- Bread and Honey by Frank Asch
- Squiggly Wiggly’s Surprise by Arnold Shapiro
- Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
- Gypsy Summer by Wilma Yeo
- Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
- Sins of the Father by Eileen Franklin
- The Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac
- The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
- Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
While looking for a receipt the other day, I stumbled across one of my old diaries. I knew better than to open it. Every time I clean or dig through my drawers to look for something, I come across a journal, a letter someone had sent me, or a box of old photographs and am quickly derailed. For the next hour or so, I was lost in the pages of my diary, caught in the past and thinking about the future.
I tend to start diaries on my birthday, and this particular one was from five years ago. It was a big birthday for me, both because it was a milestone birthday and because I was on the precipice of a new direction in my life.
The year leading up to it, I had spent an embarrassingly long time getting over a break up. I had also been quite ill for a long time, which made commuting from New Jersey excruciating. These two circumstances made me think a lot about where I was spending my time and where I wanted my life to go. I quit a bunch of low-paying freelance writing gigs and moved into Manhattan about three months before my milestone birthday.
That next year was one full of adventure and changes. What had seemed like a monumental move into the city turned out to be more of a convenience than a lifestyle change, since I’d been commuting for so many years from northern New Jersey and so much of my life was already there. Still, once I was there, I knew I could never go back to Jersey. My family had moved from New Jersey to Greece, and much of my vacation time up to then had been spent traveling to Greece to see them. Traveling is so fundamental to who I am that I decided that year instead to go to South Korea and Japan. That summer I also went to Minneapolis and reconnected with family, which made me understand myself better.
It was that year that I also recommitted myself to writing. It’s not that I had ever stopped writing. Far from it. I was always writing and even getting published in little publications here and there. But the writing wasn’t me. It wasn’t authentic to my voice. I decided to start writing for myself again. I began carving time out to write personal essays about growing up Greek American. I began reading the Beats again. I joined a writers group, where I learned the term MFA.
Then, right before my next birthday, I lost my job. I went to Florida for Christmas to escape and regroup. Being there was hard. It was the first year I’d been back to my grandmother’s place since she’d died when I was in college. Upon my father’s recommendation, I applied to only the best MFA programs (“anything less won’t be worth it”). While I wasn’t confident that I’d get in anywhere, I also didn’t realize just how difficult it is to get into the programs. I applied quickly to whichever programs were still accepting admissions and only later read how writers agonize over which essay to send and whom to get recommendations from. I ended up getting into the top creative nonfiction program in New York City. I also was rehired by my old company.
I often feel like one of those cartoon characters that’s running in place. You see the little puffs of clouds materializing under the feet, but they never seem to get anywhere. When you’re young, there are clear markers of time passing. You graduate from high school and then college. You get your first job. You rent your first apartment. And if you’re me, you go through a gazillion hairstyles. As you get older, there are fewer markers along life’s journey, and wildly changing your hair seems perhaps best left to young people and celebrities. Still, as someone who likes stability, I worry that I am too easily prone to falling into ruts.
Reading through my diary, I realized, though, how far I have come. I realized that change doesn’t always happen overnight, that many of the best accomplishments in life take time. However, the little choices we make today matter. They put us on a path.
Today is my birthday, and many of the dreams I wrote about five years ago have come true. The funny thing with dreams, though, is that they don’t always happen the way you think they will and they don’t happen without a few tears being shed. This past year has been another one full of change. I haven’t always embraced it. It’s been difficult and emotional. Great things have happened, but I’ve also faced challenging and sad circumstances.
I find myself again at a crossroads.
* * *
Mallory Ortberg’s post “The Top Ten Writers Whose Success You’ll Resent This Year” (via Poets & Writers) on The Toast is hilarious and spot on. I kind of resent her for it. I mean, I could’ve written it. You know, if I’d actually thought of it.
