Browsed by
Author: Pia

Muse and the Marketplace wrap-up

Muse and the Marketplace wrap-up

Final thoughts on Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace writer’s conference. Two things I loved: it was ego-free and truly inclusive, reflecting the ethos of Grub Street itself.

Grub Street has a philosophy that everyone who writes is a writer, and all our stories need to be heard. Some people are more experienced or have more commercial success, but we’re all engaged in the same project. And everyone I met — from famous writers whose books I have read and loved, to people like me who haven’t published anything — was equally willing to learn and share.

It was wonderful to see so many Black writers and writers of color and writers with visible disabilities and writers who were visibly queer and just everybody. Even better was to see that diversity among the leaders and teachers in the conference, not just the audience. So often diversity is “Everyone is welcome here, the door is open, come on in if you want,” without any thought to why people would want to walk through that door.

Here are my summaries from each day:

Day 1, in which I learn the philosophy of funniness: Nonfiction Book Proposal, Character-Building, Essentials of Humor, Spitballing

Day 2, in which I develop a writing crush on Steve Almond and learn I shouldn’t withhold information from readers just for fun: Why Show, Don’t Tell is a Crock, Literary Page-Turner, Epic Novels with Min Jin Lee, Irresistible Characters

Day 3, in which I despair of ever finishing my novel: Flash Fiction, Scene CPR, Writing While Working

Muse and the Marketplace 2019, Day 3

Muse and the Marketplace 2019, Day 3

Last day of Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference. I learned so much over the past three days and walked away with a wealth of resources, books to read, and advice to absorb.

First session: Essentials of Flash Fiction and Nonfiction, Tyrese Coleman

Taught by an editor of a flash fiction journal, this session explained the characteristics of flash fiction and nonfiction. Flash fiction is a story that has a beginning, middle, and end, but generally occurs in a single scene that contains a single emotional shift toward the end. Language, voice, and emotional resonance are critical in a piece this short. It should capture the reader from the first sentence, and make the reader feel that they want to read it again. The title of flash pieces is also important and can be used to add meaning to the story.

I took this session because I enjoy writing short pieces and wondered if they counted as “flash fiction.” They don’t. My stories tend to be silly and weird and they don’t have emotional resonance. I’m OK with that.

Second session: Scene CPR, Lisa Borders

How to maintain tension within a scene: consider whether developments are positive (+) or negative (-) for the character, and flip the polarity to increase movement and tension. Make sure scenes are setting up some problem or resolution — above all, something must happen.

And shoutout to Lisa Borders, a blonde white woman, for making a concerted effort to include references to and examples from writers of color. She started with an excerpt from a Rishi Reddy story about a widow named Arundhati, and moved on to a description of a loving Haitian family from Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life.” At one point she even mentioned that “show, don’t tell” is an idea that reinforces the idea that whiteness is normal — if you don’t tell, people assume the dominant culture. And she credited the writer of color who she had heard that from (although I can’t remember his name at the moment. I want to say David… Hongo?). I thanked her for all this afterwards and she thanked me back for noticing, because she had put a lot of work into making her talks more inclusive.

Closing keynote panel discussion: Writing While Working

While I appreciated the theme of this session, where successful writers talked about their previous jobs and how they worked writing into their lives — including some frank talk about finances — ultimately I left discouraged and feeling like it is basically impossible to write and publish a novel while also working full-time. Mira Jacobs’ story especially got to me. She spent 9.5 years toiling from 11 p.m.-1 a.m. After getting laid off, she spent two months working full-time on her novel and finished it. I know she put in a decade of work before that two months, and clearly she had been progressing on her own because she already had an agent. But I keep thinking of that story. 9.5 years.

The panelists also emphasized the importance of finding your people. Your community keeps you going. If you’re going to be toiling away instead of sleeping, you need to talk to somebody who gets it.

Muse and the Marketplace 2019, Day 2

Muse and the Marketplace 2019, Day 2

Day 2 of the Grub Street “Muse and the Marketplace” writers’ conference!

