Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Evidence, Part II

WELL. WHAT A MONTH IT'S BEEN.

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.