Monday, December 22, 2008

When it snows it snows

I started something brand new.

And its a sad story. I'm not sure why it is that I'm best at writing sad stories, but I am.

On Friday there was a snowstorm and Queens was blizzard white.

It looked like this.

I think the graffitied streets of Rome are officially on hold.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I've been thinking a lot about loss. When we lose someone to death it is often a slow, loud, tragic wrenching loss. But one we can begin to understand.

We don't always talk about the other kinds of losses; the quiet drawn out losses that come because of geography, growing, leaving, loving... the losses that come because your lives go in different directions and the things that were important become... replaced. By other things that are important.

I'm not very good with loss. The way I pack suitcases and boxes and move from coast to continent, you'd think I'd be better at it. I never seem to get better. And the saddest losses are inexplicable. We grow up. We need different things. We move. We gain. We lose.

I'm sad. But it's in a reflective way. Loss is part of it all. Part of the lives we live and the people we become.

GRIEF by Matthew Dickman

When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla
you must count yourself lucky.
You must offer her what's left
of your dinner, the book you were trying to finish
you must put aside
and make her a place to sit at the foot of your bed,
her eyes moving from the clock
to the television and back again.
I am not afraid. She has been here before
and now I can recognize her gait
as she approaches the house.
Some nights, when I know she's coming,
I unlock the door, lie down on my back,
and count her steps
from the street to the porch.
Tonight she brings a pencil and a ream of paper,
tells me to write down
everyone I have ever known
and we separate them between the living and the dead
so she can pick each name at random.
I play her favorite Willie Nelson album
because she misses Texas
but I don't ask why.
She hums a little,
the way my brother does when he gardens.
We sit for an hour
while she tells me how unreasonable I've been,
taking down the pictures of my family,
not writing, refusing to shower,
staring too hard at girls younger than my sister.
Eventually she puts one of her heavy
purple arms around me, leans
her head against mine,
and all of a sudden things are feeling romantic.
So I tell her,
things are feeling romantic.
She pulls another name, this time
from the dead
and turns to me in that way that parents do
so you feel embarrassed or ashamed of something.
Romantic? She says,
reading the name out loud, slowly
so I am aware of each syllable,
each consonant resembling a swollen arm, the collapsed ear,
a mouth full of teeth, each vowel
wrapping around the bones like new muscle,
the sound of that person's body
and how reckless it is,
how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other.

Friday, November 14, 2008

I have to say it

There is so much that tells me I am not supposed to wear my political beliefs on my sleeve. As a teacher and as a writer I am around young people every day and all the time, around those of you who are gathering information, understanding truths, forming your opinions, and that these truths and opinions and beliefs have got to be yours. And I believe that. I know that. But I don't think it can hurt to just say a little bit of what I believe. To tell you that each night as I walk home from the subway, the long stretched out blocks from Flatbush to Franklin, and these posters

illuminated by bedroom lights and dining room lights, framed by curtains and fingerprint streaks, in barbershops and brownstones, these posters, I can't lie, make me crazy with delight and, well, hope. Every night. Without fail.

Friday, November 7, 2008

When your book hits a brick wall

So I was thinking about this project I'm working on, called There Is No Happy Ending, actually, I'm thinking about this project most of the time... and what I'm thinking is. I lost it. I was SO in it and I lost it... what does one do now? It is in the hands, just now, of a reader who might breathe some life into it. But until then. I've never been one to work well on many projects at once. I think it might be time to start another. I feel guilty. But I have this idea. It's about journals and the year Kurt Cobain died. It's about the unexpected relationships that can only happen in secret... but I feel strange abandoning Jacob... can I bring him?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

All at once

I have a fever and swollen glands and that kind of aching back that says no, this will only get worse before it gets better. And I am wrapped in bblankets on one of those wintery nights before NYC landlords turn on the heat... and Im drinking tea. And it occurs to me.

I have ARCs. (translation: Advanced Reader's Copy). I have a BOOK of my book. It is this neat little size. It has a cover with my name on it. It's not copy-edited or anything. It is used for reviews (this part I have yet to process. shhhh) Its sort of mind blowing. And in the same week the UPS man delivered these books to my door, I was interviewed by the amazing ladies here... which was my first real writerly interview. And so, although I am drowning in sick now, last week was pretty real as far as this writer thing goes.

I know I should take a picture of it and post it here... me on a bench reading my own book, my own book tucked on a shelf among other *real* books. And I will, maybe, but much like the dialogue I wrote in the book that is sometimes hard to distinguish from the inner monologues of Nadio and Noelle, the reality of this whole thing is sort of hard to distinguish from imagination. So I'm going to leave the photo out of it for now...

Or maybe I'm just feverish and so. A little delirious

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Gypsy holiday

We all know I have some trouble sitting still. I get restless, anxious being in one place for too long.

I stop writing well.

Now it is official.


are going here

for this

What I mean is, that restlessness, those jumpy feet can still some. Because after much stress, an Alitalia flight fiasco, a desperate bank account, it is now official, I am going to Spain for the winter holidays, meeting Kira in Madrid, renting a car, maybe visiting Jaime in Alicante, maybe, hopefully meeting Jocco and Migi along the coastal way, checking out the magic of Sevilla and Granada, seeing Spain, who knows...

Ok. Deep breaths. Trip planned. I'm back.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

In Words

What does graffitti look like in words?

I want to write this

so you can see it on the page, without SEEING it on the page.

But I'm wondering if I don't have it all wrong.

Or maybe I've just been writing the same scene for nine hours.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

First Person

I haven't written here for a long time because I am having trouble balancing my school life with my writer life. I have this pact with myself that, for the most part, I'll keep these posts from being about the school life. I'm sometimes mildly successful... but yesterday I had a long awaited talk with my agent, who is not only a constant source of support and inspiration. She is also, and this I find to be the most important part, HONEST. We talked about There Is No Happy Ending (which, by the way, is a *working* title) She told me what is working. And it is the things I love. It is this crazy cast of characters with their bangle bracelets and jagged haircuts. It is the emotion of everything new and doing things you probably shouldn't. It is the feeling guilty that you get to do things your parents couldn't.

What isn't working? Well, the pacing. Slowslowslow. This I knew was true. I can fix this. And the narrator. Every character in this project is so real. Except Rory. Somehow I neglected to fill her out. And now, she stands at a cold distance from the reader.

What if, I whispered into the phone yesterday, what if I changed the narration to first person?

I really think that could work, agent affirmed. Which I was afraid of.

The narrator seems uncertain of her, agent went on.

Yes, I said. She is. I am.

So what if Rory were the narrator?

Ok. I don't have a good reason for making this story third person. I simply wanted it to work. I wanted to do it well because it is so rare that I read a good story about seventeen that is in the third person. So does this mean I can't do it well? Or does it simply mean Rory needs to speak to the reader, because it is her story being told, because without her voice speaking up she seems cold and flat and made of paper. I'll have to see.

Speaking of first person and COMPLETELY off topic. Please check out this blog. This is a project just beginning at my old job. I used to work with some of these students and I will talk until the end of time about how amazing they are. Look for yourself.

(ps, yes, that is me not keeping school life separate again... I try.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

One million kids

I went back to school today. Not back to school like pen and notebooks and listening to lectures, but back to school like I do now, on the teacher side of things. I'm at a new school this year. A beautiful brand new building with high windows and sun soaked floors and students from every borough and dozens of countries. Today we drew maps of our past and wrote stories about our names. And we wrote poems about the subway. I love my new commute. Its this long winding elevated ride through three boroughs. And I get to see this along the way...

this amazing place called Five Points in Long Island City. And you can imagine this sends all kind of electricity through Jacob.

