Seven Profound Things Annie Dillard Taught Alexander Chee About Writing

Before Chee was a famous writer, he learned the craft from Dillard

We all start somewhere, even Alexander Chee. 

Chee is a famous writer and poet, the author of Edinburgh and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays. But in 1989, he was a senior at Wesleyan University who hoped and wondered if he could make it as a writer.

That’s when he took Annie Dillard’s Literary Nonfiction class. Dillard’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and 300 students applied to take her course. She only accepted 13, one of which was Chee. 

Chee covers what Dillard taught him about writing in her class in this essay. Below are seven of the most profound lessons Dillard imparted to Chee. 

Show, Don’t Tell Emotions.

Which of these sentences do you enjoy reading the most?

A) The puppy was giddy.

B) The puppy galloped along the lane, its open snout exposing a lolling, pink tongue as brown ears flapped about the sides of its head.

Dillard taught Chee that good writing shows characters’ emotions. It doesn’t say it.

“Don’t tell the reader that someone was happy or sad. When you do that, the reader has nothing to see. She isn’t angry, Annie said. She throws his clothes out the window.”

Your Story’s Start May Be Buried

Dillard suggests your story may begin later than you realize. 

Months ago, I finished the manuscript for a novel. But the story wasn’t right, and I couldn’t figure out why. 

Dillard’s advice in hand, I revisited the manuscript and realized I’d buried the story’s beginning. A scene that sets up everything for what comes later in the novel was many pages deep, so now I’m bringing it to the surface. 

“The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat, that most times, the place your draft begins is around page four…If the beginning isn’t there sometimes it’s at the end, that you’ve spent the whole time getting to your beginning, and that if you switch the first and last pages you might have a better result than if you leave them where they were.”

Verbs Make Your Story Go

Everyone hates boring writing. Writers don’t want to create it, and readers don’t want to read it.

The trick, according to Dillard, is in the verbs we use. Picking the proper verbs drives our writing and brings it to life. 

“You want vivid writing. How do we get vivid writing? Verbs, first. Precise verbs. All of the action on the page, everything that happens, happens in the verbs.”

Forget About Being Original

We hear it all the time, and still, it bears repeating. We’re the only ones who can write from our experience with our perspective.

Dillard pointed out to her students that no one expects a writer to create something that never before existed. Doing so is nearly impossible. So instead, write in your voice, from your view.

“You are the only one of you…Your unique perspective, at this time, in our age, whether it’s on Tunis or the trees outside your window, is what matters. Don’t worry about being original.”

Compare Yourself to the Best Writers

This piece of advice surprised me. Writers often talk on social media about how unhealthy it is to compare yourself to others.

Why, I wondered, did Dillard tell her students to compare themselves to some of the greatest writers who ever lived?

Then I realized Dillard wasn’t talking about comparing book sales, page views, or accolades with the greats. She was talking about comparing our writing with theirs. 

Joan Didion taught herself to write by copying Hemingway’s novels, word for word. Likewise, Hunter S. Thompson copied F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

We should set our sights high. Let’s compare ourselves to those who write the best versions of what we aim to write, be it novels, online articles, or poems. 

“Don’t compare yourselves to each other. Compare yourself to Colette, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Compare yourselves to the classics. Shoot there.”

You Need More Than Talent

In college, I spent a summer working on a political campaign. Some of the folks I worked with weren’t too much older than me, yet they ran the show, and some soon took influential roles on a U.S. Presidential campaign.

These people didn’t get the jobs and responsibilities they did because they were the smartest. They simply outlasted everyone else, so they were the only ones remotely qualified for the positions. 

Working in politics is brutal, and most, as I did, do it for a short while before burning out. But, if you stick with it, before long you’ll be more experienced than most. Then you’ll get the more prominent gigs.

It’s the same in writing, according to Dillard. The longer you work at it, the more likely you are to succeed.

“Talent isn’t enough. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.”

Seven Writing Truths From Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard is a champion writer. She’s won a Pulitzer Prize, published novels and essay and poem collections.

