Sixteen Things I've Learned from Running an Arts Business

* real title: Sixteen Things I've Learned from Running One Successful Arts Business and One Failed One *Dedicated to my good friend Dan Russell, who told me most of this years ago and has been patiently waiting for me to figure it out.

Last night, I sat on a panel about arts in my city, Hartford, Connecticut. It was an interesting conversation, though much too big a topic for the hour-long program, and I was, as always, fascinated by the experiences of the other artists. I was by far the youngest and least experienced person on the panel, and it was an honor to be in the company of great people. I also spent major parts of the night in hot debate over how to succeed as a small arts business in Hartford, and whether that's even possible.

I truly believe that it is indeed possible to operate an arts business in any city while creating great art and remaining happy. Over the five years that Sea Tea Improv has existence, we've learned a lot of things the hard way, and we aren't shy about sharing our experiences, successes, and failures with people who ask. We are insanely proud of the fact that we are in any way successful (more on our definitions of success later). On the flip side, I'm also a writer who, by my own definitions, is pretty much a failure at the moment. So I feel like I understand the success and failure point of view at once.

I want to offer my experiences as an artist, an arts administrator, and an arts consumer up in the form of a list of things I've learned. I've also decided to take the Tina-Fey-Bossypants approach, take ownership of my experience, and phrase it as advice (since I get asked for it fairly frequently anyway). Maybe this applies beyond the arts, and maybe it applies to bigger places, but that's really up to you. Take or leave anything you like. Also, these are the opinions solely of myself, not of Sea Tea Improv or Greg or our home inspector. You'll learn about him.

Before we get started, here are some of Sea Tea Improv's successes, so you know I'm legit:

1. We have performed almost 500 shows

2. We pay our performers most of the time

3. We have collaborated with hundreds of other organizations

4. We have won tons of awards both for the quality of our art and our business. Go check on

5. We own and operate a teaching & rehearsal studio.

Some of our imperfections:

1. We can't pay people for rehearsals and all shows, yet

2. We don't have our own theater space, yet

3. Occasionally we have a show that does not go well

4. No one works full-time for the company, yet.

Now about you, you artist, you:

I am assuming that you really care about your medium and that you are putting out the best work you can do. That's already #1. Everything from here on out stems from my assumption that you believe in the quality of your own work and are constantly striving to make it better.

Here we go, the Sixteen Things!

