Category: Life

Hello from Canada

Hello, readers. It’s official: I’ve moved to Canada for a writing teaching position, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in the culture and literary scene here. The timing is downright odd, I know, and I’ll be writing about my experiences here as well as my thoughts on what it means to be leaving the States at this particular time. You can see some of my first posts on my Medium blog here:

My Medium stories

And here’s an excerpt of my first post:

Hello, Canada! I’m new to you! The timing might seem suspect, an American arriving in Canada just now, after a crazy 2016 and a maddening election season. It’s so suspect, in fact, that I’ve gotten used to shrugging and smiling when people joke about my fleeing the country. But I’m here because my fiancé and I got teaching jobs at a university. This was in the works for nearly a year. So while I watched the election results with the same obsessiveness as all my friends, and bit my nails and watched too much MSNBC, there was always this knowledge in the back of my mind…that I’d be leaving soon. Either I’d be looking proudly on from afar as our first female president set up shop, or, well…I’d be high-tailing it out of there.
I knew I wanted to observe everything that was new to me in Canada as soon as I got here. My job as a newcomer, I think, is to look with big eyes and listen with big ears. To notice the differences and the similarities. And as a writer, my job is to observe and form theories about the national character. To see the contradictions and learn the jokes. To put my foot in it a few times and learn how to step gracefully out again. So this post will be the first of many scattered thoughts and observations about what might become my new home.

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Stay tuned for more thoughts on the writing life from North of the Border, and also come back for some exciting new progress on the novel. More soon.

When Does Home Become Home?

For me, the most recent happening of it was when I was scheduling my taxi to the airport.

I was visiting my family in Boston, back for a few weeks in order to get laser eye surgery (it’s been great!). But finally the last check-up was done and I was heading back to Chicago, where I’ve been living for the past year and a half. “Only a few hours until I’m home,” I thought. And I felt it too. And as soon as I had that thought, I felt a pang, the sting of my disloyalty to Boston.

I’ll always be a Boston girl. Boston is my home; every time I return, I feel that warm spark of affection for this dinky little two-skyscraper city, for the unsmiling, taciturn New Englanders on the train and the deep gray-blue sparkle of the Charles River. The suburbs where I grew up will always be my suburbs. But all too fast, my self, my body, has been splitting, bisecting and tripling itself. Because I feel strongly now that Chicago, too, is home. It’s remarkable how quickly that process can happen.

What makes a city feel like home? In a purely materialistic sense, it’s all the stuff you have there. It’s the books and clothes and knickknacks, all the things I’ve been missing while I’ve been away: my mug, my comforter, my skungy old slippers. In a hedonistic sense, it’s the sensory pleasures you have there: my special gourmet tea that I’ve been craving, the mac and cheese place I am too fond of, the doughnut shop (Boston’s doughnut situation is sad. Dunkin’ Donuts has driven every competitor, including Krispy Kreme, out of business). And in a deeper, more emotional sense, it’s the people and things I love: my significant other, even my cats. All of these things add up. You don’t start realizing what is home to you until you leave it and feel homesick.

But home is more than all of those things combined as well: it’s a sense of feeling in command of your place, of moving comfortably as a local down its streets and on its public transit, understanding the arguments in the local paper, knowing where to get lunch and what the best coffee shop is. In my years away from Boston, I’ve never stopped feeling it to be home, but I have gotten out of touch with its transformation. The seaport is a neighborhood that barely existed when I left, and now all the best restaurants are there. The farmers’ markets have moved. The stores, even the roads, have changed. The stops on the T have been altered, and in the years to come they’ll change even more. When I’m in Boston, I defer to old friends, letting them pick the meeting place and the restaurant, because I don’t know where to go anymore.

When people visit me in Chicago, on the other hand, I’m fully in command of my city. I know how to show visitors a good time and what funny quirks the city has. I’ve ridden its buses and trains, and I’ve gotten lost among vacant lots and deserted streets. There is much more to explore, but I’m happy and unafraid in that process of discovery. I know that no matter how lost I get, I can always find my way back.

