Family Dinner

Operation Family Dinner: The First Forkful

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling AuthorAnyone who thinks that the year starts in January doesn’t have school-age children.  The rest of us understand that September is the month of fresh starts, clean slates and ambitious resolutions.  And this year, I’m tackling family dinner.

My kids are the worst eaters.  Really.  I know people say that, and then it turns out they mean that their kids don’t eat raw sushi, only vegetarian rolls and shrimp.  That’s not what I mean.  I mean that in my house, bacon is a food group.  I mean that my kids don’t eat pasta.  I mean that they only eat pepperoni pizza from one delivery joint.  It’s serious.  Not to mention shameful for an avowed foodie and reasonably serious home cook like me.

So this September, after years of resistance, we are embracing family dinner.  We commenced a negotiation with our children (aged 10 and 6) to arrive at a menu for Week 1.  As a starting point, I pulled out Lucinda Scala Quinn’s cookbook, Mad Hungry.  “I will cook anything in this book,” I declared.

We started with penne and meatballs.  The boys helped me make the meatballs, which were, it must be said, magnificent looking.  Does it matter that the boys looked as though they had been stuck with cattle prods as they choked down the requisite number of bites (two meatballs for one; five pieces of penne for the other)?  Does it matter that we resorted to bribery (“I’ll give you a dollar if you eat five more pieces.” “No, thanks. Not worth it.”)?

No.  What matters is that they both ate a plate of lettuce to avoid eating any more penne and meatballs.  Lettuce!  That’s a win.

Stay tuned.  Macaroni and cheese is coming up next.

Family Dinner, Working Motherhood

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling AuthorOur guidebook advises that Panzano is the loveliest hill town in Chianti, and we see no reason to disagree.  Perched high above a valley dotted with olive groves and vineyards, Panzano is note-perfect, right down to the clusters of local men who sit in the town square drinking and gossiping all afternoon and rising only occasionally to ring in sales for tourists.  Nevertheless, Panzano’s charm is just gravy on the main attraction: we’re here to see the butcher.

Much has been written about Dario Cecchini, arguably the most famous butcher in the world.  A passionate advocate of forgotten and unappreciated cuts (think beef knees), Cecchini believes in using and enjoying the whole animal.  Thanks to Bill Buford’s memoir Heat, which dedicated several chapters to the charismatic and volatile butcher, the Antica Macelleria Cecchini has become a required stop for North American foodies in Tuscany.

My husband, Rob, has planned our trip so that we can sample the five-course beef tasting menu at Officina della Bistecca, one of the three restaurants that Cecchini operates within steps of his shop.  “The first course is beef tartare,” he tells me.  “The second course is beef tartare that’s been passed near a flame.”  Shortly before we leave for Italy, while trolling Cecchini’s website in anticipation, he realizes that we can do more that just eat in Panzano; we can work at the butcher shop for the day.  “We get a souvenir apron!” Rob tells me.

All travel involves some compromise between spouses.  I, for example, am making Rob rent a car and navigate roundabouts, an activity that nearly ended our marriage a decade ago.  So I’m prepared to accumulate some goodwill at the butcher shop.  I tell Rob to book it.

When we arrive, we meet Cecchini’s wife, Kim, an American who has lived in Italy for 25 years and Cecchini himself. Apparently, very few people sign up for Butcher for a Day, and they seem genuinely delighted to have us there.  Kim gives us our schedule: a tour of the meat locker and the restaurant kitchen, followed by some hard labor making sausages in the shop.

At the meat locker, we are handed off to Liam, an apprentice butcher from Saskatoon, who has a tattoo on his neck of a heart wreathed in sausages: he’s obviously committed to the project. Liam is spending a year in Europe, refining his culinary techniques, and hopes to return home to Canada eventually and open a French restaurant in Montreal.  For now, he takes us into the cold room where four men stand around a table, butchering huge slabs of meat with elegant efficiency.  It’s fascinating, and oddly peaceful to watch.  Liam introduces us, and adds that Orlando, the eldest in the group, has been a butcher for 60 years.  “He taught Dario’s father,” Liam tells us.