Then today we read this fantastic poem called 'Night Subway'.

And we did some work imitating the venerable Katha Pollit. And I admitted that I too always wanted to write about the subway. I once wrote about finishing a book by Jim Lewis on the N train over the 59th street bridge, crying my first unstoppable public New York City tears as the book came to a close with the skyline behind me.

But today. O today. I forgot that one million students went back to school today. And tens of thousands of their teachers and aides and coaches. And the subway platform looked like this.

And the air conditioner in my car was broken. And the sneakers in my bag left imprints on my hipbone everyone was pressed so tight.

But we wrote some pretty fantastic subway poems today.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Because it's too late at night and I have too many lists

I do more than a few things to make a living. Mainly, I’m a counselor. In a high school. I teach English too. Sometimes I teach creative writing in an after school program. I also wrote a book. And, well, I guess I can say I write books. In the present tense. This week all of these things I do have been crashing together as I prepare to start a new school year at a new school and try to keep to a writing schedule. I spent four days in western Massachusetts last week, studying the theories and practices of a particular very familiar institute and it made me think (intensely, like it is two a.m. and I can’t sleep kind of think) about the way we build writing into our lives. In all of the things I do for a living writing is central. I do it not only to tell the stories that come to me at two a.m. but also to re-imagine the stories I pass on the street and bump into on the subway platform. I do it as therapy. I do it as a way of understanding myself, I teach it as a way of asking questions of yourself. I teach it as a way of understanding texts and making comparisons and digging out new ideas and explaining why you love or hate something. I do it because I can’t sleep and putting together the words to understand why makes my muscles relax and my brain slow slow slow down. I do it because something I’ve learned is that the stories people tell are the way we see the world. So all of these things I do, which sometimes seem to tumble and bang into each other, are actually inherently tied together by this truly simply act.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Then and Now

So I've been away for a long time. Not away, really but. I had some computer problems. And I moved. And I travelled. And I left one job and started another one. And I got sad. And I had some problems with words. And I want to tell you some stories. But tonight, I'm just going to tell you this one. I went to California.

And in California, I got to do this.

What I mean is, I got to spend 24 hours with some of my favorite people in the world. People who I lived in Rome with, traveled and taught with and wrote stories about and wrote stories for and missed and celebrated. It was 24 hours of laughing and then I thought of something. It reminded me of this.

Because two years ago I was on the deck or hiking a to a white sand beach from a cliff-side house with almost exactly the same people, laughing until too late at night and getting sunburned. We're a little bit older now and this time we read magazines and drank coffee in the silence of people exhausted by not having enough time to catch up, of people holding off the moment, just one more second until we break off in a million directions.

Two years ago we played board games in a house in Greece carved out of a hillside, in the quiet of people who have all the time in the world to spend countries and see island sunsets and whitewashed churches.

I can't help remembering that these people made the sunsets look like this.

And in California, after reuniting, and writing and walking through harbors and lying on beaches and eating tacos and watermelon, the sunset looked more like this.

The beaches were beautiful in California, in the morning, when it was still foggy and only me and the surfers were awake and I ran along the train tracks, but these days I'm sure missing some people.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I'm OK too.

Along with dozens of writers, YA and otherwise, this week, I want to talk about Margo Rabb’s piece in the Sunday Times Book Review. (and also say, if you haven't read, you should certainly read Rabb's Cures for Heartbreak, which is indeed heartbreaking, and funny and true and beautifully written)

My first instinct is to stand up for my genre, so to speak, to say that Rabb is perpetuating a snobbery that is not nearly so widespread as she thinks. But the truth is, I know exactly how she feels. The words of Mark Haddon and the defenses of Peter Cameron are scarily familiar. Apparently, if you write for an audience who is still in high school, your intellectual capacity is questionable, your literary merit dubious. You get funny looks and awkward silences and conversations come to strange halts. I was in a conversation last week in which an educator, referring to a series of books used for a particular course stated: “This one is a young adult title but I found it very valuable.”


My editor, Andrew Karre, has an approach to YA Literature that is inspiring, comforting and frankly, makes a lot of sense. He believes that “young adult is a point of view, not a reading level.” I can't help but want to ask the YA critics of the world about the novels they've celebrated that were narrated by a child or a teeanager--just not marketed to them.

I had never set out to write a young adult book before I wrote THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO TELL YOU. In fact, it began, as I’ve said before, as a book about the twins’ mother, a very dark and grown-up story. But the more I wrote, the more it changed. What I wanted to write about was intensity and passion and first times and an inability to not tell the truth. I wanted to write a story that was specific about an experience that was universal. And what, I thought, was more universal than adolescence, the raw pain and joy and experimentation. Apparently, this makes me a certain kind of writer.

And whatever kind of writer this is, maybe the kind that won’t be reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement or excerpted in The New Yorker or blurbed by Nathan Englander or Andre Aciman (I note these two authors, not because of anything they’ve ever said about YA Literature, simply because they wrote my favorite books this year), it is the kind of writer I am. I’ve found an actual home in the stories I write now. I may have to defend the literary merit of my books from here on out, but I’m hoping my audience can speak to that.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Moving is like Writing

I do both of these things all of the time. I mean ALL of the time. One I am exhausted and inspired by. The other I am… exhausted and inspired by.

1. I can’t help doing either one. They’re equally impulsive, natural, crucial.
2. They’re cleansing. In this way that says I am purging and preserving all at once.
3. They remind me, give life to, the millions of worlds out there that I am living, have lived and have yet to live.
4. They bring new people into my life, real and imagined.
5. They make it hard, no, impossible, to think about anything else.
6. They let me create new space—sometimes within the confines of my imagination and four walls and sometimes outside the limit of possibility.
7. They make me crazy and I want to stop forever.
8. They make me exhilarated and I can’t imagine NOT moving/writing.
9. They make me realize I have too much STUFF—both tangible and intangible.
10. They make me realize I will always find a place for this stuff.
11. I feel intensely sad, doing either one, about the things I am leaving behind and haven’t appreciated or realized and the absolute uncertainty about what lies ahead.
12. They’re costly—mentally and financially.
13. I am, apparently, defined by both of these things.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

This is what Summer looks like

While we await summer with this intense hope and giddy anticipation, it tends to fly by in a way that's impossible to slow. And here it is, mid July and I can't recall all of the things I meant to do... I know I'm supposed to be writing and Anna introduced me to this killer Roman street artist who's been inspiring me much.

Kira came to visit and in the middle of one last time at Yankee stadium, too many great meals, a day at the Met and lying in the sun in more than one park, she was the guest of honor at my birthday party, a perfect mix of the very best people and some pretty tasty food and my other dearest guest of honor and in-house entertainer and blue-dressed twin, Chloe.

I've seen some outdoor movies under the majestic shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge and celebrated the 4th with my family and beautiful (and I mean BEAUTIFUL and not even cause we're related) niece, who is just about the happiest girl in the world...

and Darc, who, in the absence of fireworks at our mountain-top cookout, lit sparklers with such enthusiastic delight that it was good enough for all of us...

And then this music filled weekend I listened to the folk-singing tales of Texas musician Steve James at a lower east side club, joined tens of thousands in Central Park for a sing-a-long to the likes of Livin on a Prayer, and spent a sun soaked day in McCarren Pool (and I've got the red shoulders to prove it) revelling in the high school nostalgia of The Breeders.

All in all, not bad so far, even if I can't remember all of the things I meant to do.

Monday, June 30, 2008

An Improbable World

Sometimes I am not sure how to write the things I want to write here, to give you the details and the pieces that inspire the things I write and yet to save the privacy of the people in my life. But something has been sitting with me since I left work tonight, since I came home on the train and walked the long way in a hissing summer rain and made a salad and sat on my terrace watching the rain move over the skyline. Its dark outside and its still sitting with me, so I'll tell you a story.

