Strange Paths


Even before I walked around every day with a massive research library in my pocket, I often looked things up. In the olden days, when I was working on a project, I’d hunker in library stacks for hours, lug home bags of books. My life was full of Post-its, torn off slips of paper, scrawled, sometimes indecipherable notes. I fondly recall sitting hunched in a carrel in my college library with books at my elbow, books at my feet. I liked finding notes or marginalia left by other readers who—months or years previous—had been curious about the same thing I was investigating at that moment. Continue reading Strange Paths

Summer Reading

photo by Maureen Didde
photo by Maureen Didde

I was thinking this week about all the books I’ve read over the course of writing The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures. Some I read primarily for research, others to immerse myself in the genre of personal narrative and memoir. I wouldn’t say all of these are suitable beach reads—some are what my friend Marie would call kind of “intense.” (Marie calls lots of things intense, including certain movies and giving birth.) Nonetheless, here, in no particular order, are some selections from my Saltwater reading list.

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall

From the dust jacket:

Humans live in landscapes of make believe. We spin fantasies. We devour novels, films, and plays. Even sporting events and criminal trials unfold as narratives… Storytelling has evolved, like other behaviors, to ensure our survival.

“The Little Mermaid,” Hans Christian Andersen

Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep; so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it: many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above.

If you haven’t read this, you really should. It’s a perfect, creepy and utterly disturbing and magical fairy tale that has been analyzed and dissected in fascinating ways by feminists and other smarty pants scholars.

Lonely: A Memoir, Emily White

The feelings of isolation that accompany loneliness are entirely different from the more sated and creative feelings that accompany solitude, and it’s entirely reasonable to feel lonely and yet still feel as though you need some time to yourself.

A thoughtful investigation into a hard to quantify and describe state.

The Book of Deadly Animals, Gordon Grice

In which I learned this word: anthropophagy—the eating of humans and in which the author discusses humans’ peculiar belief that we have a special place at the top of the food chain. (We really don’t.) We are, however, far more proficient at killing human beings than any other animal on the planet. Continue reading Summer Reading

The Names of Things

photo by janetandphil
photo by janetandphil
I like good strong words that mean something.
                                    — Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

I love knowing the names of things. I appreciate knowing, for example, that the birds that shriek and wheel over Chicago supermarket parking lots are ring-billed gulls and the chittering birds in the enormous dry shrub outside the elementary school where I teach are house sparrows—which in a group can be called a host or a quarrel. (I wish I knew the proper name of the shrub.)

All words are names, really. They name objects and actions and interactions and qualities and spaces and creatures and time. They create worlds. As a young reader, I fell in love with diction. It delighted me that Nancy Drew ate luncheon and drove a roadster and the Little House books abounded in johnnycakes, deer licks and calico. For some reason, I remained enamored with the term “fortnight” long after I read Little Women. Continue reading The Names of Things

On Bad Pen Pals, Loneliness and How We Keep in Touch


I’m working on a chapter called “Bad Pen Pal.” It’s going to be chapter 13 in The Saltwater Twin—or maybe chapter 12. The impetus for some chapters is a story, for others an idea. The flicker for this one was friendship. I wanted to write something about how we learn to make friends and how intense friendships can be when you’re young. I wanted to write about the heartbreak of losing a friend and the less intense but still potentially ache-inducing drift that sometimes comes with time and distance. I wanted to describe the way some lost friendships still weigh on me at times, keep me wondering where and how and why we foundered.

The title comes from the first time I lost touch with a friend. I was eight. Actually, my friendship with Bonnie never truly got off the ground. We spent one day together, while our fathers attended a conference. Bonnie lived in a different state, but she suggested we stay friends. We could be pen pals. I liked the sound of that. It sounded exotic to have a pen pal. I liked how letters were little packages. I liked that my name and address printed on the front meant that it would come to my house, of all the houses in the United States, all the houses in the world; it would come to me. I liked the marvelous way envelopes were sealed with spit, their folded triangles, the magical canceled stamp. But the content of Bonnie’s letters left me unmoved—maybe because we just didn’t know each other that well. We hadn’t any history. I recently discovered I have one still in my possession, a Christmas card that reads, Continue reading On Bad Pen Pals, Loneliness and How We Keep in Touch

Brain Science and Kerouac’s Scroll: Can a Writer Multitask?

photo of Kerouac's scroll by Thomas Hawk
photo of Kerouac’s scroll by Thomas Hawk

I used to read one book at a time. These days I seem to have several going at once: a novel, perhaps, for bedtime and dog walks, another for my book club, something for research on the chapter I’m writing and a biography I started in the airport over Christmas but haven’t gotten back to.

My writing is taking a similar tack. I’m careening toward this self-imposed deadline of completing The Saltwater Twin by the end of March, and feeling quite a lot of anxiety about making it. In the past, I’d work on one chapter at a time, revising again and again until it felt finished, a process which typically took several weeks. However, as this deadline hurtles into view, the notion of x-ing off March 31st on my calendar and having one or two or three chapters not even sketched out feels daunting. Nauseating, even. Continue reading Brain Science and Kerouac’s Scroll: Can a Writer Multitask?

