What I’m Reading: Americanah

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Thanks, Erica.

If it weren’t for my friends, I wouldn’t be very well-read.

When I was visiting home last month, my friend Erica stopped by to visit, holding Americanah by Chimamanda Ngoszi Adichie.

“I brought this for you,” she said, “I think you’ll like it.” Continue reading “What I’m Reading: Americanah”

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Déjà Vu: 5 Years Later and I’m Still Not a Writer

Author John Cheever at home in Ossining, NY in 1979. Photo from nytimes.com. 

I wanted to share how my thesis review went and then realized… in a way, I already did it five years ago. I mentioned here that the actual meeting went well, but only because when you’re sitting in front of the professors, it’s hard for them to say, as was implied in their written comments, “Well, it was just awful.” Continue reading “Déjà Vu: 5 Years Later and I’m Still Not a Writer”

How to Ace the Interview, Part 2: Tell (Some of) the Truth

This is Part 2. Read Part 1 Here.

Last to come in was the COO, with a J not an ‘H’. He seemed vaguely foreign with dark, slicked back hair and an angular face balanced atop a long, bony neck. He wore a crisp white collared shirt which seemed to be sewn into the slim, fitted suit jacket and jeans. I imagined (I didn’t want to look him from head to toe) on his feet were polished tan Ferragamos. “So Betty,” he said, and at first I detected an accent until he spoke for a few minutes more and I realized he had no accent at all.

Continue reading “How to Ace the Interview, Part 2: Tell (Some of) the Truth”

MFA Dispatch: My Last Writing Workshop

Usually, I was looking out the window.
Yesterday, I had my last workshop ever. It sort of just snuck up on me. On all of us, I think. I haven’t been the best student and it didn’t take me going to graduate school to realize this. I would have flunked out early and efficiently if my program was slightly more rigorous than it was, and I knew this going in. It wasn’t hard – I’m not bragging – but after twenty-five years as a student of somewhere or other, you get to know yourself as such. You learn where to invest your limited academic energy.  Continue reading “MFA Dispatch: My Last Writing Workshop”

MFA Dispatch: The Pulitzer Prizes

Last week, the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. I have never followed the prizes, though I’ve bought books because they are labeled Pulitzer Prize winners. But last week, one of my classmates, Gregory Pardlo, won the prize for Poetry and the news came to me through a department-wide email blast.

I thought, “Whoa.”


I had a workshop with him last semester and followed him on Instagram. I had almost gone to his book launch – I’d RSVP’d and told his wife via Paperless Post that I’d be bringing a plus one. Not Tom, but a friend from college who’d written tons of poetry herself and who planned to visit me in New York that weekend.

But I deferred our plans to my guest.

“We can go to this book party,” I emailed a few days before her visit, “Or we can do whatever.”

“I’m open,” she said.

I mulled it over, but also gave her time to consider the options. A few days later she wrote, “Let’s get brunch at the Spotted Pig instead.” Her boyfriend had said it was one of the best meals he’d ever had.

“Sounds good,” I wrote back, “I like books. But I like brunch too.”

It was a good brunch.

A weeks later, the Prizes were announced. The day after the announcement, I had my workshop.

“So,” my professor said, “One of your classmates just won the Pulitzer. How you guys feeling?”

“It was for poetry,” a classmate said quickly.

“Yeah, it’s awesome. I’m happy for him,” said another.

Then after a minute, “But honestly, if it had been for nonfiction, I might feel a little shitty.”

“Yeah,” we all agreed.

A few of us started to share the MFA equivalent of a celebrity sighting story. Most of us had had a class or two with him. In workshop, he wrote a lot about being black and also, being aware that he wrote a lot about being black. I thought that was alright.

“Well,” I said, “I almost went to his book party but I went to brunch instead.”

My classmates looked at me, nodding in recognition. Apparently a handful of us had been invited but few, if any of us, had gone. We all went to brunch or other places that seemed more immediately appealing than a poetry book launch. At least this is what I read on our expressions. But I could have been wrong. I might have been the only person invited that did not go and now instead of saying, “I went to Gregory Pardlo’s book party,” I can say, “Well, there is some really good french toast at the Spotted Pig.”

A Phone Interview Technique

I got off the phone a few minutes ago with a young in-house recruiter for a financial firm looking to hire a corporate event planner.

“Why are you looking for a career in event planning?” she asked.

I had her LinkedIn page open before me and stared at her young face, framed by shiny blonde hair. She had graduated from college just two years ago and had, at least according to the experiences listed, a better sense of what she wanted to do than I did.

“I’m not sure what career I actually want, but given my options and my background and the aspects of certain jobs I’ve held that didn’t make me question the point of life, I think event planning is something I rather enjoy and am fairly good at.”

That was, more or less the answer I actually gave, though I didn’t include the part about not knowing what career I actually wanted and “questioning the point of life.” Most people want event planners to be direct, upbeat and bubbly – for the most part I am – but asking after one’s purpose in life would give the opposite impression.

She seemed satisfied with the answer and moved on to her next: “How would you define the culture at this firm, from your research and what you’ve read so far?”

I thought about the firm’s neglected website and the few middling reviews that had been posted on Glassdoor.com, and the scant reportage on the company’s founder floating around the internet. Word hard, play hard, seemed to be a thing, so I repeated this back to her, tacking on a few hyphenated adjectives of my own I thought would be fitting: “fun-loving, open-minded, goal-oriented.”

