It’s Pisces Season

IMG_4384.JPGThis is my desk. Or at least, the calming corner of my desk (the rest of it tends to be mussed with a laptop, stack of books, strewn papers). Every work day of every week for the last four years at least, I’ve woken up early to sit here and write for an hour before I attended one of three jobs, changing over the years, but all involving writing in some way or another. For most of this time, I was working on a novel, occasionally short stories and essays as they came up.

But for the last nearly three weeks, I fell out of this routine. “Fell” isn’t really the right word, I deliberately decided to not write, is more like it. I woke up later, meditated for twenty-ish minutes, made coffee, drank it slowly, watched the news, occasionally turned on my laptop and played around with a short story I wrote this time last year and haven’t yet returned to in order to make the appropriate edits, but this I did without conviction. Some mornings I woke up feeling absolutely directionless, too foggy-headed to make a decision on how to spend the 45-60 minutes before I needed to get myself together and head out the door, and those mornings were almost inevitably spent scrolling through my phone while I ate oatmeal or toast, reading but not absorbing much of what I saw, growing outraged at mere headlines.

It felt right to take a break, but yet strange. We tend to define ourselves by our work, and if not our work, then at least by what we are working towards, who we aspire to be. (Case in point: I spent much of my very early twenties telling anyone who asked that I was “working on becoming a writer” and still, one month shy of 30, having gone to school, been published, with my long labored-on manuscript finally completed and in the hands of a caring agent, I occasionally feel the word “writer” getting stuck in my throat, hear it spoken like it came from someone else.) It’s not that I feel like this label is now false just because I’m taking time off, but it does feel odd to not be in the act of “working towards it” or (as I try to convince myself) “doing it.” What am I if I’m not doing this one thing that I’ve staked plenty of my own time (all of my twenties) and (several) dollars pursuing?

In my day job, I’m a grant writer. A “development professional.” But is this how I define myself? Of course, not. This is something that, at 29, I found that I’m not bad at, that I can live off of, at least for now. But without the writing, the focal point of my days has shifted. My mind has been commandeered by grants, funding streams, the insane but necessary worry that VAWA will be defunded by the current administration and my livelihood will go away. These are not things I tend to like the majority of my time to be spent on.

I know it’s silly, ridiculous even, but three weeks without writing has had me worried about all of these things, labels and definitions, the existential “What am I?” etc. I fear these are my own neuroses, out on the table and in full view.

Another existential battle: in the current world we find ourselves in, where the news is always bad, or at least doing a good job of hiding what we know to be good and decent acts happening somewhere else, what is it to be a writer? More specifically, what is it to write fiction, poetry, meandering essays like this one? I’ve become, like many, incredibly bogged down in what to do, how to do it, where to show up, where not to show up, how best to protest, what to avoid to ensure you don’t suck at protesting, how to be a better white person, where to donate, what link to share, which article to read, which petition to sign. Where is the space for creating stories in all this? What is the need? Is there a need, or are we (writers) merely hoping that there is still a need?

A young woman I spoke to recently confessed in the self-conscious way I’m beginning to feel is consistent with all writers (or at least writers who are also women) that she, too, spends at least part of the many hours of her weeks writing fiction. I felt this kinship strongly, pictured her holing up somewhere like we do, in the glow of a laptop screen, carving out some space to exist solitarily. I was with this woman for several hours over the course of a Saturday, some of which was spent talking about writing and great American writers, but much more discussing politics and our horror at the changing world. (She, a Brit, moved to America just after Brexit, the proverbial “double whammy.”) I asked her, during the course of this long day of occasionally interrupted conversation, if she still felt fiction to be a worthwhile pursuit, given the political climate. She looked at me squarely. “Of course,” she said, in that lovely full-throated London tone I experience almost painful nostalgia for. “It’s needed now more than ever.”

I nodded my head and agreed, and I suppose some part of me does agree, or at least very much wants to, but it still didn’t keep me from feeling strange, almost selfishly ignorant, when I sent an email to the aforementioned lovely agent only a few days after the presidential inauguration with the subject line “Literary Fiction Novel” to say, “I’m pleased to resubmit to you…”

Where am I going with this? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I woke up feeling emotional. I’m a Pisces, it’s nearly our season. I’ll probably go back to writing next week and wonder why I spent so much time ruminating on this. (A yoga teacher, when teaching her students how to meditate, told us the horrifying fact that only 3% of the mind’s thoughts are new. Another thing to worry about: Are all of my thoughts recycled? Slight revisions of previous thoughts?)

And yet, I can’t move past the feeling of being pulled in two. The energy needed to write is equal to (or greater than?) the energy needed to pay attention and act, to get through the day. And yet my days without writing have felt incomplete. I’ve been lingering in the space just before falling asleep at night with the nagging feeling that I left the oven on, or that I’ve forgotten to do something I said I would. As though the deliberate act of not writing has left something unfinished, something vitally important to my sense of self.

