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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

rick castle kate beckett

Recently, the hubs and I watched the series finale of Castle, which has dominated our Monday nights for several years now. The show has suffered over the last couple of seasons, amid writer/producer turnover and a few casting changes. But we love Rick Castle and Kate Beckett and their ensemble cast, and we wanted to watch the end of their story.

In case you’re not familiar with it: Castle features Rick Castle, bestselling mystery writer, and Kate Beckett, NYPD homicide detective, who are thrown together when Castle begins shadowing Beckett as inspiration for his novels. Nathan Fillion plays Castle to cheeky, charming, boyish perfection, and Stana Katic is Kate Beckett: sharp, intense, brilliant, good with a gun. The supporting cast is equally beloved at our house, especially Beckett’s fellow detectives Kevin Ryan (Seamus Dever) and Javier Esposito (Jon Huertas).

We fell in love with Castle after our friend Nate practically shoved the DVD of Season 1 into my hands, telling me, “You’ll love it. He’s a writer!” And it’s true: one of Castle’s unique pleasures is its focus on, and delight in, good stories.

Especially in the early seasons, Castle is often able to help solve a homicide by thinking of it as one of his mystery plots. At least a dozen episodes include the line “If I were writing this story…” and feature Castle pacing around the 12th precinct or his apartment, trying to fit the clues into a narrative arc. Beckett – ever the practical cop – sometimes gets impatient with this line of thinking, but Castle’s narrative framework often leads them to a solution. Sometimes it provides the episode’s final twist, when the case seems to be neatly wrapped up, but the story is missing something.

As the show continued, its narrative arc expanded beyond each episode’s murder and solution: Beckett recommenced her longtime quest to track down her mother’s killer, and Castle wrestled with a few of his own demons, writing-related and otherwise. The show has traced his relationships with his whip-smart daughter Alexis, his ebullient actress mother Martha, and Beckett herself: what was at first a grudging partnership (on her end) became a dramatic love story. Meanwhile, the wisecracks from Ryan and Esposito made me laugh every week, and their quiet, steadfast loyalty to Beckett and each other has often made me cry.

After sticking with these characters through some serious highs and lows (and a mind-boggling number of homicides), I was hoping for a satisfying finale. We did get some resolution of a few major plot threads, but the ending was…not great. As the final credits rolled, the hubs and I looked at each other and said (almost in unison), “If I were writing this story…”

Maybe we didn’t get (exactly) the ending we wanted. I know that Hollywood studio politics, and the last-minute decisions of producers, had a great deal to do with that. It didn’t feel smooth or coherent or clean, and I’m also sad that I won’t be spending Monday nights with these characters any more. We’ll still quote episodes and watch reruns occasionally (and Esposito’s trademark “Yo!” is now a staple at our house). But it won’t be the same.

I love shows that make me laugh and make me think, and Castle has done both, in spades. I’m going to miss the folks at the 12th precinct. But I’m grateful for the hours of enjoyment, and the insights into what makes a good (heart-pounding, witty, compelling, highly entertaining) story.

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my kitchen year book pie flowers

I’ve been reading Ruth Reichl’s glorious cookbook-cum-memoir, My Kitchen Year. The book includes 136 recipes spread over four seasons, and each recipe is accompanied by a short essay. Most of the essay/recipe combinations begin with one of Reichl’s tweets, which are almost haiku-like: brief, clear, vivid renderings of her moods, meals, and where she finds herself at that precise moment.

My Kitchen Year was born out of a difficult time in Reichl’s life: the year after Gourmet magazine closed down, suddenly and unexpectedly. Reichl, the magazine’s longtime editor, found herself jobless, unmoored and totally unsure of where to go next. (I nodded my head as I read those passages: my layoff last spring induced similar feelings.)

She took refuge, perhaps unsurprisingly, in her kitchen, and the resulting book contains many mouthwatering recipes. But I loved it most for its simple, lyrical record of her journey through that year. Reichl writes with grace and honesty about feeling lonely and uncertain, about trying new ingredients and projects, and retreating to comforting familiar favorites. Her prose evokes quiet mornings at her house in upstate New York; afternoons spent browsing cheese and butcher shops amid the colorful bustle of New York City; reuniting with Gourmet colleagues for long evening meals and spending hours by herself, in cafes or on city sidewalks.

