How to be a writer

How will I know when I’m a for-real writer? Will I one day just stop giving a damn, start sewing a flask in my jacket pocket and slipping things like, “You must take risks!” and “Show, don’t tell!” into everyday conversation?

And why are stereotypical writers always drunk? Better yet, why am I NOT drunk?

Wait, am I drunk?

"How to be a writer" Comic by The Oatmeal

Source: The Oatmeal

So I’m sitting here, drinking (orange juice), reconsidering my technique, and I suddenly recalled a thing by James Parker I read a few years back that deconstructed the way society romanticizes the traditional “literary bad boy.”

“It’s the question every writer faces, every morning of his or her life:

… Do I sit down with my pumpkin latte and start Googling, or do I fire a couple of shots into the ceiling and then stick my head in a bucket of absinthe?

… in the end, who cares? Drink, divorce, insanity, firearms: all beside the point. The work is what counts. Who was badder than Emily Dickinson, housebound and life-abstemious in Amherst, Mass., but kicking open the doors of perception with every poem? The real mischief is on the inside. Get it down on the page. Break on through, but don’t forget to click “save.”

… Hone your disciplinary habits, in other words, labor fiercely and in grim sobriety to create the imaginative space, and then let that bad boy run wild.”

So I guess I can skip the bad acid trip and high-stakes cock fight I had planned for tonight.

But, right? I mean, everyone’s turmoil manifests differently. For some it seethes quietly below the surface, and for others it’s all breaking dishes and chain smoking on a stranger’s stoop until you’re shooed away with a broom. In the end, you just have to do the work. Or at least, that’s what I hear.

Still, I can’t help but wonder whether I’m digging in deep enough, if the hours of writing I squeeze in while standing on the subway, tapping out one-handed lines with my thumb, count as writing like a motherfucker or just make me the MTA’s most irritating strap-hanger?

So okay fine. Pour me another.

Related: Sentences I Wrote While Trying to Write Like a Motherfucker

How to be a writer via The Oatmeal

100 Candles for Cleary

Beverly Cleary celebrated a centennial today.

Ramona with Guts, by Louis Darling

Ramona with Guts, by Louis Darling

If, like me, you grew up devouring her books and secretly believing you were one of her more misunderstood characters, then I suggest you read this tribute; but first prepare to pine for your lost youth. (The very next thing I wanted to do was track down a complete volume of Beverly Cleary classics and let good ol’ Beezus and Ramona put me to sleep for the rest of the week.)

Cleary is, of course, known best for her tender, amusing and true-to-life children’s books. But reading a bit more about her, I was pleased to discover that she also wrote two memoirs, which will soon be added to the stack of books that looms precariously on my nightstand, threatening to bury me in my own bed of neglected commitments.

Still, I’m particularly interested in her autobiographical study of the forgotten art of laissez-faire parenting, of which it appears both Cleary and her father came out on the other side smiling.

…her father, laissez-faire parented to the extreme, was sent to the butcher shop for beefsteak at age fifteen. “Instead of buying the meat, he continued, by what means I do not know, to eastern Oregon, where he worked on ranches all summer,” she writes. When Cleary asked her grandmother if she had worried about his disappearance, she said, “Oh, my, no.” They knew he’d be back, and he was, three months later. “All his father said was, ‘Did you bring the beefsteak?’ ”

Lately I can’t help but think, God forbid I raise a kid without guts like this

So, after 100 years, I have one thing to say to Beverly Cleary: Go get ’em, kid.


Original art: by Louis Darling.

Excerpt above: from Sarah Larson’s Beverly Cleary, Age 100 in The New Yorker.

The Thing You Love

round & round we go

A photo posted by Jean Jullien (@jean_jullien) on


It’s been another week, folks, and — surprise, surprise — I am once again behind on nearly everything I had wanted to do, such as, oh, I don’t know, writing another post for this here blog.

