This Will Be Our Year.

Ten years ago today I stood shivering in pointy-toed flats on an icy Montpellier street. I wore Wolford Adelia tights under my jeans and a cashmere wrap sweater under my beryl-blue wool coat and a wine-colored scarf around my neck and it just wasn’t enough. My clothes, which seemed posh and chic at home, felt dowdy and unsubstantial in France, and like me they were astonished by the cutting wind whipping inland off of the Mediterranean. We were in Europe for a wedding and I spent the week simultaneously enamored by and uncomfortable with everything.

The groom’s sister had made chocolate mousse for dessert after a family dinner; it was the first time I’d ever eaten it outside of a restaurant and the realization that something so luxe could be made so effortlessly at home was astounding. Later I learned that she’d been making mousse since she was a child and the idea that this was a trifling little thing French children did as though it was as simple as peeling a banana — a task for which I sometimes need a knife or help, even as a full-fledged adult — all but bowled me over. I ate as much as I could without calling attention to my gluttony. Later in the evening I wrapped myself in the quilt at our chambre d’hôtes and swallowed one tablet of Pepto-Bismol after another, knowing full well that if the opportunity for more mousse presented itself tomorrow I wouldn’t have learned my lesson.

I wore a dusky slate-colored draped jersey dress to the wedding and a fuzzy off-white bolero-ish sweater with a hidden hook-and-eye clasp. Before the trip I had road-tested my outfit with opaque tights and a pair of tweed-and-metal Prada heels of which I was especially fond. In Boston, my reflection looked stylish and festive, perfectly dressed for a winter wedding; in France, I looked ridiculous, a girl playing dress-up in an incomprehensible mélange of clothes. Helpfully, the hairdryer at the chambre d’hôtes had gone against its nature; rather than blowing heat out, it sucked air into itself — along with a hunk of my hair. My husband of four months borrowed scissors from our host family and cut me free, leaving me looking like a second-rate Robert Smith impersonator. That said, even if I had managed to recreate the Thandie Newton curls I’d been going for, there’s no way I would’ve been able to come close to matching the natty elegance of French women.

Slim and hipless gamines, curvaceous and bosomy bombshells, all of them at once elegant and louche. Each smoking cigarettes and drinking champagne and speaking in nimble quick-fire English with ridiculously cartoonish and alluring accents. Later, in the bathroom, I caught one straightening after leaning over a sink, wiping powder prettily from her nose. Part of me was aghast, the prudish American, but a larger part of me, likely my insatiable and growling gut, was jealous of her recklessness, her audacity.

On New Year’s Eve we prowled the boulevards and alleyways of Montpellier, heading to a party. The streets were strung with a latticework of white lights overhead and everything was impossibly romantic. Strangers called out to one another — bonne année, bonne santé — waving bottles of champagne out of windows. In a crammed studio apartment on the top floor of a courtyard building, I sat with another ill-at-ease American. Neither of us had anything to say to the other. Eventually he pulled out a notebook and after a time I realized he was drawing pictures of penises. Dicks in coats, dicks riding bicycles, dicks eating pizzas, dicks kissing dicks. Most were uncircumcised. Two days prior, I had sat across the dinner table from this man’s mother, listening with a terror-stricken smile on my face as she genially told me how much of a disappointment he was to her.

“Yup,” he agreed, just as genially. “It’s true.”

Today I took the dog for a long walk while I waited for my chicken to come out of the oven. I had crushed garlic, rosemary, sage and thyme into butter, which I’d then spread in a thick layer underneath the bird’s skin. The chicken would roast over potatoes, sunchokes and carrots; my hope was that the chicken would be generous and share its herbs and fat and seasoning with the vegetables. It’s an easy dish to make, and one that requires little effort from the cook, so the dog and I went for a really long wander, rambling through our neighborhood without a specified path.

This has always been my approach to resolutions and the new year and life, really. I think obliquely about what I want, or about what I think will make me happy, but I rarely have a solid plan in place. It’s not a system that’s gotten me far, though I have accidentally stumbled upon success and a degree of prosperity by sheer happenstance and luck.

