My dog’s name: An overly long response to a question you didn’t ask

When I named my* dog Max, I did not realize that I was giving him one of the most common dog names in America. I just thought Max was a good name, a thought apparently shared by 97.23% of the other dog owners in the country. The place where he goes for boarding refers to him as “Max the corgi” to distinguish him from all the other, lesser, Maxes that they have there.

Max’s original name,  his baby puppy name, was Blue. Which is a perfectly good name, and highly appropriate since he is a blue merle in terms of coloring. Yet, Blue simply was not meant to be his name—while an accurate physical descriptor, it’s no more his rightful name than “Fox Ears” or “Raccoon Eyes” or “So Beautiful It Hurts My Soul To Look at Him” (SBIHMSTLAH).  Blue is the name of a long-eared, sorrowful-eyed, slightly sleepy kind of dog that sleeps on porches and meanders around fields and is typically found in the southern states. Max is not that dog. He is a big-hearted, short-legged, Napoleonic kind of dog. He is regal and ridiculous in equal measure—a lover of blankets and napping and his people.

I am not sure why I gravitated towards the name Max, other than the universe apparently shoving all dog owners in that direction for the last decade or so. Thinking back, I can come up with only two people associations that I have with the name. One was a snobby rich boy in fifth grade who had good hair and who’d apparently briefly had a thing with a friend of mine before I met her (don’t ask me what “a thing” means for a fifth grader, I didn’t even know at the time). The other was, of course, Lorelei’s fiance on Gilmore Girls, who was completely charming and delightful and to this day I wish that he and Lorelei had gotten married and had a lot of beautiful, brunette children. Luke is fine,  but he is no Max (don’t try to fight me on this one, you won’t win).

In conclusion (sort of): Max is totally fine human name, but somehow a much superior dog name. And Max is the best Max that there ever was, human, dog or otherwise.

Writing notes: It’s been going slow. Two steps forward, two steps back.

Reading notes: I read The Sun is Also a Star and I loved it so very much, and it was only through very, very strict self-control and possibly some inner arm pinching that I didn’t full-on cry on the train as I finished reading it. I’m now reading Eleanor by Jason Gurley which I’m enjoying so far.

*Husband would say “our” dog. But this is my blog so you get my version of it here.

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A well turned handle, a lush glaze

Something I am surprisingly good at: Hand building small ceramic animals.

Something I am surprisingly terrible at: Making anything out of clay that is even vaguely functional.

The later, sadly, is the stone cold truth. I took throwing in college and the professor teaching the class was completely fascinated by exactly how thick and lopsided my pots were. They were so heavy and misshapen that even my incredibly sweet and charming parents, who were cheerleaders for all of my artistic endeavors, did not really know what to say about or do with the ones I gifted them.

The great tragedy of it all is that while I enjoy making ceramic animals, I don’t particularly need to have many of those around, whereas my appetite for beautiful ceramic mugs and bowls is unlimited. There is something miraculous about a beautifully glazed and wrought mug, and I drink a lot of tea so I use mugs all the time. ALL THE TIME. If I’m not careful then mugs begin to cover all of the surfaces in my apartment—congregating in little clusters on the coffee table, my desk, side tables, and if let out too long I suspect that they then begin forming coalitions.

All that is to say, I end up spending way too much money on beautiful, handmade mugs because I can’t make them myself and they make me very, very happy.

Reading: I’ve finished March: Book 1 and am partway through March: Book 2. Book 1 was amazing and Book 2 seems on track to be incredible as well. I think we are in a time when it is important to be reminded of how courageous people can be, even in the face of sickening discrimination and sheer cruelty, and also of the great power and value of storytelling.

Writing: I just sent back first pass pages for my manuscript, and I’m now trying to figure out a good way back into another project that I’d been working on but that had stalled a little.

The important thing is ice cream

I went to a book talk a few weeks ago. It was, in fact, the best kind of book talk which is, of course, the kind where you get ice cream samples. The handing out of these samples was pretty apropos since the book was a book of ice cream recipes, and the event was really half talk/half demonstration.

The writer/pastry chef in question was Dana Cree, and the book was Hello,  My Name is Ice Cream.* Dana is a wizard who can both speak and cook at the same time, as well as handle some rather perplexing audience questions with admirable aplomb. It was an all around delightful event (and the samples have me and my husband wanting to go to Publican, where Cree works, and just have a full meal’s worth of dessert) but there was one particular thing that stood out to me in particular. That thing was Cree’s repeated insistence that the most important thing was not that you follow her recipes exactly, or that you use only the finest ingredients, or the best equipment, but that the most important thing was that you make ice cream.

