Friday, February 10, 2017

Me on the Rumpus!

Yesterday, a wonderful thing happened: a piece of mine, "The Girl on the Bike", appeared on the Rumpus.

I have so much to say about this piece and its appearance. For starters, I've been wanting to place work at the Rumpus for six or seven years now. Like a lot of people, I found the site during Cheryl Strayed's run as Dear Sugar, but I soon discovered that the Rumpus published innovative, intelligent, deeply affecting work, and I badly wanted to be on the roll call with that work. I submitted a couple of times with no luck. Then I got smart about finding the right fit for my work vs. begging to be let in the door, and I waited to write something that would be right for the site. Nothing was. For years.

One morning in the fall of 2015, I was driving to work when I saw the dog and the bike exactly as they feature in the piece. Something about the incident stuck with me, shouted at me, would not leave me alone. It took a year and my friend Lucas to figure out what it was.

On the day I saw the dog and the bike, I didn't know what it meant to me at all. I knew that it meant something, though, because I wrote notes about it in my little beat-up notebook, which I don't do unless something strikes me the right way. Some time earlier, in this same notebook, I had scribbled a few lines about the Von Trapp kids on the staircase (as they feature in the piece), because I'd been watching The Sound of Music and something about the staircase scene hit me hard. It was an epiphany that, at the time, had no content. I couldn't explain or describe what it was that moved me about that scene, which of course I'd seen a jillion times. I made notes about the weird nature of time in cinema (time passes, recorded time both passes and stands still, actors age but don't, wtf?) and moved on.

That same fall, I read a book called I am not Jackson Pollock, by John Haskell. The stories in it are an interesting blend of fiction, cultural studies, and film analysis. He imagines scenes in the backstory of Psycho and Touch of Evil that were never filmed.

Me, after reading it:

Why wasn't I doing this all along!? I simultaneously had the emotion of "Fuck you, Haskell, you wrote my book!" and "You're a god, Haskell, you've liberated me!"

Consequently, I wrote a weird thing about Kathy Ireland and Meryl Streep and opera, and then I wrote a weird thing about Gone with the Wind and Django Unchained and my own life, and then I started writing a weird thing about The Sound of Music. None of these were "stories", because they had fictional sections but they were not all fiction, and they weren't "essays" because they had prose that was fictional. I still don't know what to call these pieces, so I've been calling them my Weird New Shit, and when people ask, I say that they include fiction, nonfiction, and film criticism. (These last two sentences touch on a giant snarl of debate in the writing community, but I'm setting that aside for now.)

In the early part of writing my third weird thing, I found there was no natural fit for another story or personal experience to braid in with TSOM, like there had been for the other work. I browsed through my notebook for other stuff I'd been meaning to write about, and came across the dog/bike notes. What would happen, I wondered, if I crashed one idea into the other?* (Like the unseen collision of the bike and the dog?)

Okay, so now I had some stuff about film and some stuff about a specific film and some stuff about this dog/bike scenario, and it seemed to hang together so far. It took a year of thinking to come up with that, and a few days of writing.** Et voila, I was stuck. I didn't know where to go from there, what to invent or draw on.

I brought what I had to my workshop class. At the time, my workshop group was composed of me and three male poets, including my friend Lucas. They had loved my draft feminist manifesto, so I trusted them to help me with my weirdness. Help, I said. I'm stuck. Lucas said, why don't you invent a character who comes down the stairs like the Von Trapps? Maybe she does it over and over. Like the kids, but she's real.

Great Caesar's ghost, I said. You have saved my bacon. From now on, every mention I ever make of this story will include a mention of you.***

I finished the story in another day or so, actually dancing around the room after writing the final paragraph (the tidiness of it was a last-minute brainwave). I brought it back to my workshop group, and they called it a slam dunk, and I danced around the room some more. I'd finally written something that suited the Rumpus: it was too theory-heavy for most creative places, and too hybrid for most theory-driven places, but I've located both of those qualities in Rumpus essays.

So, soon after the second workshop, I sent it off. And within a week, it was accepted. I believe this may be the fastest transition I've ever experienced, or may ever experience, from in-the-brain to in-the-world.

Part of the reason this piece being in the world is so meaningful to me is that I perceive it as ratification that I'm going in the right direction by writing my Weird New Shit. Writers probably should not need validation, but I do, particularly when I'm going into my instincts and away from convention. I am happier than the happiest clam in the sea to share this work with you. I can't wait to hear what you think of it.

*This has almost exclusively been the way I've made good work over the past two years: crash one thing into another and see what happens. I'm going to keep doing it until it stops working. 
**My writing process = think for many, many months, or years, and then write in a lightning gasp of missed meals and cramping hands. I've only heard of one other writer who does it this way (Faulkner), and I don't recommend it, because you will get tired of not producing anything for a long time as well as hearing dozens of writing strategies that don't work for you. 
***Dialogue reconstructed from emotional memory. 

1 comment:

Lynn said...

I'm late to the party, as always, but I wanted to say congratulations on this wonderful essay and the Rumpus placement! This is a cool blog post, too. It's always neat to find out how essays come about. Congrats!