As Father’s Day winds down, I keep coming back to one of my favorite stories about my dad.

My dad is an engineer. Often, this meant that when I was younger he would go on a lot of business trips for company projects, sometimes to domestic locales, but sometimes to more exotic places. And I remember a lot of trips where Mum and I (and sometimes later my little brother) would go to O’Hare to pick him up.

O’Hare is one of my favorite airports for a lot of reasons. One, I grew up in Chicago and it inevitably feels like home, an old friend that I’m always traveling back to see when I pass through. Two, it contains the Moving Walk, a place elevated to near-divinity by childhood fascination and awe that I still make every effort to take it when I can.

And three, because I was always coming back to people I missed in it.

This story is like many of my childhood airport reunion stories: we made welcome home signs with washable markers, drove to O’Hare, and waited for my dad’s flight to come in. What made it different this time was that there had been a delay–weather, perhaps– I was too young (maybe five or six) to know exactly what it was.

But apparently it was a big enough deal to bring down some reporters from Chicago’s local news stations to cover it and interview people. A reporter spoke with my mother briefly before my dad deplaned and made it over to us, and then came back for another round once we were all together.

My dad has always gotten us presents when he traveled. These days, it’s so ingrained in me that as an adult whenever I go places I wonder if I’ve bought enough gifts for my family. I collected necklaces and rings from Tel Aviv when I was older and Dad traveled farther abroad, but on this particular day I got what turned out to be my favorite gift, a grow-your-own-crystals kit.

I loved these things. I think I’d grown several sets with my parents at home already, smashed all manner of geodes, and I’d stare for ages at those fast-growing crystalline structures that balanced precariously like skyscrapers in their petri dishes. As Mum was being interviewed, Dad, right there in the middle of the concourse, unzipped his suitcase and pulled out a massive, new crystal set. I was elated.

Eventually, after talking with my mom and dad about airlines and delays, the reporter asked for my thoughts. I, ever-mindful that these, truly, were my fifteen minutes of fame, said something like, “Look at the great crystal rocks my dad got me!”

And I think it’s hard as a parent, wondering what things your child is going to immortalize, what gets through and what doesn’t. I applied to tons of universities, decided on his alma mater. He quietly hoped I’d transfer into engineering; I built race cars out of carbon fiber and became a mathematician instead. He got me and my little brother educational CD-ROMs like Treasure Mathstorm and Logical Journey of the Zoombinis; I was the kid who worked chores to afford her first GameBoy to play Pokemon Blue and then spent days on console-based JRPGs as a teen.

My dad traded in his two Porsches for two kids (happily, both children grew up to purchase fast cars of their own), he, in grad school, owned two Afghans named Sasha and Misha who required meticulous daily brushing (and later caused me no small amount of consternation as I wondered if I’d been named* after a beloved hound**), and he very nearly let the crab cakes my now-six-foot-four little brother and I shipped him as a Father’s Day gift sit out on by the front door overnight.

Once, he had a two-sided chalkboard in his parents’ house that he drew out transforms on, and when done with one side’s worth of material, he’d flip it over and lay back down on his bed to commit the fresh side to memory. He’s also one of the few people I know who has lived through the twin feelings of relief and frustration when your parents occasionally rescue you during your graduate years– relief and appreciation because thank god you have a working car and your family loves you, frustration because you’re old enough that you ought to have your life more in order and not rely on people who love you, damn it.

We chatted about the Near Crab Cake Fiasco a little before Father’s Day (the crab cakes, alas, had too much of the element of surprise going for them, but ultimately everything was fine), and one thing that came up was how much he’d been away for work when we were kids. “Sometimes I wonder if I did enough,” my PhD-having,  multiple patent-achieving, world-traveler father said. “Or was there enough.”

I am a doctoral student, preparing for exams deep into the summer, who wakes up at the crack of dawn every couple of days to write a magnificently weird coup de maître featuring magic rocks and crystals.

“You did just fine.” I said.

As a preteen, I used to get really mad that I’d used up five of my fifteen minutes of fame talking about a gift in O’Hare. In retrospect, I doubt the fifteen minutes thing is true anymore or if it is, that it even matters that much. It’s less scrambling to prolong your fame and more what you do when you’re pulled into the spotlight.

And somewhere, in the blurry 90’s archives of a local Chicago station, a starry-eyed kid clutches a deluxe Magic Rocks set to her chest, ignores all of the interviewing reporter’s questions, and just goes on and on about how excited she is that she and her parents are going to make these tonight, now that her dad’s finally home.

* Sasha is a diminutive of my given name.
** I am not actually named after Sasha, though Sasha was a very good dog.


I have had a somewhat tempestuous relationship with the cello.

Let me explain.

Back when I was a little kid, I had a single, relentless endgame: I would grow up to be a rock star. Period. Everything I did was geared to further this goal. I did all the stuff you were supposed to do, like informing your teacher in kindergarten of your life choice (she said that she hoped I’d send her tickets to my show, which I took very seriously as a five-year-old), listening to a lot of songs on the radio and analyzing them, and cultivating a rebel aesthetic. I even took dance classes (first ballet, but then I quit and just did jazz because ballet did not work with the punk aesthetic) so I’d know how to tear it up on stage.

It was about when I was eight that I figured out it would be good to actually learn an instrument or something, because while ace rock star carriage and dancing were important, I surely couldn’t rocket to stardom on leather cuffs and an impressive knowledge of pop stations alone.

Also, I liked electric guitars, and at that point I still thought an electric guitar meant you were literally playing electricity. That sounded very rock star. Another thing I liked about electric guitars was that they were loud. When you played, people paid attention.

My parents thought it was great that I liked music, so one day after a classical concert they took me to something called an instrument zoo.

An instrument zoo sounds even less interactive and more dangerous than an actual zoo (“no, you can’t touch this because if you break it and it’ll cost thousands of dollars!”), but in reality it was the opposite. There were different stations you could visit, and musicians let you try out a tester instrument, show you how to get the sound.

At first blush, this perhaps seems counter-intuitive. I’d wanted to be a rock star, not an orchestra musician–had something gotten lost in translation? But no, as my parents explained, the plan was threefold: Stage 1) I’d get my footing, learn to read music and play a classical instrument, Stage 2) I’d transition over to acoustic guitar when I was ready, and from there, Stage 3) move onto electric. There would even be amps, they promised.

And so I had a great time trying out instruments. Deep in my heart, I inexplicably wanted to play the flute. I don’t know why this was, other than the flute looked hard. And it actually was hard, because as much as I tried, I couldn’t get any sound to come out. I blew on that thing for at least five minutes until the instrument zoo flute-keeper looked at the giant flute line behind me, patted my shoulder, and recommended the oboe instead.

As it turned out, I was able to coax sound out of the oboe, but no, if I couldn’t have the flute I wanted nothing to do with the entire woodwind family. Initially I was curious about the violin (because my other giant childhood life plan was to become the world’s greatest consulting detective and as we all know, all the great ones played violin) but my parents were already talking about getting my little brother violin lessons, and thus an intense sibling rivalry killed that option.

But there was another member of the string family and strings, thank god, were fairly easy to make music with. So, I selected the cello as my Stage 1 Rock Star Career Instrument. My dad told me that cellos were great for holding a baseline in songs, and kept flicking through radio stations on the way home until he found one with a cello.

“Do you hear that?” He’d asked. “Right there, that’s a cello.”

I just heard the melody die off and then something low and grumbly fight through the static before the brass drowned it out.

An unexpected consequence of cello was that it taught me a lot about loss.

My parents arranged lessons for me with the same person who taught my brother violin. It was perhaps not surprising to find that cello often played second fiddle to other instruments, but having to play back-up to my six-year-old sibling during seven variations of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” really drove it home.

Eventually I worked through enough of the Suzuki books that I was starting to hit the interesting stuff, minuets and etudes, things that were no longer beginner small fry but actually sounded half-impressive. Around that time, my teacher announced that he was leaving for a music conservatory, and as I still held ever relentless to my dreams of being a rock star, my parents found a new teacher.

