Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

Tag: Books

Getting used to the iPad reading experience

I’m now officially an iPad owner. My boyfriend unexpectedly bought me one for my birthday after seeing how much I enjoyed using his whenever we went on road trips or were lounging around. It’s one of those gifts that I wouldn’t buy for myself, but that I’ve secretly wanted for a while.

I’m still getting used to it. The iPad isn’t the most conducive device for writing blog posts or sending emails, but I’m finding other uses for it. For starters, the iPad gives me an opportunity to limit the number of emails I send after hours. I’ve been trying to view it as more of a leisure device. I set up my personal email on it so I wouldn’t feel as tempted to check my work email after hours. (Ok, who am I kidding? I still keep my work email open in Safari, but I try not to look at it too often.)

I’m slowly starting to download some news apps, and today I downloaded Zite — an app that analyzes the types of stories you read and creates a personalized magazine with content that’s likely to interest to you.

So far, my favorite iPad feature is iBooks. Most recently, I downloaded “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding” by Sarah Burns. I got the urge to read it one night and was able to purchase it right away rather than having to find time to go to the bookstore and spend more money on it there.

I don’t go to the bookstore nearly as much as I used to. It’s not because I don’t want to keep buying books; it’s that I’m trying to save money and I don’t have room for them in my apartment. The built-in bookshelves in my room are full, and the gigantic bookcase in my guest room is overflowing with books. (I’ve always dreamed of having a house with a room reserved just for books — a mini library of sorts. Then I’d never have to say “I don’t have room for more books.”)

I still love going to bookstores, and I love holding books in my hands and marking them up with notes. But I’m starting to really like the iPad book-reading experience, in part because it feels more interactive. I like swiping the screen to turn the pages, and I like that the screen tells you how many more pages you have left in a given chapter.

iBooks make it easier and more fun to read books at night. I would have loved the brightness of the iPad screen as a little girl. Instead of “borrowing” my dad’s flashlight so I could use it to read under the covers when I should have been fast asleep, I could have read books on my iPad. Prior to getting the iPad, I always had to get out of bed to turn off the lights after reading. Now, I can read and simply close my iPad when I’m done — without getting up. I’m probably making myself sound really lazy right now, but reading relaxes me so much that the last thing I want to do is get out of bed when I’m done, especially when my cat is cuddled up next to me.

I still use my laptop a decent amount at night, but I’m trying to use my iPad more instead — not just to read books but to surf the Web. I think I just have to make a habit of using it consistently.

If you have an iPad, what do you like to use it for? Have any recommendations for apps I should download? 

Turning to other memoirs for ideas, inspiration

When I interviewed New York Times reporter Frank Bruni a couple of months ago, I was struck by the emphasis he placed on reading. He said that when preparing to write his memoir, Born Round, he devoured memoirs to see how other writers told their life stories:

“In part I approached my own story the way I would someone else’s. To supplement my own memories I debriefed family members and friends. But mostly I took some time to read, in rapid succession, the kinds of memoirs I’d read before but never with a particular focus. I looked closely at how they were done, how they were paced, their tones. And I tried to draw from that some internal sense of how I should proceed with mine and what I wanted it to read and sound like. …

“I probably read more than a dozen memoirs prior to writing “Born Round,” including ones by Augusten Burroughs, Frank Rich and Jeanette Walls, to name just a few especially prominent writers.”

While slowly writing my own memoir, I’ve been reading books about food, mothers and daughters to get a sense for how other writers structure their stories, how many details they share, and how they draw connections between the past and the present.

I’ve found some memoirs to be too self-absorbed for my liking. The memoirs I gravitate toward most are the ones that make me feel as though I can relate to the characters, even when I may not have experienced the same things they did. Ultimately, that’s what I want to do with my own memoir — write it in such a way that helps other people realize they’re not alone. When readers tell me that they can relate to my personal essays, or that they learned something about themselves from reading them, I know I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.

The other night I compiled a list of memoirs that I think will help me write my own memoir. I hope you’ll look at the list and add your own recommendations.

Have you read some of the books on this list? If so, what did you think about them? Which ones should I add?

Comments from last week’s post a motivation to keep moving forward

Whenever I write about my relationship with food and my mom, I’m always humbled by the number of people who send me messages to say they related to what I wrote about. My last blog post — a narrative comprised of several personal essays I’ve written throughout the years — generated a lot of meaningful responses.

