Thursday, May 31, 2007

what walter, AK and farhana know

On the way back from lunch today, I was thinking about how Farhana is secretly in love with Bashah, but how she can’t help but admire his fiancĂ©e, Georgine, partly because she snagged Bashah, but also because she wears sparkly clothes and gossips a lot and seems as confident as a movie star.

I’d been feeling estranged from my writing lately, probably because I hadn’t been doing much of it. The time I’d been devoting to my novel consisted of reading tiny little snippets of a somewhat dry history book. In other words, not writing.

I don’t know why this is such a big revelation: that not-writing does not feel like writing. I was whining to AK on Saturday about feeling disengaged from writing while being dropped into a world of fantastic writers who were writing fantastic things (which is basically what my trip to New York consisted of).

“Why don’t you just try writing—anything—just to see where it goes?” she said.

“I sort of thought I was past all that,” I said. “It’s dumb, but I thought, Now I’m a real writer. I work on projects, not just silly little freewrites.

And yet, I would have advised anyone experiencing a crabby relationship to her own creativity to do just that.

“Actually,” said AK, flatteringly, “I think that’s the mark of a more mature writer—to be able to discover things while writing and not need a defined direction.”

So I took her advice, and I’m also trying to take Walter Mosely’s advice, which is to write at least an hour and a half each day so that your project (or your silly little freewrite) stays in your head during your off hours. Actually, I’m practicing a lite version of Walter Mosely’s advice, but I’ve managed to write three days out of the past four, which is a huge improvement over where I was.

As a result, I’m starting to feel like myself again, meaning that I’m starting to feel like my characters. Farhana and Bashah and Georgine are second and third string characters who inhabit the part of my novel that needs the most fleshing out. I’m not planning on including a section from Farhana’s point of view, but by knowing what her point of view is, hopefully I’ll save her from just standing around cooking dinner. And by continuing to read up on Malaysia, hopefully I’ll know what that dinner actually is.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

10 pictures are worth 10,000 words

I'm still resting off my trip via a long, lazy weekend, so here are some pictures instead of words.

Second only to the Statue of Liberty when it comes to Classic Tourist Shots, I'm sure.

AK and Tommy at the Cornelia Street Cafe.

Me and AK at the same cafe, full of omelets and mimosas on a rainy Saturday.

My friend and co-worker Bill makes us brunch in Hoboken.

My baby loves a good skyline.

And a semi-eroding train station.

My co-workers Chris and Nicole share a tense moment.

Okay, not really.

Just another day in Washington Square Park (is it just me, or does the person behind the bear look like a weird combination of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake?).

Suddenly I felt under-dressed.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

avenue of the stars

My favorite thing about New York (by which I mean any place where I'm not driving, including the Red and Gold Lines in LA) is that when you have an interaction with someone while en route, it's not necessarily a bad one. If you're driving and you actually communicate with another driver, it's probably via middle finger or exchange of insurance information. Whereas human-scale public transportation produces stories like this one:

AK: Guess who got on at the Highland Park Gold Line station and got off at the Chinatown stop?

Me: Maggie Gyllenhaal? Your friend Suzie?

AK: Nope. A little sparrow.

Me: Oh my god, that's so wonderful. I hate driving.

All of which is to say that while walking from my hotel to Tommy's place in Chelsea yesterday, I had the best celebrity sighting a writer can have: I saw one of my characters walking down 6th Avenue.

Anna Lisa Hill, co-star of the still-unpublished Calla Boulevard and therefore only a star in my mind, is a 50-something, kinda butch woman who incongruously cares for a full-size black poodle. And there she was: short brown hair, sensible shoes and big black poodle. She was maybe a little more stylishly dressed than I'd imagined her--she looked like what Anna Lisa would have looked like if she'd run away to Greenwich Village (which she thought about doing) instead of Lilac Mines, California. But still!

Oh, and AK and I saw Penelope Cruz at Spring Awakening.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

postcard from new york

Just a quick note to say that I am in New York and done with 86 of my 87 meetings. Coney Island was rained out and AK almost didn't make it in, but that made it even sweeter when she did. While I met and met and met, she toured the city and brought me back little treasures from her travels, most awesomely And Tango Makes Three, a true, illustrated story of gay penguins and their adopted baby at the Central Park Zoo.

I came up for air long enough to join AK at Spring Awakening, a musical about horny German school kids in a repressive turn-of-the-century town that delivered a jolt of live-theater energy I haven't felt since Rent. There was kink and boys kissing and one genuine naked butt, all of which could be objected to by current repressor types, giving the show more edge than it might have had otherwise. But as much as I'm for kink and boys kissing and naked butts, I was most impressed by the songs, the talented cast members (most of whom were younger than the kids I grew up babysitting) and the way the stage shook whenever one of them jumped from ladder to wooden chair to suspended platform.

I'm still slowly reading The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem's meticulously written book about gentrification, cultural appropriation and superheroes, which is largely set in Brooklyn and the Village. My slothfulness paid off because it's fun to read the book on-site. A small part is also set in LA (I think Lethem's new novel, which I haven't read, is too). From this small part, he doesn't seem to like LA very much, or at least not Hollywood. But I like LA, and it will be nice to be home in a few days.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

bread and circuses

I’ve been to New York a half dozen times, but I’ve never seen the Statue of Liberty. When I’m in NYC, I’m usually working or hanging out with my one New York friend, who, as a local and the sort of person who insists that he only buys designer jeans for the fit, is far too cool for such things.

Luckily, I don’t really care about seeing the Statue of Liberty. I don’t have anything against it, it’s just that there’s not enough going for it for me to brave the crowds and the heights.

