Friday, December 30, 2011

storied lives

as per usual, i'm thinking about stories. (the only two things i have anything to say about are stories or gender, which means i have a lot of stories about gender...)

and when i say stories i'm not talking about writing. or fiction. i'm talking (at least this time) about stories that happen in conversation in your everyday life. just talking to your friends, or whatever. i'm thinking about this for two main reasons: one, i'm in nola and this place was founded on the stories people tell themselves and others, and two, i've been hanging out with my friends, heather and joe. for those of you who don't know these two stellar people, they are some of the best conversational storytellers i know. and that's saying something, cuz i collect storytellers like nabokov collected butterflies. i've wondered before if it has to do with the fact that some of the more ridiculous things i've heard tend to happen to these two kids, and then i think that the events have nothing to do with it, it's how they choose to retell them in ways that have you laughing till you hurt and at the same time saying 'oh my god, that's awful!' and/or 'holy shit, i'm sorry!' they are just good at making you feel like you were there when the weirdness happened, but with their hilarity-creating hindsight leading you thru the situation unscathed by whatever trauma they have succeeded in turning into humor with the retelling. i heart them and their skill so much. it makes my life better, and i would kill to be able to consistently deliver like them. i've thought about convincing one or the other of them to write their stories down, and then i decide against it. these stories belong in conversation. they belong seated in the kitchen, standing around the grill, or bellied up to a bar. they require the audience's participation to breathe, they wouldn't exist without the tones of voice and the facial expressions used to inflect them with such humor. these are the kinds of stories that wouldn't work without the teller's eyes taking in the hearer's look of disbelief and reaching over to grab a forearm and say 'no, i'm serious, you should have seen it...' and then the verbal imagery to help you do so, or the tag-teaming that can happen when they were both a part of the story-creating moment and they are each eager to tell their version with their differing reactions.
and i know you might be saying, 'um, yeah...that's how conversation works, ray. that's what it's like when i talk to my friends, why is this so important that you feel the need to write about it?'
the answer is: i don't feel like i can write about anything else. i used to write stories with soundtracks that went with them, so that when i read them aloud i could have the music the main character was listening to playing along. they were made to be an oral experience. those stories were not supposed to be dealt with on paper. most of the best stories i've witnessed were nowhere near a computer, typewriter, or notebook, let alone a printing press. i'm obsessed with oral 'literature'* and how it works, why we can't live without it, and why it feels to me to be a superior art form to writing. and heather and joe are two talented practitioners of said art form.

[* this word is in quotes because it means writing, and of course that creates an oxymoron in this case, not because i don't think of stories of an oral nature as not on par with the quality of writing that the word 'literature' connotes.]

(this pic is of pirate's alley from inside the bar that sells absinthe right before a tour group came thru to refill on drinks along their way)

now that i have elucidated reason number two above, i should prolly get down to talking about number one, which was going to be the purpose of this post:
new orleans.
i've done a lot of traveling in the past 3 years (yes, that might be the understatement of 2011)) and have visited many a city in this country, including a few in the south, (all for the first time) and i've learned that every place has it's own mythos about itself that people are proud to believe in. it's what makes them identify with where they are from. i am pretty comfortable with my system of beliefs that are based around chicago being my place of origin, and what that means for my character, and i enjoy hearing other people profess their hometown pride.
however, there is something really interesting going on in new orleans around their stories. they are born out of a strong catholic tradition butted up against a strong voodoo/hoodoo culture, an almost literal melting (melding) pot of international/interracial folk and culture which includes most notably spanish, french, creole, african, and haitian peops. this specific and very colorful historical/cultural/traditional cocktail, with the specter of religion and superstition hanging over it like the fog that rolls in off the bayou, steeped in ritual from every angle, set in the backdrop of a busy river delta/port city in the deepest, most drippy-hot south, engenders a pretty fertile landscape for stories, legends, and myths to run rampant. taking over the city's imaginative garden with the hearty runner plants of ghosts, vampires, pirates and voodoo babies.
in the south, everything is a story. and invariably the cast of characters is colorful to say the least. but in new orleans, every reason for why something is the way it is happens to be based on something closer to legend than fact.
the oldest building in nola, theursuline convent? home of the first vampires. the story goes that some wealthy european women, beautifully dressed and very thin and pale, came to visit the convent, arriving on a ship at night in the port and being shepherded by the nuns inside with their trunks, and then never being seen again. the top floor of the convent, where they were supposedly staying, was locked up and shuttered and hasn't been opened to this day. they probably were exposed to the black plague on the boat and succumbed to it upon arrival, but the story stuck. (the combination of french folktale and voodoo tradition was a perfect mash-up for the vampire trope to take hold in nola)
the other oldest building in new orleans? lafitte's blacksmith shop. as in, jean lafitte, the pirate. sorry, privateer. the story is that he used to own the bar and underneath the brick fireplace in the center of the room is where he hid all of his treasure. i particularly like this story because somehow being able to tell that tale is more attractive than deconstructing the fireplace to see if it's true. that passing down the possibility of treasure, the imaginative power of hidden riches, is more powerful than possessing them. (of course, the building is on the national register of historic sites, so you can't really go and take apart the main fixture inside it, i guess. but still...)
[the source of these stories? heather...]

you ever done something just cuz you thought it would make a good story? i really believe that all of new orleans is pretty much built on this exact feeling. and not just historically--i think the modern tourist trade here is based on it as well. the point of wearing mardi gras beads is to display a visible reminder of the story of how you got them. and walking around the french quarter these past couple days, i think the second biggest tourist attraction, besides bourbon st. (which i would counsel anyone and everyone to avoid at all costs cuz the stories that come from there are the kind your friends tell you about your drunk-ass, blacked-out self the morning after), is to take a tour--whether it's the ghost tour, the true crime tour, the cemetery tour, the horse carriage tours, or what have you. i swear to god this place is all about walking (or riding) around outside (with alcohol, cuz that's legal) and having people to tell you stories. i've never really been tempted to do something so touristy in a town i've landed in, but since some of the friends heather has attracted are tour guides (of course) it just seems to be the thing to do. but only after dark.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

merry dixie-mas

so, here i am in new orleans. but not just any old new orleans, new orleans at christmas/new years time. which is a lot different than new orleans at mardi gras time. it's funny cuz i was walking around in a t-shirt today (70 degrees) and was having a hell of a time remembering it was winter. there was, at one point, the distinct smell of southern bar-b-que, which i can only associate with summertime in my concept of the seasons. and it isn't just the bbq, but the scent of the sun-warmed soil and the plants that are blooming (i've seen pansies and camellias and bougainvillea so far) add to the general feeling of being at the exact opposite time of year than the one where holly and mistletoe reign supreme. also, being far enough south that the light hits things with the hue and angle that i associate with months closer to the other solstice. it's like i gave myself the xmas present of a week of summertime just as the weather gets really cold up in chicago.
with all this summer on my mind, i was thinking of what my friend heather (with whom i'm 'playing battleship' right now in cc's coffee shop in the french quarter) said about how to have christmas cheer in nola:

"I have always had snow to sort of make me be in the holiday spirit. without it i felt a bit lost. yesterday i realized it's in me or the dude riding by on his bike by the streetcar with a xmas deer on his bike. so crank up bing, hang the stockings with care, and make someone's xmas awesome."

this statement, combined with walking into the french quarter, made me start to see how a southern christmas has to work. which is, like she said, a very DIY cheer. what she failed to mention tho is that this spirit of cheer explodes all over the houses of the french quarter in the most fabulous way possible. and, miraculously, i started to feel more in the holiday spirit walking around and looking at houses in nola than i did the entire lead-up to christmas in chicago. this was prolly cuz there was no snow this december in chicago--there were multiple 40+ degree days--for the first time in a long time it was not a white christmas. and we didn't go to christmas eve mass for the first time in forever. (which is a whole other post about my love of ritual and tradition learned most strongly from my catholic upbringing)
i mean, i had a blast with my family last weekend. having my most-important-family-member-person-who-isn't-blood-related around was really wonderful and watching the not-quite-two-year-old nephew figure out how the holiday works was amazing and super-fun times. but the ready-made wintery christmas cheer factor was not incredibly high this year. (and btw, the last thing i'm talking about is the manufactured, commercialized, and monetized 'christmas' feeling that ads and tv and stores try to pawn off on us as spirit of the season. what i'm talking about is the catch in your throat when your favorite carol is playing or the olfactory memory boxes that get opened when an indoor pine tree hits you in the nose... and... and... this could be a whole other post as well, so i'll let it go.)

and i don't know quite how it happened, but the amazing swags of ornamented greenery and the big schmancy bows and the beautiful lights and the other tasteful but gaudy (i swear those two adjectives are not mutually exclusive) decorations all over the double shotguns and creole cottages/townhomes of the quarter felt so very merry and bright that i felt like i was walking thru snow eating a candy cane the size of the 'romeo poles' that support those iconic balconies all over this place.

