Hilary Mantel on memoir



“Memoir’s not an easy form. It’s not for beginners, which is unfortunate, as it is where many people do begin. It’s hard for beginners to accept that unmediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing. If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene. The writer has to negotiate with her memories, and with her reader, and find a way, without interrupting the flow, to caution that this cannot be a true record: this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint. But she has to make it as true as she can. Writing a memoir is a process of facing yourself, so you must do it when you are ready.”

From The New York Times Book Review. Illustration by Jillian Tamaki.

a catalog of the things above my desk


postcard of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s typewriter

birthday card from my father

“Don’t forget to show the grace and humanity.” — advice Dorothy Allison gave Justin Torres at the Lambda Emerging Writers Retreat

a gold mask from my brother’s wedding

a sticker of a dinosaur that says “Fuck!”

“…and with a tiny prayer I say down to write.” — Eileen Myles

“Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make. The only rule is work.” — John Cage

“I wrote a little day, without hope and without despair.” — Isak Dinesen

round mirror facing the door for feng shui

postcard from July Westhale

clip of a panel from Adrian Tomine’s New Yorker cover about the life of a book; this is the first panel: a woman hunch-shouldered at a desk with a laptop and a cup of coffee

“How old will you be when you finish writing your novel? The same age you’ll be if you don’t write it.”

woodcut of a cardinal with the number 22

“Regaining momentum takes three times the energy as sustaining momnentum.” — DHP

watercolor of Beyonce

“Go live your scary life.”

plate of a gently closed palm

photo of my father in the navy

sticker of a raccoon saying, “Things didn’t turn out the way I had planned.”

my business card from Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls

“Meditation is the simplest and fastest way to change your state of mind.”

typewriter necklace from my cousin

significant objects drawings by kate bingaman-burt

the universe and forever venn diagram from 20 x 200

“Writing is always hard. Is coal mining always harder? Probably.” — Sugar


that’s my cat

If you enter the phrase “when to put” into Google, the first suggestion that appears is When To Put Your Cat to Sleep. The suggestion is followed by: When To Put Your Dog To Sleep, When To Put A Child In A Booster Seat, and When To Put In A Baby In A Toddler Bed.

I was trying to answer the first question.

I had no plans to become a cat person. I considered myself, at most, a guinea pig person, although I hadn’t owned one since I was ten. We had a dog when I was in high school, but she ran away a month after my parents’ divorce, two weeks before Christmas, never to be seen again. When a guinea pig was ready to die, they just died, and you would wake up to find them stiff and cold, head tucked under some newspaper, or hiding in a shoebox in their cage. I’ve never had to put a cat to sleep. I’ve never had a cat.

I realized I was a very good candidate for a cat: single, writer, loves reading in bed and knitting. Lesbian like whoa. Five years ago I quit teaching to be the secretary of a sweet little nursery school downtown, and everyone at this nursery school had a cat. Next to my desk was the door to the office, which was called the Door of Pets. Photos of everyone’s pets–teachers, speech therapists, kids, even the mailman (who has like seven cats, no joke)–were scotch taped up there, the pet’s name sharpied underneath. My first week there, one of the teachers stood by the office door waiting for something, and together we gazed at the Door of Pets.

“Do you have a cat?” she asked.

I told her no.

“You will,” she deadpanned.

Not long after this, and not long after a series of cat sitting gigs that warmed me up to the awesomeness of cats, there was an e-mail posted on the listserve for my beloved Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls volunteers. The e-mail was about a cat that needed urgent adoption. It had been found in someone’s backyard in Bushwick, and when it was taken in for shots and neutering, they found he had feline leukemia, which meant he couldn’t live with other cats. It also meant that if he was taken to a shelter, he’d be most likely put down. Currently, he was living in someone’s music studio, sleeping in a bass drum. He was a black and white tuxedo cat, and his name was Professor.


Out loud to myself, at the desk crammed against the bookshelf in my tiny bedroom on Pacific Street, I shouted, “That’s my cat!”

Backing up: what is feline leukemia? What the hell was I getting into? I turned to trusty Google to help me with FeLV. My understanding became that it was a condition that weakened a cat’s immune system and shortened their life, usually to 7 or 8 years. They were more susceptible to other diseases, and since FeLV is transmitted by fluid, they couldn’t live with other cats. One wacked out source I found described some woman’s plight to nurse a feverish kitten with FeLV to good health by feeding it iced spring water with an eye dropper, and after a lot of praying, she was blessed to have a totally healthy and cured cat.

I can be a little bit pollyanna sometimes, but of all the things I read, that one made me decide it was okay to adopt a cat with feline leukemia.

If you are one of those people who think that pets find their owners, and that animals can come into the right person’s life at just the right time, and that there is some awesome universal force at work pairing pets with people in the name of love, then yes, please add the tale of Professor Gillette to your evidence.


Professor would run and greet me when I came home. He liked to sleep on my head, waking me up with what I came to refer to as his snorkel-purr, circling my pillow before throwing his weight, ass first, onto my face, with a whump.  He chewed on pens, purred on my chest while I read, and became territorial about my desk when I wrote, knocking off everything in sight (sometimes with his paws, sometimes with his butt) until there was a wide swatch of space for him to melt into. This eventually lead me to give him his own inbox.


He had his issues. He liked to get my attention by pulling books off the shelves, and tearing at the pages with his claws. He bit the ankles of anyone I dated. He wet the bed — a lot. He’d get anxious if I didn’t wake up when my alarm went off, mewing and kicking my head and shredding books and knocking over water glasses and pissing on my down comforter until I got out of bed.

