... Skip to content

Author: Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an author and blogger who helps writers discover their niche, build successful habits, and quit their 9-5. His books include Ignite Your Beacon, Writing Clout and Tomes Of A Healing Heart. For strategic content and practical tips on how to become a full-time writer, visit: BradleyJohnsonProductions.com.

14 Tips for Nurturing Your Creative Spirit During Challenging Times

Middle-grade author Donna Gephart gives her top 14 tips for how to invigorate your writing when things are tough.

Having a hard time focusing and feeling productive these daze, er days? Who isn’t? Here are a few things that help me be productive during these challenging, distracting times that I hope will help you …

(10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Beat Writer’s Block)

14 Tips for Nurturing Your Creative Spirit During Challenging Times

1. Start the day with habits that get you ready for work. 

I walk our dog, Benji, with hubby, do ten minutes of yoga (Yoga with Adriene and Yoga with Kassandra) and make of mug of hot tea or coffee. Always. When I do these things in that order, my mind knows the next step is creative work. (Notice checking Twitter, FB, and email is not on this list.)

2. Check in with an accountability buddy. 

Angela DeGroot and I begin each workday with an email sharing our goals for the day and catching up on each other’s lives. Sometimes we end our workdays with a quick email to say whether we reached our goals on not. During National Poetry Month in April, Angela includes a new poem with each daily check-in.

The Paris Project by Donna Gephart

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

3. Make your goals super-specific—either in time for each project or in page counts.

Last week’s goals for me were to revise a seven-page synopsis and eleven pages of the beginning of my next MG novel and submit them to my agent. I reached that goal. This week’s goals are to re-imagine an outline for a chapter book series and write a rough draft of the first book. Sometimes I reach my goals. Sometimes I don’t. But the odds are ever in my favor if I break them down and make them as specific and manageable as possible.

4. Because it’s hard to focus and easy to become distracted, I use the Pomodoro Technique

It helps you use whatever time you have more efficiently. I’ve written eight middle-grade novels, a picture book, scores of essays, and this article using the Pomodoro Technique. Knowing a short break is always coming helps you power through the task at hand.

(The Writer, The Inner Critic, & The Slacker)

5. Breaks are vital. 

For those in the back row: BREAKS ARE VITAL, especially now. These days, I allow longer breaks than usual at the end of the workday to take walks in the woods, read, prepare a vegan dinner, chat with a friend, listen to a podcast, sip wine on the patio and watch The Dog House UK on HBOMax with hubby and Benji. (The Dog House UK—a sort of match-making service between dogs and their humans—is a terrific antidote to the news of the day.)

6. Take weekends off, if you can. 

Your brain requires more time to rest these days. Besides, if you have steady work habits, when you’re not working your subconscious is working—figuring out knotty plot problems and putting separate pieces together in interesting ways. Trust that your subconscious is doing its job when you’re taking a break from doing yours.

7. If you need extra time off or are unproductive one day or two or more, let go of the guilt. 

It doesn’t serve you. It doesn’t serve the work. These days, I clock about 2 ½ days out of 5 that are complete duds. Can’t even complete a shopping list without drifting to something else. Accept that and let it go. Celebrate the 2 ½ days that are productive.

8. Your process during this challenging time is your process. 

Don’t compare your process to someone else’s because you’re comparing their shiny outside to your messy inside. Apples to oranges. It’s like comparing your first draft to someone else’s polished, published book. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

9. Try something new! 

If novels are too daunting right now, write a funny essay, an article, or a poem. Find joy in these things. Take baby steps. Forgive yourself. Love yourself. You’ve got this, friend. It’s hard. We are sensitive but resilient.

10. Find community. 

When I moved away from Florida, I left a monthly SCBWI critique group I loved and had been consistently attending for 18 years. I don’t know how I wrote my novel, Abby, Tried and True without them. During the pandemic, since half of us lived out of state at that point anyway, we reconnected for twice-weekly critique meetings on Zoom.

(6 Writing Group Best Practices: How to Lead a Successful Writers Group)

11. During these twice-weekly critique meetings, we do much more than critique each other’s work. 

We check in with each other and offer support when one of us is having a hard time. We show our cats and our dogs. We toast each other’s successes, no matter how small. Any excuse for a glass of wine.

12. I joined a book club for readers and writers of middle-grade novels over Zoom. 

I watch free craft webinars from SCBWI. I listen to craft-based podcasts for inspiration, like Book Friends Forever by Grace Lin and Alvina Ling and First Draft by Sarah Ennis. Reach out. Connect. Nurture your soul and your creative spirit.

(How to Create the Mental Space to Write)

13. Change your exterior space to ignite your interior space. 

Hubby and I splurged on two nights in Princeton, NJ to have a different environment in which to work. While there in the cozy loft space, I rediscovered my love for creating funny essays. Can’t work in your town’s library? Can you work on a bench outside of it and watch people come and go as you scribble ideas? We even went to our niece’s rooftop deck in Philadelphia, PA once just to have a different atmosphere in which to work.

14. Mostly, take care of your precious self. 

Fill your well at every opportunity. Your job is to get through this tough time. Any creative output is a bonus to be celebrated. Your work matters. Your voice matters. Your story matters. But your physical and mental well-being matters more. 

When you take this online workshop, you’ll explore creative writing topics and learn how descriptive writing can breathe life into your characters, setting, and plot with Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting. Stretch your imagination, develop your creative writing skills, and express your creativity with this writing workshop.

Click to continue.

In Conversation

In the early months of 2021, with the pubs and clubs, not to mention the shops, closed until further notice, Jeremy Atherton Lin  and Kevin Brazil came together to talk to reminisce about drag nights and gay clubs, and the community these places nurture. Atherton Lin is the author of Gay Bar, a cultural and personal history of gay bars across London, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Kevin Brazil’s What Ever Happened to Queer Happiness? will be published by Influx Press in 2022.


