Wednesday, January 27, 2016

An Evening with Ani DiFranco

If there is one musical artist that can define my late high school and early college years, it's Ani DiFranco. I discovered her through - no lie - a VH1 countdown of 100 amazing female artists. She was number 80 or so and, in true VH1 style, they played a brief clip of her on stage, mentioned her folk rock roots and the fact that she'd founded her own record label and named it Righteous Babe, then quickly moved on to the next person. I, however, did not move on. The sound of her guitar stayed with me and a few weeks later, when I was looking at CDs in our local Borders, I bought a copy of Not a Pretty Girl with my babysitting money. The rest was history. 

I listened to that album and her others (it wasn't long before I went back to Borders) with something akin to reverence, memorizing songs and picking apart lyrics. This was the age before the Internet, so I didn't know much about Ani herself, except for what she told me through her music. Lucky for me, she told plenty. Through Ani I learned about feminism, sexism, bisexuality, and abortion. I learned how to be an artist, even when the world is telling you to be something else. I learned that it's okay to be angry, and that it's okay to be happy, too. That you don't have hide your true feelings just to make other people more comfortable. As I said, I discovered Ani DiFranco during a pivotal time in my life, a time when I was figuring out who I was and what I felt and what kind of world I wanted to live in. I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, with super conservative parents. I was shy, timid, a people pleaser. If it wasn't for Ani, who knows where I would have ended up. Certainly not here, which would be a damn shame - I like it here. 

While Ani DiFranco is no longer the constant soundtrack of my life, I still love her and appreciate her. Which is why, when I heard she was coming to Wilmington to play a show at the Brooklyn Arts Center, a beautiful, intimate venue just ten minutes from my house, I bought a ticket immediately. On Friday, after one of the longest and saddest weeks, I headed to the show with some friends. We sipped wine, listened to the opening act, and checked out the crowd, which consisted mostly of starstruck women their 30s (or maybe that was my own reflection in the stained glass windows - it's hard to say). 

Then, at about 9PM, Ani took the stage. The one and only time I'd seen her previously was in 2001, in New York City, back when we both had dreadlocks. Even though that was fifteen years ago, she looked and sounded just like I remembered, and I felt a familiar thrill. Then she played her first song, and it was "Not a Pretty Girl." Oh, how I love when things come full circle. 

Over the course of the next hour, Ani played a lot of old favorites from the early days - "Untouchable Face," "Fuel," "Both Hands," "As If," and, my personal favorite, "Gravel." She didn't just sing the songs but reinvented them, so they sounded the same but different. It was almost as if they'd grown up, just like the rest of us.

After the show ended and the lights came up, we stepped out into the cold, wet night. I thought about the person I used to be, all the years between then and now. I thought about Ani, the way music, like books, can show you a different path, possibilities you might not have noticed otherwise, and I was grateful all over again. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Review: Big Magic

There are a number of things at which I can't help but roll my eyes. High on the list: magical thinking, the law of attraction, radical self love, #truthbombs, life coaches, and expensive planners that promise to transform your life.

Don't get me wrong. I am, in general, a happy, optimistic person. I have hopes and dreams. I set goals and work hard to achieve them. I'm a goddamned morning person. I like what most of the people who encourage and espouse these ideas are saying. I just don't like the Cult of Positive Vibes they feel they must create in order to do so. Plus a lot of these movements seem reductive and shallow, glossing over a lot of un-pretty realities in favor of a glittery dream. I can love myself all I want, but there's still a pay gap. I can maximize and optimize every moment, but we all die one day. I can tell the universe I'm ready to be rich, but my student loans aren't disappearing any faster. And on and on. Yes, I think a good attitude and a chipper outlook can make life a whole lot more pleasant, but that's easy to say when your life is already pretty damn pleasant.

Which is why I have a complicated relationship with Elizabeth Gilbert. I feel like she toes this line, and yet I like her. I like her a lot. In fact, I like her even more after reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

This book is a basically a self-help guide for creative people. It's not written specifically for writers, but since that's what Gilbert does, it's the example she uses the most. The book is broken up into six parts (Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity) and each part consists of many short sections that are, in turn, motivational speeches, charming anecdotes, encouraging asides, and tough love.

The book's thesis is that creativity is a gift we're all given, and that we each have hidden treasures within us. Too often, we aren't unable to uncover these jewels because we're afraid of failure or judgement. In many ways, Big Magic is a call-to-action to embrace your artistic, creative side, and Gilbert is your friendly, kind, encouraging, slightly kooky guide on that journey.

