It’s possible I just kinda sorta met my soulmate. My Nora Ephron soulmate, that is.
I don’t remember exactly when Amazon alerted me to Linda Yellin’s What Nora Knew (other than it was earlier this year), but I had downloaded a sample on my Kindle and figured I would get to it at some point during my Year With Nora Ephron.
I got to it this past weekend. Especially after I saw it on sale for a buck-99.
Here's the product description:
Molly Hallberg is a thirty-nine-year-old divorced writer living in New York City who wants her own column, a Wikipedia entry, and to never end up in her family’s Long Island upholstery business. For the past four years Molly’s been on staff for an online magazine, covering all the wacky assignments. She’s snuck vibrators through security scanners, speed-dated undercover, danced with Rockettes, and posed nude for a Soho art studio.
Yellin knew her audience—I could have sworn she’d written it for me personally. In fact, I found myself wishing I had written it. And any book that has me wishing I’d written it is what makes writing such a challenge and reading so pleasurable. (That’s not the only criteria, but it certainly makes things interesting.) It wasn’t simply the subject matter—although let’s face it: I might not have picked up the book in the first place, much less noticed it—but the writing itself. Molly had a distinct voice. The story hit all its pulse points. And it was smart. Amusing. Romantic. Yellin captured the New York and Hamptons scene I had failed to capture in Faking It. She captured the wittiness I love. And there were little Nora Ephron Easter Eggs hidden all over the place.
Even if I had tried to write that book, I wouldn’t have succeeded. But it at least makes me want to try. Not to write that book, but one that Linda Yellin would like.
I couldn’t find much about Yellin other than her website—she doesn’t seem to have a social media presence—but her previous two books are now on my reading list. And if anyone reading this happens to know her, tell her I’d like to meet her on the observation deck of the Empire State Building sometime. Preferably in October. I just love New York in the fall.
Here’s one of the best things about having written and published Friends of Mine: I’ve met a lot of cool people.
Some I have yet to meet in person, but that’s just a formality. I know them. They’re my friends.
I confess I don’t remember how or when I first heard about Morgan Richter. Her Duran Duran comics began showing up in my Twitter feed months ago, re-tweeted by fellow Duranies. When I saw them, and its author, I thought, Hmmmmm, that name rings a bell… I didn’t make the connection, but anyone who turns classic Duran Duran videos into comics is OK with me.
Turns out she's a writer. And then I found out she wrote a new book about Duran Duran. Specifically, a collection of essays aptly titled Duranalysis.
Not gonna lie: she had me at the cover.
A vinyl record with a label that could pass for a Duran Duran design—simple, yet stylish—I had high expectations. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Richter opens the collection very candidly. In some ways, we share some qualities—coming to Duran Duran slightly later than some of the original Duranies (and confusing John Taylor for Nick Rhodes at the onset), growing up without MTV during their glory days—despite living on opposite sides of the country and in vastly different settings. I easily relate to her as a storyteller, however. And her essays do just that. As she deconstructs the key Duran Duran videos, from “Planet Earth” to “Girl Panic,” she chronicles not only the journey of a band, but also the journey of a fan. We are right back in our living rooms with our fellow Duranies (the ones who had MTV), staying up late, poring over pinups, planning our weddings to the Duran of our affection. We mark the milestones. We once again reconnect to the glamour, the fashion, the neon, the desperate hope and anticipation of them coming to our town.
And the music. Always, it begins and ends with the music.
Better yet, she does it all with a humorous approach, not taking any aspect of Duran Duran—the videos, the albums, the pandemonium—too seriously. She equally distributes compliments and criticism without being syrupy nor scathing. And yet, one can't help but be touched at times. Morgan finesses the fine line with stylistic precision that makes me wish I'd written this book. Her essays are intelligent as much as they are informative and entertaining.
In short, this is a book for Duranies—the diehards, who know these videos with their eyes closed; as well as the new generation, who are only now discovering them, either thanks to their parents or aunts and uncles or YouTube and iTunes and Coachella or Lollapalooza. But it’s also a book for those who dig fantasy, who dig pop culture, who dig music and 80s nostalgia and geekdom. It’s a book for people who love stories.
