Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Fate of the Kathy Ireland Story

So this thing I wrote, "Underside," showed up in Rivet: The Journal of Writing that Risks on November 27. I have called it "the Kathy Ireland story" many times in this blog. I wrote it after I read John Haskell's book I am not Jackson Pollock, the experience of which I've written about right here. I tried for myself the thing that Haskell did, the blending of film talk with fiction, the imagining of scenes that never were, and the result was "Underside" (which I know needs a better title but I couldn't think of one).

I wrote it with a kind of abandon I had never known in words before. I worked hard, but with the air of a joyful experiment. I had no idea what it was I'd written when I finished, but soon enough I realized I'd embarked on something meaningful.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Famous Men, Travel, Paradox, and Miscellany

My friend Ravyn told me in September that she was impressed by my ability to hold two contradictory ideas in the same hand. She called it a capacity for paradox. She also said that she thought I had not yet fully explored the power of two yet. I agree with her, inasmuch as my intellectual strength seems to come from threes instead of twos. Right now. I'm not sure about later.

This capacity for paradox is what powers an essay of mine published this week in the Offing: "Famous Men I Have Been Asked to Forgive (Abridged)". It's also what powered the original version of the essay, "Everything I Think About Woody Allen", which I threw out completely in order to write the new one. The original was more of a cinema-focused piece, more experimental, more specifically about Allen and his films than about the wearying topic of Bad Men. In between the time I submitted the original and the Offing said "sure, but can you revise it?", and now, the field of Bad Men and their deeds got wider and deeper than anyone could have imagined. So then I wrote what you see.

The revision used to open with a short discussion of Madonna, and how my father's judgment on her made me ask questions very early on about the relationship of artists to their art. I think the kind, gentle, responsive Offing editors were right to ask me to remove this, but I'm pretty sure it's going to appear somewhere else. It's illustrative.

Paradox seems to drive all my recent work. It's difficult enough to live in that I've been writing mostly book reviews lately, instead. But, for instance, an essay I'm working on (slowly, agonizingly) examines a photograph that could depict any GI, from any time period with war, but also has very specific time and place markers because of the clothes of the non-military people in it. Picking that apart is harder than considering what an author is up to in a novel or a memoir.

I write this at the tail end of a two-week trip that took me to the east coast of the US and then all around the UK, from Scotland to Wales to London. Many people have oohed and aahed over this trip when I explained it, but I've had about 50% of a good time. For the first part I was dogged by migraines, which spoiled a lot of people's fun aside from just mine, and then we had a terrible time with our travel arrangements from the US to the UK.

After that - it may surprise you to learn that November in Scotland is quite cold and wet, and that doesn't suit my disposition very well. Then we had a lot of time on trains in the week that followed, and I did not know until we were in the thick of it that Matt does not consider it fun to sit on a train for a good part of the day. (I do.) But doing so was integral to our vacation. So I felt guilty and he felt anxious and we were tired as dogs from all the trouble before we left Scotland and I had the same experience I always have when I leave home on trips that are not road trips: this is not worth the trouble it took to get here.

Until we got to Portmeirion. Which was magical. Profoundly so.

I took this picture. Click to embiggen. 

It was worth the trouble it took to get there. But - and although I am not conscious of prejudice on my part regarding this statement, there are all kinds of factors that could make me mistaken about it, such as the season or the way we came across or some other variety of cultural disjoint - the Welsh are not a very friendly people. They had this way of saying "no problem" that made it sound like "I hate you" again and again. They didn't laugh at Matt's jokes and they didn't return my smiles, and when we tried to help them with our baggage or dishes or whatnot, to smooth the way, we were treated like children trying to use the stove. No no no. Let me get that. You silly idiot. We could not figure out how to make them not hate us.

EVEN SO, Portmeirion is the second best place I've ever been (after Chautauqua, the place we chose to get married in), and I want very much to go back sometime. Maybe they'll be in better moods in the spring?

I hoped to get a lot of writing done on this trip and I did not. The countryside through which our trains cut so beautifully was too interesting, and our plans left us too little idle time that was not spent sleeping or just recovering. There's still an 11-hour plane ride ahead, but I find it very hard to concentrate on planes. On this trip, I wrote one book review, completed edits on the Offing piece, read a few books, and pitched a couple of reviews, but I'd hoped to write my next Medium piece and two more reviews as well as working on essays and the novel. Oh, well. December will be calmer, I think.