And, according to a former student, the writer Alexander Chee, Dillard is also a skilled teacher. Here’s some of the best writing advice she gave Chee:

  • Show, don’t tell your character’s emotions.
  • You may bury your story’s beginning.
  • Verbs give your story life.
  • Don’t worry about originality.
  • Compare your work against the best writers.
  • Writing requires longevity.

Keeping Dillard’s thoughts in mind can help us become better writers who stick with our art for the long haul. 

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Smelling the Reading Right Under Your Nose May Open New Doors In Your Writing

Sometimes the best writing, the writing you need to read, is where you least expect it.

It’s not news to most writers that they should read if they want to improve their craft. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing.

We read books, maybe venturing outside our preferred genres, but usually sticking to what we know and love. We may read magazines, blog posts, perhaps even vehicle owner’s manuals. (Hey, that counts!) And if you’re reading this, you probably read Medium articles.

The New Yorker is part of my regular reading rotation. Doing so requires diligence as the magazine comes out most weeks of the year. Miss one week, and you’ll never catch up.

But I don’t read every issue of The New Yorker from cover to cover. Who has the time?

Instead, I read only the stuff that interests or relates to me in some way. At least that’s how I used to read The New Yorker until I discovered something.

It Was Under My Nose This Whole Time

One section of The New Yorker I skipped every issue is titled Talk of the Town. These are short, roughly 500-700 word pieces about something or someone somehow connected to current events, often about New York City. 

Not living in New York, I figured I could ignore Talk of the Town and not miss anything. The other day, though, I read this Susan Orlean article about how she mentally approaches her writing. 

When Orlean first started at The New Yorker, she wrote for Talk of the Town. Learning to write for that section of the magazine established a writing framework she follows still today.

“The metric I live by is the Talk of the Town,” Orleans said.

Realizing that today’s Talk of the Town writers could be tomorrow’s Susan Orleans, and recognizing how Orleans compartmentalizes her writing is similar to my mindset, I decided to give Talk of the Town another chance. Good thing I did. 

The pieces are quick, engaging, entertaining, informative, and short. They are perfect templates for online writing, which is how I make my living as a self-employed freelance writer. And, newsflash, that’s the kind of writing we do here on Medium. 

Plus, as Orlean points out, it can be wise to tackle any writing project as if it’s a Talk of the Town vignette.

“I find myself sitting down and writing the equivalent of a Talk piece and thinking, wow, that wasn’t so hard, was it? and then writing the next and the next, and then suddenly I’ve written a piece or a book,” Orleans said.

Switch Up Your Reading, Open New Doors

No longer do I skip Talk of the Town. The pieces in this section of The New Yorker are ideal reading for those of us writing for an online audience. And, as Stephen King said, good writers read a lot. 

So, I stopped to smell the writing right under my nose. Now I’m enjoying well-written, professionally edited content that is a good example of my writing.

What about you? Is there writing you could be reading that will help you grow as a writer?

Try reading something different, maybe a newsletter you’ve heard about but ignored, or a book you’ve been putting off reading. You never know what doors in your writing you may open by switching up what you read.

The Three Impactful Lessons Writers Can Gleam From Bo Burnham’s Inside

Bo Burnham’s Inside is many things. Funny. Entertaining social commentary. Perhaps one of the first widely consumed pieces of post-pandemic art.

And Bo Burnham: Inside is a fantastic look at the creative process. While watching this 87-minute film, three things stood out to me as impactful lessons for writers.

Bo Burnham is a comedian/actor who got his start on YouTube in 2006. Burnham starred in the 2020 film Promising Young Woman, and he released Inside on May 30 of this year.

Burnham recorded Inside during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic from inside one room in his home. Pandemic restrictions forced Burnham to make the film alone. He was director, star, producer, lighting, grip, and so on.

Inside includes some hilarious songs commenting on present culture, such as “White Woman’s Instagram” and “FaceTime with My Mom (Tonight).” 

As the film progresses, though, things turn dark. Burnham grows frustrated, panicked by the isolation of quarantining and of making a massive piece of art. 

