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Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, NY. She edited the award-winning “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY” and the NY Times Bestselling “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.” She is the essays editor for Longreads. She tweets at http://twitter.com/saribotton

Finding Time to Write Even During the Busiest of Times

At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Amy Carleton has an essay on #1000WordsofSummer, the public two-week-long writing accountability project novelist Jami Attenberg offered to writers for free, via Twitter, Instagram, and TinyLetter, from June 15th through June 29th of 2018.

Carleton writes about how Attenberg helped created a “supportive literary community” online, and I concur. In fact, I benefitted from it.

I love my work editing other people’s writing, but I have a hard time finding time for my own writing, and sometimes even forget I’m a writer. The #1000WordsofSummer project came at what seemed the worst time for me. I had lost my stepfather of 33 years less than a month before; I was in the middle of moving to a new house; and I was taking part in bringing to light a local #metoo story.

But it turned out to actually be a fortuitous time for me to commit to writing 1000 words a day; it forced me to create the time, to get up earlier, stay up later, do whatever I had to do to be accountable to myself and the others who were writing. I did it every single day for those two weeks, and proved to myself that even in the busiest and craziest of times, you can find time to write 1000 words. I also enjoyed a sense of accomplishment, and felt for the first time in a long time as if I wasn’t self-abandoning the writer in me.

Many writers, in fact, lament over the number of their words that are “wasted” responding to the latest Twitter-drama instead of focusing on their own creative projects. “If you took all the time and all the words you used on Twitter… you could have written a book by now. #sadfacts,” observes one user.

But instead of perpetuating this regret, Attenberg turned her attention to creative empowerment. Within days, there was a hashtag: #1000wordsofsummer, and within weeks, a newsletter with almost 3000 subscribers. Once June 15 arrived, the daily emails from Attenberg commenced — some featuring guest commentary from other writers like Meg WolitzerAlissa Nutting, and Ada Limón. I printed out the newsletters each day and highlighted the words that resonated most with me; from novelist Laura van den Berg: “Here is the bottom line: I think often of what a painter said to me at a residency: ‘work makes more work.’ Indeed it does. Let’s do what we can.

Attenberg had no idea her project would have such traction. She was pleasantly surprised, to say the least.

Eventually, what Attenberg began on a lark showed how positive and encouraging online communities can be.

“While it wasn’t necessarily my original intention,” she reflects, “it became clear quite quickly that the people participating in it had created their own corner of the internet. I hadn’t been part of something like that before…And I actually found myself looking forward to going on the internet each day, instead of being full of dread about the news. Because I could check in on how people were doing and seeing their progress and say supportive things to them. For two weeks, I was able to be positive in that space, and experience the joy of others as they made progress in their work.

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Introducing ‘Fine Lines,’ a Series About Age and Aging

Today on Longreads we’re excited to launch a new series about age and aging, called “Fine Lines.” It will be mostly personal essays, written by a diverse group of writers from a range of age groups, with corresponding interviews on the Longreads Podcast. The essays will touch on every aspect of growing up and getting older: culture, states of mind, physical and mental health, relationships, sex, spirituality, style, money, career, fashion, beauty, food, recreation, and death.

* * *

Why a series on age and aging? Because we live in an age-obsessed culture, but also one in which each generation seems to define “adulthood” differently than the one before it. Particular attitudes and milestones are no longer necessarily associated with reaching certain birthdays. It’s as if somewhere along the way, the Baby Boomers burned the guidebook for what you’re supposed to achieve when, and the generations to follow have been making up their own rules.

This is also a personal obsession of mine — ever more so as I get older. I’ve always had a strange relationship to time and aging, and wonder constantly what each period of my life is supposed to mean. Perhaps it’s because I seem to be living off-script, without children (or grandchildren) helping me mark the passage of time. I often wonder, How old am I supposed to act? How old am I supposed to feel? Because at any given time, how I act and feel never quite match the numbers.

How old am I? The first number that often comes to mind is often 15, except when it’s 11. A questionnaire on BiologicalAge.com suggests that health-wise, I am 37, but a survey on AgeTest.com tells me I am 29. According to the information on my birth certificate, however, I was born in October of 1965, making me, at this writing, chronologically speaking, 52.

