Reflections on the private MFA, year 1 (part 3.5): the reading list, with commentary

If you’re a writer, a reader, here’s what I’ve been reading for my own private MFA, year 1, with commentary. The books don’t make a lot of sense together, except that the list means that I have read for myself this year more than I have in a long time. And maybe that’s an accomplishment, in itself.


I think it’s safe to say that I’ve read more nonfiction in this last year than I usually do. Novels are the bread-and-butter of my reading diet, or if you’re me, the rice. Nonfiction was a category I rarely touched, a whole section of the library that I rarely visited until graduate school, where literary theory, ethnic studies, and food studies (and food literature) really entered the menu. It’s still not the first section of the bookstore that I’ll visit, but I no longer avoid it like the plague.

  • The Brief Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks*, Rebecca Skloot. An amazing feat of science writing, journalistic reporting, memoir that travels fluently between several time periods. If you haven’t read it yet, pick it up; you’ll probably be shocked at what you probably didn’t know. It took Skloot something like 10 years to research and write the book, and I can see why. Side literary note: she cited Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes as an influence for her own book’s structure.
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Chip and Dan Heath. I thought I’d be reading this book as a career changer, and in some respects it’s been useful. But I found their lessons highly memorable and applicable in settings from teaching freshman composition to political change and policy creation. Perhaps a bit too business-oriented for me?–but an entertaining and provocative read.
  • One Person/Multiple Careers, Marci Alboher. Another useful read for career changers. Some useful suggestions and inspiring examples, but not as memorable as the Heaths’ book.
  • My Reading Life, Pat Conroy. As a novelist, Conroy has hit some of the same notes far too often for me, but his appreciation of food and his zest for storytelling can draw me back in spite of myself. This memoir is Conroy’s set of love letters to some of his most influential books, and as a fellow lifelong passionate reader it’s fun to see how he approaches each book or author with reverence or nostalgia or hero-worship.
  • The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown. I really love this author’s speeches on TEDtalks. For those who are drawn to her material there–with all due respect, because I really do think her work is valuable–I’d suggest sticking to the talks. Part memoir, part advice–this book felt to me like the PowerPoint slides without as much of the author’s engaging and compelling presence.
  • The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp. I liked this book more as a memoir than as a writing/creative advice manual, but I think I am not quite her audience. I don’t think I need to be convinced to be creative, or that creativity is valuable and part of everyday life. But, I appreciate her willingness to include so many people and activities as “creative.”
  • On Writing, Stephen King.* This book surprised me in so many good ways. Because I don’t really like the genres that King uses typically (horror, noir), I don’t read his work very often. But this book reminded me that he is a master storyteller, and some of the memoir sections told me about why he writes in the genres that he does. I found myself wanting to keep my library copy; it’s a book that I could see myself returning to over and over again. A great precursor to Victor LaValle’s work (more on that in a minute).
  • The Writing Life, Annie Dillard. A lovely set of meditations on the writing life–not really Dillard’s life, necessarily–but a set of gentle suggestions or mantras about how to approach life as a writer and working artist. One of my favorite moments in the book involves seclusion and fireworks.


As always, so many good books, so little time. I don’t think this list is complete, but it’s a good sampling of what I read this year (except for the books that I like to reread). Sometimes I become too ambitious and order a whole slew of books at once from the library and can’t read them all in time. I’ll tell you this, though: my 50-page rule still holds. (If the author doesn’t have me by page 50, I will usually not finish the book. See the first sentence of this paragraph.)

