Posts Tagged With: Writing

2013: Reframing a Failure

Since I began keeping track of what I was reading in 2010, the number of books I completed each year has steadily increased. My goal for 2012 was 50, and I handily surpassed it with 59. I didn’t think it would be too much of a challenge to pledge to read 75 in 2013.

For ten months of last year I was ahead of schedule according to Goodreads, who calculate my reading stats. At one point I was 8 books ahead, and I thought: I got this. No problem. In the terminology of your typical sports flick, “I couldn’t lose.”

Ah, the hubris. Pride go-eth before the fall, right?

At the beginning of December, I realized I had only read 66 books. I knew I couldn’t read 9 books in December – December! a month when I had 20,000 words due for my Masters, a weekend trip to France and a 2 ½ week trip home for Christmas and all the holiday madness therein – and I knew I was going to fail to achieve my goal. I finished the year with 69 books read.

My immediate react to this was, of course, searing disappointment. How had I squandered that enormous excess of books? It shows what kind of nerd I am that I was humiliated to have come so close and fallen short.

Yes friends, my life is replete with the first-iest of first world problems.

Still, I am just competitive enough (with myself, apparently) to be super annoyed that I failed. And that’s what it felt like: failure. Once again, I had set a goal, and I had failed to check it off my list.

After a dark night of the soul (look, my favorite activity is reading. I don’t have a lot of drama in my life as I sit around with sheafs of paper, so allow me some hyperbole for the sake of the narrative), I had to reframe my failure.

I failed because I was busy. My life started to turn around in October and November. I got a job. I started hanging out with some new friends and good friends more frequently. I started seeking out the strange and wonderful bits and bobs that London has to offer, going to more events, playing in more of the city. Going home to New Jersey for the first time in a year meant there were many people to see, catch up with, laugh with, enjoy. There wasn’t time to read as I soaked up my parents, trying to figure out how I can be more like them.

I was reading less because I was living more. See, now when you look at it that way, it’s not so bad, is it? (You probably didn’t think it was that bad to begin with.)

There is another vital life lesson tied in here. I fell short on this goal because I picked up three books in a row that I didn’t enjoy, but rather than giving up and moving on to something I would like, I hung around in my own version of purgatory, not reading these dull tomes, but not reading anything else either. I think this is important. I think learning to let go is something I’m still figuring out, and the metaphorical resonances in the bigger picture of my life abound. I have to get better at walking away from situations that are unhealthy or make me unhappy. My fear of quitting (which equates to failing in my mind) is definitely something to work on this year.

A friend of mine wrote an excellent blog on managing expectations recently. Her life and mine are different – I aspire to be where she is in my own writing career, and I admire her perseverance in pursuing writing in a way I still don’t, to my further embarrassment – but I understand the sentiment of expecting a great deal from yourself and feeling like you miss the mark even when you give your best. But looking back at 2013, I have to recognize that while nothing major was achieved, I took a lot of small, significant steps forward.

While I was home in NJ, I turned on my American cell phone and noticed the last text I had sent a friend before I left to return to London last December. I told her I had been crying all day, that London was a mistake, that I didn’t want to go back.

I can honestly say right now I don’t even remember feeling that. In the past 12 months I have come to love this city so hard that no matter what else might be making me bluesy, I have learned to maintain my perspective: I am so lucky to be here, and when all else fails, I am so happy to be here. I feel like I belong here, a feeling I have never had before (as frequent readers of this blog know, my search for a sense of home has long haunted me). I am lucky to have made some good friends this year. I’m lucky to have done some nice travelling this year. I am lucky to be pursuing writing, no matter how much work there is still to do on that front – I’m lucky to be writing the book I’m writing, on a topic that I truly love and find fascinating. I’m lucky that after 12 months of not seeing them, I can still go to my family and bask in their unconditional love and support. I’m lucky that I wanted to cry as I left them again, because how many people have that much love in their lives?

2014 makes me anxious for a lot of reasons: I have to finish this book, I have to figure out what my actual career is going to look like. I only have a year left on my visa and I don’t want to leave England. I still would like to feel a little more entrenched in London, less like an outsider. Every time I open my mouth I reveal my foreignness, my unintentionally loud, friendly, brash Americanness.

Still, I am so lucky that this is my set of problems. I am learning to reframe my anxiety as excitement. I want the world, and of course that’s bound to cause disappointment, because who can have the world? But I know I’d rather set a high goal and standard and dream big and fall short than sell myself short and accept too little and be discontent. As Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Here’s to failing better in 2014. I have no expectations for this year, only hope.

Well, I have one expectation.

I’m going to read 75 books this year.

Happy reading and happy living. Here’s to a dream and love and laughter filled year for us all.

A small sampling of the books in my future. There are many, many more not pictured.