When we are young, and by young I mean seventeen or so, everything, I mean all of it, is at once possible and impossible. It is so easy to imagine greatness. And it is so easy to give up. Because we have no idea how its going to go. And we've barely been tested. And some of us have only been failed. And yet we have endless potential. And the fear of success, and the fear of this world cripples us from unveiling this potential. Sometimes, when we are younger, say seventeen, the sadness in our eyes can sort of paralyze the people around us because they just want to help. They just want to say, look, it passes, it gets better, you can do this, but they know they can't say a word, because we have to learn it ourselves by living it.

That's all I wanted to say. That. And this.

The Summer I Was Sixteen
by Geraldine Connolly

The turquoise pool rose up to meet us,
its slide a silver afterthought down which
we plunged, screaming, into a mirage of bubbles.
We did not exist beyond the gaze of a boy.

Shaking water off our limbs, we lifted
up from ladder rungs across the fern-cool
lip of rim. Afternoon. Oiled and sated,
we sunbathed, rose and paraded the concrete,

danced to the low beat of "Duke of Earl".
Past cherry colas, hot-dogs, Dreamsicles,
we came to the counter where bees staggered
into root beer cups and drowned. We gobbled

cotton candy torches, sweet as furtive kisses,
shared on benches beneath summer shadows.
Cherry. Elm. Sycamore. We spread our chenille
blankets across grass, pressed radios to our ears,

mouthing the old words, then loosened
thin bikini straps and rubbed baby oil with iodine
across sunburned shoulders, tossing a glance
through the chain link at an improbable world.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Life gets in the way

It's been a pretty good year... I moved back to new york. I found an apartment with a TERRACE. I started working at an amazing school. I sold a book. I stuck to a workout schedule. I played on a beach in mexico. I became an aunt. I started another book. I had all this TIME. Not being a teacher meant I had all this TIME. I came home and I wrote and I slept in late and I had long brunches with friends and then wandered 5th avenue boutiques without worrying about the piles of grading I had waiting for me at home. I read novels, many of them.

As summer dawns hot and a little bit sticky, all of the sudden the walls are creeping in on this time. Things are changing, in all good ways of course, and I need to remember being busy. I need to stick to schedules and do laundry. I need to not let my writing suffer because most of all, in the empty spaces in the lists and plans I'm making, I'm afraid that TINE is going to get lost. Remind me about it here and there, will you?

I spent the morning making a few last changes on This Is What I Want to Tell You. I have such a strange relationship with this book-- like I'm deeply in love with it but the romance is gone. So we are going to take a little break and get the romance back.

The week of July 7th I am teaching a workshop for these guys. I miss teaching writing so intensely that I just cannot wait. But refining the curriculum on this beautiful summer day. What do we want to write about in the summer versus during the school year. Don't we approach the craft differently when its hot and bright and free outside? These are the things I'm thinking...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


I take back everything I said about Kobe.
So does my bro.
The end.

Why outlining is against nature

The kind of writer I am is at odds with the kind of writer I need to be just now.

Once upon a time I was the definition of organized, deadline conscious, motivated by details. With age (experience?), this has changed. The way I write now, is by scene. I have a scene in my mind, I write it. I know the characters, I know their lives, I know, in theory, where this scene will fit, when the bits and pieces are written in around it. But I am, it seems, incapable of putting a book together with any kind of chronology or order. And I am hopeless without deadlines.

What I need to be, now, is organized. TINE, as you’ve heard about here and there, is this project of passion. And I can write pages and pages of Jacob’s art and his diatribes and Rory’s quiet wonder and the details of Roman side streets… but how to link this all together around the details of a plot… this is where I struggle. And so I sat down two weeks ago to write a scene by scene outline. An outline I could follow and fill in. And what happened?

I was so bored. This story comes as it comes. I know the details of the lives inside out, how can I create the things that will happen. Don’t they just happen? This, you see, is my problem. I struggle with the idea of forcing the process and, to me, this is what outlining does. I write extensive character sketches and thematic driven narratives. I know what the story is about, yet I want the details to come organically. And so what often happens is 50,000 words of intense scenes based in the central conflicts and inner monologues, without the smaller details to fill in the spaces. The day-to-day details if you will. So I’ve started to go back to the roots of how I wrote, the way I teach my students to write, by watching… in the hallways of my school and on the steps out front and classrooms and coffee shops and overheard phone conversations… in all of this I hear the daily details and so I take a little bit and re-shape in and fill in the intensity.

I’m working on it.

And another thing… remember when you were a little kid and someone was coming to visit—your grandparents or your best friend from summer camp or your cousin from Chicago, and you’d hang out the window watching all the cars, waiting and dancing up and down with excitement. That’s how I feel right now because in 9 ½ hours Kira is gonna be in NEW YORK!!! And I get two whole days off of work.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Dad's Day

The amazing thing about this year, is that there is this little girl in our lives, who is funny and sharp and beautiful and has made all of us look at every day differently. And because of her, today my brother celebrates his first Fathers Day.

And my dad celebrates this day, for the first time, as a grandfather.

Happy loving to all of you dads... especially mine.

Friday, June 13, 2008

I still Love This Game

I am still in a place, and I hope I always will be, where my years begin in September and end in June. I live on a school calendar and I mark life transitions based upon summers—where was I and how was I living and what was I dreaming about and reading and who was I in love with and where was I subletting… I also remember these transitions around one other thing.

The NBA Finals.

I remember sitting on the floor of South Union Street on a hot dusky summer night, before we had furniture, boxes and beanbags, with H and Brennan, the only light in the house the tv screen glare while my then beloved Chicago Bulls trounced the Utah Jazz. That summer we were always listening to Public Enemy's He Got Game and every night was sweltering even at dusk… I remember a dingy basement on South Willard Street, a tear-streaked Michael Jordan curled on the glossy court floor hugging the championship trophy to him (I still reeling on the joy of his return). Those LA years in the smoky backrooms of the Roost in Atwater Village eating stale popcorn and cheering on the Kings—thank god for Peja—even in this Lakers territory. I remember when I still liked Tim Duncan—I liked his compsure and his quiet command of the court and this unstoppable pair of he and David Robinson, who seemed to have been on basketball courts since before I was born.

But mostly, I remember this.

The UntouchaBulls anyone? I fell in love with basketball watching the Chicago Stadium battles against the Blazers. My summers began when Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Scott Williams, BJ Armstrong, John Paxson (you get the idea) started taking over. Nothing sends shivers down my spine like that ubiquitous image of Jordan’s shoulder shrug after his 6th three-pointer in game one against the Blazers. I love nothing more than lip-reading the trash-talk between Jordan and Barkley when ESPN Classics re-runs the ’93 Bulls-Suns Finals. I feel exhilarated at the thought of these series. I’d never been an athlete. I grew up in a Chicago sports house, though, and in 1991 I started to get it.

Last night my brother and I sat on the phone together watching the fourth quarter of the Lakers-Celtics game—he in his Vermont living room, me on a 20 second delay on a live feed on my laptop (I don’t have tv…). It really was a fantastic 4th quarter. I’m a Kevin Garnett fan but don’t feel any great passion about the Celtics. And the Lakers? Despite the obvious coach connection, I have a lot of years of Laker animosity. Ok, Kobe animosity. But something really strange happened last night. I was kind of, for the first time in my life, pulling for the Lakers.

“Listen, Heath,” my brother said, as I bemoaned the MJ comparisons. “He’s no Jordan. But he really is unreal. And he’s the closest—no one has even come close until now.” And then we watched silently for a while.

