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Every December, I go over my favorite reads of the year and then buy those books for my friends & family. Sometimes everyone gets the same book (last year, I bought five copies of Louise Erdrich’s LaRose). Sometimes I tailor it to what I think each person will love. Of course, some people on my list don’t like to read. So I buy them chocolate as a consolation.
Here are three of the most compelling books I read this year—the ones I’ll be pushing into the hands of my reading loved-ones this year:
The Overstory by Richard Powers: A book that will turn even the mildest of nature admirers into full-blown tree huggers. Powers interweaves short story-esque chapters to unfold a powerful narrative where trees feel like the main characters. I loved everything about it. If you’re a person swayed by accolades, it also won the Pulitzer Prize (not that that’s always a clincher—Less won last year, which seemed like a strange choice).
Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro: I’m pretty sure this is Shapiro’s, like, 5th memoir—most of which center around her beloved father, whose identity comes up for question in this latest book. She’s got an incredible talent for dramatic storytelling. I couldn’t put it down.
Another Brooklyn by Jaqueline Woodson: She’s actually got a newer book out this year, Red at the Bone, which I liked, but not as well as Another Brooklyn. At under 200 pages, it’s incredibly short, so it’s perfect for people will no time to read (I’m giving it to my sister busy with grad school). A story about a girl looking back on her childhood in Brooklyn—the different trajectories her close friends took and her yearning for her lost mother. Her words are like beautiful knives that will cut you on the page. If you’re into that kind of thing. But who isn’t?
And because I can never limit myself when making book lists, here are some others I absolutely LOVED this year:
–The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Always read anything by Patchett. Always.)
–Outline by Rachel Cusk (A writer’s writer.)
–The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (A feminist/philosophical/underrated classic)
–The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (How have I only now come to know what a powerful writer Anne was?)
–Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo (Middle grade but I loved it WAY more than my kids. I’m a bit of a DiCamillo groupie.)
–Pure Land: A True Story of Three Lives, Three Cultures, And the Search for Heaven on Earth by Annette McGivney (Without question the best non-fiction book I read this year. Well-researched, compassionate, heartbreaking.)
What were your favorite books read in 2019? Please comment & let me know! I’m always looking to stock my TBR list for next year…
I wasn’t able to attend AWP this year. I’ve only actually ever been once–2013 in Boston–but for some reason this year when my Instagram feed began to flood with shots of fellow writers in lanyards and the piles of books and journals they acquired, I had serious envy. The thing is that AWP is my niche conference soulmate: a bunch of (mostly literary) writers coming together to talk about writing, meet with journal editors, and geek out over iconic panelists. It’s my jam. And I was sorry to miss it. Again.
But rather than wallow, I decided that I’d use the weekend to research some literary agents for my recently finished novel. I sent out a short story to five places. I (gasp!) actually wrote. Now that I know I wouldn’t have done if I’d gone to AWP.
Still–hopefully next year I’ll get there again.
Because no one asked, here’s a list of my top five books about writing–the ones I go to when I need encouragement or advice (or just want to procrastinate and feel productive about it). They are my comfort foods for writer’s
block worry. And it is high season for comfort foods.
1. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
Once I attended a Bernie Sanders rally and the women standing to the right and left of me–one 70 and one 17–became wildly unhinged, crying and swooning in his presence as he came through to shake our hands like he was Mick Jagger. Or Elvis. Or Justin Beiber. It was disturbing. I liked the man’s message, but I wasn’t going to put up a full-sized poster in my room, you know? But I think that’s exactly how I would act if I ever got to meet Annie Dillard. She is a literary goddess and I worship at the altar of her sentences. Is that too much? Oh well. Sometimes we are all a little much. Her book on writing is poetry and truth and quite frankly, a classic.
Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.
The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.
2. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury was a prolific delight. He basically merged the literary and sci-fi genres into his own, new genre. His exuberance is catching and makes me remember that writing can be wildly fun.
