All because of Aaron Sorkin: how the West Wing changed me

The internet is aflutter with excitement about Aaron Sorkin’s new television show, The Newsroom. All kinds of questions are being asked: how will Sorkin write a Republican protagonist? Where’s Bradley Whitford? Will The Newsroom air anywhere besides the US?

Here’s what I’m asking: will it change lives?

Because The West Wing changed mine.

For a long time, my friends in London had been telling me I should watch it. “It’s all about politics,” they’d say. “You like politics.” They were right. Once I gave in, the show took over my life. I began to get irresistible cravings for episodes. At the end of season seven, bereft and grieving, I began to tweet my sorrow at there being no new episodes, and that was the beginning of several beautiful friendships – with Twitter itself, and with several fellow fans whom I met along the way.

And something surprising happened in me as I watched: I fell in love with the English language.

As a child and teenager, I wrote prolifically — in French, which is my mother tongue. When we moved back to the UK, and English became my dominant language, I did not feel so inspired. French, I was convinced, was superior. It was beautiful. English was not.

But that was before Aaron Sorkin convinced me otherwise. His mastery of the language awoke something in me that had been dormant for years. “Oratory should raise your heart rate,” says one of his characters, and that is exactly what his words did for me.  I began to devour novels. I began to itch to write again.

Sorkin assumes an intelligent viewer, and yet still teaches them a multitude of things. He doesn’t shy away from difficult or controversial issues. And in the language itself there is poetry, too, and rhythm:

“Nice job on the speech,” says one character to another, Sam Seaborn, in the third season.

“How did you know I wrote it?” he asks her.

She quotes some of its phrases. “We did not seek, nor did we provoke… We did not expect, nor did we invite…”

“A little thing called cadence,” Sam replies, and you get the sense that Aaron Sorkin is winking at his viewers through those lines.

Sorkin is also skilled at developing complex and memorable characters, avoiding, for example, the liberal temptation to paint all Republicans as evil.  Life is not black and white, and nor should fiction be if it is to be believable.

Josh Lyman – deftly played by Bradley Whitford – is one such character: arrogant, brilliant, and deeply wounded. He is also at the center of a will-they-won’t-they storyline which kept many viewers hooked; I wanted my writing to do that, too. The restraint which Aaron Sorkin showed in not getting Josh and his assistant Donna together too soon – and the resulting tension – is one of the defining features of the show. I wanted to create characters as compelling as Josh and Donna; I wanted my stories, like Sorkin’s, to reflect the complexities of life in general and romance in particular.

So it was that walking home one summer Saturday after a morning of French teaching, an unexpected thought occurred to me: wouldn’t it be fun to tutor Bradley Whitford?  And that was the start of my first novel, in which someone very much like me teaches French to someone a little like him, who inspires her to move to Washington DC and (many years later) become a Senator.

Given the source of my inspiration, it was perhaps inevitable that politics would provide the backdrop to the story. My friends in London had been right: this wasn’t a new interest. I chose Sociology in my last two years of high school and almost studied Social and Political Science at University. I was once passionate about that stuff. And The West Wing prodded at that, too. Prodded and poked and awoke the beast.

And of course, I had to visit Washington, and the city stole my heart. Maybe it was the majesty of the monuments or the colors of autumn: we don’t have the deep, deep red of the maple tree in Europe. Maybe it was the surreal sense of stepping into a fictional world that had seemed only to exist on screens and in my imagination. Maybe it was eavesdropping on high-level conversations in classy restaurants. Maybe it was the abundance of literary events and of bookshops with names like Politics and Prose. Maybe – most likely of all – it was the fact that my writing feels intricately bound up with DC and the corridors of political power. Hard to tell. But I knew I wanted to live there.

Writing, by then, had become a serious passion; I began to dream about studying it full-time. And when I dream, I reach for Google. I typed in “MFA” and “DC”, omitting “two birds”, “one stone”. And it came up with American University, a place which not only offered exactly what I needed in terms of the course but which also –  oh, happy day! — was rated number one nationally for its political involvement.

I applied but wasn’t accepted. Would Donna Moss have let that deter her? No, she would not. I worked on my admissions essay and sent in a better writing sample the following year, and this time it was a yes.

I’ll be moving to DC in August. Perhaps to embark on a whole new chapter of my life complete with best-selling novels, a part-time voluntary job at the Democratic Party, and my very own Josh Lyman. Or perhaps just for a two-year adventure. But either way, it’s because of Aaron Sorkin. It’s because of The West Wing.

AWP 2015: Let Claire Be Claire

AWP surprised me.

