On Writing, Reading, and Doubt in 2015

“His famous cousin at a session of the literary fund asked my father, its president, to tell me, please, that I would never, never be a writer.” — Nabokov, on his first reviews.

Two thousand fifteen was a long lesson in how not to waver. As a writer, you have to learn to live with doubt. Doubt will always shadow you. It waits in the pauses between paragraphs and the blank ditches where pages drop off. But if it sends you back to the beginning of the last sentence you wrote, if it needles until you choose just the right word, if it means that you will never stop trying to write clean, sharp, and hungry — then doubt can become a companion instead of a burden.

What I’ve thought about a lot this year is persistence. My doubt stays with me, clucking over my shoulder, but it is easier now to unseat it. Shrug. Breathe. Rest your fingers on the keyboard and drum out the next line.

You can wallow and grimace over each rejection letter; you can indulge in moments of dark certainty that your goals are foolish and your ideas are trite. There will always be people you fail to impress. There will always be naysayers and disbelievers and cynics. But you can never let one person’s no mean that you won’t seek out someone else’s yes.

With that in mind and inspired by Madeleine Cummings’ example, here are the things I published in 2015 that I was most proud of and some of the books that I read and loved. Nearly all of the bylines that matter to me were fought for. I could pin two or three or five rejections to the back of each one.

What I Wrote

The Bullies and the Bullied, The Washington Post: Trying to root out all the blurry spaces in between pre-teen victim and aggressor.

A Young Private, Killed in WWII, Still Leaps Off the Page, New York Times: The story of my father’s family in the war: a brother’s violent death in Tunisia and my grandmother’s struggle with grief in the aftermath.

A Tribute to the Bound Book, Departures: A review of a museum exhibit that focused on the Renaissance printer Aldus Manutius, something of a folk hero to grammar nerds everywhere. Manutius invented the modern semi-colon, among other innovations.

Mothers, Children, and Off-Limits Kitchens, Paste Magazine: Another snippet from my grandmother’s 1940s life, this time zoomed in on her trial-and-error methods in the kitchen. What happens in 1943 when you’re suddenly expected to feed your family, but you never learned how to cook?

What I Read

Disclaimer: Most of these books were not actually published in the last 12 months. Some of them are decades old. I read them in 2015, though, so they feel new to me.

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald: A lyrical, haunting memoir about grief, nature, memory, and falconry. Come for the poetic descriptions of the English countryside, stay for the snippets of the history of medieval hawking.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore: Jill Lepore never disappoints. Features stubborn suffragettes on hunger strikes, 1920s orgy cults, polygamy, and the invention of the lie detector.

Speak Memory, Vladimir Nabokov: Nabokov’s memoir is like a string of brightly colored lights, each with a glistening image of a memory caught glowing in its center. Want to learn how to marshal an enormous vocabulary into sentences that march forward like neat soldiers? His diction is the best there is.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder: Heavy and necessary examination of the areas of Eastern Europe that fell victim to both Stalin and Hitler in the years leading up to and including World War II. Devastating descriptions and research. A sideways way of thinking about the Holocaust, Hitler’s motivations, and Stalinist Russia.

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Barbara Tuchman: Proof that the most human tendency of all is hubris. Tuchman analyzes several classic examples of historical folly (governments making a series of idiotic decisions despite overwhelming evidence cautioning against those decisions): the fall of Troy, the Renaissance popes precipitate the Reformation, Great Britain losing the American colonies, and the United States’ muddled interventions in Vietnam.

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power: A good sequel to The March of Folly, Power’s book is also a lesson in repeating old mistakes. After Armenia, Germany, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Iraq and other ethnic cleansings of the 20th century, we should have known better. Power looks at what we still haven’t learned.

The Night of the Gun, David Carr: Brace yourself for uncomfortable honesty. A blunt memoir of addiction that uses the tools of the reporter’s trade to attempt to tell the truth about one man’s darkest hours. The best part is Carr’s frantic, jangly style.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates: Beautifully written. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyonce, Bob Stanley: This book is more like an encyclopedia than a narrative history, but for breadth and meticulousness, you can’t do better. Stanley almost never veers into snobbery; he gets as excited about doo-wop and soul as he does about glam rock, folk, and punk. The writing is consistently original, no small feat when your task is describing hundreds of tracks across dozens of genres, eras, and styles. I loved being reminded of songs that I haven’t heard in years.

For example: “Hats off to Larry,” by Del Shannon, one of pop’s catchiest odes to karma. Has anything ever been so zippy and vindictive at the same time? Then there’s my morbid love for teenage car-crash musical melodramas, like the mournful, sappy “Tell Laura I Love Her,” and the ultimate parent guilt trip “Give Us Your Blessings,” by the Shangri-Las, which features both thunder rumbles and wedding chimes. (RIP Mary and Jimmy.) Finally, my girl Lesley Gore always brings the house down: