How to be, as a writer

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is part of my reading books about writing, even though it’s not a book about craft. It’s more about how to live as a writer, finding the time to write and read in every nook and cranny of your day, how to live passionately for the things you believe in, and possibly how to incorporate those things into your writing. And how writing can be therapy and how therapy sometimes needs to happen before you can write about what you most need to.

The thing from this book that I can’t get out my head is an image of him writing on the subway, on the way to his cater-waiter job that paid for his life for so long. It’s not about having the perfect space to write, it’s about doing the writing wherever and however you can.

I’m going to be thinking about How to Write an Autobiographical Novel for a long time to come.

Nothing gets written without actually writing

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve got an idea for a story, maybe even a book-length story. It wasn’t going anywhere, so I checked out a bunch of how-to-write books out of the library. Bird by Bird is one of the original.

I didn’t learn specific methods, not really. A couple of good tips, like start somewhere, take it step by step (the origin of the bird by bird title), and the shitty first draft, sure. But my main takeaways from Bird by Bird were: nothing gets written without actually sitting down and writing, and, a writer needs to get out in the world.

Sitting down and writing means prioritizing writing, which is something I’m not necessarily good at. I’m a working mom, so there’s always something else that needs doing. (The current state of my desk is not pretty.) I have tried writing on my phone, using the cloud to store the document, a thing I know works for some people. It’s not for me. To get this story written, I’m going to need to spend more time with my butt in my chair, typing away.

The opposite, though, is also true. Writing is lonely, just you at your computer. And you need to know things for your books, specific details like what’s the name of that street, what did it feel like when you and your first significant other broke up, what the wire thing on the top of the champagne bottle is called. So when the loneliness gets to be too much, make a phone call. Have coffee with a friend. Do some research. You, as a writer, also need to get out in the world. Go into the world.

Bird by Bird didn’t necessarily give me a new way to tackle my story, not in the same way that Story Genius did. But it did remind me that writing doesn’t magically happen, and in the writing, don’t forget to live.

Reading about writing

I have started writing a number of books. Usually, I run out of steam while writing them, finding I don’t care as much about the idea as I thought I did. This last time, though, I care about this story and it’s not working. It’s not a matter of getting through the shitty first draft. Something in the story isn’t working, and I have faith in the idea. I wasn’t sure what it was, though. What was worse was that I didn’t know what to do other than start over. And then start over again.

So when Jasmine Guillory’s newsletter from a few weeks ago, titled “Secrets from the Deadline Cave,” came out, I put every single book about writing that she recommended on hold at the library. Story Genius was the one that came in first.

There’s a lot in the Story Genius about cognitive psychology and why we like reading, which is like catnip to me. But the real effective part of the book is the: now to satisfy this trait of the human mind, go do this thing about your story. The assignments range from “write three specific scenes from your characters childhood that affect who he/she is at the beginning of the story” to “look at your basic story structure and figure out where every single place of conflict could exist and put it in there.”

My story idea has new life, and I’m probably going to end up buying this book so I can keep it around to help keep me going. Is it this specific method? I don’t know. What I do know is that the method in Story Genius has given me a new angle to work on my particular idea. So yes, I’m recommending it.

Finally calling time on a book

I have been reading Alexander Hamilton since 2016 – three years ago. That’s when I added it to Goodreads, anyway. It was more than an idea in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s head, but not the full-on sensation it’s since become.

Hamilton first showed up in Chernow’s biography of George Washington, and Chernow was clearly taken with him. I wanted a follow-up biography about him after I read that one, so I was glad to discover that it had already been written.

So have I finished Alexander Hamilton? Sadly, no. It’s been pushed aside by other books in my to-read pile (I usually have more than one going at a time) and it’s been long enough that I’m finally calling time on it. I may go back to it some day, after all, it’s not like the book is bad. It just got overwhelmed by other things.

I would definitely recommend it if you see the musical and want to know more.

Making gluten-free bread

I do quite sincerely love bread. Not being able to eat truly good bread is one of the things I most dislike about being gluten-free. Though, truth be told, truly amazing bread is pretty hard to find. Good gluten-free bread is even harder to find. I usually just substitute corn tortillas, though they don’t work as a bread substitute for everything. Particularly peanut butter. Peanut butter on a corn tortilla is not good.

I did find a decent (not great, but good enough) gluten-free bread recipe awhile ago, and decided to make a batch yesterday. It’s fairly dense, so a little goes a long way, and the rising always seems to go wider than taller, but it’s a proper bread, especially for sandwiches.

Rustic Bread from the How Can it be Gluten-Free vol 2 cookbook

Starter
4oz oat flour
8oz warm (110F) water
1T sugar
1t yeast

Mix all together and let sit for 30 minutes. Turn oven on and let heat to 200F, turn off. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, and set it inside another baking sheet.

Dough
12oz ATK gluten-free flour mix
5T powdered psyllium husk
1T yeast
1T sugar
1.5t salt
9oz warm (110F) water
2 eggs
1T cider vinegar

Using a stand mixer (paddle attachment), mix all dry ingredients together on low speed. Slowly add remaining ingredients and starter. Mix until dough is sticky and uniform.

Divide dough into 2 equal pieces. Shape each on clean counter into 8″ rope, taking care to not taper ends. Transfer loaves to prepared sheet, 4″ apart.

Cover loosely with plastic wrap and put into warm oven for 10 minutes. Remove, and let rise until double, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, heat oven. to 350F.

Remove plastic wrap and make 3 diagonal slashes in each loaf. Spray with water. Bake for 90 minutes, rotating pan halfway through cooking.

