Posted on December 29, 2015
Photo Credit: Unsplash
People ask me how I am and say, oh, you know. Dying slowly. I wake and fall asleep to this tedium and the only thing that’s changed in the past twenty years is the fact that I’ve become accustomed to it. I no longer need to adjust my eyes to the dark because the night is persistent. I am here and I am dead, yet I’m walking. Look at me—a stoplight, a lamppost, an old chair in dire need of upholstery. Turn me on and off like that lamp on the table, and watch as the bulb flickers and fades until one day it flares out.
The night he left, he said cruel things, horrible things you can’t imagine, and he followed me into the shower, photographing me. He took pictures of me crying through the frosted glass, even as I begged him not to. He said you look alive when you’re in pain. When I slept he poured a jar of ants onto my bed and he filmed me when I woke, screaming. He sat on top of me and fanned the camera from left to right. Look at you, Ava. You’re practically ultraviolet. I love watching them crawl all over your face, scurrying in and out of your hair. It was only when I was suffering did I come into color. I was all gray and black light, but that night, with the ants covering me, I was suddenly vermillion, emerald, and actinic blue.
Sometimes I hate myself for missing him. Don’t say his name—don’t even think it. Other times I allow myself to remember how his jaw moved like tectonic plates when he chewed, and his sour breath in my hair. [It starts with a J. Full stutter out—James.] Now all I feel are the crackle of bones beneath my skin. When I close my mouth I taste ashes. My body is a grave.
A year after he left, a woman fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand and my building caught fire. I woke to the alarm blaring and when I reached for the broom to dismantle the thing [the hurt seized you], I smelled smoke. I felt heat rising up all around me, and light beside me. I grabbed my wallet, coat, and keys and made a run for it. Outside my feet curled in the snow. Socks. I’d forgotten them. A week later, a detective stood in the middle of my friend Millie’s apartment, picking up and putting down things as if claiming ownership of them. I was smoking a Newport and pulling at the edges of a skirt that no longer fit. The detective pointed to the smoke and said it was your bed, your cigarette. Your fire, Ava. Are you telling me you didn’t happen to notice that your bed was in flames? I shook my head. Shrugged. I knew there was a fire, I just didn’t know whom it belonged to. Besides, I was half-awake, drunk [black-out drunk, if you’re being honest], and thought maybe the super cranked up the heat for once. It felt nice to come home to a room where warmth cradled you.
No one pressed charges because the building owner took the insurance money and bought a house in the Keys [lady, you did me a favor; wolf-whistles all down the street], and the detectives had all been pulled in to work on a case of a serial killer who harvested his victims’ organs and left John Donne poems in place of what he had removed. Poor Donne. He never had a chance with that Cockney accent, and with Keats and Shelley fluffing their wigs and feasting on spiced lamb. Writing rich boy poems about how small they were. It reminded me of all my friends who would tell me about their sadness. They would talk about finding themselves lost in a place where cartographers failed to map, and I had to laugh because what they felt was a stopover in small town—a trembling pause in their overly illuminated life—while the dark spaces were my point of origin. They had their dark time while swathed by their money, husbands and families in waiting while I had nothing. So while I don’t understand the serial killer’s nocturnal habits, I understand the poet’s desperation. I understand a man who had to wade his way through an ocean with only a pen while others had ships, first mates, and clear skies.
A week later I flew to Los Angeles.
Will you always be your singular hurt? [Interruption—I am small, like sonnets and the architecture smothers.] Will there exist a time when you are no longer the weight you carry? Tell me, how is it that you’re able to excise so coldly? Was it because the wings you tore off flies made you sad? Observe their paraplegic limbs miming flight with a kind of disquiet—the depths of which only you know. [In contrast, my grief is epic poetry.] Or was it the way you arranged your hair—a fugue of roller-set curls covering a half-mask, your sadness filling the gaps. When it’s calm and the sun blows out, you can make a run for it. But before you go, ask yourself: why did he turn away from you? Was it because you shone too bright? Your eyes take on the quality of black matter and you press them shut in hopes that you can stop the flood, the inevitable tears. Like carp, you surface briefly for air only to plunge into the deep again. You’re wearing that lipstick again [I’ve got a taste for the manufacture and packaging of bruises]: a red slash on your lips against a landscape of bone-white and blue. You are forever covered in wounds.
You are worthless. You’re nothing, but how is that you still take up so much space? Don’t speak to me that way. In what way am I speaking? The way you always speak to me. I don’t want to do this now; my face hurts. How is it that I’m the only one who can feel my bones? Can you please not make me talk right now? I’d prefer to not talk. I’d prefer to pinch the skin on my body until the blood collects until it appears as if I’m bleeding beneath the surface because I am. Bleeding. These are the times when I hate you, immeasurably. Immeasurably? [Raucous laughter, rising to a cackle] Just stop. You’ve never been good at math and you’ve never liked me, James. Sometimes you make me feel like I don’t exist.
You don’t exist, Ava. Haven’t you been listening? I close my eyes and think about my mother—my first country, the only place I inhabited completely. I was a sliver of her continent, part of her main.
Back then, James and I lived in a basement apartment. We couldn’t tell when the sun rose or set. I liked that—the confusion. Sometimes he brought girls home and I’d have to sit and watch as he combed their hair, cut it, and shoved bits of it into my mouth. Swallow, pretty girl, he told me. Get every last bite. After he said, next time, can you wear that dress with the lace sleeves? I hate that dress, it makes me look like a doily. Ava, do you realize how fatuous you sound? A fucking doily? You used to be fun. You used to amuse me and now you’re a walking refugee camp. Can’t you do this one simple thing for me, after everything, everything, I’ve done for you? His voice was an avalanche I was desperate to tumble under. Ava, what’s the problem? If it makes you feel better, next time I’ll get one of those frail girls. Maybe an anorexic—they always have thinning hair and rings around their eyes.
Did you think I was pretty while I was choking on that girl’s hair when you didn’t even stop to get me a glass of water? I remember you. You wrote me a letter on the back of a Chinese take-out menu, and it was about how you spent months watching me. How you followed me to the ocean once. Watched me swim against the waves that were blue, green, salty and cool. You wrote about the pelicans that surrounded me as I sprawled out on the shoreline, my body a ticker tape of hurt desperate to be carried out by the wind and the undertow. And, all this time, I fell in love with a man who wrote me a letter, who delivered evidence of his devotion, and I never stopped to consider its contents. I never found it strange that a stranger was watching me because maybe I was happy just to have been watched. Now I watch what you do to younger versions of me. Take me back to that letter, James. Tell me one nice thing about me. James sighed, and with a scissor, he cut the ends off my hair. Your name is easy to spell, was all he could fathom after three years of being the light that blared over my bed.
What is it that you think you’ve done for me? I want to ask, but I don’t.
When I was ten, my mother took me for lunch in a small luncheonette on Long Island—far from the Jackson Heights apartment in which we lived. The luncheonette stood at the end of a long line of empty stores that flashed For Lease or Going Out of Business signs. We only had to walk a few feet from the train station to view the shack with its peeling green paint and faded Pepsi signs. A placard reminiscent of the 1950s read: Hot coffee and a buttered bagel for $.50! This was the sort of place where everything arrived frozen and left torched. I kept asking why this place, why here, and my mother shook her head and cried out: you’re killing me. Ava. Murder in the first.
Inside, a man sat in a booth tearing apart a blueberry muffin. What had the muffin done to deserve such aggression? I stood behind my mother and wrapped my arms around her small waist as she streaked across the room to the table where he sat. On a giant plate lie the remains of his breakfast—a massacre of berries and cake. The man didn’t eat his food, it was more like he attacked it and took pleasure in surveying the destruction. When I edged into the booth across from him, he pushed his plate toward me and said, have some. I didn’t want a muffin; I wanted a cheeseburger! I’m allergic, I said, to which he responded, the whole or parts of it? The man laughed and proceeded to flick blueberries at my mother who laughed while shielding her face and said, my daughter has a casual relationship with the truth. I’m allergic to all of it, I said.
This is Martin, my mother said by way of introduction. I know that voice, it was the same one she used when she introduced my father to people we didn’t know. It was the voice of intimacy, of possession; this is someone you need to know. This was the voice that would alter the days following this one. What kind of name is Martin? I said. The kind of name you’ll be hearing a lot more of, he replied, adjusting his Marlboro man cap to further obscure his gray eyes. Martin owned a fleet of trucks that ran food deliveries all over Long Island, which I imagined was a leap from my father who owned a grocery store that sold lottery tickets and malt liquor on Elmhurst Blvd. When we were flush, which was rare considering everyone in the neighborhood bought on credit, my father would take us to Chinese restaurants in Flushing or Indian restaurants in the East Village, where I’d stare at the carousel of blinking lights until I passed out. Money didn’t mean luncheonettes in beat-up villages. Money didn’t mean caps that shielded a man’s eyes.