Kevin Brazil:

When lockdown first hit – good lord, it’s almost been a year – I couldn’t bear the thought of going out. Getting through was just about all I could manage. Even in the summer, when there were raves happening up in Hackney Marshes, and a friend told me stories of everyone sitting around a bonfire, passing around a key, I was like: nah, I’m good.

I went to one socially distanced drag show in Bethnal Green in October. Maybe eight tables, one song each from three queens. (A little stingy, don’t you think?) We couldn’t cheer, so we had to shake maracas. And the maracas didn’t even work. It was the saddest drag show I ever did see, and not in a sweet way. It was just sad.

But over Christmas it really hit me. I think like everyone I thought bars and clubs would be opening up again this year, and now, who knows. I spent December going for runs in the countryside and listening to lives mixes recorded at clubs and festivals on my headphones. I spent January reading about the history of nightclubs. And then I read your book, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. I know it must have been written and finished a while ago, but now that subtitle has taken on a whole other meaning. You spend a lot of time imagining what would happen if gay bars no longer existed – what is it like for the book to come out in a world where, at least temporarily here in London, they really don’t?


Jeremy Atherton Lin:

Kevin! The failed maracas are so zeitgeisty. I guess one way of thinking about it is, yes, that was a pathetic event, but what would the online version have been? The equivalent to failed maracas on social media is, at best, the humiliation of very few likes. At worst, it’s accusations flying, people piling on. Lately I find myself assuming all queer people are mad at one another. Perhaps because we aren’t engaging in spaces where something like the maracas malfunction occurs, sad but also funny. (Or was it not even funny?) The saturnine humour of the paltry rattle, something spontaneously experienced in real time and space. And the sidelong glance. The actual sensation of feeling seen. Proprioception. And maybe the drag queen onstage says something a bit yikes, a bit iffy, but hey she’s an elder, it’s a performance, let’s give her a chance. (Then she strikes again. But at least there’s someone else there to share another sidelong glance with.) And maybe the bartender is a hottie but you don’t envy his job in a pandemic. So instead of the compare-and-despair that happens alone on a device, this person becomes dimensional, their earlier and later more readily imaginable. And you watch him laugh with one customer then grimace at the next, and there are dimensions.

But, yes, same as you, initially I didn’t want to go out, either. The lockdown put a moratorium on serendipity. There’s this Henry James passage on the lines of, a city’s excitement is the danger lurking around the corner, even if you never turn that corner. Now around-the-corner has been closed.

Around the time of the first lockdown, I came across this popperbate video comprising different porn clips edited together to create a narrative of horny men in an American suburb who commune via cam from behind closed doors. It includes establishing shots, taken from Google Street View or whatever, of banal suburban curbs and hedges and driveways, the suggestion being that a frisson runs through the street. I have to admit, I find that sexy. I’m from the suburbs. I grew up at the end of a cul-de-sac. I have come to kind of embrace my suburban view of the world, which, for me growing up, was very much about observing popular culture at a remove.

But my larger concern is that as we sequester online, our lack of imagination threatens to foreclose our respect for other people’s realities.

Hope things are ok as can be with you. Sun today!



Dimensions: what a gorgeous way to phrase it, and what a beautiful thing to have done – to have taken that anecdote about maracas and unfolded it to reveal all the facets of what that evening could have been. For of course a sad evening out is better than sitting at home, observing, as you say, queers getting mad at each other online. I’ll take your fantasised version of that night over what really happened – though isn’t that the truth of any night out?

I wonder if the online anger is also caused by the queers not being able to be together in person. Being less able to support each other to cope with the shit that keeps happening. I think of the UK High Court ruling, in December, that trans children now need a court order to access hormones for their health care, and what it must be like for them, and their loved ones, to be doing that more alone.

That those maracas were disappointing, though, made me think of one of the first lines that really struck me in Gay Bar: ‘The gay bars of my life have consistently disappointed.’ Mine too! And from the very beginning. Here is another anecdote for you. The first time I went to a gay bar I was maybe seventeen, it was called The George. I had taken a three-hour bus up from the country where I lived to the city, had gotten changed in a McDonalds, and went to the small side bar open during the day – nicknamed, as I would later learn, Jurassic Park (think about it). I went in, a guy in his forties bought me a Coke, and it took him about 5 minutes to invite me back to his. ‘I worked on Madonna’s last tour, you know.’ Could all the clichés I have feared have been more confirmed? In a way, the disappointment was exquisite.

And yet I’ve kept going back, for all the reasons you write: ‘If my experiences in gay bars have been disappointing, what I wouldn’t want to lose is the expectation of a better night. Gay is an identity of longing, and there is a wistfulness to beholding it in the form of a building, like how the sight of a theatre stirs the imagination.’ I wonder if the disappointment of gay bars – one I wouldn’t want to lose – is bound up with what you say they offer: the sidelong glance. The sidelong glance might lead somewhere – but it might not.

And this, in turn, might not just be something inherent to gay bars, or ‘gay’ as a specific identity, but to your final concern: our respect for other people’s realities. Their sidelong glances might not give us what we want; I’d hazard to say they mostly don’t. But we go out, as you write, ‘to take risks . . . to be close to other bodies’.

One thing I admired in Gay Bar was how it used the gay bar to think about the history of a very specific social identity – ‘the gay’ – but also the nature of our social identities in general. That all ‘our identities always lie in the aspiration’. You track how those aspirations have changed, in your own life, and in Britain and the US around you: aspiring to be ‘gay’, then a ‘fag’, then ‘queer’. We can see our identities as different aspirations – not different truths about who we are – which allows us to question them, analyse them, and maybe get rid of them, with less of a sense of threat. Or is that just a way of avoiding risk?

