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.

Claire’s Mid Year Book Round-Up: Really Good Books of 2015 part 2

Last week, I posted about my absolute favourite top three books of the year so far.

the walls around ustiny beautiful thingsIMG_3296

But these were great too:

The Cranes Dance, by Meg Howrey the cranes dance

You could sort of say this novel has changed my life. I had no idea adult ballet lessons existed, and now I do, and I take them twice a week, and it’s wonderful. I know: I’m as surprised as anyone else is by this turn of events. Anyway, that’s beside the pointe (ballet is so punnable, it’s one of my favourite things about it). This book is a fascinating world into the world of dance, through the eyes of a jaded, cynical, ageing (so, mid twenties maybe?) ballerina whose acerbic voice reflects this jadedness and cynicism so well, in such a pleasurable way. Kate Crane’s sister is also a dancer, and they have a highly dysfuctional relationship, in large part because of (possible) mental health issues. This was one of those unputdownable books – especially if you love a deep dive into the mind of a brilliantly drawn character. Bonus: the author was herself a dancer, so you know that everything about that world is (wait for it) on pointe.

frances and bernardFrances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer

In the summer of 1957, Frances and Bernard meet at an artists’ colony. She finds him faintly ridiculous, but talented. He sees her as aloof, but intriguing. Afterward, he writes her a letter. Soon they are immersed in the kind of fast, deep friendship that can take over—and change the course of—our lives.

This is a lovely, heartbreaking epistolary novel. I like these quieter books that explore the nooks and crannies of human relationships, particularly those of the will-they-won’t-they variety. All the better if the deeper questions of faith are involved, which they are here. Oh, and lots of New York. Basically, if you liked Christina Haag’s Come To The Edge (which, if you’ve ever talked to me about books, you will be sick of hearing about), you will probably really enjoy this too. The writing is lovely.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerrall the light we cannot see

Speaking of lovely writing… my goodness, this book. Every sentence feels like a poem, but in a really readable, non-pretentious way. I wasn’t sure about reading it – I’m not a huge fan of World War II novels, mainly because of the impending sense of doom and certain knowledge that all the characters I will come to know and love are likely to suffer horribly and/or die horrendous deaths, but when my book club picked this one, I succumbed to the hype surrounding his book. (Another reason I was hesitant to try it, to be honest.) I’m so glad I did – it’s long, but beautiful, and sucks you into the worlds of Marie-Laure, a blind girl, in Saint-Malo, and Werner, a super-talented German boy, whose link is the wonder and magic of radio and its role in World War II.

the wrong side of rightThe Wrong Side of Right, by Jenn Marie Thorne

And now for something completely different, though if you know me and my obsession with politics and political fiction, you won’t be surprised at all. This one is a YA novel about a teenage girl who finds herself at the centre of a media storm when the Republican nominee for President turns up at her house one day and announces he is her father. You certainly don’t have to a political junkie – or, come to think of it, really to know anything about American politics – to empathise and wonder about that predicament, along with the pressures of insta-family and all that entails. The blurb says Aaron Sorkin meets The Princess Diairies on this one – Aaron Sorkin’s named invoked, I suspect, mainly to draw in the likes of me (and hey, it worked). I really enjoyed it: it was the perfect beach read for me – a well told, surprising, non-clichéd, compelling story with vivid characters at its heart.

What are your favourite reads of the year so far?

Claire’s Mid Year Round Up: 2015 in Great Books (so far)

I’ve read some stonkingly good books this year. Here are some of the ones that made it to five stars on my Goodreads account (a privilege reserved for, usually, zero to maybe three books a year), or would have made it to 4.5 stars if Goodreads allowed it, which, Goodreads, whyyyy would you not?

IMG_3296Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng (published 2014, paperback 2015)

This has been a critically acclaimed book and a commercial success, and deservedly so. It’s subtle and heartbreaking – if you love dysfunctional families and books that explore the complexities of psychology and relationships and being an outsider, this one’s for you. “Lydia is dead,” it begins. “But they don’t know that yet.” The writing is so moving and perceptive, and we had a fabulous discussion about it at book club. One of our members wondered out loud if the author had been a therapist – that’s the level of intricate insight into the human soul that this book displays. And it will keep you turning pages. Pack it for the beach, as long as you don’t mind something slightly (okay, more than slightly) melancholy with your sand and sunbathing.

