2020 was a spectacular literary year for me. On top of getting published a few times, I inhabited many different and wonderful worlds. A welcomed distraction to the current reality. I'm not going to list out all 54 books that I read, but you're welcome to check out my Goodreads page if you're interested. But I am going to share my top seven reads (in no particular order) of the year.
I highly recommend that you meander your digital library or local bookstore shelves and consider these books for reading.
2020 has been, by most counts, hot trash. But, it's also the year that upped my submission game. I set a goal of 100 rejections--I have 128 rejections and 6 publications to show for 2020 & I'm damn proud of all of it.
Nothing gets published without taking a chance and submitting work. This year I submitted 17 stories to 175 different opportunities. 128 (and counting) told me no. When I share this number, often times people are stunned and/or angry on my behalf. While I appreciate the sentiment, please know that I was well prepared for all these no's. It's just part of being a writer. Regarding the 100 rejections goal, it's a bit of a numbers game. The average acceptance rate is about 3%. So if you submit 100 times, mathematically, you're bound to get about 3 acceptances. I was lucky enough to get 6.
The Lottery House - Meg wins the lottery and tries her hand at buying happiness.
Resolute - A woman in her twenties is sure she doesn't want kids and has to convince her doctor.
The Tower Bells - A daughter struggles to find time to say goodbye to her sick mother. (Featured in Vol. 2 Iss. 2)
Velveeta - My grandpa was a man of few works and this is a short memory in his honor. (The magazine is currently updating their website, so I'll update this with the new link when I have it.)
Ovarian Instinct - what happens when you listen to your body but doctors don't hear what you're saying. A creative non-fiction piece about my struggled with getting my hormones balanced.
Separation Squared - My quarantine story about a couple that was in the process of separating when stay-at-home orders went into effect.
Thank you to everyone who has taken time to read my work, past, present, and future. I'm grateful to all of these publications for giving my stories homes in the world. And a special thanks to those that graciously read my work long before it's done and provide thoughtful feedback. These stories wouldn't exist without all of you.
2020 has been a year--and it's only APRIL. I've seen many posts, articles, tweets, insta-stories start this way and I'm convinced that it still isn't a cliche. It feels especially heavy after the last three years that have felt like six years. There is little I can do about what's happening in the world, other than stay at home (please stay the fuck at home) and donate to organizations trying to get food, shelter, and protective gear to those in need. And so I've been trying to affect change to my world and to the worlds of people I care for deeply.
For myself, this past month has been a bit of a triumph--after nine years and many, many rewrites, I finished my novel. I've had "finished" drafts of it before but they were not even close to finished; they were just getting started. I credit the evolution of this novel to the classes I took at University of Washington and University of Glasgow, to reading the work of my peers and listening to their feedback during workshop, and a great deal to Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, as well as advice she gave to me at a reading I attended. And really I am only done writing this for now. With any luck, this manuscript might be picked up by a contest or an agent and I'll be given a whole new set of notes and feedback and changes that need to be made. But for now, it's onto other projects. Because I need structure in my life, I created a quarantine syllabus for myself similar to the one I made when we lived in Scotland. It includes a list of books I should read, a goal for the number of short stories I want to write, and in a few months I'm going to start writing my second novel.
The other project I've had on my to-do list for a while is updating my travel archives. I find it humorous that my first instagram post of the year, and the decade, was reflecting on places I've been to and all the places I still had yet to see. I was contemplating where we might go this year. January Alli was optimistic. The answer is nowhere; we're going nowhere. But even that answer is short-sighted. I've decided to go back to some of those places.
When I re-built this site, a lot of the older content no longer met my own writing standards. The words didn't capture the experiences, didn't do justice to the great places I've had the privilege of visiting. Time to change that. Over the next few weeks I hope to add stories from places like Rome, Stockholm, Barcelona, and Dubrovnik to the site. I'll also be giving some love to Seattle. I'm missing a lot about my home city these days. Here's to making the best out of a strange and dark time.
The bar is unfamiliar. The crowd is older and quieter than I’m used to. They occupy booths and tables in the dim light that hides age and secrets, while I opt for the extra elbow room and more sobering light at the bar. I take the corner spot closest to the bartender and farthest from anyone else. I don’t recognize the faces that sit in booths and crowd the juke box. More important, they don’t recognize me. For one moment, I need no one to know it’s my birthday or that I was supposed to get married in a week or that I have a pending offer on my house.
The first whisky of the night is always smooth. Jura– a young Scotch, only ten years, with a caramel-like sweetness and no bite. I anchor my elbow into the bar suspending my drink just inches in front of my face. As far as home remedies go, whisky is the best I’ve found. The smell of butter and sugar mixed together like the start of a cookie dough and wafts over the rim of my glass. But when it coats my lips and my throat it holds power over too many memories—to make them vivid or disappear. Oliver used to call it a table whisky—drinkable no matter the occasion.