Not because of its size – with 14,000 participants, it’s an enormous conference, a kind of Comic Con for literary snobs, but I was prepared for that, and, perhaps oddly, I didn’t feel overwhelmed by it.

No, what surprised me was this: I thought I knew MFA culture. The kinds of things that it is okay to talk about in this world (plot, point of view, how to craft a sentence) and the things that it isn’t (commercial fiction, self-publishing) and the things that technically could be, I suppose, but not that many people are that interested so we don’t talk about them much, really (translation, writing across languages, writing about famous people, pen names). AWP defied those expectations.

The very first talk I went to set the tone, my own personal theme for the week: permission.

I was late, of course, because my flight had got in late and I am not great at the whole getting up in the morning thing, let alone the whole finding where I’m going in the pouring rain without an umbrella. I scribbled notes messily in a notebook other than my Official And Very Neatly Written AWP Notebook. So I don’t remember much of what it was about. The topic, the reason I’d even attempted to get there for 9 am, was “Pop Goes the Headline: Crafting the Popular in Literary Fiction”. Received “wisdom” is that it’s not okay to put popular references in novels because it dates the book. (Which I’ve never understood – to me, it adds to the flavour of the book, to its setting. One of the reasons I loved One Day was the cultural references I recognised from the 1990s and beyond into the twenty-first century. Yes, of course the author is writing after the fact – why is that different, though? Stories don’t exist in a vacuum. They are a product of their time, even if they are trying to be timeless. The timelessness comes from the themes and the characters, not which Britney song is in the charts or whether they are using iPods or walkmans to listen to them. Anyway, rant over.) Point being, my first novel, so far unpublished but on which I have by no means given up, was written at the height of my West Wing fever.  My characters are West Wing fans. Somehow, this is not okay in the way that it would be okay if they were, say, obsessed with the Mets. Obviously, these things should serve the story; I think that my characters’ obsession does. Well, I asked the question. Was it okay to do this? The panellists said, go for it.


I could have gone home at this point.

I can be me and still be a legit writer. Yay.

I’d paid for a hotel and a flight home three days later, though, so I stayed.

The nerd novel panel on day two scratched some of these same itches, even more deeply and satisfyingly. Defined as “a novel that depends on a specific, esoteric body of knowledge”, the nerd novel is arguably having something of a heyday – among the examples given was “The Dismal Science” by one of the panellists, Peter Mountford, which depends on his “expertish” knowledge of economics. But we went back over history and looked at examples such as HG Wells’ novels and Dr Lydgate in “Middlemarch”, whose character and professional life are intertwined; how he operates as a doctor directly affects the plot. (This was by far the most information-rich, deeply researched and fascinating talk I heard at AWP – as evidenced by the amount of notes I took. It was like sitting in what I had hoped my lit classes would be.) The most interesting thing about a character, argued one of the panellists, is what they are interested in. I love the idea of this – the idea that if you write a compelling enough character, the readers will be drawn into the subject, sometimes despite themselves. Practicalities were discussed at this panel, but overwhelmingly, again, what I came away with was permission. I can write about people obsessed with politics. Or French grammar. Or grammar in general. Or really anything I become reasonably proficient in. Expertish, in other words. What a great opportunity to learn new things and go down some fascinating rabbit holes! And thank you for letting me be me, AWP. And for giving me hope that someone might want to read what I write.

When I got to the nerd novel panel, though, my heart was already full. I’d spent the last hour or so listening to four wonderful women talk about their experience with English as their “stepmother tongue”, of their experience writing of other cultures, blending English and other languages. Often, when people talk about this kind of stuff, it’s in reference to Junot Diaz, and I think to myself, “yeah but that’s Spanish and Spanish is cool. I could never do that with French”. Or it’s about faraway countries, and I think to myself, “yeah, but no one wants to hear about Belgium”. Or it’s about the immigrant experience and that isn’t quite me, either.

Well, these women were writing about Cyprus and Cuba and Serbia, blending English with Greek and Spanish and Serbian. I realise those are probably deeply exotic places to an American audience, but to me, they feel much more familiar than a lot of other places. It’s a short step from Cyprus and Serbia, from Spanish and Greek, to Belgium and to French. I have been thinking a lot about my bilingualism lately, about whether translation can be a viable career for me, about how I can bring what feel like two very separate parts of me together to enrich my writing. (Okay, maybe I hadn’t been thinking about it with anything like that clarity, but my thoughts had at least been orbiting those realms.) This talk was inspiration, comfort, encouragement. It reached further than my brain; it reached my soul. I was so grateful for it.