(My brother, of course, quit violin and I think at this point took up drumming for about a year.)

Ms. Sheila was the first adult who’d asked that I call her by her given name. I was ten and this was unthinkable. I certainly did not call my teachers Patrica or Susan at school, and I did not see why instruction in cello should be different. Ms. Sheila insisted, though, so I found a compromise: her first name was Sheila and that was what she wanted to hear, I needed a honorary prefix, and the rest is history.

Fun fact: I still have trouble with this, even as an adult: it is actually one of my 2016 resolutions to get comfortable calling my PhD advisor Paul. (He has been my advisor for over a year now.)

Under Ms. Sheila’s tutelage, I worked through the higher Suzuki books and perfected my form. In cello, your bow is supposed draw down on the strings in the space between the fingerboard and the bridge. You’re supposed to imagine a little house (or a woman with a baby stroller) on the corner of the fingerboard and pedestrian traffic on the bridge. You are driving the bow, which is a car in this metaphor, and you must not run over the bridge pedestrians or the little house. (Usually people bow too close to the fingerboard; I did it too close to the bridge, and Ms. Sheila always wondered why I kept endangering more imaginary cello-people that way. I said it was because I placed more value on the individual than the group, but really my form was just bad and I was eleven and felt like being contrary.)

Two or three years after I started as her student, our lessons were cancelled more and more frequently as Ms. Sheila went through cancer treatment. Then there was one last ride up the steep Haverhill hills to her house, where all my lessons had been, this time without my cello, where my mother and I said goodbye and she gave us a list of recommendations for a new teacher.

I was not a stranger to death at that point– my father’s parents had died when I was about four, and I’d gone with him through their house and their things. My first dog died when I was eight. But Ms. Sheila was the first person where there had been a certain formality and dignity to the loss.

It was a different changeover than losing my first teacher had been– perhaps he thought he would hear about me again later as an accomplished cellist, perhaps he just figured me for another kid whose parents were already looking to beef up her college applications.

This hurt.

Of all my cello teachers, Elena is my favorite.

I started taking cello lessons with her in a room of an old church whose graveyard had this fantastic stone arch that looked like it could be a pathway to the underworld. In the fall, I would just stare at it: the bright New England leaves crimson and gold against slashes of granite and damp moss.

Elena certainly did not start as my favorite, though. I was twelve or thirteen when we began lessons and had more or less begun to realize that this cello thing was a sham. I flipped out at my parents when I saw them letting my little brother play their acoustic guitars: that was mine, that was my goal, that was what you promised me, he quit, and look at how hard I’ve been practicing!

Stay a little longer on cello, they said. You’re so good at it. We’ll think about guitar next year.

A lot of people say that high school is the worst time of your life. I disagree. I had a comparatively easy high school experience compared to middle school. The details aren’t relevant, but the point is my sixth through eighth grade were a living hell. I entered high school with a chip on my shoulder, impressive drawing skills from lunches and recesses spent alone in the library, and an unshakeable distrust of people who did yoga.

All this time I was also trying to learn cello. Elena met me at one of the two angriest times in my life, and I think our first lesson together I barely even spoke to or looked at her as I played. In retrospect, I don’t think I was handling Ms. Sheila’s death particularly well, and school had made me doubt the intentions of anyone who was as friendly as Elena was. To top it off, I dreaded cello lessons because it reminded me of my rock star failure.

Still, it is a fact universally acknowledged that it’s hard to learn music if you don’t talk to your teacher.

As I kept coming back to that church with its rad arch, I talked more. My mother would also sit in on my lessons, and she and Elena became fast friends. I think I started calling Elena by her first name because I was feeling ~*rebellious*~ enough to drop the prefix, and it stuck.

And things got better. I was stoked when I learned my first gavotte, not only because I had always wanted to play a gavotte, but also because Elena was the first teacher who took me off the Suzuki books. I began playing real music. I was placed later and later at recitals, until I was the last student playing.

If you are unfamiliar with recitals, it is often the established thing that you have your younger or newer students playing first (often little kids are pretty ansty and not great at waiting, so if you get their performance out of the way, they can either chill or their parents can jet with them if they melt down mid-someone else’s sonata) and then progress to the older, more experienced musicians. To play last, to be the one who ends the night, is an honor.

Because cello necessitated pants, on recital nights I always had to wear this red cummerbund that my grandmother had made me to dress up my slacks. My parents brought me roses and flowers, told me that they were proud of me, and on those nights, when I bowed at the end of my concertos, I finally felt like I was doing something right. Like here I could just excel and all the people in the audience knew it. Things were melting down elsewhere, but for fifteen minutes in a slowly emptying room I had total mastery, cummerbund and all.

And it may not have been rock and roll, but it was close.

In high school, my parents tried to sell me on the idea of electric cello. They’d seen an experimental performance at the pops, and they’d fallen in love. “Look,” they’d said, “you could do this!”

I did not buy it. This was before I was fortunate enough to hear Geographer, a kickass band that does indeed feature an electric cello. My idea of a rock star lifestyle was picks, microphones, and electric chords. Treble clef. Sure, yeah, you could hook a cello up to an amp. So what? I wanted to rock out standing up. That was not something a cello could promise.

So I just forgot about it. My mother and Elena were great friends, I kept on taking cello lessons and opening up more. Another good thing about cello is that you get less afraid of making friends in a new high school after you’ve played Vivaldi to a room full of people older than you. I was surprised when Elena told me at the end of a lesson that she was so happy with today because it had been the most I’d ever talked to her in one sitting.

Eventually, I figured, hey, whatever, I’m a teenager, and all the rock stars have already gotten their guitars. The cool kids had already been chosen, alae iacta est, and maybe there were just some people who would never be ready for Stage 2: Acoustic Guitar.

This is something I have learned about art: it is a one-or-zero endeavor. You either devote yourself to it, or you don’t, but once you make the choice you don’t get to complain anymore. This is a tough lesson to learn. For a while, I’d kind of wanted to be the victim, the girl whose parents hadn’t let her play the guitar, whose stadium dreams had been squashed by bass clef.

But the thing about wanting something is that when you want it badly enough, people telling you no are never absolute. It’s just not yet, wait a bit, try again later, another way, or convince me. If I had really wanted to learn electric guitar, then why hadn’t I asked my parents to practice on their acoustics like my brother had? Why didn’t I write it on a piece of paper or in the ridiculous amounts of diaries I wrote at the time?

Before I went off to college and my family moved from the northeast back midwest, I had my last lesson with Elena. We’d been working on Saint-Saens’ The Swan from the Carnival of the Animals, which remains one of my favorite pieces. It is gloriously sad, magical, and breathless. It’s also a pretty good approximation for how quitting an instrument feels: the triumph of skill to hit the harmonics, and the knowledge that this is your swan song, that it’s over.

In college, I met a lot of people with acoustic and electric guitars and amps. They had started garage bands for a time, found drummers and vocalists, made a flash-in-the-pan go of it. I said I’d played cello but did not bring up the rest of the dream.

Because by then it had become a question I did not like finding the answer to, but there it was: had I not wanted it enough?

Last night, I went to a chamber music open mic night at a Chinese tea house.

I had not thought I would be kind of person who would go to chamber music nights, let alone ones at my local tea house, but a friend in my department had invited me. A cello player pizzicato’d and hit the high harmonics and the group I was with thought he was the coolest. I hadn’t played cello in eight years, but I still smiled when his bow hit the sheet music on someone else’s music stand because man, have I been there.

It’s easier now for me to hear the cello in these pieces, both at tea houses and on the radio. It’s the baseline, the steady undertone that carries you through. It may not get the harmony, but maybe you don’t always want that. The cello can be the saddest or most resilient instrument of all the strings, depending on how you play it. You just have a deeper voice than the others.

During my time away from cello, I have become the kind of person who trawls through indie sites for new songs, who wears headphones at least a few hours a day, and who has to have music playing to write or drive long distances. On one of my trips home, I asked my parents if they were disappointed that I’d stopped playing. They said no.

