The Immortalists: A Book Review

Let me start by saying thank you to my readers who voted for this book. I don’t think I could have picked a better title to launch my book review section of this blog. It’s not a long read at just shy of 350 pages, but the storytelling is rich and inviting. I think this will quickly become my favorite part of blogging because I love to talk about books almost as much as I love to talk about writing! But don’t worry, no spoilers will be uttered here.

The Immortalists begins with the four Gold siblings at various points along the bridge from childhood to adolescence. It’s the summer of ‘69 in New York City’s Lower East Side and in quiet understanding that the separation of age is threatening the closeness of their youth, Simon, Klara, David, and Varya embark on a quest to find the Woman on Hester Street who can tell you when you’ll die.

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Author Chloe Benjamin has managed to tell each sibling’s story, how they choose to accept or reject their prescribed fate, with such incredible honesty that to reach the end and remember that they are fiction is to accept a pang of grief. Each of the Gold siblings has an individualistic nature that seems to clatter and bang against their shared upbringing like rough seas against a levee wall. They each equally hold dear and at arm’s length their shared history and escape into their own versions of living, eventually leaving New York in search or in avoidance of their destinies.

I was most impressed with the underlying theme of communication. In small, easily overlooked ways Benjamin reveals the missed opportunities and understandings that are all too recognizable in our own lives. She quietly points to the differences in how we see ourselves and how others see us, gently prodding at the egocentric nature of us all. This book is filled with moments like this that invite reflection, without demanding it.

She spends time with each of the Golds, sharing their lives and the ghosts that haunted them in separate sections of the book. I’m not always a fan of this form of storytelling as it often feels disjointed and difficult to attach to the characters when only chunks of their stories are told, but this is not the case here. Benjamin skillfully allows small flashbacks to fill in the holes that feel more like the natural reflection of life than the storyteller trying to make it all connect. It almost feels like a series of novellas, each with their own arc. Writer and performer, Joselyn Hughes says, “Treat all your secondary characters like they think the book’s about them.” Benjamin executes this perfectly, allowing the impression you have of one sibling based on the perception of another to be altered entirely in raw and organic ways once you’ve entered their consciousness in the next section.

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I will warn you, there are some very graphic sex scenes in parts of this book. At first, I was disappointed to find them because I felt it was gratuitous and angling for shock value, but as I continued to read, I realized how important those moments were to the development of this particular character. There was an urgency in them that I came to realize was all too important to the story. While quite explicit, there’s something I appreciate about just how raw and real Benjamin writes these scenes. No apologies. I have to admire that in a writer.

The only real complaint I have is that I wanted more time with Daniel. His storyline started with the same richness and revelation as the others but rushed to its climax. I’m not a fan of fluff and filler, but there was a leap made that I don’t know that I was quite ready for.

People who like the show This Is Us will love this book as it follows a similar slow reveal of the varying perspectives of family members, the stories we tell ourselves, and how they become our reality. The book jacket calls it a “family love story” and I can’t think of a better term to describe it. It’s beautifully somber and yet hopeful. I finished it with a sigh.

I look forward to reading more material from Chloe Benjamin for her sharp descriptions of benign things and her spatial awareness of how stories can best unfold. This is some soul-bearingly intimate writing, and I can’t wait for more.

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Edify

There’s nothing like the perfect word. The number of times I’ve delayed conversations because the word I’m racking my brain for is playing hard to get…countless. To someone who tries her hardest to take the time to articulate exactly what she means, it feels incredible to finally close your figurative fingers around it. Like itching a scratch you’ve been contorting yourself to reach.

A Thesaurus is a fantastic tool to combat this annoyance, but it’s one to use with care. We’ve all heard stories, or *cough* lived them, where people got so carried away with synonyms that their finished product was barely understandable.

For example, has anyone seen this scene from Friends?

But, Kelsey! Don’t you use a Thesaurus?! All the damn time! However, I mostly employ it as a search engine for my brain. I run to the Thesaurus when a word is on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t remember quite what it is. Sure, I could use a replacement, but it would likely fail to convey exactly what I’m intending.

