tea, two houses, and mixing watercolors

This is part of a series of Instagram essays, or instaessays; writing exercises where the images are informed or subverted by accompanying long-form captions. Follow me to see more @decleyreandco

watercolor and tea

I could see him from my desk in the corner, small fingers and a nose pressed against the glass, searching for signs of life. The boy from the apartment beside ours had recently taken a liking to creeping in the porch doorway we left ajar, for fresh air. Each time he did it, he became more adventurous, until his head was in the apartment. I threw a pen at the door, it thwacked the glass, and he jumped. Moments later, I caught his shaggy blonde hair bobbing in the doorway yet again.

I invited him in. He sat on the settee that’s too small for us; it engulfed him. I asked if he wanted water, and he nodded. I asked if he wanted to read. He looked at the sandy carpet and said, “I don’t read very well.” “Here,” I handed him an issue of AFAR, “this is a travel magazine with nice pictures.”

I went back to work. “You sit on a bouncy ball at your desk?” He asked. “It’s more fun,” I said. “You don’t work?” “I’m working now. I work from home.” “My dad rides his bike to work.” “Is he there now?” The kid nodded. I let him play with the other exercise ball, but I drew the line at standing on the bed.

“You have paintbrushes,” he said. “Do you like to paint?” I asked. He nodded. “Do you have any paints?” “Yeah, but at my other house. I have two houses.” “That’s what I had when I wad a kid. Two houses. Mom’s house and Dad’s house.” “Really?” “Yes.” We looked at each other. “Does your Mom live far?” “She lives near my cousins, and my Dad lives next door to you.”

I set him up on the porch with the pocket-sized box of watercolors, despite his protesting that he preferred to paint inside, using the settee as his easel. He picked out a thick round brush, dipped it in the glass of drinking water I had given him.

He said he liked water and tea. “Me too. What kind of tea?” He shrugged. “Black tea?” “I don’t know.” And after a few moments, “can I try some tea?” And, “is it a black color when you drink it?”

I returned with a small clear mug so he could see the tea steeping, turning the hot water sepia and then brown. “Do you ever mix the colors?” He asked. He’d pushed the brush indiscriminately into each neatly arranged cube of color, a habit I can’t stand. The yellows now held a film of green. I showed him how to mix them in the tiny palette lid, and went back inside to work.

“I don’t like the tea. Can I please have milk and sugar?” Before I could oblige, his brother came out to say “we’re going to Lovejoy.” He said it half a dozen times, but the kid kept painting.

When they finally left, I scraped the top layer of mismatched colors from the paint cubes, changed the water, and arranged it beside the porch door, as if he’d never left.

Does reading make us smarter, nicer, or lovelier?

Powell's City of Books - http://www.powells.com/

Powell’s City of Books – http://www.powells.com/

I read a lot—because I enjoy it, because I’m a writer, because I can. I’m the type of person who has to buy books, because I mark them up with pens and pencils and dog-ear the pages. Books, in my opinion, are sexy. I’m humbled by the amount of time, attention and care that went into writing and creating a book, which then rests solely in my hands; a product of one individual’s mind manifested in physical form, relying on my reading it for its very existence. Books can change you. Books are intimate experiences. (And no, I’m not talking about Fifty Shades of Grey.)

Apparently, book lovers are the best people to fall in love with. Well, depending on who you ask. I don’t feel the need to expound on the links below (listed by date), but simply share the most salacious snippets. Does reading make us smarter, nicer, or lovelier? Maybe. Maybe not.

We praise literature in self-evident terms: it is better to read than not to read, for reading civilizes us, makes us less cruel, and brings the imaginations of others into ours and vice versa. We persist in this belief regardless of what we know to the contrary: that the Nazis’ affection for high culture did not prevent their crimes.

A Reader’s War” by Teju Cole
New Yorker, February 11, 2013
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/02/a-readers-war.html

Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence: we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being. That will take a lot of careful and insightful psychological research (try designing an experiment to test the effects of reading “War and Peace,” for example). Meanwhile, most of us will probably soldier on with a positive view of the improving effects of literature, supported by nothing more than an airy bed of sentiment.

Does Great Literature Make Us Better?” by Gregory Currie
New York Times Opinionator Blog & The Stone, June 1, 2013
http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/01/does-great-literature-make-us-better/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

The deep reader, protected from distractions and attuned to the nuances of language, enters a state that psychologist Victor Nell, in a study of the psychology of pleasure reading, likens to a hypnotic trance. Nell found that when readers are enjoying the experience the most, the pace of their reading actually slows. The combination of fast, fluent decoding of words and slow, unhurried progress on the page gives deep readers time to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions. It gives them time to establish an intimate relationship with the author, the two of them engaged in an extended and ardent conversation like people falling in love.

Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer” by Annie Murphy Paul
TIME, June 3, 2013
http://ideas.time.com/2013/06/03/why-we-should-read-literature/

Readers, like voicemail leavers and card writers, are now a dying breed, their numbers decreasing with every GIF list and online tabloid.

The worst part about this looming extinction is that readers are proven to be nicer and smarter than the average human, and maybe the only people worth falling in love with on this shallow hell on earth.

Why Readers, Scientifically, Are The Best People To Fall In Love With” by Lauren Martin
Elite Daily, July 9, 2014

http://elitedaily.com/life/culture/date-reader-readers-best-people-fall-love-scientifically-proven/662017/

striving, struggling, seeking

writeitout
Last night I dreamt I was at a writing residency, catching up with a colleague. He asked me how my work was going, and I replied that nothing I wrote was any good, but that I kept writing because I knew it would be someday.

Only as I type this do I realize how strange and peculiar it is to choose a career in something you think you suck at. Why do people, creative types especially, sell themselves short?

The tone of the dream was very matter of fact, devoid of drama, no fishing for compliments: I’m not where I’d like to be in my creative practice; I don’t feel like my work is “there” yet; it doesn’t match up to the high caliber of the work I love to read and want to write. This could be seen as a relief, since it would be daunting to think that my best is behind me. (However, this “my best work is behind me” mentality is another damanging misconception about art and artists, which Elizabeth Gilbert touches on in a TED talk from 2009.)

I can’t deny it; this dream was an honest-to-goodness representation of how I felt, plainly and simply stated. Yet I awoke knowing that my writing isn’t actually bad. It just isn’t where I’d like it to be, which is at the level of the authors I read and love—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Cheryl Strayed, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safran Foer, and (currently reading and enjoying) Bruno Schulz.

But I am not these people and they are not me. They have at least a decade on me. Collectively, decades and decades. It’s unrealistic and disheartening to think I should be a decade ahead of where I am right now. Not savoring the stepping stones on the path doesn’t serve me, or anyone else. Accepting and appreciating where we’re at does, but that’s easier said than done.

My generation, this modern-day society, is so accustomed to instant gratification—posting a blog, status update, or photo and watching the likes and hearts crawl in, each one mildly, momentarily, and superficially satisfying—that we make no time for 10,000 hours. No time for rewrites. We want accolades and gold medals and we want them now. And it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and under-accomplished when we’re constantly bombarded with perfectly curated lives that leave out the dirty, messy, and gritty, the bang-your-head-against-the-wall writing sessions.

This morning, as I journaled about the dream, musing on external gratification and awards, I felt my writing get super preachy. I went from writing morning pages for myself, to thinking it could be a good a blog post, to wanting to pitch it as an article for publication that would make me filthy rich and fabulously famous. It was practically involuntary; a slow, quiet alteration from my original intention of writing for writing’s sake, toward writing for the sake of others. I wrote, “see, that’s exactly it. There I go again: striving, struggling, seeking instant and external gratification.”

In the dream, my colleague reacted to what I said with an unsurprised shrug and a slow nod of the head, which I took to mean: we all have those days.

write

writing utensils
It’s been one year since I started an MFA in Creative Writing, and it’s taken nearly that long for me to heed the advice of countless writers and creatives: write. Every day. It sounds so simple, yet there are a million and one distractions happening all around me at any given moment, if I choose to see them: dirty dishes piled so high that the bottom of the sink ceases to exist, the lure of a sunny day, the stack of fresh emails demanding to be read, not to mention the intangible allure of Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest.

Instead, I choose to focus on a sentence that crops up, and the words and phrases that follow. It takes effort to face a blank page, to constantly bring your attention back to where you are. I don’t take this practice lightly, but I know if it’s taken too seriously it doesn’t get started, let alone finished. And it may never be finished, but it needs to get done.

Yesterday I looked up from the book I was reading to take stock of the quiet apartment surrounding me—white walls, a desk, three potted plants on the windowsill, two shelves of books. I scribbled “I am but a guest here” in the margins, just because it came to me. It felt like a good sentence.

