Sunday night, before the snows came, I spent the evening sitting around a fireplace in a rambling old mansion talking about literature with a group of smart women writers. It wasn’t for class or book club or any kind of writing project. We’d come together just to talk about stories–specifically, the stories from the 2014 Best American Short Stories.
A friend from the Grub Street fiction class I took last spring graciously invited a bunch of writers into her home, with the sole intention of dissecting stories (and drinking wine). Though I belong to a book club, this was different–we didn’t really know one another or have any agenda. We did, however, have an assignment–we were to read the collection with Kurt Vonnegut’s famous term paper assignment in mind.
The assignment, in short, asks students to do the following:
Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, beginning each as though, only seven minutes before, you had swallowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as little children …”
Then reproduce on a single sheet of clean, white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers, and substituting for each number a grade from A to F. The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.
Reading with an assignment in mind produces a wholly different experience from simply reading a collection of short stories. For me, when I read, especially a collection of stories or essays, I tend to bounce from one to the next without paying much attention to what came before or really processing what it was I just read. With the assignment in mind, I paid attention to what I was reading–not just for technique or good lines or plot devices, but to whether or not I was enjoying it. And that made a huge difference. Reading like a writer often means thinking in terms of the writing style, what we could or couldn’t pull off in our own writing, which tricks we might want to try for ourselves, etc. But reading for pure enjoyment? That’s something totally different.
At this ad hoc literary salon, we assigned our letter grades from each story to tiny post-it flags with our initials, then stuck them onto giant neon-pink posters hanging around the dining room of my friend’s house. She’d made a poster for each story, with just the title and author. After we were done touring the house (a seriously gorgeous house from 1846 with original art, secret passageways, multiple grandfather clocks, sleeping porches, a “gentleman’s shaving chamber,” and a tuxedo kitten named Burrito) and having some snacks, we walked around and assigned our post-it grades, chatting along the way. When we finished, we collected the pink posters and gathered around the fireplace in the library–a dream room full of antique books, TWO grand pianos, and lots of busts (“this house came with a lot of heads,” my friend explained)–and got to work.
We went through each story in no particular order and talked about why we enjoyed them, why we gave them the grades we did. The results were really interesting–there was some consensus, but for the most part, we enjoyed very different stories. Some stories I loved, others loathed. And it was okay, because enjoyment is a very particular and personal and subjective thing. There didn’t have to be an explanation. You could simply say, “I didn’t like it,” and that was enough.
Overall, I thought the collection was okay. I enjoyed reading it, but I think mostly because I read it with this gathering and assignment in mind. If I’d read it on my own, I don’t think it would have struck me as a standout, stellar collection. In fact, I’d already read most of my favorite stories, since they’d appeared in The New Yorker. The biggest problem, which we discussed a bit, was the lack of diversity. The vast majority of the stories spoke to a completely contemporary, white, American, experience. “MFA Workshop” stories as my friend called them. And while that happens to be writing I sometimes enjoy (I’m pretty traditionalist when it comes to short stories), I have to wonder if that’s really the “best” of what America has to offer. I highly doubt it. There are so many great writers of color out there, and so many writers who are doing interesting things with form and subject matter. I have to wonder where they were during the selection process. I’ve read Joyce Carol Oates. I’ve read Charles Baxter. I’ve read Karen Russell and Ann Beattie and T.C. Boyle. Sure, they’re amazing writers. But isn’t there space for new talent as well?
I have a lot more to say about the collection and about stories and about talking about writing, but it’s Thursday morning and I need to get to work.
Have you read the collection this year? What were your thoughts? Favorite stories? Have you ever done an experiment like this with a collection of stories?
Almost two years ago, I read an article on Flavorwire calling for contributors to what looked to be my dream book–a book edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton that would focus on women’s relationship to the clothing we wear. With such talented and interesting editors, I knew the project was going to be a good one. So I immediately filled out a survey and emailed it to the editors, excited to be a part of something crowdsourced and new.
