stuff that's happening.


LETTER TO A STRANGER: ROCAMADOUR, FRANCE.

Published by Off Assignment, Spring 2016. Read full essay here. Listen on Soundcloud here.

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Now, I just had to look up. I just had to look up and not immediately down. I had to lift my eyes from your feet, shut up about red shoelaces, shut up. And because a younger me would scampered off fast and regretted it faster, I felt dared.

"Letter to a Stranger" goes live. 

It’s a platform for reflective travel writing. With travel media getting more and more commercial, it’s nice to have a place where professionals can get into the real stories inherent in a foreign encounter. It’s retro and forward-thinking in the right ways. The Letters to a Stranger section is equally heartwarming and haunting. The Triptionary section makes for a lunch-break laugh.
— -Fathomaway, Best Travel Blogs and Websites of 2017, quoting editors of Jungles in Paris

Thanks to the might and brilliance of Off Assignment managing editor Katy Osborn, we launched our first series of essays, "Letter to a Stranger," featuring stunning essays by Lauren Groff, Howard Axelrod, Julia Glass, Aviya Kushner, Lucas Mann, Leslie Jamison, Ted Conover, Amy Belk, Sheba Karim, Caroline Lester, and so many others! I'm crazy proud of this emerging (and ever-growing) collection. Sign up for the "Dear Stranger" newsletter to get the latest. Great essays just ahead from Melissa Febos, Craig Mod....


Motivational Millenial: Podcast

A meaty chat with Blake Brandes and Ivy LaClair for their new podcast, "Motivational Millennial." Believe no more than 43% of the things I said. Multi-task during the others.

Blake Brandes! How fun are you! So fun. 

Blake Brandes! How fun are you! So fun. 


No Turning Back: 180 Days at Sea.

Oh sweet semester. Sweet semester of so much sea! Pacific: you were my favorite; Atlantic, you put me in a mood. Storms: you could have been fiercer. Food: you couldn't have sucked harder. Grace: your notebooks! Erik: dude. Ostriches and Basils and pirate radios. Scott: if there's a book, you're the midwife its zillion trillion terrifying excess of pages. Pray with me now.


New Essay in VQR: "A Long Night's Journey Into Spring"

God Bless Alison Wright, VQR editor, for trimming down a monster of an essay into this feature in the "Food" issue of VQR. Click here for the full read. And god bless YOU for reading! VQR online claims that'll take 41 minutes. That's a Mad Men episode. You rock. 


Semester at Sea.

UVA recently sent us a newsletter with this photo. It thrills and scares me.

UVA recently sent us a newsletter with this photo. It thrills and scares me.

Our final itinerary was just announced. It goes like this:

San Diego ---> Hawaii ---> Japan---> China---> Hong Kong---> Singapore---> Vietnam---> Burma---> India---> MAURITIUS---> South Africa---> Namibia---> Morocco---> England.

I've bolded Mauritius because that's the place I'm most keen to go. I'd love if someone came to meet me in Mauritius. By then, I'll have been at sea for two months. How many dramamine pills will that be? How many faculty lounge cocktails? Will the two mix?? 


The Innocent Abroad

I've wanted to be in a Don George Lonely Planet anthology since I was like 10. Okay, since I was 24. But still. When Don asked me to be a part of his next book, I tried not to yell my yes.

The Innocent Abroad will soon be on shelves. It features essays by Dave Eggers, Cheryl Strayed, Tim Cahill, Mary Karr, Richard Ford, Simon Winchester Sloane Crosley, Pico Iyer, Ann Patchett, Jane Smily and Many More Illustrious Writers Who Will Wonder Who I am and Why My Essay's Alongside Theirs. Hi guys.

My essay's called "Wonder Train," and it's  about two eerie days spent wandering around Batopilas, an old silver mining town wedged into the canyon country of Northern Mexico. 

"Ouching across the bed of stones, we forded the Batopilas River, finding on the other bank a stone wall, cascading with the roots of two trees: one the creamiest yellow, the other smoke-grey. The trees knit their tips together in a way so consummate and deliberate and tender it was impossible not to lend them personas. Old lovers had slipped into the tendrils of these riverfront trees, choosing the near-eternity of wood over gravestone marble. I knew Jose Luis was seeing the same thing – anyone would, certainly a poet – and I wished, not for the last time, that I was making this journey with someone I loved."                                                                                
- "Wonder Train"

Best American Women's Travel Writing - Volume 10

Powerhouse Lavinia Spalding has done it again. The editor of this year's collection of womens' travel writing, Lavinia is a master curator of stories and voices. I'm tickled that my essay "Private Lessons" made the Lavinia cut. It's a portrait of an American belly dancer in Cairo, who I trailed around in 2010. This meant enrolling in her belly dancing class, where I promptly humiliated myself, and joining Aleya and her night owl friends for a late, late, LATE night at the cabarets. A full album of photos here.