That day I ordered French fries and snapped each one in half and imagined Martin’s bones. I held up a fry and said, with eyes black and cold like certain seas, look how easily you break.
On the ride home, my mother told me she was giving me the choice she never had. I could either come live with her and Martin or remain in Queens with my father because she was done with her primary life. It was as if she’d found Jesus in Martin and was desperate to be reborn. I pictured Martin twitching; I imagined him choking on a mountain of ruined muffins. I remember the way he kissed my mother and how he left her face slick like oil spills. I was ten but I remember feeling lethal. I remember feeling that it wouldn’t be safe for me to be alone with Martin. Safe for him, that is.
That day in the luncheonette I never had my cheeseburger, but I bought one the day my mother lugged two suitcases down five flights of stairs to a taxi that waited outside. I went to McDonald’s and ordered the two cheeseburger meal, and I unwrapped the burgers slowly, delicately, and after I was done, after I’d eaten the meat, drank the cola and devoured the salty fries, I tore off bits of paper and cardboard and tossed them out the window like confetti. When my mother left, my father cried every night in his room for six months straight. I’d hear the guttural wails, his anguish, and whenever I soft-knuckled the door and said, pop are you okay, pop what can I do, he swallowed his cries and said he was fine, just fine, and could I be a good girl and get him a beer out of the fridge? I tucked him into his bed when I was fourteen and made his dinner and combed his hair when I was nineteen, and still he never recovered. The problem with me is that I think people are good, he once said. No one is good, pop. When will you learn this? My father never resumed his former shape, and sometimes I’d ride the subway out to Brighton Beach because only the waves rivaled my anger.
My mother sent postcards from a town called Elmont. Why did she send postcards? Did she consider her abandonment a vacation for which she was long overdue? Whenever I thought my wounds were closing up, she’d find a way to jab her fingers back in. Over the years, I sent her newspaper clippings of murdered women—photographs of necks bruised, eyes gaped wide, and the requisite high school portraits that evoked the emotional refrain of: observe her purity and innocence—until there came a day when the postcards stopped coming. The morning of my high school graduation I mailed her my last clipping. It was the story of a young girl who hung herself from a tree. I remember the lamentation, the pieta practiced by the evening news and mourners. The cries of: she had so much to live for; she left us too soon. They spoke of the child’s suicide as a theft, and everyone—the Home Depot location from which she purchased the rope to her parents for giving her an allowance to purchase said rope—was accountable. I wept sad clown tears.
Underneath the girl’s class photo, I scrawled: After you left me. A decade later, long after I had moved out of my childhood home, my father handed me an envelope and inside were five words that had been written by my mother: I gave you a choice.
My friend Millie phones to warn me that the cannibalistic serial killer has expanded his footprint. Apparently, New York is too cold and dark in the winter, and he’s moved on to sunshine and bones bleached white from the sun. Already he’s gouging hearts and dropping sonnets along the 405. I tell Millie that I’ll take my chances. And besides, odds are James will get to me first. He phones to tell me he’s in L.A. for a thing and would I hook up with him after? James says he wants to make sure I haven’t brought my fire-starter proclivities out west. Would it be rude if he rolls up to my apartment with a fire extinguisher and a condom? I tell him I’m busy, and he says that I’ll come around in a few hours because Ava always comes around. Before I hang up I wonder aloud if he’s the man who’s going around putting innocent women on the menu, and he laughs and says he’s strictly a hair man. Have you kept your hair long, Ava? James asks. His voice is as smooth as mirrors. I can’t see you tonight, James. Even the slightest contact with you will break bones. [Start brewing your detachment; shrink down to fairy size.] You can’t call me anymore.
You’re the saddest little bird, he says. Leave your door unlocked—I’ll come by late.
He’s got cards missing from the deck is all I’m saying, said Millie when she first met James. Your man only just met me and already he’s running his fingers through my hair, and you know how I feel about people touching me, especially my hair. Back then I brushed her off, told her James didn’t know the rules, but she wasn’t buying it. Millie drew an imaginary circle around her body and said, this is my space and you don’t get an all-access pass unless you’re on the guest list. And there he was acting all VIP, practically drop-kicking the bouncers at the door. I told Millie she was being dramatic and she countered with I’m being honest. That man doesn’t know his limits—he doesn’t understand that there are places to which he’s not permitted to go. I don’t know, Ava. Haven’t you grown tired of loving the stampede?
By the way, I didn’t want to tell you this because I knew it might upset you. Mission accomplished, I snapped, cutting her off in mid-sentence. No, it’s not about James. It’s about your mother. I saw her the other day holding a little girl’s hand, and the girl looked just like you.
This isn’t news, Millie. You’re not telling me something I don’t already know. Later that night in James’s bed I said, tell me you love me. And he turned to me with eyes shuttering and black and said, tell me you love me. He pulled my hair and said, look at you shivering, my little haiku.
A month later I ran into the man who raped me. I don’t know if rape is the right word because his shouting yes was louder than my no, so maybe he never heard my refusal. After, he brought me a glass of cold water and rubbed the sides of my feet. On that day, I saw him I was with James and the man who raped me was bouncing an infant on his knee. The little girl wore a pink puffer jacket and white socks with lace sewn around the ankles, and James smirked when the man, seated across from us, asked of his daughter: so who’s my little girl? The child reached for the man with outstretched arms and all she could say was Daddy. There should be a law against this kind of male blubbering, James said. I opened a book, but didn’t read it, and when the man who raped me reached his spot, he carried his girl gently in his arms and I leaned my head on James’s shoulder and said, that man raped me. James nodded and said he wasn’t surprised.
Before I left for Los Angeles, I stopped cold in front of a photograph that flashed across my television screen. It was the man who raped me and his neck had been cut from ear to ear, and the only reason he was found so quickly was because his daughter was screaming in the back seat. When the police arrived at the scene, they took a photograph of the child and samples for forensics because someone had scrawled, using her father’s blood, the letters N and O on her cheeks. The killer slipped a CD into the car stereo—Nirvana’s Nevermind, which played on repeat until one of the officers on the scene pressed the Stop button.
Who’s the kid that answered the phone—a repeat of me?
I gave you a choice, Ava.
Is that what you gave me, you fucking animal?
I have to hang up now, Ava. I have to go.
Tell me, where does everyone go when they say they have to go?
I have to go, Ava.
Stop saying my name like that…
Like you’re trying hard to remember it.
I have to go.
So go, I said. You little world, that made me so cunningly.
In Los Angeles, there is no rain, only sun, and James slips into bed beside me and bites the back of my neck. I tell him I’m tired and he tells me he’s tired too, so we lay in a kind of half-sleep for hours until the darkness overcomes us and forces our eyes shut. When I wake, he’s gone, but he’s left a note, which reads: I loved you in my own way.
I stand in the shower for fifteen minutes before I turn off the water and sit on the floor with a towel specked with blood. I look at the towel. I look between my legs and I wonder whether this is my blood. Does this blood belong to me? Your fire, Ava. Are you telling me you didn’t happen to notice that your bed was in flames? I call James and tell him there’s blood on my towel. The line breeds static and James says, you and your convenient memory. You don’t know how much I miss you. Burn the towel in the tub and get some sleep. What happened to the guy who wrote me a love letter on a Chinese take-out menu? James’s pause was measured and pregnant, punctuated the blare of horns on the freeway. I never wrote you a letter, Ava. You wrote me. Don’t you remember?
I burn the towel. I get some sleep. I’m a good girl; I do as I’m told.
I think he’s in my head again, messing things up, I tell Millie over a telephone line. I tell her about the phone call, the bed, and the blood on the towel. After a familiar pregnant pause Millie says, that’s impossible. James wasn’t in L.A. last night. And how do you know this? Because he was with me, but before you freak out it’s not what you think. You don’t even want to know what I’m thinking. Ava, listen to me. I’m hanging up the phone, Millie.
I leave James 26 voicemails. He calls back and in a small voice he says, Ava, you gotta stop calling me. I hurl my phone across the room and shout, who’s the haiku now? I’ll see you in time.
I text Millie: I am two fools, I know.
This is the latest installment in Ava’s voice, which has been really fun to write. This is a pure first draft, so I’ll likely be making a pile of edits. Check out “Women in Salt” if you’re pining for more.
Posted on December 21, 2015
There will always be books to read. When I was younger there was a thrill in entering Waldenbooks. For hours, I’d get lost in the stacks or find a place in which to hide with my pile of books that I was already in the thick of reading. We didn’t have malls in Brooklyn–King’s Plaza–but nothing significant, and when my family moved to Long Island, malls awed me. They were gleaming and grand, and even though I couldn’t afford anything in the stores I’d still wander through them. They all had that new car smell. Sometimes I’d splurge on an Auntie Anne’s cinnamon sugar pretzel, slathered in hot butter or I’d feast on a Johnny Rockets cheeseburger back when I believed Johnny Rockets made a good burger. This was before the world. This was before context and seemingly endless choices. This was when Waldenbooks had the best books.