In October, when the book published, all of the contributors got a free copy. I was blown away by how beautiful the book was, and just how vibrant and unique and diverse. There are interviews, essays, and poems, but there are also women’s Xeroxed hands, photos of collections of various items (earplugs used over the course of a week, handmade dresses, leopard-print tops), pictures of Molly Ringwald (and other women) wearing other women’s clothing, projects in which women analyze the things they bought over a period of time and why they bought them, compliments, and conversations. Because the editors were so open and inviting with their call for contributors, the book represents the voices and views of more than 600 women around the world–that’s powerful stuff.
Of course, when I got the book, the first thing I did was flip to the contributor section to see just how much of my survey was included. One of the editors had also asked me to share the Google doc I use to get dressed in the morning–the ongoing document where I jot down ideas for outfits and then delete them as I wear them. I thought maybe there was a chance that was included in the book–the editor had called me a “clothing curator” after all!
But, it wasn’t. In fact, there are only four words that belong to me in the entire 515-page book. And that’s fine by me, because it’s been so much fun to be a part of this project. I plan on writing more about the book and I’m thinking of doing some posts inspired by the book, but today, I wanted to tell you about the event I was able to participate in on Friday night at Harvard Bookstore.
An important part of the book’s launch have been events held at local bookstores with various contributors hosting clothing swaps. (If you’re not familiar with the concept of a clothing swap, I’ve hosted three, and written about all of them.) For Boston’s event, Harvard Bookstore asked me if I would participate. I made sure they knew I only had four words in the book, and then I agreed.
So that’s how I found myself sitting at a table in front of a microphone in a room full of people, talking about a book I didn’t write. There were two other contributors there as well, who were both in a similar situation, and I think we did a good job, given the circumstances. I was super nervous, given that I don’t have any experience talking to a roomful of people and I was afraid I was going to be completely out of my element.
But, because I am a lucky lady, I had a whole cheering section of friends and family there to support me, which helped immensely. I also had a new dress that I bought on a whim in San Francisco because it was brightly colored and has cacti on it. That helped too.
The crowd was great–very engaged and excited and interested in the book and the swap. A few women came to talk with us afterward and I even got to sign a few books and take some photos. It was a lot of fun–I felt like a rockstar. We had some great questions, and though I was worried I was going to be out of my element, it turns out that talking about dressing and style and image and identity is something I’m pretty comfortable with, and happy to do.
I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to sing the praises of Women in Clothes, and to be involved with the project in any capacity. It’s seriously a great book, and if you have any interest in how women wear what they wear, or know anyone who does (it’s a great gift), I’d highly recommend reading it.
And if you came out to the event last week, thank you thank you thank you! You’re the best.
*All photos courtesy of Thomas Kielich
I read an article a few weeks ago that I liked. The headline, “How to Email with an Old Friend After Falling Out of Touch,” was what initially grabbed my attention. Maintaining friendships is a top priority of mine, and I’m not always the best at it. I thought maybe I could learn a couple of things. I like reading articles that promise a potential life lesson or two. The piece is actually a lovely meditation on the passing of time and shifting nature of relationships rather than a simple how-to list. In it, the author, Paul Ford, shares what happened when he decided to send an old colleague a list of lessons he’d learned in the past decade since they’d last talked. Instead of the usual “Things have been good. I got married, I work here, I have two kids, I live here, etc. We should grab lunch sometime” catch-up email, the list of lessons served as a true compendium of what he’d been through over the years. In return, his colleague wrote back a similar list a few days later. They’re not best friends, but I’m sure that the exercise was illuminating for both of them, both personally and in relationship to one another.
Usually, at this time of year, we’re busy with holiday obligations, wrapping up work to meet final deadlines, and scrambling to make New Year’s plans. The Best Of lists can get overwhelming–Best Books By Women, Best New TV Drama, Best Independent Movies, Best New Restaurants, Best Red Carpet Gowns, Best Articles Written about Puppies by Women Named Adelaide. Sometimes, the reflection and the looking back are exhausting.
