30. January 2013 · 2 comments · Categories: Books

IMG_4735Last spring I bought this cookbook at the Milwaukee Public Library’s bookstore because I was fascinated with the rather vitriolic notes that someone had written throughout it. I wrote an essay about it and published it here.

Some time later Kate Murphy of the New York Times contacted me, saying she saw my piece, she was writing a story on cookbook marginalia, could we talk?

I’m happy to report that Kate’s story was published today in the Dining & Wine section of the Times, both in print and online.

Big thanks (and congrats) to Kate Murphy. It’s a really nice piece.


My week this week began with a rejection letter from a literary journal to whom I’d sent my latest short story. They emailed it at 9:18 a.m. on Monday.

A second rejection letter from another journal for the same story arrived at a more congenial time: Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.

A few years ago I would have been crushed. I’d dabbled in writing fiction for fifteen years and been devastated the two or three times I had the nerve to submit something and got rejected. Enough to crawl into a hole and not write again for a very long time.

This time I actually feel invigorated by these rejection letters. I look at it like, “Oh, goodie, now I can send the story to Journal C and Journal D.”

Something’s happened in the past year. I don’t know what, but I feel very committed to making it work this time and know I’m on the right track. I think about my creative writing professor who told us it took him seven years to get published. And he’s really, really good. Brilliant. I know my story is good. Not brilliant. But it works. My readers and writing group back me up on this. It’s a matter of finding the right place for the story, at the right time.

My mantra this week is another thing my creative writing professor told us: persistence, persistence, persistence.

“Some of you in this room are ready to be published now,” he told us. “You’re just going to have to keep the faith and keep writing, no matter what, because it probably won’t happen right away.”

In the meantime, last fall I started playing alto saxophone and singing in an eight-piece soul/ska/reggae-beat/R&B band. Our horn section is all-female. Being in a band like this is something I’ve fantasized about since dancing around to and singing with the B-52’s in my living room in the Eighties. Writing stories and playing music are things I loved doing when I was a kid. I don’t know where it’s all leading now. But I don’t care.

In his book Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, Austin Kleon argues that “side projects and hobbies are important.”

One thing I’ve learned in my brief career: It’s the side projects that really take off. By side projects I mean the stuff that you thought was just messing around. Stuff that’s just play. That’s actually the good stuff. That’s when the magic happens.

The important thing is allowing yourself to do it. I have a work ethic that is through the roof. It’s what’s made me successful. But it’s also made me rigid. Myopic. Unhappy.

Take time to mess around. Get lost. Wander. You never know where it’s going to lead you.

I recently had lunch with a fellow freelancer. Lovely time, from start to finish. But I was a little thrown off when he said, “I see by your Web site that you aspire to write fiction. Aren’t you afraid it will distract you from what you do for a living?”

No. No, I do not.

If you have two or three real passions, don’t feel like you have to pick and choose between them. Don’t discard. Keep all your passions in your life.

For decades I felt as my colleague does. I did not allow myself to pursue the things that were nagging at my heart. Because I needed to focus. So that’s what I did. But something was missing.

You can cut off a few passions and focus only on one, but after a while, you’ll start to feel phantom limb pain.

I know all about this phantom limb pain. It’s been woven into my being since my teens and had been getting, as Austin acknowledges, worse and worse from neglect. It’s taken me a long time to give up the control, take chances, and allow all my passions back into my life. I’ve discovered there’s room.

“Don’t throw any of yourself away,” says Austin. “Don’t try to make money or get famous off [your hobby]. Do it because it makes you happy. It’s regenerative. It’s like church.”

The week of mine that began with two rejection letters also included emails from four clients in two countries who accepted the first drafts of stories I wrote, saying, “We like them as is. No revisions. Thank you.”

It also included some painting and drawing, which I hadn’t done in a while.

And it ends with our new band’s very first gig tomorrow. We’re called Torn Soul. I wish you a good weekend.

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Part 1 and Part 2 of this series were published previously. Part 3 concludes the series. 


I recently read that resource lists are the way to boost traffic to your blog. While I do care – immensely – that you’re here, I don’t really give a lick about boosting traffic to my blog just for the sake of numbers, as many bloggers do. I write essays and put them here because of selfish needs to write and share what I write.