1. Never assume anyone knows what your art form is.
     The other night, I was in New York at the Upright Citizens Brigade, arguably the most famous improv theater in the world, seeing their most popular show, Death By Roo Roo. This show has sold out every Saturday night for years. What's the first thing they do? The improvisers come out on stage and say, "who has never been here before?" and then they explain what's going to happen, and what improv is, even though it's the most popular show at the most famous improv theater in the world.
     At every single Sea Tea Improv show, we similarly always assume that 1) there are people in the audience who have never seen us before, 2) there are people in the audience who are not even sure what improv is at all, and 3) there are people who are automatically ill at ease with the idea that they don't know what they're in for at this show/class/corporate luncheon. It might be weird! Someone might embarrass themselves onstage! I love these people and I love the fear in their eyes, because I know that they're the ones most likely have their minds blown and have a great time. I try to go into every show thinking: obviously we're going to do great improv, but first I'm going to set your expectations in a place that's comfortable for us both. So the first thing I do when hosting a show is figure out if there are new people in the audience (after almost 500 shows, there have been new people every time), and then explain to them what improv is. (There's an added benefit that people who are there for the 2nd or the 200th time get to feel like they're in the club.)
     For improv, which is still a relatively underground art form, this is not an interesting story. But in my life as a writer, I experience the same thing. Just last night someone asked "what kind of writing do you do?" I said nonfiction and I could see the wheels turning really fast: "is that the true one or the not-true one?" I deal with this all the time so I was ready with a more detailed explanation. There are people out there-- a lot of people-- who haven't read a book in years. So you have to be prepared to explain yourself calmly, non-condescendingly, and enthusiastically at every turn. This goes for painters, dancers, musicians, everybody. And even if they know what jazz is, you must be ready to explain the kind of jazz that you do, the instrument you play, or the lyrics you write. And maybe a literary critic from the New Yorker knows what creative nonfiction is, but he doesn't know why yours is different-- so tell him.
     The hardest part of this for many people is not feeling indignant that you have to do this. I would like to venture that talking about our art forms-- not just our own projects, but the forms themselves-- should be the easiest and most joyful thing that we do as artists. When I'm reading a book of creative nonfiction and can't shut up about it to strangers (everybody go read "Random Family"), that's when I know I'm writing in the right genre. The fact that I get to tell other people about it for the first time means I'm introducing them to something that they might eventually love as much as I do. It means in five years they might buy MY book.
     Repeat after me, artists: people are not idiots just because they don't yet share my passions. YOU get to tell them what improv is and why it's awesome. You get to give them their first taste of an artistic medium, and you are naturally going to do a great job, so they're getting caviar right out of the gate. That is a privilege and, incidentally, you are creating someone's taste who is possibly going to rabidly consume as many improv shows/novels/skaa concerts as they can find. Take that seriously and don't resent them.
2. Your audience and clients are hidden all around you. 
     My fiance Greg is also one of the co-founders of Sea Tea, and is an absolute ninja at always being ready to talk about improv or Hartford arts. We're in the middle of buying a small house in Hartford, and during the home inspection, literally while the inspector was checking an electrical panel for proper grounding, we all got to talking about an improv show we just did. By the time the inspector left he had Greg's business card in hand and was very excited about coming to a show. I see Greg do this almost every single day. This is common sense, of course, but over time I have seen our shows fill up with: our dental hygienist, the people Greg talks to in the elevator while I pet their dogs, coworkers, Greg's random people he knows from walking the streets on his lunch hour, everybody. Even more striking is the number of people who have an opportunity to hire us, or have a suggestion of a place we should perform. "Do you guys do shows down at Bridge Street Live in Collinsville?" Nope, but you can bet your ass I'm googling that the second you walk away.
     Greg also makes a point to write people's names down and remember them later. This makes them feel amazing and then they come back. Whatever you can do to remember the people around you, do it.
     Flipside: do not, I repeat do not, harp forever on your failures/bad shows/frustrations in front of strangers. I often see people do this in front of me when they don't know that I have the power to hire and pay them through my day job or through Sea Tea collaborations. Obviously we don't have to pretend we live in a perfect world, but be aware that someone willing to help you may come from an unexpected place.
     Finally: the fact that everyone is a potential client does not mean you should constantly be selling yourself. It means you should be actually interacting with those people, listening to their stories, and asking questions. 90% of the content of our conversation with the home inspector was him telling us a funny story about an improv show he and his wife saw. We learned a lot about him without speaking, including: that he knows what improv is, what he thinks is funny, and where he lives. Based on that information, we didn't try to sell him on everything we ever do. We said, "you would probably like this specific show we're doing, come and check it out if you'd like." We do not live by "Always Be Closing." We live more like "Always Be Opening," meaning, open a door for yourself or for someone else.
3. Be a human and remember that other people are humans too.
     Now that you're ready to talk yourself up, don't do it all the time. For the love of god, please don't. We all know this person and he or she is exhausting. This is what we talk about when we talk about "networking."
     People will want to talk to you about your arts business if they think it is cool and interesting; and they will also hopefully think that you are cool and interesting, even if it's in a geeky or mysterious way. Part of being an interesting person (as little as I know about it) is having a variety of interests. Last night around the artists' table we spent ten minutes talking about weight lifting. I told the home inspectors about a cupcake mishap at work that has nothing to do with any arts that I do whatsoever. Remember to lay off sometimes. I have been told  lately that I'm a good networker, which I think is hilarious, because when I go to a party I am usually focused on prying into other people's business and telling dumb stories about accidentally sending Japanese spam to all of my wedding guests.
     As a general rule, once I know that people are aware of and really supportive of Sea Tea or my writing, I don't bring it up too often unless they ask. And then they do ask, all the time. At least 75% of my conversations about Sea Tea begin by someone asking me either "hey, when's your next show? I haven't been in a while" or "what's new with improv?" And then I tell them the thing I'm most excited about at the moment, or about a show that I really need to fill. In this way, I get to both advocate for my business and also not be an asshole constantly pushing my agenda on people. Similarly, I get a lot of apologies like: "I can't come to your show next week." This is a crucial moment. Instead of making people feel like they're missing out, I always try to say "That's ok, come next time!" I actually love when nice people can't make shows because then they're just storing up guilt that will eventually result in them coming to a different show. I feel like I sold a ticket 6 months in advance. I trust that our supporters will come back when they have time and money. If you want your arts business to have longevity you have to accept that your audience is mostly going to be comprised of people who come sometimes, when they feel like it. Let them be human, too.
    My final note is that your art hopefully is a reflection and interpretation of the world and experiences around you-- your weekend hikes, your weird cousins, your afternoon at the DMV. Make sure you are putting enough non-shop-talk and time to make art that is interesting to you and to others.
4. Introduce Everyone to Everyone, and Work in Teams
     I have developed a really, really weird habit that stems from my number one social anxiety: the people around me not feeling included. In my obsessive quest to make others feel comfortable, others have pointed out to me that I'm  chronically introducing people to one another. Sound normal? It's not. At least half the time they already know each other, and about a quarter of the time not only do they know each other, but we've all hung out before. I just can't stop myself from saying, "Ashley, do you know Steve? Steve is hilarious." This is actually a specific, humiliating example, because in this particular case, Steve and Ashley had been on an improv team together, which I knew. We all got to have a great time making fun of me after that.
     Despite the embarrassment that comes with redundant introductions, it's worth it. Introducing cool people to cool people benefits everyone. It results in so many more collaborations and so much cross-promotion. It also makes the people you're standing with feel awesome.  I pre-introduce, too. I'm always interrupting myself to say, "Do you know Tim from the Arts Council? Do you know Amanda from CT Humanities? Do you know Cynthia from Open Studios?" And if they don't, no shame, I tell them all about that person. In this way the artistic community spreads a ton of knowledge and support.
     This also gets to the heart of something that a lot of artists have trouble with: being socially adept. It can be really hard to talk about yourself without feeling like a braggart. So don't. Talk about someone else. Work in a team. Be deliberate about it. I talk about how awesome Greg's video game design job is and he does the same for my writing. Or, if I get the sense that he's talking way too much about Sea Tea, I'll change the subject to save him from himself, and tell my Japanese spam story. In improv we call this "make your partner look good." Extending that idea through the arts community in your city will make things easier for everyone. I promise.
5. Your clients think they know what they want, but sometimes they don't.
     One of the frequent and early mistakes that Sea Tea Improv made was giving people exactly what they asked for, even when what they were asking for made no sense. We do a ton of private gigs. Here are some things we have gotten asked, and said yes to.
"We would like you to do improv at a party while everyone is drinking and talking and hanging out."
"We would like you to do improv for three straight hours. As people wander past your show. On the street."
"We would like you to do improv in an auditorium with 800 kids in it with no sound equipment."
"All six of you can share two handheld microphones."
"We would like you to embarrass this person on stage because it's their birthday."
"We would like the theme of this 45-minute show to be tandem bicycling."
     And, my absolute favorite, and the request that made us start standing up for ourselves: "We would like you to casually work in our company's five core principles into the dialogue of your show."
     As you're starting out as a small business, you want to (and really should) say yes to almost everything. But over time, you start to learn that certain requests will compromise the quality of your art so much that it's worse to please the client than to politely tell them what will work better. This is a very tricky balancing act and we still deal with it every week, but we have found that clearly and confidently giving clients the guidelines for what will work is better than trying to meet all of their crazy demands. It can be very hard, because sometimes they are REALLY excited about their ideas, but if you treat them with respect and say, "in our experience, we know that having the undivided attention of the audience after the speeches is better than doing improv in a corner during cocktail hour," the clients will listen and will later tell you that you were right all along. Especially if you're very experienced. Most event organizers don't know that 99% of people absolutely hate being dragged up on stage and embarrassed on their birthday. We tell them that and they get it, and work out a different way to involve the audience: get volunteers instead. Every party has at least one person who wants to embarrass themselves, birthday or not.
     The trick is doing it respectfully and actually giving true consideration to their ideas. If you're the kind of person (and there are many) who thinks that their client's ideas are usually stupid, then I would give you the opposite advice. See if you can both make them happy and do what you know is right for your art form at the same time. The 45-minute Tandem-Bike-Themed show was in the top 10 best-quality shows we ever did. It was challenging, fun, and I learned a lot about bikers. I'm really glad we said yes to that.
6. Tell people exactly what you are charging them for
     Artists and arts organizations are chronically and critically underpaid. This is a problem that is going to take a long time and a lot of work to change. What is the change that we can all work on, every day? Clearly defining the financial value of your art.
     If I say, "this improv workshop is going to cost $1500, yes or no?" that never goes as well as saying "The $1500 includes paying our actors, our transportation, and the special curriculum we are developing for you. Does that sound reasonable to you guys?" The everyday civilian has a hard time conceptualizing what the costs of art are. It's part of our job as artists to tell them. We know that the cost of a restaurant meal includes paying the cooks, managers, food suppliers, wait staff, and rent for the building. Artists have to spend not-resentful and non-complaining time speaking matter-of-factly about our costs. Also remember that part of your value is your reputation and you can't charge a premium in your first couple of years.
     I made a HUGE mistake the other day with a gig. I quoted a price without knowing everything about the event, and then when I heard everything they wanted us to do, I realized I had undercharged by an astronomical amount. Meaning, I wouldn't be able to pay our actors their usual rates. I went back to the client and told them that I'd accidentally undercharged them, but that I would stick to my original quote because that was the right thing to do, and they were getting an awesome deal. They, being a really cool company, said that they wanted to pay the actors what they were worth and paid us the full amount. I believe this is because I explained specifically what we used the money for, so they didn't feel like I was randomly upcharging them out of greed.
     Trick here: DO NOT EVER make people feel like they can lop things off your list to save money. Once in a while we get someone who has never seen an improv show before say, "can you do this with just three people so we can save money?" Nope. We know what makes a show good. Stick to your guns regarding the quality of your art, and compromise from there. If they want to save money, we give them other options, like shortening the show.
7. Big programs fund small programs
     Some venues have money to burn and some venues have tight budgets. It can be so hard to say no to the church or community center whose entire entertainment budget is $300 for eight hours of programming, when you know your show is worth $500.
     Ideally, you want your art to reach everybody. Right? Make room in your budget structure for the freebies, or the cheap gigs, by charging more for the big ones. The reason that Sea Tea Improv can keep its City Steam shows free is that we make some extra money off our workshops that pay our studio rent, where we rehearse for those City Steam shows. In an ideal world, each kind of program you do would fund itself, but it's even smarter to build up a cushion from the bigger stuff to fund the smaller stuff. Sea Tea Improv has taken on well-paid projects that are a little off-mission (like mile-barking the Hartford Marathon) to fund our really on-mission stuff (bringing in guest groups for experimental forms). There's no shame in that game. In fact, I think you really have to do it in order to keep doing the projects you are most excited about, which for me include shows for the homeless and really weird experimental shows that I wouldn't want to charge anyone hundreds of dollars for. My good friend Tod Goldberg is a brilliant, LA Times Book Prize-winning fiction writer. He also writes the spinoff books for "Burn Notice." It doesn't make him any less of a prizewinning fiction writer. It makes him someone who is able to eat dinner and call me on his overpriced cell phone plan.
     This seems obvious, but then, mentally extend it out to an artist's whole life. I have a full-time job at a museum. At times it's really hard to balance that with other projects, but the truth is, with part of my salary, I bought all the sound equipment for my literary podcast with Tod. The big project of my Twain House job funds the small projects. (It helps that my full-time job is great. I am very lucky.) We all have to spend time doing this math, but make sure you do it in a way that you leave room for being a good person who makes art for those that can't afford it.
8. Growth can be so slow it hurts-- so don't put yourself in financial, emotional or energy debt
     The payoffs for certain things Sea Tea has put in motion have taken fucking forever. Every time we start a new monthly show series, it takes about a year for it to really get running and have a good audience. I always forget this. It's always three months in and I'm freaking out that we only have thirty people in the audience, and we comped half of them, and they're all Greg's elevator friends. Yet, in our other monthly show over at City Steam, a solid 80-100 people roll in the door every month based on ongoing advertising, our reputation, word-of-mouth, and (I told you they're be back!) the friends who promised they'd come to a show when they were less busy. Most of all, those City Steam shows are full because people know that they always happen once a month. They know it will be there when they're ready.
     I am so thankful that Sea Tea started tiny: one show with an audience of maybe 25 people in a small room. It cost us nothing, and then we quickly outgrew that room. And then our energy and audience outgrew that one show series so we added a second in a different location. Once that one was going well we added a third. Someday in my dreams, there will be improv every night in Hartford, in a little theater that we own.
     But what if we'd opened a theater right away? With no guaranteed audience, we had no guaranteed income. We would have put ourselves into serious debt and would be suffering every day to get out of it. I'll say right up front, this would be a very Julia move. Take a big risk. Luckily for my emotional well-being, we decided to prove first that we could do our thing on a  small scale. I would say now we're on a medium scale and things are going well. But we have to outgrow medium-scale before we get big. When we do get big, we will have a whole community of audience members, clients, students, and other teams that have been growing with us and helped us along this whole time.
     And I'll say it again: start affordable. Whatever you are making or selling, charge as little for it as you can get away with without going into debt. You can't come out of the gate with the same prices for your band as someone would pay for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Determine a price for your wares and your time that acknowledges your lack of experience and reputation, but is still fair. As you grow you can raise your prices. It's ok. You will be bringing a whole fan base with you by that time.
     I feel terrible for the artists I know who are in financial debt, because they're also in emotional debt. They can't feel happy until they've filled their own big shoes. Don't do this to yourself. Do one thing at a time until you are ready to grow. It can work the other way, but you lose out on so many of the rewards of exceeding your own expectations. One of the most rewarding things about Sea Tea Improv is that we get to feel excited all the time about our growth, since we keep each others' expectations in check at all times. When you start too big, then you start feeling like the world owes you something just for you to keep going, and that is never a good place to be.
9. You're tired, it's hard, and no one cares
     This one is my hardest personal challenges. I am tired almost all the time. Doing the work for my small arts business and my personal writing, plus my job, plus my personal life, plus sleeping, takes up a full 24 hours of my day. Can you believe that? The indignity! I mean, who else is using up a full 24 hours a day with a combination of both work and personal life?
     Oh, that's right. Everyone in the entire world. And from anecdotal evidence, very few of those people are saying "my life is really easy and I'm doing everything I want."
     People are not very sympathetic to artists who are making their art, getting paid for it, and complaining that it's hard. Of course it's hard-- you are an intelligent person who challenges yourself and has high standards. It's also a job, and a job you chose. That's what your actuarial friend who wanted to be a tap-dancer is thinking when she is squinting and nodding as you complain.
     Being an artist is hard. You are underpaid and maybe undervalued, you have to be both an artist and a business at the same time (which forces you to use social or business skills you don't think come naturally to most artists), and not everyone thinks what you do is legitimate. But is being an artist the hardest job in the world? Absolutely not. If being a heart surgeon was easier, that's what I would do, because I would be rich and saving lives at the same time, but along the course of my life I realized it was just way too hard for me to cut back on coffee so that my hands don't shake when I cut a man's chest open, and also I can't stay awake for all-night surgeries. Too hard. I think being a sniper, a miner, a day care center teacher, or a tiger poacher might be harder than being an improviser. I am grateful every day that I have a day job at a museum, a night job running a theater company with my friends, and a personal commitment to being a great writer. Can't complain.
     But we also can't let other people say "you get to be a painter, which you love, so you don't need to be paid that much." No. I can both appreciate my own life and assign financial value to it, thank you. It is work, and work that I love. Pay me please, then you can be jealous if that floats your boat.
     We as Americans use hard work as both our reason for our success, and our reason for our failures. Either you worked really hard to achieve what you have, or the work is too hard and we're burnt out. Hard work is a fact of our cultural life. By all means try to make your life less difficult and exhausting, but recognize that most people in America are complaining about the same things.
10. Make opportunities for other people/ let other people stand on your shoulders
     There are currently three or four improv groups in Connecticut that either met in Sea Tea classes, met at Sea Tea's auditions, or met at Sea Tea mixers. Sometimes we compete against them in competitions and perform with them. This a) makes me feel old,  b) is incredibly cool, and c) is probably the number one sign of our success. Now there's this whole community of people who want to improvise.
     We as artists have to slow down and remember that this is a good thing. We're all on the same team. We all value the best version of our art and we all want to swim together towards that quality. Let the swimmer next to you glide in your wake. Isn't that what we're all doing this for? And I know that Sea Tea is standing on the shoulders of a lot of different people in our arts community, Hartford's history, and improv's history. We should be paying Drew Carey 10 cents every time someone says, "oh, like Whose Line Is It Anyway?"
     Some of my biggest personal happiness comes out of creating opportunities for other people. I love the fact that in my job at the museum I can hire writers to teach workshops. I love the fact that almost everything Sea Tea does is collaborative. I love that as we do more shows, we need to hire other groups to perform before us at our showcases. I love that we are about to launch a national festival to showcase improvisers from all over the country. Sharing feels good. It's part of the point.
11. Let your business surprise you
     There is absolutely no way I could have envisioned some of the things Sea Tea is doing now: putting together a team of homeless improvisers, taking a group of teens to Chicago, interpreting historical documents and turning them into comedic sketches. We planned but we didn't overplan. We just had a vague idea of our mission and definition of success. We were never too rigid with what our improv company might look like-- and that has led us to say yes to just about everything. Surprise resonates within both the humor within our shows and the delight of running our business.
12. You might have two jobs forever and that doesn't make you a hobbyist
     My definition, for myself, of being a working artist is that you get paid for it. Maybe that pay is  not enough to have a kid and pay your mortgage. So get a second job. You're still an artist. Art is not an all-or-nothing enterprise.
13. Creating an audience that loves your art form is more important than being the best person in your community at your art. 
     Audience, audience, audience, audience, audience, audience. Never forget them. They are your everything! You owe them absolutely everything. Never treat them or talk about them like they are dummies who just don't get you. If you need practice at this, I suggest doing shows for elementary school kids. Nobody can resent a cute five year old, even though you have to explain to them why your art is fun and cool.
     At the end of the day, if people don't remember me, that's more than fine. I'd like them to remember Sea Tea, but even if they don't, if they remember they like improv, our goal has been reached. I want for our audience members to be drifting by a theater in 30 years and see on the marquee "Baba Fett Improv Show Tonight!" and think, "I saw an improv show once... it was good, maybe I'll check this out." They'll be supporting future improvisers.
     To transfer the love I have for the arts I can execute is the highest honor I can think of. The hardest I've ever laughed in my entire life was at an improv show called "Ten Hours on the Megabus: The Musical." If someday, someone laughs that hard because of something I recommended to them, my time answering emails for Sea Tea has been worth something. Or, if someone someday buys the book of a writing student of mine, then something I did created a paid opportunity for an artist. Nothing is more important.
     What Sea Tea has been really good at is building the whole community: the audience, the improvisers, the clients, the city, the press. When we ask who knows what improv is, most people know now. Man, is it cool.
14. You're on a team. 
     Even if you are a failing personal essayist who has published barely anything, you're on a team. Find a team. Make a team of people who share your vision. Improv teams, like bands, are really lucky in that they have multiple people at their disposal most of the time.
     People on your team: your friends who consume your art, your audience, your sponsors, granting organizations, other artists that don't work in your medium but support you, your rivals, your clients, your venues, your collaborators.
     Another common mistake: "your team" does not mean "a list of people that you can ask for favors at any time." Your team is the group of people you thank, all the time, for supporting your art.
15. It's ok to leave. 
     This is the heartbreaker. You do not have to do your art, in the same town, every day until you die. I mean two things by this.
     One is: grow to other places if you want to. One of our Sea Tea founders is living in Los Angeles and doing TV work now. He'll always be one of the founders of Sea Tea, and we're so proud of him. Also, his expanded success will come back and help the company. His reputation is a contribution as much as sweeping the floors of the studio. Also, when he left we had auditions and took on some really fantastic people that we now have room for.
     I also mean that if you hate it, it's ok to stop. Or let a project be a success without feeling the obligation to repeat it into infinity until it fails. It's so tempting to say, "that show was a success, let's do it monthly!" but that can suck the joy out of the art eventually, especially if you're a solo act. Improv, with its inability to be repeated, has taught be that letting things end makes so much more room for innovation. If we had a sketch show that went well, we'd repeat it all the time. But at this point we're approaching 500 shows and all of them have been different, by necessity.
     And if you want to stop practicing your art, that doesn't mean you never did it. You used to play the trombone? So cool. You can still be proud of that until the day you die.
16. Have a mission
     You know what the point of a mission statement is? It's not for grants. It's not for planning your programs. When it's 2 AM and you're answering emails from a client for a gig you don't really want to do, when you're eating a can of beans for breakfast because you have lost the will to do anything else, when you've done a really bad show-- that's when you wistfully look at your mission statement. It's your Mufasa in the sky. Your mission statement should be the answer to your bleating call of "why the fuck am I doing this?," and it should be a really good answer. Sea Tea Improv's mission is to build, train, and lead a community of improvisers. Nothing else really matters. So when I wander into our townie bar at 1:55 AM and I see thirty people having their last beer and arguing over an improv scene, I feel like a million bucks. As a writer, I don't have a clear mission statement, which contributes to an ongoing misery that I'm not quite good enough, no matter what I do. Make your mission an attainable thing that you truly believe in with the cheesiest part of your heart. It's going to be your pot of coffee and your bottle of wine. Because when you scream out what you meant to be rhetorical-- why am I doing this? will it ever get easier? am I doing what I set out to do-- the person that you want to answer to is the idealist who set you on this path. Yourself, in better times. Only you know why you're doing this. Write it down and memorize it for those times that you, in the exhaustion of creation and effort of your art, momentarily forget.
-- Julia
Above: most of Sea Tea Improv (missing Dan), 2009. Below, most of Sea Tea Improv, 2013.