I was grateful, in general, for the many different panels along these lines – for the one on “third culture kids” (people who grew up in a country or, most likely, several countries, other than their parents’, never quite being able to answer the question “where are you from?” with anything like ease). For the many approaches to translation and to writing between languages. I didn’t, of course, go to all of those talks. It’s not even close to possible to go to everything you want to, since most of what you want to go to runs concurrently, especially if, like me, you have many interests and write across several genres – but I was so thankful there was so much space given to these issues. There is room for me in the literary world! I so often feel like I don’t quite fit – and sometimes I’m not even sure I want to, so I’m okay with that, I think, except that I also want to be published, and I also, of course, want everyone to love my writing, because I’m human.

After the “stepmother language” panel, I talked to one of the speakers.

At some point, she told me, you will have to decide if you want to write to make money or you want to write what you love.

That sounds restricting, but it was permission, too.

I want to write what I love.

I want to be published, too, of course. Maybe I can write some of each. But maybe I should write what I love, and give the rest a little nudge with my thumb if need be but basically let it take care of itself. Maybe I should, in other words, be me.

AWP gave me so much permission. Permission to play with my languages, to let the mix of them and of the cultures in me enrich my writing. Permission to nerd out and let my characters nerd out too. Permission, too, at a really fun panel, to write about famous people in memoir, in a way that speaks to larger truths about myself or society in general. (I am not quite there yet; my favourite actor is not an objective correlative, he is a person, screams my heart, but I am increasingly convinced there is such a memoir in my future.)

Permission to be broadly curious, because although it is good to write about what we know, “what we know” is a work in progress. It doesn’t have to be a work in progress. So I’ll keep taking those ballet classes, those acting lessons, even though I’m not really sure why I’m doing them. I’ll learn new things. I’ll deepen my knowledge of Shakespeare (not, I am ashamed to say, difficult). I’ll read Psychology Today for no discernible reason other than to understand people better. I’ll travel and I’ll people watch and I’ll read about current affairs. This is all good. It’s all fuel to my fiction even if I don’t get round to burning that particular fuel for a long time.

Permission to cross genres, to use some speculation in a novel/memoir hybrid I’m trying. Permission, at a panel on commercial fiction, to read Dan Brown. Not that I want to, particularly, but the point was: this guy’s doing something right, we should learn from him. The point was: let’s all look beyond literary fiction. It was also: if I’m entertained, the book is succeeding on some level. Permission, therefore, to write books that entertain. To work a little harder at that and a little less hard at impressing people. Permission, at the same panel, to use pen names and multiple author identities to write different genres – something I have also been thinking about. But also permission, and I’m not just saying this because my classmate Will Byrne and my wonderful professor Stephanie Grant were on this particular panel, to be wowed by beautiful sentences and to seek to replicate something of their sound, their rhythm, their lyricism. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

AWP isn’t either/or, either. It’s both/and. Both exhilarating and exhausting, for example. There are parties and there are signings and there is a book fair – you can spend the whole time fangirling and buying books and dancing and getting drunk with famous authors if you want to – but I don’t know how anyone has time or energy for any of that. Panels start at 9 am and end at 5.45 pm and there are 15 min breaks between each session – barely enough time to fill up your bottle of water and find the next conference room, let alone actually sit down to eat. There were readings or keynote speeches by some truly great writers in the evenings but by then I was at saturation point. All I wanted to do was lie very still for several hours. Maybe next year, I’ll be more chilled. I won’t feel the need to go to another panel on research because it will basically tell me the same thing all the panels do every year. (Do lots of research! Or not! But at some point stop and write! And then cut most of the research out of your novel!) I won’t need to go to panels on the ethics of memoir because now I know that people will probably always be upset if they’re in your book, and if they’re not, they’ll be upset that they’re not, and no amount of sitting in rooms listening to someone else talk about this is going to help me decide if I am okay with writing memoir, given all this. I will know, next year, that the panels on “what to do after your MFA” are not really about how to carve out time for your writing but how to apply for grants and awards and I can probably find most of this information online. So maybe all of this will clear some time for browsing the bookstore. Maybe even stopping for lunch.

Another both/and of AWP: it’s reassuring and depressing too, at least it was for me, if I let myself think about it too hard. Look at all these people, 14,000 of them, and so many of them are working so hard to Get There (wherever There is), and so few of them are achieving it, and so many of those who are not are more talented and certainly more hard-working than I am, so what hope is there for me? On the other hand, so many people here have written books, and even finished them and got them published, and what’s wrong with me?