But the idea of a resource list is still intriguing, so this week, instead of an essay, I’m trying it. What these books, blogs, and other things have in common: I like them. Selfish again. Here we go:

  • Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter (Graywolf Press, 1997) is a collection of his essays on fiction. I discovered Baxter’s short story “Gryphon” in graduate school in the book Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. (I still regret not taking a course from Stuckey-French at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival when I had the chance.) “Gryphon” is so wonderful, I look forward to reading more of Baxter’s work.
  • I’ve already written about Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist in my blog posts Part 1 and Part 2. Stay tuned for Part 3, based on the chapter “Side Projects and Hobbies are Important.” In the meantime, buy this book.
  • My friend Denise is the one who told me about this Jonathan Gottschall interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered”: Jargon to Jabberwocky: 3 Books On Writing Well.
  • In his interview, Gottschall recommends Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which I have read once and been wanting to reread for a year now. I fished it off the bookcase today and it is now on-deck.
  • Gottschall also recommends Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights, compiled and edited by Jon Winokur. I don’t usually enjoy books of quotes. But every time I pick it up and flip through a few pages (which is the only way I can digest it), I find gems.
  • Gottschall’s third pick is William Zinsser‘s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction (Collins, 2006). I am currently reading this book. I am currently in love with this book. Read Chapter 7, “Usage,” yesterday while doing the laundry, and this one chapter alone is worth the price of the entire book ($14.99 paperback). Thanks again to Denise.
  • Zinsser cites the works of several nonfiction writers, among them Joan Didion, one of my writing heroes. When I read Didion’s The White Album I knew I would want to read everything she has ever written.
  • John Cheever is another of my writing heroes. I am currently reading The Stories of John Cheever, 700 pages, which nets out to one short story per day for the next two months. I’m not saying you should like Cheever too, although I don’t know why you wouldn’t, but I include this book as a reminder to you to read your heroes. Study them. Practice writing like they do.
  • My beloved Boswell Book Company, up the street from me on Milwaukee’s East Side, allowed me to pre-order Cheryl Strayed‘s tiny beautiful things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar (Vintage, 2012) online this past spring, and then called me when it was in-store. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a love affair with an indie bookstore near you. There are many reasons to do so. Customer service is only one.
  • tiny beautiful things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar is genius. Strayed talks about being Sugar in this interview with Jenn Godbout on The 99 Percent (not the 99 percent you might think).
  • My goal is to attend at least one author event per month. On July 11 my husband John and I went to hear Dean Bakopolous, author of My American Unhappiness, and Patrick Somerville, who wrote This Bright River. They were funny and engaging and we bought both of their books. On July 30 I plan to see Robert Goolrick. Stacie from Boswell sent me invitations to both of these because she thought I’d enjoy them. Love her for that.
  • The New York Times gave Patrick Somerville a bum review, but it wasn’t his fault: the reviewer misread the book and the Times later had to correct the review. Patrick writes about it at Salon.com in a piece titled “Thank you for killing my novel.”
  • I wanted to see Donald Ray Pollock at Boswell this past Tuesday but couldn’t. So Stacie had him sign both of his books, The Devil All the Time and Knockemstiff, a collection of short stories, for me and I picked them up the day after. He’s an Ohio boy and, like me, became a writer and got his master’s degree late in life.
  • This interview with Jonathan Franzen first ran on “Fresh Air” (NPR) a few years ago but I came across it only very recently on the blog Sometimes a Great Notion.
  • My friend Joan sent me the link to the brilliant Underground New York Public Library blog just last week. Photos of people reading books (and the titles they’re reading) on the New York City subways.
  • You’ve probably seen this one already. No? You haven’t? All right, here it is: English teacher David McCullough Jr.’s commencement address, You are Not Special, which he delivered at Wellesley High School in Boston this past spring.
Wishing you a good week. Until next time.
08. June 2012 · 5 comments · Categories: Books

Pretty pathetic, huh? Yeah.

That brown paper, our cats like to lie on. I put it on the floor during the day and pick it up at night so they don’t wake us. Sometimes I forget to put it back down and it just stays there for days.

That’s my stack of old cookbooks, upper right, bathed in the light of the heavens. Magazines I haven’t gotten to yet. A note from a neighbor inviting me to a bi-weekly ladies night out I haven’t made it to yet. There’s lots of dust.

I do ninety-nine percent of my work on my laptop, which I use in the living room, on the bed, at a desk with a view of Lake Michigan. It is what Austin Kleon refers to in his book Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative as my “digital desk.”

So what is an “analog desk” then? It’s the polar opposite of the digital desk and Austin makes a case for it in Chapter 4, “Use Your Hands.”

