Do the Hustle: The Importance of Trying

For the first couple of decades of my life, I didn’t have to try very hard. (Wait–don’t leave. This was actually a bad thing.) Success in school and my two main interests, art and writing, came pretty easily. Schoolwork was easy. Tests were easy. Everyone who read my writing loved it. Everyone who saw my drawings said I was soo talented.

But there’s a ceiling to succeeding without trying. That ceiling came somewhere between tenth grade and this morning. 

When I started to sometimes not get the things I wanted, I was bitter. In college, a series of “failures” (not really failures, but fairly mild rejections) shook my confidence pretty deeply. I wasn’t selected to be a section editor on my college paper. I didn’t win any of the college writing awards. I didn’t get on the staff of the literary magazine. And, finally, and perhaps hurting most, I wasn’t selected for English department “honors,” despite entering an ambitious novel as my honors project. I was devastated. If I “couldn’t even make it” at my small liberal arts college, what chance did I have in the real world? (Hopefully I didn’t say things like this too much out loud. If so, sorry, college friends!)

Somewhere in there, things had gotten mixed up in my mind. I thought that success was a benchmark of how smart I was or how much talent I had, instead of how hard I tried. Because I wasn’t trying, but I was succeeding, at least by my tiny, childlike markers of success.

I didn’t get it.

I thought filling out an application meant I was trying. But really trying, really pursuing what you want, is so much more than asking a small group of people to judge you based on a few pages of writing or how you filled out one application. Really trying means doing the hustle.


I guess hustling usually means making money in a shady way. I’m okay with that–whatever their (many!) other faults, drug dealers and criminals definitely have great hustle. Some of us polite, reserved, always-smile-at-everybody people could learn something from them.

Hustling to me means putting yourself out there. Following opportunities, seeking out opportunities, making your own opportunities. Emailing/calling/tweeting people you don’t know because you think they’re doing cool things. Going to events where you don’t know anyone. Letting people know what you want, what you’re looking for, and asking them if they can help you get it. 

If I wanted to win poetry awards (and I didn’t, really, I mostly just wanted the validation that I was a “good writer), I shouldn’t have stopped with the one at my college and then sat around feeling sorry for myself. I should have applied for other poetry awards, submitted my stuff to every place that accepted poetry in Writer’s Market (and I DID know about Writer’s Market). Or I could have started my own literary magazine, or my own literary website, or just freaking posted my stuff on writers’ forums and gotten it out to the world that way. That’s how the world grows and develops, people doing stuff like that and not just accepting what’s on offer.

I am not an expert at hustling. If, at 14, my hustling power was at 0%, it is now at 20 or 30%. But I know that most of the good things in my life wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t hustle, if I didn’t plant a bunch of seeds and hope that a few of them would grow. 

Hustling doesn’t always work out. Rejection is a fact of life. The less you let it beat you down and the sooner you learn to endure it, the better. Rejection should be a spur to further action.  

If you want to succeed in a competitive field—or, probably, in any field—you can’t just send out your resume a few times and say you tried. You’ve got to seek out opportunities and try for those, and then try to sniff out opportunities that aren’t being advertised, and let people know you’re interested, and then if you don’t see what you want or you aren’t getting it you’ve got make your own opportunities. Even if you want something pretty conventional this makes sense. The New York Times is probably going to be more impressed with someone who started her own underground newspaper than someone who wasn’t named editor of her college paper and so accepted the advertising position she didn’t want and dealt with it.

“Dealing with it” is for things like your best friend getting cancer or having to whatever the hell you can to support your family. Dealing with it is not for your dreams. Yes, you need to start at the bottom, but there is no point in starting at the bottom of a ladder that you already know you’re not interested in. If you think you need to put in your time, put in your time and ALSO do you own independent thing.

And if you’re not that ambitious or don’t care that much that’s cool. Ambition is kind of a sickness, one that’s pretty specific to our culture. The world needs people who are content with doing their nine to five, or loving their friends and family, or daydreaming. I’m serious about that. The world needs lots of those people, and if that is the kind of person you are, don’t apologize for it. You will probably be happier in the long run than seriously ambitious people. 

What the world doesn’t need is people who really, really wanted to be engineers but when they got rejected from Cal Tech resigned themselves to being accounting clerks because a friend knew about a place that was hiring accounting clerks. And who are then resentful, or spend vast amounts of time talking/thinking about how they could have been so much more.