Liam asks what brings us here, and I mention Buford’s book.  Orlando (lionized in Heat as ‘the Maestro’) pauses for a moment, raises an eyebrow, and then continues gliding his knife over the filet that is emerging from the carcass on the table.  I think I’ll keep the fact that I’m a writer to myself.  The knives are remarkably sharp.

Next, we stop in at the kitchen to watch Simonetta making olive oil cakes.  Actually, she is making batter for four cakes, each the size of a manhole cover.  Anyone who has slaved over a cake only to watch it collapse knows that you deviate from a baking recipe at your peril.   The ‘recipe’ for this cake, though, is entirely in Simonetta’s head, and begins with 90 eggs, a few macerated oranges and three kilos of sugar.   At one point, she declares that the batter requires an additional kilo of sugar.  When I ask how she knows, she shrugs and tells me she can ‘feel’ it as she whisks.  Then she adds most of a cask of olive oil and something in the neighborhood of three-quarters of a bottle of Italian brandy, and sprinkles a few pine nuts on top: “Not too many; they’re expensive.”  Later, I confide to Kim that I think Simonetta is a genius.  Kim agrees, and tells me the recipe changes every time, but is always delicious.

Now we are deemed ready to make sausages.  We put on our aprons.  Miko, our supervisor, pours two huge bags of ground pork on a marble table along with a considerable amount of minced garlic and indicates that we should start kneading it.  When this is done to his satisfaction, he leads us back to Dario for the preparation of the final ingredient.  Dario pours salt and pepper into a bowl and begins working the mixture with one hand.  After a minute or so, he holds it out for us to smell, and it is astonishing: the heat of the hand-mixing has added a hint of something smokier, more complex.  Are there other ingredients?  Cecchini nods.  “Amore!” he says, “Passione!” We take the magic elixir, and return to our station to stuff and tie the sausages into links.

We lunch at the communal table upstairs, gorging ourselves on porchetta and Tuscan meatloaf, not to mention the spectacular olive oil cake.  As we stop by the shop on our way out, Miko is behind the counter, selling our sausages.  Dario presents us with our aprons, which he signs with a flourish, and embraces us when we tell him what a wonderful day we’ve had.  As we leave, we hear the American tourists behind us negotiating for the purchase of an apron.  “You can’t buy them,” Kim says firmly.  “You have to earn them.”

The Writing Life

Summer Reading: Lean In, The Fault In Our Stars and The Interestings

Kate Hilton, Best Selling Author, The Hole in the Middle, Book Club, Book ClubsI went to a high school that assigned summer reading.  This was fortunate, since I was the kind of high school student who absolutely adored being assigned summer reading.  Often, I read everything on the list of options provided by the school, although I was only required to read a selection.  Now that I have sons, I recognize this behavior as unusual, but at the time it seemed perfectly normal, part of the natural rhythm of summer.

Upon our return, during the first week of school, we would be asked to write an essay that linked overarching themes of the various, otherwise unconnected novels, together.  This summer, I have midlife disappointment on my mind, since it is one of the themes of my own novel, The Hole in the Middle (coming out in December 2013).  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that my brain has been teasing midlife themes out of all of the books I’ve been reading.

First out of the gate for comment is Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.  I confess that I’ve been surprised by the furor that has erupted over the book.  I don’t think it says anything revolutionary, and I very much doubt that Sandberg does either.  If you’ve had even glancing contact with any feminist theory over the past twenty years (and most people who studied liberal arts at a university during this period have), the ideas articulated here won’t surprise you.  The freshness comes from the biographical details of Sandberg’s journey to the top echelons of business, rather than from the social science evidence that she uses to bolster her arguments.