Things are OK with me, and I hope they are too with you. And sun again here in south London!


Atherton Lin:

You were intrepid. A three hour bus ride! My first experiences were very much about being taken along. Almost like being assigned gay. Acquaintances detected a flair and presumed homosexuality. But I thought it possible these two things were coincident, that my particular flame was my own and didn’t belong to gay. You wrestle with something like this in your essay ‘Whatever Happened to Queer Happiness?’ Do your thoughts around this shift?

Your three-hour bus displayed some impressive self-knowing. I was being read. Are there self-identifications you prefer? As you mentioned, I love fag. For myself. Homosexual as a noun is now unsayable, and therefore kind of tempting. Supposedly Foucault wrote about himself San Francisco, ‘I am a homosexual in a city full of gays.’ Gay Liberation is a tremendous legacy, but the word gay can feel embarrassing. I don’t think that’s internalized shame. It just sounds goofy. I never heard it positively as a kid. Now it’s anodyne. And I always felt gay bar was a term to be played in a minor key. ‘Here’s to the gay bar’ sings Frank Ocean, mentioning it just once (and he is taken there). To me, personally, queer can feel like the Tate Britain term – weirdly, the one I employ to avoid offending delicate sensibilities. High-end anodyne. But that’s unfair to its expansive roots, its role as an upsetter. Just as disavowing gay may be spurning hippie elders (gay as in Gay Sunshine).

Anyway, either through your own impetus or my own passivity, the gay bar was a given. That may be something I keep trying to articulate: that homosexuality can be private, but gay is public-facing. When I’ve written about feeling real, I suggest that identity may lie in the aspiration. But also in my example of the song ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),’ it begins ‘you make me’ – so it’s not just about feeling real, but feeling seen. I tried to enact that in the writing, later in the book: mutual recognition. Maybe a little narcissism thrown in? That’s cool with me.

I wonder if that guy actually worked on a Madonna tour. His identity was in the proximity. And he wanted close proximity with you. Do you remember the bus ride home?



I remember the cream knitted vest I bought in a thrift shop, thinking I needed something gay-but-not-too-gay to wear (though really, what was I thinking). I remember how greasy his curls were on his balding head (was it Brylcreem? Dax Wax?). But the ride home? Nothing. I think that’s because, for me, the thrill has always been in the anticipation, the potential, what might be. Since we are swapping Foucault anecdotes: I’ve never agreed with his belief, perfect as it is as a quip, that the best moment in the life of a homosexual is ‘likely to be when the lover leaves in the taxi’. For me it has always been waiting for him to arrive.

Maybe that pleasure in the idea of potential, the moment when you believe something unscripted can happen, isn’t so far from your belief that your flame was your own. And maybe it is a way of answering your question about labels and cultural prescriptions. ‘Fag’ to me, has always been too North American. It always sounds in my head with a drawling American accent; I can’t even hear it in Irish English. ‘Queer’ was something I first encountered in the pages of an academic textbook, long after I knew I was attracted to men (I’ve never known I wasn’t). So it has always felt foreign, and today, I share your sense that it is a bit ‘Tate Britain’, a bit heritage. I have spent a lot of time wondering, and some time writing, about the conundrum you meditate on in Gay Bar ‘of whether such subcultures are heritagable at all’. It seems like every day there is a new queer heritage project. Only today I read about a queer heritage audio walking tour designed for Cambridge University. Do you think there can be ‘queer’ heritage? Is that the same as asking: do you think there should be? Though I also share your sense that this hesitancy is unfair to everything that ‘queer’ as an identification has been able to achieve. And that the security to be so hesitant is a luxury that previous generations of queer activists made possible. ‘Gay’ – that is what existed as the world’s name for what my desire was, and I walked right into it, just like I walked into that gay bar, and it felt fine.

But would I have built it for myself? Probably not. Since aren’t these labels and spaces erected by heterosexuality as a way to manage its issues? And honey, doesn’t she have issues. In my essay about queer happiness, as you sensed, I wanted to write about how limited the scripts of gayness and queerness can be. Or rather – the public scripts, since like you, I more and more think that these scripts and identities are about claiming a public identity, which is about achieving political rights, social recognition, and so on, but really has little to do with telling the truth of who we are and what we want. Which is why straight memoir and autobiography don’t quite fit as the literary genres to grapple with identity, at least for me. Where I am now, is where that essay ended up – the anecdote of Lou Sullivan feeling most gay when he checks out another gay man checking him out on the street. (Is that another version of your sidelong glance?) Who we are – which is what we are using these labels to try and pin down – comes into existence through the recognition of others. (Another reason why first-person writing can’t quite grasp how identification works). That is why these demands are so fraught, I think. It’s not enough to say who we are: the fight is over having others say they believe it, that they see it, that they will say it back. And we can’t ever control other people. That is the pleasure, and also the terror.

Though we still have to offer a version of ourselves to those others. You write, at one point, that ‘Memoir is how you groom yourself. Memoir is drag.’ I loved this idea of memoir as drag. It’s as much of performance as anything – and no worse for that. I wonder what you think of memoir more broadly. Why has it become the dominant literary form at the moment? Or perhaps – the dominant tone, inflecting fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. What is so seductive about it? What do we want from reading it? Do we forget that it’s drag?


Atherton Lin:

I was on my daily constitutional, thinking: Kurt Cobain proposed that everyone is gay as a kind of irony; now everyone is queer and it’s a kind of banality. Then I had a chat with my mom and she called me Jemmy, just a variation on Jem, for Jeremy, but I took delight because jemmy was supposedly an epithet based on the reputation of King James VI and I as being passive in bed (and global affairs). So there’s an archaic one, possibly due a revision – or screamer, from early in last century, is good. I like the dirty and obnoxious histories, and that seems different than heritage, it’s more like gossip.

