“This is what I believe in, what I trust will ultimately distinguish those who want to write and publish from those who do write and publish: work.”
–Bret Anthony Johnston
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The above comes from the poem “The Summer Day,” which I read at The Library of Congress’ site Poetry 180: a poem a day for American high schools. Sometimes I really do love the world.
unknown girl and her dog
My grandma is a historian. She collects the past in the forms of photos and china dolls and stories. She’s written three books about her ancestors. People give her artifacts. They know she’ll keep them safe. They rely on her inability to throw away anything old.
I plucked the above photo from a pile of unmarked photos my grandma was offering up. A miscellaneous pile. Unmarked and untraceable. She doesn’t know who this girl is. I don’t either, obviously, but I think about her often. How she lived an entire life that has been forgotten with time. Not because the world is cruel necessarily, but because it’s persistent. Because if you don’t write them down, your stories don’t exist. This is why I write. The stories in my brain, the stories in my life: I want them to persist in the persistence.
my christmas loot
Rejection slips crowded my inbox this December. You know, the ones that read something like:
Thank you for the opportunity to read your work. Unfortunately, it does not meet the needs of our magazine at this time.
And you’re ugly.
The Lit Mag of Your Dreams
Probably editorial teams were anxious to clear away their work before the holidays and logically I understand that. It’s just that getting two or three rejections a day was slightly dampening my Christmas spirit. Still, if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not working. Isn’t that how the saying goes? I read about a poet who actually made a goal to get 100 rejections in 2012. That way, she could feel like she was winning even when she was losing. But she failed: only 95 rejections in 2012. Which is actually a win, I guess.
Anyway, here’s to the coming wins of 2013!
I’ve been making lists of the books I read since I started reading books. It’s a bit of an obsession. Like a photo album, I like to peruse what I’ve read years past and reminisce. Also, it gives me an inflated sense of accomplishment. So what if I did nothing truly noteworthy last year?? Look at all these books I read! Thanks to GoodReads—that beautiful encourager of book-list junkies—I realized a few days ago that I’d read 32 books in 2012. And that if I hustled, I could make it 33 by the new year. I just so happened to turn 33 a few weeks ago and so obviously took this as a sign. 33 books the year I turned 33 is a great omen going into 2013, wouldn’t you say?
I’m happy to report that I met my goal around 8pm (then proceeded to raise a teacup of Martinelli’s in an early toast to the new year with my kids, directly followed by a dream-light techno dance party in our living room. Yeah. That’s how we do it around here). Here’s the best of my 2012 reading. Ten books I most adored.
1. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. You can read a more thorough description of this book’s new standard-setting awesomeness here. Let me just say that reading this will probably ruin most other contemporary books for you. Because they just won’t compare.
2. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. You know how people are always throwing around the word “genius” in their descriptions of artists? Well, I’m not one of those people. That said, Woolf is a true and unabashed genius and I count the reading of this book as a life experience.
3. When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to Present by Gail Collins. The prose here reads more like a novel than a history text. If you’re looking for a sweeping view of modern feminist history (which I felt like I’d been looking for for a decade or so), look no further.
4. God Went to Beauty School by Cynthia Rylant. God set down in the world of couch-buying, dog-walking and beauty school attendance. Okay. So these are poems intended for YA. But each is witty and lovely and surprising and perfect.
5. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. A must-read soul crusher, folks. Talk about unsung authors. Yates is at the top of that list for me. Also, if you possibly can, you must also read his short story Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired. Because it’s brilliant.
6. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. Another heart breaker. Well-researched, compassionate journalism. I’ve got a serious soft spot for the plight of defected North Koreans.
7. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m a painfully slow reader. But I read this book in a day. Beautiful prose. Hideous (but compelling!) subject matter. It’s the end of the world, after all. McCarthy has hit some kind of authorial nirvana. Both writing and story here soar in unconscious perfection.
8. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. This would have been so life-saving to have read in my twenties. C’est la vie. I’ll just have to pass it on to my own daughters at the appropriately poignant moment in their lives.
9. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. We are all loathe to admit it, but Oprah got a few things right.
10. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro. Last but not least; this book is not an afterthought. It’s more of a given. It’s the Munro book I happened to have read this year. And any book by Munro is bound to blow one’s mind.
Cheers to good books! What were your favorites of 2012?
Whenever I hear writers talk about their kids, I go into immediate complex mode. They reminisce about the summer their 14-year old read nothing but Faulkner. Or laugh about the time their 5-year old embarrassed them with an audible yawn during their dissertation presentation. Or complain about how quickly their toddler goes through kale.
And I’m like: What if my kids fall into the Twilight-crowd equivalent once they learn how to read?! And: your 5-year old sat through your dissertation?!?! And: Kale? Really?! I hate you.
Then I take a deep breath. Because, as I’m always telling my own 5-year old, this is not a competition. My kids are awesome. As long as I keep feeding them and taking them to the library and hanging their artwork on the fridge, they’ll stumble into their own brand of Faulkner summers.
And when they do, I’ll obviously be on hand to brag about it.