Sandberg has an appealing voice, and she makes some pithy observations that have stayed with me.  For example, I loved her comparison of careers to marathons, where male runners are encouraged to keep going and make it to the finish line, while female runners are told not to push themselves so hard.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve been told – mostly by people who love me and want the best for me – that I need to relax, enjoy life more and generally be less busy.  But I’m not happy unless I’m busy (see Leah Eichler’s article ‘Is being super busy so bad?’), so my challenge is to find a way to channel enough energy into realizing my professional ambitions without having the rest of my life come crashing down.

In some ways, the most interesting thing about Sandberg’s book has been the reaction to it.  Sandberg doesn’t think that her advice applies to all women.  She is speaking to a specific demographic: highly educated and ambitious women who choke off their leadership potential through their own choices – choices that Sandberg argues are often premature or unnecessary.  These years matter to whatever legacy you want to leave behind you, she argues, and in this she is absolutely right.  Yes, they are hectic and overwhelming and defined largely by other people’s needs.  But if women consistently curtail their own ambitions, they are likely to feel unfulfilled and resentful by the time their kids need them less (which may be never, according to people I know with adult children).

What legacy do you want to leave behind you?  This question is central to The Fault In Our Stars, a young adult love story about kids dying of cancer.  I don’t normally read YA, and I’m glad I didn’t realize that this novel was classified as such before I picked it up, because it’s just a very good book about the big ideas that matter at every stage of life.  Hazel and Augustus have both had close brushes with death when they meet in a cancer support group.  They are both startlingly intellectual and unsentimental about their experiences (in contrast to Augustus’s parents, who decorate their home with embroidered ‘encouragements’).

Hazel is living on borrowed time.  Augustus, on the other hand, is in remission.  This gives him the luxury of worrying about the mark he wants to leave on the world.  Hazel, on the other hand, is only concerned with doing no harm.   She won’t eat animals, in order to minimize the number of deaths she is responsible for.  She resists a relationship with Augustus, since the parental grief she will leave behind is already more responsibility than she wants.   Hazel insists that a small life can be a life well-lived, and that the only mark that matters is the one we leave on those who have loved us.

But not everyone is a Hazel.  In The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer introduces a group of talented teenagers at Spirit-in-the-Woods, a summer camp for the arts.  All of them are special, even gifted; and all of them long to stand out as ‘interesting’ in the wider world of adulthood.  Alone among them, Ethan Figman, a cartoonist, will enjoy artistic and material success.  His wife, Ash Wolf, will benefit from his status and wealth, which she will leverage into a respected career as the artistic director of a feminist theatre.  But Jules Jacobson, the central character of the novel, will abandon her dreams of becoming a comedic actress and instead become a psychotherapist married to a depressive ultrasound technician.

As the characters age, and enter the difficult territory of middle-age, Jules is tormented by envy.  She is smart, witty and driven, but she realizes that these qualities aren’t enough to set her apart.  However large her dreams, it is obvious now that they won’t come true, and she is crushingly disappointed.  Her life is a small one, and unlike Hazel, she cannot be satisfied with it.

I think Sandberg might say that Jules needs to lean in, to let go of the unrealistic dreams of youth and invest in a career that plays to her manifold strengths.  Her patients think that she is a good therapist, we are told, but Jules seems oddly disengaged from her job, resigning it entirely at one point to return to Spirit-in-the-Woods for a short and ill-considered stint as Camp Director.  Undoubtedly, she has not had the luck that her friends have had (Ethan’s genius, Ash’s beauty and wealth) but neither has she pursued professional success in the way that Ethan and Ash have done, and it is this failure that has made her life less interesting.

All in all, I think these books would make for a kick-ass essay, if I were returning to high school this fall (with extra points assigned for providing a midlife interpretation of a YA novel).  And now, I’m going to cleanse my palate with a little genre fiction.  Happy summer reading!