What the world doesn’t need is people who try kind of half-assedly to become video game designers for a couple of months and then complain about how unfair the video game design industry is. Maybe it is. But be honest with yourself about how hard you tried to make that dream come true before you blame someone else for it. Once you’ve pursued your dream of being a video game designer as hard as you freakin’ can for five years then let’s talk about a biased industry.

This goes for things besides careers, too. If you want to learn to cook or type really fast, hustle. If you want to go to Ireland, hustle. If you want more friends, hustle. I’m not sure this 100% applies to love, but even with love there is a numbers game going on: if you meet 100 new people a year versus 10 you are probably more likely to find someone you really connect with.

Try to save regret and “dealing with it,” as much as possible, for things you can’t control: infertility when you always dreamed of having kids, the company you loved working for that went under. There will be enough regret of that type in life without adding on things you could have tried harder for.

Hustling doesn’t mean you’ll succeed. The world is all kinds of unfair, and nothing is guaranteed. What is guaranteed is that if you don’t try, you can’t succeed. And wouldn’t you rather be the person who really pursued their dreams and didn’t make it than the person who’s always been on the sidelines complaining? I guarantee you the first person is more fun to hang out with and has better stories to tell. 

NB. There are a few people are successful but who, like me at 14, don’t seem to have to hustle. Try to ignore them. First, there’s a chance they are hustling hard, in a way that isn’t obvious to you. There’s also a chance that their “success” is something they fell into but don’t really love. At any rate, you are not them. You are one of the hustlers. (I’m speaking mostly to myself here. :))


2014 Writing Goals

This week, YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday asked, “How did you do on your [writing] goals this year?”

I did some good writing work this year. I got beta reader feedback and revised one book, and wrote almost 50,000 words on the next book. A writing friend and I revived our old critique group with new and old members, and I visited an out-of-state writing friend and got absolutely fantastic feedback on the first-half-of-the-year book. I also took a couple of writing classes through StoryStudio, and started writing on the train fairly frequently, to supplement my at-home writing sessions. 

The biggest thing I want to work on for next year is WRITING FASTER. I actually produce words pretty quickly, but I’m not satisfied with how long it takes me to produce a complete “good” draft of a novel. The time-consuming part tends to be, well, figuring out what actually happens!

So, for 2014, my writing goals will be:

1. Keep to my regular writing schedule, and supplement with at least two train/bus writing sessions per week.

2. Finish a “good” draft of Europe book. 

3. Write a complete first draft of Road Trip book (or a different book, if I’m not feeling that one by the time I’m done with Europe).

4. Keep learning as much as I can about plot. Read 5 craft books, including Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, which was highly recommended to me by a writer friend.

5. Read at least 50 YA books published in the last three years to keep on top of the industry. (I set this goal every year and have hit the target the past few years.)

6. In general, read less! I am totally serious about this. I definitely tend to use reading as a crutch–it’s my go-to activity whenever I’m not sure what to do next. I don’t specifically use it to avoid writing, but in 2014 I want to be more creative, take more risks, and branch out more in how I’m spending my time. Time to get out of my all-reading-all-the-time rut!

What are your goals (writing or otherwise) for 2014? 





Roller Skating: A Tragicomedy

A while back I got an urge to go roller skating. Initially, I thought I would just to go to a roller rink, strap on some rented skates, and spend an hour or so messing around. But I quickly discovered that the only remaining roller rinks in the Chicago area are either WAY out in the suburbs, or WAY on the edge of the south side. There were a few Roller Derby classes available, but these were a) also in the suburbs b) cost money and c) cool as Roller Derby seems, I didn’t really want to take up a contact sport. I just wanted to roller skate.

I looked into roller skate rentals, but the only place I could find charged $20 to use inline skates for a few hours, which–well, at that point, you might as well buy a pair of skates. And I didn’t want inlines, either–I wanted old-school old-fashioned roller skates. I asked around to see if anyone had skates I could borrow, but finally I concluded that if I wanted to roller skate, I was going to have to buy some damn roller skates.

My new skates arrived on Monday. They’re cute, white sneakers with purple accents on top of purple wheels. I had them delivered to work, and tried them on in my office to make sure they fit. I felt tall and slick in my new skates, and was tempted to skate down the hall to show a coworker my new purchase, but I didn’t think my boss would appreciate the midday recreation break.

