Kristan Hoffman

writing dreams into reality

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HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE by Margaret Dilloway

On Monday I decided to ignore the computer and silence the phone, and to just read instead. Partly because I have a book club meeting coming up, and partly because I could feel that my mind and body needed this. It’s so easy to be a slave to the screen, to social media, to all the alerts and messages vying for my attention. I wanted to assert my freedom. I wanted to establish a boundary.

It was wonderful. I read ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes in its entirety. (And I used up the better half of a tissue box while doing so!) I can’t remember the last time I sat and focused on one thing that way, for that long. It felt great. Almost like meditation.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I don’t have favorite lines from it to share and reflect upon. It wasn’t quotable in that way. I think part of the reason it could make a great movie is because it’s more about the plot and less about the prose. Also because Emilia Clarke has been perfectly cast as Louisa.

How to Be an American HousewifeAnyway, I do have a small backlog of books that are quotable, so I’m going to highlight one of those today instead. First up, my friend Margaret Dilloway’s debut novel HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE. This book came out a few years ago, but the subject matter is timeless to me. It’s about a Japanese woman reflecting upon her early life and what led her to marry an American man, as well as about their daughter’s journey back to Japan to reconnect with family and culture.

“You are right to be afraid,” he said, “but where does this fear lead you? Nowhere. You must let go of fear.”

It’s easy to tell someone, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” But the truth is, there’s plenty to be afraid of, so I love the idea of accepting fear as reasonable and real, but then setting it aside anyway. It’s hard — but valuable — to be able to sit with an uncomfortable feeling without letting it overtake you.

Forgiveness is a skill that, like cleanliness, should be learned early and practiced often.

What a smart and beautiful analogy. I’ve read a little bit about forgiveness lately — especially in the wake of the Charleston shooting, here and here. I’ve also been thinking about forgiveness in the context of an old friendship that soured. What I realized is that I may not fully understand the nuances of it. I think I’m better at forgetting, burying, “moving on.” But maybe that’s not the healthiest way? Maybe I need to practice more.

“Is it funny to feel homesick for a place I’ve never been before?”

In my opinion? No. Because that’s how I felt the first time I explored Madrid. I recognized it as a home of my heart, even though I had never been there before. (At least not in this lifetime…)

“If you wait for happiness to find you, you may be waiting a long time.”

I think I’m good at this one. My whole life, I’ve gone after what I wanted. I’ve failed often enough, but I try not to let that deter me. I guess it’s the whole “you can’t win the lottery if you never buy a ticket” thing.

Do not protest against life’s strains, but let them unfold and carry you through wherever they may.

This one is harder for me. I’m an emotional person, so life’s disappointments and injustices do hit me hard sometimes.

Sometimes letting go brought more peace than holding on, I realized, though it was harder to do.

And this, to me, seems very interconnected with the previous quote, as well as with forgiveness. All I can say is, I’m working on it. On all of it.

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“There’s a lot to be said for the long game”

My college friend Michael Szczerban is now an editor, and he also contributes interviews to Poets & Writers magazine. From his latest, a roundtable with 4 young agents:

Ballard: I often take people on and then work with them for a very long time. The first novel I sold this year was something I had worked with the author on for four years. It wasn’t that I was editing every line. We just had to find out what the story was. I work very closely with my clients, and I bet everyone in this room does. The better you make the book, the better the sale.

Flashman: Your point is really important because sometimes writers think, “Oh, I’ve got an agent! We’re sending it out, it’s going to be a best-seller tomorrow!”

Habib: There’s a lot to be said for the long game. Look for an agent who’s in it for the long haul.

This turns out to be a fitting post for today since Twitter tells me that it is Agents Day. I’ve been with my agent, Tina Wexler, since April of last year. In that time, she has already proven to be a kind, wise, generous, and patient advocate. Even when I lay bare my insecurities and frustrations, she guides me through them with confidence and grace. Sometimes I worry that I’m a bit of a disappointment to her, like an investment that hasn’t panned out. But then I remember that she’s in it for the long haul, and so am I, and the years ahead hold unlimited potential.

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“All roads lead to writing”

From “Just. Keep. Writing.” by Victoria (V.E.) Schwab (with bold emphasis added by me):

The fact of the matter is, if you’ve written a book, and it doesn’t sell, and you want to keep going, you need to write another. If you’ve written a book, and it does sell, but doesn’t do well, you need to write another. If you’ve written a book, and it does well, you need to write another. All roads lead to writing.

And this is good, because when it comes to publishing, very little is in your control. But the one thing you CAN control is the book. The words you put on the page.

So when everything is going well, and when everything is falling apart, you have to keep writing. It is your tether in the storm, and your grounding when you might otherwise float away. It’s easy to lose focus, to get caught up in the successes and failures, but you must. keep. writing.

From a speech given by agent Jim McCarthy:

Your greatest asset is your writing. But almost equal to that? Your endurance, your fortitude, your belief in yourself.

Both links are very much worth reading in full.

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What I’m asking myself lately

when you look back will you be proud

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Hilary Masters, mentor and friend

I remember being surprised that Hilary was a man.

Based on name alone, I was expecting a woman that first time I walked into Hilary Masters’s classroom. Instead, I found a grizzled old soul with sharp eyes, a gravelly voice, and sly wit. He was intimidating because he didn’t suffer fools or slackers. But he was always wise and generous in his guidance of our work. The more we gave, the more he gave.

Hilary-Masters-1

That first class took place in Baker Hall, in a plain white room with long tables arranged into a square. While other students filled in anywhere and everywhere except right next to the professor, I took to sitting just to the left of him. Later, the advanced classes grew smaller — and perhaps braver — until it was just half a dozen of us squeezed into Hilary’s office. The boys liked his lumpy green couch. The girls settled into various random and mismatched chairs.

Hilary always presided from the well-worn leather rolling chair at his desk. He listened thoughtfully to our excited chatter, indulging us for a few minutes at the beginning of every class. Then he called us to order and listened even more thoughtfully to the work we read aloud. His observations were specific and insightful, often leading us beyond the words that we had put on the page, to the deeper meaning and emotions underneath, which we hadn’t even realized we were excavating.

From Carnegie Mellon’s obituary for Hilary:

“Always encouraging, he believed in the craft of writing and he believed in his students, and he believed in me,” Barnes said.

By senior year, I considered Hilary a mentor, and I asked him to supervise my thesis project. With humility — and a hint of warning — he accepted. Then he challenged me to write 10 new pages of my novel and show it to him every week, regardless of any other club, school, or Resident Life responsibilities I had. It was hard, but I did it. I wrote half of that novel under his guidance, won an award for my thesis presentation of it, and finished the draft a few months after graduating.

Hilary didn’t make me a writer, but he did make me a better writer. More than that, he opened up his heart and his home to me and a few of my classmates. I remember the awe we felt at being invited into his charming historic house, with all its worldly knickknacks from his long and fascinating life. I remember trying triple creme cheese for the first time, and daring to have a sip of wine. I remember sitting in the tiny room by the stairwell and talking about books late into the night.

Hilary Masters was a special man, and I feel fortunate to have known him. Friends are often teachers, and in this case, my teacher became my friend. He will be missed.

For more about Hilary’s full and interesting life, please read this lovely write-up in the New York Times.

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