  • Honoring Juanita, Hans Ostrom. My good friend and colleague wrote this historical novel, cheap ventolin online based on events in the Sierra Nevada. Sometimes it’s hard to shake the author’s presence from fiction when you know the author, but Mary Bluestone’s voice is engaging and the novel’s exploration of the aftermath of historical figures made me think quite a bit.
  • The Atlas of Love, Laurie Frankel. Another colleague wrote this lovely book about “atypical” forms of family, friendships, and love. Readers who have gone to graduate school in the humanities will especially appreciate this warmhearted book and its engaging narrator, Janey.
  • Big Machine, Victor LaValle. One of the craziest books I’ve read in a while, but I want so many more people to read it. Both page-turning and experimental: a huge accomplishment in itself. Stephen King (horror) crossed with Ralph Ellison (modernist experiments with race) and Haruki Murakami (magical realism) and James Weldon Johnson (deep knowledge of racial politics). And set partly in the Bay Area, home of my homes. I kept thinking, “No, you can’t do that! or go there”–and he kept doing it. Go read it, please, so we can talk about it together.
  • Great House, Nicole Krauss. Krauss has gorgeous prose. I found myself writing down bits of wisdom from the book, short lines and quotations. But I never quite felt that this novel came together as I felt it should. Four narrators/narratives, all centered around a single object: a writer’s desk (think The Red Violin in novel form).
  • Pictures of You, Caroline Leavitt. After I became pregnant with my first daughter, it was hard to read anything where bad things happened to children. (Exponentially so now that both of my daughters are here.) Thus, Leavitt’s novel was an emotional test for me: can I read a novel where bad things happen to children, and the bad thing is the death of a parent? Yes, I can, but not without difficulty. More about this in a later post.
  • Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay. Outing myself as a fantasy/historical fantasy reader, since junior high school. I don’t read very much of it anymore but Kay, I think, is one of the very best. He rarely sacrifices character development for plot, when so many in this genre seem to do the reverse. This novel’s set in China, around the time of the Tang dynasty, involving an impossible and terribly consequential gift.
  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans. I had to take this book back to the library because I wasn’t quite in the mood for it (read: it made me sad), but I admired Evans’s craft. I’d like to revisit the collection someday.
  • A Thread Of Sky, Deanna Fei. Some important (and highly readable) work here if you are interested in transnational relationships between Asia and America and immigrants. Five main characters, all with large and looming issues, made this novel at times overly ambitious, but it provides an important crash course in a number of Asian American issues.
  • Take Me Home, Brian Leung. I was excited to read Leung’s historical novel set in Wyoming in the 19th century, about  Chinese immigrants and the Rock Springs massacre. Not many have ventured into historical fictional territory (ha) with this incident, if any. I am hoping my scholarly friends in Asian American Studies and American Literature will pick this one up.
  • Skippy Dies, Paul Murray. Amazing prose, well-drawn characters, hilarious at points–and yet, as with a number of postmodern pyrotechnics, the ending did not satisfy me.
  • The Calligrapher’s Daughter, Eugenia Kim. A staggering feat of feminist historical fiction, especially given Kim’s audience and what we would probably (not) know about twentieth-century Korean history and the Japanese occupation. I was awed. I loved the narrator and the narrator’s mother, and I wanted to know what would happen to them both.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith. This book is a classic, I know, but I did not read it until this year. It was startlingly honest about maternal love, about tenement poverty, about adultery and about female adolescence. You probably wouldn’t get away with publishing this book as a “coming of age” Young Adult novel today, and yet in so many ways that’s exactly what it is, the prototype for the female bildungsroman all the way up to The House on Mango Street and beyond. I am still thinking through this book’s honesty.

I had a number of “books I like to reread,” but I’ll save that for another post, another time.  I am working on Abraham Verghese’s novel Cutting for Stone, and I just picked up The Tragedy of Arthur. Have a good weekend. I hope you’re able to enjoy some reading time.

An unexpected stretch

“How does it feel to be writing your own MFA?” my newly-refound childhood friend asked me, while we were chatting on Facebook this week. A concert pianist, and thus an artist herself, she wondered if I faced issues with writer’s block, or struggled with a blank page, or a blank screen. “Sometimes the longest trip is between me and the piano,” she wrote.

“Well, I’ve been away from writing for a while—for now, I still hunger to write,” I replied. “And I know that an artist’s life is not a linear one.” (“Amen, sister!” she wrote back.) “But right now, I think it’s more fulfilling.”

And it’s true, so far. While writing my dissertation had its own rewards, a life lived in bookstore cafes and libraries, this version of my writing life is, well, fun. And it’s a foreign work ethic for me, when my work ethic is usually much more Puritan.

These days I just don’t want writing to be work that I hate. I don’t mind it being hard. I don’t mind working hard. But I don’t want to hate it. I don’t want to write out of guilt for having not written. I don’t want to write in order to please a hostile or cynical audience. I want writing to always have some element of pleasure as the goal. (I’m telling you, Stephen King’s On Writing has some great stuff in it.)

So when I write these days, I am seeking pleasure. Every time I decide to write creatively, it is a gift that I am giving myself.

You might hear the faintest hint of yoga-speak creeping into that last sentence, and I don’t blame you if you are skeptical. Too granola, too Berkeley, too earth-mothery, too woo-woo. I know, I know, I know. Surprising that despite growing up in California, despite going to UC Berkeley, I didn’t take up yoga until I moved to Washington. Like many people, maybe even some of you reading right now, I rolled my eyes at yoga. But really, now that I think about it, the idea of writing as a gift to myself must have something to do with my yoga practice.

A few years ago my sister convinced me to try yoga. For a little while, I took yoga classes at the recreational sports center here. And when the karate students were thumping upstairs over our overheated yoga room, I couldn’t see any “horizon” past my Warrior II fingertips, pointing at the heap of dirty blue gymnastics mats. And then I bought some DVD’s like the ones here. And it was fine, but not great, much less life-changing.