(fyi--the candies that make up that garland in the pic have paper plates and bowls put face to face inside that clear, colored wrap--totally brilliant)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


"Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task." --henry james

if you play the "if a = b and b = c" game with this statement, our doubt is our task.

now you could take that to mean 'our task is to face and overcome our doubt', and you wouldn't be wrong, per se, but i don't think that's what mr. james was getting at here. not quite.
i think he is trying to say that the things we take the time to doubt are the ones that we want most to put our faith into. they are the things we want to throw ourselves at wholeheartedly, to delve into fully, to plumb the depths of, in order to have our doubt proven wrong*. those things we will grope in the dark for, forge paths, possibly trip and fall, the ones we are willing to do whatever we can for because they are the things worth failing at. cuz when something has caught your passion, there isn't a damned thing you can do about it, except to just hunker down and work at it. by virtue of becoming something your whole self can be thrown at, by taking hold of you, your passion becomes the thing you must do with all your might: your task.

further proof:

"what you risk reveals what you value" --jeanette winterson from The Passion
"what will you risk? ... i like to smell the urgency on them [the gamblers]... it's somewhere between fear and sex. passion, i suppose." --ibid

now we have the 'equation' of passion revealing your desire to risk something, and risking something revealing the fact that you value it. which actually means that valuing something creates passion. and that sounds a bit like a 'duh' moment, but i don't think it is, quite. it does, however, seem to mesh well with the first 'equation'.
both of these quotations and their associated logical conclusions have key steps, namely, doubt and risk, which are related concepts dealing with the unknown. passion, being the only element these processes share, seems to traffic in the currency of the unknown. or at least, it is in the business of desiring to know (biblically or no) and i can't think of a better way to understand something standing right in between fear and sex**.
which means now we have passion standing right in between, not just fear & sex, but between risk & value, and doubt & task. which sounds about right. i'm not saying these pairs are the same thing necessarily, but that in all three cases one starts with a feeling of uncertainty and ends with a decisive action. passion is what gets us from one to the other.

so how is it that passion has become such a catalyst? i have no fucking clue. except what i said earlier about once it has kicked in there is really nothing to do but follow it thru to its logical conclusion--to do the thing that has you so enthralled. i've finally stopped avoiding the thing i'm most passionate about and am working on the follow thru. cuz the thing about big tasks, the things you really value, they take a lot of work. and they deserve a lot of work. and sometimes halfway thru them you realize the fear and doubt and risk are greater than when you started. cuz now you have something you have put your energy, your passion, into and now there is something to lose if you quit. so the key to keep from despairing before finishing this thing you were passionate about starting is to make this doubt/passion/task cycle a self-perpetuating feedback loop that can keep you motivated all the way to the end of the task. doubt creates passion which motivates starting the task which breeds doubt which triggers passion which pushes to finish the task...and so on, till you are done.

at least that how i'm hoping it works. halfway thru a first draft on the hamlet novel and i fell prey to doubt about my ability to finish the book. december has been a breather, a time for breeding the passion to continue the work that will lead to the completion of my task. my best gal and sounding board for every idea i've ever had just spent a week talking story and character with me--getting me back in the habit--starting with movies we watched, then moving on to a movie we want to write, then this afternoon allowing me to spew about the book, which got me passionate about it again. cross your fingers for me that this bout of passion will last thru the rest of the first draft before the doubt sneaks in again.

JaNoWriMo, let's do this.

Make it happen, vanek!

* much like the c.s. lewis brand of apologetics: coming at faith from a skeptic's point of view
** fear, like doubt and risk, is also based on the unknown, and sex deals with the knowledge of another. so passion is the step in between not knowing and knowing, ie, the desire to know.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

mirror me

what follows is a complete fabrication. from any way you look at it. but it was fun to write from both sides.

I was sitting in my favorite spot at the coffee shop, (you know, the one, right near my house) which is the seat at the table right in the window, which is perfect for people watching. You can watch everyone who comes in, you've got a good view of the kids behind the counter, and you can even peek out the window at the bus stop right in front. Anyway, I was sitting there, drinking coffee and reading a book—or more accurately, staring out into the rain with a book on the table in front of me—when I noticed this kid walk up to the bus stop. Well, not a child, a young adult. A cute boy, in fact, which is what made me notice him. He had on grey tennis shoes, blue jeans, a black shirt under a grey hoodie under a blue jacket, and a black messenger bag all of which seemed to be getting pretty well soaked. The hood was up but his dark bangs were still wet enough to drip onto his pale cheekbone. His hands were deep in his jacket pockets and, shoulders hunched, he looked pretty miserable out there in the wet day.
He joined the small group of people standing in different attitudes of waiting, looked with kind eyes and a tiny half-smile at the lady nearest him, then backed up when her man kinda got in his face, leaning in and putting his arm around her, not so much in a marking territory sort of way, but more as if protecting her from something distasteful. I found myself frowning at this treatment, now too invested in random strangers to go back to my book.
I watched him check his phone as if it were a pocket watch, wiping the raindrops from his eyebrows, his starry eyelashes shadowing the tops of his cheeks. I averted my eyes as he turned towards the door and came into the shop, presumably to keep dry and avail himself of the bus tracker display screen mounted on the wall above the coffee grinder (This bit of technological brilliance was something I was excited to use as the winter progressed). He stepped up to the counter about 15 feet away from me and ordered a coffee to go. His voice was a husky tenor though it sounded like he favored the low end of his range, maybe in order to seem older. He looked like a student, though was almost certainly of drinking age. Maybe a grad student. I wondered if he was a TA and had a hard time maintaining authority.
His features were fine (like a pen with a fine tip), not to the point of delicate, but bordering on pretty. He had a straggly mustache and a congregation of hairs on his chin that were not quite the beginnings of a beard, as young, not particularly hairy, men sometimes do. His face was devoid of baby fat, but still had that 'fresh faced youth' thing going for it. His hands were long but not broad, showing strength without muscle, and stayed active without appearing fidgety. When he pushed his hood back I was somewhat shocked to see his hair was already greying.
“what's with the throwback jams? Every time I'm in here this week you are playing old-school stuff. Yesterday you played some Phish, today, it's OK Computer. Reminds me of college...” he addressed the shrugging barista as he received his cup.
“you are so not that old!” It came out of my mouth before I had time to stop it shut.
He looked over at me, startled, with a broadening lopsided grin. “thirty-three last week.”
“shut the front door!” I probably looked as shocked as I felt cuz he chuckled as I shut my mouth. I opened it again to say, “I would have guessed about ten years younger.”
“yeah, standard. My theory is that will happen to me until I go truly grey, which will be in just a couple years. Then everyone will guess ten years older.” he shook his head in a resigned but amused way.
“but how do you do it?” I wondered aloud.
“do it? I don't do anything. I just am. It's what you see that does it.” while speaking that pretty boy's entire face broke into the most radiant smile, white teeth showing, rosy cheek apples making crescent moons out of twinkling, laughing eyes. Her merriment was plainly beautiful and my flustered wonder was trumped by the contagiousness of it. I smiled back and laughed. Mostly at myself. We just looked at each other for a moment, then I received a subtle and, I must say, somewhat flirtatious wink as the damp hood was pulled back into place. And then a quick checking of the bus tracker one last time and a mumbled, “have a nice day” before the door opened to let out this random stranger and let in the cool damp outside air. As it hit my face I realized I was blushing.

Friday, December 9, 2011

jesus year

this is it. i'm now 33. that means i'm the age jesus was when he was crucified. i mean, supposedly...i dunno who came up with this idea, or how, but it's now a popularly held belief among christians of many stripes. prolly cuz 3 is such a magic number. you know, all that stuff about the trinity...
anyway, in thinking about this idea, you know, equating myself with jesus and all, (heh) i could say the past two years of my life have been nomadic, moving around talking to folks about how to live life, discovering things about myself, finding ways of interacting with people inside that self, putting experiences on the compost heap for later on when they have matured into ideas ready to nourish stories. and if that wasn't what much of jesus' ministry was about, i'm not christian. (then again, i never purported to be, i just grew up catholic...)
this fall, becoming settled into my work after all that wandering, is the first time i've felt like i can actually make some real shit happen in my life. at least, in my writing life. forget the rest of it. job: i have one, it's fine, whatever. relationship: who needs one. housing: on temporary lockdown via renting cuz ownership is further off than i'd hoped, but at least i can check it off the list of things to worry about. family: nearby, hallelujah. friends: either scattered but available thru fun avenues like the post office and short trips, or near enough to have a beer with once in a while when i can't stand occupying just my own headspace anymore. all these things are taken care of.
but my writing life is another story. within that are the job, the relationship, that i need to put some real work into, the place i need to inhabit as much as humanly possible, the family and friends i've neglected for so long. starting in force last month with this concept of getting shit done where it needs to get done, on the page, has been incredibly eye-opening. mostly in the realms of: 'oh, shit. i can actually do this.'
which is cause for both celebration and further motivation, like, 'all right, vanek, it's clearly time to get it together and make a real effort. this year you better get out there and do what you need to do. no excuses anymore. time to make something happen.'
in thinking that it's at least somewhat fitting to call this my 'jesus year', this statement is possibly something similar to what jesus would have said to himself on the eve of his last big push to make his ministry count. a lot happened that last year of his life. i mean, he got to the point of raising folks from the dead for christ's sake. (heh) and the fact that he was killed meant that he was a success, really. but here there is no 'or else' at the end of my pep talk to myself, no real correlation to crucifixion on the horizon, unless i want to equate getting published with getting killed in the most excruciating and drawn-out way possible. (which i'm going to refrain from doing, if only for my own mental health)
which isn't to say my goal for the year is to get published. really, it's just to finish at least one goddamned project that i've started. and i mean, to the final draft, finish. cuz putting words on paper isn't actually the hard part, it's shaping them into something readable. which, i'm starting to realize, is harder to do the longer your piece of writing is.

