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.
Posted on October 1, 2015
Lately I feel like a child forever pointing at things, asking, what’s that? My agent replies to an email I’d sent him regarding my next project, saying something to the effect of, good to know you’re working on something cheerful! To which I respond, when have you ever known me to be attracted to the sweet story, the happy ending? When will I ever be attracted to something not in a state of disrepair? I tend to fall in love with things (and people) that are a perpetual state of dressing their wounds.
I believe that all ideas are in the ether waiting to be snatched up, obsessed over, developed. And once you arrive at the thing that puts your heart on pause, you start to notice all the nearly phosphorescent signs pointing to it.
Over the past few months, I’ve been reading a series of articles about touched houses. I’ve a predilection for the macabre; I’m the sort who will watch surgeries on television with considerable interest. I spend most of the early hours of the morning reading, and I paused on those two particular articles with more than a passing interest. I even thought–imagine if I wrote a novel about a house. A present day Shining. The Shining is the first movie I remember seeing as a child, and to say that it’s left an indelible mark would be an understatement. I’ve watched the film more times that I’d like to admit, and I’ll see a monsoon of blood spilling out of elevators, painting the walls claret. I’ll incant T.S. Eliot’s The Burial of the Dead from “The Wasteland” like prayer. I’ll see a man pretend to a boy bouncing a ball off the walls, feeling haunted by what’s come before, the massacre of American Indians who once inhabited the land.
A house is a home is a house, and this is a place to which one seeks refuge. But what if your home isn’t safe? What if your home is a man-made prison, a place where madness breeds? I’ve always been curious about that which is contained (or confined) within four walls and a roof.
I read those two articles, paused briefly, and moved on.
You write out your obsession, what takes hold of you, until you’ve exorcised the thing that threatens to put your heart on pause. I’m being dramatic for effect, but writers tend to be obsessed with the stories that find them, and it is through the act of writing, of transcribing experience to type, that one is free to part ways with that which has arrested them.
Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about writing as an act of continual failure. You have this brilliant idea–you can practically hear the music in your head–but when you sit down to translate it, what you have in your head never magically appears on paper. (I mean, unless you’re Nabokov) The work is in that realization and the perseverance that comes to revision, the hope that the idea that seized you will someday makes its way on paper as close to the way you’d seen it.
I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and loved it. I was dazed for days.
Living in Los Angeles forces you to learn an entirely new vocabulary. The tentacle arms of the cactus; mountain dandelions and lemon bottlebrush trees–species of flowers and trees previously unknown now an assault. The shape of houses and land feel unnavigable. I discovered that I’m interested in learning more about my adopted home. I bought a stack of books on Los Angeles architecture and history (including: Southern California: An Island on the Land, California: A History, Houses of Los Angeles, 1920-1935, Los Angeles Residential Architecture: Modernism Meets Eclecticism, Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective’s Scrapbook, among many others), and found myself drawn to novels where California is a character. I met up with an old friend, and he had a book about the making of The Shining on his desk. I gasped, and he was kind enough to lend me the book for as long as I need it. He told me about the You Must Remember This podcast, and then I found the No Sleep podcast.
I recognized this feeling, a seizing, an obsession mounting.
I found a new story. I wrote my first page, and then retreated.
Imagine two stories converging. A gruesome murder from the 1950s juxtaposed with the story of a man who specializes in appraising/selling disaster properties forced to live in one of the homes he tries to sell after having lost his job. He moves into this home and slowly begins to unravel. He becomes paranoid, irrational, convinced that he’s being spoken to. Instructed.
This idea excites me for a number of reasons:
1. A new landscape–I’ve a desire to learn as much as I can about Los Angeles (art, history, architecture) so I can cogently write about it. The feeling that Los Angeles is a terrain I’m obsessed to navigate.
2. Writing from the male point-of-view. Although I’ve a central male character in my second novel, women in my books tend to drive the story. However, writing as two disparate, brilliant mad men, thrills me.
3. Attempting to write a story that is fairly linear. Although I’ve dueling narratives (1959/Present), the novel will follow a linear time arc. And anyone who knows me or at least has had a conversation with me knows that it’s nearly IMPOSSIBLE for me to follow a straight line. It’s as if I’m not able to understand the natural progression of time. The structure will likely pose the greatest challenge–one I’m anxious to meet.
4. Writing a ghost story. What I love about The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, and the like is the fact that the stories are extremely realistic in its rendering and the supernatural events could be construed as real or madness–one can never really tell. I like this ambiguity, a lot, and I love the idea of making people wonder if these events are truly rooted in the supernatural or in a man’s psychological unraveling.
