writer, editor, girl wonder

Month: March, 2012

road trips for young punks

Everybody needs to make at least one great road trip in their life. I don’t mean the kind that are a means to an end, like a trek to see relatives across the state or an attempt to cram five college visits into three days. A real, true-blue, hit-the-road-Jack road trip cuts right to the heart of travel and draws out the process just for the pleasure of the experience. As a veteran of both the practical (returning to college), the frivolous (three-day scavenger hunt for giant fiberglass landmarks while in costume), I believe young adulthood–any time between getting your license and getting your PhD–is the perfect time to strike out on one. It’s more than just a chance to go to cool places or see weird things–it’s kind of a rite of passage.

When I had finally showed my parents that, yes, I could be trusted with the station wagon for trips longer than to school and back, I remember feeling a kind of magical transfer of power. The keys were, literally and symbolically, in my hands, and suddenly, I was itching to get out there and drive. Gone are the days of sing-along tapes and coloring books in the backseat: it’s your turn to explore.

Get a destination. Even though the driving part is the point, you still have to be going somewhere. So pick something! And don’t feel limited to just the Grand Canyons and Mt. Rushmores of the world: I’ve made voyages to see abandoned mining towns, drive-in movie theaters, minor league baseball parks, and the Creation Museum. Be creative!

How about the biggest ball of twine made by one man?

Go with friends. This is obvious! Spending time with your personal merry band of thieves is the best part, and it’s always a good idea to swap out shifts driving. But keep in mind that you’ll be spending long hours in an enclosed space with these people. I guarantee that even if you love and respect your best friend like a sister, you might be tempted to throttle her when she snaps her gum for the millionth time.

Bonus points if they are willing to scale giant fiberglass otters


Get a car. If you (or your friends) have your own, lucky! You’re all set. If you need to borrow your parents’, assure them that you will be responsible and take good care of it–and then do that, duh. Also, it’s not a bad idea to let everyone who will be driving take a test spin in the car to get a feel for it before you hit the road. If you’re used to a Honda sedan, a Volkswagon campervan will feel like driving a school bus (I speak from experience).

Drive your deLorean, if you have one

Plan your time. Multi-day odysseys across several states are awesome, but even a day trip out to somebody’s cabin in the woods can be great. If you’re overnighting it, figure out when and where you’re going to sleep: cramming five people into a Motel room? Putting up a tent in a state park every night? Crashing in a cousin’s rec room?

Gear up. Besides the usual duffels of stuff, also make sure everyone’s got their licenses, insurance info, and contact numbers all in a line. Car chargers for cell phones are handy. Snacks are always a good idea. It’s also not a bad time to figure out the gas money situation (my usual solution is to keep a kitty of cash that everyone contributes to, twenty bucks at a time) and what you’ll do in case of a breakdown (AAA? Parents? OnStar?)

Pick tunes. Load up someone’s iPod with a massive playlist of driving music, plug it in on shuffle, and hit the gas. Or, alternatively, have everyone craft a their own mix CD and take turns, with explanatory commentary optional. No stereo? Do what we once did on a voyage through Wisconsin: sing Taylor Swift’s Mean a cappella as many times as everyone can stand it (see second point). Do yourself a favor and avoid the earworm that is the theme song from National Lampoon’s Vacation, even though it seems thematically appropriate. It’s maddening.

 

Be spontaneous. When it comes to weirdo attractions and extended scenic routes, I’m a firm believer that you should let your ADD run rampant. Spot a roadside fruit stand or a historical marker for some battle you’ve never heard of? Take a break, get a snack, stretch your legs. Think about all the groovy things you’d be missing if you just took a train or plane everywhere.

Fiberglass graveyards are always nice

Be flexible and keep your cool. Things are going to go awry. You might end up driving your boyfriend’s 12-seater van down a winding mountain road in the middle of a downpour. You might get to the International Clown Hall of Fame and find out it’s closed for the day. You might be treated with undue suspicion by the Border Control agents on your way back from Montreal. Relax. Breathe. You’re taking the road for its bumps, remember? Everything can make a good story later.