Back then I didn’t know what a “literary canon” meant. I didn’t know that there were writers you had to read or know. I read what interested me. I read Dostoyevsky alongside Pat Conroy and Alice Eliott Dark. I picked up Ann Beattie’s Where You’ll Find Me because the cover put me on pause. It was austere, bleached bone, and somber. I liked Flowers in the Attic and found Flowers for Algernon, and realized that maybe they weren’t so dissimilar. I read all of Ayn Rand until I realized that Ayn Rand was a bucket of crazy even if she knew how to tell a story. What I read was pretty much determined by my reaction to the first page of a book. If I didn’t like the first page or even the first sentence, why bother? I asked cashiers to recommend books based on ones I’d read and enjoyed. I read books mostly written by men because that’s what I read throughout high school and college. I was taught that men wrote the “big books”, the “great stories” while women wrote the quiet ones. It wasn’t until I was 24 and in the writing program at Columbia did I encounter bombastic, brilliant women. Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf (and no, I’d never read her work until graduate school), Gertrude Stein, Carole Maso, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Mary Gaitskill, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, and I could go on. Until then I read books written by the dead, mostly, with some genre and sparse contemporary fiction for good measure. It’s hard to explain that there was a bliss in this ignorance, of not being aware of canon and the writers “one should read” (although now I think all of it is pretty much subjective bullshit, anyway).
Until then I read books written by the dead, mostly, with some genre and sparse contemporary fiction for good measure. It’s hard to explain that there was a bliss in this ignorance, of not being aware of canon and the writers “one should read” (although now I think all of it is pretty much subjective bullshit, anyway). Until then I didn’t know the disdain that “literary fiction” writers had for genre fiction, the tension between the books that sold well and were reviewed well. I didn’t put too much stock in book reviews because I frequently disagreed with them. I liked books people didn’t like and hated ones people revered. I read what pleased me and it would take me well over a decade to undo the snobbery I had taken for truth. Now I read whatever satisfies me in the present moment and know that a book’s value lies in the way that it gives a certain kind of pleasure to the reader or how it transforms them in some unimaginable way. I read mostly to see the world through someone else’s prism, and I write to make sense of the world in which I exist, a world that is often wonderful, frightening and confusing. I read and write to see what could be done with language, how it could be architecture or surgery.
I’ve read 52 books this year, most of them written by women, many of them poetry collections and children’s books. I love the latter because both genres require a velocity and precision that’s demonstrably absent from other genres. A child has a short attention span so the work of a children’s book lies in both the economy and simplicity of language balanced by story movement and images that transport the child into an imaginative place. People who think children’s books are easy to write are fucking bonkers. I wouldn’t dare because I’d complicate the story in some way or use an image that would send a toddler to psychotherapy. I tend to look at safe objects and wonder how I can make them unsafe or unsettling–if that doesn’t happen on the page for me, I’m not interested in the characters or story. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure, and we stare in awe of it as it coolly disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying, Rilke writes in the first of the ten Duino Elegies.
George Saunders says that a real writer makes you feel uncomfortable, he’s kind of a freak. “Uncomfortable moments are not without value…because they make you feel luminous”. And I agree with that. The stories that have remained with me have made me feel unsettled, uncomfortable or uneasy in some way. I cleave to difficult, broken people. I like writing and reading about them.
I’m not blog-famous, and that’s okay. I don’t have a literary community and haven’t found these communities to be particularly inclusive and supportive though I dare say they would say they are all the way to the grave. I find most best-of book lists to be ridiculous because best is merely a subjective reflection of one’s taste and cultural access (or lack thereof). So I think about next year, what I’ll read and write, and I have an urge to re-read the Classics because no one does tragedy and pillaging better than the Ancient Romans and Greeks. I want to read stories that wouldn’t easily slip into my purview (meaning, I have to do the work in finding works in translation, works from POC, those not aligning with a binary gender). I want to read more children’s books and poems because both give me great joy in moments of grave darkness.
In terms of writing, I want to create stories that straddle genres. I love the blurred lines between fiction and non-fiction and the fallibility of memory. I’ve become oddly curious about dark matter and neurology and not sure how that will factor in. I still like my broken, flawed women and will continue to champion dark stories and characters even when the world tells me that they won’t sell, no one will read them. Next year I’d like to collaborate with a visual artist in some way, get better at taking pictures, and allow for different, varied voices in my work. Moreso than I’ve been writing as of late.
Sometimes I think back to those days in the mall, on the floor of Waldenbooks. I think about how much I didn’t know, and even though much has filled the space between that girl then and that woman now, there’s still so much to learn. There’s always so much to know in the brief time we’re able to know it. So this is the work. Always be the student and never posture as a pure teacher.
Posted on December 17, 2015
Who shows a child just as it stands? Who places him within his constellation, with the measuring-rod of distance in his hand. Who makes his death from gray bread that grows hard, -or leaves it there inside his rounded mouth, jagged as the core of a sweet apple? The minds of murderers are easily comprehended. But this: to contain death, the whole of death, even before life has begun, to hold it all so gently within oneself, and not be angry: that is indescribable. –From Rilke’s Duino Elegies, 4th
I read a moving piece that intertwines fiction and life, a move to another state and the stories we carry to get us through the shifts we feel between A and B. Part of me lies a cheek against her cool words and then I remember she’s still young, still starting out, and this loneliness, this wide-eyed affection for New York will be replaced by other affections, other loneliness, possible company. When I read her piece I still see the possibility, hope and desire, but if I were to write something similar you would feel the amphibian chill of a loneliness that sustains. The days repeat themselves with minor variations. My words might feel like flesh wounds. So I don’t write them. I just draft a list of books I’ve read and a few words that remind me why I read them. I finished Fates & Furies yesterday, and I wish it was the sort of book I could write had I had the knowledge of a marriage–the in of it. They smell that blood in the water, they’re going to hunt the bleeder down. Not their fault. They can’t help it. What kind of shark is a shark that doesn’t attack?
I read this and think that I need to learn to be a shark, but I tried that once and the graft didn’t stick. Instead, I became the thing that was circled, consumed. George Saunders says that a “real writer makes you feel uncomfortable.” Maybe I’m doing something right?
Today I arrive a half-hour early for my follow-up, post-surgery appointment. I’m forever early because I fear being late, so I stop at a Le Pain Quotidian and decide on a jam scone because I haven’t had a scone in over a year and why not a scone? Behind me, a woman taps her feet, impatient, because the line is moving slower than she’d like it to, and she looks at my scone with such disgust and inquiries in a loud voice if there’s anything in the store that’s low-fat. The man behind the counter shakes his head and says these are organic pastries. There’s not much by way of low-fat. Ten minutes later I sit in a dermatologist office, eating my pastry while a woman who is perhaps too thin for her frame is prepping for her latest procedure. And I wonder what’s left after fat? Marrow burrowed within bone? Why does this fucking scone bear more weight than it should? I think about this as I walk the seven miles home to Santa Monica.
On the way, I read an essay on my phone. Who we become physically moves faster than how our minds perceive us. We play a game of catch up between the world in front of us and the story of ourselves that plays out in our head. Manson writes:
People who were bullied growing up and go on to become the smartest, nicest, and most interesting dude at the company Christmas party, yet they still harbor this overwhelming sense that nobody really likes them, that it’s all fake and unreal and unearned and undeserved, and that in the end, everybody’s going to wind up hurting them. So they don’t let anyone get close to them. No matter how loved they are, they can’t ever let anybody get too close.
I think about that a lot, and what Manson writes rings true. I harbor massive steamships and I move like glaciers. This week I told someone that one of my greatest fears is being average, mediocre, second-rate. That all this work has been for naught. That I’ll write books that mean nothing, posts that don’t translate, take on jobs that do nothing but encourage people to consume. That I’ll let the noise drown out my need to find wonder and purpose. So I write down all the things I’ve done, everything I’ve created and I try not to judge it. I try not to say oh, that book wasn’t that good. I try not to say, oh, that person who used to work for me is more successful professionally–even though she’s earned it, deserves it. I try not to give what I’ve created context because I start thinking about competition. I start reducing what I’ve done to its parts–phantom limbs–and I tell myself to keep writing down what I’ve accomplished. Read this list out loud whenever you’re blue–regardless of how fatuous you feel in doing so.
After viewing Sylvia Plath’s childhood manuscripts, I’m sad that so much of what I created in childhood is gone or scattered in Long Island or hidden in stacks of paper in my closet. And if I drew a line through my work, chartered that life, I would see a girl in various stages of undress.
If I want to create maybe I should get off the internet? I’ve already made a conscious choice to dial down my rage blackouts on twitter because I’m learning that it’s getting me nowhere. Even when I read stories like these and brilliant articles like this, I collect and learn instead of spew. I’m thinking my energies could best be channeled into creating things that matter.