I also use it when I can’t find a word that feels just right. As I’ve mentioned, words have nuance, and when I find the words I already know aren’t adequately providing the feeling or understanding I’m going for I go learn some new words! I read through a variety of synonyms that are close but not quite right until one is. I’ve then expanded my vocabulary AND imparted exactly what I want to my reader.

Today, I want to talk about the word “edify”. Wait! Don’t look it up yet. I’m getting there.

If you learn something new, you are educated on it. If you teach something new, you are educating someone. Facts, figures, languages, grammar, rules, etc. — these all fall under education. But what would you call it if you learned something on an emotional level? A moral level? A spiritual level?

The Merriam-Webster definition of edify is: to instruct and improve especially in moral and religious knowledge : uplift; also : enlighten, inform.

Doesn’t that fit the bill? I first heard this word being used to define art. This person’s argument was that art isn’t something you just see, hear, read, or taste, it’s something that educates your soul. Art is edifying.

Most of the pains and struggles of life are edifying. They help us reach a deeper understanding of self. A good book can be edifying. A play can be edifying. Anything at all that makes you stop and go, “Huh.” A small door in the catacombs of your brain has opened to reveal something you weren’t aware was there. An understanding, a compassion, a relatability, a connection.

Education is a horse led to water. Edification is the horse taking a drink. Education is memorizing vocabulary words. Edification is learning the depth of meaning beyond the typed definition beside them. Education is fact. Edification is feeling. These are my interpretations, of course, but they are also the reasons I love this word so very much.

Education and edification are equally important, but serve different roles in our world. They are each other’s compliment. They balance and weave together to form more complete understanding and appreciation of whatever they encounter. Two very different creatures living in harmony and promoting the harmony of their users.

I ask that you take a moment to reflect on how they might be working together in your life. And if you find you can’t think of something that’d edified you recently, seek something out. It’s good for the soul.

Until next time.

Being a Mom

Being a mom is existing within an undulating definition of self.

Being a mom is long hours of hard work that you hardly ever feel was done well enough.

Being a mom is early mornings when the sun has yet to rise, but your three-year-old has.

Being a mom is balancing firm with soft, strong with gentle, freedom with boundaries.

Being a mom is being challenged on ideals, instructions, and with fierce independence.

Being a mom is gasping with excitement at the new chapter opening up before your child only to have the breath catch with a sob of grief for the one they’ve just left.

Being a mom is letting go and holding fast.

Being a mom is trust, questioning, and surrender to what will be.

Being a mom is a close examination of everything you believe in and recognizing that beliefs grow and change just as much as your children do.

Being a mom is accepting bodily fluids as a part of life.

Being a mom is an extra cup of coffee that you won’t finish before it’s cold.

Being a mom is laughing until you cry and crying until you choke.

Being a mom is wiping butts, noses, and tears.

Being a mom is not being sure what the stain is.

Being a mom is forgetting the last time you showered.

Being a mom is deeply appreciating a shower.

Being a mom is holding your tongue.

Being a mom is reading the Riot Act.

Being a mom is slammed doors, eye rolls, and whining.

Being a mom is the sweetest laughter, warm hugs, and heavy heads relaxing into your shoulder.

Being a mom is dancing through days that you wish were over, knowing you’ll wish to remember them when your bones start to creak and your house is no longer full.

Being a mom is hoping you end up with more laugh lines than frown.

Being a mom is the thrill of watching your child display perfect manners and compassion.

Being a mom is embarrassment when they don’t.

Being a mom is deep, whole-hearted forgiveness and a love so overwhelming that to reflect on it feels like drowning in equal parts joy, worry, and gratitude.

Being a mom is feeling unworthy and underappreciated.

Being a mom is knowing the answer to the question, “Why?”

Being a mom is learning as you teach and teaching as you learn.

Being a mom is to appreciate your own mom in every way you didn’t growing up.

Being a mom is wanting to be a good example, and being honest when you fail.

Being a mom is whispers and tiptoes and sneak attack tickles.

Being a mom is stroking hair and fluffing pillows.

Being a mom is grinning at their grins, challenging their scowls, and empathizing with their tears.

Being a mom is everything and nothing like you thought.

Being a mom is wanting a moment, but not for too long.

Being a mom is selfless and selfish, eager and wary, rational and paradoxical.