I nurse the first dram. Each sip tingles around my teeth.
It’s nights like these when my ring feels heavy on my left hand. I spin it around my fourth finger with my right hand as I consider my options. Everything seems vast and open ended. Even after seven months I can’t remove it. With it on, he is with me—still sitting next to me. With it on, the grey-haired men with droopy eyelids peering at me from a few seats over do not approach me, just stare at a distance. A lonely but preferable existence.
Oliver used to chat men like that up. They would talk about whisky and then business. “They’re harmless,” he’d say always thinking the best of men he thought he would look like one day. Harmless until you’re not here, I’d think.
Before Oliver died I’d often receive the unsolicited advice that people shouldn’t get married before they’re twenty-five. “Not that you two will have an issue, just something I’ve observed,” they’d say to try and soften their judgement. Since his passing those same assholes have the audacity to tell me that it’s better to have loved and lost than never loved at all. I think even Tennyson would’ve given side-eye to their callousness.
Oliver probably would’ve planned some quarter-century party for me or done something embarrassing in public to acknowledge that I’d spent another three hundred and sixty-five days on the planet. He found a special amusement in making me blush, for which I could never be annoyed at for too long. Even in a crowded party where I keep to myself, he would come over and make it feel like it was just us two and no one else. Instead I sit here acknowledging that it had been two hundred thirteen days without him. Two hundred thirteen on its own doesn’t sound like a big number, an intimidating number. But waking up two hundred thirteen mornings when it feels like I’m missing a limb or a quadrant of my heart still remains the worst injury I’ve endured. Even with two hundred thirteen days between then and now, my emotions are only secured by the skin of my teeth, only to be beckoned forward by the inquiries of curious strangers.
It’s a daily chore for me, heaving my body out of bed and going about the day. Some are more put together than others: I get up, shower, put on make-up, go to work, and interact with others in an almost cheerful manner. Others feel as though I have a wound that has yet to scab, still raw and ripe for infection. Those days I request to work from home or claim a sick day.
The last sip is more smooth than the first.
Today is Tuesday. Oliver’s mom, Nadine, calls every Tuesday. I missed her first call because my wispy blonde haired real estate agent came over for a fourth time and asked if I had made a decision on the pending offer on our– my – townhouse. I decline her second call. She leaves a message this time.
Oliver was without a will when he passed. We both were. Because no one tells you to create one when you’re in your twenties. But when he passed his parents didn’t magically forget that I existed and had created a life with their son. It was nothing like you see in the newspapers or families fighting over the end of life decisions of their deceased loved ones. At the end of it all, there was just the house so they couldn’t argue much about it if they wanted to. My name is on the deed and mortgage next to his. We both emptied most of our savings and retirement funds to afford it. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea initially, but Seattle rents weren’t any cheaper so we decided to be poor with equity.
The equity looms over me. Every month that passes, my mortgage mocks me. My bank accounts taunt me with only half as much income deposited every month when the expenses stay the same.
I put a coaster on top of my empty glass and go outside. There’s a group of people reminiscing about a time where one of them did something stupid. They’re all in a fit of laughter while their cigarettes teeter between their fingers. I light my own cigarette and play Nadine’s message. “Nora, it’s me. Nadine.” She started every conversation this way. “I hope you’re doing something nice for your birthday. I know—I know that’s what he would’ve wanted.” I want to call her back. I owe her that much. But pulling myself together long enough to order my drink, let alone having a coherent conversation has been hard enough today. I know I can’t be the strength she’s looking for. She hasn’t let go yet, not that I know how a mother would go about that task. It’s not like I am a shining example.
She used to be one of my favorite people. Her hugs are tender and her voice thoughtful and kind. Her heart was bigger and more welcoming than any other I’d encountered. But in her, I only saw Oliver. Her hugs were his. Her words were his. Her heart was his. Every so often we get together for a meal. Her eyes always look sad, not like she had been crying, but like her soul was broken mirroring my own hurt. There is a time coming when I will no longer take her calls. It is a day I dread. I delete her voicemail. Oliver hated when I did this. “But you’re not here to give me shit about it,” I mumble and exhale a cloud of carcinogens.
I go back to my stool at the bar and order a Highland Park twelve year. The barkeep tilts his head towards me wondering if I actually like Scotch this strong. Moreover, if I can afford it. Fuck off. I nod at him assuring him of my order. When I ordered a Scotch with Oliver next to me, no one questioned me. Will I have a lifetime of this so long as I sit at the bar alone? I don’t remember people questioning my taste before I met Oliver.
