A Simple Diet

I decided to write this blog post because whenever I go into the bookstore, I see books on diets, most of them filled with advice that I think is actually harmful. And whenever I go on social media, I see friends going on diets, which may or may not help them. I’ve also had friends ask me how I stay in shape, and say to me, “You must be one of those people who can eat anything she wants.” No, I can’t. I have a long history of going on diets of various sorts, back to my teenage years. None of them worked or helped me, and it took me a long time to figure out a way to eat that is healthy and makes me happy, both with myself and the food I’m eating.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that I like to figure things out: my life is so busy that I like to figure out how to make parts of it as simple and intuitive as possible. Like cleaning, or exercise. I like to hack my own life and happiness. I want it to be easy so I can spend time on the things that really matter: my teaching and writing, my daughter and other relationships.

So how did I figure out how to maintain what I feel is a healthy weight for me, and more importantly, find a way of eating that gives me energy and makes me happy? Because if a diet (I use the word here to mean a way of eating, not a way of losing weight) doesn’t give you energy and make you happy, it won’t be your diet for much longer. It’s very hard to motivate yourself to do anything that makes you tired and unhappy — and honestly, those are signs that whatever you’re doing is unhealthy anyway.

I’ll start with my premise: no one diet is healthy and effective for everyone. We are all unique, with unique cultural and personal histories, as well as unique tastes. This is why I call foul on diet books: they tell us that everyone should be following one (their) diet. But I have a friend who was trying to lose weight, and simply could not — until she realized that she was lactose intolerant. She had to cut out dairy products entirely before she could find a weight that felt right for her. On the other hand, I’ve been told and have read that dairy products are unnecessary for adults, and that I would be healthier if I cut them out of my diet. So I tried, but it was as though my body said to me, “What do you think you’re doing?” I got sick. I was so used to following “expert” advice that it took me a while to realize what I should have understood about myself: my ancestors were nomadic horsemen. They lived on the milk from their herds for a thousand years. Without dairy products, they would not have survived. I have the body that evolved in that environment: I’m short, slight, compact. I gain weight easily, but I also gain muscle easily. I’m good at things like gymnastics and riding horses, and terrible at things like running, especially long distances. My friend and I have different bodies: mine needs diary products. One diet will not work for both of us.

So if the diet books are expensive wastes of time, how do you figure out a diet (as a way of eating) for yourself? I do think it’s important to figure it out, because we live in an environment we weren’t designed for. We evolved to eat in environments in which finding food was difficult — we had to hunt or grow it, and then prepare it. We exercised regularly simply as part of our daily lives. Obviously, we don’t live in that environment anymore. So if we want to be healthy, most of us need to be conscious about our food choices. This is how I did it, which may or may not work for you:

1. Learn about yourself.

When I realized that I kept trying different diets, none of which made me feel healthier or helped me lose weight (which was my real concern — it should not have been, but it was), I started to keep a food journal. I wrote down what I ate, when, and why. And I kept track of calories. Keeping a food journal taught me things about my body that I had not realized before. First, it made me confront the fact that my body was very precise about weight, which makes sense. After all, it’s precise about maintaining my temperature, my hormone levels . . . If I ate around 1600 calories a day, it would slowly lose weight. If I ate around 1800 calories a day, it would slowly gain weight.  Between those two numbers, my weight would stay around the same.  And it didn’t much matter what I ate, in terms of weight: my body cared about calories. But I also learned that what I ate mattered a great deal in terms of my energy level. White bread and sugar made my energy level rise, but then it would crash suddenly several hours later and I would be hungry again. Whole wheat bread, especially if I ate it with cheese, would give me energy for a whole afternoon. I found dark chocolate more satisfying than milk chocolate: I could eat a little and not want more. Raw sugar and white sugar affected me differently, probably because raw sugar had a more complex and therefore satisfying flavor.

And I learned about myself psychologically. I learned that I ate when I was hungry, but also when I was bored, or anxious, or depressed. I learned that I ate to give myself a treat. Food is an excellent way to deal with hunger, but a terrible way to deal with boredom, anxiety, or depression, because it doesn’t actually help. I had to find other coping mechanisms. And I found other treats to give myself: makeup, books, walks in the park. I found that in order to eat healthily, for hunger and not other reasons, I had to actually take better care of myself as a person. I also learned that I eat when I’m tired, to substitute for sleep. Also not a good idea. I still do this sometimes, but at least I recognize that I’m doing it, and when I gain weight after a week of late night snacks, I’ll know why.

I also learned about my habits, tastes, and preferences, which are just as important as learning about yourself physically and psychologically. For example, I don’t particularly care about cooking as an art, or fancy food. A bowl of pasta with sauce and cheese for dinner makes me perfectly happy. When I bake, it’s usually banana bread or brownies. Going out to a restaurant is fun as a treat, but otherwise I’m not interested in gourmet cooking. I have friends who are, and they need to take that into account when create their own preferred diets. On the other hand, I have a serious sweet tooth, and if I don’t indulge it on a fairly regular basis, I’m unhappy. So I have to make sure that my diet includes chocolate on a regular basis . . .

In a way, I hacked myself, which would have been a useful exercise even if it hadn’t led to a change in my diet and my attitude toward food.


(Breakfast: oatmeal with milk and raisins, orange juice with fizzy water, chai latte.)

2. Create your own system.

I’ve used “diet” in this blog post in two ways: as a way of losing weight, and as a way of eating. Here I mean a way of eating. Whether or not you want to lose weight is up to you, and between you and yourself. No one else is part of that conversation. But what I can say with some confidence is that losing weight as a goal does not work if it relies on changing what you eat temporarily, until you reach your “goal.” What I’m talking about is not reaching a goal but creating a new system, a way to eat that you will follow. So it needs to make you healthy and happy, to give you energy.