But how did I begin?…I wrote a thousand words a day. For ten years I wrote at least one short story a week, somehow guessing that a day would finally come when I truly got out of the way and let it happen….If this all sounds mechanical, it wasn’t. My ideas drove me to it, you see. The more I did, the more I wanted to do. You grow ravenous. You run fevers. You know exhilarations. You can’t sleep at night, because your beast-creature ideas want out and turn you in your bed. It is a grand way to live.
3. This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey by Steve Almond
I think the only way to obtain this small, self-published book is to track down the author and buy a copy with cash. It is the single best condensed practical guide to writing fiction I’ve ever read. It always snaps me back on track. Bonus: Almond is hilarious.
When I really admire an author, someone like Bellow or Austen or Toni Morrison, I don’t think of them having a style. They’re not writing to impress the reader, but to implicate them. They’re not throwing beautiful words at the page and hoping to produce truth. That’s not how it works. That’s the exact opposite of how it works. The effort to capture complex and painful feeling states is what lifts the language into beauty. Style, in other words, is the redidue produced by the dogged pursuit of truth.
4. Still Writing by Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro has written four or five memoirs, all of them spectacular. This book on writing, for me, reads like yet another angle of memoir. Her insights are rich and I paced myself on purpose the first time I read it, savoring the delight, not wanting it to end.
The page–if you spend your life in deep engagement with it–will force you to surrender your skepticism. It will keep you open and undefended. It doesn’t promise comfort. But if you hurl yourself at it, give it everything you’ve got, if you wake up each morning–bruised, bloody, aching–ready to throw yourself at it again, I’ll make you a promise: it will keep you alive to what you see and hear and taste and touch.
5. The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett
This is not a book; it’s an essay. But it’s “everything [Patchett] knows about writing”, and it is dynamite.
If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap.
Please add to my list! What are some of your favorite writers on writing?
Once I wrote a novel for 10 years. I wrote it at varying degrees of productivity, but still, I doggedly persisted until the bitter end. The end was, in fact, quite bitter. Because even though I finished the book, it was hopelessly flawed. I had written and then re-written each sentence over and over as I went so that by the time I got to the end, it didn’t match up with the beginning. The book didn’t work as a whole.
On the upside, I did craft some really stellar sentences.
I never sent it out.
More recently, I finished another novel. This one only took six years. (In fairness to my timelines here, it should be noted that I had a baby during each of these novel spells.) I wrote this one all at once in a horribly messy draft to figure out the story. Then I went back and rewrote another draft. Sent it to writing friends. Rewrote. Sent it to writing friends again. Rewrote. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s gone through no fewer than 14 drafts total. And still, now that I’m “done”, which is maybe more to say ready to move on, I don’t really want to send it out.
It isn’t perfect.
But in looking back to my first imperfect novel, I wish I’d had the audacity to send it to a few agents anyway. Because why not? And that’s what I’m telling myself now.
Is my novel perfect? No. But I’ve taken it as far as I can and I think it’s good. And if done is better than good, then isn’t good better than perfect?
Today I sent it to an agent.
I sometimes call the friends I made during my time in grad school my $30,000 friends. Because that’s how much I took out in loans to get my MFA. And also, the writing community I found there really is quite valuable to me. But is community really worth so much debt?
Probably not. (Still love you, friends!)
I loved my time in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. The people were wonderful, the mentors were nurturing & brilliant, and the program, on the whole, was phenomenal. I grew as a writer in both skill and confidence. I have only rave reviews of my time and experience there.
And yet. When people ask me if I think they should pursue an MFA, I usually tell them no.
Not unless you can get into one of those full-time, fully-funded programs and have the kind of life where you can drop everything and move. Or you can get your work to pay for it. Or you are independently wealthy. Or you don’t mind shouldering thousands of dollars of debt over the next few decades as you try to balance your creative endeavors with the realities of student loan repayment and the cost of living.
As much as I loved my MFA program, the literal cost has just been too high. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of that when I applied. Back then, I was isolated in a small town, at home with two toddlers, desperate for some kind of writing life. Even if someone had given me this advice at the time, I probably wouldn’t have listened.