The Writing Life

What it Takes to be a Writer

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, Book Club, Book ClubsWhen I started writing my novel, I was truly terrified.  This was partly because I had worked briefly in the book business in my twenties and had enough knowledge about the industry to see that the likelihood of publication was remote.  Also, I had enough self-knowledge to recognize my intense aversion to failure and rejection, both of which are the constant companions of aspiring writers.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this.  I was rejected a lot, and not always nicely.  I was raised right, so I’m not going to name names, but among the many indignities I suffered, one agent declared: “Some people have difficulty writing in the first person.  Perhaps you are one of those people.”  He then proceeded to read to me (for half an hour) from several first-person writers on his list, in the hope that I might benefit from the example of their superior writing. It’s a measure of how much I wanted to write my book that I persisted.

If you are going to be a writer, you will need to be resilient.  You will need to cultivate self-knowledge and as much objectivity about your writing as you can muster, so that you can make wise assessments about the criticism you receive.  You will need to have faith – and I use this word deliberately – that your work deserves a wider audience.  Many days, this faith will seem irrational and misguided.  Nevertheless, you must nurture it.

I am a lawyer by training, so faith is not easy for me.  I am, however, good at assignments.  As part of my women’s networking group, I was assigned a personal manifesto.  The one I created is a collection of statements that remind me how I want to live and who I want to be.  I referred back to my manifesto many times throughout my book project, and it reminded me to finish what I’d started, to be courageous, to enjoy the process, to share my writing with others and to be proud of my work.  So in that spirit, I share my personal manifesto with you.  Use it to create one of your own, and see where it takes you.

  1. Do what you say you are going to do.
  2. Joy is not a luxury.
  3. Be honest, with yourself above all.
  4. Count your blessings.  They are many.  Be grateful.
  5. Connect.
  6. Remember: Courage is not the towering oak that sees storms come and go; it is the fragile blossom that opens in the snow.
  7. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  8. Be generous in all things.
  9. If you aren’t scared, you aren’t growing.
  10. Breathe.
  11. You have time.  The rest is still unwritten.
  12. There is only one true inner voice.  Trust it.  It has never let you down.


The Writing Life, Together

How About We All Stop Dumping on Genre Fiction?

A young woman reading, RomeI read a lot.  This year, I’ll read at least 150 books, and I’ll enjoy most of them.  I’ll read literary fiction, certainly. I’m in a book club that reads novels by Booker prize winners and those shortlisted for the prize.  In addition, I’ll try to sample a good selection of critic’s choices from the New York Times and various other ‘best-of’ lists.

And I’ll read a ton of genre fiction.  Mostly, if you ask what I’m reading, I’ll tell you about the literary fiction.  I won’t tell you about the raft of paranormal romances, young adult, police procedurals and adult contemporary titles on my e-reader.  That’s because you’ll judge me.  Admit it.

As for you, you’ll admit to checking out Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, just to keep abreast of popular culture.  You’ll tell everyone who asks that the writing in them is terrible and you can’t understand why they took the publishing world by storm.  Secretly, though, you’ll stay up late devouring every page, just like the rest of us.

I get it.  I’m fairly impervious to the judgments of others on most things, but not on matters of literary taste.  But since I started writing myself, I’ve started to appreciate the unique talents of genre writers.  So let me make this argument in defense of genre fiction and the fine writers who produce it.  Literary fiction is designed to make us think.  Genre fiction is designed to make us feel.  There are excellent writers in both categories, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying both.

Let me make an analogy to food, which is the only art form, other than writing, where I can boast any personal talent.  At one of America’s great restaurants, I once ate a tiny cube of distilled cucumber gelatin that made me view the delicate flavor of the vegetable in an entirely new way.  It was an amazing culinary experience.  Great works of literary fiction do something similar.  They make us see our familiar world in a new and fascinating light.

But I don’t want to eat cucumber gelatin every day.  Sometimes, I’m in the mood for a gutsy lasagna or a roast chicken or a gooey chocolate chip cookie.  These foods are predictable but never disappointing.  They nourish and comfort without surprising us.  And this is what great genre fiction does.  We don’t have to worry that the boy will get the girl, or that the murderer will be apprehended or that the sex will be hot.  We know and that’s part of what we enjoy.