Being here has thrown open all the windows and doors, and I can’t wait for what’s next.
Posted on September 23, 2015
What Rilke said: Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. ― Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation
I didn’t find my voice until I was 37. I’d been writing for as long as I could remember, and in my first poem–a haiku, was published in my elementary school annual–I likened my mother’s voice to thunder. I was in second grade. Throughout my childhood I was routinely called into the guidance counselor’s office, a copy of a story I’d written in her hands–is something wrong at home? Always whispered, always asked in that measured voice people use when speaking to someone for whom English is not their first language. Because who writes stories about sad girls who hang themselves from trees? How is it possible to be a child and filled with rage? Of course something was wrong at home. Something was always wrong at home and out of it.
No, nothing’s wrong, I’d say. And I’d keep writing my stories and continue to lose writing contests because what kind of PTA would award a story to a girl who wrote about death so comfortably? So I lost out to happy endings.
You are dark, was everyone’s refrain, always. A few words mumbled like a record skipping. People seemed to be afraid of the words I’d arranged on paper, and in turn, they seemed anxious around me, the small child who’d created them. A child who seemed unnaturally comfortable with sitting in the dark. A child who didn’t speak much and read a lot, who didn’t understand the petty politics of living in Long Island–a seemingly foreign country to which I’d emigrated. And trust me, if you’ve been to Long Island and Brooklyn in the late 80s, you’ll understand the two might as well have been continents.
In college I set aside my stories and studied accounting, futures and options, mergers and acquisitions, and corporate finance. I memorized ratios (quick: current assets/current liabilities), navigated the fine art of the abbreviation (EBITDA, FIFO, LIFO), and considered Wall Street and American Psycho with interest. I was so finance that when I submitted a story I’d written for the college literary magazine, the editor came up to me with my story in his hands and asked if I’d really written it. Because a woman who calculates debt and drinks an unusual amount of alcohol could never write about growing up in a home that felt like a prison.
When I received a call from Judy Budnitz that I’d been admitted into the Columbia writing program, I kept her on the phone for an hour trying to convince me that this wasn’t some sort of prank. I’d written a very early (and very messy) draft of my first book and what fancy school would accept that? When I left a job at Morgan Stanley to pursue my MFA at Columbia, everyone thought I was getting a masters in financial accounting (this doesn’t exist). When I said I wanted to write, my boss said, genuinely confused: why would you want to do that?
Columbia was a wonderful, terrible nightmare. Everyone seemed to have majored in creative writing and English in college while I didn’t even understand the rudimentary elements of formatting a short story. (What is 3rd person? What is omniscient?) I was 24 and I routinely left workshops sobbing. Imagine being on an operating table, wide awake, enduring a dissection without anesthesia–that’s workshop. I left after a semester because I had a drug problem and when I returned in 2002 I was further tormented because everyone went “experimental.” The line was tantamount, and if you didn’t write like Joy Williams, Ben Marcus, Christine Schutt (I took a workshop with her and she was lovely), or Lydia Davis, you might as well not.
Family stories are done, a girl with blank eyes said to me as we were discussing a short story I’d written–characters who would find their way into my second novel, albeit in a different form, nearly a decade later. After workshop? You guessed it. Sobbing.
I finally got a backbone but still didn’t have a voice. I read voraciously. I experimented. I copied and embarrassed myself. I knew what I was writing–the style, the content–bored me, but I didn’t know anything else. Until I started editing my first book when I told my editor that presenting the story in a linear way wouldn’t work. When I said that parts of the book had to be deliberately vague, out-of-focus, because that’s what writing about my life felt like. I started to play with short chapters, strange imagery and narrative devices–much of which my editor encouraged me to tone down because writing should never call attention to itself. And while I believe that to an extent, and while I revere my first editor, I felt a belt tightening around my neck.
I talk a lot about a job I took, hated, and left in 2013. For four years I didn’t write. And what I did write should probably be torched.
In 2013 I found myself in Biarritz during off-season. It was chilly, rainy, and I spent much of my time in this tiny town staring out at the ocean. I spent most of my days inspecting rocks. I came back to my hotel one night and the first chapter of what would be my second book came like a torrent. I’d written a story about a woman’s hair catching fire in a hotel room–revenge enacted by the daughter of a father having an affair while his wife lay dying. I wrote 18 pages in one sitting and referenced Ishiguro, The Shining, barnacles and Goya’s black paintings. After, I felt like the days when I’d wake from a hangover, inspecting my receipts to see where I’d been, what I’d done.