I am the oldest on the Longreads team, by kind of a lot. (The youngest on the team is literally half my age.) While I have a long and varied resume, and enjoy occasionally blowing my colleagues’ minds on Slack with comments that underscore how long I’ve been around, I don’t necessarily feel more mature or “adult” than the rest of them — gray hair, arthritic joints, hot flashes and occasional lapses in memory notwithstanding.

I find age and aging to be confusing and mystifying, and therefore fascinating. And as I get older, I only have more questions. Like, why do we give birthday cards that make jokes about getting older? Why are so many people ashamed of their age? Why aren’t I?

I want to know how other people — Gen X women like me, but also people of all genders and different backgrounds, at different points in their lives — are processing getting older. Because it’s happening to all of us, all the time.

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The first piece in the “Fine Lines” series, “Gone Gray,” by memoirist Jessica Berger Gross, is about her decision, at 45, to stop dying her hair, and how it has, in some ways, actually led her to feel younger.

We hope you’ll enjoy it, along with the rest of the series, as it unfolds.

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From the Fine Lines Series:
Gone Gray
An Introduction to Death
Age Appropriate

Balancing the Books

Pamela Hansford Johnson, English novelist and critic, chatting to novelist Olivia Manning at a party given by the British PEN Club to celebrate the opening of the club's new headquarters in Chelsea. Original Publication: Picture Post - 4722 - People Who Write Your Books - pub. 1949 Original Publication: People Disc - HM0383 (Photo by Picture Post/Getty Images)

It’s going to take a lot of work to correct history so that it includes all the great women whose lives and work have been overlooked and obliterated by the patriarchy. But strides are being made! The New York Times is retroactively publishing obituaries of notable women and others who aren’t straight white men. And now The Paris Review, which had virtually erased one of its own women editors from its masthead, as A.N. Devers reported last December *, has launched something of a corrective: “Feminize Your Cannon,” a monthly series featuring “underrated and underread” female authors.

The first installment, by Emma Garman, profiles British Novelist Olivia Manning (1908-1980), known best for her novel School for Love and for her Balkan and Levant trilogies.

It took Manning until late in her career to achieve a level of real acclaim, perhaps because her stories drew on harsher aspects of real life and less likable women characters — aspects that might have been better appreciated if she were publishing now. Manning was so vocally dissatisfied with her career she was known as “Olivia Moaning.” A contemporary of Iris Murdoch and Kingsley Amis, she was outwardly jealous of their greater success and fame. She’d bristled at the idea that she’d be more successful posthumously, but that’s what came to pass.

Seven years after her death in 1980 at age seventy-two, the BBC aired Fortunes of War, a faithful seven-part adaptation of the Balkan Trilogy and the Levant Trilogy. Starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh and featuring multiple international locations, the series had the highest budget in BBC history. Masterpiece Theatre’s broadcast of the show in the U.S. prompted the New York Times to call Manning “the only English woman novelist to have painted a broad, compassionate and witty canvas of men and women at war that invites comparison with Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh.”

Manning would have been gratified to finally hear it—and then disappointed anew. Today those who have read Manning’s novels (usually only the trilogies, as most of the others are out of print) tend to admire them. But her place in the pantheon of important twentieth-century British novelists, even of rediscovered women authors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Rosamond Lehmann, is marginal and precarious. The scholar and critic Rohan Maitzen, when writing about Manning, found “that her name was wholly unfamiliar to two of my academic colleagues who are specialists in early 20th-century literature.” None of Manning’s work is available on Kindle.

“Not all writers of genius take the public by storm,” she writes in her introduction to a 1968 edition of Northanger Abbey. “Jane Austen in her lifetime was successful without being a sensation.” The self-consolation is touchingly evident.

In the mean time, Devers soldiers on in her efforts to make sure women authors are given their due and more widely read. She’s just successfully crowdfunded a new business, The Second Shelf, which will offer “rare books, modern first editions, manuscripts, & rediscovered works by women,” plus a quarterly publication.

*The omission has since been corrected.

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My Puppy, Myself

Photo by Jason Diamond

At Curbed, Jason Diamond reflects on the early, difficult days with Max, the anxious rescue dog he and his wife adopted shortly after they were married. For a while, Max and his alpha attitude toward other dogs caused trouble between his owners and their neighbors in their Brooklyn apartment building. Looking back, Diamond understands where Max’s anxieties came from and realizes how much they were, and are, alike.

