Moira Peckham, BFR Editor


              As I’ve gotten older, busier, and generally more stressed, I’ve noticed something sad about myself: I seldom read for fun anymore. When I was a growing up in the truly riveting hubbub of Morro Bay, California I would make a conscious effort to sit myself down and read a gosh darn novel or even just a few short stories every week. Eventually I didn’t even have to try because reading was the most wonderful thing I could be doing. There was nothing like getting lost in someone else’s world for a few hours and, to be honest, that’s still one of the most incredible things life can offer us. When I reached college, however, I found my time increasingly taken up by technical readings for my courses in anthropology, philosophy, or whatever I was taking that semester. And let me tell you, after a week of reading Marxist theory and critiques of cultural ecology, nothing and I mean nothing sounded less appealing than sitting down with and trying to actually understand the copy of Infinite Jest that’s currently collecting dust on my book shelf. And after several months of doggedly ignoring all the books I’d been collecting, I finally realized something: I would have to force myself to read for fun or face the reality that I would only be reading technical pieces for the rest of my life. And I was not cool with the latter option.

              The first strategy I utilized to make myself read for fun was by taking an English course. English courses are a lot of work and anyone who tells you differently is wrong and probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But in spite of the work (or maybe because of it), English courses are also unbelievably rewarding. English 27: Introduction to the Study of Fiction allowed me to read seven incredible novels that I would never have picked up otherwise (as someone who reads mostly science fiction it was a trip to actually have to sit down and read Heart of Darkness for a grade but you know what it was great). I got to read amazing books for units! And write about them, which is a reward in and of itself. It was so amazing to be able to read and critically engage with literature that I never would have looked at before. Had I not taken that English course, I wouldn’t have even discovered how much I love Thomas Pynchon. So that particular experiment in forcing myself to read non-technical writings was a complete success. But alas, the summer rolled around and with it the time in which I could take classes outside of my major came to an end, so I had to think of strategy number two.

              Strategy number two was less about clever tactical course-planning and more about brute force. Amidst the balmy days of summer, my favorite author published an 880 page hard science fiction space odyssey and I vowed to finish it that summer in addition to about five other books that were burning a hole in my bookcase. So the strategy was basically to utilize my summer months to read as many books concurrently as I possibly could. I failed. But, boy, did I try. I got through probably about seven hundred pages of literature by the time summer ended just by sheer force of will, but it took me until the end of winter break that same year to finish the space odyssey. But that winter break introduced me to strategy number three: power reading.

              My first experience with power reading was with Camus’s The Stranger. If you aren’t familiar with that particular title, all you really need to know is that The Stranger isn’t that long. Maybe 160 pages, tops. One night after Christmas, I decided to read The Stranger but given my track record with actually finishing the books I start I knew that I needed to finish it all in one sitting or I wouldn’t finish it at all. So that’s what I did. It took me two and a half hours of non-stop reading but I did it. And it felt amazing. And so, I decided to try this tactic with something a little longer over spring break. (In between winter and spring break I didn’t read a single book; it was really sad.) Over the break, I went on vacation to a place with no Internet and I attribute this in part to the fact that I finished a 660 page book in four days. I was a well-oiled reading machine. I don’t think I had ever read anything as quickly and as thoroughly in my entire life. This too, is more an exercise in brute force rather than in self-control and cleverness. As of right now, however, power reading appears to be my most successful tactic for dealing with the fact that during the school year I have less and less time and drive to read for fun.

              Other strategies I’ve not tried myself but have seen others successfully employ include but are not limited to: having a book to read on your breaks at work, reading books of short stories, reading just before bed (I have tried this and fall asleep every time but other people do not), joining a literary journal (I actually do this one but some people don’t consider work fun for some reason), read poems, attempt to substitute Netflix with books at least sometimes, and many, many more!