Since it’s already cold in Chicago, I thought it would be a while before I could try them out. But on Wednesday morning it was almost 50. So I put on my new skates, my purple leggings, a navy dress, and a cardigan. I thought maybe I would skate down to a nearby forest preserve, which is just a little too far too be a comfortable walk. But on skates it would be easy, right? I would have to skate down a busy street, which might make me look a little quirky–a 32-year-old woman roller skating alone in a dress on a weekday morning in December–but I thought I could handle a few shouts of “Hey, Roller Skate Girl!” or whatever other witticisms people trotted out.

Realization 1: I may have overestimated my skating skills

I had only taken a few steps when I found myself grabbing for the fence to keep my balance. Skating didn’t feel as easy as it had when I was a kid. I didn’t feel as steady on my feet. I guess it was going to take some practice.

After a few feet, I ran out of fence. Okay, I told myself. I can do this. I glided a few more feet and promptly fell on my butt.

I didn’t fall hard. And only a few people saw me–commuters heading for the rail station across the street from my house. I laughed it off and tried to look confident as I stood up and started skating again.

I made it past two or three houses before wiping out again, falling forward this time, my dress flipping up around my waist. My legging-covered knees were now covered in small smears of mud. The commuter closest to me had now seen me wipe out twice in the space of three minutes.

Realization 2: I may have underestimated my capacity for embarrassment

It quickly occurred to me that while I was okay with “Roller skate girl!” I was going to be less okay with kindly strangers trying to help me up or asking, “Ouch! Are you all right?” My cute, quirky dress suddenly seemed more “delusional middle-aged lady dressing too young.” And I became aware of how many people were actually on the street in my seemingly quiet neighborhood–a couple of commuters crossing the street, a lady walking two German shepherds. I’d have to get past all three of those obstacles before reaching the first bench.

Instead, I took my skates off and darted left into the alley, walking in my black socks. I affected a confident stance, hoping as long as no one came too close they would think I was wearing black flats, not walking in a wet alley in my stocking feet like a crazy person. I think I pulled it off.

A few houses from the park, I crouched on another curb and put my skates back on. I wobbled around the walking track that encircles the park, nodding greetings to the occasional jogger or dog walker. In my head, the track at the park was smooth. But on roller skates, every small bump becomes a hazard: berries, twigs, even maple tree helicopters.

I learned to use my skates to walk over anything bumpy looking, and I managed to keep my balance.  Barely. I was going so slowly and moving so deliberately that the birds became comfortable and began to hop nearer. I hoped perhaps I could turn this into a successful bird-watching expedition, but all I saw were robins, though one appeared to have partial albinism around his head. I made a mental note to look up albinism in robins when I got home. God, I was getting weirder by the moment.

By the time I completed one shaky rotation around the park, I was exhausted. But it had been a success, I decided. I was feeling more steady on my feet, like next time I really might be able to make it down to the forest preserve. By the time I got back to my block, I was feeling downright cocky. At least until I looked up. Dozens of guys in bright orange vests were working on the train tracks across from my house.

If I fell again, I didn’t want to do it in front of a bunch of maintenance guys. I cut right back into the alley, this time with my skates still on. I’d gotten pretty good at walking in them, and since the alley was gravelly and rough, I did that all the way home.

Well, almost all the way home.

Less than thirty feet from my house, I wiped out again–hard. I broke my fall with my hands, scraping my palms and landing hard on both my wrists. I got my tailbone pretty well, too. I sat there stunned for a moment before limping home, thoroughly chastened.

Realization 3: Roller Skating Is Not for Cowards

I spent the next two days with my wrists wrapped in splints and Ace bandages. I went to the doctor, and I hadn’t broken anything, but I was having trouble putting my hair back and even–ugh–flushing the toilet. As I struggled to tie my shoes, I felt even more ridiculous than I had when actually skating.

On Friday night, I went out to dinner with a much more athletic friend. “You have a sports injury!” she exclaimed.

And suddenly I felt kind of badass. I’ve never had a sports injury before. From the way the recovery was going, it was pretty clear I wasn’t going to have any permanent damage. And I had a story that had been making people laugh all week.

As soon as it gets warm out, I’m going roller skating again.

Why Being a Teenager Sucks and What You Can Do about It

The dirty truth about democracy is that it often doesn’t apply to people under 18.