Of late my thoughts have been running too often to uninteresting topics (my weight, my wallet), and I don't always know what to say here. My work has appeared in a lot of places that make me happy and proud, but my newsletter is the self-promotion place, not this blog. I am reading interesting books and talking to interesting people, and some private things are difficult for me right now. None of that can really be communicated here. I don't know how to talk about what I'm doing without giving away what's coming next, and I don't know how to talk about what I'm feeling without being dull or hurtful. What I'm thinking keeps going into the work.

A consequence of finding publication and gaining momentum as a writer is that my thoughts don't have to go to a ground wire. They can go right to the third rail, to power the work. That's good, but it leaves this space empty.

What do you think? What would you like to see me write about here?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Evidence, Part II


I don't know if you're aware of this but I write things, and in the last several weeks I've received evidence from multiple sources that I write things pretty well. This evidence is not yet visible to the public, but if you want to know about it when it happens, subscribe to my newsletter now, and the next issue - which I think will go out during Thanksgiving week sometime - will link you to as many of them as it can.

In the meantime I wanted to write a post, because the next post is already in the can and it's going to be an examination of one of the invisible pieces of evidence, and that would be two of those posts in a row, so here's a something-else post.

And what I want to write about today is severalfold. I'm on a plane right now, having finished a book this afternoon that I'll be recommending for years, Code Name Verity-level interesting, which made me almost cry twice near the end. I want to explain about that, how it feels to not be able to cry during the majority of your waking life because of the medication you're on, and knowing that books rarely make you cry anyway because you're engaged in the language more than the experience of them (movies make you cry more easily, but...still, the medication), and still almost crying at this terrific fucking book, but seeing very well with your analytic mind that the book is too weird for the mainstream, too densely intelligent for most readers, too much and yet so astonishing that you can't even begin to strategize about reviewing it like a normal person, without making the review only three words: READ IT YOURSELF.

I'm thinking at length about this post, though. Much news has come to me in November that is just the same: stuff that Mean Brain can't explain away as not a big deal or due to favoritism. That was two years ago, nearly three, and this is now, and I thought it would take forever and now it's all happening too fast, almost too fast to enjoy.

Some days ago I put up a post on Medium, and I'll tell you why. I knew that the tentpole of it was the kind of mellow life lesson that would play well on self-improvement blogs, to broad audiences, but I did not want to go to the trouble of pitching those places and then having editors "smooth out" my writing. Basically: the same reason that people self-publish. I self-published a gleeful VC Andrews knock-off through Lulu some years ago (and I regret it, for reasons too practical to go into in this post), but I learned at that time that people generally self-publish to maintain editorial control and because they have the marketing chops (or the platform) not to need a press's help. I don't really have a platform, and I definitely have zero marketing chops. But I understand Medium, I wasn't trying to sell anything, what I'd written was short and appealing, and I have a decent social network now.

Lessons. Expertise. Hanging around and listening.

And the problem is that I have no time, I have no time, my life is exploding with opportunities and good news and books to read and people to meet and topics to write about and essays to think about and experiences to have, but what do I do about feeling unmoored and torn in two? Prioritizing writing (REALLY DOING THAT, not lip-servicing that) is one thing; truly having the physical space to unroll my creativity (such a blessing!) is a second thing; keeping the parts of my life from falling in on each other, like cards set against each other too perilously, is a completely other thing, a thing on the other side of some kind of line.

Yet I have the evidence that it is worthwhile. That it is happening, that it has its own momentum now. People are clapping for my Medium story. [redacted]. That's tangible, visible.

From certain political perspectives, the world is kind of burning down a little bit. 2017 has been a very bad year for many of my friends and loved ones. But my shit is blowing up, as the kids say, in 2017, and I feel guilty and grateful in equal measure. What do I do with that? How do I arrange my face? How do I square my next publication announcement with the next school shooting? As ever, life is all things happening at once, not tidily portioned out as in a math problem.

Enough rambling. I have work to do.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Anatomy of an Essay

Last time we were together, I pointed you toward this essay I wrote, which the Los Angeles Review (online) saw fit to publish. I am so glad about this, because it's a very LA-steeped story, from the location to the pretentious people to the title being a riff on Joan Didion,* who's always prominent in picture collages of LA writers.

