#77: Mr. Collins Vs. Mr. Collins

Hi hi, friends,

Somewhere a while back I got amused by the idea of there being a big heated debate—equal in intensity and fervor to the Colin Firth vs. Matthew Macfayden one—on which version of Mr. Collins from the two major Pride & Prejudice adaptations is the dreamiest: David Bamber’s portrayal from the 1995 BBC miniseries or Tom Hollander’s from the 2005 movie directed by Joe Wright. So I re-watched them both, and now I’m bringing you into it.

First, the orignal clay of the character. Here’s how Jane Austen describes Mr. Collins when he arrives at Longbourn: He was a tall, heavy-looking young man of five and twenty. His air was grave and stately, and his manners were very formal.

25! I guess the hat ages him. And interestingly, “heavy-looking” doesn’t mean what I thought it did. The academic Mary M. Chan has a terrific piece on the different screen versions of the character going back to 1940, and she writes:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “heavy-looking,” a now-obsolete term, indicates that Collins is “ponderous and slow in intellectual processes, . . . wanting in facility, . . . dull, stupid” (“heavy” def. 18); he is figuratively a bit “thick.” But what connects many filmic Collinses is another kind of thickness. Recent adaptations misinterpret the eighteenth-century term “heavy-looking” to mean “of a husky build,” thus ushering in a set of tall, awkward Collinses.

A couple pages after Mr. Collins is introduced, Austen sketches in a little more of his mental character and social background:

Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of Nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of his life having been spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father, and though he belonged to one of the universities, he had merely kept the necessary terms, without forming at it any useful acquaintance. The subjection in which his father had brought him up had given him originally great humility of manner, but it was now a good deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity.

The “illiterate and miserly father” was a sympathetic point I’d forgotten about him, as was the lack of friends at university. The rest of it is like a good squeeze of lemon into tea, though.


First up is David Bamber in the 1995 BBC miniseries classic starring the great Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and Colin Firth’s boots. Of the two Mr. Collins before us today, he’s definitely the shinier one.

Oh, what’s that, you want to know what serum I use to stay so dewy? It’s called Unctuous.

Another thing I enjoy about Bamber’s performance is how he spins through all his scenes at strange and twisting angles. For example, here he is going up the drive at Rosings looking like he’s showing off the estate as part of the Showcase Showdown:

He’s wonderfully awkward. Not just socially but on a cellular level too. When I was rewatching, I kept thinking of him as like an alien who hasn’t yet fully assimilated to Earth’s atmosphere and so was still at odds with our physical universe.

I like the whiff of sinister Bamber brings to the role too, the twisting tinge of Uriah Heep (or at the least, the danger of a smaller dog who occasionally bites). It feels true to how later in Pride & Prejudice, after Lydia’s eloped with Wickham, it’s Mr. Collins who writes the harsh, crowing letter to Mr. Bennet that includes the line, “The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison to this.”

The fun thing with character actors is if you decide to go on a comprehensive spree of watching them across their different films, you get a sense of the weird variableness of a working actor’s life. There’s Bamber as Mr. Collins—if not at the center of the stage, then at a (literal) angle near it. There he is as Hitler in Valkyrie. And then whoops, there are three seconds of the back of his head at the embassy where Jason Bourne’s about to open a can of whup-ass.


I didn’t think much of the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice, with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFayden, when it came out for reasons I can’t put down here without sounding sniffy. But I’ve started to prefer it to the BBC version. I like the sense of how inhabited and messy the world is, and that there’s some affection between the older Bennets in the rendition. Brenda Blethyn is great, and there’s enough chemistry between her and Donald Sutherland that you can see how once upon a time Mr. and Mrs. Bennet got busy and ended up with this house full of daughters. (My husband likes it for the end scene where it’s Keira Knightley and Donald Sutherland talking about Darcy and Knightley’s head is tiny and Sutherland’s head is Easter Island big and massive: “Three times the size!!!”)

Tom Hollander is our Mr. Collins here. I’m always glad to see Hollander when he shows up in a show or movie, including in this one where his haircut looks like a time I made a bad decision about bangs that kept getting worse the more I tried to fix it. Wright shoots Hollander at different meals, chewing with hard emphatic jaw movements and with his eyes alert, like a rabbit enjoying an “exemplary vegetable” before it darts.

Hollander plays Mr. Collins as less shiny than Bamber does. (Interesting as everyone else in the movie is ten times sweatier than in the BBC one.)

And he plays him shorter too, of course. In her piece on the history of Mr. Collins on screen, Chan writes:

Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice strays from such negative portrayals of Collins by presenting Mr. Collins, intriguingly, as a short man. As played by Tom Hollander, this Collins’s height renders him more sympathetic, though still ridiculous, in his attempts to elevate himself, metaphorically speaking. … [An introductory scene suggests] that Collins is a social outcast often overlooked or ignored by the taller and more powerful. Indeed, this sense of inferiority is borne out by Hollander’s performance; he slouches slightly and speaks in a deliberate manner, as if Collins is over-thinking every word. At the Bennet dinner table, for example, Collins compliments the beautiful house and the excellence of the boiled potatoes in one breath, adding that it has been “many years since I’ve had such an exemplary vegetable.”

I prefer the company of this Mr. Collins, but he does seem further from the “heavy-looking” hypocrite Austen had in mind.


(If you’re into this sort of thing, I really do recommend jumping over to Chan’s piece, which was written for the Jane Austen Society of North America, hallowed be its name.)


Last week, the New Yorker ran a piece called “Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy In Houston” by Jia Tolentino. It’s one of nine essays from Jia’s new book, Trick Mirror, which comes out August 6th! The book was a Black Cardigan Edit project, and I can report it’s as exciting and good as you might be anticipating. I’m thrilled that it’ll be out in the world this summer so other people can get charged up reading it too. You can pre-order it here or here or directly at your local bookstore.

Until next week,
wishing you a plate filled with exemplary vegetables,

p.s. If you’d like to share a link to this letter, you can find it here. The rest of the archives are here. And if you haven’t signed up for the newsletter and would like to, you can do that here.

#76: I Have Been To Lots Of Parties And Acted Perfectly Disgraceful

Hi hi, friends,

In the past week I’ve gotten to hear the word ‘faff’ twice in conversation. Two different speakers. One was a British friend, the other an Australian (“I was faffing around Sydney”)—both times a delight. Usually I prefer the OED for looking things up but here the Wiktionary entry is the more satisfying:

Faffing, Wiktionary definition

It includes a nice nugget on the etymology of “faffing”:

faffing etymology

Great, huh?

While looking all this up, I found I’d slipped into thinking in the rhythms of a faux Frank O’Hara poem. It’s irresistible once you start. Like:

And I’ve read ‘faffing’ in a book
And heard it in the movies
But never in the conversational wild before
Then twice in one week!
And it started raining and snowing, and you said it was ‘faffing’
But ‘faffing’ is when it blows in gusts…

I’ll put the O’Hara original here, on the excuse that it’s easy to forget between times how charming his poems are, how immediate.

Lana Turner Has Collapsed

An aside: I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but when I moved to Asheville in my early 20s, which was now a long time ago, I applied for a job at the café at Malaprop’s, the main bookstore downtown. I worked on my application a long time in order to make it look like it had more to it than “temp – Fort Worth Mortgage” and “attendant — Golden Nozzle Carwash,” etc. And at the top of the application, I wrote that I was “working on a biography of Frank O’Hara.” This was 100% sincere. That was the plan. What’s a mystery to me now is how exactly I meant to execute it, there in 1994, with my single library card and only the dimmest AOL-tinged sense of what the internet was.

I did get the barista job and still have a scar from where, a couple months into it, I sliced off the tip of my finger when my crush, the Sprout Farmer, came in with his girlfriend and I got distracted slicing their bagels. It wasn’t a terrible cut, but it bled a lot, and the memory is still acute of having to sashay to their table with the order a few minutes later as if nothing had happened and there wasn’t an absolutely ginormous scarecrow mitt of paper towels and dishtowels and slapstick calamity wrapped around my hand. I have served lots of bagels and acted perfectly disgraceful but I never actually collapsed. (By the bye, I saw the Sprout Farmer out of the blue a couple weeks ago at my corner coffee shop—the same one where I’m currently tapping out this letter. And I’m happy to report he appears well, looks startlingly the same, only a little more solemn and grave in aspect. I was standing in line behind him and realized I can no longer remember his name. Because time, but also because the entire period of the crush I only thought of him as “the Sprout Farmer.” Though I enjoy thinking that maybe it’s because he never had name, like he’s just been around since time began, farming sprouts and popping into various Asheville coffee shops to discombobulate the staff, green-eyed and solemn and eternal.)

All this faffing aside, it’s been an upsetting week. Seeing the news of what’s happening in Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio. I’ve felt that peculiar combination of stunned and hyper-alert that’s the particular emotional cocktail of the past couple years. That’s why this week’s letter is about faffing and Frank O’Hara instead of what I’d originally planned. Thinking about “Lana Turner” lsent me on a spin of his poems for the first time in a while. What I appreciated reading them was the ways in which they seemed to be vibrating at their own hyper-alert frequency—different worlds collapsing in them, a different sense of how one might be trotting and faffing along in the midst of that collapsing, but still a neurologically sympathetic hyper-alert “here I am, here is what I’m thinking and feeling” body vibration all the same.I felt really grateful for it, for how it gave me something else to hum to.

“Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul” is the O’Hara poem I first imprinted on in college. It begins this way:

Adieu O'Hara beginning

Rereading it and other O’Hara poems last night, I was reminded of Morgan Parker’s poems from There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (highly recommended), both for their New York-ness and how reading the poems you have the feeling of the fullness of another person’s consciousness—the big fish thoughts, the silvery little minnow thoughts—scooped up and made into a pond for you to look at.

This is from the start of one of Parker’s poems, “Another Another Autumn In New York”:

Another Autumn, Parker Beginning

And then, jumping back to O’Hara, here’s the close of his “Adieu to Norman,” the same poem that I shared the start off above.

Adieu O'Hara close

“Surely we continue” and “though I don’t believe it”—both are in the chord this week.


There are still a couple spaces open in Book Beast, the program where you work one-on-one with me for six months to make major progress on your book. If you’re curious, find more info here.

Until next time,
with all good wishes to you, Shirley Goldfarb, and the Bar Américain,

p.s. If you’d like to share a link to this letter, you can find it here. The rest of the archives are here. And if you haven’t signed up for the newsletter and would like to, you can do that here.

p.p.s. If you’d like to support the women of Alabama right now and their right to access reproductive care, including abortion, I recommend sending a donation to the Yellowhammer Fund.

#75: On The Difficulty Of ‘Staying Inside’

Hi hi, friends,

There’s an old conversation I love between Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison. I mentioned it in a previous Black Cardigan letter right after I first read it, and if you’ve worked with me, I’ve probably brought it up to you since. The conversation took place in 1985. Morrison was going to be giving a reading for Song of Solomon, her then-latest novel, and Naylor went over with her tape recorder to talk to her about it.

I have the sense it was originally supposed to be one of those “go over, get some quotes from your hero, walk away with shaky knees” kind of interviews but instead the conversation lasted all day and into the evening, and the two published it in the Southern Review, with an introduction from Naylor and an afterword from Morrison. It’s something like forty pages long and amazing. You can find it in Naylor’s collected conversations and I’m pretty sure Morrison’s too.

What initially interested me about it is that, at the time it took place, Morrison was in the middle of writing Beloved. But it’s not Beloved yet; it’s a novel-in-progress that bubbles up here and there as a point of rue: “I have about 250 pages and it’s overwhelming me” and “I think, at the moment, that I won’t write anything after Beloved.” Which if you’ve ever been stuck deep in the tarpits of a book, you will recognize the latter sentiment. (Apparently this is something Morrison used to say with each of her books. Like “no, this is the last one.” She might still.)

For her part, Naylor had published her first novel, Women of Brewster Place, a couple years before, and won a National Book Award in 1983 for it. But she was still a couple years off publishing her third book, Mama Day. Currently, Mama Day doesn’t get read or considered nearly enough—when Naylor died in 2016, it didn’t even get a mention in her Times obituary—but it’s my favorite of her books, one that I will commend to your attention again if you haven’t already read it. And I’ll add that while it’s an important book, it also functions as a wonderful take-to-your-bed novel. It’s the book Naylor herself said that she felt she became a writer while writing—even though she had written two books before it (and again, had won a National Book Award). She doesn’t mention it during the conversation, but I picture it as being in the room too, like a pot on the side of the stove with beans soaking in it.


I’ve been thinking of the conversation a lot this week because of an exchange the two have during it about fear:

TM: How old were you when you got married?

GN: Thirty. I was twenty-nine when he proposed. I was going to turn thirty in January. Then he proposed over the telephone—long distance collect when I was twenty-nine and eleven months old. I was making that twenty-nine to thirty transition, saying to myself, “Well, what have I done with my life? I better go on and get married.” It was really fear. Do you know Marcia Gillespie? I met her that November of 1979 because I sent Essence one of my short stories and her secretary called me and set up a lunch appointment—my first literary luncheon. And she just sat down and said, “Sister, if you do anything, keep writing.” And that scared me. And so his proposal coming on the heels of that statement sort of gave me a way out of my fear. I didn’t have to face the terror of the dream I had lived with all my life coming true—that was untraveled terrain. But marrying somebody—anybody—was very traveled terrain, because I grew up feeling somehow that that was how you made your definition. Although Marcia had offered me the hope of another way to make a definition, his was safe—it was conventional.

TM: That’s what I want to explore in this new book. How we choose to put ourselves someplace else, outside, rather than in here, inside.

The “collect” being italicized always makes me laugh. Anyway, the Marcia Gillespie mentioned was the editor-in-chief at Essence. She left the magazine a year after the meeting Naylor describes to join Ms. as a contributing writer (and she’d go on to become the editor-in-chief there in 1992). She was, in other words, an influential figure extending a supportive hand—and what I appreciate so much about the anecdote is how candid Naylor is that her reaction to this was not “I’ve arrived” glee, or “here is where I began my inevitable upward trajectory of big wins and nonstop amazingness,” but the experience of a fear so profound it sent her loping in the opposite direction, toward a bad marriage.

Morrison’s response is great. She immediately understands and says, That’s what I want to explore in this new book. How we choose to put ourselves someplace else, outside, rather than in here, inside. The choice she’s delineating is one between staying inside or putting ourselves outside.

Implicit there: Staying inside is harder, more uncomfortable. Going back to Naylor’s phrase, it’s where the “untraveled terrain” is. Putting ourselves outside is easier. You know what to expect, and that’s a comfortable feeling, even if what you can expect isn’t all that great.

Naylor and Morrison were talking about the big pivotal moments in life, but I think it’s a useful way to understand what happens in writing when you hit an unknown in whatever you’re working on and feel yourself immediately wanting to push away from it and go do something else. To place yourself outside rather than staying inside the project. You will recognize this neural push, of course. I enjoyed this recent exchange between Kelly Link and Laura Lippman about what writers do when they’re not writing.

I don’t manage any projects as big as (the very funny) ones Lippman shares in the thread. Alas for my housekeeping. I mostly just float around the house, doing things like swabbing at the one corner of the sink that gets stained from coffee spoons getting laid there, stains that never seem to bother me at any other hour of the day, but that I’m like an avenging fiend about during writing time.

I talked about Morrison’s “stay inside” phrase with the writers at the Hocus Pocus retreat a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been using it with myself this week as I got back to work on my book after a few weeks away from it. All week I’ve been trying to pay attention to that moment when, feeling blank and stoopid as I look at the sentences piled up behind the blinking cursor, I have that almost reflexive urge to get up and do something else. Scrub the sink. Make the bed. Eat peanut butter from a spoon. Hop a plane to Antwerp and take up a new life under a new name. And so all week I’ve been consciously saying to myself Stay inside. Stay inside. Stay inside until the urge to “put myself someplace else” passes.

I doubt I’ll ever be immaculate there, but it’s helped and so I’m sharing it today in case you’re having a tricky week (month, year) with this too.