Being a mom is life lived with purpose that you truly understand only in the periphery of your mind and in the depth of your soul.

Being a mom is…

Favorite Books: A Journey

Do you ever travel back through memories to see if you can pinpoint which things or moments altered your course in life? Not necessarily a big shift, but just recognizing that once that thing, whatever it was, was said or done or experienced you were different. Sometimes it’s special because it’s a first. The first time you jumped off the diving board. The first time you skated all around the roller rink without falling. The first time you finished a book that did something more than entertain you. As I’ve been practicing my craft and building my writer muscles, I started asking myself which books I think really made a difference. I wanted to examine which stories stayed with me over the years and what I feel they gave me.

This blog is supposed to be about my writing life and my reading life is a big part that. As you know, I’ll be sharing my reviews of newly published books this year, but I couldn’t neglect the books I’ve already read that helped lead me to this point. I want to use my love of books and writing to reach others who share that love. Maybe I’ll introduce you to a new book, or remind you of an old one you haven’t thought about in a while, but I don’t want to just talk about them…I want you to read them.

Once a month I’m going to share a book with you from my past. One that is meaningful to me in some way. If you share my blog and send a screenshot to me on Facebook or email it to me here, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a copy of the beloved book I share that day. I’ll leave the pool open for one week and then draw a winner! This won’t make me a dime, you won’t be entered into some weird database or anything, I just want to put more books in people’s hands and I thought this would be a fun way to do it!

What book is first on deck? Let’s see, shall we…

I believe I was in fourth grade when I first encountered this book. We read some of it aloud in class, but mostly had chapter assignments to read at home. While other students groaned at the reminder, “Make sure you finish Chapter Three over the weekend so we can talk about it on Monday!” I was thrilled and grateful for every spare moment I could read.

I always read ahead, even when we were asked not to. Reading books in class felt painfully slow to me. The flow of the story was broken horrendously when only a chapter a week was assigned. And reading aloud in class? Torture. As an adult, I appreciate the importance of having children practice this, but, at the time, I could hardly sit still listening to classmates stumble over words and read an emotion-filled scene with all the passion of a dust mote. I would watch their lips move, and their finger trail along under the words and wonder if they were even aware of what they were reading or just making the sounds required.

I’d trudged through weeks of trying to pace myself, only allowing a chapter or two ahead of the class before going back to read along again and wait, but I reached my limit and decided one weekend to just finish the dang book already.

I sobbed. The book made me sob. I cried so hard, my emotions swaying in a synchronized dance of heartbreaking sadness and honest surprise at the heartbreaking sadness that my mom came running into my room to see what was wrong with me. I think I just pointed at the blasted book. That! That’s what did this to me!

I’m sure she smiled, I’m positive she hugged me. She knew. She knew how books could grab hold of you and make you care. This was my first real experience with it. I had been reading since two, had gotten teary-eyed a few times before, but this visceral reaction to the written word was entirely new. That day a door opened for me. The magic of books had just jumped from card tricks to vanishing acts. The magic of books that was growing alongside me suddenly shot over my head and through the sky. Simple words. Simple story. Deeply complicated feelings. Who knew?

The book was Where the Red Fern Grows.

If you’ve never read it, don’t let my sob story keep you from it. It’s an exceptional book. I have a copy on my bookshelf waiting for the day my son is ready for it. It wasn’t originally written for children, but Rawls truly captures the spirit of childhood. The energy, the thoughts, the dreaming.

If you’ve had the unfortunate chore of growing up without having read Where the Red Fern Grows, it’s a story about a boy living in the foothills of the Ozarks. He saves up his money to buy his heart’s greatest desire, a pair of coonhounds. The journey of their friendship and training winds through the forest of his childhood so closely you can smell the leaves crunching underfoot.

Read it as an adult to reflect on days of running around barefoot and the unconditional love of a dog. Have your kids read it to discover a different time, a different way of life, and perhaps some deeper emotion stored up somewhere just waiting for a good book to draw it out. Read it for nostalgia. Read it for heart. Read it for soul. It’s worth every salt-spiked tear.

Writer’s Block

She sits in her bed, wanting a comfortable, quiet place to write. It’s the weekend, and while one kid is napping and the other is quietly watching her husband playing a game, the void of “nobody needs me right now” has apparently not made enough room to be productively creative today.