“You just didn’t have time,” my dad said, which was and wasn’t true. My mom said: “Honey, we never expected you to play cello forever.”

Had I gone through those ten years for nothing?

“What we wanted,” she said, “was for you to always have music in your life.”

It is August 2015 and I am visiting my best friend in Miami. I have not met her husband before, but she’s still at work and so I’m chilling with him at their house for the hour before she comes back. It is a sink or swim situation and things have become truly dire, so I do the thing that anyone does when they seek to ingratiate themselves with their best friend’s new spouse: tell them about your wacky childhood dreams.

“And you never learned to play guitar?” He says, like this is the worst ending ever.

“Well, no. I’m very good at air guitar, though,” I say, wondering how to explain middle school and siblings and also death in a two-minutes-or-less, new-acquaintance-friendly kind of way. “There was just a lot of cello, and Stage 2–”

“We have two guitars right here. Hold on.” He leaps up from the couch and their two dogs trail after him. “We’ll start right now.”

He shows me how to do a basic chord progression and I mess up a lot, because my fingers want to curl around the instrument’s neck differently, like a cello’s, even though it’s been almost seven years since I last practiced. It’s embarrassing and the guitar feels too huge, but it’s not bad. My best friend has said her husband should be a high school guidance counselor because he makes people feel at ease about doing stuff like this, and I can see it.

“Do you have a teacher?” I ask him.

“What, for guitar? Nah. You just look chords up on the internet and teach yourself.” He swaps his guitar for a tiny ukulele and we jam until my friend gets home. “They sell acoustics on Craigslist and other places for cheap. You can practice between studying and stuff. If you feel like getting one.”

“You know,” I say, “I should.”

track and field

One of the things that high school me got roped into freshman year was cross country. I still don’t understand the logic even ten years later: I hate running. I don’t hate it in the way that I don’t think anyone should do it, as I feel about other things, but I don’t find the necessary joy in it that I need to do it regularly.

The real reason why I did cross country in freshman year was that I’d been varsity field hockey goalie for all three years of middle school (ask me about my letter jackets) and the high school I ended up at didn’t have a team. I think they’d had a team at some point, but the teacher sponsor gave up on it. They did have an impressive Latin program, though.

My parents hounded me gently about needing a sport to round out my college applications (and if you’re surprised kids start worrying about building college apps freshman year of high school, ahahahaha), and I chose running because I really liked how lithe and thief-like everyone’s builds were.

I know, I know. I was young and foolish and, surprising no one but myself, I was terrible at cross country.

Like, we’re talking eleven-minute-mile, wheezing through the course around the baseball fields bad, coming in last at every meet but being so stubborn about trying to improve that you’d board the bus for an hour there and back anyway. We’re talking the level of stubborn where the kids who came in first or second shake their heads at you and wonder why the hell you’re wasting your time when you are just not getting better, but the coach is so kind and encouraging you end up doing track in winter, too.

The stuff I loved about cross country was basically everything to do with it that wasn’t running. I liked the numbers we pinned to our jerseys on meet days because I liked paper and finding patterns. I liked the dumb jokes and how people called the fastest dude on the team a horse and meant it as the highest compliment. Most of all, I liked the places we ran. I got to run backwoods around gigantic courses outlining lacrosse fields, through towns and cemeteries, even through parts of a zoo, all as part of our meets. My favorite was running through the streets of this city by the sea, sidewalks and streets roped off for us, the scenery always changing when you took a turn, always keeping you not quite sure if you were heading to the beach or back into the woods or the downtown. I still have dreams about running and they’re almost all like that: going at a comfortable pace through a foreign city on a marked off course as buildings and vistas shift.

But cross country is not track, and track is different. One of my friends threw javelin in track. There are no projectile weapons in cross country, or at least there aren’t supposed to be.

My high school built their nice athletic and arts addition after I graduated, so while I was there there wasn’t really a designated place for us to run when the weather got cold. We had a course of our own, sure, but it gets damn frigid in the winter in Massachusetts (also, icy) and no one was going out there. We had an arboretum (that one of the priests used to smoke cigarettes in), but no indoor track. Go figure.

What we did have was a hundred-foot straightaway in the fourth floor hallway.

One thing I really admired my high school for was that while they didn’t have a lot of money for things, they MacGyvered like nobody’s business. When I’d been touring prep schools with my parents and interviewing places after lengthy tours of grounds and facilities, it seemed like every secondary school in the northeast was a mini-university: fancy dorms, state of the art athletics, art wings that were as big as public schools, the works.

I did not get into any of those. This was probably for the best.

Another feature of my high school was that my locker was on the fourth floor underneath a giant mural that spanned the entire corridor. It was vaguely religious, but mostly had student-painted pictures of trees, earth, animal and plant-life, the occasional saint. If you were lucky, you’d get a cool design over your locker to help you remember where it was. Me, I had a naked, faceless angel arching his back in ecstasy with an arm thrown over his forehead (or about the vicinity of the forehead– again, he was without facial features). I don’t know how anyone okayed this, but there he was. High school me was a Romantic with Victorian ideals of love and courtship, so I was all shocked and bothered but I reasoned, whatever, one year with the slightly lewd celestial being, no big, I’d change lockers next September. Seniors had lockers on the second floor, freshmen had the crap ones on the fourth where I was, and as you become more of an upperclassmen, the closer to the convenient lower-floors lockers you got. At the end of my freshman year, though, the administration said it would be too much hassle to switch locker assignments again, so you guessed it: I was indeed stuck with the suggestive angel for all four years of high school.

So I’d run track stampeding with the rest of the team through this fourth floor corridor, past my racy seraphim (some people actually commented on it! “man, how hilarious would it be to have that locker” and I’d just go all Stoic Face and pray my drama club training held), racing through the same place where teachers would yell at you during school hours for walking too fast. I maybe hated running, but this part was fun.

It was also fun watching the people who were good at track being really good.

There was this group of three Vietnamese friends who just excelled at track. They were always top of their events, and I always wondered how they did it. Sometimes our coach would have them practice sprinting down the corridor (we really did a number on that building–one time I was on the third floor asking a teacher about something and I forgot it was track day and was shocked when the lights were shaking) and we’d all just watch. At first I thought that they just ran with coins in their pockets, typical teenage dude: gotta sound cool, always carry change so people think you have car keys (or better, keep the car keys on a lanyard hanging out from your uniform khakis), but a few weeks into practice I found out it wasn’t that at all.

One of the guys fished into his pockets and handed his friend piles and piles of weights.

This guy was fast running normally, and by that I mean, not only was he faster than I was, but he actually won things like medals. He practiced weighted down– he also ran with weights cuffed around his ankles, but like the keen natural observer I was, I did not spot this until he’d stooped to remove them.

People got out stopwatches, counted down, and he was off.

It was the fastest I’d ever seen a human being run in real life.

It’s also just cool, seeing how people train themselves when they’ve gotten good at something. It’s not enough anymore to just do the meter run in a decent time; you have to do it weighted down if you want to improve. You’d don’t just want to finish the workout, you want to shatter your PR. You can finish and revise a manuscript, but now you want to write something you’re not sure you’re capable of.

I am probably at my best when I’m writing fantasy. I grew up on Diana Wynne Jones’ everything and Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic, and pretty much if it didn’t have magic in it I wasn’t interested. So it’s been weird writing a contemporary book, something void of magicians and lords and hierarchies, but it also forced me to re-evaluate a lot of techniques– why could I skate by in fantasy with this and why was it falling apart when I did it in the real world?

Back then, I watched that kid take off down the hallway and was instantly envious. I wanted that. I did not want to put in the time to get good enough at running because surprise! I hated running, but I wanted that feeling of training hard and getting frustrated and learning to be excellent even with a handicap and then taking the weights off. I wanted to know how that felt.

The past few days, I’ve been taking a break from my contemporary manuscript and returning to an old fantasy story of mine with houses and cities and magic, all the things I loved as a little kid mashed together. There were places in it that I knew I was messing up, and after having worked so long on the contemp and seeing those problems stark and isolated without the veneer of creative worldbuilding, I knew how to fix them.

