Monday, October 29, 2018

Finding hope on Monday

"Joy doesn't betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine act of insurrection."
--Rebecca Solnit

Maurice Stallard
Vicki Lee Jones

Joyce Fienberg
Richard Gottfried
Rose Mallinger
Jerry Rabinowitz
Cecil Rosenthal
David Rosenthal
Bernice Simon
Sylvan Simon
Daniel Stein
Melvin Wax
Irving Younger

This weekend, I learned about the Tree of Life Massacre while at the Bat Mitzvah of a close family friend. Toward the end of the ceremony the cantor sang L'Dor Vador, which means generation to generation, and it carried the meaning of the day and its context for me.

Here are the lyrics:

We are gifts and we are blessings
We are history in song
We are hope and we are healing
We are learning to be strong
We are words and we are stories
We are pictures of the past
We are carriers of wisdom, not the first and not the last

L'dor vador nagid godlecha
L'dor vador we protect this chain
From generation to generation
L'dor vador, these lips will praise Your name

Looking back on the journey
that we carry in our heart
From the shadow of the mountain 
to the waters that would part
We are blessed and we are holy
We are children of your Way
And the words that bring us meaning
We will have the strength to say

L'dor Vador...

The video below is a recording of the Rutgers University Singers performing a version of the song. 

In the evening, we danced. We held hands, we jumped, we shuffled, we twisted, we twirled, we clapped, we raised our hands. 

Because bodies
who had birthed bodies
were alive.

Friday, September 28, 2018

What to do now

Dear ones,

I received your phone calls and texts. I read your posts on Facebook. I see your tears. I hear the hurt. I am with you. I believe her and I believe you. You are not crazy.

Here is what we do now. 

We remember we live in a world that was not made by us or for us. 
We remember that in our lifetime we have to live in two places, the world we have inherited and the world we are inventing.
We work the system. We make the calls. We write the postcards. We get out the vote. We protest. 


We dream.
We invent.
We make new language.

Dr. Ford talked about a memory that was seared into her hippocampus. 
In 1987 Toni Morrison birthed a word for us in Beloved
She named this kind of memory 
plugged into an always-on power socket 
with ongoingness 
breaking time past and present
A reader
who gets rememory
is blessed with the difficult gift of Beloved
and recognizes the meaning of
Two front doors.

Get off the internet.
Throw out the paper.

Find your allies and be with them.
For the love of everything sacred 
Find your circle 
Pray and dance
Make magic and art
Alter your state 
so you can
and you never have been.

The women of Liberia 
ended a bloody civil war
with prayer
a white t-shirt
and their naked bodies.

It is time to give thanks to our teachers
to the artwomen and prayerwomen
and sciencewomen and businesswomen
and motherwomen who dare
to spin their own yarns
and to the men who say yes to their brilliance.

Rest. Refuel. Get back to your sacred work.
We need you.

Stay with it. Breathe.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Interview: Andrea Jarrell


Hey friends, 
If you are looking for a Spring Break read, go pick up I'm the One Who Got Away by Andrea Jarrell. It's a riveting coming of age memoir in which a mother-daughter pair escape a charismatic but dangerous man. At its core, the book is an exploration of female desire, and Jarrell's chiseled prose comes alive documenting the moments in which a young woman first learns the pleasures and liabilities of inhabiting an erotic self.  

And guess what! Andrea generously agreed to do an interview with me! 

Writers, the interview is chock full of great thinking about writerly routines and practices. 

If anyone is in the New York area over the next couple of weeks, Andrea will be appearing at two events:

April 11 at 5:30PM, 742 10th Avenue, New York, NY
She'll be doing a New York Public library event with memoirist/poet Gayle Brandeis.

May 17th at 7:00PM, 126 Franklin Street, Brooklyn, NY
She'll be reading at WORD Bookstore with novelist Melissa Scholes Young.

