Category Archives: Writing

My Greatest Fear

I’m in a hotel-seeming conference room, 360 degrees of beige, one of those inevitable rooms with jaundiced lighting, canned air, a platter of sweating cheese always, always in the corner. I am sweating, too, in the sleeves of my fake leather jacket (call it faux, darling, how vulgar), and I am listening restlessly to a prowling woman in a bright, tight dress with a bright white smile who is talking to me about synergy and personal branding and sharing my gift. Her teeth gleam, her giant diamond wedding ring gleams, as she talks about her gift and how she discovered it, unearthed the creamy pearls of self-actualization, the shining pools of a dream career and a globe-rounded existence. What is it you want from your life? she asks the medium-size crowd seated obediently, scribbling notes with damp, self-manicured hands, and now realization is sweating from my pores: I believe I am a writer who has nothing to say.

On some level, I believe it, this ultimate betrayal of my self-forged identity of Writer—always, always with a capital W. W for wondrous, w for wordsmith, w for what the fuck am I actually doing with my life? Everything has been said, isn’t that true, every thought I’ve had, a hundred, a thousand, people have had before except wittier, prettier, sooner. I am a cliché before I even put pen to paper, finger to key. There is not an original thought left in the world, and god, how many times has that exact sentence been written before? I have nothing of value to contribute, no way to peer above the din, there is no exit to this echo chamber. I am a faceless fish in a dwindling pond of ideas.

This is the great fear of my professional life, where realism and insecurity form a toxic brew that makes me yearn for complacency, for stupidity, for mediocrity. Because what if that’s the real truth? What if I am of that sad and sadly common breed that has talent, but just a little; drive, but not enough; self-awareness, but only to the degree to cause self-consciousness? What if (really, no ifs) I hold myself back because really trying hard just means I’ll fail once and for all? Do I really have any special quality at all, or am I just so eager to believe the ones who praise me that I convince myself? Or am I more qualified than I realize but so afraid of fucking up that I refuse to put myself out there? Does it even matter?

I have these insane dueling impulses in me at all times: a cringing need to stay as far from the limelight as possible and a burning desire to be recognized, feted, adored. I yearn for positive feedback, but I’m so afraid of the negative that I settle for barely rippling the pond. But maybe these are all excuses, too—maybe I simply have nothing to say, no critical analysis to give, no opinions that merit wider audience than my own reflection. I am so very scared to be wrong, to be bold, to be innovative in whatever limp, iceberg-lettuce way that’s possible these days. I am forever discontent. Which, let’s be real, is the biggest writer cliché of all.

What I need, I realize, is to stop putting the cart before the horse. Failure—the mere thought of failure—is fucking terrifying, but that’s no surprise to you or me. I have always done the easy thing, pursued the path that gets me the most praise, the most outside reinforcement. Perhaps it’s sad that only now, at 28, I’m realizing how damaging that reliance on outside forces is. But I’m also realizing (obvious, I know—should know) that I’m not the only person who’s felt this way, who’s feeling this way right now. Every single person seems more whole to outsiders than they seem to themselves—so as hard as it is for me to picture, there might be people on this earth who look at me and think I have all my shit together. So if other people can be convincing in that regard, I can be too. Eventually, maybe I’ll even be able to convince myself.

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The things I can’t put on Facebook

It’s been said a million times, but I’ll say it again: We live in an age of oversharing. There are myriad platforms through which to share your every thought, no matter how banal, constant temptations to express your joy or outrage or fatigue to your own social media world. And despite being a writer, that self-involved breed both naturally inclined and trained to share their views about the world, and to promote those views, I have always been somewhat uncomfortable about communicating certain things. I’ll happily tell you how much I liked (or hated) that episode of Scandal, when it comes to the deeply personal things, I have this feeling that sharing it with the world—writing about it, even talking about it, sometimes—cheapens it somehow.

