I last wrote to you in 2021 and I apologize for my silence, but I needed a minute. With all the omicron, congressional, and brink of war news, it feels as if I’ve had my finger in the dike of despair. I am holding it back so hard!
And, I had a BIG birthday (6-0), the start of a new decade that feels precipitous and wonderful. Yes, a contradiction, but I’m claiming this decade as mine to be creative, to feel joy, to draw that big-ass smiley faced sun in the corner of my paper, and to do the work to let my people know I love and appreciate them. That means you!
Luckily I have people who love me who bring me good news of the world, like this:
People who send me sweet little books like, DO ONE THING EVERY DAY THAT MAKES YOU HAPPY, full of wisdom such as:
You have to be willing to get happy about nothing. – Andy Warhol
In case you want to be happy (or mildly entertained) about nothing, here’s Andy Warhol on… wait for it… The Love Boat?!? WTF?
I am committed to upping my reading game this year. In the recent (pandemic) past, I’ve been swamped with news-consumption and escapist television viewing. I know a novel, story collection, or memoir can also offer beautiful escapism, but I’ve wanted to be spoon fed. This year, I’m feeling nimble and ready, like a fighter shadowboxing in the corner of the ring!
Two standouts thus far:
FIONA AND JANE, by Jean Chen Ho. A debut linked story collection which follows two friends from grade school to their early 40s. I was moved by their attempts at ‘adulting.’ Their lives felt real and compelling with serious loss, love, and humor–the way we all live. Jane’s story drew me in more deeply than Fiona’s as we spend more time with her and her family. One of the sorrows for me was the loss of a terrific character, Won, who appears early on. He sort of petered out and I missed him. But isn’t that the way of it? Sometimes friends do evaporate from our lives. It is worthy work to let people know how much we love them.
Jean Chen Ho does an excellent job of bringing her people to life. I believe in her characters, and I felt somehow known watching their dreams expand and contract and morph into real life. Let’s be honest, we all have to compromise and adjust to the amalgamation of our hopes and what the world offers. It feels good to have a book look back at you and say, “I know. I feel you.”
THESE PRECIOUS DAYS, by Ann Patchett. If Fiona and Jane showed people who struggle and strive and screw-up, Patchett seems to be the arrow who is released from the bowstring in a straight arc toward her goals. Man-oh-man, do I wish I lived next door to her! I know we would say hello over the fence! Who wouldn’t want to talk to someone who says things like:
Human beings hobble together their own mythologies over time: I was unloved, I was too loved, I was popular, a loner, misunderstood, persecuted, stupid, a winner. We use the past to explain ourselves.
I know that isn’t a huge lightbulb going off, but what if we used the now to explain ourselves to ourselves? What if we unshackled ourselves from the past? Can we hold ourselves responsible and let ourselves off the hook in one fell swoop? What freedom and possibility would we gain? I’m not suggesting we gloss over what happened to us, but must we use it as an explainer? How else can we talk about our way of being in the world that has more agency à la mode? For more on this idea, check out this article from the NYer contributer Parul Sehgal: “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” in which she argues that defining our characters (and by extension, ourselves) by their traumatic history flattens them (and us), robs them/us of nuance and potentiality. Consider: …post-traumatic growth is far more common than post-traumatic stress. It’s a thought provoking read and I’d be curious to hear what you think.
Just a quick reminder, I’ve created a read.write.eat. Bookshop Store, where you can find many of the books I’ve recommend in the newsletter.
