Wednesday, October 31, 2012

the lady and the legacy

Precursor to the garage band.
Power is still out at my studio, so last night one of the staff members invited me and an equally powerless nonfiction writer to stay in Hillcrest, the MacDowells’ old farmhouse house at the top of the hill. Now it’s where they put up board members and fancy visiting artists. The place is a bit of a labyrinth. There’s a story about Edward Albee getting turned around, stumbling through a sort of closet/tunnel thing and ending up in Michael Chabon’s bedroom, where he was lying around in his underwear.

Hillcrest is huge—I think there are at least eight bedrooms—but cozy because it was built for nineteenth century farmers, who were apparently all about 5’ 3”.

The staff member herded a big group of us into Edward MacDowell’s music room, which has been kept as the MacDowells left it. There’s embossed wallpaper, a grand piano, walls of bookshelves, beams that don’t quite meet and a draught that circles your ankles like a cat. Imagine if you converted your garage into a Victorian parlor, and you’ll get the idea.    

She screened a 1956 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie called Lady in the Wings, a Marian MacDowell-approved biopic about the early days of the colony. Mrs. MacDowell spends a lot of time telling people that she’s no artist, she just wants to feed and house her husband and his brilliant peers. The movie celebrates female self-sacrifice, but most scenes end with characters gazing admiringly at Mrs. MacDowell as she embarks on a new tour or fundraising project. So it celebrates independence and enterprise in the same breath.

It was live television, so every scene is shot from the same distance, the passage of time is shown via a hand haphazardly tearing off calendar pages and the big 1938 hurricane scene is represented by a chunk of wood landing in front of Mrs. MacDowell.

We all laughed at glossed-over aspects of artistic life, like when Mr. MacDowell gets a tenured teaching position at Columbia:

Academic Dude A: “Let’s hire a European.”

Academic Dude B: “What about that American fellow, Edward MacDowell?”

Academic Dude A: “Who is he?”

Academic Dude B: “Who’s Edward MacDowell?! Why, he wrote ‘To a Wild Rose’!”

Academic Dude A: “He did? Everyone knows that song! Write him at once and tell him he can teach at Columbia for the rest of his life!”

But then they showed actual footage of the old colony, which looks a lot like present-day MacDowell. There was the red dorm building. There were the lunch baskets being delivered by truck. Breakfast was at 7:30, dinner at 6:30, just like now.

Maybe it’s because I’m a West Coaster or a public school kid or gay, but I tend to be suspicious of traditions, especially the WASP-y variety, even as I have a certain longing to be part of them. I think the nice thing about MacDowell is that the legacy is held lightly—you can laugh at the clunky script even as your heart fills with affection at the sight of a lunch basket.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

it was a dark and stormy night

Terrified of their feelings for each other.
Last night one of the MacDowell staffers offered to drive everyone back to their studios around eight, but being here has infected me with a mild case of FOMO*, and I didn’t want to miss the screening of The Haunting that was about to begin, so I decided to sleep in Colony Hall rather than sit in my dark studio for hours.

Is watching a horror movie about a haunted mansion in the heart of leafy New England the best idea when I plan to spend the night by myself in a huge, creaky old building in leafy New Hampshire during a hurricane? What about when the hurricane keeps blowing the doors open while the doors in the movie rattle and undulate as if they’re alive?

Actually, it wasn’t the worst idea.

The movie—the original, from 1963-ish—is simultaneously campy and creepy and gay and Freudian. Claire Bloom plays a hot telepathic lesbian who wears mod clothes and hits on Julie Harris’s stressed-out Nell. Joined by the paternal doctor and the douchey heir also camped out at Hill House, they fluidly fill the roles left by the original family (patriarch, mother, stepmother, daughter, caretaker). There’s lots of relational stuff to ponder there. Also, there’s Julie Harris’s big eyes and crazy internal monologue.

I’d pictured a pseudo-slumber party in Colony Hall, but people cleared out and I spent a long time hemming and hawing about whether to borrow the air mattress of a musician here and set it up in her dorm or stick it out in Colony Hall, where there was more space and a generator. Everyone was very indulgent of my indecision, and AK talked me down from the beginnings of a creeped-out, anxious night.

Today it’s still rainy, my writing is still sorta aimless (although I had a good couple hours revising a short story) and I’m ready for another movie and some hot chocolate.

*Fear Of Missing Out

a now-obsolete post written shortly before hurricane sandy killed the internet

This morning my friend Colin, a lifelong Californian who’s doing a book tour on the East Coast right now, posted: “I’m so used to earthquakes that the idea of sitting around waiting for a disaster is really weird.”

At least, that’s the gist of what he said; power is out at MacDowell right now, so I can’t jump online to fact-check. New Hampshire is currently getting the tail end—or maybe it’s the head or elbow—of Hurricane Sandy.

As one of two Angelenos here, I’ve been repeating Colin’s words, although now that I think about it, waiting around for a disaster is exactly what I do, which is why I’m in so much damn therapy. And I don’t even have a really tip-top emergency kit to show for it; I just worry a lot.

This will be my first hurricane, which is kind of exciting, which is just the sort of thing someone who’s never been through a hurricane would say. If I’d been through several smallish ones, I would find them a pain in the ass and know how to do things like board up windows. If I’d been through a major one and lost my house or a loved one, I’d be bracing myself to be re-traumatized (the bracing itself being, in my case, a primary symptom of trauma).

