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To whom it may concern:
I am writing to submit myself for consideration as a postulant at Barking Abbey in Essex, sometime in the fourteenth century. Other than that, I am not especially picky about when, although it’d be nice to avoid the plague years and the Peasants’ Revolt if at all possible.
You may be asking yourself: why would a twenty-first century woman who enjoys comforts such as “the ability to own property” and “a toothbrush” want to enter a medieval nunnery? The answer is simple: because I’d be extremely good at being a nun. My qualifications are as follows.
I have gone to church my whole life and am pretty credulous about the whole God thing. Though raised a Presbyterian, I am definitely waffling on consubstantiation and could easily be convinced that Catholicism is the one true faith. I know the Paternoster, Ave Maria, and the Credo, although I will probably have to sing the Bach setting to remember all the words. Should you require a reference, I invite you to contact my former Youth Minister, who will attest that I was a welcome presence at all lock-ins, mission trips, and fellowships, even the fellowships where there was no pizza involved.
I can read, write, and speak Latin and French. I am also an accomplished translatrix, having once rendered the lyrics to The Talking Heads’ “Uh Oh, Love Comes to Town” into Latin for a high school Classics Day project. My Middle English is admittedly weaker, but give me like two weeks with this facing-page edition of the Canterbury tales and I can figure it out. Furthermore, I believe my experience in the publishing industry would also be well-suited to Barking Abbey’s impressive library, where I would be more than happy to write back cover copy for De doctrina christiana. Likewise, the three hours of mandatory silent reading expected of every nun at Barking are well within my skill set.
Musically, I am more than prepared to chant the offices of the Opus Dei “entuned in my nose full seemly” (Chaucer joke, ha ha!), having attended three summer sessions of the the Royal School for Church Music camp in Wilkes-Barre, PA, where I only got in trouble for doodling on my music once. I have been told I have a pleasing alto and a decent sight-reading ability, although someone is probably going to have to bring me up to speed on how numes work.
As far as denouncing all earthly vanity goes, I’m completely on board with that, too: I hate picking out clothes every day, so taking the veil would be a welcome step up in practicality, and I’ve already shorn my hair into a pixie cut, which is basically the modern version of a nun’s tonsure. I would probably need some time to get used to the natural shape of my eyebrows once I give up getting them threaded, but it’s an adjustment I will bear gamely. All my worldly possessions, too, I’m down with giving up and donating to the poor, especially if the poor will have good use for these three thousand or so back issues of the New Yorker. I am also more than willing to change my Christian name to something more olde-timey like Joan or Agnes or Margaret, since “Blair” is awfully Scottish-sounding. (“Thornburgh,” I think you will agree, can stay.)
In conclusion, please accept this enclosure of me dressed as Mother Superior in a high-school production of The Sound of Music.
in nomine patris et filii et spiritui sancti,
Blair “Agnes” Thornburgh
Welcome! As curator of one of the “scrappiest” and “most random” collections of artwork in this entire apartment building, it is my pleasure to invite you within to peruse the prints, paintings, and other objets d’art that I have collected throughout my vast and varied travels to exotic locations like St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Episcopal Church near my parents’ house. Please, enjoy—and no flash photography.
Unicorn Tapestries poster
Source: The Cloisters gift shop
Obtained during an eagerly-anticipated fifth grade field trip to the Cloisters, this piece has been in the collection an impressive fifteen years. The pure white unicorn might symbolize Christ, maybe, or virginity, or something; fifth grade was a long time ago and nobody took notes. Wait, the pomegranate bursting with seeds onto the unicorn’s butt might ALSO symbolize Christ. We will get back to you on this.
Estimated value: Priceless
Source: Sara, friend of the gallery
A birthday present for the curator’s fourteenth birthday, this striking portrait of Thornburgh’s goth alter ego Portia has adorned everything from the lime-green walls of her teenage bedroom to the “I can’t be bothered to paint over the white” walls of her adult bedroom. The artist would probably be really embarrassed if she knew it was still on display, and as such it is a permanent fixture in the gallery, never to be moved.
