Author Archives: Stephanie

Calla

More big news around here: we welcomed a new baby, Calla Rowan, on September 17. I maaaay have forgotten to mention here that I was pregnant. Oops. I am chalking this up to Third Child Syndrome, in which the third child gets, if not short shrift, somewhat abbreviated shrift. Calla is only eight days old but she’s already proving herself a great third child: she can sleep through the shrieking of her older siblings, she doesn’t mind little fingers touching her tiny feet, and she more or less goes with the flow (although she objects vociferously to diaper changes).

My pregnancy and Calla’s birth came at an interesting time for me, professionally. In the last nine months, I’ve had two stories accepted for publication (one in the Chicago Tribune, one in Bayou Magazine), and I’ve sent my novel manuscript out to agents. Six years into writing fiction, I’m starting to see some career momentum and it’s very exciting. However, now that Calla’s here, I must put my writing career on hold while I devote myself to taking care of my newborn.

Unlike when I had my last two kids, however, this time around, I’ve prioritized getting help. I’m hoping the extra support around the house will help me get back into writing sooner than I would have otherwise (and will preserve my mental health).

In the meantime, I am enjoying my sweet Calla, who really is an irresistible little nugget.

Big news!

I am so excited to announce that my story, Host Mother, was named one of five finalists in the 2019 Nelson Algren Awards, hosted by the Chicago Tribune. My story was one of 3,000 entries and went through four rounds of blind judging before being named a finalist. I am very gratified to be chosen. The best news is that the story is live on the Tribune’s site now and you can read it for yourself right here, and my bio is here.

A retreat at Porches

This past weekend, I drove 3 hours southwest from my home in Alexandria to Norwood, Virginia to stay at the beautiful, peaceful Porches writing retreat.

View from one of the porches at Porches!

View from one of the porches at Porches!

The idea of a writing retreat is to step away from all of the day-to-day distractions that prevent you from getting writing done, or from getting deep into your writing. The point is to sit in a room, be quiet, and let the words flow. No folding laundry, no packing kids’ lunches, no grocery shopping, no TV. Porches allowed me to hole up in a quiet room with my writing, my reading, and my knitting, and crank words out onto the page.

The house instructions included this quote.

The house instructions included this quote

I spent Thursday afternoon to Sunday morning at Porches and got more done in under three days than I would normally accomplish in a month. My daily goal, when I’m writing at home, is usually to complete one scene from my novel. At Porches, I wrote 26 scenes in the novel and finished up a short story. The biggest accomplishment was finishing up the draft of my novel revision that I’ve been working on since January. What a feeling!

My desk

My desk

I did miss Al and the kids, of course. I pestered Al for frequent photos of Lucia and Ewan and we spoke on the phone every day. But man, was it nice to be able to have nothing on my agenda except to write, eat, and sleep. My typical day at Porches went like this: I’d wake up around 8 am (LUXURIOUS), make a cup of coffee, write for an hour or so, eat breakfast, write for another couple of hours, eat lunch, read, knit, maybe go for a walk, then back to writing until 6:30, when I’d eat dinner.

Healthy dinner and a book - an introvert's dream

Veggies, chocolate, and a book – my dream dinner

After dinner, I’d read and knit until bedtime, which was ludicrously and satisfyingly early (one night I fell asleep by 9:30 and slept until 8 the next day. This amount of sleep is UNHEARD OF for a mother of young children and might actually be illegal?).

My room, again

My room

My room

My room, again

I wish I could go back to Porches every month, but that would be logistically challenging, to say the least. But here at home, surrounded by nagging chores and quarrelsome children, I’ll try to hold onto the renewed sense of purpose and accomplishment I got out of my brief retreat. Until next time, Porches!

Can I keep watching The Bachelor?

I have been a faithful watcher of The Bachelor (and all of its attendant spinoffs) for over nine years. NINE YEARS! The first season I watched all the way through was Jake Pavelka’s, way back in 2010 (and here’s proof! I covered that season and subsequent seasons on my old reality TV blog, TubeTopix, and later, for money, on Previously.tv). And boy, have these past nine years been a journey. But as we come out of this latest season of The Bachelor and gird our collective loins for the coming onslaught of The Bachelorette, featuring one of the least articulate candidates for marriage to have ever graced our television screens, I find myself wondering if I can keep watching this show.