Count me in.
When she was five years old, Nora Ephron’s parents relocated to Beverly Hills from New York City. “The sunlight dapples through the trees, and happy laughing blond children surround me,” she writes. “All I can think is, What am I doing here?”
I always wanted to live in Nora Ephron’s New York. Not only the New York we saw in movies, with brownstones and autumn trees, but also the one with homey neighborhoods and specialty food shops and a new place to go every day.
Growing up, I never saw the city that way—and that’s what we Long Islanders called it: the city. New York City was a scary place. It was full of cold skyscrapers and high crime and pickpockets and honking horns everywhere you turned. Even when I was a teenager and was old enough to take the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station with my friends, whereas they relished the freedom and appreciated the city’s greatness, I looked over my shoulder at every turn and was afraid to walk anywhere there wasn’t a crowd.
As an adult, I have way more appreciation for Manhattan. When my husband and I are on Long Island for a visit, we try to reserve at least one day to take the train into Penn, and plan what we want to see that day. We’re OK with doing the more touristy things—the New York Public Library, Madison Square Garden, Rockefeller Center, a hot pretzel stand—but by the end of the day, we’re more than ready to be back on the train, heading east, toward less noise and more green. We’re OK with returning to suburbia, chain grocery stores and gas stations and movie theaters. We’re OK with driving everywhere we want to go.
And yet, I still envy Nora’s New York. More to the point, I still wish I’d wanted to live in Manhattan. I wish I was the type to do city living regardless of the city. Moreover, I wish I knew, at five years old, where I belonged. At five years old, I didn’t have the cognizance to call Long Island the place where I was meant to be, or to identify any other place as such. Wherever I lived, be it in Massachusetts or North Carolina or Montana, I still identified myself as the transplanted Long Islander. But even for the year I moved back to Long Island, as happy as I was to finally have the Empire State license plates on my car, I still didn’t know where, exactly, on the Island I belonged. I didn’t know which town was mine (certainly not the one I resided in), if I was supposed to buy or rent, live on the East End or just visit on a regular basis.
I couldn’t find a community.
Montana still baffles me. Anyone who knows both my sister and me would think the universe mixed us up and sent the wrong sister westward. (She lives close to the water. See what I mean?) That’s not to say I’m miserable—on the contrary, I was immediately welcomed and embraced by the very community that was MIA in the northeast. We live in a suburban neighborhood complete with sidewalks and kids riding bikes and walking dogs and two-car garages. We live near a Target. We spend time in the heart of downtown Billings. On a clear day we have a lovely view of the Beartooth Mountains on the way to downtown. We’re ten minutes from the airport, a luxury you can’t get on Long Island even if you lived right next door to LaGuardia or JFK.
It’s a far cry from Nora’s New York, however. And once in awhile, even when I am at my happiest, holding hands with my husband after visiting with our closest friends and/or eating at one of our favorite restaurants, I still find myself wondering, What am I doing here?
I just want to know where I truly belong.
One look at my husband and the answer is clear.
I was doing great.
Portion control. Like, real, honest-to-god, proper portion sizes. Satisfying.
Points. I was a Weight Watchers point-tracking fiend. It’s fun when you want to do it.
Activity. I dusted off the treadmill. Found I liked reading inspirational stuff on my Kindle even more than listening to my 80s tunes. Shoveled snow. Cleaned.
This was more than a New Year’s resolution. I was ready. Committed. My husband was on board with his own commitment. We cheered each other on.
I was down eight pounds by the end of February. Twenty-two to go.
And then it happened.
My husband and I went on a date. Dined at a steak-&-grill downtown. Chose our dishes wisely. Watched our portions.
And then I said it: “I want dessert.”
I love dessert. I have loved it all my life. It’s like the metaphorical cigarette you smoke after sex. Or it’s the sex itself. I can never eat dessert before dinner. Dessert is like Christmas; it’s something to look forward to.
My desserts had been consisting of one Dove chocolate per night. Two if I had some flex points to spare. And I was content with that. Most of the time, a bite would suffice.