i had this moment last week, tho, that was pretty stellar. felt a bit like jesus might have (or maybe just the narrator in this zine). i was at my friend az's house for a short story club night, where we all bring food/drink and sit around and listen to everyone read a short story. as in, each of us picks something to read for the evening, and then we take turns reading aloud to everyone else. it's a great night. and though most people bring things by published authors (greats like nabokov and dahl and steinbeck and tina fey and many others), az asked me to read something from this goddamned novel i'm working on. so i read the eulogy scene i posted a few weeks ago. now it's basically a monologue, written to be spoken to people. to move them, if you will. and i love reading aloud and prolly put more than a little performance into it. but when i finished reading the last line, there was this moment of silence. a glorious, reverent, silent acknowledgment of my work that was one of the more heady things i've experienced in a long time. not that the audience's reaction to my work was any different than that of any of the other stories, but just feeling the entire room of people thinking about what i'd read to them felt really marvelous. like i had a super power. like i could change the world somehow. like i said, it was heady. (read that as me getting a big head if you want, that's okay, i've already likened it to feeling like jesus) but in a good way.
point is, it's pretty obvious when you get something right. even if it's just something small. enough small things in a row and you've got something big. finishing this novel this year is not impossible. it's actually a hell of a lot easier than starting a brand new religion (we don't even need to mention the possible raising from the dead moment).

so yeah. this, my 33rd year means realizing that 'what would jesus do' were he in my place = write like a motherfucker.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

love letter

this is a letter i wrote sometime in october (it's not dated). i never sent it, but it seems to have been answered. <3

Dearest Love,
My muse, my bedfellow, my dream's delight, my main character in life and fiction, how i love and miss you more each day that we are apart.
I call for you, sleeping and awake, and i hear no response, save my own heart beating for you. I make everything in readiness for your visit, hoping you will call upon me without warning, as the delightful surprise you know it would be for me, and still I see you not. My room, my table, my desk, my bed, all exist for you to frequent, and yet you scorn the sight of them. I pine for your companionship like no other in my life, and yet it constantly eludes me.
Why must you torture someone who only wants to make you happy? Don't say it, I don't want to hear a treacherous name. Do you not remember, just after I first found you, the times we spent in ecstasy together? Can the hours have flitted by so fast they didn't even linger in your mind? For they have lodged themselves in my heart and I have given them shelter there, a home to call their own. I always believed you would follow the scent of their memory back to me, for there is room enough for you here within.
Come to me, my love. Let us two make a world where we can live together in happiness, oblivious to the outside, to those that would tear us asunder for the sake of...what? propriety? decency? sanity? They all speak falsely. They know nothing of our love, our connection, our desire, our need.
Come, the time draws short, let us fly to that far-off place, that sunny shore, you remember the one, where we met in a dream that felt like waking, calm and clear, our future spread across the horizon, our past already laid on the sand beneath us.
We belong together. And i can't not have faith that you will come back to me, bringing the sweet scent of faraway places with you to further spice our romance. But i need you with me now. I have made you a place. Come quickly, my dear Novel.

With much love and expectation,
Your Author

writing fatigue?

"Sometimes - and now is one of those times - I really think that, if we looked a bit closer, and were a bit more honest, we'd realize that maybe, just maybe, exactly where we are is not only where we want to be? - but it's our dream, being lived. We just haven't given ourselves permission to admit that our dreams may be a hell of a lot simpler and more attainable than we had convinced ourselves they had to be."

this musing was posted on facebook by my friend jac (jessica aimee cakuls), an incredibly wise fellow groper-in-the-dark. my comment was as follows:

"my one big dream is for my writing. all the dreams for my life are tiny and everyday in comparison, and in the service of the big one. (which is so what rilke advises)"

i had just given jac a copy of rilke's 'letters to a young poet' because she needs it and i have copies lying around for when that happens, and the quotation i was referencing is this one:

"this above all--ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: *must* i write? delve into yourself for a deep answer. and if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple "i must," then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it." --r. m. rilke 'letters to a young poet, #1

i have asked myself this question my whole adult life and have never trusted the answer. i've in fact distrusted it so much that i have done everything in my power to prove that the affirmative answer i continue to give is a lie. to the point of depriving myself of the time/space/permission/what-have-you to write with any regularity for weeks, months, even years at a time. but i always come back to it. give it the respect, if not priority, of something important to me. however, i've seen this half intentional deprivation as a failure of will, or proof of unworthiness, the flightiness of a dilettante. and it has kept me from identifying as a writer for more than a decade.

and then, unknowingly, i set myself a test. i decided to become nomadic and remained homefree for more than two years. in all that time i didn't live any one place, tho i came back to chicago a lot, and for the vast majority of this two years i had no actual space of my own. and i don't know if this happens to other people as strongly as i realized it happens to me, but physical space = psychic space. if i don't have a spot to be out of the way and alone, i cannot for the life of me focus on my self and my work. and somehow within this too-long time of no space i found just enough time to write that it served to highlight how desperately i needed to do it more. but i was raised a good catholic who feels that deprivation is virtuous. i'd dream of a room with a door and a desk set up near a window. that's all i needed. well, walls would be important, to keep people out and to put up huge pieces of butcher paper for mapping out plots. anything else, superfluous. but i didn't give it to myself for at least a year after i could name it as my one real desire. kept moving, kept traveling to stay with other friends (or the same ones again) and ignoring that little voice saying over and over, 'i must'.
thankfully, five months ago, something finally broke and this tirade came pouring out of me. after that, i finally started to build my life according to this necessity. in september i moved into an apartment with a room that has a mattress on the floor, a couple overflowing bookshelves, butcher paper on the wall, and a desk by a window with my typewriter on it. there is also a bedroom for my roommate, a kitchen, a porch, and all the other things an apartment is supposed to have. all gravy in my book.

and the miraculous thing is, that after starving myself for so long, the moment i had a real way of feeding myself, i actually did just feast and feast and never want to stop. i spent all of september and october planning and plotting and character sketching this novel that grew directly out of one of my oldest artistic obsessions, which just kept making more and more sense and fell into place exactly in time to start drafting it at the beginning of november. my dear friend polly mentioned NaNoWriMo and i latched on to it like a wolf on the jugular of a rabbit.

this was it, the final test. if i could write 50,000 words in 30 days, then that would prove to me that this desire to write wasn't about the cache of calling myself a writer, or wanting to be 'artistic' somehow, but actually feeding a real need inside me. if i didn't give up on this goal then this was something i was legitimately committed to. something inside me that surpassed the infatuation of a dabbler, the instant feedback loop/ego stroke of a blogger, the consolation of a failed actor.

i went from the mindset of an ascetic to one of a marathon runner. and the most surprising of all was that i was actually in shape for this task. i dunno if it was all the (admittedly unhealthy) stopping up of my voice for so long that when i finally let it flow it came so easily, or what. well, not easily--i've been working hard--but right. good. working on this novel has felt for my mind and soul exactly what eating well and exercising feels for my body (and incidentally, i'm taking better care of my body too--an added bonus/corollary) and it feels kind of amazing. i've been high on the feeling of working on this book all month. at 2am on a musical november sunday night outside of the california clipper, my writer-friend mairead witnessed me literally bouncing up and down with excitement about my novel, its existence, its potential existence, and my ability and desire to bring it to fruition. she laughed out loud at the sight. then she said, 'we've been waiting for this'. and at that moment i knew that my little voice has been quietly telling me the god-honest truth for at least 15 years. i walked home teetering on the verge of laughing and crying and apologized over and over to it that i hadn't been able to believe it until now.

but here i am, believing it wholeheartedly because i've gotten 50,000 words in and things are just now getting interesting and the last thing i want to do is stop writing, or even slow down much. i think i'll try to average about 1,000/day this month, which should at least get me to the verge of the 'fencing' scene (for god's sake, i hope) by new years.

an incredibly huge 'thank you' to everyone who has given me any kind of encouragement this month. that has been a huge factor in getting it through my thick skull that i'm finally doing what i should be doing. that this work is important, not just to me, but to people who want me to be happy/healthy/purposeful. you all know that you are the reason i think this life is worth living, that the stories i tell are basically love letters to each and every one of the people who has ever shared any part of themselves with me. because in my book, our stories are life, love, and food, which basically is my definition of god. cuz stories are meant to be shared and i want to (when the second or third or final draft exists) share this really long one with you. yes, you.

in it to win it.