He kind of is unreal.

I couldn’t help thinking, if I were 15 years younger, and I was just falling in love with basketball, would it be all about this?

Instead of this?

Either way, the finals are almost over, the summer is beginning, this one I’ll remember by a Brooklyn rooftop view, a cross-continental visitor, a sweltering week in June, a birthday party in the Park and the Celtics and the Lakers.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Brooklyn to Wichita

Last night I was falling asleep and the air was night-time cool. I had a long week and felt exhausted so when my phone rang, I didn’t want to answer it. But I looked down. It was Mikey and I haven’t spoken to him in months. So I answered.

Mikey was sitting on his porch on a sticky-hot summer night, halfway to the other side of the world in Wichita, Kansas. He was holding his son, Vincent, who didn’t seem to want to sleep.

Mikey and I talked about fatherhood and the realization, the moment of realization when you know it’s just you who has to figure it all out. We talked about making decisions when the decisions aren’t about you anymore. We talked about writing a book, and the reality that comes, somehow, with selling it, with knowing people are going to read it.

Mikey and I have been having late night talks—about the confusion we stand in and the possibility in new jobs or relationships and the theories of why it all is the way it is—we’ve been having these conversations for more than 12 years but last night, sitting on my Brooklyn window-sill and Mikey on his Wichita porch, caught me off guard. It occurred to me that the stories I write come from the possibility in these conversations. These kinds of conversations. Evaluating. Asking “what would it be like if…” and so, to figure it out, I make up characters and scenes and moments where that “if” exists.

I suppose I’ve known, all along, that this is what I do. But when Mikey asked me what this book I’ve written is about, I thought of a dozen conversations he and I had in college and I thought of the title, the new title, which I was uncertain and timid about and now, I know its perfect. This is What I Want to Tell You. Because, most of the time, in those late night whispered conversations with your closest friends, you would say some of it, but you almost never say out loud, to near strangers or the ones who are leaving your life This is what I want to tell you…

Monday, May 26, 2008

Why the best narrators are sixteen

Why do you write? How do you get the ideas for your book? How much do you consider your audience? These are the questions we ask of writers, the truths we want writers to answer. And so I cannot help thinking about these truths. And refining the answers.

For a long time I thought I knew what kind of writer I was—or wanted to be. But to this day I can’t tell you who that was. I know I wrote stories that were always, inevitably, about sadness or solitude and the strength of a flawed yet perfect friendship and there were always self-consciously naked bodies and self-consciously whispered confessions and everything, I mean everything, had impossible endings.

When I started to write the story that grew into THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO TELL YOU it was a story about a single mother who had five year old twins and a newborn and a long-ago love affair she couldn’t let go and a fear of losing herself in her children. I couldn’t put myself inside her, though, not in the places I wanted to, I was lost in the story of her adolescent love affair. And suddenly, almost without my knowing, the twins grew up and the story became theirs. And I realized that, all this time, what I have wanted to write about is the beginning of things. In high school we are beginning to understand the world we live in in a brand new way, yet often being told we are not ready for it yet. The emotions and interactions we experience, however, can be intensely real and mature and so often teenagers handle all of this with a grace and an honesty we don’t give them credit for. I wanted to write about this.

The good news is, it seems to be the right time for this kind of storytelling. Recently Newsweek did a story on young adult readers, their literary interests and attitudes toward content. I think, in a way, teen readers—still at a place where they can read what inspires them and what strikes them—are speaking for another generation of writers, who are maybe too busy or too critical to let books do what they once did. One thirteen year old reader, in the Newsweek article, has it right on in my mind. “The great thing about literature is that it promotes the expansion of thought and the opening of minds."


Friday, May 16, 2008

The thing about being a writer. And a gypsy. And (theoretically) practical.

The thing about being all of these things, is that they constantly pull against each other. And that I find myself wanting so many (often contradictory) things at once. Upon writing and selling this novel that fills up so much space in my mind and heart these days, I find that the dream of being a real live writer suddenly seems just a little bit possible. And it is all I want. I’ve finished revisions on PI (for which the title has changed. More on this to come.) and my brain and heart, while still with the twins, is also filled and focused on Jacob and Rory and the twisting side streets of Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood… which brings me to the gypsy part. Because I lived in this neighborhood, and found myself quite ready to leave it a year ago for this beloved New York. And what I find now is this deep and physical longing for this Rome. And Berlin. And the Santorini hillside where I spent one of my very best weeks, and the thin crowded “beach” of Anguillara and a rainy camping trip to Monte Argentario and a strange and terrifying overnight bus through central Turkey. And the places I’ve never been. Baltic beaches and Bulgarian mountains.

I want to sell everything. How can I own a couch (quite practical) when I am quite incapable of staying still for more than ten months? (it used to be two years but, well, the older I get…) and where can I go next? But o. The practical. Because I’m not quite so young as I once was. And my resume is close to three pages. And each job—significantly different from the one before. And I’m not particularly good at any one of these chosen pursuits (gypsy-ing and writing stories don’t count) And shouldn’t I have a savings account? Shouldn’t I have a career? Shouldn’t I have a plan?

But really. The greatest feeling in the world is when I am writing a story (by hand. With a pen) and the sun feels hot on the left side of my face. I’m on a plane. I’m in the window seat. I’m going somewhere I’ve never been. It’s summer.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The One Person

It's my mom's birthday. What I remember most about May 14th is the lilacs that grew up the side of our house and on the morning of May 14th, or Mothers day, whichever came first and they sometimes fell on the same day, we would make a breakfast of muesli and toast and orange juice (mixed with water, she always liked her orange juice with a little bit of water) and pick stems of lilacs and put them in a jelly jar of water and carry it all upstairs to mom, still sleeping, and the room smelled of lilacs.

"Are you hungry? Do you want a sandwich" my friends say when we talk about my mom. Because whomever walked in the door, she would feed her. Sliced apples and peanut butter and tuna salad with dill and apple pie and popcorn and chees and Stoned wheat thins and hummus sandwiches. She'd bring us trays of snacks and lemonade, whether we were 10 or 25, my brother and I and our friends, lounging with our feet on the round newspaper scattered coffee table.

Later, as I got older, my mom and I have sleepovers. We make big salads and watch movies (usually with devastating ending that leave us both red-eyed and sniffling). My mom calls me every Saturday and sometimes we talk for an hour and sometimes, by the way I say hello, she says "You're in a bad mood. I'm going to call you later." She has an instinct. There is an unspoken language between us that is perfect understanding. What I have with my mom grows and evolves every year of our lives, but we're some of the same person and some two parts that push each other and what she teaches me is pure love without boundaries and absolute truth and that if I just wait and stop and breathe, one breath slowly after the other, it will be ok.

When I gave my mom a copy of my book she printed it and tied a string around it and put it on her dining room table. "We just have to get used to each other, get to know each other a little bit before I start reading," she said. She knew the book was like a new person in my life, she just wanted to get to know him.

I love you, mom. Happy birthday.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

More birthday tales

Since the very first minutes I met J, he has proudly proclaimed his advanced years as testament to the wisdom he has to offer me. More years, more wisdom I suppose.

