Writing: New Conversations

I am a sucker for independent bookstores. The kind of place tucked in an urban neighborhood with a used section in the basement, a wide section of popular and edgy fiction, interesting memoirs and non-fiction offerings, and a potpourri of book clubs where people who actually read books come excited to discuss them. For me it’s Left Bank Books, and I’ve been shopping there since I was thirteen, where I acquired one copy of Wuthering Heights.

By any definition, I am well read. I downplay how much I read, because my tongue got a little bloody after one too many run-ins with those people who say: “I love to read, but I’m so busy. How do you have time?” Reading is not something I like to do; it’s something I have to do. Like air, water, food, and shelter, books fall at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I live with my books, carrying them with me from room to room, to work, to the barn, to dinner. I write, underline, and star. I fold pages; write poems on the frontispiece; notes in the margins; questions on the tops of pages.

I also return to my books. That copy of Hemingway short stories from 11th grade lives in my bedroom, and when I want to think about how to say more with a story, I pull it open and start flipping through two decades of notes. Three Virginia Woolf collections scattered around the house, when I need bravery and inner monologue. That copy of Goldfinch on my fridge is my third, because I keep loaning it out, and then need to find it, and read Boris. The poets – Eliot, Cummings, Neruda, Parker, Dickinson, Ginsberg, Whitman – and on and on are in my living room, where I sit at midnight or dawn and write words.

For years, I referred to my writing as “secret w.” My process was monastic in comparison to the deeply collaborative writing I did as a lawyer, where almost every memo, opinion letter, brief, motion, and article, was reviewed, edited, discussed, debated, and revised with my boss. He saw things I didn’t, read sentences in ways I did not intend, saw flaws in the structure, or wheat hiding in the chaff. My legal writing got strong, while my poetry and prose stagnated. It needed air and light.

What I love about independent book stores is how often they foster local writers. I walked in one day for a young adult book group and heard a few acquaintances talk about writing. Fresh off a failed novel, a failed marriage, in some ways a failed life, I screwed my courage to the wall, and asked if they were writers and knew of a local group, and I met Anna, who introduced me to an online writing community.

I read and commented a few hours a day, somehow finding time to add these stories, memoirs, essays, poems, and blog posts into my daily reading routine, accepting this reading time the way I accept my book reading. Finally one day, I opened a text box, wrote a poem and clicked post. I did it the next day, and the next. Until I was posting my writing six or seven days a week for months, while reading and commenting on other writers, bit by bit, building a community of writers who read and commented on my poems and prose, creating a writers workshop for peer critique, nourishing my with fresh blood.

All those conversations I had in the pages of my books came flooding forward. Debating narrative styles, bickering about showing and telling, I remembered Woolf. If wanted to write a piece that began and lived in the thoughts that pass like clouds across my mind, I would read Mrs. Dalloway. To that I received a quick reply from the friend who took my hand and helped me walk into the process of a poem: Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers. I discovered two things: first, how I would approach writing memoirs and memoir-style fiction, and second, I was not alone in my conversations with other novelists and poets. This conversation didn’t just go in vertical directions, but horizontal ones as well. But my fellow writers didn’t let me off easily, challenging me to say more with less, to cut the extraneous, to write like an assassin. I revised stories, Hemingway and my friends in my ear as I wrote.

My truly collaborative writing began with Edith Wharton, when C, a fellow writer and I circled each other, considering friendship, and she asked: “What is your favorite Edith Wharton novel?” The question alone excited me. House of Mirth and Summer, I answered, although I love all of them. Are you more Lily Bart or Countess Olenska? That day, many months ago, C became Countess.

We went back to Emily Bronte, talking about our destructive first loves, our Heathcliffs, until I realized I wanted to explore pieces who I am, not just who he was. But I froze, the topic too vast, until Carole called with the first piece of our “Pieces of Me” series and I responded. We decided to write about ourselves in each color of the rainbow, and now we are pulling out chunks of our soul to describe sensory reactions to summer, and not a day passes when we don’t plot and plan games with words. Her Heathcliff essays drug out old stories, until I began to write things I hadn’t tried in years. Fairy tale drabbles to concentrate my voice; dialogue only stories; games, games, endless word games. A conversation that started by Bronte, inspired by Countess, organized by me, and read by my writing community, and it helped me find, at last, sweetness in my writing that felt true, a sweetness that balanced out the raw and the dark and rounded out my voice.