My diet is pretty simple. It’s a mix of grains, meats, dairy, vegetables, and fruit. The grains are whole wheat: brown rice and pasta, and whole wheat bread, because of the havoc that the white stuff wreaks on my energy levels. The meats are usually lean. The dairy is usually low fat (like 2% milk), but I don’t eat anything fat-free. I buy bags of frozen vegetables, steam them, and add butter. And the fruit is usually fresh, unless I buy frozen fruit and make something like peach crisp. I have raw sugar in my oatmeal and tea, honey in my yogurt (which I buy plain). I eat four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner. The snack includes chocolate, and the dinner includes dessert (although it’s usually something like yogurt with honey, or a slice of banana bread). I try to make sure that each meal includes different types of food: grains, proteins, vegetables or fruit. I find that a combination feels me fuller and more satisfied than any food alone. Oh, and I use butter and canola oil for cooking.

I eat mostly simple, unprocessed food that I cook myself. I’m a creature of habit, so breakfast is usually oatmeal with milk and raisins, orange juice with fizzy water, and a chai latte. Lunch is usually a cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread and an apple, which I can carry with me and eat between teaching classes. Snack varies, but almost always includes chocolate as well as healthier things, like dried fruit. And dinner is usually brown rice or pasta with vegetables and meat or cheese, plus dessert. And then always a mug of herbal tea before bedtime.

I still keep a simple food journal: what, when, and calories. It’s a way of making sure that I’m conscious about my food choices, not a way of controlling what I eat. I usually stay in the 1600-1800 calorie range, because that’s where I’m not hungry, where I have lots of energy, where I feel at my best. But if I’m hungry, I always eat. There are times when I’m under stress, or very active, when I simply need more calories, or more protein, or even more chocolate . . .

And I schedule treats. Once I week, I make sure I have something extravagant that I don’t usually have — today, for example, it will be ice cream at a shop that opened downtown. A very fancy shop. When I have treats, I make them count!


(Lunch: cheese sandwich, hard-boiled egg, apple.)

3. Follow it most of the time.

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Once you’ve developed your system, one that makes you healthy and happy, one in which you don’t have to give up any food you want to eat (although you may need to eat it in moderation), just follow it most of the time. Goals are problematic because you spend most of your time feeling as though you need to reach your goal, you haven’t reached your goal, your goal is out of reach . . . A system is better because you can congratulate yourself for sticking with a system that is making you healthier and happier. And if you go away from it for a while, you can go back to it. You can’t go back to a goal, by definition.

Even better, you can build exceptions into the system. I try to follow my own way of eating, my own diet, most of the time. But if I’m at a restaurant with friends, I’ll have a wonderful meal, whatever it consists of. A burger, sushi, tapas . . . I’ll have the best meal I can. And then the next day I’ll go back to eating the way I usually do.

So that’s it, really. We live in an environment in which we’re getting conflicting messages about food all the time. We see advertisements telling us how much fun it would be to have dinner at Olive Garden, and diet books telling us that we have to cut out X, Y, or Z foods, or live like our Neolithic ancestors (while giving us completely inaccurate information on what they ate). Or cut out “toxins.” We’re caught between two damaging messages.

Sometimes I wish I could write a diet book to counteract all the diet books I see on the bookstore shelves! It would probably not sell very well, though. It would consist of these very simple messages:

We live in an environment in which to be healthy, most of us need to be conscious about what we eat.  We are bombarded with messages, most of which are not helpful.  You are yourself, different from anyone else.  What works for me may not work for you.  In this, as in everything else, you will need to find your own way.  Here’s how:

1. Learn about yourself.
2. Create a system you can follow.
3. Follow it most of the time.


(Dinner: whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce and parmesan, broccoli with butter. Dessert was plain yogurt with honey.)

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A Luxurious Life

I was thinking recently about how luxurious my life feels, nowadays.

And I wondered why it felt that way. After all, I’m a university lecturer. It’s not as though I make a lot of money, or spend a lot of money on things I don’t need. When I was a lawyer, I met plenty of people who lived in ways we usually think of as luxurious. They had enormous houses — often for only two or three or four people to live in. They had expensive clothes, expensive cars. They flew to exotic places on vacation. And yet I didn’t think of their lives as particularly luxurious. Their lives seemed, rather, empty and cold — like their large houses. Clichéd, like their vacations.

I certainly didn’t grow up with a sense of luxury. I grew up with a sense of lack, of the things I couldn’t have — things that often my friends could have. There was an awful lot I wanted, back then. So why, I wondered, do I have a sense of luxury now? To try and make sense of it, I listed the things that make me feel luxurious.

1. I have four closets and a storage space. It’s ridiculous, really. In one of the most expensive rental markets in the country, I somehow managed to find a one-bedroom apartment with four closets. And a storage space. My hypothesis is that luxury is having everything you need, plus a little extra. A lot extra doesn’t do anything, doesn’t increase your sense of luxuriousness. I have all the storage space I need, plus a little. And one of them is a linen closet! There are some things that are incredibly useful but feel like extras, nowadays. We wish for them but don’t expect to get them. A linen closet is one of those things. (I also have very high ceilings. In a small apartment, ten foot ceilings make you feel as though you have room — to breathe, to grow, to become.)

2. I have enough clothes to go two whole weeks without doing laundry. That’s a long time! I don’t think I ever had that, when I was a student. I was always trying to find quarters, just so I could have something to wear the next week . . . (I still feel guilty spending quarters — I default to saving quarters for laundry, even when I don’t need to.)  And I have more clothes, probably, than I’ve ever had in my life. Oh, they all fit in two closets and a chest of drawers, so it’s not as though I’m becoming a fashionista or anything. It’s just that eventually (this took a very long time) I found out what sorts of clothes I loved, what suited me. So I stopped making mistakes. Also, I learned how to shop at thrift stores . . .

