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How I Published a Novel, Completed my MFA, and Worked Full-Time While Losing Only a Portion of My Mind

This is it, the product of two years’ labor (and snacks).

People are always asking me “Hey lady, how do I get to Roberto Clemente Bridge?” to which I say, “I don’t know, I’ve been in Pittsburgh for literally three hours!” People are also always asking me “Blair, how do you write a book, complete an MFA, work full time, and still keep that devious gleam in your eye?”

I am not trying to be coy when I say: I don’t know. I am fantastically unorganized, I have no regimented schedule, I’m forgetful, I’m whimsical, I’m flakey, I’m distractible. Not to be all “???—profit” about it, but I am honestly not 100% sure how I made it besides just “doing a lot of things every day until those things are done and there are more things to do.”

HOWEVER, upon reflection, there are a few things that I think have made the last two (!!) years of book writing/MFA study/full time work possible, which I have compiled here for your edification. These are not the Secrets To My Success, but they did help.

My writing is my job.
This means that I can’t not do it. You couldn’t tell your supervisor at the coal-mining factory “nah, I’m not ~*inspired*~ to go into the tunnels with my pickaxe today, see you tomorrow, maybe.” And writing is not even that hard, I don’t think! (I’ve never mined coal.) Practically speaking, though, this means I not only have goals, targets, and aspirations, but I work at them. I hit the deadlines and respond to the emails and hashtag-hustle.

But I also do not approach it like a job at all.
Have you heard of the Results-Only Work Environment? It’s not exactly one of those Tim Ferriss-y, “bring me a cheeseburger in a tree and outsource everything” approaches to work, but it does save, if not time, sanity. The idea is that it’s not about the amount of time you put in per day/week/month, it’s about results, dammit. So if you complete projects on time, you can work whenever you want, at however long of a stretch you feel like. The great thing about writing is that there’s no Mr. Spacely ashing his cigar on your desk and demanding to know why you’ve put your feet up when there are four sprocket-making hours left in the day. All that matters is that, eventually, you finish a piece. Even better, until someone has paid you and you have a Very Firm Deadline, you can take as long as you need.

I work at like, crazy stretches at a time.
As in, I will take an entire Saturday and not leave the house and work from 9 am to about 7 pm, with occasional food breaks. I focus better that way and I refuse to let anyone bully me into the “write every day” crap. I don’t do morning pages, either. Suck it!

I’m investing up front.
I love Jen Dziura’s writing about the mythical “work-life balance” (and how it is basically bullshit, for the most part), but this one piece really stuck with me: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE. Here’s what she says:

“Balance” is not for the young and sprightly — instead, think of work-life balance over the course of your entire life. Do you intend to retire some day? Would you like to have a baby and invest substantial time in caring for it? If there is some phase of your life during which you will be working 15 hours a week, then maybe you should work 60 now.

This is very the case for me. One day I might want to spawn a coupla grubs and take longer vacations and just generally rest, whether on laurels or not. So I’m devoting all the youthful energy I can now, to getting published, to my editorial career, to professional and artistic development in an MFA. In ten years I will have all that under my belt and I will be where I want to be that much faster. And hopefully I will get some sleep.

I like getting up early.
NOT TO BRAG OR ANYTHING. But getting up at 6 (or even 5:30) allows me to do something before I go to work, whether it’s writing, answering emails, reading an assigned book, or—extremely rarely—exercising.