But that date night, something in me was clamoring for more than just a bite. That ol’ fear of depravity reared its head. At least I think that’s what it was. Or maybe I just plain wanted the dessert.
I ordered this brownie-cookie concoction. You know, with the ice cream and the sauce. It was delicious. Gooey and smooth and chewy. Sweet. Decadent. Everything a dessert should be. I didn’t finish it (I’d been getting full faster). But I sure did enjoy every bite, and I made sure to put down my fork for good before crossing the line from enjoyment to shame.
And that’s when the tracking stopped. And the weighing in. And the portion control. Two Doves per night. Three. And two after lunch. Somewhere after that dessert it stopped being about pleasure and started being about defiance. My commitment was shattered because I was back to the dilemma of balancing the need to be healthy with the need to eat pleasurably. I can’t seem to find the happy middle ground.
And not to blame this all on Nora Ephron, but she hasn’t helped.
No. Scratch that. She's helped quite a bit.
What I mean is that Nora Ephron loved food. She loved writing about it, she loved cooking it, and she loved eating it. She urged people not to wait to eat their last meal, because they may not get to eat it as their last meal when the time comes.
I envy her for that. I envy the relationship she had with food. So healthy—her mentality, I mean. Her emotional connection. There was no codependence. Just a mutual romantic love. And her body size reflected it. I don’t know if she ever had insecurities where her body was concerned (it’s rare to find a woman who doesn’t, and I don’t say that as a criticism but as a sad social reality), or what her eating habits were in terms of how much she consumed. I don’t know if metabolism played a role. My guess is that it didn’t matter. She loved food. Food loved her. It was a good relationship.
I want the same. And forgive me for resorting to the cliché here, but I want to have my cake and eat it too. (I love cake. Especially for breakfast.)
For the most part, I eat foods that are pleasing to me—who doesn’t? (I’m a picky eater, so I’m kind of limited—that’s another blog post for another day.) But some days I feel like I’ve chosen them out of obligation rather than true pleasure.
I wonder: What if I were to make a list of foods that make me truly, intrinsically happy—like chocolate cake for breakfast, for example—and do a 30-day experiment, eating them only and nothing out of obligation? And I’m not talking all-you-can-eat gorging. I’m talking about joy. I’m talking about mindfulness. I’m talking about allowance. I’m talking about listening to my body and heart and soul and silencing the scale and the points and the self-critics.
Heck, forget about the thirty days. What if I just made it the norm? What if I treated every meal as if it were my last?
Is something like that doable? Is it realistic? Is it selfish?
What do you think?
Recipe: Chocolate Cupcakes for Two*
*This is not my recipe. But I can't remember where I got it (just tried Googling it and none of the links look familiar). Thus, my apologies to the person who deserves the credit. Nevertheless, it's one of my favorites for a no-leftovers dessert. (Photo courtesy of Sprinkled with Jules, which has a recipe too.)
Chocolate Cupcakes for Two
Measurement Tip: Note that 1/16 teaspoon is about 1 pinch.
To date, in addition to reading Heartburn as well as the scripts for Lucky Guy and When Harry Met Sally, I have read four of Nora Ephron’s collections of articles, including those from Esquire and Cosmopolitan, as well as more recent personal essays and blogposts, many of which are featured in the anthology, The Most of Nora Ephron. The more I read, the more I wish I had known her—or, at the very least, met her.
I believe in the late Donald Murray’s theory that all writing is autobiographical in that “as we read someone else’s story, we read our own.” For example, this past weekend my husband and I went to see a local production of Love, Loss, and What I Wore, the play co-written by Nora and her sister Delia Ephron (Billings folk: go see it!). So many times I was transported into my own reservoir of memories, recalling a particular outfit or article of clothing that somehow defined me or captured a moment in time, be it my first Duran Duran concert jersey or the shoes I wore for my wedding. The point is, when my husband and I left, we wound up telling each other our own stories in addition to recalling the stories of the play.