A reminder: Enrollment is currently open for my program Book Beast, where you work one-on-one with me to move forward in your book. Since it began, it’s helped lots and lots of writers get to the end of their drafts, including on some book ideas and manuscripts that had been languishing for years. Only five slots available this year. If you’re curious, find more info here.

Until next time,
hoping you accept no proposals that come collect,

p.s. If you’d like to share a link to this letter, you can find it here. And if you haven’t signed up for the newsletter and would like to, you can do that here.

#74: Emily Brontë and Other Killer Beasts

Hi hi, friends,

It’s been a while—enough time that this letter has skipped many things I meant to write to you about. Such as how a couple months ago I settled in for a reread of Wuthering Heights and, on page eighteen of my edition, came across the word “snoozled.”

It’s in the opening section where the Lockwood character, pompous, hilarious, new to the neighborhood, walks over and pays his first visit to Wuthering Heights. He ends up spending the night. Has the nightmare where wraith-child Catherine is crying, “Let me in,” and trying to come through the window and dream-him scrapes her wrist back and forth “on the broken pane” of glass “till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes.” So far, so horrific—all jagged and unsparing in the Emily Brontë way, and then a couple pages later there was… “snoozle,” perhaps the last verb you’d expect to show up in that nightmare house. It’s when the narrator is in the kitchen waiting till he can leave for home. He observes the young, pretty Mrs. Heathcliff reading by the fire. “She seemed absorbed in her occupation; desisting from it only to chide the servant for covering her with sparks, or to push away a dog, now and then, that snoozled its nose overforwardly into its face.”

Snoozle! I didn’t know the word before but obviously could tell what it meant and it struck me how apt the sound of the word was for what it was describing. At first, I thought Brontë had made it up. I pictured her scribbling away, pausing with pen raised to think of a word that would describe the particular snout-thrusting thing that dogs do to get your attention, landing on “snoozle,” then scurrying on with her story. But a consultation with the OED shows “snoozle” (I’m going to say the word as often as I can) was in use before she wrote Wuthering Heights (1847), albeit, it seems, mostly as a synonym for “nestling.” Here’s the entry:

Snoozle Definition, OED

Have you read the Anne Carson poem-essay about Emily Brontë, “The Glass Essay”? It’s long, extraordinary. (Though I object to its disdain toward Charlotte. One, because I love her and disagree with how Carson interprets her, and two, because I dislike, in general, the practice of setting up of one Brontë versus the other that finds its way into a lot of discussion about them. I have a rant on this subject that I like to get into when I’ve had a couple glasses of wine, but this morning, only having had too much coffee, I’ll say the “Charlotte vs. Emily vs. Anne” question often feels emblematic of how, as women, we’re always being asked to decide who among us is cool, who is not, and how the judging criteria involved (often unconscious, imbibed since birth) seems to tilt toward issuing demerits to each other simply for performing the task of being women in the world, and relies on the premise that there are only so many slots available into whatever inner sanctum we are vying for, and to be granted one the woman who gets it must have performed some amazing somersault of brio, genius, and nonchalance—that is, one of utter sublimity—through the universe. And so we judge the somersaults instead of questioning the idea that there are only so many available slots. Given in person, this is the part of the rant where I like to raise my fist and exclaim, “Fight the patriarchy. Embrace all the Brontës. Let them all crowd the platform of your heart.” “Even Branwell?” cries the table (never). Pause. “Even Branwell.”)

Where was I? Anne Carson essay. Anyway, it’s galvanizing and exciting to read, and it’s shaped how I think about Emily and her feralness, her attentiveness to the movements of animals (snoozling!) and her identification with them, and—related to this—how Wuthering Heights itself likes to dance at the edge of emotions that are so big that they are, as animal emotions are, beyond verbal expression.

For some reason this combination of picture and caption from Wikipedia makes me laugh.


As you may have seen, a few weeks ago a man in Florida was killed by his cassowary bird. The headline threw me into a Google search, that led to the delightful knowledge that this what a cassowary looks like:

It’s like a child’s drawing, doesn’t it? Both in the unlikeliness of how the different parts of the bird’s body are stuck together and something in the deep expressiveness of how it appears to hunker through the world. And here a close-up, with its prehistoric dinosaur horn—which is called a casque:

A few Wikipedia facts:

• “Cassowaries have three-toed feet with sharp claws.”
• “The second toe… sports a dagger-like claw that may be 125 mm (5 in) long. This claw is particularly fearsome since cassowaries sometimes kick humans and animals with their enormously powerful legs.”
• “All three species have a keratinous skin-covered casque on their heads that grows with age.”
• “Contrary to earlier findings, the hollow inside of the casque is spanned with fine fibres that are believed to have an acoustic function.” [Ed. note: ladies love me, girls adore me, I mean even the ones who never saw me, like the way that I have a casque on my head, the reason why, man, I don’t know.]

I also found an excellent old post about cassowaries on the blog Tetrapod Zoology, written by Darren Naish. (His blog has since moved here and is highly recommended for posts like this one.) He writes (emphasis mine):

However, cassowaries do not attack indiscriminately and a 1999 study by Christopher Kofron (1999) of 221 recorded attacks by Casuarius casuarius johnsonii showed that attacks are mostly due to association of humans with food. Several attacks (7) appeared to be a territorial reaction to the presence of humans in an area where the cassowary was feeding while some (32) were clearly defensive – the cassowary was either protecting itself or its chicks or eggs. McClean’s death in 1926 was not the result of an unprovoked attack: he had struck the bird with the intention of killing it and had then fled; he also had a dog with him (Kofron 1999, 2003). By far the greatest number of attacks (109) involved soliciting of food by the cassowary. In areas where humans have taken to feeding cassowaries, some cassowaries act boldly and aggressively in expectation of being fed and will run up to or chase people, sometimes kicking if no food is offered. Kofron (1999) reported that such behaviour was not recorded in his study area prior to 1985. Human feeding would thus appear to have modified cassowary behaviour and in fact cassowaries are naturally wary and highly unlikely to attack without provocation.

Who among us hasn’t run and kicked upon food not being offered, etc.

The New York Times article about the death in Florida mentions that the man killed had fallen between two pens holding cassowaries, and the hypothesis seemed to be that his falling incited the attack. But the Naish post makes me wonder too if the birds were already riled up, expecting to be fed.

The story reminded me of an article I wrote for The Awl years back about the actress Tippi Hedren aand how, after she filmed her two movies with Hitchcock, The Birds and Marnie, she began adopting lions, tigers, and other kinds of big cats until she had dozens of them at her home. This was all later formalized into a proper sanctuary, but for a while the big cats were all just moving around her house and yard in Beverly Hills like… 400-pound house pets that she was “affection training.” (Hedren’s daughter, Melanie Griffith, and her teen stepsons lived at the house too, and if you grew up in the ‘70s, the entire scenario will seem of a piece with what you remember of the decade.)

Tippi tiger-snoozling

Pictures from the set of Roar, the 1981 movie that Hedren made with her then-husband. In first shot: Snoozling! In second: Not snoozling. (And yes, that’s Melanie Griffith on the ground, having a lion dragged off her. By her mom.)

Hedren co-wrote a book about her sanctuary and her experiences with big cats, The Cats of Shambala (1985). There’s an anecdote in the book that I still find eerie. It’s about the early days of her adopting the cats and a time when one of her lions got loose and ran down the street towards a busy intersection, and how Hedren was able to get it back before it was struck by a car. Which she managed to do… by beginning to limp. I wrote:

You see, as you limp along, the lion you’ve been affection training so faithfully will, viewing you as prey, begin stalking you back toward the house, scooting along low to the ground, as you limp, limp up ahead of it, pretending not to notice it creeping ever closer. When the lion finally makes its leap, that’s when you can get a leash around its neck.

Imagine the steeliness there, to wait for the lion to make its jump. I find it so confounding and fascinating, batshit and comprehensible: the wish to be in relationship with the wild animal, to have it snoozling in bed beside you; the need to tell yourself that “affection training” will suffice as protection; and the tacit acknowledgement as you tell this outwardly funny story of how you got your runaway lion back that, deep down, you understand that should you ever limp, fall, or look vulnerable around your pet lion at the wrong time, it will leap for the kill.

It also makes me think of something a friend of mine said when she was exasperated with how her neighbors were sentimentalizing a black bear that was then regularly appearing in their yards: “You are making up a story about the bear and adding to that story each time you see it, but the bear is not making up a story about you.”

And is that one way to understand wildness, as a lack of allegiance to the conventions of narrative? And there’s Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights again, with its strange narrative structure (frame within frame within frame) and its love story that isn’t really a love story at all. Or if it is a lover story, its one in which one of the participants, Heathcliff, is himself a kind of wild animal, remorseless, largely un-amenable to affection training, and essential to the author all the same.

(Recognizing that the Venn diagram of people who will follow and enjoy here is a slim crescent indeed: But I was rereading Wuthering Heights back to back with Jane Eyre, and my joke to myself afterward was that Jane Eyre‘s interested in the question of “What if he’s Bluebeard?” while in Wuthering Heights the question seems to be, “What if I’m Bluebeard?”)


• Last weekend, I hosted the second annual Black Cardigan Edit Hocus Pocus retreat for women writers. Eleven writers came from all over the country to be there (our twelfth got sick and couldn’t travel) + my friend, the writer Jane Hu flew in from Berkeley to help me with it too. It was marvelous and magical and I still feel a little emotionally hungover from it, but in a really happy way. I’m currently working out the dates for 2020 but when I secure those, I will share them here.

And enrollment is now open for Book Beast. This is a six-month program where you work with me to get a draft done of your book! It begins June 1st. This is the third year I’m offering it, and in the time since it started, Book Beast has helped many, many writers find their way into their books and to the ends of their drafts. If you’re curious, go here for more info.

Until next time,
wishing you snoozles,

p.s. If you’d like to share a link to this letter, you can find it here. And if you haven’t signed up for the newsletter and would like to, you can do that here.

#73: A Visit To The Sylvia Plath Archives (and announcing Beast Accelerator!)

Some Black Cardigan news: I’m excited to announce a new program I’m offering that starts January 27th. It’s called Beast Accelerator, and it’s a five-week creativity jumpstart designed to spark and fuel your writing (and get you back into a steady practice). If that sounds like something you might need, click here to learn more.

I’ve been planning Black Cardigan’s 2019 calendar, and I have an update on the Hocus Pocus online circle for women writers at the end of the letter, too. Now to this week’s letter!

Hi hi, friends,

Earlier this year, I got to visit the Sylvia Plath archives at Smith College. If you’re new to this letter, I’ve written about Plath many times, including this letter about her time working at Mademoiselle, and I also wrote about her (and yoga and New Year’s resolutions) for The Awl a while back. In that essay, I talk about how, as a young woman, I’d reread and consult Plath’s journals as if they were instruction manuals. Even now that I’m in my 40s—seventeen years older than she was when she died—I’m sometimes still aware of her influence, how much the structure of my thoughts was formed by reading her: like the Collected Poetry and Journals hit my teenage brain when it was still lumpish clay and now the resulting brain has a permanently different structure because of that contact.

All of which is to say: It was tremendously exciting to visit her archives. I knew it would be. I planned what I’d wear like it was a date or a job interview, the outing containing odd emotional elements of both. (I went: red skirt, white Keds, with jewelry level adjusted to match the standards of a woman who, raised in Puritan-ghost Massachusetts and carrying that conservatism in her, has since moved to London and thinks herself dashing and worldly. Sylvia!) For the trip, I had packed pencils for taking notes in the archive as well as a copy of Alice Walker’s In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens, which contains her amazing 1975 essay “Looking For Zora,” which describes her pilgrimage in search of Zora Neale Hurston’s then-unmarked gravesite.* The morning of the visit, I kept checking and rechecking the address of the archives on my laptop. And still, even with all that prep (the purchase of the Keds, the sharpening of the pencils): I wasn’t prepared for the pure emotional wallop that hit me once I was actually seated in the archive and handling a file of her drafts. At one point, I had to put my head down on the table where I was working and rest there with my eyes closed for a few minutes so I wouldn’t bawl.

One thing I felt especially aware of this year is how we carry around our past selves inside us, and the strange feeling of those past selves sloshing up against our current self. Last week, at a dinner out, my stepdaughter said, unexpectedly, “When you look in the mirror what age do you expect to see?” Everyone at the table knew exactly what she meant. All of us expected to see someone younger—the only question was how much younger. Asked her own response, my stepdaughter said she expects to see a “her” who is about seven years younger than she is now: an age that would place her at a time before she became the mother of two small children. Similarly, earlier this year I was thinking about the Kavanaugh hearing and realized with a start that I’m only a few years younger than he is—that graying, pettish-looking man in a suit. (“Funny how he looks so middle aged while I’m still the girl who sang UB40 with her friends on the bus around Appleton.”)

We all have these jarring moments of recalibration with time, I know. But sometimes I’ll forget that not only does everyone feel this way, I’ll forget that I do. I’ll fall into seeing life as having a strict chronology: a forward progression through time, with past selves shed and left behind. And the “me” who had planned the visit to the archives that day was 46 years old and in western Massachusetts for my 25th college reunion. It was the “me” who has a husband, stepkids, and grandchildren. The “me” who is now a diligent scheduler and plans things like archives visits well in advance. The “me” who had packed away in my purse, along with the sharpened pencils, a pair of “readers” that I sometimes have to wear now (even with my bifocal contacts already in!). This was why, I think, I ended up so surprised by the wave of emotion that hit me when I was handling the poem drafts. I had forgotten that seventeen-year-old me would be there too.

* It’s impossible to mention Walker right now without acknowledging the revelation in the New York Times Book Review this month of her David Icke fandom and the anti-Semitism that’s discussed here too. Still, I continue to love that essay about Hurston—it’s beautiful and funny, and I’m grateful to the client who introduced me to it. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend searching it out.

Plath around the time she was writing “Elm.”


I spent most of the afternoon with Box 9, Folder 81. This is the folder containing Plath’s drafts for her poem “Elm,” which is one of my favorites. She began writing it in the spring of 1962, as she was living in the house in Devon in the months immediately after Hughes had left (before she moved to London). Later in my visit, I looked at files for a few other poems and felt especially lucky that I’d chosen “Elm” to start. It’s a poem that changed radically from first draft to completed version, in such a way that as you move through the different versions of it, there’s a satisfying sense of getting to see how she churned and sifted as she worked a poem. She was a relentless craftsperson. The folder contains fifteen drafts, both handwritten and typed, most of them on pink Smith College memorandum paper. With many of them, the marked-up pages from a draft of The Bell Jar are on the reverse side—she was using the old novel draft for paper.

The first draft (below) has a real bagginess to it. Many of the lines are recognizable as intimations of the final poem, but some lines aren’t, and as you read it there’s a sense that she’s throwing out different lines of association and observation in order to see what catches.

A line “It is not easy, she is not peaceful” repeats twice on the page, and she plucks it up and carries it forward into the next couple drafts as a first line. But now it’s “she.” The poem is growing more intimate.

A few drafts later that version of the line has been shed too, but the emotion behind it—of racked restlessness, of creaking complaint—is still what’s guiding: The drafts are just finding sharper, pointier ways to express it. (Just as the title itself has been whittled down from the initial blowsy possibilities of “Wind In The Great Elm” and “A Sea at the Door” to the starkness of “Elm.”)

It’s with the fifth version that the first lines of the poem as we know it appear, although with different line breaks:
I know the bottom, she says.
I know it with my great tap root…

These lines are handwritten in a sure confident way, without any cross outs—as if she’d had one of those leaps where, after groping and mucking your way forward in a draft, you have a sudden sense of “oh, here’s the path.” For the rest of the drafts, the stanzas below these lines shift, swell, get pressed back down, but those lines remain how the poem leads off. The later versions become moving because she’s tossing away a lot of serviceable and even quite good lines. She is not easy, she is not peaceful, she knows this poem could be better.

