Jane Recommends “Too Busy Being Poor (To Be Creative)” via THE ESTABLISHMENT

An excerpt from “Too Busy Being Poor (To Be Creative)” by Ayla-Monic McKay:

[P]oor kids don’t usually get to be tortured artists—there is no realistic opportunity to do so. I found my first job at 14 so I could help my single mother pay the power bill. I babysat my little brothers because child care was unaffordable. I worked two jobs while taking out as many student loans as I could so that I could maybe, just maybe, get a degree that would move me up the food chain just enough so that life might not be a permanent struggle.

*

Jane says: Yas! As a thirty-something woman with a BA and an MFA, this essay gets me. As McKay stated, “That first degree I got while working and digging myself into debt didn’t exactly move me up the food chain as much as I had hoped.” Some days I flirt with the idea of a third degree, then I quake the thought away and return to hustling. But going back to school is a very real back-up plan tucked in my dress pocket so that maybe, one day, I can pay for piano or ukulele or hula lessons.

In undergrad, I remember choosing between attending my Art History night class at CC or picking up a waitressing shift to pay the rent for my subsidized apartment. Now, I pay my bills then write, minus random chunks of minutes. (Note: Writing is not something I dabble in; I write to breathe and hope, some day, to make art all day, every day.) Just the fact that I get to pay my bills and write, even if I am only typing what color the sky is and something I overheard in the bathroom for a half-hour a day and singing No to all of the things that I want on Sephora.com, makes me feel rich. You can take the kid out of the last tax bracket, but the memories.

Btw, what human says “various etceteras”with a stone face?

Jane Recommends “What Took You So Long?” via SLATE

An excerpt from What Took You So Long? The quiet hell of 10 years of novel writing. by Susanna Daniel:

The thing is—one-day-at-a-time is the most painful way for active non-accomplishment to happen. It’s the psychological equivalent of death by a thousand cuts. A painter I knew told me once that she’d reached a point when she said goodbye to painting, much the same way Junot Díaz considered doing—she said it was the kindest, most generous thing she’d ever done for herself.

*

Jane says: I found this article when I truly needed it: wallowing in the ugly depths of a writerly “pit of despair.” My former colleagues and forever friends are publishing, publishing, publishing, while I rust at a day job and toil away at my novel, wondering if I will ever finish.

Actively working on the slow story since 2008, I have taken a sanity break here, a sanity break there, and worked on another project for eighteen months. Nevertheless, this novel has always squatted in the forefront of my mind. Yes, Susanna Daniel, I “wake in the night, [my heart] racing, unable to feel anything but the fear and frustration and disappointment of the fact that [I] haven’t finished anything in a month.”

Knowing that others are laboring in the same painful way helps. And you’re right, writing is “not nearly as hard … as not writing.” Dear writers, what keeps you returning to the desk?

Jane and Her Average Work Day

“Always choose creativity over fear.” –Elizabeth Gilbert

Maybe it’s because the sky was just spattered with fireworks and I wore a festive crown representing possibilities and blew a noisemaker while sipping champagne, maybe it’s the recently-passed Mercury retrograde (thank the stars), maybe it’s because there are a few transitions looming beyond tomorrow, but I have spent much of January reflecting.

Déjà Vu

A year and some days ago, I wrote a similar post, Jane and Her Average Writing Day, not knowing where life would take me. That a year and some days later, I would write this. Tsk tsk, I should have known. Especially after I shed the previous job, or the previous job shed me. Knowing I am not bred for the office, I try not to let the dingy day-to-day sequester my creativity.

A Day in the Life of Jane Worker

6:20 a.m. Waylon’s alarm buzzes. He hits snooze.

6:30 a.m. Waylon’s alarm buzzes. He showers.

6:45 a.m. Somewhere between water running and the water twisting off, I hobble downstairs to brew coffee.

7:59 a.m. Somehow I arrive at my desk—not the white space at home with a gold pyramid, shells, and a ratty collection of poetry and craft books—but the one with the dual computer screens, drab carpeting and Steak-and-Shake-like lighting. I sip my coffee, stuff some kind of nutrition in my face (usually the doctor-recommended Greek yogurt), and sleep with my eyes open.

