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Filtering by Tag: Alissa Wilkinson

The Bar Virtue

Alissa Wilkinson

Speakeasy-Bar-Interior-Design-of-Fraunces-Tavern-Restaurant-New-York It's always a long day at work, but today was especially long: a student meeting sandwiched in between two meetings with advancement at the college, and three lectures to prep, and the copier breaking down, and an article to publish. I customarily repair to a pub down the street a few days a week to wrap up my workday, right about when the walls of my small office start to close in on me. I try to go early and leave early, when I can. But today I didn't make it here till almost seven o'clock. I still got a seat.

They know me here. They gave me the WiFi password months ago. They slip me extra food or a pint they accidentally poured for someone else. Today, I got here and started to order, and the bartender immediately leaned in and said, conspiratorially, “You know, we have an Imperial IPA on tap now.” I've been griping about the proliferation of Oktoberfest for weeks. They know what I like.

I started coming here almost a year ago, partly because some sleuthing revealed they pour my favorite Irish microbrew, and partly because it's close to work. Low lights, but not too low. No sports in the side of the bar where I usually sit, though I traded spots briefly during the World Cup. Polite clientele, unlike most of the places near Wall Street. And lots of history—my husband recently looked up from his laptop to tell me that it's the oldest bar in New York City. George Washington bid his troops farewell right here.

I've spent a few late nights here with friends, and a few more alone, cranking through the to-do list. When I ran the New York City Half-Marathon last March, I ran over the finish line and straight here, where they were pouring stouts at ten o'clock in the morning. I've made friends with the bartenders and recommended books and talked about movies and chuckled at antics, and I've written many thousand words perched in the same seat where I am, right now, writing a few hundred more. I've eavesdropped on more awkward conversations than I can count and chatted with (mostly Irish) tourists and tried a few weird beers, and I have always felt safe.

When people ask me how I work while perched at a bar, I point out that many New Yorkers work in coffeeshops—and of course, everyone has their favorite one. Some are loud. Some let you be anonymous. At some, your barista knows your drink; others have free coffee refills. But for me, the bar is the right place: I don't have time to write till evenings, I don't want to drink caffeine late in the day, coffeeshops in New York close by 7pm, and besides, once you figure out that drinking slowly is fine, a nicely poured pint is the perfect thing to make an evening of tasks more tolerable.

Tonight, I'll duck out in an hour or two, after I tick off the final item on my to-do list—it's a work day, after all—and trade some conversation with the bartender. I'll leave feeling like I haven't been “out,” because in some sense, I haven't; I've been at one of my comfortable places. It's a gift to have a place where you are a regular, a place where everybody knows not just your name, but your drink, and your occupation, and the fact that you're married and would rather not deal with unwanted attention from some rando down the bar, and what book you're reading right now.

Rosie Schaap, who wrote the “Drink” column for The New York Times, wrote a book called Drinking with Men, all about the joys of regularhood. And she says this: “Although loyalty is upheld as a virtue, bar regularhood—the practice of drinking in a particular establishment so often that you become known by, and bond with, both the bartenders and your fellow patrons—is often looked down upon in a culture obsessed with health and work. But despite what we are often told, being a regular isn’t synonymous with being a drunk; regularhood is much more about the camaraderie than the alcohol. Sharing the joys of drink and conversation with friends old and new, in a comfortable and familiar setting, is one of life’s most unheralded pleasures.”

I couldn't have said it better myself.

The Tiresome Gift

Alissa Wilkinson

old couple in bed For the first text in our creative nonfiction writing class, my students and I read St. Augustine’s Confessions. For the second, we read Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss.

I hadn’t read all of Wiman’s book when I assigned it, but I was pleased that the syllabus fairy saw fit to have me assign them together. Augustine’s book contains the meditations of an ancient church father; Wiman’s is subtitled “Meditations of a Modern Believer.” Augustine’s is addressed largely to God; Wiman’s is addressed mostly to us, and also to himself. When Augustine wrote his meditations, he was ill, run-down, beset by heresies, and in the midst of midlife turmoil, if not a crisis. Wiman’s book wraps around his own struggles with cancer and pain and belief. Augustine wrote to find, narrate, and uncover his faith — and Wiman did, too.

