Monday, October 20, 2014

What Nine Out of Ten of the Best Writers I Know Have in Common

My reaction to finding out today is National Day on Writing:  

                                   Image courtesy of           

Malala Day is one thing, but National Boyfriend Day was October 3rd? Can September 17th or 18th be International Fizzy Water Day? That’s around the time, one year ago, I started falling hard for the stuff.

At least a few times a year, and most recently last Wednesday, people ask me for specific writing advice. What makes a good piece of writing? How can they improve their own writing? They’re not aspiring creative or professional writers as much as those who have come to realize that strong writing is as marketable a skill as tech-savviness.  

I give them a few small practical tips, such as getting rid of all unnecessary words and sentences to help keep the final product as short and streamlined as possible. I can think of several good books that could have been great books if the total word count had been chopped in half; and dozens of brutally rambling e-mails I would have taken more seriously if even two paragraphs had been knocked out.

But here’s my #1, big-picture, tip: avoid “how to” manuals on becoming a better writer and become more of a reader in general.

Many say those with solid liberal arts backgrounds (lots of coursework in English, history, philosophy, etc.) make the best writers – and, from my experiences, these people usually do write noticeably well. But one of the most effective writers I know is a former trophy wife who didn’t make it past the 7th grade and grew up on welfare. She’s just always read tons of great books, short stories, essays, and articles, which is why: she has impeccable grammar and storytelling chops; her vocabulary could match that of any Oxford don; and it’s upsetting to think of how many more opportunities would have come her way if she also brought formal “coursework” to the table.

Ninety percent of the most talented writers I’ve personally known would put reading for pleasure toward the top of their list of hobbies. They’re rarely without reading material during subway rides and might listen to the audio versions of books while driving long distances alone. They read during commercial breaks and long customer service hold times. They read to calm down and to rev up. It’s how they’ve rolled for years, if not for the better part of their lives, to the point where they have gradually absorbed what strong writing looks and feels like, producing strong writing of their own becomes second nature, and “National Days on Writing” become four more unnecessary words. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

An Earful

Someone’s dog once jumped on my lap to kiss me and, before I could kiss back, sucker-jumped my ear, ripped out my earring, and ate it. All in less than 10 seconds. I wasn’t mad at the dog. I could never be mad at an animal. I’m mad at the dog’s owners. Instead of an apology or an effort to make amends, I got, “Oh, how funny! He wants what he wants,” before they changed the subject, never speaking of it again. I didn’t think it was funny. Looking back on it, 15 years later, it’s not something I laugh about, it’s something nobody should ever remind me of, unless they want a 10-minute tirade that usually concludes with, “and I’m still owed a minimum of 14 karats.”  

I just sorted through the earrings section of my jewelry box. I’ve had and lost so many. They’re like socks and boys and drinking buddies and ideas. One minute they’re there, making me giddy; the next minute they’re missing and I smirk at how well I can live without them.

Back and forth, back and forth. That’s where I go whenever I think about whether I should throw out a pair of studs a hippie jeweler in New England sold me years ago. When I told her I was looking for opals, she said opals are a sad stone and bad energy, it’s a sign that I’d lost one of mine, it was time to change courses. That in jewel metaphysics, imperial topazes are good energy, so I should buy a pair of those. She also mistook me for a marathoner – there was a marathon in town that weekend, and she implied that I looked like someone who could easily hold her own in one. Not long after that, I pulled out my wallet and said, “Opal who? I think you’re onto something, imperial topazes are my next logical step!”

But opals are my best stone, my birthstone, and it’s OK to be sad. No opal has made me as sad as I was when these imperial topazes started looking funky after a few months of use. The topazes have become earrings I wouldn’t be caught dead in or posting a picture of. Before I retired them, people having a conversation with me would suddenly stop talking, furrow their brows while staring at my earlobe, bring their heads closer to my head, and ask, “Is there even a stone in there?”