10 things i learned while doing NaNoWriMo:

1) there are almost no legitimate excuses for not getting your shit done. if i could travel for 7 days and be dead sick for 2.5 and still reach my 30 day goal, then what the hell have i been doing every other month of the year?

2) keeping in mind the idea of a first draft is crucial to the work flow. 'fix it in post' might be bad for film and music, but for me is essential to getting past the critic within that is really good at killing ideas before they even get off the ground.

3) write thru the problems. if you are stuck, it's highly possible that throwing words at the problem might just loosen whatever was keeping it from going forward. if trying something from a different angle or throwing another character into the mix doesn't seem to work, leave it alone for a bit. go write a different part and come back to this scene when you can see further along its trajectory. (corollary: this proves that i am a long-winded bastard, but i'm okay with that. see #2)

4) writing while listening to music is a legitimate distraction and should be avoided unless the scene you are working on has a soundtrack and you need it in your ears to get the right rhythm/tone. also, scenes with soundtracks are awesome, but not appropriate for every story.

5) calling yourself a writer has very little to do with your actual word output, but goddamn, does writing a shit-ton help you believe that the moniker might actually be true.

6) the phrase, "i'm working on a novel" creates a lot more excitement and encouragement and curiosity than cynicism and challenging comments. in fact, none of the latter were addressed to me, as i had feared.

7) writing everyday is like doing yoga for my internal life.

8) spending as much time alone it takes to write at high volumes is not just possible, but becoming preferable. especially cuz it's not alone, per se, it's hanging out with 'people' i love. cuz i made them up.

9) my emotional health is much better when i'm obsessing over fictional people's relationship dramas than my own or my non-fictional people's. (this is a corollary to something i learned last fall: conversations are a lot easier when you control both sides of them.)

10) this is actually how my brain is supposed to work and when i'm not denying that fact and pushing my mind into other ways of functioning, i can do a pretty damned good job of coming up with shit. ie, writing fiction. my mind thrives on story and character and if i'm not feeding it on books and tv and movies all the time it will revert to auto-generation mode and go buck wild. (example: i've had 3 ideas for other novels this month)

extra bonus 11) the secret purpose of NaNoWriMo is to get you to realize you can actually write an average of a more-than-reasonable number of words a day and still (more or less) function in your everyday life. therefore, writing a reasonable number of words (on average) is not only possible, but preferable to writing none. fooling yourself into having a writing practice is the best use of a month and 50,000 words i can think of. (see #7)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

half way point pep talk/exerpt

so, my absence here has not been a particularly conspicuous silence, but definitely a productive one. i managed to travel for 7 days and only get behind 3 (hoping to do 5000 words in one day to catch up, cross your fingers for me). i also managed to complicate my own emotional life enough to serve as a distraction from the emotional lives of my characters (something i had been eschewing tremendously well for a couple months now) .
however, i also have actually finished the first act. that's a big hurdle cuz there was a lot of backstory to get through. robin is eloquent, but long-winded, especially when talking about his favorite subject, henry. (but yeah, halfway = the month, not the book. i'm afraid i'm not even a third of the way thru the book...)
now comes the challenge of writing emails and blog posts and interviews and descriptions of film from other character's points of view. also, of trying to get inside sophie's (ophelia's) head. she is enough like me when i'm not doing well that i'm not actually excited to delve into her depths (oh pisces) and robin is even less excited than i am. but it's necessary. sophie is a weird lynch pin in the workings of the destruction machine that rolls over everyone at the end of the story. oh, sophie, your story is so painful, so full of that early-twenties-lost feeling, so immediate in it's love and want. writing you is the definition of going for the jugular, and i'm not actually ready for that yet.
but i can't just not write, or write slowly till i'm ready to deal with her. in fact, i have to write faster than before in order to catch up. i think this means it's time to start writing out of order on whatever scene or character strikes me at whatever moment. the idea of writing a book from start to finish is a foolish one. the point is getting the words down.
but if i'm not careful i'll just get words down about stuff that isn't the vital innards of the thing. the kind of words that immediately get cut in the second draft, the kind robin writes about things as opposed to the actual things themselves. some of that is good, cuz it shows you where he was and where he is now, but too much, and there is no story left.
it's time to remind myself of the quote i started this month of with:

"Go for the jugular. If something scary comes up, go for it. That's where the energy is. Otherwise, you'll spend all your time writing around whatever makes you nervous. It will probably be abstract, bland writing because you're avoiding the truth. Hemingway said, "Write hard and clear about what hurts." Don't avoid it. It has all the energy. Don't worry, no one ever died of it. You might cry or laugh, but not die." --natalie goldberg

sophie is waiting for me, jugular bared. i have to muster the courage to slice her open and climb inside. wish me luck.

enough of me ranting about my writing. here is an excerpt from the book, it's the scene where Henry gives a eulogy for his father at his funeral:

“Dad used to always ask me, 'do you see it?' we could be walking down the railroad tracks with nothing but cornstalks in our view, or driving in the car on the way home from the grocery store, or sitting in the editing booth loading some film, or he could be tucking me in at night, my eyes already closed. Once he even asked me right after we had a fight over my curfew.

“for the longest time I didn't know what he meant, but he was so involved in seeing it himself I didn't feel like I could ask. I just said 'yes' and tried really hard to see whatever the 'it' might be. His response was always, 'yeah, me too.' and we would sit quietly for a moment. When I was little I thought he meant a different physical thing every time. Then for a while there, I thought he meant God. I went through a phase in jr. high where I thought he was pulling my leg and didn't mean anything at all. I used to say 'no' then, just to rile him. He would just reply, 'that's okay, just tell me when you do.'

“it took me until halfway thru high school to have any idea of what he was talking about. I'd finally gotten my own super 8 camera and was still messing around with how it worked and how to get it to do what I wanted, and I was filming dad and uncle clay playing basketball. Horse, actually. I was gonna just film the shots they took, one after the other and then edit them down really tight to show how each went about the same shot differently. I was really into this idea and was keeping careful watch on the footage meter, trying to get as many shots on a roll as possible. And then, while clay was lining up to take his shot, and I was lining up my own, looking through the eyepiece and fiddling with the focus, I saw a big cluster of cottonwood fluff floating in a sunbeam in the foreground. I thought I could be really fancy and start the shot focused on it, then shift to clay just as he let go of the ball. So I started rolling on the fluff and was about to shift focus when dad walked into the frame, reached out his hand, and scooped the fluff out of the air. If there was sound on super 8 you would be able to hear my exasperated sigh. But I didn't stop rolling, just stepped to the side so I could still see clay in the background, even if he was fuzzy. The shot was complex and he made it, turning around triumphantly to dad, who was still focused on the fluff in his hand. Clay came over, into focus, and put his hand on dad's shoulder, checking his face to see why his head was bowed. If you look closely you can see clay mouth the words, 'you okay, georgie?' dad broke his concentration and looked up, his eyes clearing, his face opening into a smile and saying 'yeah, look.' clay looked down at his hand, then grinned at dad who held it out and said, 'happy birthday.” clay's grin broke into a huge, warm, indulgent smile, and he leaned in and gently blew the fluff off dad's palm into the air. They watched it for a second as clay's hand on dad's shoulder squeezed him into a sideways hug, then he handed the basketball over and said, 'your turn. Come on.'

“i'd gotten so caught up in watching them, I almost forgot I was filming. I let go the trigger to check the footage just before dad missed clay's shot, thereby ruining my intended project. The next night, dad and I reviewed the now developed film together. as we got to this scene he said, 'oh my god, hal, you saw it too!' I said, 'what, the fluff?' and he said, 'no, hon. The moment. That pure, true moment. Look at it, it's beautiful.' his eyes were shining at me, proud as i've ever seen them. He rewound the film to watch it again. I watched him watch the screen, trying to decide which moment he meant. When it was over, he hugged me and said, 'it's perfect, son. Well done.'

“throughout my college career working in film i've had a lot of theories about that scene and what he saw in it. I've seen many things in it myself and have sought to bring them out in my work over and over. But today I think I get what he meant that night, as well as all those times throughout my life. See the thing is, the 'it' he spoke of doesn't exist outside of the question he asked. Asking someone, 'do you see it' is like showing them a piece of fluff you found. It's asking them to take the time to enter the world you inhabit for a moment, to see with your eyes, to share a vision. If you ask it in the right way, or at the right time, you are rewarded by their willingness to join you, just as clay was when he let go of the game of horse long enough to share a moment with dad. It had nothing to do with the fluff. The 'it' was the moment when dad held out his hand and clay smiled and played along with him. And that generosity of spirit, that willingness to share something, that saying, 'yes, I see it', 'yes, i'm right here with you', that's love. love at its most powerful because it's felt by two people at the same time for each other. that's what I unknowingly captured on film that bright june day.

“and that's what dad was telling me every time he asked me, 'do you see it'. He was saying, 'I love you. please share this love with me'. And looking back, i'm so grateful that whether i was conscious of it or not, every time I answered 'yes' and even most of the times I answered 'no', I was right there with him, sharing the moment, and saying 'I love you' back.

