An ongoing series of some of the simpler pleasures in my life…Hope they’ll inspire you.
Playing my vinyl, everything from Genesis to koto to Jacques Brel
It’s the weekend! It begins with the weekend Financial Times and the Saturday New York Times. Yes, we still read on paper .
The weekend FT is one of my favorite reads — global, witty, incisive. It’s very much a publication of the educated upper class and its various tastes and interests but it’s smart and interesting and much more global in outlook than the Times.
The FT magazine is called — without irony or embarrassment — How to Spend It. While 99% of it is directed to the wallets of the 1%, it’s fun to read.
There’s all kinds of beauty in our small suburban town, 25 miles north of Manhattan. You just have to look for it.
Looking through photos from past journeys while dreaming up the next ones…this image is from a cafe in Paris, taken on our visit there in December 2014.
Every morning and evening we get a different view of the Hudson River from our top-floor apartment on the sixth floor. Some mornings it’s so foggy we can’t see anything but the very closest tree-tops.
Silly treasure. If you don’t yet know about the Moomins, check it out! They’re a series of storybook characters from Finland.
Travel is our one consistent extravagance…My next trip is to Washington, D.C. mid-June for a three-day journalism fellowship. I’ll probably stay there a few extra days to relax and explore.
We had planned to visit Gros Morne in Newfoundland this summer but have postponed it for a year.
The lilacs are back!
I live for the moment when this spectacular tree, at the very start of our reservoir walk nearby, bursts into fragrant bloom.
Few scents are as intoxicating to me as lilac…you?
I love cooking, and reading through my various cookbooks for inspiration and ideas. This is a favorite, written by the sister of British actor Daniel Day-Lewis.
One of the things I love most about living in New York is ready access to iconic landmarks like these…
I snapped this one from the back seat of a cab traveling from Brooklyn to midtown. This is the Brooklyn Bridge, spanning the East River.
One of the great secrets of that bridge is that it would never have been completed without the intelligence and guts of a woman— Emily Roebling — to whom a plaque is affixed to one of the columns. Her father-in-law won the prestigious and highly-coveted commission to build it but died of tetanus.
His son, Washington, took over — and got sick from going into the underwater caissons too often. Emily took over the management of the final eleven years of its construction.
It really is a cathedral of sorts — Grand Central Terminal. Lots of great shopping and two restaurants under that glorious arched turquoise ceiling. Stop in for a drink and enjoy!
Looks a bit like snow-capped mountains, but it’s one of our two local boatyards, the boats shrink-wrapped during the long winter.
Jose and I have spent decades on this commuter train!
It’s a quick 38 minutes from our town into midtown Manhattan, with a gorgeous ride down the eastern edge of the Hudson River. The train itself is no great beauty, but it’s generally on time, safe, clean and semi-affordable.
I snapped this photo as I got off earlier this week, just as the sun was starting to set.
I hope you’re having a great weekend and enjoying some simple pleasures of your own!
His play — written in 1777 — is still being performed…He, of course, died in poverty.
For many people, “being a writer” is one of their cherished dreams.
Some do it, through a blog, a self-published book, journalism, a commercially published book, of fiction, poetry or non-fiction.
Some write for digital outlets, at payments of $50, $100, $200.
Some write for major magazines with payments of $8-12,000 or more per story.
There’s a continuum from blog to commercially agented/published book.
There’s a continuum from a 700-word personal essay to 5,000-word reported story.
There’s a continuum from your first paid-for piece of writing, and your last.
Having written for a living since college — more than 30 years — here are some truths about this business, some less palatable than others:
It takes talent
Yes, it does.
Simply stringing together 1,000 or 10,000 words on….whatever amuses you…then trying to find someone who wants it and give you money for it doesn’t guarantee anyone else will find them compelling.
Just because you feel an urgent need to share a story doesn’t mean it’s de facto riveting.
It takes training
You don’t have to spend a fortune to attend journalism school or obtain an MFA, although many people make that choice. By doing so, they put their work in front of others’ eyes, and learn to take (or ignore or filter) feedback and criticism.
They learn structure and form and voice and genre and narrative. They learn how to create characters.
They learn a crucial element of being a writer — your work is going to elicit reactions, and not always the ones you want or expect.
The world is full of on-line writing classes and your city or town likely has some as well. If you’re truly serious about your craft, invest some time and money in learning and perfecting it. Attend writing conferences and talk to other writers.
It takes practice
I see many younger writers desperate for instant fame and fortune.
They watch women and men their age, or younger, nabbing big book deals, television series and lucrative movie deals with the naive assumption they too, can have this — and quickly.
We all crave success and admiration.
