Words on the page.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a tweet: "Any book recommendations teachers of writing or any adult could use to cultivate their own writing journey?"

Answer: Of COURSE! Here are five suggestions -- four of them books -- from off the top of my head. There are so many writing books out there, many that I haven't read, and I bet that if anyone else wrote this post, they would list five different ones. What are your favorite recs? Would love to see them in the comments.

5. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I will be honest and say that I read this one several years ago, and parts of it blur in my memory, but I do remember greatly enjoying it. As one who's never been a big horror/suspense reader, this is the only Stephen King book I've read, and I was still fascinated by his tales of how he created his classics -- and, of course, his perspective as a writer. It's wonderfully readable.

4. The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. Speaking of readability, Karr's latest book (she's also written the best-selling memoirs The Liars' Club and Lit) also ranks high. She teaches writing at Syracuse, and has put many of her best lessons into this book, while also giving examples from her own literary life.

3. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick. This is the first book that my first graduate school advisor had all of his memoir students read. It's a fascinating exploration of personal writing's internal and external structure. For me, at the time that I read it, Gornick's reflections on writing voice were most helpful. The narrator of a memoir needed to be "me but not me," Gornick said; this was a phrase that I would return to many times as I hashed out my manuscript. No matter what type of writing you're doing or your ultimate goal, this book is worth a read. BrainPickings has a great article on it, as well, to give you a further sense of the content.

2. The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. This book is a 12-week guide for artists of any kind (humans of any kind, really), meant to spark your creativity and self-discovery. I started TAW in August 2012. A couple of months later, I wrote: "I'm currently in the midst of Week 8. There are a lot of questions and exercises and thought processes to go through, and I've enjoyed that. Most importantly, this program has taught me to write morning pages. Three pages every morning of whatever spills out of my mind. Even though I've journaled continuously for ten years, this is probably the most honest writing I've ever allowed myself to produce. And I feel like it's opened me up off the page too, with the desire to talk and laugh and be earnest and true with myself and others. Easier said than done, but it's a start."

1. Writing in the morning. This isn't a book, but it stems from The Artist's Way (as you can see above), and I also think that all of the books in the world can't replace the act of physically writing (by hand) at least once a day. I know this because I didn't do it for nearly two years, overrun with work + school + life. I missed it, but I didn't know how to return to it. It felt like a big thing to return to, and it may feel like a big thing to start, if you've never done it before. But suddenly, I started up again. Now I sit on the edge of the bed, set my clock for 3-5 minutes (depending on how late I've woken up), open to a fresh blank page, and write whatever comes out. Sometimes I write two pages, other times (like today), it's just one. Sometimes it has a flow and makes sense, other times it doesn't. And I hardly think about it. The words just appear, moving me along with them.

This has become such an important practice for me. Not only does it make me write regularly, making me a better writer by habit ("butt in chair," Anne Lamott says, and I have a love/hate relationship with the fact that she's right), but it clears my brain for the day ahead. It allows me to write down goals, responses, plans (if that's what happens to appear on the page)... or just random emotions, experiences, questions. This PsychCentral article talks a lot about the benefits of this type of therapeutic writing, in case you need more convincing. (Besides, who doesn't need to just write "Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap." every once in awhile?)

In 2012, I also wrote this: "In The Artist's Way Cameron talks a lot about the concept of synchronicity, urging us to notice how elements and events and relationships in our lives become intertwined or connected in ways we did not expect or plan."

I think that my daily writing practice also gives me a chance to recognize these moments of connection, on my own or with others. And you never know when you'll stumble into something that needs more than a page or two to be written about. That's where the books can help, encourage, and guide. But ultimately, nothing can beat the simple act of putting words on the page.

You can do it. Start here.

F5: Goodness in a Week of Slog.

(Weird, two posts in a week that have "five" in the title. Not on purpose!)

First off, this was a hard, slogging week. As soon as I woke up on Monday I could feel it - maybe it was the rain, or the insane busy-ness of Sunday so that it barely felt like a day of rest, or Sean having a cold, or all of those things and more. On Wednesday (or was it Tuesday? the days all blurred together), one of my coworkers said with a big sigh, "Doesn't this week just feel long?

Yes. Full of meetings and not sleeping well and more rain and sometimes forgetting to get up from my desk for a couple of hours at a time (ick).

And yet.

I've started making a running list early in the week for these Friday posts, and I feel myself get giddy when I realize that I'm in a good moment or have had an experience that I can scribble down in between work emails. This practice, and sharing it with you all, is definitely making me pay more attention.

What's saving your life this week?

1. Faraway friend catch up. I had a long overdue phone call with one of my kindred spirits and favorite people, and it was so refreshing to pick up right where we left off. I'm grateful for folks like her who get me as soon as we start talking.