What began in a bookstore at thirteen with Emily Bronte became something I cannot live without. This practice of reading, digesting, discussing, and writing in response is as elemental as reading itself. Far from the solitary activity it was for a decade, I have a space and a group of people to whom I belong, and with whom I share my most solemn wishes. Now I come knocking on your door, looking for a new community, new mentors, new writers, new books, and new blood for my words. I’m ready for new conversations.

I Hope You Dance – Mother’s Day Post

One of the things left with my Mother’s body was a little book based on LeAnn Rhymes I Hope You Dance.

Do you know how much I fucking hate that song?

I can’t even describe it, but I have what must be a close-to-PTSD trigger to it, because except once or twice, I’ve literally run out of every public venue as soon as I hear the first chords, hyperventilating, in full panic.

She didn’t even like LeAnn Rhymes that much!

My Mom loved Joni Mitchell, and Carol King, Streisand, Nanci Griffith, and Lucinda Williams. She loved all of the great female folk singers (and then had an embarrassing thing for Kenny Rogers and George Strait).

She liked country and loved folk, and Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now would have been a song I could have lived with. It would have helped.

But this LeAnn Rhymes semi-christian Country?


I can’t type the lyrics, because even seeing the song will have me on the bathroom floor keening. But what I can say is this.

I like country and love folk too.

Most of all, I love the Indigo Girls, as I’ve written more than once. Popular music is the only art where I can say – emphatically – that I have a favorite band. I don’t have a favorite author, I have a favorite list of authors. I don’t have a favorite painter, I have a list. Movies, list. Actors, list. Classical, list. But for non-classical music, it’s Amy and Emily and has been since 1990. (Although Joni Mitchell and Simon & Garfunkle are very close seconds).

The universe works in strange ways, and my boss (a straight up music junkie himself) posted the pre-order for an Indigo Girls concert on my facebook page months ago. Naturally I ordered 2 tickets, told the brunette, and then discovered that they were playing the friday of Mother’s Day weekend.

The worst weekend of the year.

Very few people see me when I am truly and completely happy in my skin. But my wife has. Sometimes I let my friends glimpse it, particularly if they are near me and my horse.

But on Friday night, I danced. To the music that has made getting through the worst parts of this life possible. I sang until I was hoarse.

Because I know the words to every song and singing along is absolutely required by Amy and Emily. They wrap you up in their music until you feel ALL the feelings — from political outrage to love to heartbreak to existential questions to

hope. Most of all, hope.

I drank blueberry red bull (they didn’t have sugar free, and I danced in my little black dress. I danced my blonde ass off.

Like no one and everyone was watching. Like the complete weirdo that I am. So completely filled with joy by the music and the people who love the same music I love.

So yeah, Mom. I miss the fuck out of you. But I am dancing.

Lola and House 030

10 Years

I have to share this. From the amazing blogger who gave me the courage to like skinny jeans and write a blog and ugly cried with me during YA movies. This is a beautiful testament to her husband! Read HER.


This week, my husband and I celebrate 10 years of being Mark & Emily. 10 years. That’s a LONG time guys. We are not the couple that gushes about our relationship on social media, we don’t flaunt our relationship everywhere. But this is a milestone that just feels deserving of its own post.

To commemorate 10 years, I dedicate this post to Mark. A digital love letter. Because he’s such a private person (one of my favorite things about him – it allows our love to remain ours and sacred) but there are so many wonderful sides of his personality and character that so many people just don’t know. So I’m going to expose just a few of them (with his permission).

Back in our early days of dating, I wasn’t the most trusting young lady. So I played games with men that I dated, always testing and demanding that…

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Food Adventures

One of the very best things about traveling are the food adventures. I have pretty much tried every barbecue place in Illinois, worked my way through tacos and barbecue in Texas (although I don’t understand why Texans even bother with sides), and love finding hole in the wall joints with every possible kind of ethnic food in every city I visit.

I was recently in both New Orleans and Louisville and may need to just eat Kale for a month, although my new skinny jeans are holding up! Or maybe just some batmas sadako, my favorite Himalayan dish.

What are your favorite food adventures?

PS: I obsessively love kale.

The Oaks & Tabs: It Began with a Horse …

Four years ago, I met this big spotted horse named Chief. I would later learn that he could take pretty much anyone and make them into a rider. He had thick, thick fur with a mohawk mane and a dappled rump. I took my first adult riding lesson in hunt seat (think fox hunting without foxes and jumps in an arena instead of hedges and fences) on a cold as hell day. I was pretty sure I could do it. I grew up riding and had taken riding lessons in my adolescence and middle school years. I was practically born on a horse, as my Mom kept her horse Golden Nugget until she got pregnant with my sister.


I was sure this would be easy and fun.


