books, art, culture, and other things I love

Category: writing

From the desk of…

Dear Bookminded Friends,

It has been a long while since I have posted, due to a variety of factors, which include the following:

  1. A rather busy semester at work (This is reverse hyperbole, fyi.)
  2. An (over) ambitious extracurricular schedule for the children (Never again.)
  3. A very naughty puppy who has hit adolescence and thus requires constant surveillance (Today my dog walker asked me if he could use her as an example of a willful puppy on his cable access show. Um, okay?)
  4. A big writing deadline (More on that to come.)
  5. A smallish, but disruptive house renovation project (NB: Never, ever try to have all of your floors refinished after you have moved into a house. It creates all of the chaos of moving, except you don’t move. And it takes weeks and weeks to get the house back together. And don’t get me started on the dust.)

As you can see from my extended commentary on #5, that was probably the one thing that wreaked havoc on my schedule because nothing was in its place for weeks. Seriously, while the end result is worth all the hassle, it was no fun to live through. But I am back up and running (in a metaphorical sense as well as the actual—ran a half marathon last week!) and perhaps more importantly, WRITING!

I hope you all survived the winter. Still every morning when I wake up to sunshine and chirping birds, I think I am dreaming. At long last…summer!

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on two books that you will want to make sure you get your hands on before the weekend.


My messy desk. Note the bottle of Bitter Apple spray to the left of my laptop to deter puppy chewing...

My messy desk. Note the bottle of Bitter Apple spray to the left of my laptop to deter puppy chewing…


Writers and Impostor Syndrome

One of the many afflictions that writers endure is “imposter syndrome”–which is just as it sounds–the feeling that one is playing a part, rather than inhabiting an authentic persona. Last week, on a (lovely) weekend jaunt to NYC with an old friend, she made an offhanded comment about the fact that the two of us were writers.

I’ll admit that I had a moment of internal pause–me, a writer? Sure, my friend, who writes for a living qualified. But me? I had my doubts. When I considered it further, though, I realized that she was right. I write for work, I write to create, and I write to share my work with others. Which is what a writer does, right?

Interestingly enough, I first met the above-mentioned friend when we were both writers for our college newspaper. It is funny how I didn’t have a problem calling myself a writer then, but as time went on, it has become more difficult. (The irony being that my writing has likely improved and certainly progressed from writing polemic fraternity house exposés for my college paper!)

Writer Jazmine Hughes describes this phenomenon in her piece, “Do You Have Imposter Syndrome?” Hughes notes that even upon having a series of well-received publication credits under her belt (including one at The New Yorker!) she felt ill-equipped for her job editing The Hairpin.

The struggle is real.

So why do we have such a hard time adopting the descriptor? Is it that we feel we need to have a certain number of publications to our credit–or publication in a particular outlet to own the identity?

Last weekend, I heard a piece on NPR about a woman who was working as a waitress while she aspired to grow a career as a writer. Despite her ambitions, she struggled to produce any significant writing output. It wasn’t until a regular customer at her restaurant asked her what she “really did” that she mustered the courage to call herself a writer. And even though at that point she had only produced ten pages of continuous text, she took the step forward to inhabit that identity of WRITER. And you know what, it worked. Once she started calling herself a writer, she started thinking of herself that way. And soon after, another customer (himself a writer) put her on a writing schedule and she started working on what would be her first script. Which was eventually optioned by Columbia at the behest of Nora Ephron. Really. And changing her mindset in this way helped Diane Ruggiero-Wright (writer of the cult favorite Veronica Mars and the forthcoming iZombie) reach her dreams. Such an inspiring story! Listen to the podcast or read the transcript here.

There is no secret to success except hard work and getting something indefinable which we call ‘the breaks.’ In order for a writer to succeed, I suggest three things – read and write – and wait.
-Countee Cullen




Pay Yourself First.

Personal finance experts always advise individuals to “pay themselves first,” that is, to invest in their futures (through saving or investing) before paying bills and other expenses. Important advice, no doubt–which could also be applied to other situations.

Case in point: this Friday evening, I came home from work exhausted and frazzled. My husband innocently asked how one of my writing projects (with a looming deadline) was coming along.

I admitted that I let the whole week go by without even opening the file on my computer. I was too bogged down with things at work, shuttling kids around, keeping things running smoothly at home to do anything else, I said. And furthermore, once I was through with all of the daytime activities, I had no energy for anything else.

My husband thought for a moment and then spoke. “You just need to pay yourself first,” he said. “Work on your projects first–even for an hour, right when you get up–and you’ll feel much better because you’ll be making progress on the work you love.”

An important reminder that we are not defined by our “day jobs” if they are different from what we really wish we are doing.