You’re a citizen of the country you live in, but you don’t have all the civil rights that adults enjoy. You can’t choose where to live, who to live with, or how to spend your days. You aren’t allowed to make your own decisions about sex, smoking, alcohol, and other “risky” activities. Depending on where you live and how old you are, the law may even dictate things like whether you can be home alone (in Illinois, you must be 14) or walk around your own neighborhood without an adult.

And that sucks.

Teens put up with age discrimination on a daily basis. It’s easy for adults to forget—or ignore—what it feels like to be followed in a store because your age makes you a suspected shoplifter, deal with age-restrictive laws like curfews and graduated drivers’ licenses, and have to respect the authority of adults pretty much everywhere.

For people in abusive households or in other unusual situations, legal emancipation may be an option. Honestly, I think emancipation should be accessible to more teenagers. Most societies throughout history have been a lot more flexible than modern Western societies about when people become adults and what roles teens can play in society.

But let’s assume you’re not  in that kind of situation. Your life is okay, or at least tolerable, you just want to figure out how to create more freedom for yourself in the time between now and the magic 18. Here are some ideas for how to get started.

  1. Have a real talk with your parents about what you want to be doing with your time. If you dislike your school, look into other options. Transferring to another public school or private school may be helpful in some situations. Or you may want to consider something more radical, like unschooling or going to a Sudbury school. Two books that can help you convince your parents (and you!) that a nontraditional education won’t ruin your life are The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn and College without High School by Blake Boles. You may also be able to work out flexible situations like going to school part-time, taking a few weeks off to pursue another activity, or graduating early, especially if you have your parents’ support. And there are always summers—take advantage of them while you can.
  2. Work. Even a basic job, like babysitting or working at a restaurant, develops business skills like solving problems, handling conflict, and customer service (which is useful whether you’re working construction, selling paintings, or leading a Fortune 500 company). And, of course, a job also gives you cash of your own, so you can make some of your own consumer decisions.But those aren’t the only options. I know teens who teach tae-kwon-do and coach volleyball. You may be able to help out for a few hours a week at the workplaces of your parents or of someone else you know. Or look into internships, paid or unpaid, with a cause that’s important to you or in an industry you’re interested in. If a place you want to work doesn’t have an internship program, go to them with your own proposal about what you could do for them and how.The brutal truth is there aren’t as many opportunities for teenagers as for adults, so if you don’t find a job that appeals to you, think about starting your own business. This is a great time in your life to try things like opening an Etsy shop, patenting an invention, or offering a service to people you know (I like the show Shark Tank for “start your own business” inspiration—and harsh truth).
  3. Contribute. Be the change you want to see in the world. Get involved in organizations you like–sometimes there are more opportunities for teenagers as volunteers than as paid employees. Start your own organization (all you need is two people and a plan). Ask questions (“Is our school’s roof painted white?” “Can we plant a community garden in the vacant lot next door?”). Go to events that sound interesting in your community, either alone or with a friend. Sign up for newsletters from your congressperson, governor, mayor, alderman, or any other people who represent you—even though you can’t vote yet, you can still participate in community meetings, write letters to your representatives, attend protests, and otherwise get involved in politics.
  4. Prepare yourself for life as an adult. School, and the adults in our lives, often don’t do a great job of this. Learn how to cook your own food, maintain your own stuff (clothes, technology, bike, car), and manage your finances (get a bank account, take baby steps toward investing like opening a CD or buying a few shares of an index fund—but don’t get loans or a credit card if you can avoid it).Or think about career skills you want to have, like marketing, networking with people, or web design. Start developing those skills by reading, watching videos, or reaching out to people who already have those skills.The great thing about developing skills is that even if the people around you don’t take you seriously, you know what you can do. You know you are a force to be reckoned with.
  5. Make your own media. Your generation is so much better at this than older people are. And if you have really strict parents or a really busy schedule, changing schools or taking on an internship may be out of reach, but you can still get your voice out into the world with videos, zines, blogs, fanfiction, etc. Remember two things: it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, and it counts just as much even if no one ever sees it except you.
  6. Avoid people who don’t take you seriously. Easier said than done, I know. But if you can, transfer out of the class of the teacher who doesn’t respect her students or try a different activity instead of putting up with a church youth group leader who belittles teens. This goes for your peers, too: if your friends laugh at your ideas or your boyfriend thinks your commitment to feminism is “cute,” time to hang out with some other people.
  7. Become an activist for teen rights. When you see teens being treated unfairly because of their age, speak up, start discussions, and ask questions. Do youth curfews really decrease crime? Does your school’s uniform policy achieve what it’s supposed to achieve? Get involved with organizations that are working to improve teens’ legal rights, like the National Youth Right Association or Americans for a Society Free from Age Restrictions.