It’s an enormously frustrating thing to know your thighs, not your calves, need to push you up and down in the seat, and your body will NOT comply. Not to mention tight achilles, tight hips, weak calves, and at this point I was doing hard yoga at least 4 days a week.

But god was it fun, and I missed my Mom less when I was in the sometimes quiet, sometimes chaotic student barn at Baskin Farms in Wildwood, Missouri, which I have to recommend to any adult who wants to learn how to ride (or re-learn as it were).

Fast forward two years, and I had leased a couple of horses, a quiet mare and a handsome gelding who is still my prince charming. But then I bought Beau, or Mr. Bojangles, as we call him.


Beau is my baby and I missing him today, as I sit in a hotel in Louisville waiting for the Kentucky Derby. I haven’t decided if I am going this afternoon to the race. I don’t have a ticket, and I’m tired after yesterday at Churchill Downs for the Oaks, the great international filly turf and track race.



It started with a horse, and here I am, in Louisville, for horse races that my Mother loved. I don’t know how I ever managed not to be here. Ever managed without a horse. I owe so much of everything to do with that ride to my friend Tabs, so much of this blog, so much of my push to find a big life. So naturally, I am thrilled I got to spend yesterday with her at Churchill Downs. And thrilled that she has been with me for every part of the life that began with a horse, with her own gray horse and her sense of adventure and hilarity.


Sharing these things that my Mom loved so much has been a massive part of my grieving process. And yesterday, at Churchill Downs, I’m sure my Mom was with me in spirit.

But I know my friend Tabs was in person, and that means everything in the world. Sometimes even the worst things are possible if you have a horse and a friend.

What better place to celebrate a 13 year friendship than a race for girls?



On Death, Grief, and Friendship

The spring sucks for me. The anniversary of my Mother’s death, parents birthdays, functional end of my marriage, all spring up from day to day, like the jonquils, tulips, iris, daffodils, and lilies. Each pops up like a time bomb that may not explode on the day itself, but will lie in wait and with a little time, will have me in a sobbing, keening mess.

I learned a few things, however, after now 13 years for my Mom and soon to be 10 for my Dad.

(1). Don’t try and act normal the week of my Mom’s death (which occurred over a period of three days when she disappeared and we had to track her down using bank records). It will be horrible and it’s not clear when it will be horrible. I try to work from home and drown myself in massive projects, but give myself space to lose it. Better to lose it for a few hours writing a brief than in the middle of a depo.

(2) Don’t even acknowledge Mother’s Day (aka the worst f*cking day of the year). This year, I’m seeing my favorite, favorite, favorite band, The Indigo Girls, in my hometown on Friday. Then I’m going to hole up somewhere with a stack of books, movies, and room service.

(3) Try not to drink. A glass (or bottle) of red wine after a long day or a good bourbon after a long week is great. The same when dealing with grief is no bueno. Use benzos sparingly, try to focus on self care, with lots of good tea and yoga (all of which can be purchased to excess in May, same with coffee, books, and anything for my pets).

(4) Caveat: It’s okay to drink on Father’s Day, but invite your friends and make them drink G&Ts, watch golf, and eat BBQ. Luckily for me, most of my bestie-pals knew and loved my Dad. So unlike the worst f*cking day of the year, Father’s Day can be kind of healing. My much beloved and recently-lost friend H was great about this, because she was part of the dead Dad’s club. So is J, for different but similar reasons. Frankly, so are all my friends, including N, who will remind me to ride my horse and write words.

But now I come to the most important thing of all.

(4) Let your friends in. Friendship as a child was all well and good, but let me tell you, as a grownup, my friends are my family. My lifeline. And since my closest friends have been with my since Spring turned awful, they know what it means to me.  I think it is easy for people to discount adult friendships, true adult friendships based on shared interests, passions, care, and time spent together. I’m not talking about the friendships that exist once a year at holiday parties with your neighbors. I’m talking about the friends who you carry in your heart, and who you can call when you are at your absolute worst. When you are at your absolute best. When you need work advice, love advice, family advice, what the hell do I watch on TV advice. I’ve been a crap friend this year to my bestie pals, E, T, J, K, A, F, and N. I’ve been focused on my career, which I love, and travel, which I love, and a lot of change, which I hate and makes me want to hide under the covers and eat nutella.

But here is one magic example of what adult friendships can do.

E and I have been friends since the first day of law school orientation. Fall 2018 will be our 15th anniversary. And even though I was so remote and so hyperfocused on everything work and hiding under the covers, when our precious friend H died (you see my thing with death?) this winter, she was THERE. With hugs and champagne and making sure I eat. With her kind heart. I don’t deserve her, but this is why every adult needs best friends. I’m pretty sure she and I will end up living in a condo together like 2 of the Golden Girls. She is my person. As are my other friends.