It’s beautiful, then, that two books by two men from opposite ends of history can speak to one another, and to us, so well, in so many ways. Wiman’s book, despite its subtitle, seems sometimes ancient; Augustine’s feels intriguingly modern.

One way they talk to their readers is this: we spend much time delighting in “the little things” these days. Cooking and design blogs and accessible digital photography and real-time updates let us revel out loud in the steam coming off a cup of coffee, a firefly spotted in a backyard, the smell of a new book, the feel of butter on your fingers when you’re making a pie crust.

There is a joy and beauty in the everyday, and yet, it can take over. We can feel not just deprived but despondent and despairing when they go away; we can fixate and acquire, needing more stuff, more experiences, to help us have that feeling. Augustine would say that these earthly pleasures are good, so long as they direct us toward love of God.

Exactly how that works, though, can still be a bit of a mystery. Wiman filled in part of that for me:

God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love. To feel him to find him does not usually require that we renounce all worldly possessions and enter a monastery, or give our lives over to some cause of social justice, or create some sort of sacred art, or begin spontaneously speaking in tongues. All to often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.

That is, the work of directing our experience of the everyday toward God is not just reveling in the coffee and giving thanks — though this is important — but noticing the duller, more tiresome bits, and changing how we respond as an act of worship. The backache. The mosquito bites. The long commute. It’s not just beauty: these small things, too, can be funnels for my attention toward a greater Giver.

(Photo by Fausto Podavini)

Wake Up

Alissa Wilkinson

Mikko-Lagerstedt-Photography-10-600x398 The heat waited till the end this year, but it’s started now. It’s already hard to breathe when you step outside for the paper at dawn. Deep, soupy humidity in September is no more pleasant than it is in June, but the days are noticeably shorter already, and we know fall is coming, with its TV pilots and ankle boots and gallery openings and pumpkin spiciness.

The actual new year begins in January, I know, but this is when I mark the passing of the old and the start of the new. I see children on the sidewalk in their uniforms en route to their new classrooms, and last week I printed new syllabi. I notice the leaves on the still-verdant trees beginning to get crispy. I remember this week as the one in which, eight years ago, I lost my father and married my husband in the space of seven days, where I changed my life status irrevocably.

All this makes me want to make resolutions, to change, to make a new beginning, to clean the windows and see everything more clearly. My Pinterest feed is full of encouragements to be the best I can be and get out there and make my way in the world and become a better me. I can do it, with enough elbow grease. I can claw and scrabble toward the light.

But I’m not so sure anymore that trying is the point. In Ephesians 5, Paul quotes an early hymn from church tradition: “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Or, as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message, “Wake up from your sleep, climb out of your coffins; Christ will show you the light!” And in his song “All Things New,” Andrew Peterson sings, “Rise up, O you sleeper, awake! / The light of the dawn is upon you. / Rise up, O you sleeper, awake! / He makes all things new.”

So I guess what I need to do is wake up. The renewal part, the new light of the new year’s dawn, is not coming from me.

(Photo by Mikko Lagerstedt)

Nobody's Looking

Alissa Wilkinson


My grandmother went white water rafting for the first time in her fifties, and my aunt began painting and owling in her forties, and another went back to school in her thirties to earn her bachelor’s degree and then her master’s. 

So maybe it’s in my blood, but a month ago I found myself in bare feet and tights in a dance studio, facing the mirror. I’d signed up for a six-week workshop: introduction to modern dance. I’m no stranger to dance studios; in my thirty years, I’ve had about twelve years of ballet classes — in college I went two or three times a week — and even own a pair of pointe shoes from a class I took when I was about twenty. I’ve never been very good at ballet, because my body is close to, but not quite the right type: I’m built a little too close to what women’s magazines call “athletic,” slim but not quite slim enough, and my hamstrings have always been preposterously tight.