“if you watch George Dean's films, you will notice these moments all throughout them. Film is the best medium to capture these bits of fluff and hold them out to be seen and shared. Dad knew that well, maybe better than anyone, and I believe each of those moments he presented to his audience was a love letter to us. It's our job now to acknowledge each of them and to say, 'I love you too'. it's also time to follow his example and make sure to experience these moments in our lives with everyone we care about. Don't let one pass by without engaging in it with someone you love, please. think of George Dean and the time and energy he took in his life to give of himself to all of us. And then remember how short life is, how short his life was, and how he knew that the shared experience of love just might be the only thing worth achieving before we leave this world. Now tell me, folks. I wanna hear your answer. Do you see it?”

Monday, October 31, 2011

NaNoWriMo, ho!

national novel writing month.
totally doing it. have been prepping a novel for more than a month, and the timing is working out perfectly. i'm totally ready to just sit down and write my heart out everyday till i know what the hell i've got here. the characters have names and faces and voices and motivations and the plot is all figured out (yay for using someone else's plot and just updating it for your own purposes).

i have now registered on the nanowrimo site, given a 'title' to my book and written a brief synopsis:

'a re-imagining of hamlet in a modern-day arts college where hamlet's motivation is not revenge but coming out of the closet. hamlet's boyfriend (the horatio of the story) curates a tale of what happened after the fact, compiling letters, emails, rumors, interviews, film footage, and his own memory, both of events he witnessed and of hamlet's constant commentary on them.'

the 'narrator', the horatio, is named robin and looks exactly like my fictional/dreamworld boyfriend (quickly becoming my alter-ego). the hamlet is named henry, and looks like every boy i've ever wanted to be (/be with). i'm really excited to see hamlet thru horatio's eyes. i think that will be really beautiful. i'm also excited for them to fall in love.

and i think the title is: 'absent from felicity'.

thing is, i'm kinda scared. this is the point at which i always fail. the point where i can see the full extent of the project. the point that is just past the rush of adrenaline that comes with creating a new world and a new way of telling its story. the point where the amount of work ahead of me really sets in. the point where i start to question my ability to do said work. the point where i'm sure i have bitten off way more than i can chew. looking out over this huge valley from the crest of my hill, i can see the road before me, and already it makes me tired.

but as of midnight tonight i will have no time to think about being at the beginning of this journey anymore. i will have already started my little wagon rolling down the huge hill with the intimidating vista, and come hell or high water, come bounces, jounces, scratches, crashes, lost wheels and all, i will arrive at the bottom in 30 days. who knows what that will look like--doesn't really matter--point is, i pushed myself to get there. it won't be the end of my novel journey, but it will be a sight farther along the road than i am right now.

problem is, i prolly won't have time to do anything over in blog-land, unless i find some good moments from the book to post up here. i'm not gonna promise anything, tho. i'll prolly still need you, dear blog, as an outlet for writing that has nothing to do with the novel (if i find a moment to do so), just don't give up on me. at least, not yet.

[looked back last night on my blog and finally gave labels to my posts. they might not be as thorough as i would like, but it's something. so, search by label, tell me if something doesn't make sense.]

Monday, October 10, 2011

gendered pronouns

Here's the thing: I hate pronouns. Hate them with a passion. Think they are idiotic. Wish we could eradicate them from the English language.

Okay. I realize that's a little strong. And not actually true. Pronouns are very helpful and I appreciate the convenience they afford me in my speech. But the fuckers have no right to go and be gendered! It's ridiculous! It's unfair! And by god, it makes me fighting mad that I have only two choices and an insult when trying to speak about people who inevitably are a thousand times more complex than he, she or it.

My overall hatred for them is why I have a hard time asking people to use a specific one for me. Cuz wtf? I shouldn't have to choose which of two inaccurate ways I want people to talk about me. And I don't like that they have to either. But I would prefer to let the speaker choose whichever one feels most correct for them at the time, as long as they are actually thinking about which pronoun is the most appropriate at any given moment.

But it seems that can lead to laziness on some people's part; not feeling like switching it up cuz one choice is more familiar. And, because I don't feel like getting totalitarian around this, and proscribe one option (or prescribe another) I let it slide. At least for some people. Usually ones I have known for a very long time, and, not so incidentally, ones who are cis-gendered females.

And yes, I know how much of a double standard I am creating, and also how gendered my own thinking is about trying to break gender stereotypes, but it's true. I feel less annoyed when a woman I know uses 'she' for me than when a man does. And of course this goes back to gender roles and misogyny and my specific experience of always wanting to be one of the boys but never quite making the cut, but I honestly can't help it. And it was brought to my attention today so I thought i'd explore it here.

Being a part of a community of women has always been bittersweet for me. On one hand, I think it's really great to share experiences with other people that carry a female body thru this world, who were socialized on the feminine end of the spectrum, and who inevitably deal with being basically an outsider in a man's world (cuz this is still more true than anyone wants to admit). But on the other hand, you get enough women in a room together and get them talking, and soon i'm gonna feel uncomfortable/unwelcome to the point of being driven from my seat. Because I also feel a strong connection with the masculine point of view, I chose to pick up enough of the male socialization that my brothers were given, and I have enough internalized misogyny to keep me from feeling accepted/safe in all-women spaces.

(yes, I know how shitty this phrase can sound, but it's true:) some of my best friends are women. I connect with women (usually in a one-on-one situation) in a very real and comfortable way because I learned this skill in order to function as a 'girl'. But also I have always been emotionally accessible, thoughtful and interested, and very good with verbal communication. And building relationships with people by listening to them and talking with them is very important to me. So, yes. Because women are taught these skills more than men are, I know how to function in relationship with them very well and have become close with many of them. And thank god I have.

Because of all of this history that I have with my female friends, I take it as a bit of a compliment when they want to count me as one of their members by using 'she' to describe me, even though it feels remarkably inaccurate right now. However, it is also true that if they were to use the word 'he' for me, I would be even more flattered. Here's why: because if my friend has taken into account both our history of feminine bonding in our friendship, and where I am in my life and what i'm trying to accomplish in my interactions with others, to the point of figuring out how to be comfortable using a masculine pronoun for me, I will count it as a huge compliment. Partially because it feels like a real vote of confidence that she is willing to use a word that describes a group of people that historically have not been good at understanding her group, without actually lumping me into that category (at least I assume non-lumpage, given our closeness). And furthermore, if she is talking to someone I don't know particularly well, it feels like i'm being given even more of a gift since she is allowing me to choose for myself when I want to divulge my personal gender profile to that other person.

And yet, somehow the opposite is true for men. Well, not the opposite cuz there is no opposite, but kind of. If a man that I have known for a long time uses 'she' for me, it feels both familiar, because it means we can fall into the more accepted 'male/female' interactions, and somewhat insulting, because it means he is setting us up to fall into said gender roles. In fact, it feels a bit like being ghettoized. Boxed in. Trapped in a habit I don't want to be a part of anymore. And, because of my internalized misogyny, like i'm being lessened or trivialized by this label. Like I said earlier, a lot of this is my own shit about never feeling fully accepted as one of the guys. Therefore, if he uses the word 'he' for me, I feel instantly as if I have been brought into the fold. It's an incredible compliment for me and makes me feel awesome. It means he has thought about me and how I want to be seen and possibly allowed some part of my personality to resonate as being masculine enough for that word to sound like it might actually describe at least something about me. That feels exactly like success in my book; that something about me feels masculine enough for a guy to see me as at least partially in that club. (yes, I hear the faint sound of a younger brother looking to be let into the cool kids' club. I have an older brother and that experience is deeply embedded in my psyche as the way to acceptance. Whatever, don't judge.)

All of this is why I am a bit harsher with the men in my life around the use of pronouns for me. Because for women, I can feel the love on both sides of the coin, and for men can only feel it on one.

now, the tricky part is when the guy I have known for a long time has also been a love interest in the past, cuz that makes things at least five times more complicated. Cuz now we are dealing with my feelings for him (past and present), my feelings about my gender&sexuality, his feelings for me (past and present), his feelings about my gender&sexuality and his feelings about his own sexuality. (my feelings about his sexuality are only a part of this equation if he makes them so. Cuz in my head, how I identify doesn't change my understanding of how he identifies. But in his, it might.)

The one I think has the most pitfalls would be: his feelings about his own sexuality. Say a cis-gendered hetero guy I know and love decides to use a masculine pronoun for me. Now, if he doesn't want to flat-out deny any history of intimacy we might have had, he is going to have to assess how he feels about using a masculine pronoun for someone he has made out with, and then decide what that means for his understanding of his sexuality. It could mean nothing. It could mean everything. Depends on where he is with his homophobia and his ally-ship.