There have been approximately 500 think-pieces written about why The Bachelor is bad, misogynist, hokey, ageist, white-washed, and just plain awful, and listen, I ONE-THOUSAND PERCENT AGREE with all of those assessments. This franchise is TERRIBLE. The values the show promotes are retrograde and sexist. (This season, for example, the lead, Colton, asked the fathers of the four grown women he was pursuing for “permission” to marry their daughters. Putting aside the fact that he was making the same request to four different men, what outmoded notion of “respect” does he subscribe to in which the desires and autonomy of the women he’s dating come second to the preferences of their fathers?). The storylines the show sells are fake to their core, and the idea of romance that it peddles is, frankly, creepy. (Rose petals scattered on beds, bubbling hot-tubs, slow-dancing on platforms while being ogled by strangers). Let’s be clear: I very deeply dislike and mistrust this show. However, I keep on watching it.

…But should I?

Here is the point where I could write my own lengthy think-piece about why I watch The Bachelor and any number of other “dating” reality shows. Apart from pure, unadulterated Schadenfreude, I think one of the main reasons I continue to watch is because these shows are fascinating anthropological experiments. It’s interesting seeing what people will do on camera when they’ve convinced themselves that “love” is a prize to be won, how people will contort themselves into their idea of what an ideal partner should be, how quickly people (read: women) will subvert their own desires and agency to “win” whatever man they’ve been told they’re supposed to want to marry. It’s not good, any of this, or admirable. But it is interesting, especially for a smug, married lady like me. But now that I no longer have the excuse of watching this “professionally” (since I no longer receive cash-money to recap the show), I find myself questioning more and more whether I should be continuing to support its popularity and, honestly, wasting my own time on what has become a sub-optimal viewing experience.

This coming season of The Bachelorette, in particular, is posing a real challenge for me. For those of you who haven’t been keeping up with the latest news out of Bachelor Nation, the newly crowned Bachelorette is one Hannah B., a 23-year-old pageant queen from Alabama who, God bless her, does not talk good. The woman cannot string a sentence together without flailing like a fish thrown onto the shore. She seems wild-eyed and unhinged in a way that could make for good television, but could also signal a lack of ability to carry a show like this.

But my biggest issue with the new Bachelorette is that Hannah B. is twenty-three years old. Serious question: how many twenty-three-year-olds do you know that are actually ready to get married? I’m willing to guess zero, unless you live in a religious community of some sort. And Hannah B., pardon me, does not strike me as a particularly “old soul.” Which is FINE. But, like, why are we watching this chick date a bunch of dudes when we all know that she’s not actually going to marry any of them? The entire premise of the show is that the lead is supposed to pick a life partner from among the contestants. And yes, the show’s track record at creating successful pairings is dismal. But the prospect of an engagement at the end of the season at least adds some sense of stakes to the endeavor, and an engagement, however ill-advised, is far more believable if the people involved are not fresh out of college, or pageant school, or whatever it is Hannah’s been doing for the last five years since she reached voting age. It’s just silly. Even as someone who actively hate-watches this show, I need there to be something I can hang my hat on. In past seasons, I have loathed various leads and contestants, but there was, crucially, a sense of mystery involved about the outcome.

But now, things in this franchise feel even more artificial than ever before (and that’s saying something). For one thing, the women on this past season of The Bachelor were so very young. The woman who ended up “winning” Colton in the end, Cassie, is also twenty-three. She expressed numerous times throughout the course of the show that she was not sure she was ready for a commitment. And, sure enough, in the end, she and Colton ended up just… agreeing to date. Which is sensible. But not that interesting. Also, many of the contestants on this past season were obviously on the show in a bid to launch careers as social media influencers. One of the final three women, Hannah G., actually IS an Instagram influencer. Like, that’s her job. It strains credulity to think she came on this show to “find love.”

