Six Feet of Separation

Zoom and gloom, hand-washing, and hope

How fast things change. When I wrote my March 8 newsletter, I knew The Virus was headed our way, but it still felt distant—a threat OVER THERE, wherever THERE might be. Now the threat is HERE, among us, wherever we are.

I hope you and yours are safe and well and practicing good hygiene. If you missed the Google Doodle this week that features Ignaz Semmelweis—known as the “saviour of mothers” for his crazy idea that obstetricians should, you know, wash their hands before interacting with patients—check it out. (Bonus points for the jaunty music.)

My family’s list of disrupted routines might look a lot like yours: On Tuesday, March 10, I could have dropped by my mother’s assisted-living facility to bring her a coffee and one of the pastries she loves; by Thursday, the facility had banned all social visits. My kids’ school cancelled exams and in-person classes, and implemented its distance-learning program. My husband, a civil servant, has been told to telework for the foreseeable future. Etc.

As an independent writer/editor, I’m not tethered to an office. Normally I love that, but right now I kind of wish I had one to regret not going to. (I do miss my coffee-shop work/social time and my cubby at the Library of Congress.) My reporter instincts have kicked in, and I am looking for ways to document and understand what’s happening—how academic libraries have responded, for instance.

Two weeks ago I was relieved to have turned around the revisions on my book; now I’m wondering if it will get published on time, or ever, and if anybody will care. Like every author who has a book coming out this year, and every publisher and bookseller with a stake in seeing books find their readers, I hope so. Books are no small endeavor.

All of us will roll with these and many other disruptions, because we have to, for everybody’s sake. Who knows how many more disruptions there will be?

Truth: It is hard not to know how bad things will get, how long it will take for the worst to pass, how grievous the human, social, and economic losses will be, and what our lives will look like post-pandemic, whenever that time arrives.

As it will. I do believe that. Hope springs, as my garden reminds me this time of year.

In the meantime, how do we muddle through? I’m trying, in yogic/therapeutic parlance, to sit with the uncertainty, and to practice what my therapist (still available for tele-therapy!) calls flexible thinking. So many possible scenarios to roll with, and so many questions that don’t yet have firm answers.

My immediate uncertainties involve family and friends. When will I see my parents in person again? (I have to believe that I will see them again.) Will my oldest kid, a high-school senior, get to experience the group rituals of prom and graduation, even if it’s in some form she and we never anticipated?

College decisions have been rolling in, bursts of welcome normalcy and news. Will L and her cohort be able to start college in the fall, and what will that experience look like? There is no way of knowing right now. But we can hope.

Speaking of hope, we decided last weekend that we’d foster a dog. Meet Allie, a lab mix rescued from rural North Carolina:

Cute, no? Adding a country gal with questionable manners to an urban household might not have been the wisest move right now. But we figured we’d be home for a while anyway, and might do something kind for a fellow creature (and ourselves).

The good news: Kindnesses abound these days. Neighbors on my DC row-house block have been checking in with and checking up on each other. Friday night, following the lead of another DC neighborhood, we had a porch-and-stoop singalong. (I look forward to many socially distant porch happy hours—not to mention Zoom yoga classes, webinars, and meetups—in the near future.) Those who can have been supporting local businesses by ordering takeout and books and locally sourced products.

Turns out we really are part of a community. I expect you are too. How lovely, even in the shadow of contagion, to be reminded of that.


Some linkage worth your time this week:

1) Want to help but not sure how? The Washington Post has a great roundup of suggestions on how to step up and help out.

2) Indie bookstores keep on keeping on, bless them. My neighborhood indie, East City Bookshop, has switched to an online-and-curbside delivery model. (Maybe yours has too?) DC flagship Politics & Prose has launched a multi-pronged response, including live-streaming author events that can’t take place in person.

3) Related: “Booksellers are great underdogs. We’ve got to be.” (From “Bookselling at the End of the World,” by Stephen Sparks of SF’s Green Apple Books on the Park.)

4) Indie publishers, too, will be hit, are being hit, by the COVID-19 crisis, as my publisher Anne Trubek explains in this installment of her excellent newsletter, Notes From a Small Press. (While we’re here, please go buy one of Belt Publishing’s excellent titles. Bonus: They’re having a sale!)

5) If you’ve been looking for an excuse to read Elizabeth Gaskill’s novel North and South, your moment has arrived.

5) Like my family, many people have decided it’s a fine time to add an animal companion to the household.