              And perhaps this issue isn’t as universal as I feel it must be given my complete and utter lack of interest in staring at more pages full of words after spending my week doing just that, but maybe someone somewhere is struggling with this is very same thing. And if you are, hi there. I am here for you. Reading is the best and it is possible to find time to actually finish books, it just might take more effort than you’re used to. But stick with it because one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is the ability to get lost, at least for a little while, inside someone else’s reality and to learn from it.

Gohar Abrahamyan, BFR Staff

Last semester, I took a class on the forgotten literary art of the epistolary. To drive home exactly how forgotten this art form is, I had to look up what epistolary meant. But hey, I thought, I write letters! I don’t usually send them, but if I’m interested in writing them, I should take a stab at reading them. And what better insight re: interpersonal relationships throughout time than people (almost) directly talking to each other? Fun fact: Victorians talked to each other exactly the way you think they did. In the class, what counted as letters was expanded to include text messages, and looking at that correspondence through a new lens gave my writing a new sense of liberty. So in honor of under-appreciated literary forms, I’m making a case for the unsung heroes of metaphor — perfume descriptions.

I once read an article in a magazine describing a woman whose personality matched her perfume; a brazen confidence was accompanied by a smell that evoked a Turkish brothel. My imagination ran wild; I spent ages trying to figure out the right combination of tobacco flower, musk, jasmine, sandalwood, etc, and what it all meant. And I developed an obsession with reading all of the descriptions of confusing, complicated smell. What does mystery smell like, and how can I find the words to match the feelings and associations it conjures? The smell of onions cooking in butter has an almost mystical ability to sooth the soul — somebody should figure out how to make that a wearable scent. Why isn’t it ok to smell like curry as a fashion statement, as an assertion of personality, as expression? Why do orange blossoms smell like promises and hope? Most importantly, what made me feel most like me?

Is there anything with more power to conjure deep seated and long standing emotion than a smell? Anything more ingrained to our subconscious? Regarded as the strongest of the five human senses, our olfactory senses, according to Marcel Proust, carry something special, a point he outlined in In Search of Lost Time. As the first to link scents with memory, the Proust Phenomenon actually made strides for scientists using neuroscience to figure out how our instant recall functions work. But beyond the technical, Proust weaves a wormhole for his characters. The momentary whiff of a particular smell traverses barriers of time and space, constructing and reconstructing our pasts and how we interpret them.

As abstract as it may seem, the distortion of time and memory plays a very real part in my life. The rare moments of homesickness I still feel happen when I encounter my mother’s perfume. Like her, it is charming, elegant yet not without its liveliness. It is warm and comforting, but defiantly confident.

My sister’s first perfume was donned in her early high school years. Tucked away in a drawer, I would sneak long whiffs of the unequivocally girlie Pink Sugar, yearning to know the adolescent secrets it seemed to hold. As she got older, her tastes became more complex; I recall a particularly unpleasant phase in my life, and an uncomfortably uncertain one in her own, in which she wore a scent I can only describe as “chocolate schnapps.” It was rough. My own taste gravitates toward CK One, the first unisex cologne. It’s androgynous, hard to pinpoint, a contradictory scent that is somehow both feminine and masculine, bold but not loud. It smells like how I would characterize the 90s. It feels right.

How perfumed women smell is a choice they make about how they present themselves. There is an element perfumes share with letter writing, and that is the plasticity of authenticity. Just as we chose the side of ourselves we reveal to others in our writing, just as we construct a literary persona, so our choices of the impressions to leave in each other’s olfactory cortices are contingent upon how much we decide to reveal or conceal. I can use a scent to project who I want to be, or to express in the language of unconsciousness who I am. I can express a feeling, a memory, a sentiment in a mere moment, I can change my reality and alter yours. And the people who are tasked with creating an image, an aura, a story for these fragrant creations have no insignificant role. It is one thing to describe something as “musky.” It is another thing to bring to life a place I haven’t been to, a feeling I haven’t felt, an experience I haven’t had. To be able to construct a Turkish harem using only scent and a pen is a fine tuned skill, and one that in a perfect world, I’d be paid to hone.