Chicago is just a temporary waystation, though. Years ago I already started heading down a life path that wasn’t conducive to putting down roots, at least for a while. Rather, my S.O. and I follow career paths that will take us to new cities in the future, and I will have to say goodbye. Will Chicago always carry a bit of home-feeling with it, or will it become alien to me? Can I pick up and fall in love again with a new place, take command of it and wedge my heart somewhere inside, again and again and again? I try to keep my heart soft and elastic, ready to grow and stretch and take in another place. Is there any limit to the number of places in your life that can feel like home? I know immigrants have to struggle with this all the time; they learn to hold more than one place inside them, like a painted triptych in their hearts. I’m working on a similar structure encompassing all the cities I’ve lived in and felt loved: Boston, New York, Chicago, and onward.

Writerly Life: How to Say No

The Blairzone - 13It’s been too long, readers. And I’ve got no one to blame but myself.

The fall is always the busiest time of year for me; not only am I in the full swing of teaching, but I’m also juggling multiple plates with my writing career. This is the time that many literary magazines open their doors to submissions, so the pieces I’ve refined over the summer are heading out my door, and I’m spending free moments prepping them and sending them. At the same time, I’m writing and editing for our fledgling literary magazine, Two Cities Review, and planning some exciting new projects for the magazine, such as a new podcast (Stay tuned for more info on this exciting venture). There’s personal life and family life. Writing new things and editing old things. Sending out novel manuscripts and sending out stories. In the mess of all this, what’s a writer to do to stay sane? Read more

3 Ways You’re Different Because You’re a Writer – and Cooler Because of It

When you’re in high school, there’s a pretty narrow framework of coolness within which people can fall. Whatever it is at your school — whether it’s the football/cheerleader set, or the beautiful and fashionable crowd — it can be tough to be out of the limelight. Writers tend to be nerdy types, not the people who get all the attention when they’re young. We’re too busy being off by ourselves with our noses stuck in books to worry about parties and prom dates.

But the secret is, it’s actually incredibly cool to be a writer. Wanting to write makes you stand out from the crowd in a few key ways. And if you wait just a little longer, and stay true to your writerly identity, you’ll find yourself at the center of the coolest club on the planet. Here are a few reasons that writers are the coolest people around.

Writers never stop asking why.

We learn that it’s the rebels, the innovators who question authority, who ask why things are the way they are and seek to change it. But all too early in life, too many people settle down and accept the expectations society or family has for them without ever stopping to wonder why some things are seen as good and others are bad. Why is being popular a good thing? Why is owning a lot of stuff a good thing? Why is it a bad thing not to conform? Why is it okay to treat people with less power callously? Does our society encourage us to be consumers? There aren’t easy answers to these questions, but writers never stop wondering about them. It’s what makes them such curious, interesting people.

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It’s Summer! Time to Let Your Creativity Blossom

Welcome to summer, writers. You’ve slogged through the hard brutal months of winter, you’ve sneezed and sloshed through the allergies and mud puddles of spring, and you’ve been rewarded with that perennial gift, the months of summer. (For this post: sorry, Australians, you’ll get there). The sun is out ridiculously late, and I always find myself bursting with newfound energy. At long last, it’s time to do all the things you said you would do, and make sure you make summer count.

The great part about summer is that if you’re out of school, those daily mental demands of homework are gone, freeing you up to daydream, to wonder, and to imagine. This is the kind of idle, directionless thought that can turn into creative work; no matter how you try to force creative thought when you have to, it just doesn’t happen as easily as when you let thoughts percolate and creep up on you of their own accord. It’s kind of like trying to solve a crossword or a sudoku — you always get the answer the moment you’ve given up and pushed the puzzle away for a while.

