• Whee!

    Look! There I am!!

    Two exciting things on the writing front!

    First, my story “Always One More Way” is officially out in Ploughshares! You can buy the issue here, and I hope you do. It’s an incredible honor to be in their pages. 

    Second, one of my stories will be in the upcoming Ghost-themed issue of Indiana Review! Every acceptance has been incredibly exciting, and this one feels really special for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a story I wrote after Margaux was born. I was genuinely worried I would have a baby, do what I needed to do for my MFA, and then never write again. For the first few months of her life, I was working almost exclusively on my novella, but in the last six months I’ve been back to writing short stories, and every word I’ve gotten on paper has felt like a small miracle. The fact that I have managed to write enough words to make a story feels like a giant miracle.

    My transformation of person into mother has, as it has since Margaux’s birth, dominated my thoughts, and it keeps coming out in my writing. I worry that it’s boring for other people to read about, that people will roll their eyes when they see yet another woman writing about—well, domestic things. Women things. I’ve always written about marriage, and I worried about that then too, but babies seem like they run the risk of being even more boring. I’ve struggled to reconcile my identity of mother with my identity of writer. I’ve been afraid that when I had my baby, I turned in my artist card, that I register now as a non-entity in the the circle of writers and artists. I know, too, that so many women feel the opposite—that their womanhood is invalid because they don’t want children—and I hate that for all of us.

    Recently, an essay by Claire Vaye Watkins in Tin House has been making the rounds, and though all of it is worth reading, one section was particularly resonant for me. She writes:

    About a year ago I had a baby, and while my life was suddenly more intense, more frightening, more beautiful, more difficult, and more profound than it had ever been, I found myself with nothing to write about.

    “Nothing’s happening to me,” I bemoan to Annie. “I need to go shoot an elephant.”

    Annie replies, in her late-night Lebowskian cadence, “Dude, you’re a mother. You’ve had a child. You’re struggling to make your marriage work, man. You are trying, against your nature and circumstance, to be decent. That’s your elephant!” Yet when I write some version of this down it seems quaint or worse. I thought I had enough material for a novel but when it came out it was a short story, and one that felt unserious. I tried a story in the form of a postpartum-depression questionnaire and it felt quaint. Domestic. For women. Motherhood has softened me. I have a tighter valve on what I’ll read and what I’ll watch. I don’t want to write like a man anymore. I don’t want to be praised for being “unflinching.” I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.

    I do too. I want to remember what a gift it is to see the world with the eyes I have, to write through the experiences I’ve had, as an artist, as a mother, as the particular person I get to be. And I want the same for you! I want to celebrate the flinching and the vulnerabilities and the delicate little lady feelings I have about the world. The things I have been writing after Margaux was born have felt important to me, and the fact that one of those pieces, a story about motherhood, caught someone’s eye in the slush pile out in Indiana is an encouragement that other people feel they’re important too.

     Anyway, my story in Indiana Review will be out in their Summer 2016 issue, and please check out the most recent issue of Ploughshares!  

  • What I've Been Reading, Part 2

    Once, pre-baby, I read on this beach. It was delightful.

    Here are the top four books I've read recently! 

    4. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro- Ho boy. This book made me ugly cry. I just want to put that out there before you start to read it just in case you’re feeling fragile. Beatrice and Axl are an elderly couple in a post-Arthurian Britain where knights and dragons and pixies roam the hills and swarm the riverbanks. But the country is also being overtaken by a kind of fog that robs people of their memories. In the haze of forgetting, Beatrice remembers that they have a son living in a neighboring village, and the two set off to find him. Their relationship is tender, and it’s this tenderness, the love and loyalty they share, that raises the stakes for this story—we don’t want them to lose each other, but even more, as the slow recovery of their memories threatens to undo the life they’ve built together, we don’t want them to lose their love for one another. Honestly, it’s a bit of a slog at times, and if you’re a Monty Python and the Holy Grail fan, it’s hard not to read the dialogue in a mocking, silly k-ni-gits sort of way, but overall, it’s haunting and lovely. And sad.