06944B4A-CBC5-46AB-9B17-50281C1C5A2DLater, he’d develop a codependent habit that I totally got ensnared in. In the middle of the night he would wake me up with a panicked meow, kicking and yowling and pulling books off the shelf until I got up and followed him to his food bowl in the kitchen, where I then had to watch him eat. If I walked only part way, he’d mew pathetically at my feet, motioning in his little cat way to follow him. He’d vacuum the food into his mouth, pausing every so often to turn and make sure I was there, half asleep against the refrigerator, wondering about the quality of my life. Only after this 3 or 4 am ritual would we both be allowed to sleep. He’d return to my bed, snorkel purring all the way, and–whump–attempt to sleep over my face.

8DB758ED-10AF-41BE-83AB-D94D20C1123AThere’s a Margaret Wise Brown book that the kids at the nursery school love — The Good Little Bad Little Pig. And that’s Professor. The good little bad little cat. Okay, so I owe my roommate like $450 in damage (that leather ottoman? not a scratching post, Prof), and I’ve thrown out so much bedding over the years I don’t even wanna talk about it. But man, he was a damn good cat. This is a photo of him showing odd interest in 8 Minute Abs, back when I thought I would actually start doing 8 Minute Abs. I spend a lot of time at my laptop, and Professor never ever expressed an interest in anything on screen, until Jaime Brenkus came on. The few times I did get down on the ground and do the routine, Professor would come and lie on my stomach, mewing if I moved too slowly.

The first time I applied to graduate school, I read every one of my eleven rejection letters with Professor, taking the mail into the bathroom of my old apartment to sit on the toilet and open the thin envelopes and say to Professor, “Well. At least we’re not moving to Alabama.” (Or Arkansas. Or Texas. Or Minnesota. Or Colorado.)

In my bedroom, I tucked Prof’s fleece bed under my red reading chair. Many nights, he slept there while I read, and if it was quiet enough, I could hear him purring. Home felt so perfect to me in those moments, like I’d done something right, like I’d cultivated the best life for myself in New York.

0A86911D-42D0-4BEE-8F87-3FCE8C9169A4When I moved apartments, I took my current place in part because I could picture Prof on the wide windowsills in all of the rooms. In the warmer months, I’d sometimes ride my bicycle up to my apartment and find Professor sleeping in my bedroom window. He’d perk up, and if I called up to him and waved–here, in all my awesome crazy lesbian cat lover glory, waving to a cat while wearing a bike helmet on the streets of Bed Stuy–he’d meow, and jump down, and run to greet me at the door.

Seven to eight years. According to the birthday the vet randomly gave him at his first check up, Professor would’ve turned five on December 5th. By the time you read this, he’ll be gone. I only got to have him in my life for three and a half years.

About a month ago, he began sleeping more, being Professor less. He stopped eating. He was hot to the touch. This was the week of Hurricane Sandy, and so with the trains in my hood down, I was lucky to wrangle a friend to drive me and Professor to the vet. He had a fever of 105.9–a high fever for a cat is 102. “Oh man,” the vet said, shaking her head gravely. “No bueno. A fever like this in a cat with FeLV? No bueno.”

There was a three-day hospital stay. There was blood work and there were ultrasounds and antibiotics. It could be an infection. It could be cancer. It could be this rare fatal disease that doesn’t have a cure called FIP. They weren’t sure. On his second day there, I realized I could visit him, and rode my bike about 45 minutes to see him. When they brought Professor in–head in a cone, IV in his forearm, belly shaved, wrapped in an orange towel–I burst into tears.46530_10101479864915649_1176496648_n

I was never supposed to be a cat person, you guys. I was never supposed to fall in love like this. And when I did, it was supposed to be for seven to eight years, at least. It wasn’t supposed to happen this fast. It wasn’t supposed to cost $2,600. It wasn’t fair.

They allowed me to bring him home, even though his fever hadn’t quite gone down, and they were still waiting for test results for a real diagnosis. The trains still weren’t running. The city was still a wreck (and will be a wreck for a long time). Another friend miraculously had the gas and time to drive me and Prof home. I let him out of his carrier and he went to curl up in a ball on the rug, same as he’d been when he’d gotten sick.


I was never gonna get my old cat back.

The vet was 95% sure it was FIP. Confirming this would’ve taken an expensive biopsy surgery. And what could that other 5% be anyway? Nothing good. Professor was dying. They put him on steroids and said it’d help his appetite come back. They thought he had weeks, hopefully months to live.

That was on a Wednesday. A week later, I was Googling When To Put Your Cat To Sleep.

I’m writing this and he’s still alive. I’m writing this and he’s asleep in half of his cat carrier, fashioned with a pink towel and his beloved catnip corn toy. I call it his incontinence bed, since he’s lost the ability to make it to the litter box and has peed on me in my sleep the last two nights. He can drink water, but never cared for food again–not the wet food, not the dry food, not the tuna, not the baby food. He can purr. He can knead his paws against me. I’ve taken to sleeping with his little incontinence bed in my bed, turned in such a way that I can fall asleep with one arm around him in his box. Usually, though, I wake up and pull him against my chest, and we fall asleep like that, my head on the pillow, his little face pressed against mine, his paws wrapped around my neck. I can feel the weight of his body change as he drifts to sleep.

CA8D5CD9-E981-42EA-B7FA-61569D4C1E54If you are still reading this, you are either a dear friend of mine, my dad, one of the incredible people I work at the nursery school with, or you are a crazy cat person like me. I mean, this is an effing 3,000 word essay about a dying cat. I am writing about the most maudlin, sentimental, cringe worthy crap you can choose to write about. My cat–still alive–is asleep on a towel in my living room. I haven’t even made the appointment yet. I haven’t even picked up the phone.

The last time we were there, the vet asked what Professor had a PhD in. When I adopted him, he had a nasty stomach bug, which lead to the joke that he had a PhD in Farting. I told the vet this, and he laughed. “I figured he would be a doctor of awesomology,” he said.