These thoughts passed, though. They couldn’t not pass. There is something magical, something elevating, about being in such an intense, intellectually stimulating, literature-loving environment. About being in rooms where the vast majority of things said and the vast majority of questions asked were insightful and interesting and thought-provoking. It’s no wonder that the hashtag #awp15 was still going strong the day we travelled home and the day after that; people were having trouble returning to their real lives, thinking about feeding the cat or unpacking their suitcases or going to work. We’d had such an intense experience together, like teenagers at summer camp. I couldn’t have maintained this pace for a single more day, yet I also wanted it to go on forever and ever.

My despondent thoughts passed too, because over and over, I was given this gift of permission. This gift of hope. The world already has plenty of writers who are not me. Maybe it needs someone who is.

Thanks for All the Books, 2014!

It’s been an excellent year, reading-wise. While I had to slog through “The Sound And The Fury” and, it’s fair to say, hated every second of it, I found the rewards of it and the interesting class discussion in my lit class to be satisfying and more than worth the investment. Otherwise, even considering I had little-to-no choice in around a third of the books I read this year, I’ve loved a good number of them. I’ve added five titles to my “Books I love” Pinterest board (which previously only had eleven on it – it’s a high bar and I’ve been adding only books that have totally wowed me since 2010).

My favourite reads of the year have been:Astonish Me

Astonish Me“, by Maggie Shipstead. Ballet! Cold War! Doomed love! Beautiful prose! Paris! Loved this one.

deptDept of Speculation” by Jenny Offill. This one isn’t for everyone, but it is right up my alley, and there are many people who love it – hence its presence of many, many “best of 2014″ lists. I think of it as a cross-genre prose poem/memoir of a marriage. Beautiful, heart-breaking, eminently quotable. Sometimes there is a reason everyone is climbing on the same bandwagon.jazz

Jazz” by Toni Morrison. This book, this book! The writing is simply gorgeous, often echoing what jazz does, with its riffs, repetition, and rhythm. The characters will stay with you long after you’ve read it. After I finished it, I just wanted to sit and let myself feel things for hours.

tenthTenth of December” by George Saunders. I had lost count of the number of times I’d picked this up in Kramerbooks and thought, hmm, I should really get around to this one. But then someone for whom I would basically do anything said I should read it and I finally went for it. So glad I did. After all these months I feel so strongly about it that when I was listening to a discussion of it on the Slate Audiobooks Podcast, I had to fast forward the part about my favourite story, because my heart still feels too tender in regard to it. I’m not, as a rule, a huge fan of short stories (though I’m more persuadable on this than I ever have been) and certainly not of sci-fi or futuristic fiction (though not all of the stories are of this ilk), but I’m so glad I allowed myself to go beyond my comfort zone – it was more than worth it.

The Hours” by Michael Cunningham. Ithe_hourst had been a long time since I’d fallen in love with prose the way i did with Michael Cunningham’s. I’m definitely planning to dive into his backlist. He has such tenderness for his characters .If you love Virginia Woolf – or if you’re just intrigued by her – you won’t want to miss this one.

Honourable mentions also go to:

Love, NinaLove, Nina” by Nina Stibbe – a charming collection of letters sent home by a nanny in 1980s London. I put off reading “Department of Speculation” because I suspected that would edge this one out of my Top Five. Sorry, NIna! If it’s any consolation, you’d definitely be in my Top Five Books Published in 2014 (alongside “Astonish Me”, “Dept of Speculation”, “After I Do” and “One More Thing“).penelopiad

The Penelopiad” by Margaret Atwood – Penelope’s take on her husband Odysseus long absence. Short and fun and re-readable.

After I DoAfter I Do” by Taylor Jenkins Reid – a really interesting look at a faltering marriage. It has a pleasing feeling of realness about it, but it’s not lacking in romance either. As I’ve said elsewhere, if I were married I would make my husband read this so we could discuss it. Taylor Jenkins Reid is one of my favourite living authors – her debut, Forever, Interrupted was my favourite read of 2013. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next (it’s mildly terrihbz-february-hotlist-07-one-more-thing-60146510-smfying that I know by heart that “Maybe in Another Life” comes out on 7th July 2015).

One More Thing“, by BJ Novak – a funny, thoughtful, thought-provoking collection of short stories and flash fiction (i.e. very very short stories).

Nathaniel PThe Love Affairs of Nathaniel P” – by Adelle Waldman. A smart and terrifying look inside the mine of a commitment phobic twenty-something man.

Head Over Heart“, by Colette Victor – fantastic middle-grade (11-13 yr olds) zeynebfiction about a British Muslim girl figuring out what it means to honour her identity and her parents in an increasingly confusing world including a non-Muslim boy she has the biggest of crushes on. (Side note: I much preferred the original title, “The Zig and Zag of Being Zeyneb”.)