Writing is exploration. I don’t fully understand what comes to me as it comes. Only in writing and rewriting do I begin to comprehend what words, phrases, and sentences mean. Only in writing do I begin to make sense of my self and the world that surrounds me.

“I am but a guest here.” But what does that even mean? Where’s here? This apartment? This city? This country? This planet? This universe? Am I touching on issues of personal transience, impermanence, or universal mortality? Are these mutually exclusive or essentially the same? Or am I just writing nonsense?

The joy is in the seeking. It doesn’t have to make sense. Nothing has to make sense. I don’t ever have to solve a sentence in order to feel good, to be comforted or entertained. I just have to write.

blogs & blank pages

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Once a week, I open up a blank document. I’m going to write a blog. I’m not sure where to begin, but a cup of tea might help. I walk to the kitchen. I fill a pot with water from the sink. I place it on the stove. I turn the knob. After a few moments of clicking and snapping, the coils turn red. Waiting for the water to boil, I clip my toenails. I sweep the clippings up with a broom. I continue, sweeping under tables and desks. I pull dust bunnies from forgotten corners. I push this clump, this collection of clippings, dust, and dirt, into the corner of the kitchen. I make a mental note: buy a dustpan.

By now, the water has boiled for far too long. The tea is too hot to drink. I can’t write a blog unless I have a drinkable cup of tea. I set the cup on the windowsill. The breeze blows a waterfall of steam overboard. Waiting, I check my email. I scroll through social media pages. I fall asleep with eyes still on the screen. I am suddenly seated at some stranger’s wedding. The happy couple is all smiles. I’ve never met them. Wait, how did I get here?

An hour has passed. The tea is cold. The page is still blank.

AWP14

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image

Fellow book lovers,
I’m currently at the AWP14 conference in Seattle (which is the Association of Writers & Writing Programs for those of you who aren’t familiar with it; I admit I had never heard of AWP up until a month ago). It is overwhelming to the point of tears. A striking contrast to the solitary days of writing and reading. And truly remarkable. Rows and rows and rows of books; of literary journals and magazines; of writers, editors, and publishers literally rubbing shoulders as they squeeze by another booth.

If you’re here, you know what I’m talking about (and you should come visit me at the NHIA MFA booth B17). If you’re not here, get here. Or put it on your calendar for 2015.

Best, e.v.

in solitude, in portland

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Portland is an introvert’s paradise. Nothing but rain and street corner cafes with piping hot coffee where you splay a used hardcover copy of Zadie Smith out on the table beside a bar of Woodblock Chocolate and a Field Notes pencil. You take up knitting to keep your hands busy while you read. You wake up early to write to the sound of car tires spinning, screeching on the street outside, drivers wholly unprepared for three days of slowly falling snow flakes. You feel both cliche and old, staying in and knitting in an armchair, never watching the news, lacking the faintest idea of what’s going on in the world and perfectly content yet mildly unsettled with that fact. When the woman at the library tells you about an article on Slate about the snow in Atlanta you ask “it snowed in Atlanta?”

The black hood of a rain jacket induces tunnel vision on the way home from the post office, like a horse wearing blinders being led through water. You feel the newness and the unknown of the city but it doesn’t swallow you up, doesn’t bother you like it did in Brooklyn, where you had to know it to be in it; in Portland, you just have to be. Maybe it’s the city or maybe it’s that you’re older.

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Mostly, I’m at a loss of what to say. No lack of things to say, but where to begin, how to begin to say them. I once wrote that the writing life was one of intense solitude. I stand by that, but I now realize that generalization was more specific than I wanted to admit. Even amongst others, I am extremely solitary.

Portland is another step towards that, rather than away. In Portland, I can be anonymous; the luxury of a city, a new city. It’s not so much about starting over as it is about continuing, a deepening of what’s already begun.
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from east to west

Last week, I took a train from Boston, MA to Portland, OR. 22 hours from Boston to Chicago, and over 50 hours from Chicago to Portland. Ever wondered what it’s like to travel long distances by train? Have specific questions about the trip? Leave them in the comments below, and I’ll address them in a future post. – e.v.