It’s rainy and blustery outside, but as of twenty minutes ago, there was a deer peacefully munching wet meadow grass outside my window, so it might be a little early to call it a hurricane. (I was going to say “full-blown hurricane”; are hurricanes where we get “full-blown”?) Periodically, flocks of leaves lift up and fly through the open spaces. Mist hovers in clouds.

There’s kind of a party going on in Colony Hall’s dining room—I just heard someone toast to Hurricane Sandy—but I’m not feeling ready to make the transition from the quiet working hours to the social part of the day just yet. But I also didn’t want to be alone in my studio, so as soon as the lights flickered out, I packed up my laptop and books and booked it out of there. I also packed a toothbrush and jammies just in case I have to sleep on a sofa here in Colony Hall. And by “have to,” I mean “am too scared to hike five minutes through the forest back to my studio.”

Yesterday I finished my editing project…and by “finished” I mean, “made a bunch of fairly significant changes I feel good about, but who knows what the agent I’m sort of lit-flirting with will say.” That leaves me with a whole week to work on just-for-fun projects; so far that’s resulted in a few pages of a really aimless short story. But I’m giving myself permission to let aim emerge slowly. I’m also reading a book about contemporary Iranian culture, because one of the characters in my YA novel is Persian, and counting that as writing.

I don’t think most of what I’m reading will be very applicable to a sixteen-year-old Iranian American character living in L.A., but reading this book virtually guarantees that I’ll write a scene in which her parents share random facts about life before and after the revolution, only to edit it out later when it becomes clear I was just showing off my newly acquired random facts.

Rain is pouring off the roof in Raging Waters-style jet-streams. There’s one working outlet in this building, and a visual artist from Mexico City just inquired about setting up a really long extension cord. I have a hunch she’s about as equipped for winter weather as I am.

Friday, October 26, 2012

the acknowledgments page

A rare MacDowell Wolf.
Yesterday we hiked Mount Monadnock, which is apparently pronounced mon-ADD-nock, not MON-an-dock (which doesn’t even make sense, but that’s how I read it). A really funny screenwriter/filmmaker, a nonfiction writer whose parents once bought a house infested with scorpions (she had more animal stories where that came from) and another nonfiction writer, who is kind of a walking encyclopedia, but not in an annoying way.

One of the things the encyclopedia guy told us: The bald, rocky top of Mount Monadnock is not above the tree line, as it would appear. Rather, at the turn of the last century, local farmers were convinced that wolves were coming down from the top of the mountain and killing their livestock. They decided to show the wolves who was boss by setting fire to the woods repeatedly. Eventually the trees didn’t come back. Neither did the wolves.

Now there are only coyotes here. I heard them yipping eerily the other night, which should be a comforting sound of home. But as AK, who has some encyclopedic qualities herself, reminded me, East Coast coyotes have interbred with wolves and are extra aggressive.

I shared this fact with my fellow hikers. Later, someone said something about Marian and Edward MacDowell being childless, though there were rumors about various affairs each might have had. Maybe Edward made sweet love with some coyotes, someone speculated. For the rest of the hike, we imagined the MacDowell Wolves, dog-like creatures with the faces of a musician. Anytime you hear howling and piano music coming from the woods….

We climbed a rocky streambed, which gave way to straight-up rocks. From the top of the mountain, we could see for seventy miles: acres and acres of red-leaved trees, pine forests, boggy lakes and the occasional McMansion.

I’ve been reading the MacDowell Colony hundred-year-anniversary coffee table book in bits and pieces. In truth, I’m really touched by their story: Americans who met abroad and fell in love with each other and the with the idea that American music was worth investing in (a radical notion for the nineteenth century). Edward’s health began to fail shortly after the founding of the Colony, and Marian toured the country giving concerts of his music to raise money after his death, even though she had a bad back and used crutches herself.

Arts administrators and supporters get even less glory than artists themselves, but a quick tour of Colony Hall shows you that the artists, at least, know that they—like the heroes of any realm—couldn’t do it alone. The acknowledgments page is sometimes a feeble thank-you, but I just did a load of laundry in the basement. The laundry area was full of thank-you notes to the housekeeping staff, a poem titled “Doing Laundry at MacDowell” and an oil painting of a toppled bottle laundry detergent.    

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

private property

It's high security around here.
Last night the only poet (surprisingly) in residence said that he got turned around a lot on the trails that loop through MacDowell’s three hundred acres.

“At first I concluded that all the roads lead back to the same place. But I was on one for a while, and it spit me out on the paved street, and it became clear it wasn’t going to get me back to Colony Hall. So I decided to just retrace my steps. But when I turned back the way I came from, I saw this sign that said Private Property and I was like, Uh-oh, am I in someone’s yard?

He wasn’t. He was still on the MacDowell campus, which is studded with Private Property signs. (They’re not too threatening; they just ask MacDowell visitors to please use the High Street entrance.) But one of the visual artists admitted she’d been intimidated by the signs too, as had I.

(It probably doesn’t help that, when I was little, my dad had a habit of parking our motor home on the side of some coastal road and climbing over rocks and fences to gain access to whatever caught his attention, like a cat. I remember reading a sign that said Trespassers will be prosecuted and freaking out, because I mixed up the words “prosecute” and “execute.”)