By spotlighting, literally at times, his creative process, Burnham provides three notable lessons for writers.

Screenshot from Bo Burnham's Inside
Bo Burnham: Inside. Photo: YouTube

Writing Ain’t Easy.

A famous writing quote, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, goes something like this: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Most writers can relate to this sentiment. Writing is painful. It’s hard, sometimes almost impossible, and not always fun. 

How many times have you labored over the same sentence, struggling to find the right words to express what’s inside your head? Who hasn’t stared at a blank page or screen, begging for a writing idea to arrive?

We know what it’s like to be alone in a room trying to birth into the world this thing that’s inside you, but we do not see how this appears.

Burnham shows us. Inside holds a mirror to the creative process we writers go through, and the results are jarring, a visual reminder that writing is not easy.

Your Endurance Will Be Tested.

Right now, I have around 40,000 words of a novel I stopped writing a few years ago. The other day on Twitter, I saw a writer say a story they’d submitted to dozens of websites and journals finally got accepted.

The cliché holds: Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. And any marathoner will tell you endurance is a critical part of finishing the race.

Writers have many definitions for finishing. It could mean completing a first draft, or it could mean publishing something you’ve written.

For Burnham, finishing Inside meant getting it ready for release on Netflix. It took him months. He worked alone inside the same room, bringing us along as he raced this marathon.

In the beginning, we see him freshly shaved, rested, and energetic. Then we watch as Burnham’s hair gets long, he grows a beard, bags appear under his eyes, and he appears on the verge of giving up.

But Burnham didn’t stop. He pushed through, dug deep, and finished Inside.

It takes endurance for us writers to finish our first draft, make it through editing and revisions, and see our creations released into the world.

It Will Hit the Fan.

In Jan. 2020, Burnham wasn’t planning to make Inside. He was instead returning to standup comedy, which he’d paused doing for a few years. COVID-19 stopped all that.

So, Burnham retreated to his house and created Inside. 

The business world calls this pivoting. Startup companies often pivot from their initial business model to something they think may make them more profitable.

Burnham pivoted. Many of us writers pivot, too.

Your story may not work, so you scrap parts of it. The article you’re writing may need a new angle or more or different sources. 

External forces can also impact your work. Your kid gets sick, your job gets busy, and we all know the wrench a pandemic can throw into the best-laid plans.

Writing is as much pivoting as it is creating. That’s why we writers need to be agile and able to withstand the unexpected. 

Three Lessons for Writers From Inside

Bo Burnham’s Inside is a magnificent look at the creative process, highlighting three crucial lessons for writers:

  • Writing is not easy.
  • Writers need endurance.
  • Things will not go as planned.

Keeping these points in mind can help us survive the tricky parts and create our best writing. And it’s powerful to know you’re not alone in what you’re going through. 

All of us writers have our difficulties. All of us, at times, want to give up. But Bo Burnham: Inside proves that by pushing through the challenges, we can create something magical.

Writers, We Gotta Slay This Bad Habit to Produce Our Most Profound Work and Find Our Audience

Here’s a trap that often snares us, writers. Instead of writing in our voice, we write to people’s expectations.

Post-it notes with words like "norms" and "expectation" on them
Photo by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash

We give people what they expect, not what we can create. Other artists do it, too, including country music singer Mickey Guyton.

A recent New Yorker profile of Guyton relayed a conversation Guyton had a few years ago with her husband.

“I remember asking, ‘Why do you think country music isn’t working for me?’” Guyton says in the profile. “And he said, ‘Because you’re running away from everything that makes you different. Why aren’t you writing country songs from the perspective of a Black woman? Not from the perspective of what you think country music looks like for other people, but what country music is for you?’”

We writers do that, too. We run from what makes us different and instead deliver writing that looks like what others expect from us. And we do that for a few reasons.

For one thing, the experts tell us to produce writing that meets others’ expectations. You know as well as I do, there’s plenty of writing guidance that tells us to understand our audience so we can publish what they want to read. 

