‘Heart Museum’ by Durga Chew-Bose

The heart of Durga Chew-Bose’s book of essays Too Much and Not the Mood is the first and longest piece, “Heart Museum.”

A reader will notice in the index that this essay is 92 pages long and wonder both how they will get through and how (and if) the writer will pull off such a length without losing her readers’ attention and focus.

That’s the most startling thing about the piece: in an age when our attention spans barely last a few pages before we might check our phones or flip restlessly through the pages of the book we’re reading (even if we love it, it’s just the energy of our time) to see where the essay or chapter ends so that we may anticipate our commitment and when we’ll get our reward, “Heart Museum” forces you to pay attention, to keep reading, both out of sheer curiosity of what exactly the writer is getting at or might do with the essay, and precisely because no matter how many pages you flip you won’t see the end so you have nothing left to do but read. And that’s surprisingly freeing.

Around twenty pages in, Chew-Bose writes,

Isn’t it fun to read a sentence that races ahead of itself? That has the effect of stopping short–of dirt and cutaway rocks tumbling down the edge of the cliff, alerting you to the drop?

That is exactly what it feels like to read “Heart Museum.” You’re sitting in Starbucks reading, and you don’t understand why your heart is starting to race as you try to keep up with the words. You want to keep going though you don’t always know why, especially if there’s a tangent that’s not for you. Still, you want to see where she goes with her observations and questions.

“We’re the type to ask too many questions–an irritating amount, really. But who ask without claim or exigency. The want is the want and it goes on like that.”

At the end, I was filled with admiration at what the writer does with her essay. She brings together seemingly meaningless and scattered bits and makes the reader interested in them because of the energy of the pace. She connects the end of the piece to the beginning in a way you couldn’t expect when you’re wondering halfway through how she’ll manage to finish and make it all work as you’re starting to realize the point of the essay is to create a museum of the heart, any heart it honestly doesn’t matter who it belongs to, because you understand her hope:

That awareness isn’t merely a stopgap; that it develops a tally.

 

The rest of the pieces in the book do slow down but also have bright moments, like the short “Miserable” and the lovely “Summer Pictures,”  though the success of the pace in the first essay stays with the reader until the last page.

For me, Chew-Bose’s strength is writing when there’s apparently no point or focus until she reminds us  “how crucial it is to preserve a sense of the special,” along with beautiful, telling sentences like:

“My skin is warm. It does not cool. The heat is in the seams.”

“…I tasted city smog outside another city’s airport and knew right then that I was a city kid.”

With the holidays and the end of 2017 approaching, Too Much and Not the Mood is a good read as we begin to ask ourselves what the year has meant, or as Chew-Bose asks in her “Heart Museum:”

“Aren’t we all overrun by the blotting-out that is inevitable? How every year we claim that this year went by faster. What was realized? Did I connect? If I’m mostly–often only–the sum of what I’ve noticed, should I keep better track?”

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Fulfillment Vs. Success: 5 Tips for Achieving Your Dreams From the La Jolla Writers Conference

1. You have to really want it and never give up.

That was the message of the 16th Annual La Jolla Writers Conference (LJWC), where I spent the day on Saturday. Not only am I now filled with inspiration and motivation to keep going, but I also took pages and pages of notes on practical tips to make my book better and advance my writing career.

The main lessons I learned though are applicable to and important for everyone, not just writers.

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Andrew Peterson, author of the bestselling Nathan McBride series, was one of the keynotes at the event. During his lunchtime conversation with Grace Doyle, his editor at Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer, he shared that he wrote 5 novels before writing the one that got published.

When he wrote his first Nathan McBride book, he gave it to an editor friend for advice. The editor said he loved the character but the book just didn’t work, and he asked him if he would write another one (from scratch) featuring Nathan McBride.

“How badly do I want this?”

That’s what Peterson kept asking himself, and he encouraged us all to do the same.

“You have to really, really want it.”

So he wrote a completely new book, and it sold 2 million copies (digital and print combined). Five others have followed since then.

Lissa Price shared a similar story in her query workshop later in the afternoon. She told us to just keep it at. It was the third manuscript she wrote that got her a 2-book deal from Random House, which become the bestselling YA books Starters and Enders.

2. Seek out help.

But it wasn’t just toiling away on his own, Peterson said to Doyle. “I also sought out help.” That is a consistent message from anyone who has gone after their dreams and succeeded.

For writers, he said that begins with finding other writers to get feedback from, getting advice from editors, and attending conferences like the LJWC for guidance throughout your career.

3. The First Draft Is Usually Bad. That’s OK. 

One of my favorite lectures of the day was Books Aren’t Written, They’re Rewritten by Martha Lawrence. She began with the premise of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft.” You have to assume that your first attempt won’t be great, and then you have to make it what you want it to be.

I feel like that goes for anything in life. We need to be OK with our first try at something being just that, a first try, and keep polishing and editing and trying again until we are proud of what we’ve done.

(Lawrence gave us a 6-step strategy to edit the “shitty first draft.” It was really an excellent lecture, and for the writers out there, you can buy audio recordings of all the lectures from the La Jolla Writer’s Conference).

4. Fulfillment Is Not the Same Thing As Success

The highlight of the event, which was the perfect end to an inspiring day, was Deeanne Gist’s uplifting keynote speech at dinner.

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She began with a quote from Tony Robinson:

“Success and achievement without fulfillment is failure.” 

She shared her own journey of discovering what success means to her, and what success does not mean: It doesn’t mean chasing status on lists, more social media followers, and it certainly doesn’t mean comparing herself with other authors.

“Success is subjective,” she said.

Right now, for her, success means writing the best possible book that she can write. And to do that, it’s all about working on her craft.

“Fulfillment comes from writing a complete book. Typing THE END, and knowing I did my best.”

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5. Learn Your Craft

She used the analogy of Michael Jordan. He can be the best player ever, but if he doesn’t learn the rules, he doesn’t get to play basketball.

“And the same goes for you, and for me,” she said.

When she first began her journey as a writer, it took her three years to write the first book that got published because she was so intent on perfecting her craft. (And to echo what Peterson and Price said earlier in the day about persistence, she finished that book in 1997, and it sold in 2004. Again, you have to really, really want it.)

Some of the things she did to work on her craft, and encourages writers to do, is to attend conferences like LJWC, find critique groups that work for you, listen to podcasts, read how-to books, books in your genre, join writers groups, go to talks and lectures… and, of course:

“The most important thing you can do to improve your craft is to write.”

She ended her inspiring speech with a call for us all to reflect on what success really means to us. “Tying your self-worth to achievement is risky business,” she said.