I am a sucker for anything to do with boarding school life, first of all. Second, this book kept showing up places which I took that as a sign it was meant to be my next read. From page one I was addicted and couldn’t stop reading My Dark Vanessa. I am fascinated with Vannessa’s incessant denial of victimhood and instead deeming herself special and just more damned interesting than everybody else. I was so drawn to the psychology behind protecting one’s abuser, not only to keep him out of prison but in order to hold their relationship on a pedestal. What’s more the damaging effects of emotional abuse toward a child are so brilliantly captured in this novel. When Jacob Strane tells Vannessa “I will ruin you,” he wasn’t kidding.
It was refreshing to read the arc of a strong female protagonist who has to deal with baggage, both family baggage and societal baggage. I also loved that the happily ever after trope is turned on its head and redefined by Queenie, a character I found myself enthusiastically rooting for. This book provided interesting insight into a young woman’s challenges and I can see it serving as a source of inspiration for readers of Queenie’s age bracket.
This post was originally published on the Boston Book Blog.
A writer’s day can be a mixed bag. Yes, my ideal is four uninterrupted, morning hours at my desk, but writers can’t always be writing – there are many other activities that go along with the job. Some days I take a class, meet with a writing group, do research, or attempt to solve technical problems. I’m fortunate that the Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods offer many locales for staying productive. Come along with me as I take a writerly walk through Boston.
When I need a change of scenery, writing at the Boston Athenaeum is truly inspiring. To work here, you will need to become a member of this magical private library, but fun fact: dogs are allowed.
My favorite writing haunt on Charles Street is Panificio at number 144. The soups are heavenly and their big windows let in tons of light. It’s also close to my local post office where I often have an errand to run!
This post originally appeared on BooksByWomen.org as “Five Weeks To Book Launch And How My Writing Practice Keeps Me Grounded.”
I am a woman with many morning practices, from skin care to yoga and meditation to blending a perfected breakfast smoothie, from walking my dog to writing long hand in my journal. Needless to say, I need to rise and shine pretty early in order to squeeze in these beloved rituals. Very often, I laugh at myself, sleep still in my eyes, clinging to this crazy booting up process, but it’s a proven source of comfort and a very peaceful way to start the day.
In addition, I endeavor to maintain a habitual writing practice, ideally beginning not long after the journal writing. Oh, but there’s coffee to be made, and the email inbox, and social media posting to be done. Five weeks away from the launch of my second novel, The Nine, I am more apt than ever to be consumed with checking reviews, scheduling appearances, and crafting newsletters for my mailing list. Many people tell me they don’t even attempt working on a new project during this intense phase of pre-publication book promotion. For me, however, it’s become a safe haven.
This summer, in an effort to focus just as much on the generative side of my nature as I knew I would on the promotional side (remembering my experience with my debut novel, Eden) I did three things: 1) I resuscitated my writing group, 2) I registered for a 6 week online course through GrubStreet called plotting your novel and 3) I joined a cabin in Camp Nanowrimo with seven other writers who are constantly checking in! All of this is in the name of accountability – sort of like setting three alarm clocks when you have an early morning flight… but given my propensity to be the good student, this strategy has worked! I’m not checking preorder trends on AuthorCentral twenty times a day or obsessing with how I might use social media better. This plan has kept me from bugging my publicist as well which I’m sure makes her happy. Basically it’s ensured I keep the part of the writer’s life I love most– the writing.
Promoting a new book (and yourself really) engages the ego and sets the mind whirring. Writing or revising early drafts of a work-in-process, however, comes from a place of humility. I find that spending a part of the day in each place makes for a healthy internal balance. In addition, working on something new reduces the stakes around the book launch. When that pesky internal critic starts worrying about The Nine’s reception, I fend it off in the knowledge that my writing career is just beginning and based on my daily, accumulating word count, there will be more books in my future.
I’m sure many authors read the above like it’s obvious – of course you keep up a writing practice come hell or high water. That’s what you do. But I bet there are others reading this who like the reminder, indie authors like me who manage much of their own promotion, schedule their own book appearances, and do a ton of footwork – authors like me who are relatively new to this and might lose sleep wondering if there is something else that should be done to give a book the best chance at being noticed. I don’t want to live the next several months with that chatter in my head and the consequential lack of focus.
This summer I’ve promised to keep my phone at bay and to stay offline for that first hour or so at my desk. Even if emails from Oprah or Reese are waiting to be answered. My goal is to bang out 500-1000 new words first thing and report to my cabin-mates. It might be a modest amount, but the fact that new characters with a story to tell are coming alive for me provides a more authentic excitement. As these characters are developing in their own right, they are also reminding me, “You are a writer! You have more in you! It’s all going to be okay!”