This story, in form and content, felt like nothing I’d ever written and I liked it. That summer was one of the worst I’ve known, and there was no other way to make sense of it other than writing in a fragmented stutter.
It’s taken me nearly three years to write, edit and have my novel acquired. And the process felt like prolonged surgery, a bandaid slowly sawed off. The story didn’t reveal itself in the first draft, but rather the FOURTH. I restructured the book three times, deleted over 150 pages and wrote 170 new ones. I was attempting a project that had multiple points-of-view, moved between past/present tense, and battled with a narrative that was the antithesis of linear, and an unreliable, unlikeable main character. Over the past three weeks I’ve restructured the book, again, and added three new chapters–and I’m finally excited by the pacing (the story FINALLY moves) and how I’ve tidied up some of the plot elements I’d left dangling.
I started to read books and think, you’re like me. It’s less about stroking my ego but more the comfort of finding other strange people like me who can do what I do, only better (Jenny Offill, Leslie Jamison, Claire Vaye Watkins, Lydia Millet, Susan Minot’s latest novel). Even though writing and editing my novel was a painful, exhausting process, I’ve finally found my voice and style–elliptical, a hybrid of traditional/experimental fiction, dark, acerbic, comic, drawing on outside cultural references to complement/augment my story. In my novel, I’ve incorporated a barrage of cultural references, including: film (Psycho, Carnival of Souls), art (Goya, Marlene Dumas), writing/documentaries/cult figures (Don Delillo, Bret Easton Ellis, Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kira Henehan, friend + primary reader, Dante, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Jim Baker–just to name a few). By the by, listening to Ted Bundy for seven hours straight does things to you.
And all of this feels right.
My agent will likely shoot me for writing this but my road to publication was…challenging. While I received some critical, constructive feedback, most of the responses fell into two camps: editors who didn’t get the story and editors who got it but were afraid of it. The former is bound to happen because finding an editor is like getting married–two perfectly wonderful people who simply don’t connect for one reason or another. The second camp was a bit more frustrating. Editors found it too dark, the character of Kate unlikable, unrelatable (I wanted to gouge out my eyes when I heard either statement because is PAT BATEMAN likeable/relatable?). Many of the editors loved it (can we see more, does she have something else?) but felt it was too experimental to find a large audience (i.e. we won’t sell enough to warrant acquisition). And although I worked with my agent (he was an editor in a previous life) to make the narrative smoother and apply the feedback we thought would make for a stronger draft, I’m grateful that I have someone in my corner who didn’t ask me to compromise my style. Every revision focused on making the book better, clearer for what I was trying to do–rather than shaping it to a traditional, linear narrative, a place to which I refused to go.
Throughout the process I felt all the emotions–sad, bitter, angry, heartbroken. More so when author friends of mine chided me, assured me that SO MANY EXPERIMENTAL BOOKS ARE BEING PUBLISHED. See those ten titles over there by our friends? See the small circle of people continually ushering their strange work out into the world? I was angry not because the strange work was getting published (THANK GOD IT WAS/IS), but that some of my friends live under the illusion that publishing tough books amidst the sea of same is easy.
It’s not easy. I’ve worked in book publishing (marketing), published a successful online/print journal, wrote two books and lots of short stories, and it is never easy. What keeps me motivated is the fact that this is the only thing I love doing. And while I sometimes shy away from creative writing books and anything bordering on self-help, I felt much of what Elizabeth Gilbert says is spot-on. It’s fear that keeps us alive. It’s our love for the work that makes everything else, even the business of the work, easier to bear.
And then we found Jennifer Baumgardner + Clarissa Wong at The Feminist Press. The entire team got the book, and didn’t want me to “soften” Kate or change her in any way. (Kate is essentially the female Pat Bateman without the Cerruti suits and taste for carnage, with a little plot twist thrown in for good measure). The point was more about writing complicated characters instead of likeable ones. As I finalize my manuscript, I’m excited for the editorial feedback. More importantly, I’m glad my strange little book found a home with people who believe in me and Kate.
I’m actually sad that after after fifteen years of being with some of these characters (Columbia classmates might recognize Gillian, James and Emma–now Ellie–in a different form in my novel), I’m letting them go.
Now to find more strange people to fall in love with longer enough to stay interested in writing about them.