It’s with version 14 (I think 14!) that you see the edit marks where she’s realized that “I know it with my great tap root” should be moved up to be part of the first line.

It’s such a small alteration but it changes how you hear the poem.

I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root.
It is what you fear.

“Elm” was accepted by The New Yorker that fall. The second volume of Plath’s letters, which recently came out, includes her letter to the poetry editor Harold Moss about the acceptance: “I am happier to have you take this than about any of the other poems you have taken—I thought it might be a bit too wild and bloody, but I’m glad it’s not.” (❤️.)

Incidentally, both volumes of Plath’s letters were co-edited by Karen Kukil, who oversees Smith College’s Plath archives, edited the Unabridged Journals too, is impressive, and was a great help during my visit.


The most recent volume of Plath’s letters has gotten attention for the fourteen letters in it written by Plath to her friend and former therapist, Ruth Beuscher, during the breakup of her marriage (the same time period she was writing “Elm”). I got the book as a Christmas gift this year, and so, spent Chrismas afternoon, in bed with one finger stuck in the book’s index, so that when I finished one letter to Beuscher I could hop on to the page number of the next one. Lots of fascinating disclosures; especially if you’ve read The Silent Woman and, as I do, take a keen interest in gossip even if it’s sixty years old, fairly obscure, and everyone involved is dead now. But what struck me most as I read the letters is how comfortable Plath was in them. It’s a paradox, as she was writing during a time of great strain and distress; still, the voice has an easiness to it that was new to me. Put another way, they’re very much the records of someone talking to a therapist they trust: candid, expecting to be understood, and thus, I realized, free of the performing “mask” quality that sometimes makes me wince reading her other letters (the painful smiling Shirley Temple; the busy bee; the brazen arch man-eater around town). I’ve never expected to know Plath as her friends did—it’s seemed beside the point, really, of my relationship to her—but the letters carry the most palpable sense I’ve ever had of what it might have been like to sit with her, when she was comfortable and at ease, and listen to her gossip, be funny, or mundane—a person like any other.

I was thinking about this this morning, lying in bed and wondering what art Plath herself would make of the experience of visiting her archives—of what it’s like to hold a folder containing fifteen different drafts of a great poem. Would she see the different drafts as evidence of a self always moving forward, working from a state of embarrassing roughness to one of pristine and awful triumph (“The woman is perfected”)? Or would she like the folder, as I do, as evidence of all the selves we contain on any given day: a hive of them taken altogether, messy and marked, all essential to what we’re becoming.


You can go here to learn more about Beast Accelerator. As I said up top, I’ve been working on the calendar of Black Cardigan’s 2019 offerings, and Hocus Pocus, the online circle for women writers I mentioned in the last letter, will now be starting in March. If you’d like to be on a list to receive early info about that, reply to this letter and I’ll add you.

Thanks so much for reading. And happy New Year!

Until next time,
Wishing you easy, peaceful,

p.s. If you’d like to share a link to this letter, you can find it here. And if you haven’t signed up for the newsletter and would like to, you can do that here.

#72: The House of Old & Haunted Internet Links

A house of haunted links for Halloween!

Hi hi, friends,

In last week’s letter I put out a call for your favorite old haunted links—the old essays, stories, stray pieces & internet bookmarks you find yourself returning to again and again. The responses were generous and great, with links that ran the gamut from funny and light to instructional to “this is the writing I turn to when everything turns dark.” Some links were new to me, some like old pals.

Thanks so much to those who contributed, and happy clicking, exploring, and Halloween to all!


Jess Zimmerman’s “Where’s My Cut?” (2015) haunts me still. Emotional labor may be a more prominent part of our cultural discourse in the U.S., but we’re not much better at navigating it.

I recently read the early works of Silvia Federici, whom I didn’t realize Jess quotes in this piece until I revisited it minutes ago. Federici’s works from the 1970s read, for the most part, like radical contemporary works, which is both admirable and frightening.

— Amanda M.

* * *

Mine would have to be this one: “How To Be Single” by Briallen Hopper. Middle-distance gazing 4-ever!

— Mary M.

* * *

Now and again I revisit “Bewilderment” by Fanny Howe via the Arizona State University website. I like that this essay is Out There, posted from the desert. Sometimes knowledge, the will to know pulls too hard on my wings. “Bewilderment” cures.

— Elaine B.

* * *

Here are two links that I’ve remembered and searched for again a few times since I first saw them. Even better, they are both fundamentally hopeful, to me anyway. I like to think that the good, deep, rich important things can endure and spread.

• From the Harvard Library: A visualization of the rise of modern publishing across Europe after the invention of the printing press.
Marina Abramović’s meeting with Ulay during her “The Artist Is Present” exhibit at MOMA. [Ed. note: I cried. Again.]

— Kristen T.


“The Itch” is from The New Yorker in 2008, and I bet I won’t be the only one to send it, because it is absolutely haunting and all I can think about when my head gets itchy. Plus, Atul Gawande is dreamy.

— Liz W.

* * *

Here are the pieces that I have most bookmarked, hyperlinked, and emailed over the years:

“Brag, Build, Banana” by Wendy Molyneaux (Rumpus 2011). The world frequently seems full of nonsense and the best antidote I can find to the rampant greed, self-promotion, and frequently terrible writing on offer is this piece of absurdity, the spirit of which dismantles every stupid thing ever said, without making much sense itself at all.

“Never Give Your Kid A Cold Shower” by Drew Magary (Deadspin 2013). I read this before I was ever a parent, and keep coming back to it—idk, you feel for all the people in it, and it’s hard to write about parenting without littering the thing with notes on the ethics of what you’re writing.

Honorable mention: “Hey Mickey You Blow My Mind” by John Jeremiah Sullivan (NYT 2011). Largely for all subplots involving “Lil’Dog,” the author’s friends’ kid, “a tiny, sandy-haired, muscular guy, with a goofy, lolling grin, who’s always about twice as heavy when you pick him up as you thought he was going to be.” This is a piece I constantly email to writers in service of How To Write Better. It’s the kind of piece that will flash by my eyes right before I die, I expect.

— Janet M.

* * *

Ye olde links! First thing I thought of was this one on pretending to be sick on the internet. I’ve recommended it to so many people. [It’s by Cienna Madrid, and was published in the Stranger.]

One I circle back to every few years – John Jeremiah Sullivan on Axl.

And I used to re-read the Fanlore story on MsScribe all the time, but the originals (and even the back ups) seem to be lost to web rot. There’s a LJ link up, though.

All of these are about infamy and subterfuge, I guess, with side doses of wtfery.

Then there’s the ’pin on figureskating. [Ed. note: This one’s by Kathy Hovencamp and Sarah Marshall. While we’re talking ’pin and figure skating, I’ll throw in this one from Nicole Chung on Kristi Yamaguchi.]

— Margaret H.

* * *

One article on the old internet that I adored as a teenage fanfiction author and return to every few years is this one: “Too Good to Be True: 150 years of Mary Sue.” As a teenager I thought it was AMAZING that anyone would take fanfiction seriously enough to write about it—now I think it’s amazing that a piece of scholarly writing could be so dishy and fun, and rich.

— Sarah M. [Same Sarah M. who in the link above is talking figure skating at the ’Pin. <3.]


As far as old links, I have so, so, so many (literally an entire bookmarks folder titled “to read and reread”), so I hope you don’t mind if I recommend a themed pair. Whenever I need to do a big clean or a big purge or even actually move apartments, there is something superbly soothing about reading both Edith Zimmerman’s “Edith Zimmerman is Throwing Everything Out” and Logan Sachon’s “Cleaning Day”; both are, coincidentally I think, from September 2013.

— Aimee P.

* * *

• About three times a year I google “maud newton tomato soup” because that’s easier than just writing down her take on the Moosewood soup. It’s sooooo good.

• And it moves around a lot but I periodically dig by Rick Bathelme’s “The 39 Steps” for writing and it brings me joy.

— Kate M.


I have two links for you:
• These Weight Watcher recipe cards.
• And the kitty cat dance.

I saw both of these things for the first time in college dorm rooms, which probably goes a ways to explain why they made me laugh so hard that I could not breathe—I was almost certainly very high. Both things (the cards and the cat dance) are basically extremely specific jokes that someone took a great deal of time and energy to carry out. They remind me of an internet that seemed personal and homespun and weird. It was often my experience growing up as an older millennial (’83) to identify with Gen X culture and then be deeply disappointed that by the time I was old enough to cut my hair into bangs or wear baby-doll dresses and flannel or drift ambitionlessly through my 20s the rest of culture had moved on to more polished ways of being. I feel similarly about the internet, and am now ready for my blog.

— Joanna P.

* * *

THIS [“It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers” by Colin Nissan]. I reread it all the time and send it to people still and it is still funny to me. (Also seasonally appropriate.)

— Sara Q.

* * *

This [“My DJ” by Brian Bieber] is from 2004. It has its strengths and weaknesses but the deadpan lines cheer me up every time: “My DJ encourages the doctor to throw his hands up, but the doctor declines.”

— Gavin G.

* * *

A few from the wayback machine:

• Megan Daum’s “My Misspent Youth” from 1999. (I have endlessly quoted that last line)

And some humor! (We so need humor right about now …)
• Ellis Weiner’s “Subject: Our Marketing Plan”
• Steve Martin’s “Side Effects”

— Amy G. [Ed. note: I’m going to throw onto Amy’s funny pile this old Shouts & Murmurs from Simon Rich about a condom that’s ten times as sweet and funny as it has any right to be.)

* * *

I am still thinking about the winter boyfriend by Edith Zimmerman from the Hairpin. It’s even vaguely seasonal—gotta get your own Jib to sleep on a pallet of hay ASAP.

— Kate D.


I’m sending the letter early this week so you’d have it for Halloween. It’ll be back the Friday after this one—and in that one I’ll be sharing some info on Hocus Pocus, the new online circle for women writers that I’ll be starting up in January 2019 (!).

Until then,
wishing you visits from only the friendliest ghosts,

#71: Recommendations — ‘Coco,’ Festivals Of The Dead, And A Call For Your Favorite Old & Haunted Links

Hi hi, friends,

A few weeks ago I went to a presentation on setting up a practice of ancestor veneration at Asheville’s local witch store. The talk was tied to Samhain, which, if you’re not familiar with it, is a festival with roots in Celtic traditions that represents “a time to reconnect with our ancestors, and honor those who have died.” Samhain falls next week, on October 31. (This article explores how it relates to and is distinct from Halloween.) The marvelous witch Byron Ballard was giving the talk, and I’d gone in part so I could record it for my friend Maud Newton as research for her book on ancestry and in part for a project I’m brewing up here (more on this soon!). And, too, when is it ever a bad day to go to your local witch shop, sit on a folding chair in the back room, next to the sales room with its heaps of incense and fiddly trinkets and candles and cellophane packets of mysterious clumped ingredients, and listen to a marvelous witch tell you how you might set up a little offering table or shelf to honor your grandmother and the other beloved departed in your family. Answer: it’s never a bad day for this.

The store’s in an old rezoned house on a busy corner. There were maybe seven of us there for the talk, sitting in our semicircle of metal chairs. An alterations place is located upstairs and every so often a mechanical thunk would come through the ceiling, the punch of buttonholes being put in: Thunk… thunk… thunk. From the narrow window behind me I could feel the sky shifting from twilight to dark. At the end, a few people shared questions and stories, and this included one person describing for the rest of us all the tumult and mayhem caused in her family across generations by women given the name Eugenia. “The dramatic Eugenias” is how she referred to them, and they live in my head now as a fatiguing but dazzling lineage.

Also, all this time, I’d been pronouncing it “Sam Hain,” like it was a character in a Western—the old cowboy squints and says, “looks like Sam Hain is back in town”—when it’s “Sowen.”

Then I went home and cried my eyes out rewatching Coco. Have you seen Coco? I thought everyone had but a few friends recently told me they hadn’t. So I’m mentioning it! The movie is set on the Day of the Dead—that is, another October 31st festival about honoring one’s ancestors, and it’s resplendent. Like, as perfect as anything can be without offending the gods. It’s still streaming on Netflix, too.

(A still from Coco. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection.)

Back in June, Jia Tolentino wrote a love letter to Coco that sums up what makes it so meaningful to watch right now, beyond the delights of its story and the beauty of its animation. She writes that Coco is “a definitive movie for this moment: an image of all the things that we aren’t, an exploration of values that feel increasingly difficult to practice in the actual world.” The movie, she continues, is “about borders more than anything—the beauty in their porousness, the absolute pain produced when a border locks you away from your family.” Rereading her piece just now, it was odd to see the news stories to which she’d linked to illustrate her point—this week’s news has been such a reprise.

Anyway, here is your recommendation: watch Coco this weekend!


Right now, in this letter, I’m sharing links from the time I was on hiatus. (We’re coming near the end of that pile.) In honor of Coco and Samhain, a few favorites on the theme of family, origins, and thinking about our pasts:

• Angela Chen on “the stories we tell about ourselves and why they matter.”

• Keith Gessen on “why I taught my son Russian.” This essay is so deep charming and funny.

• A piece by Mayukh Sen on a cookbook written by Sameen Rushdie in the 1980s. Sameen is Salman Rushdie’s sister, and her cookbook was “modelled, in part, after what the siblings ate as kids growing up in an affluent Muslim household in nineteen-fifties Bombay.”

• And a conversation between Mira Jacob and Nicole Chung about Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know about her transracial adoption and her search to connect with her Korean birth family.


A last thing that I thought might be fun: Do you have any favorite old Internet links that you go back and reread now and again? A couple examples: I’m haunted by this 1996 New Yorker story by Joanna Greenfield about being attacked by a hyena; and then this week, I got the joy of introducing a client to “My Baby? My Baby Seems So Smart But Also I’m Worried About My Baby,” which is, eep, from 2010. (That article’s corollary: “My Book? My Book Seems So Smart” etc.)

If you have something like that—let’s say anything published before 2018—send the link with a little one- or two-sentence explanation to me by hitting reply (or email me at blackcardiganedit at gmail dot com) by Tuesday. If I get enough, I’ll gather ’em all up for a special “beloved old link-ghosts of the Internet” edition of this letter on Halloween.

Until then,
if you watch Coco be sure to hydrate,

Carrie Frye
Black Cardigan Edit

p.s. I’ll be migrating the most recent issues of the newsletter to Black Cardigan’s site soon, but for now here is where the most recent issues can be found. And here is where people can subscribe.

#70: Recommendations — Two Words + A Prized Rich Rejection

Hi hi, friends,

Right now I’m using this letter to share various items I stored away while on hiatus earlier this year. And one of those things was a word: “lucubration.”

I found it in a biography of Van Gogh I was reading after watching Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette (we’re all working through Nanette in our own way). It’s such a good word! It means “laborious work, study, thought, etc., especially at night.” I like it as my friend and writing partner Maud Newton sometimes sends emails on her book work with alarming middle-of-the-night time stamps and it’s nice to have a word to attach to that. Also I like how it links up in the ear with “lugubrious,” an emotion you might feel if what was keeping you up late was a PowerPoint or something.


The subject of being up late at night, working and writing, always reminds me of the Baudelaire poem, “At One O’Clock In The Morning.” There the emotion of being up late to work isn’t lugubrious, but stirred up—a particular vein of high-stepping tantrum-ish spleen that can be enjoyable as it works itself out and you start being able to write. I just reread it, unsure whether I loved it as much as I used to and whether I wanted to include it today, hit “boasting (why?)” and knew I did. It’s from his book Paris Spleen, and translated here by Louise Varèse.

At One O’Clock In The Morning

At last! I am alone! Nothing can be heard but the rumbling of a few belated and weary cabs. For a few hours at least silence will be ours, if not sleep. At last! the tyranny of the human face has disappeared, and now there will be no one but myself to make me suffer.

At last! I am allowed to relax in a bath of darkness! First a double turn of the key in the lock. This turn of the key will, it seems to me, increase my solitude and strengthen the barricades that, for the moment, separate me from the world.