On our recent trip to Asia I barely scratched the surface of omotenashi, the Japanese spirit of hospitality, but I did have the opportunity to participate in a tea ceremony which gave me a glimpse. As I lay awake that night combatting jet lag, I began to see parallels between the author/reader relationship and the tea ceremony. This might be the type of idea that only seems brilliant at 3am… but here goes…
The concept of service or hospitality runs very deep in Japan, the core being that each human encounter is unique and that every moment is once-in-a-lifetime. Each meeting, therefore, is entered into with great planning and intention. The height of the practice of omotenashi is a traditional tea ceremony. I must thank my dear friend Andy Goldfarb for introducing me to this concept before our departure.
The Tea Ceremony
The interaction begins before the guest arrives – with the host’s planning. She takes great care with the aesthetics: selecting the tea service, arranging the flowers, hanging a scroll. The details may consume the host’s thoughts before the meeting, but they are invisible to the guest, done without any expectation for appreciation.
When the guest arrives, the host kneels in front of a shrine to prepare the matcha with prescribed movements. She takes the tea vessel in her left hand and ladles the perfect amount of water over the green tea powder with fluidity and grace. She then rapidly whisks the mixture back and forth (approximately fifty times) until it is topped with a froth just so. She bows before passing the cup to the first guest who also shows great humility and appreciation for the final product. The guest is even expected to enjoy the last sip of tea with an audible slurp.
The Ritual of Writing
As is the case with creating any art, there is a moment when the artist (or novelist in my case) begins to consider her audience. Revisions and edits to early drafts serve the piece, making language more clear, and conveying ideas with nuance and subtlety. Achieving refinement and simplicity requires the writer do more work. It’s not always what the host or writer does, but sometimes what she decides not to do that makes all the difference. Just like spending time selecting the correct tea set, the writer does not expect nor necessarily desire the reader to know everything that went into the preparation. It’s an unspoken contract between us that immense intention was involved.
One of the most satisfying things about writing fiction is using my imagination as an instrument. I picture a cloud of energy forming then percolating in my brain, finding its way out through my fingers typing on my keyboard – sort of like whisking green tea into a froth? I work to perfect my craft, ladling just enough action to mix with character detail. When the final product is ready, it is my offering to readers.
Readers take the vessel in hand and turn it, appreciating the cover art. If they are willing,they consume it, and voila: my imagination and stream of energy finds a path to theirs. If they really enjoy the book – and hopefully they do – they might finish with a big healthy slurp that sounds something like a five star review.
So like the master of the tea ceremony, working to tend the aesthetic of her tea garden, I sit down to write each day, aware that each sentence I craft is unique to this moment, and attuned to my experiences. I bow in humility to each reader who, like the guest at the ceremony, is willing to accept this version of omotenashi and drink from my cup.
The following article was originally published on BooksByWomen.org.
A friend suggested recently I write an essay about how one went about being taken seriously as a female writer over fifty. My first reaction to this suggestion was actually surprise, and my second was wonder …. maybe she didn’t take me seriously? I sat back in my chair and regarded her more closely.
No, the suggestion was definitely intended as a compliment, and I got the feeling as we sat there that she hoped I had some special secret. The truth was, I hadn’t stopped to think about it.
Her suggestion reminded me of the time a father on the sidelines of a girls lacrosse game asked my husband what we’d done to make our daughter so hungry for the net. My husband just shrugged, “That’s how she came out.” Likewise, my ability to pursue a writing career at fifty, with no real credentials to speak of, might also be a matter of good instincts or good fortune (neither of which do I take for granted). After some consideration, I’ve come up with some pointers that might be useful for anyone embarking on a similar “under-dog” journey.
If you want others to take you seriously, take yourself seriously.
Let me rephrase that, don’t take yourself seriously, that’s unattractive. Take your writing seriously. I sit at my desk every morning, I decline invitations. I write whether I feel like it or not. I call myself a writer. I introduce myself as a writer. I talk about my books. I am not shy.
I accept invitations and view every opportunity to discuss my book as a blessing. I have fully immersed myself in the literary community in Boston. I attend readings. I take classes. I am workshopped, and I accept feedback. I blog and submit essays for publication. If I am writing I tell other people not to bother me. My business cards read “author.” I attend conferences. I approach people. I watch what the authors I admire do and I try to emulate them. When I am not writing, I am reading. I review books.
Don’t compare yourself to others.
While a traditional book deal with one of the big five is very prestigious and the gold standard in publishing, there are many other ways to connect with the reading public if that is your goal. Starting later in life, I made the decision that chasing prestige and prizes couldn’t be my priority. From day one connecting with readers was my singular focus, through my books, my blog, and through social media. I might not have an MFA, but I’ve had a relatively eventful life that provides plenty of material and emotional knowledge to infuse into my writing. I don’t think there is a writing program in the world that can teach what it feels like to love, to give birth, to lose, to bounce back, or to choose compassion.
Reject those who are rejecting you.
I decided to stop banging my head against the wall called the New York publishing world. After many years of rejection from New York agents and editors, I decided it was a party I wasn’t likely to be invited to. Luckily, in this digital age, in this age of disrupters, I was able to find an alternate path to publication and have never looked back. I found a hybrid publishing company called She Writes Press founded for women who have life trajectories and aspiration similar to mine. We help and inspire each other and through our collective success, motivate each other. My sisterhood has provided me with strength and more drive than I had when I thought this struggle was mine alone. When EDEN finally made it out in the world, it was embraced by many readers. That was all I ever wanted.
Accept the fact that creating art requires vulnerability.
Vulnerability and authenticity are necessary not only in creating art, but in creating a life with connections (and that includes connections with readers). Readers have a very accurate bullshit meter and will dismiss work that doesn’t feel real very quickly. Brené Brown, renowned social worker and author, teaches in her book Daring Greatly that putting yourself out there is essential. Being vulnerable, she writes, is the key to making connections. When you embrace vulnerability, you are also expressing your sense of self-worthiness. Don’t confuse this with ego, it is the opposite.
When you put yourself out there, when you allow yourself to be truly seen, others stop and take notice. They admire the honesty. They equate vulnerability with courage. They say “Wow.” The hardest thing about putting yourself out there is letting go of the worry you aren’t good enough and the fear of being judged.
In the weeks before EDEN was released I could barely get out of bed in the morning, I was so overcome by nerves. But if you are putting the work in (see pointer #1) you needn’t worry. Whether your writing career started in your twenties or your fifties, strive to tell your authentic story with your authentic voice. You will make connections. People will respond positively. I struggled whether to list this as pointer number one or pointer number four because it’s a necessary concept from the start, but it is also an evolving realization. I also have to think this is that secret something my friend was searching for when she suggested I write this article.
The following article was originally published on NovelNetwork.com.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the disparaging comment that book clubs drink more wine than talk about that book. I’ve visited many book clubs since the release of EDEN, and people who think it is just an excuse to drink wine don’t get it. Book clubs are for readers but the meetings aren’t just to talk about the book. In my own book club, we spend a higher percentage of our meeting time talking about other things.
And that’s okay.
When a group of friends make book selections and read simultaneously, it’s like traveling to the same place, meeting the same people, entering a common consciousness no less. When they meet later “to discuss,” enjoying food and drink, the contents of the book are almost reminisced about as opposed to critically analyzed. Some people have fond memories and some thought something was missing, some have foggy memories, and some got stuck on a particular issue, but we’ve taken the same trip and that’s pretty cool.
The common experience is what matters, setting the groundwork for a deeper dive into the themes of the book. Bonds of friendship are formed when we share experiences and ideas, when we discuss hypotheticals. A book that stimulates great discussion (tangential or not) is a good book club pick.
Better to tear apart a fictional character than to gossip, and better to discuss a place you’ve read about than to sit in envy of one person’s exotic travels. The conversation at your book club may not always stay on the one thing you have in common that month (the book) but it is a starting point to many important conversations.
It is fun to imagine friends lying in bed reading or driving in their cars listening to the same books. If you’re like me details about the book will come up in snippets of conversation when we bump into each other on the sidewalk or at the gym. I might even text a friend “loving it” or “hating it” mid-month. Often, by the time the book club meets, the temperature of the group has been determined, influencing how much time we spend on the book or how quickly we go there.
Picking a good cross section of genre, our group has found, is important. Traveling to a variety of lands offers an opportunity to compare and contrast stories as well as authors’ styles. So no, we aren’t always talking about the book, we are already a few steps beyond, on to the next step, talking about where the book took us.
I took a “Writing from Personal Experience” class in Cambridge taught by Mopsy Strange Kennedy. An exercise she often assigned us involved going on “writerly walks.” She encouraged us to travel our usual paths but make the effort to really notice – maybe for the first time – the details along the route: the bicycle chained to a post, the balustrade in need of paint, the torn screen on a window. After the walk, we were supposed to write about a particular object, the more mundane the better, but the purpose was to infuse that object with meaning. It was a good way to develop writing muscle as well as the art of paying attention. I noticed quirks and color and inconsistencies. I noticed the way the sun reflects off a window or the way steam rises off hot pavement, windows that were open wide and music that traveled to the sidewalk, even the scent of hot pizza escaping a delivery bike’s insulated red container. I noticed trash and dog poop, as well as crocuses pushing up through the earth.
Aiming to post a daily photo on Instagram requires a similar practice. When taking photographs, I am not looking for smell or sound, but for an interesting tableau. It’s easy to take our routines for granted, but when searching for beautiful patterns or color or amusements, we have our eyes wide open. Social media can be blamed for a lot but, for me at least, when it comes to Insta, it adds an artistic distraction to my day.
If I look back at the woman I was twenty years ago…
I never thought I’d love golf. I also never thought about the day I’d be staring into my sixth decade on the planet. When you are in your thirties, it’s hard to find joy in a slower tempo. In the same way yoga didn’t appeal to me at that age, neither did a four-hour activity mired with frustration.
It’s only been in the last ten years I’ve come to appreciate the compassion and brain health that comes from a beginner’s mentality. It is so much easier to stick with what we are good at, but there is no growth in that. No matter how much golf I play, I’m always filled with humility and the sense that I have so much to learn. As a writer, reading great books evokes the same feeling. German classes and years of bridge lessons have also put me in the shoes of a beginner, but those practices didn’t stick the way golf has.
That’s because I also love being outdoors. I’ve come to crave the green grass and fresh air, the camaraderie walking the course, my heart rate slowing with the measured, even, pace of the game. A four-hour walk with good friends and no phones: such a luxury in today’s world. Golf teaches me that success comes from taking time and studying my options. Ever try to putt quickly without reading the green? I am a type A personality who multi-tasks and juggles multiple projects at once. Golf has taught me something about concentration and clarity. It has taught me to value precision over power.
Golf benefits my squash and my writing in the same way yoga or meditation does. I like to think of a golf outing as an extended practice in even breathing and intentional thinking. It begins with gratitude for just having the time and the access to play the game. Then, every swing, every new hole is an opportunity to put the past behind and visualize greatness and use positive self-talk. It’s taken me many decades to face down the critic in my head, but rounds of golf have given me millions of opportunities to tell her to go away!
I never thought I’d love golf, I never understood what people liked about it. I can’t believe I’m at an age where I feel this way, but I really do love golf.
You’ve probably seen all the photos on Facebook and Instagram – it’s graduation season and I can’t believe how my friends’ children are growing up! Graduations mark a big accomplishment for students as well as parents. Whether its high school or college, it is monumental to have crossed this major finish line.
Our middle son graduated from college on Memorial Day Weekend. It was a wonderful weekend that brought our family together to honor him and all his hard work. There were ceremonies and cocktails and dinners, but what I most appreciated was being on campus.
A campus is an island whether its remotely located or embedded in a town. It’s a self-contained world with traditions and a culture and rules of its own. It is self-governing and is populated by a revolving door of young adults. It has its common spaces and its hiding places. It has its own rhythm with quiet mornings and raucous late nights.
As a parent, walking onto a campus, or into a dorm or classroom building, feels like sneaking – dare I say trespassing after all the tuition we’ve laid out! But we aren’t supposed to be there, when we visit we are voyeurs to a special place and time that is no longer ours. And our children, who have license to occupy the space, might do so with the mindset of a traveler on an extended journey. They will be moving on, after all. So, it becomes a first home away from home, an experiment in living alone.
Aah if the walls could talk. The campus has seen growth and love and dissent and resistance. The campus has seen victory and protest. The campus has seen homesickness and nostalgia. The campus has witnessed trepidation and pride.
Maybe that is why, in addition to the romance of an actual green quadrangle surrounded by ivy-laden brick buildings, I have always loved the campus novel. What do you think of this line up:
- The Lords of Discipline by Patrick Conroy
- A Separate Peace by John Knowles
- The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss
- Dead Poets Society by N.H Kleinbaum
- Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
- The Secret History by Donna Tart
- The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw (I met her recently. Such a thrill!)
- The Virgins by Pamela Erens
- Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
- Testimony by Anita Shreve
- This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman
I devoured all these books. A writing teacher had me watch “The Sterile Cuckoo,” starring a very young Liza Manelli and filmed on the Hamilton College campus. There are the more main stream hits: Love Story, Animal House, and Harry Potter but I think I’ve made a point – drama or comedy, literary fiction, or a trashy delve into Restless Virgins, lots of people find the campus entertaining. There is something primal about a world unto its own – it’s a microcosm of society, with all sorts of “Lord of the Flies” possibilities.
I am working on the final revisions of my novel, The Nine, which is also set on a boarding school campus. When I wrote EDEN, I hadn’t been aware that there was a whole genre around the “saying-goodbye-to-the-family-summer-home” story line. I am well aware, however, there is a long history of great campus novels. They have been a mainstay of American literature since before Holden Caulfield bolted for New York City. Campuses are filled with intrigue and mystery and the adults in charge of them are managing conflict and staving off scandal. It’s ripe, people. It’s ripe.
I would love to hear what your favorite campus novels are and why!!