My Kitchen Year is about food, certainly, but it’s also grounded in a particular place and time: field notes from a year when food and a few key relationships were Reichl’s only anchors.

Ten years ago (!) this month, for my college graduation, I received a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. My then-boyfriend (now my husband) plucked it off the shelf at our local Books-a-Million, knowing I loved books about writing and thinking perhaps I’d enjoy this one. He could not have known – nor could I – how powerfully Julia’s short essays, about writing and living and beginning again, would resonate with me.

Like Reichl, Cameron (though I call her “Julia” in my head) writes in first person, grounding her ideas in a specific place and context. She begins many of her essays with a note about the weather: a “gray, dreary, socked-in day” or a morning of blue skies and budding trees. She writes about her New York City apartment overlooking the Hudson River; the house she loves in Taos, New Mexico; the music and books that inspire her. Her ideas about building a life conducive to creativity, a rich and artful life, are broadly appealing, but they are also field notes, full of crisp sensory details. She invites us to notice each day along with her.

I think that’s how blogging and social media began: as a way to share field notes from our lives, a way to reach out to one another across the vast spaces of modern life and say, “Here I am. This is what I’m noticing today.” I have met so many wonderful people (some of whom I’ve eventually met in person) this way: through the small, quotidian details we’ve shared online, the ways we have chosen to record and remember the stuff of our lives.

I have an ongoing text conversation with a dear friend that functions in a similar way. We share small notes on of our days: traffic and commutes and weather, lunch and errands, meetings with friends and colleagues. We talk about big ideas too, and what’s making us laugh, and sometimes we share what is saving our lives. Some of it probably is universal. But much of it is blessedly particular: field notes from these specific, mundane, glorious days.

I write sometimes here about the Big Things: the struggles of the job hunt; the prickly ache of missing my family; the quiet glory of my marriage; what it means to be a person of faith. But I am just as likely, on any given day, to be writing about the small, vivid, particular things. To be sharing field notes from right where I am.

Thanks for reading. As Lindsey noted recently, there is a lot of kindness that shows up online, and I’m grateful for every bit of it here in this space.

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tulip magnolia buds blooms

Spring is still struggling to tug itself forward. So am I. Outside my writing window, it is drizzling, and my mood matches the atmosphere—dribs and drabs of depression, a light misting of malaise. What’s wrong with me is what’s wrong with spring: I am not all here yet. Some part of me is still caught in yesterday’s winter, and that chill grip on my ankle will not let go.

—Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper

“Everything right now feels tentative, uncertain, transitional,” Lindsey wrote recently on her blog, and I felt a quiet thump of recognition when I read those words. Yes.

After a winter that did not overpower us like last year’s, I think we were all expecting an early spring. But the weather in New England – whatever else it may be – is rarely predictable.

A couple of late snowstorms (six inches of snow in early April!) and attendant cold snaps have pulled us up short, reminded us that winter isn’t quite gone yet. The evenings are longer, the light sharper and more golden, but the air still carries a bite. On most days, I’m still wearing my winter uniform of black leggings, ankle boots, green wool coat. I have been yearning for a vacation to somewhere warm, but that wasn’t in the cards this year.

During these breezy, capricious spring days, I have also been in transition at work (again): adjusting to the rhythm of a new office, six floors above the ground in Harvard Square. New colleagues, new duties and dynamics, a slight shift in work hours, a different angle on the neighborhood and the university I love so well.

I have struggled to be “all here” in this season, to live in my new-for-now reality instead of missing the one I left, or worrying over the lack of permanence. Meanwhile, various other uncertainties, large and small, keep knocking me off balance.

“We are always swept this way and that,” Jessica Fechtor writes in her gorgeous memoir, Stir, which I read last week. “We create the life we want to live, yes. Then, in return, that life creates us. We follow the tides; we have no choice. We splash about beneath the brightest of moons, then the darkest of skies, tug hard from the surface on anchors that refuse to budge, and then, if we are very brave, dive deep.”