And when you do become an adult, don’t forget what it was like to be a teenager. Do your best to treat people of all ages with equal respect.

Crushing on the Nerd Boy

From age five to somewhere around my junior year of college, I was defined by my crushes.

I always had a crush. My crush was always my biggest secret. I thought about my crush every night as I was falling asleep. My  crushes dominated my diary, my disappointments, and my hopes for the future.

In elementary school, I crushed on your standard prepubescent cute boys–nice, cute, mildly popular kids in my classes at school. I had one crush for first and half of second grade, another crush from second through fourth grade, and a couple of different crushes in fifth grade. I was very loyal, and leaned towards the clean-cut, all-American type. My last crush in fifth grade was a boy with a great smile from my Sunday School class.

Then came sixth grade. In sixth grade, I had two major crushes. One was a freckled, blond, baseball-playing, joke-cracking kid. And the other one was a huge nerd.

I called him DOTE, a nickname with a complex background that I am too embarrassed to explain here. He was obsessed with video games, before that was cool. He wore too-short pants,  paced constantly, and had glasses that were honest to goodness taped together. He was the smartest kid in sixth grade, except for me. He was also the least popular kid in sixth grade, except for me. The mean kids liked to shove us into each other or write me fake notes supposedly from him. Everyone, even the nice kids, teased us, saying we should go out. So in public, I shunned him. But in private, I was in love.

DOTE taught me the words “demented” and “aphasia,” and made up a fake language he used while pretending to be aphasic. (Note: Yes, I now realize this is offensive to people actually dealing with this condition.) He carried a huge camouflage binder full of messy papers covered in his cramped handwriting. He lived on our block, and sometimes my brother and I would go over to his house after school. He had all the video games. He had countless Star Trek tapes taped from TV.

And when people teased him, he fought back. Usually verbally, but one day someone knocked DOTE’s binder out of his hands and DOTE attacked him, kicking and scratching at the other guy’s face. I think they both got suspended. But I admired DOTE for standing up for himself, something I could never seem to do when people made fun of my long nose or called me a suck-up. God, I loved him.

After that, I didn’t get crushes on the milk-fed nice boys anymore. I got crushes on the weird boys, the boys who played Magic: The Gathering, the boys who asked the teacher why we had to learn algebra–really, what was it good for?–the boys who had 103 averages and bad wardrobes. They were usually reasonably cute, but no one would ever call them cool. What attracted me was their passion.

Alas, it was never directed towards me. In college, I had a crush on a guy who reminded me a lot of DOTE. He was a math nerd. He played the clarinet, and he knew about classical music and theology and the Reichstag. We were friends, and for two years I hoped we’d be something more. But sophomore year he started dating someone else–a small, pale, quiet girl who skittered around campus like she was afraid. I watched them fall deeply, publicly in love–on my small college campus, it was not unusual for me to turn a corner and come upon them together, kissing deeply, or him on his knees making some passionate declaration. By graduation, they were engaged. And though I’d dated a few people, I was no closer to falling in love–really in love–then I ever had been.

R was the first nerd boy I ever dated. R was a computer nerd. In high school–back in the early nineties–he had run a file-sharing website. He burned me Smashing Pumpkins CDs and introduced me to Peaches. He knew what I meant when I talked about the categorical imperative. The first Christmas we were dating, he asked me for the book The Eternal Braid: Godel, Escher, and Bach.

And R wanted to hear about my nerdy things, too. When I started collecting The Baby-Sitters Club, he thought that was cool. When he found out I wanted to write a biography about my favorite author, he thought that was cool. When I wanted to stay up all night to watch the sun rise over the lake, when I wanted to kiss at the top of a Ferris wheel just because it was a romantic cliche, he did those things with me.

He stalked me on livejournal and wrote a computer program calculating how many days we’d been together.

The program’s still running.