And you’re so right on the pronunciation of fag. I say it so American, so Californian – it could never sound like a cigarette. My accent is fickle. I grew up in California, but I’ve lived in the UK for 14 years . . . today I find myself saying tuh-mah-tow not ta-may-toe so that people understand me. There’s so much pressure to be our true real self, and here I am faking an accent to be polite, so that the person knows I mean tomato, and isn’t forced to ask me to repeat myself. So etiquette punctures essentialism.

There’s an analogy I left out of Gay Bar because it generalised other gays, but it still seems kind of true for me . . . There are two different bars in the book named the Black Cat, one in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles, and I couldn’t help thinking about the perhaps apocryphal notion that black cats evolved to be amenable and affectionate in order to shirk their bad rep. Like, don’t worry, you can cross my path, I’ll just lie here in the sun being sweet not hexing you. But obviously I’d never want to make a claim that all gays are eager to please. Which brings me to the memoir drag: a part of me does write to be liked. Wayne Koestenbaum has written about that. Or our friend Foucault saying he wrote to get laid, basically. As soon as you realise you can’t show everything, and you select and, I think, the performance begins.

Rather naively, I didn’t really foresee how people would take my book to mirror their own experience. The ‘we’ in the subtitle, Why We Went Out, is more about me and my lover, or a small gang of us. It’ll be taken that I’m speaking for all of gaykind but throughout the book it turns out to be a red herring, something that – due to difference, or outright factionalism – is revealed to be impossible. The first person in the book, or first person plural, is a lot about inhabiting my imagined self, or presented self, but also how I am the product of other people’s legacies. We inherit past glory and mistakes. We’re porous. I actually am very porous – things get stuck in my skin easily. I told Wayne Koestenbaum that once, and he replied that I have five thousand vaginas. Anyway, that’s why we need to get back out in spaces together, I think. To invade each other’s borders. And for someone to say something that takes you by surprise.


The post In Conversation appeared first on Granta.

Keep Your Entrails out of My Baby Shower

Eating for Two

Bad things happen when you don’t invite the right people to your parties, my mom said. I explained why I didn’t want Alice at my baby shower: She sucked the life out of everything she touched.

I didn’t mail her invitation. I burned it at the kitchen sink at midnight. The gold lettering flared and hot metallic air blasted up my nose. I dropped the invitation in the sink, where the flames went out in a puddle of stinking spaghetti sauce, and spent the next hour googling whether breathing gold fumes was bad for the baby.

And yet: There she was, gliding down the path, all lipstick and neat white teeth, trailing her signature frilly pink entrails. I was halfway through tying balloons onto the lamp outside the door of my mom’s house. I backed into the doorway and stood there filling it. If there was one thing I could do, it was take up space.

“Jessa, darling, you look gorgeous! You’re as big as a house,” she said.

“What are you doing here?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s your baby shower! I’m here to celebrate you!” She shook out the ropes of shining organs and viscera that dangled from her pale neck. Only Alice could make entrails look like a party dress.

“Would it have killed you to come with a body?”

Her eyes glinted. “Maybe if you’d invited me properly I would have.” She floated closer and all the hairs on my arms pricked up. I crossed my arms over my stomach.

“Oh, relax, Jessa,” she said. “So much negative energy.” She slid past me into the party and left me on the front porch. My nostrils burned with her perfume.

I could have just walked down the steps, down the street, around the corner, and into the 7-Eleven. They had a table outside, a white plastic chair. Sometimes I liked to close my eyes, whatever I was doing, and think about how I could be sitting in that chair drinking a Blue Shock Mountain Dew Slurpee. For just a dollar ninety-nine, I could be doing that instead.

Alice’s voice tinkled through the open door. She was telling the story again to all my mother’s friends. How she went on a wellness retreat in West Palm Springs and came home with the ability to lift her insides right out of her body.

“It was completely life-changing,” Alice said. “Away from everything like that, you can really get in touch with your true self.” She hovered next to my mom’s chair. Her hair was perfectly coiled. Below her neck a cloud of delicate veins and organs drifted, not quite touching the floor.

I had a resolution: Once I had a baby, I would be a better grownup, the kind that didn’t care what Alice did with her life. So I went back to the party.

“If only Jessa could do one of those,” said my mom’s best friend Gladys. “It expands your horizons.”

“Jessa’s always been a homebody,” said my mom. “Oh, Jessa! There you are.” She pinned a ribbon on my chest that said “Mom-to-be” and whispered in my ear: “You’re neglecting your guests.” She steered me around to all of her friends, so that each of them in turn could congratulate me and touch my stomach. Through it all Alice floated nearby, chatting away in her mosquito voice.

Pat pat pat. “Carrying high! Must be a boy.”

(“Of course I wish she could have come! Well, she’s doing something much more important right now, isn’t she?”)

Pat pat pat. “My dear, you look exhausted! Must be a girl. Jealous little things, they steal all your beauty.”

(“Oh, you’re so sweet. I certainly didn’t master it right away. It took weeks of self-reflection.”)

Pat pat pat. “Only seven months along! It can’t be! Are you sure it isn’t twins?”

(“Diet, too. Eliminating toxins. Nothing processed or artificial.”)

Pat pat pat. “Are you getting any sleep, Jessa? Get it while you can! You won’t be sleeping at all once the baby comes!”

(“People feel so entitled to women’s bodies, you know? It’s so liberating to leave all that behind and force people to see you, really see you, right down to the guts!”)

I turned around and came face-to-face with Alice, who was hovering by the cheese plate.

“That looks delicious,” said Alice.

“It’s processed.”

“So dramatic, Jessa. One bite won’t hurt me.”

“Take some, then.”

“With these?” She waved her intestines at me. “It would be awfully rude.”

“You could have come to the party with hands.”