The first sip is bold. Whisky coats the back of my throat. The glass suddenly feels slippery between my fingers. My palms are sweaty thinking about the house. I stare at my glass sitting on top of the rich, mahogany bar trying to distract myself from the thick business card I can feel burning in my back pocket. “The couple that submitted the offer really would love to live here,” the wispy blonde-haired lady said, giving me yet another business card before I left for the bar earlier.
I didn’t live in the house—not the whole thing anyways. Our life is now a relic that I view like a museum exhibit. The occasional observation to see what had collected dust and where our dog Winston decided to nest while I am away working. I occupy our guest room and guest bathroom and most often our couch while Winston tries to find a way to comfort me another night. He wallowed with me at first for a couple months after Oliver didn’t come home. But he knows it is just us two now.
Winston knows the new routine. Without fail when I return home he will sniff my knees to inquire into my whereabouts that night, usher me to the kitchen counter for a nightcap then to the pantry for the stale cookies, that I haven’t given up on yet, before we end the night on the sofa.
The mortgage and the house attached to it are the emergency brake I’ve refused to pull. They kept things steady and predictable even as they stood as a constant reminder of the person I love and the life we had built even though I can no longer afford it.
Outside the same group of people are still reminiscing—a new story now. I tap my pack, flick my lighter. Inhale. The smoke blends with the whisky that still coats my mouth. It is not an adequate replacement for the conversation I miss but it beats standing alone with nothing to keep my hands busy while my mind churns through what-if scenarios like cogs churning at a factory.
One more. “Talisker, neat,” I request. The peated whisky compliments the smoke that still lingers on me as the glass touches my lips. It was Oliver’s favorite and the most expensive one at the bar. I have a bottle of it, still two-thirds full while the others hovered just above empty, on the kitchen counter.
He wanted to serve it at the wedding but I was quick to squash that request. Between us two, I am the frugal one. He was the one that didn’t mind added expenditures so long as there was an experience to be had.
Our three years were the fastest I’d ever lived. Filled with endless pints and spending money we didn’t have on good Scotch and rooting for our home teams and fumbling through our unkempt Spanish skills while we backpacked through Spain and asking serious questions while we’re drunk and eating cold pizza. These months after him have been the slowest – filled with more whisky and fewer memories to prove it.
They say there’s beauty in hindsight, but I suppose that’s when people have the luxury of being nostalgic with their chosen person. Guilt is temporarily washed away with each sip of smoky whisky. Now all I wish is that I could tell him yes. Replace Marie Antoinette’s words with Let them drink Scotch and see the simple yet expensive joy it brought him.
Two hundred thirteen days ago, I had no regrets. Now they stack upon one another like the wooden tiles in a game of Jenga waiting to topple and destroy what was left of my solitary existence. When I think of him, the part of my heart that was missing aches as if it still existed. Unsaid words burrowed through my thoughts and appeared when I least expected reminding me of the goodbye that would never be uttered for him to hear.
Winston is waiting for me behind the narrow window next to our front door. He sniffs my knees and ushers me to the kitchen counter for a nightcap. I forego the cookies and instead grab the last cigarette from the pack. Winston cocks his head to the side as I flick my lighter and release a cloud into the middle of the kitchen. We never smoked in the house. It’s someone else’s now.
*This story was first featured in From Glasgow to Saturn, Issue 43
On the train from Edinburgh to Inverness the view was quick to shift from medieval city to farmlands to the rugged, rich cliffs of the Highlands. About fourteen miles east in Beauly sat a restored croft house devoted to writers. At the top of a hill, it was nestled between snowy peaks and blanketed by clouds. We were meant to spend the week discussing short stories and indulging our writerly whims.
I heard him before I saw him. The image I’d conjured in my head didn’t match the tenor of his voice. A brown trilby hat rested on one knee while he balanced a full glass of wine on the other. He looked like a long-ago model from a hunting magazine. I sat down on the couch and listened to the conversation when he handed me a glass of wine. “Mark,” he said, offering a hand shake before continuing his discussion.
Over dinner and wine, we got to know one another. The conversation was lively and pleasant. Everyone still on their best behavior as they sought out who was friend or foe.
After dinner, we were to interview a fellow writer about our work and ambitions and report back to the group. The tutors paired me with Mark.
“Ladies first,” he said.
I gave him my elevator pitch—I’m writing the second draft of my debut novel, developing a short story collection, and am partial to literary fiction set in the modern day.
“So like Outlander,” he said.
“No, that’s more like historical fiction with a magical realism twist.”
“Yes, but their historical details are realistic and very important to the story.”
“I understand, but that’s not what I’m looking to write.”
“She’s very popular. It’s now become a television series,” he said.
“That’s great but that’s not what I’m looking to do.”
“What are you looking to do?”
I repeated my pitch. He nodded. I was unsure if he actually listened to me or pretended. A bell rang. My turn to listen.