I, like many others, spend time daydreaming about the future. (Going directly against the advice of another yoga teacher, “Do not predict the future, do not dwell on the past.”) Selfishly, of course, these predictions are centered around me. The future version of me is always a rosier version of my current self. Contented, balanced, self-aware. She spends more time doing than she does worrying. She has accomplishments, goals, a different living space, an affable, bewildered baby strapped to her chest. This future version of me wears her hair long and wears (casually!) floor-length, flowy dresses. (Why? I tell you this now: my hair refuses to grow more than an inch below my shoulders and I do not, nor have I ever, owned a long, flowy dress.) And yet, this woman exists in my mind clear as day. Who is she? Why does she exist? Is she here to taunt me?

There are different versions of her: a writer (who is somehow not scraping by), a mother (who is somehow not overwhelmed or exhausted), a vegan café owner (a side project that always exists in my head that I lack both the will and skill to actually do), still in nonprofit development (please, no). Overlaying these visions of a future there is the reality of crisis: where will we be in four years? Eight years? Twelve? (“My biggest worry,” says a colleague, “is that we’ll never have a Democrat in office again. That there will be a Republican coup.” To which I could do nothing but shake my head and explain that my mind can’t quite bend to the possibility of that reality.)

The truth is, in this intrepid future, I will probably still be me, just a slightly older version of me, hopefully wiser, but maybe not, still with the same worries, the same fears, the same circular, meandering thoughts.

And the same burning need to write about it.

Read in 2016: Top Five

Here we go, ya’ll. Twenty sixteen is over, and while it was raucous to say the least, we’ve made it through. Yes, it can be hard to look beyond the dire fear that 2016 has effectively ushered in the end of the world, but, we did get Lemonade out of it. That has to count for something.

In any case, despite the insane political shit show we’ve all been forced to endure, I hope you’ve all managed to get some decent reading time in. But who am I kidding, we hit 129 degrees this year. What else were you going to do?

As I like to do every year, I’ve taken a look back at the books I read over the last twelve months (never as many as I would’ve liked) and meditate on which ones I liked, which ones I loved, and which ones I will never, ever pick up again. This post won’t go through all of that, but I will share with you my top five books that I read this year. If you recall, I decided earlier this year that I wouldn’t be reading white male authors if I didn’t have to (and I had to, twice, for book club, neither of which made the top five cut, and one that I’m particularly annoyed was even published). That trend will stay mostly in effect next year, but less because I’m over the white male perspective (though, still true) and more because so many other writers, particularly women, are kicking ass. This year, as many years before, continued to prove that fact. 

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#5 The Bricks That Built the Houses – Kate Tempest

I discovered Kate Tempest for the first time this year, and I’m so very glad that I did. As her bio tells you, this girl is a wriiiiiter. She’s a poet, playwright, rapper, recording artist, and novelist, and this debut did not disappoint. Set in gritty southeast London, the story follows a group of young city dwellers connected through love, drugs, friendships, and their own desperation. Tempest sets up a not-your-typical love triangle that is at times harrowing, heartbreaking, and yet completely satisfying. Unlike similar premises before it (think Tao Lin’s Taipei, Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero) Tempest does not bore us with long scenes of aimless, drug-addled youth. Instead, she weaves beauty and empathy into every character’s interaction, and when she shows us somewhat aimless, drug-addled youth, it is not to show off, but to demonstrate humanity. And while the novel’s form could do well with a break from its formulaic structure, lines like, “she is riddled with the haunted, shy defiance of a woman born with all the bits adding up to the wrong amount” are enough to have us look past that. You’ll read for the story but stay for the writing.

#4 M Train – Patti Smith

I was first introduced to Patti Smith’s indelible writing not through 1975’s poetry and rock-infused Horses, but through her 2010 memoir Just Kids, that chronicled her time as a young 20-something in New York with the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe. If you read and loved Just Kids, her next book M Train was not part two (which is okay, we don’t need to add to perfection). M Train was the perfect meditative read that I needed for the syrupy days of summer, the right book for a rainy day (or any day). Part essay, part poetry, part memoir, part cultural critique, M Train infuses New York post-Hurricane Sandy, TV crime shows, Japanese literature, Frida Kahlo, an Arctic explorer’s society in Berlin, Sylvia Plath, Jean Genet, black coffee, brown bread, olive oil, death, love, and loss. Lovely, moving, honest, we can only hope Patti Smith never, ever stops. 

#3 A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James

The only male writer to make the list, and very near the best book I read this year, goes to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. (“Brief” is ironic, the book boasts close to 700 pages). When I finished this book, I was on a writing retreat in the middle of nowhere Maryland, staring out over a lake. I was stuck, for several minutes, wondering how on earth I could return to my own novel when things like this existed in the literary world. The novel is no short of explosive, switching from a plethora of characters–young gang members, older Dons, drug dealers, The Singer (Bob Marley), a woman who loved him, CIA agents, even ghosts–over the course of thirty years. Officially, there are 77 characters, not all who get a voice, but all who exist in some way throughout the book. The setting is mostly the streets of West Kingston, eventually moving to Miami and New York. Not for the weak of heart, the writing and language is intense, violent, at times assaulting (I couldn’t read this one in long stretches), but absolutely mesmerizing. My only critique: the book could do with more women. The few female perspectives are a refreshing reprieve from the intensity of the male perspective. And James’s writing comes alive the most through the female characters. For example, we first meet the character Nina Burgess she’s waiting outside the house of The Singer, the man she loves, lingering, waiting for him to appear. James perfectly captures her heartache with the final line of her section: “The white man takes the first bus that comes. I don’t and I’m telling myself that it’s because I don’t want to be on the same bus with him. But I know I’ll miss the next one. And the one after that too.”