And then there’s the looking ahead, to that shining bastion of possibility known as the New Year. As though once the calendar turns to January, all of our sins from 2014 will be wiped away and we will be fresh and clean. We will go to the gym every day and stop eating sugar and read 150 books and delete our Facebook accounts and save a million dollars and pay off our student loans and travel around the world and join a rock band. Or something along those lines.
So the end of every year is fraught with this quantified looking back and planning ahead. But since I read that article, I’ve been thinking about the notion of lessons. I wondered what it is that I’ve learned. A decade is a long time, and because this past year was certainly a challenging and eye-opening one for me, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to ask myself what I’ve learned from 2014. So, in no particular order, here are some lessons I’ve learned in the past year:
I learned what it means to be a good friend. I learned how to ask for help. I learned that having an office with a door is helpful when crying at work. I learned that crying at work is not very productive, but sometimes necessary. Also, that crying in life is not very productive, but sometimes necessary. I learned how to find a therapist. I learned how to navigate online dating. I learned that Tinder is terrible.
I learned how to say goodbye to people, a dog, a city, and a life, and how to find my way in a new city, with new people, to build a new life. I learned that just because you move back to a place you once lived it doesn’t mean it will be the same as when you left it. I learned that it is heartbreaking to lose a pet. I learned how to make zucchini noodles and flourless peanut butter cookies. I learned how to cook for one. I learned how to hang curtains and what gender-free contra dancing is. I learned that I prefer Chipotle to Boloco, by a lot. I learned how to be the bigger person, even when all I wanted to do was yell and make prank phone calls and say mean things. I learned how to mourn for things that are not dead.
I learned to forgive, both myself and others. I learned that if I don’t have a pet of my own, I become that creepy lady on the street who will follow your dog. I learned what it feels like to have one of my books at work publish on time and be well-received, despite initial challenges. I learned how to adapt to great change, both personally and professionally. I learned when to let go and when to hang on. I learned how to ask for what I want (most of the time). I learned that, sometimes, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you just might end up in a magazine.
I learned how to be a leader. I learned how to be alone–and to revel in it. I learned that life doesn’t go the way you expect and people will shock you. I learned that you can feel beautiful even when your pants don’t fit you anymore. I learned that you can both love and hate someone at the same time. I learned how to comfort friends who’ve experienced great loss. I learned perspective. I learned what the water feels like in the Columbia River Gorge and how the doughnuts taste at VooDoo Doughnuts and that lavender grows all along the sidewalks in Portland. I learned how to dance in a disco cab and then at an empty hotel bar in Dallas. I learned how to organize a trip with friends. I learned what New Orleans smells like in the morning and what Bourbon St. looks like on a Saturday night. I learned what a lobster roll in Maine and oysters in Wellfleet taste like. I learned how to adjust my expectations.
I learned that sitting on my front porch is one of my favorite activities, and also that having a parking spot makes having a car in the city practically painless. I learned that driving to the grocery store makes grocery shopping less miserable. I learned the geography of Jamaica Plain. I learned that you can’t keep every friend. I learned that there are good men out there. I learned my own self-worth. I learned that you get what you give. How to take a writing class and how to take writing criticism. How to stop taking everything personally. How to appreciate all I have. How to march in solidarity and defend my beliefs. How to not let the weight of the world diminish the simple pleasures of every day life.
There are, of course, countless more, and all of these are not 100% complete–I am, as always, a work in progress. I do sincerely feel like I learned a great deal this year, and while I’m grateful for those lessons, I’m really hoping that 2015 isn’t a quite so lesson-laden year.
What has 2014 taught you?
Last night, my writing group and I gathered for our monthly meeting at our usual spot–a seafood chain restaurant in a hotel. It’s a strange meeting place, but since alcohol specials like Happy Hour are illegal in Boston, Bostonians have to settle for specials on appetizers and bar food instead, and this chain restaurant happens to have some pretty decent food deals and a quiet bar in which there are always tables available. In honor of the holiday season, and in recognition of the fact that most of us wouldn’t have a lot of time to write during the holidays, we decided to give ourselves a break and a treat–rather than critiquing one another’s writing while eating cheap appetizers, we’d relax and chat and order from the real menu.