8:03 a.m. The only thing I can manage at this ungodly hour is checking all of my social media accounts for any notifications whatsoever. I delete all the shoe and makeup and sale e-mails because I rather not be tempted into giving any of my hard-earned money away. Not when every paper dollar and zinc penny signifies freedom. Basically, until I have the guts and funds to risk full-time writing, I’m saving.

8:10 a.m. As my officemate pops in and out—her kitten footsteps surprising me again and again—I wade in the beginnings of work: checking messages, populating my timesheet, reaching for the manila folder in my file cabinet.

8:37 a.m. I write a few licks. Shake those writing ligaments awake.

8:43 a.m. I write some policy.

9:16 a.m. Snack.

9:49 a.m. When I need to rest my eyes from the company lingo and legalese, I slide a few pages of my manuscript under the policy to revise.

11:11 a.m. I shut my eyes and make a wish that includes a lot of commas.

11:35 a.m. During lunch, I read an article on craft or freelancing. Over leftovers or a salad, I type some notes (snippets of conversation, current obsessions, sticky dream mush). In this half-hour, much food is dropped, and many shirts and skirts are ruined.

12:06 p.m. I edit some policy.

1:39 p.m. Snack.

2:41 p.m. I sneak a piece of candy, or three, out of the lady down the hall’s treat bowl.

2:42 p.m. I indulge in some chocolate and writing.

2:50 p.m. I format some policy.

4:41 p.m. Snack.

4:59 p.m. As the workforce trickles out to beat traffic and meet their dinner dates or mix their vodka and lime or whatever they do, I edit my manuscript. Once in a while, someone sticks their head in to say bye. I guiltily hide my tab, and they definitely know that I was not working. 

5:31 p.m. Hoping the next morning is fuss-free, I prep a numbered to-do list.

5:48 p.m. I save all of my documents to their respective places (e.g., folders, flash drives).

5:56 p.m. I leave work just in time to witness the sunset, which astonishes me pink night after pink night.

6:20 p.m. While listening to my fav podcasts, I fix dinner. I like losing myself in the washing, chopping and stirring of cooking, and I like multitasking.

6:52 p.m. We eat in the living room while watching Anthony Bourdain eat on Netflix or our DVR.

7:20 p.m. Because I cook, Waylon tidies the kitchen. I shower, unless it’s a good writing day or I’m reading a good novel or I have a literary deadline approaching. You get it. I am driven, and disgusting.

8:06 p.m. While Waylon watches TV and reads or dozes, I do busy work: editing, scheduling payments, researching submission deadlines.

8:59 p.m. We trudge upstairs—imagine the most exhausted trudge you can imagine.

9:07 p.m. While I floss through my night routine, I listen to the baby crying through the wall.

9:20 p.m. I read and breathe, read and breathe, and play footsie with Waylon under the covers until he runs his fingers through my hair. This is, by far, my favorite time of day. My happy place. True rest.

9:21-11:30 p.m. Depending on how good the book is, I read until I PTFO. It sounds peaceful, but it can be dangerous. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s hefty fiction, I’m convinced, is a deadly weapon to the bedtime reader.

Dreams

By skimming an outline of my weekday, I know and you can see what’s important to me. I’m conjuring the guts to let go of the things that don’t matter, and do what I love. But until then, because being a writer is an essential part of me, I will find ways to write. Even the littlest pockets of time can ease the creative soul.

In Cheryl Strayed’s interview in The Great Discontent, she professes, “I believe in writing as a calling. If you truly feel that calling in you, then listen to it and respect it, but don’t expect that anything is going to be given to you—you have to get it.” When I was a preteen, I wanted to be a nun. I’m glad I didn’t follow my little-kid dreams, but what I became wasn’t too far off. To me, writing is service work. We do it because we have to. Nothing else will whisper down the anxieties. And we do it, often, for nothing. We do it so we can sleep. We do it for the tired souls who may not even read it. We do it for peace.