I met my husband at a college I chose arbitrarily — I was waitlisted for my top pick; my second selection was in the-middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin and as a New Yorker that kind of terrified me; my “safety” school was truly a last resort option. So I chose a college in Boston that proclaimed everyone was welcome, the weirder the better.

And people were weird in college. They were weird and strange and bizarre and like every other college student in America, except this group had more green hair and nose piercings. They threw parties and hooked up and smoked clove cigarettes and were pretentious and used the phrase post-modern way too much and worked hard and slacked off and were ambitious and wrote papers and missed class and had grand ideas and talked late into the night about everything and everyone and nothing and no one all in one big collective breath as though if their thoughts didn’t come out right that very second they would dissolve like the sound of a siren suddenly screaming to life and fading just as quickly into silence.

Silence is something I’m familiar with. It’s easy to not say anything substantial when you don’t have a set objective, and from there it’s easy too to be a disappointment, even if you don’t spend a lot of time drawing anthropomorphized dicks. So it’s time to establish some goals, after so many years of doing a unintentionally great impersonation of a dust mote. (A loveable dust mote with decent hair and excellent eye liner, but a dust mote nonetheless.) I’m putting them out there, and trying not to think of any of you who may be reading this — no offense, but in order to write this, I can’t think of anything but honesty, and sometimes being honest means being selfish.

Get healthy. I am lazy and I am fat and I am too old for this. Also, I’m tired of catching sight of my stomach reflected back at me in a floor-to-ceiling window and being both embarrassed and surprised. And I would like, for once, to choose to not to get my picture taken because I simply don’t want to, as opposed to feeling too fat to.

Write something. I was going to say write more, but write something is more accurate. I have had a partially formed idea in my head for years now and it’s time for me to do something about it. It could be something truly great. It could also be something truly mediocre but considering that right now it’s truly nothing I figure there’s nothing to lose.

Make bread. Yeast is scary, you guys. Not scary in a it’s-got-a-lot-of-teeth-and-is-evolutionarily-perfect like a shark, but it creeps me out. And, unlike a shark, I’m pretty sure I can conquer it.

There they are. Three seems like a good number. It’s a place to start. Let’s see what I say about 2016 in ten years.

* “This Will Be Our Year” by The Zombies.

Rainy Days + Mondays Always Get Me Down.

It’s been a while, friends, but I’m back, and we have so much to catch up on.  I still have to tell you about my dinner at elBulli last November, and there are some pretty exciting things coming up (here’s a hint: I renewed my passport, and sent it out to get visas), and I’m trying to turn over a new leaf… I’m going to be sharing all of these things with you, and I’m determined not to go on another three-plus month hiatus again.

In the meantime, a few words of advice:

  • If you live in Boston and like seafood, go eat at Island Creek Oyster Bar.  Actually, scratch that — if you live and like to eat, come to Boston and go to Island Creek Oyster Bar.  If you’re still with me, order the fried oyster sliders (two per person, minimum), try one of the shell-less mussels appetizers, and get at least one glass of the Meßmer Riesling Halbtrocken 2008.
  • Get yourself a copy of Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi and start cooking.
  • Sharpen your knives.

I leave you this, in closing.  I know the title sounds depressing, but I don’t think it is at all.  In fact, I highly suggest singing along as loudly as you can, ideally while driving with the windows open.

Ann Patchett on Writing.

My love of Ann Patchett has been well-documented on this blog, and I hate the thought of being one of those people who tell the same stories over and over so I’m not even going to get into it.  What I will get into, briefly, is how thrilled I was to find that Grub Street had recently posted a link to Ms. Patchett’s keynote speech from 2009’s Muse and the Marketplace writing conference.  I left last year feeling incredible, and a big part of the reason why was this speech.  So give it a listen.

“Writing is Not an Indulgence.”

