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Gushing About Hedgebrook Like There’s No Tomorrow

2 May

On Saturday, I had the good fortune of attending the Spring Salon at Hedgebrook, on Whidbey Island. I loved it so much I wrote a piece about it for their blog. Here’s how it begins:

Upon turning in to Hedgebrook, we (a poet, a playwright, and a fiction writer carpooling from Seattle) crowed at its green loveliness. A scent of wood smoke wafted out of the longhouse. And, inside, an abundance of welcome, and bagels so good I almost cried.  Outside, I met with my first workshop, “The Funny Bone is an Erogenous Zone,” with Jennifer D. Munro. On the walk to the cottage, Jennifer pointed out a bench with a view of Mt. Rainier, and my poet-car-sharer Elissa pointed out a heap of lavender in a rusting wheel barrow. It was almost too perfect.

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Check out VORTEX,their next weekend event, May 31-June 2. Special thanks to Brian McGuigan and the Made at Hugo House program for connecting me to this special place.

Background Reading for a Novel-in-Progess

18 Apr

I’ve been feeling anxious about the many things I’m juggling at the moment, so I just did a “brain-dump,” hashing out my immediate deadlines and less imminent ones, projects where I owe work to others and projects where I owe work to myself, and when in the coming months I will be able to do that. This is something I do from time to time, but having just finished auditing the ArtistTrust EDGE program, I have a few more tips and resources under my belt, with healthy reminders about making time for the writing and valuing that work. I feel a lot better. Of my own projects, there are a handful of short stories that I want to develop further, a handful to submit (or continue submitting), and a general plan to arrange the collection (in hard copy, not in my mind, which I’ve pretty much done) in September.

Anxiety-reduction aside, the brain dump also got me excited about looking ahead to my second novel. I wrote a quick, rough sketch of about 115 pages last April and put it aside to simmer. I took a number of inspiring and invigorating classes at Hugo House in March, including Chris Abani‘s class on voice and Sam Lipsyte‘s class on keeping a story going. Now, I’m taking Peter Mountford‘s excellent class on narrative structure, and had a really productive workshop of my synopsis and first chapter. I’m looking forward to digging deeper into the main conflict of the story before I set out to rewrite with more intention. And I’m excited to keep reading novels that I think will feed this book. For my first novel, I read countless books. I wish I had kept a more careful list all in one place, but my notes are scattered over many notebooks, and it would take me some time to sift through the pages to put it all together. I pretty much read anything I could get my hands on that was from or about Argentina and seemed remotely related, as well as a number of books that used magic realism in some way similar to how I tend to write it. I’m trying to be more organized about my second novel.

So far, here are some of the works feeding into Novel # 2. If you have any recommendations that fit into the nodes developing here, feel free to leave a comment!

Not pictured: Grisham, Le Carre.

Pictured left to right: A Convergence of Birds, An Almost Perfect Moment, The Brooklyn Follies, The Map and the Territory, Bleak House, Billy Budd and Other Stories, Just Kids, The Emperor’s Children, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, The Big Short, Lives of the Artists. Not pictured: some legal fiction by Grisham, some spy fiction by Le Carre.

Related posts:

  1. On Reading
  2. End of the Story
  3. Narcissus and Goldmund

Nesting

3 Dec
This is Edmund.

This is Edmund.

We have a penguin. His name is Edmund. Edmund guards the dog house that came with our new house, which is an old house – 1892 or 1900 depending on where you look. Our new-old house is in the Central District, a neighborhood much like Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, and the old creaky house itself feels just like an old creaky house in Brooklyn, which is part of why, as soon as we stepped inside of it, it felt right.

In the crawl space, we found a volleyball and in the kitchen drawer a 1962 high school yearbook from Macon, Georgia. Edmund, our ceramic penguin, is the crown jewel of our object-finds. He looks serene and proud in front of the dog house, which sits before a towering cherry tree and a slip of a maple.

The architecture of the house itself is a jewel. Built as a “working man’s Victorian,” it’s a Victorian in miniature, with gables and nooks, all fairly tiny. Our favorite spot is the nook beneath the stairs in the dining room, which we’ve declared the reading nook, complete with an ottoman, dreamy cushion, and wooden milk crate of currently-reading or to-be-read-soon books. Despite being nearly blocked off by towers of boxes, I’ve already spent several delightful hours reading poetry there in the bluish morning light.