The Cat Stamps

A while back, I checked out from the library the book The Quartzite Trip by William Hogan, a coming-of-age novel from the 1980s about a class trip into the desert. I found this on the title page:

Cat Stamp

The Cat Stamp

A little weird, but whatever. A kid playing, perhaps, or someone wanting to test out their new…cat stamp. I read a few chapters, and then found this:

Why are its whiskers so lopsided?

Okay, someone’s really into this cat stamp.

A few chapters later, this happened:

Tuna, tuuuuna.

I think they’re trying to hypnotize me.

The cats were starting to look a little creepy. Why were their whiskers so lopsided? Where were their ears? Why were there four of them when we were only at part two

The placement of cat stamps continued to get more and more random…and somewhat menacing.

One-eyed cat stamp

One-eyed cat stamp

Cat face cut in half?!

Cat face cut in half?!

They're closing in!

They’re closing in!

Finally, near the end, I discovered this:

Please say this is just a blurry cat stamp.

Please say this is just a blurry cat stamp.


Rabid Anti-Smoker (Or Pro-Smoker?) Defaces Isaac Asimov Book

Not too long ago I went through a phase where many of the books I checked out from the library were…strange. Previous readers had made odd annotations, added funny markings, or stuck weird things between the pages.  This is the first in a series of posts documenting Weird Things in Library Books.

The first one was a book of short stories by Isaac Asimov. I read happily along until about page 75, where someone had done some underlining in a certain paragraph. Underlining in library books is pretty common , but this person had underlined just individual words, among them “cigarette” and “pack.”


I looked closer and realized the previous reader had, indeed, marked every single reference to a smoking device–including pronouns (“it” and “its”)–in a somewhat angry looking red pen.


I flipped forward in the book and found other paragraphs that had gotten the same odd treatment. In one or two places, there was just a single “it” marked on a page, and an examination of the preceding text revealed that it was, indeed, a reference to smoking.

While I’m never in favor of defacing library books, I could perhaps understand this impulse if the book had a lot of gratuitous smoking in it. For instance, in Looking for Alaska, one of my favorite books, the characters do seem to be lighting up every time you turn around, and the centrality of smoking to the characters’ friendships and coming of age kind of makes you want to go buy a pack yourself.

But that wasn’t the case here. The Asimov book was 400 pages long, contained 30+ stories, and had perhaps 7 or 8 scenes in which someone was smoking. Smoking was just part of the background of the story–for instance, in the middle of a conversation, someone lights up a cigarette and smokes it thoughtfully. Poor Asimov was just using a talking head avoidance device–a writing technique where a conversation among characters is broken up a bit with details about them cooking dinner, or taking a bike ride, or whatever. Especially for a book of stories written in the fifties through the seventies, the amount of smoking was not notable.

And yet someone read the entire book and carefully marked every single reference to the cancerous weed with an angry red pen.

Why the attention to detail? Why the implied accusation? Was it an assignment for an anti-tobacco class? A nervous parent assessing the book for suitability for their child? Or maybe someone who had just stopped smoking and was going through a nicotine fit?


The world may never know.

Armchair Fashionista

The book I’m writing–and with any luck, will finish in the next few weeks–is about fashion. If you saw me, that would probably surprise you. I have a small, mostly nondescript wardrobe. I rarely go shopping. I wear the same pair of shoes almost every day. Every once in a while I’ll shake things up with a metallic top that makes me look like a flapper, or my floor-length MaxMara coat, but on an everyday basis, I look like someone who doesn’t give a toss about clothes.

Yet I used to worship VOGUE. In the nineties, when I was a teenager, I knew what was going on at all the major fashion houses. I loved Prada’s deliberately ugly shoes, Louis Vuitton’s padded raincoats. I followed the careers of the top high-fashion models of the time: Shalom Harlow, Amber Valletta, Stella Tennant, and Kirsty Hume. I plastered my room with ads from Calvin Klein and Versace.

Some people are armchair travelers. I was an armchair fashionista.

At the time, there were a lot of things that prevented me from wearing the clothes I saw. I didn’t have a lot of money. I lived in small towns that didn’t have branches of the stores those magazine clothes came from, or even trendy knockoff stores. There were school dress codes, parental rules, and my own body (short, short legs, not skinny) to contend with. But wearing the clothes wasn’t really the point.

What I loved were the stories. Every runway collection, every fashion editorial, every ad was a story. A model could be a story, too: the character she took on in a particular photo shoot, the overall character she took on throughout her career. A particularly beautiful shot of, say, John Galliano’s latest collection for Christian Dior could conjure up an entire world, satisfying as any novel.