Years ago my friend Nicolette gave me a copy of Rilke’s Elegies for my birthday. The inscription was from 2001, I had just turned 25. Perhaps she sensed my despair and how I started to drift away from God–returning to a belief that this life is all that we really have. And therein lies the tension of living a life, filling your days with words, knowledge, and beauty instead of simply allowing them to pass. I’m in this space that feels paused (but not really, because time inexorably passes) and I know I could be doing more. I could be moving to B. I could be creating.
Tomorrow I’m turning 40 and I’ll be offline for most of the day. This is all strange and weird, and it’s okay to feel this while listening to this.
Image Credit: Death to the Stock Photo.
Posted on December 6, 2015
2002, from what I remember, was a rough year. I finally recovered from a two-year off + on cocaine addiction, I was still on leave from Columbia and I was in a particularly fragile place. What I do recall is writing a list of 50 things I wanted to do that would focus on creating something instead of destroying everything. That was the year I launched an online literary journal, Small Spiral Notebook, I got serious about writing my first book, and I absolved to read a book a week. The idea behind this was if I was immersed in great work, I’d create it, and in that first year I read 80 books, and every year since I’ve made a point to document all the books I’ve read in an effort to remember them. The books served as emotional and professional bookmarks, and looking back it was easy to see why I chose the books I did–I was reading stories of people who had journeyed through a similar dark country in which I still waded through.
If I look back on the books I read this year, it becomes clear that I’m desperate for an awakening. All the children’s books represented my relentless pursuit of awe and the non-fiction books were meditations on character, quiet, and solitude–cultivating a fertile ground from which to grow. I have some reading goals for next year (especially after reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s essay on learning Italian): finding more works-in-translation, reading more from the POC, gay and transgender communities. While I naturally cleave to fiction and stories, I’m making a point to read smart reportage and narrative non-fiction.
So here we go. A snapshot of nearly all the books I read in 2015. I know I left some out (I’m scanning my shelves and I’ll add more as I remember them), but you get the gist. Hope this makes for good reading recommendations!
Posted on November 25, 2015
Note to self: don’t drink fancy local trade coffee at 8pm and binge-watch Jessica Jones. You’ll stay up until four in the morning, flipping through episodes on Netflix while reading through Pank, comforted there are others who write strange, miraculous fiction.
I’ve just finished a draft of an exciting new project. I’ve got the words down but the visual and multimedia aspects aren’t quite there–essentially this is text with customized/commissioned illustrations and images, not the full spectrum I’m trying to achieve. I’ve published a few pieces here, which you can read at your leisure. Part of me wrestles with the joy this project has brought me and the desire for people to read my work–it’s not a new struggle by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to prioritize lasting and fleeting joys. The deep joy is in the creation, collaboration and assembly. The fleeting is in the work’s reception. I have to remind myself, daily, that the success of what I do is not predicated on the velocity of its online movement or perception. If I tether myself to the applause I also have to accept the jeers. I also have to remind myself that I’m playing in a space where inbalance still exists, where women are perceived as good if they’re writing toward white men. I have to wonder if my work will be harder to push into the world because I’m not popular, I don’t have a writerly tribe, I’m not part of the elite, I’m not purely white, and male. But on I go, you know?
The story of my life is wanting what I cannot have or, perhaps, wanting what I dare not allow myself to have. —Roxane Gay
I started seeing a psychiatrist this week (I don’t plan to go into any detail here other than to say I’m focusing on getting well), and he asked me what I wanted from our work. I said two things: not to feel this way, and, more importantly, not to use the words love and loss interchangeably. To return to the things that bring my joy (baking, cooking, photography). Last night, I spent hours on Stocksy (check out my friend Lauren’s work–isn’t she marvelous?!) and I marveled over the talent of teenagers in Slovenia and women in Nebraska. How they have the ability to make you see by the photos they take with a lens. That’s what an artist does–makes you see how they interpret the world, and I wish I had the ability to move through image and type seamlessly. Perhaps because it’ll make this project I’m working on easier. If I could just do it on my own.
I suppose that’s my view on most things–why can’t I just do it by myself, alone?
This morning I baked a bundt cake, trying slowly to return. I curled up next to my cat, existing between the space between sleeping and waking, the space between loving to bake and making myself do it to feel. So that I could see.
INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito’s Baked Explorations
3 cups gluten-free flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, separated
2 cups organic cane sugar
1 cup plain yogurt
3/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
freshly grated zest of 2 oranges
1 teaspoon vanilla paste or 1 1/2 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter and flour a 1o-inch bundt pan
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the egg yolks until they are pale and light; slowly pour in the sugar until it is completely incorporated. Add the yogurt and olive oil and mix until thoroughly combined. Add the orange zest and vanilla, and mix until just incorporated.
Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients in two parts, beating after each addition or until just combined (this will take about 10 seconds). Scrape down the bowl and beat again for 5 seconds.
In another large bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Scoop 1 cup of the egg whites into the batter. use a rubber spatula to gently fold them in. After about 30 seconds of folding, add the remaining egg whites and gently fold until they are almost completely combined. Do not rush the folding process.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 – 50 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, or until a small sharp knife inserted into the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Gently loosen the sides of the cake from the pan (I sometimes use and offset spatula for this) and turn it onto the rack. Just before Serving, dust the cake with the confestions sugar. The cake can be stored at room temperature, covered tightly for about 3 days.
Posted on November 23, 2015
I wrote a book. I’m in the darkest hours I’ve known and this book came like a torrent. I can’t take on major work projects because I can’t focus, and I can’t tattoo tiny smiles on my face for the people who want me cured, transactional, and normal again–but I can write a book of linked stories that I dare say is better than the novel that I’m set to publish next year. And I wrote 180 good pages, 48,000 words in two months. It took me a lifetime to write my first book, two years on my second, and both endured major surgeries, required backup generators, and defibrillators on standby. This book simply came, effortlessly, and I printed these pages and stared at them thinking, what the fuck is this? Words, illustrations, and photographs surround me on the day I’ve embarked on turning my mental beat around. Frankly, I don’t know what to do with this just yet because it’s not visually ready (although the story is there and it’s sound albeit in need of copy-editing), but it’s something that suggests an urgency. It’s something that needs to be doing something. It’s not like anything else I’ve written that requires cooling on a rack. Part of me is nervous about sharing a story collection with my agent without giving him a roofie first because…story collection and book publishing and yawn and fucking yawn some more. Part of me wonders how this project would have taken shape had I had more money, and then I realize I’ve enough saved for rent and the idea of one of these crowdsourcing campaigns feels unseemly, the equivalent to elegant panhandling and if there’s one aspect of my personality that’s stubborn it’s my inability to ask for help because that means I’m beholden to someone. I owe someone something and I honestly hate the idea of art as a card game, art as arbitrage, leverage. Not being beholden means this can be as strange as it needs to be. Part of me is like, fuck it, I’ll publish this whole thing online knowing maybe 5 people will read it. And part of me wonders if that still matters to me. I don’t want what to tell you other than I have this thing and it’s arrived and it’s doing the thing that newborns do–fucking cry to make themselves known, heard, cared for. This isn’t a call for advice, honestly, it’s just an update on the strange happenings going on in my life.
Posted on November 10, 2015
Nobody told Marlon that he would grow up hustling rock. He was thirty years old when he died, but he had the face of a boy fresh out of the crib leaping onto the playground. Kicking sand out of sandboxes and twisting the iron chains that held up tire swings. Yet underneath his skin you’d find scales webbing from his hands to the small of his back and cartons of cigarettes smoked down to the filter. Meaning, he came out of the womb all Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? even though he was far from the aging actress whose star had managed to darken an already black sky. You know how the story ends and how it wasn’t supposed to be what it was, but if you’re game and have the time lean in for a listen. Because nobody did suffering like Marlon—he reached for the dark far more than he stood in the sun.
Marlon was the miracle child, a stone that held its weight. Eve was set to have her tubes tied because what did she need with another girl in the family when she already birthed three of them? Children were a chorus of puckered mouths clamoring for the teat. Smacking their lips with that wet sound they make. The years had cradled her in sorrow. Kids she knew hopped off roofs and fell out of windows. The junk-sick lay, arms outstretched, their eyes and the tips of their fingers jaundiced. And although the police finally arrived three hours later from the time you called them, they still managed to toss lit matches into burning buildings. There they go covering the bodies with soiled sheets because they ran out of tarp, but you could still see a row of toes, a patch of unblemished skin peeking out. Cancer and tumors emerged as the new breath-robbers because who could afford to go to the hospital and wait the night it took you to see a doctor who would only tell you that the swarm advanced, your body was a contagion of growths, and here are a few things left for you to consider. Have you thought about your final days? We thought about the dolls we used to have and how we hid coins, marbles and baby teeth in the trap doors that were their insides. Flip open our flap of fabric and there goes death multiplying. Did we think about our last days? Sure we did. Hand me my smokes, do my hair good, dress me in my Sunday best, and leave me out with the rest of the trash because no way can we scrape together the bills needed for a funeral. Slow-sing over the heap of us, will you? Sing me Nina Simone, as loud as you can.