Keynote: Writing in a Time of Upheaval, Stacey d’Erasmo

An academic examination of art by Gwendolyn Brooks, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others whose style changed dramatically after some historical or personal event. At the end she explained that upheaval in her own personal life disrupted her art and caused her to research how other artists responded to upheaval. She said it didn’t help her, though; what did was shaking up her routine and trying something she had never considered — in her case, writing anonymously.

First session: Dare to Break the Ultimate Writing Rule: Why “Show Don’t Tell” Is a Crock, Steve Almond

This one was life-changing for me. Or at least writing-changing.

His premise was that writers tend to jump straight into scenes. But first you need to give the reader enough information so they understand the emotional significance of the scene. We can’t feel what a character feels if we don’t know what she knows.

This is one of those ideas that seems so obvious you know it’s brilliant. It resonated with me immediately because my writing group keeps saying, “But why does she react that way?” and I keep saying, “You’ll find out in a few chapters,” when obviously I should be just TELLING them what they need to know to understand the character’s reaction. DUH. But now I feel like I need to rewrite all my chapters.

Bullet pointy list:

  • Aristotelian principle: Story is generated by a well-defined character whose world is set into disequilibrium.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of the reader knowing more than the character
  • Readers are ravenous for information and require it for the difficult task of constructing a movie in their head.
  • The quicker the reader knows who the character is and what they care about, the more embedded in the story she is.
  • Writing should cause productive bewilderment, not unproductive bewilderment. Productive: why do bad things happen to good people? What will happen next? Unproductive: Who is this character and what is happening?

Second session: The Literary Page Turner: Learning to Write with Both Pedals, Katie Bayerl

I’m going to look for Grub Street classes with Katie Bayerl — loved her self-assured style and concrete advice. Her premise was that “literary” novels are deep, thematic, and character-driven while “page-turners” are more often seen as exciting, plot-driven genre novels. But a novel can be both. She had us go through a series of exercises about why we care about our novel, and what first made us interested in it (“first glimmer”). She also highly recommended Story Genius by Lisa Cron, which she summarized by explaining that every action in a story must be tied to the character’s emotions. We then did some exercises on exploring the character’s desires, fears, and wrong beliefs about themselves and the world.

Some tips for improving stories:

  • Visual storyboard can show you if you’re getting boring or repetitive — draw a little picture of each scene.
  • Visualize yourself talking to the character. Ask them questions like, what was a time when you were happy? What’s your dream and why? Where did that dream come from?
  • Only hold back information if the mystery/suspense is important to the core of your story — otherwise, be clear.

Third session: On Writing Epic Novels: A Conversation with Min Jin Lee, Christine Pride, Min Jin Lee

This was a wide-ranging conversation that I can’t summarize, so I’ll pull out a few things that fascinated me. Pachinko took 30 years to write and she did 14 complete rewrites. She had to hustle to get people to read it, attending every book club and bookstore that would host her. It became a bestseller a year after it was first published — her sales inched up until she reached a tipping point and got on the NY Times bestseller list. She mentioned that usually the real sales come when the book comes out in paperback, and she makes roughly a dollar per paperback. She also kept saying that while she couldn’t control anything about the publishing and sales process, she was absolutely confident about the quality of her book.

Fourth session: Irresistible Characters, Steve Almond

I am now sort of obsessed with Steve Almond, although I’ll admit that this wasn’t quite as useful to me as the previous session. I’m totally on board with going deep with my characters. Tips:

  • The reader asks when they enter the story: who do I care about, and what do they care about?
  • The more you know about your characters, the more you know what the plot should be.
  • Name and age and important to establish upfront. Also basics like where the person is located and what they do for a living.
  • Helpers and side characters should earn their way in by instigating some action or bad choices for the main character.