Let cool on wire rack for ~3 hours, until completely cool. Serve. Can be stored in plastic for 3 days at room temp or 1 month in the freezer.

Grace Coddington seems like a fun person

A very sun-faded copy. I’m pretty sure the cover should be a uniform shade of orange.

Grace is, as advertised, Grace Coddington’s memoir. She is a hoot, and this is a fun story of a person who loves clothes and fashion and art practicing her craft throughout the mid- to late- twentieth century. She certainly sounds like a lively person to be around and being in the fashion world during that time seems like a hoot.

Unfortunately, I only got through about half of this book because, while she seems like a great person who is full of enthusiasm, the story got a bit repetitive (she’s in London! no Paris! now London again!) and it was more name-droppy than I would have liked. Don’t get me wrong, she’s just talking about her friends, but a little bit less of making sure we know she knows these people and more about fashion in the 1960s and beyond would have been better. It was eventually tiresome.

Roast a chicken

I am not going to write an essay about how easy it is to roast a chicken (very) or how anyone (even you!) can do it because Michael Ruhlman said it much better than I ever could. I will say that roast chicken hits a spot in my heart that I don’t understand – eating roast chicken feels like coming home.

My recipe is slightly fussier than Ruhlman’s, but either is fine. It’s hard to screw up a chicken. I tossed a couple of potatoes in the oven whilst the chicken cooked, and we had baked potatoes as a side dish. Delicious!

Roast Chicken

Start heating oven to 425F. Melt 2T butter. Put rinsed-off chicken in roasting pan with a V-shaped basket. Use a brush to rub the butter all over the chicken. Sprinkle chicken liberally with salt & pepper. Position chicken with one wing side up. Put chicken in oven when it’s finished warming up. After 20 minutes, flip the chicken over to its other wing. After a second 20 minutes, flip the bird breast side up. Put a meat thermometer in the breast and cook until it hits 160F, about another 20 minutes depending on how big the bird is. Remove from oven, let rest for 15 minutes. Carve and eat.

A moment in time captured

I love Paris to the Moon, I loved it the first time I read it in the early 2000s. It captures a particular moment in Paris, one that I suspect is no longer relevant. For example, it is true that in the late 1990s bistro food was not good. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. And for a place where many, many people had written home about the food? That wasn’t good. Now, I suspect, the daily food scene is better.

I re-read the essays this time, surprised at how much I remembered from a book I haven’t read in probably a decade. In no particular order: the caramelized tomatoes, how watching too much soccer makes it impossible to find the puck in a hockey game, the way you choose the place where you will give birth in a different country – re-reading these essays was like visiting an old friend.

Mostly, I love the overall vibe that he shows Paris having, not an overly romantic or easy one, but one of enjoying a life well-lived. A life where care is taken over the details like food or the park, and the way philosophy can invade the most basic of questions.

If you’re looking for a set of essays that show Paris as a place where you can actually live rather than as a romantic image of itself? Paris to the Moon is your book.

Sometimes more is just more

I was trying to describe the plot of Gingerbread to a friend last night, failed completely, and ended with, “it’s good, but it’s weird.”

Helen Oyeyemi writes modern books that take fairy tales as their starting point, but then go off in entirely their own direction. This one has a bit of the Gingerbread Man (“can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!”) and Hansel and Gretel. The character who is literally named Gretel is supposed to be The Gingerbread Man. It’s also full of magic: there’s a magical land and talking dolls, but also social media, FaceTime, over involved PTAs, and modern London.

The actual gist of the story is: Harriet and her daughter Perdita live in London. They’re basically outcasts from their worlds, and people find it hard to remember them. It’s unclear how much they actually want to fit in. Perdita goes off on her own one day, and comes back in a coma. That’s the first third of the book. The second third of the book is Perdita waking up and Harriet describing her own life back in the magical land that she comes from and how she escaped and came to London to Perdita and the talking dolls. The last third is all of the fallout from that.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Maybe too much.

I enjoyed Boy, Snow, Bird enough to keep going on Gingerbread when it started dragging a bit about 75% of the way through, but I’m not sure I would read this as my first Helen Oyeyemi novel.

Recommended, but with reservations.

Thai Rice Soup, aka Khao Tom

We’ve made Thai Rice Soup a couple of times now. It’s a good soup that doesn’t take a super-long time. I’m not sure I’d recommend it for a weeknight, but maybe a weeknight if you have a little extra time. It’s spicy but not too much so.

8oz ground pork
3T fish sauce
2T chili-garlic sauce
salt & ground pepper
3T lard or coconut oil (Do NOT substitute vegetable oil. The soup quality will suffer. I used bacon grease and it was fine.)
5 large shallots, thinly sliced
8 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 lemon grass stalks, trimmed to 6″, smashed
2T finely grated ginger
2.5qt low-sodium chicken stock
4c cooked jasmine rice
1c chopped cilantro
3T lime juice, plus wedges for serving

  1. Mix pork, 1T fish sauce, 1T chili-garlic sauce, 0.75t pepper. Mix and form into 20 meatballs (approx 2t each). Place on a large plate and refrigerate.
  2. Heat dutch oven over medium-high heat with lard until shimmering. Add shallots and 0.5t of salt, stirring until browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in ginger and lemon grass and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add broth, bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer for 15 minutes.
  3. Remove and discard lemon grass. Add meatballs, stir gently until cooked, about 5 minutes. Stir in the rice. Remove from heat and add 2T fish sauce, 1T chili-garlic sauce, 1t pepper, cilantro, and lime juice. Ladle into bowls and serve with lime wedges.

Once again, this is from Milk Street’s Tuesday Nights cookbook. It’s still a recommended purchase.