Saturday, December 31, 2011

I Wrote A Novel

At the beginning of this year, I wrote on this very blog that I planned to write a novel this year.  I started one and abandoned it, not quite ready for that story, or maybe the story was not ready for me.

I turned to a new story and went with it.  I feel like I finished this novel at least six times this year because it had so many drafts.  I've announced 'the end' far too many times.

But today was the most real of all the ends because, like I said, I wrote on this blog that I planned to write a novel this year.  I am very stubborn.  And it is the end of the year.

So I wrote it.  I'm grateful to those of you who have read it.  And I look forward to seeing what will happen to it, if anything at all.

And I hope to write another one next year.

Here are some words of it, so you believe me.

Happy New Year, my friends.


Adelaine sunk to the curb, let her hair tumble to her feet, let her chin fall into her knees.  She pictured Reagan caught in the long strands of grass poking up from the edge of beach.  Adelaine had never been afraid of the ocean, would go to it even in the pink of morning when the air was cold.  She would let the shells nibble at her feet until she felt the smooth sand beneath her, until the ground disappeared all together and she was floating, arms out, the sun at the fall of the earth, toes gripping the cool water. 
But Reagan always stayed behind, weaving the thick blades together until she had a crown of brown and gold.  Adelaine would leave the ocean, stand over her, dripping, and wonder out loud why she would not go with her, not even let the water to her knees.  “I can teach you, ya know,”  Adelaine told her.
            And Reagan wrapped the braid of grass around her wrist.  A bracelet that, when she let go, unraveled to the sand. “It just seems like it would be so easy to get swept away.”

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Getting There

It's the end of another year and I feel obligated to reflect.  To stop and do something I rarely do, look over my shoulder and see what I left behind.  But that's difficult to measure.  That's difficult for me to know.  Because, on the surface, very little happened.  From this day last year to this day, today, I live where I lived.  I work where I worked.  I love who I loved.  I suppose there is comfort in that.  Worlds can easily be thrown into upheaval.  I feel fortunate mine has not.

All this quiet, this stillness, however, has afforded a major shift in perspective.  I've been stirring inside.  I've been scheming, as always, in the dark.  And it would be hard for me to say that nothing has changed.  

I might say 2011 was about laying foundation.  I'm ready to say that 2012 will be about building. 

Last night, I had one of those endless, frustrating dreams. I was trying to hail a yellow taxi in New York City.  Not for me.  For a friend.  I stood on the corner, my arm out high, and I watched the cabs pass us by, one after the other.  No one stopped.

I remember the dream-me thinking that I had too great a responsibility to this friend.  Because the subway was not running.  I did not have a car.  The bus was headed downtown only.  The taxi was, obviously, a hopeless case.  The dream-me said, We're not getting anywhere.

But the real-me knows better than that.      

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Memory of Sintra


I woke up this morning and, for some reason, my head was here.  In Portugal at the Palácio da Pena in Sintra.  We walked the wet paths, clutching our umbrellas, through fairytale mist.  The lush woodlands carved out this picture of slippery yellow and grey, dripping to just a blur.

We took the train back to Lisbon and, the next day, my friend Lynn and I met up with Graça, a stranger to me and, up until then, just a woman who penned work e-mails to Lynn.  She was barely five feet tall, in a black suit one size too small, cheeks red and chubby.

Graça had a lot to say.  About everything.  Barely let us sneak in a word.  She led us through the streets, always marching many steps ahead, forced baked goods into our hands, analyzed event spaces (Lynn was there on business.  I was, as usual, observing...tagging along.) Her judgements were much bigger than her height.  She was unimpressed with almost all that she saw.

You went to Sintra yesterday? Her eyes huge with disapproval.  What a silly thing to do.  To see one of the most beautiful places in the world, in the pouring rain.


I don't know why I think of Graça and Sintra today.  But, for me, Sintra will always belong to the rain.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Multiple Conversations

I've been told I am a good listener.  I've also been told I am a terrible listener.  I guess I listen to what I choose to listen to and ignore all the rest.  Which is how I approach many things.  Throw myself into what I love, sigh loudly at all the rest.

Part of the 'Melissa is a terrible listener' judgement is that Tyler believes I do not listen to him because I am able to have a conversation with him and, at the very same time, listen to an entire conversation that is happening elsewhere...between two strangers on the sidewalk, in a restaurant, or in a subway car.  

This became apparent to him when I sat next to actress Michelle Williams at a restaurant in Brooklyn. When we left I was able to relay huge portions of her conversation to him.  But Tyler had not seen me distracted throughout the meal.

Tyler doesn't think it's possible to be a part of both conversations and believed I must be fake listening to him.  But it's just not true.  It is possible!

I've started to think this is a skill that women have.  To be able to 'engage' in multiple conversations, file them away and pull them out when necessary.  But I also think it's a skill that writers have.  Being present in our own lives while sneaking into a stranger's life for a time.

Are you a good listener?   A selective listener like me?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Letting Go

I'll head off to Long Island tomorrow to spend Christmas Eve with my parents, then fly to Jacksonville early Christmas morning to spend a few days with Tyler's family.

I had set today as a deadline for myself, to finish a writing project, to complete my novel, drop the old clothes off at Salvation Army, donate the mountain of books that had created a fort around my writing desk, clean the apartment, and many more items on a To-Do list that seemed to grow longer and longer.

I did most of those things.

I even managed to take a walk to eat the most amazing donuts I've ever eaten and walk the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights to get a glimpse of my city's skyline (it never fails to amaze me, even after all these years.)

Then I sat down, just moments ago, to unanswered e-mails, to a google reader with 400 items unread.  It may sound silly to some of you but it bothers me to have too many e-mails ignored, to have a list of articles and blog posts yet to read.

But I looked at the screen and I did something nearly unprecedented.  I just clicked 'Mark All As Read'.  Even if the google reader had not been read.  I filed the e-mails away to have a clear inbox.  I apologized to the novel, told it that I needed more time, uninterrupted time, not this stop and start pattern I've been running in circles around.

It made me feel better.  To mark the google reader, file the emails, be at peace with leaving the novel unfinished.  I will not let it hang over me.

Lately, I think I've been holding on too tightly, clinging to something I can not define.  I am ready to let go of my grasp.  To live this Christmas, breathe in this winter, see another year through.  There is no better time, I think, to close my eyes and let go.

Happy Holidays to all of you.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dream Builders

Lately, I feel as if all kinds of serendipitous things are happening to me.  To be honest, they happen to me a lot.  Fates aligning in a strange way.  Connections being made at just the right time.  And it is always why I write fiction based in reality and watch documentary films because magical things exist in real life, no fantastical world necessary.

When I opened my email inbox just moments ago, I found that my dear friend Lynn had sent me this photo because, she wrote, it sums up what you have been expressing lately.

And it also meant much, much more to me than she knew (to which I responded you are not going to believe this...)  But, then again, the best of friends always know.  And they always believe.




Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Buying: A Shift In Perspective

Shopping, for me, is a torturous experience.  This is true at all times of year.  But it is particularly true this time of year.  My vision of New York City warps itself into nothing but endless bodies parading the sidewalks, like sausages oozing out of the casing on every subway platform and store.  I push through, sigh loudly in long lines, rub shoulders unwillingly.

At a dinner party the other night, I met some people who had made peanutbutter for all their friends and family for the holidays and I thought, Yes! Peanutbutter.  Next year, everyone will get peanutbutter.

These days, my local independent book store is the only place I can navigate with any sanity.  But I find myself frustrated even there. 

Several times in the past few weeks, I have stood with sturdy hardcovers and debated.  I have wondered, is this book worth it?  I wanted, desperately, to buy Tyler's mother The Bhudda In The Attic by Julia Otsuka.  Do you know how much that 144 page book is?  Do you?   

I did not purchase it.  I walked away.

Lately, I have wanted books I can not find.  Some written years ago, others, perhaps, just a little obscure.  I walked to the register, asked if I could order them, and was told I was better off looking elsewhere because it would take a long time to order them or they weren't available at all.