Price of InheritanceThe Price of Inheritance” by Karin Tanabe – the thinking woman’s beach read. If art theft is your thing, trust me: skip the Goldfinch and read this instead (bonus laughs and handsome marine!).

Arts and Entertainments“, by Christopher Beha – a fun, easy-to-read gentle satire – gentle in the ARTSsense that it doesn’t seem completely out of the realm of the possibility that something like this could happen. I enjoyed it much more for not knowing the basic premise before I started so I won’t spoil it for you either, other than by saying that it’s about a disillusioned actor struggling to make ends meet, who takes some drastic action…

YOU HAD MEYou Had Me At Hello” by Mhairi McFarlane – great British, well-written, chick lit, of the “why can’t these two people who’ve liked each other forever just get it together?” variety. The characters went to university around the same time as I did, so it was nice a nostalgic trip back to late 90s/early aughts Britain.

In a less satisfying reading year, I might have more to say about “Mrs Dalloway“, “Never Let Me Go“, “Yes Please“, “Freedom“, “The Trial“, “The Vacationers“, “Americanah“, “Fangirl“, and “Fangasm“, but there was just too much good stuff this year. (My full list is here.)  Nice problem to have!

Beachworthy books, 2014

Sadly, summer is almost over, but with the bank holiday in the UK this weekend and Labor Day over here in the US next week, there might be time to squeeze in a book or two on a beach or in a park before autumn kicks in. Here are some books I recommend you throw into your backpack as you head out (or, if you’re me, carefully envelope in multiple layers of bubble wrap so they don’t get damaged). They’ve all come out this year, either for the first time or as a paperback to follow the hardback.

The Wrong KnickersThe Wrong Knickers

Not one to recommend to your mother-in-law, this one, but you probably could have guessed that from the title. Like Save the Date, this memoir of London as singleton in your 20s rang, in some place, very familiar. It would almost be uncomfortable if that wasn’t all so very long ago now.

The Actress

The ActressThis is one of those books I found out about on Twitter, and seemed right up my alley, particularly as I’m on a bit of a Hollywood kick of late. I gulped it down in less than three days on the beach (which is fast for me). It’s not quite literary fiction and not quite chick lit either – something in between. An easy read, kind of perfect for the pool, or over lunch with a glass of wine.

The Price of InheritancePrice of Inheritance

I loved Karin Tanabe’s first book, The List, so I was really excited about this one. It’s very different – though the author’s fabulously chucklesome sense of humour pervades this one too. Like The List, it has a mystery that the heroine is determined to unearth, but this one is about art theft. Yes, like The Goldfinch, only more fun – and with a very hunky bad boy.

After I DoAfter I Do

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s first book, Forever, Interrupted, was my favourite of last year. I couldn’t wait for this one. It’s about a couple who, despite being young, have been together forever, and find their marriage fraying, so decide to take some time apart from each other, in order to hopefully save their marriage. I usually need a beach to keep me in one place with a book for long stretches of time, but she managed it. If I were married, I’d want my man to read it too so we could discuss its take on marriage, which I found interesting and insightful (but then, what would I know?).

Love, NinaLove, Nina

This is a lovely, fun read about a nanny in 1980s London. It made me chuckle and reminded me of how I used to speak back in the 90s. The family Nina Stibbe nannies for are friends with Alan Bennett, so he and his wit are recurring characters. This is great – and it’s made up of letters, which means that it’s easy to pick up for a few minutes between laps of the pool or while you’re waiting those extra few minutes at the boarding gate.

Save The Date

Save the DateNon-fiction, this one: a sassy collection of essays about the joys and tribulations of being a perennial wedding guest, full of very recognisable emotions and experiences

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel PNathaniel P

I read this one way back in January, and loved it. Adelle Waldman does a fabulous if terrifying job of getting into a guy’s head as he navigates the world of dating without quite being sure if he wants to commit. It’s a really easy read in the best possible way.

The vacationersThe Vacationers

it’s been a few years since I read The Corrections, but this reminded me of Franzen’s exploration of family dynamics – in a good way.  A group of, well, vacationers (or holiday-makers, if you will) spends two weeks in Mallorca, dealing with their various issues. There’s a marriage in trouble, a teenage girl desperate to lose her virginity, a couple waiting to hear if they’re getting a baby to adopt, and simmering tensions of all kinds between all of the characters. A very enjoyable read. he

How to Tell Toledo From the Night Skyhow to tell toledo

I’d heard so much about this book over so many months, mostly from the fabulous BookRiot podcast, that I just couldn’t resist it. They’d described it as a book which explores what happens when parents bring up their kids to be soulmates, which sounded right up the alley of my romantic heart trapped inside a body it shares with a cynical mind. It wasn’t quite what I expected – it was certainly much less sweet and innocent than I’d expected – but the writing style is lovely and if you’re into science n general or astronomy in particular, and/or like to think about the differences between “head people” and “heart people”, then give it a go. It’s quirky but also resonates deeply emotionally.

