Three Questions

I read an article in the New York Times last week about breaking an addiction to smartphones. Aside from the usual head-nodding and recognition that accompanies pieces about of weaning ourselves off of our digital dependence, I was particularly struck by this passage:

[She] encouraged me to set up mental speed bumps so that I would be forced to think for a second before engaging with my phone. I put a rubber band around the device, for example, and changed my lock screen to one that showed three questions to ask myself every time I unlocked my phone: “What for? Why now? What else?”

Those three simple questions—six words—stopped me in my tracks. Few times outside of being stoned have I come across a turn of phrase or single passage that hits me the way this one did, as if everything tunneled out and all that existed were these words, which seemed to explain everything. As if just by reading them I’d taken them inside of me, swallowed them whole and somehow understood something deeper and more powerful than the individual syllables.

What for? Why now? What else?

Yes, in this context they were a gentle chastising against checking your feed for the thousandth time, but I immediately thought about the writing process. The work the characters do, the way they drive the plot, the pacing of it, the motivation, the arcs, the resolution. All of it. “Why would the character do this? [What for?] Why would it happen now? [Why now?] What happens after? [What else?]” These three questions are applicable to so much of the act of writing; really, they’re applicable to almost anything. Or maybe since all I’ve been doing recently is writing I’m in a frame of mind to see inspiration and the profound in things that have nothing to do with writing. Regardless, I love those three questions so much I made the graphic above and set it as my phone lock screen, hoping it would not only deter me from checking my notifications so frequently but also remind me to ask myself deeper, thoughtful questions when I sit down to write.

What for? Why now? What else?

2019 in Books

Book Goal: 35
Books Read: 44 (matched 2018’s record)
Books Set in/about Paris/France: 11
*NEW CATEGORY* Books in French: 2 (!! I now read novels in French, I am le smug)
Books Borrowed from the Library: 12
Books from Book of the Month: 8
Nonfiction: 10
*NEW CATEGORY* Books by Female Authors: 26 (60%!)
Favorite Book(s): “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” by John Boyne (his “Ladder to the Sky” was one of my favorites last year). “Gravity is the Thing” by Jaclyn Moriarty was a delightful surprise, and “Three Women” by Lisa Taddeo was incredibly well written and engrossing. “Fleishman is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is exactly as good as everyone raved it was.
Least Favorite(s): “Very Nice” by Marcy Dermansky, read like 8th grade fiction, and “Early Work” by Andrew Martin reinforced the obvious: that mediocre white men can get anything published.
Longest Book: “Dragonfly in Amber” by Diana Gabaldon at 743 pages
Shortest Book: “Closer” by Patrick Marber (a stage play, which accounts for its length)
Funniest: “Dreyer’s English” by Benjamin Dreyer. A book about grammar had me cackling out loud.
Saddest: “La Vie Devant Soi” by Romain Gary was heartbreaking and beautiful. Oh, and I sobbed through the last 40 pages of “Becoming” by Michelle Obama, realizing how much of their legacy has been undone by this god awful administration, does that count?
Prettiest Cover: “The Ensemble” by Aja Gabel, though the flowers had absolutely nothing to do with the story.
Most Overrated: “Very Nice” by Marcy Dermansky
Most Enjoyable: “Fleishman is in Trouble” was laugh-out-loud in parts and whip smart, with so many pitch perfect sentences and ideas. I loved reading it.

What are the best books you read this year?

Are you on Goodreads? Let’s be friends!

A New Novel. Finally.

On Tuesday, December 3rd, after I came home from French class (the first of the new winter term), I watched tv and ate a bowl of cereal on the sofa before getting ready for bed. It was 9:45 when I’d finished washing my face, a process that takes exactly as long and is exactly as involved as you’d expect for someone about to turn 33. I passed my office on the way to my bedroom, and made it two steps beyond the doorway—my desk framed by the open door—when the strangest thing happened to me. In what I can only attribute to some sort of divine, creative intervention: my forearms began to feel weird. (Descriptive, for a writer, I know.) As if there was a pent up charge of energy collecting in my hands. I turned back to my office and reached for my notebook. A softcover, navy blue Moleskine notebook I’d purchased almost a year ago exactly at Barnes & Noble with the intention of filling with my second novel. A notebook that, save for three (three!) pages, had sat entirely unmarked and untouched for eleven months. My hands felt shaky, needy, about to fly off my body.

I had to write. I physically had to or I was going to burst. I didn’t even have a choice in the matter. I barely recognized the sensation. I took the notebook to bed and proceeded to write until 12:30 in the morning, page after page of a story that came to me out of nowhere and fully formed. Character names, backstories, a plot, a title. It was all there, dropped into my head and spilling out of me onto the page with very little effort on my part, as if I was merely a conduit for it. If this is what people mean when they say they were “struck with inspiration,” I understand now precisely how physical a blow it is.

