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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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

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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).
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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

on travel / nomads

photography by Chelsea Batten

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A few weeks ago, through the magical web of social media, I met up with Chelsea Batten for an afternoon in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Chelsea is the embodiment of what I value. With few possessions packed in the trunk of her car, she roams around North America as she pleases. When she’s not writing full-time for a magazine, she conducts her own interviews on the side for a project she calls The Connoisseurs. In essence, when Chelsea’s not writing for work, she’s writing to write. This is one of the main reasons I admire her.

Another is that she has lived nomadically for a year now. (I wrote “I’m all about that” in my notebook the day after we met.) And after talking to her, I realized we’re cut from the same cloth. I can’t help but be nomadic, and neither can she. We talked about how we’re both essentially homeless; drifting from one house to another, not paying rent in any official capacity. We talked about how people react when they hear that Chelsea essentially lives out of her car, and about how difficult it is for me to answer the seemingly simple question, “where do you live?”

I’ve resided in New Hampshire since April of 2012, but since August I have been jumping from place to place each night. From houses in the Seacoast region of NH to Cambridge, MA to Portland, ME. That’s what I mean when I say I can’t help but be nomadic; even when I’m settled, I’m on the move. Although living out of a duffel bag in spare bedrooms filled with the leftover possessions of past residents has drawbacks, I would not trade the freedom and ability to move from place to place for anything.

Talking to Chelsea restored the faith I’d lost in my ability and intentions regarding travel. I felt lost, wayward, but now I see this is a powerful and radical choice in a lifestyle that ultimately satisfies me more than a permanent address and a dining room set. I realized that lost, wayward feeling was derived from an unconscious adoption of common cultural and societal misconceptions about traveling and travelers. Contrary to popular belief, we travelers are not lazy, or ungrounded, or escaping reality. Our priorities and values are not skewed just because we’re not fully satisfied with a 12-month lease or a mortgage. I know plenty of people who derive satisfaction from saving for their first home, decorating a new apartment, and working forty hours a week in a cubicle. I’m just not one of those people.

But it bears mentioning that I was born into a white, middle-class American household, endowed with the trappings of privilege, and given opportunities (namely access to a good education and the ability to travel) that I realize are not available to everyone. I also recognize that the socio-economic conditions I was born into lends itself to my nomadic lifestyle.

photo by Chelsea Batten

I flew straight back to Lhasa, Tibet the day after my college graduation to continue studying the language. Yet something about returning to Lhasa with an undergraduate degree under my belt felt wrong. I couldn’t figure out why, exactly, but the situation in Lhasa was tense, so I chalked it up to the heavily-militarized region and returned to the United States. What I didn’t see then—that I clearly realize now—was how I caved under societal expectations, believing that an upstanding US-citizen with a Bachelor’s degree should have a full-time salaried job, instead of aimlessly traveling around the world. I bought into the assumption without knowing I was being sold, returned to the US, and moved to Brooklyn to work like hell. And it was hell.

Even now, I hide my insatiable wanderlust and nomadic spirit under my MFA-in-progress, because that is a more acceptable answer to “what do you do?” than, “I live out of one duffel bag, jump around from house to house and city to city, and work as a freelance writer and editor.”

And to those who brush it off with, “it’s just a phase,” here’s my ten-year plan, characterized not by “things,” but by places and experiences:

  • Bhutan: teach; study Dzongkha, Buddhism, the ethnic cleansing during the 1990s, and the current tourism model.
  • Sikkim: study Tibetan, reach a relative point of fluency
  • Tawang, Arunchal Pradesh, India: visit the historically Tibetan territory and disputed region
  • Burma: history and recent reforms
  • Cambodia: Angkor Wat; genocide of the 1970s; travel overland to Vietnam
  • Vietnam: railroad from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and Halong Bay by boat
  • New Zealand: one year working holiday
  • Italy: study Italian
  • France: study French

Now that you’ve heard my side of the story, go read Chelsea’s account of our meeting in October, and tell me (in the comment section below): what are your views on travel, wanderlust, and ten-year plans?
Read more: on travel / wanderlust

NaNoWriMo or GrammoWriMo?

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Last year, I participated in and won NaNoWriMo, completing a 50,000 word manuscript in 30 days. It pushed my boundaries and challenged me to accomplish a feat I only imagined looming in the somewhat distant future. “Write a book” has been on my bucket list since I could hold a pen, and NaNoWriMo reaffirmed my identity as a writer. Now, another year has passed, November is days away, and I’m not sure I’m ready to dive in to NaNoWriMo. Then again, I didn’t sign up until October 31st last year, so I still have a week to make up my mind.

Should you do NaNoWriMo? I say “why not?” Give it the ol’ college try! It is a great experience for seasoned writers and budding novelists alike. But if the idea of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days is too daunting (and you’d be crazy to say it isn’t at least a little bit daunting), look into GrammoWriMo. Organized by Grammarly, GrammoWriMo is organizing the largest group of authors to ever collaborate on a novel. But hurry, the deadline to signup is October 25th!