Be safe. Not to sound like your mom, but please, please, please, don’t drive if it’s late and you’re tired or you’ve had something to drink. Treat strangers with respect, but a healthy dose of caution. Don’t trespass anywhere you don’t belong (except mayyyybe the ghost town of Centralia, PA), and pay attention to the speed limit. And no more people than seatbelts, ever.

Centralia!

Make memories. No, seriously. You’re going to want to remember this. Bring your camera, diary, sketchbook, whatever, and record things. Not just the big photo-ops by the World’s Largest Six Pack, but also the attempts at reading the ancient road atlas, the cramped and drooly naps in the backseat, the elaborate games of MASH you play to pass the time. Pretend you’ve traveled in time from 10 years later in your life, and notice all the little things you love about these days. You may not always know where you’re going, but you’ll always want to know where you’ve been.

spring break: diptychs & triptychs

(Apologies to my artist mother if these aren’t really triptychs. I guess I could be safe and call them collages, but I’ve never been one for a penny word when a 20-drachma one will do.)

I spent 24 hours (total) on the train up and down New York State (bottom left and right) on the way to Montreal (upper left). I’ve pretty much perfected the art of sleeping in a ball, plowing through a season of Fresh Meat on my laptop, and lying to customs about the amount of clementines in my backpack. Fruit smugglers forever!

I did a fair amount of classy-type eating à la carte: a pain de campagne from La Pâtisserie Belge in MTL, where I went pretty much daily for bread (and then stopped at Pikolo for an americano so as to get my heart beating again).

I threw together a rando salad at home of microgreens, oranges, bleu cheese, onions, hard boiled eggs, and lemon-thyme vinaigrette, which felt incredibly lefty and snooty but also delicious, so whatever. And today, I had a croissant date with my mom (with bonus souvenir coffee beans!) at Chestnut Hill Coffee, post-pheblotomy appointment (I may have fainted, alas).

Abroad, I had heartstopping amounts of pork at the Dépanneur Le Pick Up Cabane à Sucre Pork Club , which was five courses of wonderful. We started with a sweet-and-fatty lardo spread, with chunks of apple and onion, spread over pumpernickel, then pea soup that was pleasantly earthy and I didn’t hate (??). The salad was chicarrón (pork rinds!) in a spicy arugula (so it’s healthy!) and then, at last, came meat: a house-made sausage, maple-smoked pork, and pork belly confit, each of which was a different and incredible kind of savory-sweet. The baked beans (fèves au four?) were molassesy and thick, and I got to eat twice as much since my dining companion did not particular care for them (again, ??). Two shots, as well: vodka with the lardo (na zdrowie!) and white chocolate with bacon for dessert. So fun, so tasty, and I got to chat with Chef Szef Bartek, a very cool guy who gave me some tips on making the confit (apparently not that hard? ça s’peut…)

Also: Portguesey rotisserie chicken that was buried in peppery fries, from a corner joint that reminded me very much of Calvin Trillin (long line, no plates). And watched (but did not help) Shannon eat a biscotti (biscotto?) roughly the size of her head.

Drinks: Victory Lager, Blood Orange Gin Sparkler, Bulleit Rye (which tastes good and doesn’t burn, so, win!).

On the porch! On my parents’ dime! With New Yorkers to read! I might die from all the luxury!!

And! Two pairs of homemade socks, from my lovely Aunt E., that I wore almost without pause while home. I don’t care if I got weird stares from a gaggle of middle schoolers at the Hunger Games* when I wore them in a pair of Crocs-clogs and shorts. It’s a look.

Back to Chicago, butt-early o’clock tomorrow. On the plus side: Green City Day and Joy the Baker, so sleep up, kids!

*Which, OMG. Katniss!

 

my dad has some career advice for you

I mean, technically speaking, it was meant for me, but I’m going to share, because I’m plagued with thoughts of career doom. And it seems to be a theme that I write about a decent amount.