0E730F8D-1164-49A6-AEF2-7251765FA384Here’s how it will go: I imagine I’ll have the support and company of any one of my awesome friends (truly, do not attempt to become a crazy lesbian cat lady in your life time without a badass resource of rad, loving friends). I’ll choose to hold him while they put him down. I know that it happens through an IV, and it’ll take eight to twelve seconds, and that they’ll ask if I want a few moments alone with him afterward. I’ll bawl. I’ll bawl on the way there, and during the thing, and afterward. I’ll bawl when I put this on my blog. I’ll bawl anytime I see a stupid photo of a stupid awesome cat anywhere, anywhere, for a long time. I’ll bawl as I throw out his litter box, and his food dishes, and the collar I never made him wear. I won’t throw out his beloved corn toy. I’ll keep a lock of his hair in a little box inside of my desk.


When To Put Your Cat To Sleep: when he can’t walk, and he won’t eat or drink, and he dry heaves, and wheezes, and cries loudly when he can’t breathe, and his white paws are stained with urine because he won’t let you clean them, and he looks miserable, so you spend the entire day on the couch together watching Friday Night Lights until your friend arrives to drive you to the vet, and you wrap him a towel and take him out on a cold November evening because it’s time, it has to be time.

I can’t get it out of my mind: the moment the vet leaned forward, pressed a stethoscope to his chest, and confirmed that he no longer had a heart beat. There’s no sadness in the world like that sadness. Later the vet sent a sympathy card. He wrote, “I imagine Professor is up there lecturing all the other animals on awesomology.” There’s no goodness in the world like that goodness.

The same week Professor was in the hospital, a woman in my neighborhood found a cat carrier stuffed with five eight month old kittens in the middle of the street. No one would help her with it, so she took it to her backyard. Two of the kittens ran away, but three of them she and her husband took in, with their rescue dog Stanley, in the hopes of fostering them. The week that Professor died, someone from rock camp (I love you, rock camp) posted photos of them on Facebook. Help! she wrote. Kittens need homes!

Tonight I’m adopting one. I’m going to name her Sappho.

Thanks, Prof.


Sweets Did It: $350 raised for hurricane relief effort

It all happened out of my tiny Bed Stuy kitchen, with the love, support and sweet tooths (sweet teeth?) of so many awesome friends and family! Two apple pies, two pumpkin pies, two flourless chocolate cakes, 45 salted fudge brownies, and 96 dark chocolate chunk oatmeal cookies. My kitchen aid stand mixer got a real workout, my roommate was a saint for letting me take over, and my heart is full of gratitude for y’all.

Together we raised $350 (technically $346.25, but I like round numbers) for Occupy Sandy! I’m getting in touch with them now about whether they’d rather have cash or supplies (for the later I’d use the funds to hit up their Needed Supplies gift registry). This was the kind of awesome project that endlessly proves how good people are: a rad stranger from North Carolina who saw a tweet about Sweets Relief made a donation for groceries, as did the amazing Alison Mazer (who also recommended the album Sweet Relief for baking accompaniment). My aunt from Arizona, who saw this on Facebook, sent cash. Friends of friends ordered cookies and brownies. Co-workers, cousins, and poets alike all put in orders and came out to Brooklyn to pick ’em up. Nothing made me happier than to be able to fill my apartment with good smells, good people and good deeds.

Special shout out to Diane the Fedex Fairy, and the most awesome-roommate-who-ever-lived, Jeanette Bonner, for letting me use every bowl, cooling rack, baking sheet, and square inch of space for three days straight. …I’d promise I’ll never do it again, but why make promises you don’t wanna keep?

Big love and big thanks, everyone! I hope the sweets were delicious.


c aka Sweets Gillette

30 and a day: wrapping up Thirty Things Every Woman Should Know by Thirty

Yesterday morning I woke up, thirty years old, and couldn’t be happier. Birthday messages have been peppered with things like “Don’t worry!”, and the real truth is, worry is the furthest thing from my life right now. This age is like a novelty–I kept asking people yesterday, “Ask me how old I am! …Thirty!” It’s a crossroads of sorts, but more than anything, it’s something new, it’s a beginning, it’s a fantastic reason to be alive. All these fears women are told to have about “getting older”–you don’t have to drink that kool aid. Yes, I have a chiropractor and two years ago I didn’t, but I’m not gonna lie down in the street and die about it. Grey hair, loss of cheeseburger-fries-and-a-coke-so-what? metabolism, stiff neck — it’s all good. It doesn’t mean I’m ugly, a spinster, useless, or doomed for. It doesn’t mean that for anyone. Here’s my final installment in the Glamour 30 Things redux.

By 30, you should know …

1. How to fall in love without losing yourself.

Alright, Glamour. True: knowing what it feels like to lose yourself when falling in love, and why it should be avoided in most cases, is probably an important life skill, especially once you’ve plowed through your early twenties. I mean, anyway you slice it, love is gonna feel a little cray — it’s love! Have fun! For me, I’ve come to see the difference between falling in love like sky diving without any knowledge of how to operate a parachute, and falling in love like I’m an extra in Bjork’s It’s Oh So Quiet video. Free-falling panic or a choreographed tap dance routine? Both take some risk, but one allows for way more control. How to fall in love without losing yourself, though? Here’s my take: know what you want, talk about it with your friends, talk about it with the one you’re head over heels for (honesty! it’s a novelty!), be real, even when it’s uncomfortable. Once a few years ago, I had to put the kibosh on a budding relationship because it was so obvious we wanted different things. “There’s nothing glamorous about having boundaries,” I told them. “It’s not sexy. It’s not fun. But it’s the truth.” I count this person as a good friend these days. Boundaries, man. Gotta love ’em.