When it comes to creativity, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on things. I don't fear failure or judgement, and I'm pretty good at putting myself out there—applying for things, entering contests, submitting to journals, doing readings. One thing I am not good at, however, is patience. It takes a lot of effort to be happy for other people rather than jealous. Often, I'm afraid to sink so much time into one project (such as, for example, a novel) because what if no one wants to publish it and it turns out all those years were a waste?

Well, Big Magic has something to say about that, and it's advice that I believe I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Throughout the book, Gilbert talks about creativity as a devotional practice. According to her philosophy, living a creative life and exercising your creativity is both the goal and the reward. Not publication, not fame, not fortune. Just the simple act of doing it.

It's not a groundbreaking idea, but it sort of blew my mind. For most of last year, I was caught up in the business side of the literary world—trying to get a book published, coming close, but ultimately getting rejected. It was very difficult, for my writing and my ego, and I spent a lot of time feeling like I'd failed. This was not only unproductive—it was false. My goal was to write a book I was proud of. I did that. Whether or not the book gets published is something I have very little control over. All I can do is write the best book I can, and then write the next best book I can. Writing, creativity, art—it requires devotion, a love for the process, and the ability to detach from the outcome. That was the lesson I learned last year, but I didn't realize it until I had Gilbert's help. Pretty magical.

I'll end this unintentionally personal review with a few quotes from the book, because it's only right to let Elizabeth Gilbert have the last word. And it case it isn't clear: I highly recommend Big Magic, and I'm really glad I read it.

On Day Jobs 

"I've always felt like this is so cruel to your work—to demand a regular paycheck from it, as if creativity were a government job, or a trust fund. Look, if you can manage to live comfortably off your inspiration forever, that's fantastic. That's everyone's dream, right? But don't let that dream to turn into a nightmare."

"People don't do this kind of thing because they have all kinds of extra time and energy for it; they do this kind of thing because their creatively matters to them enough that they are willing to make all kinds of extra sacrifices for it."

On Failure 

"Whatever you do, try not to dwell too long on your failures. You don't need to conduct autopsies on your disasters. You don't need to know what anything means. Remember: The gods of creativity are not obliged to explain anything to us. Own your disappointment, acknowledge it for what it is, and move on."

On Joy 

"A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself."

On Success 

"Mind you, hard work guarantees nothing in realms of creativity. (Nothing guarantees anything in realms of creativity.) But I cannot help but think that devotional discipline is the best approach. Do what you love to do, and do it with both seriousness and lightness. At least then you will know that you have tried and that—whatever the outcome—you have traveled a noble path." 

Monday, January 04, 2016

New Year's Camping at Lake Waccamaw

2016, y'all.

For New Year's weekend, Nathan I packed up the dogs and our brand new tent (a Christmas gift to each other) and went camping at Lake Waccamaw State Park, located about an hour west of Wilmington.

From the park's website: 
A visit to Lake Waccamaw State Park unveils one of the most unique bodies of water in the world and one of the greatest geological mysteries—the phenomenon of Carolina Bays with species of aquatic life found nowhere else. A 700-foot boardwalk reaching into the shallow, tea-colored water accommodates wildlife viewing and fishing, and more than seven miles of trails allow hikers to explore multiple ecosystems and rare plants. Fifty-two species of game and non-game fish are at home in Lake Waccamaw. Camping is primitive at four hike-in group sites, and a boat ramp allows lake access for paddlers and small boats. A visitor center with exhibit hall and free interpretive programs explore the region’s diverse natural and cultural history.
We've driven by this park countless times on our way in and out of Wilmington, and each time we would say, "We should really check that place out." Well, Nathan and I both had three-day weekends thanks to New Year's Day (a rare gift) and his 2016 resolution is to take better advantage of the fact that we live in coastal North Carolina, which, by the way, is a pretty beautiful place. Thus: our camping trip finally came to be. 

After 5 tries, I figured out how to take panoramic photos on my iPhone!