And reading through the first chapter, getting back into the characters, the setting, the swirl and swing of the language, I finally understand how that kid felt when the coach yelled three-two-one and told him to go.

You take the weights off and you fly.

16 writing tricks for 2016

Since this is getting to be a tradition, here are 16 of my favorite writing tips and tricks from the last year. Some are oldies but goldies that I’ve gained new appreciation of in my last year as a freelance editor and newly agented writer, and some may be new! Either way, hopefully they help you as much as they’ve helped me.

1 :: imagine it like a movie

One of the best tricks I learned when I was interning under retired agent Mary Kole was to pretend that your manuscript was a movie and you were its director. This helps you make sure that the characters are always doing something and not like, thinking for ages inside their heads or spending too much time explaining things to the reader.

Actors like projects where they have to communicate information by acting— see Mad Max: Fury Road for a great example of this. If all your stage directions to your book actors are “sit on bed, look sad, and think” that’s hard to get your reader engaged. If your instructions are instead “sneak out of house, silently bribe younger sibling, and steal parents’ car” then that’s something we’re going to be more interested in.

2 :: adverbs cost extra

You shouldn’t cut all of them, but you should make damn sure that you’ve tried really hard to cut all of them and have come up with a compelling reason not to for the ones you keep. Imagine that all the words in your book are groceries and you’re on a budget. You can totally buy some expensive stuff, like adverbs, but you can’t buy them with everything. Make sure that the places you’re purchasing adverbs for are the ones that actually need them for you to get the meaning. For example:

Dominic says jovially. can just be Dominic laughs. But you might want to keep the adverb in something like Dominic certainly was not a part of that. because the “certainly” is a part of the character’s voice and tells us that he’s just a little bit affronted you thought that about him. As long as an adverb is pulling its weight in multiple ways, it’s probably okay.

3 :: swears are like spices

On a similar tack, the same can be done with swears. If you find yourself using a lot of curses in your manuscript, especially all in one scene or very early on, think about swear words like sriracha or ghost peppers. If you throw a lot of them at your reader at once, their tongue’s going to get burnt or their mouth will go numb and they won’t really be able to taste any more spiciness.

When you throw a lot of these at a reader in short order, it sets a tone. If a lot of your characters are swearing at the story’s climax, then that’s likely okay– you want it to be shocking for everyone! But if it’s the first scene and everyone’s losing their junk, then that’s not going to leave you with a lot of ammo for the higher intensity scenes later.

4 :: cut thinking/perceiving verbs

I have linked to this article from Chuck Palahniuk so many times in 2015 it’s unreal. It’s honestly some of the best advice I’ve heard about taking my show vs. tell game up a level.

He’s not kidding when he says this is going to be a long process. Months is not an overestimate. It’s annoying as hell when you catch yourself doing it (and once you see how common thinking/knowing/perceiving verbs are, you can’t unsee them) but if you’re serious about becoming a better writer, read this, work through it, and meet me on the other side. It’s worth it.

5 :: KB’s list of ten

These next two are courtesy of one of my CPs and fellow freelancer-in-arms, Kate Brauning. I love them both so much that I have stolen them from her, and I am shamelessly including them in my favorites list.

Don’t know where your plot is going or why a character is even doing a thing? Make a list of ten reasons why they’re doing it, why your worldbuilt world is the way it is, why the villain hates the protag, etc. The first three will probably be boring or the ones that everyone thinks about. 4-6 will be harder to think of. By the time you reach 7-10, you’ll see the cool ideas come out and play.

6 :: KB’s start on the day that it’s different

Another great one from Kate: when you begin your story, make sure you start on the day that it’s different.

This is solid gold on a several levels. For one, beginning when things change means that you start with the action. “The day that it’s different” can also mean that everything is normal, slice of life time until this defining incident that turns things on their head for your protagonist. So if you’re very tricky, you can not only establish how things normally are, but then also show them falling apart and start the book off at a gallop.

7 :: your main character is always choosing something

This article has been tremendous help to me in my most recent revisions. Like, as in, I still have it open in a tab.

What makes a compelling story? When your main character drives the action instead of weathering all these things happening to them. How can you make them do that? By forcing them to make a choice each scene that either brings them closer to or farther from their overall goal.

8 :: post-it walls for plot and tension

I don’t have a picture of it because I am still on vacation, alas, but post-it walls are how I keep plot and subplot threads straight. I use different colors when I can for different timelines, and then follow how each of my subplots advance (each chapter gets a column, and if I see a subplot falling off the map at any point, I know I have to go back and bring it more to front). Granted, this is somewhat challenging to do in a studio apartment, but there are always doors, floors, and ceilings.

9 :: print it out and color code for subplots

I recently read Cheryl Klein’s book on editing, Second Sight, and I loved this trick. This was part of what made my post-it wall go so well: I went through my printed out manuscript, took all these different highlighter colors, and highlighted when a subplot came up. (You can also just use Word’s highlighting feature for this too.)

I’m someone who likes to be able to see the whole of a project at a glance, so doing this and the colored post-it method together was aces. I could look over from my desk and go “oh, there’s not enough green in this middle bit, I should up the election subplot here” and then voila, problem solved. Just remember to update it as you revise.

10 :: only tell your reader what they need to know to get the scene

Infodumping, the bane of literally everyone during first drafts of fantasy. Especially when you’re still figuring out where the story needs to go, it’s hard to know how much or how little to tell people. But when you’re revising and you’re realizing that half of your scenes are, perhaps, your main character sitting on their bed thinking how terrible obscure trade routes have gotten, you start to realize that maybe not all of this information is necessary.

Leave a little room for your reader to fill in the blanks themselves. This is true even in YA contemp, and I can tell you that from experience: hint at other stuff at the edges, but you don’t have to describe it all in detail. I also think of this as the here’s-where-readers-could-expand-on-in-fanfic tip– people are actually really good at imagining the rest of the picture for you if you provide them with some interesting sketches of the major buildings.

11 :: dying/survival isn’t necessary the best stakes

This was actually a hard pill for me to swallow. Like, why not?? IT’S LIFE OR DEATH, HOW IS THAT NOT STAKES? But for conflict and stakes to be effective, they always have to be choices that I don’t know a good answer to as your reader. “She must either give up her rough life or her loving family” how is this a choice? We already know the answer. Granted, some of my favorite stories are the “protag must choose between death and saving people” ones, and that’s also (often) an easy choice. It’s all in how it’s done.

We’re interested more in the stakes if it’s a lose-lose situation: “he has to choose between his bright future and avenging the girl that he loves.” If he doesn’t avenge her, then he lives well but regrets it always. If he does avenge the girl, then he’s ruined his life. What does he choose?

12 :: cut 10% each draft

This one is, again, very Alex-specific and your mileage may vary. I overwrite, often because I figure out where the story needs to go by writing through all the possible options. Oddly enough, almost everything I’ve ever written is over 100k (sometimes over 200k, I know, but no one reads/slays those monsters but me) during its first or zero drafts.

Cutting down not only helps me improve pacing, but if I know go into revisions being like “okay I need to try to get it under 85k this time” then it forces me to look at each word and see if it’s pulling double its weight or just taking up space. If it’s just taking up space, nix or rewrite something else to do its job.

13 :: agency agency agency

This dovetails on 7 from before about characters making choices. We’re interested in following a main character around when they are the ones driving the action. If all these things are just happening to your protagonist because they’re the chosen one, it’s harder to like them because of their choices– outside forces are steering the ship more than the person we’re stuck with!

Especially if you find that your protagonist spends more time waiting for things to happen to them than actively going out and changing things, consider making them more active, more desperate for change that they become its agent. There’s a reason that the Call to Action is part of the Hero’s Journey– it’s terrifying sometimes to realize that you have to be the one changing things, but ultimately a lot more interesting things happen when you start actively moving toward your goals than just getting swept along in the current.