Moving, and a host of other things (a new job, mainly), have kept me away from this blog. November was dedicated to nest-building, poultry-roasting, bread-pudding-making, big pots of soup-making. All pleasant things. I’ll be sure to poke my head back on here again this month; I’ve got lots of exciting projects in store for the new year.

Writing Nonfiction to Think Through Fiction

27 Jul

One of my former professors from UW, Shawn Wong, advised us to write essays on topics related to our fiction projects whenever we felt stuck. After working through many drafts of my first novel, I’ve come to really appreciate this advice. Not only does it give you a new angle on your material, enabling a return to the fiction with fresh eyes, but it can also build your confidence about the research you’d done so far and raise new questions that enrich your understanding of your project. Writing essays can also make it easier to talk about your project with authority and maybe answer that dreaded question, “So, what is your novel about?” with less trepidation.

Earlier this month, my friend SK invited me to speak to the creative writing classes held at UW’s Robinson Center Summer College about travelling to Argentina to research my novel. Though my novel is written for an adult audience, the students in these classes are 5th and 6th graders. It was an enjoyable problem thinking about this different audience and really fun to just address the hands on, primary research I did: walking down Buenos Aires’s wide boulevards and narrow alleyways,trying to get a whiff of the city’s unique scent (note to self: “city scents” as future post), talking to locals who’d lived through the period I was writing about (1978), and uh, gorging myself on dulce de leche. The students had a lot of awesome, thoughtful questions, like what point of view did you write in, did you ever want to give up in the years that you worked on it, did you ever get stuck and what did you do to get unstuck?

Around the same time that I was preparing this talk, I was also working on a short essay for a website called Airplane Reading, which collects “storytelling that can animate, reflect on, and rejuvenate the experience of flight.” This essay, “Mapping Imagination,” gets at some the anxieties I struggled with in writing and researching the novel and is featured there this week. Having worked on both a short talk and short essay, I’m feeling ready again to continue with all the work that goes into getting the novel out into the world.

SK delivered a stack of thank you cards from her students a week after my talk. Some of the details they remembered from the talk and included in their cards were kind of incredible. One student wrote, “P.S. I love food too,” which made me plotz, one student made the card in the form of a paper fortune teller (I learned from it that I will write 1000 more short stories in my lifetime), and two students made an elaborate card in which the Argentine flag opened to a diptych with their messages. It really made my week.

Tiny Fish, Kyoto

14 Apr

Last week, I swooned over Tokyo’s never-endingness. This week I want to tell you about tiny things.

On a rainy night in Kyoto, we got lost looking for a restaurant recommended by my guidebook. (Silly me and my seven-year-old book!) We came to a lovely street, less bustling and generic than the downtown boulevard we’d been following and bisected by a canal, the yellow light of intimate restaurants illuminating the water. We poked around a few restaurants there, though the ground-floor ones seemed to cater to executives on expense accounts, and one that required taking an elevator gave off an unsettling-is-this-a-restaurant-or-not vibe, so we turned off this very-pretty-but-inaccessible street, onto an alley.We were tired, hungry, and wet.

This is the first place we found:

Image

The restaurant was down a set of stairs and a sign above the stairway said “We have Yuba Food here!” J explained the yuba is tofu skin. A bearded man in a corduroy blazer rounded the corner, saw us deliberating outside, and smiled wide, encouraging us to go on in, so we took him up on it, descending the staircase and following a narrow cellar hallway to the front door. J peaked in the window. “It looks cozy,” he said.

It was, indeed, a tiny place, with one counter and one wooden table, which could seat about eight and at which sat two men just finishing their meal. The man in the picture (above), wearing a lab coat and a pink bowtie, greeted us and seated us at the table, telling the men already there to recommend dishes to us. We learned they were from Osaka, but regulars here. They asked if we like oysters (we do), but then went on to recommend a seasonal specialty, baby bamboo tempura.

Before the food came out, the woman of the picture above, in a red headscarf and looking eerily like a Japanese version of my paternal grandmother, brought out three little ceramic dishes – an amuse-bouche of tiny raw fish in a ponzu sauce, topped with grated radish and hot sauce. The fish were not so tiny that you could not see their tiny eyes. Their silvery skin was translucent, beneath which ran a dark line from head to tail. Reader, I’m sorry that we were squeamish. The only thing to do was eat the tiny fish. J had a lot of practice with this, having lived in Japan as long as he did. We all took a big gulp of cold beer and downed the tiny raw fish with their tiny eyes and tiny intestinal lines. It couldn’t be done in one bite, of course. There were lots of tiny fish in our tiny ceramic bowls. Actually, the dish was quite delicious (texture aside — an acquired taste, I’m sure!). I got through about half. J got through about half. But M? M was resolved to eat all his many tiny fish. And eat he did! Which led to a discussion on the origin of the phrase “mad props”. 