I made sacrifices, which, honestly, sucked.
They were not HUGE sacrifices, I will absolutely grant you that. But I nuked all my vacation time to attend residencies. I had to pay tuition instead of saving for a house or a car that doesn’t break down every fiscal quarter (for tax purposes). I had to pay out of pocket for book tour stops, promotional stuff, and on-campus luxuries like “food” and “coffee.” I rarely see friends (and they are being amazingly patient when I say “see you at Thanksgiving, sorreeeeee!”). Youthful “hit happy hour and then another bar and then maybe another” follies are not happening (not that they would, necessarily). I don’t exercise enough. I had to quit my church choir (which I love!) and I have exactly zero hobbies. I’m tired. But…

I have amazing friends.
Internet friends, IRL friends, fellow MFA students, assorted confidantes, parents, sister, suitor/swain/beau, dogs—these people are there for me, whether I need to be all “am I normal??” about the publishing industry or ask for a second read on something or just break down and cry for a hot second. I love them all to hell and back.

I love writing.
I do! It’s fun! The act of writing is enjoyable to me. I love making sentences that are quippy, crackling, and even (sometimes) elegant. I love dialogue. I love characters. I will actively choose to write over more conventional recreations such as television or “the net.” This does not mean I’m not distractible, especially not at first, but once I’m cookin’, oh baby, I will not stop for love or money. And I believe this is because…

I care about my projects.
These things matter to me. It’s not just about being famous, or being paid, or getting online pats on the head for being a published author, or anything external to the world I have created in my head. These books aren’t just tasks, they are projects. I have a mission to make them. This may sound as corny as the state of Iowa, but dammit, it’s true. The day I stop being earnest about my work is the day I put down my pen (or close my laptop, or whatever).

So that’s how I did it, more or less. If you wanna come talk more about my book, come see an event! If you want more writerly pep talks, you can sign up for my Morning Magic newsletter to get one delivered to your inbox every morning for a week. And if you’re a writer who wants to learn more about balancing life and writing and getting your stuff finished, you should check out my new online class, Writing Retreat in a Box, where I talk about and teach just that.

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my wondrous and vibrant fantasy life, replete with polar fleece

Author’s note: Another classic post from College Blair, because I just got an L.L. Bean Catalog in the mail, and, dammit, it’s still #goals.

A lot of magazines are said to cater to an “aspirational lifestyle.” All of those glossy Selfs (Selves?), Men’s Healths, and Fine Birdkeepings are writing articles and shooting spreads that depict the way no one actually lives but everyone wants to live (because when was the last time you went for a jog in a pair of pants that actually fits to warm up for your Power Yogalates and work off your decadent egg-white omelet?). They’re all subtly trying to coerce you to buy things like sports bras and Tupperware because my God if you could just get organized than your life would all fall in to place like so many stackable Air-Tite™ lids.

But there’s an easier way to craft a fantasy life, assuming your fantasy is as unthrilling as mine. I cut out the middleman and go directly for a commercial vehicle for my aspirational lifestyle: the L. L. Bean catalog. Leaf through its pages and find yourself transported to a magical land, probably located somewhere in New England, where everyone has great teeth and far-off farmhouses are lightly obscured by mist.

In L. L. Bean land, people are attractive despite the boxy and practical clothes they wear. Women are willowy and possessed of enviable cascades of frizz-free hair, despite the aforementioned humidity, and walk about laughing gaily in quilted vests. Their male counterparts are square-jawed but not too grizzly-looking, like investment bankers who know how to chop wood and have a soft spot for kids. And oh, the kids. The kids! Fresh-scrubbed little cherubs tucked into plaid jackets, holding up single, golden leaves or tossing a rascally snowball at their ethnically-diverse group of friends.

The fantasy here is obviously not one that ordinary publications push. Sure, people are healthy and attractive, but, just like the clothes they wear, they exude a sense of usefulness. I’m so very sold. In the mists of L. L. Beania, I see myself bundled up in a sensible peacoat and wellies, pulling a cartel of curly-headed children on a toboggan towards the log cabin where I have whipped up a batch of old-timey flapjacks with real maple syrup. On the porch, Dan, Bill, or Ted, my nonthreatening husband, rolls up the plaid sleeves of his flannel and rubs the belly of the Golden Retriever I’m magically not allergic to. We carry all worldly possessions in monogrammed tote bags and give each other lambswool-lined slippers for Christmas, a holiday which starts in late October and stretches into February.