Lauren Cooper, BFR Managing Editor

BFR Bookmaking

Writing is an art. The creative process takes time and skill to perfect and the product, the message contained in the sea of words, has the potential to influence an individual, a nation, or even the world.

But what of the vessel through which writing is conveyed? We live in a world where e-books are on the rise, bookstores are closing, and libraries are spending more of their budgets on databases than paper. The printed book, once responsible for revolutions, is becoming devalued in the face of digitization. It would be easy to let the book go the way of the record and phonograph. Digital publishing is easily accessible and often cheaper than its analog counterpart. But before we disregard it completely, we must remember that the printed book itself is a product of the creative process.

Last Fall I took a course at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library called The Hand-Printed Book in Its Historical Context. As a rare books library, the Bancroft has the feel of museum, and like a museum, its collections contain objects worth marveling at. Some of its materials are historical—a page from a Gutenberg Bible, a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl stamped by censors at U.S. Customs—while others are completely one-of-a-kind. Let’s face it: they just don’t make illuminated manuscripts like they used to.

But while I learned in this course that the Bancroft preserves ancient and beautiful books from the clutches of Time, I also found that the art of bookmaking has not died out. Next to the Reading Room of the Bancroft—the gallery for these ancient treasures—is a room that houses a working Albion cast-iron printing press from the 1850s and cases upon cases of moveable type. In this studio is everything an artisan would need to create a book, from handmade papers to ink to bindings.

During this class, I underwent an abridged apprenticeship and was eventually initiated into an artisanal process. Some things came quickly: I learned the lingo (dropping your plate of movable type is called making Pie) and refined the skills (arranging your type requires the ability to read both backwards and upside down!). But I also discovered that some things can’t be taught by someone else; sometimes you have to go with your gut. If the italic versions of two letters print so close together that the ink runs, you might have to add an extra space, even if it appears in the middle of a word. If the page becomes too indented, you might have to adjust the amount of force used to work the press. If the pages are thick, you might have to add to the amount of thread used in the binding. You might have to go against convention for the sake of aesthetics.

Like any great art, hand printing is only as good as the intuition and skill of the artist, the bookmaker. The book that I created—The Bookworm with selections from the writings of Robert Hooke (Berkeley: The Bancroft Library Press, 2014)—may not be a work of art. It was my first time at the press after all. But true artisans exist in the field of bookmaking, from the twentieth-generation bookmakers in Italy to the owner of Berkeley’s very own Pettingell Book Bindery.

Last Fall I took blank paper, ink, and a needle and thread, and I made a book from start to finish. And I learned that the pages themselves are just as important as the words they contain.

Brittni Bertolet, BFR Staff

Bertolet 1Four of us sit on the back stoop of our cabin, at the precipice between forest and not, with the dim glow of the porch light illuminating only half faces. David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, lays open in front of us. The cover has been stripped from its spine—exchanged between sweat-covered hands one too many times—and the yellowing pages are left loose-leafed and frail.

It is the end of the summer. A winged insect lands on exposed skin, breaks membrane, and fills itself with red and warmth.

I do not notice the mosquito until it is far too late.

Bloated with blood, it withdraws once it is satiated and retreats back to the forest behind us, beating wings to continue ceaselessly onward, leaving only a concurrent point of irritated flesh. I slap the enflamed skin and curse the pest as it flies away, vexed with these creatures for their hindrances, while the others continue to swat the space around their heads. For a moment, we do not move otherwise—the stoop a point of claimed place in which we refuse to feel intruded.

Let’s go inside. I’m getting eaten, someone finally suggests, standing up and brushing wild from the bottom of their pants. I turn to the forest one last time as a firefly fluoresces amongst the trees, lighting darkened paths and inviting us to explore. It is gone before I am entirely sure it was ever there. But now my skin is tender, scratched raw in the night, and I think of these tiny creatures—of their persistence in the wilderness, of their realness, of their distinct Otherness. I wonder if they know what I am. I wonder if they know what they are—their swift departures taking pieces of myself I can afford to lose: the sweat from my arm that now clings to hind legs, and the red warmth, which nourishes and gives it flight.