I’m keeping them. I’m treating these topazes the way I treat retaliatory e-mails – as evidence. I loathe imperialism. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

This Is Morphing into More of a Passion Than a Hobby

So many times have I texted an acquaintance, only to receive nothing in return. Days or weeks or months later, when these acquaintances contact me about something completely unrelated, I confront them about the earlier text. And they’ll insist they never saw it, that they got a new number, that my: “Remember the chiropractor guy from that piñata party last year? I just ran into him at the Hell’s Kitchen Rite Aid” message might have gone to someone else who wordlessly read, formed an opinion about, and deleted it.

I’m not like that. I let all mis-texters, such as the following person who texted my number from her gmail account, know they’re headed down the wrong path.

Gmailer: Hey Brew! My phone isn’t working but I wanted to text to make sure u can still do my hair tomorrow.

Me: You got it! What do you have in mind this time around?

Gmailer: I know I want a side part!

Me: Now why is that?

Gmailer: I just like it better.

Me: But why though? Does it change who you are?

Gmailer: Are u texting the right person? Lol

Me: I’m just thinking. Have you ever considered letting your hair grow and do its thing naturally?

Gmailer: Yea I will after this one. Over the winter probably late November until spring I’ll give it a break.

Me: Glad to hear it, but why not now? What makes “this one” so different? Still just thinking about the way things are for us. For us women.

Gmailer: Girl y are u getting so deep?! Lol. I have homecoming and stuff so I just wanted a fab weave for that. Last year I went weaveless in the winter that’s when I normally give my hair a break.

Me: Oh yes I am getting deep. Who says you shouldn’t work the look you were born with? Own it? Love it? Is it any coincidence that weave rhymes with leave?

Gmailer: R u ok??? This doesn’t seem like you. Are you joking? I would call u but my phone is broken.

Me: I’m not joking at all. What happened to your phone?

Gmailer: Oh ok. I’m not sure where this is coming from but if it bothers you no worries, I don’t have to get it done. I dropped my phone in water :(

Me: It’s coming from my heart and soul. Which is all that matters. And consolations: the phone-in-water thing really is a bitch.

[It went on, but not forever. The moment the mis-texter slips into silence, my work there is done.]  

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Best Gifts Really Do Come in Small Packages

The late-afternoon/early-evening security guard who patrols the floors of my office has gotten me hooked on protein bars. I’m becoming a protein bar connoisseur and have started buying them in bulk. So far, I prefer the Think Thin brand, with Luna bars making an excellent showing as a first runner-up. If, for any reason, a Think Thin bar is unable to fulfill its duties as a cheap and easy hunger-quencher, Luna would be asked to step in and take care of business.

It all started this past spring when the guard, our protector, knocked on my door a little before 5 p.m., to hand me a pack of Lindor white chocolate (without removing the $3.29 price tag). A few days later, he tried giving me an entire bottle of wine.

During the workweek, I sometimes get really hungry at about 4:30 p.m. And almost every other day, for weeks, that would be around the time he’d appear with a treat to tide me over until dinnertime. The wine is the only offering he has allowed me to politely decline.

After the wine came more chocolate. Followed by heaping handfuls of Werther’s Original. One afternoon, he set a bar of Muscle Milk on my desk, which turned out to be a protein bar. I’d only ever had one protein bar, years ago, and remember finding it too gross to finish. But two days later, I got dangerously hungry less than two hours after lunch, didn’t want to buy an overpriced snack from a vending machine or the newsstand in the building’s lobby, and pulled the (vanilla toffee crunch) Muscle Milk out of my drawer. It hit the spot, in a way almonds never have. A week later, he delivered an equally satisfying Special K bar.

At first I was all, “This is so inappropriate, I have to get him to stop.” When he did eventually stop, it turned into, “Where the hell is this guy? I’m starving here,” compounded by also having to deal with a Werther’s-loving co-worker badgering me about whether a new supply had come in.

So I’ve had to resume foraging for snacks independently. Even though I know protein bars are processed foods that aren’t great for you, they’ve got to trump the bags of Sour Patch Kids I used to hoard, and my Costco membership card is about to come out of a long dry spell.   

