The literary feast

Recently, my friend Andy (one half of the podcasting duo behind Four Courses—where they really do care what you had for lunch) asked me to name my favorite food/dining/cooking scenes from literature. It’s a topic that comes up in one of their future episodes—I’ll post a link when it goes live—and he was having a tough time thinking of things.

I thought, well, that shouldn’t be too hard, but when I tried to actually think of anything, I couldn’t think of a thing. Eventually, I mentioned the dining hall scenes at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series—I still want to know what butterbeer tastes like—and just about every page of Like Water for Chocolate. With the latter, though, I couldn’t remember if I’d actually read the book or was just remembering the scenes from the spectacular movie that was made of the novel. To be honest, the same question could be asked of my Harry Potter memories.

I won’t exactly say that it’s a shame, how many of my food-based literary recollections are colored by their translation to film. I think it just points out how much of a leg up the movies have in that respect. Have you ever seen The Big Night, for example? One of these days, I’m going to attempt to make a timpano because of the scene in the film with that dish.

Children’s literature seems to do a better job of representing food, though. There’s Oliver Twist, of course, and Alice in Wonderland and the Winnie-the-Pooh series, and (though this may not be strictly children’s literature, it’s something I read as a kid) all of the hobbitsy obsessions with meals in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Again, there’s an instance where the movies kicked that up a notch.)

It disappoints me how few I can remember, especially when I considered that one of the stories I’ve written that I’m still fond of today—and I view my back list of stories the way I suspect a lot of writers regard their past work, with deep suspicion that it was written by someone else—is a story that revolves around a restaurant, love, and bread pudding. It was called “The Key Ingredient” and appeared in the anthology The Dirty Diner. I read an excerpt from it at Swoon in 2013. I set out to make that story an homage to Like Water for Chocolate, in fact, though with a very gay twist. Whether it succeeded is for other people to say, but it does capture my deep and abiding appreciation of bread pudding.

So! What’s your favorite food or dining or cooking scene from literature? What makes it stand out for you? Tell us all about it in the comments field—and include recipes if appropriate.

Making list-making a Habit(RPG)

If you’ve known me for any length of time, you might be aware of how big a fan I am of making lists. Lists are pretty much the only way I manage to get anything done. That’s partly because I am so very easily distracted (SQUIRREL!) and partly because I try to do too many things at once, yet am not always that great at multitasking. As a result, some days I manage to work on anywhere from two or three to a dozen things, but don’t actually finish or make significant progress on any of them. How much do I love lists? Well, I’ve been known to finish a task and then write it down on my list after the fact just so I can check it off. Maybe a little obsessive, but yeah, pretty much a fan of lists.

Making a list doesn’t guarantee that you’ll actually do any of the things you’ve written down, of course. A little accountability is called for, sometimes. That’s why sometimes I mention on this blog the goals I’ve set for myself—even if no one reads them, I’ve put them out in the world somewhere.

Better still, though, if you’ve got people who can say “hey, why didn’t you do that thing you said you were going to do?” Even better, though, is someone saying “we took 1.7 damage in the Vice Awakens challenge because of you; what did you forget to check off your list yesterday?”

Here, I’ll explain.

My HabitRPG avatarI was introduced to a website/app called HabitRPG by my friend and fellow writer ’Nathan. (He also played D&D back in the day; still does, I think—and no, I don’t think I’m giving away anything by mentioning that.) Anyway, it combines list-making and accountability with a bit of role-playing game character building and point scoring. I keep track of things I should be doing every day (like writing, for example), habits I should either be encouraging or discouraging (like playing games on my iPod and tablet), and larger, long-term, multi-part projects that tend to linger on my to-do list (that sequel to The Unwanted, for instance, or the short story I’ve been trying to finish for the past eight months). You score points for checking things off your list, and are rewarded with weapons and armor to deck out your account profile’s avatar. (That’s my level 47 rogue-class avatar up there on the right, riding a black wolf with my trusty pet spider as a sidekick—well, I didn’t say any of it made sense.)

Perhaps it all seems a bit silly, but I’m a big proponent of pragmatism: Whatever works, works. I’ve used it to set deadlines for fellowship and residency applications, magazine submission deadlines, and to monitor progress on freelance editing and design assignments. I’ve also used it to persuade myself to eat more sensible breakfasts and keep working out every day. You can use Habit for free, too, which is a bonus for me.

And if I can score extra gold points for critical hits on tasks and hatch pet dragons while I’m at it—hey, whatever works. (If you join the site, let me know.)