And, of course, the clothes were beautiful, too. They introduced me to new worlds of color and shape and texture. Or, because it was the nineties, they taught me that beauty didn’t always have to be beautiful: sometimes it could be frumpy, or stark, or even deliberately frightening.

Part of me still wants to have a fabulous wardrobe someday. Someday, I’ll spend entire weekends combing thrift stores for gorgeous bargains. Someday, I’ll dress like a punk one week, like a Victorian doll the next.

But there are many parts of fashion I know I’ll always admire only from a distance: high heels, tiny skirts, pixie haircuts. Those things just aren’t my style. Even if I someday expand my horizons to include other pairs of shoes and donning more than one piece of jewelry at a time, wearing high fashion isn’t really my style, either. What I love about fashion is the fantasy. For some people, that fantasy becomes a creative, fabulous part of reality. But for me, it’s a place I’d rather visit in magazines–or in books.

Epic Projects

It’s probably no shocker that I have an affinity for epic projects. I’m a novelist, after all. Novels are projects that often take a year or more and god-knows-how-many hours of work before anyone reads them, plus another infinite amount of work before they’re decent enough to show to the general public. And I’ve never been very good at writing short stories: even the paragraph-long documents on my computer are mostly intended to be the beginning of novels.

As if that process weren’t punishing enough, I have a tendency to take on epic projects in other areas, too. When I was 12 or 13, I was sitting around bored in a genealogical library somewhere waiting for my parents to get done researching when I came across a book called Reading Lists for College-Bound StudentsThis book included a list of 100 of the “most often recommended” books. At the time, I was planning to go to Harvard (I had no idea what Harvard was really like, but I was smart, and Harvard was where smart people go). I figured I should get on that. I copied the entire list out into a notebook and spent eighth grade reading spectacularly age-appropriate books like  The Glass Menagerie and The Stranger by Camus. (I also read 1984 and Slaughterhouse-Five, so it wasn’t all a baffling trip down existential lane.)

I actually did quite well on this list, eventually. By the time I graduated high school, I’d read more than half, and a college career that included Great Books courses and English classes knocked out a lot of the rest. The very last books on the list–five or six, including Native Son and Don Quixote–are still on my reading list today. I fully intend to read them someday.

When I was in college, the American Film Institute released its “100 Years…100 Movies” list, and I decided I needed to expand my cinematic education. I’d probably seen 20 or so already. Thanks to the college library, some understanding roommates, and a lucky Film Club showing of Birth of Nation (abridged, but close enough when you’re talking about a silent Ku Klux Klan epic), I watched all 100 before graduation.

A year or so ago I decided it would be fun to listen to all the number-one Billboard songs from 1942 forward. When I have a slow day, I add some more songs to a YouTube playlist I’ve put together. So far, I’ve made it to the mid-eighties. I watch a few videos when I wake up in the morning, or play them in the background while I do a task that doesn’t require full concentration. The forties were eye-opening (you wouldn’t believe how many songs I thought were just children’s songs were actually the top of the charts during World War II), and the seventies were a slog, but now that I’m into an era I remember, I’m sure I’ll finish this one eventually.

This attraction towards epic projects also has a darker side. Several years ago, stuck in a job with too much down time, I decided to transcribe my diaries. All 28 volumes.  That one was an epic waste of time. Though it was enlightening to really read them all through, if I’d just read them–and scanned them into the computer–I could have cured cancer by now.

And way back in fifth grade, when I was going through my first bout of depression, I designed what has to be the weirdest, saddest epic project of all. When I was 10, we moved from a small town in Minnesota to an army base in Germany. A year later, I still ached to go back, to a town that I remembered as safe and stable, unlike the constantly changing, unfamiliar world of the army. When my Minnesota best friend sent me a yearbook from what would have been my fifth-grade class, I sat down with all five of our elementary yearbooks and made a big chart. The chart tracked which kids had been in the same class together–for instance, Jeremy, Misha, and I had been in Mrs. Sutherland, Mrs. Lindquist, and Mrs. Blomme’s classes together before being split into different classes in fourth grade. It took forever, but eventually I came up with a small list of pairs of kids who had been in the same classes five years in a row. I guess this project was partially inspired by my budding love for math and statistics, but mostly it was a pathetic grasp towards continuity, an attempt to find a piece of this world I could understand. Looking at little black-and-white pictures of my old classmates was a lot easier than trying to mend the fights I was constantly getting into with my two current best friends.