So go ahead.  Devour fiction in all its many forms.  I won’t judge you.


Together, Work-Life Balance, Working Motherhood

My (First) Midlife Crisis

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, Book Club, Book ClubsTowards the end of my thirties, I experienced a period of professional malaise.  By ‘professional malaise’ I mean that I was threatening to quit every few days.  Since most of my threats were issued at home, the only person who was actually affected by them was my husband, but I think it’s fair to say that I diminished his quality of life.

I have held many different jobs.  I’ve been a fiction editor, a secretary, an adjudicator, a litigation lawyer-in-training, a university administrator and a fundraiser.  I know how to gut it out.  I once won a national trial advocacy competition while in the grips of a serious public-speaking phobia.  (That’s how I figured out that I didn’t want to be a litigator.  But I digress.)

The hardest thing I’ve ever done professionally is to try to raise fifty million dollars for a capital campaign in the middle of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.  This is what I was doing when my midlife crisis hit.  Many have suggested that I am a bit young to refer to 40-ish as ‘midlife’.  I note that all of these people are baby boomers.

Raising a massive amount of money in a dire economy is like climbing up a sheer rock face with your fingernails.  (I imagine.  I have tried many things in my life, but not this.)  Every inch is agonizing, takes all of your effort and leaves you bleeding.  And then people come by and say things like, “Wow, you really aren’t making much progress, are you?  Maybe you aren’t very good at rock climbing.  Maybe you should hire a professional rock climber.  There’s probably a reason why professional rock climbers are men.  They’re stronger, right?  And better?  So you should think about hiring one of those rock climbers.  I’d love to help you, but I’m fully committed to supporting other, more successful rock climbers, or I would be if the economy weren’t so lousy.  So let me know when you get close to the top, and then we’ll talk.”

As I may have mentioned, I dabbled in feminist theory in the early nineties.  I am therefore well-equipped to identify subtle and unspoken forms of discrimination.  But these skills were not required.  No one was being remotely subtle.  They just came right out and said things like, “You need to be realistic.  You’re out of your depth here.   You’re too nice for this.  You need someone who can shake people down.  You should talk to [fill in name of powerful male with no professional fundraising experience].  He knows how to do this stuff.”

I am pretty nice.  If you met me, you would think so.  Most people do.  I have good social skills.  But these experiences didn’t make me feel nice.  They made me feel angry.  Feeling angry, in turn, made me feel uncomfortable.

I suspect this is because I’m a girl.  Despite all of my years of feminist theory, I consider anger to be an inappropriate emotion.  I’m more of a crier than a yeller.  I tend to turn negative feelings inward.  I rarely raise my voice unless I believe that people can’t hear me (literally, not metaphorically).  But now I was steaming.

My friend Bronwen is a couple of years older than I am.  We have been friends for more than twenty years and have seen each other through some major life events – marriage, divorce, crippling heartbreak, the loss of a parent, a near-fatal medical crisis and the births of our children.  We know where the scars are.

I took her out for a drink in a hotel bar, and I told her my troubles.  Was it me, I wanted to know?  Was I doing something wrong?

“No,” she said, “It’s not you.”  She leaned forward and looked me in the eye.  “They’re called the Fucking Forties for a reason, Kate.  Every woman I know is pissed off as hell.” We drained our drinks.  And then we ordered another round.

And then I went out and raised $50 million.

I don’t know if this story has a moral.  When I first posted this story, it was gently suggested to me that I take it down because it might embarrass people.  So I did, but it bothered me.  Because here’s the thing:  I think people should feel embarrassed when they tell women that they aren’t up to the job by virtue of being women.  It’s not OK.  And my not telling anyone about it suggests that I accept it.  I don’t.  And that’s why I’m posting this blog.