A man of refined literary tastes

Talk to more people.

Me: I’m exhausted. I’m over it. I will not find a job.
My Dad: Just keep talking to people. Opportunities will spring up.
Me: I have talked to 35 people already. Nothing has sprung.
My Dad: Blair, do you know how many people I talked to after grad school? Sixty. Five. Keep talking.

It is exhausting, but he’s right. And by “talk to people,” he doesn’t just mean informational interviews (but do those! if you feel like it) but also just…talking. To people. Knowing people helps you do things, even if they aren’t going to give you a job necessarily.

Write thank you notes

“Call them up, ask for advice, and then write them a note to say thanks.

I do this, always, and I don’t care if it makes me look like a dork. And then when I went to visit an advisor/mentor of mine, she had my dorky note tacked to her corkboard. See?

Hustle, hustle, hustle

“[Local band] get good gigs because they are constantly out there promoting.”

Another reason to get business cards! And to tell people insistently that you are a writer (knock that “aspiring” nonsense off, right now. You string words together, you’re a writer). Also: give your cards to your dad and he will give them to his friends and your net practically works itself.

He gave me life, and I gave him a cake with sperm drawn on it (apologies to B. Collins)

You do not have to know what you are doing.

Me: You were a janitor?
My Dad: Yeah, the summer after junior year. But I was also doing…communications, or something. Mainly I remember emptying trashcans and watching TV.

Crappy jobs happen, see? And you can still end up running a graduate school at an Ivy League University!

Liberal arts, forever and always

“No one cares what you majored in. Can you read and write well? Good. You’re set.”

Lest you wonder where my Medieval Studies degree came from, I am going to put the blame entirely on my dad. Not only did he encourage me to follow my heart, he also bankrolled the entire thing so that I can graduate debt-free. What a jerk!

Ars longa, vita brevis

“If I were you, I’d just take the summer off, take a few Vanagon trips, write, do whatever. Just tell them ‘see you in September.’”

Because, actually, I am but 22 years of age, which is young enough to be stupid and old enough to recognize that since being stupid seems inevitable, I should just cave, embrace it, and take a road trip to Kansas City*.

The resemblance between us is clear

Don’t take yourself, or anything, too seriously

My Dad: [fart sound effect from iPhone]
My Mom: Da-vid. Please.

This one speaks for itself.

*To eat barbecue, duh. Why is that even a question?

who gets a postcard & how to send them

1. Your Mom

Because she’s worried about you. Because she drove you to the train station or will pick you up from the airport. Because you know she will thumb-tack it to the giant corkboard that covers half of her art studio. Because she needs reassurance that you’re eating enough*. Because she’ll actually read it.

2. Your Little Sister

Because you guys never see each other any more and that’s weird. Because you feel bad for accidentally kidnapping her blue-velour-stretch dress from H&M for an entire semester. Because you’re trying to guilt her into visiting you sometime soon. Because if you include a message in dog-speak for your canine brothers**, she will read it aloud to them.

3. Your grandparents/aunts/uncles/cousins

Because you don’t talk to them enough. Because they remember your birthday when you can’t remember theirs. Because they actually read their mail instead of assuming it’s all Discover card offers and J. Crew catalogs addressed to the previous tenant. Because they want to know where you are.

4. Friends with whom you have decent amounts of inside jokes

Because remember that time you got a little drunk at the free dinner your study abroad program was hosting on a weekend excursion to rural France and instead of going out on the town to drink in bars you stayed in the hotel watching French MTV while rolling on the bed and laughing about those girls from high school that were obsessed with horses***?

5. Your place of employ

Because even if it’s a lowly student job, it’s the cool kind where they let you print out a picture of Clint Eastwood petting a kitten to stick on your office door and don’t mind if you put out a collection plate to raise money for the Romantic Times 2012 convention. Also because it’s a good way to show them you’re a responsible type who’s not all SPRING BREAK

6. A high school friend or two

Because they weren’t horsegirls. Because you miss them, actually, and want to ask what’s up in a way that’s not weird, and a postcard can do that.