Horrible life! Horrible city! Let us glance back over the events of the day: saw several writers, one of them asking me if you could go to Russia by land (he thought Russia was an island, I suppose); disagreed liberally with the editor of a review who to all my objections kept saying: “Here we are on the side of respectability,” implying that all the other periodicals were run by rascals; bowed to twenty or more persons of whom fifteen were unknown to me; distributed hand shakes in about the same proportion without having first taken the precaution of buying gloves; to kill time during a shower, dropped in on a dancer who asked me to design her a costume for Venustre; went to pay court to a theatrical director who in dismissing me said: “Perhaps you would do well to see Z. . . . ; he is the dullest, stupidest and most celebrated of our authors; with him you might get somewhere. Consult him and then we’ll see”; boasted (why?) of several ugly things I never did, and cravenly denied some other misdeeds that I had accomplished with the greatest delight; offense of fanfaronnade, crime against human dignity; refused a slight favor to a friend and gave a written recommendation to a perfect rogue; Lord! let’s hope that’s all!

Dissatisfied with everything, dissatisfied with myself, I long to redeem myself and to restore my pride in the silence and solitude of the night. Souls of those whom I have loved, souls of those whom I have sung, strengthen me, sustain me, keep me from the vanities of the world and its contaminating fumes; and You, dear God! grant me the grace to produce a few beautiful verses to prove to myself that I am not the lowest of men, that I am not inferior to those whom I despise.

Another good word is embedded in there, “fanfaronade.” It appears with a double “n” in the translation but with one in the dictionary. It means “arrogant or boastful talk” and it had a steep drop off in usage around 1900.

It’s like people hit the 20th century and had no more time for fanfaronading around. Though it’s certain to stage a comeback soon, coming to you as an expensive liqueur, exceedingly bitter with a hint of citrus, a new sort of Fernet-Branca: Fanfaronade.

As this word tree shows, the root word of “fanfaronade” is from the French “fanfare.”

I realized, when I first saw that word tree, that I have been carrying around, unexamined, all these decades, the association of the word “fanfare” with something happening at ye olden court that was so exciting and momentous that trumpets would blare… and all the women of the court would wave their fans with extra vigor. But no. That doesn’t seem to be how the word developed.


Related: In third grade or so, a friend asked me at recess what I thought “comme ci comme ça” meant, and I explained that it meant something like *shrug of shoulders*, and that it was expressing an emotion like you might feel if you had come to see a thing (come see), and having seen it (come saw), gone away not all that impressed. I remember my friend being dubious—“I don’t knowww”—and a strong feeling within me, as I looked out across the gray sere Wisconsin playground, that I was surely 100% correct on this.


One last little amuse-bouche. In Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, she shares a rejection letter she received in college from Adrienne Rich.

A few weeks ago, I was finally reading Essential Dykes To Watch Out For (and it turns out, yes, it’s essential—and also in its real-time chronicling of events spanning from the ‘80s through the early aughts—including Gore’s loss in 2000 by those few hundred votes in Florida—eerily resonant reading right now). And in the introduction, Bechdel has tucked the other half of Rich’s rejection letter, this time its start and described as one of her “most prized possessions.”

It’s a small but satisfying thing to find (come see glad saw), like two jigsaw pieces clicking together. Here are the two pieces of the letter put in order:

July 23, 1982

Dear Alison Bechdel,

We’re sorry to be returning this, but we feel that it’s the kind of writing that may be important for the writer, but is not sufficiently dense or rich for us to consider publishing it. In a way, it reads as if you and the various women and girls to whom you’ve been attracted are the only people in the world. And even these people are not followed through — were you able to

at a rather superficial level. Even for yourself, I think it would be useful to go back and ask yourself some real questions as to the meaning of each incident, and its context.

I hope this is helpful. Don’t be put off, or discouraged. Writing is a very long, demanding training, more hard work than luck. Strength to you.

In sisterhood,
Adrienne Rich

It’s great, right?

Until next time,
wishing you good baths of darkness,
and strength,

#69: Recommendations — Bears, Crocodiles, And Books

Hi hi, friends,

A couple weekends ago I was at a yoga retreat held near Asheville, and I realized as the weekend went on that we (people who live in Asheville) have reached a stage where we’ve become bored with each other’s bear stories. It used to be that if, say, you were at a party and you brought up bears you would have hit on a surefire topic of conversation. Everyone would be interested. I had my one story about my friend’s father who was attacked by a mother bear and lived to tell the tale. But you didn’t even need a dramatic anecdote for people to care. It just had to fall under the “bears” umbrella. Who had seen one; what were best strategies if you met one in the woods (run zigzags? play dead?); and so on. No more! During the retreat, we were out on a group walk, and one woman, who recently moved to the area from Maryland, kept trying to tell the rest of us about all the bears she sees in her yard:

“There’s a mother with two cubs I see… ”

Polite nods. Everyone keeps moving.

“Sometimes a big one comes on trash day… ”

“Mmmmm.” Tromping through the long grass, not looking up. Mmmmm.

But she was right—there are bears here, they are all over the place, and it’s seems right that once in a while we’d pause and be astounded about it. I’ve mentioned this before, but when I moved into my current house, I used to see a bear every year or so. I now see them weekly. I’m interested in why this is, and what changes might follow on the heels of it (beyond my possible Herzogian demise). For example, the yellow jacket activity on the trails near my house seems much worse than it’s been in past falls—ask my dog 🙁 —and you can guess why this is: there are great torn up patches in the ground where the bears have been digging up the yellow jacket nests. More bears, more angry yellow jackets—an unforeseen consequence.

While this newsletter was on hiatus a few readers were kind enough to reach out and ask, “how are your bears, CAAF?” They’re good! They’ve been especially in evidence the past couple weeks, scarfing up acorns. I took this short video clip of a mother bear with her three cubs grazing at my neighbor’s earlier this week. (I wish I could insert the clip here but I swear it’s worth the click if you’re a bear fancier.) I ran into the same foursome the next day when I was out walking—the cubs were perched up in a tree, looking like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.

Then here’s a picture of a bear who was hanging around a lot earlier this year. I mentally refer to him as Little John.

Over the summer a friend texted me this picture of two bears hanging out at her neighbor’s house. (You’re welcome!)


1906-ish photo of two Tasmanian tigers, or thylacines, taken in Washington D.C. The species is now either rare or extinct.

A few other animal-related stories:

• My favorite new gory story to tell people about is marine biologist Melissa Cristina Márquez’s account of being attacked by a crocodile—and the remarkable way she saved herself. (In reference to last week’s letter about creativity vs. reactivity: Márquez’s story is like a parable of the power of not letting yourself be reactive even when you are being dragged underwater BY A CROCODILE.)

• In common with everyone else who read it, I was completely enamored with this story by Brooke Jarvis about the search for the Tasmanian tiger. (Also, if you’ve ever wondered what Tasmanian devils look like but couldn’t be arsed to look it up, here you go.)

• If you’re on Twitter you’ve probably already seen this next link, but if you haven’t yet, treat yourself to this Twitter thread from the Museum of English Rural life and the animal doodles—featuring the family dog and a chicken in trousers—recently discovered in an eighteenth-century mathematics textbook.

Relatedly: I’ve been trying to teach myself how to draw lately. Last month, I drew (“drew”) a fox I keep seeing around the neighborhood that I think of as Ghost Fox.

I realized later that he ended up looking like a Tasmanian tiger.


An absurd number of great books have come out in the past few months. Like consolation for how terrible the news has been. I wanted to highlight three of em.

• First is Sarah Smarsh’s memoir Heartland, which was shortlisted this week for the National Book Award (!!). I was lucky enough to read it early and have been impatiently counting down ever since for when it would be out in the world so I could press it on everyone I knew. It’s a beautiful, smart, and deeply affecting piece of work—it’s been thrilling to see it get its due recognition.

• Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know came out last week, and my copy just arrived in the mail and I’m so excited to read. She’s a pal, but also one of those writers who, whenever they publish, I’m always so glad to have read: thoughtful and funny, pressingly honest and elegant all at the same time. Here she is in conversation about her book with Maud Newton. And on “The Daily Show” last night.

• Last year, I shared a link to Fatimah Asghar’s poem, “Pluto Shits On The Universe.” I really like her poem “My Love For Nature,” too. She now has a new book of poems out, If They Come For Us.

In the past year a couple of friends have sent me books of poems in the mail—Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things and Adrienne Rich’s Your Native Land, Your Life. So if you’re looking for something to send a friend, I can now vouch for how lovely it is to find a little book of poems unexpectedly in your mailbox, and commend Asghar’s book to your notice.

Next week I have some new words to share and a few more book recommendations.

Until then,
may Tasmanian tigers show up for you in unexpected places,

#68: Recommendations: Creativity Vs. Reactivity

Hi hi, friends,

It’s been forever. The earth’s had half a rotation. I’ve missed writing this letter, and it’s now resuming a schedule, every Friday for the near future. I have an enormous pile of stories, links, cool things I’ve read that I’ve been stockpiling away like some kind of demented scrapbooking squirrel and so the new few weeks will be devoted to batching out some of those. Old links, dold shminks. So picture a shed; picture an unsuspecting person walking up to the shed and opening the door; picture an avalanche of acorns streaming out of the shed, to the surprise of the person standing there. That’s me, vomiting five thousand acorns in your lap to say hello.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot this year is the idea of creativity vs. reactivity. I first heard about it from the coach Christine Kane, who lives here in Asheville, and I find it a super useful concept. To shorthand it: when you’re in a creative mode you’re acting in a deliberate, purposeful manner meant to advance you toward a goal; when you’re in reactive mode, you’re the human equivalent of a pinball that’s been hit by a flipper, whizzing through the galaxy. You’re reacting; not steering. Sometimes that’s fine. You have a plan, then things come up, other people have needs or requests, or their own ideas on how to proceed, and you shift to adapt—that is, you react—and it’s no big deal, just part of jostling along through life. Other times, of course, it’s not fine. You stay in permanent pinball mode, and it’s miserable.


I’ve found the concept helpful for understanding certain patterns I get in. “Why do I feel like such a pissy minotaur? Well, I haven’t written in four days because first x. happened and then y. came up unexpectedly, and then z. and z. again and if z. happens again tomorrow I swear to Zeus, I’m going to take out Theseus and every Athenian ship in that harbor. So what can I do to form a plan that will allow me to get in thirty minutes of writing even if z. does come up, the execution of which plan will thereby keep me from raging through the streets of Crete tomorrow, screaming, ‘Why won’t you leave me alone in the solitude of my labyrinth so I can write this #$&*)# book!” at various startled-looking people in togas before bursting into loud minotaur frustration-tears and slinking off in shame and damp dudgeon?”

For example!

(“‘Philip Roth didn’t need a labyrinth. All he needed was a place in Connecticut,’ the minotaur was heard to cry as she loped off. ‘Read Asymmetry, you’ll see!’”)


The other reason I’ve been so fastened on the idea of “creativity vs. reactivity” is in trying to make sense of our current political scene and sorting out what are the best actions I can take in response to it. Sometime before the 2016 election, it became evident that Trump and his cohort had an amazing ability to redirect narrative and the flow of people’s attention. You will have your own point at which this now-obvious fact struck you, where you thought “wait, how is this guy slipping away from this story?” For me, it was with the Trump University settlement. So many other stories I could have said there: “grab them by the pussy”! sharking behind Clinton during the debate! mocking a reporter with a disability! support from Nazis! Multiple bankruptcies, not paying contractors, literal resemblance to devil, GOLD ELEVATORS, etc. etc., which of course, is the point: There. were. so. many. things. to. choose. from. And there have continued, each week, to be so. many. Terrible things. Petty ones. Reprehensible ones. Two years of it now. Four this week: the movement of hundreds of children in the dead of night to a detainment camp in West Texas; mocking Christine Ford at a taxpayer-funded rally; continued loud support of Kavanaugh; as well as the massive, damning tax fraud story in the New York Times. That I’m mentioning that tax story last is in some ways my point: There are so many stories, happening unchecked and all the time, that they form a sort of shapeless swarm. (And haha! I forgot the Kim Jong-Un letter thing.)

Around the election, I often referenced a metaphor I read somewhere of how computer viruses work: by striking so many places at once they overload the system. Lately, though, I’ve shifted to thinking about this administration in terms of creativity vs. reactivity, and how it’s the nature of abusers and domineering people to create such fields of chaos that everyone around them is thrown into a never-ending reactivity mode. Which then benefits the creator of the chaos because, when someone’s stuck in reactivity mode, it’s hard for them to think and behave strategically. You become the pinball, bouncing and rebounding in anger and incredulity and getting more hopeless and helpless feeling with each week. And so the question is, how to switch from the pinball back to a person who is able to act with determination?

This may not be a helpful framing advice for you, and today with the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing especially so—you might be too worn out, or too directly affected by all that’s been happening, and if so, I send a big pulse of warmth to you. (Last night my FB feed was all women who don’t know each other asking for suggestions about what to do about chronic migraines: “They’ve been worse the past year.”) But if this construct seems potentially helpful for getting through your days right now, here’s how I’ve been working with it:

What makes me feel reactive and helpless? Then I try to reduce or cut out those activities. This is an ongoing balancing act. I slide and get out of whack here all the time. But I try to keep an observing eye on it.

What is my plan? A plan is the first step towards creative action. It’s choosing “here’s what I’m going to do” in a way that’s informed by what’s happening in the world but feels, at least for me, qualitatively different. Like wresting narrative control back.

Right now, for example, there are 32 days till the mid-term elections. So one shape a plan could take would be evaluating where you can be of the most help and what forms your help might take (e.g., donating money, volunteering, etc.). If you’d like to help register voters, what org can you work with and what hours do you actually have free? Then you look at your calendar and decide. It may feel paltry, small, in the face of what’s happening. That sense of insignificance gets wrapped up with the feeling of hopelessness. And the only remedy I’ve found to it so far is small but steady, boring-looking forward action. As you write things on your calendar, try not to feel like you have to be amazing—all you’re trying to do is move from “tenebrous goal of doing something” to “that’s nice but what and when.”

Short version: Basically, take every efficiency tip you’ve ever read and apply it to formulating your plan of steely determination. Be specific. Break it into small goals. Calendar it. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. (The Minotaur’s TED Talk.)


My plan here in North Carolina is mostly dedicated around helping to get the word out about the six (terrible) state constitutional amendments that will be on the fall ballot and encouraging people to #nixallsix when they vote.

It feels—not small, exactly, but odd to be focused on an issue that I don’t see mentioned much on Twitter. However, one of the amendments targets voting rights (it’d make photo IDs necessary) and that’s an issue I care a lot about and where I can do something, i.e., possibly change how people are going to vote, so volunteering around that made sense. (The sheer dullness of the phrase “state constitutional amendments” makes people glaze over and miss what’s at stake with this set of amendments—such as the targeted suppression of black voters, as well as another one that would beggar the state and its schools for decades to come—and on the ballot itself the amendments are worded confusingly. Thus the need for talking to people early. If you’d like to get involved on this too, I’d point you to Democracy North Carolina.)

A couple other options and resources:

• Highly recommended: Laura Olin’s recently launched newsletter, Votes For Women. It’s one thing you can do every day to help a Democratic woman win office on Nov. 6. Extremely well researched and with options ranging from “takes two minutes” to longer. (I’ve been giving a little $ to each of the candidates, and it feels great.)

• If you haven’t already, consider signing up to volunteer for The Last Weekend.


• A while back, Jia Tolentino recommended the StayFocusd plugin which lets you limit how much time you spend on different social media sites each day. I like it a lot—not least because it features this little eyeball that turns into an emoji-ish red eye of Sauron when you’re on one of your “limited” sites, which is often enough to make me go dancing off.

(Quasi related, every time I think of this photo sequence of Jia’s dog descending a spiral staircase I laugh.)

• The Pema Chodron audiobook for Getting Unstuck. I’ve shared this with a couple clients and listened to it several times myself, and it’s always been a sure but comforting nudge when I feel trapped in a bad habit pattern. There’s also a bit at the end where she gives her interpretation of A Beautiful Mind that only gets funnier and funnier as we get farther from 2001.