3. I have extra household items. I mean, if I run out of light bulbs, I have extra light bulbs! (In the linen closet.) I never had that, as a student. When I ran out of something, I didn’t have more. I had to check and see if I could afford light bulbs that week. There’s something so satisfying about having a stash of things: light bulbs, paint, glue. Plenty of trash bags. Nails to hang pictures with. And a whole stack of soap. (Also, an extra tube of toothpaste. I find the toothpaste is key.) And, just in case my watch stops, I have an extra watch!

4. I have plenty of books, but also bookshelves to put them in. Books are a necessity, of course. What’s a luxury is having specifically the ones I want to have, the ones I really need and treasure. I’ve given myself permission to give away books that don’t mean much to me, books that feel temporary. The latest bestsellers, that I read specifically to learn how they became bestsellers, for example. Gone Girl went. But I have almost everything Isak Dinesen wrote, and Virginia Woolf, and Willa Cather. I’m surrounded by the writers who mean most to me. And I have enough shelves. It’s such a luxury, having enough shelves!

5. I can buy small treats. An expensive bar of chocolate. Bubble bath (the good kind). Even sometimes an antique ring I want from Etsy, or a print that I can frame and put up on my wall. Small things, but they make me feel as though I can gather things around me, things that are delicious or beautiful. I can make them part of my life. And they change my life. I don’t agree with people who say that you should spend money on experiences rather than things. Experiences are wonderful, but I love the ring I bought, silver with marcasites, shaped like a flower. I had it resized so that it fit me perfectly, and now I wear it almost every day. That means a much to me as having gone to the ballet, or traveling in Europe. It’s a small part of my everyday life.

6. I live in a city where I can go to libraries and museums, anytime. Where the streets are lively, and there are bookstores and cafés, and a river to walk beside. There really isn’t much excuse for being bored here, because there’s so much to do. And although technically the city doesn’t belong to me, it sort of does. I don’t own Monets, but I have a museum membership, so I can walk into a room with my Monets anytime I want to. Oh, there are all sorts of annoying things about the city! Sure. Sometimes the crowds, and the expense of it. But there are wonderful things about it as well, so as long as I’m living here, I’m going to experience them all.

7. I have enough money to buy beautiful things. Like that ring I mentioned, but also flowers every week. And the next-to-cheapest tickets to the ballet. (It makes a difference in your view, whether you buy the cheapest or the next-to-cheapest. And there can be quite a big difference in price.) More than anything else, beauty gives you a sense of luxury. I think that was the main thing missing in my life, when I was growing up. I come from a practical family, and I didn’t want to be practical. I wanted to be romantic. I painted my walls pale pink, and had curtains over my bed. It’s a luxury, now, to be able to indulge my taste for beauty, for romance.

(If you want to feel a sense of luxury, that’s what I would advise: go for the small extras.  You don’t need the large extras, not really.  Just the small ones.  A little more room, a little more beauty, a little more chocolate . . .)

That’s quite a list, I think. There are certainly things I still want in my life. (I have a list of them — I’m working on that list!) But when I sit in my living room in the morning, with sunlight streaming through the window, I realize how lucky I am. What luxuries I have now, that I didn’t have when I was younger. For so long, I approached life out of that sense of lack — I didn’t expect to have more than enough. (I barely expected to have enough.) And now I’m rich in soap, and light bulbs, and chocolate. And closets.

Here are a couple of my recent luxuries:

Cheesecake Cupcake

A cheesecake cupcake at the local cupcake shop, Sweet.  It’s like a mini-cheesecake.  With frosting.

Hokusai Wave

Hokusai’s The Wave, which I photographed at the museum. It’s currently having a huge Hokusai exhibit.  I want to go back once the semester is over.

New Chair

My brand new armchair, bought for $27 at Goodwill. Well, brand new old armchair. It just needs to be cleaned, and doesn’t it fit perfectly, right there?  I’ll sit in it when I want to have tea, in the sunlight . . .

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Living Hypersensitive

In the last few weeks, I’ve been overwhelmed with work, which is why I’ve gotten behind on blogging. No, overwhelmed is the wrong word — I don’t get overwhelmed with the work itself, because I’m very organized. But there have been nights when I’ve gotten home, eaten dinner, and simply fallen asleep for a couple of hours. Then I get up again and work. So what is it that overwhelms me? What is it that takes all my energy, so that at some points all I can do is collapse?

Part of the answer is people: I have so much to do with people, almost every day. For me, a truly restful day involves doing just as much work, but entirely by myself. Then I spend a lot less energy doing it.

One problem, of course, is that I’m introverted — that means people drain my energy rather than energizing me. Spending a day alone is like recharging. After time alone, my battery feels full again. But another problems is being hypersensitive. Which basically means that I have fewer boundaries protecting me from the world. Have you ever gone into a store, heard music playing, and tuned it out? I can’t tune it out. Or smelled something and then forgotten it was there? I don’t. Which is why I don’t cook with garlic . . . because the smell never seems to go away, and it never seems to stop bothering me.

A lot of people are hypersensitive in that way, but we’re in the minority, I think. And we live in a world that is not made for us, that is made for people with with a higher level of tolerance (for noise, for dirt, for all the things we can’t seem to stop noticing). It’s like living in a world made for men who are about 5’10” tall, when you’re a 5’4″ woman, which is of course my other experience of the world. (I have to stand on a stool to reach my highest kitchen cabinets. On the other hand, I fit comfortably into airplane seats, which seem to be made for people my size — despite the fact that most people are not my size.) We live in a world that is often too much for us.

So if you’re hypersensitive, what are you hypersensitive to?