Modern dance always intrigued me, though — I make a point to see a lot of it — and so, there I was.

And one week in, I was googling, “Can adults become advanced modern dancers?” I could already tell it was far different from ballet, more about the movement and the rhythm and gravity than hitting the right shape over and over. I was grinning by the end of the first class, enjoying the movement and the feeling of freedom. Just to hold out your arms and spread your fingers and fling yourself around a bit, all to music: it’s wonderful. It’s freeing. It actually really feels like dancing.

That said, any time I start enjoying something, realizing I’m sort of okay at it, I want to set a goal: publish an essay, teach a class, run a half-marathon. Within a week, I was already thinking, This is something I could do. I could really be a modern dancer. For fun, of course, but still. Something about putting my hard work out there in the open where other people can see it makes it real. Right?

Is the work really worth doing if nobody notices?

So I guess maybe that’s the next new thing I need to pick up as an adult: doing the work of learning something new for the sheer joy of it.

(Photo by Lois Greenfield)


Alissa Wilkinson

boyhood-linklater-14233-1 Richard Linklater made a movie about growing up called Boyhood. He cast a six-year-old boy named Ellar Coltraneto play Mason, an ordinary American boy growing up in ordinary American suburbs. Then he shot the story of Mason’s life over twelve years, ending as he graduates from high school and moves into his first dorm room in college.

There’s no plot to Boyhood. Or there is—Mason gets older, and so does everyone else. But that barely qualifies as a “story.” There isn’t a central conflict, exactly. There’s no motivation, no villain, no three-act structure with a climax and a resolution.

And yet the movie is gripping, in my opinion; funny and sweet, sometimes heartbreaking. It’s also gentle. You can sort of settle back into it and let it remind you of the best—and some of the not-best—bits of your own childhood.

This is a marvel to me, because as a writer of nonfiction I struggle all the time to shape “what happened” into a story. Bare facts don’t make a story. For writers of creative nonfiction, bare facts are the building blocks. Your job is to put them together so they make something with shape and meaning and substance—and something that will help the reader live her own life through yours.

The measure of a good memoir or personal essay, then, is that at the end the reader has not just learned something about you, the writer, but also something about themselves. They have navigated a trial, or relived an experience, or been given a roadmap for something they have not yet encountered. They have been put through an emotional experience and experienced a sort of holy catharsis, an empathy.

The story of Boyhood—perhaps more than any other film I can remember seeing—is unique, in that it is just as much about you out there in the audience as it is about Mason up on the screen. Watching the film leaves you feeling as if you’ve just relived your own childhood. It feels, oddly, as if you’ve been given a second passage into adulthood. Mason, and Linklater, have empathized with you. You leave the theater, and step into the light, and know yourself better.

What they never tell you about teaching...

Alissa Wilkinson

DSC_9529_1_t670 “What they never tell you about teaching,” I say to my colleague as we're climbing the steps from the vestry to the sanctuary, “is that graduation is the worst.”

He nods knowingly. Graduation is the worst. Not because it means melting into grossness underneath a scratchy cap, billowy robe, and velvet hood every year right as the weather is going from warmish to hot—though a few hours beneath the hot lights has, on occasion, made me curse silently and wish for a popsicle.

No, to me the reason is simple. I always hated my own graduations because they were sad, and they involved all these awkward goodbyes where you said “see you later” but what you really meant was “maybe I'll see you some day, and maybe I won't, but I don't want this to feel too final.” I hated the feeling of being dropped off a cliff, of missing all the structured life from the past four years, the comfortable circles of friends, disappearing into thin air as if they never existed outside pictures and some scattered memories.

But what I discovered when I became a professor was that you have to do that every year.

The college I teach at is small and we have only four majors, and I teach some of the core courses in our largest major. So by the time they reach their senior year, some of those students have had a class with me every semester since they were freshmen. And freshmen are funny, especially where I teach: they're new to New York City, usually a little on the hopelessly clueless side, scared but bright-eyed and ready to take on the world.

