You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world but then you read. ~James Baldwin
At nineteen my grandma lost her baby daughter to spinal meningitis. It was 1940. Baby Joyce was struck with fever on Friday and died on Sunday. I was a small child when I learned about her. I had no place to put the weight of it. I remember feeling a kind of reverence for my grandma, who had two more children, my mother and my uncle. Despite what she’d endured, she was kind, generous and loving, quick to laugh, quick to hug, joyful. She also kept a terrifying-to-me painting in a place of prominence in her house.
I recently had a long, solo drive.You know what makes time fly in a car? Celebrity memoirs! Who knew? I listened to THE LAST BLACK UNICORN, narrated by the author, Tiffany Haddish. Irreverent, crass, hilarious, and hard scrabble—I was laughing so hard at one point I thought about pulling over to be safe. I do want to emphasize that she’s irreverent, so if you’re sensitive, or if you have kids in the car, it isn’t the book for you.
OH, WILLIAM, by Elizabeth Strout, is one of the best books I’ve read all year. I am a huge fan of Strout, having read nearly all her books, and this one further cemented my love for her work. The New York Review says of Strout, “Her main subject is the drama of the uncertain self in relation to the world…” Oh my, the uncertain self? That’s my jam!
If art has the capacity to make us feel less alone in our confusion, suffering, living and loving, Strout certainly proves that for me. Late in the novel, Lucy Barton is driving through Maine with her ex-husband William, helping him find a half-sister whom he has never met. She’s reminded of past drives, of coziness in the car with William and their baby daughters, how her husband was once home for her. I too remember road trips through a dark and rainy landscape with my husband, our babies strapped in their car seats, and feeling that everything in that moment was okay, I was safe, cozy. Like Lucy Barton, that is not a feeling I often had in my childhood. Reading Lucy’s memories I experienced my own I felt known as an uncertain self doing her best.
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.
I participated in a podcast!! Oh my, it was so much fun. The lovely Kelly Fordon interviewed me about my story, CHILDREN ARE MAGIC on her smart podcast, LET’S DECONSTRUCT A STORY. We laughed, commiserated, talked about writers we love. Check it out here.
My students have been sharing with me a sense of malaise regarding their projects and I totally get it. We get sick of our stories, we get tired of our voices, and then doubt creeps in. I offer you this inspiration and prompt:
- Dybek says the story began as a poem. He had a still life in mind, of an oil cloth covered table, a radio, a can of Pet Milk, and a coffee mug. He says he loves still life paintings… the way the light off the objects can give rise to emotions. The story was going nowhere and so, one morning he asked himself, “Why these objects?” That’s when the grandmother entered the story, and the railroad yard across the street. “Suddenly the story was heading toward a plate of oysters and I let it go.”
- Look at still life paintings, simply go on a virtual visit to any museum you choose, or better yet, go to your local museum! Here’s a place to start. Use the work as a way to launch into our own stories or poems. Begin by describing what you see. What emotions does it evoke? Why these objects?
- Consider the rhyming action in PET MILK. So many images bloom from the first image of the Pet Milk swirling in the coffee, the sky does the same thing above the railyard, the King Alphonse drinks repeat the image, the smoke of the boy on the L platform with the glowing late sky above him, the lyric repetition knits the story together. Spend some time outside, closely observe and then describe what you see in nature as precisely and vividly as you can. What does it remind you of?
Finally, if the writerly malaise is too much, try this!
Pomegranates are almost five dollars each at our local hoity-toity market. This is surely a sign of impending winter. Before they’re gone completely, make this (which I’ve made 3 times in the last month):
Brussels Sprouts w/Walnuts and Pomegranate (NYTs)
- 1½ pounds brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
- 3T olive oil
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped walnuts
- 4T pomegranate seeds, plus more to taste
- Pomegranate molasses, for generous drizzling
- Flaky salt, to serve
- Heat the oven to 425°. Place your sheet pan in the oven while preheating.
- In a large bowl, toss brussels sprouts with the olive oil. Season w/ salt and black pepper and toss again.
- Spread everything evenly on a sheet pan cut-side-down (enjoy the sizzle sound!) and roast until crisp and deeply golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes, flipping the sprouts halfway through to ensure even browning.
- Meanwhile, toast the walnuts in a skillet over medium-low heat, stirring frequently to ensure they don’t burn, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
- When the brussels sprouts are done roasting, toss them with the toasted walnuts and the pomegranate seeds. Drizzle with the pomegranate molasses. Season with flaky salt.
Also, I’m going to make this Olive Oil Walnut Cake w/Pomegranate.