In her TedTalk, writer Elizabeth Gilbert recounts a poet describing her experience with inspiration as a “thunderous train of air” she hears in the distance and which eventually barrels towards her, the ground shaking beneath her feet. The poet would run to her desk to write it down, being chased by this poem, so that when it “thundered through her, she could collect it.” Gilbert says she’s also had times where work has come to her through a source that she can’t identify. It is, after all, “the utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process…which does not always behave rationally and can sometimes feel downright paranormal.”

That’s as close to describing what I experienced that Tuesday night/Wednesday morning as I can get. To say this story fell out of the sky and dropped into my brain would not be inaccurate. Yes, all of my lived experiences probably contributed to it in some way. I’ll give myself some credit for being able to write it, but not so much about the source of it.

When I bought that notebook, I intended to write a very different novel. It was set in Rome in the late 90s, about a young journalist who goes missing and whose sister comes to look for him. I had a rough outline. I had ideas. I struggled with the main character’s name. I struggled with an ending. I struggled with the fact that it seemed too like my last novel in terms of the relationships between the characters. Mostly, I struggled. Sitting down to work on it became disheartening, frustrating, so at some point I stopped sitting down to work on it altogether. I revisited it occasionally, but it was like squeezing water from a stone. The story is there, and I think it could be a good story one day, but it clearly wasn’t its time.

I am now 36 pages in to this new novel, in the span of less than two weeks. It is set in London and it is about an affair. I have written every single day since that first night. I write on my lunch break, I write at night, I write throughout the day when things come to me. I carry this notebook with me everywhere, and for the first time in a long time I feel like a writer again. It’s crazy, the extent to which not writing has the opposite effect. I’m going to London for a weekend in February, because it’s been over a decade since I visited the Smoke, and who doesn’t love a quick overseas jaunt in the name of book research?

Writing one novel has provided me with invaluable insights into what NOT to do this time. I can’t wait to take you all along for the ride.

How (Not) to Blog, or, Where did half the year go?

So here’s the thing about blogging, which may seem obvious to the point of not needing to be said, but: if you don’t actually sit down to blog, you, uh, don’t have a blog. The same is true for just about anything, and you’d think I would’ve learned my lesson having finished a novel that didn’t actually write itself during all the breaks I took from writing it, but it’s July and here you are, reading my first blog post of the year.

Hi!

My last post was at the end of December, and I had every intention of blogging in 2019, but then 2019 actually happened. Here’s the CliffsNotes version: on the last day of January I was fired twice from my job at the auction house, first via an all-staff email and then again the next morning in person to really drive the point home. Three days after that, I received a rejection on my revised manuscript from an agent I’d been working with since the previous August. Despite taking 95% of her feedback to my initial submission to heart and spending the better part of October and November editing the absolute bejesus out of it–I even changed the ending!–the agent admitted they hadn’t even read the full thing but still didn’t want to represent it. A week later, my grandmother was moved into a nursing home. At the beginning of March I contracted a sinus infection. Beetles infested the entire third floor of my house. I spent all of February and March unemployed, bumming around and applying for jobs, with long stretches of pretty serious depression. It was not a good period of time for me, creatively, emotionally, physically, or financially.

Lest you think it was all terrible, there was a weeklong trip to Paris in February, which had been pre-booked and which was absolutely glorious and a wonderful way to run away from my problems. (I have photos, I swear I’ll share them soon.)

Thankfully, things turned around in early April, when I landed a sweet new job at a nonprofit a stone’s throw from my house handling communications and social media. It’s part-time, so I’ve been able to rededicate myself to this novel of mine. It was hard to see precisely how dysfunctional my last job was while I was in it–don’t get me wrong, I was pretty miserable for the last six months I was there and had been planning on leaving in February, after I got back from Paris–but nothing throws it into stark contrast like a new, normal job. At a minimum, there aren’t mice crawling all over my desk in broad daylight.

Anyway, on the second day of the year, I tweeted the following:

Not to shit on my ability to follow through on things, but we’re officially six months into the year, and I’ve accomplished half of one of these five things (#5, if you were curious). I have a three-page outline of my next novel, which is a far cry from even a partial draft. I have six months left to complete these tasks, even though I was clear upfront that I would not be holding myself accountable for completing any of them. My full manuscript is currently out with three agents (!!), so I’m hoping to be able to check off #1 sometime soon. Completing #2 seems lofty, given what I know about the production timelines in the publishing industry. Numbers 3, 4, and 5 are really up to me. Can I do it? Only time will tell.