    3. The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante- This is the second book in the Neapolitan series, and I can’t say much about it without spoiling things in the first one! But I will say I enjoyed this one more—I knew the characters better, understood the complicated dynamic of Lila and Elena’s friendship, felt the tightening grip of life in Naples and the desire to escape it. Book three is up next!

    2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie- You’ve probably all read this by now, but in case you haven’t, I loved it! It’s one of those novels that is Serious and Important, full of incisive observations about what it means to be a human, but as compelling and entertaining as any light-hearted beach read. It’s a smart examination of race, a critique of the society in which we move--and it’s a good old-fashioned love story. Ifemelu and Obinze grow up in Nigeria and fall in love with each other as teenagers, imagine their future lives together as rationally as any two adults, love each other for the people they are and who they will become. But Ifemelu goes to America for college, leaving both Nigeria and Obinze behind, and her early years there are so horrifying and demoralizing that she finds she cannot let herself reach out to Obinze, and the two, separated by continents, by an ocean, by experience, drift apart. Adichie tells their stories—Ifemelu’s, as a “Non-American Black” in America, and Obinze’s, first as an unwanted immigrant in England and then as a powerful, dissatisfied man in Nigeria—with wit and wisdom and authenticity.

    1. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff- This is the story of Lotto and Mathilde, the story of a marriage, of two people together and apart, the narrative split in two, one part his and one part hers. Part One belongs to Lotto, whom the Fates have touched, both for better and worse: he is born into a wealthy family but becomes fatherless, he is ugly but becomes beautiful, he is sweet and simple but becomes successful, he is a man who loves beauty, who pursues it in all forms, in all women who possess, he believes, at least one beautiful quality, but he becomes a husband. Part Two is Mathilde, a cipher in Lotto’s story, removed and nearly sphinx-like, and here, she is raging; she is the action, the movement, to Lotto’s luck. There are overlapping moments in the sections—something small in Lotto’s story, for example, is explained further in Mathilde’s—but they are separate stories, separate people moving together, inhabiting the same space in different worlds. The language is both dreamy and simmering, the characters endearing and infuriating and heartbreaking. Go read it!

  • What I've Been Reading

    I'm not even kidding--she tore the cover off the new Franzen book.

    I have good news and bad news regarding my reading life: the good news is that Margaux has learned to take (very, very short) naps in her crib, which means I don’t have to hold her to sleep every day! The bad news is that I don’t have to hold her to sleep every day, and now I’m reading less than I was. It’s wonderful to have baby-free hands twice a day, but I miss the heaviness of sleeping baby on my chest, and I miss the hours I got to spend reading, trapped under the weight of her.*

    But! I’ve still gotten a few things read. Here’s their power ranking.

    8. Villa America by Liza Klaussman- This novel focuses on Gerald and Sara Murphy, most well-known, for me anyway, for hosting beautiful, boozy weekends for their artist friends, including Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, still in his first marriage and dipping his toe into the second. This book capitalizes on the glamour and tragedy of the Lost Generation cast who pass through the doors of Villa America, the Murphys’ home in France, and, to me, relies a bit too heavily on their theatrics. But the most effective and affecting part of the book is the complex marriage of Gerald and Sara, two people who love each other in a very real, very pure, very complicated way. They are, for example, fiercely loyal to each other but not faithful. Each admires the other, their affections are real and profound, but their marriage requires each to abandon a part of themselves, and it’s in this exploration of marital give and take that the novel truly shines.

     7. The Wife by Meg Wolitzer- Joan Castleman is the titular wife, the spouse of a charismatic and celebrated novelist, and as the novel opens--and the pair are en route to Helsinki where Joseph will be receiving a prestigious literary award--Joan decides that she will leave him. She relives their courtship and marriage, the disappointments and vitriol and resentment that bloom over the years, the hurt and oppression that brings her to this moment, flying into a foreign country and ready to finally leave. The big reveal of the end is predictable, telegraphed from the early pages of the novel, and thus kind of a letdown, but it’s hard to put down, even if you’re unsurprised at the final turn.

