What I’m Reading: Chloe Caldwell’s new essay collection

Friday, October 14th, 2016

I'll Tell You in PersonI’ll Tell You in Person by Chloe Caldwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Funny, edgy, and introspective, Chloe Caldwell finds a natural groove on the self-reflective side of confessional essay writing. She creates herself as a character caught between 20 and 30: a rocky stretch of years complicated by addiction, dire financial straits, and uncertainty about the future. Although it’s the kind of book I’d be most likely share with a reader of that age, I really enjoyed Caldwell’s confidence with her form and her intimate, exquisite observations of friendship.

She reads at San Francisco’s Green Apple Books on December 12, and I’ll be there! Website.

View all my reviews

I’m teaching a class with Kate Gray! Bring yourself and your query letter.

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016

Make Your Query Letter and First Pages Pop: All About Voice (Impact Hub Oakland, Sept. 24, 2016)

Agents and editors want to discover authors who write with a “fresh voice.” But what does that actually mean, and how do you add that secret ingredient to your query letter and manuscript?

Join us for an interactive, high-energy three hours on Saturday, Sept. 24 at Oakland’s Impact Hub (2323 Broadway), and grab the attention of your readers and industry pros. Sarah Cypher, an independent editor at The Threepenny Editor, and Kate Gray, writing coach and author of the acclaimed novel Carry the Sky, will show you what makes good query letters and first pages pop. In this energetic, interactive workshop, you’ll develop your query letter with tools we offer and identify your distinct voice: the sound that sets you apart from the rest.

Your $125 entry fee to this query letter class includes a copy of Kate’s novel, Carry the Sky, and Sarah’s The Editor’s Lexicon: Essential Writing Terms for Novelists

Limited to 15 participants. Register now via Eventbrite! Seats will fill up fast.

About the Instructors:

Author Kate Gray

Kate Gray’s passion is being a teacher, a writing coach, and a volunteer writing facilitator with women inmates and women veterans. She is the author of three poetry collections, and her first novel, Carry the Sky (Forest Avenue, 2014), stares down bullying without blinking. In Any More, Black Shoe, her novel-in-progress set in 1953, Sylvia Plath and Maureen Buckley, the younger sister of William F. Buckley, Jr., step into and out of roles prescribed by race, class, gender and religion. Kate and her partner live in a purple house in Portland, Oregon with Rafi and Wasco, their two very patient dogs.

Editor Sarah Cypher

Sarah Cypher has edited New York Times bestsellers and helped clients on their way to deals with Big Five publishers, foreign publishers, and production companies. Self-published clients have generously funded their books on Kickstarter, and earned a monthly income from their sales. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing, Phi Beta Kappa, from Carnegie Mellon University, and her own writing has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, The Oregonian, Fodor’s,, and Publishers Weekly. By being a working writer *and* editor, she offers a savvy look at query letters, concept development, and marketability. She lives in West Oakland with her wife, cat, and two dogs.

Register now via Eventbrite!

Schedule: BinderCon LA, March 19-20

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

I was overjoyed to learn that I’m a scholarship recipient for the next BinderCon, a professional development conference to empower women and gender non‑conforming writers with tools, connections, and strategies to advance their careers. This has been a hugely supportive group of women, I loved BinderCon NYC last autumn, and I can’t wait to meet more of these powerhouse writers in person and share experiences.

What: BinderCon, hosted by Out of the Binders

When: March 19–20, 2016

Where: UCLA, Los Angeles

See you there!

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Holy objects

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

My grandmother, Millie Kanaan, wasn’t big on giving gifts. She kept a wad of cash in a bathrobe pocket, and crinkled fives and tens made their way into our hands for birthdays, departures, holidays. She bought us sweets, or sent us home with fushettes–fried Syrian bread dough and homemade chocolate icing. Five years ago, she gave me one of her rings and made sure it fit: I’ve worn it every moment since, except when swimming in open water. It wasn’t the first time she talked about dying, but it was the first and only gift she gave me for the purpose of remembering her when she was gone.

And now that she is gone–her body, her house, a whole material universe of her presence in the world–I found myself drawn to mementos not of her, but of her mementos of others; basically, memories of memories, symbols of people and places sixty years removed. What I don’t know or didn’t ask makes me sad. This feeling of regret over lost history is probably, largely, a universal one. (I hope it is, because even shared grief is lonely enough.) But I like to think of her using these objects, looking at them, thinking about someone she loved or missed or about a place beyond the pink-carpeted rooms of her old age.