He had us do an exercise where we wrote lots of establishing information about our characters — not a scene, just information. One after another, everyone read their scenes. He asked, “Didn’t anybody do the exercise and just write down the information?” I nodded and he pointed to me and said, “You? Okay, let’s hear it.” So I got up and read, in my shaky voice, my three pages of explanation of who my character was. Later I saw someone from my writing group in the audience (hi Mary!) and realized that, while I’ve shared chapters of my novel, she didn’t know most of that information about the main character. I REALLY need to work on that.

The other thing that fascinated me about this session was when a guy writing historical fiction about Grover Cleveland kept trying to give us an intro with context about Grover Cleveland, and Steve Almond kept trying to cut him off and just get him to read his character study. Then when Steve Almond took the podium again, he reeled off a full minute of Grover Cleveland facts. I could not stop laughing but everyone else seemed to take it in stride, as if this were completely normal and everybody has an arsenal of Grover Cleveland trivia available for retrieval at all times.

I skipped the evening events, so that was the end of my day. Short day tomorrow, and that’s the end.

Muse and the Marketplace 2019, Day 1

Muse and the Marketplace 2019, Day 1

My first Muse and the Marketplace conference! I became a Grub Street member last year. Their annual 3-day writers’ conference is right here in downtown Boston. Here are my thoughts on the first day.

Image credit: George Hodan

Keynote: Luis Alberto Urrea gave an inspiring speech about how everyday moments and small details are sacred — especially ones that we think nobody else would ever know about or that we’re told are shameful. He said that he always brings up his childhood poverty, tuberculosis, and early years in Tijuana, precisely because he was warned not to talk about that stuff. He talked about the importance of breaking down artificial borders between people and how the function of writing is to make us see each other’s humanity. His new book, The House of Broken Angels, is now on my must-read list.

First session: Telling a Story with Your Nonfiction Book Proposal, Tanya McKinnon and Michelle Seaton

First of all, I loved these women: they exuded power and authority. They were also chock-full of valuable information, breaking down every element of a nonfiction proposal with lots of insider tips. Key takeaways for me:

  • Your proposal must answer this question: why does the world need your book?
  • Use every opportunity to get your voice across — opt for narrative rather than outlines.
  • Your proposal should explain who will buy your book. If you have a platform or any valuable connections that will help with publicity and sales, you should definitely mention them.
  • Measures of success from a publisher’s perspective: awards, reviews, and especially sales

Second session: Writing a True Beginning, Middle, and End, Alden Jones

She gave an overview of basic plot structure: conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. She referenced Vivian Gornick’s Situation and the Story and had us read “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes to illustrate, then finished with a writing prompt: 25 minutes to start and finish a story titled “How I Became ___.”

Third session: Navel-Gazing and Other Worthy Pursuits: A Character-Building Game, Angie Chatman and Athena Dixon

Key point: go deep with your characters, beyond obvious characteristics like sex and age and job. The “game” was to fill in a blank 5×5 grid with characteristics, without self-censoring or overthinking. The idea is by the third row, you’re forced to go deeper.

Why do this? Athena Dixon talked about her experience writing about surviving a suicide attempt. She said at first glance, a heterosexual white man might not think he could relate to the book of a black lesbian woman. But if he or one of his loved ones shared this common experience with her — and they both moved beyond their surface differences — then he would see it as a book for him.

I found this exercise easy for my main characters, but it would be useful for side characters — and a key takeaway for me was to apply this technique to settings.

Fourth session: Essentials of Humor, Steve Macone

So many great tips in this session! First he talked about the function of humor — it can come from a disconnect between reality and what a character wants, and the stakes should be low enough to make you think “I don’t want to be that guy” rather than feeling fear or a responsibility to act. He spent a lot of time discussing philosopher Henri Bergson’s theories of humor, then talked about how to structure and analyze humor pieces. My takeaways:

  • Getting feedback: Have readers highlight places where they actually laughed
  • Reverse engineer a funny passage by making it unfunny — then you’ll see what made it funny
  • Distance between a joke and somebody getting it should be enough of a leap so that it’s exciting when they get it, but not so far that they can’t make the leap

Evening session: Spitballing with various panelists

This was my favorite event of the day: the panelists (and audience) were presented with half-finished stories and had 90 seconds to come up with ideas for what happened next. I contributed my half-finished short story about a little boy confronted with a frightening situation, and got lots of interesting ideas involving parental malfeasance, child duplication machines, fights to the death — I’m not going to use any of them, but they did get me unstuck. I had a breakthrough idea on the way home. (And Celeste Ng was on the panel, and I love her, so I was especially excited to get her ideas on my story.)