Jane Reads Anything But Straight, White Men for a Year

“She was lost in her longing to understand.” —Gabriel García Márquez

Last year, a colleague lent me Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and I accepted it, even though I retched inside. At my desk, the hardcover sits uncracked, blanketed by a film of dust. For this book, I furnished a collateral, a title I hunted down using my indie bookstore resources: multiple search databases, a 30% discount. I will miss that California writer because I can’t make myself read that Pulitzer winner right now, and I do not have the heart to tell my dear friend.

The Bad

My life is held together by lists. We know our kind—how we include one already completed thing to immediately check (it helps stave off Sisyphean angst). But a problem with lists is sometimes things are overlooked, or purposefully excluded. In Litreactor’s “5 Female Short Story Writers You Should Be Reading RIGHT NOW!,” Keith Rawson confesses he is “colorblind” before emphatically (see the caps) plugging the previously mentioned. He is, indeed, colorblind because he neglects and/or ignores people of color, which is painstakingly clear from the displayed head shots. In the Goodreads Blog’s20 Favorite Last Lines from Books,” seven out of twenty of the writers featured are women. Zero POC are represented. And this is just a sampling of what I have clicked on lately.

The Better

In Lit Hub’s “Men Explain Lolita To Me,” Rebecca Solnit posits, “[M]aybe the whole point of reading is to be able to explore and also transcend your gender (and race and class and nationality and moment in history and age and ability) and experience being others.” Unfortunately, some lists don’t support this notion. Thankfully some lists do. Buzzfeed Books features a heart-lifting list “51 Of The Most Beautiful Sentences In Literature” that features a fantastic mix of writers, writtenof courseby one of us. Recently, the National Endowment for the Arts released a list of the 2016 creative writing fellowship recipients, and that list makes me feel like maybe I, with much hard work and even more luck, have a speckle of a chance in the literary world.

My Reading Past

All of my reading life, I have compiled a TBR list, and have favored women and “diverse” books subconsciously. When referencing books I had read in college courses, shoulder shrugs and note scribbles greeted me, but that is a separate essay. 

Post-grad school, I attacked that list and am embarrassed to say that once upon a not-so-distant time Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Joan Didion and ZZ Packer were strangers to me. When someone mentioned them, I wore blank bug eyes, or I grinned, nodded, made a mental note and changed the subject. As I cross the names and titles off my list, it, the only list I feel comfortable with growing, grows. Who do these writers that I love love? blurb? recommend? I must know the insides of those books, too.

So what kept me from reading the writers I wanted to read? To name several: syllabi and other required reading; the availability of books at libraries, stores, online; books shoved at me without considering, well, me; what was popular, faced-out, in the glossies. Then, I was young and dumb. I didn’t have enough power to not read what everyone else was reading, so I read Slaughterhouse Five, I read Bukowski, I read The Catcher in the Rye, and I honestly liked them because some pain is universal. But the books that I love most are about the pains that aren’t, and I am in charge of my own reading now and as Eleanor Roosevelt asserted, “With freedom comes responsibility.”

My Reading Present

In August 2014, I began reading women writers exclusively, actively. I purchased only books by women. From the library, I requested and checked out only books by women. Therefore, I recommended only books by women. I didn’t miss the white male point-of-view one bit. I did, however, miss other POVs. A year later, I expanded my reading lens to male POC and LGBTTQQIAAP writers. So, yes—like Nicole Perkins declared in LA Times’s “A Response to ‘On Pandering’”—I only avoid books written by straight, white men, except for colleagues I respect and support. Bless the male feminists and the white people who get it; as Elena Ferrante said in her Financial Times interview, you are a minority, too.

In 2015, I read 32 books. Their first sentences are featured below, followed by the author and title. Please find a pen and keep it close to add the ones that whisper themselves into your heart to that TBR list.


“‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you.’” —Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior

“Strange happenings, Chloe knows, can take place in a town built on tragedy.” —Shawna Yang Ryan, Water Ghosts

“Sometimes our steersman sounded like he was having really hot sex back there in Six, but that was only when the canoe was moving.” —Lisa Linn Kanae, Islands Linked By Ocean

“Lydia is dead.” —Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You

“Start the volcano again; I’m watching.” —Mary Ann Samyn, The Boom of A Small Cannon

“She is plucking her bird of paradise of its dead branches, leaning around the plant every time she hears a car. —Julia Alvarez, In the Time of Butterflies

“What Makes Iago Evil? some people ask.” —Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays

“Me and Jasmine and Michael were hanging out at Mr. Thompson’s pool.” —Danielle Evans, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

“In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.” —Joan Didion, Blue Nights

“Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the ètagére.” —Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus

“I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne.” —Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina

“Dear Ol’ Dirty Bastard: I too like it raw, / I don’t especially care for Duke Ellington / at a birthday party.” —Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn

“My name is Ruth.” —Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

“The paint doesn’t move the way the light reflects / so what’s there to be faithful to?” —Richard Siken, War of the Foxes

“Joey felt that his romance with Daisy might ruin his life, but that didn’t stop him.” —Mary Gaitskill, Bad Behavior

“May in Ayemenem is a hot brooding month.” —Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

“The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart.” —Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River

“My solo three-month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings.” —Cheryl Strayed, Wild

“A voice mistook for stone / jagged black fist / thrown miles through space, through / doors of dark matter.” —Saeed Jones, Prelude to Bruise

“I met all four of them at an off-site catering event for the opening of their new Minimally Invasive Spine, Back and Neck Group.” —Merritt Tierce, Love Me Back

“Every Friday at 4:30, they gathered cross-legged on the brown shag rug, picked at its crust of mud and glitter and Elmer’s glue, and leaned against the picture book shelves.” —Rebecca Makkai, The Borrower

“By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909.” —ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

“Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway.” — Zadie Smith, White Teeth

“The mother jiggles her key in the ancient lock, nudges open the heavy oak door with her shoulder, and then freezes on the threshold.” —Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage

“When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.” —Claudia Rankine, Citizen

“1956.” —Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters

“On the fifth anniversary of my father’s death, my mother confessed to his murder.” —Nora Okja Keller, Comfort Woman

“Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair.” —Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun

“I dream of her still.” —Nora Okja Keller, Fox Girl

“What’s your story? —Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake / and dress them in warm clothes again.” —Richard Siken, Crush

“Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly.” —Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

Jane Recommends “A Response to ‘On Pandering'” via LA TIMES Jacket Copy

An excerpt from “A Response to ‘On Pandering’” by Nichole Perkins:

Unless it’s to support someone I know or explicitly recommended, I no longer read white men. It’s not to make a political statement so much as I’m tired of seeing the world through their eyes. If you asked me to name my literary influences, it would probably take an hour before a white man appeared.

*

Jane says: Same. Same. Same. A friend texted me about Perkins’s article at the exact moment I liked it on Twitter. While I appreciate Claire Vaye Watkins’s honesty in “On Pandering,” a quasi confession, I felt alienated by the piece. For a female POC who has always been searching for a connection through reading, writing for the literary gatekeepers is treading cold water. Perkins is so on point when she writes, “Watkins demands we create our own canons instead of trying to find our place in that built by old white men in ivy league towers. I’ve already done that.” I have, too. I have found Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, Sherman Alexie, Joy Harjo, Sylvia Watanabe, Lee Cataluna, Nelinia Cabiles, Sally-Jo Keala-o-Anuenue Bowman, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Nora Okja Keller and fallen in love with each of them, sating certain pains, but there is still more to say. Thankfully, they have cracked the door for me, you and others.

Jane Writes Like Her Boyfriend Is Out of Town

“Don’t stop for sunsets.” —Roald Dahl

While Waylon is gone, I don’t watch a single Sex and the City rerun. I don’t comb my hair, I don’t shave, I don’t wear clothes fit for public because other than work I don’t venture into public places, but even my work outfits are questionable: t-shirts stuffed into pencil skirts, no bra. I eat embarrassing amounts of canned chunky vegetable soup. Library books, To-do lists, calendars, and manuscript pages litter every surface of the house. The dishes pile. I use paper plates, wooden chopsticks. Before the new blog post collects dust, I draft a new one and I list ideas for future ones, before the dread of never writing another even sets in. I write on lunches. I work the day job until 6 pm. When I get home, I run until the sun sets, circling cul-de-sacs because kidnappers, duh. While lentils simmer, I shower. I edit while I eat. When I’m too tired to write, revise, or edit, I read in bed gluttonouslylimbs wild, body diagonaltaking up as much area as I can. If a sentence comes, I record it in my bedside notebook. I give my considerate book light a vacation and blare the lamp. The silence prods me to repeat this schedule daily. My mind is alert, my muscles taut under my red-wine belly. I am well-slept for once, other than one night when Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back forbade me to sleep. I feel on it, living a single writer’s life, getting shit done, crossing all the damn things off of all of the damn lists.

In my thirty-two years, I have learned that if being a writer is an essential part of you, you will adapt to your environment. In the fourth grade, I started my first novel and quit after several pages because it didn’t read like the books I loved and, like a kid, I went on to the next thing. In high school, I wrote poems when there wasn’t a song to sing my feels. In undergrad, I wrote for workshop deadlines. After graduation, I wrote when the words pulled me out of bed, my only alone time during my 55-hour work weeks of bartending and bookselling (the best job combo in the world, feeding free coffee and booze into my gullet as rapidly as lungs need air, always a book in the hand or purse). In grad school, again, I wrote for workshop deadlines. After finishing my thesis, a 300-page novel manuscript, the roughest rough draft in the history of rough drafts, I didn’t write for 15 months, but I revised the shit out of that manuscript, hiding the beast behind spreadsheets and the company browser on my double-screen PC. Then a bout of unemployment, a terror for a list person, which quickly mended my busted writing life. I wrote until days blended together. Sometimes I couldn’t tell you the month, but I could recite word counts and new books and articles I read and podcasts I listened to and new writers I found and, finally, I understood the amount of work it took to be a writer and, finally, I felt like one according to my stubborn, hard-ass standards. When I ran out of time and money, I found a heavy on the part-time technical writing job. Now, I write out of urgency, afraid that I’ll lose momentum, that my days are numbered, that I’ll never finish, that the words won’t return, that I’ll dry and crack in the florescent office lights.

Sometimes the world offers serendipitous opportunities, but mostly you must make them for yourself. Writing is hard fucking work with sporadic strokes of luck. When Waylon has to fly to the Mainland for business, I whine intermittently, but choose to smother-hug the silver lining. I, the president of the Dirty-hair-don’t-care Club, gets to be an even more disgusting human being than I already am.

When Waylon returns, my week without him feels a little like cheating. I sit there thinking, You don’t know the things that I have done. I’m distracted. I’m forever waiting for him to go to the bathroom, call his parents. The second he leaves to stir the contents of the crock or grab a beer I’m on my phone (writing). When I go up to the bathroom or climb the stairs, I pause at my desk. There, in plain view, spreads my other lover, dazzling in the light. On the left, the edited pages are flipped down. On the right, the page I am currently laboring over is on top. Look at me, it says. Touch me, it urges, you know you want to. And I do. More pages wait under it. I pussyfoot. I wonder what’s there. I have time for a paragraph. A line fresh in my head, I inch downstairs. Until we meet again, I repeat it to myself.

Idle fingers trouble me. Weekends are not my own. Even if I enjoy what I am doing (TV, cooking, driving), I devote at least 50% of my energy to writing: reading an article on craft, researching contests and lit mags, listening to writers interview writers, backing up documents, eavesdropping, something, anything, but I’m always waiting for the writing. I do this every workday, weeknight, and weekend until I just can’t anymore. Exhaustion usually sets in around 3:30 pm every Sunday. Depressed another Monday is on deck, I binge-drink with Waylon while binge-watching Twin Peaks and binge-eating slow-cooked chicken and dumplings. But if Waylon takes a shower, there is the urge: whispering in the heart, in the brain, in the soul, in the marrow, muscles and skin.