Mid-Life, Work-Life Balance

5 Easy Ways to Take the Edge Off Your Midlife Crisis

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, Book Club, Mid-Life Crisis, Mid life crisisI love women’s magazines that offer five-step solutions to all of life’s problems.  A Better Sex Life!  A Trendier Spring Wardrobe!  A Hotter Marriage! A More Fulfilling Career!  As a veteran self-improver, I find articles like these almost irresistible.

In that vein, I propose the following five (easy) ways to take the edge off your midlife crisis.  There are undoubtedly harder and more radical ways to fix what ails you, such as therapy, divorce, quitting your job and so on.  These suggestions are more in the nature of short-term triage – like a new spring scarf or a fresh recipe for quinoa salad.  And they work!

1. Take Up A Sport.  I know.  I can’t believe I’m suggesting this either.  Up until recently, I’d never so much as attended a swim meet.  But if you are in your forties, you are probably grappling with some unsettling physical limitations that are cropping up like bad weeds.  Twinges in your back, bad knees, an odd foot problem…it’s mildly embarrassing, isn’t it?  Knowing that your body is on the slippery slope to hip replacements and arthritis?  Taking up a new sport and improving at it is an effective psychological counter-measure.  I, for example, play tennis, which allows me to hit things really hard in a socially-appropriate context.  Arguably I’m only hurrying myself down the slope by courting new injuries, but it feels really good in the moment.

2. Embrace Your Creative Side.  Write.  Paint.  Learn the piano.  Take Irish step dancing.  Exploring your creativity is an incredible outlet for all of the anxiety and confusion that attend a midlife crisis.  And it fends off Alzheimer’s.

3. Hang Out With Other Women.  Find communities of women that nourish you.  I have a bunch of them:  a book club, a tennis group, a professional advisory group (like a career cabinet) and a monthly dinner club (more on that later).  I spend time with younger women who remind me that I’m happy not to have very young children anymore; and I spend time with older women who reassure me that this too shall pass.  And of course, I spend time with women who are in exactly the same boat, which makes me feel normal.

4. Make A Wild and Permanent Gesture of Size.  Do you remember Heartburn, that barely-fictionalized memoir of marriage breakdown by the late, great Nora Ephron?  God, she was fabulous.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Rachel,” said Richard, “it had nothing to do with how much you cooked for him.  It had nothing to do with how much you wanted to be a couple.  It had nothing to do with you.”

“It must have had something to do with me,” I said.

“Why?” said Richard.

“Because if it didn’t, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“That’s my point,” said Richard.

“I know that’s your point,” I said, “but I can’t accept it.”

“Well, if you ever do,” said Richard, “you ought to do what I did.  I feel much, much better.”

“Are you suggesting that I ask someone I’m not in love with to marry me and then jump into the seal pond?” I said.

“I’m suggesting that you make a wild and permanent gesture of size,” said Richard, “and mine was to ask you to marry me and jump into the seal pond.  Yours can be anything you want.”

“The only wild and permanent gesture of size that has ever crossed my mind,” I said, “is to have my hair cut.”

Wild and permanent gestures of size come in varying degrees of wildness, permanence and size.  Some of the most extreme ones are beyond the scope of these 5 Easy Ways (see above).  But there are some interesting possibilities in the middle of the range, between a haircut and a divorce, let’s say, that may be profoundly satisfying.  If you’re into physical improvements, you could straighten your teeth, get or remove a tattoo, or try laser hair removal (No More Shaving For The Rest Of Your Life!).  On the psychic improvement side, you could ditch that old high school friend you haven’t liked for years, or quit that volunteer board with the meetings that you fake illness to avoid every month.  You get the idea – small scale enhancements with long term benefits.

5. Start An Outrage-Of-The-Month Club.  I admit it.  This whole blog has been a thinly-veiled excuse to tell you about my OOTMC.  It’s one of the best things in my life, and I want to share the joy.  Credit for the OOTMC goes to my friend Sara, who used to work at a really dysfunctional institution where all anyone ever did was talk about how terrible it was to work there.  She and her friends banded together and made a solemn agreement to save all of their complaints for one monster bitch session at the end of the week.  The person with the most outrageous tale of anti-social behavior in the workplace got a free drink.  How brilliant is that?