I admit, I said, that I wasn’t too familiar with the firm’s actual services – finance-y things which surely involved infinite databases and complex algorithms – but the language of culture-building, and how a strong vocabulary for said culture could be used to unite an entire company regardless of everyone’s different functions, that was something I spoke well. I had worked for a TV company but didn’t care to own a TV the entire time that I worked there, until friends from the engineering department surprised me with a large, flat screen, fully loaded with all the company’s video streaming accounts for being an effective liaison between them and the CEO, to whom I reported. A small testament, I felt, to my success in that role.

“Thank you for that thoughtful response,” she said, and asked a few more questions to which I replied with equally thoughtful responses. Or at least I thought.

She signaled the end of our conversation with a clearing her throat and “Do you have any questions for me?”

Yes I did, I said, how would she describe the culture at her firm?

“Ah good question.” And she, whether having been trained to say so specifically for this interview or because she simply was that self aware, said she could list a few things that she was certain her colleagues would also say. They were all good qualities for any firm to have, but none were unique to the firm itself.

The point of the position, she reiterated, was to define and enhance the firm’s existing culture in a way that would belong exclusively to the firm. They needed someone with a discerning and critical eye to figure out what these things were and then spell it out to people both within and without, via events and company initiatives. The creation of the role, spearheaded by the founder and his newly implemented Culture Core, was that they wanted not only to maintain the culture as the company grew, but also to ensure it was adaptable to the inevitable changes that would take place.

“Does that make sense?”

I nodded into the receiver, wanting to say that it was a familiar if not the exact struggle I had every day with both my myself and my writing. I’ve learned now that the two, while they remain close, ought to be separated. Instead I said, “Yes, that makes total sense.”

We said our thank you’s and hung up and I chewed on the young recruiter’s rhetorical last question.

It did make sense: the desire – or more accurately, the need – to define and maintain a culture. A culture of work and values. And for me, personally, of internal values. Of writing or not writing. Of thinking and not thinking. Or of thinking too much and not doing. Or doing but not really knowing why. There was nothing dishonest about my answer, but just because I understood did not mean I was a shining example of it in my day to day. It’s something I’m still trying to figure out for myself. But the young recruiter did not need to know this.

Why I Haven’t Been Blogging

The irony of course, is that I’ve never blogged as little as during the past year and a half, when I’ve been in a writing program. My most “bloggy” years, 2011-2013, were those during which I (mostly) worked and took the odd trip here and there.

I haven’t blogged lately for a variety of reasons: my course and thus reading load is quite heavy, and when I read a lot, all I want to do is share great passages of great books – but this doesn’t make for very interesting posts (even though a part of me is like, “F*** popular taste! I write for me!”) Also, as I’ve mentioned before, my thesis is due this year. I signed up for the March 2nd submission date but given the current state of things, that’s not going to happen and I’ll have to turn in in August. I explained this to my parents the other day, worried they would be worried that I wasn’t graduating “on time,” and that I was going to pull another Betty (complain that “it’s hard, just too hard,” and drop out). But no, my dropping out of school days are over. Technically I’m not graduating on time – I’ll be walking May 2015 (or just sitting at home waiting for my diploma in the mail because graduations are dreadfully dull) – but I (or my parents) won’t have to pay extra tuition or be unable to take on a full time job. My parents were okay with it – never mind that they sort of have to be. Or maybe they didn’t quite understand but they hoped I understood that I was now an adult who could make my own decisions but would be careful not to embarrass them. Gotcha, mom and dad.

So…working. “The real world.” Hustlin’. Making (not) bank.

Everyone’s been asking me, “So what are you thinking about doing after graduation?” I shrug and say, “Oh you know, probably marketing or event planning or…” and here my voice trails off because I’m not really sure – those people who are sure are annoying – but then I sit up straight and say, “I am however, quite certain I don’t want to do something that will involve me writing from 9-5, or from 10-6 or whatever.”

Surprised? Me too, at first. But from my short and motley work history, I’ve learned I want stuff to write about, not to write about stuff. This means I’ll be veering away from copywriting (though it depends on industry, I guess) and any situation where I’ll be asked to churn out blog posts and/or email newsletters. I’m not saying, “No way José!” But I just know I’d rather not. Those jobs usually lead to me coming home too tired to stare at my blog, never mind write in it. The fact is I like my blog. I want it to grow with me (or plateau or get content or whatever else I decide to do). I’d like to keep contributing to it in a meaningful way without feeling like I’m pulling my own creative teeth out.

My most interesting jobs have not been ones that require me to do a lot of writing or editing or copywriting. They’re always in something I never thought I’d be doing – like being an Executive Assistant or packing boxes and reorganizing the freezers as a seasonal worker at Costco – but while I was working these odd jobs (there’s that phrase you see on the back of every best-selling paperback: “So-and-So spent many years working odd jobs, all the while writing this runaway bestseller between 1-6AM every morning..” Except this is me writing it in my own blog) I met so many interesting people and did so many eyebrow-raising things, like the time I had to move my bosses; stuff from one suite at the Wynn Las Vegas to another on a higher floor with a better view. I had to repack their bags and learned what kind of underwear they wore. Yeah I complained about the work, but I had a good time living it, and would always have an even better time writing it.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about.

I’ve also been thinking of how easy it is to be crushed by ideas. Mostly ideas for stuff I want to write and feeling like the narrator in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, where she feels she has the whole world dangling above her in the form of a fruit tree but she can’t decide which fruit to pick and eat first, and eventually they all shrivel up and fall to the ground. When I read this five, ten years ago I remember thinking “Don’t let the fruit shrivel!” And now, I’m not sure I’ve picked any fruit yet, but they are looking rather overripe. A few have probably already dropped to the ground.

Yeah, don’t read that if you feel like you are young and have options but are extremely indecisive. Or maybe read it and serendipitously, walk past the Nike logo and think, “Just do it.”