     6. Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont- When I had read about 20% of this book, I stopped and Googled Julia Pierpont because I was jealous of how talented she obviously is…then I got even more jealous (about to reveal how petty I truly am) because Julia Pierpont is my age and got a six figure book deal for this book, her debut novel! One day, a package arrives for Deb Shanley but is intercepted by her children. Inside the box, they discover a letter for their mother and correspondence between their father Jack and his mistress, who has decided to reach out to Deb. The Shanleys’ world shatters, and the book follows the summer in which everything breaks down. I was enthralled by the story and the language for most of the book, but about halfway through, the point of view pulls back, and Pierpont offers us a peek into the family’s future, weeks, months, years past the arrival of the letters, and then she takes us back into the present of the story, where everything moves forward as if there has been no interruption. The glimpse of what’s coming is beautifully spare, but I found I cared less about the present after I got to see the future.

    5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante- Did you get swept up in Ferrante Fever? I had never even heard of her until literary Twitter lost its mind over the release of her final book in the Neapolitan series, which follows the lives of Lila and Elena as they grow up in impoverished Naples. My Brilliant Friend, the first novel of the series, is the story of the girls’ childhood and their complex friendship. The series has gotten attention for, among other things, Ferrante’s depiction of what relationships between girls can truly be like: genuine and competitive and rich and painful all at once. Both Lila and Elena are brilliant—each considers the other her brilliant friend—and banking on that brilliance to get them out of Naples. But the stranglehold her neighborhood has on its residents is strong and real, and the girls learn to fight with whatever weapons fate happens to hand them. It took me awhile to get into it, pretty much from age eight until the girls are teenagers, but the ending stings and is, to steal a word from Ferrante, brilliant.

    Top four coming tomorrow!

    *Guess what! I've had this post written for awhile but haven't had a chance to put it up, aaaaand now, thanks to a marathon stomach virus, teething, and a sleep regression, Margaux is no longer napping by herself. So. There's that. Haha.

  • Ready or not

    Motherhood, for me, has been about not being ready.

    When I found out I was pregnant, I was at school, in Vermont in a dorm bathroom—a long row of sinks and poor lighting and stalls the pale color of a peeled banana. We had been trying for months, and it shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was. I walked into my room where my roommate was waiting to hear the results. “I’m pregnant,” I said, and we both cried. I called my husband back in Houston, and I cried then too. “Do you feel okay?” he asked. “Are you excited?” Yes, I said. I felt fine, was excited. But then I thought about how there was a tiny, tiny being inside me, and that tiny being would get bigger and bigger and then have to come out. I wouldn’t ever be alone again, not even now, when I shared my body with someone else. I wasn’t ready.

    When my water broke, I was thirty-six weeks pregnant. I had been in the backyard reading The Remains of the Day, and I cried when it was over. I’d pulled up my shirt, and my stomach was pale and strange and round, sun-warmed in the afternoon. I imagined my baby, tight inside me, blinking in the bright light of the day. I went inside, into my closet, stared at the clothes that didn’t fit me—and then there was a gush between my legs. I called my husband, who was across town and carless, my mom, who was out of town, and then my dad, who was almost out of town but not quite, and as I waited for him to pick me up, I waddled to the nursery. We had a chair and a crib and changing table and on the floor piles and piles of baby things I couldn’t even begin to classify. And—even though I hate when this happens in fiction, when a character talks to herself, aloud and alone—I actually said, out loud and alone, “But I’m not ready.”

    When the doctor said we could leave the hospital the day after Margaux was born, healthy and beautiful and perfect—and terrifying, this little baby I felt unqualified to have--I must have looked worried. “Or,” he said, “you can wait another day. Wait for the insurance to kick you out.” He smiled and squeezed my hand, and that’s what we did.