6) Okay Zoomer: Zoom has fast become the go-to platform for many of the virtual meetups and hangouts and meetings and other socially distant get-togethers we need right now. Two weeks ago, I had never heard of Zoom, or the phrase “social distancing.” Now they punctuate and shape my days. Go figure.

7) What I’ve been watching and reading this week:

“Picard,” of course, lifelong Trekkie that I am, though I never really got on the Next-Gen bandwagon. Bonus: Enjoy @SirPatStew reciting one of Will S’s sonnets:

March 21, 2020

“Prince of Egypt,” the 1998 Disney animated movie about Moses and the Exodus (plagues, peril, and hope—sound familiar?).

—the audiobook of Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, the first in Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope mystery series set in WWII-era London. Because we’ve had darkest hours before, and because spies and intrigue are always fascinating.

—the Kindle edition of Pale Rider: The Spanish Influenza of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney, which I am reading out loud to my children (more positive than it sounds, really!). Because it’s good to be reminded, as Spinney observes, that pandemics are socio-cultural as well as biological, and to understand how humanity has survived them in the past.

Stay well, friends. Thanks for reading.

Cheers,

Jen

In Like a Lamb

Book revisions, weather, and MYBAS

Happy early March, friends. Here in DC the daffodils are busting out, along with redbuds and plums and the other lovely trees of springtime. I’ve seen honeybees, likely from the hives down the street at Congressional Cemetery, at work on the dandelions and flowering weeds that have claimed my front yard. (The struggle for an eco-friendly lawn alternative continues.) It’s all lovely, and too early. What happened to “In like a lion, out like a lamb,” March?

Regardless, I’ve opened the windows to enjoy the spring air. Tomorrow I’ll worry about the climate crisis, the coronavirus crisis, the political crisis, and any other crises that present themselves. These last few months (years) have been a hard slog for many people. Set down the burden when you can, even if it’s just for an hour or two on an unseasonably mild day.

I bought this print from a vendor on the High Line in NYC a few years ago. (I don’t have the artist’s name or I’d credit them here.) It hangs in my kitchen now, a gentle reminder not to get sidetracked by regret or anxious anticipation.

Since my last newsletter, I did keep up with current events (so many reasons to be anxious, plus the heartbreak for all of us on #TeamWarren), but I had even more pressing things to keep me occupied: book revisions. Nothing focuses the mind away from the news like having to turn around a rewrite of your manuscript in less than a month.

Luckily, I have a super-smart editor (hi, Dan!) who sent me an edit letter in early February. Author friends had whispered to me about edit letters, in which editors lay out what works in a manuscript, gently (or not-so-gently) point out what doesn’t click, and sketch out some ideas about how to make the book in question better, stronger, faster. (We’re also debating a more market-friendly subtitle tweak: How does “Clutter: A Tidy Little History” sound? Tantalizing or twee? I’d love some opinions.)

Dan’s letter did all those things, in the nicest and most encouraging possible way. You know you have lucked into a good editorial relationship when your editor wants MORE of your thoughts—more analysis, more conviction—not less. Dan encouraged me to embrace the chance to go beyond reportage and share what I actually think about the roots and consequences of this contemporary culture of consumption of which clutter is one symptom.

Here’s the thing: As a female writer, nothing feels more liberating than being told, “I want to hear more about what you think.” We don’t hear that a lot.

So I dove back into the manuscript. Was it easy? Hell no! Turns out that revising is just as hard as drafting! Luckily I was able to capture some of the process on tape:

After I dislodged some boulders and busted through some walls, I ran out of steam and sent the thing back to Dan. Now I can distract myself with the news again while I wait to hear what he thinks of the revamped manusript, assuming I haven’t massively fucked the whole thing up in my quest to make it better.

Time’s moving along. Seven months til pub date!

If you want to pre-order Clutter now, my publisher and I would be eternally grateful.


Meanwhile, some non-panicky links worth your time:

1) Happy-making public-domain news from the Smithsonian:

For the first time in its 174-year history, the Smithsonian has released 2.8 million high-resolution two- and three-dimensional images from across its collections onto an open access online platform for patrons to peruse and download free of charge. Featuring data and material from all 19 Smithsonian museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives and the National Zoo, the new digital depot encourages the public to not just view its contents, but use, reuse and transform them into just about anything they choose—be it a postcard, a beer koozie or a pair of bootie shorts.

2) Today is International Women’s Day, which is as good a day as any to celebrate the inspiring work of women everywhere. As this year’s IWD theme puts it, “An equal world is an enabled world.”