Bertolet 2

Nika Nabifar, BFR Staff

There is something that happens almost every time I finish a Haruki Murakami story—something that I now feel I have the precedent to call The Murakami Effect. A quick google search has alerted me of the fact that this term has been used countless times before, but it’s fine. Murakami can have multiple effects.

I preface this by saying that I’ve read a very small handful of his novels—After Dark, Sputnik Sweetheart, and I’m currently reading both Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (I don’t know why I’m always reading 5/6 books at once; I feel like I may have a fear of finishing novels but that’s a different story for another time). I have, however, read many, many of his short stories. I most recently finished The Strange Library, which I guess is technically considered a short illustrated novel, but it read like one of his short stories to me. After finishing it, I realized once again that I was hit with that same feeling, a.k.a. The Murakami Effect. It was kind of hilarious to me this time, albeit sad, because I thought I had escaped it, maybe grown accustomed to it, but then the last page happened and it got to me. Again. It never ends.

It’s something that’s hard for me to explain in words. How do you explain the way something leaves you feeling when you yourself don’t fully understand it? The endings are gut wrenching, profound, introspective. Sometimes they literally sum up the whole story in a couple lines; most of the times they’re really just plain sad; but all of the time, they’re beautiful. They always seem to creep up on me and then it’s like one large wave of emotion that I become completely submerged in and can’t seem to escape. It’s overwhelming, to say the least, but a good kind of overwhelming. A kind that makes me seek out his work time and time again.

I want to speak for Murakami’s corpus as a whole, but I cannot, so bear with me. Murakami seems to consistently write and grapple with the inevitable state of human loneliness. In fact, every Murakami piece I’ve read has to do with it (that and the moon are the two most consistent symbols I’ve registered in his works, but the moon is something that needs a piece of its own). I think the fact that his works affect me so deeply is because many of the protagonists have been in their 20s, or reflect on their time in their 20s, and Murakami writes specifically about a kind of loneliness felt by young people. His short story “Yesterday” deals with this most prominently–“But when I look back at myself at age twenty what I remember most is being alone and lonely.”

I don’t think I ever experienced The Murakami Effect as strongly as I did after reading “Yesterday.” Maybe it was the timing. I was in a new city. I barely knew more people than I could count on both hands. I also hadn’t read Murakami in a while. I think, though, it’s just him. His writing is so accessible, it’s easy and clear and doesn’t take much effort to comprehend most of the time, which is a nice break. But most of all, it’s lovely. He writes in a way that is poetic and the effect of it reflects that.

A bit of a tangent, but still related nonetheless: I recently read an article that was about the effects Marcel Proust had on Virginia Woolf and her writing. While yes, I understand Woolf when she speaks this way about Proust as I am also reading Proust at the moment (another one of my started-but-haven’t-finished attempts), and while I agree with her whole-heartedly, I also couldn’t help think about Murakami –as I always do. Woolf says, in a letter:

“My great adventure is really Proust. Well—what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped— and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical— like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.”

This “Proust Effect” Woolf felt is exactly like my Murakami Effect. The first time I ever finished a Murakami piece, I couldn’t imagine even bothering with another contemporary author, and felt like asking Woolf’s “what remains to be written after that?” question. I was desperate to discover the authors that influenced him, the people he drew inspiration from, anything and everything that brought me closer to his work. I couldn’t and still can’t get enough. There is something about him that seems so otherworldly, sometimes I can’t believe someone even has the capacity to write the way he does, but also completely relatable, making it so that every time I read a new piece of his, it’s like I’m conversing with an old friend.


Side Note: I wrote this while listening to a playlist of the musical references Murakami mentions in his works which is pretty entertaining on its own –




Jeremy Siegel, BFR Staff

On a humid September evening, in the astonishingly not-well-air-conditioned children’s section of a cozy San Francisco bookstore, I sat beside my girlfriend in a crowd of unabashedly pretentious literary folk, eagerly awaiting the arrival of my favorite author, Jonathan Franzen, who was to read from his new novel, Purity.

