Monthly Archives: November 2014

Thank You, Books

I can be a bit of a curmudgeon around the holidays. As much as I would like to blame the PTSD from my days of working retail at Christmas, most of my holiday-based anxiety is of my own creation: pairing my general intolerance for shopping with the self-induced pressure to find the “perfect gift” is asking for trouble. But when it comes to Thanksgiving, I am fully on board. I love everything about Thanksgiving, from the kick-off cocktails to the requisite crisp, after-dinner walk to make room for dessert. And although the cynic in me can’t help but raise an eyebrow at a nationally designated day of thanks, I do appreciate the nudge to, well…appreciate. So in the spirit of the holiday – and in the theme of this here blog – I have listed below just a few of the many, many books for which I am thankful:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I enjoyed this version almost as much as the original.

Now With Zombies!

I first read Pride and Prejudice whilst studying at the University of Swansea in Wales. I was 20 years old, far from home for the first time in my life, and – despite being three years into an English degree – totally intimidated by many of the classic works of the language. Pride and Prejudice was not assigned reading for a class, but rather a recommendation from my friend Emma, who proclaimed it as not only “a good laugh” but also as one of the smartest books she’d ever read. And she was right.

From Jane Austen, I learned to appreciate wit, social commentary, and early 1800s feminism. I also learned that I was perhaps more intelligent than I’d previously believed. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least a half a dozen times, and choke up every time Mr. Darcy says to Elizabeth: “Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.” I am such a sap.

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

galapagos-vonnegut-kurtI was introduced to Kurt Vonnegut by way of my father’s bookshelf. Vonnegut taught me about satire and how to find truth in the absurd. With literary tongue in cheek, he reveals the darkest parts of the human mind, yet his writing never despairs of hope. He also demonstrates the indisputably powerful punch of the well-placed short sentence: “And so on.”

I have read and loved many of Vonnegut’s books, however it was Galapagos that inspired me to seek out that living diorama of evolution for myself. For my 40th birthday, I crossed off the item in the top spot of my Things To Do Before I Die list: Visit the Galapagos Islands.

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

She's Come UndoneAt the risk of being over-dramatic, this book changed my life.  While the cringe-inducing coming of age story is at times almost too painful to read, it feels 100% genuine throughout. The central character is complicated – her behavior sympathetic and abhorrent in turns – and her journey leads the reader to a wholly satisfying conclusion.

I am in awe of Wally Lamb’s beautiful, flawed heroine, but I am indebted to She’s Come Undone for inspiring me to start writing again after a very long, very dry spell. Read all about it in this blog post from last Spring.

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

hppmeab05-w813I’ve probably lost a certain amount of credibility by including this on my list, but I’m willing to risk it. I wish these books had come out when I was a kid, because that’s really the only way I could love them more. Okay, so they are a tad formulaic in structure, but they have all of the elements of a compelling story: an underdog to root for, mysteries to solve, good vs. evil, and of course, magic. Who doesn’t want to be magical? Rowling is not only a master of world building, but also of long-haul plot development: her clear vision for her characters and storyline allowed her early on to plant the subtle seeds that germinate into major plot points in the later books. As a fellow writer, I am damn impressed.

I have reread this series more times than I can count, and have a special love for the audiobook versions, which for me are like aural comfort food. When I am anxious or unsettled, or can’t get to sleep, I can nearly always find calm in narrator Jim Dale’s soothing voice.

Road Trip, Party of One by Lisa Thomson (that’s me!). Unpublished.

BookQuestionMarkMy early attempts at novel writing were not unlike my attempts to quit smoking: I started off full of inspiration and determination, but within days or weeks – and often after a couple of drinks – I’d stumble off the wagon. My plot lines, like my will power, were too thin to carry a story for more than a dozen pages.

I finally quit smoking at age 24, but it was another few years before I was struck with the inspiration for my first completed novel. I was listening to the R.E.M. song Night Sleeper on my pre-iPod portable music device whilst on my way home from a long day at work when an intriguing character popped into my head: a misanthropic shift worker in his late 20s, cut off from all family and friends, almost without hope. Almost. He was both my alter ego and my cautionary tale. I was hooked.

Although this novel isn’t likely to make it out of the figurative box in the back of the closet, I will always be grateful for it. Through my experience of developing this story over a somewhat turbulent four year period, I learned that with a little inspiration and a lot of determination, I could create a whole new world. I wasn’t a failure as a writer; I simply hadn’t yet found the right story.




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Just Don’t Write About This

This past weekend, two different people said to me the exact same sentence: “Just don’t write about this.” Both made this statement immediately after sharing deeply personal information about themselves.

Top-SecretOf course, I pledged my confidentiality without hesitation. But I was intrigued that both individuals – whom I’ve known for different lengths of time and in completely separate contexts – felt the need to “state for the record” that I did not have permission to memorialize their personal lives. Does this mean I have achieved some kind of writing milestone, when friends and family start to recognize the potential dangers of confiding in a storyteller? Have I arrived as a writer?

I admit I am flattered.

David Sedaris wrote a great story called “Repeat After Me”, in which he swears total secrecy to his sister even as he reaches for his notepad. I too often reach for my mental notepad when friends divulge their most difficult personal struggles. They talk about their troubled marriages, sick children, chronic health problems, heartbreak, depression, and mental illness. Their stories are deep and often dark, at times humorous, always compelling. They are the stuff that shows like This American Life and The Moth storytelling series are made of. They are Real Life.

But they are not my stories to tell.

For me, it is liberating to transform an embarrassing or painful memory into an experience I can share with others. By making myself vulnerable, I can make myself stronger. I can mine humor from humiliation, relief from anxiety. Because we are all struggling with Something.

I recently wrote an essay about the stigma of crying in public, revealing my own mortifying experience of breaking down into tears in the middle of a busy train station. Last week, my local public radio station KQED aired an excerpt of the longer piece as part of their Perspectives segment. My topic hit a nerve, as evidenced by the feedback I’ve received from friends, colleagues, and strangers chronicling similar incidents in their own lives. I will refrain from repeating their stories here, but suffice it to say, I was not alone in my suffering. And now, neither are they.

When we share our experiences, we share ourselves. We create community. We feel a little less alone. I encourage every one of you to speak up. Or at least write it down.

But rest assured, I promise to keep your secrets, well…secret.

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