Estimated value: Extremely sentimental
Old medieval music
Source: Aunt (and eBay)
Probably the most “legitimate” piece of “art,” in the Thornburgh Gallery, this dried-up piece of medieval sheepskin features neumes (like old-timey notes), a big red letter, and words that the curator has not bothered to figure out yet.
Estimated value: Fifty gold florins
Print of the temple at Carthage
Source: Episcopal church tag sale
It’s a temple! It’s in Carthage! It’s got a weird glob of something sticky on the back that melts into a suspicious ectoplasm-like trail when it gets too hot inside!
Estimated value: $2
Art Nouveau Bach evangelists poster
Source: It used to hang in the curator’s parents’ house until she made them give it to her
Both Bach and Art Nouveau are favorites of the gallery curator; she would like you to know that she is VERY CULTURED. Although the curator’s mother insisted in 2015 that the piece should “really be in a less crappy frame,” it has remained in its original arrangement. This print has provoked much scholarly inquiry on the part of the curator. Specifically, like, do you ever feel like Matthew got ripped off when they were assigning Evangelist Symbols™?
“Okay, cool, so Mark’s gonna be a lion, Luke’s gonna be a bull, John’s gonna be an eagle, and Matthew…uh, you can be a man?”
“Nah, but like, a really COOL man.”
Estimated value: 30 pieces of silver
Scenes from Shakespeare
These rosebud-mouthed vaguely pre-Raphaelite book illustrations depict various scenes from the plays of William Shakespeare. Originally from children’s storybooks, they were carefully hand-framed in artisanal plastic frames from the craft supplies store. Uneven margins indicate that scissors may have been used to trim them to size; the viewer is invited to withhold his or her judgment because do you know how annoying it is to pop these suckers back together.
Estimated value: $30 plus the shipping from Australia
Stan Rogers Memorial Maritime Wall
Source: Episcopal church tag sale
Though the specific provenance of these majestic prints is unknown, historians theorize that they once graced the walls of a cigar-scented study where red-cheeked old-money Chestnut Hillers got together and talked about “the party of Lincoln.” Added to the collection in late 2014, they take their name in honor of Canadian’s premier latter-day music-of-the-sea chanteur.
Estimated value: Maybe five bucks for both
“Frog and Toadstool” by Rebecca McKillip Thornburgh (above); “Cicada” by David Wiesner (below)
Source: THE ARTISTS THEMSELVES
It would be unseemly for an information plaque to brag, but nonetheless: the Thornburgh gallery is in possession of not one but TWO pieces of original art by prolific illustrators of children’s books, only one of whom happens to be the curator’s mother. The Cicada was a to commemorate the curator’s first published writing, a book review in Cicada magazine (get it?). The delightful frog and toadstool was a high school graduation present whose fairy-tale like imagery and sensitive watercolor treatment is said to have provided great comfort in the super-depressed first months of college.
Estimated value: You can take these from my cold dead hands
Giant Tristan & Isolde
Source: John William Waterhouse by way of the curator’s mother
The Tristian myth is a common leitmotif throughout the gallery. This reproduction, added to the collection after Christmas 2013, is “rapturously pre-Raphaelite”; notice Isolde’s giant jaw and straight nose and peaches-and-cream complexion, Tristan’s completely anachronistic full plate armor (because, you know, that’s what you wear to go sailing), the storm-tossed seas behind them, and the general LIEBESTODiness of it all.
Estimated value: The entire dowry of an Irish princess
Lil Tristan & Isolde
This smaller portrait of the doomed lovers is from “The Boy’s King Arthur” by NC Wyeth. Notable for Tristan’s Prince Valiant haircut and the crack in the frame, which, rather than an intentional expression of wabi sabi, resulted from a tragic incident from wherein the curator got very mad about something and slammed her bedroom door really hard.
Estimated value: The frame is not real gold
Source: Paternal grandmother
This petite menagerie lend a cheeky playfulness to the dust bunnies clumping on the buffet and bar area.
Estimated value: How dare you
“It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”
Source: Aimee, friend of the gallery
Having established a reputation for a persona she called “Facebook wine mom,” the curator was given this quaint cross-stitched plaque by her friend Aimee in January 2016. Today it rests behind the bottle of brandy bought to make sangria one time last summer, serving as a cheeky reminder to carpe diem and live life to the fullest.
Estimated value: [hiccup]
Source: Blair Thornburgh herself
As a reprieve from her job editing books, her other job writing books, and her schoolwork writing about books, the curator participated in a class on bookmaking and book arts in the fall of 2014. Bookmaking is a delicate and ancient art involving things called “bone folder” and a “kettle stitch.” The hobby was abandoned soon after the class was completed, archival-quality book glue being prohibitively expensive.
Estimated value: At least $27 worth of book glue
Source: Blair again
The bookbinding class left a lot of leftover paper lying around, which was repurposed in a fit of decorative Yuletide inspiration into a bunch of festive chains. Astute viewers will not that there’s not really anything particularly Christmassy about them, which is good because they will probably never come down until the painter’s tape wears off or a landlord insists on their removal. Nevertheless, their presence invites visitors to consider art as omnipresent in all dimensions of the gallery.
Estimated value: $1.50
Thank you and come again! Be sure to grab a postcard on your way out!
(titled with apologies to Karen Elizabeth Gordon)
Spring: that magical time of year when a young graduate’s mind turns to gainful employment. And if you’re of a bookish bent, that means hustling hard to become an entry-level cog in the publishing machine.
Now, because I’m an adult—somehow??—I find myself in the position of getting a flood of requests for informational interviews come April/May-ish, and while I sincerely wish I could take every last starry-eyed hopeful out for a cappuccino and a hearty dose of advice, the fact is that if I did that for everyone I’d die of caffeine-related palpitations in, like, two days.
So instead I am putting together this guide of best practices, FAQs, and other Hot Tipz on How To Begin To Live The Dream. Please bear in mind that I have gotten exactly one (1) job in publishing myself, and that your mileage may vary, one size does not fit all, and no two publishers are alike. Anyway, onward.
When you write a book, people will want to know what your face looks like. I don’t know why, but it’s true. Maybe the reading public has been burned one too many times by the Carolyn Keenes of the world and needs reassurance that you’re not secretly a conglomerate of underpaid ghostwriters, or maybe they want to scan your forehead for telltale talent bumps in a kind of 2-D phrenological exam. Either way, a headshot must be taken.
Step 0: Eliminate all the pictures of your face that you CANNOT use.
It’s the new millennium, which means that in addition to wearing unisex silver leotards and commuting to work in pneumatic tubes, every person on earth has a digital repository of face-photos somewhere. Don’t believe me? Just tap into your phone’s “Selfies” folder:
In a word: barf city!!! (Okay, that’s two words.) Still–these are all terrible and will not do. A snapshot of yourself with stick-uppy purple hair and sunglasses you took in the front seat of your Volvo 240 while stuck in traffic on the way to a Christopher Moore signing does NOT a professional headshot make.
Step 1: Identify all of your flaws.
This should be very easy. In my case, we have the following issues:
Intractable hairline cowlick (A)
Bald eyebrow spot, here filled in with makeup (B)
Nose that appears strangely flat in profile (C)
Gross! Now, short of a head transplant, there’s really nothing you can do to FIX these, but you CAN dwell upon them obsessively and try to hold your face in a strange rictus that obscures all flaws from view at once. Practice in the mirror.
Step 2: Know somebody who owns a camera.
Ideally this is a friend of yours. If you do not have a friend with a camera, you will have to pay someone with a camera to be your friend for the afternoon. No, I don’t know how much it should cost—three thousand dollars? That sounds about right, right? All that flash powder and developing fluid adds up, surely.
Step 3: Pick an authoritative background.
Put the “author” in “authoritative” by insisting on posing in front of bookshelves. If there is no bookshelf in your photo, people will forget that you are a writer or even that they are holding a book at all! Don’t let this happen. Even if the shelf is full of something like the complete 1982 Encyclopedia Britannica or a bunch of Goosebumps books, it will lend you gravitas. “Yes,” a full bookshelf says. “She has scanned her authorly eyeballs over all of us, and drunk in the knowledge imparted on our pages. She is therefore wise, and her book is sure to be a good one worth at least $17.99 plus tax where applicable.”
Step 4: Dress appropriately.
Pick a power outfit that says something like “I’m sexily intelligent, or intelligently sexy, but I could also kill you with my bare hands OR go onstage to accept my National Book Award, all in this same multipurpose sensible ensemble.” Also no loud prints or pastels.
Step 5: Have somebody else paint your face normal colors.
Your face probably has a lot of problems (see step 1) so this is a good opportunity to pay someone to lacquer it up with skin-colored goop so that no one can see your pores or even your nose-holes. Unsure of what to ask of your maquillagiste*? Ask for “the regular human face.” She’ll know what it means.
*Not a real French word
Step 6: Drench yourself in glorious light.
The sun doesn’t count, and neither does your novelty leg lamp. If your camera-friend is worth his or her salt, he or she should have one of those upside-down umbrellas with a light in it and also something called a “B light.” Also, if you’re a woman, you should be backlit so that your hair lights up around your head like a nimbus of gold.
Step 7: Pose.
Under no circumstances should you hold your body the way your ordinarily do, you slob. Pretend an invisible string is pulling up the top of your head. Pretend another invisible string is pulling up each of your shoulders and elbows. Now dance! Ha ha, I made you a marionette.
But seriously. Here are some classic looks for an author:
Crossed arms with chin on fist
Crossed arms with chin on fist and one finger delicately raised against one’s cheek, as if to say “tee hee, what a fascinatingly bestsellery book idea I’ve just had”
Hands on hips
Whoa, not so aggressive! Hands GENTLY on hips
Fingers hooked weirdly into front pockets
Casually leaning against brick wall
Lying on chaise longue, one arm flung over eyes
Aggressively pointing at camera while mouthing “YOU, YES YOU, BUY MY BOOK”
Exaggerated wink/thumbs-up combo
Step 8: Shoot!
Once you’ve picked some poses, just sit back*, relax**, and let the camera do its magic!
*Do not sit back.
**Do not relax.
Soon you will have a bevy of appropriate and flattering shots to choose from, such as:
Step 9: Despair.
God, what were you THINKING, trying to take a photo of your face? This is worse than school picture day and a dentist’s appointment mashed together! Brainstorm alternatives: maybe your publisher will accept an oil painting of your face, or that caricature of you and your dog you paid $20 for in the seventh grade? Maybe you can claim you’re in the witness protection program, except then what if your publisher calls your bluff by offering to pay for plastic surgery to distance you and your young adult romantic comedy from your crime-filled past as a bookie? Look enviously at your dog, who is lying on the ground, dead asleep, and does not have to worry about things like getting his picture taken, because he barely understands how a mirror works, let alone a three-jillion gigapixel DSLR with wide-angle lens.
Step 10: Take a picture of your dog instead.
Perfect. They’ll never know the difference.
This weekend, I attended my friend Eli’s annual Christmas in February party. Why Christmas in February? Because whoever planned Christmas Classic™ severely underestimated when humanity would need its ultra-dose of cheer and goodwill to get through the winter. It’s like when everyone was calling the Lindbergh babynapping the “crime of the century”even though it only happened less than a third of the way through said century. The hubris! Save some crime for the remaining 68 years!
Anyway, Christmas should be in February, because February is an endless grind of shuffling days and toss-turning nights and waking up thinking “well, I guess I’m alive.” February is so bleak that merely existing causes a deep ache in your body and/or soul. Snow has lost its luster. Boots have lost their tread. You, perhaps, have lost your will to persevere into March.