I decided it’s indicative of the complex everyone here seems to have: Here’s this fantastic thing, but it must be for someone else. We should scurry away before we get caught. This whole week and a half has been a lesson in Artists! They’re just like us!

Today I finally woke up before eight and made it to hot breakfast. You can just place your order for a variety of items on a piece of butcher paper in the kitchen. When a novelist who has a propensity for straight-faced sarcasm told me this, I just laughed. Surely we’d all get matching plates of French toast. No, really, everyone else said. Breakfast is made to order.

Then I spent almost five and a half hours revising the cats-‘n’-Malaysia novel—basically there’s too much Malaysia—which was a slog, but a good and necessary one. I don’t think I’ve mapped out all the changes I need to make, but I made progress, and tomorrow I’m going to reward myself by writing a new chapter, which is much more fun than reworking an outline.

I took a break and ran each side of the V formed by High Street and MacDowell Road. I ran past the MacDowell Country Club, which is open to the public and apparently features strong gin drinks made by a woman named Bev. I ran past a half-dozen Private Property signs.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

the mystery of a remodel

1. bleu period

I finished Draft 1 of the YA novel yesterday. It’s mind-altering to do in a week what normally takes a month or two. I talked to my dad on the phone and mentioned how spoiled I’m getting here, how amazing it is to be treated like I have something important to say and I should just go ahead and spend the whole day saying it. Also, there’s the immersion factor: It’s the only way to learn a language, and I’m now convinced it’s the best way to learn a language of your own devising too. Apparently, I’ve been doing the equivalent of diligently memorizing vocab lists from my Spanish for Beginners textbook for years.

My dad immediately began brainstorming ways that I can get out of town and write more in the future. “Stop,” I told him. “If I get too spoiled, I’ll have nothing to write about.”

“We can talk more when you get home,” he said mysteriously. I think he was vaguely implying that another residency might show up in my Christmas stocking.

“Or we can not talk,” I said.

Of course I’ve been thinking about applying to future residencies too, or maybe even just camping out at my dad’s house for a three-day weekend here and there when I really need to get some words down, but it pains me that my dad is such a problem-solver. Here I was, telling him something was awesome, and he assigned himself the task of making sure that awesomeness would last infinitely.

What pains me most of all is how desperately he wants me to be happy. It practically oozed through the phone lines from the other side of the continent. That tells me that I haven’t been a portrait of happiness these past couple of years, and that’s made him unhappy. Which makes me unhappy. All the Kleins do is try to take care of each other, which you’d think would put us on the functional end of the spectrum, but it’s also begotten a lot of therapy.

Anyway. Finishing my draft made me a little blue. (At first I typed “bleu,” which has such different connotations. I wish it made me bleu—which I think would involve painting while eating a croissant and wearing a beret.) Partly because now I have to edit the cats-‘n’-Malaysia book, which is daunting, and partly because anytime something I’ve been focusing on intensely goes away, I fill in the space with neurosis, like thunder in the gap created by lightning.

2. where things come from

I walked into town this morning to get some dental floss and candy—now I’m realizing that I could have gotten neither, since they sort of cancel each other out. I noticed how a lot of the old houses along High Street have barns attached to them. Or at least, they’re attached now. I like the mystery of a remodel—seeing the story of the decades in enclosed porches and extended garages.

Here was my thought process, which gives away my urban-ness: A lot of these garages used to be barns. Now they hold cars, but they used to hold horses and buggies. I hope the horses didn’t inhale too much carbon monoxide from the cars.

Then I wondered why the barns were so tall. Horses aren’t very tall. Then I remembered that horses eat hay, and in the moist Northeast, you have to store your hay indoors. It would be like storing all your gasoline in your garage today. I know it’s kind of a cliché to say that the problem with modern life is that we don’t pay attention to where our food and fuel comes from, but I think it’s a little bit true.

I bought my floss and candy at the super overpriced but very cute market, and the checker commented on my UCLA hoodie. Was I recently from California? Still there, I said. He’d moved here two years ago.

From Highland Park, right near the metro station, which is 1.5 miles from where I live. Of course, right?

Monday, October 22, 2012

i am not listless (get it?)

Imperfect writing metaphor.
1. I think I may be overly reliant on characters overhearing things. It’s a cheap plot device, and one reason I didn’t think much of The Big Sleep.

2. I think I might finish the YA book in like two more days. I’m not looking forward to editing my cats-‘n’-Malaysia novel, but I guess writing a YA book is a productive form of procrastination.

3. Some writers love rewriting and fear the blank page. I’m the opposite, although I don’t hate rewriting as much as I used to.

4. It’s kind of like cleaning the toilet. It didn’t even occur to me back in the day, and I didn’t have the right kind of brush and duck-neck cleaning product to do it. Now I do it regularly, if reluctantly.

5. It’s like cleaning the toilet if cleaning the toilet made your brain hurt and sometimes evoked painful memories and took years. And sometimes when you thought you’d cleaned the toilet, someone came along and said, no, actually it’s not clean.

6. Also if cleaning toilets occasionally brought about unexpected moments of magic.

7. Lunch today: vegan lasagna made with collard greens and mashed-up beans. Mine had cheese sprinkled over the top, because I’m not a vegan.