On that first night I met him, I was skeptical of his suntan and his his SoCal wit and his blonde streaks (all-natural of course. The OC sun). I was skeptical of all of my roommates, of moving to this strange city where the language felt so foreign I struggled to order coffee. At first, as these stories go, we fought. We still fight. But fighting with J made me less homesick. And in truth, there is something quite comforting about someone who knows all of the little details that will make you angry enough to yell or rage or just give up and laugh. There is something quite comforting, even, when someone knows you well enough that he will write you into vocabulary quizzes for the students you share. “Miss, they’ll say. “Mr. S says you never clean your bathroom and he always has to do it for you.” And you’re not sure whether to poison his dinner or laugh. There are some amazing things about J. A few months ago I told you how he forces me to tell the truth. He forces me to find humour when I want to be devastated. He always offers to do the dishes or take out the garbage. (okay. The last part is a lie). But in all truth, his generosity is limitless and shows itself in quiet and hidden ways. He is careful. He doesn’t want us to know this soft side of him, beneath the California blonde and the very hip t-shirts and the dozens of shoes—this side that I know I can rely upon, whatever it is I need. I’m just have to tell you its there.

My other favorite thing about J is his photo face. He poses. O yes he does.

Even when he's trying to make you think he's just being casual.

That’s why I love this picture. Sometimes at 244 we could all let our guard down and it was just straight up funny.

Happy Birthday, James.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother's Day and Bob Dylan. Obviously.

It’s mother’s day and I just watched the strange and striking I’m Not There.

If you know me well you know that, well, you know about me and Bob Dylan. Why I love boys who play the harmonica and paint stories out loud and why I always secretly (or not so) wish I were born into another decade, why I wish everyone were honest about our uncertainty and our ego and our ambition and our desire to tell unforgettable stories. This film captures the many faces and sides of bd in somewhat fictional characters, by numerous actors, his music lacing through the film as one constant. It makes me think about the many faces of mom in my life. The so many amazing and loving women who play this role and give face and voice to what I know of being a mama. Happy Mother’s Day. I’m so constantly in awe.

I want to tell you some stories about my own mom, one of these many faces, who makes possible the stories I do tell… but the quite incredible truth is that she was simply meant to be a mom. Not everyone was, but mind and body she was born to do it and I can only hope I get some of that. This year my niece was born and now my mom gets to be a grandmother too. Wednesday is my mom’s birthday and I’m gonna tell some stories. But for now I’ll tell you this, my mom and I listen to Bob Dylan together and sometimes he makes both of us cry. I get it from somewhere.

And because it's mother's day, here's this perfect moment.

It’s one of my favorite pictures in the world. It’s just joy. And I love that my sister in law took it, because she just gets us, because everything about it is exactly how we are. And. Check my mom out. Isn’t she beautiful?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

It's in the details

I love research. Seriously. One of the best things about being in school is writing papers and the digging, reading, highlighting, annotating that is part of preparing to write papers. One of the best things about being a teacher is the reading, watching, noting marking that comes with preparing to teach a new text and developing context.

One of the best things about being a writer is research.

PERMANENT INK did not demand a lot of research. It was straight-up from the gut writing for the most part, with lots of experience and memory and conversation and imagination thrown in there. TINE, however, involves some research. The really fun kind. First of all, it takes place in two (maybe three?) countries. Luckily I’ve been to all three countries but still—perusing photographs, reading memoirs, travelling maybe? Second of all, my characters are multi-lingual. I am not. Third of all, it’s about graffiti. I am not a graffiti artist. And here’s where I have this little conflict.

I am a writer and a storyteller and I have an inherent need to write about this graffiti artist. He’s alive and kicking and bursting with details and so, I gotta get him out there. But what if I do it wrong? What if I have no business writing about this art and lifestyle that some people are passionate about and I have never lived? What if I bring him to life and he doesn’t feel real?

Does anyone ever feel this way—are you ever terrified of writing someone who you don’t know well enough to write? It’s such a bizarre feeling. I wrote this scene yesterday where Jacob is quietly explaining that graffiti originated in Rome—in wall carvings and political messages, just like he is doing in the very same city on some of those very same ancient walls, only in colors, only in vibrant style, only right now. It’s the moment where I first sort of fell in love with him, you know that moment, when suddenly your characters become people in your lives, people for whom you feel so deeply.

I just gotta get his art right.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Speaking of exercise and amazing people

Three things.

1. I started a new writing tradition on Thursday and it changed my life. I met DM in my old writing class-- and not only is she a design genius, she is crafting the most beautiful, magical, funny and captivating triology I can imagine. She is a stellar writer and a dream reader. We decided to be partners. We're going to meet every Thursday at an undisclosed location to go over each others pages. This Thursday was the first of said meetings. And seriously, it made everything snap into place. We talked about final revisions on PERMANENT INK and the opening pages of TINE and suddenly, thanks to the brilliant DM, I am on a roll... she called out the smallest details and helped me re-form them in exactly the right ways. I love Thursdays. You are going to be hearing a lot more about Thursdays.

2. I am trying to stop coffee. Ok, not STOP. But drastically cut back. One small cup in the morning and that's it. And it means I have pounding, drilling headaches. And the sight of this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

And the sight of this is the most boring thing I've ever seen.

But seriously, I feel better. Or. Um. I will soon.

3. Since I started revisions for PERMANENT INK (which was about, oh, three months ago to be perfectly honest) I have completely given up all physical activity. Seriously. Yoga. The gym. You name it. And this week I realised I am all heavy, slow, mush. I must reclaim the exercise. So from now on this is back in my life.

And so is this.

And then there is no way I WON'T be more productive and, well, creatively driven. Right?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


I forgot to post something very important last week.

Which is April 23rd was Kira’s Birthday!!!!

Kira and I like to take pictures like this.

And we’ve done so in, I think, five countries and at least twice as many cities. Usually we look the same but sometimes we have better tans or darker hair.

I am sometimes afraid that the older I get the less likely I will make new friends. But even though Kira and I only met less than two years ago, I feel like we’ve gone through life together. It’s just one a’ those things. Kira can run faster than you and she’s probably stronger than you. She can pack for vacation in five and a half minutes. She has the best sense of humour in the WORLD. If you want to try something crazy, she will probably do it with you. And a lot of times strangers stop her on the street to tell her how beautiful her smile is. And also, when she gets home from work she puts on a blue fleece hoodie and grey sweatpants almost every day. That is her uniform. I am a big fan of at-home uniforms. I miss her like crazy and she is COMING TO NEW YORK on June 18th.

Before Kira and I lived together, I was never a big exerciser. But she is a runner. And she started bringing (dragging) me with her to Villa Pamphili park. We’d walk up the path together and then plug in our ipods, then Kira would take off in a cloud of dust and I’d chug along behind her, around the lake and through the park at the top of the city, and then she’d always be waiting when I finished the loop, and sometimes we’d sit on the bench for a while and watch the Italian running clubs in their spectacular spandex or the old men playing cards—sometimes we got caught in the rain and usually people would edge away from us on the tram because we were sweaty and gross.

Elena a character in TINE takes a lot of inspiration from Kira—mostly in her strength and magnetism. Sometimes I feel so full of gratitude for the amazing people in my life. Especially the ones who love uniforms.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Because there was no school today

Because I'm about six hours from being done with my revisions on PERMANENT INK.

And because today I wrote 4000 words on THERE IS NO HAPPY ENDING (lets call it TINE for now) and I'm unstoppable.

Because Rory, the main character in TINE looks out at this from her window.

Because I just feel like sharing, here's the first page.

It is hard to figure out when Jacob disappeared because, before the last time, he disappeared so often.

In Rome they will keep grieving him. On Via Nazionale, where his parents live, they’ll grieve him with friends and co-workers from the Embassy, but then the grief will become quieter and eventually they’ll move back to the house in Virginia where there is little to remind them of him.

In Trastevere they’ll whisper about him and hold on to each others’ hands when they see his work underneath a bridge or in a doorway. When Jacob was gone the doorways of Trastevere stood quiet and blank. He wasn’t sauntering side streets with his can of spray paint and a crooked cigarette burning in his small fingers. That was how they noticed at first and then they noticed all of the bridges and steps and bars and piazzas where he wasn’t.