Of course, it’s partially a matter of what I choose to put first, but factoring the wearisome 10-to-6, the 70-minute commute each way, the emails to return, the taxes to sign, the X-ray bills to pay, the last-minute yoga class and the hurried “namaste”, the clothes to fold, the fingernails to trim, the trips to plan, the coffee spills to wipe up with a napkin picked out of the trash — somehow, after all that, those precious spare minutes always seem to escape my grasp.

Do what you love…in between work commitments, and family commitments, and commitments that tend to pop up and take immediate precedence over doing the thing you love. Because the bottom line is that life is short, and you owe it to yourself to spend the majority of it giving yourself wholly and completely to something you absolutely hate, and 20 minutes here and there doing what you feel you were put on this earth to do.

Seems like everyone I know is suffering from “full plate syndrome” lately. Some days, honestly, it feels like mine’s a limp paper plate of day-old salad from the office kitchen or a week’s worth of stale peanut butter and sugar-free-jelly sandwiches with a bite taken off the top.

So you decide: is this oldie but goodie from The Onion a knee-slapper or a tear-jerker?

For me, I suppose it depends on what kind of lunch I ate.

Happy Friday. Do what you love, y’all.

Instagram art: by Jean Jullien.

Quote: via Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life.

The Art of Jim


Jim Harrison, photographed by Andy Anderson

Andy Anderson Photography

The great loss of Jim Harrison this past Saturday has had me rooting for words. I dug through his old interviews and pored over passages from The Raw and the Cooked and The Beast God Forgot to Invent, whetting my appetite to write often and write well.

But more than that, reading Jim aroused in me what lately feels like my most primal need — to find fulfillment in a good day’s labor. I don’t know about you, but for me, as a manager, producer, coordinator for the corporate machine, some days it seems impossible to find meaning.

Not for Jim. He wrote every word, performed every task with pure purpose. You can’t mistake the career goals of a fisherman, a well-digger or a slow-cooked goose cassoulet, is all I’m saying.

This interview from The Paris Review in 1986 had me transfixed. Captured over five intoxicating days at Jim’s lush farm in Leelanau County, Michigan, the lengthy exchange touches playfully yet purposefully on Jim’s technique, philosophy and history.

It’s a long but worthwhile read. If you can’t sit down to the whole thing, here are a few choice bits that spoke to me. Continue reading

Cat in the Rain

I adore Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway sitting at a table writing while at his campsite in Kenya.

Hemingway writing at his camp in Kenya, circa 1953. (NARA)

Nevermind that the man’s work helped define an entire sub-category of prose that still gets asininely ascribed to his gender, and nevermind the quality of his character in life and death.

Papa had style.

His writing is clean. It’s one true thing.

One of my favorite shorts by Hemingway is “Cat in the Rain” – a story about a young married couple’s emotional isolation both from the world around them and each other.

A piece I’m currently working on, “Dog in the Snow,” is partially in tribute to this story and the narcissism of youth.

And so, I give you “Cat in the Rain.”

Link to the full text above. Below, an excerpt. Below that, a cat.

“‘I want to pull my hair back tight and smooth and make a big knot at the back that I can feel,’ she said. ‘I want to have a kitty to sit on my lap and purr when I stroke her.’

‘Yeah?’ George said from the bed.

‘And I want to eat at a table with my own silver and I want candles. And I want it to be spring and I want to brush my hair out in front of a mirror and I want a kitty and I want some new clothes.’

‘Oh, shut up and get something to read,’ George said. He was reading again.

His wife was looking out of the window. It was quite dark now and still raining in the palm trees.

‘Anyway, I want a cat,’ she said, ‘I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can’t have long hair or any fun, I can have a cat.’”

Coco, circa 2009

Coco, circa 2009

How to Tell if You’re in Love

If you’re a writer and you think you could be in love, E.B. White has a test that might help you find out for certain.