People laughed during episodes of Good Times that played on televisions suspended from the ceiling, although we knew that times were far from good. Somewhere, in the distance a phone rang. The forecast called for thundersnow. A woman studied a piece of paper, a form she was supposed to complete. I can’t read. We have these forms in Spanish, the receptionist said with a kindness that made the woman who held her frayed purse close grip it tighter. The woman shook her head and stared at the floor. Come here, mamí, the receptionist said. Let me read it to you.
What kind of lie are you living, said Eve’s friend when she learned that Eve was pregnant again. There you go thinking that another kid will increase your monthly check. Eve was carrying a boy and the father was who knows because it was 1974 and there was a party every night, and Eve sang the Chi-Lites on volume ten to all the boys in the room even though she didn’t have a movie star voice. Instead, Eve had the kind of body you wanted to wind around bed sheets. Eve swore this was the last one and what she was going to do—kill the boy in her body? Girl, please. Pause your nonsense. Marlon wasn’t about a paycheck; he’s going to be good to his mama. He’s going to be the one man who stays.
The night Marlon was born Eve threw her 8-tracks out the car window on the way to the hospital. Eve drove with one hand at the wheel, breaking lights. Her water broke twelve weeks early and she knew this couldn’t be good. Her body hurt like Riker’s, and Eve wondered if this what happened when you were a mother to a child making a prison break from the womb. In the emergency room Eve sprawled across two plastic chairs and pushed out a small mess of a child that weighed three pounds while the girls behind the desk were snapping their fingers to Rose Royce, and will you bitches get out here because there’s blood on the floor, blood everywhere, this black boy is fucking blue, and will someone call a doctor? Will someone cut the cord?
Marlon was a black boy gone blue, but he kept on breathing. Two months later Eve brought him home and the girls rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and wondered how five pounds of hostility could cause so much ruin. Behind his back, the girls called Marlon the leftover child because he was what remained when your mother got passed around one too many times. Even Eve knew that her child would be like all the other men in her life, a body that slept on top of sheets, never between them. One foot poised at the edge of the bed, ready to run. Six months in the womb, and already the boy was making a break for it—Eve had all the evidence she needed.
Notice how no one’s claiming him, said one daughter whose father came by once a month with Starburst and coloring books. Someone beat him hard with the ugly stick, the other two laughed while Marlon crawled around the linoleum. They kept the shades drawn; they lived a house where the light couldn’t get in. The girls sidestepped his groping hands while Eve worked the night shift. Rarely was he kissed. Rarely was he held.
Bitch, what did I tell you about touching me, said Marlon riding a girl called Lenny. He was thirteen and spent his days bussing to a magnet school in Park Slope and hitting up any girl who had grass on the field come evening. Marlon preferred girls who looked like “before” photos because they were grateful for the crumbs while the “afters” were throwing attitude in every direction. Marlon pushed Lenny off the bed to work on his exponents. Why did everyone need to get physical? You can at least help me with my homework, she grumbled pulling on her clothes. Peering over his shoulder, Marlon laughed. Are you wearing Care Bear underwear? Shit. You need to take your ass back to remedial because the only way you’re going to learn math is by lying on the bed issuing numbers to the homeboys outside the door. Now go on and get the fuck out of my house.
Marlon rode the bus to Bed Sty to hang with Eric, who was putting together the money to make a record. Marlon amused Eric because of the way he could do complicated math in his head. You threw numbers at the young brother and he gave you an answer on the exhale, and Eric thought some kid speed-balling multiplication tables in the chorus might make a rhyme worth repeating. Why Marlon wanted to mess around with the corner boys mystified Eric, but he never mentioned it and always slipped Marlon a twenty just for stopping by. Eric knew it took two trains and a bus for Marlon to stand on the corner shuffling his feet and eating Dipsy Doodles while all the base heads on the block lifted their shirts for a piece of the rock, thinking their skin was going to help the cause. You’re going to catch the fade, the boys hollered back, shielding their eyes with their hands because they all knew the story of Medusa and they didn’t want to turn to stone. One day Eric leaned in and said, I heard about your mom, and Marlon shrugged his shoulders because, so what, he hardly knew the woman. You don’t miss what you don’t have, even when the woman’s body whittled down to a mess of scraggly limbs and bone and flashing going out of business signs. You don’t love what you don’t know, even when the lesions told the story of a woman who’d been passed around one time too many. When Eve died no one rented the apartment she lived in, even after the super bleached the place and repainted the walls because no one wanted to live in the same place where a disease you couldn’t cure had festered and bred.
When Eve’s body was laid into a casket, Marlon ate stolen hog dogs in the park, crying his own quiet, miracle baby tears. That summer there was no shade, only sun, and it was gold and blinding. That summer Marlon slept naked on a bed stripped of sheets because even the fabric hurt. Cotton threatened his skin. Everyone was watching reruns of Good Times, talking about when times were good. Girls were discussing their tag names—Coco, Sugar, or Queen Lethal—because no one wanted to sit in their skin.
The year Eve died we found out our pastor got the sickness too and was on his knees praying for forgiveness. The Lord ain’t got time for that bullshit, said everyone on the block, passing around cups of Folgers from Ginny’s pot. Some cowboys from the Bronx shot Eric at point-blank range because everyone was having greed for dinner. Nobody made a record that year. The corner boys filed into Eric’s house for potato salad and pork cutlets, and Marlon was so tense he couldn’t speak except to whisper the times table in front of Eric’s high school graduation photo taped to his mom’s fridge.
Marlon was a black boy born blue, but he kept on breathing.
The black and white television cast the room in blue and Marlon leaned over the edge of the bed to where Felicia watched a late night movie about a man who killed a woman and got away with it, and said, I could be your daddy if you want me to. Felicia stared at the television screen, unblinking when she said, that’s not what I’m looking for. She was eight and he could tell she appreciated the sentiment. You’re a little young to be watching a movie about girls getting killed. Felicia shrugged her shoulders, smiled and pointed to the screen covered in snow. What’s on there is no different than what’s out there. They sat alone in the dark like a Hopper painting, and Marlon had to agree. You had to give it to the girl—she had a point. Marlon heard her mother spray the perfume that smelled like real flowers instead of the fake ones everyone had in their homes, and Felicia said in a small voice, how long are you going to stay, Marlon—longer than the rest? I don’t know, he said. Maybe I’ll hang a while.
Earlier that day: you remember my boy, Eric? Oh, you don’t? But you know your son, right? Little T? Here’s a picture I took of him—I like to think of this as the before because the after snap you don’t want to see. It’ll be one the coroner takes once they fish your boy out of the river. I wish you were there to watch Little T beg for his life, but don’t worry, I made you a tape and I’m going to play it for you twice. Marlon lived for the unexpected plot twist.
Marlon’s home became a revolving door of need. You’re crazy for selling crack where you rest at, said his boy Jamal. There was his eldest sister who was already burning a hole through the door after cashing her check. Maria was angling for a family discount, and if that didn’t work they could negotiate a friendlier rate. Put your clothes back on, Marlon said, shutting his eyes. Maria wrapped a blanket around her and cried playground tears at the kitchen table. They’re coming for me because my baby girl died in her sleep. I can hear them, she said, knocking on the wall. They’re in here, in the walls, listening. We have to be quiet; you have to give me a little taste so they go away. So I can to sleep. Remember mama and how she used to sing us to sleep? Marlon shrugged his shoulders because the only songs he remembered where the ones she sang on the other side of his wall, never in his room.
Marlon held his sister’s trembling hand over a bowl of spaghetti. Maria begged for darkness and unmolested sleep. Felicia turned nine and from the other room she said: just give her what she wants. Maria passed out on the couch. Marlon held his head in his hands while Felicia drew tears under Maria’s eyes with a ballpoint pen. In a year’s time, Felicia will lie in a morgue with a hangtag tied around her wrist and Maria will lie unconscious, a price tag swinging from her bedpost like a pendulum. But now, right now, Felicia was crying the tears she drew on Maria’s face. Sometimes your sadness scares me, Marlon said. Sometimes it scares me too.
Sad wasn’t a good enough word for what Felicia was—Marlon would sooner or later learn this.
Marlon didn’t like pools because they reminded him of oversized coffins. But he liked to swim so he took a pretty girl named Luz to Brighton Beach. Luz was the kind of girl you got when you were big enough to sell rock on consignment. What was she going to do in Brighton? There were no fun house mirrors, cyclones, and Nathan’s Famous—at Brighton Russian grandmas, overcharging for the air you breathed, surrounded you. Marlon and Luz split a knish when Marlon asked if she ever considered that a single haircut could ruin a whole doll’s life? When he was small his sister passed down a life-sized doll called Big Michelle whose eyes had fallen out. He carried Big Michelle everywhere until some B-boys hanging out behind the A&P knocked out his front teeth because boys don’t play with dolls and you should happy we’re teaching you a lesson. Marlon dragged Big Michelle along the pavement and when he got home he set fire to her hair and cut where the flames didn’t go.
When you’re small your mother tells you to be careful when you cross the street. Look both ways. But sometimes your mother isn’t there or she looks away when you cross or doesn’t say anything at all. Boys who broke out from the womb were bound to find their way, right?
You’re creeping me out, Luz said while perfecting her hair flip. Tell me about Felicia. I heard you were the one who found her body. I heard they found pieces of her skull in the alleyway. Marlon punched Luz in the middle of the street, and everyone looked the other way. When she got home she told everyone who would listen about what Marlon did, and then she called a brother in the Bronx and told him a story about a boy named Little T. A month later neighbors reported a smell and the police found Marlon in the bathtub with a knife in his head.
Marlon was a black boy born blue, and one day he stopped breathing. The police found a notebook he kept, and inside was a torn piece of paper and the words: you stayed longer than most. Know that you did the best you could do. –Felicia
*It’s been challenging to write in this space over the past month because I’ve become so absorbed in this story collection. Right now I’ve 140 pages of stories about women in and out of peril, tentatively titled, Women in Salt. The stories span decades, class and racial boundaries, and it’s been a joy to move in and out of voices. I’m living off meager savings, but I believe in this project so much that I’m commissioning custom illustrations and photography to take these pieces to another level–for you to feel something deeper about what’s written on the page. Right now I’m using images from Unsplash.com as place-holders but I’ve got exciting plans for this. I’ve published a complementary story, “Broke Land”, on Medium and There Was No Shade, Only Sun. And while most might think this endeavor to be silly or not financially sound (because story collection), I’m enjoying this. I’m enjoying this regardless if people read it, regardless if it’s published in book form. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I love writing them. If you love this, why not share it with someone else? –FS
Posted on November 4, 2015
“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.” –Anne Dillard on Writing.
Eleven years ago I sat in a small office facing Nathan Englander. He held two copies of a short story I’d written: one was unblemished and the other was a massacre of red ink. I remembered staring out the window, staring through it, as Nathan spent the next two hours recounting the bloodletting.
This was at Columbia—I had returned to the writing program from a two-year leave (parenthetical: don’t do drugs.Don’t) and found it changed. Line writing had come back into fashion and everyone was obsessed with the architecture of the sentence. Stories became less about people and the things that happened to them, instead they morphed into complicated maps, the kind you fold in sixteen, the kind that took you more time than you were willing to spend to find where you were. In the time it took to find yourself, you’d become exhausted from the journey, because who wanted a map, a compass, and a CIA operative just to find your way around the block? That’s what line writing felt like, and I found myself editing stories that read beautifully but meant nothing.
I wasn’t that kind of writer. I’d been writing since I was a child, only I didn’t have a voice because I’d spent my life swallowing it. I wrote sad stories where everyone had complicated feelings and died. I lived in a dark country where lights would flicker and inevitably flare out. This was a place I knew; I’d spent the greater part of my life navigating the terrain, and the only challenge was how much further I’d be willing to go.
I think about the controversy that surrounded the movie, Kill List. Viewers were furious because Ben Wheatley didn’t turn the camera away from extreme violence. He boxed you in, forced you into a place of anguish and discomfort. He made you see. I remember watching the film and feeling sick, but then I understood what Wheatley was going after. We spend so much time as protecting ourselves from the dark—whereas art doesn’t have constraints. Its meant to take you to places you sometimes don’t want to go.
I think about Kill List and Nathan because both put a scalpel in my hand. Both made me butcher and maim until I got to what was honest. Both made me see the complexity in the simplest of sentences. Lately I feel subsumed by the extreme nature of the culture around me. Stories are over-written for effect. The only risk is how one could shock, bait, and attract (I slept with my father! I dated a racist!). What I see today is what I saw all those years ago at Columbia—the noise of style trumping substance.
Quiet in prose rarely exists. Listening, instead of waiting for your turn to speak (or type, as it were), has become obsolete. In one of the most remarkable essays I’ve read on writing and ideas, Ursula K. Le Guin talks about the notion of patience, of allowing a story, a world to whisper to you before it makes its complete presence known. Ultimately, Le Guin returns to Virginia Woolf, arguably one of the masters of modernist fiction (DYK that her work influenced G.G. Marquez?), and surmises that ideas have a rhythm to them, much like a wave:
Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention—beneath words, as she says—there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer’s job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move to it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find words.
In that, I imagine this work requires a certain kind of quiet, a deliberate surrender. Maggie Nelson (my fucking hero) likens it to creating space in an effort to get specific and real. She says,
I love John Cage’s line where he says something like “love is making space around the beloved.” I think that this idea of giving people some space, which I think is something that is, hopefully, a kind of poetic or elliptical writing style can do. It’s kind of an illusion. You’re using other people’s stories for your own ends, but at the same time, as much as some might call that “exposing” myself or others, I don’t experience my writing as exposure. I experience it as a kind of articulation of specificity as well as trying to make space for other people’s mysteries, as well as my own.
And I can’t imagine that kind of work jutting up against our demands for velocity, one’s ferocious need to produce and accumulate affection and validation based on likes, fans, and followers.
I’ve finally found my voice, but it exists amidst so much noise. I read this piece on the clickbait nature of Medium, and I’m inclined to agree. Apart from literary journals and a handful of good publications, it’s been challenging to sift through the bad writing, bullshit and noise to find good work. I had a long conversation with a new friend today about growing audience and how far I’d be willing to go to do this without changing or sacrificing who I am and how much I’m willing to give to strangers, and I find myself resolute in the sense that I know I’ll never be mass market or largely popular, but that’s okay because I live and create on my own terms. So instead of sharing stories on Medium (I tried this experiment and didn’t feel I got the interaction I craved), I’m going to share them privately, with you.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been feeling blue. I’m slowly (and privately) getting out of this slump, but I managed to write this story (newsletters subscribers only, however, I just wrote this piece I posted on Medium), which is part essay, mostly fiction, and one of the most honest things I’ve written in a while. I was put on pause by this podcast relating to Instagram and depression, and I thought about our demands for happy! positive! pretty! and how life doesn’t neatly fit in those boxes, ascribe to those terms. My story is about what we’re willing to share, what we want to see and how that collides with the pain we sometimes feel.
For those of you who are curious, I’m aiming to finish a story collection, Women in Salt, by the end of the month.
Finally, I know I’m forever coming to the party in last decade’s clothes, but I’m infatuated with The Leftovers. Setting aside my taste for stories that emerge from an apocalyptic event (brief aside: please buy Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold, Fame, Citrus), the show is one of the finest meditations on loss, depression, and emptiness I’ve seen in some time.
Like what you just read? This is the first + only one of my weekly newsletters I’m publishing online. If you’re interested in a weekly email with links, thoughts, new writing–subscribe now!
Posted on October 27, 2015
I write my pop and I tell him I think I have depression. I check my mail for my insurance card so I can make an appointment with a doctor to find out what’s what. I can feel the sigh and sadness in my father’s words when he responds that he’s concerned. I know he’s probably thinking that I’ve turned all these corners, I’ve been sober for nine years (except for that one time, that one time two years ago), that I was so close to what I don’t know, but perhaps I was close to something that resembled fine. I should be a poster girl for joy, and I genuinely feel this on so most days but then there are other days. The days when you look at the internet and it tells you to be happy, can’t you just be happy, and you’re trying the best you can but you’re one person in an ocean and my god your arms are so tired of flailing. On those dark days you feel the ground give way and the fall feels bottomless. I don’t know if this is depression, a blue phase, or who knows what, but moving to Los Angeles scrubbed away all the noise and there is only the clarity of silence and all the good and horror it brings.
On airplanes I wait for the seatbelt sign to go off. That sign tells me I’m okay. I tell my pop that I’m waiting for a card which kind of feels like Waiting for Godot, but my dad doesn’t get the joke because he hasn’t read Beckett and I tell him that it’s going to be okay because I’m going to nip this thing in the bud. I actually use that phrase because I am nothing if not efficient. I need to know what this is because this, what I feel, the idea of leaving my home being unimaginable, is not normal. I don’t understand how I went from so unbelievably happy to so sad in a span of two weeks. But I’ve got a plan and that’s that.
Today, I come across an old interview with Mary Karr. I love how she boldly talks about booze, meds and how her writing is affected as a result of her relationship with the two. There’s no romancing sadness, she says. Rather, good work comes from your kind of balanced, Karr says:
Depression makes you half alive—how does that shape a better writer? People have different ideas of what natural is. Since the romantics we’ve all been big fans of the natural, as though natural equals good. Shitting in your pants is natural, wanting to boink the pizza-delivery kid is natural. Stabbing people who get in front of you at the cafeteria line—that’s probably a natural impulse. Where do you draw the line between what’s good natural and what’s bad natural?