8. It’s nice to worry that a good thing will ruin me, rather than worrying that a bad thing will ruin me.

9. Not worrying at all? What’s that?

10. I am taking a cartwheel break.

11. At CalArts, people sometimes talked about narrative like it was a bad thing, or at least not to be trusted.

12. They were right, but I learned that from spiraling into OCD, not from writing.

13. But I guess it’s like any tool that can be used for good or evil.

14. How will these thoughts play out in my writing?

15. Maybe like this: Biology is not our destiny, but sometimes biology is the narrative we react to. Nature marches forward with us or without us.

16. Who said, “A plot is: The king died, then the queen died. A story is: The king died, then the queen died of grief”? Nature is a plot. Story is up to us.

17. These are meta thoughts, so I’m counting them toward my writing time. I’m going for five hours today.

18. Here’s a little secret: Earlier this afternoon I wrote a scene that made me cry. The character who is kind of like me had a really noble moment.

19. That’s like three different kinds of ego playing out right there.

20. When I look up from my writing, I see two deer grazing. I wonder if they’re nervous that a bear might be watching.

21. It’s not that different from Starbucks, if you think about it. People eating, communing, trying not to get caught.

22. The leaves come in all your standard autumn shades, but the best ones are almost neon red. They look fake. Super-powered.

23. Deer flash the white undersides of their tales to signal alarm and, it would seem, when they’re casually swishing bugs away. It doesn’t seem like the most reliable emergency technology.

24. When I was in Indian Princesses, the Indian (“Indian”) name I gave myself was Running Fawn, but then I changed it to Sleeping Fawn. I was lazy, I guess.

25. Of course I was a baby animal. I was never the kind of kid who pretended to be an adult, not even an adult deer. Being an adult meant responsibility, with no one the least bit impressed by what a prodigy you were.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

trigger happy

Hey, punkin.
The calendar in Colony Hall said “Surprize.” What could possibly blow the minds of two dozen artists sufficiently to warrant being spelled with a Z?

Two dozen pumpkins and a bag full of knives pilfered from the kitchen, that’s what. It was all orchestrated by a playwright here; he led us through the woods to his studio, where the pumpkins and cider and mini bags of Doritos awaited (chips: a recurring motif in my life).

Recently my crafty sister confessed that she works extra hard on cards she’s making for weddings or bachelorette parties, because she secretly craves admiration, even though it’s someone else’s big day.

I told her that wasn’t a secret so much as human nature.

So I was excited to see the pumpkins—if there had been, say, an impromptu jam session or sing-along (and there more or less have been), I would have had to back slowly away. I have no inner musician waiting to emerge. But I do have an inner visual artist. I mean, she’s kind of folksy and pedestrian, but she’s in there.

I carved my pumpkin with the shape of one of the charming brown beetle/cricket things with whom I’ve been spending the majority of my days. (I also found one dead in my bed a few nights ago.) Soon I heard people saying, “Hey, who did the bug?” and I glowed a little, like the tea light inside my bug-o-lantern. There was also a pretty rockin’ violin, a Cyclops and a skeptical-looking pumpkin smoking a cigarette.

The pumpkin party turned into an odd sort of dance party, with just three or four people busting moves and one person doing yoga and the Roger Rabbit. That turned into a people-hanging-out-and-talking non-party, which I stuck around for because dammit, I’m determined to make friends and Not Go Crazy. It was a good late-night crowd and, in the way of late-night conversations, they shared their neuroses and dramas, and compared the ages at which they’d first started masturbating (three to eighteen, if you’re curious).

It was a huge relief to see people’s humanity peeking through their amazing-artist exteriors. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that humans are human. Arguably artists are a little extra human. I mean, I kind of don’t buy that—it seems pretentious—but let’s say maybe artists are a little extra into processing their humanity.

The next morning at breakfast, a novelist/nonfiction writer/screenwriter said, “When I saw those pumpkins, I groaned inwardly. Because it’s supposed to be this warm and fuzzy childhood memory, but it’s just not for me. My pathology is more like, I remember trying to get excited about this stuff because I knew my parents wanted me to. But then I had a great time.”

I told him about the Lambda Literary Retreat reading I attended, where people who were reading scenes featuring rape or other abuse prefaced their readings by saying, “Trigger alert.” The idea was that, if you’d had your own brushes with rape, etc., you could take a moment to mentally prepare or excuse yourself.

It was a thoughtful idea, but it seemed kind of pointless, as I told this writer. Because real triggers aren’t, like, death in the abstract. They’re quiet little grenades, like pumpkins. Exactly, he said.

Mine? Beige corduroy pants. My mom’s handwriting on a recipe card. The entire Beverly Hills section of Wilshire. As any writer will tell you, it’s all in the details.

Friday, October 19, 2012

temporary utopia and picturesque rot

Little house in the big woods.
Today it’s raining but not too cold. My favorite kind of rain. The sky just sort of drips onto the yellow and orange leaves, and steam rolls along the ground.

You can see why a person might want to write about nature, although my official position on the subject is that nature is like New York: There’s plenty to say about it, but a lot of it’s already been said.

Yesterday was sunny, so I took a long walk on my “lunch break,” which I’m putting in quotes because it was a break from my “work.” Don’t get me wrong—I’m working, and it’s wonderful, and I think this place will spoil me just like I knew it would, now that I know what it means to see the waves of my narrative in compressed form. But it’s a playful kind of work.

I took my photocopied MacDowell map and wandered past the other studios and cottages. There is a lot of white wood and low stone walls covered in moss. Some of the older buildings are a little worn, but it only adds to their charm. There’s a big difference between the sagging wood of a turn-of-the-century New England porch and the saggy, leaking ceilings of a high school classroom that was built as a temporary structure in 1973. I feel like that’s the kind of rot we have on the West Coast.