“You don’t know what it’s like. I can hardly bear to walk around inside my body now. I feel so objectified.”

“What’s wrong, dear?” said Gladys from across the dining room.

“Oh, I’m just wishing I could have some of this cheese plate.”

“Don’t be silly! Jessa, pass her some cheese.”

Alice turned to me with a faint smile and opened her mouth.

“I can’t,” I said.

“What are you afraid of, Jessa?” said Alice. Her voice was loud, and other conversations around the room paused. Everyone was watching us.

I speared a piece of cheese on a toothpick and held it to her lips. She opened her mouth and took it between her teeth, chewed, swallowed. The lump worked its way down the thick red cord of her esophagus and landed with a plop in her stomach.

“Won’t you have some?” said Alice. “You’re eating for two.”

I swallowed down vomit. “Heartburn,” I said.

“Let’s open gifts,” said my mom. She arranged me in an armchair with the pile of pink packages and bags. What I really needed was cash, but my mom said it was gauche to ask for it, so instead my plan was to unwrap them, pretend to love them, and keep the receipts.

I was almost through the pile when Alice floated towards me with something wrapped in her intestines.

“You haven’t opened mine yet,” she said. Barely visible in the nest of wriggling entrails was a tiny gold box.

“No,” I said.

“Don’t be rude, Jessa. Take the gift,” said my mom.


Alice began to cry. “Why did you even invite me if you hate me so much?”

“I didn’t invite you. I don’t want you here!”

“Jessa!” said my mother.

Alice cried harder.

“Take the gift, Jessa.” said Gladys. “Look what you’ve done.”


Gladys grabbed my hand and shoved it into Alice’s entrails. I felt acid burn my fingers, then nothing. I was out of my body, looking down on the top of my head from somewhere near the kitchen ceiling. My body took out Alice’s gift and opened it. Inside was a gift certificate. Gold lettering.

“It’s the same place I went!” said Alice. “You’ll have to wait until after the birth, of course. But it will be the perfect way to get your body back.”

I tried to imagine myself somewhere else, in a plastic chair. But I couldn’t get away from the tug of my body, sitting in my mom’s house, covered in bits of pink tissue paper. My mom cleared her throat. My body smiled and said thank you, she loved all the gifts.

The post Keep Your Entrails out of My Baby Shower appeared first on Electric Literature.

War Is a Trauma That Follows Us from Home to Home

“That house has become a mausoleum,” Idris Nasr tells his daughter, Ava, as he breaks the news that he is selling the family’s ancestral home in Beirut. In Ava’s mind, the house comes to life through memory: she feels the swampy summer heat and visualizes walls speckled with the blood of mosquitos. But Idris sees it differently. “The life has been taken out of it,” he says.

Home is a tenuous concept in Hala Alyan’s second novel, The Arsonist’s City, a sweeping family saga that examines the insidious long shadow of war. The Nasr family—made up of a Lebanese father, Syrian mother, and three American children—live in far-flung places: Austin, Brooklyn, Beirut, and Blythe, a small town in California. However distant they are from one another, and however far they might be from Beirut, they cannot escape the histories of violence that have left their family reckoning with intergenerational trauma. When they return to Beirut to mark the sale of their family home, long-held secrets and difficult memories begin to unravel, and political tensions in Lebanon escalate into thawra (revolution). 

An award-winning Palestian American poet, clinical psychologist, and writer, Hala Alyan brings her talents to examine the ongoing crisis of Palestinian displacement in The Arsonist’s City through deeply imagined characters, place-based descriptions that teem with life, and attention to conflicts from past to present day. Over Zoom, we talked about how Alyan’s work as a clinical psychologist serves her fiction, the idea of home, the intimacy that secrets can offer, and the effects of intergenerational trauma. 

Jacqueline Alnes: There is a line early in the novel, “They’d hurt that young man for no reason other than that people were hurting people.” One of the most poignant parts of this book for me is the ways you so deftly capture both the immediate impact of violence as well as the way that trauma radiates outward, oftentimes for generations. What draws you to write about all these different wounds?

Hala Alyan: The ways in which sociopolitical turmoil, occupation, and war trauma have spidered their way through my family’s history is something that I definitely keep gravitating back towards. It is a story that I feel the reverberations of on a daily basis, even as someone who is so privileged and so sheltered. I’m in Brooklyn now, I’m in a safe place, and my family is safe––thank God––but there are ways in which I see traumatic histories play out in myself, my family, and my community, in the anxieties that people have, in the ways that people are waiting for the other shoe to drop, in the ways that there is a deep mistrust of history, of certain institutions, of certain countries, of certain parts of the world. There’s a defeatedness in a lot of people I know around certain countries in my home region who wonder: Will those places ever be revived? Will they ever be actual options of places to live? 

It’s also something I see a lot in clinical work. As a therapist, I work a lot with immigrants, children of immigrants, and folks that have been displaced. A generation later, you see how traumatic histories have trickled down to the folks that never lived in a war-torn zone or have never actually directly interacted with their parents’ house or their grandparents’ house. You see how that intergenerational trauma can touch even the most sheltered, comfortable, suburban kid. If a part of the world has been occupied or colonized, you never fully shed yourself from those shackles. You have the shadow of that for many generations.

JA: Having a safe place to live is a theme that resonates so powerfully throughout the book. Something that I kept thinking about is that homes are often viewed as concrete or permanent in some way, but in the book, some of them are the last vestiges of a wealth that no longer exists. Or, they’re structures that are beautiful and laden with generations of money, but they are located in precarious spaces. 

HA: They aren’t safe. That’s something I think about a lot. You can have these ancestral homes that are gorgeous and so meaningful and such a part of your lineage, but if they are in a place where you can’t safely live or visit, then what are they but walls and plaster?