The secret about my epic projects is that most of them (well, except the novels) are easy. They take persistence, and they may expand my mind, but they aren’t difficult to actually do. They’re something to turn to on the days when my to-do list is too daunting, when even the simplest tasks are turning out much more complicated than I thought. They’re a way to feel like I’m accomplishing something without really moving forward. They’re comfort tasks. And as long as I can keep them in their place, on the fringes of my life but not at the center, I’ll keep taking them on.

What Developing Writers Should Read

Some of the books I’ve found most helpful as a writer, roughly in the order that I think a person should read them.

1. The Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. The “development of a writer” stuff really gets going in Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown and continues through Betsy’s Wedding, the last in the series. Read these to learn some basic truths about writing (never neglect your writing, be persistent) and to see the wonderful support she gets from her family, friends, and partner. Though Betsy makes mistakes sometimes, this is essentially a portrait of the ideal way for a writer to grow up and develop.

2. Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. I once loved these books so much I typed out Wild Mind so I would really absorb its lessons. These days, I rarely return to them. But I found them invaluable for teaching me to keep my hand moving and to write what I’m really thinking.

3. Stuff like the stuff you want to write. If you want to publish your work, you need to read what’s already out there. If you’re writing short stories, read a lot of short stories. If you’re writing fan fiction, read a lot of fan fiction. The more recent the better.

If you’re not reading the kind of stuff you want to write, it’s easy to, say, think that a contemporary retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” is a fresh idea, only to discover that there are already several books out there based on that premise. Or to write a children’s book from the perspective of an adult (rare these days). If you’re only reading older stuff, you may write a story that feels like it’s from the 1990s, or the 1890s. The definition of “recent” depends on the genre, but for young adult fiction, I try to concentrate on books from the past three years.

The flip side of this is that whatever you like to read is probably what you should be writing: if you love European literary fiction, don’t write a romance just because you think it’s going to be easier. Romance has its own set of conventions and you need to really know them before you can write a (publishable) romance book. In almost any genre, the rules can be broken, but you need to know them first.

4. Okay, back to advice books. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Lamott is hilarious and low-pressure but also gives it to you straight. It’s been a while since I’ve reread it, but I think it works for both beginning and more experienced writers.

5. On Writing by Stephen King. Just a good, general, all-around writing book. If you think that successful writers are mysterious and perfect, King will show you otherwise. One thing I like about this book is that it covers the whole spectrum of writing advice: King’s development as a writer, the nuts and bolts of adverbs, and advice on publishing.

6. The Emily books by L. M. Montgomery (Emily of New Moon, but especially Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest). If the Betsy series shows the ideal development of a writer, the Emily series shows the (almost) worst-case scenario. Emily has to work for her success. Her guardians forbid her to write fiction, and even once that ban is lifted, Emily often writes late at night in a cold attic room by the light of a single candle. Though she does have a mentor, he’s not always encouraging, and one of her closest friends constantly belittles her work. Read this series to learn about persistence and to feel better about your own obstacles.

7. Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. If you write, but don’t feel like a “writer,” read this book. I love her advice about connecting with other writers and how to build a life that feels like your vision of what a “writer” is. Particularly valuable for people who feel stuck in a day job, or in their identity as “student,” “mom,” or “bartender.”  Her craft advice is pretty good, too, but it’s the lifestyle stuff that makes this book invaluable to me.

8. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. This book on screenwriting finally helped me “get” plot. The writing isn’t always great, and he’s sometimes dismissive of certain types of “artsy” films, but his advice is straightforward and simple (though not always easy) to follow.

9. Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. I like the time-management advice in this book, which is basically “even two minutes counts.” The chapter on “Dead Weight–What You Can Ignore” was good, too. Take the craft advice and his frequent “always” and “never” tips with a grain of salt.

10. Writing the Breakout Novel and accompanying workbook by Donald Maass. I’m not sure I’m even ready for this one yet. It makes you think HARD about the novel you’re writing, examining your characters and plot, adding layers, etc. Even a few hours spent with this book will make your book richer.

Have you read any of the books above, and do you agree with my recommendations? What other books have you found helpful as a writer?