“Let us say you have sat down to write a letter to your lady. There has been a normal amount of preparation for the ordeal, such as clearing a space on the desk … and the normal amount of false alarms, such as sitting down and discovering that you have no cigarettes. (Note: if you think you can write the letter without cigarettes, it is not love, it is passion.) Finally you get settled and you write the words; “Anne darling.” If you like commas, you put a comma after “darling”; if you like colons, a colon; if dashes, a dash. If you don’t care what punctuation mark you put after “darling,” the chances are you are in love — although you may just be uneducated, who knows?”

via: How to Tell Love From Lust on Brain Pickings

Reading Aloud

This past Friday G and I set aside our excuses and went for a lovely little date night out. We were yearning to do something out of the ordinary, seeing as we spend quite a bit of our free time at home, working alongside each other and taking periodic breaks to eat cheese and watch HGTV reruns.

We decided to see if we could get last-minute tickets to Radiolovefest’s Selected Shorts, which was playing nearby us at BAM. After snagging the best available seats at the box office, we purchased two sippy cups of white wine and settled in to be read to by the likes of Cynthia Nixon, John Cameron Mitchell, Anika Noni Rose and Amy Ryan.

Radiolovefest Selected Shorts, March 2016

Radiolovefest Selected Shorts, March 2016

If you’re not familiar with the series, Selected Shorts is a weekly public radio broadcast of short fiction, as performed live by a rotating cast of actors. Our evening’s theme, “Dangers and Discoveries,” is not currently available on their podcast, but they do offer an excellent selection of readings for free.

This was truly a show made for both of us. For Gregg, who is a sound editor by trade and who also happens to be working on John Cameron Mitchell’s next film, the rhythms of the live performances and the echoing soundscape of the theater were a pleasant departure from his carefully controlled post-production cocoon.

For me, of course, there was the writing. Hearing the intonation of the words and the natural flow of the sentences reminded me how strongly dialogue informs storytelling.

My favorite short was, “Pie Dance” by Molly Giles, which I could only locate a digital copy of in this excerpt from The Flannery O’Connor Award: Selected Stories. A memorable passage follows:

… “I know I am boring. I am growing dull as Mrs. Dixon, Konrad’s mother, who goes on and on about her poodle and who, for a time, actually sent us birthday cards and Christmas presents signed with a poodle paw print. I clasp the broom with both hands and gaze fondly at Stray. I am too young to love a dog; at the same time I am beginning to realize there isn’t that much to love in this world. So when Pauline says, “Can it do tricks?” I try to keep the rush of passion from my eyes; I try to keep my voice down.

“He can dance,” I admit. 

“How great,” she says, swaying on the railing. “Truly great.”

“Yes,” I agree. I do not elaborate. I do not tell Pauline that at night, when the children are asleep, I often dance with him. Nor do I confess that the two of us, Stray and I, have outgrown the waltz and are deep into reggae. Stray is a gay and affable partner, willing to learn, delighted to lead. I could boast about him forever, but Pauline, I see, already looks tired.”

Delivered beautifully by Cynthia Nixon, the story burst alive with the line “I don’t know what to do about my husband’s new wife,” and continued to carefully peel open, layer by layer, until it revealed its delightful, twisting core. Do read it. Read it aloud, even.

John Cameron Mitchell, reading “Joplin and Dickens” by Padgett Powell, was animated and uproarious. But to me, the standout performance of the night was Anika Noni Rose’s soulful portrayal of Ruby in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Hell-Diving Women” — an unnerving tale of love and violence in America’s first integrated all-girl swing band.

I don’t manage to fit much live radio into my schedule, and in the past I haven’t committed fully to any particular podcast, but I think I may have just found my newest addiction.

We ended the evening deliriously happy and, as usual, deliriously hungry, so we polished it off with pulled pork and cornbread at Smoke Joint, as you do when you’re craving highbrow comfort food.

Feeling sated and staring at Gregg over our empty plates, I suddenly remembered how early in our relationship, I would read stories aloud to him on a car trip or in bed on a lazy, sunny morning. I’d break my book spine backward and begin, shakily at first, and then slowly my voice would give way to the words, which flowed sure and true, ready at last to tell their story to someone new.

A Meatball Walks Into a Bar

I’ve been feeling pretty pleased by all these “official” days March has been serving up in the last week or so.

Hug Me I'm 1/2 Italian

Hug me, it’s 2008.

Immediately following International Women’s Day, the good citizens of America were bequeathed with National Meatball Day, which I fully intend to celebrate this weekend by tucking into some saucy balls with my “Hug Me I’m Half Italian” bib simultaneously tucked into a pair of high-waisted sweatpants.

(Watch out, New York. I’m redefining the way high-fashion and meatpacking intersect.)

Also, apparently last Friday was National Grammar Day, so here are Seven Bar Jokes Involving Grammar and Punctuation, from the McSweeney’s archive.

A personal favorite:

“A dangling modifier walks into a bar. After finishing a drink, the bartender asks it to leave.”

If you need me, I’ll be at The Meatball Shop stretching out the old nerd-pants.


Every Damn Day

It’s 9pm* here in Brooklyn but there’s still time for me to celebrate women before I have my dinner (pizza, in case you were wondering). I’m not sure what exactly to do with International Women’s Day, seeing as I tend to think I celebrate women every day, but at least we ladies have six continents on National Cold Cuts Day (March 3) and National Mail Order Catalog Day (August 18). Set your calendars, proud Americans!

Still, in the spirit of womanhood, I scrolled through this list and thought about some of the books by women that have made an impact on me recently. Happily, I discovered that of the modest 17 books I’ve gotten through these last two years (how embarrassing!), 14 were actually written (or, in one case, edited) by female authors.

For now, because I am sleepy, the best I can do is name a few of my favorites and hope that eventually I will get into the groove of writing thoughtful reviews for you to peruse. Until then, I give you my very own, very short-list of life-changing books by women, as read by a woman in her early 30s:

International Women's Day

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong — A liberated woman self-discovers in the ’70s, searching to find meaning in her new-found freedom. Witty and absorbing and ground-breaking in its day.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath — I highly recommend re-reading as a grown woman, especially if, like me, you’re still paralyzed by all those figs. Each word is served with devastating precision, if you’re into that kind of thing. (Full disclosure: I am totally into that kind of thing.)

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion — Winner of most dog-eared passages. I was struck by how Didion’s brave and raw study of grief so deftly skirted sentimentality. I honestly am shocked it took me this long to get around to reading this book, and when I finally set it down I think I was more heartbroken than I have ever been before. Luckily I now have Slouching Towards Bethlehem waiting for me on the bookshelf.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood — In our sterile dystopian future we easily slip back into those old bad habits of keeping women as property. This one’s particularly chilling because Atwood’s created a world that really doesn’t feel all that far-fetched.

So what’s next? Looking forward to finally picking up Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay this year, as well as Barbara the Slut by Lauren Holmes, Family Furnishings by Alice Munro, On Beauty by Zadie Smith and Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison.

*When I started writing, before my fresh mozzarella pie arrived and I decided to celebrate National Pizza Day (February 9) instead.

You may also like: 33 Life-Changing Books in Honor of International Women’s Day via Lit Hub.

Art of the Sentence

Weekend goal: get my paws on a copy of “At the Bottom of the River” and read it.

"At the Bottom of the River" by Jamaica KincaidIt’s incredible the work that sentences can do beyond simply moving a story forward. With one comma they’ll turn on you. In a dash they can elevate or destroy you.

If you’re reading Kincaid, they’ll pull, pull, pull you ’til you’re taut and then they’ll slingshot you.

“I milked the cows, I churned the butter, I stored the cheese, I baked the bread, I brewed the tea, I washed the clothes, I dressed the children; the cat meowed, the dog barked, the horse neighed, the mouse squeaked, the fly buzzed, the goldfish living in a bowl stretched its jaws; the door banged shut, the stairs creaked, the fridge hummed, the curtains billowed up, the pot boiled, the gas hissed through the stove, the tree branches heavy with snow crashed against the roof; my heart beat loudly thud! thud!, tiny beads of water grew folds, I shed my skin…

— “The Letter from Home,” Jamaica Kincaid

via: Jane Wong’s beautiful analysis Art of the Sentence: Jamaica Kincaid in Tin House