I stood with Murakami's 1Q84.  I stood with Joan Didion's Blue Nights.  I stood with Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.  I stood with Harbach's The Art of Fielding.  All of them, in their hardcover forms, with prices that seemed just a little too high.

Do you know how much I love books?  (you must, of course must)  Do you know how desperately I want to read all of these books?  

In the end, I walked out empty-handed.  I went to Barnes and Noble and bought only the Murakami book because I am desperate to read it and I knew I could get it at 40% off there.  

I also knew, in my heart, that I could purchase every single book I wanted on Amazon.  Every.  Single.  One.  You realize that they have them all.  

I know I am but one person.  A person who does not have an e-reader and therefore can only read library books or purchase physical copies.  A person who spends an obscene amount of money on books as it is. 

There are a lot of statements being made and debates being had about the way books are bought and sold today.  But I don't think it's about (even if it is about) evil empires versus Mom and Pop.  I don't believe it's about (even if it is about) what books are worth or paperback versus hardcover versus e-book versus used book.

I think it's deeper than that.  I think it's about being in an independent book store, going to an online retailer, walking to the nearest chain.  It's about standing with a hardcover, looking over at a paperback, being able to buy a book you loved once rather than a book you might love.  I think all of these things are working together to create a major shift in perspective.

It's about peanut butter.  It's about standing with a book and walking away. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Into Winter

I had been holding out.  Not wanting to move from the purple wool coat to the puffy down.  There's no where to go from the puffy down coat.  It's the warmest coat I have.

I walked through the farmer's market, the greens covered in icy frost, reached for parsnips and carrots, my fingers pale and numb.

We won't be back 'til spring, said the woman collecting cash.  Tyler and I are at that particular stall every Sunday and even in October she is bundled in a hat, mittens, and her own marshmallow puff coat, mummy wrapped in multiple scarves.  We always tease that she must be from a warm climate.  It's a wonder she's lasted this long.  

Here's a gift for you.  And just like that, I was shepherded into winter with sweet potatoes in my hand.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What I Know

Today I've been thinking something small about writing, though it is actually quite big.

It seems I can know in my heart something about a character or a story and fail to transfer it to the page.

When it comes to revising, I'm always worried that I won't know how to fix what is wrong. Sometimes or most of the time (just not all the time), I find that the key to a locked door is to bring to the surface what I've always known to be true about a person, place, or thing.

It's funny to me that I forget to share what I know best. That I am blinded by what I've always seen.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Such Stupid Things

The other night I attended a party where I didn't know very many people. I'm not good at mingling. The idea of wandering around a room, never able to truly settle into one conversation, makes me crazy. I'm not sure how to engage in a real discussion when everyone is there and then off again, to say hi to so-and-so, get another glass of wine, grab some kind of puffed pastry.

So I become an investigative reporter. I ask hundreds of questions until people are sick of me and desperate to move on. It's the only way I know how to get through.

One of my grueling interviews involved a series of questioning about what it is like to have a child attend college. My 'interviewee' was worried about his son running off to do something incredibly stupid and I asked if that was because he, himself, had done stupid things in college. He hadn't. But he wished he did.

I thought back to my own days at Cornell, 'on the hill', as they say. Thought back to a few of the stupid things I did in a state of wild abandon. I swam in a lake during a severe thunderstorm. (And it was no accident, I intentionally went out during a thunderstorm to swim and later discovered that a woman drowned in that very lake the same day.) I walked down a crumbling path into a 200 ft gorge at midnight to swim under the haze of alcohol, barely 100 pounds and having had far too many drinks to do something so dangerous.

But when I think of those times, I do not fear what could have happened to me, though I realize both experiences could have had a tragic end.

I only fear what would have happened to me had I not done them.

Because I knew once what it felt like to swim between the rush of a waterfall and the rain pelting down, not knowing or caring which washed over my shoulders and soaked my hair. To descend into a gorge and jump, fully clothed, from slippery rocks into water, under moon and endless sky, and not know its bottom. Not know its end.

How Important is a Good Story?

Last week, I was privileged to sit in on the final presentations of the toy design students from a nearby college. All of the students were brilliant and imaginative, even while designing for a very particular need, under a variety of limitations.

The students presented their toy designs along with samples, videos, powerpoints, and cardboard cutouts. Some spoke so softly we strained to hear. Others charmed us with wide-eyed enthusiasm and humor.

However, what I have learned working in the toy industry is that it is not enough to put a design in front of someone and quietly say, 'Hey, check it out. I made this.' It is also not enough to bedazzle with glitter and sparkle or even toys that fly, levitate, know your name, or recognize your voice. You have to tell a story.

I'm not going to say that you should have a terrible product with no substance and sell it with a story (but you guys know that happens, right?) I do want to say that what works, time and time again, when we stand in front of management with sweaty palms during our own presentations, trying to sell something we've been working on for months is to say: We started here. We took this road. Then that one. We ended with this. Let me tell you how it works. (Cue the: wooow. Er. Sometimes...)

So as I sat through each presentation and gave feedback, all of my criticisms rarely had to do with the toy itself (a testament to how inventive their designs were). It always came down to the manner in which it was presented, the way thoughts were organized or facts laid out. Every toy, every project, has a life, a story, a character. Especially when you're explaining how a design actually works. Some students dismissed that entirely. Others knew the power of a simple beginning, middle, and end.

After each presentation I would stand ready to chime in and address the presentations that didn't, always about to say, "Try to start here and end up there." And most of the time, someone jumped in ahead of me. Engineers, designers, marketers. They would say: "It doesn't make sense. Try explaining it this way instead."

It struck me during these presentations because I've always believed story is key. But then again, I write content for a living. Forgive me for how elitist and arrogant this sounds but, in recent months, I've been put in one situation after another in my professional life where I have seriously questioned whether a good story means anything to anyone else (maybe you've been there too?) These presentations helped me realize that it does.

Turns out people crave a good story in many different industries beyond publishing, film, or television. In fact, they demand it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Exploring

I love to explore my city. I love to walk the sidewalks, no matter how cold it gets, and see what there is to see.

There is always so much to see.

I have zero photography skills. My camera (or should I say Tyler's camera because he likes to say that I stole it, but what's yours is mine, I reply) is nothing special. But I like to take pictures. It's lucky that I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Thought I'd share some of the interesting things I've seen lately. Just because.


Pumpkin heads on their stakes (Cobble Hill, Brooklyn)



A rare sight: Plenty of places to sit (The Highline, Manhattan)


A sharp shooting, yo-yo-ing, unicyclist (Columbia Waterfront District, Brooklyn)


And our very own golden prairie right here in the concrete jungle (The Highline, Manhattan)

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Dream, A Love, A Need

In order for music to live it must be sung. - Irving Berlin

I came across this quote from my favorite songwriter and it stopped me, as so many of Berlin's words do. He spoke them after composing Alexander's Ragtime Band which became a sensation for the most uncomplicated reason I can think of: people liked to sing it. So they did. The lyrics very deliberately and skillfully invited it. And that level of participation gave enourmous life to a song.

I've been struggling a bit lately, wondering about this intense desire to be published. It's a dream I've had since I was a child and I cling to it and pursue it because I trust the vision of that little girl more than I believe in the wishes of the person I've become.

I take a lot of joy in writing. I remember having an honest discussion with my tennis coach in high school. I really enjoyed playing tennis. But she asked me if I loved it and I could not commit to that. Only because nothing, absolutely nothing, in my mind and heart could live up to my love of writing. I have measured many things in my life against that intensity of feeling. And besides my friends and family, besides Tyler, there is truly, for honest-to-goodness real, nothing I love more.

So I've wondered, lately, why that isn't enough for me. Why the need for such validation? An agent, a book deal, a publishing credit in a magazine, a journal, a newspaper page. Should I not be content to sit at a desk and do what I love best?

I have very seriously considered writing only for myself. Not because of fear, not to protect myself from rejection but because I question the need for that validation. What is the opinion of an editor, an industry, a public? I should not need their acceptance or attention.