Overall it was a quiet and peaceful weekend. Although we used to camp all the time in Texas, we've only gone sporadically since moving to Wilmington, so we were a bit rusty. We were woefully underdressed and also unprepared for the cold, cold weather. Yes, it was January 1st, but it was 80 on Christmas. You can see why we might have forgotten to pack hats or gloves or even an extra pair of socks. Also, Calvin - despite being mildly obese - shivered all night in our tent, so I woke up every half hour. On the bright side, we had a big, private campsite all to ourselves, Nathan was able to take some photos for his fungi Instagram account, we read books and drank coffee/wine by the fire, and we got to kick 2016 off outside and with each other. I'd say it was a success. 

Family photo.

I hope your New Year was just as lovely but significantly warmer. On to the next adventure! 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Craft in 2016

Since 2013, I've been choosing a word for each year and making resolutions that align with that theme. I will freely admit this is a corny tradition, but it's been really helpful in my goal to live a more intentional life, so I'm owning it. As 2016 is swiftly approaching, I spent some time over the holidays thinking about how I want the coming year to look and feel, and I've finally settled on a word to guide me. 

Craft, noun: An activity involving skill in making things by hand. 
Craft, noun: A boat or ship. 
Craft, verb: To exercise skill in making something. 

For those of you keeping track at home, this exercise has revealed a trend - each year, the word I choose builds on the previous year. First, I wanted to be Present in my own life, to focus on and appreciate each moment as I lived it. Then, I wanted to embrace Risk in my writing, my career, and my life. Last year, I chose to Dig, putting down roots in Wilmington, pursuing friendships, and finding stability. It makes sense (to me, at least) that now is the time to Craft, to take advantage of this foundation and keep building on it. 

What exactly will this look like? I'm glad you asked.
  • I'm working on a new novel, and I'm about 2/3 of the way through a first draft. In 2016, I want to finish this draft and let it sit for a bit. Then I want to revise it like crazy, which is the best part of writing (I plan to do this during my two-week residency in April at the Vermont Studio Center - I won a fellowship!) Then I will send it to a few trusted readers, get their brilliant feedback, and revise again, and again, and again. That should keep me pretty busy. (Crazy big goal: sell the novel and finally get the book deal that eluded me in 2015.)

  • Of course, one writing project isn't enough, mostly because I've spent the last few years working on a short story collection, and it's also about 2/3 done. While New Novel is out of my hands - resting, or being read - I will get back to short stories, which includes writing, revising, and, of course, submitting. I only published one story in 2015 and I would like to at least double that in 2016. (Crazy big goal: win a contest.) 

  • In 2015, I won a fellowship to Aspen Summer Words. In 2016, I'm headed to the Vermont Studio Center. I'd like to keep this streak going, so I'll be applying to a 2017 fellowship at some point during the next year. As a person who has to work full time yet was spoiled by her MFA, these fellowships are vital when it comes to connecting with other creative people, focusing on my craft, and reinvigorating my spirit. (Crazy big goal: Hedgebrook. I came close this year and I won't give up until I get my spot.) 

  • To switch gears a bit, I'd also like to get back to crafting in ways that are related less to the page and more to the plate. There was a time in my life when I loved to spend time in the kitchen, trying new recipes and even inventing some of my own. In 2016, I want to make good, healthy, delicious food a priority once again, including a return to baking bread and brewing beer. Considering how much I love to eat, motivating myself to accomplish this goal shouldn't be too difficult. (Crazy big goal: learn how to make one awesome cocktail as my signature drink.)

  • My last intention is also the vaguest. In 2016 I want to focus more on crafting when it comes to the things I buy, want, and give. Whether that means purchasing handcrafted goods from local artists, baking cookies for friends, putting together a gift basket, or actually using my sewing machine will depend on the desire, occasion, and person. This goal is inspired by my friend Kat, who is awesome at crafting. Watching her make thoughtful, beautiful things (not to mention receiving some of them!) reminded me of the joy I used to get from making. In 2016, this crafty renegade will rise again! (Crazy big goal: handmade holidays.) 

I have other goals, but they aren't so much resolutions as habits I want to maintain (read another 35 books, set a new half marathon PR, yoga-yoga-yoga, drink more water, spend less time looking at my iPhone, blog once a week, be a compassionate human being, good friend, and giving partner, etc). Overall I'm looking forward to the New Year. 2015 was tough but it's ending on a good note. I'm entering 2016 full of hope and gratitude, and that's an excellent place to start.