tumblr_mznrzsHf1k1s20fh2o1_500 tumblr_mzo58hlEBY1s20fh2o1_500albany, new york

tumblr_mzpc5kvng91s20fh2o1_500somewhere in Indiana

tumblr_mzpgefeRIg1s20fh2o1_500nearing Chicago
tumblr_mzpmejLHoe1s20fh2o1_500tumblr_mzpt1a7RkH1s20fh2o1_500Chicago

tumblr_mzq01mZIV41s20fh2o1_500Milwaukeetumblr_mzr8823jH01s20fh2o1_500Fargo, NDtumblr_mzrhncQgav1s20fh2o1_500 tumblr_mzrk8jfz9b1s20fh2o1_500the vast expanse of nothingness, North Dakotatumblr_mzrmnuB6z91s20fh2o1_500 Rugby, NDtumblr_mzrveuxBaM1s20fh2o1_500 tumblr_mzs5zmv8yD1s20fh2o1_500 tumblr_mztoqytZfV1s20fh2o1_500 tumblr_mztr2mvAcQ1s20fh2o1_500Columbia River, WAtumblr_mztu0zsAEx1s20fh2o1_500Portland, OR

the writing process: books to read

morningpages

Often I post lists of books I’ve read to give those of you in the blogsosphere (that’s a thing, right?) some inspiration (ie. get off the computer and get back to books). What can I say? I’m a Luddite at heart. I’d rather handwrite than type, and I can’t bring myself to listen to audiobooks, let alone pick up an ebook. In a change of pace, I thought I’d post what I’m planning to read during my upcoming MFA Creative Writing semester at New Hampshire Institute of Art, as opposed to what I’ve already read.
It’s daunting to keep up a blog in addition to the forty plus pages of writing due every five weeks, so I’m aiming to write less “finished” posts and more about the process of writing, of being in graduate school, of all those little things that go on behind the surface of writing.

Book club, anyone? Follow me on GoodReads for more.

Mohsin Hamid – How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Arundhati Roy – God of Small Things
Svetislav Basara – The Cyclist’s Conspiracy
Okey Ndibe – Foreign Gods, Inc.
Can Xue – Five Spice Street
Sandor Marai – Embers
Anthony Marra – A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Ming Holden – The Survival Girls
Jhumpa Lahiri – Interpreter of Maladies and The Lowland
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Purple Hibiscus and Americanah
Zadie Smith – White Teeth
Teju Cole – Open City
Tim O’Brien – The Things They Carried
Touchstone Anthology of Creative Nonfiction
Edited by Cheryl Strayed – Best Essays 2013
Edited by Elizabeth Gilbert – Best Travel Writing 2013
Philip Gourevitch – We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
Nabokov – Speak, Memory (memoir) and Pale Fire (poem)
Isak Dinesan – Out of Africa
Benjamin Bush – Dust to Dust: A Memoir
Jorges Luis Borges – Labyrinths
Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Notes from Underground
James Joyce – Dubliner’s
Anton Chekov – stories
Nikolai Gogol – The Overcoat
Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five
W.G. Sebald – The Emigrants
Bruno Schultz – The Street of Crocodiles
Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities
Tin House Writer’s Series – The Writer’s Notebook II

a bookish christmas

If the recent onslaught of snow has reminded you that you have yet to buy people presents this year, here’s a bunch of recommendations for the various characters in your life: the Environmentalist and Explorer, the Armchair / Literary Traveler, the Creative, the Foodie, and the History Buff. If you’re one of those people whose Christmas shopping is finished by September (I’m talking to you, mother), go ahead and celebrate by buying yourself a book. You deserve it.

Connect with me on Goodreads to see more of what I’m reading, and show me yours (books, that is).
environmentalistbook

For the Environmentalist and Explorer: 

Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee 
John McPhee’s book is my ideal piece of nonfiction writing, objectively telling all sides of a story with a narrative as entertaining and well-written as any great novel. In three parts, the author chronicles three separate journeys with David Brower, former executive director of the Sierra Club. McPhee incites lively debates and slowly reveals the entire picture of Brower’s life by pitting him against three foils to his environmentalism, and setting the characters in three wilderness regions in danger of being mined, developed, damned, and exploited for resources.

Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh by Helena Norberg-Hodge
I read this book in anticipation of a 2009 trip to Ladakh, where I spent six weeks living in villages and working on farms. In the 1970s, India opened the politically sensitive region (that borders both China and Pakistan) to development, and Norberg-Hodge was one of the first foreigners to spend a significant amount of time there. Over the next twenty years she witnessed the effects of conventional development and documented it in Ancient Futures. Although polarizing in her views, Norberg-Hodge’s book is an important investigation into how societies and communities change amidst development, raising questions about the notions of “progress” and challenging unexamined assumptions.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
What strikes me about Foer’s work is the way he arranges his writing, toying with and discarding the conventional structure of the novel. Even in this work of nonfiction, the author’s emphasis is on storytelling. His grandmother surviving the Holocaust, illegal nighttime excursions to locked poultry farms, and tours of pig slaughterhouses are only a few of the stories, and throughout it all the author balances straightforward, journalistic reporting of the facts, figures, and statistics of factory farming’s effects on health, the environment, and animals. This unique arrangement of writing makes Eating Animals not only readable, but digestible. It is a gruesome subject that most avoid altogether, but Foer shifts away from argumentative prose and toward an exploration of narratives that have no right or wrong answers.