All this to say that I seriously question what is at the heart of wanting to be published, at the heart, even, of clicking 'Publish Post' when I finish writing these words. I wonder about a childhood dream. A true love. A silly, but real, need.

I also wonder about Berlin's words. About that participation. Because it is so very simple and true. A song is nothing if no one sings it. A story has no life if it isn't read.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday: One Shoe









So, I saw this. A mural in a schoolyard in Chelsea. I liked his look. How he towered. The strange sadness of a shoe.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"You're Afraid of Me"

I rode my bicycle home from work yesterday, waited at a stoplight on 22nd and 5th Avenue. I waited in the street, my foot on the curb, ready to spring forward as soon as the light changed.

A pedestrian, an older man, stopped in the crosswalk, asked me if I was a 'racer'.

I shook my head, "No."

"Well you have a really nice bike. I like it," he said, still standing in the middle of the street.

I thanked him.

Then he patted me repeatedly on the shoulder, the way you would an obedient dog.

"So, you're not racing? You just ride around. From work or something?"

I looked to the stoplight, eager for it to change. "I just commute this way," I told him.

"That's a good thing." Then he pat my shoulder. Again.

He must have seen my hesitation because he followed with, "People are not nice to one another anymore. So this must be shocking to you. You're afraid of me. That's fine."

"I'm not afraid of y--" I tried. Because I wasn't. But he had already walked off.

I thought about this conversation as I pedalled home. I don't like to leave a conversation feeling as if I have been scolded, feeling as if I am an example of what 'people' have become. I wondered what level of engagement I owed this stranger, if I owed him anything at all.

But I also wondered, is it true? Are we no longer accustomed to 'nice'?

(It still does not change the fact that I do not like to be pet by anyone.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Characters That Stay

Yesterday, a funny thing happened. Stuck wondering what to do with my novel, I thought back to another character I had abandoned years ago. She existed in another story with another set of lives.

But there are some characters that stay with you, that make you fall in love.

So I found a place for her, a small place, because she has always existed in small moments. And I was happy to have her because, my goodness, I needed her. It felt right that she changed everything, that she mended a little of what was broken.

Any abandoned characters you'd like to honor in the comments? Feel free. :)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The 'I Made This' Room

Last night I had such a wonderful dream. There was a house I didn't know. An older couple I didn't recognize. Tyler spread out on the couch with pen and paper in his hands, writing. (Was I writing a press release? Tyler asked when I told him about the dream.)

The couple asked him if he needed inspiration, if he needed to go to a special place so the words would flow easier. And so they took him to what they called the 'I Made This' room. We made everything in here, they said. From the furniture, to the mosaic tiled floors, to the paintings on the walls. Nothing from a store. Nothing allowed in the room unless they, or someone they knew, made it.

Make something here, they told him.

When I woke up, I was so happy. I knew how special those people were even if I didn't know them. I thought how funny it was that Tyler was the one writing and I was no where to be found.

And I thought, someday I must, MUST have an 'I Made This' room. When I get one, you're all invited to make things there.

But I better work on my non-existent carpentry skills. Or you'll have no place to sit.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What's The Point?

Today, I sat down with my boss to talk toys. It is, of course, what we always talk about since it's our job to make them. But we also talk music and life and family. He often takes home the toys we make and he has the best stories about his daughters' reactions. They always give him, and us, a heaping dose of reality.

After playing with a toy, this particular one bursting full of content, dozens of buttons and learning games that required pages and pages of logic scripts, a mind numbing amount of bug tests, and endless debates about whether it was too 'learny' (I've trademarked the term) or not 'learny' enough, after pressing every button, playing through every game, answering every question without a word, his daughter looked up and asked:

Ok Dad. I played it. But what is the point of this toy?

Oh my goodness, this made me laugh out loud.

And it made me think.

It's a very sophisticated question for a child to ask about a toy. It's a very sophisticated question for someone of any age to ask about anything. Because it's really a kind of prompt or plea. It says: Give me a reason. To believe in this. To stay with it.

I've questioned the point of many things. Small things. Like making the bed in the morning when you're just going to get into it again that night. Wearing a veil at a wedding. (As a side note: I was shocked to learn that questioning this would throw people into a state of rage, confusion, and a frenetic this-is-the-way-it's-done tizzy.) And big things. Like writing a novel. Having a career. Falling in love.

There are a million answers to each and every What's the point? question. But, whether it's a small thing or a big thing, I think it's important to note that people often ask it when things are just about to break, when they are hanging by the thinnest thread.

So I think it's important to ask it. I think it's important to find an answer. I believe it is not good enough to live your life inside a giant 'just because'.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Something's Coming

I feel very quiet today. The words are in the stories. As I rework passages of my novel, toss out sentences, bring in new ones to replace the old, I find myself in an unusual position, caught in the breathless anticipation of something coming.

I've never been one of those writers who has a lot of ideas. To be honest, that's probably one of the hardest things for me when it comes to writing, coming up with ideas. It's a strange thing to say but, really, I just don't have any.

I don't know how to jump from one project to another with a dozen nexts stashed away. I generally sit down with nothing. A blank page. An empty space in my head. And I just think: fill it. Because that's how I approach my whole life. That's just what I do.

But, all the sudden, here I am with a little something. A someone. A fragment. One stitch of a seam. And, of course, I am not at all prepared. Not at all ready.

Monday, November 28, 2011

On Forgetting November and Hugo in 3D

This past weekend was full of so many wonderful happenings, I barely know where to begin. The weather in the northeast has been extraordinary and I was reminded, as I am each year when November breezes through with its mild temperatures and canvas blue skies, of an old Professor who once said during an unbearably cold winter in Boston, Everybody forgets November. Remember how lucky we were in November.

Over the weekend I saw family, rode my bicycle great distances, ate Tapas, went to a college hockey game with friends, listened to my favorite radio show, and finished reading a book. I wrote and rewrote so much of my novel. Turned over a new writing project for review. I put up my little Christmas tree and experimented with new ice cream flavors (homemade butterscotch pie crumble-- yes, I made it up.)

And I also saw Hugo in 3D. Probably one of the most visually stunning films I have seen in a long time.

For those of you who love to go to the movies, I urge you to see this. It is an absolute love affair with film. There are films within this film itself. It honors the medium, its history and its future. It shows what has been done with the moving image, what can be done, what will.

As a writer, I will admit, there are major story problems. At times, my heart fell, thinking how extraordinary the film could have been if they got that part right. The pacing felt off. Convictions were unecessarily extreme. Characters gave in too easily. Backstories were overdone or nonexistent. Dialogue often trite. And, sometimes, longing looks and Bergmanesque holds on facial expressions were excruciatingly long.

But, as someone who loves beautiful things, who cries while listening to good music, who tries desperately to wake up to see a sunrise (and so often fails), this movie took my breath away.

Have you seen the film?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Sky in Flames


Taken from my fire escape just moments ago. I went camera crazy, nearly dropped the camera from the window. Nearly fell out of it myself. Because you know how fast a sunset drops down from the sky. You know how quickly it all goes dark.

And I knew what I was seeing was my novel.

Not metaphorically. I mean, for real. This is it. This is what the world of my novel (Rabbit Island, the place) actually looks like. Right here.

A sky in flames.

My imagination on fire.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Very Best

In the past few months I've been restless and unsatisfied, thinking that I have to find a way to be a better person and live a better life. I've been wondering, what is next for me? What will happen? Will anything happen at all?

And so this time of year creeps its way towards me and I feel like an absolute fool. For thinking about next. And new. And better. Because all that is happening, all the now and here and today are so full. Bursting, really.

I will make a promise to myself and to you that I will stop. I will listen. And take a look. I promise to know, really know, that what I have at this moment is more than better. It's the very best.

I send my love and gratitude to all of you. Happy Thanksgiving :)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Recently Read

I got into a great e-mail conversation with Tyler's cousin, Mathias, who is deep in his studies at Brooklyn College and will receive an MFA in Creative Writing at the end of this year.