2018 in Books

Book Goal: 35
Books Read: 44 (Smashed last year’s record by 4!)
Books Set in/About Paris: 13 (including one I actually purchased there)
Books Borrowed from the Library: 16
Books from Book of the Month: 9
Nonfiction: 6 (down from a whopping 14 last year)
Favorite Book(s): “The Italian Teacher” by Tom Rachman (I think about this book constantly and recommend it to everyone. Rachman’s “Imperfectionists” was one of my favorites last year.), “A Ladder to the Sky” by John Boyne (I’ve never read a book that long that quickly. It was delicious.)
Least Favorite(s): I don’t think “The Truth About Thea” by Amy Impellizzeri even qualifies as a book, as terrible as it was. I’ve never read something as poorly edited or with such flagrant disregard for punctuation or plot, and may I never again.
Longest Book: “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara at 672 pages
Shortest Book: “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck at 107 pages (the book is physically half the size of a regular one)
Funniest: “L’Appart” by David Lebovitz (I have a signed copy!), because you have to laugh to keep from crying during his torturous apartment renovation
Saddest: I read a lot of books I would qualify as objectively sad, including “The Girl Who Smiled Beads” by Clemence Wamariya, “Small Country” by Gaël Faye, both about African Great Lakes genocide, and “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara
Prettiest Cover: “The Italian Teacher” by about a million miles (everything designer Jaya Miceli touches turns to gold)
Most Overrated: “Feel Free” by Zadie Smith (I’m starting to think Zadie and I aren’t meant to be friends) and “Asymmetry” by Lisa Halliday (sleeping with Philip Roth and then writing a fictionalized account of it will absolutely get you a book deal, FYI)
Most Enjoyable: “A Ladder to the Sky” was one of those books I simply couldn’t put down.

Last year, I said, “I don’t think I’m going to hit 40 books next year” and this year I set a new personal record. Just goes to show you, keep your expectations low and you’re never disappointed! Kidding. This was a big year. In addition to these 44 books, I also finished my own, and read it at least half a dozen times, in digital and paper format. I already have about 10 books in a basket under my night table ready to go. Let’s do it, 2019.

The Algarve, Portugal, pt. 3

Praia Quinta do Lago

Tavira

Tavira

Tavira

Tavira

Tavira

Lunch, St. Lucia, Tavira

Sunset, Evora

Roman Ruins, Evora

On this trip, I did something I’d never done before: I went to a beach and I enjoyed it. Even if I’d accomplished nothing else in 2018 (and really, I need to tell you all about my latest novel update) the fact that I went to a beach (in a bathing suit and everything!) and my legs and arms did not retract into my body like a turtle has to be some sort of personal growth worthy of bragging about.

Tavira was the second-largest town we visited, after Faro, but was still endlessly quaint and delightful despite its relative notoriety amongst tourists. It was a little more ramshackle than the upscale town of Loulé, and less commercial than Faro, but if when we go back, Tavira will be high on the list of places to stay for longer than an afternoon. As it was, an afternoon was just enough time to fall in love with its windy streets and chippy shutters, and eat some of the best octopus of my life in nearby St. Lucia, the self-proclaimed octopus capital of the world.

After a week in Almancil, we drove north to Evora, a town once inhabited by the Romans and an entirely different experience after the sun-drenched coast. Oddly, though, it was somehow hotter in Evora than it had been in the Algarve. We stayed in a converted convent for the night and drove into town for yet more octopus and sightseeing. I’ll never get over seeing 2,000+ year old Roman ruins standing in the middle of a mostly-modernized city. After 24 hours, it was time to head to Lisbon.

The Algarve, Portugal, pt. 2

Loulé

Loulé

Loulé

Loulé

Loulé

Querença

Querença

Querença

Alte

Suco de Laranja, Alte

Monchique

Monchique

Monchique

We may have overdone it one day: we hit Loulé, Alte, Silar, Querença, in one swoop. The latter is the size of a postage stamp, with a church, two restaurants, and a museum about the history of water and irrigation (?! Portugal, I love you). Loulé was perhaps more upscale than the other towns, though located right in the center of the finely manicured center is an ancient castle (admission was €1,60; I couldn’t get over the relative affordability of almost everything in Portugal in comparison to other Western European countries, but the museums and castles were particularly inexpensive). We drove through Silar without really getting out of the car, but the village of Alte was absolutely adorable. Again, it maybe had twenty year-round residents, but it featured a charming canal, a few cafes, and the birthplace of the poet Cândido Guerreiro. It also featured several very territorial geese who did not like it when you tried to get near the very scenic canal. I always forget Jamal dislikes water fowl (also peacocks) but I was reminded when, after cautiously approaching the water’s edge, I turned and saw him walking back to the car with a bellowed “NOPE.”