This session was a lot of fun — it was great to hear writers unleash their creativity and approach each story with completely different perspectives. What surprised me most was how easy it was for me to come up with story ideas for other people, when usually it’s a long and painstaking process for me. The stakes seemed a lot lower when I didn’t have to write the story myself. I know you’re not supposed to self-edit on first drafts, but I find it hard to turn off my self-editor and let the words flow. I didn’t realize how much I self-censor story ideas too. I’ll channel this session next time I feel stuck.

How to Stop Time and the perils of not getting older

How to Stop Time and the perils of not getting older

Matt Haig’s “How to Stop Time” has a premise I can’t stop thinking about, but is marred by a whiny, self-absorbed main character.

Haig has a great idea: what if there were a condition that caused people to age so slowly that they live for hundreds of years? There is a real medical condition called progeria that makes children age much faster than they should. Haig imagines the reverse, a condition called anageria where people age one year for every fifteen calendar years that pass by. Anagerics have heightened immune systems so they don’t get sick. They’re not immortal, but will not die of natural causes for over a millenium.

My mind immediately jumps to all the things that you could accomplish with hundreds of years of healthy life. You could master hundreds of different skills, languages, instruments, physical feats. You could become a captain of industry, build massive structures, create intricate art, achieve enlightenment. (Which leads to the question of why I’m not doing all these things with my actual life… but let’s leave that aside.)

Haig chooses instead to focus on the downside of living so long. Mainly, people are afraid of the unknown, so being visibly different leads to danger. This is an interesting angle too. Tom’s closest relationships are ruined when his condition imperils his loved ones, and he concludes that he can’t become emotionally attached to anyone.

The problem is, Tom is such a sad sack. When we meet him, he’s wandering the streets pining after his lost love. Eventually we realize that his love has been lost for three hundred years. It’s time to get over it, Tom! He theorizes that people recover from emotional trauma by forming attachments with others, but he can’t because of his anageria. Boo hoo. Why not either risk it, or find somebody else with the same condition and very slowly grow old with them?

He does know a few other people with his condition. They are part of the mysterious Albatross Society, which is run by a shady guy named Heinrich who orders hits on people who come too close to publicizing their near-eternal life. This is a little X-Men-like — the anagerics need to hide so that society doesn’t turn against them. But unlike the X-Men, there’s no school or hideout where they can all get together. Heinrich is no Professor X; he prefers to keep the anagerics isolated and use them to do his bidding. This part, too, is disappointing. With unlimited time, it shouldn’t be that hard to find others who stick around forever without aging. But Tom doesn’t try very hard to find others like him. He’s resigned to following Heinrich’s orders, because life is pain, and this is his life, and he has no choice.

Tom’s real problem is that there is nobody to smack him around and tell him to grow up. If you had a friend who moped around and said that life was pain, and they had to do things that made them unhappy because they had no choice, you might talk to that friend. You might say, Friend, stop being so defeatist. Appreciate what you have. You DO have agency in your own life. Figure out what makes you happy and do that instead of complaining. Your friend would resent you, and you’d probably stop being friends. But maybe your friend would, at some level, hear and believe you. Tom doesn’t have a friend, and so he stays in this state for nearly the entire book. That’s my main problem with this book. In hundreds of years, hasn’t he gained any wisdom or emotional maturity? I’ve talked to eighty-year olds. They know a lot about life. Tom is immature for his physical age of 41, let alone his chronological age.