(Quasi related, this Sarah Miller piece on reviewing The English Patient in 1996 is my favorite thing I read this week.)

Next week: recommendations related to bears and books!

Until then,
hoping you’re always greeted on the streets of Crete with sympathy and the warmest understanding,

#67: We Have Always Lived in The Casita + more info on the Beast Retreat

Hi hi, friends,

After I graduated from college, I didn’t know what to do with myself and so, when my friend Maria called me up to say that she and our friend Rachel had found a house in Austin and did I want to move in too and by the way the city was full of cute long-haired boys, I loaded up my car and went. It was 1993. Slacker had just come out and it felt like everyone was packing up their cars and moving to Austin. Rachel, Maria, and I lived in a lopsided little house off South Lamar, across the street from Martinez Brothers Taxidermy. Lopsided couch on the porch. Lopsided kitchen with a buckled linoleum floor that could never be satisfactorily mopped clean, decorated with Maria’s enormous posters of the band Slayer. Tiny lopsided bathroom full of back issues of Rollerderby and On Our Backs. My room was a converted garage with an iffy lopsided roof over it so that, in winter, I’d wake up many mornings with hard bright spangles of frost on my blankets. I got a temp job with a mortgage company. I adopted a dog, Sid, and walked her up and down Lamar in the humid dusk when I got off work. We gave lots of parties at the house and at least a few times, when I’d go to look for Sid, I’d find her up a tree in the backyard in the arms of a couple punk rock guys in our circle. Like that was these guys’ thing: take the dog, whisk up a tree in the backyard, and spend the rest of the party perched up high, like a couple of midnight crows in leather jackets. I read lots of Philip K. Dick—enough that I still associate his novels with coming out of a dark coffeehouse to hard Austin sunlight—and discovered Barbara Pym and started writing a Pymian novel about a temp worker who has a crush on a beautiful long-haired poet but daren’t speak to him or invite him to one of her parties where, if he’d come, he’d have been absolutely free to climb up one of the trees in the backyard, too.

I’m trying to remember if I had ambitions at this time, beyond photocopying mortgage documents for long dizzying hours. My first thought is no: not beyond the Pymian novel. But that isn’t true—I did. I just had no idea where the bridge was that would take me from where I was to that future (editor in Manhattan but living in Brooklyn, with a nice dogwalker who would take Sid out at lunch).

I’m recollecting all this because I’m in Austin for the weekend, visiting Maria and a few other friends of ours from college. The friends are staying in a big house on Duval, and I’m staying in a wee casita a few blocks away. The neighborhood is Hyde Park and it’s lovely, with lots of gardens and a sense of liberal Sunday-morning amplitude even on weekdays; and I can tell we’ve all reached a certain age because it’s obvious in conversation that each of us has covertly checked Zillow to see if we could afford to live here (“hmm, but what about one of the smaller Craftsman houses?”).

Hee! Maria and me, 1995.

It’s my first time back since 1995, and yesterday Maria, who’s returned here after living in Las Vegas for a while, picked me up so we could field trip around to our old haunts. Ninety-five percent of them are no longer there. The gym where I learned how to box, Big Steve’s, with its wall of Polaroids of Big Steve standing like a white-haired muscular gnome beside Ann Richards and other Austin royalty of yesteryear? Torn down and a Shake Shack built. The coffee house Flipnotics, where we used to run into Charlie Sexton. Maria: “It’s a kava bar now.” The bar the Horseshoe, a block up from our old house. “It closed two years ago. I went in the last week it was open, and it smelled like despair and downward mobility.”

The tour wasn’t depressing—I already knew Austin had radically changed, grown shiny and prosperous, and it was too fun to be riding around with Maria again—but it was disorienting.

“But look!” Maria said, just in case I was getting blue, “Martinez Brothers Taxidermy is still there!”

We reached our destination, our old house on Oxford Avenue. It took us a minute to pick out the house, all of the houses on the block looked so cute and freshly painted. None of them looked lumpy or lopsided or like the kind of house where you’d wake up in winter to find hard spangles of frost on your blankets.

“It’s that one,” I said, pointing. “Remember, it had the converted garage.” You could tell people were home so we didn’t get out to walk around, but stayed parked in front (semi-creepy instead of full creepy). I asked Maria if she remembered how it felt walking in the backyard in summer, how the scorched grass there would scratch and bite at your ankles. She said yes and then: “Do you remember the graveyard behind the house?” I didn’t. It seemed ludicrous that there’d even been a graveyard associated with this house, crammed at it was near the edge of Lamar. And then I remembered. The backyard had stretched behind the house in a long shoebox and, if you ranged back far enough, with the scorched grass crunching under your feet, past the trees where the punk rock guys liked to perch, past the lopsided tool shed, and looked over a tangle of tall weeds, there had indeed been a small graveyard there, the property of a nearby church. I remember laughing the first time I saw it, as something we had collectively with sheer Gothic Brontëan force of will conjured there, to sit behind our house in Texas.

Maria and I sat looking at the house, and I hopped out and took one squinting selfie. Had the house ever been as lopsided as I remembered it, or had they fixed the foundation? I somehow knew that if we did get out of the car and gone around to the backyard, the grass there would now be green and cushiony and soft, the tool shed gone, the tangle of high weeds removed, and if it was still there, the graveyard behind it would be clean and neat, all the gravestones sitting at perfect right angles.

Is Your Writing Life In Need Of Some Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Do?

Wanting to kickstart a writing project this spring and crave some one-on-one editorial support as you go? Find out more about the Hocus Pocus Beast Retreat I’m hosting here. Right now there are four spots left, and registration closes March 14th.

Until next time,
may what’s up in that tree always be a pleasant surprise,

#66: Costumes Like Armor + Beast Retreat Hocus-Pocus, April 26-29, 2018

Hi hi, friends,

In a recent profile and interview with Tayari Jones, Bim Adewunmi writes:

Jones likes her books to tell the stories of where she’s from. “You think about John Irving; everyone in John Irving’s books go to Exeter. He’s got his Exeter, and I’ve got my SpelHouse,” she says, smiling. The urban South, she says, “is the bedrock of everything I do.” Jones’ Atlanta is distinct from other Southern writers’ sensibilities, because it is based so much on her own perspective, as opposed to an established folklore.

I trust you already know this but Jones’s new novel, An American Marriage, her fourth, rocketed out of launch last week. Different bits of Adewunmi’s profile have stayed with me since I read it. Some serious, such as the discussion of the novel’s title (“‘I had never heard of myself as American without “black” or “African” in front of it,’ says Jones.”). Some, uh, more frivolous. Like thinking about Jones’s bookshelves. And reminding myself of John Irving’s other writerly preoccupations in addition to Exeter—bears, wrestling—and then what mine would be if listed out. This is the sort of thing that’s fun to think about, hoping that Terry Gross might ask you about it someday (“CAAF, your writer preoccupations?”), and one high on my list, I realized, is costumes. “Well, Terry, I grew up in a theater-loving circle in Appleton, Wisconsin, and all my parents’ friends were in plays and musicals every year for the local community theater group. I spent a lot of time backstage and in the audience of different shows, including for several performances of a production of Sweeney Todd during the run of which the prop knife kept misfiring at key moments of suspense and squirting fake blood in a wild trajectory across the stage, like if you squeezed really hard on a full ketchup bottle.”

*Is never asked back.*

What interests me isn’t just costumes themselves—though I do love those—but the people who design and make them. The entire process of production: the designers’ digging around in books for research, their field trips for inspiration, as well as the actual making of the costumes, with all the ingenuity and trial and error involved. (“It’s like writing—but much, much cooler, Terry.”) And so during a jittery, sad week, it’s been a joy to have lots to read about Ruth Carter, the costume designer for Black Panther. I love that the movie is so huge, that if I want to read about its costume designer there are NEW INTERVIEWS AVAILABLE ALMOST EVERY HOUR.

This interview with Kurt Andersen encompasses Carter’s work on past films, including how she translated a historic mention of “looked like doves” into the white shirts of a courtroom scene for Amistad:

It then moves on to her work on Black Panther, including this part on the costumes for Nakia, Lupita Nyong’o’s character, and the other Dora Milaje:

“And when all the girls are dressed and they’re coming to set you actually hear them approaching” (!).

Close-up on Carter’s Dora costume for Nakia, played by Lupita Nyong’o. (Photo courtesy of Film Frame/Marvel Studios.)

Carter describes the process of creating another of Nyong’o’s costumes in this excellent piece by Tanisha Ford.

If you’re effervescing until you can get to the theater, I’d also recommend two Style pieces: The first on the work of Camille Friend, who headed up the movie’s hair department, and a second, by Walter Thompson-Hernández, on how Black Panther is changing cosplay culture, which includes nice video of the cosplayers’ costumes.

The “cold-shoulder” gown designed by Carter for Black Panther. (Photo courtesy of Film Frame/Marvel Studios.)


I’ve been on a John Singer Sargent dive this week (book research) and came across interesting background on the Lady Macbeth costume that the actress Ellen Terry is wearing in his 1889 portrait (below). I’m going to give you the full paragraph, taken from Donna Lucey’s Sargent’s Women, about the way the dress struck Sargent as looking like “soft chain armor.” Please stay for the sewing on of the beetle wings:

Sargent, an avid theater fan, took in the opening performance on December 27, 1888, and audibly gasped upon the actress’s first entrance. That dress! It shimmered like “the scales of a serpent,” and hugged Terry’s figure like “soft chain armour.” That had been the intent of the costume designer, Alice Strettell Carr … But the dress hadn’t come easily. Carr couldn’t find any fabric in England to create the sensuous yet metallic look she had in mind. She imported fine yarn from Bohemia—strands of green silk twisted with blue tinsel—and then crocheted the yarn into a dress based on a thirteenth-century design. It was floor length with large sweeping sleeves, but still lacked the theatrical brilliance to project to the final row of the theater. Inspiration came in the form of luminous insects. Carr had countless iridescent beetle wings sewn all over the dress. In a finishing touch, she arranged rubies and diamonds along the edges of the costume to create Celtic-style patterns.

I would read a thousand endnotes about this, including who was charged with catching the beetles and how Carr went about purchasing them.

“Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth,” painted by John Singer Sargent in 1889.


I’m excited to share that I’m hosting a writing retreat this spring, from April 26-29! It’ll be held at a beautiful place about a half-hour’s drive from Asheville, NC. The theme is “Hocus Pocus,” and I’ve planned it as guided four-day witchy creativity jumpstart that’ll help you make good progress on whatever you’re writing, whether you’re at the starting point or further in. One-on-one guidance from me, prompts, workshops (including perfume-sniffing and a little bit of costume making). Beautiful organic meals. Yoga (gentle, all-levels, and taught by this magic teacher). Hiking. And all kinds of other good stuff.

There are ten to fourteen spots (depending on room arrangements), and three have already been taken. If you’d like to receive more info, reply to this email and I’ll send it to you!

Until next time,
hoping that when Terry Gross asks if you can recite the lyrics to “What I Did For Love” with the same trembling intensity you could at age eleven, you’ll be ready,

#65: Jane Austen Counts Opinions & A Few Fun Links

Hi hi, friends,

I’ve been immersed the past couple weeks in the novel Emma for a Black Cardigan-related project, and working on that led me to a marvelous document held by the British Library. The document, titled “Opinions by various people of Jane Austen’s work,” consists of eight sheets of paper, closely written. Its creator was Jane Austen. The first five sheets record what her family, friends, and acquaintances had told her about Mansfield Park; the next three sheets, what they said about Emma. The two novels—Mansfield Park came out in 1814, and Emma the following year—were published on the heels of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, so many of the opinions have to do with whether people liked these new books more or less than the first two.

I find the entire document v., v. funny and fascinating. You can sense Austen gliding between true curiosity about the feedback (an interest along the lines of “which parts of my book worked, which parts didn’t?”), pride (especially when recording sibling approbation), and amused contempt (looking at you, Mrs. Bramstone and Mrs. August Bramstone).

You can scroll through the full document here. (Click “transcript” on the right-hand side for easier reading.)

Cherry-picking a handful of the Mansfield Park opinions:

My Mother – not liked it so well as P. & P. – Thought Fanny insipid. – Enjoyed Mrs Norris.

Miss Burdett – Did not like it so well as P. & P.

Mrs James Tilson – Liked it better than P. & P.

Fanny Cage – did not much like it – not to be compared to P. & P. – Nothing interesting in the Characters – Language poor. Characters natural & well supported – Improved as it went on.

Mrs Bramstone – much pleased with it; particularly with the character of Fanny, as being so very natural. Thought Lady Bertram like herself. –Preferred it to either of the others – but imagines that might be her want of Taste – as she does not understand Wit.

Mrs August Bramstone – Owned that she though S. & S. – and P. & P. downright nonsense, but expected to like M.P. better, & having finished the 1st vol. – flattered herself she had got through the worst.

Pause to appreciate the full-strength dowager-ness of “As she does not understand Wit.”

I became interested in the “Opinions” document because of a passage from Claire Tomalin’s Austen biography that summarizes the reaction in Austen’s circle to Emma. The short version is that even Emma, a novel so handsome, clever, and ingeniously constructed—I repeat, even Emma!—received an all-over-the-place reception:

Jane Austen herself was far from confident that Emma would be well received. Some of her fears were expressed to Mr. Clarke in December 1815: “My greatest anxiety at present is that this 4th work shd not disgrace what was good in the others … I am very strongly haunted by the idea that to those readers who have preferred P & P it will appear inferior in Wit, & to those who have preferred MP. very inferior in good Sense.” The first responses from readers were not reassuring. Out of the forty-three “Opinions” of Emma she noted down, twelve were distinctly hostile, and only six gave unreserved praise. Four said they liked it best of her works so far—two being her brothers Francis and Charles—but, just as she had feared, seventeen said they preferred Pride and Prejudice. Within the family, Mrs. Austen was one of these. At least she thought it “more entertaining” than Mansfield Park, whereas Cassandra was one of nine who expressed a preference for Mansfield Park. Fanny could not bear Emma herself [ … ] [Austen’s] nephew Edward also kindly pointed out that she had made Mr. Knightley’s apple tree blossoms in July.

Other opinions, all of them just as contradictory, follow. Maybe you won’t be astonished by this, but I was, and you may want to file it away for next time you’re feeling creatively ego-bruised: OUT OF 43 PEOPLE WITH WHOM JANE AUSTEN DISCUSSED EMMA, ONLY SIX GAVE IT “UNRESERVED PRAISE.” ONLY SIX!!!

I did enjoy the nephew giving her the note on the apple tree’s blossoming in July as a “this is how family is” kicker, though. And I was prepared for that particular point to crop up in the Opinions because my edition of Emma has a lengthy footnote about the novel’s “notorious” apple tree mistake that elucidates a few of the different angles critics and academics have taken to explain it, e.g., “Evan Nesbit, however, suggests that Austen’s late-flowering apple trees might reflect the effects of the exceptionally cool spring of 1814,” and so on. (Ain’t no mountain high enough! Ain’t no rabbit hole deep enough to keep me from Ja-ne.)

A few other stray points from the Emma swim:

• The #31 edition of the Black Cardigan letter shared six words from Jane Austen novels, ranging from familiar words to ones that are less so (‘nidgetty’!). This reading of Emma, I ended up with ‘mizzle,’ ‘captious,’ and ‘ridicule’ (as an alternate spelling of ‘reticule’) written in the margins of my notes. I was especially glad to be reminded what a good word ‘captious’ is. A scrawling trail also indicates that I was trying to count how many times Mrs. Elton mentions her brother-in-law’s ‘barouche-landau,’ but I must have left off somewhere as “6” is the last number recorded and we know the actual number is closer to six hundred. (If you, like me, have spent decades reading about barouche-landaus in novels without having any fixed idea what one looks like, here you go.)

• There’s a new Austen-related book coming out in March that I’m excited to read. It’s by Ted Scheinman, and it’s called Camp Austen: My Life As An Accidental Jane Austen Superfan.