We ate crab wrapped in yuba and a tomato-cheese-in-a-skillet-thing, but by the far the most delectable dish was the spring vegetable tempura, which included asparagus, a “spring flower”, a “tree root” (which I think was actually an exceptionally refined piece of broccoli), and the tender baby bamboo, crown jewel of the spring vegetables. Which just goes to show, always ask a local for a recommendation.

Food aside, this was a neat little place. The stucco walls and the basement location made it feel like a cave whose walls had been whitewashed. A mask made of a coconut shell sat on a side table by the door and one wall was adorned with a motherboard. The music jumped from African to traditional Japanese (the koto, I think), to jazz. I felt like we were just hanging out at someone’s house.

I wish I could tell you exactly where this place was, but maybe the best way to experience it is to stumble upon it?Image

Tokyo, City of My Dreams

7 Apr

M. and I went to Japan last month to visit his brother J., who’d been living there for six years. We met J. in Tokyo, and traveled with him to Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe before hopping over to NYC for a wedding. I’m back in Seattle and not-too-jet-lagged and will write about the trip over the next few posts.

The first thing that struck me about Tokyo, having grown up in Brooklyn but having lived in Seattle for the last few years, is how large – and dense – it is. For me, this is joy. I love to be on an elevated subway, careening past a cityscape (hence the glee I experience in Chicago), glimpsing life from an angle you can’t get from any other vantage. I love, also, wandering the sidewalks, turning off from the bustle of boulevards to find a narrow alleyway filled with mom & pop restaurants, tiny art galleries, adorable (if, in Tokyo, overpriced) cafes.  (M.’s urban planning is really rubbing off on me!) The thing about Tokyo is that wandering its enormity is like wandering the best of my anxiety dreams. Do you have those dreams where you’re lost in a city (for me, always a version of New York or Montreal or some fusion of the two) and the streets and trains never seem to end? I do. But in Tokyo, it felt right. Exhausting, as a tourist, but right. And despite that, one is never far away from a quiet garden or temple or shrine  – some place where the noise just falls away and you’re in contact with the natural world. 

There is so much to say about Tokyo, I can’t fit it all into a blog post. But, one of my favorite things we did was take a “Haunted Tokyo” walking tour, meandering the back alleys of Kabukicho, an older neighborhood that is now the red light district. Our tour guide, Lilly, has been living in Tokyo nearly 27 years and collecting its ghost stories all along. Our first stop was a Shinto shrine to the “mother of all angry ghosts,” O-iwa. The gruesome story of her death (her husband poisons her slowly, and half her face becomes disfigured, her eyeball drooping off of it) reminded me of how the worst of my migraines feels. To soothe O-iwa’s spirit, and to stay on her good side, local merchants leave her offerings of sake.

We stopped by a Buddha of the Phlegm (which is not haunted, but a good place to cure congestion problems) and learned that workers in the Edo period believed earthquakes (which happened every 50 years or so) were caused by the cat fish god, which, Lilly said, they liked because the cyclical upheaval caused a radical redistribution of wealth and rebuilding the city meant more opportunities for work.

Lilly told many more ghost stories, but perhaps my favorite morsel of her spiel was not ghostly at all. Walking down “Golden Alley,” a nightlife area purported to be favorite haunts of Wim Wenders, Johnny Depp, and Tim Burton, she told us that *her*favorite bar, Cremaster, is hosted by a psychiatrist, who for 1500 yen will give you a drink and a 30 minute chat. Maybe next time I’m in Tokyo I’ll go there and tell him about my endless-city-anxiety-dreams over a shikuwasa sour.




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Overheard in the Ladies Room at Pacific Place

2 Jan

Over the holidays, while waiting for the restroom, I overheard this exchange and have been so enraptured by it (read to the end to feel the rapture) that I’m convinced at least one person, if not multiple, could write a short story, if not a novel, from this tender seedling. Please do share if you do!

“Mommy, it’s not coming out.”

“Well,” says the mother, from a neighboring stall, “you don’t want to eat your fruits and veggies. That’s what happens when you don’t eat your fruits and veggies.” Time passes. “Are you ready? Do you want my help?”