I finished the book, and I am ruthless about stopping mid-chapter when I’m not enjoying a book. I wanted to know what would happen. In the end, though, I was annoyed. It was like going on the field trip bus where you’re anticipating sitting with your best friend, but you end up next to the kid who can’t stop farting. The premise of this book was so rich, but instead of delving into the possibilities of near-eternal life, I was stuck with whiny old Tom.

NaNoWriMo and improving my prose

NaNoWriMo and improving my prose

I did it! I won my first NaNoWriMo. (Which you win by writing 50,000 words between November 1st and 30th.) And I now have a first draft of my very first novel. It’s 105 single-spaced pages in Word, which is longer than anything I have ever written.  It needs a LOT of work, but it exists.

I started out with no plan. Before November, I had been outlining a novel using the snowflake method. It was very slow going and I kept getting stuck. For NaNoWriMo, I decided to put my outline on the shelf  and start from nothing on a new project. The first day was a stream-of-consciousness mess. By day 3, an actual story emerged.

I didn’t think I would be able to come up with an idea good enough to sustain my interest for an entire novel. That was the problem with my WIP outline — I kept getting bored. I am not a dramatic person. Adding tension and conflict does not come naturally to me. I think NaNoWriMo worked so well for me because I didn’t keep stalling, trying to come up with a better story. I just forged ahead.

I also doubted I would have time to write 3-4 pages a day. Like most people, I am overcommited. But as I’ve found in the past, I have time to do just about anything that I really want to do. Every little chunk of time I could find, I wrote.

Weeks away from giving birth to my first child, I broke open a cookie and got this fortune: “When you are squeezed, what is inside will come out.” He did. And over a decade later, so did my novel.

I have a lot of revision work to do, and I plan to do that in January and February during the “Now What?” phase of NaNoWriMo. But before that, in December, I want to work on improving my prose. My writing is flat. I’m good at getting my point across, after years of lawyering, but my powers of description are weak and metaphors never leap to mind.

Here are some resources I found online that go beyond “write more, use prompts, show don’t tell”:

  1. Writer’s Digest: Poetry Exercises to Help You Write Better Prose. The author suggests taking a page from poets, who use vivid imagery to convey ideas in a few words.
  2. Copyblogger: 6 Simple Exercises to Help You Write Better Short Sentences. These are useful! Like eliminating the verb “make” from your writing.
  3. Ghost: 10-Minute Writing Workouts. These are more about boosting your creativity, like combining random words and using the combination as a prompt.
Black-ish Season 5 Premiere Recap (Spoilers)

Black-ish Season 5 Premiere Recap (Spoilers)

I just watched the season 5 premiere of Black-ish and I’m mad.

First things first: I still love the show. It’s entertaining, sharp, and funny.

But this episode was disappointing. Bow and Dre are a team like the old days, without a single callback to their marital troubles that dominated the second half of season 4. Zoey was there for five minutes without explanation, then disappeared without explanation. Why isn’t she at school, and why don’t they say goodbye to her if that’s where she’s going?

Jack and Diane get a slightly creepy subplot — their grandmother watches them walk into their shared room and shut the door, and decides that she doesn’t like them being opposite-gender roommates now that they’re getting older. Diane resists, but after Jack’s friend points out Diane’s bra in the hamper, Jack decides it’s time for them both to have some privacy. I wish the twins had made this decision on their own without Ruby’s vaguely incestuous insinuations.

And finally, Junior. He’s panicked when his family leaves him at Howard. Two days later when they arrive home after a long flight, he’s calmly eating cereal in the kitchen. He says he’s not ready for school and he’s going to take a gap year. He used the emergency credit card to buy his ticket home. Bow ineffectively wheedles and urges him to develop a plan; Dre gives him a lecture on manliness and then threatens to kick him out. When Junior calls his bluff and packs up to leave, Dre and Bow literally beg him to stay home.

SO many issues with this.

One, taking a gap year involves advance planning — you don’t show up at school, decide you can’t handle it, and leave. You’re supposed to DO something during your gap year that helps you grow as a person, not wait around and hope that you feel braver in a year.