• “If You’re A Person Of A Certain Age, Is It Possible To Read Emma Without The Corresponding Scenes From Clueless Playing In Your Head As You Go: A Clinical Investigation.”

“My Mother – thought it more entertaining than M.P. – but not so interesting as P. & P. – No characters in it equal to L[ad]y Catherine & Mr. Collins.” Close-up of a page where Jane Austen collected various people’s opinions of Emma. (Courtesy of the British Library.)


The Awl, 2009-2018: “The surprise shouldn’t be that The Awl didn’t last, it should be that it lasted as long as it did.” I worked at the site early on, 2011-2013, but, like so many others, loved it dearly for its run. The last couple days of posts were super Awl-y and excellent, and I’d also point you to this piece by Jia Tolentino which celebrates the site along with its also-now-shuttered magical sister site, The Hairpin.

• The fashion of the Black Panther L.A. premiere. (If you’ve had a bleak week, I encourage you to click away.)

This recent letter from Helena Fitzgerald starts with a wonderful description of the painting The Wedding At Cana and goes on to describe her own City Hall wedding at the end of last summer: “The ceremony was at once slapdash-casual and blindsidingly momentous.”

• Charming, funny interviews with The Good Place’s Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto. The Season 2 finale was last night—if you haven’t started watching yet, now’s a good time to catch up. That show and Star Trek: Discovery are my two favorites right now. (I still need to push past that first lung-heavy episode of The Crown.)

• Lili Loofbourow’s “The Female Price of Male Pleasure”: “The world is disturbingly comfortable with the fact that women sometimes leave a sexual encounter in tears.”

RIP, Ursula K. Le Guin.

A picture I took at the retreat place last April. (Not shown: goats.)

A picture I took at the retreat place last April. (Not shown: goats.)


I’ll be hosting a writing retreat near Asheville this spring, during the weekend of April 26th – 29th. The place where I’ll be holding it is gorgeous (an objective truth). It’s about sixty-some acres—there are mountains of course, but there’s a river, too, as well as goats and gardens and some nice looping trails around the woods. The weekend will include dedicated writing time as well as some workshops to help you jumpstart or dig deeper into your project. I’ll have space for about ten to fourteen people, depending on how people choose their room accommodations.

I’ll be sharing more about the retreat in my next letter, but if you’d like to receive info in advance, either hit reply on this letter or email me at blackcardiganedit at gmail dot com and I’ll put you on the list!

Until next time,
in certainty that your late-flowering apple trees were not a mistake, but only the reflection of an exceptionally cool spring,

#64: Sylvia Plath And The Climb To ‘The New Yorker’

The current theme of the Black Cardigan letter is “Beginnings”; this letter is the fourth and final in a series about Sylvia Plath and $$ at the beginning of her career. Part one was about her first published short stories; part two, about her summer at Mademoiselle; and part three, about the story behind her writing of the poem “The Pursuit.”

Hi hi, friends,

For this final letter on Sylvia Plath and $$, I wanted to share something I noticed on my last jaunt through her journals that seemed like a funny and encouraging parable of writing life. It’s about the wayward path she took on the way towards achieving what was the ultimate goal of her early writing career, getting a poem in The New Yorker.

In the (absolutely enormous) volume of her early letters that was published this year, Plath’s yearning to have a poem published in the magazine shows up—rough count—a thousand million times. From a 1952 letter she wrote in college to her mom (typos left in):

The best letter, in a way, was a rejection slip. But this one bore the blissful touch of an editors hand, in penmanship and real ink too, and it said “PLEASE TRY US AGAIN.” And guess where it was from ….. The New Yorker! … Needless to say, I am thrilled to bits, and will work on poetry this spring, I think … Perhaps by the time you are 100 years old you can say, “Yes, my baby got a poem in the New Yorker.” Well, nothing like being ambitious, but I was amazed and pleased. I figure they don’t ask just everybody to try them again unless they sense promise.”

It’s endearing, yes? With that “in penmanship and real ink too” and “I figure they don’t ask…” (She then repeated the news with the same all-caps PLEASE TRY US AGAIN in a letter to her brother tapped out the same day.) Soon after, she tosses some villanelles towards The New Yorker. The New Yorker tosses them back. She responds by… tossing them another villanelle. (To the tune of “Yes! We Have No Bananas”: “No! We Want No Villanelles”). That villanelle’s tossed back. Months go by. More villanelles are sent. More villanelles are tossed back. (*Louis Prima voice* No! we want no villanelles today.) The magazine crops up in letters as “my unclimbed Annapurnas” and “Some day I must conquer them too.” Years pass. She goes from Smith straight to Cambridge on a Fulbright. She marries Ted Hughes and starts sending off his poems too. Now there are two people in the household getting their poems tossed back to them by The New Yorker. (We have a ro-o-ndeau and an Elizabethan sonnet-o but no! we want no villanelles…) In a letter written from England, Plath mentions to a friend that some of Hughes’s stories are out on submission: “… the day either Ted or I get into that glittering rag will be the occasion of a colossal duck and orange sauce dinner with seven different wines for each course; Sorry, Please Try Us Again.”

You get the idea. Unclimbed mountain.

Let’s leap forward to the summer of 1957, five years and a thousand villanelles after that first PLEASE TRY US AGAIN rejection. Plath and Hughes have been married a year, and they’ve moved to the U.S. so Plath can take a job teaching at Smith. As a belated wedding gift, her mom, Aurelia, has rented a cottage for them on Cape Cod. Mrs. Plath isn’t wealthy; the Cape Cod cottage isn’t cheap—this is a grand and generous present.

Seven weeks of summer. Splendid isolation of ocean and beach. Nothing to do but write. It’s an opportunity that has “make the most out of me, you have no excuse not to” emblazoned across it. So of course it becomes hard to write anything.

At the beach in 1954. Part of the collection of The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.


Plath and Hughes arrive at the cottage on July 15th. “In six weeks you better be on a pile of manuscripts,” Plath tells herself in her journal a week in. The pile she wants to have by summer’s end is a rough draft of a novel, a bunch of poems, and a few short stories. Evidently there’s no one wandering the Cape Cod beach that summer to help her prune that list to something that’s FEASIBLE IN THIS UNIVERSE. Never mind. Love Plath, love her Herculean to-do lists. She’s always driven to hyper-achievement, but another element is fueling the “pile of manuscripts” ambition of that summer, too; an anxiety that, at 25, she’s washed up, the long string of successes behind her a talented teen’s giddy output. As she puts it in one journal entry, “That’s my trouble. I see it very clear now: bridging the gap between a bright published adolescent which died at 20 and a potentially talented & mature adult who begins writing about 25.” A pile of manuscripts would be proof that that talented & mature adult had emerged.

As Diane Middlebrook chronicles in Her Husband, she also spends most of that Cape Cod summer afraid she’s pregnant, a fear so profound she can’t even name it in her journal until she gets her period and the scare is over. Meanwhile, even as she’s not naming the fear, she’s making notes for a story about a “woman at end of her rope with husband, children” because of “bills, problems, dead end.”

Still, she works on some poems. She writes a couple stories. She swims in the ocean and gets a good tan. You get a sense she’s trying to dig in and enjoy this expensive luxury experience, with its freight of being paid for by her mother (who surely used a lot of squirrelled-away savings for it)—that if it happened now, she’d be Instagramming the hell out of it and it’d be all beach grass and swimsuits and wineglasses and glinting sea—but can’t because her eye is always on the calendar and the days getting X’ed off there. “How we cling to these days of July: August is a September month.” And: “Five more weeks. The day after the day after tomorrow it is August.” Realization that any “idiot can waste the summer getting tan only to lose it.” Then: “It is, o god, August 9th” and “I am caught in the six days before this is over.” It starts to sound less like an idyllic writing-vacation and more like a horror movie (Menace at Cape Cod).

At the close of summer there’s no pile of manuscripts. As a capper, that last week, Plath meets “two young writers” who “are both through with the first draft of novels, 350 pages of typing.” The journal entry doesn’t give their names, and I like to think the Two Young Writers weren’t fellow vacationers at all, but supernatural figures who’ve lurked around Cape Cod since time immemorial, lying in wait to pay visits to the cottages of blocked writers “just to say hi” and talk about the 350-page drafts of the novels they just completed.


I promised a parable, and it’s this one, developed from a note in Anne Stevenson’s biography. Early on during the Cape Cod summer, Plath gives herself some good writing advice in her journal:

Poems are bad to begin with: elaborate ones especially: they freeze me too soon on too little. Better, little exercise poems in description that don’t demand philosophic bear-traps of logical development. Like small poems about the skate, the cow by moonlight, a la the Sow. Very physical in the sense that the worlds are bodied forth in my words, not stated in abstractions, or denotative wit on three clear levels. Small descriptions where the words have an aura of mystic power: of Naming the name of a quality: spindly, prickling, sleek, splayed, wan, luminous, bellied. Say them aloud always. Make them irrefutable.

Start small. Be specific; be particular in your description.

She forgets this advice and goes after some big grand poems. Reminds herself of it:

The artist’s life nourishes itself on the particular, the concrete; that came to me last night as I despaired about writing poems on the concept of the seven deadly sins [ed. note: hee!] and told myself to get rid of the killing idea: [that] this must be a great work of philosophy. Start with the mat-green fungus in the pine woods yesterday: words about it, describing it, and a poem will come. … That’s where the magic mountains begin.

Then, as often happens with the good advice we give ourselves, she seems to forget it again. But during the last week of the summer—after the pregnancy scare, the stalled starts at various lumbering poems and stories, the visit from the Two Young Writers, a rejection from the Yale Series of Younger Poets award, etc. etc.—Plath and Hughes go out mussel-hunting.

She records it in her journal:

Yesterday: the weird spectacle of fiddler crabs in the mudpools off Rock Harbor creek: a mud flat at low tide, surrounded by a margin of dried brittle marsh grass, stretching away into the yellow-green salt marsh. Mud, damp toward center, alive with the rustle and carapaced scuttle of green-black fiddler crabs, like an evil cross between spiders and lobsters and crickets, bearing one gigantic pale green claw and walking sideways.

The entry goes on like that, specific and particular, the last one of that anxious, defeated summer.

Nothing more about it—it’s clear the verdict is that this was a wasted summer. Then, the following summer, in 1958, there’s a starred entry in the journal. “Seated at the typewriter, I saw the lovely light blue shirt of the mailman going into the front walk of the millionairess next door, so I ran downstairs. One letter stuck up out of the mailbox, and I saw The New Yorker on the left corner in dark print. My eyes dazed over.” This first acceptance was for “Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor,” and the poem appeared in the magazine’s August 9, 1958 issue. (“It is, o god, August 9th”—but now in a good way.)

I find this sequence in the journals cheering—how it points to the ways we can’t know what’s going to come of the different lumpish beginnings and faltering starts we make, the experiences we’ve decided we wasted. The holidays are here, but after that there’s the New Year and all the reckoning and resolving that comes with it. If you’re on what feels like the right road with your writing and creative work, I wish you the courage to keep going. And if you’re feeling off course and more wan than luminous right now, I hope this coming year will be the one where you’ll find that those practice runs and lumpy starts, the faltering and the continuing on when it felt meaningless, were, all the while, getting you where you needed to be.

Until next time,
wishing you the happiest of holidays and the determination to say the irrefutable,

p.s. A holiday reminder that Black Cardigan Edit offers gift certificates. And they’re pretty, too! If you’re interested in getting one for a writer in your life, you can get in touch here.

#63: Sylvia Plath And The Writing Of “The Pursuit”

The current theme of the Black Cardigan letter is “Beginnings”; this letter is the third in a series about Sylvia Plath and $$ at the beginning of her career. You can read Part One here and Part Two here. There’ll be one installment after this, and then we’ll move on!

Hi hi, friends,

The day after she met Ted Hughes at the St. Botolph’s party in Cambridge, on Feb. 26, 1956, Sylvia Plath was supposed to be writing a paper on Racine’s play Phèdre. Instead, holed up in her dorm room and stupendously hungover, she wrote the famous long journal entry about the party: “Then the worst happened, that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me…”; the sloshing of a glass of brandy “at the place where my mouth was when I last knew about it”; the stealing of the red headband; her biting his cheek; the whirling crashing stamping on the floor. For better or worse, the joint mythology of the two of them as a couple begins with that entry, and alas for all of us who imprinted on it in high school.

The next day, still feeling lousy, she got herself “dressed in slacks and favorite paisley velvet jersey to make me feel better, and wrote a full-page poem about the dark forces of lust: ‘Pursuit’. It is not bad. It is dedicated to Ted Hughes.”

The poem has an epigraph from the same Racine play she was procrastinating writing her paper about: Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit. And, eventually, she did tap out her paper. A tragedy, Phèdre is written in French but centers on figures from Greek mythology (Theseus, post-slaying of the minotaur; Phèdre is his wife); Plath wrote her paper on the stern theme of “Passion as Destiny” that runs through it. She got the paper back with “the comment that passion is only one aspect and not the fatal holocaust I made it.” Also, that she’d mixed some of her metaphors.


You can trace so many wiry branching threads networked through the poems Plath and Hughes produced during their relationship and its dissolution—Diana Middlebrook’s wonderful, perceptive Her Husband is essential in charting all these silvery whiskery threads—and so it interested me a few years ago when looking up Phèdre, wanting to know more about le fond des forêts where votre image me suit (a surprisingly formal vous-ish kind of me suiting), I saw Hughes had done a translation of the play. It came out in 1998, the last year of his life and the same year that Birthday Letters was published. He’d begun the translation the previous year. A scholar notes how, in translating the play, Hughes “enhanced or introduced the semantic fields closer to his own interests – those referring to hunting, hunger and eating, poison, obsessions, the animal and, crucially, the labyrinthine and the monstrous.”

These themes are hyper-vivid in “The Pursuit” too, which begins:

There is a panther stalks me down:
One day I’ll have my death of him;
His greed has set the woods aflame…

You may not, in our current news cycle of Weinstein-Spacey-Rose etc., be in the mood for reading a poem about predatory lust as enacted by the male animal, and if you’re feeling worn on that score, I’d urge you to skip this all today. Truly—there have been times in my life where I’ve liked “The Pursuit” a lot (it’s got a great jouncing rhythm), but this month hasn’t been one of them.

What interests me about its creation is something Plath wrote in her journal the next year: “My life, I feel, will not be lived until there are books and stories which relive it perpetually in time.” I experienced such a jolt reading that. It made me think of my own high-school imprinting on the narrative of that St. Botolph’s night, the ways reading the entry now is like being in the fourth row of a play you know by heart because you’ve sat through it dozens of times: the young woman goes to the party wearing her red shoes. She goes up the stairs, dances, and “then the worst happens.” All the actors on their marks—inevitable destiny that they’ll come crashing together—and the hungover young woman in her dorm room writing it all down the next day (from a journal entry during this same period: “writing makes me a small god”). In the weeks after the party, Plath keeps waiting for Hughes to show up. “I lay and heard the steps on the stairs and the knock at the door and I leapt up to welcome the fruit of my will.” The “steps on the stairs” is a call back to the imagery of “The Pursuit.” It’s all very witchy. Except the witchiness goes awry—it’s not Hughes at the door, but a guy named John who asks her to a movie. She doesn’t go but stays in to read the Duchess of Malfi, furiously. (For some reason I find the staying in to furiously read Duchess of Malfi especially funny.)

A photo of Plath taken the summer “The Pursuit” was accepted by The Atlantic. (The photo is part of the collection of the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College.)