14 :: each image tells me something new

The funny thing about purple prose is that usually the people doing it are trying really hard not to. They want to make their descriptions fresh and new, or relate this emotional response so accurately that it hits you right in the gut.  And usually what happens is that people just go overboard: either describing the same aspect about same thing over and over, or unpacking too much in too little time.

What I try to do when I revise is to look at each descriptive phrase or image I use and evaluate if it tells me something new about the scene or object. If you find yourself restating the same detail but with different words, cut.

15 :: lists of ten, redux: first impressions

Ha! And you thought we were done with lists of ten. NOPE this one is another gem from Cheryl Klein: list out the first ten things that your main character does. This is going to be our first impression of them as readers.

This can be really humbling, especially as the author. Like, you know these characters really well! You’re sure the audience will have the same picture in their heads as you because you’ve totally done a great job, and then you do the list and you’re like wow, my protag is coming off as super whiny and also kind of a jerk to his family.

First impressions set a baseline for how your character acts. Make sure that the first things you’re showing us (they should be a mixed bag of good and bad, as always) are things that you’ve curated.

16 :: you can do anything as long as you do it well

Still my favorite, because everyone has that one piece of writing advice that they just can’t stand. You should know what the rules are, but as long as you break them convincingly no one’s going to mind. How do you learn to break them convincingly? By learning why they’re in place, what disasters they avert, and learning how to write obeying them really, really well.

It’s once you understand what a rule does for you that you become capable of breaking it well– you’re going to have to make other things hang together more tightly because of the rule you’re breaking, and if you don’t know what the rule does for you, it’s hard to tell where the things you need to patch up are.

As always, happy 2016–and happy writing.

travel writing

(image credit: Lucy Cross)

It’s probably not surprising that I like to travel. Place tends to be integral in my work, and when readers tell me that they see the setting as its own character, it’s one of the highest compliments I can get.

My parents’ shelves had books on travel– and not those little brochures written by tourism departments, but hefty, novel-length efforts chronicling an individual’s progress through a foreign or unfamiliar land. Around the time I first visited a good friend in Miami for a week, my mother would update me on her quest to get through a travelogue by a man trekking across pre-WWI Europe, and how amazed she was by his perfect timing. He was able to record, in detail, what the places he’d visited in Germany, Austria, and dozens of smaller countries that ceased to exist after the World Wars were like.

What about travel writing now? These days, it seems like everything important has been documented already, stored, and protected. It’s weird to think of places becoming history, and not just in the literal way, but the figurative one as well: being so annihilated that the only way we can get to them is through secondary sources.

I visited Miami for the first time in 2012, on spring break. My friend had a two bedroom apartment with a nice kitchen, floor-to-ceiling mirrored walls in the dining room, and ocean-facing balcony (supposedly where you could see manatees from but we never did) that she shared with a fellow student in the creative writing program. In contrast, back then I lived in a miserable apartment in South Carolina by myself with a balcony too small to use and littered with my neighbor’s stray cigarette butts and cigarillo mouthpieces.

My friend was pursuing her MFA, and although our spring breaks didn’t align we hatched a brilliant plan: I would pretend to be considering MFA programs, specifically hers, so I could hang with her as she was in school. We went to the beach, read, and one day we went to the department interviewing a potential new faculty member.

It was a sort of lecture-audition: as part of her job interview, she had to give a seminar so that the grad students and faculty could observe her teaching style. The small room was packed, and the speaker talked about the necessity of living in a place eight months before you could begin to write about it.

I took notes religiously. Yes, of course you had to actually live in a place to get to know it. Of course that took time. Eight months sounded like a commandment.

But three years later, ask me what I know about South Carolina. I can tell you about stray cats sleeping on steam tunnel covers in the early hours before class starts, how mold chokes up the library’s columns by the lake. I can talk a big game about boiled peanuts and meat-and-threes, tell you how gameday traffic snarls every highway even remotely close to campus, how you better slow down if you have northern plates. I can even tell you how it is completely not uncommon to go into a bathroom and find out that some jokestore has installed the bathroom stalls or the cabinets upside-fucking-down and no one’s fixed it because effort and that’s just the way it is.

I can tell you all this but not much more. I lived there for a year, and the better part of the city, the sports, the slang, all that’s stuff I never got to.

Miami, though, is different.

I went back earlier this year to visit the same friend, and more than ever it’s just a place that I like: the wide, bright expanse of Calle Ocho with its restaurants, car dealerships, lines and lines of celebratory palm trees opening toward the sun, the terracotta roofs and little lizards skirting over stucco, brick walkways, and Spanish still too quick for me to keep up. Storm clouds puff themselves up into sky-scraper battleships around four to five in the afternoon, parade over the highways when you go home and then morph into lilac-blue-pink soft-core clouds over the bridge to the keys at sunset.

(This is to say nothing of jellyfish season and man-of-war season, which are different, how the trick is to have friends with keys to their relatives’ private beaches, that there is really no good way to keep sand fleas off you, even at a classy lakeside restaurant, and that yes, you really do need sunglasses.)

The city speaks two languages, dipping back and forth as easily as you shift your weight walking. You can still move places fine using only one foot; it’s just easier with two.

During my last night there, my (now graduated) MFA friend and I hung out on a soft sand beach, watching planes and shooting stars in the clear night, and talked again about her old program. She mentioned that another applicant had been hired instead of the travel writing speaker.

“I didn’t like her very much,” she said. “That eight month thing was a load of bullshit.”

I didn’t realize until she said it how much I agreed.

Sometimes living in a city is like a marriage. Some people settle in places for life. Some people move a lot, divorce their places; some nomads can visit the old places and others need for it to be a clean and final break.

Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of living in a place and getting to know it. Sometimes you have to be creative. You follow local instagrams, blogs, and news accounts, you go through all the local state school’s online orientation prep that you can find like you’re about to be a freshman again, and watch 45-minute monster tours through the French Quarter someone’s posted to youtube. You work backwards and it works.

And on the flip side, sometimes you hate the place you’re living so much you don’t want to commit any of it to memory. You want to obliterate it, to strike off its letters from the annuls of your life so thoroughly that no historian would be able to reconstruct it.

You do the best with what you have, because sometimes you have to call bullshit when people tell you “write what you know.” Because really, it means less “write only things you have experienced” and more “find likenesses in the things you have experienced and the things you haven’t, and use those to write about the latter.”

Travel writing isn’t easy, and maybe that’s really what the speaker meant when she talked about eight months as a necessary minimum. You have to find an affinity with your chosen place. Because hey, I may not be a native, but if I can fool you when I write to make you think that I am, that’s enough.

body of work

I’ve always wanted to write a how-I-got-my-agent post– one, because it would imply that I had an agent (woo!), and two, because I liked reading them as a querying writer. They helped prepare me or at least give me ideas about what was normal and what to expect.

Now it’s official: I’m so happy to have signed with Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, and I can’t wait to see where our partnership goes. And now I get to tell you how it happened, though my post’s probably a little different than the ones you’re used to seeing.

My goal as a writer is to produce a body of work.

Securing representation took me a year and a half, from first query to first call. The process can be long, and I even had a friend wish me a happy “query-a-versary.”

And here’s a dose of real talk, behind the scenes: of course that can be discouraging. If this project hadn’t panned out, I would have switched to querying my adult fantasy later in the fall. Persistence doesn’t mean an unwavering belief this and only this manuscript going to succeed in full NYT bestseller style, #1 or death. It means being persistent with respect to your career. If this isn’t the one, then so be it– finish the next book, dust off your knuckles, and try again.

Probably the biggest thing I learned querying is that there’s honestly not a lot that you can control beyond the quality of your work–agents are busy, editors are busy, sometimes it’s a bad day, sometimes things don’t click. So for this post, I’m not going to share how many queries I sent or the number of fulls requested or offers I received. That’s between QueryTracker and God. (And me too, I guess.)

So what am I going to share?

I’m going to tell you is how much I had to write to get an agent.