But February can be endured. Even in a year like 2016 where some wily trickster has snuck in an extra day of bluster and misery, you are equal to the task of not succumbing to it. How? With these tried-and-true lifestyle tips from me, a person who has made it through 26 and a half of these bad boys.
Light some candles and draw a hot bath with calming essential oils like lavender or peppermint. Get in the tub, then submerge your whole head. The water will muffle your screams of desperation.
Get some exercise. Exercise is terrible and ordinarily you should never have to do it, but in February I give you permission to do like many a women’s magazine has suggested and “work exercise into your everyday activities.” For example: when you tumble off the couch in a post-nap fog of despair, do a push-up before righting yourself.
Touch a living thing. It CAN be something like your Christmas Amaryllis or the pantry moth you finally manage to squash between your palms, but best practice is something with fur, like a dog or cat or friendly opossum. This will produce a hormone called “oxycontin” or something and your synapses will explode with pleasure and optimism. Besides, that Christmas Amaryllis is never going to bloom anyway.
Blind yourself with light. Experts will say that you need a special lamp to alleviate cruddy February feelings, but I say just stare at a bare fluorescent bulb until you get multicolored floaters so fascinating you can’t take your eyes off of them, or vice versa! Short-term distraction from existential lethargy is worth long-term retinal damage, I always say.
Eat foods that are hot. I don’t know why, but something about the thermogenic effect of freshly roasted brussels sprouts or freshly-microwaved frozen burrito will cause a concomitant warming of your soul. Salad in February will make you want to die. If you’re the sort of person who regularly drinks smoothies, you are likely too self-satisfied about being flush with nutrients to need these tips anyway.
—Corollary: drink some tea. Tea is practically water and water is good for you, but drinking hot water alone is the kind of thing only people on juice cleanses do. Use tea bags if you have them, you freakin’ ROCKEFELLER, but if you’re an ordinary plebe like me you can just dump whatever stuff you’ve got (like sliced-up ginger root or turmeric powder or chunks of lemon) into a mug and pour boiling water on it.
—Exception: eat as much citrus fruit as you can possibly stomach. Clementines are like chewing on wedges of pure sunshine. Blood oranges are like EATING BLOOD. Grapefruits are fine if you have one of those jagged-edged spoons.
Immerse yourself in the kind of thick non-fiction books with no pictures that are gathering dust on your father’s bookshelves. You know the ones I mean: small print and titles like “America in the Depression,” “The Grimmest Hour of the Storming of Normandy,” and “They Died Screaming in Their Beds: The 1915 Bloodboil Epidemic in San Diego.” They will not make you feel better, per se, but you might gain some perspective.
Don’t drink alcohol. It’s so counterintuitive, I know! But alcohol is technically a depressant, and it’s also expensive. It really is not going to make you feel any better. Here: pretend you’re in the Union Army, and they have to saw your leg off, but the last brandy ration has gone to your comrade in arms Jebediah Wagonwheel to help him endure an experimental eye-gouging procedure after he caught a musketball to the face. In other words, grit your teeth, valiantly, and maybe bite down on a leather strap.
Sleep a lot. Not just at night. Work sporadic sleep-snacks into your daily schedule. Use the Pomodoro technique: for every 25 minutes of sleep, do 5 minutes of work.
Don’t take your Christmas tree down, if applicable. Look, I know it’s already Lent (Christ, Lent AND February? This is a Puritan time indeed), but every sight of those crispy brown needles and wanly-winking lights will jolt you—albeit briefly—out of your melancholy. At least until you realize how embarrassing it’ll be to toss the thing on the curb in March.
Watch the thing that you like. You know the one. It’s okay that you’re not reading a book or composing a symphony or curing cancer with your record-breaking marathon time. Just pile on the blankets and watch the thing.
Skip it. Just skip all of February. Fake your own death and go to Florida or California or, I dunno, Monaco. Failing that, just do the stuff that you have to, like your job, and your deadline-y projects, and all relevant caretakery of yourself and others, but don’t pick this month to launch the ambitious stuff. Just maintain your pace for 29 days, like a shark swimming ever-forward. Then fake your own death, and get to work.