I wish I could attend these--if anyone is able to go I'd love to hear about them.

Happy Spring everyone!

Cristina: Am I correct in remembering that you started your MFA as a fiction writer? What led you to the material in I'm the One Who Got Away? Was the topic of female desire always front and center or were you at some point surprised that this topic was going to be a big part of your book?

Andrea: Yes, I began as a fiction writer. Mostly, I think because I thought fiction was the only realm of writing that used creative world building, character development, and storytelling. It sounds uninformed to say that now when memoir and narrative nonfiction are a huge literary force but this was the 1990’s. I had been reading fiction all my life and that was what I gravitated toward. But even then, I was writing fiction that grew out of autobiography. Some of the same material that became my memoir.

If I’d had, all along, more examples of creative nonfiction such as Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth or Megan Stielstra’s Once I Was Cool, I might have started with it. But I’m so glad I didn’t. I’m grateful I didn’t begin trying to tell my story but rather was focused on sensory experience, character development and plot. Trying to answer: what makes a satisfying story?

I didn’t realize until I was deep into the book how much female desire was a central theme: desire as a hazard and desire as liberating. From the beginning, I definitely understood that wanting to be desired was part of my story but seeing the flipside — owning desire — was key to understanding the book’s narrative engine.

Cristina: What impact does your identity have on your writing? Are there roles you fill (for example as a parent or as a sibling) that significantly influence your art?

“Daughter” is the first identity that has influenced so much of my writing. No matter what a piece is about my mother always seems to find her way into it. That’s because for much of my life I lived in a world of two — my mother and me. Her role modeling influenced how I see the world and how I grew to be a woman. Coming into my own, making choices that were not her choices, living my life in ways that are both like hers and not like hers has inspired a lot of what I write.

The second identity is “lover/partner/wife” — obviously, there are differences between all of those roles but the lines between them can blur. I am intrigued by all kinds of intimacy. Those moments when we reveal ourselves to others, those moments when we see others either because they let us or because their actions and words unmask them. Capturing intimacy between lovers — not sex itself necessarily but an intimacy that derives from having been sexual — has been an important route for me to narrative meaning and revelation.

A third very influential identity is my role as “mother.” The experience of being a mother has been enormously important to my life as a creative person. Artists who become mothers sometimes describe the taxing effects of motherhood on their creative lives. I found the opposite to be true likely because I didn’t have an artist identity before parenthood. Having my children coincided with quitting my full-time job and also with moving to Maine where I lived in nature in a way I never had. All these factors: childbirth which opened me up to my personal physicality in new ways; freedom to write versus work an office job; and being surrounded by nature were a boon to my creativity. In addition, being a mother gave me new insights into having been mothered. It also gave me the experience of childhood all over again. As an only child I’d only known my childhood. By watching my children grow, I saw the ways in which I had been like any other kid and the ways I was different. These new understandings fed my work.

Andrea: What does it mean to you to be a working artist? Did you always take your own art seriously? Was there a moment you decided to "go pro"?

In some ways I’ve been a “pro” since graduating from college when I started working in magazine publishing in New York City and began to get a byline. I’ve been a working writer ever since but more behind the scenes writing marketing copy and trade magazine feature stories. The moment when I decided to “go for it” in terms of creative writing was in applying to MFA programs. An even more crucial turning point was when I shifted my personal work versus my client work to the front of the line when it came to my time and energy. I still spend a lot of time on client work but I think of my creative work remains my most important client.

I can’t remember a time when I did not think of myself as a writer. I’ve never been shy about calling myself a writer. But that is not the same thing as always believing that I would be successful as a writer. By that I mean, almost all my life I have had benchmarks against which I measure myself as a “good” writer or someone with any talent. The benchmarks hold steady when I have a setback or rise when I have a success. For example, when I started out getting complimented in a workshop was a big deal. Then success became getting into an MFA program, getting published, getting published in ever more selective places, getting an agent, publishing a book, getting good reviews, etc. Now my goal is to write a second book. These markers will never stop. I think it is important not to delude oneself about one’s merits but also to set goals and to relish victories when you reach them.

Cristina: Tell me about your routine as a working artist. What are your artistic habits? What do you do if you ever find yourself stuck? Talk to us about your intuition and your intuitive habits.  How is your intuitive self alive in your writing?

I am a morning writer. I like to get my coffee and go right to work often by climbing back into bed with my laptop. If I start the day by looking at my phone or getting into an extended conversation with my husband I’m toast. Or so I once thought. Rather than surrender to the feeling of a wasted day, I have learned to force myself to “begin again” even if I haven’t had the perfect uninterrupted start. Generally, I like at least three hours to write. Sometimes, if I’m writing an essay or working on a chapter I will continue until the evening with a first draft done. Depending on how well the writing has gone I either feel enormously pleased with myself or I am distracted and agitated until I can get back to the piece the next day. I am a big believer in Hemingway’s idea of quitting in the midst of a scene rather than at an endpoint. It is much easier to begin the next day when you’re in the middle rather than when the page is blank.

Getting “stuck” can mean different things to me. Within a piece, it might mean I don’t know where to go next. In that case, I go for a walk or practice yoga, which loosens up my subconscious. I once worked out a whole essay on a quiet hike with my husband. If I haven’t been writing because of work or travel and need to get a jumpstart I read several beginnings of my favorite books. That gets me in the narrative flow. I also might read some of my own published work to remind myself that I can do it. I used to think that it was counterproductive to read another person’s work at the start of my day. That somehow that interrupted my own flow but now I believe the opposite. This comes from Jane Kenyon’s advice about “have good sentences in your ears.”

If I really feel stalled and need a reboot I sign up for a workshop. Last winter, I did a Tin House one-day workshop Leigh Newman and then did an online workshop Creative Nonfiction workshop taught by Lisa Ohlen Harris. I kind of abandoned the online workshop but began working with Lisa on my own. The result has been three new essays and some of my best work to date.

Cristina: Cheryl Strayed says success in the arts is measured very differently than in other endeavors? As an artist, how do you define success for yourself? Making art often seems to me like an act of faith. What inspires you to continue doing your work?

I often think of that Ira Glass video about one’s taste as a beginning artist exceeding one’s abilities. For so many years, I could write lovely sentences but could not fashion them into a satisfying story or essay. Now I have faith that, although it might be challenging and I may be frustrated along the way, I can write a satisfying narrative. I have faith that if I keep at it I will get where I want to go. These days, I am most excited about what revision will reveal. I am at a point where I can get to a publishable piece fairly quickly on my own. I have always been an avid reviser. Yet now I’m learning to revise and get to a good place but then through working with someone like Lisa to get to an even deeper and better piece. I feel it physically when I get to the deeper gold of a piece and I love that process.

So success to me is about being able to write a deeply satisfying piece. How do I know it’s satisfying? I want these pieces to be published in venues that I admire and read alongside other writers I love. I want to hear from readers—especially readers who don’t know me— that these pieces moved them. Other forms of success (money, awards, etc.) are wonderful but I consider them frosting on the cake.

My continued inspiration is the mystery in everyday life and relationships. I am always looking for the story in the ordinary — the story that illuminates in a particularly piercing way the human experience.

Andrea: What, if anything, has writing taught you that carries over into other aspects of your life? Are there any habits or routines you keep as an artist that support you in your life in general? In what ways does pursuing your art impact your well-being?

Moving to the last part of that question first, I feel antsy, almost useless and unfulfilled if I am not writing. In many ways I am my purest self when I am writing because I forget myself. I am in flow. I also feel that way when I am practicing on my yoga mat but not to the same gratifying extent. I can’t imagine not writing because it feels so central to my wellbeing and to living a fulfilling life. 

I recognize in myself that I am disciplined and grateful, and that I can find satisfaction in small pleasures. I think all of these traits are informed by my writing life. I have created a very successful business out of nothing other than my ability to write, to think creatively, to be a good listener, to pick up on the telling detail, and to understand people. All of these things inform my marketing business as well as my creative writing. I love that I have been able to support myself and my family through writing.

Also the idea that writing is a practice — that I am never done but always building on what I know to explore and get better — is a key to feeling satisfied and optimistic in my life.

Cristina: Who's work is inspiring you right now? Feel free to range wildly and not limit yourself to literary art!

Andrea: As I begin to work on a new book, I am very intrigued by blurring lines between genres. I am totally in love with the poet Beth Ann Fennelly’s genre-busting Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro Memoirs. By genre mixing, in some cases I mean fiction and nonfiction; essay and story; poetry and memoir. But other mixing is within a genre itself such as the “lyrical” and “thriller” mixing that Rene Denfeld does in her latest novel The Child Finder. Or Carmen Maria Machado’s mixing of horror and feminist and literary fiction in Her Body and Other Parties.

I am also inspired right now by Martha Cooley’s memoir in essays Guesswork: A Reckoning with Loss. It is making me think about how seemingly quiet observations can build heat and drama in narrative.

In my marketing life, I have the good fortune of knowing some graphic designers who are recognized as being among the most influential and brilliant today. Two whose work and writing always inspire me: Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand. Michael’s latest essay collection is Now You See It. Jessica’s new book is Design: The Invention of Desire. I am also really inspired by storytelling in illustration. A few of my favorites: Wendy MacNaughton, Liana Finck, and Bryan Rea. I’ve encountered their work in various ways over the years and I love following them on Instagram for a daily jolt of their genius.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Interview: Hannah Howard

Meet Hannah Howard, author of FEAST!

Dear friends, writers and undercover creatives,
There was a moment many, many years ago, when I was wondering about becoming a writer. I walked into Books Inc. in Palo Alto and was overcome by the sheer volume of books. They were piled on tables, they were shelved on floating A-frame carts, they climbed the walls all the way to the ceiling. It wasn't my best day, and I thought to myself, "Really, does the world need another book?" 

Fastforward to 2018, halfway through my MFA and my perspective has been turned inside out. Back then, even in the face of my overwhelm I loved books. But I love them now more than I ever have. Now I know people who write books. Their children get sick. The pipes in their homes blow. Sometimes their relationships fall apart. Their bills pile up. And still. They write. They revise. They submit. Maybe their work finds a kindred spirit who wants to represent the work, who wants to publish the work. That any book exists at all is a collaboration of miracles and a testament to human persistence. 

I take more pleasure in books than ever. Especially books written by friends and colleagues. As a celebration of what I'm learning about writing and especially what I'm learning about women who write, I am launching an interview series of women writers. Today I kick the series off with my friend Hannah Howard, whose book, FEAST has just arrived in the world. 

In FEAST, Hannah shares the story of her life with food. As a Columbia undergrad she lands a job at Picholine (cheese cart anyone?!) and begins to explore the inner workings of the New York City food world. Meanwhile, she wrestles privately with an eating disorder, reckoning with body image, craving, and the universal need we all have for comfort and connection. Her writing is alive on the page, at times sparkling (a cheese never read so yummy) and at other times searing (her descriptions of body dysphoria chilling and unsettlingly familiar). 

Hannah, congratulations on the publication of your first book! Talk a bit about the process of getting from your first flicker of an idea to producing the book. When did you start writing it? What were the hurdles? Who and what helped provide the momentum to make it to a finished product? What has been most gratifying for you as a writer?

I’ve always loved to write. More than loved to write—needed to write. When I started interning for Serious Eats in college, I wrote a column called Served about waiting tables at Casellula. That was not my first time turning my day-to-day experiences into stories and sharing those stories with the world; when I was in middle and high school, I published a ‘zine called Power Dreams about my adventures with my friends and the horror of moving from Baltimore to New Jersey. (Back issues 1, 2 and 3 are still available from my parents’ closet.) 