Some truths about me:

  1. I write.
  2. I don’t write often enough.
  3. I like food, dogs and zombies.

That last one was a gimme.  It’s still true.

Every person on this earth carries baggage and has issues about something; I’ve got two huge trunks that I drag behind me, one for my weight and the other for writing.  I’ve recently started to lessen my “I’m fat” load, so it’s only fitting that I’ve got a new outlook on writing.  It may sound harsh, but, as Renée Michel says Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, “I am rarely friendly — though always polite.”  So here it harshly is:

If you’re waiting for inspiration, stop.  This is an avoidance tactic, and even if it is successful all you are doing is crippling yourself.  It’s amateurish and, frankly, a boring reason to not be writing*.  Writers, serious ones anyway, don’t have the luxury of inspiration.  They just get the work done.  And yes, it is work.  You may find writing fun and rewarding and many other cheering words, but when you get down to it, writing is work.  It takes effort.

This is, of course, not to say that you can’t be inspired.  I spent most of yesterday at Grub Street‘s annual Muse and the Marketplace writers’ conference; I’ve been to the past two Muses, but this was the first year where I was a volunteer and only stayed for one day.  Still, I left feeling truly excited to go home and write.  It was pretty much a given that I would, since as a volunteer I was able to pop in and out of as many workshops as possible.  That’s how I got to

  • listen to Sinead O’Connor with Steve Almond (“I want to reach a place where defenses are converted into real feelings… the feelings that make us genuinely alive.”)
  • participate in a Choose Your Own Adventure-esque exercise on circumstance-driven fiction with Jessica Shattuck
  • laugh and learn at Lynne Barrett‘s discussion on plot (“You can’t have twenty-seven strippers.”)
  • frantically scribble notes while the immensely quotable Anita Shreve spoke about problem-solving in novel writing (“Sometimes when you think you’re stuck you’ve gone down the wrong tributary,”  for example. And the best: “We don’t strive for beautiful sentences.  We strive for arresting sentences.”)
  • disassemble the high-concept novel with Allison Scotch
  • find out exactly what makes agents and editors stop reading a manuscript
  • get Alisa Libby‘s perspective on writer’s block (“The writing process is happening in your head, even if you’re not sitting down and writing.”)
  • watch a panel discussion on MFA programs featuring Liza Ketchum, Maud Casey, Ron MacLean, Benjamin Percy and Bret Anthony Johnston (whose passionate words on writing seemed like a natural title to this post: “Writing is not an indulgence. The writer gives up indulgences to write.”)
  • meet an interesting group of young writers
  • come home with a stack of new books and a long list of more to read

Not a bad way at all to spend a sunny Saturday.

But to get back to my original point… if you need inspiration to feel motivated, I won’t try and take it away from you.  I’m just asking you to stop waiting for it.  It may not come, or it may not come as often as you like, and all that’s going to happen is that you’ll find another excuse to not write, which is never going to be as interesting as anything you do write.

Please don’t be boring.

* The boring part I’ve borrowed from my friend Monique, a writer herself.

SSSSD, or Seven Short Shorts in Seven Days.

About four or five years ago, my friend Marcella and I had a shared blog where we wrote about — well, we wrote about pretty much whatever we wanted.  One of the brilliant ideas we had, if I do say so myself, was something we called SSSSD — Seven Short Shorts in Seven Days.  For one week we posted a writing exercise on our blog; we invited our friends to participate and share their responses, which were all about five hundred words or less.  Basically, it was a way to force us to write creatively and with purpose for a solid week, with the hopes of jumpstarting a daily writing habit.

Unfortunately, I had a hard time beginning a writing regimen after SSSSD was over, but that didn’t stop Marcella and me from repeating the experiment a year later.  And it’s not stopping me from trying again now; in fact, my friend Beth requested an SSSSD revival, so I’m kicking it off on Facebook.  Each morning starting Sunday, April fourth, I’ll put up a new exercise designed to get writers thinking creatively.  I’m inviting participants to post their work each day, but the goal is to write — sharing is optional.