I understand that this could be difficult, which is why when a guy friend uses 'he' for me, I feel so grateful. Cuz I myself wouldn't want to deny any part of my relationship with him, but given that i'm okay with being a bit of a fag, it doesn't change my sense of myself in any way to accept it. And that's cuz i'm queer. For me, being queer means identifying as broadly as possible on the gender spectrum as well as being attracted to as broad a spectrum as possible. This is the problem with identifying as a heterosexual: it puts you into an either/or situation. And I think a lot of people, especially men, are there by default. That though they may be somewhat attracted to men (as well as women, i'm not gonna talk about closeted gays here), they have found it a lot easier to just stick with the 'opposite' gender for sake of simplicity or convenience. Flipping a coin is a lot easier than finding the right section of a sliding scale.

But a coin doesn't actually work in this situation. I won't allow it to simply by existing how I do. My gender is a journey, not a static thing. And that means other people have to get on board the train or never change their idea of me (however historically accurate) to fit where I am now. Hence my abhorrence of gendered pronouns.

Which is why i'm going to ask you, dear reader, a favor: try boycotting them. Just try, for like, 2 minutes, the next time you speak of me (whether i'm there or not) try to eschew the use of any gendered pronoun in reference to me. Believe me, I know what i'm asking you to do. I've been doing grammatical acrobatics in order to make this work for years now (when talking about others) for this exact reason, and I know how hard it is.

I'll give you two pointers: 1) sometimes, if you structure the sentence right, 'they' doesn't sound completely ridiculous and unclear as to the number of people mentioned, and 2) my name is one syllable, it's not that annoying to repeat it more times than usual in a sentence, or even a paragraph.

maybe some of you have already done this for me, maybe you already do this for many people in your life. if so, I readily and heartily thank you. If you haven't, know that I and a vast number of my genderqueer ilk will be eternally grateful to you for just making the effort.

Friday, October 7, 2011

introducing, mr. james tiptree jr.

So there was this Scifi short story writer in the 60's and 70's who went by the name of James Tiptree Jr. His friends called him Tip, for short. Tip wrote really challenging, fascinating, disturbing and avant guarde fiction that defied the existing labels of genre and voice. He was seen as very macho, but also quite a feminist. His stories had all the space, aliens, and technology of 'hard' scifi, but were dripping with the sociological and psychological issues of 'soft' scifi (not to mention an incredibly experimental style). Things are usually pretty dark and grim in Tip's work. And a lot of times you aren't sure who's side you should be on. Or who's side he is on. There isn't a lot of faith in humanity or the future, but as a reader I find myself consistently amazed by the twist of perception that brings you to some kind of amazing, if devastating, insight into the human (and many times, female) condition. Suzy Mckee Charnas (another scifi writer) is quoted as saying, "'Tip' was a crucial part of modern SF's maturing process... [He] wrote powerful fiction challenging readers' assumptions about everything, especially sex and gender." These were the days of militant feminism and many of Tip's stories dealt with the relationship between men and women and tended to treat sex as a problem or a threat. It's difficult shit. But incredibly rewarding. Seriously, this guy will blow your mind. [check out his stuff here]

Tip himself was an interesting character. Intensely reclusive, he only had dealings with publishers, authors, and the scifi community at large through the mail. It was pretty well known that he used a nom de plume, but he hinted that it had to do with his job (top secret governement stuff) and he couldn't say much about his personal life. He became close friends by correspondence with folks like Ursula K. LeGuin and Barry Malzberg, who thought of him as a stately older gentleman. He always insisted he was very shy, but was good at courtly flirting with women and giving respect or advice to men.

But the thing is, James Tiptree Jr. only existed on paper. Well that, and in the head and heart (and, I believe, the desire) of a woman named Alice B. Sheldon. When she started writing scifi she felt embarrassed and wanted to shield her own identity, and so Tip was born. But soon it got to the point where she was interacting with people in a personal way (not just business letters) under an assumed identity. This actually seemed to suit her very well. She had many times been one of the boys in her multiple lines of work (she actually was a CIA agent for a time) and she was almost totally able to keep her flesh-and-blood identity and, for the most part, her body's gender (though there were scattered rumors) a secret for about ten years.

One of the things I love about this 'double life' is what it says about people's assumptions of gender. Especially the gender of authors. Some of Tip's close scifi friends wondered if he was homosexual. Which, given that Alice was married to a man, was somewhat true this way. And, given that she had been in love with multiple women when she was younger, was somewhat true that way, too. But when it came down to it, Tip himself was a heterosexual man who didn't act upon his desire, hiding his manhood behind a mask of flirtation and humor and at the same time stripping his authorship bare with sincere praise of others and voicing artistic insecurities in himself. This allowed him to form very close friendships with women who found him to be 'a man who understands women'. And though there were people who felt betrayed when they learned of Alice, believing her to have lied to them, they couldn't deny the fact that they cared about Tip and had been very much affected by the deeply human truth in his writing, both fictional and epistolary.

The two things I love and respect most about this writer are one, the idea of getting so far into a character that you can embody him for the purposes of writing other fictional characters. It impresses me to no end. And two, i feel kinship with Alice because I think her relationship with Tip goes beyond the actor/writer talent i've written about [here] and, as it does for me, it falls into the realm of a trans narrative. If you read their biography (james tiptree, jr. the double life of alice b. sheldon) with an eye to it, you can come to believe that Tip's masculine identity was feeding a subconscious transgender desire in Alice. Tip & Alice's biographer, Julie Phillips, does not go this far in her book. She covers homosexuality in Alice's life and what being Tip gave her in the way of comfort to a neglected part of herself, but she doesn't go so far as to mention the idea of a trans identity. I think this is because the concept of an FTM trans person existing in the world was too foreign to accept in her time and therefore could seem like an unfair analysis. Hard to identify someone as something they had never thought possible. Not in real life, anyway. (cuz tho Alice did have breast reduction surgery at one point in order to feel better about her appearance, she never could have imagined actually ridding herself of her breasts completely. So close, yet so far...)

But this introduction was all just to underline Nabokov's idea of getting so far into a character you forget who you are. And to mention that for some people, at least for Alice and myself, sometimes you start to prefer that character to your original self. Which can be rewarding, cuz in many ways, Alice found it easier to interact with people when she was Tip. But I fear it can also be treacherous. She battled with depression for much of her life (evidenced in writing by both herself and Tip), and ended it by suicide. From what I've read, I believe on a lot of levels it was Tip that kept Alice alive as long as she was. She killed herself a decade after Tip's identity was 'revealed', but her suicide note had been written a long time before she decided to use it. I kinda think once Tip couldn't exist anymore, she would have been ready to stop existing too, but she wouldn't leave her husband alone.

The lesson I come away with here is that living a fictional life can create real happiness, but it's still bounded by the strictures of that which is not real. Which seems counter-intuitive, cuz isn't anything possible in fiction? There are two answers to this:

1) it depends on how you set up your fictional world,


2) the only thing that fiction can't do is become non-fiction.

The first of these answers can instill an incredible sense of freedom, the other, a crushing despair. Cuz there is nothing that aches quite as cruelly as getting so close to the thing you want most—so close you can describe every last detail of it—without actually being able to reach into the page and grab it.

I can build an entire world to live in, and I can construct a self to make a home in it. I can fabricate friends and family to accompany this self there. I, in fact, do this in my mind and on paper. And it helps me to be able to see my possibilities, to talk to, and through, my different selves. It's still not my real life, though. It is, however, my work. My life's work. But the gap between life and work can be a tempting one to bridge.

Alice set her world up so that Tip had a life of his own, which she lived thru. I can't imagine how simultaneously freeing and tormenting this must have been. Cuz i'm pretty sure that she did lexically what I do physically [re: muscle memory]; find the right voice, stance, demeanor, and flourishes to be read how she wanted to by her audience. They then gave her the responses she was looking for—they treated her as him. Which for a time was enough for everyone. But at some point her 'audience', ie, her friends, asked more of her than she could give—they asked her to actually be him. To embody a self that was never meant to exist off the page. They asked her to make a fiction into non-fiction. And I think it hurt her quite a bit that she couldn't oblige. Him too, for that matter. How frustrating must it be to have amorous feelings for a woman and be confined to pecking them out on a typewriter? To be asked to drink a beer with a buddy and have to beg off every time because you are all head and heart without hands or mouth? A decade of this is long past any game of hide-and-seek. The pain of fearing you won't live up to the expectations you yourself instilled in others is why I love James Tiptree Jr. and Alice B. Sheldon so much. And in case this wasn't clear, this is the pain some trans people feel in their living-among-other-humans life. Every. Single. Day.

my fictional boyfriend

[this post is basically a footnote to the previous blog post, put here so the other one wouldn't be so long]

Humbert Humbert is what made me first fall head-over-heels for Nabokov. And yes, you might find my language strong when I say that at 22, when I first read him, (tho ten years later this is still mostly true) I was deeply and passionately in love with Humbert and all his admitted faults and foibles, all his laid-bare insecurities and treacheries, all his secret longings and confessions of fearful captivation. The moment I first finished that book I would have defended him unto death if someone had walked up to me and called him a felonious pedophilic pervert. (which someone did *) Which he is. But that's the genius of my dear Nabokov. He got so far inside Humbert's skin and brain and heart, so deeply into the core of his desire, that he was able to make H.H. perfectly human in each of his atrocities. Now, I haven't read a lot about VN's life, but what I have has absolutely no correlation to HH's, not a shred of a shadow of similarity. Not even of the same ilk as Lewis Carroll's girl photographs or J. M. Barrie's overzealous love for 'his' boys.

