Travel is a vanishing act, a solitary trip down a pinched line of geography to oblivion.
Paul Theroux

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Come one, come all!

Come on down, Santa Fe! 
It's the annual Santa Fe Literary Review reception from 5-7 on November 5. 

Take note: we've changed locations for this year only, and we'll be in the West Wing atrium.

Contributors - shoot me an email if you wish to read!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Bouquets for Kent Haruf

I encountered Plainsong years ago, right after college. I picked it up at the Harvard Bookstore, I think, or maybe it was gifted to me by a Cambridge friend. A housewarming gift, perhaps.

What I remember about that book are plain stories about plain people. Kent Haruf painted the Colorado landscape in a way that made me simultaneously hate and love it. There were no mountains in this Colorado, only scrubbed-out hills and windy expanses of nothingness, cold winter mornings and no central heating. Haruf’s characters see their breath in clouds. They are teachers, farmers, shopkeepers. Two characters are little boys, brothers, who witness teenagers having sex. An old woman teaches those two boys to make cookies. A pregnant teenager, shunned by her classmates, is taken in by a pair of old men, brothers too.

 In Haruf’s writing, I saw new possibilities for my own. He wrote about things slowly, with care, giving each of his character’s lives the kind attention it deserves. Any of them, you think as you read, might be any of us.

And so Plainsong is just what the title implies: a plain song, a song for all of our lives, a song that takes the grief and joy of being human and makes it holy.

When I saw Our Souls at Night on the library shelves, I didn’t yet know Haruf had died. It happened six months ago; he was seventy-one. Young. I read the first fifty pages of Our Souls at Night, and had thought to myself, Okay. I reminded myself I shouldn’t have expected Plaingsong, Haruf’s masterpiece. I still have a hard time finding a book I love as much, by Haruf or anyone else.

And then I flipped to the back cover and first looked at the picture: a slightly-wizened man, a working man, stared back. He resembles, I remember thinking, my Aunt Jane. His eyes were crinkly. I read the biography and in the last line I learned that he had died.

For a while I sat in the bed, Our Souls at Night in my hands. I hadn’t known it to be Haruf’s dying book. Outside, the crickets sang a dozen different strains of cricket. I thought of Plainsong, the gift of it, and the relief. Those ordinary, devastated, triumphant lives.

After a few minutes I returned to Our Souls. I read the story anew, the story of an old woman who invites an old man to come and spend the night with her. She is lonely, and she wants someone to sleep with. Not sleep with, but sleep with. A warm body is what she wants.

He agrees. He packs his things in a paper bag—toothbrush, pajamas—and goes to her house. They don’t sleep together, they sleep together, and a companionship forms. A love. It’s not about desire; it’s about companionship. It’s about knowing the end is coming, and wanting someone to be there in the months that come before. A young boy comes into the picture, and it’s like a child for the two of them, and they are good parents. They are natural parents, and they love the natural world, and they teach the little boy this.

In the end, Haruf devastates me another time. The man and the woman must part. The ending is a little hasty, and even enthralled I can see the mark, now, of a dying man. The scenes come together suddenly, the bad news broken hastily, the villain  suspiciously familiar.

It doesn’t matter, really. Haruf’s final message is there: his characters must agree to die alone, and the book ends in remorse. The story is a good-bye, to life and to writing.


Let us read Kent Haruf, and let us not forget the lessons he taught, for he has given us the gift of writing plainly. He took ordinary lives and made them extraordinary, and in those lives we also read our own.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Chin Up

Feeling downtrodden, fellow writers? A little weary of the daily rejections slowly filling your inboxes?

Read this, then, and let your gentle hearts be soothed.

What follows is a pearl from the magnificent, prolific Philip Graham:

Don’t give up too easily. Keep an essay you believe in out there in the running as long as you can. Be patient. I was rejected 11 times by The New Yorker before they accepted a story. One of my favorite stories, “Angel,” was rejected 25 times before it found a home, at the Missouri Review (and subsequently won a prize, was nominated for a Pushcart, and was included in a national “fantasy” anthology).

Believe in your work. Be stubborn. Wear down the dopes who don’t get it. Someone finally will. Your work is too good for you not to be its best champion.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

To the Midnight Illich Searchers

For five years I've had this blog, and for four of those five, the most popular post has been the one I wrote about Ivan Illich. (For those of you who missed that post, Illich was an Austrian thinker with sharp, extreme views on everything from the educational system to the nuclear bomb to international aid.)