My own OOTMC is a dinner club.  There are four of us, and we only ever meet with a full complement.  If someone is sick, we reschedule.  We eat, we drink, and each of us presents an outrage for consideration – a story that we believe will secure our position as the most downtrodden, maligned or otherwise insulted member of the group.  It’s absolutely hilarious and we almost laugh ourselves sick every time.  And the best part?  No matter what obnoxious thing befalls you over the course of the month, there’s always a silver lining: you just might get a free dinner out of it.

Mid-Life, The Writing Life

My Secret Life as an Indie Writer

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, The Scar Project, Book Club, Breast CancerI didn’t set out to become an indie writer.  I’m not a particularly ‘indie’ person.  Although you can probably tell that by the way I just put ‘indie’ in quotation marks.

For the most part, I’ve led a fairly mainstream life.  With the exception of some angst-fuelled years as an English Lit major, this has suited me.  My CV impresses people.  I have a couple of good degrees, professional qualifications and a title that looks fancy on a business card.  I have the best marriage I know of, and some lovely kids. I am proud of these things.

I was therefore extremely surprised when I had a midlife crisis.

It hit with a vengeance right around my thirty-eighth birthday.  I didn’t see it coming.  I’d noticed that some of my girlfriends – notably the ones edging into their forties – seemed angrier than usual.  They were taking on self-improvement projects, such as straightening their teeth and training for marathons and getting therapists.

None of these projects were on my bucket list.  I suffered through many teenage years of hideous orthodontics.  I almost pass out if I run for the bus.  I have an innate suspicion of any stranger who wants to talk about my feelings.  One day, however, leaving coffee with yet another friend high on the power of midlife transformation, I wondered silently if I harbored any such goals.  You want to write a book, my inner voice screamed.  It screamed.  It stopped me dead.  I could not have been more surprised.

Despite my general pragmatism, I am a big believer in the inner voice.  Undoubtedly, I read Gloria Steinem’s Revolution from Within at an impressionable age.  Which, if you were not in a Women’s Studies program in the early nineties and somehow missed it, ends on the following note:

We are so many selves.  It’s not just the long-ago child within us who needs tenderness and inclusion, but the person we were last year, wanted to be yesterday, tried to become in one job or in one winter, in one love affair or in one house where even now, we can close our eyes and smell the rooms.  What brings these ever-shifting selves of infinite reactions and returnings is this: There is always one true inner voice.  Trust it.

My own inner voice is very selective.  It rarely makes an appearance.  When it does, I am generally on the precipice of an extremely bad decision (like the time I nearly moved in with someone who didn’t understand the difference between a cathedral ceiling and an attic) or a major life change (like the time I chose law school over grad school, or the moment when a friend became my future husband).  I consider its advice to be infallible.  To say I was shocked to hear it weigh in on the book issue would be an understatement.  I took it seriously.

I started scribbling ideas in a little pink notebook that I carried around in my purse.  I filled it.  I ripped out an old kitchen in my house and turned it into an office.  I asked for a used laptop for Christmas.  My very nice husband gave me a new one.  I got a babysitter to come on Sunday afternoons and I started writing for three hours a week.  I wrote on the subway.  I wrote after the kids went to bed.  I wrote on vacation.

I produced a first draft, and gave it to a few trusted friends to read.  They told me to keep going.  I produced a second draft and gave it to more friends to read.  They told me that they dreamed about my book, that it made them laugh and that they forced their dinner guests to listen to passages from it.  I started working four days a week so that I could write on Fridays instead of Sundays.

And the whole time, I was absolutely terrified.  An alternate version of my self – one that I had abandoned years ago in the long march toward sensible adulthood – was waking up, and it was taking charge.