Amplified: Section 800, Row PP of the Dave Chappelle Stand-Up Show in Hartford Last Night

Recently I went to the Comcast Theater in Hartford, just a mile from my apartment, to watch a stoned funny person address the audience for most of his set. People were for the most part pretty chill about the whole thing, especially for a crowd of about 15,000 people. That person was Lil' Wayne, and that concert was great. He spent most of it saying "I love you guys, I love you guys" to his very blissed-out fans. T.I. went on first, though, and goddamn it if he didn't burst both of my eardrums. I did something I've never done before: I stuffed tiny pieces of napkins into my ears to preserve the very little that is left of my hearing. I've been to my fair American share of concerts-- semi-riots at Dave Matthews Band; lying on the grass listen to Norah Jones; singing along to recently-memorized lyrics of Bob Dylan & Paul Simon & Tom Petty (I was a teen, catching up on the culture); trying not to touch the walls in dank basements in New York; screaming "DO YOU WANT TO GO OUTSIDE FOR A SECOND" in local bars on Saturday nights. Now that I'm getting to the point where I'm stuffing napkins in my ears and wondering when it's socially acceptable to sit back down, I should probably stop going to concerts, but I still enjoy blowing out my voice with a series of great whoops, especially at Bruce Springsteen. But I need to preserve my hearing.

Hearing loss isn't something you start really thinking about until you're hosting an improv comedy show at a mall in Manchester and so many people are screaming "DILDO! DILDO!" at you that you can't make out each individual sex instrument. There were about 350 people there, more than Sea Tea Improv had ever played to at the time, all drunk, all confused as to why we weren't doing stand-up. And I couldn't even really hear what they were saying. So, as the host of the show, I did the only thing I could do: I turned on them. I got really angry and accused them of having boring lives since they could only give us sexual suggestions. But, I'd asked for it-- literally I had asked them to shout out "an everyday object," so it was my job to whip them into shape so that the dumb half would shut up so that I could hear the smart half's ideas. Such is live comedy. At the end of the show one of my teammates said that I should do standup. "I don't have any jokes to tell," I said. "Stand-up is almost all crowd control," he said. Such is the stand-up community culture we have created. A huge part of a stand-up's life is measuring the audience and responding accordingly to the blips and burbles of their verbal responses. Audiences too have come to expect this, and weirdly, to love it. For a brief time I waitressed in a 200-seat comedy club in Hartford and I can assure you that nothing calmed a mean audience down like being criticized.

When performing live your senses heighten. A heavy plate being put down onto a table while you're trying to weave an expert scene sounds like a train going by. Someone whispering to another person "they are really good!" comes through like a megaphone. Everything is amplified.

So when I heard that Dave Chappelle would be doing stand-up at the Comcast Theaters in the same place where I had seen Lil' Wayne install an entire half-pipe, I was surprised. And when I further heard that he was performing alongside Flight of the Conchords, I was baffled. Understated musical parody act and a legendary stand-up comedian in a huge, shitty concert venue? I thought that it would most likely be an evening of semi-crappy, vaguely disappointing, big-box comedy that wouldn't land too well. But it might be something legendary (I imagined Chappelle maybe pouring his heart out and the entire audience nodding empathetically). I bought a ticket.

Here's what happened.

The show didn't sell well at first. There were Groupons. The kind of people who might not normally go to this kind of show bought hundreds of Groupons. There were buckets of ticket giveaways. Even more people who might not normally go got free tickets. None of the tickets had a schedule on them; all of the tickets said to show up at 5:30. By 6:00, when I was there, there were already thousands and thousands of people there, perfectly willing to either drink heavily in the parking lot or pay $11 for 24-ounce cans of beer. The wait for a beer was 0 seconds. The wait for food was half an hour. By 7:00, when the comedy started, the audience began to shuffle in, blearly and loud and already absolutely drunk. A bunch of pretty good comedians did a bunch of pretty good sets. All of them seemed on edge. The stand-ups (notably Kristen Schaal) all referred to the weird energy of the audience and fled the stage quickly after their sets. Schaal's performance ended with "I don't usually like observational comedy. And apparently neither do you."

The last part of the first act was Dmitri Martin's guitar-laden Mitch-Hedburg-style jokes. Then intermission (more drinking) and then an hour of Flight of the Conchords-- which is all music. The audience was lulled into the concert-- yes, it felt, this is what this venue is for. Music. We know how to behave. And if a few people request "Business Time," well yes, that's normal concert behavior. That's all hunky-dory. And then, they indeed played the oft-shouted-for "Business Time," and it was time for Chappelle.

There are so many conflicting interpretations of what went down during this legendary comedy moment (and yes, it's clear it will already become mythic, probably already is since people can tweet judgements a lot faster than I can write thorough blog posts) that I am just going to go as clearly as I can.

Chappelle walked out onstage, his shadow amplified through a scrim. The audience gave him a standing ovation. He stood there, in front of 15,000 people. Fifteen thousand people. He smoked a cigarette. He waited. He looked out at the audience and waited for them to quiet down. It was about at this moment, really right away, that I realized I'd been horribly wrong: no way would this show be a big-box shitty mundane thing. There was no way that Chappelle was going to be going through a shtick. Because you cannot wait for a crowd of 15,000 people who have been sitting there drinking for four hours, in a concert venue, literally following a concert, to suddenly be quiet. That is an objective fact in the confluence of our comedic, alcoholic, musical, celebrity-obsessed, frat culture.

He began his set. The jokes were funny but he couldn't seem to get a hold of the audience laughter. He wasn't lighting the dynamite to explode in the places where he wanted to; he left huge spaces in time where he was looking out into the audience or off to the side. He was listening to things I couldn't hear, either in the audience or in his own head. I believe it to be both. He was hearing things amplified that my section could not hear.

The audience began to shout "I'm Rick James, bitch!" and "We love you, Dave!" intermittently. He told a couple more jokes and still asked for everyone to be quiet. I believe the moment that the show turned (and there are so many possibilities) was when someone shouted "OPRAH!"

"Thanks for bringing up the worst experience of my life," Dave Chappelle said. He seemed sincerely upset about it.

The weird thing was, right at the beginning of the set, he talked about the infamous Kramer meltdown. He said, "as a black man, I was really sad. I'm a Seinfeld fan. .... but as a comedian, I understood. That's a bad set." And what happened after that created that same sense in me: as an audience member, it made me sad. As a comedian, I saw the bad set unfold. He had primed me for that dual reaction.

Somewhere in this Oprah period he decided to stop. He seemed weary, honestly. He asked the audience to police itself: to punch people in the kidneys if they were making noise. And that was when I realized the show was really over-- or just beginning.

Because that was a theater of 15,000 people, and so suddenly, the noise doubled. The screaming that Chappelle heard from there on out was half the audience yelling at him, and the other half of the audience yelling at the yellers, as instructed. Real boo-ing began. Around this time he pulled out a stool and sat down on it and began smoking a cigarette. The front row of seats began literally begging him to perform. A woman threw her self-published book onstage and he read a paragraph aloud from it. Real walk-outs began. He said things like "you paid for this? I'm going to take my thousands of dollars and buy sticks of bubble gum and chew each one for two seconds and spit it on the ground. That's what I'm going to do with your money."

Do not believe a soul that says Dave Chappelle walked off during his set. He did the opposite: he sat out more than his time-- time he essentially counted down, telling us all about his contract in the meantime-- on a stool, talking to the audience.  He was never quiet for more than a minute or two. He just didn't do any more comedy. The microphone never dropped.

And that's all I could look at, this microphone. It was still there. He was still doing it, doing something. And all those people who paid money (or didn't) to see Dave Chappelle, he of the legendary breakdown, got exactly what they paid for. Another one. And Dave Chappelle, he of the legendary moral struggling against his audience, got exactly what he feared.

There are two narratives flying around about this show: one is that Dave Chappelle had a meltdown and failed; that he didn't try; that dealing with heckling is what standup is all about; that there were so many good fans there that he should have powered through. The other is that the Hartford audience was drunk and loud and horrible and drove him off. May I be the first one to say that both are absolutely true.

The real narrative here is that we, all together, including the comedians, have created a culture where audiences think that heckling is part of the game. We have taken an art form that is all about putting one vulnerable and intelligent person in front of a microphone, and we think that format can be expanded to an audience of thousands and still be the same. It can't.

Some will say that this audience was pretty average-- sure, for 2013, maybe. But I'm pretty sure my grandmother didn't think it was normal to scream quotes from a sketch so loudly that thousands of people could hear you.

Some will also say that Dave Chappelle looked out into his audience and saw a crowd of white bros screaming at him to perform. I suspect this is part of it and a much more detailed piece has already been written about that perspective. But I also know that I was in a pin-drop-silent, hundred-person block of white people who looked like they were about to cry with disappointment; and I could also see a front-row group of black fans literally begging Dave to perform. We cannot and should not simplify an audience to its worst members; but when it's a mass of people too far away to be individually distinguished, what else can you do? And what could Dave Chappelle do in that very moment to address that issue? And is that his responsibility? I don't think I could answer those questions. Not because I'm white. Because I'm not Dave Chappelle and I can't read his mind, even though a Jumbotron and a microphone can so easily create that illusion. The racial angle is more complicated than fifty drunk white bros in that silent, hopeful audience-- or maybe it isn't and that's exactly the point. I don't know for sure.

What do I think Chappelle should have done? Powered through his set. That's what I'd do and what I have done. Do I think it was absolutely compelling and possibly a cultural turning point that he left the door open to just fucking not doing that? Yes. Should he have known that he could not just tell a crowd that big to be quiet? Yes. Did he waste people's money? Yes. Is it is his right to do that when we worship celebrities to an insane degree? Maybe. Should we be questioning the fact that we are paying $100 to a horrible concert venue to see stand-up comedians where everyone involved is making money hand over fist and there is no way the art can be practiced to its highest form? Yes. Was the Hartford audience exceptionally bad? Yes. Are all audiences now exceptionally bad? Yes. What does an audience owe a performer? Respect. What does a performer owe an audience? Respect.

An audience is a big thing, a moving beast, an ocean of sound and emotion. I heard little bleats and mews from down in front and I saw on a Jumbotron Dave Chappelle hearing them, amplified in a way only a performer can hear, and getting sad. What was he hearing that we in Section 800, Row PP weren't? It's foolish to think that I could even guess. In my section, you could have heard a french fry hit the floor. In others, there were near-riots. Later in the night, I ran into so many different friends and coworkers who had been at the show-- all in different sections. Some said the audience was perfect; some it was the worst they'd ever seen. It was clear that just because we can sit under one massive concrete roof doesn't mean we were all in the same room. That's what comedy requires: a single room. I heard nearly nothing Dave Chappelle heard. He heard none of my hopeful silence.

All I was trying to do was desperately listen, to hear what he was hearing, to unstuff my ears, to share in that intimate moment that comedy and live theater need. But I have been to too many concerts, seen too many shows, have become a little bit too damaged to hear the impossible: the sound of the audience and performer's emotional contract breaking, so violently, that each is completely sure that the other is to blame.

Julia Pistell is the co-founder of Sea Tea Improv, a writer, the host of the podcast Literary Disco, and an employee of the Mark Twain House. She does not do stand-up for this very reason.

Plenty of Time

The night before summer began, I didn't pack up my dorm room. I went out. I had plenty of time to pack.


Of course I didn't really. I returned to the room from wherever I was, someplace I don't remember, somewhere I went with Greg. We returned to my room in the middle of the night and I stared at my books and clothes and felt a growing sensation of panic. I was headed to Accra in September; I was never going to live in a dorm again. I would be turning twenty in a month and I already had a heap of stuff I didn't know what to do with. We started packing. At three or four in the morning I fell asleep on the bed, on top of my clothes, overwhelmed and crying.

That was how my parents found me the next morning-- throwing things in boxes like there was no tomorrow. I wasn't sure I'd wanted them to meet Greg yet, but I hadn't had time to put him away, either. I needed his help more than I needed my dignity. So I said, "this is Greg," (I believe I hadn't referred to his existence yet, though we'd been dating for months) and he went back to balling up my socks while I freaked out about fitting everything in the car.

A year later I entered his dorm room the night before he was to move out of senior housing. His bed was still made, cables were everywhere. He and his mother had bought him buckets of shampoo and scotch tape that he hadn't used up in four entire years at Skidmore. I opened up his drawers and packed them up, painstakingly jigsawing together highlighters and staplers. Eventually we passed out on the bed, and woke up and said a dramatic goodbye I don't remember at all. I only remember packing the boxes and forcing him to go to sleep. The next day he drove off in the robin's egg-blue Buick Regal in which he'd driven me all over Saratoga Springs.