A small sampling of the books in my future. There are many, many more not pictured.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Writers Named David: Rakoff

People probably get tired of me going on about my obsession with writers named David. I have a tendency to be a broken record with things I love. Sedaris. Foster Wallace. Rakoff. I recently read books by a Farley and a Lipsky that were both also excellent (though to be fair, the Lipsky book was a transcript of a conversation with Foster Wallace…)

A year ago today, David Rakoff died, so I hope you don’t mind if I let my record skip a little longer…

I met David Rakoff once, in February 2011. Just for a minute, at the end of an event in Brooklyn. I hadn’t read his books yet, I’d only heard a few of his pieces on This American Life, and his rhyming couplets stuck in my mind – mainly because I hate rhyming couplets, and yet the two poems I’d heard him read on TAL were beautifully crafted and erudite. They were touchstones of how to live gracefully in this awkward and fragile human world. At this event, I was ogling Ira Glass (like you do), trying to get a picture, and I didn’t take the time with David that I should have, that I would have if I had already fully immersed myself in his canon the way I have since. But while Ira was running around, trying to get something done, David looked at me fully, he was present with me. I had the strangest feeling that he would have gladly been a friend and mentor to me, if only I had asked.

Little did I know at the time. Once I read his books and listened to more of his TAL work, I often thought of writing to him, of telling him how much I identified with his work, but I procrastinated. And now it’s too late. When I read that he died last year, I burst into tears, and then kept bursting sporadically throughout the day. I felt like I knew him, even though of course I didn’t.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, about how nonfiction writers who insert themselves into their work shape who they want you to see – so that you can feel like you know them, like they understand you as no one else ever has or ever could, like you could really truly be friends. That’s a gift, though a somewhat disingenuous one. Who knows if these writers truly are what they say they are…well, I guess that could be said of anyone.

The thing about the Davids is this: Foster Wallace is just brilliant. He elevates me, challenges me, and yes, seems to worry about the same things I worry about as far as what it means to be human, or lonely, or connected. He had so much roiling inside him, no matter how much he struggled, it seems like it just couldn’t NOT get written. Sedaris was born into a family just begging to be written about, which is not to diminish his talent, because he uses his own special alchemy to embellish his familial lore into art.

But David Rakoff is me. He had to fight for his words. He wasn’t born into a goldmine of stories, though I suppose being gay – and a Canadian in America – gave him some inherent material. But this is the man who said, “Writing is like pulling teeth. From my dick.”

I so perfectly identify with that sentiment, relevant body part or not. It seems like David got a later start in his writing because he was afraid to try for many years. He had to go out and find stories, he put himself in weird situations, he did things he didn’t want to do. He forced himself to experience, and grow. Often the endgame was disappointment or indifference. But he tried.

I live in “afraid to try.” I’m still working on getting to “tried.” I admire the journey he took from one to the other. I get it so hard.

That’s what it seems like he did, anyway. That’s how he presented himself, or a facet of himself. And if he exaggerated that part…well, he made himself completely human. I wanted to know him better. I don’t know if that’s dark magic or not, but if only I could get that kind of emotional truth right.

People always tell me I’m too hard on myself. Someone suggested that I imagine a child, or a pet, or something that I would always treat gently, and try to treat myself like that.

I am on the fence about babies and I have never had a pet, so instead I imagine David Rakoff. I think he might have been a little hard on himself too. And he is certainly someone who deserved to be treated with generosity and kindness. In the minute I met him, he gave that to me.

Writing is like pulling teeth. But when I get frustrated and want to give up and find a nice 9-5 job and never, ever think about being creative again, I think of David, who can’t write anymore. I imagine taking up the torch for him. I can’t pretend to be a fraction as smart or witty as he was. But I can continue to make myself better, to strive to get where he was, and to honor him by emulating him, by writing the kind of stories he might have written.

Anyway, that’s just how I feel. Go read his new book, it’s all rhyming couplets, and I’ve heard it’s amazing. I’m putting it off, delaying the gratification, but you should buy it.

The world misses you, David.

David Rakoff

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Back to Basics: Unveiling the 34×34

As some of you may remember, this blog began as part of my 30×30, a list of 30 goals to achieve before I turned 30 (trademark Mr. Rob Roan). I only finished maybe a third of that list, but had more fun doing it than I’d had concentrated in any year prior. Two years ago when I wrote up my 31×31 I got derailed by a little incident where I decided to go spend 6 months living on a boat with no access to land and land-based activities many days a week. Then I got home and started thinking about moving to London, so I didn’t even make a list last year.

But here I am, about to enter my Jesus year (33!) and thinking about all that man metaphorically accomplished in his creatively nonfictioned life. I have little interest in being crucified, and think there is little hope I will be resurrected thus ensuring the salvation of humanity, but I thought, hey! Why not try some cool stuff this year anyway? I’m always looking for my own salvation, so if trying belly dancing or hosting a dinner party can achieve that, I’m all in.