Max had a hard life before we adopted him as an adult. It was clear from his constant fear and anxiety that a previous owner had neglected and abused him. At three, he had no commands or socialization. It took months for us to get him to learn “sit,” even with training classes. If I had to guess, he was rarely, if ever, walked with a leash.

And he has no idea how to interact. He cries, whimpers, and sometimes growls, making other dog owners think maybe letting my dog meet theirs isn’t the hottest idea. From Max’s perspective, he must meet every other dog. Every butt not smelled is a missed opportunity. And when I stop to talk with somebody? Max gives me maybe 30 seconds, and then unleashes a series of barks that are the loudest I’ve heard from a smaller dog that isn’t a beagle.

My dog can be terrible, but when you take a dog that somebody else didn’t want into your home, you’re offering your open heart to the baggage that comes with them. And I guess, in a lot of ways, he’s just like me. His enemies are mine. And unfortunately, we’d made more than our fair share in our neighborhood.

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When Musical Theater Is Also a Kind of Therapy

Photo of cast members Ashton Bianchi, Kirsten McConnell, and Ethan Kaufman by Zak Krevitt

At Topic, Isaac Butler has a feature on a youth theater production of the 2006 rock musical Spring Awakening in rehearsals at Barclay Performing Arts in West Boca Raton — near the city of Parkland — including some kids who attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and were present during the shooting.

The show, which is about young people in 19th-century Germany discovering their sexuality, provides these traumatized actors a way to explore and express their complicated emotions, and realize they are not alone in their experiences as teens.

In interview after interview, the adolescents I talked to told me how important the musical had become to them since the shooting. “It’s helping me to heal because it’s helping me say my feelings and express myself without having to do so in front of people I’m not comfortable with,” says Ethan Kaufman, 15. A Stoneman Douglas student, Ethan has stayed away from politics in the shooting’s aftermath because he’s had to “recuperate,” in his words. “But I’m really proud of them,” he says of his more politically active castmates. He hopes that when the community comes to the show, they’ll see “that kids are humans too. There comes a point where you have to let us experience the world for what it is—otherwise, when it does hit us, it will hit us way harder than it would if we were prepared for it.”

Sawyer Garrity, who plays the doomed Wendla, says the show is about “what happens when parents don’t teach their teens what the world is actually like.” At first, she felt lost in the role of Wendla, a character she imagined herself as worlds apart from. But ultimately, she says, “I realized that I am a lot like her. She’s just a girl who wants to go about her life, have a nice, normal life. She just wants to make the people in her life happy—and then, all of a sudden, everything comes crashing down on her quicker than she can possibly understand.”

Spring Awakening will be performed May 2 and 6 at the Boca Black Box theater.

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You Can’t ‘Never Forget’ the Holocaust if You Haven’t Learned About It

Like so many kids raised Jewish, I learned about the Holocaust again and again, year after year — in regular school, in religious school, and from my family.

After hearing the refrain “Never again!” nearly every time the slaughter of six million Jews was mentioned, I assumed this was a catastrophic tragedy everyone knew about and no one could ever possibly forget — and therefore, history would never repeat.

Now, here we are with a racist, anti-semitic president whose election and positions have emboldened white supremacists and Nazis to come out of the woodwork and commit hate crimes. According to the New York Times, in 2017, anti-semitic incidents surged by 57 percent. And today — Holocaust Remembrance Day — the paper is reporting on a study by Claims Conference: The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany that shows American knowledge about the Holocaust is at an all-time low — particularly among millennials.

In the article, titled “Holocaust is Fading from Memory, Survey Finds,” Maggie Astor writes:

A survey released Thursday, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, found that many adults lack basic knowledge of what happened — and this lack of knowledge is more pronounced among millennials, whom the survey defined as people ages 18 to 34.

Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. And 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.

One antidote to our national amnesia seems to be the capturing and sharing of the remaining 400,000 survivors’ stories.