#2 Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine

I first discovered Claudia Rankine with 2004’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and realized then what poetry could do. Fusing politics, poetry, prose, and images, Claudia Rankine powerfully sums up the times (at that time, the George Bush Administration) with lines that punch. Citizen does exactly that for our current times. In the era of Trayvon, the cover is a solitary black hood cut from a sweatshirt, demonstrating the hypocrisy of the politicization of a simple garment. Moving from personal to the political (the pages on Serena Williams are incredible), Citizen chronicles the frustration of our times with lines like, “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” In relating Serena and Venus to Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” Rankine writes, “This appropriated line […] seemed to be ad copy for aspect of life for all black bodies.” And, when Rankine tells the story of a [white] woman she works with mistaking her for another [black] woman she works with, she jokes, “who cares? She had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right.” And yet, following an apology by the woman who refers to “our mistake,” Rankine writes, “Apparently your own invisibility is the real problem causing her confusion. This is how the apparatus she propels you into begins to multiply its meaning.”

Rankine cuts. Her words put a microscope on the subtle and large injustices that our country continues to allow. In its biting brilliance, Citizen is the smack-in-the-face cultural critique we all need.

#1 Gold Fame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins

Of all the great books I read this year, there was only one that made me want to stop everything and write. Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus stopped me in my tracks. Who writes like this? Who uses adjectives like this? In a world where California has gone completely dry and the rest of the country is fighting for scarce resources, Luz and Ray are trying to survive in a barren state. When Watkins described insatiable thirst, I felt it in my throat. When she described the omnipresent sand, I felt it pass my skin.The caustic heat on my body. Line by line, her language is intoxicating: “for she wanted to give him all things there, in their tiny kaleidoscope universe fixed in the center of the great big benevolent cartwheeling galaxy around them. There was nothing she wouldn’t let go–the freedom of that[…]” The story, for some, is strange. Watkins breaks the rules on what a novel should be by infusing short story into a straight forward third-person narrative, which do not always make sense at the time of reading (I think, however, it all works on reflection). But her willingness to push boundaries, to write like a bullet train dipped in modern art, makes this the best novel I read this year.

Other close runners-up: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, and Leah Hagar Cohen’s The Grief of Others.

So, 2016 wasn’t all so bad. Great art has always been there to help us through the toughest times. As we move into uncharted territory, writers will be there to document, empathize, and take us to new worlds when we most need it. Here’s to 2017 and another year of great literature.

Favorite Females Friday

The title is catchy. I may keep it. 

Just a quick note to share two writerly womanly things that I’m super pumped about:

1) The Queen herself, my love in life, Ms. Zadie Smith, has a new book coming out this November. REJOICE! And now, here’s a photo of her looking gorgeous in Vogue:  

2) This essay by Claire Vaye Watkins spoke to me so much I wanted to scream and have it read by every female writer I know. I have been writing fiction seriously since 2012 (prior to that I wanted to be Joan Didion). Since I began writing fiction, I wanted to be Jonathan Franzen. And if I couldn’t be him, I wanted him to at least love every word I wrote. I’ve held similar feelings for David Foster Wallace, Junot Diaz, and Jeffrey Eugenides. I’m not lying when I say that It took up until this year in my literary career, for me to decide that I can write well without emulating their every word. But I have been so inundated with their maleness, their alleged “rightness” that I thought for an embarrassingly long time that that is what I should aspire to as a writer. I now know better. I am me. And Ms. Watkins has helped reaffirm that. 

Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

The stories we tell create our truth. And in North Korea, the stories told by their Dear Leader are the only stories that matter, at least, according to Adam Johnson. One day, someone can be one person, and then suddenly, their story is changed, and the next day they are someone else entirely. As one character puts it,

“Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

This, of course, makes for great fiction. Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son takes its reader on a journey through modern day North Korea—a place that is, in Johnson’s mind, dictated by fear and depravity, brutal violence and brainwashing. If the North Korea of today is true to the North Korea depicted in the book, then it is far worse than I had imagined from my comfortable spot here in the U.S. Of note, Mr. Johnson’s research for this novel involved firsthand testimony from defectors, and visiting North Korea himself. He is not a Korean novelist.*

imgres-1Set in the recent past, (Kim Jong-il is the ruler) the story ostensibly follows Pak Jun Do, (John Doe[?]) a man who grew up in the orphanage his father operated. When we meet Jun Do as an adult, he has become a professional kidnapper for the state, which involves some early gruesome images and unspeakable violence. His only levity comes while at sea on a fishing boat; late at night he takes to listening to a haunting voice emanating over the radio waves: two American women rowing around the world, one of them singing while she rows through the night. We learn quickly just how backwards his world is. There is a constant fear of Americans prepared to “sneak attack” the country. Images of the wives of men are tattooed on their chest. There is no “I,” there is only “we” and there is a defined fear that comes from believing otherwise. North Korea is perfect, a land of plenty, as long as that story continues to be told. When one character chooses to defect by leaving the fishing boat in a life raft stacked with cans of food, everyone else on the ship must make up a horrific story, lest they all be sent to prison camp for allowing a member of their team to leave. All of these examples give you just a small sense of the world these characters live in.