    When we moved Margaux from our room to her own, my husband said I handled it well. “Honestly,” he said, “I thought you might be a wreck about it. But you aren’t! You’ve been really brave.” He meant it kindly, and he was right and wrong because I was a wreck and I was being very brave, and I watched her on the monitor all night long, breathing when she did, the bunnies on her pajamas swelling and shrinking with each inhale, exhale. When she cried a few hours later, I went to her and brought her back to our room.

    When she turned six months, I told everyone I was going to stop breastfeeding her. I said I wanted a milkshake and cheese enchiladas and all the dairy I had given up for her. But her little face, the curl of tiny fingers, the curve of her cheek as she nursed! I stopped at seven.

    When she wouldn’t sleep, I held her. When she woke up crying at two in the morning, I put her on my chest, and we slept til seven—and for naps too, three times a day, her mouth fluttering open and closed, sucking on something that wasn’t there, a memory of a warmth she used to know. But now she sleeps in her own little bed. You’re such a big girl, I tell her every morning and afternoon, each time I lift her from her crib. I’m so proud of you, I say.

    And I am proud of her, of each thing she does, even though every inch forward feels like something I relinquish, something I miss. She turns eight months old in a few days, and while I’ve said hundreds of times that I can’t wait for her to sleep in her own crib, to stop nursing, for her to crawl, to play alone, so far I haven’t really been ready. Growing up is a miracle—there are so many dangers lurking in the world—and of course I know it’s right and good and just lucky that she’s getting to do it, but it feels like a surprise when it happens all the same. One day she’ll be eight and then eighteen, and each year will mark some change that catches me off guard, something I didn’t know I would mourn until it’s replaced with something else I’ll miss. It’s been hard, this growing up we are doing together, but it’s a celebration too, a feast of wonder—and I can be, I must be, ready for that.

  • Gains and losses

    Just a few minutes after Margaux Juliet arrived :)

    Here are the things I knew I was giving up when I had a baby:

    1. My body. That’s an obvious one. For eight months, I watched my body change and change. Everything expanded, my belly, of course, but my legs grew thicker, my hips spread, my rear rounded out until my profile was three undulating curves: my breasts, the bump of my growing baby, my behind. My cheeks reddened, my nails grew fast, a line ran straight down my stomach, perfectly in the middle, so that if you folded me along it, I would be in two precise halves.

    2. Sleep. But I’d learn to live with it, or without it. I got an expensive glider for the nursery—I had saved the picture on my phone no less than three times to show people and had agonized over the material, the color, its placement in the room—and I imagined rocking my tiny, perfect baby in the darkness of 3 A.M. until she drifted back to sleep and I crept to my own room to snuggle up beside my husband, who would rouse just enough to thank me for taking care of our new daughter, who would stumble out of bed and rock her in that same chair just hours later when she woke again. “It will totally be worth the money,” I said firmly to anyone who dared to raise an eyebrow at the price tag. “After all, I bet I’ll end up sleeping in it with her every night!”

    3. My time. Of course I wouldn’t be able to do everything I usually did. But we would have date night, I would carve out time to write, I would wear her in a sling when I cooked dinner. I would be the cute mom with the cute baby at Whole Foods, and everything would be different but manageable, completely doable.

    And I have given up those things, and I’ve given them up in ways I wasn’t prepared for. My body still doesn’t look like the body I had a year and a half ago, and it doesn’t look like the one I had six months ago either. I never slept in that chair because I was too afraid to sleep while I held her, terrified she would stop breathing or slip out of my arms when I closed my eyes. I didn’t rock her in the glider at 3 A.M. I nursed her and nursed her and paced around the house with her and cried theatrically and bitterly when Josh didn’t wake up when Margaux did, and it was only me in the middle of the night trying to figure out what was making this mysterious little creature so unhappy. And my time: no time has belonged to me in months.

    Yeah, we're those idiots who bought the newborn photos they do in the hospital.

