On Writing.

I used to teach writing to Georgetown University undergraduates, both in a traditional “writing 101” classroom and in the writing center at the library, where students could drop by and solicit help and feedback on their papers.

It’s an odd thing, teaching writing.  So much of it is personal aesthetic and voice, especially when you’re talking with smart undergrads who have the mechanics down.  (Although — it was surprising how few of them knew how to parse a sentence, or identify the parts of speech, or even distinguish between an adjective and a verb.  I assume practices and philosophies around grammar have changed a lot since my Catholic school days, which involved diagramming sentences on a black board ad finitum.  Maybe modern pedagogy de-emphasizes these structural elements–maybe it’s not considered as important to have students be able to identify the apparatus and machinery of writing, and it’s more about articulating a clear thought.  But I digress.)

I was thinking about a few of the conversations I had back then with students the other day, after writing this blog post, which I consider to be one of my best.  I was reflecting on why it had felt so easy and natural to write, and why I was mentally positioning it as one of my favorite posts I’ve ever written.  Even setting the poignant topic aside, it just reads better than other posts.  I realized there were a couple of things I’d done differently, and they all looped back to the advice I used to give my students:

+That writing is a process, not a product.  So many of my students would arrive, harried (and likely hungover), the day before a paper was due, foaming (slightly) at the mouth.  They’d be so focused on getting to the finish line but would be staring blankly at a white page, unsure of how to start.  I always encouraged them to just start writing–just put a few of your initial thoughts onto paper, no matter how disjointed or disorganized, and to think of it as priming the engines.  Sometimes those initial fragments would turn into theses, and sometimes they wouldn’t.  But if you worry too much about nailing the central thesis or getting the whole shape of your paper just right from the start, you’ll get stuck.  It’s almost like writing in a strait-jacket.  I always found it much easier, more pleasant, more fruitful, to just begin writing about the component of the topic that was most interesting to me, or that felt easiest to write about.  Sometimes I’d even co-write with them at this point — just start talking out loud about the topic and take notes along the way.

This was true, too, of the post on my parents.  I started writing about my mother and just could not stop.  (She’s that amazing.)

+That in order to write well, you must read well.  This is less medicine, more vitamin, and irritating advice when you’re burning the midnight oil with a deadline peering over your shoulder.  But before writing any major paper myself, I’d turn to a few of my favorite authors for inspiration.  Back when I was pursuing my M.A. in literature, the two that REALLY got me into a good mental headspace for writing were Seamus Heaney and Joseph Epstein.  Heaney’s a bit of an unusual muse for lit crit writing, as he’s a poet, but I would frequently re-read the phenomenal acceptance speech he gave when accepting the Nobel Prize, “Crediting Poetry.” It is gorgeous, and, like much of his poetry, so visceral and earthy and tactile.  And, also, deeply stimulating: there is one line in it that I still linger on, slightly stuck, but mesmerized: “I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference.”  I can’t quite unpack the concept of the mind’s “centre” and “circumference” but I love the structure of this sentence and understand the meaning.  {Also: unsolicited advice: you should read some of his poetry.  I know: it’s poetry.  Poetry is hard.  But it’s approachable in the best way.  I had the insane opportunity to hear Seamus Heaney read some of his poetry while at UVA.  He visited and I went with my friend Peter and it was standing-room-only, and the entire audience was hanging on his every word.  He had a gorgeous, Irish lilt and he read his work so evocatively.  Ah, to be an undergrad again, when such once-in-a-lifetime experiences are thrown at your feet every day.}

At any rate: Heaney’s acceptance speech is pure art, and reminded me to strive for beauty and flow and rhythm in my writing, and Joseph Epstein’s work bears a bright, erudite wit that nudged me to keep things conversational, even when discussing seemingly arcane topics.  (Epstein is a professor and I really enjoyed his book of essays, “Snobbery,” at the time.)

Nowadays, I’m more likely to turn to a new cast of characters on my contemporary Mount Helicon: Nora Ephron for humor and poignancy, Roxane Gay for intellectual intensity, and Molly Wizenberg for poetic self-reflection and a certain level of border-crossing (she’s a food blogger, but her writing is so much more than that).  If you’re looking for some inspo, read Ephron’s I Feel Bad about My Neck, Gay’s Bad Feminist, and Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life.

I’d just read a huge backlog of Wizenberg’s blog before writing the post on my parents, too.

+That all good writing is in conversation with a good audience.  Self-explanatory, but so many of my students would forget that they were essentially writing directly to a professor.  And that it’s worth getting to know that professor and her preferences and interests.  And if you can’t figure that out by reading something they’ve written or reading between the lines in lecture, think about other similar professors.  But everything you write has an audience.  Even a journal, where you’re writing for a future you.

Before writing the aubade post, I was thinking a lot about you, my readers, and about what felt important to share about the enormity of the change that is happening in my life.

So: there it is.  Some rambling thoughts on writing that may or may not inspire one or two of you to sit down and write, whether in a diary or on your own blog or just in the notes section of your iPhone.

And for the rest of you not quite in the writing mentality, some gorgeous points of visual/shopping inspiration to keep you going all the same:

This striped, tie-waisted tunic top from J. Crew ($78) is perfect.  Who doesn’t love the slightly longer length to cover the ol butt butt?  This would look so crisp at work with black cigarette pants or, in summer, with white skinnies.

I got a handful of these woven baskets from Target for various storage reasons around the house and they are SO affordable and cute!  $10 for the navy medium oval bin, $13 for the larger gray bin.  I love you, Target.  But also, I hate you.  I know so many of you can relate when I say that I will go in there with the intention of purchasing “just some batteries” and wheel out a cartful of items I had no idea I “needed.”  Note the quotation marks: I use the word “needed” very loosely.

Case in point: did I need the MILKBAR (!!!!) cookie mix ($5) I found at Target last week?  I was so dorkily excited.  In case you’re not familiar, MilkBar is an epic bakery in NYC and they make these amazing manna-from-the-heaven confections called cake truffles that are basically cake balls but the most incredibly dense and awesome thing you’ve ever had, among other things.  I first encountered this delightful devil when an intern of mine had a whole box of goodies shipped to me (so freaking generous — best intern ever!), and I basically died and went to heaven.  I then had a cake from them delivered to my mother-in-law and she went wild over it.  (You can have their goodies delivered anywhere in the US by clicking here.)  And you can also order their cookbook here.

So, yeah, I guess you could say I *needed* this cookie mix.

I’ve been on the hunt for some new stationery, and this emoji-adorned set ($88) might be the winner.  Although I also love this set with its elegant monogram ($88).

My bestie gave me this body cream from Rituals ($33) as a part of my Christmas gift, saying only–and cryptically–“it’s just…the best.”  She was right.  It smells SO good and moisturizes so well.


Under $100 and just about the chic-est dress you can find right now.  Love those of-the-moment bell sleeves, and the cutout in the back.  By the same label — and bearing a similar vibe — check out this white lace stunner for only $52 (!!!)  Perfect for those of you with legs for dayz.  Also: this blush pink dress from Tularosa channels a similar look and, to my eyes, looks just like something Zimmermann might make.  But it’s on sale for $71.  This is one of those dresses I always punch myself (?) for not buying out-of-season.  I know that if I buy it now, I’ll find 23 events to wear it to this summer.

I’ve been seeing a lot shearling on street style stars this season:

I’m going to get the look with this $145 steal from J.O.A., on sale in select colors for $86 here.

These funky little plates from Anthro ($14 each) are so fun.  I kind of want to get four of the sardine ones.

Do you follow the blogger Damsel in Dior?  She is so chic and down-to-earth and I love her voice on social media.  She was in Aspen (aka, my favorite place on earth) last week, and I loved following all of her adventures on Insta and Snap.  It made me daydream about taking a little ski trip myself, and I REALLY want to buy this retro-chic base layer ($105) by Sweaty Betty.  This one is also super fun.  (Very Mara Hoffmann, right?)


The mule obsession continues: I need these in the cheery pink color from Malone Souliers ($475).

Other finds of the week:

+A chic pleated skirt on sale for less than $50 (!!!!)  So pretty with a white button-down blouse and pointed toe heels.

+I bought a striped shirt-dress like this ($30) last season and got a ton of wear out of it — it was a nice, heavy weight and it looked really cute with gray Supergas for running errands/taking Tilden to the dog park.

+Love this embroidered dress ($78).

+I’ve been looking for a fun accent rug, and this zebra style for only $179 strikes me as just right.

+This lace-up wool sweater ($98)!!!!


  1. I have had the JOA light pink jacket in my shopping cart for the past 3 days lol. I love it so much, but I just don’t know if I can justify it! But that black lace dress is SO SO chic, that might have to get scooped up for that price!! Thanks for sharing as always!

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