1. Noises, smells, tastes, textures. The world is too loud for you. It often smells too strong, although there’s a benefit too — you get to appreciate flowers more, I think. Or the smell of baking. Being hypersensitive does have its benefits. But for me, restaurant foods are often too highly flavored. I’m perfectly happy eating a bowl of brown rice, broccoli, and peas with butter and salt. (Confession: that and a hard boiled egg is one of my standard dinners.) Some clothes are too scratchy. Do you buy clothes specifically because they’re soft? Do you cut out the tags? Then you may be hypersensitive . . . The physical world itself can be overwhelming.

2. Temperatures. I know it sounds ridiculous to people who don’t respond this way, but I notice the difference between 68 degrees and 72 degrees. When my university office is 68 degrees, my hands are so cold that I can’t write. Which means that staying in hotel rooms drives me crazy.

3. People. Do you pick up on people’s emotional states? Do you often know what they’re thinking or feeling, or about to say even before they say it? This is a useful skill if you’re a teacher. You can say things like “I think the real problem isn’t that you’re not sure how to structure this introduction, but that you’re worried about your exam. So why don’t you take the exam, and then think about the introduction? When your mind is clearer and you’re not worried about Biology, you’ll be able to set down your ideas in a clearer way.” It’s a serious problem if you live with people who are angry or depressive, because it means you pick up on their emotions. And when you can’t filter them out, and you usually can’t, they become your emotions as well.

Tip: If you’re hypersensitive, make sure the emotions you’re feeling are your own. If you’re sad, make sure it’s your own sadness, that you’re not picking it up from someone else. It’s so easy, when you don’t have those filters, to feel someone else’s feelings and assume they’re yours. The only way to tell is to go off by yourself. Go to a place where you can be alone. Now what do you feel?

4. Beauty and ugliness. If you’re hypersensitive, you need beauty, the way you need sleep or food. So make sure you get plenty of beauty. One of my best investments has been a membership to the Museum of Fine Arts. There is something so calm about an art museum . . . And if I need to see something beautiful, I can go stand in front of a Monet. Go to the symphony or the ballet if you can afford it. If you live in a city, find the parks around you. If you live in the country, plant a garden. Honestly, I would have people who are hypersensitive write themselves a prescription: “Beauty, to be taken twice daily.” (I live in the city, so I buy myself flowers; I have houseplants, and paintings on the walls. I think of decorating my space as an investment — in myself, my own productivity and peace of mind.)

Tip: Give yourself permission to avoid ugliness. Yes, I know it’s important to find out what’s going on in the world. But violence and ugliness will overwhelm you, and that doesn’t make you any more effective, does it? Figure out what you can do to help in your own corner of the world, and then do that. Don’t get into the fights that are raging all the time, unless it really is for an important moral principle. Make your message positive.

5. Stress. You will be more sensitive to stress, including the stress you generate yourself. You may have a tendency to catastrophize, to constantly imagine the worst. I do: I imagine the worst and decide how to prepare for it — it’s a way of feeling secure, which is fine, as long as I don’t then continue to imagine the worst, over and over. Because that’s not useful or healthy. The way to deal with stress is, first, to get rid of the stress if you can (change your external circumstances). But so often we can’t, and then the way to deal with unavoidable stress is to create resilience. You have to make yourself stronger. Anyway, certain kinds of stress are good for you — teaching is stressful, speaking in public is stressful, I even find signing books stressful. But they are good things for me to do, and there are also things I love about them. So how do you make yourself stronger?

Tip: You must take care of yourself. Really, you must. What makes you happy, what can you do just for you? It’s absolutely essential for you to do those things, or you’ll become depleted. You’ll collapse, the way I’ve been doing some nights. Your list will probably be different from mine, but mine includes the following: bubble baths, chocolate, reading books, flowers, going for walks. Make sure you’re getting the things you need for your soul.

Of course, also make sure you’re getting the things you need for your body: sleep, the right kinds of food and exercise, calm spaces. Soft textures. Contact with people who ask for nothing from you, who don’t take energy from you (those are the precious few).

There are both good and bad aspects of being hypersensitive. The good aspect, which is what I generally choose to focus on, is that you’re sensitive, very sensitive to beauty, to art, to music, to spring when it finally comes after a long winter. The bad aspect is that sometimes you’re too sensitive for a particular context — a rough environment, whether home or school, can send you spiraling. You need to be aware that you’re living in a world with people who respond differently than you do — not all of them, but the majority. It’s OK to adjust the world for your own needs, to the extent you can. In fact, it’s necessary if you’re going to function at your best and highest level.

You can see my tiredness in this blog post: it’s disjointed, the points still logically following one another but without the sort of flow I usually try to achieve in my writing. That’s all right. This is what I have, right now, for now. It’s the last month of the semester, and soon enough I’ll have time to rest and focus on my writing . . .

Friday Night 2

(This is me last night. Tired . . .)

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Self-Doubt as Strength

I think all writers, all artists, suffer from self-doubt.

We usually think of self-doubt as a problem: notice that above, I wrote “suffer from.” Those words came out automatically, because they represent how we usually think about self-doubt: as a disease, almost. As a debilitating condition. Well, it can be debilitating . . .

I was in one of my bouts of self-doubt last week, worried about the novel I’d written, worried about whether people would “get it,” and of course like it. Worried about whether it would be published, and how, and when . . . . I’ve been doing this for more than ten years, publishing stories, essays, poems. I’ve had positive reviews, award nominations and wins. None of that stops the self-doubt. It’s much worse, I think, for younger writers — I can hear their worries, and I try to reassure them, but self-doubt is not something anyone else can fight. It’s your own personal monster. You have to fight it yourself.