3) This quote from Valerie Jarrett gives me hope that I’ll live to see a woman in the White House, in spite of Elizabeth Warren’s withdrawal from the presidential race and that godforsaken question of gender and electability:

“Women will not be perceived by some as electable until we’re elected,” saidValerie Jarrett, a top adviser to former president Barack Obama and a friend of Warren’s. “I often say progress always seems impossible until it’s inevitable. There was certainly a time when our country might have thought that an African American man was not electable. And what happened? We just kept trying.”

4) I looked at my bedside stack of books and realized that most of the books I’ve been reading lately are by women, from French writer/laywer Hannelore Cayre’s prize-winning crime novel, The Godmother (recommended!), to Lydia Davis’s Essays One, which I’m slowly savoring, to a couple of historical romances I picked up at one of my neighborhood Little Free Libraries. (I have thoughts on those I’ll save for another time. For now suffice it to say that I am not one of those people who gets snobby about genre.)

5) My next reads are also by women: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, the first book in the Maggie Hope WWII-London mystery series by Susan Elia MacNeal, which I borrowed from the DC Public Library as an audiobook, and Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather.

I happened to wander into DC indie stalwart Politics & Prose when Offill was doing an event there recently. She’s oh-so-mordantly delightful and witty (this profile of her gives you a sense of that), and I am looking forward to the book, although I expect it won’t make me feel better about the state of the world.

Weather forecast. #jennyoffill @politicsprose
March 1, 2020

MYBAS, it turns out, is a prepper joke: “May You Be Among the Survivors.”

MYBAS, friends. Be well, wash your hands, and enjoy a little spring, even if it’s early. Thanks for reading.

Cheers,

Jen

Cover Reveal!

Plus a title and a pub date, and some romantic and archival dramas

I got some exciting news since the last newsletter: My book now has a cover design! And a fantastic cover it is, too. Thanks to David Wilson, creative director at Belt Publishing, for coming up with the perfect design.

The book has also acquired an official title and a pub date, which make it seem…real, for lack of a better word. It’s been living in my head and on my computer for so long, it’s scary-exciting to think it will be out there in the world as a physical/digital object soonish.

Clutter: A History will be out Oct. 6, 2020. Read more about it (you can even pre-order it, if you are so inclined).


While I wait for edits and such, I’ve been following some dramatic situations involving (separately) the National Archives and the Romance Writers of America. Some related links work your time this week, plus a couple of things more uplifting:

1) Joe Heim of The Washington Post (my hometown paper and former employer) broke a big story this week that the National Archives’ blurred out the words “Trump,” “vagina,” and “pussy” in a promotional exhibit display that featured a photo from the 2017 Women’s March.

2) A NARA spox told Heim the Archives had been trying to sidestep political controversy. Instead, it caused one: The reaction from historians, archivists, activists, and almost everybody else was understandably fierce. Even the Washington Post editorial board weighed in.

3) NARA apologized. As it should have. Will that be enough? Probably not. I expect to see more fallout from this.

4) One winner here: journalism. Joe Heim’s account of how he got the story reveals a textbook case of a good reporter doing his job. (He also put in a plea to support local journalism, which produces stories like this.)

5) Lost in the controversy was the exhibit itself: “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote,” dedicated to the suffrage movement. I can only imagine how the curators feel. The exhibit, which I haven’t seen yet, sounds excellent. (Read Jenny Schuessler’s NYT review of it and two other suffrage exhibits currently on in DC.)

6) Because I live in DC, know many civil servants, and sometimes write about NARA and other Federal agencies working in my spheres of interest (including museums and archives, humanities and the arts), I’ve seen up close how tricky it can be to operate in the current political environment. Fear (of catching the wrong sort of attention, or of being defunded) can warp and derail decision-making. Perry Collins, a former NEH staffer, summed up the danger:

7) Meanwhile, over in Romancelandia, all hell’s been breaking loose. I won’t go into all the details here—there are a lot of them—but anybody interested in diversity and inclusion in publishing (and in professional associations in general) should be aware of what’s happening. The best summary I’ve come across is this deep dive by Kelly Faircloth in Jezebel. (See also the #RWAShitShow hashtag on Twitter.)

8) Speaking of romance, it’s not a genre I’m well read in, though I did write about it for the Chronicle of Higher Ed a few years ago (“In a Plot Twist, Scholars Get Serious About Romance”). But I have a forthcoming postapocalyptic romance title on my TBR list: Deal With the Devil, the first in the “Mercenary Librarians” series by Kit Rocha (the pen name of the writing duo Bree Bridges and Donna Herren). Honestly, they had me at “mercenary librarians.”