7. Yourself

Because how else will you know how long it takes them to get there?

& how to send them

Handwritten are the best if you want perfect glossy pictures of the Biodome paired with your chickenscratch that aspires to the legibility of a 13-year-old boy’s. Dirty hipster that I am, I really like Postagram, because you can 1. include yourself in the picture of the Biodome 2. have your message typed and thus readable 3. not have to remember how to pronounce the French word for “stamp”**** and 4. the picture pops out of the card for your scrapbook or hope chest.

*Seriously Mom DO NOT WORRY about this
**Woof woof, bark bark, yip. Good boys.
***If you cannot name a horsegirl from your high school, you are the horsegirl
****Tahm-bruh or tim-bruh?! The world may never recall

the unexpected extrovert

I got business cards.

Aren’t they cute? They’re little half-size MOO cards and came all bundled up in the dearest little box. I’m pretty excited about them.

I know, I know, it’s like business cards? What business do you think you’re even in, punk?

Well. I’m working on that part. The writing world is in crisis, remember? Electronic media will be the death of us all! But in the mean time, I want to show off my website. I want people to read my writing. And I sure as hell want them to be able to spell my last name.

A few months ago, when it was winter break and I was despairing about my ability to get any kind of job upon graduation, I took the advice of my Chief Career Advisor/Dad and got in touch with people in the communications field–PR types, journalists, people in university news offices. I talked to about 25 people in person and over the phone, took notes, asked questions, tried to ascertain how to break into this field. “Networking is just another word for making friends,” he told me. Easy for an ENTJ* to say! Still, with maybe one exception, they were all incredibly nice and eager to be helpful and set me on the right career path.

But that path wasn’t really my dream life. My dream was pretty much a scene straight from Barbara Kingsolver’s memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, wherein I get up early to trellis tomatoes and till sweet potatoes before settling in with some home-baked toast and working on my novel for seven hours. Networking had nothing to do with this career. Farmers and writers do not, conventionally, get business cards.

Somehow, though, a few days after the creation of this site and the decision that I’m Really Going To Start Being A Writer Right Now Dammit, it was me who dragged my writing friends out to Uncharted Books for a writer’s cocktail hour. It only made half-sense. Yes, there would be cocktails, but it would also probably go longer than an hour and there would also be other writers there which, ugh. I have never thought that I could get along with other writers, because I’d either be jealous of them or they’d look down on me. When you want to write light, comic, or heaven forbid, genre fiction (yes, that means romance. dealwithit.gif), you are at best a laughable novelty and at worst a shit-for-brains hack. Kate is spot-on when she talks about dreading meeting with other writers. I’d spent most of high school utterly unwilling to talk about writing with my friends, because they all knew how to be writers. They were up on whatever contemporary poetry reviews we were supposed to have read and had serious opinions about Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith, while I was rereading PG Wodehouse novels and trying to write a romance taking place in medieval Ireland.

But something was different now. I dressed in the outfit I know think of as “Blair Thornburgh, Girl Writer,” complete with jaunty silk scarf and sparkly eyeliner for extra courage. Armed with a glass of bourbon, I proceeded to chat the hell out of these people. And? It was surprisingly easy to talk to people. It’s just talking! Nobody wants to hurt you! And certainly not if you’re interested in what they have to say, which was almost always the case. I met craft-makers and improv actors and bakery owners and programmers and, yes, other writers. I could bounce around the room, talk about my work, and listen about theirs. I introduced myself for the first time as a writer, not as “a student” or, worse, an “aspiring writer.” No modifier, no shame, no worries. Lots of fun.