When my sister died I refused to talk about it for a long time. At first I was too sad, too angry, too crushed to put into words how ineffably my life had changed. Then as time passed, it became a way of holding on. People say talking about it makes it easier, and I didn’t want it to be easy. I wanted to hang on to my pain and my memories, to keep them fresh and raw, because to do otherwise felt like a betrayal. I still feel that way.

I’m thinking about this now because a friend of mine recently had someone very close to him pass away. He’s young; she was young too. He wrote about it today on Facebook—about her, about what he’s going through, and about the same things I’ve struggled with: whether sharing personal memories of her would have made her happy or angry, whether his tribute to her was his selfish way of dealing with the situation or whether it was simply what she deserved. He’s also a journalist, and his note was beautifully written—but I couldn’t get through it. His pain brings back mine just as I wished, in all its raw, bleeding strength, but this time mixed with a new feeling: guilt. I feel guilty that I can’t talk to him about it for my own awful reasons, guilty that going through hell has somehow not made me any less godawful at comforting someone going through the same thing. And guilty, in some way, that I didn’t do the same thing for my sister. Maybe not talking about her more, sharing my memories of all the things I loved and admired and even sometimes hated about her and forcing her back into people’s minds is the ultimate selfish act. Maybe it was just easier for me not to talk about it. And maybe because of me, people forgot sooner.

I know I will never forget Anjali. But when I’m really honest with myself, I’m terrified that I have already forgotten some things, like the way it felt to hug her or the exact cadence of her laugh when she found something particularly hilarious. And the longer I live the further away those things get from me, until one day when I have children of my own I tell them stories of their Aunt Anjali and all that’s left are the wisps of a relationship that was once such a bedrock of my life I took it completely for granted. So maybe writing personal things about someone when they’re gone is selfish, in a way. But it could also be one of the most valuable things you can do.

This is what it’s like to cover the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner red carpet for Elle

You arrive at the hotel in a cab, early because you expect a lot of traffic. There is not as much as you thought there would be. You step out, blinking in the sunlight, feeling strange to be wearing a cocktail dress and false eyelashes at 5:30 in the evening. A gaggle of hopeful stargazers is clustered around the entrance of the hotel clutching cameras and camera phones. They all turn to stare as you walk by, and you hear the whisper ripple through the group like rustling leaves: “Who is that?” Finally they realize you are not anyone of note, and turn their attention back to the hotel entrance. You walk in on a literal red carpet. A crush of photographers and reporters stand to the left of the entrance, microphones dangling, jockeying for lens positions. They, too, stare at you, hoping you are someone you are not. You are with your much more glamorous coworker and her husband, who have actual invitations to the pre-parties; all you have is your business card and an printout of an e-mail from Elle.com’s editor.

You manage to finagle your way onto the list at the ABC party with minimal embarrassment, and you head to the tent. You immediately see Ty Burrell, who is wearing a tux but has not bothered to shave, holding hands with his wife while talking to Aasif Mandvi from The Daily Show. They are standing by a picnic table, at which is seated John Oliver with his wife, who is much more attractive than he is. You decide you are both too shy and not drunk enough to approach any of these celebrities. Your coworker suggests hitting the bar. You get a free glass of white wine and clutch it like you are Tom Hanks in Castaway and it is your ever-loyal only friend Wilson. You drink it way too fast.

As you’re draining your glass, your coworker tells you Tony Goldwyn of Scandal has arrived. You get another drink. Then Kerry Washington comes in. You steel yourself, gulp down the rest of your wine, and head to the entrance. They are mobbed by reporters much more legitimate than you, with photographers and cameramen; you have just your iPhone. You hover awkwardly, until finally you see Tony Goldwyn break away and head into the party. You stop him, say you are a big fan of the show. He shakes your hand and smiles, exposing teeth so white and even you are momentarily distracted. He is incredibly charming and gracious. You ask him a few questions before releasing him, then sigh in relief that the first interview is over. You look at your phone and realize you forgot to hit record.