Your turn: how did 2015 treat you? Do you have goals or resolutions for the New Year? If you had to sum up your hopes and dreams for 2016 in one word, what would it be? 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Best Books I Read in 2015

I've said this before and I'll say it again: 2015 was a great year for reading. It was a year I leaned on books hard and, thanks to all those beautiful stories and words, made it through some dark moments. I wasn't in school or teaching, so I read whatever sounded good or interesting in the moment. I read hoping to become a better writer, which is always the secret and ultimate goal. And, of course, I read because I love books more than anything (not counting people and dogs).  

In 2015 I read a total of 39 books, most of which were written by women. My genre of choice was the novel, which makes sense, as I'm still trying to figure out how to write one. This year I made an effort to read more books by POC, as a way to experience stories outside the straight white narrative, which I tend to fall back on too often. I'm glad I pushed myself in this way - out of 38 books, nearly a third were written by people who don't look like me, and I can't help but feel reading those books made me a more empathetic and aware human being. As for stats and superlatives (my favorite part!) they are as follows: 

Gender breakdown: 
Women: 36
Men: 3

Genre breakdown:
Novels: 28
Nonfiction/Memoir: 7
Short stories: 1
Essays: 1
Poetry: 2

Diversity breakdown: 
White (as far as I can tell): 29
POC (as far as I can tell): 10

Month I read the most number of books: 
January/June - tied for 5 (It is not a coincidence that January and June both included plane trips, and planes just so happen to be my favorite place to read a book cover to cover.) 

Month I read the least number of books: 
August (Just one - A Little Life, which is understandable.) 

Most fun I had while reading a book: 
The Folded Clock, Heidi Julavits (So charming and funny and startling. I want to be BFFs with Julavits.) 

Best take on the coming apocalypse: 
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (Not so bad for a world in which a virus wipes out 99% of the world's population.) 

Best page-turners: 
Life Drawing, Robin Black (In the first sentence, we learn the narrator's husband is dead. The rest of the book is a stressful unfolding of how it happened. Great twists and turns, and the ending left me so unsettled.) 

The Last September, Nina de Gramont (Another dead husband in the first paragraph! I guess I have a type. Don't tell my husband.) 

Most traumatizing book: 
A Little Life, because obviously. 

Most interesting books: 
Citizen, Claudia Rankine. (A rumination on race in America. Timely, important, structurally fascinating, an essay written in poetry. Unlike anything else I read this year, in a good way.) 

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill (Also written in prose poem style, hard to get into at first but once it sunk its claws into me, I couldn't escape.)

Book with the worst ending: 
Mermaids in Paradise, Lydia Millet (I still get mad every time I think about it.)

Most overrated books: 
How to Be Both, Ali Smith (I couldn't get into the experimental narrative.) 

Gold Fame Citrus, Clare Vaye Watkins (Loved the language, but not the characters or plot. I also think my reading experience suffered from a case of sky-high expectations.) 

Most underrated book: 
After Birth, Elisa Albert. (Honestly, I'm shocked this didn't end up on more Best-of-2015 lists. It's a brutal and brilliant account of new motherhood, identity, and creativity.)  

Most educational book: 
On Immunity, Eula Biss. (The vaccination debate, from one of the smartest and most talented writers we have. Read it, please - especially if you have or plan to have children.) 

Best book of the year runners up: 
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng. (An overall solid book. The family at its center is fascinating, the mystery, emotions, the complicated dynamics are gripping, and the tragedy and how it unfolds are so smartly told. A nearly perfect reading experience.)

Americanah, Chimamanda Adiche (This book was a beautiful, sweeping, and ambitious story of love, identity, culture, and the idea of home. I didn't expect to be so consumed by this book, and was gratefully surprised.)   

And now, the moment you've all been reading for!

Best book of 2015: 
Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff (Yes, President Obama and I share the same favorite novel. I know some people didn't love this book, but for me the hype was absolutely warranted. This novel is fascinating, gripping, incredibly written, and so deeply intelligent it left me spinning. If I could write a book half as good as this one, I'd die happy.) 

If you're interested: the best books I read in 2014.