This post ended up being a little longer than I imagined! Haha! And while I’m by no means an expert, if you have any questions about writing, publishing, book recommendations for people who write strange fiction, leave a comment! I’m toying with the idea of video responses :)
Posted on August 23, 2015
Cannot the labourers understand that by over-working themselves they exhaust their own strength and that of their progeny, that they are used up and long before their time come to be incapable of any work at all, that absorbed and brutalized by this single vice they are no longer men but pieces of men, that they kill within themselves all beautiful faculties, to leave nothing alive and flourishing except the furious madness for work. –Paul Lafargue, The Right to Be Lazy (1883)
We live in an age where being busy is lauded. Popular thinkers craft lists on how you can cram more into a single day. Others publish books on how to get shit done–how to use technology as a means of saving time because the cruelest crime we could commit would be to squander it. A New Yorker cartoon shows two children negotiating thirty minutes of playtime. Consulting their crammed calendars, they resolve to reshuffle, re-jigger until they can secure a slot two weeks from that day when they can actually breathe. This puts me to thinking of my friends, how we always bemoan that we’re overbooked, double-booked, and maybe I can see you next month for a coffee?
There was a time when I worked sixteen-hour days. When weeks would pass and my only glimpse of the light was during a midday coffee break, when I’d race down the street to refuel to only sit at my desk and stare at a computer screen. I worked to have my food delivered, my groceries that invariably spoiled, delivered, to have books that went unread, delivered. Over the course of four years I gained 40 pounds and became a lesser version of myself. I was always tired, forever tethered to my phone–I was the one who missed the great moments in my friend’s lives–but you can understand, right? It’s work. I’ve so much to do. Over the past few years I’ve been trying to regard time differently–to balance fast and slow. That spending hours making a meal instead of having it delivered, or going for a walk when I could easily take the subway, meant something. So when a friend recommended Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness–a book published in 2004 but is completely valid now, I set aside the stack and devoted time to understand the danger of mindless speed.
From Slow food and workouts to alternative medicine and guided meditation, to meeting people who huddle across the globe as a means of learning how to sit in a place of calm amidst a storm, Honoré doesn’t rally for a device-free era or for us to pick up and create our own version of Walden, rather he espouses ways in which we can manage pieces of our life in a slower way as a means of deeper connection and a more meaningful quality of life. He was inspired to research the art of Slow when he read an article about one-minute bedtime stories. For a moment he was excited because he could read his son stories and get back to work fairly quickly, and then he paused and realized he was completely insane for valuing saving time to get away from his child. The book is not an exploration of time but a personal journey for the author to chill out. I think all of us could relate, because who isn’t shocked/not-shocked by Amazon’s Darwinian work culture? Who hasn’t realized that cramming more in has the opposite effect, that at one point we suffer the law of diminishing returns? We’re spent, feeling as if our breath, and everything along with it, has been stolen from our body.
Sometimes I feel weird for living a slower-paced life because everyone around me is about now. Respond to that email now. Put out that client fire now. But it was only when I took a trip with the objective of doing absolutely nothing did I start a novel that two years later would find a publisher. It was only when I put my phone away during time spent with dear friends did I mend broken friendships. And it was only when I sat in a new home, thousands of miles from the place I’ve always called home, did I have the idea of a new story–something strange and dystopian, kind of like “Black Mirror”.
Because I don’t believe anything exists after we pass on. So why not live the best way we know how? I’m done with putting off my happiness for a later date as a means of sacrificing it now because what if there is no later date? A week ago I found out through Facebook that someone I know slightly died. Suddenly, at 35. It’s not fair, I thought. Wrong, I felt. A few days ago I met up with a close friend who shows me a tattoo she had done in remembrance of a friend who died suddenly this summer of a brain aneurysm. A man who was taken too soon from his wife and two children.
My friend’s tattoo reads: There is no time. So I try to follow Paul Jarvis’s advice and stop doing shit I don’t like. Operative word being try.
This summer I discovered so many wonderful books. Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise is a hilarious story about a couple who honeymoons in paradise to soon discover the waters are teeming with mermaids. Millet is a hero of mine because she’s able to draw wry, acerbic women as easily as she is in creating a canvas filled with broken people. From the moment I read My Happy Life, I was hooked, and what makes her latest book remarkable is the fact that it’s so absurd it’s almost real. Imagine what would happen if you were celebrating the start of a new life with someone amidst greed, television crew, marine biologists, and Japanese web celebrities–all over a few measly mermaids?
I picked up Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper while waiting for my friend Summer. Another marriage, another trip–a story of two odd people who trek across Northern Europe examining love, fidelity, friendship, desire–all while transforming into unlikely eco-terrorists. The writing is sharp, crisp and funny. Often times you never get to truly glimpse the innards of a marriage–you believe the life your friends represent–but rarely do we hear about the work. Rarely do you hear the whisper of: maybe you’re not enough. Maybe we’re together because we’re terrified of being alone.