He wanted to write a memoir about his wrongs and the wrongs committed against him. “That’s what I’ve come here to work on,” he said. He digressed about his time as a journalist, his first marriage, his second marriage and how he saved it, hunting trips, estranged children, love for substances (but not addiction). His words filled the air between us and all I could think about is how his objectives opposed those of the course we were attending. I nodded and retained the few relevant facts to present to the group.
Mark offered to speak first.
“This is Alli and she wants to write the next Outlander series.”
For fuck’s sake.
Guest author David Constantine joined us that evening. Over dinner, most were on their best behavior and asked innocuous questions—what books he’d recommended, where he liked to write, how he knew when something was a good idea. Not Mark.
He gestured with his fork. “The four of you, I believe to be quite shy and quiet and I cannot judge your intelligence because of that,” he said, singling out the women he was referring to before blocking his words with a fork-full of food.
We were on the opposite end of the table from Mr. Constantine, but Mark’s voice reached every corner of the room.
I looked at the other women sitting around me. Anger filled their eyes, but no one wanted to waste energy confronting his unsolicited judgements. I leaned forward. “I’ve never been called shy a day in my fucking life.”
My words pushed him back in his seat as though we’re still in his heyday and women just didn’t talk that way. Another woman stepped in to my defense, but Mark was daft and childish and continued to offer an opinion that no one requested. The women and I traded glances with one another.
After, we took our drinks out to a round, thatched-roof house warmed by wood stoves to listen Mr. Constantine read In Another Country, from his collection by the same name. A love story during world war two; two people separated by tragedy and time but brought together, in a way, decades later by a natural phenomenon.
Our tutors thanked him profusely for sharing his work. Mr. Constantine offered to stay a while longer to answer questions. A shared dread filled the room. Instead of a question, Mark offered an assertion.
“It’s about anti-Semitism.”
“No it isn’t.” Mr. Constantine was steadfast.
“Yes it is.” Mark continued, defiant and erroneous. “The girl had a Jewish name but the boy was not Jewish. I would know, my mother was Jewish.”
Mr. Constantine spoke slowly, annunciating each syllable as though talking to a child.
“Though they could seem as star-crossed lovers, being from two different faiths, the nature of this story is how their love outlasted war, natural tragedies, and death. Their faith had nothing to do with the story.”
While Mark battled Mr. Constantine about the subtext of his own work, I debated whether or not I was surprised by Mark’s actions. Having studied literature, I’ve witnessed my fair share of pretentious intellectuals debate the intentions and realities of an author’s words. But we were not around a long table discussing the works of those, living or dead, that were not there to verify our assumptions. Sitting before us was the author clear as day telling us exactly what his intentions were.
The brave among us tried to shift the conversation until Mark tired at last.
Several of us stood around the kitchen, talking and drinking coffee and tea as we prepared the communal meal. Mark burst into the room. “I’ve had a success! I need to kiss a woman.”
The women looked around at each other, some more nervous than the others. I answered on behalf of the group. “No.” A complete sentence.
Mark complained that it was a simple request, nothing sinister, before he sauntered off. He left us alone for the majority of the night. Or maybe we’d been successful in avoiding him. At that point it was a concerted effort.
His general presence and my combative nature wore on me. I ate, cleared plates, cleaned up the kitchen – anything that maintained distance – while he passed around another bottle of mediocre wine.
He had brought his own stash. A self-proclaimed burgundy man. “I like fine wine,” he told the group, though the bargain-store label suggested otherwise. I declined a second glass and extracted myself to write in the comfort and relative silence of my room.
Noises deadened. Windows turned black as lights were extinguished before I ventured back to the common spaces of the croft house. I made tea and sought the solitude of the quiet, bench out front. Beneath me, the wooden slats were cold from the crisp autumn winds that had blown through the highlands. Balancing my mug between my thighs, I cupped a hand and flicked my lighter. The embers raged in the paper as it crept towards my fingertips.
Between bouts of wind that rustled through the shadows of bare tree branches and tall grasses, the night was mute. The deep silence ensconced me in the unfamiliar landscape. I paced my breath with the stillness of my surroundings, careful not to disturb the established peace.
The door flew open as if propelled by his voice. He did not notice me. He lit his own cigarette and checked his phone. Like an animal confronted by unexpected head lights, I froze. My breaths were shallow and quiet. My tea grew cold and the cherry on my cigarette neared my fingertips as I sat motionless.
He spotted me. “I didn’t know you smoke.”
I released the air from my lungs. His declaration had no care for the calm he was disturbing in the darkness.
“Only occasionally. When I want some quiet.” I inhaled pulling the embers closer to my lips.
He put his hands up in surrender. “I know when to shut up.”
For a few moments we sat in silence though silence had never felt so arduous. In attempts to refocus myself I looked everywhere else but his direction. The clouds as they floated under the moon. The moon in its various shades of brightness as the clouds passed underneath sometimes creating rings around it like a halo, first white then orange then red. My cigarette was out.