It might take longer than you prefer. In the meantime, you’re getting better.
It takes social skills aka charm
Maybe some people can bully or bulldoze their way to publishing success.
Charm is an under-rated skill.
Talk to the person in line for coffee at the conference.
Talk to the person who’s friendly to you at an event. You never know who they know.
Be someone people genuinely like, respect and want to help — not Mr./Ms. Needy and Demanding.
It takes skills
If you are fortunate enough to get a story assignment, or a book contract, you’ll need to actually know how to produce the commercial product they are expecting from you.
You are not An Artist here.
You’re a tailor being paid to make a suit to a specific size and shape.
You’re a stylist asked for a bob — who doesn’t dye your client’s hair purple because it just feels like a better choice for you somehow.
We’re hired help.
Stories get “killed” all the time because the end product is weak and boring, and years of work on a book manuscript can be dismissed by your editor as “unpublishable.” It happens.
Being able to sell a sexy version of your idea is only the start.
For a major magazine or newspaper story and certainly for a non-fiction book, you’ll need to find sources, interview them intelligently, research the larger context of your story, write, revise, write and revise.
You need to create a narrative structure and characters we care about.
If all this feels terrifying or insurmountable, work on your skills.
I also coach writers and offer individual webinars; details here.
This gripping memoir by a Canadian writer is one of my recent favorites…
It takes studying the greats
“You can’t write without reading.”
If you’re not devouring a steady diet of excellent work in your genre — and hopefully outside of it as well — you’re toast.
Read tons of terrific writing to try to discern why it works so well.
It probably means finding at least one (probably several) sources of reliable, steady, non-writing income, no matter the source
It doesn’t matter what the work is.
T.S. Eliot worked in a bank.
Poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor.
J.K Rowling survived on public assistance when she needed to.
If you’re hungry and cold and can’t get a decent night’s sleep and terrified of a medical emergency, get a job and build up your savings so that writing isn’t such a high-wire act.
Forcing writing to be your end-all and be-all, both emotionally and financially, can kill you.
It takes patience
No one writes a perfect first draft.
It means being edited
If you freak out at the thought of someone questioning your: diction, structure, tone, opening, middle, closing, length of sentences and paragraphs…let alone the factual veracity of your journalism, go away now.
Just don’t even bother.
Work that appears unedited (yes, here, too!) is rarely as good as that which has faced others’ tough, incisive questions.
A writer needs an editor, often many. Find several you like, trust and respect, and be ready to learn from their demands.
A smart editor is the valuable — essential — intellectual equivalent of a demanding personal trainer.
How badly do you want to improve?
It means being read
That means your mother, sister, ex(es), a lot of strangers.
You can’t predict or control what others will think or say of your most private and intimate thoughts — after you’ve retailed them publicly.
A thick skin is key.
It means being — publicly –critiqued
Few reviews have been as nasty as this one, which recently ran in The New York Times Book Review, and which prompted much social media discussion among fellow writers about its meanspiritedness:
Now, I write empty, high-minded claptrap all the time. I also delete 90 percent of what I write. About an hour ago, for instance, I cut the entire 215-word opening sequence of this review. A boss of mine once said, of an article I had drafted over several months, that I had done a terrific job of catching myself up to a conversation the world had been having without me. Now I had to delete it, and start over from where I’d ended — from where the world didn’t yet know what it thought. Tillman’s meditations on the Big Questions often read like those of someone trying to catch up to the world’s knowledge while selling that world her notes for $26.
The critic, a well-established man, shreds the first-time author, a young woman.
(Several other reviews were much kinder.)
It means being able to tolerate rejection without panic or despair
Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and inevitable part of every working day.
It means being lucky — or not
This is a field — like many in the creative world (fashion, music, fine art) — where the goodies are rarely distributed “fairly”, equitably or when we most crave or need them.
It might be getting a full ride for an MFA or J-school or an awesome advance you can actually live on for a year or more without doing anything else.
Maybe they won the prestigious award or fellowship you’ve tried for multiple times.
It might be winning a stellar review or getting your work optioned for a film or television pilot; (my book Malled was optioned by CBS television, and earned me an additional $5,000 as a result — taken out of my advance.) It was also published in China, and that paltry sum also went toward paying down my advance.
(See a pattern here?)
It might well be, (try Googling the ancestors of some Big Name Writers) they’re sitting on a boatload of inherited or family money — like one New York writer whose family name graces a Manhattan concert hall.
Maybe they married a high net worth partner or husband, allowing them to do nothing but focus on work-for-pleasure.
The fact is, this is often — and long has been — a deeply unfair business.
Allowing yourself to marinate in a stew of envy and insecurity won’t improve your writing one bit.