In her book, The Artist in the Office: How to Creatively Survive and Thrive Seven Days a Week, Summer Pierre writes about the “wage slave” mentality that people often lapse into. It is easy to adopt that mindset–that our other work is keeping us from the work we were meant to do–but it is not productive or helpful. Pierre suggests that it is all about priorities. It is easy to bemoan one’s lack of time due to a crummy job, but if the creative work (writing, visual art, music, etc.) isn’t important enough to fit into your life right now in your current circumstances, you may never do it.

Pierre’s book is fantastic–think of her as a cheerleader for your creative endeavors. She offers practical suggestions for ways to make one’s creative life a reality 24/7, not just something that is saved for after-hours when the work day has ended.

Author Danny Gregory echoes Pierre’s message in his new book Art Before Breakfast–and talks about the importance of “injecting creativity into our already over scheduled lives.” In this excerpt from the book, he gives his own pep talk on why creativity matters and how we can fit it into our own lives:

But creativity isn’t a luxury. It’s the essence of life. It’s what distinguishes us from the mush. And it’s why our ancestors survived while other less adaptive critters perished. They responded to change by being creative in some way, by inventing a new answer to the chaos.

And that’s what you need to do to make the most of your life, every day of it. To be inventive, open, flexible, in touch. To have perspective on what matters to you. To deal with change without being overwhelmed. And that’s what creativity offers you.

Creativity can become a habit that fits into your life, like Pilates or flossing, only a lot more fulfilling. You just need to shift your perspective on what it is to be creative. It doesn’t mean you have to be a full-time artist. It doesn’t mean you need lots of training or supplies. Or time. It doesn’t mean you need to be a so-called expert.

You just have to be you—and express what that means.

Listen to his interview on WBUR’s Here and Now.

What are ways that you make your own creative life a priority?


Writing and Routines.

True confession time: I have been in a terrible writing slump. I have felt little motivation to blog or to work on my other writing. I have even found it a chore to respond to emails. It is easy to blame it on the weather (nearly 100 inches of snow in less than a month here in Boston), and while the reason for my lack of productivity is *related* to the weather, the actual reason is that I am out of my routine. There has not been a full week of work or school since before Christmas, which means that it is very difficult to carve out consistent blocks of time–and my running routine has fallen by the wayside over the last few months as I was first sidelined by an injury, and now, am stalled because of unsafe road conditions. (And as an aside, I think the lack of regular exercise has made me cranky too.)

This disruption in the order of things has left me with a feeling of literary aphasia–that is, the feeling that I am completely out of words. If I am being rational, I know that is not the case, and that the solution to my problem is simple: to get back into a routine.

When Jerry Seinfeld was asked by a young comedian for tips on how to become a better comedian, Seinfeld advised him to work on writing new material every day.  Then he shared his secret: his “Don’t Break the Chain” strategy. The premise is simple: get a large wall calendar and a marker. Every day that you complete work toward a goal (for example, my goal is to resume my daily writing practice), mark off that day with a big “X”. Over time, the “X” marks will add up and serve as a visual record of your progress as well as where you need to go. Brad Issac (who was the recipient of this advice) writes this:

Over the years I’ve used his technique in many different areas. I’ve used it for exercise, to learn programming, to learn network administration, to build successful websites and build successful businesses.

It works because it isn’t the one-shot pushes that get us where we want to go, it is the consistent daily action that builds extraordinary outcomes. You may have heard “inch by inch anything’s a cinch.” Inch by inch does work if you can move an inch every day.

Daily action builds habits. It gives you practice and will make you an expert in a short time. If you don’t break the chain, you’ll start to spot opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t. Small improvements accumulate into large improvements rapidly because daily action provides “compounding interest.”

Skipping one day makes it easier to skip the next.

I’ve often said I’d rather have someone who will take action—even if small—every day as opposed to someone who swings hard once or twice a week. Seinfeld understands that daily action yields greater benefits than sitting down and trying to knock out 1000 jokes in one day.

Think for a moment about what action would make the most profound impact on your life if you worked it every day. That is the action I recommend you put on your Seinfeld calendar. Start today and earn your big red X. And from here on out…Don’t break the chain!

Simple and easy. I am starting today.

Read about the daily routines of these great writers.

What do you do in order to establish a routine? Any tips or recommendations?





On Teachers.

Did you have an important teacher in your life? What was it about him or her that really informed or inspired or encouraged you? Over the next year, the NPR Ed team will be running a weekly series called 50 Great Teachers. Today’s installment begins with Socrates. I think this will be an interesting series to follow.