Want in?  Message me on Facebook and we’ll get you signed up.  No excuses though; are you really so busy that you can’t write a small piece of microfiction (or micrononfiction, as the case may be) every day for a week?   After all, it’s just five hundred itty bitty words or less.  So get writing with me.  It’s just for seven days!  Oh, and don’t forget to invite your friends — as they say, the more the merrier.

An Inspirational CD for Writing.

A while ago, I mentioned my renewed obsession with making mix CDs, specifically thematic ones.  Well, here’s what I listen to when I need a writing pick-me-up.  Let me know if you want a copy and I’ll drop it in the mail.

  1. Panic” by The Smiths
  2. It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career” by Belle + Sebastian
  3. “Out of Gas” by Modest Mouse
  4. No Sleep Tonite” by Slumber Party
  5. Changes” by David Bowie
  6. Freak Scene” by Dinosaur Jr.
  7. Personality Crisis” by New York Dolls
  8. That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” by Mission of Burma
  9. The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” by The New Pornographers
  10. Wake Me When It’s Over” by Longwave
  11. Lonely Lonely” by Feist
  12. The Trick Is To Keep Breathing” by Garbage
  13. Move On” by The Rentals
  14. Leave Me Alone” by New Order
  15. I See a Darkness” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy
  16. Amateur” by Aimee Mann
  17. Hopeless” by The Wrens

“a fab food-ish poem”

I’m back from Maine and slowly making my way through all of the emails and RSS feeds that have piled up this week like an unseasonal snowdrift, but I wanted to share something Marcella sent to me earlier today.  See, clearly I’m very interested food, but what might not be clear is that I also tend to sometimes be a little bit morbid, so the “fab food-ish poem” that Marcella emailed to me just about hit all the right spots.  It’s featured on Poets.org as “Today’s Poem,” but here it is regardless of the day:

My Autopsy (Excerpt)
by Michael Dickman

There is a way
if we want
into everything

I’ll eat the chicken carbonara and you eat the veal, the olives, the small and glowing loaves of bread

I’ll eat the waiter, the waitress
floating through the candled dark in shiny black slacks
like water at night

The napkins, folded into paper boats, contain invisible Japanese poems

You eat the forks
all the knives, asleep and waiting
on the white tables

What do you love?

I love the way our teeth stay long after we’re gone, hanging on despite worms or fire

I love our stomachs
turning over
the earth

Happy end-of-May, beginning-of-June.

A Weekend Writing Conference, or Ann Patchett is my Spirit Guide.

This past weekend in Boston was utterly gorgeous, and I spent about 94% of it indoors.  You know what, though — I loved every minute of it.  The sun is bad for you, after all, and writing is not.  So instead of lying in the park with my T-shirt rolled up, I was at Grub Street‘s Muse and the Marketplace writing conference.

The Muse is two packed days of workshops, readings, signings and lectures.  The whole event is pretty rigorously paced, with three workshops or lectures each day.  As a participant, I could have also signed up for lunch with published authors, meetings with agents and query letter evaluations (last year I met with an editor to discuss my work) but this year I specifically chose lectures that addressed topics I needed to tackle with my own writing.

Here’s what went down:

Saturday
Got to registration a little later than planned and therefore missed the free breakfast.  This didn’t bother me but I was sweating profusely from walking to the Park Plaza and desperately needed something to drink.  Bumped into Farrah from my writing group before heading to my first lecture, “Time Travel In Fiction: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”  I chose it because I’m working on something with a lot of flashbacks, and besides, who doesn’t like a Joyce Carol Oates reference?  The class — which was both incredibly fascinating and terribly helpful — was led by Alix Ohlin, who was clever and a great speaker and very smart, and as I took notes I realized my pen’s ink matched my shoes exactly, teal.  My only other pen was, um, light teal.  Grabbed a coffee before “Traits, Quirks, and Habits: Crafting Characters from the Inside Out” with Lynne Griffin.  Took more notes with teal pen.  Caught up with my friend Terry over lunch; we took a great Grub class last summer with Kate Flora, and now Terry has a fantastic and funny idea for a book I can’t wait to read.  Poked at a dry piece of chicken and stole extra rolls while Alan Cheuse and Dinty W. Moore read excerpts from their work, and Mr. Moore described the conference as “the grubbiest” he has ever attended, which got lots of laughs.  Met up with Farrah again at Rakesh Satyal‘s “Culture Clubbing: How to Write About Ethnicity Without Beating Your Readers Over the Head.”  Farrah and I are both of Lebanese descent, and apparently equally interested in including this is our respective work.  Afterward went to an hour-long lecture on “The Art of Column Writing” with Suzette Martinez Standring.  Braced myself for the heat, began perspiring as soon as I left the hotel.