JA: When you mention working with people in the suburbs who still carry intergenerational trauma, I found it interesting that in the book we visit such a sprawl of places: Austin, Brooklyn, Beirut, and a small town in California, Blythe. How do you approach writing about place and home? 

HA: I constantly lament the fact that there isn’t enough life for any of us to spend our youth in like ten different places. I am someone, for example, who always felt like I was supposed to live in Boston. I’m very attached to the idea, and I don’t know why. Same thing with Santa Fe and Tucson; I feel like I’m supposed to be in the Southwest. I’m someone who thinks a lot about factored timelines and the way that if you took this turn and you ended up in this place, you’d live an entirely different life. Not only would you have a different history, but your children would have a different history. Place colors the texture and the fabric of everyday life and zooming out also changes the entire trajectory of what happens to you: the opportunities you have, the people you fall in love with, where you go to school, etc.

This book feels to me like a love letter to Beirut. 

JA: The novel alternates between present day and the 1960’s through the 1980’s. What drew you to those time periods? 

If a part of the world has been occupied or colonized, you never fully shed yourself from those shackles. You have the shadow of that for many generations.

HA: I knew I wanted it to end in present day and I knew I wanted it to span the civil war, so in some ways, those became logistical markers; if I had a character coming of age as the civil war is happening, I would have to adjust the years accordingly. You see this in writers who write about things close to home, I’m fascinated with my parents’ generation. I’m interested in folks who moved to the States in the ‘70s and ‘80s. My parents didn’t move until ‘91, but people who moved during that era fascinate me. It was a time when there was still a high demand on assimilation. You got rid of your accent, taught your kid English; those were values that were being prioritized and communicated to immigrants and people seeking asylum. It’s interesting to really get inside the families that had that pressure. If they had moved to Chicago or New York City, it would have been a different story. But in a small town, the pressure to assimilate is higher.

JA: I felt like the present was a place in the novel where you could lean into queerness. 

HA: Naj was one of the first characters I wrote and it was interesting to think about these different tension points of a queer character who is living very authentically to herself, but is in a position where telling her family doesn’t feel like it’s feasible. Playing with that tension also was important for me because there is this narrative––and it’s mostly a Western narrative–—that coming out is the graduation of queerness, that the end goal or destination of being queer is to come out, and I don’t think that’s something that resonates with people in different cultural backgrounds. 

There are certainly people who are Muslim and Arab who want to ultimately come out, but imposing that narrative on people gets dicey. Writing a character who does live in this borderland space––and in a lot of ways is fulfilled in it––was really interesting.

JA: The book opens with Zakaria, who lives in the refugee camps outside of Beirut, and an epigraph from Svetlana Boym: “the main feature of exile is a double conscience…a constant bifurcation.” You have written about the Palestinian diaspora in your previous work. What aspects of this ongoing crisis did this book in particular allow you to explore?

HA: In some ways, Palestine is the shadow of the book; Palestine trails story. It’s in many ways the most central plot and one of the most central characters, but the book doesn’t center straightforwardly Palestinian characters or take place in Palestine. I was called upon to research these other countries and conflicts in the rest of the region. I have put a lot of attention on Palestine, and I always will, but writing this book enabled me to learn more about the Lebanese Civil War. I lived in Lebanon for a long time, I’ve taken all the classes, I read all the books, but there is still so much that is incredibly nuanced. The version of history you get depends upon the person who is telling it. Because it was a conflict so marked by sectarianism, many people, even now, will tell different stories of who started the civil war. It enabled me to research that more, to speak with people from different groups, and it also enabled me to think about that region as a gestalt. 

These borders are arbitrary. The land kisses each other, these places are close to each other, and what happens in one happens in the others. What happens in Palestine spills over to Lebanon, spills over to Syria. What happens to Syria––I mean, we just saw this in the last decade. Their fates feel inexorably linked. This book allowed me to dig deeper into the history of the region as a whole and just to think more about this relationship between sister countries that have this reciprocal, sometimes mutually symbiotic, and at times a really divided dynamic. It let me dig into it in a way I hadn’t before.

JA: Why was it important to you to write this book now? 

HA: When I finished writing this book, the revolution in Lebanon had not begun. The publication date got pushed back, which enabled me to go back and write things in. It was tricky. There was the inflation, the hunger, the poverty that people are experiencing, and I kept needing just one more paragraph; I felt an intense responsibility to capture what was happening in Lebanon. The publishers were very accommodating and generous, but they reminded me that at some point the story has to end; you’re not going to know what happens next. 

JA: That’s so interesting. In fiction, I feel like there are varying degrees to which you have to be married to “truth,” however we want to define that. How much of an allegiance did you feel toward representing the world accurately in this book, even though it’s a novel?

There’s a defeatedness in a lot of people I know in my home region who wonder: Will those places ever be revived? Will they ever be actual options of places to live?

HA: I’ve got to be honest with you: I’ve never had any issues playing fast and loose with things in fiction. But, what happened in Lebanon post-thawra (revolution) starting, was such a different chapter. It set such a different tenor for the country, and set into motion so many unprecedented things, that I knew I had to allude to it. If I didn’t, it would have been really odd to anyone who knows anything about Lebanon. 

Normally, I try to get the facts right so I speak with historians, and I do my research, but the past is much easier; the past is static. Writing about something that was dynamically shifting as I was doing edits was a whole different experience.

JA: They vary from being trivial to not, and some are only revealed when a body can no longer physically hold them. What intrigues you about this withholding of information, which, in itself, seems like a kind of an intimacy?

HA: I am fascinated with why we keep secrets and fascinated by how people decide what the truth is. I’m less interested in how people lie to other people than I am in how people lie to themselves. I am interested in how people decide what needs to be hidden and how it’s almost always tied to some narrative or some story they have about what will be accepted or loved. It’s very rarely tied in reality. It’s connected to their own story about what’s okay and what’s not okay. Writing that out is so gratifying to me.