There was one left in the pack. Lighting it in that moment would seal my fate. I would say something. I couldn’t not. Not after the few days I’d spent listening to him go on about everything and nothing.
I flicked my lighter.
“A few nights ago you said something to me,” I broke the air between us. “You said I was shy and therefore, possibly, unintelligent. I paid six hundred pounds to come here and learn. I can’t very well learn if I’m the loudest one in the room.”
He nodded. “You make a great point.”
But I had opened a door. He began in on his philosophical feelings of emotions he trusts and doesn’t. He trusted intuition. I reminded him that intuition isn’t an emotion so much as a judgement call.
He changed his word. “I trust uneasiness,” he said. He didn’t trust anger, fear, people who are too loud and too confident. In that moment I seemed to agree with him. For a moment, I wanted so badly to be a mirror.
Alice might as well have been there with us. We went down a rabbit hole with the convers-ation diverting to women’s rights and experiences in general. “Women have always had, at least since I’ve been in the business when I started in the seventies, equal opportunity in the workplace.”
I couldn’t take it. “You’re going to actually sit there and make that statement to me with all the Harvey Weinstein bullshit going on right now?”
He did so happily. He prattled on with a story of how he once was up for a promotion against a woman for two roles, one junior and one senior. “She got the senior job because she had more talent,” he said.
“I don’t doubt it.” None of his work over the week had suggested that he would have been the more qualified candidate. “But you don’t know if there was anything else your management considered before she got the senior job.”
“Well, she never told me.”
“Why would she?”
I was surprised when he paused, considering my question. Maybe he hadn’t considered himself a member of the patriarchy before. “But I don’t think she was ever propositioned,” he said, failing to understand my point or the weight of the words that tumbled from his smoky, inebriated mouth.
Without many departing words, I excused myself.
All at once I had won and lost a battle. I felt strong and resilient yet small and nauseous.
I showered to try and rid myself of the smell on my fingertips, the anger in my blood, the pit in my stomach knowing that I had actively given up on someone. The idea that someone was past repair, or at least repair that I would witness, made me ache. I sat in the shower basin, hunched over as the hot water came down, unmoving until my skin turned red, purifying only the top layer. I was as small as I felt.
A week I had eagerly awaited had nearly gone. I laid in bed trying to decide if the end was a good thing. The previous days had been as sweet and sour as a take-out dish. I did not want to part with the weathered hills that surrounded me, but I made a silent wish for the day to end as quick as it started.
The evening was meant to be a ceilidh of sorts. Large bowls of haggis, neeps, and tatties sat in the center of the table. Drams of single malt were handed out. In true tradition, To a Haggis, by Robert Burns was read, glasses were raised, and we toasted to our literary week.
There was an unspoken truce amongst us twelve. The dinner was reflective of the week we spent together—things we’d learn, stories we hoped to write, ways we’d attempt keep in touch with one another. Even Mark was thoughtful when he spoke. I wondered if maybe I had given up on him too soon. If perhaps our discussion had resonated with him, settled into some nefarious groove of his ignorant mind. Each of us of course were trying to keep our nerves at bay prior to our reading.
Mark read second. His voice filled the room of a story that really happened on a race track that really existed with people he really knew. All of us attempted to give him dedicated attention.
Nine other writers read pieces that they’d written before it was my turn. I had done a reading before, but it never seems to be less nerve-racking. I held my five-minutes worth of pages in front of me. Despite my nerves, I managed to keep my voice steady and at a normal pace for the first few paragraphs—until his phone rang.
Mark jumped up. “One moment! I’ll return in a jiff!” The front door open and closed between us and him, leaving cold evening air in his place.
My hands fell to my side, still clutching my pages. I asked the tutors if I should keep reading or wait. Manners overruled anger at the start. “Let’s give him a moment.”
People whispered about his rudeness and his transgressions over the week as if he were standing just at the other end of the room.
After five minutes, they told me to read on. Seconds after I finished, he walked back in the house. Any merriment being shared by the group was deflated in an instant.
“Thank you all for a lovely week, but I’ve got to be off.” Mark placed his remaining two bottles of wine on the dining room hutch and tipped his hat.
His desertion hung silent in the air.
The croft house grew lighter.
Huddled around the kitchen with the remaining writers, I stood taller than I could the night before.
This story first appeared in Issue 42 of From Glasgow to Saturn in Spring 2019.
This past weekend, I attended AWP for the first time. AWP (Association of Writers & Writers Programs) is an annual conference that takes place in the US, changing cities each year. It's a place for writers to converge and talk about the characters in their head without anyone questioning their mental status. Moreover, there are hundreds of panels, readings, discussions, and exhibition booths to attend and learn new things.