As a ~Millennial~ who grew up on Word docs, LJ, and fanfiction, teenage and undergrad me has an ungodly amount of her writing floating around. I’ve always kind of wondered how much exactly I’d written because I’d heard–a la Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours– it takes about one million words to achieve mastery. So I’m going tally that up, the sum total of everything I wrote beginning when I started taking writing seriously up until I got an agent.

A few caveats:

I’m not counting revisions here– only total, threw-out-the-previous-draft-ugh-started-over rewrites. It’s too hard (at least hard in that I cannot find a good solution as quickly as I want to post this) to figure out how to count revised wordcounts, so I’m just going with final draft counts (underestimates since I tend to overwrite, as you will no doubt soon see).

Your experience may be different in part or completely, because this is 100% not a benchmark you have to hit as a querier. It’s just something that I liked knowing about because it made me feel more in control. I couldn’t guarantee any agents would request or offer, but I could always write more words and get better.

And so that’s just what this is: How Many Words Alex Yuschik Had to Write Before Getting Signed, nothing more, nothing less.

Fanfic: 262,271

Oh yeah. I wrote a ton of fanfic in high school and early college, and this is spread out over several accounts (because my tastes were still evolving and I grew out of the usernames or got too embarrassed by the old stuff).

Fanfic irrevocably shaped my writing and revision style: when I draft, I tend to finish small chunks and revise on a chapter-wide basis as I go. You can’t be boring or waffle too long in fic because your audience has like, ten zillion other options out there getting to the good stuff faster and better. Sometimes you get terrible flames, but mostly your reviewers are incredible cheerleaders who wait on your next chapters and write all-caps squee-reviews or (and this always hits me right in the kokoro) quote their favorite lines back at you.

So it’s probably not surprising that the very first full-length project I completed was a fanfic (I think around 60k), or that it remains one of the proudest achievements of my teens. (not-humble-at-all brag: I actually won second place for it at my local indie bookstore’s fanfic contest. #preen)

It was the first time I set myself a huge writing goal and met it, and that gave me the confidence to produce and finish my longer original work.

Longhand notebooks: (230 words/page * 3346 pages) = 769,580

I know someone’s going to look at that number and think I goofed on the math there (ha), so I’m also posting a picture of the notebooks involved in this undertaking. 196 pages/notebook, except top three which are 202. There’s also an unpictured/unfinished notebook that I’m currently working in that picks up a few pages.

body of work


After years of doing NaNo and developing a harsh stream-of-consciousness bent to my style I was eager to remove, I started drafting longhand in January 2011 during my senior year of college, after my parents got me my first fountain pen for Christmas. I wanted to shift away from the instant transmission of brain to keyboard for zero-drafting (the draft before the first draft, the exploratory one), and handwriting forced me to go slow.

I also use longhand writing to solve drafting problems. Don’t know what the characters are going to do next? Go through all the options! See what works! Pick the best one and then type it up and go from there.

Plus, I get this huge surge of accomplishment when I finish an inkwell. It’s so great. Strong affinity with ink in casa de Alex. Added bonus: those notebooks made the most satisfying sound when I plopped them all on the floor for this picture.

Drafts on laptop: 634,983
Argent: 62,139
Endymion: 52,516
Cal I: 152,916
Cal II: 115,171
Cal III (wip): 47,798
Hazard I: 50,000
Hazard II: 70,403
S&A: 84,040

Okay, the final arena. Again, the ones with Roman numerals are all rewrites, not revisions. I figure out where the story’s going in the longhand zero draft, and then I rewrite when I digitize.

This is not counting all the poetry, essays, blogs, or the newspaper articles I wrote in college. Weird fact: I wrote over 40 diaries across high school and middle school (my parents were very hopeful I’d metamorphose into Anais Nin but equally relieved when they no longer had to figure out how to store more of those suckers, bless them); they also do not appear here.

Here’s the final breakdown:

Fanfic: 262,271
Longhand: 769,580
Laptop: 634,983

Grand total: 1,666,834

And there you go.

So many things are out of your hands as a writer. You can’t force people to have a faster turnaround time reading your work, even if you’re the greatest writer ever. You can’t make people request or offer on things that may not resonate with them. The one thing you can do is get consistently, relentlessly, ruthlessly better at writing.

So go ahead and do that! Don’t make yourself nervous because you’re at x queries and haven’t received y number of fulls, or that you just always get R&Rs and never an offer. That stuff’s out of your control and–spoiler alert– in the big picture, it doesn’t matter. No one’s going to ask you how many fulls agents and editors requested when your book’s in a store. What matters is that your writing is good.

And maybe it takes a while. That’s fine. I mean, hey, it took me over 1.6 million words to write the 83k that attracted my agent. Learning to do something well is a long process, and that’s totally okay because the goal has never been to get there the fastest.

The goal is to produce a body of work.

stage magic

A craft post after an eternity of no craft posts, oh man.

Recently, I was talking on twitter using #betatips about what it means to be a good beta reader and critique partner. One thing I touched on particularly bothered me in a way I didn’t feel like I could sum up in 140 characters: how people are convinced that reading books critically will affect their ability to read them for pleasure.

I understand that, for sure. I used to feel that way, worried that if I poked around too much in something I liked that I’d analyze the magic out of it. It’s a very real fear: you’d much rather not mess with the TV if learning about how to take it apart means you’ll destroy it forever.

So, let’s talk about stage magic.

DEM HANDSMy favorite movie with Real People in it (my favorite of all time is, of course, animated and also Spirited Away) is The Illusionist. I love a lot of Wes Anderson films (and someday want to write a book like a Wes Anderson film but hey that’s a goal for later) and yet none of them have as of 2015 made me fall as in love with them as The Illusionist. Clearly Edward Norton is transferable, so I bet if I ever do shift favorites for the Real Human category, it will involve him somehow.

Norton’s character in The Illusionist is a stage magician named Eisenheim. I won’t spoil it too much for you if you haven’t seen it, but it’s got ghosts, tragic love, subterfuge, a cat and mouse game, detectives, dexterity, heirs apparent, stage magic, and an orange tree.  Also it is set in Vienna. Throughout the movie, an inspector attempts expose Eisenheim as a fake, to figure out the trick behind his shows.

Reading is a lot like stage magic. As a reader, you’re in Eisenheim’s audience. You see the trick performed and you’re like whoa! how did he do that thing? The author is performing on stage and you’re along for the ride.

Reading books as a writer is where it gets more complicated. You’re a magician sitting in on another magician’s show. You have now become the kind of person who wants to know how the trick is done. And sure, you know how to do some tricks, not all of them, and while you can still shift back into watching the spectacle as a member of the audience, there’s also this curiosity in you: you want to be able to make people vanish, throw birds into the air from nothing.

throws birds helloThe first rule of stage magic is to never do the same trick twice.  You don’t want to make it too easy for your audience to figure you out. You want them to be mystified enough to wonder about it on their own (which is relying on the fact that your audience/reader is smart, also good to keep in mind).

When you’re reading as a writer, though, you’re an apprentice stage magician. You need to see tricks multiple times. This is how you learn, watching the pros perform over and over until you see the sleight of hand and then can work to master it on your own. Reading is an essential part of writing development– how else are you going to acquire new skills?

But that brings us back to our original problem. You took the TV apart, you couldn’t put it together for hours, and after all the sweat and possibly blood and possibly also tears, you did it and for two minutes it felt like a miracle. The TV turns on, it even gets cable, and now you know about the switches, the cathode ray tube, the wiring, what constitutes high vacuum. It’s no longer just pressing a button and presto for you. But then you kind of hated it and hated it viscerally, all those working parts, for not being as magical as you thought they must be.

And that’s your worst fear: you learned the trick and the wonder is gone.

ghost vanishIs that the price of knowledge? Sadness, eternal cynicism? Does Art have to be this forever-mysterious capitalized word that you analyze at your peril? Yeah, sounds terrible, no thank you. Some people say art’s like wild magic, like a horse: once broken, you’ll never be able to get it to go as fast as it was untamed.

I disagree. I think there are many types of magic, and the one I subscribe to is the one born from technique. I’d rather have a magic school over a muse any day. Repetition and constant study give me control, and it’s control over the magic, over the writing that I want.