In her wonderful book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t hold back skepticism for pricey MFA programs. In an interview with the Miami Herald about the book, she summarizes by saying, “I think any system that tells you that you need to spend an enormous amount of money to be legitimized as a creative human being is a racket. If you want to do something because you love it and want to engage with it, and you want to dance and play with it, go do it! You don’t need a permission slip. You don’t need an MFA.”
Some people really want to teach. In which case, you probably need at least a masters in a related field. But still, my advice for this instance remains the same. I can tell you from experience: the cobbling together of adjunct teaching jobs does not exactly generate a cushy income.
In retrospect, I think I could have found the kind of support I was looking for by patching together attendance in workshops and conferences over several years. And while these gatherings can sometimes be pricey (my dream workshop in Positano, Italy (where incidentally Elizabeth Gilbert is the visiting writer this year), is a whopping $4600), nothing is quite so costly and creatively soul-sucking as trailing around a relentless debt for a few decades.
Lauren Groff’s new story collection, Florida, is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize in Fiction. Good for her. It was an excellent book (though her favorite of mine remains Arcadia). There was a delightful clip of an interview she gave to the Harvard Gazette when her new book came out that made its way around the internet, where she was asked to “talk about [her] process and how [she] manage[d] work and family?”
Groff responded: “I understand that this is a question of vital importance to many people, particularly to other mothers who are artists trying to get their work done, and know that I feel for everyone in the struggle. But until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.”
Interview answers do not get more badass than this.
But still, inquiring minds want to know.
Fortunately for us, and maybe because she wasn’t asked directly, Groff does more or less answer the question in an interview for Poets & Writers Magazine (July/August 2018 Issue), which struck a profound chord in me and which you should rush out to buy and read. Alas, the article is available in print only.
Groff asserts that “American parenting remains a sexist enterprise.” As as a parent myself, I agree with her. But while we tend to assume that women will do the heavy lifting of parenting, we also tend to assume that writing isn’t “real” work.
No one would think to ask a female dentist: How did you manage to extract so many teeth this year AND have three kids at home? The answer is obvious: Someone else was watching her kids.
And (spoiler alert) that’s basically what Groff says in the P&W article: someone else–her husband–is acting as the primary parent. If you want to be a professional–to pull teeth or write novels (and aren’t the two things often one and the same?)–then you’re going to have to get someone to watch your kids. That’s it. That’s the secret.
That was the mystery I was so desperate to crack back when I was in a low-residency MFA program, staying home with a three-year-old and a one-year-old and finding it extremely difficult to get any writing done. Then, one day in the car, I heard an interview with Myla Goldberg on The Diane Rehm show (Does anyone else desperately miss Diane Rehm?). Diane asked her this very same question: With two young children at home, how do you do it? How do you write?
I leaned in, hungry for the secret.
“Well,” Goldberg said, “my oldest is in school and my three-year-old is in daycare. That’s how I do it.”
It seemed a very anti-climactic answer. And it blew my mind in the best way.
I eventually found a sitter for my kids a few days a week and got through grad school.
The secret isn’t staying up late or waking up early or writing with your toddlers in your lap, as well-intentioned people often tell me Toni Morrison did (though one of my mentors who knows her personally says this is a myth. That Toni Morrison lived with her mother and her mother watched her children while she wrote.) The answer is the same for writers as it is for dentists or Walmart employees. The mystery to getting so many customers through the check out line is simple: you don’t bring your babies to work with you.
The answer, in other words, is daycare. A stay-at-home husband. A Toni-Morrison-style live-in grandma. You are then able to, in the words of Seth Godin, put on your smock and get to work like a professional.
Went to London and saw all the things.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor…It will keep you small and crazy your whole life.
It would be many years before I began to understand that all of life is practice: writing, driving, hiking, brushing teeth, packing lunch boxes, making beds, cooking dinner, making love, walking dogs, even sleeping. We are always practicing. Only practicing.