Plath sent her mom, Aurelia, a copy of “The Pursuit” soon after she wrote it, along with another poem, saying that she thought the two together showed “a rather encouraging growth.” I’m excerpting the letter here for its insight into her own thoughts about the poem as well as the enjoyable little dance she does to explain LUST POEM to her mom:

“The Pursuit” is more in my old style, but larger, influenced a bit by Blake, I think (tiger, tiger) and more powerful than any of my other “metaphysical” poems; read aloud also. It is, of course, a symbol of the terrible beauty of death, and the paradox that the more intensely one lives, the more one burns and consumes oneself; death, here, includes the concept of love, and is larger and richer than mere love, which is part of it. The quotation is from Racine’s “Phèdre”, where passion as destiny is magnificently expressed. I am hypnotized by this poem…

There’s no mention of Hughes in the letter though he’s hinted at. Instead it continues, “Oh mother, if only you knew how I was forging a soul!” and then examines her feelings for another boyfriend, Richard Sassoon, then pulling away, who “I have loved … above and beyond all thought.” It’s a nice reminder that there were other figures on the stage then, that lived experience is rarely as neat as the story shaped after.

“The Pursuit” was accepted by The Atlantic during the summer of 1956 (so less than six months after it was written). By then, Plath and Hughes were married. She received $50 for the poem, and the impetus for these past few letters about Plath and $$ began, in part, with my curiosity about what that fifty bucks would equal today. Answer: About $450. The acceptance was a major buoying event—the first one she’d gotten that year, and the check came along with a nice letter (“a fine and handsome thing”) and the news that the poem would appear on a page by itself. She saw the poem as marking a major shift in her poetry; if you look at her Collected Poems, it’s the third one in. The earlier poems are shuffled to the back, under Juvenilia.

In a letter to her mom about the acceptance, she says, “keep an eye out for the issue, and buy up lots of copies.” In another, she reports that she’s seen a proof of the poem in layout, that it “looks terrific, with French quote from Racine and all from ‘Phèdre’, meaning in case anyone asks you: ‘In the depths of the forests your image pursues me.’”

Keep an eye out; buy up lots of copies. In case anyone asks you, this is what it means.


I’m pleased to announce that Book Beast will be returning with a start date this January. This is a seven-month program I designed to help writers make major progress on their books. This will be the third time I’m offering it, and it’s excellent if you’re a writer who, because of a day job or other responsibilities, finds it easier to keep up momentum with structure and accountability in place and/or if you’d like to have an editor-companion along for one-on-one guidance and support as you go. This run of Book Beast is starting January 1—so you can get a great driving draft off the start of the year—and will run through the close of July.

Enrollment started to fill a few weeks ago, so I only have two spots still available. I hope one of them is yours! You can learn more here.

Until next time,
wishing you well with all the fine and handsome things you’re making,

p.s. If you haven’t already subscribed to this letter and would like to, go here.

#62: Sylvia And The Month At ‘Mademoiselle’

This letter is the second in a series about Sylvia Plath and $$$. Part One is here.

Hi hi, friends,

This time capsule is from a 1971 New York Times article about the retirement of Betsy Talbot Blackwell (one of those names that seems to go everywhere in a pearl necklace), editor in chief at the magazine Mademoiselle:

At an English desk also painted green, sits B.T.B., as she is known to her staff and signs her memos. Staff members sometimes also refer to her as “Mother” among themselves.

A tall glass of water is provided by her secretary to sip when B.T.B. is racked by paroxysms of coughing, terrifying to her audiences, but which she passes off as “the way I announce myself.” The coughing spells come less frequently now that she has stopped smoking and given up the Scotch and soda that used to appear promptly on the dot of 5.

I admire the old-school iron fortitude of that “the way I announce myself.” The article is studded with other nice period details, too, like a mention of the time a new staff member, mistaking BTB’s mink hat for a pillow, sat on it. (Poor anonymous new staff member—we sympathize, across the decades, with your consternation.)

BTB was already reigning over Mademoiselle the summer of 1953, when Sylvia Plath served as one of the magazine’s guest editors—the same experience Esther Greenwood has working for Ladies’ Day in The Bell Jar. For the guest editor program, twenty young women were picked from colleges across the U.S. to come to New York to work on the magazine’s August issue. It was a huge honor to be chosen, like landing the most glamorous kind of paid internship. (Other “Millies” over the years: Joan Didion, Ann Beattie, and Mona Simpson.)

I say “paid internship” as the guest editors received a salary but I haven’t been able to track down how much the salary was. What I do know is that they were housed in a women-only hotel called the Barbizon (called the Amazon in The Bell Jar)—and at the end of June at least one of Plath’s fellow guest editors, Neva Nelson, was shocked to find that she had to pay for her month at the hotel. She was broke and had to scramble to find the money for a plane ticket home. Recollecting the experience later, she said:

I entered the contest thinking that working in New York at a big magazine would bring me a lot more money. Instead, I came back in debt with bills to pay for the clothes I purchased and the airfare I borrowed for the trip.

That quote comes from Pain, Parties, Work, a marvelous biography by Elizabeth Winder that centers on Plath’s month at the magazine. The book came out a few years ago and I missed hearing about it somehow, stumbled across it last week while looking up factoids for this letter, and read it in a big happy gulp. I highly recommend it, even if you’re not in the market for a new biography of the poet. The book’s narrow focus—just that single summer of Plath’s life— is part of its charm. Many of the incidents and people who pass by in other biographies at a swift, dutiful clip take on a whirring life and freshness here. If the version of Plath that comes across in the book is a little more sunny and sturdy than the Jupiter-her that occupies my brain, I appreciate the work Winder had to do to wrench a reader toward any new conception of a figure so familiar.

And there are lots of fascinating bits, too, on fashion history, perfumes, magazine life, and the glittery grimy “come here and make it” lure of 1950s New York—which seems, in Winder’s rendering, not all that different from the glittery grimy lure of the city in later decades, just with more trotting around in white gloves and small, not-especially-flattering hats.

Plath interviewing Elizabeth Bowen for the magazine.


In The Bell Jar, Esther is called into the office of Ladies’ Day editor, Jay Cee, for a “terrible” talk. The subtext is that Esther hasn’t shown enough enthusiasm for her tasks at the magazine, and Jay Cee asks her about her plans after college. Esther considers:

What I always thought I had in mind was getting some big scholarship to graduate school or a grant to study all over Europe, and then I thought I’d be a professor and write books of poems or write books of poems and be an editor of some sort. Usually I had these plans on the tip of my tongue.

“I don’t really know,” I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock, hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true.

It sounded true, and I recognized it, the way you recognize some nondescript person that’s been hanging around your door for ages and then suddenly comes up and introduces himself as your real father and looks exactly like you, so you know he really is your father, and the person you thought all your life was your father is a sham.

(Side observation: When I first read this book at fifteen, I don’t think I half-understood how funny it is.)

Growing impatient, Jay Cee tells Esther that she’s going to have to learn some languages if she’s ever going to get ahead: “Hundreds of girls flood into New York every June thinking they’ll be editors. You need to offer something more than the run-of-the-mill person.”

Jay Cee then puts on a small, not-especially-flattering hat that makes her look “terrible, but very wise.” She pats Esther on the shoulder, says, “Don’t let the wicked city get you down,” and sails off to lunch. Afterward:

I sat quietly in my swivel chair for a few minutes and thought about Jay Cee. I tried to imagine what it would be like if I were Ee Gee, the famous editor, in an office full of potted rubber plants and African violets my secretary had to water each morning. I wished I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I’d know what to do.

My own mother wasn’t much help. My mother had taught shorthand and typing to support us ever since my father died… She was always on me to learn shorthand after college, so I’d have a practical skill as well as a college degree. “Even the apostles were tentmakers,” she’d say. “They had to live, just the way we do.”

The character Jay Cee seems to have emerged as a sort of amalgam of BTB and Cyrilly Abels, Mademoiselle’s managing editor, to whom Plath was assigned during her guest editorship. In Winder’s account of the summer, Abels comes across as grinding and harsh (and also, as she was subsisting on a ’50s fashion-editor diet of cigarettes and grapefruit, likely very hungry). Still, it was Abels who had picked out Plath’s story “Sunday at the Mintons” to win the magazine’s fiction prize the year before, with its prize of $500. Meanwhile, another guest editor was going through the magazine’s files one day when she came across one of her own short-story submissions. It had “UGH” written across the top.

After Abels left the magazine, she founded a literary agency. From her Times obituary:

Before forming her agency in 1962, she had served as managing editor of Mademoiselle for 15 years’ and as associate editor of The Reporter for two years.

She played a major role in transforming Mademoiselle from a fashion magazine for young women to an important medium for the display of the work of young and talented writers.

Miss Abels was responsible for the publication in the magazine in its entirety of Dylan Thomas’s play, “Under Milk Wood,” which established the author’s American reputation.

She also brought to a mass audience the work of Truman Capote, the young Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, James Baldwin, Hortense Calisher, Eugene lonesco, Flannery O’Connor, James Purdy and others.

And while we’re looking at obituaries, here’s one for Mademoiselle itself, from the fall of 2001 when Condé Nast closed it down.

I’m sharing that part of the article because a. I enjoy this sort of media history and hope you do to; and b. I remember a couple of those re-launches distinctly from reading Mademoiselle during the ‘80s and ’90s and it’s odd and funny to see them cited here as something as quaint and yesteryear as BTB’s five o’clock scotch and squashed fur hat. As I remember it, not all the re-launches were bad. There was one iteration when the magazine seemed to get especially smart and knowing and funny—as if all of Tama Janowitz’s friends in NY were writing their eight-hundred-word ditties, turning them in, and gliding off to the bank to cash their freelance checks. The piece I remember most from this period was a guide to oral sex that a friend and I must have passed back and forth roughly a thousand million times (conservative estimate) and, while I understand now how that piece was likely hatched out of a broader business plan to compete with Cosmo, I can also still remember a couple of the jokes from it and I THINK THEY HOLD UP. Thank you, Mademoiselle ’80s freelancer. I hope you made bank. Or at least rent.


In The Bell Jar, when Esther Greenwood returns home from her month at Ladies’ Day, she takes a few shorthand lessons from her mother. Plath did the same with her mom, Aurelia, during the hot static July weeks preceding her breakdown, and this is how Aurelia recalls it in Letters Home:

In an effort to pull herself together, Sylvia felt that some form of scheduled activity would keep her from feeling that the whole summer was being wasted. Her plan was that I should teach her shorthand for an hour each morning so that she could “get a job to support my writing—if I can ever write again.” For four lessons we worked together. But her disjointed style of handwriting did not lend itself well to the connected strokes of the Gregg system, and I was relieved when she agreed with me that this was a skill she could manage to live without.

Plath wasn’t the only guest editor who had the specter of “maybe I should learn some shorthand” haunting her that summer. As you read Winder’s interviews with the other guest editors (an interesting bunch), there’s a strong sense of Cinderella-at-the-ball about their time at the magazine. That anxious strain of getting to go to something giddy and glorious but knowing, unless something magic happens, you won’t be able to stay long. Many of these women, not just Plath, were scholarship students who worked side jobs along with going to classes (one of Plath’s sidelines was selling nylons on campus) and who entered contests like Mademoiselle’s not just because it’d be fun and prestigious, but because it was a way to get through a door that might otherwise be barred. So even as they were being swept around the city to fashion shows and went to rooftop parties in silvery, shimmery gowns, there must have been a gnawing sense beneath it: if this glittery grimy summer doesn’t lead anywhere, then what exactly are you going to do with yourself? Especially if—in 1953—you didn’t want to leap right from college to marriage and motherhood? Well, there’s always shorthand.

In Anne Stevenson’s biography of Plath, there’s an appendix in the back where Lucas Myers, one of Ted Hughes’s closest friends, gives his account of meeting Plath during her Fulbright year at Cambridge. One night, soon after they meet, he has her over for supper.

She sat on the floor and I sat in a chair preparing food on a gas ring. … She was effusive and a little like one of my sisters; there was something in her I liked. There was also something in her that met with my puritanical disapproval, and the disapproval registered on my face in spite of my effort to disguise it. We talked about Wallace Stevens, and I approved of this, but she told me about working for or publishing in magazines like Mademoiselle and Seventeen, and I disapproved of that. The average circulation of magazines I thought it was proper to write for would have been around two thousand. What surprised me most about Sylvia was that she didn’t seem to notice my disapproval. She chatted on, with energy.

Note: Myers is being self-deprecating here. He was writing this remembrance from the vantage of several decades on, and it’s clear that his younger, more puritanical self is funny to him. Still it gave me a pang when I came across that passage recently—like overhearing someone joking when they only half-realize in what way they’re being a dick. It made me think how lonely it must have been at times for Plath to be hanging out in that particular crowd of male poets. None of them quite understanding what it was like to feel that if you didn’t execute every next step of your life perfectly, perfectly, perfectly—presenting yourself to the fairy godmothers of New York in your white gloves and red lipstick and small, not-especially flattering hat and with a folder of sellable short stories tucked under your arm—that everything was going to turn out cinders and ash and shorthand. That you might wake up the next morning and find that after all that hard work and all that pretty spinning, still no one had paid your bill at the Barbizon.


I was moving the schedule of this letter around for a while, partly out of a hope to hit on some window where there was a steady, quiet weekly pocket when it wouldn’t feel tone-deaf amid the cascading news to be sending out a letter about, say, Mademoiselle in the 1950s. I have given up! You can expect this letter on Fridays now. I hope you like the new design of it! Thanks so much for reading.

Until next time,
hoping wherever you are, you chat on, with energy,

p.s. If you haven’t already subscribed to this letter and would like to, go here.

#61: Sylvia Plath And $$, Part I

Hi hi, m’dears,

Happy Sylvia Plath birthday to you! In honor of the day (coincidentally enough, this year it falls on Hug A Scorpio Poet, Get Stung Day), I wanted to investigate something I’m always curious about when I reread her journals, which is: in the entries when she’s totting up the different amounts she’s made for selling her work, what that money would equal if adjusted for inflation. Since the current theme of this letter is “beginnings” and looking at writers at the start of their careers, I thought I’d focus on a couple of sales she made early on. At first, I was mostly interested in how much of a grim contrast there might be between what an ambitious writer could make then versus now (“Sylvia, we’re going to need you to write six blog posts a day”). But as I got deeper into it, I began to enjoy how looking at this joggled all the familiar facts I knew about her—like a shelf of books you look at every day getting rearranged into a new order. $ylvia!

For example, one fact that frequently floats around biographies is that, as a teenager, Plath received nearly fifty rejections from Seventeen magazine before finally getting a short story accepted her senior year of high school. Nearly fifty! The story that got her in was called “And Summer Will Not Come Again,” which sounds exactly right for something written in high school. *Teen sepulchral voice: And summer will not come again…* It appeared in the magazine’s August 1950 issue, in a section set apart for young writers and artists. She made $15 off it—the equivalent of about $152 now. (Thanks, CPI Inflation Calculator! And thanks, too, to this series by Brent Cox for making me aware of its wonders.)

Cover of the Seventeen in which (sepulchral voice) “And Summer Will Not Come Again” appeared. (Via.) This cover and the one below—taken with the Bell Jar passage—feel like they contain between them about fifty theses on white middle-class American-ness, capitalism and hegemony. Also, tartans trending!


Trying to write saleable short stories took up an enormous amount of psychic space in Plath’s creative life, which, if you only know her poems or The Bell Jar, can be surprising. As Ted Hughes writes in the introduction to Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams:

Her ambition to write stories was the most visible burden of her life. Successful story-writing, for her, had all the advantages of a top job. She wanted the cash, and the freedom that can go with it. She wanted the professional standing, as a big earner, as the master of a difficult trade, and as a serious investigator into the real world. … [H]er life became very early a struggle to apprentice herself to writing conventional stories, and to hammer her talents into acceptable shape. “For me,” she wrote, “poetry is an evasion from the real job of writing prose.”

(Ah, lucrative, lucrative short story writing and the wild freedom that comes with it! What a magical time the ’50s were.)

Here’s an early journal entry about it:
But I must discipline myself. I must be imaginative and create plots, knit motives, probe dialogue – rather than merely trying to record descriptions and sensations. The latter is pointless, without purpose, unless it is later to be synthesized into a story.

If you read through the different journal entries, it’s that “must create plots” part that seems to hang her up. The idea that there’s a formula for stories out there, external to herself and mysterious, so she’s willing herself forward to understand and crack the code.