Mathias always talks with great passion about books and language. And he is so incredibly well-read, I often leave our conversations feeling as if I should shed all of my responsibilities, sneak into the library, hide in the stacks, and stay overnight for the next year to catch up.

Our discussion was about lyrical writing. Fiction that feels like poetry. Sentences that hold together with the most perfectly chosen words.

He asked a simple question: Have you read any books recently that do this well?

I've read all kinds of books recently. I've even (you'll be surprised to know after seeing my list) read a lot of adult fiction recently. And I realize a few of these books have not been written recently. But I read them recently. And that was the question.

I also realize that what Melissa read recently isn't exactly a perfect sample to make grand, sweeping judgements about the state of literature. So, just to clarify, that is not what I'm doing here.

I'm just talking about the question. And the list I thought to share:

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

You Are My Only by Beth Kephart

First Light by Rebecca Stead

The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

I've got to tell you. I was so very thrilled after I shared my list. This makes me happier than I can say. How amazing it? How incredibly lucky are all of these young readers? They have such wonderful books written for them. They are reading, in my very humble opinion, some of the most beautiful words.

It made my day.

What have you read recently that made you fall in love with the writing and language?

Monday, November 21, 2011

What Are You Wearing? A Blogging Conundrum

I'm going to be honest. I struggle, sometimes, with this blog. I will often spend hours (hours, people, I'm not exaggerating) on a post and discover that no one has read it. Some days, I will take five minutes to write about a ridiculous outfit I am wearing and it will become the most highly trafficked post in the history of this blog (I'm serious).

I use this space to write what I enjoy writing, to share what I love to share, to learn what I can from all of you. I know that other blogs have a lot more to offer and I'm not interested in competing with them. I just give you myself and my thoughts and hope that's enough.

The friendships and connections I have made through blogging have been invaluable. So, I do not worry about how many followers I have or how many comments I get. But I do worry that there is a preference for posts I don't write...if that makes sense. That people would prefer I write about what I'm wearing (skinny jeans, brown boots, a long black sweater with a cowl neck. Yes, I believe in wearing black and brown together, fyi) or some other content I have not been giving.

Anyway, that's what I'm thinking about today. Or worrying about. Sometimes I feel as if I have a worry list and before I go to bed I check my worries off. Did I worry about this today? Did I worry about that? This issue I speak of is on it. I don't know why. Don't ask me. It just is.

I wonder, do you worry about content for your blog? Am I the only one?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Playing with Two Hands, Medleys, and Shards by Ismet Prcic

I have a few things on my mind today but, mostly, a weird thought about playing piano with two hands because I'm reading this fascinating book Shards by Ismet Prcic.

When I was a little girl first learning to play piano I was really impatient about wanting to be able to play with two hands. And even when I did, finally, learn to do it my teacher always made me plunk out the notes of a song separately, let each hand settle into its role before allowing them to play together.

You think I would have learned something from that experience but no...to this day (though it has, admittedly, been a while since I sat down to play) I will look at a new song and automatically attempt to play it all at once. It's always a stupid mess. And I always have to step back, play each hand seperately, and put it back together again.

Last weekend I listened to the Sunday Show with Jonathan Schwartz. I'm totally obsessed with this show. It's crazy. If we have plans on a Sunday I become the most irritable person on the planet if I can not get my Jonathan Schwartz fix.

Anyway, he played this Irving Berlin medley (below) and I just thought how hard it must be to sing a song while the person, standing right next to you, is belting out an entirely different song. How you have to be all tucked inside your song and, at the same time, know the rhythm and feel of the other person's song.

So, this is what I'm thinking about. Having to know, I mean, really know, two pieces of something before you can put it together and have it make any kind of sense. I think Ismet Prcic, so far, as I am not yet through the book, is doing something experimental and wonderful with that idea in terms of the actual structure of the book and the theme of diaspora. Stepping back to understand all the pieces of a person before you understand the whole.

And here are Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley singing that Irving Berlin medley. I apologize that it has the cheesy cabaret feel. It's the only rendition I could find on You Tube. I think it's worth sticking it out to listen to them sing together. IT'S CRAZY. It just blows my mind whenever I hear two different voices and two entirely different songs come together like that.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

One More

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about space. I live in a city that has always built up and out, that has taken every inch of available space and transformed it. As a result, I often find myself craving space, desperate for more room to spread out, to dream, to roam.

When I leave New York City, I am in awe of the vastness that surrounds me. Even something as simple as a restaurant looks massive. These huge rooms with doors that lead to other rooms. They have multiple bathroom stalls, empty stools at the bar, available tables. And it feels a little bit like boasting, a stick out your chest kind of pride, we have so much space, we can't even fill it!

Because it does seem that New York has already been filled to capacity. I stand in a crowded subway car, reaching for something, anything to hold on to, pressed up against strangers, tucked in the funk of another armpit and I think there is no way, it isn't possible, to fit one more soul. But the subway stops. And the door opens. And someone steps on.

Here, there is always room for one more.

One more person.

One more building.

One more restaurant.

I think people are daring enough to always ask that question: Is there room for just. one. more?

As a result:

A gallery pops up in an abandoned warehouse in Red Hook.

The tracks of a no-longer-used elevated train become a destination.

The piers of the Brooklyn waterfront become an enormous place to play.

So I begin to question my aversion to this cramped feeling. Filling up a space, reimagining it, takes courage. It takes wild ambition. I'm not advocating that we take all of our far as the eye can see fields and trample over them but I do want to view space differently, understand how I pass through it, what I want from it, and what I actually need. Because, as I've learned these past few months, to occupy a space, to step inside it, can be a movement.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Talk To The Listeners

I sat in the dim lit Elephant Room. The once gold shine of beer and brass had turned Amsterdam-red. Elbows leaned. The tables wobbled. And the piano player, in his newsboy hat, his John Lennon wire framed glasses, rocked forward then back, so that he almost appeared headless. A too-slow shutter. A blur.

Soon the puffed cheeks behind the trumpet deflated. Hands clutched the instrument but the air abandoned the memory of its rasp. In its absence, only the din remained, the jangle, the tumble of voices, of laughter.

The man with the trumpet spoke. "It's loud in here."

He waited.

"I know it's a jazz joint. I get it. But we're playing up here. And it's loud. And people are trying to listen."

"So talk to us," a voice called out. "Talk to the listeners."

Monday, November 14, 2011

What Are We Qualified to Write?

Most of the time, when I write, it begins with a character. A whisper leads me forward. I sit and listen to the story.

For my current novel, however, it all began with a place. I knew not a soul when I started. And, slowly (very slowly) people filled the space. Every one of them, when they came, when they walked the grey sidewalks and tread across the grass, surprised me.

To be honest with you, they marched in with histories that frightened me. Mostly because they were so far from what I knew. And for a while, I danced around many of their issues because I did not know how to deal with them. I had convinced myself that I was not qualified to tell their stories. That no amount of research could lead to an authentic telling.

What stilled me, what gave me pause, was this idea that I could not write what I did not know. That, as soon as a situation that I did not understand crept into the story, (and there were many) I was immediately held responsible for portraying it as accurately as possible. And how could I do that if I hadn't lived it?

There is no way we can know everything as writers. But I do feel there is an idea, when someone takes on contemporary fiction, that the writer must be qualified to write what he or she writes. I see it in examples of successful query letters, in interviews with published authors. A story about drug abuse is immediately followed with, 'I spent two years working at a rehabilitation center.' Even something as simple as a story that takes place in Louisiana is quickly qualified with 'I grew up in Baton Rouge.'

As if to say: I know all about this. Trust me.

When I look at my novel (still in revisions, still in the state of being nothing and everything all at once) I can't think of anything that qualifies me to write it except that I'm human. I'm compassionate. I tell the truth as I see it. But if I really stepped back, I could not find any qualifier like the examples I noted above. My main character is in a terrible situation that many young people experience but I have only been able to imagine. I do believe, however, that her hopes and fears are my own. That, I know. Deeply.