And finally, this year's full reading list, including those which didn't get superlatives (sorry, books), listed chronologically: 

Euphoria, Lily King
The Bees, Laline Paull
Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doer
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng
The Mermaid of Brooklyn, Amy Shearn
Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
On Immunity, Eula Biss
My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff
Americanah, Chimamanda Adiche
Mermaids in Paradise, Lydia Millet
Family Life, Akhil Sharma
Draft, Erica Sklar
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin
I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, Courtney Maum
How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky, Lydia Netzer
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, Antonia DiSclafani
Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
After Birth, Elisa Albert
Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld
The Knitting Circle, Ann Hood
Billy Lynn's Long Half Time Walk, Ben Fountain
Land of Love and Drowning, Tiffanie Yanique
Life Drawing, Robin Black
A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
The Folded Clock, Heidi Julavits
The Star Side of Bird Hill, Naomi Jackson
The Daughters, Adrienne Celt
How to be Both, Ali Smith
The Last September, Nina de Gramont
Days of Awe, Lauren Fox
Wired for Story, Lisa Cron
Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff
Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein
In the Country, Mia Alvar
Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Last Blog on Earth

I've been writing this blog for over 10 years, and in all that time I've never strayed far from the "personal blog" category. Sure, I dabbled in food blogging and fitness blogging and book blogging, and there was a big section of my life devoted almost solely to roller derby, but overall this blog has been a slow and steady compilation of my life. And it wasn't unique, either. Remember, I started blogging back when we all had LiveJournal accounts and wrote aimlessly about our day, sharing too many details about our love lives, big dreams, and irrational fears. I'm a nosy person by nature and I loved the ability to peek into a stranger's life, see how they lived and hear what they thought. For many years, blogging was a window each of us - including me - kept wide open. 

Then, things began to change. As the years went by I watched some of my favorite bloggers shift to specific niches, monetizing their blogs and branding themselves, all while closing certain windows shut. Each time I was disappointed, even though I mostly supported what they were doing. And while I miss the way we used to write, I can also see why it had to change. In the beginning the Internet felt like my own playground, free from prying eyes and judgement. Most of the people in my every day life didn't even know what a blog (excuse me, "online journal") was, so even though I was writing and publishing openly, it still felt private. I never felt the need to hold back or censor myself. Then the Internet blew up. Suddenly, everyone had a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a personal brand. These days, I can't imagine writing that honestly online, not just because I'm ten years older, but because the audience is so much bigger. 

I used to read hundreds of blogs daily. (RIP, Google Reader.) Now, I read only a small handful that continues to dwindle. Not all the personal blogs of yesteryear transformed themselves into money-making endeavors. Most of them simply faded away, closed down and shut their doors. The women who wrote them (and it was almost all women, at least in my corner of the Internet) started their blogs in their 20s, when they had time and energy to spare. Now, we're in our 30s, with careers and families and a better sense of how much we can safely share, how much we're willing to risk for an audience of strangers. There's also the fact that the blogs I loved best were written from a place of passion. They were hobbies, side projects, and so it makes sense that these blogs would be the first thing to go when new passions and projects rose up to take their place. I get it. One of the reasons I only post a few times a month is because my limited writing time is reserved for novels and short stories and essays, the creative work around which I'm trying to build my life. Even now, as I type this, part of me feels guilty for the hour I'm not working on my book.

So why am I thinking about this now? What, you're wondering, is the point of this post? The answer is complicated. Part of the reason I'm thinking about it is because of my day job, the fact that I now blog and manage social media accounts for various businesses and clients. I'm a content marketing specialist, which is ironic, because "content" is one of the words I hate most, at least when it comes to the Internet. It commodifies our words blatantly, sets them up as something to sell. The joy of sharing simply to connect with others is missing. Lately, it seems that every interaction on the Internet is layered. On the surface, we're making jokes and chatting with friends and sharing things that interest us, but it's not that simple. It's not that pure. There's always another motive, a thing we're trying to sell, something we want to prove.

Which is a very long winded way to say that there isn't a point to this post. I'm just thinking out loud, like I used to, before the Internet got so big that we had to hide the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. And to say this: to all the bloggers I used to read, who have moved on to new adventures: I miss you, and I hope you're well. 

Sunday, December 06, 2015

2015 Resolutions: Review & Reckon

Yesterday I attended the opening of yet another brand new brewery in Wilmington. (We're in the middle of a craft beer boom, and I have zero complaints about this.) While we were sipping and sampling beers and enjoying the cool new space, my friends started talking about last year's resolutions - what were our goals, and did we do everything we said we would? 

I love setting goals and making resolutions, though the older I get, the more relaxed my approach becomes. There was a time when I made elaborate lists of resolutions, with a step-by-step plan for each goal that included monthly benchmarks and measurable outcomes - none of which seemed to help. Another year, I decided to focus on a single, solitary goal (finish writing my first novel) and actually did it. Yet another year, I set monthly challenges for myself and accomplished roughly none of them. You live, you learn. 