2. On not giving in to fear. Rev. Canon Gina Gilland Campbell, an alumna of the school where I work and the canon precentor of the Washington National Cathedral, gave a phenomenal 13-minute (a.k.a. short enough for you to listen to right this second) sermon on Tuesday about fear. Quick excerpt (but really you should listen to the whole thing): "Fear is on the rise. It's as if our ordinary days are filled with the potential for extraordinary danger. Fear can serve an important and creative function. [But] constant fear diminished our imagination, degrades our spirit of adventure... chronic fear eats away at the roots of faith."

Listening, presidential candidates? Listening, white America? I was so grateful to hear this good Word in person.

3. Spring is in the air... Well, it hasn't felt like it later in the week, but on Wednesday morning it sure did. There was a moment during my walk to the office where this cool fresh wet breeze kicked up and I thought we had zoomed on into April. It gave me hope.

4. A love note. Yes, even (especially?!) when it is written on the refrigerator dry erase board and you catch it at six in the morning, it is a love note. And it made my whole day.

5. The universe expanding. Not talking outer space here, but just this feeling recently that writing and teaching (also, being done with my MFA so that I have time to do those things) have opened up relationships, possibilities, and opportunities that are really lovely and neat. Hell, I doubt it will feel this way every week, so I'll take it when I can get it.  

Honorable mentions: I finally read The Martian and it was great; dinner with my in-laws; I love my hall of coworkers; started a new Headspace meditation "pack" (30 days of exercises) on relationships; this Jessica Smith kickboxing/weights video (I am so graceless but it felt good); the penultimate Downton Abbey episode (duh); the little girl across the street calling "Bye, Abuela! Thank you for coming!" to her grandmother as the car pulled out of the driveway; the joy and giddiness and nostalgia of watching my church's youth group put on yet another fun drama production; this essay I wrote on traditional church in a millennial world.

To quote Mark Watney's eternal optimism, yay Friday!

My MFA Reading List (it's not boring, I swear!)

Okay, maybe it's a little boring, but enough of you have expressed interest in what I read during my MFA program in creative writing at Goddard College for me to actually give you a list! As you'll see, the books ran the gamut, from classics to contemporary, fiction to nonfiction, critical to popular. About half of these were recommended by professors and peers early in my program, while I selected the other half as I grew more certain about what I was writing and what I needed to strengthen that (i.e. books about home, belonging, etc.).

My curriculum also required that I present an annotated bibliography, writing descriptions of the books that had the greatest impact on me and why. You'll find those in bold below, and you'll find the annotations themselves underneath this looooong list. (Who doesn't like a colorful graphic to start their Monday morning?)

Here are just some of the books I most enjoyed and that deeply impacted my own writing and exploration. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you've read them (or any on the above list), or if you read them in the future!

Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow. Jayber Crow tells his life’s story: losing his parents as a child, his many years as the barber in the small town of Port William, Kentucky, his feelings for the always-married Mattie, and his ever-shifting strands of connection to home and place. As I have explored my own thoughts and feelings about what home means and where it is, Berry’s reflective and spiritual take on place and belonging has been a guide for me.  

de Waal, Edmund. The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. de Waal, an internationally renowned potter, goes in search of his ancestors through a precious family heirloom, a collection of Japanese netsuke figurines. As he traces how the netsuke came to be in his family and the story of each generation that passed them down, he uncovers the painful story of his relatives’ escape from the Nazi Occupation in Vienna. de Waal writes the memoir as an explorer as naïve as his readers; he is learning as he goes, and shares his gathered information along the way. I too feel like I have been an explorer rather than a recollector in this writing journey, processing events through writing since they have happened so recently. 

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. David Copperfield tells his life’s story chronologically, from beginning to the present day, all the while knowing where he has ended up, and with whom – yet never giving anything away to the reader. As someone writing a coming of age story – in a certain chunk of time, but still – I found this one of the most important books that I read during G1. Dickens’ attention to detail while being able to move the plot forward, bringing characters in and out of the narrative, and maintaining a solid voice for his protagonist, all provided takeaways for me as I began my memoir.   

L’Engle, Madeleine. A Ring of Endless Light: The Austin Family Chronicles, Book 4. L’Engle writes about the Austin family, with teenage Vicky narrating about the summer they spend on the coast with their grandfather who is suffering from a terminal illness. I was drawn to this book for multiple reasons: first, because it is what I’ve begun to think of as a “quiet book,” because it deals with ordinary life in a powerful way. My book is a quiet book, and I appreciate being surrounded by others suck as L’Engle’s. Vicky’s organic narration is fluid and believable, and she isn’t afraid to ask questions. I also appreciated how the book addresses mysteries of faith and spirituality, but not in a hackneyed way.

hooks, bell. Belonging: A Culture of Place. Recommended to me by a Goddard classmate, hooks’ book of essays about home and place deeply resonated with me on some levels – she writes about her decision to return to her home state after many years away, and the positive and negative repercussions of this active choice. But it also allowed me to look through the lens of home and place through the eyes of an African American woman whose home state has a history of deep racism, like the rest of the American South. I too am from the South, but as a white woman, examining the questions of belonging through hooks’ eyes widened my view.