I am quite smitten with England and would like to stay here forever and ever, but at the moment there is an expiration date on my visa, so I figure I might as well make the most of being here while I can. Thus the list this year is full of British/European goals, mixed in with the usual things that scare the pants off me, things to focus on my career, and generally inane fun things that I just want to do but never have. My birthday isn’t until mid August, but I figured I’d give myself a running start on this one, just to make sure I get through it.

So please join me as I scare, humiliate, elevate, improve, sultrify, and sillify myself. If you happen to live or be in England, you are always more than welcome to accompany me for an adventure or two.

Please keep reading! Each activity will be parsed and analyzed and laughed over on this very page.

Here it is, in no particular order:

1. Take a photography class
2. Go to 5 European countries/cities I have never visited
3. Run the London Marathon
4. Go to Wimbledon
5. Dye a blue streak in my hair
6. Do a pin-up photo shoot
7. Go surfing in Cornwall
8. Write and submit two essays/articles a month
9. Go kayaking
10. Walk 100 miles of British paths
11. Try 10 British beers
12. Go to Edinburgh Fringe Festival
13. Take a belly dancing class
14. Skydive
15. Try all the British foods on this list: http://www.buzzfeed.com/ailbhemalone/18-weird-and-wonderful-british-foods-you-need-to-try
16. Visit all of London’s major parks
17. Take a cooking class
18. Learn the banjo
19. Meditate every day for a month
20. Go skeet shooting
21. Host a dinner party
22. Write one fictional short story a month
23. Take tennis lessons
24. Drive on the wrong side of the road (ie, drive in England)
25. See the Northern Lights
26. Do all the walking tours in my London walks books
27. Join/create a pub quiz team
28. Pitch a story for radio
29. Submit to “Just Back” until I am selected
30. Volunteer
31. Go to a literary festival
32. Write a haiku every day for 100 days
33. Learn to tap dance
34. Go to 5 nice, unfamiliar restaurants alone

Categories: 34x34, Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

On My Second Marriage

For twenty-five years, I was wed to theatre.

In second grade I saw Godspell in the high school auditorium attached to my grade school. My sister’s friends were in it, and I have a – probably incorrect – memory that they acknowledged me somehow as I sat in the audience. In any case, because I knew their real names, I felt somehow “in.” It’s an intoxicating feel, the giddiness of those who become intimately involved with the stage: the feeling that we belong somewhere. I developed a crush on theatre that day.

I saw Les Miserables on Broadway soon after that. Who knows why my parents let me go (I wasn’t even allowed to watch Doogie Howser). I guess they didn’t want me to feel left out, having missed so much family action because I was born much later than my teenage siblings. A need to belong permeates most of life, yes?

I didn’t understand half of Les Mis (French Revolution? Prostitutes?) But my god did I sob when it became clear Val Jean would die. I was hysterical for the last twenty minutes of the show, leaning into my sister and not even watching. Sitting close to the last row of the balcony, I had a visceral emotional experience such as I have only ever felt at live performance. I fell deeply, earth-shatteringly in love that day.

But last year, theatre and I broke up. The manic romance of the lifestyle was no longer enough.

Theatre is romantic: that determination of pluck and passion overriding limited resources. That group effort, a unity of direction and focus. That chance to touch a life, an audience member who feels the words and actions taking place in real time in a deeply resonant bone marrow place. That sense of belonging.

Nothing beats the high of these experiences.

On the other hand, theatre is like a bad relationship: it never pays the rent. At the end of every production, that manic high slides sharply into tears and soul-crushing emptiness. There is no stability; theatre is never satisfied with you. As you peddle yourself in one job interview after another, you get an overwhelming sense that you are never enough.

There is little opportunity to get ahead in theatre. Even after ten years of professional work, I had to fight like a newsboy to get paid fairly on one off-Broadway show. My experience mattered little in an industry that will cut corners by undervaluing people. While I loved my long-ish term part-time theatre gig in NYC, I was constantly looking for something else to survive. That job was a microcosm of a relationship you stay in too long: I loved it and appreciated it, but we were just meant to be friends. No matter how much of my heart I gave to it, I was just not the “one” for it. I would never be full-time.

Now I’m doing this other thing: narrative nonfiction. It’s why I’m in London, to study a craft I only became aware of a few years ago. Theatre is so obvious, it’s a crush on George Clooney. Any old seven year old can have an affair with theatre. Theatre is kind of a whore.

