Reading, Writing

Writing Memoir While Young

I was in a room full of writers talking casually about getting published.

“It’s brutal!” said one. “I used to work as an agent’s assistant in New York. I should know!”

“You really have to know someone,” another said. The conversation went on, everyone feeling negative and discouraged. It was a conversation I had heard before.

So I spoke up and told the room about how I had queried my memoir; I didn’t know any of the people I was querying, nor was I introduced to anyone. I got a gratifying number of requests for a full manuscript.

“Of course they were all rejected,” I said with a laugh. It hadn’t been funny at the time, but now I knew the manuscript wasn’t ready. I was (am) working on a new draft.

“Maybe you should wait until you are old enough to have something to say,” one of the writers (maybe in her late fifties) said to me. I stared at her, shocked.

A million responses rushed to my mind. The first was, “I’m older than I look!” The next response involved some cussing. The third was, “You don’t understand the difference between writing a memoir and writing memoirs do you?”

What I actually said, because I cannot shake the Southern-bred and retail-honed habit of being polite to a person’s face no matter how I feel, was nothing. I turned to the younger woman next to me and asked her about her writing. She was in her early 30s and writing a memoir.

A memoir is not a biography, it is the telling of one story or theme (or interconnected stories or themes) of your life. The younger woman had worthy stories to tell. I heard a few of them over the course of the evening.

Who hasn’t loved a coming-of-age story? Why can’t a person write more than one story about their lives? It seems so obvious that people have interesting/hair-raising/introspective stories to tell at various ages and voices.

Age is yet another kind of diversity. No one wants to hear just from late middle aged people (except maybe the bitter writer I was talking to). And dismissing other people’s work in a roomful of writers is just plain wrong.

What’s your favorite young/old/middle-aged piece of nonfiction?


Reading, Weather

Siberian Heat Wave

The winter of 2015 was difficult in the Boston area. It snowed two feet every few days in February. My little dog didn’t have the clearance to make it down the stairs, so I learned the fine New England art of shoveling pee trails. I felt trapped, sore, and cranky.

Around that time, I became fascinated with Norilsk. Photographer Elena Chernyshova took gorgeous photos of the cold polluted Siberian city. Normally I like to read about the Arctic and Antarctic during the summer for its psychosomatic cooling effects, but this was not a normal winter.

I added Norilsk to phone’s report of weather in various cities. It might be warmer in Charlottesville (my hometown) or New Orleans (a favored destination), but it was always colder in Norilsk. But not today.

Today it is 81 degrees, the same temperature in Norilsk that it is in Charlottesville, Virginia. This is 15 degrees warmer than it is in coastal Massachusetts. July is the warmest month in Norilsk, but this is still record breaking. July averages in Siberia range between 40 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Europe is undergoing a heat wave. Last year a Siberian heat wave woke up some anthrax viruses, which had been dormant since the 40s. Forecasters say it may hit 95 degrees above the Arctic Circle.

This is the climate, changing.







Between the World and Me

Booksellers are notorious (in indie bookselling circles) for not reading popular books. They are the original hipsters and prefer to buy (at a steep discount) their books without the movie cover, thank you very much. In that spirit, it took me a while to get to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Better late than never. I’ve read a ton of Coates’ articles in The Atlantic and have always loved his precise writing, and the way that he always claims the shades of what he knows and what he doesn’t know. This is the clarity I want for my students. I spent much of a rainy Memorial Day tucked away reading his book.

I’m about halfway through now, but one of the things that struck me the most was the way that he talks about craft. I was not surprised to see in the beginning his clean layout of how the United States is based on the profits and plunder of slave labor while it claims unthinking exceptionalism. This is what I expected from the book.

But I also love how Coates talks about writing. He echoes Orwell as he talks about how the American Dream (which he sees as unaccessible to many), “thrives on generalization. . . on privileging immediate thinking, and honest writing” (50). Yes! The unthinking cliche is the enemy of good thought and thus good writing. Coates also sees “the craft of writing as the craft of thinking . . . . I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately . . . a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations” (51). Amen.

What are you reading? What are you learning about your own writing?



Washington, DC, was to me a place of Saturday trips, museums and concert halls, subways and my sister’s house in endless Northern Virginia towns. My mother and I drove up from Central Virginia and crossed the Potomac to go to piano concerts. One windy day, we decided we’d write a mystery story called “Whitecaps on the Potomac.” We were pretty pleased with our literary genius and tried (and failed) to think of worthy sequel titles all the way home.

I did not know the capital city was built between Virginia and Maryland so that George Washington could keep his slaves, something he would have been unable to do in Quaker-influenced Philadelphia. And of course Washington’s slave-holding colleagues—Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—agreed with him. Lauret Savoy, in her book Trace, examines the history of place and land and family in DC and elsewhere.

Savoy writes about subjects that history and literature gloss over: the unthinking racism of Aldo Leopold, African American settlements in the southwest, and the erasure of Native American place names and their attendant culture. As a geologist, she is used to telling the story of the land, but in Trace, she tells the story of the land and people.

What DC was to me says a lot about my class privilege. Not many of my classmates went to piano concerts once a month. But my mother was raised in a wealthy, Jewish San Francisco  household, where piano lessons were valued. She was encouraged to go to college and majored in music. She could afford the mahogany Steinway baby grand piano in our living room.

Science and nature writing often imitate science by pretending to be entirely objective and above concerns such as class and privilege. It tends to stick to the scientific and shy away from the human and the political. Savoy shies away from very little. And her book is all the better for it.

In Sick of Nature, David Gessner excoriates nature writers for objecting to him (or someone else, I read the book a while ago) saying that a mushroom looked like a penis. He hated the prissiness of his critics. Savoy takes his complaints further and links nature to settlements, invasions, historical narratives, and culture. She shows us that there are no limits to what you can write about the land.


What Should I Read Next?

It’s seven o’clock and my tutoring shift is winding down. My spouse has promised to pick me up at work and we’re going to try the new Chinese restaurant in town. His class schedule this semester has him waking up at 4:30 in order to beat the traffic, so by seven, he is falling asleep in his (delicious) plate of General Tso’s chicken.

I look at his thousand-yard stare as we wait for the bill. Last week he literally fell asleep at the table. I do the marital mathematics of balancing our wants and needs. He wants to go home and go to bed. I am not sure I have anything to read. Let me repeat that. In a house of ten-thousand books I have nothing to read next.

Panic ensues.

I could drive home by way of the library and leave him in the car while I go get some books. But I’d have to be quick and I don’t really know what I want to read next. I could take him home and then go back to the library. Nah, once I’m home I’m going to want to stay home.  Then—thank god—I remember Maria Mutch’s Know the Night. I have something to read, and Spouse can go to sleep without interruption. Happiness all around.

Then this morning, someone posted a review of Olivia Laing’s new book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, and I know what I’m reading next.

What are you reading next?