He gave the Regal to my sister when he got his first job just a couple of months later. That's about when I knew we were going to spend more than a couple of years together-- giving my seventeen-year-old sister a junker worth $400 with a year left in it was as big a gift any Pistell has gotten from an outsider. But then, he didn't need it; he had a new car with his new job. He'd been accepted into a Leadership Development Program at Travelers Insurance. We sat on the porch of the little house I lived in in Saratoga and I said, "How long is the program?" and he said, "four years." I couldn't believe anyone would commit himself to something so insane. "You'll be twenty-five when you get out," I said. I was scared. He was scared. We were scared of different things, and we disapproved of what each other was afraid of.

We were planted on different sides of the twenties scale of fear. He was afraid of instability; I was afraid of stability. So while I worked in the Skidmore library, he worked at Travelers. I worked in at the University of Petroleum in Dongying, China; he worked at Travelers. I worked at a florist; he worked at Travelers. I worked at Lindblad Expeditions; he worked at Travelers. I worked at Mobile Libris, I worked at Anthropologie, I worked at Dogwalking for Rainforests; he worked at Travelers. I moved to Hartford. I worked at City Steam Brewery, HartBeat Ensemble, Capital Community College, The Hartford Children's Theater, the Connecticut Breast Health Initiative, Hartford Stage, Park Arts, LivingSocial, and the Mark Twain House; Greg worked at Travelers.

He didn't do just one thing. For a while he maintained servers overnight. He took me down there once and kissed me among the humming. Then he worked for Quality Assurance, where his assigned task was "cheer up the depressed nerds." Then Wintel, Web Engineering, Operations, Risk Control; all words that I found meaningless. The only meaning I needed to see was him lying on the floor of our apartment, sighing, as he put a twenty-person conference call on speakerphone on Christmas eve. All twenty people were silent. They had to stay on the call until the problem was fixed. The last job he had at Travelers was in Search. "Searching should be easier than it is," he said.

He turned twenty-five a long time ago. He became the person to which failing projects were assigned, and he'd turn them around. It was depressing work and every time he accepted those conference calls at three-thirty in the morning or on Christmas day, which was nearly every year, I would wonder if he'd ever be able to leave. He applied for other jobs and once last year, he got so close that when he didn't get it I put my arms around him like he'd done for me a hundred times. I was afraid. He was afraid. This time we were afraid of the same thing.

I found the job for him just a couple of months ago, on Twitter. The second I saw it I knew it was his to win: thinking up cartoon and app storylines for superheroes and hobbits and Ninja Turtles and Duplo giraffes. He starts on Monday. At Lego, he's going to be doing digital marketing for superhero toys. He's overjoyed, I'm overjoyed. I went to Travelers to pick him up, to walk with him out the door that last time, to take him to his goodbye party.

When I got there he was standing with two boxes. Nothing was in them. He stood there staring at them. He wasn't twenty-five, he was thirty-one. A picture that he'd had hung in his dorm room was on the wall. There was nowhere to lie down and go to sleep. I packed up his boxes for him, as I always have. I got the four boxes down to two and we carried them down to the lobby, handing over his security clearance.


As he waited for a friend to bring a car around, I looked over at him. He was afraid. I wasn't.

We thought we'd have plenty of time, and we did. When we were twenty I couldn't imagine our life today, even though it is very much as I had hoped. We are both still alive. We have a crappy old piano in our living room. There are sunflowers on our counter and thousands of books in our house. The only thing that is about to change is that we'll both have jobs we love, or at least jobs that are fucking cool. When Greg used to talk about his job he'd apologize halfway through. Now, when he tells friends about the new job, people  burst into rhapsodic memories of their childhood, or confess to Lego trains in their closets. Everything day I want to kiss the ground in gratitude. Not because Travelers wasn't great-- in a way it was. I can't condemn any choice we made that got us to this point. We just couldn't have known then that taking a job in 2005 meant that by 2009, companies high and low would say "you're lucky just to have a job" at the same meetings where they'd report record profits, like Travelers did. But Greg has expressed no regret, only hope that someday he might know some other reality. Eventually we both realized that it would have to be built out of unexpected materials, like improvised invisible walls, or yellow plastic bricks. It took ten years to find the right materials. And now that we were there, he didn't look ready. One of the only things we have in common is that when the time comes to walk out the door, we're not packed.

We thought we'd have plenty of time, and we didn't. Standing at Greg's desk, holding his red umbrella, I suddenly felt the time we held between us. I'd opened up a box I'd packed for him a long time ago. That happened to me once-- moving Greg from Simsbury to Manchester-- and I saw that he'd never unpacked what I'd jigsawed together years earlier; it was the scotch tape and shampoo from the dorms.


I looked across the cubicle and I remembered sitting on a porch with him at dusk at 85 Lincoln Avenue, Saratoga Springs, New York, looking over a graveyard. "You'll be twenty-five," I said through the time portal. I wish I could tell myself then how much these ten years didn't matter. Younger Greg looked out at me through older Greg's face and told me how much they did.

He was wonderful, that very, very young man. It stuns me now to think of how much I loved him when he told me how he might take that corporate job I hated. All the ways I knew him then have taken me a decade just to see. I hope we have time to find a whole new layer of things we stored in that graveyard-glancing evening. Then, on the porch, and now, in the cubicle, I put my arm around him and said, "ok. Just tell me when you're ready to leave."

My Favorite Books of 2012

Dear all, Around this time of year, when people are starting to make resolutions, I am often asked for book recommendations. I find this a very difficult request without a knowledge of what you already like: is your beach reading 50 Shades Darker, Bleak House, or In the Woods? Reading is so personal that I am always afraid I'm going to screw up the recommendation and then be hated forever, especially since I read so widely myself that I sometimes wonder if I've lost all sense of what normal boundaries people have.

This year I have decided it would be useful to compile the best books I read. Not the ones that came out-- I probably only read about 10 books that actually came out this year, so I am no authority-- but a personal report on the great stuff I got to peruse for leisure and work. I had a fantastic reading year, although few books truly reduced me to a puddle of gratitude and mind-blowing revelations. Mostly, I read a lot.

Why I Read What I Read:

- The complete works of Judy Blume, for the Twain House

- The complete works of Joan Didion, for the Twain House

- About 10 other books to prepare for other Twain House programs and book clubs

- 20 books for Literary Disco

- The entire Walking Dead series, on a zombie binge

- About 10 books on various vacations

- About 6 audiobooks

- About 15-20 additional books for pleasure

TOTAL: About 125 books (guesstimate: 15 of those are graphic novels and 35 are YA, leaving 75 "regular" books)

So without further ado:

15. The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau (or, Best First Novel)


A harrowing, almost Shakespearian story about an American at war and a middle eastern teenage boy sent to the United States as a refugee, this novel is a little bit mystery, a little bit buildings-roman, and a little bit lyrical novel. Full disclosure: I know the author, Stephen Dau, very well, but when I read this book sitting in a coffee shop in New York (one sitting, rooted to my seat) I completely forgot that I knew who'd written it. I can't believe this is Stephen's first book and I also can't believe more people haven't read it. Most of you will like this book, many of you will love it.

14. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (or, Best Biography, or, Best Book You Got For Christmas Last Year but Haven't Read Yet)


Last Christmas I swiped this from my brother and read most of it before the New Year-- then bought my own copy because I was desperate to know what happened to Woz and the gang. I'm in no way a technophile, but it's hard to resist the intersection of technology, culture, and the cult of personality. Jobs is, famously, unlikeable, and so is the cult of Apple products, but there is absolutely no denying the impact of both on our current culture. Really worth a read, and very quick for a biography. And I dare you not to fall in love with Woz. This book is full of little myths and origin stories that I absolutely promise you will retell over dinner.

13. Treasure Island!!! by Sarah Levine (or, Funniest) Layout 1If you like Girls, you'll like Treasure Island!!! It's the same mix of horrifying awkwardness and a total lack of self-awareness. Imagine if Hannah never even made it to New York because of so many levels of self-denial and bad behavior. Imagine if you stole a parrot. Imagine if you tried to live your life by the principals of a children's adventure story. It's great. Read it. But, if you have no sense of humor about people who are self-absorbed and vaguely shitty, don't read it. First, get a sense of humor, then come back.

12. Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil by John Berendt (or, Best Nonfiction)

midnightI'm so late to this party it's not even worth putting this on my list, because you've all probably read it already, but this book is just a spectacular example of lyric nonfiction. Originating as profiles of the weirdos that populate Savannah, this book became a nonfiction mystery when the author found himself friends with a potential murderer. Social and cultural issues are dealt with on the sly, but the real reason to read it is simply the hilarious portraiture of men who walk flies instead of dogs, open up piano bars, and hang Nazi flags for bizarre reasons. Highly recommended for all. I can't think of a person who wouldn't like this book.

11. Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume (or, Best Young Adult)

tigereyesTiger Eyes rocks. It's the most literary of Blume's works, and came somewhat late in her career. Most of her books take place in my beloved New Jersey, but this one takes its characters out west to a town where bombs are manufactured. Its themes are personal and cultural obliteration. I won't say much more, but this story of grief and a stark landscape should be more popular than it is.

10. Democracy, Joan Didion (or, Best Joan Didion Novel, maybe)joandidiondemocracy

I had a very hard time choosing a single Joan Didion novel. My read-a-thon was quite intense-- I read 2-3 full Didion books a day, in chronological order, so I'm having trouble nailing down one that really stood out on its own. Didion writes obsessively on the same few things in her fiction: politics, depressed women, grief, and colonialism. Democracy is great because the writing is self-conscious and Didion herself is the narrator-- the kind of conceit I adore. Truth be told, I still prefer Didion's nonfiction, but for fiction this encompasses all of her strengths. Side note: all of Didion's books are readable in about 4 hours.

9. The Walking Dead (or, Scariest)

walking-dead Our Literary Disco readers were absolutely clamoring for us to read this, and since I'd seen a bit of the show, I went whole-hog and read 14 Walking Dead graphic novels in three days over Thanksgiving. (About an hour per volume, if you're wondering how big the investment is-- less than the TV show, that's for sure.) There are some truly scary and horrifying drawings, and I'm in love with a few of the settings (namely, a prison). It's worth both reading and watching because the TV show has completely changed the plot-- it's an alternate universe of the same story.

8. Sailor Twain by Mark Segel (or, Best Graphic Novel)

SailorTwain-251x300Drawn with charcoal, this book is dark, Victorian, creepy, and sexual. And it's about mermaids. It's so far from a comic that it feels weird to even put it in the same category. It truly got under my skin and I am now vaguely obsessed with asking myself what my own personal mermaids are.

7. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (or, Best Epic)


A six-part Russian-doll of a book. Mitchell writes in six wildly different styles with such mastery that I'd easily believe they were written by six different people. For someone who adores so many styles of writing, like me, this was such an enjoyable read. When I was most into it, I was getting up at 6 AM so I could read more of it before work. Absolutely loved this one.

6. The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (or, Best Book You Haven't Heard Of)


Read last January when I was at home writing for two weeks. Reduced me to a sobbing mess if you like that sort of thing. This novel looks at one man's long life on the island of Guernsey, from the late nineteenth century through the 1960's. I don't know about you, but the idea of one person living through that span of time absolutely blows my mind, especially in a small community where each change is felt to the core of each resident. A very personal book told in a weird voice, this one is for serious fiction aficionados.

... and for my Top 5, you'll have to wait until our next Literary Disco episode (coming out in about a week!) Then I'll post them in list form. In the meantime, get reading!

-- Julia

26, 28, 30

I watched the story of the Newtown massacre on Twitter. I watched it like it was a movie. No, I watched it like I was in a writers' room for a movie-- narratives being pitched, and heightened, and edited, and then finally fact-checked. It was one story with a million writers. The worst kind of way to write a movie that you are sure everyone is going to see and believe. Over the days, the contradicting stories became evident-- how did the heroic Miss Soto both save her whole class and have half her class killed?-- who was the dead parent in the bedroom?-- was he buzzed in or did he force his way in?-- and bad journalism gave way to good. That was a relief. We ache for one clear story, preferably with a moral. And we all got a story, a dramatic one, and we're in the process of drawing our own morals out of it. None of that is surprising.

I read the obituaries of the kids, their short stories, and I wept at their simplicity and their sweetness. Those obits were so clearly written by parents and siblings in pain. What do you say about a six year old? They loved tacos and hair gel. I think I learned more about the phrase "childhood innocence" reading those obituaries than I have at any other time of my life, including when I was around 5 year olds every day.

People are committing 26 random acts of kindness. I agree this is a nice thing to do. I agree that being kinder and gentler and making people's days is a good impulse and can have a genuine impact. I want to do it. I am at heart an optimist and a pragmatist, which means I want to feel I can do something to have an impact and then things will be incrementally better.

However, I'm not happy with this number 26. There's still a story that hasn't been clarified, and it probably won't, and that story is the most important.

Adam Lanza killed his mother and we don't know why. Not only that, but he'd been estranged (or just out of touch with?) his brother and his father. The family had broken apart for some reason, or reasons, which will likely remain in the realm of speculation forever. I'm not going to guess why. But those four people are important. Somehow, somewhere, that family fell apart and now two of those people are alive and alone and very likely miserable. They must have their family's story running over and over in their heads. I feel tremendously sorry for them.