But what about the wonder?

I didn’t really have a good answer to this until I started teaching and had to present on a daily basis: most of what you’re doing is acting.  When I teach calculus, I already know how the triple integral needs to go. But to connect with my audience, aka my students, I have to remember the intimidation of all those integral signs, the points where it’s easy to mess up, the tips and mnemonics I used when I was learning the first time.

It’s same in writing. As you revise, you’ve known from the very first sentence where the characters are going to end up, what cosmic inevitabilities await them.  But you pretend you don’t to build the show for the reader and draw them in. You pretend that the tricks you’re doing really are some crazy power you have– you believe the illusion to make it real.

You learn to cultivate this weird split-headedness, sort of like separating yourself into characters or into an author and an editor but also a little different. The best way I’ve heard to describe it was an author’s character teaching someone to do magic: you have to believe something to be true, absolutely true, even when you know without a doubt it’s false, and you have to believe both things completely at the same time.

orange treeThere’s a part of you that knows exactly how the trick works, and a part of you that fiercely doesn’t, that’s convinced you’re performing real, actual magic and is in love with it as much as your audience is. And that’s why I love The Illusionist: it says magic isn’t something that gets lost when you understand it. Watch any of Eisenheim’s movements, and you can see that this is a person who’s just as into it as his audience.

That’s what storytelling is: performance. It’s lying to yourself and believing it 100% because you know that if you don’t your audience never will.

And when you get there and you study another writer’s work and see the trick, it doesn’t make you sad anymore. The TV for you now exists in two worlds: as the magic box and the logical array of parts and you revel in it. Because you got it, you figured it out, you got tricked and now you see the magic and you’re so damn excited to make it your own.

ORANGE TREE omgThis is how you do stage magic.

This is how you write.


i. You wake up to a dim rain. Somewhere, people are working in their 5am cafes but today you are not one of them. You think blurrily about proofs and strategies but mostly you just curl tighter into the blanket against the air conditioning and retrace the last threads of dreams.

ii. You wake up and your hands feel slick. Your 3am brain processes for a minute before realizing it’s ink, damn it, and it’s on your pillowcase, too.  You cap the pen and pretend you’ve seen the last of those summer nights where you have to work until you exhaust yourself.

iii. You wake up and you are surrounded by cow femurs.

iv. You wake up to the thunder and whistle of trains thrumming across the tracks at 6am, 7am, 8am. Beyond the window, egrets, whooping and great, their necks tucked into their chests like they have taken offense at something but are too upset to share what, dip in white handkerchief shapes between the mirror-clad planes of skyscrapers.

v. You wake up several times and keep falling back asleep. Outside the door, someone powerlevels their high elf sorcerer in Elder Scrolls and a cat meows impatiently for you to come out.

vi. You wake up and you have one more bed than you need. Little kids clamor at the mini golf course in the courtyard below your window, banners flap, and a firepit cackles into the mid-morning. Pipes in the walls wail, and you pretend you’re being haunted instead of going to a wedding.

vii. You wake up and it is early. It’s the time in summer where the sun just barely lags behind you and turns your whole room blue through the windows you do not yet have blinds for. You drink water from a glass jar and count the lights turning off and coming on before going back to sleep.

viii. You wake up to pancakes. You mainly eat eggs for breakfast now but pancakes have been your favorite breakfast food since when you were a kid and your mom unfailingly makes them when you visit. You put your contacts in, finish writing down the sketches of your dreams, and wake up for real. Your dogs still do not grasp that no dead things are allowed in your bed, but that’s okay. Some things take a while to learn.

i, vii: Pittsburgh. ii, iii, viii: Cincinnati. iv: Dallas. v: Columbus. vi: Bordentown.


The postman probably thinks you’re insane.

They probably also wonder why you do this, why there are so many letters going out when so few come back in, why, when letters, letter-writing, and the post office are all supposed to be dying, you refuse to let them die in peace with all your myriad correspondence. They probably think you are the sort of vigilante hipster who only writes with artisanly sharpened pencils.

And chances are they deliver your incoming mail as well as manage the outgoing, so they probably observe several things: there are some addresses that write you back, there is a home address that unabashedly sends you packages with stickers and pictures on them, there are cards from distant relatives, and postcards with inside jokes.

And then there is that one address you write to, less frequently, that never writes you back.

You are five or so, and your dad has taken you to work.

You get to play with the expo markers and the whiteboard, and while you like that, it’s not quite your favorite. The board got erased before you came in, will get erased again, and you dislike working with such impermanent materials. You learned this fact young, and this was why you took to the walls with markers when you were younger still: walls lasted. Your parents, of course, flipped out and plied you with other materials, and you are now more interested in sheets of printer paper.

But only used printer paper–one side blank, one side printed on– you’re only allowed to draw on that kind (because to only use one part of the animal is wasteful and also your dad needs the blank ones for work). There are no windows in the office (it will be the last one of your dad’s offices like that) though there is a ficus (there will always, relentlessly be a ficus).

On the way out, you hold your dad’s hand and someone wheels what seems to you a huge cart of recycling past.

There are moments that make you think your heart is a magnet and that you can feel the world shift as it shudder-swings toward a pole. When you become an adult, you will be able to count these moments on one hand.

And this is the first: this anonymous man pushing a cart piled with mountains of used paper, one side printed on, the other side clear, still so much blankness aching to be filled up.

When you got to fifth grade, your school did an invention fair. Your job was to invent something within two weeks and you couldn’t think of anything that hadn’t been done before.

What you ended up making was disappointing: a portfolio with all the necessary amenities for correspondence: pencil holder, clips, paper, envelopes. But hey, you were nine, maybe ten. What could you have done?

Then, you saw the girl with the stamps.

Why do stamps have to taste gross? She’d asked. She made little scraps of paper with different flavors of adhesive on the backs, so they’d be more fun to lick than the regular kind.

You were in awe. You hadn’t even thought about making an extant thing better, and now it seemed so obvious. Here, finally, was someone who had had an Idea.

You and your friends traded stamp flavors among yourselves so you could have the full flavor experience (the girl has signs posted saying explicitly Not to Do That because germs but you were nine and reckless). Banana was gross, even to someone like you who actually liked banana flavor, but the others, cookie dough and chocolate and strawberry, were good.

You walked off with your friends and your collectively licked scraps of paper, faith in your peers restored and convinced you had caught a glimpse of the future.

Years later, it really surprised you when the post office made stamps self-adhesive instead.

This is the third post office in southern Ohio you and your mother have visited, because you are trying very desperately to pick up a few more sheets of the Lunar New Year stamps. Your mother has been a real champ about this, because you are sometimes unable to explain why you are drawn so powerfully to purchase what are effectively stickers for grown-ups, but she humors you. Drives you, even.

You ask the nice postal worker there about the New Years stamps.

“Oh yeah, those,” she says, and pulls out at least one hundred sheets of the stamps you have been chasing across the city in a sheaf. She flips through it, nonchalant. “How many did you want again?”

“Three.” You watch her fan them out like cards in a deck, thousands of gold-edged puzzle pieces, blue and gold.

“These are really pretty.” She counts out three, and then laughs when she catches you staring. “You sure you don’t want another?”

You end up getting four, and leave with your waxy envelope full of ram stamps. Collection has always been important to you: things too sacred to use, like the snake, dragon, and horse stamps you have at home. Some day, eight years from now, you will finally have a full zodiac.

“I like having goals.” You tell your mother.

“You’re philatelic.” She unlocks the car so she can drive you both the fifteen minutes back home. “The one for coins is numismatist, which I always remember because it sounds so great.”

“Yeah.” You agree, buckling your seat belt. “Like you’re an arithmancer or something.”

Save a stamp! entreats the lettering under the a square outline on the return envelope. Then: Electronic service requested, starkly and snarkily, as though you’re the one being difficult by not paying your bills online.

Don’t you care about the stamps? You worked so hard to collect them, went to so many post offices to find just the right ones–doesn’t it make you sad, using up all these nice pictures you have on crud like credit card payments?