You can always see the famous icons of New York City, on postcards and T-shirts and in movies and television.
It can make you feel like you know the city even if you’ve never been here.
But, like every major city, it’s a place of many facets, most of which tourists will never see.
One of the coolest aspects of New York — and one so easy for pedestrians, drivers and tourists to forget — is that it’s a busy, working harbor.
The East and Hudson Rivers are as crowded with marine traffic as there is vehicular madness on the FDR (highway on the East Side), the BQE (heading out to Brooklyn and Queens) and the West Side Highway.
Every day dozens of tug boats are pushing barges somewhere — or guiding enormous cruise ships through a harbor filled with treacherously narrow and shallow channels.
I spent one of the happiest days of my work life here aboard a tug boat and came away in awe of these workhorses, each worth a ton of money and able to keep the city moving in ways no other craft can.
One of my favorite sights is seeing a tugboat at night, its lights stacked high like a mini wedding cake as it chugs along the river.
Broadway is still a real treat.
Despite crazy-high prices and the impossibility of getting tickets for some shows like Hamilton, seeing a performance in one of these classic, small, intimate theaters is well worth doing and can create a lifetime memory.
My favorite? Attending, of all things, Mamma Mia, with my husband’s Buddhist lama (yes, really)…Namaste on Broadway!
And Lincoln Center; this is the David Koch Theater. What a pleasure to wait for the house lights and the jewel-shaped lamps fronting each balcony to dim, the hush as the curtain rises on another ballet.
The entire building is delicate and lovely and ethereal — very early 1960s with all that white marble and gold — and makes an event there feel, as it is, like a special occasion.
This is a classic! One of my favorite shopping streets, East Ninth.
There are, still, a very few streets left in Manhattan, (more in Brooklyn now), that are funky and filled with quirky independent shops.
Rents skyrocket daily, forcing many long-time renters and businesses to shut and leave, sometimes to close for good.
A gas station at Houston and Broadway, one of a very small handful of gas stations in Manhattan, is soon to be torn down and replaced with….what else?…more million-dollar condominiums.
Hey, who needs gas anyway? Just thousands of working cabbies, to start with.
One of my favorite cafes, Cafe Angelique, (now on Bleecker’s eastern end) had to vacate its spot in the West Village when the landlord jacked the rent to…$45,000 a month.
Find — and support — the indies while you can!
Never forget — this is a city of incredible, rising income inequality.
The photo above, of a space that dwarfs airplane hangars, is filled with food, all of it destined for the city’s poorest inhabitants, many of them elderly.
You can enjoy the High Line and Times Square, dear tourists, but it’s only one tiny sliver of New York City.
The film-maker of The Wolfpack literally found her documentary subject on the sidewalk — passing this group of handsome young men — and wondering who on earth they were.
Their story is almost unimaginable, raised inside their Manhattan apartment by a fiercely controlling father.
If you like shopping, you might enjoy a visit to Saks Fifth Avenue. I like eating lunch there, and enjoying this view.
Or, getting up to dance with 800 strangers at 7 in the morning.
Yes, I’ve done it, several times.
If you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see all sorts of elegance and beauty in the least likely places. This is a lamp on a private college campus in Brooklyn.
And this tea and coffee shop, here since 1907, makes me happy. I stagger out every time laden with pounds of beans and tea.
The pattern of a metal plate on a Soho street…This is a city that still truly rewards a close look and sustained attention.
The back of a store on Spring Street in Soho. Speaking of quirky…
My birthday month…a facade in midtown Manhattan. Note the twins of Gemini.
A firehouse. How gorgeous is this?!
Nope, not Rome or Florence or Paris…Soho, Manhattan. The cast-iron facades downtown are a terrific reminder of the city’s past, not just the gleaming multi-million dollar condo towers.
And for those who still dream of becoming journalists…Columbia Journalism School.
I studied here in the 1990s — now I teach writing there!
How can you resist? The city is filled with delicious bakeries and temptations…
If you come, make time to walk sloooooowly and savor all these sights.
I’ve seen four plays within a month: “Blackbird” on Broadway with Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, Wild Sky at the Irish Arts Center, Hughie on Broadway with Forrest Whittaker and The School for Scandal at the Lucille Lortel, a 200-seat theater on Christopher Street in the West Village.
Thanks to tdf.org, all four shows (single seats, all excellent seating) cost $147, about the cost of one Broadway ticket.
I’m a movie buff and my first entertainment choice, at home or out, is always to choose a film, whether a documentary, foreign film, drama or comedy. (I don’t watch horror films.)
So this theatrical binge was both unusual and instructive.
