Category: Reading/Writing Page 1 of 86

Books, motherhood, and time

From “Boyhood on a Shelf” by Barbara Mahany:

That’s what reading together in childhood does: It forever binds us. My two boys, born eight years apart, played with their toys alone. Reading was where we nestled, where we sank in deep, side by side. Books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together. And they were my guideposts as a mother; they whispered the lessons I prayed my children would learn: Ferdinand, the gentle bull? Be not afraid to march to your own music. Harry Potter? Believe in magic. The tales of Narnia? Defend what is good. Tom Sawyer? Roam and roam widely. And never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.


I remember my mother reading to me. For some reason, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and A Castle in the Attic stick out the most in my mind. But I know she started our nighttime reading years before either of those, with classics like Goodnight Moon and Dr. Seuss. My memories are hazy flickers of a candle’s flame. It’s not the sound of her voice that lingers decades later, but the feeling of being read to, and cared for. The feeling of shared discovery, as the stories unfolded before both of us at the same time.

It is interesting, and wonderful, to be on the other side of that now.

We started reading to IB almost as soon as she was born. Ridiculous, maybe, but oh well. First, it was simple board books with black and white illustrations. Then, little stories with cute rhymes. Now, we can tackle more complex picture books, with layers of meaning for all ages to appreciate.

I imagine we will do the same with RB, when he gets here. (Oh, by the way, I am pregnant again.) I very much look forward to reading to him too, and to her and him together.

I wonder which stories they will remember the most when they’re adults. I wonder what shape their memories will take.


From “How I Rebuilt My Childhood Library, Book by Book” by J. Courtney Sullivan:

When you’re dealing with used books that once belonged to children, even those listed as “like new” are worn. A stray crayon mark or a torn page is not a sign of neglect, but of love.

With the arrival of every volume, I’d get a thrill, remembering. Not just the book itself, but what it meant to read it under the covers with a flashlight, or on the back porch of our house…


In the publishing industry, there’s a lot of talk about how books are not in competition with other books — at least not truly or solely. They are in competition with movies, TV shows, apps, social media, etc.

Now that I’m a mother, and my time and energy feel much more limited, I understand this more than ever. At the end of the day, after I’ve put IB to bed, and daytime’s obligations have either been finished or saved for tomorrow, I have about an hour or two to myself. I typically spend the first thirty minutes “resetting” the house — cleaning dishes, putting away toys, etc. Then it’s my time to “relax.”

Relaxing should be easy, right? And what could be easier than surfing the internet or watching TV? Or scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds? So those are the places I turn to first. The places where my mind can go a bit blank, usually.

But I don’t find fulfillment there. I don’t gain much if any nourishment from those things. Mostly when I close my laptop or put down my phone, I feel as if I’ve lost more than I’ve gained.

I don’t like that feeling.

Maybe “easy” isn’t always worth the tradeoff.

I want to read more. I want to write more.

And what’s stopping me?

Nothing at all.

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My favorite books of 2018 (and Andy’s too)

I managed to read a few more books this year than last, so I’m happy about that. I mean, quality over quantity, yes. But as I’ve said before, my reading affects my writing. It’s important to me that I fill my creative well.

Because a lot of my favorite reads this year fall under the Young Adult category, I talked about them over in our annual roundup at WeHeartYA.com.

And I have so many highlighted quotes from EVERYONE KNOWS YOU GO HOME that I plan to do a Reading Reflections post on it soon.

So the only other thing I want to say here is that it was a great joy to read and truly adore so many books written by friends. (Jasmine Warga, Ingrid Palmer, Natalia Sylvester.) A joy, and an inspiration. And a trend that I hope continues for the rest of my life.

You can see my favorite books from previous years here.


A few years ago, I challenged Andy to read at least two works of fiction a year, as a way of supporting my industry. (The same way that our household supports his, by buying the products his company makes.) Warily, he agreed.

Somehow, over the years, this little challenge has morphed into a personal habit, and he now reads an average of two books per month. It’s amazing!