The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma (published 2015) the walls around us

Don’t believe them when they tell you this is YA. Or at least, don’t make all the assumptions that at least some of you (and sometimes I) make about YA. Yes, it features teenagers, but if we’re adults, we’ve been teenagers, so why wouldn’t we be able to empathise with teenage narrators? This book is beautifully written, and it’s weird and spooky in the best way. There is ballet (which is how it hooked me) and there are possible ghosts and there is murder and there is prison and there are girls who are meaner (hopefully) than anyone you went to school with. This was unputdownable. There was less ballet than I was hoping for,  but what it lacked in that it made up for in every other way. Read read read. Maybe don’t give it to your sweet and innocent ballet-dancing teenage daughter? But read it yourself. And give it to you all rival dance moms as some kind of subliminal warning. Okay. Maybe I’m getting carried away.

tiny beautiful thingsTiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed     (published 2012)

This is another one I’d kept hearing about, mostly from Rebecca Schinsky on the BookRiot podcast, who always mentions this on the twice-yearly recommendation shows they do, as a great potential gift for so many people. Cheryl Strayed is now famous for her book Wild, though I will always think fondly of her as one of the first people I read in the first semester of the first year on my MFA, in nonfiction workshop. I learned from her, or started to at least, about getting several different essays, from different angles and with different emphases, out of the same basic material from your life. So when I do this now, I inevitably think of her. But I digress.

Before she was known as the author of Wild, Cheryl Strayed was the anonymous Dear Sugar on The Rumpus website – an agony aunt of sorts, if agony aunts were endowed with ruthless compassion, profound honesty, and excellent prose. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of these columns. I know: you’re skeptical. So was I. But after I listened to her new podcast, which she shares with Steve Almond, I decided to give it a go. No regrets! It is moving and eloquent, and never predictable. Rebecca Schinsky is right! (I don’t know why I ever doubted her.) There is something in this book for everyone.

I listened to this one on Audio. Cheryl reads it herself, and it’s wonderful. It’s also practical if you like your audiobooks in chunks just big enough to cover your walk to the Metro, your four stops on the Red Line, and then your very short walk to the dance studio. (Yes, there may be a theme to this post, too.) But, be warned: if, like me, you use audiobooks for commutes and in otherwise public places, you might have to get good at biting your lower lip or the inside of your cheek to stem the inevitable flow of tears: for me, it was the very first and the very last letter that were most dangerous.

But that’s not all! These books were great too. I’ll tell you about them next week.

frances and bernardall the light we cannot seethe cranes dancethe wrong side of right

Claire’s Week in Books: Fabulous Brown Alumnae Edition

There’s been a bit of a theme to my book buying over the last couple of weeks: these three books are all great (I say this in faith because I have yet to read one of them), all have a Brown University link, and are all written by lovely women whom I have met (though admittedly only two of them would have any idea who I am).

Come-to-the-edge

Come to the Edge, by Christina Haag

I am forever losing Audible credits because I forget to use them, so I got ahead of the curve and bought a book I knew I would want to revisit. Christina Haag’s moving and beautiful memoir of love and loss, Come to the Edge, is one of my all-time favourites. I already have the hardback and the Kobo versions. (I went to Providence last year and owed it to myself to sit in or close to some of the places described in this book and re-read the relevant passages), but I hadn’t brought it with me.) Anyway, I’m long due a reread of this gorgeous book, but there are so many books and there is so little time, so my plan is to use audiobooks for rereads. Christina reads it herself, and she’s an accomplished actress, and has also become my friend, so I’m looking forward to this. My original review of it is here. This book captured my heart and I want it to capture everyone else’s, too – it deserves it. Buy it for yourself and then buy it for everyone else you know. You won’t regret it.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, by Adelle Waldman