But there are also some good things about self-doubt. I know, it’s counter-intuitive, but I want to argue that self-doubt can be a source of strength. It can be what makes you stronger and better. Here’s how:

1. Self-doubt can make you work harder.

I know, this isn’t always true: self-doubt can also lead to giving up. But doubting my own talents and abilities has driven me to work harder, in pretty much everything I’ve done. Study harder for the exam. Prepare harder for the class. Practice more. I sometimes see this among young writers as well: they doubt themselves, and that doubt spurs them on rather than stopping them. They don’t know if they’re any good, so they try to get better. They don’t know if a story works, so they think about it more, revise it more readily. They put in the hours.

Of course, you can put too much work into something: there comes a time when studying harder is counter-productive, when a story should not be revised further. You need to know when to stop. But I’ve seen a lot of people stop too soon. I’ve seen that more often than the opposite — people wanting something and not putting the work in, assuming they’ve done enough. Sometimes they have so much confidence in themselves and their talents that they feel as though they don’t need to put in the work. And they don’t do as well.

So self-doubt can be a good thing: it can make you work harder to get what you want.

I’ve read that women tend to apply for jobs they know they are fully qualified for, while men tend to apply for jobs they are mostly qualified for — they don’t wait until they are fully qualified. I’m sure this is partly because women doubt themselves more in general, although I hesitate to make generalizations based on gender. I have male friends who are writers and artists, and many of them suffer from self-doubt too. But we do live in a culture that fills women with self-doubt in a way it doesn’t for men. Are you pretty enough? Are you smart enough? These are questions women ask themselves from the time they are teenagers. Our default image for qualified is still male. My point here isn’t to emphasize the gendering of self-doubt but to say that we’ve all known situations in which someone (male or female) got in on bluster, on a show of self-confidence, without necessarily being qualified. That is generally a bad thing. The saying “fake it till you make it” is a disaster if you’re taking about anything that really matters, like brain surgery or making cupcakes. Or, you know, art. (Because fake art is a horrible thing. Like a great big flowery Jeff Koons puppy.)

2. Self-doubt can make you hold yourself to a high standard.

Self-doubt means you judge yourself more harshly, which can be a bad thing. It can lead to despair and depression. But it can also make you hold yourself to a high standard, perhaps a higher standard than society gives you. Society, after all, gives us only the standard of a particular time. As artists, so often we have to create our own standard, out of what we believe to be the best — out of what particularly speaks to us. Yes, this is an impossible standard. I’m never going to write like a combination of Virginia Woolf and Isak Dinesen and Angela Carter. Even if I could, it would be incoherent. I have to find my own way, my own voice.

But I doubt myself and therefore I try for the best. What I aim for may always be beyond my reach, but at least I will know the distance between what I am doing and where I want to go. And I won’t say “this is enough, this is good enough.” I will say “this is the best I can do for now,” because otherwise, honestly, I would never publish anything. But I will try for better. I will do the next thing, because who knows, the next thing might be it. Or the thing after that . . .

3. Self-doubt gives you a sense of humility.

The hardest student to teach is the student who is convinced that he or she already knows how to write. Often, it’s a student who got As on English papers in a high school that was not particularly rigorous. A student who was taught to use large words without understanding their precise meanings, who was rewarded for obfuscation, for “sounding academic.” For this sort of student, you must first breach the wall of self-confidence, and it can be a pretty thick wall. You must show him or her why that sort of writing isn’t actually very good. And you must do it kindly, or you will encounter the natural resistance of wounded pride. (Often what it takes is pointing to a sentence and saying, “What do you actually mean here?”)

A student who doubts his or her own abilities will listen to you, will learn what you have to teach. So if you have self-doubt, you tend to be a good student. You tend to think that if you’re not learning, the problem isn’t the teacher, but you. (The problem is sometimes the teacher, but blaming the teacher is seldom useful. More useful is taking what you can from the teacher, despite his or her limitations. A good student can learn from almost anyone in almost any situation.)

We don’t value humility very much in our culture. We value pride, even when it’s just a show of pride. Even when it’s just bluff. But I think great artists tend to have great humility, because they know how hard the road is, how much they’ve worked, how fortunate they’ve been. (Except Picasso. And maybe Salvador Dali. If they had humility, they didn’t show it.) Great artists have pride too, of course — in what they’ve accomplished. But they always seem to be looking for the next thing to work on. What they’ve already done never seems enough . . .

4. Self-doubt means you’re already vulnerable, without having to work at it.

There seems to be an entire industry devoted, nowadays, to telling people that they need to be more open, more vulnerable. I suspect it’s an industry founded by self-confident extroverts. I know lots of people who don’t need to be more vulnerable. Instead, they need to build boundaries, to say no more often. I’m one of them. People who have self-doubts are usually already open to the world, to its judgments of them. They aren’t very good at shutting the world out.

In my family, we have a generation (me and my brother) of hypersensitive, introverted kids. Where we came from, I don’t know, because the rest of my family isn’t like that. But it’s obvious how differently we deal with the world. To the extent that vulnerability is a good thing (it’s not always), we have it. We don’t need to work on it. So, you know, we don’t need to take courses with people who’ve been on Oprah, which leaves more time for other things. Like maybe writing.

My central point here is that self-doubt can be a weakness: it can keep you from doing your work. But you can also redefine it as a strength. If you doubt yourself, that means you’re someone who holds yourself to a high standard; who has a sense of humility, of your own limitations; who is vulnerable and open to the world. Those are all good things. Self-doubt can lead you to work harder.

Which is how I dealt with my own self-doubt: I wrote a poem. When in doubt, write poetry . . .

Working Day

(Well, more practically, since I’m worried about the novel, I laid out a new writing schedule for myself. And yes, I wrote a poem, but I’m also working on a story. Above is me working on the story.)

