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!
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New Year, Old Thoughts.

I was walking down the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway not too long ago and found myself thinking again/as usual about Boston, and all the other places in the world where I could possibly be (Belize, Belarus, Belgium, Bahrain, Burundi, Bonaire).  Then I thought, The sun today is so pretty, shining just so, why can’t Boston be enough? So I decided, to keep me company as I warily made my way across the remaining patches of ice and snow, to make a list of things I love about this town (well, metro-area).   I came to Boston for a reason, after all, and have stayed for others, and when you’ve lived in one place for as many years as this it’s bound to leave its mark. I know that no matter where I go and where I end up, I’ll always have some sort of wanderlust hovering at the edge of my vision, almost the aura that zips along the corner of my eye just before I slip into a migraine — but without the pain.  Well, maybe not without the pain; it’s just different, when you long for something so much.  I just keep telling myself, Soon soon soon.  Hopefully it’s the truth.  Until then, this town is my home.

  • 90 Chestnut Street, my favorite building in all of Beacon Hill.  Next time I’m in the neighborhood (and when I have a working camera again) I’ll take a photo for you.
  • The back streets of Cambridge, and the literary history of the city.
  • Bloc 11, since it’s much easier to park in Union Square than it is when visiting its sister coffeehouse, Diesel Café, in Davis.
  • The Brattle Theatre, where I don’t watch movies often enough.
  • Commonwealth Avenue Mall, especially the portion between Exeter and Dartmouth Streets, where I shot my first student film with a 16mm Bolex.
  • The double-door brownstones in the South End, because they’re so stately.
  • Good, the gorgeous and pristine boutique on Charles Street selling such wares as John Derian découpage items and Satya jewelry.
  • Grub Street, where I’ve taken countless helpful and encouraging writing workshops.
  • Forest Hills Cemetery, which is both free to visit and incredibly beautiful.
  • Formaggio Kitchen, because — let’s face it — I just can’t live without cheese.
  • Janet Warner at Salon Marc Harris on Newbury Street, who has been cutting my hair and making me laugh since 2003, and doing a damn good job at both.
  • Porter Square Books, because sometimes it’s nice to actually buy a book in a store and not just at Amazon.
  • The view of the Charles from the roof of 132 Beacon Street, a sight I’ll probably never see from the same vantage point again since the building is currently being renovated into luxury condominiums.
  • Volle Nolle, the makers of the some of the best sandwiches in all of Boston.

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry.

A few weeks ago, while I waited on my coffee order at Porter Square Books, I did what I always do — wander around and pick up whatever seems interesting. In this instance, it was Lois Lowry‘s latest book, The Willoughbys. Even if I wasn’t such a Lowry fan, I know I would have been drawn to this cover; with its black-and-white swirls and flourishes and that single eye-catching red door, how could anyone resist? I really like this sort of aesthetic for books (it’s almost like a cheery Gorey, no?) and I love dust jackets with cut-outs, as the case is here. (The book itself is crimson. In the hardcover, anyway.)

As I was debating as to whether or not to buy the book right then (I didn’t; I bought it later.) I couldn’t help but overhear this conversation between two mothers:

Mom 1: Maybe I’ll get this for [insert child’s name here].
Mom 2: Oh, I love Lois Lowry. What’s this one about? [flips book over and reads excerpt from back cover] Oh, this is horrible!
Mom 1: What? What is it?
Mom 2: It’s a book about killing your parents!
Mom 1: What?! I don’t want [insert child’s name here] reading a book like that!

This went on for several more minutes.

The Willoughbys is indeed about children killing their parents (or children wishing they were orphans). To be fair, it’s also about parents killing their children (or parents wishing they were childless). However, it is, most importantly, a satire. Of course Lowry isn’t providing a manual on how to off parents, just like she isn’t condoning infanticide and euthanasia in The Giver. (Her Newbury Medal winning novel is ranked at number fourteen on the American Library Association‘s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000.)

More than anything, The Willoughbys is a kind of love letter to the children’s books of yore, albeit one that cheekily and simultaneously pokes fun at the genre. Lowry’s characters allude to “old-fashioned people” and frequently site classic children’s novels like James and the Giant Peach and Anne of Green Gables. There’s a great deal of humor thrown in as well, like a character’s version of German (“Mein meusli ist dischgusting. It makesch me vant to womit.”) and the Lemony-Snicket-y glossary at the back of the book.

I thought The Willoughbys was a whole lot of fun, as well as refreshing. I am someone deeply in awe of those who take risks, and this book is certainly a departure from the rest of Lowry’s bibliography. That, I suppose, is something else to be in awe of, as Lowry’s written over thirty books spanning multiple genres — a feat I could only dream of accomplishing myself.

Food Diary, Day Six.