So my first suggestion to you this summer is to leave plenty of room for unstructured thinking time. That is NOT to be confused to unstructured staring-at-the-tv time or unstructured partying-with-friends time. Fun as that is, those activities end up filling our brains, stimulating us in pleasant but distracting ways. To REALLY leave ourselves in an unstructured mental space, we’ve got to go for a walk. Stroll under some shady trees or follow the shoreline of a beach that is whispering secrets to itself. Ride your bike through a neighborhood you only half now. Don’t blast music in your earbuds. Don’t check your phone for messages. Give yourself the time to dream.

When you return from your walk, you’ll be amazed by how many ideas want to jump onto the page from your head. Try writing down a few of them. Keep the spell of quiet going just a little bit longer. After all, it’s the summer; there will be plenty of time for the beach, for friends, for cheesy blockbuster movies. But daydreaming time, creative time, is precious. Don’t let the summer slip through your fingers without that rare time.

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Summer is Upon Us. Unleash the Dragons.


No matter how old I get, I think I’ll still feel that burst of savage glee that comes with the arrival of summer. School’s out for summer! School’s out for ever! I may not be a a student anymore, but the summer is still a time of changing schedules, of greater freedom, and of nearly boundless opportunities for creativity. It’s crucial to be mindful of what you want out of your summer, and to make it happen. It’s simply too easy to let summer slip away, and wake up on August 31st wondering where it went. On the first day of fall, you want to walk back into your normal life with accomplishments under your belt, with new skills acquired, new adventures experienced, new maturity and growth achieve. So here’s your guide for how to have not only the most fun summer, but also the most creative.

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Why Television will Suck Out Your Soul. And Be So, So Fun.

I know I’m not supposed to admit this, because I’m supposed to be a Big Fancy Writer who doesn’t waste time on non-literary pursuits — but I. Love. Television. I always have. The love affair began when my mother dug a tiny black-and-white TV out of a neighbor’s trash to have something to watch while she was on her treadmill in the basement. When my older sister was hogging the regular tv I’d go down there and stand on the treadmill — literally, just stand there — in order to watch Saturday cartoons. It was cold and damp and dark in the basement, and the little half-broken TV only got three channels and had a horizontal stripe across the screen that scrolled slowly up and down the image, but I didn’t care.

My first TV love was cartoons, and I continued to love them well past the age considered appropriate. I watched Nickelodeon devotedly. When my older sister was watching MTV, I rolled my eyes. We had to have a strict turn-switching system, and when it was my turn, I went straight back to Rugrats or Hey Arnold.

Then later on, I discovered grown-up TV. When the good HBO shows started coming out, my parents rented them on DVD a year after the fact and I watched Sex and the City and The Sopranos. I saw more violence and sex than was probably usual for my age, but I was more captivated by the stories than anything else. For that reason, Sex and the City was always something of a drag to me — weak storytelling that doesn’t age well — but The Sopranos was a family event.

There was a slowing down period in college, but when I got my own place and got a tv that actually got more than five channels, it was hard to control for a while. I could watch silly reality TV or serious educational shows on PBS; I could watch old black and white episodes of The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason, with Raymond Burr’s enormous shoulders filling the screen. I loved it all. Time that I could have spent reading studiously or writing diligently has been wasted staring into the silver screen.

Why is television so powerfully attractive? It’s hard to say. But I’d argue it uses the same storytelling techniques that make for compelling fiction — just to even greater effect. Great and bad tv shows alike use suspense and drama and surprise; they let you sink into a deepening and broadening world. The really excellent shows in our day — Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Downtown Abbey, and so on — are more like novels than anything else, giving us a large and complex and deep immersion into a fictional world. They tap into the same wells of storytelling hunger that all of us feel.

Television can be delightful as well. There are teams of writers out there right now, whole mobs, sitting around tables and working out ways to make you laugh. They’re funny. Good, serious books are not as funny as often, because television shows have the advantage of the visual cue. A sideways look, a pratfall, a bit of slapstick and we can laugh.

But as I began this post, I want to point out that television also has a funny way of — well, sucking out your soul. Of draining you of creativity, of originality, of energy. Even with all the fun and suspense and surprise.