And it continues. Some celebrities—Charles Esten from Nashville, especially—will be overwhelmingly nice to you. He will smile the TV-worthy smile that crinkles his TV-worthy blue eyes and introduce you to his mother, whom he has brought as his date. He will call himself a “local boy” and talk self-deprecatingly about getting nervous before playing the Grand Ole Opry. You will thank him for the interview and think to yourself that you’re getting the hang of this.

Until you meet the celebrities who are not quite so nice. You will touch Kerry Washington on the arm, timidly, to get her to turn around, and she will fix you with a deathlike look and give you somewhat clipped answers that come out as friendly on paper. You will attempt to approach Eric Stonestreet, whom you assume will be as happy-go-lucky as he is on Modern Family, and he will shut you down completely. You will spot Connie Britton—glorious hair flowing, blue lace dress swishing—and will follow her into the party at a safe distance, as she’s stopped every few seconds by fans and acquaintances, trying to get up the nerve to talk to her. You never will. Other people you do not get up the nerve to talk to: Hayden Panettiere. George Stephanopoulos. Sofia Vergara (though her date will stand behind you on the lawn as he smokes a cigarette, and when you try to make polite conversation, he tells you he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s smoking, then leaves, crushing his half-smoked cigarette into the grass with his heel).

You can’t get into any of the other parties—in fact, you can’t even get down the escalator—so for a few minutes when your coworker and her husband go downstairs, you are sickeningly alone. You go back to the ABC party and stand around, nervously. You are slightly buzzed, nervous. You get up your nerve to talk to Shonda Rhimes, who laughs at you when you ask for spoilers. And then it’s time for the dinner and the celebrities begin to file out of the tent, and it’s like a giant whoosh of air is sucked out of the space, like the world is a balloon deflating, and you’re left among the wilted canapés and dirty glasses, still blinking in the sunlight that somehow now seems a bit less bright than before.

Friday Haiku-Off

My friend and I got into another haiku-off over gchat today. Here are the results.

About biscotti (and dipping said biscotti in chocolate)

My friend’s:

Tanya uses care

I dip with reckless abandon

No risk no reward

Mine:

Twice-baked and tasty

Giving fancy potatoes

A run for their dough

And another round, about my new favorite movie, Wreck-it Ralph (sooooo many fantastic candy-based puns).

My friend’s:

Banished to the cave

No franz no life no future

Damn you pixlexia

Mine:

Huge swinging ham fists

Tried to smash me into crumbs

But he just glazed me

Have you seen Wreck-it Ralph, by the way? Please do yourself a favor and go. It’s completely delightful. Wanna join the haiku-off? Leave one in the comments!

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This Weekend

On Sunday, my college roommate and my other friend from college are screening the movie they made together, Not Waving but Drowning, in Silver Spring, Maryland. It’s a big deal for my roomie because she’s from the Washington area—which means I got to interview her for the website. An excerpt of the interview is below; you can read the full thing (and see an adorable photo of them) here. I have such talented friends.

Tell me how the movie and your partnership first came about.

DW: The idea started my freshman year of college, when I was 19—kind of from that overwhelming feeling of being trapped and being anxious. I started writing the script after I moved to New York [after graduation]. I went through this long period of restlessness, and a lot of the characters came out of that. It was a year of writing and working on it, and it was definitely a lot of getting to know the characters. It’s kind of a collage; there were lots of little things I knew I wanted to include, so it’s more like a novel in that you spend some time with these people and in the end maybe you learn something, rather than setting things up in the first act. At times it felt urgent that I be working on it, and at times it became distant. Like the characters—they kind of wax and wane.

NE: We started working on this in 2008 or 2009, and I quit my job in April 2010 to work on it full-time. Devyn and I were both delusional and thought it would take us one year to make the movie—it’s been two years, so only twice as bad as we thought.

