howiwriteI am an aspiring writer. This is no secret.

Over the last few years, when I’ve really started dedicating myself to writing every day (and coincidentally started actually finishing major projects), I’ve discovered little rituals I have that help me “get in the spirit.”

I have to be listening to music, preferably from my iPod while wearing headphones. Ideally, it’s dreamy and slow pop or country. A handful of my favorites are:

  • “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus And Mary Chain
  • “Float On” and “The World At Large” by Modest Mouse
  • “Rainy Day” by 10,000 Maniacs
  • “Betty” by Tiffany (yes, that Tiffany)
  • “Space Age Love Song” by A Flock Of Seagulls

When I moved into my new apartment, I decided that I needed to have real desk space to be able to write, and I am still in the process of getting things where I want them to be. I’d like to have a beautiful poster or image to hang on the wall behind my desk to look at.

Very “Passionate Kisses”-aly (you know, “pens that won’t run out of ink and cool quiet and time to think…shouldn’t I have this? Shouldn’t I have this?), I have a plan to create a writing space for myself.

I was curious about How I Write: The Secret Lives Of Authors because I wanted to hear some of the little secrets other men and women use to help inspire them to write, which, we all know, can be a frustrating/rewarding/etc. proposition. Not the bigger things about “how” they actually perform the act, but the interesting “backstage” details”: what’s hanging on their wall? What do they need to look at when they can’t figure out how to end a sentence?

The good luck charms and photos and quotes may not really count for much outside of the writer’s mind, but I love the idea of balancing your real life with your fiction, and I enjoyed this glimpse into “the workshop” instead of just wondering from the finished project.

The testimonials collected in this book (lots, I’m too lazy to count) range from the delightful to the just “ehh.” Here are my favorites:

  • Louisa Young, “Calaca” – A little skeleton typing on a typewriter, bought in a tourist shop in Tijuana
  • Jane Smiley, Hot water – A shower, a bath, etc.
  • Adam Thirlwell, Laurence Sterne – The portrait of the author on a postcard. I like this idea because I’ve often thought of getting a picture of Charlotte Bronte for the same purpose.
  • Elif Shafak, A purple pen and Peter Hobbs, a red and blue notebook – My second-favorite sections of the book and the one to which I can most relate.
  • Jill Dawson, seahorses – This is the best section right here. She talks about how she met another mother while waiting for her son’s schoolbus, who happens to be world-famous seahorse researcher Dr. Hetaher Masonjones. She later meets another scientist named Heather, the senior curator at the London Zoo, who  shows her their seahorse exhibit and gives her two dried ones, many years later, still stuck to her wall with Blu-Tack.

It was a nice read, but adding to my “I’ve got to read this book now” list is really the best part (besides the cool ribbon you can use as a bookmark).

I went to the park yesterday during lunch to write and to enjoy the feeling of escape, however evanescent. It was beautiful outside: warm enough to be comfortable, but with a slight breeze. The elementary school next door was having recess when I walked up to the picnic tables underneath some trees.

I sat down at one table with my satchel and started to take out my notebook and iPod, when I noticed three little girls seated at another picnic table across the path from me. One had a pink Trapper Keeper and they were discussing something intently.

“God is like the most magical and beautiful fairy,” the girl with the Trapper Keeper said intently, loudly enough for me to hear. I smiled–it was a lovely idea and it charmed me.

When they were called back in, I went and sat where she had been sitting, hoping for a similar inspiration.

coverI loved whenever my parents would go out and my sister and I would get a babysitter. Suddenly, our house seemed new and exciting—who knew what kind of adventures we’d have while they were gone? Although this never happened, it was just exciting to have a babysitter: someone young enough to know all the pop culture references we loved, but also just old enough to be a little mysterious and cool. “Wow…Kat McNiel goes to HIGH SCHOOL! She has a BOYFRIEND! She went and saw Vibes in the theater and painted her room walls…BLACK!”