But maybe someday, after enough West Coast artists grow old and immortalize the shitty classrooms of their youth, we’ll find it quaint. Is that how nostalgia works? Or is there something intrinsically more lovely about old New England rot? Because of the trees?

I mean, I think almost anything can be beautiful, but certain kinds of beauty are hard and gritty and just make you nauseous in the wrong light, when you feel more of them than witness to them.

It’s hard to look at MacDowell and Peterborough—the adjacent town, all brick and white wood—without a refrain of This is utopia pulsing at the base of my skull. When I was much younger, I would have wanted to move here. (My dream, at age five, was to live in a Victorian house that I’d restored myself. That is the dream of a child whose parents are way too into real estate and historical landmarks. That is the dream of someone who hasn’t yet discovered how much she dislikes fixing shit.) When I was just a little younger, I would have been highly suspicious of all of it. Surely this much charm must have a dark side? Or at least be the product of some sinister oppressive force? If I lived here I’d become soft, and we can’t have that!

Now I that I’ve become a little bit hard, I’d welcome the opportunity to become a little bit soft. I’m grateful to Mr. and Mrs. MacDowell (mostly Mrs., since Mr. died young, which isn’t his fault) for understanding all this: that when you have success and abundance you should use it to help other people create their own success; that temporary utopia might be the most useful kind.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

freshman flashbacks

Artist residencies are a lot like freshman year at college, with better food and accommodations. The first conversations are easy and predictable, with “What are you here to work on?” replacing “What’s your major?” Everyone seems exotic and interesting and a little intimidating. Then come the awkward in-between moments, when your extrovert energy starts to wane and you wonder which acquaintances, if any, will turn into actual friends.

At least that’s how it works if “you” are me.

I spent my freshman year bouncing between outrageous homesickness, unconvincing displays of outgoingness and devastating realizations that the friends I’d thought were my soul mates after a handful of late-night conversations actually didn’t like me all that much. Have I told you about the time my roommate told me to stop secretly gorging myself on her chips?
It's not like they were even Kettle Chips.

These flashbacks aren’t totally welcome, although I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two in the past seventeen years. In the past ten, I’ve adopted a strategy of being too busy to make friends, which is a rude and terrible strategy, but one that’s mostly worked. The friendships that have grown in spite of my neglect are the hardiest plants in the garden.

So when I go to a reading, I can get away with waving at a handful of people, then retreating to my house and AK and whatever’s next on my to-do list. It’s one part introversion, one part really needing to stop by the grocery store on the way home. Maybe I’m creating demand by limiting the supply of Me? Maybe not.

But part of my Not Going Crazy All Up In My Own Head plan at MacDowell was to aggressively make friends. I chatted with two younger campers today, a musician and a memoirist who I tried to imagine as interns at my organization so as not to be overwhelmed by the fact that they’re twenty-three years old and already Those Artists. (It wasn’t a huge stretch because most of the people who intern for Jamie and I are scholarly and inspiring, and don’t spend nearly as much time watching the Style Network as I did when I was twenty-three, my feet propped up on a stack of unopened New Yorkers.)

What did I do after tonight’s presentation by an amazing conceptual artist and a jazz musician who is probably also amazing, although with any kind of non-lyrical music I just really wouldn’t know?

I floated around the main hall for a few minutes, thought about doing yoga in my studio and made a quick break for it.


Now I can just picture some dinner conversation a week from now, in which someone will casually refer to me as “the quiet one.” And it will be too late to live down my non-reputation.

One of the biggest lessons of adulthood has been: You, Cheryl, always think everyone else has their shit together, and you’re always wrong. In all likelihood, other people feel a little shy too, and even though one woman said she’s writing six thousand words a day, another said she felt awesome for having written a thousand today.

I love collecting people’s processes. The variations in word count, the golden times of day and the dark times. Pounding out a draft vs. reworking each chapter as you go a long. It’s a nice reminder that it takes all kinds, maybe even mine.

But since I’m here in my little cabin while, across the dark meadow, Colony Hall is still lit up with mysterious and therefore fabulous conversation, I guess I better do some fucking yoga.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

25 random things about macdowell too

Calderwood: heated floors and charming bugs.
Last night I started reading 2500 Random Things About Me Too, a compilation/explosion of lists from that Facebook meme that went around a few years ago, by my former CalArts professor Matias Viegener. You might think that would make for a terrible book, especially if you’ve seen how blogs and Tumblrs and other internet phenomena have been turned into disappointing books that get sold at Urban Outfitters. But you’d be wrong.

I’ll have more to say about Matias’s book—which is as warm and friendly as it is skeptical of narrative—when I’m finished, but for now I just want to blog about (full) Day 1 at MacDowell in random-list form.

1. Lunch arrived in a picnic basket with “Calderwood,” the name of my cottage/studio, painted on the lid.

2. It was tuna salad with capers and faro. Faro! It tastes like peasant food in the best way.

3. I think that when people get stuck, they reach for food, both literally and literarily. Mangoes and grapefruit are making a lot of appearances in Matias’s book.

4. The floor in my studio is heated.

5. My studio is at least as big as AK’s and my house, but with no AK and no cats. It’s all for me. This is good for writing and bad in the other ways.