When did you decide to include the short, The Most Girl Part of You, at the beginning?

DW: That was something that came about while we were in beginnings of preproduction. I wasn’t super-happy with how Not Waving but Drowning began, and I’ve been a huge fan of Amy Hempel since I was in college. I was thinking about howGirl would make such a great short film, and as I was walking home listening to music and imagining it, I got excited about making it. I feel like not a lot of people see short films . . . I liked the idea of putting a short with a feature so people could see both, like it being a throwback to when you used to see a short film before a movie.

What’s the common thread between the two?

DW: I felt like adding this other story brought the whole thing to completion and made it feel more cyclical. I hate the term “coming of age,” but Girl is one transition, going from a kid to a girl, and Drowning is a second transition that I think happens at different ages for different people. [Girl] is about a child becoming a girl and having her first sexual experience. I think that transition is very obvious; we’re used to seeing that in film, and by setting that up it makes it more open to the fact that Drowning is another transition. So though these are different stories with different characters, it could have been one person. I think there are a lot of similarities between the relationships themselves, in the sense that they’re these symbiotic relationships. [InGirl], Amy relies on Big Guy to be the mouthpiece in their relationship, and then they lose each other, so there’s the idea of having to grow that other half that you relied on in the friendship. The more I analyzed it, the more I could find a lot of things that were really similar between the two.

PS: Because our Internet at home failed yesterday, this is a makeup post. I’ll be putting up two today!

Facebook

Earlier today I video chatted with my college roommate, a random pairing who to this day remains one of my best friends. At one point we ended up talking about Facebook. It came out when we were freshmen in college, the first year we knew each other, living in a tiny, freezing shoebox of a room and dealing with exams and communal laundry rooms and the necessity of reinventing ourselves away from home. We decided as a joke to marry each other (yes, this was back when Facebook only had three relationship options, believe it or not), and through the years and the jobs and the boyfriends we’ve never changed that status. My friend pointed out today that it’s been almost nine years.

Throughout that time, Facebook has changed innumerable times. As have I, I guess. And as the interface of the site has changed, so, too, has its content. Where once I saw stories of drunken hookups and exam stresses, now I see update upon update of engagements, marriages, ultrasounds, and baby’s first fill-in-the-blank. Maybe it started when Facebook became open to everyone—mothers, grandmothers, high school students, bosses—but Facebook is just a different beast now. It used to be exciting, thrilling even, to log on and check your notifications, see who had friend-requested you—and, let’s be honest, to photo-stalk your latest crush.

But as my friend pointed out today, I’ve been on Facebook for nearly nine years. That means—and this is entirely my fault for simply not doing it—that while my circle of actual friends has naturally pruned itself to the people I still care about and want to be in contact with, my virtual friend circle has done nothing of the sort. For some reason it seems childish to “unfriend” someone for such a trivial reason as the fact that you haven’t spoken to them in years (irony intended, in case it doesn’t come across online). So my feed is full of photos of babies whose parents I once took a class with in college…I think? or sat next to during lunch at the sorority house a couple of times.

It has the interesting effect of making me feel both a bit disgustedly superior and a bit ashamed. I know myself, and my values and thoughts are reflected in the people who have become and remain my good friends. These people and I are at fairly similar points in our lives. But my Facebook feed often reflects otherwise. It’s enough to make me want to deactivate my account sometimes, to stop piling on that internal, infernal pressure of ring, poofy white dress, squishy soft babies.

It also speaks to a larger problem, one I find myself considering even as I occasionally get sucked into the whole social-media world. That world relies so much on crowd sourcing, on “individual expression,” even if said expression is just telling the world what you ate for lunch or that you are JUSTSOMAD at your ex-boyfriend. But it lacks—or maybe we ourselves have developed to lack—the necessary filters to make that information meaningful. Facebook makes it easy to see everything, and to comment. But should you? Do we need to make it so easy to share our every thought, our every emotion, as soon as it occurs, to everyone we know (and sometimes people we don’t)? Lord knows I’ve been guilty of it more than once. I often regret it—but I just as often post some stupid joke or amusing headline and don’t really consider how many people will take the time out of their day to read it.