Anyway, I might only get ten blog viewers a day, but at least five will be reading about Illich.

I wonder sometimes who you are: Who comes to my blog at five AM, at two AM, at three in the afternoon? The map tells me you're from China, from Russia, from Thailand and Australia. Maybe today you're hippies in a Nicaraguan town, in a Nicaraguan bar.  Maybe you're a homeless man. Maybe you're a soldier. Maybe you work for the government.

Whoever you are, what follows is an update to what I wrote four years ago. It's dedicated to you: you, the reader from near or far who Googled Ivan Illich and ended up here.


Ivan Illich's Best Intentions

Five years ago, Ivan Illich changed my life.

I was backpacking through Latin America at the time, having recently quit my day job in Boston. I had moved out of my apartment, left my cat with my folks, and stuffed clothes, a water filter, and a Lonely Planet into an old frame backpack my dad used in the seventies.

Early on in my sojourn, I stopped in Granada, Nicaragua, with the intentions of teaching English and studying Spanish. I wasn’t just a tourist; I was a traveler.

A volun-tourist, I think we’re sometimes called.

In pretty, colonial Granada, I met Mitch, who bartended at my hostel. I would perch on an unsteady three-legged stool and listen to him talk about his Nicaraguan life. His other job—and the reason he was there in the first place—was helping people build their own houses by soliciting donations, mostly from the United States. Or, he’d set up pricey guided tours of the nearby Lake Apoyo, enlisting the help of bilingual locals and then giving them all of the profits. He trained farmers to use less water and to grow vegetables alongside flowers and herbs in order to naturally repel pests.

“I’m a Middle Eastern Jew,” he would say, shrugging. “I like to help the disenfranchised save their money.” Mitch walked Granada’s streets most nights with a chicken sandwich in his hand, greeting almost everyone he passed. He stopped and helped old women out of cabs. We’d pass groups of tattooed guys, and they’d all slap Mitch five. In these barrios, he’d found his place.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Dear Younger Self:

This summer's Wellesley Magazine had me weeping at the kitchen table at seven AM.

Dear readers, even if W has nothing to do with you, kindly skim the pearls of wisdom below, and then tell me this morning's tears weren't caused by hormones alone.

Excerpted from Dear Me: Letters to My Younger Self, the four following excerpts are part of a brilliant, thoughtful compilation of letters distinguished alumnae wrote to their graduating selves.


As you commence into the world, let me whisper in your ear that the most satisfying accomplishments in your life will be decades in the making. Balancing patience and impatience takes practice; don’t quit before you’ve properly begun. You will come to appreciate the slow build of change, the delayed gratification of getting things right, and the small payoffs in between. Nothing worth much will reveal itself quickly; the end result is never the end.

 - Ophelia Dahl


I don’t think there is any way to prepare for tragedy, and my only advice about what to do if it strikes is to take care of yourself. Do what you can to survive, for yourself and for your children. But one piece of advice I would give to any young woman starting out: Prepare for your future with the knowledge that tragedy can strike anyone. In my case, it was violence, but it can be in the form of accidents, illnesses, even divorce. And if it does, always be in a position where you can provide for yourself and your family. If you can’t, you will face a tragedy within the tragedy.

 - Carole Beebe Tarantelli


Make it your job and priority, all the days of your life, to help those black people who have not had your opportunities or experiences. Every morning, look in the mirror and say, “I refuse to accept the expectations of the entitled.”

 - Shirley Taylor Haizlip


I ended up choosing a marriage partner because he was smart, witty, and good company. Never before had I dated a man who suggested that we go hear Eleanor Roosevelt speak at Harvard or see Racine’s Phèdreperformed in the original French. But I wasn’t in love. My brain told me that one does not spend one’s married life in bed. So when he declared his passion for me, I made the mistake of listening to my brain and not my heart. When I walked down that aisle my legs were brave, but my heart was wobbly. That marriage was a big mistake. Three children and five grandchildren later, I realized happiness often comes disguised as disaster.

 - Maude Haleztine Chaplin


Brava, W Magazine, brava.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tango Slide

Check it out, everyone!

My travel essay, "Street Tango in Buenos Aires," at Your Life is a Trip, Judith Fein's chic, place-based site for stories from around the globe.