The real skill here is getting so far into the places where you are exactly like your character that putting him into a certain frame of mind far from your own is just as easy as having him act just like you. It's possible (ask any actor you know). And I obviously did it while reading Lolita. I liked Humbert enough to go along with his story until I was in too deep to be able to stop trusting his goodness even when what he did was bad enough that he had to justify it to me over and over. And yet, I was so taken by him I believed his justifications. Because otherwise I had to stop loving him as much as I did.

In a lot of ways I, the reader, was just as captive as his little nymphet. In fact, I actually dropped off the face of the earth for the 3 days it took me to read that book the first time. I didn't do anything but sleep, eat, and read. I was so enslaved to the story that I might as well have been trapped in a cheap motel eating junk food. And it wasn't until I finally finished reading and resurfaced enough to tell a friend about my love, Mr. H. Humbert, that she made me realize what a monster he was. (*yet still I couldn't let go.) And thus, as a form-following-function type of novel, as many of his are, (or more specifically, an experience-of-reading-mirrors-action-in-book type, is that the same thing?) it's an utter masterpiece.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

who is that in the mirror?

[note: this is an incredibly self-referential post. all the links lead you to other relevant posts, sometimes more than once. i do not apologize for this, as i believe Mr V. Nabokov would approve. --rvf]

“Here is what sometimes happened to me: after spending the first part of the night at my desk—that part when night trudges heavily uphill—i would emerge from the trance of my task at the exact moment when night had reached the summit and was teetering on that crest, ready to roll down into the haze of dawn; I would get up from my chair, feeling chilly and utterly spent, turn on the light in my bedroom, and suddenly see myself in the looking glass. Then it would go like this: during the time I had been deep at work, I had grown disacquainted with myself, a sensation akin to what one may experience when meeting a close friend after years of separation: for a few empty, lucid but numb moments you see him in an entirely different light even though you realize that the frost of this mysterious anesthesia will presently wear off, and the person you are looking at will revive, glow with warmth, resume his old place, becoming again so familiar that no effort of the will could possibly make you recapture that fleeting sensation of estrangedness. Precisely thus I now stood considering my own reflection in the glass and failing to recognize it as mine. And the more keenly I examined my face—those unblinking alien eyes, that sheen of tiny hairs along the jaw, that shade along the nose—and the more insistently I told myself “this is I, this is so-and-so,” the less clear it became why this should be “I,” the harder I found it to make the face in the mirror merge with that “I” whose identity I failed to grasp. When I spoke of my odd sensations, people justly observed that the path I had taken led to the madhouse.” --"Terror" by, Vladimir Nabokov

The feeling of not recognizing yourself in the mirror after a long night of writing makes perfect sense to me. Just as we try to make connection by seducing others in their loneliness from our own solitary states (explored here and here), we also can sometimes attempt connection by transformation from one self into another. There is the very real example of James Tiptree Jr. but there is also the everyday feeling of peopling your world with your characters. Often, in order to understand how they think, act, and speak, one can find oneself not only adding a healthy dose of one's own character, but also, or alternately, divesting oneself of every likeness to one's ordinary persona and delving as far into the mind, body and soul of the character on the page.

This, my friends, is how a writer can be more like an actor than anyone is willing to admit. I've recently realized, especially since working on a modernization/novelization of Hamlet, that I am an actor for the page, instead of the stage. But in this case I'm not only an actor that plays every role, but also the director. And the set designer and the costumer and the dramaturg, not to mention the playwright (well, the guy in charge of adaptation). Thank God there isn't really call for a stage manager, given everyone is in my own head. (An editor, however, would be nice...)

But that said, it's true that for both writers and actors there is that moment, as you are climbing up out of your scene and shaking off your character(s), where you look around and blink, trying to remember who you are when you are at home. And sometimes it comes rushing back to you and you feel like you are at home in this self when interacting with others. And sometimes it doesn't, especially if you are a writer and don't have the immediate crush of people congratulating you on a performance and reminding you of who you normally are. If you aren't paying attention, you can go the rest of your day/night/life, not ever thinking about the self you left behind in order to do your work. (and when i say you, i mean me...)

Part of me knows so strongly that I have a trans streak running thru me because I will write about a boy character in order to feel myself in his body and interacting with other characters as him. If i'm not careful I find myself being a little too 'method' with my writing and refusing to take off, say, my Hamlet nature even after i've finished writing. I'll just stay inside him as I make myself lunch, or even go to the coffee shop, just to feel what it's like to be him in the world. This is actually a great writing (and acting) exercise when it doesn't sound creepy and full of Gender Identity Disorder baggage (like it does here).

Thing is, if you live too long inside a character, you start to lose your sense of who you are when you aren't playing a role. (again, kinda like Alice Sheldon.) Or you have no self left to come back to when you have taken off a character. This might sound weird, but it's true that I've actually wished at times that I could be as devoid of identity as possible when not “playing” a role. I've thought about that trend in theatre where it was cool to have everyone dress all in black as if there was no other entity beyond the role and the words. As if the actor didn't really exist. I liked this idea only because it seemed to show that any role could be played by anybody, and the audience's job was to fill in the specificity necessary to fully realize the character by watching the way the actor played the role. I think it would be a worthy place to start from. To be seen as indistinctly as possible, and for people to only take my words and deeds as the information with which to understand me. This is definitely how I want to come at all my projects, from a place that is as neutral as possible.

But i've also wanted to come at my life that way. I've wanted that badly to not take sides in identity struggles (any and all of them). To just be seen as a person. Nothing else. Age, race, hair/eye color, gender, personality, sexuality, rationality, all of these boxes unchecked. An undressed paper doll. If I could go thru life like that—unclassified--i could feel limitless in my choices for characters to put on and “play” (on paper and in life). But alas, I have a type. In fact, I type-cast myself. And I realize the more I write, that I type-cast myself in roles closer and closer to how I want to be seen by others in real life. Not all writers do this, but it's already something that the public's imagination does to them. Hence why so many women writers, specifically ones that write male characters, no matter their identity politics, choose to use pen names or simply their initials so as not to have the reader assume that the gender of the narrator is the gender of the author. Or to at least assume the correct gender (for the narrator, if not the author) when doing so.

Cuz this is a risk one takes as an author, and an actor, that you as a person will be identified as having characteristics close to that of your characters. Again, this is why I love Nabokov so much. He wrote Humbert Humbert with full knowledge of this phenomenon. I assume this is because he knew that the kind of reader he wanted for Lolita was the kind that would end up in love with Humbert and forgive him his trespasses, thereby keeping their respect for Nabokov alive and well. [Mr. Humbert footnote here]

Tho, maybe it only works on those of us who are willing and able to be taken in. which I am. Which I almost pride myself in being—if I am anything in this (literary, theatrical, human) world, I am a generous audience. And therefore, I am somewhat gullible. This could be because I am continually on the lookout for a new identity to sink my little black-clad, nondescript self into. To swim around in and get the feel for. I've been doing this all my life and I can swear to you that at least the majority of my motivation has absolutely nothing to do with my self-esteem. It am not unhappy as myself. I am not trying to get away from my own personality. I'm simply trying to get away from any unwanted identifying markers on my self. And attempting to try on as many various, more comfortable selves as possible. So much for simply working on a gender spectrum; we are not dealing with lines, we aren't even in a 360 situation. I'm talking about being fully in the realm of at least three dimensions, wanting to be able to identify on any level as anything. An identity sphere.

This is why I watch movies. And plays. And why, you guessed it, I tend to latch on to actors (thru the characters they play) such as j. depp, r. phoenix, j. gordon-levitt, c. bale, e. wood, d. tennant and the like. The selves they take on are engrossing to me mostly because they are the closest i've found to the kinds of characters I would wish to 'play'. But also, how they take these characters on is what I pay so damned much attention to, as a connoisseur of the craft. 'What is it about that performance that made me believe so strongly in it and be so enamored with the character he just played?' I dissect these performances like I have done with Nabokov's characterization of Mr. Humbert [ibid footnote], because like i said, it's all the same skill.

[And yes, i admit the study of these actors entails the FUBU dilemma. Because, of course I find them attractive, but promise you I wouldn't if they weren't good at their job (case in point: I both hate keanu and think he is really gross. because he gives me nothing, i think he is ugly as sin). But yes, the FUBU dilemma = am I attracted to you because I want to fuck you, or because I want to be you? (or, for Sinatra fans, the 'do-be-do-be-do' problem) And, yes, a lot of times the answer is a little of column a, little of column b, but i'm noticing more and more that column b wins out.]

Cuz the thing I really want to do with these guys is to compare notes. To check my blueprints against theirs. [sound familiar?] this is how I would have gotten there, is that what you did? Teach me how to you see this working. What shape is your foundation, why those pillars, stones, arches, that decorative cornice? How is it I can become you for a time, and how long can you be on loan for? (how else does one learn to be a man, except like this?)