Longreads, a site that posts long-form stories, posted a link to it. Friends and strangers commented on the post, and some people messaged me to say that they, too, have struggled with an eating disorder and found comfort in knowing that they weren’t alone. These are the messages I hold dear; they remind me why I need to keep sharing my story so that in helping myself, I can help others. I measure the success of a piece not just by how cathartic it was for me to write, but by how many people say they saw a piece of themselves in it.

I got just one note with constructive criticism, which I expected; it’s hard for people to offer criticism on a piece that’s so personal. The person said she thought the part about my eating disorder came too abruptly at the end, and she wanted to see me write more about this. That is my intention; I just need some time to sort out what I want to say and how I want to say it. I’ve had enough time to process my mother’s death, so it’s easier to write about it with depth and perspective. When you’re still struggling with something, though, it’s harder to write about it with the distance you need to look back and make sense of it all.

I think one way to approach it is to start developing other characters in my narrative — particularly my dad and my grandmother. They were there with me throughout my eating disorder and saw me at my worst. Writing about my relationship with them will inevitably mean writing about food and how they helped me through my difficulties with eating — and in some cases perpetuated these difficulties.

One of my mentors, Roy Peter Clark, has always said that a page a day equals a book a year. My goal, then, is to try to write for 30 minutes a day. I have to be realistic and acknowledge that some days I won’t have time to write, but I’m going to try my best. I think getting in the habit of writing regularly about food and relationships will make it easier to confront some of the issues I’ve been too afraid to commit to paper.

I’ve also been reading a lot of food memoirs and essays for inspiration. I’m reading “Best Food Writing” — part of a series of books that contain the year’s best essays on food — and I just started reading Dayna Macy‘s “Ravenous” tonight. I plan to read “Day of Honey” by foreign correspondent Annia Ciezadlo next. Reading about others’ experience with food gives me ideas and the motivation I need to move forward in my own efforts to write a food memoir. And so do your comments!

Funny take on where the Babysitters Club girls are today

I couldn’t help but smile when I saw this Awl story about what the members of the Babysitters Club are up to these days. Growing up, I was a huge Babysitters Club fan and even started my own club. I hung up handmade flyers around town to make the locals aware of my babysitting skills (or lack thereof), and surprisingly landed some gigs. I still keep in touch with one of the moms who responded to my flyer and consider her to be a dear family friend.

As weird as it sounds, the Babysitters Club characters were like my imaginary sisters who came to life whenever I started reading. I found comfort in reading about young girls my age, and could relate to much of what they went through. As an only child, I looked to books for entertainment and was “that girl” who read a book while walking two miles to and from school every day. I was the girl who befriended the school librarian and who used to “steal” my parents’ flashlight so I could use it to read under the covers at night. I’d hold my finger next to the flashlight’s on/off switch so I could quickly turn it off if I thought Mom and Dad were going to come into my room and tell me to stop rebelliously reading.

I would feign sleep for even longer when reading Babysitters Club books about Mallory. I had never met another Mallory in real life before, so I gravitated toward my fictional counterpart, even though she spelled her name with an “o” and looked nothing like me. For whatever reason, Mallory’s name was often accompanied by a drawing of a smiley face, so I used to draw the same type of smiley face under my name whenever writing out my name at school.

It’s been years since I looked at a Babysitters Club book. (No really, I swear!) The Awl story reminded me of the girls’ quirks, and it puts a funny twist on “where the characters are today.” If you’re not familiar with the Babysitters Club series, the story probably may be hard to relate to. But if you liked the series as much as I did, then you should know …

Kristy started up a softball league with her partner Tori and works in the Baltimore public school system. She met Tori while doing Teach for America and seems to be doing pretty well for herself.

Claudia is a graphic designer who makes intricate wire jewelery. She has a live-in boyfriend named Arthur, and she wears crazy glasses, plays the upright bass and now eats sprouts instead of sweets.

Boy-crazy Stacy pursued a career in acting and modeling but couldn’t book any jobs. She had an affair with the owner of a Los Angeles club, of which she is now co-owner. She has some problems she needs to work through but is at least trying to carve out new opportunities for herself. This spring, she’s launching her own line of handbags.

Maryanne apparently doesn’t know how to use the Internet. And she didn’t marry Logan! Tear. I knew they broke up, but I always hoped they would rekindle their love for each other. I remember reading about their middle school romance and thinking Logan was a cutie, at least based on the cover illustrations of him.

Dawn has “kind of gone off the deep end.” She owns and operates a self-sustaining llama farm, wears lots of bucket hats and makes her own yarn. The only Babysitters Club member she talks to regularly is Mary Anne.