As I continue to read Nora’s work (I feel weird calling her by her first name, as if we’re casual acquaintances, but referring to her by her last name seems too academic, “Ms. Ephron” seems too out of reach, and repeatedly combining her first and last name seems too tiring), I keep reflecting not only what I’ve learned about her life, but my own. I try to draw parallels where there are none. In the way she wanted to be Dorothy Parker, I find myself wanting to be her. Sort of.
Nevertheless, here are five things you may not have known about Nora or me, in no particular order.
1. Before she graduated from Wellesley College, Nora Ephron was an intern for the White House during the Kennedy Administration. She gave herself the distinction of being “the only intern Kennedy didn’t make a pass at.” Even for all we know about JFK’s philandering ways, he still remains something of a folklore hero in American history. Even if she was no more than a punctuation mark in that lore, I still find it a remarkable detail of her life.
I, on the other hand, was a Girl Friday (does anyone still use that term?) in the Human Resources office at UMass Dartmouth for my work study job, where no one made a pass at me, either. I learned quite a bit from that position, including that contrary to its name, most Human Resources departments are neither resourceful nor human. The paperwork one had to fill out for—well, anything—required a set of cognitive and motor skills all of its own. Also, secretaries are the eyes and ears of the university. The best part of my job was when I had to deliver paperwork to the various university departments and getting to know the secretarial staff in each. Whenever an issue came up in my student life, before I reached out to department chairpersons or deans, I talked to the secretaries first and got way farther, faster.
2. Nora was married to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, first made famous for uncovering Watergate (the presidential scandal that has spawned an atrocious trend of attaching “-gate” at the end of every political or personal scandal since), and then infamous when she fictionalized his adultery and the end of their marriage in her novel Heartburn.
I met Carl Bernstein in 1997 when he was a guest speaker at UMass Dartmouth. I remember two things: asking a question (I don’t remember what I asked, but it prompted a news channel to interview me), and attempting to ask a second question and him saying that someone else should have a chance. That sounds more off-putting than it actually was, and he was perfectly cordial when I was introduced to him after the event. Better yet, I wasn't that idiot who asked him who Deep Throat was (this was when the secret was still intact, for the most part)—someone else willingly stepped in.
Also, I hadn’t yet read Heartburn.
3. Both Nora and I attended colleges in Massachusetts, although both the institutions and the time periods couldn’t be more different. Nora had attended Wellesley College in the early sixties, when the women’s movement hadn’t really quite happened yet. In the commencement address she delivered in 1996, she tells a story about a dean who had encouraged her to take a year off to get married and have children following graduation—the exact opposite of her intentions. She later discovered that this same dean had told a student with ambitions of being a wife and mother to take a year off and work first. "And so I saw that what Wellesley wanted was for us to avoid the extremes,” she said.
What fascinated me more was the contrast to the account of her experience when she wrote about her reunion in 1972. The latter seemed much more critical, as if Wellesley had somehow missed the point of what it was they were supposed to do. Or was it the students that had missed the point?
I had the luxury of attending a university in a post-women’s movement world (also, the school was co-ed). No one at UMass Dartmouth cautioned me against extremes, but neither did they steer me toward what fulfilled me intrinsically. And it wasn’t that they didn’t care. More like by then the choices for women were there for the taking. The main concern was to choose one that was most practical. “Work,” was the number one piece of advice I got. “Just get out there and get some experience. It doesn’t really matter in what.” Thing is, I’d worked for five years before I matriculated. In fact, the skills and ethic I’d developed in the workplace helped me excel as a student (to the point that I later made the unpopular argument that 90% of young adults should go into the workplace rather than college straight out of high school). I was 29 years old and ready to do something more than just “get experience” and collect a paycheck.
What I really took away from my undergraduate education was this one-sentence-summation of psychology from my professor, Dr. Conboy: “People do what feels good.” It’s the intention behind every character I write now.
(Also, Wellesley College has the honor of being voted one of the most beautiful campuses in the country, while UMass Dartmouth has been voted one of the ugliest. I have a soft spot for it, however.)
4. Both Nora and I married former journalists. Her second marriage didn’t last. Her third, however, did. Granted, I’m only six months into mine, but I feel pretty damn good about our chances.