I always, always, think writers should write the story they want. Not the story they know. In my mind, those hopes and fears connect a reader to a character, and not the issues or situations the character is dealing with. But there is a part of me that wonders, do I know this? Can I ever really? And how does it affect the story when I don't?

What do you think of all this knowing and not knowing? What makes us qualified to tell a story?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Before I Die...


Last night the never ending work on the F train forced me to take a detour to downtown Brooklyn en route to Manhattan. Instead of taking a snail paced, herky-jerky shuttle bus, which always leaves me dizzy and impatient, I begrudgingly decided to take the half hour walk. I carried flowers and a bottle of wine for a friend's birthday dinner, sweat in my purple wool coat, and sighed loudly as I stomped.

But then I came upon these words, this wall. The rainbow colored dreams of downtown Brooklyn.

...go to Paris.
...be a teacher.
...have a happy life.
...make music.

Thousands upon thousands of endings to one unfinished sentence: Before I die I want to...

It stopped me. It made me think. If I only had one piece of chalk, one fill-in-the-blank space to keep a no longer secret wish, what would I write?

What would you write?

A little more about the Before I Die project by artist Candy Chang:

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to you. With help from old and new friends, Candy turned the side of an abandoned house in her neighborhood into a giant chalkboard where residents can write on the wall and remember what is important to them. Stenciled with the sentence “Before I die I want to _______”, the wall became a space where we could learn the hopes and dreams of the people around us.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

'Mister Rogers and Me' and Creating Content That Is Deep and Simple

The lovely and talented Amy Kraft over at Media Macaroni alerted me to this film in a guest post: Beyond the Red Sweater, Mister Rogers and Me.

I eagerly anticipate its DVD release. (March 2012)

I think very seriously about the content I create for children. I always question the best way to release words and music and art into the world. I always think: these stories, these characters, are what inspire new stories, new characters. So I see it as a very important endeavor.

Fred Rogers dedicated his life to educating and inspiring young people (though he managed to inspire people of all ages.) And this quote from him, which inspired Benjamin Wagner, a real life neighbor of Mr. Rogers, to make the film, nearly took my breath away:

I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.

I'm going to think about this. I want to figure out how to always create content with that in mind.

Winner of 'If I Stay' by Gayle Forman (and Being Ready To Leap)

First I want to announce the winner of a copy of Gayle Forman's If I Stay:




Please email me with your mailing info!


I've been feeling a little unfocused lately, unable to stay still with one thought. I sit here. I want to blog. But my mind races. It can not settle on a topic.


So I leave you with this picture. It captures how I feel today. Holding on to the edge of things, ready to let go.


And before you take this to mean I'm plunging to my death, before you call for medical professionals and straight jackets, and your nosey neighbor leans in to whisper Well, Melissa's gone off the deep end, I'll just say, that's not it. That's not it at all. I just mean to say, I've been holding on too tightly. I've clung to these walls. And now I'm ready to exhale. Ready to leap.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Interview with Writer and Musician Jessica Bell


I first found writer and musician Jessica Bell because of her beautiful book trailer. I'm rarely impressed with book trailers but this one, in my humble opinion, was special. I'm so very happy to have Jessica on the blog. Her debut novel String Bridge was released November 1st.

First a little bit about String Bridge.

Greek cuisine, smog and domestic drudgery was not the life Australian musician, Melody, was expecting when she married a Greek music promoter and settled in Athens, Greece. Keen to play in her new shoes, though, Melody trades her guitar for a 'proper' career and her music for motherhood. That is, until she can bear it no longer and plots a return to the stage—and the person she used to be. However, the obstacles she faces along the way are nothing compared to the tragedy that awaits and she realizes she's been seeking fulfilment in the wrong place.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writer's journey? What is the first thing you remember writing?

Wow. Now I have to think … it was probably a poem I wrote when I was about 12, sitting by the Mediterranean Sea, on a huge rock with a castle on top called Monemvasia. I think I wrote something about the sea and sky being deep blue and the rocks being jagged like “you.” (who ever that was … I can’t believe I just conjured that memory!)

Like you, Melody, the main character in String Bridge, hails from Australia but lives in Greece. Can you describe how each place inspires your writing?

That’s actually a difficult question because I don’t feel like inspiration is different depending on where I am. Of course, there are environmental factors that come into play, such as weather, scenery, etc, but my inspiration stems from a “feeling” which I’m not sure I can describe very well. It’s a kind of happiness, but like a wave of thought, light-weightedness, a release from day-to-day responsibilities. And I get this feeling when my environment is relaxing. I don’t notice which country I’m in, I just notice that I have time and space to open my mind to what is going on around me.

In the book, Melody seems to think that she can not pursue her music dreams and be a good mother/wife, which is a theme I notice in a lot of women's fiction; this idea that women have to make sacrifices for their family that men don't. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it’s something that every woman struggles with regardless of how much gender equality has progressed in society. But it doesn’t have to do with women having to make sacrifices that men don’t. I honestly don’t believe that’s an issue nowadays. The thing is, women are always going to feel like this because we have an instinct to nurture. And when things begin to threaten our ability to do that, we feel guilty. It’s ingrained. Well, I believe it’s ingrained. I don’t have kids. But I still, with the freedom I have, feel guilty when I don’t have time to wash the dishes or make my partner some dinner. I want to look after him, to make him feel good, and I think that’s the mother in me spreading her wings I guess. It can’t be avoided. Unless we are somehow born with more testosterone in the future, I think this will always be a strong theme in women’s lives.

I'm fascinated by writers who are also songwriters. Can you share how your song writing influences the way you write novels?

I think sound is a very difficult thing to describe so it certainly helped me with that. I spent a long time trying to perfect those parts where music is illustrated. It was quite a challenge to be honest. But what helps, in general, is the fact that I thrive on making sentences with cadence. I love playing around with different words and sounds and seeing how differently they roll off my tongue. It’s just like singing without a melody. It’s writing to a tempo.

What are you working on now?

Muted is set in Arles, France, in a totalitarian society where it is illegal to wear clothes. In some streets, it's also illegal to sing without accompanying instruments. Concetta, a famous Italian a cappella singer from before “the change,” breaks these laws. As punishment, her vocal chords are brutally slashed and her eardrums surgically perforated. Unable to cope with living a life without song, she resolves to drown herself in the river, clothed in a dress stained with performance memories from her hometown, Milan. But Concetta's suicide attempt is cut short as someone grabs her by the throat and pulls her to the surface. Is it the busking harpist, who encouraged her to feel music through vibration, acting as saviour? Or a street warden on the prowl for another offender to detain? From this moment, the reader will discover how Concetta came to be in this position, and what will happen to her after the suicide attempt.

Muted will explore a variety of themes such as overcoming loss, coping with mental illness and disability, dealing with discrimination, loss of freedom, inhibited self-expression, motivation to succeed, escaping oppression, expression through art and music, self-sacrifice, channelling the thoughts of the deceased, and challenging moral views and values.

And some fun 'Would You Rather' questions based on String Bridge:

Would you rather:
See a live show? -OR- Perform live?

See a live show. Performing live freaks me out, but I think I’m going to have to find a way to overcome that.

Have a button pop off of your shirt during a presentation? -OR- Sit through an awkward conversation with an ex-boyfriend in a pub?

Ha! The latter …

Eat only Vegemite for a week straight? -OR- Eat only Feta cheese for a week straight? (With no risk of any and all digestive problems ;)

Feta cheese for sure. I love vegemite, but I don’t think I could handle it for a week!

String Bridge is available at:
Amazon.com
Amazon UK
Barnes & Noble



The soundtrack is available at:
iTunes
Amazon.com
Amazon UK

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

All I Needed

I went missing from the internet last week. Packed my things, warm-weather clothes because I hadn't yet put them away, despite the fact that the Northeast has already seen snow and freezing temperatures (even the air conditioning unit is still in the window. I am so very behind.) I took a plane to Texas, a place I'd never been, to explore and celebrate the wedding of a very good friend.

I like to be prepared for things but it has been a whirlwind few weeks (months?) so I did nothing for this trip. No research. I forgot to rent a car. Packed all the wrong clothes. Wore a wrinkled dress two sizes too big for the wedding. Its a wonder I didn't inadvertently flash anyone.

So when our plane landed, all I knew of Texas were the songs inside me. Amarillo By Morning and If It Wasn't For Texas (George Straight). I kept my eye out for Austin city limit signs, suns high in a Texas sky. Thought about bucking at the county fair. I sang loud and long in the car about the San Antonio Rose. Made Tyler drive to Luckenbach, Texas so I could get Back to the Basics of Love (Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson.)

And, as it turned out, I needed no plan. I needed only to wander, to take a listen, to give a look. Aqua pools carved out into white rock. Dry land that stretched out beneath blue sky. Rivers sneaking lazily through a city. Three dollar beers in dark jazz joints. Fingers skipping over piano keys. The loud thwack of the bass.

And all the songs I knew, the only part of these places I could know, were right. All of them creeping like the sigh of the wind, moving the way a person might mosey instead of walk.

Everything I got is just what I got on. And it does seem that's all I needed. Not much more.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

If I Stay by Gayle Forman (And A Giveaway!)

Gayle Forman's If I Stay had been on my to-read list since it came out so many years ago. I feel as if I missed the wave and now I'm wading in the ocean whispering, You out there. Did you read it? Can we talk?

It does seem appropriate, as misguided as I was to put it off for so long, that I managed to buy the book twice. At my local bookstore early last week. And then, without realizing it, tucked inside a too-large online shipment. So you, my friends, can benefit from my absentmindness and win the book! Because I don't need two of anything (except double ice cream scoops.)

There is much to say about this book. Most of it has already been said because I showed up so very late and emptyhanded to the party.

I will say that I was struck by the sheer goodness at the heart of this story and I found it refreshing.

Forman writes a main character, a seventeen year old girl, who is not brooding or sarcastic, who sits on the narrowest edge between life and death and, despite darkness, sees the light of her past, the possibility of her future. Parents who are fully present, quirky, wise and daring in their love for their daughter. A love story that is full of passion but not complicated by a third party, a series of cliched misunderstandings, or wild insecurities. Instead, these young, ambitious lovers are so sure of themselves and their love that it is their bold aspirations and dreams that threaten to tear them apart.

And despite some comparisons to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones and Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall, I thought this book stood on its own. It is not about standing in purgatory to right past wrongs. It is about looking back on all of the quiet beautiful moments of the past and choosing to see love.

To win a copy of If I Stay please leave a comment below. If you feel like it, share a recent happy moment in the comments because my heart is full and happy after reading this book and I want to ride the wave for as long as I can ;) I will announce the winner November 10th.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Interview With Melissa Goodwin, Author of The Christmas Village

I'm very happy to share an interview with Melissa Goodwin who just released her middle grade book The Christmas Village (which she'll tell you about below.) We also chatted about her experience self-publishing, her upcoming travels, yoga and writing, among other things. She is willing to answer any questions in the comments...so ask away!

Tell us about your book, please.

My book, The Christmas Village is a fantasy adventure targeted to readers age 9 and up. I say "and up" because it's the kind of children's story that grown-ups really like too! It's about 12-year-old Jamie, whose father has disappeared under somewhat shady circumstances. Jamie is hurt and angry and wishes that he could turn back time. He and his mother go to Vermont to spend the holidays with his grandparents. Grandma has one of those miniature Christmas villages. Jamie fixates on it, thinking that village must be a perfect place to live, a place where nothing ever changes and nothing bad ever happens. Several times, he makes a wish that he could there, and ....

One night just before Christmas, his wish magically comes true.

Jamie discovers that the village is called Canterbury, and the year is 1932. He makes friends and is taken in by the villagers, but now that he is there, of course he wants nothing more than to get back home to his own family in time for Christmas! If and how he will do that become an adventure with twists and turns and surprises to the very end. Along the way, Jamie learns a few things about life, people and himself. Ultimately, The Christmas Village is a story about family, forgiveness and friendships that last a lifetime.

Did you ever want to live in a Christmas Village like your main character, Jamie?

Oh my, yes! In fact, that's how the book came about. I was looking at our pretty little lighted village on the table at Christmastime a few years ago, and I started thinking, I wonder who lives in that house over there by the covered bridge? I wonder what song the carolers are singing? I wonder who built that snowman? And that's how it all started.

I'm always curious about people's writing journey. What is the first thing you remember writing?

The first thing I remember writing is a play that I wrote in high school. I don't remember much about it except that the main character was a court jester. Our class voted on which play to perform and they chose mine. I think they thought it had deeper meaning that it really did!

What made you decide to self-publish? How have you found the experience so far? Any lessons learned that others can benefit from?

I had an agent and we were about two months into the process of sending the book out to publishers. We'd gotten some nice comments along with some "it's not for us" responses. In the meantime, I had reconnected through Facebook with a high school chum who has successfully self-published three books. He was willing to be my mentor if I decided to self-publish. Then, my mother died and left me some money. I felt like events were coming together in a way that was encouraging me to take my destiny into my own hands.

It also helped a great deal that I had had two agents offer to represent the book, because that told me it had appeal. And my agent had been an editor, so I knew we had really vetted it. I have a very independent spirit, and suddenly it just felt right to take the leap. I was scared but the minute I took that first step, it felt right.

I can honestly tell you that my experience working with Createspace, the publishing arm of Amazon, has been exceptional. They were extremely professional and responsive. Everything was always done on time. They answered my questions quickly. I was especially pleased with my illustrator - she got my idea immediately, and I've gotten rave reviews about the cover.

Lessons learned? First, I'd say, if you are thinking self-publishing might be right for you, don't be afraid! They make it very easy for you.

Second, don't be defensive about your choice. The fact that you have self-published your book does not make it "less" than traditionally published books. Look at how many lousy books get published by traditional publishers. I'd be happy to work with a traditional publisher someday, if it made sense for me to do it - financially and otherwise. But I am also ready and willing to self-publish my next book.

Third, be ready to work hard at promotion. You'll have to do this no matter how your book gets published, but if you self-publish, it's really and truly Your Baby. Embrace it, run with it, and most of all, have FUN with it!

You are going to buy an RV and hit the road next year. What prompted this decision? What's the first stop on your adventure?

My husband is quite a bit older than me - he just turned 71. But he's a young 71, and has a wanderlust that I wasn't aware of earlier in our relationship! Both my parents passed away recently, and I think my husband and I are both feeling that "life is short" thing. There are so many places in the U.S. and Canada that I haven't been - Yellowstone, Yosemite, Jackson Hole, Nova Scotia. I want us to see those places together, while we are "young" and healthy.

I also like the simplicity of it - not owning a home and having all the care and worry that goes with that. And, I look forward to more time spent by the ocean, more time to write, and more time to spend with friends and family.

First we'll head east to see our families, and then we will head up through Maine to Nova Scotia. I've always wanted to go there, and I hope to spend most of next summer there. After that, we'll see!

You are a yoga instructor. Do you find connections between your yoga practice and your writing?

Absolutely! In fact, my yoga and my writing seemed to blossom simultaneously. I use meditation before writing to clear my mind and reconnect to my story. It helps to calm and center me. And in those moments of quiet, inspiration often strikes. The active yoga practice also helps you learn to focus. When doing a pose, you can't think about anything else, and developing that ability to focus is helpful when sitting down to write.

Stephen King recommends sitting quietly for at least 15 minutes before starting to write. He says to stay there until you can "see" your scene clearly, until you can hear the sounds and smell the smells. Only then, should you start to write. What he describes is very much like the meditative part of yoga. First I sit long enough to clear my mind of everything, then I allow my story to come in. King probably didn't think he was doing "yoga" when he described that process, but he kind of was.

Thank you so much for hosting me on your blog. I look forward to chatting with your followers, reading their comments and answering any questions they have for me.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Another Sort of End

It always seems I finish writing drafts too late into the night. There is never anyone to tell.

I would never wake up Tyler.

And even though a strange part of me wants to knock on the door to the apartment downstairs, wake up five year old Leo, who is always shouting, 'Melissa! Melissa! Guess what!' with my own, 'Leo! Leo! You'll never believe it!'...I won't.

So I share it here.

Ahem.

[knock knock] You'll never believe it! I finished another draft of my silly novel!

No doubt there are rips and tears but not the gaping blackholes I left last time around.

And even though I'll read through it one more time. Even though I'll make some more changes. Even though I'll send it off into the world and everyone will tell me all I did wrong, I feel that there are a few things, very few, I've done right. And that makes me happy.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Chapters In My Life

The wonderful Oliva Reader, my faraway friend, one of the first in this land o' blogs, asked me to do a guest post for her Chapters In My Life series.

I found it challenging (but ultimately rewarding) to think of five books that have defined the different chapters in this life of mine. I changed my selections countless times and I still wonder about my choices.

Because how can you actually define a life through just five books?

You can find the post here.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Nice People. The Kind Ones.

She's a nice person. Oh, yes, he's very kind. Phrases that people overuse. Perhaps a rather generic and dull way to describe someone.

But this week I've been thinking about these virtues. I value them above almost all else. I only keep those in my life who possess them. I try my very hardest to live with them always at the heart of what I do. It's never enough. But I try.

Sometimes, at my job, I get to work with young people. And I have the great fortune of working with one such young person who is pure light. Always laughing. Always smiling. Her eyes growing huge when she talks excitedly about all the things that are happening to her. I'm going to have hot chocolate! I'm on the student council! I'm going to learn chinese!

Her mother walks in with armfuls of books she wants to recommend. We thought of you, she says because we all discuss books when we see one another. When will we see you again? She always wonders, a look of geniune concern on her face that we may not see one another for a while. And I'm always surprised that it matters to her. That she cares.

What I'm trying to say is these are the people I am talking about. These kind people. Nice people. This is that mother and daughter pair.

Yesterday I talked with this mother about her daughter. How incredibly alive she is. And she told me that her daughter is so rarely unhappy, almost never upset. But when she is, because of course, it happens, it is an incredible sadness, deep and gutwrenching, like nothing else she sees in her other children. Her daughter just can not comprehend why anyone would be mean to her or anyone else. And it worries her.

It struck me because I remember sitting with my mother at the kitchen table. I don't remember how old I was or what had happened but I was in absolute hysterics. And my mother was getting upset because she could not calm me. I distinctly remember her saying: I worry about this, Melissa. I worry that this is going to be a big issue for you. For the rest of your life. You don't understand that people can be mean.

So, during a week of some disappointment, mean people stomping in and having their way, I think about this sensitivity. This flat out, I'll admit, naivete. And I think about my young friend. And all the other people in my life, who I keep in my life, because they don't understand the mean-person syndrome either. And I don't know if it is an issue. A problem. A worry.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday: The Hum, The Moving Forward



I found these abandoned trolly cars, on their track to nowhere, last week. I sat with them a long while. I've always been fascinated with trains. Not the mechanics but the feeling I get when I ride them.

I am unable to read or sleep while riding in buses, planes, and automobiles. But I feel at peace on the train. I can always write. Always read. Always drift off to sleep.

I think it is the hum. The moving forward.

I always thought, I'm going to fall in love on a train.

It didn't quite happen that way. But it's a nice thought.

Do you like trains?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Birthdays! You Are My Only and IQ84

Today's the day. It's finally here. Two of my favorite authors. Two book birthdays that have me singing. I hope these books will not spit too hard when they blow out the candles and ruin towers of ice cream cake (because ice cream cake is the best cake. It is ice cream and cake...in one.)

I was fortunate enough to read Beth Kephart's You Are My Only early on. It releases today! (Congratulations lovely Beth.) My thoughts on this beautiful book are here. You can buy it here.

Spit-spot, I say, in my best Mary Poppins impression, a flower sticking out from my imaginary hat. Even though I'm always the one lagging behind, the one stopping to look at a pretty tree or a happy cloud, I have little patience for those of you who are lolling about when it comes to this book. It's time you read it. It's time we talk about it. In fact, I don't know what on earth you're waiting for. It's TIME. I just broke out a Mary-Poppins-I-mean-business impression. This is about as strict as things get in Melissa Land.

And the English translation of Haruki Murakami's IQ84 also releases today. I have long tried to understand and articulate my love for Murakami's work. I have since given up trying. My latest philosophy is: Don't question it! Just do it! (The Saturday Night Live Dora parody Maraka anyone? Anyone?)

I realize this kind of attitude can have only the most dangerous consequences. It is the same philosophy that left me blind, dazed and confused after seeing a recent Edward Albee play (His work is another one of my inexplicable, tongue-hanging, head-bobbing, whatever-you-say obsessions.) Despite the fact that IQ84 is a 932 page book, a three-volume series condensed into one 5 pound dead-weight in the United States, I'm ready to take the journey. I am, after all, just a cog in Murakami's robot machine.

Anyway, it's not often that, in one serendipitous fell swoop, two of my favorite writers send their books out into my world. It's a happy day.

Any book birthdays you'd like to celebrate?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Overheard: That's What Life Is All About

She stood in line at the Met grocery store with a wild puff of uncombed brown hair. Ran her fingers across all the chocolates. Balanced on the edge of the shopping cart and did not flinch when she teetered. Huge blue eyes with razor sharp focus.

"What's your name?" she asked the woman in front of her.

"Amber. But I already know you. Emerson. Right?"

"Yup. I'm six years old and I lost three teeth." She stuck her neck out, grinned to reveal the gap.

"Wow."

"Six years old. Three teeth." She repeated. A serious measure.

Amber paid for her groceries, waved goodbye.

"You're Amber." She stated. And just like that she was off the cart, spinning on one toe.

"That's right. Amber. Goodbye Emerson."

"Goodbye Amber."

She did not look at Amber go. She did not look up to her father, who held her rainbow backpack. On his arm, it looked too small, too clumsy. Instead she was completely focused on her balance, arms out, toe pointed as she made her delicate turn.

"Daddy. That's what life is all about. Meeting new people."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

This Is Where They Are


I took the day off to write and read. Today is my birthday, so I gave myself that gift.

I was desperate to get through a passage of my novel which I have been struggling with for weeks. So I sat down with it this morning and I knew what a mess it was. I could not understand why every paragraph started on the off beat, why each word came in on the wrong note.

I sat for a long time. I rearranged. I rewrote. But it still wasn't right. Why couldn't I be in that scene? What was it I couldn't understand?

Then I said, "That's it. I'm going there."

I grabbed my notebook and a purple pen. I got on my bike. And I went to the pier.

It's only a few minutes away. Why hadn't I thought of it sooner?

I pictured all of my characters in the very place I sat. It was, after all, the exact setting I had imagined when I first wrote the scene.

And I wrote, far away from my little office, away from my computer. In these wild winds swooping across the pier. In the daylight. On paper. With a (gasp) pen.

And I thought: Yes. This is where they are. Exactly where I always imagined them being.

It was such a relief.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Somewhere to Be



It's autumn and Brooklyn is beautiful, alive. But I seek quiet. I need space.

I've been thinking lately that I need a place to go. I need somewhere to be.

I'm looking for a just-mine spot.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Project Runway and A Question About Craft

I'm in deep thought about Project Runway today. Thinking about one of the contestants, Anya, Miss Trinidad and Tobago, who turned to a career in fashion design. Who learned to sew something like three months before becoming a contestant on the show.

I used to work in reality television (Nanny 911, anyone?) I know that these shows tend to make up stories where there are no stories. I'll likely never know the real story. But the other contestants complain about Anya's poor construction skills. Whether it's jealousy or not (it's jealousy) they bring up valid points. 'I've been sewing all of my life,' they say. 'I've worked my tail off and dedicated myself to this craft for years and years,' they whine. And so, they are a little put off when Anya wins and her model allegedly had to be sewn into her garment because it wasn't executed properly in the first place.

But, here I am, in awe of Anya's impeccable taste, her sense of what is beautiful. She knows prints. She sees something in them no one else sees. And these models walk out in her clothes full of color and life and I drool and exclaim that I would buy every article of clothing she makes even if I would look like an absolute fool in anything high fashion.

And I wonder...

I read about these published writers, listen to them on panels, these writers, who, seemingly, wake up one day and decide 'I will write a book.' They say, 'I came up with the idea in the shower, then I wrote it in a creative frenzy in just two weeks!' Whether it's true or not (it can't be true, can it?) there is a question:

What is merely good? What is great? Does it matter if it takes a writer two weeks and a bottle of shampoo or forty years and a lot of tears over endless bottles of bourbon to write a book?

There are books that wow you with the jazz hands, that make you want to buy, buy, buy, even if they have awkward sentences and strange plot holes. And there are books that are written over time and with love, that prove the people who wrote them know their craft.

I've enjoyed both kinds of books (even if the former makes me angry). I've much more often celebrated the books that take care with language. But I do wonder about all this. Thoughts?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Overheard: If You Were In My Position

He couldn't have been more than nine years old, swinging around and around the pole on the F Train. He wore an oversized hoodie. Freckles ran down his face. He stopped spinning. Considered things.

Dad, I need to know how you really feel about this XBox situation.

Dad's eyebrows rose up above the newspaper.

Put yourself in my shoes. If you were my age and in my position, would you like an XBox?

He spoke just like that. I could imagine his 'position'. A very serious one.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pay It Forward Blogfest

I love the idea of paying it forward...in all aspects of life. So when I saw this blogfest I had to participate. The thought behind it, so simple, to share three blogs I love to read and send you there. Because *there* is where you should be.

Becca's Byline is a blog new-to-me. And I think she writes such thoughtful posts in an easy-going style that makes me feel cozy and in safe hands when I'm there. I like it. I feel as if I am thinking and learning whenever I visit.

I don't think Write Meg needs me to send any traffic to her lovely pink-treasure blog. But I'll send you there anyway. She reviews books, posts beautiful photos, and tells the most wonderful stories about life, love, and all things pumpkin flavored. She is such a gifted writer and I always look forward to her posts.

And Allison Writes. When I read her blog, I am inspired to go out and live my life. Because she is always off on an adventure, snapping pictures in abandoned asylums, sleeping in wigwams, getting philosophical about The Flintstones. I always wonder where she is and where she's going next.

So off you go.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Nothing

I started this blog post 3 times with the following first sentences:

I just blew my nose into a post-it.

My eye has been twitching for 2 days straight.

I would like to be Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.


I mean, really. Where do you go from there?

Sorry friends. I'm tapped out. I've got nothing.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Let Me Back In

I'm always getting metaphorically locked out of my own manuscript. The characters start nanny-nanny-poo-poo-ing behind the door, running around in superman capes, dipping their fingers into peanut butter jars, coloring all over the walls.

Today I said, I've had enough of you fools. I erased a moment they'll never have again. Ripped away a memory. Sent them back a week. Turned their day into night.

Ready to Fail

Tyler took on the topic of failure at the OOM blog last week (the post is here) and so it became a dinner conversation, as so many blog topics do in our household. I discussed it over sparkling wine (Tyler had a beer) because I am one of those people who drinks champagne whether or not there is something to celebrate.

The gist of Tyler's post is that we've all heard the cliches from highly successful people: you can't succeed without first overcoming failure. But now, there are studies to back it up.

As Tyler writes: "By looking at the brain activity of students during moments of failure, they were able to determine that some people react to errors by brushing them aside and moving on, and others by dwelling on them and learning from them. Those people believe they can get better at anything."

I thought about it during our conversation. I wondered about this kind of growth mindset. Did I have it?

As the bubbles went to my head I tried to yell over the restaurant's steady hum: Yes! I do!

Hello my name is Melissa and I write fiction. And, so far, I have been nothing but an epic failure at it. I'm not fishing for compliments. This is cold hard fact. I've got countless unpublishable short stories. Terrible novels and screenplays abandoned in a drawer. I send my work out to agents and editors and journals and magazines, every piece of paper, every digital file like a little legendary unicorn that no one else can see. No one has ever said 'yes' to me on this path to publication. I'm not lying. I have never, EVER heard the word 'yes' when it comes to my fiction.

I have no reason to believe I will succeed. I have every reason to believe I'll continue failing. But all this 'no' has never once deterred me.

I did not understand until Tyler presented the facts. Failure is sadly misunderstood. Failure makes you better. Failure is something to celebrate. Thank goodness I always have sparkling wine at the ready.

So what do you think? Are you ready and willing to fail with me?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

My Grandmother the Snow Angel



Today, on this beautiful October day in the Northeast, I think of my grandmother, my father's mother. This photograph is always how I see her in my mind because I think it captures her perfectly. I don't know when it was taken. Her hair had turned snow white when she was very young. Her name was Angelina, which means 'little angel'. And because of her hair, I always think of her as a snow angel.

She had the softest, smoothest skin of anyone I have ever known. She used to hold both of my hands in hers when I was a little girl. My hands are like ice. They've always been like that. She held on to them for hours at a time to keep them warm. I liked it that way.

My grandmother spoke very softly too. She told me that she used to sing on the radio. I never knew more than that simple fact. To this day, I wonder about it. I imagine she must have had a beautiful singing voice. And even though she did not have a lot of money, I remember that she had exquisite taste. Her clothing was absolutely impeccable. She had all of these beautiful treasures in her tiny one bedroom apartment. The most fragile Lladro figurines, ceramic sculptures, and stained glass lamps. She let me touch everything. I never once heard her raise her voice.

She had the largest stack of coloring books I had ever seen. When I stayed with her, she colored with me for hours. I was never happier than at my Grandmother's kitchen table with my cousin Priscilla, all of us making our way through endless pages of coloring books. We would show one another our creations. How beautiful, one of us would remark. We always signed our names in the bottom right hand corner and dedicated them to one another before we moved on to the next page.

When I was older I remember sitting at her kitchen table talking with her and she said, " You know something, I feel like having a cigarette. I haven't had a cigarette in 40 years." She stood up, opened a drawer, and took out a pack of cigarettes. She had kept that pack there for forty years in case she ever felt the urge.

I can't imagine it tasted very good forty years later but she sat and savored that one cigarette and, as far as I know, never had another one. But, then again, it was like her to always practice such tremendous restraint.

It was such a strange and wonderful moment. And I think of it often. My grandmother sitting with legs crossed, in her silk blouse and pearls, smoke curling up around her perfectly coiffed hair.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

As With All Matters Of The Heart



Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.

~Steve Jobs

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Some Words from the Work In Progress

I don't think I'll ever be able to figure out what this blog is about. But the writing is at the heart of it. And I haven't talked much about writing lately, which has probably led most of you to believe that not much of it has been going on.

But it has. Very late into the night. Every night. My days have become endless. After working a full day, it feels as if I begin an entirely new one when I return home. I walk in the door at 8pm, I cook, I eat dinner, and then it's time to write for a few hours.

It's been like this for months and, I'll admit, that the schedule is about to break me. But then, I think, I am healthy. I don't have children to take care of. I have time. So, really, I could be working harder. I should be working harder. I promise, I will.

So that you believe me, so that somebody out there (besides me) knows, here are some words from the current work in progress. Because I really do need someone to know.

What are you writing? I'd like to know too.



He kicked his heel back into the leg of the elephant, reached up for the belly of it, hammered against the metal, drummed out a hollow beat. The way he fidgeted reminded her of a little boy, always tinkering, snapping tree branches, running sticks through the sand. And it saddened her that she had become so perfectly still, so terrified to touch or disturb a thing.

“Where you going now?” he said, as if it weren’t a question, but a plea.
Stay.

“Why does it matter?”

He stared at her as if he were looking into a camera and had forgotten to take the lens cap off. As if he were gazing into darkness and couldn’t figure out why. “Com’ere. Look.” He ducked underneath the massive elephant structure.

She hesitated.

His voice echoed. “Come on.”