2. How you feel about having kids.

Okay. You’re two for two, Glamour. Love & kids — maybe you’re not like 100% certain on how you feel, but I would agree that it’d be good to know what camp you stand in. That being said, you never know what’s gonna happen: you fall in love with someone who has an eight year old; you and your partner think about adoption; you decide to just go ahead and bring a bundle of joy into the world on your own. Either way, it’s okay. It’s awesome to want to have children in your future; it’s awesome to know that you wanna be the badass aunt who spoils her nieces and nephews, but otherwise is untethered to any children. Terry Gross did an interview once where she talked about her and her husband’s specific decision to not have children so they could indulge in their work. I love Terry Gross for saying that.

3. How to quit a job, break up with a man, and confront a friend without ruining the friendship.

…I’m starting to get the feeling that Glamour wants to make sure every gal turning thirty knows how to be a grown up. There’s definitely something satisfying in learning how to go about these life situations–I hate my job! I gotta break up with this girl! I have to call out my bestie on that shit she pulled last week!–without avoiding them, manipulating them, or sabotaging them. It’s like this, I think — know the value of discomfort. Those real deal conversations that you have to take a lot of deep breaths before having? They’re always worth having, even if they blow up in your face, because, hey. You tried. Keep your side of the street clean, y’know? Whatever is going on over on your boss’ side, your lover’s side, your mother’s side, your roommate’s side — nunya business, really. Take care of your part.

4. When to try harder and when to walk away.

How? How are we supposed to know these things, Glamour?! Listen, it’s not like we’re gonna turn thirty and magically have the script to navigate every sticky situation. You don’t need to know how or when to do all of these Self-Care with a capital Self things — better yet, have the support, the friends, the therapist, the horoscope, the journal, the mentor, the loving godparent, the older brother, the 12 step program, the meditation routine — something to turn to when you don’t know what to do. Over and over again, I realize the benefits of wrenching my mouth open and asking for help. Biggest lesson of my twenties? You don’t have to do this alone.

5. How to kiss in a way that communicates perfectly what you would and wouldn’t like to happen next.

Uh, what? Here’s a better communicator: words! Talking! Yeah, sex and dating are rife with body language and flirtations and the weird mating ritual which is acting like you like someone to show them you like them without ever saying you like them. But “kiss in a way that communicates perfectly what you would and wouldn’t like to happen next?!” Girl, it ain’t in your kiss. Don’t kiss anyone you don’t wanna kiss. And if you wanna get some, I bet you can tell someone that without trying to gauge the lip pressure that you’re applying or something stupid like that. A woman who knows what she wants and states it isn’t a slut; she’s a woman.

6. The names of the secretary of state, your great-grandmothers, and the best tailor in town.

Oh, lord. The best tailor in town! The man of your dreams called and he’ll be here in an hour ahhhh! Where’s your fairy godmother seamstress?! Here, I think, are some more important names to know: your neighbors, the barista/post person/bodega cashier/payroll secretary that you talk to on the regular, a politician/writer/artist/filmmaker /activist/businesswoman/musician you totally admire and can get behind, a news source you can trust, and Tavi Gevinson. And memorize your best friend’s phone number. One day your cell is gonna cut out and you’re gonna be locked out and you’re gonna wanna know it.

7. How to live alone, even if you don’t like to.

I LOVE living alone. Not everyone does. But dear lord, it’s not a sentence or a survival skill! If you love people, and can find roommates who you like having a home with, then more power to you! Should you stay in your relationship that fizzled out six months ago just because the landlord has jacked the rent on your studio in Clinton Hill in two years? No, but you wouldn’t be the first and you won’t be the last. Don’t ever say no to something because you’re afraid of being alone, though. Vacations, apartments, hotel rooms, holidays, fancy parties, punk shows, art tours — if you really wanna go, don’t let not having a date/partner in crime stop you. You’re awesome. You can make friends. Remember when we were kids, and you made friends with whoever was on the playground that day? It may sound crazy, but you can make friends like this in your adult life, too. Years ago I went to Austin to SxSW by myself, and had one of the best trips of my life. It helps to visit a friendly city, and it helps to be able to go out on a limb (cue the time I was at the Perez Hilton party and approached the two queer looking girls at the daiquiri slushy machine and said, “Please tell me I’m not the only lesbian here.” I’ve never seen those two again, but we had a hell of a lot of fun that night.)

8. Where to go — be it your best friend’s kitchen table or a yoga mat — when your soul needs soothing.

Remember the importance of asking for help? This is about asking for help. Not about chicken soup for the soul or whatever. If I had to calculate when to ask for love and support based on when my soul needed soothing, I’d spend a lot more time under the covers listening to old school Cat Power and hugging my cat. Instead, I’ve had enough positive experiences with generous, awesome friends that I can say to them: I’m burned out and can’t make it to your party. Or, can I come over and watching Arrested Development on your couch and order a pizza? And, I don’t have a yoga mat (yoga: the good intention of the last five years of my life), but I do have some self care routines, like a warm bath and a Sharon Jones & the Dapkings album. Know where to go, loves.

9. That you can’t change the length of your legs, the width of your hips, or the nature of your parents.

Duh. Not reading Glamour will probably best help you understand the first two; loving your parents as people first and parents second might help bring the third thing into focus. Everyone has their own path to accepting that their parents did the best they could, I think. My path has involved therapy, spirituality, and like every Melody Beattie book ever, but I’ll tell you this: they’re a lot easier to love once I accepted them. (Bonus: I told my mother that once I turned thirty, she would never, ever ever be allowed to comment on my appearance again. I’ll let you know how it goes when I wear sweatpants to Thanksgiving or get another tattoo, muwah ha ha!)

10. That your childhood may not have been perfect, but it’s over.

True. You might still be struggling with this, but that’s okay. Process isn’t a definitive word. Some of us experienced a hell of a lot of trauma as kids, right when all we deserved was love and care. This might sound very Oprah, but I do have faith that letting go of trauma opens you up to your future. It’s not an easy process, and it’s not a dismissal. And for many of us, it sure as hell isn’t over by thirty. You’re an adult now, though. They can’t hurt you now. Go where it’s warm and stay there.