In preparation for an editing workshop I am currently teaching, and to teach the book editing workshop this summer at the ASPEN SUMMER WORDS CONFERENCE (pinch me!), I’ve been upping my game. I just finished reading Peter Ho Davis craft book, THE ART OF REVISION. I found it to be illuminating in large and small ways. Davies solidified ideas I’d been stewing over for some time. Basically, before you believe in the scissor over the pencil (as Truman Capote glibly said of revision) you must believe in the pencil! Revision is a creative act in which there is more discovery to be made before you snip away. Here’s a description of my workshop:
A first draft (novel or memoir) involves discovering the story the writer has come to tell. We strive to write with speed and creative play, hopefully complicating and uncovering new ideas from those that compelled us to the page in the first place. The revision and editing that occurs in later drafts (often cast as drudgery or tidying up) is an opportunity for patience, for the writer to understand what they’re saying and to say it better. In this workshop we will emphasis the continued inspiration, creativity and discovery that comes with saying it better. We will look at craft choices (structure, language, setting, POV, tension, characterization, and dialogue) specifically for how they enrich and clarify the meaning of your book.
A goal of the workshop will be to highlight the qualities of your voice, your book, the exciting anomalies that make the work compelling and unique. We’ll discuss tricks to defamiliarize yourself with your work so that when you come to edit and revise, you’ll see it with fresh eyes. Discussions will illuminate strengths and weaknesses, leaving a writer with ideas and inspiration to get back to the project.
Did I mention I’m excited? Both to teach this workshop, and to be in the company of the great writers also offering workshops: Mary Beth Keane, Ayana Mathis, Mark Doty, Robert Kolker, Terrance Hayes, and Fonda Lee. If only I could be a student and a workshop leader at the same time!
Deadline to apply is 28 February! APPLY HERE
I will leave you with a writing prompt. If you are looking for new discoveries in your work, here’s an idea:
- Find a heated dialogue exchange between characters in a piece you are working on, whether it be fiction or memoir.
- Rewrite it from the POV of a non-verbal object, be it a pet, a housefly, a lamp. (This will help you to notice details of setting and gesture which the characters may be too absorbed to take in.)
- Write another draft of the scene, this time with only non-verbal action.
- Write another draft in which the characters have no filter and say everything they are thinking. (This one is a lot of fun!)
- Finally, compost all the drafts you’ve written into one final scene, incorporating some of the discoveries you made.
My husband and I have been cooking together. It is cold and dark and January is 100 days long so this is a nice thing to do in lieu of an evening walk. The last great dish we made was this pasta from NYTs cooking.
- Kosher salt
- 10 ounces rigatoni
- 1 ½ pounds eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- ¼ c plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Black pepper
- 3 oz prosciutto, roughly chopped into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces (optional)
- 1 medium shallot, thinly sliced into rings
- 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 fresno or serrano chile, seeded, if you like, and thinly sliced into rings
- 1 basket Sun Gold, cherry or grape tomatoes
- 1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes and their juices
- 4 oz fresh mozzarella, finely chopped
- 1 c roughly chopped fresh herbs, such as basil and mint (I used parsley and mint)
- Heat the oven to 425 degrees. On a large rimmed sheet pan, toss eggplant with 1/4 c olive oil and season well with salt and pepper. Spread evenly in one layer and roast until golden, 25 to 30 minutes. (At this point, I made myself an old fashioned!)
- Make your sauce: In a deep, 12-inch skillet, heat the remaining olive oil over medium. Add the prosciutto and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to crisp and brown in spots, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from skillet and place on a paper towel-lined plate.
- Add the shallot, garlic and chile to the pan and cook, stirring frequently, until the shallot softens and garlic is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add the cherry tomatoes and cook until they start to burst, pressing the tomatoes gently down with the back of a spatula or wooden spoon (I used a potato masher!) 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the diced tomatoes with their juices and season with salt and pepper. Simmer while the eggplant finishes roasting, about 15 minutes more.
- While you’re making the sauce, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package instructions until al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta cooking water, then drain pasta. If the sauce appears dry, you can use a bit of this water to moisten. (Okay, on my list of hated words… you will find moisten!)
- When the eggplant is done, add it to the tomato sauce and stir to combine. Add the pasta and toss until everything is well coated. Stir in the mozzarella and toss until it begins to melt.
- Serve in bowls and top each portion with crispy prosciutto and fresh herbs.