2015 Literary Goal #1: Quality, not quantity

First, an observation: bottomless mimosas are very conducive to dreamlike, hazy, optimistic thoughts. In other words, exactly the kind you should be having on New Year’s Day, as you dream about what the year might have in store for you.

In recent years, reflecting on the year gone by and setting goals for the new one is something that has become somewhat of a soft tradition. With age I’ve become more goal-oriented – a result, perhaps, of the realization that life is short and that one’s future can, in some ways, be charted by will and desire.

Last year, I set a goal to read 52 books in 52 weeks. I made it through 33, which on paper may denote a failure, but in all actuality it made me realize how challenging it was to absorb what I was reading, since I was constantly focused on getting through the current book and getting on to the next one. The verdict? The number of books isn’t really as important as absorbing them, which is going to inform one of my 2015 goals: read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s list of books that every intelligent person on the planet needs to read. There are 8 total, but for my purposes I’m only counting 7 (I’ll be honest: I’ve read enough of the Bible, and sat through enough church/youth group/camps to get the gist). And while 7 is a piddly little number, it’s not the number that’s important. It’s the content.

These books are not lightweights. I see many Google searches and Wiki trolling for background on Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in my future, if only for the sense that a.) I lack a classroom and professor in which to provide context and conversation around these texts, and b.) it’s helpful to get some outside perspective and distill the main thoughts into some Cliff’s Notes. Not a substitute for the real thing, but when we’re talking language over decades and centuries ago, I need all the help I can get. And as I mentioned earlier, I want to absorb these books in a more full way.

In 2014, 27 of the 33 books I read were by women. This was part intentional, part personal interest — a lot of what I’ve read references other seminal and contextual works by women, so I followed my reading fancies where they led me. As a woman, I also frequently note the dearth of female works and writers mentioned in overall “best of” lists, which informed my intent. I learned that I really, really love Chris Kraus and Lorrie Moore (I read Self-Help and Birds of America), I confirmed my love for Roxane Gay’s massive talent, thanks to Bad Feminist and her soul-scathing novel An Untamed State, and I fell into an immediate infatuation with Susan Steinberg’s short stories in Spectacle (I’m convinced that seriously, her work is beyond unique and compelling).

In 2015, my goal is to get out of my comfort zone and read works that I’d never initially pick for myself (The System of the World by Isaac Newton, for example, per deGrasse’s list), as well as works that speak to experiences beyond mine (which I’ll define as white, middle-class female privilege). The cultural climate of our country has reached a crucial moment, starting with the protests in Ferguson. If I want to better understand the world I live in, other perspectives that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to are extremely important, which is why Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Hilton Als’ White Girls. Ashley Ford, writer extraordinaire with a day gig at BuzzFeed, put together a fantastic list of 13 Must Reads For The Black Feminist In Training that I’d do well to incorporate, as well.

With that, I wish you all a happy, idea-filled 2015. Let’s push ourselves, okay?

How to be a better person in 2014

DISCLAIMER: This post is in no way, shape or form written by an expert, nor does it contain any secret keys to life. (Sorry.) Instead, it was written by a very faulty human who has some self-awareness and a sincere desire to humbly move forward and become a better person.

By now, you’ve probably already made your list of resolutions and broken half of them (or, if you were more realistic, made one and are still going strong). This is kind of my list, if you want to call it that, because while making resolutions and setting goals is sort of my bread and butter, public pronouncements of such things scream “I am AN ADULT!” and if I’m being completely honest with you, I am still wading into this weird country called “adulthood” with extreme trepidation.

But I admit: I DO love reading the goal-setting lists of anyone, whether they appear to be well-polished individuals who have their shit totally together or a teenager on Tumblr who posts, “note to self: stop doing dumb shit.” They’re always inspiring. I am always the last person to do this because I find it so hard. I don’t understand how anyone, fresh off the insanity of holidays and travel and trying to get back into/out of the work grind, can manage to fit in a self-help plan/life overhaul before January 1. (Major props to you.) But I can only do what I can do, which is take the better part (read: almost all) of January to reflect on the past year and think about the possibilities of the new one.

