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My Brilliant Friends

2015 September 1

ferrante

Friendship, specifically female friendship, is having a bit of a moment in the book world. Between Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (which I read while I was in Scotland earlier this summer), Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, and Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, it seems that the complexity and love in friendship is finally being recognized. All of these novels feature complicated and nuanced relationships between women–relationships that endure more dramatic ups and downs than any romantic dalliance. In a couples-centric culture, it can sometimes be easy to forget just how valuable and essential our friendships can be. I’m glad that we’re finally giving friendship the attention it deserves.

When I was younger, I had a hard time making friends. But, turns out, there’s nothing like memories of sitting alone on the playground at recess or being made fun of by the “cool kids” to make you appreciate your friends when you finally make them. It’s common knowledge that as we get older, the number of friends we have tends to dwindle. There are, of course, a multitude of reasons for this: distance, marriage and kids, the stresses of everyday adult life, and the inevitable evolving and growing apart from one another that happens as we age. Even though I, personally, had a lot of problems making friends growing up, it’s generally easier when you’re young–your friends live on your street, or sit next to you in school, or later, live with you in your dorm. Free from the responsibilities of adulthood, you revel in your friendships–spending hours on the phone with friends you see every day, talking about nothing; driving around aimlessly, listening to the radio; gathering in one another’s backyards every summer day.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have not only maintained many of those friends I finally made in high school and college, but also to actually make NEW friends as I’ve gotten older. At 33, I have friends from graduate school, previous jobs, my current job, friends of friends, writing friends, blogging friends, and friends of my ex. I’ve found that as you get older, the ways in which you know people grow more fluid. It’s no longer as easy as saying, “Oh, we met in homeroom.” Just this past weekend, I attended a wedding in Chicago where I knew many of the people who also knew the bride, but had a hard time explaining to those I didn’t know who I was or why I was there. It was just complicated, but there were others there with equally convoluted stories. And you know what? It was one of the best weddings I’ve ever been to. However, just as the ways in which we know each other grows more complex, so does the work involved in maintaining those bonds.

After my weekend in Chicago, I spent a week in Minneapolis, visiting one of my college roommates, Abbie, with another of my college roommates, Nancy (and her fiance). We talked one night over pre-bowling dinner about how friendship requires effort. With my college roommates for instance (the three of us, plus our friend Meghan who was unable to visit because she’s about to have a baby!), we schedule a monthly Skype call to catch up. We’ve missed a month here and there, and sometimes there are last-minute cancellations, but for the most part, we show up. And we show up because we care about each other.

Not every friendship is like that, of course. I have other friends who I only talk to every few months, and then usually only through email, but I know they care about me, and I hope they know I care about them, because, even if it’s not as often, we still show up.

On Friday morning, Abbie and Nancy decided it was time for me to learn how to ride a bike. That’s right–I don’t know how. So I strapped on a helmet and tried to pretend I wasn’t terrified as I climbed onto one of Abbie’s bikes. And then we worked on pedaling and balancing for at least an hour, up and down the sidewalk, and then to the park a few blocks down the street. And I had to laugh as I pedaled, slowly, with Abbie running alongside me, holding on to the handlebars, and Nancy running behind, playing Taylor Swift on her phone. We looked absolutely ridiculous, and I still need to learn, but all I could think about was , “Who are these people, trying so hard to help a stubborn scaredy-cat like me learn to ride a bike just because they know it will be good for me? How did I get so lucky to have these people in my life?”

I may be single (I am single), but that doesn’t mean I don’t have loving relationships in my life, I guess is what I’m saying. And I hope that we can keep up this work and keep showing up, despite the partners and babies and careers and classes and temptation to veg out in front of Netflix. Because at the end of the day, friendship is just as important, if not more so, than romance.

Aftermath

2015 August 20

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Chances are, if you read this blog, you already know this, but I got published in Buzzfeed earlier this week, and it’s kind of a big deal. For me. And it might be uncool to admit that, but I think we’ve established that I’m not super cool.

So, what happens after a very popular website publishes something really personal about your life?

Well, maybe I’ll start with what happens before, since a lot of people have asked. I’ve been writing as a hobby for a long time. It’s a way to make sense of my thoughts. I’ve dabbled in fiction here and there, but it’s not something I’ve ever really gotten the hang of. But the idea of writing about myself always seemed narcissistic and weird. I’m a middle-class white woman from the suburbs–what could I possibly contribute to the world? But after years of blogging and writing in notebooks, I took an essay-writing class at Grub Street and started to think, hey, maybe I could write some essays!

So, I did. And then I started researching. The nonfiction market is a VERY different market than fiction, turns out. When you’re a beginning fiction writer, you send your work to dozens of literary journals and then wait. And wait. And wait some more. And then start getting rejections. And then do it all again! With nonfiction, the response time is quicker, and though rejection is still very much a part of the process, at least it happens faster. Also, the venues are different. While many lit journals do publish essays, popular websites and magazines ALSO publish essays, so it’s a little easier (in my opinion) to find a home for your piece.