Holocaust remembrance advocates and educators, who agree that no book, film or traditional exhibition can compare to the voice of a survivor, dread the day when none are left to tell their stories.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington collects comment cards from many visitors before they leave, and they underscore that “no educational experience that anyone has coming through here has as much of an impact as hearing from a survivor directly,” said Kristine Donly, interim director of the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the museum, who sat on the board that developed the survey.

And so, across the country and around the world, museums and memorials are looking for ways to tell the witnesses’ stories once the witnesses are gone.

Nothing communicates the reality of something so unimaginably horrible like seeing the faces and names, and hearing the narratives, of those subjected to it. I can attest to that; despite my lifelong immersion in Holocaust education — plus college courses in Holocaust literature, plays and films, and a visit to Dachau in my 20s — nothing made it as real for me as accidentally learning last year that my grandfather’s brother, Alberto DeBotton, was rescued on April 13th, 1945, on a train from Bergen-Belsen to Theresienstadt.

I never knew about this because of a legacy of estrangement in my family. I don’t know whether my grandfather and the rest of his family even knew about Alberto’s experience in a concentration camps, because of “bad blood” and silence between them. Last year, when I was researching my mother’s side of the family on Ancestry.com, the site surprised me with a “clue” about Alberto, which led me to articles and a book, A Train Near Magdeburg by Matthew Rozell, about the famous American rescue mission that apparently saved his life.

I’m doing some research, hoping to learn more about Alberto and the roughly 66,000 other Jews from Thessaloniki, or Salonika as my Sephardic ancestors called it, who were murdered. But the Nazis destroyed all the vital information on the Jews there, making research nearly impossible — and contributing to the dangerous global disease of Holocaust amnesia.

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Our Bodies, Our Selves

At Medium, Hunger: A Memoir of My Body author Roxane Gay created Unruly Bodies, an excellent pop-up magazine, to be delivered in installments over four Tuesdays in April — “a month-long magazine exploring our ever-changing relationship with our bodies,” she writes in the introduction. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do — to create a space for writers I respect and admire to contribute to the ongoing conversation about unruly bodies and what it means to be human.”

She tapped a diverse group of 24 writers to contribute. This first edition features an introduction by Gay, and essays by Randa Jarrar, Kiese Laymon, Matthew Salesses, Keah Brown, S. Bear Bergman, and Mary Anne Mohanraj. Writers to be featured in the next three editions: Carmen Maria Machado, chelsea g. summers, Kaveh Akbar, Terese Mailhot, Casey Hannan, Samantha Irby, Tracy Lynne Oliver, Kelly Davio, Brian Oliu, Mike Copperman, Danielle Evans, Jennine Capó Crucet, Megan Carpentier, Kima Jones, the writer known as Your Fat Friend, Gabrielle Bellot, Mensah Demary, and larissa pham.

In creating Unruly Bodies, Gay was influenced by her experience after publishing Hunger. Readers reacted in ways that were intrusive, inappropriate, and hurtful. Unsolicited (and unqualified), they offered diet and exercise advice. They judged her. They insulted her.

I wrote about my body and strangers, with both good and bad intentions, generally missed the point of what I had to say. They viewed my body as a problem to be solved, as something they could discuss and debate. But I put myself out there. I wrote the story of my body so what could I do but grit my teeth and get through it?

After getting through it, she was inspired to ask others to write about their experiences living — in one way or another — outside the straight, cis, thin, white mainstream.

I first began thinking of the body as unruly after reading Hanne Blank’s collection Unruly Appetites. It was such a provocative, honest phrasing, this acknowledgment that the things we most want and crave are rarely easily ruled or disciplined. The bodies harboring our unruly appetites are unruly in and of themselves — they are as weak and fallible as they are strong. In many ways, our bodies are completely unknowable, but oh, how we try to master our unruly bodies, nonetheless.

When Medium approached me to curate a pop-up magazine, I knew exactly what I wanted to do — to create a space for writers I respect and admire to contribute to the ongoing conversation about unruly bodies and what it means to be human. I asked twenty-four talented writers to respond to the same prompt: what does it mean to live in an unruly body? Each writer interpreted this prompt in a unique way and offered up a small wonder.

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The Year of the Jumpsuit

For me, 2018 has been the year of the jumpsuit. In January I acquired two, and have worn one or the other nearly every day. (I’m wearing one as I write this! I even got one for my husband.)