5. Nora had a house in Bridgehampton, on the East End of Long Island. My mom lives in the next town over. And while my mom did run into Alan Alda once (literally, with her shopping cart at the King Kullen, by accident), and ushered Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick to their seats at a Bay Street Theater production, she never encountered Nora Ephron. How I wish one of us had. Although I would have been terrified to invite her over for lunch.
Last night during the Craft of Storytelling class I am teaching, the subject of writing memoirs came up. I spoke a little about my experience regarding the memoir about my thirty-year fandom of the pop band Duran Duran, and it inspired me to share more about both the experience as well as tips for writing a memoir.
1. The same rule applies to writing a memoir as to writing a novel: Tell a good story. And use the same elements to do so: sensory description, engaging “characters,” dialogue, conflict, and the moment(s) of revelation.
2. Know your audience. For me, this is a more conscious (and constant) task when writing nonfiction. Whereas in a novel the bond occurs between readers and characters, in memoir the bond is between readers and the writer. Thus, as the memoirist you must connect with readers and know something specific about them at the outset.
The obvious audience for Friends of Mine was Duran Duran fans, but I also wanted to attract readers who felt equal adoration for their favorite band or artist, be it The Beatles or Beyoncé, and perhaps even recruit new Duran Duran fans. I knew my audience would relate to certain aspects of my story—collecting posters and watching music videos during the 80s, for example—but I was less prepared for the connection to the more personal aspects. I continue to receive beautiful letters from people who were touched by the book.
3. A memoir is almost never about what you think it’s going to be about. Memoir and autobiography overlap in that you’re writing about your life. However, a memoir focuses on specific events rather than a chronology. You can write about one particular event, or you can write about several throughout your life. But you’ll find patterns and threads that connect each event. It could be a theme, a lesson learned, a person, or all of the above.
My original plan was to write about being a Duran Duran fan in the 1980s. The more I wrote, however, the more I realized the memoir was about so much more than my “relationship” with the band. It was also about long-term relationships with family, friends, music, and writing, and the roles they played in how and why I loved the band. Everything connected to one thread: Duran Duran’s role in my life.
4. Writing a memoir is like undressing in front of an audience, and pulling other people’s pants down. I love this popular Anne Lamott quote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But doing that sometimes comes at a cost. The stories I told involved other people—some were favorable, and others were not. Some were downright painful. I had to be considerate of them, especially my family and close friends who were being featured. But I also had to serve the truth of the story. I couldn’t sacrifice that in attempt to spare someone’s feelings.
I changed several names and asked others for permission to use their real names. I sent my family and close friends the manuscript before I published it. Although I didn’t guarantee I would remove something they objected to, I promised to listen to and consider their concerns.
If you’re casting someone in a bad light just to be vindictive, or telling a story simply for shock value, then I think you need to re-evaluate your priorities and consider your integrity.
And once it’s out there, it’s out there. If you’re revealing something personal, then you must accept the consequences. Some may thank you for it. Some may judge you. Others may even stop speaking to you.
5. There’s a fine line between “filling in the details” and outright making things up. Memories become foggy over time. I want to tell the truth about the event or experience with as much detail and clarity as possible, but what if some of the details are foggy?
Taking creative license with something like clothing is OK. For example, if I’m writing about falling off my bicycle when I was eight years old, I might have described my outfit as a Shaun Cassidy T-shirt and hand-me-down jeans, because that was typical of my wardrobe. However, if I made up a detail such as going to the hospital following the bicycle fall when in reality I had the wind knocked out of me, then my memoir loses authenticity and my credibility as a writer suffers. Above all, the account needs to be authentic.
6. Photos amplify and enhance the story. I read several memoirs before writing my own and found that the photographs accompanying the text added an emotional layer to the reading experience. I’ve never needed this for fiction. When written well, a novel invites you into its world and you’re able to fully immerse yourself using your imagination. But perhaps because a memoir involves real people, seeing photographs from the time being written about strengthens the bond between writer and reader.
Most of my success as a novelist comes from e-book sales. However, I promote the print version more than the e-book version of Friends of Mine because the paperback contains many more photographs than the e-book (due to digital file size constraints). I also love the book’s cover design—the doodles are all from my actual junior high school notebook—and physically holding that portable piece of art.