Does this cement my place as Most Boring Millennial Ever? Perhaps, assuming I haven’t already been awarded the honor. Alls I know is, the catalog’s cheaper than a magazine and you don’t even have to buy anything to read it. Also, I’m pretty certain that quilted vests are making a comeback.

my apartment is trying to kill me

Author’s note: While combatting a mouse problem in my current apartment, I was reminded of this ~vintage blog post~ I wrote in college about the same problem, in a different apartment. Since it’s still pretty funny, I think, I am syndicating it here for you.

As a nominally healthy 21-year-old girl, you can probably guess how often I 1. like to bake food and 2. worry about dying in my sleep. However, as a tenant in a cardboard deathtrap of an apartment, I must tell you that your guess is wrong, at least as of last night.

But let’s back up. My charming coldwater flat has mice. Or perhaps it’s just mouse; I’ve only ever seen the little vermin in a singular state. It’s always when I’m in the kitchen, innocently chopping up an onion or something, and I hear that telltale squeaking scurry of little feet. I freeze, holding my knife like the Farmer’s Wife from the nursery rhyme, waiting. And then! The damn critter scurries out from under the radiator and into another hidey-hole before I even have a chance to cut off its tail.

Despite my best attempts at cleaning, after spending pretty much every waking hour in the kitchen mixing, kneading, sautéeing, and swearing when I burn myself, there are inevitable chunks of food, scraps of pie dough, and other culinary effluvia that escape my notice and probably provide adequate sustenance for a tiny creature.

Yesterday, after whiling away the afternoon dicing apples and working a pound of butter/lard into flour*, I ignored the sounds of scurrying and plugged into my laptop to bang out another thousand words of miserable drivel for my novel-in-progress. For the literal and metaphorical fruits of my labor, I decided that I would bake one of the tiny pies I had constructed as a bribe-cum-reward. I set the cantankerous oven to 400 (it runs cool), popped in a pie on one of those awesome nonstick sheet things, and went back to pepper my story with a few more adverbs.

Not twenty minutes later, I smelled something, and it was not pie. It was distinctly gassy. Panic set in instantly, as per my special talent for Freaking Out, and I sprinted back to the kitchen, which was suspiciously devoid of mice. There were flames in the oven, which I figured was a good sign that things weren’t about to combust, but also a strong odor of Not Good. I shut off the oven, put the pie in the toaster oven, and proceded to fling open every last window in the apartment. The temperature that could charitably be called “rustic” now plunged all the way to “Little Match Girl,” and I huddled in a blanket under the ceiling fan, breathing slowly and wondering if the fatigue setting in was normal end-of-day exhaustion or the gradual effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Two hours later, I’d finished dessert, called my mom twice, and summoned my upstairs neighbor-dudes to see if it really smelled like gas. “Maybe?” they said, sniffing up and down the hallway. I diligently Googled the signs of CO exposure: a hypochondriac’s nightmare of the nonspecific headache, fatigue, nausea. I looked up CO detectors: legally required, so naturally our building doesn’t have any, and unfortunately not even obtainable by Amazon Prime. At long last, I went to sleep, knowing full well that it could be the last time I ever closed my eyes. I wondered how long it would take anyone to find my corpse. “She died doing what she loved,” they would say, “having a panic attack while eating pie.”

I was never so glad to hear my alarm go off at seven this morning. Or, at least, I thought I would be. Actually, I felt groggy from staying up late worrying and freezing from the window letting in all the cold air in Chicago. As I stumbled to the kitchen to make some coffee, I heard the scrambling noise of rodents heading for the hills, and had a brief moment of symbiosis. Mice can only survive if there is breathable air, I assume. They could be the canaries in the coal mine that is my apartment! We could get along and eventually they would walk on their hind legs and sew me a dress like in Cinderella!

