(Non) Chick Lit

car reading

I never post reviews on websites. Sure, I’ve joined online communities like Goodreads, Audible or Amazon. I read and value what other people say, I’ve made purchases based on what strangers with likeminded tastes have recommended.

But there are two books that so profoundly impacted me this month that I have to write them up.

A Little Background:

A benefit of moving to Los Angeles, (a hidden benefit, or you might say a backhanded benefit): audio books in the car. Not surprisingly, I spend much more time in the car than I did in San Francisco. Oodles. When I drive the boys to school in the morning, the drive time can vary from 17 minutes to 35 minutes. Doesn’t seem like much but that’s almost a 20 minute variant! Who knows what this depends on – right when you think you have it figured out it changes on you: holidays, school in session, accidents, road work, or the way the wind blows. During that drive time we have started listening to Harry Potter in the car. This is great for a couple of reasons. First, the boys don’t complain about being in the car. Instead they get so completely lost in the world of wizards and muggles that they barely even register the passing homeless tent cities or feel the sedentary motion of sitting in gridlock. Also, they don’t get scared. We read the first two books at home, at night right before bed. They are scary! The first one had a scene that spooked me to the core (ahem, I’m 41), and I’ve heard they continue to increase in scariness. In sum, listening to audio books can guarantee fewer nightmares.

But back to me and my books. These two that I fell in love with are total opposites … yet, not. I realize I’m a feminist to my core and I love women writers and narratives about women (and women musicians and singers for that matter). The first book is Yes Please by Amy Poehler and the second is My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.

Yes Please

Poehler is famous. Big time. She spent years on Saturday Night Live and most recently wrapped the primetime series Parks and Recreation. What’s fascinating about her though is her story. Amy (yes, we go by first names) describes to us readers/listeners about growing up in Boston with an accent that wouldn’t go away, about her family dynamics, and about the successes and failures that vaulted her to fame.

Yes Please

But she also talked to me confidentially. Really, just to me, not to the thousands of other fans who bought her book or downloaded her audio version. Just me. She told me about a regret she had playing a mentally challenged woman on Saturday Night Live, who later she had a correspondence with after many years of guilt and regret. She brought me to tears when she told me about her love for her two sons, and about the secret to time traveling, and about a post-divorce trip to Haiti. Her writing is eloquent yet accessible. As I drove down the boulevards in East Los she would create simple metaphors to illustrate her point, or remind me to get rid of that little self-shaming, critical voice inside our heads. A bonus to the audio version is Amy reads the book, but also has guest readers like Kathleen Turner, Carol Burnett and her parents.

My Brilliant Friend

The second book couldn’t be more unlike Amy’s wry memoir in style, yet touched me in a similar way. Elena Ferrante (if that’s even her real name) is a famous recluse who gives few interviews. She has written a strong handful of books, one being tied together as a series aptly named The Neapolitan Series:


As I write this I am one third through the second novel. The first novel, My Brilliant Friend, rang my bell. This book was published in September of 2012 — where have I been and how could I have been living my life for three years without having experienced Ferrante’s prose?

But it’s not just the prose of course; it’s the storyline. It’s the setting (Naples), it’s the characters (poor town, two best girlfriends), it’s the conflict (domestic violence, life choices) and it’s the unraveling and raveling of all of this interacting through time.

I constantly wonder about the author. It even isn’t clear who the brilliant friend is. But it’s about girls, impending womanhood, fears and thrills. I can’t stop listening (you’ll often find me parked in my driveway long after arriving home.) Hillary Huber reads the audio version and she has such subtle nuances to her voice, all melted together in a soft purr of dictation.

The most difficult aspect to listening to books in the car is that I’m unable to underline. The sentences these women wrote would elevate me from myself, but then they float away and I can’t perseverate on the prose. With Ferrante, it’s the first time in a long time I’ve wanted to purchase a tangible book so that I can soak in the writing with my eyes, not only my ears.
Photo Credit: MlleMiracle via Compfight cc

(Non) Chick Lit

Reflecting on My Experience with the Writing Club

Two years ago I launched The Writing Club, a creative writing program for kids. My students ranged as young as second grade up to fifth grade, boys and girls, and from public and private schools in San Francisco. I came away from it feeling great about helping those kids who were tentative about writing, those who needed a confidence booster, and conversely those who loved to write and wanted to spend more time storytelling than the traditional school day offered.


My decision to launch my own private writing “club” came after I spent two years teaching with the San Francisco based after-school program, “Take My Word for It!” The program would join an elementary school’s after-school program and offer a 10-week creative writing class, mixed ages, for one hour per week. The class would expose students to poetry, prose, and literary craft elements like personification, onomatopoeia, figures (metaphor, analogies, etc) and more.

After teaching the “TMWFI” program’s curriculum, and understanding how to teach the lessons, I decided I could create my own curriculum and offer it “off campus.” In the summer of 2013 I conceived of the 10-week lesson plan, marketed the classes, and filled two sessions of 12-15 students each. Every Tuesday I transformed my dining room into a classroom, and on Fridays I worked out of my friend’s art studio.

After the fall of 2013, I offered winter classes, and then spring of 2014. We created club names for ourselves and a secret club handshake. I often created a theme for the course. For example, one session’s theme used San Francisco as our muse. We studied images of the fog and tried our hand at mystery writing, we wrote Beat poetry and performed it with a mic and beret, and we wrote odes to famous San Francisco landmarks. I created a “Dead Word Wall” where the kids would have to offer a synonym for an overused word (a dead word, like “said”). We also created “invords” or invented words by piecing together words and making up the definition. I posted their writing on Facebook.

Two years later, I had in total taught over 50 children.

It was thrilling to watch the changes. Some students would delve in and write pages and pages, and you could see that the weekly inspiration further enabled their innate passion. Other students, those who struggled, would open up and grow more confident, and I often had gracious feedback from parents. They could see the changes in their child’s attitude toward writing. At school at the parent-teacher conferences, the student’s teacher would note the change in the student’s writing. Parents often thanked me, and to have that kind of influence over a child’s growth and learning was surprising and wholly satisfying.

Writing is an important skill that crosses over and supports other subjects and brain function. Throughout the child’s academic journey, the ability to communicate through writing is invaluable. But I also focused on the child’s ability to let go of judgment and criticism and to be ok with whatever words spill out on the page. To not be embarrassed and to try his/her best to shake off that feeling of vulnerability. To be confident in their own voice and ideas, and use writing as an outlet for emotions, dreams and fears. To start by putting pen to paper…and let go.

Reflecting on My Experience with the Writing Club