In the digital age, fewer and fewer books are accorded the dignity of being allowed to go out of print, and as a result it’s much easier than I would like to track down my early attempts at nonfiction. I care very much about both these books, but more for what they represent to me personally than what they offer to readers. Am I proud that I finished them? Yep. Is there good stuff in here? Sure. Did a lot of talented, hard-working people put a great deal of time and energy into their production? Absolutely.
Do I think you should buy them? Probably not.
Feel free to purchase a copy from your bookseller of choice if you must, of course, but I won’t provide purchase links or cover copy here. Instead I’ve written briefly about how each book came to be and what I wish I had done differently. I'm not sure my agent would approve of me turning this page into a confessional … but joke’s on her, she’ll definitely never expect me to actually update my website.
For better or worse, Biting the Wax Tadpole is the book that launched my writing career. Its existence is as much a testament to the vagaries of the mid-aughts IP ecosystem as to any talent of mine.
Like every other twenty-something in publishing at the time, I had a blog. I didn’t take it too seriously: I had the vague sense that I was working toward something with it—”finding my voice” or some shit—but really I was just super lonely and looking for cheap likes on the internet. I’ve always been an early adopter.
But back in 2004, the pool of sad online clowns was still relatively small, so my half-assed blog managed to get a little bit of attention (i.e., occasionally being included in a link roundup on Gawker dot com). From there, one friend led to another, and somehow I found myself with an opportunity to pitch an editor at the New York Times. Up to that point I had been mostly writing about pop culture, but this editor was looking for essays about weird hobbies, so I put together an piece about my extensive collection of foreign language grammars. To my everlasting shock, he published it.
I should pause for a moment here to talk about my fascination with written language. It is a genuine, long-standing hyperfixation of mine—maybe the longest-standing if we count English. Though I’m rarely able to do so now, I can easily lose twelve straight hours to the study of a language, even if it’s one I am never, ever going to use. Honestly, it’s less a hobby than it is a habit. I’m not even always sure I actually like languages. I’ve just spent so much time studying them that I’ve worn a groove in my brain I can’t get out of. If there’s a defining character trait to be found in here, it is not that I’m a language lover: It’s that I have a compulsive personality.
I never expected linguistics to be something I focused on professionally. But those were the days when a single, reasonably well-received essay in the Times could lead to a book deal, and so it was with me. An editor from Melville House—which had recently had a break-out hit with Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, an amiable history of sentence diagramming—contacted me to see if I would be interested in writing a book-length version of my essay. I could walk readers through my favorite languages, elucidating their diverse quirks and curiosities while demystifying grammatical concepts that have been so poorly taught students come away from class thinking they are just “bad at languages.”
To be clear, I was in over my head here. I wasn’t a linguist. I wasn’t a proven writer. I was 25 and clueless and a complete disaster, psychologically speaking. That said, my appeal was undeniable: I was an undistinguished Harvard grad who could land one joke out of three.
Even though I knew I wasn’t ready to write a book, I also believed I wasn’t likely to get another opportunity to do so. I took the job.
Several months of debilitating anxiety followed. I was lucky enough to work with a wonderful, patient editor and a dynamic small press, and ultimately I produced a sweet book, diligently researched and earnestly written. But my inexperience shows, compounded by an oversight that prevented a significant number of small but important changes from being incorporated into the final version. Clunkers and typos abound. Years later, I had lunch with an old college classmate—he was a linguistics major—who ribbed me about the factual errors I made, either assuming I wouldn’t take it to heart or not caring if I did. When I try to summon up the physical sensation of dying inside, this is the moment in my life I think back to.
Despite all this, I’m still so grateful I was given the opportunity to publish this book. I learned so much in the course of writing it—about craft, about publishing, about time management, about shame—and I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without it. (If, indeed, I were even a writer at all.)
Interviews and Reviews
Another book that is very much a product of its time: I sold Trip of the Tongue to Bloomsbury back in the heady days when you could get a healthy nonfiction advance without a TV show or a seven-figure following on social media. This particular project—which required me to travel around the United States and visit communities that, either now or in the past, relied primarily on languages other than English—was incompatible with a day job. For a year and a half, if I wasn’t on the road, I was living in the library. I couldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t been paid a decent amount to do so.
I still care deeply about the subject of this book. I still believe the general population is lacking a basic understanding of the mechanics and history of language acquisition and assimilation, two issues that inform (and inflame) critical debates about our nation’s education and immigration policies. These are stories that need to be told. So I really hope that one day someone else treats the subject with the journalistic rigor it deserves.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me to ask whether I was the best person to tell this story, whether my perspective might be limited in ways I didn’t like to admit, whether I might be taking up space that could be filled by a more deserving occupant. These weren’t questions I had learned to ask—in fact, I’d argue that the circumstances of my life had trained me very well to not ask them. My reasoning was devoid of self-reflection. I had a good idea that someone was willing to buy. Ergo, I should write it.
Hubris upon hubris: My husband and I decided to try for a baby while I was working on this book. I don’t know what to tell you except to say that I was working with skewed data—my mother has always maintained that I started sleeping through the night when I was just two weeks old. This seemed very plausible to me, a person who knew nothing about babies.
Suffice it to say, I hated this book. I hated the research, which made me feel small-minded and inadequate. I hated the reporting, which for someone with acute social anxiety was physically agonizing. I hated the writing, which never really clicked for me no matter how much I beat my head against my desk. I hated that it was taking so long. I hated that it was taking me away from my baby; I hated my baby for taking me away from it.
Above all, I hated that I hated it. How ungrateful could a person be? It seemed like I was on a mission to find out.
Those of you who’ve been through something similar can probably guess what happened next: I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. Once I was in treatment I was able to finish the book, but I could only do so much with such stunted roots. A few months after publication, when my publisher informed me that they wouldn’t be releasing a paperback edition, I felt nothing but relief.
I’m wary of anything that links suffering with growth (lest I lend credence to the garbage notion that suffering is somehow a prerequisite for growth), but I will admit that the experience of writing this book was so shitty that it forced me to rethink my career in a way that a merely bad experience might not have. I thought for the first time about what I actually wanted to do—and what I was really suited to do.
Suffice it to say, as soon as I was able, I enrolled in an evening class on women’s fiction, and I never looked back.