6. I told AK that there must be a cat around here that I could borrow for a couple of weeks. If not, I might kidnap one of the chickens on the property.

7. I’m going to start writing what I came here to write…any…minute…now.

8. I think about caffeine like an addict. Mostly I’m going to totally stop while I’m here. But it’s the first day! Just a cup of tea to get me started. Oh, and they included a thermos of coffee in my picnic basket.* I don’t want to be rude by not drinking it.

9. I feel like a kid at Disneyland. I can’t settle down and enjoy any one thing because there is too much to enjoy. I just sort of have to run around and touch it all.

10. I just opened a document called “CharsAndStyleDraft1 02-10-12” that lists all the characters in the YA novel I’m here to work on. I was like, Who are these people? Luckily it’s annotated: “Aiden Jayne—Miranda’s boyfriend, football douche.”

11. I’ve definitely had too much caffeine.

12. For the record, my novel is not about football douches, or the girls who date them. Or the nerds who resent them. I think we’ve all heard enough on those subjects. Yes, high school is a microcosm of society, and it’s very important when you’re sixteen, but kids have whole lives that happen outside of school, and sometimes those outside goings-on make high school politics seem like a luxury.

13. My studio is full of these big brown bugs with long legs and black markings on their backs. I think they can fly. Because they live in my charming cottage in charming New Hampshire, I find them charming. It’s not fair. Cockroaches are really admirable when you think about it, but I hate them.

14. I’m trying to decide whether I should reread my YA novel from the beginning (apparently I wrote thirteen chapters already?), which would be the responsible thing to do, or just reread my outline and jump into the writing part, which is what the caffeine is telling me to do.

15. I think you know which I’m going to choose.

16. I’m scared I’ll start to like this life, and it will be hard to go back to writing at Starbucks for one hour a day.

17. Kind of like how, in college, I shared a room for as long as I could, because I knew that once I paid for my own bedroom, there would be no turning back.

18. But I like to think of myself as resilient. If I had to do a lot of things, I could. Whenever people say, “I could never ______,” it’s insulting to the people who are doing _____. Like they’re sharing a room just because poverty comes naturally to them.

19. I’ve been writing for a little while now. I got sort of excited, then I talked to AK on the phone and started worrying, just a little, about whether Ollie will get confused if he doesn’t get fed at the times I normally feed him, and will run away forever. Then it was hard to start writing again.

20. But I did/am anyway.

21. A composer I met earlier today is walking in the meadow outside my window. Is he stuck? Or is he hearing amazing melodies in his head?

22. How someone composes a piece of music is just about as mysterious to me as a thing can be. I could design a house as easily as I could compose a song. They would be equally unstable structures.

23. Leaves are falling. Joe Bills, the guy who drove me here from Boston yesterday, told me about how a dead squirrel fell onto the hood of his car recently. It was walking across a telephone wire one minute, dead the next. We should all go so quickly.

24. I wrote 1,573 words. I’m feeling good about roughly nine hundred of them.

25. No, that’s not really how I look at it. I sort of said that to be clever. Really, most of the words themselves are okay. It’s how they fit into the project as a whole that feels like looking into a canyon full of scorpions.

*During the kitchen tour, they asked, “Do you want coffee?” I apparently said, “Yes.”

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

magical lands

1. some stories i’ve told myself

A handful of years ago, after applying for and being rejected by several of those lovely grants that give chunks of money to women artists, I decided maybe I just wasn’t One Of Those Writers. I had a book out, so I suspected I was a good writer, but Those Writers, the ones who got awards and grants and fellowships, had some kind of additional pedigree I couldn’t quite formulate, let alone access.

Maybe my MFA wasn’t from the right school, or my writing was too queer, or not queer enough. People might like my work, but that wasn’t the same as saying, We the well-funded want to put our money on you. We think there should to be more YOU in the world. It was like, if I could get myself to the party, I might be admitted, but no car service was going to send a limo for me.

And then I got a grant—from the Center for Cultural Innovation, to work on the circus novel. I got the letter the same week I learned I was pregnant with twins, and I thought, Well, this is too good to be true, and then it was. Maybe I could be one of Those Writers after all, but the price would be motherhood. It was as if long ago some sort of Rumpelstiltskin character had handed me a contract, and I hadn’t read the fine print, which called for my firstborns in exchange for the spun gold of literary success.*

I wouldn’t have signed it if I’d known!, I told the universe that was not actually listening.

Hello, young lady. Would you like two complimentary copies of a literary journal featuring your short story?
It’s stunning, and wearying, and ridiculous, where magical thinking can get you. My brain is its own enchanted spinning wheel, determined to turn the best news into a harbinger of doom. But I’m working on it.

2. mo’ money, mo’ problems?**

About a year after the CCI grant, I applied for a long-shot residency at the MacDowell Colony, and I was accepted. Was it because of the other grant—because success perversely begets success? Or the great letter of rec my unwavering mentor wrote? Or some California/lesbian/nonprofit worker quota?

Or maybe they really liked my writing sample. I mean, they must have, even if there were other factors. (I realize this whole post could come off as falsely humble or pathetically lacking in self-esteem, but my point is the strange and shifting nature of success.)

So I’m writing this from a plane headed toward an estate in the woods of New Hampshire. I hear the leaves are beautiful. The MacDowell website tells me I’ll get my own studio and three meals a day; it somewhat apologetically explains that residents are asked to clear their own dinner dishes.