11. What you would and wouldn’t do for money or love.

Oh, this might not be black and white by the time you’re thirty. I mean, I’ve got that Janis Joplin quote taped to the wall above my desk–Don’t Compromise Yourself, You’re All You’ve Got–but who knows what the future holds? There are gigs I’d swear I’d never take as a twenty four year old that I’ve totally signed onto now. Know that you don’t have to settle, but that it’s okay to change your mind sometimes.

12. That nobody gets away with smoking, drinking, doing drugs, or not flossing for very long.

Alright, true, Glamour. Totally true. Own what you do, my friends. If you’re still doing blow on a school night, that might be a habit you wanna curb. In my twenties, I did so many things because I thought I had to do them to be cool. But the more I lived the more I realized what bs that was — if I wanna stay in on a Saturday night and make a lasagna and listen to This American Life and fall asleep by ten pm, then goddamn, that’s a good Saturday night. And if you’re too friendly with substances but don’t know how to untangle yourself from them? Ask for help. Ask for help. Humble yourself and ask again. You’re gonna be okay.

13. Who you can trust, who you can’t, and why you shouldn’t take it personally.

It’s been a long time since middle school, but sometimes you still find yourself facing gossip, tactless people, loose lips, or rude people. It happens. Call people out when they need to be called out, even when they’re your best friend/your coworker/your sister. And not taking it personally, while hard, is so valuable. There’s a saying that I try to use as a mantra: what other people think of you is none of your business. True. Stop worrying about it. Ten bucks says they ain’t thinking of you anyway, sweetheart. Do your thing.

14. Not to apologize for something that isn’t your fault.

Oh, man. Ok. I’ve gotta work on this one. I say, “Sorry,” at least sixty times a day — to the copy machine, the person next to me on the subway, my roommate, the Duane Reade cashier, my cat –and I probably only really owe an apology two of those times. Stop apologizing! One of my favorite places on earth is Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, and every summer, as the girls are learning instruments and forming bands, they’re taught the you-rock rule.

Whenever you hit a wrong note, or get feedback, or drop your drum sticks, or mess up a chord, instead of shouting, “Sorry!” as girls are so wont to do, you should shout, “I rock!” And, because rock camp is the most magical place, usually a chorus of girls and women and queers will shout back, “You rock!” Try it in your day to day. So you grabbed the milk at the coffee bar as someone else approached? You didn’t print the minutes out on double sided paper? You can’t find your Metrocard and there’s like one guy huffing impatiently behind you? Girl, you rock. Seriously. You rock.

15. Why they say life begins at 30

…does it begin, or does it continue? All I know is this: it’s not going to get worse, it’s going to get better. I turned thirty with an army of incredible, loving, talented, generous, badass friends; a job I adore; writing credits and writing projects and writing dreams; an amazing and supportive family; clothes I love wearing because I believe I look good when I look good; queerness like whoa; health & health insurance (count your blessings, y’all); confidence in my dance moves; a warm believe that I’m taken care of. Wherever you are, whatever you are, however old you are: good things are coming to you. I can feel it.

8 days til 30: on power tools, underwear, and abundance

Sometimes your life is so awesome in the weeks before you turn 30 that you forget to continue the revamped list of things every woman should maybe but totally doesn’t have to know & have by the time she’s 30. For the uninitiated: in 1997, Glamour magazine published its now-well-loved list of Thirty Things Every Woman Should Have & Should Know By The Time She’s Thirty. I’m looking to tackle items on the list every week until I blow out the candles on my own 30th birthday cake.

The list continues! By 30, every woman should have…

9. A résumé that is not even the slightest bit padded.

What, per se, is a padded resume? I’m picturing a curriculum vitae in a Victoria’s Secrets push up bra. Is this one of those things where you, say, chalk some loose babysitting gigs up into premiere childcare services, or fudge that time you spent $400 on Rosetta Stone software as profiency in French?

Maybe I’m spoiled, having eschewed any traditional career goals in the pursuit of being a writer. But by the time someone leaves their twenties, I think a good goal is to like your job, or, if you don’t like it, accept it. Know why you’re working that job. Maybe you bar tend so you can rehearse with your band twice a week. Maybe you landed at a sweet little graphic design firm right out of college and have been with them ever since. Maybe your resume reads like a tour of indecision. I’m hesitant to say too much on this subject, seeing as unemployment is currently apocalyptic and any job is a good one. But I think padding resumes is a weird ritual. How about this? Know what you’re good at, what you want to do, and what you want to learn. So you wanna become a pastry chef but you’ve been working in an office approving people for health insurance? Who cares! Scrap together the cash for a pastry class and see what happens. I’m a big fan of abundance.

10. One friend who always makes you laugh and one who lets you cry.

Just two? Why not a lot of good friends, with a diverse treasure chest of talents? There’s the friend who will always say yes to an impromptu beach trip; the friend who loves potlucks; the friend who always calls instead of texts; the friend who gives really sage advice when it comes to big life decisions. But laughing and crying is something I tend to need to be comfortable doing among all my really good friends. And if I’m sobbing over a break up or something, I’m gonna want a friend who can make me laugh, too.

11. A set of screwdrivers, a cordless drill, and a black lace bra.

Dear lord, Glamour. You had me until the obvious. Look: tools are awesome, but I’m gonna also offer the advice that you should know how to use them. Take it from a stubborn ass who has insisted for many years upon building her own Ikea furniture, installing her own air conditioner, and occasionally installing her own shelves. I may not own a cordless drill, but I certainly know which friends will lend me one.

As for the black lace bra, ugh. If a black lace bra makes you feel awesome, wear one, and wear it fiercely. If you prefer sports bras or bandeaus or cotton American Apparel bras in simple nude — go for it. The key, I think, is to take as many opportunities to look good for your own damn self as you might rummage for the matching underwear/bra on any night you might get some.