There is an almost obligatory sense of detachment throughout the entire novel. This is because Johnson (rightly so) does not romanticize the story by adding many deep relationships, friendships, or love scenes (with the exception of one, which feels necessary after 300+ pages where we suffer through beatings and starvation and countless other terrible things). We never really have a character we’re rooting for, and there is only some breathing room offered towards the end, when we have very small moments of light shining through the cast of immense weightiness. There are stomach-churning scenes of torture. We become nauseated by the lies being perpetuated over the loudspeaker set up in every North Korean home, the stories that become truths and shape every citizen’s life. Johnson includes very little sensory description, making the writing straightforward to (at times) a detriment. All I could picture was gray, gray, gray. Does the sun even shine there? Not in Johnson’s mind.

imgres-2From the fishing boat back to North Korea, where the story of how the friend was lost (now in a brutal attack that involved both the U.S. Navy and a shark) becomes a lived truth for Jun Do, to a brief encounter in America, in the grand state of Texas (which is the most ridiculous part of the novel and still confuses me why a State Senator and a few other “officials” would be meeting with North Korean “officials” by themselves), back to North Korea and an out-of-your-nightmares hospital where the dying are drained of their blood (so it can be sold, of course), to a break in the narrative and time passing at a prison camp so brutal that the punishment for attempting to escape is to be buried up to your waist while every single prisoner whips rocks at you. After all of this, we enter the second half of the book, where Jun Do emerges with an entirely new identity. How is this possible? Because the Dear Leader says it is so.

More sickening brutality ensues; the interrogator we come to know in the second half explains a prison camp that uses lobotomies performed with a 20-centimeter nail in order to maintain prisoner complacency, there is a pain machine that promises the most painful death of all: “We ramp up the pain to inconceivable levels, a shifting, muscular river of pain. Pain of this nature creates a rift in the identity—the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the professor who now begins the crossing.”Gah.

The second half of the book is the bulk of the major narrative, and we finally meet Sun Moon, the nation’s actress, plucked into stardom by Kim Jong-il himself. We have a direct encounter with the Dear Leader. There are strange references to the film Casablanca. There is a somewhat chaotic end, and eventually, we come to understand the fates of all the characters we’ve learned to (somewhat) care for. It all goes on a bit too long.

There are moments when a characters’ humanity peaks through the heavy cover of imagespolitical compliance. There are sparks of individualism: the love Jun Do begins to feel for the widow of the defected second mate, the pleading of Sun Moon to Commander Ga to come with her and her children to America, the comfort of hearing a female rower sing in the night, as her voice plays softly over the airwaves, the interrogator whose one goal is to document the histories of those he must kill, so that their stories are not forgotten. It’s these moments Johnson attempts to remind us that even through the mask of an upside-down world, we’re all human.

The book is good, in the sense that it’s structurally sound, tells an interesting narrative, and is fascinating in its ability to imagine a world most of us know very little about. If you can get through the brutal, gut-sickening violence, it’s worth a read. What Johnson does not skimp on are the too-insane-to-be-true details. And he’s an undramatic writer (at least on a line-by-line basis). If you’re looking for a novel with great language, poetic sentences, and beautiful sensory details, this is not the one for you. But if you’re ready to be taken to a totally new world that is (scarily) not the stuff of science fiction, if you’re ready to be confronted with the reality of an entire nation that the rest of the world is still powerless to do anything about, read this book. Though maybe at times a bit gratuitous–but who knows?– The Oprhan Master’s Son is worth the read. 

 

 

*If you’re keeping tabs, note that yes, I broke my own rule by reading a white, male author. I justify this in that a) it’s a book club pick and this is a democracy and b) the characters I’m met with are not all white people, so that helps.

That Time I Cried in a Financial Advisor’s Office

I get stuck into phases. Mostly this happens to me with music, but it can happen with books and movies or even clothes. In 2001, you couldn’t stop me, my sister, or my best friend from incessantly singing and repeating whole paragraphs of dialogue from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Something similar happened when I discovered high waisted skinny black jeans. When I really like something, I don’t just like it. I seem to somehow traipse that border right away and fall into obsession mode.

This happened most recently with the video for Adele’s “Hello.” The song itself is amazing, but the video added an entirely new layer for me. In the first week of its release, I was watching the video easily three times a day. (How cute is her pretend ex-boyfriend?) I’d probably still be watching it if it weren’t for a new obsession to replace that one: The Weeknd. True, I did just see him live, and any time I see an artist live I tend to fall into a trap of only listening to them for a week or so after. But this feels a little different. I’d been listening to The Weeknd before I saw him live with pretty much daily regularity. My boyfriend and I fell hard for his first mixtape, 2011’s House of Balloons, and I’ve gone through phases of listening obsessively with each new album release.