7. Be prepared to live with your subject for a long time. A memoir might not always be about you. It might be about someone close to you, like a grandparent or a teacher. Regardless, your subject will likely conjure many memories and emotions. For however long your memoir takes to write, revise, edit, and publish, your subject, people, and feelings will be with you. Will you be able to handle that?
I was afraid I’d be sick of Duran Duran after spending a year working on Friends of Mine. The opposite happened: I fell in love all over again, and I made some wonderful new friends as a result.
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Funny how an intention acts like a magnet. This past Thursday, the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Billings showed Jacob Bernstein’s documentary Everything is Copy about his mother, Nora Ephron. The showing coincided with the play opening this week, Love, Loss, and What I Wore, co-written by Nora and her sister, Delia Ephron, based on the book by Ilene Beckerman (both the script and the book are on my TBR list). I had just finished reading I Remember Nothing the night before, adding it to the growing Finished list of Ephron writings I’d committed to reading this year.
The audience was cozy—three women (in addition to myself), one of whom was starring in the play; and two men, one being my husband, the other being one of Billings’s best actors and directors. Of these five attendees, I was likely the only person to have seen the film multiple times, although not recently. My husband had watched it the first time with me. And yet, I was as riveted as I was the first time, reveling in my co-viewers’ reactions while immersing myself in the images of the woman, interviews with those who knew her best, and excerpts from the writing I’ve been so intimate with these last three months. Writing, like its author, that I respect and admire and sometimes even envy. The more I read, the more I miss her.
Bernstein reveals his purpose right away—if his mother lived by this mantra “Everything is copy,” and made a career out of re-purposing the stories of her life, making them both funny and so matter-of-fact, then why did she not tell anyone about her illness?
I’ll not divulge the answer—you should see the film and decide if those who posited their theories were right—but it leaves me wondering about my own penchant for “everything is copy.” Is this the reason I’ve been so drawn to Ephron’s work all these years, because I followed this philosophy even before I was conscious of it? What have I chosen to keep private, and why? Is privacy extinct now, a myth?
The documentary ended to sniffles and tissues dabbing eyes as the lights came on. Even my husband was misty. We all chit-chatted for a bit afterwards. When I was introduced to the women (by our friend, the actor) as a novelist, one of the women asked what kind of novels I write. Not quite ready to put words together, I pointed to the screen. “Well, what we just saw,” I said. They seemed impressed.
My thoughts now seeming to catch up, I quickly corrected my mistake: “What I mean is, that’s what I’m trying to do. I keep falling short.”
The sadness stayed with me as my husband and I walked hand in hand to the car. I’ve been privileged to have many of those whose talent I admire and who have left a lasting impression on me--Aaron Sorkin, Patrick McDonnell, Duran Duran—but I will never get to meet Nora Ephron. I don’t know what I would have said to her had I had the chance—there’s a slight relief there. But I find myself wanting to somehow please her. I want to produce the same kind of material using the same subject matter, and yet somehow still manage to be authentic. I want people to read my work and say, "If you like Nora Ephron, you'll like Elisa Lorello." It’s not so much that I want to write exactly like her, but I want to write something that would have made her take notice. That would have made her want to make a movie about it. That would have made her invite me over for lunch, even if she did chide me for being such a picky eater.
Most of all, I want this Year of Nora Ephron to have a purpose in that I want to give something back that has focus, direction, meaning. I am hoping that this blog series will uncover it, one post at a time. Until then, I’ll just keep reading. And, as Nora was once instructed to do, take notes.
Do you have a favorite Nora Ephron quote? I want to know. Please leave a comment and share.
I am pleased to announce that Kathy G is the winner of a Junior's Cheesecake! Our runner-up winner, Beth P, will receive a Faking It audiobook. Each entrant was assigned a number by order they signed up. Winners were selected via the random.org generator.
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I am so excited to reveal the cover for my new book, The Writer's Habit! It was designed by none other than my husband, Craig Lancaster, and I am thrilled with it. We're still working on a release date, but I promise that it's going to be very soon. Stay tuned to find out more details, and sign up to my mailing list at the bottom of my Contact Page to get exclusive offers and opportunities.