Some seasons, as Lindsey noted in her post, feel particularly off-kilter, uncertain. And yet this is the way life is, though we don’t always realize it. We spend our days in the liminal spaces, moving from change to change. We follow the tides, as Fechtor says: sometimes floating and splashing on the surface, sometimes diving deep. I know that all these things are true, and yet I am always searching for anchors, a safe place to rest, a still point or two in a turning world.

I find it hard sometimes to look for the beauty in transition: it’s much easier to appreciate budding trees and unfurling tulips than it is to make sense of deep personal struggles. But the in-between places are where our lives take shape, and there is – I know – lots of joy to be found there.

“My job, and I do not always like it, is to imitate the season unfurling outside my window,” Julia Cameron writes in the essay quoted above. As I walk through this slow and lovely spring, I am trying to emulate the trees and flowers: to pay attention to the light, and (as Julia concludes) “to push on through the gray into greater blossoming.”

early tulips public garden boston spring

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dish rack kitchen

To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

I found this poem via the good folks at Image Journal, who are always providing thoughtful perspective and encouragement related to doing good work.

As a person who does a lot of my work digitally (and/or in my head), I spend a lot of time thinking about “real” work and what that means. I am grateful for the physical tasks of life that must be done, that require labor and muscle and provide tangible satisfaction. I love Piercy’s images of mud and harvest, of people plunging into work – of various kinds – that is good and real and true.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month.

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laptop darwins chai

On any given day, I get a lot of email. I bet you do too.

I appreciate the tabs in my Gmail inbox that (mostly) separate the pertinent, interesting stuff from the marketing emails and social media notifications. But some of the best, most surprising messages end up in the “Updates” category.

These aren’t the notes from friends (though I love those) or the emails from my editors about freelance assignments. (Though those are important and sometimes moderately lucrative.) These are the email newsletters to which I subscribe, and they are some of the best things in my inbox.

Here’s a roundup of my faves:

shelf awareness readers banner

Shelf Awareness
Full disclosure: I am biased, because (in case you didn’t know) I write book reviews for this smart, funny, big-hearted, bookish newsletter. But I still read it every single day. It comes out in two versions. (I get both.)

The longer-running daily newsletter is stuffed with book-trade news and bookstore updates, plus one book review each day. The Readers edition comes out on Tuesdays and Fridays and is chock full of book reviews and “book candy” – all those fun bookish articles/quizzes/photo galleries you see floating around the Internet.

The Shelf crew is proudly pro-indie bookstore and anti-literary snobbery. We love great books and we want to help people find them, and we love bookish fun in all its forms. Our mascot, Vik (a happily book-obsessed Buddha), likes to dress up for special occasions. I have met some wonderful people, and interviewed a few fabulous authors, through my work with the Shelf.

One caveat: your to-be-read list (or library holds list) will grow after reading the Shelf. But if you’re a bookworm, that’s not really a bad thing.

 

modern mrs darcy banner

Modern Mrs. Darcy‘s newsletter
Anne Bogel writes a smart, thoughtful, charming blog at Modern Mrs. Darcy. I also love her monthly-ish newsletters, which inevitably contain thought-provoking musings, lovely photos and links to blog posts you might have missed. I sometimes save the newsletters to read again.

Anne’s voice is warm and inviting, and she’s always finding and sharing good stuff. It’s a pleasure when her newsletter pops up in my inbox – it’s like getting a letter from a friend. (I count her among my Internet friends.)

 

innocent newsletter banner smoothies

Innocent Drinks newsletter
When I lived in the UK, I developed an addiction to Innocent smoothies, which are tart, fruity, delicious, and (sadly) not sold in the U.S. Innocent sponsors the annual Big Knit, in which they ask folks to knit tiny hats for their smoothie bottles, then donate part of the proceeds from each behatted bottle to charity. They publish a weekly e-newsletter full of updates from Fruit Towers (their office), tidbits about smoothies, and humorous absurdities. (I’ve always thought it would be a hilarious place to work.) The newsletter makes me laugh, and crave smoothies.

I also subscribe to a few bookstore newsletters (from Brookline Booksmith, the Harvard Book Store and the Bookstore in Lenox); Hollywood Housewife’s newsletter; and the New York Times daily headline email. And, of course, I always like to see an email telling me I’ve got a library hold to pick up.