But then I started taking classes, and found a studio that I love, about a mile from my house. The teachers often incorporate meditation techniques. (Some of my favorite techniques: focus on an image, a word, a quotation, and use these as themes for the hour and a half. It’s actually quite literary.) The teachers gently correct postures. And the studio itself tries to create community within its community, from the self-introductions at the beginning of classes to the sponsorship of farmers markets to the weekend retreats, events and workshops.

And for someone like me, who lives so deeply in the mind, yoga has been a priceless gift, because it emphasizes the mind-body connection. Academics live at computers, at desks, at tables; it can be physically and mentally damaging if there are no times to take a break. It’s absorbing, and rewarding, but it can take its toll.

While academia often involves judgment, yoga doesn’t judge me. I rarely look around to see what other students are doing, and I don’t feel the need to compete with them. (“Ooh! She’s holding her ‘tree pose’ longer than I did!”) I’m never sorry that I went to yoga, and that’s an entirely new approach to work, and even exercise, for me. Even after several years, I feel like I’m still pretty new, but I’ve gone to a few advanced yoga classes. There I’m nowhere near as flexible or practiced as other students, but it’s actually fun to shrug my shoulders (mindfully) and just give the pose a try. Or rest.

There was a series of poses that used to be very difficult for me; I had to start out in the easiest, most modified version. Then I had to modify a little less, but for months my arms would shake when I’d lower myself to the ground. But one day I realized that I could do these poses without any modification or protest, mental or physical. And I wasn’t doing it to please my teacher, or to get a good grade, or to receive validation from anyone but myself. For an academic overachiever like me, it’s a revolutionary approach to learning.

Yoga taught me that holding up your own weight can sometimes be the hardest thing to do, but holding up your own weight can also be exactly what makes you strongest.

So now, six years after I started yoga, I can list almost identical reasons for my yoga practice and my writing: I go because there I can practice, and screw up, and fall; because there I can rearrange my mental furniture, or even redecorate my mental living room. And because there I am constantly surprised that I can discover new ways to be happy.

(And yes, now the title of this post comes into play. Sorry for the pun. But honestly, I didn’t expect to end up writing about yoga. I was going to write more about the latest developments with the book. Next time, for sure.)

Summer reading lists, 2010

Recently completed reading

  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
  • Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby
  • The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp
  • Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Reading right now (In media re[ad]s)

  • War Dances, by Sherman Alexie
  • The Calligrapher’s Daughter, by Eugenia Kim
  • The Guardians, by Ana Castillo

Reading returned to the library, without reading in its entirety

  • South of Broad, by Pat Conroy (I like his books, but tire of his one protagonist with the same mother issues.)
  • Sparkle Life, by Kara Lindstrom (Beware the book that needs “sex” on its book jacket description, twice.)

Reading on the bedside table: on deck

  • The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee
  • Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, by David Mura
  • Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich

Reading that may require more quiet and commitment than I’ve got right now (and that I hope to get to eventually)

  • Baltasar and Blimunda, by José Saramago
  • The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

Reading I haven’t bought yet

  • The Stieg generic ventolin albuterol Larsson novels (anyone want to loan me these?)
  • I-Hotel, by Karen Tei Yamashita
  • Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain

On my hold list at the library

  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

A few favorite rereadings in bits and pieces:

  • Three Junes, by Julia Glass
  • The Sum of Our Days, by Isabel Allende
  • Comfort Me With Apples, by Ruth Reichl

Books to reread soon for the book project

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  • Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

Books to buy soon

  • Honoring Juanita, by Hans Ostrom
  • The Atlas of Love, by Laurie Frankel

A bit of recommended online reading

I’m happy to answer questions or comment more on any of these, by request. And you? (as Shauna likes to ask) What do your summer reading lists look like?

Revision of Assignment #1 (Tell a story in lists)

On Becoming a Writer (Again): A Progress Report of Habits

Clean desk.
Hours to complete: about 4.

Renew library card. Check out library books.

First checkout from the library: 2 books. Second checkout from the library: 1 book. Latest checkout from the library: about 14 books.

Read more fiction for pleasure.

  • Read Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, a few stories from Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You. Laughed over one, puzzled over the other (perhaps am not hip enough? a high probability).
  • Tried to read Sonya Chung’s Long for this World, but had to return it to the library. Want other people to read this book—it looks like it will be important, transnational, historically relevant. But early in the book, had this terrible feeling that a feverish child was going to die. Couldn’t go on.

Read nonfiction writing.
Just finished Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France. An inspiration.

