Sunday, March 30, 2014

Gilmore Girls, Season 1 Report Card

Gilmore Girls S1 Report Card

Our Gilmore Girls, season 1 report card is ready for sharing! Scarlet and I finished up the first season with episode 14 of Friday Night Dinner: A Gilmore Girls Podcast, which went live this past Friday.

And, ladies, don't fret about the lower scores. You need room to we know you do!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

West with the Night and Beryl Markham's exploring, sassy awesomeness

I have my friend Sara to thank for introducing me to Beryl Markham. I was skeptical when she first pressed her memoir, West with the Night, into my hands, but for years I've harbored the desire to spend a year or so living and working in Africa, so I decided to start reading and see where it took me. Thankfully, Markham's exhilarating life and way with words was the type of book that I virtually lived in.

Originally published in 1942, the book chronicles her remarkable, early life. She was known as an adventurous pilot who became the first person to fly non-stop from Europe to America and the first woman to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic. While her stories of learning to fly are fascinating and her description of actually crossing the Atlantic wrought with tension, it's her life as a whole that I find so motivating.

Imagine being a woman in the 1920s/1930s and how limited your options supposedly were. I don't know if anyone tried to hold Markham back, but if they did*, she clearly told them to shove off. Not only was she an accomplished aviator, she was amazing with horses, becoming Kenya's first female licensed horse trainer as a young adult. She also seemed to own her sexuality, living passionately and supposedly carrying on several well-known affairs throughout her life.

If you're looking for something awesome to dig into during Women's History Month (or, let's be real, any month), pick up a copy of West with the Night. I made sure to share my copy and spread the love, pressing it into another coworker's hands last week.

*I read the book several years ago, so I've lost some of the finer details.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sanity savers for finishing my first draft (aka how I spent most of my sabbatical)

working weekend

The idea for the novel I finished drafting on my sabbatical first came to me in 2011. Tucked into a booth at Demolition Coffee in Petersburg, Virginia, I was overcome with the need to record it somewhere, to not lose it, so I pulled out my work notebook and wrote the first three paragraphs of what I'm now calling Thistledown. It wasn't until a year and half later that I carved out any significant time to advance the story further than that.

It was such a significant portion of my sabbatical (and writing stories such an integral part of who I've always been) that I want to share a bit of what it's currently about and a few of the "tools" that kept me motivated and inspired. The copy below is my initial take on what you would read on the inside flap or back cover, followed by what I'd tell you if I had to do it in 140 characters. Suggestions for reworking these are welcome. Collaborative copy editing, FTW!

At its heart, Thistledown is about getting past all of the prickly barbs we erect to protect ourselves and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Cassie is a 30-something Baltimore native struggling to truly connect with the people and things around her. Born into a tight-knit family with a propensity for secretiveness, she has made a habit of keeping everyone, including those closest to her, at arm's length. Her struggle to deal with her grandmother's decline reawakens an interest in the family history, and old family secrets threaten to surface. Upon discovery that one of her grandmother's old cameras can capture images from the past, she finds herself thrust into a 120-year old mystery at an abandoned mill. As she falls further down the rabbit hole and learns more about the fate of the girls who worked the textile mill, past and present begin to meld, and Cassie finds herself willing to tear down the barriers she has erected in her own life. 

The Twitter-friendly, I just met you on the street version...

A young woman grappling with vulnerability discovers a fantastical camera among her grandmother's things and uncovers an intriguing mystery.


Life is full of mystery. A fantastical camera, a 120-y.o. disappearance, and a cast of colorful characters may hold the key to unlocking it.

Okay, 140 character limits are hard! I suddenly want to rail against the invention of Twitter (just kidding...I love you Twitter).

During my sabbatical (which I've started thinking of as a wonderful preview of what retirement could be like), I focused on the last quarter of the book. I was incredibly naive going into it and absolutely underestimated how difficult writing the ending would be. Not only did I want to do a good job weaving all of the different pieces of the story together, I also failed to comprehend the challenge of writing two pretty dark scenes I had planned. To get myself in the mood, I mainlined dark, moody pop/culture.

Holst: The Planets: Mars, Bringer of War
Lalo: Symphonie Espangole in D Minor, Op. 21-IV 

Luther, seasons 1 + 2
Sherlock, seasons 1-3

Coffee was also fairly integral to my ability to perform.


When I couldn't make it to the coffee shop, Coffitivity saved my life. I am only slightly exaggerating. It was astounding how much my focus increased once I downloaded this app to my phone.

The other app I used is Evernote. I used to save my research, outlines, etc.

As you can see, I kept it fairly simple. I never used any fancy writing software, though I'm up for hearing why I should. The final thing that really kept me going was Neil Gaiman's voice in my head pretty much telling me to just sit my ass at the computer and write. It was particularly helpful as my mind would wander, and I would start to dream of all of these cool research trips I needed to take.