With 12,000 attendees, it was overwhelming at times. I don't like big crowds and I like having time to process my thoughts, but I would absolutely go again.
Since getting back to Seattle, there are two piles that I've sorted my thoughts into--how to get the most out of AWP and how to navigate being a writer.
How to get the most out of AWP
How to navigate being a writer
I don't actually have the answer to this. It probably looks different for everyone, but here are some things that were useful for me to hear.
If you attended AWP this year or in the past, what things did you learn? Share in the comments!
Life has changed a lot in the last few weeks. We moved from Edinburgh back to Seattle and last week I started my master's program at University of Glasgow as part of their distance learning program. And as I embrace these changes, I've also spent a fair bit of time reflecting.
This year was a lot of things for me. Most notably, it was a lesson in failure, resilience, flexibility, and patience. My original plan was to attend the University of Edinburgh and get my degree while Reese was also attending to earn his MBA. I applied, and was rejected, twice. That sucked. And, as many know, I don't do well without a plan. In no reality would I just twiddle my thumbs for a year, but I wanted something to show for it. So for everyone that asked me what I did for a whole year without a job, this is for you:
This year I…
If I'm being honest, I had hoped the last three points would've had higher numbers, but that's where flexibility and patience came in. I had a goal of reading 40 books, writing 2 full novels, and 15 short stories. I didn't create a goal for submissions because I wanted to focus on creation this year.
This was a year of learning for me. At no other time in my life have I had so few external factors structuring or influencing my time. The only things that were truly mandatory in my life this year were feeding and walking the dogs, feeding myself and Reese, and occasionally cleaning. The rest of it was up to me.
So me being me, I made a syllabus. Admittedly, it was overly ambitious (a common observation my manager often made when I was at my previous job). But honestly, I work better that way. I epitomize the carrot-stick philosophy. I will always strive to hit the mark. So if I set the bar higher, I'll likely get more done than if I set it at a more reasonable height.
To help me attempt some of these goals, I also attended a few writing courses and retreats organized by University of New Orleans and Moniack Mhor, respectively, where I gained invaluable experience from practiced writers as well as my peers.
And in attempts to complete my syllabus, I stumbled on some unexpected lessons.
This year, I'm looking forward to having some structure imposed on my life by someone other than myself. Having completed my first two weeks of classes, I can say with all honesty I missed having hard deadlines. I manage my time so much better.
I'm sure there's plenty that will come up over the year that I won't expect. There will be new lessons that I learn and irrevocably change the way I live my life. I can't wait.
The literary canon, I mean. What canon were you thinking about?
Anyways, today I saw one of my favorite authors speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Lauren Groff, promoting her new collection of short stories, Florida, had a lot to say about reading, readers, and intersectionality.
There's a phenomenon amongst readers where women will read a variety of authors but men typically only read other men. If you look in the New York Times By The Book column, male authors rarely cite female authors as influencers while female authors tend to have a more varied list of inspiring artists.
When I think back to my English Literature undergraduate classes, the only female novelist we read was Mary Shelley (whom I admittedly really dislike) and a handful of poets, like Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in our core classes. Only when I took a Women's Literature course were Virginia Wolfe, Alice Walker, and Jeannette Walls on the syllabus. It will come as no surprise to most people that the course was comprised of 100% women. There was not a single man in attendance for the semester. Moreover, it was and still is an elective and not a required course.
And this only covers a single divide in society--gender. And even the discussion about gender is often limited to cis-gendered men and women.
Syllabi rarely incorporates work written by people of color, people of the LGBTQ community, and/or people who subscribe to non-Christian beliefs unless you elect to take a class that focuses on those specific communities. And with that, the canon is undeniably white and male.
I feel fairly confident that if you ask any male author, they will say they're well read. But as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett points out, how can you be well read if you don't read women? And to take it steps further, how can you be well read if you're only reading books set in whitewashed America or Europe? You're missing the majority of what the world has to offer.
Intersectionality is where we learn. Where boundaries are illuminated and we get to decide whether to push against and shatter them or leave them in place.
And I think Groff articulates it best: "And it isn’t because male writers are bad people. We know they’re not bad people. In fact, we love them. We love them because we have read them."
Changing the canon doesn't mean removing the old, white guys from the mix. It means adding other perspectives to the collection.
Not sure where to start? Check these books out:
If you're reading my blog, this post is not the first, but it is the inaugural post of Pen & Lens Collective.
A few months ago I was notified that my previous domain was going to expire. While I still wanted a personal site, I had no desire to renew under that domain name. In the two years that I ran the site the way I curated my thoughts and photos changed.
I had two options - I could rebuild the site with the content as it stood and rebrand or start from scratch. Being a glutton for creative punishment, I chose the latter.
