Instructions for Audio Learners

Back in May I shared a sneak preview of my new-media writing project.  I’m excited to report that the final piece has been released over at Carroll und Klinger.  You can check out my edition of Instructions for Audio Learners here!

The concept behind the series is incredibly cool.  John Carroll and Nick Klinger invited a group of writers to create audio versions of IKEA’s instruction manuals.  The series is sharp and fun and invariably hilarious.  It was an absolute honor to be a part of — though I will now never, under any circumstances, own or participate in Markor Buffet assembly.

Be sure to check out the rest of the series, which features some seriously funny writers.  John’s piece came out last week, and it’s just about the best thing I’ve heard in 2014.

Preview

My friend John and I recently collaborated on a cool new-media writing project he’s working on over at Carroll und Klinger.  John is one of the funniest, most innovative writers I know, so I’m very excited to be included in this new project.  It won’t come out until later next month, but here’s a sneak preview.  Can’t wait to share the results!

My Apartment

My apartment has stacks of books next to the bookcase.  Two Christmas cacti blooming on the window ledge.  Music through the speakers of my television.

In it, I have now scrambled eggs, peeled clementines, layered sliced fruit in footed bowls.  Run the dishwasher.

I live alone in this apartment with my book, the flowing generosity of friends (the pouring of tea, wine, the unpacking of boxes), and with my own future, which has been, all these months, like my book, waiting for me.

Unexpected

Matchibako

In the past year, one of the stories I’m writing for my collection has pulled me unexpectedly into 1930s Japan.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about that era — and particularly its aesthetic legacy.  So browsing at my local bookstore the other day, I was excited to come across this compact, accordion-folded book about the art of 1920s and 30s Japanese matchboxes.

The story for my book is still finding its shape, but I’ve been enjoying the research for this piece, which keeps drawing me in new and interesting directions.  For now, I’m focusing on savoring the process.  Sometimes writing fiction offers unsought gifts.   Even while waiting for each piece in the collection to unfold.

Matchibako

Two Problems with Reading Beryl Markham

1. Her sentences are so terrific I want to underline one every few pages.  But I borrowed the my copy from the library.*

Take this one, for instance:

“Grey blades of light sliced at the darkness and within a few moments I could see the mining camp in all its bleak and somehow courageous isolation…”

That whole sentence lives on the unexpected jolt of courageous.  Stunning what one word (well-placed) can do.

2. She’s making me really want to fly planes again.  I flew a plane last June and cannot quite recover from it.  While I was up there, a bald eagle flew between my wing and the shadow-splotched fields.  It was utterly exhilarating for that and a hundred other reasons…  I would love to fly again, but even to get my license would be prohibitively expensive.  (Great research, though, when writing a book about pilots.)

Beryl isn’t making it any easier to recover with paragraphs like these:

“…to fly in unbroken darkness… is something more than just lonely.  It is at times unreal to the point where the existence of other people seems not even a reasonable probability.  The hills, the forests, the rocks, and the plains are one with the darkness, and the darkness is infinite.  The earth is no more your planet than is a distant star — if a star is shining; the plane is your planet and you are its sole inhabitant.”

Seriously, if you haven’t read this book yet, you should.

*  If I do wind up caving and buying a copy, it seems like a book best purchased a little worn, well-used.

Studios

There’s such a lure/lore to artists’ working spaces.  And this article gives us a glimpse of forty artists’ and writers’ studios.  I especially like Georgia O’Keefe’s…

… and Ruth Reichl’s reminds me of my family’s home in Oregon (though I believe she lives in New York?)

How great are those carpets?  And that view…

Here are two others I’ve been liking lately:

Jewelry designer Corinna‘s studio was featured in this recent Etsy article.  I love the play of light through her windows and against her curtains.  Graphic designer Katie Geppert‘s can be found here.  (Etsy’s blog is a seriously fantastic place to ogle studios.)

My choices seem to be all about good light.

Any artist & writer studios you’ve been coveting?

Memoirs

As part of the research for my short story collection, I’ve been reading memoirs by women who lived in parts of the world other than where they were born.  I just finished Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, who moved from Denmark to run a farm in Kenya.

The passages where Dinesen describes the landscape tend to be particularly lyrical and strong.  The book can also be frustrating, though: despite her careful, anthropologist-like eye, Dinesen never manages to escape the racial paradigms of her time.

Note: I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m guessing they cut a lot out.  Dinesen’s relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton is only a small — though moving — portion of the memoir.  I have, however, been listening to the film’s soundtrack all month.

Last night I started West with the Night by Beryl Markham — another fiercely independent woman living in Kenya during the first half of the twentieth century.  Although I have a feeling that Markham and Dinesen* may strike me as quite different from one another.

*Interesting side note: There are rumors both Dinesen and Markham were romantically involved with Denys Finch Hatton.

I didn’t get more than a couple dozen pages into West with the Night yesterday, but I like it so far.

Any pre-WWII memoirs you all recommend?

