a scrap of gold

He doesn't know what makes him say what he does next: Is it empathy, as he hopes, or is it a boast, an alluding aloud to the improbable and wondrous turns his life has taken over the past month? "You know, Felix," he begins, "I never had friends either, not for a very long time, not until I was much older than you." He can sense, rather than see, Felix become alert, can feel him listening. "I wanted them, too," he continues, going slowly now, because he wants to make sure his words come out right. "And I always wondered if I would ever find any, and how, and when." He traces his index finger across the dark walnut tabletop, up the spine of Felix's math textbook, down his cold glass of water. "And then I went to college, and I met people who, for whatever reason, decided to be my friends, and they taught me--everything, really. They made me, and make me, into someone better than I really am.
"You won't understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are--not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving--and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad--or good--it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well."
They're both quiet for a long time, listening to the click of the metronome, which is faulty and sometimes starts ticking spontaneously, even after he's stopped it. "You're going to make friends, Felix," he says finally. "You will. You won't have to work as hard at finding them as you will at keeping them, but I promise, it'll be work worth doing."
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
a book which, it turns out, I'm not all that fond of, but which has some truth in it

book people

Not much more than a few sentences tonight because what was I thinking with this every day posting thing. BUT. Can I just say that I love our local writer's festival, and I also love that every year I get to go to more and more events. (Remember when I talked about that hard-copy quandary a few days ago? You can't buy ebooks at an event like this and I like that the sale table helps support the festival.) Writers are kooky and neurotic and also very normal and I like being in their presence and listening while they talk about their work even when what they've written isn't my cup of tea.

I'm deep into Undermajordomo Minor and part of the charm of it is that I've heard Patrick DeWitt read from it in his very deadpan way, so now I kind of feel like I can hear his voice throughout the book, the way I always do with Neil Gaiman after hearing him read the audiobook version of Fragile Things. The rest of the charm of it is that the book itself is bent and wonderful and I lose track of time while I read it. That's what I read books for.


For the first time in a while my to-reads are paper books instead of ebooks. I know all the reasons I should not buy hard copies but I cannot resist them; they are part of the thing I love about books in the first place. I'm emotionally involved from the beginning when I read paper and page-turning noise is one of the greatest things on the planet.

Empathy Exams  is a reread for me (highly recommended! to everyone! even people who say they aren't readers!) and I picked up  Undermajordomo Minor  at this year's Winnipeg Writer's Festival during Patrick DeWitt's reading.

Empathy Exams is a reread for me (highly recommended! to everyone! even people who say they aren't readers!) and I picked up Undermajordomo Minor at this year's Winnipeg Writer's Festival during Patrick DeWitt's reading.

A few years ago buying ebooks was a line I hadn't crossed. I took them out from the library all the time--and still do! I could never afford to buy every book I want to read so the library is my savior. The greatest thing about the library ebook system is that the books are guaranteed not to smell like someone's cigarette smoke, nor will they infect you with bird flu. You don't have to make a trip to the library, even! We are all Jetsons. 

My library's ebook list is heavy on series romance and thrillers and so most of what I want to read isn't available for checkout or the queue is astronomically long. And then I wonder--am I going to want to read this ever again? Is the cover glorious? Is the ebook magically on sale just when you've decided you want to read it? Is there a good reason for buying paper for this one? And depending on the phase of the moon and several other mitigating factors, I choose electronic or paper. And then I forget about the paper books and wind up reading what I've downloaded because it's in my face.

Tonight I said hell no to all of that and brought out two paper books so that I can channel that page-turning noise and that paper smell and the feeling of my hands touching something that contains no electronics. I don't think I ever wrote here about being a kid and going to the old Victorian house in my hometown that housed the library until the mid-eighties, where I sat in a window-seat and read a copy of Dracula that was older than my mother and therefore practically an antique in my mind. There's not much to say other than that; sometimes it rained, sometimes not, and the floorboards creaked loudly the way an old Victorian's floorboards should. But I could concentrate, man, like you would not believe. I disappeared into that book and all the others that I read there. I'm having a harder and harder time doing that these days. I'm considering the paper an investment in that old kind of magic. Here goes.

you will know us by our fleet of teapots

Most of what I've read over the past year has been for one book club or another. My to-read list continues to grow, but I wind up putting off book after book if (a) I know I'm not going to discuss it with anyone else (b) I'm so mentally tired; see previous post (c) some other shiny new thing catches my eye. By this time last year I'd read two times the books I've finished this year... and some of this year's I haven't even finished. For shame! 

Talking about books in person is much more exciting than writing a recap on Goodreads and that's the number one reason I haven't updated my current status there. I have regrets, you know? It's unlikely that I would be able to remedy that backlog with any accuracy. If it weren't for the sneaking suspicion that I might someday wind up rereading a book without even knowing it, I would give up on it altogether. But the sneaking suspicion counts for a lot, so it's on my list of things to finish before the end of the year. For shame, again. 