Thank you, Judith, for your editorial prowess, and thanks also to Ellen, for making my words look so lovely.

Enjoy this sunlit eve, dear readers. Summer on!

Monday, August 10, 2015


Real quick everyone: 

It has come to my attention that some of you out there have not yet encountered Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you have not inspected her closely, dear readers, please run and do not walk to your nearest library, hurry to the front desk, and request Americanah

Americanah with an H, that's right. Just do it. Just do it.

In a way you're lucky in that you missed having to request it at the library right when it came out and then wait and wait and wait for months, like I'm doing (patiently) for H is for Hawk.

By the way, if you live in Santa Fe and have checked out H is for Hawk from SFCC, please return it! Please! Return it!!!

Anyway, or Americanah is available on Amazon for $6.14 used. It's probably better to own your own copy anyhow. I gave mine away to the lovely Penelope, and she damn well better have read it.


Meanwhile, enjoy these panting dog days, dear readers! Sip lemonade and fan yourself with that good book you've got there in your hands. Soon enough we'll be aching for this kind of heat, and you know it.

Summer on!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Saba Sulaiman on Revisions, Fair Use, and the 30-Draft-Rule-of-Thumb

Meet Saba Sulaiman, everyone! Recently profiled as a hot new literary agent in Writers Digest, Sulaiman came under my radar through a mutual friend. She's proven enormously helpful as I wade through the murky waters of query letters, agents, publishers, and all that lies beyond - and, she's willing to share her insights with us here today!

According to Writers Digest, "[Sulaiman] was born to Pakistani expatriates in Sri Lanka and studied...modern Persian Literature at the University of Chicago, where she got involved with editing the department’s academic journal. 'And it finally hit me—working closely with writers to hone their craft; seeing a piece of writing from its inception through to its eventual publication; and advocating for what I believed was stellar prose worthy of recognition—this was my calling. So I interned at various newspaper and magazine publications, worked as an editorial intern at Sourcebooks, and then wound up at Talcott Notch, where I’m excited to begin my career as a literary agent.'"

Below, please find Sulaiman's useful answers to my blundering questions.

How do I get my book agent-ready? 

At this point, this is what I'd recommend: if you can, join a critique group, or, better yet, apply for a position in an intensive workshop. You need as much feedback as you possibly can. Of course, this depends on how serious you are about getting this book published -- I understand how taxing and thankless this stage of the writing process can be, and you have to be really dedicated to see this book through all of it's future versions. Most successful authors have around 30 fully reworked drafts of their book before it's finally ready -- not that you necessarily need that many drafts, but it's something to keep in mind.

My memoir is set in a specific time and place. As I revise and revise, my concern is that the book and its story will grow 'dated'. 

Don't worry about that too much. A well-done memoir should feel relevant regardless of what time period it harkens back to. It actually might be useful to make this one of your aims as you revise -- make sure your subject doesn't sound dated in your treatment of it.

How do agents/editors feel about authors who use quotes? I want to include more words by a few writers, namely Eduardo Galeano (who passed a few months ago). How do you view authors who quote other authors?

The question is, how are you using the quote? Because it all depends on whether or not it's fair use, which can be a very, very ambiguous thing. If they're just quotes before chapter beginnings, I'd day you should be fine, but otherwise, it might depend. Here are some useful online resources that might make things clearer:

Personally, if they're just short, one line quotes before chapters, or before the book begins, I'm okay with it -- and it should fall within "fair use." But I generally like to keep other quotes/song lyrics out of an original, debut manuscript, just because it can get complicated very fast. And at the end of the day, by using this material, you’re basically increasing the publisher's cost of buying your manuscript, because they would have to potentially buy the rights to all the quotes you use.

Does it make a difference if the author being quoted has passed? 

Even if the author is dead, he/she has an estate that continues to receive royalties. Now if an editor falls hard for your manuscript, he/she may advocate for their bosses to budget high for your book, but that’s a huge risk to take. Editors have to draft Profit and Loss statements for each of the books they bring to their acquisitions board meetings, and if they’re already setting aside a chunk of money just to buy these extra rights, that puts your book at a guaranteed disadvantage. So I'd strongly advise you not to use too many quotes, and find other ways to achieve what they were doing in your narrative. 

Thanks, Saba Sulaiman! May our paths cross again - and in the meantime, happy reading!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Summer love

Happy August, dear ones. Summer on!
Photo courtesy of brother Dave McCahill.