In Los Angeles, where he never was, everything makes Rory grieve him.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day

I just got the most amazing phone call.

One of my students—a charming, lyrical, funny, curious activist—has been accepted to Bard. This is huge for so many reasons. First of all—I went to Bard and many mixed feelings aside, or considered, it is an incredible place that offers a realm of intellectual experience I had never even considered. And it’s a lot of fun. We never said so then, but it’s like growing up in the country, you have beautiful fields and old houses and a lot of time for creativity. I love Bard. And I am so proud of him. And it is pretty exciting to share this experience.

And the best part is that thirteen years ago on Earth Day I took Amtrak about an hour and a half south from Albany to Rhinecliff, New York and—dressed in my ubiquitous Birkenstocks and homemade sundress, I found myself on the Bard College campus for Accepted Students day. I was lingering, teetering between two worlds—between high school and college and spring and summer and kid-life and grown-up life. While Bard was not my first choice, and I was crabby and hesitant (and painfully shy) upon being there, I couldn’t help but be a little seduced by the bongo-playing boys in patch-work pants and the hand-painted earth day banners and vegan desserts for sale and sunshine-y campus. But I still wasn’t convinced.

And then I met Nicole. I can’t remember how we met exactly, but I do remember we quickly agreed to skip all required activities, take off our shoes and spend the day sitting in the sunken garden at the Hudson river’s edge, learning each others’ history and planning our futures. I still have the journal I carried that year, covered in a faded floral fabric, a page inside bearing a list of book recommendations from Nicole. A sampling

The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda
The Doors of Perception by Alduous Huxley

Yes, I read them both. Today Nicole is married to Mike, who she’d meet in the first few days of our freshman year and they have two amazing sons, Julian and Kai, who are the first Bard kids in our lives.

This time of year is so amazing. It always hearkens back to the last few weeks of senior year in high school. Your exams are over. You’re thinking about college. You’re trying not to say goodbye while trying not to move forward too fast. You’re lying in the grass and your skin is turning pink and everything is so possible. I have to say those days look so strangely blurry now. I might need to read a little Castaneda. Um. Or at least look at some photo albums.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Something Else

I can’t stop thinking about the Florida girls. And last night I wrote this long, desperate, wondering post. But then I decided I had to breathe. I don’t know what I think and none of this is going away so I decided I needed to focus on something else.

And I finished this story I’ve been writing. It’s called ‘This Place I Don’t Call Home’. And two things were so strange. 1. to go back to the format of a short story, which asks you to do so many things differently than you would do for a novel and 2. to write for a different audience is, well, different. I find myself thinking in teen most of the time but this story has a different kind of voice and a different need. It is about adults facing a very small moment that means something bigger than what they see. But what I realized—the characters have the same kind of sadness as my teenage characters.

I wonder what that means.

The other thing is that I miss Italy desperately. Especially in the spring. Most of the story is set here.

And from my dim early morning Brooklyn apartment it is hard to believe that I spent two years going places like this for the weekend. Eating fresh pears on sea-smelling terraces and swimming in April off a Capri beach and learning to slice the skeleton out of a whole fresh fish in one swift motion, eating on a tiled terrace that hung out over the sea, taking night-time ferries to ancient towns and sleeping with our windows open.

Sometimes I get so afraid I’ll forget these things.

So here is a little bit of the story—so I don’t forget.

She remembers the day, one or a dozen days, when she came home from somewhere late at night—boarding school or college or a faraway job—and it was a black winter outside, the light from the sunroom emanated warmth and from the doorway, dropping duffel bags and kicking the snow from her boots, she could see her mom at the bright kitchen counter, framed by the funny faded gingham wallpaper… peeling apples or stirring spinach soup. She was always so hungry in that house—because she knew she could eat and it would taste like something she remembered.

After breakfast, after everyone is awake and dressed and has drank their coffee and watched the sea and the beach and piazza below them fill with families and busses of tourists, they begin their hike to Ravello. At first they ascend through the town—tourist shops boasting bottles of limoncello and loud t-shirts bearing bubble-lettered Italian phrases and even a tiny ceramic Amalfi built into the hillside—after all of this they truly start to ascend. They are climbing a steep hillside, rocky and wet and winding. Spring is bursting in green shoots and white and yellow blossoms. In some places there are steps and paths built of stones, in some places they duck under the green nets spread wide to catch falling lemons and through the backyard orchards of houses built into the hillside. At one turn they are shuffling through a sun-baked path hung with brass pots, scarecrow dolls and dried chicken feet.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A new kind of violence, a new kind of conversation

Last night I was sitting in my office; it was near the end of the night and I was getting ready to go home and I hadn’t seen a student in about half an hour, so I was scrolling through the news. My eye caught a headline that said something like “Teens charged in Youtube beating”. I clicked. I felt sick.

I’m not sure what I want to say about this—other than the fact that I feel shocked and a little bit nauseated and then simply na├»ve. I have worked in high schools since 2001 and I can’t imagine the girls I know exhibiting this kind of behavior. But then I stop myself—can I? I literally feel dizzy when I look at stills from this video taped in a Florida home, which is why I haven’t posted a link here. Because by viewing this video, are we sensationalizing a deeply personal and hurtful experience? Are we contributing to undue fame and recognition for teenagers who have committed a heinous and unbelievable act? Does talking about these things—even writing on this blog—contribute to such events as a videotaped beating of a girl by her peers? I don’t have an answer but there is an underground culture of violence and hunger for recognition that is getting stronger and stronger and that we as a community have a responsibility to combat. I have written about bullying for years—first as a student pursuing my M.A. in Counseling, as a fiction writer, as a school counselor developing curriculum. I have researched and talked about how the way boys bully differs from the way girls bully, how this behavior changes with age and maturity, I have worked with colleagues to develop methods for discussing and punishing the new-ish phenomenon of cyber-bullying, which so often happens off of school grounds. But this is something all new and asks us all tore-examine the way we communicate.

What about this? What about bullying for fame and recognition? This is something that parents and educators alone can only begin to discuss—this poses a question and brings to light an issue that is so much bigger than all of us. There is something very wrong. I know that by writing on this blog, by talking in person, by posting comments and hosting real roundtables and initiating conversations we can only start. But it is the way we use ever-changing technology that needs to be addressed. It is part of education now. It has to be.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A girl can't help it

When I was first writing PERMANENT INK my friend Jenny read the first few pages. Then she sent me this article. Do you know this guy? she said. I think you have a crush on him.

I'd never heard of him. But I think she was right.

We all have our weak spots. We have a type. We do. We might want to argue otherwise but, well, I just can't help it. I love cooks.

They're supremely undateable. They work 362 days a year and a short day is 10 hours. Their hands look like battelgrounds. Their fingernails can never really get clean. Their forearms are scarred and burned and blistered. They come alive at 2 in the morning. They have a little too much fun. They smell like mussels and fried spinach and garlic and rosemary and burned sugar all at once. They flirt with waitresses and wine reps and customers and bartenders and your best friends. They live for anxiety and heat. Their apartments have no furniture and empty refrigerators and they rarely do laundry. When they do, they send it out and the bag the laundromat returns, with their shirts neatly folded, serves as a closet.

O man, I love cooks. I just read this book. And then this article. All I want to do is read about chefs. And I feel giddy. Because the thing is, in spite of (or in addition to, depending on how you look at it) all of the details I just mentioned, they are the best kind of artists. Because their food means everything to them. They live and breathe it. They don't have time for anything else. They don't have time for the scene or the image or the competition. They are just imagining the food. And then preparing it. They shape it and grill it and saute it and taste it and hate it and revere it. Then they FEED you. Come on. Looking at a painting is nice. A great song can make you cry. A poem can send chills across your shoulder blades. A novel can make you take deep breaths in awe. But a fantastic meal. There's nothing like it.

