Follow These Rules and Live

Is your life gothic or epic or merely suburban?

Is your life gothic or epic or merely suburban?

Miles I ran today: 4.5

Temperature when I ran: 69

Excellent memoir I just beta-read: 1

[Content of conversation below may have been altered to suit my needs. Sorry, Mom.]

Setting: The mid-’90s

Me: Mom, why didn’t you do some horrible thing in my childhood so I could write a best-selling memoir? You gave me no material. Couldn’t you have beat me up a little bit?

Mom: You were obnoxious enough for me to think about it. Several times.

Me: But by having self-control, you have left me with nothing. Nothing. To. Write. About.

Mom: I weep for you.

Back in the ’90s, there was a rash of tragic, horrible, tell-all books about alcoholic parents and people chasing other people with scissors and heroin overdoses and running away from home.

It was enough to make any writer feel a bit, well, under-prepared for writing a best-selling memoir. Or anything that anyone might want to read.

But then, a gift:

At least one of those writers lied. Big time.

And then another gift:

Elementary school teachers started teaching about writing in terms of “small moments.”

And then another gift:


All of us who had childhoods full of homemade cake and Atari and mean words from other kids but no near-death experiences were given the opportunity to write for other people who were A-okay reading about the Little Things In Life.

Writers like Elizabeth Berg flourished.

There is a small moment in her collection of short stories, The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted, when the main character (MC) and her husband are preparing for their grown kids to come over for Thanksgiving dinner. The MC sees a small stain on the crotch of her husband’s khakis, and she is annoyed by it because (and I paraphrase) “we all know what that is.”

I must have read that part 12 times for the sheer genius of it.

And as my husband pointed out, there are dozens of small moments in Gone Girl. It’s like a writer’s workshop of how to incorporate details without overwhelming the reader.

He re-read me a sentence where author Gillian Flynn writes about the torn felt of a mini-golf hole, which allows the reader to fill in the rest of the scene. She doesn’t need to tell us that the mini-golf building has crumbling paint or that the plastic palm trees have torn places.

Today, after spending my early adulthood wondering if I had any scrap of material to write about, I see material everywhere.

Like last weekend.

We got out from under the evil clutches of the cable company and bought an antenna for our TV.


I was wandering around the house a few days later, picking up miscellaneous bits and pieces and relocating them to the trash can, when something caught my eye, typed in all caps on the antennae instructions:

Follow These Rules and Live.

Somewhere, there is a technical writer with a sense of humor in the face of boring material.

And I want to thank her for the name of my future memoir.


Books I Can’t Forget or Why I Have a Secret Desire to Go Camping in the Wilderness

I may look tough, but I’m actually scouting for the pool boy and nearest 1000-thread-count sheets.

Miles run today: 10

Things accomplished today: 0

Mediocre book I am currently reading: 1

Some of my friends don’t read.

I know!!! Pick your jaw up off the floor.

This is as alien to me as it would be to you if I said that I don’t follow any sports teams. Any.

I know. Some people think I’m pretty strange, like when I was five, and my mom took me to a birthday party at Pizza Hut and had to tell the mom that I didn’t like pizza. The mom immediately nominated me for Weirdest Kid Ever and wouldn’t let me play with her daughter anymore. Or maybe I did, but I didn’t get invited back to Pizza Hut for years.

Since then, I’ve eaten a lot of pizza. A lot.

Anyway, sometimes I wonder what those friends and I talk about. I mean, if you missed The Time Traveler’s Wife, maybe you need to pick it up and give me a call afterwards. And I don’t mean see the movie. I mean, fall in love with Henry and Clare in print and get back to me.

If you can’t stop thinking about a book, I think the writer has done his or her job. I thought I would share some books I’ve read in the past few years that I can’t stop thinking about.

1. Man/Woman vs. Nature vs. Self

I am intrigued by a single person up against the odds. Walking, running, swimming, pain, torture, overwhelming odds… and they make it.