Here’s what she wrote about memoirists:
The Memoirist Who Is Your Age And Whose Life Eerily Parallels Yours
“Nobody should write a memoir before they’re fifty,” you announce to your friends over drinks. You are not fifty. “Everyone seems to think being 27 and unhappy in love is all you need to write a book about your life. You should have to get licensed before you can write one.” You are on your fourth glass of wine. It is Tuesday. “You should have to–be Gore Vidal, or a cultural attaché, or have invented genocide or something.” You spilled a little bit of your wine during that last remark, but it has landed on your napkin and you don’t think anyone noticed.
You have never been asked to write a memoir, but you would immediately if anyone seemed interested.
I’m pretty sure I’ve said something similar in the past about why MFA students in their twenties shouldn’t be allowed to enroll in memoir classes.
In other news, I haven’t worked on my memoir in about a year. But I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and I recently realized I have a whole new spin on the ending. That’s the funny thing about memoir. Just when you think you have an ending, something happens in your life that changes the ending … which, PS, reinforces my statement that you should write a memoir too young.
What writers do you resent?
I was just thinking the other day that it had been a long time since I’d heard about James Franco. I’m serious! It seemed like a year or two ago James Franco was omnipresent. There’s James Franco sleeping in class at Columbia! There’s James Franco explaining it wasn’t technically class! There’s James Franco playing with a cat! There’s James Franco’s book! There’s James Franco teaching at NYU! There’s–well, you get the idea.
And then nothing.
I don’t know why, but I suddenly missed hearing about James Franco. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that we were both getting our MFAs. Or maybe it had to do with the fact that I thought his portrayal of Allen Ginsberg in Howl was authentic.
Well, wouldn’t you know it: today I stumbled upon The Los Angeles Review of Books‘ recent interview with James Franco. In the article, Franco discusses poetry, writing, and filmmaking. He talks about William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg, Frank Bidart, and his writer mother. He also says that even though he portrayed Allen Ginsberg in Howl it was another author who inspired his foray into Beat literature:
Kerouac came first. On the Road was my introduction to the Beats, but “Howl” was my introduction to poetry. I studied Williams in school, but I didn’t really study him as a craftsman until later, when I went to the writing program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.
A few years ago, I was at the New York Public Library, browsing the shelves for something new to read, when I stumbled upon Jack Kerouac’s American Journey: The Real-Life Odyssey of “On the Road.“ I immediately added it to my stack of books (I greedily hoard books from the library and end up with outrageous fines) and headed to the check-out line. Tunneling through New York City on the subway, I read the book, never thinking that one day I might work with the book’s author, Paul Maher, Jr.
I’d been studying Kerouac for well over a decade and always had vague plans of “one day” writing a book on him; by vague plans, I mean I had not only read voraciously (Kerouac’s books, biographies on him, books about the era) but also taken copious notes, interviewed, written well over a hundred pages, and blogging, but was doing it more for my own research — both academic and for fun — than any tangible book plans. It was like I was living out that line in the opening of On the Road: “…always vaguely planning and never taking off.” It was quite some time after I’d read American Journey that I came upon Paul’s website The Archive – Sketches on Kerouac. I left a comment on one of his entries, without thinking too much about it, and was stunned and thrilled when he wrote back. We began talking about Kerouac and writing, and he told me he was thinking of reworking American Journey and asked me if I’d be interested in collaborating on it.
It was quite possibly the worst timing ever. By that point I was entering my thesis semester for my MFA, where I had to write two theses, one creative and one academic/research. I was also working full-time. But there was no way I was going to say no to the opportunity of working with Paul. Besides American Journey, he’d also written the incredible biography Kerouac: His Life and Work. This was a dream opportunity. I said yes.
Check back tomorrow for my exclusive interview with Paul Maher, Jr.
And check back Monday to hear all about reading with David Amram!
Over the years, many readers have criticized Jack Kerouac’s work for its rambling prose and sounding too colloquial. Everyone is certainly welcome to his or her own opinions. The world would be a pretty boring place if we all liked exactly the same thing. The literary arts are, to a certain degree, subjective. One doesn’t have to like or enjoy a work, though, to see its importance and value. Even if it doesn’t change the likeability of a work, it’s important to consider its artistry before completely dismissing it.
