Me with Spaghetti Hair

I’ve been meaning to post this one for a while. A few months back, my friend Lia Ryerson sent this drawing of me out of the blue, and I just love it.

I’ve always, always been fascinated by illustrations and caricatures of real people—and it’s still on my half-existent NYC bucket list to get one done in Central Park one summer. In the meantime, Lia’s interpretation of my hair as spaghetti wrapped around a fork and a spoon is exactly what I needed.

This image is part of a series of “Anatomical Deviant” drawings Lia has done as an amuse bouche for her novel-in-progress, Bear Left, which is about a man named Nancy Critter who wakes up one morning to find that his two front teeth have grown overnight to reach below his chin. The drawing series includes me and my “pasghetti” hair, but also someone with a mushroom for a nose, someone with a boat for a mouth, and someone with camels for ears. Lia is an MFA creative writing student at The New School and is always up to something really cool, both in her life and in her writing. Keep an eye out!

New Year, New Banner

stephblog_400x400_v2

Credit: Brian Chin

Thanks to the talents of Madison Square Garden graphic designer and up-and-coming musician Brian Chin (who is also my good friend and former roommate), I now have a new banner for my website! He literally sent it to me yesterday, just in time for the beginning of 2017.

The new banner combines everything I love—the printed word, the handwritten word, sketches, and water color. If you look closely, you’ll see that Brian hand-drew the font and sketched not only books, but also a laptop, a spiral notebook, a coffee cup, and even a pencil. And that text in the background? Yeah it’s the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, one of my all-time favorite books.

You’ll also see a new image on the right side of this page that lets you sign up for my newsletter. As one of my goals in 2017, I’m going to start using MailChimp to update my subscribers whenever I have a new post on my site or any news to report (which means you’ll get an email maybe once a month, tops, since I’m pretty lazy). If you’re interested, please sign up for my mailing list by clicking that shiny new image! (Or just click here.)

And as is customary for a new year’s blog post, I suppose I should comment on 2016. I have a lot of friends who had the worst year of their lives. I have a lot of friends who had the best year of their lives. And I have a lot of friends who, despite their shock at what has become of the U.S. political scene, their sorrow over the loss of so many childhood heroes, and their horror at the many calamities happening around the world, still somehow managed to have a pretty good year both personally and professionally. This gives me hope that there’s always a spectrum, that a year can’t necessarily be summed up by one feeling or one event.

I was among those who had a pretty good year both personally and professionally. The biggest things, of course, involved getting back on the horse and saying “giddy up” to my writing productivity. I’m still working on sticking with good habits, but luckily I’m at the point where if I go for more than two weeks without doing any form of writing I start getting really uncomfortable and existential, and I start to berate myself. That’s healthy, right?

In summary, here is my 2016 year in review by the numbers:

  • 60 submissions to literary and mainstream magazines and contests, which resulted in:
  • 1 story told at a Moth StorySLAM
  • 9 books read (though since three were over 600 pages long, including George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, total pages read = 3,240)
  • 3 years with my boyfriend David
    • 1 move to a new apartment together
      • 5 rooms / 20 walls painted
  • 1 brother engaged  🙂
  • 1 political party changed (I am now officially a registered Democrat)
  • 8 vacations / new travel destinations
    • Palo Alto, California
    • Asheville, North Carolina
    • Chicago, Illinois
    • Richmond, Virginia
    • Chicago again
    • Camping in Staatsburg, New York
    • Dublin, Ireland
    • Boston, Massachusetts
  • 1 Harry Potter-themed LARP attended
  • 150 work out sessions (roughly 3 per week)
  • Countless (decaf) coffees drank
  • Countless moments of meditation and gratitude
  • Countless dreams to work toward in the new year

Happy New Year everyone!

What’s Your Biggest Regret?

Photo Credit: aplus.com

Photo Credit: A Plus

I want to share the below video with you—a video I found extremely touching and motivating.