Mallory graduated from Riverbend boarding school with honors, then went to Regis College, where she majored in women’s studies and English. (Go Mallory!) She ended up getting pregnant, though, and had to drop out of school. Known for her red frizzy hair and oversized glasses, Mallory has some mad skills when it comes to playing Mario Kart for Wii.

Jessi seems to be living a relatively normal life. The talented ballerina, who always wanted to be a professional dancer, joined a dance company but was forced out of it due to a knee injury. Now she’s in physical therapy school.

Shannon, the overachiever of the group, is now a competitive dog breeder. (Talk about randomness!) She especially likes the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and has so far raised just one champion dog, Puttencove Promise.

Logan didn’t do so well later in life. He got caught up in a gang called The Badd Boyz, was arrested for stealing car radios, dropped out of Student Council and even ditched the Babysitters’ Club. Not cool, Logan, not cool.

New Amazon Wish List a Reminder to Find More Time for Books

I’ve spent the past two hours listening to the rain and creating my Amazon wish list. I usually e-mail myself titles of books that I want to read, so instead of having them build up in my e-mail box, I created a wish list to keep them organized and to remind myself that I need to find more time to turn off the computer at night and read all the books I’ve been saying I want to read.

In looking at my wish list, I realize that the books are almost all nonfiction and that they reflect similar topics: mothers and daughters, food, and diversity. I often write about these topics and want to read more about them to help develop my understanding of how they play out in my life and the lives of others.

I like reading books about other people’s lives, perhaps because I’m a journalist. By nature of my profession, I look at the world as an ever-evolving story. Oddball characters, random roadside spottings and all things novel make me wonder what stories are lurking in the background.

I’ve found that seeing these types of stories played out in memoirs, and reading about real-life people, can make you realize that as far out as your own struggles might seem, you’re not as abnormal or as alone as you might think.

The memoir I’m reading right now, “Mother of My Mother” by Hope Edelman, has been having that effect on me. It’s about the bond between generations of women — grandmothers, mothers and daughters — and how that bond helps shape women’s identities.  I’ve been able to relate to a lot of what the book says about loss and, in particular, the ways in which grandmas help fill the void that stems from maternal loss. The next memoir I’m planning to read is Mark Matousek’s “The Boy He Let Behind.”

If you have recommedations of books that I should add to my list, let me know. Though I love nonfiction, I like a good novel every now and then, too.

How Newspaper Reporting Helped Jennifer Weiner Become a Better Novelist

As a follow-up to my earlier blog post about Jennifer Weiner’s talk at The Poynter Institute, you can read a related piece I put together for Poynter Online.

Weiner’s latest book, “Best Friends Forever,” just made it to the number one spot on The New York Times‘ best-seller list this week. Pretty exciting!

From Poynter Online piece:

Best-selling author Jennifer Weiner, whose seventh book, “Best Friends Forever,” came out in stores last week, recently visited The Poynter Institute to talk with local community members about her life as a journalist turned novelist.

During her talk she shared insights into how her work as a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter helped her become a novelist, and why the skills she acquired as a journalist made her a better writer.

Weiner, who attended Poynter’s fellowship for young journalists in 1991, also shared witty and thoughtful tips on how she gets inspiration for books, how she deals with criticism and how she balances life as a full-time mother, wife and writer.

Here are edited excerpts from Weiner’s talk. …


St. Petersburg a ‘City of Writers’; Provincetown Should Be Too

St. Petersburg, Fla., was declared “City of Writers” a couple of months ago, shortly after local poet Peter Meinke was named a poet laureate. The city has been home at one point or another to some notable writers — Jack Kerouac and Pulitzer prize winning journalists Tom French, Lane DeGregory to name a few.

I won’t lie; I like the idea of saying I live in a city of writers and hope I can contribute to the education of young writers who come through The Poynter Institute and the city’s schools. I’m especially proud that St. Pete has been deemed a City of Writers because I know how much work my colleague, Roy Peter Clark, put into helping the city get this title.

I think, though, that there are plenty of cities that are just as deserving of the title. The Northeast has been home to so many amazing writers — Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, etc.

I remember visiting these authors’ houses as a little girl. My mom and I would visit Louisa’s house in Concord, Mass., after going to the nearby toy store where I’d play with bouncy balls and log onto the store’s computers for a game of “Oregon Trail.” (I didn’t have a computer growing up. My mom bought me a Smith Corona because “all great writers need a typewriter.” Computers, she said, were just a “passing phase” …!)

Mom and I would visit Hawthorne’s house around Halloween after we had mingled with the wannabe witches who flock every October to Salem, the city of the witchcraft trials. During the summer, we’d visit Thoreau’s little shack in the woods after a swim in Waldon Pond.