I don’t like the sneaking around and I don’t like the guilt, but cheating on your boyfriend with writing can be effective. Always submerged in thinking about the next thing: a deleted comma, a stronger verb, an unnecessary “that,” the next phrase, sentence, paragraph, scene, page, chapter. Always turned on and lusting for next time. Always waiting, a writer on fire.

Jane Recommends “My Writing Education: A Time Line” via THE NEW YORKER

An excerpt from “My Writing Education: A Time Line” by George Saunders:

During the Q&A someone asks what Toby would do if he couldn’t be a writer.

A long, perplexed pause.

“I would be very sad,” he finally says.

The room makes a sound that means “Us too.”

*

Jane says: George Saunders’s timeline displays the slow, determined learning that happens in the foundational years of writing, which for Saunders stretches from 1986 to 2000. This breakdown intrigues me, especially that six-year gap between his good story and first book, and what that says about community, solitude, discipline. Tobias Wolff’s generosity and his insistence on not losing “the magic” is magical. But every time I think about this article sadness snakes in: what happens to Paula, the writer? where are the POC?

Jane Recommends “The Art of Loving and Losing Female Friends” via PACIFIC STANDARD

An excerpt from “The Art of Loving and Losing Female Friends” by Rachel Vorona Cote:

My most aching and enduring losses have not been with boyfriends but instead the fading, fizzling, or harsh breaks with women. But only recently did I confront the paucity of vocabulary available to someone who mourns a broken friendship. Perhaps the issue is not so much lack but a stranglehold on certain words. We can have a friend crush, be totally in love with a new friend, love our friends dearly. But that in love-ness and that love do not seem to hold the weight, in language or otherwise, that they might in a romantic or sexual relationship. Certainly, we don’t speak much of the heartbreak of losing a friend, and there is much less talk of surviving a friend break-up than a romantic one.

*

Jane says: Let’s talk about this more.

Jane Recommends “The Case for Writing a Story Before Knowing How It Ends” via THE ATLANTIC

An excerpt from “The Case for Writing a Story Before Knowing How It Ends” by Andre Dubus III:

What writing asks of us is the opposite of what being in the American culture asks of us. You’re supposed to have a five-year plan. Young people now are so cautious. Oh, we can’t get married until we have a house. Oh, we can’t have a baby until we have 20 grand in the bank. These crazy, careful people! You know, look: Life is short if you live a hundred years. Better to die naked and reckless and with passion—and not be afraid to fuck up and fail.

*

Jane says: A lesson on craft becomes a lesson on life.

Jane Purges Some Books

“A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” —Madeleine L’Engle

The Stars

Once upon a time, I used horoscopes as bookmarks. Every year, I bought a specific calendar, a page-a-day with a forecast for each weekday and one for the weekend. Two friends, a Pisces and a Taurus, shared in this tradition. When we talked about a missed bus; a three-table, twenty-dollar waitressing shift; a long look, a precarious link of words, we’d ask, “What did your horoscope say?” We’d answer by digging the slip of paper, as small as a business card, out of our purse or pocket; or by cursing then vowing to look when we got home, or reciting it to the best of our ability for further analyzing.

I forgot how much joy this seven-dollar purchase brought to our twenty-something lives until I found one peeping out of book I didn’t finish. Regarding June 21-22, the stars prophesied, “Do yourself a favor. If you’re unsure whether an endeavor is right for you, try to listen to that little voice within. It wouldn’t be wise to override your instincts and in this case your intuition is likely providing you the wisdom you seek.” 

The Books (Also Stars)

At any given time, there are at least five stacks of TBR books in our house. Here are the constants, which are as certain as debt:

  • The coffee table stack – The pretty ones mixed with our magazines
  • The carpeted step stack – The library books
  • The writing desk stacks – The loaned books, and the recently purchased or gifted books
  • The bedside table stack – The current reads, varying from one to five books

Those are just the TBR. My actual collection claims four spots in the house:

  • The writing desk collection – The ones I need close to me while I work; poetry, craft and oft-referenced favorites
  • The bedroom collection – The perfect-to-me ones I adore that I want to seep into my brain and skin while I sleep
  • The hallway collection – The ones beautiful enough to display under one of Waylon’s sarcastically baroque store-clearance finds
  • The guest bedroom collection – The not-so-pretty ones; abused teaching books, research books, coursework books and English anthologies

And because I am just one woman who works, writes, blogs, tweets, runs, cooks, cleans and loves, who can only read so fast, all of the stacks and collections give me all of the anxiety. 