9) Some good enviro news, which we could all use more of: The state of Florida has protected 20,000 acres of Everglades that was going to be used for oil production.

10) Angry that Greta Gerwig was shut out of an Oscar nomination for “Little Women”? I am. Thank goodness the literary world has better sense when it comes to recognizing female talent.

Thanks for reading!

Cheers,

Jen

Twelfth Night Revels

The holidays end. A new year begins.

Happy tail end of the holidays to you! I hope family, friends, and travels treated you well, and that however you celebrated, if you celebrated, you’re starting the new year refreshed and grateful to be here in spite of all the horrors out there. I am—grateful, anyway.

One thing I’m most grateful for: I turned in my book manuscript on Dec. 31, a day before the official deadline. This project has been living in my head and on my computer for several years now, and I wanted to end the decade with it completed, as best I could get it to that stage. (There is surely a lot of rewriting and revising ahead.) I wanted to prove to myself that I could finish the draft and let go of it. And I did.

Truth be told, the final push took it out of me. I poked and prodded and added and deleted and adjusted and tweaked the draft until the moment I sent it off. Still, I wasn’t expecting to feel as flat-out exhausted as I did after I hit “Send” on New Year’s Eve. It took me a couple of days to feel more or less back to normal, and I’m still not quite there.

The closest analogy I’ve hit on is that wrung-out feeling you get after you’ve had the flu and you sense that you are through the worst of it but still feel vulnerable in body and spirit, not fully restored but glad to be on the mend. I’ve had milder versions of this post-writing collapse before, especially with longer stories, but the strength of the feeling startled me this time around.

Then again, I’ve never gotten a book of mine this far before. It’s unfamiliar territory. As I said, I’m grateful to be here.

Pretty soon I will start fretting about all the things I can’t control: What if my editor declares the book unpublishable? What if I got something hideously wrong? What if I make somebody angry or missed something essential (I’m sure I did—almost all books do) or wildly misinterpreted an argument or bit of evidence? What if nobody reads it? What if somebody actually reads it?

And so on and so forth. The writing life is a study in anxieties. The trick is not minding.


Some last-of-the-holidays links for your delight and perusal this week, especially if the headlines have gotten to be too much for you:

1) Today is the last day to see the manuscript notebook of A Christmas Carol at the Morgan Library in NYC. If you didn’t get there in person this time around to see Charles Dickens’ wonderful strikeouts and scrawls and improvements (see, he revised a lot too), the Morgan has the manuscript digitized. (Every year my family re-reads A Christmas Carol out loud; every year I hear something new in it.)

2) File this away for next December: As a diehard “Xmas” fan, I was thrilled to see this thread by dictionary maven Kory Stamper. (Read the full thread.)

3) I didn’t do best-of-2019 lists—there are plenty to choose from already—nor do I have Big Resolutions for 2020. But I have resolved to make it a year to celebrate the pleasures of tactile objects, including good pens and pencils and journals to write and sketch in. After I turned in my book, I stocked up on some very satisfying notebooks and planners, including these from Iron Curtain Press. They look washed out here but they’re a lovely shade of pale aquamarine in real life, and they’re a pleasure to hold and to write in.

As a reward for turning in my book manuscript (a day early!), I went to @eastcitybookshop and bought a lovely planner and task pad from @ironcurtainpress. Here’s to an organized new year.
January 2, 2020

4) The most beautiful book I got for Christmas has got to be Lydia Davis’s Essays One, with its gorgeous green rough-paper cover and hefty-but-compact feel. (I’ll quit raving about Lydia Davis in every newsletter, promise.)

5) I can’t draw worth a damn but I’ve decided to do a little sketching every day (most days, anyway) to give my brain a break from words and to remind myself to pay attention to the shape of things. Serendipitously, over on Twitter, writer Claire Ryan issued a #YearOfArt challenge for the year.

My New Year’s wish: that you remember the things and people that bring you joy and make time for them this year, whatever challenges 2020 brings.

Thanks for reading!

Cheers,

Jen

Small Surprises

Plus card exchanges, electric eels, and beautiful weeds.

The house I live in dates to 1922, a good year for Modernism and for DC Crafstman-style “daylighter” rowhouses. (“Daylighter” because they were designed to let in as much daylight as possible, so they’re brighter and airier than a lot of rowhouses.) Owning an older house prepares you for surprises, often of the unpleasant variety: a leak here, a creak there, a roof that really needs to be replaced, a door frame that used to be plumb and now can’t quite hold the door it once encompassed snugly.