If we are trying to prevent future massacres due to mental illness, or cruelty, or evil, or rage-- we need to be kind to the future Lanzas. That is the call. That is the harder thing to do, personally and as a nation. The almost-Lanzas deserve our love, so that they will become never-Lanzas.

So do your 26 nice things for those kids.

Then do two for whatever happened in that house that morning, which we will never know. 28.

And then do two more for the remaining family that has to live with knowing that a person they loved turned on the world. 30.

Just my thoughts for the day.

-- Julia


For those of you considering falling in love, I recommend the winter. The colder the better. In the winter, when you step outside your dormitory's door for that first date, all you can really see of the person is a pair of eyes under a hat and over a scarf bound at least twice around your neck and mouth and, if it's really, really cold, your nose. As it gets colder out, as the night falls or you go out into the cold again, and again, and again, it takes more boldness to take off a glove and grab onto that oasis of warmth that is another person's hand. And, in my opinion, there is no experience more like love than sitting in the passenger seat of a car while it slowly, imperceptibly heats; the snow on the windshield both falling away naturally and being brushed away, a face coming into view, still bundled. The music is playing but only you can hear it for now-- but you know that, any minute now, that other person is going to get into the car and hear the music you're hearing and turn to you and say, "ready to go?" I recommend being nineteen. I recommend having recently read all of Ovid's Metamorphases, and having words like Daphne and Atalanta at your tongue. If you're enrolled in a survey course on the history of the Western canon, all the better; these are the stories you will relate, told a million times already, and these are the feelings and the adventures you will be deciding your life should have. You will say, in a blurt, "you know, I'm moving to Ghana in a few months to study abroad," because that sort of "you-can't-pin-me-down" attitude has been honed and held closely by you for your entire life. The person that you're walking down the Saratoga streets with will surprise you by saying, "ok," and seeming rather unfazed. Almost as if a mere six months across the world will seem like nothing, later on. He will be wrong. That particular six months will be very important.

But before that will be the first year, all the dates, all the firsts. You'll suffer all the various levels of embarrassment that come with not really knowing a person. He'll help you practice the French you can't remember, and he'll tell you all about what you say in your sleep. It's day after day of learning languages, his, digital, yours, romance. College is all new words. And after all of that you go to Ghana.

I recommend that neither of you have a cell phone, and that facebook doesn't exist. I recommend that you call him three times in six months, from a pay phone, and that each call be five minutes long. This way, you save everything for the letters that have already begun to fly across the world. When you come back, it'll be your first anniversary.

Having laid this groundwork, the second year will be harder: more Shakespeare-- the tragedies now-- and finals for him. Having been apart while still growing, two Daphnes, there is space between your roots. You've traveled now, so you'll think you know everything. You have responsibilities: you're the student supervisor in the library, and he's the IT manger across the room. He leaves you tiny post-it love-notes on your digital punch-in cards. The librarian, complicit in this romance, will always assign you to shelve the reference books over by his desk. This librarian is important: when the twenty-year-olds around you are getting suspicious-- when they tell you-- "I just think he's way too nice"-- this librarian, and other adults, will start telling you what it will take you years to figure out on your own: that he will turn into exactly the kind of nice adult that everyone wishes there are more of. During this winter you'll hit your head lightly and wish that he, and not your mom or your best friend, was there to comfort you, and this is the exact moment that you will realize that you love this person. During this summer you'll go camping and the rain will soak all through the tent and you will both find this hilarious.

In year three, you'll graduate, and you'll leave again, to China. He'll come out to visit for a week and his both his Chinese and his bartering will be better than yours. He'll show you how technology can shorten time and space. Your grandfather, your uncle, and your cat will all die in the first month that you are gone, and he will reassure you.

Year four is when things will start to blur. I recommend moving to New York, and I recommend that he come visit your tiny apartment and share the twin bed you inherited from your grandfather. And then something else will happen that really surprises you: he'll move to London. I recommend viewing this as his turn for an adventure. You, still grandiose, now terribly twenty-three, will write him a letter every single day for 365 days in a row. You'll go and visit Paris, and Barcelona, you'll see statues of Daphne and paintings of Picasso, and you will be very, very happy. You are a ridiculous cliche of a letter-writing, art-appreciating, nice-girl-from-New-York, flying off to see a ridiculous cliche of an innocent abroad. He is learning to be adventurous. You are learning to be serious. It is all ridiculous, and it is all wonderful.

He'll come back to Connecticut, and then-- five years in-- will begin the first real decision you've made together. You will beg him to move to New York. He will beg you to move to Connecticut. I recommend being in a writing program and craving change. You'll go, of course, and it will seem inevitable.

Do not hold on to your pride. Be a twenty-four-year-old waitress with a master's degree who doesn't know what to do with herself. He'll come and sit at your table every night. He will watch you make your own life here and not force you to just be an addendum to his. You will begin to improvise: both the normal, every day, I-have-no-fucking-clue-where-this-life-is-heading way, and in the theatrical-comedy way.

Don't be afraid that you've settled down, because, since that first date "I'm free!" blurt, you will both always understand that there is no settling down. There are solo road trips through sequoias, there are feral kittens that he'll stay up all night trying to comfort. There will be 6:00 AM mornings in Mykonos where you make him get up and walk out to see the windmills, even though it's windy and the sea is choppy. There will be nights when you'll hole up from real hurricanes. There will be terrible sunburns. You will see him, crushed by pity, pay to sponsor a sea turtle that has lost three flippers. There will be years seven, eight, and nine. You will, completely by accident, own a business together, and running that business, he'll surprise you once again with his capacity for work. You'll run a marathon and he'll be at the end with a sandwich.

He will teach you how to be brave when climbing mountains. He will teach you how to get things done. You will teach him how to swim in the ocean. You will teach him to relax. It isn't always good. Sometimes it's raining on the mountains; sometimes there are jellyfish in the water. You will know the back of his head from the vespa, the squeeze of his hand under a table, his laugh, his real laugh. But the main achievement between the two of you will be one small word: Let's.

I recommend saying it often. Let's take the canoe out. Let's keep the kittens. Let's visit our friends. Let's walk home. Let's stay in. Let's go out. Let's put our coats on and go for a walk in the snow. This word is your secret code for everything you want to remind each other: let's always have adventures, let's always be together. It is the word that matters, not distance, not being on an airplane. Not whether it's written in digital or on paper (although you will always have an opinion on that one).

There are many weathers in which to fall in love. There is, of course, no one right way, no one telling of any Roman myth. But even after ten years of summers and springs, even after carving pumpkins, even after submitting to a good rain, and saying "you've got sunblock all over your face," for myself, I will always choose winter. I will always take off my glove and reach it, so briefly, through the cold air until I feel that other ungloved hand.

(For Greg, on our 10th. Love, Julia.)

Swaparoo: The Finish!

Hello everyone, Special treat for those of you who are getting tired of me. My good friend Steph, who is in Sea Tea Improv with me and with whom I share a sense of the ridiculous, has engaged in a good old-fashioned blog swap with me today. We were both attempting to post every day for the month of November (I failed... but the day's not over yet!). I wrote about hobbies over at her blog, Hooked on Hobbies, and she wrote about what's on her mind, like I tend to do. (Do I have a tendency? I have no idea. I'm really just making this up.)

Please enjoy her thoughts, and go check out her blog for my post about not having hobbies, and more useful topics like knitting fingerless gloves!

-- Julia


I like finishing things. I know that everyone does, but in my head where I am the star of my own life story, I like to think I get even more pleasure from it then most people. I enjoy the entire experience of getting from nothing to finished. From the first incremental steps, to the often infuriating middle area (which always feels like it takes twice as long as every other part), to the final rush to "complete". That tipping point where the end is just in sight can often create in me an obsessive single-mindedness. There have been many days where I stayed late at work because I didn't want to leave in the middle of an assignment, many nights where I didn't sleep because I was "so close" to finishing the book I was reading, and many weekends where I have started some hobby project on a Friday only to get tunnel vision until suddenly its Sunday night and I haven't done anything else for two whole days.

The joy of being done has a dark side, though...being haunted by the "unfinished".

I started doing Taekwon-do when I was in middle school and progressed well through the ranks over the years. In the beginning of 2004, I had a high red belt on my waist and was faced with the reality of moving to New Jersey for college in a few months. I delighted in the idea that I had just enough time to earn and test for my black belt. I would be "finished" just in time for college. Unexpectedly, though, the school closed in the middle of the planning for my test. This is the first time I can remember being so close to a goal and not getting there....the anger and frustration are still fresh and raw in my mind these 8 years later.

Many aspects of my life now often suffer the same fate. When I first started crafting I worked on one thing at a time, until it was done. Now I have more projects then I want to confess to in various stages of completion, and though it is unbelievably difficult to admit...I know that some of these projects will never get finished. I've got a large cross stitching project stashed away I haven't looked at in months. Practicing guitar, which really has no "done" point, is something I keep meaning to do more of. I've got stacks of books I want to read, and don't want to consider that I never will. All these unfinished things are like burrs under my skin. I try not to think about them, hoping the disappointment and irritation of the undone will go away.

More recently I've tried giving myself personal challenges with a clear start and end. "Run a total of forty miles this month" I think to myself. Ok. Bit by bit the miles add up in my google document keeping track until I have only 3 left. It makes me get out of bed when I am tired, makes me run even when I don't want to, and I pat myself on the back when I am done. "Post in your blog everyday for a month" I think. Ok. Entry after entry I write, not with the most care or effort, but because each little bit adds up to something. Anything. And after 30 days and 30 posts I've completed something.

Each finished thing is like a shot of joy, accomplishment and adrenaline. I get addicted to the finish. When one project is completely successful, I seek out another. The other side to that coin is that it sometimes feels like the only thing that is getting me through each subsequent thing I need to do, is the energy I got from finishing the last....much like swinging from vine to vine, the momentum is the main thing that keeps me moving forward. So what, then, is to keep me pushing forward when there is no end in sight?

I've noticed more and more that so much of my life can't be placed within a start and a finish. I am starting my career now, no longer working for a summer or on a yearly contract or a two week temp job...but from "a while ago" to "who knows when". My assignments at work are no longer as tactily clear in showing completion as "grade this finite stack of tests" or "finish filing this paperwork" was. If /when I get married or have children, I will never stop being a mother or a wife (that's the plan, at least). A large part of my life these past two years has been trying to eat healthier and get into better shape. Although setting calorie limits or a goal weight to hit has helped me on my way, I had a startling realization the other day: I will never be finished. If I want to stay healthy and fit then this whole "watching what I eat and exercising", just like this whole "having a career", just like this "worrying about money", just like so many facets of living...they are now just a part of my life. Forever unfinished.

How to Live With Irony

Today, many people sent me an article from the New York Times that deeply annoyed me. I have decided to respond. Your thoughts? Four years ago, I was living in New York. My friends and neighbors worked at farmers' markets and fish stands, made pies from scratch and talked about poetry that most people hadn't heard of. We rode our bikes around the city and met up at independent movies and bought each others' home-brewed beers and t-shirts. I was an active member of an anarchist book club and enjoyed wandering into an old map shop and oogling prints of old cities that I could not afford. We ate a lot of brunch and I remember those mornings as some of the happiest and most sincere of my life.

It is with no shame that I report that, if you were to see us then from a distance, you might say "hipster" and spit on the ground. Let me clarify: I was not, and never will be, ashamed of myself or my friends. I am ashamed of you if you are as quick to make that judgement as it seems so many people are now.

I was highly aware of my position as the most square of that group: dating someone with a corporate job, somehow never being able to dress myself in any other mode than a frumpy camp counselor. I did not intend to be the least hipster of the hipsters, but I was, and happy to be in the company of those smart and kind individuals. We never called ourselves hipsters-- indeed, I have never heard anyone call him or herself that, even as a joke-- but, when I moved to Connecticut, all of a sudden I was the hipster among the squares. Same clothing, same boyfriend, same interests, new environment. Buying locally made goods and having a secondhand bike and not working a corporate job suddenly made me the spokesperson for all people who made the same sorts of choices.

In today's New York Times opinion piece, we the public are treated to yet another takedown of a tiny American subgroup of which no one seems to be a member. A group of people who, apparently, evokes hatred the second that most people lay eyes on them. When did that become ok?

The thing that upsets me about this piece, and all similar pieces that I have read, is that there is no basis in actual reality. The definition of a hipster, as I understand it from all of these kinds of articles, is a person who is so steeped in irony that they they are apparently incapable of feeling human emotions. (A judgement we make because a person is wearing a Little Mermaid t-shirt or something. I'm not quite sure how that leap is made.) But since, of course, all people are actually people inside, no one has actually come forth and claimed they are a hipster.