There was something instantly wonderful, addictive, and deeply gratifying about the whole process. I want to make meaning out of my life, and I want to share that meaning…and stories, silliness, revelations, heartache, messiness, and all the rest. I wrote columns, essays, and reviews, and at some point I realized that these anecdotes were adding up to something bigger. FEAST was born! I’ve been working on FEAST for the last five years.

So many people believed in FEAST along the way. My agent Andrea Somberg helped me turn a mess of ideas into a book proposal; Morgan Parker, my first editor at Little A, helped me transform the proposal into an actual manuscript; and Laura van der Veer, editor number two, helped polish and refine that manuscript into something I’m proud of. And I’ve had the added luck of insightful help and edits from the whole family at the Bennington MFA. And my mom. And my writer’s group. It takes a village. 

As for the hurdles: publishing a book is a long road and patience is not something that comes naturally to me. Going back into the weeds of the hardest, darkest part of my life was incredibly challenging. I started seeing a therapist again.  Sharing my most vulnerable stuff with the world is terrifying—but I’m hoping ultimately rewarding. 

I cried last week when I got my first copy of the finished book. Holding FEAST, with a cover and an author photo and all of that, felt unreal and magical. Talk about gratifying! 

What does it mean to you to be a working artist? Did you always take your own art seriously? Was there a moment you decided to "go pro"?

My mom told me that I could call myself a writer when I first got paid to write something, and I think she’s right. We writers and artists have a hard time owning what we do. I can’t think a lawyer who abashedly says, “Oh, I’m just practicing some law.” 

For many years, I’ve worked on a mix of projects like copywriting and marketing writing to pay the bills, and the “fun stuff,” writing that brings me gratification like personal essays and restaurant reviews. But I do get a certain satisfaction from copywriting. And I like making money, too. It feels like a crazy puzzle I’m constantly trying to fit together with varying success. I am lucky to have the privilege to create this working artist life. 

Tell me about your routine as a working artist. What are your artistic habits? What do you do if you ever find yourself stuck? 

Some days I work from my “bed office” with a giant mug of coffee and a big pile of pillows. As a former cubicle person, I feel lucky and a little bit naughty for getting to do this. If I’m having a writing day, I like to take a lunchtime break and go to a class at my gym, go for a walk, and make myself something to eat. I’ll get antsy and relocate to a coffee shop.

I’m writing this from Ground Support in Soho, a great coffee shop with excellent people watching opportunities. (There’s an incredibly stylish woman with two gigantic poodles shouting in a language I cannot identify into her phone by the door…) The change of scenery sparks something. My brain works best in the morning, so I try to schedule my meetings for the afternoons and save my sharpest focus for early writing time.

Other days I am absorbed in non-writing work and projects. I go for weeks where I write every day, but there are weeks where I hardly write at all. I like to think of these times as opportunities to soak up inspiration and recharge. I’ve been letting myself take breaks when I feel stuck and revisit something in a few hours, or in a few days. Deadlines are great cure for stuck-ness.  

Talk to us about your intuition and your intuitive habits. How is your intuitive self alive in your writing? Feast is a book fueled by obsession. What role does obsession play in your writing life? What are you learning that is surprising to you about your own obsessions, if we can use that word in a friendly way between writers :-) ? How (if at all) do you think obsession and intuition are related?

I love this question! I think of obsession as two-headed. There is a negative, destructive part of obsession that, if indulged, spirals into a dark, fucked up place. My eating disorder was fueled by this kind of obsession. But there is also obsession in a more positive light, a deep creative fixation that can spark the best kind of writing. I think to write a book, any book, you must be at least a little bit obsessed with your subject, your characters, and your story. You’re going to spend a whole lot of time and emotional energy there. Maybe this juicy, generative obsession is intuition. 