But here’s the thing: As he walked onto the stage (more of a small platform—fitting for the children’s section; an employee literally had to stack children’s books to raise the microphone to Franzen’s level), I realized that I sincerely did not want to be there. This wasn’t because of the unbearable temperature. This wasn’t because of the horn-rimmed glasses-wearing, moleskin notebook-carrying audience that I was slowly beginning to realize I was a part of.

It was because I was terrified of what he might say. Terrified of what I might say when I met him. Terrified that Franzen The Person and Franzen The Author were not compatible. Terrified that by meeting the man whose words I had fallen in love with I would somehow fall out of love.

See, three months prior to this event, I read my first Franzen novel, Freedom. It was nuts: how captivating his emotionally detached, ironic but loving, voice was; how he said so much about modern American life through the story of one, uninteresting Midwestern family; how accessible the narrative was—how unpretentious it was, how real it was.

I was hooked.

After Freedom, I went on to read The Corrections, The Twenty-Seventh City, How to Be Alone—everything I could get my hands on. I watched and listened to innumerable interviews. I found that Franzen had the unique ability to present a pure, honest image of himself when he spoke; he was unafraid to tell interviewers exactly how he felt (the source of most anti-Franzen criticism). I understood him more vividly than I understood myself.

But when I finally saw him, all of that disappeared in an instant. I felt anonymous.

“Hello,” he said, before clearing his throat and drinking from a glass of water—this, I assume, is standard protocol for any author at a book reading. He introduced himself, thanked the bookstore, and went on to comment on the heat: “Perhaps it’s more bearable down there where you’re all sitting.” (It was not.) I recognized his voice from the interviews—deep and round, with the slightest lisp, each sentence said as if he were losing his breath.

Franzen proceeded to read from a chapter of Purity entitled “[lelo9n8a0rd],” which takes the form of a document written in the first-person by a character in the novel, Tom. It chronicles Tom’s dysfunctional relationship with another character, Annabelle. The excerpt Franzen read primarily consists of comical dialogue between a recently divorced Tom and Annabelle as they hike through the secluded woods of New Jersey.

As he read, my discomfort slowly dissipated. He read the excerpt with endearing imperfection, stumbling at times. This was fitting, as Tom and Annabelle are flawed characters: Tom, at times gendered and chauvinistic; and Annabelle, later described by another character as “the kind of ‘feminist’ who gives feminism a bad name.”

Like his characters, Franzen was perfectly imperfect.

After his reading, he took questions. I didn’t ask any—still afraid that anything he or I said might shatter my love of his work. But when audience members asked him about his writing, he answered with such beautifully conversational honesty—a genuinely amused grin always on his face—that it was impossible not to dwell on his every word. (My girlfriend later described this phenomenon perfectly: “He makes you feel like you have an inside joke with him.”)

The book signing followed. And wow, if you’ve never participated in a book signing, it’s an immeasurably humiliating process. You’re only allowed to have your book signed if you bought it from the bookstore ($30) and are able to present your receipt to the staff, you’re called up one row at a time, and you’re forced to stand in a single-file line for what feels like hours. All of this only to spend thirty-seconds-max with the author.

My girlfriend and I only purchased one book, but the staff graciously allowed us to stand in line together (as a “package-deal”). When it was our turn to speak to Franzen and have our book signed, I froze.

I stood at his table and didn’t say a word, my girlfriend close beside me. He signed my book and looked up at us, slightly confused. “We’re a package deal,” I said.

“For now,” my girlfriend said, quietly, then laughed a little.

He stared at us and laughed for what felt like thirty seconds. He seemed so amused by our presence. I wasn’t sure if it was what my girlfriend had said, but he kept chuckling. Perhaps he thought our relationship to be doomed like Tom and Annabelle’s. It was uncomfortable but fun. I thanked him, told him it was a great reading, and left.