And this, my friends, is why I generally refrain from looking in the mirror. (and, incidentally, why I have taken to using images of my actor-mentors as fb avatars. Cuz at this point, they feel more familiar than my own face.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

i want you (to read me)

off the previous post, about both the solitary nature of writing and about the idea that when the connection between author and reader is truly made it's kinda like good sex, I have been thinking about how writing is, at it's purest, a seduction.

It stems from the fact that it is one of the few arts that is made by a solitary process for a solitary audience. Film, theatre, and other types of live performance are collaborative efforts that are better experienced when there are many folks in the house. Same, really, for music. Visual art is made by one person, but it's to be viewed in rooms that can house multiple people. But books are made to be read alone. And if you aren't alone, there is something about reading that creates a kind of isolation booth around you that is commonly thought to be impenetrable. And the thing was written to speak directly to you.

Just you, dear reader (singular).

That's where the seduction comes in. even if the writer isn't broaching any even remotely sexy topic, every word on the page is placed there to draw you in. to bring you closer and make a connection with your thoughts. To spark something within you and make you think/feel something. Hopefully, something remotely close to what they are aiming to make you think/feel (as per previous post, that is the trick, the shot in the dark, the risk the author is willing to make to try and get someone to understand).

And the thing is, it's not just about you, the reader. It's sort of a selfish thing. I mean, it's not like they are just writing for themselves, they really want someone to read it. Even if it is never in real time, a writer wants the same audience acceptance that a performer does. Like the writer of a letter does. Or, to take it back to the original idea, the same response you might give a lover. Opening yourself up to the caress of their concepts. Allowing their authorial voice to breathe in your inner ear. Letting their idea come to life within your head.

I mean, come on. It's a lonely art. Writers gotta want some companionship, some fertile mind for their characters and ideas to call home. To know that their blind pen stabs into a dark night are hitting some sort of target. Otherwise, it's all for naught. And that's more depressing than having your advances rejected. (which is also rough but comes with the territory). But to learn that there is no one out there to even hear, let alone respond to the call, that's the one thing that could kill a writer outright. Cuz letters can't exist without someone to send them to.

And not to scare you away or anything, but it's the fact that this blog exists and the even minute possibility that someone might read what I work hard to put up here, that their might be someone even marginally willing to be seduced into making a connection with me, that has helped my writer to actually exist. And for me to identify this part of myself as a valid entity. So, yeah. Thanks, reader, for existing. You make me possible.

All my love,


Sunday, September 25, 2011

what writing is for.

"Remember that what you are told is really three-fold: shaped by the teller, reshaped by the listener, concealed from both by the dead man in the tale." --The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

"I cannot assume you will understand me. It is just as likely that as I invent what I want to say, you will invent what you want to hear. Some story we must have. Stray words on crumpled paper. A weak signal into the outer space of each other. The probability of seperate worlds meeting is very small. The lure is immense. We send starships. We fall in love."
--Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson

[let me first get off my chest that these two authors are my most intimate literary lovers. they do things to my thoughts and emotions that i have never experienced with any other author. (except maybe keith miller in the book of flying) i have long had a habit of reading so fast that i forget to take a breath (literally, and figuratively in the way of looking up from the page) but these two authors consistently compel me to gasp and set their book down for a moment, allowing to blossom the conceptual and stylistic fireworks i experience while submerged in their worlds of words. living in their books is an exercise in constant ecstasy. that said, i will start in on the meditation that the former quotation brought to light during a breather in the middle of devouring it's source.]

I come to it often, the idea of the inability of human beings to express 'the truth' to one another, the subjectivity of everything that passes between us, the impossibility of transmitting anything in a complete and unchanged form from one of us to the other.

What is it about writers that we are obsessed with that problem? Is solving it the purpose of our craft? The secret longing of each of us that makes us attempt the fool's errand in the first place? We all know it's impossible. Or is it from that impossibily that the story, and therefore the writer, is born? Because there can never be the story, the truth, pure understanding. Because there is this gap between the teller and the hearer, we can exist. And it is within that gap that we find employment. And it is, as an architect looks at a river and starts to imagine bridges, that we each attempt the jump in our own particular way, trying again and again to get closer to an expression of our own truth that will be more and more closely understood by the reader. Maybe this is why authors love to read, as if comparing blueprints, to see how their fellows tackled the problem of crossing the chasm, overarching the abyss. Of constructing a form of connection.

For for what is more worthwhile in the whole history of human society and culture than the creation of connections between our separate solitudes? I wonder if it's because writing is such a solitary art that it creates such a strong imperative in its practitioners to achieve this connection, however fleeting and far-off. Because when it is made, and the imaginative sparks fly, there is nothing more rewarding for either party.

[and really, what is hotter than the idea that your favorite authors are working their hardest to have intellectual sex with you?]

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

muscle memory

things most people pay very little conscious attention to in a day:

the length of your fingernails.
how far apart your feet are when standing.
the way you put on lip balm.
how much you smile.
how long you hold eye contact.
the way you hold, light, and smoke a cigarette.
the way you ask for a light.
who you choose to sit next to on the train/bus.
how you take off a coat or sweater.
how you check your pockets.
where you keep your wallet.
the length of your stride.
how you rub your eyes or scratch your head.
how you jam out to music on your headphones.
how you hold and touch your phone.
where you keep your phone.
how you lick your lips.
how you touch your hair, neck, face, chest....
how you shake hands.
how you take a sip of a drink.
how you hitch up your pants.
how you hold your shoulders.
how you lean on something like a wall or a railing.

thing is, i actually do. at one time or another in the past month, i have consciously thought about and made choices about each one of these things. cuz whether you know it or not, each of these things contributes to how people assess your gender. i spend time wondering whether or not i do these things in a way that would be perceived as at all masculine. i think the reason i pay such close attention to actors is that i understand how they feel when they take on a role, trying to translate their ideas of how a character feels and thinks and functions into the ways in which they express themselves thru their bodies. cuz it's not so much about saying the line right as it is about moving your hand, or tilting your head, or leaning in as you say it to get the desired affect. it's body inflection. and we do it unconsciously, or semi-consciously all of the time. however for me, it's not unconscious cuz i haven't been inflecting the same way my whole life. and changing the perception of my gender isn't just about wearing men's clothes, growing facial hair and speaking in a lower register. it's about how i ride the bus: do i let the woman get in line ahead of me? do i sit next to a dude instead of boxing in a young lady? do i stand up and give my seat to an older lady? do i keep my knee or shoulder from brushing against the guy next to me? do i say 'excuse me' instead of 'sorry' when i bump into someone while exiting? if yes, then i'm most likely seen as a young man by virtually everyone on said bus. and at this point, in this place (sorry, midwest, but you are more dichotomy-based than the coasts) that identification is preferable to double-takes and confused (possibly hostile) looks. i play a part to balance feeling most like myself and keeping my day hassle-free. cuz not being socialized as a boy/man, i've had to learn this role--like a second language. or, to not mix metaphors, like a period piece. i study the culture and customs of men in order to be true to my character.
hence why, when i see johnny depp with long hair, wearing a silk scarf and eyeliner, i study every other aspect of his being to figure out how he is seen as a hot man as opposed to a fucked up freak. cuz it's all the other little things he does while wearing the eyeliner. the long practiced, and therefore automatic, ease of lighting a cigarette with a zippo. casually propping a hand on a bent knee. these things 'read' well. it plays.
but i am never sure this is actually true for me. that people don't see me as a fucked up freak. so i pay attention to every little thing i do. not that i always change how i function to fit other people's gender prejudices, but just to be conscious of these semi-conscious tells and decide if i feel comfortable with how i'm being perceived while doing them. which means that i live my life in public (and sometimes in private) as an actor working to embody a new role. to use a clearer image, this means that i feel always like a guitarist who has just learned a song and is playing it for an audience for the first time, still looking at the music and watching my fingers, instead of functioning like a traditionally socialized 32 year old. he would feel like a musician who is playing one of their old favorites for their listeners, with the lyrics memorized and their hands finding the chords on their own. my problem (if i want to call it a problem, maybe a conundrum, or simply a situation--just the place i am on this journey) is that i don't have the muscle memory of being a man. this really shouldn't be called a problem because i actually welcome the chance to practice my performance and improve upon it with more and more attention to detail. it's a craft i enjoy perfecting, if only for the practice it gives me as an actor. (and to be clear, this role i 'play' feels much more comfortable than the one i practiced my whole young adult life, one which i also felt the need to study because it sure as hell didn't come naturally.)and now, this weekend i will literally 'take the stage' (it's really only a script reading) as a man for the first time. i guess i 'read' well enough at the bar this weekend for the folks to cast me as a young man in real life (i assume) which led them to cast me as a young man in their play. now we will see how it feels to not just perform this role on the street, but actually make the practice work in an artistically performative venue. i must tell you i'm totally intrigued to see if my performance can hold together on 'stage' for an hour and a half as well as it does on a bus for 15 minutes. wish me luck, i guess.