Tuesday, May 09, 2017

there are no shortcuts, but that will never stop me from looking

1. genius vs. more geniusy genius

A couple of years ago I went all the way to Italy to learn that you can’t write a memoir by pasting together a bunch of journal entries. Even if they were pretty well written journal entries, if you do say so yourself, and even if you were kind of trying to write them from an imaginary point in the future as an exercise in convincing yourself you had a future…they are still not a memoir.

Dani Shapiro kindly suggested that my journal entries might not be as useful as I wanted them to be, but her advice took another two years to sink in. It took two years to walk that much farther away from the events I was writing about (infertility-miscarriage-cancer, that old tune) so I could see them more clearly.

Actually it's been forty.
Recently my friend Dan and I started a writing group. It’s had a couple of hiccups getting off the ground. One member was pregnant and got intense migraines that kept her from looking at screens. Another got busy with a book tour. We have a new member who seems great, but we had to postpone this week’s meeting. Still, it feels lifesaving to have an actual audience to share my work with along the way. Imagining them as I work helps me trick myself into thinking my writing matters. (I know that sounds sort of pitiful. Make no mistake: I believe deeply that I am a genius who has something to say. I believe with equal conviction that the world is fully of more geniusy geniuses and would be just fine without me.)

I try to accept that writing is a painfully inefficient process. I’m horrible at accepting that life is a painfully inefficient process, but I’m much more mature as a writer than I am as a human. I want to write an essay called Everything I Need to Know I Learned From My Writer-Self.  

But OMG writing is a painfully inefficient process. It doesn’t help that I’ve been grant-writing my ass off at work, and AK and Dash and I passed around two or three different viruses over the past month. I spent a lot of time asking myself How can the exact life I want be so fucking hard? I felt like I was trying to climb out of a hole, but more dirt kept falling in. I did so much coughing and crying and cough-crying that Dash still conflates the two words. 

My nostril and I are not a people person.
In a good week, I get maybe two hours to write. I have ideas for essays and stories and blog posts, but I have to ask myself whether I want to give up one of my two precious memoir hours to work on them. I can’t think about it too much, because then I’ll get sad and resentful, and where’s the place of sadness and resentment in the exact life I want?

2. bread and bread and bread

Jackie Kashian, my possibly-favorite comedian whom I’ve mentioned here before, tells a story on her new album, I Am Not the Hero of This Story, about the Armenian Genocide. It’s amazing; I literally burst into tears while laughing, which I don’t think ever happened to me before. I won’t try to retell it and spoil it, but she talks about how her teenage grandmother was at home baking bread when the Turks came for her family. As Jackie describes it, her grandmother was haunted by a nagging sense of what happened to the bread in the oven. (“I think it burned,” Jackie says.)

Jackie and her lizard Tiberius. You can see why I'm a fan.
I imagine that for Jackie’s grandmother the bread symbolized a life interrupted. The path you choose (though “choose” might be a strong word for a female Armenian peasant at the turn of the century) collides with the one you don’t. The latter burns the former to a crisp. I picture flames running along a wire.

But also: Say that bread in the oven burns to a hard black thing, and it becomes a story, and you tell that story to your granddaughter. And she has a hard life herself, but survives like you did and grows up and becomes a stand-up comedian. Goes on the road, does shitty gigs, works shitty day jobs for years. Then does better, gets to quit her shitty day job. Puts out album after album until finally she is the artist who can do your bread and your story justice.

It takes a hundred years to make art.

When life gives you lemons, make grilled cheesus.
The whole point of art, in my opinion, is to connect to something bigger than ourselves, to own what tried to own us. In that case, so what if it takes a hundred years? Time is a cast-iron skillet seasoned by the generations.

But also, fuck, life feels so short. No wonder the internet is so appealing. There are diseases and war. We have Kim Jong Donald for a president. It could all end so quickly. I don’t want to be the person whose bread burns. I want to be the granddaughter who triumphs and hears her audience laugh and cry. But we don’t get to choose.