This year, he asked if he could be included in my annual roundup, and I thought that would be super fun. So here are Andy’s favorite books from 2018…

And his full reading list:

Killers of the Flower Moon – David Grann
Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan
Artemis – Andy Weir
We Were Eight Years in Power – Ta-Nehisi Coates
Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward
The Great Alone – Kristin Hannah
Exit West – Mohsin Hamed
Before We Were Yours – Lisa Wingate
The House of Broken Angels – Luis Alberto Urrea
Awayland – Ramona Ausubel
The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin
Circe – Madeline Miller
Less – Andrew Sean Greer
Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
The Map of Salt and Stars – Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
There There – Tommy Orange
The Good Son- You-jeong Jeong
A Thousand Beginnings and Endings – Ellen Oh
My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh
The Third Hotel – Laura van den Berg
Severance – Ling Ma
She Would Be King- Wayetu Moore
The Wildlands – Abby Geni
The Clockmaker’s Daughter – Kate Morton
The Witch Elm – Tana French
All You Can Ever Know – Nicole Chung
Those Who Knew – Idra Novey
Once Upon River – Diane Setterfield
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs – Steve Brusatte

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Stuff Worth Reading

“Writing What We Run From” by Laura Roque

Currently, my people and perverse culture, our hybrid language and history, is all I can seem to write about, and are the stories I think I should be telling. This isn’t a claim that writers should stick to their own parts of the world, but that there’s a correlation between what we run from and why we’ve run from it, our personalities and the organic ways we manipulate language when we speak to those who know us best, and stories with a heartbeat.

“Strikethroughs and Strikeouts” by Peter Sheehy

Writing is some strange magic and we are foolish to try to understand it—the how, the why, the when—but writers try all the same.
It’s a numbers game. They say in baseball, a hitter can fail seventy percent of the time and he’s still a Hall of Famer. The odds seem worse for writers. Failure is a frustratingly large part of the game, at every level, from brainstorm to publication.
The variables are many, and there are countless ways to fail. Yet there is one common denominator: writers write.
The details beyond that—fascinating as they may be—are nearly irrelevant.
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Notes from New York

Way back in March, I spent a weekend in New York City with a dear friend for her birthday.

Since I was in town, I also met up with my agent Tina Dubois for the first time in person. It was magical.

Her delicate beauty is almost as captivating as her passion and intellect, the force of which is tempered by kindness and humor. We talked for over an hour, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. I felt like we could have gone on for hours more.

My last Writer Unboxed post — “What Motherhood Has (and Hasn’t) Changed About My Writing” — touches on much of the same territory that Tina and I covered in our conversation that day. About my publishing journey so far, the successes and the failures. About becoming a parent, and how that impacts the creative process. About how my sense of identity has evolved. About the way forward from here.

Two other highlights, which didn’t fall under the scope of that post:

  • When thinking about which ideas to commit my time and energy to, I have typically asked myself, Do I have enough to give this story? Can I sustain it over the many months and years that I will likely be working on it? Tina flipped the script on me and said, What about asking, Can it sustain you? What does this story feed you? I had never ever thought to ask myself that, and I think it’s an amazing, possibly revolutionary mindset to apply to my work.
  • Most of all, I walked away reveling in the incredible feeling that Tina gave me — and has always given me — of being understood, of being safe, of being supported. It’s exactly what I need to feel confident and do my best work.

One evening, the birthday girl and I met up with two other friends from high school. The four of us shared bowls of ramen in an alcove at a quiet restaurant in the Flatiron District, reminiscing about the years we had spent together, and catching up on the years we had spent apart.

We talked about #metoo — the movement, and our own stories — sometimes saying the words “me too” literally.

Between the four of us, there was quite a bit to unpack, big and small. Trauma that we didn’t even realize (or want to admit) was traumatic until the stories poured out of us, hot and strong, like cups of tea that nobody wanted to drink.

It was sobering, but it was healing too.

I don’t want this to sound melodramatic, because that’s the irony. It was a big moment, and yet we were all so close, and our stories so commonplace, that there was a very casual feel about it too.

I hope someday my daughter has friends like this. I hope she and her friends have even more laugh lines, and fewer scars.

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Stuff worth reading

“Writers Aren’t Who They Think They Are” by David Ebenbach

What the novel says, I think, is that any single event is the result of many, many things. That’s why you have the hundreds of pages leading up to the climax; those pages suggest the philosophy that you can only fully understand that climax and its significance if you know a whole lot about all the things that led up to it… The short story says something different—not contradictory, but different. The short story suggests that any single moment or detail, in some sense, contains everything: the characters; their problems and promise; the significance of the events; human nature, more generally; the past, the present, and the future.

Here’s my point: Writers rarely know who they are as writers. Well, if you grab hold of one of the most insightful ones and ask them, they might be able to articulate who they are in that particular moment. At that moment they’re obsessed with coming-of-age stories, maybe, or they only believe in first-person narrators, or everything they do is stream-of-consciousness. But that’s only who that writer is for that one particular moment. That one fleeting moment. And only a fool would decide that that’s how things have to be forever.

Actually, each one of us can do anything. We are not limited to one defining thing.