Julavits, Heidi. The Folded Clock: A Diary. Julavits keeps a diary – structured non-chronologically – for two years in her mid-forties, taking ordinary life events and digging into them so deeply that she comes out on the other side of every entry with a commentary on her internal self or an element of society. Julavits’ voice is wonderfully self-deprecating and unapologetic in every topic she discusses, and I was especially drawn to the way she is able to describe the anxieties and worries that she feels about certain things in her life. As someone who often overthinks the smallest things, and whose overthinking is an active part of my memoir, reading Julavits was a great inspiration.  

Manguso, Sarah. Ongoingness: The End of a Diary. Sarah Manguso writes about her obsession with keeping a diary for the first half of her life, and how having her first child changes her need to record everything that happens. As with Julavits, I identified so deeply with Manguso’s intense desire to record and her idea that if it isn’t recorded, it didn’t happen. I also was drawn to her non-ending, cutting off the memoir in the middle of a sentence. Since my memoir covers a period of time that is, in a sense, ongoing, reading this book made me examine how I should end something that hasn’t ended off the page.

McCarthy, Mary. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Mary McCarthy’s memoir about her orphan childhood and Catholic school days fascinated me for one primary reason: after every chapter, with all its colorful detail, description and certainty, comes an “interchapter,” where McCarthy tells the reader what she made up and what she didn’t. She seems to have no qualms about fictionalizing parts of her past – typically when she doesn’t remember specifics – and then almost delights in explaining the true and false. It’s a way of writing memoir (and written before memoirs became popular) that I hadn’t considered before.  

Robinson, Marilyne. Gilead. Robinson’s classic is told through the eyes, ears, and words of Rev. John Ames, an old man writing a letter to his young son. This was another “quiet book” that I found powerful because Ames is such an engaging, conflicted narrator, who describes his world, both internal and external, in such vivid detail. I got to hear Robinson speak during the week that I read Gilead, and listening to her offer some of her opinions and values in person doubled the strength of the book.  

Shadid, Anthony. House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East. New York Times journalist Anthony Shadid returns to his family’s home country of Lebanon to rebuild his ancestors’ house during years of constant war. I loved Shadid’s ability to describe place, to anchor readers in Lebanon both culturally and, more intimately, in the house and history that he is attempting to bring new life. I also took notice of what was missing: his vague references to his divorce and his young daughter back in the States, and the epilogue by his never-mentioned second wife after Shadid’s untimely death. There was so much going on behind the scenes that he didn’t talk about.  

Silber, Joan. Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories. Silber’s “ring of stories” – stories that are all somehow connected in one way or another – made me think a lot about how to cover long stretches of time in a short story. In particular, the title story “Ideas of Heaven,” which I used in my long critical paper, covers more than fifteen years in just under 90 pages. It was fascinating to examine how Silber used language to stretch and condense time so fluidly so that the readers feel like they’ve traveled a long, short journey all at once.

Thomas, Abigail. Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life. Also recommended by a Goddard classmate, Abigail Thomas’s memoir of grief over the passing of an ex-husband is structured in vignettes, chapters that are only a couple of pages at the most. What I took from Thomas’s crisp, rich language was the way that she showed the emotion of grief rather than told about it. She described experiences, small and momentous, that brought home the sense of loss she was feeling, rather than simply stating it. Since I am dealing with grief in my own memoir, I took a lot from this book.

Ward, Jesmyn. Men We Reaped: A Memoir. I was intrigued with this book as soon as Reiko Rizzuto shared an excerpt in a workshop about structure during my G3 residency. Jesmyn Ward recounts the deaths of five young African American men in her hometown in Mississippi, including her brother Joshua. But it is the way she approaches these deaths and stories – going backwards chronologically, using her imagination to fill in the gaps of what she does not know – that really struck me, and stuck with me as I grappled with how to write about what I do not fully understand.

Wharton, Edith. The Age of Innocence. Wharton tells the story of Newland Archer, a young man at the turn of the 20th century who is torn between marrying the proper woman or the woman he is actually in love with, her foreign cousin. Archer does his duty, and spends the rest of his life paying for his appropriate choice. I was really taken with how fluidly and subtly Wharton made society a character in the novel, driving Archer’s decision and how he handles his feelings. I feel like society is, in some ways, a character in my memoir, as I wrestle with the idea that returning home as an adult is somehow a failure.  

Cheers to the joys of literature! Happy Monday.