Yeah, your family is important (obviously, given my reaction to May), but adult friendships add dimension to your life. These people push me. They notice. They demand and expect things of me that my family might not. Their love is unconditional, but it doesn’t mean they have to put up with my sh!t when I hide.

The idea of a life focused on one person terrifies me (see reaction above to May).

It also bores me. We have this one life with this consciousness. Why be stingy? Why not allow yourself the luxury of friends, who if you are lucky, become the family you CHOOSE. You get two families, and both are great.

Besides, some friends will take you to a great baseball game, others to the symphony, others will come watch you ride your horse. Some will talk for hours about poems and nerd-law and others will remind you to have grand adventures. Some will spend hours dissecting your (or their) work problem.

My parents both knew this, and even though my Mom would withdraw from her friends from times, when I look at pictures of myself giggling with my bestie-pals, I see myself in her.

May will suck. But along the way, I have some people who will make me laugh and smile and write and get out from under the covers.

Which, after thirteen years and the loss of both parents, is the best way I have learned to deal with grief.




Literature is My Religion

I was recently raving to my best friend about a book (10:04 – Ben Lerner) I discovered in a little Dallas bookstore while traveling there for work (http://thewilddetectives.com/ – go! Check it out!), and he asked me about the book’s genre.

“It’s literature,” I said.

“No, but what genre, is it sci-fi?”

“It’s literature.”

“You mean like contemporary fiction?”

“No. I mean literature.”

Which is not to say it does not have certain genre components. Nor do I mean that genre fiction cannot be literature. Jules Verne blows that idea out of the water. Followed by Neil Gaiman and so many mystery, science fiction, young adult, and other writers.

When I say literature, I mean several things.

First, I mean the prose is exceptional. The writing is clean, flawless, takes no prisoners. If the book is bloated, that was a decision by the writer; much like a decision to misuse a semi-colon for emphasis.

Second, I mean the book contains a certain number of universal truths. These don’t need to be big truths, but can be small moments of humanity. They don’t have to be plausible or even possible. But they need to, on some level, be true. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which I consider both literature and a perfect book, although perhaps not for small children, has a number of moments of implausibility that are, in fact, completely true. Coraline’s Other Mother provides everything we believe a Mother should be, and yet she is horrifying.

Why? Because she may do and say and act in the ways that we consider in an ideal mother, but she does not love Coraline in that way that her real mother, who acts and behaves in a way that one considers unmotherly. Yet the reader knows, virtually from the beginning, which mother is the real mother.

Moments like this are what I mean by true.

Third, the book has a sense of permanence. Very few serious readers will doubt that Harry Potter will last. At this point, it is probably a universal law of reading that the next generation and the next will read Harry Potter along with Narnia. Along with White Fang and Tom Sawyer and all of those books we call Children’s Literature when we buy then for Children, and Literature when we buy them for ourselves. These are the books that add to the cannon. Perhaps even knock a few out of it.

I have been fighting with writer friends off and on for ten years about the origins of Chick Lit (a genre I love but judge so harshly that outside of Helen Fielding, Helen Fielding, and Rebecca Wells that I almost never read it). I maintain (loudly) that Helen Fielding invented chick lit and rescued it from the pink corner of shame (romance) in the book store. How those genres differ from say the modern mystery (invented by Megan Abbott, Tana French, and Gillian Flynn) or household fiction is a topic for another post. But as far as I can tell, it’s not just me and the publishing houses who draw a distinction.

Others suggest chick lit has its origins in nineteenth century literature. Not the Brontes, not George Eliot, not even the socialite Edith Wharton. By others, I mean one of my warrior princess sisters who argues OVER AND OVER that Jane Austen is chick lit.

To say I fundamentally reject the notion that five books I have read well over 100 times founded chick lit during the regency period of British Literature, fundamentally changed the notion of the novel, and shaped the idea of the modern heroine is an understatement.

I might entertain the idea that Austen provided the foundations for Fielding, but Austen wrote literature. Exceptional prose (including intentionally long paragraphs replete with semi-colons), universal truths (stated within the first page), permanence. I love Bridget Jones. She is a masterpiece of a character.

But her books are not pushing the notion of the novel forward or in a new direction.

The fourth reason is metaphysical and resides well within the modern question: “What is Art?” Jonathan Franzen perhaps captured it best in a 2004 review of an Alice Munro short story collection (Munro being perhaps the most talented living writer of short stories) when he said, “Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death. She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion.”