Astonish MeAstonish Me

A strong contender for one of my favourites of the year, this one. It’s a beautiful, lyrical exploration of the world of ballet against a Cold War backdrop, with plenty of heartbreaking emotion and unrequited love. Lovely. Just writing this is making me want to re-read it.

Writers’ Conferences: Yale

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This, for me, is the Summer of the Writing Conference. I was meant to go to Wesleyan, but circumstances conspired to keep me away. On a whim, I thought why not apply to Yale, since it’s nearby and they’re a few days apart and both on the Amtrak Northeastern train line? I didn’t expect to get in, so when I did, I had some soul searching to do. The Yale Writers’ Conference is really expensive, and they have no scholarships available at all. But it’s hard to resist the lure of Having Been Chosen. And it’s also, if you’re me, hard to resist the lure of the Ivy League campus.

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Berkeley College South Courtyard, where I stayed.

The Yale Writers’ Conference is a relatively new addition to the scene. In total, it runs over a little more than two weeks. The first ten days or so comprise Part I, “exploring broad issues of craft in nine days of workshops, individual conferences and readings”. It sounds really intense. I was very tempted, because one of the master classes was being led by Colum McCann, who is probably my greatest literary hero (his book Let the Great World Spin ranks as one of my all-time favourites) but in the end I couldn’t bring myself to part with $2600 (including accommodation) for that session. It may be money well spent, but it’s a heck of a lot of money. Part II, in any case, sounded more my thing: four days of seminars – not workshops per se, which frankly I have my fill of on my MFA course – based on a specific craft area. There’s a wide range of topics – from TV writing to children’s lit to memoir.  My first choice was food and travel, but I think that class must have been full by the time I applied so I got my second choice, “poetry for prose writers”. It sounded amazing, and right up my alley.

“In this generative workshop, we’ll explore the give-and-take that happens between lyric and story line within our prose as a means to create a compelling narrative.  Each session will include a look at a couple of models, a look at our own work, and an in class writing session based on our discussions. Given the short span of our sessions, we’ll begin by comparing some so called “prose poems,” Flash fiction” and “Flash CNF” and work in the last session towards full length prose. Along the way we will ask what all these have in common and how can we use techniques of one to help the other. We’ll use these insights to help break out of your habitual writing style and into something that’s more authentically and uniquely your own voice. This is a workshop that is also suitable for poets, too, especially those who want to make excursions into prose.”

It didn’t exactly do what it said on the tin. The first session seemed promising, but after that the format was really more of a workshop – and a poetry workshop at that. Did I “break out of my habitual writing style”? Hmm, I’m not sure. But we had some great conversations and my classmates’ writing was of a high standard, so the workshoppy discussions we had based on it was worthwhile and engaging. We were a very eclectic bunch, and over a longer or more intense time might have killed each other, but as it was, it worked, and we learned from each other’s writing.

We had one three-hour workshop a day, and that was more or less it, though we had homework every day too, which then formed the basis of our discussions the next day. We also each had a half-an-hour individual meeting with our teacher, which some people found more useful than others. (Mine, more than anything, was really encouraging – we ended up discussing where I could submit pieces of prose poetry I’d written for my translation class last autumn. I also, like everyone else, left with a long, tailor-made reading list. Definite bonus.) On the final day, we also had a really useful session with publishing professionals, and throughout the few days there was optional readings, and one night a screening of the film Midnight in Paris in the Berkeley College courtyard. The slower pace of the Session II was probably really helpful for those who had been to the more intensive Session I, though the Program’s Director told me that even so, many of the participants who had been there for both sessions were exhausted by the end – and I’m not surprised.

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Pierson College, where we ate lunch, and where I loved whiling away my time in the afternoons and evenings – often I had the courtyard all to myself.

I loved, loved, loved New Haven – it’s a bit of a crime-infested dive, apparently, once you leave the Yale bubble, but I had no desire to do that.  The weather was perfect – warm, sunny, with none of the unbearable mugginess of DC. That meant, for me, a lot of sitting around in pretty courtyards  that reminded me of my years at Cambridge, thinking about my novel and reading, which was worth every penny. The first night was a little on the hot side (31 C/high 80s F), which is where living in dorms sounds more romantic than it is, but once the temperature dipped back into the twenties centigrade (70sF), I knew I’d made the right choice. It’s my favourite kind of environment – even the window latches reminded me of the windows back at King’s College – so I willingly put up with the irritations of (perfectly fine) shared bathrooms. There is, in any case, a choice to live off campus too, though that probably makes the whole thing even more expensive. Meals were part of the deal, and we ate in the lovely Pierson College. The food was actually decent, and it was an all-you-can-eat-buffet style. I can’t vouch for the breakfast, since I just about made it to Starbucks every morning before class, but lunch was nice – if very samey. And Pierson College was one of the lovely places I found myself going back to time and again to hang out and absorb the Ivy Leagueness.