No, the tourist trap I really want to see is Coney Island. In my mind, it’s still 1907 there; full of freaks and mystery, squeaky boardwalks and cotton candy, people in striped swimsuits that go down to their knees. Conveniently, my aforementioned stylish friend Tommy has to report on Coney Island for a news segment as part of his job, and AK and I are going to tag along.

That’s on Sunday—between tomorrow (when I leave) and then, I have about 87 meetings. But all I’ll have to do is close my eyes and imagine fire eaters, noisy impresarios and fake mermaids stored in jars of formaldehyde, and the time will fly, I’m sure.

Hasta la 25th, my friends.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

i bet tony kushner doesn’t try to ditch rehearsal

I’ve been so busy lately that even fun things have become chores, from parties to writing to painting my nails. Not to mention working with the very kind Sally Shore to prepare my stories to be read aloud by actors tomorrow at the New Short Fiction series.

She called regularly to see if it was okay to tighten this sentence, skip this paragraph, etc. And each time, after giving her the go-ahead to chop, I thought, Wow, that’s really nice of her to ask. But why is she even asking? It’s her show.

Ladies and gentlemen, the opposite of diva is laaazy. And so when Sally informed me that there was a rehearsal Thursday night, I said, “That’s cool. Do I need to be there?”

I did—and here’s another thing about being tired and stretched too thin: Although it wears you out, it also makes you more vulnerable to all sorts of magic you haven’t noticed because your head was buried in your day planner. You’re just a thin, distracted wafer, and the magic cracks you in half.

I showed up at the library expecting to snack on the leftover raisins from my lunch and do a lot of doodling in my notebook. I’d read these stories a million times; how would I be anything but bored, even if the actors did a great job?

My notebook and my raisins both stayed in my backpack. As soon as the first actor started reading, I remembered one of my favorite things about writing: that moment in your workshop when two of your classmates start talking about your characters as if they’re real. “No, Roxanne wouldn’t do that.” “Of course she would—just look at the type of person her mom is.”

This was that times ten. Suddenly my characters were in the flesh in front of me, exactly like and nothing like how I’d pictured them. Suddenly these really nice people who sort of looked like Noelle and Kendall and Freddy had things to say about Noelle and Kendall and Freddy. Sally called Freddy clueless at one point, and Matt, who plays Freddy, said, “That’s what you think.”

It was like a writing class, but more collaborative. The actors added all sorts of little nuances, like free gifts with purchase. Matt gave this great deadpan look that made it seem like my story was super funny! No one would ever know it was only medium funny!

I’m an idiot,
I thought. This is the best gift an artist could ever get. Suddenly I wanted to be a playwright. If only I had even the slightest ability to physicalize dramatic action. Anything to keep this little bit of artistic Zen going.

With almost everyone’s performance, Sally instructed, “Slow it down. Really take that moment and feel it.” It’s not bad advice, you know.

mesa with a view

Driving to the Metro station to pick up AK on Tuesday night, I realized that I live on a hill. It doesn’t seem like a hill because most of the streets immediately surrounding mine are pretty flat, except for a steep drop to the west. So maybe I live on a mesa.

Anyway, I had this realization because, driving north, I had the most spectacular view of the mountains, which were suddenly much more noticeable because they were on fire. I knew this. I’d heard about the Griffith Park fire (a much bigger one than the little flare-up that temporarily threatened my birthday party in late March) on the radio earlier in the day. But here it was in front of me, not just smoke—though there was plenty—but huge horizontal walls of bright orange flames. Bigger than a house or ten houses or anything else that might catch my eye on a hillside.

And, as the sun set, it was apocalyptically beautiful. Is it wrong to find the apocalypse beautiful? Maybe “sublime”—the way Kant (I think) defined it—is a better word: something that prompts thoughts of the infinite and as a result inspires awe (because the infinite is pretty fucking cool) and fear (because the infinite is pretty fucking scary).

I tried to describe it to AK, but describing a huge wall of flames bearing down on your city and the park you’ve just recently come to appreciate doesn’t really work. She had to see it for herself, looking over her shoulder as we drove south.

“I hadn’t seen it before,” she said. “I saw smoke, but nothing like that. I hadn’t seen that.” She paused, a little dumbfounded. “That’s all I can really say. I hadn’t seen it.”

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

a history of johor and some other kingdom

Right now I’m reading A History of Malaysia to satisfy the research phase of my novel. Mostly this involves trying not to fall asleep as I skim chapters about how trade centers like Srivijaya gave way to trade centers like Melaka. I love history, but I’m not so into the ancient stuff. Even though my novel is set entirely in the present, I like to be thorough, except of course when I’m totally ignoring the facts. I’m a little bipolar when it comes to research.

Anyway, today’s reading involved the kingdom of Johor colluding with the Dutch to take down…shoot, I already forgot. Some other kingdom. But the point is that they were siding with the colonizers, which made me think about what colonialism must have looked like in its early days.

To the average Johorian, this wasn’t a matter of selling out to the white man to defeat your own people and ultimately yourself. Because the people in that other kingdom weren’t your own people, they were just the assholes across the straights. And the Dutch weren’t The Man, they were just a convenient ally. It’s just that convenient allies have a tendency to turn on you. (The first edition of this book was published in 1982, but apparently no one in the U.S. government read it before arming Afghan freedom fighters against the USSR.)

As my Chicano lit professor said, “We’re all the oppressors. We’re all the oppressed.” Useful words to remember when you feel bogged down by your own victimization or your own guilt.

I doubt this particular blog entry will be anywhere near as popular as my insightful critiques of The L Word, but I’m hoping that writing little book reports here and there will keep me on track research-wise. Then I’ll feel less guilty when I sit down to watch The L Word on the laptop that I undoubtedly own as a result of various forms of oppression.