While I wait for the card (the seatbelt sign to go off), I think about all the things that happen when you write a raw, vulnerable post about being blue.
1. The friend of ten years, the one who broke my heart, randomly likes one of my Instagram photos after 7 months of no contact. That gesture is a joke and we’re nearly 40, not 5, and this is not what I will accept. After ten years of friendship, I deserve more than a Like.
2. I think, fuck. This is something else I need to deal with. I think about insurance forms, meeting with therapists and hoping this isn’t what I think it is because I’m not a fan of pills, of taking them.
3. People write: “How’s your amazing, sunny L.A. life?” So I say, I’m fine, and they can go back to feeling like they did something and I can go back to wondering why they wrote in the first place. Please also give unsolicited advice when you never asked for it.
4. People tell me to “be happy”. Is that it? God, you’re a genius. I should have thought of that. I’ll just subscribe to all those positivity newsletters and read listicles about living in my truth. Problem solved. P.S. Don’t you think I’ve already been doing that?
5. Strangers offer a deeper kindness than the people who have been in my life for decades. It’s incredible how strangers can breed so much comfort. I’ve been crying a lot lately, too much, over what I can’t quite understand, but some of the comments, notes and emails puts my heart on pause, in a good way. This compassion braces me and makes me feel less alone.
6. Here’s a sad truth: social media demands the happy. They don’t respond to sad. No one wants the burden of your grief and people go on hiatus until you’re “back to normal”. My friend N writes today, and she agrees with this. As a result, she’s shied away from her online life. I think about this some more, and see complexity in it. I write, Social media is terrible. Actually, it’s terribly beautiful in the way that it can bring alternating joy and sadness. It’s bipolar in the sense in that you see what people cheer on and what they shy away from. The megaphones and silences are deafening.
During the day the sun is blinding. I’ve accepted that it doesn’t get cold here and the days are repeats of themselves with minor variations. I’m okay with this because when I’m balanced I’ve something beautiful to come back to. Though I do feel this tension because I’m conscious of time, how I’m wasting it hiding under blankets, holding books, and that’s the odd tension within myself. I have to get up and move but some days it’s nearly impossible. When I came back from Seattle, I didn’t leave my house for two days and I’ve made myself go out and do yoga, buy groceries and sit in cafes surrounded by people because I know doing these things are healthy.
What disturbs me a little is the pace at which I’ve been reading and producing work. In the past three weeks I’ve written nearly 100 pages of new work. Typically, I write a pile of first draft garbage, where only a small percent can be salvaged.
I’ve written 100+ solid pages.
I’ve been experimenting with how images can impact type, specifically photography and how and where it can take a story. Imagine writing a story to Holly Andres’s mercurial photographs? I’ve been downloading random images from Unsplash and using them as story prompts. When forced into a box you suddenly get crafty. You imagine all the things that could happen in that box instead of staring at a blank canvas. The picture is a something–it’s up to you to define what goes in, around, outside, under, over and below it. I wrote this latest piece in two hours and it’s strange and scary and I absolutely love it. I’ve been afraid of merging my affection for the macabre (horror) with fiction and language, and for a few hours each day I feel slightly euphoric. I’m allowing myself to go places I didn’t imagine going because there are no stakes. No wants story collections, few people read these pieces on Medium–so there’s little risk. There’s only the reward of having created something that gives you a momentary feeling of joy. And if that’s all I get, I’m okay with that.
While I was in Seattle, I bought many of the books in this pile, and I’ve already finished Sonya Lea’s remarkable memoir, Wondering Who You Are–by far one of the finest books I’ve read this year. Lea’s story is the very definition of love, commitment, and devotion. Today I tumbled into Stacey Levine’s The Girl with Brown Fur: Tales & Stories, and reading Levine is like reading Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, and Borges all over again. Stories that are wild and full of wonder. I discovered this magical piece via Twitter and yet another book is finding its way to my home. I’ve read 56 books so far this year and I show no signs of stopping.
Part of me feels an urgency to produce. If you’re producing, learning, at least you’re productive.
When I’m not reading, I’m listening to stories while I walk or hide under the covers. I’ve always been drawn to understanding neurological disorders (I do miss Oliver Sacks) and how minor injuries can have major impact on our brain, so this podcast was fascinating and I’m excited for the follow-up. That episode had me down a rabbit hole of Reply All podcasts and this one, combined with a photo, inspired a story where I fused my Medium essay with meeting a fictional teenager online.
Finally, I found this excellent profile of SNL star, Jan Hooks via Sandra Allen’s superb weekly newsletter. I admired Hooks, who managed her life and fame on her own terms and found herself the happiest in her solitude:
Although she kept a small apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, most of Jan’s final years were spent in Bearsville, New York, a tiny hamlet within the town of Woodstock, where she bought a shabby 130-year-old farmhouse on 66 acres in the late ’90s, and which became her refuge. There, she watched and rewatched terrible old films (the worse, the better — she loved, for instance, The Oscar, featuring Frank Sinatra), drank untold gallons of Robert Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc (nicknamed Bobby Mo), rode her albino horse (also named Bobby Mo), and puttered around the property as her dark green 1983 Jaguar sat rotting in the garage. Two German shepherds, Frank and Kitty, kept her company until they died. An unabashed smoker, she purchased boxes of her favorite brand, Merit, on the cheap in neighboring Pennsylvania. Friends say they never heard her talk of quitting or using a nicotine patch, both of which she considered laughable.
Some might find her solitude sad, but I find it to be really beautiful.
I apologize if this post is all over the place. I’m all over the place. So there’s that.
Posted on October 23, 2015
For a man can lose neither the past nor the future; for how can one take from him that which is not his? So remember these two points: first, that each thing is of like form from everlasting and comes round again in its cycle, and that it signifies not whether a man shall look upon the same things for a hundred years or two hundred, or for an infinity of time; second, that the longest lived and the shortest lived man, when they come to die, lose one and the same thing…As for life, it is a battle and a sojourning in a strange land; but the fame that comes after is oblivion. –Marcus Aurelius
I’ve had the most extraordinary few days in Seattle. I spent time with old friends and bought a tower of new books written by new-to-me authors. I wore bulky sweaters; I feasted on sandwiches that had both bacon and prosciutto, and I cuddled with all the animals. Yet…I feel really sad. And old.
I came to Seattle to see Sarah Hepola read. Reading her book put my heart on pause because I felt as if she had described my life-long love affair with booze. Like Sarah, I thought it was perfectly normal to pre-game (economics!), drink hard and fast (I can keep up with the boys!), and lose time (because everyone has blackouts when they drink, right?) Drinking was fun until it was no longer fun and by then you’re finding excuses to remain in a committed abusive relationship rather than make plans for escape. I’ve spent nine years sober with one really bad two-month relapse, and not drinking has been the best gift I’ve given to myself. And although it doesn’t do me any good to think about regrets, to talk about what I’ve lost, I can’t help but feel as if I lost so much time, and I’m now racing to fill the gaps the drink edged away. I have to write because there were so many years I didn’t write. I have to create, produce. I have to…I have to…
And then I sit in a chair, by myself, before Sarah’s reading and a woman next to me makes small talk. She’s new to Seattle, new to books, and talks about all the people she needs to meet, all the people who are good to know. I nod and don’t say much, only that I live in Los Angeles and I was moved by Sarah’s story of addiction and recovery. The woman smiles and it occurs to me that she’s young, nearly half my age, and I spend most of the evening talking to friends, enjoying readings and parties, but all the while thinking–you are not young.
You’ve lost so much time.
Trust me, I know all of the antecedents. All the ways in which I could respond to those words: you’ve lost so much time. While others are frightened of aging, so much so they’ll slather cream on their faces and inject botulism in their body, I don’t mind my age–I only regret the time I lost. All the years I simply do not remember. All the mistakes I’ve made, people I’ve hurt, words and time I can’t get back.
Yesterday, I spent most of the day in my friend’s co-working space, working on a new story. I met a recent transplant from New York, and as it turns out we both worked at HarperCollins and we know many of the same people in book publishing. We talked about the business of books, but mostly books, rattling off authors we haven’t read and the many we’ve yet to read. Our refrain: There’s not enough time! In that room of three, I felt the most at home. I felt like when I was 24, right before I started the Columbia program, and I read books for the simple pleasure of enjoying them. I didn’t read them to social climb, to know the sometimes unseemly details behind the books–I read books because I felt less alone. So for a brief moment I tried to forget the fifteen years that span not knowing and knowing and it felt good to be suspended, trapped, in a kind of guileless wonder.