I Am Not Trayvon Martin: Some Thoughts on White Privilege

photo by LaDawna Howard
photo by LaDawna Howard
A note about this post:
This is a blog about writing. Here, for the past 19 months I’ve documented the experience of working on my first book, The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures. I’ve written about research, procrastination, setbacks, pep talks – basically held forth on whatever I’m thinking as I chip away at this manuscript. But sometimes something happens that sort of knocks everything else out of your brain and becomes all you can think about. A colleague of mine has a gardening blog. In a recent post, he reflected on a plant called Snow on the Mountain, green spaces, contemplation and privilege. And Trayvon Martin. So I’m taking a cue from him and allowing myself to express some thoughts that are currently crowding most everything else out of my brain.

Last Sunday morning saw a proliferation of hoodies on my Facebook home page. Hoodies and status updates shouting, “We are all Trayvon Martin!” Or sometimes, “We are all Trayvon’s mother.” These were posts by liberal, thoughtful white people — teachers and homemakers, professors and artists. I get the point. It’s a show of solidarity. And even though it’s just Facebook — even though you’re not, say, marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 — still you’re showing up and saying you’re sickened by the blatant racism and brutality of this incident. You’re sickened by the fact that some people are still protesting that racism has nothing to do with the murder of an unarmed seventeen year old black boy. At least that’s what I think you’re saying. But after I closed my laptop and went on with my day, I felt unsettled about all the well-intentioned white people on Facebook shouting “We are Trayvon.” Because it’s not enough. And it’s not the whole picture.

Continue reading I Am Not Trayvon Martin: Some Thoughts on White Privilege

squirrel toy rage rocket lemon

Levi Mingus computerFirst, some good news: the first chapter of The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures was named a finalist for Fourth Genre’s Michael Steinberg Essay Prize! I’d post an excerpt, but I’m still working on actually getting it published somewhere, so the curious will have to wait.

Meanwhile…Levi Mingus computer 2

It feels like summer today. Lawnmower in the distance, fluttering curtains, susurration of leaves, chatter of birds and squirrels outside my third story window. Right now I’m doing research. Not the kind that requires library or internet or the kind that necessitates phone calls home to ask who taught me to suck the honeysuckles that grew along our backyard fence or whether it was a tire or a wooden monkey swing at that one house we stayed in that summer. Nor is it the kind of research that winds up with me on the floor amid stacks of notebooks or letters dug out of cardboard boxes from the hall closet. Today’s research involved plugging in an ancient (like over a decade old) laptop (time capsule) and meandering through its contents.

Some things it contains: Continue reading squirrel toy rage rocket lemon

Writing Road Trip

photo by Jordan LaSalle

May 28, 2013. It was a Memorial Day weekend of firsts: first trip to Pittsburgh, first writers’ conference, first seitan taco.

The Creative Nonfiction Foundation in Pittsburgh publishes books and a magazine dedicated to literary nonfiction and offers workshops, mentoring and online classes. It’s entirely possible there’s an excerpt from The Saltwater Twin in a pile on someone’s desk in their office from my last round of submissions. Several weeks ago I decided to sign up for their Best of Creative Nonfiction Conference and started planning a road trip to Pittsburgh.

road trip j and mMay 24. My friend Jordan and I left Chicago around noon and made our first pit stop somewhere in Indiana at a really outstanding rest stop where we bought some friendship bracelets for ourselves and our Pittsburgh hosts – those kind made with the embroidery thread. I’ll never get tired of them. Jordan snapped my photo (wearing my new bracelet) next to the pouty McDonald’s girl and we fortified ourselves with some chocolate.

photo by Jordan LaSalle
photo by Jordan LaSalle

Continue reading Writing Road Trip

words to lift your hat to…

Thesaurus“Now there’s a word to lift your hat to…” – Emily Dickinson

When my third grade teacher, Mrs. Broadhurst, showed me a thesaurus for the first time, I was thrilled. I started peppering book reports with words like assuage and recondite. Which word was the right one? Which would say just the thing I needed it to say? I used to stare at a leaf or a wall as the day faded and ask myself, what color is it now? And moments later – now?  What pigments would I mix to get it to look like that? What word says what color that is? And when darkness took away all color, there were sounds – the rustle of sheets, a gurgle deep in the belly of the house.  A distant car outside, someone awake going where, why, at ten thirty, eleven thirty, twelve thirty at night?  There were words somewhere to say what was happening at any moment any place in the world. Continue reading words to lift your hat to…

Memoir and Memory II: the Theater of Memory and Ways We Forget

A sudden loss of consciousness
Photo credit: Pulpolux
Note: This post is a continuation of the last, which began with musings on memory 1-10. 

Memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre. It is the medium of past experience, as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred.                                       – Walter Benjamin

11. There is a branch of sociology (and other disciplines) called memory studies. (I am so happy about this.) It investigates things like the ways memory impacts culture and the role memory plays in collective and individual identity.

12. This makes me think of how tremendously satisfying it can feel to remember together, how it can forge and strengthen connections with others.

13. A sociologist named Paul Connerton, a pioneer in the field of memory studies, has posited that there are seven types of forgetting.

14. One of the seven types of forgetting, repressive erasure, refers to the forced forgetting of language and customs by which a government or state may seek to control a people. Forgetting as a form of violence.

15. Families do this, too. Continue reading Memoir and Memory II: the Theater of Memory and Ways We Forget