2015’s reading goal: not so many white people!

If you recall, my goal in 2014 as a reader was to find and consume fewer stories by straight white guys. Looking back at my list of books read last year, I managed to do that pretty well. Out of thirty-six books, five were written by straight (as far as I know) white guys. Not that there’s anything wrong with straight white guys! It’s just that, well, most of the stories we hear about are written by and about them, and I kind of get burned out on them. Variety, spice of life, and all that. Not to mention expanding our perspectives and tuning in to voices outside that mainstream that also deserve to be heard. As a writer who’s gay, I can relate.

Continue reading

They’re not resolutions, they’re goals. Here are mine.

I know that if I go back and look at my posts for January 2014, I’ll find something about setting goals. (Oh look! Here’s one of them! And hey! Here’s another one! And here’s one about my reading goals for 2014.)

How did I do with those? Well, I said I wanted to read fewer books by straight white guys, and out of the 36 books I read last year, five of them were written by the dominant paradigm, so that’s an improvement over the prior year. I want to keep up with that—although right now I’m reading a book by, you guessed it, a straight white guy. He is, however, a friend of mine, so I’m declaring an exception to the rule. (It’s also really good. I’m enjoying it.)

I also submitted more stories to magazines and contests last year. Twenty-six submissions, a couple honorable mentions, a handful of personalized rejections (very nice)—and one acceptance, which is of course AWESOME. That story, “Looking for Bigfoot,” will be coming out early this year from Little Fiction. Stay tuned for that.

I also applied for some residencies and a fellowship, and am waiting to hear back on some of those. I did hear back from the Vermont Studio Center, where I’ll be spending the month of May, hopefully finishing up one of the things on my yearlong to-do list. So that’s pretty awesome.

So, this year, my goals are:

  1. Agent. As in “find one.”
  2. Finish the sequel to The Unwanted.
  3. Apply for another fellowship.
  4. Send out one story a month.
  5. Put together a set of stories for a collection.
  6. Lose five pounds.
  7. Perfect my technique for making an old fashioned.

So, what are you working on?

Best-of 2014? Me? (Or rather, my book)? Aw, shucks.

It’s nice to see The Unwanted get a little end-of-2014 love from readers. Hilcia over at Impressions of A Reader puts The Unwanted among her favorites of last year, a list which also includes The Bears of Winter, where you’ll find my story “Snowblind.” Her list also includes Jess Faraday’s The Affair of the Porcelain Dog and Turnbull House, both of which I loved. There are several others on her list that are still on my to-read list, including Cub by Jeff Mann.

My friend Andy, pop culture fan and co-host of the Four Courses podcast (which I mentioned in yesterday’s post) also put The Unwanted on his year-end best-of list. You can check out his original review from May, where he mentions that it’s always a bit tricky when one of your friends is the creator of the media and entertainment that you consume. That’s the main reason I don’t write book reviews myself—that, and I try to follow the advice “don’t shit where you eat.” That being said, I admire anyone brave enough to wade into that arena. Also, check out the other books on Andy’s list, which include one of my favorites from last year, Grasshopper Jungle. And check out his best-of-TV and best-of-movies lists.

My favorite things, 2014 online edition, or “Things on the internet that actually DIDN’T tick me off!”

I know that I complain/gripe/grouse (“grouse” is a word that doesn’t get used nearly often enough, don’t you think?) about the Internet enough that you couldn’t be blamed if you thought I was a seventy-something guy standing on the front porch in my bathrobe and slippers yelling YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN! But I don’t do that, mainly because I don’t have a whole lot invested in the quality of our front lawn. (The back yard, on the other hand, looks pretty darn nice.)

Wait, I’ve gotten off track again. Where was I? Oh, right, grousing about the Internet. As much as I complain about it, particularly when it comes to social media, it occurs to me that there are actually quite a few things on the web that I enjoy and look forward to. And really, why not share those things, right?

Welcome to Nightvale. When I go to the gym or go running, I’m usually listening to podcasts. A few of my favorites are Game Night Guys, which is hosted by Brian and Curtis, two guys in Phoenix, Arizona who focus on one board game per episode and teach you how to play it; Pod Is My Copilot, which is three friends catching up on their lives and I know that sounds mundane, but it is so hilarious and so inappropriate, which is a huge part of its appeal; Four Courses, which is my friend Andy and his friend Kyle dishing about all things culinary and restaurant-based in the St. Louis area (and you may think well that can’t be much, and you’d be wrong—they know how to eat around here); and What Some Would Call Lies, which doesn’t update as often as it used to but is still well worth a listen. My favorite, though, is Welcome to Nightvale, the story of a desert town where things are not quite what you’d expect. It’s told through the guise of a community radio announcer named Cecil who keeps the community up to date on goings-on with the dog park (do not look at the hooded figures in the dog park; in fact, just don’t go in the dog park), the sheriff’s secret police (and their helicopters); Nightvale’s rivalry with neighboring community Desert Bluffs; and Cecil’s boyfriend, Carlos, who is a scientist (and scientists are always okay).