–Dani Shapiro, Still Writing
Naomi’s birth was hard. Everything about it was different from my previous labors, which we later attributed to the arrival of her hand with her face. In the past, I’ve rushed to get the birth story down on paper. To remember every detail. But I had to force myself to write anything about this one. I didn’t want to remember. I felt traumatized and maybe a little bit ashamed that I hadn’t been in control the way I wanted. My friend Brittni offered to photograph the birth way back when I first told her I was pregnant. I’m so glad she did because I literally clutched to Dave for the last two hours of labor and he wasn’t able to film or photograph anything. And also because when she sent me the images, I felt slapped in the face with the raw power of birth. Her pictures helped to heal my trauma.
I know plenty of people think it’s weird to share birth photos. But besides the fact that I am weird, I think there’s power in sharing and witnessing instinctual strength and vulnerability. And so instead of a birth story, I offer a photo essay:
“Our actual ultimate root is in our humanity, not in our personal genealogy.”
–Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By
For a week now, I’ve been waking up around 5am. Sitting to meditate for a few minutes, letting the dog out back to pee and then sneaking out front to go for a walk alone around my neighborhood. Not walking, mind you–this is not exercise. Sometimes I go in flip flops. Sometimes I go without a bra. I’m taking a noticing walk. To hear the birds. To feel the surprising breeze; in a few hours, it will hit 100 degrees and I could suffer heat stroke in the car ride to Target, say. When I get back, I write in my notebook at the kitchen table and look up the names of plants in a book I got at the library. I read poetry. Am thrilled by lines like these:
“How is it, such wealthy redemption/ in a fence post, a rusting stove?…On the earth, feet receive direct knowledge… Cattle raise their heads–they are listeners,/ as I become the deepest listener/ where there is least to hear.” — Naomi Shihab Nye, from At Otto’s Place (in Words Under the Words)
Eventually, my children wake up and come down for a bowl of cereal. I make my bed. Let the dog in. His walk will come later. In the evening, when it’s cool again.
I’ve tried at various points in my life to wake up early like this. But usually the effort is shrouded in anxiety. I’m waking up to exercise or to write. To be productive. It doesn’t last. Now I’m just doing it to live. I’m waking up to pay attention. There are no real rules. Just a pattern I like. And for once it feels sustainable.
I began last week after realizing how unhappy I’d been feeling. It was strange, because there was no real reason for it. Life is good, overall. My usual anxieties—money & relationships—are fine. Great, even. I’ve been writing daily. Feeling healthy. So what, then? Why did I feel like I was being dragged through my life rather than in conscious control of it? I’m still not entirely sure. But I happened upon this post about habits, which led me to this podcast featuring the poet Mary Oliver, whom I adore. And she inspired me to take back noticing. To not let the fact that I live in a scorching desert trick me into never going outside. Into not “let[ting] the soft animal of [my] body love what it loves.”
Every morning presents some miracle: a hummingbird scooping her head to feed on the red yucca. Enormous black bees swarming the blooming desert candle. Today, a hairpin among the sidewalk’s fallen pine needles.
The hour of fulfillment is buried in years of patience.” –Mary Oliver
I’ve been unsettled by several things of late: the number of women in my online courses who identify 50 Shades of Grey as their favorite book, for example. Or the fact that I was ID’ed at Target for buying Elmer’s Rubber Cement Glue. Apparently you have to be over 18 to get your hands on that stuff. Probably some kind of #huffresponsibly campaign. Who knew? And then there’s good old Seasonal Affective Disorder, sapping the energy I normally reserve for things like making my kids’ lunches or putting on a bra. Guys, I’m S.A.D.
But then today I had the emotional energy to do some laundry. Broad City is back on television. I meditated this morning. Spontaneously (somewhat irresponsibly?) booked a spring break beach condo that allows dogs. And after a week of avoidance, I’m going to actually work on my novel today. In other words, the Groundhog was wrong. Spring is coming early this year.