Even if my readership remains an intimate group, I wanted a site that reflected the things I've learned over the past few years. I spent several years working in marketing - the least I could do is create a site map that made sense for the user experience I wanted. Not to mention all of the life lessons I've collected at the same time.
What I learned during my time as a marketer is what inspired this change. That coupled with my constant mission to keep my life relatively clutter-free, I wanted to simplify things. Gone are the attempts at posting daily adventures while I'm traveling (sorry, Dad). No longer will I set goals for myself based on quantity over quality. Though I know Google's algorithms favor frequent post, that's not my end game.
Thoughtful content - that's what this site is about. Be it my writing or photography, I want to put thoughtful content into the world.
So to that end, I made some changes.
For the most part, I've kept my archived blogs as is. Blogs I kept aren't necessarily evergreen and forever relevant; they're just a little more thoughtful and reflective rather than ranting and reactionary. The biggest updates made were to my travel posts. Over time, the blog style of mine that changed the most was how I talked about my adventures. Somewhere in 2016 the current style began to take shape and I really found my groove in the summer of 2017.
Even how I approach writing blogs like this one have changed. Since I work better with deadlines, I used to set them for myself with every blog. But they felt rushed and offered little insight or perspective. I wrote this over several weeks as I redesigned the website. When an idea crystalized and I thought it was important to share, then I added it in (or edited something out).
Photos are organized in a similar fashion, by geographic regions, however I've designed it so only one photo is consumed any given moment. One of the things I've enjoyed about this redesign is that it forced me to go through my collection of work and see how my creative eye has changed over the last ten years. Even though my older photos might not be up to the same creative standard I set for myself these days, they hold some of my favorite memories.
Some things to look out for:
All that being said, please peruse and enjoy!
For the past five weeks, I've been across the Irish Sea from Reese and the dogs, writing in Cork, Ireland. What started off as a solo adventure ended up being an adventure of community and camaraderie. As far as spending time away from my family, this was well worth it.
Each summer the University of New Orleans meets in Cork, Ireland for their Writer's Workshop, hosted at University College Cork. Luckily for me, the program is open to writers outside of the program as well. Throughout my time there, I participated in two writing workshops, one fiction and one non-fiction. Both were led by published authors who also happen to be wonderful teachers. For weeks, my peers and I immersed ourselves in each others work, learning new craft techniques, asking questions, pushing each other to create better work.
On free weekends, I took the chance to do some exploring. The first weekend I headed up to Belfast, but the rest of the time I enjoyed some little day trips to Cobh and Kinsale. Both are little seaside towns that are less than an hour by train or bus, respectively. While many go to enjoy the delicious, fresh seafood (so I've been told), I went for a change of scenery while I write and people watch. Both towns have charming cafes and pubs with some of the most friendly people I've ever met. If you're traveling through southern Ireland, these should be on your must visit list, even if it's just a fly-by.
There were so many good moments that came out of these past weeks, but here are my top three:
And while I had an amazing time this summer, I'm happy to be reunited with Reese and the dogs in Edinburgh.
Well, it's been a good minute since I've written anything here. Time has been whirling past, it seems, and it seems to move faster as the years go by. That said, it's somehow the middle of 2018, Reese is almost finished with his program, and soon we'll start the next chapter, wherever that may be.
In April I had the lovely fortune to be able to visit with family and friends back in Seattle. After seven months of seeing people via video chat, it was great to talk to people in person; share drinks and meals together at the same table.
While I was in town, I got to catch up with a friend of mine, Dan, who recently started a new website called Pleb Story. While it's a strange thing reading about yourself through someone else's perspective, I am honored that he asked me to be his first guest and look forward to seeing who else gets featured in the future.
I also had the particular privilege of photographing one of my best friend's wedding. It was one of the most special days filled with love, friends, and family. Though I wish I had more time for my visit, I'm really thankful that I got to be present for some wonderful moments.
Creatively speaking, the last few months have been some of my favorite. I've immersed myself in my writing in a different way than I have in the past. One of the most rewarding things has been discovering my own style, the way I like to put string words together and create the fictional people and places that are in my head. A lot of that has to do with reading other good writers. At the top of my list right now are Lauren Groff, Roxane Gay, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (in no particular order). All three of them write such authentic, complex, compelling, interesting women. They weave stories that are thought provoking, bizarre, and evocative. I'm grateful to have them in my life, or at least my library, while I continue to find my own literary voice.
And this brings me to my biggest life update - starting in September, I'll be attending University of Glasgow's Creative Writing program working towards my master's degree. It's really rewarding that the all of the work I put in these last few years is starting to pay off.
Now it's back to working on some edits for stories I'm supposed to submit.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending a week, up near Inverness, writing and doing almost nothing else. At a place called Moniack Mhor, writers gather several times a month to attend tutored or non-tutored writing retreats to finish a project, improve a particular skill, or find some creative inspiration in the midst of the highlands.