Another notable read: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver


For the Armchair / Literary Traveler: 

Granta Issue 124: Travel
The Travel issue of UK-based literary journal Granta shows that there are as many different ways to travel as there are to write. This issue chronicles eighteen authors (four of whom are poets), plus four translators and two collections of photography that span the globe—taking you from Thailand to Nigeria and everywhere in between. No need to pack your bags or feel violated at security.

The Condé Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places Edited and Introduced by Klara Glowczewska
The breadth of places in this Conde Nast collection mirrors the wide array of writers, and the myriad ways of writing a travel essay. The best pieces capture the complexity and diversity of a place, as well as the feeling and the facts. Philip Gourevitch’s “Where the Wild Things Are” is the culminating piece of this collection, and arguably the best. The author describes his safari trip to a remote region of Tanzania with a combination of sights, smells, and sounds that fully immerses the reader in the experience. Boring travel writers focus too much on themselves, but Gourevitch depicts a range of characters that round out the narrative and become central to the success of the piece. The collection features writing by Pico Iyer, Russel Banks, Nicole Krauss, and Suketu Mehta, among others.

Whites by Norman Rush
The short stories in Norman Rush’s Whites range in perspective and style, offering a culturally and socially nuanced glimpse into life as ex-patriots in Botswana. Written similarly to Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the story “Near Pala” is a dialogue-heavy account of four ex-patriots driving across Botswana–capturing the dichotomy of the bleeding-heart activist who seizes every opportunity to discuss what’s wrong with Africa, and the white man perpetuating broken systems that he benefits from. Rush’s stories rely on action to move the plot and reveal characters–displaced individuals who deal with issues larger than themselves, and largely out of their control.

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje’s fictionalized memoir reads like the opulence and discord of The Great Gatsby set in Sri Lanka. The author mixes reflections of two trips to Sri Lanka with stories of his ancestors, recounted by others. The memoir pushes into fictional realms when Ondaatje recreates moments of his grandmother’s life with startling clarity and beauty. The author mixes photographs, poems, and entire passes of quotations to create a book that breaks boundaries of convention and structure.

Other notable reads: Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

For the Creative:

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is a lengthy manifesto for creative beings; a how-to book for overcoming obstacles and pushing forward as a professional artist or writer. Written in short, punchy paragraphs, Pressfield doesn’t dance around issues; he attacks them like a warrior in the Greek myths he conjures throughout the book. His explorations of genius and creative inspiration tie in perfectly with the overarching advice: show up, do the work. The perfect book to dust off when writer’s block strikes.

Specifically for the Writer: The Writer’s Series Bundle from Tin House and this list from Poets & Writers

For the Foodie:

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by Kate Christensen

The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious—and Perplexing—City by David Lebovitz
I read this in 2011, and still think about the way Lebovitz captures the complexity of life in a foreign country, marked by a humor and resilience that makes for a great narrator. A great book for people who love Paris, and an even greater book for people who hate the place.

For the History Buff:

News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Largely lacking in dialogue, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s News of a Kidnapping conveys the complexity of Columbia during the 1980s and 90s; a country where drug barons exercise almost as much power as the president, police clash with citizens, and both sides are suffering. A nonfiction account as complicated as Marquez’s novels, the author reconstructs the kidnappings through interviews and diaries, creating dynamic, well-rounded and memorable characters who reveal how dire situations can catalyze people to change (or not).

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
In the Heart of the Sea is both a narrative retelling of a whale attacking the Essex—the event that inspired Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick—and an historical representation of life in 1800s Nantucket. A small island in the Atlantic, the economy of Nantucket depended on whaling, and the society idolized yet suffered from it. Fusing extensive research with narrative nonfiction elements, Philbrick transports the reader quite literally into the heart of the sea. 

More Reading Lists:
Run-ons & Reading Lists
September Reads

Connect with me on Goodreads to see what I’m reading: https://www.goodreads.com/evdecleyre