So today I keep re-writing the meal that Parker cooks because, well, there are so many possibilities.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Writing in a Bubble

I have to admit something. I get very jealous sometimes. I am a member of some wonderful groups for Debut YA writers and we talk a lot about the biggest and the littlest details of publishing a first novel. But it's little phrases like "my Crit partners said..." or "my genius husband suggested..." or "my darling partner thought I could..." that make me look sheepishly around me for someone to comment on my manuscript. It seems I'm the rare writer without crit partners (romantic or otherwise!) to guide me through revisions and sometimes, no matter how independent a writer you might be, reading aloud to an empty room does not bring new ideas about.

So this morning, H-- who has piles of essays to grade, an amazing daughter in need of mommy time and is preparing to move (read, clearly has nothing else to do) commanded that I meet her on west 12th street for brunch and revision brainstorming.

She is a genius. We went through countless details from my manuscript that H turned upside down for me, twisted, and re-imagined. I feel clear. I feel like I am looking at a new book. She quoted lines back to me and then explained what they might mean to another reader. Oh, I thought, I never saw it that way. And I scribbled notes down furiously.

Most importantly she said, listen. You have to stop being mad at Keeley.

My god, I said. It's true. I AM mad at Keeley. I didn't know you could be mad at one of your very own characters. But I am. And that means I really kicked her out of the end of the book. And she deserves to be there.

So I say, don't clean your bathroom or stare at your computer screen or try to write inside a bubble. Ask someone to tell you the truth about a few of your words. You might find out you're really really mad at your characters and you need to work this out.

And just because.

Did we really look like this once?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A little bit of hero worship

I have been thinking about what to write here for a long time. Twelve days maybe? I am not completely sure what I'm meant to accomplish with this blog. Do you read it? Do you care? Does it have anything to do with this book I am trying to finish revising so it can be published next spring? Am I making inroads into the prolific and well-connected online world of YA writers, booksellers, librarians et al... the answer to most of these questions is a quietly whispered no. But I'm trying...

So let me tell you about Migi. This is Migi. Yes, she is wearing an American flag on her head in the center of Rome the night the U.S. beat Italy in the World Cup playoffs. But she is Albanian and she is Migi. So she got away with this.

She graduated from La Sapienza last week. She studied organizational psychology and worked, for most of the last year, in a shelter for victims of domestic violence, while she completed the research for and wrote her thesis on the consequences that domestic violence have on women's physical and psychological well-being. Migi speaks and writes with fierce passion and great candor (and does so in no less than three languages, quite fluently). Her thesis is written in Italian which makes me a little crazy because I can't read it. But I can take depths of inspiration from her. For most of the time I've known Migi she's been studying. And she's been dedicated with a kind of force and tenacity I've rarely seen. And it was a few months into her job at the shelter, her careful and pointed observations and interviews, that she found the topic about which she would write, that it all came together. She lives in the world and writes from the inside out. And though she's not writing stories, not fictional stories like I am, I want to take something from the way she lives and observes.

Migi included me in the dedication of her thesis. So this humble post is dedicated to her. She's a hero.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Writing when there is no time for writing

I have spent most of the non-sleeping, non-working, non-eating-my-friend-Andrew's-kind-of-delicious-Irish-dinner hours working on There Is No Happy Ending (tentative title, but I am very fond of it…) and here are some things I learned.

1. It is so easy to dive into a project and never come up for air, when there is another project, a more urgent project, waiting not so patiently above the surface.

2. One of my characters is named Rory and she is living in Trastevere for the summer, which makes me desperate for the sticky heat and Lungotevere tables of a Rome summer. But Rory is also thinking about taking a year off. Both my editor and The New York Times made me think about this. A gap year is a rising trend and one that makes perfect sense to me. At 18, heading to college, we know nothing other than being in school. Why not give ourselves the chance to make footprints in the world and learn what we want—not what we are supposed to want. (apparently, I am now 18 again)

3. Jacob is a street artist. He is American by birth but he has lived in Rome his whole life. He has no idea where he is from. So when he disappears—and the book is about his disappearance—it makes perfect sense because he did not have roots in any one place. He disappeared from somewhere that he never felt exactly at home—he was never even really able to define home.

4. Mornings are perfect for writing. But what happens when I want to write until my eyelids fall closed and then I have to wake up and be a counselor for nine hours before I can be a writer again? What if I lose something?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

oops. I started another book.

About a year and a half ago I went to Berlin. At the time I was living in Rome—a city so richly beautiful in its own right but within minutes of descending from the train and walking the night-time streets of the Kreuzberg neighborhood I felt so alive in Berlin. I knew I had to write a story about there. The thing about the city—for me—was that it felt so intensely pulsing and working and creating. I wasn’t sure what kind of story it was going to be but I knew it needed to tell about the way that everything was very much happening—sort of urgent and curious and intense and challenging. What happened in Berlin, was that I became obsessed with street art.

We went to the Tacheles, an artists’ cooperative that looks like this.

Where people were sleeping on cots in the warehouse behind their canvases and selling paintings and postcards.

We went to the wall. Which looks like this.

And this.

And absolutely blew my mind beyond anything I had ever seen because for blocks and blocks and generations and languages people literally painted their protest and hope and stories on this physical structure that divided so much… the wall was tumbling and broken and faded in places, repainted in others, and mostly now a symbolic structure but the art that it gave voice to told the story, not just of the city, but of each individual who had written or painted.

Then just a week ago I was reading Crissa Chappell’s blog as I am totally obsessed with the descriptions of Total Constant Order and I cannot wait to read it. But then I read this and I thought, NO!, she beat me. Or maybe she inspired me. Because now I can’t stop thinking about Berlin and graffiti and this story.

I have to write about a street artist. He lives in Rome, though, a city whose street art fascinates me. He visits Berlin in the summer with an American girl who is trying to decide if she’ll go to college. And in the end (or maybe the beginning) he disappears.

This is what I’m writing now, while I’m supposed to be revising PERMANENT INK. This artist, I think he has dreadlocks. And he always has ink or paint on his palms.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mr. Betterly, who changed my world

My 11th grade U.S. History class was called Cultures in Conflict. You had a choice—you could take A.P, Regular U.S., or Cultures. For me, there was no question. I knew with absolute certainty that the history I had been taught from textbooks was censored and tainted and exclusionary. This was my 16 year old mind at work. I wanted someone to tell me the real truth. I wanted someone to tell me how to repair the mess I saw around me. I wanted someone to tell me how to change the world.

For many of us who attended Emma Willard School any time between, well, 1966 and 2000, Mr. Betterly was exactly this person. On a campus of teenage girls, Mr. Betterly (who I imagine now was probably around 6’3”) seemed to positively tower over everyone else. His laugh was distinct, his voice at once quiet and commanding. His grey hair combed back close to his head was the only sign that he wasn’t positively ageless. His shirts boasted colors and patterns of the southwest—sleeves rolled over his biceps made us imagine that in another year (or maybe, a setting outside our first floor history classroom) a pack of unfiltered cigarettes would have peaked out from beneath the rolled sleeve. His cowboy boots clicked in the hallways. And his jewelry… we’d never seen men wear jewelry like this. Those rings—beautiful turquoise rocks in hammered silver ovals, thick silver bracelets inscribed with birds and symbols that suggested peace and activism and freedom and tranquility and all of the things we wanted in the world. Much of this jewelry, he made.