It took me a long time to write the essay that got published. It went through many drafts, several workshops with my writing group, and lots of index cards and scrap paper. It was hard to write about. In many ways, the hardest thing I’ve ever written. Which is maybe why it was successful.

When I was finally satisfied with what I had, I sent it out. And got rejected. 3 times. But the fourth time was a charm, and it was really great to work with Buzzfeed. My editor there was responsive and savvy. She gave me general ideas of how to improve the piece, then worked with me on further edits. It was definitely a very positive first publication experience. And it was super interesting to be on the other side of the desk, so to speak, since I’m usually the one doing the editing.

I got so caught up in the writing and the submitting that I became a little divorced (ha) from the subject matter. But after it got accepted, I started to worry. Was this okay? Was it okay to put my life on display like this? I tried to make it as vague as possible, with respect to the other people involved, but of course, since the subject was my name, it couldn’t be entirely anonymous. Luckily, it’s a really common name.

But at the end of the day, I wrote it because I wanted people to read it. I wanted to be transparent and honest. I wanted other people who’ve gone through this experience to read it and feel like someone understood where they were coming from, because I really haven’t felt that way myself.

The response has been amazingly humbling and crazy. People I haven’t spoken to in years, people I’ve never met, family, friends–they’ve all been so incredibly kind and supportive. I don’t even know how to respond because nothing seems adequate. Honestly, the whole experience, while awesome, has been emotionally draining, too. It hasn’t been all champagne and sparkles. I’ve wanted, for as long as I can remember, to be published. And now I am. And that’s huge! But it doesn’t mean I’m fixed. I’ve come a long way and I’ve accomplished things, but I’m still sad. I’m sad every day. But it helps to know that I have so many people behind me, and that maybe I can hack it at this writing thing after all.

So thank you for reading and for commenting and for being my friend.

And if you’re a writer, keep writing. Keep writing what you need to write, especially if it’s really, really hard and scary and discouraging. Because it’s worth it, and no one can tell your story but you.

Getting To Know You

2015 August 16

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I started my first online journal my senior year of high school, just before graduation. It was on a site called OpenDiary and I knew several of my friends used it. But I didn’t want anyone to read it, so I created a clever, incognito screen name and started writing. I only wrote a few entries before my friend Josh discovered it and called me out for writing about graduation and the speeches a few of our friends gave (we were the smart kids). I’d created that clever screen name, but hadn’t bothered to change anyone’s names that I was writing about. Whoops.

A few years later, when I was studying abroad in Florence, my friend Dawn convinced me to start a Livejournal account. I thought it would be a good way to keep in touch with friends and keep track of my experiences. Again, I created a highly stylized screen name and started writing, this time openly inviting my friends (many of whom also had LJ accounts) to read my entries. I felt incredibly lonely and isolated in Florence, and writing those entries helped me feel connected not only to my friends back in the States, but to total strangers that began reading (and commenting) on my words as well. We read one another’s journals on a daily basis, but I never met anyone from the site in real life (some of my friends did actually meet people they’d met from the site, though).

The Internet was still relatively new back then, and forming these bonds with strangers was a novel and thrilling concept. I kept up my lj even after I got back to the States and I continued writing in it, on and off, until graduate school. By then, the site was dying and many of the strangers’ journals I’d been reading all those years weren’t updated anymore, the writers off living lives somewhere else. But there was something so appealing about sharing my thoughts with strangers and they, in turn, sharing theirs with me. I’ve kept journals for nearly my whole life, but writing for an audience is completely different from the things I write in my notebooks. The words are more polished, the thoughts more defined.

Around the time Livejournal was dying out, blogs were gaining in popularity. At first, they shared a lot in common with Livejournal–strangers broadcasting their thoughts on the Internet for anyone to see. But they soon grew more sophisticated. You had to have a niche. Some kind of hook. When I started my own blog in the spring of 2009, I didn’t yet have an idea of what I wanted to write about. I just thought it would be fun to write about a mishmash of books and clothes and post pretty pictures.

I’d started reading fashion blogs and become obsessed. Most fashion blogs now are just pictures of impossibly thin women in impossibly expensive clothing that some store sent them in return for publicity, but in the beginning, they were more like photo diaries. Women took pictures of what they wore, posted them online, and wrote about it. They also wrote about their lives. The women I followed posted photos of themselves nearly daily, and during that time, they also fell in love, got married, had kids, moved cities, went through break ups and career changes. They started businesses and published books. And I followed along.

Like Livejournal, blogging and the blogging community has also changed. It’s not as homegrown as it once was. Now, it seems like it’s all about ads and sponsors and monetizing. I wasn’t very good about networking, so I never quite became a part of a blogging community–besides, this blog I’ve cultivated over the years has evolved too, and I’m not really sure there’s really a community of people who produce similar content at this level. But that’s okay. I still write, for many of the same reasons I wrote in that Livejournal all those years ago–the little thrill of having others read your words, of reaching strangers you might never meet. And I keep reading all those blogs, keeping up with women’s lives I will never meet, because there’s an allure in knowing you’re not alone, that we’re all just living our lives, sometimes reaching out across this virtual void to share our experiences.