“Ok.”

The mother flushes, exits her stall. “Get out,” she says, “so I can come in.” A big brother, about seven or eight but large for his age, comes out, smirking. A gold earring, maybe it’s a stick-on, gleams in one of his lobes. The mother enters the stall. Clucks her tongue. “Why isn’t there a toilet seat cover?” She sighs, loudly.

“Mommy,” the big brother says, face near the closing door, eyes half-closed and dreamy, “I love you.”

If you liked that, here’s another inter-generational overheard, in Florence: https://ancawrites.com/2006/03/30/bargello/

The Winter Garden

23 Dec

Photo by George Szilagyi

I’m teaching myself about plants. Last week, my dad and I traipsed through the Washington Arboretum, in search of its Winter Garden. It is not a garden to rush through – anything faster than a stroll and you’ll miss it. The colors are not flashy –  no effusive bursts of pink, no huge swaths of dizzying color. But if you stand still a minute, and take a look around, you notice a few things. Paperbark Maples, losing swaths of bark, are silky brown on the outside and a luminous golden-yam on the inside. I resisted the urge to tear off a sheet. Shrubby dogwoods have slender, fiery tips, a lovely crimson in the blue hours. And, odd snowberries, Symphoricarpos albus, are white puffs afloat gray bushes. I want to say they look like yogurt-covered raisins, but that description, though accurate, seems lacking in intrigue. They’re also called ghostberries, as the waxy, spongy puffs last throughout the winter, munched on by quail and grouse and other fauna of that ilk. Some sources claim the berries (also called drupes – neat word!) are toxic to humans causing that standard nausea-dizziness-vomiting thing, while others claim that poultices of snowberries might have certain curative properties, perhaps for sore eyes. I think I’m going to stick to just admiring their small, bulbous presence, among the other odd berries of a Northwest winter, with their deep reds and juicy blue-blacks, along with the bright, rosy-orange pomes of crabapples.

Incidentally, if anyone talented at dress-making wants to make me a sheath dress inspired by the bark in the photo above, I’d be a happy little elf.

The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who are Not Ashamed of Economy

26 Nov

As we plunge into holiday season, nervously tracking Black Friday sales, touting Small Business Saturday, or feeling remorse for not following through on Buy Nothing Day (and, here, by “we” I mean “me”), I’m finding comfort in a little book a good friend gave to me as an ironic wedding gift: The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who are not Ashamed of Economy (1833) by a certain Mrs. Child. As one might imagine, it’s brimming with advice, some wonderfully outdated and some timeless. I probably won’t be soaking tripe in my cellar or applying cranberry poultices every fifteen minutes to any tumors. But who can argue with this first line: “The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing is lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials.” Mrs. Child on education: “If young men and women are brought up to consider frugality contemptible and industry degrading, it is vain to expect they will at once become prudent and useful, when the cares of life press heavily upon them.” And, on Reasons for Hard Times: “‘Everything is so cheap,’ say the ladies [in bright array while stagnation is universally felt].’ But do they reflect why things are so cheap? Do they know how much wealth has been sacrificed, how many families ruined to produce this boasted result? Do they not know enough of the machinery of society, to suppose that the stunning effect of crash after crash, may eventually be felt by those on whom they depend for support?”

Then, of course, there are recipes for calf’s foot jelly, whortleberry pudding, and Election Cake, as well as bits and bobs about the best way to clean iron kitchen ware and the best vegetal sources for cheap dyes. A few more morsels:

“The common dark-blue violet makes a slimy tea, which is excellent for the canker.”

“Pig’s head is a profitable thing to buy. It is despised because it is cheap, but when well cooked it is delicious.”

“Beer is a good family drink.”

Happy holidays!

One Year Ago

6 Aug

I keep coming back to this memory. Cousin S is babysitting my brother and me. It must be summer because she takes us to the Kings Highway movie theater to see Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Afterwards, we’re waiting for the bus on Coney Island Ave. It’s taking f-o-r-e-v-e-r. I turn to the brick wall behind us, try to decipher the translucent white squiggles.

“So you’re a graffiti reader?” she asks. I think I’m holding her hand. I can’t remember.

What’s that? I want to know, am intrigued, but don’t ask. I am not a very verbal ten-year-old. I suppose I am a graffiti reader, but I don’t know what it means. Only that S is interested and maybe pleased.

What to do with these hunks of memory? What to do?

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