That advice makes sense in a business context. If you’re writing a client’s blog or publishing on Medium only to earn money, then, sure, you should probably only write what your target audience wants to read.

Many of us writers, though, want to produce—dare I say it—art. Writing for us turns inside out our existences, from our memories to our present feelings. We write poems, stories, articles, novels, and stuff we can’t even categorize.

But we sometimes let others’ expectations dictate our art. We, like Mickey Guyton, run from what makes us different so we can produce writing we think others want to see.

This challenge is perhaps the most significant obstacle I face in my writing. The last thing I want to do is embarrass or disappoint those closest to me. 

And that’s a pitiful mindset for an artist.  

There’s a scene in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers in which an officer’s trying to help a private overcome his fear.

“The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead,” the lieutenant says. “The sooner you accept that the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it.”

Writers need a similar mindset. We need to accept that we’re going to offend people. We’re not going to meet everyone’s expectations, and not everyone will like or approve of us or our writing. 

The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can function as an artist is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All art depends upon it.

That acceptance is not easy. I’ve struggled with it my whole artistic life, even today as a middle-aged man who’s finally committed to his art. And I can’t today tell you exactly how to overcome the compulsion to write to others’ expectations.

What I can do is let you know you’re not alone if this is your struggle. I can encourage you to fight the desire to write for others without first writing for yourself, and in doing so, I remind and support myself to do the same.

Write in your voice, from your perspective. Tap your deepest veins and give us what lies inside you. 

That is the art you want to produce, the art you need, for your sanity and enrichment, to create. That is the art we need you to make.

Nine Powerful Lessons From Poet Edward Hirsch and How Writers Can Apply Them to Their Work

Writers learn a lot from other writers, and poet Edward Hirsch is no exception.

Hirsch shared some thoughts on poetry in an interview with The Paris Review that has instrumental guidance and insight for writers of all stripes. Whether we’re poets, freelancers, novelists, or more, we can enhance your writing practice by absorbing Hirsch’s words. 

Here are nine powerful things for writers to absorb from Edward Hirsch.

Person holding their open palm below the sun
Photo by Rampal Singh on Unsplash

It’s Not Where You Start. It’s Where You Go and Grow

“I started writing in high school to make myself feel better. I wrote the way a lot of teenagers write, out of emotional desperation. I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I hadn’t really read anything. But when I wrote things down in lines—it would be generous to call what I was writing poetry—I felt consoled. And so I kept doing it.”

We’re not born excellent writers. We become good by making ourselves, through doing, writing, and writing, and by reading others’ work. 

All writers have a beginning. The best of us keep going.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to read poetry to the exclusion of other things. That would be like eating only one kind of food.”

We writers need to branch out in our reading. Read genres we usually don’t, magazines we ordinarily avoid. Consume poetry, essays, blog posts, and more. 

The more we read, the more our writing grows.

“Poetry needs to continually enlarge its vocabulary and its subject matter.”

Swap “poetry needs” for “writers need” in this sentence, and it remains true. Writers like you and I need to enlarge our vocabulary and subject matter continually. That’s why reading all we can is a big part of our writer evolution.

Be a Responsible Writer Who Uses Their Secret Sauce

“We have a responsibility to the words we employ, since, as poets, language is in our care, our keeping.”

Edward Hirsch
Edward Hirsch | Photo by Michael Lionstar, licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Language is in the care of all of us writers. Words are our currency, and we’d be wise to spend them carefully. 

May every word we use advance our story and make our argument. May we show language the respect it deserves by using it to communicate to our readers effectively.

“We need poetry to keep expanding so that it can account for the actual lives that people are living. It can’t all be just about love, death, and the changing of the seasons.”

Our writing must evolve because our readers evolve. Think about your ideal reader in Jan. 2020. Are they the same, having gone through the COVID-19 pandemic and visible instances of ongoing racial injustice in the U.S.? 

We need to grow as writers so we can push and pull our writing to change with us. It’s how we progress as artists. It’s how we continue creating art that resonates with others.