The blinking vertical line at the top of the page starts to look like a tapping foot as she stares at it, waiting for inspiration. She is kicking herself for not drafting something sooner, reflecting on the excuses she bought time with during the week. But a deadline is a deadline, even if it is self-imposed.

More staring…blink…blink…blink.

She could write about writer’s block, and she starts to, clinging to the idea for dear life, only to find that having writer’s block about writer’s block is a singularly discouraging and frustrating thing.

She knows what she wants to write for the next post, but she can’t bump it up because it’s time sensitive. It has become glaringly obvious to her that the schedule she’s been putting off making for herself is desperately needed. She starts to distract herself with that but then realizes it’s just another thing to be doing instead of writing so she closes the tab she just opened and starts staring at the blinking cursor again.

The cat and one of the dogs are both asleep at the foot of the bed, and as she finds herself wishing she could just roll over and conk out too, she starts to question her location choice. Writing in bed is comfortable, but the blank space in her mind where words usually show up is soft and beckoning like the pillows behind her and now drowsiness has joined the party.

She starts to type again, just to start something, and a narration of her current status is all that comes out. It’s sad, and will likely be entirely uninteresting to her readers, but it’s all she’s got right now. The annoyingly loud tick of her watch matches the blinking of the damn vertical line and her eyes widen in irritation. The universe is mocking her.

All the notes she has about future topics seem dumb, and the inspiration train has still not pulled into the station. She pouts. She fidgets. She welcomes the distraction when her husband comes in to sweetly ask if she needs anything. She welcomes the ping of someone messaging her on another tab. She knows she should close it, but then the ticking watch and blinking line would be her only company.

The dog is snoring. Lightly, but the even sound of a dreaming canine is lulling her to sleep, so she sits straight up. No more cushy pillows to cradle her, she goes back to the narration and rolls her eyes at herself for still not having anything better to write about today. But that’s how it goes sometimes. There are days when nothing but choppy, random sentences make it to the page. There are days when every word seems wrong or weak or boring. But she still writes them. It may not make up very much at the end of the day, but it’s still writing.

She writes a short apology to her readers for not producing something more interesting this go round. Reminds them of her introductory post and how she warned them that sometimes she would fail. She thanks them for their patience and hopes they like the better-planned post that’s promised for next time.

Failure is just a launch pad for growth. Mistakes are inspiration for learning. Weaknesses recognized are seeds planted to reap wisdom.

The writer excuses herself to go tend her garden.

…and bleed.

Several years ago I had this amazing professor who, beyond all other things he taught me, helped me accept my path to being a writer. I’ve always been the person to get distracted by ideas and the excitement of something new, and while that feeds the creative in me, and makes for some great fun, it really generated a map of winding roads of potential that made me dizzy.

I loved books and writing, but there’s that societal judgment I’ve referred to before about how useful or worthwhile people perceive writing as a career to be. I also love photography, showed a flair for marketing in a few jobs over the years, cooking held my eye, stomach, and attention all the way up to meeting with an advisor for a culinary arts degree before deciding the hours weren’t what I wanted. Teaching had held a residency in the possibilities section of my brain since I was in first grade, and after years of bouncing ideas about the future off myself, I finally thought I’d settled on a winner.

I had a plan, I had mapped out all the courses I’d need, and settled on a practical (gag) History Degree/Teaching Certificate. I love History, don’t get me wrong. Intricate stories, exotic settings, heroes and villains that switch roles depending on perspective? Hello! It was certainly up my alley. But the idea of settling for something “practical” irked me and made me fidget in my seat with discontent. Luckily, one of the required courses, when I started off, was Creative Writing. It was not lost on me that I was more excited about that class than any of my History courses.

Enter Professor Harmon, who confirmed every hope I had about writing to be true. I had never had a teacher so passionate about writing. His love for the craft poured out of him into his lectures, leaving my fellow classmates and me to wade through the water of creativity. We had no choice but to bathe in it. He expected no less than our best. He expected growth. He expected respect for writing and its power. He wasn’t loud, he wasn’t animated, but he spoke with such deliberate care and consideration for every word. I was giddy with joy. I went into every class with butterflies of anticipation and left every class riding a high of adrenaline.