Read more:
NaNoWriMo day two: word vomit
NaNoWriMo: the bittersweet, not quite end

the english club

It all happened before the time of the burning monks. I escaped to the roof at night with a cigarette hidden up my sleeve—quietly climbed the stairs, pushed the large metal door open and then shut to sit on the stone steps with my back against it. It didn’t matter how quietly I climbed, the door inevitably emitted a prolonged sigh. Under the cover of darkness, balancing the cigarette between my lips, I finally inhaled a gratifying sense of solitude.

The roof was the one place I could feel truly alone, where I didn’t feel like someone was watching, or listening in, or recording keystrokes. The paranoia would subside enough for me to think reasonably, as I drank in the deep purple mountains and the effervescent stars that attempted to puncture the light pollution poisoning the night. I was surrounded by the mountains, enveloped.

The whirr of electric currents ran through cables that snaked down the side of the dormitory building; the sound of solar water heaters in the night, occasionally dripping, but mostly frozen; cars and their inexperienced drivers racing up and down Jiangsu Lu; the laughter of students; the bone chilling chants of the military performing drills; the bass heartbeat of a song; the shrieking of speakers. I felt the sounds of the city under my skin, they drifted up from below and melted together like a contemporary symphony.

Blinking lights flickered at the far end of the roof: indicators of electricity or internet or surveillance or something. The new six-story, five-star St. Regis Lhasa Resort loomed a few blocks away, brightly lit, despite the fact that construction was not yet complete. Day and night, people worked on the grounds. Sparks flew from welding irons like miniature fireworks; earlier I had watched them as my classmates and I marched wearily back from a karaoke bar in the middle of the night. Bits of fire and light flew like blood spurting from the skeleton of the unfinished building.

I held the stump of the extinguished cigarette between frozen fingers and thought about returning to the karaoke after-party on the first floor. I ran the scene through my head: I’d wearily sit with my back up against the wall, curl my legs up into my chest, sip a cup of hot water and watch while everyone continued to get shitfaced—this group of misfits, sitting cross-legged on pillows and rugs and drinking cheap Chinese wine like we were in some sick, twisted version of a Kerouac novel.

In the corner, timid Martina tried to become a fly on the wall, situated beside plain Amy. Obviously American, Amy donned a baggy t-shirt and unflattering jeans, the type to wear a baseball cap with the ponytail shooting through the hole above the adjustable strap in the back.

There were four other Americans: Natasha, a young academic blonde who couldn’t retain eye contact and had a tendency to throw out off-color remarks regarding the most intimate details of her sex life that no one had asked about; Samantha, who looked like the cliché art school dropout, usually hanging around the front door with a cigarette in hand; and John and Kati, the inseparable vegan couple from New York City who seemed to live in their own little bubble within our bubble, in our world but not of it.

Near the doorway sat Eric, a frail Parisian linguistics student and the self-appointed translator, unofficial tour guide, and point person for any and all transactions, especially when it came to ordering meals. Then, Anders, a Norweigan man with a severely short haircut who drank beer like it was water, and finally, Glenn, the Australian who had ridden his bicycle from Southeast Asia to the border of Tibet.

And it all seemed like a happy occasion but the truth was I looked around the room at each and every one of them, my fellow students, and didn’t know who to trust. There was a tangible futility in the life we led in Tibet—foreign students in an occupied nation, studying a dying language, filling our evenings with cheap Chinese wine and watered-down beer.

I tore myself away from the dark sky, the shadows of mountains, and walked back downstairs, to bed, alone. As I drifted off to the sounds of revelers beneath me, a monk somewhere in eastern Tibet laid awake. In five days, he’d douse himself in oil, strike a match, and die.

I finished this piece at the NHIA MFA Creative Writing residency in June, and it was featured on the school’s blog: http://mfanhia2013.tumblr.com
If you’re searching for MFA programs, I highly recommend this one.

Review: Portland/Brooklyn

Tin House Issue #53, Portland/Brooklyn Fall 2012

What initially attracted me to this issue of Tin House was the theme: two culturally influential, bicoastal cities, Portland/Brooklyn. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t half-expecting the quirky humor of Portlandia to grace the pages. Contrary to my preconceived notions, the essays, stories and poems investigate the darkness of the two cities, highlighting the similarities and differences between them with a tone that is both celebratory and sardonic.

My favorite pieces included Evan Hughes‘ “Consider the Gentrifier,” Adam Wilson‘s “December Boys Got it Bad,” and Cheston Knapp’s “Faces of Pain,” a seemingly lighthearted, entertaining essay about the wrestling movement in and around Portland. I say “seemingly lighthearted” because Knapp’s essay is ultimately gripping and weighty. He weaves in personal, existential reflections, like admitting he was surprised to find himself caring about turning thirty.

“All the things of promise in my life had become some version of what they’d promised to become, and something about how these possibilities had resolved into reality made me feel as though I were living my life in translation, or as though someone else were living it, really.”

This issue of Tin House didn’t meet my expectations. It exceeded them.

In case you were wondering, I use Grammarly for proofreading because I have nightmares about publicly posting a piece of writing laden with spelling and grammatical errors.