What are the best things in your inbox?

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journals bon voyage red stars

When we are unable to work, we can work at the work of getting ready to work. Writers can lay in supplies of paper and enticing pens, notepads that plead, “Please write on me.” Painters can prepare their canvases, clean their brushes, neaten their studio space. Potters can acquire a new lump of cool clay and clear the table spare where they will knead and shape it. Gentle things can be done.

—Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper

I’ve written before about how Julia’s words – especially in this book – are touchstones for me. She writes honestly about the frustrations and fears of the creative life, but is always nudging herself and her readers gently forward: Easy does it, but do it.

Write a few pages by hand, she says. Slip in an “artist date” on your lunch break. Pick up a few books that inspire you. And then there’s the advice above: so small and simple that it’s easy to overlook. But on these long winter afternoons, it is saving my life.

Some days I am able to move quickly and efficiently through projects, crossing tasks off my to-do list. (I love those days.) Sometimes I have a deadline prodding me along, or a colleague who needs something from me. That’s the easy part. The hard part is when I know I need to do something – send an email, draft a piece, tackle a nagging task – but I can’t make myself get started. This is where Julia comes in.

I like the phrase “the work of getting ready to work.” For me, that sometimes looks like buying nice pens or vivid, lovely journals (see above). But more often, it’s an even smaller step: Creating a Word document. Starting an email. Making a list. Figuring out what a task actually entails, breaking it down into manageable steps, and then tackling the first one.

Sometimes, the very fact of that waiting Word doc or email draft or to-do list is a scaffold I can climb on, materials in hand, and start to build something good and true. It may be only a stark outline, but it’s often enough to nudge me forward, toward the real work. (Bonus: these things also mitigate the terror of the blank page or screen.)

How do you nudge yourself to get ready to work?

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stories matter nanowrimo sticker

A story is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle that would cover the whole floor of a room with its tiny pieces. But it’s not the sort of puzzle that comes with a box. There is no lid with a picture on it so that you can see what the puzzle will look like when it’s finished. And you have only some of the pieces.

All you can do is keep looking and listening, sniffing about in all sorts of places, until you find the next piece. And then you’ll be amazed where that next piece will take you.”

Finding Serendipity, Angelica Banks

I read Finding Serendipity in mid-November, and this quote struck me as perfect for NaNoWriMo.

Most people (including me) start NaNo with a shiny but elusive idea, and we spend the month chasing those ideas – or, as Banks would have it, sniffing about for the next puzzle piece. Some folks work from detailed outlines, but I tend to make a few notes and then plunge in.

My first two weeks of NaNo were, shall we say, prolific. I was a little hopped up on both caffeine and words by the end of Week 1:

 

I wrote so much, in fact, that my wrists and hands (not to mention my tired brain) began to protest:

 

I slowed my pace a little during the second half of November, but I still made an effort to crank out a thousand words or so every day. My story is full of plot holes (and too much dialogue), but I’m proud to say I hit 50,000 words over Thanksgiving weekend, which makes me a NaNoWriMo winner.

nanowrimo 2015 winner banner

My novel, Pies and Plies, isn’t nearly done, and I’m not sure it will ever see the light of day. But that isn’t the point. It’s flawed in a hundred places, but I still love the premise – which came to me in a dream this summer – of a family running a ballet studio-cum-pizza parlor (hence the title).

Every time I attempt NaNo, I take on a new creative challenge. This time, I enjoyed the process of drafting a young adult novel. (I read a ton of YA novels, but I’d never attempted to write one.) This story is set in the suburbs of Boston (instead of Oxford, where my previous two NaNoNovels take place). And while all my narrators end up sharing some of my thoughts and preoccupations, this narrator, Elise, is not a carbon copy of me. That was also a creative stretch, and a satisfying one.

I don’t think I’m a fiction writer at heart. I tend to write about what I know, or more specifically, what I think about what I know, and what happens to me. But I love stories and I believe that they matter, and I love joining in this annual, gleeful, worldwide burst of creativity. And it’s so satisfying to say it: I won!

Onward to December – wherein I will still be writing, but giving my wrists (and brain) a bit of a break. Whew!

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