Sunday
Got to the hotel with enough time to grab a cup of coffee and a marble bagel, which I promptly wrapped in napkins and stuffed in my bag, before bumping into Steve Almond; tried to have a chat before getting separated in the elevator, but learned his four-month-old is named Judah Elijah, which I think is a nice name, particularly with the reverse alliteration.  Attempted to balance my notebook on my knees during Merrill Feitell “Mechanical Physics for Fiction Writers,” which was so straight-up good that I filled pages with notes when I wasn’t too busy laughing at her jokes and stuffed bunny prop.  Immediately afterward, ran downstairs to the Porter Square Books table to buy a copy of her anthology, Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes, along with The Missing Person by Alix Ohlin, The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry and Naming the World by Bret Anthony Johnston.  Ran back upstairs for Steve’s lecture on “How to Achieve Sudden Impact,” and am pleased to report his sense of humor in front of an audience is the same as his humor in front of one person.  Farrah and I ate lunch together (soggy chicken) and listened to Ann Patchett‘s keynote speech.  In the middle of it, I sent a text to Marcella and Keith: “Ann Patchett should be my spirit guide.”  She spoke for something like forty minutes without notes, and bluntly about writing.  This is the best job you’ll ever have, this is hard work, there’s not such thing as doctor’s block so why writer’s block?*  Clapped until my hands felt sore then made my way back upstairs for “Diving Into the Novel” with Vyvyane Loh, who was so full of information that I could practically see the story I am working on come together right in front of me.

* This, of course, is paraphrased.  Ann Patchett is much more clever than that.  And she spoke about much, much more with an almost intimidating amount of intelligence and a lot of humor.  Ann Patchett is funny!

Food + Drink: A Mix CD.

Lately all I’ve been wanting to do is make mix CDs.  I’ve been working on an epic one lately that’s meant to be encouraging/inspirational for writing; it includes such songs as “The Slow Descent into Alcoholism” by The New Pornographers and “I See A Darkness” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy.  It’s really been helping.

Anyway, I told my friend Stephanie about my fixation and she was so intrigued by my need for an underlying thematic element that I immediately volunteered to make her a mix.  Since, like me, Stephanie’s constantly obsessing about food, it only seemed fitting that I put together a food-centric playlist.

  1. Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog” by Johnny Cash
  2. “My Sugar So Sweet” by Nick Drake
  3. The King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1” by Neutral Milk Hotel
  4. “Meat” by Noise Addict
  5. Oyster” by Jawbreaker
  6. “Pork + Beans” by Bettie Serveert
  7. Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young
  8. Gimmie Some Salt” by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
  9. Just Like Honey” by The Jesus + Mary Chain
  10. You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” by Spoon
  11. Apple Scruffs” by George Harrison
  12. For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea” by Belle + Sebastian
  13. (Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister” by The Stone Roses
  14. Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones
  15. Bird Stealing Bread” by Iron + Wine
  16. Lips Like Sugar” by Echo + the Bunnymen
  17. Apple Bed” by Sparklehorse
  18. Fortune Cookie” by Pizzicato Five
  19. Coffee + TV” by Blur

I’ve got to say, it came out really great.  Drop me a line in the comments if you want a copy and we’ll set it up.