9.30 – 10.45 am: Sumo skim latte with a shot of sugar-free vanilla syrup from Zing! in Porter Square Books. The other day, I explained to Melissa that normally I prefer coffee-flavored coffee, but if I want a flavor I generally favor hazelnut. Only at Zing! do I get vanilla, and only at 1369 Coffeehouse do I get almond. Otherwise, it’s a regular coffee with cream and a couple of Equals thrown in.

11.37 am: One of four chocolate cherry chip cookies that I toted into work from the batch I made yesterday.

11.53 am: Chocolate cherry chip number two. Sick or no, these cookies are good.

1.50 pm: I am trying to hold out, believe it or not, but I can’t resist the third cookie. And I wonder why I have no appetite for lunch.

3.37 – 3.53 pm: Oven Roasted Vegetable sandwich (from Hot Off the Press in Central Square) which consists of a whole-wheat wrap loaded with spinach, goat cheese, herb mayonnaise and miscellaneous vegetables that have been (you guessed it) roasted in the oven. It’s flavorful, though the packaging was leaking by the time I got back to my office. Luckily, I had the foresight earlier not to stuff my lunch into my lovely leather bag before getting on the subway, because then I would be in a very bad mood indeed. Instead I’m happily full (though sore-throated), with a still-lovely bag.

4.40 pm: An under-ripe banana, which is actually how I like them. I want something that has a bit of bite to it, literally, not a mushy mess in my mouth.

5.48 pm: Chocolate cherry chip number four, not to be confused with “Strawberry Letter 23.”

10.30 pm: Diet Coke while preparing dinner. I love slicing herbs — the smell, the sound… it’s very satisfying, like ripping cloth. Right now I’m working with the greenest, freshest parsley of all time.

11.01 – 11.42 pm: Chicken with garlic and cumin, corn with paprika butter and one last cookie. I don’t recall where I got this recipe; according to Google, it may be from Woman’s Day, which is not one of my regular reads. Regardless of who printed it first, it’s tasty — which is all that matters.

Chicken with Garlic and Cumin
Makes four portions.

1 pound chicken breast, cleaned of fat
½ teaspoons each salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter
16 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 cup finely chopped parsley
1 lemon

  1. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat butter in a large, heavy nonstick skillet until bubbly. Add thighs and brown on one side, about five minutes. Turn, add garlic, cover and cook over medium-low heat twenty to twenty-three minutes, turning throughout until browned evenly on both sides.
  2. Sprinkle chicken with cumin; increase heat to medium-high and cook uncovered three-five minutes, turning once, until drippings and chicken are crisp. Remove chicken to serving plates, and spoon on garlic and drippings. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with lemon wedges.

Food Diary, Day One.

7.40 am: A really tart grapefruit and two Tylenols. I think my brain is trying to squeeze its way out of my skull, via my eye sockets.

10.10 am: Banana. On Fridays I try not to eat a lot in the morning because that is the day we have lunch delivered at work, and I am almost certain to overeat then.

10.40 – 11.51 am: Sumo skim latte with a shot of sugar-free vanilla from Zing! in Porter Square Books. I am very particular about my coffee, but not in the sense that one would imagine. I don’t know anything about Tanzanian Peaberry or Hawaiian Kona. I just like my coffee to be at a specific temperature — warm enough that I can still enjoy its heat, but not so hot that I burn my mouth. And never, ever cold.

12.35 pm: Lunch is supposed to arrive at any minute and I am scared that I won’t be able to hold out.

1.02 – 1.50 pm: Nibbles of shahi paneer, chicken tikka masala, naan, vegetable pakora, aloo gobhi and basmati rice. We had lunch brought in from Desi Dhaba in Central Square, which was good, but I much prefer Tanjore or Tamarind Bay, both in Havard Square, depending on whether I’m in the mood for something more traditional or more eclectic.

2.24 pm: An extremely sweet D’Anjou pear whose juice threatened to trickle down my arm and into my sleeve, reminding me of that small scene in Memoirs of a Geisha:

…I stepped into the kitchen of the okiya and found one of the maids leaning over the sink, trying to cover up the ripe pear she held to her mouth, its juices running down onto her neck. She’d had such a craving for it, she’d said, and begged me not to tell Mother.

4.17 pm: One Dove dark chocolate square from the office candy tray. I am desperately in need of something sweet, and while I am staring at another D’Anjou, I don’t think fruit will quite cut it at the moment.

4.45 pm: The chocolate fails to do its job. Time for Pear, Take Two.

5.03 pm: Two Advils. Surely this is how Wyle E. Coyote feels after the Roadrunner is done with him.

6.48 pm: A honking piece of mozzarella cheese while I write out my grocery list. I am starving, and tired. Tonight I just want to cook some food and go to bed.

