Saturday, June 09, 2018

death of the author


I spent the last couple of weeks preparing for 826LA’s big gala. My coworker Shawn—a woman whose superpower is asking people to do hard things in the most graceful, inspiring way, a skill I wish more powerful men would watch and learn—led the charge, but I was second in command. It was all sales and numbers and making multiple donor management databases talk to each other, none of which is my jam. Toward the end, I was working 12-hour days. Also not my jam. My eating habits tanked. My parenting was meh. I relied on AK for a lot and didn’t give much in return.

The night of the event, I worked registration in the role of “trouble shooter.” At Homeboy’s gala, if a name wasn’t on the list, I just sent that person down the line to the Lady With The Laptop. Now I was the Lady With The Laptop, which was mildly terrifying. I went in feeling rather proud of my meticulously devised and revised seating chart, and I finished in tears.

Being the Lady With The Laptop at a gala event is like carefully packing a U-Haul—everything is boxed and labeled, and maybe the last couple of boxes are sort of wonky, containing a spatula, a skirt, and some mail you grabbed on your way out.

Then you have to parallel park the U-Haul.

Then a giant flock of wealthy chickens descends upon you and begins to peck you in the face.

Don't mind me. Definitely not judging you. (Pic by Jehu Christian on Unsplash)
You realize that the two boxes you forgot to pack contain all your family heirlooms. The chickens are nice, but they have been sitting in traffic and would like to get a cocktail. You don’t want to parallel park this thing, and they don’t want to watch you. The door of the U-Haul falls open. You want to run away, but there is a U-Haul to repack. You throw random shoes and plates and hope for the best, feeling very conscious of the underpaid people who have to clean up your mess.

(This is a metaphor I’ve been honing over the past several days of reckoning with PGSD, or Post Gala Stress Disorder.)

I believe in miracles. (Pic by Benjamin Voros on Unsplash.)
But then something miraculous happened. Everyone went into the old downtown cathedral that was our event space. They ate and drank and listened to our students talk about the sacrifices their immigrant grandmothers made so they could go to Berkeley and Stanford. They gave generously, because wine and grandmothers. The room became more than the sum of its parts—more than my flawed databases, more than a celebrity’s name stamped on our invitations, more than the 400 chapbooks our beleaguered designer had to assemble the weekend before the event.

Miracles are made of the mundane. To me that doesn’t dull their luster; it enhances it. It’s humbling and comforting to see how we’re all just cogs in a machine, but if you’re fortunate enough to find the right machine, your grandson will go to college and your event will shimmer like a Los Angeles sunset.

2. sherlock holmes and roland barthes

Slate’s Decoder Ring had an amazing episode about Sherlock Holmes as historical epicenter of fan fiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the creators of the BBC’s Sherlock have felt both sharp edges of popularity’s sword, as fans create and demand alternate outcomes to their stories.

Although most of my books’ Amazon reviews are written by people I know, I still feel those guys. I love writing because it’s the one space where I have complete control. But I also know that control is a myth—not just because, to paraphrase the wise Michael Cunningham, I’ll never be able to successfully translate the ball of fire and passion in my head into words, but because readers project their own experiences and ideas onto whatever I write.

(Roland Barthes wrote all about this phenomenon in The Death of the Author, but podcasts about Sherlock Holmes are where I’m at these days.)

But what readers and viewers bring to a thing is also its magic—the other edge of the other edge of the sword. I used to love the moment in writing workshops when my classmates debated what one my characters might do, as if that person was real. I’d stitched a scarecrow, but they were making it dance. It was magic, alchemy, a glittering night in a cathedral.

3. reality, projection, and projection as reality

I never read anything by Anthony Bourdain; I knew him vaguely as a food guy who liked meat? I liked Kate Spade’s designs but couldn’t have told you that she sold her company ten years ago. But watching people in my feed react to their suicides has been touching and fascinating.

I don't know when that handbag is from, but I can tell you that's a 1957 Thunderbird. Thanks, Dad. (Credit: Patrick Jasin.)
Some people saw it as an opportunity to post suicide hotline numbers and remind friends they weren’t alone. (I’ve never been suicidal, but I’ve been to places dark enough that I would definitely read those lovely posts and think: Yeah, but you don’t mean me. You mean your real friends. You’re probably cuddling your baby in one hand and writing your best-selling novel with the other, so of course you can be charitable toward me as I spiral into the abyss.)

Others have said, more or less: It’s not about mental health, it’s about a fast-paced, fragmented society that is rampant with cruelty.

Even in their deaths, these creators became projection screens.

My own projections were most in keeping with those of Molly, a writer who maintains a brutally, beautifully honest blog about living with stage IV breast cancer. Her diagnosis makes certain questions more immediate, but we’ll all face them eventually: What will I leave behind? Does what I leave behind matter more than what I do while I’m here? Is there a point in process without product? Is there a point in product if you don’t enjoy the process?

Who said Only connect? Because yeah, that. But I still want to publish another book before I die. I still want to be famous, even as I see how hollow fame is.

I’m spending most of the weekend at my dad’s house, trying to catch my breath from a fast-paced, fragmented life (albeit one rampant with kindness). I’m going to try—again—to dive back into the memoir that I believe in and don’t, which I enjoy writing and avoid writing. This post has been my warm-up. This has, too, been the real thing.

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