But recently I’ve been pretty much unable to listen to anything else. With the choice of listening to no music or listening to only The Weeknd, I’ve chosen the latter every time. I’ve had buds in my ears even when it’s irresponsible to do so, like crowded grocery stores, or even (shh!) while riding my bike. Not even a night of dancing in a crowded sweaty club to Beyonce, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj (full disclosure: this post is written in the space of a cloudy latent hangover) could make me switch. This morning, I waded through said hangover to beat the crowd at Trader Joe’s (and failed), but when it came time to choose my music for the journey, I only wanted to listen to the same 20 songs I’ve been listening to all damn week. It’s getting a little crazy.

Something else happened this week. At an after-work session with a financial advisor for first time homebuyers, I sat across from a man who offered me un-buffered hard truths about my ability to purchase the type of home I’d like to, and I cried. A stress cry, not a sad cry, but still, it was awful. There’s little worse than crying in front of strangers, but there’s something particularly shameful about being a woman and crying in front of a man she doesn’t know. It’s the shame of being fragile, of showing weakness. He was equally awkward, pushing a packet of tissues my way and using the phrase “water works” and “Oh, geez” more than once.

And why was I crying? And what on earth does this have to do with my current musical obsessions? (I’ll answer the former first; the latter we’ll get to.)

I was crying because I suddenly felt the pressures of time. This happens to me every now and again, usually without much warning. Everything can be right, the days moving along normally, or even better than normal, and then wham! I’m suddenly, totally in my head about what I’ve accomplished, what I haven’t accomplished, what I need to accomplish immediately because good god look at the seconds tick by! And while reviewing my options for home ownership and feeling completely overwhelmed by it, time hit me. There I was, in this man’s office, late on a rainy Thursday, and unexpectedly, sharply aware of time, of my place in it, of all of the things that American societal pressures tell me I need to accomplish in order to be taken seriously as an adult. Buying a home felt like one of those things. I came home from that meeting crying to my boyfriend (loving, understanding, and wholly freaked out) and managed to reveal another time I’m terrified of, the type of time adult women have come to be intimately connected with: that ticking biological clock that hangs over us whispering baby, baby, baby.

(Ladies, best way to quiet a conversation? Mention your biological clock! Men love it!)

I can’t be the only one that this happens to. Here we are, living our happy, productive lives, finding accomplishments in our art, in our careers, in our relationships, fighting for progress and equal pay and abortion rights, when it hits: Shouldn’t we have a 401(k)? Shouldn’t we buy homes? Get married? Have children? Don’t we have to do all of these things, suddenly, immediately? WHY HAVE WE BEEN WASTING OUR TIME DANCING TO BEYONCE IN CROWDED CLUBS? WHY???

When I mentioned my concerns to a coworker, she told me her anxiety about time got so bad she had to buy cats. She had her son three years later, but still, there had to first be cats. Another got so worried about her lack of homeownership that she bought a crack house for $8,000. A crack house

Which makes me think I now understand why I can’t stop listening to The Weeknd. At his concert, there were large screens set up to the sides of the stage that showed fans in the crowd dancing. Many were girls. All were doing the same slow, woozy, full body sway that his music induces, the same move I find myself doing when I listen to it. Watch any video of his live performances and you’ll see the same thing: these same girls, eyes closed, head lolling, body rocking slowly. Aside from his current chart hits, most of his music is, what the interviewer in a recent Rolling Stone article characterized as, “atmospheric and chilly” and “an addiction counselor’s worst nightmare.” And apparently I’m not the only girl who loves it. Is it that his music — syrupy, slow, beautifully piercing — is getting us out of our heads? Is it that for three minutes (or more like six minutes for the non-chart toppers) the (female) listener is taken on a trip away from time (biological or otherwise) and all its complications? Is this what really great art does for us?

I’m thinking that yes, this is the case.

As I write this, I wish I could go back to that girl sitting in the room with that advisor, and tell her this: Time is constantly moving. We can’t slow it down or speed it up, so let’s make a collective pact to allow it to happen around us instead of to us. Let’s all declare it now: we won’t let time choke us like a vice. Houses will come (or they won’t!), marriage and babies will happen (or they won’t!) and we’ll eventually see everywhere in the world and master the Spanish we’ve been studying since high school (or we won’t!) And that’s okay, because we can’t do it all. 

So, final thoughts: listen to music you love (repeatedly, if you must), dance raucously in clubs with your friends, eat chocolate, drink too much wine, be messy, have deep conversations with people you love, read great books, experience great art, take a nap, and chill out

Carving Out Your Creative Space

Virginia Woolf would not like my writing space. I don’t necessarily have a room of my own in the apartment I share with my boyfriend, certainly not a place where I can shut the door. (Aside from the bedroom, which we of course share, but I personally cannot write in the same room as where I sleep.) What I do have is a big desk that sits against a space of wall in between the kitchen and the living room, not far from my bookshelf, that is mine and mine alone. I’ve replaced the solitude that comes from a closed door with an hour of carved out time in the morning. I’m lucky to have a partner who respects this, who, when he’s not sleeping through my morning writing hour, understands my need for this quiet, uninterrupted time of my own.

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My bookshelf, another necessary part of my creative space, sits a few feet away from my desk.