What this past season made me realize is that earnestness among the contestants is a key component for a successful Bachelor season. They can be idiots, and delusional, and mean, and vapid, but as long as they’re mostly earnest, I’ll watch, because the show feeds into my anthropological curiosity. But if the contestants are just a bunch of pretty people trying to up their followers, I’m out. And I fear that this coming season of The Bachelorette is going to be more of the same.

Are any of you watching this show? Do you agree that it’s gone downhill or has it always been boring and I’m just now cottoning on to it?

James Knudsen Prize for Fiction Finalist

Hello, popping in from my typical hibernation to share a little bit of encouraging writing news. I was recently named one of two finalists in the James Knudsen Prize for Fiction (Bayou Magazine). Little near-victories like this keep me going as I continue to submit my short fiction and hope, fervently, to be published again.

In other writing news, I’ve booked myself a weekend at Porches Writing Retreat in early April. From the website, the place looks gorgeous and contemplative, and I’m hoping I’ll get some good work on my novel done over that weekend. I’ve been feeling kind of sluggish when it comes to working on my novel, and I’ve been putting much more energy and enthusiasm into my short fiction. I’ve learned from my past six years of writing that this process is cyclical, and that my energy for various projects will wax and wane, but as long as I am continuously working on something, it’s all good.

That’s all for now!

My year in reading

In my approximately 32 years of being a reader, it’s only in this past year that I’ve begun to actively track what I read. Sure, I’ve used Goodreads for years and would occasionally update my list when I remembered, but if you asked me to name how many (and which) books I read in a given year, I’d be at a loss. But in January of 2018, I started a Google spreadsheet to track my reading in a more structured way. And the results of my year in reading are here, for all to see.

In total, I finished 47 books, including fiction and non-fiction. I read novels of all descriptions, short-fiction collections, memoirs, compilations, self-help, investigative journalism, and true crime. Overall, I’m happy with how broadly I read, although there are, as always, a ton of books on my To Be Read list that I wished I’d gotten to this year but didn’t have time for.

Some notes about my reading habits: I am NOT a completist. If a book is not for me, and I’ve given it a good shot, I’ll abandon it. I talked about how to properly abandon a book in more detail in this post. I think recognizing when a book is not for you is a healthy skill to cultivate, as life is short, and there are more books in the universe than one human could ever hope to read, so why waste time with the duds? When you look at my 2018 reading log, you’ll see that there are several books, in italics, that I stopped reading because they were just not working for me. Because I got pretty far into most of these books, my abandonment of them hurt my overall reading numbers for the year. But tabulating my reading wasn’t really about hitting a specific number of books, so I’m fine with falling just short of a nice, round 50. (I also read several VERY LONG but excellent books, including Chimimanda Ngoze Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko.)

Here are a few of the highlights from this excellent reading year, in bullet form! (NB: this list was VERY hard to compile because I loved so many of the books I read this year.)

  • Favorite non-fiction book: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. This book is a fascinating, thrilling look into the twisted story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. And here I am discussing this book on The Blotter Presents!
  • Favorite book in translation: Beartown, by Frederik Backman
  • Favorite short-story collection: This Cake is for the Party, by Sarah Selecky. I loved Selecky’s collection so much, but I read a lot of fantastic short-fiction this year, including great collections by Jeffrey Eugenides, Lauren Groff, and Nafissa Thompson.
  • Most surprising read: Delicious Foods, by James Hanaham. So hard to describe this book in a way that doesn’t make it sound insane (for example, one of the narrators is the drug crack cocaine), but it is one of the books that stuck with me most this entire year. (Thanks to Yohanca Delgado for the recommendation).
  • Stupidest read: Single State of Mind, by Andi Dorfman. In my defense, I didn’t pay for this book with my own money, so I feel morally absolved for wasting brain cells on this dross.
  • Favorite collection of essays: Calypso, by David Sedaris
  • Favorite memoir: And Now We Have Everything, by Meaghan O’Connell. A must-read for mothers.
  • Favorite mystery: Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie
  • Worst ending: State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. I hate-hate-HATED the ending but enjoyed the book up until the very end.
  • Most overrated: The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer
  • Best (fiction) page-turner: The Woman in the Window, by A.J. Finn. I saw some of the big twists in this book coming, but I really enjoyed it nonetheless!

I’d love to talk to you about your thoughts on any of these books, or others that changed your life this year. What was your best book of 2018?

Happy reading in 2019!

Anxiety and Kavanaugh

I am one month away from my thirty-sixth birthday, and it’s only within the last year that I’ve realized that I struggle with anxiety (or, as I often think of it, Anxiety). My anxiety waxes and wanes. Some days, it hardly bothers me at all. Other days, it rises up like a wave and crashes over me, flooding me, making me choke. Sometimes, my anxiety manifests itself emotionally; I feel sad, or angry, or defeated. And sometimes, I don’t even realize I’m anxious until I start to have physical symptoms. Sharp prickles in my pinky finger, as if it has fallen asleep. Neck pain. Back pain. Painful, raised bumps on the sides of my hands. Headaches. And, my least favorite, insomnia. When I can’t sleep, all of the things that worry me, distress me, and enrage me rise to the surface. Try as I might, I can’t turn my brain off. And this past week has been a particularly sleepless one for me.

I didn’t realize at first, when the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh started piling up, how much this particular news story would affect me, would spark feelings of helplessness and rage in me. But this story has wormed its way under my skin, making me itch. I spent all of yesterday watching and listening to the testimony of both Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, and I came away from the experience shaken, disturbed, angry, sad, moved. Both of their testimonies brought up complicated emotions and memories for me.

Watching Dr. Ford testify, I was astounded by her sincerity, her rawness, and her bravery. She didn’t want to be a public figure, to relive the most traumatic event of her life in front of the world. But she did out of a sense of civic duty, and she was right to do so. When she says she’s 100% sure Brett Kavanaugh was the person who assaulted her, I believe her. She has chosen, reluctantly perhaps, to torpedo her own personal safety and well-being in order to do what she thinks is right, and I have tremendous respect for her decision. I kept thinking: could I do this? I honestly don’t know. I’ve already talked about how I’m still too afraid to name a man who sexually harassed me when I worked for him twelve years ago, who now holds a position in the Virginia state government. Small potatoes, compared to what Dr. Ford faced.

Then, watching Kavanaugh testify, I felt my heart-rate pick up and my hands tighten into fists. His entire testimony was spent angrily denying responsibility for any of his past behavior. The righteous indignation he showed (the yelling, the lecturing, the finger wagging) was a stomach-turning display of the unbridled sense of entitlement that runs rampant among a certain type of spoiled, rich, obnoxious man. I’m very familiar with this type of man; I’ve met many of them at Stanford, Harvard, and in the larger world (especially, and not at all coincidentally, in the legal profession). This type of man feels that because he has come to a certain point in his career or academic life, he is owed whatever prestigious thing comes next. Brett Kavanaugh went to Yale Law School. He became a judge. Therefore, he is owed a life-time appointment to the highest court in our land, and how dare anyone try to snatch away the fortune that was promised to him? How dare anyone bring up things he actually did or said in his past? (I’m leaving aside the extremely partisan tone he struck in his testimony, which makes me fear for his ability to leave politics out of his judicial decision-making, because I don’t even have the bandwidth to go on a separate rage spiral right now).

Putting the gross sense of entitlement aside, the thing that struck me most about Kavanaugh’s testimony was the ease with which he lied, and his refusal to admit any wrongdoing whatsoever, no matter how small. He said he never drank to excess, never blacked out. (Riiiight.) Even more ludicrously, he claimed he’s spent his whole life promoting women’s equality. One look at his high school yearbook page, in which he refers to being a “Renate Alumnius,” puts the lie to that assertion. When he claimed during his testimony that this reference to Renate was not sexual, was not intended to humiliate or demean her, I nearly pounded on my TV screen with my fists. He was lying; anyone with half a brain and any experience of the type of entitled, shitty high school boy that Brett Kavanaugh clearly was can see that. (And the woman he was referring to, Renate Schroeder Dolphin, was hurt and humiliated when she found out about this, thirty-some years after the fact). Men who spend their whole lives promoting the dignity of women don’t refer to girls and women the way Brett Kavanaugh did in his yearbook. Period. The whole Renate Alumnius thing really touched a nerve with me because it reminded me of something that happened to me in college, in which I found out that a guy I liked had made humiliating insinuations about me (on Facebook, no less). It was one of the worst things that happened to me in college, and I doubt that guy even gave it a second thought.