When I was twenty four, I was explaining to someone my reverse psychology underwear theory: if there was a chance of getting some, I would wear ugly underwear. If I wore my most awesome underwear, nothing would happen. The woman I was talking to was puzzled, saying she didn’t do that. “What do you do, then?” I asked.

“I don’t own any underwear I wouldn’t be caught dead in,” she said.

Huh. Interesting. It’s never on the front list of purchases for me, but every so often now, I pick up a few new pairs of underwear and toss out the old, baggy Hanes with the elastic showing. Not so much because I’m trying to impress someone, but because it’s good to feel awesome.

12. Something ridiculously expensive that you bought for yourself, just because you deserve it.

Materialism! Consumerism! Ack! Here, I think, is a better one. Know one rad thing you can do for yourself whenever you’re having a bad day, need a pick me up, or need to show yourself a little TLC. Maybe your thing is riding your skateboard aimlessly for a whole evening, taking a bath, blasting the soundtrack to Chicago and singing along, reading a trashy magazine, making gazpacho, or watching The Neverending Story in your underwear in bed. Whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be wildly expensive, as if dollar signs signal self-worth. My no-fail bad-day pick me up is a pretzel milkshake from Momofuku Milk Bar. (Highly recommended.)

13. The belief that you deserve it.

You deserve a lot of things, and not just that one expensive thing Glamour said you could splurge on. Here are some things that I’ve learned I deserve: fair pay for my services, respect for my ideas and my efforts, friends who make me feel good about myself, friends who believe in what I’m doing with my life, friends who inspire me, good food, romantic relationships that satisfy me emotionally, honesty from myself and others, good sex, self-care, gut busting laughter on a regular basis, to be heard, to be challenged, to be self-aware. I didn’t always believe I deserved these things, going into my 30s, I sure do.

14. A skin-care regimen, an exercise routine, and a plan for dealing with those few other facets of life that don’t get better after 30.

Yawn. Haven’t we talked enough about bodies and beauty and diets and make up and bullshit? There’s a study that says women who don’t concern themselves with make up and beauty when they’re young don’t think of themselves as ugly as they age. I’m a lot more responsible about sunscreen, and I have become the kind of organized adult who keeps many different kinds of chap stick in a hot pink pouch in my bag at all times. But otherwise? Exercise is awesome, but girl, you look fine just as you are. Moisturizer, I’m told by people from all walks of life, is a thing not to be compromised, but I’m still trying to get the hang of it (doesn’t it all just sweat off anyway?!). The best lesson of my twenties in this department is flossing. Flossing like whoa. Two trips to the NYU Dental Clinic set me straight on that one. My plan for the next decade? Floss, use sunscreen, learn how to do a breast self-examination, and ride my bike whenever the weather (and my back — there’s my getting older ailment, Glamour!) permits it.

15. A solid start on a satisfying career, a satisfying relationship, and all those other facets of life that do get better.

Ugh, for serious?! Thirty means you gotta have a grip on a career, a relationship, AND other facets of life? I think there’s so much more satisfaction in turning thirty with confidence in who you are and what you want, instead of your gig and your boo (it’s nice to have confidence in those things, too, no doubt.) But if exiting one’s twenties meant having your shit together? Please. You don’t need a career. You need money to pay the bills, and you need to like, if not love, what you do. You don’t need a relationship by the time you’re thirty. You should have a rad cast of friends who love you over and over again. You need to have faith in what you want and what you deserve, and keep an open heart to abundance, awesomeness, and, yes, love, if that’s what you’re after.

One of the most important lessons of my twenties, though, comes from a Dean Spade essay: treat your friends like lovers and your lovers like your friends. What I interpreted this to mean was that that crazy energy we sometimes save for romance–prioritizing time with our sweetie, going out of our way to do nice things for them, spending a whole weekend together–can be re-directed towards your friends. And your lovers–well, what would it do to cool down and greet them with an even keel and the warm knowledge that you don’t have to bend over backwards to impress them? Flipping the script has helped me keep my perspective when it comes to falling in love and loving your friends. It’s not picture perfect, but it’s a good start.

Tomorrow: By Thirty Every Woman Should Know…

30 Days Til 30: Revising Glamour’s 30 Things list

In 1997, Glamour magazine published its now-well-loved list of Thirty Things Every Woman Should Have & Should Know By The Time She’s Thirty. As you might imagine, it’s chock full of materialism, sexism, stereotypes, beauty myths, and other eye-roll-worthy tidbits. This year, the entire list was expanded into a book (Maya Angelou: “Every woman should have a good cashmere sweater by the time she’s 30.”), and everyone got into the love it/shove it game with Glamour’s ideas.

It was a timely list when I stumbled upon it, and here, 30 days until my 30th birthday, I’m looking to tackle items on the list every week until I blow out the candles on my cake. I know I can only speak from my experiences — everybody has a vastly different experience of their first 30 years! — but I’m hoping that I can lend a little bit of reality and a dash of humor to the list. I’m quite looking forward to 30 — and not because of anything listed 15 years ago. Here we go!

By 30, you should have …

  1. One old boyfriend you can imagine going back to and one who reminds you of how far you’ve come.

Barf! First of all, the obvious: we’re not all dating boyfriends. Duh. Some of us have girlfriends. Some of us have boyfriends and girlfriends. Some of us eschew gender in our identity and the people we love.

Let’s be generous and push their narrow vocabulary aside: what’s at the heart of this statement? One partner who you can imagine going back to, and one who reminds you of how far you’ve come.

I don’t think anyone would argue that people spend a lot of their twenties banging up against other human beings in a quest for intimacy, sex, relationships, identity, happiness, drama, satisfaction, and, of course, love. Love, sex & dating take up an ENORMOUS proportion of our society’s culture. But really, what do these two things imply? That you still romanticize one past relationship in some weird Hollywood way, and possess one terrible roller coaster of a disaster that makes you cringe every time you think about it? What’s helpful about that?