    Then there are things I didn’t know I was giving up but did anyway:

    1. My relationship with my husband. I still have one, but it’s different. It’s unfamiliar. When I was pregnant, we used to tell people how glad we were we waited as long as we did to have a baby, but in the very early days of Margaux’s existence, and sometimes now, I wonder if it was a mistake to have taken those five years and spent it wholly on ourselves. We had figured it out in so many ways, had learned how to be married to each other. And so when two of us became three, I delighted in my baby but mourned how much things had changed between Josh and me, how different our life had become. Our life was good and happy and easy, and now it was so hard, and I thought obsessively about the things we had done in the past: lazy brunches, museums, afternoon movies, late dinners, days spent entirely on the couch, hibernating in both the winter and the grueling Texas summer, hiking trips in exotic places. When Margaux was born, the wallpaper on my phone was a picture of Josh and me in Santorini, and on the screen we glowed, tan and unfettered against so much blue: the water, the sky, the roof of a church. It hurt me to look at it. “We’ll never go anywhere again,” I told Josh in the first month after Margaux came. “That was it.”

    “At least it was a good trip,” he said. Now we’re learning all over again how to be with each other, how to be parents as well as husband and wife. It was a good trip, I know, and I think this one can be even better than the last. It’s just that we’re in a different country, one we’ve only heard about and never visited, and the terrain here is at once jagged and beautiful, and this is where we live now.

    2. Friends. Some of my friends didn’t last through pregnancy. Most of my friends did, and I’m so thankful for that. But some of them didn’t. My life was changing, and maybe theirs wasn’t, and that made it hard to relate to one another, or else theirs was, and we were just changing in different directions, turning away from each other, our friendship a circle cleaved in half, each side falling away, turning away so that we were no longer connected. Pregnancy, for me, was a selfish time, so many days, weeks, months devoted to focusing on my body, on my baby growing inside it. I'm willing to accept my culpability here, in the weakening of these friendships. If you're one of these people, I'm sorry. I forgot to look up, I know. I just didn’t know I needed to.

    3. Identity. I’m a Christian, and so I believe my true identity in Christ is greater than any other one I claim. But it’s so hard, going from simply being myself to being the mother version of myself. Nothing I do now is the same as what I used to do before I had a baby, and that’s been a difficult adjustment for me. When I go places, I go with Margaux, and now people see me as a mom. Before, people would see me, and I could have been anyone, could be going anywhere, but now I’m pushing a stroller or bouncing a crying baby up and down and making a shushing noise really loudly in her ear or I’m running out of the store/restaurant/building because she’s wailing, her tiny fists little balls of rage, her perfect cheeks hot and red, and everyone around me knows I’m going home to continue doing mom things there. Here, in this sad Margaux situation, being a mom is my defining characteristic. But even when she’s happy, that’s still true. I’m dying for someone to comment on my baby so that I can talk about her. When I open Google on my phone, all I have to do is type “what” and it fills in a baby-related question. It’s an all-consuming job, and I get tired of being consumed by it. I want to sit and write because I know I’m not just a mom (no one is!), but it’s nearly impossible, and I start to forget what I know is true: I’m more than Margaux’s mother, although that’s certainly important and special, and I’m grateful for that gift.

    Last month, I went to residency in Vermont, my last one, and I was apart from Margaux for five days. I felt split in two—I missed her in an aching kind of way, but at the same time I felt almost giddy because only a few hours into my first day back, I realized I was still who I remembered being after all. I could write and discuss things and tell stories. I could hold a conversation. I could do things besides take care of a baby. When Margaux came with my family up to Montpelier, I cried when I saw her, my most beautiful, wonderful girl. But—and it’s hard to admit it—I found myself grieving the end of the time I had to be myself again.

    My mom told me a story about when I was a baby and she a new mom. She was taking kids to Young Life camp, and I wasn’t there. It was only a few hours into the long bus ride to Colorado, and she realized the same thing I did, nearly thirty years later in the green mountains of Vermont. “I was still me,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

    Every night I have "Baby Bottom Appreciation Time" right before her bath, and this is what that looks like. 