Resurrect the quote journal for inspiration.
Taste these from My Life in France:
• “the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite” (302)
• “how lovely life can be if one takes time to be friendly” (66)
• “I was thirty-seven years old and still discovering who I was.” (67)

Carry several notebooks and pens around with you.

  • Saw my writer friend R’s clothbound journal a few weeks ago: the cover soft, lovely, well-worn like an heirloom quilt. Want my notebook to be like that: used, not reserved for special occasions, like fancy china behind glass cabinet doors.
  • Using one of those hardbound blank journals that had been a Christmas gift. Having that notebook is like having a camera: not only are moments and thoughts that much easier to document, but having the journal is itself a lens and a mandate.

Read books on writing.

  • Started Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It’s been recommended reading for writers, but all can think about, at least in this early part of the memoir, is “No wonder he writes horror novels.”
  • Started worrying about some of the different neuroses associated with writers: the sullen solitary, the competitive wit, the narcissistic venom, the icicle-forming insecurity. (Note to self: do not confuse writers with anonymous YouTube or newspaper commenters.) Thought about the writer who reads other writers and always loses in self-judged beauty writing contests. Always the bikini round, not the interview, that wins the day.
  • Wondered if this worrying about worrying is a writer’s characteristic.


  • Blog posts: 19
  • Status updates on Facebook and Twitter: probably too many.
  • Typed letter to a friend: 1


  • Posted first drafts on the blog, then second and third and fourth drafts.
  • Reflected more on earlier entries, such as the one about the act of loaning out and returning library books. Although still struggling to love abundantly, wonder if my love of owning books may be actually less about generosity and more about the idea of hoarding something. You hoard something that you love because you worry that it will be taken away from you.
  • Tried to remove as many “I”’s from this post as possible.

1. Collaged the lists, wrote, revised the first assignment into a linear story.

2. Oldest daughter commandeered one notebook from my purse, while we were waiting at the airport. She’s started to write and illustrate her first narrative book.

3. Opened my dad’s manuscript; had been scared to reread it; haven’t read it in over 25 years.

4. Woke up with a filmic ending of a story. Had never met the boy and girl characters, though had seen that particular off-ramp to downtown Seattle many times over. Two balloon releases. Not sure why. Wanted to know how the characters got to that image. Started to dream in fiction.

Not the blue jeans, again

Here’s my claim for the day: good writers make the most out of the tension between structure and freedom.

My husband, who’s a composer, always tells me that the artist’s job is to play with tension and release. I’ll work with that idea in another post, perhaps even Assignment #2, but today’s lesson is about structure and freedom.

I was going to write another post tonight about fear (Internet trolls! Amazon reviewers!), but that topic is already starting to feel worn as the clichéd blue jeans. And I do know that creative writing’s not a linear process. Writing about fear for a few posts won’t clear away my fears forever, I’m sure.

In the meantime, what was originally a fun tag line has become a liberating way to think about this blog: as a private MFA. Heck, I’ve already applied and been accepted! With full funding! I get to decide when I’ve graduated! I can do whatever I want, whenever I want!


I can do whatever I want: the writer’s blessing and curse.

The teacher in me wants to begin with a syllabus, a reading list, a schedule of assignments, a final project. It’s an MFA, right? Semester 1: finish X. Semester 2, finish Y. Repeat for 2-3 years. Degree granted. Ah, the comfort of a schedule. I like schedules, and as you saw, I like lists. The Capricorn part of me wants schedules…and features…and regularly scheduled features, and featured schedules, and scheduled regularity. But phrased that way it sounds, well, boring, doesn’t it? Why do a private MFA if it’s where to buy ventolin inhalers boring?

Thus, because it’s against my nature, and I think it’s good for me, I won’t create a full structure just yet, to see how things develop. For now, I want to post several times a week. The posts will include these musings about my new writing life, and my self-assignments, and the results of those assignments. As a partial reading list, I’d like to revisit some books about writing, including Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and I’ve been told to pick up Stephen King’s On Writing. (Other suggestions and websites welcome.) However, if it weren’t so mid-90’s, and so ugly, and so distracting, I’d put up those pixilated flashing “Under Construction” signs all over this site. You’ll just have to imagine them whenever you click anywhere here. Or not.

And so I told you that I didn’t want to write about fear again, but I think my desire to hyperschedule may be another way of trying to control the fear, to dance the Procrastination Waltz around the fear. Hitting “publish” on this post was freeeaky, let me tell you. But it’s that kind of fear that pushed me to write creatively in the first place, to start this blog, and it’s that kind of parachute jump fear that artists take whenever they share their work. You get a rush from parachute jumps—or so I’ve been told. It’s the ultimate metaphor of structure, then freedom.

Enough procrastinating! I’ll have an assignment for you next time.