  •  The family ring, seven small diamonds to represent my grandparents and their five children;
  •  Her father’s rosary and its tin box, shaped like a bible;
  •  Her red Orthodox prayer book, with her husband’s obituary card in the back cover;
  •  Her husband’s WWII Army Air Corps unit photograph;
  •  A Heinz pickle pin (small and green, a cheerful object to Pittsburgh natives);
  •  Carved wooden giraffe, a gift from her son-in-law after his trip to Ghana;
  •  The smaller pair of binoculars, used for birdwatching and deer-watching from her kitchen window;
  •  Plastic wall clock, which ticked loudly in her room in the nursing home.

The last isn’t sentimental. But it was one of the first and last things she looked at every day for her final year. Among other assets, my grandmother was a punctual and practical woman. And really, at the heart of all these mementos, is time: shared, lost, turned back, erased, treasured, limited.

Obituary, Millie Kanaan (January 29, 1924–January 15, 2016)

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Maybe Merry

Monday, December 21st, 2015

As the year ends, it’s easy to focus on the ways in which this holiday season could be better. The health of grandmothers is too present: mine and her sadness in the face of her first major holiday in a nursing home; my wife’s grandmother on hospice; the neighbor’s who passed away suddenly two days ago, which I learned when I opened the front door to a street full of Oakland Police cruisers.  A dear friend recently lost her grandmother, too.

These are the women who created Christmas literally from the sugar in their kitchens and the yarn in their hands. As I hang three of my grandma’s treasured hand-blown-glass icicles on our tree, our own plans are fragile as a skiff of ice–rushed between work projects and the likelihood of an emergency bereavement flight to Texas.

I’m thankful for so many things, though–my wife, my family, my work, my job, my health. That these blessings are obvious to me makes them feel even more like dumb luck. But I had to prod myself to remember these last night as I cleaned a litter box in the rain. I couldn’t think of a worse, more angering chore to conduct at 10 p.m. under a broken porch light–especially after having just spent four bone-chilling hours in an outdoor pool for a swim class. Erin had gone to bed, my work was overwhelming me, and I couldn’t stop sneezing. Under these conditions, it’s difficult to grasp what’s actually, specifically good about obvious blessings, so I focused on one other thing I have always been grateful for:

I was thankful for having an appetite.

My history with food is long, warm, and undiscriminating. I came inside, dried the rain off my hair and sweatshirt, and poured the rest of the leftover chili over rice. I ate two pieces of cornbread while it heated up. I opened a beer. I finished the chili and beer and made hot chocolate, pausing just to feed some marshmallows to the dog. Then I ate the leftover tortellini and meat sauce and took a dessert of dark chocolate to the couch. This is normal enough. This is how I feel happy and taken-care-of in the depths of any dark mood or piece of ambivalent holiday news.

In my family, food is love. My grandmother learned to cook from her mother-in-law, a widow from Lebanon, and when we cousins were children she would bring us a sample of whatever she was cooking: a little thumb-sized lump of food in a napkin that she called a “mouse.”

My favorite kind of mouse was kibbeh niyeh–raw lamb with bulgur wheat, salted and served cold. Its flavor was mineral and oddly refreshing. But I loved any sort of food she gave us, and it was easy to do partly because she made the best stuffed grape leaves on this side of the Mediterranean, and mostly because it was the one time she didn’t mind us gathering around the kitchen doorway with our appetites and bad jokes and bottomless hunger for her attention. She never refused a hug, and whenever I went home, she always dropped whatever she was doing and stood in her driveway, hand on her hip, and waved goodbye to the car until she couldn’t see it anymore.

Last night, satiated and growing warmer, I sat on the couch in a room lit only by my computer screen and the Christmas tree. I let the calico cat pick over the crumbs on my plate. (I forgive this animal too quickly, Erin says.) The glass icicles refracted the colored lights. I missed my grandmother–she’s still alive and I saw her last week, but she is 92 and in wobbly health, and I only see her twice a year. Christmas is a milestone that looks further away every time.

“I’ll see you in May,” I told her.

“It’s too long.”

“I’ll talk to you on the phone a lot between now and then.”

Still, she’d labored up from her chair and set aside the pork loin and grape leaves I’d brought her, and walked me all the way to the front door of the nursing home. She clomped her walker over the doorframe and struggled out to the porch. Erin and I drove around the roundabout and tooted the horn, and she stepped away from her walker long enough to wave goodbye. When I checked the rearview mirror, she was still waving.

Holidays or not, this is my grandmother’s tacit wisdom: the equivalence of food and affection. You feed someone if you love them. If you love them, you feed them. It’s no wonder that the first gift I ever gave Erin was a container of homemade chicken noodle soup.

So, here’s my wish. May you always have someone to feed, and someone to feed you.


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