Our neighborhood

March 26, 2012

New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation…it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and most everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.

-E.B. White, Here is New York

One of my first (paranoid) weeks here, I just happened to google “NYC subway-related deaths.” I thought it would come up that there were maybe a few accidents a year. But much to my surprise, 4 people had died in subway accidents just that past weekend!!  4!! How did I not hear about that?! Now, I don’t know if this was an unusually high-risk weekend (I sure hope so), but I learned something from my google search: there is too much happening in New York to ever know exactly “what’s going on these days.”

E.B. White sees this ignorance as a necessary part of living here, though he acknowledges the fact that it might not be the best thing for us as humans. He says,

Perhaps it is healthier to live in a community where, when a cornice falls, you feel the blow; where, when the governor passes, you see at any rate his hat.

I think he might be right. Of course, that’s impossible in New York, and anyone who tries to keep up on everything going on probably just comes across as a wanna-be know-it-all. But I do think a lot of people here at least try to keep up with what’s going on in their neighborhoods–their “city within a city,” as White says–and that, I think, is admirable.

I have heard from a lot of NY natives that the area of New York where I live, Long Island City, is “up and coming.” Our apartment is right on the outskirts of Long Island City, within a stone’s throw of the Queensboro Bridge (which leads to Manhattan).

Since, we got to see a lot of the major sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn last weekend, Christian and I decided to lay low and look around our neighborhood in Queens for a change. (This decision was solidified after too many overwhelming hours spent looking for cheap for summer clothes in Manhattan one morning).

At first glance, our neighborhood isn’t the prettiest sight (though I have always loved all the different colors of graffiti… better than gray skyscrapers!), but it gets better the further you walk 🙂 In Astoria, just a 20 minute walk away, I found my new favorite place to write and eat, Communitea, and a retro 24-hour diner. (And my stomach is thankful: with a Dunkin Donuts half a block away, I am afraid I have eaten more donuts in the past two months than in the past 22 years combined.)

A lot of times I wish we were staying in a more residential area, but it’s still a really friendly part of town. All of our restaurant servers and bus drivers have been so kind, and our apartment ‘s doormen are awesome. I keep remembering that I will probably never live in a place like this again, so I really want to soak it up while I can. Unfortunately, now that Spring Break is over, I bet I won’t be venturing out too much for awhile…but that’s okay because a café just opened up RIGHT NEXT DOOR! Chocolate croissants here I come!


World building

March 25, 2012

“Our windows looked out on acres of rubble, broken brick and concrete and pulverized plaster. We grew more and more fascinated with this expanse of ruin, for it was not deserted. Underneath the rubble were cellars and holes, and in these holes many people lived. We would watch out of the windows of our room, and from behind a slightly larger pile of rubble would suddenly appear a girl, going to work in the morning, putting the last little touches to her hair with a comb. She would be dressed neatly, in clean clothes, and she would swing out through the weeds on her way to work. How they could do it we have no idea. How they could live underground and still keep clean, and proud, and feminine. Housewives came out of other holes and went away to market, their heads covered with white headcloths, and market baskets on their arms. It was a strange and heroic travesty on modern living.”

-John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal

This is the image that inspired (and is continuing to inspire) my writing project this semester (I would say “my novel” [which should really only be said in a deep voice, and pronounced naaaaah-vul], but that just sounds too hilarious, doesn’t it?!). I first read A Russian Journal in January of 2011, the winter after I visited Ukraine for a few weeks, and this paragraph has stuck in my mind ever since.

Tomorrow I will turn in 15,000 words of my project (77 pages!!! But it’s in Courier font, which is really spread out). One of the hardest parts about writing so far has been describing the world in which my story takes place. I have found some excellent articles on Kiev in the 1950s, and even a few pictures, but I am still unsure about so much. With each scene, I ask myself dozens of logistical questions that I do not have time to answer. Though I am continuing to research as I write, the pacing of the semester is much too fast for me to get all the facts (what things look like, how society works, etc) precisely right, and it drives me crazy!

Though really, even if I did get the facts right, I am still an American girl writing about a culture with which I have had very minimal interaction. That’s part of the fun for me, and it also helps me not take this project too seriously (which in turn helps me to be flexible enough to really listen to criticism).

But back to this thing called “world building.” At first I really envied the students in our program writing fantasy novels; since all of their material comes from their head, they don’t have to worry about describing something wrong. But then, after listening in on a few critiques, I have actually come to realize that dreaming up a world is HARD. You have to make all sorts of decisions about who has power and why they can maintain it, where societal rules come from, what motivates people to act the way they do…stuff like that. Let’s just say that while our teacher grilled one of the writers on the architectural structure of her city’s buildings, I was feeling pretty darn thankful that instead of creating the world of my project, I just get to learn about it.

And learning about post-World War II Soviet Union really is fascinating. Ukraine’s history is sad and so humbling (as you can tell by Steinbeck’s quote, many of Ukraine’s major cities were almost completely destroyed in the war*), but also really inspiring given where the country is today.

(* Surprisingly, it was the Soviet Union’s own army (not the Germans) that destroyed a lot of Ukraine. Stalin’s infamous “scorched earth” policy ordered that Ukraine’s rich resources either be brought to Russia or destroyed before the Germans could get a hold of them.)

And with that, a few pictures from my trip back in 2010:

P.S.  I have been waiting and waiting for this popular Ukrainian hairstyle (I call it the “can I get a side of fat rat tail please?”) to trend here in the U.S., but still no luck. (I am serious. I love this hair.)

The Chrysler Building from our rooftop binoculars (I'm sure there is another, more proper word for those things...).

“The future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time — for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.” 

-C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters 

I have been thinking a lot about the future lately. Where I want to live, what I want to do…

When we were sitting in Dumbo Park the other day, Christian and I were talking about how weird it would be to live in a place like New York City but never have the time to walk to a park, or putz around at a museum, or go to a play. To me, the dirty subway rides and crowded streets wouldn’t be worth it unless I got to see the good parts too.

Last week, a publishing assistant came to speak to our class about her day-to-day life. While a lot of her work sounds really exciting, I am slowly learning just how much the publishing world is not 9-5. In order to eventually build her own list of clients, our speaker explained that she not only takes home whatever manuscripts the editors at her house are currently reading, she also goes to these elaborate get-to-know-you events put on by networking associations…almost like group dating events, but to help editor-hopefuls establish professional connections. I had no idea this kind of thing existed! So not only is this assistant reading hundreds of pages of client work on nights and weekends, she is also going rock climbing with a bunch of strangers a few times a month! My introverted, homebody self was squirming in my seat at this news. (Does that phrase usually imply giddiness? I think it might. But mine were uncomfortable, queasy squirms).

And so, our speaker got me thinking…not just about what kind of career I want, but mainly about how much I want to work, and what other kinds of things I would like to make room for as well (keep reading and writing!  keep crafting! plant a garden!). I’m beginning to wonder if maybe I’d fit well in a plain old 9-5 job, something to pay the bills. Maybe in a bookstore or a boutique or a café (though I’m still open to living on a farm…). Being in New York has given me big dreams, I know 🙂

Of course, I have another year of college (and the rest of my life after that…duh) to think and pray and dream about it all, so I’m trying not to get ahead of myself. Even though sometimes it feels like I am falling behind, I know that’s only fear talking. So far, I have found that living present-mindedly is a really good way to avoid missing unexpected opportunities God might give, and to remind myself that my future is not just about what I want or what I think I need (I forget that a lot, unfortunately).

C. S. Lewis reminds me that it’s enough to be grateful for my semester here in the book world, and for all the time I have been given to explore — that the future is not promised, the present is a gift, and that I would do well to keep my eyes open.

The Museum of Natural History.

The Guggenheim.

The MET.

Recent travels

March 19, 2012

These past few weeks, I have finally gotten to explore other Burroughs besides Manhattan. I have taken some walks further into Queens (we are on the very edge, one Subway stop away from Manhattan), and found some gems (mostly food-related). The neighborhoods around us are really diverse and really friendly (not to mention much cheaper than Manhattan!).

Christian and I have also had a few meals with friends in Brooklyn, and we even got to eat/snoop around at an apartment there. Brooklyn reminds me of some Chicago neighborhoods, and I love it. The buildings are shorter, the cars honk less, and instead of the tacky souvenir shops that line the walk to our Chelsea studio, there are restaurants everywhere. It’s actually somewhere I could picture living.


Fajitas and cake at Julia's sister's Brooklyn apartment.

Two weekends ago our Contemporary Art Class took a field trip to Dia: Beacon, a 90 minute train ride from the city. The pieces at the museum were pretty minimalistic, but most of them were really cool because they were made specifically for the space. After seeing all the art, most of us just sat in the grass for an hour or so before heading back…I really miss grass!!

Walking to the Dia.

One of my favorite pieces inside the Dia. Working on an essay about it... art is confusing.

This past weekend was my favorite one so far in New York. We kicked off spring break with a visit from Christian’s brother and sister-in-law from North Carolina, and we had a blast exploring the city with them. We went to the MET and the MOMA, saw Spiderman on Broadway, walked the Highline and the Brooklyn Bridge, sat in the grass of Dumbo Park and Central Park, toured 30 Rock, rode the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, and ate SO MUCH good food. (I finally understand why NYC is known for its bagels!)

The Highline (an old suspended railway converted to a walkway/ park).

The Brooklyn Bridge. Though our feet were sore by this point, the views made our walk across go by so quickly. Also, thankful to report that we did not witness any biker vs. pedestrian brawls.

Dumbo park, under the Brooklyn Bridge. Loved watching all the little kids wrestling their parents here.

30 Rock. We watched 3 episodes when we got home that night, and squealed every time we saw something familiar. (Liz Lemon walks across the Brooklyn Bridge in one!)

The view from the Staten Island Ferry. Not bad for a free ride!

The Shake Shack...my new favorite! Their cheese fries were to die for. Also, they accidentally gave me a free burger! (Yes, I ordered cheese fries and a shake for dinner...)

One (or all) of us may have our eyes closed.

It is crazy how much we were able to pack into one weekend when traffic and parking weren’t factors (when Christian’s sister visited us in Southern California, we must’ve spent 3-4 hours in the car everyday). The Subway is kind of growing on me. (Also, New York has turned me into a dirtier person in general, because I have stopped using anti-bacterial hand gel 15 times a day).

This week, I’m really excited to explore some more the rest of break (and hopefully finish the 15,000 words of my novel due Monday!). On a side-note, my new favorite thing to do: sit in a coffee shop and watch all the “toddler trains” dawdling past. Local day-care centers have the kids hold these rings along a rope when they go for a walk, so it’s kind of like watching a giant millipede inch along the street. Today, I was close enough to get the stink-eye from one of the cuties.

A Happy First

March 1, 2012

The view from my boss's office! I got to work in here one day when there was construction in the intern room.

Today at my internship, I got to recommend my first book!

When I’m not reading queries (aka the letters and samples writers send us in the hopes that our agents will represent their work) from the slush pile (aka unsolicited queries aka letters from strangers…I just love book-world jargon, don’t you?), I get to read entire manuscripts that have made it past the querie level, and then write up a reader’s report explaining why I think our agency should represent the book or pass. Then, an agent reads my report and the original manuscript (unless it’s a clear pass), and decides whether they want to represent the book or not.*

Let’s just say that not a lot of slush-pile queries make it to the manuscript stage, and not a lot of manuscripts get recommended. So, a lot of my day is spent sending rejection e-mails, which can be a downer. It’s really cool (and occasionally disturbing) to see the topics people are willing to spend years of their lives researching and writing about, and really exciting to see that there are still so many genuine and humble people out there who love to write. It’s just not so exciting to be the one who makes their day a little worse with a rejection. (Also, isn’t it crazy that a [never published] 22-year-old intern like myself has the power to reject? Of course, it’s the only way a small agency with dozens of queries a day can stay afloat, but still.)

ANYWAY, today I turned in my first reader’s report recommending our agency represent a manuscript I was in charge of reading! (I have written 7 non-recommendation reports so far). I have been reading this manuscript (a magic-realism novel) for the past few days and was so excited today when I liked the ending just as much as the beginning! Realistically, I would be surprised if the agency ultimately decided to represent this book…not because they won’t take my report into consideration, but because there are so many other factors involved, especially with this particular project. Even so, it feels great to finally do my little part in propelling someone’s dream forward.

*I actually was never clear on the whole how-a-word document-becomes-a-book process until I started applying for internships. Most authors choose to work with agents because agents have much better access to publishers than the average Joe, and will use their connections to find the best fit for a book. Of course, some people just skip finding an agent and send queries straight to a publisher (and then the interns at the publisher’s office sort through their slush pile just like I do).