The Purging

I contemplate each book, plucking the ones I thought I could live without, whether that meant selling them, donating them or adding them to the mysterious lending library at work. During this hard task—consider my books are a part of me and to relinquish one is to shed a part of myself—any of the following increases their chances of survival:

  • It was a gift
  • It is signed by the author
  • The author signed it under a personal, witty and/or inspirational note
  • It prompts a memory 
  • There is far too much embarrassing marginalia
  • It was written by a writer I like, whose book I stopped reading because of (maybe?) bad timing and I intend to give it another whirl

The Words

Of my collection, I was able to extract 16 books. Some barely cracked. Some badly beaten. In some, old AWP bookmarks exhibit where I just couldn’t anymore. In them are my paper trails (boarding passes, packing slips, receipts, class discussion questions from grad school, candy wrappers). Wanting to give them each one last chance, I placed them in a box and read their first sentences—compiled here—and sometimes I continued on. 


“My name is Eva, which means ‘life,’ according to a book of names my mother consulted.” Isabel Allende, Eva Luna 

“James Arthur Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924.” —Randal Kenan, The Fire This Time

“’When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, walzing around her, hypnotized with longing.’” —Katherine Dunn, Geek Love 

“‘Shall we let them have a little music?’ asked Emily, and she wound up the musical box.” —Kate Bernheimer, House, Flower, Bird 

“It was the cruelest winter.” —Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed

“Rochelle appeared at the office one day looking young and somewhat frightened, walking with tentative steps on the arm of her husband, who soon broke away like a discreet booster rocket and disappeared down the stairwell door, leaving her to walk forward alone, more abashed, to meet the rest of us.” —Joan Frank, In Envy Country

“Around the grave in the rundown cemetery were a few of his former advertising colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him.” —Philip Roth, Everyman

“Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway.” —Zadie Smith, White Teeth 

“I. Start with the Roman numeral I with an authoritative period trailing just after it.” —Ander Monson, Neck Deep and Other Predicaments

“In Millais’s painting, Ophelia dies faceup, / eyes and mouth open as if caught in the gasp / of her last word or breath, flowers and reeds / growing out of the pond, floating on the surface / around her.” —Natasha Tretheway, Bellocq’s Ophelia 

“It’s time to wash the elephant.” —Hannah Tinti, Animal Crackers

“I was born in the city of Bombay . . . once upon a time.” —Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children 

“Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill.” Alice Munro, Runaway 

“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

“I am living at the Villa Borghese.” —Henry Miller, The Tropic of Cancer 

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” —Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway


Some books were inscribed by former owners, Lynn Reyer and Kim Wagner. Some owners included the date they obtained the book, May 1989. I found bookmarks: other’s, a metal cross, and my own. One was easy to give away, a present from a dreadful ex. I or someone else dog-eared the following pages: 11, 25, 27, 30, 99, 158, 189, 314, 445.

The Keepsake

Even though revisiting these books gave me a serious case of the feels, I hardened my heart and decided to let all of them go. Except one. A friend’s book.

A boring summer day, I pulled it off of the shelf and paged through it. She tossed her dark, wavy hair over her shoulder to look at me with her overwhelming eyes, all of her life at her surface, and said, “You can have it, if you want.”

Flipping through it cemented that it’s not something I can part with. Not when she has marked passages like this from “Index for X and the Origin of Fires”:

Questions, of which you have

many, of which I have many,

and as such you and I are in

this case equal to we, to oui, to

wee—is there anything we can

say to stand up to the machi-

nations of the text, or will it

have its way with us, will it

knock us to the ground.