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.

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:

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.

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!

But are the Subtitles Really Neccesary?

last-restaurant-standing1Not too long ago, I told you all that my new favorite food-related television show was Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word on BBC America.  Well, I’m sorry to say that I lied.  My new new favorite food-related television show is Last Restaurant Standing, which is also on BBC America.  I know you’ll forgive me when you hear the premise:

Restaurateur Raymond Blanc brings in nine couples to compete for the chance to partner with him in opening a new restaurant.  The couples are made up of husbands and wives, parents and children, partners and friends; one of the two serves as the head chef, while the other is front of house.  Each couple is given the keys to a restaurant space, which they then turn into their dream eateries.

Sound interesting enough?  There’s more — Last Restaurant Standing has two different types of episodes: service, and challenge.  The former shows the couple running a dinner service, as well as dealing with a task like using a whole pig when designing that night’s menu or feeding diners with dietary restrictions.  The couples are then evaluated on their performance, and those with the worst review are made to participate in the challenge episodes.  In these, the couples are made to complete such assignments as designing a cookbook concept, creating an airline meal for first-class passengers or cater a dinner party for very particular clients.  Then, based on their work and customer satisfaction, one couple is eliminated.

One reason I enjoy the show, aside from the obvious focus on food, is that all of the competitors are so supportive and respectful of each other.  No one’s talking smack, like on the similarly-themed-albeit-canceled NBC show The Chopping Block.  No one’s rooting for anyone else to fail — in fact, there’s surprisingly little negativity at all, except when one of the contestants disappoints themselves.  Not once does anyone point fingers, something I find utterly fascinating.

Another thing I like about Last Restaurant Standing, which is called The Restaurant abroad, is how pretty it is.  Each episode showcases lush photography, charming background music and wonderful voiceover narration that makes it feel as though a kindly-yet-worldly nanny is telling the viewer a bedtime story.  It would gently lull you to sleep, were the show uninteresting.  Instead, it slips you into a lovely kind of stupor.  I mean this in the best possible way.

This Sunday, BBC America is running a Last Restaurant Standing marathon for those of you who want to get caught up on episodes you might have missed, or those of you who just want to get sucked into some British reality television.  I’ve got plans, but I encourage you to lounge on your sofas all day and check it out!

Am I Psychic?

No, seriously.

First I channel M.F.K. Fisher from the Great Beyond.  Now, the same day I mention my ardor for Ann Patchett, I learn that she will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Muse and the Marketplace (the annual writers’ conference hosted by Grub Street, the Boston-based writing organization that has been so helpful to me).  Honestly, I’m so excited.  I did a happy dance earlier.

Just in case I do in fact have some sort of otherworldly capabilities, I just want to let you all know that I foresee puppies in my future, and maybe some chocolate pudding.  Or a nice Riesling.

On Comté.

Keith went to Formaggio Kitchen last Sunday (I was busy) and came home with, amongst other things, a sizable wedge of Comté. This is all that’s left of it, and the baguette that Keith bought to accompany it.

I may or may not have said this before, but I love cheese. It is a torrid affair that we are embroiled in, cheese and I, full of longing, yearning and desire. I should add the word “unrequited” as well, but I’m hopeful.

Comté is certainly high on my list of go-to cheeses; along with Pointu Gaborit, Gruyère Alpage, Boerenkaas-Veenweidekaas and Piave Vecchio — which I think is possibly one of the prettiest wheels out there, with its sunny yellow and vibrant blue seal.

Made from cow’s milk, Comté is from the Franche-Comté area of eastern France, near the Swiss border. It’s a harder cheese, but one with a bit of resiliency to it; Comté doesn’t crumble when cut, unlike various Parmesans or a triangle of Mimolette. As for the flavor, well — it’s utterly delicious. Creamy and nutty, it’s similar to Gruyère, with a nice amount of saltiness and a smattering of crunchy calcium lactate crystals sprinkled throughout.

Apparently, Comté is wonderful in fondues and its texture probably lends itself really well to melting. I can just imagine how lovely a Comté and potato gratin would be, or a Comté-based mac and cheese… Truthfully though, I wouldn’t know. Comté never lasts long enough around my house for me to do anything more advanced than slicing off a piece and popping it in my mouth. And I’ve got to say, if that’s all I ever do this cheese, it’s more than enough to make me happy.


I’ve been embarrassingly absent these past few days and I have no good excuse aside from a mild case of ennui and an unabashed sense of anxiety about tomorrow. I promise to write much much more as soon as possible, perhaps starting even tonight. I’m far too worked up to do anything that involves wearing shoes.

Please allow this deliciousness to make up for my ineptitude.