It was a disaster. Our drinks took forever, we had to practically beg the bar to bring us water, they ran out of several menu items, and the steaks my friends ordered were all either over cooked or under cooked–by a lot. I spoke to the manager and we got the questionable meals taken off the bill, but we might need a new writing group meeting spot. We still managed to have a great time, though.
Anyway, that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that we all shared our writing goals for the upcoming year. And all of them shared a similar theme–just to write more often. We’re all busy women and it’s tough to find the energy and time required to write. One friend made a very good point in that when she was younger, she wrote as a form of escape. Writing was fun. Now that she’s a “real” writer, publishing stories and books and working on a novel, she says she feels like writing has become another obligation in the long list of other adult obligations. All of us agreed–writing has become just another chore on the to-do list.
I love writing. It helps me sort my feelings and practice creativity. I’ve never been an artist or a musician or a crafter–writing is my only creative outlet. I consider writing an essential part of my identity, though I still hesitate to call myself a “writer.” So why is it so hard to just sit down and write?
I don’t make writing a priority in my life. I rationalize that I’m too busy with other things–work, maintaining relationships, the gym, being an adult who pays her bills and does her laundry and buys groceries. But the truth is, watching tv and playing on the Internet and staring into space also takes up a good portion of my time. And if that stuff takes up time, then I have time to spare. It’s that simple.
So my first, more broad, writing resolution for 2015 is to make writing a priority. It’s not going to take a backseat to things that are less important to me anymore, just because those things are easier or more convenient or more fun.
Here are my other writing resolutions for the year ahead–all lining up to help me make writing a real priority in my life.
- Blog more. I love this space and I’ve been neglecting it for no real reason this year. Count on seeing more frequent updates–my goal is to have at least 3 new posts a week. Hold me accountable for this one! You’re allowed to send me threatening emails, tweets, and Facebook comments if I don’t stick to this. (Nice, encouraging notes will also be accepted).
- Finish the essay I’m currently working on and send it to at least ten magazines. I often have a problem with finishing what I start to a form that’s acceptable to me, and even once I “finish” something, I’m terrified of putting it out into the world. I have GOT to get in the habit of putting myself out there in terms of submissions. Ten is my goal, but I realize it may take more.
- Write in some form every day–this doesn’t mean sitting down at my desk and starting a novel (necessarily), but writing in my journal, doing a quick writing exercise, or blogging. Long emails to friends count too.
- I’d love to try NaNoWriMo again in 2015. Unfortunately, though I successfully completed the challenge in 2013, I have some pretty painful associations with it, so I was unable to muster the wherewithal to take it on this year, but I’m hoping that in 2015, I’ll be better equipped to take it on again.
- Take another Grub Street writing class. The Master Fiction class I took last spring was really, really good for my writing, and I also took a one-night Personal Essay class that was really informative.
- Inspired by my good friend Rebekah, I’d love to take my own writing retreat sometime this year–just me, my laptop, and a room somewhere pretty for the weekend.
So that’s it. Nothing grand, like writing for two hours every morning, or writing a novel, or getting published. Really, it all boils down to trying harder, and taking writing more seriously. Because if I can’t take my writing seriously, who else will?
Thanks for reading, and for sticking with me during my periods of silence.
I’m not a radical. I don’t like to raise my voice. I strongly dislike crowds and loud noises. I don’t like to inconvenience anyone. So how did I end up in the middle of a crowd of 1400 protestors in Boston last night, marching to the South Bay Correctional Facility and effectively shutting down traffic downtown and on a highway connector? Because, quite simply, I felt I had to do something, and I didn’t know what else to do.
I complain all the time about the injustices of my quotidian existence: my not-so-stellar salary, my pasty skin, my inability to see anything more than five feet away when I’m not wearing my glasses. But ultimately, I am privileged. I am ridiculously privileged. I have a job, an apartment, food when I’m hungry, a supportive family, a closet full of clothes, shelves full of books, access to the Internet, healthcare, dental care, a therapist, a car that gets me where I need to go, amazing friends. I am straight. I am not fat. I am white. I am middle class.