But our old daylighter, which I love in spite of its idiosyncrasies, also surprises us in delightful ways. Yesterday we put up our Christmas tree, a yearly ordeal that requires a dive into the closet under the basement steps to pull out the boxes of ornaments and seasonal flair.

To get to the boxes, we had to take everything out of the closet: suitcases, cat carriers, flotation devices, a wicker picnic basket that gets used twice a decade. The usual domestic flotsam and jetsam.

Excavating our way to the boxes, we noticed the makeshift ceiling in the closet was falling down. We decided to pull it off—it was just a thin sheet of plywood nailed to the underside of the basement steps, hardly an Architectural Feature—and in the process we found a mess of cobwebs and dust.

We also found these:

They’re cartoon panels that feature Mickey Mouse, Clementine Cow, and Horace Horsecollar and some misadventures with a balky car and a leaky boat. I’m guessing they date back to the 1940s, when the house sheltered a tobacconist, his wife, and their two kids along with two lodgers. (Housing was in short supply in wartime DC, and many houses took in boarders. We found a vintage APARMENT TO LET sign in the garage when we moved in.)

Some long-ago child festooned the panels with red and green crayon or pencil, and then must have slipped them between the gapped risers of the basement steps, as kids do. The house kept these little slips of paper safe all this time for us to find. Thank you, house.


This week’s links include small good things to help make the run-up to the holidays a little more festive. [N.B. I had a couple of eco-catastrophe stories on my list to share this week that I am going to skip today because the sun is shining, the house smells like Xmas tree, and there is still much to be merry and bright about in the world.]

1) Send a fellow book-lover a holiday card via LibraryThing’s annual Holiday Card Exchange. (The deadline to sign up is Tuesday, Dec. 11.) If you don’t know LibraryThing, it’s a personal-library-cataloguing site that’s also a hub for readers and authors. I love it and mean to use it more.

2) Speaking of holiday cards, we’ve been enjoying a letterpress renaissance the last few years. I am a big fan of D.C.’s own Grey Moggie Press. This year’s newest card offering: “All I want for Christmas is to get Baby Shark out of my head.”)

3) I want to know more about this project that explores the raw materials and carbon footprint required to make Henry David Thoreau’s eco-classic Walden. (Tangentially related: Thoreau and I share a birthday, though I expect my carbon footprint is a lot higher than his.)

4) While we’re talking about Thoreau: The loveliest thing I read this week was “Cohabiting with Beautiful Weeds,” an essay in the TLS by the incomparable Lydia Davis, who could make a grocery list lyrical and startling. Prompted by a book of Thoreau’s observations on wild plants (this one, I think), Davis celebrates the small botanical treasures that fill her yard year-round once she learns to see them and let them be. It’s a call to notice the small things.

There was a more sombre reason for my interest in wild plants this year. I felt more acutely now, as increasingly grim news came in every day, that the generosity of the earth and the seasons, even in one yard, should not be ignored or carelessly dismissed, but consciously valued and noted. Thoreau lamented that so few people noticed the wildflowers. It is hard to miss the beauty that flashes by the car window: the pastel phlox, the wild roses with their sweet fragrance, the dark orange day lilies and blue chicory, the white dogwoods in the woods. But in my own yard I had ignored the more humble volunteers in the waste places, had uprooted pretty intruders from the flowerbeds, and trampled, in the lawn, the drifts of ghostly white Antennaria (called pussy-toes in my books and admired by Thoreau as mouse-ears).

5) Miguel the electric eel is lighting up the Tennessee Aquarium. (He also has a zippy Twitter feed.)

6) “If I’d known I was going to have to say this whole book out loud, I would have written a better one. Or maybe I wouldn’t have written one at all”: Tim Dowling discovers that audiobook narrators do a lot more than just sit there and read. (I was fascinated by this article.)

7) This list of the “essential” books about Washington left me dissatisfied—did we really need a roundup of “books about Brett,” especially at this time of year?—but it’s not a bad starting point if you need one. I was especially glad to see Edward P. Jones’ essential collection Lost in the City included, along with Natalie Hopkinson’s Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.

8) “The best thing you can do is not buy more stuff”: Adam Minter talks to NPR’s Terri Gross about his new book, Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale. It’s a good listen for this season of frenzied shopping. I finished the book this week; it’s a deeply reported, eye-opening investigation of where the world’s discards go.

Wishing you small surprises of the delightful kind, this week and every week.

Thanks for reading!

Cheers,

Jen

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