"Aleya climbs up on stage, looking just as mirthful as she did in her private class—same wide grin—but she might as well be dancing alone in her bedroom, the only mirror in her mind’s eye. I watch, mesmerized by Aleya, nervous for Aleya, smiling with Aleya. I can’t watch her dance without a grin, without wondering, too, how the attention of this cabaret feels. If she’s affected, she doesn’t let on. Raqs sharqi is danced as though alone; belly dancers occupy a false vacuum, a snow globe no one can see in, blurred by squalls of cash. Everyone who climbs on stage—even the show-offs, even the women for sale—succeeds in making it look like a dance for themselves alone, leaving us free to stare through the flying money at bare flesh. 
Money falls in our laps, on our heads, in the folds of our clothes. More often, it scatters under our chairs and tables. I see now why the money-collectors are boys; they climb under our tables like monkeys, reaching and snatching without a peep, without a bump. Only late in morning, when the fruit platters and nut bowls on our table have all been buried at least twice in cash (and I have to remind myself that snacking on guava slices and cashews is sort of like licking ten pound notes by now, so how about we stop) am I more or less accustomed to it."
Full essay here.

Travel Writing - France

Imagine my relief when all 14 of the students signed up for my Yale Summer Session travel writing course showed up at the Toulouse airport. And imagine my delight when all 14 of them turned out to be delightful. Not a diva in the group. No one even abused their European right to drink limitless wine.

The highlight our cheese and fig-filled month together was a day hike along the Santiago de Compostela route. I ended up getting lost with these goof balls below. We stole orchard plums, we stared at cows, we ran out of water, we used all of Simon's sunscreen. The essays they wrote about this long day's tangent were some of the best student work of the summer. 

Full Auvillar album here.

Full Auvillar album here.

While I'm singing the praises of my students, check out this lovely essay Elaina Plott (neon shorts above) wrote for our course. It's a gem, in response to one experimental essay prompt--to write a love letter to Auvillar, the town where we lived. The work of Hanoi Lamtharn, a dear student from my spring travel writing course at Yale, is also worth touting. It's called The Teak House, and I adore it. 


Reading - Yale Bookstore.

Stoked to read at the Yale Bookstore with Marc Fitten, Nathaniel Rich, + fellow faculty of the Yale Summer Writers' Conference. I taught a nonfiction workshop at the conference, and was blessed with a great crew of essayists and memoirists. They'd wowed me even before we convened as a class. Case and point: this essay by Caitlyn Christensen, an extraordinary young essayist based in Pittsburg.

Hats off to Terry Hawkins, who puts together a hell of a conference, and also sends spunky emails, in which recipients are addressed, "Dear Pashas," "Your Eminences," "Your Worships," and "Spectabile." I still don't know if spectabile is a real world. Terry: don't tell me.


Podcast - The Catapult

Dear friend and quasi-neighbor Jaime Green just launched this new podcast series, The Catapult. Jaime Green, good neighbor that she is, invited me to read part of an essay aloud in her apartment. When the subway shuttle went blazing by in its classic rickety fashion, we paused the recording. I kinda wish we'd kept it in. The sounds of Brooklyn!

Here's the podcast. It's an excerpt from my essay "Blot Out," about disguising myself in a burka in Cairo.


A Conversation with Lavinia Spalding & Marcia DeSanctis

Restless Books hosted the most rad event. Set at the mansion of Edith Wharton, our in the Berkshires. I sat with Lavinia and Marcia and talked about what being a travel writer entails, and specifically, how to pull it off as a woman. The event was for the Restless Women Travelers series, in celebration of the release of  A Motor-Flight Through France, by Edith Wharton. Lavinia wrote the preface to the book. Ask her anything about Edith Wharton. Lavinia will tell you.


Reading with Leslie Jamison.

Greywolf sponsored this March 28 event--the kickoff reading for Leslie's new essay collection, The Empathy Exams. Couldn't be prouder of Miss Leslie, and what an honor to read with her.  I could praise this book to high heaven, but these folks say it so very well...


Off Assignment: Summer event 

"Off the Record Night."

Gideon Lewis-Krauss, Sloane Crosley, Lavinia Spalding, Suketu Mehta

The backyard Andy Isaacson is magic. The perfect place for a backyard reading. There's this raised porch that makes you feel like a dictator of like Evita when you stand up there and greet people. I was stoked to hand over this podium to Gideon, Sloane, Lavinia, and Suketu. All four of them knocked it out of the park. Sloane did some live story-telling about a quirky B&B in Australia, Suketu shared a yet unpublished essay about Sri Lanka, Lavinia read a stunning "letter to a stranger," and Gideon surprised us all by reading some hilarious emails he'd gotten in response to his recent Wired story. ToucheTony & Farley once again kept the crowd chuckling, with a confessional contest. 

As a bonus, baker friend Erin Dietrich brought us Shewolf bread. Erin: you know how to knead rosemary into kaiser, that's all I have to say.

 

Can you tell this is a screenshot of Facebook? I bet you can. 

Can you tell this is a screenshot of Facebook? I bet you can. 


Off Assignment: Spring event 

"Unpitchable Night."

Phillip Lopate, Anna MacDonald, Gay Talese, and Leslie Jamison.