Lunch at Pierson College

Lunch at Pierson College

Would I go back? Yes, probably, especially if the weather was guaranteed to be as nice. It’s a shame they don’t have scholarships to at least aim for, because I would love to go to the whole thing.  I know now to expect lots of time to sit and think, and in that environment that is more than okay with me. I might also check more carefully with the course leader that it’s not going to be a straight forward workshop – I much prefer the model where I am explicitly taught, though that doesn’t seem to be the done thing in America or in writing classes (Gotham Writers’ Workshop, in New York, being a notable and noteworthy exception).

Would I recommend it? Yes, if you like being surrounded by Serious Literary Types, many of whom have or aspire to MFAs or PhDs in Creative Writing; if you can afford it; and (for Session II) if one of the genres offered is of particular interest to you.

Weddings: A Single Girl’s Survival Guide

Spring is here. Soon, if we’re lucky, it might even stop raining.  Spring: the season of new things and hope. Also the season of thick lilac envelopes landing heavily on your doormat as you pull your single duvet back over your head.  Just me? Come on, I know it’s not just me.

And the reason I know it’s not just me, and the reason that I have been reminded of this, is that I keep hearing about Save The Date, a new book by Jen Doll which I can’t wait to read even though I know I will kick myself for not having written it before her. Years ago, in the throes of nuptials fatigue, I pulled together this list of wise gems of advice for wedding-weary single girls. I could leave it to languish in my metaphorical drawer, or I could share it with the world. Lucky you: I’ve chosen the latter.

I’m also happy to report from the other side: it really does get better. Eventually, most of your friends are married, and the weddings you get invited to become welcome occasions to get together with people you’re genuinely happy to see. It also helps to move across an ocean, so you can be picky about which invitations to accept, and everyone will totally understand. But for those of you who haven’t made it to that stage of life yet, maybe these tips will help.

1.  Remember it’s an honour to be invited.

Yes, really.  Unless you are a close relative of either the bride or groom, they were not duty-bound to include you.  They want you there: they value your friendship and the place you have in their lives.  This, surely, is worth celebrating.

2.  Pamper yourself.

Have you been wanting to get a manicure, or perhaps highlights in your hair? Here’s your excuse.  If budget allows, it’s also a great opportunity to add to your wardrobe.  Take pleasure in dressing up and looking beautiful.

3.  Wear comfortable shoes.

Nothing breeds self-pity like physical pain.

4.  Focus on the positives.

Take in your surroundings.  Savour the wine.  Revel in the quantity and quality of the food.

5.  Meet people.

In everyone’s circle of friends, there are some fascinating eccentrics who will make for great anecdotes later on, or perhaps inspire a character for that novel you’ve been trying to start.  There are people with great stories, who’ll be thrilled with the opportunity of telling them to a new audience. Who knows, there may even be minor celebrities, future politicians, or someone who shares your love of rare seashells or German embroidery.

6.  Go easy on the drinking.

I know it’s tempting to overdo it when the wine is so tasty and so plentiful.  But alcohol is a depressant, and if you’re struggling to hold it together, it won’t help.  Trust me.  I’ve tried it.

7.  Reward yourself.

Plan for this before the wedding: what film have you wanted to see for a long time? What bubble bath would you like to try? What chocolate? Go out and splurge, so that when you return home, your reward will be awaiting you.

Got any tips of your own? I’d love to hear them.

Where I ate: Elephant and Castle

I really dug the vibe at Elephant and Castle. It felt simultaneously British and American, and was quiet on a Friday night, which is nice when you’re not 22 and you don’t want to shout to be heard. The seats, American booth style, were comfy. And it’s on Pennsylvania Avenue, which is great, because you can go and say hi to the White House and walk down towards the lit up Capitol, and remind yourself once again how lucky you are to be living in DC. It’s also about one minute away from Barnes and Noble, always a pleasure to pop into and browse the magazines and look longingly at the journals, and pick up one with inexplicably seems to have a Ryan Gosling theme (for a friend, honest).