Even though the first draft is finished, I'm far from done. I've set a schedule for editing what I've currently got so that I can hopefully pass it along to a few people to read and provide cold, hard feedback. I'm committed to seeing this thing through before allowing myself to wander off into a new story.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Postcards, Pennsylvania and the things that inspire us

Wissahickon Creek

Today is my first day back in the office after six weeks off, so I thought I'd kick this season off with a new series. You've probably figured this out by now, but I am fascinated by history, particularly the smaller, intimate stories that we aren't necessarily taught in school. The rabbit hole you can fall down when picking up an old photo or random artifact is one I will readily plunge into almost every.single.time.

I was with friends this weekend at an antique mall in Hagerstown when I came upon a booth with a wall of postcards handily organized by category. By the time my friends made it to the booth, I was grasping a stack of a hundred or so postcards, flipping through them with a manic gleam in my eye. It was an entire category dedicated to dams! Let's put aside the fact that I love the fragments of personal history captured on a postcard, there is potential value in a photo or rendering of a site at a particular point in history.

The card above is postmarked January 3, 1907 and was sent to a Virginia Peale at the Abington Friends School, which, at the time, was a Quaker boarding school for K-12. As you can see from the text on the front (above), they are essentially coordinating a ride. Think of having to communicate in this way today! I can't decide if the amount of planning required appeals to me or if I mourn the difficulty in spontaneity.

After looking up Fairmount Park, I realized that I've been in the Pennypack section of it before. I actually planned a press event there several years ago. The park itself was founded in 1867 and encompasses roughly 4,000 acres in the Schuylkill River watershed. Wissahickon Creek is one of Schulkill tribs. If you look up modern day photos of this site, you will find (thanks to the protection of this parkland) that the photo looks very much the same. However, around the time this postcard was mailed, the area and industry around the stone bridge would be quite different. At this point in our history, grist, saw and paper mills peppered the river, mills that were once owned by the likes of Richard Townsend (immigrated from England with his friend William Penn and founded the Philadephia area) and William Rittenhouse (among others). Other, more modern industry (we're talking late 1800s here) were print and dye works, as well as several ice companies.

Maybe I'm a bit mad, but this simple postcard inspires me so much--from art project (who added the glitter?) to the jumping off point for a future story to research into the Quaker's settling of the Philadelphia area.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sabbatical reading list

Reston Used Bookstore

I'm feeling bittersweet this morning. It's the last day of my sabbatical. I'm trying desperately to maintain the zen-like feelings I worked hard to discover and quell my rapidly rising heartbeat every time I think about what my inbox must look like. What better way to remain calm than to talk about books, specifically what I read while off!

You would think I'd have finished a huge stack of books, but the combination of reading weightier titles and spending so many hours writing resulted in a shorter finished pile. Here is a brief look at what I curled up with during these snowy weeks.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell - After hearing about this book for years, I finally bumped it to the top of the list, and I'm so glad I did! You can read my full write-up here. The quick and dirty summary is that a Jesuit priest leads a mission to another galaxy after discovery of other life. The story shifts back and forth between the mission itself and debriefing of the sole survivor who has returned scarred and silent decades later.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - This is a novel of split-second decisions and the impact they have. The story begins when our main protagonist, Theo Decker, is just a boy. He is orphaned after a tragic bombing at a New York museum. While struggling to get his bearings following the explosion and escape, he makes a few decisions that color the rest of his life. The story follows Theo from a wealthy Park Avenue home to the seedy Las Vegas desert and the monied world of antiques restoration and sales. I found myself rooting for Theo through every bad decision he makes and wanting him to thrive. While it seemed to drag a bit in certain sections, I dug it, and the nuggets of writing on art and antiques were enough to keep me going. If that turns you off, don't worry. This is Donna Tartt we're talking about, so it has drugs, sex, murder and deception, too.

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler - This is the story of four best friends from a small town in Wisconsin and how their lives and loves still intersect years later despite the different directions their lives have taken. For me, Shotgun Lovesongs really boiled down to a moving look at male friendship with a side of introspection on what success means to different people. Butler's writing is solid and leads you along in a lyrical fashion. Lots of warm feelings upon finishing this book.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer - I picked up Cinder when my BookBub (regular email notifying you when there are e-book sales) email mentioned it was on sale. I was drawn to the potential for a dystopian Cinderella set in the future wherein she's a cyborg and a plague threatens the kingdom. After The Sparrow and The Goldfinch (weird bird thing going on there), I also needed a bit of brain junk food. Unfortunately, starting this right after finishing the talented musings of Tartt and Russell was a bit like running into a brick wall. Tartt and Russell are masters of prose, and the first couple of chapters of Cinder read a bit like bad Cinderella fanfic. Luckily, I ended up being stuck somewhere with only this e-book with me and picked it back up. If you end up getting this one and are willing to stick with it past chapter six (page 48 on my Nook app), you just might get hooked. At this point in the story, Meyer diverges from the Cinderella formula and definitely snags my interest. I enjoyed the direction she took the story and don't want to spoil it for those you who may read it. Just know that this is a series (books 1-3 are already out), and it ends on a cliffhanger. I enjoyed the book enough that I'll buy book two (Scarlet)...again, brain candy kind of read. Also, if you're looking for a second opinion, my friend Steven also read Cinder with me and experienced a similar trajectory (disappointment-->interest).