I didn’t much enjoy Hughie and found it (written in 1942) very dated. But the set and lighting were gorgeous and the acting excellent.
Wild Sky reminded me what a magic act theater really is: three actors, no scenery, a tiny stage and audience. It was about the 1916 uprising that led to Irish independence.
And The School for Scandal — written in 1777 (!) — was funny, fresh and delightful. The costumes were a hoot, (the men wore tremendous wigs, some lime green or purple), the sets inventive and the acting terrific. When you come home imitating specific lines and quoting them verbatim, that’s a great play and performance.
Theater is, by definition, a high wire act, both for the actors and the audience.
We all hold our collective breath and, as the house lights dim, embark on that show’s adventure together.
In a mediated screened world, it’s an intimacy hard to duplicate.
Great writing speaks to us across centuries
Most of us know the works of Shakespeare and some of the classics. It’s rare that we get to see a production from the 18th century — The School for Scandal met its first audience the year after the United States declared independence from Britain, in 1777.
Imagine the world then!
No radio, television, Internet, airplanes, penicillin, women’s emancipation.
No cars or computers or endless Presidential election campaigns.
And yet…and yet…the most human urges: to scheme, to gossip, to backbite, to create false rumors, to swindle, to grab an inheritance, to marry someone twice (or half) your age, all of which are addressed in this excellent play with wit and charm.
There’s slapstick, romance, surprise, betrayal. They all cross the centuries quite nicely.
Success is fleeting, elusive and rarely a permanent condition for playwrights, (or many other creative people.)
On my way home, an hour’s drive, I listened to the great CBC radio show q which is also played now by some NPR stations in the U.S.
I loved his calm demeanor when asked about his fame and fortune after winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” he replied. “I never internalized my rejections — why would I internalize my success?”
And, even as we all still watch and savor SFS’s playwright Sheridan’s work — 229 years later — he, of course, died in poverty.
So many of the artists whose work we revere today, which draw audiences and whose paintings now sell to Chinese and Russian billionaires for millions, struggled lifelong to earn an income and support a family and find appreciation for their ideas.
In the past few months, three famous people have died, two of whose deaths widely elicited public scorn, derision and relief: Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, former Toronto mayor (and admitted drug user while in office) Rob Ford.
The late Pritzker Award-winning architect Zaha Hadid was by all accounts a brilliant tough cookie — who one acquaintance of mine immediately dismissed as a woman who only created properties for the world’s wealthiest.
I wonder about the wisdom of this.
I asked a friend in her 30s what she thought, a fellow journalist, a thoughtful person.
“They’re celebrities. They don’t feel like real people to us.”
I wonder about this as well.
There are people — serial killers, perpetrators of terrorism and genocide — whose deaths, natural or murdered, we don’t grieve. Those boundaries seem clear enough to me.
There are people within our own families, people who perpetrated sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse, whose deaths we might also greet with a sigh of relief.
I attended a funeral about a decade ago, of a man whose widow and adult daughter share an apartment hallway with us. We have never socialized and likely never will; we’re very different sorts of people. We say hello in the hallway and parking lot.
But when their father and husband was dying a horrible death of cancer, we helped them connect with a hospice and, when he died, we went to his funeral.
I was stunned to see how empty it was. I doubt more than a dozen people were there, and this for a local man.
I wondered, then as now, why so few people cared enough to come and pay their respects; I’ve attended funerals that were practically standing room only, filled with people utterly distraught at their loss.
Why did this man’s death go so un-mourned? What had he said or done (or left unsaid or un-done?)
For public figures like Scalia, Ford and Hadid, we have access to reams of information about them and their work, their public behavior and accomplishments, sometimes their struggles.
Those who knew them best might not feel comfortable sharing more intimate details, so we’re left with broad outlines.
Many people loathed Scalia and Ford for their misogyny and for holding power over so many lives while espousing values they disagreed with.
They were also human.
They left behind people who loved them deeply and respected them.
If there is an obsession I really hate, it’s “being (more) productive”, i.e. making sure that every minute of our every day is spent doing something, preferably as quickly and efficiently as possible.
No, do even more. Better!
I live near New York City, a place where if you’re not working reallyhardallthetime — gobbling lunch at your desk with no break in your day — you’re seen as some witless, gormless slacker.
It’s hardly a point of view confined to New York, but it does feel very American, with a deep-rooted and long-established cultural emphasis on making lots and lots and lots of money and never wasting time because…you could be making more money!
All of which strikes me as sad and weird.
This mania for measurement began, as some of you know, with Taylorism and Fordism, ways of manufacturing, (to profit corporate owners and their shareholders), more quickly and efficiently, named for the men who created these systems.