Success in the arts is measured very differently than in other endeavors. As an artist, how do you define success for yourself? Making art often seems to me like an act of faith. What inspires you to continue doing your work?

I’ve thought so much about this. I’m an ambitious person. My goal has always been to write a book. And my greatest hope is that people read FEAST and feel less alone. Now that I’ve written a book…well, I’d love to write another one. I’d love to make a career as a writer. That would be a huge success.

Making art is such an act of faith. Starting with a blank page. That stupid cursor on a white screen, blinking as if taunting you. And harder yet, sometimes—sharing that work with the world. I’m inspired by an amazing group of talented artist friends like you who are fighting the good fight. I am inspired by people who take risks and show up. By writers, artists, and readers. 

What, if anything, has writing taught you that carries over into other aspects of your life? Are there any habits or routines you keep as an artist that support you in your life in general? In what ways does pursuing your art impact your well-being?

Dinah Lenney, one of my wonderful Bennington MFA professors, said this in an essay at the TriQuarterly Review: “You have to get naked first. Moreover, it’s not enough to get naked (this is what I used to tell my own students), you have stand up naked and turn around slowly.” Sometimes I think, oh my God, why would anyone want to do that? Maybe I’ll quit writing and learn to be an accountant. But the good, important stuff is often the vulnerable stuff. The getting naked and turning around slowly stuff. When I’m feeling that fear of being seen, really seen, I’m probably onto something real and worthwhile. 

Whose work is inspiring you right now? Feel free to range wildly and not limit yourself to literary art!

Some writers I’m loving: Mary Karr, James Baldwin, Ariel Levy, Meghan Daum, Ruth Reichl, Alice Munro, Donna Tartt. I’m always inspired by food and flavors. I’ve been watching some brilliant TV lately—Orange is the New Black, Transparent, The Handmaid’s Tale. And some movies that have really stayed with me, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and of course Black Panther. 

Thanks Hannah! FEAST is available on Amazon today. Don't miss it!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

If you're feeling like it's an F-bomb kind of day

Who, in these crazy times, is not in need of reading that will either make you laugh or bring some level of comfort? These bright yellow covered books are road signs to mental health that do both AT THE SAME TIME!

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, Samantha Irby: Get inside the head of one of the funniest people I've met on the page in a long time. Irby's inner monologue as she fills out an application to reality TV show, The Bachelor, had me in stitches from page one. Her self-deprecating humor offers Philip Lopate style permission for each of us to be human. Also, if you like swearing, which I really do, run don't walk to pick this one up. And when you finish the book and just NEED MORE FUNNY, take refuge in Irby's blog.

F*ck Feelings, Michael and Sarah Bennett: Here is the thing your shrink won't admit, everyday that you don't get your shit together equals another day of gainful employment for them. Believe me, as the daughter of a therapist, if at all possible you should avoid becoming a shrink's lifetime bread and butter. The Bennetts agree. This book lists the most frequent chronic problems they witness in contemporary adults (everything from living childhood trauma, to raising a kid with an LD, to adultery--they cover A LOT of ground), and then suggests perspective shifts that will help you live with the problem rather than solve it. In the wise words of Maggie Nelson, "the shit stays messy," and the Bennetts are here to teach you how to celebrate small victories and stop wasting time solving unsolvables. As someone who has both been the bread and butter and gone to college on the bread and butter cases, I get it, there is nothing that can replace a real person resonating with your trauma. And still, from the minute I read the phrase "f*ck self-improvement" I got the tingling feeling of a laugh going, and the sense that liberation was much closer at hand than I allow myself to believe.

P.S. Here is a public service announcement for my fellow middle aged people. Did you know that double spaces after a period MAKE YOU LOOK OLD? Lord, how did I miss this? So forget your anti-aging creams, just drop that extra space after a period and you will be looking ten years younger already.