At the time, I hadn’t finished reading Purity. But now that I have, I think I understand Franzen’s amusement with our presence a little better. See, “[lelo9n8a0rd],” the chapter he read from, is the heart of the novel. It’s an exploration of absolute dysfunction in a relationship, a comical portrayal of the dire ramifications of Tom and Annabelle’s young love. But there’s another, more hopeful segment of the novel, in which Franzen writes about how Purity, the novel’s central character (who is the same age as my girlfriend and me), finds love—and in this love she discovers a blissful escape from the dysfunctions of modern America.

Perhaps Franzen was amused because he saw in us an escape from dysfunction, a certain kind of purity. Or perhaps this is wishful thinking.

Regardless, our interaction was purely imperfect. And I’m glad I met him.










Summer Farah, BFR Staff

Although online shopping is amazing, the thrill of finding something unexpected in a bookstore is unmatched by doing so off any Amazon recommendation.

This summer I utilized Barnes & Noble greatly as a daily hangout. It was the perfect spot; there was an endless amount of books to look through, the employees hardly spoke to you, you could spend hours in a corner undetected by anyone, and the connecting cafe had cheesecake if you got hungry. Cheesecake.

I loved discovering cool, new poetry and looking at the newest additions to Teen Literature, seeing all of the different editions of classics I said I would read but probably never will.

The “no sitting on the ground” rule was the only thing in my way.

Some people love to stand while they read, probably. I am not one of them. After I find a book to skim through, my body automatically drops directly onto the floor. Reading and sitting are directly connected—I cannot do one without the other. Barnes & Noble, however, tried to take that experience away from me, when they sent an employee down the aisle to tell me I was not allowed to sit on the ground. Being the good customer I am, I apologized and got up, keeping all frustrated thoughts to myself.

For a while, this rule discouraged me from spending too much time in the store. This is where they got the loiterers. You couldn’t comfortably spend too much time enjoying a book without paying for it.

I soon found a loophole: the children’s section.

Barnes & Noble had two sitting options: either you could sit in the café and risk spilling cheesecake on your precious purchase, or you could sit in a small plastic chair in the brightly decorated children’s section.

I chose the latter.

With a friend, I tested my bounds. We each grabbed a novel and made our way to the children’s section, took a seat, and began to read.

Reading in the children’s section is very different from reading on the ground in an isolated aisle. There is so much more stimulus, even if you ignore the glares of the employees who want to tell you to leave but don’t because technically there is nothing wrong with 18 year-olds reading picture books. The floor was a bright wood, there were shelves and shelves of toys, the promotional material was of gaudy design, and sometimes there were kids. While the isolated aisles that contained the material we brought into the children’s sections were calm and quiet—optimal for reading—the children’s section was distracting.

The shelves of the children’s section were an intense mix of nostalgia and intrigue. I found so many books from elementary school that I had loved and forgotten about or given away. Seeing them still prominent filled me with so much joy. Whatever new literature that was being cranked out was probably just as great, but I love A Series of Unfortunate Events, and it would be a shame for kids to not still be encouraged by their school librarians to read those books. Harry Potter was still front and center, with beautiful new cover designs. Diary of a Wimpy Kid was still growing strong. I wondered how old that kid must be today.

What caught my eye the most were the picture books. One book in particular: The Day the Crayons Quit.

I put down my big-kid chapter book, picked up the pretty, hardcover picture book, and got to reading.

One of the most healing experiences is unexpectedly finding a story that so completely and utterly fills you with joy. It’s been a rocky road the last few years, and I’ve sought out books that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen with if I died while reading.

The Day the Crayons Quit was a masterpiece. It follows the correspondence of disgruntled crayons with their owner whom they believe has not been using them to their full potential. The illustrations combine a sketchy, kid’s-drawings-style with a more defined, cutesy “real object” style for the crayons and the letters.  

Reading this book set off a string of picking up picture books and seeing what the next generation was learning from. Just like when I was learning to read, some of them are beautiful and have deep messages about creativity. Some of them are just sort of silly.

I have always lost myself in books. The type of books changed as I got older, but they were always the cure. Even though I love the ease of online shopping, random findings are always more exciting than deliberate purchases. Amazon recommendations never would have introduced me to The Day the Crayons Quit, or the other magical mix of books I have found by loitering in Barnes & Noble.