People who've read it have asked me how much of it is fictionalized. The answer is almost none. The parts where the sentences begin with "I imagine" are not true to life, and I changed a name due to circumstances too tangled to explain. But the rest I described as I saw it. You can go to the Standard Hotel, 550 S. Flower Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071, if you don't believe me, and see the well-dressed douchebags and vagina waterbed pods for yourself. I wrote it with a starkness, an aggressiveness, that is not my usual register, and I juxtaposed things kind of unnaturally to make a series of points, and I don't have, like, JAMA studies proving the thing about babies and yellow (though the internet has loads of information about that - I didn't just make it up). But everything I describe in the story happened the way I describe.

You can see the aforementioned pods in the left center of this photo. 

The backstory: two friends were staying at the Standard. They'd come to LA for AWP in March-April of 2016. We were joined in the restaurant by two additional friends, one in town for the same reason but staying elsewhere, the other a resident of Los Angeles; the LA friend stayed for the rooftop experience while the other friend left. That's why the numbers and names get a little jumbled. Trying to explain these circumstances artfully sounded less appealing than just letting it dangle.

The three of us, the two friends staying at the Standard and I, made much of the insane patriarchal environment of the hotel while we were there. It wasn't something I noticed, alone, afterward, and decided to explore. All of us talked about it, laughed about it, yelled about it, and all of us wrote essays. The original plan was to see if someone would publish all three of them, three different takes on the same experience. That didn't work out, alas, but I still love the idea.

I wrote mine pretty quickly, and pretty soon after the event. Not much of my usual stewing & brewing. I wrote it in time to hand it in as a final project for one of my CSUN classes in late April or early May, and I read some aloud to the class. They laughed, and gasped, and asked me how much of it was true.

Then I sent it out - only, as it happens, to the Los Angeles Review. It seemed so intrinsically an LA story that I didn't know if any of my other goal publications would give a damn about it. My memory is that I waited a while to see if my friends wanted to send their essays out too, and once that possibility closed, I'd missed the open submissions period for the LAR and had to wait a few more months. I sent it in late November of 2016, six or seven months after I finished it, and I got a positive reply in mid-June of 2017, about seven months later, and it appeared in August of 2017, not quite a year and a half after the events in it.  On this occasion I wasn't deterred by revision time; the piece was hardly edited at all from how I initially set it down. (Sometimes that happens. Usually not.)

Above: the anatomy of an essay, from inspiration to publication. I'm explaining this because I rarely have such a strong, fact- and date-based memory of how a piece came to be, and such specific detail feels helpfully illustrative to me. This was an easy go, aside from the lag time between finishing & sending and between sending & hearing back.

It isn't always so. A fraught piece I have on my mind right now, about Woody Allen - I don't remember which of the news stories I read about him inspired it, and I don't remember when I drafted it, or whether I edited it with a strategy or not. I have information in my email about when I submitted it and when a publication asked for revisions, and I can tell you exactly why I've been putting off doing those revisions ( = they're too hard). But the beginnings are murkier, and that's the norm for me.

Sometimes I use this blog as a primary source for research on when I wrote things and how I worked on them. But in the last couple of years I have become unhelpfully vague, here, about the stuff I'm working on. Part of this is because my writing practice has changed, grown looser (lazier?), become more binge-y than bit-by-bit-y. I can't tell a serial story about any of it: the idea comes in one day and the essay whooshes out two days (or six months) later, in one big blurt, so there's nothing to say.

Another part is that Caitlin Moran thing when you stop talking to your friends about the guy. My writing process is much less interesting to me now than all the other stuff I've taken to writing about on this blog, and anyway it can't be that unique: I sit down and I write, or I stare at the page, or I read my own words and try to figure out how to replace them with better ones. Sometimes this takes place in longhand, and sometimes I type. Sometimes deadlines help me, but mostly they don't. I hit the same walls a lot: running out of enthusiasm for the idea I started with, feeling like I don't have enough time to do justice to an idea, finding I don't have enough load-bearing walls to build a room. If this isn't interesting to me, surely it isn't to you.

This blog still interests me, for the record. But I'm in the process of determining how to use it for anything other than a promotional tool. I was thinking of explaining a significant hour I spent on the road between I-10 and Mecca, California, but I might knead it into an essay instead. I wanted to talk about my experience at a writing workshop in Santa Fe, but I don't want to step on the toes of the people I met there. The more topics I come up with, the more I divert them away from this space, for one reason or another. It's a puzzle, but I'll solve it.

*After I announced this influence in my newsletter (are you subscribed to my newsletter?), a helpful person pointed out that Yeats originated the phrase "slouching towards Bethlehem," and Didion appropriated it. This is true. However, the appropriation is arguably more famous at this time than the origin, and there's more than a little Los Angeles in that.