“To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now” by Neil Irwin

In the 21st-century economy, many millions of workers find… Rather than being treated as assets that companies seek to invest in, they have become costs to be minimized.

“Beesting, Kneecap, Lozenge” by Dan Murphy

I write for two hours every day. When I burrow into an uninterrupted state, and succeed in ignoring the infinite distractions at my fingertips, the practice of it makes me better for it. Seems obvious. But the locked in time plus repetition is what produces. Reading, of course, helps too. I know that when I am reading I want to write more. I know that when I’m writing I want to read more. Words beget words. You’ll never get through them all, and thus you’ll never run out. I find a great deal of comfort in that.

“The ‘New York Times’ Books Desk Will Make You Read Again” by John Maher

“I am ever bullish on the book industry, because I think that people like to hear stories, and books remain one of the great ways in which to tell them. And as everything else gets faster, quicker, shorter, smaller, people look for balance in their lives and want to turn to books for a broader context, deeper context, a sustained narrative.”

“Things That Are Not Failure” by T.S. Bazelli

Failure in writing is not:
Still having a lot to learn.
Reaching a certain age and not being published yet.
Unexpected things getting in the way of writing.
Watching other people succeed while you don’t.
Needing a break now and then.
Finding this hard. It is hard.

“You Aren’t Lazy — You’re Just Terrified: On Paralysis And Perfectionism” by Jenni Berrett

“I think the problem here isn’t the writing – it’s you. You’re expecting a product without respecting the process. I’m not interested in getting something perfect from you, and you shouldn’t be either. Just do the work. Write the story. And then write it again, as many times as you need to.”

Mistakes are essential to human progress and personal development, so why do I keep telling myself I’m not allowed to make any?

“A Constitution for a Young Artist” by Maxime Kawawa-Beaudan

Work until the work speaks for itself.

There is only the pen, the excuse you make not to pick it up, and the reason you find to pick it up anyway.

“On Star Trek: Discovery and Michelle Yeoh’s Accent” by Swapna Krishna

As a young girl of color, Star Trek was the first place I can remember seeing myself represented. Through characters like Uhura, Sulu and Geordi LaForge, I saw people that looked a little like me — that shared the first thing people notice about me, a darker skin color — and for the first time understood that I could achieve anything, even serve on a starship. I, and people who looked like me, existed in this future. It was one of the major forces that shaped my childhood and the adult I have become.

But still, nothing could have prepared me for the moment when Yeoh utters those first words. I personally do not speak English with an accent… But my parents, immigrants to this country, speak with an accent, though they’ve lived here the bulk of their lives.

It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to watch a thing you so badly want to love and, all of a sudden, being emotionally devastated (in the best way possible) because they included you in such a seemingly effortless way. When you’re used to having to fight for every small morsel of representation you get, having it granted without even having to even ask, and in such a thoughtful way, is overwhelming.

“Let’s Talk About the Fantasy of the Writer’s Lifestyle” by Rosalie Knecht

It’s easy to forget that Hemingway and the rest went to Paris because it was cheaper than staying at home, and that it was cheaper because a catastrophic war had just laid waste to the continent. These writers produced so much material about each other, in fiction and in letters, that they accidentally crystallized a specific time and place in the American imagination as the essence of what a creative life looks like.

This fantasy image does us a disservice. It leaves us with no model to follow when we try to integrate art-making with functional lives. That period when a person could make a living writing fiction for periodicals was a blip, and it’s over; we’ve long since returned to the baseline, which is that the vast majority of fiction is written around and beside a whole lot of other work, and it’s the other work that pays the rent. As such, there is no writer’s lifestyle; your lifestyle is determined by what that other work is.

Those of us who are lucky enough to be living this fairly obvious reality can feel at times like we’ve failed. I have the pleasure of my work, but where’s my glamor? Why doesn’t it look the way I thought it would when I was 14? The cruel edge on the bohemian fantasy is that it pretends that leisure can be had for free. As every adult knows, leisure takes capital.

Setting aside the catalog fantasy means being able to interrogate the idea that the writer is always observing, standing at the edge of the party, never unpacking all his suitcases or renewing his lease. Most writers are, in fact, as deeply rooted in their communities as anybody else. But that’s hard to picture. … How would it look if we pushed that rootedness to the center, valorized it, acknowledged it as the norm?

If I were speaking to my 14-year-old self, who had already fully assimilated the writer-lifestyle-fantasy from various sources, I would say this: First of all, good news. You’re going to write books. Second, you’re going to spend very little time on terraces or piazzas of any kind. … The important thing is, though, that you will get to write.

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