Have you ever had one of those weekend nights, where you started sitting on the couch after dinner, and hours later you find yourself sinking to the floor in a pile of chip crumbs, the last hours of your life an uncertain haze? Anyone who watches television seriously has had a night like this. The way the shows loop endlessly together, the way our favorite shows are always available in rerun, the way even the commercials know how to pull us in with a cheery jingle and funny joke — all these techniques have been precisely calculated to suck the creative life right out of you. 

The problem is that bad television really is bad. It’s clichéd, lazy storytelling. It relies on absurd and offensive stereotypes or sex appeal. When you are passively consuming the same clichéd storyline over and over, you become a little deadened to the possibilities of story. You forget to imagine that other people exist beyond the bro, the shopaholic girl, the nuclear family. You forget that other races and genders and countries have perspectives. You forget what your own perspective is, and you begin to think you’re just like those two-dimensional figures you see on the screen.

I’m thinking about the new series Fresh off the Boat, which has rightly been garnering some praise and excitement for its humor, sharp writing, and bold new choices. But then I can’t help but feel stunned that it’s such a big deal. This is a fairly typical family sitcom — but everyone’s going wild over this one because it’s only the second television show to ever star an Asian-American family — and the first in nearly twenty years. How absurd is that?

Bad TV irons out any of the bumps and wrinkles of humanity; it has only about five to seven possible storylines for all characters to follow. It’s insulting to our humanity and it can really ruin a day’s worth of creativity.

So how can we resist? I know we all need our guilty pleasures. I began this piece talking about how much I love the experience of watching television. I love sinking into that spot on the couch after a long day and relaxing a bit into a familiar story, a beautiful vista, or the life of a character I know. I like being educated and informed; I like learning something about lions in Kenya or the state of Ukraine. But I also like watching voyeuristic reality tv or sitcom reruns I’ve already seen. I’ll probably always love television, and I want to say that without shame. But I know what makes me feel good beyond the time of reading or watching; it’s reading that makes me feel richer and fuller and happier long after the book has been closed. With television, the moment of pushing the power button is filled with a feeling of regret. What just happened to those two hours of my life?

What Will You Do with the Joys of Spring?

I know I’m counting my chickens before they’re hatched, readers, but this weekend felt like spring was in the air in Chicago. The air had that special mild feel; the wind that blustered about me was warm, and the sun was bright enough to make me squint. More than these little rises in the thermostat, though, I just felt that extra burst of energy that spring brings with it. I walked all over town, glad to make up errands and excuses to get outside. Before the week was out, I had filled the coming months with excited plans. I’ll be fitter! I’ll eat better! I’ll write outdoors and go to cafes and and and…

I know I won’t be able to accomplish all the excited plans on my calendar, but just having the excitement of planning is enough right now. Spring always gives me a boost of hopeful energy. And before you tell me not to get my hopes up, I know; as a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I know April has a way of having late snowstorms. My heart is hard and ready for this little taste of spring to fade. But once nature gets a foothold, it never seems quite as bad to dip back into winter for a while.

This also means that I’ve almost officially survived my first Chicago winter. I thought it would take extra strength of character, but it honestly wasn’t too unbearable, except for a few extreme days. And of course, this has me thinking about what the change of season means for our creative lives. Will there be more time, somehow, for writing? Will we be able to sit out in the sun and jot things down in our notebooks, or just think and plan and work on dreamier things? It’s hard to say. But we can certainly set ourselves up for success by seizing the joy of spring.

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Expressing Your Point of View Is a Lifestyle. Are You Living It?

WRITERS ARE LUCKY. We have a built-in desire to communicate; it’s a need within us. That’s true of all human beings, but we’re lucky because we, unlike many others, have the tools to do it. But all too often, we smother that impulse and those means, preferring the safety of silence.

I was a shy kid.