I have been fortunate enough to have a handful of teachers over the years from whom I really learned a lot. And I have had my share of teachers that were borderline unstable (though most of those came in my post-secondary school experience).

There were even some that stand out just because they seemed to genuinely like their jobs. Like Mr. Kessler, my seventh grade Civics teacher (do they even teach that anymore?) who facilitated weekly “Jeopardy” games in class using course content and current events to generate questions. The memorable part wasn’t the game, but the fact that top performers each week would earn prizes from Mr. Kessler’s large stockpile of travel toiletries that he had swiped from various hotels and motels on his travels. Answer a question correctly, and he would toss a treat your way—maybe a shower cap, or a sewing kit, or a miniature bar soap. It was hilarious and quirky—just like the teacher himself.

But it wasn’t until my 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Jones, that I really became excited about learning for learning’s sake. Just through her example, she taught me the value of living a life full of intellectual pursuits. I first met Mrs. Jones the summer after 9th grade when another mother tipped my parents off about a summer writing workshop she was running at her house. The other parent knew from her daughter that I loved to write, and thought it would be a good opportunity for me. My parents signed me up and for a week I went every day to Mrs. Jones’ house to work on creative writing projects. Even still, I look back on it as one of the most formative experiences of my education. Her house was filled with books, and as I sat around her dining room table that overlooked a picturesque pond, I filled my notebook with poems and short stories and writing exercises of all kinds. I learned loop writing, mind mapping, and a variety of techniques that Mrs. Jones was still learning herself. She quoted from authors with whom I was not yet familiar, and her face would light up when she discussed the process of writing and getting something to be “just so.”

When I finally had Mrs. Jones as a teacher in school, she assigned labor-intensive assignments like Reading Response Journals, which were detailed reports on all aspects of a text (character, plot, symbols, historical context, etc.). Classmates complained, but I was meticulous in my focus. I have held on to those assignments all of these years (!)—maybe because of the hard work that they represented. Other students laughed because she often talked about her time at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference (just because it sounded like a silly name to unenlightened teenagers); it would not be until years later that I realized what an honor it was to be chosen to participate in the annual event. Back when I started graduate school, I sent her a letter to the school at which she had been teaching to thank her for inspiring me as a reader, a writer, and a thinker—but the letter was returned without a forwarding address. I hope someday I am able to reconnect with her!

Tonight I am going with my friend K. to hear Amy Poehler (whose book was just released) in conversation with her high school English teacher, Kathy Dalton. I can’t wait—will definitely report back on that.

The Weekender: Boston’s Thinking Cup Coffee Shop

Sandwiched in between various shops, residences, and Emerson College properties–and with a view of the Boston Common, The Thinking Cup is the perfect cafe for readers and writers alike.

I usually pop in here on Sunday mornings after church and go for a latte (expertly made by award-winning baristas) and an almond croissant or a delicious Croque Monsieur. On Thursday afternoons, before my writing class here, I will often stop by to work for a while and to enjoy a delicious salad or light sandwich (usually with a macaron as a treat!) along with an iced coffee.

There are three Boston locations–North End and Back Bay are the others–but I frequent this Boston Common location since it is close to my other activities.

The Thinking Cup serves Stumptown Coffee, which is the best. Coupled with a relaxed, friendly atmosphere, The Thinking Cup is an ideal place to people-watch or get started on your next novel.
The Thinking Cup. 164 Tremont Street, Boston, MA.



A Room of One’s Own: Where are you most creative?

I am always interested in hearing about how other creatives–especially writers work. From their daily rituals and habits to their physical workspaces, it always intrigues me because everyone is so different.

I work best parked at my dining room table with a laptop with a legal pad and a blue pen (this kind specifically) at hand. This, even though I have a designated desk in my home with a nice big iMac and a work office with the same–still, I prefer my 11-inch MacBook Air. There must be some
reason that this setup works best for me (streamlined?), but I am not sure.

Last fall, the New York Times Magazine featured the rooms of writers that were releasing new novels in the last quarter of 2013. Here are a couple that looked like happy working spaces to me:

Jhumpa Lahiri is like, my idol. Studied with Leslie Epstein. Learned to speak Italian. Moved to Rome. Wrote NYT-bestselling novel. Done.

Jhumpa Lahiri is like, my idol. Studied with Leslie Epstein at BU. Learned to speak Italian as an adult. Moved to Rome. Wrote NYT-bestselling novel. Fashionable (a bonus). Done.

Jonathan Lethem. You know you want his green Converse. (I do.) This is his writer's room in Blue Hills, ME. He must need the calm to conjure up Dissident Gardens, a (wonderful) novel about societal upheaval.

