On Teachers, Even Those We’ve Never Met

I’ve had a lot of great writing teachers in my life. Two of them were actual teachers, in schools with books and assignments and criticism to hand over. One was in high school and the other was in college. When I sold my memoir this year I emailed both of them to say thank you, and I cried as I wrote those letters, overcome with gratitude for their generosity and influence along my writing path, their never-wavering belief that I would one day be writing them those very letters.

The rest of my writing teachers have been made up of people I’ve never met. They are other writers, authors of books I’ve read over and over again, storytellers, crafters of sentences so exquisite that you never forget page you first saw them on. These teachers line the bookshelves in my living room and their books are classrooms I return more times than I can count.

Jamaica Kincaid, Annie Proulx, Lydia Davis, Nick Flynn, Arundhati Roy, Herman Hesse, Anne Carson, Adrienne Rich, Haruki Murakami, Anne Sexton, Joan Didion, Eudora Welty, Annie Erneaux, Dave Eggers, Octavio Paz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Madeline L’Engle, Milan Kundera, Darin Strauss, John Updike, Banana Yoshimoto, Mary Karr, Ruth Reichl…the list goes on and on.

One of those teachers, Dani Shapiro, emailed me last week to say that she’d read my book. Her praise was generous and proud and after I read her words I closed my eyes and took a breath, letting the early morning office become still around me so that I might better be present to the moment. Dani Shapiro is a writer I’ve been reading for a long time. From her first book, Slow Motion, a memoir about loss and navigating your 20s, to her multiple engrossing novels and her most recent spiritual memoir Devotion, her words have shaped my own. She is a brave writer and a brave person. She is the one walking ahead on an overgrown path, cutting down brambles and forging a way, so that you may follow a bit more easily.

I don’t know how to thank her for such a thing.

In some ways I wonder if I’ve already thanked her the only way I can — by trying to be the best writer I can be, by learning from her, and by working to clear the path that much more for all who are also traveling this way.

Thank you, Dani.

Read what she had to say over on my book page.



An Attempt at California Style

Four months into our new life in California and we’re making small attempts here and there to fit in with the surfers and skaters and balmy weather. Over the summer Greg bought his first pair of white jeans, Veronica has remained endlessly tan and I’ve kind of fallen in love with the fact that there is now sand in everything I own.

Last week we worked to spread the California look to our new house.

I’m not really a particularly stylish person, and I’m definitely no interior design expert like some of my favorite bloggers, but I do like to keep some semblance of a nice home. We were pretty sad when we left Chicago, thinking we wouldn’t find another flat nearly as special as the one we’d been in for those three years.

Well, we’re almost a month into our new home in Santa Monica and I can definitively say that I don’t miss our Chicago apartment at all. Both Greg and I are liking our new home quite a lot. It took us a while to unpack, what with our writing schedules, Veronica’s craziness and general procrastination, but I think there are only about two boxes left and they’re currently squirreled away under my desk with a sleeping cat atop, assuring they stay closed.

As for the rest of the house, it’s really started to come together. My favorite room by far is the living room.


One of the most recent things we did to this room, is take our old glass bulbs that used to hang above our dining room in Chicago and hang them in the front window here. In Chicago we used to put candles in them and the only good photo I could find is this one, taken when V was about 8 months old. You can see the bulbs hanging above the table to the right.


Greg and I like to joke that we almost got divorced hanging these things. They’re from CB2 and I got it in my head one spring that I wanted to create a kind of suspended chandelier with them. While everyone agreed that the final effect was quite nice, they were not fun to hang. We took this into consideration as we reconstructed them again last week and thankfully the process went a lot smoother this time around.

Instead of candles we decided to do something a little more California so we went with a bit of a different approach.


Air plants! (Or bromeliads.) We bought them at The Juicy Leaf on Abbot Kinney, along with some little black rocks, and last Sunday we went to town.

Greg screwed in the little hooks in strategic places.

And Vera and I filled up the glass orbs.


Then we hung them using fishing wire (this was the part that was decidedly easier than last time) and stood back to admire our work.

We all agreed, the effect was quite nice.

We hung the remaining three orbs in the dining room window.

They have candles for now, but it probably won’t be long before we go California-style all the way and replace fire with plant.


Required Reading

Wow, I am so honored to have received this quote about my book from Darin Strauss this morning.

Claire Bidwell Smith has written a beautiful book; it’s a perfectly crafted story — not about grief, but how to walk out of grief with your soul intact; it’s not a lamentaion, but a lesson.THE RULES OF INHERITANCE should be required reading for anybody who’s trying to get their arms around a big sadness. -Darin Strauss, Author of HALF A LIFE

Although Darin is the author of hugely popular novels like CHANG AND ENG and MORE THAN IT HURTS YOU, he also won the National Book Critics Circle award this year for his memoir HALF A LIFE, about how he killed a classmate in a car accident when he was in high school. This book absolutely floored me. It was one of the most honest and perfectly told memoirs I’ve ever read.

I’m still reeling that he took the time to read my book AND said the above about it.