Do you read blogs and feel like you know the person writing the blog? Or am I a crazy Internet stalker?

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Character Couture

2015 August 5

The original idea behind this blog was matching current fashion/outfits with classic and contemporary literary characters. Those Fashion Book posts are a lot of fun, but somehow, I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing too many of them (apparently the last one I did was over a year ago! Yeesh…).

Admittedly, I’ve fallen behind on posting here in general, but I’d like to get back into the habit of posting more frequently, and also returning to the blog’s roots a little, as it were. In that spirit, I thought it would be fun to match some of the Paris 2015 Couture gowns  to classic literary characters and see what happens! (Full disclosure–I got this idea from Elements of Style, which ran a similar feature matching actresses to gowns they should wear for the Oscars).

Kathy from Never Let Me Go:

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There’s something wistful about this Elie Saab gown that reminds me of Kathy’s quiet longing in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Jo March from Little Women:

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Jo would hate wearing one of those sparkly gowns, but she would definitely rock a cape like this look from Jean Paul Gaultier.

Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises:

Ralph & Russo : Runway - Paris Fashion Week : Haute-Couture Fall/Winter 2014-2015

Brett was always impeccable and  in charge and she’d look the part in this Ralph & Russo dress.

Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch:

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Austere yet stunning, I think even Dorothea would deign to wear this Stephane Rolland gown.

“Kitty” from Anna Karenina:

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All virginal innocence, this Ralph & Russo frock is so sweet it almost makes you want to puke. But it’s also adorable. Much like Kitty herself.

Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby:

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Flirty and kicky and over-the-top, this Georges Hobeika dress is just the thing for a summer afternoon of cocktails at the Plaza.

Beverly Penn from Winter’s Tale:

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This Valentino gown reminds me of the ceiling at Grand Central, which of course reminds me of Winter’s Tale.

Well, that was fun!

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The Tyranny of the To-Read List

2015 August 4

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I’m reading a book called This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. It’s an essay collection by Ann Patchett and it has the distinction of being one of the extremely rare books that I happened to pick up at the bookstore, flipped through, and decided to buy solely because I liked the cover, the title, and the author.

Most people select their books at bookstores (and libraries and yard sales and digital book retailers) this way. It’s not revolutionary. But for me, who lives and dies by my “to-read” shelf on Goodreads, it’s either a special book or a special occasion that causes me to buy something not already on my list. But sometimes, there are so many books I want to read, and being surrounded by them in a bookstore or library, it’s impossible to choose just one. So I sometimes reach out blindly for whatever appeals to me in that exact moment. But I don’t trust my feelings very often–that’s why I have the list. That’s why I have lists for everything in my life, essentially.

It’s nice to be able to call on my “to read” list when people are looking for book recommendations or I’m looking for books to suggest for my book club. I’m what I call a chain-reader–I’m on to the next book as soon as I finish whatever I’m reading. There is no rest. Not reading does not mean rest for me–reading is my escape, so to be reading is to be in a state of pleasure, of peace and calm (unless it’s a book I don’t enjoy, which is pretty rare). Unfortunately, I don’t read as quickly or as often as I would like. This means that realistically, I won’t ever get to all of the books on my “to-read” list–a list that inevitably keeps growing even as I keep reading. It’s an uncontrollable force. Every once in a while, I’ll go through the list and cull, removing books I’ve forgotten placing on the list or books that got a lot of buzz before they were published but bad reviews once people actually read them, but even if I remove 20 titles, the next day I’ll add 5 more, and then 10, and before I know it, the list is bigger than when I started.

Of course, knowing I won’t read everything I want to read is a stressful situation. But it’s also a universal one. There’s always a new book, magazine, journal, essay, or blog post to read, just like there’s a new podcast, tv show, movie, or album to check out. My Netflix queue, my Spotify playlists, my Podcast app–they’re all mini-to-do lists–though consuming art isn’t a chore, it can sometimes feel like one because of all the pressure to hear the latest, discover the newest, know about the biggest plot twist before you hear spoilers.

So, I know I’m not alone. It’s cultural FOMO (fear of missing out) and it’s a problem. This FOMO causes me to limit myself to what’s already on my list. Granted, I put a LOT of things on that list–just in case. I don’t want to miss anything! I try to be selective, but it’s difficult when you love books as much as I do. But, the restrictions of the list also takes out the serendipity of discovering a book or borrowing a book from a friend’s shelf just because it looks interesting or someone recommends it. On top of that, I also feel like there are always things I should be reading: classics, particular authors, buzzy books. I’m so consumed by the shoulds that I rarely have time for the fun books I want to read just because.

Last summer, BookRiot posted an article advising readers to break free from the shackles of the to-read list. I was really tempted. How liberating, I thought. To be free of all these restrictions and limitations! All of the shoulds! But where would I be without my list? I fear I’d end up in a ball in the corner of the bookstore, surrounded by stacks of books, shaking my head and repeating, “I just can’t choose! Which one do I choose?”

How do you choose what to read next? Do you have a to-read list? How do you keep track?