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NaNoWriMo 2014

 

books about words photo

I’ve said for a long time that I’m not a fiction writer.

I’m a voracious fiction reader – you only have to look at my book list to see that. I love a good novel, and I appreciate the skill and hard work that go into crafting a compelling story. But when I write, it tends to be essays or book reviews (and maybe one of these days, a memoir). I often find myself intimidated by the idea of creating an entire fictional world from scratch.

Enter NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo is a wild, gleeful, no-holds-barred burst of creativity – an annual challenge to write a novel, or at least a 50,000-word draft, in a month. It happens every November, with people around the world participating, and it can be tremendous fun. I did it in 2008, when I wrote a novel about an American girl who goes to Oxford. (Art imitating life, anyone?)

I hadn’t planned to do NaNo this year, but seeing the buzz about it online made me decide to jump in, fittingly, at the last minute. And I’m loving it – such a fun chance to break out of my usual writing box and do something totally different.

I’m drafting a murder mystery set in Oxford – both a fun new challenge, an homage to the detective novelists I adore (especially Dorothy Sayers), and a chance to spend (more) time daydreaming about my favorite city.

radcliffe square dusk oxford

So far I’m at 13,000-plus words and going strong. I’ll keep you posted.

Happy Friday. And, if you’re noveling, happy NaNo!

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harvard yellow leaves houghton library

Back in early September, I posted my fall manifesto. It’s been a gorgeous fall around here, full of travel and crisp days and bright leaves. (And work craziness, just to keep it real.)

Here’s an update on my manifesto items:

  • Reread the Emily Byrd Starr books by L.M. Montgomery. Done. I love this series and it had been far too long. I enjoyed spending time with Emily again.
  • Find the perfect double-breasted trench coat. Still looking.
  • Host my sister and brother-in-law for a visit. My sister came alone, and while we missed her husband, we had a fabulous time.
  • Go apple picking. (Check. Cider donuts and all.)
  • Make pumpkin bread and cranberry-orange bread. I need to get on this.
  • Drink chai and savor the last of summer’s produce. Yes and yes.
  • Spend a week in Oxford for the first time in five years. As you might expect (and as you know if you’re a regular reader), it was fantastic.
  • Spend a long weekend in NYC with the hubs. We had a wonderful time. (I love New York in the fall.)
  • Write by hand nearly every day.* Working on it.
  • Read at least three classics.* (Silas Marner = read. The Song of the Lark, The Handmaid’s Tale and Sense and Sensibility – a reread – are all on the short stack.)
  • Knit something fun and colorful.* I’ve started a Bees to Honey shawl for myself and a secret project for a friend.

How’s your fall going? (To those celebrating – happy Halloween!)

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bookstore gloucester ma

It’s been a zany month so far, between houseguests, work obligations and prepping for travel. Here are the books that have kept me sane:

Nine Coaches Waiting, Mary Stewart
A young, orphaned Englishwoman is hired as governess to a French child in an isolated château, but begins to suspect that her charge is in danger. Lyrically written and suspenseful at first, but the second half felt flat and predictable.

That Summer, Lauren Willig
When Julia inherits a house from her unknown great-aunt, she returns to England, intending to sell up. But a mysterious Pre-Raphaelite painting, a handsome antiques dealer and Julia’s own troubled past give her reasons to stay. Compelling and fun, with a bit of historical mystery.

Ben Le Vay’s Eccentric Oxford, Benedict Le Vay
The lovely Caroline gave me this book when she visited Boston this summer. As an Oxford devotee, I already knew some of these wacky stories, but many tidbits were new to me. Quirky, fun and quintessentially English.

Walking the Woods and the Water, Nick Hunt
A longtime fan of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Hunt retraces Paddy’s journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. The eight decades between Paddy’s walk and Nick’s have brought many changes to each country Nick visits, and he describes them in lucid detail. I loved the anecdotes of kind strangers and the gorgeous descriptive prose. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 28).

A Poisoned Season, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily Ashton’s second adventure finds her pursuing a cat burglar and dealing with a rather unnerving secret admirer. Witty, well plotted and much better than the first book – I’m planning to continue with the series.

Windows on the World: Fifty Writers, Fifty Views, Matteo Pericoli
Working from photographs, Pericoli creates detailed sketches of fifty windows, through which fifty writers gaze as they work. From city apartment houses to small towns and a few remote islands, the views are varied and stunning. Brief essays by each writer accompany his or her window. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 13).

The Lace Makers of Glenmara, Heather Barbieri
Fleeing a broken heart and other griefs, Kate Robinson finds herself in a tiny Irish village, where she learns lace-making from some local women. I really wanted to love this book, but I just didn’t – it felt flat and stereotypical. Pass.

The Sound of Paper, Julia Cameron
This is one of my favorite books on writing (and life), and I’ve been reading it slooooowly for the last eight weeks or so. It helped greatly in my August writing project, and it always restores my faith in myself as a writer. Highly recommended.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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memorial church harvard fall red leaves

We’re headed into my favorite season, which contains my birthday (next week!), crisp air and red leaves, the beginning of a new school year (bouquets of sharpened pencils, anyone?) and the sense of endless possibility.

