Musings + Essays


By: Jen Shoop

In college, I took my one and only creative writing course. The professor had a particular style that I can summarize best in anecdote: he mentioned, on at least four or five distinct occasions, that when he was unable to write, he would drive to the Golden Corral on Route 29 and people-watch. “It’s full of…fascinating characters,” he would say with an eyebrow-raised smile that seemed to communicate condescension, and even as a navel-gazing, cloistered nineteen-year-old, I bristled. It felt, even then, with very little writing under my belt, like a misemployment of creativity. It is true that everything is copy, but it is also true that there are far more organic and less usurous ways to beget a story. And on aesthetic grounds, I was not interested in what he was after, either. I recall a lot of feedback on the floweriness of my prose — “do less telling”-type implorations. Good advice, only it was usually accompanied by “write about something with a bit more texture” directives, and I knew that it was not only the style he disliked, but the romantic bent of my fiction, as he focused his adulation on the dark, offbeat, calamity-oriented contributions of my classmates. He wanted grit and underbelly. I was, by contrast, moonstruck and love-bent. Our exchanges over my work represented the first of many instances in which I observed that female fantasy is often trivialized.

On my final fiction submission, which now occurs to me as the possible headwaters of the character who is still in the process of becoming Powell Early, he marked through a paragraph in which I described the cut of a fisherman against a crag. I don’t remember exactly what he said in his blocky red marginalia, but the slash said it all: excise, please.

It is remarkable to me that at the impressionable age of nineteen I knew to promptly discard the experience and persist in my own artistic interests as a writer. This is not to say that my writing then (or today) was good or bad, but just to say: it was creatively interesting to me, and I am pleased that I had the wherewithal to continue to write as I wished because I found the process fulfilling, even when I was at an age of tremendous insecurity.

A few weeks ago, I participated in my first creative writing class (here is the fruit) since the aforementioned. I undertook the workshop with mild trepidation, sweating lightly at the memory of the Gospel of The Golden Corral. I remember telling Mr. Magpie: “If they make me read my own work out loud, I’m going to feign technical difficulties.” I entered the Zoom circumspect and queasy. But it was a beautiful, generative, and gentle experience, and I’ve already signed up for others in the coming weeks.

The contrast between these instructions could not be starker. And it has made me think, today, about knowing the difference between things that work for us and things that do not. In Life in the Studio, potter Frances Palmer describes a one-month residency at an international pottery program that used a collaborative production process in which different artisans completed different phases of a pot’s production, i.e., there is one person creating the design, one person fabricating, one person throwing, one person making a mold, one person trimming, one person casting, one person glazing, etc. Palmer writes: “The production strategy did not appeal to me in terms of my own process, however, because I continually assess and adjust a pot as it moves through each step….I was happy to have experienced this communal porcelain culture nevertheless. In starting any creative endeavor, it’s important to know your own nature. The exploration reaffirmed my sense of my own path.”

In general, I believe it is healthful to stay open to possibility, to arrive at new experiences as empty of expectation as possible. Life can surprise you in the most beautiful ways if you let it. And so how do we square that open-mindedness with the ability to parse out the things that drain and drag? How do we appreciate the difference between “experiences that are difficult but in the end beneficial” versus “experience that are difficult and in the end destructive”? It is certainly a case of delicate discretion, and I write this not only thinking of creative pursuits but also of relationships, and of the way we design our days. I think Palmer has it right: try new things, but also “know your own nature.” Let yourself feel the dissonance of new perspectives, routines, relationships, processes, and then permit yourself to land wherever your feet feel best-planted.


+By contrast: a great course I took at UVA.

+On living with an openness to joy.

+On creative habits.

+On learning how to design my day.

+The first job each morning.

Shopping Break.

+This dress reminds me of the Emerson Fry I’ve been wearing all season, but $80 less!

+On my wishlist at Emerson Fry: this top to tuck into white jeans and this caftan.

+I’ve written about this a lot, but I still love my MZ Wallace for travel with children and schlepping a lot of things (i.e., I often use if we’re spending an afternoon/day at my in-laws). I LOVE the new pastel colorblock option and the jute style, too! So chic. Would definitely recommend if you’re looking for a diaper bag or schlep-lots-to-work-and-gym situation. I wrote a full review of this bag as a diaper bag here.

+While we’re talking bags at Nordstrom, this sleek and trendy Khaite is 40% off!

+Chic, reasonably price wide leg pants for summer.

+Over the weekend, I shared a photo of my MIL’s front door, which she had decorated with an enormous gold star for Memorial Day. A received a few requests for something similar – she said she got it from Michael’s years ago, but a reader tracked down this very similar Etsy style!

+Great closet organization bins.

+How FUN are these inexpensive rope sandals?

+At the opposite end of the style spectrum, these wrap sandals are ultra-elegant.

+A perfect getting-ready mini — crisp, lightweight cotton so you don’t overheat while using hot tools on your hair and can be slipped easily over head without messing up makeup. Would also wear as a cover-up! (Sleeveless, Cynthia!!!)

+Speaking of hot styling tools, this curling iron is THE BEST. I’ve had a set since probably high school or early college and they still heat up in no time and work like new.

+I just bought some of this scalp SPF for my son, who is very fair and does not have as much hair as my daughter. Brilliant!

+Love the length, style (the flounced hem!), and color of this under-$100 dress.

+This under-$20 printed dress for littles looks like it’s by SZ Blockprints! J’adore!

+Cute $23 top to pair with shorts and jeans for summer.

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8 thoughts on “Landings.

  1. Yea!!! My first sleeveless cover-up recommendation of the season and of course it comes from you. (Smiley face)
    I do like it and have already ordered it. I’m out of town so I just ordered it. Thank you so very much for finding it.

  2. I love your style of writing! I resonate with your combining good writing with fashion & lifestyle. Grammar, punctuation, character development, etc. are skills we can learn. Writing style is unique.

  3. Your experience with the writing professor reminds me something that happened my first weeks in college. I bounded into my advisor’s office for the first time, a blonde-haired, green-eyed 18-year-old in a leopard print Tommy Hilfiger sweater. I was studying International Relations with concentrations in the Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy. In the midst of our conversation, the advisor, a serious and well-versed professor in the subjects, offhanded said I’d probably end up selling tennis rackets (what that means, I still don’t exactly know!). It still shocks me that, even then, I knew to let his impression roll off my back. I immediately trotted it out as an amusing anecdote to friends and family. People were aghast at this comment, but I, someone very respectful to authority and order in general, somehow knew his comment said far more about him than me. And it pushed me to find far more respectful and encouraging academic mentors that led me down a similar yet different path.

    As I’ve gotten older and more self-aware, I find it harder to push past encounters like that, so thank you for writing and the reminder that if 18-year old me can carry on, so can nearly 30-year old me!

    1. Wow! What on earth?! That is the most bizarre and unbecoming story. I’m so proud of your 18-year-old self for immediately seizing on the fact of the matter!

      Thank YOU for the reminder.


  4. Just a gentle word of awareness/caution on the gold star on Memorial Day. A gold star (particularly in the context of a holiday honoring fallen servicemembers) may carry a specific meaning for some. Traditionally, a gold star family is one that has lost an immediate family in service, and it is recognized by displaying a gold star banner on their home. If that applies to your family, you have my utmost gratitude and sympathy. If not, just perhaps something to consider. Thank you!

    1. Wow – thank you so much for sharing this! I so appreciate the context. I wonder if my MIL knows – going to send this to her. Appreciate you!


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