This time for me is breath-of-life vital. In the morning, my head is the clearest, and I can fully escape into a short story or longer piece I’m working on before my mind catches up to thinking about the rest of the day. This is when I am at my best creative self. I work full time, and I’ve never been a person who can find my creative space in the evening when my head is already clogged from the happenings of the day. By the time I’ve finished work and practiced yoga (another necessary “me-time” part of my day), there’s dinner and another hour or so of winding down before I fall asleep, so the morning is the only time I have to write. If I didn’t have it, I would absolutely feel like something was missing.

I say this because I understand how important it is, as a creative person, to make the time and space for your art. One of the most unpleasant years of my life—I say this in relative terms, I acknowledge I’m a privileged person who had a job and food and all the trappings of a normal adulthood—was spent working at a law firm, writing for lawyers, and realizing the only time I had for my own writing was a few hour block on the weekend, and several times that few hour block turned into a one hour block, if at all, because there was grocery shopping and cleaning and weekend things that needed to happen.

My morning space, each day: oatmeal, coffee, computer, and quiet.

My morning space, each day: oatmeal, coffee, computer, and quiet.

It wasn’t until six months into this job that I decided in order to change the way perceived my day, indeed, change the entire focal point of it, was to force myself to wake an hour earlier than needed, spend a few minutes meditating, and the rest of the time writing. Only then was I able to reclaim my sanity. When I started at my current job, It was an absolute breath of air: more relaxed hours, working with artists who understand the need for creative space, having colleagues who celebrated the two weeks I took off to attend a writing residency in the middle of the country. They understand and appreciate this need.

I can say that I’m lucky. For many, creating this space doesn’t necessarily come easily. There can be logistical concerns: not all of us live alone, or live with a person or people who understand the need for this time. Some of us have children, or loud roommates, or less understanding partners. We may not have a desk of our own, or a non-communal space that we can occupy for an hour each day.

And then there can be motivational concerns. Making room in your life for your own creative space comes with its own set of impediments. There’s fear involved, anxiety, reminders of a million other things you could be doing (There are dishes in the sink! How can you be writing when there are dirty dishes in the sink?), there’s the voice that pops up to tell you you’re selfish for taking this time out for yourself. It can take a tremendous effort to ignore all of these internal and external distractions in order to just sit down and create.

But this is what you need to remember: you are worth it, and your creative self needs it. Creating is not a selfish act. Creating is your time to put forth into the world your thoughts, feelings, ideas. It impacts change, whether just in you and how you perceive the world around you, or on a larger scale. It is necessary and worthwhile and your life will be better because of it.

My creative space is my desk, situated against the wall in between the kitchen and the living room.

I urge you to find that space, and then urge others to find that space. Maybe it’s your kitchen table. Maybe it’s your bedroom. Maybe it’s an hour before your roommates wake up, or for thirty minutes after your kids go to sleep. Just find a time that is only for you, where your phone is put elsewhere, distractions have dissipated, the voice in your head is quieted, and you can fall into that space and just create. The dishes can wait, your story cannot.

The Week in Review: Shout Your Art

I’ve been contemplating, as I’m wont to do, creative expression. More accurately, I’ve been ruminating on the idea of the results of creative expression. I recently came back from a mini and must needed vacation in New Orleans, LA. It’s a very cool place, as I’m sure anyone who has been there will tell you. From the brightly colored houses to the lack of open container laws (you can carry your cup of wine with you as you walk down the street — whaaaaaa?) to the incredibly friendly nature of every person you meet, to, of course, the music. It’s hard to understand how ubiquitous the presence of music is without experiencing it for yourself, but I’ll try to explain it this way: by the end of my five day visit, I had the sense that everyone in New Orleans — from my cab driver to the girl behind the bar — was secretly somehow an amazingly talented musician. The music (loud, jazzy, brassy, bluesy) comes over the airwaves, plays in the street, spills out of the open doors of bars. It is constant, loud, unapologetic, and amazing. I have never before seen so many people expressing their art in such a don’t-give-a-fuck manner. There was no need to calculate the result, no sense in worrying whether or not the audience would enjoy what was being presented, there was just the clear, in-your-face artistic expression. It was the one thing that impacted me the most of the experience.

Which has led to the meditation: is it possible, then, for us as artists, to create freely, without the fear or hope of results? For so very long, I’ve been transfixed on the idea of being a novelist. After completing the novel I’d been working on for a few years, I worried when I’d be able to produce anything else. I’d put everything I felt I had into this one thing, and because of this, my sole focus for the last month has been on achieving what I thought were my desired results, in the form of some sort of literary success. But you know what I’ve discovered? I have ideas for other things. I can’t stop creating in order to focus on obtaining some decided upon result. I can’t, because it’s not within me to stop. Results will come when they come. Only now am I beginning to understand how important this is: people inclined to create must continue to create. What else are they going to do?

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I can’t go anywhere without seeking out a good used book store. This one we stumbled upon in the French Quarter, and the owner and Mike spent several minutes bonding over music while I strolled through the fiction section. 

 

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The music began the moment we landed and didn’t leave until we left. This shot is from our first night in the French Quarter, on, yes, Bourbon Street. Brassy and bold. I fell in love right there.

 

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There are places in New Orleans that remind you of the city’s reality. There are areas with houses still boarded up, whole stretches of streets left still uninhabited since the flood. The devastation was and is real. But then there are moments that remind you that through destruction, there are still glimmers of beauty, of love. 