Take Of Mice and Men. This book did nothing for me when I read it in high school. I didn’t like the story. The writing style was just fine, but not particularly innovative. Still, it was a classic! John Steinbeck! I should like it, right? I didn’t. I moved on to The Red Pony. Hated it even more. But I was determined to like John Steinbeck. Finally, I read Travels with Charley, which became one of my favorite books. Same thing with Kurt Vonnegut. As a teenager, I didn’t feel cool because I thought Breakfast of Champions was simultaneously silly and trying too hard. Afterward, I read Cat’s Cradle, and even though the nature of the subject matter wasn’t of interest to me, I loved the book.
Sometimes it just takes finding that right book by an author. Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean we’re going to all like the same book. And that’s okay, but it doesn’t mean we should dismiss it—it’s a classic for a reason—or give up on the author. If we do, we face missing out on some really great literature.
I don’t enjoy all of Jack Kerouac’s books. And perhaps my favorite of his works is one that many people don’t read: Visions of Gerard. For the people who don’t like Kerouac because of his subject matter, I’d encourage them to check out some of his other books.
However, even for the books we don’t like, we can still learn from them and sometimes even appreciate them. When I was getting my Master of Fine Arts—I spell this out to emphasize the artistic nature of literature—in creative writing at The New School, instructors always stressed that we didn’t have to like everything we read but we had to keep an open mind and give each work a fair shot. One of my first instructors always asked whether we liked the book, sometimes taking a poll. Of course the interesting part came when we debated why or why not.
I’ll be honest: I read a lot of books I did not enjoy. Many I ended up giving away to anyone who would take them. But I kept some of the books I did not like—because even though I didn’t find reading them a pleasurable reading experience, either because they weren’t the style I enjoy or the subject matter bored me, I recognized their brilliance. Sometimes the books I hated reading the most ended up being the very ones that had the most profound influence on my understanding of literature and the craft of my own writing.
One of these books was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy. The antithesis of a beach read, this book requires the reader to concentrate and piece together and analyze. It’s not so much that the language or concepts were difficult—in fact, quite the contrary. It was the author’s style, the limited view he gave the reader, that made the book both frustrating and genius. It challenged my view of what literature was, how literature was supposed to work, and why we read—in a good way!
Now, as far as Kerouac’s prose stylings, there are a few things worth considering:
- Kerouac’s first language was not English. He was born in Massachusetts to immigrant parents who spoke to him in the French-Canadian dialect joual. When he went off to school, half the day was taught in French Canadian and the other half in English. It wasn’t until he reached high school that he began to feel comfortable speaking in English.
- While many people critique the American colloquialisms Kerouac uses, it’s worth noting that people praise Mark Twain for doing the same thing. Kerouac was working to capture a unique American sound, the language of his times. He used to tape record conversations with his friends and refer to letters they wrote him, just to capture authentic speech patterns and diction.
- The so-called rambling prose wasn’t just echoing true-to-life conversations and speech patterns; it was also referring to the stream-of-consciousness narrative of modernist novels. One of the books he read that influenced his writing style was James Joyce’s Ulysses, an experimental novel that employed stream of consciousness. In fact, you know that famous quote from On the Road about the roman candles? The one that goes:
… but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
Well, compare it to this line from Ulysses:
…O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!
- Kerouac read voraciously. He read the Greek Classics, comic books, the Russian masters, westerns, the bible, and history books. In his journals, he refers to these works, evidence of his thoughtful contemplation of what he read. These works influenced both the content and prose style of his own writing.
- In addition to books, Kerouac’s writing was deeply influence by music. If you read his work aloud or dissect his sentence structure, you can hear the bebop rhythm of his prose. He and his musician friend David Amram used to improvise jazz-poetry readings together, creating it spontaneously, on the spot. This is a lot harder than it sounds. You have to really have a firm grasp on chord progression, rhythm, rhyme, and language—all while taking cues from someone else who is also improvising.
Sometimes works that seem effortless are the hardest ones of all to create.
Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road discusses in more detail Kerouac’s literary development.
While I was getting my MFA in creative nonfiction at The New School, I kept walking by a Greek restaurant that was being built on University Place. When it finally opened, I was drowning in writing my thesis and Burning Furiously Beautiful. Right before the semester ended my writer friend Allison–who is obsessed with Greece (a good thing considering all the Greek stories I shared in class)–and I went to check it out. Village Taverna was definitely worth the wait.
The food at Village Taverna is classic Greek taverna fare served up in a spacious, beautiful dining area with a casual vibe. The portions were generous–and delicious. I didn’t try the wine, but they have an impressive Greek wine list. Village Taverna has the best vegetarian gyro in New York–the grilled vegetables pita wrap. I want to go back and try their meze–tzatziki and veggie chips, namely–and vegetarian moussaka (it has artichokes in it!).
Who’s with me?!
Village Taverna is located at 81 University Place.
As thesis submission deadline approached, people began asking me what I was planning on doing after graduation. Then they’d stop themselves, afraid they may have asked too painful of a question. But it’s not!
In one of my last posts, I left off telling you about grabbing a cup of tea after turning my theses in. What I didn’t tell you was that on my walk back to my office, while sipping that delicious tea, I made a phone call to biographer Paul Maher Jr. Paul’s books are some of the most well respected in his categories, and they’ve been translated and sold around the globe.
Inspired by Laura Vanderkam’s List of 100 Dreams, I created my own a while back. Become a scholar on the Beat Generation was on my list. I’ve been studying the writers generally categorized as Beat for more than a decade now. I did my MFA at The New School, where Jack Kerouac took writing classes, and where I connected with writers who had known Jack Kerouac.
Now, my dream of becoming a Beat scholar is being realized. Paul and I are working on a book that tells the true story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The phone call to him on Monday was to discuss cover ideas.
I don’t have a big life-altering answer to the question of what I’m doing after the MFA. Paul and I have been working on this book for a while now, and since I won’t be simultaneously working on a thesis anymore I’ll simply be refocusing my creative energies into the book. It helps that I didn’t enter the program straight out of undergrad. I’d already been working in book publishing, a career many of my classmates are hoping to enter, and so graduation isn’t a big scary unknown for me. I’ll be continuing in my editorial role. For me, life after the MFA is about continuing to follow my passions while also seizing new opportunities.
I’m extremely excited to say that my post-MFA plan is to co-author a book on Jack Kerouac.
You already saw the picture from my reading, but here’s the story of completing my theses. Oh and what an adventure it was.
One of my best friends was getting married on the Sunday before my thesis was due (why don’t people plan their lives around my writing schedule?!) so I had to put the finishing touches on it, print it out, and get it professionally bound that Saturday. Well, let me tell you, finding a company that does vello binding is not as easy as it sounds even in New York City, where most things are at your fingertips. I was rushing around New York, being turned down by one place after the next. Finally, I found a FedEx in Chelsea that could do it, but they were so packed that they told me to drop off the manuscript and then they’d call me back once it had been printed on high-quality paper and bound. I don’t live in that area so of course that meant lots of time traveling back and forth on the subway. But the guy who helped me had the name of one of literature’s most fascinating characters and was so helpful, giving me special coupons for when the time comes to mail my manuscript off to publishers.
It felt kind of anticlimactic turning my thesis in on Monday. I ran down to the Writing Program’s office on my lunch break and thought the office would be abuzz with friends from my workshops. I only ran into one other person turning her thesis in at the same time as me. I was in and out pretty quickly, after indulging in a piece of delicious chocolate from the office’s basket as my reward.
Since I was in the area I decided to go to Argo Tea. One of the women from the writing program introduced the Chicago-founded company to me, and I’m officially obsessed with their Red Velvet Tea. It is insane how delicious that tea is.
That evening I saw a bunch of writers from my graduating class post that they had submitted their theses. It’s so exciting! There were so many great writers in the program, and I can’t wait to see their theses turned into books.