“You need to write about the life you’ve lived. It can’t all be aspirational. It’s part of your job, as a poet, to write out of experience. To name what matters to you. You’ve only got one life to draw on.”

It’s become cliché, but it remains true: Only you can write in your voice from your perspective. So tap your life, your background, lessons you’ve learned, and mistakes you’ve made in your writing. 

As writers, every piece of our being comprises our intellectual property (IP). We need to put that IP into our writing. 

“It takes a certain kind of recklessness to face oneself. The more upsetting it is, the more you’re supposed to fly toward it, like a moth to the flame.”

Easier said than done, right? But we each have stories only we can tell, and we should do our best to try and tell them.

Remember, Edward Hirsch Says, It’s Not About You

“It’s good for poetry to keep human beings in mind.”

All of us writers need to remember we’re writing for humans. If we tap into our intellectual property, fly like a moth to the flame of our story, we’ll produce writing that serves a purpose that provides meaning and attracts an audience. Our audience.

“I’m writing to a stranger in the future.”

We want to be mindful about what we put out into the world. Are we writing in our voice, saying something authentic? Is each piece the best version we can make it? 

Much of what we publish will be around for others to read, maybe as early as tomorrow, perhaps long after we’re gone. So let’s be proud of what we produce, for we’re all writing to a stranger in the future.

You can read the full interview with Edward Hirsch on The Paris Review.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an epic historical fiction novel taking place during the Nigerian Civil War, or Biafran War.

The book’s an enthralling tale about multiple struggles. There’s Nigeria’s endeavor to overcome European colonialism, the armed conflict between Nigeria and the rebel state of Biafra. And like any good story, there is contention among the novel’s characters, particularly between sisters Olanna and Kainene and their male partners, Odenigbo and Richard Churchill.

A story in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s hands is a thing to behold, and Half of a Yellow Sun is a prime example of its creator’s talents.

The plot advances despite occasional flashbacks and background information detailing the politics and events leading up to and shaping the Nigerian Civil War. The book’s characters are real, unique, with varying perspectives and motivations that shift as the novel unfolds. And Adichie drapes over it all Igbo cultures and traditions that elucidate the frictions between characters, Nigeria’s ethnic groups, and post-colonial Africa.

Not often do I read a novel that feels like a masterpiece. While I can’t quite put Half of a Yellow Sun on the level of legendary books such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it’s certainly close.

You can get Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie through my Bidwell Hollow store on

My rating: 5/5

Memorable Quotes from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun

“This is our world, although the people who drew this map decided to put their own land on top of ours. There is no top or bottom, you see.”

“She was used to this, being grabbed by men who walked around in a cloud of cologne-drenched entitlement, with the presumption that, because they were powerful and found her beautiful, they belonged together.”

"Those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved." - Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“He wished his whole village were here, so he could join in the moonlight conversations and quarrels and yet live in Master’s house with its running taps and refrigerator and stove.”

“The real tragedy of our postcolonial world is not that the majority of people had no say in whether or not they wanted this new world; rather, it is that the majority have not been given the tools to negotiate this new world.”

“What will you do with the misery you have chosen? Will you eat misery?”

“Olanna gently placed a pillow beneath her head and sat thinking about how a single act could reverberate over time and space and leave stains that could never be washed off.”

“How much did one know of the true feelings of those who did not have a voice?”

“There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.”

“He was not living his life; life was living him.”

“The rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal one dead white person.”

“Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved.”

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Half of a Yellow Sun Book Cover Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
November 12, 2008

From the award-winning, bestselling author of Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists—a haunting story of love and war Recipient of the Women’s Prize for Fiction “Winner of Winners” award With effortless grace, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra's impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. We experience this tumultuous decade alongside five unforgettable characters: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy who works for Odenigbo, a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna, the professor’s beautiful young mistress who has abandoned her life in Lagos for a dusty town and her lover’s charm; and Richard, a shy young Englishman infatuated with Olanna’s willful twin sister Kainene. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of the promise, hope, and disappointment of the Biafran war.