 

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Had to sneak in one food post: I’m feeling the seasons change, and experimenting with some pretty little acorn squash, ripe pears, and yellow carrots. I’m thinking there will be some form of curried soup and some type of Alfredo sauce for pasta, all vegan o’course. I’ll post results later on my Instagram, but if you’re interested, I’m playing around with some recipes found here and here. Playing around being the operative words; I don’t have all of the ingredients that either of these recipes call for… yay for creative experimentation, right?!

 

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Speaking of fall, it’s scarf season! This one I found in Old City at a co-op working space / boutique, handmade by LeLe. This is only one of several ways to wear this thing (seriously, I think she showed me at least eight). Yay for supporting local designers! Yay for versatile clothing! Yay for scarf weather!

 

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It’s everywhere; even on the cracked sidewalks.

 

FullSizeRender-5While I’ve been ruminating on all of the above, an intuitive best friend (also a writer) has been feeding me some much needed words from Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, which I have not yet read but from the small bits I’ve seen (like the gem above), I certainly plan on reading. But what I’m getting: have confidence in yourself, and just create. Thanks to Ms. Gilbert, and also to Samantha Clarke. xo.

Week in Review: Finding Contentment

Mid-September! The ninety degree weather seems to be slowly fading away to make room for weather that allows for tights and light sweaters and (for me, on my bike) much less sweating. This time of year always energizes me, and this year feels no different. But perhaps “energizing” isn’t the right word; in fact, the summer has been plenty energized, with wedding celebrations and weekends with family and friends, and my time away in Nebraska, it has certainly been on the crazy side. I’m still excited, if not sometimes anxious (I have a manuscript in the hands of two agents right now and I check my email 3,000 times a day because of this), but I’ve found myself lulling into these rare spaces of calm, acceptance. It’s not often that I find these moments when I am not searching, not waiting for the next big thing to happen. I think some people call it contentment?

This week brought a few days of slightly cooler weather, and one day in particular where tights (finally) felt appropriate. I found these shoes at my favorite vintage and consignment shop, Once Worn, in Northern Liberties. Skirt from Urban. Tights from, um, CVS? Franzen’s Purity on my lap.

 Fresh carrot juice is one of my faves, but the good stuff can be upwards of $4 a bottle. Instead, I used Trader Joe’s multi-colored organic carrot bags ($3 ish?) and made my own, adding some peaches (thanks, Greensgrow Farms!) and ginger. ‘Twas deelish, and a gorgeous color.

 Very happy to spend more time with friends in the last few weeks, but old and new. All of them have a way of teaching me something about myself. My old friends keep me humble. My new friends help me explore. All of them help me to grow. This photo was taken after an evening playing Feminist Quizzo with some of my favorite new friends through the Young Women’s Initiative.

 Always keep flowers in your house. The stranger, the better. (Bonus points for sticking them in locally-made vases.)

 I was having a few days where I was wavering on my veganism. This is still a new-ish thing for me (I’ve only been vegan since the spring, and still feel odd calling myself vegan). Recently, I was just craving cheese, and then yogurt. I think it was a texture thing. And to be completely honest, I gave in, and had a small slice of pizza. I kind of made a commitment to myself when I started that I would stick to consuming a mostly-vegan diet, but if I was dying for some pizza, I was going to eat some damn pizza. The pizza was, in truth, very good. What wasn’t good was how I felt the next day. I’m still learning, but I’m steadily getting to a place where it just isn’t worth it (environmentally, humanely, physically) for me to consume meat products. ANYWAY, long spiel, but I found myself some coconut milk yogurt to take the place of my yogurt craving, and it totally worked. This breakfast killed it, and kept me full all the way till the afternoon. This one featured some nut butter, granola, a half a nectarine and a banana. 

 Finally, tomorrow is Michael’s birthday. I’m so thankful to have spent five years with a man committed to growing, learning, and bettering himself each day. With a mix of humility, laughter, and motivation, he keeps me sane, and reminds me to keep moving forward, no matter the circumstances. To my best friend, to my partner, happy birthday.

Mosquitoes, Cornfields, and Creative Journeys: Art Farm 2015

 As some (most?) of you know, I’ve spent the last two weeks living in rural Nebraska attending Art Farm, an artist residency. The experience has been one of the most intense I’ve under gone in my creative adult life. It was equal parts rattling and affirming; it was a stillness I desperately needed and yet still managed to shake me out of anything I once considered my comfort zone. Below is an account of my experience.

I flew into Omaha on August 16th. Omaha, though I only spent one evening there, is a somewhat desolate, occasionally charming little city that I hope to return to if only to go to the sole vegan restaurant in the city (in the state?!) which was, to my great dismay, closed when I arrived. People were friendly in a way I am not used to, and a few times I caught myself muttering a rushed “Hello” after I realized a stranger was saying “Hi” to my staring-straight-ahead-do-not-make-eye-contact face. A public transit driver stopped the bus and patiently waited until it was safe for me to cross a four lane road while I frantically waved it down from the other side, realizing only too late my mistake. I listened to a saxophone player play Al Green at my request in a downtown market. I bought hand-made bobby pins embossed with two tiny bicycles. I talked changing weather patters with new friends over fried food. (I had lovely AirBNB hosts.) I sat in a sad bus station on a drizzly Monday morning, CNN playing in the corner, the hosts discussing race relations. The woman at the ticket counter grew up in Philadelphia, at 17th and Federal.  