And... here it is:
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If you’re an avid reader, then you know all too well what it’s like to have bookcases in every room, hardcovers and paperbacks resting on bedside tables and living room chairs, patiently waiting to be read. Likewise, you also probably know what it’s like to spend a week’s pay on Kindle downloads, or leave the library with an armful of books knowing you’ll need to extend your borrowing time.
And then there are those books you’d want to have with you on that deserted island, or save if, god forbid, there was a fire. Or, if you’re like me, you pack them in a box marked SPECIAL BOOKS when you move and NO ONE CAN HANDLE THIS BOX EXCEPT ME.
I debated on whether to make two separate lists—one for books about writing and the other general fiction books—but then I thought, hey, it’s my island. I only get seven. Also, I'm not including my own because I’ll just assume they’ll eventually wash up on the island shore. Or I’ll write new ones to pass the time.
It’s hard to narrow down to seven, and a year from now I might find myself thinking: You put that on the list? Nevertheless, here they are, in alphabetical order by author’s last name:
Heartburn (Nora Ephron)
You’re going to be hearing a lot about Nora Ephron from me this year thanks to my new blog series and project. I first read Heartburn in the late 90s, while I was an undergraduate and in need of pleasure reading. Back then I found it likeable enough, but I wasn’t in the headspace to truly accept it for what it was and is—a story about telling stories. When I reread it years later, after I wrote and published my own novels, I found a whole new appreciation for it. I revered it even further when I used an excerpt from it for an exercise in analyzing writing style. Now I read it every other year, at least. Sometimes annually.
Not to mention it’s funny. That it’s not-so-loosely based on Ephron’s marriage to and divorce from Carl Bernstein is almost voyeuristic, although I didn’t care for the film version. Maybe because I’ve never stopped thinking of Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein.
Best of all, Heartburn is just so cleanly written. So clear, so concise, so fluent—the mark of someone who’d spent a lot of time as a journalist (a common trait you’ll see in almost every one of these authors).
The Other Side of the Story (Marian Keyes)
Before I became a novelist, I thought I would offset my academic writing with personal essays, ones that were funny yet had a point. I began reading books written by David Sedaris, Douglas Adams, and essays by Dave Barry to try to glean some tricks from them. (I know. No women in that list. Hang on though, because look at who I’m featuring.) My friend Susan enthusiastically recommended The Other Side of the Story, and I bought it in a used bookstore in Cary, North Carolina. Since then I've been a big Marian Keyes fan, even though I haven't loved or read everything she's written (yet).
However, any book that makes me laugh out loud—repeatedly—is a keeper.
The story of three characters—Jojo, a literary agent; Lily, Gemma, an event planner with a lot to say; and Lily, one of Jojo’s clients who has been accused of stealing not only Gemma’s idea, but also her boyfriend—is told via letters, emails, phone calls, and third-person perspectives. Every character is flawed but so easy to feel for. Each woman finds herself in a situation she doesn’t quite know how to get out of, and there’s no better backdrop for both a comedic or compelling story than that.
I need to read it again. It’s been too long.
On Writing (Stephen King)
To some degree, I think this book is the writer’s bible. My twin brother presented it to me for Christmas the year it debuted, around the same time I was immersed in my graduate studies and reading everything from Kenneth Burke to Noam Chomsky. I was learning about rhetoric and composition theory—the study of how and why we write, if you will—yet On Writing is the book that transformed me into a novelist. I didn’t even know this at the time I read it.
I’ve read and collected many books about writing, and even written my own (stay tuned for the cover reveal tomorrow!), but On Writing is one of those I can read or listen to (read by King on audiobook) and, if not learn something new, be reminded of something remarkable about the craft. And I’ve always taken more to the craft aspect than the art aspect. I might even argue that every author on this list is a craftsperson.
I just don’t think you can go through life as a writer without it.