9.42 – 10.26 pm: Diet Coke and dinner of a quick stir-fry of brown rice, chicken, edamame and walnuts, the recipe of which I pinched from an old issue of Bon Appétit. I’ve included it here, below.

Brown Rice + Chicken Stir-Fry with Edamame + Walnuts
Makes six portions.

½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
4 tablespoons soy sauce, ideally low-sodium
2 boneless skinless chicken breast halves, sliced thinly crosswise
1 teaspoon honey
4 teaspoons sesame oil
4 teaspoons minced fresh ginger (I like a lot of ginger, so I might use even more than this.)
3 garlic cloves, minced (I like a lot of garlic, so I might use even more than this.)
1 ½ cups short-grain brown rice cooked, cooled
2 cups shelled cooked edamame beans
1 bunch chopped scallions (Keith likes scallions; Bon Appétit calls for 2/3 cup, chopped.)

  1. Stir walnuts in medium nonstick skillet over medium heat until lightly toasted, about three minutes. Drizzle two tablespoons soy sauce over walnuts; stir until soy sauce coats walnuts, about forty-five seconds. Let cool. (This step can be made up to three days ahead. Store at room temperature in airtight container.)
  2. Combine chicken, two tablespoons soy sauce and honey in medium bowl, and toss to coat. Let stand fifteen minutes.
  3. Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over high heat. Add chicken and stir-fry for about two-three minutes. Add ginger and garlic and stir-fry for thirty seconds. Add cooked rice and edamame; reduce heat to medium and stir-fry until heated through, about five minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat; mix in walnuts and scallions, serve.

Lois Lowry at Porter Square Books.

This morning I went to see Lois Lowry speak at the bookshop around the corner from my office. If ever you hear of her having a reading in your neighborhood or speaking at an event nearby, I really urge you to make the time in your schedule to go, as she is thoroughly captivating.

The audience was comprised mostly of children, which was nice because this was clearly a group that enjoyed reading. A small disclosure: being around such a large gathering of kids was more than a little strange for me because it was one of the few times that I stood (or sat, as was the case here) taller than most of the crowd. I’m barely over five feet; something like this is highly unusual for me.

Interestingly, Lowry didn’t come to the bookstore with notes, or even a copy of her latest work, The Willoughbys. She simply launched into talking about its plot and themes after grabbing a the display book off of the table next to her.

“Let me see if I can find the right part quickly,” she said more than once, flipping through the pages. And each time she found exactly what she was looking for, and read the excerpts in such a lively and expressive way that I wanted to curl up with a mug of something warm and sweet, and listen to her read everything she had ever written.

Her presence was so impressive. Lowry effortlessly commandeered the attentions of what seemed to me like sixty kids, all the while telling funny anecdotes and maintaining a very relaxed and laid-back attitude. She did this even as she fielded questions, some of which she must have answered countless times at other similar events.

I didn’t stick around for the book signing; like I said, there were a lot of kids, several of whom had multiple books for Lowry to sign. It happens I’ve already got a signed copy of A Summer to Die, which is the first of her books that I ever read, back when I was in grade school. It’s also the first of Lowry’s novels. I recently reread it while I toiled away on my pages; I’m happy to report that even though it was originally published in 1977, it still rings true. Which is all I can wish for any writer, established or otherwise.

Sandwich from The Biscuit, by way of Zing!

I understand that it isn’t yet eleven o’clock in the morning as I write this, but that doesn’t change the fact that I am already halfway through my lunch.

On most weekday mornings, I get started with a cappuccino or a latte from Zing! in Porter Square Books; this morning the sandwiches looked so amazingly tempting, plump triangles wrapped in shiny cellophane. Generally speaking I pack my lunch and tote it into work, but this happens to be one of the few days where I found myself commuting with only a banana and an apple to hold me over until dinner. I had planned on perhaps getting some sort of soba from the Asian food court inside Porter Exchange when, as I ordered my coffee, I realized that my stomach was already rumbling. So I did what I always do, and that is give in.

I selected the Veggie Goat’s Gruff: herbed goat cheese, roasted zucchini sliced incredibly thin, roasted red peppers, caramelized onions and greens on whole wheat. Goodness, it was delicious. The onions actually weren’t quite caramelized, but I didn’t mind because they gave a satisfying crunch to the sandwich. One of the ingredients, and it drives me crazy that I can’t quite put my finger on exactly which, added a surprising pickle-y tang that I absolutely loved.

Apparently the Veggie Goat’s Gruff and the other sandwiches available at Zing! come from The Biscuit on Washington Street in Somerville. While it’s not nearly as easy for me to pop by there on my way to work, it’s heartening to know that now I’ve got two more places to drop into when I’ve got a hankering for a sandwich.

Zing! at Porter Square Books
Porter Square Shopping Center
25 White Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02140
617.491.2220
portersquarebooks.com