Truth be told, I could tick the box off on both of these items (the former lives in Barcelona; the later involved a lot of drinking), but these aren’t the relationships I wanna carry into the next decade of life. When it comes to love & sex in your twenties, I feel more like this: accept where you’ve been, and know what you want.

I’ve spent a lot of time beating myself up for the heartaches I’ve participated in. But you know what? They make my heart shaped like my heart. It may be stating the obvious, but when it comes to love in my 30s, I want more of what I want, and less of what I convinced myself was good enough.

2. A decent piece of furniture not previously owned by anyone else in your family.

Oh, material possessions, blah blah blah. This implies that you’re a) living in an income bracket where you shop at CB2 and b) that your family owned nice furniture and could afford to pass it onto you. Having been on the east coast my whole life, I do feel lucky that all seven (yes, seven) apartments I’ve had in New York have had some furniture donated by my folks. My father even dumpstered a bright yellow bureau for me that I had for several years. Everything I own is a mash up of what’s been there before, what friends were getting rid of, and what my priorities are (a good bed, a big bookshelf, a big desk).

A better goal for thirty? Have a home that you like going home to. It took me years to realize that when I lacked shelves, my floor became littered with bags and stacks of boxes and books and magazines and things. So I put up some shelves. That made me happy. I rearranged my room so that the bookcase separates my bed from the world. It’s like having a reading/sleeping fort. It’s not a $850 walnut bedframe with awesome shelf space (if you’re getting rid of one of those, please let me know). But it’s my room, and I love it. Do something to make your room loveable, whether it’s moving the bureau into the closet, organizing all your books by color, or buying a cheap floor lamp from Ikea. (Floor lamps rule).

3. Something perfect to wear if the employer or man of your dreams wants to see you in an hour.

The employer of my dreams? The man of my dreams? Where the hell am I? Is this some scenario where a patron-of-the-arts or Abby Wambach or Harper Collins wants to see me in an hour? Are you Hugh Grant? Is this a rom-com?

And, wait — fairy god person and/or lady friend of my dreams is going to be concerned with what I’m wearing?

Listen. If anyone wants to see you in an hour in your thirties, go in whatever the hell you’re wearing, and make sure it’s worth the trip. The G train is a lot more reliable than it was when I moved here eleven years ago, but still, man. If you catch me in my PJs slouched at my writing desk singing Carly Rae Jepsen, drinking microwaved coffee and editing a book review, that’s what you’re gonna get.

I’ll be really, really honest and say that yes, on countless occassions I have called/texted/whined to friends about what I’m wearing and how I wished it was better. (Does this dress make me look pregnant? How stupid do I look in this hat?) I pledge, though, in my thirties, to give less of a shit what people think about what I’m wearing. Do I think that my outfit is awesome? Then it’s awesome. 

4. A purse, a suitcase, and an umbrella you’re not ashamed to be seen carrying.

Groan. What are you ashamed to be carrying? Really? Use a duffel bag if you love a duffel bag. Use a cheap black umbrella with Duane Reade on the side if you lose them all the time. Use a purse or a tote bag or a knapsack or a wallet that you like, whether it’s cotton or designer or has fourteen pockets or needs to be laundered. Use whatever the hell you want to get around in this world — it’s good that you’re getting around!

5. A youth you’re content to move beyond.

Wait a minute. Youth ends at thirty? No way. Thirty is still young, as my friends who are older than me have been telling me for years. Sure, I think it’s a good and noble goal to turn thirty with respect for where you’ve been and curiousity about where you’re going. But I’m not kissing youth behind. I’m waving farewell to my twenties. I’m shouting hello to the future.

 6. A past juicy enough that you’re looking forward to retelling it in your old age.

Old age! Old age like your thirties?! Pssshhht. I’ll agree to this: everyone should have some good stories from their twenties. But everyone will continue to live good stories in their thirties and beyond. 

When I was in college, Dorothy Allison came to speak, and my professor was a friend of hers and said she would introduce me. When this happened, Dorothy Allison and my professor hugged, and within moments were sharing a hearty laugh about their past in New York. “Remember,” Dorothy Allison laughed, “when we got locked out of that apartment?” My professor threw her head back in a bark of a laugh, clasping Dorothy Allison’s arm. In this moment, I thought, I want this. Today, I have it. I’ll be turning thirty with a rich canon of friends and stories and adventures, so that if I were to bump into almost anyone from my past on the street, we could share a similar moment, our heads back and laughing.

 7. The realization that you are actually going to have an old age — and some money set aside to help fund it.

Alright. This is practical, unavoidable advice. Maybe you won’t physically have some money set aside when you turn thirty (because it’s all been funneled into your student loan debt for the last eight years). But I think it’s a fine time to start at least thinking financially about the future. Would it kill any of us to learn what a 401K is? How many people have a real savings account? Long-term planning, while frightening, can also rule. Look into affordable housing lotteries. Sign up for a financial planning mailing list. I don’t think turning thirty means you need to have all your money ducks in a row, but at least be aware of those ducks, y’know?

8. An email address, a voice mailbox, and a bank account — all of which nobody has access to but you.

Girl, who is reading your e-mail?! Hell, who has a landline? I think this one is very 1997, and at its core, I guess, it just means: be independent. I don’t know how marriages and these things work (ha!), but being able to stand on your own I think is pretty important. I mean, my best friend has my password to OkCupid so she can look at my crushes when we’re on the phone, but otherwise? It’s all mine.

Next week: power tools, skin care, friends, antiquated definitions of success, and What Every Woman Should Know

letters to our younger selves

Recently, a friend came across Eileen Myles’ letter to her young, queer self, part of the anthology The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves . My friend was so moved by the gesture of Eileen’s letter that she decided to invite some friends to write their own letters, and come together to share them. It’s rare, I think, to take the time to recognize and love your friends’ collective bravery, honesty, and gratitude for the lives you live today. I believe that there’s a lot of healing in the freedoms we have today. I’ve had several moments as a queer woman in New York where I’ve paused, and thought, dear teenage Courtney — hold on. Hold on. You’re gonna be alright.