 There was no time to ask how she found herself in Omaha. The man behind me on the bus squished his face between two seats to point at the Rolling Stone magazine article I was reading, that of an interview with Dre and Ice Cube for the upcoming NWA movie, and was genuinely shocked when he asked “Are you really reading that?” When I affirmed that yes, I am really reading that, he said, “Wow, didn’t think you’d be reading something like that.” I suppose he thought I should be reading a Taylor Swift interview. 

We stopped in Lincoln and I watched as a family of four young children and a man said goodbye to their mother and wife. All of them cried when she climbed onto the bus, harder when the bus pulled away.

 I was picked up at a small bus station in Grand Island, which is a misnomer for trailer parks, fast food restaurants, Wal-Marts, and general rural sprawl. I bought two weeks’ worth of groceries at Wal-Mart that filled about 30 plastic bags, the same I squeeze into two Trader Joe’s bags for my usual shopping. I passed miles of cornfields, then miles of soy fields, back and forth for about thirty minutes, interjected only by small markets, gas stations, and expansive industrial GMO plants, which look like prisons. Occasionally there are non-GMO, organic fields, characterized by their un-uniformed rows (versus the scarily perfect rows of the regular stuff), but they’re so close in proximity to the other fields that one has to wonder how it could be possible for them to maintain their organicness.

 I arrived at Art Farm, a four mile-radius expanse of land with three barns, one farmhouse, and a few smatterings of structures left by past residents. I would spend my next two weeks living in the largest house, Victoria, with six other artists. I was offered the largest room, which, though it was unfinished, was the only room with a double bed. There are no finished ceilings on the third floor of Victoria, so the rooms are not very enclosed and outside creatures (mostly flies and mosquitoes) easily find their way into the space. This was even more the case in the room I stayed my first night, because the walls were also unfinished, and long panes of plastic served as a type of protection from the exterior wall surface. I had trouble getting to sleep that first night because I was so used to certain sounds—and there were sounds, mind you, just different sounds; creatures, insects, etc.—but I did finally fall asleep, only to wake up sometime around 3:00 a.m. to the sound of flapping; a bat was caught between the plastic and the wall. It then found its way out and swooped around my room while I ducked under my covers. I don’t do well with bats. I moved to a smaller, more enclosed room, with no bats. (Only birds in the ceiling, but that’s another thing.) 

It took two days for me to adjust to living on Art Farm, in this odd, rural, communal-living bubble. But then by mid-week, all at once, there was a feeling of meditative calm. It was the most stillness I’ve experienced in my adult life.

I worked hard, each day, waking early and working until I had to do my three hours of farm work (in exchange for living at Art Farm, residents put in twelve hours of farm work each week), and then working into the night, stopping only for meals and yoga. It was intensive work, and on the day I finished revising the final section of my novel, I reread the beginning and realized it wasn’t right at all. Enlisting the help of a trusted writer friend, I furiously worked through it, reading and re-reading the section in different rooms, on different mediums, until it felt right. My last few days were comprised of re-reading the entire novel and sharing aloud a part of it with the other residents.

 

A note on the other residents: I can’t emphasize enough how lucky I am to have met the people I did through this experience. I haven’t done communal living since college, and as anyone who has done it knows, it’s never easy. But the people I lived with over the last two weeks were some of the most generous, kind, fascinating, intelligent, self-assured artists and humans I’ve met. I learned from them in the short time I spent in their presence, and I can only hope I was able to contribute something to them as well. They helped me to affirm my place as a writer and as a creative person. For the first time in a long time, I never once felt like I had to explain myself to them. Their reasons for being there were the same as mine, because the need to create is ever-present. It never goes away.

 On one of our lasts nights together, we listened to each other share our work, our drive, our processes; each reciprocally curious about the others’ work. One resident wrote poetry with speed and execution that was hard to imagine, and combined her words with visuals to create a fascinating juxtaposition. A designer was curious about the body and the spirit and belief, and translated the poems she wrote in private to visual representations through wood and metal structures. A couple lived their art, caring for their bodies with natural foods and remedies and using all things found in nature to create textile dyes and other visual art pieces. An architect was fascinated with ruins, and sought to create structures that would eventually break down, becoming ruins themselves. Another artist used watercolor paints and choreography to express ideas of age.

 

 I ate greens right from the garden only a few feet away from the house. I wrote my sentences on the walls. I avoided makeup for two weeks. I saw the Milky Way for the first time in a sky flooded with stars. I attended the Nebraska State Fair. I flew home under a full moon. 

I miss Philadelphia, and Michael, and the sounds of the city and clean floors and a clean kitchen and clean bathroom and no mosquitoes and no flies and my bed, but come Monday, when I’m back at work and slipping easily back into my routine, I will certainly also miss Art Farm and the feeling of slipping into a space where one can create uninhibitedly. I am so very thankful, and will not forget this experience anytime soon. 

We Read to Find Life

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orphan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’

 

– Claire Messud, Publishers Weekly interview about her book The Woman Upstairs, following the question, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”