Basically, I’m going to a magical-as-my-own-magical-thinking land where artists and the arts are valued. It’s a cliché to say they aren’t, out there in the regular world, but I’m so used to treating my writing like masturbation—something healthy and fun, but certainly to be done on my own time—that the whole concept of a writing residency kind of blows my mind.

I’m also aware of the possibility that my mind might get, well, not literally blown, but some circuits could misfire and I could spend three weeks in my head in the worst way. The summer of 2011 taught me that my imagination can absolutely be used for evil instead of novel-writing. I’ll be going for a lot of head-clearing runs.

I hope I’ll be running a lot. Because while one part of me will be happy just to stay sane, another part is being typically over-ambitious (note: these parts are related). I’m going to draft my YA novel! Rewrite the cats-‘n’-Malaysia book! Get in amazing shape! Blog regularly! And become the enviable self I was always meant to be. That, too, is a fiction, just like the Rumpelstiltskin story. 

My job, when I’m actually putting fiction on the page, is to create stories that counteract the bullshit stories I get from fairy tales, mainstream culture and my own head. I want my work, even the stuff that’s full of ghosts and mermaids, to be realer than reality. There’s a kind of logic in the worlds I create, but when I’m the divine, there’s nothing so tidy as justice. At least, that’s my job as I see it. And for a few weeks, it’s going to be a full-time position.

*If you’re wondering what I mean by “literary success,” I’ll quote my poetry professor Patty Seyburn: “It’s a very, very competitive world, and the stakes are very, very low.”

**I was thinking of titling this section “first world problems,” but that phrase is 1. overused and 2. a little bit stupid in its implication that having a certain amount of material comfort should absolve you from pain. If money cured broken hearts and anxious minds, it would be even more powerful and fought-over than it already is. Then the terrorists really would have won.

Monday, October 08, 2012

on being that person

One time in college, my roommates admitted to each other that they’d thought (separately) about killing someone. They’d fantasized about how to do it, wondered if they could get away with it.

I was surprised. It’s not that I worried Stephanie or Nina would kill me in my sleep (even though I wasn’t tidiest roommate). But I’d never thought about killing someone. Instead, I’d always imagined getting accused of a crime I didn’t commit. I could easily picture the cops nudging me toward a confession. When I thought about it, did I really remember everything that had happened last Saturday night? No, I would concede tearfully, I did not.

Empathy is a weird thing (Colin’s great article in the Used Furniture Review started me thinking about it). In general, I’m a fan. It’s why I write fiction. It’s more or less the meaning of life, I guess. But too much and you’re totally dysfunctional. If a surgeon really empathized with her patients, she wouldn’t be able to operate. Parents have to remind themselves that they are Not Their Children if they want to play the role of grownup on the first day of kindergarten.

Which side of the empathy fence you fall on probably says something about you, although I’m not sure what. A while ago someone posted an Onion story on Facebook: “Middle-Aged Woman Angrily Demanding Price Check OnRice Pudding Was Once Carefree Youth, Onlookers Speculate.” The comments were along the lines of “Right? I hate people like that!”

But I was overwhelmed with feelings of There But For The Grace Of Well-Labeled Pudding Go I.

About three bucks.
Sometimes you are That Person. Everyone hates rubberneckers who slow down traffic to look at an accident, but traffic wouldn’t be slow if everyone wasn’t actually slowing down ever so slightly.*

The realization always hits hard. Not only are you doing something you abhor, you’re also losing your right to complain about other people who do that thing. And I consider the Right To Complain the other meaning of life.

People often call my organization and ask if they can send us poems, even though we don’t publish poetry or fiction. We explain politely, hang up the phone and get our panties in a self-righteous bunch: Why would you submit poetry to a magazine you’d never read? A magazine whose TABLE OF CONTENTS you clearly hadn’t even skimmed?

That’s an extreme, but once I submitted fiction to a contest that was only taking poetry that year. When the very nice editor (whom I knew! even worse!) explained as much, I was so embarrassed I wanted to sink into a pile of composted pages of my own novel.

The other day, Bronwyn told me about a story she read in which a young man took a walk through the impoverished streets of India** and closely observed said poverty and his own sad feelings about it. End of story. The worst, first-world-uses-third-world-to-process-its-pain-while-enjoying-bright-colors stuff you can imagine (although, ironically, it was spawned by an attempt at empathy).

Holi celebration. These people may or may not be poor.
Then Bronwyn paused. “I’m pretty sure I’ve written that story before.”

“Me too,” I admitted. “Just substitute Malaysia and throw in some cats.”

I’ve also spoken in a mildly hysterical voice to my share of customer service reps. I’m almost always the person who stands in the middle of a crowded airport terminal staring at the arrival/departure screen as foot traffic stumbles around me. I’ve frequently become the queen of TMI (see: this blog, and my recent conversation about constipation with Nicole). And I spend a lot of my days worrying that I’ll become all sorts of variations of the rice pudding lady; I’m haunted by dozens of Ghosts of Christmas Future. The person who doesn’t take care of her toenails? The person who eventually decides the Republicans have a point? The bitter woman who never realized her dreams of [fill in the blank]? I hope that simply wanting to stave off That Person-ness will perform a kind of alchemy, but I’m not sure it’s that easy.

Maybe the best we can do is empathize with other people as they become That Person. So I want to know: Which person are you?