That person you say "fuck you!" to under your breath as he rode by on his fixie is a real and actual friend of mine who called me in distress because his roommate is possibly dying in the hospital. That girl working for Occupy Wall Street and the farmer's market is a damn nice person who would open her door to any person in a storm. Those people making t-shirts and brewing their own beer really do believe in supporting the local economy. The very quiet girl with the thick glasses may actually look miserable because her father unexpectedly died-- a thing that happens to all people regardless of how they dress or what movies they find funny. I know this sounds like a made-up list, and yes, I know this is the cheesiest way to express what I'm angry about, but I have very specific people in mind-- which that New York Times article does not. It is taking a stereotype and encouraging people to make judgements on others based on the way that they dress, or socialize, or talk about movies.

Listen: we all have a superficial layer. It is a requirement for existing in the social world. For example, this paragraph is total bullshit:

Look at your clothes. What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves? Do you attempt to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly? In other words, is your style an anti-style?

To which I ask: do your clothes refer to "corporate executive," "professor," "teacher," or anything else deemed normal? All clothes are a costume. All clothes make a plea to the world to judge us in a certain way. Clothes that say "don't look at me" are still making a statement.

Or this: Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd?

What if I like things that are absurd? Why is that an impossibility? What I like is what I like, no matter if you think I "really" like it or not.

And how about this?

What will future generations make of this rampant sarcasm and unapologetic cultivation of silliness? 

According to this question, humor and joy have no place in a sincere world. But a sense of irony is part of what makes us human. Webster's definition of irony: incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result. The world hasn't lived up to our expectations: that's the whole idea. It's painful. And that pain is funny. And if you don't want silliness to be a part of a complex and funny and at many times emotionally brutal life, good luck to you. You're going to be very lonely in your humorless tower. I certainly don't want to be there.

Here are some things that bring me totally real, non-ironic joy: the over-the-top-ness of Jurassic Park. Some funny t-shirts I have about grammar that a friend gave me. The beautiful tattoos of children's book illustrations a friend has. Eating a meal with my friends on a Sunday morning. Riding a vespa through the open air to a wedding in Connecticut. Listening to NPR while I brush my teeth. All sorts of hipster things. And I will never be ashamed of that, and it doesn't make me any less sincere, or any less of a real person, or have any less of an inner life than you have.

And please, if there is anything more sincere than people trying to make a living off songwriting, or growing their own food, or loving an image or a quotation so much that they put it in ink permanently onto their skin, please let me know.

We are all equally human. Let's treat each other as such. And if you're going to write an article about a subgroup, for god's sake, refer to at least one actual person.

I Have This Friend

I have this friend named Megan Mayhew Bergman. Well, I'm not being truthful, really. Her primary role in my life is as an object of envy (I think she'll understand when she reads this, which she will. I know because we're internet friends, mostly, although we went to grad school together): she is beautiful and kind; she's married to a veteranarian; she had two adorable and feisty daughters; and she just published a completely wonderful short story collection about man's animal nature. See for yourself, and see if you do not feel envy. I love her from a distance and close-up both. Those people are rare. On this night, I drove up to Burlington for a Museum conference. I left in such a rush that I forgot all of my underwear. I missed the first snowfall in Connecticut by mere minutes. It was a hell of a day-- I got there, presented on social media, and after my presentation suddenly found that I was really in Vermont. I put maple syrup in my coffee and headed to a bookstore where, coincidentally, Megan was reading that night. She'd come hours to be there, I'd come hours to be at the conference-- I was thrilled our very wayward paths crossed.

I found her between the natural foods cookbooks and the books on animal skeletons, and it was equally likely that she'd be looking at either. She had a terrible cold and seemed like she'd been through a long book tour. Megan read a new story to a crowd of seven or eight of us, and in the middle another friend from our graduate program, pregnant as hell, burst into the bookstore and listened.

After the reading was over I opened all the pages of her books to the title page where she'd sign. Dayna, the other friend, bought us hot chocolates and coffees and we talked for a few minutes about our three divergent lives. "You have such a wonderful life," Megan said to me, unprompted. Stunned by the fact that someone I worship could possibly feel this way, I replied that she did, too, and I felt one of those very rare moments of appreciation that bursts on you like a good wave. I belly-surfed it in and tried not to hit that rough sand: but... but... I haven't done this and that.  And for that night, with three friends all in the midst of trying to do one very simple and very difficult thing-- be a writer-- I hung onto that wave in the only way you can. Lightly. Without paddling.

I have this friend. She is wonderful, and you should really read her book Birds of a Lesser Paradise.

"Drive safe," we all said, walking with our hot drinks in three entirely different directions.


What happened on Election Day: a simple account. We awoke at 7: my time of day. Greg pretended to be awake and we got cups of coffee for the walk. The day, as most people will remember, was clear and starting to get cold-- the sort of cold that makes you say, "I feel ALIVE!" like my dad always does when jumping in the Maine ocean.

We took our civic stroll, feeling very much a part of this town-- past the banks and Greg's office, past the museum and what amounts to a town square. Into the library, where we breezed past local politicos standing just next to the border of where they are allowed to solicit. As we went in, an old man with a walker, nasal tubes, a nurse, and an "I VOTED TODAY!" sticker went out. There was no line and we were properly registered. I filled in bubbles. The only part that was hard was discerning the double-negatives of the question about the town water supply. We had time for a second coffee. Like I said, my time of day.

I was on time for work, which I bragged about, along with the second cup of coffee. I had a lunch meeting that I found stressful. The afternoon passed without excitement and I taught my children's acting class. "Obama is flushing this country down the toilet!" said an eight-year-old.

Improv stops for no man, or pair of men, and we rehearsed in the studio we own. There is no record of what we did, but I believe it was the night that the Drinking Glass became a Ninja. And that glass was Greg.

When it was over we went to the local art cinema where everyone was despondent. Things seemed bad to everyone who was there-- but to us their spirit simply seemed tired. I ate popcorn for dinner, and the whole, sad evening drew to a close.

As I was hugging someone goodbye, Ohio was called. "It's over," everyone said, suddenly upbeat. "This is it." Somehow it seemed unreal and unsatisfying. No one believed.

We went to a bar to believe. I had unquantifiable beer and said, "I'm not leaving until there's a concession speech," and then there was, and we left.

Greg and I went home and put on the radio. It was his time of day now. All of the gleeful button-pushing and coffee and walking had dissolved into a half-drunk, dehydrated sense of victory. I wanted the cold sharp promise of the unknown morning again. I'd gotten what I wanted, had believed in-- and I was too tired to love it. Isn't that always it?  We heard the President's voice and, not having a television, skittered down to the lobby of our apartment building and watched the acceptance.

"Math," I said, having followed Nate Silver, "goddamn math is amazing."

"Yes it is," Greg said, "yes it is."

He told me of all the technologies coming in the future, like a bedtime story. He'd told me these kinds of things before and always been right. It was hard to believe, but now I believed. I believed everything tonight  "Math," I said, dozing off in the lobby chair. "Math."

20,000 Listeners Under the... ME?

My evening is winding down. The cats are fed, an oatmeal stout has been uncapped, Greg is staring into his computer screen with an intensity I dare not interrupt, and I'm finally considering taking off the sweaty clothes I've been wearing since I returned from the gym five hours ago. Any minute now I'll swig back a little cup of NyQuil and quell my coughing until election day morning. 

I've had a productive evening, packing four miles onto the treadmill, uploading a Literary Disco episode, cooking a bunch of vegetables doused in peanut sauce, and, mainly, writing a grant for Sea Tea. As usual, each of these activities was a little sin wave of related joys and anxieties, self-congratulation mixed with "what do I have to do after this?" But, all in all, a normal day. As normal as I force myself to have. 

But then, gleefully looking around for responses to the Literary Disco takedown of The Pillars of the Earth, I decided to check up on our stats.

Tomorrow, after a mere 16 episodes, we will almost certainly cross 20,000 downloads. 20,000! That is an incomprehensible number to me. The most people I have ever seen in one room was a group of Chinese students in Dongying, Shinjang, for whom I and a friend sang an a cappella rendition of "Country Roads, Take Me Home" at their request. That was perhaps 2,500 students listening to my somewhat-experienced, somewhat-overgleeful, somewhat-absurd voice.

This feels the same.

Why do 20,000 people care what I have to say about anything? Or, accounting for people who listen to most of the episodes-- why does a virtual room approximately the same size as that Chinese auditorium have any interest in the boom of my voice? Tod and Rider are not experiencing the same thing-- they've almost always had the disembodied names floating to them across the planet. But not me. Accounting for Tod and Rider's popularity, I've brought perhaps a hundred or so people to the podcast, so the rest are true strangers. They write to me, a little. Today someone I don't know bought a book because I said I liked it. That is power.

The connections are strange, and surreal  and feel at once too huge and too small. Just know, if you're out there, strangers, I appreciate every listen.

Here's to tomorrow, and here's to 20,000, a number that may someday feel small.


In the meantime, please listen to if you haven't already. 

Where to Look

When my grandfather and his twin sister receive the Happy Birthday song, they turn and look at each other. This year they turned ninety-two. I have never seen these birthday rituals, because every year my grandfather flies out to Western Canada to see Beryl and exchange this particular all-knowing, for-twins-only gaze. But when the ipads come out-- and oh, they come out-- the look turns forward. On the other end a grandchild.

The reason I saw these looks this time is because my grandfather had a small stroke earlier this year. So, while I was happy to see the birthday ritual, I wish he'd have been able to fly away to Canada as he loves to do. Looking out the window of a jet whose name he knows and I don't. Waiting to touch down in Saskatchewan so he can call us on the phone, while our birthday cards make their own journey to Falmouth, all of us moving through time and space at a speed we all still find breathtaking.

The Real

November is national novel writing month. I don't have a novel I'm dying to get out, but I am a fan of the holy, all-American resolution, and I like the idea of forcing myself to write a certain quantity every day. I will attempt to blog every day in November. (Idea stolen from my good friend Stephanie, who did it last year and loved it.) Enjoy the creaking of my writing joints.

There was a very exact moment that I felt like a real runner.

Three weeks ago I ran a marathon. At the start of the day, I got up and worried. I put on my clothes. I packed up all of my carefully selected and tested gear, telling myself I hadn't selected or tested it well enough. I put on gloves, and a headband, and an extra shirt. I pushed each of my four pins through my T-shirt and stared upside-down through my number: 1905. I chanted it to myself, thinking about how none of this ridiculous gear existed in 1905, but running still did, so why did the gear matter?

I walked out toward the start line and stood by one of the oldest carousels in the country, waiting for Greg to meet me. Reading an email from a friend pushed my anxiety to love to some kind strange emotion that wasn't good or bad or even able to be evaluated. I cried into my cheap gloves and waited by the carousel and Greg appeared.

Here was the email:

Run! Run like the wind!

Run like the next sentence to write is waiting inside the next stride.

Run like perfect punctuation is in every footfall.

Before I knew it I was running, slow and cold and overjoyed. For a few miles I ran with a friend who had planned every step. "So what are you going to do when you have no energy left?" I don't know. "So how often are you going to walk?" I don't know. Did I train enough? Did I eat correctly? What is under this highly imperfect body?

It was cold out, and I like it cold. I threw my gloves at a friend at Mile 3, and my long-sleeved shirt at a friend at Mile 10. I ran the first 6 miles with the very prepared friend, and then was leeched onto by a chatty stranger. At first I hated her. Then I realized that she was speeding me up and distracting me with her chatter, and before I knew it, it was Mile 15, and she was leaving me in the dust.

The last eleven miles were lonely. Horses watched me go by in my own private misery. I whimpered to myself a little. I bowed down to the greatest god there is: math. Seven point seven miles left at this pace means I will finish for 200 steps... you are 80% finished....

At Mile 26, I ran by a huge crowd of friends, and sprinted through the finish. I felt amazing. I ate a peanut butter sandwich and continued to feel amazing. My medal was incredibly heavy because the sponsors had insisted on including their huge ING skyscraper in the inaccurate Hartford Skyline. I bragged about my achievement for a week.

That was not the day I felt like a runner. I never had before, and running a marathon didn't slap that nametag on me.

A week passed, and I was so sore I didn't run. Another week passed, and I was still feeling lazy, so I didn't run. Another week began, and a hurricane hit, so I didn't run.

Yesterday, my throat hurt so badly I went and got a strep test. It was negative. I went to work today and mostly had Dayquil to eat. There was an event I wanted to go to-- four miles away, way off the route of public transportation-- and I was going alone, and don't have a car. I was meeting someone there I wanted to impress and wanted to dress somewhat respectably. It was 40 degrees out, and dark already.

I put on my jeans. I pulled out a winter thermal underarmour shirt that smelled vaguely of cat pee, and I put it on anyway, because I had to wear it if I was going to do this. I put a wool sweater over that. I put on a pair of Greg's dress socks. I put on a vest, and in that I put $20, my keys, and my ipod. I put a bottle of water in my hand. Then I put on the electric blue sneakers that had carried me 26.2 miles, the only hint that this overweight, bookish, sick-looking girl might possibly do something athletic. 

I had one hour to get the four miles to the event.