Until we get the oven fixed, anyway. Then I break out the snap traps.

*It makes the best pie crust and you’re wrong if you disagree

property brethren: an all-new episode

Brother Drew, a blandly attractive monk with surprisingly good teeth for the year 1423, looks up from scribbling on piece of parchment.

Brother Drew:
Hi, I’m Brother Drew, and I’m here to show this couple that a moldering castle could be their dream manor.

Brother Jonathan, who looks exactly like Brother Drew, but with a slightly longer, hipper tonsure, butts in front of him.

Brother Jonathan:
And I’m Brother Jonathan, and I’m here to upgrade their new place from moat to midden.

Both:
And we are…the Property Brethren!

Brother Drew [holds up the parchment, which says YE OLDE DEEDE]:
Except my job’s more important.

Brother Jonathan:
Oh, but you are mistaken. Isn’t there someone famous who was a carpenter? Oh yeah: our Lord Jesus Christ.

Brother Drew [shrugging]:
He’s got me there.

They chuckle. Cut to an attractive young professional couple of 15 or 16 strolling through a meadow.

Brother Drew or possibly Brother Jonathan [V.O.]:
Let’s meet today’s couple.

Hugh:
Wæs hæl. My name is Hugh, and I’m a junior executive at a horse dealership. And this is my beautiful wife, Aelfgiva.

Aelfgiva:
I’m a stay-at-hut-mom with Hugh Jr. and Katherine.

Hugh:
Yeah, now that our family’s growing, we’re looking for something big. Our current space is about 90% fireplace, which doesn’t really work for us.

Footage of Aelfgiva frantically beating flames out of the hem of her skirt while stirring a cauldron.

Aelfgiva:
And location is really important. We definitely have to have good schools for Hugh to learn to read and write and squire, and also a good view for Katherine to stare out of while she stays trapped at home and embroiders.

Brother Drew shows them through a beautiful castle.

Aelfgiva:
Wow, this has everything we want. Cathedral ceilings, stained glass, the extra-slim arrow loops—

Hugh:
Yeah, it’s perfect.

Brother Drew:
Well, that’s too bad, because this place is a little out of your price range. For this house, you’d have to bring six dozen men on horseback AND burn the nearest village to the ground. Also, the baron’s still living here.

Baron:
Oy! Get outta me ‘ouse!

The couple settles on a modest but promising motte-and-bailey affair.

Brother Jonathan:
So yeah, we’ll knock out all these walls, and get a nice cloister concept in the living space.

Aelfgiva:
I LOVE cloister concept.

Hugh:
Yeah, this will definitely open everything up.

Brother Jonathan:
And in the kitchens, I thought we could do a nice dirt floor with some rushes.

Aelfgiva:
So modern and fresh. I love it.

Exterior shot of the house. Chyron: 3 weeks to move-in.

Brother Jonathan:
I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first?

Hugh:
Uh, the bad.

Brother Jonathan:
Unfortunately, the sledgehammer hasn’t been invented yet, so we’ll have to hire some yeoman to punch this wall into dust with their weathered fists.

Hugh:
Meaning?

Brother Jonathan:
Demo is going to cost a little more than we thought. Maybe another 10,000 ducats.

Chyron: Yeoman punching—10,000 ducats

Aelfgiva:
What even is a yeoman?

Hugh [ignoring her]:
What’s the good news?

Brother Jonathan:
I got us a great deal on poop to make into wattle and daub.

Hugh [confession cam]:
Brother Jonathan has a weird definition of “good.”

The repairs are made and Brother Jonathan has rolled up the sleeves of his habit to hang some of the finishing touches.

Aelfgiva:
Hey, Brother Jonathan.

Brother Jonathan:
I don’t like that look.

Aelfgiva:
Yeah, we definitely have a bit of a problem.

Brother Jonathan [exasperated]:
Lay it on me, my lady.

Aelfgiva:
Remember what I said about wall hangings?