Tonight it was Oscar and Lucinda, which I read until about the 80% mark, then watched the movie, then read the ending of the book for comparison. (They're different! WAY DIFFERENT.) This book has everything. Shock plot twists, stretches of dullness, religious zeal, tense shifts, will-they-or-won't-they, heavy symbolism, lite symbolism, weirdnesses abounding. I never would have picked it up if one of our members hadn't said she'd been meaning to read it--it's twenty years old, it's written by a dude (trying to do less of that, especially when buying instead of using the library), and none of the summaries I found were ones that had me hot to read it. And here it is, almost midnight, and the combined effect of the book and the tea and the conversation is hitting me fully. It's a gratitude bomb.

#scintilla13: Good.


I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 7 prompts, Write about someone who was a mentor for you. We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

I had plenty of teachers and adults I looked up to, and lots that were encouraging to me, but I can think of few who truly attempted to mentor me or push me farther than I was already going. The one I’m writing about today is the one I feel made the most difference.

Behind his back, I called him Nich (rhymes with hitch and stitch but never never bitch). Not as an insult; I admired him with every creative urge I had. I wish you could have met him, because that would have meant that we were together back in the 90s on the third floor, trading drafts with each other and trying to predict what he would say when he read them. He said very little, for a professor, someone whose job it was to hold our attention and make us see what we’d been missing. He was not one of those who loved to hear himself speak so much as he loved the writing he assigned, works by the best novelists and story writers in the business. I learned to read the way he wanted me to, which was more carefully and critically than I’d ever been asked to read before. I took every course the man taught, worked my schedule around his, added an extra sixty-mile roundtrip to my week just to take his fiction workshop. I would not have read the Beats or post-Beats so rigorously, seeking order and meaning out of chaos, without him. I would never have read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” three times or Revenge of the Lawn at all. 

Nich was short, for a guy, but he usually wore shitkickers. There was something about his stature and the heels of those shoes that was less Cowboy Gone Yankee and more Prince, somehow, genteel and precise and a little highfalutin. Unlike so many of our instructors, he learned our names, all of them, and always called us Mr. and Miss, possibly in an effort to civilize us. And right when he’d civilized us, just enough, he showed us how to break rules, swiftly and cleanly as breaking a chicken’s neck.

I worked harder for him than I had for any other teacher, ever, possibly because he was so stinting with his praise. A tiny penciled “Good.” in the margin of a paper would carry me for weeks; I still have some of these “Good.”s saved fifteen years later. A question mark, also tiny, also penciled, could wreck me. What had I been thinking? Had I rushed? Had I thought that was right? What would Raymond Carver do?

The answer, almost always, was to throw away the sentence.

Fiction Workshop was the best, most concentrated dose of Nich, and worth every inconvenience. I took it three times: 264, 364, 464. I would have found a way to do it a fourth time if they would have let me. We read weekly, wrote weekly. Stray marks in the margins were there to be agonized over, but the weekly workshop packet was the sweet prize of the course. Every week Nich chose a few of our assignments to put into a photocopied packet for discussion. When he chose mine I felt unstoppable and talented and terrified, and I learned to sit quietly without defending my words even when people didn’t get what I had clearly put down on paper. CLEARLY, Y’ALL. I visited him for office hours after one workshop that didn’t go well, when a story I thought had real potential had been met with indifference by most and hostility by others. “You’re going to have to get used to people discussing your work. It’s going to happen every time you put it out there, and you’re going to be read by a lot of people. That’s a lot of people, some of whom aren’t going to see what I see.” What a difference it was to hear this specific view of my capabilities, instead of the wembley sorts of encouragement I’d gotten from others. And with built-in failure ramifications, the kind you can learn to survive! You’re smart; you can do anything you want in life is not the comfort some people think it is.

At the end of senior year, he recommended me for a prize and assigned me a long final project. He mailed it back to me before I left for Georgia, with a long typewritten letter filled with encouragement and incisive analysis—brusque with my shortcomings and yet approving of my strengths. He recommended a few little magazines that he thought would be a good fit for my work, and wished me, as you do, all the best.

Writing about him today was difficult, and not just because there was so much to him that I could never do him any justice. Mostly, it’s because I feel like I let him down in some way by not having a short story collection and a couple of novels by now, that the curt but bolstering check-ins during his office hours did not result in the kind of work that would have made him proud of me. I have no string of publications, no fellowship, no grants, no MFA. I am not read by a lot of people (although you have Nich’s permission to not enjoy what you read here, and I’m to shut up and take it). At the same time, I wouldn’t say I’ve given up on this particular plan, either. Sometimes when I reread my work, I hear it in his voice, whiskey-dark and southern accented, and sometimes I can picture the spot in the margin where that tiny penciled “Good.” would go.