I’m always regretting I didn’t have some kind of fanatical literature buff to have guided my reading education when I was younger. My mom—herself and avid reader—constantly tried pushing books on me but I shrugged them off. I thought everything my mom liked (oatmeal, talking to strangers in checkout lines, reading?!) was totally lame. Oopsie. So maybe what I actually regret is that I wasn’t open to having a literature-buff-guided education as a younger person.
In my adult effort to catch up, I’ve recently come across the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, where authors are invited to read and discuss stories from the magazine’s archives. It’s an absolute delight. So if you—like me in so many things—are late to this party, now you know. Merry Christmas to all!
P.S. As a starting off point, I highly recommend the Maile Meloy reads Laurie Colwin’s “Mr. Parker” podcast. My favorite so far.
P.P.S. I was looking for an old picture of my mom and I in matching one-piece puffed-sleeve floral jumpers to illustrate how I didn’t always think things she liked were lame. But the ol’ scrapbook is nowhere to be found. Rain check, folks. Because it’s a true vision of wonder.
The bottom is where the living roots of the psyche are. It is there that a woman’s wild underpinnings are. At bottom is the best soil to sow and grow something new again.”
–Clarissa Pinkola Estes, from Women Who Run with the Wolves
I have a thing for typewriters. I love the way they clack and ding. The way the paper tangibly fills up right before my eyes. I scour the shelves of second hand stores for them. I let my daughters pound their keys on lazy weekend afternoons. Typewriters are awesome. I recently watched Woody Allen: A Documentary, which was such a fascinating survey of his life and work. He introduced his own typewriter–a beauty he’s owned over 40 years–with which he has written and continues to write out all his screenplays.
The other day, a radio news story made mention of the beautiful nostalgic hybrid manufacturers USB Typewriters. Seriously. Hook my typewriter up to my computer screen?!? How is this not the most brilliant idea ever? But to tide me over until my husband surprises me with one for Christmas, I went ahead and downloaded an awesome vintage typewriting font. Second-place awesome. And free.
Because we live in a great age, there is such a thing as iTunesU, where—right from my phone during breakfast—I can sit in on filmed lectures and pretend like I’m attending university in Oxford or Cambridge. My recent favorite is a podcast on Jane Austen’s early and unfinished manuscript “The Watsons.” I sat through it absolutely giddy. Like tween girls sit through a Justin Beiber concert: bopping in my seat.
Back in the late 90s, when I was a junior in high school, the BBCs epic 5-hr version of Pride and Prejudice came out. Somehow my non-cable family obtained a VHS tape of this and I spent innumerable hours watching the film, reciting favorite lines with my cousins (also die-hard fans), and, not long afterward, reading the actual book. Sad to say, as a 16 year old, I wasn’t much of a reader. Pride and Prejudice changed that. Because I was so familiar with the story, the language was easier to follow. And I was predisposed to love what I read. I was finally led to understand that great truism: books are better than their movie counterparts! Who knew??
I read the rest of her works, which then led to a 19th-century British lit jag: Alexander Dumas, Baroness Orczy, Thomas Hardy, the Brontes. I read other stuff, too. Fluffier stuff. But Jane steered me down a classical path. Gave birth to me as a reader. Is that too dramatic? I don’t care. It feels true, which is why I adore her so unabashedly.
Tomorrow’s breakfast lecture: Plato’s Philosophy of Art.
The Root: How do you organize your writing time nowadays, given the changes in your life since then (i.e., motherhood)?
Zadie Smith: The standard answer to this is, “I organize my time much more effectively,” but I’m afraid that was only an early reaction to changed circumstances, and as time has gone on, I’ve reverted back into my old, bad habits. The difference is, these days when I waste four hours looking at women’s dresses on the Internet, I am painfully aware that I’m a) doing this instead of looking after my child, b) doing this when I should be writing or marking essays (which was always true) and c) paying good money to buy the wasted time (which was not always true).
So it’s like standard-issue writer’s guilt, but multiplied by a million! The bottom line is I have much less time to write, yet sadly this does not always compel me to work efficiently. Sometimes it does, but not always.
–Read the full interview here.
P.S. Reading Smith’s NW and loving it.
Have you seen Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at the Party on YouTube? It’s awesome. She interviews young girls and celebrates their individuality and smarts, among other things. Like concluding her shows with dance parties.
I pretend like I watch it with my girls but they’re way to young to pay much attention (not enough cartoon action, apparently) so I mostly watch these episodes alone in my room, beaming with adoration.
Here she is, interviewing a smart-girl writer.
Yesterday I discovered a fantastic magazine. I really wanted to send one of my essays to this place. I dusted it off from my computer files only to realize it was way too long. The venue called for 800 words. My piece was 1,300. No problemo! All I had to do was chop 500 words! Which turned out not only to take all day but to be painfully difficult. I had to cut characters! To get rid of every excess word and description (even my favorite lines–my funny ones, my pets!). But, in the end, the essay was so much better for it. Whether the aforementioned magazine will agree is yet to be seen. Still, it was a good lesson. An exercise in faith. My writing can withstand—can thrive under—major word-count pruning. Good to know.