I spent the week working with Michèle Roberts and Romesh Gunesekera, and twelve other eager writers, where we discussed writing short stories, what we were all reading at the time, and what troubled us most in our creative endeavors. The layout of the week was split between the two authors and their different workshops they had planned for us each day. We spent the mornings in workshop, doing various exercises, having interesting discussions, and then spent our afternoons writing, editing, sharing, reading, and sometimes taking a walk through the highlands.
For me personally, it was a concentrated week of creativity. I've never really experienced anything like it. All we were meant to focus on was writing with the least amount of distractions possible. It was amazing. I tried to get in a routine in the short time while I was there. Each morning I woke up, had tea, read, went to the workshop, took a walk in the afternoon, went back to my room to write, and then joined the group for dinner.
I can't say enough good things about getting to spend concentrated time with other writers. For one, there was a distinct understanding between everyone about how nerve wracking it is to share new work or to start a new project. Everyone was kind and thoughtful to one another but also really pushed each other to think about our own stories from a different perspective. Almost every time I've gotten into a room with a new group of writers in a classroom setting, I get a bit nervous that my writing will be too similar to someone else's. But each time I am reminded that every voice is so distinctly different. We all were native English speakers working from a similar education level, but each person approached the same writing prompts with our own, unique perspectives that always resulted in a distinctly different story.
During the week we each got a one on one feedback session with Michèle and Romesh, which was wonderful. They were each very thoughtful in their critiques but approached my stories from a different angle which gave me a very thorough and well-rounded understanding of things I got right and areas of my writing that I needed to work on.
I'm so grateful to have had such an experience in such a beautiful and relaxing setting. I look forward to my next trip up there in January.
This year while Reese is earning his MBA, I'll be spending my time on a different journey - a literary one. Writing has long been a passion of mine and this year I have the privilege of finally being able to dedicate quite a bit of my time to being a writer.
Leading up to this adventure I was both excited and uneasy with this next year. My excitement is easily explained - I'm spending a year living in Scotland with my husband and dogs while I write. It's a dream. But at the same time, this is fairly uncharted territory for me. Ever since I was sixteen I've had some sort of income, be it from babysitting, working odd jobs, working at my university, and finally working in marketing. This year, my job title is (currently unpaid) writer. And that is an adjustment for me. So to try and combat my anxiety about this new change, I put my project management skills to good use and came up with a two-part plan. I decided honing my craft and (eventually) getting published is my goal. My original plan to achieve this looked a little different, but I quite like the one I've come up with.
Part one is actual course work. Before we moved I looked for short term classes and writer's groups and retreats that I could benefit from and found quite a few in Edinburgh and elsewhere in Scotland. This first quarter, if you will, will be my busiest. I am signed up for two short courses at The University of Edinburgh and two writers retreats later on in the year. Both will give me the opportunity to meet up with other writers, pick their brains, learn from them, and get feedback on my work. I hope to take some additional courses in the winter and spring as well, but for now the courses I have set up are a good start.
The second part is by my design. There's no two ways around it - I work best with deadlines. So I made myself some deadlines. I created a syllabus with writing assignments inspired by previous professors and specific readings so I can learn from some of the best. So from now until next September, I'm on the clock and I know it.
But still, whenever I sit down to write I feel a little like Ted Mosby in when he starts Mosbius Designs. I don't want to forget about the weight of the books, if you will. I worked really hard this last year to give myself this opportunity, but the last couple of weeks I can't help but think, what if I blow it? I do not want this to turn into a lost opportunity and write nonsense or binge watch shows on Netflix because I was too overwhelmed to start writing.
Cognitively, I know that the best way to overcome this particular anxiety of mine is by taking action. Just write (this blog might be a bit of a forcing function). But even still, my fingers still sometimes feel a bit frozen when they approach the keyboard.
Recently I've begun editing my book for the third time. All 325 pages being critically looked at by me. This time it's different. When I edited my book the previous two time, I was reading for plot holes, grammar errors, consistent tone, character consistency. Not this time. No paragraph, no page is safe. Words are getting cut.
It's not that plot holes and character consistency isn't important. To the contrary, their crucial to the audience believing that I'm a for-reals writer. But I have a different goal in mind with this third edit. I want every word in this book to have a purpose. To move the plot forward.
I began writing this book in 2011 during NaNoWriMo. I love NaNoWriMo because it's a great forcing function and pushes me to write my thoughts on an actual page. But not everything thought is a good thought. In fact, maybe thoughts are like photos: only a third of them are worth sharing with the world.
What brought me to this new realm of editing?
Finishing (and eventually publishing) my book is one of my New Year's resolutions. I am putting more energy and thought into this than ever before. I want this book to be that one third. So here's to more frustrating but cathartic editing!