Kitchen, Annotated

Kitchen

1. I first saw this camel teapot when I visited Celestial Seasonings last June.  I didn’t have room to transport it safely home in my suitcase, but I tracked one down online afterwards.

2. My grandfather, the ultimate gift-giver, gave me these Pendleton coasters years ago.  Their daily presence in my kitchen makes me feel so connected to him.

3. Spring flowers still haven’t come to my yard in Maryland, so I’m coaxing them out with fresh, cut flowers inside.  (These are to celebrate some recent good news.)

Pull up a Wicker Lounge Chair and Have a Cup of Coffee: Women Writers in Visual Culture

In its September issue, Vogue published a photography spread honoring Edith Wharton — a photography spread that featured actors, models, and writers; conspicuously, though, none of the writers were women.  I’m torn about this issue: on the one hand, I was pretty excited about the fact that any popular culture source was talking about (and photographing!) writers.  And the photograph I saw (I believe there are more I haven’t seen) only included seven people, so it doesn’t seem like a large enough sample to spark indignation.  But on the other hand, a photograph honoring a female writer ought to include a female writer.

As Kate Bolick writes in her nuanced and insightful look at this issue, “the reaction […] was…complicated”: here we are “confronted with something so obviously wrong (as if women writers aren’t underrepresented enough as is!) and yet so seemingly inconsequential (oh who cares—it’s just a photo shoot)…”

Vogue Wharton Spread

My own reaction was complicated enough that I tried to dismiss the matter.  But then this morning my husband and I swung by Barnes and Noble for a cup of coffee.  Behind our local Barnes and Nobel cafe is a large mural featuring seven writers, six of them male.  The only female writer represented was Emily Dickinson, and she was mostly covered by a sign about coffee.  The male writers in the mural talked and laughed with each other, sipped mugs of coffee, some painted in profile, all of them actively engaged in a fantasy literary cafe scene straight out of Woody Allen.  Except Dickinson, who sat stock still, facing forward, her hands folded neatly in her lap, completely separate from the collegial coffee drinking around her.

The thing that bothered me most about this mural, however, was the presence of several anonymous female figures, all painted with blank white ovals in lieu of faces, who lounged and sipped and chattered amongst the male writers.  It wasn’t that the mural only included seven figures, or that the figures included were men.  It’s that the composition included women, but the painter (or Barnes and Noble, which presumably commissioned the piece) didn’t bother to say, “We have room for two more writers in this piece?  And the figures you’re planning to paint are women?  Let’s make them Zora Neale Hurston and Charlotte Bronte.”

On their own, a photo spread in Vogue and a mural behind a Barnes and Noble cafe don’t seem to amount to anything.  Except that they niggle at me.  Contemporary gender issues are so subtle, so beneath the surface that it is difficult to identify them when they happen and even more difficult to give them voice.

“[…] any complaint sounds like whining, so it’s hard to know how to frame the discussion,” Roxana Robinson told Kate Bolick.  In Bolick’s article, Robinson again parses this complex issue: “The message of the shoot seems to be that a man can become an appropriate subject for the camera by being a professional writer. But a woman can only be an appropriate subject for the camera if she is a professional beauty.”

I worry that the outcome of these discussions will be a sort of token inclusion: sticking a random, stiff Emily Dickinson portrait in the middle of a cafe scene and then covering her with a coffee ad.  But what I’m arguing against isn’t so much the exclusion of women from visual representations of writers, but rather the more systemic, unspoken mindset that produces these incidents.  The fact that when bookstore owners and magazine editors — people who are supposed to be somewhat literary — brainstorm for these visual images, they don’t automatically think of a more inclusive, diverse, and representative list of writers.  I don’t want an Emily Dickinson afterthought.  I want women writers to be part of the discussion from the start.

Visual images carry increasing currency in our culture.  How powerful would it be to see a cafe scene or a back patio lounge where women and men writers participated equally and collegially?  It seems there’s a real call for some well-connected, talented photographer to produce a photo spread in response.

Commencement Speech Season

I always enjoy commencement speech season.  Probably because I love any excuse to listen to smart, interesting, insightful people talk about life.

At the job I had during my twenties, I hosted interviews on our local television channel.  My favorite was the series where I got to interview people about their lives.  It was such a gift to be able to ask people questions: about how they moved from one part of their lives to another, what they’d learned, how they saw themselves and their choices.  Especially in my early – mid-twenties, when I had so many decisions to make about where I was going in my own life.

I actually really love (and miss) interviewing people.

I’ve gotten hooked on Amanda de Cadenet’s new interview series “The Conversation” because her guests often say such interesting things about their lives.  And because her guests tend to be creative (actors, designers, etc), they also sometimes say interesting and helpful things about what it’s like to pursue an artistic life.

Which brings me to one of my favorite commencement speeches from this graduation season.  Neil Gaiman at the University of the Arts this spring:

Such useful, helpful advice — so much of which resonated with me.  I hope you find it helpful and interesting, too.

Are there any graduation speeches or interviews you especially like?  Please share them in the comments — I’d love some recommendations.