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Teaching Writing

Recently, I read an article called “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One” by Ryan Boudinot that has been making its way around social media, prompting a lot of controversy. It made me think about my own teaching of writing, and what I’ve learned over the years as a writing teacher. You see, I’ve been teaching writing for more than ten years now, in various ways: I’ve taught both academic and creative writing, to high school students, college students, and graduate MFA students. I’ve taught writing to students who are still learning English. I’ve taught writing to students who have gone on to publish professionally. If I may say so myself, I have a lot of experience in this field.

The lessons I’ve taken away about the teaching of writing are very different than those learned by Boudinot, and I thought I would list them here. They come both from teaching writing and from having been taught writing, in college creative writing classes as well as the professional workshops I attended in order to learn writing myself. Here are the things I’ve learned.

1. You are a terrible judge of who has talent or potential.

I’ve seen it several times: a teacher will “anoint” a particular student: the one with talent, the one who will succeed. The teacher will usually be a celebrated writer, who will assume that he or she can judge who is talented, who has potential. The problem with this assumption is that in real life, it doesn’t work. Over and over again, I’ve seen it fail. In college, when I was taking poetry classes, I was not the anointed one. No, the anointed one was another girl, who wrote weird, dark, innovative poetry. I’ll call her Jane. One day, I was heading to see my poetry professor, who was as famous as poets get nowadays. I stopped outside his office door, which was open a crack, when I realized he was talking to someone else. It was another of the famous poets in the department, and they were discussing who was going to get into the top-level poetry class, with the most famous poet of them all. I heard Jane mentioned — of course she was going to get in. My professor said the class was for students “like Jane.” I walked away before I could hear more, embarrassed that I had overheard a conversation not meant for me. And I never applied for that class, because it was clear to me, in a number of different ways, that I wasn’t one of the anointed. Years later, I wondered what had happened to Jane. I figured she would be a writer of some sort? Her name was distinctive enough that when I googled her, I found her right away. She had become a mother, a community activist — a lovely woman with a lovely life. But not a writer.

Much later, in a writing workshop, I was one of the anointed. There were two of us: the writer in residence, a famous writer, told us that we were the two students who would succeed. It meant a lot to me, to be labeled in that way. It gave me confidence I had not had before. The next summer, I started publishing. The other student? Is no longer writing, as far as I know.

After having taught more than a thousand students (at least a hundred a year), I no longer believe in talent. What I believe in are talents. Different students have different talents, are good at different things. My job as a teacher is to see those talents, even when the student can’t see them himself or herself. To identify them, encourage them, help the student build on them.

2. It’s important to learn writing, both to communicate with others and for its own sake.

We all need to learn to write well. Writing is one of the most important tools we have, as human beings. It allows us to store information outside our heads and to communicate with others. I sometimes have undergraduate business students tell me, in frustration, that they don’t understand why they are required to take two semesters of writing. I tell them, as gently as I can, that I used to be a corporate lawyer, and as business people, their entire lives will be writing. But apart from being enormously useful, writing is important to us as human beings — it allows us to reflect on who we are, where we’re going. Many of my students tell me about keeping journals, about how that personal writing has helped them.

It’s fashionable, nowadays, to question the value of an MFA. People say it’s a bad return on investment, that most MFA students won’t succeed as writers, won’t make back the money they spent on graduate school. But most of my MFA students aren’t there to make a specific amount of money, or even to start an academic career, although many of them hope to teach eventually. They’re there because they want to spend time writing, and spend time with other people who are writing. They want to become better writers. They go for the love of writing itself. Yes, of course you can learn to write in cheaper ways — I went to both Odyssey and Clarion, and of course I read a lot. But sometimes I wish I had gone to an MFA program. I see that my own students are getting things out of the program I never got, and I envy them.

If you mock students for pursuing an MFA on financial grounds, think about what you’re doing. Yes, finances are important. I’m realistic, I went to graduate school. I still buy clothes at Goodwill out of frugality and habit, and if there’s free food, I’m going to eat it. But I chose to give up a legal career in which I was earning $100,000 a year for a $10,000 a year graduate school stipend, because there are more important things in this world than financial considerations. And yes, I still have student loans. But I’m a better writer, and the person I wanted to be. Also, not sitting in an office calculating the number of billable hours until my statistically probably death . . . (Yes, I did that.)

3. Writing can be both taught and learned. Anyone can learn to write better.

Of course writing can be taught. Can you imagine what it would sound like, if we spoke about other arts the way we do about writing?

“Ballet can’t be taught. You either know how to do it or you don’t.” “The cello can’t be taught. Only people with innate talent can learn to play the cello well.” “Acting can’t be taught. You just need to watch a bunch of actors and then do it yourself.” Seriously?

Anything can be taught. It can be taught well or badly. And anything can be learned, if the student is a willing and attentive learner. Writing is a skill, not some sort of mystical holy spirit that descends on you as you’re sitting at your desk. Creative writing, in particular, is a craft and an art. The craft part of it can be taught just as oil painting can be taught: the painter in oils learns certain techniques, and so does the writer. This is how to create a character who comes alive. This is how to write a scene that makes your reader see a particular place, feel a particular emotion. The art of it is individual, but even that can be enhanced and cultivated. You can teach a writer to become greater than himself or herself: to observe the world more acutely, to spend time with music and art in order to learn more about writing. To hear the sound of his or her own voice, find his or her own material. All of that, a good teacher can help bring out.

4. Real life interferes with writing. Deal with it.

If you’re not writing consistently, you must not be serious about it? Oh, come on! I’ve had students with family obligations, mental or physical illnesses. If you don’t think life presents you with situations that are more important than writing, you haven’t been paying attention. I’ve had times in my own life when I could not write consistently, because I had a child to take care of, a PhD thesis to finish. Unless we are already rich from writing, we all have to fit it in somehow, around our work, our family lives. Most of the professional writers I know are a little ruthless about fitting in writing, and feel guilty about how it impacts other parts of their lives. But they also know if they don’t do it, they won’t quite be who they are, who they need to be. That’s what normal looks like, for a writer. You’re pulled in different directions.