It was incredible to be able to share these moments with friends. Here’s my letter.


Dear seventeen year old beautiful Courtney with the blue hair,


Honey, good news: you’re a writer.


I greet you with this good fortune from a big desk in a sunny apartment in New York City, where you have lived for eleven years. If I know you well enough, all of this news will feel like winning the lottery. It’s true: you’re making it. All those words you’ve written–in the pink kitty diary, in Mead notebooks, on the back of register tape during your shifts at the bookstore, in the margins of your Geometry textbook–these are the words that are leading you from this small, small life to the most outstanding world you could imagine, and then some.


But you’re not just a writer. You’re an awesome queer writer. One day people will pay you money to write about lesbians, I shit you not.  The first story you ever publish will be about girls. The second story you ever publish will be about girls, and the third, and the fourth. All of this will take time, but it’s real. You’ll even publish a story about your first kiss Z., and change her name to Rose, and then you’ll get letters from gay teens in Texas who want to thank you for writing the story that totally also happened to them. I’m so sorry she stopped speaking with you, sweetheart. I’m sorry that when you hide under the covers and sob because you think you know it could be possible to like girls, that there isn’t anyone around you to reflect back. That you have to wake up in this foreign land without a map and trust your gut. But the writing, honey. The writing is going to save you. When you write about high school, when you write about these girls, that loneliness that trails you like vapors around small town Pennsylvania–writing about them will release you. It’s a magic I cannot explain. I’m dying to tell you that. I’m dying to whisper in your ear as you walk away from your crush, or pine for the girl with the shaved head at the mall, or cry when mom fights with you about your Boys Don’t Cry poster–here, I’m kneeling next to you right now, I’m tucking your blue hair behind your ear, I’m whispering: I love you. Keep going. I love you.


What else can I tell you? At age twenty-four, you’ll finally see Sister Spit. The moment you move out of the house you will find it easier to love Mom. You can drink, but please be careful. You’re not ugly, and you’ve never been ugly, and you never will be ugly.  Hug your friends every time you greet them. The life you’re walking towards is extraordinary. One day an editor from the UK will e-mail you and ask that you write a lesbian story for her young adult anthology, and she’ll pay you $300. $300 is half of your rent. You’ll write a fictionalized story of what you wished happened with Sara W. (you haven’t met her yet). I know you write lots of fiction these days about girls. Soon, very soon, you won’t have to make the stories up. Soon, sitting across from you, or calling you on the phone, or felt underneath your palms, you will have real, live girls like you. They exist. They will be your friends and lovers and roommates and people. One night, very soon, it will happen in a dorm room at Temple University with the lights off, an hour before you have to catch the R5 train back home for a NHS meeting. Her name will be Sara G. (don’t ask me why all their names are Sara), and the moment she pulls her t-shirt off over her head, you will instinctively know to bend your mouth forward to the heat of her skin, and I can tell you that here, at nearly 30 years old, you still think about her. In that moment will be the answer you’ve itched for so long: you like girls. Girls like you. It’s relief. It’s freefall joy. It’s the launchpad of all your loves.


What does Mom think? It doesn’t matter. I swear to you: it does not.


I believe in the space time continuum, and I believe in you. I imagine that you’ll receive this letter with your backpack still on, after school one day, coming down the driveway with the mail in your hands. You’ll stop and open this envelope, wondering about the stamp, which is a sticker of the Liberty bell that says Forever. It’s me. I’m here to give you a huge, long hug and say that I fucking love you. All of you. There’s nothing wrong with you. I carry you with me everywhere I go. You are the beginning. You are the one. Take notes. Write with abandon. Pack up your things when it’s time to go and do not look back. I’m waiting for you.



welcome back


Oh, hey, internet. It’s been awhile.

I was a little reluctant to plug back in today, after a pretty awesome month without. On the technical side, I was able to get through August with minimal e-mail checking (I had to do so more than once a week as I’d planned), no facebook, no googling (except that one time I really, really needed the hours of the Marcy Library and had no patience for 311), no twitter, no instagram, no teuxdeux. The only luxuries I allowed myself were apps on my phone for the weather, my bank account, and google maps (I know, purists will cry foul that those conditions equal a whole lot of internet).

I think the biggest difference in my unplugged life was that I felt less busy, and made less to-do lists. I think I had the same amount of things to do (book reviews, grad school work, wedding gifts to buy, letters to write), but something about not hounding my e-mail, not following every whim of my google-fancy (where could i get modeling putty for wizards on the cheap? is there a good zucchini risotto recipe? how much are plane tickets to rome next summer?), and not living on facebook (like! like! omg, i love yr new haircut! like! attending! like! share!) — it all made me feel, well, relaxed. The e-mail was there when I checked. The world didn’t end if I replied to someone six days after they asked me something, rather than six minutes. It gave me a better sense about time and pressure.

And, man, I read. I read a lot. I think I finished a whole issue of the New Yorker for the first time ever. I listened to NPR every morning while making my coffee. (Friends recently teased that without the internet I had no idea what was happening in the world. I joked that I knew three things: Gabby Douglas won the gold, there’s a hurricane, and Bic tried to make a pen for ladies.) When I had free time, I fell onto my couch with a book instead of my iPad and a to-do list. How can this be preserved? Where’s the happy medium between my total love affair with the internet, and the joy of abstinence?

I’m planning to cap my e-mail checking to just two or three times a day. Facebook, because absolutely positively nothing monumental happened, I can do maybe once a week, or when I have an article/book review to share. And the rest of it? I’ll take it as it comes.

p.s. — i never made it to yoga. pssshhht.

%d bloggers like this: