Posts tagged “Writing

There’s Something About Lola

Posted on November 5, 2013

Photo: Michael Price

Photo: Michael Price

I profiled Russian-American piano virtuoso Lola Astanova for the November issue of Palm Beach Illustrated. By age 8, Astanova was giving performances alone and with orchestras throughout Europe. By age 13, she was featured in a UNESCO documentary about twentieth-century child prodigies. But her childhood was normal, she says, adding that she even played with friends and Barbie dolls.

Now, Astanova is bringing classical music to a new generation of listeners, thanks in no small part to her penchant for hard work and her social media savvy. She became a YouTube sensation (1.5 million page views and counting) after she infused Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” with a heavy dose of Rachmaninoff-style drama. She has also graced some of the world’s great concert venues, among them Carnegie Hall in New York City. Next week, she’ll perform in Charleston, West Virginia with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

You can find my story about Astanova here, or on newsstands in South Florida. In the meantime, here are a few highlights from our interview:

* Astanova’s mother was a piano teacher and didn’t want her child to pursue a musical career because it was too difficult.
* She studied at the V. Uspensky Specialized School of Music for Gifted Children and enjoyed the competition and rigor that came with learning at such an elite school. To this day, she says “I’m very critical of myself and wish I could change that, but I don’t think I can so it doesn’t make life easier for me.”
* Having said that, it’s worth noting Lola loves reading the philosophical works of Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer wrote that the world was driven by a continually dissatisfied will and was always seeking satisfaction, a belief that must speak to the perfectionist Astanova.
* Astanova moved to Houston in 2000 and studied music at Rice University. But she maintained her ties with her Russian teachers.
* She is a fashionista known for wearing Chanel and Tom Ford. She’s also a self-proclaimed “beauty product junkie.” She justifies her passion for fashion by sharing an anecdote about the time Chopin lamented a pair of fabulous gloves he couldn’t afford. “He was into fashion,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s a sign of respect for the audience.”

Lola Astanova was a really fun interview. I really enjoyed meeting her and learning about how someone has followed their passion successfully and on on their own terms. Definitely catch her in action if she comes to your town. For a taste of what she’s like live, here she is in an exclusive performance for PBI’s YouTube channel:

She also maintains a pretty sassy Twitter feed at @followlola, where she shares her global exploits, hair color changes, fashion adventures and on-stage triumphs with her fans.

Speaking to Children About Writing

Posted on October 4, 2013

This morning I had the pleasure of speaking to two fourth grade classes about writing.

I agonized for two days over what to say and how to say it.

I agonized once I realized that Blessing of the Animals happened right before those two talks and I had promised my daughter that she could have her pet fish blessed. I agonized about having to bring the fish to my talks, and about whether I’d trip and fall or mess the fish up once I left.

I’m clumsy like that. But the good news is that I only have a little bit of fish water on my pants.

I choose not to think about what could be in that water.

But back to writing…

This morning, my plan was to give both classes a good recipe for writing. The recipe began with ingredients (the research that gives writing its authority), then moved on to well-structured sentences full of CUPS (or Capitalization, Usage, Punctuation and Spelling). Then, I advised them to sprinkle their work with detail to make it pop, before revising, revising, revising and turning it in.

We talked about things they struggle with during assignments, and I hope that I was able to help them with advice on working through those problems. I didn’t answer everything as well as I would have liked, but I volunteer in the school library once a week and offered to help them if they had questions about their work while I was there.

Both classes wanted to see my web site because I think they actually wanted proof that I do this for a living. Now that they know how to find it, I can only hope that they either forget the domain name, or don’t click on anything I’ve written on this blog about “Mad Men.”

I’m begging you, kids. I don’t want to be getting in trouble with any parents.

Other than that, both classes had a tremendous number of questions about the writing life, how to revise, why I have so many pictures of Paris on my web site (I like to go there from time to time so I can look at old things), whether I draw pictures for the stories I submit (I don’t, but maybe I should), and why I’ve only written for TIME for grownups instead of TIME for Kids (I have nothing against kids, sir. It’s just how it worked out). One student even gave me a story idea to pitch: “Did you know there’s a tropical storm headed this way and I might not be able to play in my soccer tournament?”