Brother Jonathan looks at the wall, where a tapestry of a guy on horseback chasing a fox is dangling at a weird angle.

Brother Jonathan:
You said you didn’t want them.

Aelfgiva:
They just look so dated. My parents had tapestries in their bedchamber.

Brother Jonathan:
Okay, but here’s the thing, Aelfgiva. If you don’t put tapestries in here, the temperature will plunge to, uh…well, there isn’t really a way to measure or quantify it that I know of, but it’ll get really cold in here and your kids will freeze to death.

Hugh:
Wouldn’t be the first time.

Aelfgiva:
Well, then find some other way to keep it warm.

Brother Jonathan:
You mean another fireplace? You’ve already got six.

Aelfgiva:
If that’s what it takes.

Brother Jonathan:
That’s going to be another 5,000 ducats. Also, you can’t make this decision anyway, because you are a woman. Hugh, what do you say?

Chyron: State-of-the-art heating system: 5,000 ducats

Hugh:
As long as I can keep my ale cellar, I’ll do whatever it takes to make my wife happy. Or I’ll remarry, ha ha!

Aelfgiva:
Wouldn’t be the first time.

Brother Jonathan:
So…okay, I’m just going to put in the fireplace.

Dramatic wipe cut to the finished house. Hugh and Aelfgiva walk through, mouths open in delight.

Aelfgiva:
Wow, this space is incredible! It’s so unique.

Brother Drew:
I knew it had character. They really knew how to build ’em back before the French invaded, took over our properties, and made us use weird words for barnyard animals.

Hugh:
Hey, watch it, we’re fans of the French in this household.

Brother Jonathan:
Don’t I know it, Hugh.

He points to the wall, where he’s hung up a pennant-shaped tapestry with ROYAUME DE FRANCE woven into it, in team colors.

Brother Drew:
Speaking of sports, how do you like your hermit’s cave, Hugh?

Hugh:
It’s amazing. Great place to have a joint of meat with the guys, watch a little jousting, and get away from the marital yoke.

Brother Jonathan:
And Aelfgiva, you like the walk-in herb cellar?

Aelfgiva:
Yeah, it’s the perfect place to squeeze my morning belladonna into my eyes and smack lead powder onto my cheeks.

Brother Drew:
Hah, women, am I right?

Brother Jonathan:
How would you know? You’re a monk.

Brother Drew:
That’s what you think. [He fake-musses Brother Jonathan’s tonsure]

Brother Jonathan:
Okay, okay. So you’d say you guys are happy here?

Hugh and Aelfgiva:
Extremely happy. And the kids seem happy too!

Hugh Jr. and Katherine run around everyone’s ankles, whacking each other with wooden swords.

Hugh Jr.:
We’re playing Inquisition and she’s the heretic!

Brother Drew:
Another job well done, brother. Deo gratias.

Brother Jonathan:
Tune in next week for another episode of Property Brethren, where any man can become king of his own castle!

Brother Drew:
Except not really.

Brother Jonathan:
Okay okay. Where any man who is in the line of succession—

Brother Drew:
Or who’s willing to kill a few of his own nephews—

Both:
Can become king of his own castle!

They both bow reverently.

selections from my new podcast network

Extrabucks® Buddies: Just two friends sitting around and riffing on everything printed on their CVS receipts. (13 episodes)

Warranties and Peace: Just two friends sitting around and riffing on all the warranties for the various appliances in their shared apartment. Like, why does a Keurig need sixty pages of fine print, am I right? Some of them are even in Japanese! Seriously, if this thing ever broke, I’d just throw it out, probably. (22 episodes)

Hey, Remember When We All Played Neopets? Each week of this show will invite a different millennial-aged guest to sit around and riff on topics like “cheating the flash games to get enough NeoPoints for a faerie paintbrush,” “learning HTML to put glitter graphics in your user lookup,” and “forgetting the fake birthday you made up to get access to the 13-and-over chat boards.” (24 episodes)