I’m also, particularly with families, fascinated by the ways that the secrets we keep in families trickle down across generations. So the secrets that my great-grandmother might have kept, have impacted me. They have shot out backwards and forwards. They did something with the trust that my great-grandmother had with her mother and how that trickled down to my grandmother and mother. We learn how to hide things from the people we grow up with. We learn how open we are or how guarded we are from our families or caretakers. This idea that something that happened way before you were born can have a direct influence on you and how you move through the world –– what you share and what you don’t –– is such fertile territory to explore.

JA: I was going to ask if that’s why you love writing these rich, intergenerational stories.

You can have these ancestral homes that are so meaningful, but if they are in a place where you can’t safely live or visit, then what are they but walls and plaster?

HA: Totally. I think this is where psychology comes in. Something that happens to you is going to impact like three generations later. It just is. There is the epigenetic passing of trauma, but then also these subtle things that we pass down and inherit. This isn’t exclusive to people you’re genetically linked to; it’s also caretakers. We inherit things emotionally and psychologically from people. The fact that that is something I really believe means that the idea that something can go wrong at some point and then fast forward to see how something plays out means that it requires a family to really explore. You have to have several generations to see how a secret plays out so that’s why I think I end up writing these sweeping, long stories.

JA: I’m sure you are asked this often all the time, but you are a clinical psychologist who specialized in trauma and addiction work while earning your PhD. How does that inform your writing and the stories you’re drawn to? 

HA: The training that you have to do in order to be a psychologist has been super useful to me as a writer. When you meet somebody for the first time as a therapist, you are taking a few fragmented, unconnected pieces of a story, and someone’s history, and over the few months or however long, you’re trying to help that person create a cohesive narrative. That’s very similar to writing a story: fiction, nonfiction, whatever. You have pieces of interests, hypotheses, interests of characters, and then you’re trying to create something that’s whole.

That kind of sleuthing feels very similar, as do the questions that you ask yourself when you’re doing therapy that have to do with client motivations: why do people do the things they do? People are constantly doing things that don’t make sense from the outside. Both you and I, in the span of the next two days, are going to do things that seem super irrational to people outside of us. There are such multifaceted, complex reasons for why people do things. To write good characters, you have to ask those questions about what moves somebody and what are a person’s desires and feelings and what they are moving toward.

The post War Is a Trauma That Follows Us from Home to Home appeared first on Electric Literature.

The Mezzanine, or: The Most Important Book About Nothing You’ll Ever Read

I bought the wrong type of yoghurt the other day, which, in the quantity I buy yoghurt (1kg tubs, rather than measly 500g pots; sometimes I buy two tubs, good for about eight days of breakfasts, to save myself an unnecessary run to the shop, because as we both know going to the shop right now is about as lethal as hopping across a minefield, and also because there is something very stark and depressing about a trip to the shop for a singular item, something that speaks of emergency – note the face lone men pull when queueing with just a single four-pack of toilet paper under the arm – and also because yoghurt is most often a breakfast foodstuff, and knowing you have run out of it, before breakfast, necessitates a solo run to the shop, before breakfast, which is something that I am unwilling or at least unhappy to do until I have eaten, breakfast. So you see how buying two kilogram tubs of yoghurt sidesteps a situation where I either have milk with my granola or go to the shop in my pyjamas for yoghurt only, either way spoiling my day before it has truly begun), has the potential to ruin my entire week. The yoghurt I had bought was strained Turkish yoghurt; the yoghurt I had intended was smooth Greek-style. As I portioned it out, I was struck by the micro-level difference between the two yoghurts – more or less the same recipe, bisected by the Aegean Sea – which should be identical but, for whatever cultural reasons, are not. Turkish strained yoghurt, I observed, tends to coagulate in a firm clump, and accrue a green-yellow ‘sweat’ on top of it when left to sit overnight in the fridge; Greek-style, creamier and richer somehow, has a more clotted cream mouthfeel I personally prefer, but lacks that same smack of tang. ‘Hmm’, I thought, as I stood at my kitchen island and marvelled at the differences between two yoghurts, ‘the difference between Greek and Turkish yoghurt: that is very interesting.’ I was wrong about this: nothing is fascinating about yoghurt.

Here’s the thing that reading The Mezzanine (or re-reading: this was my third trip through1) quietly convinces you: that every thought you have is deeply profound. On its surface, it’s a book about a man going about chores on his lunch break, buying shoelaces, milk, a cookie and a hotdog, having a piss and then going back to the office up a sparkling and newly cleaned escalator. And that is it. But obviously that’s not it, because beneath that, in between all that, are frenzied and fluttering trains of thought that weave in and out of each other, on everything from straws (paper vs. plastic) to shopping bags to the gurgling horror of chewing food and drinking milk at the same time, to marvelling, earnestly, at how beautiful the rust and dust and garbage of our world can possibly look against a clean background. It’s about following that particular flavour of thoughts – the ones that occupy a bored or chore-doing mind, but never become concrete enough to say out loud, that never accrue enough significance to explain to another human being – to their natural conclusion. It’s like taking an escalator trip into someone else’s mind for an hour, finding nothing of actual substance up there, and realising, as you retreat mournfully back into your own skull, that there’s nothing there, either. No matter how smart we are, no matter how many master’s degrees we earn or philosophy we read, we are just animals that evolved enough anxiety to worry about whether the man at the urinal two stalls over has noticed we haven’t started peeing yet.