 Shy with a capital S. So afraid of meeting with someone’s disapproval that I would keep silent in the most extreme of situations. My first day in preschool, I recall with a sting of shame, I wet my pants because I was too shy to ask where the bathroom was. Yes, it was that bad. Sometimes I look back and breathe a sigh of relief that nothing too terrible happened to me, because if it did, I’m sure I wouldn’t have spoken up about it.

Looking back on that terrified little kid, I wonder what was going on in her head. 

Nothing had traumatized me into this silence; it was just part of my personality. It was extremely difficult for me to speak my point of view. When I went over to another kid’s house and the parent asked me what snack I wanted, I wouldn’t say for fear of insulting them or seeming greedy. And when friends angered me or hurt my feelings, I bore those feelings in silence, afraid of losing that precious relationship. 

I suspect more kids than you think were like this.

There are the loud talkers, the needy kids, the showoffs, and way in the back are the shy ones, desperate to speak up, but scared to. As an adult, I can shake my head and see how much better life is in every way when you risk criticism, and when you speak your mind. Through experience, through growing just a bit older, I can see how speaking your mind becomes a powerful need. 

Once I got through the agonies of middle school, I was surprised to discover that speaking up felt good. It still does! There’s nothing worse than quietly seething when someone has offended you, or a job isn’t being done right; and there’s nothing more satisfying than expressing your point of view. This applies to relationships, friendships, coworkers, teachers — you name it. There is always a respectful way to tell the truth; and you are always entitled to feeling a certain way. Once I realized this, I became hard to shut up. I was always the big talker in class. I went on and on. I shared. I overshared. It can be intoxicating, to find yourself listened to and understood. I probably overdid it a little, but I was making up for lost time.

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In the Heart of a Chicago Winter

THE HIGH IS THREE DEGREES IN CHICAGO TODAY, AND I’M NOT EVEN TELLING YOU WHAT THE WIND CHILL IS. I’ve arrived in this Midwestern city at the perfect time to see it at its worst; the winds are howling off the snow-covered lake, and it’s so cold that it’s dangerous to go outside. I’ve stood out on those elevated train platforms now with my nose tucked into my scarf, shivering under the measly little heat lamps while that wind howls close to my skin. It’s a creature with teeth, a mugger wielding knives. It is a physical presence with a cutting brutality on your face, your eyes, your hands.

Seriously, I grew up in New England, but this cold is a whole different level. This is the cold that people can die in. Homeless or drunk people get locked out at the wrong time and die every year.

And with all this extremity around me, my hometown has STILL managed to best Chicago this year. Again, my timing was perfect; I left about a week before the first snowstorm hit Boston, and it’s been nothing but piling snow ever since. At first, snow is beautiful and delightful. Bostonians I knew were sending gleeful messages about another day of canceled class, another snowman built. Giddy photos popped up online of people making snow angels, sledding down Beacon street, skiing down Comm Ave.

But the snow is overstayed its welcome. With no days above freezing temperatures, the snow has stayed, even as more and more has piled up. Trains are stopped. Buses are spotty. Most roads have become one-way. People with real jobs, people with kids to take care of, are desperate. Snow days and piled sidewalks have become one more thing that a few are privileged to enjoy, and most must suffer. 

In the way that we all think the universe revolves around us, I can’t help wonder what Boston is trying to tell me with this howling gale mere days after my final departure from my home. It makes me feel like I was essential to the place, somehow, and now once I’ve left, there’s an icy void in my place. Maybe the city is expressing its rage that I’m gone. Or maybe I belittled Boston too often. I’ve told too many people that it’s really a small town, barely a city. You don’t think I’m a city? Boston is retorting. Well how about this?

I’m being silly, of course; nothing is more impervious to human beings than weather, and yet we insist on taking it personally. On a Chicago day when the winds are so strong that I must take shelter behind a building, in the lee of the wind, I wonder what I did wrong, what I did to deserve this. Am I up to Chicago’s mettle? Do I have what it takes? I don’t know yet, but I’m trying. I’ve leaped into the icy deep end of what Chicago has to offer. For the next few months, you can picture me feeling around in the black waters of the unknown here, struggling to survive.

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