Last year, I went back to basics and set 5 specific goals and one general theme. Here's how the last twelve months shook out, resolution-wise. 

Write book #2 (or at least finish a promising draft.)
Right this second, I'm about 100 pages into a first draft that I don't totally hate. I have another 50 or so pages of notes and scenes, and I think in the next 20 days I can get a lot closer to a finished draft. Definitely by the end of January! So, while I didn't accomplish this goal perfectly, I came pretty damn close. And considering everything else that was going on in 2015, I'm proud of myself for making so much progress on a new project. 

Blog twice a week (aiming for Mondays and Thursdays.) 
Oh, this poor, sad, neglected blog. About half way through the year I changed this goal to "once a week" and even that's been difficult to maintain. I have a post in the works about "personal blogging" and my many feelings regarding it. For now, let's just agree that I didn't meet this goal. 

Practice yoga twice a week, preferably three times (handstand in 2015? Maybe!) 
I didn't do a handstand in 2015, though I can do one against a wall. Progress! I was pretty good about going to yoga twice a week, especially once the YMCA reopened. The last few weeks have been hit or miss due to the holidays, travel, and visitors, but I'm finally back on track. This goal was important to me because yoga is the best thing for lower back pain, and also the only time I slow down and shut up. Yoga is always teaching me something new, and I'll definitely continue this goal in 2016. Success! 

Travel and go on more adventures (camping, kayaking, and visiting family count.) 
I think of 2015 as an unadventurous year, but we actually managed to do a lot. We saw Nathan's family once, I saw my family once, we kayaked to Masonboro island a few times, I went to Aspen, we spent a long weekend in Asheville for my birthday. Nothing too crazy, which may be why it felt like a quiet, contemplative year. We faced a number of unexpected challenges in 2015, but we still managed to enjoy ourselves and make the most of our free time. So: success, even if it didn't always feel like it. 

Read 35 books (and log them in my spreadsheet.) 
Nailed it. I'm currently rounding the final corner of book #37 and am feeling really great about this goal. I'll even go so far as to say it's my greatest accomplishment of 2015. I can't wait to write my 2015 Reading Recap. It's going to be glorious. 

2015: A Year to Dig
As for the theme of 2015, I try to pick a word each year to serve as my guide. Last year, I chose the word "Dig," and hoped it would inspire me to dig into my life in Wilmington, my fiction projects, my career, and my garden. And oh, did I dig! I finally feel like a real Wilmingtonian, immersed in this city and at home with my life here. My writing is going well - I make the time for it, even when time is limited. I submit and revise, shake off the rejections and celebrate the successes. I feel good about the writer I'm becoming, and I look forward to the work itself. While I gave up my budding freelance career pretty early in the year, I'm digging into my job at the marketing agency, and after a few months of existential criss, have emerged as a person who likes what she does and where she works - a rare combination. We also gardened, though the results of our homesteading efforts were, as always, mixed. It seems the only thing we really excel at is keeping chickens, which is great news, considering we added six more birds to our flock in the spring. 

Dig was a good theme for 2015, a great guiding idea, and I'm happy to say I lived up to it. Now I just have to figure out what my theme and goals will be for 2016. Oh, and finish the draft of this novel. Better get to it. 

Did you make any resolutions this year? Did you accomplish everything you set out to do? We still have 25 days to go - time to make the most of it. 

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

How to Start a Book Club

My book club has been around since April, and as you may have noticed from my incessant blog posts, tweets, and Instagram pics, I LOVE IT. This is only my second ever book club, which seems a bit shocking when you consider how much I love books. Shocking, that is, until you also consider the fact that I got an MFA, which was basically just one really long, really expensive book club.

Every time I mention my book club on the blog, I get a few questions about how ours works. I'm not an expert, but I do think book clubs are awesome and everyone should be in one. To that end, here's how we run things and some tips on starting your own awesome book club. 

1. Forming your club. 

This is the most obvious step, but it's also the hardest: the first thing you need for a successful book club is members. I was lucky, in that my book club consists of people I already know and adore and hang out with all the time. All of us love books, and a fair number of us are writers. When one of us suggested forming a book club, the rest got on board pretty quickly. 