Which brings me to the possibility that Kavanaugh believes his own hype: that he’s either convinced himself he didn’t assault Dr. Ford, or, more likely, that he simply doesn’t remember, because it was such an unremarkable event in his life. As Rachel Reilich put it, “The scenario in which Kavanaugh truly doesn’t remember this night, or this party, or having ever met Christine Blasey Ford, and is truly astounded to find himself accused. How could he forget something so horrible? Maybe because, for him, to Mark Judge, ‘the night was unremarkable.’ The incident didn’t sear into his brain. It didn’t eat away at his conscience – what he did was normal. He, like so many entitled, carelessly brutal men before him, assaulted a young woman. It was just a regular party. A regular day with his horse and plow.”

And so, the day after the Ford/Kavanaugh testimonies, here I sit with my anxiety, reflecting. My anxiety and my increased reflection on the past are woven together, often interlocked. If you tug on one thread, the other comes along, tied tight. To be clear, the things that happened in my past do not cause me anxiety in the present. Instead, I worry that not enough will change by the time my daughter is making her own way in the world. Usually, I tell myself that the world is getting better for women, that things keep improving, and mostly, I think that’s true. But I wonder if the world will ever be as good as it needs to be for our girls and the women they’ll become. In the meantime, I deal with my anxiety as best I can, and focus on living my life the best I can in the present moment. Last night, I gave my kids extra big hugs and said a silent prayer that, years later, when they revisit this moment in history, the world of 2018 will be nearly unrecognizable to them. As Theodore Parker once wrote, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” Let’s hope.

 

 

 

 

One Story Summer Writers Conference

I just got back from the One Story summer conference in Brooklyn and, despite being sick as a dog, I had a great week. I feel so lucky to have been able to do two wonderful (and very different) writing conferences this summer. Kenyon, as I blogged about, was emotionally and physically draining, but I learned a ton and left feeling energized and inspired. One Story was a cushier, more supportive environment, and I came home feeling confident and motivated (if a bit depleted by whatever mystery virus I contracted while in New York). The conference took place at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, a former factory converted into an art space (where One Story has its offices). The week consisted of workshop (critiquing each other’s manuscripts), craft lectures (from such awesome writers as Hannah Tinti, Ann Napolitano, and Patrick Ryan), meals, readings, and opportunities for industry mingling.

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The organizers of the One Story conference really made an effort to create a supportive, welcoming environment. The whole conference is made up of only twenty participants, which creates the feeling of a small, intimate community of writers. People in my workshop were incredibly kind, open, and generous. (And the staff gave us wine most nights, which helped.)

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One of the most valuable parts of the One Story conference, for me, was the industry component. One night, there was a panel and meet-and-greet with four editors from various publishing houses, and the next night, a panel and mixer with four literary agents. As a non-famous writer who works out of her home office, anything I can do to get my manuscript pulled from the dreaded slush pile is a bonus, so being able to pitch to four literary agents face-to-face is huge. (This also produced another positive: I was forced to come up with an elevator pitch for my novel, something I’d been putting off for six months or so).

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One night, we got to see Min Jin Lee, author of the wonderful family saga Pachinko, in conversation with Hannah Tinti at the Community Bookstore. Min Jin Lee was so down-to-Earth, funny, and frank; I loved hearing her perspective on the labor involved in researching and writing, on creating memorable characters, and on tapping into the emotional heart of the reader.

The week culminated with a participant reading, so I got up and read my fiction for the second time in my life. It was fun!