In New York City, A Plus asked people to write their biggest regret on a chalkboard. Some of the regrets written were the type that couldn’t be changed—regrets like not spending time with a family member before they died. However, if you watch the video, you’ll see that so many of the answers were things that each person could have the chance to pursue or change now. Regrets like “not getting my MBA,” “not saying I love you,” and “not following my artistic passions,” can be reversed if you have enough motivation.

There have been a couple of studies done on deathbed regrets, and it’s striking how many people regret things they had the power to change when they were younger. The very regrets that the presumably young and healthy people in the video wrote on the chalkboard are the same types of regrets that people at the end of their lives share.

So what does this mean?

Well, it could mean that it’s just human nature to feel that way—to feel like we haven’t done enough even when we’ve tried our best. And while that’s definitely true, I also think that contemplating our regrets periodically can show us what we really need to make time for in our hectic 21st century lives.

And that brings me to 2016. What better time to focus on reversing our regrets than the onset of a new year?

I’ll share my biggest regret thus far: I regret not taking the opportunity to study abroad for a full semester while I was in college. I may not be able to change that one entirely, but I am going to try and make damn sure my next regret won’t ever be “not pursuing my writing and creative dreams.”

What’s your biggest regret?

Ten Quotes for 2015

Credit: Walker Art Center

Credit: Walker Art Center

Hi all! I know I haven’t gotten the chance to blog here in the last few months. It’s been quite a busy and crazy time for me, which I’m sure I’ll write about at some point. In the meantime, I really wanted to keep the tradition going where I lay out some quotes I want to live by in the new year.

Just as a recap, I began my New Year’s ritual last year. At the beginning of every year now, I plan to take a look at the quotes I have collected over the previous 12 months–not only to be reminded of the words that have touched me in the last year, but to also use these words as inspiration for my life in the new year.

Here are my ten favorite quotes I came across in 2014 that will serve as inspiration for my life in 2015:

1. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

2. “What makes night within us may leave stars.” – Victor Hugo

3. “Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.” – George R. R. Martin (from A Game of Thrones)

4. “I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes…you’re Doing Something.” – Neil Gaiman

5. “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” – Federico Fellini

6. “I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” – Louisa May Alcott

7. “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” – Douglas Adams

8. “You couldn’t relive your life, skipping the awful parts, without losing what made it worthwhile. You had to accept it as a whole–like the world, or the person you loved.” – Stewart O’Nan

9. “Solitude is certainly a fine thing; but there is pleasure in having someone who can answer, from time to time, that it is a fine thing.” – Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac

10. “Accept who you are. Unless you’re a serial killer.” – Ellen DeGeneres

Happy New Year!

Is it OK to Read YA?

Blog - Permission to Read YA 2

Credit: nwbooklovers.org

I hope it’s not too late to give my official reaction to the provocative “Against YA” article published in Slate a few weeks ago. It’s written by Ruth Graham and has a pretty offensive subtitle: “Read whatever you want, but you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.” Graham’s article not only shows her contempt for readers of YA, but also for readers of any type of fiction that she doesn’t consider “literary” (i.e. genre fiction).

In her article, Graham shuns “trash” like Divergent and Twilight from the get-go, and says she’s only interested in talking about realistic YA fiction. She says that when she read The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park, she couldn’t stop herself from rolling her eyes again and again in reaction to some of the narration and dialogue, and feels that when adults read YA, they are asked to “abandon the mature insights” they have gained over the years. But according to Graham, YA’s most unforgivable sin is its satisfying endings: “Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering.” She concludes that such endings are “emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.” Ultimately, though, Graham admits that there is space for  “pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader. And if people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose.”

My gut feeling is this article was published to drive traffic to Slate‘s website, much like Ann Coulter’s ridiculous article for The Clarion-Ledger on the moral decay of the U.S. as evidenced by soccer’s rising popularity. Putting that feeling aside though, I want to discuss Graham’s piece because it has many people thinking and talking about what they read and why they read, as well as whether we should regard all literature as equal. Almost every article I’ve seen in reaction to “Against YA,”—from Salon to The Atlantic to The Washington Post to Bookish, and more—lay out plenty of examples of great YA fiction and also state that YA can be just as complex, enriching, and eye-opening for adults as any work of great literature can be. Of course, I agree with those reactions, and feel strongly about them too. But I can see where Graham is coming from.