Over the course of four years, I try to unseat their world a bit, help them root out some of the things they never thought about, hold them up to the light, turn them and look at them from every angle, and then help them build a more solid foundation. I see it happen over and over, and I see them — in some real way — grow up. Then I see them at graduation and realize: they're adults. They may still be 21- and 22-year-olds, with all the attendant weaknesses and insecurities, but they're not children anymore, and I had a part in that.

It makes me feel responsible, and lately it makes me wish I had more opportunities in my life to stop and ceremoniously look at the people around me and notice that they've changed. And that I've changed. That we are changing each other.

Theories and Bragging Rights

Alissa Wilkinson

mad-men copy

I've long been a fan of the AMC series Mad Men, which looks at America in the 1960s through the lens of Madison Avenue at the time. The seventh season started in mid-April, and I've been writing recaps of each episode. To prepare, I watched the fifth and sixth seasons again and was struck this time by how carefully written they are. There is far more going on in a season, or even a single episode, of Mad Men than meets the eye: metaphors, allusions, symbols, all the elements of a good literary novel are present in the show. It rewards a re-watching.

I've also been reading a lot about the show, and one thing anyone who's read seriously about Mad Men knows is that fan theories abound. Last season, they were mostly about whether Megan Draper, Don's second wife, was in fact a sort of Sharon Tate character, destined to be offed in a manner like Tate. Speculation arose because Megan wore a shirt that matched one in a photograph of Tate, and so, fans reasoned, perhaps Matt Weiner, the show's head writer and executive producer, was dropping clues about her eventual demise.

Fair enough. But the show has been dropping hints about everyone's demise right from the start, because the show is at least sometimes a show about mortality (though one popular fan theory last season posited that Don Draper himself was already dead, with screenshots and symbols to back it up).

Such theories treat the show as a puzzle to be unlocked, a sort of trail of breadcrumbs that might lead a savvy viewer down the road toward guessing what happens in the finale, set to air in 2015 along with the back half of the seventh season. Now the race is on: who will guess first, or best? Who will get the bragging rights?

A similar phenomenon happened when the HBO show True Detective (which I loved) aired earlier this year. Viewers scoured the show for clues: who was the Yellow King? Why did Rust Cohle wander around quoting esoteric philosophy and poetry? What was actually going to happen? I think of this as the Lost school of television watching: the goal of a close reading is to follow the hints dropped by the show in order to unlock the mystery and win arguments in comments sections on articles.

True Detective disappointed some fans by having a rather straightforward ending that didn't satisfy any theories, though by my lights it was a satisfactory ending. And I'm fairly confident that Mad Men, though it is dropping ostensible clues left and right (some of which I've pointed out in my recaps), won't end the way anyone expects, either. I have more faith in the writers than that.

The Real Race

Alissa Wilkinson


I started running seriously about a year and a half ago, as I was beginning my MFA thesis, which means I was digging deeply into old drafts and seeing my old writing faults everywhere I looked. On a whim one night, I signed up for a half-marathon that was four months away, Googled a training schedule, and started getting out on the road to pound out miles.

My life—which at the time was in various states of emotional and professional turmoil, and some of those linked to one another—fell into a rhythm of work, writing, and running. Whenever I wasn't at work, I was either at my computer or out on the pavement.

Five half-marathons and thousands and thousands of words and only a few mini-breakdowns later, I'm still surprised to realize that, for me at least, consistently running is far easier than consistently writing. In fact, running is almost comically easy: it’s just one foot in front of the other, and a lot of ignoring the voices in your head. There’s no grammar or style or word choice or any of those things to attend to. All runners engage in the same general muscle movements: the legs lifted and placed down, the feet striking pavement, the arms pumping back and forth. Sometimes I run past a person whose stride has been altered by injury or some kind of muscular defect, and his gait is noticeable only because it is different.