“We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.” — Adam Phillip’s On Kindness
While Adam Phillip’s philosophical and historical examination of the history of kindness is slim, it took me nearly a month to complete. Phillips analyzes kindness through the lens of faith, folklore, psychology and literature. Why are we kind? Are we kind merely as a means of serving our own self interests? What is true selflessness and altruism? And what happens to a child when they experience their first hurt, what if our parents aren’t as kind as we think they should be, what then? It hurts when someone is unkind to you but in the same measure we’re able to rationalize our unkindness. On Kindness serves up more questions than it delivers answers, and I walked away from it wondering how I could be kinder in my everyday life. Can I stop myself from making snap judgments of people? Am I able to pause and meet someone’s anger with calm and kindness as a means of quelling someone else’s rage.
It occurs to me that this summer I spent a lot of time dissecting marriage of all kinds–from the familial to the friendship (as I believe we are, in a way, bound to those whom we care about even if not in the legal sense). I think about kindness, honesty and kin, and when my friend Molly sent me this article about a woman who discovered, as an adult, that she was half-black, it put me to thinking about how I’m able to reconcile discovering, last year, that I’m part black. While watching “Little White Lie,” I empathized with Lacey’s story, and admired her bravery in bringing out the truth. That’s my hair, I thought. And like Lacey, I often wonder where I fit. How I identify myself. How I define blackness for myself when I’ve always self-identified as white and possibly something other? I’m privileged in the sense that I have so many wonderful friends who have embraced me and offered up advice on how they define blackness for themselves, and how I can find my own way to it. I’m also acutely aware of my white privilege and how that affords me trespass to places where others can’t go. How I can use that to be an ally. More on this soon.
Now that I’m in my new home, I can finally wade my way through the stack. Up next is Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, Nick Flynn’s My Feelings (Poems) because he’s a surgeon with the English language, Lauren Holmes’s Barbara The Slut and Other People (Stories) because her first lines slay, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me because it should be required reading, Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion because Joan Didion, and the final book in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series.
What are you reading? Do you have any recommendations for what I can add to the stack?
Posted on July 16, 2015
I’ve never been the sort of person who drops their bags and collapses into bed. I’ve never left dirty dishes in the sink and it normally takes me at most three hours to unpack from a move. So when I came home late last night, depleted from 20 hours of travel across multiple time zones, the first thing I did was unpack. And clean. And play with my cat into the wee hours of the morning. Because I can’t bear the smell of suitcase clothes and books slightly marred from a journey–I need to go to bed knowing everything has been set to rights. I acknowledge my Type A-tendencies and I’ve accepted that I’ll likely always be this way.
This morning I woke at dawn, disoriented, forgetting that I was in New York and it was only my cat sleeping soundly beside me that made me realize that I am here. I am in this temporary home. My head’s not quite right yet, and I’ve accepted that over the next week I’ll endure the special kind of torture that only jetlag from Asia can bring.
What gave me joy this morning was poring over my newly-acquired books. There was a time when I used to hoard up on souvenirs–knick knacks and the like from my travels. However, over the past five years I’ve stopped buying, started experiencing, and now the only treasures I bring home are of the book variety. I tend to pick up books from local authors or titles that remind me of my journey.
While in Singapore, my friend Denise pointed me to Books Actually, now my favorite independent bookstore in the WORLD. Although I missed the resident felines (insert emphatic wail), I spent a few hours in this small shop marveling over the titles. Denise shared that Asian publishers place a premium on a book’s presentation and design–even for the most literary of titles. As I thumbed through photography books on loneliness and poetry anthologies, I stumbled on a host of titles from the bookstore’s resident imprint, Math Paper Press.
Believe me when I say the poems are GOOD.
Whenever I’m in-between projects or in need of inspiration, I turn to music and good poetry–both of which place weight on the economy of words. Words are workhorses in both disciplines, and I’ll often get story ideas, titles or images from a single line of poetry. My purchases did not disappoint. I purchased Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light (my favorite, by far), Occupational Hazards, We Were Always Eating Expired Things (the title, alone. I MEAN), and Objects of Affection.
You should know I considered buying this book. I’ll likely pull the trigger now that I don’t have to worry about baggage weight.
While in Singapore, I watched a lot of NatGeo Asia, and I fell in love with this quirky couple. When they weren’t bickering, they were making sumptuous food and I’ve since ordered their cookbook. I also secured my friend Denise’s extraordinary cookbook cum food narratives, Kitchen Stories, and scored the latest Rachel Khoo. Know that I’ll be making great food from these books in the coming weeks!
Now excuse me while I pass out in front of my computer.