WAIT. Here’s why: I think her choice to pigeonhole YA was made in poor taste. Pigeonholing any genre as unsophisticated and cliché, especially one as broad as YA, is ridiculous. There’s always going to be exceptions and examples that counter such rigid classifications. I think the heart of Graham’s argument, though, is really about her disdain for bad writing, and her concern that people are forgetting what makes a story great and worth reading. But she’s using YA and genre fiction to explain her concerns, and that’s just not the way she should be looking at it.

For example, most of us hate murderers, but are there any populations made up entirely of murderers? Of course not. And like so, most of us hate shitty books, but are there any genres made up entirely of shitty books? No. Not YA, not Romance, not Western, not Mystery, not Science Fiction, not Fantasy, not Horror, not Erotica—not anything.

It seems that Graham suffers from literary pretentiousness and elitism—something that I’ve been struggling to overcome for a few years now. I’ll say it: I’m a recovering literary snob. It started in freshman year of college, when I declared my major in English literature and creative writing. At first, I was just reading a few classics, like Hamlet and The Odyssey. But then I started getting in deep with authors like Virginia Woolf, John Keats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, and others. I started to think that authors writing outside of the “literary” genre could never be as great as literary authors (romance got the worst of my bullying). At one point, I might have even agreed that adults shouldn’t be reading YA.

Stuck in my world of pretentiousness, I almost forgot that I was mesmerized by ghost and horror stories as a kid, that I grew up with Harry Potter, that reading the YA book Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging inspired me to keep a brutally honest journal, that Stephen King always fascinated me, and that I rented the animated versions of The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis, from the Pathmark video section religiously. I’ve always gravitated toward genres like fantasy, horror, and YA, and I almost lost those interests when I descended into literary snobbery. I think that’s where Graham is right now—she’s still hooked on books packaged with the “Fiction – Literary” BISAC, and thinks nothing else is worth her time.

As I mentioned above, this argument is really about what makes a story good, and what kinds of books adults should be taking the time to read. First of all, anyone can and should read whatever they want. But if we’re talking about the best of the best, I do agree that great literature incorporates the literary sensibility.

I’m just going to take a moment here to define what I mean by literary: There’s a difference between the “literary genre” and the “literary sensibility.” The literary genre is made up of adult books that are usually set in the real world and emphasize character and language over plot. The literary sensibility, on the other hand, is the way in which a story is written. Stories written with a literary sensibility share some similarities with the literary genre (for example, the careful crafting of character and language), but literary sensibility is not limited to any one type of story. For a while, in my snooty little corner, I thought the literary sensibility was an exclusive component of straight up literary fiction, but that’s just not how it is in the real world.

Here’s what I think describes a story written with the literary sensibility:

  • It avoids clichés, flat protagonists, and formulaic plots.
  • The language is crafted, consistent, and engaging.
  • It’s character driven. The main character(s) undergo some kind of change—they’re not just observing their world, but also are taking action, and it’s affecting them.
  • It’s honest. It illustrates the human condition and embraces the complexity, uncertainty, and unpredictability that characterize real life. (This can be evident in the plot, in the characters themselves, or both).
  • It’s about more than itself. It makes a statement, even a subtle one.

Again, the above elements can be incorporated into any type of story—realistic stories, detective stories, memoirs, nonfiction, fantasy, science fiction, horror stories, mystery and romance, and of course, YA. It might be true that some genres have fewer examples of stories written with the literary sensibility, but great stories in those genres do exist, and adults read them.

It seems like Graham, and other people caught in the snobbery cycle, still have some growing up to do. Part of being a mature adult is understanding that just because you don’t like something or don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s bad or stupid or beneath you. Real adults are open-minded, understanding, and empathetic. They can see things from another perspective, and they care about equality and diversity in their literature.

Real adults aren’t against YA.

 

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