I love Christmas carols. HOWEVER: I do NOT love what most of the idiot world considers to be a Christmas carol. Songs about sleighs, Santa, sugarplums, etc., are NOT carols, they are garbage that deserves to rot on the side of the street like so much crumpled wrapping paper.
No, the truly best Christmas carols fall into at least one of the following categories:
1. Songs in Latin
2. Songs about food
3. Songs about Hell and/or avoidance thereof
4. Songs about decidedly non-canonical adventures of Jesus, Mary, and/or Joseph
5. Songs that use the word “flesh”
6. Good King Wenceslas
Bonus points are awarded if the song was clearly hastily Christianized with a few macaronic verses or if it sounds good played on the bagpipe.
There are only approximately 30 days of the unofficial Christmas carol listening season, and I would hate for you to waste one second of them letting an INFERIOR Christmas carol bleat through your earbuds. Therefore, I have taken it upon myself to let you know what the good ones are. This is my final decision and I will brook no dissent.
What ho, nostalgia-teers! This week is a deep dive back into the whirling petticoats of REGENCY LONDON. For reasons I cannot remember, I decided that I was dunzo writing contemporary after my brief flirtation with “Untitled Remodeling-Centric YA” and showed up the next November to put down some words about RAKES and BALLS and SEDUCTION and stuff. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a 19-year-old writer in want of a truly good idea will probably just go with the idea that involves the most frippery.
AND SO: Blackburn’s Bride, which, if I may say so myself, is not too crappy of a title. It certainly fulfills genre expectations. As did the rest of the book! Kind of!
The year was 2008. (Duh—see above.) I was a freshman in college who’d managed to amass a really great group of friends while still feeling terrifically lonely. Depression! It’s like that!
Anyway, even though I did go around a lot of the time with homesickness sitting in my stomach like an undigestable glob of gum, it wasn’t the grimmest of grim times. I was just figuring out who I was when removed from the only context I’d ever known, which is thrilling and difficult and an act of creative perseverance…
…kind of like writing a novel! (What a sophisticated segue that was.) Anyway, November came and I was ON IT, because so far in college I had basically nothing to do (I mean, classes, I guess, but compared to being trapped in a high school for a seven-hour block every day, college felt like a breeze), so I loaded up my minifridge with frozen Amy’s burritos and barricaded myself in my dorm room to write. And this time, I was writing YA. Also this time—although I didn’t know it at the time—I was going to win.
National Novel Writing Month is a thing I have been doing since I was sixteen. Sometimes I “won” and wrote 50,000 mostly very bad words and sometimes I didn’t “win” but still wrote some mostly very bad words. Anyway, intrigued by my buddy Alex’s post on her collected body of work prior to getting a literary agent, I went ahead and updated my NaNoWriMo profile with all the word counts of all the novels I had written or attempted to write since 2006, and man—almost 250,000 words! That’s…well, it’s a lot, I guess? It’s a very big number. I don’t know if it can bespeak anything to my growth as a writer because I haven’t really looked back at those old “novels” for a long, long time.
Welcome to the rebirth of a “series” of posts I started a while ago and subsequently never made good on. You can read the first installment about my 2006 novel “His Irish Bride” here, but be warned that it’s pretty bad. Today, we will be examining my 2007 novel “Untitled Contemporary Romance About A Nanny for Falls for Her Hot Boss.” I’m positively cringing with anticipation!
I have always wanted to be asked about the secrets to my success, because such a question presumes that I HAVE success, and that is very flattering. I also love that profiles of famous people dig so deeply into the mundane details of the Famous Person’s life, as if starting every morning by eating half a tree-ripened avocado spritzed with lemon juice will immediately transmogrify you into Reese Witherspoon. It won’t! I tried!
Anyway, until I have the kind of glamorous, sophisticated-but-youthful life that the readers of PARADE magazine are desperate to emulate, I will content myself with this inventory of low-stakes lifestyle “hacks” that I have employed to fashion myself the into gainfully employed gangling twenty-something that I am.