One thought I have raised – jewel-like, from the thought-swamp that is my brain – is this: The Mezzanine is a coming-of-age novel, and arguably one of the best.2 Baker’s protagonist Howie is at a teetering stage of young adulthood – three years out of college, at his first job and in the early salad days of his first ever big relationship, friendless and stranded in a mediocre office position that seems to offer no opportunities to either go up or down – a sort of beige morass of life, one you get to when you finally escape adolescence and education and realise, after your 36th straight paycheck hits, that you haven’t graduated instantly into a vibrant and exciting adult existence, but instead the same mediocrity that made your dad zone out in front of the telly for an uninterrupted hour when he used to come home from whatever bullshit he did for work. The titular mezzanine on which Howie’s office is set is a viable metaphor for the stage he’s at in his life during the book: a sort of shelf to pause on, a halfway step between the electric first few days of Technical Adulthood and a year or two of experience away from the realities of Actual Adulthood, caught in a limbo in between.  He is obsessed with the idea of scrubbing out childhood and emerging smoothly into an adult brain, as if it’s ever been that easy. It’s coming-of-age by choice: a hardcore rejection of childishness, by having grown-up thoughts like, ‘That janitor has found an interesting way of cleaning an escalator’.

This is what makes The Mezzanine both (i.) deeply funny and (ii.) oddly reassuring: it’s hard to think of any example in the vast archives of literature that so effortlessly characterise those half-thoughts we all have when our mind starts to wander. When I was a kid – and I’ve obviously never told anyone this, because it is insane – I used to have this game I would play with myself when the school bus would run through the last ten minutes of the route, through the busy streets up to my school: seeing other children walking along in their backpacks and holding their huge cased instruments, I would imagine I was holding a huge samurai sword firmly out of the bus window, which – with the momentum of the bus, plus the exquisite sharpness of the sword – would (painlessly) of course slice every person it came across (plus the metal roofs of any nearby cars, scraping open like a tin of fish being peeled apart) neatly in half. If I had ever vocalised that thought to anyone – a school nurse, perhaps; a diagnostic professional – then I would probably be typing this to you with the single fingertips allowed to jut out of the ends of my straitjacket, from the deep inner core of a secure facility. But in The Mezzanine I see these thoughts made flesh, given legitimacy: when Howie hums and rumbles up the escalator he’s spent the best part of two chapters being obsessed with – watching as it is cleaned, dreading an interaction from a half-colleague travelling down the other way – he plays an internal game to see if he can travel the entire length of the trip upwards without anyone stepping on to the stairs at the bottom, and receives a self-inflicted psychic wound when he loses. We are all doing stupid humdrum nonsense like this, every second of every day. But no other book comes close to actualising it.

I was worried that, dipping into The Mezzanine for another (a third!) read, that it would start to creak and feel dated: that, in the particular moment of the attention economy we are living through, a book celebrating the beauty of a wandering mind on a clear-skied lunch hour, something no one has really had since push notifications were invented, would feel as musty and ancient a book about ‘petticoats’. Instead, the opposite: The Mezzanine still feels like a current, real account of the human brain even now nobody can go for a walk without listening to a podcast, nobody can work without listening to music on headphones, nobody can enjoy a meal without showing everybody they’ve eaten it and no one can watch TV without also looking at their phone. Your best and most honest thoughts still come in the shower or while you’re doing dishes. The best way to tempt a brain into the beautiful thinking it is truly capable of is to occupy 40% of it with a menial task. It also acts as an artistic study in the quiet misery of a mediocre office life (I first read The Mezzanine while working one of the worst jobs of my life, and as a result found the sections where Howie stamps his hand with a date stamper out of the sheer need for something to do particularly affecting), but also revels in the joy of life as it forms around us, when we just slow down to notice it: yes the world is scary, yes death is inevitable, yes work whittles away the best hours of our day and the best years of our lives, yes the best thing many of us can ever dream of is the quiet serenity of a middle-class domestic life. But look! Sometimes a clear day and a good cookie come along. Sometimes a vending machine elegantly twists a bag of peanuts your way, and sometimes you whistle a cheerful tune in a gent’s toilets and, later, someone whistles it right back. The Mezzanine finds Howie at a frustrating loose-end moment of his life, but it is still a life filled privately with joy, and there’s something hopeful to be taken from it. It’s just the act of doing so will make you think too hard about for example ‘yoghurt’ for ten or twenty days following that.


1  I toyed here with the idea of saying ‘third or fourth trip’ through The Mezzanine here, because, when talking about a 130-page book, one I frequently describe to people as “my second-favourite book ever written”, only having read it a few times seems underwhelming, somehow. And casually hinting that I might have read it, not three times, but four, seems deeply stylish and intellectual (imagine losing count of the times you have read a book! How chic!). But then also note the difference between having read a book three times (a lot, but still within the range of normal) and four times (the behaviour of an obsessive): something weird tips over the small inch between those two numbers, changes my absorption of the book from healthy to unhealthy. Think of it like movies (even a short book takes longer to read, by a number of hours, than a movie): how many films have you watched – really watched – four times? I tried to reach back into my memory palace and figure out which films I have seen four entire times, and came up with only two: Pulp Fiction and, bizarrely, Shrek 2. And two of those instances of Shrek 2 were on the same hangover. Nothing, truly, needs to be relived four times. I don’t care how smart you think you are.

2   There are notable similarities between The Mezzanine and the classic C.O.A.N., The Catcher in the Rye: both are slender volumes that are incredibly difficult to find with a non-ugly cover. With the zig into YA in recent years, where every teen protagonist has to find themselves via a strange new form of dystopian combat, there is a dearth of classic coming-of-age novels about the actual world we live in, but if you wanted to write one you’d do worse than to follow the aesthetic rules set down by Catcher and The Mezzanine: short and very ugly. Except the new 2021 Granta reissue! Obviously!


Photograph © Randal Whitmore



The Mezzanine is available now, reissued as part of Granta Editions, a collection of outsider classics.

The post <em>The Mezzanine</em>, or: The Most Important Book About Nothing You’ll Ever Read appeared first on Granta.