Lately, it feels as though everything that could go wrong in the world is going wrong. History will not remember 2014 fondly. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, CNN, the newspaper–you can’t escape the news. It’s everywhere. In just the last two weeks alone, we’ve heard nearly 20 women come forward with sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, seen a twelve-year-old boy get shot and killed because he was brandishing a toy gun, read an expose of an epidemic of gang rape at the prestigious UVA campus, and watched the nation split allegiances over the announcement that Darren Wilson would not be charged with Mike Brown’s murder, meaning he would not stand trial. And that’s just in America.
That’s a lot of unsettling news to deal with. Where do we put our feelings, our thoughts, as we’re barraged by more and more testimonies, conflicting accounts, hateful comments, grainy video footage, and click bait headlines?
I don’t know what it’s like to be a police officer faced with someone you believe to be a threat to your safety. I also don’t know what it’s like to be Black. All I know how to be is the person I am–privileged, educated, straight, white, healthy. Regardless of all of those circumstances, I feel helpless. I feel voiceless. I feel ashamed.
I know I don’t like living in this world where people die of gun violence and drug overdoses and hunger and people are unable to see humanity in others. I don’t like knowing that the vast majority of incarcerated prisoners are Black. I don’t like hearing that Daniel Handler made a racist joke at the National Book Awards directly following Jacqueline Woodson’s win for her book of poems, Brown Girl Dreaming. I don’t like knowing that women I care about have been sexually assaulted or harassed. I don’t like feeling unsafe because I’m a woman, but knowing that it’s probably a fraction of the fear and trepidation Black Americans feel every day. I don’t like not knowing what the Black experience is like, or the Asian experience, or the Indian experience, because I wish it was all just the human experience.
So when I heard about the protests being organized around the country last night, I was compelled to go. I waffled, because I wasn’t sure what a protest could accomplish. Racism in America is a HUGE problem, and it’s systemic, and it has roots. Deep roots. What would my presence at a rally in downtown Boston do to change anything? Also, let’s be honest, I was really just tempted to go home, put on sweatpants, and watch New Girl.
But I went. I went because even if my voice is small and I am only one person, I was at least able to show my support for change, my frustration at the way things are, and my hope for the way things can be someday.
We began in Dudley Square, outside the police station in Roxbury, where we observed 4 1/2 minutes of silence in memory of Mike Brown and other victims of violence, and listened to several speakers. The speakers galvanized the crowd and encouraged us to take to the streets. The leaders of the protest announced we were going to South Bay, to show solidarity to the inmates there. We walked through Roxbury, chanting “Black Lives Matter,” and “No Justice, No Peace.” We eventually gathered under the windows of South Bay, chanting and raising arms to the prisoners inside as they pounded on the bars and waved. It was surreal to me, watching these young men, most of them Black, knowing they were behind bars.
I don’t know what they did to get there. I’m not saying they’re all innocent. I’m not even saying Mike Brown was completely innocent–we’ll never know. What I do know is that there is grave injustice in this country and I would love to see real change in my lifetime. I am privileged to have been able to march on the streets and chant and watch other people in those windows. I was privileged to be able to turn around and go home when I wanted to. I was privileged to have been able to participate in a peaceful demonstration and not feel like I had to fight or rage for that right.
For many, the Ferguson situation has become a question of divided loyalties–are you on Darren Wilson’s and the police’s side, or are you on Mike Brown’s and the rioters and protestor’s side? For me, the question is not that at all. The situation in Ferguson is illustrative of a larger problem–the problem of rampant racism that this country has been refusing to acknowledge for hundreds of years. And we’re not going to get anywhere if we keep pretending we live in a post-racial world just because a Black man is president.
I feel like I’m in no way qualified to comment or philosophize about these issues, but staying silent doesn’t feel like a good choice either. So here are my words, because sometimes that’s all we can give.