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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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

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.

September Reads

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I hate to be the last person to break it to you, but…it looks like summer’s over. The days are getting shorter and colder, the New England leaves are turning, and Halloween and Samhain are right around the corner. Break out the sweaters, scarves, jeans, and boots, and while you’re at it, here are four classics that go great with a mug full of chaider (that’s chai + cider; CHAI-DER).

Happy reading! - e.v.


The Death of Ivan Ilych
by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy gives away the ending at the very beginning (spoiler alert: Ivan Ilych dies), but Tolstoy’s writing grabs you; it reels you in ’til the last syllable. The mystery of the character’s illness and the question of what happens when he faces his inevitable death keeps you hanging onto every word. Not until the character accepts this inevitability does he think about the suffering he caused for others in what he recalls as an unfulfilled life, one in which he did everything that his family, friends, and society told him he should do. It was a heavy story, and a beautiful read.* Check out this edition published by Melville House in Brooklyn, which prints a series called The Art of the Novella

The Metamorphosis, The Penal Colony, and Other Stories by Franz Kafka

Maybe you’re like me, in that you recall reading “The Metamorphosis” in high school and thinking huh? Kafka’s tale of the traveling salesman turning into a giant bug is absurd. How the family reacts to the character’s state is the true metamorphosis of the story, while “The Hunger Artist” serves as an allegory for art, exploring asceticism, one man’s dying art form, success, and what it means to feel fulfilled with one’s work.*

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Faulkner’s novel is written in fifty-nine segments and an astonishing fifteen different points of view, offering up conflicting and overlapping accounts when the matriarch of the Bundren family, Addie, passes away and the clan transports her body to a cemetery in another town.

A Good Man is Hard to Find: Ten Memorable Short Stories by Flannery O’Connor

They weren’t kidding when they titled this collection “memorable.” I found myself re-reading the first four short stories not long after I first read them; each one is rich and dense like a chocolate espresso layer cake with mocha mascarpone and buttercream frosting. Yeah, it’s that good. O’Connor doesn’t shy away from exposing the meanness and tragedy of life, shocking both the reader and the characters with jolting violence and hardship. The prose is exquisite, the dialogue reveals much about the character’s psychological states, but what I paid particular attention to were the descriptions of the surroundings, which were loaded with symbols. Early on in the collection, I realized something awful was going to occur at the end of each story, but I read and re-read them anyway.

*Both Tolstoy and Kafka were brought to mind when I read this article on the Huffington Post today: Are You Living Your Eulogy or Your Resume?

Review: Kate Christensen’s “Blue Plate Special”

Writer Kate Christensen sits alone in the front row amid a cluster of empty chairs, reviewing notes before a reading from her PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel, The Great Man. Behind a podium at Bass Hall in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the author discusses her MFA experience at the Iowa Writers Workshop, the five year writing slump that followed in New York, and her experience writing The Great Man in the throes of separation from her husband while living in a basement in Queens. She speaks as though she has nothing to hide, and knows that there is no use hiding it anyway, because it is about to be published.

blueplatespecialAt first glance, Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites looks like another food-related work of non-fiction (a la The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), but Christensen makes it clear that her memoir is not only about food or the author herself, but appetites—a broader, more intangible subject. Food is the context within which Christensen frames her life story; food as a way into the past, to better conjure up memories.

There is a statement in the prologue that anyone with half the amount of life experience wouldn’t be able to get away with: “to taste fully is to live fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsive to complexities and truths—good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule.” This sets the bar of expectations high, commencing with a fantastic and heartbreaking tale of Christensen’s upbringing in a single parent household, her travels alone as a young woman, and her marriage to a painter in New York—all of which she describes with a digestible brashness that keeps the story moving along, and most importantly, makes it believable and relatable despite the unusual circumstances of her life. Christensen was either gifted or cursed with an eventful upbringing, and whichever it is, it’s irrelevant, because the way she writes is what’s compelling. In clear and honest prose, she exposes herself fearlessly, reveals the celebratory and shameful moments of her life in equal measure alongside confessions that most might bring to the grave. She doesn’t romanticize her life or the events in it, nor does she describe it in a removed, overly-expository manner. She writes honestly and critically with doses of understated humor, such as this reflection on an ex-boyfriend: “From our first encounter, we became embroiled in a psychodramatic welter of dissonance and incompatibility and thermonuclearly hot sex.” She is extremely self-aware and analytical, almost heartbreakingly so: “He’d married me in part because he loved my wild side, and I’d married him in part because I loved his stable, conventional side…Unfortunately, these were the qualities in ourselves we most wanted to leave behind.”