Two, the parents aren’t parenting. Starting college is scary. Everyone feels like they are the only one  flailing. Bow and Dre should be reassuring Junior that he’s having a totally normal experience and that it’s important to try before quitting. Then they should put him on a plane back to DC.

Three, the parents aren’t parenting again. Why are they begging Junior to live at home? If he’s not ready for school, fine. Let him figure out what life is like as an adult. He was about to walk out the door. Let him go.

Four, why is Junior’s decision hailed as him being a man and standing up for himself? He has no rationale. He has no plan. It’s great that he can stand up to his parents respectfully. That takes maturity. But his ability to assert himself doesn’t mean his gap year idea has any merit.

The end of the episode has Junior moving in with Jack, while Diane gets her own room. This seems like an odd choice to me too, since it’s further infantilizing Junior. He’s fallen from being a freshman at Howard to sleeping in his little sister’s old bed.

The character of Junior is tricky. At his worst, he’s weak, pathetic, and insensitive to other people’s feelings. At his best, he’s self-assured, intelligent, and confident in who he is. This episode tries to show Junior confidently making his own choices, but what I see is a scared child running back to the nest, and parents who are coddling him instead of pushing him to grow up.

Middle finger

Middle finger

On the platform at the Harvard T station, a man was singing and strumming a jaunty version of “Hotel California.” He had a harmonica strapped to his face, and was pumping his feet to beat a drum and make a small dog puppet move back and forth as he played.

A woman with straggly gray hair went over to him. At first I thought she was complimenting him or asking him a question, but then he started saying, “Go away, go away.” He interrupted his guitar playing a few times to gesture for her to leave, but she started yelling louder and getting in his face.

I went over. She was yelling that he was breaking her eardrums and he needed to shut up and be quiet. He told her to move away. She gave him both middle fingers, stuck them right in front of his face. I asked if she was getting on the train, which had just arrived. Then she started cursing at me and giving me the middle finger. I asked again if she wanted to get on the train with me and she told me to F off and shut the hell up. She started yelling again about her eardrums. The singer kept telling her to move away if she didn’t want to hear. I also asked if she would walk down to the end of the platform, but she kept yelling and cursing at both of us and sticking her middle fingers in our faces. I realized the train was about to leave and ran into the nearest car just as the doors were closing.

As the train pulled away, I thought about what I could have done instead. I remembered that as a bystander, you’re supposed to go up to the person who’s not making a scene, and casually talk to them. You’re not supposed to confront the angry person. I knew that, but hadn’t done it — these things always feel different when they’re real. Anyway, I didn’t think the man was in any danger or that he couldn’t handle the situation on his own. I didn’t help, but I don’t think I caused any harm either.

Later that day, I saw the same woman walking across Boston Common by herself. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but she was still yelling and cursing as she walked through the park alone.

Micellar water

Micellar water

Beauty enthusiasts love micellar water. It’s supposed to be good for cleansing and makeup removal. What is micellar water? Why is it any different than regular water? Is micellar even a word or did some cosmetics company make it up?

Micelles and polymers

Merriam-Webster defines “micelle” as “a unit of structure built up from polymeric molecules or ions.” It gives two examples: “an ordered region in a fiber,” which I guess is like the repeating pattern you see in manmade fibers, or a colloidal particle.

And for those of us have not thought about this stuff since high school chemistry class, M-W says that “polymerization” means that “two or more molecules combine to form larger molecules that contain repeating structural units.”

OK, so regular water is not polymerized. Which means micellar water would be water that is clumped up into giant molecules in a repeating pattern? Why and how would you do that?

Micellar water

If you Google “micellar,” you get a bunch of beauty articles. So I started looking at those to understand what micellar water is.

According to this HuffPost article, micellar water isn’t water that has been somehow polymerized. It’s water with micelles of oil suspended in it. Aha! Oil is an ingredient in makeup removers. Now this makes a lot more sense.  If it’s just water and oil then micellar water doesn’t have alcohol or alkalines, which makes it gentler on your face than soap and other face washes, right?