Another book I technically already own, on Kindle – it was one of my favourite reads of 2014, and when I found out that its the love affairs of nathaniel pauthor, Adelle Waldman was teaching a writing workshop at Sarah Lawrence this June, and that it was particularly going to be focused on the psychology of characters, I jumped at the chance to take it. I’m still pinching myself that I got the opportunity to learn from such an accomplished, insightful writer. And of course, I wanted the book, signed by her, to take away so I could prove to myself that it had really happened. I definitely intend to read it again at some point too – it’s funny, insightful, and mildly terrifying to anyone wanting a relationship (or in one) with a thirty-something male. In a good way, I think. It feels to me like she nailed the interiority of the commitment phobic young man, and I’ve yet to find a guy who has disagreed with me. Like Christina Haag, Adelle Waldman is a Brown grad and a lovely person. I wonder if there’s some kind of correlation there.

Dear Mr You, by Mary-Louise Parker

dear mr youOkay, fine: Mary-Louise Parker is not a Brown grad, but she played one on TV: Amy Gardner is a very divisive character on The West Wing and I alternate between loving to hate her and hating to love her, and these feelings were in large part the inspiration behind my first novel, Inevitable. I’m very lucky and very excited to have got hold of an Advanced Review Copy of her memoir. I have to admit I’m not a big fan of either the title or the cover, but I have been impatient to read this since I first heard about it what feels like forever ago. It’s a collection of letters to the men in her life – some real, some imagined – and I’ve got to say, I love this idea, and wish I had thought of it myself. (Though everything I’ve ever written could essentially be interpreted as a letter to one particular man, but I digress.) I’ve also heard good things about how well written it is, which doesn’t surprise me. I saw her in a play, Heisenberg, a week ago and she was phenomenal, and really lovely to me when I waited for her at stage door. This might be the book I am most excited about in the whole of 2015. It comes out officially on 10th November and I am crossing everything that there will be a book event at Politics and Prose for this one so I can get it signed and say all the things I wimped out of saying when I saw her in New York.

Claire’s week in books: 13th-20th June

Apparently there’s no more effective way to slow down your reading life than to decide you’re going to blog regularly about books. This is the first week in as long as I can remember that I haven’t bought any books (well, aside from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I haven’t finished any, either. #BookNerdFail, and all that, but instead let me tell you about the books I’m currently reading, some of which I’ve been dipping in and out of for several months now.

Saint Mazie, by Jami Attenberg

IMG_3295I wish I’d had more time to spend with Mazie this week. Life has got in the way of reading, but so far I’m finding Mazie and her world both charming and intriguing. I’ve packed this book with me for my New York trip and hoping I can curl up in my freshly made hotel bed with it for a few hours. A major plus for this one, by the way, when it comes to summer reading: it’s made up of diary entries and short oral histories, so it’s easy to fit in a few sections around dips in the pool, or to start reading it during an airport wait without fear that you will have to stop mid-section. I dislike reading in short bursts, and that is one of the reasons I don’t get through books as fast as I wish I could, but with this book, it works. (Or it would, if mine weren’t a signed hardback I only carry very carefully and selectively and usually only read at home. And if Mazie weren’t so hard to tear yourself away from.)

Modern Love, ed. Dan Jones modern love

Speaking of reading in short bursts, this is a collection of essays from the now long-running New York Times column. I wanted to get a feel for them, partly because I am a romantic soul, and partly because I was toying with the idea of writing one of my own (which I have now done, and I don’t know which I am more terrified of – acceptance or rejection). It’s enjoyable, reflects a wide variety of life experiences, and it’s an easy read. Perfect for if you’re a bit tired or you’re waiting for your running-late friend in a café.

spinsterSpinster: Making a Life Of One’s Own, by Kate Bolick

The chapters are long in this one, so I’ve mostly saved it for my long weekend reading-in-bed-with-no-time-pressure sessions. It’s likely to take me quite a while this way. Part memoir, part literary and social history, part exploration of feminist thought, this is a really interesting book, and different from anything else I’ve read.

Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us, by Preston Sprinkle charis

First of all, can we just pause and marvel at the fabulousness of this author’s name? This is my Sunday book, and it’s great to be reminded of, yes, the scandalousness of grace. “God accepts poepl even though they have not met His standard. This is true. Sort of. But it’s still a decaffeinated definition. It fails to capture the divine aggression that invigorates grace and causes it to lurch upon the unworthy… Grace is more than just leniency and unconditional acceptance. Divine grace is God’s relentless and loving pursuit of His enemies, who are unthankful, unworthy, and unlovable”. This book is an exploration of this, and it can awaken thankfulness and wonder in even a sleepy, cynical soul.

What books have you been reading, buying, looking forward to? I love knowing what my friends are reading. Let me know in the comments

Claire’s Week in Books: Inbox/Outbox

I’ve been leaving longer and longer comments on BookRiot’s Inbox/Outbox posts lately, in which readers document which books they’ve bought (inbox), finished (outbox) and started/planned on reading (in the queue). I’ve also been thinking about blogging more regularly about books, but wasn’t sure what angle to take. So, two birds, one stone: I’m starting a regular feature along these lines, and I’m starting this week because I have a lot to say!

So, here we go:

Inbox:

The two summer books I am most excited about arrived this week. They’re both parallel-narrative driven, à la Sliding Doors, so it will be really interesting to read both and see how they compare. I actually wrote a novel/memoir in this vein for NaNoWriMo last year, and am struggling a bit with the structure, so I’m curious to see how these authors managed it.

THE VERSIONS OF US, by Laura Barnett

the versions of usI’ve been excited about this since the day it popped up on my Twitter feed last year. (Is it nerdy to admit that I can picture the hotel bed I was staying in at the time?!) Not only is it parallel narratives, it’s about Cambridge students – as both the author and I once were, and as many of my characters in Unscripted were, too – and three incarnations of their love story. It’s not out in the US till next year, and there was NO WAY I was waiting that long, so I searched high and low for a UK site that would send it to me for less than $10 worth of postage. I finally found it on BookDepository. It has a different cover to the one I’ve seen advertised, and I love this one even more! It’s shaping up to be a big book in the UK this summer – Laura was interviewed by the BBC Open Book podcast today, which is how you’ve know you’ve made it in the British literary scene.

MAYBE IN ANOTHER LIFE, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

 This one doesn’t come out till 7th July (I didn’t need to look that date up, it’s been imprinted on my brain for months) but I won a Twitter competition to get an Advance Reader Copy! So exciting. I follow a lot of people from the book world on Twitter, and they’re always getting ARCs, and I’m always super jealous. (Currently most jealous of people getting to read Mary-Louise Parker’s memoir ahead of its release.) Anyway, I fell in love with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel, Forever, Interrupted in 2013 and also really liked After I Do in 2014. I don’t know much about this one, other than the parallel-narrative thing, and that’s the way I like it! Looking forward to diving in.

SAINT MAZIE, by Jami Attenberg

IMG_3295Just out last week, this is Jami’s fifth book and the one which has got her the most acclaim from the literary community. I read and really enjoyed her last one, The Middlesteins, and met Jami a couple of times in DC on that book tour. She’s fun, and lovely, as was the Politics and Prose event which included free gin – the book is set during the Prohibition, so that’s as much of a tenuous link as anyone needed! For once, and this almost never happens, I managed to time it so that I finished my previous book the day before, meaning I could start reading this one as soon as I got back from the signing. (Though I did have a moment of book choice induced panic when I saw Maybe In Another Life waiting for me at my door when I got home.)

INSTANT LOVE, by Jami AttenbergIMG_3297

A previous book of Jami’s was on sale for $1.99, so I snagged it!

Outbox:

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, by Celeste Ng

This book has had a lot of buzz in book circles, notably Amazon’s Best Book Of The Year last year. And wow, it is so deserved! It had moved up my TBR (to be read) pile already IMG_3296because I’m Twitter friends with the author and she is lovely. (Fun fact: she sticks a smiley face sticker on her calendar on the days she has worked on her novel. I promptly ordered my own smiley face stickers in the hope it would also motivate me!) But then someone suggested it for book club, and I was all in. We had a fantastic discussion about it. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking, exquisitely written portrait of the complexities and subtleties of family, and it’s the one I’ll be recommending all year.

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.

Permission.

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!