As soon as a writer can, he or she goes back to writing, because as I said above, without it the writer does not feel quite whole. It feels as though a hole is opening up in your chest, and getting larger. Also, I don’t know about you, but I get very cranky and unpleasant to be around.

5. The world is filled with stories, and needs stories. Of all kinds.

When I tell my college students to write stories, they astonish me with what they produce. No, most of their stories would not be publishable (although some of them are of almost publishable quality), but there is so much in them — wisdom, feeling, personality. We all have stories to tell, and helping students figure out how to tell their stories better is an important and worthwhile thing to do. There are times when I’m very tired, and wish I could devote more time to my own writing. But I always believe that what I’m doing, in teaching people to write more clearly and effectively, to tell their own stories, is worthwhile. It’s worthwhile to see a student who is still learning English develop a better understanding of sentence structure. It’s worthwhile seeing a graduate student gain his or her own voice and start publishing stories. I believe we’re put on earth to do important, meaningful work. Not to make a certain amount of money, not to gain a certain amount of fame. Certainly not to write snarky articles that gain us a lot of attention.

Writing is not a small club in which only the “best” are allowed. It’s not made up of James Joyce, Hemingway, and David Foster Wallace. We need books for children about Loraxes, and Big Red Dogs, and even potty training. We need trashy romance novels with pirates on the cover. We need cookbooks. We need Hemingway and Virginia Woolf and Agatha Christie and A.A. Milne. Some people need Billy Collins. I, personally, need Louisa May Alcott and Frank L. Baum and Lewis Carroll. Writers are often told to read, and what they are told to read is Important Writers. But if all we had was Important Literature, the world would be a dull place indeed. I don’t know about you, but while I recognize the genius of Anna Karenina, I’m not going to read it in the bathtub.

Personally? I try to write as well as I can. I try to be the best writer I can be, in the way I understand good writing. (Some Serious Writers bore me to tears. But then so do romance novels, although when I was a teenager, I read them as though they were mental candy.) I try to read, not always widely, but deeply. I try to live deeply as well, to experience the world around me so I can write about it. I try to learn from art, from music, from other people. And I learn from my students . . .

6. Good teachers learn more from their students than they teach.

This should be obvious. If you’re a good teacher, it’s because you were once a good student. And the best students can learn from anything, in any circumstances. They can learn from professors they barely understand. They can learn from abject failure.

I feel the same dread, looking at a large pile of papers to grade, as any teacher. But I also know that when I read my students’ writing, when I teach a class, I learn more than I teach. This is partly because to teach anything effectively, you need to know much more about it than you will ever mention in the classroom. In order to teach writing, I had to learn a lot more about writing than I had ever known before — a lot more theoretically and practically. I needed to actually know the comma rules. (A lot of professional writers don’t know the comma rules. Seriously.) I needed to read books on writing by John Gardner, Milan Kundera, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eudora Welty, Ursula Le Guin, Steven King, Dani Shapiro . . . But I also learn from editing the writing itself. I realized recently that from reading writing by non-native English speakers, I was learning different — vigorous, interesting, and non-intuitive — ways of constructing sentences.

7. Great writers are not necessarily great teachers. Teaching writing is itself a separate skill that can be cultivated.

Remember the famous poet I mentioned back at the beginning? His class discouraged me so much that I didn’t write poetry seriously for many years, and still have difficulty seeing myself as a poet. In retrospect, it wasn’t that he was a bad person or a bad poet. He was just a bad teacher. It was a lousy class. We sat around workshopping each other’s poems, which were bad. Because we were college students, and our poetry was bound to be pretty bad at that point. But we were never taught how to make it better, never taught that there were poetic techniques, never taught why modern poetry was written as it was. We were given no historical knowledge or critical apparatus at all.

Great writers can be lousy teachers. Teaching writing is itself a skill, which can be developed. You can learn how to help a student make a manuscript better, how to understand what a student is saying beneath what he or she seems to be saying. You can explain concepts clearly, edit helpfully. I’m a much better teacher now than I was ten years ago. And I look at the great writing teachers I know, like James Patrick Kelly and Elizabeth Hand: I learn about teaching from watching them teach.

Honestly, I think teachers (or former teachers) who are snarky about students are often in that mode because: (a) they have just finished grading a large pile of papers, in which case it’s temporary and understandable, or (b) they feel their own failures as a teacher acutely, and it’s only by blaming students that they can make that feeling — of inadequacy or sometimes shame — go away. It’s actually noble to feel your own inadequacy in that way. There are certainly times I have failed as a teacher — times I have been unhelpful or unclear, times a student was frustrated and it was my fault. What I can say for myself is that I try harder to do better. And I try, always, to give the student the benefit of the doubt. To believe in the student, as I wanted my teachers to believe in me.

In the end, to be a good writing teacher, you need to love teaching as well as writing. Teaching challenges you to reach outside yourself, to see a student as a fellow writer and human being. To see what is of value in writing that may be unclear, or by rote, or filled with proofreading errors. To say both “it’s not acceptable to hand in a manuscript you haven’t thoroughly proofread, so please revise and resubmit it” and “there is something of value in here, and let’s talk about what that is.” It challenges you as much as writing challenges you, on a deep level. Not everyone loves that challenge. I happen to, which is why I teach.

At My Desk

(This is me at my desk, preparing for a class . . .)

