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There are certain books that, as a writer, I visit again and again. Some are works of fiction, some non-fiction – biographies and books about writing itself. On my desk, sit a group I revisit often. Some of the books have moved desk to desk with me for over a decade, others I edit every so often adding new finds or bringing back old favorites. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is one of those books that I recently re-added. In part because her voice reminds me a lot of a great professor I once had, but mostly because it’s just great writing about writing.

The actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.

I love that, even though I believe I need the tea as much as the ceremony. Just as much as I need these books on my desk – memory, reference, ritual – the creative habit in all its glory. The tea is a part of my creative process, too.

I’ve always been a big tea drinker, but in this last year – this wonderful, strange year full of unexpected change, frustrating health issues and challenging projects – the tea ceremony has become an integral part of my writing day. Be it writing a script or writing in script.tea ceremony henry james ©alexashersears

In all my years as a professional writer, this was certainly my least prolific in terms of how much was published, and yet, I feel fulfilled. (Well, as fulfilled as a writer ever can be. It’s hard to be content when you realize it will be impossible in one lifetime to tell all the stories you have within you. That you will have to savor the ones that make it even after being edited to pieces and accept that the best characters may remain in purgatory forever.)

And the tea (sorry Anne), the tea made a difference. At my desk, writing late at night with a decaf English Breakfast or many afternoons this holiday season with a big cuppa of Lipton Natural Energy on the sideboard in my dining room, a safe distance from the the dining room table covered in a sea of hand penned envelopes waiting to dry.

Sometimes, I needed the calm. Sometimes, I needed the energy and focus. Always, I needed the time to let it steep. To give myself those moments to collect my thoughts and be in the moment.

The other day I going through my desktop books and wanted to reference a line from Dani Shapiro’s new book, Still Writing, in an email I was sending (Is it only writers who write to each other quoting books? I hope not.) Except it wasn’t on my desk. Or on a bookshelf. It was in my iPad, which I am finding can be a slightly more expensive way to read if I really love a book, as I’ve now ordered a print copy in addition to the Kindle version. For me, reading is ceremony, too. The words are important, but so is the paper. I need pages to dog ear and space to make notes in the margins. Sometimes I’ll find myself highlighting a passage six years later, noting the faded yellow of earlier notations. I’m always fascinated by what struck me upon first reading and what inspires me now.

Sitting here this morning, waiting for my tea to steep, I thought about my favorite new books of this past year. What has stayed with me? What have I gifted after reading? In fiction, there was Transatlantic, Z, and Havisham and the not quite as new, can’t believe I didn’t read them sooner, Rules of Civility and Eleanor and Park. In non-fiction, Still Writing, Why We Write and Karma Gone Bad.

Tell me, what were your favorites? I need to start my Goodreads list for 2014.

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ganesh alexandra wroteWhen I was eight, we almost moved to India while my father was making a film. Months in Jaipur followed by a few more in London. Everything was being planned when a WHO emergency travel advisory brought things to a halt. Suddenly, the idea of taking a five and eight-year-old seemed a huge health risk. Even my mother, a pretty fearless world traveler, thought it was best we stay home. That’s my India story. The one that almost was.

My friend Jenny had a very different India experience. To begin with, it involved actually stepping foot off a plane into the country. I never made it to Jaipur in 1986, but twenty years later, life took Jenny, her husband and their dog to Hyderabad. And it’s the story she tells in her just released memoir, Karma Gone Bad.

It seemed so perfect: A writer in Manhattan with a blog called Karma In The City, managing a Bikram yoga studio on the UWS. If her husband’s work was to take them to any place in the world, India seemed like the perfect adventure.

Except she wasn’t looking for an adventure. Not at that moment. And she writes about it with wit and honesty.

Moving to India was the opportunity of a lifetime. A gift from the universe. Karma at its very best. Except…not really.

karma gone bad jjtI hate to ruin the myth – the one about writers being competitive and snarky and not supporting one another – but it isn’t my experience. In fact, without other writers in my life there would be a gaping hole. Whether those writers are more or less prolific/successful/well-known it doesn’t matter. We celebrate the successes and support the setbacks. It’s a hard life. It’s a wonderful life.

Jenny and I both met writing at BlogHer a few years ago. Last year, we were collaborating with a few other writers on a startup that ended up being shelved for the time being. As has become the norm in social media, we’d become friends via URL rather than IRL. And as we were working on the literary startup, she was finishing up her book.

About six months later, amongst the book galleys I regularly read, I received one with a great big, golden Ganesh on the cover. It was Karma Gone Bad. And I loved it. I emailed Jenny right away. Only connect, right?

I often wonder how that time in Jaipur would have shaped my life. Be it books or films or people I know,  the consensus is that a visit to India is a life changing experience. Magical. Enlightening.

Except something truly life changing can often be exhausting before it can be magical or enlightening. Or even just fun. Change is hard. And that’s what makes Karma Gone Bad so good. So utterly relatable. Jenny did not sign up for two years in India; it happened. And she learned to make it work. (The dialogues between Jenny and her husband with their driver, Venkat, deserve a volume of their own.)

Sometimes life is a little more overwhelming that we can make sense of. Perspective is wonderful but requires time. It makes me think of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, “the past is always tense and the future, perfect.”

Here we are, in the now. Now what?

First world problems in a third world country are still problems. Stepping outside your comfort zone – be it Hyderabad or Hollywood or wherever you call home – is complicated. Against the backdrop of India – the sites, the sounds, the smells – it becomes a story hard to put down.karma gone bad book

Find Jenny’s book on Amazon, in stores or your local library. Tonight, I’m picking up a few copies for holiday gifts at Book Soup (indie book stores 4eva), where Jenny is doing a reading. Writers supporting writers. As we do.

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