As soon as I began, I felt good. I felt like myself-- a person who wears old sweaters and unflattering vests-- and I felt like I was running to go somewhere. My feet were transportation and I was on a schedule. The cold air felt better on my throat than any medicine had. I was so happy to be out skittering slowly across people's lawns and listening to my terrible audiobook, I could have run all night.

At the lecture, I met the folks I'd hoped to meet. I bought two books. I ran home the same four miles, in the dark, holding the books in my hand the whole way.


By all accounts I am having a good year. It's only August, but I think it can be declared. I go over the list in my head, holding each memory in my fingers like a sentimentalist's rosary: standing in the dark backstage with Judy Blume, pulling at the hem of a blue dress; the wash of anxiety and relief as I beg for each submission for Syllable; uncountable hours in a pink drawing room with eight-year-old girls; more than one morning spent belly-down in the mud; and, most recently, driving out of Acadia National Park just after dawn.

It is the end of the summer, and I am already feeling the pull of evaluation, of a report card. It's probably the impending fall. How did I do? My brain cries out. Give me a quiz, I tend to say to Greg after a couple of beers. I want to be tested. I want to measure. How many things did I do, how many miles did I run, how many dollars did I save, how many days did I make good use of?

There were many metrics I planned for this year: races to run, pounds to drop, words to write. One thing I did not plan for was this summer visit to Maine. It was a family vacation, the sort where my mother says "this is the plan" and I say, "when are you picking me up?" even though I'm almost thirty and could probably arrange for my own ride. But I don't-- I pack a bag that morning and get washed into the gentle summer tide of family vacations.

I always think of our time together as water-based and cyclical. No Pistell vacation is complete without a swim. On the day of my sister's graduation from Tufts we ditched some formal proceedings and all swam out into Walden Pond in the rain and recited the one line of Thoreau we had memorized. In Key Largo we rented snorkels on a day with no visibility, and on another day with good visibility, and enjoyed both. Most of my teenage summers were spent saying things like "I'm going to swim out to the raft" "I'm coming up on the raft now, watch out," and "it's time to swim back but I'm afraid the water will be cold after spending so much time on the raft." Water days are long and pointless and easy. A part of me wants all days to be water days.

But now, in a family era of strength and robustness and goal-setting and outdoorsiness, all of a sudden we have mountain days. Days when we get up early and ascend. Days where the bliss comes not from collapsing into cold water but from doing something very difficult, and, in my case, frightening.

What I'm trying to say is that this summer, we hiked Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine.

I was nervous about this endeavor. The same group-- my sister Emily, my brother Alex, my cousins Jessica and Jordan-- had gamely agreed to do the Tough Mudder with me in May, which (until Maine) I had pegged as the highlight of my year. (Already evaluated.) I agreed just as fast when they suggested we climb this ancient thing that, as legend would have it, even the Penobscot would not climb because the storm-god Pamola was all over it. If we could do Mudder we could do this! But, as the mountain loomed ever closer, my head began to remind me that the Tough Mudder is all talk. It is man-made, man-controlled, man-marketed. Katahdin does not require marketing or explanation. All that is needed to get a sense of what you're about to do is to suddenly see its black shadow looming over 200,000 acres of preserved forest in Baxter Park. The forest looks wild but the mountain looks wilder still. I have never seen something so still that was so frightening. But then, I knew I had to ascend. I had given my word to my family and to myself.

We camped the night before and got up at 5:45, just as we planned. An hour later we were deep in the woods, moving fast toward the rock slide. The best way to ascend Katahdin is over a rock slide known as the Abol Trail-- the rocks slid down in the 1800's, creating for the first time a rough stairway to the top.

The consequences of this are mostly wonderful. The first mile of trail is flat through the woods, and then you begin to move over the tiny pebbles that have, over 200 years, slid all the way to the bottom of the mountain. As you climb higher, the rocks get bigger. The pebbles become stones and the stones become rocks, and for a couple of miles the rocks are there, getting a bit bigger every few feet. Our feet found new holds with every step, and then, as it became steeper and steeper, our hands had to find holds, too.

The ascent is steep and dramatic, and, since the slide demolished the forest it rolled over, immediately exposed to the sky and the view. No photograph could express how high it immediately felt to me. But, only the day before, we had climbed a tiny and exposed mountain and I had been overtaken by fear, driven upwards only by the shame that I was such a baby.

That height was only 520 feet; Baxter Peak is 5,270 feet. Ten times what, just the day before, had been an extreme, embarrassing, nearly debilitating fear.

Still, I went up towards Baxter Peak. I had planned for it. I had promised myself and my family this mountain.

As those rocks got bigger and looser, I became afraid of so many things. I waited for their steadiness to betray me. I turned back and looked at distance I could potentially fall. (Some would call this a view. I say, a view is only a view if you are nowhere near the edge.) Icarus! Icarus! I called myself. Somewhere in the middle I changed my promise to myself: I would give up. I didn't have to do this. After just a few more steps. Just as soon as I caught up to my family to tell them I was quitting, I would quit. I was driven up by my desire to go down. And then the shame came in like a wind again and I was driven up by the shame of my desire to go down, but I would break my promise to myself and just keep going up.

How many feet, I said to Greg so many times, who had some gadget that measured these things. How many, how much. How many feet have we gone? Even when I wanted to quit, I refused to count down. Even when I was punishing myself for not being in better shape or better spirits, I was counting every foot as a good foot, and not one to be dreaded.

Then, all of a sudden, the rocks became boulders. The top of the slide. Each one seemed bigger than the last and jammed together in such a way that crossing and climbing them required strategy. There was a way over every one, we only had to find it, led by a merciful trailblazing mark. Every strip was our Virgil-- a guide and a warning and a poet of the rocks.

When we got to the boulders, I was happy. Gone were these mid-sized obstacles, endless and loose and ordinary. Give me a boulder, give me a nearness to the top, anytime. And then-- the best thing about this trail-- after three miles of steep ascent, the top of the mountain is nearly flat.

The boulders lay down now, underfoot, unslid. Thoreau says that Katahdin gives the illusion that rocks are a kind of rain. They lie there, covered in moss, by the thousands, a mile in the sky.

And at that point, every step up is a foot climbed nearly to the summit. And you're at Baxter Peak, looking down on Maine, the most beautiful state in the country.

I felt great at the top, of course. There's no better place to congratulate yourself than at the top of a mountain, especially before noon on a clear day. All of a sudden, a view is a view again. You say 5,270 feet, you say three and a half hours. The measurements and the unmeasurable beauty go hand in hand. Just as with the Mudder, and shaking Joan Didion's thin hand, and a hundred great improv shows, I felt here I am in the clear air, uninjured and alive, very alive.

And then, after lingering as long as we could there at the top, even as the fog came in and Emily had to admit it was too dangerous of a day for the Knife's Edge, the inevitable thing happened. We had to go back down.

The boulders became slides, the fog became rain. All the promises I'd made going up had been fulfilled and now, there was no turning back, because the hardest part was the turning back. The moss and the rain and our knees and the waning sun all conspired against us, making everything both slow and urgent. I slid down, I let momentum take me, but not much. My brother Alex and my cousins Jordan hovered silent and protective behind me in the rain, being kind, and my sister Emily and cousin Jessica forged the way forward, being bold and picking out the way for the rest of us. Coming down is harder than going up, every time. It is so easy to forget.

After a while, my siblings and my cousins vanished among the rocks and it was just Greg and I together for the last hour, silently following the blue stripes through the rocks and trees. The gadget died and we no longer checked how many feet we'd gone or how many we had to go. We had done the thing we'd set out to do: reach the top. Now we went to the woods, to see if we could live deliberately. That is, sort of, the line that all Pistells know from Walden.

We reached the woods and walked silently through the last mile, because I hoped to see a moose. I always hope for the big thing. We saw no moose, but the birches hugged us tight in comfort. Greg informed me that the back of my pants had ripped sliding down boulders, and I laughed loudly and likely scared my moose away. At four o'clock, we walked back into camp and put our feet in a stream.

I used to have a lot of water days, even when I did not swim. The days when I drove around New Jersey with my friends for no reason, the days I walked around New York with dogs, the days I read books in the attic: those were water days. Now I have my eye on many personal mountains. I have promised myself small peaks and large.

Katahdin reminded me that every mountain guarantees a descent. What you have measured and achieved will be undone by time. No one lives at the top of mountains, not even ambitious girls who grew up in a town named Summit.

But at the bottom are unmeasurable things: your family, and a place to take off your shoes, and the knowledge that you really did it, no matter how slowly, no matter how immediately it seems like a memory or dream.

I Read Myself Stories in Order to Live

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," says Joan Didion in her essay "The White Album." This quote also happens to be the most cliche way to begin talking about Joan Didion, a problem that I hope to avoid during our upcoming conversation at Hartford Stage on Thursday. That's right. All this noise I was making about Judy Blume-- because I knew she was coming for so much longer, and also because it was first, and also because the venue was larger-- has finally subsided and made way for the glimmering jewel of my year, which is interviewing my favorite writer of all time. Joan Didion has had  a huge influence on my style and subject matter, particularly when I was at Bennington, so I couldn't be more thrilled to speak to her.

Small problem: I did not start my planned Didion-a-thon when I was supposed to. In fact, I lazily strolled through Run, River for two weeks. Now I have fifteen more books to read. In three days.

Today I finished Run, River, then read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Play It as It Lays, and A Book of Common Prayer. I'll read myself to sleep with The White Album. They were all weird and amazing, and they all feature very skinny women who are numb in one way or another.

Then I will attempt to read 5 books a day on Tuesday and Wednesday.

I haven't read this much since college and I don't know if it's possible. Part of me wants to give up. But another part of my knows this is my only chance.

So here I go-- reading myself these stories in order to live through this interview.

-- Julia

The Next Morning

Woke up and my blog traffic has completely exploded, thanks to my last post about Greg Tate. I'm sure I'll have tons of first-time visitors today-- so let me direct you to some old posts not about Judy Blume (my current huge project on this blog). Not that you have to go any further than the Tate post, but if you want to, here are some similarly-toned entries. Thanks for reading and thanks for visiting.

On great-aunts and the beach: Hospitality.

On birthdays: By Now.

On sea life and siblings: Pictures of Jellyfish.

On the hurricane: Powerless.

The Last Time

The last time I saw Greg Tate, I was eating lunch at an outdoor cafe in Hartford. The car he was in pulled up to a stoplight and beeped to get my attention. I looked up from my book and saw his face smiling at me from the passenger window. It was one of those first warm days a couple of months ago. "Hi Tate!" I said, waving. I knew the tumors were still on his vocal cords and that I would be doing the talking. "You headed to the hospital?"

He nodded, with a look on his face I've seen many times, but never understood. Could have been serious. Could have been amused at my extreme perkiness at the idea of heading to the hospital for cancer treatments. I had no idea what to say next, so I said the stupidest thing imaginable.

"Well... have fun!" He nodded again. The light turned green. He drove away. I couldn't see who was driving. His face was still in the window, disembodied almost, his eyes shifted back to the street and the direction he was going.

I thought, that was the last time I will ever see him.

The second-to-last time I saw Greg Tate, I helped him down a set of stairs in the back of the Mark Twain House. The fundraiser in his honor was ending and I'd been asked to sneak him out the back. My own Greg, my other half, held him on one side. I held him on the other. We are both very small and it felt wrong that our meek bodies would be required as a tool to make it down a few perfunctory steps. I don't remember how we held him, whose hands were where, if we even helped at all. I remember the growl and the sigh of his breath making its way over the cancer and up through his organs and out through a sound. The sound that was everything: the loss of dignity and the holding on to it. We sent him out into the parking lot, dimly lit, towards someone who loved him who'd brought the car around. We released our hands and he walked away.

I thought, that was the last time I will ever see him.

Hours earlier I'd looked him in the eye while telling a story in his honor for the fundraiser. That look was there; bemused or confused or angry, I didn't know. I didn't know him well enough to know. I told the story. I did some improv. I was called upon to be an emergency addition to a burlesque team (I didn't strip). There was act after act of variety show in Tate's honor.

During the show I thought, this is the last time I will ever see him.

I hadn't realized how bad the cancer was until I was there that night at the fundraiser. I didn't realize it until I heard his voice, what was once that huge sound that could cut through any conversation with its force. That voice was an automatic opinion. But when I heard it, early that day on the radio, I was shocked by how ravaged and shredded it sounded. Hearing it made me feel like a child somehow. I felt helpless and small, a spectator who can't swim, standing on a beach watching a ship crack in two.

Greg Tate was an actor, a director, and a founder of HartBeat Ensemble, the first group of people that made me believe and belong in Hartford. I'd been here a year and was waitressing at a brewery, completely unsure if anyone that I shared a single interest with was in this city. Another waitress told me that HartBeat needed help writing press releases. I wrote. I did it all over email, barely meeting the ensemble-- I got the facts. I made them into a story.