As happens on vacations, you arrive in a picturesque and thoroughly charming locale and think, “Oh, yes, I could live here.” There’s lots of peering in real estate windows, mentally calculating the cost of an apartment or house, ignoring the logistics of picking up & packing up your entire life and depositing it halfway across the world because, really, did you not see the precious storefronts? The locals who could have walked out of central casting and wave to you from their doorways and ask, “How are you enjoying your time here?” so earnestly? The lack of gun violence and presence of socialized medicine? All of this played out within the first few minutes of arriving in Monchique, settled high up in the hills of the Algarve. What a delight. It’s such a different landscape from the rest of the beach towns and lower-altitude spots in the Algarve. The town is famous for Medronho, a liqueur from a fruit tree of the same name, native to the area and not produced commercially (or anywhere else, for that matter); a kindly Welsh expat shop owner let us sample some. We left town and drove to the scenic overlook at the highest point in the Algarve, before returning to the resort and falling asleep by the pool (I told you there was a lot of that).

The Algarve, Portugal, pt. 1

Herdade Quinta Natura Aljezur

Herdade Quinta Natura, Aljezur

Herdade Quinta Natura, Aljezur

Herdade Quinta Natura, Aljezur

Herdade Quinta Natura, Aljezur

Herdade Quinta Natura, Aljezur

Praia do Amado

Cabo de Sao Vincente

Cabo de Sao Vincente

Cabo de Sao Vincente

Tile, Faro

Rooftops, Faro

Sleepy Kitty, Faro

Faro

Faro

We flew to Portugal for two weeks on the last day of September. (And yes, it’s taken me this long to get a post together. A brief, yet valid, excuse: five days after we got home, we bought a house, and the movers came the next day. This sale season at work has been long and exhausting, to say nothing of the fact that I also spent the entirety of the month of November editing my novel–more on that later!)

Despite a bumpy start to the trip–a four-hour delay out of Philadelphia, a missed connection in Madrid, luggage that was lost somewhere in Spain even though we were in Portugal, and accidentally leaving my glasses on the plane–Portugal wowed me from the moment I exited the airport. We picked up a rental car and drove three hours down the western coast to Aljezur, to spend one night in a nature reserve bed and breakfast. Much of that first day was spent sitting by the pool we couldn’t swim in because our bathing suits were in another country, on the phone with American Airlines. We made the quick trip into the tiny cluster of streets that constitute Aljezur’s ‘downtown’ for dinner, which consisted of grilled octopus (my favorite meat) and crisp, cheap vinho verde (my favorite wine), a meal I would end up replicating nearly every single day of the trip, much to my joy.

The next morning, we drove along the southern coast to Almancil, to check into a resort that would act as our home base over the first week. On the way, we stopped at Praia do Amado, a beach popular with surfers, and Cabo de São Vicente, which is the most western tip of the European continent. Standing on the rocky crop of cliffs, it felt like standing at the end of the world. You can imagine how people 500 years ago could think so; the horizon was nearly impossible to locate in the endless expanse of blue. I just stood there, my jaw slack, trying to take it all in and failing. It’s like my brain couldn’t comprehend it. We stopped for lunch in Portimão (more octopus and vinho verde), and arrived in Almancil in the late afternoon, where our luggage was blessedly waiting for us. You’ve never seen someone so happy to be reunited with underwear.

There was a lot of laying by the pool (in the shade), reading, swimming, lazing about in the afternoons, while the mornings were spent exploring the towns nearby. Faro was by far the largest and most touristed of the ones we visited, but for good reason; it’s a gem.

Paris in June, pt. 3

Grand Palais

Grand Palais

Une artiste, Grand Palais

Blue Skies

Blue Skies, Pont Neuf

Place Dauphine

Place Dauphine

Rosé, Le Bar du Caveau

Quai de la Seine

Abbesses

A highlight of the trip–perhaps all of my dozen trips combined–was finally getting to go inside the Grand Palais. Entry was free the weekend I was there, and I’d been longing to stand inside the massive hall, with its iron lattice ceiling, ever since I saw this photo from the turn of the century years ago. It did not disappoint. I spent close to an hour and a half, just wandering from one end to the other, marveling at the vastness of the space. I can’t begin to describe the scale of it. It felt like stepping back in time, and if there’s ever an excuse for me to start fantasizing about life in Belle Époque Paris, this one was as good as any.

Other highlights: buying a 3€ used copy of Daphne du Maurier’s “The Scapegoat” at my new favorite English bookshop in the city, and sitting en terrasse at Place Dauphine with a glass (or two) of rosé and reading. It had been almost four years that I took this photo, and there I was, sitting in that exact spot:

Place Dauphine

Everything comes full circle.