And while I spent an evening with really lovely people, heard a host of talented writers read–I felt…small. And alone. I listened to a young spoken word poet and I envied his fresh face and verve. His was a world filled with so much possibility, while I felt like the old woman in the back smoking a cigarette, coughing that deep guttural cough, telling the kids there’s no Santa Claus. No fairy comes down and swoops under your pillow. It’s your mother exchanging your teeth for spare change. New doesn’t exist anymore, and if it does it’s hard to find. New is what you need to create for yourself not what you so casually encounter. Because, by now, people have their opinions of me and my work, and much of that is hard to change or undo and depending on the person I don’t have the energy to do the work. To say, yeah, this was me ten years ago but I’m not that person now. I’m this person, who writes these things, and lives this life. And even though I met extraordinary people, part of me just wanted to crawl home and under the covers, clutching my pile of books.
And this image, my want for it, made me so fucking sad.
I read an article last week, about a man who died alone. A whole life reduced to mystery. I read the piece, heartbroken, and the first thing I said after was, ha, that’ll probably be me. There will exist a time when everything I write here will be erased, my small books will be out of print, the stories I write which few people read will be replaced by some other social network, and I will have no children because I’ve made a conscious decision to not have children. Because you don’t have children because you’re frightened that your life didn’t have meaning or won’t be remembered and passed on. You have children because you want to shepherd a new life into the world and hold their hand along the way.
My friends in their 50s and 60s still call me a kid even though I’m in the nascent stages of talking about purpose. Even though I lament about what I lost and how little time I have left to do what I need to do.
Do I wish I could be that young spoken word poet who has the privilege of having the world unfurl in front of him anew? You better fucking believe it. Do I wish I could have done so much over? Yes. Do I know the antecedent story of all! the! things! you! can! do! now! Yes, yes, yes. Of course. But it doesn’t make this sadness, this loss, any easier to bear.
I stayed up late last night curled up next to my friend’s cat (below–isn’t he ADORB) and felt a kind of peace.
And yes, I realize this post is self-absorbed, emo, and kind of sad, but that’s how I feel right now. Sad.
Posted on October 19, 2015
In the 90s, I was obsessed with Gregg Araki’s teen apocalypse trilogy. Back then there was no internet or reality television shows, and the biggest scandal was Brenda Walsh having to deal with a teenage pregnancy on national television. This was an age where teens were fresh-faced, feckless, and optimistic. But here was Araki and his dark ingénue, Rose McGowan, ushering out a bleak reality that made Bret Easton Ellis’ nihilistic vision of California downright precious. In Araki’s eyes, the world was falling to its knees and the goth in me was having all of it.
Fast forward nearly twenty years and I happened upon his atmospheric and magical, White Bird in a Blizzard, adapted from Laura Kasischke’s novel. Araki treads familiar ground–familial discord, sexual awakening and internal disquiet–but his work is quiet and all the rage simmers just below the surface. It’s sort of the difference between witnessing an outright war versus the one that plays out inside of us every day. I loved the movie so much that I ordered all of Laura Kasischke’s books, and I promise you that she does not disappoint.
Writers are always looking for others who share their strange view of the world. Most of us make sense of the world by writing about it. Writing, for us, is discovery, meditation and mystery, and we’re content to spend our lives playing detective and surgeon–all in an effort to ferret out life’s meaning. When I was small I would purchase maps and I started to write stories about the places I’d never been. Back then I’d never traveled beyond the gilded cage that was New York, and I imagined landscapes that I’d found in books, people who revealed themselves to me. The maps were initially about places and how I’d imagine them to be because I was a child who was often alone, lonely. But then the maps morphed into something different, they became a journey. Would it be possible from me to travel from A (alcoholic) to B (recovering), and how long would that trip take? What would I need to pack? Who would I meet along the week? And soon the maps became something that was interior.
Writers are always looking for beacons to shine light in the dark. I’ve private relationships with the writers whom I admire, living and dead, and I honestly fear meeting them because I don’t want the person who created the work to somehow cloud my relationship to their work. My affection is private, sacrosanct–this is mostly why I don’t attend many readings but I will purchase books and shout about them from the rafters.
Laura Kasischke is one of those lights, and I consumed Mind of Winter in one sitting. Her work is incredibly quiet, wholly terrifying, and her meditations on mother/daughter relationships mirror themes to which I find myself constantly revisiting. The novel spans fifteen years, but much like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Cunningham’s The Hours, we observe the life of a woman, Holly, over the course of a single day, Christmas, as she prepares a feast. She wakes with the fear that something has followed them from Siberia–the place where she and her husband adopted their daughter thirteen years ago. Holly is a woman who can no longer write but wants to. Holly is a woman who comes from a lineage of women who are genetically disposed to an incurable cancer. Holly is a woman who is unusually fixated on her beautiful daughter, whose skin is so fair it’s nearly blue. We follow them over the course of a day that has everyone stranded by a blizzard, and as mother and daughter are trapped in a house, we begin to see Holly unravel.
I’ve been long fascinated by the line between the supernatural and one’s altered psychological state, and how confinement only serves to augment or amplify the tension skirting just beneath the surface. That, under the right circumstances, we can all go a little mad sometimes. I’ve been reading Daniel Olsen’s fascinating and microscopic examination of The Shining (Kubrick’s film adaption). A definitive tome filled with cast and crew interviews and fastidious research, the book makes Room 237 look like a compilation of crackpots who see Jesus in microwaved pot pies.
I fucking hated that poor excuse for a documentary. The only thing that prevented me from walking out of The Anjelika was the fact that I’d spent $ for this movie and I was seeing this shitshow through. Call me when the shuttle lands.
But I digress. Kubrick was notoriously known for deliberately excising parts of his script that would’ve given enormous clarity to his pictures (2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining are prime examples), and he often asked larger questions about the relationship between society and social structures and the recesses of one’s mind and personhood. People often wonder, was Jack Torrence crazy before he camped out at The Overlook, or did the shining bring out a side of him, which he fought so desperately to control. White-knuckle sobriety, teaching.
We all like to think we’re good, honest people, but what if? Do circumstance and society and history shine a light on who we are at the core. In On Kindness, Freud posits that we are kind to others out of selfishness rather than true altruism. Our kindness is a means of satisfying our desire to not deal with discomfort. In short, we are kind because we don’t want to deal with unkindness. While I’m not certain I agree with an argument so binary, I think people aren’t completely aware of certain aspects of their character until they’re placed in extreme or distant circumstances. We all have varying faces we present to the world, and my writing seeks to unpack that multiplicity. Recently, I came upon this excellent piece on authenticity, and it challenged a lot of what I’d previously believed about online perception vs. reality. And, ultimately, checked me on my perceptions of what should be considered authentic and my own bias. Deb Schulz writes:
But the real problem with valorizing authenticity is that, in the absence of actual information about the person in question, the perception of who they are is filled in by societal norms and biases. We see this is the gendered nature of authenticity described above—men are automatically more authentic than women…The failure mode is not just that we perceive a disconnect between the public persona and the individual; it’s that our perception of who they are is wrong. And it’s easy to see why this would disproportionately affect groups (women, visible minorities, LGBTQ people) that are less well-represented in the media, because our mental models of them are far more likely to be shaped by stereotypes than for cis straight white men.
A few weeks ago I saw an old friend I hadn’t seen in awhile. Jason knew me as a heavy drinker, a woman who published a literary journal and cruised the book party circuit (I’m wincing as I type this), but time has passed and we spent a couple of hours together talking about our new lives here. Who we were, what we used to value, and who we are now. I visited his office and after I told him that when I’m blocked I often read poetry or children’s stories for two reasons: 1. economy of language 2. story pacing. I find both the hardest kinds of books to write because you have to sustain interest while being downright surgical with the words you use. Jason shared with me this wonderful book, which I’ve purchased and have read daily since it arrived. Buy this book, even if you don’t have children, because it’ll make you see all the small things in the world you’re missing but need to pay attention to. This book challenges what we think we know, see and believe, and I got excited because I’d never read anything this sophisticated as a child. The book reminded me of one of the first scenes in The Shining when Jack is lying in bed and Wendy comes in with breakfast. We think we’re seeing a wife bring her husband breakfast, but really we’re encountering an inverted Jack, a man observed through a looking glass. All is not what it seems.
I’ve also been reading a lot of traditional genre fiction lately, and I’m floored by how other writers are so deft at story pacing. Ever since I arrived in California, I feel open, awake. I used to want to write the BIG BOOKS, tell the BIG STORIES, but what’s a big book anyway when our perception of size and worth is wholly subjective and often biased. What I’ve been ignoring is this specter, this voice inviting me to merge forms and create something new and different. I’ve come to the reality that I really love writing dark, introspective, strange stories. Stories that are the equivalent of Kill List, a film that refuses to turn the camera away from scenes which would normally be cut from all other films. You see everything because this is what is.
I want you uncomfortable.
Last week I wrote the strangest story and I want to keep writing them, and keep reading beacons who shine lights along my yellow brick road.