Sometimes it seems like social media makes communication so easy, it’s taking all the meaning out of the word. Just as the definition of “friend” changed when Facebook came along, “sharing” now means something else entirely. I am not always old-fashioned…but it does sometimes feel like the prevalence of social media has led to what can only be described as a plague of oversharing. When being a part of that world is a necessary component of your job, is there a way to curate it, to avoid the endless sonogram photos and inane vague status updates? Can you dip a toe in the pool without falling all the way in headfirst?

F-Bombs

I love to swear.

When I was in college and a few of my good friends were Catholic, in the springtime they would always start chatting about what they were going to give up for Lent. The concept was somewhat foreign to me, but I understood the impulse. Forty days is plenty long to get yourself out of a not-so-great habit, and with a motivator like religion you’re maybe slightly less likely to fail. But there was always that one person who wanted to give up cursing. To which I always wanted to say: Why the fuck would you do that?

Sure, if every other word is an f-bomb or another similar four-letter word, you might not sound like the most educated person on the planet. There are lots of things  you could say besides shit, or ass, or motherfucking cocksucker. But sometimes you just gotta let it fly. It places emphasis, or relieves stress, or gets your goddamn point across in a way that “son of a biscuit eater” just doesn’t do as well. The shape of the words in your mouth, the crunch of consonants as you spit them out  or hiss them under your breath—it just feels good. Try making yourself say “Fudge” the next time you stub your toe and tell me the real deal isn’t more satisfying.

Besides, swear words are superbly versatile. Don’t believe me? Just check out the video below.

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Interpreter of Maladies, or Why I Haven’t Given Up on Fiction

I recently moved to a new apartment in DC proper, which means my commute in the morning is quite a bit longer than it was before. But I’m not complaining; in fact, I enjoy that time on the train because it gives me time to zone out, or people watch, or—provided I remember to shove a book in my bag—to read.

This week I started rereading Interpreter of Maladies, a short story collection by Jhumpa Lahiri. It was her first book. It won the Pulitzer prize. And it is gut-wrenching.

Three times in two days while I was trying to read the stories I had to close the book because my eyes were swimming with tears and I didn’t want to alarm the other passengers. It’s like all my greatest fears about life are crystallized, pinned like inky butterflies onto the pages of this book. All the stories are, in different ways, about all the little ways the things in life that once seemed magical become commonplace, the way the person you once found so alluring seems to fade before you like sun-bleached paint. They’re stories about the roads not taken, the dreams not realized, all the words left unsaid and the stains of regret you can’t scrub away. It’s the ugliness and the tedium of the everyday, laid out, bare as bones, plain as oatmeal.

And yet, there’s so much beauty in her writing, too. It makes me cry because of its harshness but also because of its hopefulness. Joy, she says, is still possible; hope is still present. Life happens not just in the big, sweeping moments, but also in the quiet spaces in between.

Ever since I started studying writing in college, it’s gotten harder for me to find fiction I truly enjoy. So much of it rings false, seems manufactured, like seeing a ventriloquist move his lips. Her prose, on the other hand, rings uncomfortably, heartbreakingly real. (This is especially true because we share a cultural background; so many tiny details, from the flat leather sandals one character wears to the image of another “leaning against the refrigerator, eating spiced cashews from a cupped fist,” strike me as clearly as chords on a piano.)

My favorite passage in the book, the one that sums up everything I love about this collection, is the closing lines of the last story, which tells of a man who moves from India to Boston and later is joined by his wife, who is a stranger to him. Thirty years later, still in Boston, he reflects on the paths and the choices that have brought him to where he is.

While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.