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What Madeline Said

Recently, I came across some quotations from Madeline L’Engel, and they seemed to me so useful, and so essentially true, that I thought I would make a list of them here. I read in part to get myself through the difficulties of life, and I’m always grateful for a book that takes me away from them, and at the same time teaches me how to deal with them more effectively. Because life is difficult, isn’t it? If you think it isn’t, you’re very lucky . . . or haven’t been paying attention. That doesn’t mean a book has to be therapeutic. The fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson have more to teach us, I think, than many self-help books.

I first read L’Engle as a child: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind at the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Those books were infinitely comforting to me. They said, the universe is bigger than you know. Evil exists, but you can fight it. You have allies, the whole of creation is your ally.

So if you’re in need of some wisdom, as I am right now, here are a few quotations from L’Engle. May they help.

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

“A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming.”

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability . . . To be alive is to be vulnerable.”

“Some things have to be believed to be seen.”

“Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.”

“We are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes.”

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.”

“Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it.”

“But unless we are creators we are not fully alive. What do I mean by creators? Not only artists, whose acts of creation are the obvious ones of working with paint of clay or words. Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living. Creativity is not limited to the arts, or having some kind of important career.”

“We don’t want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have been opened to us. We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.”

“I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their own validity no matter what.”

“It’s a good thing to have all the props pulled out from under us occasionally. It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet, and what is sand.”

“If it can be verified, we don’t need faith . . . Faith is for that which lies on the other side of reason. Faith is what makes life bearable, with all its tragedies and ambiguities and sudden, startling joys.”

“That’s the way things come clear. All of a sudden. And then you realize how obvious they’ve been all along.”

“Only a fool is not afraid.”

“I do not think that I will ever reach a stage when I will say, ‘This is what I believe. Finished.’ What I believe is alive . . . and open to growth.”

“Stories are like children. They grow in their own way.”

“On the other side of pain, there is still love.”

Madeline L'Engle

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Stonecoast: Wizard of Earthsea

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the workshop I led at Stonecoast last winter, on fantasy writing. I mentioned that I had given the students a series of quotations, and we had discussed them as examples of various writing issues and techniques. This is one of the quotations I used to talk about character: the beginning of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. But there’s so much more going on here than the establishment of character! I have a list of writers that I learned from myself, as a writer. Le Guin is one of the most important of them. She’s one of the reasons I try to write clearly, fluidly. I think lyricism is based on clarity of expression. She’s also one of the reasons I try to write about ideas, as much as I try to write about characters. She’s one of my models for what a courageous writer looks like.

So what is she doing here, in this opening?

“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns on its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.

“He was born in a lonely village called Ten Alders, high on the mountain at the head of the Northward Vale. Below the village the pastures and plowlands of the Vale slope downward level below level towards the sea, and other towns lie on the bends of the River Ar; above the village only forest rises ridge behind ridge to the stone and snow of the heights.

“The name he bore as a child, Duny, was given to him by his mother, and that and his life were all she could give him, for she died before he was a year old. His father, the bronze-smith of the village, was a grim unspeaking man, and since Duny’s six brothers were older than he by many years and went one by one from home to farm the land or sail the sea or work as smith in other towns of the Northward Vale, there was no one to bring the child up in tenderness. He grew wild, a thriving weed, a tall, quick boy, loud and proud and full of temper. With the few other children of the village he herded goats on the steep meadows above the river-springs; and when he was strong enough to push and pull the long bellows-sleeves, his father made him work as a smith’s boy, at a high cost in blows and whippings.” — Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

First, notice that we are on the move: just as in the beginning of The Hobbit (which I discussed two blog posts ago), we as the readers are in motion. This time, we begin above the island itself, looking at it from what is often called a bird’s eye view. That’s a particularly accurate description here, because we swoop down over the island, from its high peak toward the towns on its slopes, then down still further, to its ports and bays. We fly up again toward the village of Ten Alders, and then we are with the boy who will become Ged, watching him herd goats in the meadows. It’s as though we’ve landed in the branch of a tree, and are watching this intractable boy. At the beginning of Le Guin’s book, we are the Sparrowhawk. We move as the hawk moves.

This happens thematically as well. The opening moves from a grander, larger view toward a smaller, more intimate one: Sparrowhawk to Ged to Duny. Dragonlord to archmage to goat herd. The Deed of Ged to this story, of the days before his fame. But as it moves downward and inward, it has already told us that it will move upward and outward: the boy we are going to study and spend time with will become something we can scarcely comprehend: archmage and dragonlord. We will start in Ten Alders, but the journey will eventually take us from isle to isle of all Earthsea.

I’ve become convinced that one way to introduce tension into a scene, any scene, is through opposition: show the reader opposites. This entire scene is structured by the oppositions between boy and man, village and world, present and future. Even the opposition between poetry and prose, because somewhere out there is the Deed of Ged, but this is not that story.

It’s a brilliant opening.

A Wizard of Earthsea tells a story that sounds, on the surface, a bit like Harry Potter: boy goes to study magic at a school for wizards. And yet it’s also about as unlike Harry Potter is it could be. It’s less popular, although I suspect it will become more of a classic. I think it’s less popular because although Ged also has to defeat an evil that he first meets at his magical school, in A Wizard of Earthsea that evil is himself. That’s not as much fun as defeating a villain like Voldemort, is it? Harry Potter is more fun. But A Wizard of Earthsea is deeper. It’s less wish-fulfillment, more a deep lesson about the self, a lesson we eventually all have to learn. J.K. Rowling is a very good writer. Ursula Le Guin is something more than that.

But here I’m talking specifically about her writing technique. This is an opening every writer should study, for the way it moves, the way it has us enter the story. Like the opening of The Hobbit, it’s genius . . .

Wizard of Earthsea

(This is the version of A Wizard of Earthsea that I read as a child, and still own. Predictably, I had the boxed set of all three books.)

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