Christensen’s memoir is attentive to the thoughts and feelings of the other characters, realizing that their existence and experience is just as real and valid: “Jon was so good to me, so loyal and kind and generous and devoted. He did not deserve to have his marriage end.” There is no victim mentality or martyrdom here. The author takes responsibility for her actions and decisions, is aware of patterns (“to put a good face on things in a Pollyannaish way, that lifelong habit of mine”) and claims her downfalls (“I became unhinge, unmoored, ungrounded”), and that is what keeps the reader rooting for her, even if she doesn’t learn from her mistakes or buries herself deeper in a well of her own undoing.

What makes Kate Christensen’s literary memoir a great read is the strength, resilience, and relatability of the main character. You feel like she’s right there with you, cooking soft-boiled eggs with buttered toast and retelling the vivid memory of her father beating her mother at the breakfast table when she was two-years-old. Christensen’s writing transports the reader, and like a good meal, I devoured the book quickly and savored the memory of it for days.

You can read Kate Christensen’s blog (which inspired the book) at http://katechristensen.wordpress.com/ and check out these 13 Author Quotes That Will Make You Hungry, courtesy of Flavorwire 

nanowrimo: the bittersweet, not quite end

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Nine hundred and fifty-six words left, I thought when I awoke this morning, excited about the prospect of finishing the first draft of my novel. That same sense of enthusiasm accompanied me every day of the first week of NaNoWriMo, but had quickly waned. I became bored with my story, with my narrator, with the setting and the characters, but now that excitement was back and better than ever.

NANOWinner-120x240I thought that nine hundred and fifty-six words would fly by in two hours, but it took a few more than that, mainly because the impending end was so close I told myself I could afford a bit of internet procrastination (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Hours later, I clicked the word count to see 50,328 words, and my arms shot up in the air, at which point I realized that I probably should’ve showered this morning. Yes, my first thought—after “I did it!”—was that I needed a shower, but then I realized that sitting in my pajamas at the kitchen table seemed a fitting way to end a month of intensive writing.

And yet this is far from the end, the end. Over the course of the month I wrote countless tangents that will meet the cutting room floor, yet came closer to the book I’ve always wanted to write with every word I typed. Still, there is so much more to say, and whether it will all make it into one book is doubtful. I’m lucky enough to have a bounty of stories, but with that box of ideas in my brain comes overwhelming doubts—are my stories any good? Am I just writing the same solipsistic shit?

Who knows? And who cares? Okay, okay, I honestly do, but the thing is, I can’t not write. So if you need me, I’ll be sitting in my pajamas at the kitchen table, writing.

a lonely animal: inside the writer’s workshop

The writer is a lonely animal, spending the majority of the day in solitude. Occasionally there is musical accompaniment, occasionally there are cafes bustling with people. Mostly, there is only the writer, with a pen and paper.

I have been writing ever since I learned how, but I never called myself a writer until recently. It doesn’t pay the bills (yet), and most people that I interact with can’t comprehend what it looks or feels like to be a writer. It looks and feels, in a word, lonely. However, it is indescribably fulfilling.

To elaborate, this is sort of what it looks like, superficially:

The Writer’s Sanctuary: volumes of filled journals dating back to 2006, a recent issue of Poets & Writers magazine, inks, paints, pens, brushes, glues, tape, stacks of photographs, and a record player and vinyls in the background.

The Writer’s Coursework: books on writing intermingled with two works by French literary critic Roland Barthes, as inspired by Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and the video B*tches in Bookshops.

The Writer’s Shelf: notes on deadlines; inspirational quotes, reminders, and scribbles (see below); tiny canvases waiting to be finished; an envelope stuffed with plane ticket stubs and foreign currencies; a stone elephant from India; a golden elephant and bell from Thailand; vintage photographs of Mt. Fuji and an unknown girl in a library who looks like a relative; blank notebooks; and a transparent pink folder containing typewritten pages from the past few years, awaiting edits.

Inspirational quotes, reminders, and scribbles:

“All composite things pass away. Strive for your own liberation with diligence.” – Buddha

“You write to please yourself, you write to move yourself, to engage yourself in the asking of questions that are important to you.” – Jonathan Safran Foer

saturday, december 2011. i need to write yet i find myself doing anything but writing. today is a perfect example of life lately—doing anything & everything except what feeds my soul. not writing makes me cranky. my thoughts are clouded; i can’t tell up from down. when i don’t write i lose sight of who i am.

And & I

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I’m currently reading a weathered copy of Hemingway’s novel, “The Sun Also Rises.” I love used books to a fault, one look at the stacks of them on my bedroom floor is a telltale sign that I love too much. I love reading over previously underlined pages; it’s like someone else is reading it with me. I flipped a page today and stumbled upon dozens of blue circles, and as I realized what they were, I started laughing. Whoever read  this before me was apparently very concerned with Hemingway’s repetitive usage of “and” and “I”.