The Company Writers Keep

“You are the company you keep,” parents, often mothers, say, usually when they heard bad things about the family of someone you’re hanging out with at school or they don’t like your college roommate.

Your folks aren’t crazy about the people you spend time with because they don’t want you to become like them. And there might be something to this idea. For example, a review of research found “that peer-related stimuli may sensitize the reward system to respond to the reward value of risky behavior.” 

Set the stage for the writing you want to do.

What if a similar idea applies to writers? Maybe what we read influences our writing.

It’s a widely accepted concept for new writers.

Stephen Pressfield and Joan Didion learned started by writing sentences Ernest Hemingway wrote. Poet Billy Collins began his career copying Wallace Stevens. 

And J.K. Rowling says on her website, “Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.”

But there might be a connection between what we read and what we write, even when we’re no longer writing rookies.

Sometimes, when I need to write something with a specific tone, I’ll read something similar. Doing so gets my mind in the right place.

For example, if I want to write a humorous piece, I’ll read something funny. The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs items are excellent for this. 

I still write in my voice, and I’m certainly not copying anything from these influencing reading sessions. Yet, they make it easier for me to tap into the right tone of creativity I need to deliver in my writing.

It’s difficult for me to write something funny right after reading a serious news article. I need something to transition my brain from being sad, stressed, etc., to positive and lighthearted, making room for jokes and funny analogies.

Singers do vocal exercises before performing. Athletes stretch before taking the field. Why shouldn’t writers also benefit from a warmup?

And when doing your warmup, consider picking something that sets the stage for the writing you want to do. We are, after all, the company we keep.

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When You’re No Better Than Your Parents: A Hand Soap Lesson

It seems adulthood is a series of choices we make to prove we’re not our parents. Take hand soap, for example.

Growing up, mom bought non-name-brand-but-not-quite-knock-off hand soap. It came in small, plastic dispensers wrapped in little designs, like seashells or flowers. And the soaps’ scents would be a version of something you might smell in nature, such as “spring rain” or “autumn spice.”

Mom never bothered with reusable soap dispensers. Maybe she didn’t want to fuss with cleaning them. Or, perhaps as a working mom of two who lived on a farm with a huge garden, she needed to take something off her plate.

A plastic bottle of hand soap on a bathroom counter.
Photo by Dan Farrell on Unsplash

So our family of four pumped the hand soap out of the plastic dispenser in which it came. When it neared emptying, mom would drop a little water in to make sure we got every last bit of soap. Then when the watered-down soap was thorough, into the trash can went the now-empty soap dispenser, and out came a new, full plastic soap dispenser.

It’s a cycle I followed as a young man. I bought hand soap sold in a plastic dispenser and used it until it was empty. Then I tossed it into the trash and got another plastic dispenser of hand soap.

But when I reached full-fledged adulthood, defined by my ability to eat at a fast-casual restaurant whenever I wanted without worrying about the cost, I decided to leave my childhood hand soap ways behind. In hindsight, I switched to a brand that was probably explicitly created to capture that “early-stage Millennial out to prove they’re not their parents” market. 

This hand soap brand boasted that its packaging came in recyclable materials. Sure, other brands’ plastic dispensers were recyclable, too, but this new hand soap brand talked about recycling. And it smelled like something you knew, real stuff from nature, such as rose, honeysuckle, and lavender. Plus, the hand soap’s label looked like something the soap maker made in her home. You felt like you were buying a more environmentally friendly hand soap while also supporting a small business.

And for a time, you were supporting a small business. But then a big company bought the hand soap maker. The hand soap’s name, labels, and scents remained, though you could no longer pretend that the brand’s namesake was mixing the soap in her kitchen.

Then, one day, you toss a used soap dispenser into your recycling bin, and you recall an article you recently read about how China is no longer buying as much trash as it used to, creating a glut of plastic and glass that we in the U.S. hoped would be recycled. And you remember all the stories you’ve seen about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive collection of gathered trash somewhere between Hawaii and California.