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I’m so glad I went to One Story and would gladly do it again. Also, being in Brooklyn gave me the opportunity to see my dear friend Claire and to meet, for the first time, one of my former editors at Previously.TV, Sarah Bunting. After working with Sarah off and on for over five years (and doing, among other things, the vaunted Andi Dorfman book club with her and my other former editor, Tara Ariano), I felt like I’d already met her, so it was cool to sit down IRL and have a drink.

Thanks for a great week, Brooklyn! It’s been real.

My week at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop

I spent the last week (Saturday-Saturday) at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop in Gambier, Ohio and boy, was it a week.

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The week held so much good: inspiration, knowledge, friendship, solitude. But the week was also tough. I cried every day, for a variety of reasons: I missed Al and my kids (and I found being away from them particularly wrenching given the horrors that are taking place at our country’s southern border), my six-year-old laptop stopped working on the second day of the workshop, and I received a barrage of brutally honest and challenging feedback from my workshop instructor. The first few days were especially hard. After my computer died (and I feared I had lost all of my ongoing manuscripts — turns out they’d been backed up; thank God for Backblaze), I laid on my bare dorm room bed and sobbed on the phone to Al that I thought I’d made a mistake by coming to Kenyon. He did his best to talk me off the ledge but I was totally ready to stand on the outskirts of Gambier with my thumb out and hitch a ride back to Virginia.

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As the week went on and I emotionally calibrated to my environment, things improved. (I still found myself weeping when reading the news, but I’m pretty sure that’s a normal human reaction, given the circumstances). I had to let go of certain ideas and embrace new ones. I had to stop taking things personally. And I had to accept that I was not going to get a good night’s sleep on a squishy, plastic-coated extra-long twin mattress in a sweaty, cinder-block dorm room. Once I’d accepted the things I couldn’t change and began to stretch myself in new ways, I realized what a rare and wonderful opportunity the KRWW was for me. I am so glad I went.

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On Friday, I stood in front of the entire workshop and read a short piece of fiction that I’d written during the week. I hadn’t read my fiction in front of so many people before, but, surprisingly, the experience was more empowering than scary, once I was up there.

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I am coming away from the week at Kenyon with a whole new toolbox for writing craft, and a solid plan for revising my novel. It’s going to be a heck of a lot of work, but it’s also exciting to imagine how much my writing is going to improve. I hope to ride this wave of inspiration as long as I can. And now, off to revise.

Another small life (and writing) update

More good news in the realm of my writing career: this July I’ll be attending the One Story Summer Writers’ Conference in Brooklyn. When I decided I wanted to attend fiction workshops this summer, I wasn’t sure how many programs I’d get accepted to, which ones would work with my family’s schedule, etc., and I would have been happy to attend even one. In the end, I was lucky enough to have a number of options to choose from. I landed on Kenyon and One Story because they each offer something unique (and important).

Kenyon, as I understand it, is a generative conference, in which participants do not come in with manuscripts to workshop, but instead produce writing continuously during the week. The focus of the week is on craft, not the publishing industry. It’s exhilarating to think about having a full week to sit down and just WRITE. As it is, I have so little time to write — often my only writing time is while my kids nap — and getting an entire week just to learn and produce is a rare luxury.

One Story will be a different experience from Kenyon, in that I will show up with a manuscript to be workshopped during the week. The manuscript I’ve chosen to submit is the first 5000 words of my novel and I am almost paralyzed with anxiety at the prospect of allowing human eyes that are not mine to rest upon this thing. I’ve worked on this manuscript for well over two years and never have I let anyone read even a word  of it, so this conference in Brooklyn will be a (scary) departure for me. But I feel fairly certain that this is what needs to happen if I want to get my novel published, so I’m going to swallow my fear and just do it.

I’m excited about the potential this summer holds for advancing my future as a fiction writer. I’m also incredibly anxious about leaving the kids for a week at a time, twice. Al is a very capable parent and has a lot of support from our family, so I know everyone will be fine, but still — MY BABIES (*said in a shriek, with hand to forehead*). Wish me luck.