Look, here’s a simple way to save your precious stamps: don’t use them. Conserve and preserve. Aren’t you philatelic? Shouldn’t you be trying harder?

Doesn’t it bother you, using them all up?

The thing about magic is that it always comes with a cost.

Stamps are their own kind of sorcery: stick the appropriate charm on the envelope and it will go where you tell it to. You used to dream about the department of lost letters, magics gone wrong, letters that ended up in limbo for years, slowly finding their way to the descendents of the addressees.

The thing about stamps is that they are created to serve a purpose. They’re useful. Take away their use and they cease to exist.

It’s like asking someone to cancel their newspaper subscription for the sake of their paperboy. Sure, you’re saving someone a trip to your apartment through the early AM streets, but if enough people are that considerate, there won’t be any newspapers left to deliver and the kid’s out of a job.

It’s fine to talk about conservation when the thing you’re trying to save has lasted perfectly well on its own without human interference, like certain animals or coral. But when it’s man-made, it’s different.

It must be used to survive, or else you destroy the thing you mean to save.

Truth be told, it’s bad letter-writing etiquette using both sides of the paper and you know this, but you do it anyway. Call it a bad habit.

There’s just a lot to say, and if writing on both sides is too informal for etiquette then whatever. You write close, speak in slangs, all spiked, slanted capitals, lowercase g’s with sinister hooks, and the recipients of your letters know what they’re getting into before they slit the envelope.

This is the cost of magic: the postmark, the ink laser printed over something beautiful to nullify it. Sometimes when relatives send you birthday cards you trace your finger over a foreign stamp and get sad, but you’re old enough to know that you can’t have rarity without sacrifice.

So you tear open the envelopes and the double envelopes, make your replies, and keep waiting for that black hole address to cave. You are as relentless as a windowless office ficus and this is your magic: sheets and sheets of commemorative stamps, some squirreled away in wax envelopes and others carrying letters to their destinations, spells in effect.

And does it bother you? The writing beneath the stamp square asks. Doesn’t that make you a bad collector, using them like that?

You stuff the return envelope into the post box and walk off. Because, no, it doesn’t.

You wouldn’t want something so bad if it was so easy to keep it forever.

vehicle dynamics

It’s a question that people keep asking and I never know how to answer. Social media usually just wants a location– in the current sense: where are you now versus where you’ve been– and my apartment’s zip code is enough to handle most trivialities, where to send the bills, the magazines, the letters from home.

It’s just that eternal filler for the dead space in parties that trips me up, that last question on the online form for which I can’t provide a satisfactory answer.

your profile is 90% complete: where are you from?

Place and I have a complicated relationship.

I moved around a lot when I was younger. Despite my love of all things naval, I’m not a military brat, just the kid of an upwardly mobile professional chasing a career across the States. I stopped memorizing streets and maps when my family moved to Boston from Chicago, then had to learn Cincinnati to help my parents navigate.

Sometimes in dreams I find myself back in places in foreign towns and countries: the Winner’s Pizzeria in Reading that had the best Cajun fries I’ve ever had in my life; the main stairwell of my high school, four floors of soft glass spiraling upward–first is ground floor, second is the chapel, third is classrooms, fourth goddamn it finally is where my locker is, and in front of everything is this three-story cross; the short drive from my house in Illinois to the Jewel; running through small town streets along the coast for cross country meets.

The one place I never dream about, though, is South Carolina.

My first word was “car.”

This was probably a little disappointing to my poor parents, who must have spent ages and hours hovering over their firstborn repeating sounds and listening for something to stumble out that resembled their names. Instead, they got me: small child getting very excited about going on grocery shopping trips in our silver Volvo.

Despite this illustrious first edition to my lexicon, I didn’t get my own car until post-college. I’d been so adamant about needing to live in a city and, hence, not driving, that it was only my parents gifting me driving school lessons for Christmas that I actually started.

Enter Belial.

My family names all our cars, except for Dad (we name his for him anyway). Mum’s first Volvo, the silver one that was my first word, was named Ogla, and the one I learned to drive on’s Lars. My younger brother has driven Jaeger and Valkyrie (both of which met sad ends) and will soon add a new car to his pantheon. My mother calls my dad’s truck Rex.

Belial was a 1998 BMW 328i I purchased using my $800 of graduation money–I’ll give you a moment to blink because, yeah–thanks to aforementioned brother’s unreal charm and haggling technique, also thanks to an opportune ice storm. Hail-damaged and with an inside dotted with foil star stickers that I am still continually discovering more of, Bel was the sort of thing I never expected to own but was perfect.

My first post-undergrad apartment, job, and school were all in upstate South Carolina, which, if you’re not familiar with the geography of the region, is in the upper left corner of the sideways triangle that is the Palmetto State. It’s about two hours away from everywhere, though if you go about twenty minutes in any direction you’re nearly guaranteed to hit a boiled peanut stand.

So you either stayed in town, or you took the highway.

US-123, or Calhoun Memorial Highway, has a speed limit of 70mph. Driving in the rural South is a little different from up North. People joke that I-85 is so named because the speed limit’s 85, and while it might not be entirely legal, that’s about the going speed of traffic.

At least twice weekly, I’d find myself on 123 late into the night, no cops, hardly any light except for headlights, and forests tall enough to scrape the stars.

You go fast, and there’s not enough people around to force you to slow down. You swing around turns and perfect cornering, and maybe you get such a rush that you sign up for a vehicle dynamics class, because suddenly you want to know how this is possible. How, in a world where so many things are so easily terrible, you still have this one thing to wonder at, this empty road with the occasional pin-prick twins of taillights up ahead.

You’ll learn a lot about camber and slip angle, but you won’t be able to nail down why driving so fast late at night makes everything feel like breathy strands of electric guitar, impossibly grand.

And that’s why you keep coming back.

“So where are you from?” A friend’s friend asks me one winter break. I’m back up North again, back in some bar/restaurant in Pittsburgh, and I’ve tried dodging this question already, but the guy wants an answer. My date is curious, too, the kind of noninterest you feign with elbows on the table, leaning in close enough to pretend we’re already casually intimate, that you don’t care that much about the answer, but actually do.

“A lot of places.” I say. I tell the table about Chicago and Boston and Cincinnati. I give the cliff notes version of South Carolina. “And now I’m here again.”

“So…?” The guy across from me trails off. He wants a conclusion to the story, an easy ending to an ongoing exodus, one that I’m not sure I know myself. “Where’s home?”

And I’ve had it. I’m tired of people asking me this damn question and tried of never having an answer. My mom insists that home is where my family’s house is, but Cincinnati’s a place I spend fragments of months in, not my daily life.

I’m done.

“Nowhere,” I say, finally. “I’m not really from anywhere anymore.”

“You can be from here.” My date says and takes a sip of his unsweetened sweet tea. He doesn’t live here either; he moved out a while back and is just visiting for the holiday. The conversation shifts to other things, like home-redecoration and kayaking, but someone gets it and that’s, I think, all I want.

Except it’s not.

My long commutes now are mostly I-70 to I-75, visiting my parents. I drive early in the mornings, sun soft over flat prairie, bean crops and corn fields, and, my perennial favorite: the “Where Will You Spend Eternity? HELL IS REAL” signs.  The highway is silent and sparse, this Saturday sort of divinity where you can find good songs on the radio that come in clear.

One time I sat in on a seminar on travel writing in Miami, and the speaker said that, in her experience, you had to live in a place for at least a year before you knew it well enough to write about it. And I think part of why I keep moving places is that.

I’m from everywhere and nowhere, and to be one requires the other. It’s nomadic and occasionally lonely, but hey, whatever–sometimes you’re just an object in motion, wheel to pavement, memorizing the exit numbers for as long as you can until some new place aligns itself with your coordinates.

Some nights you are going to be so exhausted and drained, you’ll fall asleep with your face mashed into the section on driveshafts in your textbook. But other nights you’ll be on the highway again, listening to how the sounds in your car shift up as it goes from 60 to 80, hoping the rain will hold off until you get home.