That’s when you understand that all this time, you thought your hand soap purchasing decision was superior to your parents’, but you now realize it’s not. 

You must do better. You wouldn’t take a boat out into the ocean and drop a plastic soap dispenser into the water, yet you’ll toss plastic into a recycling bin, knowing full well it’s as likely to ride the high seas as it is to be recycled. And even if the plastic soap dispenser finds a new life as, say, a milk jug, eventually, the plastic’s usefulness runs out

You wouldn’t take a boat out into the ocean and drop a plastic soap dispenser into the water.

Nicholas E. Barron

The plastic that was once your soap dispenser that became a milk jug that then became something else runs out of life. That’s when the plastic ends up in a landfill or floating in the ocean. And that’s what led me to recently making a switch in our home.

First, we bought reusable glass soap dispensers. Secondly, we changed to a hand soap that comes in non-plastic containers that are recyclable but will disintegrate if they end up in the ocean. And the soap’s made of all-natural ingredients.

The husband and I feel good about this change. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

Of course, it’s possible down the road we’ll have another epiphany and decide we’ve been wrong about our hand soap buying all this time. 

Because that may be the next stage of adulthood for us all, we first prove we’re not our parents. Then we find out we don’t want to be ourselves, either.

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Memorial: A Novel by Bryan Washington

Memorial: A Novel is a story about two gay men, one Black, and one Japanese, in a struggling relationship. The story’s set in Houston and Japan, and both men take turns narrating the tale from their perspectives.

In Memorial, Bryan Washington deftly probes the challenges and hang-ups that early 21st century same-sex, male relationships sometimes experience. We came of age and came out when it was easier to be gay than before. Replicating traditional marriages and families is available to us if we want it. And yet we sometimes still suffer the damage of being raised by homophobic, prejudiced parents and society.

Memorial: A Novel is a truthful, at times heart-wrenching book. My one objection is how the characters speak to and treat each other. It’s harsh and blunt, which I struggled to identify with and understand. People in my life, especially those closest to me, don’t talk to each other as they do in Memorial.

And I felt at times as if the characters were one character, really. Each character’s speaking style and worldview not much different from another’s.

But Bryan Washington’s Memorial is an engaging, honest story. I enjoyed it, and recommend it.

You can get Memorial: A Novel by Bryan Washington through my Bidwell Hollow store on

My rating: 4/5

Memorable Quotes from Bryan Washington’s Memorial: A Novel

“The thing about a moving train is that, sometimes, you can catch it.”

“But the block has recently been invaded by fraternities from the college up the block. And a scattering of professor types. With pockets of rich kids playing at poverty. The Black folks who’ve lived here for decades let them do it, happy for the scientific fact that white kids keep the cops away.”

“I still hadn’t learned that there is a finite number of people who will ever be interested in you.”

“Everybody’s somebody’s villain.”

“A nondecision is a choice in itself.”

“You’re all like your fathers.”

"We take our memories wherever we go, and what’s left are the ones that stick around, and that’s how we make a life." - Memorial: A Novel by Bryan Washington

“It’s hard to head home without succumbing to nostalgia, standing where so many versions of yourself once stood.”

“Promises were only words, and words only meant what you made them.”

“Most ideas are good at the time. We don’t find out that they’ve gone wrong until they actually do.”

“We all change. We’ll all have plenty of homes in this life. It’s when you don’t that there’s an issue.”

“That loving a person means letting them change when they need to. And letting them go when they need to. And that doesn’t make them any less of a home. Just maybe not one for you. Or only for a season or two. But that doesn’t diminish the love. It just changes forms.”

“Everyone thinks there’s more they can do, he said. The truth is that, sometimes, you’re already doing it.”

“We take our memories wherever we go, and what’s left are the ones that stick around, and that’s how we make a life.”

“I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.”

“A society at once rigid and unstable can do nothing whatever to alleviate the poverty of its lowest members, cannot present to the hypothetical young man at the crucial moment that so-well-advertised right path.”