Ilana Pessah, BFR Staff

When I was twelve, I began to write my first book since my debut novel, Ilana Showshanah, which I wrote in the first grade — the story of a girl who overcame the perceived obstacle of her short height in order to achieve her dream of becoming a famous singer. Needless to say, I had set the bar pretty low for myself. With fresh motivation, I scribbled the new story across a multicolored pocket-sized notebook for the better half of a summer. For a time that scrappy notebook was my pride and joy. The storyline needed a bit of work and the overuse of profanity that I thought made me sound older didn’t help, but all in all, I was content with my work.

Of course, when one twelve year old finds out that another twelve year old is writing a book, news spreads quickly, and for a few weeks my work-in-progress floated from friend to friend. As I continued my work, I wrote openly, and my friends didn’t hesitate to recommend changes to the storyline. I tried to accommodate everyone’s wishes, because even if I didn’t necessarily agree, they had to know what was best. It didn’t matter if I liked it; it just mattered if everyone else did.

By the end of the summer, I still hadn’t finished my book. The high of my fifteen minutes of fame eventually wore off and I became frustrated with a book that was no longer my own. I didn’t recognize my own writing and, in the end, I decided that writing books wasn’t for me. I threw the notebook in a drawer and never picked it up again.

Then, during my eleventh grade year, I had a core group of incredible teachers who inspired me to re-evaluate my relationship with myself and how I viewed my self-worth. For some reason, as I was doing this extensive self-reflection, I began to think about the book I had tried writing four years earlier. With a few additional years under my belt, I began to examine my disenchanting experience, trying to figure out what had caused me to resent something that once was my passion. With fresh eyes and the continuing support of my educational mentors, I found where I went astray.

I had loved my book when I was writing it for myself; I wrote what I wanted to and found joy in the process of doing so. But, due to my lack of self-confidence, I tried to please everyone else rather than staying true to the story I wanted to write. I had such a low opinion of myself that I didn’t trust my own judgment about the thing I loved most. I was too afraid to embrace myself, quirks and all, to allow myself to fully open up and write with confidence. Even in Ilana Showshanah I had made my character grow a few inches taller instead of embracing her shortness and loving herself for who she was.

With my new perspective, I sat down in November of 2013 and began a new book, this time committing to writing it for me; nobody else. It took seven months, but I eventually finished my first book since Ilana Showshanah, and this time I did so with confidence. I love my book; it’s quirky and complex — just like its author. My manuscript is currently sitting in some cubical at a branch of Penguin Publishing waiting to be evaluated by a member of the firm. But while it would be nice to be a published author, whether or not I hear back won’t change how I feel about the experience. For the first time I created something that was completely mine, and that’s a gift only I had the power to give myself.

BFR Blog – Losing Myself in Venice

Lauren Cooper, BFR Managing Editor

I once read a short story by Daphne du Maurier about a man in Venice who got lost in the winding alleys and trapped by the canals. As he walked faster and faster, finding himself more and more lost with each turn, he grew desperate. But I didn’t care about his dilemma; the man was just a vehicle to move the story along. The real main character was Venice. The alleys and canals were a network of arteries, and the buildings were alive. As I read, one thing became clear to me: the man wasn’t simply lost—the city overtook him.

For years, I wanted to visit this Venice and immerse myself in the strange reality the city of the story had seemed to create. Last summer, I got my chance. I packed my backpack, flew into Marco Polo Airport, took the train to Santa Lucia Station, and when I stepped onto the street… I found Wi-Fi. And souvenir shops. And signs in English, and German, and Chinese. I found that the GPS on my phone could locate me even on an island with no cell phone reception.

My vision of getting lost on my first day and making uncharted discoveries in an ancient city was clearly unrealistic. Major sites were mapped, and no matter how many times I chose a random alley to wander down, I eventually emerged on the Grand Canal, just a few yards from where I had started. No one had told me that Venice was so small.