My parents, sweet and loving as they were, just didn’t have the same mystique that the Beastie Boys-loving Kat did when she’d show up on our doorstep (she drove!!) with the board game Sorry! under her arm and wearing a fedora. We’d sit around the kitchen table, playing, while she’d turn on the radio or MTV (forbidden when my dad was around), and my sister and I would just kind of stare lovingly at her: she was the coolest girl we’d ever seen.


One of the reasons why I love, love, love Eating Ice Cream With A Werewolf (besides the title) is that it reminds me of those days so strongly.


When Brad and Nancy Gowan’s parents go to Bermuda, they leave their kids in the care of wacky babysitter Phoebe Hadley, who brings along Dr. Curmudgeon’s Book Of Magic. Spells, zaniness and surprisingly touching moments follow. I always really identified with Brad to the point where I really felt like this book could have been about me. He’s quirky and goofy with a sweet, sensitive side. He struggles with the fact that he’s different from his former athlete father, he loves and takes care of his little sister (who’s inherited said athleticism) and he’s got a great, wry sense of humor. Okay, maybe an idealized version of me. Also: they live in Madison, Wisconsin.


The mother is a housewife/freelancer writer who hates housework (more inspiration!). What aspiring writer can’t identify with this passage:

When she sells a story, she throws her arms into the air and exclaims, “I may be a failure as a housewife, but I’m a success as an author!”

Whenever I enjoy a small success with writing (such as actually doing it), I feel that way: my life and apartment may be a shambles, but the dream’s alive!! This book inspired me then (and now) to want to be a writer, maybe, even to write kids’ books (I hope) as wonderful as this.


werewolf2Brad walks to school with his older, friend/semi-crush Julie Bugle, and he tells her about their previous adventures with Phoebe:

  • Cooking for crowds, which ended up with Nancy covered in cookie dough
  • Judo lessons, where she flipped the mailman
  • First aid, where she bandaged Brad so tightly they had to go to the emergency room to have him cut out
  • Lifeguarding, where she kept throwing Brad in the water to save him

Sadly, there are no pre- or sequels to this book, so these other adventures only exist in the mind. I have always wished that Phyllis Green would’ve written another book about these characters. This time, Phoebe shows up in a lavender jumpsuit, matching cape and huge purple tote bag. “I’m a mod, part-time witch,” she says, and pulls out a stuffed cat (she’s allergic).


Over the few nights they’re together, Phoebe and Brad cast:

  • A picnic spot spell
  • A barnyard spell
  • An ice cream spell
  • A boyfriend spell…or is it a WEREWOLF spell?!

werewolf3The title comes in while they’re casting a boyfriend spell (for Phoebe, sadly, and not Brad. Meh!), and get interrupted. When Phoebe resumes, she accidentally casts the spell on the opposite page, which Brad realizes is a werewolf spell!There’s a knock on the door, and it’s a hugely muscled delivery man named Ned with two tubs of vanilla-fudge ice cream. He’s a grad student at the university and Ned and Phoebe start falling for each other…even as Brad realizes how wolf-like Ned looks. Could it be that he’s a w-w-w-w-w-w-w-w-WEREWOLF?! (If so, he’s a sexy one.)


While my heart will always belong to Kat McNiel, Phoebe’s pretty freaking charming herself. She owns a plant shop called Fortunes & Fernery (she used to do free tarot card readings for patrons until they all started coming true) and names her flowers. She grew up rich in Philadelphia, but left it all to experience life…sadly becoming estranged from her family in the process.

“I just want to be happy,” she’ll say. “There are lots of things I want to do in the world. I want to do them all. I won’t go home and be little Miss Post-Debutante.”

While I was never anywhere close to that kind of life, I really could relate to the idea of needing to go out into the world on my own to find happiness and (I hoped) myself. Most gay kids who grow up in small towns do, I think.


There’s a really touching scene where Nancy wants Brad and Phoebe to play telephone with her. Nancy pulls out her pink plastic phone and pretends to call her parents and a series of relatives, friends and neighbors. When Brad puts her to bed (punishing her for making him play along by reading her a couple pages of Macbeth for a bedtime story), he comes back into the living room to see Phoebe holding the toy phone in her lap, dialing it.

“What are you doing?” I asked, startled.

“Making a phone call,” she said, straight-faced.

I decided to humor her. “Who are you calling?” I asked.

“My father.”

It’s her dad’s 49th birthday (so young, I think now), and, into the plastic phone, she tells him she loves him and it’s pretty damn poignant without being over-the-top at all. Brad is moved by this, and finally says aloud how he’s afraid that his lack of athleticism disappoints his father.

werewolf4Another emotional (but gracefully executed) moment occurs when Phoebe, Brad and Nancy all go to the zoo and see some marabou storks. Brad notices one in particular (Phoebe names him Hepzibah) who’s trying hard to fly, but one of his wings has been clipped. (While Phoebe and Brad are discussing living up to their parents’ expectations, Phoebe says, “I guess they want to take me back to Philadelphia and clip my wings. Like Hepzibah…[but] Hepzibah and I keep flapping!”) Brad decides to make Hepzibah wings that work out of old kites and tin foil and some other household supplies, but Phoebe gently tells him that the stork is in the best place for him. They go out for pizza, but later that night, after Nancy is in bed, he finds her putting on the wings. She helps him get into a pair of his own, and he asks what they’re going to do.

“Fly! We’re going to fly!” Phoebe said.

So we got dressed in the wings, and looking like two people-birds, we jumped off our front porch stoop and flapped as hard as we could. Neither one of us got airborne, but we had a fun time trying.

I love that image so much. Like that moment, the entire book is so understated, never overdoing the is-it-real-or-not aspect of the spells or the real emotion. Instead, Green gracefully pulls this all together with a charm and humor that appealed equally to the young boy I was and the man I am. Patti Stren’s illustrations play a huge part in this—charming and squiggly, they’re the perfect complement to the gentle cleverness of the book (even though I wish there weren’t spelling errors in her captions!). The book wouldn’t be complete without them. As it is, it’s beautiful and practically perfect in a quirky, sweet way that perfectly encapsulates something so personal and emotional to me.

werewolf5Phoebe and Brad part ways in a brief, tender, wordless scene, and the Gowans return. The book ends on a forward-looking note when they mention they’re going on vacation next spring, and they’ll need Phoebe again, to which Brad wonders what her hobby will be then.

Me too.

Resilience is a funny thing. Just this morning, I was feeling really, really down and defeated, a feeling I haven’t been able to completely shake for a few weeks now. Everything I do seemed colored by my torpor. In fact, I’d typed up a blog post about the very subject (and my desire to escape take a vacation) this morning, only to erase it before posting. There’s only so much self-pitying I can take, especially from myself!

But, like that Gap swing dancing commercial, somehow your point of view shifts and what seemed so bleak and hopeless now seems exciting and possible. What causes this?

  • A good conversation with Z while picnicking in the park
  • A hot bath and a quiet night in your own apartment
  • A few chapters of Judith Krantz’s I’ll Take Manhattan (long live ’80s-mom-poolside-reading)
  • Most importantly, writing. Shaping sentences and choosing words to find beautiful and unexpected combinations; getting your thoughts down on paper in the pithiest way possible. Fighting the blank page and realizing that, yes, you can win again at something that means more you than anything else in the world.

In the movie Can’t Hardly Wait, each character is introduced by a quick shot of their yearbook picture and senior quote. Jennifer Love Hewitt’s character, Amanda, (who’s undecided about attending college, which has always bothered me) quotes Jewel. (I know, I know…how ’90s!)

I’m not ashamed to admit that I love the quote myself, and although the song (“I’m Sensitive”) is a little cringe-worthy, it ends with the titular quote that never fails to make me feel an emotional rush:

“I’d rather see the world from another angle…”

That’s usually all it takes to feel cheerful or at least brave again.