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 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.


"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 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


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.

“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.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Vacation To Read

Lately I've been pretty unsatisfied in my reading life. I have been going through my worst reading funk to date and I don't know what will pull me out of it.

It's funny. I keep a list of everything I read. And if I look at that list, scan past the abandoned books (lately there have been far too many to count), and note the books I did manage to finish, I would say, in almost every case, I liked that book.

So it's not the books.

It's the experience of reading that leaves me wanting. I just don't feel the same joy I used to when I read. Reading has become a wild stop and start pattern. From one subway stop to the next. In the five minutes while I wait on line. Just before I drift off to sleep. In the fifteen free minutes between stirring the soup and writing for the night. It's an in-between kind of reading. A squeeze-it-in when and where I can.

I just don't know where to find the hours to sit and read. I want to read from start to finish. I don't want to have to stop. I just want to go until I can not go anymore.

The reading moments I remember are always the moments when I was able to sit and read for hours and hours. On a hammock. On a beach. In a bed. On a train.

It's the book more than the place. And it's the feeling more than the book.

I'm thinking of taking a reading vacation. And I don't mean a vacation from reading. I mean a day off. To settle in. And read.

Who will join me? Where will we sit? What will we read?

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Frolic, A Wedding and, Oh Right, the HAIR...

My dear friend Krista got married this weekend.

Krista is the girl who wakes me up at ungodly hours to go for walks. She knows the best games for long car rides. She will sing with me, at the top of her lungs, no matter where we are. She once taught me to frolic properly through the Cornell plantations. I'm pretty sure you think you know how to frolic. But you don't. Not unless you have received proper instruction from Krista.

I don't know why but she entrusted me with the task to do her hair for her wedding. I would not consider myself someone who is good at this kind of thing. I've had the same hairstyle since first grade. My idea of high style is a ponytail. But she asked me and I could not refuse.

And even though I had no idea how to turn her curly, curly hair into wavy hair (seriously, Krista? Seriously...) I pretended that I knew exactly what I was doing.

The truth is...I was terrified. I was pretty sure I was going to ruin the whole day.

The good news is...I didn't. Because when you're working with someone as gorgeous as Krista, it's hard to mess up.

It seems appropriate that she'd take us to the top of a mountain for her wedding. That she'd send us up the narrowest of roads into fog so dense we joked that the headless horseman would appear in the mist. She always takes us to the best places. Always sends us higher than we think we can go.

I realize this photo is blurry but I think it is the right kind of portrait. Krista is not so easy to capture, always frolicking through life like that. Spike, I wonder, how did you ever catch her?