Jonathan Lethem. You know you want his green Converse. (I do.) This is his writer’s room in Blue Hills, ME. He must need the calm to conjure up Dissident Gardens, a (wonderful) novel about societal upheaval.

Here are some other writers’ spaces that I could visualize settling into:

Food goddess Nigella Lawson. Books and a cozy corner. Doesn't get much better!

Food goddess and cookbook author Nigella Lawson. Books and a cozy corner. Doesn’t get much better!

Confessional poet Anne Sexton and her bad, mod self. Love it.

Confessional poet Anne Sexton and her bad, mod self. Love it.

Where do you work best? Are there any things you need nearby to spark creativity?

Why Christmas Card Season Makes Me Nervous.

Usually a few days after Thanksgiving, the holiday cards begin to arrive. I enjoy the cards with photos and Christmas letters alike (especially those from one friend who always offers a funny and subversive twist on the annual letter genre). There is one thing, however, that stops me in my tracks. The misuse of apostrophes. As they say, ’tis the season!

The cards come from people like “The Smith’s” and “The Jones’s” or “The Paley’s”. Instead of “The Smiths” and “The Joneses” (this is a tricky one for sure, and could be sidestepped by using “The Jones Family”) or “The Paleys”. Hmmm.

One student from a few years back started calling me “The Grammarizer” because I would always correct his misuse of apostrophes. In his case, he most often used them to denote plurals (NB: this is NEVER correct). Apostrophes should be used to indicate possession or a contraction. For whatever reason though, we are surrounded by incorrect usage everywhere. I see it a lot on house name signs (e.g. “The Martin’s”). Why? Check out Apostrophe Abuse for some funny examples.

Though this is from my Cape Cod hometown, the nostalgia can't help this. "Tuesday's" and "appetizers'"? I can't eat here on principle. :)

Though this is from my Cape Cod hometown, my nostalgia can’t help me overlook this. Tuesday’s and appetizers’? I can’t eat here on principle. 🙂

There are other grammar infractions that perplex me. Like the extra letters people will write in texts and emails–e.g. “Okayyyyyyyy” or “yesssssss”. Make it stop!

This week, several people (they must know me well) sent me a link to a clever parody of last summer’s Robin Thicke hit “Blurred Lines”.  “Word Crimes” is by Weird Al Yankovic, the 80s performer of such gems like Fat and Like a Surgeon.  This one is so funny and spot on! Enjoy while proofreading that email before you send it. 🙂


Memoir Monday: A Writing Goal and Two Suggestions for Summer Reading.

For the last ten weeks, I have been taking a Memoir Writing workshop on Sunday evenings and last night was our last meeting. It was the first time that I have fully enjoyed the workshop experience–largely because I felt that the other six students (and instructor) were thoughtful readers that offered critical feedback and in addition, they were all talented writers. It made for an effective combination, for sure! I have been in a bit of a funk all day and I think it is due to feeling sad that it is over.

But looking ahead: though I have been working on various memoir pieces intermittently over the past decade (often inspired by Natalie Goldberg’s indispensable Writing Down the Bones), I have finally made a commitment to complete my manuscript by 30 July.

So here’s to writing productivity!

As far as reading memoir, I have just finished Leandra Medine’s Man Repeller: Seeking Love. Finding Overalls. Admittedly, this is a lighthearted offering of the genre–I would classify it as “humor memoir”–but as a fashion junkie (and regular reader of Medine’s blog, Man Repeller) this had been on my list since it was released back in the fall. Medine’s narrative voice is humorously self-deprecating and reminiscent of Mindy Kaling or Ali Wentworth–both authors of other humor memoirs that I enjoyed. Great photos throughout with an easy-to-read style that makes this the perfect book to toss in your bag for your daily commute. Fun fact: in the book, describes a pair of gray gauze harem pants (I would call them magic pants) that I am now on a quest to find. I think they would be a good addition to my wardrobe!


Another light-hearted memoir ideal for summer reading is Lucy Knisley’s French Milk. In the past, I have enjoyed autobiographical graphic novels, such as PersepolisMarjane Satrapi‘s memoir of her childhood in Iran leading up to the Islamic Revolution. But this weekend, I was looking for a good travel memoir and a good friend recommended Knisley’s book, which is a drawn journal that she kept over the course of a month in Paris with her mother (to celebrate her mother’s 50th birthday and the author’s 22nd).

There isn’t a real narrative arc (it is more of a visual journal), but it is fun to read. I also love how Knisley introduces her work: “This [book] also deals with the valuable and signficant influence that we take in from our mothers, as well as my own struggle toward adulthood at an age when we so desperately cling to our adolescence.” (So true.)

Picture 1