I hadn’t processed my affinity for these gender-neutral, utilitarian coveralls until I read Heather Radke‘s essay for The Paris Review about JUMPSUIT, a political art project by The Rational Dress Society’s Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and Maura Brewer.

Glaum-Lathbury and Brewer aim to call attention to the ills of late capitalism — and to “make America rational again” — by manufacturing non-gendered, nearly shapeless jumpsuits, and encouraging people to wear them to the exclusion of all other attire.

In reporting on the project, Radke spends three weeks in a jumpsuit, and finds a surprising freedom in this particular fashion — or, anti-fashion — dictum. I relate completely.

The next morning, as I walk to work, I realize that it’s the first time in years, maybe decades, that I am wearing such loose-fitting clothing in public. Sure, I’ll wear a baggy sweater or a swing dress, but there is always a bit of Lycra or a constricting band in there somewhere — a pair of tights or skinny jeans, a too-tight sleeve or an uncomfortable armpit. Abigail and Maura tell me that clothing companies make everything tight and stretchy so they can make fewer sizes — it’s cheaper to cut three sizes than six.

As I walk up the stairs to my office, no fabric grips my skin, and I feel unencumbered. Although I have been worried about how I look, the truth is I’ve never felt less fat. The garment does not constantly remind me of my girth; it does not threaten to bust at the seams if I move too quickly or eat too much. I’m not just thwarting the tyranny of capitalism — I’m thwarting the tyranny of tightness.

Several women compliment me on the first day — “I love your coveralls!” one coworker shouts casually across the room. Two others tell me that while they think I look great, the garment would never work on their body. It’s a constant refrain I’ll hear during my time in the jumpsuit. We all seem to think our bodies are impossible — too fat or thin, too long a torso or too thick a waist — to be accommodated.

Not choosing an outfit really does save time. But more than time, it saves a kind of emotional labor that I hadn’t realized I was doing. I spent so much time wondering, What should I wear? The answer seemed to lie in discerning what other people would expect, how I could impress them, what would look cool. But after a beat of contemplation, I’d remember I already knew what I was going to wear. I was going to wear a jumpsuit. I could move on to other things. I began to sleep in a little later. I actually sat down to eat breakfast and got some reading in before heading off to work. But the real freedom came from not starting every day thinking about all the problems with my body or my wardrobe.

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When Financial Privilege is Mistakenly Assumed

At The Rumpus, Narratively deputy editor Lilly Dancyger has an essay I strongly identify with.

In her piece — excerpted from Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, a new anthology edited by Michelle Tea — Dancyger writes about dealing with people’s mistaken assumptions about the economics of her upbringing. A high-school dropout who later worked her way through college and graduate school, Dancyger grew up poor — the daughter of a single mother who was a recovering heroin addict. In New York City media circles, people tend to make comments indicating they assume she comes from financial privilege.

I’ve had similar experiences, growing up adjacent to money while not having much. I was surrounded by cousins and step-family who had much more, giving people around me the impression that I was living a much more comfortable life than I was. I felt I couldn’t speak up about their misconceptions, or the financial and power differentials within my family life. There was never a right moment to say, “No, no — I worked three jobs to put myself through college while she had the benefit of a trust fund.”

Here, Dancyger proudly sets her record straight. After attending a media industry event where people’s comments make her realize she “passes” as privileged, she reflects on her struggle to put herself through school and succeed in publishing.

Now I pass. I’ve made it. So why do I feel so queasy? Why did I have the urge to defend myself at that networking event, to tell the people around me, “I’m not one of you!”

The usual narrative about the scrappy working-class kid who pulls herself up is that she’s supposed to be embarrassed about where she comes from. She’s supposed to work hard to keep up the illusion, to convince her peers that she, too, went to sleepaway summer camps and lived in college dorms. When she passes, she has succeeded.

But I don’t want to blend in. I’m proud of how hard I’ve worked. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve never treated waitstaff or security guards or bus drivers like they’re not there, that I relate to them more than I do to most of my peers. I’m proud of the fact that I dropped out of high school, and not just because I still managed to go on to get an Ivy League graduate degree, but because I knew what was best for me at the age of just fourteen, and I had the courage to do it.

I don’t feel ashamed of my history, I feel ashamed of letting it be erased.

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