I’ve been reading The Happiness Project by Gretchin Rubin and Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, both inspirational self-help books (I use that term loosely) that don’t initially seem that similar, but the more I read, the more overlapping truths and themes emerge. I realize this could entirely be a result of reading the two together which has been an intellectually stimulating experience — my my brain working to find the context of one in the other and managing to synthesize both. (But really: both advocate knowledge and learning more, being  more culturally/socially and self-aware, and how to use that info to make better, more informed decisions that benefit YOU.)

In The Happiness Project, Rubin creates a list of “Rules for Adulthood” at the outset of her project. This is a list of basic principles that underpins the specific “areas of improvement” she’s targeted, and it also just seems to be a good way to start thinking about how to be a better person. I’ve reflected on my past year and identified some of the areas where I struggled and where I should aim to improve, as well as looked forward and imagined what my best life would be like. I think it’s wonderful to make resolutions and all, but if you don’t realistically take a look at what you’re like and where you’re at, the resolutions may not really be in alignment with your best interests. (Not that I’m an expert, but I AM a realist.)

I figured I’d share my own Rules for Adulthood for 2014. Some are lifted from Rubin’s list because it’s so damn good. Others are mine.


1.) Don’t get tunnel vision.

2.) Take a nap.

3.) Don’t take it personally.

4.) Learn something from everyone.

5.) Think balance.

6.) Always ask.

7.) Be nice.

8.) Small, regular things mean more than occasional showy things.

9.) Live in the now.

10.) Make things with your heart, your brain, and your hands.

11.) Speak up.

12.) Write.

13.) Do you.

(If you want to start your own Happiness Project, Rubin’s website has a good resource for it here.)

READ IT: My Top 10 Books of 2013

I hate listicles, but I like Mensah and books, so I agreed to write this. My disdain for the year-end tradition of list-making is trumped by my belief that sharing books we love and our reading practices are incredibly important for human beings. Some books that have made the biggest imprints on my life were not ones I would have voluntarily chosen, they were recommended by others. The choices in my list are completely subjective, as most listicles tend to be, and aren’t listed in any particular order.

I had a valuable moment of self-discovery in writing this: my reading choices are rather indicative of where I am and where I’m pushing myself to, mentally. It’s important to understand outside views of America. It’s important to know how others stumbled through the mess of art-making as a woman in a world dominated by men. It’s important to give voice to and to be lifted by those labeled “subversive,” “problematic,” “different” and “difficult.” With that, cheers to all our good reads of 2013.

Many thanks to the editors of Specter for inviting me to contribute!

When you read something awful-terrible about yourself

“The act of hurling something to the Earth is an interesting one. It connotes a dismissal of physical/material form, both in terms of the thing being hurled and a violence toward the dirt-planet at one’s feet. Furthermore, the act of presenting an object to someone in this way exaggerates the act of looking down, and requires one stoop to retrieve it, bowing, in a way, to the one who made the initial gesture. It’s an act that anticipates complicity.

The night things went shitty between us, Isabel — the night when it became clear to maybe everyone but me you were a liar — was Halloween. While you were on your phone desperately trying to get a cab to leave the party under the false pretense that your sister was having an overdose, this guy way trying to hit on you. I took his hat off his head and threw it at his feet and demanded he pick it up.

You often talked — almost fondly, Isabel — of how your ex-boyfriend threw you down a staircase once. Infidelity, you said. You learnt your lesson, you said. I didn’t yet suspect your pathologies. This was a scene you returned to more than once. Nearly bragging, sometimes smiling. You lived mostly in your past, or else were scheming futures. Either way, your lack of presence — it sucked. And tho I loved to see how your hands would move around when you excitedly told your stories, how you would interrupt yourself with laughter — I resented that the person I was falling in love with was mostly a former version, or your own invention, and that these things you told me had nothing to do with how we were together.

Later, I wished it were me that had thrown you down the stairs. Maybe then I’d have meant something more to you.”

That was Garett Strickland, in an essay on HTMLGIANT. The whole essay is great, really, and I highly recommend reading, but that particular section was increasingly painful.

All I could keep thinking was, Oh, that’s me. Definitely me. The worst parts of me, maybe, but definitely me. It’s hard, sometimes, to think of one’s self as more than just the things that have happened to it (does that make sense?).

Have you ever painfully recognized yourself in literature?