Mr. Betterly taught courses on religion—on and freedom and the way I wanted to live. He taught me how a classroom should work. But mostly, he taught me U.S. History. And our textbook, while our peers were preparing for the AP, was A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

My mind was blown. There was not enough time for me to fight for all of the justice I needed to fight for. There were not enough words for me to tell all of the stories that had been silenced. There were not enough hours for us to talk about the things we read in that book. Mr. Betterly was a teacher in the truest sense. Recently, I have become a teacher. And I strive to live my life and my classroom with the same peace and challenge and humour and inspiration he did.

Mr. Betterly passed away last week and I found my sadness heavy and overwhelming when I read the news today. I had just visited my high school this weekend, and walked its quiet Saturday halls. That was always my favorite classroom, I whispered to Kristen pointing to the corner first floor room where Mr. Betterly’s voice still echoes over the opening pages of A People’s History.

Mr. Betterly, I thank you—with my heart and my words and my mind. I will always remember you as inspiration.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Why not to show your writing to your friends and family until it is published

Disclaimer: no one in my life should take any offense to this. Please. Read item #5 on the list.

1. Because everyone will say “send me your novel! Send me your story! I’m dying to read it!” And you will say ok then, and send it along (blood,sweat,tears,etc) and, for the most part, no one will actually read it. Which wouldn’t be a big deal because your friends and family are busy and have the best intentions. Except said piece of writing is probably your heart and guts so it feels like a big deal and you will take everything personally and feel depressed.

2. A few people will read it. Some will say nice things, some will say helpful things, some will say things that completely contradict what you meant to do and show an absolute misunderstanding of who you wrote your characters to be, and exactly because this is your heart and guts on the page, you will take this super-personally and not be able to sleep.

3. Your book will change SO much between sale and publication. All of the things you try to explain to your readers may be irrelevant by the time it hits shelves.

4. Um. Nobody should ever have the chance to say “o, I read that. I don’t need to buy it."

5. Mostly, you should not show your writing to friends and family because if you have just sold your first book and are in any stage of pre-publication, you are probably highly unstable. And maybe slightly irrational. And re-read reasons one and two.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Three things not at all related

I know I’m certainly not the first person to talk about this book but… you should read it.

It is somehow one level deeper than first person because not only is Clay talking to you—painting the terrifying (and in such a physical and mental way) picture of his night and his life and his slow-moving realizations, but Hannah is talking to you and Clay—who sometimes feels like you—at the same time. Jay Asher has done this fantastic and inspiring job of bringing his readers into this fictional world, this frightening reality, and at the same time asking his readers to quietly examine our own motivations.

And from a completely other angle, I also suggest you read this.

Because right now Simon Van Booy is the master craftsman in my mind. His stories are sharp and spare and clear and a little bit strange and sensual and sad. He writes sentences like

“The man who sells garlic comes from the south and doesn’t sip coffee with the others at dawn.”


“I have always been attracted to the idea of heaven, and that’s why John F. Kennedy International Airport seemed like a good place to live out the last of my time.”

Also, please save this show. PLEASE.

Go here.

I don’t even have tv. But I faithfully watch this online every week—or I did. And yes, I even own season one on DVD. This show is so amazing. The New York Times even thinks so (not that their endorsement is any more valid than anyone else’s. I’m just saying. The appeal is broad). This show is funny—I’m talking laugh out loud funny. And it does a rare and wonderful thing wherein it leads you to care just as much about the parents as you do about the kids. And yes it is about football, wow, I never thought I’d love watching football so much, but it is about everything else too. Gaius Charles as Smash will break your heart—and so will Taylor Kitsch as Riggins but in a completely different way and Zach Gilford as Matt Saracen will make you have a little crush (ok. I do) and Adrianne Palicki as Tyra will make you wonder WHY you didn’t play volleyball or go out with the kind of dorky guy who made you laugh and was nice to you and Coach Taylor. Well. He’s Coach Taylor! I can’t even say much more than that.

So, read some books. Or check out the best thing on tv.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Are you an out-loud? Or on-paper?

I don’t really know anything about hip hop and as a writer I am the opposite of a performer and I have never been a poet or a lover of the stage.

But I saw the most incredible thing on Saturday night.

These guys host free workshops for teenagers all over the city—on community building and spoken word and performance and DJing. I’ve seen their Executive Director in action, as he used to teach poetry workshops for my program in South Central LA—and his energy and language and ability to make his kids dream so big is inspiring. When I heard they were hosting the city-wide Grand Slam finals—not to mention one of my amazing students was a finalist—I convinced my friend Charlotte to spend a Saturday night in the auditorium of Washington High School watching 23 teen poets (and then some) spill their hearts out. Loud.

And here’s the thing. These kids blew my mind. They were so brave and fierce and confident and powerful and elegant and loud. They gave each other so much support and love. When one finalist walked onto stage and froze, all 23 finalists stood up and cheered and said to her you have this, you can do this and they didn’t sit down until she lifted her voice to the mic. Nobody edited or cut their words. Nobody said you can’t say that or that doesn’t sound right. They just put their words together and threw them out to us. I couldn’t believe how brave and intense it was.

You won’t see me competing in poetry slams any time soon. Nor will I ever teach spoken word and performance well. But I’ll never question its power. And it has me thinking— what are the best ways to teach story-telling? To teach confidence and to develop our own language and voice? Is it always on paper? Or is it sometimes out loud?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Some nights it all sort of feels right, right where you are

Last night I went out with Joy.

I have to admit that the older I get, the fewer single people I know and sometimes I think, wow, where are all the people who want to hang out? But really, the older I get, the fewer people I know who will leave their houses on Friday night. But thank god for Joy. First of all, Joy is just about the coolest person I know. Last night she was wearing silver leggings and a giant red ring that I swear has super powers.

Also, her shoes make her six feet tall. And her laugh makes her six feet tall.

She used to take flowers from the tables at restaurants and put them in her hair. I don’t think she does that anymore. But sometimes she wears a feather. Like Steven Tyler.

Aside from STYLE, Joy has it all over everyone you know when it comes to fun. She makes me laugh so hard, and something as simple as crossing the street or buying a shrimp pattie becomes just about the most fun thing you’ve ever done. Last night, after a series of cab mishaps, we went to see some music. It was really really good. Among a lot of his own stuff, Damian played one of my favorite songs by him.

And I decided that if I ever get married it will be my wedding song. (I’m not going to tell you which song. I feel like that might jinx something) But I kept saying to Joy, this is really good. Why didn’t you tell me? I love seeing music. I just love it when people write songs and then sit down in front of you and kind of spill their hearts out and then you can’t stop humming their spilled hearts for days.

And then we went to a party. We were apprehensive at first because we thought we might not want to see all of the people we’d gone to college with. But we went. The party was at a place that looked kind of like this from the outside.

But behind the gate and, um, courtyard? the inside was sort of amazing. The floors were made of concrete and the ceilings were 50 feet high and there wheelchairs in place of furniture and lots of art—some of it made of Styrofoam and a really cool loveseat made of blown glass. I’d love to see how that is done. And the whole time we were there there was a band setting up drums and amps and threatening to play. And it was actually really fun. But then it was way past my bedtime. And the band was still hanging out with everything sort of half set up. So we left before the band.

And outside it was a rainy New York almost spring feeling night and we were cold and kinda sleepy and had to wait a long time for a cab. And then when the cab driver dropped Joy off and started to my house he took 6th avenue all the way and hit about 47 red lights and it took forever. But I noticed my gypsy soul was really quiet. I think she’s sleeping. I think she’s feeling like maybe she can be gypsy right here in New York.