Edward Unspooled (Craig Lancaster)
Yes. My husband. But before Craig was my husband, he was my friend. And before he was my friend, he had written this book called 600 Hours of Edward that went through a similar journey as Faking It, from a self-publishing success to an international bestseller. We’d met in 2011 and were mostly the kind of Facebook friends who occasionally quipped in the Comments section, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later when we actually started reading each other’s work that our mutual admiration and respect truly developed. And after we finished reading each other’s fictional stories, we began to tell each other our personal ones. The more I learned about him, the more I wanted to know. This was all in a platonic sense. But after his marriage ended and the writing was on the wall (ugh—sorry. I couldn’t help it), we had already built a solid foundation on which to begin adding the bricks.
Given that The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter is my favorite of Craig’s books, you would think I’d add that to my pile instead of the third installment of Edward’s journey. But there’s something about Edward Unspooled. Maybe it’s because I have a thing for epistolary novels. Maybe it’s because there are so many laugh-out-loud moments in this book too, and again you’ve probably detected a pattern in addition to the journalist thing. (Craig’s journalism career spanned twenty-five years, by the way.) Maybe it’s because Edward is just so lovable and endearing, and it’s a book about a husband and wife who are so well-matched and love each other dearly. And if I’m on this deserted island without my husband, then dammit, I want this book.
The Craft of Revision, 1st edition (Donald Murray)
I am eternally grateful to my friend and former mentor Mary for giving me this copy.
Here’s the ultimate irony: I think Murray revised this book too much by the fifth edition, which no longer resembles the first. The first is the best. It’s the one that changed not only the way I look at revision, but also the way I taught it. I would share excerpts of this with my students, and there was always one or two in every class who “got” it.
Murray was another from the journalism pool. (Sadly, he is no longer with us.) He wrote in a way that seems as if he didn’t pore over every word choice, incessantly reread and rewrite until he’d honed it to every word in its right place. As if it all flowed out on the first shot. I think there’s a strange kind of misconception about writing style that is seemingly simplistic. As if eloquence is the marker for what makes writing “art.” I certainly appreciate those who write beautiful sentences. But the books I keep coming back to, the ones that leave me thinking long after I’ve turned the final page, are the ones that are written in ways that are put together in the way a woodworker makes a chair. They are still beautiful (I once again recommend you read The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter, as well as This is What I Want—there are some sentences in there that I downright envy), but they’re also, if you will pardon the metaphor, easy to sit in.
Straight Man (Richard Russo)
In the same way everyone who aspires to be a writer should read On Writing, everyone who aspires to be in academia—in particular, an English department—should read this book. The absurd politics, the affairs and innuendo, the ever-looming publish-or-perish threat…it’s all there, plus—wait for it—the humor, beginning on the very first page when Hank’s nose falls victim to a collision with a spiral notebook. Straight Man is one of those books I read cover to cover thinking, Man, I know this place. It had even prompted me to write my own academic farce, one that still sits in a drawer, because even though I love every character in it, I never quite found the story. Maybe one day it will finally come to me. It needs to be told.
In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran (John Taylor)
Do I really need to say any more? I mean, you’ve got that fabulous Patty Palazzo-designed cover. You’ve got John Taylor when he was just a glasses-toting geek listening to records in his bedroom (weren’t we all that kid in one form or another?) You’ve got Duran Duran in its glory days and in its not-so-glory days. You’ve got sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. And you’ve got a pretty well-written memoir.
And yes. I’ll say it. Pictures.
In many ways, I think we treasure certain books not only for their stories or their style or characters but for their memories. In the same way I am happily transported to my UMass-Dartmouth days when I read Straight Man, and I will forever remember my dearest love reading Edward Unspooled to me every night before bed, the two of us snuggled together, In the Pleasure Groove will conjure the memory of my standing before this man previously known solely from my turntable and my bedroom walls, and showing him a copy of my own book, the title of which was inspired by his band’s song. It will conjure every live show, every moment on stage, dare I say, the music between us. It will forever be a book about what’s possible.
What are your 7 Books You Can't Live Without? I want to know! Leave a comment at the bottom. (And subscribe to my mailing list, too!)
I'm an author of commercial women's fiction and a writing instructor. My claim to fame: I can say the alphabet backwards.