For more of what I'm reading currently, you can add me on Goodreads or listen to That's What She Read!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sharing is caring

Slide from Austin Kleon's SXSW 2014 Interactive keynote address.

Every now and then I find myself blown away at how much technology has done for our ability to connect and learn. Sure, I have moments where I'm overwhelmed by the self-imposed pressures of it all, and in many ways, I'm still very much an analog girl. However, have you ever stopped to marvel at how challenging it was just a few years ago to keep up with friends that moved or how in the dark you were when you couldn't attend a certain conference? Now I can stream Austin Kleon's keynote address at SXSW while walking around my apartment, follow #SXSW on Twitter to keep up with what's going on, and play NPR's Austin 100 online and convince myself it's okay that I'm not really there. Being able to do this absolutely got me over the hump today and motivated me to create.

In celebration of all that is lovely online, I'm going to shut up and share some of the things around the internet inspiring me in different ways.

Austin Kleon's SXSW Keynote - The folks at SXSW have streamed it twice now. I'm unsure if they'll post it permanently online, but if you have a chance to see it, give it a go. Subscribing to his newsletter is a safe bet for the periodic delivery of goodness to your inbox.

Slide from Austin Kleon's SXSW 2014 Interactive keynote address.

the art of working in public by Robin Sloan

Megan Ellison: Hollywood's latest player by Matthew Garrahan (recommended by Ann Friedman)

Anything featured in The Ann Friedman Weekly - Seriously, do yourself a favor and sign up for Ann's weekly newsletter. Smart, informative and everything I want a newsletter to be.

It's the year of the bush--time to rediscover all female body hair by Emer O'Toole - I can't be the only wondering whose brilliant idea it was to make the Brazilian bikini wax something we're all supposed to implement.

Sam Mendes's 25 Rules for Directors by Bennett Marcus

Bullet Journal - I'm currently using March as a trial run for this type of journal/list keeping. I'll let you know how it goes!

Kara Haupt's #babevibes on Twitter and Instagram - Part art project, self exploration, empowerment...whatever you want to label it, it's rad.

Kristin's essay on falling in love with Pittsburgh

Megan's DIY periodic table mirrors

Coup - A fast card game for fun on the fly. We played a few quick rounds over coffee at Northside Social this past weekend, and it was fun.

Behind-the-scenes photos from Freaks and Geeks

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

New That's What She Read is live

A new episode of That's What She Read is available for your listening pleasure! I plan to write about my sabbatical reads later this week or next, but I wanted to pop in and provide a quick preview of the new episode.

If you're not familiar with the podcast, my friend Ravena and I spend 30 minutes to an hour chatting about the latest books we've read and/or are reading. Our taste in books diverge quite a bit, so we cover a variety of titles ranging from fiction/literature to science fiction/fantasy to erotica, graphic novels and fanfic. Every couple of episodes we snag some friends, feed them dinner and get them to chat about their own recent reads. Basically, we love reading and talking about books and book culture.

This month we are instituting an actual posting schedule, so from now on you can count on a new podcast every other Tuesday. We've also got a new Goodreads group where we'd love to continue the conversation--because, let's face it, we say things people probably want to refute ;-)

This episode I offer my thoughts on Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Baker, The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani and many more. I may rant a bit about people labeling women talking to other women about romance as "chick lit", but when men write about men talking about similar topics, it's literature. I went off the rails and decided that all's fair and that these books should be labeled "dick lit".

What are you reading?! I always need new books to feel guilty about not reading.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Amtrak: a writerly recap

Grain-fed outside of Fort Worth

All of the great Twitter buzz about Amtrak needing to institute a writing residency (which they later did) had me laughing to myself. Don't get me wrong--it's a lovely idea! I've been a romanticizer of train travel from way back. I bought my first North American rail pass on Amtrak in early 2000 (maybe 2002/2003?) and spent that December traveling to Halifax, Nova Scotia and then later down to Dallas, Texas. The idea was to spend the time writing on my way to visit family and friends, and it was awesome. The train was comfortable and not overly crowded. I met such interesting people, including a fellow budding writer looking for quiet inspiration, gazed at whatever landscape we were passing in the observation car and dined with strangers. I can't say that I got a lot of writing done, but I left inspired and fulfilled.