By the end of the next day, I had given up trying to lose myself. I looked at a map and set out to see some landmarks. I used my GPS. And halfway between a hospital that looked like a palace and a palace that looked like it was about to crumble into the Grand Canal, I stopped thinking, wandered through a doorway by accident and found the strangest bookstore I had ever seen.

I was in awe. Masks hung on the walls. Gondolas filled to the brim with books on Venice’s high tide season crowded the main room. A cat lounged on a bookshelf. Wandering through the narrow aisles I choked back ecstatic coughs as I tried not to inhale half a century of dust. I picked up books that were yellowed around the edges and smelled of must. And I reveled in the fact that the store was empty. I had done it! I had discovered something!

Making my way to the back, I saw a staircase made of books. The climb was unsteady, but from the top, I could see all the way down a canal to where it met the main street. I planned my next move and readied myself to make my next great discovery. And on my way out, a group of nearly thirty tourists pushed past me into the bookstore, shattering the silence and sending up clouds of dust.

So, maybe I hadn’t been the first to discover the book-filled gondolas or the Venetian masks. As it turned out, quite a few people knew all about it—it had a 4.5 out of 5 on TripAdvisor. Maybe in a world with travel sites and free Wi-Fi I could never fully lose myself in a deserted street. Maybe a city would never overtake me. But from the top of that staircase built of books, just for a minute, I lost the crowd. I felt I had found something amazing, something I had never known existed.

Lauren Cooper, BFR Managing Editor

I can’t forget the day I met him. Surrounded by books from my mother’s shelf, I leafed through page after page of white and black. Reading was, and is, like air to me, and that day I breathed it in without hesitation. Shakespeare and Shelley drew me into their complex worlds of love and nature, Neruda showed me some of his favorite dreams, and I reveled in the woods created by Frost. But I saw nothing of me in the poems I read until, turning the page, Allen Ginsberg stood with his hand outstretched, ready to lead me to his Supermarket in California.

I began to skim, tired from my journeys and wary of entering yet another poet’s world, built of words and punctuation. But as I read, I breathed fresh air. Choppy lines filled the page, and syntax flowed to the beat of an unheard drum. Dialogue filled my ears, as Ginsberg talked to Whitman, Whitman to bananas. He spoke of life and time, how neon fruit and grocery boys have replaced the simple past; he asked the world at large what the future would bring. And I listened. I shared in his uncertainty and echoed his honest questions. In the midst of his stream of consciousness, I glimpsed myself.

Ginsberg asked where the past was hidden, where the next step might lead. I looked into his eyes and answered, who knows? His questions were my own. He had spoken the thoughts that I had yet to verbalize, and in that moment I knew that I, too, had something to say.

I had never written much poetry, preferring analytical essays to emotional poems. But, with his talk of peaches and penumbras, Ginsberg inspired me to search for an answer to my questions and his. He had shown me that poetry could be as true as not. An imagined world of neon fruit could speak volumes about reality; it could recall the forgotten past. Unsure of how to begin, I simply started to write, letting the words guide my hand and give me the answers that my mind alone could not create. Unformed thoughts spilled onto a blank page, as black ink lay down next to the white. I wrote of nostalgia: radios and an analogue watch, the how-do-you-dos of woe-be-gone days. I wrote of dial tones and handwritten letters, of memory’s persistence, as moving pictures marched through test patterns and static. Soon I had an answer, a finished piece, a world that we had created, Ginsberg and me.

And I knew that I was a writer, a purveyor of truth and fresh opinion. One simple word piled upon another and another had captured an image, a part of my soul displayed to the world and ready to be understood. It came in waves, then—the anxiety, the vulnerability that comes with making that leap, with allowing my soul to be read like a book. What-ifs echoed through my mind as I fussed over commas and capitals, for each letter had a purpose, and each letter could bring failure if it were read the wrong way. Yet, if Ginsberg had done it, then so could I. In him, I had found a kindred spirit. Perhaps someone else, someone far and away, might find one in me.