*At least, this was my theory until I took a cab ride with a driver who practically came to a standstill on the empty 110 North to check out an accident on the 110 South. So another possibility is that most people don’t rubberneck, and that one cab driver ruins it for everyone.

**Country and mode of transportation have been changed to protect the author, whoever he was.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

what i read and killed in september

Here are some things that happened last weekend.

1. My car died. In a CVS parking lot two blocks from my mechanic. I hiked up the hill and talked to Jeff. “You have Triple-A?” he asked, not unkindly. “Call Triple-A.” I trudged back down the hill and waited by my dirty car until the tow truck came. I got a jump and drove back to my mechanic.

2. Because of #1, we got a late start on our drive up north for Meehan and Sally’s wedding.

3. Meehan and Sally got married.

4. But we missed it, because first AK got sick. We pulled off the 101 thinking maybe we’d use the bathroom at Starbucks in Soledad, California. There was an urgent care next door, so we used that instead. The doctor thought she was having a bad reaction to an antibiotic.

5. Oh, but between #2 and #3, I ran over a squirrel on an off-ramp. I know I probably kill a dozen polar bears a day just by consuming products that come in plastic packaging, but I still burst into tears. Later Jody tried to make me feel better: “Survival of the fittest! Maybe that squirrel had really bad eyesight.” Christine said, “I can’t believe Jody’s people have survived this long. They have terrible eyesight.”
Survival of the most musically inclined.

6. Some nice things: post-wedding breakfast on the beach in Carmel, where even the sand seems high-class, all fine and white. Fish tacos on the pier in Monterey with Colin, who talked about self-help books and deep-sea devil squid and the fact that pelicans also have bad eyesight in their elder years and die when they can’t fish anymore. I’m so jealous of what a culturevore Colin is. He is this sponge of information. There but for my love of fashion magazines and daily requirement of stupid, pointless shit….
Before Clint Eastwood talked to empty chairs, he was mayor of this tree.

7. Back in town, my car overheated. My dad thought it might be the thermostat. Jeff couldn’t find anything wrong. His motto is, if it’s only partly broke, don’t fix it.

I’ve been telling people: At least my weekend was better than the squirrel’s.

Here are some things I read last month (yeah, I’m reviving that—never my most popular feature, but I’ll never know if you leave right now and go Google devil squid).

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman: Stories of precocious, neglected, abused children are only slightly less abundant than actual children who fall into that category. The perverse challenge, then, is to make the terror fresh (and/or sad, redemptive, sparkling, etc.). Tupelo Hassman’s novel-in-vignettes hasn’t succeeded to the extent that the blurbs on the back and the review I heard on NPR would have you believe. The voice of Rory Dawn Hendrix--the daughter and granddaughter of “feebleminded” women who got pregnant young and stayed poor and addicted--is overly precious (not to mention punny and tangled) at times, and doesnt seem to grow as the character does. The apparent inspirations that distinguish the novel--the Girl Scout Handbook and Buck v. Bell, a Supreme Court case granting institutions the right to sterilize mentally disabled women--get a little bit lost, surfacing without a lot of purpose.

But it’s also that lost-ness that makes the story feel true. The telling does sparkle, riffing on everything from the Girl Scout Handbook to standardized tests to the prayer on the back of St. Jude candle, as if it say “This is what the world has handed us. This is what we must work with, even though its never enough.” Also, god bless any novel that believes neglectful, addicted mothers might still love their children, and that their children might not be so crazy to love them back. Im really responsive to any story that unwraps that mother-child ache, and suggests that motherhood shouldn’t be off limits to even the most feebleminded among us.
I'm all for card catalog nostalgia.

How Fiction Works by James Wood: What I like most about this book is how James Wood dismantles certain fiction-workshop cliches like “no flat characters” (what does that even mean? he wonders) and essentially says to realists and postmodernists, “Can't we all just get along?” The two camps have more in common than they think--realists know they’re not actually replicating reality, and pomo folks still rely on the conventions of language.

The title of the book pretty much describes it: Wood is a nerdy and insightful critic who is fond of really, really close reads. As such, he can tell you more about a novel and how/why it’s effective than most authors could. Mostly this is wonderful and illuminating. Occasionally I feel like I’m reading a manual that breaks down how to drive a car in excruciating detail, and I’m certain that when I get back in a car, I’ll either be the best driver in the world or so bogged down by over-thinking that I’ll be totally unable to turn the key.

My Life as a Man by Philip Roth: While I was reading this book, I kept telling people that the gist of it was “bitches be crazy.” It’s true that the only sane woman in Peter Tarnopol’s life is his mother (oh, wait, but his therapist dismisses her as the castrating source of his narcissism). Maybe his sister? At least Peter/Roth realizes that it takes a crazy bitch to know one. The novel is Peter’s obsessive, claustrophobic investigation of why he can’t stay away from his banshee of an ex, who makes his current insecure, mildly suicidal lady seem like a catch. (It didn’t help that I listened to the audio version, and the actor gave all the women screechy, hysterical voices.)

But watching them all torture each other makes for somewhat torturous reading. Rarely have I felt so viscerally turned off by characters, which may be a testament to Roth’s writing? And yeah, he does all sorts of nifty meta things to show Peter’s attempts to process his relationships, and time doesn’t unfold so much as tie itself in knots. So this was a useful book, I guess, just not a remotely enjoyable one.