“In so far as I reacted at all, I reacted by trying to be pleasant—it being a great part of the American Negro’s education (long before he goes to school) that he must make people ‘like’ him.”

“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”

“Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious.”

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Memorial Book Cover Memorial
Bryan Washington
Riverhead Books

Benson and Mike are two young guys who live together in Houston. Mike is a Japanese American chef at a Mexican restaurant and Benson’s a Black day care teacher, and they’ve been together for a few years—good years—but now they’re not sure why they’re still a couple. There’s the sex, sure, and the meals Mike cooks for Benson, and, well, they love each other.

But when Mike finds out his estranged father is dying in Osaka just as his acerbic Japanese mother, Mitsuko, arrives in Texas for a visit, Mike picks up and flies across the world to say goodbye. In Japan he undergoes an extraordinary transformation, discovering the truth about his family and his past. Back home, Mitsuko and Benson are stuck living together as unconventional roommates, an absurd domestic situation that ends up meaning more to each of them than they ever could have predicted. Without Mike’s immediate pull, Benson begins to push outwards, realizing he might just know what he wants out of life and have the goods to get it.

Both men will change in ways that will either make them stronger together, or fracture everything they’ve ever known. And just maybe they’ll all be okay in the end.

Following Joan Didion’s Footsteps

Maybe it’s that when I read this Nathan Heller essay about Joan Didion, I was entering my annual winter yearn for sunshine and palm trees. Still, I found the piece an enlightening exposition on a writer whose career could serve as a template for people like me.

Didion is synonymous with California, Southern California in particular. You can’t read a Didion essay or book without feeling the California sun on your skin or the Pacific Ocean’s waves in your ears. And so, as my desires shifted from snowy cabins to beach cabanas, I was an eager audience for Heller’s article, which let me mentally escape our gray East Coast winter.

Yet easing my mild case of seasonal affective disorder isn’t the biggest bonus to Nathan Heller’s essay. What makes the article stand out is his focus on Didion’s career.

Joan Didion
Joan Didion

“For all her success, Didion was seventy before she finished a nonfiction book that was not drawn from newsstand-magazine assignments,” Heller writes.

Heller explains that throughout the 1960s and 70s, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, took writing assignments to pay their bills. Didion published a few novels, her first, Run River, in 1963, but to make ends meet, she wrote what businesses, mostly magazines, were willing to pay her.

Didion chose interesting subjects, from San Francisco’s hippies to Sharon Tate’s murder. And Didion wrote illuminatively, brilliantly, in ways that set her apart from others and catapulted her to the iconic status she holds today.

Didion already rested at the forefront of America’s literary mantle by the time I discovered her. Her essay collections are phenomenal, some of the best nonfiction stuff I’ve ever read. Reading them, I assumed Didion pitched publishers on the books, they agreed, then she went and wrote the stuff that went into the books I later read.

Nathan Heller’s New Yorker piece proves otherwise. Most of the essays in Didion’s early nonfiction books, such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album, come from columns and articles media companies paid her to write.

Many writers have a loose idea for how we’ll publish books. We get a book deal, then write the book. Next, the publisher releases the book we’ve written. We’ll write a book once someone pays us to write a book.

That may be some writers’ experiences, but it’s not how it went for Joan Didion. She and her husband had to eat, pay bills, and care for their daughter. That took money, so Didion and Dunne took writing assignments that paid.

It’s after Didion produced many articles and columns that a publisher was willing to release her book. Years later, Didion published her first nonfiction book that wasn’t a collection of work someone had already paid her to produce.

Most of us writers have to work for a living. We can feel frustrated and ashamed that we take writing assignments or work nonwriting jobs because we need electricity, food, health insurance. We want to write books, produce art, and yet we’re doing stuff we’d prefer to not in exchange for money.

But that’s OK. It might even be good. The work we do now can lead to the material we publish later. Perhaps it’s writing we repackage into a book, a la Didion style, or maybe it’s experiences and people we meet informing our future writing. 

There isn’t one path to getting published. Joan Didion forged one way, and now we get to walk through it.

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