“Computers have robbed us of the feeling that we’re actually making things,” he says. “Instead, we’re just typing keys and clicking mouse buttons.”

In addition to being a writer, Austin Kleon is an artist whose work is inspired by others artists going back to the 1860s: making poems by blacking out words in newspaper stories, which you can see on his Newspaper Blackout Web site (and book by the same name). He used to do most of his work at his digital desk, but then he realized something:

“Sitting in front of a computer all day is killing you, and killing your work. We need to move, to feel like we’re making something with our bodies, not just our heads. Work that only comes from the head isn’t any good.”

So he made major changes to his setup:

“I have two desks in my office—one is ‘analog’ and one is ‘digital.’ The analog desk has nothing but markers, pens, pencils, paper, index cards, and newspaper. Nothing electronic is allowed on that desk. This is where most of my work is born, and all over the desk are physical traces, scraps, and residue from my process. (Unlike a hard drive, paper doesn’t crash.) The digital desk has my laptop, my monitor, my scanner, and drawing tablet. This is where I edit and publish my work.”

Once he did this, Austin discovered that work “didn’t feel like work. It felt like play.”

Some of the most joyful times in my life have been when I’ve created analog-style. When I was an art minor in college. When I produced a community play for kids and sketched the costumes and painted the set. A poster I made after a bad breakup years ago titled “Things I Want To Do,” which hung in my office and fascinated my friends. It was the simplest thing. But they loved it. And I loved making it.

I have been glued to my digital desk far too long. The current state of my analog desk reflects this.

My only defense is that I have been playing in a band. So I am creating at the music stand. But point well taken: time to clean up the desk but good. Get out the sketch pad, and I don’t know. Doodle. Paint. Cut up magazines. Something. Not sure what yet. Audrey Niffenegger came up with the title The Time Traveler’s Wife while working on a project in her art studio; she wrote it down on the paper she covered her analog desk with, and her book was published a few years later.

“If we just start going through the motions, if we strum a guitar, or shuffle sticky notes around a conference table, or start kneading clay,” says Austin Kleon, “the motion kickstarts our brain into thinking.”

Now hand me that Lemon Pledge.


Two weeks ago we went to Boswell Book Company to see writer/artist Austin Kleon, who wrote a really nice book called Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, published by Workman this year.

The book’s premise is contained in this T.S. Eliot quote in the preface:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”

Joan Didion, from the cover of The White Album

Steal Like an Artist does not condone plagiarism; Austin Kleon means something quite different. “What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere,” he says. “All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”

This statement should bring relief to the writer, painter, poet, designer, musician. It does to me.

I know it’s an old notion, but look at Lady Gaga, who’s often accused of stealing from Madonna. If she had held out for a truly original idea, she’d still be waiting and maybe have produced nothing. Millions of people would have missed out.

I’m not a fan of Gaga, but that doesn’t matter. What I admire is the sense (or nerve) she took to be influenced and to press forward. “All creative work builds on what came before,” says Austin.

He goes on to paraphrase writer Jonathan Lethem, who “has said that when people call something ‘original,’ nine times out of ten they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.”

John Cheever, from the cover of The Wapshot Chronicle

For Lady Gaga, Madonna is a reference, an original source. Madonna in turn had her sources. If we were to trace back through them all, as Austin maintains in his book, we would see that their ideas have a history.

Whether Gaga has stolen, defaced, imitated, or turned what her sources did into something better or worse, I will leave up to you to decide for yourself.

The point is: There is a lot of magnificent stuff worth stealing. Identify it and who does it. Study those people, their work, figure out how they do what they do. Then practice it until you feel your own voice come through.

In his visit to Boswell, Austin told us about the eight, nine artists and writers he copies. He has pictures of them hanging in his workspace. He encouraged us to do this too.

Going up in mine: John Cheever and Joan Didion, without a doubt. Stephen King too, who is often dismissed as a genre writer. But his writing is clean and vibrant and beautiful and I would love nothing more than to be able to write like him someday.

Centuries of time have passed. We in 2012 have no hope of creating anything truly original anymore. But we can take from those artists we love, and bend, twist, and shape what they do into something that reflects our voice, our aesthetic.

Who are your heroes?


08. May 2012 · 5 comments · Categories: Books

I recently purchased a few more old cookbooks, among them The Special Diet Cook Book by Marvin Small (New York: Greystone Press; 1952), which I got for a buck.

I usually pass on diet cookbooks because their look-and-feel tends to be clinical; most have no food illustrations or photographs, the hallmark of old cookbooks. There’s nothing special about The Special Diet Cook Book, other than it’s now the oldest one I own.

But there’s something else about it that makes it one of the more fascinating books I own: marginalia.

Merriam-Webster defines marginalia as “notes or embellishments (as in a book)” that a reader scrawls in the margins of a book’s pages. According to Wikipedia, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a famous writer of marginalia. So is Voltaire, Mark Twain, Sylvia Plath, and David Foster Wallace.

As a research assistant in graduate school, I worked two semesters for a professor who studied marginalia written in late 19th-century books and magazines. Marginalia permits us to imagine a reader who engaged with a text. The notes they make in the books they read can tell us something about them, how they lived, how they read. And sometimes it can be very entertaining.

Case in point, this handwritten note that fills the inside cover of The Special Diet Cook Book (all spelling and grammar errors are the annotator’s):

“This book is not tops in diet. It cant be, as it is a cookbook to begin with and next it uses egg whites, pepper and mustard. That kills a big part of it for health diet and worse yet, vinegar and land salt too. Still its better by far then just some cookbooks. If your lucky, some time you may get Paul Braggs health cookbook. That is a much more better one. It has 402 pages, 33 pages of indexes and Prof. Paul Braggs picture in back. This costs 5 cents more, but is worth a thousand more. Its not what the doctor ordered. It tops that. It gives a vitamine chart on foods. You will see less where vinegar is left out in the other book and much white flour also land salt and not so much pepper or mustard and maybe less egg whites.”

Two more notes read: “See page 251” and “See 336.”

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Page 251 is where “The High Residue or ‘Regularity’ Diet (Anti-constipation)” chapter begins. Here is written: “This looks best.”

On page 336, where “The Low Fat – Low Cholesterol Diet” begins, “very fine” is written.

In the low fat chapter, “Yes” is written next to the recipe for “Fat-Free Whole Wheat Bread,” and “Fine” next to “Oatmeal Bread.”

“Cream of Mushroom Soup” gets an “OK.” Notes next to other recipes include “Not this” and “No,” and in some cases it’s an upper case “NO.” You can almost hear the reader shouting.

Where each “NO” appears, so does a bold “X,” right through the recipe. Under “Apricot Mustard Sauce” and “Pickled Beets,” the ingredients dry mustard and tarragon vinegar are struck through with such vehemence there’s a depression in the paper. Why the reader considered dry spice and vinegar enemies to a healthy diet, we’ll never know.

Most of the rest of the cookbook is unmarked. Did the reader have only cholesterol and constipation problems? Did the reader actually prepare the recipes? Or just read them?

In the preface is scrawled: “This book is posibly not half tops in a health cookbook. The best part is the calorie chart. Yes and no-no.”

Marginalia also indicates that the book had a few different owners. On the title page is written: “A special gift to Mr. Mrs. Senecal from L. Hollenger.” “Senecal” is crossed out and “Mr. Mrs. Morey” written in, in a different hand. It is unclear if one of the Senecals or Moreys wrote the marginalia, or if someone else did.

Whoever did, though, maybe he or she is right. Maybe it is a bad diet cookbook. Then again, maybe anger management is in order.

In either case, stuff like this is gold to storytellers. Put ten of us in a room, show us juicy little nuggets like these, and we’ll tell you ten different stories starring the Senecals, the Moreys, the book, and what happened to them. And they’ll all be good.


BONUS! Banana Salad Bazaar

04. April 2012 · 2 comments · Categories: Books

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And punctuation books. And a few dictionaries. Twenty total now. The latest addition to the collection is a used copy of Karen Gordon’s The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed (rev. 2003), mentioned in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.

Before this, I finally bought The Elements of Style Illustrated by Strunk & White (2005) and Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities (2009), both hardcovers, both beautiful.

Lately, the two guides I have been referring to most often are: Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Good English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Connor (2003) and Eats Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (2006). But like Le Guin, I still consider Strunk & White the standard. The most amusing title I’ve found so far: The Dictionary of Disagreeable English: A Curmudgeon’s Compendium of Excruciatingly Correct Grammar by Robert Hartwell Fiske, The Grumbling Grammarian (2005), which I found at my beloved Boswell Books on Milwaukee’s East Side.

A professor of mine once said that most writers instinctively know how to apply the rules of grammar, but don’t know how to articulate them. I’ve gotten a little better at it since I started teaching college-level English. But I’m no grammarian. That’s why I have the books.