    I’ve given up smaller, much less important things too: dairy, TV, going to the gym, physical books because it’s impossible to hold both a book and baby. But what I’ve gained, though, cannot be contained in a list. It is impossible to name, except for this: for all the things I’ve given up and all that’s been hard—which feels like everything—I have Margaux. I tried for her, I prayed for her, and she’s here, and she’s a miracle. I adore her. I love her more than I could have ever thought. It’s just that it’s a new world for both of us. Sometimes I think about how much Margaux has learned in five months, and it’s pretty incredible. And now that she’s here, learning and growing, I know how much I have to learn and re-learn myself: how to be a mother, of course, but also a wife, a friend, a writer, how to hold onto what is true, how to remember who I am. 

    My first Mother's Day!

    The best.

  • What I'm Reading, Part 2

    Janis Joplin doing the one thing she and I had in common: reading!

    Here is the second half of the books I've read this year! 

    Missoula by Jon Krakauer- Here, inspired in part by this article, Krakauer investigates a string of sexual assaults at the University of Montana in Missoula, a city recently given the moniker of “Rape Capital of America.” He focuses on several trials, two of which involve the prosecution of UM football players, and through this exploration, Krakauer uncovers disturbing trends in the way sexual assault cases in our country are handled—and mishandled. However, if you are a survivor of sexual assault, proceed with caution: there are lots of graphic descriptions and testimonies of rape.

    Night Film by Marisha Pessl- Stanislas Cordova is an enigmatic, reclusive filmmaker whose work—the scarring, scary stuff of nightmares—inspires a rabid cult of followers who meet in abandoned buildings to screen his films. But when his daughter Ashley turns up at dead, Scott McGrath, an investigative journalist who has delved into Cordova’s past before, attempts to lift the dark veil  behind which Cordova dwells and find out what really happened to Ashley.

    We Were Liars by E. Lockhart- Just keeping my hand in the YA game here! Cadence is a member of the wealthy, perfect Sinclair family, who gather every summer on their private island off Cape Cod. One summer everything changes: Cadence suffers a mysterious accident, waking up with severe pain but no memory of the incident, and she decides to fight to uncover the truth about what happened to her.

    Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer- Another YA book! More secrets that must be uncovered! After a serious meltdown following the death of her boyfriend, Jam winds up at a school for sensitive, brilliant teens, where she’s chosen for an exclusive class called Special Topics in English. There, Jam and her classmates will spend the entire semester studying just one text, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and keeping a journal. But the practice of journaling offers them transport to and refuge in another world, one that is massively more tempting than our world and all the pain that comes with it.

    Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick- Here, Demick writes about, well, ordinary lives in North Korea in the 1990s, following the stories of several defectors. It’s a completely horrifying and surreal peek into a totalitarian regime.

    The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins- AND MORE SECRETS! Actually, now that I’m looking at these last three books, I could pretty much sum them up with SECRETS. Rachel is a sad woman with a drinking problem, mourning her old self and lusting for the life that could have been hers. Everyday she commutes into London, and from the train, everyday, she sees a beautiful, happy couple she calls Jess and Jason and imagines what their beautiful, happy life must be like. But one day she spies Jess kissing another man; the next day, Jess goes missing, and Rachel, believing Jason to be the culprit, begins a dangerous quest for answers.

    Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng- Here, Ng explores issues of race and gender and identity and family dynamics through the mystery of the death of Lydia Lee, a Chinese-American girl in the 1970s Midwest, and her family’s struggle to reconcile their understanding of their daughter and sister and the reality of who she was in her short life. As the new mom to a baby girl, it was a beautiful, painful read, imagining my own little one growing up and having a life completely separate from my own, full of loneliness and desires I may never know.

    Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll- TifAni FaNelli is a cold bitch, but she has it all: killer body, hot fiancée, glamorous job at a glossy magazine. But guess what else she has. Yep, SECRETS. And those secrets, which Knoll reveals slowly but never with the sense of withholding, are devastating. Again, there are some pretty graphic scenes, and if you are someone who does not handle that well, pick up another one of the books on the list instead. :)

    I’m currently reading—and loving—Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche! What other great books am I missing? Or even better: what great books have I missed recently while I've been living under the baby rock?