Mom figured it was best for me to see where great literary figures lived, maybe for inspiration, maybe to show me that all the stories I used to write about crossing bridges into imaginary lands could someday morph into novels that would actually be published.

We need moms to give us hope like that.

I always got a similar feeling of motivation whenever I visited Provincetown, a town on the tip of Cape Cod that I visited most summers when vacationing at my grandma’s house in Dennisport, Mass. The town is beautiful beaches, harbor, etc. You can walk down the main street and listen to drag queen a capella groups, then head to a nearby dock for a sliver of serenity.

The two extremes seem to reflect the tensions that writers seek, the kind of escapism that lets one be shamelessly outlandish in public and then retreat to places like Province Lands, 3,500 of national parkland near Provincetown.

Many literary greats have inhabited this area; Norman Mailer, Micheal Cunningham and poet Mary Oliver come to mind. Oliver once wrote: “I too fell in love with the town, that marvelous convergence of land and water; Mediterranean light; fishermen who made their living by hard and difficult work from frighteningly small boats; and, both residents and sometime visitors, the many artists and writers.”

The New York Times‘ Mary Duenwald included this quote in a thoughtful piece she wrote about Oliver and Provincetown in Sunday’s paper. It’s worth a read to learn more about Provincetown and why it attracted Oliver and other writers.

Provincetown may not have the official “City of Writers” label as St. Petersburg does, but I’d say it’s pretty deserving of the title. And it’s well worth a visit if you haven’t been, especially if you want to write.

Jennifer Weiner’s Tips for Writing, Succeeding as an Author

Me and Jennifer Weiner at The Poynter Institute

Me and Jennifer Weiner at The Poynter Institute

When best-selling author Jennifer Weiner told her mother about her first book, “Good in Bed,” her mom started to cry.

“Darling, what’s it called?” Mom asked.

“Hm, ‘Good in Bed.'”

“What was that? ‘Good and Bad?'”

“No. ‘Good in Bed.'”

“‘Good in Bed’?! How much research did you do?!”

Weiner, who was  at The Poynter Institute last weekend for a conversation with the community, is perhaps just as good a verbal storyteller as she is a written one. Stories about her mother, her ex-boyfriends, her husband and her children were woven into stories about her books, some of which have characters who are loosely based off of the people in her life.

Weiner began writing her first novel after breaking up with her boyfriend of three years. She said she remembers driving and crying as Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” blared in the background. It was a low moment for the then 28-year-old Weiner, but one that gave her the inspiration to write fiction.

“What do I know how to do?” she asked herself after the breakup. “I know how to tell a story. I’m going to write a story. The girl will be a lot like me. The guy will be a lot like Satan.”

“The miserable love life” is second on her list of life experiences/factors that contribute to being a great novelist. “Unrequited crushes, romantic despair, a few memorable break-ups, will give you something to write about, an understanding of grief,” Weiner writes on her Web site. “No prospect of heartbreak in sight? I can provide phone numbers upon request.”

Being a mom has also helped Weiner’s writing, particularly in terms of management skills. While at Poynter, Weiner talked about the often unglamorous life of motherhood. Babies, after all, cry and scream (usually at the most inopportune times) and rarely “nap in a basket at your feet.” She wouldn’t be able to write as much as she does, she said, if she didn’t have a sitter who watches the kids while she goes to a coffee shop to work on her novels.

Weiner is used to writing under hectic circumstances. Prior to writing novels, she was a young journalist at The Poynter Institute and later a columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she wrote about pop culture.

As a journalist, Weiner said, “you don’t have the luxury of being blocked.” All those “years of doing the story on deadline, under less than ideal circumstances” helped her to be so prolific as an author. “I think the best training you can get for being a novelist is to be a reporter,” she said. “The difference between people who have a story to tell and those who do it is the willingness to sit down and actually write it. As a reporter, you write it all and you do not romanticize the act of writing.”

Though her writing is often classified as “chick lit,” Weiner said she thinks of this as a “sexist, condescending term.” But people read her “chick lit” books, which often have pink covers and lettering, and that’s ultimately what matters more than how they’re classified: “I have an audience,” Weiner said. “Do I want to care about my readers or do I want to be cared about by reviewers?” She noted that some reviewers frustrate her, particularly The New York Times, which doesn’t regularly review her books. Still, she has full-page ads for her books in the Times — not so much for the general audience of the paper but for the booksellers who may see them.

Though she admits that criticism, whether it be from readers or reviewers, is tough to receive, Weiner said she actively solicits it from her husband and trusted friends before submitting manuscripts to her  editor.