If you don't have a book loving crowd of friends to recruit for your fledging club, all is not lost! In my previous book club, I was invited to join via Twitter by a local woman I had been stalking for a while because she seemed cool and funny, and guess what - she was! (Hi, Kate!) You can also put up signs at the library, your local independent bookstore, or on Craigslist. Branch out, be brave, and meet in a public place the first few times you get together, just in case.

2. Vetting your members. 

One of the biggest and best perks of a book club is being introduced to new authors and books you might not have otherwise picked up. That said, your reading time is precious and if your club members keep choosing hard core sci-fi when you'd rather read westerns, well, that's going to be a problem. If you're inviting strangers to join your club, ask them what books they've read and loved lately to get a feel for their tastes and interests, and be open about what you're interested in reading, too. (Related: why has no one invented a Tinder-type app for book lovers? I would totally swipe right for anyone who wants to discuss literary fiction about unlikeable women.) My book club tends to focus on contemporary fiction, but we're reading a memoir right now, so we're not too strict in this regard. Plus we have a semi-democratic process for choosing our books, which brings us to step three.

3. Choosing the book. 

My club meets roughly once a month, and we take turns hosting. At the end of each meeting, we figure out who the next host will be. The next day, that person emails the group a selection of three or four titles she wants to read, along with links to their descriptions. The rest of us reply, ranking the books, and the one with the most votes wins. I really love this process because we all get to offer input, but the host is ultimately in control. It's a nice balance and so far no one has suffered through a book that they absolutely did not want to read. (At least as far as I know.) Plus I inevitably end up adding the books that didn't make the cut to my mile long to-read list, which is awesome.

4. Hosting the meeting. 

There are seven people in my book club and that, I think, is a perfect number. Any more and it would be impossible to find a time when we could all meet. We try to get together once a month, though sometimes we'll go five or six weeks if life is particularly hectic. We meet at the host's home, which I prefer because then we can have unlimited drinks and snacks, and these are very important parts of a good book club meeting. We've met at night and during the day, but my favorite variation is the brunch book club. Waffles! Fruit! Quiche! Mimosas! Invigorating conversation and lively debates about the merits of a beautiful novel! What could be better?

Occasionally we try to bring food that fits the book (bacteria shaped cookies, anyone?) but mostly we just strive for delicious. Oh, and we all contribute food and drink, because no one should have to nourish seven ravenous readers all by herself. The first 30 minutes or so of book club involve eating, drinking, and chatting, and then we quickly get down to business.

5. Discussing the book. 

Make no mistake - our book club is not a sham, nor is it an excuse to drink wine and gossip. (We do enough of that already.) No, our book club is all about the book. We discuss our selection for a solid hour, often more. Sure, we go on tangents. Of course some gossip sneaks in. But we all love to read, and we inevitably pick fascinating books, and we have many opinions about those books which we are eager to share. Most of have MFAs or English degrees, which means we're pretty good at talking about books. Thus the conversation flows well, and I always end up with a better, deeper appreciation of the book.

If you're worried about lulls or stalled conversations, due to the members or the book itself, it's a great idea to prepare some questions ahead of time. If a book comes with a discussion guide, by all means use it as inspiration. I usually read a few reviews of the book and interviews with the author after I've finished it, so I tend to arrive armed with additional information I've gleaned from my obsessive research. If you know your group is particularly chatty, make sure to let other people talk and don't monopolize the conversation with your thoughts and feelings (cough*Chrissy*cough).

That's it! 

A book club isn't rocket science, but finding that magical combination of people, books, and snacks can sometimes feel like an impossible equation. I hope this post helps you in your quest to start an awesome club and fill your life with amazing books. Good luck, and let me know how it goes! 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

35 Books And Counting

This past weekend, the weather turned. After a record-breaking week of sunny days with temperatures soaring to the mid-80s, Sunday was a different story. Wet, gray, and cold, fall rushed in quickly, caught us unaware. I didn't mind; I spent most of the day lying on my couch, the heat on, a cup of tea beside me, and a book in my hands. Fates and Furies, by the incredible Lauren Groff. I read for a little over three hours, pausing only to shift my position, refill my tea cup, adjust the heat. Otherwise, I was deep into the novel. When I reached the last few pages and emerged from my trance, I truly felt as if I had been somewhere else. My own life - dogs, husband, friends - felt unfamiliar, off-kilter, and it's hard to explain what happened to me on the couch, even though it has happened before. Certain books take hold, the emotions on the page sloughing into my own life like a second set of skin. 