My Favorite Municipal Zoning Dispute: Just two friends sitting around and riffing on the wacky ins and outs of local government snafus. (76 episodes)

What’s Going On At Eric’s House? This daily show provides a thorough rundown of everything that’s visible through the picture window at 324 McCallum Street Unit 1R from across the street and behind the azalea bush. Hosted in hushed tones by his ex-girlfriend, me! Ha ha, we have fun. (374 episodes and counting)

Finding Shari Lewis: Each installment revisits a classic episode of the brilliant work of America’s Favorite Puppetmaster, Shari Lewis. Seriously, she named her animal friends for food? And then she put your hands up their butt? I mean, whoa, lady! It’s supposed to be a show for KIDS!!!
This is just the kind of edgy snark and cracking wise you can expect from this podcast, hosted by two friends just sitting around. You’re gonna nostalgia so hard! (56 episodes)

The All-One Radio Hour: Just two friends sitting around and reading the label text on a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Liquid Soap out loud. (1 episode)

The Enya Relisten Project: Sail away, sail away, sail away-y-y as we relisten to—and riff on—each of the mononymous chanteuse’s legendary albums, from her ethereal début to her ethereal mid-career work to her ethereal latest. (8 episodes)

N-P-Are You Kidding Me?: How come those public radio eggheads get all the listeners, huh? Just because they have “relevant topics” and “actual recording equipment that isn’t an iPhone 4 and a homemade papier-mache pop filter” and “no restraining orders against Eric Sandborn of 324 McCallum St. Unit 1R”? All I’m saying is I bet Terry Gross has a real “face for radio,” if you know what I mean. And is Terry Gross going to slip a gift card for Buca di Beppo under your door when it’s your birthday in three weeks, Eric?? I THINK NOT.
Each two-hour episode of this show is devoted to sitting around and making fun of a different NPR host name. (14 episodes)

The Power Bros: Not that this podcast network doesn’t have smart-people stuff, because we totally do, like this intellectually-rigorous show where two friends sit around and riff on each of the 1231 pages of Robert Caro’s sprawling, Pulitzer-prize-winning tome about Robert Moses’s quest to amass political influence and change the course of civic development in New York. (1231 episodes, available for syndication on NPR affiliate stations)

Extra-Extrabucks® Buddies: Just two friends sitting around and riffing on episodes of the soon-to-be-hit podcast Extrabucks® Buddies. Ha ha, we have fun, am I right?! (13 episodes)

a cover letter to become a 14th-century nun

medieval-nuns
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. 
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in nomine patris et filii et spiritui sancti,
Blair “Agnes” Thornburgh

A Visit to the Thornburgh Galleries

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

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

 

portia

“Portia”
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

 

medievalmusic

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

 

carthage

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

 

bach

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

 

shakespeare

Scenes from Shakespeare
Source: Etsy
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

 

stanrogers

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

 

toadstool
“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

bigti

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

 

lilti

Lil Tristan & Isolde
Source: Etsy
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

 

aminals

Tiny animals
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

 

winemom

“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]

 

books

Tiny books
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

chain1

“Christmas chains”
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!

A Guide to Getting A Job in Publishing for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed

MY WHAT A POINTY HAT YOU HAVE, GLADYS

Pictured: The publishing industry

(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.

Continue reading

How to Take the Best Author Photo This Miserable World Has Ever Seen

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:

File Feb 22, 3 09 52 PM

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:

flaws

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
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:

Outtakes and Dog Photos 8

What

Outtakes and Dog Photos 12

DEMONS

Outtakes and Dog Photos 15

what are you doing DON’T DO THAT

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.

WHO'S A GOOD BOY?????

Perfect. They’ll never know the difference.

How to Survive February

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.

SickBedPannellBarnardCabPhoto001

Pictured: your state of mind

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.