Weiner used an analogy to illustrate the relationship between writers and editors: An editor and writer are crawling through the desert, dehydrated and desperate for water. Eventually, they come to a reservoir and the reporter says, “Look! It’s a reservoir!” The editor gets to the water first and starts peeing in it. “What are you doing?!” asks the reporter. “Making it better,” the editor says. Hm. I can relate to this from both sides!

This was just one of many laughable moments during Weiner’s talk. I was impressed by her honesty and her witty sense of humor. She struck me as someone who was genuine and in touch with her readers. Her talk made me want to read more of her books, as well as those she recommended: “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, “Admission” by Jean Hanff Korelitz and books by Susan Isaacs.

I’m going to add these books to my reading list. Their titles aren’t quite as catchy as “Good in Bed,” (or “Good and Bad” as Weiner’s mother would have preferably titled it), but I guess I shouldn’t judge a book by its title — or by its pink cover.

Reading Books about Boston, New England, Home

74f4c060ada0e79b2213f110.L._AA240_Senior year of college I took a “Literature of Boston” course in which I came to know Boston through a literary lense that spanned decades of the historic city’s past.

We read the usual suspects, including: Edwin O’Connor’s “The Last Hurrah,”  John P. Marquand’s “The Late George Apply,” and Henry James’ “The Bostonians.”

My favorite book in the course was Jean Stafford’s “Boston Adventure,” primarily because of the dozen or so books that we read, it was the only book aside from “The Scarlet Letter” that featured a female as its protagonist.

I felt as though i could relate to the main character, Sonie Marburg, a young working class immigrant who lives by the seaside and longs to move to Boston in her search for meaning and love. What she finds when she eventually gets to the city is not what she had imagined.

My classmates said they didn’t mind Sonie, but they thought the book was dry. When it came time at the end of the course to vote on which book we liked best, I was the only one who raised my hand for Stafford’s book. Poor Stafford, a talented author who’s fame is perhaps more commonly defined by her infamous relationship with Boston-born poet Robert Lowell than for her skills as a writer.

Given how much my classmates didn’t like Stafford’s book, it didn’t surprise me to see that “Boston Adventure” was ranked last on Boston.com’s new “Essential New England Books” feature. I’d argue this is more so because most people probably haven’t read the book and therefore wouldn’t have an occasion to rate it.

I know I’m not giving you much of an incentive to read “Boston Adventure,” but really, if you can find it, (I doubt most bookstores sell it), read it and let me know what you think. Hey, Boston.com thinks it’s “essential” reading!

Other “Essential New England Books” include Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” (if you ever go to Concord, Mass., check out Alcott’s house, which I used to visit all the time growing up); Slyvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” (not the most uplifting read, but none of Plath’s work really is…); Mike Stanton’s “The Prince of Providence” (a good read about the former mayor of Providence, Buddy Cianci, who revitalized the city but was brought down by corruption and crime); and Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Woa,” which I recently read for the book club I’m in and loved.

And we can’t forget the children’s books that made the list: Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” (reminds me of visiting Boston Common and climbing on the gold statues of these ducklings); Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” (a little hardcover book that I used to carry around with me when I was little); and E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” (what child doesn’t love Wilbur?!)

Given how many great books are on the list, “Boston Adventure” may not be the best, but it’s up there. The book, as well as so many others from the list, remind me of home.

Which New England/Boston-based books would you recommend?

Journalists Look to Scribd.com For Profitable Writing, Editing Opportunities

After my editor passed along  a New York Times article last week about a site called Scribd.com, I began to wonder about the site’s journalistic application. The site just began allowing users to charge for the content they upload — a move that could prove beneficial for journalists who are looking to make some extra cash and maintain their writing and editing skills.

I looked into this for a Poynter Online story, Journalists Turn to Scribd.com as Profitable Publishing Platform,” which was published Tuesday:

Displaced journalists looking to make some money and keep up with their reporting and editing skills may find it tougher than usual these days to find freelance gigs.

At least some journalists, though, are finding pockets of profit elsewhere, realizing that the path to preserving their skills may not involve a news organization. One place they’re turning to is Scribd.com, a site that invites journalists to publish their work, reach new audiences and potentially profit from stories that cash-strapped news organizations might not have the resources to publish.

Just last week, the two-year-old site, which offers documents in 90 different languages, began allowing writers to charge for their content and keep 80 percent of the revenue.

Cole Louison, a researcher for GQ Magazine who has freelanced for news organizations such as The New York Times, said he started posting his work on Scribd.com after hearing too many editors tell him there wasn’t enough space for his stories.