaw–I’ll fixate on the shit at the expense of what’s really good and pure.
Work in progress, people. Work in progress.
Posted on September 8, 2013
Smitten with all things coriander, I picked up this grapefruit and coriander Paddywax candle at Whole Foods yesterday, and it is worth every single dollar. Ignite and let your couch envelop you. | This week ushers in autumn, and I couldn’t be more excited for terracotta leaves, apples, crisp mornings, sweater weather and this brioche bread. | Often I daydream about my ideal home. In it, you’d find walls of books and a kitchen large enough to gather. London-based food writer, Anissa Helou, certainly has a dreamy abode. Can I move in? | Speaking of books, I’ve been floored by the magic that is Alessandro Baricco’s Emmaus. Baricco is a writer like no other. A lyricist who manages to architect worlds that are at turns ethereal and very real, Baricco’s twist on The Virgin Suicides shows how young Catholic men are changed by sexuality and mortality. No word, no image, no idea is wasted. If you love haunting, lyrical stories, you will love this book. | On the flipside, Kinfolk’s forthcoming cookbook, The Kinfolk Table: Recipes for Small Gatherings has my interest piqued. Although I’ve gone off on the magazine in recent months, I do love their recipes, whose ingredients are wholesome and whose photography is elegantly composed. | And finally, “having it all” isn’t about achieving the trifecta of marriage, career + children, because not all women define all in these terms. I certainly don’t. I’ve been outspoken about the fact that I don’t plan on having children, and my ‘all’ is about living the most creative, challenging, and authentic life as I can, while loving my friends, family, Felix and perhaps, one day, a gent.
Posted on January 20, 2013
love.: It’s no secret that I’m mad for the color blue. In blue we believe, in blue we trust. When I organized my closet this year I was shocked to find that nearly every item I owned was in some shade of this magnificent hue. So it’s no surprise that my covets this week (as I’m on a deep shopping hiatus) are beautifully blue. From Erikson Beamon’s Duchess Earrings, which are rather grand and made for royalty (too bad my ears aren’t pierced) to Shop Terrain’s Textured Burlap Tray (imagine biscuits piled high!) to this rustic soapstone Cheese Slate Board, to this darling homemade Natural Linen Napkin set I discovered on Etsy (not blue, but certainly in the dreamy aquatic territory), part of me can mentally transport myself to the sleepy shores of Biarritz even while I’m bundled up for a New York winter.
life.: I promise you (and myself) that this is the year where I will break ranks. And although that sounds cryptic, intentionally so, I’ve been surprised by just how much I love my French classes at the French Institute Alliance Française. Every Saturday, myself and 12 other hopefuls watch movies, play games and learn how to think in a new language. For those three hours I joke with new friends, get dramatic with vowel pronunciations, while proclaiming, Oh, we’re so French, while we’re clearly not. But for that small pocket of time I can immerse in a world that is so far removed from the one I knew and closer to the one I will inevitably know. And I also have access to the FIFA library, cultural programs and a whole new suite of possibilities, gratis! In grade school I switched out of French class because it was all too complicated, it wasn’t the language we spoke in the streets, and I’m glad to have returned to new ways to think of words. Change doesn’t happen until you leap out of your comfort zone, so here’s me, reaching for sky.
eat.: This week I’m craving a mix of the very virtuous and the very naughty. Last night I read a feature of the designer Kelly Wearstler in Bon Appetit magazine, and I was shocked that my favorite mag would publish a piece about a woman who basically starves herself during the day and has one meal at night. PSA, PEOPLE: JUICING IS SOCIALLY-ACCEPTABLE STARVATION, AND IT’S NOT OKAY. It’s okay to eat, folks — everything in moderation. So if you’re feeling the need to feast on kale check out this yummy Crunchy Kale Salad made with nuts, avocado and tahini. Surprise your taste buds with the melange of flavor in this protein-packed Roasted Cauliflower, Chickpeas and Harissa recipe. And find morning comfort in this Barley Porridge with Maple-Glazed Almonds and Blood Orange.
Or perhaps you want to indulge in flights of almond fancy with this etherial Almond Bread Pudding or these Salted Caramel Banoffee Éclairs, or these Lemon Seed Poppy Rolls by one of my favorite foodies.