This Allure article says that micellar water consists of “purified water; hydrating ingredients, such as glycerin; and low concentrations of extremely mild surfactants.” Back to M-W: a surfactant is a “a surface-active substance (such as a detergent).”

Dermatology Times (written by an actual doctor, but I’m not sure where funding comes from) clarifies: “Micellar water cleansers are made mostly of water, offering a very high profit margin for manufacturers. In addition, micellar water contains a very mild dilute surfactant in solution. A micelle is a molecular cluster with a hydrophilic and a hydrophobic end, in this case dissolved in a water solution. The hydrophobic end attaches to the skin soils, dissolving the soil in water through the hydrophilic end, and allowing water rinsing to cleanse the face.”

And then there’s this article from Dermatology Research and Practice, written by scientists who work for Johnson & Johnson and Neutrogena. It says that surfactants usually penetrate the skin, which is bad, but when they are gathered into large polymers they stay on the skin’s surface, resulting in gentler cleansing.

So “micellar water” isn’t a made-up thing. It actually makes sense, if you believe the articles written above. It’s basically a very diluted cleanser, with the cleansing ingredients clumped into large polymers so they don’t penetrate your skin.

I think the name is misleading. It sounds like something pure – water – but actually it’s water mixed with stuff, just like any face wash. And you don’t necessarily know what that stuff is. Some micellar waters could have harsher ingredients than others, and there’s no guarantee of what ingredients are in there. It sounds like micellar water actually is great for cleansing, but I wonder if it’s better than just heavily diluting your normal cleanser.

Louis Sachar

Louis Sachar

Today I went down a little Internet rabbit hole and learned about Louis Sachar.

It started when a friend said, which made sense in context, “Fine, then he can look at a monkey.”

I said, “Wasn’t there somebody in the Wayside School books who yelled something like, ‘TOUCH A MONKEY’?”

She didn’t know. A little Googling revealed the answer: Jane Smith, the only student that Mrs. Drazil didn’t like. Mrs. Drazil was the nicest teacher in the world. Jane Smith would never do her homework and finally moved away. Her goodbye note said that now she would NEVER finish the twelve homework assignments she hadn’t done and concluded with her favorite insult: “Rub a monkey’s tummy with your head!”

Fast forward a few decades. One of Mrs. Drazil’s current students goes to his dentist, Dr. Payne. She is sadistic, greedy, and unethical. And after hearing her yell her signature insult at a patient on the phone, he notices that her diploma has her maiden name: Jane Smith. (Her husband’s name is Sham Payne.)

Armed with this information, Mrs. Drazil tracks down Jane Payne to finally make her do all of her homework. Jane, who is prepared for this moment, jumps in her motorboat and speeds away.

This is how the story ends (from “Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger,” Chapter 22):

“Darling, come back!” Sham shouted from the deck as he watched the boat sputter across the water.

Mrs. Drazil climbed into an old rowboat. “I’ll find you, Jane Smith!” she shouted into the darkness. “You can run, but you can’t hide!”

Jane’s voice echoed back across the black water. “Rub a monkeeee’s … tumm-mmy… with… yourrr… heaaaaaaaaaa…”

And neither of them was ever seen again.

Amazing, right? Then I read a New Yorker profile of Louis Sachar by Jia Tolentino, who I love. Which led me to these very sweet and well-written essays by his daughter (then a middle schooler) and wife, about how proud they are of him and about his writing habits. I’ve been thinking about Louis Sachar’s writing habits all day because here they are: He gets up in the morning, reads the paper, does the puzzle, and then spends several hours writing. Then he spends the afternoon reading. Then he plays with his kids or plays bridge or does whatever else he likes. Plus, he’s an ex-lawyer. All of this makes me think that I’m not living my best life. Louis Sachar is living my best life. Except he lives in Texas and plays bridge all the time.

Also, I found out that he has a book that I haven’t read yet called Fuzzy Mud which I am going to check out as soon as possible.