Monday, September 22, 2014

Calls and Responses

Some people who don’t live with their parents check in with their parents by phone every day. When there are no grandchildren or childcare situations in the picture. When no parties involved are facing any crisis, frailty, or major life event. When walking down a crowded street, six inches behind another person:

“I ate a quesadilla earlier. It had chicken, mushrooms, spinach, cheese. Maybe Monterey Jack? Or Cheddar? I can’t remember. Now it’s gonna bother me. You’re so right, dad, I should pull up the menu online. I’ll Google it later and call you when I do. I haven’t talked to you or mom since yesterday, you don’t love me anymore. I really want a muffin right now even though it’s after 6 p.m. Is that weird? Have you ever wanted breakfast at night? Two joggers are running toward me and I thought one was barefoot, but her sneakers are just lightweight and flesh-toned. Can you believe I turn 28 in 10 weeks? How does it feel to have a 28-year-old child? Not great?! Put mom on so I can ask her how it feels to have a 28-year-old child. Hi mom. You’re right, you don’t have a 28-year-old child yet so it is premature to ask until the day you do! My left elbow kind of hurts right now, you guys.”

Ever since I left the nest at 17, I’ve usually talked to my parents once a week, on the same day, during the same time block. These days, I talk to my dad on Sunday nights between 7 and 10. In between Sundays we often email back and forth, and nobody is unhappy with this arrangement.  Even as a teenager, I couldn’t stand constant phone chatter, the constant ringing.

If you want to see me slip into panic mode, get my dad to phone me outside of our appointed hour(s). This ends up happening several times a year. At 10 a.m. one Saturday, my phone rang and his name popped up. Someone died, I thought. Someone else. Here comes another turning point, while I’m sitting in this tawdry smoothie café. My heart pounded, continued pounding as he said hello in a serious tone, and only stopped pounding when he asked whether I received the year’s supply of ballpark mustard he shipped after I told him I couldn’t find it anywhere locally.

Last night, he didn’t answer his phone between 7 and 10. I went through every possibility in my head, almost texting my brother that we may have an emergency on our hands, almost texting a few others to please respect my privacy at this time, until he finally picked up at 10:02.

Monday, September 15, 2014

That Voice from Above

After all these years, I thought I finally figured out who my upstairs neighbor is. But wrong person, mystery still unsolved, the suspense will neither kill me nor make me stronger.

We keep similar hours and I like when s/he’s home, the sounds of futzing around, soft singing, guitar strums. It’s a male voice, a tenor, that sings. I’ve heard the click-clack of high heels, a feminine footfall, twice.
I have now entered my building alongside two women who were on their way to the floor above me, not sure whether the younger and quieter one was a cross-dresser until the older of the two got in my face, pointed at Junior and accusatorily asked: “Isn’t she beautiful?”

“Mmm-hmm,” I said. They both had a gloriousness to them, unconventionally speaking, à la a con-artist duo straight out of a long-running Broadway musical – a pair up to no good, but on the cusp of belting out a detailed and catchy diddy to rationalize all the lies and manipulations.
“No one should ever discriminate against her,” Junior’s spokeswoman kept going. “It doesn’t matter what she’s wearing or who she wants to be.”

As if I had said or implied otherwise. As if I could care less whether this was a dude or a lady. I just want to know if s/he’s the guitarist, whose birthday falls on February 11th (Aquarians are notoriously creative individualists). I was home last February 11th and it’s the only time I’ve known him or her to have had anything close to a raucous gathering. Early into it, the small crowd sung happy birthday. And did not enunciate the birthday boy or girl’s first name.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Ten (G-Rated) Things I Once Swore I’d Never Do, But Have Since Done

*Join Facebook

*Count carbs

*Come down with seasonal allergies

*Forgive a non-blood relative who has wronged me

*Go back to wearing heels

*Go back to Whole Foods

*Go back to making the sign of the cross and praying

*A crossword puzzle (or part of one)

*Fall in love with an Apple product

*Become a blogger