For me both Franzen and Munro are in that handful. What I often call my top five (or top ten) living writers, along with the same dead writers, make up the back bone of classic and modern literature for me.

Even on my goodreads page, I distinguish between modern literature and modern fiction (https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/411786?shelf=read). I love to read and read constantly. I am a huge fan of genre fiction of all types (not so much on romance, but even that I will give a whirl, although I prefer it in the YA crack delivered by Rainbow Rowell and John Green). But when I worship, I worship at the alter of high art and when I say something modern is literature, it is me saying “THIS! THIS! THIS! is what changes the modern novel.”

Literature is my religion.

Inspired in part by that snarky dude from St. Louis and his musings, and in part by conversations with my best friend, who is perhaps even Snarkier than Franzen (assuming that is possible).






It’s Hard Not to Hate You: A Review

Dear Val,

I’m going to be straight with you. I bought your book because it was on sale at Half-Priced books (my inner indie book girl says with much shame) and because I liked the title. I’ve been traveling non-stop lately, and a snarky memoir seemed the perfect thing for when I was too tired to work any more, so I chucked you into my roller bag.

What I discovered, as you so aptly describe in your last chapter, was a validation of living in 3D emotions. It wasn’t so much a memoir about hate (although I will be saying “its hard not to hate you” for months), but a story about a woman both coming to terms with her own mortality while finding ways to balance self-empowerment and overt b!tchdom.

In many ways, your search for depth made me feel more secure in my often “too muchness,” too emotional, too self-critical and analytical, too needful to discuss and analyze feelings. So thanks.

Let me just say I think you are a wildly under-rated novelist. While I love the show Sex & the City, your treatment of “Smart vs. Pretty” is a stand-out for me. Keep writing. I suspect I will be ordering a second copy of your book (from my local indie bookstore Left Bank to properly atone) and placing it in many hands).

Perhaps your books are like your discussion of friends. Kinsella and Bushnell come and then make it into the “to sell pile” (how I ended up in the Half-Priced joint in the first place). Yours stay. They are lifers. And for a memoirist, who likes to think she is funny and loves to read, this was a particular treat. You finding your emotional intelligence and depth was a validation of my own.

Thank you for this hidden gem. And for making this fat jewish girl giggle and laugh and tear up.



PS: I’m kind of in love with Howie.


Work: An Adventure

Let us go then you and I, out into the star strewn sky like a patient etherized on a table. Oh do not stop to ask what is it, let us go and make our visit! — TS Eliot

My garden is overrun with weeds – both those known and those pernicious flowers and plants that will hijack a bed without constant vigilance – my horse is fat and lazy in the August heat, and my vigilance knows one direction.


It is my oldest and most preferred addiction. The reason I began this blog some five years ago, to find a voice and a self within the six minute increments. But that was then, and now, I have found myself a new purpose in this practice.

I write poems and travel, city to city, client to client, depo to depo, and somewhere in between the shadow and the soul, I find new meaning.

I dare not abandon my roses, the eldest approaching 120 years old, but the nice young men who cut my lawn are happy to make a little extra money taming some of the beasts.

Mr. Bojangles doesn’t mind the time off and still, despite my constant dash for this airport or that hotel, this drive, that meeting, we still jump and sing and have our moments.

I watch my work become a vocation, and all of my Catholic/Jewish roots tingle in the knowledge that I can do some good here.

And still, I find new parts of me, between the lines.

The trick, I must believe there is a trick, always there is a trick, is seeing the adventure. I’ve been practically everywhere, gypsy childhood on the road, but always there is a new restaurant, a new road, a new friend.

A new sketchbook filled with old buildings and new skyscrapers.

And there are poems, songs of Middle America, all of which exist between the lines, between the notes, I will say of a particularly skilled pianist.

Life is short and hard, but it is also sweet, sings la merchant.

I work.

I work and I discover that when they finally let you do the things you were meant to do, there is no measuring in six minutes. No measuring in sad Prufrockian coffee spoons.

There is adventure.

And for me, often terror, for I take what I do so seriously. The duty. The burden. But even on this long, hard days, I will pause, fingers groping for some charcoal to draw this life in suburbia (already apologizing to my dry cleaner as I beg her to make some black smudge disappear from my black and white skirt) and think …
Well now.

Let us go then.

And see what wonders we might find.

Perhaps not precisely life OUTSIDE of law these days.

Instead, a new adventure.

Life between the lines.

Which any poet will tell you, is where the best ideas reside.