I love a good list in a new season, so here’s my manifesto for this fall:

  • Reread the Emily Byrd Starr books by L.M. Montgomery – they seem perfect for crisp golden mornings and velvet twilights.
  • Find the perfect double-breasted trench coat.
  • Host my sister and brother-in-law for a visit (this weekend!).
  • Go apple picking, make pumpkin bread and cranberry bread, drink chai and savor the last of summer’s produce.
  • Spend a week in Oxford for the first time in five years. (!!!)
  • Spend a long weekend in NYC with the hubs. (I love New York in the fall.)
  • Write by hand nearly every day.
  • Read at least three classics. (I’ve got Silas Marner and The Song of the Lark on the short stack.)
  • Knit something fun and colorful.

What’s on your list for this fall?

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tea journal sunglasses

In early August, as I was taking a little break from the blog, I issued myself a small challenge: write every day, by hand, in my low-tech journal.

I’d fallen out of the habit during our crowded July, and I missed spending time at the page – not always writing anything “important,” but simply jotting down thoughts and memories and to-do lists. I also wanted to see if I could do it, plain and simple. If I wasn’t spending (much) time and energy on the blog, could I transmute that same energy into my journal? I started a brand-new journal on July 31, with high hopes.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t write every day.

Here’s what happened, though: I wrote nearly every day.

Sometimes I wrote more than once a day, scribbling down a few paragraphs in the morning and then returning for a longer writing session after work. I mused and rambled and vented; I made lists and dreamed and wondered. I worked through more than a few exercises from The Sound of Paper (for at least the fifth time). My left hand sported ink stains, and my soul remembered how to exhale.

I began to crave that time at the page, that time to listen to myself and remember what I think and why it matters. I urged myself to pick up the pen even when I didn’t want to. I did not always succeed in this, but I began to turn back toward that gentle discipline, the one I’d almost forgotten: the deeply pleasurable act of daily (or almost-daily) writing.

It’s a new month now, and last night I finished the journal I’d been scribbling in during my prolific August. I don’t know as yet if any brilliant essays were hatched in that journal, or if the fresh journal I’m starting will hold better ideas. And I’ve realized it doesn’t matter – at least, not as much as I thought it did.

What matters is the process, the gentle daily doing, the wholesome and freeing (and sometimes frustrating) act of laying it all out there on the page. What matters, as all the best writing teachers would say, is that I’m writing. Even if it’s messy or disjointed or mundane.

I’m not sure if I’ll manage to write every day in September. But I’m keeping the same goal in mind: to write nearly every day, by hand, and thus to dig a little deeper into my own life. (And maybe I’ll turn up a few good ideas while I’m digging.)

Do you write in a low-tech journal, or have a daily writing practice? Do you agree that the process is important? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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shoes book harvard yard

As we head into another school year, I’m thinking back over my favorite reads of the summer. I love to read all year round (which you knew), but there’s something about summer reading – diving into a fast-paced series or sprawling out on the beach or sofa with a juicy novel.

Here are the highlights from my book list this summer:

Most Exquisite Coming-of-Age Stories: Mambo in Chinatown and Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. Both books feature Chinese-American protagonists trying to make their own way in New York City. Heartbreaking, gorgeously written and hopeful.

Darkest/Most Fascinating YA Series: The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. Epic battles, unusual magical powers and a truly fantastic love story, set in a fictional realm (Ravka) inspired by imperial Russia.

Juiciest Smart Beach Read: A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams. Love, scandal and natural disaster among the New England aristocracy, which I read (fittingly) on the beach in PEI.

Best Combination of Zen and Whimsy: Bunny Buddhism by Krista Lester. Because we could all use a bit of advice about how to hop mindfully.

Wackiest Blend of Greek Mythology, Teenage Love & a Great Story: the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (a reread).

Best Ultramodern Jane Austen Adaptation: The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet by Bernie Su and Kate Rorick. (I loved the web series too.)

Loveliest Travel Memoir: The House on an Irish Hillside by Felicity Hayes-McCoy, which is not only about Ireland but about how to live.

Most Beautiful Language: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.

Best Refresher on Writing and Life: The Sound of Paper by Julia Cameron, an old favorite. I’ve been going through it sloooowly, letting its words sink into my soul.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are the best books you read this summer?

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harvard yard construction

I work at Harvard. And right now, I work in a construction zone.

For the past year and a half, I’ve worked in a red brick building on Appian Way, a quiet Cambridge street several blocks northwest of the bustling center of Harvard Square. And for months now, since the construction crew began work on a project that includes adding two new floors to our building and various other improvements, we’ve lived with the sounds of drills, jackhammers, and construction workers shouting instructions to one another.

The elevator is permanently out of service until it can be brought up to code. Scaffolding wraps around the outside walls of our building, and a thick film of construction dust coats the windows in our ground-level office suite. By the time you read this, my colleagues and I will have moved across the street to a temporary office suite in the library so the construction crew can install a (long overdue) sprinkler system in our usual location.

Over in Harvard Yard, three blocks away, it’s a similar story.

I’m over at the Art House America blog, talking about life in a construction zone. Please click over there to read the rest of my essay.

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