The Truth. Yes, another podcast. This is from Radiotopia, and each episode features a new story, usually around 10 or 20 minutes, and it’s like the radio plays from way back when (ask your grandparents what those were, kids), only they’re usually a little more twisted. The latest one, “Naughty or Nice,” is about an elf who works for Santa and has misgivings about the way things are run….

The #newf hashtag on Instagram. Careful readers will remember that up until August of 2013, my best friend had four feet and black fur. Dakota may have left the planet, but there are tons—somewhat literally—of lovable Newfoundlands to be found on Instagram. (I should know, I’m following most of them.)

Brain Pickings. A blog of curated articles from all over. Maria Popova gathers information about everything from science to creativity to spirituality—basically, everything that she thinks matters and/or is interesting. Right now there’s a post up detailing her 20 favorite articles from the past year, so that’s a good place to start.

Pocket. I tend to be easily distracted when it comes to browsing online, and Pocket is extremely helpful to me in keeping track of things I want to read (or at least think I want to read) but may not have time to read right now. You may say Well, that sounds a lot like plain old bookmarks and you’d be right—except that Pocket syncs all of my saved links between devices so I just have to fire it up to continue reading. Also, it saves the pages for offline browsing, so I don’t have to be connected to a network to read. You can also tag each link with keywords to group things that might have a common theme; when I was in grad school, I had tags for “thesis” and “climate change,” and now that I’m teaching I have tags for “young adult” and “short fiction” and “workshop,” that sort of thing.

Happy New Year, kids!


Why rejection is good for the soul

I got another rejection notice yesterday. It was for a story I wrote during grad school, in my fiction workshop with Linda Svendsen, about a couple in the St. Louis suburbs dealing with a wayward armadillo. (I think I’ve written about that story here before, but anyway.) There was an article in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s member magazine about how climate change was making northerly locations more hospitable for animals like the armadillo, and it got me thinking about things and people that are out of place in the place they’ve chosen to live, which is a common theme in a lot of what I write, and…

Well, I’m getting off track again. This is about rejection, not this story in particular.

Anyway, I have a spreadsheet where I keep track of these things. Because you know, rejection on its own isn’t good enough. You have to keep a reminder of it! So that you remember it every time you open the file! Because it’s good for you!

I exaggerate. But you know this already, right?

Anyway, I keep track of this stuff because it would be embarrassing to think “You know, I think this story would be a good fit for [insert name of fantastic and prestigious litmag where you read that awesome story last month and it would be a dream come true to get something published there]” and then send it in only to hear back from them with “Uh, yeah, you sent this to us already and we still don’t want it.”

I’m not the only person who worries about that, am I? (Just say, “No, Jeff, of course you’re not.” Just do that for me.)

So my point (See? I have a point! And I’m getting to it!) is that since I keep a spreadsheet, I know that I’ve sent out stories twenty-six times this year and received twenty-five rejections. That’s about one story every two weeks, which is in fact about half as often as I was hoping to submit stories this year, but glass half full! That’s still pretty good.

Why do I bring this up? Well, a writer I know recently got his third rejection notice recently. Third rejection of the year. He was perhaps a bit dejected about that, but my thought was, “You need to send things out more.”

Yes, it’s true that you need to develop a thick skin about submitting your work. That’s because sometimes you will need to submit your work a lot before you get to an acceptance. Sometimes you’re lucky and it happens right away. Sometimes it takes forever and you keep tweaking or wholesale changing the story because you think maybe it’s not quite there yet. Sometimes you might wonder if anyone is ever going to publish a story and you pour yourself another glass of Chardonnay and say “no one gets it I might as well give up and go back to working in marketing because I suck and this is never going to work I suck isuckisuckisuck.” And then someone sends you an e-mail and says they loved your story and want to publish it.

And that’s when you’re glad that you were persistent.

So my Christmas wish is for persistence, and for luck. For me as well as my fellow writers.

Happy holidays!