Kudos to Kristina Ensminger, for curating such a gorgeous event. It was Kristina who pointed us to Whisk & Ladle, a most delicious supper club in Williamsburg that is, uh, pretty hard to find on the map. Thank you Danielle, Nick and Mark! Also, we were lucky f-ing ducks to masterful artist Echo Eggebrecht draw obscure countries for our Obscuristan guessing contest. Smarty pants Andrew Rowat knew all the answers.

My partner in crime Vince Errico, chatting with the legendary Gay Talese. Confession: I bought a 200$ dress for the occasion of interviewing Gay Talese. I never spend 200$ on dresses. I ransack my sisters closets and pillage the racks TJMax. But Gay Talese. "Nice dress," was the first thing Gay said upon meeting.  Moral of the story: sometimes you should spend more money than you have.

My partner in crime Vince Errico, chatting with the legendary Gay Talese. Confession: I bought a 200$ dress for the occasion of interviewing Gay Talese. I never spend 200$ on dresses. I ransack my sisters closets and pillage the racks TJMax. But Gay Talese. "Nice dress," was the first thing Gay said upon meeting.  Moral of the story: sometimes you should spend more money than you have.

I "interviewed" Gay Talese. This entailed reading a 300 page memoir, composing long lists of questions, practicing them on Leslie, and finally nodding while Gay Talese proved he needs no questions whatsoever. 

I "interviewed" Gay Talese. This entailed reading a 300 page memoir, composing long lists of questions, practicing them on Leslie, and finally nodding while Gay Talese proved he needs no questions whatsoever. 

Lopate! You came! You read! I thought I'd read all your essays and you came and read one I knew nothing about! An essay on kill fees. Brilliant. 

Lopate! You came! You read! I thought I'd read all your essays and you came and read one I knew nothing about! An essay on kill fees. Brilliant. 

Here's a link to a New York Observer article that ran about this event. Things they left out: that Gay was wearing a three-piece suit, that Phillip Lopate sat on the supper club swing and began to swing, that Anna read a marvelous essay about love-hating (but mostly hating) Murray Hill, and that Leslie Jamison read a bonus piece called, "Seattle Poem!" (I take the liberty of adding that exclamation point because when Leslie first told me about "Seattle Poem" she was positively exclamatory.) 

Mark: master chef. Artist behind the soup, the ribs, and the lamb chop Mr. Talese requested.

Mark: master chef. Artist behind the soup, the ribs, and the lamb chop Mr. Talese requested.


Off Assignment.

We have a logo people. Thank you Susan Easton and Andy Omel! And with endless gratitude to Alfred Megally, our devoted pro-bono web developer, who continues to help us from places like Cartagena and Chiang Mai. You should buy one of his hats


Best American Travel Writing 2013.

I fell straight backwards when I found out I was in this book. Luckily my bed was right behind me and my comforter is down. So it was a soft flop. I laid there a while, eyes closed, just in case it wasn't true. Then I was ready to reread the email and believe what it said. Mega thanks to Hattie Fletcher, my editor at Creative Nonfiction, who pushed me in all the right ways to bring my essay "Blot Out" to fruition. And of course Jason Wilson and Elizabeth Gilbert for finding me in the pile.

"Still, though, I think the most dangerous story in this collection is Colleen Kinder's essay "Blot Out"--about her experiences walking through the streets of Cairo as a woman, both covered and uncovered. The risks that she took on the day she describes here are staggering in their audacity. An older woman--knowing more of men's potential savagery and infused with a more ingrained sense of self-protection--probably would not have done what she did. I myself would rather run with the bulls every afternoon for a month than expose myself to the potential of such true and vicious physical violence. And yet the ending is so victorious! A victory over violation! A victory over the absurd and the oppressive, both!"
- Elizabeth Gilbert, preface to Best American Travel Writing

Off Assignment: Fall Event

"Letters to Strangers" Night

Mary Morris, Ted Conover, David Farley & Tony Perrotet, and Yours Truly.

Off Assignment came out of the closet on October 8th. There were tea candles, there were whiskey drinks, there were lots and lots of people, bless them one and all. It was a thrill to present the concept of Off Assignment, and to give people a taste of one of our signature essays, "letters to a stranger." Mary, Ted and I all read "letters," -- epistolary essays in the second person, addressing a person we hardly know but can't quit thinking about. I wrote to a little girl in Havana, Ted wrote to a woman on the Rwandan border, and Mary to a stranger in the Charles de Gaulle airport, who told her how cannibals cook humans. Half-time humor was provided by dynamo team Tony & Farley

Special thanks to Emily Wunderlich, the host of this marvelous reading series, for believing that Off Assignment is indeed a thing, and to Ryan Britt for putting us in touch!

Special thanks to Emily Wunderlich, the host of this marvelous reading series, for believing that Off Assignment is indeed a thing, and to Ryan Britt for putting us in touch!


"AROUND THE WORLD (!) VOYAGE."

I just signed on a dotted line to teach on next year's UVA Semester at Sea "around the world" voyage. Speaking of dotted lines, check out the one above. Couldn't it totally pass for Vasco De Gama's? Perhaps if we drew some dragons in the ocean?

Thanks, as ever, to Margaret Spillane, my mentor of many years, for floating (!) this opportunity my way. Margaret you prove season after season that good mentors absolutely shift lives.