That means that the main difference between me and Haruki Murakami, who runs marathons and ultramarathons and wrote a book about running and writing called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, is just that he’s repeated the same muscular motions, the breathing and pumping of limbs, a lot more than I have.

Murakami also has a great deal more practice than I do with writing. He has been writing for three or four hours per day for decades. I suppose that means he also has developed the muscle for discipline. Reading his book on this point, I found this passage:

To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole. But as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening a hole in the hard rock and locating a new water vein. So as soon as I notice one water source drying up, I can move on right away to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their only source, they’re in trouble.

When I started writing, I “relied on a natural spring of talent,” especially since I was mostly writing short informational pieces. But when I decided to dig deeper and dredge another hole called “creative writing,” one in which I had to work with my own stories and my own material, I discovered that I’d exhausted my source—my natural spring—and now was going to be forced to do the hard work of sitting down and writing every day.

That is a real drag on the ego. Someone who sprints and then decides to train for a marathon will hit a wall around mile four, and might get discouraged. And someone like me has her identity rocked when she can’t do something well on the second or third or even tenth try.

I can tell you this: her tendency is to try to find a shortcut, or just quit. Usually the latter.

She has to take a hard look at herself and get ready to fail and then keep going. She has to be ready for sore muscles, and a bruised ego, and maybe even injuries, and the possibility that she might never be as good as the other guy, the hard truth that it’s possible she’ll never be a standout. Or she may write for years before she has anything to say. She might have to write from fear, and through fear, before she is ready for the real race.


"Her," and Me, and Us

Alissa Wilkinson

8 Her-1-1024x576

I saw the film Her twice: first because I hadn't seen it, and second because I desperately wanted to sit alongside my husband in the theater as he saw it for the first time.

In the movie, set in near-future Los Angeles, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is heartbroken and lonely, having separated from his wife nearly a year earlier. He finds intimacy in his relationship with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), an OS—think a very smart, very advanced Siri—and they begin a romance that changes both of them.

When we got married seven and a half years ago, I'd barely been out of college a year. We’d known each other a year, and had both just started our careers, and were both living away from our parents' homes and financial support for the first time. We had no idea what we were doing.

In the years since then, we've changed careers a combined total of six times and lived in four apartments. These days we often talk about how different we are from who we were then: we like different music, different movies, different weekend pursuits; we have different friends; our families have even changed shape tremendously due to death and divorce. Neither of us really had any idea who we were when we got married.

Together, we started to grow up.

Theodore tells Samantha that he misses his wife because they grew up together, too. One thing he loves about Samantha is her fresh, childlike, wonder-filled outlook on the world. Since his wife left, he's spent most of his time alone, stagnant, not changing. But through their relationship (and Samantha's coding), both Theodore and Samantha grow and change. Their relationship pushes them to become wiser, better versions of themselves.

There's another important relationship in the film: Theodore's friendship with Amy (Amy Adams), whom he's known since college. They dated briefly in college but have now grown into true friends, who help each other along, interpreting life for one another. Love is part of their life—not romance, but true, deep friendship love. And it turns out that relationship is as vital for Theodore’s growth as his love for Samantha.

In the days since I saw the film the second time and noted how the film lingers, at the end, on a shot of Theodore and Amy, I've thought about whom, exactly, the titular Her is. Maybe it's purposely left ambiguous.

But it's made me think about how if we’re doing it right, if we’re really living, we're always growing up, our whole lives. The me of one year ago never could have imagined everything I've thought and felt and experienced in the past twelve months. These are things I've gone through not alone, but with others. Sometimes I think I'm becoming more foolish with age, but becoming more foolish can be a form of growing up, I think. And growing up, Her says, is something we can only do alongside others.

In the last few years, I've gained and lost people. Many of my relationships have changed form. I have learned a great deal about friendship. But most of what I know about me today comes from those who I've known the longest, who've lived life beside me faithfully and consistently. I realized recently that my greatest ambition is to have the same close friends a decade from now that I do now—because I want to become wiser, or maybe more foolish.