In fact, it held such warm memories for me that I decided to travel to Texas via Amtrak again in December 2011. I can't decide if the marked difference in my trip was the result of more people looking for a railway adventure or the fact that I was roughly ten years older and in need of more comfort in my life. Instead of a romantic journal across a swath of America, laptop and idealism in tow, we're talking Lord of the Flies and a descent into madness. Before I re-read my Twitter account of the trip (below), my initial inclination was to offer a bit of reality for all of the starry-eyed dreamers. However, after reading through my notes and thinking back on the trip, it occurred to me that even in its most uncomfortable, trying moments the trip provided me with stories, rich characters and the knowledge that this girl will book a sleeper car for anymore long train journeys. So, go ahead, sign on up!

Departure // Washington, DC to Austin, TX
Train travelogue, hour 9: I have read (a lot), drafted one blog post, and carried on one lengthy conversation. #thrilling

Train travelogue, hour 10: Once again demonstrated my prowess at changing into comfortable evening attire in a bouncing train restroom.

Train travelogue, hour 22: 2 Bigelow teas, 1 Starbucks Via, water. Caffeine deprivation is a concern.

Train travelogue, hour 28: Shooting video clips from the observation car and continuing to change my mind on where I'm hopping off in TX.

Train travelogue, hour 34: Spending time in common areas has led to interaction w chatters. Do believe I've heard my first line of the trip.

Train travelogue, hour (almost) 36: There is now banjo playing in the observation car (as we roll through the ozarks).

Train travelogue, hour 39: Found a corner of the floor to curl up in. Hoping for sleep.

Train travelogue, hour 45: My seatmate finally got off the train, so I'm trying to hold onto my solo seat. I. Need. Sleep.

Train travelogue, hour 49: Stopped in Dallas, I feel my final destination is within reach. Also, After the Apocalypse is my #FridayReads.

Train travelogue, hour 52: It will prob disturb you that I think I look better than I should after this long.

Train travelogue, hour 55: Here.

Return Trip // Austin, TX to Washington, DC

Train travelogue, hour 4: Close to Fort Worth. Spotted what appeared to be starving cows a couple hours back and am still haunted by them.

Train travelogue, hour 8.5: Watching mating rituals in a condensed setting makes me realize even more that I'm not cut out to randomly date.

Train travelogue, hour 9: The observation car is like a crazy, mad bazaar. Screaming children, conversations in at least 4 diff languages.

Train travelogue, hour 11: Have I told you that some serious drinking occurs on trains? They sell booze, and people very much byob.

Train travelogue, hour 14: Seatmate got off in Little Rock, and I survived the new influx of passengers. Safe for at least 2 hours. Sleep.

Train travelogue, hour 23: I survived the night and was rewarded with sunrise glancing off the St. Louis arch and a dusting of snow.

Train travelogue, hour 27: I'm about an hour away from Chicago and in desperate need of this layover.

Train travelogue, hour 30: I take the train in order to people watch and absorb atmosphere. However, Chicago's Union Station is my own hell.

Train travelogue, hour 33: My people watching has stooped to a new low. Am periodically peering over at my seatmate's salacious chat convo.

Train travelogue, hour 34: Broken, I reached for the wine. Yes, folks, I have been driven to drink white zin by the train.

Train travelogue, hour 38: Honestly, I'm super prickly. Just stopped in Indy, and a family of about 30 loud assholes boarded. #midnight

Train travelogue, hour 46: Not even wine could salvage what we had. The train and I have broken up.

Train travelogue, hour 49: Outlook brightened by conversation with a nun about bears and dancing in a meadow at night. Also, waterfalls.

Train travelogue, hour 54: Running 2 hours behind schedule. Disembarked in Staunton in favor of rental car. Fuck this (chanted internally).

Monday, March 03, 2014

Low-risk radicalism: install a tiny public library



I'm prone to love almost any idea based in the sharing of books or what we're reading. If I have to engage in small talk, "what are you reading/OMG you should read" is my comfort zone, and I find the idea of leaving surprise books for people ridiculously appealing. I've been itching to install a tiny "library" in public for more than a year, and when I noticed these trellises in a high-traffic area outside my local Caribou Coffee, I finally decided to make it a priority.

The library itself is actually just an inexpensive mailbox purchased from Home Depot and appropriately decorated. It doesn't hold a ton of books, but it's the perfect size for something that may wind up stolen or taken down by stodgy property management (like my last public installation, which disappeared in less than 24 hours). Maybe this is just a trial run for filling this tiny space with books!

I tucked the following books into this library: Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis. This means I can buy more books, right? (P.S. I did.)

If putting up your own tiny library seems like too much effort, consider something like BookCrossing and leave a copy of a book in a random location.