Esther Greenwood gets into this in The Bell Jar: This scene comes when she’s decided to work on a novel over the summer between her junior and senior year at college (because “That would fix a lot of people”—hee!).

It feels like a familiar trap: this internal conviction that the only way you’re going to succeed as a writer is to be a very different person than who you are.


The fall of her freshman year at Smith, Seventeen published one of Plath’s poems and, the year after, a story, “Den of Lions.” But the high point of earnings came when she won one of two first prizes in Mademoiselle’s fiction contest. The story was “Sunday at the Mintons,” and the prize was $500—the equivalent of $4,650.00 today. It was published in August 1952.

Cover of the August 1952 issue of Mademoiselle. (Via.) I wouldn’t mind seeing that purse/ satchel thing more closely.

By the bye, “Sunday at the Mintons” is one of the only stories from this early period to make it into the Johnny Panic collection of her prose (poor “And Summer Will Not Come Again” is not allowed to show its embarrassing, pimpled face). I’ve always skipped “Sunday” in the collection but I read it this week and, after a slow beginning, it gets wonderfully strange and eerie. It’s filled with images and dynamics—of a colossus of a man pulled under the sea as a woman looks on, relieved to be freed of his rules and constrictions—that feel completely of a piece with the poems Plath was working on in the years after. When I was reading it I kept hoping Plath would let the story stay that way, in all its “now we live under the sea” weirdness, but then, in the end, the story returns to normalcy. It was all just a daydream, it turns out. The woman is recalled to reality and, giving a “sigh of submission,” returns home with her brother. At the last minute, both the story and the protagonist give in to formulas and conventions.

Next letter here will take up with Plath’s time at Mademoiselle as that’s its own big fascinating thing!


Note: I lifted the magazine covers here from this Sylvia Plath Info website. If you were ever wanting to fall down a thousand Plathian rabbit holes, that website is the place to do it. (Warning: I got woozy after a bit.) It’s run by Peter Steinberg, who’s a co-editor of the new volume of Plath letters. His site also alerted me to this exhibit of Plathiana that’s up in New York through November 4.

Until next time,
wishing all your enemies stowed under the sea and you free above,

Carrie Frye
Black Cardigan Edit

#60: Some ‘White Teeth’ Passages and A Little Patter

Hi hi, m’dears,

In the last letter, I shared two favorite passages from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and asked you to send along your own, if you had any, as an experiment. I may have had an inflated sense of how many of you were poised and all in a quiver to share a passage from a novel that came out in 2000, but mercifully a few of you responded and I’m grateful.

* * *

As it happens, Cat F. sent me this passage even before I asked, back when this discussion of White Teeth began, nine years ago, in May. (It was partly what made me wonder what other passages people might have stored away.) She shared this on why she picked it:

ZS knows her audience – no better place for a skin-crawling depiction of the overwhelming everything of modern life than in a medium whose consumption demands spending leisure time in disciplined separation from it. And her language, ugh. “Corporate synesthesia” is so dense and precise it’s disgusting.”

* * *

From Caryn P.:

So, now i can’t remember where in the novel my favorite quotes and passages came from, but i wrote them down (because i’m the nerdiest nerd!).

“You are never stronger… than when you land on the other side of despair.”

“Full stories are as rare as honesty.”

“We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”

* * *

From Sherri B.:

This quote about homosexuality is certainly not a “deep” or profound bit from White Teeth, but it does make me laugh every time I think about it. It IS that fun, I say!

“Why do they always have to be laughing and making a song-and-dance about everything? I cannot believe homosexuality is that fun. Heterosexuality certainly is not.”

* * *

From Anne F.:

I have always loved this sentence—and it’s one of the only things I remember from a book that I mostly remember as something that I loved, taught well, and that my students loved, without really remembering the details of the story at all. But the idea that you only get two chances with teeth seems accurate, sinister, and hilarious to me. And the candy and the man’s racism make the scene compelling and terrifying like that moment in the first Willy Wonka movie when he’s guiding all the children down that psychedelic tunnel.

* * *

From RH:

Both of the passages in the last letter had to do with teen crushes, and RH wrote to say that while she didn’t have a White Teeth passage to send, she did have a quote from Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors laying on her desk that made a nice accompaniment to Smith’s line, “Essentially, it transcended Ryan”:

“One of his kind – a man – was part of the idea pre-conceived for women. More than that, any individual you happened to meet was nothing but a potential, an outline to be colored in and assigned content.”

* * *

This was a fun thing to do, and I hope to run a similar experiment again soon. Thanks so much to the passage-senders!

So most Sundays, my husband Lowell plays horseshoes with the same smallish group of people. It’s mostly informal and easygoing, except there’s a challenge system that gets sprung every few months or so, and when that happens there’s an unexpected whiff of “pistols at dawn” formality to the proceedings. Lowell’s been playing with this group three years and got involved in his first challenge late this summer. He and his partner, Johnny, won, and he brought home one of the two trophies that circulate around the group.

As you can see, at some point in time, someone’s dog chewed on it some. I took a picture of it this morning as Lowell and Johnny had been challenged to appear at the pits at 11:45 a.m. to defend and I was worried I might never see its mutant gray paw again. I’m pleased to report it returned home with him again this afternoon.

For U.S. readers, if you’re looking for somewhere to donate to help Puerto Rico with post-Hurricane Maria recovery, I’ll point you here.

EDITED TO ADD: I originally hit send on this letter late Sunday afternoon but one of the links I’d shared to a Hurricane Maria-related charity activated something in TinyLetter’s scanning software and the letter got held in limbo for a while and by the time it came out of limbo we were in the middle of yesterday’s sadness. I’m using the lag as a chance to insert this bit of Petty poetry from Wildflowers:

Now and again I get the feeling
Well if I don’t win, I’m a gonna break even
Rescue me, should I go wrong
If I dig too deep, if I stay too long
Oh, yeah, you wreck me, baby
You break me in two
But you move me, honey
Yes you do

Until next time,
hoping you land strong wherever you are,

p.s. If you haven’t already subscribed to this newsletter and would like to, go here.

Carrie Frye
Black Cardigan Edit

#59: Love And Zadie

Hi hi, m’pals,

For today’s letter, I’d like to try an experiment. I’ll share a couple favorite passages from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and then I invite you to send me your own favorite if you have one. Please include a short explanation (maybe a sentence or two) of why that passage of all the passages etc. and also if it’s okay to use your name in the newsletter. I say “experiment” as I don’t know how many of you will have a favorite passage of White Teeth raring to go, but let’s see! Send ’em to blackcardiganedit at gmail dot com by, let’s say, September 25th.


The two passages I picked out are both about teenage girls and crushes, a vortex of energy I always find fascinating, in part because I was—and, as always, sorry to brag here—really good at crushes as a younger woman (Exhibit A). I still love an essay Rachel Monroe wrote several years back on the topic,
“Killer Crush,”
where she talks about how “a girl with a crush is very, very hungry.” She also writes: “A crush relies on projection: It’s about externalizing an aspect of yourself onto the unattainable object. (My friend Emily, who crushed on Paul McCartney, is now a professional musician.) But a crush is also about sex.”

Enter stage left this passage, which falls near White Teeth’s beginning, about Clara and her first boyfriend Ryan, who in addition to being Clara’s first boyfriend is also the first guy with whom she’s ever hot-and-heavy. I highlighted the crux sentences but the movement of the whole passage is the thing:


And then, from later in the book, this passage about the crush Irie (Clara’s daughter) has developed on Millat Iqbal, a companion of hers since childhood. In a nice bit of mother-daughter-ness, it echoes with the first passage, without overlapping it, and I like too the observation that one of the pleasures of Millat as a crush—for Irie and for the others girls at the school—is that he represents “a project.” And who can resist a charismatic fixer-upper?

Now you. If you have a White Teeth passage you especially <3, please do send.

Until next time,
wishing you the transcendence of all your crushes,

p.s. If you haven’t already subscribed to this newsletter and would like to, go here.

Carrie Frye
Black Cardigan Edit

#58: Lit Me Up

Hi hi, m’pals,

I’m trying to think where to start with what I’ve been thinking about over the past few weeks and I’ve decided to begin with the fact that, back when I was in college, I knew three people who had been struck by lightning. I knew this about them because the strips on their student IDs would get demagnetized and so they’d have to be rung into the dining hall by a separate process than the regular scanning. This sometimes meant that they ended up in a little clump by the woman at the register. Amherst was a small college—maybe 1600 students then. Knowing three people there who had been struck by lightning now seems like a high ratio (I haven’t met anyone since who has been), but I remember absorbing it at the time as of a piece with all the other data I was then taking in about what the world was like outside where I’d grown up in Wisconsin: “Perms are not as fashionable as you think they are, and the world is apparently teeming with people who have been struck by lightning and lived to tell about it.”

One, my friend Herschel, had been struck on a baseball field in Connecticut. (I think that’s right.) The second, having sex with his girlfriend in a desert in New Mexico. (She had lived too, and I assume was walking around a parallel campus with her own demagnetized student ID.) And the third was my friend Karen, who had been having breakfast with her grandmother in front of a big window of their home in Jamaica, which overlooked the ocean. She had been eating an orange, and the lightning had come in and struck her there.


The day of the inauguration I was in New York and knowing the afternoon was not going to be a good afternoon no matter what I did, instead of trying to see friends I took myself to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit Leonora Carrington’s self-portrait. Leonora Carrington is an artist who means a great deal to me, and I’d never gotten to see one of her paintings in person before. To go see one seemed like the best thing to do on a sad, oppressive, grey, no-good day.

Self-Portrait by Leonora Carrington. On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It was my first time at the museum. I started off purposefully, got lost right away, and returned to the front desk for help. The woman who helped me was briskly knowledgeable, and somehow we ended up murmuring to each other about the inauguration. She said, “I didn’t know if I’d even be able to speak today,” but then she’d gotten to work and it had been okay, better, she realized, than being at home watching the news. Everyone was chattering around us—tourists like me, gawking around. There was a way in which the world seemed just the same as it always had, and then a way that the fact of the museum itself—as this ginormous palace of a building where you, a fairly ordinary if lucky sort of mortal, got to walk around hallway after hallway of works of art and treasures—felt like a newly fragile enterprise. I am almost certain the woman shared that feeling too, even if we both would have thought it overly melodramatic to say so out loud: “My name is Ozymandias, and also I’m wondering where the restrooms are?”

She ended up drawing a mass of “x’s” all over my map—first where I’d find the gallery with Carrington’s painting and then a bunch of other places I might like to see while I was there. X, X, X, X, X … then X, X, X, X, X and oh I think you would enjoy X, X, X.

And when, somewhere during our conversation, I mentioned From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and how much I loved it and how it made me extra glad to finally be visiting the museum, she warned me, with a gentleness I found both funny and kind, that the fountain where Claudia and her brother Jamie go fishing for change wasn’t there anymore and that a couple other things mentioned in the book had moved too.


I’ve written in this letter before about Leonora Carrington (and I wrote about her life here). She was a writer as well as a painter: a collection of her stories and her memoir have recently been reissued, and her novel The Hearing Trumpet is one of my favorites. I’ve had a couple dreams about her over the years. In one of them, she was with Sappho, Emily D., and a bunch of other artists who I have categorized in some part of my brain as “very high up in the guild,” and they were all going in and out of a high vaulted hall. In the center of the hall was a pen—a sort of terrarium—with an assortment of animals living in it, I remember there were a few kittens there, some outlandish birds, and larger creatures too, like alligators and panthers, all sauntering and gamboling and fluttering around in rough Edenic harmony (the kittens, I remember noticing, were not in peril, though they were small and giddy). In the dream I had a few snails and worms and mollusk-y things with me—I was carrying them in the bottom of my shirt, like if you’d been out picking berries and didn’t have any other way of carrying them. The women invited me to add what I’d brought to the pen and I said, “I can’t, mine are too awful,” and showed the women how measly and gross my creatures were (snails, worms!), and they said, “Go on anyway,” and so I went ahead and emptied my shirt full of animals into the pen.

In another: Leonora Carrington and I were sitting in front of a big bay window with the sea in front of us, splitting an orange. The dream ended as lightning came in and hit me.


That day, I went to many of the “x’s” the woman at the desk had marked, and over the course of it, I tramped back to look at Carrington’s self-portrait three or four more times. I couldn’t describe what I was feeling whenever I was standing in front of it. I’d been expecting to feel something big and purpose giving, as I had in the two dreams about her, and it didn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel momentous. I was conscious the entire time that my feet hurt from walking and that my shoulder ached because I had too much crammed in my purse. And still I felt compelled to keep returning there, from whatever corner of the museum I’d been to before I could start off somewhere new and then once more before I could leave. When I did, it was raining hard, and I accidentally climbed into someone else’s Uber outside the museum.


Why am I telling you this? These are the memories and thoughts that have been rolling around my head the past month, with every friend’s FB status of, “Is anyone else having trouble writing right now?” Sometimes, the answer for me has been Yes yes yes yes. (“How can I possibly write when I’m so busy refreshing Twitter and feeling full of impotent rage and fury and sadness?”) But other times this summer, sometimes for weeks at a time, I’ve been able to create little pockets each day where I’m writing and moving along in my book, and those pockets of immersion have felt needful and good. During them, I’ve seen it—“it” being the act of writing, of continuing one’s weird quixotic creative pursuit, of marking down the “x” where you’ve stood—as both necessary for my own well being as well as something that’s important to add into the world right now. Even if small, even if it feels insignificant or fragmented, even if you don’t know what’s ever going to come of it.


I love Anne Carson’s translations of the fragments of Sappho and the way the missing pieces of the poems take on all the weight of beauty as you read through them:

never more damaging O Eirana have I encountered you


] and know this

]whatever you
]I shall love

]of weapons


having come from heaven wrapped in a purple cloak


One last thing: I went to see the eclipse the other week. The path of totality crossed in Brevard, about forty minutes from Asheville. I wasn’t going to go at first—I could see about 99% eclipse from my own backyard so why deal with traffic to get an extra 1%, etc. etc.—but the writer Sulagna Misra was going to be in town from the Bay Area, and she got in touch, and it began to sound like fun that she join up with my husband Lowell and me and we make a day of it. (Aside: earlier in the year, I’d also edited this wonderful piece by Lucas Reilly about eclipse chasers and all the lengths they travel to catch eclipses, and it seemed increasingly lame after being in on that to not chase an eclipse that would be… located a short drive from my house.) So we went! Early in the morning, Lowell and I picked up Sulagna from a biscuit place in West Asheville and drove to Brevard and stationed ourselves on a bit of lawn at a college there, under the shade of a big tree and facing a stream. It was still early—there were hours to wait yet. We ate sandwiches; we drank soda. Lowell and I had brought our dog, Carmella, and Lowell walked around with her while Sulagna and I talked. Carmella did a lot of dipping in and out of the stream as the day went on, so that every time she returned to where we were sitting she was dirtier and wetter and grinning more and more. Different people came and went around us, including one man who looked uncannily around the eyes like Simon Callow circa Reverend Beebe in Room With A View, except he was in overalls (which was an enjoyable outfit to picture the Rev. Beebe as wearing). Sulagna, who was wearing an iris-y dress with stars and moons and gold sneakers—like “fancy French teens” wear—brought out a bag of pens to draw in a little sketchbook she had, getting down all the different scenes of what was happening.

Finally, it drew time.

It got dark, and then darker still. Lights went on in the dorm across from us. A wind seemed to stir up. All along the banks of the stream, people began whooping and calling. We all stood staring up as the sun disappeared. It was eerie and beautiful, that inky darkness with the blaze of light around it, and later, as we were gathering up our things from under the tree, Sulagna said, “I feel as if my heart is giving off sparks.”

So sending this letter off this afternoon, hoping if these days feel dark to you (as they often do to me), there are also sparks and blazes and fragments of light to stay with you.

Until next time,
please know
] whatever you
] I shall love,

p.s. If you haven’t already subscribed to this newsletter and would like to, go here.

Carrie Frye
Black Cardigan Edit