I liked that. I liked that a lot. Because I get overly fussy sometimes. About food, about writing, about many, many things. I get in this mindset where I think that everything has to be perfect for it to be worthwhile, that I can only perform under ideal conditions—only write when I have complete silence, a nice amount of sunshine coming in through my window, a beautifully clear desk, am in a good mood and have a nice cup of tea, and maybe a good slab of high quality chocolate, beside me. Instead, perhaps the most important thing is that I get something down on the page, and trust that no matter the flaws in the work, the flaws in the setup, that it is much better than nothing.

Or perhaps that was the wrong take away. Perhaps I just need to eat more ice cream. I’m fine with that too.

Writing: I am trying to get back into the daily writing habit. What I’m working on right now is really all over the place, and I’m hoping that, in time, it will start to come together.

Reading: I gave up on a book, two thirds of the way through. I feel so bad. I may come back to it later, because I really feel like it was me, not it, but I may not. But in the meantime, I’ve allowed myself to start reading one of my purchases from Independent Bookstore Day, Still Life with Tornados, and I’m really enjoying it—despite (because?) of the incredible underlying sadness.

* I love this title so much. I want to squeeze it in my arms and pet it like a pony.

Lots of little steps

Publishing a book is a funny process where at each point along the way you realize that you don’t really know much about what is going on, and you also don’t know whether it would be better for your mental health to really understand it all or if then you’d just drive yourself crazy. It’s also a process, for me anyway, of suppressing things that you know about yourself—like the fact that I hate reading my own work—and then rediscovering them.

It’s really exciting though too. That’s the thing—there is a lot of stress and anxiety and insecurity floating around but also suddenly people you don’t know, that you’ve never met, spoken to or even obsessively researched online, are reading your book and taking it seriously.  Which is amazing. Because it is often really hard to get people, even people who love you, to read your book. And I get why, I do—books are long, so that’s quite a few hours of someone’s life that you are talking about and there are a million amazing books already out there that they could read instead and we are, it is commonly agreed upon, in a magnificent golden age of television. So when my editor occasionally makes a comment about how other people are reading my book, it’s pretty magnificent. Terrifying, but magnificent.

Reading: Just finished The Nest. I really enjoyed it. Half the characters are kind of awful people, Seinfeld style, but it’s definitely never boring.

Writing: Trying to start plugging away on something new. I also took a short screenwriting class, which I found totally fascinating. Not sure if screenwriting would be my forte, but it’s a fun thing to learn about.

Staying still

Fun fact: I went to a different school for every grade. That is slightly less impressive than it sounds, because I skipped eighth grade and started college early (this makes me sound much smarter than I am, which is reasonably smart but unfortunately not notably so) but still there was a lot of moving around that occurred and that accounts for most of the school changes.

While I did not particularly enjoy this moving around, I find that staying still is difficult for me now. I am in my sixth year in Chicago and by some math it is the longest that I have continually ever lived anywhere and it feels…strange and a bit uncomfortable. And I love Chicago. It feels more like home to me than anywhere else I’ve lived and yet there is also pressure building up—a tugging tide that wants to pull me away (mixing metaphors, this is a thing I do).

I don’t know how to resolve this. It may not get resolved. I’m finding that happens, more than I’d like. Life is messy, and whatnot.* That’s probably okay.

Writing: It’s getting real. The first set of revisions for The Window went well, the second set went well and now I’m addressing some last questions and more sentence level issues. I’ve sent in my dedication and acknowledgements, I’ve seen the full book jacket—along with a delightful placeholder for someone to say something nice about it**—and I’m both very excited and quite tired.

Reading: I’ve been having some problems concentrating of late so I’ve been reading little snippets from Why We Write and Thrill Me. Why We Write is a book of short interviews with writers which I’m really enjoying and Thrill Me is a book of essays about writing, which I’m also enjoying although I rather wish the writer took less pride in how much he tormented his younger sister growing up.

*In an early draft of The Window, a character said “whatnot”. A reader asked why the characters used such old-fashioned, oddly British terms. Those of you who know my family will understand why I found that pretty funny.

**If you, dear reader, happen to be a best selling (or even, you know, good selling) YA author then please feel free to get in touch.

 

Thoughts on Best Picture nominees

I was very behind in the movie watching department and until a week ago I’d seen only one of the films (Arrival) nominated for Best Picture. This week I watched three more, so I’m feeling more informed.

Here are my thoughts:

Arrival: Lovely, mediative science fiction—which is a rare beast. I also really appreciated the emphasis on linguistics, highlighting the critical importance of understanding the nuances of a language. I’m very glad that it was nominated, although I don’t know if I think it should win.

Hidden Figures: Really well done, great acting, and a story that we need in so many different ways right now. I really liked it, not sure if I loved it.

Moonlight: This was the heartbreaker and real surprise for me. It was one of those films that I went into a little apprehensive because I’d heard that it was extremely good but I hadn’t really heard what it was about, and since I tend to be very plot oriented I get suspicious when reviews are vague about what happens. But it was beautiful and, to me at least, a love story. I am a sucker for a good love story, especially if it is also really sad.

La La Land: I think this one suffered a bit under all the hype for me. I liked it, but I don’t know if it was special enough for me. And the Ryan Gosling character really rubbed me the wrong way, especially in contrast with the effervescent Emma Stone character. I do have a soft spot for movies about LA though, and this definitely hit the spot there.

Writing: January was all the writing, all of the time. I am now temporarily, nervously, paused.

Reading: I recently finished Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. I lived in Washington state from sixth grade until a few years after college, and while I was a bit on the young side for most of the events that she covers, I definitely had friends who were into Sleater-Kinney and it was interesting to read about the band, and Carrie Brownstein’s experiences with it. I am not a huge music person so I appreciated getting this glimpse into what it means to  care about trying to achieve a unique sound. The writing was beautiful as well. I am now just a few pages into The Association of Small Bombs—so far it is really good, but I’m in a highly distractible mood right now so I’m finding it hard to sit down and settle into it.

 

December 2016

November was a gut punch of a month. I personally don’t know how better to describe it, unless to further the analogy and talk about follow-up kicks to the side, the groin, and then perhaps the face. I can’t be articulate about it yet. Some people can, some people were able to get their thoughts together so well, so quickly that I feel like their minds are like perfectly cut diamonds, slicing through the murk of it all. My brain is instead a half-tumbled rock.

Writing: I am chugging away. There are bright moments of hope and much longer stretches of panic, which would be shown in the montage sequence of my life as me sobbing with my arms thrown out around my typewriter (I do not own a typewriter but they film much better—in the montage sequence I would also be thinner and better dressed than usual). Apparently this is normal. I am trying to be optimistic.

Reading: I am rereading A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg. She draws you in with beautifully written tales of love and Paris and then guts you with stories about her father’s cancer and death. There are also recipes.

Warm dog, sleeping

It’s still dark outside and my dog is sleeping beside me on the couch. Sleeping near one of his people is pretty much his favorite thing to do in the world (well, other than playing with his beloved black plastic bone) so I feel like this is the silver lining to my insomnia—I don’t love waking up at a ridiculous hour but at least my dog gets something out of it.

Writing: I don’t know if I am necessarily doing it well, however I am doing a lot of it which is how things usually starts for me. In college, I was always fascinated by people who talked about “riding the curve”—putting in only the mimimum amount of effort needed to get decent grades—because I, to this day, have absolutely no idea how to do that. Which is to say, most things I work on are pretty terrible until they are suddenly (hopefully) pretty good.

Reading: I just finished Dragonfish by Vu Tran. It was really beautifully written, and had a lot of other wonderful qualities, but it was one of those unfortunate times when there was a bit of a mismatch between the author’s intentions for the work and my expectations (no one fault, just happens sometimes).

Art class

I helped out with an art class for third graders today. I don’t want to brag but I really flexed my piece-of-tape-ripping skills. The teacher introduced me as a writer, and prompted them as various points to ask me questions. I got points for being to affirm that I have sometimes written about animals, but then got points subtracted for not having anything published yet, and also for my lackluster description of my novel (I was trying to be vague to avoid upsetting their tender souls and so it sounded quite boring).

Writing notes: I’ve been working on a lot of different things and it has been pretty great. Not that the work has all necessarily been great (some of it is new and still very messy), but the experience at the residency has been amazing.

Reading notes: I am not being the best reader. I finished one of the stories in Karen Russell’s first collection but I’m having a hard time really sitting still and focusing on reading. I think it is the fault of the leaves, which are changing colors by the minute. They are just too riveting, and they are taking up much of my non-writing attention.

Vermont

I am in Vermont. It is beautiful and very green here, with an occasional hint of the colors that are to come. I am here to write, and the conditions are all aligned perfectly in support of that goal—which is both wonderful and terrifying since it means I’m robbed of all of my  usual good excuses for not writing, or at least not writing as much as I ought to. I’m hoping that this time, this place, will force me to deal with some of the problems that I’ve been avoiding in some of my work—the enormous plot holes, the lack of tension, and (in some cases) the lack of any real ending.

Writing notes: See above.

Reading notes: I started and finished What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It was a good, very quick, read. It was interesting to learn more about Haruki Murakami—I’ve read his Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore and I’d like to read more of his work. It was rather comforting to learn about his quiet, steady and slightly antisocial routine: getting up early, working diligently and then going to bed early.