I am also the person most of my friends and family would nominate as Least Likely to Embark on a Solo Camping Trip Through the Mountains. And yet… I cannot stop reading about people embarking on solo trips through the mountains.

I read the historical novel Follow the River by James Alexander Thom several years ago… I can’t forget it. Based on a true story, Mary Ingles was kidnapped by Shawnee Indians from her home in Virginia in the 1700s. She walked a thousand miles, making some horrendously difficult choices, to get back to her husband and former life. Without a GPS.

I finished Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail just the other day. Her memoir starts with her mother dying and a painful divorce and involves hiking and quite a few toenails falling off. I couldn’t put it down.

Both Mud, Sweat & Tears by Bear Grylls and Ultra Marathon Man by Dean Karnazes aren’t memoirs to read for exquisite writing. But if you want to feel inspired by the journey of two extraordinary people pushing on in the face of pain and exhaustion, these are the books for you. They’ll make your little thirteen mile run look like a comfy soak in the tub.

I am fascinated and forever changed by books I’ve read about World War II and the Holocaust. You will thank me if you read Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. Not only is the true story of Louis Zamperini riveting, I can’t say enough that I bow down to Hillenbrand’s way with words, superior narrative nonfiction and impressive research skills. Any other book you read will pale in comparison. Really.

If you read only one book about the Holocaust, let it be Night by Elie Wiesel. We read it a few summers ago for book club. I took it to the beach with me and read it almost in one sitting. I can’t recommend it for ocean-side happiness, but Wiesel’s life has forever changed mine.

2. Crush-worthy Women’s Fiction That’s “Quiet” (gasp)

I admit it: I have a writer-crush on Elizabeth Berg. She has small moments of genius everywhere in her work. I love her novels, but one of the books that made me love short stories again was her collection called The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted. She writes as if she has been inside your home, thinking your thoughts and talking to your husband.

Much has been said to writers about “quiet” books. As much as I love Hunger Games and Divergent and things that blow up and self-destruct and are wonderfully “high concept,” I wish agents and publishers would listen to readers: many of us enjoy “quiet” books. One that is a favorite for me is The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. If you are a writer learning how to say a lot in a few words and develop characters that readers will love, read this book like a bible.

I love all of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books. When Alexander McCall Smith writes about Africa, you escape into a different way of life. I especially love to read about Mma. Ramotswe in the dead of winter. I almost start feeling warm again.

3. Narrative Nonfiction that Made Me Love Nonfiction

Perhaps you are one of the only people in the world who has not yet read the memoir The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. So read it. You won’t be able to look at bacon, candy bars or poverty the same way again.

What is the What by Dave Eggers defies categorization and perhaps isn’t exactly narrative nonfiction… but I saw into another way of life, the struggles of refugees who live their entire lives in camps in foreign lands. I used to think that one day, they would go home. This book opened my eyes and changed my worldview.

4. Page-turning, Epic Fiction

What could be better than vampires, witches and age-old secrets? A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness connects us to a reluctant witch, her sexy, intelligent vampire scientist love interest and a manuscript sought by witches, vampires and demons alike. I can’t wait to read the second book in the trilogy, recently released.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett made me remember why I loved castles, kings, cathedrals and epic tales. My lifetime favorite book, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, has a similarly epic vibe. And castles. And kings. Evil and heartache, destiny and heart.

5. Humor

I’ve read a lot of great memoir/humor in the past few years. But The King of Humor, David Sedaris, remains king for me. If you haven’t read it already, check out Me Talk Pretty One Day.

My husband won’t allow me to read Sedaris’s stuff in bed anymore, because I get hysterical and can’t stop laughing and get that annoying gasping sound and start pounding on the bed when he’s trying to calm down and go to sleep.

What are the best books you’ve discovered or rediscovered in the past few years? What do I need to put on my to-read list? Which books have changed your life… as an adult?