In the mean time, I found the courage to email some writers that I admire. And not only did they not respond with “get the hell out of my email inbox I HAVE WORK TO DO,” but they gave me good, solid, concrete advice on how to move forward in my career. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t done this yet. Informational interviews weren’t limited to just office careers I was lukewarm about, but also count in the realm of writers. Which makes perfect sense, now that I think about it. Humans are strange little social creatures, and plugging into our fellows keeps us going.

“You’re a networking machine!” my friend Cecilia told me in the car on the way back from the party. Maybe? I think I was just making friends. So maybe this is more the story of One Girl Comes To Term With Her Social Anxiety, but I hope there’s something in it for you, too. Like it doesn’t hurt to approach other people. Or email complete strangers fan letters. Or print up some business cards.

I mean, the worst they can do is throw it out.

*I, of course, am an INFP

beautiful food videos

I’ve been watching a couple. They seem good for a Sunday morning.

First, this from Tamar Adler. Watching her buy up a bunch of vegetables and then put them up (just for the week) makes my little magpie heart go aflutter.

This video from the Perennial Plate (discovered on Serious Eats) makes me very nostalgic for my days working at Pennypack Farm. Also, how cool does that foraging guy look? I would pay for this dinner just to sit next to him and hear grizzled stories about morels or fiddleheads or whatever.

Tartine’s book trailer (yes, the book came out like a year ago, whatever) makes me want to move to San Francisco just to subsist on their bread. That can’t be healthy. It must be love.

This mini-documentary from Made by Hand is not only visually lovely, but I think Megan Paska does a wonderful job of articulating how appealing producing your own food can be. And her epithets! Backyard farmer, rooftop beekeeper, honey producer, writer. Yes, please!

a pep talk for the upstart punks like me

Making things for a living is such a weird job. Mostly I’m thinking of writing, but I guess it really applies to anything creative. It’s not like you can get certified like a physical therapist does and then just go on your merry way realigning hips for the rest of your life. You have to start from scratch, collaging together shitty work however you can. You have to start by sucking and, inevitably, disappointing yourself (see: Ira Glass).

Some of us stop there, which stands to reason. Others get further, sending our work to editors or gallery owners or whatever gatekeeper position is appropriate to our art, and things get worse. External rejections to heap on the internal. Journalism’s dying, books might be dying, no one can “monetize” anything and we’re all going to have to become SEO robots and sell a kidney to afford enough vitamins for soup.

Then we stop. We made things, things we don’t think suck, but no one will disseminate and no one will pay. Stopping makes plenty of sense. Running into a brick wall over and over again will only take you so far, right?

But! Here is the inspirational-turnaround part. Creators are in a pretty good place right now. We have the internet! We can get things out there in less time than it takes to write a cursive sentence (if anyone still even knows how to do that). We can start putting things up–essays, sketch shows, fan fiction, handknit infinity scarves–as soon as we make them, hot off the press if presses were still a thing. We can learn about our craft as our audience slowly builds. And yeah, money can be made. We have little, incremental, peculiar ways to sell our wares: Kickstarter, Etsy, the Kindle Store. Gatekeepers are over. People can get to our stuff–all we have to do is make it good enough that they want to.

So we (and I’m using the royal we that denotes any college student with a parent-issued laptop) have infinite resources out here. And it can work. And for the people for whom it has worked (Kate Beaton! Emily Books! The Awl! Ze Frank! Amanda Hocking!), I can tug out one common thread: work hard. Work damn hard. Because no one will care about things you haven’t made, and there sure as hell is no invisible hand that will swoop you into success. You’ve got to build your success up, brick by shitty, half-baked, getting-better, actually-decent brick. You’ve got to see through enough projects to lose count, and then you’ve got to start some more. Don’t dwell, don’t hesitate. Keep making. There’s always money in the banana stand room on the virtual bookshelf for more.

Finally, get over labels. Or at least mush them together. You don’t have to be A Poet or A Novelist or A Person Who Makes Stop Motion Videos With Legos. You can do it all, if you want! It’s your life. You’ll still have to work hard, maybe harder, but you’ll learn a lot more, too.