Eventually, one of the founders decided to take a leave of absence to get his master's, and I found myself at a dining room table with a huge man and his cat. This is my first distinctive memory of Tate: interviewing me with his roommates, who turned out to be his coworkers. I worked for HartBeat for a year, learning most of what I know about publicity: tell the truth. Respect your audience. Be kind to everyone and everyone will benefit. Tate was at once the roughest and the kindest; one of those people who truly said what he thought. When he gave me a compliment, I took it to heart. Same with criticism.

I made a huge amount of mistakes in that job. I stumbled through, figuring out one hundred percent of everything I had to do. I was overwhelmed. I was emotional. I was, in short, green as a leprechaun and not as lucky. And every member of the ensemble was more than kind to me. Kinder than I deserved.

There's a phrase I love-- I can't remember where I first heard it. "Everyone thinks they are the hero of the story." In HartBeat there are no heroes. Everyone is, in turns, a supporting character to everyone else. They are an ensemble in the truest sense of the word. At the end of my year there, I was miserable as I walked out, thinking: I hope this isn't the last time I see them.

Of course it wasn't. I saw HartBeat Ensemble, and Tate, so many more times. Tate always seemed quietly happy to see me pop up asking him to do some event at an improv show, or taking pictures at the Youth Play Institute as he helped some kids set up the tech. I saw him hug a lot of kids. I saw him laugh hundreds of times. He played the slave Jim in a staged reading of Huckleberry Finn and he loved and lived every word of the speech about treating your fellow person with respect.

Greg Tate died of cancer last night. It was fast. No one expected it to happen like this. No matter how many times I thought it might be the last time, I never wanted it to be. I have never wanted so badly to be wrong.

I was a supporting character in Tate's life, a person who popped up occasionally in large parties. For a while I thought this simple fact gave me no right to speak about his death.

But I feel tremendously sad today. This loss to Hartford, to the community, seems unbearable. And it is because he is a person who lived how I want to live: broadly. Wielding love in one hand and justice in the other. Doing what you believe to be right and being generous at the same time. I'm trying to think of specific examples but I can't. It was just who he was, how he lived. When you're a smaller figure in someone's life, and they in yours, you see them from further away: you are forced to see essence instead of minutae. He was a good person. He was the kind of person who let little kids draw around them with chalk. He was the kind of person who believed that doing a play in a park could change the world. He was the kind of person who believed that act was the change in the world.

The first time I saw a HartBeat play, it was Ebeneeza-- a Hartfordized version of the Dickens classic. Casting Tate as the Ghost of Holidays Present was almost too easy. He didn't have the sobering sternness of the past. He wasn't ominous like the future. He was just there: huge and hilarious and present.

EBENEEZA: You’re the ghost of the present?

GHOST: Soiently, but not just the present.  Holidays present.

EBENEEZA: But you’re not Clarence?


EBENEEZA: You remind me of someone.

GHOST: I remind everyone of someone.  Someone they’ve loved or who loved them.  That’s my job.  (HOLDING OUT HIS HAND)  You ready?

EBENEEZA: Can’t I just go straight to hell and by pass all the rest?

GHOST: It’s the magic night, lady.  

Dear Tate: you remind me of someone. Not someone specific. You remind me of the person I want to be.

You ask: you ready?

I answer: no. I'm not ready. Give us all more time to be supporting characters in your story. I don't want to be a hero and today, neither does anyone else.

GHOST:  Can’t stop this ball from rolling.  Too many spirits out there pulling for you. 

EBENEEZA: Spirits pulling for me?

GHOST: Yeah, you know, like at the end of Return of the Jedi with Anakin, Obi Wan and Master Yoda hanging on the hill, showing Luke the way, glowing and crap.

EBENEEZA: But why? 

GHOST: No one is beyond redemption.

EBENEEZA: You really don’t know Clarence?


EBENEEZA: Not bad. 

The ghosts, I always forget, are supporting characters. They say their piece; they get offstage. They tell the rest of us where to look. They usher us to the next place in our life. They hold us up for a moment, walk us down a flight of stairs, drive us to the hospital, ask one question. They are a face in a window that can't answer all of your questions before they drive away. They don't say this is the last time you will see me. At some point they vanish when we turn around to speak to them. It is usually at the moment when we realize what they meant to show us. When we call out for them, they are gone.

In the next moment, we realize how far they have brought us. In the next moment, we look around and realize we have to keep going on our own.

Read This Twice

I met Professor Susan Kress in the most normal way possible: I took her Fiction 211 course in the second semester of my freshman year at Skidmore. I knew deep-down, I think, that I would end up as an English major, having given so much of my life over the years to the reading of books on beach blankets and in front of living room fires. I was eighteen or nineteen and I wanted badly to be in the dramatic-sounding 300-level classes, but first I needed to take Fiction. Professor Kress was everything the movies had led me to expect from a college professor: British and kind, delighted with her students and her subjects, clear in her expectations. I could practically feel myself becoming the intelligent, dashing young academic I so desperately wanted to be.

I would be the smartest. I would be the headiest. I would hold forth on the most obscure of topics. In Fiction we bought two books: the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The syllabus listed a bunch of stories, a reaction-journal we were supposed to keep, the final paper assignment, and one surprising command: read each story twice. "Read each story twice," I remember Professor Kress saying. "Once to find out what happens. And once to find out how the writer made it happen." This is probably not an exact quotation, of course-- it's been ten years since that class, and my memory has made some adjustments. But I remember how surprising I found this assignment to be-- there was no way to enforce it, and weren't we such good academics now that we'd really get most of what we needed to get upon the first read?

I also remember her adamantly insisting that we mark up the books, something I had not done to these sacred objects before now. For all of my life, I have been a dutiful student. I took my fifth grade teacher's command, "Keep writing!" as a mandate. Every time a teacher said I was good at something, or should do something, I did it.

So in Fiction 211 I embarked on the double-reading assignment very seriously. I read everything twice. I read Turn of the Screw twice, too, maybe three times, figuring out how it worked. At Susan's insistence, for the final assignment, I re-read my journals twice and wrote an analysis paper on how my literary criticism skills had changed throughout the course. Although she asked us to turn in our final exams without our names on them so that she could grade them without bias (a truly noble thing to do), I cited myself using the MLA format and therefore used my last name all over the essay (a truly stupid thing to do). She had asked us to document, academically, how our opinions had changed, how our readings had changed, how we had changed.

I'm writing this because she's retiring this week from Skidmore, where she was a Dean for the last few years. This morning I pulled out my Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, which I have carted around many states and countries over the past ten years. It's not only a book. It is marked up with a sharp pencil. It says '"Restricted third person!!!" "Ha" and "Trains = ?" on many pages. In several places it says, in all caps, with underlining: FORESHADOWING! In the Turn of the Scew, I made such groundbreaking discoveries as "ghosts: real?" My handwriting I can only describe as thrilled. My nineteen-year-old-self is slashing across the pages, finding clues, hunting treasure, making meaning, starring things, making stars, drawing wild and unbridled constellations of little ideas all across the pages.

Susan and I crossed paths in my sophomore and junior years, where she gave credence to all sorts of discussions I wanted to have about the nature of education and how to make it more student-centered. For such an obedient student, I wanted to be wild, I wanted to be self-guided, I wanted to be rebellious. She listened. She organized a lecture, "Why Read Closely," and though this should not be a position that needs to be defended, she defended it valiantly and I still remember sitting in the audience agreeing. I became the Student Representative at the English Department Staff meetings and banged my fist upon the table many times.

Then, in my senior year, I decided that based on my interest in how education works and my love of literature, to write an academic thesis for the English department on portrayals of educational experiences in literature. I read Jane Eyre again, particularly the parts where she's made to stand in the yard in front of all the schoolgirls. I read Hard Times. I had a whole list of children who were miserable in school, dutiful and tortured, or wild and punished. Susan was my advisor. I sat in her office and spoke rotely about the damages of rote education. I reported on the tyranny of reports. I kept my appointments to analyze the dangers of structured time.

"It seems like your heart might not be in this, Julia," Susan said to me one afternoon in her office.

"What?" I said, looking up from my stack of well-organized research materials.

"You'll have to spend a lot of time on this. It may as well be something you love," she said, or something like that.

I don't remember the exact words. But I remember the feeling. She was winding my brain like a clock and it had finally clicked into gear with my heart. She told me, or maybe I suggested, that I should drop my thesis with her and instead write a book-length project of travel essays that I was working on with another professor. That class-- Travel Writing with Linda Simon, another illustrious one-time English department head-- I'd taken without any need for credits (I was actually over my credit limit and was auditing several courses at once, grasping onto every second in the academic world before I had to launch myself into the real one). I walked out of Susan's office and into Linda's and by the end of the afternoon I had a new thesis, halfway done already, and a new advisor. By the end of the year I graduated with department honors. By summertime I was enrolled in an adult education course in Creative Nonfiction, a year later I was accepted into one of the best Creative Nonfiction programs in the country, two years after that I walked out with a Master's in the subject, this year I began running writing programs at the Twain House, and today I run a reading series where I encourage writers of all ages and experiences to try and say something true about themselves. Something they care about. Not something they think they should care about. I see these events as a straight line, taught as a tightrope, with Susan holding one end saying "walk away from me."

We don't get to live our lives twice. We all know this. It is not a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story; it is not an editable blog post. It is a book we write and then re-read over and over, obsessing over what we did and why we did it and how we made it happen-- or truthfully, how others made our lives happen for us. I do not mean to diminish individual achievement, but sometimes people do exactly as they're told and the plot gets moving.

Many teachers want to have an effect on unusual, or disobedient, students. But a truly great teacher is aware of the impact she has on those of us who will do exactly as she says. Susan was marking up the pages of my story as fast as I was writing them, underlining things, saying: what does this really mean? Is that what you meant to say? Change it now while you still have time. It wasn't what I meant to say, and she knew it. It wasn't what I meant to be. She saw the foreshadowing: that I loved to read, that I loved to write. That I was taking extra writing classes simply for fun. That I read things twice: first because I want to know what happens, then because I want to know why. And that I was applying the same process to my essays.

My teachers have not changed my life; they have written it. Or at least some topic sentences, from which I write the paragraph. It is an awesome responsibility, to be such a ghostwriter. Susan would probably say that I did it myself all along, that there are no ghosts in this story. But-- I might counter-- in Turn of the Screw, we never really know one way or the other if the ghosts are real. A close reader can find evidence of both conclusions. I've read it several times.

Writing Workshop at The Mark Twain House

Dear writers: I thought I should probably alert you to a cool writing program at the Mark Twain House. (Full disclosure-- I work there, but it's so relevant to Syllable I just couldn't let it slip by.)

Next weekend, we're having a Writers' Weekend. Here's the schedule:


Friday 4/20: Keynote Lecture by Lewis Lapham

Saturday 4/21: Food, workshops, and lectures all day long!

Eighteen panels, talks and workshop sessions. No fewer than two winners of the Connecticut Book Award Lifetime Achievement Award holders will be participating in sessions at the Weekend: Lary Bloom, longtime editor of Northeastmagazine, columnist, author of many books, and sage teacher of writing at the Mark Twain House and many other places; and Bessy Reyna (Memoirs of the Unfaithful Lover), the beloved Cuban-born poet who has been called "a clear-eyed guide to the world we see but don’t see" by Martin Espada.

Among the authors slated to lead 50-minute sessions on Saturday are Susan Campbell(Dating Jesus), Susan Schoenberger (A Watershed YearSuzanne Levine (The Haberdasher's Daughter), Denis Horgan (Ninety-Eight Point SixCindy Brown Austin (By the Waters of Babylon) and Wendy Clinch (The Ski Diva).

There will be sessions on blogging, the business of getting published, and new forms of storytelling unleashed by the existence of the Internet.

The cost of the Writers' Weekend for participants is $100. This includes the Friday night reception and lecture, all Saturday sessions, a box lunch and the Saturday night closing reception. Participants will also receive a voucher good for a tour of the Mark Twain House at any time. Space is limited, and advance registration and payment is a must: Call 860-280-3130 to register.

So will I see you all there?

-- Julia


How I Tend to Feel: A Photo Essay

New projects here, new projects there, new projects everywhere. This is me these days:

A gorgeous setting. The sun is rising on windmills and water and adventure. But it is really freaking windy. It's disorienting and sort of violent. I've got Syllable Series, Literary Disco, the Mark Twain House, the Connecticut Breast Health Initiative, The Tough Mudder, Sea Tea Improv, and a grant to write hundreds of pages of personal essays. And those are just the major gusts.

There are the little whips of wind: learning to cook, the whiskey club, a trip to Seattle, two kittens to take care of, paying off my credit card, keeping up with my friends and family, writing and directing a five-minute sketch for a festival. Pretty soon it all swirls around and I can't feel which winds are North/South/East/West. It's just weather.

It's easy to feel that being overwhelmed is inevitable. Those close to me say that it's impossible for me not to be this way-- I'm always walking out on rocky cliffs at dawn, even when I know a storm is coming. I'd always rather go to Greece than stay in Connecticut.

It's mental. I could just cackle into the storm. (And often do.) But alas, I think I have to accept that I will never be as suave and self assured, made better by the wind, as certain people in my life.