Not long into my semester, I realized there was a voice in my head that was getting louder with each day. I could feel my journey down the path I had chosen starting to list to the left. My heartstrings were pulling and I could hear the call. THE call. You know, the one people talk about but seems too cliche to be real.

Along with this indisputable realization that I was going down the wrong road came this sickening feeling of shame and absolute dread at telling people that, yet again, I had changed my mind and was going to shift my trajectory. How, I asked myself, could anyone possibly take me seriously when I’d danced all over the map of life goals like a nomad of dreams, but no, no…THIS is the real one. This time I’ll put down roots. This time is for real.

When I did start talking, man, could I feel the invisible pat on the head and the subliminal, “That’s nice, dear.” I resented it and felt I utterly deserved it all at the same time. But let me tell you a little something about me. I know how to rise to a fucking challenge. Every patronizing smile, every word of masked exhaustion with my pattern of flitting from aspiration to aspiration, every infuriating dismissal drove me harder. Yeah, I had some setbacks, but, to my credit, this time they were valid ones. I moved across the planet, I got divorced, I worked hard to create a stable life for myself and my son, all the while, taking notes and holding tight to the “one day” on the horizon where I could pick my dream back up again in earnest.

When I made new friends, my writing was one of the first things they learned about me. The more I talked about it, the more my tribe gathered around me in support. I was gifted journals, books about writing, a beautiful vintage typewriter, and unwavering belief. All that time of not being taken seriously, it was the bed I’d made. But I tore the sheets off and traded the Bed of Maybe for a Writing Desk of Definitely.

There’s a quote from Hemingway that says, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” That intimacy of writing is everything to me. Good writing requires you to be authentic, to show up, and this quote follows and haunts me with every word I type. See, when faced with the truth of my future, I fell so deeply in love with it that I realized that I could never let it go. Not for anyone, any fear, any bit of doubt. The best relationships are built on a layered trust that holds us up during times of trouble, and I trust in writing. I trust myself when I’m with writing. And I know that no matter what happens in my life, writing will be there for me. Asking nothing of me, but myself.

So here’s to professors that don’t know they are changing a life, to friends who see the spark of true calling and won’t let you ignore it, to quotes that resonate in your soul at just the right time, and the guts to throw caution to the wind and chase a dream…a truth…with everything you’ve got.

 

NaNoWriMo

Nanny-whaty? NanyReeMe? That November thing? Yeah, I know it’s a mouth-full. I’ve participated for four years now and some of my closest friends and family still need me to repeat it. Most of the participants even shorten it to NaNo in conversation. But WHAT IS IT??

When November rolls around, I have a lot to be excited about. The Texas humidity has started to retreat, and while not quite cold, there’s a certain bite to the air that wasn’t there a moment ago. The leaves are starting to think about commencing their colorful farewell, pumpkins are showing up in every doorway and coffee cup, Thanksgiving plans are being made, and I have hit that one-two punch on my computer that opens a portal into a brand new world: File – New.

See, November is National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo. Hundreds of thousands of people across the planet are almost simultaneously creating new files or deflowering a fresh piece of paper because the mad dash has begun. The goal? To write a minimum of 50,000 words of a new manuscript before 11:59 pm on November 30th.

NaNoWriMo first began in 1999 when twenty-one writers committed to the task. The next year a website was launched and almost a hundred and fifty people signed up – the next year, five-thousand. Year after year, the word continued to spread, and more and more writers dove headfirst into the challenge. There aren’t any strict rules, as the main purpose of the sprint is just to write, but the four biggest guidelines are:

  1. Start writing on November 1st and finish November 30th.
  2. To “win” you must write at least 50,000 words before the deadline.
  3. Planning and notes prior to the start date are allowed as long as the content of the manuscript is all original come November 1st.
  4. Any genre or form is permitted. “If you believe you’re writing a novel, we believe you’re writing a novel too.”

That’s it.

Okay, but why? Why would anyone want to do this? Why would anyone want the pressure of trying to write that much in such a short amount of time? Well, the simple answer is that writers tend to thrive under pressure. Speaking generally, writers are quite good at finding other things to do instead of write. There are several fabulous inner monologues featured in the film Adaptation that speak to this, but there’s one that had me laughing out loud with how smartly it hit the nail on the head. Charlie, a screenwriter, is sitting in front of his typewriter:

“To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. Okay, so I need to establish the themes… Maybe banana-nut. That’s a good muffin.”

You can watch the thirty-second clip here if you want a chuckle.

As you can see, writers suffer from, not a lack of desire to write, but a talent for finding an abundance of things we can distract ourselves with. Our inner critic can’t critique something we haven’t written, you see. Though we tell ourselves in repetition that the first draft can be truly grotesque it doesn’t mean the final will be, we doubt the truth in it. We doubt the truth of our talent.

NaNoWriMo, its deadline, and most importantly its community gives us the drive and fire to get the words out of our thick heads and onto paper. Quality is not even remotely a priority. Most people do not write these novels to be published, though several have gone on to be (Water For ElephantsThe Night Circus, Fan Girl), they write them to write something. Anything at all. Hopefully, something they like. Even better if it’s something they love.

My personal story with NaNo began in November of 2012. I was trudging through a time of rediscovery of self and had been met with a painful yearning to write again. I had long admired bloggers, had tried and failed to be one myself, but a couple of old friends from school and their sister had started a blog earlier in the year and I had fallen in love, anxiously awaiting each installment. One of the sisters had participated in NaNo for years, which I’d known and made note of somewhere in the back of my brain, but this year she made the brave decision to publish her novel as she was writing it. Every day she’d lightly skim for spelling and simple grammar errors, but it went live for the world to see without fail each day of November. I was floored. Not only was the story ridiculously charming and unique, but I was simply jaw-on-the-floor astounded that anyone could be so brave with their writing. I followed the story until its conclusion at the end of the month and then…I was left with a feeling of emptiness that truly surprised me. All that remained was this teeny tiny spark of…something.

The holidays rolled by and with the new year, new you sentiment I began to write! For about twenty pages. Then I stalled, yet again bested by the dastardly inner critic (I really should name her…someone help me with that). The year continued and into the next. I lived my life, got re-acquainted with myself, met my husband, fell in love, got married, had my daughter…and then somewhere around October 29th of 2014, a certain sister posted about her excitement about the nearing NaNoWriMo. With two days to spare, I threw caution to the wind and said, “Screw it! I’m going to try.”

Just about everyone thought I was crazy. My daughter was four months old, my son had just turned five, the holidays were coming, but still, I couldn’t let another excuse stop me. Not even the good ones. I had to write. I told myself that I didn’t have to hit 50k, that I likely wouldn’t, but I was going to write every single day for one month. I was going to use the website and the community as a tool to just. keep. going.

The first Sunday of the month, Hubs kicked me out of the house and told me to go write. I was breastfeeding, so I knew it couldn’t be for long, but I don’t think he has ever fully realized the gift of that day. I went to my favorite bookstore, bought a cup of coffee, and had just set up my laptop when a woman walked up to me and asked,

“Are you here for the NaNoWriMo write-in?”

I had just happened to stumble on the location for a meeting place of fellow participants to sit in a pool of pushed-together tables and coffee cups and bump up their word counts. I scooped up my stuff, joining the quiet clacking of keyboards and scribbling pencils, was offered a cookie and a warm welcome, and wrote about a thousand words in an hour. When I got home, my smile was bigger than my face. I was lighter, my Word Doc heavier, and I could have run a lap around the world, riding the emotional high of those two hours.

I didn’t write 50,000 words that November. I wrote 16,602. But every single one of them was a catalyst in my life. If I hadn’t written those 16,602 words, I wouldn’t be writing these words today. I wouldn’t have tens of thousands of words in a variety of manuscripts. I wouldn’t be earnestly working to make writing my full-time job.

National Novel Writing Month doesn’t give out prizes, there is no physical evidence of your effort unless you print it out, but the amount of hope, friendship, wisdom, and growth it provides is worth so much more to me. I know I can write 16,602 words. And 17,627. And 32,476. And, and, and.

That is my truth now. No one can take it from me. And that crazy acronym gave me the even deeper knowledge that the growth I’m capable of in thirty-day increments is only the smallest measure of what I can achieve in my life as a writer.