It was a good, lively discussion and before I knew it, I was carefully navigating the sidewalks of downtown Baton Rouge with a pet fish. A big thank you to St. James Episcopal Day School for inviting me this morning and to all the wonderful and curious students who made the experience such a delight!



It Happened in Paris

Posted on September 13, 2013

The universe works in mysterious ways.

This story begins four years ago in a Parisian playground. My daughter was riding a weathered merry-go-round, and as I sat there watching her happy little freckled face, I quietly worried that maybe I wasn’t really good enough to make it as a writer. The market was just plain hard and I had begun to consider other things I could do.

I decided to go to graduate school and last fall I got my M.A. in Modern European History. During this period of much reading and footnoting, I rebuilt my self-confidence as I delved into the colorful life story of a nineteenth-century Parisian man. My goal was to take the work I had done in class and in dusty archives and turn it into a book.

This spring, I spent eight weeks working with the editor Jill Rothenberg on a proposal for this book that has consumed my brain for the past four years. I originally thought that this should be straight history/biography, but Jill encouraged me to infuse it with a little bit of memoir, because my journey toward this subject was obviously very personal and life-altering. I hemmed and hawed about this until I thought back to my thesis defense, which began with my advisor asking me to explain to my committee why I became interested in this subject. Jill said, “If you tell us why you fell in love with this person, we’ll fall in love with him too.”

Point made.

So I wrote a brand-spanking new first chapter, and when I was done it made me believe in myself and this book just a little bit more. It also made me grateful to have people in my life — like Jill and the aforementioned advisor — who can point me in the right direction.

I spent the summer revising my book proposal and quietly hoping that it would be good enough to attract an agent’s interest. When I was done revising and felt good about the work I had done, I went to Mignon Faget and bought myself a silver wishbone pendant.

And then I made a wish.

Late Monday night, I sent a query letter to a well-regarded agent and figured that would be the end of it. First thing Tuesday morning, this agent sent me an email asking for my proposal. Midday Wednesday she emailed again, saying she wanted to talk to me about representing me. After I peeled myself off the ceiling, after I scoured the house looking for the film crew from “Candid Camera,” after I realized that this was no joke, I realized that everything that has happened since I sat watching my daughter ride that merry-go-round in Paris four years ago was meant to be.

I am grateful for every last bit of it. And now I am going to do every single solitary thing my agent asks me to do, so I can make this dream of becoming a published author a reality. I hope you’ll join me on this journey. It has been a wonderful ride so far!


In Defense of Writing

Posted on October 4, 2012

I heard something I didn’t like this week.

Kids — especially grade school kids — don’t like to write.

Howwwww is this possssibbbblllllle???? I loved to write when I was a little kid!!!!

Apparently, loving writing makes me weird. Math is more fun for children because they’re solving puzzles and playing with little plastic sets of ten and sometimes even Gummi Bears, if they’re lucky. Writing involves too much memorization (i.e. spelling words) and rules, and requires just too much work in general.

In kidspeak, writing is what they call borrring.

This revelation emerged as a general aside during a parent-teacher conference I had this week. It had nothing to do with my own kid. Although I do know that good writing requires work, as a writer I’ve never perceived that my job is boring. I love what I do and am prepared to beat someone up after school (you heard me) in the interests of defending my craft. So, filled with more than a hint of righteous indignation, I asked the teacher if there was any way I could help her show kids why writing is a good thing, an important thing, and even . . . (wait for it) a fun thing. Although I’m not sure if she’ll take me up on it, she said yes, she’d like me to come in after the first of the year. The good thing about this is that it gives me plenty of time to construct some pro-writing propaganda about how writing is the best thing in the world, ever, so there. I’m in this to win hearts and minds, after all.

Rebecca Wallace-Seagall wrote an impassioned defense of creative writing classes in schools, drawing from her experience as executive director of New York City’s Writopia Lab, a nonprofit that runs writing workshops for children aged 8 to 18.  Wallace-Seagall’s piece is part of The Atlantic’s education series “Why American Students Can’t Write”. Over the next two years, public school students in 46 of 50 states will have a writing curriculum that favors clarity over self-expression and Wallace-Seagall believes that good writing in any genre requires logic and precision. She writes:

If young people are not learning to write while exploring personal narratives and short fiction, it is because we as educators need more training — or the specifics of the curriculum need more development. It is not because those forms of writing in themselves are of no use . . . Human beings yearn to share, reflect and understand each other, and they use these reflections to improve the state of things, both personal and public. If we want our students to have this kind of impact, we have to teach them how to express themselves with both precision and passion . . . where would we be as a nation if we graduate a nation of people who can write an academic paper on the Civil War but have no power to convey the human experience? If Frederick Douglass had stopped writing his narrative on slavery because he felt he could not be at once a lucid communicator and an expressive, emotional being, where would this world be?

Indeed, where would it be? I’m hoping I can do my part, in whatever little way, to help another generation care about words — how they feel on your tongue, how they look on the page and how they sound to your ears and heart when a little symphony spills from your pen.


Posted on April 15, 2012


Once upon a time, a friend of mine made a small fortune off selling Titanic-related shirts that said something like “It sank. Get Over It.” As evidenced by recent news coverage, television retrospectives and James Cameron’s re-release of “Titanic” in 3D, few people have gotten over the fact that the Titanic sank 100 years ago today. It’s a story that involves mind-boggling sums of money and human interest and tragedy (and so many other little kaleidoscopic shards). If you can disassociate the tale from the maddening Celine Dion tune that will be forever linked with it (and good luck with that, by the way), it is likely that you will find at least one of the many threads in this story fascinating.

When I began graduate school two years ago, I had a first semester project that involved reading at least two British newspapers from a specific month and year and crafting a story from the reports and ads that I saw. My assignment was April 1912. It did not take long for me to see the goldmine that resided in that particular month and year.

Per my paper, the story begins like this:

+Read more

C.S. Lewis

Posted on April 10, 2012

I’ve written here about that mythical day when I will be able to read things I want to read again without having to deconstruct any constructs or argue about any arguments. That mythical day is so close I can taste it and when it arrives it will be, let’s just say, a cause for celebration.

I took a grad school break today to read brainpickings, which is one of the few blogs I read. Today there is an interesting piece about C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children, a book full of his correspondence with the many kids who wrote him. Lewis’ letters are full of advice that is just as useful to adults (and hags like me who are more than ready to go back to the business of being human again) as it is to the little folks who read his Chronicles of Narnia.

In a 1949 letter, Lewis writes to a little girl named Sarah, explaining that “there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do:

+Read more

The Pachyderm Problem

Posted on May 4, 2010

The trouble with having my advisor read my blog is that he now sees fit to keep me honest.

To wit: In a recent post, I wrote “the education of young Paige begins.”

That, of course, prompted him to pick up the phone and remind me that I was not at all young.

Fair enough.

I will edit myself.

The education of this creaky old broad begins…

Happy now?


When I’m between stories or waiting for interviews or simply stumped, I like to take on foolhardy creative projects. Last week, while I was shopping for my daughter’s fifth birthday party, I thought “Wouldn’t it be a great idea to knit little baby toys for pregnant friends x, y and z?”

I thought it would be a stunning idea. Just brilliant.

Except the thing is, I’m the poster child for I can knit a scarf because it is flat and requires little thought. My mother thinks some of my scarves turn out pretty, or even stylish.

But she is my mother, so what do you expect her to say? That she doesn’t want my scarves anywhere near her precious neck?


Scarves are one thing and a perfect project for someone like me who is challenged in the needle arts. Knitting an actual animal shape that will be sewn and stuffed and detailed with embroidery and felt ears? Hm…I might have bitten off more than I can chew.

I bought this book called “Knitted Toys” and the patterns in it seemed pretty straightforward while I was browsing through it in the bookstore. So I blithely flipped to one page, decided “Okay, I will knit little elephants,” and went to the local yarn store to procure all the goods I’d need to do the deed.

I got home, I knitted a front leg. And then I knitted a back leg and connected it to the front. Then I knitted a trunk. Ha ha! I was on a roll. Then I connected the trunk to the rest of the body. Then I looked at the directions and couldn’t figure out why I was 35 rows into this beast and seven stitches short. I went back to the knitting store and asked them what the heck.

They told me I didn’t know how to count (which was probably a polite way of telling me I didn’t know how to knit, either). They also told me I needed to unravel my pachyderm and start over.

So I did.

And here’s where I am right now…elephant

Hopefully I will not have a tarantula when I’m done.