No seven year old wants to be the next Paul Theroux or David Foster Wallace. Complexity of thought and awareness of the wider world only come with age; you learn there are more career opportunities than doctor or ballerina or policeman.  Les Mis was broad enough that even my seven year old self could fall victim to its emotional manipulation. Narrative nonfiction is a personal, hard won discovery. It’s subdued, not flashy. It creates the same kind of life-transforming resonance, but in a private, eternal form: you can touch and carry a book. This writing is more satisfying: it suits my innate confessional need. I can write a story or essay or book and it will live fully on the page, a complete entity. When I wrote plays, I always needed a crowd of others to make my work live, and those crowds were hard to come by.

This is a typical second marriage. I’ve grown up and better understand what is important, what I want. I want a sense of gratification that is less dependent on others. This marriage involves sitting quietly alone in a room most of the time, and being content with being alone. How mature, right?

But I saw the Les Mis movie earlier this week…I mouthed every word to every song, stuck in the recesses of my memory from years of detailed soundtrack comparisons. My god did I cry.

I wish I could have been a part of that movie, to act as one small but necessary facet of group creation. I miss theatre. I ache for that sense of belonging, no matter how ephemeral and fabricated it may be.

My divorce was the right decision for my mental health. Theatre could never love me as much as I loved it. I love narrative nonfiction much less, and my smaller investment of emotion means there is less chance of getting hurt. There is a chance for a mutual and deeply satisfying, if reserved, relationship. Partners who sleep separately, I suppose, rather than having mind-blowing sex every night (a metaphor that is weird but appropriate).

But I guess I’m learning that clichés are annoyingly true. You never really get over your first love.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, New York City | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Controversy: The Great “XO” Debate

As I have dedicated this blog to the serious, reflective, and thought-provoking study of subtle and significant cultural differences, it’s about time I took on the most controversial topic of all: xogate.

In the interest of thorough, hard-hitting journalism I’ll briefly explain that in the generally accepted American parlance, “x”s stand for kisses, and “o”s for hugs. Because I’m not that interested in thorough, hard-hitting journalism, I’m not going to bother looking on Wikipedia right now to discover the genesis of this strange custom, though I believe “o”s have the encircling nature of a hug, and when you kiss someone your mouth puckers into an “x,” lips crossed as if disembodied from your face. At least if you’re doing it right.

Before I moved to London, I had some friends who spent time in England who tended to sign messages and letters with an “x.” I don’t mean as a signature like they were illiterate, I mean in place of “Love,” the way most Americans would use “xo” (times however many are appropriate to your level of affection for the recipient of said message or letter.) I didn’t put two-and-two together until I met some actual British people and almost from the first Facebook comment or message they sent me, I got “x”-ed. It seemed a bit forward, but it made me feel good, like I was special, significant, that these people sought my “x” back.

Then I came to England and discovered EVERYONE “x”s EVERYONE over here.

Basically from the first message from a British person, you’re likely to get an “x.” I imagine they sign their inquiries to customer service and government representatives this way. Sometimes you even get an “xxx,” but I don’t honestly believe this has any emotional significance, it’s more like a tic. Maybe that button on their keyboard is stuck pressed down.

I’ve never seen an English person “o.” All this is rather amusing to me, given the standoff-ish nature of the Brits, who would never “x” or “o” you in the world of physical contact. This isn’t Europe with double and triple-cheek kisses for your postman. You’re lucky to get a curt nod from the English, let alone a hug, God forbid a kiss.

So perhaps it’s all rather hypocritical of British people to hand out written “x”s like they are a warm, physical people with a lot of extra love to give. In any case, I didn’t want to get involved. Before I got here, I was determined to continue signing my emails and messages with the patriotic “xoxo” formula my American breeding dictated. I considered “x”-ing the transcribed equivalent of a Madonna-level faux-English accent. I didn’t want to be a poser. I’m not British and I still say trashcan and bathroom and zucchini and comforter. I want to hold on to the all-encompassing generosity of the “o.”

But now I find myself seduced by the “x” alone. There is something sleek and sophisticated about it. It’s just more grown-up than that desperate reach of the “o,” which begs “LIKE ME!” The “o”s roundness makes it too inclusive. The “x” is sharp. Its slashes say “no.” The “x” doesn’t care. It is exclusive. The “x” kisses you – an intimate gesture, but only on paper. It actually is the perfect English symbol. It’s aloof, easily withheld through deletion, but still, it’s cooler than you are, like how a kiss would sound if kisses had hot Northern accents.

So sometimes I just use the “x” to sign off. Just one, simple and elegant, not trying too hard. Not screaming for acceptance in a country where I speak the language but don’t understand the customs. Every time I end an email, I’m tortured by a sense of betrayal for my native land, which opens its arms to envelop me in infinite roundness, no edges or hard, definitive lines to hurt me. It hugs me and lets me known I belong.

I blow America an “x” and turn my back.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, London | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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