So it would be great if I could report that the food is yummy and the wine is delicious, and I had, all in all, found my new favourite place. Well, the wine was perfectly passable, at least the Pinot Grigio that I had. It was, by the way, the only European wine on the menu, which seems odd for a British-themed pub (as did the American sports on the big screens, but then I suppose it was the middle of the night in the UK when we were there – probably not much “soccer” being played). There was Guinness, though, and a vast array of British ales and beers.

The food, though, was not great. I admit that fish and chips was perhaps a risk, and one that I had so far resolutely refused to take. Americans (or any non-Brits) trying to do British food did not seem like it could end well. But this place prides itself on doing British food well, so what the heck. And it was okay. Maybe more than okay. The fries – I was not quite idealistic enough to expect or even hope for British-style chips – were not the best I’ve ever had, but neither were they the worst, though they may have been the worst of the more-upscale-DC-places. The fish almost tasted like British fish ‘n’ chips fish; almost, but not quite. And it certainly didn’t have the yummy crispy batter that I miss.


I didn’t finish my fries, because I’d seen the dessert menu. As well as Big Ben brownies (a pathetic attempt at making THE quintessential American dessert sound vaguely British), it featured Baileys cheesecake. I love Baileys, and I love cheesecake. How could I not?


Well, it wasn’t great cheesecake. It didn’t taste of very much at all, certainly not of any discernible Baileys. It didn’t even have that lovely fluffy consistency you get sometimes, which in itself is enough to make up for lack of taste – though cheesecakes that are fluffy tend also to be delicious, because made by expert hands.

I didn’t finish it. I never don’t finish my food.

Sorry, Elephant and Castle. I had high hopes for you, but I can’t in all good conscience award you more than a 6/10. Oh, go on, a 6.5/10, because of the location, the vibe, and the comfy seating, and because you treated me like a grown-up when I asked for wine and did not ask me to prove I was in my mid-thirties.

Where I ate: Medium Rare

Is Medium Rare a French restaurant? It’s hard to tell.

The menu is certainly encouraging in that respect, with a French translation of each element and no mistakes spotted by this keen-eyed linguist. (The menu, by the way, is a short one: you go to Medium Rare for steak-frites. There is no other option. For just under $20 (plus tax and tip),  you get bread, salad, and steak and chips, complete with “secret sauce”.) The wine list, pleasingly, includes many French options, each with a key adjective to help you decide if you want to give it a try. We went for the “easy” Malbec, which did in fact go down nicely, and paired very well with steak. I’d forgotten my passport, but they thankfully didn’t ID us – I’m in my mid 30s, and the friends I was out with are also well over 21 – so that helped, because to be denied a glass of wine or two with my meal would not have been very French, or have made me at all happy.

The bathroom is pretty French too: I’m not such a fan of the unisex thing, but what I am a fan of is the French audio-learning phrase book that was being played through speakers in the ceiling. And these weren’t just any French phrases. These were a course in flirting. Que vous avez de beaux yeux! What beautiful eyes you have!

The bread was delicious, and warm, and the butter was unsalted (again, very French, and therefore preferred by me). I was a little sad that they didn’t replenish the bread – I could easily have eaten more of it. The salad, brought as an hors d’oeuvre, was very simple, home-made style – mostly lettuce, with a hint of tomato, and a dressing that tasted as if it could have been made by my (French) mother if she were branching out from her usual (delicious) one. A small mouthful of Europe, right here on the East Coast of America.


After not much of a wait (this being, after all, America), the next course was brought. The frites were hot and slim and definitely worthy of a French restaurant. I thought, in fact, that they were worthy of Belgium (incomparable home of the frite) but decided I must be imagining it – until I saw on the restaurant’s Twitter profile that they double-fry them, which is exactly what the Belgians do. The steak was not the best I’ve ever had in my life: medium rare rather than rare, without the yummy hint of crispiness on the outside that you get from grilling in a super hot pan, and lukewarm at best. (It was pre-cut into pieces, which probably didn’t help with keeping it warm.) But well, you get what you pay for, and it was still steak.

And that’s when the meal went from being French to being full-on American. After a decent sized main course, the waiter returned with a second helping for us all. The steak was slightly warmer this time – or maybe I was just used to its low temperature – but the chips were just as thin, crispy, and hot, and I thankfully still had some wine left. Can you beat the red-wine-and-steak combination? I think not.

By the time dessert came, we had both feet firmly planted on this side of the pond. The desserts were not even slightly European – even the chocolate they used was American – and they prioritised quantity over gourmet quality. Still, our Sundae (shared between three!) went down well.

And with the bathroom language lesson, the pleasant wine, and the delicious frites and bread, there was just enough Frenchness to make me smile and give me the warm fuzzy feeling I associate with home.