It isn't always the best books that capture me this way. Sometimes they are - Fates and Furies is, I think, nearly perfect - but usually it's the books I read at the exact right time, the exact right moment in my life. Fates and Furies is about marriage and perception, devotion and creativity, sacrifice and secrets. It's about two sides of one marriage, the story a couple presents to the world and to themselves, and the complicated truths that lurk beneath. I read it in the days leading up to my third wedding anniversary, our thirteenth year together. Marriage has been on my mind and to dive so deeply into Lotto and Mathilde's felt like an incredible gift.

I've said it before, but 2015 has been an overall unspectacular year. Upheaval. Transitions. Career difficulties. Disappointments. Changes in plans. Nothing too tragic, of course, just a general sense of ennui, punctuated by moments of joy. (In other words: life.)

At the same time, it's been an incredible year. Last January, I made a New Year's resolution to read 35 books, and when I reached the last page of Fates and Furies, I also reached that goal. (Now I'm shooting for 40.) This marks the most books I've read in a given year since I was a pre-teen and spent my summers plowing through The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High series. Knowing I read so many books, being able to gaze lovingly at my spreadsheet of titles, authors, and stars, gives me an intense satisfaction. I may not have traveled the world or made a million dollars or published my own magnum opus, but look at what I've accomplished. It's a powerful feeling. I also feel like reading so many books (most of them novels, most of the contemporary) taught me so much about writing my own. I won't say I learned more about writing in 2015 than I did while in my MFA program, because my MFA provided a great foundation. But in the end that's all the MFA was - a solid place, upon which I could build a world made of books. 

It's obvious, but a good reminder nonetheless: books are not an escape, but rather a way to experience things I can't. No day is a waste if I spent part of it reading. 2015 will be remembered as an amazing year, because of the depth and breadth of books I read.

PS: The best books I read in 2014. I will do a similar post at the end of 2015, when I have my final tally. 

PPS: Photo credit.  

Thursday, November 05, 2015

How to be the Notorious RBG For Halloween

I have complicated feelings about Halloween. Or not; the truth is I just don't like it. Once you reach a certain age (and by that I mean 33 and childfree, which means you don't have small ones to dress up and you also can't drink like you used to) Halloween loses some of its charm. I don't like the pressure of having to come up with a costume or the money I inevitably spend on it. I don't like the temptation of candy around every corner (Reese's Pieces, I can't quit you.) I do like handing candy out to small children, but my neighborhood doesn't get much foot traffic, and even if it did I'm pretty sure my large, loud, over-protective dogs would ruin the moment. So, yeah. If it was up to me, I'd skip Halloween and go straight to Thanksgiving. 

This year, however, I couldn't escape Halloween. As it turns out my place of employment takes Halloween very, very seriously. As in all work halts on Halloween day, we're treated to a catered lunch, and we hold an elaborate costume contest. And these aren't costumes you can pick up at Target or Wal-Mart. Oh, no. Most of the costumes are handmade, include elaborate wigs or makeup, and are super creative. Also we get to go home early, so maybe Halloween isn't so bad after all. 

While I looked forward to the party, there was still the problem of my own costume. As usual, I waited until the last minute. As usual, I wanted to spend as close to 0 dollars as possible. So I combed my closet and there, in the very back, I found my robe from graduation. Hm, I thought. What could I do with this robe that I wore once but am inexplicably keeping despite the fact that I am never going back to school ever again? What, indeed? 

If you read the title of this post, you know the answer. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It was perfect, really - the past few years, when I've dressed up, I've gone as iconic women. Amelia Earhart. Frida Kahlo. And now the Notorious RBG. This costume was the easiest too, which makes Ruth my favorite so far. Graduation robe ($0.00). A pair of fake wire rimmed glasses I found at the costume store ($2.99). A pair of old lady earrings ($3.99, and my new favorite pair). And a yard of lace, which I folded and pinned to look like a stately ascot ($4.99). Done and done, for a grand total of $12.00. Justice is served. 

I loved my costume, but I didn't win the contest. The competition was stiff and having to explain to everyone who I was kind of took away from the experience. (My colleagues aren't up on their Supreme Court Justices, it turns out.) That's okay, though. I don't need to win Halloween. I just need to make it through the holiday so I can start planning my Thanksgiving menu. Mission accomplished. 

Do you dress up for Halloween? What's your best costume? I can already tell I'm going to have to up the ante for next year's office party, so please share!